Author Archives: evan

Blog: Promise of Pope Francis’s Encyclical Stirs Winds of Hope

Promise of Pope Francis’s Encyclical Stirs Winds of Hope

Sister Leanne Jablonski FMI, PhD
June 2, 2015

The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing… through the middle of the street of the city. On either side…is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Rev 22:1-2)

News of Pope Francis’s upcoming environmental encyclical is stirring winds of hope. Our pope is full of surprises and challenges that inspire bold, prophetic action. Many speculate on content and what it will mean. How will the Vatican’s voice contribute to the United Nations environmental work and the year-end universal climate change agreement in Paris? What do we hope Pope Francis will say to Congress in September? What does each of us need to hear, and what actions can we take in response?

As both a scientist and woman of faith, excitement is an understatement of my anticipation of the encyclical. As the first rumors grew in crescendo, I even pinched myself—just to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. It seems we are really at a time like that of Anna and Simeon being presented with the Christ Child (Lk 2: 25-37)—seeing something in our day I wasn’t sure that I would ever see. Both in the environmental challenges of our time, and the coming together of many to strive for collective solutions. And as with Jesus in his day, the hope and promise of the incarnation—God with us—was borne into a world in dire need of the message and promise of change.

The impact of the encyclical is extending far beyond Catholics engaged in environmental concerns. A religious statement on the environment is drawing excitement from other Christian denominations and world religious traditions. It is seen as an opportunity for internal education of members as well as raising our collective voices for the integrity of all creation—and about the impact of our lack of care of environmental degradation on the economically poor and vulnerable locally and globally.

The secular environmental community is also buzzing. At the Ecological Society of America 100th anniversary meeting this August in Baltimore, scientists and faith leaders from diverse traditions will share in several sessions aimed at exploring how scientists and people of faith can collaborate to achieve justice together.

Why is an encyclical important?

Such an ecclesial event gives us the opportunity to have a great impact in our church and for our faith witness to environmental justice—the importance of caring for all of nature and addressing the huge global challenge of climate change.

  • It is an opportunity for our witness of faith and justice values and their application— to educate and engage others of diverse talents—both internally and externally, on a critical justice issue.
  • It is an opportunity to take action where we can as individuals, groups, communities—in local to global ways.
  • It is an opportunity to collaborate with other faith traditions and likeminded individuals to truly build a world of justice and peace—an environmentally sustainable future for all.

Through the lens of the encyclical, we can be inspired and empowered to action in each of our roles—from the level of the individual, our local communities, our networks of religious families and organizations—to a global impact.

My story and the importance of people of faith and scientists working together

I professed first vows as a Marianist Sister in 1982, and following the call to be a bridge-builder between science and faith communities, I then did graduate work in biology, and also religious studies work on this relationship, meanwhile watching the faith community begin to explicitly articulate environmental care.

I then specialized in climate change and plant ecology in my science doctoral work in the 1990s.

At global climate change research conferences, I witnessed firsthand the growing consensus of scientists on the reality of climate change, and the high statistical improbability that the higher temperatures and related events were merely due to chance. As scientists, our quest is ongoing, data is subject to rigorous review, and hypotheses are tested repeatedly. We’re good at facts and data and complexity. Yet, we’ve realized we can’t stand silent as we piece together vast environmental changes underway that human actions can shift. As scientists, we’ve gradually realized the importance of contributing to the public policy process from our science expertise, and of learning how to communicate what we know to the general public in understandable ways.

I’ve been inspired by the 1991 Open Letter to the Religious Community, where 32 Nobel laureate and other eminent scientists recognized common interests of the two groups and the need for both scientific and ‘sacred’ understanding: “Many of us have had profound experiences of awe & reverence before the universe. We recognize that what is regarded as sacred is most likely to be treated with respect. Efforts to safeguard planetary environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred and as a universal moral priority.”

From this, The National Religious Partnership for the Environment was born (engaging the four major bodies that were nationally organized at the time: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; National Council of Churches; Evangelical Environmental Network; and Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life).

Environmental Professor Gus Speth expresses faith engagement as critical in his 2007 statement: “I used to think the ‘big three’ were climate, biodiversity, and pollution, but after many years of work

I think pride, apathy, and greed are even bigger. We need cultural and spiritual transformation, and science doesn’t do that—the church does that.”

What wisdom can trees offer us for approaching the encyclical event?

In my own pondering I’ve often been drawn to think of the image of trees as a wisdom guide to the experience of this upcoming ecclesial event—in the richness of their spiritual symbolism (from Genesis to the cross to Revelation), their grandeur and longevity of the plant kingdom, and their universality. On a more personal note, their deep roots (with just as much biomass extended below as above ground) remind me that there is more to discover and know in my own identity and role in acting on behalf of all the earth’s creatures. I was well into adulthood and decades of science research conducted with plants before I realized I was following my lineage of peasant-farmers, and that my family tree name itself derives from the Polish jablon, which means apple tree. Perhaps each of us has these identity/awareness moments in our own journey.

Why are statements on environmental care particularly important at this time? Caring for all of creation, or earth stewardship, is part of ancient biblical teaching. When most of the population was rural or more directly connected with the agrarian seasons and rhythms because their family or cultural group was directly providing the food and shelter, there wasn’t as much need for explicit mention. And this care was implied in other principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

However, with the shift to the cities of the past century, there is greater need to be explicitly reminded of our roots and interconnections with the nonhuman world. Additionally, the discoveries in science over the past several decades—of understanding the origin of the universe, the functioning of ecosystems, and all the fields that contribute to the science of climate change—show our interconnection and reliance upon the components of the physical world around us.

I expect that in the encyclical, Pope Francis will guide Catholics to a better understanding of this opportunity to care for creation and our sisters and brothers. I trust that science will have informed the context of the encyclical. As the science has become clearer about humanity’s impact on the natural world, the Church’s voice has become clearer. Recent popes and the U.S. bishops have spoken on the need to address climate change and care for creation: Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI rooted care for the environment in the need for solidarity with other people and with God’s creation. Both popes warned about human contributions to heat-trapping gases and climate change, as did the U.S. bishops in their 2001 statement that called for prudent action on climate change.

I expect that Pope Francis will make a strong case for the moral issue of our call to care for the poorest and most vulnerable people among us, and will link this to forming solutions to confront climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has issued assessments on the status of climate change over the past 25 years, has connected to the theme of global environmental injustice—enunciating that the poorest people are the ones least responsible for climate change and suffer its worst consequences. The basic human right of access to clean water, food and shelter is threatened by our planet’s warming, and with increased snowmelts, droughts, storm severity and frequency, we are seeing a disproportionate impact on areas of the world already challenged by food shortages, water procuration and heat-stress events.

Solving climate change protects God’s people. Whether it’s someone in Ohio suffering from asthma, someone in Quito suffering from a mudslide, or a Pacific Islander experiencing salt water intrusions destroying arable land, climate change hurts humanity. I imagine the encyclical will emphasize the important perspective of loving our neighbors, and connecting loving our neighbors with protecting them from climate impacts, including increased disease, extreme weather and food insecurity.

