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A False Choice: Fiscal Discipline or the Common Good

June 25, 2010, 3:23 pm | Posted by John Gehring

Yet again last night the Senate rejected efforts to extend emergency unemployment benefits and help states facing massive layoffs of teachers, firefighters, and other vital public employees. Emergency jobless benefits expired nearly a month ago, and more than 1 million people have had their checks cut off, according to estimates by the Labor Department. This number is expected to rise to more than 2 million people by the time Congress returns from its week-long break.

Don’t mistake this as a wonky, inside-the-Beltway sideshow starring penny-pinching deficit hawks battling tax-and-spend liberals. Helping those most devastated by an economic crisis – in large part caused by the greed and incompetence of Wall Street – is not an abstract ideological debate. This issue is central to the daily struggles of families living on the edge and, ultimately, to ensuring a just economy that serves the common good. Churches and faith-based organizations like NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, have been at the forefront of this fight because it cuts to the heart of values shared by diverse religious traditions.

Balancing concern about our rising deficit and the urgent need to maintain critical social safety nets should not drive us to make false choices. Politicos and pundits are very good at setting up simplistic caricatures – think “big government” v. the “free market” – that distort nuanced reality. Perhaps Congress can take a page from the Catholic intellectual tradition, which emphasizes both/and rather than either/or thinking. We should not have to sacrifice emergency help to states and struggling families on the altar of fiscal discipline. There is room to be prudent about fixing our nation’s disordered financial house without abandoning core values that make a society more than a disparate collection of individual interests. The common good is not a fluffy, philosophical abstraction. It’s about recognizing that our destinies are interwoven – what happens to our neighbors down the street or even across continents is never alien to us.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that without federal help state cuts could result in the loss of 900,000 jobs. Low-income families are already facing unemployment numbers worse than the Great Depression, as Bob Herbert pointed out in a New York Times op-ed back in February. The stakes are high. If our government can bail out corporations that gambled away the savings of hard-working Americans, surely public officials who tout their commitment to family values can find a way to throw a lifeline to those families caught in the roiling currents of this unfolding crisis.

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