Why aren’t Barack Obama and Mitt Romney talking about poverty?
To be sure, both the President and Mr. Romney delivered thoughtful responses when the Circle of Protection, a new coalition of Christian organizations asked them to explain their positions on poverty. Both candidates talked personally about “answering the call” to care for those who live in poverty. Both acknowledged that many other individuals and groups provide services that help and support.
Both used religious language—with one candidate characterizing poverty as a moral issue, and the other saying addressing poverty is a critical mission. One assured listeners that he would keep the safety net intact. The other said he would not balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Not surprisingly, both candidates were careful to use the word “protect” or “protection” at least once in their remarks. Indeed, these were carefully crafted statements.
But, something important was missing. Is it possible, I wondered, that our presidential candidates really believe that we can address poverty in this country through acts of charity and good public services?
I wanted to hear Micah’s words ringing out for all those who live in poverty in this wealthy, privileged nation of ours: “[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does Yahweh require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Recently, a community organizer said to me, “I hate good deeds.” Strong words, but I resonated with her point. We church people are in the kindness “business,” to use Micah’s words. We donate food to pantries, volunteer to tutor children, and give money for disaster relief. But, we often fail to ask the hard questions, “Why do we have hungry people in our neighborhood? Why do we have children in our schools who cannot read?” “Why are poor communities more likely to be devastated by hurricanes than affluent areas?”
Poverty is a deeply-rooted, systemic issue; therefore, a charitable act, regardless of how well intentioned, will not end poverty. It may help an individual child or a family, but it does not transform their lives or build the beloved community.
Notice that the prophet puts justice first in his definition of “good,” suggesting, that we are to address systemic issues, i.e., do the justice work, while we also respond directly to meet basic, critical human needs.
Further, we are to “walk humbly with our God.” Micah positions the public work—justice—and the personal acts—kindness—within the framework of one’s relationship with God. Advocacy and organizing—coupled with kindness and charity—are to be understood as a spiritual discipline, one that we undertake with joy and purpose.
In light of that purpose, what do we want our presidential candidates to talk about? I think many of us really do want them to talk about how they’re going to create jobs, increase access to health care, protect Social Security, support small businesses, reduce the deficit, save the environment, and end armed conflict. These are all good things. And, those who live in poverty are at the heart of each of these issues. They are affected first and deepest by any change in the economy or any shift in program priority.
So, why are the presidential candidates not talking a lot about poverty? They are, more than they realize.
Now, where are we in this conversation?
We need to initiate discussions in our faith communities, friendship groups, and community organizations about poverty and the ways it harms family life and limits opportunity. We must insist that our presidential candidates develop policy proposals that demonstrate an understanding of the dynamics of poverty and articulate clear strategies for helping people move out of poverty. And, we must demand that the candidates develop specific plans to dismantle structures that foster economic inequity and increase poverty.
This is how we take steps toward building the beloved community.