.- As Congress considers potential federal budget cuts for the upcoming year, the nation's Catholic bishops warned again that the proposed reductions would hurt the poor – both in this country and overseas.
“These are drastic cuts – draconian cuts – that disproportionately target the poorest people,” Bill O'Keefe, Senior Director of Advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, said on Feb. 23.
O'Keefe explained via phone that a staunchly divided Congress had until March 4 to pass the Fiscal Year 2011 Continuing Appropriations Resolution in order for the federal government to continue to operate.
On March 1, however, the House and Senate agreed to pass stopgap legislation to avoid a partial shutdown of the government when temporary funding runs out Friday.
The measure will keep the government running for two weeks and will provide more time for the Congress and the Obama administration to reach an agreement on legislation to fund the government through the end of the budget year.
Although the overall budget reduction is just 3 percent, experts say that 26 percent of poverty-focused foreign aid is being slashed under the proposed changes.
Stephen Hilbert, Foreign Policy Adviser for Africa and Global Development for the U.S. Bishops' Conference, called the cuts to foreign aid “immoral.”
“We should oppose cuts that hurt those who are already hurting and not in the position to survive cuts to essential services,” he said on Feb. 28.
Hilbert reported that under the planned cuts, worldwide disaster assistance, “to those who are desperately trying to escape calamities or civil unrest,” will be reduced by 67 percent.
He added that international food aid programs will be cut by 40 percent – a move that “would deny essential food aid to thousands of people struggling to overcome disaster, or to feed their families.”
Hilbert also said that funding for global assistance to refugees would be slashed by 45 percent and that a proposed 10 percent decrease in HIV/AIDS program funding “could deny life-saving drugs to hundreds of thousands of people who will die, creating many more orphans and unacceptable suffering for families who are already suffering.”
“As Catholics we believe in the sacred mandate to help the least of our brothers and sisters,” he said. “It would be unacceptable to abandon the poor because we are not doing our best to assist them.”
Criticisms of the budget proposal have also been raised over cuts to domestic aid.
Kathy Saile, Director of Poverty and Health Policy for the Office of Domestic Social Development at the U.S. Bishops' Conference, reiterated the bishops' concerns over funding cuts in programs for the nation's poor.
Saile said in a March 1 e-mail that cuts in funding for domestic aid programs run “pretty much across the board.”
Citing a Feb. 14 letter from the U.S. Bishops' Conference to House legislators outlining problems with the budget, Saile pointed first to the proposed $1 billion cut to Community Health Centers – which would axe health care for nearly 10 million people, including mothers and children at risk.
Additionally, the budget calls for a $2.3 billion reduction in affordable housing programs and a $1.75 billion decrease in funds for job training programs. Domestic refugee resettlement programs would also be cut by $77 million.
“These programs and those they serve are not responsible for the budget deficit,” Saile underscored, adding that the cuts “will have little to no impact” on it.
Saile said that proposed cuts to domestic aid are especially troubling, given that the “Church teaches that the poor and vulnerable have a special claim on society’s resources and care.”
Catholic Relief Services' Bill O'Keefe noted that all political parties in Congress are responsible for the cuts to international and domestic aid.
Rather than assign partisan blame for the proposed budget, O'Keefe observed that both Democratic and Republican legislators are seeking to prove fiscal responsibility, given the importance of the issue during the mid-term elections last November.
“Newly elected Republicans, I think, were elected on a message of cutting the deficit, so they are trying to show their credibility in fulfilling those promises,” he said. “But, they have not actually begun to address the real problems.”
Additionally, O'Keefe said that Senate Democrats, particularly “the ones up for re-election,” are “very concerned because they saw what happened in the last election.”
“If they don't demonstrate their own credibility on budget restraint, they're going to be in trouble too.”
O'Keefe acknowledged the reality of current and massive deficits, saying that although Catholic social teaching mandates that governments promote “the common good especially for the poorest members of society,” they also “have a responsibility to be effective and efficient.”
Stephen Hilbert agreed, saying that the U.S. Bishops' Conference “fully recognizes that the country must address the huge deficits that we have accumulated over the years.”
“This is an issue of stewardship and it cannot be underplayed,” he said, adding that “the Church recognizes that cuts in government spending will be necessary and maybe in some cases in programs that the Church holds dear.”
However, Hilbert stressed, “cuts should be proportional to people’s ability to cope with the consequences of those cuts.”
“In these tough times, we need to be responsible stewards of our federal funds,” he said, “but we cannot balance our budget on the backs of the poor.”