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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Worth Your Time to Go to This Link--Health Care

If you are like me, you receive lots of email messages that you'd probably just as soon not have to wade through.

At times I receive messages loaded with links to this and that publication. I dump lots of those!

Whether or not I run the reference usually just depends on who sent it. Sometimes the subject matter ignites my curiosity and I chase it down. So, at the risk of being zapped, let me share a link with you.

If you are interested in the national health care debate (and my assumption is everyone interested in the urban poor will be), please take the time to read Paul Krugman's essay, "Passing the Buck" in The New York Times (April 22, 2005).

Here's the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/22/opinion/22krugman.html?n=Top%2fOpinion%2fEditorials%20and%20Op%2dEd%2fOp%2dEd%2fColumnists

I hope you'll read it and respond here. In my view much of his argument is irrefutable.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Our "Poverty Industry"

I've been at this "inner city ministry" thing long enough to have learned a few things.

Let me begin with a couple of important disclaimers.

First, I don't know everything. As a matter of fact, the older I grow the more I realize how much I don't know! Nice for the needed humility. For years I have threatened to include an asterisk on my business cards directing people to a parenthetical explanation at the bottom that would read something like, "Beware: this man doesn't know what he is doing!"

Second, the people I have met over the past eleven years who work in the city attempting to make things better, serving people and acting on behalf of the poor are some of the best folks I've ever known. I've found that to be the case across the board.

So, with that as backdrop and context, I need to make an observation or two.

Poverty has created its own industry.

This industry, professional field or category of workers has its own vocabulary, training venues, expectations, along with a fairly static worldview.

Most of the people in this industry have been in it and at it for a long time. Considering how difficult the problems and issues associated with poverty actually turn out to be, you can understand why innovation, energy and piercing clarity don't typically rule the day.

What is here today was present yesterday. The natural expectation is that it will be here tomorrow.

Poverty industry professionals learn to make assumptions about people.

Take the word "client" as an example. I have always hated that word. But, it is a trademark term used daily in this world.

Terms are extremely important. If I can classify you as a "client," I can count you, raise funds off of your various dilemmas and I can keep you at arms length so as to be able to reach more of your kind.

You won't hear people talking like this very often, but after awhile you learn to pick up on the subtleties of what is said, what is not said and how things are said.

I could go on and on.

Last night I was thumbing through an unlikely publication, Business 2.0--I have learned to keep my sanity, perspective and hope alive I need to read widely and far outside the literature produced by "poverty industry" gurus.

As I read through Jeffrey Pfeffer's essay, "Breaking Through Excuses" (May 2005, page 76), I found myself thinking about just how short-sighted and defeatist we can be about people who are dealing with the weight of poverty.

Pfeffer notes that "Most managers are good at explaining why something can't be done. . . .It's as though a requirement for entering the ranks of management today is the ability to generate excuses for why it's impossible to do things everyone agrees are important. . . . If you allow excuses to impede change, you don't merely fail to improve. You also risk losing out to those who see challenges as obstacles to be surmounted."

Wow! Do I run into this on a daily basis!

Service providers, church leaders, politicians, foundation funders, government bureaucrats, business leaders--the nay sayers come from every sector.

But, I must say, the most discouraging words often come from the folks closest to the street who are trying to make things better. It is just true. If you adopt a poverty industry mindset, you seem to be consigned to what I would describe as a "down-in-the-mouth" disposition!

I hate that!

Pfeffer offers a 3-step way out that he picked up from Rudy Crew, head of Miami-Dade County school system. Now there is a challenging job that would get to most of us and quickly!

Crew offers three suggestions.

First, do not accept preemptory surrender--giving up before you start. People who don't get this should be released from duty.

Several years ago, Jim Sowell, my dear friend, amazing business leader and the founder of CDM, listened to me bemoaning some issue or challenge.

Finally, he looked me in the eye and said, "Larry, you are a can-do kind of guy. Just find a way to get it done."

Conversation over. I'm grateful that Jim wouldn't let me stay in defeat before I even got started.

Second, move beyond "reasonable" excuses to find "unreasonable" solutions. This is all about vision, as Pfeffer suggests.

If people in the poverty industry don't think you're a little crazy, you likely are on the wrong trail.

John Greenan, Executive Director of our community development corporation, is famous for pulling rabbits out of hats around here when it comes to housing development.

For example, for almost the past five years, he has been working with a public partner to construct 237 units of housing, as well as almost 50,000 square feet of retail development in what once was a "bombed out" area of East Dallas.

When completed, the project's value will be around $25 million. Our CDC has less than $200,000 in the development!

John has had lots of opportunity to make excuses. Instead, he always opts for "unreasonable solutions."

Third, demolish excuses by example. Leaders must develop a real love for trenches! Leaders must face excuses, not make excuses. Leaders must work personally, sometimes at the grassroots level, to overcome the challenges that give excuses life and legs.

I dislike the poverty industry. I hate poverty and charity. I get up every morning because of friends of mine who make my life a blast.

Many of them deserve much, much better. And you know, come to think of it, they seldom make excuses.

[For additional reflection on American need and the caregiving service sector check out John McKnight's The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits.]

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Churches and Urban Reality (Part Four)

What can the church, especially the suburban or "out of the city" church, do to address the reality of inner city communities? It's a question that people ask me continually.

The list continues.

9) Churches should stress the spirituality of simplicity.

Over twenty years ago Richard Foster gave us his significant Celebration of Discipline, followed by Freedom of Simplicity. Revisiting these resources would be helpful for most congregations today. Materialism and the extension of a consumer culture and mindset into the everyday life and work of the church no doubt affects decisions made about the city and the relevance of its pain for the church's mission.

A commitment to simplicity in today's American culture is both a counter-cultural action and a matter of spiritual discipline.

When coupled with a strategy to off-load material resources to people living daily in situations of pressing need, simplicity can be powerful and life-changing all around.

10) Churches should consider supporting public policy changes that would require them to begin paying property taxes in their communities or voluntarily "tax" themselves with clear, justice-oriented priorities.

I know, I know. At this point you are questioning my sanity. Some may even be considering more drastic actions! But hear me out.

Most likely the political leaders of your community and mine will never propose this on their own. This one fact makes clear how much under-utilized influence churches have politically.

