Year in Review: Finding a balance
Sweeping policy changes affected the poor and poverty fighters in 2019
This year, the United States wrestled with how to balance accountability and compassion. Both elements are essential in criminal justice, immigration policy, and poverty-fighting. But how to tell when to apply which—and how much? Government tactics produced mixed results, while Christian ministries worked to provide challenging, personal, and spiritual help to those who need it.
Since he first promised to build a wall along the U.S. southern border on the campaign trail, President Donald Trump has made cracking down on illegal immigration a mainstay of his administration.
In addition to beefing up border protection, the White House has passed policies trying to stem the flow of migrants before they ever get to the U.S. border. The Trump administration negotiated agreements with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to require migrants to apply for asylum in countries they pass through on their way to the United States. But critics say these “safe third countries” are anything but safe for the migrants passing through them. The White House also pushed for rules requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while waiting for U.S. authorities to process their applications.
Some of the president’s policies also limit the number of legal immigrants allowed to enter the United States. In June, Trump ordered government agencies to start enforcing laws requiring immigrants’ sponsors, often family members, to pay the government back for any benefits noncitizens may have used. In July, the administration finalized “public charge” rules so that people who participate in programs such as Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) cannot get green cards. And in October, he signed a new proclamation to deny visas to immigrants unless they prove they can afford healthcare.
The plight of migrant children dominated headlines this year after a team of lawyers reported in June on terrible conditions at a holding facility in Clint, Texas. After the original report, journalists, pastors, and lawmakers toured the facility and came back with conflicting reports.
But there’s good news at the border, too, where Christians are uniting to extend compassion to those in need. —R.L.A.
Nationwide, states and cities debated whether to change laws that critics say “criminalize poverty.” The American Civil Liberties Union continued its crusade to abolish anti-panhandling ordinances in various cities. The Austin, Texas, City Council repealed the city’s camping ban, allowing the homeless to sleep or pitch tents on public property. Some cheered the move while others feared it would change Austin into another Seattle or Los Angeles, where homeless issues abound. The council reinstated parts of the ban this fall.
In LA, city officials announced in October that they would void more than 2 million old tickets and arrest warrants to ease the burden of fines on the poor and homeless. City Attorney Mike Feuer told KCRW-FM in Santa Monica that courts can dismiss the charges or assign community service instead, but “people do need to be accountable for their actions, and that includes people who are homeless.”
On Dec. 16, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Martin v. City of Boise, a case that gave homeless people the right to sleep on public property. The ruling means that cities in the nine states covered by the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals cannot punish people for sleeping outside when no other shelter is available. —C.K.
Over the past year, the Trump administration proposed three rule changes for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. The president pushed for Congress to tighten SNAP work requirements in the 2018 Farm Bill, but passing it required bipartisan support, so Congress dropped the changes. President Trump turned to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to adjust things from the inside.
The first rule made states enforce work requirements: Any able-bodied, working-age adult without dependents had to work 20 hours a week to receive SNAP assistance for more than three months every three years. The department estimated this change would drop 688,000 people from the SNAP rolls in 2021. Last year, almost two-thirds of SNAP recipients in this category were not working.
A second rule would limit states’ ability to adjust income levels and asset tests for eligibility. And a third rule would create a single federal standard for utility allowances.
If all three rules are implemented, it will significantly alter one of the federal government’s main welfare programs. —C.K.
State and local governments across the country have fought pharmaceutical companies in court to hold them accountable for the opioid crisis that has killed more than 400,000 Americans in the past two decades.
OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma started bankruptcy hearings in September in the face of about 2,700 lawsuits for deaths linked to OxyContin and other drugs. It will keep operating in order to pay a settlement of up to $12 billion, but its founding family, the Sacklers, is no longer in charge.
Two Dublin, Ohio–based companies settled for $15 million in October rather than go to court in the first federal trial on the drug industry’s responsibility in the crisis. Johnson and Johnson also settled with two Ohio counties the same month in a $20.4 million deal.
The real question is what the counties and states will do with all the settlement money. Some experts say lawsuits like these have a poor track record when it comes to solving the underlying problems. —R.L.A.
This summer, I profiled four Christian ministries that fight poverty for WORLD’s 2019 Hope Awards for Effective Compassion. Our readers and podcast listeners then voted to choose the grand prize winner: Watered Gardens, a homeless shelter in Joplin, Mo., that allows residents to earn their stay and provides an intense discipleship program to help men establish an independent lifestyle that will last.
If you know of a Christian ministry that provides challenging, personal, and spiritual help to those in need, please email me at [email protected]. Also don’t miss Effective Compassion, a new podcast series from WORLD that launches on Jan. 7, 2020. This series will explore what works and what doesn’t in poverty-fighting, based on a Christian worldview and supported by on-the-ground reporting. —C.K.
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