Christ, Compassion, and ‘Budgetary Reality’

by David French

Writing last Thursday in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson took on the dispute between the Christian Left’s “Circle of Protection” and Christians for a Sustainable Economy’s more conservative response. (Full disclosure: I signed the CASE letter and wrote about it last week.) His conclusion? That the Left has the better of the argument:

The arguments of the Circle and CASE both have merit. But the Circle’s approach is more urgent. Public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt. A political argument giving equal weight to cuts in poverty programs and reductions in entitlement spending is uninformed about the nature of the budget crisis, which is largely a health-entitlement crisis. A simplistic philosophy of “shared sacrifice,” focused mainly on cuts in discretionary spending, requires disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable. If religious people do not make this case, it is difficult to determine what distinctive message they offer.

This is not an argument endorsed by God, but it corresponds to budgetary reality. And this has a virtue of its own.

I must respectfully disagree. First, it’s hardly the case that “public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending.” As this Heritage report demonstrates, even in 2008 means-tested welfare aid amounted to $714 billion, with $522 billion coming from the federal government. In his first two years in office, Obama increased the federal number to $697 billion. Over the next decade, the federal government will spend $7.5 trillion on means-tested welfare. Since the War on Poverty began, we’ve spent roughly $16 trillion. That’s not a “sliver” of anything.

Second, it’s simply not true that CASE has put “equal weight to cuts in poverty programs and reductions in entitlement spending.” The letter calls for Congress and the president to put on the table “every cent of government spending.” Nowhere does it indicate that cuts in poverty programs or entitlements must be given “equal weight.” (In fact, that’s a false distinction — our entitlements include many poverty programs.) It does, however, argue strongly that anti-poverty programs should not be spared close scrutiny and cuts. There is nothing sacred about welfare spending. 

Finally, Gerson simply doesn’t grapple with a core conservative critique of the modern welfare state: It simply doesn’t work. After spending $16 trillion, our poverty rate is roughly where it was when the “War on Poverty” began. Individual programs, like Head Start, cost billions per year with no discernible effect. Unemployment benefits can prolong joblessness even as they ease its ill effects. Many of these programs create a sense of entitlement and a very real dependence that prolong and deepen poverty. A welfare state that throws trillions into a destructive, bureaucratic abyss does not serve anyone — least of all the poor.  

Gerson argues that if religious people don’t make the case against “disproportionate sacrifices” (an undefined term) “of the most vulnerable,” then it’s “difficult to determine” our “distinctive message.” But this is a straw man. CASE is not arguing for “disproportionate sacrifices” but instead against sacred cows. As for our distinctive message, I’m quite comfortable arguing that good stewardship, economic liberty, and accountability for actual effects (as opposed to good intentions) are far more helpful to the “least of these” than our bloated welfare bureaucracy.