I read recently of a large church that set aside an amount of funding equal to what their local property tax bill would be if they had one. Every dollar of this fund was used in the congregation's community development work.

Interesting paradigm, huh?

Just last week I read an article in a local suburban newspaper that reported the taxable value of the real estate owned by several larger churches in the area. It was amazing to realize that the funds lost to the community totals in the millions, and that at a time when community need is clearly on the rise.

Several of the churches were avoiding annual tax bills of well over $100,000.

Churches and non-profits are tax-exempt because government assumes that these organizations are making an invaluable contribution to the good of the larger community.

Now there is an assumption that every church in America should prove up internally.

In other words, if church leaders had to justify their tax status in court based on the measurable good they performed in the community, would they pass the test?

What if taxing authorities imposed this burden of proof on faith communities?

What in fact are communities receiving in return for such tax abatements?

What if cities required churches and other communities of faith to devote a set percentage of their operations budgets to economic development, compassion ministries and consistent outreach to the poor? Such requirements would be nothing new to people who read the Bible with a view to establishing organizational agendas. The only difference would be that local government would expect the church to live up to its own teachings.

Churches can make a significant impact on urban reality. The question is seldom one of capacity, but almost always a matter of will.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Churches and Urban Reality (Part Three)

My list may seem too long at this point. I spend a fair amount of time pondering the question I hear so often from church leaders, "How can we help?"

So, the list goes on.

6) Understand the role of the church to be, at least in part, a challenge to the dominant culture.

People left the city for many reasons--economics, racism, crime, suburban sprawl, jobs, freeway development, etc. It is one thing to leave and quite another to forget altogether.

Face it. Our culture deifies the individual to the detriment of any viable sense of community. What's best for me is what I should do. What's best for the church and its growth is best for all.

Not so fast. Greed, materialism, selfishness, inequity in social policy, profit without morality--these forces need to be called to account by the church and its message, but even more by its lifestyle. A secondary outcome of a church's decision to challenge the dominant culture is a growing concern for people in need and, thus, for the city itself.

7) Redefine and broaden the church's understanding of morality and values.

This one can become a bit controversial. The struggle required here is essential.

The church today, especially among Evangelicals, seems preoccupied with right to life issues and homosexuality. Any biblical understanding of morality, any relevant discussion of values must be broader than this.

Urban value struggles involve equal opportunity to acquire fit and affordable housing. Access to healthcare and the quality of life this access provides is a moral matter. Quality education for children, no matter where they live, is a matter of civic morality. Overcoming hunger in the city, providing employment opportunities that deliver a livable wage, equal access to fair and impartial hearings in our courts of law--these are all matters for the values discussion that occupies a lot of time among church people. Scripture study will more than support this contention.

8) When coming to the inner city, don't assume that everyone is "lost" and in need of your gospel.

This may sound strange to some. The fact is, most, no, not most--the vast majority of the urban poor are believers--in God as a supreme being and in Jesus as the Messiah. The vast majority consider themselves to be Christians.

Entering the neighborhood as "saviors" almost always proves to be counter productive to say the least.

Come as friends. Come open to learning and new experiences. Come to receive as much as to share.

Come to engage in new relationships that could be long-term if taken seriously.

Sorry, but there is a bit more to come. . .should churches pay taxes???

Monday, April 25, 2005

Churches and Urban Reality (Part Two)

In my last post I began a "how to" list of sorts for churches seeking to make a real difference among the "urban poor" and in addressing the challenges of urban life in a city like Dallas, Texas.

My list continues here:

3) Re-think, in a comprehensive manner, the annual church operating budget with a view to the inner city and its residents who live in poverty.

This is a tough one, testing the authenticity of a congregation's resolve and actual commitment to answering the question, "How can we help?" in a serious way.

No disrespect intended--and remember, I served as a senior pastor for almost 25 years--but, churches tend to serve themselves. Many a preacher has counseled his or her congregation to do an assessment of personal priorities and commitments by looking at checkbook ledgers.

What is good advice for individual members of faith communities is excellent advice for congregational decision makers. Take a hard look at your church's annual financial plans. Who benefits most from the story of the numbers? What are the percentages?

Here's a hard one: compare the funds earmarked for facilities and those set aside for action among the poor.

How about a similar comparison between adult education or discipleship training and a commitment to overcoming poverty in the city? I ask that question based on my assumption that most adult members of congregations already know and understand more about what should be done as a person of faith than is actually being done!

Take a long, hard, honest look at your congregation's financial plan.

4) Teach your children and the children of your church the truth about poverty.

Among the many reasons why I admire Edd Eason, my longtime friend and former associate in ministry at a church, is the fact that he always found a way to teach the kids in his youth ministry about the church's responsibility to address and even attack poverty and its causes. No young person could pass through Edd's program and not understand the love of fellowship or the importance of living just and compassionate lives in this world.

Take a long, hard, honest look at what Sunday School or faith education conveys to the next generations. The concerns related to poverty and injustice are so much a part of the historic story of Judaism and Christianity that a curriculum ignoring these fundamental truths of the faith should be discarded and quickly.

5) Don't allow your understanding of "personal salvation" to let you off the city's hook.

Can I be blunt? The church spends so much time talking about, worrying about and preparing for the end of things that it gets confused in this "in between" time.

This reality cuts in lots of directions.

For some faith communities this issue is about all that matters. But, not the ones who call me trying to figure out how to help the city.

Still, there is a tendency to so emphasize personal salvation that the pain and oppression of the here and now of life takes a secondary seat in the church's response to the world.

Sometimes I have the feeling that church folks hide behind their salvation so as not to have to face the reality of the world. Believers who are Christians need to step out from behind the Cross and engage the world in all of its pain and difficulty as did the One whom they claim to follow.

A wise man once said, "There is no way to heaven except through the earth."

More to come. . .


Sunday, April 24, 2005

Churches and Urban Reality (Part One)

On a weekly basis, if not more frequently, church folk call to ask, "How can we help?"

I always appreciate these inquiries and, even more, the spirit motivating them.

The notion that communities of faith can really matter certainly is in vogue these days.

During his first administration, President Bush created the White House Office for Community and Faith-Based Initiatives. Having made a few trips to Washington to visit with those involved in this new department, I feel as if I understand something about its purpose and philosophy.

