The battle over fiscal priorities going on in Washington seems fixated on the middle class and the rich, and how various proposals and counter-proposals will affect these groups. There is another group, perhaps as large 20% of our population, who seem invisible. They are low-income people, the poor. These are the people in our society, millions upon millions of them who literally have no voice in the deliberations going on in Washington.
Our political/economic culture runs on money. The more money you have, the louder your voice. If one doubts that, look at where the wealth is, and who gets the tax breaks, the subsidies, and who gets their way in Congress. If the poor receive any attention from Washington politicians, it is to look at programs to assist them as “welfare,” “handouts,” and beneficiaries as lacking ambition, looking for ”the gummint” to take care of them, à la Mitt Romney’s 47%.
Here I invite my readers to consider another and different voice in the debate on taxes and spending, one that doesn’t seem to make much of a splash in the media. It is the voice of America’s faith Community. It finds articulation in a campaign being coordinated by two national organizations—PICO* and Sojourners **.
Together, they have launched a campaign to give the poor a voice in Washington. The campaign is called Circle of Protection. The campaign literally turns the fiscal debate on its head.
Circle of Protection declares every one of our low-income citizens is of equal value and worth with every middle class or wealthy citizen. As Christian, I return again and again to Jesus’ teachings and example. He was unrelenting in his devotion to the well-being of the left-out ones and his criticism of those who exploited them. I look to the Apostle Paul when he repeatedly declares in his letters to churches that in the eyes of God, no member of the church is of greater value or of higher status than any other, no matter who they are, where they came from or how long they have been there.
The seminal document of our American experience, the Declaration of Independence, builds on the same principle: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” If the politicos aren’t impressed with the Bible, they ought to owe some fealty to our founding document.
Recently I received a booklet in the U.S. Mail co-produced by PICO and Sojourners called The Choices We Face. A key introductory statement sets the tone: “As our nation wrestles with· fundamental questions about taxes and budgets, it is vitally important that religious leaders step into the breach to remind us that budgets are moral documents that should be judged against how they treat the most vulnerable.” Thus the strategy of the campaign: “Religious leaders from many different traditions have called on Congress to create ‘A Circle of Protection’ around programs serving vulnerable families.”
The U.S. Catholic Bishops have written that Congress must “put the poor first in budget priorities. We look at every budget proposal from the bottom up—how it treats those Jesus called ‘the least of these’. (Matthew 25:45). They do not have powerful lobbies, but they have the most compelling claim on our consciences and common resources. Christians (I would broaden this to include all faiths) have an obligation to help them be heard.” (Italics mine).
The Choices We Face document says, “Scripture does not tell us how we should spend public funds, but it makes clear we are stewards – not owners – of the financial resources entrusted in our care and that how we spend those resources must advance God’s purpose.”
Circle of Protection also recognizes that federal spending must be reined in. But it proceeds from the premise that our deficit is primarily a result of a revenue crisis – with federal taxes at record low levels (since tax cuts voted in 2001 and 2003)—combined with rapidly rising health-care costs, large military commitments and temporary increases in spending because of the recession.” It lays out a basic principle: “In both making cuts to spending and raising new revenues, it is important that Congress act with care so as not to inadvertently (or uncaringly I would add) increase poverty or income inequality.” The moral imperative is clear: In making budget cuts, put programs and policies that help our low-income citizens off limits—inside the Circle of Protection.
*PICO stands for People Improving Communities through Organizing. PICO is a national organization. Founded in 1972, it brings faith organizations, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, together to promote their common core values. Their current emphasis on federal budget priorities is called the Stand with Families Campaign. www.piconetwork.org
** Sojourners began in the 1960s and is a Christian advocacy organization whose motto is Faith in Action for Social Justice. Like PICO, it joins with other faith traditions to promote common core values. Its founder and president, Jim Wallis, is a major national figure in the social and economic justice arena. www.sojo.net.