The Common Good

Dear Congress, This Holiday Season, Don’t Make the Poor Poorer

A lot of ink, pixels, and air have been used on the potential effects of the so-called “fiscal cliff.” While many experts say that “cliff” is a misnomer (it’s more of long slope in the wrong direction), there is at least broad agreement that it’s not the right direction for the country’s long-term health.

We’ve heard a lot about the potential effects on Wall Street, our nation’s credit rating, and even the military. But little has been said about the devastating consequences for our nation and the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people — or for the charities and non-profits that serve them.  

This week, the Circle of Protection, released an open letter to the president and Congress with a simple message: during the holidays, please “advance policies that protect the poor — not ones that make them poorer.”

America, by many standards, is a generous nation. We give about 2 percent of our GDP to charity. While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s nearly double what Great Britain, the next most generous nation, gives.

This season is when many in our country give of their time and money to help those in need. These programs are important. But according to Bread for the World, all the food provided by churches and charities amounts to only 6 percent of what the federal government spends. And, unfortunately, a recent poll commissioned by World Vision, shows that while Americans plan to spend more this year on gifts, they are planning on giving less to charity.

After this election, the nation is hungry for some common ground. And the best way to find common ground is by moving to higher ground. There is a clear voice within the Christian community: the higher ground that should unite us is concern for vulnerable people and hardworking families and individuals still struggling to make ends meet.

The holiday letter, released by the Circle of Protection, and many other Christian leaders and heads of charitable organizations including the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, outlines some common ground:

We see effective programs that meet the needs of the poor and vulnerable and help keep others from slipping into poverty: those programs and tax credits — such as Medicaid, SNAP (formerly food stamps) and the Earned Income Tax Credit — should be maintained. As our nation approaches a “fiscal showdown,” there are difficult decisions to be made, but we believe this can be done without putting the burdens on those who can least afford it.

(Full text of the letter and signers available here.)

During Thanksgiving and the Christmas season, there will be two kinds of holiday baskets sent by the faith community: baskets of food for the poor and baskets of letters to their elected officials with our message repeated over and over:  

Don’t make the poor poorer — and our work harder — by the fiscal decisions and choices you will be making.

Yes, reducing large deficits is a moral issue; but how we do it is also a vital moral choice. The 65 national churches and faith-based organizations represent by the Circle of Protection believe we can address the challenges without putting the burden on those who need our help the most.

There are people of faith on both sides of the political aisle. Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C., share common faiths. Why not bring this faith factor, a commitment to protecting those who need it, to bear in our fiscal decision-making? This “fiscal cliff” and how we approach it is truly a debate about our fiscal soul as a nation. What kind of people and what kind of country do we want to be?

Sacrifices will have to be made to put us on a path to fiscal responsibility and sustainability. But making those who are most vulnerable to sacrifice the most is morally and religiously unacceptable. We need a bipartisan commitment to protect the poor and vulnerable in the fiscal decisions the nation is about to make.

The mutual decision to protect the poor and vulnerable, motivated by the faith on both sides of the political aisle, would provide the higher ground bipartisan commitment to common ground for the common good. And that principle would need to be tested by real policy choices that protect the sufficiency of a real safety net in a tough economic times, help lift low-income families and children out of poverty, and save lives through effective international assistance around the world.

That kind of common cause and common commitment would be a positive and important sign for the health of our nation’s political and moral future.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in early 2013. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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