Monday, August 6, 2012

Whatever Happened to the Poor in America?

Poor (adjective) 1. having little or no money, goods, or other means of support                                                --American Heritage Dictionary

“Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” –Proverbs 31:8-9

Whatever happened to the poor in America?  Does anyone remember them anymore, the poor? These are the folks in our country who, for many reasons, are at the bottom of the economic ladder.  They are dead last, with most barely hanging on to the bottom rung.  The poor.  Each day they struggle to earn enough money, if they are lucky enough to be employed, to provide for themselves and their families, the basic staples of a good life: housing, food, health care, clothing, life in safe neighborhoods, and education in good schools.  Not so different from you and me in their aspirations, their dreams, for themselves and their families.

Whatever happened to the poor in America? If the ongoing economic downturn is an inconvenience for the very rich, difficult for the rich, and tough for the middle class, it is an absolute disaster, a train wreck for the poor. A recent Associated Press story reported, “the results of a survey of more than a dozen economists, think tanks and academics, both nonpartisan and those with known liberal or conservative leanings, and found a broad consensus. The official [United States] poverty rate will rise from 15.1 percent in 2010, climbing as high as 15.7 percent [in 2011].”  That’s almost 50,000,000 of our fellow citizens, the highest rate and number since 1965. Twenty two percent of children in America live in poverty.  Sixteen percent of the elderly live in poverty.

Whatever happened to the poor in America?  It’s not that the poor have somehow magically gone away. Statistics don’t lie. But it does seem as if those in poverty are not really on anyone’s radar screen these days.  Not the Presidential candidates. I did a thorough search of both President Obama’s and Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign websites and guess what?  The words “poverty” and “poor” were no where to be found, not even one reference.  The phrase “middle class” was certainly all over both sites, as both men jockey to see who can lay claim to cutting taxes for those voters. “Rich” showed up a lot too, either worshipped as “job creators” or vilified for not paying their “fair share” but nothing about the poor. 

It is as if a whole class of America is just invisible in this campaign.  No photo ops at soup kitchens.  No volunteer days at a Habitat for Humanity site for Barack or Mitt, swinging a hammer to build a house side by side with the working poor. No major policy speeches about the obscenity of so many of our neighbors hurting. I guess the poor couldn’t pull together enough money to buy a spot at a $100,000 a plate fundraiser.  Or maybe they are working so hard to survive the poor couldn’t hire high powered lobbyists to work the phones to Congress or fund political action committees to flood the airwaves with TV commercials.   

Whatever happened to the poor in America?  As a person of faith I always come back to what Jesus said when challenged about a particularly extravagant gift one woman gave to him.  A disciple of Jesus protested that the gift should have been sold and the money given to the poor.  Jesus instead says, “The poor will always be with you” quoting an older saying from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy which says, in full, “The poor will always be with you, [God] therefore commands you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” 

Whatever happened to the poor in America? Well they never went away. They’re still here and actually increasing in number.  So here’s a better question. Whatever happened to the compassionate ideal of actually caring for and about the poor in America, seeing the poor, and then doing something as neighbors, citizens, voters, and fellow children of God? 

It is time to ask and answer that question.


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