The son of a Kenyan student and a woman from Kansas has become president. I honestly never thought this possible. I thought this day would never come in our lifetime, but it did. I’m still pinching myself.
On Jan. 20, as President Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address, it seemed that the more I listened, the better it got. Here is a leader who wants us to face how serious our situation really is, I thought. Here is a leader who extends an invitation to us to make the hard choice to have hope, which has always been the strength of this nation when facing difficult times. And here is a leader who says this isn’t really about him, but about us and what we decide to do together. Here is a leader who calls for a “new era of responsibility.”
The new president also pledged that the poor of the world would not be abandoned anymore. “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds,” Obama said, extending America’s promise to all, including those at the bottom of the economy.
The inauguration of Barack Obama was a historic event for our nation. Obama’s call for greater sacrifice and service couldn’t be more needed as our nation faces daunting economic challenges and hardships. The deepening economic crisis is leading to record numbers of foreclosures, homelessness, unemployment, and hunger as more and more people fall from jobs into poverty. Our friends at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimate that an additional 9 to 10 million people could fall below the poverty line in the coming year. Recent economic stimulus and bailout measures will help through expanded unemployment insurance, food stamps, and children’s health insurance, and through tax measures such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. These represent critical stopgap measures, but a more comprehensive set of policies is also desperately needed. The community of faith must continue serving and advocating for those in poverty.
Therefore, I invite you to join us in acting on this call through the Mobilization to End Poverty—a historic gathering April 26 to 29 when Christian and other anti-poverty leaders from across the country will engage in a transformative experience of education, worship, community, and activism in Washington, D.C.
The Mobilization, hosted by Sojourners, will include workshops, training sessions, worship, and advocacy work on Capitol Hill, as well as plenary sessions with renowned leaders such as Rep. John Lewis, John Perkins, Sharon Watkins, Tavis Smiley, Jeffrey Sachs, and many others. We have invited President Obama to speak at the Mobilization about his plans to fight poverty, and we are working with the new administration to confirm his participation. Together, we will demonstrate our collective resolve to make overcoming poverty and building a just economy top priorities for the public and political agenda.
During his campaign, President Obama publicly committed to the bold but achievable goals of cutting domestic poverty in half over 10 years and achieving the Millennium Development Goals. However, he will face incredible challenges in making poverty reduction a priority, particularly during this time of economic crisis that threatens to push millions of Americans deeper into poverty. Even a president who runs on change, really wants it, and goes to Washington to make it will confront a vast array of powerful obstacles. Politics is unlikely to be changed merely from within. No matter how sincere our leaders are, we will not see significant change unless, and until, the pressure increases from the outside.
Specifically, we will call on President Obama to reaffirm his commitment to the half-in-10 goal and Millennium Development Goals. We will also work with the administration to help turn its commitment to achieving these goals into reality. One opening step is for the president to issue an executive order updating the currently antiquated and inadequate measurement used to track the federal poverty rate. The current measurement, developed in 1965, is based solely on a family’s food needs, failing to account for the escalating costs of health care, transportation, and housing, which are a much larger share of the average family’s budget today. The present measurement also fails to measure the positive impact of government programs such as tax credits and cash assistance. A modernized poverty measurement is critical for recalculating the number of people who are actually living in poverty and then starting from that new baseline to achieve the half-in-10 goal.
That is why your voice and our movement are needed now more than ever. This is a moment that demands prophetic leadership and the power of a faith-inspired movement. From the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage to civil rights, history shows us that political change happens when social movements push on open doors of political leadership. It is now up to us to provide the push that can hold President Obama and Congress accountable to the goals. The president and our elected representatives need to hear our voices supporting them and holding them accountable for policies that seriously address the needs of those in poverty.
Participating in the inaugural prayer service at the National Cathedral the day after the inauguration was a fitting end to the week’s events. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus stood to pray for the president as the first family sat just a few feet away. Many of the prayers acknowledged that it was time now for the new president to go to work. And so too should the religious community. Our job now is to offer prayers and support for the new president, but it will also be our job—our prophetic religious responsibility, in fact—to offer challenge when necessary. After all, challenge can be the deepest form of support.
So let our work begin. Join us in Washington.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. For more on the April Mobilization, visit www.sojo.net/mobilization .