Faith groups rallied in a park next to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., yesterday to call on Congress to extend unemployment benefits for the nearly 14 million Americans out of work this winter. Reverends, rabbis, and imams joined labor groups and unemployed citizens from across the country in a prayer vigil and a march to the office of Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH). Along the way, they sang, prayed, and tossed white carnations onto the Capitol steps in a symbolic gesture of the thousands of jobless Americans who rely on unemployment benefits.
If approved, a long-term federally funded unemployment benefit extension would continue to provide benefits for up to 99 weeks to the roughly 6 million Americans who have exhausted their 26-week-long state unemployment benefits after losing their jobs and, despite their best efforts, are unable to find new employment. These individuals rely on an average benefit of $295 a week to keep themselves out of poverty. The first benefit extension is set to expire on December 31, meaning that if Congress fails to act, millions of Americans could be much worse off in 2012, causing untold suffering to them and their families and seriously harming our fragile economy.
Faith groups say that extending unemployment benefits is one pressing issue among many when it comes to economic inequality and poverty. Many of those at the prayer vigil dismissed the argument that services for the poor are “too costly” for a government saddled in debt. Instead, they pointed to the “immoral” misallocation of federal funds, such as tax cuts for millionaires.
Pam Donato, a 25-year member of the National Association of Letter Carriers, came to the rally out of a sense of common purpose with Interfaith Worker Justice, a network of faith groups that educates, organizes, and mobilizes the religious community on worker justice issues.
“Money isn’t there because we haven’t collected it properly,” she said. “We have no money because we failed to get revenue from the resources we know exist.”
Ted Smuckler, director of public policy at Interfaith Worker Justice, echoed the importance of fair and dignified work for all Americans. This belief is “in the guts of every faith tradition,” he said.
The Occupy protests around the country have brought a groundswell of public support to rallies focusing on worker justice and poverty issues. Groups such as those at the prayer rally have benefited from the increased visibility and are working to continue and expand the national dialogue around inequality, justice, and fair work practices.
“People are feeling the power to mobilize,” Donato said. “Occupy absolutely has changed the dialogue.”
What’s more, many faith groups are increasingly wise to the religious double-talk coming from some elected officials. Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, decried the hypocrisy of overt religious posturing in Washington.
“We do not have a public policy based on moral values but on private profit,” he said to the crowd. “Matthew 6:24: ‘No one can serve two Masters. You cannot serve both God and Money.’ All of our politicians pledge to believe in God, but as Americans we all must ask, what faith principles are we promoting here?”
For the interfaith group gathered at the prayer rally, the principle was clear—a just economy that works for all. The rally was part of a campaign by faith and labor groups to get unemployment benefits extended and help keep millions of jobless Americans out of poverty. But the long-term strategy, says Smuckler, is that “everyone is back to work, and we have a society that commits to creating a good job and providing dignity to all.”
Catherine Woodiwiss is a Special Assistant with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.