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Boost for funding in federal budget for human needs draws praise from advocates

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Folders with nutrition information are seen in the stock room at the Geisinger Food Farmacy - Shamokina in Coal Township, Pa., May 14, 2021. The $1.5 trillion federal budget for fiscal year 2022 passed by Congress and signed into law March 15 by President Joe Biden includes increased funding for long-standing nutrition programs such as Women, Infants and Children, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Emergency Food Assistance Program. (CNS photo/Hannah Beier, Reuters)

The $1.5 trillion federal budget for fiscal year 2022 passed by Congress and signed into law March 15 by President Joe Biden includes increased funding for key programs that Catholic advocates say will benefit low-income families.

From providing rental assistance to an additional 25,000 households to a boost in support for maternal health care, the budget contains a year to year spending increase of about 6.7% in domestic programs at a time when inflation is hitting poor and working-class families the hardest.

Allocations for housing, schools, workforce training, child care, renewable energy, biomedical research, and nutrition programs total $730 billion, some $46 billion higher than 2021. It’s the largest increase in nondefense programs in four years.

Defense spending comes in at $782 billion, about $2 billion more than Biden first proposed last spring. The amount is 5.6% above the 2021 level.

The legislation also provides $13.6 billion in additional humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine.

The boost in nondefense outlays marks somewhat of a turning point — for now — from recent federal allocation trends in which funding for domestic initiatives remained relatively flat.

“There has been over the past several years a lot of programs, when adjusting for inflation, that effectively have been cut. We want to be sure we get to adequate levels of support. This (budget) is a positive step in that direction,” said Julie Bodnar, domestic policy adviser in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Domestic Social Development.

Representatives of Catholic Charities USA and the Catholic Health Association of the United States as well as advocacy organizations echoed Bodnar in welcoming the bipartisan legislation, which covers the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

At the same time, they called on members of Congress to recognize the nation’s continuing responsibility to prioritize the needs of struggling families in future budget negotiations especially as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are expected to be felt long into the future.

Mercy Sister Mary Haddad. CHA’s president and CEO, welcomed the bipartisan support the omnibus appropriations bill received.

“The legislation provides support for our nation’s health and social safety net,” she said in a statement released March 14.

She identified additional Medicaid funding for U.S. territories as a key budget component. Health care providers in the territories received lower rates of Medicaid funding that the states.

CHA also welcomed a provision that temporarily extends telehealth waivers so that people enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program can more easily receive medical care during the continuing public health emergency declared by federal health officials.

The inclusion of conscience protections — namely the Weldon Amendment — will allow Catholic health care providers to serve their communities in accord with their ethical and moral beliefs, Sister Haddad said.

The Weldon Amendment, which protects discrimination of health care providers that do not provide, pay for, provide coverage of or refer for abortions, was kept in place after some lawmakers tried to eliminate it from the omnibus legislation.

The budget measure also included the Hyde Amendment, which first became law in 1976 to prohibit federal funds from being used to cover abortion or fund health plans that cover abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman would be endangered. It has been reenacted in spending bills every year since it was first passed.

On other fronts, Catholic advocates hailed increases for maternal health care, and postpartum care for ethnic minority populations as well as added funding for long-standing nutrition programs such as Women, Infants and Children, or WIC; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, previously known as food stamps; and the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

“We are always happy to see increased community investment,” Laura Peralta-Schulte, senior director of public policy and government affairs at the Catholic social justice lobby Network , told Catholic News Service.

However, Anthony Granado, vice president of government relations at Catholic Charities USA, expressed disappointment the budget law excluded an extension of a summer lunch program for children introduced early in the pandemic.

“I think part of the thinking (in Congress) is, ‘Well, the pandemic is going away so there’s not as much need.’ The pandemic may be going down as far as the virus itself, but the economic impact on families still remains.” Granado said.

Advocates also cautioned about the growing need for affordable housing nationwide. While housing programs overall received an additional $4 billion, the country faces the need to address widespread shortage of affordable housing, said Presentation Sister Richelle Friedman, director of public policy at the Coalition on Human Needs.

On the military side of the equation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s moves to impose restrictions on democracy in Hong Kong and its implied threats to bring Taiwan under its control undoubtedly influenced Congress to add billions more to the Pentagon budget.

The boost beyond Biden’s request concerned a group of 81 Christian theologians who in February, as Russian forces gathering around Ukraine in advance of a military assault, urged Congress to redirect any funding increase for the Pentagon toward accounts that address the roots of conflict and promote peacebuilding.

“Pouring billions more into the military … beyond even the level requested by President Biden, sends exactly the wrong message at this moment in history,” the theologians said in a letter to members of Congress.

Largely Catholic, the theologians cited Pope Francis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in calling for the redirection of new military spending to humanitarian needs and efforts to break “cycles of violence” and build “a more sustainable peace.”

While their request was seemingly ignored, Eli McCarthy, adjunct professor of justice and peace studies at Georgetown University, who helped draft the letter, told CNS March 16 that the war in Ukraine makes funding alternatives to violence all the more important.

“Clearly the presence of weapons and the increasing expansion of military alliances has created an experience of fear and threat which helped precipitate violence,” he said.

Already, the advocates are preparing for negotiations on the fiscal year 2023 budget. Biden is expected to send his spending plan to Congress by the end of March. They said they will scrutinize the proposal and offer their own ideas to Congress on important human needs that need attention.

“There’s always more room to grow,” Bodnar said. “We’re always going to say we want robust funding for these programs.”