Since the recession began in 2007 only two congressional districts in the entire nation that have had a statistically significant decrease in poverty. One hundred forty-five have stayed the same and 388 have seen a significant increase in people living in poverty. Forty-nine million Americans are living in poverty. That’s the context in which our election is taking place.
What we have is one candidate who talks about poverty, mentions it, but whose policies, experts tell us, will do harm to people living in poverty. The safety net will be further torn, rather than strengthened for the greater demand it must bear in these difficult times of slow growth. And we have another candidate who will not talk about poor people, will not say the word “poverty” though we may have confidence that his policies will provide relief and opportunity for the most vulnerable among us. Real talk about poverty, frank exposure of the dimensions of the array of challenges that confront us is absent from our national dialogue in an election that could fundamentally alter the universe of social and economic policy as we know it. We are on the brink now. We could be over it soon.
Talk of policy should never obscure the people whose lives and loves policies shape and steer as they deprive or make available access to resources and opportunities that put knowledge and skill in the heads, hands and hearts of the least fortunate among us. The woman who sits nightly on the bus stop bench with several small and large bags placed beside her, just so, a glare at once defiant and desperate on her face, a rigidity about her frail body that suggests vigilance as another long night approaches.
The woman who sits on the steps outside the train station: umbrella, head rag, a mask of make-up in pastel shades that match her flowing dress; “Got anything for me today?” She asks.
The men who sit on crates or lean on walls with empty paper cups asking for change wanting bills for cigarettes, more coffee, a sandwich; their lives circumscribed by loss. This seems their work absent real jobs that pay living wages. The children we mostly do not see, twelve million of them, behind when they begin school, never to catch up, equipped only for a Medicaid future of low-paying-low-skilled work without pension, affordable health care, paid sick days or vacations, workmen’s compensation, and unemployment insurance.
We can do better, we must.
Let us pray: God of all people in every place, we trust in your love and justice when our will fails. Inspire us to love and good works, to develop systems that right wrongs and set in place programs that provide opportunities for especially those who have been left out and forgotten while a few at the top enjoy luxuries that are bought at the expense of the very people who make any profit possible. Thankful for this very day and hour, open our ears to new insights and initiatives, and move us to act for the good of all, especially our brothers and sisters living in poverty. Amen.
This reflection and prayer was offered by Rev. Michael Livingston on October 18, 2012 at the “Poverty and the 2012 Election” webinar hosted by the Interreligious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs. Rev. Livingston is a past president of the National Council of Churches and former director of its Poverty Initiative. He now serves as the Public Policy Director of Interfaith Worker Justice.