As promised, I have posted Part 2 over at Political Theology’s There’s Power in the Blog.

The Circumstance of Unmet Need: Part II on Aquinas and the Moral Evaluation of a Budget


Offering examples of how circumstances, intention and the kind of thing it is to do are all important to Thomistic moral evaluation,  philosopher Brian Davies, OP offers the following example:

Suppose I read the Summa theologiae with care and a desire to learn. That too might be regarded as a good thing to do and it seems that I do it with a good intention. But what if I am doing it while someone is dying of hunger beside me and begging me for food which I can easily provide? Then, Aquinas would hold my action is not good because of the circumstances in which it is performed. (238).

Attending to the questions necessary to determine appropriate circumstances and building off of Davies illustration, it is my contention that the current circumstances of unmet need is significant to the moral evaluation of a budget proposal or approach. I am not simply arguing that because of the difficult economic situation and high unemployment it is unjust to cut social programs like SNAP, TANF, and Housing Assistance because cuts will do harm to those currently receiving those benefits. That is true, but beyond that, it is unjust to consider cutting these programs because as they stand now there remains a significant unmet need among the poor in our society. Budget proposals (and the subsequent votes) rooted in an approach which prioritizes the deficit and debt in a significant reality of unmet need is morally wrong by virtue of circumstance.

Let’s begin with SNAP (food stamps) – there has been significant attention to the rise in the SNAP budget and what an “acceptable level” of said budget would be. SNAP is designed as an automatic stabilizer. As an automatic stabilizer, it is able to both effectively respond to changes of need when the economy contracts without new legislation. This is in addition to the effective economic impact SNAP provides stimulating the economy itself. From the perspective of Catholic social teaching, the size and budget of SNAP should only be a concern with respect to eligibility. The only morally acceptable way to shrink the SNAP budget is when less people are hungry in need of food stamps.  Even with the increase in SNAP participation and its budget, there is still a significant percentage of unmet need.

After falling to a low of 54 percent in 2001 and 2002, SNAP’s participation rate among eligible people has increased in recent years, reaching 72 percent in fiscal year 2009.

Effective outreach has increased SNAP participation and lessened the stigma attached to food stamps. The goal however should be that all who are eligible for food stamps receive them.  Unmet need is a morally significant circumstance – particularly in light of Matthew 25.

Please head over to Political Theology’s Blog to read the full post. With concrete data, I offer a complementary angle to previous arguments from Catholic social teaching – the unmet need of our social safety net is crucial to the moral evaluation of a budget or budgetary approach.