Washington Report to Presbyterians
- Overcoming Poverty through Just Tax Policy
- Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
- In This City …
- New Director of Public Witness for the Washington Office Of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
In Bread for the World’s (BFW) Working Harder for Working Families: Hunger 2008, Renee, a single mother, is quoted as saying:
When you’re poor you have to do things to stretch 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 really got scared.
As a new mother myself, I cannot imagine the desperation that leads a parent to water down her baby’s formula. As an employed person, secure with my education, salary and benefits, I cannot begin to know the depth of her despair and anguish — but I do know that her story made me cry for an hour.
Overcoming poverty is not just an ideal. It is nothing more or less than the moral imperative of our time; yet poverty is growing in the United States. In 2008, the most recent year for which we have data, the poverty rate rose to 13.2 percent from 12.5 percent in 2007. In other words, 39.8 million people in the United States had income at or below the federal poverty line — $17,346 for a family of three — the most people living in poverty in the United States since 1960. More than 14 million children under the age of 18-19 percent of all children — lived below the poverty line.
When it comes to food security, the picture is even bleaker. In the United States, 14.6 percent of households struggle to put food on the table and 22.5 percent of all American children live in those households.
Of course, these significant increases in poverty and hunger are in large part due to the recession. Even in 2007, however, before the recession began, the poverty rate was 12.5 percent; so the recession alone cannot be responsible for so much need.
Rather, there is a systemic problem at work. Over the last four decades, the value of work and wages has slowly eroded. According to another BFW report, “Forty years ago, a minimum-wage job was enough for one parent working full time to pull a family of four above the poverty line”; but now, “…the value of the minimum wage is 17 percent lower than it was then,” when it is adjusted for inflation.
To add insult to injury, an already difficult job market that offers wages far too low to support a family has been hit hard by the recession. The most recent jobless report shows that the unemployment rate continues at 9.7 percent, and that the economy shed 36,000 jobs in February, 2010.
Given the introduction above, there are several policy directions in which to steer this article. Having hit on poverty data, food insecurity and unemployment, I could pursue adequate funding of the social safety net, improved and increased access to nutrition programs, or supports for workers such as unemployment insurance and COBRA, the legislation that allows people to retain health insurance when they lose jobs.
I could go farther into systemic issues and discuss living wage jobs, local food sourcing and the correlation between poverty and poor education resources, ensuring that a generation growing up in poverty will live their adult lives in poverty as well — not to mention the mounting costs of health care, housing, transportation and child care that cripple each low-income family’s chances of economic security. All of these directions would be valid, effective policy discussions, given our problem. Instead, I will address a just system of taxation.
The tax code of the United States is immensely complex, to the point where even most low-income people need to pay for professional tax preparation. Tax policy offers incentives for residents to act in ways deemed to be socially desirable and contributing to the public good. Such policies include incentives to own homes, save for education expenses and retirement, attend college, start a business and so on. These incentives for the most part appear as deductions, which reduce a person’s tax liability (such as the home mortgage interest deduction or charitable donations), or exemptions that exclude certain types of income from being counted toward taxable income (such as certain retirement savings or employer-provided health coverage).
Unfortunately, the vast majority of these incentives are more accessible to higher income brackets where people have more tools to reach financial security, than to the lowest income brackets, where the most help is needed. This is because people filing in lower tax brackets often do not itemize deductions or even earn enough to owe taxes, and low-income jobs are less likely to provide health coverage or pre-tax IRA or 401K retirement savings accounts. This situation results in a tax code that is skewed toward helping those at the middle and top of the income spectrum, while leaving the low-income earners out of the loop.
There are a few tax credits that are specifically designed to reach low-income wage earners. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) are two such notable policies. The EITC is an anti-poverty program that supplements the wages of low-income workers, while the CTC provides financial support for working families with children. The EITC is the nation’s largest anti-poverty program. In 2009, it lifted an estimated 6.6 million people, half of them children, above the poverty line. Likewise, the CTC lifted an estimated 2.3 million people, including 1.3 million children, out of poverty in 2009. These programs are effective, both in supporting families and in stimulating the economy; but their ability to remain effective is in question at the end of 2010.
The EITC and CTC were temporarily expanded last year as a response to the recession. These expansions will expire at the end of this year. If Congress does not make permanent — or at least extend — these expansions, seven million people could lose their EITC, while six million children would lose the benefit and ten million children would receive less from the child tax credit, which now aids 16 million children under the expansion.
