Why Do We Turn Away?

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Matthew HINTON / AFP / Getty Images

John Edwards after a speech in the Upper Ninth Ward in New Orleans in January 2008

If we want to end the great moral shame of America — the 37 million Americans who are denied economic justice in our country — then we need to ask the most basic question: why? Not why are "they" struggling every day, but why do we accept things as they are?

Why do we accept that the waitress who just brought us lunch needs the church's food pantry to feed her daughter for the rest of the month? She's working and that should be enough.

Why do we accept that the man who just bagged our groceries is 72 years old and lost everything when his wife got sick? He's worked all of his life and retirement shouldn't mean more work.

Why do we accept that the men and women who wore our uniform are committing suicide in their trucks because they can't afford to see a doctor? They served us and they shouldn't even have to ask.

Why do we accept the family living in their car, the mentally ill and the addicts who die on our streets, and the children who go to school tired and hungry? Maybe we accept things as they are because poverty has always been with us and we think nothing will change. Or maybe we accept things as they are because it's so easy to look away.

And that demands that we ask another question: why has it been so easy for us to look away?

We didn't look away when Katrina hit. We looked right at the families on the rooftops, the children crying at the Super Dome, the seniors trying to stay alive. We saw that this was America. This was "us:" the struggle and the help.

But, the hard truth is that it's been 40 years since we have led a sustainable effort to fight for economic justice in this country. We had many successes and failures in the 1960s, but we've forgotten the most important lesson: in order to end poverty you have to make it a priority. Well, if Moses was able to find the Promised Land after 40 years in the desert, then certainly we can renew the cause after wandering in our own.

Our journey begins by letting Americans know that something can be done: that acceptance of the ways things are can be replaced with real actions that will build a just world.

Last week, I joined a new campaign called "Half in Ten" which focuses on the belief that we can cut the poverty rate in half in the next ten years.

Here's how. We can make sure that waitress earns enough by raising the minimum wage so that it's a livable wage. We can give her a tax break by expanding the Earned Income Tax and Child Tax Credits. We can ensure that parents all across this country donít have to choose between the job they need and the heartache of leaving their child in substandard care by guaranteeing access to quality child care. And when hardship hits when a job is lost, we should expand eligibility for Unemployment Insurance so families don't slip deeper into trouble.

The "Half in Ten" proposals are practical, proven and effective measures to get us closer to that goal. They could be enacted tomorrow if Congress and the President chose to, and for a fraction of the cost of George Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. This kind of leadership might not happen this year, but we can hope for the future. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have embraced these goals and with a Democratic President, I know they will be reached.

The common thread running through these proposals is work. In America, it's supposed to be enough. Most of the people I've met donít need an economist to tell them that hard work isn't paying these days. You see it in their faces: the pride that comes from work and that panic about what tomorrow might bring.

I saw it in a mother in Kansas City who bundled her kids up at night with coats and hats because there was no heat and said to her children, "Don't tell the people at school or they'll take you away." I saw it in the great man I met in Virginia who went 50 years without speaking because he had no health insurance to correct a simple problem. He was so grateful and humble when someone fixed it for free and he could tell his story.

We don't want to look away from them anymore. We don't want to accept their daily struggles. We want to embrace their coming triumphs.

Four decades ago when Bobby Kennedy took a tour of the forgotten places in America, the image that lingers with me is him bending down and touching a young child whose stomach was swollen from malnutrition. He did not look away. He did not accept things as they are. He saw things as they could be and asked, "Why not."

And after 40 years, it is time for us to extend a hand, embrace our neighbors, co-workers, and friends and build One America that works for all of us.

Why not?