Posts Tagged ‘social justice’

Unemployment and Dependency

April 9, 2010

In some ways, working the desk in the computer lab of the library seems something like the stereotype of work as a bartender. We get quite a number of the down-and-out, and they frequently turn to us to share their frustrations.

A broad-shouldered man in his forties, slightly frayed and worn, came to me for assistance. He was confused by the instructions on how to submit his resume for a job listing on Craigslist. I helped him to read the instructions, and guided him in the process of attaching his file to an email. Afterwards, he spent several minutes expressing his frustrations. For the past three years he had been unemployed. He had previously worked for years in a respectable blue-collar job which provided him a modest but sufficient income, a job in which he was proud of his work. But changing economic conditions had caused layoffs in his profession, and he had found little demand for his skills. He tried to be inventive and branch out into new fields, but with plenty of applicants with specific training and skills in those fields, nothing had come of his efforts. He was obviously ill-prepared to enter into fields requiring computer skills, which severely limited his options. He was interested in re-training, but routine bills and his medical expenses drained all his available funds—most coming from government welfare programs. If it weren’t for those, he would likely be out on the street.

“I just want a job,” He mourned. “But I can’t catch a break.”

This patron was hardly alone. A large number of requests for help at the desk have something to do with looking for work: writing resumes, sending or uploading resumes, using online job boards, using the library’s computers to learn to type, learning other computer skills.

All my life I’ve heard conservatives insist that welfare corrupts self-reliance and personal industry, encouraging laziness, idleness, and indolence, turning good people into “loafers.” Tom Delay even recently went so far as to avow that people want to be unemployed, that “unemployment benefits keeps people from going and finding jobs.” When unemployment benefits are proffered, goes the theory, it prolongs unemployment because the recipients have less incentive to find work.

Seems a pretty dismal view of humanity, and I don’t buy it. Oh, I’m sure there are always some who abuse the system, but the extent and level is exaggerated. I see far too many people who want work, who want to be able to provide and to feel the sense of self-worth which comes with being self-sufficient. They may lack the background which has helped enable many of us to find a place in the modern economy. They may have some extra obstacles, and lack some of the skills or training which are prized in today’s job market. But they don’t aspire to be leeches and loafers. Welfare doesn’t extend some life of luxury, it extends their survival while they struggle to succeed or deal with the challenges which have prevented their ability to be self-reliant thus far. They may depend on government assistance to keep them housed or fed right now, but they don’t relish the notion of relying on their meager welfare checks indefinitely to support idleness.

The data shows that the conservative complaint is superficially correct. Unemployment welfare does prolong unemployment. However, an Economic Policy Institute analysis shows that a deeper look reveals a story missed by the critics: unemployment insurance allows the recipients the time and resources to find work suited to their abilities or to develop the skills necessary to be more effective in the modern workplace. This makes those individuals more productive and more economically secure in the long run—a valuable investment if we want the members of our society to be more self-sufficient. In the short run, If people are having difficulty finding work, it may have less to do with some supposedly welfare-facilitated loafing than with an economy which has been persistently hemorrhaging jobs for some time now. To assume that jobs will suddenly open up if we just cut off aid to the poor in order to prevent dependency and “loafing,” that everyone will be self-reliant and “independent” is naive, and the results could be disastrous for the poor in society—most of whom are like you and I, and “just want to work.”

I’ll Pass on the Party Hats and Whistles, Thanks

March 23, 2010

As of last night, the House of Representatives has passed sweeping health care reform. The deed is done. Not really, of course; the bill must go yet again to the Senate, where—despite the euphoria of Democrats—passage is not assured. And if it does, the issue still won’t be settled; several states are planning to fight against the law in court. But the vote is seen by a key moment for both sides, with leaders of both arrogantly claiming to tell us that real Americans are on their side. We’ll see who is right over the course of the next several months and the next election cycle. I suspect that in this, as just about every other issue and election over the past several years, the divide is passionate but pretty even.

