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Making Poverty Count

Susan Campbell

September 17, 2008

What if, for the next few weeks, we lived as if we'd all read our sacred texts?

For people of faith, what if we then took those basic tenets and made them a priority? There'd be no more arguing over stem-cell research, or a woman's right to choose, or which candidate is an elitist and which one is one of us. We'd stop being distracted by the balloons and glitter, and maybe campaign contributions would drop off because we'd be giving money directly to those who need it most, the poor.

Last Friday, about 80 people gathered at Hartford Seminary to explore the possibilities of putting our votes where our faith is. Vote Out Poverty, an initiative from the Christian social action magazine Sojourners, is an effort to get voters to think about poverty as they cast their ballots, and then, post-election, to get voters to make sure their elected leaders pay attention. It's one thing to kiss babies and promise to help the poor in a campaign. It's quite another thing to make it happen.

While Friday's speakers clergy, politicians and just plain folk spoke, heads covered by hijab and yarmulke nodded in the audience. You see, the poor are in there, no matter your holy book. The Quran says public charity is good, but giving alms in private is better. The Christian Bible says God loves a cheerful giver. The Hebrew scriptures include guidance for providing aid, from gleaning a field to tithing. We may take different paths to the holy, but in practice, we are not so different.

Yet we get caught up in the horse race of a presidential campaign, and we forget that Hartford our own capital city is among the poorest cities in America. Last year, nearly half of Hartford's children belonged to families who earn less than the federal poverty level. A paltry 36 percent of Hartford's high school freshman class ends up graduating. For the first time in 15 years, teen births have risen, says the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In Connecticut, communities with the highest number of births to teens are also the poorest.

These are the symptoms of poverty. You can't learn on an empty stomach. You can't do homework in a homeless shelter. You don't necessarily make good decisions if you can't imagine your own future.

Friday's gathering was organized by Carl S. Dudley, seminary professor emeritus, and Jonathan Denn, co-director of Trinity Conference Center in West Cornwall. They're seeking commitments from elected officials and candidates that they will work toward halving the number of Americans living in poverty in the next decade, and that they will work toward ending extreme global poverty, as suggested by the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals.

This Sunday, Vote Out Poverty is hosting a nationwide Poverty Sunday to get interested faith groups started.

A lot was said at the seminary on Friday, but I liked what Rabbi Donna Berman of Charter Oak Cultural Center said:

"The truth is, we shouldn't have to be here today. We are asking for things that, in the vernacular, should be 'no-brainers.' It is absolutely shameful that people are hungry in the richest nation in the world; it is absolutely shameful that people live in abject poverty in this country when so many live in abundance. It is absolutely shameful that we have created a class of disposable people."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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