August 20th, 2019

Guest Commentary: Building a Moral Economy

By Rev. Debbie Ingram
Vermont Interfaith Action’s Executive Director

For centuries, people of faith, through their churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, have provided charitable assistance to the poor. All faith traditions agree that it is a central value to care for the poor among us, and most of us do it more out of a sense of the joy of giving than out of obligation.

But there comes a point when people of faith must stop and ask themselves, “Why is there so much need that our help to the poor has become an endless stream of charity? Is there no justice so that individuals can enjoy the dignity of meeting their own needs?”

We at Vermont Interfaith Action (VIA) have reached that point.

As a result, the Clergy Caucus of VIA began a “Movement Toward a Moral Economy” during the summer of 2014, and we have ramped up this campaign in 2015. Our clergy wrote a document outlining the shared faith tenets that underlie a moral economy – one in which all work is viewed with dignity, those who can work have the opportunity to work, those who cannot work are accorded respect, and all of us accept responsibility to care for the environment in which we live and work. We believe these underlying tenets have implications for an economy where the state invests in education and job training for all, infrastructure to support businesses, housing that is affordable for workers, and services that provide for the common good, like health care, and where businesses, in turn, are required to pay a livable wage.

VIA clergy are taking this message across the state to raise the awareness of everyday people and legislators alike. Partnering with Public Assets Institute, a public policy organization that analyzes how the budget affects ordinary Vermonters, our message has been that even in progressive Vermont the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, and an unacceptable number of Vermonters can’t make ends meet—for example, the 53 percent of single mothers with children under age 5 who lived below the poverty level last year. VIA wants to reverse these trends and create an economy where all Vermonters have the opportunity to earn a decent living and support their own families, without having to resort to charity month after month.

Every year when the Governor prepares the state budget, we hear that revenue is down and expenses are up. We are told that departments must cut services or level-fund them. Ordinary citizens, however, are not given all the facts – and even our legislators don’t have all the information. What will it cost to provide the services to which the state has already committed? Commissioners and department heads must figure out what those numbers are, but the Governor’s office does not make them public. This budget that describes how much it would cost to actually provide the services that the state has already committed to provide is called a Current Services Budget. In 2012, the legislature voted to have the Governor publicly publish that budget every year, but it has not yet been provided.

We at Vermont Interfaith Action feel that requesting the Governor to publish the Current Services Budget is one first, manageable step in the direction toward a moral economy – because we can use it as the baseline for an honest discussion about what we have agreed to spend our collective funds on, what the true constraints to doing that are, and what alternatives we might find together.

VIA is leading a grassroots movement to communicate to our legislators and the Governor’s office that our economy needs to work for everyone, not just the wealthy few. This is not only the most important public policy consideration of today, but also the greatest moral concern of our time.

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