Who Cares for the Poor?

It is very hard to understand why any politician would be opposed to paying people a living wage – meaning, a wage that would allow them to live with dignity as opposed to living as virtual slaves to an unfair economic system.


It is clear that capitalism and democracy are not one in the same thing;  apparently, if  Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson had a face-to-face conversation, they would lock horns on principle: capitalism does not pretend to want to, or to be about, providing a level playing field for all people, as democracy purports to be about.


But to be against helping people get paid what their work contribution is really worth seems immoral. Actually, allowing poverty, or ignoring it, seems to be immoral too, especially in such a wealthy and religious nation.  It seems like more and more, people are just a beggar’s cup away from abject poverty.


The growing gap between rich and poor, the shrinking of the middle class, is not just an American problem. In China, reports Rob Schmitz, “the number of people …who still live on less than two dollars a day is equal to the entire population of the United States.”  (http://www.marketplace.org/topics/world/street-eternal-happiness/celebrating-chinese-new-year-street-eternal-happiness). Ironically, the very poor sit on a street named “The Street of Eternal Happiness.” The well to do most often walk past the beggars; the sense of disdain is hardly unnoticeable.


There is nothing “happy,” though, about being poor. There is nothing “happy” about having to choose between food and medicine, or between diapers or milk for the baby who needs the diaper. Many families cannot afford diapers; hence in some places diaper banks have been created. Many elderly do not have enough to eat. And many adults are working their buns off with hardly anything to show for it except extreme fatigue and deepening depression.


There seems to be such an insensitivity to the poor. In China, Kang Xiaoguang, Professor of Regional Economics and Politics, actually said, publicly, “Although there are hundreds of millions of workers and peasants, they don’t count. You can ignore them. You can also rob and exploit them. It’s not a problem. The most important thing is to get the powerful on your side.”


While Xiaoguang’s statement is harsh and insensitive, it is hard to believe that he is not saying out loud what many people feel.  When President Obama said, in his 2013 State of the Union Address, that he wanted Congress to approve a hike in the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, he apparently caught Republicans and some Democrats off-guard.  The president said, “Today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. That’s why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, 19 states have chosen to bump theirs even higher. Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.”


Those who are criticizing big government are not impressed with the president’s suggestion, nor are they apt to seriously consider it, and those who stay far enough from the poor to see the misery in which they live are not likely to “encourage” their state and federal lawmakers by threatening to withdraw support for them if they don’t raise the minimum wage.


If you do not see poverty, it is easy to minimize it and the suffering it causes.


Before the 2008 election, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs said, over and over, that America was losing its middle class.  He seemed not to get a lot of support, and I don’t remember what his solution was to the problem, but the fact is, Dobbs correctly called that there would be a crisis of the middle class, which has come to be.


The state and federal jobs which allowed so many people to reach middle class are shrinking, as are the manufacturing jobs. There are jobs available, but many of them require technical training which the vast majority of people do not have.


“Find a way to go to school and get some training,” those who are insensitive would say, not understanding that the working poor don’t have a penny to spend and would probably not qualify for a student loan. The working poor often cannot take a day off, or refuse to take a day off, even when they’re sick, because they cannot afford to miss a day’s wages. Their families suffer, as do they, in all areas of life.


Marco Rubio, who delivered the GOP rebuttal to President Obama’s speech, said, “I don’t think a minimum wage law works.” Addressing and raising the minimum wage would threaten the creation of jobs, those who oppose big government would say, but what kind of jobs? Probably more that are wont to pay workers what their work is worth.


It is no secret that wealth often accrues on the backs of the poor, with the poor getting little benefit. But there is something inherently wrong in that. There is something wrong with a system that allows the wealthy to make and hoard more money they can ever use, while those whose labor made them rich can barely make ends meet.


Professor Susan Thistlewaite, in her book, Occupy the Bible, encourages a moral and religious response to the issue of poverty. She spends a lot of time addressing the debt students are in who took out loans to go to college. Too many of them are not only struggling financially, but they are struggling emotionally as well. To not be able to find a job, or to get a job which does not pay a living wage, is demeaning. Many former students are committing suicide, she writes.


Thistlewaite encourages the religious of our society to read the Bible and interpret it from the perspective of those who struggle with poverty and financial hardship. The struggling don’t have trouble doing that; the wealthy would probably toss it off as Liberal dribble.


But there is no “dribble” in the fact that in this nation there is an oligarchy, not a democracy. There are too many people struggling to obtain the bare necessities for themselves and their families. The Republicans have criticized President Obama for the fact that more people receive food stamps than in the previous administration, but without help, how are the poor and working poor supposed to make it?  To require and expect them to work for the increase of profits for the wealthy and then to give them pittance in return …just does not seem right.


In fact, it seems that in doing that, the wealthy and powers that be are merely ignoring the poor.