Most of the churches and community groups involved in the work of the White House Office focus on inner city issues because they are urban congregations located in tough neighborhoods.

Most the calls I receive come from suburban congregations.

What can churches, especially those from outside the inner city, do to address the tough issues facing inner city communities?

I have a few ideas. So, over the next few posts I'll just list them in no particular order for consideration and hopefully discussion.

1) More affluent suburban and "high steeple" churches could literally play a leading role in the transformation of our inner cities by creating loan funds for reputible community development corporations (CDC) devoted to economic and affordable houing development.

Breifly, here is one approach. Congregations involved in capital improvement funding campaigns could devote half-a-tithe as a "mission set aside" for this purpose.

For example, in a $30 million campaign (not all that unusual in large cities like Dallas) the set aside would total $1.5 million. Such a fund could provide loans to partner CDCs. These loans could be paid back over time, with or without interest, once the development projects begin to cash flow. The renewable fund could remain intact for years and could even grow through interest payments, additional efforts to add more funds and future capital projects.

Even a small amount of that beginning balance could be leveraged many times over by creative CDC developers. Here at Central Dallas Ministries we will break ground within the next two months on a housing and economic development project in a previously blighted area of East Dallas. The project includes 237 units of housing and almost 50,000 square feet of retail.

So far, we have less than $200,000 of our own funding in the project that will be valued at over $25 million when completed. It is amazing what can be leveraged with a relatively small amount of up-front funding.

Most of the target churches in view here have lots of professionals who are being under-utilized who could help with the creation and administration of such a funding vehicle. Talk about the church making a difference!

2) Develop a theology of justice that understands community development, poverty and economic oppression from a biblical perspective.

Frankly, many of the larger, more affluent churches I visit appear to have no inkling of what scripture has to say about the poor, poverty, economic disadvantage and the role of community in addressing the issues surrounding these realities. Oh, there may be an occasional reference to "helping the poor," but no systematic understanding of just how fundamental these concerns are from a biblical perspective. Churches that do go deeper are often accused of being "liberal," "political" and suspect in some way.

Revisiting the words of Moses, the songs of Israel, the teachings of the prophets, the clear challenge of Jesus and the example of the early church would be an extremely productive endeavor. A congregation could devote an entire year to the process and not exhaust the relevant textual materials.

Communities of faith operating from strong theological foundations change things. Churches devoted to understanding the Bible will find ways to engage the problems and oppressive realities of the city.

More to come. . .

Friday, April 22, 2005

Race, Poverty and Education

Just before the last school board trustee election in Dallas, one of the candidates dropped by to visit with me.

During our conversation, he asked me what I felt was the number one issue facing the Dallas Independent School District at the time.

I offered a one-word answer: poverty.

He responded with a quizzical look and seemed a bit flustered. I suppose he knew that the mission of DISD was not to end poverty in Dallas, nor was that my point. Still, my answer was correct and he was totally unprepared for it, as are most people in this community.

This week I remembered that encounter as I read The Economist magazine (March 12, 2005). An editorial summary of one of the feature articles caught my attention ("Black Marks--It's the natives, not the immigrants, that are the problem," page 14).

Trevor Phillips, chairman of Britain's Commission on Racial Equality, recently reported that young black men in the public schools perform at a level so far below white students that it might be better to educate them "apart from other pupils."

It is true that black males score well below whites in Britain's public education testing process. Phillips' idea implies that the reason for their underachievement is ethnicity and gender. Young black women score much better than black young men. But then, girls score better than boys in every ethnic category.

Among the entire student population Afro-Caribbeans perform well below white students. One factor often overlooked is that these students are disproportionately affected by poverty. They arrive at school from poor families.

In studies of the British system that control for economic status the results come out quite different. Afro-Caribbeans still underachieve, but not as badly as poor white students. In fact, all ethnic minority groups do better than poor white children. Impoverished Bangladeshis do twice as well as poor whites. Indian and Chinese students perform even better compared to their Anglo counterparts.

The raw numbers are staggering as a representation of the problem. Last year 131,393 white males failed to reach the government's benchmark expectations, while among Afro-Caribbeans the number totaled 3,151.

Careful consideration of the facts of English education reveal that the real challenge for black Brits is poverty, not race.

The concluding remarks from the helpful article are worth quoting here.

"This isn't, however, a message that anybody much wants to hear. Many white people find the idea that there's something fundamentally wrong with black people comforting: it confirms deeply held prejudices and reassures them that a whole complex of social problems--starting with underachievement in schools, but leading on to unemployment, drug addiction and crime--is nothing to do with them. . . .

"Trying to explain educational underachievement away as a racial issue may be comforting and convenient, but it is also dangerous, for it distracts attention from the real problem--that the school system fails the poor. That's not a black problem or a white problem: it's a British problem."


Like I told the young candidate who came by to visit, the real issue is poverty.

We need the courage to admit the obvious and to develop public policies that make change possible.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Ms. Horak-Brown and More on SROs

Joy Horak-Brown leads New Hope Housing, Inc. in Houston, Texas as the company's Executive Director.

Ms. Horak-Brown has accomplished some amazing things. And, she is just getting started!

Saturday I toured one of the single room occupancy (SRO) apartment buildings that New Hope built in downtown Houston. The shiny, bright, new facility is literally in the shadow of the new Minute Maid Field where the Houston Astros play baseball. Built over several years in three stages, the facility is first-class, well-constructed and obviously managed in a superior manner. Best of all, the project is debt free.

Ms. Horak-Brown is a very clear leader. Her principles imprint her work in the city.

Poor people deserve high-quality housing with life opportunities to match.

Projects must be adequately funded to be successful. No doubt, Joy Horak-Brown is one of the most accomplished fundraisers in Texas. As an operational strategy, no project begins until the money is in the bank to assure success!

Currently, New Hope is building a phenomenal new apartment complex in Houston's East End that will be a neighborhood jewel for tenants and neighbors alike. Again, when the SRO opens, it will be debt free.

Joy Horak-Brown is an inspirational leader. She exudes professionalism. She is articulate, determined and ablaze with reality and optimism. Her passion for the poor is astounding.

