Sunday, September 30, 2012

Aching Visionaries, Insistent Hope

There are many ways to handle sorrow, and I learned them all early: place blame fast and dull the grief with anger. Stuff the sadness in an internal cupboard and slam the door hard. Pretend it’s all fine, splitting fake smile from inner wound until the split goes so deep there’s no wholeness left.

untitled, Oswaldo Guayasamín, Ecuador
The ways we manage sorrow can leave us sick inside, staring out at a harsh world with little trust or joy.

But God invites us to something different: a healthy grief that acknowledges pain, laments loss and yet holds firmly to the promises of hope and healing.

I’m taking a break this week from policy and politics. I’ve been praying for the past four years for a young woman named Emily, hit by lighting over four years ago. My prayer companions and I are spending the weekend with Emily and her mother at Christ the King Retreat Center, in the Diocese of Albany, New York, attending a conference on healing, and praying, as we have been for four years now, for Emily’s complete healing.

In preparation for our time away, I found myself wondering, not about Emily, but about other situations surrounding me: when do we get to write people off? When do we get to say “lost cause”?

When do we get to say “hope is too hard. I’m done”?

I’ve been wondering that in lots of directions.

When I first met Emily, she was in a coma, with insurance company and doctors holding no hope of restoration. The story of that is on the page “Pray for Emily,” which I’ll update when I get home from our weekend. I remember the feeling of standing in her room, surrounded by friends I’d invited to pray, looking at her lifeless form. Pray for complete healing? How? Why?

We prayed, faith stirring, lifting, hope invading us. We prayed for complete healing. Get up, little girl! No movement. No change. We stepped away certain we’d been obedient to God’s call, uncertain about what it all meant, what we should do next.

That journey has continued, as over time Emily began to respond, to track people with her eyes, to blink in response to questions, to smile.

At home in a wheelchair, the gradual healing continued: movement of arms and legs. Strength to stand when placed in a support device. Ability to lurch forward when supported by someone stronger.

Wassily Kandinsky, All Saints, Russia, 1911
The human form is fragile, complex, wonderfully made, beyond understanding. Doctors puzzle over Emily’s hands: she can reach for cookies, can grasp things of the right size placed exactly in reach, yet full motion eludes her.

Therapists puzzle over her speech and vocal chords. She understands words, tries to sing along, but there is damage in places science can’t yet reach, and disconnects between nerves, muscle, brain. Her doctors have no experience of restoration for a brain so long without oxygen, a body so shattered by electrical shock.

We give thanks for miracles: removal of her feeding tube. Ability to sip from a cup.

And we pray for more: a return to complete health, full speech, an active, vibrant life.

This journey with Emily involves mystery on mystery. She lives almost two hours from my house, but once a month I pick up others on the way, and we drive to Stroudsburg to spend two hours in conversation, prayer, and a laugher-filled shared meal. Some days I go wondering if we’re wasting our time, wondering what God has in mind, reminded once again how much I dislike the trucks and ramps of Route 22, one of my least favorite highways, how tired I am of the endless construction north and south on 476.

As I drive home again, the Fridays that we go, I find myself certain, every time, that God is at work, that he has more to teach us, that as the story unfolds our hope will be rewarded. My fragile hope is strengthened, every time, not always by change we see in Emily, but by words of encouragement that emerge in our prayer, by whispers of confirmation, by a reminder that we live between: in this painful place where what is hoped for often remains unseen.

Thinking and praying about this matter of hope, I came across an excerpt from Nicolas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, written to mourn the accidental death of the philospher’s twenty-five year old son Eric.
"Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God's new day, who ache with all their being for that day's coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are aching visionaries."    (Lament for a Son, p.85)
Jesus Healing the Lame, Jean Lambert-Rucki, France, 1940
This idea of aching visionaries reminds me of Walter Brueggemann’s discussion of prophetic voice: as followers of Christ, we’re called to lament the empires of power and destruction, and to insist on hope, even when hope seems impossible.

There are Christians who say God no longer heals, no longer intervenes in human stories in supernatural ways. I disagree. Without confidence in God’s intervention, the Christian faith becomes an empty philosophy, a legalistic dualism insisting on obedience to abstract rules with no real help for our battered hearts and broken bodies.

