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Pan-Methodist bishops take concern for children to capital

8/1/2003

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report.

By Joretta Purdue*



WASHINGTON (UMNS) - Children's Defense Fund staff have urged a group of Methodist bishops to speak out on several pieces of legislation in Congress that would affect poor children.

This is a "most dangerous time" for poor children in terms of legislation in Congress, said Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund. "People are not aware of the systematic, across-the-board war against children."

The bishops, representing the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation's Children in Poverty initiative, met July 30 with children's fund officials. The commission comprises representatives from the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal and United Methodist churches. Members of the first two denominations were unable to participate in the delegation.

Edelman and other children's fund staff discussed concerns about legislation affecting the Head Start, child tax credit and welfare-to-work programs.

The previous week, the House of Representatives passed by one vote a bill that would change the funding and management of Head Start, which helps children from low-income families prepare for elementary school.

Shelley Water Boots of the children's fund noted that the bill originated from a White House request that the whole program be funded by block grants to the states. This, she said, would take away the federal standards. The proposal was scaled down to include no more than eight states as a test, but Boots said as many as half the children in Head Start could be affected, depending on the states chosen. A waiver provision could also increase the number of states beyond eight.

Block grants would disrupt the decades-long federal-to-local funding pattern that has been an important part of maintaining standards and accountability, Boots said. It would also make the money vulnerable to other needs in hard-pressed state budgets, she said.

New bills were introduced in the Senate July 28 and 29 to offer alternatives, and senators are trying to be bipartisan in order to avoid the contentiousness of the House, Boots said.

Edelman, speaking by phone to the group, accused the Republicans in the House of wanting "to end Head Start as we know it" by using the block-grant approach.

The tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 will drain funds needed for children, Edelman continued.

"In America, we don't have a money problem; we have a values and priorities problem," she declared. The dramatic increase in the federal deficit puts all age groups at risk and is part of an attempt to starve government programs, she said. The Bush administration is trying to take the society not just to pre-Great Society status but to the days before the New Deal, she said.

Taking aim at other legislation, Edelman said that failure to include the working poor in the child tax credit program unjustly excludes 12 million children. Democrats and some Republican supporters are trying to expand the child tax credit program to include low-income families, but the effort is stalled in the House of Representatives. The first rebate checks for the child tax credit are to be distributed Aug. 1.

"The people who need it the most will be getting nothing," Edelman lamented.

Shannon Brigham-Hill, a Children's Defense Fund lawyer, told the bishops that her agency also favors reauthorizing the current welfare program, which was extended because lawmakers could not agree on new legislation when it came up last year. Brigham-Hill said that problems in a new bill passed by the House include an increase in the number of work hours required of parents, including those with children under age 6, coupled with insufficient money to fund day care even for those children already enrolled.

Any success of the welfare-to-work bill "has been overtaken by lack of job availability," she said.

"We have seen a rise in extreme poverty," she noted. Extreme poverty means household cash income is less than half the amount of the federal poverty line. For example, that would include a family of three with less than $7,064 income in 2001.

She noted that in 2001, despite the previously booming economy, the number of African-American children in extreme poverty was at its highest level in 23 years - nearly 1 million.

During their visit to Washington, the bishops met with legislative aides of senators from their areas and together talked with an aide of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) about his committee work on Head Start and issues related to Africa. Alexander introduced a bill earlier in the week that would make 200 outstanding Head Start programs "centers of excellence" with increased funding for additional tasks.

The bishops later turned to the question of how they and other bishops could further their initiative on Children in Poverty. Suggestions included encouraging congregations to provide resources to help people obtain the benefits for which they qualify. Edelman had said in her call that if everyone received the benefits they were eligible for, poverty would be reduced 20 percent, and 70 percent of the people would be lifted out of extreme poverty.

United Methodist Bishop Don Ott coordinated the group's visit to Washington. Others from the United Methodist Church were Bishops Violet Fisher of the New York West Area and George Bashore of Pittsburgh. Bishops Marshall Gilmore of Dallas and Ronald Cunningham of Memphis, Tenn., represented the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
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*Purdue is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in Washington.

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