Sunday, October 26, 2014


It was shale, specifically,shale gas drilling for natural gas, that pulled me into the land of politics.

Up until fall 2011, I was only vaguely aware of elections, candidates, public policy.

I’d enjoyed Pete Seeger’s lyrics when he sang in junior high assembly.

I’d been part of a sit-in in high school – dragged along by friends.

And I watched some of the Watergate hearings with my much more politically savvy college roommate.

After that - I voted. Yes. Took my kids to the local polling place, pulled levers. Made sure they got “I voted” stickers to wear on their jackets.

Paid no attention until the next election.

Then shale.

I voted for Tom Corbett, our current governor, because he had the proper views on the few key issues Christian voters pay attention to.

I didn’t know – and probably wouldn’t have cared -  that his largest supporters were gas and oil companies.

Or that he had signed the Grover Norquist “No Tax” pledge.

Or that he would invite those with most to gain from expanding shale gas drilling to set the rules and recommend fees as part of his Shale Gas Advisory Commission. 

Why would any of that matter? Who had time to pay attention?

Somehow, during the summer of 2011, information seeped through my complacency.

News of toxic waste water released into Pennsylvania’s rivers.

Reports of wells contaminated by fissures far underground.

Analysis of the untaxed profits.

In September 2011 I found myself feeling like someone who has been sleeping in a backyard hammock, only to wake and find her house on fire. Were we really defunding environmental protection agencies at the same time we were handing over permission to shatter the linings of subterranean aquifers?

Were we inviting shale gas companies to a free-for-all that rivaled the western gold rush?

I went to a community screening of Gasland, and watched Josh Fox walk through creeks and rivers like those I love most. Watched the green wastewater slide into quiet streambeds. Watched him light the water from homeowners’ taps.

Then I went to the first Freedom from Fracking symposium in Philly, and listened to Dr. Sandra Steingraber talk about water: millions of gallons per well, removed from the ongoing water cycle, lost in deep fissures in the earth, or pumped back out so full of toxins there’s no way to ever reclaim it.

Water seemed to be a common theme, in a way that reminded me of the poisoned water of Jeremiah, punishment for a culture of dishonest leaders and deceptive practice.

I went back to Philly two weeks later to march in the first Shale Gas Outrage, drove to Penn State to protest outside a natural gas industry Marcellus Summit.

Since then I’ve visited shale gas drilling sites with the League of Women Voters and member of Pennsylvania’sResponsible Drilling Alliance. 

I’ve sat in meetings with activists who believe natural gasdrilling should be banned. Completely. 

USGS: Record Number of Oklahoma Earthquakes
And I’ve sat over dinner with women from states around the country struggling under the burden of shale gas drilling. One told me quietly that the Wind River Valley of Wyoming now has the worst air quality in the country. Another mentioned in passing the earthquakes of Oklahoma, a region with little earthquake activity until wastewater deposits were injected deep into the earth. Her sister’s home was knocked off it’s foundations. “And she didn’t have earthquake insurance. No one in Oklahoma had earthquake insurance."

This weekend the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania is hosting its second annual Shale Drilling and Public Health: Days of Discovery, with experts in environmental toxicology, shale gas impacts on human health, endocrine disruption, occupational hazards for shale gas workers. The resource guide developed from last year’s conference, Shale Gas Extraction and Public Health, has been translated into several languages, and used by citizens in other states and countries looking for ways to understand the implications of shale gas drilling on air, water, land, and human health.

I don’t support a ban on shale gas drilling – not in regions where wells are already in place. Resources will be used, wisely or unwisely, and wells once drilled can cause harm if abandoned.

But I do believe that drilling in key watersheds is too dangerous to allow. The Delaware River is the sole water supply for about 15 million people in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. So far there has been a moratium on fracking in the Delaware River basin, but Governor Tom Corbett has pushed hard for that moratorium to be lifted. In July 2014, he passed a budget that cut Pennsylvania’scontribution to the Delaware River Basin Commission in half, “a move environmentalists and Democrats say is retaliation for the commission's failure to enact rules governing oil and gas development in the basin.” 

