Poverty Must Be An Election Issue

By Chuck Currie of Portland, Oregon. Rev. Currie is a minister in the United Church of Christ.

The announcement today from the Oregon Department of Education that the number of children experiencing homelessness in our public schools has risen another 5.5% to a record 19,040 is an indication of a growing moral crisis in our state. "The percentage of homeless students in Oregon has increased 134 percent since the state began counting seven years ago," according to state officials. The numbers released today are for the 2009-2010 school year. We can fairly assume school districts are seeing even more children who are homeless as classes resume this month.

Earlier this year I worked with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon to convene the first Interfaith Summit on Homeless Children, Families and Youth to discuss ways that the faith community can work with local school districts to provide support for students who are homeless and their families.

As President Obama has said, a good public education is a good anti-poverty strategy. Oregon, unfortunately, does not have a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy and neither do local jurisdictions (or the federal government, for that matter). Our public schools are falling behind. While the state of Oregon and some communities - such as Portland and Multnomah County - have "Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness" these plans are doomed to failure because they do not address the root causes of poverty in Oregon.

As the U.S. Census Bureau reported this past week, poverty is surging in America. The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, said in response to those numbers: "There is little indication that our political leaders—regardless of political party--are taking the need to address poverty with fervor. Most recently, the campaign rhetoric between Republicans and Democrats has focused on tax cuts for the Middle Class and not on helping lift those in poverty out of their plight. Our political leaders’ calculated neglect of the poor while courting the votes of the comfortable offends the creator of the universe." Without President Obama's stimulus plan we'd be in even worse shape. But more needs to be done.

To start with, the president and Oregon's Congressional delegation need to endorse the goals and proposals outlined in the Half In Ten Campaign - the national effort to reduce poverty in America by 50% that has been put forth by the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Center for American Progress, among others. The plan calls for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (what Ronald Reagan once called the best anti-poverty tool we have) and the Child Tax Credit. Congress must also act quickly to expand TANF benefits nationwide to support subsidized jobs and extend employment insurance.

We need both candidates for governor to outline comprehensive strategies for reducing poverty in Oregon. The candidates for Metro president need to recognize that poverty isn't a Portland issue but a regional one and so they need to explain how they would use their offices to reduce poverty and homelessness. The same is true with every state House member, state Senate member, every mayor, every city council member, every county executive, and every county commissioner. In Oregon, we need common sense state-wide tax reform (including kicker reform and a rainy-day fund) that makes funding available for schools and we need local efforts, such as a housing levy in the Metro area, to build housing people making minimum the wage can afford. You shouldn't work, pay taxes and be homeless.

To those who help children and the poor Jesus promises blessings saying:

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

But he also warns:

“You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’" (Matthew 25 NRSV).

The preacher in me has to make this clear: we are creating our own kind of hell right here in Oregon when we allow over 19,000 kids to experience homelessness during the course of a school year. No one should be forced to live a third world life in a first world country. Advocates have been pleading with politicians and the public for well over a decade to address the growing crisis of childhood and family homelessness. How many more babies need to be born in shelters, spend their first days sleeping on gym floors, and leave the playground at the end of the school day in grade school to watch their friends go home while they sleep another night with their family in a car before we say enough is enough and respond to the moral and spiritual crisis before us?

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    I welcome this post, but I also know that the right wing sells the idea that the poor are poor because they are morally degraded. I heard Sean Hannity speak on the radio at length about homelessness. And his position, which is the position of the Republican Party, (since the GOP is a subsidiary of Fox News) was that American should do nothing for the homeless because they are all homeless for moral reasons, they are lazy, drug addicted, and won't work. So for them and too many Americans the homeless and their children are completely expendable, throw away people. Their position about the state intervening on behalf of children is that life begins at conception and ends at birth. And I make this statement coming from a single parent home where episodic homelessness, living out of a car on the streets, was part of my experience growing up, in an era where welfare assistance was linked to residency requirements of a year and medical assistance was non-existent. The pathetic irony here is that in a churched "Christian" country it is the Christians who are the most judgmental against the poor and most inclined to dismiss Matt. 25 as irrelevant. As a country we worship the rich and despise the poor. We do not stand in good stead with the Hebrew prophets or the man from Nazareth.

