Exclusive Commentary

A Call to Congress: Churches Alone Cannot Protect the Poor

Reverend David Beckmann, Bread for the World - Posted May 21, 2012


Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity will be running a series of commentaries in the summer of 2012 on the fight to end childhood hunger in America.
 
This commentary is the second installment in the series, which is entitled “Ending Childhood Hunger in America.”

There are many verses in the Bible that address taking care of poor people and those in need. Proverbs 14:31 says, “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him,” and Proverbs 19:17 reminds us that, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” What these two verses say to me is that, if you do right by poor people, you will be rewarded and that helping the neediest among us is a responsibility that we are all called to uphold.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a budget resolution for fiscal year 2013 that places a heavy burden on poor Americans, particularly those who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to feed their families. In total, the House has recommended cutting approximately $169 billion from the SNAP program, meaning every household that receives SNAP will see a cut in benefits. These cuts are especially disturbing because nearly half of all SNAP participants are children.

In the wake of such drastic cuts it often falls to religious organizations to care for these families. Yet, taking care of poor women, children, seniors, and disabled people should not be the sole responsibility of the church.

More than 46 million low-income Americans depend on SNAP to help put food on their tables every day.   
Of these Americans, millions are children who rely on free or reduced-price school meals. If the proposed funding cuts are passed, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that 280,000 kids would no longer be eligible for those meals.

In addition, of those receiving SNAP, 86 percent of households have incomes at or below the federal poverty line. These cuts would only push these families further into poverty.

We need to protect SNAP. A recent study by the Economic Research Service confirms that SNAP helps lift people out of poverty. The study also shows that SNAP has an even stronger effect on the depth and severity of poverty, particularly among children. Congress must create a circle of protection around programs that help poor kids break the cycle of poverty and grow up to be healthy, productive adults.

SNAP has prevented our nation’s economic crisis from turning into a hunger crisis. Despite high levels of poverty and unemployment over the past few years, hunger has not increased, thanks in large part to SNAP.

Despite this remarkable success, several members of Congress have argued that feeding hungry people is really the work of the churches and not that of government. What these policymakers do not recognize is that all of the food that churches and charities provide to hungry and poor people in the United States only amounts to about six percent of what the federal government spends on programs like SNAP and school meals.

If the proposals by the House of Representatives to cut SNAP are enacted, each of the 335,000 religious congregations in the United States – big or small - would have to spend at least $50,000 annually to fill the gap.

For most churches, this is not possible. Bread for the World recently spoke with pastors from churches in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kansas about the impact this additional expenditure would have. Each said the added burden would be devastating.“The congregation I serve is made up of working poor and unemployed people,” said Reverend Adan Mairena of West Kensington Ministry in Philadelphia. “All of us are called to work for the common good and Congress cannot pass this responsibility solely on to churches.” “It would be devastating if our church had to do more than we already do,” added Reverend Barb Hobe, a pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ in Lebanon, Ohio. “Many of our members are living paycheck to paycheck and just can’t do more.” Said Bishop Ervin Sims, Jr. of Mount Carmel Church of God in Christ in Kansas City, “In addition to being poor some of our congregants are also struggling with housing and unemployment challenges,” adding, “Congress needs to better understand the need we serve every day. Another $50,000 a year is unrealistic.”

The stories and the numbers make clear that, with churches unable to fill the gap, the SNAP program cannot sustain these cuts.

And when more than 16 million children live in households that struggle to put food on the table, such reductions are unacceptable. America’s churches are already doing their fair share. We now call on Congress to do its part and protect poor people, knowing that they will be repaid for the deed.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Reverend David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty.  If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@spotlightonpoverty.org.