The Common Good

Who Didn’t Win the Presidential Debate?

(L-R, top-bottom) John, Sheila, Ronnie, and James from "The Line."
(L-R, top-bottom) John, Sheila, Ronnie, and James from "The Line."

Many people in America are poor, due to no fault of their own—and their numbers are growing.

If you really know any poor people, you know that to be true. If you don’t, the first sentence of this post runs against the grain of many cultural assumptions in America that tend to blame people for being poor.

On the eve of the first Presidential debate, Sojourners premiered The Line — a film about the new faces of poverty in America. In this powerful documentary from award-winning filmmaker Linda Midgett, those popular judgmental assumptions against poor people clearly and convincingly are debunked.

The Line, which I am asking everyone who reads this column to watch, deftly dismantles many stereotypes about poverty and shows why a growing number of Americans find themselves falling into it. The film does so by telling the personal stories of people who have fallen beneath “the line.”

My 14-year-old son Luke, watched the story of John: a banker who once made a six-figure salary, but who now finds himself a substitute teacher making $12,000 a year while trying to raise his three kids. John painfully talked about what it feels like to have to go to a food bank because he has no other viable choice.

His story caused Luke to ask his mom after the film, “John said he got straight A’s in school, so could that happen to me?”

My nine year old, Jack, was most impressed with James: a fellow who lost a blue-collar job after 23 years, and now — in his 50s —  was working hard to be a successful busboy.

My Mississippi-born friend Burns Strider said he identified most with Ronnie — a self-employed fisherman in coastal Louisiana whose family has been in the shrimping business for generations — who faces an uncertain future now that the shrimp have disappeared in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil spill that have devastated the ecosystem and the economy.

And many in the hundreds-strong crowd that packed the Washington, D.C., theater where The Line premiered earlier this week were drawn to Sheila — a mother of three who, after lifting herself out of poverty and a poor, violent neighborhood in Chicago, tripped and fell down the steps of an “L” train stop and has fought against disabilities and health care costs ever since.

Sheila attended the D.C. premiere and was a part of the panel discussion that followed the screening, along with the director, Linda Midgett, Adam Taylor of World Vision, and me.

What also was true of each of the people profiled in the film is that falling into poverty made them feel alone. The line that most struck me was from Ronnie who, when speaking about himself and his wife, said, “We have no confidence in the future … and we worry about our kids.”

After the presidential debate last night, I doubt if the growing numbers of poor people in America feel less alone.

The political discussion today is only about who won the debate. But millions of people who are struggling financially (and otherwise) in America are not likely to feel that they did.

Presidential candidates could make it clear to those who are experiencing very hard times that they will not be left alone. But that didn’t come across last night in the first presidential debate focused on domestic policy.

The competing narratives between Obama and Romney about tax policies, health care, the role of government, their focus on the middle class, and their differing arguments for economic growth now are being polled and debated as pundits and wonks try to determine which candidate had the best performance and how it might affect the electoral numbers.

But one thing is certain about last night: there was no clarifying discussion about what the policies Obama and Romney debated will mean for the Americans who are struggling the most.

After watching The Line, what so many of us felt was a desire to reach out to the people who, with great candor and courage, swallowed their pride (and their privacy) and told their stories, revealing how hard their lives have become.

Conservative, liberal, neither, or both — I believe many Americans would want to reach out to the people whose stories were told in The Line.

Clearly, it is the mission of the church to tell and to show the millions of people who have fallen below the poverty line that they are not alone. Jesus clearly says in the Matthew 25 that how we treat them is how we treat him.

I think we also want to live in a society that makes sure that people who are struggling with poverty are not left alone. That is the responsibility of all of us, and it is also part of the role of government.

The presidential candidates could make those who are hurting the most feel like they are not alone anymore. But that didn’t happen last night.

Journalists tell us at Sojourners that poverty is not a “sexy” issue in America — especially not at election time. Some told us that again on the day The Line premiered.

We had hoped for perhaps 100 screenings of The Line around the country. By the time the film began rolling Tuesday night, we had nearly 1,700 screenings of the film scheduled across the country and around the globe — including nearly every state and continent, even as far away as Japan, New Zealand, and Australia.

The tremendous response we are getting to this extraordinary film tells me that while the issue poverty in America may not be a top issue for our journalists and our politicians, it most assuredly is for a growing number of people of all faith traditions and none, across denominational, political, and cultural lines.

The stories in The Line explain why.

See the film, share it, talk about it, and help make this poverty — a fundamental moral issue that respects the health (and wealth) of the soul of our nation — a priority during this election season and beyond.


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class="p1">Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners, and the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery and the forthcoming On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned about Serving the Common Good, which will be released in February 2013. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis or join him on Facebook HERE.

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