Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Old, Ill or Hungry, and Poor. . .A Cruel "Balancing of the Books"

Just as the federal government gets a recruiting effort underway to convince low-income, elderly Americans to enroll in the new Medicare prescription drug benefit program, we receive a news flash from the Bush administration. You know, the "compassionate conservative" crowd.

The news is simple, harsh and, in many cases, downright cruel.

Seniors who sign up for the drug program will likely see their Food Stamps cut back.

Rationale: since these older Americans will spend less of their limited funds on medication, they will have more to spend on food and will not need the same level of support as before on grocery store purchases.

Does anyone in Washington understand poverty, even a little bit?

Does anyone know what life is like for low-income grandparents? How about widows and widowers whose income is just above, at or below the poverty level?

I think not.

Fact: elderly Americans--millions of them--choose each week whether to purchase food or medication.

Fact: an increased prescription drug benefit will not lessen the need for funds to buy food among this part of our population. The help with their meds will actually allow them to buy enough food to survive on, in some cases for the first time in years. If they realize a gain in net, basic benefit, is that really a bad thing? In this case value, health and hope is being added to lives!

Fact: more and more inner city residents who use our services here at Central Dallas Ministries are elderly. On the days we offer our monthly programs designed for this part of the community, our center is jammed packed with retired and aging Dallasites.

Come on, Mr. President. You can do better than this. I can promise you one thing for certain. The guy you are always claiming to follow as "Savior and Lord" understood compassion much differently than you do. As a matter of fact, he was never conservative with it. Not once.

After all, how many houses, cars, yachts, vacation escapes and dividends do the people at the top of our economy. . .you know, the ones made rich by the labor of some of these same elderly people. . .how much more do they really need?

James 1:27


Anonymous said...

It's a shame how often this comes in handy...

"Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid, it is true that most stupid people are conservative." -- John Stuart Mill

IBreakCellPhones said...

How many times did Jesus use other people's money that was not freely given as part of His own compassion?

Larry James said...

ibreakcellphones, I always appreciate hearing from you. However, your post here is based on two mistakes. 1) You fail to realize that Jesus did not enjoy a political system that was built on the values that he himself espoused. We have much different opportunities today, given the freedom we enjoy, to craft a just state based on humanitarian principles. The Romans didn't seem to be much into that--though Jesus told his followers to pay taxes even at that. It would be helpful to recall the commands of the law of Moses that did mandate the redistribution of wealth for the benefit of the poor as a part of Israel's political structure. Capitalism is inherently evil and ruthless unless soften by the values of faith and the spirit.

2) You assume that the money in my pocket is mine. This is an even more fundamental error. I am a steward, not an owner. Oh, and by the way, Jesus had no money.

Jeremy Gregg said...

I think it's hard for modern minds to remember that Jesus and his disciples were more socialists than capitalists . . . many of us have the fake assumption that we have earned what we have by "pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps." This perpetuation of the American Myth is a wonderful justification for not redistributing wealth, but it does not follow the law of Moses or the commands of Christ.

Anonymous said...

The Compassion of Christ is not a request: it is an order. This goes beyond tithing. This gets to the heart of the Gospel -- that Christ is in all of us, but he is most present in those with the least.

Serve in a pantry. Rebuild a derelict house. Read to children who have no parents waiting for them after school. You will find that Christ is with you.

Fajita said...

Larry James comes out swinging. Man that was good.

Your posts carry with them a seriously needed reorienting for the middle and upper class - for me.


owldog said...


Have you ever had a meeting with George Bush? I think we need to get working on that. I can't help but think you are saying the same htings and do not hink the Food Program will be cut to the elderly.

Anonymous said...

Forcing an individual, by threat of force, to do certain things thwarts the whole point of Christianity. God could have made us all robots to comply with his will but he did not because he wanted us to choose to do so. This whole notion of taking peoples money by threat force and claiming that it meets Jesus' call to help the poor is nonsense.

owldog said...

I need to read my post before I print. :) I do not think the food program to the elderly will be cut if they accept the program for their prescriptions to cost less

life_of_bryan said...

Just a couple things....
I don't think Capitalism is inherently evil, at least the concept of capitalism, since I view it as a framework of assumptions, processes, and systems, etc. The evil part, just like anything else, stems from human involvement. You can make the same argument (to a lesser extent) with the church/Christianity -- the concept of Christianity is great, but its imperfection stems from human participation. Or maybe I'm thinking of it too abstractly.
I know where you're going with that though, since capitalism ties perfectly into our natural human vices.
And I fully understand how this new policy is by no means a feather in the cap for this administration, but they could argue, from a pure numbers sense, that there is no material net impact to their "customers" since one might see it as moving dollars from one pocket to the other. I do see your point, however, that at the end of the day, there's not enough money in either pocket.

Larry James said...

