It was good to hear President Bush on Thursday night call for several comprehensive new approaches to attacking the deeply entrenched and persistent poverty that has plagued the city of New Orleans for so long.
His speech correctly linked the multi-generational legacy of poverty to the historical reality of racism and discrimination.
The speech was refreshing to me because he recognized, he clearly acknowledged one of the most pressing issues facing the nation today. . .and not just in New Orleans and not just due to a hurricane.
Poverty in the world's richest nation, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, has been on a steep climb over the past 4 years. Since January 2001, millions of our fellow citizens have descended into poverty.
In a very real sense, a storm has been roaring across our country for almost a generation. Hurricane Katrina provided the tragic "gust" that uncovered the terrible facts of life for millions of poor people who live in our urban centers, as well as in many rural areas.
Possibly this terrible hurricane will bring us a blessing in the long run.
Time and national, political will will tell.
On Wednesday, Charles, a reader of this blog, posted these words in response to my discussion about the state of low-income persons:
"Larry, could you offer up your vision of the ideal state of government, companies, non-profits, churches, and individuals working together for a just society? A lot of people seem to get hung up on taxes vs. contributions, and who can be trusted to do what. If you were named President of all of the above groups for a year, what system would you implement to make this country a true land of opportunity? I feel we get glimpses or pieces of this, but never what the whole system would look like, so people are reacting to each idea as it fits in with existing conditions. "
I am sure that I cannot provide what Charles is looking for, but the question is provocative.
Here's a beginning attempt to provide an outline response with lots of holes and countless unresolved details.
1. Government would go back to serving the people. . .all of the people. We don't need a marginal tax rate of 80% to achieve the basics. At the same time, we need to face the fact that "trickle down, supply side" economics has been a failure, especially in an increasingly one-world economy. So, we don't need our current huge tax cut for the wealthiest Americans. What we need is balance.
Funds for public and higher education, housing, universal healthcare, job training, business stimulation and infrastructure improvements (many of the same things the President mentioned in his speech) need to be appropriated to benefit the poor with the understanding that as those at the bottom rise, we all benefit.
Work should be rewarded. Low-income persons who do not have the skills necessary to earn a livable wage should be afforded the opportunity to develop new skills.
In the meantime, and for those who cannot become more proficient, the working poor should be rewarded for their labor. The Earned Income Credit should be more fully funded and a system for receiving this reward for work should be developed through employers, making it easier to access by workers.
Employers who hire low-income workers should be rewarded with economic development stipends or tax credits.
Decent, high quality housing should be available for the poor. The requirements for receiving public assistance for housing should include clear and strict accountability standards. Rules should be enforced. Those who violate the rules should not receive the benefits.
Supplemental nutrition programs--including the Food Stamp program and the Women, Infant and Children's program--should be expanded and made easier to access.
At the same time, we need to recognize that every dollar invested in those at or near the bottom is a dollar that circulates in our common economy. Aiding the poor in their battle against poverty benefits us all. Dollars invested in the poor, in whatever form, are dollars that circulate in the community to the good of everyone.
Most of all, the nation needs a consistent public policy that recognizes the systemic nature of our national poverty problem. Laws need to be changed to provide poor people as a class opportunities to rise out of their current quagmire. As a respected friend of mine said to me recently, what we need in this country is a "Marshall Plan" for overcoming poverty.
2. Churches need to recover and, in many cases, discover the message of its own scriptures. Too many spiritual communities operate with a better knowledge of the rules of consumerism and marketing than the Sermon on the Mount or the message of Isaiah.
The spiritual leaders of the nation need to develop a prophetic voice and it needs to be heard much more often than is typical.
Every church in America that has plans for a new building to benefit its members should set aside at least a tithe of every capital dollar raised to be devoted to significantly addressing the problems of poverty in local communities.
The work done by churches needs to be holistic. It needs to include acts of compassion and acts of justice.
The church has always been political in this nation. It needs to become political about the poor and about fairness. There are countless approaches and solutions that can involve the church, but the church must rediscover its natural place in this process.
The rich legacy of reform and social renewal that characterizes much of our national history has always involved the church. It should again.
3. Business needs to act upon the markets of the nation with savvy, innovation and heart. Someone has well said that the best social program possible is a job. I would simply add a "good job" is what really works.
Business leaders understand that robust markets depend upon workers who have earning power. Many business leaders with whom I work are troubled by our current national decline among the weakest of our brothers and sisters.
If we ever enjoy a national healthcare system and a solution to the problems facing the uninsured, it will likely be driven by the likes of General Motors or American Airlines who understand the impact of healthcare costs on the entire nation and on their production costs and bottom line profits.
Exclusive attention to some corporate bottom lines and the amassing of obscene personal fortunes in this nation through unethical accounting practices and fraud are definitely problematic. But most business people will respond well to coherent strategies to overcome poverty. Government and the religious communities of the nation need to lead the way.
4. Non-profit organizations need to reject the usual rules of a growing "poverty industry" and begin to work as hard as possible to put themselves out of business.
This will mean adopting new approaches to old problems. It will mean putting an end to turf battles and competition with other non-profit organizations.
It will mean full and complete partnerships in which resources, ideas and opportunities are all shared freely for the sake of a common community mission.
Non-profits that want to have a role in renewing neighborhoods will be led by those who love and trust and listen to the poor. The idea of service and salvation will become reciprocal. The poor will be vitally involved in the process of community renovation.
Never again will the word "client" be uttered by anyone committed to community development.
Entrepreneurial approaches will replace paternalism.
Friendship will replace professionalism.
When necessary, non-profits will simply get out of the way!
One last word. Most of all, we simply need to admit we have been on the wrong track for quite awhile now. Our social policy needs an adjustment. My faith makes that abundantly clear.
What do you think?
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