8.27.2011

The Untitled Rant, Part 2: A Gutted Fortress

In Part 1, I explored who "the poor" really are and how they are grossly misunderstood and misrepresented.  I now turn to the current political climate and issues of public policy that can not only keep people in poverty, but can actually make the problem worse.

We're hearing people talk of reducing government spending, as if it is inherently bad or counterproductive every time the feds write a check. "Stop spending!" they cry. But the question is, "spending on what?" "Government spending" can help educate our citizens. "Government spending" helps keep our water, food, roads, cars, airplanes, and buildings safe. "Government spending" helps keep the unemployed off the streets when they are laid off by a company that would rather bonus its top executives than keep jobs at the bottom. "Government spending" pays the salaries of those who keep things working that you and I never see and take for granted. "Government spending" finds, prosecutes, and houses criminals (and some non-criminals). "Government spending" helps ensure that you don't become poor and homeless just because you age and retire. Insofar as government does these things poorly, the private, business sector is no alternative as their goal is profit and they cannot be voted out of office. Do I object to some things government spends money on? Absolutely (see below). But that's what we need: specificity. This non-specific rhetoric about "reducing government spending" is not helpful.

We're seeing people get elected to positions of power who want to go in and just slash everything. Some of the stuff they're trying to cut (like funding for public broadcasting or the National Endowment for the Arts) are tiny, inconsequential portions of the federal budget.  Many states are cutting education, yet today's professional work force requires more education, experience, and creativity as ever. An acquaintance of mine who has worked around the State House for more than 50 years sent me a summary of the most recent legislative session.  Here is an excerpt:
"Without a doubt this was the most difficult and meanest of any of the previous legislative sessions. The majority thought focused on how do we cut. There was very little discussion as to the needs of the citizens of [the state]...Per pupil aid to students K-12 [was] $4433 in Fiscal Year 2008. For Fiscal Year 2012 the per pupil aid will be $3780...Temporary Assistance for Families has not been increased since 1993...The Governor proposed the elimination of Early Head Start...The General Assistance cash program for adults without children and under the age of 65 is totally eliminated for Fiscal Year 2012."  
The effort to cut government and privatize is essentially a move towards "Darwinian economics;" that is, the survival of the fittest. A local pastor put it this way:
"What we are doing whether we know it or not is appealing to the meanest aspects of human nature. We are saying that there is scarcity, and because there is scarcity everyone must fight among themselves for a piece of the pie...and to cover [these ideas] with the mantle of Christian piety is an outrage."
Federal tax receipts as a proportion of GDP are at their lowest level since 1950. Yet, we're told that the problem is out-of-control spending on domestic projects. How about two wars, bank bailouts, and massive tax cuts for the wealthy?  Plug those in and crunch the numbers. There is plenty of money in America to pay our bills; we're just not collecting it, and we're pumping what we do have into guerrilla warfare and wasteful projects in the Middle East. Here's a proposal:  let's put all tax cuts and exemptions on the expenditure side of the balance sheet, and then we can talk about "government spending."  If tax cuts are not an expenditure, how is it they create deficits? In fact, the United States had to borrow money to pay for the new tax cuts of the last decade.

'dscf0254' photo (c) 2006, Andrew Wilkinson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/I would love to have a real conversation on government spending; particularly, the fact that defense/military accounts for the largest chunk and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost us $1.24 trillion at this writing; while things like education, which are already skin and bones, are being cut even more. The image in my head of what America will be if we continue down this track is that of a gutted fortress. High, thick, strong walls around the outside but desolate on the inside. We can't continue to cut funding to things like education, health, safety, rehabilitation, etc.  Some people may be poor because of their sins, but woe to us if they are poor because of our sins. We want people to be independent, right? Let's start with some things on the government level:  stop cutting education, raise the minimum wage, and keep the meat of the health care law in tact (like making sure insurance companies can't drop people when they get sick or deny coverage because of a pre-existing condition). Such things are not handouts, they are investments. Investments make the world go round and are really the only way to have a chance at upward mobility.  You spend money early, and if you spend it on the right things, you'll earn it back and then some.  On the level of government, that's what can happen when you spend on things like health care and education. They are investments that can yield a return greater than the original dollar amount.

Life is not a vending machine.  I don't get to put my money in, pick what I want, and shake the machine if it doesn't deliver. We all have to share this space. Perhaps most of all, we've lost the concept of citizenship.  I choose to be a citizen.  How about you?  I choose to be a citizen of the United States, a country whose founders believed that every person had a God-given right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  These are empty words if we're not willing to provide the things necessary to sustain those rights or if we only afford them to a certain class of people.  And I choose to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God, where "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last" and where we all come before our Maker as equals.

