Hurricane aid shouldn't cut into programs for the poor, bishops say

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The chairmen of two U.S. bishops' committees warned members of Congress not to try to meet the needs of victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita by cutting programs that serve vulnerable people.

"We will oppose any effort to pay for the costs of Katrina and Rita by cutting services in essential programs that serve the basic needs of low-income or vulnerable people," said an Oct. 19 letter from Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, who chairs the bishops' hurricane relief task force, and Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., who heads their domestic policy committee.

"How we meet this challenge will be a test and an important sign of what kind of a nation we are and wish to be," said the letter, the text of which was released Oct. 24 by the bishops' Department of Communications.

It asked members of Congress to consider some fundamental points as they try to reconcile funding to meet the needs of hurricane victims with other spending priorities.

"The needs of the poor and most vulnerable must have first claim on our common efforts," said the letter. "The poor and vulnerable cannot be left behind again."

But the nation cannot meet the needs of hurricane victims by reducing help for the poor and vulnerable elsewhere in the country, it continued.

"It would be wrong to cut essential food, housing and health care for the poor while the rest of us make no real sacrifice and, in fact, benefit from recent tax cuts," the bishops said. They asked for commitments to care for hurricane victims with benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid and housing "without harming or taking benefits from other poor and vulnerable people who depend on them as well."

House Republican leaders earlier this year agreed to cut $35 billion over five years from federal programs including Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and subsidized child care. Some House leaders have been pushing to increase the cuts to $50 billion to offset the costs of aiding hurricane victims.

One group of Senate Republicans has proposed delaying for two years the new Medicare prescription drug benefit and using those funds to offset Katrina relief costs.

The letter from the bishops also asked members of Congress to give a meaningful role to people affected by the hurricanes in rebuilding communities.

"Planning for the future must include those with the most at stake," the bishops said. "The work to be done in rebuilding should offer decent jobs at decent wages for those who have lost work and opportunity."

Bishop DiMarzio and Archbishop Fiorenza said they also are concerned about "sweeping efforts to ignore or set aside federal wage, environmental and civil rights protections."

Within a week of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast, the Bush administration suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, a 1931 law that requires federal contractors to pay workers the going local wage rate.

The Washington Post, The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal have reported on immigration raids at shelters for hurricane evacuees.

In an Oct. 24 column in The Washington Post, Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, said this is the first time in decades federal authorities have refused to announce after a disaster that, for humanitarian reasons, they would not use the relief effort as an enforcement opportunity for immigration violations.

The bishops pointed out that the United States has many responsibilities and priorities both domestically and internationally. "Our country is a nation at war, it faces large deficits and now must rebuild after the worst natural disaster to hit us," they said. To meet those demands, spending and tax policies must be considered in light of obligations to the most vulnerable people wherever they are, the bishops said.

"Adequate federal resources must be available to help protect the life and dignity of all our sisters and brothers," they said. "The burdens and costs of these challenges must be shared widely and fairly."

The letter echoed many of the points of a statement, "Hurricane Katrina: Reaching Out, Renewal and Recovery in Faith and Solidarity," approved by the bishops' Administrative Committee at its September meeting.

Drawing on Catholic social teaching, the statement spelled out concerns for human dignity, the option for the poor, subsidiarity, solidarity, human rights, family and community participation, care for creation, the dignity and rights of workers, and the common good.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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