Remembering the Common Good in Times of Financial Crisis

A Policy Statement Adopted by the NC Council of Churches House of Delegates, November 12, 2002

The Situation

Our state continues to face budget shortfalls. Each of the past three fiscal years has seen a shortfall of $1 billion or more (out of a total budget of about $14 billion).

It is worth recalling how we came to these budget crises. First and foremost, the General Assembly and the Governor enacted major tax cuts, most of which primarily benefited people in upper income brackets. Those cuts, which were initiated in the mid-’90’s and phased in over a period of several years, now amount to an estimated $1.5 billion per year. That is $1.5 billion in revenue that the state would be receiving but for those tax cuts.

A second reason for current shortfalls comes from programs initiated in the ’90’s and now fully funded. These include Smart Start and increases in teacher salaries, both worthy efforts, but not inexpensive. Third, the state’s budgets were thrown out of kilter when, in short order, the state lost two large lawsuits which together cost about $1.2 billion and then got hit by Hurricane Floyd, which cost the state budget more than $800 million in unexpected spending. Most recently, the nation’s recession and a sharp increase in health care costs have hit the state budget.

In each year of budget shortfalls, efforts have been made to fix the problem solely through cuts in spending. These proposed cuts have seemed most draconian and inhumane in programs to help people with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse problems. But they have also impacted education, environmental protection, health care, abused children, and, in fact, virtually the whole spectrum of vulnerable people assisted by the state. While advocates for these people have succeeded in protecting some services by persuading legislators to raise revenues, many of these revenue-enhancers have been regressive in nature, falling disproportionately on people of low income.

Throughout these budget discussions (and in similar debates at the national level), it seems that public policy decision-making is increasingly being driven by self-centeredness, what is best for me, for myfamily, for my company. What seems not to get enough attention is the importance of the common good in these matters.

For People of Faith

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that their possessions were their own, but they had everything in common.  With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all.  There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need (Acts 4:32-35).

Faith demands that the basic ordering of society has as its goal the promotion of the common good. Grounded in the fundamental dignity of every human being – just by their being – the common good is the sum total of all those conditions of social living and exchange that make it possible for every man, woman, and child to readily and fully achieve the perfection of their humanity.  The common good at once realizes the uniqueness and giftedness of every person and maintains that, because we are social in nature, the individual is bound to and benefited from others.

Marks of the common good are

  • mutual exchange and participation of all members, with rights and responsibilities for each;
  • subsidarity which empowers decision making at the smallest organizational level;
  • shared and celebrated solidarity experienced at all levels of social organization – family, community, state, nation, world;
  • support and encouragement for one another; and
  • with an end to the fullness of all for the glory of God.

Finally, the common good maintains a preferential option for and with people who are  poor and vulnerable, just as God in Christ has taught and lived.

Under the light of life ordered to the common good, it is abundantly clear that people come first above all else.  Economics, technology, government, education, must be at the service of the people – all people – and not the other way around.  Indeed nations will be judged according to how they serve all, and how the least among them fare.

Every person is created in the image and likeness of God.  We are each a breath of God, given life in relationship with our Creator and each other for the participation in creation itself.  When one person is diminished, everyone is diminished.  The common good then orders right relationships through which creation and its fruit flourish, because God’s people flourish.

Because of human sin and selfishness, the common good is always at risk, and the best of governments can quickly turn callous.  Therefore, to uphold the common good of society, political, economic, and social structures depend on human hearts that have turned from selfishness, pride, and greed.  Human hearts require conversion, a need to see and treat other people not as objects but as brothers and sisters of a common loving God.

In our times, a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of all persons, without exception, and to actively help them when they come across our path, whether they be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience by recalling the voice of the Lord, “As long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me” (Matthew 25:40).

Recommendations

Many of the Council’s legislative positions over the years have been grounded in our support for the common good, and we now reaffirm these positions:

  • a system of taxation which is progressive and which raises enough revenue to meet the needs of the state’s most vulnerable residents
  • elimination of tax loopholes which benefit some corporations or individuals at the expense of others
  • opposition to a state lottery
  • adequate funding for community-based services for people with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse needs
  • access to basic health care for all residents
  • quality education for all, regardless of income or residence
  • implementation of a living income
  • programs for people in poverty which treat them with respect and help them move, where feasible, towards self-sufficiency
  • a criminal justice system designed to protect society while successfully reintegrating most offenders back into local communities
  • protections for migrant and seasonal farmworkers
  • availability of affordable housing
  • care of God’s earth

It is our belief that our state’s budget problems will be best resolved if our debates can shift away from arguments of self-centeredness and toward promotion of the common good.

Recommended:

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The Council enables denominations, congregations, and people of faith to individually and collectively impact our state on issues such as economic justice and development, human well-being, equality, compassion and peace, following the example and mission of Jesus Christ. Learn more about our work here: www.ncchurches.org/about

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