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Poverty In America: A Republican Moral Failing

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So many worries flit about my brain late at night like moths to a porch light. So many things I struggle at the cost of insomnia to understand.

Take, for instance, the 109th Congress. In the midst of a half trillion dollar war, in an age of stagnating wages and skyrocketing health care, fuel and housing costs, and in the face of exploding deficits and entitlements, in late spring the Republican-controlled Congress passed yet another multibillion dollar tax cut, nearly ninety percent of which will go to the richest fifteen percent of Americans.

As if this shocking fiscal indiscipline weren't enough to make anyone sleepless with confusion and worry for our children's future, these selfsame Republicans, a majority of whom have professed themselves "born-again" through Jesus, were brazen enough to once again enrich the rich while governing under the banner of "compassionate conservatism".

On November 7th, they paid the price for this and so many other sins.

Now I'm not out to question anyone's faith, or beat a dog when it's down, but would the same Jesus who put first those who society counted least and put last, and who proclaimed his ministry was to "bring good news to the poor", have rejoiced at the news of yet another tax cut for the wealthy paid for by borrowing and by budget cuts for our nation's growing poor?

Low-income Americans find themselves today in a more precarious position than at any time since the Great Depression. Nearly forty million Americans live in poverty every day. Many millions more are living in near-poverty, working hard, and often without benefits, doing all the things society tells them that they should to get ahead. And yet they're falling further behind, watching the American dream sail away.

Global poverty is one of the great moral issues of our times. Here at home, poverty cuts to the core of America's great promise: that anyone who works hard, and plays by the rules, can make a better life for themselves and for their families. For tens of millions of families in America today, the American dream is rapidly becoming the American pipe dream.

Republican leaders for a dozen years have led with the philosophy that the solution to poverty is to grow the economy out of the problem. And yet despite nearly two decades of generally robust economic growth poverty, especially severe poverty in single-parent families with children, has risen dramatically. The Census Bureau reported in August that the poverty level - pathetically defined as a family income less than $20,000 for a family of four - now stands at 12.6 percent.

Even now, in the 21st century, we do not even have to leave our country to find third-world poverty.

Republican leaders have long insinuated, and on occasion outright proclaimed, that the blame for poverty lies with the individual poor people themselves. Poor people are the authors of their own poverty. If you're poor, you must not be smart enough. You must not be willing to work hard enough. In the eyes of these Republican leaders, poverty is proof of bad character, and confirms a personal flaw.

Well, then, somebody had better report to the Surgeon General about the numbers of unintelligent, lazy, and flawed American men, women and children having reached epidemic proportions. No wonder our country is in so much trouble.

Now it's up to the Democrats to begin to do something about poverty in America.

Our nation's growing poverty rate is the best evidence of America not living up to its ideals. What we have in America today is an invisible and often silent poverty that most of us in this the richest nation the earth has ever known have chosen not to see or to talk about, let alone feel and take responsibility for. Poverty is always a human tragedy; poverty amidst such indifferent plenty is nothing less than a national crime.

And for followers of Jesus, our nation's growing poverty rate is evidence that his message has been subverted for contrary and ignoble ends by rich and powerful politicians who mouth pious words of faith but commit impious deeds of greed. But it must also be said that our growing poverty rate is no less evidence that millions of everyday well-off Americans simply care more about their personal and exclusive relationship with Jesus than about his admonitions to care for the people politics often neglects.

And who did Jesus speak for? The dispossessed, widows, orphans. The hungry, the homeless, the helpless. The least, the last, the lost. Jesus reminded his followers that as they have done to the least of these, they have done to him. Few plainer words have been spoken.

So, late at night, I wonder: How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich and pro-business? What of the biblical imperatives for social justice and for uplifting the poor? How did compassion come to be reserved primarily for the rich and the unborn, with little or no interest in those who Jesus put first?

And where, oh, where do the gospels speak of letting the benefits trickle down? Try as I might to find that passage, in hopes of easing my insomnia, instead all I can find speaks something of camels, and needles.
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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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