Hear Mike Huckabee talk about the tragedy of poverty and why he got into politics.
When thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina were headed to Arkansas, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee instructed state officials and volunteers to welcome them the way they would want to be welcomed if they were in similar circumstances. This Golden Rule approach—and his willingness to support government programs to address social needs—didn’t win Gov. Huckabee friends among conservative Republicans, but he emphasized principle over party, telling a “values voter” gathering last year, “I do not spell G-O-D ... G-O-P. Our party may be important, but our principles are even more important than anybody’s political party.” Gov. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, is currently a political commentator for Fox News. Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis spoke with Huckabee by phone this summer.
Jim Wallis: What will it take to put poverty on the national political agenda, and do you think that’s possible?
Mike Huckabee: I think it’s not only possible, but it’s necessary. It’s a tragedy that in a country of extraordinary wealth there are significant numbers of people who every day go to bed hungry. I think some people are oblivious to that reality in this country, and it’s almost as if they think, “If we don’t see people, then they don’t exist.” That, to me, is one of the great tragedies—that many people who end up in the sort of bubble of politics see only what is allowed into that bubble by the people who handle them. It’s one of the reasons I got involved, the frustration of believing that many people in positions of authority really were unaware of the very world that they were supposedly trying to lead.
So, what does it take to get poverty up in the center of the screen? I think it requires that we must understand that it does exist, that it is having a dramatic impact upon the quality of life for many people and the very existence for many people.
Wallis: If you were to name some of the key changes that we have to make as a society to address the problem of poverty, what would be on your list?
Huckabee: I’m convinced that part of the reason that poverty is so much a proliferating issue is that we’ve created a social structure that’s broken down. For example, statistically we know that there is a 700 percent greater likelihood of poverty for a child who grows up in a dysfunctional or broken household. While I know it’s not necessarily politically correct, and I’m not suggesting that we force people to live in monogamous marriages when they don’t want to, the fact is that if you have strong family structures, you lessen the likelihood of poverty. And we’ve ignored that.
I think as Christians we’ve been afraid to say it, but the truth is, it’s not about being Christian, it’s about being realistic. Stable families are less likely to create children of poverty than unstable families. We can talk about all the things in the world to deal with the symptoms, but the root cause is a broken-down social structure, where there is double the expenses and half the income. In many cases it’s not just a matter of the “money in, money out,” but it’s also a matter of some of the factors that led to maybe that social breakdown, whether it’s alcoholism or drug addiction, or a lack of education that leads to a lack of quality job capacity. All of it together still comes back to some of these very fundamental things: family, education, choice and responsibility, and being able to put that together to make it work for people.
Wallis: For years I’ve lived in a neighborhood here in Washington, D.C., where we’ve had 80 percent single-parent families, and it’s very tough to overcome poverty with that kind of family breakdown. Another issue I see again and again is that work doesn’t work for a lot of people. There are 9 million American families where somebody in the family is working hard full time in at least one job, so they’re raising their kids in poverty. How do we make work work, and work pay, for families who are playing by the rules and working and are still raising their kids in poverty? How do we change that?
Huckabee: Well, there are people who are really working harder this year than they were last year and they have less money for it, and there are three things that are driving it—and I talked about this on the campaign trail before anybody was talking about the economy. At least from the Republican side, I got royally chastised for saying that the economy wasn’t really doing that well, when everybody else was talking about how great it was. So, maybe it’s great for the guys in the corner office, but the guy up there lifting the heavy stuff up and down on the factory floor—he is not experiencing this wonderful economy that you’re talking about. And the three things that are driving it are: energy prices, health care costs and education costs. All of which are going up disproportionately to the rate of inflation and paychecks. And those are the three necessities that every working family has to confront.
So, if those three things continue to rise at a level significantly higher than any wage increase they have, they’re not maintaining, they’re actually slipping behind, and that’s what’s happening to many, many families at the bottom end of the economic scale.
