Our government has a responsibility to address issues that impact people in need. As Christians, the Bible tells us to, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, [and] defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9). What this passage means is that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is moving us to help our neighbors—not only through action, but also by using our voices when theirs may not be heard. People of faith are often compelled to help hungry and poor people by contributing to food banks and charities, so the compassion is already there. But food banks alone cannot feed the millions of hungry American families.
Bread for the World, the organization that I lead, is a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s lawmakers to end hunger both domestically and abroad. My experiences as a Lutheran pastor and economist have taught me that we cannot “food-bank” our way out of hunger. All the food that churches and charities provide to hungry people is only about 6 percent of what is provided by federal government nutrition programs. In other words, if we want to create more widespread and lasting change, we need to change the politics of hunger. The inability to afford good quality food and a lack of access to nutritious foods is what renders people hungry. This makes hunger a matter of political will. People and their governments can choose to end it.
The most effective way to meet the needs of hungry and poor people in the United States is through strong federal government programs. It is clear from what is happening on Capitol Hill right now that not everyone shares this sentiment. The House of Representatives recently passed a budget resolution for fiscal year 2013 that places a heavy burden on poor Americans who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) to feed their families. SNAP has prevented our nation’s economic crisis from becoming a hunger crisis. More than 46 million Americans depend on it every day to help put food on their tables. However, the House recommended cutting more than $169 billion from SNAP over 10 years, with some representatives arguing that feeding hungry people is really the work of churches, not government.
The Hartford Institute for Religion and Research estimates there are 335,000 religious congregations in the United States. If the House’s proposals to cut SNAP by $133.5 billion and $36 billion are enacted, each congregation will have to spend about $50,000 more annually to feed those who would see a reduction or loss of benefits. The message from the House is that every church in America—no matter what size the congregation—must come up with an extra $50,000 to feed people every year for the next 10 years to make up for these cuts. Churches do amazing work in their communities to meet the needs of the vulnerable. However, without the help of government programs, this responsibility would be too much for religious organizations to bear. It just doesn’t add up.
God is calling us to care for the underserved by asking our government to address the fundamental causes of hunger and poverty. With the stroke of a pen, decisions are made that affect millions of lives and redirect millions of dollars. For this reason, Bread for the World takes an advocacy approach to fighting these social injustices. Our grassroots members work year-round, asking their members of Congress for specific actions to help hungry people. Bread for the World members—churches, campuses, organizations, and individuals—write personal letters and emails and meet with members of Congress.
I don’t think it’s a question of who can best care for America’s hungry and poor. The government has the resources to fund care for the underserved and religious groups have the conviction to make sure America’s most vulnerable people are cared for. With this in mind, religious organizations and people of faith have a powerful voice they can use to speak up against injustice. But the action and financial responsibility of addressing these issues is not solely their burden to bear.