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Faith Groups Fill the Gap in Caring for the Poor

SOURCE: AP/Danny Johnston

Luther Nunn loads boxes of food onto his truck at Arkansas Foodbank Network's Little Rock, AR, warehouse to deliver to his church. America’s faith communities do a great deal of good through their kindness and charity, acting as a stopgap in times of emergency.

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Last week’s poverty rate numbers were shocking—in one of the wealthiest countries in the world one in seven families fall below the poverty line. What’s more, more than one in five American children are living in poverty, which represents an almost 10 percent increase over 2008’s level. And a quarter of African Americans and Hispanic Americans are impoverished. But these numbers only confirmed the daily reality of many families who are struggling to find jobs, pay for health insurance, and take care of their kids.

With large numbers of people living in poverty comes a crucial need for antipoverty services. Faith groups, long a source of support for the poor, are being forced to bridge the ever-widening gap between that need and what the government is providing to families trying to get back on their feet. What they’re finding is that while compassion and charity are expanding, so are the ranks of those in need, and that it will take a sustained government response in addition to private charity to comprehensively tackle poverty.

Across the country, houses of worship are doing their best to keep food banks full, provide shelter, offer emotional and spiritual support, and advocate for more equitable policies. Many local newspapers document just how well churches, synagogues, and mosques are rising to the occasion and providing unprecedented levels of support.

According to Anthony Guido, the director of public relations and communications for the New Jersey Community Food Pantry, demand at local food pantries is up 35 to 40 percent this year. In early September, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation opened a vegetarian food pantry in the state. The Cedar Grove-based pantry is staffed entirely by community volunteers.

“Pantries are opening up in pockets where people never thought there was a need before. I think this is a good example of one of these pockets,” Guido told the Verona-Cedar Grove Times, a local New Jersey paper.

Many of these faith groups have combined forces in their communities due to the increased need. Members of local churches in Mississippi have united to form an interdenominational effort: the Interfaith Food Pantry, which is served by more than 15 local Catholic, evangelical, and Protestant churches.

“In June we were up to 59 households or 145 people, which included 84 adults and 61 children,” said Chris Greer, the treasurer for the Interfaith Council of Poverty in Hernando, as reported by the Desoto Times Tribune. “By July, it had increased to 72 households or more than 190 people, which included 117 adults and 73 children.”

Greer recognizes the growing need of the Hernando community, and along with the Rev. Robert A. “Chip” Hatcher, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church where the pantry is located, plans to expand the building.

MAZON, a Jewish nonprofit organization, is doing extraordinary work to alleviate hunger. Every year, MAZON allocates over $4 million to more than 300 food banks, service organizations, and hunger-focused advocacy groups. MAZON’s support base of more than 100,000 donors is a testament to people of faith’s goodwill and charity.

And in the spirit of Ramadan, Islamic Relief USA has expanded their annual Day of Dignity to include 21 cities over 10 weekends. Volunteers travel across the country providing food, clothing, medical care, and other social services to people in need.

Faith groups are also finding creative ways to meet the physical as well as emotional needs of struggling local families. In Dallas, Texas, Interfaith Housing offers transitional apartments and services to homeless families in the area. “Heart, Head and Hands,” Interfaith Housing’s afterschool program, has put together a creative curriculum focusing on arts and crafts for the children of the homeless families. The program is tailored to the specific emotional needs of these children, and the youths are given a sense of belonging in addition to transitional housing.

Just as important as service provision is the advocacy work many faith groups are doing. Two PICO-affiliated interfaith organizations in Massachusetts, for example, recently helped pass a law that will help prevent unnecessary foreclosures.

Faith-based organizations and houses of worship have long stepped up to the plate to help their neighbors in need. This nation is fortunate to have such a vibrant, devoted, and generous faith community. Many of the volunteers, however, are voicing their strain. Try as they might, it is difficult to meet the demand.

A food pantry in Illinois told The New York Times that it went from being open one day a month at the beginning of the recession to multiple times a month. Some shelters are forced to charge for beds due to financial constraints.

Realizing that justice as well as charity is needed to help the poor, many local and national faith organizations have come together to form the coalition Fighting Poverty with Faith. This October it will begin a month-long mobilization across the country to advocate for policies that provide basic needs fulfillment for the poor and for policies that will help low-income people move toward self-sufficiency. Like CAP Action’s Half in Ten campaign, Fighting Poverty with Faith is calling for a national goal to cut the U.S. poverty rate in half over the next ten years.

Half in Ten is also urging Congress to extend reforms of the child tax credit and the marriage penalty, which will allow low-income families to become more financially stable.

America’s faith communities do a great deal of good through their kindness and charity, acting as a stopgap in times of emergency. But the recession has created one long, endless emergency for many. Ultimately, our government is the only institution that can make our socioeconomic system more equitable and help families get back on their feet.

Marta Cook is a Fellows Assistant to the Faith & Progressive Policy Initiative and the Progressive Studies Program and Brian Thorn is an intern with the initiative at American Progress.

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