The Untitled Rant, Part 1: Who Are the Poor?

"If man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child."   - The Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"

The other day, an acquaintance from college posted a YouTube video from the show Judge Judy in which a litigant reveals ways that he has been taking advantage of government services and tax payer money.  The video was titled: "Here's who we support with taxes."  The comments started from other like-minded individuals who would like nothing more than to rid society of such human beings.

On October 10, 2010, John Stossel (who once touted that he "built his career on unpaid interns") talked on Fox News about "the makers versus the takers." On August 15, Ann Coulter said that welfare is creating "generations of utterly irresponsible animals." On August 18, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning compared the poor to raccoons.  On June 22, Neal Boortz called the poor "parasites."  On July 6, he said there is an all-out war between the productive class and the moocher class.

These only scratch the surface of the kind of talk you hear out there; all examples that seem to confirm suspicions of mine about widespread disdain for the poor, a dualistic view of society, and misguided ideas about what tax dollars do. The implicit assumption is clear:  whenever government services help people, they are helping lazy people who don't deserve it and they're using your money to do it. One person actually told a friend of mine who ministers with impoverished communities that the best way to take care of those communities is to bomb them out of existence.

Enough is enough. I'm tired of the vicious hate and watching the powerful bully the powerless. It wouldn't bother me if it were just a few isolated commentators. This kind of language is everywhere.

First of all, let's be clear:  laziness is a universal problem.  You find laziness among people of any socio-economic level, so you can't say that laziness = poverty.  Before going any further, we've got to pull this discussion of the poor out of the muck.

First, let's economically define poor.  There's much more to it than money, and even then there's a lot of debate surrounding it, but for my purposes here, when I say "poor" I mean individuals or families whose income is less than 125% of the 2011 HHS Poverty Threshold.  So, for example: the poverty threshold (or "line") for a family of 4 is an annual income of $22,350 (aspe.hhs.gov), and I'm defining a family of 4 as "poor" if they make 125% of that: $27,937 or less. This is very conservative, because it is widely known that the federal poverty guidelines are off by a factor of 2. A family of 4 realistically needs to make twice the amount of the threshold (200%) to keep up with today's cost of living.

So, here we go.  Who are "the poor?"

26% of them have a job.  How is it possible to have a job and still be poor? For one, the federal minimum wage is obscenely low and is nowhere close to covering the cost of living. Another reason is that the system ends up penalizing people for working. I was told a story of two different people who were each drawing $8000/year in disability, and after they finally found a job at which they could work, they ended up at a financial disadvantage. Is that their fault?

40% of the poor are single women and/or single moms.  For many of the moms, getting a job would mean having to shell the money right back out in child care costs. 25% are children. 16% are senior citizens (65+).
All in all, roughly 67% of "the poor" either do work, can't work (children), or shouldn't work (elderly).  What about the others?  Some who only work part-time do so because of physical limitations. Among the poorest of the poor and the homeless, there are physical, emotional, and psychological challenges that contribute greatly to their situation and virtually no employer will touch them.

As David K. Shipler points out in his book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, those who work but can't make ends meet are among the most forgotten and most vulnerable people in society. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2008, 8.9 million adults were "working poor" (those who have a job but whose income is insufficient), which was up 1.4 million just from the previous year.  Some have more than one job. 4.5 million family units were living below the poverty level despite having at least one member of the family in the labor force (www.bls.gov).

People just don't seem to understand these realities, especially politicians. On February 25, 2010, during the televised bipartisan summit on the health care bill, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), a former orthopedic surgeon, was explaining why he thought it would be prudent for people to purchase only catastrophic health insurance and have health savings accounts on the side. President Obama asked him, "Would you feel the same way if you were making $40,000 a year?" Barrasso had a blank stare on his face, and a few minutes later would reiterate his point about the people who could take advantage of a catastrophic health insurance plan, completely ignoring the point about those in lower income brackets.  They either don't get it, or they wish everyone who makes less than 6-digit incomes would just go away and stop bothering them.  They really operate off of this idea that if the government is helping you, you're a moocher. Tell that to military kids getting their college education while in the service or senior citizens on Medicare.