Jim, let me back up a minute and say, one of the things that I learned as a governor, the biggest mistake that many people in politics make is trying to isolate each individual issue as if it’s a stand-alone. My experience is that these are all integrated. The child who is unhealthy, who has a stomachache, headache, toothache—no matter how good the teacher is, that child’s health is going to have an impact on his or her education. So, you can’t divorce health care from education. Education is also the foundation for economic development and job creation. The person who is undereducated isn’t going to be able to be hired at a decent wage-producing job. The cost of energy drives the cost of food and anything else that one buys because it costs more to get it to the shelf. When I hear people say, “this issue, it’s the one,” I want to say “No, no, no, it’s all of these things integrated.” But having said that, and the reason I wanted to preface it, I’m convinced that there are some things we need to be doing … and I’m particularly concerned for children. My main heart is for kids. You know, they can’t help the situation their in.
Wallis: Because it isn’t their fault.
Huckabee: That’s exactly right. And yet they are the true victims of this society that makes it very difficult for their parents to get above the rung on the ladder where they are. A good example is that even in our Food Stamp program, an inner city kid doesn’t have access to fresh fruits, vegetables, produce—things that would make him or her healthier. The shopping options are dramatically different in the inner city than they are in the suburbs. The prices are significantly higher. Chances are he’s going to eat junk—processed foods that are extremely expensive. With food stamps he still can only access the things that he can get to.
I’ve begged the Dept. of Agriculture to do an experimental project. I wanted to do it in Arkansas, where we would do what I call “power leveraging the food stamp.” The way it would work is, that if you bought a high-nutrient food, such as produce or vegetables, your food stamp dollar would be worth maybe a dollar and a quarter, a dollar and a half, whatever. But you would power-leverage against purchasing, and encourage people to buy things and help to empower them to do it. If they wanted to buy junk food, I was told that by law you couldn’t prohibit people, but then maybe you could make a food stamp worth 75 cents on the dollar. In other words, it would help to steer and empower people to purchase the things that would actually be better for them. They all said, “You know, that’s a very interesting idea,” but as is the case overall, it’s bureaucracy with a bunch of government lawyers, and they could tell me a hundred reasons why they couldn’t do it, and I was just utterly frustrated with it.
Wallis: That leads to the next question. While you have been strong on the need for strong families, and good values, and all the rest, you’ve also, as a Republican, talked about a positive role for government programs. Sometimes republicans talk more about poverty as a charity issue and not a justice issue. Whereas you and I know that the God of the Bible is a God of justice, not just charity. So, without being a big government person, which you are not, what’s a positive role for government in all this?
Huckabee: One of the things I’m frustrated with within my party is that Republicans have been infiltrated by hardcore Libertarians who are not Republicans. Traditional Republicans don’t hate all forms of government; they just want it to be efficient and effective. They’re not against government; they recognize that it has a place and a role. They want it to be limited, and they want it to be reasonable and responsible. But they don’t want it to be non-existent. They do understand that there is a role and if it’s done at all, it needs to be done well.
There are growing numbers of people who get in the Republican Party who are just short of anarchists in the sense that they basically say, “Just cut government and cut taxes.” And they don’t understand that if you do that, there are certain consequences that do not help problems—it exacerbates them. And I use this illustration, and I’ll try not to give the long version. I’ll play the single and not the album! What I try to say to people is that every law and every government program we have is a direct indictment and reflection that somewhere we’ve failed somewhere at the personal level to self-govern. The ideal world is where everybody self-governs and lives by the Golden Rule: do unto others as you’d have them do unto yourself, and if we all abided by that, we would see no other law. That’s the only law we need. No one would hurt anybody, nobody would hit anybody, nobody would get drunk, nobody would abuse the speed limits, we would show up to work on time, stay until the end of the day, nobody would drop out of school; it would be a great world. Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that. So we have to keep redefining the law and every time we create government we do so in demand of something that has failed within the social structure.
Why do we have so many jail beds? So many public works people to pick up litter? Why do we have folks who are out there sandblasting graffiti off of the bridges and buildings? Because somebody didn’t follow the rules! So in an ideal world, everybody follows the rules, and we don’t need all that stuff. I could be an ideological purist and say “that’s not government’s responsibility,” but I’m also a person who’s a realist and says that when all of the other social structures fail, we have by default created a demand for government to step in so our social structure does not disintegrate.
