Last week marked the fourth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled that corporations are entitled to the same free speech rights as individual humans as guaranteed under the First Amendment.
The political repercussions of Citizens United include the rise of “Super PACs” — political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, independent of direct campaign contributions, to influence politics. The power yielded to such corporations, as well as indiscriminate spending allowance, has deleterious effects upon our democracy.
Because money talks, big money will talk a lot louder, drowning out the voices of average Americans trying to exercise their own civic rights. Politicians are undoubtedly more apt to respond to the requests of companies that shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars on supportive campaign politics than to the needs of a college graduate or working family who donated 10 bucks. Doesn’t exactly smack of sound democratic governance.
Despite all the modern conveniences of the 21st century, our information-saturated culture, an exhaustive supply of self-help books, and giant advances in medical technology, doesn’t it seem like our society is more stressed, our anxiety higher, and more of our kids prescribed behavior modification drugs?
What if one of the reasons for our strung-out culture was the social, emotional, mental, and physiological outworking of the effects of poverty?
In the latest release of the Shriver Report, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder of the California Pacific Medical Center’s Bayview Child Health Center, has found through medical research and experiences of her patients that the stress of poverty can be manifested in alarming behaviors and predispositions.
(Spoiler—and imperfect analogy — alert to anyone who wasn’t able to sneak these books when they were pre-teens)
If there was one book series that defined my childhood/pre-adolescence, it would be V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic series. OK, maybe that wasn’t THE book series—after all, there were the Baby-sitters Club books and Sweet Valley High—but in terms of helping to destroy what little innocence I still had, Flowers in the Attic gets top ranking. I mean, I probably didn’t need to be reading books about incest, child abuse, and religious fanaticism when I was 10 years old. But that’s a story for another time.
The Lifetime network has made a film version of Flowers in the Attic that will debut on Saturday night. In anticipation of the remake, I decided to watch the 1987 version starring Kristy Swanson. Besides being struck by how dated it was — think fuzzy lighting, a lot of beiges and pastels, and 80s bangs — the premise seemed outdated even for that time. A recently widowed stay-at-home mother of four finds herself unable to care for her family and must return to her wealthy, estranged parents and beg to get back into her dying father’s good graces (and will). As a condition of her return, she must consent to have her four children locked in the attic and subjected to her mother’s abuse and neglect.
I sometimes forget how much the world has changed in such a short period of time.
It’s one thing to walk humbly and call the Catholic Church to compassion for the poor.
It’s one thing to kiss a horribly disfigured man from whom most people would run in disgust.
But apparently, it’s quite another to start calling out growing economic inequality and naive faith in capitalism. By doing just that in his recent encyclical, Pope Francis has touched a third rail in conservative American politics. So begins the backlash.
Yet in the new round of skirmishing around Francis and his supposedly “liberal” views, U.S. political pundits and news media wags — both progressive and conservative — are missing the point about the pope and what he’s up to. Their mistake? They see his words and deeds through the lens of American politics and ideology. What Francis is doing is prophetic, not political, and we should recognize that he’s playing, to his credit, in a whole different arena.
Most Americans share a common understanding that many public schools in poor neighborhoods aren’t great. It’s rare that I engage anyone who doesn’t know this basic fact on some level. But what’s less common is a deeper understanding of the extent of the problem. And sadly, even less common than that? Finding individuals who express a deep conviction that educational inequity can be eliminated. Faith communities are poised to add our voices to this much-needed conversation.
Fifteen million children live in poverty in the United States. Given poverty’s impact, many of these children already face additional challenges in their lives. For many young people, education can be “the great equalizer.” A high quality school can provide students with the necessary foundation to go to college and have a variety of opportunities opened to them. Poverty can become a thing of the past. But students growing up in poverty are more likely to attend low-performing public schools. In fact, only 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school. Only 9 percent receive college diplomas. And, not surprisingly, given our nation’s historical intersection of racial injustice and poverty, African American, Latino, and Native American students experience some of the nation’s biggest educational inequities.
Robert Reich pulls up in his silver Mini Cooper, quipping that he and his car are in proportion to each other. Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, identifies himself with the underdog, the little man.
His new movie, Inequality for All, looks into the effects of wealth inequality in the United States. Throughout this semi-autobiographical documentary, Reich consistently leans on his self-deprecating sense of humor by poking fun at his own physical stature; he’s 4’10 ½’’ tall. The jokes, however, do lead back to the heavier issue at hand – the American worker is getting squeezed out of the middle class.
We worry now, but we’ve been concerned about the economy for a long time. The economic recovery from the recession in America has been slower than we hoped, and people continue to suffer from the collapse of so many industries and jobs and safety nets. Much of the pain seems new for large swaths of the American population. But in reality, we’ve been worrying about money forever.