Science of ecology can guide us in finding our right relationships

We have, in a sense, lorded it over nature, over Sister Earth, over Mother Earth,” said Pope Francis on January 15. Our rightful place within creation respects and protects the interconnections of the vast web of life. The word ecology derives from the Greek oikos or house—the same root as the house churches of the Acts of the Apostles.

Our modern notion of our household has been expanded by science, however. We now know that the same molecules of air that we breathe are those inhaled and exhaled by the apostles and their ancestors. And Jesus and our founders and some characters with whom we might not like to be associated! In fact, the air from an hour of our community prayer will pass through the breath of every child born that year during their lifetime. There are no border crossings. When I reflect on this the world becomes smaller, more intimate. I’m more able to see that my actions and the actions of my local community can have impacts all across the globe.

This interconnection and interdependence apply also within the more local level of ecosystems. An ecosystem is a geographic area with all the living organisms present and the nonliving parts of their physical environment. It involves the processes of movement and storage of energy and matter through living things (plants, animals, microbes) and activities.

The entire ecosystem—be it woods, prairie or pond—is greater than the sum of its parts, and it functions as a whole, keeping a balance. As ecologists we have been studying ecosystem properties and the great benefits to humankind of free services—from purification of air and water to protection from floods, radiation, heat and erosion, to serving in pollination, seed dispersal and soil formation. Unfortunately, these services are not accounted for in our economic system of land sales, and take a great deal of time to restore when destroyed. This, in turn harms humans who are part of the whole ecosystem. As humans, we are intrinsically part of this natural world.

In our work at the Marianist Environmental Education Center (MEEC), we engage in restoration ecology to restore ecosystems and the relationships between land and people. Land service volunteers (one-time to regular) work with us, in conscious mutual service. Our planting native plants suited to the light and soil moisture habitats helps restore these services by attracting native insect  pollinators and other wildlife and by building up the soil, ultimately creating healthy and diverse ecosystems.

Land restoration and conservation must be a centerpiece of our response to climate change. Protected lands already provide habitats for 80% of the world’s protected species. Land conservation is also a proven strategy for removing carbon pollution—which drives climate change—from the atmosphere. In the U.S., natural lands already capture nearly 15% of our carbon dioxide emissions. Protecting more land will both expand this bank and preserve habitat. Conversely, when land is converted for development, more carbon is released and this increases the heat-trapping blanket effect of the atmosphere, which causes global warming. The land loses its ability to act as a carbon sponge. MEEC has been educating and taking action on climate change and energy issues, collaborating with the networks and resources of the Catholic Climate

Covenant, the Global Catholic Climate Movement, the Justice Conference of Women Religious and Interfaith Power and Light, to name a few.

I’ve been particularly empowered through Nuns on the Bus Ohio—with its vision of Moving Ohio with Passionate Voices for Justice. Our mission: Inspired by Jesus, motivated by Catholic Social Teaching, impelled by a vision of an interdependent creation, in solidarity with those at the margins, we network and advocate for a just and peaceful world. Our network of vowed religious women and laity was inspired by our participation in NETWORK’s national Nuns on the Bus tour through Ohio, and we are continuing the journey! We’ve discovered that collaboration among our diverse charisms, and between our often siloed Ohio cities, provides an important witness and support. We chose environmental concerns of climate change and energy as one of our two major foci. In the past year, we have been organizing and bringing the faith voice highlighting impacts on the economically poor and vulnerable through press conferences, letters to the editor, dialogues with elected officials, and educational events to address federal EPA Clean Air rules and Ohio renewable energy and energy efficiency policies.

Our unique niche—Exploring the gift of our charisms

In ecological terms, a niche describes the unique role of a species in its community—where it lives, and its interconnection with other species (e.g., what it eats/consumes and who eats it; what is fed or nurtured by it).

Analogous to this, is the richness of the charisms of our religious families— how the Spirit inspired our Saints and Founders to respond to the needs of the times—with particular gifts and approaches that resonated with the people and the needs, and contributed to the whole. The ecological encyclical and the environmental needs of our day are an opportunity for renewal and to be a lens for reflecting on the gift that each of our charisms can contribute, and how we might adapt them to today’s needs. Together, each of our charisms, like flowers and tree species, make up a beautiful garden of life.

My poem, “Prayer for Our Harmony,” emerged from praying with the earth from my Marianist charism on a 30-day retreat. May our nurturing work with the upcoming ecological encyclical bear much fruit for all of us who together make our common home, earth. In the spirit of joyful Pope Francis, in our earth-care may we echo the Psalmist as “lovers of justice” (Ps 89), as those who make justice their bliss.

Prayer for our Harmony

Mary, daughter of Wisdom
We, your family, are tired
We desire to be your living presence anew

Form us as your rain
Quenching parched souls with hope

Form us as your fire
Illuminating indifferent hearts with faith

Form us as your wind
Refreshing dusty minds with wisdom

Form us as your soil
Embracing all with compassion

In all these ways of life
Form us, so that

Your seed of justice sown deep within us will flourish
Bearing abundant fruit
Of peace and integrity

Joined together with all creation
We will once again sing in harmony

-Leanne Jablonski FMI 1.23.06

Marianist Sister Leanne Jablonski FMI, PhD is a plant ecologist, educator and pastoral minister engaged in climate science, faith and justice outreach regionally to nationally. She directs the Marianist Environmental Education Center; and at the University of Dayton is a coordinator in the Hanley Sustainability Institute and the Sustainability Energy Environment Initiative. (This article first appeared in NETWORK’s Connection magazine.)

Blog: Not Enough Money

Blog: Not Enough Money

Marge Clark, BVM
Jun 01, 2015

The time has come! Time for the Republican leadership to agree to negotiate higher spending caps, in order to meet basic needs of those who struggle to keep a roof over their head and feed themselves and family. The budget resolution has been adopted, with limits suggested for each appropriations (spending) committee. Now, members of those House and Senate committees are trying to find enough money to fund the programs about which they care the most. They are legally bound to stick to the caps established in the Budget Control Act (2011). That act mandates that if the spending cap is exceeded, there would be across-the-board cuts in (almost) all programs in the discretionary spending part of the budget.

When they tried to enforce these caps while working on the fiscal years 2014 and 2015 spending bills, they found they couldn’t do it. They had to pull appropriations bills because they could not figure out how to spread the allotted money across the absolute needs. So, they determined a way to exceed the caps and avoid sequestration by making some well-targeted cuts within most areas (avoiding the hatchet of sequestration) by bringing in enough revenue to meet the absolute needs. The bipartisan negotiation led to an agreement that has come to be known by its authors, Murray and Ryan. But, there were significant cuts in that process.

The new lower amounts became the baseline on which the following year’s funding levels were set. Each successive year brought additional cuts, even as the numbers of people relying on programs increased, and inflation was not taken into account. Some human needs programs are now functioning on less than 30% of their funding level a very few years ago.

