For a year now I've been campaigning to get President Obama to talk about poverty in his upcoming State of the Union address. As a candidate, Barack Obama made a commitment to offer up plans to reduce poverty by 50% over ten years. But then he inherited an economic nightmare. Poverty rates skyrocketed along with unemployment and hunger.
The good news is that President Obama never gave up the fight and through the Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act (health care reform) he kept millions more from falling into even deeper poverty. Even the tax compromise with the GOP that was reached before Christmas includes anti-poverty measures that will help lift more Americans out of poverty. President Obama has earned his stripes as an anti-poverty advocate time and time again.
None-the-less, 43.6 million Americans lived in poverty last year. That is morally unacceptable. Congress - insisting on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that in turn drive up the deficit - are calling for reductions in anti-poverty programs to pay for those tax cuts for the wealthy. In all honesty, we can expect to see poverty grow and more people suffer in the long-term. This week the deep poverty in America drove religious leaders to write this message to President Obama:
We who lead the member communions of the National Council of Churches believe it is time for you to renew the pledge you made during the campaign to cut poverty in half in the next decade. We ask that you use the influence of your office to assure those living in poverty that this nation has not forgotten them.
Mr. President, we urge you to renew this pledge like a clarion call in the 2011 State of the Union Message.
As you have noted, this is a very ambitious goal and there are far too many politicians in this nation who might not take the risk or pursuing it without the strong advocacy of the President. But as you renew this commitment, be assured that we stand with you and that you have the support and prayers of all 37 member communions of the National Council of Churches.
The New York Times also issued a call for the president to more forcefully address the issue of poverty:
With 14.5 million people still out of work, and more than 6 million of them jobless for more than six months, reducing federal help now will almost ensure more poverty later. That would impose an even higher cost on the economy and budget because ever poorer households cannot spend and consume.
We know it goes against the prevailing rhetoric to argue that more and better government policies are still needed to repair the economy. It is also unpopular to argue that programs that have succeeded for decades in reducing poverty, like Social Security, need to be preserved even as they are retooled for the 21st century. To do otherwise is to deny the evidence.
President Obama must explain to the American people that the country needs to continue relief and recovery efforts, especially programs to create jobs. Without that, tens of millions of Americans stuck in poverty will have little hope of climbing out — and many more could join their ranks.
I'm praying this week that President Obama uses the State of the Union to re-affirm his commitment to cut poverty in half with specific proposals. In doing so he will offer hope to tens of millions of Americans who are struggling in unimaginable ways.
I'd bet that raising the issue of poverty in America is the last thing political professionals would advise any president. But I'm placing my hope in President Obama himself and the staff at the White House who I know from experience care deeply and passionately about this issue. Lifting up the needs of those living in poverty, particularly children, should be an issue beyond political considerations.
Visit the Half In Ten Campaign to learn more about the fight to reduce poverty.