The US national budget is a theft from the poor

Budgets are moral documents. They reflect ethical judgments about priorities and what we consider most valuable. By this standard, the US national budget fails the moral commitment to help the poor by consistently prioritizing weapons and military programs over the broader needs of society. More than half of all discretionary spending in the US budget goes to the Pentagon, dwarfing expenditures for public health, housing, transportation, environmental protection and other programs to improve social well-being.

The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which became law in January, provides $740 billion for the Pentagon. Actual military spending is even higher. By some calculations, the annual cost of military programs and operations is in the range of $1 trillion. Not included in the NDAA, for example, is approximately $25 billion for nuclear weapons programs that fall within the Department of Energy budget. A full accounting of military costs would also include a portion of the $243 billion annual budget of the Veterans Administration, which provides support for former members of the military and their families and includes disability payments for a rising number of veterans from the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

High levels of military spending have persisted in the United States for many decades. A vast national security system has come to dominate political decision making in Washington, locked in place by an iron triangle of vested power interests and sustained by federal largesse. As Andrew Bacevich has written, the military industrial system remains ascendant regardless of who is in office or which political party has power. It consistently absorbs the largest share of national resources and technological capacity, and it is sustained by cultural myths that make the military the most trusted institution in American society and the arms budget practically impervious to challenge.

War as enemy of the poor

Former President Dwight Eisenhower warned decades ago of the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” implicit in a permanent military industrial establishment. He described high levels of arms spending as “a theft from those who hunger and are not fed” amid an ever-present threat of war, with “humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” His words of caution were ignored as military spending continued to rise and Washington found itself mired in the quagmire of Vietnam and now in endless war in the greater Middle East.

Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the Vietnam War as an enemy of the poor and opposed it as such. The government would never invest the necessary funds to help those in need, he said, as long as Vietnam continued to draw people and skills and money like “some demonic destructive suction tube.” King spoke of the structural linkages of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism, “the triple evils” he called them. He gave moral meaning to his analysis when he famously said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Considering Catholic teaching

Catholic social teaching has long expressed concern about the consequences of excessive arms spending. The Catholic Church’s objections to the nuclear arms race are rooted in two factors: the immorality of threatening indiscriminate mass annihilation and a concern for the diversion of vast resources to preparation for war rather than for the betterment of society.

One of the foundational documents of Church teaching on peace is Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris. Written in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis, the papal injunction notes with “deep sorrow” that the production of “enormous stocks of armaments” requires “a vast outlay of intellectual and economic resources.” The arms race threatens life not only through the destructive potential of nuclear conflagration but in the more subtle, slow motion effects of economic depletion.

This teaching was confirmed in Gaudium et Spes, the pastoral constitution of the Church in the Modern World that was adopted from the Second Vatican Council in 1964. It describes the arms race as “an utterly treacherous trap for humanity . . . which ensnares the poor to an intolerable degree.” Disarmament is necessary to protect the right to life and enable a redirection of resources to serve the needs of the poor.

Arms spending and its burden on our economy will not change until there is a fundamental change in US international security policy.

Pope Francis supported and deepened these Church teachings. He follows other pontiffs in condemning the use of nuclear weapons but has also declared the very possession of such weapons immoral. In his most recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Francis calls on world leaders to reduce military spending and redirect resources to programs that meet human needs. “How many resources are spent on weaponry,” he asks, “that could be used for more significant priorities such as ensuring the safety of individuals, the promotion of peace and integral human development, the fight against poverty, and the provision of health care.”

In his earlier groundbreaking work, Laudato Si’, Francis broadens the moral framework to prioritize creation care and environmental protection. He links the crisis of the planet to the exploitation of the poor, and calls for new forms of solidarity in support of human dignity and the protection of all forms of life.

The new administration in Washington offers hope for different budget priorities and greater funding for economic development and social opportunity here at home. It is unlikely that Pentagon spending will change much, however. The new administration may alter some programs, but the overall scale of arms spending and its burden on our economy will not change substantially until there is a fundamental change of direction in US international security policy. No such reappraisal is on the horizon but it is urgently needed.

A shift in budget priorities requires a restructuring of society, Dr. King said, to overcome the triplet of racism, economic exploitation and militarism. It means accepting the call of Pope Francis and the Church to focus on serving the poor and saving the planet rather than constantly preparing for war. Achieving these goals will depend on ending the diversion of resources from human needs to the Pentagon and reorienting budget priorities to build a more just and sustainable society.


David Cortright is director of the Global Policy Initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development. 

Photo: B61 Nuclear Bomb (edited)” by rocbolt is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.


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