Katie Thompson is the program director of Shared Justice, the Center for Public Justice's initiative inspiring and equipping Christian 20-30 somethings with the vision and tools for faithful civic engagement. Thompson co-authored Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice with Michael Gerson and Stephanie Summers.
Earlier this month Christians around the world celebrated Holy Week. Gatherings looked different this year—from Good Friday and Easter Sunday services held via Zoom to Pope Francis celebrating Easter Mass in a near-empty St. Peter’s Basilica—necessitated, of course, by the spread of COVID-19 and efforts by all sectors of society to mitigate its harm.
At Easter, Christians celebrate the bodily resurrection of our Savior—a Savior who very much cares about not only the souls, but also the bodies, of those he created. As a nation and world, we collectively mourn the lives that have already been lost to COVID-19. We long for healing of those who are ill, and we pray for the strength of health care professionals and essential workers. As people of faith, we must also turn our attention to the ways in which the twin health and economic crises impact society’s most vulnerable members. An essential calling for all Christians is the call to love our neighbors. At this time, practicing social distancing is one way we do this; also vital is ensuring that our social safety net remains strong.
Public Justice and the Social Safety Net
More than just an array of public welfare programs, the social safety net is comprised of a diverse set of institutions providing basic support to vulnerable members of society in times of need. This includes, importantly, government. But it also includes the myriad of civil society institutions like churches and nonprofits, including faith-based organizations, that have long provided vital services to individuals and families in need—sometimes funded privately, but often working in partnership with government.
Public justice is the guiding principle for government’s work, the Center for Public Justice insists. Government plays an indispensable part in safeguarding and promoting human flourishing. And yet our lives consist of more than government and individuals. A wide variety of institutions like families, schools, businesses, and houses of worship make up the diverse and rich fabric of our lives. Government should protect the space these institutions need to make their own distinct contributions to the common good and should work in partnership with them.
Our current moment illustrates why a strong safety net includes both government and civil society. The pandemic has necessitated an unprecedented government action: a restriction of economic activity in order to preserve human life and slow the spread of the virus. As a result, nearly 22 million Americans have already filed for unemployment. Individuals and families in need of assistance will increase exponentially. This includes those who faced serious economic hardship before COVID-19, as well as those who now find themselves in dire financial circumstances after the loss of a job, health insurance, or the loss, tragically, of the household’s primary earner.
The economic impact also extends to civil society institutions, including many small faith-based organizations and houses of worship. Many are struggling, doing their best to retain employees and continue to serve neighbors in need. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a provision of the CARES Act designed to sustain small businesses and their employees, including nonprofits and houses of worship, exhausted its $339 billion fund after approving 1.6 million loans.
Charity alone, even from the most well-intentioned individuals and churches, is not sufficient to match the current need; indeed, many churches and faith-based organizations have themselves been devastated by the crisis. Only government is equipped to coordinate and administer emergency relief at the scale needed to address the current crisis. And yet government programs alone are insufficient, too. Much of government’s assistance to those in need of things like housing, health care, and food is delivered through private organizations, including faith-based organizations, that it funds to do so. In addition, many organizations provide similar services and are privately funded. They, too, are essential to the social safety net.
What does a strong safety net require in this moment?
In this comprehensive health, economic, and social crisis, all dimensions of the safety net need to be strengthened. The following principles should be considered in order to maintain a safety net that is equipped to sustain individuals, families, and institutions.
- A strong safety net requires a robust civil society. Nonprofits, including houses of worship and other faith-based organizations, need aid themselves in order to maintain their operations amidst the economic downturn. The PPP program, if expanded, will help to provide such aid. For organizations that partner with government, additional funding is needed to sustain the services they offer to vulnerable families. This includes, for example, additional funding for child care providers coping with enrollment declines while continuing to care for the children of essential workers. It’s important that both types of funding are accessible and without restrictions that compromise the faith-based mission and character of the many organizations critical to the safety net.
- A strong safety net requires adaptive public programs. Government should consider the ways that programs like TANF, SNAP, unemployment insurance, and emergency relief legislation interact. For programs that are means tested, for example, receipt of unemployment insurance as a result of COVID-19, should not work against the applicant or result in a current recipient who now receives unemployment insurance being rendered ineligible for public benefits. Government should also ease work requirements for public benefits as many Americans are currently unable to work due to illness or public health restrictions that hinder employment.
- A strong safety net requires stronger government infrastructure. This crisis has revealed several opportunities for government to strengthen its own infrastructure and capabilities. Better systems for communication between federal and state governments, new federal initiatives for addressing the virus, and improved technology infrastructure for processing the swell of applications for things like unemployment insurance and small business loans, should be considered as Americans continue to experience hardships. Stronger infrastructure and capabilities will also better prepare our country for future crises.
COVID-19 has illuminated the multi-dimensional composition of the social safety net and why it must be strengthened. One way to love our neighbor during this crisis is to consider our role in advocating for and shaping a social safety net, inclusive of government and civil society institutions, that is responsive to the hardships that so many will face in the days to come.