There are also Christians who look at our political dysfunction and say “don’t bother. It’s not worth the effort. Just take care of yourself. It will never change.” Again, I disagree. We pray each week “Your kingdom come." That kingdom offers health to all, freedom from oppression, provision for the poor, reconciliation between warring factions. We’re called to be agents of that kingdom. Even when change seems impossible. Even when hope is hard work.

Russ Parker, our speaker this weekend, has shared moving stories of physical healing, and also of miraculous intervention in violent, war-torn places. Parker's own work of reconciliation has brought him to Belfast, Rwanda, Burundi, where Pierre Nkurunziza, the current president, a convert to Christianity, has been honored with numerous peace and leadership awards as he prayerfully works to demonstrate the kingdom of God in a nation long oppressed by tribal violence and factionalism. He was re-elected in 2012 by more than 91% of the votes in an election noteworthy for its lack of violence, and Nkurunziza's example of official restraint in the face of an opposition boycott. 

Reconciliation, healing, restoration, new life: hope calls us to the hard work of restoration, forgiveness, prayer, mercy, compassion. Those glimpses God gives call us forward, aching for how far we are from the health and wholeness we're offered, determined to see God's goodness, here, in this day, in this time, in a way that brings him glory.
"Give me a sign of your goodness . . . for you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me." (Psalm 86;17)

Join the conversation.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.  

This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform? 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Makers, Takers, and Immoral Wealth Transfer

We’ve been hearing for years now: “47 percent of Americans don’t pay taxes.” Memes are hard to trace back, but this one seems to have started with a 2009 report by Tax Policy Center fellow Bob Williams, estimating that 47 % of “tax units” would pay no federal income tax in 2009. That number has shifted from year to year, but the 47% idea appears impervious to fact, and was solidified by launch of a "We are the 53%" Tumblr site: "Those of us who pay for those of you who whine about all of that . . . or that . . . or whatever."

We’ve also been hearing references to “makers and takers.” While this idea dates back as far as Ayn Rand (and probably far beyond that), it was affirmed and publicized by a 2008 book by Peter Schwizer called Makers and Takers: Why conservatives work harder, feel happier, have closer families, take fewer drugs, give more generously, value honesty more, are less materialistic and envious, whine less . . . and even hug their children more than liberals.” (And yes, that's all part of the title.

A Fox News editorial in July energized the "maker taker" discussion once again:
"'A house divided against itself cannot stand.'  Abe Lincoln used those words in 1858 to describe a country that was careening toward civil war. Now we’re a house divided again and another civil war is coming, with the 2012 election as its Gettysburg.
Call it America’s coming civil war between the Makers and the Takers. 
"On one side are those who create wealth, America’s private sector. . .
"On the other are the public employee unions; left-leaning intelligentsia who see the growth of government as index of progress; and the millions of Americans now dependent on government through a growing network of government transfer payments,  from Medicaid and Social Security to college loans and corporate bailouts and handouts (think GM and Solyndra).
"Over the past century America’s private sector has been the source of productivity, innovation, creativity, and growth–and gave us the iPhone and iPad. The public sector has been the engine of entitlement, stagnation, and decline -- and gave us Detroit and the South Bronx.   . . .
"That public sector . . . brought us to the point where 48% of Americans are now on some form of government handout."
New York Times, Business Daily, How Do the 47% Vote?
Arthur Herman’s comments were repeated, reposted, retweeted thousands of times, and the ideas he shared continue to surface in poltical speeches, both private and public. The takers, that lazy 47 or 48%, are ruining our economy, fueling our debt, dependent on government handouts.

Set aside, if you can, the damaging, deliberately divisive image of a coming civil war.

And set aside the misleading suggestion that those who don’t pay federal income taxes don’t pay taxes at all, and the reality that many pay state, local, social security and FICA taxes, and all except the most indigent pay sales taxes.

And set aside the mean-spirited idea that our retired, our young, our disabled, are simply “takers” because our contribution can be accurately measured by whether we pay federal income taxes.

And set aside the strange idea that somehow the “private sector” is always the good guy, and the “public sector” just gets in the way.

Or the mention of "handouts" to GM and Solindra, without honest acknowledgement of far larger handouts to fossil fuel, banks, agribusiness, and a host of other private sector enterprises never questioned by those decrying "the growth of government."

Who, really, are the “makers” and the “takers”?

And which direction is wealth being transferred?

This whole question of entitlements is at the heart of the upcoming election: aren’t we tired of the entitlements of the old, the sick, the poor? Aren’t we angry about grants for low income students, subsidized housing for low income families, nutrition assistance for those who don’t work hard enough to feed the children they brought into this world?

And isn’t it immoral to transfer wealth from one group to another?

There’s the question that interests me most: transfer of wealth. Isn’t that socialism?

We’ve been watching a transfer of wealth on a scale hard to imagine, made possible by globalization and the increasing mobility of the global elite.

Fueled and funded, in large part, by quiet shifts in rules that allow government handouts to those who need them least.

But the transfer isn’t the one “makers and takers” proponents have their spotlights on.

Just consider one small change: the capital-gains tax cut of 2003.

A May, 2003, the House Ways and Means committee reported: “In tax year 2003, the capital-gains tax cut which only covers eight months of the year is worth $30,700 to millionaires, but only $42 to households with incomes between $40,000 and $50,000.”

If the average millionaire saved $30,000 in 8 months, that’s $45,000 for the next full tax year. Not bad for a small tax sleight-of-hand.

Most of the “entitlements” so hotly denounced yield small amounts for the families in question: the average SNAP (nutrition assistance) benefit for a family of four is about $6,000. A maximum Pell Grant for a full-time college student is $5,550.  The maximum SSI (social security income) for a disable individual is about $8,400 a year.

Where’s the outcry for the $45,000 a year in wealth transfer accomplished through the capital gains tax cut?

And that’s for the average millionaire. For those in even higher brackets, the take is far, far greater.

Another wealth transfer to consider: mortgage deductions. Why does the government subsidize home ownership, and at what cost? Who benefits?

Full disclosure: my husband and I own a home. We deduct our mortgage – which gives us a tax break each year of at most $2,000.

If we owned a larger, more expensive home, the break would be bigger: according to a recent Pew Charitable Trust study, families in the highest income categories receive a tax subsidy on average of almost $18,000.

I’m happy to see some of my tax dollars help provide housing for those most in need of it. In fact, yes, I’d be willing to give up my own mortgage deduction to ensure adequate housing for families I know who are currently living in substandard, crowded rentals.

But I’m not happy to think that tax subsidies are incentivizing purchase of second homes, or wasteful McMansions. And puzzled that the same people who object to small contributions to the poor are so unconcerned about very large contributions to the rich.

Last year four thousand families with net earnings of over a million each paid no federal income taxes at all. That’s a wealth transfer of hundreds of thousands per each “tax unit.” Do we care?

The difficulty in all of this is a distaste for numbers, a dislike for taxes, and a willingness to believe that “they” are stealing “my” money.  But who are “they”? And what can I do about it?

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities works hard to make numbers visible: their contributions make clear that “the takers” are not always those struggling hardest to get by, and while there may be some “takers” at the low end of the economic ladder, the biggest takers, and the most dangerous to our economy, are at the other end:

Read that housing benefit chart carefully: last year, the goverment gave $105,000,000,000 - $105 billion - in tax benefits for mortgage deductions. Add all the other housing subsidies together, and the total is less than half that. Who are the takers? Where's the wealth transfer?

The current wealth transfer goes much deeper, though, than tax cuts for the wealthy. I’m still trying to understand: how did it become possible for CEOs to pay themselves hundreds of times more than their workers? Why do workers reap an increasingly small share of profit in companies with strong bottom lines? Why do almost one in three working families still struggle to make ends meet? Who benefits from pushing back worker protections, or holding the line on minimum wages?

Who are the takers: the Walmart employees who make $11.75 an hour, $20,000 per year, often paying a large percentage of their wages for health care benefits, often scheduled week to week, with shifting hours that make a second job impossible?

Or the six heirs to the Walmart fortune, who now have a net worth of 89.5 billion, equal to the bottom 41.5 percent of US families combined.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in 1904, “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” Who benefits from the argument against raising taxes in the upper brackets? Which loopholes are our politicians willing to close, and at what cost, what benefit?

Another Supreme Court justice,  Louis Brandeis, wrote in 1897, “we may have a democracy or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” That's even more true when that great wealth can be used, without limit, to influence elections, platforms, policies.

The Apostle James, two thousand years ago, wrote:
“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”
Givers? There are many ways to give. Money is only one measure of our contribution.

