Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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.

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 eleventh-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 Mona 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 political process

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.

Beckmann, who is a Lutheran pastor and economist, said that organizing the Circle of Protection was easy. “All of the religious leaders I’ve approached have said, ‘Yeah, that’s right, that’s consistent with what I read in the scriptures.’ ”

During the debt ceiling crisis of 2011, Beckmann and other leaders met with President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, Rep. Paul Ryan and other politicians to provide a voice for the poor. Their efforts and those of like-minded citizens helped secure an agreement that exempted programs such as SNAP, Medicaid and Pell Grants from the automatic sequestration cuts that form part of the fiscal cliff.

"We would not have got that outcome without the advocacy of religious people," Beckmann said.

With lawmakers now negotiating to avoid the "fiscal cliff," all programs are back on the table for potential cuts, and the Circle of Protection is back to work.

On Nov. 29, the group joined Jewish and Muslim leaders in a media conference at Bread for the World’s office in Washington.

Dr. Sayyid Syeed, a Muslim-American who offered a prayer at the conference, said that while Washington is full of lobbyists “fighting for different issues, there isn’t an organized lobby for the weaker sections of our society. That’s why religious people have to step in and raise their voices.”

Syeed called the national budget “a document that represents our national moral priorities.”

“It’s not right," Beckmann said, "for us to have runaway deficit spending that our children are going to have to pay for. We want (politicians) to resolve our fiscal issues without making life tougher for families who can’t feed their kids. Poor people did not cause the fiscal crisis and they’re also the least able to withstand cuts to programs like Medicaid and food stamps.”

Food on the table

SNAP, which made up 2 percent ($76 billion) of the federal budget in 2011, has increased rapidly in cost and size over the past few years, according to Jacob Klerman, a principal associate at Abt Associates, a public policy and business consulting firm.

Klerman, whose research focuses on social welfare policy, published a study on SNAP in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management last year.

He calls the program “moderately expensive” but also says that it’s countercyclical. “When and if it becomes easier for people to find jobs, these problems will go away or become smaller.”

Other programs such as Medicare and Social Security present a heavier burden. They are “likely to grow rapidly over the next few decades as the nation ages and as medical costs are expected to increase,” Klerman said.

Sharon Parrott, a vice president at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, agrees that SNAP will automatically contract as the economy improves.

“The notion that our choice is unsustainable deficits or assuring needed assistance for low-income families is just a false choice," she said. “Meaningful deficit reduction that puts the country on a sustainable fiscal path can be achieved without increasing the depth of poverty."

When pressed for details of how to do this, Beckmann pointed to Social Security. “Politically, it’s very controversial," he said. "(But) it would save a lot of money if we change the way (Social Security) is tied to inflation.”

Some liberals balk at that idea, but Beckmann said “politicians and citizens of all persuasions have to give a little bit to reach a compromise to keep us clear of recession.”

Venturing further into the political firestorm, he mentioned tax increases and a reduction in Medicare benefits for high-income households — ideas that rankle some conservatives.

“If (the country) cannot compromise,” Beckmann said, “then what we get is tax increases for everybody next year, which probably means recession. That would increase unemployment, and unemployment does more damage to poor people than almost anything because they are on the edge of the job market.”

With divisions within both parties, can politicians pull off a deal before reaching the fiscal cliff?

“I’m praying for John Boehner,” Beckmann said.

Grateful, not entitled

Reflecting on the state of the country and the political posturing in Washington, Mona Eisenberg offered a similar sentiment: “I hope everybody is willing to make a little sacrifice for a long-term fix.”

She knows what it means to make difficult budget cuts — in her case due to an incurable, unpreventable disease.

“This is a different means of living,” she said. “But I adjust my means of living to what I have. My life isn’t what it used to be, but that doesn’t matter. People ask me how I can live on $700 a month. They say they can’t live on twice that. I say, ‘Actually, you can.’ ”

Eisenberg chooses to focus on what she has, counting it a blessing to have access to programs that keep food on her table, medicine in her cabinets and a roof over her head.

“I cannot tell you my level of gratitude,” she said. “I just cry sometimes. I feel this saved my life. I don’t have any sense of entitlement. As a matter of fact, I waited much too long to get into this because I just didn’t want to ask for help. So I’m coming from an attitude of appreciation.”

David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at [email protected].