We have volunteered at outreaches to the homeless in Cleveland, Atlanta and South Bend, Indiana for extended periods of time. We also have a "Christ Room" in our place to take homeless people in. Here our Jonathan, 7, is hanging out with one of his friends at an urban shelter. In a country like ours, no one should be on the streets.
We're also highly concerned about rural poverty in this country and did a research tour through the Black Belt region of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Our Sarah looks at what's pretty much left of downtown Boligee, Alabama in Green County - the poorest county in the country. (And as we are concerned about rural and inner city poverty in this country, we are even more concerned about Third World poverty, where 24,000 people starve to death every day and more than one-sixth of the world population don't have access to clean drinking water.)
In Akron, Ohio, Joe May Sr. (left) and his son Joe May Jr. have opened a Catholic Worker House for the homeless in a rough neighborhood. Joe Jr. told us he's doing it because, well, that's what the Gospel calls us to.
Poverty Policy in Short
*To read the full policy paper, see further below.
Our administration would tackle Third World poverty with vigor. In tandem, we'd work to reduce, exponentially, inner city and rural poverty in America.
At Habitat for Humanity headquarters in Americus, Georgia, we looked at models of quality small homes intended to get scores of people off the streets and out of sprawling slums worldwide. And like Jimmy Carter, hammer in hand I would tout that program at every turn.
During a talk in Picayune, Mississippi, I said that "according to UN figures, 24,000 people starve to death every day in the world! This is an absolute social justice travesty, given the resources America (and the rest of the First World ) squander."
At a seminar in Wilmington, Ohio, I learned America wastes (spoilage, simply throwing away, etc) 33% of its food. Then we spend billions of dollars on non-nutritional junk food every year and even more billions being over-nourished (33% obesity rate in America ) while so many others, again starve, or are extremely malnourished.
As president, I would push to make the "Eating is a Moral Act Campaign" (already existing) much more high profile to educate people about these dynamics, I said during a talk to a Political Science Class at Baldwin Wallace College.
I told the LA Times ( Orange County edition) in California that "we should make war on poverty and social injustice." And in our travels, we looked at the poverty first hand on tours of the South's Black Belt region, in inner cities across America, on the dusty streets of a slum in Juarez, Mexico, on multiple Native American Reservations, in Appalachia...
And there are multiple programs I would point to to carry on this war against poverty in these places.
In Waconia, Minnesota, I interviewed Paul Turek, a representative for Caribou Coffee. That company has taken Fair Trade a step beyond by helping some of their grower villages in Latin America start Health Clinics.
In Fisher's Indiana , we learned about new nationwide Economy of Sharing businesses that give the first third of their profits, off the top, to the Third World.
On the Southside of Chicago, in a gang war zone, we researched The Port Ministries, which provides a tiered system of help (homeless shelter, transitional living facility, mentor programs, education programs) to help people get on their feet.
In Durango, Colorado, we learned about a church that has adopted a village in Uganda, where Moms and Dads are dying of AIDs and little children sleep on burlap bags on dirt floors.
And we looked at so much more in the way of social justice programs nationwide.
What's more, every chance I could as president I would point to these projects (as we do now in our travels) and ask the American people, almost across the board, to sacrifice much more so the poor can have at least the basics in adequate nutrition, housing and healthcare.
That there is so much potentially relievable human suffering in the world that isn't being relieved, is unconscionable.
Poverty Position Paper
1) The Issues
Poverty is rampant throughout the world, including in the U.S. Its face is multi-dimensional and often extremely tragic.
What’s more, much of this poverty is tremendously relievable. But greed, selfishness and the ever increasing desire for comfort among those who “have,” seems to block the relief at many turns.
Some 24,000 people starve to death every day in the Third World (UN figure.) Meanwhile in the First World (using the U.S. as an example), 66% of Americans are now overweight and 33% of these are classified as: “obese.”
Layered with all this, Americans, almost across the board, spend billions of dollars on totally non-nutritional junk food (candy, potato chips, and the like…). And on top of all that, Americans waste 30% of the nutritional food (spoiling, discarding…).
On the residential shelter front, more than a billion people live in absolutely horrendous slum conditions in the Third World. There is little, or no, electricity or running water or sanitation… in tremendously cramped spaces.
Meanwhile in the First World, using the U.S. again as an example, many homes have central heating and air conditioning, the most modern of many electrical appliances, and so on. There is ample running water, advanced sewage systems, and, by comparison, a whole lot more space in the average home. (And that would be what was considered a “small,” say, ranch style home in the U.S., and up.)
