“Calling the United States to Join the Exodus from Hunger:
A Task for Christian Leaders of all Races and Traditions”
David Beckmann, President, Bread for the World
Christian Churches Together, January 13, 2011
I’m excited about this opportunity to talk with you. I have some important things to say, especially to Christian leaders. My speech is in four parts, and I’m going to develop four points:
- First, God is moving in our time to overcome hunger and poverty in our country and around the world. The world has reduced poverty; we don’t have to put up with mass poverty, certainly not in the United States.
- Second, God is calling us, right now, to change the politics of hunger and poverty. Since poverty is deeply intertwined with racism, the struggles against poverty and racism are one struggle.
- Third, U.S. politics won’t budge on these issues unless many people are moved by the gospel of Jesus Christ to push for social justice.
- And fourth, that won’t happen unless church leaders help people and congregations in your church bodies live and preach the gospel in a way that is clearly also good news for poor people.
Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s leaders to end hunger in our country and around the world. And we’re encouraged that the world as a whole has made dramatic progress against hunger, poverty, and disease over the last two or three decades. We have come to see this wonderful liberation as God moving in our history — the great exodus of our time.
For example, about half the countries in Africa have achieved rapid economic growth and reduced poverty over the past 10 years. Nearly all of these countries are now democracies. The impressive progress that much of Africa has made recently is a powerful rebuttal against racist prejudice.
There are 40 million more African children in school now than in 2000.
This is God — answering the prayers of hundreds of millions of poor people in Africa and around the world.
Ironically, in this richly blessed country the poverty rate is higher now than it was in 1970. But if countries like Ethiopia, Brazil, and Great Britain can reduce poverty, as they have, it’s also possible in the USA.
We have been able to reduce poverty in this country — when we tried. We cut the poverty rate in half in the 60s and early 70s. The Civil Rights Movement reduced legal discrimination, and the urban riots of the late 60s provoked a serious national effort to reduce poverty during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. It also helped that the economy was strong in the 60s and early 70s.
We reduced poverty again in the late 90s. But our nation hasn’t made a sustained effort. No president since Lyndon Johnson has made reducing poverty one of his top five priorities. We haven’t made sustained progress against poverty because, as a nation, lots of other things have been more important to us.
When 40 percent of Americans say they were in church last Sunday, how can it be that no president in 40 years has made reducing poverty one of his top five priorities?
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God is calling us, now, to change the politics of hunger and poverty.
The economic crisis has made the need even greater than before. One in four children in our country now lives in a family that runs out of food sometimes. Among African-Americans and Latinos, one in three children lives in a family that runs out of food. The economic crisis has also caused a huge setback in progress against hunger and poverty around the world.
At the same time, we have clear opportunities to help. I’m encouraged by how much our political process has achieved for poor people, and I think we can get a lot more done in the current political environment.
President Bush and President Obama pushed through economic emergency programs that kept us out of depression. Half the money in the Obama recovery bill went to programs that include low-income people. Hunger surged in 2008 but didn’t increase further in 2009, even though unemployment continued to rise, mainly because the Obama recovery bill included substantial assistance to poor people. The Obama administration is also leading an effective world hunger initiative.
Over the course of the past year, Congress passed a number of bills last year that will help low-income people. They committed us to an expansion of health-care coverage. They put restrictions on the way banks and pay-day lenders sometimes exploit low-income people. They expanded child nutrition programs and continued tax credits for the working poor.
Churches and charities mobilized about $5 billion in food assistance to poor people last year. The child nutrition and tax credit decisions alone will provide poor people ten times that much assistance.
This year, elected officials will again be debating many issues that are important to poor people. We’ll need to work to make schools work better for low-income children, we need to keep pushing for immigration reform, and we need to raise the issues of prison reform and how we deal with mental illness and addiction in our society. But the overarching political debate about poverty in 2011 will be about whether we can afford efforts to help poor people.
Powerful voices will argue that we need to cut back on government efforts that help poor people for the sake of the economy. This is bunk. Programs that help people in need account for only 14 percent of the federal budget, and giving struggling families a leg up is good for the economy for all of us.
We should make programs for poor people just as effective as possible. Bread for the World is campaigning for reforms to improve the effectiveness of U.S. foreign aid. But religious leaders should help convince people that cutting back on help to people in need is not the way to reduce deficit spending.
In this meeting, we’re focusing on racial injustice. Surely one of the most important racial-justice issues is poverty. Poverty is disproportionately high in African-American, Latino, and Native American communities. Poverty contributes to social pathologies that feed racial stereotypes, and when people of color escape from poverty and get some money they can effectively demand respect.
We asked the Congressional Black Caucus what their priorities are for 2011. They said health care, education, and the economy. We have an African-American president, and he is taking the same approach — trying to open economic opportunity for struggling families in all racial and ethnic groups.
The Hispanic Caucus and the Latino community are focused mainly on immigration issues. But high unemployment and poverty are also tremendously important for Latinos.
The growing number and participation of minority voters is another reason that I’m relatively hopeful about the politics of poverty.
Voter attitudes in general are more positive than they used to be. People are anxious about their own economic well-being and rightly concerned about deficit spending. But people are less inclined to blame poverty on poor people than they used to be, and about two-thirds of voters favor increasing government efforts to reduce poverty.
We did a voter survey on election day in November. When we asked people what issue was most important to them, most voters said economy and jobs. One-fourth of the people said war, terrorism, and our dependence on foreign oil. But a surprisingly large group, 7 percent, said that hunger and poverty is more important to them than any other issue. This is an organizing opportunity. 7 percent is more than cited immigration, the environment or abortion. Among African-Americans, 16 percent said that hunger and poverty is their most important issue.