(I’m relieved that, whatever the outcome, the Democrats did not resort to the “Deem and pass scheme.” Even had I wholeheartedly endorsed the bill, it would be a tragic betrayal of our values if our leaders were to circumvent the essential democratic process with some procedural chicanery.)

I’m decidedly ambivalent about the whole issue. I’d hoped to write a series of posts exploring the issue in depth while the issue was hot, but other demands and priorities prevented that. Perhaps I’ll still get around to it in the not-too-distant future. Suffice it for now to say that I do strongly believe we need serious health care reform. I support the idea of some form of universal health care, though I find some merits and would be willing to give a chance to some form of a “consumer-driven” system. I hope that the bill accomplishes what its supporters claim. But there are many troubling aspects to this bill that I fear may come back to haunt us.

The Right has been rabid in their denunciations, as can be expected with virtually any Democratic effort. But if you put aside the reflexive cries of slippery slopes, socialism, totalitarianism, and the bungling nature of government, there are some substantive issues. The costs of the bill and the potential to balloon the debt if everything does not go precisely as planned is something which does trouble me. And while I do see the logic of requiring everyone to be in the risk pool by having insurance, I do think that there is a legitimate issue regarding the constitutionality and the ethics of requiring everyone to own insurance simply for existing.

It isn’t just the conservatives who are concerned. In the today’s email message from Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Network of Spiritual Progressives, there was many caveats in the praise for the victory

it’s also ok to acknowledge that this bill does not represent most of what we really want. It is the biggest give-away to the private insurance companies in decades, forcing 30 million people to buy health insurance whether or not they want it without putting any significant price controls in place, so the insurance companies get a huge new group of health insurance purchasers and can (and will) raise their prices just as they have done in outrageous ways in the past decade.

Ralph Nader, dismissed the bill in the New York Times as “a major political symbol wrapped around a shredded substance…It is a remnant even of its own initially compromised self. Chris Hedges referred to it today in Truthdig as “a bill that will do nothing to ameliorate the suffering of many Americans, will force tens of millions of people to fork over a lot of money for a defective product and, in the end, will add to the ranks of our uninsured.”

I suspect that the Democrats have used up their only opportunity to fix health care. I don’t think there will be the chance to revise things over the next few years; after labor that difficult, what you see is what you get. I guess we can only hope that their gamble pays off.

Caring for the Poor and the Needy to be Added to the LDS “Three-Fold Mission”

December 10, 2009

According to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune, the LDS Church will be making a change to the “Threefold Mission of the Church” to better reflect our responsibilities as Christians.

The LDS Church is adding “to care for the poor and needy” to its longstanding “threefold mission,” which is to preach the LDS gospel, purify members’ lives and provide saving ordinances such as baptism to those who have died.

This mission first was coined by late LDS President Spencer W. Kimball in the 1980s and since then has been repeated as a mantra by the church’s more than 13 million members.

The new group of phrases will be described as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ “purposes,” rather than missions, and will be spelled out in the next edition of the LDS Church Handbook of Instructions , due out next year, church spokesman Scott Trotter confirmed this week.

“Caring for the poor and needy,” Trotter said, “has always been a basic tenet of the [LDS] Church.”

Elevating it to one of the faith’s major purposes brings added emphasis.

“This is a dramatic move and very important message,” said Jan Shipps, an Indiana-based American religion historian who has spent decades studying the LDS Church. “It’s not that Mormons haven’t already been caring for the poor and needy with its humanitarian program. It’s just that this moves it to the top of their priorities, along with proselytizing and temple work (Peggy Fletcher Stack, “New LDS emphasis: Care for the needy,” Salt Lake Tribune, 12.10.2009).”