Yet for the most part, Americans won’t sacrifice (much) for those in these desperate Third World living situations. Virtually no one would consider, say, house sharing to halve expenses – with the savings going to those in the Third World slums. Very few people in the First World would sacrifice some heat in the winter or air-conditioning in the summer so the poor in the Third World could have the basics in electricity.
It’s the same with healthcare. There are billions of people in the Third World who live without virtually any medicine and access to either no medical services, or at best, extremely rudimentary medical services. Meanwhile in the First World, many exist on more vitamins than needed, more medicine than we often need, many times even more medical help than we need.
Not only do we have access to the most advanced medical equipment, but we use it, often, far too much. An emergency room doctor in Athens, Georgia, told me that at least 33% of emergency room visits are unnecessary – but people in America have become accustomed to not feeling uncomfortable, even for a little while.
A nun in Lancaster, Ohio (who specializes in death and dying issues) said on average now, medical expenses for a person’s last six months of life often outpace all the medical expenses one incurs – for the entirety of their life prior.
She said, for instance, Americans are often kept alive by tremendously extra-ordinary means during these last six months – while children and adults in the prime of their life in the Third World are dying of all kinds of treatable diseases because they have no money, or for that matter, there are no medical supplies or medical equipment, period.
Then there is water.
More than a billion people in the Third World don’t have access to clean drinking water. And tens of thousands of children die every year from water born bacteria that causes diseases like cholera.
Meanwhile in the First World, taking America as an example, we have become so tremendously gluttonous when it comes to water – especially in the face of what’s happening in the Third World. We liberally water lawns so the grass will look as green as possible. We run baths and showers with little thought of conservation. Conservation that could save all kinds of money to help with, say, way more wells in the Third World.
But if all this isn’t bad enough, the totally non-nutritional junk beverages (sodas, specialty coffees, etc…) Americans spend billions of dollars on, while fevered, dying children with cholera (in Uganda, Kenya, Biafra…) are looking frantically, imploringly, to helpless mothers and fathers.
All the money spent on this First World water and junk beverage gluttony could go so tremendously far in alleviating this Third World catastrophe.
And perhaps the ultimate indicator of the myopic, self-centered continuum many in the First World are on is after someone in the First World has died. On average, a First World burial (wake, casket, plot…) is: $10,000.
An on average Habitat for Humanity house in the Third World costs $2,000. Doing the math on this: We could get five families in the Third World out of slums and into adequate dwellings – for what we pay to bury one dead American.
Americans pride themselves in how much they perceive they help in other countries.
First off, we often help because of our own interests (access to oil or other fossil fuels, or minerals; or to solicit help to fight terrorism – like we’re currently doing in Pakistan, Yemen, etc.) Minus the foreign aid money to these countries for this, what we have and give, compared to what we could be giving, is a mere pittance.
For instance, the USA Today recently reported that that average Christian in America tithes 3.5% – with much of this money going to the local church for building projects and the like. And our foreign aid is just 4% of the National Budget, with a lot of this going to, again, things to protect our “interests.”
Another domino to this whole First World gluttony is violent internal strife playing out in a good number of Third World countries.
That is, the money and resources many of these poorer countries have are tremendously limited – in part because the First World countries aren’t sharing more. Reciprocally, the government officials and the more elite of these countries often hoard much of the money and resources, leaving the poorer people of the country with very little, which translates into hunger, disease, squalid living conditions… These people, in turn, often form rebel groups and revolt. This leads to internal violence back and forth, with government militias and para-military groups (like the Janjaweed in Sudan) fighting pitched battles against the rebel groups. This also often opens the door for scores of innocent civilians to be raped, tortured and killed.
And when you follow the geo-political and geo-equitability trail, it leads way beyond these hot spot country borders to: the First World, well, stinginess.
It would seem to be spiritual common sense that God has “blessed” the First World countries with an abundance of wealth, not to live in as much comfort as possible; but to forgo a good deal of the comfort and share our “blessings” equitably . (At least that’s how the Christian paradigm seems to be set up given what Jesus continually said about helping the poor.)
Note: Poverty is playing itself out graphically in the United States as well. At the front end, statistically, the top 20% of Americans own a whopping 84% of the wealth. Reciprocally, the bottom 20% of Americans own 1% of the wealth.
And we went into areas where this is playing itself out on both ends.
We did research in a gang war zone on the Southside of Chicago. We looked at poverty issues in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore, Hartford, Connecticut… And we moved our family into a hardscrabble area of Cleveland, Ohio, (the poorest city in the country at the time) to live in solidarity with the poor and do outreach to help.