Finally, I’m also encouraged by some trends in the churches. Last year, I shared a Bread for the World report that showed that Christian churches have responded to the economic crisis with increased charity and, to some extent, increased advocacy. Faith groups helped achieve all the poverty policy changes that Congress made last year. And importantly, the CCT process has made it clear that Christian leaders of all stripes are convicted that God is calling our nation and its churches to get serious about overcoming poverty.
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Christians can’t change the politics of hunger and poverty by ourselves, but I don’t see how it can happen unless many people are moved by Christian faith to push for justice for hungry and poor people.
Over the holidays, I read American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. It’s a big new statistical study of religion in America. It shows that religious people are more generous to charities and more active in civic affairs (voting, for example). One study shows that nearly all preachers in this country preach about hunger and poverty regularly.
But people who pray and go to church regularly are, in general, somewhat less supportive of government programs to help poor people than people who aren’t religious. This is a huge weakness within American Christianity, because government policies and programs have much more impact among poor people than charities. Government obviously can’t solve poverty by itself, but the rest of us can’t do it unless government is part of the solution. The God of the Bible insists on just laws and judges nations as well as individuals, but many of our church members don’t understand this.
Putnam and Campbell also note that people who most often experience God as loving tend to trust other people more and are more likely to support government programs to help poor people. But despite the centrality of Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins, many people who come to church still experience God primarily as a harsh judge. As Christian leaders, we long to convince people that God really does love and forgive them — and that God loves everybody, especially people in trouble and on the fringes of society.
African-American and Latino churches have a leadership role to play in wholistic evangelism. African-Americans and Latinos tend to be very religious, and they strongly support government efforts to reduce poverty. African-American and Latino churches are the only religious groups in the country that generally get the connection between the gospel and social justice.
The percentage of Americans, especially young adults, who don’t affiliate with any religion has surged since 1990. Putnam and Campbell provide evidence that this is partly because religion has identified itself with conservative politics in an unprecedented way. Some of the people we are now losing may be able to hear the gospel if we preach and live it in a way that is also good news to the poor.
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The leadership of church bodies is crucial. I know that you are already doing a lot, but our country won’t get serious about poverty unless you and other Christian leaders take some additional, fresh actions to engage the people and congregations in your church bodies.
As we finalize the Birmingham CCT statement tomorrow, I suggest that we make a specific commitment: that each of us will do what we can to urge every congregation in all of our church bodies to undertake some activity that will help change laws and systems that are important to hungry and poor people. We expect congregations to maintain Sunday schools. Virtually all congregations collect food for hungry people. We should expect that every congregation is, in some specific way, doing something to change the politics of hunger and poverty.
You can give your pastors and leaders a menu of options. They can educate their people about social and political issues that are important to poor and disadvantaged people; your church body can offer resources, or they can use resources from Sojourners, Bread, or other organizations. They can integrate social justice more deeply into Sunday morning worship; it can be as simple as praying for elected leaders. A predominately white church can establish a partnership with an African-American congregation — or, better, join a community organization that engages diverse congregations in pushing local officials to deal with neglected issues.
We look to African-American and Latino church leaders for leadership in interdenominational efforts like CCT and Bread for the World. What you do in our own churches in also really important. I hope you will use Bread for the World resources and campaigns to help your people become active and effective citizens.
I ask all of you to use and shape Bread for the World. Bread is a creature of the churches, designed to help individual Christians and local churches change the politics of hunger and poverty. Bread offers great, user-friendly materials, including electronic resources. Bread for the World’s members come from a wide array of churches — Catholics, all stripes of Protestants, African-American and Latino churches. We are eager to be a thread in the fabric of all your churches.
Every year, thousands of congregations participate in Bread for the World’s nationwide offering — not an offering of money, but of letters to Congress on some specific issue that is important to hungry people in this country or in Africa and around the world. Year after year, Bread for the World wins big changes, so the folks who participate learn that they can change history for the Lord. Tens of thousands of Bread members contact their members of Congress frequently, and thousands of activists organize for Bread for the World at the community level.
If you need something from Bread for the World, just tell us, and we will try to make it happen.
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God is moving in our time to overcome hunger and poverty. We may have a better chance now that we’ve had since the early 70s to get our country to get serious about poverty. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power source that can make it happen. And I’m asking each of you to find ways to urge all the congregations in your church body to do something to change the politics of hunger.
If we can reduce poverty in America — and get America to help reduce poverty in the world — it would be good for our national security, good for our economy, and it would help to heal the divisions in our nation. And if U.S. Christians play a leadership role, we will give powerful witness to the reality of Jesus Christ alive in the world.
David Beckmann, World Food Prize laureate (2010), has been president of Bread for the World since 1991, leading large-scale and successful campaigns to strengthen U.S. political commitment to overcome hunger and poverty in the country and globally.
Beckmann founded and serves as president of the Alliance to End Hunger, which engages diverse U.S. institutions — Muslim and Jewish groups, corporations, unions, and universities — in building the political will to end hunger. Prior to joining Bread, Beckmann worked at the World Bank for 15 years, overseeing large development projects and driving innovations to make the bank more effective in reducing poverty.
Beckmann has appeared on Bill Moyer’s Journal, PBS’s Religion & Ethics News Weekly, CNN Español, and C-Span, and in radio interviews with NPR’s Morning Edition, and The Diane Rehm Show. He has written many books and articles, including Transforming the Politics of Hunger and Grace at the Table: Ending Hunger in God’s World. His latest book is, Exodus from Hunger: We Are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger, Westminster John Knox Press.
Beckmann has degrees from Yale University, Christ Seminary, and the London School of Economics. He is a Lutheran pastor as well as an economist. Beckmann has lived in Bangladesh and Ghana, overseen projects in Bolivia and Ecuador, and visited more than 70 countries.