I also believe that companies that demonstrate repeated disdain for environmental regulations should lose their license to drill.

Between January 2008 and 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection cited 47 well operators for more than 900 environmental health and safety violations. Chesapeake Appalachia, a division of Chesapeake Energy, had the most, with 109 violations.

In May 2011, the company was fined $1.1 million for a February 2011 Washington County tank fire, and for contaminating several drinking wells in Bradford County. 
David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, questioned the deterrent value of a $1 million fine for the nation's second-largest gas producer, which last year earned $1.7 billion in profits on $9.4 billion in revenue, and whose chief executive, Aubrey K. McClendon, famously earned a $75 million bonus in 2009.
 "This is mostly a slap on the wrist," Masur said.
Masur’s question of deterrence was validated as Chesapeake has continued to compile violations and fines: $600,000 in Pennsylvania in 2012 for cavalierly destroying a waterfall and wetlands that happened to be in the way; tenmillion in West Virginia the following year for more destruction of wetlands and streams. The company has been repeatedly sued for systematically underpaying royalties to leaseholders, forced to repay $7.5 million to Pennsylvania landholders in 2013, and currently under investigation for a class-action suit claiming the company “wrongfully retained” as much as $5 billion in unjust profits since 2007. Chesapeake is also facing felony racketeering and fraud allegations in Michigan, as well as an antitrust investigation. 

Range Resources, another company that regularly finds itself on the short-list of most frequent violations, was fined 53 times between 2008 and 2012, with 17% of wells drilled reported in violation. Despite a stated philosophy of “Be good stewards for our shareholders and our environment,” Range has been repeatedly sued by landowners for both environmental harm and misreported royalties; in 2013 the company agreed to a $87.5 million lawsuit brought by Oklahoma leaseholders. In September, 2014, Range was fined $4.15 million for violations at six different impoundments

Protecting Our Waters: Black Waters and Broken Promises
For years, critics and concerned observers have raised questions about when and how often wells are inspected, how accurately rates ofviolation are reported, what oversight accompanies disposal of the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater each well produces. Our governor has repeatedly dismissed those concerns, recently approving shale gas drilling in parks and state forests. with assurances about the safety of natural gas, the excellent environmental record, how good it has been and will be for the state.

The recent fines and lawsuits suggest otherwise, as does a sober critique of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection released in July by state Attorney Eugene DePasquale, The report makes clear that there has never been a system for timely inspection of wells, no comprehensive approach to oversight of waste-water disposal, ineffective response to citizen complaints, reliance on industry personel to complete inspections and evaluations, dependence on voluntary compliance with regard to “adversely impacted” water supplies. An executive summary concludes: 
the meteoric growth of the shale gas industry caught the Department of Environmental Protection unprepared to effectively administer laws and regulations to protect drinking water and unable to efficiently respond to citizen complaints. 
Much has been written about the revolving door between the shale gas industry, the DEP,  and Pennsylvania’s legislators.

And about the fact that recent Pennsylvania legislators have received more than their share of shale political contributions, from industry coalitions as well as corporate CEOs.

While those companies, and individuals, have surely benefitted, Pennsyvlania as a whole has seen little of the promised prosperity from shale gas drilling. The few jobs created by the industry  have not kept pace with jobs lost in education and infrastructure, and little of the billions in profit have found their way into state and local budgets (in part due to the “No Tax” pledge that swept current officials into office).  

A key issue in the election next week will be the fact that Pennsylvania, alone among the major shale states has no severance fee on gas extracted, relying instead on an impact fee. In effect, natural gas companies are paying on average less than 1,9% tax  on profits made in our state. Imposing a severance fee of 5% to bring the state in line with neighboring shale states would raise an estimated $1 billion a year in revenue, and would send a message to the shale gas industry that it no longer owns the state of Pennsylvania.