Joy Horak-Brown knows important secrets that apparently escape lots of other urban leaders. Secrets like the fact that people are basically the same in terms of what they need and want. She also knows that great things are really possible and that the poor are worth the effort.

Don't dare tell her something can't be done. She'll have it accomplished before your turn around.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Earl

Yesterday I had the privilege of driving around downtown Houston, Texas with Earl.

Earl W. Hatcher is a big, burly chap with a full grey beard and bushy fair. I judge him to be approaching 60-years-old. Earl is the Executive Director of Houston SRO Housing Corporation.

Earl and his company develop and manage single room occupancy (SRO) apartments that house formerly homeless individuals.

As he drove our group around his world, I recognized we were riding with a person who really understands the world of homelessness. Earl is a virtual encyclopedia of information, statistics and human understanding.

His work is first-rate and downright amazing. Houston SRO Housing Corporation has developed a number of SRO sites--several right around the downtown location of Minute Maid Park, home to the Houston Astros Baseball Club. A number of the residents of Earl's properties work at the ballpark during baseball season.

We toured one site that had been an old hotel--the DeGeorge at Union Station. This project caters only to veterans. The place is wonderful. The restoration is great. Best of all, the development works as a business deal--the rents keep it operational for the residents, all of whom pay $381 monthly. Each apartment includes a bath and a kitchen area.

In the neighborhood around Earl's development I noticed upscale loft apartments, restaurants, and expensive condos, in addition to the new ballpark. Talk about mixed-use development!

I asked Earl lots of questions. Mainly though, I wanted to know if the project worked socially. Were the formerly homeless good tenants? Did they cause problems for surrounding businesses? Did they get along with their more affluent neighbors? Were they an asset or a liability to the area? Was crime a problem?

Earl answered every question with patience and clarity. In every case the answers were what I expected: the development is working very well and the residents of the DeGeorge were an important part of the downtown renewal underway. They were definitely assets to the city.

Earl is an amazing guy. Totally committed to his calling and work. Totally disgusted with what has happened in our country since 1980. Earl can see the forces that have combined to make life harder for the poor and marginalized.

Next time you're in Houston stop by the corner of Preston and LaBranch and check out the DeGeorge. It has a great view of the Astro's new home. Life seems to really work there for folks who not long ago were sleeping on the sidewalk.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Barbara Ehrenreich Brings You Life Without Safety Nets -- the Growing Reality for Everyday Americans

Lots of people read the Bible on a regular basis. Somehow though, many people never manage to connect the words of scripture to the streets of our reality today.

My good friend, Randy Mayeux sent me the BuzzFlash interview with Barbara Ehrenreich that follows below.

You may recall that Ehrenreich took a truly "incarnational" approach to reporting on the lives of working poor people in America when she wrote Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. She wrote the book while working at the jobs the people she wrote about performed on a daily basis.

As I read her book, the words of the Bible on labor, work, fair pay, debt forgiveness, justice and the immorality of unjust economic systems came to mind again and again.

The interview is a bit long, but well worth the read. I expect and hope it will stir some comment!

Larry

____________________________________________

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

I almost think there's a philosophical point they want to drive home -- which is that they don't like anything that involves some kind of mutual risk-sharing -- you know, pooling our wealth to help each other.

Barbara Ehrenreich is highly educated and enjoys a comfortable lifestyle ordinarily, but in 2001, she walked away from it to take a close-up and personal look at the struggles of the working poor. She took whatever work she could get as a "divorced homemaker reentering the workforce" -- waiting tables in Florida, stocking clothing at a Minnesota Wal-Mart, and signing on as a maid with a cleaning service in Maine --all the while driving Rent-a-Wrecks and subsisting on her paltry paychecks. Nickel and Dimed is the book she wrote about her experiences.

Now, author and lecturer Ehrenreich has become an advocate for the forgotten in an America that favors corporations over workers, and the haves over the have-nots.

She talked with BuzzFlash about economic justice and populism, elitist opinions about the poor, and her campaign to awaken the affluent to the intensifying struggles of our hard-working poor.


BuzzFlash: Your landmark book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, was published in 2001. How have things changed for working families over the last four years under the Bush Administration?

Barbara Ehrenreich: They've just gotten worse. As I'm sure you know, wages have actually declined. And with slightly higher unemployment, it's harder for workers to challenge anything in the workplace because it's so easy to replace them - replace anybody who appears to be a troublemaker. As we speak, there is an incredible assault going on, not just on the poor, but also the middle class, especially with the campaign to privatize Social Security. There's also the recent bankruptcy bill that passed, which I am aghast at, that will provide loopholes for the wealthy so they can protect their assets. But for the poor and the middle class, it's going to mean, as Paul Krugman says, there's no fresh start, and families will be tied to what he called debt peonage.

BuzzFlash: The bankruptcy bill was completely construed to make it sound like working people were abusing or gaming the system, when the reverse is true. As you said, it's actually the rich who have the ability to make risky investments but then turn around and get protection and avoid personal responsibility. The credit card industry has been working on this legislation since 1997. Why do you think progressives weren't better able to inform working Americans that their pockets were being picked?

Barbara Ehrenreich: That's the question about so many things -- the tax cuts for the rich, the coming federal budget, which is full of cuts in almost any program that has helped poor and working-class people, like Medicaid. I don't think it's unique to the credit card legislation. I don't know the reason why there's not more outrage.

BuzzFlash: The conservatives have been able to court many working families by using social issues such as gay marriage, school prayer and guns, and the Democrats have been unable or unwilling to address this fact. The Republicans have a very effective strategy, when you consider they've been able to convince an entire bloc of voters to vote against their own self-interest. How can progressives or Democrats reach out to working families and convince them that their values are actually in alignment with working families, especially in terms of economic justice?

Barbara Ehrenreich: First remember that the trend holds that people who are poorer vote Democratic, compared to people who are richer. That did not change in 2004. I think you can overstate that case too much. One of the problems with the Kerry campaign was that he was not able to articulate economic justice issues as moral values issues with the kind of passion he should have done. These are moral issues.

BuzzFlash: We believe the Democratic Party must become champions of populist values -- fighting for good jobs, livable wages, and affordable health care -- not only for moral reasons, because it's the right thing to do, but also for purely strategic reasons. Unless the Democratic Party can offer Americans a different vision for America, it's just hard to see them winning elections and leading the country. Would you agree with that?

