Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger
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MY TAKE — Government has irreplaceable role in helping poor

By Mary Johnson on August 8, 2012
© Holland Sentinel

As our nation’s political leaders continue to debate over how to reduce the deficit, society’s responsibility to poor and hungry people must be given due consideration.

According to Feeding America, nearly 20 percent of Michiganders and about 12 percent of Ottawa County residents are food insecure. Moreover, the situation may become far worse if Congress adopts proposed cuts in the current safety net. Especially troubling is a House proposal would reduce funding for SNAP (food stamps) by $169 billion over the next ten years.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, among others, argues that the proposal is reasonable because churches must play a greater role in caring for hungry people. However, for churches to fill a $17 billion a year funding gap would require an average of $50,000 per church per year.

To better understand the role of area churches in helping hungry people, members of the Holland Bread Team (the Holland chapter of Bread for the World; see HollandBreadTeam.org) conducted an informal survey of some area churches that have a record of outreach to the poor. We asked leaders from more than 20 churches to describe their current efforts to aid hungry people and to respond to the suggestion that they chip in an extra $50,000 for SNAP for each of the next ten years.

The efforts of surveyed churches to follow the Gospel mandate to care for those in need are commendable. Local efforts include operating food pantries; hosting meals; providing counseling; reaching out to migrant workers; helping with rent, utility, or health care bills; participating in the annual CROP Walk; and supporting the Community Action House, the Community Kitchen, the Holland Rescue Mission, Christian Neighbors, Good Samaritan Ministries, Habitat for Humanity, and City on a Hill. In addition to local ministries, the surveyed churches also support a variety of international-aid efforts.

On the critical question of filling in the funding gap left by the House proposal, none of the surveyed churches indicated that they would be able to come up with an extra $50,000 a year to help hungry people. For small churches, this sum can represent 50 percent or more of their annual budget. Some respondents indicated a willingness to expand current programs to address an increased need, but no church considered $50,000 to be reasonable.

Our survey prompted some pastors to ponder the proper roles for churches and government in helping needy families. These pastors stressed the value of relationships between those who need help and those who are able to give help. Indeed, relationships are essential to living together as the family of God. Moreover, relationships can be a source of personal growth, hope, courage, and guidance. They can foster understanding, respect, and solidarity among all people.

Still, we cannot overlook the essential role of government. Much hunger is a symptom of injustice that can be reduced with changes in public policy. Millions of Americans are stuck in low-wage jobs that do not even lift a family of three out of poverty. Millions of our young people cannot afford a higher education. And, millions have been plunged into poverty by the collapse of the housing market or even a single medical emergency.

Also, since hunger and poverty are pervasive society-wide problems, it is fitting that all members of society, not just churchgoers, be called upon to contribute to safety-net programs. According to a conservative estimate from Bread for the World, society provides at least 92 percent of domestic food aid through government programs such as SNAP and school lunches. Clearly, the scale of the need is beyond what the private sector alone can manage.

The Holland Bread Team implores our members of Congress to find balanced, responsible approaches to cutting the deficit. Members of our society who are prospering must be required to pay more in taxes. Those who are struggling to put food on the table must receive the help they need.

— Mary Johnson chairs the Holland chapter of Bread for the World.

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