President Obama gave his sixth State of the Union address this past Tuesday. While there is much to be said about the slow but steady improvement of our economy, it was disappointing to see the President actively ignore the topic of poverty in the US.
Poverty is here in America, as the photographs and testimony of Witnesses to Hunger have shown again and again. The members of Witnesses advocate based on their own experiences with juggling multiple jobs to try to make ends meet and worrying about how to keep food on the table when rent must be paid and the heat needs to stay on. They share their hopes and their fears for their children. They hold onto the idea that after a lifetime of feeling shut out of the conversation around programs and policies affecting their families, they will be heard. They hold onto the hope that after years of having to prove to caseworkers, legislators, and their neighbors that they are worthy of respect and the same opportunities afforded to others in different, more privileged circumstances, real change will come to those living in poverty in America.
President Obama was a big source of hope that this dream would finally be realized. In 2008, the same year that Witnesses to Hunger began, then-president-elect Obama pledged to end child hunger in 2015. The Witnesses enthusiastically supported that goal. They spoke about their own experiences with food insecurity, and shared their hunger for safe neighborhoods, affordable housing, and high-quality education. They took photographs, met with legislators on Capitol Hill, and spoke out about what changes should be made to government assistance programs. Over the following six years, the Witnesses to Hunger project grew to other states, bringing more parents and caregivers of young children together to share their expertise on poverty in America.
But as the Witnesses remained committed, the President neglected his promise to the most vulnerable Americans – our children living with the daily reality of poverty and hunger. As the economy collapsed and politics became more severely divided, the Obama administration shifted priorities from talking about and addressing poverty to focusing solely on middle class rhetoric.
Tuesday night’s State of the Union was a clear example of this shift. Granted, many of the proposals the President presented are strong for families, including some low-income Americans.
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But the President refused to acknowledge our own trouble with hunger and poverty. In fact, he mentioned those words but once – and in a global context. How about asserting that 14.3% of all American households are food insecure, that 45.3 million Americans still live below the poverty line? These are appalling numbers, statistics that should not sit comfortably with us.
We can’t call our country a tight-knit family when we so intentionally ignore the too-difficult-to-talk-about plight of our sisters and brothers. We can’t call our union strong when we fail to provide for and fight for the basic rights of every family.
We can’t be afraid to talk about poverty. The suffering is happening in our communities and among our friends. Unless we address it, we will never be able to stand behind our assertion that we, as a nation, believe in human dignity.
The President told us that our country is poised to “to choose our future.” And what will that future look like? Will it continue a history of marginalizing the poor and failing to fight for equal opportunities for everyone? Or will we be bold, and insist on a nation that demonstrates a profound commitment to every person?