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When some yell 'scarcity,' time to act abundantly

The recent Republican plan to offset hurricane relief through budget cuts reflects an outmoded 'scarcity doctrine' that invites limitation in society. Applying a loaves-and-fishes 'abundance model' does the opposite. A small liberal arts college in North Carolina shows why.

By Donald E. Frey / September 28, 2011

Winston-Salem, N.C.

The US Senate may have passed a stop-gap spending bill Monday night, averting government shut down, but the controversy over disaster relief funds that sparked this latest bout of congressional gridlock remains relevant.

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A few weeks ago, on the heels of hurricane Irene and Texas wildfires, the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that it might not have funds to see it through the end of the fiscal year. In response, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor – who has since backpedaled from the statement – proposed that any new disaster relief funds must be offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

And though FEMA announced Monday that its funds will in fact see it through the end of the week (which is the end of the fiscal year), the idea that disaster aid would be subject to the balanced-budget principle remains unsettling.

Insisting on this principle betrays a certain worldview: Resources are scarce, and claims for resources always exceed what’s available. It’s a view beginning to dominate political decisionmaking in the name of deficit reduction, but it’s also a view that belies serious moral problems that may limit American society and prosperity. Seeing resources to deal with disaster relief, invest in the future, or meet other needs as scarce can undermine community and growth. But viewing resources and opportunities as abundant has the potential to transform neighborhoods and economies.

Mr. Cantor’s proposal, if not to be an empty gesture, had to allow for the possibility that hurricane aid would receive no funds at all. It creates a “zero-sum” game that would force every existing program to protect itself by opposing any new claims on a fixed budget, even if that means opposing emergency aid for hurricane victims.

Once scarcity becomes the lens through which individuals or institutions perceive everything, profound insecurity results. Lack may become acute. In a world of scarcity, aid to disaster victims threatens other programs’ funding and victims cease to be what they are: fellow citizens deserving aid in a time of need as an affirmation of the common good.

At the personal level, insecurity turns the colleague at work into a potential competitor for one’s promotion or raise, thus destroying collegiality and cooperation. It undermines the perception of neighbor as neighbor. People may initially withhold aid to their neighbor (or fellow countryman) on the grounds of perceived scarcity, but soon they may need to rationalize the non-response further. One such rationalization is to blame the victims for their own woes. In the case of disaster relief, this rationale says, “Well, they chose to live in the path of a hurricane. That’s not my problem.” The scarcity model thus erodes the attitudes that undergird community, whether at the institutional or personal level.


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