NEW YORK (UMNS) - In years past, when U.S. churches committed themselves to resolving problems such as slavery, child labor and legalized racial discrimination, they became agents of social change.

Now, through its decade-long "Mobilization to Overcome Poverty," launched in November 2000, the National Council of Churches (NCC) hopes to stimulate the same type of commitment. The month of March each year is designated as a time to heighten awareness and monitor progress of the 10-year initiative.

"We want to make poverty as abhorrent in this century as slavery was a century and a half ago," said the Rev. Robert Edgar, a United Methodist pastor who serves as the NCC's chief executive.

The aim of the poverty mobilization is not necessarily to create new programs, but to organize around existing projects, share information and set realistic goals regarding such issues as housing, health care and public education. "Over the years, I hope we'll fine-tune what is achievable," he added.

"The bottom line is we're really trying to get people to change how they think about the poor," Edgar said.

This year's "Poverty March" will highlight the work of NCC member communions and partners and provide a focus on poverty issues in the United States. The agency's Web site, www.ncccusa.org, will feature Bible references, facts and figures on poverty, a listing of events, related sermons and daily descriptions of poverty programs throughout the month, beginning March 1.

Advocacy on public policy regarding poverty also is a key focus in March, according to Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the NCC's Washington office. In 1996, Congress eliminated the old federal welfare program and replaced it with a new plan called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The fact that TANF and other "safety net" programs for the poor - the Food Stamp Program and Child Care and Development Block Grant - are up for reauthorization by Congress this year is "really driving a lot of our work together," she said.

She noted that the economic impact following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has pushed some people closer to poverty level. "The things that people are asking for (in assistance) are increasingly more basic," she added.

Edgar pointed out that even after such a long period of economic prosperity in the United States, children are no better off. "We have more poor children today than we did 10 years ago," he said.

Girton-Mitchell believes the churches are more committed to tackling the problems of welfare reform now than they were in 1996, when TANF was first adopted, and that they want to create opportunities for the concerns of the poor to be heard. The NCC Washington Office will host a March 13-15 meeting on TANF that will include representatives of state and local councils of churches.

Last November, the NCC General Assembly passed a resolution noting that the purpose of the three programs up for renewal by Congress, as well as other programs to assist low-income people, "should be the reduction and elimination of poverty, not the reduction of caseloads." Each program should provide assistance to help low-income families obtain safe and affordable housing, access to affordable health care, developmentally oriented child care, a nutritious diet and the opportunity to contribute to society through employment or in other ways, the resolution added.

Current time limits for TANF participants should be replaced with an individualized plan, with termination only for those who refuse to participate, the NCC General Assembly said. Adults caring for the elderly or disabled should be exempt from work requirements, and those enrolled in secondary education should be counted as meeting work requirements.

The resolution concluded: "No family should be worse off as a result of moving from welfare to work than it was while receiving assistance."

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