And we didn’t just focus on inner city poverty. We did an extensive tour of the “Black Belt” region of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas looking at rural poverty issues. And there were many. What’s more, we toured the San Joaquin Valley in California and the border in Arizona and New Mexico looking at poverty among farm workers and other immigrants. And we went to a good number of Native American Reservations looking at poverty there.
Coupled with all this, we did a tour of “suburban America,” looking at the disparities between how many U.S.
suburbanites live in comparison to the inner city and rural poor. It was striking.
All this also gave us the impetus to look for solutions. And we found them.
2) The Plan
The plan is nothing short of, to use a phrase coined by Lyndon Johnson: “Making war on poverty.” But we would make war on it in a much more prolific way than President Johnson envisioned.
At the front end, our administration would quite proactively work to move America away from primarily being a “Society of Consumers,” to being a “Society of Conservers” – on almost every front.
And we would target every area of excess and point to programs we’ve researched to reverse them. And as those kicked in, we’d point to a myriad of other programs we’ve researched (and more) to fund with this savings.
Projects like Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International, Safe Water Network, Food for the Poor...
In tandem, our administration would lobby to up our annual 4% Foreign Aid to 25%, or more. And, our administration would target areas of Third World need, devoid of targeting projects that would further our “national interests.”
To do otherwise would negate the spiritual benefit.
On the governmental side, besides getting Americans to give more through increased taxes and voluntary giving, we would work exhaustively to decrease federal spending. We would lobby to end the Space Program, cut the military in half (or more), and eliminate pork barrel spending in the form of earmarks to the states virtually across the board.
In addition to all this, our administration would attempt to “inspire” a series of models we researched around the country that have been quite effective in helping stem poverty.
In Bellingham, Massachusetts, we met with Phyllis Calvey. She attends St. Blaize Church here where parishioners average tithing a phenomenal 17%. (USA Today recently reported the average Christian in America tithes 3.5% of their income.)
Calvey said the key was making giving that much more personal and interactive.
St. Blaize mission money goes to a nun doing outreach to one of the Poorest Native American Reservations in Montana, and to an orphanage in Uganda. When Calvey would hear news about someone being helped by the money, she’d write a short story about it – that would be placed in the church donation envelopes.
The stories were eventually published in the book: The House of the Lord (Stories from the Family Room). “People started to look at church giving as more than just ‘…paying another bill,”’ she said.
Calvey added that it is “the church’s responsibility to take care of the poor.”
Now while we couldn’t legislate the latter, we definitely could hold it up as a model for churches across the land. And we would.
As we would hold up another church model.
In Staunton, Virginia, we met with Collette Pettit who had recently traveled to San Luis, Haiti on a mission trip. Ms. Pettit, who is a member of St. Patrick’s church in Staunton, took money, food and medicine to St. Patrick’s Sister Church there.
She told me she was extremely moved by what she saw in this Third World village, where almost everyone was “skinny” because of lack of food.
“When I came back I found it hard to waste food or water,” she added.
In our travels, we’ve come across a good number of Sister Church projects between American churches and Third World churches. And there is no reason every church in America couldn’t develop one, or two, or three… Sister Church projects with the Third World.
As there is no reason most suburban (and rural) churches couldn’t twin with churches in rougher areas of our metropolitan areas. As they have in Wichita, Kansas.
The Inter-Faith Ministry in Wichita, Kansas, has developed a “Go Zones” Project. Six 10-block inner city areas have been chosen and revolve around “congregation clusters.”
Interfaith’s Director Sam Muyskens told me suburban churches twin with inner city churches in each one of these zones to help. (The federal program AmeriCorps is also involved with helping out in each zone.)
Each zone also has a mini-Council.
What they are doing, in effect, is creating small towns in the city, with much more neighbor interaction, church interaction, and so on. Crime and poverty are down in these zones, and helping is up, way up.
Note: These are just a few of scores of projects we’ve researched that could dramatically impact poverty, both in America and around the world.
3) The Conservation Paradigm
As mentioned in the previous section, America needs to shift from predominately being the leading “Society of Consumers,” to being the leading “Society of Conservers.” (If we’re going to “lead” the world, why not lead it in the right way?)
This will help on a number of levels. For one, cutting back will free up more money to help in the Third World. Secondly, some of this conservation will help curb climate change. And this kind of conservation will strengthen character and community bonds as people band together in sacrifice for a common cause.
The following sections are examples of some quite tangible models that are in place around the country to help significantly move us along the conservation continuum.
