The Office of Government Relations appreciates your work and advocacy as members of the Episcopal Public Policy Network. While the EPPN, the Church’s grassroots advocacy network, normally engages in weekly action, the pace of legislation and advocacy over the past two weeks has been incredible. Thank you for staying with us! Your voice, alongside thousands of other Episcopalians, helped to ensure that the stimulus bill addressed some of the most critical needs for the vulnerable and at-risk among us. As we take a moment to review the full scope and impact of this historic legislation, we want to first thank our Congress and then update you on some of the things we did together as Episcopalians and with our advocacy partners.
First, we ask you to thank Congress for taking action in this time of national crisis. You can write to Congress here to thank them for their work and urge them to continue working in areas where further progress is needed.
What we have done!
Second, we want to be sure to fill you in on some of what we have done in the Office of Government Relations. The stimulus bill addressed so many different issues, and we, alongside numerous coalition partners, have been active in our public messaging and action alerts as well as putting out statements and signing on to letters. We are extremely grateful for our ecumenical, interfaith, and secular advocacy partners for their expertise and for amplifying and increasing the impact of our advocacy. Thanks to our collective efforts, there are several subtle and major accomplishments ranging from the inclusion of millions of previously ineligible people in unemployment to paid sick leave to the expansion of the charitable deduction. Please find a summary of our actions below.
Over the past weeks, we have sent you four action alerts on legislation to address the public health and economic dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis. We have published our statements and sign-on letters on topics ranging from support for correctional institutions to temporarily increasing unemployment benefits. Links to our action alerts, statements, and letters follow as well as further resources from around the Church.
We sent action alerts throughout the process of passing the stimulus bills, including several for the most recent and largest of those bills. These are still active for your awareness, but the only alert active now is the message thanking Congress for taking action:
- After the passage of initial emergency federal funding, you responded to an alert asking for additional resources for vulnerable populations including prisons, indigenous communities, elderly care facilities, people with disabilities, uninsured and underinsured individuals, and documented and undocumented immigrants.
- During negotiations for the third stimulus bill, we again asked Congress to prioritize assistance to those who need it most. You also advocated for critical hunger programs in the economic stimulus package that our long-standing partner, Bread for the World, determined would be most critical in the time ahead. We also called for a universal charitable deduction to help bolster charitable and non-profit services that serve millions of families.
- Before the Senate unanimously passed the largest stimulus bill in U.S. history on March 25th and before the House passage which occurred two days later, we advocated for the passage of the bill in both chambers. While a bill of this scale will never be perfect, we are grateful for its bipartisan compromise and for the inclusion of several key programs.
- Encourages everyone to adhere to the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus and highlights some of OGR’s legislative and policy recommendations during this time.
- The Episcopal Church supports efforts to protect vulnerable populations in all countries, particularly countries that lack the resources to appropriately respond to this pandemic.
- Within our prescheduled census series, we included the most critical message from the U.S. Census Bureau on the impact of COVID-19 and the 2020 Census.
- Both documented and undocumented immigrants are far less likely to have access to sick leave than the general public, making them less likely to seek treatment or be able to take time off to care for themselves or a family member. Additionally, conditions in detention centers make it almost impossible for individuals to comply with recommended physical distancing practices.
OGR joins letters alongside faith-based and secular coalition partners to highlight issues that are very important to us. Some of these are public, and some are private. We sign on to show decision makers that diverse institutions come together in support of shared priorities.
- Provide funding to help prevent housing instability and homelessness as a result of COVID-19
- Prioritize low-income people and their families during the COVID-19 crisis, with the Interreligious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs
- Provide foreign assistance for COVID-19
- Protect borrowers during the COVID-19 crisis, with the Faith for Just Lending coalition
- Disability civil rights and COVID-19
- Lift Sanctions in the Middle East
- Adopt recommendations from the Justice Roundtable regarding criminal justice during COVID-19, with the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition (See their recommendations)
CARES Act Overview
Key advocacy successes in the most recent stimulus package represent a broad range of ways of helping the most vulnerable. Among the most important, especially as we see unemployment numbers increase more rapidly than ever before, is the expansion of unemployment insurance. Among our priorities was not only an increase in individual benefits, but the inclusion of millions of contractors, gig-workers, the self-employed, and many non-profit employees that are excluded from traditional unemployment insurance programs. In this work we were successful: the individual benefits will be increased by $600 per week for up to four months and the Pandemic Assistance program will include categories of workers not normally covered by unemployment insurance.
A second major success is the inclusion of non-profit organizations in the Payroll Protection Program, originally designed for small businesses. Eligibility in this program means that non-profits with less than 500 employees can apply for loans to help cover payroll and some limited other expenses for several months. If they do not layoff or furlough workers during this time, the loan can be forgiven in part or in whole. This is critically important to help employees in small businesses and non-profits stay connected to their jobs to serve their communities. It also has the benefit of reducing the demand and burden on state unemployment agencies which are already overwhelmed, and it will hopefully be an easier administrative process than letting go and re-hiring staff when this crisis is over.
Another important area where the legislation was revised to the benefit of the most vulnerable is in the cash payment program. Early drafts proposed that payments would be reduced for the poorest families because they did not pay much or any income taxes due to their low income. It was a clear injustice and illogical that an economic relief program would give less help to people simply because they were already facing hardships. The final bill does not reduce payments to families most in need, but they will likely need to apply to receive this aid. We encourage congregations, schools, and service organizations to find out how they can help people access these funds when the Treasury Department announces the process.
Food assistance is an area where our advocacy did not achieve all of our goals. While significant amounts of money have been added to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the nation’s primary food assistance program), this is just so that it can meet an increase in demand. The Office of Government Relations will continue to advocate for an increase in the level of benefits provided to families. Increasing the value of the benefit would not only help feed families in need, but also support local groceries and the farms that supply them, helping to create jobs and increase economic activity at the local level.
As churches, feeding programs, shelters, and many other ministries face increased demand for assistance, they simultaneously face lower levels of giving and funding. To help faith-based and secular charitable organizations, we advocated for an expansion of the charitable giving tax deduction. The legislation granted this, allowing for an increased benefit to the wealthy who itemize their taxes to encourage those who can to give more generously. It also allows all taxpayers to deduct up to $300 to incentivize giving among the vast majority of tax filers that do not itemize. While $300 may not seem like a large amount per individual, we know that this amount multiplied by many members can have an incredibly powerful impact and help support critical ministries in the months ahead.
COVID-19 Government and Public Health Information Resource
In collaboration with other parts of the Church-wide staff and affiliate organizations, such as Episcopal Relief & Development, the Office of Government Relations is maintaining an important resource on government and public health information related to COVID-19. You can find that information here. Additional resources on church operations in this current climate can be found on this broader COVID-19 resource from The Episcopal Church.
- Institutional support systems during COVID-19 Webinar featuring OGR’s Jack Cobb (Episcopal Relief and Development)
- Episcopal News Service Articles related to COVID-19
- Updates from the Presiding Bishop
- Presiding bishop talks about keeping the faith on ABC News (March 27)
- Habits of Grace: Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself (posted on ENS weekly)
- All Christians Invited to Pray on Wednesday, March 25th
- Presiding Bishop Michael Curry: Online worship encouraged, including Holy Week and Easter (March 17)
- In livestreamed National Cathedral Eucharist, presiding bishop preaches on the simple power of soap and love (March 15)