This is how Nelson Mandela put it: “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
Throughout history, the eradication of poverty has been a professed goal of most progressive-minded political and religious leaders. Voices ranging from Jesus, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Mandela have asserted in their own way the right of every man, woman and child to have the basics of food, shelter, clothing, health care and a decent education.
With his efforts through the Affordable Care Act to extend health insurance to millions of previously uncovered Americans, as well as his calls for universal pre-school and a raise in the minimum wage, President Obama has also focused on efforts to end income inequality. But, as we enter another holiday season, dominated it seems by rampant consumerism, we are faced with a worldwide epidemic of poverty. According to the Global Issues website, “Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income.” Here in America, nearly 50 million people live in poverty. This includes almost one in four children.
In a world of plenty and a nation as rich as ours, there is no excuse for this.
But the demands of the compassionate and the cries of the poor continue to be drowned out by the industrialized world’s fixation with materialism and the rising clamor and clout of the rich and powerful for more, often at the expense of the less fortunate. While there is no reason to believe these conditions will substantially change anytime soon, we are encouraged that another prominent voice has been added to the calls for change – Pope Francis.
Since his election as the new Pope on March 13, Pope Francis has placed a renewed emphasis on the Catholic Church’s responsibility to assist the poor. The new Pope recently spoke passionately about the “widening gap between those who have more and those who must be content with the crumbs.”
He added, “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
Many of those excluded are found waiting in America. They wait while some in Congress would cut $8 billion from food stamps, or cut off benefits for more than a million long-term unemployed citizens. They wait while the President’s proposal and the economic wisdom of a raise in the minimum wage continue to languish on Capitol Hill. They wait while working jobs for wages too low to support the basic needs of their families. They wait while some in Congress continue to resist transportation and infrastructure funding and the good paying jobs that would result.
As we go about our holiday shopping and celebrating, I ask that you remember the true reason for the season. We must not forget the millions who continue to suffer, who remain unemployed and who have yet to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. As Madiba urged us, in this season of giving, “Let Your Greatness Blossom.”
Marc H. Morial is President and CEO, National Urban League