WASHINGTON — Faith leaders pressed Congress to pass voting rights legislation, a $15 minimum wage and a permanent expansion of the child tax credit during a Thursday briefing on Capitol Hill.
“Poverty is a policy choice,” Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said to lawmakers.
Barber, who is the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, told several Democratic representatives in attendance that there are nearly 140 million poor and “low-wealth” people in the United States. U.S. Census data reports that about 37.2 million people were living in poverty in 2020.
Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy found that 3.7 million children slipped back into poverty after funds for the child tax credit ended earlier this year.
The expanded child tax credit enacted as part of the American Rescue Plan through 2021 provided $250 to $300 per child every month to families. It failed to get extended in the Senate.
Those Democratic lawmakers who attended the briefing included Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna of California, Bobby Scott of Virginia, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Kathy Manning of North Carolina and Troy Carter of Louisiana.
More than 50 faith leaders also joined Barber in pressing for those three actions from Congress.
Barber expressed his frustration that the House was 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 pass the bills to help vulnerable Democrats as well as push back against Republican rhetoric that the Democratic Party wants to “defund the police.”
The bills under consideration in the House would give grants to local agencies to hire personnel to investigate unsolved homicides, address mental health interventions, increase funding for local and small police departments, and fund violence intervention programs.
The House is set to be in recess after Thursday and will be back next week for a few days before members head for the campaign trail.
Barber also stressed that while he understands it’s important for Congress to continue with its investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol last year, that is not an issue that voters, particularly low-income voters, care about.
“The No. 1 reason poor folks don’t vote is cause no one talks to them,” he said.
He said poverty was the main issue that voters care about, and that Democrats are ignoring a large voting bloc because they are not reaching out to low-income voters.
“There’s nowhere in the nation where a full-time job earning the 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 a raise to $15 an hour for the federal minimum wage, it’s not high enough.
A 40-hour work week with a minimum wage of $15 an hour comes out to an annual salary of about $31,000, which would be just above the federal poverty line for a family of four, which is $27,750 a year.
The current minimum wage is $7.25, and has not increased since 2009. In order for someone to afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the U.S., a worker would need to earn a minimum wage of $25.82 an hour.
Pastor Neil Tellier of Grovetown, Georgia, said a federally funded program that helped provide free lunch to kids in his state has ended, and he’s seeing the effects of that already. He said in Georgia, nearly 600,000 kids live with food insecurity.
Rabbi Michael Pollack of Philadelphia, who is the executive director of March on Harrisburg, said that Congress has focused on the wealthy and has left behind vulnerable communities. March on Harrisburg is a grassroots organization that works to register voters, and advocates for democracy.
“We need Congress to legislate like it loves the people,” he told lawmakers.
Pollack said Congress needs to pass voting rights legislation. For years, the Poor People’s Campaign has pressured 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 blocked several times by Republican lawmakers.
Manning said that her faith has taught her that justice is important, and everyone is deserving of it.
“My faith tradition also teaches me that every individual is made in the image of God,” she said. “Therefore, every individual should have the right to a job that pays a living wage.”
Rev. Ari Douglas of Janesville, Wisconsin, shared a story about two of his congregants who are single mothers who work full time and still do not have enough money to provide for themselves and their children.
“The church helps as much as we can,” he said. “But we’re a low-income church, and besides that, it should not be the responsibility of churches, to make sure that people get the money that they need to live.”
He stressed the need for Congress to pass an expansion of the child tax credit.
Scott, the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, said that his committee is 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 “I feel like sometimes that can move the hearts and minds of many of my colleagues.”
“I think we all assume that folks understand what’s going on,” Tlaib said, referring to her colleagues. “Many of you are in the front line of hearing the human tragedies and the human impact.”
Carter said that Congress needs to do better.
“We should not have poor people in this country,” he said.