When are Budget Cuts 'Too Deep'?

The public debate about the budget crisis is increasingly disconnected from any sense of priority or purpose.

An editorial in The Washington Post praises parts of the 2012 budget proposal put forth earlier this week by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, but worries that proposed cuts to "safety net" programs might be "too deep." I wonder what exactly that means. Too deep compared to what?

Already more than 75 percent of people who are so poor that they qualify for housing assistance do not receive it -- because there's not enough money budgeted for that assistance. Would a cut that increased that number to, say, 85 percent be "too deep"?

Already in 2009 one in seven American households suffered from "food insecurity," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning that they were uncertain whether they would be able to put enough food on the table for their family. Would cuts that increased that number to, say, one in five be "too deep"?

And already in 2008, nearly half of the U.S. homeless population was unsheltered, due to lack of resources. Would cuts that left, say, 75 percent of the population out on the street be "too deep"?

It's not just the budget proposed by Rep. Ryan, and the commentary on it, that's troubling. President Obama's budget also calls for "modest" cuts to many safety net programs. Again, on what basis are these cuts being proposed? Surely not because the assistance is excessive or unneeded.

Budgets reflect priorities. As executive director of a nonprofit organization with limited resources and a modest budget, I know we can't always devote the resources we would like to our priorities. But I also know we need to understand what our priorities really are -- so we can work towards them.

Yet the much of the public discussion has little to do with priorities -- except, ostensibly, cutting the deficit. Even there, discussion is strangely circumscribed. Military spending gets short shrift, as do tax breaks for the wealthy, whether people or corporations. What's very much on the table is spending for people who are suffering or struggling.

While it's not always stated explicitly, what emerges as a priority is eviscerating whatever is left of the social safety net, and the social compact it represents. What's worse, no countervailing priority or alternative set of priorities is being seriously debated as part of our political process. What's altogether missing from the debate is a vision for the future, an articulated set of priorities to guide budget discussion and decision making.

Such a vision exists. It is long-standing and it was officially reaffirmed as recently as last month as official U.S. policy. It's the vision embodied in our human rights commitments, and in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the U.S. led the world in drafting over 50 years ago. They are stated succinctly in this passage:

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

This is a vision of a just world, where everyone has a chance to survive and possibly even thrive, where we care for each other in the event of misfortune, where everyone's common humanity is recognized. It's a vision that the U.S. acknowledged last month, when it issued its official response to recommendations made by the world community following its first ever U.N. review for compliance with human rights standards. That response explicitly stated U.S. support for "expand[ing] social protection coverage" and "reducing homelessness."

A few days later, a top administration official responsible for human rights, Michael Posner, elaborated on this commitment, in a speech to the American Society of International Law: Referencing President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous "Four Freedoms" speech, which identified "freedom from want" as one of the four fundamental American freedoms, Posner said:

"For our domestic policy today, freedom from want means this Administration will keep fighting to bring health care to more Americans, improve education to make our country more competitive, and continue to provide unemployment benefits for those who need them. Despite our budget constraints, we will continue to invest in the future of the American people."

These are words, but they are not just words. They set priorities for our nation, and as such, they should set our budget priorities as well. These priorities define the standard against which we should judge whether cuts are "too deep," whether our priorities are the right ones, and whether we are making progress or going backward.

Can we marshal the political will and commitment to fight for what we say we believe?