Takers? We all take, some of us humbly, and with gratitude. Some of us on a far greater scale, with a far greater sense of entitlement, and far greater harm to those we take from.

Immoral wealth transfer?  The divide continues to grow. The question James asked the church has never been more relevant: “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? . . . Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?”

Join the conversation.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.  

This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Blessed by Government

Last Sunday evening, kayaking on nearby Marsh Creek Lake, I startled a great blue heron, which flew up, squawking, to watch me from a perch high in an dead tree.Two young wood ducks stood their ground on a tree trunk sloping into the water; a belted kingfisher scolded as it flew across the water. 

Circling the far end of the lake I saw a large bird flying toward me, large and dark against the pink of the setting sun. As it came closer I saw the clean white of its stately head, the white of its tail, the strong beat of its large, dark wings: a bald eagle. It passed not far over my head and I turned to watch it go, powerful, determined. I hold the scene in my mind: the striking black and white of the eagle, the pink of the perfect clouds, the green of surrounding trees, the still, blue black of the quiet lake. 

As I turned back toward the landing, a strange thought hit me: this is government at its best. Be thankful. 

Odd thought, right? Yet the moment was made possible by wise government, effectively applied. 

Not long ago, the eagle was on the brink of extinction. Once common on any open waterway, hunting and loss of habitat had diminished their numbers. The 1940 Bald Eagle Act made hunting eagles illegal, but numbers continued to slide.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring described the impact of DDT on eagles and other birds of prey. The chemical, indiscriminately sprayed to control mosquitos and other insects, was ingested by birds, resulting in thin-shelled eggs which broke prematurely. In the following decade, ornithologists, ecologists, toxicologists, insect control specialists and cancer researchers testified regarding the wide-spread harm of DDT, not just to birds, but to the rest of us as well, and in 1972 the federal government banned its use.

By the mid-sixties, fewer than 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles existed in the continental U.S.; now, four decades after the DDT ban, that number is up to around twenty thousand and it’s once again possible to see eagles flying over local lakes and rivers. 

Without federal environmental regulations, properly enforced, the eagle would be long gone, and with it much of the open land, clean air, beautiful shorelines that contribute so deeply to our quality of life.

But my moment of enjoying the eagle in Marsh Creek Park also owed much to state funding of the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, DCNR, which funds and operates 120 state parks. Other government entities have a hand in the park as well: it was created to help supply drinking water through the Chester County Water Resources Authority. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection maintains oversight of water quality, ensuring safe water for our community and others. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission oversees fish populations and boating safety. 

I’m thankful for them all, and thankful for the lake, the park, the clean water every time I turn my faucet. 

I’m thankful for government, and all it contributes to me, my family, my friends. 

I find myself increasingly impatient with arguments for “small government,” or admiring repetition of Grover Norquist’s fatuous goal: “to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” 

Yes, there are countries with smaller governments than ours. Most of them have high rates of illiteracy, inconsistent power supply, inadequate water and sanitation, makeshift health care, insufficient infrastructure. Somalia comes to mind. With no Coast Guard, piracy is rampant. Only 8% of girls in the country enter secondary school, along with 12% of boys. Just 30% of the population has access to “improved” drinking water. Life expectancy? Fifty. 

Maybe we don’t really want a government small enough to drown in a bathtub? Just cut it in half. That would put us at the level of Ethiopia, with government spending at 19.4% of GDP (ours, in 2011, was 38.9%). Ethiopia’s literacy rate?  35.9%. Girls in secondary school? 23%. “Improved” drinking water? 38%. Life expectancy? Sixty.
This argument for smaller government misses the point: we’ve agreed that well-cared for public roads are a value. We’ve prospered with well-funded public education. We’ve asked for help in caring for our elderly, our poor, our chronically ill.  We’ve voted for parks, museums, libraries, infrastructure like public water, sewage, trash collection. We worked hard for regulations on air, water, wages, working conditions. 

The issue, as far as I can see, isn’t big versus small but effective versus ineffective, just versus unjust, wise versus unwise.

There are voices calling to privatize everything from education to roads to parks to ports. 

Who profits? Who loses? Who benefits? Who doesn’t?

