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Weekly Wrap 12.5.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. A United Evangelical Response: The System Failed Eric Garner
The Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who killed unarmed Eric Garner was a shocking injustice — but this time the injustice has been universally condemned across religious and political lines. Read this great roundup of evangelical leaders’ responses.

2. These Are the Best Jobs Numbers in Months, Maybe Years
In good news today, the jobs numbers released this morning were a pleasant surprise. The Upshot breaks down the numbers for you. 

3. This Atheist Is Thankful for the Clergy
“The clergy here in St. Louis are a credit to their traditions and to their profession. They are doing what religious leaders ought to do: holding society to a higher moral standard, using their authority as a weapon against injustice, mobilizing the rich resources of their religion to bring hope and encourage change. I’m glad they are here, and I feel privileged to work with them.”

4. Why Are Some Cultures More Individualistic Than Others?
Apparently it all comes down to farming practices. “As we enter a season in which the values of do-it-yourself individualism are likely to dominate our Congress, it is worth remembering that this way of thinking might just be the product of the way our forefathers grew their food and not a fundamental truth about the way that all humans flourish.”

Left Behind

CHRIS PASKI HAS a binder containing computer screen shots of every job he’s applied for in the last year and a half.

“I keep track of everything—I’m an engineer,” he says.

Paski blitzed the commutable radius around his Exton, Pa., home with résumés. He extended his search to Washington, D.C. If he found work there, he planned to sleep in a travel trailer during the week and return home on weekends. Despite impressive experience as an aerospace systems engineer and sending out 270 résumés, he’s scored just one interview. He’s still looking, and he says his faith is intact.

“I know the Lord will take care of me, but he seems to be taking his time,” Paski says, laughing.

But Mike Heaney of West Chester, Pa., doubts that God has a plan for his job search. He remembers a previous bout of unemployment when he lived in North Carolina that changed him.

It was a dark time, he recalls. Problems in his marriage escalated because of unemployment. That led to divorce. Money was tight and medical benefits a luxury. When he needed some major dental work, he drove from North Carolina to Mexico, where it was done for 75 percent less. “They call it dentistry tourism,” he says.

He attended job support groups at a church where he repeatedly heard that God had a plan for anyone who was unemployed. But after seeing the devastation that unemployment caused to the people there, he disagrees with that—a belief he says he’s reconciled with his Catholicism.

Going through a spiritual crisis isn’t uncommon for the jobless. It’s triggered by a job market where the unemployed are in a Hunger Games-style fight for survival: Find a new job in six months or a time bomb goes off. They’ll be labeled then as “long-term unemployed”—out of work for 27 weeks or more, as defined by the U.S. Labor Department.

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Reframing Failure

City Profile With Dramatic Sky. Via Jan Carbol / Shutterstock

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about failure.

Not my failures, though I suspect we could come up with a few.

No, I’ve thinking about Scott Walker’s failed governorship in Wisconsin.

And Barack Obama’s failed presidency in the nation.

And our failed foreign policy.

And the failed Affordable Care Act.

And Walker’s failed jobs policy for the Badger State. And so on.

Then I started thinking about the failure of our political dialogue these days.

This Land is Our Land

RURAL COMMUNITIES in the U.S. wrestle with many of the same problems facing the rest of the country—persistent unemployment, access to quality health care, air and water degradation, a broken immigration policy. Other issues—such as supporting sustainable farming practices and drawing young people into agriculture, lack of broadband access, and the challenges of small-town economic development—are more unique to rural life.

Even though the 46.2 million people living in rural U.S. counties constitute only 15 percent of the country’s total population (spread across 72 percent of the nation’s land area), we are all connected—urban, suburban, and rural—by foodways, waterways, wilderness areas, and our national politics. As one Midwest-based organizer put it, “many progressives fundamentally don’t understand rural America—they don’t even know why they should care about it. You can’t understand the power of the tea party without understanding rural America. It is the key to the House of Representatives, and progressives will be hamstrung until they can make inroads in a few key congressional districts.”

