The national agenda must focus on the poor 

Guest Commentary

During President Obama's first term and again in his successful re-election campaign, virtually nothing was said or done about people in the United States who are trapped in a cycle of poverty and despair. The focus was on middle class families and their concerns.

This is not to say that the nation should ignore its need for a strong and vibrant middle class. But another sector of our society is being overlooked and underserved: individuals and families living in poverty. The true character of our society is not defined by the tax breaks we give the wealthy or the tax incentives we give the middle class. The truest character of our society involves how we care for the poorest and neediest people among us. These are the ones Jesus referred to as "the least of these."

President Obama has largely ignored the issue of poverty. Mitt Romney actually showed contempt for people living in poverty with his 47-percent comments, implying that all people living in poverty want nothing more than government funded entitlement programs.

I can vividly remember growing up in a single-parent home in an impoverished neighborhood in the inner city of Chicago. I know from personal experience that Mitt Romney's comments paint a false picture about people living in poverty. The issue is not about people desiring government-sponsored entitlement programs; the issue is people desiring help in creating stronger and more stable families, jobs that pay a living wage, access to health care, safe and effective public schools and, most of all, an enlightened and progressive criminal justice system.

President Obama should charge the relevant Cabinet officers and government agencies to consider a national emphasis on programs like Nurse-Family Partnership, a program created right here in Rochester. This program has a proven track record of improving the health of expectant mothers and equipping them to be effective parents. This results in children with reduced rates of child abuse, lower rates of criminal behavior and arrest, and a higher success rate in school.

The intervention of one nurse with one family can often mean the difference between another generation being born into a cycle of persistent poverty, or children being able to finally escape poverty and have a chance to attain a bright future. The investment made in such a program today can result in enormous savings to our society in years to come.

Reducing criminal behavior is especially important, because a felony conviction is the single greatest contributor to persistent poverty in this country. As revealed in Michelle Alexander's book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," the United States not only requires people to serve their time through incarceration or parole. Those same people are then haunted and hindered for the rest of their lives. A felony conviction limits them in terms of further education, future employment, military service, the right to vote, home ownership, and a stable family life: all of the things that are essential to climbing out of poverty.

To add insult to injury, the vast majority of felons in this country are non-violent drug offenders who would be better served by referral to a drug treatment program. That means an annual $5,000 cost per patient and no felony record to complicate their future, as compared to incarceration at an annual cost of $25,000 per inmate followed by a lifetime of poverty-prolonging prohibitions.

Finally, President Obama must keep working to defend the programs that serve the poor, the sick and the needy; these cannot be cut no matter what argument is made for retaining tax cuts and shelters for our country's most affluent.

It was not entitlement programs serving the poor that created this mess, it was two wars over the last nine years that have cost this country $15 billion every month since 2003. Our nation is not made strong when the defense budget is bloated with spending items that are neither requested nor required by the Pentagon. We will only have a stronger and safer nation when the voices of the poor are heard and when the policies that can dramatically reduce poverty are funded and implemented.

Dr. McMickle is president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.

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