In my own state of Pennsylvania, our governor and representatives refused to tax the booming natural gas industry, instead charging a modest “impact fee.” The 2012 budget cut business taxes by $288 million and doubled funding for tax credits for businesses supporting privatized education.

In the name of “smaller government,” it reduced child care programs for low-income working families, eliminated cash assistance for some of the state's most chronically unemployed, sliced funding for county-provided human services, significantly reduced environmental protection staffing at a time when that protection is needed more than ever. The “small government” budget also ensured that needed repairs on roads and bridges are postponed; Pennsylvania now holds the dubious honor of being the state with the largest number of deteriorating bridges. Five thousand of our bridges, one out of four, are in need of structural repair.  

“Government” isn’t some elusive, alien power, sapping our energy, intent on stealing our health and wealth. “Government” is the elementary strings teacher, Mr. Madden, who taught me to love music and practice hard. The deeply commited principal, Carol Bradley, who postponed retirement to shepherd my kids’ elementary school back from the brink of divisive disaster. It’s our old friend Jim Wilson, getting up at four in the morning to go plow the highways, or John M., the park ranger, working hard to preserve park programs he fought for but can no longer staff as his budget is cut once again. 

As I said, I’m thankful for government. Deeply thankful: government helped me pay for college, helped us buy our first home, helped us keep my grandmother in her home when she was too frail to navigate her daily tasks. 

Are there places where I’d make cuts? Happily:

Ecowatch: How Your Tax Dollars become Twinkies
I’d be happy to cut spending on high-tech weapons when we already outspend the next fourteen nations combined. 

And happy to see us spend less locking non-violent offenders away, exploring a mix of public service, restitution, rehab. 

I’d gladly cut agribusiness subsidies - billions of dollars a year spent to undermine our health and undercut small organic farmers. 

And fossil fuel subsidies: do companies whose CEOs receive millions a year really need government billions to keep themselves afloat?

I’m sure I could find more to cut, although oddly, the things I’d cut are the things defended most strongly by those advocating small government.

But teachers? Policemen? Bridge builders? We’ve cut too many already. Hire them back. Fast.

What about government inspectors checking conditions in slaughter houses, factories, restaurants? According to small government proponents, we don’t need them. Not the EPA, the FDA, the FAA, OSCHA.  

A ProPublica review of 220,000 natural gas well inspections found that one well integrity violation was issued for every six hydraulic fracturing wells examined, yet in Pennsylvania, the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) has had its budget cut so sharply that less than one in three wells are inspected each year, and those inspections are done so quickly it's a wonder any violations are observed at all. 

Who benefits when regulations and staffing are cut? When manufacturing waste is dumped into rivers or allowed to seep into uninspected aquifers? When working conditions are left to the good will of employers? When companies can tell you what they want about their products and you have no way of knowing if it’s true?

I suppose that question, who benefits?, will have to wait for another day. 

For today, again, I’m thankful for government, imperfect as it is. Thankful for the bright blue, unpolluted sky, the clean water in my tap, the well-paved roads, the traffic lights that work, the dependable public sewage, the electric grid that powers this computer. 

And for all those people, part of government, who have contributed, continue to contribute, to the lives we take for granted, lives unthinkably easy compared to those with smaller governments, lives unimaginably blessed.

What aspects of government are you thankful for today? Which would you grieve the loss of? Which do we take too much for granted?

Join the conversation.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.  

This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

    Sunday, September 9, 2012

    All Liberals Here . . . Except When We're Not

    In this season of conventions, our language strains and slips under the burden of conflicting meanings. Truth is what we think it is; tolerance is what we choose to accept. Freedom bends to our own definitions. “Right” is anyone’s guess.

    I’ve been increasingly amused, frustrated, mystified, at the way terms like “liberal,” “conservative,” “progressive,” “socialist” are mixed and matched with little regard to original meanings, and at the strange contradictions embraced without a hint of irony.

    Let me focus on the one word that seems to hold the greatest contradiction:


    What is a liberal? And are you one?

    According to the historic definition, a liberal believes in the importance of individual rights, including property rights, personal rights, and the freedom of the individual from any kind of external restraint. Free speech, free press, free love, free markets – those are all logical goals of classic liberalism.

    Milton Friedman, supply-side guru and patron saint of free market advocates, was an advisor to Ronald Reagan but identified himself as a classic liberal. He frequently described himself as "a liberal in the true sense of liberal, in the sense in which it means of and pertaining to freedom."

