Churches would need to raise $714,000 per year to fill in the gap from Trump’s poverty program cuts

That’s a lot of tithes.

CREDIT: AP/Jeff Chiu
CREDIT: AP/Jeff Chiu

When president Donald Trump unveiled his “America First” budget proposal earlier this year, conservatives such as Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) heralded it as a document that “prioritizes American taxpayers over bureaucrats in Washington.”

But a new analysis from Bread for the World, a faith-based anti-hunger group, argues the budget doesn’t prioritize the poor, and will require every religious congregation in the country to raise $714,000 a year for 10 years to offset cuts to programs that aid the needy.

“There is no way our country’s 350,000 religious congregations can make up for the cuts in the services that help hungry, poor, and other vulnerable people,” Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, said in a press release. “Congress should not justify budget cuts by saying that churches and charities can pick up the slack. They cannot.”

“Congress should not justify budget cuts by saying that churches and charities can pick up the slack. They cannot.”

Bread for the World’s report is a direct rebuke of a longstanding but little-discussed GOP axiom about how “small government” should work in practice. For years, Republican lawmakers have justified proposed cuts to federal programs that help the poor by insisting the impact on the needy will be offset by the work of local institutions — namely, churches.

“The notion that is often repeated by members of Congress, and by some conservative church leaders, is that [churches] are going to fill in, that they’re going to take over for government,” Beckman said in a separate interview with ThinkProgress. “It’s just nonsense.”

Ryan, in fact, trumpeted this exact argument when touting his proposed budget in 2012, which called for slashing $3.3 trillion over 10 years from programs that aid low-income Americans. He defended the cuts by championing an unusual interpretation of subsidiarity, an idea in Catholic theology.

“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities…that’s how we advance the common good by not having big government crowd out civic society…and take care of people who are down and out in our communities,” Ryan said.

CREDIT: Bread for the World
CREDIT: Bread for the World

It is true that churches, synagogues, mosques, and faith-based charities offer as much as $50 billion worth of services a year to the poor and needy. But Ryan and other conservative lawmakers often omit the fact that many religious anti-poverty initiatives rely on government funds to operate. Catholic Charities USA, for example, is one of the largest charities in America, and gets nearly half of its operating budget from federal funds.

Beckmann’s group put out a similar study about Ryan’s budget in 2012, but said Trump’s proposal is the “Ryan budget on steroids.”

“I don’t know of any church that can raise and give away $714,000 a year,” he said. “Even the megachurches can’t pull this off.”

Indeed, even accounting for the fact that Bread for the World’s sum is an average and not scaled to specific regions, fundraising is already a struggle for many churches.

“I don’t know of any church that can raise and give away $714,000 a year,” he said. “Even the megachurches can’t pull this off.”

“That’s more than double our annual budget,” tweeted a Methodist church in Illinois in response to Bread for the World’s figure.

Bread for the World is one of a growing number of religious organizations and faith leaders who have condemned Trump’s budget, most expressing dismay at how it will impact the poor here and abroad. In March, a group of more than 100 Christian leaders — many of the conservative — called on Trump to rethink his cuts to part of the foreign affairs budget that help “alleviate the suffering of millions.” Other groups such as Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, headed up by nun Sister Simone Campbell, also blasted Trump’s proposal as “not a faithful budget,” saying it “does not reflect the values and priorities of everyday Americans.”

The issue came to a head on Wednesday, when dozens of major faith leaders — including Beckmann— published a statement expressing concern about budget cuts and the GOP-led effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The group, called the “Circle of Protection,” was unusually broad, and included the signatures of leaders from across the theological spectrum — all challenging Trump’s budget.

“We do not support sharp increases to defense spending that are made possible by corresponding reductions in non-defense discretionary spending, particularly in programs that help poor and vulnerable people,” the statement read in part. “The biblical prophets teach us that our security depends in part on upholding justice for people in poverty.”