Miller: A Minister's Mission to Fight Poverty

A volunteer hands out a hot meal at a New York soup kitchen. Viviane Moos / Corbis

In a political season, it’s easy for a journalist to be cynical—until David Beckmann walks into your office. Beckmann, in his blue blazer, looks like any Washington lobbyist, down to the dark circles under his eyes. But his message is completely without spin and his manner is as flat as the Nebraska plains where he grew up. An economist and former executive at the World Bank, Beckmann believes it is possible to end world hunger and poverty through good politics and policies. As a Lutheran minister and president of Bread for the World, a nonprofit aimed at turning decision makers’ attention to those the Bible calls “the least of these,” he believes a Christian has no other option. “If you want to get close to God, you’ve got to do right by the poor,” he said last month at the National Press Club.

Though Beckmann has rubbed elbows with Bono and Angelina Jolie on the aid-to-Africa circuit, and though he continues to speak at the United Nations and to Congress on behalf of the world’s poorest people—in Mozambique, for example, and Bangladesh—his recent mission has been to illuminate the plight of the domestic poor. And so he arrives at our meeting armed with numbers. In America, more than a million children were hungry in 2008, a 56 percent jump from the year before, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (New hunger numbers are due out in November; analysts expect them to rise again.) Nearly one in four children had experienced “food insecurity,” which means, in the vernacular, “sometimes not having enough to eat.” According to new data from the U.S. Census, 14.3 percent of Americans are poor, up from 13.2 percent the year earlier—an increase of nearly 4 million people and the second-highest jump since 1960.

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Hunger is related to poverty and poverty to unemployment. So it’s no surprise that, with unemployment hovering at about 10 percent, U.S. poverty is going up. What particularly infuriates Beckmann, and this he expresses in the mildest way, is that despite all the midterm talk about “the next generation” and “our future,” neither party has made poverty an election-year priority. “There has been no sustained effort to reduce poverty since Nixon,” he says. “No recent president has made reducing poverty one of his top three issues. Even the Democrats hide it. It’s sort of like they’re concerned, but don’t want anyone to know.”

On the day he visited my office, Beckmann had been chatting, he says, with the philanthropist Melinda Gates at the United Nations about why highly visible businesspeople and celebrities aren’t moved to take up the cause of domestic poverty. “Poor people here are uncomfortably close,” Beckmann says. “You can go to a meeting about helping poor people in Africa and not get your hands dirty. If you work with poor people in this country, well, you’ve got to work with them. It’s not easy to do that in a way that’s glamorous.” In a place where the average income is $350 a year, a $10 contribution makes a huge difference; here, the problems are more entrenched. And in a wealthy country, the poor tend to be disproportionately afflicted with disabilities: old age, infirmity, addiction. “It’s hard,” says Beckmann, “to make the glitter stick.”

Even local pastors testify to this bias. “We’ve gotten really criticized for not doing enough for people overseas,” says Bil Cornelius, pastor of the Bay Area Fellowship in south Texas, a church where most of the mission budget goes to helping the local poor. “I can’t really speak for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt—it’s good to help poverty everywhere—but to say there’s no poverty in America, it’s just turning a blind eye.”

Here, Beckmann issues one more gentle complaint. Conservatives argue on the stump that lower taxes and a smaller government will give more money back to Americans—who can then use their extra cash to help the poor. Beckmann disputes the premise. Charities have proliferated in America, especially since 1980, he says, but “we have seen no progress against hunger and poverty in our country. A thousand points of light is not enough light.” Beckmann believes real change comes through politics, not soup kitchens, which is why Bread for the World encourages its member churches to launch letter-writing campaigns on such unglamorous issues as tax credits for the working poor. Moses, he points out, was not sent by God to pick up a few cans and warm blankets at Pharaoh’s court. He was sent to change the world.

Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor and the author of  Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife. Become a fan of Lisa on Facebook.

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