The pervasiveness of poverty is not new; the society in which Jesus lived was as imbalanced economically as are the societies of China and Haiti and our own nation. But what is troubling is that it feels like it’s getting easier and easier for the wealthy to act like the poor and working poor don’t exist, that they are whiners and takers, like …they don’t matter.


Perhaps if nationally there could be a shift or an outpouring of programs that teach the poor how to compete in our global economy the picture could and would change. The poor don’t want to be poor; many of them are stuck and don’t know how to get out. Some would rather die than take government assistance. They don’t want a hand out. They want a way up and out of their economic misery. Poverty causes people to live in despair and depression; suicide is not all that uncommon for those who have simply given up hope of their lives ever getting better. There is a lot of domestic abuse amongst the poor, and children end up being ignored and neglected, which causes a host of social problems. It doesn’t make sense to ignore and/or ignore the poor. Poverty ends up costing money …but then, those who are investing in private prisons, the so-called Prison Industrial Complex, would not care about that because their wealth is built upon the backs of the hopeless and despairing.


Capitalism (Photo credit: Juliano Mattos)


You have to have eyes to see that, though, ears to hear it, and a heart to receive it. That, apparently, is what is missing in our great nation.


A candid observation …


What Does the Bible Say, Really?

There are some things we just don’t think about.

Susan Thistlewaite, Chicago Theological Seminary professor, author and scholar, gives some sobering information in her latest book, Occupy the Bible. She says that we ought to read the Bible from the perspective of the homeless, the hungry, the economically stressed.

It was from their perspective that Jesus formed his ministry, she says …and the Bible says.

In a workshop she gave, she said, “Student debt is approaching one trillion dollars. That’s more than credit card debt and if the trend continues, in a few years, student debt will be higher than the national debt. We need to read the Bible from that perspective.”

Students are stressed out and depressed. They have gone to school and gotten degrees, only to find that they are not able to get work, or enough money to pay their student loans.”Students are stressed out and depressed,” Thistlewaite said. “Some are committing suicide.”

There are a lot of reasons for the economic state of this nation, but greed is a big one, posits Thistlewaite. Greed has led banks and other financial institutions, including those which dole out student loans, to go haywire, thinking not about the people who are getting the loans they are giving out but instead by the profit they will make off people who are really trying to make an honest living.

Jesus was a revolutionary, primarily because he challenged the Roman government. He didn’t get into trouble because he taught people to love; he got in trouble because he challenged the status quo. He got into trouble because he taught people that the kingdom in which they should seek comfort was the heavenly kingdom, where there was fairness and equality amongst people,  not the earthly kingdom, headed by the Romans, which led people into economic despair and support economic inequality.

“Theology begins where pain is,” says Thistlewaite. And clearly, there is pain amongst the people who are working and still cannot make ends meet. That group includes students, but also the so-called “working poor,” who, in spite of working sometimes two and three jobs, are still struggling to keep their heads above water. The economic state of our nation is slowly wiping out the middle class, and, observes Thistlewaite, there can be no democracy without a middle class.

Our economic dilemma is made all the worse as the issue is argued using the Bible as justification for both liberal and conservative positions. Thistlewaite says that “the Right thinks the Bible supports free market capitalism.” The Left, conversely, uses the Bible to support an economy which supports equal distribution of wealth. Parables, like found in the Book of Matthew 25:14-30, where a wealthy landowner gave three different “slaves” (translated from the Greek “doulos”) rewarded the two who multiplied money given to them, and cast out the one who hid the money given to him, invite two different interpretations, one from the Left, one from the Right. Who, in that parable and others, is doing the will of God, asks Thistlewaite.

One Bible. Two desperately different interpretations …and the odd men out are the struggling, working poor.

We don’t want to think about the state of our economy or what God really demands. It is totally inconceivable to me that anyone would think that God supports poverty or the abject and real suffering that is endured by the working poor, just as it is inconceivable to me that a good God would support racism or sexism or militarism. I grew up believing that a good God wanted all people to be taken care of, that God wanted economic and social justice for all people. Is that naive?

Neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the New Testament, naiveté notwithstanding, seem to support misery, with a very few people being very comfortable at the expense of many poor people suffering. People got into big trouble with God in the Bible for not being hospitable, not taking care of widows and the poor. God didn’t change, did He/She?

There are some things we don’t want to think about it, but we need to. Bottom line, there’s too much suffering caused by economic distress, in this, the wealthiest nation in the world.

A candid observation …

Visit Thistlewaite’s website at http://www.occupythebible.org

Voting for Obama

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got the most interesting letter in the mail today. It was from a woman whom I do not know;  she included in the envelope a piece written about President Obama by Ed Lasky entitled, “The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House.” The article was, of course, in reference to Ed Klein‘s new book by the same title.

The woman typed, “I doubt that you will read this, but really, you should. Then you will understand we have reasons NOT to vote for this man, then and now, and it has absolutely NOTHING to do with race.”

In her letter, she excoriated the president for his policies; “with all due respect,” she wrote, “poverty, education costs, affordable housing and unemployment have all been made WORSE by President Obama.” She wrote that President Obama and the Democrats “forced Obamacare on this nation against the will of the people”…and accused me and others of voting for the president only because he is black…and those of us who did that, she said, “are racist.”

She angrily says people have “acquiesced to the gay marriage issue because you don’t want to lose all of the “free” stuff you get from the Democrats! You are willing to let this President and the liberals throw away the foundation of societal structure we’ve known for thousands of years (sic) to get more free stuff???? I am outraged!” she wrote.

Well, now.

I think she’s right: things have gotten worse since the president took office, but not only because of his policies. I think “the Congress of no” has had a lot to do with where we are and are not. The economy was in free fall when Mr. Obama came into office, because of the policies of President Bush. President Obama had the unsavory task of trying to get the lumps out of the gravy, so to speak, and his job was made all the more difficult by a Congress which has refused to work with him.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why people say that President Obama has been against big business. It seems to me, with all the bailing out of banks “too big to fail” that the president made their lives pretty comfortable, so much so that they have gone back to operating pretty much in the way that helped get us into this mess. The President has done some spending that jacked up the deficit – to save and to protect people who were out of work with no income at all. They needed to survive and there were no jobs. One might not like that fact, but it was and is the truth.

The President has scurried to help the “new poor,” as the middle class, as we have always known it, has continually diminished. While bank executives have gotten huge bonuses, people who used to be comfortable are now scrambling to survive – hence, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. The chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” has only widened – that, too, under Mr. Obama’s presidency.

The woman who wrote me criticized black people for always voting for Democrats. She notes that Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” has only managed to reduce poverty by 4 percent, after spending $16 trillion. That is quite definitely a sorry report …but has Ronald Reagan’s policy of “trickle down economics” helped the poor and “the least of these?”  The spirit of the letter is that if we blacks would get our heads out of the sand and stop voting for Democrats, the country would be better off…but we are unable to see or understand that.

The truth is, people vote for the party they perceive to have their interests at heart. It does not appear, nor has it appeared to have been the case in a long time, that Republicans have the interest of black, brown and poor people…at heart. If you look at the recent Republican campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, none of the candidates seemed particularly interested in the plights of black, brown and poor people. Heck, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich basically said that black people want to be on welfare. Their presidencies, they promised, would create a world where black people had jobs. That would be nice – and it would be nice if the jobs were more than menial jobs, so those working could support their families, but alas, history has shown that Republicans have not appeared to be all that interested in creating an America with a more level playing field; Republicans have sort of blamed the victims of discrimination for their plight.

That’s like blaming a rape victim for being raped.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been some good things done by Republicans for black and brown people (not so much poor people…) The most obvious feather for the Republicans is Abraham Lincoln.  President Eisenhower mandated that segregation in federal employment be ended,but come on, have Republicans really showed much heart or concern for any group other than white people?  It wasn’t a Republican, but a Democrat,  Harry Truman, who made the United States military desegregate. If the truth be told, both Republicans and Democrats alike have been pretty silent on the conditions that help keep black, brown and poor people in the status of second-class citizens. Neither a Republican nor a Democrat got legislation passed that outlawed lynching.  Historically, in spite of laws mandating integration of schools, for example, or outlawing segregation of the military, people, Republican and Democrat, have found ways to get around the laws and keep things “as they have always been.”

It was probably Franklin Delano Roosevelt who started the love affair between African-Americans and the Democrats, with his New Deal. If that period of history is examined closely, we can see that it wasn’t all that “new” or a good “deal” for many blacks, but there were enough blacks helped that it gave the perception that Democrats care about them. All people, no matter color, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender, want and need to feel like their government cares about them.

I will vote for Mr. Obama not because he is black but because I have more faith that he cares about me, an African-American woman, and my children, and all black, brown and poor people than I have that faith about Mr. Romney. I do not think Mr. Romney is a bad man. He is obviously a brilliant and talented businessman. But at the end of the day, there are more than successful white businessmen who make up America. There are 46 million poor people. There are women and Hispanics and Muslims and black people…who need to be considered and cared for. There are people who cannot pay their rent or mortgages and do not want welfare or food stamps, but want a viable job with a working wage. There are people who need the government to step up for all of the people, not just some of the people, as has been the case with both Republican and Democratic presidents.

This is not about race. This is about human dignity.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said that civil unrest has always erupted when people have felt humiliated. It’s not been poverty or even racism that has made tempers explode; it has been the perception that they has a people have been humiliated one time too many. Blacks, he said, have adjusted to being terrorized in this country…but even those who have adjusted, just to get by, have a breaking point.

I am voting for President Obama because I don’t want people to get to a breaking point. The lady who wrote me, ironically, worries about “riots in the streets” like there’s been in Greece. We are worried about the same thing, but for different reasons.

I am not sure President Obama or Mitt Romney can quell the unrest that is simmering in this country, but for me, I’ll put my money on the president.

A candid observation …