When it Comes to Budget Cuts, Who is Our Neighbor?
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
December 2011

Most of us know the story of the Good Samaritan, but we often overlook that Jesus told the story as an answer to a specific question.

Luke tells it this way:

There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan and then asks the scholar: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The scholar answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Note that Jesus never directly answers the scholar’s question. He reverses the roles, putting the scholar in the place of the victim. If you were the victim on the side of the road, who would you consider a neighbor? In a sense, Jesus is telling us not to ask who is our neighbor or, if we must ask, we are to put ourselves in the place of the person in need. A person truly in need does not care about the status, race, nationality, past acts, or even the visibility of the person giving help. When giving help, we should try to do likewise.

Christ’s message is also relevant to the debate over the federal budget, especially with regards to foreign poverty programs. Tackling the federal budget and deficit problems will require tough choices. Unfortunately, some proposals in Congress disproportionately impact the least of our neighbors in poverty-stricken countries.

Americans vastly over-estimate how much we spend on foreign aid. Most think that foreign aid accounts for 15% to 20% of the federal budget. When asked how much of the U.S.
should spend on foreign aid, Americans usually say about 10% of the budget. Here’s the truth: Less that one percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. Indeed, in Fiscal Year 2010 only about 0.6% of federal spending was for foreign assistance.

Here’s another truth: This is real aid that makes a difference in the lives of the poor, not questionable assistance to governments or imperialistic population control. It is aid that, when leveraged with charitable organizations like Catholic Relief Services, literally saves lives.

In the zeal to reign in federal spending, these programs already took an eight percent cut in 2011. Now House leaders are proposing additional cuts that would reduce these programs 20% from 2010 levels. Some programs would face over a 40% reduction.

Very few question the need to curb federal spending, but are these disproportionate cuts to foreign poverty and humanitarian programs an example of seeing “neighbor” in our eyes rather than through the eyes of those in need? When making cuts, is it just too easy to start with those who we will probably never see?

Food and aid organizations from different faith traditions are asking Congress, especially the Senate, to treat everyone as our neighbor. If cuts must be made, they should be made proportionally across the entire federal budget and not fall disproportionately on the world’s poor.

As a Christmas gift to your neighbor, contact Senators Kent Conrad and John Hoeven and ask them maintain the levels of life-saving poverty-focused international assistance and to oppose any amendments that would cut poverty-focused international assistance.