Jennifer is the founding CEO of Faith in Public Life. Before leading FPL Jennifer spent ten years working in the field of international human rights representing the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the United Nations and is an ordained minister.
Yesterday Pope Francis issued a devastating moral critique of our economic system, saying in part:
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
This inequality is alive and well in our own backyard. For example, Walmart — the nation’s largest employer — pays their American workers an average wage low enough to qualify for SNAP benefits for a family of three. Employees at a Walmart in Ohio even collected holiday food donations for the store’s own poverty-wage employees this month. Meanwhile their shelves are stocked with products manufactured in life-threatening conditions by workers trapped in abject poverty, and the company founder’s family is the richest in the world.
Walmart is by no means alone. Squeezing the vast multitude of workers while racking up huge profits and doling out staggering salaries to a tiny corporate elite is a feature, not a bug, of the entire economic order. Human beings are treated as if they exist to serve the system, rather than vice versa. It’s a crisis of values.
There are hopeful signs that alleviating the suffering is becoming a higher priority in Washington. For example, the Senate will vote next month on raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. Don’t get me wrong – this is just one step towards a pro-familiy economy that truly values the dignity of work.
And in a sorely needed break from the bipartisan obsession with fiscal austerity that has gripped Washington in recent years, Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently took to the Senate floor to call for expanding Social Security benefits instead of cutting them like leaders of both parties proposed earlier this year. At a time when one-third of Americans near retirement age have no retirement savings to fall back on, Warren is 100% right about the need to change the debate instead of succumbing to false choices. As Francis argued yesterday, it’s a matter of life and death that demands our concern and action.
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While House Republican leaders continue dragging their feet and making excuses for blocking a vote for immigration reform, more than 1,000 people are deported every day and millions live in fear that they’ll be next. The time has come for dramatic action to awaken consciences on Capitol Hill.
This week faith and immigrant leaders began the Fast For Families, A Call for Immigration Reform & Citizenship just yards away from the U.S. Capitol on the national Mall. Clergy and activists will abstain from food and pray continually to move the hearts of lawmakers. This is an incredible display of commitment. Some participants will fast for several days, and others are pledging to fast until their bodies can no longer go on.
At the kick off event yesterday, I heard participants invoke not only Scripture, but also Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez – all of whom fasted as part of their historic struggles against oppression. Those who casually dismiss immigration reform’s chances fail to recognize the profound moral stakes we face at this moment. We refuse to let opportunistic politicians stand idly by while immigrant families are shattered.
Tonight I’ll be joining Rev. William Barber II, the leader of the Moral Mondays movement, for a prayer service with the fasters and 60 young immigrant families.
If you’re in DC, please join us at 5:00 PM at the corner of 3rd St and Jefferson Ave, SW. Even if you can’t make it, you can still support this movement by signing up for a one-day solidarity fast, visiting the tents in DC, or simply spreading the word in your community. Visit www.fast4families.org to learn more.
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The results on election day once again showed voters’ commitment to progressive priorities like health care and better wages that strengthen families.
In Virginia, one of the key differences between Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe was their disagreement over health care. Cuccinelli, who flaunted his pro-life credentials and “family values,” nonetheless took an anti-family position by opposing Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid even though it would provide 400,000 currently uninsured Virginians access to affordable coverage. Voters backed McAuliffe, who supports Medicaid expansion, while rejecting Cuccinelli’s immoral agenda – meaning that struggling families, seniors and children in Virginia will get the care they need.
In New Jersey, voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour and indexing it to inflation. This not only helps hardworking, low-income families make ends meet, but also shows that Governor Chris Christie’s re-election doesn’t signal a turn toward economic conservatism among Garden State voters. And while Christie is no moderate, he accepted Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid. In Election Day’s two statewide races, Tea Party extremists have nothing to celebrate – but the working poor do.
Campaigns to raise the minimum wage are gaining steam at the local, state and federal levels, and increasing the minimum wage is overwhelmingly popular with people of faith, from traditionally progressive traditions to more right-leaning groups such as white evangelicals. This will be a major issue between now and the 2014 elections, and faith leaders are part of coalitions in numerous states. Given that a single parent of two children working fulltime at minimum wage falls $4,000 beneath the poverty line, this is very much a family values issue, as well as a matter of justice.
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In two days, an indiscriminate cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will take up to 21 meals per month away from American families who count on this crucial protection to put food on the table. It’s clear that hunger will rise and poverty will deepen in all 50 states.
These cuts — which will reduce benefits to a mere $1.40 per meal — aren’t just taking food away from seniors, children, families and veterans, they’re placing an unbearable burden on congregations that serve low-income communities. Faith–based charities, food banks and service providers that already strain to feed their struggling neighbors are bracing for a surge in need as people scramble to make ends meet.
The tireless advocacy of groups like the Faithful Budget Campaign have gone a long way toward preventing cuts like this, but this time Congress has turned a deaf ear.
Looking forward, these unconscionable cuts show the need for the faith community to maintain an ironclad commitment to protect low-income families and seniors. During upcoming budget negotiations between Republican and Democratic Members of Congress, there is renewed concern of cuts to Social Security and Medicare. While this agenda is carefully cloaked in rhetoric about debt reduction, what it really does is take money out of vulnerable seniors’ pockets at a time when millions are already on the edge of poverty. That’s not right, and we can’t go along with it.
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No individual should go without life-saving medical care because of partisan politics. Governor John Kasich got it right when he bypassed the Ohio General Assembly this week and asked the state’s Control Board to approve Medicaid Expansion. (Kasich had earlier appealed to Republican legislators’ faith and values.) I’m thrilled the panel rejected Republican obstructionism and voted 5-2 to expand this long-overdue reform. This momentous decision makes Ohio the 4th GOP-controlled and 25th state overall to expand Medicaid, allowing over 275,000 uninsured people (including 26,000 veterans) to receive care. Advocates must remain on high-alert as Republican lawmakers filed suit against the expansion in the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday.
While we rejoice in the expansion of Medicaid, our work is far from over. Across the country, organizations backed by the notorious Koch Brothers, are funneling millions of dollars into campaigns designed to chip away at the structural integrity of the Affordable Care Act. With six to seven million Americans denied health care in the 25 states that continue to reject Medicaid Expansion funds, we must not sit back silently while billionaires and their right-wing chorus attempt to take life-saving health care out of the hands of hardworking Americans. We have come too far and waited too long to sit back and let that happen.
Staking out the moral high ground
The open enrollment period for the ACA has faced a number of technical hurdles, but focusing on these ignores the clear moral imperative. The faith community must continue to give voice to the need for affordable health care and to protect the most vulnerable among us. For far too long, 47 million uninsured Americans have gone without critical preventive and chronic disease care, subjecting millions of families to needless sickness, pain and suffering. We are called to provide a prophetic witness in the face of continued opposition that is determined to undermine the social safety net and rob low-income Americans of their right to affordable and necessary care.
Let’s get to work.
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