Barbara Ehrenreich: I certainly do. And I think we've been arguing this for a long time, that they need more of an economically populist approach. I lose hope, though, in the Democratic Party -- whatever bits of hope I had for it -- when I see, for example, that half of the Senate Democrats voted for the bankruptcy bill. Are they too compromised by their own campaign contributions from banks and the credit card industry? I don't know.

BuzzFlash: Neo-conservatives want to take us back to pre-FDR days when there was virtually no safety net. They're eroding workers rights with respect to overtime rules, or making it virtually impossible for people to get out of debt with the bankruptcy bill. As you said, the verdict's still out on Social Security, but they want to privatize that, too. After all the research you've done on poverty, could you explain this world view of the neo-conservatives? What rationale could there be for such a policy?

Barbara Ehrenreich: I can't figure it out. The Social Security privatization campaign Bush is currently running does not have strong popular support. People don't want it. Even Wall Street isn't enthusiastic about it. And it's not going to save money. It's going to cost, I think, about two trillion dollars just in transitional costs because some workers will take their money and put it in private accounts. The government will have to make up for that to pay for those currently depending on Social Security. So it doesn't make sense. I almost think there's a philosophical point they want to drive home, which is that they don't like anything that involves some kind of mutual risk-sharing -- you know, pooling our wealth to help each other. There's no other way I can explain it to myself.

BuzzFlash: Let's talk just very briefly about your book, Nickel and Dimed. Have you considered putting out a second edition or updating the book?

Barbara Ehrenreich: No. My next book, which will be out in September, is about being a white-collar worker and unemployed. It's done with the same form of journalism, putting myself into the actual situation and studying it that way.

BuzzFlash: What's the title for the book?

Barbara Ehrenreich: "Bait and Switch," and the tentative subtitle is "The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."

BuzzFlash: It's becoming very common for universities to require all incoming freshmen to read the same book, and several schools have chosen Nickel and Dimed. It was a New York Times bestseller and is still very, very popular. It will be on the paperback bestseller list. I know you travel a lot and do numerous speaking engagements. How often do people come up to you and say thank you, or talk to you about the book in the sense that it gave a voice to working people?

Barbara Ehrenreich: It happens all the time, because I still trudge around the country, if not the world, talking about these issues. I get affluent people saying, you opened my eyes, or I never really looked at all the people around me who were serving or cleaning, and didn't know how hard it was, and now I do. That's great to hear. And then I hear from a lot of people who are in these situations and have been in them for a long time. Some of those letters I post on NickelandDimed.net, because I want there to be a place for people to speak for themselves.

BuzzFlash: One thing that people came away with from your book was just an appreciation of the energy and skill that many workers have. You have a Ph.D. in biology, and you joked that you thought some of these jobs might be easy for you to pick up. But in fact, that wasn't the case. It seems a lot of people appreciate your book and how it created a sense of appreciation for what it takes to work in any number of jobs.

Barbara Ehrenreich: That is the value of this form of journalism as opposed to just interviewing people. When you interview people, they'll say, yeah, the job was hard, or something like that. But I actually put myself in that situation and found how difficult it was for me to learn to do the work, and how difficult it was physically to keep up, even though I'm a very strong person. That comes through, by this type of investigating. I could only find out by entering into this world in my actual body.

BuzzFlash: There's this assumption that working people are somehow lazy, but in fact, after reading your book, the opposite is clearly true, and they seem to never stop working. And as you say in the subtitle, they're not getting by in America. But where does that assumption come from, the current demonizing of the poor?

Barbara Ehrenreich: That's a very, very historically old assumption, or I should say a part of elite ideology. It goes back centuries, really, and into English poor laws in the 19th Century and even earlier. It was very prominent in this country in the build-up to welfare reform in the mid-nineties, with constant attacks on the poorest of the poor, that people who need to rely on welfare now and then are lazy, and promiscuous and addicted. The mindset that working people are lazy is part of a larger view that poverty is the result of a character defect or a set of character defects -- that people don't know how to look ahead and only seek out personal gratification and so forth. We're hearing a little less of that since welfare reform passed. I think what I hear more of is a kind of conservative retort that poor people made the wrong choices, and they should have gone to college. Getting out of poverty is something you just "will" to do, or poor people should have postponed childbearing until they had a middle-class income. Actually what it all comes down to is, they should have chosen their parents better.

BuzzFlash: What do you say to progressives who come hear you speak and ask what can they do in the dark days of a second term of a Bush Administration?

Barbara Ehrenreich: I don't pretend to have an answer. I say some of the best resistance has been going on at the grassroots level, at the local and state levels, with some exceptions. And I think the AARP and the NAACP have swung into more of a fighting stance. Mostly, though, I say we're not going to see a lot of big national initiatives. Then, if I'm giving a public lecture, I ask people in the audience who are involved with anything local to stand up and say something about it. And I try to turn the Q and A part of the event into a kind of a rally. It's wonderful to see. Just two weeks ago, I was in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah, and one person after another stood up and said we need help providing support for striking coal miners. We need books. We need volunteers, please get involved in this group or that group, or an anti-war demonstration next week, or whatever. That's what I try to do.

BuzzFlash: Barbara, thank you so much for talking with us.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Thank you.

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

"Illegal" Immigrants and Social Security

Immigration has been back in the news since the "Minuteman Project" got underway on April 1, 2005 outside Tombstone, Arizona--no, unfortunately the volunteer protest over immigration at the Mexican border is no joking matter. The idea is to have volunteers, many armed, stationed along a 23-mile stretch of Cochise County and stop anyone trying to cross into the U. S.

Presidents Fox and Bush found something to agree on here. Both think the idea is terrible.

Then comes a very interesting report from The New York Times ("Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security with Billions," April 5, 2005).

The common yap on the street characterizes Mexican immigrants as people who take advantage of the system here and return nothing in the process. Leaving aside for now the matter of billions paid in sales taxes across the nation, the article filed by Eduardo Porter dismantles common "American wisdom" about working "illegal" immigrants (Can a person really be "illegal"?)

Consider the facts:

*Seven million undocumented workers in the U. S. pay $7 billion annually into Social Security.

