We got through 2011 without major cuts in national programs focused on hungry and poor people. Powerful political forces made a major push to cut these programs in the name of deficit reduction, but church leaders and faith groups rallied to form a circle of protection around hungry and poor people.
Remarkably, Congress and President Obama passed legislation in 2011 that reduced federal deficits without making deep cuts to programs that help families in need. Here's a look at what the faith community helped achieve:
Funding for domestic safety-net programs. At a time when one in five U.S. households with children struggles to put food on the table, lawmakers were considering dangerous cuts to programs that help families make ends meet. However, Congress and President Obama agreed to shield the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) from substantial cuts. Lawmakers also protected funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).
Funding for international aid programs. The House of Representatives voted to eliminate food aid rations for 14 million of the world's neediest people and make deep cuts in programs that help African farmers produce more food. But the final legislation that passed both houses of Congress made no significant cuts to international aid programs that help save lives and reduce poverty. Due in part to the advocacy of people of faith, lawmakers actually increased funding for several vital programs--for example, funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria increased by more than 40 percent.
Unemployment insurance. Shortly before Christmas, Congress extended unemployment benefits for two additional months and did not raise payroll taxes. There are now four people seeking work for every open job, and unemployment insurance is keeping millions of families out of poverty.
Also in 2011, Congress and the president agreed on the Budget Control Act, which mandates across-the-board spending cuts of $2 trillion over 10 years. Happily, the Budget Control Act exempts some of the main programs on which hungry and poor people depend from automatic across-the-board cuts.
These achievements wouldn't have been possible without the faith community's commitment to hungry and poor people. Bread for the World members and other people of faith and conscience wrote personal letters and emails, made personal phone calls, and visited their members of Congress to ask them not to balance the budget on the backs of vulnerable people.
As Congress gets started on its 2012 work, Bread for the World is calling on people of faith and congregations across the country to expand the circle of protection. Powerful interests are mobilizing to protect programs and tax advantages that benefit them. So we will need a surge of faith-grounded advocacy to maintain funding for poverty-focused programs -- and to pass legislation to make assistance programs more efficient and effective.
Isaiah 58:10 tells us, "If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday." In today's difficult economic and political environment, the God who loves us invites us to form a circle of protection around the many people in our country and worldwide who are having trouble feeding their children.
Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nation's decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad. Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, is a Lutheran minister, economist, and World Food Prize laureate.