Saturday, December 31, 2005

Economic Reports and Urban Reality Among the Poor



Is the American economy improving or declining?

Your answer likely depends on who you are or, better, how wealthy you are.

Amid reports of a growing Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the government also reported recently that the national median income had dropped for the fourth year in a row.

What does that mean?

Simply put, those at the bottom of our economy are not benefiting from its growth. Whatever recovery may be going on is not reaching low-income Americans.

If you believe in supply-side economics and Santa Clause, you may also still think that "trickle down" policy benefits the poor.

It doesn't.

As our economy grows, a disproportionate share of the benefit rushes to the top, where the wealth resides. And, the rate of that upward flow is growing.

In terms of real dollars and wages, working Americans who are classified as "low-income" are falling further behind each year.

Now comes 2006!

A New Year, a time of new beginnings.

Hang on. Keep your champagne on the ice.

During 2006, the nation's wealthiest citizens will see their taxes decline again, and this before the Congress has decided on the beefed-up investor cuts they have been debating.

If you earn over $200,000, you will be in line for the new cuts. You can claim larger write-offs for your spouse, your children and even mortgage interest on your vacation home.

Bet that helps!

Enacted in 2001, but delayed because of their anticipated expense to the nation, these cuts are set to kick in and they will cost us $27 billion over the short run before mushrooming to a cost of $146 billion by 2019. By that end date most of the benefit will go to people who earn more than $1 million annually.

Now, there is a real stroke for equity!

So, here's the picture of our New Year:
  • Our national debt and our budget deficit are both growing at a staggering pace--the budget surplus of the Clinton years is long gone.
  • We are at war in Afghanistan and Iraq--cost there is well over $1,000 per second!
  • Congress voted before its break to slash programs aimed to assist low-income working Americans.

What does this mean to me? Why do I care?

Inner city families who need health care, education, housing, child care, employment training and transportation--that's why I care.

If my faith tells me anything, it tells me that I better care.

It is not theoretical here.

It is way real.

I'm praying for change in the New Year.

This same old, same old is killing some of my good friends and their children.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Your Opinion Would Help Me


I need your opinion.

Consider the following possibility.

Let's say that CDM purchased an office building in downtown Dallas.

The 15- story building, built in 1958,
will be completely renovated.

The plan is to develop 12 of the floors as very high quality, affordable apartments or condo/lofts.

Over 100 units will be studio efficiency apartments. There will also be larger studio apartments, as well as more traditional, larger, multi-room apartments and/or condo/lofts. The size of the units could range from under 400 square feet to over 1,500 square feet.

The smaller studio apartments, and possibly the larger studios, would be within the reach of people who are very poor, including many who will spend the night on the street this evening.

Every unit will be very nice.

All will be below the downtown market rates.

In addition to the 12 floors of residential development, there will be a wonderful lobby area, including several shops where people can meet for coffee or meals and take care of routine living matters.

There is also an auditorium area that could be developed as a performance and meeting hall.

Two of the floors will be leased by CDM for headquarters, LAW Center, workforce training and Community Development Corporation offices. Twenty-plus members of our staff will work in the building at least 5 days a week.

Security, including a doorman, will be provided 24-7.

There is plenty of parking at and near the building.

The building is located in a good part of downtown, near several landmark buildings on the Dallas skyline and very near our famous and most unusual Fountain Place building (the one in the photo above with all of the surprising angles).

Here is your question:

Would you consider living in such a place?

I look forward to your feedback, as well as any questions you might like to ask.

Thanks in advance for your help!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Living in Luxury's Lap


Somehow the November issue of Modern Luxury Dallas landed on my desk.

The magazine is an ultra-slick advertising journal with a clear focus on very wealthy readers, as well as many "wealthy wanna-bes" I expect. This particular issue is deigned to be a shoppers guide for Christmas.

Very convenient.

This brief excerpt from the "Editor's Note," an introductory word from Elise Anthony, Editor-In-Chief, will tell what you need to understand about the publication:

"Before autumn leaves fly from the trees and the mercury even considers a dip below 90, our holiday shopping is, quite officially, a wrap. After weeks of calling, shopping, debating and agonizing over the best boutiques and style-file stores, we delight in finding something for every personality. Men! What to buy them? Something akin to the Oakley Thump, jogger-friendly sunglasses capable of storing and playing up to 120 songs, is just he right track. . .

"Fortunately, you're at the top of our list--our personal shopping will have to wait--our "holiday" task is really all so you don't have to lift much more than your BlackBerry before jetting to Jackson Hole for some quality time on the slopes. From the Fashionista in your life to the Globetrotter, we have you covered like cashmere on a baby."

Actually, that turns out to be a terrible understatement!

Promoting, er. . . announcing trunk shows and style events, this surprising magazine displays the opulence that is Dallas, Texas. Sandwiched in between all of the material treasure you can also find information about various cultural arts events and many charity benefits complete with an obligatory photo review of the "Dallas Scene."

I'll give you a feel for all that is available to you.

How about a bottle of Napa Valley 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend in a special bottle displaying a label that will "change" to reveal all of the pinup image of the late Marilyn Monroe? The cost ranges from $200 to $1,000 per bottle.

Maybe it's a cashmere jump rope that you need to get back into the swing of conditioning after the holidays. Cost: $195.

Who could resist a pair of Devi Kroell's astrakhan boots? Only $2,190 a pair.

But then, maybe a silk, Italian embossed crocodile leather bag with matching crocodile embossed calfskin and suede pumps would be the ticket. This amazing mixed metaphor of styling excellence is only $835.

To really express your appreciation you will want to consider the 18K white gold earrings with 114 diamonds at $33,000 to be balanced by the matching multi-strand drape necklace priced at a mere $125,000.

If it is urban style you have in mind, check out the "Skyscraper Necklace" by Tony Duquette. The stunning gold piece is priced at $84,755 with a matching wrist cuff ($35,625) and ring ($14,300) to complete the set.

The rosebud sequined evening bag by Valentino would certainly set off almost any evening attire, costing just $1,950.

And, I'm not half way through the issue!

Lots of help to be found here on how to spend that latest tax cut passed by the U. S. Congress.

Two pages into my review, a photo spread of Tea Leoni caught my eye.

She is wearing unusual "Triadra" necklaces and matching cluster ring and bracelets all in 18K yellow gold with diamonds throughout. Backendorf's jewelers placed the advertisement. In the top corner I read a brief, caused-based marketing note that acknowledged Leoni's personal commitment to UNICEF. Di MODOLO, the designer, announced support for the charity in her honor.

"Sexy in the City" was the theme of this pre-Christmas edition of the magazine.

Capitalism at work in Dallas!

It is all here.

Extravagant furnishings, goods, products and services. The network of amazing wealth displayed so proudly. Even charitable good works, all freely offered.

I'll confess, in my own way, at my own level, I evidently buy into this whole system. So, I stand fully under the judgment of my observations.

But, I have to tell you, as I thumbed through the journal, thinking about what I know about our city, I couldn't help but recall the story Jesus told in the second half of Luke 16.

Lord, have mercy.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Down Time Miscellany

I'm on vacation this week.

Vacation is not an activity that I have figured out how to do very well, especially in one-week increments. Give me a month off and, well, I can get into that by about day 17.

It is just hard to "wind down," as we say in the James household, in a week. The Christmas break helped a bit--didn't bring quite as much pre-holiday "baggage" into this week.

So, I'm rummaging about looking for traction on what I hope will turn out to be a roadway into this down time thing!
________________________________

Part of the problem with down time for me is that cities aren't really about stopping for anything.

They pretty much go on and on, 24-7, 12 months, 365 a year.

Trying to step off the merry-go-round is a challenge and possibly an art form!
________________________________

Found myself in a Barnes and Noble bookstore yesterday. It always happens during in-town vacations.

For whatever its worth, I added the following to my "on-the-lamp-table" reading list:

Books

Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis. The former President begins his "Introduction" with these words,

"Americans cherish the greatness of our homeland, but many do not realize how extensive and profound are the transformations that are now taking place in our nation's basic moral values, public discourse and political philosophy."

I think I know what Mr. Carter is talking about. The impact on the urban poor has been profound and troubling. I look forward to the read.

P. D. James, The Lighthouse:An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery. The famous, British mystery writer sits in the British House of Lords. This is her 19th novel. I happened to hear her interviewed on NPR this week. Fascinating writer and person. A different, distracting read--I'm beginning to feel the traction I need!

Journals

The Atlantic--lead essay, "Why Iraq Has No Army."

Texas Monthly--lead essay, "The Bum Steer Awards, 2006, always a delight. Texas provides so much material for humor, as well as shame!

D Magazine--Dallas' very own slicked-up journal, lead essay, "The DISD Asbestos Coverup."

Tikkun--lead essay in the fascinating Jewish journal, "Theocracy in America: Hostile Takeover."

The Economist--lead essay, "The Story of Man"

The New Yorker--no lead essay, December 26, 2005 issue containing international fiction essays.

ESPN--The Magazine--lead essay, "The Colts Are the Best Team in the NFL--Why Isn't Tony Dungy Getting the Credit?" (published prior to the recent tragic happenings in the Dungy family) and "USC-Texas Game of the Century."

These should keep me busy!
________________________________________

It struck me this year as we made our way through the Advent readings, just how completely this man Jesus identified with the poor.

Makes sense.

After all, he was a very poor person.
________________________________________

If you need me, call me on January 3.

Peace.

Happy New Year!

Jesus, the Immigrant Messiah


"When they had gone [the Magi], an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. 'Get up,' he said, 'take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.'

"So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod." (Matthew 2:13-15a)

Joseph, Mary and Jesus were immigrants.

Like so many of the friends I made during the early 1980s who were fleeing to the United States for their lives from El Salvador and Guatemala, usually illegally, during the horribly bloody civil wars, so Jesus and his parents fled for their lives as immigrants to Egypt.

Immigration policy makes the news on a daily basis it seems.

People talk about the increased threat of terrorism.

People talk about the economic impact of illegal immigration.

Forgive me, but for the most part I just see people. People who want to work hard to achieve better lives for themselves and their children.

Maybe I am wrong, but I always thought this was the essence of immigration history in the United States. I keep remembering that inscription on Lady Liberty out in that welcoming New York harbor. Something about an invitation to send us "huddled masses" and "wretched refuse" for the promise of better lives.

I understand those who insist on legal immigration and the process that is to go along with that. But, we have a situation on our southern border. Most who cross over to our side do so illegally. Almost all come to work. Billions of dollars, earned here by hard working Mexican nationals, are sent back to Mexico annually to support the families left behind. No long ago I read a serious essay that pointed out that wages sent home to Mexico may represent the best foreign aid program the U. S. had ever utilized to invigorate a halting foreign economy.

Now comes the U. S. House of Representatives led by Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO). Before Christmas the House passed the harshest, most draconian anti-immigration bill in memory.

The legislation, still to be approved by the U. S. Senate, calls for the construction of a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border (Rep. Tancredo wants one along the Canadian border as well). It also makes it a federal crime to live in the U. S. illegally. The law would make millions of current immigrants felons and insure that they would never achieve legal status.

Further, the House bill would make it against the law for social service organizations and churches to shield or offer support to illegal immigrants. In addition, the new law would penalize cities for providing services without first determining the legal status of recipients.

Thank God we have a Senate in this country!

No doubt, immigration policy needs to be reformed and made more realistic. The President seems to be on the right track with some sort of guest worker program. At least it is better than Tancredo's plan. What we need is a bi-partisan commission on immigration and the special relationship between the U. S. and Mexico. After all, we are neighbors.

Whenever the subject comes up, I think of the thousands of people I have met and observed over the past almost twelve years who are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. I know their basic motivation. I know that we are all the same when it comes to security, family and hope.

Whenever someone mentions immigration, I think of so many of my friends.

I also think of that frightened young couple long ago who made their way through the darkness of night to Egypt. They were emigrants fleeing in search of life and hope.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Understanding the Christmas Story


The story of the birth of Jesus really is not about buying gifts. It is not about consuming. It is far from shopping malls or the latest electronic device. It has nothing to do with diamond rings or new cars all wrapped up in giant red bows.

My apologies to Madison Avenue.

Rather, it is a story of a very unlikely young couple, a very, very poor young couple.

A young couple facing hard questions they could not answer to anyone's satisfaction.

Questions like, "Why was Mary pregnant in the first place?" Questions a number of my teenage friends have had to try to answer.

The story of the birth of Jesus is a story about a family so poor it couldn't afford a room.

I know, I know. "There was no room in the inn."

But, we all know how that works in reality. If Joseph had had a few more bucks in his pocket, the innkeeper could have found a room.

The family of Jesus was a very poor family.

On his eighth day on earth, his parents offered the sacrifice of dedication reserved for the poor in the land--two pigeons or turtledoves. They couldn't anywhere near afford a lamb. Probably begged for the money to buy the birds!

If you are a Christian anywhere near orthodoxy, you are forced to face the fact that the Son of God was born a pauper.

Had he been born today in Dallas, Texas, he would have called a dingy South Dallas "flophouse" or a downtown homeless shelter "home. "

Deal with that fact for a moment.

The deity behind the Christmas story turns out to be an upside-down sort of God. Either a God with a very strange sense of humor, or one with a very powerful and unexpected point to make from the get go!

One of the most amazing things about his birth is revealed several months prior to the blessed event.

His expectant mother sings a song to her cousin, Elizabeth. This song, often tagged "the Magnificant," tells it all.

Listen in on part of the lyric:

"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God
my Savior. . . .

He has shown strength with
his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the
thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the
powerful from their
thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;

He has filled the hungry with
good things,
and sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1:46-47, 51-53)

Read those words one more time and consider them carefully.

Christmas is about a poor, a dirt poor, Messiah who comes to liberate and give hope to the oppressed, the shut out, the impoverished and the kicked aside--the people who make most of us very, very uncomfortable.

You know, the folks who never quite make it to the malls. Or, if they do, they are the ones who look very out of place, empty-handed and trailed by store security.

Most churches don't get the Messiah, not really. In spite of their elaborate Christmas pageants and midnight candlelight piety, they don't really get the point.

Poor folks understand the story really well.

The Christmas story tells us that God came as a person with nothing, for people who had nothing but faith.

My Christmas prayer is that the people who claim his name will at last buy his values.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Scrooge Factor, Charity and Justice


Did you see or hear of the new report published this week by the NewTithing Group, a philanthropic research organization based in San Francisco?

You can find the full report, based on IRS data research, at www.newtithing.org.

Here are a few of the findings:
  • Working Americans who earn $50,000 to $100,000 annually are two to six times more generous with their investment earnings than Americans who make more than $10 million a year--this group donated more than 2.5 percent of their assets to charity, or six times the amount given by more wealthy workers.
  • The least generous of all working Americans were taxpayers 35-years-old and under who made between $500,000 and $10 million annually--this group donated an average of 0.4 percent of their assets to charity.
  • Wealthy Americans age 36 to 50 with income above $10 million made gifts equal to 1.54 percent of their assets or more than three times that of their younger peers.
  • Wealthy single men gave 1.5 percent of their assets to charity, as compared to 1.1 percent by women in the same income class, though women contributed more in real dollars due to the fact that they were far wealthier than the men in this elite group.

Interesting analysis, huh?

When it comes to poverty, urban reconstruction and real opportunity creation, charity will always have an important role to play.

But, please, make no mistake about it, charity will never be enough.

Public values must be expressed in mandated public efforts to assist all of our neighbors to do better for themselves and their families.

It is time we woke up to the fact that if we seek real progress for the entire nation, we must be committed to move beyond charity to justice and real community development at the bottom. It is simply a matter of national will, pride and community commitment.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Merry Christmas, Poor Folks!

While many church people rally to defend an unapologetic celebration of Christmas, public officials are busy crafting public policy that will be anything but a gift for low-income Americans, millions of whom live in our inner cities.

Consider New Orleans and Uncle Sam's. . .er, Santa's current list of "gifts" for the poor in that devastated city. The Small Business Administration has processed only 1/3 of the 276,000 loan applications it has received from businesses and homeowners. The SBA has rejected 82% of those it has reviewed! Forty-seven per cent of the approvals have gone to well-t0-do neighborhoods in the city, while only 7% have gone to the poorer communities.

This dismal performance record doesn't really square with what the President said on September 15, 2005 when he spoke at historic Jackson Square.

"As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well," Mr. Bush said. "We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. so let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality."

Santa's on-the-ground policy doesn't measure up to the political rhetoric that extended false hope to New Orleans residents, especially among the poor.

Or, consider the battle that rages on in the Congress as we speed toward the Christmas or Holiday break. Senator Frist called in every Senator and every vote this weekend, including Vice President Cheney who interrupted a trip to Pakistan to scurry back to the Capitol in case his tie-breaking vote were required on the Senate side. As it turned out, he cast one deciding vote on Wednesday.

The result appears clear. Billions of dollars in funding will be stripped away from programs benefiting low-income Americans, including nutrition, health care, child welfare and education initiatives. The very efforts our nation employs to extend new opportunity to working families will now be cut back even further.

Don't despair! At the same time our Congress squeezes the poor, it will provide even more billions in additional tax cuts to the rich!

Merry Christmas! God bless us every one!

It happened again on Monday of this week. And, I must say people didn't like it.

Our resource center assisted almost 400 families with food and other pressing matters. I have never seen our building more crowded.

Everyone was gracious. Everyone seemed grateful. But, not everyone was happy.

People who must depend upon charity to get by in life really don't like it. Put yourself in their shoes. You'll begin to understand.

We need more in this nation. We should be doing better by those at the bottom. What we have today is not only inadequate and short-sighted, it is simply not right.

I wish the folks who are so incensed about the Christmas-Holiday argument would turn their attention to the values of the person behind the celebration they champion. Maybe then things would change.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Mentors


We buried my baseball coach yesterday.

Bill Phillips mattered in my life.

Like lots of kids my age, I grew up playing baseball.

More accurately, I lived, breathed, ate, slept and drank baseball.

Mickey Mantle was my hero and all of the New York Yankees were my team. All of this dates me as a kid growing up in Dallas, pre-Rangers. I still have a hard time being against the Yankees, even when they play our hometown boys. Sorry, Brandon!

I was a terrible baseball player, when in second grade I first signed up for Richardson's Boys Baseball, Incorporated (BBI). To this day I can remember selling the little, round lapel pins to raise funds for the leagues. You saw them all over town: BBI.

I played rightfield for two summers for the infamous, cellar mat Blue Birds. What adult in their right mind would name a boys team "Blue Birds"? It's a question for the ages if you ask me!

I was fairly tall, gangly, uncoordinated and terrible as a player. But then, we all must have been. I remember losing to the Braves 45-0 before the merciful advent of the 10-run rule.

Worst of all our coach was a real jerk.

He must have been one of those dads who tried to live out his unfulfilled sports aspirations through his son. We weren't helping him much there. And boy, did he let us know about it! He yelled at us, ridiculed us and berated us before and after every game. A real motivational genius this guy.

I was miserable standing in rightfield, but I refused to quit. But the worst thing was I began to believe my coach's assessment that I would never be a ball player.

BBI had a rule that you couldn't change teams unless the coaches worked out an agreement.

Somehow in my third season the "trade" was arranged and I went over to the Mustangs, coached by Bill Phillips, my friend Barry's dad.

Coach Phillips encouraged us, taught us, believed in us and rallied us, even when we lost. He made me believe that I could play baseball and he taught me how.

When he died last week, Barry called to ask if I would officiate at the memorial service.

Only then did I learn that he was enrolled in night school at SMU School of Law during those summer days over forty years ago. Somehow he found the time to coach his son and the rest of us.

The first season on the Mustangs under Coach Phillips we played the Blue Birds at Terrace Park. It is a night I will never forget. I hit two home runs. Coach was proud of me. I can get back there in an instant, like it was closer than yesterday to my memory and my senses.

I know Coach Phillips is one of the main reasons why I've coached inner-city teams of 4th and 5th graders in the Texas Rangers Rookie League.

