'State of the Union' Outlines Social Policy

President Obama set out an agenda in his State of the Union address on Feb. 12 that includes many of the social policy items on the wish-list of faith-based organizations. Among them are an increase in the federal minimum wage, comprehensive immigration reform, gun control and protection from budget cuts for Social Security, Medicare and education programs; job-creation initiatives; and development of sustainable energy alternatives.

Obama’s proposal to increase the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $9 and to tie the wage to the inflation rate has long been sought by advocates for the poor. The federal minimum wage was last increased in July 2009, and the purchasing power of the minimum wage has declined 30 percent since its peak value in 1968.

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On other economic issues Obama touched on, a December 2012 statement from the coalition of Christian leaders organized under the Circle of Protection banner listed five values the group was asking Congress and the president to adhere to: protecting poor and vulnerable people as deficits are reduced; raising new tax revenue in a manner proportional to the capacity of the people to contribute; protecting tax policies like the earned income and child tax credits that help reduce poverty; slowing the growth of health care costs; and finding bipartisan solutions for the common good.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, president and chief executive officer of Sojourners and one of the organizers of the Circle of Protection—which includes representatives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities USA—commented on the address. “It’s time,” he said, “for the ideological politics of the left and the right to yield to the politics of the common good.” He said citizens “in social movements of conscience” cannot take leaders at their “best words,” but must hold them accountable.

Obama’s address also included goals that have their critics in the faith community, such as his promise to provide equal benefits for same-sex partners of members of the military. In the official Republican Party response to the address, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida criticized Obama as believing that the “free enterprise economy...is the cause of our problems.” He said the president’s solution to every problem “is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”

On one topic, Obama’s call for comprehensive immigration reform, the House chamber resonated with sustained bipartisan applause. A bipartisan panel of senators, including Rubio, is working on the details of immigration reform legislation. Both the House and the Senate have begun hearings on immigration.

The president framed immigration reform as an economic measure. “Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants,” he said. “And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, faith communities—they all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”

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