The Common Good

To Whom Do They Answer?

During this Holy Week, Christians around the world turn inward to reflect on the mystery and miracle of the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Those two surpassing events are more than good enough to occupy the mind and heart of every believer. 

But they are not all that Jesus did in these eventful days. As any student of the scriptures will know, Jesus did not go quietly to the cross. Three days before his execution, he stormed the temple and challenged the seat of theocratic power in Jerusalem, condemning the pharisaic elite who "preach, but do not practice" and "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the people's shoulders." (Matt. 23:3-4) He accused as hypocrites leaders who make token offerings yet "have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness … Inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." (Matt. 23:23,25)

In his final teaching before the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday began, Jesus embraced those who are oppressed and cautioned his disciples that acts of love and mercy are the measure of a heart touched by grace. "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matt. 25:35-40)

In honor of the occasion, Congress will close its doors and lawmakers will head home to be with their constituents for the Easter recess. If inside reports are to be trusted, they will leave Washington "armed with excuses" that explain away the latest fiscal fiasco, and the people will have little to say in reply. I pray it isn't so. 

When budgeting breaks down on Capitol Hill, politicians make excuses while ordinary people pay the price. So it is with the recent sequestration saga, where the failure of official Washington to prevent across-the-board spending cuts comes at a crippling cost for the "least of these" God's children – $85 billion a year, to be precise. As discretionary spending is slashed 14 percent below 2010, nothing will be spared save the entitlement programs and tax expenditures that are the actual cause of the nation's growing deficit.

When sequestration took effect on March 1, I was far from home in America's "homeless capital" of Los Angeles on a poverty research tour by Greyhound bus. With tape recorder in hand and a poverty-line budget of $16 a day on which to eat and sleep and meet my other needs, I hoped to gain a more personal understanding of how life is lived in the lower echelons of American society after the Great Recession, and what it means for the promise of equal citizenship in our democracy. 

Four short weeks in poverty is hardly enough time to grasp the complex conditions of those who live the life each day, but it was hard enough for me. Unlike those I interviewed, I could choose to say goodbye to such basic insecurities as not knowing when my next meal would come or where I'd lay down my head – and I did, returning to the safety of my middle class life as I write these words. Nevertheless, as a citizen and a Christian, I am shaken by what I saw and challenged by the conviction that poverty is far more stubborn and institutionalized than I once thought, especially in light of the recent fiscal fallout.

Take Skid Row, "ground zero" of homeless L.A., where I spent two restless nights alongside several thousand of the city's homeless people earlier this month. Although the weather is mild, the sidewalks are wide enough to make your bed, and the police show little interest in putting you in jail (so long as you stay out of the trendier neighborhoods nearby), life is not easy for the quarter-million people who are homeless in L.A. in a given year. Their numbers are set to rise because of the sequester, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cuts back low-income housing assistance for some 125,000 individuals and families nationwide. 

For block after block in this homeless colony, the sidewalks are a jumble of bedrolls, faded tents, and cardboard creations. Homeless men and women – some on crutches or wheelchairs, some wearing military fatigues or prison attire – rest in the shade or push shopping carts piled high with the extent of their earthly possessions. While veterans already comprise as much as 20 percent of the city's homeless population, their numbers will likely rise as well when federal funding for veterans to transition into nonmilitary work is cut by the sequester.

Inside the windowless concrete shelter where sixty-odd homeless people and I are admitted for the night, the staff gets down to business. After a pat-down and search of our belongings, we're shown to the back where supper is a modest serving of macaroni along with a hotdog bun (no butter) and a handful of iceberg lettuce (no dressing). Ten minutes later, we're moved to the sleeping dorm where a few dozen cots (badly stained) are arrayed six inches apart awaiting the evening catch. 

Silently, we take our places and prepare to pass the night with a borrowed blanket (no pillows) and what few belongings we may have brought along. On the cot to my right, an older black gentleman is audibly distressed – one of the estimated 25 percent of L.A. homeless who suffer from mental illness, including post-traumatic stress. Chances are good he is also among the half-to-three quarters of homeless who are not receiving mental health or other public benefits to which they are entitled. Neither the other shelter occupants nor staff seem to notice.

In a corner of the dorm next to the bathroom, a '90s vintage TV provides the evening entertainment; there is not a book, phone, or computer in sight. Come 8 p.m., the lights are turned off without warning and all I can hear is a roomful of heavy breathing and the sounds of cops and robbers on TV. 

Sometime around 3 a.m., I notice a few early risers gathering up their things to catch the bus to work (as I've learned in other cities, the line forms early at the temporary employment agency). Indeed, a majority of Los Angeles' homeless are either currently employed or were employed within the last year, further evidence that low-wage work does not pay enough to live a decent life. Making matters worse, nearly 4 million long-term unemployed will see their benefits cut under the sequester, according to the Department of Labor. 

At 4 a.m., the lights are turned back on and people silently gather up their things. Breakfast is a fruit cup and two slices of white bread (no butter) served in a paper bag as we exit the shelter and go our separate ways into the cool, dark morning. Another day in the land of the down-and-out.

Although sequestration is never mentioned by the homeless people with whom I passed the night, its effects will soon be felt in places like this when federal funding for emergency shelters is cut and an estimated 100,000 homeless people are sent back onto the streets. Add to that the countless other federal and state programs that are not specifically geared at homeless people but on which they and millions of other low-income citizens rely – like foreclosure prevention services, nutrition assistance for infants and mothers, job training and jobless benefits for the unemployed – and the risks to the already-insecure are greater still.

These and other challenges that I encountered in my research point to more than mere intransigence on the part of our political leaders; they point to a democracy at risk. Mounting evidence in political science and other fields show that socio-economic status profoundly affects the amount of political power a citizen commands. As a recent study found, when the interests of affluent Americans diverge from their low-income counterparts, the latter are completely overlooked in the policymaking process. It seems economic and political inequality are increasingly one-and-the-same.

Against this backdrop, we see that poverty is more than an economic or social concern. It is embedded in the very structure of our society and grounded in an unjust distribution of political power. Put differently, poverty is a democracy problem and the poor have lost their place at the table of American democracy. 

To political leaders today, it seems to matter little that poor people walk the streets of our nation's capital and sleep on benches on Capitol Hill and outside the White House gates. Indeed, in every state and community in the land, poor people clear the trash, pick the crops, man the gates, mend the clothes, mind the children, tend the aged, and deliver the goods that keep America going. They are ubiquitous. They are indispensable. Yet they are silent.

For followers of Christ, present politics can never be as important as the cross. At best, the noblest politician and policies can only blunt the pain of individual sin and institutional injustice in a fallen world. To hope for more is folly. 

But just as followers of Christ recognize how much greater God is than all our earthly striving, so too must we be restless in the cause of social justice to which we are called by Him. Only then can we align ourselves with His purpose.

As has been argued many times in these pages, budgets are not mathematical equations – they are moral expressions of who we are and who we seek to be, as individuals, families, communities, and as a nation. This Easter, as an expression of our love for Him who gives us life, let us hold our elected leaders to a higher standard. 

Daniel Weeks, the past president of Americans for Campaign Reform, is conducting interviews around the country for a book on poverty and democracy through a fellowship at Harvard's Edmund J. Safra Lab for Ethics. More information: www.PoorInDemocracy.org.

Photo: Beds in a homeless shelter, Nathan Kresge / Shutterstock.com

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