I think this is a fantastic move, and I hope it helps the membership of our faith reconsider the role of being charitable and compassionate in their lives. I hope people consider this an invitation to look beyond the traditional means by which we try to help our brothers and sisters in need, look beyond the tithing/donation forms, the formal charity drives (things like MS drives, March of Dimes, etc). and disaster relief. Our faith and its members has generally done a pretty good job at that sort of thing. But I would like to think of this upcoming change as an invitation to broaden our perspective on caring for the poor. Can we consider how our daily lives and decisions impact those less fortunate around us? Our consumption decisions, our decisions about our business decisions, our employment decisions, all can have an impact on the needy and downtrodden. Can we consider them? So often I hear rather disparaging comments within LDS circles about the desperately poor whom we see around on the streets, outside shopping centers, or in our library. Can we look with more compassion on those we see around us every day who are in desperate circumstances?

This month we celebrate the birth of Him who gave us a priceless and otherwise unobtainable gift, who gave it not in some exchange, but out of pure love for all of us who needed his help. What better way to celebrate than to give to those from whom we cannot expect anything in return?

How Do We Measure Economics?

December 6, 2008

Mary Nelson, president emeritus of faith-based community development corporation Bethel New Life and contributor to Sojourners recently took issue with the narrow perspective with which our society and commentators view economics.

I’m tired of all the frantic talk about how much or little consumers are spending over this Holiday time. Something’s wrong with an economy based on consumer spending, with kids thinking the measure of parents’ love is the gifts they get. We need to figure out a new kind of gauge of well-being, of quality of life, not only for individuals in families, but for communities as well. Studies share that people who are rich in relationships, who are involved in sharing beyond themselves, live longer and have a higher quality of life. A recent radio show shared ways to make this Holiday time special for kids…doing things with them, together volunteering in homeless shelters or food programs, baking cookies and sharing them with a homeless shelter. A different measure (“A Different Economic Measure: Quality of Life and an Economic Bill of Rights,”).

In our modern culture, economics has come to refer almost exclusively to finance. We seem to think that it can all be quantified in concrete figures, such as profits and losses, market share, job numbers, import/export ratios, stock valuation, or GDP.

The word “economics” comes from the Greek oikonomia, “household management.” Budgets and finance are certainly an important part of managing a household, but they are hardly the only aspects. One who runs a household without taking into consideration the holistic well-being of the family—the distribution of materials, the relationships, the emotional growth, etc—are likely to find their family crumbling around them.

Mary rightfully points out this problem. The conventional economic indicators are grossly inadequate to answering the real question of our economic well-being, of whether or not the financial and productive activity is contributing to the health of our society. Slavish devotion to those indicators will lead to economic recommendations—Increase consumer spending! Get people borrowing!—which will not be conducive to the well-being of society.

We need to try to take into account the humanistic aspects of our economy. Is the wealth generated being distributed in a meaningful way throughout the economy, or does it pool among a few? Is that wealth meeting their needs for food, shelter, mental and emotional growth, etc? How are those at the lower margins doing? Is there a sense of security about provisioning, or is society anxious about their future prospects? Are people happy?

British Economist E.F. Schumacher insisted that we needed to take into consideration the human aspects of economics. From Schumacher’s ideas has grown the concept of the more holistic Buddhist economics. Some have even tried to find more holistic indicators, such as a Gross National happiness.

Given the financial troubles we’re facing right now, this may be an ideal time to reflect and reorient. I’m confident that we will better help society restore and maintain a healthy household if we must find a way to reclaim that broader perspective of economics.

The GDP is rising, Productivity is Increasing—and Still Workers Wages Fall

April 17, 2008

Former labor secretary Robert Reich recently blogged about those recent comments of Obama which have been so distorted over the last several days. The point was to take the media to task for their superficial coverage. An interesting read. But what really caught my eye was the way he introduced the topic.

