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Welfare ended, poverty remains, Griswold, mainline leaders tell Congress

By John Johnson
7/20/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  At a Congressional oversight hearing July 19 on the 1996 welfare reform bill, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), a letter from Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold and the leaders of four other Christian denominations pointed out that while "welfare may have ended as we know it ... poverty in our nation has not."

Bishop E. Roy Riley, Jr., chair of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Conference of Bishops, included the letter during his testimony before the House Ways and Mean Committee.

The letter, also signed by the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); the Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ; and Bishop Beverly Shamana, President of the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society, expressed concern that while welfare rolls may have declined after passage of the legislation in 1996, poverty persists.

"We understand that many in Congress may be inclined to celebrate a political anniversary: the tenth anniversary of the signing of PRWORA and the 'successes' of the law that as President Clinton said 'ended welfare as we know it.' This is a celebration in which we cannot join."

In his testimony before the committee, Riley commented on the goals of the 1996 welfare reform efforts, which were to reduce welfare dependence and improve employment, reduce child poverty and improve family life.

"Unfortunately the economic life reality in 2006 undermines broad claims at success. Families are stretched to the breaking point while working full-time for wages that keep them in a low-income status. There are an increasing number of poor, hungry, and uninsured Americans ... at the end of the day, the bottom line is this: nearly 20 percent of the children in this richest nation in the world live in poverty. Whatever else we have accomplished, whatever claims we make for our reforms that fact remains."

The committee convened the hearing nearly ten years after President Clinton signed the measure into law to hear testimony on the successes and failures of the law that substantially overhauled and revised the nation's welfare system. In addition to Riley, the committee heard from former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson as well as policy analysts and economists from the Brookings Institute, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Heritage Foundation and Baruch College.

To see previous statements on the budget from the mainline leaders and Action Alerts from the Episcopal Public Policy Network, go to: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/eppn

Previous statements from the mainline leaders can be found at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_59751_ENG_HTM.htm
http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_65527_ENG_HTM.htm
http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_70004_ENG_HTM.htm

The full text of the letter from denomination leaders follows:

July 19, 2006

Dear Members of Congress:

Our five denominations, steeped in the biblical imperative to care for the "least of these," represent close to 20 million members in the United States. We understand that many in Congress may be inclined to celebrate a political anniversary: the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (PRWORA) and the "successes" of the law that as President Clinton said, "ended welfare as we know it." This is a celebration in which we cannot join. Welfare may have ended as we know it, but poverty in our nation has not.

PRWORA is not a success when many of our brothers and sisters lack adequate access to affordable child care, education and training, health care, affordable housing, quality nutrition and other basic human needs. Despite caseload reductions in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), child poverty has risen for the last 4 years. According to recent US Census figures, the number of Americans living below the poverty line has increased every year since 2000 from 11.3% in 2000 to 12.7% in 2004. This now represents 37 million Americans, including 13 million children.

The trends of increasing poverty persist, despite the hopes of those who believed that PRWORA would mark a new era of poverty reduction in the United States. We are deeply concerned that this poverty continues to deepen among the poorest in our nation while the prosperity of those in the highest income levels continues to grow. 

Given our long historical perspective as Christians, we are compelled to evaluate the anniversary of PRWORA against another anniversary: August 29 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The devastation wrought by Katrina exposed economic inequities and the anguished faces of the poor in the wealthiest nation on the planet. Those faces, precious in the eyes of God, cause us to remember that racial disparities and poverty exist in almost every community in our nation. We call on Congress to make ending poverty in the United States a national priority.

As people of faith, we are called to speak with and for the most vulnerable as their voices are least often heard in the corridors of Washington. A decade ago, policy makers fundamentally changed the way our nation responded to those living in poverty and the margins of society. Unfortunately, after nearly ten years of PRWORA, last year and again this year, we still felt compelled to speak out throughout the Congressional budget process because in our view the nation's budget failed to reflect our common commitment of reaching out to the most vulnerable among us or to protect God's creation.

We recognize that government must provide security and protection, but experience shows us that it is often injustice that makes us most vulnerable. Our denominations and our members are committed to the end of poverty and inequity in our nation and around the globe. Sadly, even our most charitable response as individuals and faith organizations is not adequate to the task of ending poverty. However, we believe the resources of the United States are more than enough to address poverty in our nation.

We remain committed to doing our part while we call upon our government to make decisions regarding budgetary and legislative matters that serve the common good, lift up the needs of those who are poor and vulnerable, and promote economic justice. We were disheartened that the Deficit Reduction Act did not heed that call: reducing funding for child support enforcement, student loan access, Medicaid coverage, and foster care payments. Principles of the common good and the moral test of equality should guide Congress in its budget and other Congressional priorities.

In the past, we have expressed our gratitude for the efforts of members of both political parties who sought to prevent those living in the margins of society from bearing the greatest burden for a prosperity many will never enjoy. We continue to be thankful to those in Congress who have spoken out for the "least of these."