The Common Good
July-August 2001

Terms of Engagement

by Jim Wallis | July-August 2001

Religious leaders demand (and get) help for working families.

A dramatic story occurred behind the scenes as Congress debated the tax cut bill this spring. Several faith-based organizations did something very important—they helped make sure that America’s poorest families were included in the benefits of the new tax cut. Religious leaders joined to support the valiant efforts of child advocates and low-income people’s organizations who were able to insert a refundable child tax credit into the legislation, one aimed at helping the nation’s poorest children who had been completely left behind by the original White House tax cut proposal.

Not making enough even to pay income taxes, many poor working families would have received nothing from the big tax cut, even though they pay payroll and other taxes. It’s clear that they need more support than the top 1 percent of America’s income earners and taxpayers—the ones who benefited the most from this tax cut. The tax cut increases the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000 over several years—a good pro-family initiative. But a single working mother with two kids making $24,000 per year would have received absolutely no help in the White House plan. By making the child tax credit partially refundable—like a tax rebate—now she does.

The refundable child tax credit will reach nearly 17 million low-income children, and help lift 500,000 children out of poverty, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, who helped lead the fight for it. But it really was a fight.

Conservative Republicans tried to kill the "kid credit," as the refundable child tax credit came to be called, arguing, incredibly, that the $20 billion it will cost would leave less to reward wealthier tax payers. The battle became a child tax credit for the nation’s poorest families vs. further lowering tax rates for those at the top. Those policy choices were enough to prompt significant involvement in the debate by the religious community. We argued that if wealthy and middle class families should get child tax credits, so should poor families.

Call to Renewal organized a delegation of faith-based organizations—including the U.S. Catholic Conference, World Vision, the Congress of National Black Churches, the Christian Community Development Association, Evangelicals for Social Action, and Mennonite Central Committee—to visit key Republican leaders in the House and Senate. The New York Times reported, "Some of the religious groups among the strongest supporters of the president’s [faith-based] initiative went to Capitol Hill this week to tell Republican lawmakers that continued support would be linked to tax breaks for the working poor." We told the Republican leadership what I told the Times: "If this tax cut is passed without help for the poor, then it will be very difficult for us to support them on faith-based issues."

Members of our delegation and other religious leaders also spoke to officials at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, urging them to push the administration to support the refundable credit, which they did. Other high-level appeals were made directly to the White House. "The credibility of the supporters of the faith-based initiative might suffer if the administration is seen offering strong words on confronting poverty but then allows the only provision of the tax bill which directly helps poor families to be removed," wrote Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a letter to President Bush.

The broad effort for a refundable tax credit was led by the Children’s Defense Fund and a network of low-income groups called the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, and they deserve the credit for this important victory. Their forces had effectively urged many Democrats and moderate Republicans to put a refundable child tax credit into the Senate version of the tax cut bill—it had been missing in the House bill. But key Republicans threatened to kill the provision in the conference committee, and the White House wasn’t supporting it.

During the heat of the congressional debate on whether the final version of the tax cut bill would retain a refundable child tax credit, the religious voices were coming from every direction. Action alerts were sent to tens of thousands of faith-based activists.

The Boston Globe reported, "Pressure came from an unexpected quarter yesterday as House and Senate conferees struggled to craft a final version of President Bush’s tax package: Religious leaders, who demanded that any bill expand aid to working poor families with children. A religious coalition headed by the group Call to Renewal directly linked the tax plan to the group’s continued support for another key element of Bush’s agenda, his faith-based initiative...." The Globe also reported that even opponents of the credit, such as then-Majority Whip Sen. Don Nickles, said the efforts of the religious organizations had been a factor.

A key supporter was moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who vowed to vote against the final bill if it excluded the refundable child tax credit, and pushed other colleagues to do the same. Snowe courageously insisted, against a great deal of pressure, "It’s a working-family issue. They pay other forms of taxes, and they otherwise would not benefit from [the tax bill]."

Two significant things were accomplished. First, poor families and children got significant help—one of the more important measures in years, according to Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund (see "A Victory for Children," page 15). Refundability itself is an important principle to strengthen, and the Catholic Bishops have been working on a refundable child tax credit for 10 years.

Second, some terms of partnership were established between faith-based organizations and the Bush administration. We took the important step of linking our support for faith-based initiatives to the administration’s support for important policy matters that impact the poor. In doing so, we clearly said we cannot support the faith-based initiative without White House leadership on other key issues that affect the poor. The faith-based initiative, alone, is obviously not enough to overcome poverty. New policies and new resources are required, and faith-based initiatives can only work in partnership with good government policy.

Many of us opposed the size and priorities of this tax cut, but gaining the child credit for those at the bottom was still a significant victory. The prophetic voice of the faith communities was exercised in this debate, critically supplementing our role as service provider. Now that the terms of partnership are clearer, a working relationship with this administration could have both more effectiveness and deeper integrity. Important issues loom on the horizon, like the crucial reauthorization of welfare reform. Stay tuned.

The Passing of a Friend
My old friend John Alexander died suddenly on Good Friday after being diagnosed with leukemia and entering the hospital on Ash Wednesday. John was longtime editor (and co-founder) of The Other Side magazine and an early leader in efforts to restore an evangelical social conscience. (See Chris Rice’s commemoration 'The Virtue of Irrelevance' in this issue.)

There are some friends whose impact on your life remains strong even if you fall out of touch with one another. John was one of those special people for me. I will always remember John’s passion for the gospel and his tenacity in seeking to live it out.

"What Would Jesus Do" has become a bracelet that kids wear on their wrists. For John it was the question that shaped his entire life. The question took him in different directions at different points in his pilgrimage, but it was always that quest that drove him. It was a question we often struggled with together, and I was often impressed by John’s courage to ask the hard questions.

His journey reflected the integrity of discipleship. It led him to social justice, racial reconciliation, personal healing, and a deep hunger for community. I’ve known few people in my life who were more determined to live the life of faith than John Alexander. His example will always remain with me and with countless others whose lives he touched. Though not seeing John often these last several years, I will miss him greatly. Just knowing he was there, living as he did, made me more hopeful about the power of the gospel in the world. I give thanks to God for the life and witness of John Alexander.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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