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Poor? Join the 37 million Americans just like you. 

Prior to 2008, the United States was in a period of economic growth, but the Bush administration used the windfall to fund the war on terror—in part, at the expense of the poor.

"The tragedy is when we had a period of economic growth we didn't use that to reduce poverty in this country," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Washington, D.C., faith-based lobby. "We blew our chance."

Bread for the World urges lawmakers "to end hunger at home and abroad."

Today the number of people living in poverty is rising far faster than the needs of the poor can be met, said Beckmann, a Lutheran minister. From 2001 to 2007, when the economy was growing, the number of American citizens living in poverty nonetheless increased by more than a third, to a total of 37 million, Beckmann said.

While the 2008 numbers have yet to be released, the number of impoverished people in this country is likely to increase by 7 million to 10 million before the recession is over, Beckmann said.

Last year, the U.S. spent roughly $187 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only has the U.S. failed to care for its low-income citizens, the country ranks last in foreign assistance to the poor when measured as a percentage of national income—just one-half of 1 percent.

The wars have been "a massive diversion of attention and resources from the things that make for peace and prosperity, and real hope for our nation and the world," Beckmann said in a telephone interview. "It's clear that our country's priorities have been hijacked by the war against terror, and that the same dollars, the same effort, used to reduce poverty in our own communities as well as around the world would have done a lot more to make us more secure."

President Barack Obama's "shift from a war-dominated foreign policy to a more balanced foreign policy is really good news for poor people," Beckmann said.

While Beckmann praises former president George W. Bush for being "socially progressive on global poverty reduction," Obama is "a president who's promised to end child hunger in America," including cutting U.S. poverty rates by half supporting the global goal of reducing hunger and poverty by 2015.

Even in hard economic times, the American people are willing to help those in most need, Beckmann said. In a Bread for the World poll conducted on Election Day 2008, 70 percent of voters surveyed favored spending more tax money to reduce global poverty, Beckmann said. "There's a lot of generosity among U.S. voters."

Where to go, how to participate

The Rev. David Beckman will be in Raleigh Feb. 27-28 as the keynote speaker for Hunger No More, a conference sponsored by The Franciscan Coalition of The Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi Church, 11401 Leesville Road.

The ecumenical, interfaith conference is "designed to provide comprehensive and innovative approaches to combating hunger and its effects," said organizer Megan Nerz. Episcopal deacon Jill Staton-Bullard, founder of Raleigh's Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, will also speak at the event.

To register for the Hunger No More conference, go to www.franciscancoalition.org or call 847-8205, ext. 270.

Bread for the World encourages people to write Congress about hunger and poverty issues. For info, e-mail bread@bread.org or call 1-800-82-BREAD.

Ban the box

Finding a job during a recession is hard enough. Try getting hired if you're an ex-con. According to the Rev. Duane Beck of Congregations for Social Justice, 70 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks of job applicants. Most applications include a box the person must check if he or she has been arrested. Checking Yes is usually enough to disqualify the applicant.

Each year, 27,000 people are released from North Carolina prisons, while 28,000 enter—nearly 50 percent of those are repeat offenders. In all, 98 percent of state inmates are eventually released. It's those ex-offenders CSJ is trying to help by pushing for a new law that would "ban the box" on job applications so ex-offenders would have a chance to advance in the application process. Once the applicant has qualified for the job, then he or she would have to disclose a prior criminal record.

"Most ex-offenders have no chance to demonstrate their abilities to successfully hold jobs for which they were applying," said Beck, pastor of the Raleigh Mennonite Fellowship and CSJ's Community Corrections Task Group. The group helps ex-offenders find meaningful employment, a factor that studies show is key to reducing recidivism.

If incarceration rates continue at the current pace, the state will face an annual shortage of 1,500 to 2,000 prison beds, at a cost of $80,000 per bed for new prison construction. High quality jobs with adequate hours and pay that lead to viable careers "truly reduce recidivism," Beck said.

CSJ's Housing Task Group is trying to help low-income people who are having an increasingly difficult time finding affordable housing in Wake County.

According to task group chair Alan Reberg, the average monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Wake County is $945, which is equivalent to $11,340 a year. If a family of four spends one-third of its income on housing, which is typical, the household would need to bring in $40,000 annually. This amount is out of reach for two adults each earning less than $10 an hour.

The task group is pushing for a mandatory "inclusionary zoning" ordinance requiring that a share of new development larger than a certain size be affordable for people with low to moderate incomes.

"We think inclusionary zoning is important because we value mixed-income neighborhoods," Reberg said. "Voluntary inclusionary zoning does not work."

See also "Pushing Raleigh on affordable housing initiatives."

HKonJ, Year 3

The state's largest coalition of progressives will take to the streets of downtown Raleigh Saturday for Year 3 of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street (www.hkonj.com) march and rally.

More than 5,000 people attended HKonJ in 2008, calling on state legislators to support a progressive agenda that includes abolition of the death penalty, criminal justice reform, economic justice and support for labor unions.

The NAACP is the main sponsor. State NAACP President the Rev. William Barber is scheduled to speak at the event. In a Black History Week speech last week at Wake Technical Community College, Barber called the election of Barack Obama "a watershed moment," but "his election does not mean the end of racism. Everything did not change automatically when Obama was sworn in."

The HKonJ march begins at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 14, at Chavis Park, 505 MLK Jr. Blvd., Raleigh. Marchers will meet at 9:30 and continue to Jones Street, the site of the state legislature.

Anti-racism conference

A stage production of Timothy Tyson's award-winning book, Blood Done Sign My Name, about the 1970 racially motivated murder of Henry Marrow in Oxford, N.C., will be performed Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, 3313 Wade Ave. The play is included as part of a two-day anti-racism conference, "Understanding and Addressing White Privilege." The conference opens Feb. 20 at 5 p.m. For more information, contact Dianne Irwin at dianni@mindspring.com or call 781-3651.

My final column

Due to budget constraints, the Independent is suspending my column, Religious Left. I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to readers for their support throughout the years. I will still write occasionally for the Indy. You can contact me at: pmtoneill@aol.com.

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