More fair-minded people will say that they just want to improve the system and stop scammers.  Great; that's a good goal, and I agree that the system needs to be reformed.  That's different from cutting all the lifelines and not caring what happens. We also must challenge this idea about rampant drug use among welfare recipients. Data from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services shows that illegal drug use in households receiving government assistance is only 2 or 3 percentage points higher than self-sufficient households, and alcohol abuse is actually lower.  The state of Florida is starting to find out for themselves that mandatory drug testing laws only cost the state money and families their dignity (2% of all new applicants test positive). You say you don't want your tax dollars to be spent activities to which you object? I don't either. But how often have we worried about that when it comes to our government's activities overseas, and especially in the Middle East?

Are there people who are scamming the system? Yes. Do all of them realize they're scamming the system? I've met people who don't. Are some people irresponsible? Yes. We've all been in the houses of the paycheck-to-paycheck families who have huge, flat-screen TVs and expensive smartphoneswhich, by the way, can be easily obtained by signing up for one of these pyramid schemes that prey on the desperate and uneducated, or by having an absent, drug-selling father who thinks he's done his part by getting the kids a TV.  But let's assume for the sake of argument that the person's gadgets were purchased with money they don't have. Are you assuming that just because your parents taught you money management and how to be responsible that they have the same knowledge? It was eye-opening to me the day a neighbor and mother of 3 came over with all her receipts and bills, asking us to help her learn how to manage her finances. She literally had no idea. No one has taught her. On top of that, I learned in talking to her that she genuinely believes that good parents get their children lots of stuff. When they come home with all the toys, to me, they're being irresponsible. In their minds, they're being loving parents. Are you prepared to help teach them?

We have to understand the difference between an excuse and an explanation, and I'm giving the latter. I once had a conversation with a very poor and struggling single mother. I was visiting her in her home, which one church member described as "a dump." Any and all of the appliances in the house had been donated to her. I asked her, "What are your dreams and hopes for the future?" She said, "I don't know, we're just living." Things like that used to frustrate me, and I would think to myself, "If the poor are going to have that attitude and not plan for the future, then they deserve to be poor."  But then I heard the executive director of a local homeless shelter give a speech, and I'll never forget one thing he said:  "If I don't know what I'm eating today, I can't plan for tomorrow."  In other words, we humans cannot see beyond our unmet needs, and in asking that question, I was asking the single mother to think beyond her unmet needs. Are you prepared to help them? We all want people to be independent. The problem is the myth of equal opportunity. It's just not true that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed if they just try hard enough (see Compassion International's "Poverty Wheel").

her people I've described above and the children they're trying to raise. What are WE going to do about it? As my friend and minister to the poor Wendy McCaig writes in her book, hopelessness abounds in impoverished communities, but transformation can happen when we personally connect with the poor, learn their stories, and offer them a chance to serve others and feel like a person of worth again. In a recent email conversation, Wendy said:
"Most folks do not want to live off the government. Some simply know no other way or are too disabled, under-educated or face too many barriers to move into competitive employment...The answer is creating jobs that give my friends a chance to be productive citizens. AmeriCorps grants allow us to create jobs for people no one else would hire. The jobs we create are jobs that are designed to change the take, take, take culture of our community and turn it into a giving culture. They are very part-time positions but...they do it because they get so much out of giving to others."
Something changes when you come face to face.  That guy who wanted to just drop a bomb on the impoverished communities?  He wrote a $10,000 check to Wendy's ministry after meeting the people. Jean Vanier once asked, "Is the person standing in front of you precious to God or not?" I'm having trouble finding the parts of the Bible that call the poor moochers, raccoons, or parasites. The Bible has such scathing words for the rich, but not the poor. It does say that when we feed, clothe, and visit, we are doing it to Christ Himself. It does warn many times against oppressing and mistreating the disadvantaged. It does have Jesus standing before an audience announcing that the reign of His kingdom will be characterized by the good news to the poor, and freedom for prisoners and the oppressed. Need I individually mention each of the hundreds of passages that talk about poverty and injustice? The glorification of the rich and the demonization of the poor that we are seeing today and that I've seen many Christians buy into is in direct contradiction of the biblical witness.

I encourage you to read Wendy's book to see how this kind of personal ministry and valuing the other as a person with dreams has transformed people and communities.  However, there are still large-scale, systemic things that need to be done that churches, non-profits, and individuals can't sustain. I fear that the current climate is putting lawmakers and policies in place that are only going to make things worse. I explore this in Part 2.

Many thanks to Wendy McCaig for editing and improving this post.