Commentary

Poverty … it’s not just for the poor any more

Well, what do you think?” I asked. “Is it possible to end poverty in Minnesota
by 2020?”

I had been invited to give a presentation on A Minnesota Without Poverty —
the statewide, interfaith movement to end poverty in Minnesota by 2020. We
were coming to the end of the hour and I asked my usual question, “What do
you think? Is it possible?”

On this particular Sunday, a young boy — the youngest person in the room —
raised his hand and tentatively said, “I think we can. We probably can’t do it
all at once, but if we go step by step we can surely end poverty by 2020.” I
asked him how old he was and he said, “12, but I’m almost 13.”

Naïve? Young? Unrealistic? Or faithful and hopeful? Perhaps all of the above,
but I agree with this twelve-almost-thirteen-year-old boy. I too believe that
ending poverty by 2020 is indeed possible, and I further believe that all we
need to end poverty is already at hand.

I also agree with Rabbi Michael Lerner who has said that the major
transformations in the last 50 years — civil rights movement, women’s
movement, environmental consciousness — have all come about when
powerful movements of ordinary citizens have gotten behind a set of
principles that were at one point thought to be unrealistic and utopian. (For
more on this understanding of history, read Michael Lerner’s The Left Hand of
God: Healing America’s Political and Spiritual Crisis, Harper San Francisco,
2006, p. 211 ff.)

That description of a set of principles could easily apply to the document
known as “A Common Foundation: Shared Principles for Work on Overcoming
Poverty,” first signed by 35 religious leaders in 2004 and currently signed by
more than 6,500 citizens of faith — and counting.

That first principle states, “We believe it is the Creator’s intent that all people
are provided those things that protect human dignity and make for healthy
life: adequate food and shelter, meaningful work, safe communities,
healthcare, and education.”

“If we go step by step,” suggested the twelve-almost-thirteen-year-old boy.
While not simply a step by step plan, a comprehensive report has just been
released by the Legislative Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020.
These recommendations are the result of a two-year listening, learning,
planning process by the Legislative Commission to End Poverty, a
commission that was created, with bi-partisan support and involvement, in
2006 after then-state senator John Hottinger attended a “Focus on Poverty”
event. There he saw the “Common Foundation” document for the first time
and heard a panel addressing the question, “What do you think needs to
happen in order to end poverty in Minnesota by 2020?”

“We can’t do it all at once,” said the wise twelve-almost-thirteen-year-old,
and in 2009 we are at a critical juncture. How this present budget crisis is
solved can either push many more people into poverty and keep them there,
or it can serve as a first step toward ending poverty. For that reason, even in
the midst of the worst economic times since … (choose your own favorite
recession/depression and insert that date here), A Minnesota Without Poverty
will advocate for three issues that we believe will move our state forward:
acquiring and keeping jobs, protecting the safety net, and increasing
revenue.

We are indeed those citizens of faith who can be the powerful movement
mobilizing behind a set of principles that may at this point seem unrealistic
or utopian, but our faith challenges us to ask and answer this question: In the
year 2020, when the twelve-almost-thirteen-year-old is twenty-three-
almost-twenty-four, can we imagine that he, along with our children and
grandchildren, just might experience a Minnesota without poverty?

To add your name to the signers of “A Common Foundation,” visit
www.mnwithout poverty.org and click on “Sign Foundation.” To read the
Legislative Commission to End Poverty final report, go to
www.commissions.leg.state.mn.us/lcep.

The Rev. Nancy Maeker is a consultant working with the movement, “A
Minnesota without Poverty.” She is co-author with Bishop Peter Rogness of
Ending Poverty: A 20/20 Vision: A Guide for Individuals and Congregations
(Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006).