These tax credits are incredibly important, allowing low-income families to plan ahead and make effective use of these benefits. They provide cash to the people who are most likely to spend it, stimulating the economy. As Regina Howard said in BFW’s 2010 Hunger Report, “You can’t pay your phone bill with food stamps or WIC,” even though those programs provide vital support to low-income people.
I could not adequately address the subject of just tax policy in a year-long series of articles, so convoluted is the breadth of United States tax policy; but making permanent the extensions to these two small tax credit programs is a step in the right direction. According to Bread for the World, in 2006, the government spent $157.5 billion in home-ownership assistance, only $2.6 billion of which funded public housing for low-income people. This inequity must be addressed with broader legislation to reform and simplify the tax code.
These tax credits are the subject of Bread for the World’s 2010 Offering of Letters. Please visit www.bread.org to find more resources and to get involved.
By Mary Anderson Cooper
The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was first submitted to the United States Senate for ratification by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, after it was signed by representatives of his Administration. More than 30 years later, it is still unratified, making the United States the only developed nation not to have approved this international bill of rights for women.
In 1987, after CEDAW had languished for nearly a decade, the 199th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) called on the United States Senate to ratify the Convention. The church is still urging the same action.
CEDAW defines discrimination against women as:
Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on the basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.
It further requires all states that are party to it to take:
… all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men.
Ratifying nations are required to repeal any discriminatory provisions in their own laws and enact legislation to guarantee women protection against discrimination.
In light of the progress that has been made in the reduction of gender discrimination in some parts of the world in recent decades, some might conclude that CEDAW is no longer needed. We have only to look at what has happened in Haiti following the recent devastating earthquake to see that there is still a serious problem where protection of the rights of women is concerned.
Dr. Henia Dakkak, technical advisor in the Humanitarian Response Branch at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has stated:
An increase in violence against women is often one of the devastating consequences of crisis, whether brought on by natural disasters or wartime … when large numbers of people are displaced, separated from their families and communities, when civil society is virtually nonexistent with police, legal, health, education and social services severely weakened and stress and tension and poverty among populations high, women and girls are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
In Haiti, where women and girls already faced high rates of violence, this is a serious concern that UNFPA and other agencies are addressing. So unsafe were women and children in Haiti after the recent earthquake that the World Food Program had to set up separate food distribution sites for women, to assure that they and their children were not simply pushed aside and left to starve by men.
In addition, many international organizations and some agencies of the Haitian government have given priority to efforts to stop human trafficking involving women and children, something that was a problem before the disaster and has become even more of an issue because of the loss of legitimate sources of income caused by the earthquake.
These situations and others that occur all over the world — forced marriages, denial of education and employment opportunity, lack of the most basic health care — are all proof that there is still a need for the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. It is past time for the United States Senate to ratify this instrument of human advancement.
By Catherine Gordon
In this city, in which God chose to speak to humanity and to reconcile peoples with himself and among themselves, we raise our voices to say that the paths, followed up till now, have not brought about the pacification of the city and have not reassured normal life for her inhabitants. Therefore they must be changed. The political leaders must search for a new vision as well as for new means.
In God's own design, two peoples and three religions have been living together in this city. Our vision is that they should continue to live together in harmony, respect, mutual acceptance and cooperation.
- Statement from the Patriarchs and Heads of the Local Christian Churches in Jerusalem – September 2006
Several weeks ago, the state of Israel announced that it would move forward with the construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. As a result, relations between the United States and Israel have deteriorated and doubts have been raised over the outlook for indirect peace talks that both the Palestinians and Israel had agreed to several weeks ago.
The United States, the United Nations, and the European Union expressed extreme irritation with the move. The EU foreign policy chief stated that “Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace, and threaten to make a two state solution impossible.” United Nations chief Ban Ki-Moon stated that “settlements are illegal under international law” and underscored that settlement activity is contrary to Israel’s obligation under the road map, and undermines any movement towards a viable peace process.
So, why all the fuss over apartments in East Jerusalem? Jerusalem, as a city, has deep political, historical, economic and cultural significance to both Palestinians and Israelis; and its holy places are sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims across the globe. Any event that takes place in Jerusalem reverberates around the world and has implications for regional stability as well as for United States national security interests.
