America's Next President Must Remember the Poor

What will America’s next president do for the most vulnerable in our society? That’s the principal question that religious communities are — or at least should be — asking.

By vulnerable, I mean immigrants, the formerly incarcerated, homeless LGBT youth, children, and other often overlooked populations. Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, and Micah measured the health of the Israelite nation by how the leadership — prophets, priests, and kings — treated the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor. Our democracy obviously differs from the theocracy of Jewish antiquity, but the prophetic concern remains. What do President President Obama and the likely GOP nominees, including Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Herman Cain, propose to do for the downtrodden?

At religious institutions across America, particularly faith-based community development corporations, food pantry lines are swelling with the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed; foreclosure prevention efforts are intensifying; voluntary offerings continue to be raised for college education. Their collective work serves as a neighborhood-level safety net, but does not have the scale needed to meet unprecedented levels of demand. 

As a suggestive, but by no means exhaustive list, three policy areas that merit mentioning in this election cycle include: 1) meeting the housing needs of low-income and extremely low-income Americans; 2) restructuring the terms and regulation of student aid and debt for low-income Americans; and 3) promoting labor policy that ensures a living wage, gives workers the right to organize without being intimidated, and integrates immigrants into our economy.

Ideally, our political culture would not only generate policies to address the aforementioned issues, but also provide the civic energy and commitment needed to enact such policies. Our political culture, though, adversely invokes one of America’s mythic storylines — taxation without representation. We are increasingly becoming a nation where the disinherited and the destitute do not receive adequate political representation. Think about it. Politicians regularly campaign on behalf of the middle-class. Stump speeches, on occasion, invoke the needs of working-class Americans. But who addresses the needs of what sociologist William Julius Wilson calls  the underclass?

At every turn in American history, a creative minority of faith-rooted voices — often along with people of conscience — has insisted that our courts, Congress, and commander-in-chief uphold the standard of equal justice under law, enact legislation that approximates liberty and justice for all, and promote the general welfare of all Americans, particularly her poorest citizens. Maria Stewart, the first woman to give a public lecture in the United States, drew on the deep wellsprings of her faith to argue vigorously for the abolition of slavery. Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, in the Reconstruction era, implored America to “administer justice to each and to all, protect the weak and the strong, and throw the broad wings of its power equally over men of color.” Fannie Lou Hamer, of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, regularly deployed biblical motifs in her advocacy for women’s rights and civil rights in the 1960s. Finally, Marian Wright Edelman, the legendary founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, continually engages the distinctive gifts of faith-filled voices in promoting the welfare of our children. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln and the Apostle Paul, fondly do I hope and fervently do I pray that people of faith, and of conscience, will look to encourage presidential candidates to “remember the poor” in the formation and administration of public policy. 

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon