Hungry for Justice

Missoula poverty conference brings new ideas to the table


Sometimes there can be a depressing familiarity to the drone of speakers who address conferences on poverty, hunger and homelessness in America: the jarring statistics, the frightening analogies used to highlight the growing chasm between the nation’s rich and poor, the grassroots solutions that still pale in comparison to the overwhelming nature of problems themselves.

Thankfully, last week’s conference in Missoula—“Creating Wealth/ Challenging Poverty,” sponsored by People of Faith/People of Action—managed to sidestep most of those traditional pitfalls, while remaining focused on its stated purpose; namely, identifying the causes of poverty in Missoula and exploring how partnerships among governmental organizations, businesses and faith-based organization can help to end poverty in our community.

Admittedly, the “Creating Wealth/Challenging Poverty” conference was not without its share of statistics and comparisons that put the problems of hunger and homelessness in terms our minds can grasp. Consider, for example, the estimate by University of Montana sociology professor Paul Miller, who predicted that the next U.S. Census will show at least one-fourth of all Montana children below the age of five are living in poverty.

Or consider the observation by the Rev. Emory Searcy, Jr., national field organizer for Call To Renewal, an interdenominational organization dedicated to ending poverty, who noted that the average employee at the Missoula Wal-Mart would have to work 312 years to earn the amount of money that that company’s CEO is paid in just one year.

Or consider the statistic offered by UM economics professor Dick Barrett, who pointed out that the bottom 40 percent of workers in this country now earn wages that, in real dollars, are lower than those paid in the mid-1970s.

Facts and figures like these will change slightly from year to year. But what appears to be changing even more rapidly, according to some of the speakers at the conference, is the growing perception among politicians and policymakers that the responsibility for providing basic human services—that is, emergency food, housing, health care, and so on—belongs exclusively in the hands of the volunteer or non-profit sector, or as Miller described it, “The Third Way.”

“Food distributed and services provided by charities are often viewed as somehow morally superior than food and human services delivered by government programs,” said Susan Cramer, executive director of Mazon: a Jewish Response to Hunger. Cramer, the conference’s keynote speaker, heads the Los Angeles-based Jewish charitable organization that since 1986 has raised more than $18 million to combat poverty nationwide.

“The prevailing view among many politicians is, ‘Let the private sector do it.’ Well, the private sector cannot do it alone,” said Cramer. “As people of faith and people of action, we must also remember that our job is certainly to comfort the afflicted, but it is also to afflict the comfortable.”

And “afflicting the comfortable,” as Cramer puts it, means raising your voice in opposition to public policy makers who will extol the virtues of non-profit and faith-based charities as an excuse for gutting governmental forms of public assistance.

“There is no word in the Hebrew language for the word ‘charity,’” says Cramer. “The word tzadakah, often mistranslated as charity, really means ‘justice.’ And although some people need our charity today, what they hunger for, today and the day after that, is justice.”

But in an era when politicians are quick to trumpet the success of welfare reform by noting how many people have moved off the welfare rolls instead of how many people have been moved out of poverty, Cramer said that, “We cannot expect poor people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps as quickly as the government changed welfare.”

Moreover, there are obvious shortcomings to having basic human services fall into the exclusive purview of the faith-based community, not the least of which, observed Prof. Miller, is the blurring of the lines between church and state.

For example, in a survey of religious organizations that partner with government to provide human services, nine out of 10 churches that responded saw such partnerships as an opportunity to evangelize. That same survey found that at least one-third of these churches also considered past welfare practices to be the cause of immorality among welfare recipients.

Ultimately, many of the messages that came out of the conference were familiar ones: that charitable organizations often need to operate more like businesses and use their money and resources more wisely; that we need to be more vigilant in exploding the stereotypes of poor people as lazy, substance abusers, mentally ill, and/or morally depraved; and that partnerships among businesses, government and charitable organizations can and must work because, as Cramer put it, “building profits and building community are not mutually exclusive. You can do well and do good at the same time.”

After all, noted the Rev. Searcy, there is an American city that in six months made 10,000 homeless people virtually disappear, using partnerships among businesses, government and non-profit and charitable organizations. It was the City of Atlanta, just before the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Though criticized by some as sweeping the problems of hunger and homelessness under the rug, it was an example of what can be accomplished when all sectors of society come together for a common cause.

“We all need to remember that it’s in no one’s best interest to grow up or grow old in a country where millions of people are inadequately paid, fed and housed,” said Cramer.

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