Our Fiscal Soul and the Arithmetic of Protecting the Poor

The discussion we are having about "the fiscal cliff" is really a debate about. What kind of nation do we want to be? We do need a path to fiscal sustainability, but will it include all of us -- especially the most vulnerable?
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The discussion we are having about "the fiscal cliff" is really a debate about our fiscal soul. What kind of nation do we want to be? We do need a path to fiscal sustainability, but will it include all of us -- especially the most vulnerable? It's a foundational moral choice for the country, and one with dramatic domestic and deadly global implications. It is the most important principle for the faith community in this debate.

I had a recent conversation with an influential senator on these fiscal issues. I said to him, "You and I know the dozen or so senators, from both sides of the aisle, who could sit at your conference table here and find a path to fiscal sustainability, right?"

"Yes," he said, "we could likely name the senators who would be able to do that." I added, "And they could protect the principle and the policies that defend the poor and vulnerable, couldn't they?"

"Yes," he said, "We could do that too." "But," I asked, "Wouldn't then all the special interests come into this room to each protect their own expenditures; and the end result would be poor people being compromised, right?"

The senator looked us in the eyes and said, "That is exactly what will likely happen."

It will happen unless we have bipartisan agreement, at least by some on both political sides, to protect the poor and vulnerable in these fiscal decisions -- over the next several weeks leading up to Christmas and the New Year, and then for the longer process ahead in 2013.

But for that to be viable, the arithmetic must work. Our principles won't survive unless we "find the arithmetic" to protect the poor and include the vulnerable in these crucial decisions about the nation's fiscal soul. And that moral arithmetic must ultimately be presented to the American people in clear moral values choices.

I am strongly in favor of restoring previously higher tax rates for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans -- and ending their unfair loopholes and deductions -- but that still won't raise enough revenue to move us toward fiscal sustainability while protecting the poor. We must make other choices in spending cuts and new revenues -- but in clearly morally responsible ways. Here are just a few examples.

Are we willing to stop powerful pharmaceutical companies from preventing more than $100 billion in drugs cost savings to protect their own profits?

Will we choose to protect demonstrably effective nutritional programs (SNAP) for low-income families instead of unjust subsidies to agribusiness? Or defend things like Pell Grants to enable students from low-income families to go to college for the first time over huge subsidies to profitable oil companies? Or help refinance mortgages for struggling single homeowners instead of retaining charitable tax deductions for second and third vacation homes?

Will we realize in time that low-income tax credits for low-income working families are "pro-family measures" that both fight poverty and support economic growth?

Will we finally have an honest discussion about military spending and national security? Meeting the real needs of our veterans and defending our country means we cannot afford to fund outdated and useless weapons systems. There are many items in the Pentagon's budgets that reflect the pet projects of lawmakers and not the security needs of the nation. Our leaders must have the courage to end the business of war. The faith community must urge them to beat those swords into plowshares.

To reach fiscal sustainability long-term we must deal with the rising costs of health care. I believe, we must be ready to consider the moral argument that more affluent Medicare beneficiaries should pay higher premiums for their health insurance if it means protecting Medicaid benefits for low-income families and poor children. We need to focus on prevention and efficiency in our health system, while ensuring access and improving outcomes. Now is also the time for a national conversation on promoting healthy choices and behaviors and a civil discussion on the moral issues involved with end-of-life care that honors the dignity of each person as they prepare to rest in God's arms. As our national health care needs to continue to grow, we must be responsible with the resources we have and be vigilant about those with the greatest needs.

The biblical prophets say that a nation's "righteousness," or integrity as we might say, is determined by how they treat the poorest and most vulnerable; and Jesus said how we respond to the least of these is indicative of how we respond to him. That's because the poor and vulnerable are the monitors of how everybody else will ultimately be treated. History shows how quickly and easily human dignity can be compromised by economic and political powers -- and protecting the most vulnerable is the only way to safeguard us all.

We need to find political leaders who will commit to a bipartisan and moral principle of protecting the vulnerable -- now in these several weeks of debate during the Christmas holidays. That could set the principle in place for the debate over this next year in determining the "grand bargain" for our nation's fiscal direction. It would be a great moral and practical accomplishment.

Fiscal responsibility means ensuring that the money we spend is truly accomplishing what it should and that means constant reform and improvement of both the private and public sectors. And, true fiscal responsibility means making the necessary investments today to ensure a future for generations to come. But, the line in the sand for the faith community should always be that the poorest and most vulnerable are truly protected.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in early 2013. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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