Mentors matter. Parents can't do it all.

Coach Phillips changed my life--that may sound over the top, but it is true.

Mentors help you believe that things can work out. We need mentors in the city, lots of them. Just like Coach.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Entitlement


Entitlement is not a popular concept, not today anyway.

Listen to any conversation about the urban poor and the idea is bound to come up, usually in a very negative context.

Welfare recipients (and there aren't many left these days, now almost a decade into welfare reform) are "on the dole" and continue to depend on public assistance, thanks to their "entitlement mentality," the conversation goes.

Food stamps, Medicaid, public housing, child care subsidies, even Social Security, are regarded as "entitlement" programs, involving "entitlement spending."

Such thinking is relatively new, dating from the early 1980s.

The notion that the weak, the poor, the infirm, the young, the old, the immigrant, the dispossessed and the left out would receive special, empowering, uplifting benefit from the larger society is rooted in the traditions and the faith of a Judeo-Christian worldview.

It is our current obsession with radical individualism that is modern by definition. This obsession poses grave dangers to our culture, to our urban areas and to our future as a society and a nation.

The Hebrew Bible offers up a much different view and understanding of human "entitlement" in the blessed community.

Consider these examples from the hundreds there are to draw upon:

"The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding." (Proverbs 29:7).

"God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing." (Deut. 10:15)

"Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless." (Isaiah 10:1-2).

A growing number of people make much of the supposed Judeo-Christian origins and values of our nation. In opposing any thought of the provision of special "entitlements" for the weak, they cause me to wonder if they really understand the faith and values of historic Judaism or Christianity.

Clearly the mind behind scripture understood the benefits of investing in people who needed a lift due to circumstances, birth, injustice or the failure of social systems.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Grandchildren and Hope

Our oldest daughter and her husband celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary this weekend with a trip "away." Good plan.

We stayed with their two children while they enjoyed some down time together.

No one could have made me understand just how wonderful grandchildren are before Gracie and then Wyatt arrived! They are amazing to me.

Unbounded curiosity in perpetual motion!

Instant laughter can erupt right behind tearful anguish, or vice versa.

Healthy, bright, energetic (whew! real energy. . .see above on perpetual motion, etc.), exploring, hungry, growing, impatient, loving, "hugs and kisses" no matter what!

That, and more, are my grandchildren.

Next spring our youngest daughter and her husband will bring us their first child, a little boy, our third grandchild.

Can't wait!

He will be completely different, as are Gracie and Wyatt, yet basically the same. Funny how that works, huh?

Whenever I get to be with these amazing, precious children, I think of the other children I see in Dallas every day.

Poor children from poor families.

Children and families just like ours. . .but without the advantage, the privilege.

My grandchildren want and will want for nothing.

They live in fine housing, enjoy the best of medical care, benefit from educational videos/toys/software (Gracie knows more about computers at 3 1/2 than I do at 55!), go to amazing pre-schools, have parents who have and take the time to read to them, get to go places far outside their neighborhood, see and know all kinds of people, just like their parents who all have university degrees and no college debt. . .the list of benefits and opportunities go on and on for them.

What my grandchildren have and will someday realize and appreciate, I feel certain, is exactly what every child in this city needs and deserves. Most will never receive such benefits.

It doesn't have to be this way. Really, it doesn't.

I realize we will never achieve universal equity in opportunity or benefit. But, we could do much, much better than is currently the case.

My grandchildren and their parents are very special people. At the same time, they deserve no more opportunity than all parents, children and grandchildren in my community.

Lots of people in Dallas begin the game far, far behind those who are out front simply by virtue of the accident of their birth and parentage. Those who start out so far back in the pack need special attention, benefit, attention and a lift up.

I know, I know many people will not agree with me. Accepting the popular mythology propping up the ideology of "rugged individualism" and the silly rhetoric of the "self-made man (and woman)," these folks champion a laissez faire approach to everything public.

These people are simply wrong.

Even worse, they are short-sighted, narrow and foolish.

Assisting those who begin far behind benefits everyone, including those who begin far ahead.

Who loses when the workforce is more educated and better skilled?

What group in Dallas suffers when our housing stock enjoys a net improvement?

Why would anyone oppose improving community health, reducing absences in our classrooms and extending extra-curricular activities to all of our children?

How does denying poor children in South Dallas full and expanding access to technology help my grandchildren?

How does opening economic markets in poorer neighborhoods hurt me, my economic status or my retirement plans?

When a community rallies in support of fairness and opportunity-creation for all of its people, especially those who are currently lagging behind and who are shut out, it is simply pursuing a rational, aggressive investment strategy based on faith in a common future.

Children are all about hope.

Hope can be realized only when people embrace a common vision that is fair-minded and expansive, rather than unjust and exclusive.

It is past time for us to do better.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

My Friends

Last night CDM celebrated Christmas with a big dinner party.

The entire affair was planned by our newly formed "Employee Relations Committee." Keith Ackerman, our COO, has the group working very effectively.

The evening was fun, the food was really good and there was laughter, remembering, door prizes. . .lots of door prizes, music and Christmas carols led by our own Preston Weaver, minister of the Central Dallas Church and chaplain for Community Health Services.

During the carols, I found myself seated beside John Greenan, one of our lawyers and the Executive Director of Central Dallas Community Development Corporation.

I could hear John singing. He claimed not to be able to sing, but he was doing better than I, though that's not saying much! Way to go, John!

As I took the evening in, I realized how much has changed and grown since 1994, the year I joined CDM.

Back then, we had four members of the team and within a year three had departed! Today we have 100 employees. We've added 40 new team members during 2005.

It has been quite a year.

We are touching more individuals and families and we are able to go deeper with more significance than in years past.

This year our public interest law firm closed out its 1,000th case, while opening its 1500th.

Our community-based medical team will report almost 20,000 patient visits by the end of the year and our Class-D pharmacy will have filled almost 15,000 prescriptions.

The list goes on.

But last night almost everyone was there, with a few exceptions. Everyone seemed glad to be there.

At the same time, I noticed a kind of reserve, a serious attitude that kept the place a bit subdued.

Part of it may have been the room. Part the fact that the entire team is seldom all together in the same place with family members and other guests present. Part due to the fact that we've never had an event quite like this one. I'm not completely certain.

But, I have a theory about our natural reserve. It ties somehow to how we spend our days. It is about the work we are doing, the things we see and what we are learning and realizing about the city and poverty and justice, or the lack thereof.

Last night was a good party time. Today the work goes on.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Another Republican for Jesus

There was a time, not that long ago, in this nation when the issues surrounding public policy were framed in such a way that productive dialogue could move the process of governing along in a manner that seemed at least to attempt to include everyone. Things are different today.

