Open letter on poverty to America’s local, state and national leaders

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WASHINGTON (NNPA)—The U.S. Census Bureau’s recent report on poverty in the United States is a clarion call to our nation and our elected leaders. We in the United States possess the greatest resources and wealth ever known to humankind. So, to have more than 44 million people—14 percent of our population—and 20 percent of our children living in poverty strains the soul of America. That fully one in four Americans—72 million people—are “near poor” (officially, a family of four earning just $32,634 in 2009) should call us into action. It’s a moral disgrace.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is credited with saving or creating 1.4 million to 3.3 million jobs, and kept more than 6 million additional people from falling into poverty. Despite these efforts, it is unfathomable to think that poverty continues to grow in America—three million more in 2009, and more poor people living in poverty now, than 50 years ago when data was first published.

These realities are devastating. In 2009, poverty jumped to 14.3 percent, and the number of people without health care insurance broke 50 million for the very first time. The ranks of the unemployment rate swelled from 7.7 percent at the beginning of the year to 10 percent. The unemployment rate of African-Americans and Latinos is nearly double and sometimes even triple the national average. The middle class continues to sink. Major cities around the country are losing public transportation jobs, public school teachers, public housing and home foreclosures are on the rise. The effect of such devastating poverty is under-cutting excellence in public education and it is overwhelming American families.

I just spent a weeklong bus tour meeting and with congregations, students, and workers at plant gates in Michigan. Astonishingly, for example, Detroit has 90,000 vacant homes and or lots and not one national chain grocery store or retailer. While Detroit faces mounting hardships, we bailed out General Motors, a company’s whose number one market for Buick is China, and new manufacturing plants are being built there and in Mexico. The cries of babies in Appalachia, the tears of mothers in the rural south, and the frustration of workers laid off in urban cities across America—is this the face of America in 2010?

As people of conscience, as elected leaders of the greatest democracy in the world, we ask ourselves, is there not a need for a new war on poverty or a great society plan similar to that enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson? Dr. King’s cry for a Poor Peoples Campaign has come full circle. There must be a sense of urgency to address this moral and economic crisis. In Stimulus I, we have watered the leaves. We need Stimulus II to water the roots.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we had a plan for Security, Stability, Investment Reconstruction, and Rebuilding infrastructure. Our people, our cities, our nation deserves nothing less. The Poverty Report is a call to Congress to a pass a FY 2011 budget that expands funding to “war on poverty” programs supporting employment, education, and basic human needs. Focus on the least of these, and extend the TANF Emergency Fund to expand subsidized jobs programs—and end the tax breaks for the richest 2 percent of Americans that would yield $700 billion in revenue over the next decade. Extend the reforms to the earned income tax credit, or EITC, and the child tax credit, or CTC. Focus on extending programs that support the least of these, not those with the most.

Expand the weatherization program—and enact a modern-day urban homesteading program where the urban unemployed can reclaim lost homes, learn carpentry, plumbing and green jobs skills to rebuild America. We can begin to work our way out. Congressional leaders, take the bold step of committing to reducing poverty by 50 percent over the next 10 years. The people are restless and rising up. America, please hear our plea. There is no time to waste. It’s time for a change.

(Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. is founding president and CEO of RainbowPUSH.)

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