How Trump’s “America First” Budget Violates 5 Key Justice Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

This post began as a “top 5 shockingly immoral aspects of President Trump’s budget proposal.” The problem is that virtually the entire budget is shockingly immoral and unjust. Instead, I want to highlight 5 touchstones of Catholic Social Teaching on justice. I will provide one example of its violation; however, for every single one, you can find at least five instances of its violation in Trump’s ‘America First’ budget.

Human dignity can only be lived, realized, and promoted in community. The overarching frame for justice is justice as participation: Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons.” (Economic Justice for All, 77).

  1. Environmental Justice: “We’re not funding that anymore”

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis states, “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life” (23). In addition to acknowledging the scientific consensus, Pope Francis clearly articulates the obligation to care for creation, to protect access to needed resources for the poor and future generations – and to do so with extreme urgency. It is hard to imagine an American budget proposal more antithetical to Laudato Si than President Trump’s budget.  OMB Director Mick Mulvaney calls all programs addressing climate change “a waste of money,” and simply stated, “We’re not funding that anymore.” While the 30% proposed cut to the Environmental Protection Agency garners headlines, a closer look at the proposal shows that virtually every single program addressing climate change and rising sea levels—no matter the department—is on the chopping block.

  1. Distributive Justice: “Cannot justify their existence”

In Catholic theology, distributive justice is not optional. The Second Vatican Council stated: “The right to have a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The fathers and doctors of the Church held this view, teaching that we are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of our superfluous goods”(26). Repeatedly, the Trump administration seems to claim that we cannot afford many of the social protection programs aimed at distributive justice. The budget calls for eliminating the Community Development Block Grant program and $1 billion in programs aimed at low-income housing, home ownership, and community development from HUD. When he visited Washington, DC, Pope Francis could not have been clearer “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.” The cuts to Housing and Urban Development are just one example of many violations of distributive justice in this budget.

In 1986, Economic Justice for All explained the moral requirements of distributive justice and it remains applicable today:  “Minimum material resources are an absolute necessity for human life. If persons are to be recognized as members of the human community, then the community has an obligation to help fulfill these basic needs unless an absolute scarcity of resources makes this strictly impossible. No such scarcity exists in the United States today” (70).

  1. Contributive Justice: False “Compassion” for Single Moms & Coal Miners

Social justice is a term that seems vague; this is why Economic Justice for All’s explanation is so helpful. It states, “Social justice implies that persons have an obligation to be active and productive participants in the life of society and that society has a duty to enable them to participate in this way. This form of justice can also be called “contributive,” for it stresses the duty of all who are able to help create the goods, services, and other nonmaterial or spiritual values necessary for the welfare of the whole community” (71). Creating the conditions for greater participation by all is a moral responsibility and one where the Trump budget falls horribly short.

The Trump budget intends to cut programs for low-income college students (such as work study, which seems to directly contradict their belief in tying assistance to work), the Pell grant program, and training programs for teachers. Additionally, the Labor Department is on the chopping block, “The Trump administration proposed $2.5 billion in cuts for the Labor Department in a plan that would significantly reduce funding for job training programs for seniors and disadvantaged youth.” Slashing education programs and job training, programs that facilitate greater economic participation by the working poor—this is a violation of contributive justice.

Justifying these cuts based upon an ideological desire to cut the budget and cut taxes is also a violation of contributive justice. In one of the most humorous Mulvaney quotes, he asserts that single mothers would prefer to fund a border wall than PBS. I would love to see a national poll on that, as I suspect Mulvaney would be surprised.

  1. Preferential Option for the Poor: “Not showing any results”

During yesterday’s press conference, the OMB Director infamously stated that Meals on Wheels and After School Programs do not produce results. But what results could he possibly be talking about beyond assisting the vulnerable, which Meals on Wheels does very well? This budget seems to take a strong and pointed target at programs for the most vulnerable in our communities. A 21% reduction in discretionary spending at USDA is proposed, including 200 million from the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) nutrition program and eliminates the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education Program, which in 2016 helped feed 2 million people in developing countries.  The United States of America cutting food programs to vulnerable children in poverty at home and abroad is by its very definition a violation of the option for the poor. It is unconscionable and there is no reasonable economic, security, or moral argument for it. As the Washington Post reports, this budget “pulls the rug out” from the working poor, especially in rural communities.

In Economic Justice for All, the US Bishops remind us “The obligation to provide justice for all means that the poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation.” (86). It is a theme consistently emphasized by Pope Francis and the tradition as a whole. One cannot abandon the poor and remain in right relationship with God. And the human dignity of every person and the one human family means that any attempt to abandon the distant poor out of some nationalistic claim of “America First” is idolatrous and violates basic Catholic teaching.

  1. Global Justice: “This is a hard power budget”

The most striking element of the budget is its approach to global justice. The defense budget is increased by $52 billion, including significant new spending on arms, and of course the $2 billion for a border wall. At the same time, it cuts the State Department by 28%. I addressed cuts to all international climate change programs above; however, Trump’s budget reduces funding for the United Nations peacekeeping operations, foreign aid, international peace studies, the African Development Corporation…the list goes on. Rejecting “soft power” and diplomacy, Mulvaney announced, “This is a hard power budget.”

In 1963, after the world came to the brink of nuclear war, St. Pope John XXIII issued Pacem In Terris, laying out the deep connection between human rights and peace. In 1967, Pope Paul VI explained, “There can be no progress towards the complete development of the human person without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity” (PP43). That same year he began the World Day of Peace Messages.  This year’s was dedicated to active nonviolence as a way of life. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that:

“Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle while others have to make do as they can. Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority. The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised” (218).

Global justice requires the inclusion of the excluded. It requires dialogue and cultural exchange. It requires prioritizing human dignity and human rights—and it rejects winning peace “by strength” and through the mere accumulation of arms.  While the Catholic moral tradition includes pacifism, just war theory, and the responsibility to protect, the entire tradition endorses the call to love your enemies (Matthew 5), a preference for nonviolence, and disarmament, so that money that could be spent fostering integral human development is not wasted on unnecessary weaponry. Even when force is morally legitimate, the tradition looks to restrain force, avoid escalation, and seek a just peace (not merely a cessation of violence).

As Pope Francis stated in this year’s peace message, “Violence is not the cure for our broken world. Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world. At worst, it can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all.”

As a moral theologian, the only word that fits this proposal is: unjust. The budget is so extreme that it is not likely to get much traction in Congress. What comes out of Congress may be less extreme, but we must be vigilant and demand a moral budget that prioritizes justice for all.