Faith leaders from 21 national organizations, led by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Catholic Charities USA, have joined forces to spend a week urging local, state and national politicians to make anti-poverty efforts a top priority.
Called “Fighting Poverty with Faith: A Week of Action,” the grass-roots effort includes a range of activities, from a poverty symposium in Nashville, Tenn., to a letter-writing campaign in Rhode Island. The week culminates with a Sept. 16 gathering on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
With the McCain and Obama campaigns heading into the final two months before Election Day, Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said the interfaith coalition can “hold the candidates responsible” for coming up with strategies to help the 37 million Americans who live below the federal poverty line.
To be fair, both party platforms address domestic poverty (albeit with rather different approaches and degrees of emphasis). But it’s hard to argue that it’s received due attention. Smart, dedicated people in the interfaith advocacy world have put a tremendous amount of effort into putting poverty back on the agenda. Their energy, and the faith-driven dedication of religious communities across the country, can make the difference. Poverty is a moral issue, and a far more important topic than how many houses John McCain has or whether Barack Obama called Sarah Palin a pig.
Words become cheap currency on the campaign trail. They’re thrown about, dissected and retracted to the point that some voters judge them meaningless. But action is always preceded by words.
Setting the stage for real solutions on poverty, a diverse group of religious leaders has put the candidates on notice that their words matter. They’re telling Sens. McCain and Obama that mere lip service to this moral issue just won’t do.
Nine prominent faith leaders who lead organizations representing millions of people, inspired by their shared values, sent a letter to both presidential campaigns asking that each nominating convention include a primetime speech on poverty and each candidate deliver a plan “to address poverty and opportunity in America over the next decade.”
The letter recognizes that the government and faith communities must work together to turn the tide:
As people of faith, we believe that it is immoral to ignore our nation’s most vulnerable populations. As Americans, we believe enduring poverty undermines our country’s economic strength and prosperity. Every day, faith organizations serve individuals in need within our communities. But our efforts to sustain our brothers and sisters living in poverty must be complemented with a serious plan from our political leaders to reduce the number of needy.
This partnership is specifically laid out in their call to the candidates:
In the weeks leading up to the election, the interfaith community will be mobilizing our networks and starting a national conversation in churches, synagogues, and mosques–in the shelters and soup kitchens of our faith-based service providers, and among people of faith across our great nation. We will be drawing from our shared scriptures and commitment to our fellow beings, working to build the political and public will to combat poverty in the United States. We hope you will do the same from the podium at your party’s convention this summer.
Focusing on poverty is not just a moral imperative for the candidates—it also makes good political sense. With $4 gas, rising food costs and the continuing shame of 47 million Americans without health care, our national senses are unusually heightened to the threat of poverty. Whoever our next president is must actively engage poverty now and going forward; people of faith will be listening.
How many different ways can it be said? The American people care about poverty.
Yesterday, Politico’s Alexander Burns cited several recent polls that present two pieces of good news to those who see economic injustice as a national priority.
First, we are hearing more about poverty. Comparing 2007 with 2003 (“the last pre-presidential year”), Spotlight on Poverty shows 145% increase in coverage of, as Burns writes, “poverty as a political issue.”
What’s even better news is that the public still wants more. In Spotlight on Poverty’s newest poll, 56% of those surveyed said the media has failed to devote enough time to poverty in the current presidential campaign. Burns quotes Tom Freedman, of SOP and a former White House aide:
“The poll tends to show that the political conventional wisdom that voters don’t care about this issue is wrong.”
Freedman sees several possible explanations for the uptick in public interest, and in media coverage. Presidential candidates have been talking more about the issue. Evangelicals have gotten more engaged with anti-poverty activism. And with the “economy tightening,â€ Freedman said, it makes sense that voters would want to hear more about anti-poverty policies.
And poverty is not just a progressive issue, Freedman and fellow analyst John Bridgeland say. From the Politico:
“Even among Republicans and Democrats, the answers were similar,â€ they wrote. “A majority of each felt there hadn’t been [an] adequate amount of time spent on the topic.â€
That Americans are engaging this issue isn’t a well-kept secret. In addition to these polls, the recent Pew study showed that a majority of Americans, across all religious groups, want the government to do more for the needy. After Super Tuesday, Faith in Public Life polls from Missouri and Tennessee showed that evangelical voters of both parties want a broad agenda that includes “ending poverty.”
