WASHINGTON – Christian leaders joined anti-poverty and policy experts Wednesday to urge the U.S. Congress to preserve the priorities within President Obama's proposed national budget that would assist low-income and poor communities.
"A budget is a moral document," said Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners – the largest network of progressive Christians in the nation – during a teleconference. "It reveals our priorities – who's important, what's important, [and] what's a part of our agenda."
For faith leaders across the political spectrum, Wallis noted, the issue of poverty has in recent years brought them together despite their differences. He added that for the "first time in a long time" the president's budget does prioritize the needs of the poor.
"We want the faith community to make itself heard, to make its voice heard, to make its presence felt because we are going to be in the middle of this national debate about what our budget, our priority, what our agenda ought to be," the well-known anti-poverty leader said.
President Obama's budget proposes new measures to help low-income and poor communities such as providing universal health coverage, making temporary refundable tax credits primarily for low-income families with children permanent, offering more Pell grants for poor students to be educated, and investing in alternative energy sources that would create new jobs while helping the environmental problems, the speakers highlighted.
Federal budget expert Bob Greenstein, founder and executive director of the Center for Budget & Policy Priorities, said the cost for universal health care and other new proposals would be offset by closing "various unproductive tax loopholes."
He said the budget actually reduces the deficit according to new analysis. Research shows, Greenstein said, that over a ten year period the deficit while being still "uncomfortably" high under the budget, would be a trillion dollars lower than if the government continued current policies.
"This [President's] budget is quite different than previous budgets and it really would both devote resources and set priorities on a number of policy changes of vital importance to people living in poverty both in the United States and around the world," Greenstein said.
World Vision president Richard Stearns, meanwhile, supports the President's request to increase the foreign affairs budget by $4 billion. He explained that the total foreign affairs budget is $49 billion, and about $25 billion a year is spent on humanitarian assistance.
"The humanitarian portion is less than 1% of the federal budget and is equal to what we've given to the auto industry in the past few months," Stearns highlighted.
Since January 2008, the total bailout and stimulus money has surpassed about 2 trillion dollars – an amount that could fund the humanitarian assistance budget for 80 years, Stearns noted.
"So in the context of these massive stimulus and bailout packages, the 4 billion increase that the president has requested is the equivalent of throwing a five cent tip into the tin cup of the world's poorest 2 billion people who are the most affected by the global economic crisis," he said, stressing that humanitarian aid builds good relations abroad.
In the world today, about 1 billion, or 1 out of 6 people, are considered chronically hungry. About 24,000 people die everyday from hunger related causes. And 2 billion people live on $2 or less a day.
Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, noted during the media call that the past year has been very hard for the world's poor countries, which faced a food crisis topped by a fuel crisis, financial crisis, global economic crisis, and likely in the near future an employment crisis.
Dave Donaldson, founder and president of the Christian humanitarian group Convoy of Hope, commented, "Jesus called upon us to care for the least of these. Many of our evangelical churches have cared the least and now there is a sea change.
"I'm seeing compassionate conservatives like myself that are looking to rebrand and expand the pro-life image to protect not only the child in the womb but the child fighting to survive in the slums."
The World Bank estimates that 52 million more people have already fallen into poverty because of the global economic crisis. In the United States, the current economic recession threatens to push 10 million Americans into poverty.
The U.S. House is currently debating the President's budget, which on Thursday is expected to be voted on.
"What happens to poor people is to us a matter of faith," Sojourners' Wallis said. "This is the moral authority of the faith community on the line here and we are getting behind to get poor people back on the agenda."
At the end of April, Sojourners and partners will hold a large-scale event as part of their Mobilization to End Poverty initiative. On April 26-29, more than 1,000 faith leaders and activists will convene in Washington, D.C., to learn and share the vision of how to reduce poverty by half within 10 years both domestically and globally. President Obama has been invited to give a major address on poverty at the event, but he has not confirmed his decision as of yet.