This year’s 50th Anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign provides a critical moment for our nation, and people of faith and conscience, to pause and conduct a moral scan of our nation’s progress in combatting poverty in America. Despite some progress, poverty in America remains deeply entrenched.
Roughly 13 percent of Americans remain stuck in the quicksand of poverty.
Poverty disproportionately impacts people of color and women, making it both sexist and racist.
Poverty continues to be deeply intergenerational, passing on its burdens and disadvantages across generations.
Poverty is both urban and rural, and now has become suburban as well.
Poverty is 13 million children living in households that struggle to put enough food on the table in the wealthiest nation in the world.
The root causes of poverty are often misunderstood or oversimplified. The people living in poverty are often invisible, marginalized, and at worst scapegoated for their struggle. Ending poverty constitutes one of the central moral imperatives of our time.
For too long the response to this by many Christians has been what I refer to as “the poor will always be among us” mentality. Jesus’ words in John 12 that the “you always have the poor with you” have often been misunderstood or misappropriated to mean that the poor will be a permanent fixture in our public life. This mentality has justified a great deal of complacency about the imperative to combat and ultimately bring an end to the worst forms of poverty. In this text we see Jesus rebuking Judas for his hypocritical criticism of Mary, who has blessed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, which Judas cynically says could have been used for the poor. A more careful and contextual interpretation of Jesus’ words reveals that what Jesus is really conveying is that, as his disciples, we will always be among the poor, because the Gospels make clear that as a poor Jew, Jesus spent a disproportionate amount of his life and ministry with and among the poor.
In mid-July the White House stepped into the role of Judas by claiming that America has “largely” won its war on poverty, citing a Council of Economic Advisers report that argues that the vast majority of people in the U.S. have enough to eat, that homelessness is “rare,” and the U.S. economy is surging, with unemployment near a record low of 4 percent. The report goes on to conclude that, “Now is the ideal time to expand carefully designed work requirements to non-cash welfare programs.”
The 66-page report conflicts dramatically with a United Nations investigation conducted last month, which offers a scathing assessment of the dire state of poverty in America, stating America already has the highest rates of youth poverty, infant mortality, incarceration, income inequality, and obesity among industrialized nations.
Here’s a snapshot: About 40 million Americans live in poverty, 18.5 million live in “extreme poverty,” and more than 5 million live in what the U.N. calls “absolute poverty.”
The report goes on to argue that “for almost five decades the overall policy response has been neglectful at best, but the policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.”
What strikes me most in this moment is that a major reason we are still losing the war against poverty is because we are losing control of the national narrative. While the rest of the world focuses on the best solutions to achieve the globally agreed to Sustainable Development Goal to end extreme poverty by 2030, our nation is mired in a debate about whether poverty even exists.
In the context of our national politics, the poor have been trapped in this debate, which pits a conservative emphasis on personal responsibility and strong families against a more liberal emphasis on strengthening the social safety net and rectifying structural and systemic injustices The debate hinges on these ideological disagreements, so we never get to the root causes of poverty or the best policy prescriptions to reduce it. In reality, this represents a false dichotomy. But as of late, our nation is not even having the ideological debate — instead we are debating facts about how many people are in poverty and, shockingly, whether we have already solved the problem.
In order to break out of the denial that cripples our nation’s current response, I believe we need a new approach centered on three core commitments:
- Encourage greater proximity with people living in poverty;
- Build consensus and momentum around an evidence-based, bold, comprehensive policy agenda that transcends the left/right divides; and
- Reframe the narrative around poverty to ignite greater empathy and moral urgency.
The Power of Proximity
It is much easier to scapegoat people living in poverty when you have very little real contact or relationship with them. According to Robert Putnam’s most recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (which is backed up by reams of data), opportunity in America has become more elusive and stratified, which translates into the increased segregation of opportunity. A trend in many parts of the country of increasingly segregated schools and neighborhoods by race and class means that fewer people are interacting with people who are living in and out of poverty. The transformational power of authentic relationships is critical in the fight against poverty because they humanize the people most impacted and inevitably challenge many of our assumptions and prejudices. Through my work travels and volunteer work through my fraternity and church, I have been blessed by my interactions and relationships with people living in poverty. Yet I realize that far too much of my daily life is confined to a middle-class and affluent existence. My deeper encounters with poverty are often still too few and far between. This is one of the reasons that I have such admiration for the Christian Community Development Association, which makes an incarnational commitment to relocate to live in and among communities that are struggling with poverty. While not everyone will be able or will feel called to relocate with our physical lives, we all must find ways to seek and build authentic relationships with people living in poverty in ways that are mutually transformational.
Breaking Partisan Divides
No party or ideology has a monopoly on the solutions to ending poverty in America, and both parties are to blame for expending more energy on policies aimed at the upper and middle classes at the expense of people in poverty.. With a few exceptions, neither Republicans nor Democrats have prioritized pushing forward a comprehensive policy agenda to combat poverty. In December 2016, Speaker Paul Ryan put forward a Republican anti-poverty agenda called “A Better Way” that proposes creating stricter work requirements, conducting ongoing evaluations to assess whether federally funded programs are working, and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. While some of these policy prescriptions, such as expanding the EITC, are critical, others such as tightening what are already robust work requirements tied to welfare are misguided and unnecessary. President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have already pushed through a number of policies that will likely exacerbate poverty, including granting states the ability to impose work requirements on Medicaid, stripping or undermining key provisions in the Affordable Care Act, and pushing tougher sentencing guidelines for criminal prosecutors.
