Rep. Steve Southerland answered questions about what Congress can do to help those in poverty at a news conference Thursday, though he was hesitant to specify which government programs that help the poor are wasteful.
"I know one thing: That poverty is not even being discussed in this campaign, by either party," Bob Woodson said.
But it was being discussed last week on Capitol Hill by Woodson, the founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a throng of fellow anti-poverty activists and two conservative Congressmen representing the Republican Study Committee.
Helping the poor is a crucial tenant of Christianity, the faith explicitly proclaimed at the press conference and that principally informs the moral stands of the social conservative movement.
But it is mostly absent in the conversation about politics on the right, in part because many conservatives believe charity, not government, is the proper venue for assisting the needy, and they feel that many of government's efforts have inadvertently hurt the poor.
So the press conference Thursday had a bit of awkwardness to it, as Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) faced questions from reporters about what the group was calling on Congress to do as it stood in the shadow of the Capitol Dome. He was also hesitant to specify which government programs that help the poor are wasteful.
Somewhat ironically, the dismal economy has pushed poverty from the larger political discussion, as both parties focus on the economic concerns of the middle class. "I'm not concerned about the very poor - we have a safety net there," GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said in February, to criticism.
In July, a long list of religious leaders banded together, pressing Romney and President Barack Obama to say what they would do in office to help hungry and poor people, a question both answered in video responses. Woodson's Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit bills itself as using the "principles that function in the market economy" to help the poor.
A veteran of the civil rights movement, Woodson said he realized after those battles that "race alone is not just the chief barrier. That there was poverty, there was disadvantage."
He gravitated to the right, working with the late Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and later with Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on welfare reform.
"It is the attitude, values and beliefs of the people that determines either how they achieve or not achieve" in poverty, Woodson said.
So, what should Congress do?
Woodson offered one specific example: Foster care programs should be designed to transition children into adoption rather than to keep them in the foster system.
Ronnie "Rsen" Ortiz, a Richmond, Va., pastor and anti-poverty activist who also spoke at the press conference, said government grants are out of reach for much humanitarian work because of onerous rules and red tape that go along with accepting the funds.
Specifically, federal funds are often restricted to grantees with a certain level of education or certification.
"I don't have a Ph.D, but I went to the school of hard knocks. I take the Ph.D with me to Giblin Courts at 12 o'clock midnight, and we'll see whose credentials look better there," Ortiz said.
Rules against funding religious organizations also get in the way, he said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.,), a leading progressive in Congress, speaks about the politics of poverty more naturally because it has long been a topic of the political conversation on the left.
"It's one thing to talk about poverty in the abstract, like the study group does, and talk about poverty in the reality. And there's a certain amount of hypocrisy, my friend, that when you look at the Ryan budget that's been adopted by the Republican Party and by this caucus here in the House, that does more to decimate opportunities to bring people out of poverty than any one instrument that we have going," he said, referring to the budget introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the GOP vice presidential nominee.
Grijalva said Congressional liberals have sought to drive a discussion on the poor and that its near-absence from the presidential campaign was despite those efforts.
"We've done that over and over. I don't think we have the cache, like the Republican Study Committee, to bring all of you around. We see that as a critical issue. The fact that it hasn't been embraced entirely by everyone is not for lack of effort," he said.
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