The Morality of a State Budget

A lesson I learned in a church administration class 40 years ago is: a church budget is a moral document. Decisions regarding why and how to ask for money, and which ministries are funded—or not, are all moral decisions.

A state budget is also a moral document. A state budget represents conflicting decisions and interests, cobbled together, seldom pretty and never satisfying. That said, if you want to know how a state views its priorities—including who and what state government is for, and what the state’s role is in ensuring the welfare of its most vulnerable populations—look at budgets.

I invite religious congregations and other interested parties in Oklahoma to join in a project to develop, promote, and encourage the use of a set of moral principles for a just Oklahoma budget.

This project is the beginning of a long-term effort to influence the culture from which policy decisions and legislation are derived. In other words, the project’s work is upstream of the formal political process.

My opinion as a Christian who has lived in Oklahoma for a total of nearly 23 years is this: Oklahoma’s social fabric is too thin. Too many persons, families, and groups live needlessly in poverty, suffer from poor health, and endure dangerous living conditions.

We tolerate systemic racism, toxic individualism divorced from healthy communities, and gross inequities. Historically, we have enabled corporations to extract and export the state’s natural resources without considering the long-term impact of that exploitation on the air, water, and soil on which our lives depend.

It does not have to be this way.

I welcome feedback on the following statements and learning of your interest in the project:

Our faith traditions require us to be particularly attentive to and protective of people across the lifespan who live in poverty and who are most threatened in difficult times.

Moral principles for a just budget apply both in times of economic prosperity and of adversity. The principles are especially important in difficult times when the pressure for austerity and sacrifice can result in greater burdens laid on the backs of the poor and vulnerable.

Decisions to raise revenue, invest, and spend should strive to actualize these four moral principles:

Respect Connections, Protect the Vulnerable, Sustain for Generations, Fund Sufficiently

  • Respect all persons and our common home. All persons are treated with dignity and respect. The human community depends upon healthy soil, and clean air and water. The social, economic, and spiritual connections between Oklahomans and the land are recognized and strengthened by a just budget.
  • Protect our most vulnerable populations. The budget protects and lifts people living in poverty and all our vulnerable neighbors. A just budget provides opportunities for poor and vulnerable populations to participate in the economy and to prosper.
  • Make decisions for multi-generation sustainability. A just budget invests in the lives of the people and the environment by imagining, to the best of our abilities, what is good-just-sustainable for future generations.
  • Fund the state sufficiently to do the state’s work. A just budget reflects the state’s responsibility to ensure justice (social, economic, criminal) and promote mutual welfare and happiness. Markets, faith-based organizations, non-profits, and philanthropists are partners with the state in the work of justice and mutual welfare, but they cannot shoulder the state’s responsibilities.

Evidences of a Just Budget

Enacting a just budget creates a virtuous spiral. A just budget, invested and expended over time, would lead toward a prosperous state evidenced by:

  • Strong communities. Strong individuals flourish in healthy communities. Healthy communities are essential for raising healthy children.
  • Economic and social equity and equality. Actualizing the value of freedom for everyone requires the values of equality and equity.
  • Habits of lifelong learning. Formal education for lifelong learning is available through a robust ecology of public pre K-12 schools, colleges, universities, and private and public training programs.
  • Clean air, clean water, healthy soil. A healthy present and a strong future for many generations forward requires a regenerative approach to caring for the earth, our common home.
  • A robust infrastructure that facilitates business, education, and cultural exchanges. A few examples are well-maintained bridges and roads, universally available broadband, meaningful international relationships, and beautiful public spaces.
  • Well compensated, meaningful work. Work is valued and compensated by a living wage (not a minimum wage) that provides individuals and families the resources necessary for health and well-being.
  • Strong safety net. The state’s safety net assures a sustainable quality of living for individuals and families who, temporarily or permanently, are unable to earn their living in the work economy.
  • Public trust. A people’s trust in their government is earned through free and fair elections, truth-telling, ethical behavior, laws and policies fairly applied, transparent transactions, sufficient oversight, and meaningful legislative deliberation and citizen participation in the budgeting process.

    Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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