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Friday, February 12, 2010

haiti: roots of the problem

When a disaster hits the poorest nation in the hemisphere, should we simply take up a collection and send aid, or would it be better to confront the reasons they are so poor?

Rick Steves:

We can blame Haiti’s squalor on voodoo, on its heritage of slavery, on corruption, on the fact that its main export is topsoil (in a treeless land, each rainstorm flushes precious soil into the sea), or on many other factors. But we must also look at American and European trade policies that help keep nations like Haiti underdeveloped—tariffs that help keep them "banana republics."

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Monday, January 18, 2010

on the Haiti earthquake and pact with the devil

No, Mr. Robertson, the nation of Haiti did not make a pact with the devil.

I don't suppose you are interested in the historical details, Mr. Robertson. An ideological defense of your prosperity theology is too important to let mere facts get in the way.

So to explain why the earthquake hit Haiti and not the Dominican Republic on the other side of the island, you invented a story of how the Dominican Republic prospers. Actually it's the fourth poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with 42% of the population living in poverty, an unemployment rate of 14%, an inflation rate of more than 10%, and an infant mortality rate of 25 per 1000 births.

Then you passed along the unfounded gossip about how the Haitians supposedly made a pact with the devil to throw off the bonds of French oppression. Because the devil cares so much about oppressed peoples? I must admit, there are nuances of prosperity theology that escape my understanding.

And no, Mr. Robertson, the earthquake is not a blessing in disguise for the Haitian people. It's never a blessing for anyone when a natural disaster destroys their homes and kills their loved ones. The least we can do is stop passing judgment and offer whatever help we are able.

The Bread for the World website has a list of organizations providing aid right now.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

shoplifting as a christian virtue

Father Tim Jones, parish priest at St Lawrence and St Hilda in York in Britain, has made international headlines by seeming to advocate shoplifting in a recent sermon:

My advice in these circumstances, when people have been let down so very badly by the rest of society, is that they should not hurt anybody, and cope as best they can. The strong temptation is to burgle or rob people – family, friends, neighbours, strangers. Others are tempted towards prostitution, a nightmare world of degradation and abuse for all concerned. Others are tempted towards suicide.

Instead, I would rather that they shoplift. My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift.

Now why would a Christian priest urge people to shoplift? Are there any circumstances that could possibly justify this criminal action? Is Father Jones suggesting that stealing is OK?

I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing, or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither. I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses, but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices. I would ask them not to take any more than they need, for any longer than they need.

Now it's beginning to sound downright marxist. Is Father Jones advocating, in a roundabout way, a brand of socialism?

No, actually, because the sermon is not really about shoplifting. It is grounded in the Magnificat, the song of Mary in the early part of Luke's gospel.

The recurrent theme of Mary's song is the faithful love of God towards his children, no matter how lowly, despised or lacking they may be. The phrases of her song are drawn almost entirely from the grateful pleading of the forlorn in Old Testament prophetic literature. It is a song which has done a huge amount to reinforce the Christian commitment to the poor and needy of society in every age.

But "commitment to the poor and needy of society" has always been easier to talk about than to put into practice. And that's what led Father Jones to make such a controversial declaration.

What advice should one give, for example, to an ex prisoner who was released in mid-November with a release grant of less than £50 and a crisis loan, also of less than £50, who applies immediately for benefits but is, with less than a week to go before Christmas, still to receive any financial support?

His advice, as we saw above, would be for them to take the things they need. It's not good advice, especially to someone with a criminal record. But what are the alternatives?

One might tell them to see their social worker, but they are on a waiting list for a social worker. Tell them to see their probation officer, perhaps, but the probation officer can only enquire of the benefits agency, and be told that benefits will eventually be forthcoming. One might tell them to get a job, but it is at the very best of times extremely difficult for an ex prisoner to find work, and these are not the best of times for anyone trying to find a job.

None of these options will provide food, clothing, or shelter. But a return to jail would, and so shoplifting begins to look more attractive.

There are, of course, ways to get the basic necessities without stealing:

They could perhaps get cereal and toast every morning from a local charity. Then could perhaps apply, and see if they are eligible for some limited help from the Salvation Army or other such body.

But such charity often has the unintended consequence of creating dependence. And that cuts to the heart of the gospel message. Jesus said he came to "bring good news to the poor," to "proclaim release to the captives," to "let the oppressed go free." But having to go to a shelter for cereal every morning is not freedom, and it is certainly not good news.

