04/23/2012 06:12 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

4 Nonprofit Principles to Guide Deficit Reduction

Last week millions of Americans observed the time-honored tradition of waiting until the last possible moment to pay their taxes. But as IRS email servers are overloaded with the crush of personal income tax returns, the federal government faces the grim reality that not only will it spend $1.2 trillion more than it generates in revenue this year, but also that the national debt is projected to grow from $11 trillion to more than $15 trillion over the next ten years.

It's not that Washington hasn't noticed that this is a problem. In fact, the policy landscape in Washington has been dotted during the past 18 months by efforts to reduce annual deficits and stem the growth of our federal debt. We've witnessed the work of a presidential commission, multiple independent groups, the bipartisan "gang of six" senators, and a congressional Super Committee charged with formulating a solution that would pass muster in a divided Congress -- all without outcome. And we have witnessed the downgrading of America's credit rating as a result of Washington's inability to reach agreement.

As lawmakers seek to keep our country from plunging into another economic and financial crisis, this bitterly divided Congress must in the coming months also deal with federal government appropriations for 2013 and the expiration of highly controversial tax provisions at the end of this year -- including the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the estate tax, numerous corporate and individual tax breaks, and a popular 2 percent employee payroll tax cut.

Lost in the debate are likely to be the millions of families across the country who are still struggling in the face of 8.2 percent unemployment, a volatile housing market, and gasoline prices that exceed $4 per gallon. In 2010, more than 46.2 million people in the U.S. lived below the poverty line -- more than at any point during the five decades in which the U.S. Census Bureau has published poverty data. And sadly, the number of Americans living in poverty is projected to increase even more.

America's nonprofit community -- in many cases the last line of hope for those in desperate need of a meal or a safe place to sleep -- says enough is enough.

We understand the long-term consequences of failing to get our nation's financial house in order, and the imperative to reduce deficits and pay down our debt. And we understand that difficult choices will have to be made. But making difficult choices is not synonymous with making immoral choices.

It's time for policymakers to get down to the tough work of solving these problems, and doing so in a way that will not increase poverty or exacerbate income inequality. This is not a new concept; in fact it was a central component of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction recommendations. Neither is it an unattainable goal; all of the major bipartisan deficit reduction packages and automatic budget cut mechanisms of recent decades -- the 1985 and 1987 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings laws, the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act, the 1993 deficit reduction package, the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, and the 2010 pay-as-you-go law -- all exempted key low-income programs while they reduced spending and shrank deficits.

In fact, we are dramatically lowering the bar by asking Congress simply not to increase poverty. The 1990, 1993, and 1997 deficit reduction packages are notable for having improved the Earned Income Tax Credit, strengthened the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and created the Children's Health Insurance Program. Recent history has proven that we can in fact reduce poverty and expand low-income assistance programs while making progress toward long-term financial stability by reducing deficits.

Independent Sector has developed a set of principles to help policymakers in Washington undertake the deficit reduction in a way that will produce a fair, just, and effective solution. If you agree, sign our petition and let Congress know.