(RNS) — In the run-up to Election Day in 2020, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden delivered a major address on strategies to reduce U.S. poverty. To his credit, that strategy was later reflected in his Build Back Better program, much of it passed in the first year of the Biden administration. Its pandemic relief and recovery measures, some of them approved on a bipartisan basis, provided needed assistance, kept unemployment low and reduced poverty in America to its lowest level in history.
A diverse coalition of church leaders called the Circle of Protection, working with the Poor People’s Campaign, helped convince Biden to give that big speech about poverty. Starting with outreach to the Obama and Romney campaigns in 2012, the group had been working for years to get presidential candidates to explain how they would provide more opportunity to people struggling with poverty and hunger. Our simple ask has been for the candidates from the two major parties to make videos explaining their policies on poverty. In the 2016 and 2020 elections, nearly all candidates in both parties made videos. Donald Trump submitted a written statement in 2016.
The historic decrease in poverty that we saw in 2021 was short-lived. At the end of the year, the Senate decided to end the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which had played an outsized role in reducing child poverty. In 2022, poverty and hunger jumped back to levels comparable to 2019, with child poverty doubling from 2021. Churches and charities across the country are still scrambling to help low-income families cope.
This year the Circle of Protection is at it again, urging the 2024 presidential hopefuls to explain what they would do to reduce poverty. But the leading presidential candidates — Biden, Trump, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis — have yet to respond to repeated requests for statements about poverty.
The Biden-Harris website is focused on the strong economy, protecting democracy in our country and around the world and the ways President Biden is addressing other issues of concern to many Americans — not opportunity for low-income people. The campaign for the likely Republican candidate, former President Trump, has posted 47 issue-specific policy videos on its website, but none directly addresses the post-COVID-19 crisis of hunger and poverty.
Three Republican candidates who are trailing in the polls — Vivek Ramaswamy, Asa Hutchinson and Ryan Binkley — have made videos on poverty.
Ramaswamy says in his video he would pursue free-market strategies to make the necessities of life more affordable. Hutchinson stresses neighbor-to-neighbor help coupled with existing compassionate government programs, notably school lunches and SNAP food assistance. Binkley believes in education, volunteer efforts in local communities and self-help — not the federal government. None of them mention the current surge in hunger and poverty.
The three video statements are posted at https://circleofprotection.us/2024-elections/.
The Circle of Protection will continue urging presidential candidates to talk about how they would reduce hunger and poverty. We are seeking political leadership that is responsive to the people in need who come to mind in our Thanksgiving prayers.
Our Scriptures are clear about the religious importance of both charity and laws that protect people in need. We sometimes call ourselves the Matthew 25 coalition, referring to Jesus’ vision of the final judgment laid out in the Gospel of Matthew’s 25th chapter. In that passage, Jesus identified with people in need — people who are hungry or thirsty, strangers, people who can’t afford proper clothes, and prisoners.
These values are important for any caring society. We need to hear from all of our future leaders about how they would work to reduce poverty and end hunger.
(David Beckmann is coordinator of the Circle of Protection, an advocacy coalition of church bodies and ministries that include 100 million people. He is both an economist and a pastor. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service).