*The money paid into the Social Security system by this special class of labor amounts to about 10% of the system's current surplus. You know, the surplus Al Gore wanted to lock up in a box. The same surplus the President says is going away for good and real soon.

*The Social Security Administration factors these dollars into their projections about the future of the program.

*The majority of undocumented workers pay taxes.

*Since the late 1980s when the system began receiving millions of obviously bogus W-2 earnings statements, complete with fake SS numbers, it began holding them in what is called a "earnings suspense file." During the 1990s, $189 billion in wages ended up in this file. In our current decade the file is growing at a rate of over $50 billion annually. In 2002, nine million W-2s with incorrect numbers were filed away accounting for 1.5% of total reported earnings for the entire nation.

*Social Security Administration officials estimate that approximately 75% of undocumented workers pay payroll taxes.

*According to the Government Accountability Office (GOA), of the bogus W-2s, 17% arrived from restaurants, 10% from construction companies and 7% from farm operations.

*Actuaries at Social Security report that if immigration rose to 1.3 million persons annually instead of the current 900,000, the benefit to the system would be half a trillion dollars over the next 75 years.

One last note. Undocumented workers who pay into the Social Security System will never receive any financial benefit from Social Security. Unlike the funds I contribute, their contributions are "free" to the system.

Reality is often far from what it appears.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Sunrise

I opened my eyes for the first time this morning at about the 4 1/2 mile mark of my 6 mile run. Gotta say the run wasn't my best ever--filled with pain, discomfort and more than a few negative thoughts.

But, like I say, I finally woke up!

As I ran along, now aware of my surroundings, I found it hard to take it all in.

White Rock Lake in the spring amazes me.

The surface of the water was mirror-like with only occasional ripples responding to the gentle breeze. The sun painted the sky with a red-orange glow as it slipped up from below the cover of the horizon. Hundreds of Cyprus trees showed off their new foliage.

Ducks ran around on the grass next to the water. Mother ducks with their new ducklings swam furiously out into the deeper water as I approached.

The air smelled clean and good.

The morning could not have been better or more beautiful.

Somehow though, I had managed to run for over four miles without noticing a thing except my own struggle.

As I drank in the beauty of the morning over that last mile-and-a-half, it hit me. My friends who have so little of the material stuff of this world try to teach me this same lesson all of the time.

How many times have people, literally at the end of their rope in my judgment, directed me toward the positive, the good and the hopeful? More times than I can count.

Always thanking God for waking us up. Always praising God for the smallest blessing. Talk about living with eyes wide open!

Don't get me wrong. My point is not to romanticize the poor or their ability to courageously overcome the challenges they face. Nor do I intend to imply that "the poor" should be viewed as a monolithic group or a class without variations in attitude, viewpoint or perspective.

It is just clear to me that very often pain and struggle cause people to open their eyes wide. Folks who face great difficulty often look for the best and the beautiful more often than some of the rest of us who seemingly "have it all together." [As a matter of fact, I have this theory that it is our fundamental selfishness, fueled by an addiction to the material, that drives our economic policies and priorities contributing to the impoverishment of so many of our fellow citizens. I'll save that for a future post!]

I know for me one of my biggest challenges relates to my tendency to keep my focus on myself rather than the gigantic and mysterious world outside.

So, for a few minutes this morning, as I loped along on the trail beside the lake, I realized the amazing beauty of life clearly visible, even through my own pain.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Grandchildren

Last night we celebrated the birthdays of our two grandchildren. Born two years and two days apart, these two are amazing!

No surprises here coming from Granddad, huh?

You got it! This little 3-year-old girl and this little 1-year-old boy make the world turn for me. No way to explain it unless you've been here with grandchildren of your own.

They completely redefine life, language and love. Laughter, curiosity, energy and hope just jump out of these new little lives--packages of joy and tears and innocence. Nothing could be better.

Of course, all of the adults in their lives go overboard on gifts, celebration and partying when it comes to these two. Gifts, food, singing, playing, jumping, joking, prodding. . .and this from people old enough to know better!

There is just something about little ones to renew your hope and to refocus life on purpose.

The party was a real hoot.

Every time I am with these two incredible little people I think of the children and grandchildren of my friends in the city.

I know that they feel the same way about their children as my children feel about theirs. I know from talking to them that they want the same things for them--a good life, a better life than they had coming up, opportunity, security, safety, peace and purpose.

They share the same concerns as I about schools, health, housing and a future. We all dream in the same way about the little ones in our lives. Oh, the details may be slightly different, but the major themes are the same.

Money matters.

People locked up in poverty can dream all they want, but they can typically deliver only in limited ways.

Don't misunderstand. They can give love, nurture, time, encouragement, affection and the genuine commitment that helps make a parent's role work. But, they are limited by economics, severely limited when it comes to the forces that shape life in a better way and fill young lives with opportunity.

Poverty today is complex. Factors are at work today that have nothing to do with individual initiative or hard work. The promise of America that everyone who works hard can "make it," is today a hollow promise. Millions of my fellow citizens work hard, very hard; yet, they are falling further and further behind as the economic and opportunity gap between the haves and the have nots widens.

Impoverished neighborhoods find ways to unravel after decades of poverty's assault. Dark forces produce some out-of-control dynamics that make life incredibly challenging for children and families.

Just last night gang-related gunfire struck down a 16-month-old child as he played in his front yard in one of our inner city neighborhoods in Ft. Worth. Today the child remains in critical condition. No doubt, his parents and grandparents are devastated.

Last night I enjoyed myself enormously. I look forward to many more parties with these two special little ones and, hopefully a few more!

At the same time, I'll keep the children and grandchildren of others in mind. There is much to do to make things better here for all of our children.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Truth Comes From Everywhere

Yesterday turned out to be a super-full day.

In addition to a number of meetings before lunch, I had the pleasure of attending a combined meeting of The Real Estate Council and the Central Dallas Association. Over 500 people filled one of the ballrooms at the Fairmont to hear Albert Ratner, Co-chairman of Forest City Enterprises, Cleveland, Ohio.

Forest City is one of the largest and most aggressive development firms in the nation. The company is not afraid to tackle huge or the "risky" projects.

No wonder Dallas Mayor Laura Miller is courting the group to lead the way in the revitalization efforts in our downtown core. Mr. Ratner explained how the company selects projects, why Dallas was a long shot for them, but also why he wanted to do a big deal here.

