I was one of about twenty-five religious leaders President-elect George W. Bush invited to talk with him about his faith-based initiative in December, 2000, right after the election was decided. I had been intrigued by his call for compassionate conservatism. That day, he told us there is a poverty of the soul and a poverty of the wallet. I agreed with him that faith-based groups are much better at correcting the first. But government, he said, can help with the poverty of the wallet. I was cautiously hopeful.
What happened? Vastly less than he promised, as David Kuo has recently pointed out.
But what is the actual situation today? If the President were to give an honest "State of the Union on Poverty," what would he have to tell the richest nation in human history about poverty here and abroad?
The U.S. has the highest level of poverty of any industrialized nation. 12.5 percent (35.9 million) of all Americans fall below the federal poverty level of $19,157 for a family of four. The number of Americans in poverty has jumped by more than a million every year from 2001-2003. We have millions of Americans working full-time all year round without earning enough to escape poverty. At $5.15 per hour, the minimum wage is not enough to enable a parent with children to even get close to escaping poverty. Forty-five million Americans lack health insurance-and the number keeps growing each year. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee health insurance to all its people.
As the number of poor, uninsured Americans expands, the rich get much richer. From 1979-2001, the after-tax income of the richest one percent grew by 139 percent (from $294,300 to $703,100) while the bottom 20 percent saw a meager gain of 8.5 percent, from $13,000 to $14,000 (it was 14.8 percent for the second 20 percent and 16.8 percent for the middle 20 percent). Already in 2000, the U.S. was the most unequal society of all industrialized nations. (In fact, the richest one percent have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent!) The Bush tax cuts made it worse.
For the richest nation in human history-a nation which claims a Judeo-Christian heritage-that is a moral outrage. Surely there ought to be a moral consensus across all religious faiths and political parties that every American who works full-time year-round in a responsible way will escape poverty and enjoy affordable health coverage.
What is the global picture? We have made significant progress in the last few decades. In 1970, 35 percent of all the people in the developing world experienced chronic malnourishment. Today, that figure is only 17 percent. Asia is the primary reason for the improvement. Africa has more poverty today. The percentage of poor people in Latin America has changed very little for several decades. But the widespread embrace of market economies throughout Asia has led to rapid economic growth and a rapid decline of poverty. Solid growth in health care has also occurred. In 1980, only about 20 percent of the children in developing countries received immunization for basic childhood diseases like polio and measles. Today the figure is about 80 percent.
In spite of this progress, 30,000 children still die every day of starvation or diseases we know how to prevent. That's 210,000 a week-more than all those killed in the recent Asian tsunami. Dramatic headlines produced momentary generosity for those devastated by the raging seas, but we largely ignore the weekly tsunami of dying children, year after year.
The World Bank reports that 1.2 billion people try to survive on one dollar a day. Another 1.6 billion have only two dollars a day. The 20 percent of the world's people living in the richest nations are seventy-four times richer than those in the poorest. And we have learned over the past several decades what kinds of economic assistance by rich countries can dramatically reduce poverty in poor nations. We know what to do.
So what do we do? We spend more on golf each year than it would take, over eight years, to prevent 30 million poor people from dying of AIDS. As we have grown richer decade by decade, all the rich nations have given less and less as a percentage of GNP to help poor nations escape poverty. President Bush has substantially increased U.S. funding to fight poverty and AIDS in the developing world, but the U.S. still stands at the very bottom of all industrialized nations in the percentage of GNP (.14%) it spends on foreign economic assistance.
What would an honest evaluation of President Bush's impact on domestic poverty look like?
I think that what he has done in the faith-based initiative is important and potentially historic. Some poverty is due to a "poverty of the soul"-broken people make bad choices about drugs, sex, alcohol, work and marriage, and the result is social decay and poverty. Bush's policies have leveled the playing field and substantially removed the barriers that wrongly prevented deeply religious faith-based organizations from accessing government funds for their effective social programs in things like job training and drug rehab. The changes allow faith-based programs to raise private funds for their specifically religious activities and access government funds for other things in a way that enables them to uniquely combine inner spiritual and outer socio-economic transformation. All of us-poor people and society generally-win.
The tragedy is that President Bush has acted as if he did not believe his own words about a poverty of the wallet that government can help solve. Except for substantial funding for his No Child Left Behind program and now for expanded Pell grants, he has done almost nothing to provide dollars for effective programs to empower poor Americans. He has cut Section 8 vouchers that help poor families afford housing. Both he and state governments are cutting health care programs for the poor (Medicaid). Because of the cost of the Iraqi war and huge tax cuts that largely benefitted the richest 20 percent, Bush's most recent budget tries to reduce the budget deficit by cutting or eliminating dozens of programs to help poor Americans. It is immoral to ask poor Americans to pay for the war or tax cuts for the rich.
If President Bush really believed in an "Ownership Society," he would spend less time selling a questionable "reform" of Social Security (which is likely to benefit the rich and hurt the poor) and instead persuade the American people that everybody who works responsibly should earn a family wage and have health insurance. He would promote some combination of increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit and raising the minimum wage. He would make the Child Care Tax Credit refundable so it helps the poor as well as the middle class. He would embrace Individual Development Accounts for every child in a family at 150 percent or less of the poverty level. At birth, for example, the government could give every such child $1000-$5000, and then match--up to $500 per year--money added to the IDA by every child (or its family, church or community group). This money, invested in a conservatively managed stock/bond mutual fund, could only be used for college expenses, a first house or business or retirement. Think what it would do for poor kids all across our cities to watch (and study in school how) their personal IDA was growing into thousands of dollars that was theirs.
Sure, it would cost some money. But Bush signed a bill last year giving $140 billion in corporate welfare to large corporations. His multi-trillion dollar tax cuts went overwhelmingly to the richest 20 percent. [According to the Brookings Institution, 5 percent of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts went to the bottom 20 percent (average: $27) and 70 percent to the top 20 percent (average: $5,055)-in fact, 26 percent went to the top one percent (average: $34,992).] We have more than enough money to fund effective programs to empower the poor here and abroad. It is simply a question of whether President Bush and Congress care enough about the poor to partially reduce the enormous tax cuts and other "welfare" benefits they have given to huge corporations and the richest Americans.
Does anybody doubt what decision Jesus and the prophets would have made?
In fact, one wonders what evangelical political voices will recommend to President Bush. They voted overwhelmingly (78%) for him. But they also are committed to following the Bible which has hundreds of verses that teach that God and God's people have a special concern for the poor. An important new document now adopted as the official policy of the National Association of Evangelicals (which represents 30 million American evangelicals) has a strong statement on justice for the poor. In January, a distinguished list of evangelical leaders wrote to President Bush urging him to do more to overcome poverty in the next four years. If large numbers of evangelical leaders and voters become effective advocates for the poor, the report on the State of the Union on Poverty in four years would be more hopeful. And President Bush's vision of compassionate conservatism could be more than empty rhetoric.