Poverty Issues in 2023
Efforts to reduce poverty has been a focus of conflict between our two political parties again this year, now with the Republican Party in control of the House of Representatives. We are halfway through 2023, a good time to recall the ups and downs of this year’s debates, assess results, and think how we can best influence what's happening. I’m following these events as coordinator of the Circle of Protection, an advocacy coalition of church bodies and Christian ministries (https://circleofprotection.us).
The most extreme Republicans in the House have again been disruptive, repeatedly blocking the work of their own party and putting us all at risk of a major financial crisis. They got their way when Speaker McCarthy was struggling to develop a bill on the budget and debt ceiling that he could get all his House Republicans to support. The bill would have made a necessary increase in the debt ceiling conditional on cuts in efforts to reduce poverty and curtail climate change. The Circle of Protection crafted a joint letter to the President and Congress that flagged the disproportionate impact of a financial crisis on low-income workers and argued against the bill’s proposed cuts in poverty-focused programs.
We arranged in-person meetings at the White House and with senior leaders in Congress on June 6. I thought we might be in the initial stages of a U.S. default on that day. Thankfully. President Biden and Speaker McCarthy reached a compromise, and a majority in both houses of Congress voted for it. The compromise legislation spared us from a financial crisis, protected the President’s climate-change programs, and substantially moderated cuts to poverty-focused programs. It was signed into law on the day before our meetings.
We expressed our gratitude to all the political leaders who helped achieve this compromise, but used most of our time with them to help turn their attention to three poverty-important issues on which religious groups and other advocacy organizations will be active through the rest of 2023:
> Appropriations for 2024. The compromise called for a freeze in appropriations for non-defense programs at the level of 2023. But after the bill passed, House leadership caved to the far right again, so the House majority is now pushing for appropriations at the 2022 level. Church groups and other advocates are urging Congress to protect poverty-focused programs and to approve increases in some programs, notably WIC, housing, and international assistance.
> Tax legislation. House Republicans are putting together tax legislation that would reduce revenue from high-income people and corporations. It would also rescind recently approved tax credits designed to slow climate change. The groups in the Circle of Protection, some of them conservative-leaning groups, all think - based on biblical principles - that our country should raise more revenue from high-income people and corporations. Many faith groups will push hard for some re-expansion of the Child Tax Credit for low-income families in whatever tax legislation passes Congress this year.
> The Farm Bill. After many years of advocacy, three-quarters of the funding in the Farm Bill now goes to nutrition programs. The Circle groups together want Congress to protect SNAP food assistance and international food aid.
We followed up (just this week) with another joint letter to the President and every member of Congress. The letter puts these three issues in the context of increased need in our country and some of the poorest countries in the world.
The massive bills Congress passed during the pandemic kept the U.S. economy afloat and avoided a sustained surge in hunger and poverty. During Biden’s first year in office, hunger and poverty dropped to historically low levels. But legislation that would have continued some pandemic assistance programs failed by one vote in the Senate at the end of 2021, and communities have been coping with wave after wave of increasing need since then as one pandemic program after another has ended. According to Census Bureau data, the percentage of families with children who aren’t getting enough to eat has increased by a third between October 2021 and May 2023. This clearly wasn’t necessary. It was a political choice.
In the developing world, the pandemic has stalled progress and provoked some increase in poverty and hunger. In general, the reversal hasn’t been as severe as I expected. But in a handful of very poor countries suffering conflict, more people are struggling on the edge of famine than ever before.
God’s purposes in this situation require ongoing advocacy with our members of Congress on the three poverty-important decisions Congress will be making this year. We also need to give time and money now to influence the 2024 elections. Our experience during the first half of 2023 again shows that elections matter a lot, certainly among people in need.