If a society cannot offer a better alternative than this to its most vulnerable citizens, it has failed. And that, ultimately, is Father Jones' point when he says the best option for the poor is shoplifting:

Let my words not be misrepresented as a simplistic call for people to shoplift. The observation that shoplifting is the best option that some people are left with is a grim indictment of who we are. Rather, this is a call for our society no longer to treat its most vulnerable people with indifference and contempt.

Again, the gospel message confronts us with harsh reality. Do we believe Christ died for sinners? Or are some people beyond his ability to redeem? In the sermon, preached the Sunday before Christmas, Father Jones urged his congregation:

Prepare for the coming of Christ, for Christmas is almost upon us. But don't let your preparations be limited to tinsel and turkey, crackers, fairy lights and chocolates. Prepare for Christ by singing his mother's song, and taking her words to heart. Don't just sing about lifting up the lowly: help with the lifting!

It's a message we all need to take seriously.

Here's the full transcript of the sermon.

hat tip: PamBG

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Monday, November 23, 2009

giant jellyfish and global warming

It sounds like a scene from a low-budget sci fi/horror film:

A blood-orange blob the size of a small refrigerator emerged from the dark waters, its venomous tentacles trapped in a fishing net. Within minutes, hundreds more were being hauled up, a pulsating mass crowding out the catch of mackerel and sea bass.

But for Japanese fisherman, it's all too real:

This year's jellyfish swarm is one of the worst he has seen, Hamano said. Once considered a rarity occurring every 40 years, they are now an almost annual occurrence along several thousand kilometers (miles) of Japanese coast, and far beyond Japan.

The migration of giant jellyfish into Japanese fishing waters is just one of the many effects of the climate change. Around the world, entire societies are threatened as the land that has sustained them through centuries is rapidly becoming inhospitable.

East Africa suffers through severe drought while Southeast Asia endures record floods. Though it seems paradoxical, both of these can be attributed to global warming.

As the air temperature increases even slightly above its historical average, it is able to hold more water vapor; as a result, clouds grow larger before dumping rain. Some areas are bypassed altogether while others get hit harder. Droughts and floods, courtesy of our appetite for energy.

The painful irony is that many of the places hit the hardest are already the poorest nations on earth. They are simultaneously not responsible for their changing climate, and not able to do anything about it.

Meanwhile the industrial world continues to pump carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at levels unprecedented in the history of the earth. And many developing nations, China and India foremost among them, are gearing up to join the club.

This cannot continue forever. But what are we going to do about it?

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

shane claiborne speaks at duke university chapel

This guy really understands what it means to put his faith into practice.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

rethinking foreign aid

Does foreign aid benefit Africans? Dambisa Moyo says no.

Few will deny that there is a clear moral imperative for humanitarian and charity-based aid to step in when necessary, such as during the 2004 tsunami in Asia. Nevertheless, it's worth reminding ourselves what emergency and charity-based aid can and cannot do. Aid-supported scholarships have certainly helped send African girls to school (never mind that they won't be able to find a job in their own countries once they have graduated). This kind of aid can provide band-aid solutions to alleviate immediate suffering, but by its very nature cannot be the platform for long-term sustainable growth.

Moyo's concerns are threefold: Foreign aid props up corrupt dictators, it undercuts local industry, and it promotes rampant inflation.

The corruption is the most severe problem:

As recently as 2002, the African Union, an organization of African nations, estimated that corruption was costing the continent $150 billion a year, as international donors were apparently turning a blind eye to the simple fact that aid money was inadvertently fueling graft. With few or no strings attached, it has been all too easy for the funds to be used for anything, save the developmental purpose for which they were intended.

But even aid that reaches its intended recipients has a cost:

Say there is a mosquito-net maker in small-town Africa. Say he employs 10 people who together manufacture 500 nets a week. Typically, these 10 employees support upward of 15 relatives each. A Western government-inspired program generously supplies the affected region with 100,000 free mosquito nets. This promptly puts the mosquito net manufacturer out of business, and now his 10 employees can no longer support their 150 dependents. In a couple of years, most of the donated nets will be torn and useless, but now there is no mosquito net maker to go to.

