Fighting for a U.S. federal budget that prioritizes peace, economic security and shared prosperity
Where do the 2020 presidential candidates stand on military spending?
Over 140 million Americans — or 43 percent of us — are poor or low-income, according to research by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Poor People’s Campaign. That poverty is compounded by the interlocking injustices of racism, militarism, and ecological devastation. It was caused not by poor personal decision making, but by massive public investments in policies that benefit a tiny few at the expense of the rest.
The good news? We have abundant resources to fix it, our Poor People’s Moral Budget report shows. All we have to do is get them out of the military, Wall Street, and the mass incarceration industry and into programs that actually work for the public.
The Institute for Policy Studies and the Poor People’s Campaign invited all 2020 presidential candidates to a June 2019 candidate forum to take questions from campaign leaders and poor people based on this research and their lived experiences. Nine Democrats attended. President Trump refused.
Military spending regularly consumes around half or more of the federal discretionary budget. That funds destructive overseas wars that don’t make anyone safer, while starving American communities of badly needed resources that would go much, much further at home.
We identified $350 billion that could easily come out of our extremely bloated military budget every year by winding down our endless wars, closing our hundreds of overseas bases, and refusing to subsidize military contractors. Even after these cuts, our annual military budget would still be larger than China’s, Russia’s, and Iran’s — combined.
Seven out of the nine 2020 candidates who attended the forum went on the record saying they would commit to Pentagon cuts: Andrew Yang, Elizabeth Warren, Eric Swalwell, Michael Bennet, Marianne Williamson, Joe Biden, Wayne Messam. The remaining two, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, were not directly asked.
Andrew Yang unequivocally agreed with our call to cut military spending.
“Are we spending too much on the military? Of course, we are. $750 billion that we know of on threats that do not actually apply to us in the current era. One hundred percent, we need to take some of that money and move it elsewhere.”
“ Do you remember voting for the $4 trillion bailout at wall street? I sure as hell don’t. Do you remember anyone looking around saying where is the money gonna come from? I don’t remember that either. I could not agree with you more that this is a battle between a mindset of scarcity which is, unfortunately, winning in our country and a mindset of abundance and inhumanity. “
Elizabeth Warren agreed that it was time to reorient our foreign policy away from endless wars.
“We need to cut our military budget. You know this is and there are multiple ways we should be thinking about this. We need a military and a department of defense that constantly isn’t just saying our plan is “more more more.” “How much can we absorb?” “How much more can we get?” No, we need to think of our budget in terms of our values.”
“One way we can deal with that budget is we need to stop the endless wars. No great nation fights endless wars.”
“We bring our people home, that is billions of dollars that we have to spend here at home on our people, on our future.”
“Every time we make an expenditure, I go back to this question about budgets. Every time we decide we’re spending money on this instead of that, we’re are making a very concrete statement about our values.”
“And for me, this is not about how to help a giant industry. This is not about how to make a department bigger and bigger and bigger. This is not about how to support endless wars. This is about how we build an America that is strong, that is vibrant, and that works not just for those at the top but works for everyone.”
“Where would I put that money? First, into schools.”
“Under my plan, school construction will be a federal infrastructure priority.”
“When it comes to pay for our military, I would rather see us pay our personnel better and take of our veterans after they serve than all of the money that’s going to defense contractors. That disparity in America has to change.”
“We’ve spent $5.6 trillion dollars on wars in the Middle East. That’s almost the $11 or $12 trillion dollars - by the way, did I say spend it? I meant borrow it from the American people and our children - to support tax cuts for rich people and the Middle East. And if we had spent that money differently than you think about spending that money, we could have put people to work fixing every road and bridge in America that needs to be fixed. With that money, we could have fixed the water quality not only in Flint, Michigan, but everywhere in America!”
“We could have raised the salary of every teacher in America by 50%.”