I’m a conservative but I’m not a nut! And what I tell people is, if my choice is government has a program or a kid goes hungry, then give me the government program. I prefer that over a hungry child. I prefer that over a child that’s wheezing through asthma that’s untreated. If people, out of generosity, can do this beyond the scope of government, praise the Lord! But when they don’t, then it’s no different than all the nice conservatives in the gated neighborhoods who really don’t want any government until their home is broken into and they call 911. That’s a call to government. And they want a police car. And they want the person arrested. And then they want that person in prison for a long, long time. You’ve just asked government to step in and it’s going to be very expensive to put that person in prison. It might have been less expensive had we found a way to have provided a social network through which he had an education, access to a sense of self-esteem, family structure, and instead of breaking into your house, he was working on it. But that’s life. My point is that if we want smaller government and lower taxes, the best way to get there is to create a more civil social structure in which people play by the rules and self-govern.
Wallis: After Katrina everyone talked about how much more timely and effective the faith communities were, and that was true, than all levels of government. But I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.
Huckabee: Well, government does have a role. It’s a lot more limited when people exercise personal responsibility, but I don’t think I want to go to a place where the neighborhoods form their own military. Somehow, I’m just not real confident that that’s going to be an effective system. When it comes to systems like road building, and bridge building, and construction of airports and water and sewage systems—to me, the infrastructure of our country has long been neglected. It’s a government function. It’s got to be paid for. And it gives us an economic capacity when it’s done right. That’s where I just don’t understand some people.
Wallis: Let’s talk about the role of people of faith. It’s clear that a lot of your own convictions are shaped by your faith and you’re not apologetic about that. So, how have your convictions here been shaped by your faith, and what is the role for the faith community in all of this?
Huckabee: I’ve always heard a person of truth will find that that influence is everything in his or her life, and I’m very, very disturbed by this notion that we should compartmentalize our faith and put it aside when we’re in the public square. I’ve long said that if a person can separate himself from his faith as if separating himself from a sweater on a warm day, then I have no confidence in his faith. His faith really ought to come from the inside out rather than the outside in. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that you want to impose your faith on someone else or create some type of structure within government where people are forced to accept the tenets of yours. It simply means that you’re going to be honest and say, “What drives me to caring about these children over here is that I’m a person of faith, and I believe that I have a greater responsibility than just to look around in my own neighborhood, in my own yard, and say ‘this is it.’” I think that’s a matter of candor that voters have a right to know. What is my value system? What is the frame work in which I live? How is my wiring hooked up?
Wallis: Your moral compass.
Huckabee: Exactly. Then people are free to say, “I disagree,” and that’s fine. At least you know what mine is, and that it’s coming from a pretty predictable point of view. What has been troubling to me is this notion that we’re somehow not to engage our faith in our public actions. And I think quite the opposite should be happening. We should say, “Look, because I believe there is a God who has created everybody, and that everybody else out there is just as much a child loved by God as me, no person is worth more than another person, no person is worth less than another person, and if there is intrinsic value and worth in every human soul, then I don’t have a right to start creating a devalued human life anywhere out there.”
Wallis: What do you see the role of the faith community in overcoming poverty to be? There is now, on both sides, the affirmation of partnership between faith communities and governments, faith-based initiatives and so on …What is the role that you see for people of faith, faith communities and congregations, and national faith-based organizations leading this fight against poverty?
Huckabee: I think that one of the most refreshing things that are beginning to happen is that there’s movement within the evangelical world that people are accepting social responsibility as a vital part of the gospel presentation, and I find that delightful! The old days of “get saved, go to church, go to Heaven, and that’s it” has become eclipsed by “get your hands dirty, get out there, this is a world of hurt, you’ve got to help it.” And I think that’s a much healthier assessment of the gospel and how it relates to us. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a member of a church here in Little Rock, Ark., called the Church at Rock Creek. It started about 12 years ago—my wife and I joined when it was about 75 members in a storefront. I’d just become governor and we’d just moved to Little Rock, and I wanted to go to someplace refreshingly different.
