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Leading Clergy Call on Congress to Act on Poverty Before Mid-term Elections By Chrisleen Herard

Sept. 27, 2022

Leading Clergy Call on Congress to Act on Poverty Before Mid-term Elections

By Chrisleen Herard


Retired Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie

( - A melting pot of religious leaders has gathered in a congressional briefing to discuss the 140 million poor and low-income people living in poverty across the United States, and to call on Congress to act upon it.

According to Poverty USA, when the COVID-19 variant presented itself and shook the world in 2020, 11.7 million people were lifted out of poverty. This wouldn’t have been attainable, however, without the temporary economic relief that was granted as an outcome of the infectious disease, such as stimulus payments, the child tax credit and other benefit programs.

But as the pandemic era seemingly comes to an end, so have the transient measures that provided millions of families and children with financial assistance.

“Have you met Michael?” said retired Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Michael is the third grade student in elementary school down the street from the church that I pastored in Baltimore city. Michael would get himself up early in the morning to go to school ‘cause that's where his two main meals are, and when there is no school, there is no meal.”

The child tax credit provided families with $3,000 for each child aged between six and 17, and $3,600 for children under the age of six, (half of the credit was paid in monthly installments while the other half would be claimed by the parents on their taxes), but regardless of the number of people it helped, the tax program was not expanded after ending in December of last year.

A Columbia University study found that the expiration of the child tax credit increased the child poverty rate from 12.1 percent to 17 percent in 2022, resulting in an additional 3.7 million children living below the poverty line in comparison to the previous year.

In the wake of this, faith leaders now call for Congress to make a change, before midterm elections begin in November, by voting to not only reinstate and expand policies that aid in lifting people out of poverty, but to also increase the minimum wage.

“I have been struggling to pay my bills since I’ve been working at 16 years old,” a woman at a Poor People’s Campaign rally said in a video shown at the briefing. “I work full time, 64 hours a week, 7 days a week, I. Am. Exhausted.”

It has been nearly 13 years since Congress increased the federal minimum wage from $6.55 to $7.25 — the longest amount of time the government has gone without increasing the wage since they first introduced it back in 1938 — despite recent inflation rates hitting a 40-year high of 9.1 percent this past June.

The stagnant wage has plagued a spiraling cost-of-living crisis as more than 50 million people in America are left to continue working for a price that does not allow them to live comfortably, and some with no job and nowhere to live at all.

Rev. Tonny Algood, tri-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and a member of the executive committee for the National Union of the Homeless, through tears said, “The (Alabama) city council voted to pass an ordinance to make it illegal for the homeless to sleep anywhere on public property…I asked the city council member who introduced that, I said, “Where are they gonna sleep?...His answer was,“’I don’t care,’”

Algood concluded, “We’re not surviving out here, we’re dying. We can’t wait until after the midterms.”

Amongst the 50 million people who are working below a living wage in the U.S,. are millions who are also impacted by voter suppression, another big issue that was addressed in the briefing.

Imam Saffet Catovic, head of the Office for Interfaith Community Alliances and Government Relations for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), said, “Just two years after ISNA was established…our founders…celebrated, honored and gave thanks for the hard work and the great sacrifice of those who were part of the civil rights struggle for freedom and equality for all Americans, and for their bringing the 1965 Voting Rights bill to a vote…They did so because it was the right thing to do then, and it is the right thing to do now.”

In addition to gerrymandering, limited polls and narrow voting times, the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) has been restricted from further ensuring fair elections.

Section 5 of the VRA enacted a formula that required states with a history of discriminatory voting practices to seek preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice if they desired to make any changes to their voting procedures.

The 2013 Shelby v. Holder’s case, however, would find that this formula unconstitutional because it was outdated, ultimately making it harder for some voters, especially those who are poor and Black, to have a free voice in United States elections without having a policy that will hold states and politicians accountable for attempting to limit their access. Consequently, this makes it difficult for those citizens to vote for laws that address the nation's ongoing poverty issues, and vote against the ones that do not.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is a proposed legislation that was introduced last year to combat the overturning of the VRA’s preclearance with a more moderate formula, restoring protection for all Americans right to vote if Congress votes to pass it.

“All of us, irrespective of our color, our socioeconomic status, our station in life, or circumstances we may find ourselves in, have a right to freedom of speech, and this also means to be able to speak politically,” said Catovic, “For if we do not speak politically in this world we live in, we do not speak at all, and the sacred right to vote is the basis and at the heart of our political speech.”

The words “140 million” stood like an elephant in the room where the conference took place as a constant reminder that this is the number of people who cannot afford to live, and that the cold hands of poverty continue to touch an assemblage of people regardless of race, class and age.

The faith leaders are hoping that the members of Congress vote to bring forth justice to the social and moral issues surrounding the poverty, wage and voting rights in the country, and to take charge in representing the citizens who elected them to do so.

Reverend Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove stated, “I want to thank Congress…for doing something that I don’t think happens very much in the United States, but I think this year Congress really has used its power, particularly through public hearings, to highlight the big lie,”

“What we’re talking about here today is perhaps a bigger lie. It’s bigger because it’s been told a lot longer…and it’s bigger because it (has) killed a lot more people. And the lie is, poor people are to be blamed for their poverty.”

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