Shale gas is not the first resource that Pennsylvania has been both blessed and cursed with. Lumber, then coal, divided communities, benefited some while leaving others poorer than before, and scarred the environment in ways still unresolved. Shale promises a legacy more damaging than either. Carelessly linedwells don’t get stronger over time. Toxic chemicals leaked into underground fissures aren’t gone, just dangerously forgotten.

We sometimes drive through the ghost town of Centralia, the coal town lost to an underground fire that still burns to this day, half a century from its start in 1962.

No one planned it.

No one prepared for it.

No one paid much attention until it was far too late to manage.

I’ll be thinking of Centralia when I go to the polls next Tuesday.

This is the ninth in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?"  

Earlier posts:  
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014
Back to School Lament, September 7, 2014
Privatization and Elementary Math, September 14,  2014
Who is Allowed to Vote? September 21, 2014
Let the People Draw the Lines, September 28, 2014
A Prayer for the Broken, October 5, 2014
 Dreaming of Home, October 12, 2014
Vote Smart, October 19, 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Vote Smart

I’ve been part of several conversations this week about how hard it is to know what political candidates really think or what they would do once in office. TV and radio tell us what’s wrong with the opponent in seriously scary voice-overs, while real-time analytics of online ads and memes allow campaigns to give us the words we want to hear with little reference to the genuine issues at hand.  Debates often settle into repetition of familiar sound-bites, and candidate websites repackage the party line.

Conscientious citizens can easily feel discouraged.

That discouragement can feed apathy.

And apathy undermines what remains of the democratic process.

A 2011 TED talk by Canadian David Meslin that has been viewed over a million times puts an interesting spin on the question of apathy. Meslin describes the way information can be shared to engage and invite participation, and the way political information is more often used in a way that discourages engagement. His conclusion: 
I actually think people are amazing and smart and that they do care. But that, as I said, we live in this environment where all these obstacles are being put in our way. . . .
 My main message is, if we can redefine apathy, not as some kind of internal syndrome, but as a complex web of cultural barriers that reinforces disengagement, and if we can clearly define, we can clearly identify, what those obstacles are, and then if we can work together collectively to dismantle those obstacles, then anything is possible.
Last month the International Foundation for Electoral Systems called attention to the consistently low voter turnout of the United States, “15 percent lower than the global average of 63 percent, and well below countries like Italy (89%), Iceland (88%), Belgium (85%), Australia (84%), Netherlands  (82%) and Turkey (75%).”

Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, has predicted that average will continue to sink even lower: 
If the first 25 statewide primaries (for U.S. Senate and/or state governor) are any guide, the nation is likely to witness the lowest midterm primary turnout in history. It is also likely to witness the greatest number of states setting records for low voter turnout.
According to Gans: 
 The core problem of participation does not reside in the realm of procedure, but rather in motivation. Contributing factors to the decline in motivation are not hard to find: campaigns that are run on scurrilous attack ads that give the citizen a perceived choice between bad and awful; one major party situated far to the right of the American center and the other without a clear and durable message; a decline in faith that government will address major societal need exacerbated by those whose politics seek to accomplish just that; a majority of the young growing up in households in which their parents don’t vote and a larger majority who hear no discussions of politics or public affairs; inadequate civic education in the schools; the fragmenting effects of modern communications technology that has made grazing the Internet a substitute for reading the news; preoccupation with one’s Iphone and its narrow personal community at the expense of interpersonal discussion and participation in a broader community; increased inequality that has the collateral effect of reducing hope for those at the bottom; the rise of libertarian and consumerist values at the expense of values that would promote community and collective engagement; the reduced coverage of politics in the visual media, to name but a few. 

I suppose the issue of information is much easier for someone willing to simply vote a party slate.

Or for someone willing to focus on one issue and ignore others equally pressing.

But the burden of finding usable information falls heavily on individuals willing to do as theyre told by a political party, or a particular TV or radio channel.  As both parties, and their approved media venues, careen toward the far corners of the political continuum, it becomes more and more important to weigh candidates’ narratives, read their positions, evaluate their previous votes, and look for men and women who seem to do more than simply repeat the lines they’ve been given.

