Four years ago, Call to Renewal conducted a 12-day "Rolling to Overcome Poverty" bus tour to say that poverty was a religious and electoral issue. Despite our best efforts, the word was rarely spoken in either campaign, or in the presidential debates. This year, it's already different.
On Wednesday, John Edwards endorsed Barack Obama, which, of course, made headlines across the country. But at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, rally where the two men spoke, something even more important happened. Both spoke eloquently about the reality of poverty in the United States, and both reiterated their commitment to cut poverty in half in 10 years in the U.S. Obama pledged again to make that a central feature of his administration if he is elected.
There is another wall that divides us. It's the moral shame of 37 million of our own people who wake up in poverty every single day. In a nation of our wealth, to have millions of Americans who work every single day and still can't pay their electric bill and pay for their food at the same time. There are mothers out there working two jobs every day to try to keep their kids from going to bed hungry. There are men and women who have worked hard all their lives, so that they can try to buy a home. And they're living in a tent city, because they got nowhere to go. This is not OK.
Poverty isn't an issue that's talked about on the news or in Washington. It's not always the kind of issue that polls well. But John Edwards decided to talk about it anyway. He decided to center his campaign around it. He came up with new ideas to solve it. He pushed the rest of us to talk about it and debate it. And he did it, not because it was popular, but because it was right. Well, it is still right. It is still worth debating. It is still worth talking about. ... We're going to have to change things around, because we need to lift up every American out of poverty.
The other candidates have also spoken strongly about poverty.
Hillary Clinton, in the recent Compassion Forum, said:
… in my Judeo-Christian faith tradition, in both the Old and the New Testament, the incredible demands that God places on us and that the prophets ask of us, and that Christ called us to respond to on behalf of the poor are unavoidable. And it's always been curious to me how our debate about religion in America too often misses that. You know, his holiness, the pope, is going to be coming to America next week, and he's been a strong voice on behalf of what we must do to deal with poverty, and deal with injustice, and deal with what is truly our obligations toward those who are the least among us.
And John McCain, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's death:
Some people lament privately, others are brave enough to take their call for change to the public arena. Martin Luther King III has done his father's legacy proud this week by courageously insisting that our nation's next leader do something about the poverty that ensnares over 36 million of our citizens. I will answer his call, and tell him and the American people today that I will make the eradication of poverty a top priority of the McCain Administration.
The media still sees everything in terms of the political horse race, of course, but the issue of poverty has now become a central one in the ongoing campaign. And for us, as people of faith, it's raising the moral issues that will be our focus during this election season, and poverty will be a key one.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has a good summary of The Candidates on Poverty.