“On the question of the wars, if I could just say, if you’re 20-years-old now, you’ll have never known a time when the United States wasn’t at war. If we’re in Afghanistan two more years, we’ll have been there for 20 years. And I was here, I had a great privilege to debate on the Iran deal that President Obama put together, which was for once, for once, was an attempt by Washington to actually solve a problem, not go to war with it in the Middle East.”
Alone among the candidates at the forum, Marianne Williamson explicitly endorsed our call to cut $350 billion from the $700-plus billion we currently spend on the military every year. She paired that call with demands to repeal the Trump tax cuts and subsidies for fossil fuel companies.
“I would do the $386 billion cutting off of the military budget because that military budget does not represent our legitimate security needs. It represents short term profits for defense contractors and an endless preparation of war as opposed to real peacebuilding.”
“And every dollar that you spend on education and health does much more to create jobs than does military expenditure.”
“We should not be involved with a war in Yemen.”
“There is plenty plenty of money to go around. The first thing I would do as President is eliminate the President’s tax cut which added to the deficit $2 trillion.”
“I’m the guy the President put in charge of ending our presence in Iraq.”
“We had over 160,000 troops overseas. We took over and the President said to me, what are we going to do? We moved them down. We’re now down to one-fifth of that amount of people....So there is so many things we can do in terms of the military budget.”
“We spend in this country nearly 60% of our national budget on defense.”
“You gotta have the political will to be able to say that we will do without certain things without compromising safety. In other words, compromising our national defense to put towards the pressing needs of poor people.”
“Whenever we want a new warcraft, what happens? We buy it.”
“I’m not saying we neglect our national security...but there is a lot of waste and a lot of excessive spending on the defense side.”
Bernie Sanders was not asked about Pentagon spending, but did reference the military-industrial complex among other barriers to a moral budget:
“In my view, there will never be any real change in this country until there is a political revolution.”
“We have been going to parts of the country where Donald Trump won, and we say to those white workers: ‘you think African Americans and immigrants are your enemies? Well, you’ve got it backwards - take a look at Wall Street, the drug companies, the insurance companies, and the military industrial complex.”
Kamala Harris did not directly address military spending, but did address another aspect of our militarized budget: the prison system.
“Let’s also looking at the issue in the context of profit because you know it’s happening especially with this administration these for-profit private detention facilities and also all the money thats getting dolled out to private prisons and let's be clear about the business model shall we? The business model is for certain human beings to make money off the incarceration of other human beings.”
“As President, one of the first acts of business for me would be to get rid of these private detention centers and private prisons because we’ve got to take the profit margin out of the issue.”
The candidate forum was followed by a hearing before the House Budget Committee, where members of the Poor People’s Campaign testified about their experiences and urged members to re-prioritize funding that currently goes to the military, mass incarceration and immigration detention, tax cuts for the wealthy, and other injustices towards investments that would help all of us lead dignified lives.
As Rev. William J. Barber II told Congress while holding up our report, “we came here with a plan.” The Moral Budget is a powerful analytical and moral document that we’ll use for years to frame spending priorities, identify alternatives, and hold politicians accountable to poor and working people.
Several members of Congress indicated that this agenda would enjoy their strong support. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, for example, argued that there’s nothing unpatriotic about cutting military spending while listening to testifier Chris Overfelt, a veteran, describe how the Pentagon (and U.S. foreign policy more broadly) siphons money from taxpayers and poor people all over the world into the pockets of powerful corporations.
During plenary sessions at the Poor People's Moral Congress, IPS researchers spoke to over 1000 organizers about the intersections of militarism, poverty, racism, and ecological devastation.
John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, joined Moral Budget editors Lindsay Koshgarian of National Priorities Project and Shailly Gupta Barnes of the Kairos Center on a panel with other leading researchers to discuss the Moral Budget:
Phyllis Bennis of IPS spoke about embedding an anti-militarist and internationalist vision in the movement to implement a Moral Budget: