Why It's Time to Reframe the Social Safety Net Debate

President Trump’s budget proposal has been met with a flurry of reactions since it was introduced in March. Immediately, the battle lines formed to defend or destroy it. The predictable skirmishes erupted over what this budget would mean for social programs if it were enacted.  The New York Times wrote an entire article about who “wins” and “loses.” In most public discourse the budget is a zero sum war.

We often blame blind adherence to ideology for the vehemence and intractability of our Sisyphean budget debates. But “ideology” is too kind a word for what has happened. Ideology implies a systematic set of beliefs that guide us. What we see in the trenches is less a framework of beliefs and more a trap, an identity in which our elected officials are imprisoned. Conservatives must prove they are budget hawks. Liberals must prove they will protect social programs. Both are willing to do so at any cost, and the cost is often a compelling or coherent vision for human flourishing.

We can see this battle clearly in the budget itself. The budget proposes severe cuts to social programs.  Gone would be funding for a $3 billion Community Development Block Grant as well as support for Community Development Financial Institutions, among numerous other things. This budget seems to ask “why should the federal government promote social programs at all?” While we should be concerned at the consequences of this budget, especially for our most vulnerable citizens, we can also take this opportunity to step back and actually answer the implied question. In re-examining why the federal government should support social programs, perhaps we can bring the discussion back to first principles instead of the worn out paths we keep marching on.

The journey begins with the word “effective.” It is a term that is widely used, particularly by conservative thinkers who argue for cuts to social programs. For many, social programs are simply too “ineffective” to exist. For example, Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said, “We have a very large welfare state, and there is waste in that welfare state. It’s important to prune the waste and make these programs much more effective.”

What does “effective” mean? Unfortunately, on the left it often means expanding social welfare programs and, on the right, making dramatic cuts to critical, small budget programs. Little time is spent on substantive improvements or creative ideas.

How do we know if a government program or agency is effective? To answer that we would have to know the end goal of a successful program. We would need to have a common measure of success, something we do not currently have because the conversation about program effectiveness is mired in a paralyzing and toxic polarity. Accusations make their rounds. An appeal to “efficiency” in government programs is answered by, “you hate poor people.” Likewise, an appeal to preserving programs receives the response, “you create bloated government and dependency.” Fortunately, these characterizations aren’t the only options.

A vision for shared justice comes from the foundational, yet simple questions:  Who do we want to be as a nation and what kind of society do we want to live in? 

For Christians concerned with public justice, “effective” programs are ones in which the government comes alongside other institutions to create a more vibrant, flourishing society. That means the measure of success cannot simply be a smaller federal budget or the expansion of federal programs. We must take a serious look at how different programs help society to grow and flourish. Our pursuit of public justice should compel us to call on our elected officials to support quality programs across all levels of civil society. We have frank conversations about programs that are not making an impact, but also conversation about the real good that some of these other programs do. Fiscal responsibility and robust support of compassionate social programs do not have to be mutually exclusive. We have made them so. 

A vision for shared justice comes from the foundational, yet simple questions: Who do we want to be as a nation and what kind of society do we want to live in? 

We want to live in a society where there is general consensus that we can unite around at local, state, and federal levels to provide resources to assist those in need and help them live into their God-given dignity. We also want to have thriving institutions across the religious and nonreligious spectrum that strive for the common good. Because of our vision for shared justice, we are deeply disturbed at budget cuts that disproportionately affect the poor, where we can provide passionate defense of social programs without accusing others of hating the poor. This vision calls us to talk about restructuring, reimagining, or even cutting certain programs without treating them as sacrosanct. To do this we ask questions like: Is this program working as it should?  Is it functioning on the level of society (local or federal) that is most effective in promoting flourishing?

Rather than analyzing and amending programs, the proposed budget seems to challenge the whole idea of social programs.  So why should the government and Christians support social programs?  Those who advocate for these types of cuts often cite how other institutions within civil society will step into the gap. While this is partially true, this argument overlooks the fact that local institutions are the recipients of a large proportion of this federal money in the form of grants. They are supported by federal dollars. The proposed cuts stab deep into these programs. Despite inefficiencies in the system, money reaches local communities for things such as housing assistance, development projects, and Meals on Wheels. It is undeniable that President Trump’s proposed budget would have alarming consequences for countless people on the margins. The budget will have real impact on real people.

As a pastor I get to see the work of many government programs and nonprofits. They’re not perfect programs and institutions. They have serious flaws and can be better, but they are doing great work, too. They are remarkably creative in pursuing community health. That creativity and desire for maximum impact is why civil society institutions are so critical in these discussions. Churches, non-profits, development organizations, and others are working to help their communities flourish.  We would all be much worse off without them. 

What is the end goal? The end goal is human flourishing. That may seem broad, but so it must be.  We’ve bled so much good will and logic into budget wars that we have lost sight of these basic principles. Human flourishing doesn’t happen as well when inefficiencies are allowed to run unchallenged. Flourishing doesn’t happen when the rug is pulled out from struggling people. Many of these programs are well established and were set up for honorable reasons.  Most of them are probably in need of restructuring or accountability. Can we agree on those basic truths?  A focus on human flourishing will not solve deep disagreements, but it can reframe the discussion away from familiar accusations and chest-thumping to a place of common ground. 

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.