The president, in his budget request in February, made an opening for negotiation by buoying up the discretionary spending, and bringing in additional revenue from appropriate sources. It is now time for the Republican leadership to step up and be willing to negotiate on some fair sources of revenue to offset some of the badly needed spending in areas of human needs.

One of our partners, the Coalition on Human Needs, has done a wonderful analysis of 150 human needs programs, tracking their funding levels since 2010. Some of the cuts are horrifying. To give just a few examples:

  • Green Jobs Innovation Fund – cut 100% – eliminated
  • Community Health Centers – cut 38.4%
  • Maternal and child health – cut 13%
  • Rural Health Programs – cut 28.3%
  • Children’s Mental Health – cut 12.8%
  • Voting Access for People with  Disabilities – cut 74.2%
  • Mentoring Children of Prisoners – cut 100% – eliminated
  • Low Income Energy Assistance – cut 45.8

The people of our nation cannot live in dignity, given the sorts of cuts that have been made – to be compounded by continuing to adhere to the BCA, and certainly if sequestration is imposed.

Keep in mind the corporations that multiply their profits, yet pay no income taxes. Consider those who receive tax deductions for multimillion-dollar homes.

Clearly, there is room to negotiate, to find just sources of revenue so those struggling can have a home, can have adequate nutrition, can afford child care so they can work. The list of possible trade-offs is very long. There is room to negotiate!

Blog: Why Detention for Immigrants, Especially Immigrant Families, Must End

Blog: Why Detention for Immigrants, Especially Immigrant Families, Must End

Carolyn Burstein
May 27, 2015

“Unlocking Human Dignity: A Plan to Transform the U.S. Immigrant Detention System,” a new scathing joint report from the Migration and Refugee Services/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), speaks of the baleful effects of immigrant detention on the lives of persons who pose no threat or danger, but are treated like criminals.

The report is filled with troubling facts uncovered through onsite visits, an extensive review of past publications, and an unvarnished examination of the current system. For example, did you know that the number of persons detained annually increased from roughly 85,000 in 1995 to over 440,500 in 2013?

Now that’s a radical expansion, and the number of detention centers has expanded as well, costing taxpayers more than $2 billion annually. As the report itself indicates, those “numbers only hint at the toll that this system exacts in despair, fractured families, human rights violations, abandoned legal claims, and diminished national prestige.”

The current detention system is a sprawling hodgepodge of facilities, consisting of state and county jails, privately-run for-profit prisons, Bureau of Prison facilities, Border Patrol holding cells, and even “service processing centers” administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Detained immigrants in these facilities often receive worse treatment and fewer protections than criminals serving prison sentences. Numerous reports have described the many problems that exist in a system where standards are not codified and independent oversight is lacking: poor or nonexistent health services; the misuse of segregation; physical, emotional and sexual abuse; women forced to deliver babies in restraints; frequent hunger strikes; restrictions on visitation; violence and discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual persons; problems related to due process, legal access and religious expression – among many others.

The situation is even worse where children are involved. A February report by “Detention Watch Network” notes that studies by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, New York University’s Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture, and Physicians for Human Rights conclude that detention is psychologically damaging and completely inappropriate for children because it aggravates isolation, depression and mental health problems associated with past trauma. Onsite visits by members of the “Detention Watch Network” have also shown that children as young as eight months wore prison uniforms, lived and slept in locked prison cells with open-air toilets, and families were subject to highly restricted movement and threatened with family separation if children cried or played too loudly.

Since 2009, Congress has mandated that DHS maintain at least 33,400 detention beds, known ever since as the “detention bed quota.” And many members of Congress interpret this mandate as requiring DHS to fill that many beds each night. The current DHS Secretary, Jeh Johnson, has testified that he interprets this language to require that DHS maintain 34,400 beds, not detain 34,400 persons every night. Yet, nothing has changed at the detention level.

Another major problem (there are so many, it is difficult to enumerate all of them) is an overreliance on for-profit, privately-run detention centers. These have burgeoned over time, just as they have in the correctional system, so that by 2015, “for-profit prison corporations administered nine of the nation’s ten largest immigrant detention centers” (USCCB/CMS report). There is a plethora of studies to demonstrate that for-profit agencies strive to maximize profits for their shareholders, spend exorbitant funds on lobbying both federal and state legislators for their own causes, and spend millions on campaigns. However, the USCCB/CMS report claims that the real culprit is DHS’s lack of oversight expertise to assess performance under the contracts and a lack of data collection needed to address any deficiencies in the system.

As a May 19 editorial in the Seattle Times forthrightly indicates, “the immigration system is distorted by partisanship, xenophobia, conflicted guidance and pressure from companies that are paid a fortune to run detention centers…”

The New York Times Editorial Board pointed out on May 15 that the immigrant detention system has become an enormous funnel for the overburdened and underfunded immigration courts, which receive a meager $300 million from Congress each year, only one-sixtieth of what Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol (BP) receive. More than 400,000 cases were pending before immigration judges at the end of March 2015, with an average case waiting 599 days to be heard. This hardly constitutes due process for immigrants.

In addition, immigrant detention has been employed as part of a broader enforcement strategy to prevent refugees and other migrants who are fleeing violence from reaching U.S. protection. Not only is this unconscionable, but it has also been, at times, counterproductive. As Pope Benedict said in 2007, immigration and protection policies must serve the human person, not treat the human person as a means to an end.

However, the paramount concern of the USCCB/CMS report is different than any particular deficiency. Central to the issue is the fact that detention is treated as a pillar of immigration enforcement and is the major management tool in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) toolkit. Detention, in its layout, construction, staffing plans and management strategies operates like a prison system and is based on traditional prison principles of command and control. But this so-called correctional system operates without the same level of professionalism and proficiency expected of a correctional system, which has to uphold numerous minimum standards of treatment. Yet the only purpose of detention is to ensure that noncitizens appear for court proceedings.

The USCCB/CMS report points out that the purpose of detention would be accomplished by supervised release with case management and community-based support services in most cases – and calls for the least restrictive conditions placed on others where it is required. The report highlights the fact that American Bar Association (ABA) standards and guidelines of the past few years also support using alternatives to detention to transform the immigrant detention system.

The USCCB/CMS report notes that DHS’s own 2014 data show that between fiscal years 2011 and 2013, the two programs they operate using alternatives to detention yielded an appearance rate of 99% at court hearings and 95% at final removal court hearings. These data clearly demonstrate that detention is not only hurtful to the recipients but unnecessary, and wasteful of scarce resources.

Although the Obama administration’s reforms since 2009 have been humane and made notable differences in the lives of many detainees, too many of these reforms have been incremental in nature and avoided the major issue of detention per se. The high costs and human rights abuses will continue without the fundamental change that the USCCB/CMS report advances.

