The day after returning from a conference in Washington, D.C., in late February on the persistence of hunger in the United States, I took the subway to the upper west side of Manhattan to hear Mario Cuomo speak on a similar theme. His address was part of a forum called "The Intransigence of Poverty in America," held at Union Theological Seminary and sponsored by the Drum Major Institute.
Looking fit and energetic, the former governor of New York held sway on a variety of issues—the deplorable state of public education, the lack of health care for over 44 million Americans and other social justice matters. But in this pre-Super Tuesday talk, he voiced particular disappointment at what he described as "a huge dose of major issue avoidance," both on the part of the candidates and the media. When a reporter asked how big a political mistake George Bush made in appearing at the Bob Jones University, he dismissed the query and said: "Talk to me about poverty, about the 38 million poor people in the United States—more than we had in 1987." But poverty is not a vote-getting subject.
Mr. Cuomo's own comments on poverty were based partly on his religious convictions: "My pope and my bishops say what you're supposed to do when you're as powerful and wealthy as we are now—see to it that the people who have fallen behind get the help they need." Clearly this is not happening, and he went on to deplore the reluctance of Congress to provide adequate funding for programs benefiting low-income Americans. At the hunger conference in Washington, for example, speakers pointed out that as a result of welfare reform many needy Americans go without food stamps partly because, on leaving welfare, they do not know they may still be eligible, and partly because of needless barriers that stem to some degree from welfare reform. Welfare reform does not rank high in Mr. Cuomo's books.
Imagining a conversation with God, Mr. Cuomo pictured God as looking down at the Israelites of the Old Testament and saying: "You are all brothers and sisters; no one is to be preferred over another." Poor people in this country, though, are marginalized in favor of the well-off, whose prosperity continues to grow. Then he moved forward in time to Jesus and his command that we love one another. That, he said, is what we should all be talking about. Looking at the Constitution, he observed that although it speaks of freedom for the individual, "nowhere does it say love one another, take care of one another, and if they're poor and unable to do everything on their own, reach out." Given surpluses in the trillions, he found the shortfall of reaching out to be especially reprehensible.
He went on to say that while upper income people like himself are automatically given Medicare and Social Security, "you do not give enough money for public schools or to help disabled people." "I'm tired of your excuses," he said of shortsighted leaders who refuse to see that "we will find our own good in the good of the whole community." The fact that poverty should still be "intransigent" is no small matter for shame, not least when—again as noted at the Washington meeting—one looks at other nations with fewer resources providing far better safety nets for their vulnerable citizens.
The chairman of the Drum Major Institute, the former ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, said at the conclusion of Mr. Cuomo's address that, having heard some of the greatest speakers and preachers of the last 50 years, we ourselves had heard one of them that morning. An exaggeration? Perhaps. Oratorical skills aside, however, who could not but admire this compassionate man who, as governor, steadfastly resisted pressure to reinstate the death penalty in New York? He alluded to the pope's rejection of it; but he had already rejected it years before as contrary to his belief in a just and loving God-die same God who must surely be offended by our treatment of poor people.