There are scorecards that attempt to simplify the challenge, but in many cases they press further to those far corners of political correctness: 

Heritage Actions Scorecard  grades candidates on how conservative they are, as defined by the Heritage Foundation.

Freedomworks grades candidates on how well they live out the  motto “Government fails: freedom works. Less government, lower taxes, more economic freedom.” (I do find myself wondering: why would anyone wish to be governed by someone who believes government fails?)

Put a candidate's name into Project Vote Smart and hit Ratings and you'll see that candidate's scores from hundreds of organizations. Interesting, but a little daunting, since to make any sense of it you'd need to research the criterion for the group offering the score. 

Here are a few I check:

Bread for the World looks at only a handful of votes on legislation “to end hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world.”

In Pennsylvania, three conservation groups provide an environmental scorecard:

Friends Committee for National Legislation looks at issues relating to poverty, justice, and peace. 

And yes, there are some I check to make sure a candidate is as close to zero as possible, and others I prefer to see a number in middle; I'm not interested in someone who votes every time the way a special interest group instructs. 

Those scorecards, and many more, can offer a particular angle on incumbents, but often offer nothing at all in assessing new candidates.
They also do little to help voters sift through competing issues, or grapple with complexity.

Fortunately, there are other tools:

First, to find out who is on the ballot: in Pennsylvania, Smart Voter, and in most other states, Vote 411. ((Pennsylvania will be shifting to Vote411 before the next election).  These sites also provide links to candidates' own websites, and offer information from candidates who have responded.

I’ll be honest: candidates who don’t think they need to respond to requests for information go immediately to the bottom of my candidate list.  Unless they shine in other ways, I’m unlikely to vote for someone not responsive to voter questions.

Balletopedia  and Project Vote Smart offer similar information about candidates, along with some interesting other options. 

For federal incumbents , GovTrack gives a record of votes, tells what bills were introduced and passed, offers a ranking on ideology and leadership, and provides a percentage of missed roll call votes and how that compares to other legislators.

Published information candidates have released on a wide range of issues is available in an easy to use format on On the Issues.

Follow the Money and Open Secrets both offers information about candidate funding, tracks individual and corporate donors, and shows whether the money is from in or out of the voting district. And while I'm interested to see who receives union dollars, I'm even more interested to see whose campaign has been fueled by companies like Monsanto or Chesapeake Energy. 

There’s one more resource I’ve found that I highly recommend: “U. S.Elections 2014: Where do the candidates stand on issues of mercy and justice inour world?” prepared by the Sisters of Mercy. It’s not a scorecard, not a way to assess specific candidates, but a thoughtful presentation of helpful questions to consider, set in the context of challenging facts and sobering scripture. 

This is the eighth in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?" 

Earlier posts:  
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014
Back to School Lament, September 7, 2014
Privatization and Elementary Math, September 14,  2014
Who is Allowed to Vote? September 21, 2014 
Let the People Draw the Lines, September 28, 2014 
A Prayer for the Broken, October 5, 2014 
 Dreaming of Home, October 12, 2014

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.    

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dreaming of Home

The Kuniholm house and happy half acre: fall 2014
I’ve lived in apartments and houses, duplexes and twins.

In urban neighborhoods, planned communities, green suburban neighborhoods.

On busy roads with my window just feet from the trucks thundering past in the middle of the night.

In a fading baby blue trailer that felt like ice in the middle of the winter.

In a half-rehabbed derelict cottage, with no heat or running water, roughed-in kitchen, unspackled walls.

I’ve slept on rusty metal bunks, cement floors, pine needles, uncut grass.

Two months a rickety cot that folded me in half when I sat up too fast in bed.

Some of that was my choice.

Some definitely wasn’t.

Some of my sojourns left me stronger, calmer, more joyful or courageous.

