Economic Justice

In Sickness and Health

WHAT IS OUR responsibility to expectant mothers, workers suffering from prolonged illness, or parents with children dealing with a significant sickness? Many Christians will assume the “our” in question refers to individual believers or the church as a community of believers. But what if the “our” refers to society as a whole? How is the question answered then?

This is more than an abstract question. Across the U.S.—at local, state, and federal levels—governments are debating policies that would expand paid sick leave. The issue itself isn’t complicated: Some workers have paid time off when they or a family member falls ill, while tens of millions of others—disproportionately low-wage workers—do not. The latter often face the difficult choice of struggling through shifts while sick or staying home and putting their livelihoods at risk.

The benefits of paid sick leave policies are well documented, with studies detailing the economic benefits paid sick leave provides by lowering employee turnover and training costs, reducing public-assistance spending, and improving productivity. “Working sick costs the national economy $160 billion annually in lost productivity,” according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Even greater gains can be realized when expanded family leave policies are included.

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Facing Up to Our Broken Covenants

Broken fence. Image courtesy mervas/shutterstock.com

Broken fence. Image courtesy mervas/shutterstock.com

Lent is our season of honesty. It is a time when we may break out of our illusions to face the reality of our life in preparation for Easter, a radical new beginning.

When, through this illusion-breaking homework, we connect with reality, we see that in our society the fabric of human community is almost totally broken. One glaring evidence of such brokenness is the current unrelieved tension between police and citizens in Ferguson, Missouri.

That tension is rooted in very old racism. It also reflects the deep and growing gap between “the ownership class” that employs the police and those who have no serious access to ownership who become victims of legalized violence.

This is one frontal manifestation of “the covenant that they broke,” as referred to in the Jeremiah text for this week: a refusal of neighborly solidarity that leads, with seeming certitude, to disastrous social consequences.

Of course the issue is not limited to Ferguson but is massively systemic in U.S. society. The brokenness consists not so much in the actual street violence perpetrated in that unequal contest. The brokenness is that such brutalizing force is accepted as conventional, necessary, and routine. It is a policy and a practice of violence acted out as “ordinary” that indicates a complete failure of neighborly imagination.

Lent is a time for honesty that may disrupt the illusion of well-being that is fostered by the advocates of indulgent privilege and strident exceptionalism that disregards the facts on the ground. Against such ideological self-sufficiency, the prophetic tradition speaks of the brokenness of the covenant that makes healthy life possible.

As long as there is denial and illusion, nothing genuinely new can happen. But when reality is faced — in this case the reality of a failed covenant between legal power and vulnerable citizens — new possibility becomes imaginable.

‘Selma Sowed, But It Did Not Reap' — Anniversary Puts Spotlight on Deep Poverty

Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Tami Chappell / RNS

A woman carries an American flag in Selma, Ala, on March 7, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Tami Chappell / RNS

With the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday this weekend, America was reminded how this small city helped bring sweeping change to the nation.

But while Selma might have transformed America, in many ways time has stood still in this community of 20,000 that was at the center of the push that culminated with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Dallas County, of which Selma is the county seat, was the poorest county in Alabama last year. Selma has an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent; the national rate is 5.5 percent.

More than 40 percent of families and 67 percent of children in the county live below the poverty line. The violent crime rate is five times the state average.

The Birmingham News called the region, known as the Black Belt because of its rich soil, “Alabama’s Third World.”

Forgive Us Our Debts

SARA WAS DESPERATE. She was fleeing an abusive husband, living with her mother in a mold-infested house, and she needed to rent an apartment. A recent college graduate, Sara had a job at a hospital that paid well and provided benefits. Apartment rent was within her means. But the background check came back to the landlord: “Do not rent.”

Sara (not her real name) was $22,000 in arrears on her student loans. The more she tried to pay the debt, the higher the interest rate climbed. Only after she filed for bankruptcy did she learn that none of her student loans were eligible for even the basic bankruptcy protection afforded other debts. At any time, the lender could garnish her wages—even to the point of making it difficult to pay basic living expenses, such as rent and utilities.

Sara is one of the new 21st century debtors, in financial bondage because they borrowed money for education. In 2014, the education debt in the United States totaled $1.2 trillion. More than 7 million borrowers are in default.

