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Where's the Secretary of Poverty?

Posted: 07/31/11 11:12 AM ET

The Economist's report that the GOP is "economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical" was spot on but the story doesn't end there. An inexplicable outcome of the debt ceiling saga -- cutting spending while tossing tax increases overboard -- is really happening.

An angst-ridden nation's concern over the economy drove the 2010 midterm election results. Exit polls from those midterms showed a public evenly divided about what policies they supported to counter economic and employment stagnation: as many favored spending increases as favored debt reduction . One week later, the president's bipartisan Bowles-Simpson Deficit Commission released its recommendations. By the time Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson took their show on the road, the Administration's messaging began to harmonize with the long-standing GOP Cut, Don't Tax hymnal. The GOP chorus grew louder right down to the last chord of a compromise with a compromise that had been compromised seeking compromise.

Contrary to those who frame the deficit as an economic threat analogous to Al-Qaeda and national security, the ratio of Net Debt/GDP of 65% is, as the conservative editors at The Economist note, anything but impractical. That fiscal measure is all the worse because of the impact of the the Bush/Obama-McConnell tax cuts for the rich, the Great Recession, the Bush/Obama wars on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington's failure to mitigate soaring healthcare costs. Though the deficit is a danger to the country's well-being, it is not an imminent danger. Washington got the message and should begin to implement third rail spending and tax reforms. But not now. There's a more immediate threat: poverty.

A deplorable condition that's only worsened, poverty in America is the most corrosive of the wars we're losing but never mention. Poverty is not merely offensive to the human condition, it is also the enemy of economic and civil stability in America. In addition to those who are mired in poverty, there are millions more on the cusp of poverty and yet millions more haunted by the specter of falling into poverty. Let's have a scratch your head moment: just how much poorer does a poor person have to be to still be poor? There aren't many Americans who pause and ask that question and that's not surprising: very few political leaders have taken up the mantle for the poor in America over the past half-century. The most prominent and vocal advocates for the poor who come to my mind are LBJ, Bobby Kennedy & John Edwards. By contrast, the president and Congress only offer light-touch, attendant proposals for job creation driven largely by their politics.

A telling snapshot reveals that roughly 21% of children in America live in poverty. Veterans are more likely than other Americans to be homeless (Support the Troops, huh?) Amongst all Americans, a staggering 16.2% are underemployed. Families, veterans and the working poor have taken refuge in homeless shelters, automobiles and seedy motels. Children are going to bed at night and to school in the morning hungry in the wealthiest nation in the world.

The poor can't sustain themselves on mere proposals. Giving a speech about jobs is not analogous to uplifting the impoverished. Listening to Mr. Obama, one would think that America lives on one of two blocks: Main Street or Wall Street. Though the president has a political strategy for balancing the budget, economic growth, quality healthcare, education, national security, border security, international relations and the like, what is his poverty strategy? Has anybody bothered to ask?

If the poor are to have a voice, they need a chorus of the people behind them -- and that's what a growing beehive of activists outside the Beltway are trying to do in redressing social blights like poverty. A new Beta-phase organization called Jumo allows one to connect with supportive organizations (as does Volunteer Match) and to promote their own. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West are embarking on a nationwide poverty tour next week. Budding social entrepreneurs are crafting organizational models that attack poverty with the robustness of a 21st century creative class. I've found in my travels that much of the most laudable work in impoverished communities is being undertaken by faith organizations like the Durham Rescue Mission in North Carolina.

Poverty is not a Democratic problem or a Republican problem. It's not a Christian or a Muslim problem. It's not a black or white problem. It is our problem. It is an American problem. It is a moral failure. And it is a national disgrace.

Until tens of millions of Americans are impoverished no more, we're all poor. Very poor.

 

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