Many factors have led to the rise of poverty in the United States.
“As poverty around the world seems to be getting better, poverty in America seems to be on the increase,” Dr. Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University, said at People for Care and Learning’s third annual poverty symposium Thursday.
Campolo encouraged his audience to be a part of changing the systems that have created this rise in poverty.
Campolo pointed to poor early childhood education, the “breakdown of the family,” government spending on war, racism, debt, flawed tax and health care systems and vast challenges to becoming a legal U.S. immigrant as factors contributing to poverty in the U.S.
“We not only have to deal with the victims of the system, we have to change the system. You know and I know that for every person we rescue from poverty, the system will create four and five more to take his or her place. We’ve got to change the system,” Campolo said.
Profit cannot be the only goal people have, if poverty is to end, he asserted. Campolo encouraged Christians to look to fair profits as a way to helping others.
“That’s why Christians need to go to Wall Street. That’s why Christians need to go to the banking systems — to make profits, yes — but to make profit secondary to meeting people’s needs,” Campolo said.
He said approximately 20 percent of Americans are living in poverty, asserting that immigration and tax laws need to be changed if poverty is going to end in the U.S.
He said “tax loopholes,” allowing the wealthy to pay a lower percentage of their annual income than a middle class person, need to end. He also stated the government needs to put an end to the high interest rates that compound on credit card debt to end usury by banks and credit card companies.
Challenges to getting a green card can only be overcome with the help of a lawyer, Campolo said. This makes it difficult for a poor person to legally come into this country. Getting a green card usually takes two years.
He reminded people that Texas, New Mexico, California and Arizona were taken from Mexico.
“And I say if you take something, don’t you owe something back, and furthermore we need these people. The farm industry would collapse tomorrow morning if it wasn’t for these illegal immigrants,” Campolo said.
He said there are also factories that need these workers. He said whether a person can become a citizen should be based more on a background check, and less on how much money someone has.
Undocumented immigrants often make 15 percent less than minimum wage.
He said a process needs to be created to let those who have come to this country illegally pay back taxes and a fee, but gain citizenship. He proposed a 5 percent fee on the person’s taxes.
Under his plan, a $10,000 fine would be paid through this fee, but since they are now making minimum wage it would still be more than they were making.
Another system that needs to be changed is welfare, Campolo said.
He said the current system “almost encourages people to have children” whether they can provide for them or not, and whether they are married or not, because government programs will provide and care for them
Last year, according to Campolo, 50 percent of the children born in the United States were born to unmarried parents.
“We all know that when children are born into a single-parent home, usually to teenage mothers, the probability that their mothers will live in poverty and that they will live in poverty is extremely high,” Campolo said.
Campolo asked how Christians should respond. He said the Church needs to respond by teaching young people about love. He said society needs to stop sexualizing women to the point they are seen merely as objects.
Teenagers need to understand that love goes beyond romance, Campolo said, “to relate to another in a way that you enhance that person’s dignity.”
“Anything that diminishes the humanity of another person is evil,” Campolo said.
Campolo said it is important for the church to come alongside single parents “and provide help.”
“It seems to me that every church … should provide an early childhood education program,” Campolo said.
He said this is increasingly important, as the government seems to be “giving up on early childhood education,” even though data shows that the first four years of life are very important to learning later in life.
“If we are going to destroy poverty, we are going to have to get into early childhood education. There is no escape from that,” Campolo said.
Campolo said there would be more money for education if less funding was given to the military for fighting foreign wars. He said throughout the Iraq war, it cost the U.S. $250,000 a minute.
“Education is a vehicle by which people are able to escape poverty,” Campolo said.
He encouraged students present to be teachers and to go to school systems where they are truly needed.
Health care needs to be addressed because hospital bills have led to people losing their homes as insurance ran out and they had to pay for cancer treatments or major surgeries.
He said millions of Americans do not have hospital coverage.
“Are you going to stand back and say the richest country in the world is not able to take care of its own people?” he asked. “What’s happened to us that we don’t care about those who suffer? … What’s wrong with the church that has desensitized us?”