Circle of Protection to keep up budget fight for low-income families

Children with a Head Start program in St. Paul, Minnesota, visit HAFA Farm in Vermillion Township in 2014. (Flickr/Media Mike Hazard, CC-BY 2.0)
Children with a Head Start program in St. Paul, Minnesota, visit HAFA Farm in Vermillion Township in 2014. (Flickr/Media Mike Hazard, CC-BY 2.0)

by Julie Bourbon

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A consortium that has been pushing lawmakers to maintain federal funding for the poor will continue to apply pressure following passage of a $1.1 trillion spending bill by Congress May 3 that maintained or increased funding for some of the group's priorities. The Circle of Protection, which counts among its members more than 65 national leaders of Christian groups and churches, has managed to keep hunger and poverty — at home and abroad — in the conversation.

"I'm really encouraged for future decisions," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. "This shows that Republicans and Democrats can work together, and the faith community played a big role."

The bill, signed by President Donald Trump May 5, will fund the government through Sept. 30.

Domestically, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and summer meals for kids will continue to be funded at current levels, while funding for Head Start, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and food programs for seniors will go up. Internationally, the bill provides $1 billion for African famine relief and maintains funding for maternal and child nutrition programs.

"While we are pleased that the majority of programs will maintain the same level of funding for [fiscal year] 2017," said Dominican Sr. Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, "it is our sincere hope that our government leaders continue to provide much-needed support to the millions in this country struggling to make ends meet and that their decisions take into account the harsh reality in communities across America."

Members of the Circle of Protection found cause for cautious optimism this go-round but expressed concern about what awaits in September, when the current spending bill expires and Congress is likely to pass another continuing resolution. Trump is expected to submit his fiscal 2018 budget later this month, and the group is expecting it to include dramatic cuts to programs that make up the social safety net, including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps).

"From my point of view, there's certainly a great deal of relief that the kind of cuts that had been proposed [by the president] were not enacted," said Jim Winkler, president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches, a member of the Circle since its inception in 2011.

But much remains to be done, he added. "We have been coming together to say if you're going to try to balance the budget, don't do it on the backs of the poor and at the expense of social programs that protect the last, the least and the lost."

Bread for the World and Catholic Charities are also signatories to the Circle of Protection's statement of principles, which reads in part, "As Christian leaders, we are committed to fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice. We are also committed to resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people."

Founded six years ago, the Circle includes members from across the political spectrum.

"We wanted to ensure that the group included people that lean both ways on politics," said Beckmann, "so it was clear the issue of protecting funding for people in poverty in our country and around the world is not a liberal or conservative issue, it is an ethical and spiritual issue."

In 2011 and 2013, the Circle was integral in the effort to protect those programs from dramatic cuts. A 2011 Lenten fast that included 24 members of Congress and more than 36,000 people nationwide drew attention to the group's agenda. Meetings with President Barack Obama and congressional leaders from both parties followed. There were no dramatic cuts to poverty programs that budget cycle.

The group pressed Congress again in 2013, during an impasse that eventually led to a government shutdown, by sending a letter signed by more than 5,000 faith leaders and holding a "faithful filibuster" for a week in October while Congress was in session. Again, funding for programs that protect the poor was saved.

During the contentious 2016 presidential primary season, all of the candidates were asked to submit videos to the Circle outlining their plans to assist the poor and hungry, at home and abroad. Trump and Hillary Clinton sent letters. Trump's letter, on "Make America Great Again" stationery, addressed poverty programs as largely a job-creation issue, writing, in part: "I have laid out a bold agenda to grow our economy, create jobs and restore vitality to rural and urban pockets of poverty. I have also made clear that the cycles of crime, violence and recidivism that plague underprivileged communities will be addressed as well."

More recently, at the end of March, members from the Circle of Protection visited Capitol Hill to directly address congressional leadership. Armed with data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showing that programs supporting the poor produce tangible results in terms of health and education gains, Winkler and the Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), were among those who made the rounds. The two visited her Indiana senators and congressman.

"All were in favor of maintaining some of the programs that help the poor," said Watkins, who noted that they seemed to be as moved by the data as by the moral imperative. "It's one thing to say we're going to do the best we can and the cuts will not be as drastic as proposed. But the Circle of Protection's position is that we don't want any cuts at all. While what we give, both through foreign aid and domestic programs, helps a lot of people, it's a tiny piece of our federal budget and to make it even tinier seems counter to the best spirits."

The Hill visits were followed in late April by Ecumenical Advocacy Days, whose participants included some crossover from the Circle of Protection. That group's agenda encompasses the poverty programs that the Circle advocates, as well as immigration and the issue of mass incarceration.

Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network and a Circle member, was among seven protesters who prayed inside the Hart Senate Office Building during Ecumenical Advocacy Days and were subsequently arrested.

Of Trump's yet-to-be-finalized budget, Carolan said, "His proposal would gut protections for the environment, for water, for God's creations; it would dramatically hurt the poor, the marginalized, the elderly, and do this so they can give tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, who don't need more tax breaks."

To pass such a budget, he said, would necessitate that the United States "stop pretending we're a moral nation."

Members of the Circle plan to keep a weather eye on the budget process and continue to press members of Congress and the president to act with compassion and generosity. The bill gives them some hope that they've influenced yet another budget cycle in favor of the poor, but they and the congregations they represent will not rest.

"It would appear that overall, Congress has resisted major cuts that would have seriously impacted the poor, and that is something to be grateful for," said Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the Office of Justice, Peace, and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The Circle of Protection will be very important going forward as the 2018 budget and appropriations process continues. If current budget proposals are a starting place, there will be heated debates ahead and people of faith will need to engage in every way possible to convince Congress to prioritize those most in need."

[Julie Bourbon is a freelance writer and editor in Washington, D.C.]

A version of this story appeared in the May 19-June 1, 2017 print issue under the headline: Circle of Protection to keep fighting for low-income families.

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