After all of the pundits and commentators were done picking apart President Bush’s State of the Union address, one glaring point had still not been made. In 49 minutes, President Bush barely uttered the words “poverty” or “the poor.” It’s as though our president has taken Jesus’ words in Matthew (“the poor you will always have with you”) to justify making scant mention of their crushing needs in what is arguably the most important political speech of the year. How did this omission sound to the 37 million Americans and counting who are currently living in the quicksand of poverty, or the more-than-a-billion people around the world living on less than $1 a day?
To be fair, the president briefly mentioned global poverty in relation to the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and a $1.2 billion anti-malaria initiative. In relation to domestic poverty, the president mentioned poor children in the context of making modest proposals to expand health care coverage to uninsured Americans. But these policies and reforms lacked specifics, and fall far short of a bold plan that addresses the root causes of poverty. Even newly-elected Senator Jim Webb’s Democratic response fixated almost entirely on the middle class. Senator Webb correctly pointed out that we must measure the health of our economy based on how its benefits are properly shared among all Americans, but then focused exclusively on the middle class as those Americans who “have lost their place at the table.”
Hurricane Katrina pulled back the curtain on poverty in America, putting a human face on the needless deprivation that permeates the wealthiest country in the world. I heard many preachers refer to Katrina as “Povertina” due to the hurricane’s devastating and disproportionate impact on those already living at the margins. Yet too many Americans seem to be suffering from an acute case of amnesia surrounding all that Katrina revealed. How would the prophets Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Micah have responded to last night’s speech? I would imagine with words of righteous indignation and judgment against an administration that prioritizes the needs of the wealthiest over the weakest.
Through Christ’s teachings and ministry we see time and time again a call to treat people’s needs as holy, particularly those among us who are the most left out and left behind. Somehow we have made the needs of the impoverished so synonymous with the interests of the middle class that politicians no longer feel the need to call them out by name. It’s as though the word poverty has become taboo and obsolete in political circles. This trend is in part because people living in poverty are less likely to vote, lack the means to write campaign contributions, and don’t enjoy the benefits of the social networks needed to exert the same influence as the rest of society. Thus by its very nature our political system is antithetical and hostile to the interests of those with the weakest voice. This will remain the case until the church accepts its prophetic vocation to speak truth to power. The church stands at the intersection of power and powerlessness.
Through campaigns like the Covenant for a New America, we can make sure that poverty is no longer relegated to a third-rail issue due to political expediency and neglect. By joining together, and speaking out with a unified voice, we can elevate poverty to the top of the president’s – and our nation’s – political agenda.
Adam Taylor is director of campaigns and organizing for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.