For Israel, Jerusalem is its undivided capital, and the hub of Israeli and Jewish life. For Palestinians, East Jerusalem has been the center of Palestinian identity, and the anticipated capital of the as-yet-unattained Palestinian state. Jerusalem is at the center of conflict for both Israelis and Palestinians, and will surely be at the center of its solution. The inclusion of East Jerusalem in a Palestinian state is central to the economic and political viability of that state, as well as for Arab recognition. Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish peace organization, states that:
For the sake of Israel’s security and stability, a formula must be found to share the city between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
A Brief History
In 1947, the U.N. partition plan recommended that Palestine be partitioned into Jewish and Arab states with Jerusalem belonging to neither. Jerusalem was to be internationalized in a corpus seperatum, but this was never accomplished.
After the 1948-49 war, Israel seized the western portion of Jerusalem, and Jordan seized the eastern portion (including East Jerusalem and the Old City) and the West Bank. Under Jordanian control, Israelis were not given access to their holy sites. In the aftermath of the 1967 war, Israel incorporated the Old City and East Jerusalem into the municipal boundaries of Israeli Jerusalem and expanded the city 2.5 times. In 1980, the Israeli government passed legislation formally declaring that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.”
Consecutive United States administrations have maintained that the future of the city must be decided in a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. While the United States Congress passed legislation in 1995 that would recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, the bill provided a waiver in the event that moving the American embassy there was contrary to United States national security interests. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have each exercised the waiver, deciding against moving the United States embassy.
Many of the central issues of the Israel/Palestine conflict intersect in Jerusalem — security, identity, settlements, the separation barrier, borders, and the status of the city itself. Jerusalem has been the site of many suicide bombings and is now being separated from the West Bank and the majority of Palestinians by Jewish settlements and the route of the barrier. The settlements and the barrier harm the health, livelihood and education of Palestinians as they hinder freedom of movement and impede access to core Palestinian educational institutions, hospitals and businesses.
A report by the International Crisis Group stated that:
Israel has legitimate security concerns in Jerusalem, where Palestinian attacks have left hundreds dead … but the measures currently being implemented are at war with any viable two-state solution and will not bolster Israel’s safety.
Continued construction of settlements in East Jerusalem is a provocative action that changes the facts on the ground and hinders a negotiated solution to the status of Jerusalem. Not only does this action endanger Israel’s security, but also the conflict is increasingly harming United States national security interests. Recently, the Commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), General David Petraeus said:
The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR (area of responsibility)… Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.
This is a crucial moment on the path to achieving a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land that allows Israel to exist in security and the Palestinian people to have a viable, secure and sovereign state of their own. The continued building of settlements threatens the integrity of East Jerusalem and the peace process itself.
Please use the following sample email to contact your Member of Congress:
As a Christian living in your district, I support efforts by our government to help achieve a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land that allows Israel to exist in security and the Palestinian people to have a viable and independent state of their own.
The actions needed from both sides are as clear as ever: Palestinians must halt violence and improve governance, while Israelis must halt settlement expansion and allow the secure movement of people and goods.
I support United States leadership in its efforts to hold both sides — Israel and the Palestinians — accountable for the individual and collective responsibilities.
New Israeli construction in Palestinian territories, including in Palestinian East Jerusalem, must cease if necessary progress is to be made toward peace and security for both Israel and the Palestinians.
I urge you to support all United States efforts now underway to prompt the resumption of peace talks.
General Assembly Policy
The 1995 General Assembly urged the President and the United States Congress to:
a. support the United Nations in the implementation of its resolutions on the future of Jerusalem;
b. renew efforts to make United States aid to Israel conditional upon the cessation of the appropriation of Palestinian land in and around Jerusalem and the establishment of new settlements in the occupied territories, especially those that are a part of the ongoing efforts to create a "Greater Jerusalem";
c. reject current legislative efforts to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a step that would do severe damage to the Middle East Peace Process.
d. Urge the Israeli government to lift the military closures of Jerusalem that deny Christians, Muslims and others access to their places of worship, employment, health care, education and other basic services.
Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, Pastor of Liberation Community Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, has been called to be the Director of Public Witness for the PC(USA)’s Washington Office, beginning May 1.
A graduate of Johnson C. Smith University, with his degree in political science and urban studies, Dr. Nelson received his Master of Divinity degree from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and his Doctor of Ministry degree from Louisville Seminary. In addition to his 25 years in pastoral ministry, he has a distinguished history in social justice work, with particular emphasis on the plight of low-income people.