Our greatest secular leaders share a special concern for the vulnerable with those of us in the faith traditions. They believe as we do that our country has an obligation to care for the poor and oppressed and that charity alone is not enough. It is one of the roles of government that all are served. But government cannot fulfill that obligation unless each of us pays our fair share of taxes.
Although the economy is recovering, many Arkansas residents are struggling, still unemployed or far behind in their bills. Arkansas faith-based organizations and other non-profits rely on federal funds to help these families. Federal commodity programs fill the food banks. Community organizations connect hard-working low-wage earners with federal tax credits and work supports that give them the extra boost they need to make ends meet.
The funds these organizations use to help families were already cut sharply last summer under federal deficit reduction legislation, forcing their members and partners to help more people with fewer resources.
Unfortunately, under the deficit law, funding for many human needs programs will be cut again in January — between 8 and 9 percent. As economists like Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics has said, these spending cuts will harm, not help, the economy. Instead, we need to help the "unheard third" of Americans who live below 200 percent of the poverty level. When they can afford to buy the necessities, their purchases will provide fuel for the economy.
Moreover, if we want a prosperous country in the future, we must invest in children and young adults today. When children are healthy and well-fed, they do better in school. When young adults are trained for a 21st century economy, businesses that need skilled workers will be able to expand.
There is a better choice than cutting investments in our future. The top 2 percent of earners (making more than $250,000 a year) can afford to give up some of the tax breaks they have benefited from during the past decade. Over the last three decades the income of the wealthiest has grown dramatically, while today the bottom 90 percent of earners are at their lowest income levels since 1983. Despite more concentration of wealth than at any time since before the Great Depression, the richest Americans are paying a smaller share of their income in taxes than they have in decades. Today many wealthy people pay less in taxes on a dollar of income than do families in the middle class.
If we let the extra tax cuts for the top 2 percent expire as scheduled in January, the result will be more than $80 billion in new revenue for 2013 alone.
Corporations also need to pay their fair share. Loopholes allow many corporations to pay little or no tax. For example, 26 Fortune 500 companies paid no net federal income taxes between 2008 and 2011.
All of this is now in the hands of Congress. In the coming months, we are likely to see votes on whether to cut human needs programs. We are also likely to see votes in the Senate and House on which of the Bush tax cuts to extend and whether we will further undermine the federal budget by giving the cuts to high income taxpayers and corporations. Congress needs to make meeting basic human needs a top priority when making these decisions. To achieve sustained economic growth, we need to invest in our young people and ensure that everyone is participating in our economy. Cutting programs that help those most in need makes no sense for our nation and our long-term economic growth.
Rev. Stephen Copley is the Chair of the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance. Max Brantley is on vacation.