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Poor Hear Little Good News

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As the war on terrorism continues, Jesus’ challenge to his followers carries fresh relevance. In the darkness of our war culture, we are called to shine the light of the Good News.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Matt. 5:14). The bright light of God’s peace, which Anabaptists seek to show forth, includes “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

The current war must not distract us from the troubled reality of low-income people in the United States. Unemployment reached a six-year high of 5.8 percent in December. Hunger and homelessness rose sharply over the last year in 27 major U.S. cities. Requests for emergency food assistance climbed an average of 23 percent, and requests for emergency shelter assistance rose 13 percent.

The economic slowdown has exposed weaknesses in the public safety net. Unemployment insurance does not apply to many new workers, whose jobs are often the first to go.

Food stamps reach a smaller percentage of the needy than in the past. States have begun to cut funds for Medicaid, the government’s health-care program for low-income people. Federal housing assistance has not kept pace with need in any recent year.

Furthermore, the minimum wage is low by historical standards – so much so that a single parent with two children, working full time for the minimum wage, would earn nearly $4,000 below the federal poverty level. The primary opportunity for mending the safety net lies within the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Congress is scheduled to rewrite this legislation by September, though it may decide to extend the current program for a year and postpone major revisions until a non-election year.

Separate, more immediate measures are also being debated. At the forefront are contentious economic-stimulus plans. While it seems likely that wealthy corporations will benefit from more tax breaks, some members of Congress are pushing for measures to help those who have lost jobs in the recession.

These include extension of unemployment insurance, health- care coverage through Medicaid or temporary continuance of employer-based insurance, and a one-time tax rebate for the 34 million workers who did not receive them last summer.
Another current initiative is restoration of public benefits to immigrants, many of whom lost these benefits due to the 1996 welfare-reform law. President Bush’s budget proposal for 2003 would allow an estimated 363,000 immigrants to qualify for food stamps after five years of residence – rather than 10 years of working – in the United States.

The Anabaptist peacemaking witness, so desperately needed in the current culture of war, can also make a powerful contribution toward helping knit together a strong safety net for our sisters and brothers here at home.

Elisabeth T. Harder is a legislative assistant in the Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office. This article was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly ReviewJanuary 23rd issue.