The other day a friend forwarded to me a chart from the conservative website affiliated with Glen Beck, The Blaze. There was a startling chart showing how the number of people getting government aid---welfare in the form of SNAP (food stamps), TANF, WIC and the like---has skyrocketed, growing year by year. The young Blaze writer was snarky as hell, mocking government handouts, disturbed that so many people....well, you can imagine. Other conservative pundits have commented on this, almost all alarmed at the increase in government bureaucracy. More than one had the headline that these figures will Ruin Your Day.
Well, the increase in poverty that is behind these statistics is tragic. It is fair to say that the recent rise in poverty has been in part caused by dastardly deeds on Wall Street, allowed by the bi-partisan failure to enact solid financial reforms a decade ago (sometimes the Democrats resisted reforms, other times the Republicans were complicit.) Due to the great recession, the "new poor" are everywhere, all ages, races, regions, red and blue alike. Demand at food pantries has increased and there are more hungry kids now than in recent memory. Between 2007 and 2010 over 6.3 million Americans fell below the poverty line. The bar graphs going up each year on The Blaze chart---a chart actually released by a Congressman working on a Department of Agriculture study---represent real suffering. It should ruin your day.
Yet, I replied to my friend, noting two things that I needn't explore in detail here, but are worth mentioning. One graph alone doesn't tell us the whole picture. It is rather reductionistic and I believe every place I saw reprinting it, all drawing from the "It will ruin your day" complaint of The Blaze, used it as propaganda. That is, they were not trying to seriously inform us of the intricacies of American poverty or the complexities of welfare reform. It was used mostly as a shot in the culture wars. They weren't offering good information. It was a slam against the "welfare state" and not much else. As the Blaze writer put it, after gripping about immigrants getting aid, "That's all."
But what might another similar chart show us? What more should we know? Well, for instance, one might show not just those enrolling in government programs, but could also show us this bit of data: half of all SNAP participants remained in the program for less than eight months. When their immediate crisis passed, they left the program. Calling this (as The Blaze did) a chart about "dependency" is inaccurate. Concerns about welfare dependency and generational poverty are not to be dismissed, but one simple chart doesn't tell us enough to make informed judgements about the quality of welfare expenditures let alone the pros and cons of welfare reform or how to make informed evaluations of SNAP.
As the graph made the internet rounds, a popular conservative talk radio guy wrote that we should be embarrassed by this graph. Too many people want a hand-out he said, and their "entitlement" attitude to expect "endless free money" is shameful.
I'll tell you what is shameful: being a popular pundit and not knowing the facts about what your talking about. Condemning people in poverty, across the board, as if getting the small assistance that food stamps provides is necessarily an indication of their laziness, their guilt, their fault, is reprehensible. The man obviously doesn't know the texture or details (or data about) the lives of poor people in America, let alone what the Bible says about the varied causes of poverty (from personal irresponsibility to illness and misfortune to, most commonly---add up the texts if you don't believe me---oppression or injustice. In a fallen world sometimes people are poor because of their own sins but often it is because of the sins of others, or something sometimes called structural or systemic sin; see, just for instance, Amos 8:6 or Nehemiah 5:11 or James 5:4.) To call a bit of assistance like WIC or SNAP going to a needy family "endless money" is just nonsense.
Being snarky about welfare programs and their recipients is a cheap shot and approaches violating the wisdom of Biblical truths such as Proverbs 19:17 that says that if you help the poor you are actually making a loan to God! (Conversely, by the way, Proverbs 17:5 warns, "he who mocks the poor, mocks his maker." I does not say that everyone who criticizes a welfare policy is mocking the poor or their maker, but whenever one is working to cut or create public suspicion of helpful, perhaps life-saving, services, it would seem prudent to be sure one's heart is right and that one doesn't promote demeaning attitudes towards those recipients of those benefits.)
COMPLIMENT OR COMPLAIN?
Perhaps the chart isn't a sign of shame. Maybe we shouldn't be embarrassed that some of us, guided by groups such as Bread for the World and our denominational offices, lobbied hard over the years to get good, cost-effective and effective assistance programs like TANF and SNAP expanded. We should be glad for those programs, indications of our country's commitment to the common good. The Bible tells us to rejoice when there is justice in the land. Rulers are called upon by God to "plead the cause of the widow and the orphan" (which, according to Jeremiah 22, is, in fact, "what it means to know me, says the Lord.") The Bible demands more than charity, but good and fair laws. No, the increase in government social service spending is not necessarily a sign of shame and it may be a sign of political goodness.
