The Common Good

Priorities for the Poor?

Sojomail - September 15, 2005

SPECIAL ISSUE: Priorities for the Poor? 09.15.2005


»Click here to read and sign the Katrina Pledge today.

Nearly 20,000 of you have taken the Katrina Pledge during the past week. Next week, we'll take your message to Congress and tell them of your commitment to go beyond immediate relief and address real social change. The pledge and the number of signers will accompany a letter from Jim Wallis to every senator and representative about what this time of disaster requires of political leaders. Please tell your friends about this campaign. Your commitment and action can make this message to Congress even stronger.

The Katrina Pledge: A commitment to build a new America
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute (Proverbs 31:8).

As a person of faith, I believe that the poverty we have witnessed on the rooftops of New Orleans and the devastated communities of the Gulf Coast is morally unacceptable. Therefore, I join my fellow Americans across the barriers of race, religion, class, and politics in the following commitments:

1. I pledge to be personally involved in helping those whose lives have been affected by this natural disaster.

2. I pledge to work for sweeping change of our nation's priorities.

»Click here to read and sign the Katrina Pledge

»Tell a friend about the Katrina Pledge


Priorities for the Poor?
by Elizabeth Green

Hurricane Katrina has shown us the depth of poverty in America. Even the mainstream media, not normally a voice for the "least of these," has reported on the vast needs of the poor with increasing alarm. But will we follow through with greater attention to the policy decisions that impact poor families?

For many, poverty is the grinding constant of daily life - it does not merely surface in times of tragedy or emergency. And not only is poverty a continual reality for many, it is growing. Our nation's spending and policy priorities do not seem to account for this.

The U.S. Census Bureau released its annual report a few weeks ago, and the statistics are grim: poverty numbers increased again. In 2004, 1.1 million more people fell into poverty, with 37 million total living in poverty in the United States.

There are also now more people without health insurance (a rise from 45 million uninsured in 2003 to 45.8 million in 2004), and more children in poverty than ever before - 17.8 percent of all of America's children were poor last year, a total of more than 13 million children.

What does it say about our national priorities when poverty has risen for four straight years while national leaders have passed tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthiest of our society? During the crisis in the Gulf states, at a time of emergency and tragedy, our nation's lack of concern for the poor was very clear. But how have we considered the poor in other, more ordinary times?

It is clear that our national budget and spending priorities do not reflect the gospel's call to include the needs of poor people in our understanding of the common good. Many cuts in the federal budget have come at the expense of low-income families - such as the 2003 tax cut, which removed the low-income child tax credit from the bill at the last minute, excluding almost 12 million children from that benefit. Furthermore, if Congress extends the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which primarily benefit the wealthiest Americans, the national deficit will increase to a total of $4 trillion over the next 10 years - which affects all of us, but the poor first. At the same time, programs that keep many low-income families out of poverty are in danger of $35 billion in cuts - programs such as Food Stamps, Medicaid (health insurance for low-income families and kids), and housing vouchers that increase stability.

In addition to the $35 billion in social cuts, Congress may cut taxes for the wealthy by $70 billion. Can this be a real option when hurricane relief is projected to cost more than $100 billion? And do we really think health care, housing, and other needs for those affected by Katrina will not also increase? We are ignoring the realities of these needs and how best to meet them if we do not stand up against both types of cuts. We must also speak out against repeal of the estate tax, which is still on the table and would cost an additional $1 trillion over 10 years. Further, although the Congressional Budget Office said this week that the House of Representative's Social Security privatization bill (HR 3304) would "increase federal outlays by more than $1 trillion" and "increase debt held by the public by 20% of GDP by 2063", Congressional leadership still plans to try to pass the bill this fall. With the deficit averaging roughly $300 billion a year, we must examine how we invest in - or ignore - the common good.

Low-income families are hurt first and suffer the greatest damage in times of tragedy and disaster. In the aftermath of Katrina, people in poverty will have a much more difficult struggle in rebuilding, since many lack insurance and other supports that wealthier Americans often take for granted. Those with better means often have contingency plans - freedom to choose - in time of emergency. Too many low-income people simply have no choice, no alternatives, and no emergency income. They lack a "living family income" that would meet needs such as transportation, housing, and health care. They are left with whatever policies and priorities accompany - and also precede and follow - times of devastation.

People of faith must use this moment, when poverty is in the national spotlight, to call for a change in our country's priorities for the common good. Will we accept a federal budget that provides tax benefits to the wealthiest while deeply cutting vital programs for the poor, and all of us? Or will we use this opportunity to call for morally grounded budget and tax policies that help families escape the growing vise of poverty in times of crisis and "normalcy"?

Elizabeth Green is public policy associate for Call to Renewal.


Boats rose in New Orleans, but not for the poor
So powerful were these stories and these images that even the Republican leadership in Congress understood it would have been unseemly to push ahead with tax cuts that would benefit the rich. By Steven Pearlstein, The Washington Post

The other America
by Jonathan Alter, Newsweek. An enduring shame: Katrina reminded us, but the problem is not new. Why a rising tide of people live in poverty, who they are - and what we can do about it.

Outrage, caring mix in Katrina response
by Desiree Cooper, Detroit Free Press. The hurricane has tugged at America's heartstrings, and for the black community, it has struck a raw nerve.

Katrina: Not God's wrath - nor God's will
by Dr. Tony Campolo, Beliefnet. When disaster strikes, God cries with the rest of us.

Katrina's lesson: U.S. 'not safe' enough
by David Cook, The Christian Science Monitor. Some Americans perished needlessly in Hurricane Katrina because the U.S. government has not adopted several reforms urged by the Sept. 11 commission.

Donate now to support Sojourners' voice for justice and peace.

Letters to the editor:
General inquiries:

Sojourners won't trade, sell, or give away your e-mail address. Read our privacy policy.

Subscribe | Browse Archives | Search Archives | About Us