Candidates Are Told To Avoid Poverty. The Bible Has Other Priorities | Sojourners

Candidates Are Told To Avoid Poverty. The Bible Has Other Priorities

People watch the first presidential debate between U.S. President Joe Biden and Republican candidate, former President Donald Trump, from a tavern in San Diego, Calif., on June 27, 2024. REUTERS/Mike Blake

As I watched last night’s alarming and, frankly, depressing presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald J. Trump, I kept thinking about something then-candidate Pete Buttigieg said in the lead up to the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

Speaking to Rev. William Barber II at a forum organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, Buttigieg named an ugly open secret in our politics, saying: “Frankly, people in politics are often specifically advised to speak of the middle class and not to use the word poor or poverty too much.” It was a revealing statement, indicting a political system in which poverty is a taboo topic and those who often have the greatest needs are often given the least attention by office seekers. By contrast, scripture contains plenty of verses that speak to God’s particular concern for people facing poverty and others who are vulnerable, something that two coalitions I’m involved with — the Poor People’s Campaign and the Christian leaders of the Circle of Protection — have repeatedly emphasized.

CNN had decided in advance that moderators would not offer fact-checks, so throughout the debate, Trump spread incessant lies about everything ranging from immigration to the integrity of the 2020 election; Biden struggled with a hoarse voice and often halting answers. But while pundits assess last night’s winner, the obvious losers were the 135 million people who earn low wages or are experiencing poverty.

While neither candidate said the word “poverty” throughout the debate, the moderators posed questions to the candidates about topics that deeply impact poor and low-wage folks, including inflation and the economy, tax cuts, abortion, wealth inequality for Black families, climate change, social security, rising child care costs, and opioid addiction.

Biden’s language echoed his customary rhetoric about building “from the middle out and the bottom up” and he denounced tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. Mirroring his campaign website, he touted job creation and his plans to decrease the rising cost of housing and prescription drugs as ways to help “seniors,” “working families” and “the middle class.” While these plans are important, I wanted to know where Americans who are currently experiencing poverty or living just one paycheck away fit in. I wanted to know the specific and more comprehensive ways Biden is committed to combat, let alone end, poverty.

Trump, for his part, bragged endlessly and shared falsehoods about the economy under his presidency, but failed to mention anything specific that he would do to help those living at or near poverty. Throughout the debate, it was unclear whether he feels a moral obligation to protect and uplift the most vulnerable. While his campaign webpage takes credit for record low poverty rates during his presidency, his plans for fighting poverty are limited to a broad promise of “America’s economic revival … lower taxes, bigger paychecks, and more jobs for American workers” while decrying Biden’s “runaway inflation” and “reckless big government spending.”   

Both candidates missed a key opportunity when co-moderator Jake Tapper asked a question about child care, which due to escalating costs, is increasingly out of reach for low-income families. Trump twice ignored the question and instead used his time to characterize Biden’s presidency as “the worst in history by far.” Biden threw the insult back at Trump but did say the U.S. should “significantly increase the child care tax credit,” a critical policy priority that I and many other faith leaders have advocated for. But as Chabeli Carrazana reported for The 19th, the two candidates spent more than double the amount of time talking about their golf game than they did about child care.

When election season rolls around, both politicians will no doubt hope to have the votes of people living at or near poverty, particularly those living in the urban centers of swing states. But what hope can people experiencing poverty have that their government has their best interests at heart when most candidates only seem to acknowledge their existence as voters rather than as people with inherent dignity and very specific and urgent needs?

In the first term of the Obama administration, I had the honor of serving as a White House fellow. Both then and after my time there, I heard many arguments around why it wasn’t politically expedient to be outspoken about fighting poverty. These arguments included the speculation that most people living in poverty prefer to think of themselves not as poor but as “aspiring middle class.” I also heard that giving too much airtime to programs that benefit people living in poverty will only elicit more backlash against these programs from those who see people experiencing poverty as “undeserving” of “handouts.”

While I understand these arguments, I have often viewed them as lacking moral imagination and political courage. As Christians, we’re called to put people experiencing poverty at the top of our concern, including our political agendas. If we take scripture seriously, then we cannot overlook Matthew 25:31-46, which teaches that how we treat those in vulnerable situations like poverty and hunger is how we treat Jesus himself.

Let me be clear: In a pluralistic and democratic society, we cannot impose Christian teachings on the rest of the country, nor should we extrapolate from this core principle of scripture that there is only one way to address poverty. What we can do is make it clear to candidates that, based on our own religious convictions, what they do to address poverty is a big part of how we’ll be judging them in the voting booth. We must compel politicians to out-compete each other with their best plans, ideas, and commitments to combat poverty in the U.S. as well as extreme poverty around the world.

To this end, Sojourners and the other Christian organizations that belong to the Circle of Protection have asked both the Trump and Biden campaign to produce a short video outlining their candidate’s commitment to combatting poverty. But so far, neither campaign has responded.

Christians and other people of faith have to show elected leaders that we’re serious about addressing poverty, which I will proudly be joining a Poor People’s Campaign march tomorrow “to uplift and center the needs of the over 135 million poor and low-wage people and workers across the country.” This campaign will also try to engage poor and low-wage infrequent voters ahead of the 2024 elections and beyond. I hope and pray that politicians and candidates for every level of office heed our call for bold leadership in the fight against poverty.