Everything the churches have learned about the biblical demand of justice for the poor is about to be put to the test. Life is hard for those who are poor in America, and every indication is that the lives of low-income families and individuals are about to become even more brutal. As the reality of the new welfare bill unfolds, the ones whom Jesus called "the least of these" appear to be in great jeopardy.
As the law now stands, people will be cut off from welfare benefits without any provision for jobs, adequate child care, or national standards of accountability for the welfare plans the states are now devising. President Clinton and many members of Congress also know that the massive cuts in nutrition programs and benefits to legal immigrants went much too far. The severe consequences of these momentous decisions are about to hit local communities (see "The Issue is Poverty," page 18).
Our most urgent need is for new centers of moral conscience and accountability in the public debate, to monitor both federal policy and state programs. More important, we must help develop an entirely new approach to truly overcoming poverty.
Both conservatives and liberals seem to accept widespread poverty in the richest nation in the world. This is the national shame that we must directly address. Ideological battles over a welfare system that few believed in anymore obscured a deeper reality: Sometime during the last few decades we stopped even talking about ending poverty.
The arguments have been about maintaining the poor or abandoning them, rather than the harder question of why such massive and persistent poverty exists in the United States. With the current devolution of social welfare policy, those deeper issues will come even closer to home.