We have the incredible opportunity to craft the sort of community life and connection that we want in this nation. The Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, the abolition of slavery in the 1860s, the notion of a national obligation to care for the weak of the 1930s-1970s are living proof that the collective will of the people can in fact create a civil society. In the same manner that collective will can create a system that oppresses people. To oppress the poor via laws, loopholes and the institutionalization of unfair advantage for one group at the expense of another is immoral, just as is an act such as murder. We have laws that "force people" to act in certain ways about any number of issues. It is far from nonsense to mandate fairness and a quest for equality. I think I remember that the nation got started for just this reason. How do we miss the incredible potential of the freedoms we enjoy to go the right thing?

As to seniors losing part of their food benefit, don't be fooled into thinking that it won't happen. I am simply reporting what the current administration is already reporting. The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt is the one who reported this. If it doesn't happen, it will only be because good and responsible people, acting in accord with their democratic rights, put pressure on the administration to change its mind.

I have met President Bush. He spoke at our annual prayer breakfast back when he was the Governor of Texas. I would love to visit with him about the issues of not only compassion, but also of justice as defined in the texts of our faith.

Anonymous said...

Interesting how much input there is when you start making recommendations to increase taxes...

Regarding the comment about it being nonsense to "force" (i.e. tax) people to pay for support of the poor: what sense is there in allowing the poor to suffer while the rich get richer? would Christ advocate such a policy?

Being a Christian is about more than drinking wine on Sunday morning.

IBreakCellPhones said...

I've been working nights this week, so I haven't been able to do a post-by-post response. This could get long. You have been warned. :)

You're right, Larry. We do enjoy a political system where we have input into it, unlike the Roman system. That still doesn't make it right to use force in order to feed the poor, or anyone else.

I believe you and I see justice in different ways. When I think about "justice" with respect to a society/government, I think of one where everyone has the same chance, where the government and society doesn't handicap anyone trying to do something through things like heavy-handed regulation or punitive taxation. Would it be more accurate that you would see a society as more just if it, instead of not handicapping people, affirmatively assists them?

Regarding the redistribution of wealth under the Mosaic law, it wasn't the Priests and Levites coming and demanding the tithe. Also, we aren't lucky enough to live in a society where the laws were handed down by God Himself. He has authority that we do not.
Actually, the original government as set up in the Torah was quite decentralized and had a very libertarian feel to it. The people had responsibilities, and a right to not be ill-treated.

In a non-theocratic government, one of the highest principles is that coercion should be used at a minimum and as a last resort. For instance, I don't believe there should be a military draft. Because of our fallen nature, we always have to be on our guard against aggrandizing too much power to ourselves because we are all too likely to use it to abuse others.

Capitalism and communism both have problems when there is too much power in the hands of too few people. Communism in the form of communist and socialist governments have killed off their own citizenry. The Gulag, Cambodian Killing Fields, and the librarians rounded up in Cuba are examples of this. Capitalism's problems tend towards locking other people out of fair competition, such as Standard Oil, Microsoft, or AT&T.

You're right about being a steward of the things we are given in this world. But it’s us who are made stewards of it, not Mayor Miller, County Judge Kelliher, Governor Perry, or President Bush. It is our responsibility to make sure the money we’re given is used wisely, not to pass that responsibility along to officials and then blame them when we disagree about the way the money is used.

Jeremy, you’re right in that the early church and Jesus Himself did espouse the socialist value of taking care of each other and making sure that we’re all in community. However, nobody was forced to do anything. Even Ananias and Sapphira were not forced to sell their land. Modern socialism cannot stand it when people who are supposed to be in the system try to get out. Even today, there are Christians who engage in the communal lifestyle. The Jesus People USA are an example of one. Sometimes I wonder if they’re on to something.

We don’t believe that we’ve pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps. I’ve been incredibly blessed by having a financially secure family to start from. I was even born at a fortunate time in that I could get a full scholarship when I was 18 and graduated from high school. That being said, who am I to tell you that you must be benevolent? What would it profit you to be benevolent only if forced?

Capitalism playing to human vices comes back to something I’ve wondered about. How much accommodation do we make to the fallen world until Christ returns and reverses the Fall? Is capitalism ethical if, through playing to human vices such as greed, the steel-tipped plow is built, more land is opened up for farming, more crops are grown, and there are fewer starving people in the world? Even if the builder of that plow eats better than people who didn’t build it? Is that a better situation than where there is no incentive to build the more efficient plow other than the common good? Capitalism seems to strike a balance whereby the human condition is advanced even though some people do end up with more money than others.

Taking a look at the history you cited, Larry, you outlined the 13th amendment, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and then the New Deal and Great Society. Freeing the slaves and providing true equal opportunity (through stopping bad actions) are different from forced benevolence. The first two are stopping people from doing something. The latter two are forcing people to do something.

You’re right in that our laws should not give anyone an unfair advantage. They shouldn’t form the invisible foot that keeps anyone down, nor should they work as an invisible elevator to pull anyone up. We may have laws that force people to behave a certain way, but a law that says it’s wrong to hurt someone is vastly different from, say, a law that mandates you contribute to a homeless shelter. Another thing to remember is that laws that force good behavior you like today may be turned into something you don’t like (you must now contribute to this airline which has been financially mismanaged in order to keep the nation’s air-transport system moving) much more easily than laws that enjoin you from bad behavior.

