Budgets Must Focus on Human Needs and Human Rights

As the 2014 legislative session draws near, the necessity of a people’s budget becomes increasingly clear. The levels of poverty, homelessness and hunger in Vermont have continued to increase, while access to dignified work and education has continued to diminish. These conditions demand a new approach to public policy, one that directly addresses these human rights deficits.

In 2012, the Vermont Legislature took the first step toward a people’s budget by writing into law that the purpose of the state budget is “to address the needs of the people of Vermont in a way that advances human dignity and equity.” The Legislature went on to call out explicitly some of the most fundamental of these human needs, and they did so in an interesting way.

Spending and revenue policies will reflect the public policy goals established in state law and recognize every person’s need for health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security and a healthy environment.

In other words, both spending and revenue policies must be on the table in drafting the state budget, and the goal of every year’s deliberations is to address the fundamental human needs of the people of Vermont.

This week, legislators will return to the State House for a brief preview of the upcoming session, and they will be presented with a very different approach to crafting a state budget.

Instead of hearing about the current levels of unmet human need in Vermont, our elected representatives will be told about projected revenue deficits. Instead of hearing about which programs have been most successful at reducing unmet need, they will be told about the rising cost of public services.

They will be told that, to balance the budget, programs have to be cut. The Legislature’s obligation to address the human needs of the people of Vermont will be displaced by a process of blindly cutting public services to match “available” revenue.

This money-first approach is wrong. We expect our elected representatives to do better, and they can. A people’s budget offers a better approach, by providing clear goals, consistent principles and a sensible process for crafting the state budget. It is a process that puts people first.

We must begin by measuring unmet human need, so we can determine where our public policy efforts should be focused. We then must measure, in the same way, the success of chosen policy initiatives, so we can assess which programs work best at advancing human dignity and equity. This is what we mean by accountability: efficiently meeting unmet human need.

A state budget process that focuses both spending and revenue policy equally on addressing human need represents a change from the status quo. So does a process that defines accountability in terms of real outcomes that improve well-being. But the people of Vermont expect their elected representatives to be more than just the bean counters of an austerity agenda. We want the result of their deliberations to be public policy that advances human dignity and equity by directly addressing our fundamental human needs.

David Kreindler of the Vermont Workers’ Center lives in Middlesex.