    Friedman believed in limited government, “Consistent with the maximum freedom for each individual to follow his own ways, his own values, as long as he doesn't interfere with anybody else who's doing the same.” He advocated dismantling the Food and Drug Administration, ending all environmental regulations, eliminating child labor laws, minimum wages, the Department of Transportation. He championed free markets, free trade, unfettered commerce, school vouchers.

    He also believed in legalizing drugs and prostitution, and freedom of choice with regard to abortion and gay rights.  As his 1980 PBS video series, "Free to Choose," made clear: "You should be free to do what you want as long as you don't prevent other people from doing the same thing."

    Whatever you may think of Friedman, he understood where his liberalism started, and where it led: if the individual is sovereign in his own solitary empire of one, then each person is responsible for ascribing value, for choosing direction, and each person, alone, should carry the consequences of his or her own choice.

    Our inconsistent application of his ideas demonstrates our discomfort with both his premise and conclusions. We know - some of us instinctively, some of us more consciously - that trusting each person to act morally, without external restraint, is dangerous and unwise. And we know too - through painful experience - that unrestrained individualism can cause great harm; each family, congregation, community feels the weight of individual choices.

    Of course, we all want it both ways. We want to be free of restraint in areas of concern to us (End gun control! Freedom of choice!  Free markets! Love who you want!), but we want regulation, restriction, governmental control in arenas where we feel we need protection, or see an avenue to profit or opportunity not available without outside intervention.

    Which is how we arrive at our current spectacle: advocates of small government arguing for higher defense spending and agribusiness subsidies, intervention in areas of personal moral choice. Advocates of personal freedom arguing for stronger regulations on food, trade, environmental impact.

    Thomas Storck, Catholic writer and thinker and advocate for Distributism, a “third-way” economy rooted in traditional Catholic teaching, recently explored these contradictions. (His use of “liberal” and “conservative” in this reflects current usage, not classical definition):
    “Liberals are very aware of the dangers that the unrestrained pursuit of wealth poses to society, of the potential power of wealth, especially concentrated wealth, to corrupt the political process and to skew public policy in its own favor. Liberals quite rightly point to the tremendous power of the rich to influence the political process, to shape tax policy, environmental and labor legislation, and many other kinds of laws and regulations, in their favor. They likewise realize that when society allows free play to the passion for economic gain, people in general will begin to look at every relationship and transaction with solely an eye for their own personal gain. The desire to gain tends to color the whole of the life of society.
    "Moreover, liberals are quite willing to employ the power of the law to ensure that the force of human greed does not violate the common good. . . . Liberals realize that the mere fact of the existence of a desire for more money on the part of people does not give those individuals any right to pursue that desire at the expense of the common good of society. . .
    "But what of conservatives? Conservatives are very aware of the dangers that the unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure poses to society, of its power to create any number of social pathologies. . . They rightly are concerned that the selfish pursuit of individual pleasure harms others, such as children and abandoned spouses, as well as society as a whole. They likewise realize that when society allows free play to the passion for unrestrained sexual pleasure, people in general will begin to look at every relationship and transaction with solely an eye for their own personal pleasure. The desire for erotic satisfaction tends to color the whole of the life of society.
    "Moreover, conservatives are quite willing to employ the power of the law to ensure that the pursuit of pleasure is kept within bounds. They advocate tax policies that favor families, laws preventing same-sex unions, making divorce and abortion more difficult, restrictions on the sale of contraceptives to minors, even harsh laws on teenage sex. Conservatives realize that the mere fact of the existence of a desire for a maximum of sexual pleasure on the part of individuals does not give those individuals any right to pursue that desire at the expense of the common good of society. . . 
    "From being zealous for the common good and ready to place all manner of restraints on human conduct in the sexual realm, conservatives run to the other extreme and embrace a policy of laissez-faire when it comes to money. They even invent an ideology that pretends that the pursuit of private wealth somehow redounds to the benefit of all, despite much experience showing the falsity of this. It is hard to understand how conservatives do not see, or profess not to see, that the unrestrained and anti-social pursuit of money can do as much harm to the social fabric as the unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure."
    Storck offers no real solution, other than to suggest that by exercising freedom of thought we might see through the flimsy moral framework of both positions.