He was entertaining and inspirational to say the least. The crowd seemed to hang on every word, even as he chided us for being so shortsighted when it comes to real vision.

An important part of his presentation--in fact the backdrop of the entire speech--was his obvious commitment to include everyone in the process and his concern for those whom he referred to as "the least" among us.

"If you have no concern for 'the least' as you do your work, no one will be satisfied with the outcome," Ratner counseled us.

Here's a guy who has helped renew places like downtown Cleveland, inner city Brooklyn, NY and the area around the New Jersey Nets new coliseum. The retail statistics he reported from these developments in "risky" locations amazed everyone. Lesson: low-income, working people have money to spend. If they can find places to spend their money close to home, their neighborhoods have a way of improving!

Speaking to a well-to-do Dallas audience, he told us to remember the poor as we redo our downtown. Strange though. This brilliant, mild-mannered business tycoon spoke more powerfully and fairly about much neglected subjects (poverty, equal opportunity and justice) than most of the preachers in this town!

The Mayor and the entire City Council heard the speech. I hope they were listening.

Later in the day as I walked down Elm Street on my way to my last two appointments, I encountered Jeff on the street. I had talked to him before and he recognized me.

"Why you still down here so late?" he quipped at me.

"Oh, on my way to meet some guys. What's up?" I replied.

We talked a bit and then I decided to conduct an interview.

"Jeff, mind if I ask you a personal question," I said.

"Shoot," he replied.

"If I had a building down here where our headquarters offices, our law offices, our works training operation and our community development corporation offices were located and if the top 10-15 floors were single room apartments and you could afford the rent, would you like to have one? Would you live in a place like that if you had your own apartment?"

"Are you kidding? Of course I would. I person would have to be stupid to say 'No' to a deal like that," he answered with renewed energy.

We talked a bit more about his situation, the possibility of his finding work and some training for new skills.

"Do you stay in a shelter?" I continued.

"No, I hate shelters. I prefer the street. I feel safer out here. I don't drink or do drugs. I stay away from shelters," he explained with resolve.

I've been conducting these informal interviews for months now. I always get the same answers to these questions.

People on the street want homes. Homes of their own. It is so obvious.

Mr. Ratner would have liked Jeff. I expect Jeff would have felt the same. Both are what I call "truth-tellers. "

When it comes to poverty, truth is what we need in this nation. A large dose of it from whatever the source.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

If you live in Texas, please ACT TODAY!!!

Call-In for Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) Advocacy Day
Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Your call is critical: CHIP has not been fully restored!

If you can't come to Austin to visit with your local legislators, please call their offices to voice your support for FULL RESTORATION of CHIP!

Although dental and vision benefits restoration are included in both the House and Senate budgets, we are very concerned that neither budget includes adequate funds to allow for any increase in CHIP enrollment.

However, many legislators believe that "CHIP has been restored". Now is our opportunity to advocate for funding of full CHIP restoration.

Thank you for supporting CHIP!

Key Message for Legislators:

1. We appreciate restoration of dental and vision benefits.

2. But CHIP is not fully restored.

3. Adequate funds are not in either the House nor Senate budget to allow for any increase in CHIP enrollment. In fact, enrollment would decrease below current levels.

4. Current enrollment is now 328,350; under the House/Senate budget, enrollment would decrease to 324,750 in 2006.

5. Texas will again miss out on millions of federal matching dollars.

6. Children who need health insurance will remain uninsured.

What Legislators Can Do:


**When the conference committee meets on the budget, please support funding for 12-month continuous eligibility which will add funds to allow for an enrollment increase.

**Support SB 59, Senator Kip Averitt's bill, which would fully restore CHIP, if adequate funds are included in the budget. There is not a House version of SB 59 at this time. One is needed!

For more information: Call CDF Texas at 512.480.0990.

It is a matter of faith, values and justice!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

More From Two Respected Docs

Last week I introduced the important essay published in The New England Journal of Medicine, "Do We Really Want Broad Access to Health Care?" (352:12, pp. 1260-1263, March 24, 2005).

James J. Morgan, M.D. and Thomas H. Lee, M.D. present an extremely thoughtful challenge to the physician community, as well as to public policy makers and all of us who elect them.

One of the more surprising and useful dimensions of their argument has to do with the essential importance of our regaining a genuine sense of inter-connectedness, of community as a people. In the view of the good doctors, we Americans have lost that over the past 30 years or so.

Community has been replaced with an almost undying commitment to "rugged individualism." Morgan and Lee wonder out loud about when this macho vision of American civic life turns to self-centeredness and then to downright selfishness. Somewhere along the way every serious effort at health care reform (1974--Nixon; 1979--Carter; 1994--Clinton) died.

The doctors are not naive about costs. Costs for real reform will be on the order of another Iraqi war. In addition, some Americans will gain and some will lose, as compared to what they currently have in health care benefits.

"If broad access to health care is ever to be more than a campaign sound bite, it cannot be a casual commitment. Americans must understand that they are going to make real sacrifices for other Americans."

Now, there is a novel idea--sacrifice for the good of the whole!

At the same time, there would be significant return on the investment of providing health care for everyone (somewhere between $65 and $130 billion annually!). Informed estimates indicate that over $45 billion could be saved annually on administrative costs alone if the right system were in place nationally.

Without action the number of uninsured Americans will only continue to rise, while the doorway to care for the uninsured will continue to grow more narrow and restrictive.

So, what is the bottom line?

Simply put: new tax policy.

"We believe that a fundamental and defining question for all health care providers who support broad access to health care is this: Are you willing to advocate publicly for higher taxes? If enough of us state the simple truth that this is necessary, we may create a political environment in which our leaders may eventually be able to lead on this issue."

I hope you will find your voice in this important national conversation. It is literally a matter of life and death for millions. What we have here is a moral issue transcending politics.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Downtown Dallas and The Down and Out

Same old, same old.

That's how I read the story in Saturday's paper ("Downtown plan may be at hand," The Dallas Morning News, B1, 6). Oh, the story sounded very exciting. Developers from out-of-state appear to be interested in a redevelopment project involving the historic Mercantile Bank clock tower, the old Statler Hilton (most recently and now defunct Dallas Grand Hotel) and the four-building complex recently donated to the City by Atmos Energy.

