Changing the narrative, fighting to end poverty

By the Rev. Dr. Leslie Copeland-Tune

Following a recent meeting with a member of Congress to discuss protections for programs that provide a safety net for the most vulnerable in our nation, a colleague made an observation about the information we’d heard: Instead of a war on poverty, it sounds like now there will be a war on people who live in poverty. Indeed, as we consider the policy proposals coming out of the Trump Administration and Congress, this statement rings true in terms of the negative impacts these proposed policies will have on poor people.

But, through the work of the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative (EPI), along with other groups, people of faith are engaged in countless efforts to make sure there is a prophetic voice and collective action on behalf of the poor on Capitol Hill as well as in states and local communities across the country.

EPI is an anti-poverty ministry that galvanizes faith leaders from diverse denominational, geographical, racial and ethnic backgrounds to collectively fight to end poverty. Formerly the National Council of Churches’ Poverty Initiative, EPI was spun off to be a separate organization following a reorganization in 2013. Since then, EPI has worked with the goal of ending the scandal of poverty in the United States. Certainly, in a nation with the kind of resources available to the United States, the fact that 13.5 percent of the population — 43 million people — live in poverty and still struggle to make ends meet is scandalous.

Scripture is clear that we are to speak out on behalf of and assist the most vulnerable in our nation. This biblical mandate provides a platform by which ecumenical leaders advocate for programs and policies that support, uplift and assist those living in poverty. In fact, while there are many issues in which there are disagreements in the Christian community, fighting to end poverty is one in which there is widespread agreement and collaboration.

For EPI, this mandate means working on a number of issues and advocacy efforts that help to end poverty and protect the most vulnerable. In part, the challenge in advocating on behalf of those living in poverty is addressing underlying narratives about poor people that are often based on stereotypes — narratives such as those that suggest people with lower incomes are lazy, deserve to be poor, are trying to cheat the system or that the system somehow “enables” and encourages them to be dependent on government programs.

In fact, we know that many people living in poverty work multiple low-wage jobs to make ends meet rather than working hard to cheat the system only to stay poor. It is also true that unfair wages and systemic issues, such as an under-resourced public education system and racial disparities, result in a cycle of poverty that is difficult to break.

EPI is actively involved in numerous advocacy efforts undergirded by a theological framework that seeks to change the faulty narratives about people living in poverty in the wealthiest nation in the world. These efforts include fighting for an increase to the minimum wage and ending wage theft; protecting and securing safety net programs that help lift poor people out of poverty; fighting predatory lending practices, such as pay-day and auto loans; dismantling systemic issues at the intersection of racial and economic injustice; and advocating for an education system that includes Head Start and other programs that level the playing field and help children from low-income families to achieve their full potential.

EPI, which is housed in the Disciples Center for Public Witness and has office space at National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C., also provides resources and training to local churches, state ecumenical bodies and judicatories on how they can organize to help end poverty in their communities as well as advocate for policies that don’t put the most vulnerable at greater risk on the national level.

With a health care bill that will no doubt make America sick again, eroding the progress made by the Affordable Care Act (which was not perfect but a step in the right direction) and a proposed budget that will cut food stamps, Meals on Wheels, after-school programs and funding for programs that help the elderly, children, people with disabilities and others who are the most vulnerable in our nation, the work of EPI is needed now more than ever. The good news is that EPI and its partners are more determined than ever to do this work.