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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

To New Orleans with Dread and Hope



Today my wife, Brenda, and I will be in New Orleans.

The purpose of the trip is to survey current conditions, link up with old and new friends and attempt to judge whether or not there is something Central Dallas Ministries can or should do there.

CDM operates in San Antonio as Urban Connection San Antonio. Our efforts there have been encouraging, thanks to the leadership provided by our "on-the-ground" director of operations, Leslie Kelsie-Grubbs. The center of our activity there is based in a public housing development.

Wayne and Ann Arnold, our dear friends in New Orleans, have lived in the city for well over 40 years. Somehow one of their rental properties survived Katrina. It now serves as a neighborhood "oasis" of sorts for anyone who shows up.

Another friend, Nate Jones, a fellow Tulane University alumnus, had begun an urban outreach in the Bywater area of the city, very near the lower 9th Ward several years ago. I am eager to talk with him.

We hope to hook up with these wonderful folks and see what might happen.

I can remember well walking through the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans when we were there (1975-1980) with my friend, Jesse Lawrence. Jesse knew "the projects" like the back of his hand. After all, he grew up living there. We would spend hours walking from apartment to apartment, talking to folks and trying to figure out what could be done from a church base like ours with the amazing folks we were meeting. One of my chief regrets in leaving New Orleans to return to Dallas was the unfinished business that Jesse and I had only begun.

Think of us today.

I know it will be hard returning to the special city we called home for several years and seeing it in such disarray.

Somehow, I know there is something for us to do in New Orleans.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Church as Affirmation and Challenge

If you visit this site very often, you are aware that I don't spend much time talking about church issues. But, today I cannot resist.

On Sunday I sat in church taking in all the images, sounds, words and expressions designed to remind me, to call me into the season of Advent.

"Waiting"--for something, for someone extraordinary, for a force, a life that would fundamentally change the way things work in the world--occupied our thoughts and feelings throughout the time we shared together.

Words are important, aren't they?

The first hymn blew me away with its straightforward simplicity--"Hail to the Lord's Anointed"--a vintage 1821 lyric set to music out of the 18th century and adapted just after the Civil War (1868).

In part we sang,

"He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free; to take away transgression and rule in equity.

"He comes with succor speedy to those who suffer wrong; to help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong; to give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light, whose souls, condemned and dying, are precious in his sight."

It struck me as the hymn concluded, rich with images first inspired by the prophet Isaiah, that I may have been born in the wrong century!

Later, a responsive reading included these familiar words drawn from the Gospel of Luke,

"You scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts and have mercy on those who fear you from generation to generation. You put down the mighty from their thrones and exalt those of low degree. You fill the hungry with good things, and the rich you send empty away."

There was a time when these values and this message shaped the work and mission of our churches. Every great and significant social revolution in our nation's history emanated from the lives of people of faith who believed and lived words like these. Such visions formed the stuff of faith and life lived faithfully.

The songs and the readings caused me to reflect on other church experiences I have had over the past few years.

Maybe it is just me, but much of what I have heard and experienced--even those rousing services that seemed so focused on "praising God"--seemed designed to give me and my fellow worshippers some sort of emotional high, rather than delivering guidance, providing challenge or creating space for contrition in face of a very pain-filled world, dominated by injustice and oppression.

There was a time when the church in America understood the purpose of its life in the world.

Dare we hope for a time of recovery?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Public Schools--A Time for Action


The Texas Supreme Court acted last week to force the ineffective, paralyzed hand (read "will" just here) of the Texas legislature.

Our fearless leaders in Austin have enjoyed two regular sessions and three special sessions over the past two to three years. Yet, our elected leaders have been unable to agree upon something as basic and necessary as a school finance plan for our children.

Enter our Supreme Court.

The majority ruling of the all-Republican court last week decreed that by June 1, 2006, the legislature must come up with a new finance plan since its regulation of local school property tax rates amounts to a state property tax that is illegal according to our state's constitution.

The court's not much better than the lawmakers. It judged that today our schools are adequately financed, though just barely. While it did not demand an increase in funding to insure that the legislature lives up to its constitutional duty to educate all of the children in our state, the court did issue a warning that current levels of funding are on the verge of being inadequate.

With this ruling the court provided empirical evidence that none of its sitting justices have been in a Texas public school lately! Talk to students, parents, teachers, educational and business leaders and you get a completely different picture of the state of affairs in our public schools.

Texas ranks in the bottom third nationally in funding on a per pupil basis in comparison to other public school systems in the United States. Our average spending per student is approximately $1,000 below the national average.

The high court did not take any action on the controversial "Robin Hood" provision in current school finance regulations. Our current plan requires wealthy school districts to send funds to the state for redistribution to poor school districts. Thus, the "Robin Hood" tag.

Most people don't realize it, but only 134 school districts out of the state's 1,037 are asked to transfer funds out of their districts for the sake of achieving funding equity. Ask our state's poorest districts and students if they appreciate the current funding stream that brings a measure of parity to their schools.

Our legislators must now act to craft a plan that is legal. I will be surprised if they go further during the special session to increase school funding to anywhere near the levels that are really required to advance public education in Texas.

Any serious plan must include local property tax reform, closing business franchise tax loopholes, increasing business taxes generally and deciding upon some other equitable revenue streams. Most likely, our leaders will elevate the cap on our state sales tax, one of the most regressive forms of taxation that will hurt poor Texans most.

But hey, this is Texas! What do you expect? Certainly not any discussion of a state income tax system that would provide a more equitable and adequate strategy for funding education in the state.

Public education needs more than just an infusion of cash, but make no mistake about it, it does need more funding. Expanding early childhood education, providing more Advanced Placement classes in poor rural and urban districts, improving teacher-student ratios in classrooms, restoring funding for the arts--these needed steps require more dollars. Our state cannot afford to fail this investment challenge.

To be sure, any adequate funding plan must be connected to a continuing effort to achieve new efficiencies by cutting back on the number of mid-level administrators, eliminating unnecessary, non-education related perks and by involving parents and community groups in the entire process. But, new funding must be set in place that is aggressive, creative and bold if we really are serious about the state and national promise to "leave no child behind."

It's time for a new day in Texas schools. Our future depends on it. Our children must not be denied the most important experience of childhood.

Any member of the Texas legislature who refuses to step up to this crucial challenge with clarity of vision, a commitment to bi-partisan cooperation, and courageous leadership against an opposition led by persons whose children don't depend on public education for their future does not deserve my support, my respect and certainly not my vote.

If we fail this test, we will pay for it in much less pleasant ways for generations to come.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Amos--Can You Hear Him Shout Out in Your Church Today???


Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of
the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.

It will be as though a man fled
from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the
wall
only to have a snake bite him.

Will not the day of the Lord be
darkness, not light--
pitch-dark, without a ray of
brightness?

"I hate, I despise your religious
feasts;
I cannot stand your
assemblies.

"Even though you bring me
burnt offerings and grain
offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice
fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.

"Away with the noise of your
songs!
I will not listen to the music of
your harps.

"But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a
never-failing stream!"
(Amos 5:18-24)

Amos got it.

The eighth century Hebrew prophet would have a lot to say to us today.

He would not be our favorite newspaper editorialist, but he would be heard above the sound of our unending sermons, the church bells and the blaring organs or the congregational four-part harmony, sung so proudly.

Amos reminds us that God cares much more about the poor and the forces that make and keep people poor than God cares about worship, doctrine, traditions or the many issues that seem to consume the contemporary church.

God doesn't need or want our piety.

God wants justice. God is commited to fairness, equal opportunity on God's earth. God seeks to join hands with a people who will live and die for the same.

Listen in church today.

See if you hear the values of Amos.

If not, it likely is time to ask why not?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

"Just tryin' to get back on our feet"

Last Tuesday, I showed up early for a meeting downtown at Family Gateway, a shelter facility devoted to homeless women and children who try to live on our streets.

Jan Mitura is the incredibly dedicated Executive Director of this very special and much-needed organization. Jan has been at it downtown for a long, long time. I am not sure just how she does it, but that is the stuff of a future post.

As it turned out, the meeting I came to attend had been postponed due to the holidays and I had not received word--not that unusual for me!

I made good use of my time though.

While I was waiting to find out about the status of the meeting that was not to be, I met a man who had followed me into the center.

I noticed him approach the front desk. I heard him announce his reason for being there, "I'm here to see Mary in Room 444, please" (both name and room number are changed here for security and confidentiality purposes).

After making his request, he took a seat and we began to talk. We shook hands and exchanged introductions.

"I lost my job and we lost our apartment," he told me. "We used the little money we had left to rent a storage place. We hope to be back in an apartment by the first of the month."

We talked about the challenge facing Dallas and people without homes. I offered that at CDM we wanted to get the homeless involved in a new conversation about how to attack and reduce the problem.

He shared helpful insights about the "varieties" of homeless people on our streets. He was eager for me to know that he did not use drugs and that he was not an alcoholic. He was set to getting things "back in order" for his family. He told me that he was staying in the Union Gospel Mission.

Just as I was about to ask about his family, "Mary" appeared holding a baby girl born just six days before.

My new friend took his little girl in his arms and proudly cradled her close to his chest.

"This is my little girl," he said with a smile on his face, "she is six days old!"

He sat down, still holding his daughter as Mary disappeared to tend to some matters in her small, but safe and clean apartment.

Before leaving, I handed him my card and told him about an employment opportunity that included on the job training for anyone who wanted to learn to drive big rigs, become a welder or a pipefitter. He assured me that he would call after Thanksgiving. I expect to hear from him.

He asked me for nothing.

So much could be said here.

Families who are homeless in Dallas are forced to split up, unless they can "bunk" with friends or family for awhile.

Homeless people are proud, resourceful and ignored too often.

I keep thinking of that little girl--just like my two daughters and my two grandchildren.

I can't seem to clear my mind of the determined, but worried smile on the mother's face.

I will always remember this dad and husband who just wants to make life as good as he can for
his family.

We are all the same, at the heart and soul level, we are identical. What is different is experience and opportunity.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Post-Thanksgiving Hope

Every year my dear friend, Bob Glaze host a pre-Thanksgiving luncheon for about 100 of his good friends. I count myself more than fortunate to be included in the number.

Last year there was no festive meal because Bob was in the midst of a battle with lung cancer.

Bob was one of Trammell Crow's original partners in building an amazing real estate and development empire.

This year he was back and back strong! I am grateful for his amazing progress. At 85-years-young, Bob is still working every day and encouraging everyone he meets to do their best for the city and especially for those who need a caring hand up.

At lunch on last Monday, Bob read the following poem as the conclusion to his traditional "blessing" on all of us, his buddies.

Sometimes
by Sheenagh Pugy

Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seems hard frozen; may it happen to you.

Thanks, Mr. Glaze. You have blessed my life and countless others.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving Meditation for Wealthy People Like Me




Thanksgiving is a time of abundance for most of us.

But, not for all of us.

This week hundreds of people made their way through our Resource Centers to receive assistance for themselves and their families.

Food from our "pantry" will be lovingly transformed into Thanksgiving "feasts" all across the heart of our city.

I am thankful for this fact.

I regret that people must depend on places and organizations like CDM for food and other essentials of life and dignity. It should be different, much different. But, it is not.

Find some time today to put your blessings and your opportunties into thoughtful perspective.

Re-evaluate your priorities, values and commitments. As you express thanks around your table, resolve to enter the battle with and for the poor in our nation.

As a resource for your meditation, check out the amazing reflection found at http://www.usccb.org/cchd/povertyusa/tour2.htm.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Church Inside Church

Now and then folks who visit this weblog express concern about the relevance of the contemporary church.

Not long ago someone posted this expression of frustration:

"I hate to say it, but it's beginning to make me wonder about the importance of church. I realize that's probably not the best thing to say on this blog, but seeing what I see at CDM and then hearing what I hear in church... something doesn't mesh. "

Lots of people seem to feel this way or feel something akin to this sentiment.

I've thought quite a bit about the church and the city over the past thirty-plus years.

Critics have a lot to say to the organized church. And, I believe it is true that if the church were more "on message," poverty would not be the challenge to the nation that it currently is today. Church members would be more attentive to the realities facing "the poor." As a result, I expect public policy makers would be more responsive to the needs of low-income people and their families.

We've moved through about twenty-five years in which the church's strategy has been defined largely by what I would call "consumer priorities." In other words, how does a church discover what prospective members are looking for in a church? Then, how does a church move toward meeting the expectations of these consumers of religion? Rather than shaping the perspective and values of potential adherents, churches have been shaped by this special class of American consumers.

People today appear restless and unsatisfied with such an approach (even my analysis here sounds as if it is defined by consumer needs and wishes, doesn't it?)

Bottom line: Growing numbers of people who consider themselves Christians are not satisfied with typical church life and mission. There is a growing sense, informed by a different kind of spirituality that involves a commitment to compassion and seeking justice, that there has to be more to a public life of faith than this.

What's a person to do who finds himself or herself a member of a church with little or no interest in addressing the real and pressing needs of urban areas like Dallas?

I suppose there are at least three options.

You could simple drop out of church life and live out your faith largely in isolation from those who continue in the organized church. Some who opt for this approach most likely will find themselves gravitating toward some small group expression of spiritual life. Not a bad alternative for some disenchanted people. However, most who are in churches today, no matter how dissatisfied, will not find this idea particularly appealing.

You could join with others of like mind to establish a new congregation. For some, this will make a lot of sense. There are definite advantages to the formation of new groups, organized around new priorities and visions. Still, most will find this option more challenging than they are prepared to address.

The final option seems most reasonable for most frustrated church folks. Seek out persons like yourself who are serious about faith and living it out in the real world among people who are in need and broken by the pain of poverty. Form an "action group" or a "mission cell" that creates an inside accountability for you and others like you. Pursue your mission from within the church where you currently attend. Be prepared to "stir things up" in as civil a manner as possible. Begin meeting as a small group to strengthen your resolve and to plan your action steps to move toward need, as well as the rich assets to be found among "the poor."

Some people will need to find a new church to attend. But, that doesn't work for most people. And, once inside, folks find that no church is perfect!

If you find yourself a part of a committed group of believers concerned about poverty, justice and the establishment of a genuine community with and among low-income, inner city Dallas residents, give me a headsup. I think I have something concrete for you to consider.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Creativity and Poverty

Many people view "the poor" (I continue to bristle at the term for a number of reasons, but that is grist for another post) as stupid, dependent, lazy and expendable.

Every time I hear or read a comment that seems headed in that direction, I realize that the source doesn't know many people who battle poverty. Low income people are like the rest of the population--you can't stereotype them. They live out their lives as unique individuals.

That said, I have noticed a creativity among the poor that is often amazing.

A few years ago a very poor woman came to one of our Resource Centers seeking assistance to pay a past due utility bill. Serving over 50,000 people annually makes it impossible for us to pay utility bills except on rare occasions.

The interviewer/case worker who visited with this woman was herself a very low-income person, as are most of our volunteers. She knew the ropes of poverty herself and came up with a great idea for the woman with the overdue light bill.

On this particular day our Thrift Store had a special sale on clothing going on--all the clothing you could stuff into a large trash bag for $1.00!

Our counselor handed the woman $2.00 out of her own pocket with the suggestion that she go to the store, purchase two large bags of clothing, return home and prepare them for sale in a yard sale to see how much money she could earn toward the payment of the overdue bill.

The woman took her advice.

About a week later, the woman returned. She located the volunteer and reported with great excitement that she had turned the $2.00 investment in clothing into more than enough to pay her bill!

She proudly repaid the $2.00 loan and went back to the Thrift Store to purchase more used clothing for another sale!

Talk about entrepreneurial!

Talk about initiative and willingness to work with what you have!

Make no mistake about it. Just because someone is poor, underemployed and unskilled for the current marketplace does not mean that they are stupid, lazy or undeserving of opportunity.

In view of what I see every day among "the poor," it is clear to me that we need to rethink how we "do charity." As a matter of fact, we need less charity and more creativity around opening doors of economic opportunity for our low-income neighbors.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Waterfall into Poverty

The November edition of Affordable Housing Finance magazine reports that 92% of apartments in the top 25 metropolitan areas of the United States are unaffordable to retail salespeople, counter clerks, cashiers and others similarly employed unless they spend a minimum of 30% of their income on rent. This report was based on data provided by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

A careful study of 21,000 census tracts in these markets identified just 1,000 tracts in which at least half of the rental housing would be affordable to these workers applying this standard. In a majority of the areas analyzed, less than 8% of the census tracts were tagged as "affordable" to retail sales workers.

San Diego was the least friendly market without a single census tract classified as affordable. Kansas City was the most amenable with 26% of the tracts studied found to be affordable.

In 2002, approximately 15 million people worked in the retail sales industry.

The point?

Hard working American families are falling out of the middle class into worse economic straits each year. Outsourcing, corporate downsizing and a lack of skills for engaging the new economy all combine to place downward pressure on individuals and families.

The nation's lack of affordable workforce housing is becoming a major issue for every urban area in the country.

All the while, the federal government continues to cut back on the very programs designed to provide support and a safety net for working families whose economic future depends on more stable and affordable housing options.

Problems at the very bottom are even worse. Still, the current situation facing our nation guarantees that a steady stream of our fellow citizens are drifting further and further downward with no end in sight.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Our National, Moral Disgrace

Jim Wallis is a friend of mine. Following the disappointing vote by the U. S. House of Representatives early on Friday morning, Jim issued the statement that follows. I felt it was important to share with you. LJ
_________________________
Note to readers: Early this morning, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a budget proposal (217-215) that, if enacted, would make severe cuts to our nation's most vital anti-poverty programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and child care. The margin was small because of your prayers, phone calls, e-mails, and letters to the editor. Thank you. In the coming weeks, the budget will face a House-Senate negotiation, followed by separate votes in each chamber. We will continue to raise our voices to demand justice for the poorest among us.

The prophet Isaiah said: "Woe to you legislators of infamous laws ... who refuse justice to the unfortunate, who cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan."
Today, I repeat those words. When our legislators put ideology over principle, it is time to sound the trumpets of justice and tell the truth.
It is a moral disgrace to take food from the mouths of hungry children to increase the luxuries of those feasting at a table overflowing with plenty. This is not what America is about, not what the season of Thanksgiving is about, not what loving our neighbor is about, and not what family values are about.
There is no moral path our legislators can take to defend a reckless, mean-spirited budget reconciliation bill that diminishes our compassion, as Jesus said, "for the least of these." It is morally unconscionable to hide behind arguments for fiscal responsibility and government efficiency. It is dishonest to stake proud claims to deficit reduction when tax cuts for the wealthy that increase the deficit are the next order of business. It is one more example of an absence of morality in our current political leadership.
Budgets are moral documents that reflect what we care about. Budget and tax bills that increase the deficit put our children's futures in jeopardy - and they hurt the vulnerable right now. The choice to cut supports that help people make it day to day in order to pay for tax cuts for those with plenty goes against everything our religious and moral principles teach us. It says that leaders don't care about people in need. It is a blatant reversal of biblical values - and symbolizes the death of compassionate conservatism.
The faith community is outraged and is drawing a line in the sand against immoral national priorities. It is time to draw that line more forcefully and more visibly.

I applaud those House members who have stood up for better budget priorities and fought hard all year to keep issues of basic fairness at the forefront of this debate. And I thank those on both sides of the aisle who stood up and did the right thing in voting against this bill, despite pressure from the House leadership. These strong voices provide some hope for getting beyond an ideology that disregards the role of government for the common good.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Reading and Poverty

My friend, Jerry Mosman leads Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) here in Dallas.

He spends his days attending to the learning needs and ambitions of people who cannot read, but who desperately want to learn.

LIFT's research indicates that 49% of adults in the greater Dallas area read at or below 4th grade level--a staggering statistic, don't you think?

Consider the following facts of reading life in our communities:

  • 22% of adults in the US read at the lowest literacy level (National Institute for Literacy)
  • 23% of adult Texans read at the lowest literacy level (National Institute for Literacy)
  • Texas has the second largest number of under-educated adults in the US (US Federal Census of 1990)
  • 43% of adults with low literacy skills live in poverty, compared to less than 5% of those with strong literacy skills (National Institute for Literacy)
  • The number one determinant in the success of a child's education is a parent who reads (US Department of Education)
  • Adult illiteracy carries an estimated annual price tag of more than $17 billion as a result of lost income and tax revenue, welfare, unemployment, crime and incarceration and training costs for businesses (National Adult Literacy Survey, US Department of Education)
  • In a recent poll, 90% of Fortune 1000 executives expressed concern that low literacy is hurting their profitability and productivity (National Institute for Literacy)

Here in Dallas, LIFT provides training for over 4,500 individuals in basic adult literacy, English as a Second Language and GED preparation courses.

Earlier this week I enjoyed a tour and lunch with Jerry. I was amazed at his organization and the amazing outcomes he and his team are achieving with adults who come to them reading at second grade level or below.

A common challenge that Jerry faces daily among his eager students is dyslexia or "print blindness."

Our public education system is geared to the needs and learning styles of mainstream students who have no problem with print learning. The tragic problem is that our standard approaches leave out thousands of children who grow up to be illiterate adults.

Poverty is complex.

Think about it just in terms of reading or the inability to read.

Many people these days, maybe most people, have the idea that folks are poor because they are lazy, don't try hard enough, operate with some notion or expectation of entitlement and/or are simply stupid.

Most of the time these are the impressions of uninformed privilege.

Jerry shared with me how being illiterate affects people.

People who can't read are made to feel stupid, when, in fact, they are not.

People who can't read feel inferior and tend toward underachievement.

A large percentage of people who can't read end up being homeless.

The biggest barrier to learning to read is the fear of being singled out as inferior, stupid or worse.

Jerry's team has figured out that by teaching people to read in groups everything changes. If I can look around a classroom and see 20 or more fellow students who can't read either, I immediately begin to believe that there may actually be hope for me!

Rather than depending on a one-on-one model, LIFT harnesses community power to assist groups of people in learning to read.

Just as important is the respect that students receive when they walk into LIFT. The atmosphere Jerry and his team have created exudes appreciation, gratitude and confidence.

The good news is, thanks to LIFT, people are being successful!

Jerry Mosman is a community leader and hero in my book.

But then, so are his students!

There are very clear reasons why people are poor. Our nation needs to wake up, change its ways and come together to create opportunities for all of our people rather than for just a privileged few.

Think about where you would be today if you couldn't make sense of the words you've just read.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Budget Cuts That Crush Those at the Bottom

Possibly as earlier as today, the U. S. House of Representatives could vote on a budget reduction proposal that would cut $54 billion from federal initiatives designed to assist the weakest, most vulnerable and poorest Americans.

This comes at the same time that many in the House seek to enact legislation that would provide $70 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest 3% of the population.

All of this comes at a time of war, recovery from several natural disasters and the continuing threat of domestic terror.

Frankly, something is out of whack here.

Thankfully, people appear to be waking up!

Representative Chris Shays (R-Conn.) said in a recent statement, "The poor bear an unfair burden of the proposed reductions. I'm concerned about cuts to higher-education funding, child care, child welfare and food stamps. These are simply the wrong priorities."

Mr. Shays is correct and he stands on the moral high ground from a values perspective.

Another Republican, Congressman Jim Leach (R-Iowa) expressed his opinion in a statement, "...the proposal of significantly reducing student loans, food stamps and a host of other social programs at a time of many wrenches in the economy appears un-compelling."

Thank you, Mr. Leach for the clear-headed analysis that is also ethically on target.

Urban areas are being devastated by an ever tightening public policy finance strategy that unfairly focuses on the poor. Dallas and every other urban area will be big losers if the budget-cutting, tax-cutters prevail.

Contact (call, fax, email) your Congressperson in the U. S. House of Representatives and do so today. Simply tell him or her to oppose further budget cuts that will hurt and deepen the poverty of your low-income neighbors.

If you need to find out how to do so, go to http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/fyi/fyi.htm for information.

While you are at it, urge them to reconsider any further tax cuts for those at the very top of our economy.

Your city and my city will be better off for your action!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

"Not the kind of crowd I normally see!"


On Monday evening of this week Central Dallas Ministries hosted our annual "A Night to Remember" celebration in the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, the premier performance hall here in Dallas.

The audience of almost 2,000 seemed to thoroughly enjoy the music, inspiration and comedy provided by Gladys Knight, her band and her brother, the only remaining Pip! It was a rare and wonderful evening!

During the sponsors' reception prior to the concert, the Executive Director of one of our city's largest philanthropic foundations approached me to say, among other things, "Larry, I attend many events every year. And, I must tell you, this is not the kind of crowd I normally see at events like this here in Dallas."

She referred to the amazing racial and ethnic diversity of those in attendance at both the reception and the performance that followed. She was thrilled to see an audience together for an artistic performance that mirrored the reality of our city as it is day-to-day.

Her observation stuck with me.

Why was our crowd so unique in a city like this?

Another community partner and friend called on Tuesday to congratulate us on the success of the event. He made a similar observation as my foundation friend and then asked me, "Larry, how in the world did you get that crowd of people to the event?"

My answer was super simple: "Well, we invited them!"

That, of course, is why our crowd was so unusual and why such groups don't gather more often.

We don't invite people different from ourselves very often in this city. We don't enjoy the richness and power of such experiences because we don't intend to have them happen!

Community connections across all of our well-known barriers is nothing if it is not an intentional art.

Church, theater, education, housing, fund-raising, name the community sector or event or venue--diversity comes intentionally or it usually doesn't arrive at all.

We aim to bring our community together. That is our intention.

So, count on it, we'll keep inviting everyone to the party!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Joy: Rx for Pain

Garrison Keillor told one of his now famous stories on NPR over the past weekend. I happened to hear part of it.

The tale dealt with a former Minnesota resident who had relocated to New Orleans. Old friends and family tried to get their loved one to return to her senses and move back home, but she would hear nothing of it.

In the course of the story, Keillor had his "wayward" character explain the joy and dancing and music of such a poor city as New Orleans.

Her explanation went something like this.

"If you feel bad, and you will," she began, "you dance."

People enter into joy, they sing and dance, not because they are joyous inside, but because of the pain, because they feel bad. They dance because they hurt and are sad. The poor dance because they know that it will make them feel better in the face of their persistent pain and need.

How many times have I heard people say something like, "The poor seem happier and more joyful than the rich."

Often implicit in such analysis is the assumption that since the poor are joyful and happy, there is not much reason to work for the social changes that would provide steps up from and out of their poverty.

The lessons to be learned from "the joyful poor" are legion, I expect.

A couple seem obvious.

Poverty is not pleasant and should be eliminated in a nation and world such as ours.

When you face pain and disappointment, especially of the chronic sort, make the best of it.

Dance, maybe someone will notice and ask you why you're so happy!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Gladys Knight Tonight!!!


Every year in the fall Central Dallas Ministries brings “A Night to Remember” to Dallas.

Tonight is our big night!

The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, one of the nation's great performing arts centers, will be ours for the evening!

Doors are at 7:00 p.m. Showtime will be 8:00 p.m.

Our talent: Gladys Knight!

Need I say more?

Ms. Knight will move us with pop, gospel, blues and a little rock-n-roll, no doubt! It will be a grand evening!

A few tickets remain and will be available at the ticket office at the Meyerson on a first come, first served basis.

Our special evening will benefit thousands of our low-income neighbors here in inner city Dallas, Texas.

Please pass this reminder information along to your friends and associates!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Worship Meditation: More Pain for the Poor Who Need Medical Care

On Friday, November 4, 2005, The Kaiser Family Foundation, through its highly respected Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, issued a report on the latest health coverage trends in the U. S.

The number of uninsured Americans increased by 4.6 million persons from 2001 to 2004. Federal "safety net" funding for the same period fell from $546 to $498 per person.

Total federal spending for the uninsured increased by 1.3 percent over the same period that the number of uninsured increased by 11.2 percent.

The result was a decline in funding of 8.9% per uninsured person.

A recent study released by the Urban Institute reports that of the 6 million new uninsured between 2000 and 2004, two-thirds of the increase was among persons whose annual incomes fell below 200% of poverty (about $39,000 for a family of four).

Does any of this matter to people of faith?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Life in Poverty

Most people, even those who hang around this blog, don't really understand much about poverty and its challenges.

Oh, lots and lots of folks can confidently offer up opinions about poverty, throwing out their abstractions.

That is not knowing poverty, I can tell you.

Rosella Kelly knows poverty. You tend to know what you live.

Pamela Yip published a story in The Dallas Morning News (October 31, 2005) about Ms. Kelly's struggle.

The 65-year-old grandmother who lives in the Pleasant Grove section of Dallas is typical of hard working people who live in poverty.

Yip's story focuses on increasing expenses and falling income.

Ms. Kelly's latest utility bills threw her for a loop--$346 for electricity, $113 for water and sewerage, $94 for natural gas. She can't pay any of them right now.

Ms. Kelly earns $15,000 annually.

Trouble is a few weeks ago she lost her custodial job due to a layoff. She has since been rehired, but she finds herself way behind on her bills.

Her church helped out some, but they can't solve her on-going, chronic problem, nor do they intend to do so.

Gasoline prices are out of sight. Interest on a credit card has gone up due to her inability to pay down her balance.

She takes perscription medication for high blood pressure that costs $68 monthly. She cannot afford to purchase a month's supply all at once. Thanks to a cooperative pharmacist, she buys 7 pills at a time. She takes the daily medication every other day.

Poverty is about stress, depression, hard choices and a seemingly endless struggle to "make it."

I have never met Ms. Kelly, but I see hundreds of people every day whose lives are much like hers, some even worse. The sadness is palpable.

Ms. Kelly, and millions of Americans like her, has worked hard all of her life. In her "golden years" life seems anything but golden.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Unknown Trauma, Routine Insensitivity

Dr. Joel Fiener practices psychiatry among the homeless at the Veteran's Hospital here in Dallas, Texas.

Joel has stories to tell.

Earlier this week during the "watch party" following the election in which Dallas voted to issue bonds for the construction of a new Homeless Assistance Center (HAC), I enjoyed an enlightening conversation with Dr. Joel.

He shared with me that his fundamental treatment paradigm is simple kindness. People with deep seated mental health issues often respond to kindness.

He also told me that the childhood trauma suffered by almost every patient he treats is mind boggling.

"Larry," he said, "practically every homeless veteran who is a patient of mine has suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome before they entered the military."

He went on to explain that the reason most of the homeless vets signed up for military service was to escape their lives of horror and pain. Sexual and physical abuse, exsposure to traumatic events, extreme poverty, abandonment. . .the list of horrible circumstances went on and on.

"Once in the military, alcohol and drugs became very accessible. Using drugs and sex to treat the pain of early life was the common choice for the majority of these patients," he reported.

Talk about blowing my stereotypes!

The war experiences that I assumed had driven these men and women to the streets were not on foreign battlefields, they were at home in childhood!

As he spoke, my mind kept returning to his notion of kindness and its importance as a therapeutic tool and treatment strategy.

The homeless in America are written off, shoved aside and pigeon-holed. How wrong, how terribly wrong.

So often we dismiss people with flippant words like, "They should do better for themselves!"

That advice is actually the correct message.

What we have wrong is the audience who needs to hear it.

Will we?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Violence and Hope

Last Sunday morning at about 2:00 a.m., just down the street and around the corner from our house, two people were murdered.

Evidently, the couple, a 44-year-old man and a 27-year-old woman, were returning home when someone drove up and fired an automatic weapon, killing both.

The gunfire woke me up. It sounded as if it was in our front yard. We can see the home of the unfortunate couple from our front porch.

Since the grim event, friends and family have been coming and going, no doubt in an effort to comfort other family members who reside there.

Such an event and the loss of life is terrifying, to say the least.

But, underneath the senseless act of violence lurks a paralyzing sort of despair.

How could such a thing ever happen? What sort of insane rage or senseless de-valuing of life could arrive at such a moment, at such a terribly wrong decision?

Violence among the poor is a terrible fact of life in urban America. The ready availability of firearms, automatic weapons, doesn't help us.

Even worse than the proliferation of cheap weapons, if you can imagine anything worse, is the growing sense that life doesn't much matter.

If a person believes that his life is pretty much useless and without meaning or hope, why should he refrain from acting out this self-understanding? Often drug-induced acts of violence signal the depth of the loss of personal meaning and life purpose.

There is no excuse for such acts of irrational violence.

The answer to violence in the city must involve stepped-up law enforcement strategies, as well as heightened community cooperation and engagement.

But law enforcement will not provide ultimate solutions. No human effort will.

"Growing hope"--read "germinating" just here--in the ghetto must occupy a central place in any realistic strategy to reduce the senseless violence flowing from hopeless rage, gang life's counterfeit community, drug addiction/dealing and personal loss of meaning.

Gunshots in the night or the peaceful silence of rest will provide concrete markers for our progress or regress in inner city neighborhoods.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Crucial Vote (Moral Decision) for Working Poor Families in America

The U. S. House of Representatives will begin debate today on next year's federal budget.

Advance work indicates that the House will find $54 billion in cuts over the next decade.

On the chopping block:

  • Medicaid--the health insurance for the poorest of our fellow citizens--cuts of $9.5 billion, including a new co-pay requirement for pregnant women and children
  • Child protective services--$8 billion in foster care, child support enforcement, and aid to disabled children
  • Food Stamps Program--$844 million that would turn away 300,000 people
  • Reduced-price school lunches--40,000 children cut annually
  • Taxes for the top 3% of taxpayers--$70 billion primarily for the benefit the wealthiest Americans

As my friend, Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine and Call to Renewal, says,

"The message from Congress is that in response to Hurricane Katrina, we're going to cut services for the poor, cut taxes for the rich, and increase deficits for our children and grandchildren.

"These plans for deep cuts to social supports, paid for by tax cuts for the wealthiest, are contrary to the national priorities we need to protect our most vulnerable citizens. We need strong moral leadership in Congress, especially during this time of war, record deficits, rising poverty and hunger, and natural disasters.

"Cutting food stamps and health care that meet the basic needs of poor families is an outrage. Cutting social services to pay for further tax cuts for the rich is a moral travesty that violates biblical priorities. The House leadership seems to be saying they literally want to take food from the mouths of children to make rich people richer.

"If this ideology and politics of rich over poor prevails and our leaders fail to govern from a set of moral values, then the religious community must conclude that compassionate conservatism is dead.

"As this battle for the budget unfolds, I am calling on members of Congress, some of whom make much out of their faith, to start Bible studies before they cast votes to cut services that will further harm the weakest in our nation. They should focus on the gospel imperative - what Jesus tells us about our obligations to the 'least of these.'

"Some of them have heard the slogan 'What would Jesus do?' Now they should ask, 'What would Jesus cut?' Budgets are moral documents, and they reflect our national priorities and values.

"In the name of social conscience, fiscal responsibility, equal opportunity, protecting our communities, and the very idea of a common good, the upcoming budget votes will be closely watched by people of faith."

Why cut services that help create opportunity and hope for the weakest among us?

Maybe it is a matter of voice or the lack thereof.

Yesterday I heard an interview involving a physician who provided care for poor patients who had Medicaid benefits. He made a telling comment when he said, "The government continues to cut funds for Medicaid knowing that many of us will continue to care for the poor, even though our costs are not covered by the reimbursements provided. This will not continue. The poor will only suffer more."

Later, when I arrived at my office, I was greeted by a gentleman with a terrible tooth ache.

His name was Russell.

He had been standing in line at a low-income emergency dental clinic since before 6:00 a.m. only to be told that he would need $60 to receive the service he needed.

He had no money.

He received no relief.

By the time he arrived at CDM, he was at the end of his rope to say the least. Angry, frustrated, and in real pain, he was in no mood for "logical explanations." He lives on our streets and he needed compassion, intervention and simple help.

While we were able to help him quickly, there are hundreds more just like him we cannot help. And public funds continue to disappear.

Wallis is correct: these are moral matters, plain and simple.

Contact your Congress person today and express your opinion.

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." (Proverbs 31:8-9)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Election Day--VOTE!

Today, Tuesday, November 8, 2005, affords citizens in many parts of the nation an opportunity to go to the polls and express their opinions on candidates, local issues and state constitutional matters.

Whether we stop to consider it or not, election days are always special.

The freedom we enjoy in the United States to shape our collective life should not be taken lightly.

Yet, I fear that the current state of affairs discourages us from participating fully in the democratic process. A number of factors will combine to keep the majority of us away from the polls today.

Cynicism about the entire process will cause millions of potential voters to sit out the election. Watching the evolution of the role of big money in the entire process is discouraging for sure.
The notion that no matter what, nothing much changes kicks in at some point.

Still, the power could be vested more properly with the people, if we could begin a movement back to the polls from every corner of every community.

Such a movement must originate with ordinary people like you and me. When it comes to cynicism, we just need to "fight on through," to borrow a phrase from one of my daughters.

Vote today as an act of personal engagement that signals your commitment to joining what must become a people's movement.

Millions of Americans don't pay attention to politics nor to the political process because almost all of their energy goes to just "scraping by." Working more than one job, trying to provide for the kids, keeping the transportation up and running and finding a way to pay the bills--all of these factors can become overwhelming.

Again, we need a national campaign that crafts a plan for comprehensive family security for working people that includes a dimension focusing on participatory democracy as a vital component of any plan for family security and uplift.

Millions of Americans don't stay informed. Those of us who care about expanding participation, need to think creatively about voter education.

We need to find culturally engaging ways to make voting a big deal in our communities. Churches, service organizations, non-profit organizations, PTAs, neighborhood groups, crime watch teams and other collections of people need to press for full participation.

Before the election of 2004, I did a detailed analysis of the state district in which I reside.

It is an amazing district. The Gerrymandering process has produced a district that is geographically divided into two sections. One-third of the district is located in the wealthiest section of Dallas County--the Park Cities. The remaining two-thirds is located in Old East Dallas, a much poorer and ethnically diverse community.

What I discovered was the fact that the folks who live in the wealthy 1/3 turn out the vote at between 75 and 95% on a precinct-by-precinct basis on election days.

The residents of the poorer 2/3 turn out between 25-45% of the vote across the district. Even though the lower income section has about twice as many potential voters, the other third of the district historically decides the elections for the entire district.

If democracy is to survive and expand in this century, these trends need to change. Voters in the much less active 2/3 need to step up and get involved for the good of the entire district, city, state and nation.

We need a people's movement. . . back to the polls.

We need to start today!

Monday, November 07, 2005

A monk's wisdom

Several years ago I attended a faith-health conference at Emory University in Atlanta. The purpose of the gathering was to explore the various dimensions of leadership at the boundaries of community life in disadvantaged inner city neighborhoods.

The experience was useful and fascinating.

During the conference, I became acquainted with the leading Buddhist monk for the nation of Cambodia, Venerable Maha Ghosananda.

Those leading the conference informed me that Ghosananda was a national hero in Cambodia for his prophetic action and compassionate work during the brutal wars of the Khmer Rouge and the infamous era of the tragic "killing fields."

This humble leader shared a copy of one of his books with me during our time in Atlanta.

I love this quote. . .a good word for Monday morning:

"We Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of human experience, temples that are filled with suffering. If we listen to the Buddha, Christ, or Gandhi, we can do nothing else. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos, and the battlefields will then become our temples. We have so much work to do.

"This will be a slow transformation, for many people throughout Asia have been trained to rely on the traditional monkhood. Many Cambodians tell me, 'Venerable, monks belong in the temple.' It is difficult for them to adjust to this new role, but we monks must answer the increasingly loud cries of suffering. We only need to remember that our temple is with us always. We are our temple."

(From Step by Step: Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion, page 63)

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Movement and Hope

"Breaking Barriers to Health Care: Working for Social Justice" was the theme for the 2005 American Medical Students Association Regional Conference in Houston at the Baylor College of Medicine over this weekend.

Matt Cope, son of my good friend Mike Cope, is President of the local chapter in Houston and led the organizing efforts for this gathering of some 300 medical and pre-medical students from across the South. Thanks to Matt, I had the privilege of speaking to the group twice on Saturday, once in a plenary session and once in a smaller breakout group.

Talk about bright people!

I always enjoy the opportunity to speak to the group here in Dallas at UT Southwestern Medical Center where I observe the same level of smart coupled with amazing heart for those left behind.

It is very clear that these students are on a mission. Simply put, they intend to change the world! Gives an old man hope, I tell ya!

On Friday evening among the first events of the conference was a rally for universal health care for the nation. Later on Saturday, the students planned a mass "call in" to contact their congressional representatives about the Global AIDS Fund and the role of the United States in fighting HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria around the world. These young people are serious.

What I observed while among them was nothing short of the beginnings of a movement toward a more just society. These students believe we can do better as a nation and as a people. I have no doubt they will help us get there.

A new moment has arrived. Hope lives!

Thanks for the invitation, Matt. I needed to be with you.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Katrina Intelligence on New Orleans. . .on Dallas

Last week the Foundation for Community Empowerment hosted The J. McDonald Williams Institute First Annual Conference.

The day was very useful and extremely well-done. No surprises there for those who know FCE!

During one of the plenary presentations, Dr. Marcus Martin, Director of Research at FCE, shared a fascinating series of comparisons.

First, he compared the pre-Katrina economic status of residents of New Orleans' 9th Ward with the general population of that city.

The indicators he chose to present to us included employment, high school graduation rates and families living in poverty. Residents of the 9th Ward were behind in every category (-11%, -15% and -9% respectively) when compared to the general population.

Those results were not so surprising. Actually, I would have thought they could have been even worse.

But then, he went on to compare one of Dallas' poorest communities, the Frazier neighborhood in South Dallas to the general population of our city in those same categories.

The gaps between residents of the Frazier area and the general population of Dallas were over twice as great as the gaps reported in New Orleans.

  • 25% worse in employment
  • 29% worse in high school graduation rates
  • 23% worse in families living in poverty

Take aways?

There are startling disparities between rich and poor in Dallas, Texas--more dramatic than most people realize or are willing to face. No doubt, Dallas is wealthier than New Orleans. But the gaps appear shocking.

Our nation has a problem it wants to deny.

We persist in our denial to our own national peril.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Proposition 14

Dallas voters will go to the polls next Tuesday, November 8, to decide on several constitutional and local matters. Among these important issues is a proposal--Proposition 14--that would provide bond funding to build our city's first genuine Homeless Assistance Center (HAC).

The bond issue would provide $23.8 million to construct the center. Of that amount, approximately $5 million is earmarked for the construction of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) apartments in the city.

The opposition appears to be a tight knit, but small group of downtown business owners and developers who are convinced providing dramatically increased services and attention to the homeless and the challenges of homelessness will somehow make our problem worse.

Go figure!

The very vocal opposition group has spent almost fives times as much as HAC supporters. Slick mailers, electronic phone calls and yard signs are being used to dissuade voters from supporting the HAC.

The opposition's main beef has to do with the proposed location of the new center. They feel certain that placing the center somewhere outside of downtown will remove the homeless from their upscale doorsteps.

Ironically, if the HAC proposal is defeated, it is very likely nothing will be done downtown for many more years. Proposition 14 does not identify the site for the new center, so theoretically it could be built somewhere other than downtown.

But that would be a mistake.

Again, if the opposition group gets its way and the HAC is located outside the downtown loop, the center's impact on the very problems this group fears so much will only grow.

The HAC can be a model tool for a city that desperately needs to respond to the problem of homelessness.

We have nothing like the proposed HAC in the city today.

Imagine for a moment a center that functions as a "tool kit" for constructing new alternatives, new options for new lives--a sort of one-stop shop on the way to a more stable life.

Imagine a place where case management can take place, but with a real difference. A place where people with complex needs can come to be known and heard as friends, rather than clients.

Imagine a place where a person or a family can stop temporarily on the way to permanent housing and employment.

Imagine a place that invites the Dallas arts and humanities community into the mix.

Imagine a place where jobs and education and hope co-exist together for the benefit of people who tonight will be sleeping on our streets.

Imagine a place where mental health services engage the people who need them most.

Imagine a place where addiction treatment referrals can take place and where follow-up will be standard operating procedure.

Imagine a place where the poorest among us can come to network with new friends and partners who can provide new chances for better lives.

The HAC will not be just another shelter. As a matter of fact, there will be few beds in the center. The ones that will be there are to be designated for special needs and programs.

No, the HAC will not be a shelter primarily. It will be a way station, a resting place for regrouping before moving on, up and out.

Presently, our city offers no such resource for our weakest, poorest, most vulnerable citizens.

Next Tuesday we have a chance to change that.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

War, Peace and Cities

As of 5:37 p.m. on Wednesday, November 2, 2005, the War in Iraq had cost the American public something in the neighborhood of $216,721,726,000, an astounding tab and growing at well over $1,000 per second.

What does this war or any war have to do with urban concerns?

Plenty.

The dollars being spent on this conflict affect the fate of cities in at least two very important ways.

First, a number of devastating cuts in much needed funds to support the progress, health and life of low-income, inner city residents is tied directly to every attempt to cover the costs of this conflict. The war debt will make cutting essential services and opportunity-creating initiatives designed to lift and stabilize "the urban poor" a real political temptation for years to come.

Second, what could we be "buying" with an equivalent outlay of resources, both human and material? I refer you to the real time, war cost calculator found at http://nationalpriorities.org/index.php?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=182.

Here's a sampling in answer to my question:

  • Almost 29,000,000 children could attend Head Start for a full year
  • We could have built almost 2,000,000 new housing units
  • We could have hired almost 4,000,000 new public school teachers
  • We could have provided health insurance for 130,000,000 children
  • We could have provided 11,000,000 four-year scholarships to public universities

No matter what your opinion of the war, these are the facts we face today in the city.

The war in Iraq drives home the point that everything is connected these days. What happens in Baghdad affects life in inner city South Dallas.

This truth causes me to look at the war in a completely new way.

It forces on us new questions.

What is our return on investment in this conflict?

How does it relate to international terror?

To what sort of standard of performance should our leaders be held in this situation?

How much will this war cost before its done?

And then, what are the essentials for the creation and maintenance of peace anywhere in the world, including in our cities? Is pre-emptive engagement really the way to go if peace and the creation of new democracies is our goal?

I love what the Hebrew prophet Micah has to say on this. Hear his visionary words about peace and peacemaking:

"They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken." (Micah 4:3b-4)

Even though Micah offers a utopian vision of what could be, no one really expects such an age of peace to break out given the way our world does its business.

But then, maybe that's a big part of the problem.

Even though few leaders pay attention, Micah's vision does contain important elements or prerequisites for establishing peace today.

His formula is fairly simple.

Every person, every family will have adequate provisions for a decent life--the vine and fig tree epitomize that for ancient Jewish folk. There is a kind of security in having control of the basic provisions for life.

Coupled with this security is a wonderful by-product. Fear will not be a factor for people any longer. A sense of safety leads on to shalom, the wholeness of a peaceful life.

War and poverty go hand-in-hand. Security and peace are vitally related. Actions that provide the basics for people and that take away fear should always be considered by leaders who hope to establish peace, whether in an urban American setting or half-way around the world.

War is not the only solution. Economic justice and steps to assure some measure of equity that minimizes bloodshed should be pursued whenever possible, for as long as possible.

Micah was on to something important.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Bottom-Up Community Investment

Money flows uphill in Dallas, Texas.

No news flash there.

It is the reality in every major American city.

Dallas has a long history of handing over public funds to undergird and benefit economic development that, for the most part, benefit a segment of our community that is already quite well off.

Examples abound from our past and our present. Stadiums, upscale marketplaces and hotels, infrastructure improvements and transportation access--again and again my hometown has directed enormous amounts of public capital uphill toward already existing networks of wealth and affluence.

No doubt, many of these projects have delivered some benefit to persons "below."

Jobs have been created; tax revenues--though often limited or set aside completely for years by the terms of the various development deals--have grown; tourism, sports culture and recreation have all expanded as a result of such public policy decisions.

By comparison though, investment at the bottom in communities of great disadvantage has been miniscule.

Furthermore, whenever there has been the slightest movement toward creating advantage for such neighborhoods, resistance always arises, follow through is lackluster and political posturing takes over.

Recently, after making a presentation about how investment "at the bottom" makes a bigger difference by far for the entire community than investment and tax incentives awarded to those "at the top," a former City Council member and well-known community leader approached me with a point to make.

"Larry, it doesn't have to be either/or. It can be both/and. Investments at the top make a huge difference!" she told me with rising emotion.

She went on to reference a recent real estate deal downtown that resulted in a huge event center development and what she claimed amounted to over $7 million in new tax revenue annually.

I tried to keep my cool--something that is getting harder and harder as I observe life among the poor in Dallas and across the nation.

I pointed out that I had been in Dallas for most of my life (since 1953) and that I had observed the "either" for so long that I felt it was time for an extended dose of the "or." I suggested that equivalent amounts of investment and economic incentives provided for developers who were interested in improving life in inner city neighborhoods could produce much greater return to our public coffers, but that we never make those investments.

Of course, she didn't agree. I didn't back down. She found me perturbing and insolent, I expect as I pressed my argument against the foolishness and fallacies of our "supply-side" or "trickle-down" economic practices.

Dallas suffers from a grave lack of political and moral will. Often our deficiency expresses itself as simple greed.

The Dallas story spotlights the problem with current public policy in our country. Not everything is about individual choice and responsibility. Countless public decisions that affect how a city does business produce very negative results for those who need new opportunity the most.

It's the system.

It needs to be changed for the benefit of everyone in Dallas.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Breaking News: Texas Leads Nation in Hungry Households

The Associated Press broke the story last Friday, October 28.

A higher percentage of Texas households were at risk of going hungry over the past three years than in any other state, according to data released Friday by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

From 2002 to 2004, over 16 percent of Texas households at some point had trouble providing enough food for all their family members.

In nearly 5 percent of Texas households, at least one family member actually went hungry at least one time during that period because the household couldn't afford enough food--the fourth-highest rate in the country.

Nationally, 11.4 percent of households were at risk of going hungry during this same period. The study report that 3.6 percent of U.S. households had at least one member go hungry during the period.

The latest national figures were higher than in the previous three-year period.

Between 1999 and 2001, an average of 10.4 percent of households were at risk for hunger, and an average of 3.1 percent of households experienced hunger.

Our experience, and that of our crucial partners at the North Texas Food Bank, here in Dallas certainly reflects the trend reported here.

How much longer will the people of Texas tolerate being at the top of every social index that reports on a failing community?