More than a billion people in the Third World live in city slums. On a stop in Americus, Georgia, at Habitat for Humanity Headquarters, we toured a replica of a Third World slum. Tiny rooms made of old wood and rusty corrugated tin were squeezed together. A family lived in each room – not rooms. There were no yards.
There were dirt floors, no glass on the windows, no electricity, no running water, no sanitary system… Our Habitat tour guide said the only thing that was missing was the crying of the children and the sunken, desperate eyes of everyone living in these types of places.
Shortly after, we journeyed to Juarez, Mexico and toured an expansive slum on that city’s Westside (home to some 200,000 people). At the time, Juarez was the most violent city in the world because of poverty and drug cartel issues.
Families here lived in shacks no bigger than medium sized garden sheds in America. Here, too, there was no running water, no electricity, no sanitation system…
Then there are the millions of people worldwide who are homeless in these cities, including scores of children. Some of the worst slum conditions are experienced by orphan children in Brazil’s cities. Some 2,000 of these children are tortured and killed every year because they are deemed a “burden.”
By comparison to all this, a modest sized older ranch-style home in America, with electricity, running water, sanitation, furniture , a mostly full refrigerator… would be an absolute “mansion” to the poor in the Third World. And again, by comparison, those people living in the modest ranch-style homes (on a global scale) would be considered “tremendously rich.”
Given all this, our administration’s goal would be to get people in America into things like “house sharing” modes.
On a stop in Winona, Minnesota, we learned that town had an online house sharing program. That is, homeowners would list situations they were looking for, as did others.
For instance, some of the town elderly were looking for someone to move in at a reduced rent, with the person making up the balance in work around the house. Families would advertise to share a house with another family to halve expenses. Other families were looking to rent out a room, or two, or three… in their home.
With each scenario, there would be additional revenue – that could be funneled into building projects in the Third World.
When you house share, you often also share heat, cooling, lights… cutting back significantly on global warming gases. You also share furniture, lawn equipment, tools, appliances… It often takes the burning of fossil fuels to make these products. So the sharing of these things cuts carbon dioxide emissions even more.
To stay with this theme, First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio, has a “lending list,” with people willing to share chain saws, camping equipment, tools, kitchen items like crock pots, seed spreaders… The point, again, being this generates savings that could go to fund more help to the Third World – while cutting back on the burning of fossil fuels here as well.
An addendum on house sharing is if many people started doing it, the environmental cancer of urban sprawl would diminish in kind too.
Note: As we’ve traveled, we’ve come across some situations where two generations of family members are house sharing. For instance, we interviewed a couple in San Antonio, Florida, who converted their basement into a “grandparents’ apartment.” And not only were the grandparents living there and sharing expenses, but they were sharing time raising their grandchildren.
In Picayune, Mississippi, another couple converted their garage into an apartment where a grandmother and an aunt lived, paid rent and spent time with the couple’s children. (I once gave a talk in Mansfield, Ohio, where I said that we “shelter” cars in this country, while little children sleep on the streets of this country, and in the Third World.
Besides converted basements and garages, the Amish will often build an addition on the home for adult children who have, say, just gotten married.
Again, in all these house sharing scenarios, money gets saved that could well go to the Third world.
Note 2: Our family has “house shared” on a number of levels. We shared a house with a couple in Noblesville, Indiana. And over the years when we lived by ourselves, we designated a bedroom as a “Christ Room” where we housed people who were homeless.
On the energy front, the average U.S. citizen consumes as much energy as 370 Ethiopians, 128 Bangladeshis, 13 Chinese… Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population, but consume 24% of the world’s energy.
Our administration would push for America to go on a strict “carbon diet,” not only to avert catastrophic climate change (which is already in alarming motion), but to free up money to help Third World countries to at least get the basics in power – with a good deal of this coming from green technologies.
At present, in the far end of the energy gluttony continuum, many homes have central heating and central air-conditioning. This means many rooms are unnecessarily being heated or cooled throughout the day. That is, often no one is in them.
We would exhort people to retro-fit their heating systems so rooms that weren’t being used a majority of the day – weren’t heated. Common sense.
We would also propose a moratorium on most air-conditioning. Air conditioning is, by far, the biggest energy drain in a home. Up until the 1950s, no one in America used air conditioning. (This is something that would be turned off in the West Wing.)
The savings from the air conditioning moratorium (and it would be major) could go into all kinds of green energy projects in the Third World.
For instance, the NY Times recently reported on a trend for people in Third World countries to start to look to solar applications to get some power to their small dwellings. For instance, in villages in Kenya people are buying small Chinese solar systems for around $80. Solar systems that will power a few lights, charge a cell phone, and so on…
Photos by Joe