Small towns, large cities, social service agencies and even the manufacturers of digital converters for television sets all expect to benefit from a piece of the $787 billion stimulus measure signed by President Barack Obama on Feb. 17. But amid all the mega-million-dollar transportation projects and infusions of federal cash for industries on the brink of insolvency, there are plenty of tax breaks and new funding for programs that directly aid poor people.
Some of the more dramatic elements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as the stimulus is formally known, include changes to the federal tax code that provide $288 billion worth of tax credits and deductions to aid the poorest Americans. For example, a single parent of two earning minimum wage will be eligible for up to a $1,750 child tax credit, nearly double the 2008 limit.
The law also expands the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families with three children or more and provides for about $116 billion in tax credits, $400 per worker in 2009 and 2010, in the form of reduced payroll deductions that will begin this summer. Even many of those who do not earn enough to pay federal income taxes will be eligible for a stimulus check under this provision. Also, families with incomes as low as $45,000 will be eligible to pay a lower, alternative minimum tax that was not previously available to them.
Some of the direct spending in the law includes a one-time payment of $250 to recipients of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income for the poor and to veterans who receive pensions and disability payments. The stimulus bill also extends unemployment benefits through the end of 2009 and raises the payments by $25 a week.
Lawmakers have also provided increased funding for basic necessities, including food and health care. Most four-person households that use food stamps will receive about $80 more per month starting in April under a program now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The law also expands funding for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program by $500 million and the Emergency Food Assistance Program by $150 million. Unemployed people who pay for their own health care insurance under the Cobra program will receive $24.7 billion to subsidize 65 percent of their premiums. Another $86.6 billion will go to states to help cover shortfalls in Medicaid coverage and $1 billion is designated for prevention and wellness programs.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pushed hard for the child tax credits, the nutrition assistance programs, the support for Medicaid and the expansion of unemployment benefits. It also backed the provisions that will fund programs to prevent homelessness, to weatherize public housing and to stabilize neighborhoods by purchasing some foreclosed homes.
A provision that the U.S.C.C.B. worked successfully to keep out of the final bill would have required employers to use a much-criticized program to verify that all employees have legal permission to work in the United States.
Finally, the law also permits religious schools, colleges and universities to apply for funding to renovate institutions of higher education in order to make them more environmentally sustainable. Longstanding restrictions prohibit federal funds from being used for work on facilities used for sectarian instruction or religious worship, but other types of buildings at schools operated by religious organizations are eligible for funding.Pope, British Prime Minister Discuss Global Economy
Hard work, solidarity and other ethical values must be part of the world’s response to the global economic crisis, said Pope Benedict XVI and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The pope and prime minister met Feb. 19 at the Vatican, and their 35-minute conversation focused on the economic crisis and “the duty to pursue initiatives benefiting the less developed countries,” a Vatican statement said.
“Large numbers of people have been thrust into poverty as a result of the banking crisis and I think that we, together with the faith groups, must have uppermost in our minds...what we can do immediately to help those in difficulty,” Mr. Brown said following the meeting. “The reality of what has happened has got to lead to us taking action to create safety nets for people in countries where they are most vulnerable to the downturn. Perhaps one of the things the world will be able to take out of this difficult crisis,” he said, is a realization that safety nets must be in place to help individuals at risk.
Mr. Brown also said that he and the pope spoke about “the importance of what we might call ‘the simple virtues’ being at the center not just of family life in our societies and communities, but also at the center of our economic life. The only successful economic life in the future will be one that values hard work and effort and responsibility and enterprise, but chooses not to reward irresponsible risk-taking and excess.”
The prime minister was in Rome to assist with preparations for the Group of 20 summit, which he will host in London in April. The summit will bring together leaders of the world’s richest nations as well as the key leaders of emerging economies. In an article published in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, on the eve of his Roman visit, Mr. Brown wrote that the Group of 20 meeting must find ways to ensure that the poorest countries receive a portion of the cash infusions that wealthier countries are committing to stimulate their economies.
