A president’s first budget plan is one of the milestones in his or her transition from the nominee of a political party to the leader of the entire nation. Ideally, the federal budget is a blueprint for progress toward several shared goals, including fiscal responsibility, the safety and security of the United States, and the alleviation of social ills including poverty and unemployment. Unfortunately, the 2018 budget plan unveiled by the Trump administration on May 23 is out of balance on several accounts.
Rather than attempting to unify the country after a dispiriting election year, the $4.1 trillion budget plan reflects a radical shift in priorities. In order to pay for a $54 billion increase in defense spending of dubious value and without accounting for the costs of a planned major tax cuts, the Trump administration proposes to slash spending on almost every other discretionary program (i.e., aside from Medicare and Social Security, which Mr. Trump promised on the campaign trail not to touch). There are severe cuts to arts programs, education, scientific research and foreign aid, but anti-poverty efforts are taking some of the biggest hits. The budget plan includes a 29 percent cut to the food stamp program, a 19 percent cut to the Children’s Health Insurance Program and double-digit cuts to Medicaid, unemployment insurance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (which has been continuously squeezed since its creation 20 years ago as part of welfare reform).
The stigmatization of those receiving government assistance undermines the claim that the budget is concerned with the common good.
The Trump administration has dubbed this the “Taxpayer First Budget,” which is reminiscent of the “makers vs. takers” framing that House Speaker Paul Ryan wisely repudiated a few years ago. The stigmatization of those receiving government assistance undermines the claim that the budget is concerned with the common good. It is also shortsighted. Taxpayers, after all, do not include children, many retirees and others who contribute greatly to society. It is true that, as White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said in defending the budget, "There's a dignity to work,” but it is largely a myth that assistance programs discourage recipients from seeking employment. For example, most households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult continue to have someone working while they receive food stamps; the assistance program largely keeps families from sliding further into poverty, especially when only low-wage jobs are available.
The Trump budget is not without worthy ideas, including the creation of a federally funded family leave program, a new fund to quickly respond to disease epidemics, the expansion of school-choice programs (albeit at a smaller-than-expected scale) and a perhaps-too-modest infrastructure plan that includes both direct federal spending and incentives for public-private partnerships (but also cuts to Amtrak and other existing infrastructure programs). Less welcome is the fiscal irresponsibility of a bookkeeping sleight-of-hand that projects an unrealistic growth rate in a national economy that is already near full employment and presumes that huge tax cuts will have no negative impact on government revenue. (Cutting the budget of the Internal Revenue Service would also seem to go against the “Taxpayer First” principle of ensuring that all households pay their fair share of taxes.)
The U.S. bishops have raised some serious concerns about what this proposal says about our national values.
From here the budget plan goes to Capitol Hill, and we trust that congressional leaders of both parties will take seriously the task of reconciling the numbers with the public good. Members of Congress will surely hear from constituents worried that it has the wrong priorities—and that it may not convincingly address some of its stated goals, including deficit reduction, moving more Americans into the workforce and making a serious effort to discern the efficacy of safety-net programs rather than to cut them indiscriminately.
The U.S. bishops have raised some serious concerns about what this proposal says about our national values. In a statement released before the unveiling of the budget plan, the bishops said it was “profoundly troubling” that increases to defense and the enforcement of immigration law could mean deep cuts to “domestic and international programs that assist the most vulnerable.” The budget’s moral measure will be assessed by “how well it promotes the common good of all,” the bishops wrote. After the budget plan was released, Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz wrote in the Louisville Courier-Journal, "Our church has always said that we fulfill our responsibility to the poor not only through personal charity, but also through our support for just governmental policies." He added, “I urge Congress to reject these severe cuts to poverty-focused national and international assistance.”
The church has not only the right but the duty to raise its voice during the long process of hammering out the budget. After all, if Washington guesses wrong about economic growth and the employment prospects of those currently receiving assistance, religious and other charities may face a near-impossible burden in caring for the needy. As Mr. Ryan wrote in America in 2014, we must resist the “false choice” of private charity and public assistance. In addressing poverty, he wrote, “the question is not whether we should use the market or the government; it is how to use them both.” In its wholesale cuts to almost all forms of public assistance, the Trump administration succumbs to the false choice that Mr. Ryan warned about.