Faith leaders weigh in on the fiscal cliff and programs for the poor

Published: Thursday, Dec. 27 2012 10:25 p.m. MST

The Velazquez family shops with food stamps in 2011 at the last farmers market at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City. With Congress and the Obama Administration negotiating to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, many worry that cuts to federal programs that help the poor and vulnerable could leave people out in the cold.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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Mona Eisenberg of Lexington, Ky., knows if she goes grocery shopping, she'll be done for the day. In her struggle against systemic lupus erythematosus, which has no cure, she has to pick her battles.

For years, Eisenberg fought those battles without government assistance. But as she reached her 50s, her symptoms worsened and full-time work turned part-time. Some days, just picking up a tissue left her exhausted.

Eviction notices piled up, and without family to lean on she eventually found herself homeless, sleeping some nights in her car.

"It was an eye-opening experience," Eisenberg said, "how vulnerable we all are at the drop of a hat, especially if you don't have a support system."

Now 54, she receives medical, food and housing assistance from Medicaid, SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp program) and HUD (Housing and Urban Development agency). She also receives $700 a month in disability income from SSI (Supplemental Security Income program).

With Congress and the White House in 11th-hour negotiations to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, many worry that deep cuts to federal programs that aid the poor and vulnerable could leave people like Eisenberg out in the cold. Although it failed to pass the U.S. House of Representatives last week, the bill known as "Plan B" proposed $36 billion in cuts to SNAP and reductions to tax credits for the working poor.

Others argue, however, that with four straight years of trillion-dollar deficits and a national debt of more than $16 trillion, failure to rein in spending would impoverish and unfairly burden future generations — and they say everything should be on the table.

With both sides claiming moral high ground, bridging the political distance between them has proved nearly impossible for lawmakers. Meanwhile, a broad coalition of Christian leaders has been quietly working behind the scenes advocating ways to cut the deficit that won't hurt low-income Americans. Due largely to their efforts, some programs that serve the poor were exempted from the sequestration cuts associated with the fiscal cliff — but their work isn't done yet.

"Reducing massive deficits is indeed a moral issue," said a recent statement from the group, which calls itself the Circle of Protection, "and how we do it is also a crucial moral question."

Faith in the politicals

The Rev. David Beckmann, president of the nonpartisan Christian organization Bread for the World, conceived the idea of forming a "circle of protection" around the poor during the 2011 debt ceiling debate. He and several other Christian leaders began by uniting in fasting and prayer to know how to help the poor, he said.

"It's a question God asks of us," Beckmann said. "We were asking God to guide us and the nation as we dealt with an exceptional moral challenge. At that point neither party was talking about the poor."

The 65 primary signatories to the Circle of Protection represent a wide array of denominations and groups: Catholics, Protestants, conservatives, liberals, whites, blacks and Latinos — including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Christian social justice organization Sojourners.

Over the past 18 months, the coalition has mobilized churches, communities and campuses to raise awareness about hunger and to write politicians, urging them to protect specific programs.

"When faith-motivated voters in a given district weigh in, that causes politicians to think twice, and we've seen that happen," Beckmann said.

Programs the group seeks to safeguard include SNAP; Head Start; Medicaid; CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program); tax credits, education and training for low-income families; homeless shelters; refugee assistance; and protections against child maltreatment.

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