In summary, I believe it does come back to the different definitions of justice that you and I have. I am very pessimistic about human behavior when large groups come together. If I understand you correctly, you are optimistic about what can be done, even in our fallen state. I see the world through my assumptions, you see the world through yours. We both try to maximize good and minimize suffering, but because we start at different points, we end up mapping vastly different courses to get to where we want to go. In the end, when Jesus returns, the consequences of the Fall will be erased, and all the elect will have so much mercy bestowed that there will be no more need for social justice. We both look forward to that Day.

Matthew said...

How odd. I've been having a nearly identical discussion on my blog.

Two questions:

Larry: elderly Americans--millions of them--choose each week whether to purchase food or medication.

Larry, would you please document this for us? It seems possible, but I'd like to have a reference.

Cellphones: I’ve been incredibly blessed by having a financially secure family to start from. I was even born at a fortunate time in that I could get a full scholarship when I was 18 and graduated from high school.

Great for you. What about the people who don't have those advantages? Or more pointedly, what if you had been born without those advantages? What kind of an economic system would you want to live in?

The problem with free-market capitalism isn't monopoly. The problem with free-market capitalism is that it oppresses the poor. It excludes people who aren't born with the capital, upbringing, social connections, and family ties that they need to compete.

Larry James said...

Matthew, I am not sure I can point you to a published source, though you might check with the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas, AARP or even the Children's Defense Fund. What I am basing my statement on is my experience here in Dallas. Last year we "enjoyed" over 50,000 human encounters with over 25,000 different people. A large percentage were elderly folks who are poor. We have heard them telling us how they often choose between food and medicines. Sometimes they cut doses in half to save. It just seems insane for me to hear the government deciding to cut food stamps from these impoverished people.

Ibreakcellphones is a determinied Libertarian (capital L). So, I expect he is against all government assistance programs on principle. I wish that the world could work the way he wants it to. Frankly, I have learned the hard way across the years in church that if you wait for the "people of God" to decide to do the right thing, you will just be disappointed and the poor will suffer more. Besides that, there is no way the church on its own can handle the scale of the problems.

IBreakCellPhones said...

I'm not sure I'm a capital L Libertarian, Larry. :) I disagree with the LP's stance on open borders and a few other things. I did come || this close to voting for Peroutka last election though.

And pray for me, please. I fly home tomorrow.

Jeremy Gregg said...

Cellphones: Thank you for the reference to Jesus People USA. They look like a very interesting group. I am thankful for their reminder of Christ's command for the rich to give of their wealth: "He who has two coats let him share with him who has none." (Luke 3:11)."

Thank you for challenging the idea of doing this through force (i.e. tax). Though I disagree with your conclusion, I appreciate the respectful, thoughtful approach of your argument. I look forward to reading your future posts.

Also, there is a Dallas group that is similar to Jesus People USA in some respects. As they state, they "sponsor several nondenominational home church groups with the goal of recapturing the first century Christian experience."

In case you are interested:

I am still learning about them, but I have met a few of their members and I am very impressed by their devotion to truly living out their faith.

IBreakCellPhones said...


Thanks for the link. I'll try and remember to check it out when I get home. Now I'm stuffing things into suitcases. I've been away from my family, friends, and home church for three weeks. I am very ready to get on the plane tomorrow. Oh, yes.. And get hassled by customs. At least they have a line just for American citizens, so that speeds things up.

Neal W. said...

I just wanted to express my appreciation for Larry and the fact that what he says comes from a heart that cares for the helpless, not from a position of self-centeredness. Thank you for letting your politics flow from your faith instead of interpretting the biblical call to raise up the oppressed in light of your political views.

Jeremy Gregg said...

That was very well put, Neal. All things should flow from love of God -- how frequently we get it backwards!

"I want to be rich, therefore I will support a political stance that helps people like me to be rich, therefore I will join a church that makes me feel OK about this pursuit . . . "

I am so thankful to you, Larry and others for the challenge to reverse this mentality in my life.

B. Feldhaus said...

to: ibreakcellphones
God forbid you should ever have your job outsourced, and loose everything you have. I used to have a job with a living wage, that was three and a half years ago. It has been a constant struggle since then. Unlike you, I came from a working class background. I never had the opportunities that you say you had. I had a heart attack after I lost my job, and had to have a double bypass. Thank God that I had the VA or I would probably be dead right now. I am still struggling, trying to reeducate myself, so that I might be able to once again make a living wage. I am 51 years old, and sometimes I feel like I am seventy. My wife and I have no money or food in the house, and my paycheck next Friday will be entirely consumed by my rent. When people work, they should at least be able to make ends meet on what they get paid, and people should not have their lives destroyed by greedy multinationals that want to save a few bucks by sending their jobs overseas.
I spent 9 years in the military, I have always supported our country, but I don't think that these Republicans care about me or people like me. Everything they have done in the last 4 1/2 years has been to the detriment of working class people, and the poor.
My mother was one of those poor old people, she got by on social security. I still don't see how she did it, God rest her soul. I guess it must have been from her experience during the depression when her mother had to take her to an orphanage because they had no money.
There is something wrong when the richest country in the world has the highest poverty rate of any of the industrialized countries.