The August employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a slight decline in the unemployment rate (down to 7.3 percent from 7.4 percent in July), according to Businessweek. But the drop is largely attributed to a reduction in the workforce of about 300,000. What’s more, the participation rate (number of people working or looking for work compared to the total working age population) fell from 63.4 percent to 63.2 percent, the lowest since 1978. The National Employment Law Project noted that much of the job growth in August was in retail and food service, industries that generally offer lower paying and part-time jobs.
Even though a growing number of economists see modest and encouraging signs in the recession recovery, the slow growth continues to cause trouble for many Americans. Businessweek writer, Matthew Philips, even questioned whether the economy might be “stuck in second gear” without hope of a more robust “third gear” to propel the recovery forward.
The economic health of the nation has long been a concern to people of faith, because we care for the poor, and poverty has been a persistent problem in rural area and urban centers alike. What’s more, we know there are people of all income levels who struggle with money and possessions, and we are concerned about this, too. We worry that people have enough to eat and that wealth not corrupt our best desires and intentions.
It’s true that by some standards I am not North Carolinian, nor or am I Southern. I was not born there — I have no extended family there. I don’t speak with a drawl. And I don’t (gasp!) like sweet tea or Cheerwine.
But after 14 birthdays, nine years in the public education system, four years at UNC-Chapel Hill, countless pounds of barbecue, numerous trips to the Appalachians and the Outer Banks, and many lifetime milestones — including voting for the first time! — passed in that beautiful state, it is now the closest thing to home I know.
Once we have decided to follow Jesus, we cannot help but live out our personal beliefs in public ways. The demands of the Gospel refuse us the option of a purely inward spirituality.
While there are times when those in power listen to the guidance of moral and religious leaders, far too often we’re asked to be prophets. In the face of opposition, we pick up our crosses and lift up our voices on behalf of the disadvantaged.
In North Carolina, pastors and civil rights leaders, along with thousands of others, have been living out their personal faith in a very public way. Since late April, dozens of faith leaders and hundreds of others have been arrested at the state capitol as part of an ongoing protest call “Moral Mondays.” What would motivate these leaders to take such a strong stand at such a personal cost?
Brazil and the World Cup are in the news now, but not in the way that pleases the Brazilian government. Crowds are gathering in the streets around football (soccer) stadiums where Confederation Cup games are being played but not to buy tickets or get autographs of their sports idols. They are congregating to protest against the 2014 World Cup coming to Brazil. Brazilians protesting football? Upset about hosting the World Cup? Something has gone seriously wrong. This is like the French boycotting wine or Italians accusing pasta of undermining family values.
Even Americans, confused as we are about why the rest of world insists on calling soccer “football,” know that the outcome of a football match can launch an entire nation into elation or despair. But no matter the sport, fans around the world follow the same emotional pattern: they are up when their team is up and down when they are down. World Cup championships played out on a global stage provide the winning nation with an outsized cathartic event for the pent up frustrations that accumulate with the stress and strains of daily life. And even without streets clogged with protestors, if you are a football fan living in one of Brazil’s major cities, the typical daily grind is almost unbearable. Here’s an account from an Al Jazeera reporter who lives in Brazil:
It is 8am and a bunch of people line up to get on a bus on Faria Lima Avenue in Sao Paulo. This may be their third transfer in the daily ordeal of travelling to work from the outskirts of Sao Paulo. When the bus slows down, people start to nudge right or left, hoping not to be left behind. Once they get on, it is so full that finding a little space to stand is only for the truly crafty.
After a one-hour journey through the infamous Sao Paulo traffic and pothole-ridden roads, crammed in with 100-plus people, it feels more like a ride on a rodeo horse than a means of transportation — all at a cost of 3.20 Brazilian Reals ($1.50) and your dignity.
While having lunch recently with Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam, I was asked an interesting question.
Putnam is appalled at the radical lack of equality of opportunity in the U.S. today, and he wanted to know if evangelical preachers would dare to say what his pastor said when he was a teenager. Putnam told me that back then, in the midst of Martin Luther King’s great campaign against segregation, his devout Methodist pastor dared to preach that “racism is a sin.”
Professor Putnam asked me, as an evangelical, whether evangelical pastors today would be ready to declare today’s great economic inequality of opportunity a sin. That’s a great question.
Louisiana faith leaders hand-delivered a letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal this morning, denouncing his proposal to increase sales tax by 47 percent as “unjust” and “regressive.”
The state already has one of the most disproportionate tax systems in the country, with low- and middle-income families paying more than twice the rate in taxes as families whose income totals more than $1 million per year. To raise the sales tax even higher, say leaders, would deal a crushing blow to the poor.
“[W]e are concerned that your plan proposes to use the increased revenue generated by a heavier burden on poor and moderate income families,” the letter reads, “not to fund any of the important needs and services our State faces, but to decrease the tax burden for those members of our community who are most blessed with wealth and resources. That … is unacceptable.”
This week's viral video is a must-see. The six-minute "Wealth Inequality in America," released Friday, presents the shocking, true size of the wealth gap in the country.
