She was working the drive-through window at 4 in the afternoon. But whenever there was a lull between orders, the young woman returned to a table in the corner of the local Burger King. Three kids were sitting there, with schoolbooks, papers and pencils all spread out, doing their homework. And Mom was helping as best she could while keeping straight the orders for Whoppers, fries and chicken nuggets. Given her low wages, this single mother was no doubt balancing more than fast food and homework; she was also deciding between paying the rent, going to the doctor and getting prescriptions when somebody gets sick -- or worrying about winter boots for her kids. I call her "Burger King Mom."
"Soccer moms" and "NASCAR dads" have received much attention in recent election campaigns. But who will speak to or for Burger King Mom? She may live in a red or blue state, but neither party is much interested in her or her family's issues. She is part of the low-income demographic most unrepresented in U.S. politics, with the lowest levels of both voter registration and turnout -- and with a high percentage of immigrants. Many low-income people have a hard time connecting to voting: it's too complicated, there are too many other things to worry about, and there is too little reason for confidence that the outcome will make much difference for them.
The Republicans look after their wealthy constituents, and the Democrats want to be the champions of the middle class. Neither makes a priority of the needs of the poor. Is that because the problems of poverty are disappearing in America? Hardly. The poverty rate (including that for children) has risen over the past two years. More people than ever are without health insurance. Increasing numbers of people can't find affordable housing. The minimum wage hasn't been raised for seven years.
Yet poverty is simply not a political issue. The "p" word came up in the Democratic primaries only in the speeches of John Edwards and, briefly, Howard Dean. It has not been mentioned since. John Kerry has hardly said a word about low-income families as he reaches out to the middle class.
And George Bush's faith-based initiative has been reduced to a photo op, while domestic spending that most affects the poor has been drastically cut in favor of war, homeland security and tax cuts that mostly benefit the rich. The media have yet to report on the condition of low-income American families who have also become the casualties of war.
We need to redefine the poverty issue as one of growing income inequality in America, and one that increasingly affects working families. American inequality is now greater than at any time since the roaring injustice of the 1920s or the rampant wealth and poverty of the Gilded Age in the 19th century. The Bush administration's tax policies seem deliberately aimed at returning to the wealth distribution of those periods. But especially since the 1990s, both parties are following the dictates of their corporate donors more than the dictates of compassion or justice. The Republicans run as compassionate conservatives and then govern as corporatists, while the Democrats run as populists, then also govern as corporatists.
Most Americans believe that if you work hard and full time, you should not be poor. But the truth is that many working families are, and many low-income breadwinners must hold down multiple jobs just to survive. With stagnant wages in an economy that is growing for some but clearly not for others, more and more people and their children are simply being left out and left behind. What is at risk is the reality of a genuine opportunity society and the ethic of work when work no longer is enough to support a family.
The good news is that religious leaders and communities from across the theological and political spectrum are responding to the vacuum of political leadership on poverty and income inequality. In fact, poverty is becoming the defining moral issue for many in the faith community -- including evangelicals and Pentecostals as well as Catholics, mainline Protestants and the black churches. While divided on other issues such as gay marriage and abortion, some church leaders are displaying a determined "unity" to make poverty a religious issue in this election year. Maybe Burger King Mom will have somebody speaking for her and her kids after all.
The writer is convener of Call to Renewal, a network of churches and faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty, and editor of Sojourners magazine. He will answer questions at 2 p.m. today at www.washingtonpost.com.