Follow the Money: Moral Conversations on the National Budget

By The Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Bouman

“Did you know that currently 53 cents of every federal discretionary dollar goes to military spending and only 15 cents is spent on anti-poverty programs?…Instead of waging a war on poverty we have been waging a war on the poor, at home and abroad for the benefit of the few.” – “A Moral Agenda,” Poor People’s Campaign

This week’s focus of the Poor People’s Campaign is about the resources dedicated to military strength and its relationship to mitigating poverty.  In a sermon preached at Riverside Church in Manhattan in 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made clear the connection between the war on poverty and the war in Vietnam.

“There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America.  A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle.  It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program.  There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings.  Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war.  And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” 

An early lesson in street level community organizing is if you want to know the root causes of issues and challenges faced by local and regional communities,  there is one simple axiom:   “Follow the money.”  Budgets are a primal form of values clarification: whether national, state, city,  congregation or family, the decisions you and I make every day about how we will use our resources reflect our values.

One of the things I find so heartening about the 2018 Poor People’s Campaign is that grassroots leaders and people of faith are willing to take to the streets to engage the architects of our budgets in a moral conversation to connect the dots between various issues.  They “follow the money” to paint a picture of why poverty is so pervasive and implacable.

Former President Jimmy Carter updates and pushes the connections King made in his sermon between military spending and poverty in his new book “Faith: A Journey For All.”  He reminds us that in 2017, “there were 240,000 American troops openly stationed in at least 172 foreign countries, plus more than 37,000 others in places classified as secret.  Meanwhile, as we spend millions on these outposts, our own “infrastructure gap” is the largest of the 50 richest nations.” ²

He also follows the money as he considers that the U.S. has the highest level of incarceration to support a booming prison-building and maintenance industry.  Additionally, our nation is the only one that has refused to ratify the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, primarily because this treaty prohibits execution for crimes committed by children.

We can also connect the dots and follow the money around immigration issues as we witness the militarization of our southern border.

This communal conversation about the common good and the well-being of every child of God is a superb way for the Body of Christ to accompany civil society with the Gospel.  It is a way that we can put legs on our baptismal covenant “to work for justice in all the world.”

¹ Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam.” April 4, 1967. Riverside Church, New York
² President Jimmy Carter, “Faith: A Journey for All.” Simon & Schuster, 2018.

The Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Bouman is the Executive Director, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – Domestic Mission Unit.

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