In a series of animated infographics, the video lends a visual punch to numbers that are hard to wrap one’s head around. The top 1 percent of Americans hold 50 percent of all investments in stocks and bonds, for example – while 80 percent of Americans share a paltry 7 percent of the nation’s wealth.
When I was growing up, the only thing that could be said about clothing was that it should be “modest,” and ideally not too “worldly.” “Modesty” was proof-texted from 1 Timothy 2:9: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”
Not looking “worldly” usually meant not being too fashionable — neither dressing in accordance with what was popular in the mainstream nor wearing anything with strong counterculture associations: no skater pants for boys, no ripped jeans for girls. This is what was meant, apparently, by 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world, or anything in the world.”
While it seems that fewer churches are pushing the second issue — except, perhaps, to offer OMG-wear and other Christian versions of whatever is popular — modesty continues to be a topic of interest. Most American Christian definitions of modesty involve “not showing too much skin.” The question of male lust is often a part of the discussion. But in context, that doesn’t seem to be what Paul is talking about at all: modesty, in 1 Timothy 2:9, is about not flaunting your wealth, which is a surprisingly important thing in the Epistles as well as the Gospels. Braids and gold and pearls have nothing to do with not looking like the other, non-Christian, worldly women. The opposite of “modest” is not “sexually provocative,” but “flashy.”
Annie Lowrey's recent New York Times magazine article "Washington's Economic Boom, Financed by You" provides a stimulating look into Washington, D.C.'s "economic boom" of the last few years. As D.C. residents, many of us encounter the ongoing transformation of our city every day. We know the area's economy has grown about three times as much since 2007 as the country — largely a result of expanded government spending (primarily in the form of two foreign wars). We also know that the greater metropolitan region is one of the richest in the country. As Lowrey noted, the Washington metro area has seven out of the top 10 highest-income counties in the U.S., including the three highest.
However, Lowrey only tells one side of the story — the rich side. The "economic boom" has largely passed by D.C.'s poor and working people. By not mentioning D.C.'s grossly high poverty rates, the article is misleading.
Amid Washington's economic boom, there is also massive economic displacement, increased economic inequality, and higher rates of poverty.
Economist Joseph Stiglitz contends that the growing inequality in the U.S. makes an economic recovery more difficult and is leading to the death of the American dream.
“Politicians typically talk about rising inequality and the sluggish recovery as separate phenomena, when they are in fact intertwined. Inequality stifles, restrains and holds back our growth. When even the free-market-oriented magazine The Economist argues — as it did in a special feature in October — that the magnitude and nature of the country’s inequality represent a serious threat to America, we should know that something has gone horribly wrong. And yet, after four decades of widening inequality and the greatest economic downturn since the Depression, we haven’t done anything about it.”
As the Faith Based Organizer for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA) — a citywide coalition of more than 300 member agencies and faith institutions — I have the privilege of working with a diverse group of faith leaders. Last spring we were thrust into an important struggle for childcare and after school funding led by the Campaign for Children (C4C), a citywide coalition of organizations advocating for childcare and after school funding. Some may wonder why clergy would be concerned about this issue, but for the clergy I work with, the reason is clear: budgets are moral documents, and what is funded reflects our values. Our clergy know that children are the greatest in God’s kingdom and our investment (or lack thereof) in them will have consequences for our future.
In New York City obtaining quality education is a serious struggle for parents of all classes. This struggle includes waiting lists that upperclass parents place their unborn children on, intelligence test for 5 year olds, interviews and hustling from one open house to another. Finding childcare is a daunting task, especially for low-income parents. As a child in New York City I knew how important it was to not end up at my “zone school,” which are schools for children who could not get in anywhere else. Growing up in one of the 12 poorest communities in New York City, my zone schools were the worst. From junior high on I had to take buses and trains to get an education. The process of finding childcare is one of the clearest depictions of the greatest lie that controls New York City: “that some people are worth more than others” (NYFJ Faith Rooted Organizing Core Lie Exercise March 2011).
Much has been said by politicians and the press in this campaign. In three presidential debates alone, we've heard the two contenders for our nation's highest office speak of tax cuts, deficits, jobs, and the middle class literally hundreds of times.
But much has also been left unsaid. In those same presidential debates, poverty was hardly featured and the word "inequality"didn't appear at all.
How can it be that the Holy Bible refers to helping the poor and vulnerable more than 2,000 times, yet two professing Christians running for president of the United States disregard this unholy scourge?
As we did not hear in the debates, nearly 50 million Americans are currently living in poverty – more than at any other time in our nation's history – and between a third and half of all Americans are within a few lost paychecks of the poverty line. When a quarter of all American jobs pay less than poverty line wages for a family of four, systemic poverty and inequality become more than abstract economics: they are moral and Constitutional concerns.
So they should be treated by the men and women who aspire to lead our country.