Politics of Poverty

On what is essential and what is not

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Reflections on the US budget process

The looming “shutdown” of the federal government is an easy subject for cartoonists and late-night comedy monologues. Most of us dislike the government in general, but tend to like the government in specific. We like law enforcement, national security, checks in the mail (farm payments, social security, etc), roads, air travel, and space exploration.

While we don’t know exactly what is going to happen in the next few hours, the budget process says something about our relationship to the government and our values.

In the end, Americans and their politicians aren’t really willing to do without the government, no matter how extreme the political fervor or ideology. A “shut down” really only applies to some functions and activities and agencies of the federal government: the essential ones are continued unbroken.

So, the game becomes what is essential and what is not? That question is more subtle than you’d think–for example, Social Security payments are essential, so checks are cut and sent out to millions of recipients. Another example, raising government revenue is not, so the Internal Revenue Service is shut down. What’s essential depends on who you are, where you stand, and what your values are.

• Is delivering life-saving medicines to poor people who have HIV in developing countries essential?

• Is using development projects to win over hearts and minds in the Afghan war essential?

• Is providing support to the humanitarian response to refugees fleeing Libya essential? Or can that wait?

• Is funding education programs for poor girls essential? Or maybe that can wait until next year? Or never?

These are the difficult decisions in front of government bureaucrats and politicians in Congress as they clash over the budget and prepare to “shut down” the government.

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