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Can churches make up for gaps in federal funding to the poor?

Can churches make up for gaps in federal funding to the poor?

The government shutdown may be over, but cuts to social programs that help the poor are very much still with us. In my church work, I meet people every day who are hurt by cuts to food programs and other federal assistance. Can congregations make up the difference? I wish we could, but the answer is absolutely not. Brie Loskota writes at Religion Dispatches:

Groups like “Jesus Loves New Jersey” are stepping up to show how “the Church” can fill the gaps left by the shuttered government. While these types of efforts are very much at the core of what many congregations see as their role—to meet the unmet needs and to serve those who are hurting—they can also perhaps unwittingly reinforce the notion that government’s functions can be best met by private efforts spurred by individual and shared values, with congregations being uniquely suited to lead the charge.

In a column at Religion & Politics, David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, notes:

The Hartford Institute for Religion and Research estimates there are 335,000 religious congregations in the United States. If the House’s proposals to cut SNAP by $133.5 billion and $36 billion are enacted, each congregation will have to spend about $50,000 more annually to feed those who would see a reduction or loss of benefits. The message from the House is that every church in America—no matter what size the congregation—must come up with an extra $50,000 to feed people every year for the next 10 years to make up for these cuts. Churches do amazing work in their communities to meet the needs of the vulnerable. However, without the help of government programs, this responsibility would be too much for religious organizations to bear. It just doesn’t add up.

See Loskota’s full story here.

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Michael Russell

In the olden days, feeding the poor, healing the sick in hospitals, schools, penitentiaries and even road building were organized by Churches in communities.

Gradually over time we transferred these charitable tasks to government or private enterprise. It was thought to be expeditious to pay for them through taxes or at an inflated cost because enterprises expect profit. (Lets not talk about how profit should go to shareholders, but is routinely paid to management)

At the present moment we are in a battle between those who resent paying taxes to support these good things publicly and those who think that it is the proper role of government to create a safety net. The first group resents and wants to punish those who allow themselves to become dependent, the second wants to punish those who have accumulated wealth and resent sharing it with the least in the community.

The government's interest in a safety net is not about compassion, though it may well be characterized that way, it is about ensuring domestic tranquility by assuaging those who might become desperate and potentially rebellious. Long have we know that the masses of poor also have second amendment rights, our social contract is built on both rich and poor surrendering rights for domestic peace.

That said, perhaps it is time to expand Archbishop Welby's idea of creating Credit Unions to undercut pay day lenders. Perhaps we should attempt to feed the hungry in collaboration with food chains and food banks. Or create non-profit health insurance agencies. Given how the unemployed are now being discriminated against because they have been unemployed, perhaps we need entrepreneurial enterprises to put them to work.

In the coming budget discussion I am all in favor of pushing the responsibility for much of the safety net down to states and localities. Over the past 16 days the states have had the taste of what it looks like NOT to have Federal dollars flowing in, but the truth is that those were always local dollars that traveled up to DC to travel back down, usually to ensure a level playing field. Now perhaps is the time to let localities bear the full onus for raising the money for these programs about which they have griped so furiously these last years. Let them locally raise taxes to come up with every dollar that gets cut from the Federal budget. Let the states pick it up or pass the cost down to counties and municipalities.

In doing this we would instantly see the politics of resentment work itself out. Poor young children would not get fed or educated as SNAP and Head Start vanish from states like North Carolina, which just turned off its welfare payments even though it had a rainy day fund of $600 million.

Almost immediately we would see that the "fiscal crisis" becomes a "moral and "domestic peace crisis" as the poor, many of them white, suddenly find themselves abandoned. The wealthy may be able to flee the consequences, but not the Tea Party's middle class who themselves will be hit.

In the meantime we Christians ought to prepare to get off the spot more and find pragmatic solutions to local needs.

So lets try go for some nimble new ministries to bring the church back where it used to be, on the Public Square ministering to the public.

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