WASHINGTON (RNS) The plight of Americans living in poverty has not improved during the last year, according to newly released Census data, and Christian leaders said Wednesday (Sept. 12) that poverty must become a priority for Christians if it is not a priority for Washington.

"Across the political and theological spectrum, the faith community is putting aside differences and taking up the biblical vocation of protecting the poor and bringing their stories and struggles to light," said Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners, a progressive Christian group based in Washington.

According to U.S. Census data released Wednesday, in 2011 median household income declined and the poverty rate remained mostly unchanged from 2010, at 15 percent. The federal government defines poverty as annual income of $23,021 for a family of four.

Wallis said the new data indicate that the "Circle of Protection" around the poor that he and other Christian leaders launched last year remains necessary. Advocates asked both President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to state on camera how they plan to tackle poverty.

"No Christian, we offer this morning, should vote in this election until they see these videos and decide for themselves which candidate has the best plan," said Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network.

Obama, in his video, talked about creating jobs and raising wages, health care, retirement, housing and education. "We can pay down our debt in a balanced and responsible way, but we cannot balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable," he said.

In his video, Romney said the nation "must restore our economy and reduce our debt. When our economy is healthy and growing, we have the resources to take care of those who still find themselves in need."

Some conservatives, however, said government activism is not the answer to combating poverty.

The Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector said people continue to rely on government because "the welfare system itself at a cost of a trillion dollars a year dramatically undermines a work ethic and it undermines marriage in low income communities."

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