The start of President Obama's second term and the convening of a new Congress offer the White House an important opportunity to act boldly to end hunger at home and abroad. Thousands of people of faith are praying that the president will use this new beginning to work with Congress to set a goal and enact a plan to end hunger.
Last year the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 15 percent of Americans – including one in five children – are living in poverty. For the first time in four years, we did not see a significant increase in these numbers, but with poverty holding at such a high rate, the importance of federal safety-net programs is clear. The figures could have been significantly worse were it not for federal programs that help prevent more Americans from falling into poverty.
The official poverty numbers do not account for programs such as SNAP (formerly food stamps), the earned income tax credit (EITC) or the child tax credit (CTC). If the data accounted for SNAP, it would show 3.9 million fewer people in poverty, including 1.7 million children. If it accounted for the EITC, the number would fall by 5.7 million people, including 3.1 million children. But these programs, which play a tremendous role in reducing poverty and keeping hunger at bay as unemployment remains high, narrowly avoided cuts as Congress and President Obama came to a last-minute agreement on the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 on New Year's Day. We are encouraged by lawmakers' ability to come to a deal that minimizes the impact on hungry and poor people, but there is more work to be done.
These safety-net programs are still under threat. As we gear up for more deficit-reduction negotiations and potential across-the-board cuts to these vital programs in the next three months, our charge to President Obama is that he work with Congress to reduce the deficit in a way that both addresses our budget challenges and strengthens protections around programs vital to vulnerable people.
In a video statement that President Obama provided to Christian leaders last September, he said:
"Last year, in the midst a heated budget debate in Washington, I promised to protect vital assistance for the least of these. I've kept that promise. We can pay down our debt in a balanced and responsible way, but we cannot balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable, and certainly can't ask the poor, the sick or those with disabilities to sacrifice even more, or ask the middle class to pay more, just so we can offer massive new tax cuts to those who've been blessed with the most."
In the long term we believe that ending hunger is possible, but President Obama and Congress are essential to making that happen. Join the thousands of people of faith asking President Obama to set a goal and work with Congress to enact a plan to end hunger.
By Rev. David Beckman, president of Bread for the World. This article was originally published January 15 by The Huffington Post, and is also included in InterAction's series of guest opinions by NGO leaders on ways to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective.