Michelle receives food stamps. She uses them to feed her own family, and uses some to help buy formula for a friend’s baby.
Rainey uses Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) assistance. That’s how she provides health care for her iron-deficient daughter.
Molly lives in a federally subsidized affordable housing community. She just moved in after months of being homeless.
Each one of these families were at risk of direct harm as a result of last month’s 35-day federal government shutdown. With another shutdown looming amid stalled negotiations ahead of the Feb. 15 deadline, those risks are surfacing again.
As is so often the case, it is the poor and marginalized that are the most vulnerable to these arrogant battles of political will. We have now seen that our leaders were willing to hold families and their children hostage, allowing their wellbeing to be threatened by the reckless shut down of portions of the federal government for nothing more than partisan political gain.
This shutdown cut off funding to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which provides Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to 44.2 million Americans. Two-thirds of these households include children.
This shutdown also reduced funding to the Internal Revenue Service, which risked preventing or delaying the IRS from issuing income tax refunds. While this might have been an inconvenience for many, it would have been a catastrophe for low-income families who use these refunds to catch up on their rent and utility bills. In addition, families who receive housing vouchers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help pay their rent risked eviction if those vouchers had been delayed.
Are these the unintended side effects of complex, high-stakes brinksmanship as astute politicians debate a border wall? No, this is extortion, plain and simple. Low-income families, and especially their children, have become pawns, held ransom as our national elected officials toss their lives about. Our families have become political bargaining chips.
It is wrong for politicians to withhold food and shelter from poorest neighbors in absurd blackmail schemes designed to force others to acquiesce to their demands. Attempting to exert political pressure by refusing to fund portions of the federal government that care for our families and children is a misguided and amoral strategy, regardless of one’s position on building a border wall.
At United Methodist Church for All People in Columbus, Ohio, 60 percent of the congregation lives at or below the poverty line, making less than $20,000 per year. Our Free Store gives away $2 million worth of clothing and household items each year to help families stretch their limited budgets. Our Fresh Market will distribute 1.5 million pounds of free fresh produce this year alone to help families supplement their SNAP benefits. We have developed over $75 million of affordable housing in our neighborhood in partnership with HUD and others. And we train other churches to help them do this work in their own communities as well.
We’re doing our part.
We want our government to hold up its end.
Instead, members of our congregation readily felt the effect of an absent government. During the last shutdown, many received notices that they would need to stretch their current SNAP disbursement to cover six weeks’ worth of food. They weren’t sure if they would have money for next month’s rent. They worried that their heat would get turned off if they couldn’t catch up on their gas bill using their tax refund. We heard their prayers every day as we worshiped together. The outrage was palpable. We decided we had to take action, before further harm was visited upon our most vulnerable families.
So we held a town hall to call attention to the critical effect of the shutdown on our community. Michelle, Molly, Rainey, and many others shared their stories in a packed sanctuary that included representatives of our congressional delegation. We asked them to open the federal government and stop holding our community hostage for the sake of a political debate. Afterward, we presented poker chips to our U.S. senators to send a message: Our families are #NotABargainingChip.
Moses told Pharaoh that his people were not bargaining chips.
Esther insisted to King Xerxes that her people were not bargaining chips.
The prophets declared that the oppressed and marginalized are not bargaining chips.
Jesus proclaimed to the Pharisees that the least of these are not bargaining chips.
God’s people are #NotABargainingChip.
Did our hashtag go viral? Did we create a single rallying cry that swept the nation? Was our little protest in Columbus, Ohio, the one that ultimately changed the hearts of presidents and senators? No.
But we are convinced that we were participants in a holy synergy, a simultaneous spark from independent flames that shown forth in the darkness. We believe that in a moment of injustice small, seemingly independent voices drew courage from one another and dared to speak up.
And thus we, like Elijah at the mouth of the cave, are assured that there are still thousands of faithful whose knees have not yet bowed down to Baal. Take heart, we are not alone. Moreover, may we never be silent, lest others remain silent as well. Yes, Mr. President, the rocks do cry out.
As we pray against another government shutdown, join us in lifting your own voices together to insist that God’s people are not leveraged as political bargaining chips. Ask your members of Congress to protect funding for SNAP, WIC and Section 8 housing assistance in case of a future shutdown. Challenge them to cast their votes based on the merits of the families that will be protected, and to refuse to use their vote as legislative extortion. Let us resolve to never again allow our neighbors and their children be held as hostages by elected officials who are vying for their own partisan advantage.