It is important to support the recommendations of the USCCB/CMS report, especially the replacement of detention with an expansion of all types of less restrictive alternatives to ensure appearances, as well as increasing the funding for immigration courts by an order of magnitude. In the meantime, we support curtailing and rigorously monitoring all for-profit facilities. Our biblical tradition recognizes the right to migrate in response to war, human rights abuses and extreme poverty. As the bishops’ introduction letter to the USCCB/CMS report indicates, migrants fall within every marginal group who deserve assistance – those who are hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, ill and imprisoned.

Blog: Happy Fifth Birthday to the Affordable Care Act – One Giant Step Forward to Healthcare for All

Blog: Happy Fifth Birthday to the Affordable Care Act – One Giant Step Forward to Healthcare for All

Laura Peralta-Schulte
Mar 23, 2015

Today we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and declare once and for all that the ACA is a SUCCESS.

Unlike the hysteria that surrounded its passage, with critics arguing that it would destroy the U.S. economy, leading to job loss, the fact is that our economy is stronger, jobs are growing, and Americans are more healthcare secure than they have ever been.

Let’s look at the facts.

To date, 16.4 million U.S. families and individuals who were previously uninsured are now covered.  The rates of the uninsured have declined across races and ethnicities since October 2013, with a greater drop among blacks (9.2 percentage points) and Latinos (12.3 percentage points) than among whites, who had the lowest rate of those uninsured (14.3 percent) to start.

Today, millions of young adults under 26 have greater health security because they can stay on their parents’ insurance while they finish school or begin a career.

Today, there are financial protections in place if you face severe illness so Americans don’t risk losing their house or bankruptcy because they get sick.  Further, insurers can no longer discriminate against Americans with preexisting medical conditions by refusing to provide coverage or dropping coverage when folks get sick.

Today, we celebrate the fact that insurers can’t charge higher premiums if you are a woman and can’t sell substandard plans that don’t pay for essential health care benefits.

Today, we celebrate the fact that healthcare inflation is at the lowest level in 50 years and that slow growth in healthcare spending has substantially improved the long-term federal budget outlook.  According to the most recent projections, healthcare spending growth is the lowest on record with real per capita spending growing at an estimated average annual rate of just 1.3% over the three years since 2010.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has reduced its projections of future Medicare and Medicaid spending in 2020 by $147 billion (0.6% of GDP) since August 2010. This represents about a 10% reduction in projected spending on these programs.

With all the good news, why is it that the Republican budgets call for the elimination of the Affordable Care Act?  On the fiftieth Anniversary of both Medicaid and Medicare, why are they proposing draconian cuts to Medicaid potentially eliminating coverage for millions of Americans and a fundamental restructuring of Medicare?  We also live with the real possibility that the Supreme Court, in the King v. Burwell case now before it, may narrowly interpret the ACA provisions related to expanding Medicaid to the states, with the effect of millions people losing coverage.

Our Catholic faith teaches that quality, affordable healthcare is a social good and basic human right.  NETWORK has called for universal access to a health system that serves all people, especially the most vulnerable.  Healing was central to the ministry of Jesus, and our commitment to providing quality healthcare is our nation’s means of carrying out our enduring responsibility to nurture the dignity of every person.  We must fight any effort to roll back healthcare coverage.

At the same time, as we celebrate the important milestones for the ACA, Medicare and Medicaid, we must remember that our work to provide healthcare insurance to all Americans is not yet complete.  We insist that Congress immediately renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for four years.  We insist that states expand Medicaid in states that have refused to provide coverage to families living in their states.

We must continue all efforts until everyone has quality, affordable health insurance.

Blog: Policing Reform—Good News at Last!

Blog: Policing Reform—Good News at Last!

Joan Neal
May 19, 2015

In an effort to stem the increasing militarization of police, the Obama administration announced yesterday that the federal government will no longer transfer certain military-grade gear and weaponry to local police departments and will severely restrict access to other equipment without stringent assurances of its proper use. We applaud the president for taking these positive steps forward in addressing the deteriorating relationship between police officers and the communities they have sworn to protect and serve, especially communities of color.

When Americans turned on their television sets on August 9, 2014 many were shocked to see members of the Ferguson, Missouri police department in full military gear. They resembled an invading army. It might well have been a scene from Iraq or Afghanistan. This was perhaps the first time that many of us became aware of a growing trend in U.S. law enforcement – the increasing militarization of local police forces. It was unbelievable that police would use military force against fellow Americans. What happened to Officer Friendly – the persona that police departments across the country have promoted for so many years? How did weapons of war become standard issue on the streets of U.S. cities?

Unwittingly, the federal government has contributed to this situation. The federal 1033 program, which authorized the transfer of excess military equipment to local police departments, was initiated in the wake of 9-11 to help build the capacity of local police jurisdictions to combat drug wars and keep community residents safe in the event of a terrorist attack. But, somehow it went wrong along the way.

The president’s executive order is one of a number of initiatives the administration is undertaking to address this situation. In addition, over the next three years, the White House will purchase about 50,000 body cameras to be worn by officers and will assist local jurisdictions to implement technology designed to increase transparency as well as build trust with their communities. These and other community policing recommendations from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing will form the administration’s strategy to help reform police departments and restore the public trust in communities across the country. This is indeed good news.

Now, Congress needs to follow the president’s lead and end the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement altogether. With both the executive and legislative branches of government focused on this issue and with increased attention to community policing initiatives that work, perhaps communities and the police who serve them can once again be in ”right relationship.” Who knows? Maybe Officer Friendly will make an encore appearance.

Blog: NETWORK Participates in Historic Conference on Poverty

Blog: NETWORK Participates in Historic Conference on Poverty

Sarah Spengemen
May 15, 2015

In Washington, we hear politicians on both the left and the right talking every day about “the middle class,” but seldom do they mention the term “poverty.” Political consultants tell candidates that talking about the middle class inspires hope, while talking about poverty sounds too gloomy—people just don’t want to hear it they say.  At NETWORK, we know that the political consultants are wrong, people are hungry for change in this country and they are looking for leaders. This week we were able to participate in a conference held at Georgetown University on “Overcoming Poverty,” which aimed to change the national conversation so that we can begin to address our current reality—45 million Americans living in poverty today.

What was unique about this conference was that it intentionally brought together over one hundred Catholic and Evangelical faith leaders from around the country to talk about how to get poverty on the national agenda, and also to identify real solutions to poverty that all of us, progressives and conservatives alike, could support.  NETWORK was privileged to be invited to this unique conference and to contribute to the dialogue about how we can end the scandal of millions of Americans who remain in poverty despite living in the wealthiest nation on earth.

The conference was organized by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and the National Association of Evangelicals and was inspired by the recent book by social scientist Robert Putnam on child poverty and social mobility in America entitled Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam spoke to us the first night of the conference, and he described an America today that is dramatically changed from the America of his youth.

