Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Sequester is Urgent and Severe: a Faithful Response

Remarks as prepared for
a briefing in the U.S. Capitol for Congressional Staffers
delivered by Leslie Woods, Representative for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues

Thank you, Sister Marge.  As you say, I am Leslie Woods and I serve the Presbyterian Church (USA)Office of Public Witness here in DC and also I’m the co-chair of the Inter-religious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs, which is an ecumenical and interfaith coalition of churches, religious denominations, and faith-based organizations, that comes together around the common concern of anti-poverty work and policies that promote economic justice, equality, and human needs.

I’d like to start by thanking NETWORK for inviting me to speak at this briefing, and to thank these sisters for being such great partners in this community’s ongoing  anti-poverty and justice-building coalition work.  We couldn’t do it without NETWORK.

Sr. Marge asked me to speak about why the faith community cares about these issues, so first, I’d like to refer to the document in your packet, “Faithful Alternatives to Sequestration,” which our inter-religious coalition has updated and offered to the Hill several times over the last two and a half years.  And you will find that I will quote or paraphrase several passages from this piece, because I believe it is no less true today that it was when I wrote it two years ago and I found myself referring to it often when I was preparing these remarks.

So, to begin, there are two quotations from holy texts at the head of the paper.  First, from the Gospel according to Luke, “to whom much is given, much will be required,” a powerful reminder from holy scripture about different levels of social responsibility, especially in the context of Mike’s comments on the many and varied ways that those who have much avoid contributing their fair share.

Next, from the Midrash, “the person who lends money to the poor person is greater than the person who gives charity, and the one who throws money into a common purse to form a partnership with a poor person is greater than either.”  Again, not only a great reminder about how the growing economic divide is contrary to God’s intention for human community, but also a commentary on the necessity for the common purse, the shared broker who brings in revenue and invests it in the needs of the larger community.  It sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?  This used to be the role of ancient religious communities.  Today, while our communities still have important charitable and prophetic roles, the common purse strings are now in government hands.

As a religious coalition, we believe that our economic arrangements should serve God’s creation and should help the human community to flourish.  We further believe that the sequester must urgently be replaced with a balanced plan that protects people who are economically poor and vulnerable.  And as Sister Marge, Sister Simone, and Mike have articulated so well, we believe there are several ways to achieve these goals, while also addressing the nation’s long term fiscal challenges, without using indiscriminate cuts or policy that makes poor people disproportionately bear the burden.

We believe “that crushing poverty in a world of abundance is insufferable and that we have allowed too much injustice and greed to govern our current economic structures.”  Instead, our policies, both appropriations and tax policy, should increase equity and equality. 

Both in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in our broader ecumenical and interfaith context, we seek to challenge the systemic injustice that traps families in poverty for generations while also creating a new class of economically poor people, as the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen.  We believe that this growing inequality, as well as persistent and systemic poverty, especially among children, but really among all people, is not only inconsistent with God’s intention, but it is contrary to it. 

I invite you to remember with me the creation of the current sequester.  It is a blunt tool.  It was designed in the Budget Control Act to be so awful –- so prohibitive -- to carry such serious and weighty consequences for the stereotypical interests of both Democrats and Republicans, that it would force diverging Members of Congress to come to a negotiating table in good faith.  Sequestration was literally designed to be unspeakable.

And despite news stories that it hasn’t really been all that bad, it actually has.  An upcoming report that will be released next week called “Faces of Austerity,” will offer perhaps the most comprehensive cross-sector review of the affects of sequester.  In this report, we hear from :

Cheri Taylor, who is the Executive Director of Pottersville Adult Day Services in California, which serves low-income clients with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. She says: “These… programs allow people with Alzheimer’s disease to remain in their homes longer and provide needed respite to their family caregivers. Any ‘savings’ from sequestration would pale in comparison to the added costs resulting from unnecessary hospitalizations, premature nursing home placements, and greater financial and emotional strains on family caregivers.”

So, the sequester is short-sighted, trading long-term security for short-term deficit reduction.