    My own prayer would be for a deeper exploration of essential questions, and greater humility in the way we defend our causes.

    • Who decides what’s moral, right, just? If the individual is the key to all morality, if pursuit of individual "happiness" is the greatest good, then contradiction, conflict, and increasingly divided discourse are the best that we can hope for.
    • What is the role of government? Does it exist to satisfy the loudest voice, the biggest contributor, the popular vote? Or is there a more essential role of government: maintaining justice, ensuring the common good? And how do we safeguard that role?
    • What is the role of the citizen? Is it to show up and vote? To lobby for rules and subsidies that benefit our own values? To operate freely within the law, even when those laws are unjust and immoral? Is the law the measure of our morality? Can we, should we, legislate morality?
    • And what does it mean to follow Christ in a culture that cries, from every side, that we, alone, are the standard, the source, that all significance and satisfaction reside in having our own way?

    A lectionary sermon from Ephesians several weeks ago warned “Live as children of light  (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. . . Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise.” (Ephesians 5)


    James asked "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. . . . But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness." (James 3)

    We are sorely in need of humility, and a wisdom full of mercy, impartial and sincere.
    Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.    (Episcopal Book of Common Prayer )
    This is part of a continuing series on politics and faith: What's Your Platform.

    Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences are always welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.

    Sunday, September 2, 2012

    Welfare to Work and a Plea for Wisdom

    Happy Labor Day.

    I’m thankful today for jobs I’ve had – for the chance to work, to grow, to contribute. I’m thankful for my husbands’ good jobs, that my kids have work, that we have health care, homes, food to eat.

    And I’m prayerful for all the people in my life who aren’t able to say the same: who have never had jobs that allowed them to thrive, who have never had room to stretch and grow, whose health care is uncertain, whose days are devoted to counting change, juggling bills, wishing there were a few dollars more so the kids could go on the next class field trip.

    I was tempted to repost my Labor Day post from last year. The issues I discussed are relevant to current political discussion.

    But this past week there's been much discussion on another labor related issues: welfare to work and the new state waivers. I've been hearing that "Obama gutted welfare reform," listening to people repeat “Obama said people on welfare don’t need to work.”  I've been praying for greater wisdom, on the part of leaders and voters, about the complex, troubling world of the poor, and I've been wishing that all of us, rich, comfortable, opinionated, wise in our own well-being, could spend a week or two exploring the reality of poverty in these United States.

    First, we’d learn, fast, that survival is complicated. Start with the acronyms. Ever heard of TANF? That’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Note the “Temporary.” TANF is the program prompting all the discussion. It grew out of the Welfare to Work legislation of 1996, but is so overburdened with record keeping, reporting requirements, conflicting conditions and consequences that many states find themselves putting more energy into documenting compliance than in effectively helping people find jobs. Here in Pennsylvania, people I know who have attempted TANF compliance have found themselves logging hours in a room with some crumpled want-ads, with no real hope of finding work, caught in a perpetual study hall with nothing to study, while their children are watched by neighbors or running free on city streets.

    Which partially explains why 29 Republican governors signed a letter back in 2005 asking for waivers allowing state governments more flexibility in helping people move into the work force. Governors Rick Perry of Texas, John Huntsman of Alabama, Jeb Bush of Florida, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts were among those who signed the letter. Then President Bush ignored the request, but the issue was raised again last summer with a detailed proposal from Utah Governor Gary Herbert of Utah.

    Those requests were met last month with a ruling authorizing increased flexibility, dependent on states continuing to meet or exceed the original goals of TANF: “helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment.” As the explanatory memorandum from the Department of Health and Human Services makes clear:
     “The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is interested in more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry, retention, advancement, or access to jobs that offer opportunities for earnings and advancement that will allow participants to avoid dependence on government benefits. . . HHS will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF.”
    Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
    The fact that governors who requested waivers are not strongly and vocally supporting this decision seems the height of dishonesty. Anyone who wants to see an end to regulation, stronger states rights, less federal government interference, should be applauding this change, rather than spreading misinformation and turning a malignant spotlight on those who find themselves in need of help.

