America Can't Be Saved From the Top

Poverty is spreading in America.

One in five children are being raised in poverty. Millions of Americans depend on food stamps. Some 25 million are in need of full-time work. Veterans are coming home from foreign battlegrounds to an economic desert -- and many of America's homeless are veterans.

Yet the poor are virtually invisible in our political debate. Democrats talk about saving the middle class, while Republicans fret about protecting the "job creators." In the Republican presidential debate last week, neither reporters nor candidates mentioned the words "poor" or "poverty."

Not only is the very word "poor" despised, but the broader political order ignores the desperate, ominous message these coal-mine canaries are sending us.

Denial won't work. This country is like a mighty ship that is taking on water. Some on board are so eager to get rid of the captain that they are prepared to let the whole thing sink. Speaking of his tea party congressional members in the debt ceiling debacle, House Speaker John Boehner said many thought that "a little chaos" might help them get their way. Well, they got the chaos, and now the ship of state is struggling in far rougher waters.

Most, however, seem focused on protecting those in posh cabins, on the upper decks. They are oblivious to water flooding in from the bottom. More and more of those in the lower decks are struggling just to keep their head above water. It goes without saying that although the poor might drown first, even those on the upper decks won't fare well when the whole ship goes down.

The wealthiest Americans know this isn't right. In The New York Times on Monday, multibillionaire Warren Buffett, one of America's richest men, calls for us to "stop coddling" the super-rich. "While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks," Buffett writes. He notes that because he makes most of his money from returns on investing, as opposed to salary or wages on work, he pays a lower effective tax rate than many others in his office. He calls for special tax hikes on millionaires and billionaires -- noting that all of them will continue to invest and to make money.

On the political trail, we hear a lot of rhetoric designed to rationalize the abandonment of the poor. Repeated tax cuts largely for the rich, two unfunded wars, and the financial wilding on Wall Street blew up our economy. Yet we're told we must balance our budget by cutting spending, particularly on programs that poor and working people rely on: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. "Shared sacrifice" is said to be lowering rates even further on the top end and corporations, while reducing school lunch programs, slashing funding to poor schools, and cutting affordable housing.

Most remarkable is that those who are the most callous about the poor make the loudest claims about their religious faith. They ignore the story of Jesus' life. Born in a manger, he fled to Egypt as an immigrant, then returned to his lands as a carpenter. He announced his mission as "Good news for the poor," vowing service to help heal the brokenhearted and feed the poor. At the same time, Jesus tossed the moneylenders from the temple and suggesting that the callous rich had as much of a chance of getting into heaven as a camel of passing through the eye of a needle.

It takes leadership and citizen movement to summon Americans to real shared sacrifice. When Dr. King's life was cut short, he was organizing a Poor People's Campaign to bring the poor to Washington to demand jobs and justice. The civil rights movement helped convince Lyndon Johnson that the time had come to end American segregation and to launch a war on poverty.

America can't be saved from the top down. The ship is leaking from the bottom. The debates on the campaign trail and in Washington must not continue to focus on topside staterooms while ignoring the damage below.

Remember our nation's character and our moral imperative are linked to how we treat the least of these. Somewhere I read, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

That invitation is a high moral ground. That invitation is the key to our greatness. It must never be abandoned.