And so, what to make of the chart? Should it ruin your day or make you glad? Both. It documents the human horror of the growing poverty rate and the good news that there are helpful (if often temporary, as in TANF) assistance programs to help. Some of us have fought for those programs, and they are part of what we think a just state must do, strengthening the civic order, in unusual times, for those in exceptional circumstances. Even the ultra-conservative Wayne Grudem says as much in his book on the Bible and politics. So even as the chart shows the poverty, it also documents something about which to rejoice: robust government, spending a relatively small amount of our taxes on something we can be glad about, that has been shown to help our hurting fellow-citizens and neighbors. Insofar as the programs are truly helpful, for the truly needy, the chart showing an increase in government spending in welfare outlays is something we should compliment, not complain about.
THE RYAN BUDGET
As I was writing this, the news broke that Paul Ryan, famous for his hard-hitting Ryan budget, became the nominee for the Republican ticket for VP, the running mate for Presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney. Ryan is renowned for insisting that we significantly cut the budget in order to reduce the debt---a gravely urgent concern, for sure!---but his plan is austere, at least for the social services and programs that help the poor. He has proposed cutting SNAP, WIC, TANF and other such programs that have been documented to truly help the poor.
It is more urgent now than ever that we as Biblical Christians figure out what we think about this in a way that is consistent with a Christian viewpoint. We have to "think Christianly" about politics (about which I wrote an essay, and listed some great books, here.)
In this post I offer five books to help us think about domestic poverty and welfare reform, even as we commit to reducing the growing national debt. I think this is a major consideration for any Christian social vision, so we have to know this stuff well. Policy applications are complicated and good people can disagree. But we must not miss the voices and stories of those who are in poverty. These books can help.
â€¨â€¨FIVE RECOMMENDED BOOKS -- AND A FREE ONE.
Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget Ronald J. Sider (IVP) $15.00 I cannot tell you quickly how important this book is, but it surely is! It is fairly short but loaded with the information you need -- statistics, graphs, charts, and facts. It explains the various perspectives on the budget, describes what different social service portions do, insists that the debt crisis is real and a sin against future generations who will be encumbered (perhaps unbearably) with our unpaid bills. Yet, as Sider insists, we dare not balance the budget on the backs of the poor. There has to be a better way. A few sections of this are down right inspiring as Sider dreams big, asks us to re-commit ourselves to making a difference, and shows how people of faith can help shape the agenda in a way that transcends the typical values of the fiscal conservatives and the social liberals. He makes a convincing case that the current proposals simply aren't good enough. In a way, with God's help, we can, and must, come up with a more imaginative alternative. He documents how in this wonderful book.
As the kids say, "I'm not gonna lie." Some of this is slow going. Some of it is tedious. If you want to know the facts, though, to be an informed voter, to understand the Ryan budget, to learn the significance about poverty in America and what SNAP and WIC and the Earned Income Tax Credits and such really are (and how much they cost), this is the best overview of which I know.
I loved the chapter on the Biblical and theological basis for government action; it is short but has tons of points and a lot of Scripture. The chapter looking at the proposals that have been floated---including the 2011 Ryan Budget that is so much in the news this week---is informative and very helpful. He examines these in light of seven foundational principles that he thinks Christian citizens should be informed by. (He looks a bit at Ayn Rand and her influence among libertarians and Tea Party policies by the way. He quotes strong conservative thinkers like Charles Colson condemning that philosophy.)
Sider really shines as he offers an overview of six areas that must be included in a "third way" budget. Again, he insists that we must balance the budget and he insists that the Bible says we cannot abandon the public interest and the common good, which surely includes some safety net features for the poor. He looks a bit at social security, health care reform, Medicare and Medicaid. Some things are no-brainers (SNAP) and others he suggests may need serious reform if they are to be viable (like, say Head Start, which has a pretty mixed record of achievement.) He covers a lot of information in a short amount of space. I know this ain't the uplifting stuff you may want to read, but if you are as confused as I am about much of this you really should read this book.
Naturally, Sider is not objective; no-one ever is. He brings his faith and his assumptions about public justice and God's concern for the poor to bear on his proposals. But he uses facts and data that are widely accepted, from a variety of mainstream, respectable sources. He is impeccably fair-minded. He is in dialogue with various political perspectives, engaging the papers and proposals from groups like the Heritage Foundation or the The Center for Budget and Policy Proposals. He draws on research produced by Bread for the World as well as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. He cites the Simpson Bowles Report. And he thanks careful scholars such as George Monsma at Calvin College and Gideon Strauss & Stephanie Summers at the Center for Public Justice. I am delighted and impressed at how thoughtful, fair, and important this small book is. It is a key resource for developing the Christian mind on one of the chief topics of debate in the next few months.
TWO PUBLIC DECLARATIONS -- HAVE YOU SIGNED THEM?
By the way, two public declarations came out of this research, both co-sponsored by Ron Sider's Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) and our friends at the Center for Public Justice (CPJ.)
One is called the Circle of Protection, a public statement from a wide variety of Christian leaders (and others who work for just policies that benefit the poor) saying that a "circle of protection" must be drawn around certain government programs that have been shown to truly help the poor. I signed that early on, and it is partially why I feel compelled to promote Sider's book again. These necessary programs are under attack (and Obama's commitment to reform them, inviting the states to have more imput, is being used in unfortunate disinformation ads that have been widely criticized for their mendacity.) We owe it to our fellow citizens to protect these needed programs. Get more information at that link!
Secondly, see the The Call to Generational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis This important statement affirms that we are aware that our huge national debt will be an manageable crisis for our children and grandchildren and that we must steward our resources, now, more wisely. We have foisted a generational injustice upon them, and we must find ways to stop doing it, to stop adding to the debt, spending money we do not have. Knowing that the Bible often speaks about the sins of the fathers being visited on their children's children, this seems an apropos image for a movement to take the debt crisis seriously and to respond faithfully. As Biblical Christians who are savvy about the call to public justice, it is alert to the complexities of this and doesn't disregard the important tasks that the State does have. It is a great statement, I think, balancing an important number of concerns. It is supported by some of the best folks around.
You can listen to the national press conference announcing it, hosted by Ron Sider from ESA. Listen here. There are short talks by fabulous speakers, Shane Claiborne, Stephanie Summers, Michael Gerson, Jonathan Merritt, and Gideon Strauss. Spectacular, including the press questions. Don't miss it!
The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto Tavis Smiley & Cornel West (Smiley Books) $12.00 I like brother Tavis and brother West. One is usually calm and articulate and the other passionate and poetically eloquent. I don't hear Cornel West's voice in here quite enough, but it is a very important discussion of the latest facts about the "new poor" and the plight of so many of our fellow citizens. It has tons of stories, drawn from their information gathering tour across the country last year, and it has tons of data, facts, statistics and historical explanations. I'd highly recommend it even if it on occasion grows a bit wearisome with the lefty rhetoric. They have heard the stories of so many people--and they are not happy, as you may have heard---about Mr. Obama's less than stellar leadership on this issue (does he ever actually use the word poverty, they ask?) You may find this stepping on your toes, but the topic is so important it is important to read the latest reports. This will bring you up to speed on the plight and the problems---and a whole lot of answers.
Days of Destruction Days of Revolt Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco (The Nation Books) $28.00 This is a slightly oversized hardback complete with pen and ink illustrations, making it a very handsome and sturdy book. There is a bit of a back-story to this oral history survey (which reminds me a bit of Studs Turkel, perhaps, or Howard Zinn.) These two award-winning reporters (Hedges won the Pulitzer, and Sacco has been awarded for cartoons) became friends during their high-octane work under fire amidst the horrors of the war in Kosovo and they have been comrades in truth-telling ever since. They concluded they wanted to give reportorial coverage (and for them, this means gripping prose, profound stories, excellent expose) to some of the most poverty-stricken places in America.
They have four riveting chapters, four main stories, documenting four different places, with four different sorts of problems, based on their own sordid histories of injustice and disenfranchisement. They look at the devastation of the infamous Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, urban hot-spot Camden NJ, a town in southern West Virginia and a migrant community picking tomatoes in the produce fields of Florida. The suffering of Native Americans, African Americans in an inner city, the unemployed white Appalachian coal miners and the Hispanic produce pickers become personal, and yet examples writ large, as these are our brothers and sisters and our fellow Americans. They added a fifth chapter, from which the second phrase of the title comes, where they interview Occupy protesters, other fellow citizens who give voice to (in their view) a revolt that is perhaps our only hope. Startling, blunt prose with so many illustrations it seems nearly like a graphic novel, this is a hard and bitter book. It makes no bones about what they believe is a virus of corporate abuse, causing huge profits at the expense of indigenous peoples. You don't have to agree with all they preach, but the stories are essential if we want to know what, and who, is involved in our policy decisions. The frontispiece is from Hosea 8:7.
American Dream 2.0: A Christian Way Out of the Great Recession Frank Thomas (Abingdon) $15.99 This new book was just released by Abingdon, the publishing house of the United Methodists. Since Wesley was involved in preaching and social reform---his last letter, the day before he died, was to William Wilberforce---it makes sense whenever they apply their profound and historic social principles to contemporary current affairs. Rev. Frank Thomas is an upbeat Disciples of Christ pastor from Memphis who hosts a weekly talk radio ministry that speaks of the well-being of body, mind, and soul so he's not a policy wonk and he isn't a politico. Yet, as a preacher, he realizes we need "a new American dream" and he invites us to reflect on this vexing question for our country---why do we define social health so much in terms of economics? His call is for us to reject certain views of the American dream of material progress and align our vision more with Jesus' teaching of the Kingdom of God, understood in light of Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of the "Beloved Community." We must reframe our social ethics and vision in ways that are sustainable and helpful. That he asks this very fundamental religious question---what worldview or values or social vision with guide us---I think this is a useful book. It may rattle some church groups, but we commend it for book clubs or small groups who like to discuss tough stuff in a safe setting. It isn't as detailed about policy as the Sider one, say, and it isn't as singularly about poverty as the other two which, important as they are, might rightly be seen as partisan.
Thomas's book is hard-hitting and candid, though, as it looks at prophetic religion, concerns of minorities and the disenfranchised, and the injustices and false hopes of a consumer driven economy. He ponders the very notion of the American dream and how it has been understood, for better and for worse. He provocatively uses as case studies the views of early Martin Luther King, later Martin Luther King, Jeremiah Wright, and the early speeches of Barack Obama. Fascinating! A discussion guide is included.
Think and Act Anew: How Poverty in America Affects Us All and What We Can Do About It Larry Snyder (Orbis Press) $16.00 This slim book came out just a year or so ago and is exceptionally relevant today. Snyder is the President of Catholic Charities USA, one of the most significant charitable organizations in America. He is a member of the President's Council of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and has been recognized within the philanthropy community as a respected and influential leader.
In this moving work Snyder not only documents poverty in American but he invites us to rethink what we think of as "the poor" and helps us restore dignity to those who have fallen below the poverty line. He knows many, many ordinary folks, people among the millions who rely on Catholic Charities agencies for their basic needs like housing, food, healthcare and such.
Not only does this book give us helpful glimpses of the human side of the poverty statistics, it holds up creative organizations, alternative ways of doing work, including government/private sector partnerships.
Throughout, though (and I trust many of our readers will find this helpful) he draws on the long and vibrant tradition of Catholic social teaching, particularly Pope Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate, that declares the inherent dignity of all human beings and maintains that charity and justice are the core principles on which economic decisions must be made. Not only do you learn a bit about catholic social teaching's principles, but this call to action, then, prudently challenges government, business, and individuals to play their appropriate roles. The traditions emphasis on local action where needed, and national action, when needed, reminds me of the multi-faceted perspective of some Dutch neo-Calvinists (I am not the first to note that Catholic subsidiarity and Kuyper's sphere sovereignty have much in common.)
Anyway, this is a thoughtful little book, offering a human touch, good insight, and a fairly sophisticated view of uniquely Catholic approaches to these many social problems. As pundit and Georgetown professor E. J. Dionne writes in a very moving foreword, Think and Act Anew "cuts through the rigid categories to which our contemporary debate is enslaved and is stubbornly practical in offering remedies that have promise for the here and now. For many, it will be their first introduction to the power of Poe Benedict's recent encyclical, which challenges fixed view of just about everyone." Sounds good, eh?
We have an excellent book co-written by our friend Stanley Carlson-Thies, who has worked in the White House years ago in the office of faith-based initiatives. It is called A Revolution of Compassion (published by Baker) and is a great collection of stories of faith-based organizations who are doing admirable work for the common good in full partnership with the government. There is some quite reasonable policy discussion here---this third way between those that say the government must do everything to serve the poor and those that say the private sector must do everything---but mostly it is inspiring stories of social services ministries and the good work they are doing, tackling our most intractable social ills. There is great stuff here and we will send a free one to you with any order. While supplies last.
any book mentioned
plus a free copy of
Revolution of Compassion
while supplies last
takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
just tell us what you want
if you have questions or need more information
just ask us what you want to know