Brown also outlined his priorities for fighting the economic downturn and reversing global poverty, which include new resources dedicated to health and education in the developing world; reform of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to give a greater voice to developing nations; and the use of new world trade agreements to open markets to products from developing economies. The world has a “collective responsibility to ensure that the needs of the poorest countries will not be an afterthought, tagged on due to moral obligation or guilt,” Mr. Brown wrote.
The pope and the prime minister also agreed that efforts must be made “to foster cooperation on projects of human promotion, respect for the environment and sustainable development,” according to the Vatican statement. Mr. Brown told reporters after the meeting that he had invited Pope Benedict to visit the United Kingdom. While the pope appeared pleased with the invitation, he made no firm commitment, Brown said.Wage Theft Significant Problem’ in U.S
Wage theft robs workers of pay they deservedly earned, but also robs the government of about $18 billion a year in revenue according to Kim Bobo, executive director of the Interfaith Worker Justice organization. Speaking at a labor luncheon on Feb. 21 in Washington, D.C., Bobo cited several examples. A Vietnamese restaurant chain in New York City was found to have paid its workers, on average, $540 a month. “That’s less than $2 an hour,” Bobo said. That was before their bosses levied $20 fines against them for such infractions as typing too slowly or slamming a door too loudly.
Bobo also said that there are an estimated 30 million workers who are wrongly classified as independent contractors, allowing employers to avoid paying taxes on their wages. “That’s not only stealing from the workers, but stealing from the public coffers,” she added while calling for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would transfer from employers to employees the decision on how a union representing the workers will be formed.Officials Express Concern Over Shariah
Church workers in Pakistan are concerned over the government’s decision to allow militants to enforce Islamic law in the pro-Taliban controlled North-West Frontier province. The government, in an attempt to bring about peace and order, agreed on Feb. 16 to allow Taliban leaders to enforce Shariah, or Islamic law. Soon after the deal, media reported that radical groups shut down all schools for girls and banned women from the marketplace and from traveling outside their homes without a male family member as an escort. They also announced prohibitions on music, dancing and working for nongovernmental organizations. According to media reports, the militants in the past few years have bombed 201 schools, most of them for girls. The Public High School for Girls, run by Carmelite nuns, was badly damaged by bomb blasts last year. A Catholic priest working in the area, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “it can be dangerous. We cannot even openly organize church-sponsored seminars.”
Vatican Protests Israeli TV Show
The Vatican has labeled “blasphemous” a satire of Christianity on an Israeli television network that included joking suggestions that Mary was impregnated by a school friend at the age of 15 and that Jesus died at a young age because he was fat. A Vatican statement on Feb. 20 said the program had “ridiculed the Lord Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary.” It expressed support for Christians and Catholic leaders in the Holy Land who had denounced the broadcast. The Vatican said its nuncio in Jerusalem, Archbishop Antonio Franco, had received assurances from the Israeli government that it would take steps to prevent such programs in the future and would try to obtain a public apology from the television network.News Briefs
• President Barack Obama called Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan on Feb. 23 to congratulate the Milwaukee archbishop on his appointment as head of the New York Archdiocese. Pope Benedict named Dolan as successor to Cardinal Edward Egan on Feb. 23. • With parliamentary elections scheduled for April 22, South Africa faces threats, including “blind loyalty to a party” and “corruption that delays service delivery and disillusions many people,” Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg, has said. • British-born Bishop Richard Williamson of the Pius X Society, who caused scandal with his remarks denying the Holocaust, arrived in London on Feb. 25 after the government of Argentina told him to leave or be expelled. • The losses incurred by Catholic institutions in the stock market since last autumn are roughly the same as the hits taken by other investors, according to experts, mostly in the range of 20 percent to 30 percent. • Joan Rosenhauer of the U.S. bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, received the Harry A. Fagan Award on Feb. 21 in recognition of her contributions to the Catholic vision of social justice.