Letter to U.S. Senate on FY2004 Federal Budget, March 21, 2003

March 21, 2003

The United States Senate
Washington, DC

Dear Senator:

The Congress faces many difficult choices in fashioning the federal budget for the coming year.  Our nation is confronting war and terrorism, seeking greater security for our people, and facing higher unemployment and rising deficits.  As President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I write to make a simple plea—do not overlook or neglect the needs of the poor and the vulnerable in the federal budget.

We are pastors, not budget experts or economists.  However, we remind all of our leaders, whatever their party or ideology, that a fundamental moral measure of our nation's budget policy is whether it enhances or undermines the lives and dignity of the most vulnerable members of our society.  Poor children and families of modest means do not have powerful lobbies, but they do have compelling needs and deserve priority as you allocate resources and burdens in the coming fiscal year. 

Preserving an adequate safety net for the poor and vulnerable may not command as much attention as homeland security, tax cuts, and military expenditures, but it is a fundamental moral obligation of a responsible society.  We want to work with you to secure adequate resources to address hunger and homelessness, the needs of the jobless, and those trying to escape welfare, educate their children, or gain health care coverage.  We also want to work with you to increase substantially international development assistance, to improve dramatically our nation's response to the health and food crises in Africa, to provide additional relief for the poorest people of the earth, and to provide assistance and protection to increasing numbers of refugees worldwide.  The addendum to this letter lists the domestic and international programs which we understand will be impacted by the parameters of the 2004 budget process, and our recommendations.

We believe one of the most basic purposes of the tax system is to raise the necessary revenues to pay for the common needs of our society.  At a time when many social needs continue to go unmet, we cannot ignore the question of adequate federal revenues.  We urge you to ensure that any tax proposal adopted will not abrogate our obligation to respond to basic human needs now and in the years to come.

Our bishops' conference has been a strong and consistent supporter of the President's community and faith-based initiative because we believe that putting more resources in the hands of these local groups will help them fight poverty, substance abuse, homelessness, and other seemingly intractable problems found in too many of our neighborhoods and communities.  However, these groups on their own cannot make these communities whole.  They complement but do not substitute for publicly funded assistance programs that provide for basic needs such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, and housing assistance.  Support for the work of faith-based and community groups, to be meaningful, must be accompanied by a commitment to adequate federal funding of these programs.  The erosion of funding for these programs will undermine the safety net that allows many families to survive when they are temporarily unemployed or have recently left the welfare rolls.
The federal budget is more than a fiscal plan; it reflects our values as a people. Your budget choices have clear moral and human dimensions. In these tough times, with war, the struggling economy and persistent unemployment, mounting deficits, and the demands of homeland security, our Conference could not support a budget plan that neglects the needs of the "least of these" in our nation and world.

With best wishes, I am

Sincerely yours,

Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory
Bishop of Belleville


Domestic Concerns

  • We urge that the budget resolution fully fund the $1.3 billion increase in the Social Services Block Grant contained in the Charity Aid Recovery and Empowerment Act (CARE).
  • We urge that you follow the President's lead and set aside at least $89 billion over 10 years to expand health care coverage for the uninsured.   While we have expressed some concerns regarding the specifics of the President's tax-credit proposal, we agree Congress should earmark at least this amount to address the crisis of the uninsured.
  • We urge that any proposal to advance or expand the size of the child credit must include refundability, so that families of modest means do not fall further behind.  Along the same lines, we support simplifying and expanding the popular and effective Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits so many low income families.
  • While the FY04 Administration's budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development has some positive aspects such as the consolidation of homelessness assistance, and an increase in the HOME program, it does not adequately address the nation's serious housing problems.   We urge you to reject proposals to reduce existing housing resources, and unnecessarily change the housing choice voucher program.
  • We urge you to oppose the cuts called for in the House budget resolution to the child nutrition, Food Stamp, and emergency food assistance programs, and to allocate sufficient new funding, to strengthen and improve child nutrition programs.
  • We urge you to oppose the 10 percent reduction in Farm Bill spending as proposed by the House budget resolution.
  • We urge you to oppose proposed cuts in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, as well as any changes fundamentally altering Medicaid as an entitlement to health care for low income families, the elderly, and the disabled.  Congress should provide immediate fiscal relief to states to prevent erosion of health care coverage under Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).
  • We urge you to fulfill the promise of full funding of special education.   While Congress is currently setting the fulfillment of this goal at 2010, the budget resolution falls well short of the funding needed to achieve such a goal.  We urge you to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at the level long promised by Congress, increasing the state grants by $2 billion over FY 03.  Because Catholic school children with disabilities receive services under IDEA only through the federal portion of the funding, fulfilling the agreement to meet the full funding goal is crucial to achieving the equitable participation of these children.
  • We urge that the budget resolution address the issue of school innovation and choice at a funding level significant enough to bring about real education reform. The current '03 funding of $382 million under Title V, Part A of No Child Left Behind, when distributed across the states, does not provide adequate funding to assist school districts with empowering parents to exercise choice or provide enough resources to spark innovation and improvement.
  • We urge you to provide $554.2 million for the Department of Health and Human Service Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for assistance for refugee and asylee entrants.  In addition, ORR should receive $15 million for human trafficking programs, $15 million for services to victims of torture, and $50 million for the care of unaccompanied alien children, a program transferred to ORR pursuant to the Homeland Security Act of 2002.
  • In the new Department of Homeland Security, we urge continued funding to help eliminate backlogs in an array of immigration adjudication categories as well as for alternatives to detention and legal orientation presentations for detainees.  These funding streams were included in the FY 2003 budget for the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

International Concerns

  • The International Affairs budget as passed by the House Budget Committee is woefully underfunded.  We urge you to support full funding of the President's request ($18.8 billion) for foreign operations.  This request includes important new initiatives proposed by the President—the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) and the HIV/AIDS initiative—that we believe must be adequately funded during this budget cycle.
  • We urge you to support the $1.3 billion which the President has proposed for the MCA in FY04, and, in view of the pressing needs of the millions of poor in Africa who will not benefit from the MCA, we urge an increase of $1 billion over the President's proposal for Africa-focused poverty reduction programs.
  • In light of the critical need for immediate action, we urge at least $3 billion for morally and culturally responsible programs to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.  HIV/AIDS prevention programs which promote behavioral change so as to attain responsible and mutually respectful relationships should be fully funded.
  • We urge support for the same level of PL 480 Title II funding in FY04 as was appropriated in FY03, $1.44 billion, in order to meet the requirements of the law, which calls for 75% of Title II food aid to be used in programs that tackle the underlying causes of chronic hunger, and to be able to respond to the emergency needs in Africa and elsewhere.
  • We urge increased funding for the Migration and Refugee Assistance and Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance accounts to bring total funding to $927 million and $50 million, respectively.
  • We urge you to adopt at least the funding levels requested by the President for the seven development assistance accounts in the foreign operations budget.  The failure to replace the funding removed by the House Budget Committee from these international programs will endanger the effectiveness of these programs and should not be permitted.