Faith Leader Says Poverty Fight Overshadowed By Politics

Earlier this fall, the Census reported that more than 14 percent of Americans are living in poverty, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that more than a million children went hungry in 2008. With the high rate of poverty and hunger in the U.S., there are some who say that the midterm elections need to focus on helping the poor. Host Michel Martin talks with Reverend David Beckmann, a Lutheran minister and recipient of this year's World Food Prize, about the political priority — or lack thereof — that has been placed on poverty.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, on this Election Day, a minister who has taken on the mission of fighting poverty and hunger in the U.S. and he's calling on political leaders to do the same. In September, a census report showed that more than 14 percent of Americans are living in poverty. That is the highest level since the 1960s. Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture says that more than a million American children went hungry in 2008. And new numbers due out later this month are expected to be even higher.

David Beckmann is a Lutheran minister and president of Bread for the World. It's a faith-based organization that urges lawmakers to address poverty and hunger. He's also the recipient of this year's World Food Prize. It's described as a Nobel Prize equivalent in the field of food and agriculture. And he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DAVID BECKMANN (Minister; President, Bread for the World): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And, actually, you're a former economist.

Mr. BECKMANN: I'm still an economist.

MARTIN: You're still an economist. I don't know - I guess you're a recovering economist.

Mr. BECKMANN: And a (unintelligible). I think I'm the only combo in captivity.

MARTIN: How did your particular interest in food issues and food security issues come about?

Mr. BECKMANN: Well, it's really hunger and poverty. And it's grounded in faith. The god of the Bible is really concerned about everybody and especially people who don't have enough. There's all kinds of things in the Bible about hungry people, widows, orphans, immigrants. So it - coming out of faith, it just makes sense to pay attention to people who need help.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that hunger is still persistent in this country? It's certainly not a question of availability of food, unlike some countries.

Mr. BECKMANN: No, it's basically - it's a lack of political commitment. At its base it's a lack of spiritual commitment. You know, really, we haven't had a president who made reducing poverty and hunger one of his top priorities since Lyndon Johnson or maybe Richard Nixon. And that's because as an electorate we haven't shown our politicians that we care about hungry kids, that that's a priority for us. What's missing is lack of organized give a damn.

MARTIN: If this is a lack of political will, the question is, is this a lack of concern on the part of the electorate? Is this is a leadership problem? Or is this a problem of who we are?

Mr. BECKMANN: I think it's us. I think our politicians, you know, try to be responsive to us. And so I find it really problematic that a quarter of all of us are in church or synagogue every week, but somehow our politicians from both parties think we don't want to hear about hunger and poverty in an election campaign. Today's the day to change that, to get to the polls, to bring neighbors to the polls.

And then, also, one consideration, surely, as we vote, should be which of these candidates is going to be the best news for poor people, especially people who don't get enough to eat all the time?

MARTIN: There is a question of worldviews here because there is a perspective in this country that the issues of poverty at this point in our history are mainly issues of the attitudes of the people who remain in poverty, that there is a lack of will on the part of people who are in poverty to get out of it or to develop the habits of success. And I'd like you to take on that point of view, because that is a point of view that exists.

Mr. BECKMANN: Well, it is true. What it is true is that nobody's going to get out of poverty unless they work their tail off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BECKMANN: That is true. People have to work and take care of themselves, live responsibly, take care of their kids. But all that said, there are still things that we can do as a society to make it easier for people who are working hard and are trying to provide for themselves and their kids. With, you know, 10 percent unemployment, there are just a lot of people who cannot get a job. Or if they can get a job, it's 25 hours a week, maybe an $8 an hour job. So if somebody has a child and has a job like that, the child's not eating all the time. That's just the state of our economy.

So, I think it's both. We've got to work hard, be responsible, take care of our own kids, our own future. And we also have to have things, like, for example, tax credits for the working poor. They're really important. All the debate in that campaign has been about whether we should continue current tax benefits for the top two percent. Virtually nobody's talking about the working poor. But if in December, if Congress does not extend the current rules for the working poor, they'll push an additional one million children into poverty next year.

So that's got to be part of what we're voting about. And then as active citizens, we've got to get back to whoever's elected and say, hey, I'm concerned about tax credits for the working poor. That's what's important to me.

MARTIN: What else is it that you think - you said that there specific things that government could be doing right now to be more helpful. So you've talked about tax credits for the working poor. What else?

Mr. BECKMANN: Well, also, in December actually, they're likely to decide on the Child Nutrition Act. So that'll decide for the next 10 years: Are we going to provide more nutritious school lunches or not? Are we going to strengthen programs that reach low income kids like school breakfasts or not? And ironically the Senate passed a bill that does some of those things. But they're taking half the money from the food stamp program.

And I think, in the middle of this recession, when one in four kids is living in a household that sometimes runs out of food, part of our economic management should be to make sure that little kids get enough to eat. If a one or a two year old does not get enough to eat all the time, we're doing permanent damage to that person. And that will negatively affect our society, our economy for the next 50, 60 years.

MARTIN: How do you assess whether your point of view and those who agree with your point of view is making any headway?

Mr. BECKMANN: Actually, Bread for the World wins on a lot of issues. I think we've had some real success in drawing some attention to tax credits for the working poor, the Child Nutrition Act. Over the years, we've played a key role in doubling the nutrition assistance to poor families in this country over the last 10 years. And that additional nutrition assistance has been - has helped to moderate the increase in hunger during the recession.

And one of the things that we can do, I think, getting Republicans and Democrats to work together is make some changes in the next year that will make our foreign aid programs more effective. That's the campaign that Bread for the World's driving, because we think it'd be good for taxpayers, good for hungry and poor people around the world, good for our economy and certainly good for our security.

MARTIN: The Reverend David Beckmann is a Lutheran minister. He's president of the faith-based organization, Bread for the World. He's also the recipient of this year's World Food Prize. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Congratulations to you on the award and thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BECKMANN: Thank you, Michel.

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