As worries spread over the automatic tax hikes and budget cuts known as the “fiscal cliff,” less attention is turning to those who might be dangling most precariously off that peak — low-income people. 

Debate has centered mostly on what would happen to the overall economy as well as the middle class if drastically higher taxes and lower spending take effect on Jan. 1. But a number of advocates, including Catholic bishops, are also trying to quickly usher the poor into the conversation. 

Church leaders officially entered the contentious debate on Nov. 13 with letters to House and Senate members, quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s warning against the “downsizing” of social welfare systems in both rich and poor countries. 

“We remind you that the moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated,” said the letters signed by two representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., and Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa.

Pro-work, pro-family

Without a new agreement, the bipartisan budget package that spawned the fiscal cliff will trigger steep cuts in aid to the poor, as well as to other federal programs. These would range from housing vouchers and children’s nutrition to international assistance, such as HIV/AIDS treatment. 

fiscal cliff
Debate over fiscal cliff focuses mainly on middle class. Shutterstock

In the meantime, the Bush tax cuts are expiring. And while these packages delivered the greatest relief to the affluent, they also included expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers, as well as a refundable child tax credit (which goes to families with earnings even if they do not owe federal taxes). The Obama administration further expanded these provisions in 2009. 

Kathy A. Saile, who handles domestic policy issues for the bishops, said the Earned Income Tax Credit delivers up to a few thousand dollars a year to the poorest workers. She previously served as a case manager at a homeless shelter in Phoenix, where many of the residents held down jobs, and she found that the credit often “made the difference between families staying in the shelter and getting on their feet” and into their own apartments. 

“The Church has always been a strong supporter of these tax credits,” she said, referring also to the child credit, “because they’re pro-work, and they’re pro-family, and they help get people out of poverty.” 

During the holidays, the bishops are asking parish and diocesan leaders to gather up letters to Congress at the same time that they collect food baskets and toys for needy families. Appealing for both public advocacy and personal outreach, Bishop Blaire, who chairs the hierarchy’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said, “The Christian path requires that we walk with both feet — the foot of charity and the foot of justice.” 

Saile’s office has circulated a sample letter for charity givers who want to lend a voice as well as a helping hand. 

“As we do all we can to help hardworking families and individuals living in poverty, we need our elected leaders in Washington to do the same,” says the letter addressed to President Obama and members of Congress. It adds, pointedly, “We pray during this season, in which we give thanks and offer gifts, that you will advance policies that protect the poor — not ones that makes them poorer.”

Reducing deficits

While the bishops and other religious leaders have focused on the 46 million Americans living below the poverty line, many analysts have zeroed in on the need to tamp down budget deficits. 

Bishop Blaire
Bishop Blaire
Bishop Pates
Bishop Pates

A report issued last month by the centrist Third Way think tank predicted that deficits would become an increasing drag on economic growth, unless Democrats and Republicans enter into a “grand bargain.”  

For example, the study called on Democrats to accept that without significant cuts in entitlement spending (on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security), “the working age middle class of the future will be saddled by a withering tax and deficit burden.” And it urged Republicans to accept that higher taxes are critical to any realistic plan to reign in the deficit. 

The 2011 bipartisan agreement behind the fiscal cliff exempted most entitlement spending from cuts, in addition to war-related defense spending. 

Father Robert A. Sirico of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote in his blog at Forbes online: “We are racing toward the fiscal abyss. Our profligate government spending, weak economic growth and stagnant job creation are a toxic mix.” 

The bishops have acknowledged the need to curb deficits, but Saile noted that they have also called for “shared sacrifice” that does not lay the heaviest burdens on the most vulnerable people. “As we try to reach a grand bargain, it has to include the principle that we place a circle of protection around poor and vulnerable people here and abroad,” she told Our Sunday Visitor, echoing an appeal by the ecumenical anti-poverty coalition Circle of Protection, of which Bishops Blaire and Pates are signatories.

Moral options

In their letters to Congress, the bishops declared that all budget decisions must be assessed by whether they protect human life, the poorest among us and the common good, which government and other institutions have a responsibility to uphold. At the same time, the letters acknowledged that people of goodwill could disagree on how to apply the principles to specific policies. 

The bishops are making it clear enough that they think at least some of the choices are fairly simple, in light of the moral principles. 

Regarding HIV/AIDS, they cited estimates that cutbacks in antiretroviral drugs could lead to over 60,000 more deaths and 124,000 more orphans, especially in Africa. (That and many other kinds of poverty-related international assistance account altogether for 1 percent of the federal budget, the bishops point out.) Also cited are studies concluding that the U.S. poverty rate would be nearly twice as high without the federal safety net, including Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and other programs subject to the automatic cuts. 

Catholic leaders are broaching ideas for what they see as kinder cuts and deficit slashing. These include shaving military spending and carefully addressing long-term costs of health care and retirement programs, in addition to increasing tax revenue. 

Whether such an approach could command the attention of fiscal-cliff negotiators is another matter. Saile points out that the issue of poverty barely reared its head during the election season, and she added, “It doesn’t seem to be making much of a comeback in the post-election.” 

Saile is optimistic, nonetheless.  

“I don’t think any people in Congress are trying to hurt poor people,” she told OSV. 

William Bole writes from Massachusetts.