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We Need Sabbath. In the U.S., We Don’t Trust Each Other Enough to Take It
IN MARCH LAST YEAR, as I was leaving a medical appointment, a nurse handed me a small, leopard-print cosmetic case with a pink ribbon attached. “A gift from us.”
This is not the kind of gift one wants to receive. I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a welcome-and-sympathy gift wrapped up in one. With two young children distance-learning at home, I had considered a wide range of maladies our family might encounter—from “Zoom fatigue” to learning loss to the coronavirus itself. But not cancer.
My unpreparedness for major illness meant that I had no primary care physician, no relationship with any of the major health systems in my area, and no access to paid leave.
All this despite the fact that I was a professional advocate for family-leave policies. During the last several years, nearly all my working hours were spent researching, writing about, and promoting more humane work and family policies. I have often made this case to employers and legislators: All workers, at some point in their lives, will experience illness, frailty, or the need to care for someone else. It is wiser to anticipate and honor this aspect of humanity than to ignore it.
Now, the human in question is me.
I had not prepared for an illness requiring rest and extensive treatment. Work—both that for which I earn a living and all that goes into raising children and managing a household—played a defining role in structuring my days. Needing to not work was barely imaginable.
Why We Need Child-Centered Parental Leave
THE FIRST STAGES of parenting are sometimes called “the longest shortest time,” as an award-winning podcast on parenting attests. For a newborn and a new parent, the days are dense. Everything matters.
In the United States, many families’ caregiving-rich days of new parenthood are curtailed by work. A fifth of new mothers return to work within days or weeks of having a child, often driven by financial precarity. More than half of parents surveyed who were able to take some parental leave from work said they took less time off than they needed or wanted, the majority citing fear of lost income or jobs. As one mother, a call center employee with a newborn, said in an interview for a 2018 Center for Public Justice report, “My work doesn’t pay for maternity leave ... If I don’t go back to work in two weeks, we will not have enough money to pay our electric bill.”
From the biblical account of creation through the prophets’ visions of shalom, Christian tradition presents family life as fundamental to human life and society. Essayist Wendell Berry reasoned that a good human economy is one that “proposes to endure.” The nurture of children and care for loved ones, of course, is one way our society endures.
Should Churches Accept Federal Aid?
AMERICAN CHURCHES HAVE long harbored suspicion of certain types of government aid.
During the 1930s, clergy worried that federal relief would supplant the churches’ role in local communities and undermine their status. Theologically, church and state often are viewed as rivals. State overreach can lead to dangerous empire, a false idol, or threats to religious freedom. Church overreach can court theocracy. The U.S. Constitution requires the government to walk a careful (and sometimes ambiguous) line between enabling religious freedom and avoiding its establishment.
Yet, in a global pandemic with concurrent economic collapse, the state is crucial in protecting public health while also delivering relief to the millions facing financial hardship as the economy grinds to a halt.
How to Practice Safe Banking
PAYDAY AND CAR-TITLE loans are marketed as a quick fix to help struggling families through a financial emergency. Advertised as “EZ Cash” and “24-7 Finance,” the perils of payday loans, with exorbitant interest rates upward of 300 percent, trap households in long-term debt.
The Christian witness on lending encompasses both a prohibition against exploiting the poor with excessive interest as well as a call to steward God-given financial resources. The launch of a diverse Faith for Just Lending coalition in May challenging predatory payday lending, recent state campaigns seeking to cap the rate on payday loans, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s announcement to establish rules for payday, car-title, and high-cost installment loans all signal important public steps toward the first goal: stopping unscrupulous businesses from preying on those who are poor.
Now we must examine how to steward a financial environment where responsible lending will flourish. Many of the same groups who have opposed predatory lending are now addressing how to offer credit that empowers their neighbors rather than preys upon them. In Minnesota, Exodus Lending extends low-interest loans to help individuals pay off their payday loans. In Louisiana, the Church for the Highlands partnered with other churches and a local credit union to pay off loans when the borrower cannot. (So far, no one in the program has defaulted.) Catholic Charities of Northern Kansas hosts a loan repayment pool and invites clients into a peer mentoring relationship for financial counseling.
While churches and congregations offer a uniquely relational and holistic form of lending, other institutions can also play an important role. In Mississippi, the New Roots Credit Partnership helps employers offer low-cost loans through their payroll system. Texas’ Community Loan Center of the Rio Grande Valley offers a similar program. Employer-based programs can offer a scale and an infrastructure that keep costs down.
Some have proposed converting the U.S. Postal Service into a postal bank to provide access to simple financial services, prepaid card services, and responsible small-dollar loans. Advocates see it as a “public option” for financial services built on the existing USPS physical infrastructure and repository of public trust, though it’s an option that ultimately relies on partnership with traditional banks.
Banks and credit unions will continue to be critical players in the large-scale financial services market. They are also the ones largely to blame for gaps that exist in the small-dollar credit market. Rather than finding ways to help customers manage their cash flow and build up savings, banks lie in wait, benefitting when customers trip up. Many banks and credit unions maximize their income through carefully designed overdraft programs, which account for about 60 percent of bank fee revenue. These banks assess $35 overdraft fees each time someone overdraws an account, essentially providing a high-cost form of credit that can cost households hundreds of dollars per year. For low-income households, especially those with uneven income and work hours, this amounts to one more poverty penalty.
The Sin of Usury
Consuming Our Way to Compassion
Who Has Ears to Hear at Davos?
A Broken Trust
Congress must rein in abusive lending.