Spotlight Exclusives

Circle of Protection Pushes 2024 Field to Talk About Anti-Poverty Solutions

David Beckmann David Beckmann, posted on

Voters will begin making their choices in the 2024 presidential races in the next two weeks, and thus far, the primary campaign season has not focused much on anti-poverty policy. The Circle of Protection, a coalition of church bodies and related ministries representing the diversity of Christianity in the U.S., is trying to change that by asking all Republican and Democratic candidates to offer statements or videos spelling out how they would approach building more opportunity for working families. David Beckmann, coordinator of the Circle of Protection and President Emeritus of Bread for the World, spoke with Spotlight recently about the group’s efforts. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start by explaining what the Circle of Protection is?

The Circle of Protection is a big coalition of church bodies and Christian organizations that work together to basically lobby Congress on big money bills. But then after we had done that for a number of years, we felt like we were just playing defense all the time. So, we wanted some way to push for new initiatives, and we came up with this idea of asking presidential candidates to say, what would you do? What would I do as president to provide help and opportunity to poor and hungry people in this country and around the world? We’ve been doing that since 2012, when first we started with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and we were surprised and delighted when they both sent back videos.

So then in 2016, we went to all the candidates in the primary as well as to the two candidates in the general election. We did that again in 2020. Virtually all the candidates have given us little statements about what they do about poverty, which is quite extraordinary. Trump really never has done a video for us, but he’s the exception. Virtually all the other candidates have responded by making videos and mostly thoughtful videos.

And so, in this cycle, you have just three, correct?

Right, it’s been our toughest sledding. It’s not for lack of trying. We’ve done exactly what we did in 2020 and 2016. We’ve made sure that the campaigns know about the request. We’ve recruited allies who have personal connections into the campaigns and can call the invitation to the attention of the candidates. I think all the remaining candidates know that a group of church leaders has been asking them to make a video about poverty. And what’s most disappointing is that the leading candidates have not done it so far. It’s surprising to me that Biden hasn’t done it because in 2020 he made a primary election video and then he made a speech on poverty in September before the November election.

But he hasn’t given us a video this time. And nor has Trump or Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis. The three candidates who have given us videos are Ramaswamy, Gov. Hutchinson, and Pastor Binkley. And I hope people look at those because they each articulate different approaches that are widely supported among conservative people in this country.

Ramaswamy takes a libertarian approach. He talks about reducing regulation on energy production so that energy prices can come down and everybody will be better off. That’s his argument. Hutchinson takes the kind of George W. Bush approach—compassionate conservatism. He puts the emphasis on neighbor helping neighbor, but then thinks that the government can help through things like school lunches and SNAP. And then Binkley focuses on what communities can do and he also really calls for a volunteer movement to deal with poverty in our own communities and the need for self-help and education among the poor. He does not think that the federal government should be intervening in particular communities but that it’s up to each of us in our own community to deal with the problem.

And have you had any indication from the White House or from the Biden campaign as to why they haven’t participated yet? It does seem unusual since they’ve done so before.

No, we haven’t, but I’m sure that I’ve communicated with people in the campaign at the highest level who thought it was a good idea. So, I think it’s a deliberate choice and there are various reasons why that might be. The other thing we did is just look at the websites of candidates and In the case of Biden, although he really has a great record on poverty issues as president it’s not one of the issues that he’s focusing on his website at this point.

He’s focusing on the economy doing well, protecting democracy, and then specific issues like drug prices that are important to groups of voters. So, I think they’re making a very conscious choice of what they need to do to, to get votes. I think that’s wrong, by the way—I think Biden has a great record on poverty, and he ought to talk about it.

Interestingly, Trump has little videos on about 29 different issues on his website, but not one is on poverty. I think he’s making a mistake too, because he could talk about how he cut taxes and it boosted the economy, raising wages for low-income people. He could make a case that he’s got the strategy to reduce poverty, but he sure hasn’t done it.

What about with the other Republicans who haven’t responded, David—do you find any particular emphasis on poverty on their websites?

We haven’t done that analysis.

So, you’ll be continuing to press these folks, those who haven’t responded and then look for statements from the nominees in the general election?

 Yes, we’ll come back in the general election and ask them again.

And will that include Independent candidates? Have you done that in the past?