Americans, Putnam argues, used to think of all of the kids in the community as “our kids,” and our public investments showed that. We invested in after-school programs, in public parks and recreation centers, in our elementary schools and in our universities. We knew that the success of the whole community depended on the success of every child.  And in the years between World War II and the early 1970s it was entirely possible to be born into a poor family, but to grow up to find a job that would pay you enough to join the ranks of the middle class and to support your family. Children born in the 1950s and 60s were able to break out of poverty and to achieve the “American Dream.” Not so today.  In his book and at the conference, Putnam says that the statistics and the stories tell us that kids today born into poverty are likely to remain in poverty. We as a community have stopped investing in them as young people, and as wages have stagnated and unions have declined, there very few opportunities for them to escape poverty as adults.

The next morning Robert Putnam was joined by President Barack Obama and Arthur Brooks for a conversation about poverty facilitated by E.J. Dionne. First of all, it is highly unusual for a sitting president to participate in a panel discussion, but for those of us who have been watching Obama closely for the past decade, we also know that it is unusual for the President to speak out so boldly about poverty. Hearing him do so was very encouraging.

The President called out an “anti-government ideology” for disinvesting in our communities and for consistently blocking new investments. He said that our current budgets show our unwillingness to make the investments that are proven to lift people out of poverty: “You look at state budgets, you look at city budgets, and you look at federal budgets, and we don’t make those same common investments that we used to.  And it’s had an impact.  And we shouldn’t pretend that somehow we have been making those same investments.  We haven’t been.  And there’s been a very specific ideological push not to make those investments.”

He went on to say that until we are willing to talk seriously about raising revenues, about making sure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share, until then, we are not serious about addressing poverty in this nation: “That’s where the question of compassion and ‘I’m my brother’s keeper’ comes into play.  And if we can’t ask from society’s lottery winners to just make that modest investment, then, really, this conversation is for show.” Also encouraging was hearing Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, who was also on the panel, call on conservatives to “declare peace on the safety net.”  But as Obama pointed out, we need to be able to pay for those programs and the only way is through a more equitable tax system.

Later that same evening we were privileged to hear from Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who spoke with passion about mass incarceration in the United States. We are not the land of the free, he declared, when we have only 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. He said he is making it his mission while he is a Senator to end mass incarceration as we know it in the United States. He is hopeful that we can do this and we can do this soon, but he asked for the support of the faith leaders present at the conference and for us to reach out to our networks. He challenged us by affirming that it is people of faith who should be the leaders of the movement to end a racist institution that destroys lives and breaks up families.

The following day’s sessions were an opportunity for participants to dialogue about what we, as leaders coming from the Catholic and Evangelical traditions and as progressives and conservatives, could agree on in terms of a common agenda. Everyone at the conference agreed that the visit of Pope Francis to the United States and his speech to Congress will be a watershed moment and will create more opportunity than we have had in a decade to talk about poverty at the national level. We also all agreed to use the 2016 election to get candidates to debate solutions to poverty. We as people of faith need to insist that candidates explain specifically how they plan to reduce the poverty rate by half during their term in office. We also agreed on a legislative agenda, knowing that even in this very partisan climate, we can get representatives on both side of the aisle to agree on a plan to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.

Our time hearing from and being able to dialogue with faith leaders on the issue of poverty at the Georgetown conference gave us at NETWORK great hope that we will make progress and that there is a brighter future for the most vulnerable members of our nation. We know that it will not be easy, but we also know that people of faith have historically been leaders of all the great reform movements in our history from abolition, to the Progressive Era, to civil rights. We can do it again and we will.

Blog: Far From a Faithful Budget

Blog: Far From a Faithful Budget

Colleen Ross
May 1, 2015

Last Tuesday, Sister Simone Campbell was joined by leaders from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness, American Muslim Health Professionals, and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism for a briefing on Capitol Hill calling for a federal budget that is rooted in justice and abides by our shared faith principals. The “Faithful Budget” they discussed would prioritize true human security, ensure access to health care, raise revenue through a fair tax system, and uphold the role of government to overcome poverty, reduce inequality, and rebuild the middle class.

The next day, Congress released its joint FY 2016 budget conference agreement. This reconciles the House and Senate budgets into one plan and sets the levels of spending for the twelve appropriations bills that will follow. This proposed budget for our country’s spending has the support of House and Senate budget committee majority leaders. On the other hand, Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee Sen. Bernie Sanders called it “a national embarrassment” and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, said the budget was “wrong for America.” Though the budget declares itself “a responsible path forward to reduce the Nation’s debt burden and expand economic opportunity for all,” in reality it delivers mass disinvestment in our communities and a total abandonment of the promises we have made as a nation.

Overall, the budget adheres to the severe sequester caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 ($523 billion for defense and $493.5 billion for nondefense), but manages to provide billions of additional dollars to the military budget by authorizing $96.3 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations fund. Sequester caps squeeze spending to insufficient amounts, diminishing our capacity to make investments that are vital to our national wellbeing. By choosing not to override sequestration caps, but avoiding them through the OCO fund for defense spending, our elected officials send a clear message that the wellbeing of the military is more important than the wellbeing of their constituents.

One of the appropriations bills affected by this budget that is critically important to NETWORK is Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. Unfortunately, the budget spares very little in its harsh cuts to infrastructure, affordable housing and community building. The $55.3 billion bill that was released provides $9.7 billion less than President Obama’s budget request. For example, one program, the Choice Neighborhood grants, receives $20 million, which is a quarter of the funding it received last year. Such steep cuts not only hurt our communities now, but also will have lasting effects in the future when the results of our disinvestment start to show.

Our country recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act which currently provides health insurance to 16.4 million people. Unfortunately, the budget agreement’s centerpiece is its explicit instructions to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and its provisions. In addition to repealing a law that has lowered the rate of uninsured adults and led to lower healthcare costs, it calls for reforms to Medicaid that will lead to higher costs for states and individuals across the country. These harmful cuts to programs that provide health insurance to millions of families and individuals are a clear indication that many of our elected officials do not believe that healthcare is a human right, and should be affordable and accessible to all.

The budget conference agreement that was released is nowhere near a faithful budget. Far from embodying the principles of justice, mercy and love that our religious traditions are founded on, it elevates profits over people, partisan politics over affordable healthcare, and militarization over peace. President Obama has already said he will veto harmful appropriations bills that come to the White House, but there is still time for you to ask your legislators to write bills that adhere to the principles of justice, mercy and love that would constitute a faithful budget.

Blog: Fair Tax System for a Faithful Budget

Blog: Fair Tax System for a Faithful Budget

Carolyn Burstein
Apr 13, 2015

Unfortunately, both the Senate and the House have proposed budgets for Fiscal Year 2016 that would drastically cut critical programs that have successfully helped people survive and move out of dire poverty—programs like Medicaid, food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), low-income tax credits and, of course, the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In addition, painful cuts are also proposed for education, housing, child care, Head Start, home energy assistance, meals for seniors, and many others on the domestic side of the budget. There is no need to make foolish and unsustainable cuts in the area of human needs and then add funding to an already well-funded military.