And from:

Sharilyn Cano, the Human Resources Director of the Southern Oregon Head Start program. She says, “We went from serving 1,378 kids in May to 1,141 kids in September. The loss of 237 kids is all because of sequester… I don’t understand the logic of these cuts – no one does… People need to understand that in order to ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ you first need to have bootstraps.”

And these stories are just examples of the true heartbreak and the beginning of the domino effect of sequester cuts.  If a child loses head start, what will her parents do to find child care?  If they have no child care, how will they both work, which is pretty essential for any family eligible for Head Start?  If they can’t work, how will they afford rent and utilities? If they can’t afford rent and utilities, how will they avoid becoming homeless?  How will they afford food to feed their family? And winter coats? A child losing head start is tragic – for the child, for her family, and for a nation that is systemically disinvesting in its children – in our very future.

This is true cost of sequestration. A systematic and thoughtless disinvestment in the structures and supports that make it possible for families to make ends meet, that offer education and training, that provide the tools necessary for a person to improve his or her lot – to use those bootstraps, to refer to Sharilyn from Oregon.

And while we, in the faith community, are most concerned about the economically poor people who are bearing the burden of this sequester, the true cost of sequester is even broader than that.  The sequester is affecting all non-defense discretionary spending – not just the safety net – the true cost has great implications for public health, safety, and our very security, at home and around the world. The true cost of sequestration is also about cancer research, HIV medication, food safety, clean air and water, access to public and pristine wilderness, international diplomacy, disaster response, supports for women and children experiencing domestic and relationship violence… and livelihoods.  The federal government is the largest single employer in the nation, not to mention all the federal funds that pass through state budgets into the paychecks of state and local employees, like school teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and social workers.  The sequester is not just numbers on a page – it’s real people’s lives.

Instead of the blunt axe of the sequester, we need a fine scalpel – and a blood transfusion.  We need a discriminating eye that will review the budget and make judicious decisions about investments, effectiveness, and need.  We need to take a serious look at our military spending, which has doubled in the last ten years, even as the Pentagon is not audited or accountable for its use of taxpayer dollars.  And we need new revenue. There is simply no way to address the current economic situation – economic inequality, joblessness, under-education, systemic poverty – or our long-term fiscal challenges of deficits and debt, without new revenues.

Congress has an opportunity to address and mitigate a real harm.  The sequester is not a short-term problem.  Without congressional action, these undiscriminating cuts will take a chunk out of the budget pie chart for the next eight years, even before the policy and priority conversations begin.  As a result, by 2023 these caps will cut $1.6 trillion from discretionary programs, relative to the inflation-adjusted 2010 funding levels. Under sequestration, discretionary programs—including both defense and nondefense programs—will face more than $700 billion in cuts over the next eight years. And in two years, non-defense discretionary spending will equal a smaller percentage of our economy than ever before.

So, while Congress can’t undo the harm that the sequester has already inflicted, it can stop it for future years, as well as make the investments necessary to mitigate the effects for the people already suffering under sequester cuts.  And more than preventing harm, Congress actually has an opportunity here to further the common good – to make our economic system more just and less stratified.  As Mike laid out for us, there are many ways, within the enforcement of current law and with the closing of loopholes, that will make sure that from those to whom much has been given, much will be required.

We hope your takeaway today is that the faith community cares about the sequester because it affects real people – the very people who are sitting in our pews and coming to our soup kitchens – those who are being served and those who are serving.  We care because we believe that God has a better, more wholesome, loving, and inclusive vision for our human community.  We believe in a God of abundance who provides us with all that we need – and that it is our own failure that leaves some with too little and some with too much. 

In short, we care because we believe God has called us to care and called prophets like Sister Simone to make it a big deal.  We know that the sequester is doing real harm, and at the same time we know there are ways to accomplish our economic goals much more efficiently and effectively, without causing that harm, through common sense policy changes, like replacing the sequester with a balanced approach – that includes judicious spending cuts AND new revenues that ensure that those who have plenty are contributing their fair share to the good of all. We have the opportunity, not only to address some of the long-term fiscal challenges facing the nation, but also to invest in human capital and human need, to reduce spending responsibly while continuing to invest in the programs that make this nation strong and a place that seeks out the general welfare for everyone who lives here, not just a privileged few.