Thanksgiving behind us, we are now legitimately within the holiday season which, as it happens, is also budget season. At least for some of us.

The thing about budgets is they are more than just dollars and cents. They are value statements. Those of us who have served in the nonprofit sector are steeped in the maxim that a budget is nothing more than your mission statement with numbers attached. This sentiment was put far more poetically by Jacob Lew, former secretary of the U.S. Treasury, when he wrote, “A budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.”

It was with this concept firmly in mind that I set to work on my own. I won’t bore you with the details except to say that I feel pretty good about it. I think that in its own modest way, it does exactly what I would want it to and says what I hope it would say. It reflects the mission, expresses the values and supports the aspirations.

Now, I admit, my budget is easy. It is small, limited and focused. This same concept applies, though, to the big ones. After all, Lew was referring to the country’s budget – and it is hard to think of a larger set of numbers than the U.S. government.

So I urge you, for the sake of the exercise, take a moment to sit with the 2024 U.S. budget. It is pretty easy to find in an online search. You might want to get comfy first and have a favorite beverage on hand. Scintillating reading it is not, but it is worthwhile. Ask yourself, is this document an accurate reflection of our values? Of who we say we are?

Then – and this is where it actually does get interesting – apply the same process to the state budget (an analysis of which may be found at, and even more importantly, to your local municipal budget. Does the budget read like the values we attribute to our state? For your town? Are we funding the things we say we care about? Because as depressing and frustrating as it often is to wrestle the numbers, it is an honest reckoning.


The hard part is, of course, that there’s only so much money to go around. We can raise more through taxes or change where and how we spend what we have.

I write this against some scary news.

As we grapple with some massive questions about national identity, the New York City public library system recently announced a massive cutback in hours, services and programming as a result of budget cuts. New York City libraries are symbolic the world over for knowledge and equal access so the cuts are heartbreaking. Also chilling.

The upside to dysfunction is that it gives us all a moment to scrap things and start over. We can decide who and what we will be. What are our values, our aspirations? What will we support and what is the future we will build?

I hope that we choose wisely and build a future we will be proud to hand to our children, one filled with good food, good health, art, culture, education and well-funded libraries.

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