Numerous religious organizations, leaders, and communities are inspired by their values to advocate for policies that protect their neighbors of low income and low wealth. During the pandemic, their advocacy has been driven by a concern for those who have struggled most and for rebuilding a country that better ensures the economic safety of all.
The American Rescue Plan will reduce poverty and ensure access to nutrition assistance
More than 8 million Americans fell into poverty during the second half of 2020; faith-based organizations are focusing on the ability of the American Rescue Plan to reverse that trend. “My Catholic faith demands that we must individually and collectively help those in need,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, in a statement endorsing the relief package. “More Americans than ever before need help right now, and the American Rescue Plan is the faithful answer to those in need.” A group of Catholic bishops wrote to members of Congress that they are “encouraged by the provisions in this bill that are consistent with the need to help the poor and the vulnerable who need additional aid as the pandemic continues.”
The American Rescue Plan will address child poverty in particular in its provision to increase the child tax credit and make it available in full to the families who need it most. Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy finds that this provision alone will cut child poverty in the United States by 45 percent. According to the Christian anti-hunger organization Bread for the World, “Expanding the CTC would do more to reduce hunger and poverty among our nation’s children than any single policy has in decades.”
“Even though we can finally see light at the end of the tunnel there is still a long way to go. Millions of families do not have enough to eat, and children are going to bed hungry,” said the Rev. Eugene Cho, president of Bread for the World, after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the relief package on February 27, 2021. “As we work our way through these troubled times, we must continue to heed God’s call to care for the ‘least among us.’”
“The moral obligation of this nation to combat the pandemic is a moral imperative for Christians,” said the Rev. Adam Taylor, president of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners, in response to the relief package. “If we are to truly follow the Matthew 25 directives to treat the most vulnerable how we treat Christ himself, then it’s imperative that we get this pandemic under control.”
The American Rescue Plan expands federal funding of nutrition assistance at a critical time by increasing the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit by 15 percent, increasing the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and extending the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program (P-EBT). Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of the Jewish anti-hunger organization MAZON, expressed support for the bill in a statement:
The federal government’s boosts to nutrition assistance programs during the pandemic are crucial to helping the most vulnerable among us from going hungry. We are pleased to see this signal of support for safety net programs like SNAP, WIC, and P-EBT, and we hope Congress will extend benefit boosts for as long as needed until our nation can fully recover from this crisis. The Administration and Congress must continue prioritizing food access and build on measures put into place to keep all Americans healthy, safe, and well-nourished. As long as people are struggling, hunger must remain a top-priority issue.
Economic justice fights are not new for American faith communities
Faith communities throughout the United States have long prioritized economic justice in their advocacy efforts. “The coalescing of people and communities of faith behind demands of social, economic, and environmental justice today revives and renews a long American tradition,” wrote Joseph McCartin, professor of history and executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, in a statement provided to the Center for American Progress. He placed the faith-based advocacy for the American Rescue Plan in the context of the long history of religion and politics in U.S. history:
Before the Civil War, both abolitionism and efforts to challenge the inequities of the emerging factory system were fueled by the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening. At the dawn of the 20th century, the Social Gospel movement and figures such as the Rev. Walter Rauschenbush and Rabbi Stephen Wise pushed for Progressive Era reforms. During the Great Depression, figures such as the Catholic Monsignor John A. Ryan, Methodist minister Will W. Alexander, and educator Mary McLeod Bethune fought to enact New Deal reforms such as the minimum wage. And in the era of the civil rights movement and the Great Society, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the beloved community rallied for jobs, justice, and freedom. A direct line connects those past personages and struggles to people and organizations today, such as the Rev. Drs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign, Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK, Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah, or Shaykh Abdool Rahman Khan of the Islamic Council of North America, all of whom are fighting for dignity and justice for working people in this hour of decision.
Like their historical predecessors, today’s religious activists are acting as righteous prophets of a more just and humane order. Yet while their cause resembles those of their predecessors, they are distinctive in this respect: Never before have we seen a religious coalition of organizations and activists as diverse by race, religion, region, gender, sexual orientation, and immigration status come together behind a cause as we are now seeing. This is enormously significant. It means that whatever happens in the short-term legislative battles of this year, these religious people are bringing to life a unity of purpose not easily discouraged or denied, one with the potential to transform our politics for years to come.
Faith leaders are stressing the moral urgency of passing the sweeping American Rescue Plan and bringing relief to American families. The economic and public health challenges of the current moment—in addition to the legislative challenges of moving a bill through a narrowly divided Congress—are not deterring faith-based organizations from their mission of protecting the lives of the most vulnerable. The Biden administration’s approach to COVID-19 relief “is going to require long term, fundamental transformation,” said to the Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “President Biden made it clear he wants to go big in taking on COVID-19,” said Diane Randall, general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “As people of faith, we agree. It is a moral imperative to confront the pandemic and care for all of those left in its disastrous wake.”
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons is a fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
The author wishes to thank the following individuals who contributed to the development of this column: Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines, Lily Roberts, Maggie Siddiqi, and Winnie Stachelberg.
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