The way issues--especially those related to "values" as understood by the extreme right--are presented today sets us up for immediate and ongoing conflict.

Though it is not my intention, I expect this post will created some of that.

What follows are the words of former Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, Texas. He served in the Texas State Senate for fifteen years. He delivered this speech in early November in Austin, Texas.
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As a backdrop to the current political situation in Texas, I want to discuss with you a current phenomenon. However, in the way of a preface to this discussion, let me explain that I will be making references to the Christian faith and its New Testament.

I do not intend any slight to other beliefs by doing so. It is simply that I am a Christian, I regularly attend a Christian denomination church, and I simply know more about the Christian faith than I do of the Jewish faith, the Muslim faith, Buddhism, or others.

Not too many years ago, a small group of religious leaders, who were concerned about what they perceived as a drift of our country away from its moral foundation, decided that they would become politically active and do what they could to stem this tide toward moral bankruptcy.

Most prominent among these groups, but certainly not alone, were Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition. Their strategy was to go to the grassroots of the Republican Party and to capture the party mechanism – the precinct and county conventions – in order to apply leverage to those who would be candidates for political office.

While the influence of the Christian Coalition may have cooled somewhat from its peak a few years ago, I need not tell this audience that, over the last decade, this movement has come to exercise a great deal of influence over the success and/or failure of candidates and over the success and/or failure of legislation.

While there have clearly been examples of political tactics carried on by some of these groups which can only be described as “vicious,” “unscrupulous” and “un-Christian,” for the most part they have simply taken the position that they will assess the suitability of a political candidate based on that candidate’s adherence to and advocacy for the group’s interpretation of Christian principles. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that, in fact this type of advocacy is what our country is founded upon.

While Bob Bullock was one of the first to bring religion into the political dialogue with his “God Bless Texas” theme, prior to the Christian right’s emergence I was not aware of candidates or office holders bringing their relationship with the Almighty into their political and campaign dialogue. It now is not only the mantra of those who subscribe to the Christian right’s agenda, but now other candidates, having sensed the need to protect their right flank, have felt compelled to bring their religious convictions into the public arena as well.

The growing influence of the Christian right on candidates and public policy has been met with an argument by some that religion should not be brought into the governmental arena. The nature of this backlash is to argue that it is inappropriate to base legislative decisions on religious beliefs or moral convictions.

Just as an aside, for my entire political career I have heard people make the statement that legislatures cannot legislate morality. O fcourse, if one simply stops and reflects, that is an absurd statement. Virtually all legislation has its basic premise grounded in morality.

When we enact laws against murder or assault, they are based on moral and religious teachings condemning such activities. When we enact laws against robbery and theft, they are based on moral and religious teachings. All laws are, or should be, based upon the notions of fairness which are grounded in moral codes, most of which came originally from religious premises, the most conspicuous of which is that one should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Let me advance a proposition to those of you who may be concerned about the growing influence of the Christian right on public policy. May I suggest to you that, as opposed to the suggestion that we have too much religious influence on public policy, we actually have too little.

Before you react, let me flesh out this proposition.

Up to now, the application of religious principles in political debate has been mainly applied to social mores such as abortion rights, same sex marriage, intelligent design vs. Darwinism, and other similar social issues. But all too often, those Christians who take strong stands on such issues based on moral or biblical teachings, do not then continue the application of such teachings to other issues.

For instance, when considering how many of the poor children in Texas will be removed from Childrens’ Health Insurance [Program (CHIP)] in order to hold down costs to the state, they choose not to consider Christ’s admonishment to “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”

When considering how much to reduce funding for indigent health care, Medicaid for nursing homes, child abuse protective services, or special education for handicapped children, there seems to be little recognition of Christ’s teaching that “In as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me also.”

All too often, these Christian admonishments are qualified to read,“Suffer the little children to come unto me, unless of course, their needs require a vote to raise additional revenue.”

Or to read, “In as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me also, but you are absolved if your compassion would require you to cast a vote for a tax bill.”

There are, of course, many members of the Legislature who recognize this disconnect. They truly worry that they are not living up to the Christian principles which they espouse.

However, they are caught inthe dilemma of having pledged not to increase taxes and they realize that, in order to truly apply Christian compassion in these areas will take additional state funding.

Once again, perhaps we need more religion rather than less.

It was Christ who said, “Much is required from those to whom much is given.”

We even have the teaching of Christ’s parable where he tells the richman, if he wishes to enter the kingdom of heaven he must “Go, sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, and follow me.”

Talk about a high tax rate!

How does a devoted Christian cut funding for needy children based on a no new taxes pledge while reading this passage of the Bible?

A year or so ago, there was a commendable teenage fad where youths were wearing bracelets containing simply four engraved letters, WWJD –“what would Jesus do?” The purpose was to provide a constant reminder to youths to assess the right or wrong of a decision before making it.

I wonder what the impact would be if every Legislator who avowed a religious motivation were required to wear such a bracelet – a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet, or a “What would Yahweh Do?” bracelet, or a“What Would Mohammed Do?” bracelet, or a “What would Buddha Do?” bracelet.

Then, whenever they were preparing to cast a vote to reduce or restrict programs for the poor, the sick, the elderly, or the children, they would be reminded of their previous avowals?

Wise people of many different eras have made this case before me.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them--that’sthe essence of inhumanity.”

Pearl S. Buck said, “The test of a nation is in the way that it cares for its helpless members.”

And finally, Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

I submit to you the proposition that we do not have too much religion in government today, we have too little.

We do not have too much advocacy for Christian principles in government and politics; we have a highly selective and hypocritical application of Christian principles in government and politics.

Those who advocate for Christian principles in our public institutions should have the strength of their convictions so as to truly follow the teachings ofChrist in His care and compassion for the poor, the lame, the sick ,and especially the children.

I submit to you, we can and should legislate morality.

We can, and weshould legislate based on moral and religious principles.

But we should do so even in those areas where political courage is required.

It was Aristotle who said, “Virtue is not knowledge of what is to be done, but rather the doing of it.”

Thursday, December 15, 2005

My Buddy's Life Ain't Easy

My old friend "Ben" stopped by to see me earlier this week.

Ben and I met over ten years ago, I guess. He first came to our Food Pantry back in the early days before things got so complicated. Back then I was spending most of my time interviewing people who came seeking assistance of one kind or another.

Ben used drugs when he first came our way. Lots of drugs. He probably sold as well.

I remember how much he wanted to stop. The whole scene of his life at that time was negative, destructive, lonely and sad. He was going no where fast. The best thing was, Ben knew it.

Somehow he quit. Treatment. Our little church and our minister and the many new friends he made here all combined to give Ben the traction he needed to get going in a new direction.

Ben stopped coming by as often. That can be a good sign. In his case it was.

He started a tree pruning business and he added landscape services to what he offered the public. He struggled, but he was doing so much better. He was on his way to a better life.

