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Nuns Ask Candidates To Spend A Day With The Poor


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about how religion and spirituality affect our lives.

Coming up, Missouri voters recently approved a state constitutional amendment to protect the right to pray in public spaces, but critics worry that the law could marginalize non-Christians. We'll hear more about the controversial amendment in a few moments.

First, we focus on an effort to put poverty on the agenda for the presidential campaign. A group of Catholic nuns has invited Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to spend a day with them, helping the poor to overcome, quote, "his lack of understanding of the struggles families and children face as they work to get out of poverty," unquote.

We're joined now by Sister Simone Campbell. She's the executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby. She was also the leader of the Nuns on a Bus tour, which traveled the country earlier this summer to protest the budget plan of congressman - now vice presidential candidate - Paul Ryan.

Sister Campbell, welcome back to the program.

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: So good to be with you.

LYDEN: What is it, specifically, about Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan's policies that prompted you to invite them to spend time with the poor?

CAMPBELL: Well, it got started when Governor Romney campaign issued a ad that basically said that President Obama was encouraging dependence on federal programs and that this was making people lazy.

LYDEN: That you didn't have to work for the money, that there was no welfare work program?

CAMPBELL: Right. They just gave them money.

LYDEN: Well, if they were to accept this invitation and if they were to agree that that is what the ad says - and I'm sure that they would not - what would they see?

CAMPBELL: They would see folks like we met, folks like Billy, who's working part time because his job got cut back and has enough money to put a roof over his family's head or food on the table, so he chose a roof in order for his kids to not be homeless and stay in the same school system and now he uses food stamps to feed his folks, as well as going to St. Benedict's dining room in Milwaukee every evening to have a warm, good meal.

You'd see folks like Tia, who's struggling really hard, having been a foster kid, learning how to raise her kids, get an education and become a nurse. You'd see folks like Shayesha(ph), who has really been able to get her GED, is now in college, is working towards her BA degree and is pulling her life together.

I have a whole litany of people, but the other thing that I've realized is that, every place I have gone since the bus trip, I keep meeting people with similar stories who are struggling who you would never know because they're unseen.

This one driver I had taking me to a studio in St. Louis - he was struggling so hard. His wife and himself have four kids and they thought they would get a better deal if she got some more education, so they took out a $25,000 education loan so that she could get trained as a medical technician in a private, for-profit school. And she ends up only being able to get a $10 an hour job. Now, while they're not in poverty and below the poverty line, they're struggling desperately.

LYDEN: What about the fact that, under President Obama, poverty has actually risen and, when it comes to Catholic ethics, personal responsibility is also a very large point.

CAMPBELL: Personal responsibility has definitely risen as people continue to struggle. The real reason why things are different from the 1970s is that the fact is that people making minimum wage are below the poverty level. In the 1970s, if you made minimum wage, you were above poverty, but because we haven't raised the minimum wage in a responsible fashion as a nation and because corporations and employers have chosen to continue to keep wages flat, people who now would have - in the '70s, would have been making more money are now below poverty, so...

LYDEN: But I guess what I'm asking you is do you think the administration has done enough to fight poverty? Your bus tour took off after the Ryan plan was introduced in April.

CAMPBELL: Right. We were criticizing the plan that the House passed because it's so horrible. I probably wouldn't think anybody had ever done quite enough, but this administration at least has done some really good things to coordinate services, to make sure that they're integrated, that people don't have to apply about five or six times for different services, different programs or even reapply for the same service.

So, while I criticize this administration for not attending to it enough, never talking about it, it's not enough, but it's way better than the House budget that wants to decimate domestic programs.

LYDEN: Now, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is also taking a stance on this budget.

CAMPBELL: The bishops said it didn't pass the moral test.

LYDEN: And what exactly do you think, in a nutshell, would you say...

CAMPBELL: Well, because the House budget shifts money to the wealthy and it also gives the Pentagon $8 billion more without requiring accountability than what the Pentagon asks for. And, in order to pay for those, they cut all social service programs.

LYDEN: One last question. Do you think Americans understand and empathize with poverty?

CAMPBELL: Absolutely. But one of the hard things is is that many people who are falling into poverty or are so afraid that they're going to fall into poverty that they struggle and that very fear drives us apart and makes it harder for us to fix the situation.

LYDEN: And the solution?

CAMPBELL: The solution is for us to come together as a nation, have a conversation about the hard things. Everybody needs to be involved in solving this. It has to be business, government, individuals, families, rich people, poor people. Everybody has to work together. That's what democracy's about.

LYDEN: That was Sister Simone Campbell. She's the executive director of Network. It's a Catholic lobby for social justice and she joined me here in our Washington studio.

Sister Simone Campbell, thank you for coming in.

CAMPBELL: So glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.