On the five-year anniversary of the Wall Street crisis that triggered the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, millions of Americans remain trapped in poverty and not a single Wall Street leader has been prosecuted for their irresponsible behavior.
This week the Census Bureau released data showing that more than 46 million Americans were living in poverty in 2012 – the same as 2011. While our economy has shown some signs of improvement, it’s primarily the very wealthy who are reaping the rewards, and wage-earning Americans have been steadily losing ground over the past few decades.
And if not for key safety-net programs, millions more Americans struggling to find work in a weak economy would have fallen below the poverty line. The Census figures definitively show that Social Security, unemployment insurance, and SNAP lifted more than 40 million Americans out of poverty last year. (For a deep dive into the numbers, check out Robert Greenstein and Melissa Boteach’s analyses.)
SNAP is a critical lifeline for millions of seniors, children, disabled Americans, and the working poor, but it’s under immediate threat from conservatives in the House of Representatives. Today, the House will vote on a bill that not only cuts SNAP by almost $40 billion, but would also leave almost 4 million desperately poor Americans looking for both work and food.
This is very much a values debate. On the one hand, faith groups like the Circle of Protection have lined up in strong opposition to these immoral cuts. On the other, proponents of cutting SNAP have taken Scripture badly out of context to argue that taking nutrition supports away from poor people is consistent with Christian values. Just yesterday, when challenged by faith leaders, Congressman Stephen Fincher (R-TN) refused to retract the claim he made in May, when he cited two Bible verses to justify letting the poor go without food. Read more about that here.
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While the U.S. House of Representatives prepares to vote on the draconian “Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act” that would take SNAP benefits away from as many as 5 million people and gut $40 billion from the life-saving program, Christian activists confronted Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) today to ask if he stands by his comments from last May in which he misrepresented Scripture to justify draconian cuts to effective anti-poverty programs.
Instead of taking into account USDA data which illustrates that over 50,000 households - including 20,000 with children and 12,000 with seniors - in Fincher’s district rely on these critical nutrition programs, or that 10.2% of his constituents remain unemployed, he reaffirmed his support for cuts that will put them at even greater risk.
James Salt, Executive Director of Catholics United and one of the activists who confronted Mr. Fincher, said “As a Catholic, it pains me to see Members of Congress use the Bible to justify policies that harm poor families. As the House prepares to vote on devastating cuts to SNAP, I hoped Representative Fincher would retract his previous use of Scripture to defend this immoral policy. When I asked him to do so, he ardently declined. It remains to be seen whether he’ll rediscover the Bible’s call to protect poor and hungry people before this crucial vote.”
Fincher’s ability to take millions of dollars in farm subsidies while denying his constituents vital nutrition assistance is stunning. Christian leaders and people in the pews will continue to educate both him and likeminded lawmakers on the reality of hunger and poverty in their communities and our Christian obligation to support struggling families.
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As Congress returns from their August recess, many important debates lie ahead. One issue that’s flown under the radar this summer is the looming showdown in the House of Representatives over SNAP funding. SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, keeps millions of Americans out of extreme poverty and hunger, but it faces serious threats.
For one, benefits for every single SNAP recipient will be cut automatically in November as an emergency benefit increase begun in 2009 and renewed last year expires. At that point, SNAP benefits will fall to a meager $1.40 per meal.
House Republicans plan to not only slash SNAP funding by an additional $40 billion, but also to make massive structural changes that permanently hobble the program’s ability to protect children, seniors, the disabled and struggling families from utter destitution. The proposed changes include rewriting eligibility rules to cut off recipients who can’t find work, incentivizing states to kick people off SNAP and undermining enrollment programs that help eligible families sign up.
The policy details are complex, but the big picture is clear – unless House Republicans change course, up to 6 million Americans who are barely getting by right now will soon experience greater food insecurity, hunger and extreme poverty. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire population of Missouri. A vote is expected as soon as next week.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has great fact sheets explaining what’s at stake. You can read them here and here.
