The nation's priorities are finally beginning to shift, as President Obama acknowledged last week in his televised address about reducing troops in Afghanistan: "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home."
That same week the Conference of Mayors approved a resolution calling for an early end to our military role in Afghanistan and Iraq and asking Congress to redirect the $126 billion dollars spent annually there toward "urgent domestic needs," especially jobs. It was the group's first advocacy about the balance between foreign and domestic priorities since the Vietnam War.
Along with recent national public opinion polls, or perhaps because of them, these developments signal a distinct and long overdue change in the national conversation, one that began without the president's leadership but which he was savvy enough to recognize and at least give lip service, if not embrace.
The question now is what, beyond job creation, will make it onto the new list of domestic priorities? Will special interests see a new pool of billions of dollars in play and succeed in dominating the debate? Will politicians compete only to see who can appeal the most to the politically influential middle class? Will we let the greatest income gap between rich and poor in history continue to widen further? Or will those most vulnerable and voiceless -- the record number of Americans who are hungry and living in poverty -- finally be acknowledged and included in the national conversation?
This may be the best opportunity in decades to lay a moral foundation at the base of our public policy choices. Where to begin?
Notwithstanding the likelihood of many competing interests, there is one issue that politicians of all stripes should be able to agree upon because its redress is inextricably linked to solving so many other issues of import -- and that is the issue of childhood hunger. Aside from being unnecessary and just plain wrong in a nation of such abundance, allowing children to go hungry undermines our ability to achieve vital national goals.
Childhood hunger is a health care issue because the long-lasting consequences of hunger and poor nutrition manifest themselves in maternal and child health, diabetes, obesity, hyper-tension and an enormously expensive array of other health care costs borne by society at large.
Childhood hunger is also an education issue. Large majorities of public school teachers assert that hunger is an obstacle to kids in their classrooms learning at the level they should.
That means childhood hunger also directly impacts our ability to compete in the global economy and ensure our economic security.
And of course childhood hunger, which impacts those who are the most vulnerable to and least responsible for the suffering they endure, is unquestionably a moral issue.
Ironically, childhood hunger is probably the issue that is least expensive for our nation to address, especially because the resources to do so already exist in the form of programs with long track records of effectiveness and bipartisan support: school lunch and school breakfast, summer meals, SNAP (food stamps) and the Women, Infant and Children's Supplemental Nutrition program. The problem is that millions of kids who are eligible are not accessing and participating in these programs because of lack of awareness or because communities have not made it easy for them to do so. That's why simply elevating attention to the problem and the existing solutions could lead to powerful change. Some governors -- Democrats O'Malley in Maryland and Beebe in Arkansas, and Republican McDonnell in Virginia -- have begun to do just that and the results have been dramatic. A national focus could do even more.
The window that now exists to reshape our nation's agenda and priorities will not remain open long. There will be many voices competing to be heard. But if we are to reclaim moral leadership, and get to some of the root causes undermining education, health care and economic growth, then our national agenda must also reflect the needs and the rights of those whose voices are not heard. There's no better place to begin than by ending childhood hunger and addressing poverty in a more serious way than we've done in at least half a century.