Religious leaders fast to protest steep budget cuts for the poor

Updated May 23, 5:06 p.m. central time*

WASHINGTON — About a dozen religious leaders from major denominations and groups are in the final day of a three-day fast in response to the release of the Trump Administration’s FY2018 budget proposal.

The budget — showing shockingly deep cuts to or elimination of many programs that assist the poor, including entitlement programs that do not require annual congressional authorization — was released today, drawing alarm from faith community leaders and others who work to eliminate hunger and poverty.

While very unlikely to pass as submitted, the budget is indicative of the Trump administration’s intention to significantly diminish the role of the federal government in providing a social safety net for low-income and working class Americans.

The cuts total $3.6 trillion over 10 years and include everything from Medicaid to food assistance, as well as programs for medical research and the environment. Medicare and Social Security do not lose any funding, and spending for defense, immigration control, and border security is increased.

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The proposed budget would:

  • Cut Medicaid, which provides healthcare to low-income people, by $800 billion over 10 years. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 10 million people would lose benefits as a result.
  • Cut SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) by $192 billion over 10 years and institute a work requirement. According to federal data, 44 million people received SNAP benefits in 2016.
  • Cut Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, or welfare) by $21 billion.
  • Cut Social Security Disability Insurance by $72 billion over 10 years. About 10 million Americans currently receive benefits through the program.
  • Eliminate the Social Services Block Grant, a $2 billion program that provides money to states for child and adult daycare, disability services, foster care, and more.
  • Zero out the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides the poor with more than $3 billion in heating assistance.
  • Cuts funding for substance abuse and mental health care by 20%.
  • Cut almost $2 billion in operating and capital improvements from public housing.

“There are serious cuts being proposed, which would have a deep impact on the poor in the U.S. and those who go hungry,” said Bishop Richard E. Pates of the Diocese of Des Moines. Pates is participating in the fast, which is being led by Bread for the World and is intended as an expression of solidarity with the poor.

“What we’re tying to do is say this is a moral question, something that should galvanize our attention. The impact of fasting creates greater awareness in ourselves of hunger and necessity to do something about it,” Pates told NCR.

Bread for the World, which considers the budget a “moral document,” is calling the fast “For Such a Time as This: A Call to Prayer, Fasting, and Advocacy.” The fast began on May 21 because poverty advocates say monthly family benefits under SNAP only last only 21 days. The fast will continue on the 21st of every month until December 2018, when the 115th Congress concludes.  

Other religious leaders taking part include the Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church; Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Tony Hall, executive director emeritus, Alliance to End Hunger; Anwar Khan, CEO, Islamic Relief USA; Rev. Carlos Malavé, executive director, Christian Churches Together in the USA; Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick III, presiding bishop, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; Dr. Barbara Williams Skinner, co-chair, National African American Clergy Network; and Jim Wallis, president and founder, Sojourners. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) is also participating.

“We believe it’s unconscionable that people die of hunger in 2017, that that is still happening,” said Arturo Chavez, president and CEO of the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, Texas. He is fasting and will be encouraging students at his college to take part, he said.

“We just want to stand up and say we will not be silent, we will not be part of this, but to do so in a way that is in keeping with our values. … We choose to be in solidarity at least this one day to bring attention to their plight.”

In international spending, the administration has proposed to cut the State Department and the U.S.Agency for International Development, or USAID, by more than 30 percent at a time when 65 million people are forcibly displaced and 23 million are suffering in famine-like conditions.

The administration is also proposing significant cuts to humanitarian assistance and critical long-term development funding, which would affect programs that lift people out of poverty, such as agricultural development, basic education, water and sanitation, and anti-trafficking efforts. 

Humanitarian and development agencies report that the administration is considering restructuring how development and humanitarian assistance is carried out, a troubling development that may include prioritizing national security efforts over poverty reduction.

“Obviously, our country faces budget challenges, but we can’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor around the world. The 1 percent of the budget that’s dedicated to foreign assistance can’t be the solution to our budget challenges. It’s way too small to really make a difference,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international humanitarian agency.

O’Keefe, too, is participating in the fast. “I appreciate the opportunity the organizers have given for all of us to prepare for the difficult struggle for justice, in this case for hungry people impacted by conflict, drought, and poverty,” he said.

The U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to the House and Senate May 19 about the budgets. It reads, in part, “The moral measure of the federal budget is how well it promotes the common good of all, especially the most vulnerable,” and called on members of Congress to resist making sharp cuts to programs for the poor.

The chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development Bishop Frank J. Dewane, of Venice, Florida, issued a statement May 23 that called the budget plan “profoundly troubling.”

“When defense spending, which already exceeds that of the next eight nations combined, is receiving a large increase in funds, it is hard to reconcile the significant cuts that are being made to crucial services such as health care, nutrition, income security and anti-poverty programs,” Dewane said.

“The human consequences of budget choices are clear to us as pastors, and it is important to be vocal when proposed funding cuts impact those whose voices are all too often missing from these debates,” Dewane said and pledged the U.S. bishops would work with leaders of both parties on a “budget that will not only reduce future deficits, but will also protect the poor and vulnerable while advancing peace and the common good of civil society.”

Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, counseled caution in putting too much weight on the budget proposal, which will have to go through congressional budget and appropriations committees and will likely emerge a very different document than the one the president submitted.

Indeed, Democrats and some Republicans have already signaled that the cuts are too deep. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), for instance, will be pushing his colleagues to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), despite the White House’s intention to cut it. Still, Trump’s proposal sets the tone.

“The thing that needs to be understood is that the president’s budget isn’t actually going to be the basis of any real governance, but where it becomes important is that it signals where the priorities are for our nation,” said Campbell.

Her own religious community would feel the pain of cuts to Medicaid, she said, because several elderly sisters who live in nursing homes rely on it. “We’re like everybody else. What are we going to do? Part of this is self-interest, but at least we have each other. So many families have no one to provide care.”

She encouraged people of conscience to call and write their representatives in Congress, demanding that funding of programs for the poor be maintained. Then they should urge their friends in other states to do the same. Campbell mentioned Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, in particular, because their representatives are key in the budgetary decision-making process.

“This is where we the people have to stand up. Often, what happens is we’re politically divided, we’re economically divided, and we’re racially divided. We have to bridge those divides. Pope Francis told congress in 2015 that we have to be a bridge,” said Campbell who will be participating in the fast, as her travel schedule permits. “The real benefit of fasting is not so much that you change the other, but we change ourselves and we come to know the urgency of engaging together to build the common good.”

For more on the fast, visit http://www.bread.org/call-to-prayer-fasting-advocacy.

[Julie Bourbon is a freelance writer based in Washington.]

*Editor’s Note: The original article posted May 22, the day before the budget was public, included reporting based on leaked budget documents. The article has been updated May 23 to include information now publicly available. 

A version of this story appeared in the June 2-15, 2017 print issue under the headline: Leaders fast to oppose cuts in budget .

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