Some I remember as places of shadow, dark, uneasy caverns during dark, uneasy times.

Even so, I never slept under a highway underpass.

In an alley.

On a bench.

Never landed in a homeless shelter.

Thinking about mental illness for my post last week, I found myself thinking about how mental health is tied to where we live.

It’s hard to be resilient and hopeful when half your paycheck goes for rent on a beat-up apartment in a dangerous neighborhood. 

An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing. A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.
 The National Housing Alliance puts this in even starker terms: 
In the United States, the 2014 two-bedroom Housing Wage is $18.92. This national average is more than two-and-a-half times the federal minimum wage, and 52% higher than it was in 2000. In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent. 
I’ve been helping several friends in a search for affordable housing.

The short answer: there is none.

Chester County, where I live, has a small supply of subsidized housing. The waiting list has been full for years. It was opened for applications on October 21 (year - undetermined) for exactly one day. No one knows when, or if, it will open again.

The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program was designed as another way to help low-income families afford appropriate housing. Affordable Housing Online, a website designed to help families seeking help with housing, explains: 
The program provides rental assistance to low income persons in the form of monthly rent payments based on the renter’s income. Renters find private rental housing in the open market and the Section 8 voucher payment makes the rent affordable.
 The program is extremely oversubscribed meaning that there are many more people in need of the rental assistance than the government is currently funding. This has created the need for waiting lists.
 We are unaware of even one housing authority in the Nation (and there are 2,320 that offer Section 8) that doesn’t have a waiting list. Most of the time, these waiting lists are years long. . . .
According The Center for Housing Policy:  
Federal housing assistance (such as housing choice vouchers, property-based rental assistance, and public housing) reaches only one in four of those in need, and funding levels in the past few years have reduced their reach even further. . . .  
There are many reasons why the extent of the severe housing cost burden problem should be a concern to a broad set of stakeholders. When a household spends half of its income on housing, there is usually not enough left in the household budget for other necessities. The costs of many of these household essentials—child care, education, food—are also rising at the same time that food stamps, TANF, Medicaid, and other social support programs for lower-income households are targets for budget cuts. This dynamic increases the pressure on lower-income households as they try to make ends meet.
Affordable and stable housing is a platform for other important positive family and community outcomes, such as physical and mental health, educational achievement, and economic development. 
Public interest in the problem of affordable housing appears slim, except among those most severely impacted, under-resourced families and individuals with little energy to research options or attempt to influence policy.

I spoke several weeks ago with a legislative candidate canvassing my neighborhood. My first question was “What would you do about affordable housing?”

Her response: “You’re the first person who has ever asked that question.”

While many voices clamor for smaller government, while each round of budget cuts focuses on aid to the poor, I find myself wondering about the invisible subsidies enjoyed in home-owner neighborhoods: the generous mortgage deductions that have fueled our enjoyment of home-owner debt and funded construction of ever more McMansions.

Here’s a simple quiz: which of these is most likely to be subsidized?

The house on the left, a modest two bedroom, 1 bath rowhome not far from my house, recently sold for $85,000, and will most likely be rented. Given the going rates, the rent will be somewhere between $900 and $1100. The likelihood of subsidy for a renter, given the current waiting list, is fairly close to zero.

The house with the circular drive and backyard pool, twelve miles from the first, recently sold for $4,850,000. If the owners obtained interest at 4.5% and fall in the 33% tax bracket (which seems conservative, given the sales price), the annual interest deduction (a form of hidden subsidy) would be $18,000. (Feel free to check my math)

The cap on debt eligible for interest deductions is $1,000,000. Second homes are included in that total, so assume most second homes are subsidized as well (that’s the house on the lake), a boon for vacation real estate developers, but an odd use of federal money.  If that vacation house had a $300,000 mortgage, the subsidy would be at least $4,000 a year.

And yes, boats can be subsidized too: if an owner spends at least 14 nights on a houseboat, yacht, sailboat or any other kind of recreational vehicle with at least minimal toilet and kitchen facilities, the mortgage can be included in the $1,000,000 limit, and mortgage deductions apply.

