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Rev. Jesse Jackson Headshot

An Open Letter to Our Nation's Leaders

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Today's US Census report on poverty in the United States is a clarion call to our nation and our elected leaders.

We in the United States possess the greatest resources and wealth ever known to humankind. So to have over 44 million people -- 14% of our population -- and 20% of our children living in poverty strains the soul of America. That fully one in four Americans -- 72 million people -- are "near poor" (officially, a family of four earning just $32,634 in 2009) should call us into action. It's a moral disgrace.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is credited with saving or creating 1.4 million to 3.3 million jobs, and kept more than 6 million additional people from falling into poverty. Despite these efforts, it is unfathomable to think that poverty continues to grow in America: three million more in 2009, and more poor people living in poverty now than 50 years ago when data was first published.

These realities are devastating. In 2009, poverty jumped to 14.3 percent, and the number of people without health-care insurance broke 50 million for the very first time. The unemployment rate swelled from 7.7% at the beginning of the year to 10%. The unemployment rate of African-Americans and Latinos is nearly double and sometimes even triple the national average.

The middle class continues to sink. Major cities around the country are losing public transportation jobs, public school teachers, public housing and home foreclosures are on the rise. The effect of such devastating poverty is undercutting excellence in public education and it is overwhelming American families.

I just spent a week on a bus tour meeting and with congregations, students, and workers at plant gates in Michigan. Astonishingly, Detroit has 90,000 vacant homes and/or lots and not one national chain grocery store or retailer. While Detroit faces mounting hardships, we bailed out General Motors, a company whose number one market for Buick is China, and new manufacturing plants are being built there and in Mexico.

The cries of babies in Appalachia, the tears of mothers in the rural South, and the frustration of workers laid off in cities across America -- is this the face of America in 2010?

As people of conscience, as elected leaders of the greatest democracy in the world, we ask ourselves, is there not a need for a new War on Poverty or a Great Society plan similar to that enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson? Dr. King's cry for a Poor People's Campaign has come full circle.

There must be a sense of urgency to address this moral and economic crisis. In Stimulus I, we have watered the leaves. We need Stimulus II to water the roots.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we had a plan for security, stability, investment, reconstruction, and rebuilding infrastructure. Our people, our cities, our nation deserve nothing less.

The Poverty Report is a call to Congress to create a FY 2011 budget that expands funding to "war on poverty" programs supporting employment, education, and basic human needs. Focus on the least of these, and extend the TANF Emergency Fund -- not the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans -- to expand subsidized jobs programs. Extend the reforms to the earned income tax credit, or EITC, and the child tax credit, or CTC. Focus on extending programs that support the least of these, not those with the most.

Expand the weatherization program -- and enact a modern-day urban homesteading program where the urban unemployed can reclaim lost homes, learn carpentry, plumbing and green job skills to rebuild America. We can begin to work our way out.

Congressional leaders, take the bold step of committing to reducing poverty by 50% over the next ten years -- half in ten!

America, give us a listening ear. The people are restless and rising up. America, please hear our plea. There is not time to waste. It's time for a change.