By Fr. Travis Russell, SJ
September 27, 2021 — Budgets are moral documents. They reveal priorities and values, and as a society, they are the primary way that we care for one another, especially for the vulnerable. That is why the Church takes them so seriously, and that is why the ongoing debate about the budget reconciliation bill currently before Congress is so important. (To see how seriously the Church takes budgets, check out the letter to Congress by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)
Politicians on both sides of the aisle balk at the $3.5 trillion sticker price of the reconciliation bill and say we can’t afford it. On the Right, they argue that we can’t keep spending money we don’t have, continuing to add it to the national deficit. Plus, inflation will spike, raising prices for everyone, and the poor will be the first to suffer.
On the Left, they insist that $3.5 trillion is already a compromise, and pointing to the 34 million people living in poverty, claim “we can’t afford not to.” This is not frivolous spending, they say. It’s investing in the future.
Personally, I’m not too concerned with the number. I ascribe to the Keynesian logic that “anything you can do, you can afford,” which has proven itself time and again throughout the pandemic. We can afford to vaccinate everyone in the U.S, but can we do it? Honestly, I think we have a better chance of inhabiting Mars. How about the world? Economists tell us it’s a bargain. But can we do it? Not yet at least.
The question, then, is not whether we can afford $3.5 trillion — that is secondary. The real question is: can we do it? Can the budgetary supply meet the social demand?
I wrote a previous piece about the significance of Jesus placing a child in front of the disciples and telling them that unless they become like children, they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 18:2-3). In it, I said that Jesus is making a moral point that is connected to his other teaching that “whatever you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” (Mt. 25:45). And so, I concluded that the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) was a moral issue that Catholics should support.
Well, the American Rescue Plan did just that — but only for a year. It expanded the Child Tax Credit and made it fully refundable so that those who are most in need of it now receive it. So far, it has been a resounding success — and it doesn’t matter who’s doing the math.
The child poverty rate fell from 15.8% in June to 11.9% in July 2021. Three million children are no longer in poverty.
Can you believe it? We did it! It actually worked! We could afford it because we pulled together and passed a budget that reflected our values. And if we do it again by making permanent the expanded CTC, we can cut childhood poverty in half.
We can (and should) do other things as well. Affordable housing, improved access to health care, renewable energy, a more just and equitable tax system and much, much more. Can we do them all? Probably not. But we shouldn’t settle for the status quo either. We can do better — always! And if we can’t do everything, then let’s at least start laying the groundwork so that what we can’t do now we can do in the future. It’s time start investing in the future. We are a people of hope after all.
I am not too concerned with $3.5 trillion number because I know budgets are moral documents, the number being worth only as much as the people it represents. We could spend $3.5 trillion making wealthy people richer, but, of course, that wouldn’t reflect our values. Or we could advocate for a budget that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, shelters the homeless, treats humanely those in prison and provides health care for people who are sick — you know, the corporal works of mercy.
So, I’ve got a suggestion. Instead of arguing about a number and adding to the polarizing all-or-nothing gridlock that we’re in, let’s come together and pass something that can actually be done. Let’s judge each budget item on its own merits and pass a budget that prioritizes Gospel values. If we do that, the number will take care of itself.
Fr. Travis Russell, SJ is the criminal justice policy advisor for the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology. He has worked with Jesuit refugee Service in Malawi, taught at Verbum Dei High School and served as an assistant at L’Arche Seattle.