Leaders of faith-based organizations are responding to the plan released by House Speaker Paul Ryan and the House Republican Poverty, Opportunity and Upward Mobility Task Force with appreciation for the effort made to alleviate poverty but with deep concerns about the negative impacts some of the plan’s policy recommendations would have on the nation’s most vulnerable.
Leaders of the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative, National Council of Churches USA and the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, expressed concern about the overall tone and policy recommendations of the document, “A Better Way: Our Vision for A Confident America,” which ignores the important role safety net programs have played in reducing poverty, perpetuates the stereotype that poor people are intent on cheating the system, erroneously deems national standards as ineffective, disregards the correlation between race and poverty and overlooks the fact that millions of the nation’s poor have multiple jobs but are underemployed and trying to make ends meet with strikingly low wages that inhibit their ability to move out of impoverished conditions.
According to Rev. Sekinah Hamlin, director of the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative, “We are excited by the effort Speaker Ryan and House Republicans have made to address poverty. Finally! We have been calling on Congress to deal with poverty for a long time. However, the plan lays out many provisions that do not accurately reflect the realities of the millions of hardworking people living in poverty in our nation. Much more work needs to be done in order for us to be able to support this plan.”
Rev. Hamlin went on to say, “Our faith demands that we speak and act on behalf of those who are most vulnerable and advocate for policies that will improve their circumstances. This plan falls short of doing that.”
Mr. Jim Winkler, president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said, “Every day hardworking Americans go from one job to the next, giving their all to take care of their families. Issues like a living wage, income inequality and wage theft also must be addressed if we are serious about supporting families and helping them to move out of poverty and into a more financially secure future.”
He also pointed out the role of the prophets in holding leaders accountable for how they treat the poor. “Our Scriptures teach us that we will be judged by how we treat the poor. Like the prophets, we feel compelled to let our leaders know we take issue with a plan that does not fully address the needs of those living in poverty.”
“While we applaud Speaker Ryan and House Republicans for putting forth a comprehensive plan that addresses poverty, its policy recommendations reinforce stereotypes about poor people trying to cheat the system all so that they can stay in poverty,” said Dr. Iva Carruthers, the General Secretary for the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference. “We wholeheartedly reject this perspective, knowing that the reality for most people living in poverty is that safety net programs have helped families to have their basic needs met when they had no other options to feed, house and otherwise take care of their families.”
Safety net programs include programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which have proven to be effective and helped families during their times of greatest need. These programs have provided supplement to what individuals and families have been able to do alone until they could earn the money they need to fully support their families. They also proved to be effective during the Great Recession when poverty levels remained stable despite the historic economic downturn. The groups insist that any plans to alleviate poverty must make sure that safety net programs are not jeopardized by block granting them, decreasing national standards for the programs or by essentially turning oversight of these programs over to individual states, many of which are already struggling with serious budget constraints.
“No one is getting rich off of safety net programs. People do better with a job that pays decent wages. That’s why addressing income inequality and the ability to find full-time employment at a decent wage is a crucial part of ending poverty,” contended Rev. Hamlin.
The groups also voiced deep concerns about the poverty plan’s lack of acknowledgement about the intersections of race and poverty and how racism continues to play a role in economic outcomes. According to the faith leaders, whether dealing with education, housing, health care, the criminal justice system or economic opportunities, race and economics are connected in ways that have had negative impacts on minority families.
“We strongly urge House Republicans and, in fact, all members of Congress to recognize and work to alleviate racism and the role it continues to play in the disproportionate number of people living in poverty in America, said Dr. Carruthers. “We will never be able to end the scandal of poverty if we do not also address racism and how it has affected the economic prosperity of people of color.”
According to Mr. Winkler, “If we do not face up to the fact that racism has been a factor in economic outcomes for communities of color, we will never be able to do anything about it. The release of this poverty plan gives us an opportunity to get serious about eliminating poverty. But, we absolutely cannot make progress if we refuse to acknowledge what we know—that race is a determining factor of economic outcomes.”
The poverty plan also included the need for low-income workers to have access to banking services but called for less regulation of these services. While the House Regulatory Burdens Task Force is slated to explore these issues in more depth, faith leaders were adamant that small-dollar loans and payday lending practices must be regulated so that predatory lenders do not drive people further into debt when they are faced with emergencies or other unexpected expenses. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a rule on June 2 to curtail these predatory practices. However, the poverty plan targets these important regulations as hindering low-income workers from having access to credit instead of protecting them from unjust practices that have led millions of consumers into a downward spiral of long-term debt.
“A plan to end poverty has to deal with the lack of access to quality and affordable banking services in low-income and largely minority communities, and stop predators from taking advantage of people when they are most vulnerable,” said Rev. Hamlin, who was one of the speakers during the public testimony period at the CFPB hearing.
“Predatory lenders sometimes charge low-wage workers interest rates of more than 400 percent. These short-term, small dollar emergency loans have turned into long term nightmares and a debt trap for many workers. We expect a poverty plan to stop this kind of corrupt activity.”
Other provisions in the poverty plan that concerned the groups included its recommendations to streamline programs, which may result in block grants that make the programs more vulnerable to cuts; and, the emphasis on giving states more flexibility to administer programs in ways that could undermine safety net programs, especially when many states are facing their own budget deficits and cannot
“This poverty plan has the potential to cause more harm than good. We cannot support policies that do it at the expense of providing people with the help they need,” said Winkler.
The groups, representing a wide cross section of Christian churches, denominational bodies and state judicatories, plan to work together to push Congress for policies that will alleviate poverty and help instead of hurt families trying to make ends meet while creating pathways for greater financial security and upward mobility. In April, the groups also signed the Interfaith Call for Moral Action on the Economy, which also addresses the widening economic inequality and its impact on low-wage workers and their families.
The Ecumenical Poverty Initiative, formerly the National Council of Churches USA Poverty Initiative, works to empower and mobilize the faith community to speak and act to end the scandal of poverty in the United States. EPI works with national denominations as well as state and local ecumenical bodies around the country to advocate for economic justice.
The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc. (SDPC) represents a cross section of progressive African American faith leaders and their congregations in the United States. Founded in 2003, the SDPC focuses its work on education, advocacy and activism, promoting justice by resourcing and organizing partner churches, clergy and lay leaders to address the diverse concerns of communities.
Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for shared ecumenical witness among Christians in the United States. The NCC’s 38 member communions — from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches — include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.