“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” FDR, second inaugural speech 1937
ESR MDiv student Anna Woofenden spoke at Peace Forum on Thursday, March 29 about the summer she spent interning at Bread for the World in Washington DC. She brought with her Matt Gross, a Bread for the World organizer who is based in the Chicago area. Bread for the World is unique in that it does advocacy for hunger-related issues but not direct food aid.
Matt pointed out that most Christian organizations focus on direct aid; a food pantry, a soup kitchen, etc. 96% of food aid in this country is delivered by the federal government, mostly in the form of SNAP (food stamps), WIC (for pregnant women and mothers with children under 2), and free lunches. What churches and other non-profits do is very small in comparison with these programs, and changes in the federal and state funding of these programs could easily wipe out all the good that NGOs do in this country. Thus, to have a food ministry of direct aid without looking at systemic issues is a losing proposition.
A recent Bread for the World blog post discussed the dangers the Paul Ryan budget poses to these programs. Eligible women and children could be turned away from these programs if indeed their funding is limited.
• In 2011, 45 million Americans received SNAP (14%)
• In 2011, 9 million women and children received WIC
Bread for the World engages churches in letter-writing campaigns and other advocacy. This summer, Anna worked on a resource called “Bread for the Preacher.” This provides information to pastors who want to discuss hunger in their sermons. Selections are available online.
OK, so here’s my dilemma. Obviously the amount of money the US spends on aid programs is a lot (Social Security, Medicaid/Medicare, SNAP, WIC, etc.) although military spending is certainly the bigger elephant in the room. Social Security, I always point out, is not charity. I pay into social security and have since my first paycheck at 15 (which is something I always point out when Republican presidential candidates say, “Oh, social security won’t change for those over 50. You’ll be able to count on the money you paid into it.” What am I? Chopped liver?)
But, the reality is that SNAP and WIC are welfare. (I would also argue that the government creates the need for SNAP and WIC to a certain extent through its own policies.) Some folks argue that the government should not give aid of this sort. Indeed, they argue that the Christian mandate to care for the poor should be done privately, not through governmental organizations. This seems like a good theory to
me, but bad practice. If the government simply taxed us all less, would we really give all that money to organizations that directly aid the poor? If private organizations are currently responsible for 4% of direct aid, would we really contribute 25 times as much? Additionally, the federal and state governments recognize that they have a stake in the health and welfare of their citizens and that caring for them now means greater
productivity and fewer costs later. Thus, aid ultimately makes sense from an economic standpoint.
Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.