Why are education loans so difficult to manage? Credit card debtors often can transfer high-interest debt to another lender for a better deal. Car loan borrowers can walk away from the loan and allow the car to be repossessed. Homeowners can refinance their mortgage or, if all else fails, default and save their money for a rent deposit while the lender goes through the foreclosure process. As a last resort, these types of borrowers can declare bankruptcy and have their debts forgiven or reduced in a manageable payment plan. Bankruptcy courts will not allow debtors to be made homeless just because they can’t pay their creditors.

But if the borrower of an education loan is late with a payment or goes into default, according to Andrew Martin of The New York Times, the lender can levy penalties up to 25 percent of the balance and legally increase the interest rate to several times the original rate.

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Why We Must Change How We Change the World

Photo courtesy World Relief

Photo courtesy World Relief

It’s hard to be optimistic about changing the world when our news cycle is dominated by terrorism, violence, and disease. When world events shock us, sometimes our best hopes cave in to our worst fears. Even the most radical activist may be tempted to give up.

But there is a different narrative that summons those of us who dare to care. It begins when we confront the things that have kept millions from breaking free from poverty and injustice. It ends when we find the courage to change how we change the world.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which consistently ranks among the poorest countries in the world and the most dangerous for women, a group of peacemakers are changing the narrative. Last year I met a Congolese woman who told me how her husband was killed in crossfire between warring militias, how she was violently assaulted by the soldiers who were supposed to protect her, and how she fled her village with her eight children under the cover of night. In the wake of her suffering, she joined a group of women to save small amounts of their own money each week. From her savings, she launched a soap-making business. Over time, she employed others and taught her sisters how to do the same. She helps others to forgive their perpetrators and, together, they are determined to stop the violence against women in a land known as the rape capital of the world.

Today thousands of peacemakers like her are changing Congo, and their numbers continue to swell. They are “waging peace” to save Congo one village at a time.

Environmental Racism and Health Disparities in the South Bronx

Photo courtesy Leah Kozak

“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last year on a crisp afternoon in March, I was one of nine people arrested by the NYPD and taken away to the local precinct for processing. My crime? Attempting to plant detoxifying sunflowers on public brownfield land on the South Bronx waterfront in New York City.

Earlier in the day, more than 100 residents, faith leaders, organizations, friends, and allies came together to protest the proposed relocation of the online grocer FreshDirect to a residential neighborhood in the South Bronx. After a jubilant and joyous interfaith reflection and prayer vigil outside the entrance to the waterfront location, security guards refused to let us cross the gate, so we sat in front of it in protest — a peaceful and non violent act of civil disobedience.

Our coalition, South Bronx Unite, works to improve and protect the social, environmental, and economic future of the South Bronx in New York City, located in the poorest congressional district in the country. For three years we have been fighting to stop FreshDirect from receiving more than $100 million in subsidies and incentives to build a diesel trucking distribution center on public land along the Bronx Kill Waterfront.

Little Christs in Disneyland

A child gets a vaccination. Image courtesy JPC-PROD/shutterstock.com

A child gets a vaccination. Image courtesy JPC-PROD/shutterstock.com

I was listening to public radio in Boston recently when a public health expert half-jokingly noted that to find the hotspots of anti-vaccination fervor you could follow these steps:

1. Look at a map of where the Whole Foods are located.

2. Place a pin down where there is a Whole Foods.

3. Draw a 10-mile radius around the pin.

The point being — and this expert was only kidding a bit — that anti-vaccination is largely found among white, highly educated, wealthy advocates.

To me, what’s more obvious about this is when we are white, highly educated, and wealthy — like many of our mainline Protestant congregations — then the feelings of being in control and being free are so important that we are willing to risk the health and lives of others for the sake of being some sort of adjective like “natural” or “free.” Vaccines, designed to protect, become oddly reversed as a possible threat to freedom and “natural living.”

In reality, it is only our privilege that allows us to consider not vaccinating. The same sin that has deeply troubled our sexuality is also at the root of this crisis — the deep-seated belief that the highest good will be that we are free to do whatever we want to our bodies. This continuing belief in total freedom not only fails to take seriously human failings but continues to create crises wherever it goes.

When we view this world as a place where we can make decisions about our lives without regard to the impact to our neighbors, we have failed to heed Jesus’ own words that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have failed to hear from the apostle Paul that our bodies are now God’s temples, and that they are now for the sake of the world.

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