From 75 members we now have over 5,000 people a weekend coming. The church is very much modeled after Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. Rick Warren, by the way, is a Seminary friend of mine. We’re old friends from 30 years ago and keep in touch. Our church is designed with the concept, we want to reach all the people nobody else wants. We go after homeless people, and we have ministries to dysfunctional marriages, alcoholics, drug addicts. We do a welfare-to-work program for women who are single moms trying to learn job skills. We have an 18-week program that they go through; we help them get cars, clothing, computer skills, whatever it takes to help them become employable. We do a backpack ministry which I think is incredibly exciting. It’s very low-key but I think we now have about 1500 backpacks every week during the school year, and on Friday, we fill up the backpacks with food because a lot of kids don’t have food on the weekends. All they have is food in the schools, hot lunch and all that. So on the weekend these backpacks—that just look like any other school backpack—are filled with food so that kids don’t feel embarrassed to take a sack of food. They pick up a backpack. They take the food. On Monday they bring back the empty backpack to the school and then that week it gets filled up for every weekend. Our church now feeds more people, not just through the backpack, but we have a huge food ministry. I can’t think of how many families per week, but that’s an ongoing emphasis. In fact, our pastor would not let us build a building for a worship center; we rented warehouses and worshipped out of warehouses for the first 8 years that the church existed. He said that until we built a ministry campus to house the food pantry and the other things, we shouldn’t be taking care of ourselves before we took care of others. I just found that refreshing.
Wallis: It is refreshing.
Huckabee: So even our church is built in a Spartan way, so it’s a nice facility from a functional standpoint, but it’s not designed to be elaborate. It has concrete floors. Anyway the point is, we really put an emphasis on what we are doing for people who can do nothing for us, and as a result, it’s one of those kinds of congregations where you’ll see people with tattoos and more metal piercings than a Buick LeSabre, and they may be sitting beside someone who’s like an attorney in town. Nobody dresses up and tries to be somebody; it’s just like an atmosphere to serve. But everybody is challenged to have some sort of form of outward service to others.
Wallis: Something that’s emerging among us now is an initiative to cut poverty in half in ten years. Knowing the government can’t do this by itself, we have to mobilize the nation. Is this concrete goal the kind of metric the future president could commit to mobilize the nation, the churches, the civil society, and businesses, to make a goal like cutting poverty in half in 10 years a reality. Is that the kind of thing you think we ought to be doing?
Huckabee: Absolutely. I think one of the most important roles the president plays is not only that of commander-in-chief of government and military forces, it’s the communicator-in-chief to the spirit and soul of the country. He ought to be encouraging Americans to be at their best, not because it’s a government program, but because it’s in the truest spirit of what it means to be American. I guess one of my greatest frustrations is when politicians ask, “What government program do I create?” Well it may be that there is a government role, but the real question is, “How have I challenged Americans to make personal sacrifices for their neighbor? What are we doing to create what has been always the truest spirit of America,” which echoes John F. Kennedy’s words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” And we’re almost afraid of it.
In the book that I have coming out, one of the points that I make is that I think, with all due respect to the president, one of the biggest mistakes that was made right after Sept. 11, when most Americans were ready to do anything asked of them, we said, “Go shopping, go back to ballgames, get back to business as usual.” And by golly, we did! Instead of saying, “Okay, we’ve been attacked. By golly, it’s time for us to show the world what America’s about. Let’s roll up our sleeves and truly put forth a spirit of sacrifice and service that’s never been witnessed in the history of mankind before.” That would have been a remarkable moment in our history, and we could have done it, but instead we went to the mall. Dear God! What a missed opportunity!
Wallis: Having talked to Sen. Edwards and now to you, it strikes me that while the two of you probably did disagree on a lot of other things, you both were trying to raise up those people who are often forgotten and left behind more than anyone else was. It helps me believe that fighting poverty could become a nonpartisan issue, and a bipartisan cause. I look forward to your leadership and his in working with the faith community on that questioning in the years ahead.
Huckabee: I think it’s something we could and should do. I wrote a book called From Hope to Higher Ground, and the essence of it explains my philosophy on politics, which is to say that for the average person, unlike it is for politicians where everything is horizontal—left , right, liberal, conservative, democrat, republican—for most Americans, politics isn’t horizontal, it’s vertical. They don’t care whether the solutions are coming from the Left or Right, what they care about is, are we going up or are we going down? It’s going to be to those who have vertical solutions that the country will be looking to for leadership, not necessarily those who say “I’m a republican, I’m a democrat. I’m left, I’m right.” There’ll always be people like that. But so many people are sick of that. What they want to know is, are you going to lead us up, or are you going to take us down? And I just hope we can get there. That’s my personal dream and goal.
From 1996-2007, Mike Huckabee served as the 44th Governor of Arkansas. He left office in January 2007 to campaign for the Republican nomination for president. To learn more about his fifth book, From Hope to Higher Ground: 12 STOPS to Restoring America’s Greatness, click here.