I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, 61 years ago. My father sold $1.98 cotton blouses to blue-collar women and women whose husbands worked in factories. Years later, I was secretary of labor of the United States, and I tried the best I could – which wasn’t nearly good enough – to help reverse one of the most troublesome trends America has faced: The stagnation of middle-class wages and the expansion of povety. Male hourly wages began to drop in the early 1970s, adjusted for inflation. The average man in his 30s is earning less than his father did thirty years ago. Yet America is far richer. Where did the money go? To the top. (Robert Reich, “Obama, Bitterness, Meet the Press, and the Old Politics” ; thanks to Richard Warnick for pointing it out)

This isn’t the first time recently someone has pointed out that the “a rising tide lifts all boats” bromide of the Right just doesn’t hold water. Barbara Ehrenreich discussed the point at length a couple months back in The Washington Post.

It begins to sound a bit naughty—all this talk about the need to “stimulate” the economy, as if we were discussing how to make a porn film. I don’t mean to trivialize our economic difficulties or the need for effective government intervention, but we have to face a disconcerting fact: For years now, that strange stimulus-crazed beast, the economy, has been going its own way, increasingly disconnected from the toils and troubles of ordinary Americans.

The economy, for example, has been expanding, at least until now, and growth is supposed to guarantee general well-being. As long as the gross domestic product grows, World Money Watch’s Web site assures us, “so will business, jobs and personal income.”

But hellooo, we’ve had brisk growth for the past few years, as the president has tirelessly reminded us, only without those promised increases in personal income, at least not for the poor and the middle class. According to a study just released by the Economic Policy Institute, real wages actually fell last year. Growth, some of the economists are conceding in perplexity, has been “decoupled” from widely shared prosperity. (Barbara Ehrenrich, “The Boom Was a Bust For Ordinary People,”

Market cheerleaders balk at the notion that there is anything wrong. They insist that we naysayers are just being pessimistic. The U.S. is doing fine! And sure, superficially things look good for the average person. The dollar figure of wages are up. People have continued to buy houses, cars, electronics, and all sorts of knick-knacks and trinkets from Wal-Mart. But look a little beneath the surface, and perhaps it is a different story. Benefits are being slashed. When adjusted for inflation, Reich and Ehrenrich are correct; the compensation of the average worker have decreased. Perhaps this is partly why the number of households where both parents work—something about which the “family values” crowd on the Right often complains, but about which they rarely seem to consider the roots. The illusion of prosperity is built on the record levels of consumer debt U.S. citizens have accumulated. Is that going to fly if we hit a prolonged economic recession? Seems a shaky foundation on which to claim that all is well in Zion.

Some people complain that the phrase “Social Justice,” is a misnomer. They aren’t entirely wrong. Strictly speaking, much of the agenda to which social justice refers has more to do with compassion than justice. But neither are they entirely correct. I think there is something fundamentally unjust when prosperity is shared only by a select few of those whose work made that prosperity possible. When the economy’s productivity rises and wealth increases, but the average worker upon whose labors the profits are made sees a dwindling share of the fruits of that harvest, that is a call for social justice.

Some Positive Words from John McCain

March 29, 2008

I’m on record as having previously been a fan of McCain. Over the past six or so years I’ve been extremely disappointed and disillusioned by his seeming veer to the right, and I’m vehemently opposed to his hawkish foreign policy tendencies. But when McCain continues to say things like this, I can’t entirely rule him out.

The senator briefly addressed the troubled economy, saying that struggling Americans, not corporations, should receive a hand from the government.

“There are people who are sitting around the kitchen table, families today, that are saying, are we gonna have to take an extra job? Are we gonna have to dig into our savings? Are we gonna have to take extraordinary measures in order to remain in our home? And I want to emphasize that those are the people that should be the object of our attention and our care,” the senator from Arizona said. “Not the lender who lent money under circumstances which were very onerous, or to people that did not really qualify (KCPW report, 03/28/08).”

Maybe it’s just empty words, like president Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” But given McCain’s history of fighting corporate welfare and lobbying, the fact that his domestic agenda has typically been more populist than the typical Republican, there is a part of me which still holds out hope.