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Budget cuts target the poor, faith groups say

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Get ready for more undernourished infants, dangerously cold homes and disease-stricken communities in developing countries if proposed federal budget cuts become law.

That’s the message coming from left-leaning religious advocacy groups, who’ve been rallying supporters and blanketing Capitol Hill since budget debates kicked into high gear. Declaring budgets to be “moral documents,” they’re prodding lawmakers to honor their respective faith traditions by sparing poverty-related programs from the cost-cutting axe.

But efforts to save funding are meeting resistance – not only from number crunchers, but also from others with different views of what constitutes moral budgeting.

The conscience-tweaking initiatives are popping up just as lawmakers work to shrink trillion-dollar annual deficits. Last week, 300 leaders from Catholic social ministry organizations left a Washington-area conference to lobby their representatives and senators. Sojourners, an evangelical ministry with a social justice focus, is raising money for bracelets and ads asking, “What would Jesus cut?”

“Our job is to provide the moral voice that says, ‘You don’t cut the poor first,”‘ said Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). “But thus far in this recession and economic crisis, the only people who’ve been asked to sacrifice have been the poor.”

Advocates like Saile are denouncing House-passed plans to cut about $5 billion from poverty-focused international aid, $2.3 billion from affordable housing, $1.75 billion from job training, $1 billion from community health centers, $900 million from refugee programs and $390 million from low-income heating assistance.

Others, however, see a different moral imperative: fighting wasteful spending. The one-million-member Teaparty.org group encourages “traditional family values” and calls for an end to federal deficits. President Dale Robertson says government-funded anti-poverty programs are vulnerable to fraud and abuse in the absence of sufficient accountability. For example, he cites the scandal-plagued Global Fund, which receives taxpayer dollars for overseas projects and recently reported $34 million missing.

“It’s wrong, it’s uncharitable and it’s unchristian to give good money after bad,” Robertson said. “It’s almost like you’re destroying this nation because you’re not solving the problems … Until we begin to hold (programs) accountable, cut everything.”

People on both sides agree that if anti-poverty programs suffer substantial cuts, religious organizations will bear more responsibility for feeding the hungry and meeting other basic needs. But some advocates for sustaining public funding say such a backup plan is more ideological than realistic.

“Churches simply have not put in their budgets the kind of funding that would be required to feed nine to 10 million people,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tenn. “So it’s dishonest for politicians to shift the responsibility away from the government to the church.”


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