The State of the Union, the annual televised presidential report to Congress, can easily devolve into political theater. But at its best, the address provides the president a critical opportunity to galvanize the nation to overcome shared challenges. When President Joe Biden delivers his first official State of the Union on Tuesday, in addition to addressing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I hope he seizes the moment by tapping into the values that animate his Catholic faith — including the values of solidarity and a “preferential option for the poor.” Solidarity, as understood through Catholic social teaching, is based on the understanding that we are one human family — our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We see this preferential option for the poor in Jesus’ dual call to care for the most vulnerable (Matthew 25) and combat injustice by being “good news to the poor” (Luke 4).
Biden’s address comes during a particularly anxious time for the country: We’re nearing a staggering 1 million deaths from COVID-19, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could become the most devastating war in Europe since World War II, Biden’s signature Build Back Better plan is stalled indefinitely, and the threats to our democracy continue via voter suppression and election subversion laws. And amid this instability, everything from gas to groceries is costing Americans significantly more than it did a year ago due to rising inflation.
Inflation, which hit a 40-year high in the most recently released data, is hitting people hard. The situation is fairly straightforward: When rent, gas, and grocery costs go up faster than people’s income, they have to make tough choices to care for themselves and their families. Average consumer prices, as captured by the closely watched Consumer Price Index (CPI), rose 7.5 percent over the past year, while hourly earnings rose 5.7 percent in that same span. International conflicts affect these daily costs: Sanctions against Russia to deter the regime from continued invasion in Ukraine, for example, may send oil prices soaring. The ongoing pandemic is a major driver of inflation: The fact that U.S. consumer spending suddenly shifted from travel and entertainment to durable goods like electronics, cars, and home building is a primary driver for price increases, given that supply of these goods has been unable to keep up.
Regardless of it’s varied causes, inflation is a justice issue: Rising prices hit people experiencing poverty, people on fixed incomes, and workers who do not get automatic annual cost of living increases the hardest. As Josh Bivens, director of research for progressive think-tank Economic Policy Institute recently told NPR, rising prices are going “to cause a lot more stress for lower income families [because] they just have so many fewer margins of adjustment to absorb that.” He points to an expected 10 percent increase in the cost of rent this year — an increase particularly harmful to families with lower incomes. A recent analysis by the University of Pennsylvania showed that families with lower incomes spend a higher percentage of that income on basic needs, like housing. According to the analysis, in 2020, “the poorest households had a 6.8 percent increase in their expenditures, while the top 5 percent had a 6.1 percent increase.”
Inflation has already been used as wedge issue to derail the Build Back Better agenda, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in particular putting the bill into its current state of limbo over concerns it would worsen current inflation. But the provisions within Build Back Better would ameliorate the impact of inflation on many of the most vulnerable families and communities. In his speech, Biden needs to say this directly. He needs to explain that provisions within the Build Back Better agenda — such as extending the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, increasing access to affordable child care and pre-K education, closing the Medicaid coverage gap, and more — are essential pro-family policies that help the common good. He needs to stand in solidarity with those most impacted by increased costs of living and show his commitment to those living in poverty.
My understanding of solidarity and a preferential option for the poor — values that resonate across faith traditions — have been deeply shaped by time I spent early in my career with Dr. Paul Farmer, a tireless champion of public health and human rights who tragically died this past weekend of a heart attack. Paul co-founded the organization Partners in Health, which has worked for decades in some the most impoverished parts of the world to center the needs of people without access to public health. So much of Paul’s work was fueled by a fervent commitment to demonstrating an preferential option for the poor, which is rooted in injunctions of the biblical prophets to prioritize the welfare of the most in need. Heavily influenced by Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, Paul practiced the power of what he called “pragmatic solidarity,” which as he put it, is “both the desire to make common cause with those in need and offering goods and services that might diminish undue hardship.” Paul exemplified Jesus’ teachings in health care and far beyond. The best way I can think of to honor Paul’s indefatigable spirit and remarkable legacy is to try to emulate in our own ways both individually and collectively his deep commitment to pragmatic solidarity and a preferential option for the poor — values that can give way to a more caring and just economy.
Through his State of the Union address, Biden has a critical opportunity to communicate the core values by which he wants his presidency to be defined. By embracing the values of solidarity and a preferential option for the poor, we can both mitigate the harmful impacts of inflation and work together to cocreate a nation that prioritizes protecting the most vulnerable and enables everyone to thrive.