09/21/2010 06:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's the Poor Who Need a Break More

Here's a question: Can America's political system resolve our country's poverty?

Do the poor matter, or is everything in Washington aimed at those wealthy enough to give campaign contributions?

Are we still one nation, or just a country with a small elite wealthier than any in history, with a declining middle class that was once the envy of the world?

Meanwhile, off to the side of our politics and media falls a growing group of Americans living in poverty -- more poor people now than half a century ago when JFK first reacted to Michael Harrington's The Other America.

Recent evidence is not encouraging. A new U.S. Census report shows that poverty is vast and growing. This report should serve as a clarion call to our leaders -- but has been greeted mostly with silence, or one-time stories. Despite our radical wealth gap, an inequality gap unseen since before the Great Depression, poverty is not currently on the public policy agenda.

Instead, the argument in Congress is over whether to extend the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest group of people on the planet, who already have benefited unfairly from government tax breaks and subsidies, from their "investments" in politicians and from a Wall Street casino economy that overvalues finance, undervalues working families and devalues the poor.

We possess the greatest resources and wealth ever known. So to have more than 44 million people living in poverty -- 14 percent of our population, and 20 percent of our children -- strains the soul of America.

Fully one in four Americans, 72 million people, are "near poor" -- officially, a family of four earning just $32,634 in 2009 -- and that's a moral disgrace.

The stimulus program is credited with saving or creating 1.4 to 3.3 million jobs, and keeping more than 6 million additional people from falling into poverty. But poverty continues to grow -- an unfathomable 3 million more poor in 2009, and more poor people living in poverty now than 50 years ago when data was first published.

This reality is devastating. In 2009, poverty jumped to 14.3 percent, and the number of people without health insurance broke 50 million for the very first time. The unemployment rate swelled, with that of African-Americans and Latinos double and sometimes triple the national average.

The middle class continues to sink. Major cities are losing public transportation jobs, public school teachers, bus drivers, even police and firefighters. Public housing is becoming rarer, and home foreclosures are on the rise. The effect of such devastating poverty is undercutting our schools, weakening public safety, harming our environment and overwhelming American families.

I just spent a week on a bus tour meeting with congregations, students and workers at plant gates in Michigan. It is clear to me that poverty has a new face. Despite the old stereotypes, it was never true that most poor people in America were black, brown, yellow or red -- instead more of the poor were white, female and young. Now the new face of poverty in our nation includes autoworkers whose jobs have been shipped abroad, never to return; it includes young college graduates working in minimum-wage jobs while living back home, unable to find jobs worthy of their educations; it includes former welfare-to-work mothers, now laid off because of the recession, with no safety net to help keep them going.

Can this much pain in America really be ignored by our political system?

As people of conscience, we seek the moral center. We must ask ourselves: Isn't it time for a new War on Poverty, a new New Deal, a new Great Society plan similar to LBJ's? Dr. King's cry for a Poor People's Campaign has come full circle. We must demand that our political leaders take heed.

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