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The Bipartisanship We Don’t Need

After listening to the State of the Union Address this week it is clear that the long hoped for bipartisanship has arrived.  The emerging consensus is clear:  If you are poor in this country, you’re pretty much on your own.  The President made only one explicit reference to poverty, naming his willingness to look at cuts in community action programs and one vague caution about protecting the most vulnerable.  The Republicans reiterated their zeal for deeper cuts in spending, particularly in the 12% of the federal budget where programs aimed at poverty reduction are lodged.  No, poor people – those millions entrenched in deep structural poverty long before the current recession – clearly seem to be no one’s priority right now in Washington.

Not that I am opposed to jobs creation.  Absent that, there will be a lot more people in poverty in this country.  Nor do I think a long term plan for reducing the deficit isn’t urgent.  But with the Republicans gleefully voting to repeal health care reform with no responsible alternative to offer, and with the President and his Administration joining the cut-spending bandwagon, it’s pretty clear who will be getting the short end of the stick.

The number of people in poverty in this country is staggering – 43.6 million in 2009, up from 39.8 million in 2008 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  Even taking into account the Great Recession, this means that before the economy collapsed in late 2008 there were well over 37 to 38 million poor people among our neighbors.  A quarter of all African Americans live in poverty compared to about 10% of all whites.  Between 2008 and 2009 the number of children in poverty jumped a full percentage point.  And the number of people in poverty in 2009 was the largest number in the 51 years for which poverty estimates have been published.  By all means let’s address the economic fears and concerns of middle and working class people.  But does that really require that we continue to abandon the poor who were suffering long before Wall Street and Main Street began to hurt?

And yet placing this as a priority on the political agenda seems virtually impossible.  During my years as General Minister and President we tried to get the United States Senate to create a “poverty caucus” that would help focus attention on the poor.  One Democratic senator was prepared to co-chair, if we could find a Republican co-chair.  None was willing.  During the 2008 election I and several of my head of church colleagues wrote both campaigns asking them to address the concerns of the poor more directly and energetically in their campaigns.  There was no response and no discernable up-tick in either rhetoric or policy proposals.

John Boehner may assume that everyone in the country can work his or her way up from his or her father’s bar to country club membership by dint of personal effort.  Some can.  But a real look at rural and urban poverty in this nation suggests a far gloomier future for our children where despair lurks at every corner.  We can happily transfer more and more safety net responsibilities to the religious community.  But we should never forget that the things that have probably had the largest impact on reducing poverty in this country have been linked to major public policy initiatives:  things like Social Security and Medicare.

I found myself musing on all of this recently while watching a documentary on the life of Sargent Shriver who died on January 18 at age 96.  Shriver headed the Peace Corps under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, then became the first director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, leading Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”  He was responsible for initiating programs like Head Start, Vista, Job Corps, Community Action, Legal Services, and Neighborhood Health Services.  As a pastor in a small, distressed Pennsylvania city during the harsh years of Reaganomics, I can attest to the importance of these programs for poor people and especially for poor children, particularly at a time when the industrial strength of the Lehigh Valley was in decline and political rhetoric against the poor was on the rise. The War on Poverty’s work was stifled by the war in Vietnam, much as hopes for new initiatives against poverty today are foundering on fools’ errands in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In the midst of this, Shriver’s obituary reminds us of a legacy of justice and compassion, in his case born of Catholic social thought, a religious legacy still waiting to be tapped.

Three years ago a broad coalition of Christian leaders under the umbrella of Christian Churches Together called on the “churches and nation to strengthen and expand efforts to address the scandal of widespread poverty in the United States and around the world.”   We called for “more personal responsibility and broader societal responsibility, both better choices by individuals and better policies and investments by government, both renewing wholesome families and strengthening economic incentives.”  We saw this as a shared responsibility:  religious and community organizations, families and individuals, the market and the private sector, and government at all levels. And we found our mandate not in party platforms but in the overwhelming witness of the Scriptures.  (see www.christianchurchestogether.org)

It is irresponsible to leave the poor to the whims of the political climate and it is unconscionable to allow government to abandon its crucial responsibility.  The poor should not be left on their own.  The next time you hear a politician end a speech with “God bless the United States of America,” consider asking what, from a Biblical perspective, he or she has done to make this country worthy of that blessing.

John H. Thomas

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