The subject of poverty finally makes its way into the presidential campaign

As I’ve mentioned before, I was born in Lexington, Kentucky, the day before Robert Kennedy arrived there to begin his tour of Appalachia. I don’t know that it explains why, over the course of my life, I’ve been so drawn to Kennedy, but it’s an odd coincidence, I think, and I find it hard to mention his so-called poverty tour without bringing it up. I discovered this personal connection between Kennedy and myself a few years ago, when writing about the John Edwards campaign. As you might remember, I was an enthusiastic Edwards supporter. I liked that he, like Kennedy before him, was traveling the country, talking about something as important, and un-sexy, as poverty. I was effusive in my praise, and, perhaps because of that, I had the opportunity to meet with Edwards in 2005, when he came through Michigan, and talk with him about his work. Now, of course, knowing a bit more about the character of John Edwards, it’s easy to imagine that he was being less than sincere when he talked about wanting to be a champion of the poor and voiceless in America. But, at the time, I bought into it completely. I was desperate for a politician who wasn’t just talking about Muslim extremism and tax cuts, and Edwards filled that void.

I loved the fact that a politician was talking publicly, and with great emotion, about the moral imperative that we had to lift people up, out of poverty. It was incredible, for a change, to have someone on our side, I thought, take the offensive on morality, and not just cede that ground to the Republicans, who are always so anxious to present themselves as the rightful heirs to Jesus Christ on earth, as they push us into more wars, while mercilessly slashing social programs. I’d grown really tired of hearing Republicans justify their unwillingness to accept Jesus’s teaching of, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,” by saying that the Bible also says, “you will always have the poor with you,” and Edwards gave voice to that frustration. Sadly, when his campaign imploded, all talk of poverty in America also came to an abrupt end. Fortunately, though, it would appear as though several Christian leaders are now seeking to change that.

A multi-demoninatinal coalition of Christian leaders, calling itself The Circle of Protection, reached out to Romney and Obama recently, asking each of them what they intended to do about the problem of poverty. Here’s how the The Circle of Protection framed the issue on their website.

In the face of historic deficits, the nation faces unavoidable choices about how to balance needs and resources and allocate burdens and sacrifices. These choices are economic, political—and moral.

As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare. We look at every budget proposal from the bottom up—how it treats those Jesus called “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45). They do not have powerful lobbies, but they have the most compelling claim on our consciences and common resources. The Christian community has an obligation to help them be heard, to join with others to insist that programs that serve the most vulnerable in our nation and around the world are protected. We know from our experience serving hungry and homeless people that these programs meet basic human needs and protect the lives and dignity of the most vulnerable. We believe that God is calling us to pray, fast, give alms, and to speak out for justice.

As Christian leaders, we are committed to fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice. We are also committed to resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people. Therefore, we join with others to form a Circle of Protection around programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.

I think this is an incredible step forward, and I love that everyone from the National Association of Evangelicals to the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and from the Baptists to the Kairos Prison Ministry International, came together, putting their political differences aside, to make this happen. This, I believe, deserves recognition. (In my opinion, this is exactly what religious leaders should be doing.) And, as you might expect, it got the attention of our candidates. Here are their responses, delivered a few days ago, by way of video.

I don’t like Obama when he panders to the more religious among us, by playing up his religiosity, as he does here, but, of the two, I think he did the best. While I cringed when he said that, as President, he had fallen to his knees in prayer, I at least liked the content of his speech. He sounded empathetic, and he gave concrete examples of things he had done, and would do in the future. In stark contrast, Romney, who I think looked as though he were reading material completely foreign to him, from cue cards, offered nothing substantive. He said only that he would “proceed carefully” before making cuts to the social safety net, and that he’d consult with representatives of the religious community before doing so. It felt to me like the kind of speech, at least in tone, that a wealthy prep school student might give to a student assembly after being caught forcefully sheering the hair of a young, gay classmate. (Not that Romney was ever made to apologize for having done that.) I suspect there’s a chance that he’s a good man, who really cares about the downtrodden, but I find it impossible to look at him and not see a smug, entitled, rich frat boy reading a prepared statement, knowing that, if he does it, he’ll get off scott free. And, for what it’s worth, I really like that Obama says that he finds it “morally wrong” to give bigger tax breaks to the rich when we’re cutting programs for the poor. Hopefully he’ll remember that come December, when it’s time to kill the Bush tax cuts once and for all.

On the subject of poverty, it looks like we may be making some progress. According to a report issued this week by Bruce D. Meyer of the University of Chicago and James X. Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame, we may actually be winning the decades-long war on poverty, at least statistically speaking. The following quote comes from Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, who looked over the data.

…In particular, the not-very-complicated strategy of giving money to the poor through tax credits and Social Security has steadily pushed the poverty rate down over decades, while safety net programs help shelter people from recessions. It’s understandable that advocates like to underscore the severity of social problems. But at a time when many voters seem skeptical about the efficacy of government programs it’s worth saying that these programs work. Long-term investment in anti-poverty spending has done exactly what it is supposed to do…

So, the data seems to indicate both that poverty is decreasing, and that government spending in this area has been successful. I’m sure some will argue, based on this, that we can afford to decrease public spending on social safety net programs. I’d suggest, however, that we should grow programs that work, and set about the task of pulling even more of our fellow Americans out of poverty… Here, with more on that, is a quote from Robert Kennedy.

It is a revolutionary world we live in. Governments repress their people; and millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich; and wealth is lavished on armaments.

For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked for us.

The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American society.

Of corse, he was killed shortly after making that proclamation. (Nothing will get you killed faster, as a politician, than talking about poverty and the military industrial complex. Just ask Martin Luther King.)

And one last thing… While it may be true that poverty is technically decreasing in the United States, due to the ready availability of cheap processed foods and other factors, it’s also true that our middle class is eroding, and wealth inequality is growing. According to newly released census data, income inequality has increased by 1.6 percent over the past year alone, continuing a trend that began in the 1970s. (It’s kind of ironic that wealth inequality began growing shortly after the assassinations of MLK and RFK, don’t you think?) This was the largest one-year increase we’ve seen over the past two decades. This is an enormous problem for our nation, and it needs to be addressed. Getting as many people as possible above the poverty line is a noble goal, but it’s not enough. If we truly want to be a great nation, we need a robust, healthy and thriving middle class. And we can’t lose sight of that fact.

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  1. Posted September 15, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    There is no such thing as poverty in the US since everyone has a refrigerator.

  2. DanL
    Posted September 15, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    My favorite part is the music while Barack Obama talks.

    It’s good to see my church denomination listed!

  3. eDWeiRD
    Posted September 16, 2012 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    “As the madmen play on words and make us all dance to their song, to the tune of starving millions to make a better kind of gun.”

    From Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes To Midnight”

  4. Joe Dohm
    Posted September 16, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    @Peter, If you heat your apartment by leaving your oven open, you are poor. comparisons to Africa are not relevant.

    @Mark, nice post. I am a little confused by the concept of falling poverty and a shrinking middle class. Are the numbers just above the poverty line skyrocketing? I agree with you that poverty is important. It is strongly correlated with crime, poor health, and poor educational outcomes.

  5. Posted September 16, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    What I was getting at, Joe, is that, while poverty is important, and certainly needs to be addressed, we need to keep in mind that just making sure that everyone has the minimum number of calories each day isn’t enough. It’s important, no doubt, but we shouldn’t stop there. While it would be great if we could get to the point where everyone is above the poverty line, it wouldn’t be a success, in my opinion, if 90% hovered just above that point. And that’s what the stats are saying to me. More people are moving above the poverty line, but they’re not just moving there from below. They’re also moving there from above. I hope that makes sense.

  6. Posted September 16, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Joe, Pete was referring to a report by the Heritage Foundation last year which essentially stated that there wasn’t poverty in the United States, as evidenced by the fact that everyone could afford household appliances. I believe he was being sarcastic.

  7. John Galt
    Posted September 16, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    If only the poor could live on the feces of the wealthy.

  8. dragon
    Posted September 16, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    It’s poo. Soylent Brown is made out of poo, people.

  9. i spy occupy
    Posted September 16, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    So Mark, you liked that Obama is a better actor and seemed more empathetic then Romney(even though in your words “I don’t like Obama when he panders to the more religious among us, by playing up his religiosity”).
    Do you really think that these two rich and powerful men really give a flying fuck about poverty outside of how to manipulate the poor to vote for them?

  10. Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    there are other solutions

  11. Mr. X
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Obama was asked to address a religious group, so he used religious language. The music was overkill, but there wasn’t anything offensive about the message, unless, of course, you believe that he was lying when he said that he asked God for guidance. Otherwise, I liked his message, and I thought that he was more sincere than his opponent, who smirked the whole why though his address. Can we count on Obama to stand up for the poor? I don’t know. I do know, however, that Romney will not.

  12. anonymous
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    The following comment is from a Metafilter discussion on poverty. You can find it here:

    And here’s a link to the NY Time opinion piece being discussed:

    The comment:

    The last paragraph of this article is both powerful and fear-inducing:

    “This skewing of the odds in favor of the rich comes at a time when the Democratic Party is already inhibited by accusations that it likes to foment “class warfare” and to play “the race card.” The result has been a relentless shift of the political center from left to right. The two most recent Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have pursued agendas well within this limited terrain. There is little reason to believe that Obama, if he wins in November, will feel empowered to push out much further into territory the Democrats have virtually abandoned.”

    This, to me, reads that there is no easy solution. The right has backed the left – and the poor they used to, even in my life time, be able to publicly stand for – into a corner. And I don’t see an easy way out. I think things are going to get a lot worse, and those closest to the edge are going to suffer the most…and in some cases get pushed off it. And it will be the right who will have that blood on their hands, although they’d never admit to it.

    I grew up in a staunchly Republican environment. You might say I’m a product of it. Metafilter helped change me in the later years of my life on that matter, but even more than some website of socially concious people, the issue of poverty helped me break away from a right-minded upbringing.

    Speaking as a Christian, here’s the thing about poverty: its the church’s job to fix it. The link between Christianity and the right in America is clear. There’s a lot of great Democrats of faith as well, but I don’t need citations to prove the correlation between the church and the GOP in the US. So, as the poverty indexes and indicators continue to grow, and the yawning gap between the poorest Americans and the richest continues to grow, I see two problems: 1) the church isn’t doing its job, and 2) the richest Americans are typically (again, does anyone really need a citation?) more closely aligned to the Republican party. The implications of #1 I’ll get to in a second, but the implications of #2 are pretty straight forward: lots of very rich “Christians” go to church. There are a shit ton of very well moneyed churches in the US and I’d wager that the large majority of them are doing fuck-all for the poor in their communities.

    So, if the church isn’t doing its job, someone has to do it for them. The logical next player is of course the government. If you don’t like that as a right-wing believer, then I ask you, my fellow Christian, who else you would propose, if the church isn’t going to do it.

    The Bible is crystal effing-clear on the poverty issue. Its not a suggestion or even a moral standard, really – its quite often stated as a flat out warning: “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.”

    So we’ve reached this juncture. The left can’t be vocal on the poverty issue any more for fear of being even less empowered to help the disenfranchised. The right, logically and undeniably, will only get more powerful in regard to protecting the wealth of the few.
    Its like they’ve created the machine of their own undoing, eventually, if greed was something that we could argue had been created in our lifetime. The poor, quite frighteningly, will suffer first and most, but they won’t be alone in it forever.

    If I look at history, the outcome for the nation is bleak. I personally believe that the only hope for a positive outcome is a revival within the church as a whole on its outlook and approach on the poverty matter, because I don’t see a solution in the political arena with the right holding the stranglehold on the left and the poor that it now does.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] to know your thoughts on rural poverty in Appalachia. (I think my interest stems from the fact that I was born in Kentucky on the day Robert Kennedy started his ”poverty tour” of Appalachia, but it’s a subject I keep coming back to on this […]

  2. […] As we’ve discussed here on the site before, it’s rare that poverty within the United States is even mentioned on during presidential campaigns, let alone global poverty. It just seems like an almost impossible task to get it on the national […]

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