According to the story, the City will provide tax incentives of $60 million to spur the development of high-end condos and retail venues. Further, the overall plan creates a "Dallas Connection" zone that will reach from the southeastern sector (where the Mercantile sits) to the north across Woodall Rodgers Freeway into Uptown. To encourage new action in this special redevelopment zone the City will offer up to $123 million in tax incentives to interested parties.

In addition, the City plans to employ nine new staff members who will focus all of their attention on downtown redevelopment. Currently, only one staff member has responsibility for core city issues.

Sounds like a plan!

An all too familiar one.

Possibly I am wrong. But it sounds to me as if the plan for redevelopment gives absolutely no attention or thought to the hundreds of Dallasites who already live downtown. . . on the streets.

Many people will dismiss these words as the rantings of a lunatic, do-gooder. Someone out of touch with reality. I guess that could be true.

Funny though, every other great American city that has seen genuine revitalization of its central city has included a plan to actually respond to the chronic problems associated with homelessness.

Most successful cities have employed a multi-faceted approach that includes the development of Single Room Occupancy apartments (SROs). You'll recall that the City's recently appointed "Homeless Czar," Tom Dunning, called for an intensive effort to build hundreds of these units to attack the problem.

I didn't read a word about SROs in the story on Saturday.

It makes you wonder, doesn't it? Will Dallas ever emerge from the Jurassic era?

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Two Incredible Catholics Should Teach the American Church

It has been a week of thinking Catholic for me.

Last Thursday I took part in a service of remembrance in honor of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the priest who was assasinated while saying Mass for his church in El Salvador on March 24, 1980.

Today I have reflected on the life, thought and impact of Pope John Paul II at the time of his death.

During my years in New Orleans, I studied Romero's preaching and writing because of my concern and interest in the horrific civil war that ravaged El Salvador at the time. The worst was yet to come and did in the early 1980s. I continued reading Romero who carefully, prophetically and artfully applied the radical message of Jesus to the concrete realities of our world.


Romero tried to tell us that we were on the wrong side of the conflict.

President Carter ignored his pleas for peace and support, instead sending military aid to the oppressive government of El Salvador. President Reagan escalated the support and the conflict.

By 1984, over 50,000 men, women and children had perished in the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala--wars in which U. S. supported the rich and the powerful against the interests of the peasant farmers who simply wanted equitable land reform so that they could provide for their families.

Romero was pro-life and pro-justice and pro-Jesus. Romero moved to the margins of his society to be among and for the poor. His suffering he understood as being a part of the crucifixion of the people that he loved and pastored so well.

Romero once said, "A church that suffers no persecution but enjoys the privileges and support of the things of the earth—beware!—is not the true church of Jesus Christ" (March 11, 1979).

John Paul II led the Catholic church for 26 years. No matter what your opinions about his theology and teachings, the first non-Italian Pope in over five centuries, led with steadfast resolve, startling courage and a joyful, hopeful, humble kindness.

John Paul's pro-life posture offended many. None could accuse him of being inconsistent. He spoke out strongly against abortion and stem cell research. He also spoke against war, capital punishment, hunger, political oppression and injustice.

This Pope ended Communism in Europe. This Pope challenged the materialism of the capitalism of the West. This Pope sought to be a reconciler of people and nations--all people and all nations. He lectured our current President about the war in Iraq, calling it unjust. He reached out to Fiedel Castro, but challenged him about the repression and suffering of the Cuban people.

Both of these leaders lived amazing lives and served their people and their callings in remarkable ways.

Both preached, wrote and taught to encourage and champion justice, fairness and hope. Both cared about the earth and all of its people in radical ways.

Today the vision of Romero and John Paul II have yet to be realized.

The American church, especially Protestant Evangelicals whom I know best, need to be still. A period of quiet reflection and serious study of the writings and the work of these two spiritual giants would serve this part of the church in the United States very well it seems to me.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Beating a Dead Horse For the Sake of Better Life!

Health care is not the only matter about which I care. I promise. But, I do care about it.

You likely do not realize it, but 70% more women die at childbirth in the United States than in Europe. Wonder why? I expect it has something to do with our amazingly high uninsured rate and with our inadequate access to proper care for everyone.

A few days ago my personal physician, Dr. Cliff Fullerton, sent me an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine ("Do We Really Want Broad Access to Health Care?" by James J. Morgan, MD and Thomas H. Lee, MD, March 24, 2005, pp. 1260-1263).

You can get to the essay at: http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/extract/352/12/1260.

The authors ask a simple question or two of us.

Why so little conversation about the uninsured in the national "values discussion" of the last election?

Why our relatively recent and ongoing obsession about not raising taxes no matter what the need or outcome nationally?

The fact is, they instruct us, our market-based solutions have failed in controlling costs and in seeing that everyone is cared for appropriately in our nation.

Let me give you a quote or two.

"The anti-tax movement should be recognized for what it is, the main enemy of those who truly seek to meet the needs of the 45 million uninsured Americans. Admitting that we are living with two irreconcilable values--we want to see ourselves as a caring people, but we don't want our taxes to go up--is unpleasant. For that reason, we work hard to protect our self-image by means of elaborate fantasies.

"We tell ourselves that the uninsured have only themselves to blame for their situation, whereas the truth is that about 80 percent of them are either employed or dependents of those who are employed. . . .

"We tell ourselves that they are actually getting care despite our flawed system. . . .We are willing to pay enough to move the [acute] care indoors and out of sight. But we are not willing to provide the coverage for the chronic conditions and preventive care that might enable the uninsured to lead more productive and happier lives.

"How can a country as idealistic and generous as the United States fail repeatedly to accomplish in health care coverage what every other industrialized nation has achieved? One explanation may be that we are not so idealistic or generous as we would like to believe we are.

"Over the past 30 years, . . .we have become a relatively affluent nation of consumers who are focused more on the rights and desires of individuals than on the needs of the community."

I'll share more from these good docs in a day or so. But, I am convinced they speak truth to us.

More importantly, they speak truth to the power that is failing millions of our fellow citizens in the nation.

Doctors who sound like prophets.

I know some preachers who ought to go to school on their wisdom and their courage.