For those who care about poverty in America, the coming months are a critical time, a turning point similar to the New Deal of the 1930s or the War on Poverty in the 1960s. Now, as then, we can make a difference in the lives of millions of people. It is a time for people of faith to speak, act, and pray on behalf of those still trapped in poverty.
In 1996, after much contentious debate, Congress passed historic welfare reform legislation. Direct federal cash assistance to people in poverty was ended, consolidated into block grants to the statesknown as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. The intention of the program was a change in paradigm from welfare to work.
Five years later, the track record is mixed. Welfare rolls have been reduced by 50 percent, partly due to the new emphasis and partly due to an economy that wasfor most of that timebooming. The overall poverty rate and the child poverty rate have both declined.
Yet too many working people remain poor. Their jobs are mostly entry-level and minimum wage with few or no benefits. Many are only part-time. Twelve million children are still in poverty. State assistance has evolved from welfare into a wide array of work support programs, including job training, child care, transportation, and housing, and other benefits such as food stamps and health insurance programs.
THIS SUMMER, Congress is debating the reauthorization of the TANF program. What's the best way to build on the undeniable successes and make changes to improve the weaknesses of welfare reform? There are several key areas where we should focus our efforts.
First, and most important, must be a conceptual shift from ending welfare to ending poverty. We must change the political debate to measure our success by reducing the number of people in poverty, rather than just by reducing welfare rolls. That's a political and moral message that most people agree with. Both Democratic and Republican politicians need to change their criteria. The image of a working poor mother is different than the old welfare stereotypes. And most of us want to support her.
Then there is the basic question of funding. Some of the pending proposals, including the Bush administration's, maintain TANF funding at the same level it has been for the last five yearsa total of $16.5 billion per yearfor the next five. But in real terms, flat funding is a cut. That $16.5 billion won't buy now what it did in 1996, and certainly won't in 2007. This is no time to cut our concern, care, and commitment to poor women and their children. Other proposals call for indexing the amount so that it increases by the rate of inflation. Low-income people need work supports that help develop self-sufficiency, and that costs money. But in the long term, it's the best investment we can make.
We have a clear moral message. A budget proposing nearly $50 billion a year in increases for the military and massive tax cuts for the wealthiestwhile cutting funding for overcoming povertyis unacceptable. Rather, funding for real solutions to poverty ought to be increased.
In the days ahead you'll hear debate over what percentage of families in each state must be working. The current law calls for 50 percent; the administration's proposal is to require states to meet a 70-percent standard over the next 5 years. But the definition of acceptable "work" is controversial. Of course it includes employment. But it should also include individuals' efforts to improve their employment skills through education or vocational training. The current "work first" requirement has often meant that people have to choose between receiving assistance and improving their skills. That is an often cruel and always short-sighted mistake. For people trying to escape poverty, serious work preparation should count as work. Let's reward people's efforts to improve their lives.
In introducing his plan, President Bush spoke movingly about the barriers faced by single mothers. "Across America, no doubt about it, single mothers do heroic work," Bush said. "They have the toughest job in our country. Raising children by themselves is an incredibly hard job." He's right. And the single largest problem facing those single mothers while holding a job is the limited availability and high cost of child care. Along with more assistance to help meet the costs of child care, a variety of additional programs need fundingfrom improved facilities to better training for child care workers. And as the Children's Defense Fund points out, only one in seven children who are eligible for federal child care assistance receive it. Any poverty reduction package must include substantial increases in funding for child care.
Proposals to fund marriage-promotion programs have generated the greatest controversy. Studies bear out that children with a single parent are far more likely to be poor. Conservatives insist that promoting marriage should be central to reducing poverty, while liberals insist that funding anti-poverty programs will promote marriage. It's a false choice. Of course healthy marriages are good for economic stability, and economic stability is good for healthy marriages. Why can't we do both? Adequately fund necessary programs and develop initiatives that help establish and maintain good marriages. The faith community can play an important role on this issue.
THE 1996 LAW prohibited legal immigrants who entered the United States after 1996 from receiving any public benefits. Some proposals in Congress would eliminate that ban and open eligibility to immigrants who have achieved legal status. The administration proposes restoring eligibility for food stamps only, keeping a ban on other forms of assistance. Many legal immigrants today work hard and pay taxes, and they should be entitled to benefits when in need. "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you" (Leviticus 19:33).
Many of those still receiving assistance are the hardest to employpeople with disabilities or substance abuse, or victims of domestic violence. They are the people who need the most support in order to remove those barriers and find jobs. We must develop, strengthen, and fund programs in those areas.
After the 1996 debate, I wrote in this column that "Churches and nonprofit organizations could be the catalysts and conveners of new partnerships for real solutions to poverty. We need new approaches beyond either relying on government programs alone or hoping that churches and charities can, by themselves, take care of the problem."
Five years later, that has been borne out. Churches and faith-based organizations have led by example in creating innovative new programs and partnerships in communities around the country. Call to Renewal has been working with those grassroots organizations in virtually every state, and I've been impressed at the work they are doing. Over the next five years, we must find ways to strengthen and replicate those programs.
But I also noted five years ago that "effective local community service and development are not substitutes for advocacyfor supporting good public policy in Washington, D.C., and in the states." That is still true. Now we must bring to the policy debate the experiences and lessons that faith-based organizations have learned. If political leaders would lift up our role, they must also listen to our voice. And we have a simple message that must be carried to both the administration and Congress: People who work full time should not be poor.
I INVITE YOU to join us in Washington from Monday, May 20, to Wednesday, May 22, for Call to Renewal's Pentecost 2002 national mobilization: "Speaking the Truth About Poverty" (see inside front cover).
As Congress debates these critical issues, churches and faith-based organizations from every state will commission delegations to come to Washington, D.C. Our goal is to have every senator visited by a faith-based delegation from his or her state. We'll begin on Monday evening with a national Pentecost service of worship and commitment, followed by two days of moral presence and witness on Capitol Hill. We'll have briefings on the legislative situation followed by visits with key members of Congress and their top staff members. We're planning hearings where people in poverty will tell of their experiences, struggles, and hopes; and a prayer breakfast for the poora first in Washington.
Our goal is to bring a clear message about the reality of poverty in our communities and how we must work together to help people overcome it. After the first Pentecost, it was said of the Christian community that "there was not a needy person among them" (Acts 4:34). We seek the day when that can also be said of our country. See you in Washington.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners and convener of Call to Renewal.