(RNS) — More than any piece of legislation in our lifetimes, two fiercely debated bills coming up now in Congress have a chance to “bring good news to the poor,” in the words Jesus used in his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth.
But that potential “good news” for the millions of families and children in America living in or near poverty could easily be lost because of poor messaging and partisan politics.
The media’s discussion of these two bills — the “human” infrastructure bill and the “physical” infrastructure bill — has been confusing, throwing around incomprehensible amounts of spending in the trillions and narrowly reporting on the divisive politics and complicated legislative processes that make the average American ignore the critical policy change they promise.
But a very diverse groups of church leaders has been able to hear the good news they contain, and came together last week to meet with the White House and congressional leadership. Those faith leaders are now making urgent and immediate appeals to their clergy and congregations via personal videos from heads of communions and organizations going out to their constituencies.
The human infrastructure bill would dramatically reduce child poverty, create great new opportunities for low-income families and address long-standing and historic racial injustices for millions around the country — more than anything has done before.
This bill is pro-family in all of the best ways; and if faith leaders don’t support the economic policies that directly support low-income families and children, they really can’t call themselves “pro-family.”
What the American people, and church members across the political spectrum, need to know is that these are moral and religious issues, not just political ones: concrete help for critical child care, needed medical care, paid family leave, safe and affordable housing, access to education which children need for their futures, job opportunities for millions of families, including effective earned income tax support and, most centrally, a child tax credit that will cut child poverty in half in America.
The child tax credit has united faith groups across our theological and political divides, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Salvation Army, the American Catholic bishops and Catholic Charities, and a majority of our national denominations. The temporary version of this tax credit, passed as part of the COVID-19 relief act, has already dramatically cut child poverty. It now must be made permanent and refundable for low-income families.
The CTC gives all families between $250 and $300 per child, per month. For the Americans who don’t have the reserves to cover one $500 unexpected expense — more than half of us as recently as 2017 — the child tax credit is transformational. Families spend that money on groceries, diapers, clothing, housing, health care, child care or, perhaps for the first time in their lives, even build savings. This is the kind of support that enables moms and dads to become better parents and be better able to contribute to their communities.
The bill isn’t just good for families: It’s good for our country. Every $1 spent and invested in local communities and businesses through an expanded CTC returns $8 in value to society. But children and their families are so much at the center of this bill, it recalls Jesus’ instructions, “Let the little children come unto me, and reject them not, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
Most of the country, including people of faith, have gotten lost in the ideological debates in Washington and, to be honest, don’t trust the processes of government. It is time to get the attention of citizens who care about faith and morals by speaking to them in language they are waiting to hear. Democrats must get over their fear of using moral and even religious language when those issues are clearly at stake.
Faith leaders too need to remind political leaders that budgets are moral documents, whether in families, churches, cities, states or nations. Our financial plans show us who and what is most important and who is not.
We must pray and act that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring some good news to the poor will not be lost because of our flawed priorities and failed visions. We need to listen to Jesus and pass “The Children’s Bill.”
(Jim Wallis is the inaugural holder of the Chair in Faith and Justice at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, the founding director of the Georgetown University Center on Faith and Justice and host of the “Soul of the Nation” podcast. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)