In a recent blog post, evangelical anti-poverty activist Jim Wallis felt a need to point out that Jesus did not say, “As you have done to the middle class, you have done to me.” Noting the actual words from Matthew 25 — “As you have done to the least of these … ” — Wallis acknowledged that the biblical message is unlikely to go viral in this election year. And yet, during a few resonant moments, both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney spoke that language fairly fluently. 

People register to receive emergency food packages in a basement at St. Anthony of Padua Church in northeast Washington, D.C., in this Nov. 9 file photo. CNS photo by Nancy Phelan Wiechec

On Sept. 12, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that poverty in America remained stubbornly high in 2011, at a rate of 15 percent. The ranks of the poor included one in five children. 

That day in Washington, D.C., a broadly representative group of Christian leaders held a press conference unveiling videos of Romney and Obama grappling with the moral challenges of domestic poverty. Both were responding to requests by A Circle of Protection, an ad hoc coalition initiated two years ago by Wallis’ organization, Sojourners. 

“I appreciate the opportunity to share my plan to protect the poor and vulnerable among us,” Romney said in his opening words, praising the “good people of faith” who reach out to the less fortunate every day. 

“My faith teaches me that poverty is a moral issue,” Obama said. “The Bible calls on us to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, and I believe that as a public servant, I must do my part to answer that call.” Each message ran a little over three minutes. 

The campaigns quickly returned to partisan exchanges and the familiar focus on the middle class. But those videos have offered the clearest statements by both candidates about America’s obligations toward the poor. Policy details can be gleaned from other statements, especially party platforms. 

Common ground

In a highly polarized election contest, the videos threw light on some common ground. 

Romney and Obama spoke of poverty reduction as an urgent priority (“more important now than at any other time in recent memory,” the Republican said). Both underscored the role of faith-based organizations in this national effort. And, both acknowledged that better times for the poor depend on a better economy in general. That includes millions of new jobs with decent pay. 

But the divergences became clearer as the two spoke of how they would tamp down poverty levels. 

Guiding Principles
While people of faith gravitate to different sides of the poverty debate, a general consensus has emerged among church leaders of various denominations. Many of these leaders have joined together in A Circle of Protection, a coalition that includes heads of evangelical, mainline Protestant and Catholic charitable and international relief organizations. Here are some policy principles articulated by the group: 
“The nation needs to substantially reduce future deficits, but not at the expense of hungry and poor people.”
“Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. It should be made as effective as possible, but not cut.”
“We urge our leaders to protect and improve poverty-focused development and humanitarian assistance to promote a better, safer world.”
“National leaders must review and consider tax revenues, military spending and entitlements in the search for ways to share sacrifice and cut deficits.”
“A fundamental task is to create jobs and spur economic growth. Decent jobs at decent wages are the best path out of poverty, and restoring growth is a powerful way to reduce deficits.”

The thrust of Romney’s message was that this would happen as a consequence of a more robust economy. Obama spoke more about specific government action, including health insurance coverage and other “vital assistance for the least of these.” 

Romney said flatly that he would cut the budget, but added: “Here you have my word: I’ll proceed carefully. I understand this is a delicate task. Our government rightfully provides a safety net for the hungry and the homeless, the sick and the elderly, and we have a responsibility to keep it intact for future generations.” 

On that score, Obama said the federal government should balance its budget, but not “on the backs of the most vulnerable.” And it shouldn’t ask the poor and struggling to “sacrifice even more … just so we could offer massive new tax cuts to those who have been blessed the most,” he said. “It’s not just bad economics, it’s morally wrong.” Those words were directed at Romney, although his video did not repeat his usual call for lower taxes and less regulation. 

Party platforms

The 2012 platforms adopted by each party offer perhaps a sharper picture of how policies toward the poor would take shape under Democratic or Republican leadership. The sections devoted to poverty are brief but unmistakably opposed to each other. 

The Republican platform addresses the issue primarily under the heading “Creating a Culture of Hope: Raising Families Beyond Poverty,” in 281 words. It zeroes in on the 1996 welfare reform law, which marked a “revolution in government’s approach to poverty.” Specifically, the statement highlights the importance of putting welfare recipients to work. 

The Democratic platform, in a 388-word section simply titled “Poverty,” speaks of ending poverty in America. While the GOP document stresses work among the poor, the Democrats sound a different note: “Many of these families work but are unable to pay the bills.” 

On specifics, the Democratic platform calls for a higher minimum wage and an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, neither of which is discussed in the Republican platform. It also argues for a “strong labor movement,” which is strongly opposed by the GOP. For their part, the Republicans say low-income people “should strive to support themselves” and that assistance programs should not penalize aid recipients for part-time work. 

National conversation

Clearly, a few hundred words in a platform statement and a few minutes in a video do not make a national conversation about poverty. 

In their letters requesting the videos, 48 Christian leaders — among them conservative evangelicals, liberal Protestants and Catholics, including Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., the top spokesman on domestic policy for the U.S. bishops, Catholic Charities USA president Father Larry Snyder and Catholic Relief Services CEO Carolyn Woo — asked each candidate to “address this question publicly, consistently and systematically in your campaigning.” Time is running out for that to happen. 

William Bole writes from Massachusetts.

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