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Religious leaders make poverty presidential election issue

11/25/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By Shanta Bryant Gyan*

WASHINGTON (UMNS)-- With the U.S. presidential election less than a year away, major religious leaders sought to put poverty in the United States on the top of the electoral agenda during a recent round-table discussion on poverty.

The Nov. 24 National Religious Leaders Roundtable on Poverty gathered religious leaders and heads of faith-based organizations from a wide spectrum of Christian denominations to craft strategies to highlight poverty-related priorities pertaining to the more than 34 million Americans living below the poverty line.

Leaders observed that the rising U.S. poverty rate has been noticeably absent from the current presidential debates and discussed putting forth a platform to reduce U.S. poverty for the presidential candidates to rally behind.

"We are here today to set a road map for making poverty reduction an election-year issue," said Jim Wallis, convener and president of Call to Renewal, a national network of churches, faith-based organizations and individuals working to reduce U.S. poverty, which convened the gathering.

During roundtable discussions, James Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, asserted that a presidential electoral focus on poverty in the United States is critical.

"We need to know if they will alleviate and overcome poverty," said Winkler of the candidates' political positions on the issue. "Will they support a minimum wage that is livable? Will they support the child tax credit refund for the poor? Will they increase TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Family] funds?

"Anti-poverty measures need to be in front of these candidates," he said.

The round-table agenda included increasing the level and eligibility for the food stamp program and the Earned Income Tax Credit, extending the child tax credit to low-income people, bolstering TANF funds, and the Bush administration's Faith-Based Initiative.

Call to Renewal cited the Urban Institute's recently released report showing that more than 4 million non-elderly and low-income families used a food pantry over the past year. Additionally, it reported, nearly half of the families visiting food pantries were working parents with children.

E.J. Dionne, Washington Post syndicated columnist and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, was part of the conference panel discussion on influencing presidential candidates. Another panel of reporters of leading newspapers discussed working with the media to ensure that poverty is part of the electoral debate.

The round table concluded with a dialogue of the critical issues raised in the Democratic National Committee presidential candidates' debate in Iowa.

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* Gyan is a freelance writer based in the Washington area.

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