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Fighting Poverty with Faith

Faith groups heed a moral call to alleviate poverty in the United States and abroad, write Sally Steenland and Chase Nordengren.

Peter Wallison wrote a dissent from both the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission majority report and from his fellow Republican commissioners, in which he alone blamed the global financial crisis on U.S. affordable housing policies. This argument is clearly contradicted by the facts. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Peter Wallison wrote a dissent from both the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission majority report and from his fellow Republican commissioners, in which he alone blamed the global financial crisis on U.S. affordable housing policies. This argument is clearly contradicted by the facts. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Faith communities across the nation held a week of action on poverty this September, calling upon political candidates and leaders to address the issue during their first 100 days in office and to pledge their efforts to cut poverty in half within 10 years. The “Fighting Poverty with Faith” action campaign brought together a coalition of nearly 100 religious communities in 36 states to draw attention to America’s poor and create a mandate to reduce poverty in a significant way.

The interfaith coalition hosted local summits and social justice workshops, mobilized food and clothing drives, organized sermons, and more. The week ended with an interfaith prayer vigil in Washington and a call to action, urging members of Congress and the administration to pass legislation that will end poverty and hunger in America.

The problem is stark. Over 37 million Americans live below the official poverty line, constituting a population larger than the 25 smallest states combined. As a result, the state of poverty is now the largest state in the union. One in eight Americans is poor. One child in six is poor. And the numbers are growing. From 2000 to 2007, the number of children living in poverty increased by 15 percent. The income gap is growing as well. In 2007, the richest 20 percent of Americans had over 50 percent of the nation’s income, while the poorest 20 percent had only 3.4 percent.

Faith communities are driven to respond to this crisis by the teachings of their sacred texts to feed the hungry, care for widows and orphans, and relieve the suffering of the weak and vulnerable. For centuries faith communities have responded to this call, engaging in service and advocacy on behalf of the poor. From the ministry of William Booth’s Salvation Army to Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement and Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, spiritual beliefs and values have inspired many ofAmerica’s social justice movements.

To this day churches, synagogues, and mosques provide food, clothing, housing, health care, and job assistance to those in need. They send volunteers to disaster areas, such as New Orleans, to rebuild communities. And they resurrect impoverished communities in their own neighborhoods.

In addition to providing direct service, faith communities are advocates at the local, state, and national levels for the poor, working for equitable and just policies that provide a safety net for society’s most vulnerable people. Faith groups organize national action campaigns around health care issues such as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. They meet with elected officials to press for fair lending practices, minimum wage, child care, and food stamps. These are more than economic issues for faith groups—they are moral as well. As Bishop James Mauney of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America says, faith groups know the economy not from Wall Street but from streets in cities and towns across the country, where they work with the poor.

The impact of this work is enormous. A study from the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center estimates that local churches in the United States spent $12.6 billion on social services in 2004. If one adds to that number the annual budget of groups like Catholic Charities USA ($2.86 billion in 2004) and Jewish Family and Childrens’ Agencies ($530 million in 2003), the sum that religious communities dedicate to the poor is in the billions.

This total does not even include the resources that churches, synagogues, and mosques commit in volunteer hours and donated goods and services to their communities, working with those who have been underserved by government agencies and who fall through the bureaucratic cracks. For example, the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana’s Office of Disaster Response has provided assistance to over 343,000 people post-Katrina, with services ranging from distributing food and emergency goods to gutting and refurbishing homes, offering suicide intervention and counseling, and medical care.* In addition to direct services such as these, faith groups often collaborate with civic and non-profit organizations, and with the private sector, in order to form strong partnerships on behalf of the poor.

Here are some examples of their work:

  • Catholic Charities USA has a national network of 1,700 local agencies that provide services to 7.8 million people, offering food, clothing, shelter, job training, child care, and more. Catholic Charities provides leadership, as well as technical and financial support to these agencies, and also works with federal policymakers on reducing poverty in the United States
  • MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger gives over $4 million each year to hunger-relief agencies, such as soup kitchens, food pantries, emergency food providers, and other groups seeking to reduce hunger. Nearly 900 synagogues throughout the United States support MAZON. In addition, it receives support from over 100,000 individuals who donate 3 percent of the cost of their wedding, bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, or contribute during the Jewish holidays.
  • The National Black Church Initiative is a coalition of 16,000 African-American and Latino churches that has created a housing literacy program that includes counseling services, a housing crisis survival handbook, a foreclosure prevention guide, and more. NBCI also works to reduce racial disparities in health care and increase educational opportunities.
  • Created by Muslim Americans, UMMA is a clinic in Los Angeles that provides health care to15,000 low-income patients who are mostly Latino and African American. UMMA offers health screenings, HIV testing, immunization, specialty clinics, on-site lab testing, referrals to other medical facilities, and more. The clinic also refers patients to non-medical services, such as tutoring and tax assistance, for free or at a low cost.
  • Bread for the World brings together churches, college campuses, and other organizations to advocate on behalf of the poor. One of its annual projects is an Offering of Letters to Congress on an issue important to hungry people, such as the farm bill, minimum wage, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Letters are placed in collection plates like financial offerings and delivered to policymakers.
  • The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference works on economic mobility, immigration, education, and political empowerment for over 16 million born-again Hispanics in the United States. One of its projects is Generation Fuerza, which aims to reduce Latino high school dropout rates and gang activity in many communities. The conference also partners with other faith groups on a range of social justice issues.
  • The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has created a Confronting Poverty campaign to enhance and coordinate the direct services provided by the Jewish community with the advocacy needed to reduce domestic poverty in a systemic way. JCPA takes its inspiration from a verse in the book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible: “There shall be no needy among you.”
  • The Vote Out Poverty Campaign was created by Sojourners to urge elected officials to pledge to reduce poverty by half within 10 years, and to describe what their specific actions will be to accomplish that goal. Vote Out Poverty sponsors voter registration projects, issues voter guides, and offers poverty education programs for churches and communities. In April 2009, Vote Out Poverty will hold a national rally on the Mall inWashington, D.C, to call upon elected officials to follow through on their promises.
  • The Alliance to End Hunger partners with interfaith groups, corporations, non-profit organizations, universities, and others to end hunger worldwide. The alliance develops corporate social responsibility programs, such as an agreement between Elanco Animal Health (a division of Eli Lilly) and Heifer International that provides Heifer with veterinary kits and coordinates their advocacy work. The alliance conducts opinion research to determine how the public thinks about poverty, and it represents the United States on the global stage, partnering with international agencies to end hunger around the world.
  • The Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York works in its community of Queens on a variety of missions to serve those in need. The cathedral serves over 2,500 people a month through its Soup Kitchen and Clothing Closet. Last year its Miracle on Merrick provided food and personal-care items for over 10,000 people in the community.
  • Nazarene Compassionate Ministries provides food, clothing, and shelter to those in need and offers long-term relief assistance to combat the root causes of poverty. As part of the Church of the Nazarene, NCM works in the United States and globally. Its social justice programs encourage members of congregations to learn more and become active advocates on behalf of the poor.
  • The Inner City Muslim Action Network is a community-based nonprofit in the Chicago area that provides a variety of health, education, and welfare services to low-income residents, in partnership with other community organizations. IMAN works on immigration reform, criminal justice, community redevelopment, and more. Arts and culture programs, such as a biennial street festival and a Community Cafe that connects artists, entertainers, and activists, are crucial to its outreach efforts.
  • The Poverty Ministries program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America provides direct services to the poor and encourages a strong prophetic witness on their behalf. The church has adopted a statement, “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All,” that calls for policy changes that will be more beneficial to the poor and says that all of the world is God’s household and its inhabitants are our neighbors.

Increasingly, political leaders and policymakers recognize the important role of faith groups in reducing poverty. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) says that faith groups “step forward when other groups are silent.” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) has called faith groups the nation’s moral compass that act as “a voice for the voiceless and a light in the wilderness.”** Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) also speaks of the ways in which faith leaders integrate the suffering of the poor into their own lives. He believes “if we just engage the poor, they’ll save our souls.”

The efforts of religious communities on behalf of the poor constitute a strong, prophetic voice. Their work is grounded not only in economic realities, but in essential moral truths: the belief that each person has intrinsic dignity and worth, that we are our brother and sister’s keeper, and that a nation is best measured by how we treat “the least of these.” Such truths belong not only to faith communities, but are part of our national heritage. They reflect what is best about America and inspire us all in the difficult, yet necessary, work to wipe away suffering and poverty from within our borders and from the face of the earth.

Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy at the Center for American Progress. Chase Nordengren is an intern with the Center’s Faith and Progressive Policy team and a junior at Catholic University.

*“Ministry by the Numbers: Rebuilding the Beloved Community,” August 31, 2008, private report from Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana’s Office of Disaster Response.

**Fighting Poverty with Faith Interfaith Anti-Poverty Vigil, Washington, DC, September 16, 2008.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative