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.