But that organizer and others also draw power and hope from the deep history of populism in the rural Midwest and parts of the South, and the endurance of community-oriented values that aren’t just “heartland” clichés.

While many young people are itching to leave rural areas and small towns—anxious to find better jobs, educational opportunities, or city culture—others have always stayed put or returned after time away. And some “city cousins” move to rural America, enjoying the opportunity to work on issues they care about (with the bonus of a brilliant night sky). Here are four stories of young people investing in rural communities in the Midwest.  —The Editors

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Degrees Without Jobs

RECENT YEARS HAVE witnessed a deluge of headlines such as “Jobs Become More Elusive for Recent College Grads” from Reuters and “For Recent College Grads, Recessions Equal Underemployment” from Inside Higher Ed—headlines that make even the most hearty college students experience heart palpitations. According to a 2014 analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “the underemployment rate for 22-year-olds is about 56 percent, indicating that more than half of the people just graduating end up working in jobs that do not require a degree,” jobs for which they are overqualified.

To put this into perspective: I am a 22-year-old senior at a private Christian university. Of my close friends who graduated in the last year or two, the only ones who were able to find jobs in their fields were education and nursing majors.

Don’t get me wrong, I love liberal arts and feel grateful for the critical thinking skills, study-abroad opportunities, and philosophical discussions that attending a liberal arts school has afforded me. But learning in the same analysis that “only 40-to-45 percent of recent college graduates majoring in communications, liberal arts, business, and social sciences were working in jobs that required a degree” is troubling at best.

 In addition, seven out of 10 college seniors are graduating with an average of $29,400 in debt due to rising tuition costs for an undergraduate education. The National Center for Labor Statistics found that in the past decade, the cost of “tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 42 percent after adjustment for inflation.” The situation was a bit (though not much) better at colleges in the private not-for-profit group, like my own, where the average price rise was 31 percent.

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Why I Won't Sign a Statement of Faith

Gajus/Shutterstock
I propose to replace all statements of faith a much simpler, single question: Who do you say that I am? Gajus/Shutterstock

I do most of my work by contract, which means I'm usually looking for work. When the time comes for me to put my feelers out for new opportunities, I tend to look far and wide. In doing so, sometimes I come across some unexpected prospects.

A couple of years ago, I applied for an editorial position at a magazine. Things were going well until we got down to the final rounds and they placed a statement of faith before me that I was expected to sign. There was much in the document that I didn't agree with, and in general, I balk at signing anything that tries to nail down what I believe or what I claim as a Christian.

I respectfully declined to sign the document, and within the hour, they withdrew my name from consideration for the job. I was recounting this to a friend and fellow writer last night over a beer, and he shared a number of similar experiences. He tends to "get" evangelical Christian culture a bit more than I do, however, so he has found various ways to work around the points of disagreement he finds in such statements.

In one case, at a college where he was applying for undergraduate studies, he performed a line-item edit, striking out everything with which he took issue. Surprisingly, the administrators at the school accepted the revised document and never mentioned his changes.

Steve Jobs: Prophet of a New Religion

Steve Jobs The Economist cover, via Bill So / Flickr.com
Steve Jobs The Economist cover, via Bill So / Flickr.com

The new movie about Steve Jobs is short on anything explicitly religious. Like its main character, however, it’s got a thread of transcendence running through it.

The truth about Jobs and religion may be that, in this arena as in others, he was ahead of the cutting edge.

The film isn’t making the purists happy, in part because it takes too many liberties with history. But it’s not a documentary. I’ll go against many of the reviews and say that Ashton Kutcher does a pretty good job at representing the personality found in Jobs’ speeches and in what has been written about Jobs — particularly in the massive authorized biography by Walter Isaacson.

One quote in that book, from one of Jobs’ old girlfriends, pretty much captures the character in the film: “He was an enlightened being who was cruel,” she told Isaacson. “That’s a strange combination.”