Tax deductions are a form of “submerged” or hidden benefit enjoyed by the one-third of American households wealthy and informed enough to itemize deductions.

For upper income families, those invisible subsidies have been shown to encourage purchase of homes far larger than needed,,“as much as 1,400 square feet larger in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. . . ." and “at least 800 square feet larger” in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York City

They also encourage homeowner to maintain high levels of debt, rather than pay down mortgages.

Most economists agree that the origins of the mortgage deduction are murky, the intent unclear, that it has never fostered home ownership among groups that most need help, and that, from every angle, it's bad public policy.

Invisible housing subsidies currently cost US taxpayers over $100 billion a year, almost three times the amount spent on help to low-income households.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
I confess, I’m one of the 27% of Americans who enjoys this invisible subsidy. We own our own home, itemize deductions, and saved about $1600 on our taxes due to deductible interest this year.

Would I give that up to see the billions a year the US loses on this invisible subsidy redirected to housing for the homeless, subsidies for low-income families, affordable homes for the hard-working, minimum-wage poor?

In a heartbeat.


Take time to learn about invisible subsidies - who enjoys them, how much they cost.

Support elimination of the mortgage deduction, and be prepared to explain your reasons. 

Advocate for creative plans to provide funding for affordable housing, like PA Senate Bill 1380 and House Bill 2434 , currently stuck in committees, which would use realty transfer taxes to renovate blighted communities, create low-cost rentals, repair owner-occupied homes, and provide jobs in low-income areas. 

Offer practical support to a homeless or housing-stressed family.

Ask your representatives: What will you do about affordable housing?

This is the seventh in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?" 

Earlier posts:  
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014
Back to School Lament, September 7, 2014
Privatization and Elementary Math, September 14,  2014
Who is Allowed to Vote? September 21, 2014 
Let the People Draw the Lines, September 28, 2014 
A Prayer for the Broken, October 5, 2014 
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.    

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Prayer for the Broken

And our Sychroblog community has been asked to blog about mental illness to commemorate the launch of a new book, Blessed Are The Crazy:Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church, by Sarah Griffith Lund.

This fall I’ve been blogging about political issues, particularly issues surrounding state and local elections. As I consider the intersection between mental health and public policy, I find myself grieving, praying, wondering.

This is not a new topic for me.

I’ve been living it since before I was born.

My father ran away from home at 16, already showing signs of damage from an abusive relationship with his angry father.

My mother, also young, also a runaway, suffered undiagnosed depression so severe she spent days at a time in bed.

As small children we were neglected, then abandoned: my parents left each other and us not long before I turned two, leaving my three siblings and me to be parented by my grandparents.

I’m not sure there’s a day in my life when I haven’t been confronted in some way by the pain, breakage, doubt and grief of shattered minds and lives.

Is mental illness a spiritual problem?

I’m convinced it is.

But not in the way most people would understand that.

It’s not an individual spiritual problem: just have more faith, and your depression will be cured. Just confess your sin and your anxiety will lift.

Yes, there’s a personal spiritual dimension in some mental illness: shreds of self-indulgence mixed with shards of nurtured anger, lingering bitterness stirred into deliberate delusion.

But the spiritual problem I see is something larger: a corporate blindness.

Communal failure of compassion.

A willful wish that God would intervene and solve our deepest brokenness with no expenditure of effort, no outlay of resource, no deepened understanding of what it means to bear each other’s burdens.

Consider this:

Research shows that half of all mental illnesses start by age 14 and three-quarters start by age 24. But an average of 6 to 8 years pass after the onset of mood disorder symptoms – 9 to 23 years for anxiety disorder symptoms – before young people get help.

And this:

One in four American adults lives with a diagnosable mental illness in a given year.

Do you know any kids who are cutting themselves? I promise you do. Carving pain on their arms. Bleeding sorrow into the bathroom sink.

