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Is the Country Ready for a New Debate on Poverty?

Call to Renewal had a very bipartisan conversation this week (March 27). A strong delegation of faith-based organization leaders spent Tuesday (March 26) at the White House and on Capitol Hill, talking with Republicans and Democrats about poverty.

Our immediate discussion was about the crucial political debate shaping up on the re-authorization of welfare reform, which will greatly impact millions of low-income children and families. The deadline is October 1 for Congress to pass legislation renewing TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), the program that replaced the decades-old welfare programs swept away in the historic 1996 welfare reform legislation. The debate is just beginning but it promises to be hot and heavy. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
What’s clear is that there are Republicans who really do care about the poor, Democrats who really don’t and, of course, vice versa. What’s also clear is that the political debate over poverty in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Washington is still stuck in old language, historical baggage, and partisan warfare. What’s “liberal” or “conservative,” or what might tip the upcoming mid-term elections one way or the other weighs very heavily in the political decision-making that will affect the lives of our poorest citizens. One key senate staff member expressed a longing for new criteria in the debate on poverty – perhaps “what’s right and what works.”
An ideological cleavage still separates those who see policy and funding issues at the heart of reducing poverty from others who point to the deep cultural roots in family breakdown, sexual behavior, or personal responsibility. I’m always amazed at how politicians can make such false choices between these very real causalities, while practitioners who actually live and work with poor people just shake their heads as they hear such an impoverished and futile debate. For example, in the upcoming welfare debate we face a battle between those who are “pro-funding” in welfare re-authorization and those who are “pro-family.” Of course, Call to Renewal and all the faith-based leaders around our table on Tuesday are decidedly both.
When debates are framed wrongly, they almost inevitably turn out badly. That happens all the time on Capitol Hill. In the welfare debate, focusing on simply reducing welfare rolls instead of reducing poverty is still the major problem. Most people involved in anti-poverty efforts would agree now that helping low-income people find “self- sufficiency” is far preferable to a system of endless subsidy. But what are the best ways to support people in moving from subsidy to sustenance? And if work is the best way out of poverty (as most of us now agree), how do we make work really work in America? What do people need in support for child care, in real education and training, in securing health care or affordable housing?
The TANF re-authorization debate could become a national discussion about how to overcome poverty in America. In fact, the debate doesn’t make any sense apart from the goal of poverty reduction. Let’s state our goal clearly and unanimously – welfare reform should be judged by how much we are actually reducing poverty. Then let’s have the most honest debate we’ve ever had about how to do that.
As I travel around the country and listen to people across the political spectrum, I often sense that the country may be ready for a new debate on poverty that puts the old liberal and conservative labels aside. But I also live in Washington, where the political elites in both parties are clearly not ready for a new discussion. Maybe it’s time to help them.
You can start by coming to Washington on May 20-22 for Call to Renewal’s Pentecost Mobilization for the poor. We’ll help you tell your political representatives how you think we ought to change the debate. Check out the program and details on the Call Web site: http://www.calltorenewal.com. Then come and help change the debate on poverty in America.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.
Reprinted with permission from SojoMail, Sojourners’ free weekly e-mail magazine. www.sojo.net