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      Here's information you can print out and share with friends:

      Why do people become homeless?

      From the National Coalition for the Homeless.

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      I am pretty sure listening to Fox Noise and Hannity in particular causes brain tumors in its listeners.

      I've always heard it said that the GOP cares about your birth and death and nothing in between.

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        Yet you shill for GOP candiates.

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          not plural, singular and if your definition of "shill" means I look at a candidate and don't make up my mind simply by the D or R after their names, then you could say I shill for Dudley.

          For the record, I have never told you to vote for him and I don't think I have ever said anything proactively positive about him. All I have done is question you and others on your incessant criticisms of him.

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    Well said, Bill. Not to change the subject, but I think the right wing rhetoric about immigration does not reflect Christian attitudes. Re Chuck's post, I agree with many of the points he made. But I want to add that the tax credits he proposes expanding need to be simplified. IMO, the instructions and forms can be confusing and complicated for the average taxpayer. And I do not believe paid preparers or software is the answer.

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      I am a Christian and I know how un-Christian the right wing is in their values. But that doesn't keep them from repeating the same bigoted line against the poor. And a case in point.... the televangelist, Chuck Hagee was giving a sermon on television. My wife caught this.. and he said that the "real" Jesus was not in the New Testament, where he gives all these milktoast statements in the beatitudes. The "real" Jesus was in the Book of Revelation where he returns as the avenging all-powerful King to put down his enemies. That is the Jesus he believes in. And the Book of Revelation is what the fundies spend all their time with.

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      I know that in some larger cities, charitable organizations do nothing but help people fill out their taxes to maximize what they qualify for. Maybe we need to explore adding more of that.

      Also, I think the IRS is getting better at flagging returns that fail to claim credit/deductions that the filer has qualified for and adjusting their returns automatically. They did that once for me years ago and that might be a way to advance this particular issue.

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      To edit slightly: I think the right wing rhetoric about -- fill-in-the-blank -- does not reflect Christian attitudes

      And, quoting Gandhi: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

      (Which is not to say, of course, that all Christians fail in this regard. The author of this post, for example, is an excellent counterpoint.)

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      the right wing rhetoric regarding immigration is spot on ...those are our laws Lea not some bigoted viewpoint of a few people. WE CAN'T AFFORD THESE PEOPLE.. They are sucking this country dry ...following the laws of this country and encouraging others to do the same and to conduct their business here honestly and with integrity are the christian values i was raised with ... I am glad the you believe in God and that Christ died for your sins Bill but based upon the things you advocate here I would be surprised if God believed in Bill...it's not my call but dude read some of the hate filled incoherent ramblings you spew forth here .. seriously

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        The National Assoication of Evangelicals (about as right wing as you can get), the U.S. Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches in Christ USA all support comphrensive immigration reform. You are free to believe whatever you wish but your position is not consistent with the vast majority of Christian bodies in America - conservative or progressive.

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          I am not current on what the majority of christian bodies in america believe or don't believe ...What I do know Chuck is that an overwhelming majority of americans want our laws enforced, our borders protected, e-verify for e-everyone but mostly NO amnesty! Aside from that my viewpoint stems from the simple economics of the problem. Some day I hope we are in a position to start enacting all of these 'wouldn't it be great if's" for everyone. Buckley once said (probably more than once)

          "Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.”

          The bottom line in this case is the bottom line. They consume 4x more than the contribute. The studies I have read recently concluded that each illegal household costs all of us almost 20k net a year. I appreciate the humanitarian gesture by Christians who support amnesty but it's just not something we can afford right now and maybe not ever. Charity begins at home as as long as there are Americans out of work then the jobs being done by illegals need to go to them when possible. Why in the world should we be asked to pay for people with no legal right to be here ? That's called taking ... and it's not a christian ideal ...neither is breaking the law or telling lies.

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    Chuck Currie: you are correct -- I have yet to find candidates who even mention poverty reduction as a goal. Sadly, both of the major candidates for governor have published economic plans that don't mention poverty (nor economic inequality) as a problem or details about how their plans would address poverty (and income inequality).