Finally, free money has a devastating effect on an economy:

Then there is the issue of "Dutch disease," a term that describes how large inflows of money can kill off a country's export sector, by driving up home prices and thus making their goods too expensive for export. Aid has the same effect. Large dollar-denominated aid windfalls that envelop fragile developing economies cause the domestic currency to strengthen against foreign currencies. This is catastrophic for jobs in the poor country where people's livelihoods depend on being relatively competitive in the global market.

The big problem, it seems to me, is that foreign aid agencies are going to Africa as competitors to local industry. That's maybe not their intention, but it's the end result.

A better plan would be to try to work within the local economy, building it up rather than tearing it down. Instead of importing 100,000 free nets, buy them from the local manufacturers. Instead of donating food and clothing, donate money to buy these things at the local market, THEN distribute them to the poor.

This might not be as effective in the short term, because the capacity isn't there to produce the quantity that aid agencies bring. But in the long term, the influx of income for local producers is the type of stimulus that is needed to bring real economic growth to impoverished countries.

Microloans are another piece of the puzzle. Small loans enable local producers to expand their businesses or to start new ones. And when the money is paid back, it becomes available to loan to someone else. Through repeated turnover, a small loan goes a lot further and makes a much bigger difference than a one-time gift, plus it strengthens the economy rather than undermining it, plus loan money is harder for corrupt officials to steal. And it's becoming easier for the average person to participate in this kind of direct aid. Kiva helps match lenders with entrepreneurs via a website.

African poverty is not an insoluble problem. Even the poorest nations have many hard working people who just need some seed capital to get going. In the richer nations, both the money and the will exist to solve the problem. All that is now needed is to replace the old distribution channels with something that can make a real difference.

It seems like such a small thing. How long will it take?

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Monday, May 11, 2009

monday music: habitat for humanity celebration

It's not really a music video. Habitat for Humanity was started by Millard Fuller in 1976 on one premise: Everybody deserves a simple, decent place to live. 300,000 houses later, Habitat continues to change the world, one family at a time.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

denying the resurrection

Thomas at Everyday Liturgy was saddened to learn that his friend Peter Rollins denies the resurrection.


At one point in the proceedings someone asked if my theoretical position led me to denying the Resurrection of Christ. This question allowed me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the subject, which I repeat here.

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ.

But Peter Rollins is not just some liberal scholar whose "theoretical position" has led him to this place:

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

And yet, there's hope:

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

I, too, deny the resurrection all too often.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

the usa is number one

... in child poverty, that is. And it's not even close.

Image source: Think Progress

Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it's easy to blame the victims. It's not so easy to acknowledge that we are not all created equal. We are born helpless, wholly dependent on others to take care of our every need. Our lives and our values are shaped extensively by the family and the the community into which we are born. Children born into poverty don't have the same opportunities as children of more privileged families, thus increasing the risk that their own children will be born into poverty. And so we've reached the point where, in the wealthiest nation ever to exist, one out of five children are born into poverty.

Can the cycle be stopped? Probably not entirely, but the experience of other industrial nations shows that the poverty rate can at least be reduced. The only thing missing in the United States is the will to do it.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

solution for the financial crisis?

Sam Norton of the Elizaphanian blog offers a solution to the American financial crisis.

Take the $700bn and use it to pay off the mortgages of the poorest. Instant solvency and liquidity flowing through the system, a Jubilee for social justice, and the bankers aren't favoured over the people they misled.

(hat tip: Steve Hayes)

At first glance, it looks like a simple and just solution. But is it? While the philosophy sounds nice, I have doubts about the implementation.

First, who are "the poorest"? While many Americans own houses, many others don't. This solution wouldn't benefit the poorest of the poor, who couldn't afford to buy a home even under the relaxed standards that got the banking industry into this crisis.

So we're talking about just the poorest homeowners, then. But how do you measure "poorest"? Do you look at tax returns? If so, do you look just at last year's? Consider the case of someone who was making good money, got laid off for six months, but has now found another well-paying job. This person is not poor, and can probably make the mortgage payments without aid, but the one-year dip in salary could qualify them for the government payoff.

So do you look at several years of past returns, and average them? Again, there's a similar problem. Someone who had a low income but got a big promotion is in better shape than the average of the past seven tax returns would suggest. Past performance, as they say in the investment business, is not a guarantee of future results.

So let's forget tax returns. Maybe we should look at net worth. But that would benefit people who have maxed out their credit cards and are making only minimum payments, as well as those who have acquired large debts getting postgraduate education. Members of the latter group have intellectual capital that should reward them financially in the long run; they can probably make their own mortgage payments. Meanwhile, those in the former group need help understanding responsible money management, or a mortgage bailout will do them no good.

