In the fourth chapter of Luke, Jesus quotes Isaiah saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” It is a simple yet radical notion — that we as people of faith must have concern for those experiencing poverty. But our culture and our politics refuse to live into this profound calling, and our policy priorities and laws have a distinct preference for the wealthy and powerful. Jesus’ message is counter, even contradictory, to the norms of our society — which is why we so seldom hear about policies that would help increase financial stability and independence for the millions of families and countless communities across the country that struggle to break out of cycles of poverty.
Despite our immense wealth as a country, poverty has always been a problem in the United States. It remains as an insidious legacy of slavery and systemic racism as well as an ever-present barrier in largely white rural communities and increasingly among Americans living in suburban communities.
According to 2019 Census data, over 34 million Americans live in poverty. Likely, that number is much higher today given the economic recession caused by the inability to coordinate a national response to COVID-19. A recent study found that the top 25 percent of Americans by earnings are better off now than they were before the pandemic and subsequent recession hit. The remaining 75 percent of Americans are significantly worse off than they were before the pandemic and recession. On a global scale, a recent Gates Foundation report shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has already moved nearly 40 million people globally into extreme poverty and has set back the Sustainable Development Goals by 25 years.
In the U.S., many are having to reconsider misconceived notions of how and why people find themselves experiencing the hardships of poverty. Millions of Americans have had to apply for unemployment insurance and food stamps for the first time, some finding themselves in long lines at food banks to ensure their families have enough to eat. It is a moment for a new national conversation about how we as a country can better ensure the common good, allowing all of us to realize our full potential and thrive.
Candidates and politicians always talk about the “middle class,” but we hear virtually nothing about poor and working class Americans. The middle class is a nebulous group with which almost every American self-identifies. But if this recession has taught us anything, it is that the only difference between being middle class and poor is a matter of one or two paychecks. The margins for those outside of the wealthiest Americans are razor thin. There is no room for error or mistake, and recovery is slow and difficult.
According to Donald Trump, the stock market is the economy. But this overlooks the fact that over a quarter of all Americans have no retirement accounts or investments. And the jobs he claims to have created have largely disappeared due to the COVID-19 recession. He has no plan for what he will do to help poor and working-class Americans.
And we now know that Donald Trump paid only $750 in income taxes two years in a row, which shows how he, like many of the wealthiest Americans, exploit a profoundly unequal tax code to pass the costs of government on to average Americans. People in the most common tax bracket (those who earned an adjusted gross income between $50,000 and $75,000) pay an average income tax of $4,688 (six times what Donald Trump paid). To be clear, it is likely that Trump’s tax amount was legal — which shows how much the tax code favors people with large amounts of wealth. It’s also clear that Trump benefited personally from the passage of his own tax cuts in 2017.
Joe Biden, though willing to talk more about economic issues that affect poor and working families, still largely frames them around this notion of the middle class. And despite both COVID-19 and the economy being listed topics in the first presidential debate, neither candidate took the opportunity to discuss the very real challenges faced by over 25 percent of Americans and the challenges that could easily be faced by another 25 percent if the wrong series of events (largely outside of their own control) hit them.
The dissonance is perhaps even worse among current elected officials. Faced with a historic recession, Congress, and the Republican-controlled Senate in particular, has failed to pass much-needed stimulus funding to address the deepening health and economic crisis caused by COVID-19. The lack of leadership and commitment to addressing the very real needs of people, communities, and states has left millions of Americans struggling to keep food on their plates and roofs over their heads, and has left both our health care and election systems woefully underfunded and underprepared for their essential work. This gridlock generated by Senate Republicans becomes even more unconscionable when you see the expedited process they are using to approve the conservative justice that will fill the seat vacated by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Why is it that the Senate can’t move with the same sort of speed and urgency for something that would help millions of Americans and help ensure the safety and health of our citizens and our country?
The Circle of Protection, co-convened by Sojourners, has laid out these concerns in letters to Congress. But despite our efforts, many of our priorities — like increasing the maximum benefit for nutrition assistance — have not been included in the stimulus packages that have made it into law so far.
So what does this mean for us? How are we to find hope when so much seems wrong and broken? Let’s pick up in Isaiah where Jesus left off.
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display God’s glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
As people of faith, we are called to a vision of our world that surpasses all understanding. It’s a vision that is counter and contradictory to our world as it is. Economic justice means a living wage, a more equitable tax code, expanded access to quality health care, affordable child care, affordable housing, equality in education, access to good food and nutrition, gender and racial equal pay, racial wealth equity, debt relief and forgiveness, investments in safety net programs and transportation and infrastructure. And so we must all seek to bring about this vision here on earth. And that requires action. It requires voting, calling and writing your legislators, holding those in power accountable to what we are all called to as followers of Jesus “to proclaim good news to the poor.”