(RNS) — I believe that the ultimate test of our discipleship to Jesus Christ is how we treat the most vulnerable in society, or as Jesus refers to them in Matthew 25, “the least of these” among us.
Amid this COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing more than ever who is most vulnerable to contracting and dying from this new disease — and it’s a function of deeply embedded societal structures that create and perpetuate grotesque racial and economic inequity. As we’ve been saying in recent weeks, both as the data has made horrifyingly clear and as we’ve seen whose friends and relatives have disproportionately gotten sick or died of COVID-19, poverty and racism have become pre-existing conditions that increase the chances of contracting or dying from this lethal disease.
Make no mistake: While each of us has borne a variety of new burdens and dangers during this pandemic, those burdens are by no means distributed equally. On the one hand, Congress should be commended for acting to pass a number of large relief packages with broad bipartisan support. But the shameful truth of the situation is that many of society’s most at risk, both before and now in the context of the pandemic, are helped very little or not at all by recent congressional actions, despite trillions of dollars of new spending.
In this moment, incarcerated individuals, people in detention, Native Americans, and people experiencing homelessness, as well as all those affected by the deeply intertwined scourges of racism and/or poverty, urgently need additional help from Congress in the next relief package. This help needs to last beyond the immediate short- and medium-term public health crisis and extend through the economic crisis, which is likely to persist for significantly longer.
There are some unique vulnerabilities faced by people in the United States and around the world; here’s what Congress can do to help:
Expand SNAP benefits.
Recent news stories have shined a light on the deeply dysfunctional food distribution chain in the U.S. and global economy. Food banks face unprecedented demand with long lines of people risking contracting COVID-19 in order to feed their families, even as elsewhere farmers are spilling out milk, breaking eggs, culling livestock, and dumping mountains of vegetables in landfills because demand to purchase their products has plummeted.
While the food distribution problem urgently needs to be solved, we know one of the most effective ways to get food to families in need and dollars into local economies is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. A temporary increase in the maximum SNAP benefit in 2009 was one of the most effective policies in averting big increases in poverty during that recession — a similar increase of at least 15% is even more urgently needed now. Congress has discussed it and has been close to including it in previous relief bills but has thus far not done so. This needs to change immediately.
Provide increases in international assistance.
In my recent conversation with famed preacher Freddie Haynes for the Soul of the Nation podcast, he paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr. in saying “Infection anywhere is a threat everywhere.” As we’ve written about recently, this global pandemic is likely to hit hardest among extremely poor people around the world, whose living and work situations often don’t allow them the privilege of social distancing or staying at home. Nearly all governments around the world will need to take further action in the months ahead to fight the public health crisis of the disease and to stabilize their economies.
All human beings are created in the image of God, and our concern is with the most at risk across the world. It’s also true that the worse the pandemic gets in the rest of the world in the coming months, the more likely it is the disease will cause new waves of outbreaks in the United States and affect the supply chain of food and goods. The moral and practical thing for our country to do is provide significant increases in foreign aid to the countries with the most need.
Extend assistance to immigrants.
We all know that the United States has millions of undocumented immigrants — they are our neighbors, friends, church members, and, most importantly, children of God worthy of the same dignity and protection as anyone else. During this pandemic, they are overrepresented among those workers labeled “essential” and therefore at high risk for contracting COVID-19.
Thus far, the government has done little, if anything, to protect them in relief legislation. Again, this has both moral and practical dimensions, since slowing the spread of the disease means helping everyone in the country practice social distancing — not just those with official immigration status.
Some things Congress can and must do include: extending Medicaid funding for testing and treatment to undocumented people, provide cash assistance under the CARES Act to undocumented people and their U.S. citizen families, and ensure assistance received during the pandemic cannot be used against people in future determinations of eligibility for public benefits. Farm workers, who are risking their health to provide food to all of us, must be provided with protective equipment and access to paid sick leave and unemployment insurance. Finally, there is no justification for continuing deportations in the midst of a global pandemic.
Ensure state governments, who are on the front lines of protecting public health and helping those in poverty, can provide emergency economic assistance to those most in need.
Help states conduct free, fair, and safe elections.
The lowest income voters are always most at risk of being disenfranchised, and that’s especially true amid this pandemic. States will need at least $4 billion in additional funding in order to expand voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting by mail, and safe in-person voting both early and on Election Day. No one should have to choose between their health and safety and exercising their right to vote.
Support the needs of the 2020 Census.
Ensuring an accurate nationwide count even in this nearly unprecedented crisis is critical to fair representation in Congress and adequate funding for federal programs, especially for those in poverty, people of color, and undocumented immigrants, all of whom are at risk every 10 years of being undercounted in the census.
Extend help for direct-service nonprofits helping people in poverty.
Many churches and other charities are on the front lines of this crisis, providing food, shelter, and health care to those who need it most, despite the lower contributions that are a function of the economic crisis.
Protect vulnerable borrowers from predatory lenders.
As the economic crisis grows, those in the most desperate situations with the least access to safety net programs are most vulnerable to predatory payday or car title loans with exorbitant interest rates. There has never been a more important time to protect poor families from these spiraling debt traps.
We know from conversations with other advocacy organizations and our contacts in Congress that the next couple of weeks is a vitally important window for ensuring Congress addresses these urgent needs of some of our society’s most vulnerable people. We’re urging all of you reading this to contact your representatives and make sure they understand that practically — and, more importantly, morally and religiously — our country’s response to this pandemic is only as good as how it protects those furthest on society’s margins.
(The Rev. Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)