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'You've Got To Change The Political Wind'
Published on Sunday, July 23, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
'You've Got To Change The Political Wind'
In the shadow of the conventions, addressing issues of poverty, inequality, campaign reform and drugs.
Interview with Jim Wallis
Events called the Shadow Conventions 2000 will be held in Philadelphia and Los Angeles at the same time as the major-party conventions this summer.

They are being staged by a coalition of activists concerned that the major parties are not forcefully addressing issues such as income inequality and the persistence of poverty, campaign finance reform and what the activists see as the failure of the war on drugs.

The Editorial Board recently spoke with conveners of the Philadelphia Shadow Convention, to be held on the University of Pennsylvania campus July 31 to Aug. 4. One of them is Jim Wallis of the interfaith group Call to Renewal and editor of Sojourners magazine. Here are some excerpts:

Question: Tell us a little bit about what you are concerned about, what you are planning to do and why.

Answer: A reporter asked me this morning, "In this time of prosperity, how do we get people to care?" That is the fundamental moral question - is a time of prosperity an occasion for ignoring those left behind? One of five kids are still poor. Child poverty rates are unchanged. That is a national issue, but it is not being treated that way.. . .

So, do we want to put this on the agenda? It's very connected to money in politics. Why aren't the needs of my neighbors [in Washington, D.C.] on the agenda? Well, they don't contribute [to the political parties], and by and large they don't vote because they know they don't matter in the conversation.

And the drug policy question: Why are we focusing our drug war on the people in my neighborhood instead of the real drug lords? . . . We are trying to say that there is a reform impulse that you won't see in the parties.

My view is that the answers to poverty don't come from just the liberal side or just the conservative side. There are things the conservatives say that are necessary. I'm a conservative on the issues of family, marriage and sexuality, and many other questions. But, folks also need a good job and a living family wage.

Prosperity gives us an opportunity either to ignore those left behind or to include them. So, what we are going to do with this prosperity is a moral question that is not really going to be answered by left or right, liberal or conservative.

Question: What role can faith-based organizations and volunteerism play in addressing the opportunity gap?

Answer: I think American politics turns into false choices time and time again. We are often told we have to make a choice between good jobs or good values - between rebuilding neighborhoods or rebuilding families, between fighting cultural corrosion and violence on television or battling racism. Why are these the choices that we have to make?

To say that faith-based organizations have a role, or that civil society needs to be engaged, that's not a cop-out for government responsibility. Listen: We are not going to clean up the mess of bad social policy by doing what we do in the churches, or be a safety valve for a government not being responsible.. . .

What is happening on the faith-based side is a new kind of politics that really defies the old false choices. It is pro-family, pro-jobs, in support of a living family income. It is battling racism and being concerned about cultural corrosion and the television that our kids are getting, which hurts poor kids a lot worse.

Question: Secular advocates often become suspicious of faith-based solutions because they believe they will siphon funds away from their own programs.

Answer: There has been a kind of secular fundamentalism that is as rigid as right-wing religious fundamentalism. The left has had an allergy to spirituality for a long time, an allergy to any kind of faith-based solution. People like me say: "Why don't you look at the whole history of religious movements undergirding major movements for social change - not just civil rights, but abolition, women's suffrage, child labor laws?"

That time of revivalism and social action is coming back. Why not use the best in the civil society as well as the energy, the creativity, the motivation and then the resources that the private sector can provide, and the public sector ought to provide? Why not find some new configurations here?

During an election year, we are very susceptible to what I call "wet-finger politician syndrome." They all lick their finger and put it in the air. And people think that replacing one of those guys with another will change things. It won't.. . . You've got to change the political wind.

Question: Beyond statistics and bromides about the very wealthiest Americans having too much, what specific ideas, what particular policies do the Shadow Convention conveners support for dealing with the fact that the highest income people have received a disproportionate share of our boom in the 80s and 90s?

Answer: How do you help the Burger King mom, who is working at the drive-through window and watching her kids in the corner while she is working? She is poorer than she was when she was on welfare. How do we work together toward a living family income for her? It's a combination of things: earned income tax credit expansion, better minimum wage, living wage and some targeted subsidies.. . .

As for the question on the other end, the sort of ceiling question, it is a good one. Most Americans are not even aware of some of the dramatic changes that are affecting them. Thirty years ago, the ratio of CEO salaries to those of average workers was 30 to 1 in this country. Now it's 794 to 1. What do you do about that? I think there are some symbolic things. I think CEO salaries shouldn't be tax-deductible by those corporations. Most don't know that they are. That is something that is worth some conversations. . .

A student in my class at Harvard said that in Germany, if they had this great gap between the top and the bottom, there would be a great deal of shame. Shame controls some of this in similar societies. We apparently have no shame in terms of how this gap grows and grows and grows. We have celebrations.

So there are some cultural questions here. Everything isn't reducible to an easy political answer. I want there to be more sense of responsibility.

Copyright 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers


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