Wealth Gap

Affordable Housing: A Place to Call Home?

Jack, a father of four young children, works three jobs: full-time as youth pastor at an Armenian church making $40,000 a year, part-time at Fuller Seminary’s African-American Church Studies Program, and as owner of a small business. Even with these jobs, Jack and his wife so far have been unable to purchase a home within a reasonable distance from his church.

“Through Pasadena Neighborhood Housing Services, I qualify for their First Time Home Buyer Program,” Jack explains. “I’ve attended the classes and will receive assistance—if we find a home within the required price range.”

Ana Martinez has found affordable housing and it’s changed her life. “I feel like I’m in heaven living here,” says Ana of her housing complex—formerly decrepit apartments that with the help of HUD funds were renovated into pleasant, affordable housing. “In the run-down one-bedroom apartment where my daughter and I were before, the rent increased every two months for two and a half years,” Ana says. “Ninety percent of our income was being spent on housing!”

“Now I pay much less for a beautiful two-bedroom apartment. When neighbors are home, they leave their front doors open. When I walk by, they ask if there’s anything I need,” says Ana.

HARD-WORKING low- and moderate-income workers like Ana and Jack cannot make ends meet without some kind of housing subsidy, be it from relatives, tax credits, or tax breaks. In fact, few people stop to think about how the wealthiest Americans enjoy the largest housing “subsidy” in the country through mortgage interest deductions.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2007
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Career Ladders

Dozens of career-ladder programs have started up around the country over the last 10 years or so. All attempt to counteract the national trend toward low-skill, low-wage jobs by identifying the pathways that people might follow to gradually advance into better jobs. The programs clarify the training or education required to move to the next step on the ladder, and they provide workers with the support services and financial aid they need to complete the training.

Career-ladder programs are helping nurse aides become licensed practical nurses, clerical workers become information technology workers, and bank tellers become loan officers. The VHA Health Foundation, for example, is funding career-ladder initiatives in several cities to enable entry-level workers in hospitals and other health care institutions to advance into technical positions. Shoreline Community College in a suburb of Seattle is working with employers and people moving off welfare to create career ladders in four occupational clusters. As soon as students have enough skills to begin an entry-level job in one of the target occupations, they combine work and continuing education to advance into better jobs.

In some cases the ladders existed already, but employees and potential employees needed assistance in using them. In other cases new positions had to be created to fill in gaps between rungs, and employers had to be educated about the advantages of doing so. In all cases the programs are providing crucial links between employers and workers—and usually links to the community beyond. Most career-ladder programs are partnerships involving some combination of community colleges, unions, community organizations, and employers. Some also receive a great amount of support from government workforce-development agencies, while others operate independently.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2007
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Building the Grand Alliance

Thirty-six million people living in poverty; almost 47 million people without health insurance; 2 million households declaring bankruptcy—that was the United States in 2006. The opportunity ladder is in splinters for tens of millions, and as many more are teetering on the edge. Only a bold, comprehensive vision for reform will help us start to properly address this crisis in the world’s wealthiest nation.

The challenge to end poverty and improve economic opportunities for low-income households must be linked to the broad economic insecurity plaguing America’s middle class. As the concentration of income and wealth has reached historic proportions, Americans at the bottom and the middle of our income distribution have suffered the consequences. Rising costs of essentials—health care, housing, energy, college—are a shared anxiety. A reliance on high-cost debt, risky home finance (and refinance) deals, and the proliferation of predatory lending threaten to strip the working poor and the middle class of the few assets they can claim.

For many advocates of the poor, standing up for the middle class is seen as abandoning the most vulnerable of our population. But the fates of these two groups are inextricably linked. Those living in poverty are not just aspiring to surpass some arbitrary threshold of income; they are striving to work their way into the security of the middle class. They’re toiling in the hopes of being able to send their kids to college, so they in turn can get jobs with health care, afford homes in safe neighborhoods with good schools, and if they’re lucky earn a paycheck that allows them to save for retirement. Today, these qualities that we associate with being “middle class” are all under attack.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2007
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The Gospel of Bling

I am convinced that the single greatest threat to the historical legacy and core values of the contemporary black church tradition is posed by what is known as the “prosperity gospel” movement. That movement, however, is only symptomatic of a larger mission crisis or “mission drift” that has placed the black church in the posture of assimilating into a culture that is hostile to people living on the margins of society, such as people living in poverty, people living with AIDS, homosexuals, and immigrants.

This is not a new challenge. Christians have grappled with their relationship to material goods and opportunities in this world since the first century. But in our era something new and different has emerged. Today, prominent, influential, and attractive preachers and representatives of the church now are advocates for prosperity. Perhaps this could only occur at a time and in a place where two conditions exist. First, Christianity is the dominant faith tradition; second, the nation permits and rewards extraordinary inequalities of wealth and power.

The gospel of assimilation provides sacred sanction for personal greed, obsessive materialism, and unchecked narcissism. That distorted gospel dares not risk a critique of the culture and systems that thrive in the presence of a morally anemic church. This is more than a concern about the encroachment of the prosperity gospel movement that receives so much negative attention. Rather, this is a more thorough and comprehensive distortion of the religion of Jesus.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2007
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It's the Message, Not the Messaging

It's The Message Not The Messaging

There has been much Washington soul-searching and hand-ringing since the 2004 election about how to “frame” the messages of politics, especially among Democrats. The painful loss to George W. Bush was difficult enough for them, but even worse has been the post-election Republican claims of mandate and their leaders’ triumphal promises to relegate the Democrats to permanent minority status. This Bush has turned out to be more than the “shrub” his left-wing critics predicted, and the hubris of Republican plans to become the majority party, long-term, has political liberals in a state of panic.
So the minority party has been searching, some would say desperately, for the right “narrative,” the overarching metaphors, the best story line, and even the magical words to bring back electoral success. The operative word among Democratic politicians and strategists has become “framing.” How to tell the story has become more important than what the story is. And that could be a bigger mistake for the Democrats than the ones they made during the election.
While language is clearly important in politics, the message will always be more important than the messaging. In the interests of full disclosure, I have been talking to the Democrats about both—message and messaging. But I want to say, as clearly as I can, that one comes before the other. First, you must get your message straight (what are your best ideas, and what are you for, as opposed to what are you against in the other party’s message), and then you figure out how to best present your message to the American people. Message precedes messaging. That’s what both the Democrats and the Republicans need to learn.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2005
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Reform, Reduce, Destroy

The ideological architect of the Bush tax policies is Grover Norquist,

The ideological architect of the Bush tax policies is Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). Called by USA Today "the most influential Washingtonian most people have never heard of," Norquist has pursued for nearly two decades the conservative goal of shrinking the size of government through reducing tax revenue. Through ATR, founded in 1986, he coordinates the "Wednesday meeting"—a weekly strategy and coordinating meeting attended by all the major conservative organizations and regularly by administration officials.

Norquist’s fundamental belief is that taxation is theft—money the government "takes by force." It’s the libertarian view that has animated the conservative movement for years, grounded in an unshakeable faith that if economic decisions are left to individuals and the unrestrained free market, all will be well. Government is always the enemy, and the ultimate goal of the movement is—in a phrase that has now entered the online Dictionary of Public Finance—to "starve the beast." ATR’s mission statement says: "The government’s power to control one’s life derives from its power to tax. We believe that power should be minimized."

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Sojourners Magazine April 2005
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If I Were A Rich Man...

How we distribute the burden of sustaining governments determines in good part who prospers and who does not,

How we distribute the burden of sustaining governments determines in good part who prospers and who does not, who invests and who sinks into debt, who takes from society and who gives. When we decide who, and how, and how much to tax, and how to spread the burden, we shape the kind of nation we are and will become.

The moral philosophers of ancient Athens came to recognize this 2,500 years ago. When Athens was a tyranny it had a flat tax, an onerous burden that fell in the same amount on everyone subject to it. The less one had, the heavier the burden.

The philosophers of the Greek city-state concluded that morally the tax burden was upside down. Those who received the greatest material benefit from being Athenians should bear the greatest burden of maintaining Athens, they concluded. With this moral principle - taxation based on ability to pay - the Athenians invented democracy.

Every leading world philosopher from Aristotle and Plato to Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the fathers of capitalism and communism, has embraced the Athenian insight. Only in the past third of a century, in America, have these time-tested ideas been forgotten.

Today our airwaves, especially talk radio, are rich with denunciations of our supposedly progressive income tax, in which those who make the most pay the highest rates. Politicians who call themselves conservatives denounce the idea that those who make the most should bear a disproportionate burden.

They are ahistoric. Since taxation based on ability to pay spawned democracy, progressive taxation is the most conservative principle in Western civilization.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2005
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The Shame Deficit

A year ago Sen.

A year ago Sen. John McCain, an ardent supporter of the war in Iraq, took the Senate floor and chastised his fellow senators. "Throughout our history," McCain thundered, "war has been a time of sacrifice.... But about the only sacrifice taking place is that by the brave men and women fighting to defend and protect the liberties we hold so dear, and that of their families." McCain said he felt sickened by the tax cuts and pork barrel projects that Congress was passing. "This is a far cry from sacrifice."

Charlie Richardson, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, is opposed to the war and advocates bringing home the troops. "It’s disgusting that they are asking families like mine to make enormous sacrifices while they give tax cuts to billionaires," said Richardson. "We’re having bake sales to buy Kevlar bulletproof vests to keep our kids alive in a war that never should have begun. Whatever happened to shared sacrifice?"

People on opposite sides of the Iraq war are shocked by the stunning inequality of sacrifice during this military engagement. Never in the history of U.S. warfare has Congress pushed tax cuts, let alone permanent tax cuts for the very wealthy. Historically, the opposite has been true: Wealth has been "conscripted," in the form of progressive income and estate taxes, to at least symbolize that everyone is contributing in some way.

THE U.S. HISTORY of progressive taxation is wound together with mobilizations for war. The first federal tax on wealth was levied in 1797, as our country was faced with the escalating costs of responding to French attacks on American shipping.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2005
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Privatizing Social Security

How many times can President Bush get away with crying wolf?

How many times can President Bush get away with crying wolf? First came the "weapons of mass destruction." Congress believed him and committed our nation to a tragic war in Iraq, based on lies and deception. Then there were the massive tax cuts for the rich, guaranteed to get the economy going again. The result? The budget surplus was traded in for a giant deficit to be passed on to our grandchildren.

With Social Security, the president is at it again. The whole system is moving into crash mode, he says, so we need to take radical steps to rescue it. (Question: Why did the president wait until after the big tax cuts to go into panic about Social Security?)

Let’s get one fact straight right now. Social Security is not only not in jeopardy, it is in fact healthy and robust. The authority for this assertion is none other than the nonpartisan Social Security trustees, whose job it is to monitor this vital program. According to the trustees, the Social Security trust fund can pay full benefits through 2042. The Congressional Budget Office, also nonpartisan, goes beyond that and sees full solvency through 2052. Long before reaching those projected deadlines, minor course corrections can be applied and assure the Social Security program for an indefinite period.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2005
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Feed Your Kids!

Rich countries have fallen deplorably short of their U.N. Millennium Development Goals to cut global poverty in half by 2015, according to "Paying the Price: Why Rich Countries Must Invest Now in a War on Poverty," a report released by Oxfam in December. In 1970, the United Nations set a target that 0.7 percent of the wealthiest countries' national incomes be set aside for global poverty reduction. If accomplished, the $120 billion generated could meet the development goals. Only five of the 22 wealthiest nations have met their goal-none of them from the G7 countries. "The world's poorest children are paying for rich countries' polices on aid and debt with their lives," said Oxfam director Barbara Stocking.

  • 45 million: The number of children who will die unnecessarily by 2015 if current giving trends of rich nations continue.
  • $120 billion: The total amount needed to halve poverty by 2015.
  • $616 billion: The annual military spending of rich countries.
  • $1.53: The amount rich countries spend on foreign aid per person per week, equal to the cost of a cup of coffee.
  • 0.14: The percent of national income the United States allocated for foreign aid in 2003, equaling one-tenth of U.S. spending in Iraq.

Source: "Paying the Price: Why Rich Countries Must Invest Now in a War on Poverty" (Oxfam International, December 2004).

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Sojourners Magazine March 2005
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