The Common Good

Fight against poverty unites Christian left and right

Date: February 18, 2009

Capitol Hill may not be embracing bipartisanship, but some in America's faith community are making strides in that direction. Christians from the right and the left have begun bridging political and religious differences to seek solutions to one of the nation's most persistent problems: poverty.

On Tuesday, a new bipartisan group called the Poverty Forum released a series of specific proposals aimed at reducing domestic poverty and keeping Americans hit by the economic crisis from joining the ranks of the poor. The group of 18 leaders – headed by the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, and Michael Gerson, President Bush's former speechwriter and policy adviser – has worked since November to develop concrete antipoverty policies they hope will gain widespread support.

"We wanted to transcend political differences and find 'what's right and what works,' as opposed to what's left or right, or what's liberal or conservative," says Mr. Wallis, a progressive Evangelical.

At the same time, Christian Churches Together (CCT), the most inclusive ecumenical organization ever formed in the US, reached agreement on a poverty initiative last month, which it presented to members of President Obama's Domestic Policy Council. "For a group as diverse as ours – left, right, middle – to reach a consensus on on-the-ground strategies is significant," says Richard Hamm, CCT's executive administrator.

Both groups aim to make poverty a national priority. More than 37 million Americans lived in poverty in 2007, and from 7.5 million to 10 million more could slip into poverty in the next year or two due to rising unemployment, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

"The reality of people on the margins pushed deeper in the current economic situation obligates us to work together in unprecedented ways on poverty," says forum member Mark Rodgers, who was chief of staff to former Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative Republican.

In a bid to break down partisan barriers and offer a new model for political engagement, the forum involved antipoverty experts from such diverse groups as the Family Research Council, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Morehouse College in Atlanta.

A liberal and a conservative expert were paired on each of seven key policy areas: family policy, healthcare, education, "making work work," asset building, crime and prisoner reentry, and the role of civil society.

Rather than developing a comprehensive package, the group sought proposals that were "significant but doable," says Wallis. "We paired people from different sides of the aisle with experience on the ground, and they came up with an impressive list of recommendations."

Several proposals relate to helping low-income people build their assets. One would create a financial services corps that would deliver financial education and counseling for low- and middle-income households. Another would expand and enhance the program of Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), matched savings accounts that reward monthly savings of families (through private and public matching) toward a specific high-return goal such as education, a small business, or a first home.

The area of family policy includes an initiative to promote healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood, and one to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit by eliminating the marriage penalty. The EITC – a Republican idea expanded by President Clinton – now moves more children out of poverty than any other government program, the forum says.

Several proposals aim to reduce recidivism by expanding employment opportunities for ex-inmates. "Prisoner reentry stuff doesn't get much attention but it's huge" for communities, Wallis says. "When you talk about 5,000 prisoners being released on the streets in the fall, people want to know, 'What are we going to do about that?' There's almost never a plan."

The group has scheduled a meeting on the proposals with Obama administration officials and would like to hear some of its ideas in the president's speech to Congress on Feb. 24.

The religious leaders in CCT won't engage in lobbying, but see their role as "getting the 101.5 million members of our churches informed and mobilized, helping our congregations take poverty [reduction] seriously as a mandate of the gospel," Dr. Hamm says.

The forum will lobby to see their proposals included in economic recovery efforts. "The last two weeks in Congress haven't looked very good on bipartisanship, but people of faith want to try to move the ball forward," Wallis says.