Thought (and hopefully action)-provoking stuff from Michael Gerson’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post, “A Week of Hunger”. With clarity and punch, he argues for the expansion of food stamps as a moral imperative and “the most direct way to reduce hunger in America.”
His approach is so uncomplicated it should be obvious and so direct it seems revolutionary. There is a 10 million person gap between those who receive food stamps and those who need them, he says, and because of computer records, “we also know that most benefits are used up by the third week of the month, leaving many families to scramble for other sources of food.”
Making both a fiscal and moral case for expansion:
Hunger exacts a social cost. Hungry adults miss more work and consume more health care. Hungry children tend to be sicker, absent from school more often and more prone to getting into more trouble. Larry Brown of the Harvard School of Public Health calculates that the total price tag of hunger to American society is about $90 billion a year. In contrast, Brown estimates it would only cost about $10 billion to $12 billion a year to “virtually end hunger in our nation.”
And this raises a moral issue. We have in place an automated food stamp program that is generally efficient and effective. We know it could be expanded with little increase in overhead. And we know with precision when its benefit runs out each month. So how is it then possible to justify funding three weeks of food instead of four? What additional dependence, what added moral hazard could a full month of eating possibly create?
It’s heartening to see someone in Gerson’s position—a member of the mainstream media and a conservative, no less—advocating for an issue usually championed by progressives. In doing so, he manages to break stereotypes and show the bridges being built around this moral issue. This is the straightforward, cooperative dialogue we need to foster common good politics.
Only one day until the Compassion Forum. Already the pundits are opining about what this means for Americans of faith and the presidential candidates. It was not long ago that the media mostly treated the GOP as more Christian than Democrats, and forgot to talk about the interfaith diversity of the American public.
“We want to determine the Republicans’ interest in addressing the needs of the vulnerable,” said Joel Hunter, an influential Florida mega-pastor who supported Mike Huckabee when the Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor made his populist but failed bid for the Republican nomination.
“We also want to gauge the Democrats’ interest in community and faith-based solutions and not just handing it all off to the government,” said Hunter, who will also be at the event.
One of the hottest of the issues that bridge left and right, public and private sector, is domestic and international poverty. As many people have been pointing out of late, U.S. budgets are moral documents, showing our priorities. About 36.5 million Americans live in poverty and this lack of basic resources results in an even larger drain on all American well-being. By failing to address the private and public causes trapping every tenth American, the problem only infects the surrounding culture, from health care, schooling, work force to crime. This presentation was sponsored by the Catholic Campaigh for Human Development
But this extends beyond American. Islamic Relief reports that in developing countries a high percentage of the population lives in rural areas, making a living from agriculture. When floods and drought lead to crop shortages, thousands of people and animals die in the famine that follows. The death of livestock and harvest failure deprives these people of their only source of income. They aim to make a lasting difference in the lives of the poor by building the capacity of local communities to sustain themselves. IR provides training and Islamically acceptable loans enabling people to earn a better living, either by running small businesses or by seeking well-paid employment.
But beyond micro-credit and relief, Brian Swarts, of the Jubilee USA campaign writes:
The world’s most impoverished countries pay more than $100 million each day in debt payments to wealthy governments and financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In countries where the majority of the population lives on less than $1 per day, this money should be spent on clean water, basic health care, and education rather than repaying some of the world’s wealthiest financial institutions.
The faith community has a history of moral leadership on the debt issue. In 2000 and again in 2005, world leaders came together to cancel billions of dollars of debt in dozens of impoverished countries around the world. The money freed by debt cancellation has been directed to fight global AIDS, enroll children in school, provide clean water, and improve rural infrastructure among other poverty-focused initiatives. But there is still much more that needs to be done — 44 impoverished countries around the world are still waiting for debt justice!
Compassion Forum question: What do you think the primary causes of persistent poverty in America are? Is it possible to entirely eradicate it? What respective roles should government, the faith community and the private sector play in ending poverty?
Our friends at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy are making progress in their fight against predatory lending practices in Virginia. Here’s an update I received, this week, from Ann Rasmussen, VICPP’s Policy Director:
Despite strong opposition from the payday lending industry…a bill was passed with strong reform measures that we believe will help break the cycle of debt caused by payday lending. Central to this proposal are 1) a limit of one loan at a time industry-wide (so people can’t hop from lender to lender taking out numerous loans), 2) a limit of 5 loans a year, and 3) a longer loan term that is two times the pay cycle of the borrower. This compromise reform is not as simple and easy as a straight 36% cap, but the measures are real reform that protect against the current lending practice of encouraging repeat borrowing that traps people into debt.
This bill could offer real, positive change if passed by the legislature. Calling all FPL readers in Virginia – now is the time to join VICPP’s Faithful Pledge Campaign!
Yesterday, the House passed H. Con. Res. 198 which expressed “the sense of Congress that the United States has a moral responsibility to meet the needs of those persons, groups and communities that are impoverished, disadvantaged or otherwise in poverty.”
Now, as Congressional resolutions are non-binding, and many can border on the absurd, it might be easy to dismiss this move as an empty gesture. Of course, only time will tell if Congress will be able to move beyond disappointing gridlock of this last session, but I am optimistic.
The resolution was based on recommendations from the Center for American Progress’ Task Force on Poverty so there’s a good deal of intellectual heft coupled with the idealistic goal. And perhaps most importantly, the faith community is ready to rally behind this cause. Poverty is a top concern for people of faith of all stripes. No other theme is as common in Scripture as society’s responsibility to care for the poor and people of faith have been calling for our government to heed this moral call for decades.
Hopefully this resolution represents the beginning of the last chapter of a great movement. People of faith have made fighting poverty a moral priority, and the House has just formally signaled its agreement with that framework. Now, let’s all do our part to make sure Congress follows through on that promise–37 million Americans living in poverty shouldn’t have to wait any longer.
Earlier this week I joined the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy’s (VICPP) Annual “Day for All People” Advocacy Event at the state capitol in Richmond. It drew over 300 attendees and coalition partners including members of the Virginia Organizing Project, The NAACP, and the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations to the statehouse to advocate for policies protecting poor and vulnerable families. Their top priority this year is ending predatory payday lending, which can overwhelm already-struggling borrowers with insurmountable debt by charging over 300 percent interest. These loans are often a one-way ticket from vulnerability to poverty.
We spent part of the day with senate and house leaders to discuss payday lending legislation capping interest rates at 36 percent. While escorting my group through the capitol, VICPP’s Rev. Doug Smith, pointed out a table in the cafeteria full of lobbyists and lawyers working to protect the payday lenders from the legislation that would prevent them from squeezing borrowers out of their bottom dollars. The industry has plenty of money and resources to throw at legislators, so VICPP’s effort to rally bi-partisan support for payday lending regulation is as necessary as it is admirable. Gov. Tim Kaine, whose successful election campaign last year included a strongly faith-based message, spoke at the event and supports regulating payday lenders. Hopefully this broad coalition of religious activists and leaders can win this fight to protect the poor from predators.