Shortly after the November elections, people asked me, "How is the Interfaith Council and its work for the poor going to fare, now that the Republicans are in the majority?" My reply was very simple: "Issues of social justice have never been easy; we've always had to struggle. That certainly was true with a Democratic majority, and it probably won't be much different with the Republicans in charge. However, who knows, just maybe, we'll have some pleasant surprises."
And surprises we have had. From the point of view of those Virginians who live daily with poverty, there was some momentum to improve their chances of moving towards greater self-sufficiency.
Although we Virginians pride ourselves with being one of the least taxing states in the country, that's far from true for the working poor. We are the fifth most taxing. We begin taxing income at $5,400. The federal poverty level is $13,600 for a family of three. Here is a simple issue of social justice. For 11 years, many of us have been working to secure tax relief for the poorest of Virginians. Two years ago there was an abortive attempt to use federal funds to reimburse the working poor for the state taxes they had paid. The feds rightfully said "No way." So it was back to the drawing board. Out of this session through a bill whose chief patron was Del. Jack Reid (R-Chesterfield/Henrico) and the behind-the-scenes work of Sen. Walter Stosch (R-Henrico/Goochland), came tax relief for the federal poverty level not only for working poor families with children but also singles and couples.
More surprises: Since 1985, 15 years ago, the benefit level for those on public assistance has not increased. Imagine your income having been frozen at 1985 levels that's like a dollar then being worth 30 cents now. This public assistance group includes many of the elderly, disabled and children living with persons other than their parents, as well as people currently moving from welfare to work. Another justice issue that has cried out for change. And it was resolved, at least in part, with a 10 percent increase (e.g. $291 a month up to $320).
As for day care: Among working parents, including those moving from welfare to work, this is a crucial issue, crucial in order to work, but more importantly, crucial for the family value of quality care for one's child. Again, more so that ever before, the General Assembly responded with more than $54 million over the next two years. This will help both with the quality and affordability of day care, and will cut into the long waiting lists of those needing it.
And homelessness: Currently, every night about one-in-four persons in Virginia needing shelter is turned out no room in the inn. About one in every three people in shelters is a child. Today there are few funds available to provide such things as initial security deposits to people desiring to move from a shelter to an apartment, or rental assistance to prevent people from being evicted and becoming homeless. Again, the General Assembly came through with several millions of dollars to provide for more shelter beds, supervision for children and housing supports.
Significant leadership came from Richmond Sen.Benjamin J.Lambert III (D-Richmond/Henrico) and Delegates Franklin Hall (D-Richmond) and Panny Rhodes (R-Richmond/Henrico, who also championed a bill that would greatly enhance the successful journey from poverty to self-sufficiency) who sit on significant money committees dealing with poverty and the working poor.
So, from the point of view of greater justice for Virginians who live with poverty, some significant benefits were gained, and for me, as one who joined with many others in advocating for such justice, the surprises were pleasant indeed. Now it is in the hands of Gov. Jim Gilmore to make real what the Assembly has enacted for the benefit of some of our most vulnerable citizens.
The Rev. J. Fletcher Lowe Jr. is the executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the only statewide, nonpartisan interfaith partnership "uniting people of faith for a more just and compassionate Commonwealth." The Richmond-based partnership, whose mission is to advocate for the poor and oppressed before the state government and to educate people into a deeper sense of faith-based citizenship, includes 16 Christian denominations, several Jewish federations and the Islamic Center of Virginia.
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