A Revolution of Rising Expectations

THE PHRASE “a revolution of rising expectations” is now part of the social science literature. When people who are not oppressed have a belief that life is getting better as economies improve, their expectations often outstrip the pace of actual change. Those rising expectations lead to unrest as demands for improvement continue to grow.

This summer we have seen that play out in several countries. As living standards increase, people are less likely to tolerate corrupt and inefficient governments. Washington Post reporters Anthony Faiola and Paula Moura recently wrote, “One small incident has ignited the fuse in societies that, linked by social media and years of improved living standards across the developing world, are now demanding more from their democracies and governments.”

In Turkey, it was the government’s plans to destroy the only public green space in the heart of Istanbul, a park that was to be replaced with a shopping mall. Protests against the plan soon grew into broader concerns about what is seen as increasingly authoritarian rule by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They turned violent when peaceful demonstrators were attacked by police, and ultimately an Istanbul court ruled against the plan, although it is not finally settled.

In Brazil, protests that began over a proposed rise in bus fares brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. The protests soon escalated into opposition to the large amounts of money the government is investing in facilities for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, while neglecting basic health care and education. President Dilma Rousseff has promised political reforms and increased spending on public transportation and other social needs.

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'Bring Our War Dollars Home'

YEAR AFTER YEAR, more than 50 percent of the federal discretionary budget goes to the Pentagon, while only one-third of the non-defense discretionary budget is invested in struggling states and communities—a contrast at the heart of this year’s congressional budget battles. And yet for decades the Pentagon budget has remained sacrosanct while local communities suffer.

From the ground up, activists around the country are fighting back. They are striving to save their communities by calling for cuts in what they perceive as a bloated Pentagon budget—starting in some of the most unlikely places: local city councils.

My organization—the Minnesota Arms Spending Alternatives Project (MN ASAP)—is just one of many groups around the country seeking to shift federal spending priorities from preparing for and waging war to meeting local needs. Through a simple resolution, we build political support by asking churches, organizations, city councils, and state legislators to endorse our initiative to cut Pentagon spending and invest in communities.

In 2011, the Minnesota state government shut down over disputes as to how to address a two-year, $5 billion budget shortfall. Yet Minnesota taxpayers spent nearly $3.5 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011 alone, bringing total Minnesota taxpayer spending for these wars to $40 billion, according to the National Priorities Project. As in other states, many cities and communities in Minnesota are managing austerity budgets, tightening their belts and laying off police, firefighters, and teachers—all while the Pentagon budget remains unchecked.

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Bordering on the Truth

DURING CONGRESS’ current debate about immigration reform, the realities faced by immigrants and border communities are all too often misunderstood and misrepresented. What are the facts about border issues?

Myth #1: Border walls are effective for keeping out unauthorized border crossers.
Reality: History teaches us that walls don’t work when economic opportunity is on the other side—but walls that are higher and longer do cause more injuries and death when people are forced to go over, under, and around.

The most recent era of migration across the southern U.S. border was caused primarily by economic factors, as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) caused millions of Mexican farmers to lose their livelihoods. The current border strategy, enacted hand in hand with NAFTA, envisioned deterring economic refugees by intentionally funneling migration to dangerous desert areas. The danger and death happened; the deterrence didn’t. It was the U.S. economic downturn, much more than the wall, that has caused the current net-zero immigration rate.

Myth #2: The border is safer today because the Border Patrol has doubled in number in less than a decade.
Reality: Since 2005, 144 Customs and Border Protection employees have been arrested or indicted on corruption charges, including smuggling people or drugs. A federally funded analysis correlates the problem with the surge in agents and a weak internal disciplinary system. Excessive use of force by Border Patrol agents is of increasing concern. Last October, an agent at the border wall fired into the streets of Nogales, Mexico, killing 16-year-old Jose Elena Rodriguez, the second Mexican teenager killed by Border Patrol fire into the city in less than two years. The autopsy reported that Elena Rodriguez was shot at least seven times from behind.

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