Opinion: A Plea to Prioritize Poverty Before and After the Election

Earlier this month, President Obama and Mitt Romney took a moment to directly address the high poverty rate in this country. In response to a request from my organization, Bread for the World, and other church groups, the presidential candidates released video statements in which each talked about how he would help hungry and poor people. They clearly have different priorities when it comes to spending and taxes, but both explicitly affirmed the general principle of maintaining a circle of protection around funding that serves the most vulnerable people.

They both also stressed the need for more and better jobs.

The Federal Reserve Board also recently addressed the stalled recovery, acting to keep interest rates near zero to help revive the economy and stimulate employment. This is promising news for hungry and poor people. With unemployment stuck above 8 percent and inflation below 2 percent, the Fed did the right thing. The main reason for increased poverty in the United States — now touching 46 million people — is high unemployment.

At Bread for the World, we usually don't focus on monetary policy, but circumstances now demand greater attention to overall economic well-being.

While programs like SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) and Medicaid have helped alleviate the effects of poverty, a stronger U.S. job market would do more to reduce hunger and poverty both here and abroad. Throughout the global economic downturn, U.S. aid to poor countries has helped people around the world cope with hunger. But a revived U.S. economy could do even more.

Remarkably, we are seeing promising developments in Congress, which is now in the process of approving appropriations for the next six months — without the wrangling and uncertainty that have sapped confidence and slowed the economic recovery in recent years.

Congress has the opportunity to forge a bipartisan compromise on a budget agreement that will put our country on a path to long-term fiscal health. This agreement should maintain a circle of protection around programs focused on hungry and poor people in our country and around the world. And it should stimulate growth in the short term, while reducing U.S. deficit spending over the long term.

A bipartisan group of senators — the so-called Gang of Eight — continues to work toward a compromise that it hopes to propose in the lame-duck session of Congress after the November elections. No matter how the elections turn out, the minority party will still have enough sway in Congress to block an economic deal. So the solution must be bipartisan and must include some increase in taxes and some cuts in government spending.

A bipartisan deal can, as the Simpson-Bowles commission recommended, protect government programs that are focused on poor people. The Gang of Eight seems inclined to include protection for poor people in its proposal, and now Obama and Romney have both called for a circle of protection around hungry and poor people.

Coupled with the Fed's recent action, a budget compromise after the election would put us on a path toward economic recovery — which is important to everybody, but especially to hungry and poor people in our country and around the world.

David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World. He is both a pastor and an economist. The Obama and Romney video statements on poverty can be seen at www.bread.org.