We narrow it down to candidates that we think are serious competitors.

So, probably too soon to know whether that would include Robert F. Kennedy Jr.?

I think so.

I know we wanted to talk also a little a bit about the legislative priorities for the Circle. Is there anything in particular that you’re working on right now?

Right now, clearly appropriations is the main thing between now and February. Congress is going to be preoccupied trying to decide on appropriations for the current fiscal year and we think that by freezing appropriations at last year’s level, you end up with de facto cuts in housing and other low-income programs. On the other hand, we live in a democracy where you have two parties, and you have to make a deal.

We’re holding up three specific appropriation issues that we think are especially important to people in need. One is international humanitarian aid. The president’s asking for $9 billion in humanitarian aid in the Ukraine supplemental and we think that’s really urgent. And we hope that as they did last year, they’ll make some of that money available to other countries who are experiencing high levels of severe food insecurity because of conflict. That would include Gaza and Somalia and half a dozen others.

Then, WIC is a problem. For 25 years, Republicans and Democrats have had an agreement that they would appropriate enough money so that any eligible person can get WIC. But the money that’s been approved so far is not enough to continue that. If they don’t put in some additional money for WIC, an estimated 600,000 small children and pregnant women will lose WIC benefits.

The third thing that we’re focusing on is the Child Tax Credit for low-income families. In 2021, the pandemic assistance programs, shaped in part by President Biden, really reduced hunger and poverty. At the beginning, we thought the pandemic would cause tremendous poverty but what we saw was that the aid to businesses kept the economy going so people could get jobs. And then the assistance programs met the needs of people. So, in 2021, child poverty dropped to its lowest level ever in U.S. history, only 5% of American children were living in poverty.

But then at the end of 2021, they looked at the Child Tax Credit, which had done disproportionate good for low-income families with children, and they decided by one vote in the Senate not to continue it. And so, in January of 2022, child poverty shot up again. The evaluative studies show that this Child Tax Credit worked, that families that had jobs kept their jobs, and that they used the money for food, for rent. It’s not like people got lazy—they really got a boost. And so, we think it’s really important to re-expand the Child Tax Credit for low-income families in particular, either attached to an appropriation bill or as a trade-off for the big tax cuts the business community is pushing for.

And David, does the group have particular parameters that it would like to see around a CTC? As you know, there’s been a lot of talk about perhaps work requirements being built into that.

We tend to take a sort of broad brush theological and spiritual look at these issues. And so broadly, we want to see an expansion of the Child Tax Credit for low-income families. Republicans have some ways of doing it, Democrats have ways of doing it, and we hope they can come to an agreement and get it done.

And on WIC, part of the issue is that the program is a victim of its own success, particularly in the efforts to make it more accessible during the pandemic and afterwards.

The Department of Agriculture did a good job and the WIC directors across the country did a good job of making some administrative changes that partly allowed moms to do some of their interaction with the bureaucracy online. You know, it’s not easy for a mom with two kids, who doesn’t have much money, to get into an office and sit and wait for somebody. And so, by online access, that was one way that they managed to get benefits to more of the people who are eligible, who ought to be getting it.

As you know, there’s lots of evidence that WIC benefits to pregnant women reduce premature births. And, you know, those moms and babies will be in the hospital and caring or a premature baby takes a lot of money. The program has demonstrated that it’s cost effective. Both parties love the program. Partly what happened was that the administration mis-estimated how much they needed because they’ve improved their performance in terms of making it available to people. Congress also had mandated more fruits and vegetables to the package and those two things together made the level of service more expensive than they initially thought.

And does the group have any other plans for things that you want to do during the general election campaign? I know there’s been talk of perhaps trying to have a debate that would be focused on poverty issues.

Well, we’re hoping Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity would take that on!

We would love that.

Well, help us with that. Get to journalists. Because part of the problem, as you pointed out in past discussions, is the journalists aren’t focused on the issue of poverty or hunger. Spotlight did a review of what’s happened to coverage of poverty in major national periodicals. And in 2016, there was some bump up with a couple of the big newspapers but otherwise, news coverage of poverty has remained constant. And I can’t remember that we ever have had a question in a general election presidential debate about poverty.

And right now, because of the pandemic assistance, starting with the Child Tax Credit, one thing after another had been taken away from families. Families are just really scrambling.

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