The Common Good

Consequences of the Recession

Did you see it? It wasn't the leading story in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or most other daily newspapers. I didn't see a mention of it on the morning news shows either. Here's what you might have missed: The newest Census Bureau report shows that 2.5 million more people joined the ranks of the poor in the U.S. in 2008 -- from 37.3 million to 39.8 million. That's the highest number of people in poverty since 1997. The number of children in poverty grew from 13.3 million to 14.1 million -- nearly 1 in 5 children.

And it's not over. Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities commented: "All of these figures almost certainly will look considerably worse next year, since the economy has weakened further in 2009 and unemployment has risen sharply."

What a surprise. The poorest Americans have been hit the hardest by The Great Recession. Almost all the focus in both the media and politics has been on the impact the recession has had on middle-class people, who make up most of their viewers and voters. But can't you just hear Jesus asking the question, "What have been the consequences of your recession on 'the least of these?'" Now we know.

What happens to the poor is simply never going to be the "litmus test" for the pundits or the politicians -- but it must be for us, if we are to call ourselves Christians. God is little interested in the results of our polls, but rather in the well-being of the most vulnerable members of our society. In fact, God's prophets regularly remind us in the scriptures that a nation's righteousness, we might say integrity, is not to be measured by its GNP, military firepower, or the envy of its popular culture in the world. Rather, it will be determined by how well those at the bottom of society are doing. And yesterday's Census numbers suggest that the U.S. doesn't look very righteous at the moment. No developed country in the world has our rates of poverty -- it is utterly shameful for the wealthiest country in the world.

So I will be waiting today for every Christian leader, pastor, and spokesperson -- from the Religious Right to the Religious Left -- to comment on the biblical tragedy of the Census numbers released yesterday. If we are serious about our scriptures, it is the biggest news story for us today -- whether or not it made the front pages. And it is the lens through which all of the issues we are concerned about today should be viewed. How much would that change all that we say?

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