    Let’s pause, though, and ask: how much money are we talking about here? And how many people? People talk about welfare queens, as if there are people taking their ease while public assistance pays the bills. Current TANF allotments in most states are less than half the poverty level. In Pennsylvania, a single-parent family with two kids can expect $407 per month. Not enough to pay rent on even a studio apartment in any but the poorest neighborhood, so the single moms I know are camped out with their kids in one bedroom in someone else’s house, or scraping together whatever help they can find to perch precariously in inadequate, aging housing, hoping the sole toilet doesn’t break.

    According to TANF regulations, no family can receive assistance for more than five years, total. And if a parent tries to go back to school to make a slightly better job possible, current TANF regulations allow exactly twelve months of assistance before that parent needs to get out in the work force.

    Add in SNAP (that’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – previously food stamps, now a digitized card, like a credit card), and a family on assistance is still far below the poverty level.
    Since the Welfare to Work legislation took place, the number of families receiving aid has declined by 60 percent, even with increased unemployment and significantly increased poverty.

    While Welfare to Work rules have encouraged significant numbers back into the workforce, it has also resulted in more and more families in extreme poverty, with less and less help for food, rent, and other necessities.

    Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
    What happens when families are “sanctioned” because a parent fails to comply with the job search requirements? Or when the sixty month window expires? Assistance ends. Even though there are few jobs available. Even though the jobs open to someone with a GED and one year of training often pay minimum wage, no benefits, an no control over hours.

    So back to my wish. For those with strong opinions about welfare and “the lazy poor”, of those not interested in poverty platforms, I wish we could all spend a week trying to figure it out: how to get to the welfare office by bus with a child or two in tow. How to feed a family on a few dollars a day, with limited transportation, limited space for storage. How to look and smell clean when there's no money for the laundromat. How to prioritize when there's not enough money to meet even the top priorities of housing, food, clean clothing.

    We’d learn that life is confusing, with piecemeal offerings of help, confusing requirements, changing deadlines. We’d learn that hard choices are constant: get the brakes on the ancient van fixed, or buy the calculator needed for school? Pay the phone bill, or stock up on toilet paper?

    Forget sports teams for the kids, summer camp, music lessons, braces. The questions are more immediate: milk or orange juice? Sneakers that fit, or a second-hand winter coat?

    Yes, if you want, we can go back to the underlying question: isn’t it their fault they’re poor? These single moms: didn’t they make some bad choices?

    Here’s a question of my own: where were you living when you were sixteen? Who was helping you think things through? Who was making sure you had a bed to sleep in? Who was holding you when you cried?

    The 2009 film Precious, based on the first-person account of a young urban mom, did a great job of capturing the reality of many who struggle. Not an easy film to watch, but maybe it should be required viewing for all of us, politicians, pundits, person in the street.

    This issue of work, welfare, and what we say about the poor is personal to me. My own family was on welfare when I was sixteen: food stamps, rent and medical assistance. We lived in a single parent household, with my grandmother as sole guardian. She was working long hours at a low wage job, working so hard she had a heart attack. Fortunately, she lived. Not every story ends so well. The issue is also personal to me because of my years of involvement in a poor Philly neighborhood, and my many friends with painful stories of their own. Until we find better ways of intervening in cycles of dysfunction, sexual violence, neglect, mental illness, drug dependence, we will not solve the problem of poverty.

    Yes, there are people who continue to make unwise choices, and some who game the system, but the people I know who benefit from TANF are longing for a chance, struggling to survive, wishing they could find good jobs, worrying about their kids. They would benefit from more creative, more flexible programs. They are badly hurt when assistance to the poor becomes a political football and their needs and hopes are buried in partisan maneuvering.

    What do I take from this?

    • Our politicians need to be honest about programs and policies. If they endorsed a policy because of its merits, they should say so, rather than be silenced by party politics, or bullied into opposing something they know would help.
    • Arguments about putting the poor to work should acknowledge our current climate: even people with years of experience, with extensive training and supportive networks, find it hard to find jobs that support their families. There are better ways to help families in need than insisting ill-equipped parents waste time looking for non-existent jobs rather than take the time needed to improve parenting and literacy skills and train for real long-term employment.
    • Compassion for the poor requires knowing people who struggle, trying to understand the realities they face, and finding practical ways to share the burdens. Without that compassion, our opinions are sounding gongs, or clashing symbols, and do far more harm than good. 

    “This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor” Zechariah 7:9-10
    This is part of a continuing series on politics and faith: What's Your Platform.

    Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences are always welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.