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Friday, December 31, 2004

Facts that Defy "Spin"

Sorry, but things are not going too well for your neighbors at the bottom of the economic ladder these days.

I can report this grim fact with a strange confidence born of a decade of observation. Even during the economic boom years of the 1990s, the trend line was not so good for the urban poor. Admittedly, there appeared to be some progress. Whatever the small gains, they have been wiped out almost completely since the end of 2001.

December is a time of evaluation and measurement in my world. The nubmers are sobbering to say the least. Every indicator of service delivery is up for us at Central Dallas Ministries. Translation: the need is growing and along with it the misery index.

In November 2003, our Emergency Resource Center met needs for 2,201 individuals. During November 2004, we served 4,324 persons--an increase of 96%! As has always been the case, most of the people we serve have jobs or they are elderly or disabled--over 80%.

Our experience matches with the statewide trend. Eighty-one percent of the 513,000 families with children here in Texas (415,000) who live at or below poverty ($18,400 for a family of four) are headed by a worker. Approximately 1.7 million Texans live in these working poor families, 943,000 of whom are children. Of the 689,000 families with incomes between $18,400 and $36,800, eighty percent are headed by a worker and represent 2.2 million Texans, 1.1 million of whom are children.

The biggest challenge facing our neighbors who fall into these categories is not work, but earning power, livable wages. The people we serve day in and day out work, but they don’t earn enough to adequately support their families.

Solutions? No easy answers exist given the current political and community will, but major components of a strategy that must be part public, part private/philanthropic seem clear.

Low-income, working Texans need improved job skills.

Hard working Texas families need new benefits and advantages that reward their efforts—benefits similar to those afforded high-income workers, but tailored to their unique life challenges and addressing issues such as adequate child care, continuing education, accessible healthcare, decent housing, balanced nutrition and reliable transportation.

We need a return to honesty in this state and nation--honesty with ourselves, with our elected officials and with our low-income neighbors. Public benefits directed to providing for fundamental human needs should not be considered “welfare.” Rather, we should call them what they are: investments in the well being and progress of the entire community and in its collective civic life.

Sound public policy should leverage the good will represented by charitable dollars, rather than seeing those limited funds as the end of our investment capability. The outcomes could be astonishing.

As it is, our outcomes and results are getting better here at Central Dallas Ministries. Ironically, the message in our outcomes is very clear: among the urban poor the need only grows.

". . .there should be no poor among you. . .if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today." (Deuteronomy 15:4, 5)

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Healthcare Injustice, Needless Suffering

Forty-five million Americans have no health insurance.

We've heard it so often that we accept it as normal and even acceptable. Our problem is we seldom have reason to bring the statistical reality into our personal experience. Low-income, working Americans deal with this harsh fact on a daily basis.

Consider for a moment what it means for a father like "Charlie," who works over 40 hours every week. He comes home to a wife of fifteen years and three children. He earns less than $10 an hour. His employer provides no benefits--no health insurance for him or his family.

When one of his children gets sick, Charlie's choices are limited. He or his wife can take the child to one of the neighborhood for-profit clinics (read "Doc in a box"), if he can scrape together the money. Or, the child can be taken to the emergency room at a local hospital. Here the wait is long, the cost of care is the highest and, because there is no insurance coverage, the bill for services most likely must be written off as a loss by the hospital.

Add to the family's health care burden the fact that Charlie is diabetic and recently has had severe bouts with kidney stones. Thanks to his uninsured status, the treatment protocol at the local hospital ER is to treat his symptoms with pain medication and antibiotics. He has never been admitted to the hospital for proper care for only one reason: he is poor and cannot pay for the treatment he needs. Adequate testing would reveal that his kidney function is deteriorating.

Charlie's earning power makes the regular purchase of insulin and testing equipment sporadic at best. The entire system, as Charlie knows it, is unfair, inefficient and immoral. His choices are limited at best.

Still, he gets up every morning and goes to work like all good fathers do. No doubt Charlie will die too young and suffer needlessly because the current system is so shaped by free market forces that his needs cannot be met.

Health care is not considered a human right in America today. Rather, it is fast becoming a privilege reserved for the wealthy. Just ask Charlie and the other 45 million in our nation who face some of the same harsh, unjust challenges.

"He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God." Proverbs 14:31 (NIV)

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Documenting An Amazing, Troublesome Journey

My son-in-law, Brandon Toombs, is responsible for this, my latest flight of folly. "You should consider creating a blog," he advised me recently. Easy for him to say. Computer and Internet whiz kid. As I laughed at him, he pressed me. We talked about people. The amazing, creative, hilarious, spiritual people who populate the world of inner city Dallas, Texas. This world has been my world for the past decade, and especially for the past six years since we moved to "the hood," as the locals call it. So, here I am, adding my dronings to the already overcrowded atmosphere of information. These days it feels as if everyone is shouting and struggling to be heard, to be noticed, to be seen. For most of my low-income, or in some cases no-income, friends, this doesn't appear to be so important. For ten years I have been witness to the humility, joy, courage, disappointment, resilience, creativity and deep spirituality of "the poor." It is the spirituality that gets me. The poor know the force back of the universe and their lives. Their brand of spirituality is surprising, unorthodox, uncluttered, practical, real and full of joy. When I made the decision to move toward these people, friends from my old church said encouraging and complimentary things like, "Oh, isn't it great! You are taking Jesus to the inner city." My experience here teaches me that such a statement is so far from the truth as to be laughable! After less than a month, it hit me: Jesus never left the city--the church, yes, but not Jesus. The follow up punch was even more enlightening: no one knows Jesus better than these people! My humbling realization: I bring very little, if anything, to this community, except a growing appreciation of its members and an eye for the surprises that continue to surround me. This will be a place where these surprises are shared and celebrated. My hope is to create an awakening among the well-off regarding the constant, unjust struggle of the not-so-well-off in this nation. The past ten years have taught me that such an awakening is a matter to be informed by the heart of my own faith and spirituality.