His personal life began coming around as well. He reconnected to his wife whom he had divorced years earlier. They made plans to be remarried. The last time I had seen Ben he was working hard and all smiles.

Until this week.

He dropped by to talk.

He came into my office, slumped in a chair and began our conversation with these words, "Larry, I got some bad news a couple of weeks ago. I haven't been able to work or sleep and I haven't told anybody. My wife and I both tested positive for HIV."

Ben cried.

Mistakes often follow us, don't they? Even when we are back on track and trying hard and working hard, the consequences of bad choices long since abandoned can knock us down.

This is true for all of us.

I tried to offer my friend some hope with information about advances in treatment today as compared to the early days of the epidemic. I promised to be with him through his journey. We prayed.

Sometimes folks like Ben can't win for losing. It is just hard.

Think of Ben today.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Asking the wrong question. . .

A friend asked me a question recently about homeless people and the number of beds available to them on any given night in Dallas.

"Larry, some people say we don't have enough beds, while others say there are more than enough available and open to the homeless," my buddy said. "What do you think?"

Lots of questions come my way and my answer is the same, "Sorry, I haven't a clue."

But in this case I had an immediate answer.

"Wrong question," I said. "It's neither. It's not how many beds we have or don't have. It's a matter of the kind of beds we have."

We don't need more beds in Dallas.

We need more bedrooms.

A bed count will do nothing for mixed use, economic development; job growth or income creation.

As a matter of fact, building out warehouses to "bed down" the poor is a bad idea, except for emergency, short-term, transitional situations.

But you build bedrooms and everything else follows naturally!
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Who are the homeless in Dallas?

Not long ago I read over a one-page summation of the "demographics of homelessness" in our city captured over the past 4-5 years. The count approached 10,000 individuals.

Interesting and sad stuff.

Here's a bit of what's been discovered

Gender
52% are male
38% are female
10% did not report


Ethnicity
42% African American
Less than 1% Asian
12% Hispanic
Less than 1% Native American
27% Anglo
18% Other


Age
Less than 16 9%
16-17 2%
18-20 3%
21-25 7.5%
26-30 9.4%
31-40 23%
41-50 27.5%
51-54 6.5%
55-60 5%
Over 60 6.6%


Marital Status
Married 7.5%
Separated 6%
Single (never married) 27%
Single (divorced) 27%
Widowed 1.3%
Unknown 30.7%
Other Less than 1%


Folks need homes, including bedrooms.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

New Orleans. . .Will It Be Lost?


Last Sunday, The New York Times published a sobering editorial about New Orleans.

As hard as it is to conceive, this great American city may be lost forever.

Three months after Katrina, in spite of all of the early promises and political posturing, there is still no solid, tangible commitment, no plan, no real discussion about rebuilding the levies to secure whatever future city might have a chance of rising from the rubble that is New Orleans today.

To lose this city would be a national tragedy and, frankly, a disgrace for all of us.

If you haven't already, I hope you will read the editorial.

You will find it at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/11/opinion/11sun1.html?n=Top%2fOpinion%2fEditorials%20and%20Op%2dEd%2fEditorials.

What we decide to do about New Orleans will reveal a great deal about our national attitude and priorities regarding urban poverty, race, economic renewal and compassion.

Monday, December 12, 2005

7-years-old and No Christmas

How does a seven-year-old boy "do" Christmas when his family has no money for any kind of celebration?

Hundreds of little boys and girls who live in the inner city here in Dallas will wake up Christmas morning to discover Santa didn't find their homes. Of course, some of these children don't have homes.

Over the past decade, I have to tell you I have become something of a Scrooge just because of this reality and the accompanying panic that sets in among low-income families who have no disposable income for gifts or anything much special at Christmas.

Give-away efforts abound.

We run one here at CDM that is a bit different. Families work and learn for the right to shop at our "store." If you want to help out with our "Christmas Store" visit our website at www.CentralDallasMinistries.org or call Joanna Clifton (972-470-9593) or Lalla Shackelford (214-823-4409).

Two things get me every year at Christmas.

First, the kids who receive little or nothing, when so many receive and have access to so much. The disparities are obscene and, frankly, sickening to me.

Second, the Christmas situation points me on to the rest of the year. You know, the regular days. Families with no funds for the holidays don't do much, if any better throughout the year.

No surprise these same children struggle at school, live in households where food insecurity is a real problem, endure the difficultly of inadequate access to good health care, watch parents who work hard, but struggle with the endless frustrations of not earning enough to make life work, and try to find a place to call their own in sub-standard housing located in really tough, neglected neighborhoods.

Distressing need at Christmas is upsetting mainly because of what it reveals about a child's life--all of it, not just the holiday experience.

Giving toys is a good thing. I shopped for my angel over the weekend.

But the problems are much deeper, requiring a more comprehensive, intelligent, creative, sacrificial, systemic, tenacious response.

Poor kids need our help, but even more they and their families need a fair shake.

Can we commit to work for that as the New Year arrives?

Christmas should and would be healthier for everyone if the rest of the year worked out better for so many of our children, many of whom will be looking for Santa in a couple of weeks only to be disappointed one more time.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

We're Really All the Same. . .Really We Are

People touch me.

They always have.

When my daughters were teenagers, there was a hit country song entitled, "Sentimental Old You."

They would give me a hard time whenever it played.

They knew people got to me.

So, I'm a sap.

So, what you gonna do about it, huh? Wanna make something of it?

All this to say, I cried at a stoplight earlier this week.

I'm sitting at the intersection of the I-30 service road and Carroll Avenue here in East Dallas.

I'm minding my own business, I tell you. I'm on my way to a meeting in Oak Cliff.

I just want on the freeway. I'm not looking for anything or anyone, honest.

There at the stop light is a homeless man.

This is his corner to "work" today.

But, when I pull up, the guy is on his lunch break.

He's eating macaroni and cheese out of a paper cup.

He also has a dog.

The dog is watching this guy's every move.

The dog wants a bite. . .bad.

The guy is talking to the dog.

I promise, I could see it coming.

Finally, the guy stoops down, spreads out a napkin on the ground, as if he were setting a formal dinner table, and spoons out a scoop of his lunch for his dog.

This guy is beyond, way beyond broke.

He is hungry, very hungry.

But, he shares. . .with his dog, no doubt his best friend.

I watched it all.

In that moment our souls hooked up, the light changed and I drove on. . . wiping away a tear.

We are all really basically the same.

We really are.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

An Opportunity to Express Your Values

Check out Dr. Jim Walton's most recent post on his weblog: http://www.institutedallas.blogspot.com/.

