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Poverty figures should galvanize United Methodists, leaders say

 


Poverty figures should galvanize United Methodists, leaders say

Sept. 1, 2004

A UMNS Report
By Steve Smith*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS file photo courtesy Joan LaBarr
Faye Fannin helps serve lunch at Crossroads Center/Harwood Crossing, a ministry with the homeless in Dallas.
Census figures showing more Americans living in poverty and going without health insurance should push United Methodists to rededicate themselves to addressing two critical issues in this election year, according to denomination leaders.

Two bishops and a top church agency executive are calling on congregations to reach out to poor people living in their areas and to pressure local, state and federal lawmakers to enact anti-poverty programs and provide health insurance to all people. They add that now is not the time to back off the Council of Bishops’ Initiative on Children and Poverty, which the episcopal leaders began in 1996 to draw attention to the plight of the poor and children and to learn more about the causes of poverty.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported Aug. 26 that 1 million more people were living in poverty and another 1 million without health insurance in 2003 than during the previous year. Both figures rose for the third straight year, census officials said.

In early November, the bishops are expected to consider the findings and where to take their children and poverty initiative during the next few years when they gather at St. Simons Island, Ga., for their semiannual conference.

"What we saw in the 1990s is some lessening of those in poverty, but there were signs on the horizon that the manner in which the statistics were being created was suspect because those people engaged in food pantries and clothing banks were reporting steady increases in the numbers of clients coming to see them," said retired Bishop Donald Ott of Pewaukee, Wis., the initiative’s coordinator. "There seems to be, in the last four or five years, an unwillingness on the part of state and national governments to address the fundamental issues keeping people from necessities of life.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS file photo by Tim Tanton
Churches such as Sunnyside United Methodist in Portland, Ore., respond to poverty with feeding programs.

"I am extremely disappointed in the latest data, especially for our United Methodist Church, which is a middle- to upper-class church where, for the most part, people have the means but there is often a failure to act on the behalf of others."

According to the new census figures, more than 35.9 million Americans - or one in eight people - lived in poverty last year. In addition, 45 million, or 15.6 percent of the population, went without health insurance.

The latest numbers provided fodder for U.S. Sen. John Kerry - who has sought to make the economy a top issue in the 2004 presidential campaign - to claim that President Bush’s economic polices have "failed the middle class."

However, White House officials said the census figures reflected an economy struggling through stock market drops, corporate scandals and terrorist attacks. They added that the median income is rising slowly, companies have added 1.5 million jobs in the past four years, and the Bush administration has offered several plans to deal with economic problems.

Bishop Ann Sherer, chairwoman of the initiative’s task force, conceded that eradicating poverty and providing health insurance to everybody requires more than "quick fixes."

"This is an ongoing concern that cannot be settled in one or two quadrennia," said Sherer, who also leads the church’s Nebraska Area. "There are deep needs that must be addressed because there is preferential treatment of the poor throughout the biblical story. We, as the church, must learn what that means in the 21st century.

"In addition to building relationships with the poor and advocating in the legislatures, we, as a church, need to provide our own safety net so we can continue to do the clothing closets and food pantries."

Last year, United Methodist bishops published their third paper on the children and poverty initiative, "The Beloved Community." They also produced a study guide for congregations, Community with Children and the Poor, released through Cokesbury, a unit of the United Methodist Publishing House.

"We want to create a critical mass of people who say that poverty and all of these other issues are not acceptable according to our biblical vision," Ott said. "The sense of the bishops was that if we could personally address poverty by interaction with people living on the margins in our communities, and asking our congregations to become churches for all of God’s children, then we will influence governmental and business people to bring about the changes."

Four denomination agencies are planning to do just that. The Board of Church and Society, Board of Pension and Health Benefits, United Methodist Communications and Board of Global Ministries are teaming up to develop plans to publicize nationally the health problems of the uninsured.

Jim Winkler, top executive of the church and society board, noted that other religious organizations, such as the National Council of Churches, also are pushing to transform poverty reduction and covering the uninsured into major campaign issues. The Board of Church and Society is working for "tax fairness" regarding the impact of President Bush’s tax cuts, pushing for expansion of temporary aid to needy families and boosting funding for low-income federal housing vouchers, he said.

"These are real people in pain, not only psychological pain but also physical pain, in that they are not getting the health insurance coverage they need," Winkler said. "We have to be reminded that God’s charge to us is to save the dignity and pride of those who are in less-than-advantageous situations than many United Methodists.

"We’re not a poor denomination, and we have tremendous influence if we choose to exert it."

*Smith is a freelance writer in Dallas.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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