Forty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot down in Memphis, just as he was about to lead a new Poor People’s Campaign. King’s agenda had moved beyond civil rights to overcoming poverty in America, and he had just begun the new effort to challenge economic injustice.
At that time, in 1968, there were 25 million people in America living in poverty; 40 years later there are roughly 37 million people still living in poverty. In 1968, the minimum wage was worth $9.47 an hour in today’s dollars (using inflation-adjusted 2007 figures). The minimum wage today is $6.55. Forty-seven million Americans have no health insurance. In 2007, the number of home foreclosure filings rose to 2.2 million. The poor have lost ground.
But things are changing. God is on the move. Christians are rediscovering and embracing God’s concern for justice. The church is uniting across political and denominational lines around a shared commitment to fight poverty. A new moment is dawning.
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 “poverty” was rarely spoken in either campaign or in the 2004 presidential debates.
THIS YEAR, it’s already very different. For the first time in many years, poverty is back on the agenda. Two presidential candidates from both parties, Sen. John Edwards and Gov. Mike Huckabee, made poor and low-income working people a central priority in this election season. In Edwards’ campaign, he spoke eloquently about the reality of poverty in the United States and emphasized his commitment to cut poverty in the U.S. in half in 10 years.
When Huckabee was governor of Arkansas, he advocated spending money on poor people—behavior that is offensive to the economically conservative wing of the Republican Party. Even though Huckabee is a consistent social conservative, he is considered suspect by the party’s economic conservatives who, of course, don’t support spending money on overcoming poverty. Huckabee disagrees with them.
We interview both in this issue of Sojourners. And both made a point of identifying the importance of presidential leadership. Commenting on his campaign, Edwards said, “What I saw on the campaign trail and what I have seen in places like New Orleans demonstrates to me that the American people will respond. And even if they didn’t, would that stop us anyway? Are we going to make some political decision that because this is a difficult trudge, we’re not going to do what we’re supposed to do? Not me. It’s a leadership responsibility not just to figure out what people want to do, but to take them to the right place. … Without sustained presidential, national leadership, it’s extremely hard to do something serious.”
And, Mike Huckabee noted, “It’s a tragedy that in a country of extraordinary wealth significant numbers of people every day go to bed hungry. Some people are oblivious to that reality in this country; 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 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 that many people in positions of authority were unaware of the very world that they were supposedly trying to lead.”
THE TWO PRESUMPTIVE nominees for president this year have also said poverty would be a priority for them in a new administration.
On the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death in April, John McCain said, “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.”
A week later, at the Compassion Forum, when asked if he would commit to a goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years, Barack Obama responded, “I absolutely will make that commitment. Understand that when I make that commitment, I do so with great humility because it is a very ambitious goal. And we’re going to have to mobilize our society, not just to cut poverty, but to prevent more people from slipping into poverty.”
The American people, however, would like more. A recent survey conducted by Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin found that 56 percent of respondents think the media is not spending “an adequate amount of time during the presidential campaign covering the issue of how to fight poverty in the U.S.,” and 51 percent say they “had not heard enough during the presidential campaign about what needs to be done to fight poverty.”
Whoever is elected president, a solution to poverty will take both liberals and conservatives and those who are neither. It will require a comprehensive plan that utilizes the strengths of the private sector (business and unions), the nonprofit sector (including faith-based organizations), and the public sector (government at all levels—local, state, and national). Each must do its share and focus on what it does best. Most important, it will require all of us to continue building a movement to hold a new president accountable.
The forces arrayed against real change in the U.S. are most formidable. Politics is unlikely to be changed merely from within—no matter who wins, and no matter how sincere they are, we will not see significant change unless, and until, we have a real social movement for serious poverty reduction from outside of politics. And that kind of social movement usually has spiritual foundations. That movement has already begun and building it is now our primary task.
It’s time to end the scandal of poverty in this country and around the world.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.