It's a nice sentiment, this idea of paying off the mortgages of "the poorest", but I don't see a way to put it into practice.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

the dishonest manager

About 2 1/2 years ago I blogged about the parable of the dishonest manager. Of all Jesus' parables, this one makes the least sense to me.

I'm currently taking a class on Jesus' parables through Grace United Methodist Church, and this was the parable for last week. One of the great things about this class is that for each parable there is a video with a modern retelling of the story.

One thing the video emphasized, which had not occurred to me in simply reading the parable, was the reaction of the debtors. This, I think, throws a new light on the parable.

The rich man is mainly concerned with keepin accurate books. He really doesn't care about sufferings of the tenant farmers who work for him. While he amasses great wealth for himself, he locks others out of financial independence.

The dishonest manager, on the other hand, understands that people are more important than rules. The less pious person turns out to be the hero (kind of like the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help the injured man while the priest and the levite had more important things to do).

But this raises the question: Are we to emulate the manager in his dishonesty? Does God want us to be like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor?

My initial reaction is no, we don't need to be quite that detailed in relating the parable to our lives. The dishonest manager is there mostly for shock value.

But in re-reading the parable, I've noticed something else. Jesus uses the phrase "dishonest manager" in verse 8, and "dishonest wealth" in verse 11. So maybe we are not supposed to relate to the manager at all. The manager is our money. We — particularly Christians living in the United States and other first-world nations — are the rich man, and we've kept others in debt for much too long. While it might be unfortunate but expected to see huge income disparity within the economic systems of the world, the church ought to hold itself to another standard.

If I understand this parable, Jesus is saying that we should give more of our "dishonest wealth" — and all wealth is dishonest, regardless of how honestly we obtained it — lest we become enslaved to it.

But just how much does Jesus want from me? Should I give up my retirement fund? (With the way it's going lately, it won't be worth much anyway.) Should I stop saving for a newer car? Should I forget about buying a house?

I liked this parable better when it made no sense at all.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

check mate

Check cashing places are very creative at extracting numerous fees from poor people, helping to keep them poor. But part of the blame lies with banks, which generally stay away from poorer neighborhoods, making check cashing places the only viable option for some people.

See Check Mate, an expose by the Internets Celebrities, which I found via Freakonomics.

Some quotes from the video:

"Debt drives the economy. Poor people drive the economy."

"I just can't wrap my mind around the idea of paying someone for my own money."

"The thing is with banks, is that, they're not always so nice to the poorer customers. There's this whole apparatus of fees and charges that, one follows after the other that you can find yourself very easily caught up in."

"You know you've made it when you go from check cashing spot fees to ATM fees."

"Banks in and of themselves don't have a responsibility to go to areas that are not profitable."

"Debt is the new money."

"It used to be a sin to be in debt; now, it's just, sort of, a way of life."


Thursday, March 13, 2008

foreign aid: does it hurt more than it helps?

Massive amounts of aid in the form of free food have been going to Ethiopia since famine was first reported in the Western press, and we were in Lalibela the day one of the monthly shipments arrived. People from all over the countryside came into town on their donkeys -- well, not into town, but near it. The poorer you are, the more food you get, and no one wanted to show off his possessions, so everyone parked his donkeys about three kilometers from town and walked the rest of the way. There were hundreds of donkeys around, waiting on the edge of town, and hundreds of people in the center of town, waiting for the food trucks to arrive. With their arrival, fifty-kilogram sacks of wheat stenciled with the name of the contributing country -- some from the United States, some from Germany on this occasion -- were distributed.

While this was going on, glorious, lush fields all around Lalibela lay fallow because nobody farmed them anymore. An entire generation of Ethiopians has grown up without learning how to farm. Instead, to put food on the table, they go to town every month, park the donkey, and collect grain. Some recipients, the day we were in Lalibela, carried their ration of wheat directly over to the town market and started selling it. And so, in addition to that generation that has never learned how to farm, there is a generation of farmers who have simply stopped farming because they can no longer sell the fruits of their labor -- there is no way to compete with free grain.

