Myths and Facts
Poverty and the federal budget
Renee Hummel, a mother in Staunton, Va., remembers a time when her family was struggling to make ends meet.
“We saved by buying food on clearance that had passed the expiration date,” she says. “I cooked from scratch and never ate out; it took a lot of time, but it sure saved a lot of money. When you’re poor you have to do things to stretch the food. … I watered down my daughter’s apple juice. I watered down her formula, but stopped doing that when she became anemic. That time I got really scared.”
Most of the items in a household budget—rent, utilities, transportation, child care—are fixed expenses. When the car breaks down, a child gets sick, the furnace goes on the fritz or a parent is laid off from work, a struggling family may fall into poverty. When money starts to run out, food—one of the few flexible items in the budget—often must be cut back.
Most Christians agree that helping poor and hungry people is an important part of Christian discipleship. But not all agree on what the government’s role should be in this effort.
Certain federal programs are designed to help low-income families cover those unexpected costs without going hungry. Those programs include the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as the food stamp program), school lunch and breakfast programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), housing subsidies and job training.
Most Christians agree that helping poor and hungry people is an important part of Christian discipleship. But not all agree on what the government’s role should be in this effort. Research by Bread for the World, a Washington, D.C.–based Christian advocacy organization dedicated to ending hunger, suggests that government programs play an essential role in helping low-income families.
MYTH: Federal anti-poverty programs are wasteful and ineffective.
FACT: The programs have a strong track record of efficiently targeting assistance to those who are eligible. For example, while poverty has reached record highs over the past three years, the percentage of households that the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers food insecure (struggling to put food on the table) has not gone up, because programs like SNAP and the school lunch program have responded to the rise in need. Nearly 46 million Americans now use SNAP benefits to buy groceries. Half of all SNAP participants are children.
The WIC program currently serves about 9 million people. Women who participate in WIC have fewer premature births, fewer low-birth-weight babies and fewer fetal and infant deaths. Moreover, 4- and 5-year-olds whose mothers participated in WIC during pregnancy have better vocabularies than eligible children whose mothers did not receive WIC.
MYTH: If government programs are cut, churches and private charities can provide the necessary safety net for low-income people.
FACT: The difficult economy challenges churches, soup kitchens and food pantries to step up their efforts, but it simply isn’t possible for these organizations to meet all the needs. For example, if you add up all the food provided by all the charities in the country, the total is only 6 percent of the amount of food that poor people receive from federal food programs.
MYTH: Cutting anti-poverty programs would make a major reduction in the federal budget deficit.
FACT: Just 14 percent of the federal budget is allocated for domestic social-safety-net programs (excluding health care and Social Security). Less than 1 percent of the federal budget is dedicated to international development assistance. A balanced approach toward addressing the country’s long-term budget problems will strengthen the economy and create jobs while maintaining a commitment to ending hunger and poverty.
“We cannot stand by as the federal budget is balanced on the backs of the poor,” says J. Herbert Nelson, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Public Witness. Last summer, he and other religious leaders helped launch the Faithful Budget Campaign, a grassroots initiative seeking to protect funding for programs that help poor and hungry people.
“Jesus taught that our well-being is inextricably bound to the well-being of others,” says Ruth Farrell, coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “Feeding hungry people is at the heart of our Presbyterian mission.
“Our federal budget reflects our vision and values,” she adds. “Yes, we need to reduce our deficits, but we also understand Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12 that the weaker members of the body are indispensable and that if one suffers, we all suffer.”
Amelia Kegan is senior policy analyst for Bread for the World.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness
Call (202) 543-1126.
Visit the office: 100 Maryland Ave. NE, Ste. 410, Washington, D.C. 2000
Bread for the World
The organization describes itself as “a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.” The PC(USA) and a number of other churches and faith-based groups have joined Bread for the World in calling on Congress to form a “circle of protection” around funding for programs for hungry and poor people as cuts are being made in the federal budget. For more information, vist their website.