Faith leaders are weighing in too. This week, Bishop Oscar Cantu of the Catholic diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, published op-eds in their local newspapers calling on their Representatives to show moral leadership and protect struggling families from SNAP cuts.
As the fight over SNAP resumes, I’m reminded of the faith community’s crucial role in the budget battles that began when Tea Party Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. Thanks to the Circle of Protection, Nuns on the Bus, and many others, SNAP was spared from deep budget cuts and politicians like Paul Ryan were held accountable for claiming that taking food away from poor families was consistent with Christian values. As yet another round of this moral struggle begins, I have no doubt that our community will be heard again.
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Church bells rang out across the country yesterday as thousands of Americans gathered in Washington to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Speakers at the Lincoln Memorial pointed out both the tremendous progress made and the steep road ahead on our journey to fulfilling the ideals that were so resoundingly expressed half a century ago.
At the March and in congregations hosting commemorative services, leaders addressed issues such as jobs, living wages, economic inequality, education, mass incarceration, healthcare, immigration reform, and discrimination against minority voters. That sounds like quite a laundry list of issues, but they are systemically linked and woven together by a thread of common values – dignity, equality and justice.
As the marchers return to their home communities, the fight for these values carries on. Today fast food workers in 60 cities mounted the largest strike ever for living wages in their industry. Included were places where key events of the civil rights movement took place, such as Raleigh, Chicago and Memphis.
Led by the faith community, people across the country are marching, holding vigils and pressing lawmakers every single day to pass immigration reform that protects immigrant workers and families, builds a roadmap to citizenship and ends the gross miscarriages of justice caused by our broken system. The list of struggles for justice animated by Dr. King’s dream is long.
When President Obama said yesterday that “the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” I nodded along in agreement, but I also felt a flutter of fear in my chest because none of us alone is equal to this great task. Our success, which is far from guaranteed, depends on our ability to inspire, organize and mobilize. Only then can we make the cost of perpetuating injustice unbearable.
When, God willing, my son goes to the Lincoln Memorial 50 years from now to mark the century anniversary of the March on Washington, I want him to be standing shoulder to shoulder with people of all races in a nation where full justice and equality are no longer such a distant dream. Whether that happens is far outside my control. But I do have a small say over whether he knows that his parents’ generation did all they could.
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If many progressives are disappointed that President Obama and most political leaders have not done more to reign in the corruption and greed of Wall Street titans who sparked a global financial crisis, they have an unlikely ally in a theologian who leads a global church of more than a billion souls.
While Pope Benedict XVI is viewed as a staunch conservative for his opposition to same-sex marriage and frequent pronouncements on sexual ethics, his powerful voice on economic justice issues too often gets short shrift. But it’s hard to ignore the pope’s recent blistering critique of what he describes as “unregulated financial capitalism.” Pope Benedict, who has urged world leaders to pay more attention to the “scandal of glaring inequalities” between rich and poor nations, used his recent World Day of Peace message to challenge “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset” that gives rise to economic models based on “maximum profit and consumption.”
It’s unlikely that Catholic Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan or House Speaker John Boehner, free-market fundamentalists with a soft spot for Ayn Rand-libertarianism, will be passing out copies of the pope’s address in the halls of Congress. You can also bet many lawmakers from both parties, dependent on corporate campaign contributions from the financial services industry, paid scant attention to the Vatican’s call in 2011 for more robust financial regulation and a financial transaction tax.
But as we navigate the shoals of post-fiscal cliff Washington, with Republicans hankering for a fight on the debt ceiling and insisting on deeper spending cuts, political leaders could do worse than reflect on the Catholic justice tradition’s prudent balance between acknowledging a vital role for government while advocating for a market system that is tempered – and made more humane – by reasonable safeguards that serve the common good. In fact, Catholic social teaching on taxes, the role of government, the importance of unions, strong social safety nets and the need for robust regulation of global financial markets offers a progressive blueprint for building a moral economy.
The next time you hear a Catholic politician or a “pro-life” leader who argues for gutting financial regulations and slashing vital programs that protect children and the elderly so the wealthiest few can get more tax breaks, tell them to take it up with the pope.
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