Jim Rogers, Adventure Capitalist

At the turn of the millennium, retired investor Jim Rogers took a trip around the world with his fiancee. What he saw, particularly in Africa, was distressing:

Throughout the continent there are huge markets where on can find bundle upon bundle of T-shirts spread out for sale, donated by places such as the YMCA of Cleveland and the First Baptist Church of Charlotte. These and clothing of all kinds are given as donations in the United States destined for the poor of Africa, but by the time they reach the continent, they are sold as a commercial product. Not only do they enrich the entrepreneurs involved in the traffic, they also put local tailors out of business. The tailors cannot compete, nor can the people who weave cloth, spin yarn, or grow cotton, the people whose costs the tailor incurs. In Africa you used to see tailors everywhere. You would see them by the side of the road with their sewing machines. Now you see them only rarely. How can any of them compete with a product that the entrepreneur gets virtually free?

Has well-intentioned foreign aid hurt the people it was meant to help? Is Africa worse off today than it was before the West began sending massive amounts of goods in their direction?

But it gets worse. Non-government organizations (NGOs) have raised billions of dollars to send representatives to Africa to make their expertise freely available to the locals. But this form of "aid" may be the worst:

The Bangladesh International Network (BIAN), while we were there, filed suit against UNICEF, WHO, the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, NGO Forum, and other groups that were responsible for funding the sinking of wells contaminated by arsenic and other poisons. ... As a local newspaper reported, "The short and long term effect of arsenic poisoning is lethal. Research has proved beyond doubt that the source of arsenic poisoning is the shallow tube wells from which ninety-seven percent of the rural population receives its drinking water. People are drinking poisonous water every day from shallow tube wells while policymakers and their implementing agencies continue to sink these. While World Bank's own figures claim 20 million people are currently at risk and 75 million are potentially at risk of arsenic poisoning from tube wells, donors continue funding to sink tube wells."

Rather than stop digging wells, international agencies were conducting the Third International Symposium on Reducing the Impact of Toxic Chemicals on Bengal Basin's Economies -- the third -- in the midst of what may be the largest mass poisoning in history.

If all this is true, is there anything we can do to fix the problem? Rogers has the outline of a solution:

Forgive all the debt. Right now. African countries, combined, owe some $350 billion plus in foreign debt, according to the International Monetary Fund. While no one really expects these countries to pay back that debt, they are still required to finance it, making annual payments on the loans. If we assume the interest on the loans to be 8 percent, it means that African countries must collectively pay $26 billion a year in interest. That does not include principal payments. If we assume principal payments to be another 2 to 3 percent, annual payments to finance the debt total over $30 billion. Once the debt is forgiven, Africa's leaders will have an additional $30 billion annually that can be put to productive use, plus no debt hanging over them. Call the $350 billion reparation for supposed past sins, if it makes you feel better.

This much has been suggested before, by charitable organizations and even some western governments.

However, part of the deal would be no more foreign aid.

The effects would undoubtedly be profound. Africa would be left to survive on its own. The people of Africa, no longer relying on handouts, would learn to fend for themselves. The Ethiopian teenagers I met who had never learned how to farm would have to take up the plow. The madmen fighting on the Horn of Africa would stop receiving arms from around the world. Nigerian leaders would no longer be able to walk into banks and walk out with sacks of U.S. dollars. Those who run Mozambique would no longer be able to solicit flood relief money with which to line their coffers. The IMF and World Bank would go bankrupt, and local NGOs would be forced out of business.

Would it work? I don't know how this last part could possibly be enforced. But enabling Africans to solve their own problems is the only way to solve them.

More than eight hundred years ago, Moses Maimonides wrote that the best type of charity was to help people become more self-sufficient. When will today's advanced societies learn this lesson?

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Friday, October 26, 2007

church and statism

Update: When I first posted this, my concluding paragraph did not get pasted into the edit window. I've corrected the omission.

A few weeks ago, John the Methodist linked to an essay titled The Liberal Temptation. John argued that the phenomenon discussed in that essay -- using state power to advance the church's agenda -- is a temptation of conservatives as well as liberals. He more accurately labeled it a statist temptation.

In the comments, Dan Trabue gave a lengthy defense of the idea that Christians should expect the state to help care for the poor -- and quoted several Bible verses to back his points.

I can understand both of their points of view, and to some extent I agree with both. There's no better indicator than that: John and Dan were actually discussing two different issues. I'll try to touch on both of them here.

First, the role of the state. The United States Constitution outlines the role of the national government and specifies its duties, one of which is "to promote the general welfare." Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress to collect taxes for this purpose (among others).

