Few processes are more revealing of our commitments, our priorities, and our core beliefs than budgeting. This is true for individuals, families, institutions, and nations. How we spend our resources is a much more meaningful measure of what we value than our public declarations on the matter.

This is particularly true in tough times when there are fewer resources to allocate.

I have a good friend who has decided to get rid of their family’s second car. Though she and her husband work 30 minutes in opposite directions they are finding a way to make this crazy commute work. Why? Because they live a town with seriously underperforming public schools and they are absolutely committed to providing their daughter with a first class education. For them, this means private school tuition. So everyone is bracing for obscenely early mornings and far more inconvenient work schedules. They never thought twice about this priority.

I work at an elite, private university, but even we are feeling the crush of the economic downturn. This week I watched with pride as my president, Shirley Tilghman, explained that Princeton remains absolutely committed to providing some of the most generous financial aid packages in the country. There may be heftier workloads and fewer faculty resources, but President Tilghman will not allow financial pressures to alter her commitment to expanding opportunities in the ivy leagues beyond the wealthy elite. She has not wavered about this priority.

On Fridays my retired mother volunteers at our local crisis ministry. Every week she meets men and women who have lost jobs and homes. They are battling to find enough food to feed their families. Yet most of them talk to her about their deep commitments to family and community. They are pulling together and helping one another. Times are tough but they help their elderly neighbors get groceries home on the bus. They do not allow their poverty to duhmanize them.

Tonight President Obama presents his budget to the American people. The budget is more than a balance sheet. President Obama will ask us to evaluate our priorities in the face of economic crisis. He will question our resolve to improve education, offer equal opportunities, and provide for our neighbors despite the the terrifying deficits. He will ask us what we really believe.

Each of the stories I have told here could be eased with a collective national effort. All families should have quality public schools for their children. College should be more affordable for high achieving students. High quality, widely accessible public housing and elder care services can relieve burdens on the poorest Americans.

Budgets are choices. We can respond with fear and refuse to make long term investments in our country or we can choose to follow our highest ideals as Americans. President Obama will ask us what we believe.

How we respond will reveal who we truly are as a nation.