    In his speech for his second nomination, Franklin Roosevelt said

    “Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

    For too long too many Oregon candidates and elected leaders have been frozen in the ice of indifference to poverty. It is not just candidates who need to embrace the issue; once elected they need to embrace it, too.

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    The percent of homeless students in 2009-10 in the Medford School District is 9.44%. In real numbers that is 1139 children out of 12,062 total students who are homeless.

    That means they live in an emergency shelter, share housing, stay in motels or live in cars, parks, sheds, public places, tents or other similar situations.

    The ODE website noted that the percentage of children experiencing homelessness has increased 134% since the state began counting homeless students just seven years ago.

    Chris Dudley has his knickers in a knot over paying low wage earners a minimum wage of $8.40 per hour pandering to the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association members. Dudley's lack of compassion for those who struggle is stunning.

    Here's a reality check for Dudley, Medford has over 56% of its students on free and reduced lunch. That is over 6000 children.

    Thank you Chuck for your timely column.

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      Well stated, Paulie. My wife works in the schools and she points out these kids may change schools 3 or 4 times in the course of a year. And schools are supposed to be educating them? The schools get dinged by No-child-left-behind, but worse is the fact these kids probably won't graduate and have an economic future. They are at high risk to continue the cycle of poverty, crime, and all that goes with it. The long range economic good for all would be enhanced if we invested in these kids to help them succeed and make a life for themselves. But you can't do that without stabilizing their need for shelter and basic necessities.

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    Politicians care about votes. And until the poor vote and vote their own interests, political leaders will not care about the poor. Is anything being done to help the poor to vote and represent their interests?

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      It's harder for the homeless to weigh in. They have no address to find out what district they vote in, many have to move constantly.

      More, with certain parties caging strategies, even if they do get in to vote, their votes are challenged and set aside, which means they are potentially completely ignored.

      Even those on the border are pushed hard, often not being able to vote while balancing two or three jobs (and a family). That is yet another reason why I love Oregon's vote by mail system.

      But until we can use warming centers and soup kitchens as residencies, most of the people who need services the most will have the least to say about it.

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        Jason, your statement about voter reg is almost true. The trick is to educate homeless folk on how to register to vote. I have participated in two drives to register homeless folk and the trick is a map. Under ORS a person with no permanent address can still register. They just register to the area they spend most of their day in. An example might be like follows, if that person spends most of their day downtown, they would register the north corner of 6th and Burnside, and Elections Board has to accept that as their place of residence.

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      There are people working to increase the vote among the poor, but the poor are not well organized in Oregon (for instance, there's no longer a welfare rights group) and even where better organized they never get the attention of politicians unless they have support of others. In other words, don't wait for the poor themselves to be organized and have significant numbers to scare politicians to act...everyone who cares about social justice -- whether poor or not -- needs to take on the challenge that Rev. Chuck has set forth.

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      When vote-by-mail started in Oregon I stopped organizing voter registration drives - something I had done for years - in shelters. There is a lot good to say about vote-by-mail but it creates a nearly impossible obstacle for people who are homeless that want to vote.

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        Stupid rules are meant to be changed. Allow social service agencies to be used as their legal residence for voting purposes but require the person to return to that address to get their ballots.

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    Due to budget cuts, the Runaway and Homeless Youth coordinator position has been cut. This position was vital for coordinating 8 programs throughout the state providing services to 4000 homeless youth. Without this position in place these programs are at risk, making these youth even more vulnerable for exploitation. In addition, last week, the street outreach coordinator for the Janus Youth program in Portland was cut due to loss of federal funds. Again, putting more youth at risk.

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    Rev. Currie

    You mentioned the "root cause of poverty in Oregon" but I didn't see them listed. Could you point me to where I can learn more about them.


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      Economic policies are at the root of poverty both in Oregon and nationwide. You can learn more about economics and poverty in Oregon at:


      There are, of course, other factors. Institutional racism and sexism play a role, for example. Those that live in rural communities are more likely to be poor.

      Additional information on what needs to be done to decrease poverty in America can be found at:


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    It is irritating that neither party focuses any effort or energy on the state of the poor in this country. It is apparently all about the middle class, at the detriment to the poorest and least skilled.

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