Sunday, October 7, 2012

You, me, us, we and "things that matter"

With no significant discussion of "the poor" during the first televised presidential debate, justice-seekers must make the issue a national priority

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by Sylvester Brown, Jr.

Is it just me or does it seem like President Barack Obama, his challenger Mitt Romney and other political candidates have taken a quiet vow not to discuss America's poor in any substantive manner? During this week's presidential debate the word "poor" was only used on five occasions; three times when Romney described how states can better care for the poor than the federal government; once again when he rambled on about "disabled kids or -- or -- or poor kids or -- or lower-income kids," who deserve "school choice"; and another time when moderator Jim Lehrer referenced his "poor performance" in keeping the debater's answers less than two minutes.

Let's put aside the fact that it was Romney, not Obama, who gave a smattering of attention to poor people. For decades, Democrats have been lauded (and scorned) as the party that stands up for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Yet, during this campaign season, Obama and other Democrats avoid the issue of America's poor as if it were a taboo, toxic topic.

Obama, who is fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, needs to be reminded of the martyr's warning that we Americans must never be satisfied until "Justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

We cannot be satisfied when millions are homeless or living in poverty. Righteousness is not rolling "like a mighty stream" when the elderly, the poor, the disabled and disenfranchised live their lives in jeopardy. Justice is not rolling like water when we continue to spend billions on wars in foreign lands but can't deliver jobs, food, comfort and rescue to suffering Americans on our own soil.

The economy was the first topic Lehrer asked the candidates to address. Both mentioned "high-income" and "middle-class" people but America's 50 million poor and the other 100 million "near poor," "low income," and one-paycheck-away-from-poverty poor were given short shrift. Even with Romney's goofy, elitist putdown of America's "47 percent" who feel "entitled" to government benefits still smoldering in the headlines, those who depend on so-called "entitlements" received no backup.

How can this not be a subject of intense discussion? In January 2013, $1.2 trillion in across-the-board domestic and defense spending cuts will kick in no matter who wins the November election. Unless Congress forestalls these cuts, known as "sequestration," they will automatically go into effect. With weapons manufacturers dumping billions into campaigns and political coffers to dissuade cuts in military spending, odds are the poor, the elderly and America's children (of which one out of every five--or 15.5 million--now live in poverty) will suffer the brunt of these cuts.

As Romney vows to increase military spending with an additional $2 trillion that the military--as Obama put it during the debate--"hasn't asked for," neither candidate had the audacity to say that America's most vulnerable citizens are also in need of additional aid.

According to the Washington DC-based Coalition on Human Needs, just one year of automatic-sequestration cuts, on the non-defense side, may result in " no WIC for 750,000 mothers and young children; no job training for 413,000 adults and youth; no education/training for more than 51,000 veterans; no breast and cervical cancer screenings for 34,000 women; no rental assistance vouchers for 185,000 households, and millions of working families pushed more deeply into poverty by losing some or all of their tax credits."

If neither Obama nor Romney, Democrats or Republicans will speak up for America's poor and voiceless, who will? Fortunately, agencies across the country that recognize this void have kicked off public-engagement campaigns aimed at raising the sequestration issue higher on the election year agenda.

The Cambridge MA-based New Priorities Network and its affiliates in Main, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Minnesota and other states have established a one-stop online resource that offers up-to-date information on looming budget cuts, grassroots strategies and ways to use state resolutions, campaign events, political debates, town-hall meetings, public forums and mainstream and social media as ammunition in the war of public engagement.

The Coalition on Human Needs launched an aggressive collaborative campaign titled "SAVE" (Strengthening America's Values and Economy for All). With this national effort, people were asked to simply sign a letter endorsing four basic principles: Protect low-income and vulnerable people; promote job creation to strengthen the economy; increase revenues from fair sources; and seek responsible savings by targeting wasteful Pentagon spending.

In full disclosure, I serve on the board of the Peace Economy Project (PEP)--a local research organization committed to the reduction of military spending and more investments in a peace-based economy. Inspired by the work of national agencies such as the New Priorities Network, PEP decided to do its part to raise awareness regionally on the crisis's impacting the nation's disenfranchised citizens and children. We reached out to local activists in the labor, economic-justice, community, peace, and faith movements and asked that we collectively make "peace, poverty, people and our nation's priorities" a hot-button topic before and after the November elections.

PEP has created a new website (click here) that offers the latest news, links to national and local organizations and events and a blog where local partners can discuss, address and post events related to sequestration from diverse perspectives.

We're not asking our partners to choose sides or to make political endorsements. We're calling for a public means to hold candidates and elected officials accountable. We're demanding that the woes and concerns of half the American population be taken just as seriously as those in the middle and upper class. In a time of economic uncertainty, with the certainty of "more military spending" through campaigns sponsored by war-hawks and weapons manufacturers, we're resurrecting the clarion call of a civil rights icon who warned that "our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

It's a sad commentary, but we can't count on the presidential candidates to champion the causes of America's poor and neglected. In a world of spin, sound bites, and "gotcha" journalism, they fear a word for the poor will be transformed into an assault on the voters they obviously cherish more--the middle class.

If we truly want justice in America to roll like water or "righteousness like a mighty stream," we can't count on politicians. You, me, us, we-justice-seekers must champion the causes of America's voiceless and most vulnerable.

We must not allow the next few months to pass without demanding that the needs of poor and impoverished people become a high-priority topic. In short, it is up to the voters to set the pace, make candidates follow our lead and force them to end the silence "about things that (truly) matter."
 
Sylvester Brown, Jr., is a St. Louis-based journalist, board member with the Peace Economy Project (PEP), and founder of When We Dream Together, a local nonprofit dedicated to urban revitalization.