So it would seem there should be no controversy there: If giving aid to people living in poverty promotes the general welfare (and I think it does), then the federal government has not just the right, but the duty to collect taxes for welfare programs.

Furthermore, through tax revenues the government has access to more resources than any individual or group could ever hope to collect. While most private charities do the best they can with the resources they have, the need is just too great. If we were to rely solely on voluntary charitable giving, a lot more people would fall into poverty.

The second issue here is the mandate Jesus gave to Christians to take care of those in need. Our salvation depends on it, according to Matthew 25:31-46.

But, as John points out in his post:

Compulsion is the enemy of evangelism, for there is no true conversion or sanctification unless is is uncoerced. Forced virtue, Left or Right, is no virtue at all.

If Congress votes to use our taxes -- everyone's taxes -- to fund a program to help the poor, we haven't fulfilled Jesus' mandate. Christian giving isn't simply a matter of helping those in need: It's also a matter of giving up our own desires and truly loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we give nothing more than what is automatically withdrawn from our paychecks, we are not really giving of ourselves.

Legislation of morality never works: The Volstead Act of 1919, which outlawed the sale of alcohol in the United States, did not eliminate the drinking of alcohol -- it merely created a new class of criminals.

Neither the right nor the left seem to be immune to the statist temptation: Just as we can't make people righteous by passing laws against abortion or homosexuality, we can't make people righteous by donating their money for them through tax laws. Laws may change a person's outward behavior -- or at least a person's public behavior --- but they cannot change people's hearts.

So I am left with two seemingly contradictory beliefs: Without the resources that only the state can muster, we can't hope to take care of all the people in need... but giving by proxy through taxes is not true charity.

But these are not mutually exclusive. It's not impossible to give to private charities and pay our taxes. It's no sin to expect our government to be responsive to the needs of its citizens. It's also no sin to give of ourselves to take care of our brothers and sisters.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

still no living wage

The new Iraq spending bill, passed by Congress last month and signed by President Bush, contains a rider that will raise the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $7.25.

It may sound like a big raise, but it will be phased in slowly over three years, and even after the second increase minimum-wage workers will be earning less (adjusted for inflation) than they were in 1997. The third phase doesn't even occur until after the next election, which means that Congress members will be able to boast for two election cycles about how they have helped the working poor, even as they keep the minimum wage below the poverty line.

I, for one, am not impressed. The purpose of a minimum wage should be to lift people out of poverty, not to keep them in it.

I've heard all the arguments about how some work is more valuable than other work, and I think there is some merit in that. But that misses the point. The minimum wage is not a nationwide mandatory one-size-fits-all income for all people. Let the corporate CEOs, the baseball players, and the movie stars make their millions, but give the janitors, the dishwashers, the farm hands, and the administrative assitants enough to take care of a family.

Now it may be true that some of these people don't need to make enough to raise a family. Maybe that administrative assitant is married to that janitor, and with their combined incomes, they can already make ends meet. But there was a time in American history when a family did not need two incomes just to stay out of poverty. There was a time, not too long ago, when even families of modest means could make a choice of whether to have one parent stay home and raise the children while the other parent brought home enough money to cover expenses. For an increasing number of families, that choice is no longer available.

I'm quite aware that some families make comfortably more than a poverty wage, and still choose to have both parents work. That's fine. I'm all for letting people have that choice. I just think that the same choice should be available to those at the bottom of the employment ladder.

Furthermore, a living wage would benefit the growing number of families who, for whatever reason, have only one adult in the household. If a single parent could stave off poverty with a single job, they will have more time to devote to their children.

Ultimately, that's what minimum wage laws are all about: Enabling parents to spend more time with their families. In a nation as prosperous as the United States, a nation whose leaders consistently give bold lip service to "family values," we could afford to keep working families out of poverty if we wanted to.

Do we want to?

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

trying to do something constructive

My recent post Law of the Marketplace has produced a lengthy discussion between OneOfMany and Steve Hayes. I think there is common ground to be found here.

In his most recent comment, OneOfMany said, among other things:

As regards hard living and doing without, that is a subject that I’ve tried to do something about by visiting with and spending time with and working with and helping poor people, hard living people, blue collar not well educated working class independent proud teeter tottering on the edge of economic crisis don’t want no handouts people who will not listen to you, to whom you have no right to speak until you have earned the right to speak to them by actually caring and trying to do something constructive to help them.