Do you sit at work, at church, at school, near suffering souls not sure they can make it through the day?

I promise they’re there – drowning in darkness. Struggling to stuff down the bubbling anger. Shaking from anxiety that never ever leaves.

What does it mean to bear each other’s burdens?

How do we grow in compassion?

It might help to think about causes.
The pharmaceutical industry has worked hard to sell us on the idea of chemical imbalance. It’s true there’s a physical component to mental illness, but cause and effect aren’t clear. Does the imbalance cause the illness? Or illness cause the imbalance?

Current research shows that the brain is far more plastic than once understood: shaped and reshaped by opportunity, trauma, isolation, challenge, stimulation, fear.

Impoverished neighborhoods show a much higher incidence of mental illness. Is that genetic? Or symptomatic of systems and structures?

Early neglect is a high predictor of depression, anxiety, attachment disorder. How much mental illness would be prevented by an adequate living wage, by affordable, well-designed child care for working parents, by excellent pre-school preparation for children who need it most?

As a young mom, I spent time with children who lived on our street whose mother locked them out of their apartment when she went to work for the day. They were four and five.

As youth pastor in both urban and suburban churches, I worked with young teens who were alone from the time school ended to the time when their parents came home – often late in the evening.

As part of an partnership between my current church and an inner-city congregation, I came to know dozens of young school-aged kids who woke in the morning to an empty house and showed up for our evening program without every having seen an adult, with empty stomachs, and emptier hearts.

We live our priorities – as families, communities, churches, nations.

And those priorities shape our health and lack of health.

While most developed nations have found ways to fund creative, competent care for small children, the US depends on a medley of under-funded state programs and variable, politically-vulnerable federal grants to provide uneven child-care subsidies and under-resourced early education, leaving many families struggling to provide adequate care, and many children on their own, or left with inattentive neighbors, unwell elders, or slightly older siblings.

A 2013 New Republic article described The Hell of American Day Care, and why it matters: 
Over the past two decades, researchers have developed an entirely new understanding of the first few years of life. This period affects the architecture of a child’s brain in ways that indelibly shape intellectual abilities and behavior. Kids who grow up in nurturing, interactive environments tend to develop the skills they need to thrive as adults—like learning how to calm down after a setback or how to focus on a problem long enough to solve it. Kids who grow up without that kind of attention tend to lack impulse control and have more emotional outbursts. Later on, they are more likely to struggle in school or with the law. They also have more physical health problems. Numerous studies show that all children, especially those from low-income homes, benefit greatly from sound child care. The key ingredients are quite simple—starting with plenty of caregivers, who ideally have some expertise in child development.

By these metrics, American day care performs abysmally.
Our corporate disinterest in other people’s children is just one example of the systemic causes of our mental health epidemic.

I could go on.

About the contributions of our infatuation with guns: do we wonder that children grow up anxious when the adults in their lives talk about arming themselves against their own government, or leave loaded handguns on tables by their beds?
Symptoms of Emotional Abuse

Do we see the links between physical, verbal and sexual abuse of women and the fact that women experience significantly higher rates of anxiety and depression?

What about the contributions of parental abandonment: what happens to the children of those millions of men and women serving time in prison? As of 2009, more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. had an incarcerated parent; 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. Did we factor in mental health implications when we voted for mandatory sentencing?

I could go on and on and on.

About how lack of affordable housing feeds anxiety and undermines family stability.

About lack of funding for mental health research not directly tied to pharmaceutical profit.

About our overwhelming preference for “easy,” and refusal to grapple with causes that would demand complicated, costly solutions.

In 2004 the World Health Organization published an extensivereport on the heavy cost of mental illness and the potential for prevention: 
It is not surprising that many of the effective preventive measures are harmonious with principles of social equity, equal opportunity and care of the most vulnerable groups in society. Examples of these interventions include improving nutrition, ensuring primary education and access to the labour market, removing discrimination based on race and gender and ensuring basic economic security. . .
 A particularly potent and unfortunately common threat to mental health is conflict and violence, between individuals and between communities and countries. The resulting mental distress and disorders are substantial.
Mental illness, at every level, is evidence of our lack of shalom, our failure in pursuit of God’s peace and justice, our refusal to seek the good of those beyond our own tight circles.

