The Common Good

Changing Poverty Into Opportunity: A Moral Cause To Bring Us Together

I know I am not the only one who is sick and tired of Washington’s manufactured crises around budget and deficit debates. Brinksmanship has replaced statesmanship in trying to find a sound path to fiscal responsibility. It is time to make the right moral choices that will defend the most vulnerable and pursue an opportunity agenda to reduce the highest poverty rate in 50 years.

Ideological debates over the role of government are the real battle in the nation’s capital — more than the debt crisis. Political calculations about the next election are more important to many of our political leaders than the common good of the country.

It’s just time to move on from the partisan politics that has polarized and paralyzed us for so long — by committing ourselves to moral issues that could and should bring us together. The first will be comprehensive immigration reform, which will change the lives of 12 million people in this country, lift many out of poverty, and help the economy at the same time. This is a clear example of how the faith community has changed, and now come together to become a political game changer in Washington, D.C., at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on both sides of the aisle.

And it’s time to make another moral commitment in the midst of our growing economic recovery — to include poor families and change poverty into opportunity. Fighting poverty must not be a partisan issue. When we look at both the causes and the solutions, this battle should bring both liberals and conservatives together. Overcoming poverty, by creating opportunity, happens because of three very basic things that most of us can agree on: family, education, and work. All three are crucial and necessary in moving people out of poverty and into opportunity.

Let’s break it down.

Family: Helping to create and support strong and stable families is foundational to overcoming poverty. All the data — from both liberal and conservative think tanks — show that. The experiences of those of us who have lived and worked in poor neighborhoods show that. Good parenting from both mothers and fathers can do more than anything else to shape and guide the lives of children; and fractured and dislocated family environments lead to all kinds of destruction.

Education: Learning, training, acquiring skills, and developing good habits and disciplines is clearly the best pathway out of poverty — all of our data and experiences show that too. Success in school clearly leads to success in life, while failures in school lead to lives of one failure after another. Teachers are the key here. They are the people who are with our kids long enough every day to help change their lives — or not. Where schools are not doing their jobs, students can’t escape the prison of poverty — and we need education to work all the way from pre-school to college.

Work: If you work hard, full time, and live responsibly, you should not have to live in poverty in America — but many families still do because they don’t have jobs that pay them enough to succeed. We need good jobs that can support strong families; it is as simple as that. Living well requires jobs that pay living wages, and we have been losing that battle now for decades. America’s creed as the land of opportunity has all but disappeared, as we now have less social mobility than any other developed nation except for Great Britain! For the first time, children are not doing better, or even as well, as their parents did. Work has to pay.

When you think about it, both liberals and conservatives could and should support all three of those crucial ingredients to overcoming poverty with opportunity: family, education, and work. But instead they just continue to fight and blame each other for poverty.

But here is some good news. Everybody who reads this piece should read President Barack Obama’s speech last Friday in his home neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Journalists have pointed out that the president has spoken more about “poverty” in the last four weeks than he had in the last four years. From his inaugural address, to his State of the Union speech, to his blunt and clear Chicago call for “ladders of opportunity,” Obama is calling the nation to address the terrible conditions of the lives of almost 50 million Americans, including 16 million children — in the wealthiest nation in the world.

Obama spoke to all three of our critical goals in overcoming poverty — family, education, and work. In naming the 443 gun murders on the streets of Chicago last year, including 65 children — the equivalent of “a Newtown every four months” — the president said: “When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill—only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.” Here that, both liberals and conservatives. Nothing would be more important in reducing violence, he said, “than strong, stable families — which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood … parents supporting kids — that’s the single most important thing.”

There is no “surer path to success,” the president reiterated, “than a good education.” He added that early childhood education pays off — and that every dollar we invest in it “can save $7 down the road.”

As the president said, a family of four living on a minimum wage salary still lives below the poverty line. “That’s wrong, and we should fix it. We should reward an honest day’s work with honest wages.”

There it is Americans, liberals and conservatives: family, education, and work. As the president said, “Let’s do it.”

There are no more excuses for not coming together around this moral imperative.

Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in April. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

Photo: Aerial view of Pennsylvania Avenue, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

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