On the Democratic side, anti-poverty agendas from the Progressive Caucus, Bernie Sanders, and many others have emphasized the need to raise and index the minimum wage, guarantee universal access to quality health care, and have proposed ideas like a federal jobs guarantee, free tuition for public colleges and universities, dramatically expanding the Child Tax Credit, and a targeted youth jobs program for marginalized young people. Many of these proposals will require identifying and generating significant revenue and building greater political will.
These and other policy proposals could form a more comprehensive approach to ending poverty, particularly those that are evidence-based and bridge some of the left and right divides. But we also need to ensure we’re moving beyond platitudes and messaging documents and instead offer a bold vision whose component parts work together to actually solve poverty. The Circle of Protection represents one hopeful example of how a broad cross-section of churches and faith-based organizations are coming together to champion and protect policies and programs in the federal budget that fight poverty and benefit low income Americans. There is no magic bullet or panacea to combatting poverty. We know that economic growth that generates jobs and lowers the unemployment rate is necessary but far from sufficient. More than half of the country’s income growth in the last decade went to the wealthiest 1 percent of American families. And new research from economists at Stanford and Harvard University shows that rising inequality — not sluggish economic growth — is most likely to blame for Americans’ limited opportunities for upward mobility.
A comprehensive approach requires addressing the breakdown of families and ameliorating the economic pressures that are accelerating this breakdown. It requires addressing the changing nature of work due to automation and technology and transforming our education system so that the quality of a child’s education isn’t tied to their zip code. It requires strengthening job training programs and ensuring that people who work full time are not living below the poverty line due to poverty wages. It requires increasing access to quality health care to every American so health crises don’t throw people and families into poverty. It will require increasing access and opportunities for people living with disabilities and reforming our immigration system so we can bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows of our economy. It will require ending mass incarceration and dismantling racial bias in our criminal justice system. The modern-day Poor People’s Campaign has helped to recapture the moral imagination and reignite moral outrage against poverty, mobilizing a broad, multiracial coalition to combat poverty in America. The campaign put forward a policy agenda that serves as an aspirational blueprint. Even in the midst of our political impasse and polarization there are a series of policy solutions to combat poverty that would garner a great deal of bipartisan support and represent low hanging fruit. These include expanding the EITC benefits to single adults, setting up savings accounts for every child born into a low-income family, expanding access to child care, and revamping job training programs.
Even the most thoughtful and comprehensive policy agendas will fail to gain traction as long as poverty remains a third rail issue in our politics and a marginal issue in our public consciousness. What is missing is a moral imperative to overcome poverty.
How to Change the Narrative
In the early stages of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, the disease was shrouded in a great deal of stigma, shame, and blame. Many people, including Christian leaders, reacted to the harrowing statistics of AIDS in Africa through an overly judgmental lens that associated the disease with homosexuality and sexual indiscretion. Despite these obstacles, many faith-based organizations and churches (including World Vision) worked tirelessly to move the church from a posture of fear and condemnation to one of compassion, love, and justice. One of the major factors that catalyzed this transformation was a very intentional effort to reframe the AIDS crisis through the lens of the orphan crisis. In many countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS was wiping out parents in the prime of their lives, leaving in its wake an entire generation of orphaned children. Focusing attention on the plight of orphaned children helped to break open the issue, pricking people’s conscience and igniting moral concern and outrage. It generated essential political will to address the entire AIDS crisis and helped lead to President George W. Bush’s 2002 President’s Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has given 11 million people access to life-saving treatment and helped to turn the tide of the epidemic in many countries.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic was also fueled by many of the same root causes that also fuel poverty: underdevelopment, lack of access to health services (including contraception), and gender-based violence and inequality. While certainly not a perfect comparison, there are lessons we can apply to the fight against domestic poverty.
The book of Proverbs reminds us that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” A new moral vision is critical to supercharge the fight against poverty. This vision can be framed initially around the imperative to ensure that every child does not have to grow up in poverty. With the highest percentage of children living in poverty in the developed world, the U.S. is literally sabotaging our future prosperity by suffocating the potential of far too many of our children. Increasing scientific evidence proves when children do not receive adequate nutrition, educational stimulation, and protection from abuse and trauma during their first five years of life, it literally impairs their brain development and sets them back for life. As a father of 5- and 7-year-old sons, I can’t think of a more important investment than ensuring every child gets a good start in life.
Equality of opportunity is a deeply ingrained ethic and shared goal that resonates with the vast majority of Americans. Enabling every person made in the image of God to realize their full potential is a goal that every Christian should share, even if we disagree over some of the ways of achieving this goal. Even though we are a long way from realizing both this ethic and theological commitment, a new moral narrative appeals more directly to both ethics in order to awaken the public consciousness and galvanize political commitment around ending poverty in America.
Christ reminds us that as his followers, we should always be among the poor. However, as his disciples we can no longer afford to accept that the poor will always be among us. Now is the time to build new relationships, articulate a new moral narrative, and advance a bold and comprehensive policy agenda that will ensure that together we will truly and finally win the war against poverty.