WASHINGTON — Church leaders urged Congress to pass voting rights legislation, a $15 minimum wage and permanent expansion of the child tax credit during a Thursday briefing on Capitol Hill.
“Poverty is a political choice,” said the Reverend Dr. William Barbierco-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, told lawmakers.
Barber, who is the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, told several Democratic representatives present that there were nearly 140 million poor and “low-income” people in the United States. US Census data reports that around 37.2 million people were living in poverty in 2020.
The Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy found that 3.7 million children fell back into poverty after the child tax credit funds ended earlier this year.
The expanded child tax credit enacted as part of the US bailout through 2021 has provided families with $250 to $300 per child per month. It was not extended in the Senate.
Democratic lawmakers who attended the briefing included Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna of California, Bobby Scott of Virginia, Jan Schakowsky from Illinois, Kathy Manning from North Carolina and Troy Carter from Louisiana.
More than 50 faith leaders have also joined Barber in pushing for these three congressional actions.
Barber expressed frustration that the House is voting Thursday on four police funding bills and not on legislation that would help lift low-income people out of poverty. Democrats have tried to push through the bills to help vulnerable Democrats and push back against Republican rhetoric that the Democratic Party wants to “defund the police.”
Bills before the House would provide grants to local agencies to hire staff to investigate unsolved homicides, address mental health interventions, increase funding for local police departments and small police departments and fund violence intervention programs.
The House is expected to be on vacation after Thursday and will be back next week for a few days before MPs head into the campaign trail.
Barber also pointed out that while he understands the importance of Congress continuing its investigation into the Jan. 6 uprising on Capitol Hill last year, it’s not an issue that voters, especially voters, care about. low income.
“The main reason poor people don’t vote is because no one talks to them,” he said.
He said poverty was the top issue voters were concerned about, and Democrats were ignoring a large electoral bloc because they weren’t reaching low-income voters.
“There’s nowhere in the country where a full-time job paying federal minimum wage can support an average two-bedroom apartment,” Barber said.
He added that while the Poor People’s Campaign, an anti-poverty organization, is advocating for an increase to $15 an hour in the federal minimum wage, that’s not high enough.
A 40-hour workweek with a minimum wage of $15 per hour works out to an annual salary of about $31,000, which would be just above the federal poverty level for a family of four, or $27,750 per year.
The current minimum wage is $7.25 and has not increased since 2009. For someone to be able to afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the United States, a worker would have to need to earn a minimum wage of $25.82 per hour.
Pastor Neil Tellier of Grovetown, Georgia, said a federally funded program that helped provide a free lunch to children in his condition has ended, and he is already seeing the effects. He said that in Georgia nearly 600,000 children live with food insecurity.
Rabbi Michael Pollack of Philadelphia, who is the executive director of March on Harrisburg, said Congress has focused on the wealthy and left vulnerable communities behind. march on Harrisburg is a grassroots organization that works to register voters and defends democracy.
“We need Congress to legislate the way it likes the people,” he told lawmakers.
Pollack said Congress must pass suffrage legislation. For years the Campaign of the Poor lobbied lawmakers to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, in memory of the Georgia lawmaker and civil rights icon who championed the right to vote. The bill passed the House, but died in the Senate after being repeatedly blocked by Republican lawmakers.
Manning said his faith taught him that justice is important and everyone deserves it.
“My religious tradition also teaches me that each individual is created in the image of God,” she said. “Therefore, every individual should have the right to a job that pays a decent wage.”
Reverend Ari Douglas of Janeville, Wisconsin, told the story of two of her followers who are single, full-time working mothers who still don’t have enough money to support themselves and their children.
“The church helps as much as we can,” he said. “But we are a low-income church, and besides, it shouldn’t be the churches’ responsibility to make sure people get the money they need to live on.”
He stressed the need for Congress to pass an expansion of the child tax credit.
Scott, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said his committee was working to increase Pell grants to make higher education more affordable for people.
hearts and minds
Tlaib said the stories of people struggling with poverty are important to tell because “sometimes I feel like it can move the hearts and minds of a lot of my colleagues.”
“I think we all assume people understand what’s going on,” Tlaib said, referring to his colleagues. “Many of you are on the front lines of hearing about the human tragedies and the human impact.”
Carter said Congress needed to do better.
“We shouldn’t have poor people in this country,” he said.