You will be challenged by his words. Dr. Walton is a dear friend and our chief partner here in Dallas in community-based health and wellness delivery. I urge you to make his blog a regular "watering hole" for your soul!
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Uncle Sam needs you to enlist in a national effort to stop “budget reconciliation” by contacting your congressional representative and senators.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities has prepared a short message to explain how very much is at stake for low-income Americans in this battle.

To view the message and read the helpful report go to http://www.cppp.org/research.php?aid=477.

The time to act is from today and continuing through next week.
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For those who don't mind reading the report in this post format, the entire message/analysis is copied below for your convenience. Please read and take action!


SPECIAL CPPP MESSAGE ON FEDERAL BUDGET RECONCILIATION
Uncle Sam needs you to enlist in a national effort to stop "budget reconciliation." By now, you have probably heard about something about this, but may have not have been motivated to do anything. The goal of this short message is to explain how very much is at stake for low-income Americans in this battle.

Before the Thanksgiving recess, both the Senate and the House passed so-called budget reconciliation bills. Over five years, the House would cut $50 billion, and the Senate would cut $35 billion.
While the House bill makes significant cuts in key supports for low-income families, the Senate bill achieved its budget savings without cutting services and supports for low-income Americans.

As part of budget reconciliation, each chamber is also working on a bill to cut taxes. The Senate has already passed a $59.6 billion tax cut bill, and the House will vote on its $56.1 billion tax cut bill when it returns on December 5.

Because the tax cuts are larger than the spending reductions, both the House and Senate are proposing to increase, not decrease, the deficit. As we will explain, this is all about tax cuts paid for by low-income Americans.


What is budget reconciliation?

"Budget reconciliation" is a way that Congress can make big changes in federal taxing and spending outside the normal process. Congress does this through special budget reconciliation rules, one of which is that the bill cannot be filibustered in the Senate and thus only takes a simple majority to pass.


Why should we care?

Because Texas [and every other state--blog editor's note] relies so heavily on federal funding, and has so many low-income people who rely on federal programs, any cuts to the federal budget have a particularly significant effect on our [your] state.

To make this real, consider the consequences of passing the House bill, which finances tax cuts by cutting services for low-income Americans.


�� Medicaid: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that provisions to increase what Medicaid beneficiaries pay out-of-pocket will reduce their use of health care services, and that new premiums authorized in the bill will result in more than 100,000 beneficiaries losing Medicaid. CBO projects nearly $30 billion in savings over ten years due to reduced utilization of services and decreased enrollment.

Also under the House bill, the federal government would no longer require that states provide children just above the poverty line with comprehensive preventive care and treatment. Near-poor children could lose coverage for such services as eyeglasses, hearing aids, dental care, speech therapy, and crutches. Over 10 years, the House bill has net Medicaid cuts of $43.7 billion, nearly 3 times the $14.7 billion cut in the Senate bill.

The Senate bill achieves savings in the Medicaid program, but does so without either increasing premiums or co-payments on low-income beneficiaries, or reducing the level of health care services covered by the program.


�� Child Support Enforcement: CBO estimates that under the House bill’s 40% reduction in enforcement spending, child support payments made by non-custodial parents would be $24 billion lower over ten years (an estimated $1.25 billion in lower payments for Texas children). (No Senate cut.)


�� Food Stamps: CBO estimates indicate that under the House bill more than 220,000 people a month would lose food stamps; mostly people in low-income working families. In Texas, the House proposal is expected to cut off benefits for at least 36,000 persons, and there are indications that the impact could be significantly higher. (No Senate cut.)


�� Child-care subsidies: Child care would be eliminated for 330,000 children in low-income working families under the House bill. The House bill requires states to place many more parents receiving cash assistance under the TANF program into full-time work programs, but fails to provide enough child care money even to maintain the current number of subsidized child-care slots for low-income families. The CBO estimates that another $12.5 billion in child care would be needed nationwide to match the increased work requirements, but the bill provides only $500 million. As a result, states would have to shift child-care slots from working poor families (those not on TANF cash assistance), to families that receive cash aid (from TANF) and are participating in work programs. (No Senate cut.)


�� Student Loans: The House budget cuts $14.5 billion from student loans, and student groups estimate the cuts will result in an average increase of $5,800 in students' loan payments. The Senate bill calls for $18 billion in cuts to student loans, but reinvests $11 billion of its savings into student financial aid, including $8 billion in new spending for the Pell Grant program, for a net cut of $7 billion.

Does Congress have to pass budget reconciliation?
No. Budget reconciliation is outside the normal process of taxing and spending. Congress does not have to do it. If the reconciliation bills do not pass, the federal government would still have a "budget" and could continue to operate. In fact, the best outcome would be for both parts of budget reconciliation (both the tax cuts and the spending cuts) to be defeated.

But doesn’t Congress have to pass budget reconciliation to pay for the hurricanes or to control the federal deficit?
No. Congress was planning budget reconciliation before the hurricanes. Any money "saved" from spending cuts would not go for either hurricane relief or deficit reduction. Instead, the spending cuts in reconciliation would pay solely to offset part of the cost of the tax cuts in reconciliation. (Over three-quarters of these tax cuts benefit households with incomes over $100,000.)

Among the most controversial of the tax cuts proposed is an extension through 2010 of capital gains and dividends tax breaks, currently set to expire in 2008. The House tax cut bill contains the two-year extension of the reduced rate, a maximum of 15% on both capital gains and dividend income. The Senate bill removed this extension in order to win moderates’ votes, but Senate conservatives vow to return the extension to the final bill in conference committee.


Extending these two tax cuts through 2010 would cost about $21 billion, 86% of which will go to households with incomes over $100,000, and nearly half (45%) of which will flow to the 0.3% of U.S. households with incomes over $1 million. See http://www.cbpp.org/11-17-05tax.htm .

We need a reasonable plan to control the deficit, but budget reconciliation is not it. After budget reconciliation is defeated, responsible people can start work on deficit reduction.

But don’t we need the tax cuts to stimulate the economy?

No. Most economists do not think these tax cuts would have any positive short-term effect on the economy, and the harm from increasing the federal deficit would largely offset any theoretical positive long-term effect. For more, see http://www.cbpp.org/11-17-05tax.htm . In any case, if we need tax cuts, we should not pay for them out of programs for the poorest among us.

So what is the answer to the deficit?

First — don’t dig the hole deeper. Congress needs to halt unaffordable tax cuts that have not taken effect and not approve further tax cuts that benefit the most advantaged Americans, including an extension of the capital gains and dividend tax cut.


�� The cost of the tax cuts Congress enacted in 2001 and 2003 was $225 billion this past year. In other words, the cost of the tax cuts in a single year exceeds the total anticipated costs of all expenses related to the Hurricane Katrina over the years to come.


�� Two tax cuts passed in 2001, but set to take effect in January of 2006, would eliminate the current upper limits on personal exemptions and on itemized deductions for people at high incomes. 97% of these tax cuts would go to Americans with incomes of $200,000 a year or higher.

