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Advocates give briefings on current issues and national trends

An advocate for a new interfaith state network and for a ministry of Catholic Charities Spokane shared insights into policies before the state legislature in Olympia and concerns about the increasing numbers of people in poverty dropped from governmental assistance and programs funded through faith-based agencies.

The Rev. Paul Benz, co-director of the Faith Action Network of Washington, and Scott Cooper, director of Parish Social Ministries of Catholic Charities Spokane, discussed some issues before the 2012 Washington State Legislature of concern to the faith community.

They agreed on the need to generate more revenue for the 2011-2013 biennial budget to close the $1.5 billion deficit.  They also agreed on many proposals to protect the most vulnerable.

The 60-day session, which ends March 9, is constitutionally mandated to adopt a balanced budget, Paul said.  He encouraged conference participants to inform their congregations of the need to call legislators.  He urged them to put the number to reach legislators—800-562-6000—in their bulletins and newsletters so members can have influence.

“The need for revenue is dire, because the state has already cut $10 billion from health, human services and the environment,” he said. 

The best chance he sees to increase revenue is a proposed three-year half-cent increase in the sales tax to generate $500 million to $1 billion.  It would need to go to voters.

Paul Benz, FANWA
Paul Benz, Faith Action Network

Paul suggested taxing on capital gains to bridge the disparity between the 1 percent wealthy and the 99 percent.  It would affect only 3 percent, he said, adding that revenue can also be raised through charging a real estate documents recording fee.

FAN has seven priorities, but the ordering is not by importance, Paul clarified.

The first Faith Action Network priority is to reduce hunger, homelessness and poverty.  To do that, they urge preserving programs providing school meals, state food assistance and the Housing Essential Needs Program.

A second priority is to increase affordable, accessible housing and health care. FAN advocates preserving the Basic Health Plan, Apple Health for Kids, the eligibility level for Medicaid and the Housing Trust Fund, and supporting Fair Tenants Screening.

“If we lose the Basic Health Plan, we lose the state structure for implementing federal health care reform,” Paul said.

Under FAN‘s third priority to reform the criminal justice system, they support Second Chance Sentencing Reform that would put people with a good record on track for parole after 15 years, saving the cost of incarcerating them.  They also advocate abolishing the death penalty, believing that it does not deter capital crime, that prosecuting capital crimes drains county budgets for prosecution and that its application is racially disproportionate, he said.

The fourth priority is to care for the environment and promote sustainable agriculture.  FAN seeks to preserve the $100,000 WIC and Senior Farmer’s Market Nutrition programs, supports the Toxic-Free Kids bill, promotes the Clean Energy Initiative and is vigilant to prevent efforts to weaken, delay or roll back environmental laws and programs.

The fifth priority, advocating for civil and human rights, includes support for human trafficking reforms, the Farm Worker and Pesticide Drift bill, a prevention-focused gang bill, the E-verify Ban bill and the Marriage Equality Act.

Paul clarified that while the FAN supports the Marriage Equality Act, partners in Catholic and Evangelical churches oppose it.

“The religious community is not of one mind on this issue, and we need to respect both sides,” he said.

The sixth priority is advocating accessible, quality public education by preserving Levy Equalization funding.

The seventh priority is supporting revenue through an increase in the sales tax, a capital gains tax and establishing a state bank.

In discussion, Andrew Brewer of the Cathedral of St. John commented on the State Bank Bill, explaining that North Dakota has a state bank and no budget crisis.  It was formed to allow North Dakota farmers financing so big urban banks do not foreclose on family farms, he said.

Scott Cooper
Scott Cooper, Catholic Charities

Scott shared perspectives from a recent Bishops’ Conference in Washington, D.C., on social ministry, also attended by leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals.

“We are pleased to see coalitions on issues come together, which did not happen 10 years ago.  We are not alone.  We have many allies,” he said.

Census Bureau figures from 2010, reveal that one in seven people lives in poverty, the third increase since the bust of 2008 and the highest since 1998, Scott reported, adding it was a higher rate in 1992, but population growth means more people are poor—46.2 million—the most on record.

“The percent of people living in “deep poverty”—or below half of the government’s poverty line—is 6.7 percent, a record of 44.3 percent of those living in poverty, he said.

In addition, the percent of adults living in poverty, 13.7 percent, is the highest since 1956, with 11.7 percent in suburbs, the highest since 1967.

The Conference of Catholic Bishops urged public health programs to offset the erosion of employer-provided health plans.

“In 2010, only 58 percent of non-elderly adults had an employer-provided health plan, down 10 percent from 1999,” Scott said.

“We heard that social safety net programs are effective in keeping people out of poverty and deep poverty,” he said, noting that once people are in “deep poverty” the cost of stabilizing a family is greater.

In 2010, unemployment benefits kept 3.2 million out of poverty and Social Security kept 23 million out of poverty.

“Social safety net programs are an immediate force multiplier in local economies.  Every $1 spent for unemployment benefits generates $1.50; for food stamps—now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—$1.70; for Earned Income Credit, $1.70, and for the children’s tax credit, $1.40.

Those funds circulating in local economies help create 1.3 million jobs and ripple through local economies, he reported.

“Catholic Charities in Spokane is responsible for 13 Eastern Washington counties with many rural communities, where the only social service agency is the Community Action Agency,” Scott said.  “Those agencies are conduits for state and federal funds.  They may have few private donations and then there is a handful of small churches that attempt to pick up feeding programs.”

Beyond the image of poverty in Spokane as someone on the street corner holding a cardboard sign, he urges people to remember the poor in rural communities.

“Through sister congregations, we hope you will listen to stories of rural communities, which increasingly have a disproportionate poverty level,” Scott said.

He told the conference attendees of the Circle of Protection, a one-page statement signed by “an unprecedented range of religious leaders,” calling for federal leaders not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.  It’s at www.circleofprotection.us.

Scott encourages churches to publish it in their bulletins or online “so people in the faith community know that the U.S. faith community is speaking in a rare, singular voice.”

He also urged people of faith to advocate for systemic changes to the Farm Bill, which will be renewed this year in Congress. 

“Parts of it support hunger and nutrition programs for the poor, while other measures determine the larger direction of our whole food system, such as whether we will send subsidies to large, multi-national agribusiness or to small and medium family farms,” he said.

For information on specific efforts visit Faith Action Network and the Washington State Catholic Conference or call 206-625-9790 or Scott at 358-7243.