Pope Francis and President Obama, possibly the two most famous people in the world, will meet for the first time in March.
President Obama and Pope Francis will meet sometime in March when Obama visits Rome. The Pope and President are two of the most known figures in the world, and the meeting comes at a time when they share a cause: poverty and inequality.
Pope Francis has been beating the drum on poverty for much of his career, while Obama has taken it on intermittently, but plans to make it a central issue this year in the leadup to the 2014 midterm elections. “Poverty,” however, is a big concept and Obama and Francis should use their meeting to focus on specific initiatives that they can both support.
1. Universal Housing
The polar vortex made clear that there is a humanitarian need to provide basic shelter. While the extreme cold in the Northeast and Midwest affected everyone, the homeless were put in mortal danger. Pope Francis recently said, and Obama later quoted him, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
The logistics of providing shelter to everyone in the United States are challenging to say the least, but one way would be for Congress to approve a fund that cities could apply for to construct and maintain basic housing. It’s highly unlikely that this Congress would pass a bill like that, but the push could do plant the seed for future legislation, and more progressive countries might decide to take that plunge first.
2. Raise the Minimum Wage
Democrats are going to push this initiative all over the country, and Obama would score a major coup by getting the Pope behind this message. A full time job at minimum wage ought brings in $14,500 a year, assuming one works 50 weeks a year with perfect attendance. That is 126 percent over the poverty line. That would be okay if minimum wage jobs were mostly for young people working their first jobs. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, half of all workers making minimum wage or less were over 25. Raising the minimum wage is good economics and good morals.
3. Crack Open the Tax Havens
While Obama has been hesitant to come after the rich beyond some modest tax bumps and banking regulations, Pope Francis does not need their support for his party, and has even taken a swipe at Reaganomics:
"Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."
While both Obama and Francis may long to reshape the tax code, that might be a tall order, at least in the U.S. Where they could galvanize the public is the issue of tax havens: the many small nations that attract the wealth of corporations and rich people with tax loopholes and the ability to hide their money.
The Cayman Islands may be the symbol of the tax haven, but Ireland, the City of London, Bermuda, and even individual states within the U.S. serve various tax haven functions. A crackdown on these money sinks could stimulate the economy and make the rich play by the same rules as everyone else.
4. More Public Projects
The U.S. government is the largest employer in the U.S., and there are plenty of public works projects to take on. Bridges that need fixing, infrastructure updates to water and electrical systems, maybe an influx in public housing (see item 1). Government spending boosts the economy and employs many lower and middle class workers. Obama has been making this case for years. Maybe if he the blessing of Pope Francis, he could pass an ambitious spending bill.
5. A Renewed Push For Civic Engagment
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the National Day of Service, which the Obamas have participated in every year, but how about a monthly day? The third of the month, the first Sunday, however you want to do it. This is one initiative where the President and the Pope could come together in a call to help one another and improve the communities we live in. An annual holiday is a nice gesture, but a monthly day can get people into the habit and make a real difference.