Finding Our Political Will to End Hunger

In recent weeks, President Barack Obama, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich all talked about poverty--which was very unusual, as political leaders of both parties generally avoid talking about poor people.

At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama explained how his Christian faith inspires his commitment to fairness and to opportunity for poor people in our country and around the world. No matter what side of the aisle you sit on, he was right about the connection between Christian faith and justice for poor people.

Governor Romney says he misspoke when he said he's not concerned about the very poor--but I think he was right about one point. The social safety net in this country is helping many hungry and poor people make ends meet in this terrible economy.

Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) expand automatically when poverty increases. In 2009 and 2010, Congress and the president strengthened SNAP, child nutrition programs, and tax credits for working poor people. Bread for the World churches and members across the country helped achieve those changes.

Speaker Gingrich also spoke about poverty in the last two weeks. He said we shouldn't be satisfied with a safety net for poor people--that what they need is a trampoline to help them get out of poverty. While Gingrich doesn't say much about how he would help people get out of poverty, he's right that we should aim to overcome hunger and poverty.

Last year conservatives in the House of Representatives pushed for deep cuts to all programs focused on poor people in our country and around the world. Their budget proposed to cut $4.5 trillion in government spending over 10 years, with two-thirds of those cuts directed to poverty-focused programs (mainly Medicaid and SNAP).

In their first appropriations bill, the House voted to cut nearly 700,000 people from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and to end food aid rations for about 14 million of the world's poorest people. No Republican in the House or Senate dissented from those decisions, and Democrats were talking mainly about protecting the middle class.

This led Bread for the World and other faith-based groups to urge Congress and the administration to form a circle of protection around poverty-focused programs--domestic and international. People of faith across the country joined suit by contacting their members of Congress. Remarkably, we made it through 2011 without any major cuts to programs focused on hungry and poor people. We maintained the safety net in this country, and it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.

Census data show that hunger and food insecurity surged in 2008, but it did not increase further in 2009 and 2010 even though unemployment and poverty continued to increase. This is because programs such as SNAP and WIC have expanded to meet the increased need. We also maintained U.S. assistance to poor countries. World hunger also surged in 2008, and although it is still unconscionably high, it stabilized somewhat in 2009 and 2010--largely because of international assistance.

Ironically, we have not had a president since Lyndon B. Johnson who made reducing poverty one of his top five priorities. We have never had a president who made reducing poverty in the world one of his top 20 priorities. One-fourth of all Americans are in religious services every week, but we don't insist that our presidents make opportunity for poor people a priority.

Many churches across the country collect food for hungry people, but all the food churches and food banks provide is equivalent to just 6 percent of the food federal nutrition programs provide--mainly through SNAP, WIC, and school meals. It is not enough to be personally charitable. We also need to be advocates for laws that respond to God's requirement of justice for poor people.

I think God is calling us, people who know the love of God through Jesus Christ, to provide leadership in making justice for poor people a national priority. I urge you to think ambitiously, take a stance, and protect programs that support those in need.