Emily Badger, a blogger for The Washington Post, calls our attention to the “double standard” that makes low-income people prove that they are worthy of government benefits, while the rest of the population, who receive four times as many benefits through farm subsidies, student loans and mortgage tax breaks, to name a few, feel that they receive nothing from the government.

The states of Missouri and Kansas are each trying to impose unprecedented restrictions on major federal programs for low-income workers. In the Missouri legislature, one infamous proposal is an attempt to ban purchases of cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood and steak using food stamps. Not only does this proposal demonstrate an effort to criminalize people in poverty, but it also exhibits a lack of understanding about the food stamp program and how little the SNAP program actually pays the 46.5 million Americans who receive them. The average of about $33 per week is hardly enough to feed one person for a week, let alone a family. On this meager allotment (already cut in 2013) it is nearly impossible to purchase anything fancy or non-essential. According to 2013 figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the food stamp program has an extremely low fraud rate – about 1 % over the last 15 years.

Many in the Missouri legislature, who are debating this bill, seem to lack an understanding of the types of pressures low-income families feel. Their choices may be: should I pay the rent or buy my child a pair of shoes for school? Not whether I should buy steak or lobster. The Center for American Progress (CAP) is right on target when they say that increasing the incomes for families who use SNAP should lift people out of poverty; then they won’t need SNAP benefits.

We need not worry that Missouri will be able to pass their proposal because the USDA does not allow bans other than their own on what those using SNAP may buy. It is doubtful that Missouri would acquiesce in a complete dismantling of their food stamp program by attacking the USDA standards.

Kansas, on the other hand, is attempting to curtail welfare (now called TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients from using their benefits at movie theaters, nail salons, pools and spas, liquor stores, jewelry stores, casinos and racing facilities, tattoo and piercing parlors, cruise ships and other locations. But the same lack of common sense prevails. Their proposal also imposes hard caps on the length of time recipients can receive benefits. Kansas, under Governor Sam Brownback, has already put in place changes that have led to more than 23,000 persons leaving the TANF program despite a steadily increasing poverty rate in the state.

Here the problem is quite different than that of the SNAP program. When federal welfare reform was enacted in the 1990s, states were given wide leeway to set up their TANF programs.

This reform means that states have considerable latitude to propose changes to TANF.

Think Progress, an offshoot of CAP, makes a couple of significant points about TANF today. The organization says that today only 26% of eligible poor families receive welfare, down from 72% in 1996. In addition, Think Progress says that the state of Maine examined the amount of abuse in TANF and found that less than 1% of all purchases with TANF funds were made at bars, sports bars or strip clubs, and there is no way to know what was bought.

One has to ask what is the point of these restrictions? It would appear that, as Emily Badger maintains in her blog, those who are poor and vulnerable are being forced to prove they’re worthy of government benefits. In other words, there is now a double standard for them that doesn’t exist for those who receive other types of government benefits.

Oregon is proposing that people on SNAP be unable to buy “junk food,” while several other states are considering drug-testing TANF recipients. With respect to Oregon’s proposal – federal reports have consistently found that people on food stamps are less likely to imbibe sugary drinks or eat salty snacks than those with higher incomes. Also, data on drug use do not demonstrate that poor people are more prolific users of drugs than those who do not receive TANF. In fact, what data do exist demonstrate that the opposite is the case. Again, one is forced to conclude that the real purpose is to make explicit the government benefits received by low-income people by showcasing a few egregious examples of waste, fraud or abuse, while the benefits enjoyed by the rest of us are kept intact.

Those with a more sinister bent of mind might conclude that the real purpose of these proposals is to make government aid for people at the economic margins as onerous as possible, a throwback to the Victorian era. Or perhaps this season is merely a dress rehearsal for worse to come in the area of human needs.

Emily Badger draws attention to the work of the Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler, who showed in her 2011 book, The Submerged State, how invisible government policies actually undermine democracy by making Americans hostile to the common good as well as to government benefits as a general principle, even though upper-income people receive numerous government “goodies.” Mettler called this the “submerged state.”

Medicare benefits and tuition and healthcare tax breaks that middle and high-income people receive are less visible than the federal subsidies for low-income people. One result of this reality is that it compels many Americans to be less tolerant of programs that assist low-income people. Such submerged policies obscure the role of government and exaggerate that of the private sector. They also conceal the massive advantages given to powerful interests and the most affluent Americans. All of this tends to exacerbate inequality. As Ms. Badger says, “We begrudge them their housing vouchers, for instance, even though government spends about four times as much subsidizing housing for upper-income homeowners.”

This blog was called “Everyone paying a fair share of taxes should yield a budget that supports the common good,” indicating that, as we approach federal income tax day on April 15, we all should be gratified to pay our taxes since the government requires reasonable revenue to support its needs. One of government’s vital concerns that is easy for some to overlook is to promote the common good, and that means providing a more equitable and secure society for those less fortunate than middle and upper-income people.

We need a budget that focuses on the human needs of all Americans. For those living in or near poverty, we believe that government must strengthen its social safety net. We also believe that it is not helpful to draw useless distinctions among those who receive government benefits, as this blog has described, although we believe more largesse is needed for people who are poor and vulnerable and less for the middle- and upper-income groups.

NETWORK advocates for low-income working families by supporting all entitlement programs, such as SNAP, TANF, Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP (Child Health Insurance Program); discretionary programs including the WIC program (Women, Infants and Children), housing, child care for low-income workers, and greater income equality starting with raising the minimum wage to a “living wage.” We’ve already made clear in other places our position on wasteful military spending and the elimination of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding.

These positions flow from our belief in economic equity, which requires valuing the worth and dignity of every person and ensuring that all people share the benefits of our economic activities, which is just another way of saying that we will always promote the common good. If we believe and support the latter then it follows logically that the budget we support must provide the essential needs of our communities, ensure the safe and healthy development of families and individuals, and support those who are most vulnerable due to unemployment, sickness, old age and poverty. We insist on a level playing field for all individuals, families and communities so that each may access resources allowing them to contribute their time, treasure and talent for the betterment of the common good.

Blog: March 26 Update on the Battle to Pass FY 2016 Budget in Congress

Blog: March 26 Update on the Battle to Pass FY 2016 Budget in Congress

Carolyn Burstein
Mar 26, 2015

Wednesday evening, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a budget. The version that ultimately passed by a vote of 228 to 199, had been dubbed “Price 2” after House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA). Seventeen Republicans opposed it along with all Democrats. No bipartisanship there.

In order to achieve passage, Boehner and his top team were forced to use a complicated maneuver called “Queen-of-the-Hill,” but they were successful, unlike nearly all previous attempts this year to gain agreement in the unruly Republican-dominated House. Under “Queen-of-the-Hill,” the House voted on six different budgets and the one with the most votes was declared the winner. “Price 1” had been passed by the House Budget Committee last week; “Price 2” was identical in all respects to “Price 1” except that it increased defense spending by $2 billion. Both versions of the budget were considered the work of Tom Price, although “Price 2” had the blessing of the House leadership.

