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Want to help Colorado’s poor? Stop fossil fuel subsidies

by Rev. Dr. James Ryan and Bradley Wood

The piece appeared in The Denver Post on May 22, 2013.

What does Head Start have to do with big oil, or protecting creation with balancing the federal budget? A lot more than you may think. With massive automatic spending cuts to the federal budget — known in D.C. as sequestration — going into effect, there’s been a lot of talk recently about airline delays and cancellations, and even some discussion about cuts to social programs.

What’s not being discussed is how each of these cuts represents a moral choice that reflects our values as a nation. Take as a prime example our approach to fossil fuel subsidies and programs that benefit struggling families here in Colorado.

Every year as a nation, we give $10.17 billion in subsidies and tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry making record profits. While budgets are complicated matters, and no solution is simple, if Congress is looking for a way to reduce our deficits, this could be a good place to start.

Instead, they have chosen to let sequestration take effect, creating devastating consequences for low-income families and children in Colorado. Some of the specific programs being slashed are ones that provide food for infants and nursing mothers, accessible health care for children, and Head Start. These cuts are not a mathematical inevitability. They are a product of the choices we make. 

One of the consequences of the sequester has been a cut in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which provides food for struggling mothers and their children. Affecting over 600,000 women and their families in the United States, the sequester cuts will mean over 7,000 families in Colorado will be denied access to WIC. Meanwhile, we are preserving a foreign tax credit that gives $850 million to oil companies each year. Closing this loophole would more than cover the costs of WIC and provide a life line to pregnant women, infants, and young children. Instead our current system values the profits of oil companies over the lives of our citizens.

Another vital program affected by the sequester is Head Start, which helps children in low-income households by providing early childhood education. Studies indicate that there are both academic and social benefits to Head Start programs, including increased employment rates and a decreased likelihood of incarceration. The loss of $4million worth of funding will result in 1,375 fewer children in Colorado having access to early childhood education. Instead of cutting Head Start the government could repeal the $1.73 billion manufacturing tax deduction given to the fossil fuel industry each year.

Some might worry that removing subsidies from fossil fuels would lead to higher consumer prices for oil and gasoline. But this is not the case. Economists project that the removal of subsidies would lead to at most a one cent per gallon increase in the price of gasoline. Other studies suggest that because the price of oil is set on a world market the removal of U.S. subsidies would have no impact on gas prices.

For a fraction of the $10.17 billion a year we spend on fossil fuel subsidies, we could prevent cuts to vital programs that provide a lifeline for the millions of working poor families in our country. In the Gospels, Jesus says where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. Budgets reflect where our treasure is and what we truly value. So where do our hearts lie? Is it with parents and neighbors struggling to make ends meet, or the fossil fuel companies making record profits? The choice is up to us.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the positions of Oxfam America.

Rev. Dr. James Ryan is the Council Executive of the Colorado Council of Churches. Jim entered the ministry in 1974 after a career as a systems analyst. He served as Senior Minister of First Christian Church located in Des Moines, IA, then as Executive Director of the Ecumenical Ministries of Iowa. He served on the staff of Central Christian Church, Denver until 2006. In Colorado, he has served on the Board of Directors of Housing Justice!, Colorado Interfaith Voices for Justice, Eco-Justice Ministries, and is the founder and convener of the Colorado Interfaith Roundtable. Several of his works have been published.

Bradley Wood is the Director for Lutheran Advocacy Ministry - Colorado. Previously he worked as the Executive Director with Hunger for Justice: Interfaith Voices Against Poverty, and with Metro CareRing, a Denver food pantry. Brad has advocated primarily on issues of affordable housing, criminal justice, and healthcare during his years of service. He now works with Lutheran Advocacy Ministry to help grow the network of churches and individuals called to advocacy ministry. He is a member and serves on the Church Council at Our Savior's Lutheran Church, Denver. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+