In this election year, our country is facing many choices about leaders and approaches to governing that will have a profound effect on future policies. In an era of increasingly partisan politics, routine measures like developing the annual federal budget have become highly politicized. Ultimately, governmental budgets are moral documents that reflect the values, priorities, ethics, and sense of justice of those who formulate them. A close look at the latest proposed budget reveals that its tone, the interests it privileges, and the needs it devalues or ignores are a direct reflection of the mindset of individual responsibility without social responsibility that frames the political morality of its primary architect: Paul Ryan. This approach to policymaking is an egregious transgression of the bedrock scriptural ethic of loving our neighbors and caring for their needs as if their needs are our own.
Throughout most of his political career, Ryan credited the famed right-wing novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand as his major political influence and a primary shaper of his “value systems”—until his run for the vice-presidency, when political optics made it imprudent to praise Rand. As a bestselling author and philosopher, Rand came to prominence by promoting a philosophy in her novels that holds selfishness as a good and condemns altruistic concern for others as a “basic evil.” Rand also valorized the wealthy (“makers”) and demonized the poor (“takers”), terms that expressed her contempt for social welfare programs and those who need them. Rand’s philosophy has been used to fuel conservative attacks on social safety net programs for half a century. Speaker Ryan’s gushing admiration for Rand underscores the degree to which her political morality has shaped his approach to poverty and inequality: “Ayn Rand did … a fantastic job, better than anyone else … explaining the morality of capitalism.”
The current budget proposal and the way Ryan regularly frames the issue of poverty when speaking to policy makers, the media, and voters, reflects his continuing embrace of Rand’s “makers and takers” ideology and her abhorrence of social welfare programs, by calling for the most severe budget cuts in social welfare funding in modern history. The budget clearly prioritizes the interests of the wealthy, revealing it to be the latest rendition of the conservative supply-side, or “trickle-down,” economic ideology first employed as a cornerstone of American economic policy by Ronald Reagan, under whose administration income inequality skyrocketed.
In a televised interview, Ryan stated his belief that “… the [Bible’s] preferential option for the poor … is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching.” Yet, the budget’s focus on further enriching the already wealthy directly contradicts the foundational biblical ethics that many conservatives like Ryan claim to hold dear. Such a focus effectively ignores passages throughout the Bible that enjoin responsibility upon those in positions of governance and power to provide care for the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable among us, such as Psalm 72: “Give the king your justice, O God… May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice…. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy…” (Psalm 72:1-2, 4). Also Psalm 82: “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy…” (Psalm 82:3-4).
The unbiblical trickle-down ideology of Ryan’s budget proposal is demonstrated by the areas in which it seeks to most reduce spending. Its largest reductions are in the programs in which the rich have little interest: the social-welfare and safety net programs that millions of economically disadvantaged, socially vulnerable, and health-challenged Americans depend upon. At the same time, it seeks to reduce by 50 percent the top income tax rate, a measure that only benefits the richest Americans. It seeks to cut the corporate tax rate by fully a third, while social welfare programs are to be cut by an incredible $3.5 trillion over ten years, which means that by 2026 some 40 percent of all federal funds for social welfare programs will disappear. Although programs serving low-income Americans constitute 28 percent of federal domestic spending, Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the programs that serve those least able to carry the additional financial burden would bear some 60 percent of the budget cuts. These measures have been framed by Ryan and other conservative leaders as a way to help low-income Americans climb the economic ladder, but that narrative conceals the devastating effects of their policies.
Other proposals of this callous budget include:
• Cutting spending on programs like food stamps and education in poor areas, which would have devastating consequences for the 22 percent of American children living in poverty.
• Turning Medicaid and other programs serving the poor into block grants directly administered by states, many of which are certain to impose requirements so strict that many who are now eligible for those benefits will virtually overnight become ineligible to receive them.
• Raising the age to receive social security benefits, effectively penalizing the poor who, because of generally inferior healthcare and harsher working conditions than the rich, typically have shorter life spans to enjoy those benefits.
• Slashing non-defense discretionary spending, including substantial cuts in education, job training and Pell grants, and other programs, to the tune of $250 billion over 10 years. This at a time when the information economy makes education an increasingly important requirement.
• Eliminating the Alternative Tax, a measure that ensures that the richest Americans, who have at their disposal myriad tax avoidance schemes, will have to pay at least a minimal amount of taxes.
• Decimating the Affordable Care Act, which would strip millions of people’s access to healthcare, with catastrophic consequences for many.
• Partially or completely exempting from federal taxes all of the profits American corporations earn abroad that they list in their financial records, including funds from offshore tax havens, potentially increasing their profits by billions of dollars at the cost of billions in lost tax revenue that could be used to offset the budget’s massive social service cuts.
When viewed in its totality, Speaker Ryan’s budget proposal suggests disregard, if not disdain, for the needs of poor Americans. If adopted, it would greatly worsen the plight of America’s poor and needy, and by further widening the already considerable wealth and income gaps in America, it would increase the festering sense of economic injustice gripping much of this nation.
Yet, however anathema this budget is to the interests of most Americans, there is still reason to be heartened. Most reputable surveys indicate that the majority of Americans reject the trickle-down privileging of the interests of the most well-to-do over the needs of average Americans and the country’s most vulnerable populations. According to a Pew Research Center study, 65 percent of Americans say the economic system in this country “unfairly favors powerful interests.” A YouGov study finds that 45 percent of surveyed Americans disagree with the trickle-down claim that lower taxes on the wealthy will eventually benefit everyone. The Opportunity Agenda’s national survey found that policies for reducing poverty garner wide support, with 75 percent of Americans indicating that unequal treatment of poor people is a real problem. The same survey showed that a majority of Americans support the safety net programs Speaker Ryan has placed on the chopping block: 77 percent favor increasing funding or keeping current spending levels for food stamps and 65 percent prioritize avoiding cutbacks to Social Security.
This stark impasse between the agenda of conservative politicians and the beliefs of the majority of Americans presents a significant opportunity to reassert progressive values such as compassion, justice, and shared social fate as a concerted force to counter the conservative agenda that the Ryan budget represents. We who advocate for social and economic justice can build upon the fact that most Americans share our dissatisfaction with the vast and growing economic inequality in our nation, to develop messages and strategies that successfully challenge budgets, policies and governmental actions and pronouncements that violate the values that we share.
Over the next few months, Americans will grapple with decisions that will dictate the values our country will prioritize and embrace. The Opportunity Agenda has developed useful resources to shift the “maker and taker” narrative on poverty to a narrative that values in equal measure attending to the needs of the poor and providing greater economic opportunity for everyone. For now is the time to create a drumbeat for lasting economic justice and life-affirming social change, for today and for every tomorrow.