As I have stated on this website and elsewhere, Catholic social teaching advocates unequivocally the needs of the poor and vulnerable take priority over the wants of the rich. I have also argued that the budget is not only a moral document, but a society’s statement of its priorities. And based upon both of these, and other arguments I have argued that Chairman Ryan’s proposed budget fails to meet the fundamental criteria of Catholic social teaching. One critique I often receive is to “be more specific” on what is at stake, the budget crisis itself and how various political “word play” is being used to against those without a voice.

Nowhere is this “word play” clearer than in discussions of “tax expenditures” or “tax credits” versus “subsidies.” In his March 24 report “A Framework for Deficit Reduction: Principles and Cautions” for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Robert Greenstein explains:

Tax Expenditures Can Be Like Other Spending:  The Case of Child Care

A parent with low or moderate income may be able to obtain a subsidy to help her defray child care costs, with the subsidy being provided through a government spending program.  A parent higher on the income scale also can receive a government subsidy that reduces her child care costs, but this parent’s subsidy is delivered through the tax code, via a tax credit.

The two types of subsidies differ, however, in their availability to eligible families.  The low- or moderate-income parent may fail to get any subsidy to help with her child care costs, because the spending programs that provide these subsidies are not open ended; they can serve only as many people as their capped funding allows.  By contrast, the child care subsidies for higher-income households are guaranteed, because the child care tax subsidy operates as an open-ended entitlement (and there is no limit on how large a family’s income can be to claim this tax credit).

It does not make much sense to make the tax-code subsidies sacrosanct and the program subsidies a target for deficit reduction merely because one type of subsidy is delivered through a “spending” program and the other is delivered through the tax code.

Focusing on cutting program costs and subsidies without examining the long term feasibility of tax expenditures is one clear and concrete way that the current discussion is attempting to deal with the deficit disproportionately at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. These debates are tedious and technical and everyone does not have an equal voice at the table.  Catholic social doctrine demands that we be the voice for those who do not have armies of lobbyists advocating their position.

In their joint statements to Congress, Bishop Blaire and Bishop Hubbard have reiterated that while the Catholic bishops recognize the need for shared sacrifice in times of economic crisis:

As teachers, we offer several moral criteria to help guide difficult budgetary decisions:
1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life
and dignity.
2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these”
(Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in
poverty should come first.
3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common
good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in
difficult economic times.

We must all be watchful and determined to see a budget that protects the poor and vulnerable and not a  structure that has already concentrated so much wealth and power in the hands of the few – pushing the poor, unemployed and underemployed even further into the margins.