It’s also an invitation to grow in compassion, the kind of costly, prayerful, mindful compassion that grapples with issues, shoulders other’s burdens, holds tightly to hope in the face of searing pain.

So, I will pray. On Tuesday, the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Awareness and Recovery, I will pray, as I do every day, for friends and family members battling voices, darkness, brokenness. For churches too often clueless about how to help or intervene. For a culture that would rather spend billions on battleships and prisons than competent, creative childcare and worker-friendly, living wage jobs.

And I will struggle to grow in practical, personal compassion: befriending those who others see as odd, spending time with families others see as difficult, picking up the pieces for those I know who carry more than one person, one parent alone can carry.

And I will advocate: for a comprehensive early-child care plan, for adequate funding of mental health priorities, for alternative sentencing for non-violent crime, for affordable housing, for fair jobs and living wages, for a just and peaceful world.

And I will repent: for times I’ve drawn away because I want love to be easy.

For times I’ve covered over pain because I prefer to look “together.”

For complicity in a culture of silence in the face of human need. 
Holy Spirit, it is time.
The children are hungry,
and the poor can no longer plant hope.
Your promise
to fill the poor with good things
and the rich sent empty away
goes unfulfilled.
It is an embarrassment,
a laughingstock,
a mockery of sacred promise.
Now overtake our hearts with your fire.
On earth let the flame of justice
leap wildly.
Release in us
a brilliant blaze of compassion.
Let the fires burn away
all pettiness, greed, selfishness,
and lust for security.
Let embers of kindness fill the land.
Whoever holds a debt, it will be forgiven.
Whoever is rich will give half away:
land returned to the peasant,
prison doors thrown open,
military budgets dissolved,
a cup of water given in Jesus’ name.
Again. Again. And yet again.
Mary Lou Kownacki

This is the sixth in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?" 

Earlier posts:  
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014
Back to School Lament, September 7, 2014
Privatization and Elementary Math, September 14,  2014
Who is Allowed to Vote? September 21, 2014 
Let the People Draw the Lines, September 28, 2014 
It’s also part of the October Mental Illness Awareness Synchroblog. Links to other posts are below. Please take time to read as many as you can, and remember, everyone loves comments:
  • Sarah Griffith Lund – Stronger Together
  • Liz Dyer – Finding the Courage to Break the Silence
  • Stacy Sergent – ‪No Longer Protecting Secrets
  • Patricia Watson – Grace Amid Crazy
  • Glenn Hager – When Mental Illness Strikes Home
  • Crystal Rice – Looking Well on the Outside
  • Cara Strickland – Making Peace With My Mental Illness
  • Jeremy Myers – A True Foot Washing Service
  • David Hosey – The church, the psych ward, and me
  • Ona Marie – Mental Illness, Family, and Church
  • Susan Herman – 3 Self Care Rituals for Managing Tough Transitions
  • Eric Atcheson – Blessed Are The Crazy
  • Joan Peacock – “Alice in Wonderland”, a Bipolar BookGroup Discussion Guide
  • Justin Steckbauer – Mental Illness, Awareness, and Jesus
  • Kathy Escobar – Mental Illness: 3 Sets of 3 Things
  • Leah Sophia – Mental Illness/Health Awareness
  • Josh Morgan – Peace Between Spirituality and Mental Health
  • Tara Ulrich – Breaking the Silence
  • Sarah Renfro – Blessed Are The Crazy
  • Steve Hayes – Mental illness and the Christian faith
  • Mindi Welton-Mitchell – Breaking the Silence: Disability, Mental Illness and the Church
  • Michelle Torigian – A Life of Baby Steps
  • Bec Cranford-Smith – Mental Health and the Pastor