This matches my own experience. Most poor people want to help themselves. They need a helping hand, not a handout. Many charities are not designed to really help. Whether by design or by accident, they send a clear message that the giver and the receiver are not equals.

About ten years ago I volunteered a few times at food distribution center. I won't name the organization. Once a month, families were allowed to come and receive a shopping cart loaded with dry goods. As I recall, each month there were two lists, one for families with an infant or a toddler, and one for families with older kids. My job was to fill the cart from the list, push the cart out their car, unload the food, and bring the cart back. The recipients were not allowed to do anything for themselves. Wouldn't want them making substitutions in their rations, or running off with a cart.

Every person arrived with a frown or a scowl on their face. They didn't appreciate it -- and why should they? It's humiliating enough to have to rely on handouts in the first place; it's much worse not to be allowed to do what you can.

I remember a boy who must have been about 10-11 years old, who came once with his mother. As I finished filling the cart, he said, "I want to push the cart out." This was a clear violation of the rules. I rolled the cart ouside the door, then, once we were out of view of other volunteers, I let him push the cart to his car.

In all the times I volunteered there, I think that boy was the only person I saw who showed even a glimmer of hope. The setup simply was not conducive to really helping people. I don't fully blame the charity. With the number of people they served, and the limited supplies available, they needed to keep a tight control on their inventory. If people were allowed to choose their own food, some items would be gone before some people could get there.

Even in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world, the need is great. One out of every seven people in the United States lives in poverty. It's good that churches and other groups provide assistance. But the problems are too severe to solve through voluntary programs. The problems are systemic, so any solution must begin with changing the system.

I don't know what the answer is. As OneOfMany points out, no other economic system has proven effective at providing justice and opportunity. Unfortunately, neither does market economics. If we want any semblance of a fair and just society, we need to find a new model.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

an ounce of prevention

Across the water from the prison island, next to yet another sewage plant and trash-deposit station in Hunts Point in the South Bronx, there's a multistory prison barge that has been used in recent years for children in detention. Several thousand juveniles thirteen years old or older have been held there at one point or other in a given year – about one hundred at a time – while they awaited transfer to more permanent facilities. It's a tremendous structure, with six floating floors of prison cells, one of them under water. From the sky, however, it looks decorative. It's painted in clean colors, blue and white, and looks as if it might be some sort of a pleasure craft, a cruise ship possibly.

The city spends $64,000 yearly to incarcerate an adult inmate on the prison island. It spends $93,000 yearly to incarcerate a child on the prison barge or in the very costly and imposing new detention center built on St. Ann's Avenue. That's abut eleven times as much as it is spending, on the average, for a year of education for a child in the New York City public schools during the last years of the 1990s – eighteen times what it is spending in a year to educate a mainstream student in an ordinary first-grade classroom in the schools of the South Bronx. There are countless academic studies of allegedly "deficient" social values in the children of the poor, but I do not know of any studies of the values of the educated grown-ups who believe this is a healthy way to run a social order.

- Jonathan Kozol, Ordinary Resurrections

It's a story that is repeated in slums throughout the United States. The policy makers who can't find the money to give impoverished kids a decent education must then find a much larger sum to lock the kids away. And yet, there's more to it than that. As Kozol points out elsewhere in his book, it would be worth it to keep the kids in school and away from gangs and drugs and violence even if it were not cost effective to do so. What price can you place on a child's future?

Every human life is precious, and although we'd all like to believe we live in a society where we are all equal, the reality is that kids born into poverty don't have the same opportunities that the rest of us take for granted.

In a neighborhood where the major industry is sewage treatment, it is inevitable that many of the children will develop health problems. Where three square meals a day are not always possible, hungry kids will have trouble learning effectively in school. Where adult role models are few, because many fathers have been sent to prison or have simply abandoned families they were not able to take care of, children are more likely to turn to gangs.

It's true that people ultimately are responsible for their own choices, but people do not make these choices in a vacuum. In a society that increasingly turns its back on its most vulnerable citizens, many children are being denied even the hope that they can escape their circumstances. When everything they see tells them that there is no way out, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And all this is happening in a nation in which 75% of the population claim to be Christians! How far we have strayed from the one who began his public ministry with these words:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

- Luke 4:18-19

It's easy to talk about it, as I'm doing now. What takes courage is to do something about it. But what's the answer?