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Religious leaders urge Obama to protect the poor in budget efforts

By Patricia Zapor on July 21, 2011
© Catholic News Service

After a July 20 meeting with President Barack Obama, leaders of the faith-based Circle of Protection came away reassured about his commitment to protecting assistance for the poor in impending budget cuts.

But they remain worried that a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling and head off the economic crisis will include drastic cuts to services for the poor and might halve or eliminate some entire programs that provide aid to some of the world's disaster zones such as drought-stricken eastern Africa.

"There is a movement on to eliminate all emergency aid. ... It will cost lives," said Tony Hall, a former Democratic congressman from Ohio and now director of the Alliance to End Hunger. Hall also previously served as ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture.

"There are no votes there" among the world's poor, said Hall in a July 21 teleconference that included most of the participants in the meeting with the president. "Members of Congress can write it all off and they don't suffer for that when it comes to election time."

"The only voice they have is people like us," he said.

The 40-minute session with the president "was very enlightening and energizing," said Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., a member of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, one of the participants in the White House meeting.

"It was wonderful to see the president so engaged," the bishop told Catholic News Service in a separate interview. "He seems to accept our message."

That message is that political leaders should pay attention to the fundamental moral principle of putting the needs of the poor first in allocating scarce government resources, the bishop said.

He told the president that "as religious leaders, our concern is not which party wins the current political battles," but rather that "if we all don't speak up, who is likely to lose: the families trying to feed their kids, the jobless looking for work, the children who need health care, the hungry and sick and hopeless around the world."

Joining Bishop Ramirez for the meeting were representatives of the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, the Salvation Army, Bread for the World, Sojourners and others.

Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs for Catholic Charities USA, a participant in the Circle of Protection, but not a part of the White House delegation, told CNS that the debt-ceiling talks and the associated prospects of budget slashing are a roller-coaster ride.

For the poor and marginalized in the United States and beyond, "the best possible scenario is a bipartisan agreement and not a partisan political debate," she said. "The poor and marginalized are at risk whenever there is a partisan political debate."

She said at Catholic Charities and among similar organizations, "we know this is a crisis. We know there is a need for shared sacrifice." But the solutions don't lie in "turning off the faucets" of programs that provide a safety net for the poor. She said one example would be cutting the costs of bureaucracy before services.

John Carr, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, who attended the White House meeting and moderated the teleconference the next day, said it was "an extraordinary meeting," bringing together people from organizations that do not typically work together on legislative agendas.

Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the African-American Clergy Network, said on the teleconference that the unusual nature of the delegation was not lost on Obama.

"The White House is used to being petitioned by people for the needs of their own organizations or themselves," she said. More rare is for organizations to seek help not for themselves but for entire segments of society, she said.

Bishop Ramirez told CNS that he told the president that from the perspective of New Mexicans, there are many "givens" in the debate over how to make the budget cuts congressional leaders are demanding in return for voting to raise the debt ceiling. Those include: for Republicans, no new taxes; for some Democrats, no cuts in Medicare; for others, no cuts in military spending; for the Obama administration, additional revenues.

"Sadly, if you listen to the debate it seems that protecting the poor and vulnerable is not a given," Bishop Ramirez said.

He and the others in the meeting asked the president to join their Circle of Protection, around programs and resources to support the lives and dignity of the poor.

The Circle of Protection is an effort of religious leaders to speak out on behalf of the poor to prevent funding cuts to programs that provide the safety net from poverty. Principles included in a statement of the effort include reducing future deficits and urging political leaders to review and consider tax revenues, military spending and entitlements as ways of addressing deficits.

Also, their statement emphasizes the moral dimension of answering Christ's call to protect "the least of these," as well as turning to prayer and fasting in asking for guidance for national leaders.

"The poor have no powerful lobbyists," Bishop Ramirez told Obama. "But they have the most powerful moral claim on this process."

He and the other participants asked the president to "be their voice."

"You are at your best when you echo the Scriptures and remind us we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers," the bishop said he told Obama. "We need more of that from you."

Bishop Ramirez said of his one-day trip to Washington: "It's not every day the U.S. bishops get invited to the White House and get to talk about something as crucial as care for the poor."

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