Just a few years ago, I remember how often people would be surprised when I told them that one in six children lived in poverty in America. In the richest nation in the world, how could more than 16 percent of our nation's children be poor?
Well, it just got worse. The new census numbers just came out and we should not be surprised to learn that in 2009, the numbers grew to one in five children who live in poverty (that's 15 million children). This, of course, is a national average, meaning that the reality for many of the country's poorest urban and rural areas is much worse.
Now, 43.6 million Americans live in poverty, more than at any point in the last 51 years. And yet, poverty is still considered a four-letter word in Washington, D.C. Political consultants would probably advise candidates for higher office to let loose a string of expletives before they advised them to start talking about "the poor." Poverty is a dirty word in every branch of government because all the polling suggests that people don't want to hear about it and, of course, poor people don't generally vote or contribute money to political campaigns.
It might just be time for people in poverty to get a better PR firm. Maybe a few focus groups and some market testing could really help with their image and make them a sexier issue for this year's campaign cycle. Maybe instead of "poor" we could use the term: "wealth impaired." That might sound better to the ears of policy makers. The middle class gets talked a lot about in D.C. and on campaign trails these days, so how about "lower, lower middle class"? What about "not middle class yet"?
But, a makeover isn't going to change the reality for all of the families living in poverty in this country. And since the official "poverty level" hasn't been adjusted for four decades, the number of poor people is actually much higher. These new numbers should be offensive to all of us, but especially to the faith community since the Bible says that a nation's "righteousness" will be judged by how the poorest and most vulnerable are doing. Ouch! The new census numbers should make politicians uncomfortable. The word "poverty" should be on the lips of every White House or Congressional staffer and should unabashedly be repeated at the press conferences of both parties until these numbers are turned around.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com.