What, then, should we think when religious or political leaders ignore poverty and argue that the “people” really want to talk about wedge issues like abortion or same-sex marriage? Is it simply ignorance? Or a deliberate move to sweep a deeply important issue under the rug to advance their own agenda? Whatever the case, these polls show that neglecting poverty is neglecting the will of the people.
Thought (and hopefully action)-provoking stuff from Michael Gerson’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post, “A Week of Hunger”. With clarity and punch, he argues for the expansion of food stamps as a moral imperative and “the most direct way to reduce hunger in America.”
His approach is so uncomplicated it should be obvious and so direct it seems revolutionary. There is a 10 million person gap between those who receive food stamps and those who need them, he says, and because of computer records, “we also know that most benefits are used up by the third week of the month, leaving many families to scramble for other sources of food.”
Making both a fiscal and moral case for expansion:
Hunger exacts a social cost. Hungry adults miss more work and consume more health care. Hungry children tend to be sicker, absent from school more often and more prone to getting into more trouble. Larry Brown of the Harvard School of Public Health calculates that the total price tag of hunger to American society is about $90 billion a year. In contrast, Brown estimates it would only cost about $10 billion to $12 billion a year to “virtually end hunger in our nation.”
And this raises a moral issue. We have in place an automated food stamp program that is generally efficient and effective. We know it could be expanded with little increase in overhead. And we know with precision when its benefit runs out each month. So how is it then possible to justify funding three weeks of food instead of four? What additional dependence, what added moral hazard could a full month of eating possibly create?
It’s heartening to see someone in Gerson’s position—a member of the mainstream media and a conservative, no less—advocating for an issue usually championed by progressives. In doing so, he manages to break stereotypes and show the bridges being built around this moral issue. This is the straightforward, cooperative dialogue we need to foster common good politics.
Only one day until the Compassion Forum. Already the pundits are opining about what this means for Americans of faith and the presidential candidates. It was not long ago that the media mostly treated the GOP as more Christian than Democrats, and forgot to talk about the interfaith diversity of the American public.
“We want to determine the Republicans’ interest in addressing the needs of the vulnerable,” said Joel Hunter, an influential Florida mega-pastor who supported Mike Huckabee when the Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor made his populist but failed bid for the Republican nomination.
“We also want to gauge the Democrats’ interest in community and faith-based solutions and not just handing it all off to the government,” said Hunter, who will also be at the event.
One of the hottest of the issues that bridge left and right, public and private sector, is domestic and international poverty. As many people have been pointing out of late, U.S. budgets are moral documents, showing our priorities. About 36.5 million Americans live in poverty and this lack of basic resources results in an even larger drain on all American well-being. By failing to address the private and public causes trapping every tenth American, the problem only infects the surrounding culture, from health care, schooling, work force to crime. This presentation was sponsored by the Catholic Campaigh for Human Development
But this extends beyond American. Islamic Relief reports that in developing countries a high percentage of the population lives in rural areas, making a living from agriculture. When floods and drought lead to crop shortages, thousands of people and animals die in the famine that follows. The death of livestock and harvest failure deprives these people of their only source of income. They aim to make a lasting difference in the lives of the poor by building the capacity of local communities to sustain themselves. IR provides training and Islamically acceptable loans enabling people to earn a better living, either by running small businesses or by seeking well-paid employment.
But beyond micro-credit and relief, Brian Swarts, of the Jubilee USA campaign writes:
The world’s most impoverished countries pay more than $100 million each day in debt payments to wealthy governments and financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In countries where the majority of the population lives on less than $1 per day, this money should be spent on clean water, basic health care, and education rather than repaying some of the world’s wealthiest financial institutions.
The faith community has a history of moral leadership on the debt issue. In 2000 and again in 2005, world leaders came together to cancel billions of dollars of debt in dozens of impoverished countries around the world. The money freed by debt cancellation has been directed to fight global AIDS, enroll children in school, provide clean water, and improve rural infrastructure among other poverty-focused initiatives. But there is still much more that needs to be done — 44 impoverished countries around the world are still waiting for debt justice!
Compassion Forum question: What do you think the primary causes of persistent poverty in America are? Is it possible to entirely eradicate it? What respective roles should government, the faith community and the private sector play in ending poverty?