At least once every two years, Maine’s constitution says, the Governor will propose and the Legislature will consider, revise, and adopt a budget for the operation of the state’s government. A similar process occurs at the federal level, with the President proposing and Congress voting into law the spending authorizations and priorities of our nation. We are in the midst of both of those budget-making exercises right now; here and in Washington, the proposals are breathtakingly harsh for the least fortunate among us.
Those who oppose such budgets often say that a government budget is a “moral document.” They mean that decisions about what to spend and what not to spend express our understanding of what we have an obligation to do for each other, what we think is good and right to do collectively, and what we believe is OK to leave up to the individual.
A half century ago, our nation declared “war on poverty.” In a period of prosperity and growth, a time when the United States was fast becoming the most powerful nation on earth, our leadership recognized that leaving behind vast numbers of our neighbors while the nation as a whole moved forward successfully was morally unacceptable. The federal government put in place a range of programs designed to alleviate the conditions of those with low incomes, to provide training for new jobs, and to avoid the circumstance where the elderly or the poor were unable to obtain healthcare, by creating two programs of national health insurance – Medicare and Medicaid.
What has happened to the budgetary imperatives, the “moral document”, that we called the War on Poverty? Why do state and national leaders now tell us that what’s left of those antipoverty programs must be scaled back even more, that we must help fewer people and provide them with less, even as the most successful among us now acquire ever greater wealth? What moral bearings do our state and national chief executives use to reach austere proposals like President Trump’s cuts to Meals on Wheels and large swaths of our social safety net, or Governor Lepage’s proposal to take health care coverage away from those above 40% of the federal poverty level — $8600 or so per year for a family of three? Do we no longer believe in helping those who are having a hard time? Do we no longer think that we can build a society in which everyone, not just a fortunate few, have the opportunity to succeed and put an end to hunger and other deprivations? Or is there something in the way, disorienting us despite an unchanged moral impulse?
There is something in the way. War. The wars we make on people we style our enemies, the costs of that brutal and broadly unsuccessful way of trying to protect our interests, have eclipsed the War on Poverty.
Half a century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. could see it coming. When the War on Poverty was in full swing, the United States was also falling into a brutal, deadly, and ultimately pointless conflict in Southeast Asia. In a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” King warned of the countless material and moral costs of unjust warfare. He warned that we must make a choice between “nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.” He called for a “revolution of values” that would “look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
Fifty years and a few days after King gave that speech, we saw the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles, each costing over a million dollars, exploding on a largely empty airfield in Syria, a symbolic, violent, and expensive – but largely ineffective – response to hideous attacks by Syrians against their own. In that same month, our new Administration also dropped in Afghanistan the “Mother of all Bombs,” a hideous metaphor cloned from the language of a hideous dictator, here describing the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in our arsenal. As if war on two fronts were not enough, we also saw an escalating crisis over nuclear weapons in North Korea, with repositioned troops combining with recklessly bellicose statements by both our leader and theirs. I can’t get King’s words about choosing between coexistence and coannihilation out of my mind. We hold our breath, because this President seems less measured, less appreciative of the risks of an “annihilating” conflict, than his predecessors.
We can, of course, draw from history some powerful arguments that war may sometimes be unavoidable, that some human evils can only be confronted with force. There are also cogent arguments that it would be foolhardy to mount any but the best defenses against unfettered violence and desperate acts of terror.
But what about that war on poverty, which seems to have sputtered out and been replaced with phrases like “we can’t afford it,” or “we are only contributing to dependency by helping people”? Take our record of increasing inequality of wealth and income, declining opportunity to earn a living wage, and a rising number of families in constant trepidation that they are one illness or accident away from financial ruin. Set it alongside the enormous cost and infinitesimal value of the major wars in which we have engaged. Questions worth asking emerge:
Instead of spending more, as our new President proposes, on weapons for wars that gain us nothing and lay waste to countless lives, might there be a better balance? Instead of leaving our neighbors hungry and sick so that we can lower taxes on those with plenty –- yes, plenty -– might we budget for enough food, health care, and education to help those who are having a hard time gaining the foothold they need to rise out of poverty through hard work? Instead of forcing a mother to choose between protecting her child’s safety and earning enough money to clothe, feed, and shelter that child, might we invest in enough child care, housing help, and food assistance to allow that mother and her child to reach their full potentials?
What if we were slower to blow things up, and quicker to build new environments for productive work and healthy, skilled workers? If we spent less time and treasure on death and destruction, might we seize our moral compass and set a new bearing? Might we win the War on Poverty after all?
Some counter that such hopes are mere sentimentalities, uninformed by the hard realities that compel our military adventures. Leaders of vast movements of nonviolent social change, like Dr. King, knew better. Acting collectively, human beings are capable of incredible feats of growth and cooperative success. These achievements are possible when everyone is included as both a beneficiary of the struggle and a participant in that same struggle. Love is not a soft and sentimental thing: it is the glue of families and communities, the key to using power for greater good instead of deploying it to annihilate the other or protect the privileges of a few. The choice to move away from the futility and enormous costs of war and toward a community of tough, resilient, creative love must be reflected in the ways we use our limited resources. Our budgets must reflect our values, and our values will determine our futures.