A third Republican budget, that of the House Republican Study Committee, produced greater deficit reduction than the Price budgets, largely achieved through very deep spending cuts. All three Republican budgets would repeal the Affordable Care Act and produce hundreds of billions in domestic cuts similar to “Price 2.” The winning budget proposal would privatize Medicare for future seniors, turn Medicaid into block grants to the states, and slash other domestic programs that assist the poor and vulnerable people in our society, such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), special education, Pell Grants, job training, nutrition, elderly services and housing assistance – and increase military spending.

Price explained that his plan will lead to gradually smaller deficits and is designed to let the states determine social service levels. The latter purpose has been a common refrain in the party for many years, even though from many other programs we know that such logic leads to greater inequity among the states.

All told, this conservative budget would cut spending by $5.5 billion and eliminate the deficits over the next decade, which the deficit hawks in the party have made their clarion call. The budget resolution also includes “reconciliation” language that orders House committees to draft legislation repealing the Affordable Care Act. The real issue here is that a reconciliation repeal bill cannot be filibustered in the Senate and needs only a majority vote to pass. However, whether the Senate, in conference, would agree to this point is an unknown.

Many Republican lawmakers, according to Politico, just want a reconciliation process with the Senate, so that together they could send an Affordable Care Act (ACA) repeal bill to President Obama.

Three Democratic House budget proposals were also considered on Wednesday – those of the House Democratic leadership, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus. These three plans all focused on improving growth, investing more funding in domestic programs, which have been starved for funds due especially to sequestration over the past few years, and raising taxes largely by closing current loopholes in tax law. None of these blueprints garnered votes outside the Democratic Party.

Floor Debate on the Budget in the House

During the House floor debate, Republicans vowed to shrink the government’s reach, balance the budget and start paying down the federal deficit – all without raising taxes – positions we are all familiar with. They scarcely mentioned how the severity of their cuts and the policy changes they are proposing would affect poor and even middle-class families. Instead, much of the discussion on the Republican side revealed the split between the defense hawks and the deficit hawks. There was nothing bipartisan about the floor debate

The New York Times clarified on March 26 how discomfited the Democrats were with the tenor of the debate. Speaking for many of his fellow Democrats, Rep. Steny Hoyer (MD), the House’s No. 2 Democrat, accused Republicans of “mercilessly gutting priority investments in education, job training, innovation, research and other priorities of this nation…This budget is a severe disinvestment in America’s future.”

The fact that House defense hawks inserted extra military spending into the Overseas Contingency Fund (OCO), which is reserved for emergencies overseas, ensures that the Defense Department may have more than it wanted in war funding and less than it needs for basic operations. President Obama’s FY 2016 budget, with a defense component nearly as large as that of the Republican budget, ignored the strict caps on military spending set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and added funding to the basic Pentagon budget. Adding funding through the OCO allows the GOP to avoid violating spending caps, although this did not convince the deficit hawks that the deficit was uppermost in the minds of the defense hawks.

Expectations in the Senate Budget

As I am writing this blog, the Senate is debating its own version of the budget, which may continue well into Friday, March 27, a process that has been called a “Vote-A-Rama.” Under this procedure, scores of amendments will be voted on consecutively with merely a two-minute explanation of the content. So far the Senate has voted on several amendments, and none has altered the basic budget written by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (WY). This document is broadly similar to that of the House-passed budget. Many of the unlimited number of amendments that are part of “Vote-A-Rama” are not even budget-related but are politically-oriented and intended to be used aggressively for Senate campaigns.

Politico also reports that the Senate began voting on aspects of the budget on March 24 when they defeated a Democratic proposal on infrastructure improvements over the next six years to be paid by closing corporate loopholes. That same day, Republicans forced a purely political vote on President Obama’s FY 2016 budget that was defeated overwhelmingly, with most Democrats joining in, 1-98. Democrats had previously expressed their preferences for competing bills, e.g., those of the Congressional Progressive Caucus or the Congressional Black Caucus. Of course, this vote was simply symbolic.

A Few Caveats

It is important to note that budget resolutions are non-binding blueprints that neither carry the force of law nor are officially submitted to the executive for approval or veto. They merely set overall spending levels for the coming fiscal year. However, as we see in the Republican Budget that just passed, they often generate binding legislation by including reconciliation instructions. In addition, if the Senate and House are able to reconcile similar yet competing versions of their blueprints, then having a final budget can ease passage of future legislation.

The Associated Press in U.S. News online quotes White House press secretary Josh Earnest as saying that President Obama will reject any budget that locks in deep spending cuts or increases funding for national security without providing matching increases in “economic security” funding. The president has also vowed to defend the healthcare law that is his signature domestic achievement. The House has already voted over 60 times to repeal it in whole or in part. However, now (since November 2014) they have a Senate partner who will back them up.

Problems in the House Republican Budget (FY 2016)

There is much in the FY 2016 Republican budget blueprint to challenge. Responding to the needs of people who have been marginalized and lifting families out of poverty are twin concerns that are nonexistent in the document. Where are the special protections for the most vulnerable Americans?

The overall revenue and expenditure levels do not ensure that 100% within the U.S. can live in dignity; surely not after severe cuts in Medicaid, job training, nutrition, SNAP and the many current domestic programs that will either cease to exist or be gutted to only a semblance of their former selves.

The 100% are not paying their fair share of taxes. The very wealthy are too often excused from the requirement to promote the common good. Moreover, there is no attempt in this budget to create a more equitable and secure society by expanding tax credits to low-income taxpayers. The distribution of resources in this budget does not enable people to help themselves or others. In fact, it is hard to avoid seeing a sinful social structure being erected in the place of a sense of social responsibility. Where are the human rights of the most vulnerable among us enshrined?

The drastic cuts proposed for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Medicaid do not meet the affordability and accessibility criteria that have been used by anyone remotely interested in the healthcare field, let alone the most vulnerable among us. And repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without any alternative being proposed defies concern for the 16.4 million Americans who are currently receiving healthcare benefits through the ACA.

No wonder that Catholic advocates like NETWORK, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, along with the Coalition of Human Needs and many others, are pressing Congress to focus more on vulnerable people as they develop their budget plans.

The March 23 issue of Catholic Courier online reminds us of the USCCB letter of Feb. 27 to each member of Congress in which they reiterated that a budget is a moral document and that the needs of poor people are significant. Other individual bishops have written that a budget requires the shared sacrifice of all; that adequate revenues must be raised and unnecessary spending on the military should be eliminated. Most importantly, Congress must address the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.

Sister Richelle Friedman, director of public policy at the Coalition on Human Needs, and Sister Marge Clark, a NETWORK lobbyist, said the needs of poor and vulnerable people were being pushed aside in the budget plans. Sister Richelle called the House budget “morally bankrupt…[R]ather than strengthening America for all who are currently being left behind, if elements of the budget were to become law it would be devastating to those vulnerable people.”

As the appropriations process advances this spring and summer, we must continue to urge Congress to enact or enhance programs that truly lift people out of poverty. And their dignity and human rights should be emphasized in meaningful ways.

Blog: Extend and Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit

Blog: Extend and Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit

Carolyn Burstein
Mar 09, 2015

Catholic Social Teaching is clear that all people have the right to live in human dignity, which for many is not possible without tax incentives since payroll taxes are taking a larger and larger bite out of their meager wages.

Next to Social Security, the EITC and the Child Tax Credit lift more people out of poverty than any other federal program. However, both programs will expire in 2017 if they are not extended. We believe that expanding the EITC and the Child Tax Credit for low-income workers themselves as well as for their families is a matter of basic tax fairness.

Economists across the political spectrum agree that the EITC has been one of the most effective anti-poverty programs we have. Together with the refundable Child Tax Credit, it helps keep about 10 million Americans, including more than 5 million children, out of poverty. There is also a consensus that making these programs permanent as well as expanding the EITC would strengthen opportunity for workers who are struggling to get by and help families become more economically secure. These tax credits have the power to raise living standards and lift millions of working Americans out of poverty.

Working Families Tax Relief Act

While we wait for a Republican proposal, we want to call attention to the “Working Families Tax Relief Act,” which has been introduced by Democrats. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the ranking Democrat on the Banking Committee, cosponsored this proposal with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). The measure would expand the EITC and Child Tax Credit to make permanent the expansion of credits that took effect in 2009, would expand the EITC for “childless workers” (more on this below), would extend both programs indefinitely, would index the Child Tax Credit to inflation and make it easier for qualified Americans to claim the EITC.

Senator Brown said, “The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit lift families out of poverty, provide an incentive to work, and put real money back in the pockets of working Americans. That’s why expanding and strengthening these tax credits is so important. To reform our tax code, we must start in the homes of working Americans — not in corporate boardrooms.”

Reps. Richard Neal (D-MA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) are co-sponsoring the House version of the bill.

Other Proposals

The other proposals led by the Senate leadership include “The 21st Century Worker Tax Cut Act,” which introduces a new tax credit worth up to $1000 for families in which both parents work; “Helping Working Families Afford Child Care Act,” which would increase the size of the typical credit for child and dependent care from the current $600 to $2800 (but could rise as high as $8000) for most middle-income families; the “American Opportunity Tax Credit,” which gives families up to $3000 credit for college tuition and includes families earning up to $200,000.

What would happen in 2018 if the EITC and Child Tax Credit provisions expire in 2017? It would have a dire effect on the economy as a whole and on working families in particular. A study released last month by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that more than 16 million people in low-income working families, including 8 million children, would fall into — or deeper into — poverty; and some 50 million Americans, including 25 million children, would face substantial cuts.

History and Effectiveness of the EITC and Child Tax Credit

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) produced a major study of both the EITC and Child Tax Credit in September 2013, from which much of the following information is gleaned. Because of the nature of the study, the findings are still timely.

The EITC was first signed into law in the 1970s by President Ford and was considered an anti-poverty program and an alternative to welfare because it incentivized work. The program was expanded by President George W. Bush in 2008 and by President Obama in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Under ARRA, benefits for families with more than two children were boosted and marriage penalties were reduced (some EITC for certain couples were no longer lost when they married).

Originally in the 1970s, the EITC was intended to offset the Social Security payroll taxes for low-income workers as well as rising food and energy prices, but no longer covers those costs.

Let’s be sure we understand how the EITC works. The EITC is work-oriented in that the amount of the tax credit is based on earnings from wages and salaries or self-employment income. The amount of the credit increases as earnings increase, but reaches a plateau, and then falls as earnings increase. For example, for a couple with two children, the credit rate is 40% of the first $13,090 in earnings, with a maximum credit of $5,236 if earnings reach $22,300. Over that amount the credit rate drops substantially until it reaches zero for taxpayers over $47,162.

Low-income workers with no children and noncustodial parents are also eligible for the EITC, but the maximum credit is just a small fraction of that for families with children and often too complicated for potential recipients to bother with.

The Child Tax Credit was enacted as part of the “Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997.” The origin of the credit can be traced to a recommendation for a $1000-per-child tax credit by the 1990 National Commission on Children, but was substantially less generous in the original law. It was eventually increased to $1000 per child as part of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. The ARRA expansion of the Child Tax Credit substantially lowered the threshold for earnings to qualify for the tax credit.

The Child Tax Credit allows a nonrefundable credit against income taxes of $1000 per qualifying child under age 17. Unlike the EITC, the Child Tax Credit is not targeted to just lower-income taxpayers. A couple with two qualifying children can receive the tax credit with adjusted gross income levels of $150,000 (those levels are in the top 10% of the income distribution).

The EPI summarizes the major findings on the effectiveness of the EITC and Child Tax Credit as follows:

  • Both the EITC and Child Tax Credit were initially proposed, supported and expanded by Republican lawmakers with broad bipartisan support
  • Both the EITC and Child Tax Credit fail one of the criteria of evaluating tax provisions: simplicity and convenience. Claiming the tax credits can be complicated and involves filing many forms, which leads to errors of both over-and under- payment
  • The EITC appears to increase the labor force participation of single mothers, yet the high marginal tax rates associated with its phase-out range do not appear to have a significant work disincentive effect
  • The EITC is the most progressive tax expenditure in the income tax code
  • The EITC reduces poverty significantly, with children constituting half of the individuals it lifts out of poverty
  • The EITC and Child Tax Credit are effective in increasing after-tax income of its recipients and reducing income inequality.

A recent paper (February 20, 2015) by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities focuses attention on low-income “childless workers” — adults without children and non-custodial parents — who receive little or nothing from the EITC. At the present time, this is the only group whose income and payroll taxes together either push them into poverty or deeper into poverty. CBPP estimates that there are over 7 million people in this category.

The Brown-Durbin bill would substantially strengthen the EITC for this group by lowering the eligibility age to 21, raising the maximum amount of credit offered and increasing the phase in/out rates.

Based on studies done by several economists and psychologists, the CBPP paper maintains that strengthening the EITC for “childless workers” would have a number of social as well as economic benefits, including the following:

  • would increase labor force participation among low-skilled childless workers
  • may increase their earnings, and thus their marriage rates and stability
  • could help reduce crime and incarceration rates among the young
  • would help their children (many are noncustodial parents) financially and would assist them in serving as role models for their children

A Matter of Fairness

Just as those in Congress who believe firmly that the EITC and the Child Tax Credit should be extended beyond 2017 and expanded in scope are beginning this journey now, we, at NETWORK strongly encourage all advocates to begin planning effective ways to support this effort. As is clear from examining a history of these two programs, extension has always garnered bipartisan support. And there is little controversy about the effectiveness of either the EITC or the Child Tax Credit.