Time for some good news for the poor

The American Recovery Plan is 'good news for the poor' in the midst of a global pandemic — which should cheer Christians in both parties.

Dawn breaks at the Capitol in Washington,  Jan. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — It isn’t often that a bill comes before Congress that is principled, pragmatic and popular.

The American Recovery Plan, which lays out a bold and significant investment in the fight against COVID-19, is all three. It addresses the deep inequities of suffering from the pandemic, including the racial and wealth disparities, meets immediate and urgent needs of the moment and is supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans.

By every political calculation, this should be a no-brainer — and yet, there is one group of people who don’t support it — congressional Republicans.

Over the past year, COVID-19 has wrought dual public health and economic crises. With over half a million dead and millions more out of work and struggling with economic insecurity, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on minority communities and low- and middle-income Americans — and Americans at or below the poverty line, in particular.

The scope of the impact would hardly seem imaginable to us just a year ago. The hardships of the pandemic have revealed deep inequities which exacerbated the suffering of many historically marginalized communities and groups — something that is addressed in the ARP and needs to be further addressed in our continuing recovery response as well as a priority for our work moving forward beyond the pandemic.

Acknowledging and addressing these disparities is at the core of the ARP.

The ARP would provide real relief for Americans facing poverty and economic insecurity — something that is core to people of faith and essential for the common good. It includes compassionate and pragmatic provisions such as additional income for families through direct payments, extended unemployment insurance benefits and eligibility, increased and expanded child tax credit and earned-income tax credit (which would provide significant reductions in child poverty), increased SNAP and TANF funding (which includes critically needed increased food and nutrition assistance in response to dramatically growing hunger in America because of the pandemic), funding for equitable vaccine distribution, increased funding to schools, as well as mortgage and rental assistance and a moratorium on evictions, increased access to lower insurance premiums, and expanded child care assistance.

All of this is such good news to low-income Americans facing brutal poverty accelerated by this pandemic. While this would all be temporary, these measures should be made permanent in the next bill coming up later in the year.

This bill would do a great deal to help relieve those experiencing economic insecurity and who are deeply suffering. These must be nonpartisan aspirations. And as a faith leader, I believe that this must be at the heart of our ongoing response to the pandemic. If the ARP hadn’t acknowledged and addressed these realities, it would have fallen short. It is unconscionable that congressional Republicans would seek to delay or diminish this focus.

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But such relief should lead to recovery and then to reconstruction of the American economy — especially for low-income people. And if a $15 minimum wage cannot be included in this bill, it should be soon in subsequent legislation as essential workers need essential wages.

The ARP acknowledges the incredible scope of the pandemic’s impact and meets it with strong investment. A lot has been made of the bill’s price tag — and Republicans have been clear that they do not believe the pandemic warrants such a large amount of money.

Suddenly, with millions of Americans suffering, a trillion dollars or more seems impossible. And yet, in 2017 they passed tax cuts for corporations and wealthy Americans that cost trillions of dollars. As a Christian, I take seriously our call to care for the poor, the sick, the hungry. Are we really willing to let our fear of doing too much outweigh the risk of doing too little?

And if these weren’t enough, it has incredible broad support across the board.

Almost 80% of Americans support it — including majorities of voters in both parties. It’s not like supporting this would be a profile in courage. In a time of partisan division and polarization across the country, this is one of the few things that unite us. So why are Republicans opposed to it? Are they really willing to play politics when so much is at stake? There’s no reason that, even when using reconciliation, this bill shouldn’t have broad bipartisan support.

I call on congressional Republicans, many of whom are Christians, to support the ARP. In Luke 4:18 Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim relief to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

The word for “good news” in the Greek is “evangel” — from which we get the word evangelical. The ARP is “good news” for the poor and suffering in America. To not support it would be to ignore the teachings of Christ at a time when millions of our fellow Americans are suffering.

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That is why the Circle of Protection, an unprecedented group of Christian leaders coming together across theologies and traditions and representing millions of American Christians from the main families of U.S. Christianity — Latino churches, historic Black churches, Protestants and evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox churches, Pentecostals and Peace churches— called on Congress to “pass legislation that responds to these crises head-on with a plan that matches the magnitude and urgency of the challenge and addresses the injustices and inequities laid bare by COVID.

Jewish and Muslim leaders have made similar statements — uniting faith communities in support of this package which morally undergirds and echoes its bipartisan and popular support.  

Passing the ARP would be “good news” to the poor and those facing poverty; and it’s the pragmatic, popular and, most importantly, principled thing to do. And it could be the beginning of doing much better to help people overcome poverty in America. And that would be good news indeed.

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