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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Poverty and American National Priorities

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life


On Tuesday, February 26, the Boisi Center convened three distinguished scholars from diverse perspectives to discuss the nature of poverty in the United States and the issue’s place (or lack thereof) among American national priorities.

Renowned sociologist William Julius Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University, opened the panel with an analysis of the relationship between race, ethnicity and poverty. While affirming President Barack Obama’s call (in his 2013 State of the Union Address) for all young people to obtain a good education and solid job skills, Wilson lamented that today’s high schools frequently fail to provide these ben­efits to black and Latino youths. Despite the sizeable gains that racial minorities in the United States have made in education, their high school graduation rates and college matriculation rates are still low. This failure of educa­tion—combined with a climate of industry restructuring, globalization, deregulation, de-unionization, and reces­sion—has led to a decline of unskilled, decently paying jobs in America. In response, workers have been forced to reduce hours, take lower paying jobs, or even leave the work force entirely. This trend disproportionately affects blacks and Latinos, Wilson argued.

These occupational trends are deeply connected to residen­tial segregation based on race, ethnicity, and class. Poor neighborhoods are moreover hit especially hard in reces­sions because of budget cuts and the resulting decline in the quality of public services. Wilson suggested that we ought to consider comprehensive, school-based job-build­ing initiatives to mitigate or even correct these problems.

Susan Crawford Sullivan, associate professor of sociol­ogy at the College of the Holy Cross, discussed the role of religion in the lives of the poor, especially single mothers on welfare. Many poor women employ religious narratives to interpret their suffering and see themselves as working with God to face their daily challenges. Despite high rates of religious belief, most poor women do not attend church regularly. Although churches are often seen as havens for the poor, the women in Sullivan’s study explained that they frequently felt stigmatized by and unwanted in religious communities. This disconnect between the churches and the poor is particularly troubling, Sullivan claimed, because religious communities can potentially offer much needed spiritual, emotional, and material support to poor single mothers.

Princeton University theologian Eric Gregory concluded the panel with a powerful theological reflection on Ameri­can national priorities. While equality does not require economic sameness, he argued, economic inequality often serves as a proxy for political inequality. The covert financial and economic prerequisites of our political process alienate the poor and serve as an intolerable form of systematic inequality. Our institutions and public policy reflect the character of our nation; what we value and what we accept or refuse to tolerate says much about who we are as Americans. Gregory questioned both the priorities of the state and the Christian church today, pointing to unfulfilled promises of freedom and justice. Few politi­cians today prioritize care for the poor, he argued, and the church is not much better. “Imagine a world,” Gregory said, “where poverty was debated with only half the intensity of homosexuality in America and the Catholic Church.”

Insofar as markets are structures created by humans, they can be changed by humans. To this end, Gregory closed with a call to replenish our commitment to poverty relief by recalling the deeper history of our interconnectedness. We must break the siren call of narrowly defined econom­ic interest, he said, by bringing the wisdom of the Church back into the public sphere.