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Guest opinion: Who speaks for the poor?

By Jessica Crist on May 19, 2013
© Billings Gazette

Enough is enough. In election after election voters tell candidates not to balance the budget on the back of the poor. And in session after session, the poor get forgotten, the poor get cut out, the poor get poorer, because the poor do not have the clout that other lobbying groups have. The poor are … too poor. And so they don’t matter when deals are made in Congress.

In the United States of America, one of the richest countries in the world, childhood poverty is staggering. It is a national disgrace.

It is an outrage when veterans who have served this country are homeless and jobless and have their food stamps cut. It is an embarrassment when low-income children are denied the opportunity to enroll in Head Start and increase their chances of success in life. It is a sad commentary on our priorities when 2 million children and elders will be cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as a way to cut government spending.

When Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you,” he was not suggesting that we as a society should strive to increase poverty. On the contrary. There are many religious and nonprofit groups who strive mightily to reduce poverty. Some do it by direct aid, and others by advocacy. All this is good. But as Bread for the World, a nonpartisan advocacy group points out, all the religious groups and NGOs combined can provide only a fraction of what the government can.

We do not live in a simple, isolated, agrarian society in which neighbors with more can personally take care of neighbors with less, and it all works out. We live in a large, vast, interconnected world. While individual action is always important, it is not enough.

The recent tragedy in Bangladesh in which over 1,000 workers were killed when a factory collapsed is a case in point. The factory made clothing for large international retailers. And the factory workers, in clearly substandard working conditions, earned less than $40 per month. And most of them were the sole supporters of their families.

When the BBC asked shoppers in London if they would be willing to pay 50 cents more for clothing in order to save lives, everyone agreed. Of course they would pay more, knowing it would make a difference.

A month or so ago, sequestration hit air traffic controllers, and there were delays across the country for a day or so. By the time Congress had recessed for the weekend, and had to fly home, they found a way to undo sequestration’s effect on air travel. Personally, I benefited from that decision. I fly a lot, and it is difficult enough to fly in and out of Montana without delays. But why no such remedial action when Head Start is cut, when education programs are slashed, when other workers are furloughed?

Who speaks for the poor? We do. We do in the choices that we make, and we do in the choices that we communicate to our government.

Jessica Crist of Great Falls is bishop of the Montana Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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