�� Congress first put in place these upper limits for the wealthy as part of 1990 deficit reduction. In the first 10 years when these tax cuts are in full effect, they will cost $197 billion in lost revenue and interest payments on the debt. Canceling this scheduled tax cut now would more than pay for a strong relief and rebuilding program, without requiring cuts to programs like Food Stamps and SSI.


Addressing the nation’s deficit will require not only changes in revenues, but also spending reductions. Spending cuts should not target low-income Americans while sheltering special interests.

Reducing the deficit will required true shared sacrifice, including both revenue increases and spending cuts that are applied fairly.

Unfortunately, this year’s budget reconciliation process is not about shared sacrifice or deficit reduction — it increases the deficit while asking those with the least to make significant sacrifices in the name of fiscal responsibility.


For more, see http://www.cbpp.org/9-19-05tax.htm and http://www.cppp.org/files/6/Backgrounder.pdf .

What happens next?

Congress started an extended Thanksgiving recess November 21, and will be returning December 5 in the House and December 12 in the Senate. The leadership will appoint spending bill conferees when each chamber resumes action. However, it is likely that key leadership will negotiate many major decisions behind the scenes even before naming the conferees. A "conference report" (House-Senate compromise bill) could be completed as early as the week of December 12.

What do you want us to do?

Visit, write, e-mail, or phone your congressional representative and both Texas [your senators] opposing 1) spending cuts to programs for low- and moderate-income Americans and 2) tax cuts for upper-income Americans.
The time to act is the week of December 5, continuing through the following week. Concerned citizens are planning a "national day of action" for December 13. Also, ask your friends and networks to participate.

Since we are from Texas, does it really matter what we do?

Yes! Spending cuts passed the House by only two votes, and the Senate plan is vastly superior to the House plan. Telling your representative to back off and urging your senators to hold firm are critical messages. If budget reconciliation isn’t defeated outright, our Texas senators may be particularly important in ensuring that the more moderate Senate plan is accepted. The Senate avoids direct Medicaid cuts for beneficiaries, spreads the sacrifice across programs, and does not cut programs like Food Stamps, child care, child support enforcement, or SSI for elderly and disabled poor.

Where can we find contact information for our representatives and Senators?

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (202) 224-5922, http://hutchison.senate.gov/e-mail.htm.
Senator John Cornyn (202) 224-2934, http://www.cornyn.senate.gov/contact/index_1.html.
To find and contact your congressional representative go to www.house.gov.

If you join the fight to stop budget reconciliation, your Uncle Sam will appreciate you.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Poverty. . .Causes, Actions, Struggle

You may have seen the post that Matt Elliot left for me several days ago. It was from Dom Helder Camara:

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

Thanks, Matt for the reminder.

Camara points out a truth with which everyone who really understands poverty and the forces that create it must at some point grapple.

Charity doesn't provide sustainable solutions to systemic, generational poverty.

Rather, charity offers people with power a respectable means of maintaining control of their advantage. Most don't even realize how these forces work.
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Next Wednesday, December 14, I plan on making a trip to Washington, DC to take part in a protest of sorts or maybe better, a peaceful demonstration rooted in spiritual power and the values of my faith.

The demonstration is to take place in the Rotunda of the Capitol building.

The action will involve prayer and scripture reading to protest the current proposal of our Congress regarding the FY2006 federal budget as it relates to low-income Americans.

Urban workers, non-profit leaders, community people and others from all across the nation will be there. The action is being organized by Jim Wallis and his team from the Sojourners' community and Call to Renewal.

Please pray for me and for the effort.
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A young friend of mine, Krister White, a theology student at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, sent me a copy of the Baccalaureate Sermon delivered by Brian K. Blount to the class of 2005 at Princeton Theological Seminary.

The message is titled, "Pick a Fight!" This very interesting treatment of much of the book of Revelation in view of the purpose of spiritual leaders in a place and a time like ours is well worth reading!

If you are interested, it appears in The Princeton Seminary Bulletin (Volume XXVI, Number 2, 2005).

If you can't find it, let me know and I will be happy to send you a copy!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Slum Conversations


Have you heard about Habitat JAM?

JAM is a worldwide, web-based conversation that occurred recently for about three days. I expect it plans to open up from time to time. The 72-hour Internet event (i.e. web chat conference) that discussed issues of global sustainability, was held Dec 1-3.

In its own PR words: "Tens of thousands of diverse people will join representatives from national/local governments and international organizations, elected leaders and legislators, urban planners and architects, grassroots organizations and global NGOs, experts and academics, financiers and builders, and development specialists in the JAM."

During the three-day event, JAM covered these topics:

Improving the Lives of People Living in Slums
Sustainable Access to Water in Our Cities
Environmental Sustainability in Our Cities
Safety and Security in Our Cities
Finance and Governance in Our Cities
Humanity: The Future of Our Cities


We are still trying to figure it out. But, it is an amazing resource, venue, phenomenon to say the least. Check it out at http://www.habitatjam.com/index.php.

People from around the world posted comments during JAM. And the poor, the very poor were engaged in a powerful way.

I found the following post while rambling around on the site recently:

UN Habitat Executive Director Tibaijuka moved by power of the JAM (December 3, 2005)--

Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director, UN Habitat was moved, today, in an exchange in the JAM on the question "why the habitat jam??"

JAMMING with participants from around the world, Mrs. Tibaijuka said this about the power and potential significance this event could have in driving decision making:

"You are quite right that the problem of slums will not be solved by research alone. However, I am informed that as of last Kenya had the second highest number of registrants participating in the Habitat Jam [today]. The fact that thousands have been willing to patiently wait in line sometimes for hours in order to be able to contribute to this debate has been a profoundly moving experience for me. The fact that the debate on slums has moved from the academic world to streets of cities such as Nairobi, Dakar, Cape Town and Mumbai, Rio, Lima and Manilla is in and of itself powerfulll signal to world leaders on the need for concerted action."

Our experience across the past almost 12 years at CDM fits with what Tibaijuka observed. Low -income people, very low-income people want to be engaged and they have much to offer in every way. Any attempt to understand a problem, much less to really develop strategies to adequately address a problem, that omits the poor and the intelligence of those suffering in poverty from the process is doomed to fail.

JAM was successful and inspirational, at least in part, because it included the people who face the problem daily in the discussion about solutions.

We need to take our low-income neighbors much more seriously than we normally do, especially in our cities in America.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

When were you hungry last and had no food?

Yesterday I went out to the North Texas Food Bank for a meeting. Jan Pruitt serves as Executive Director and is doing an amazing job in organizing food relief and education enterprises for the entire Dallas area out of her shop.

I noticed two things as I was waiting for my meeting to begin.

First, the tally so far in the last quarter of 2005 of pounds of food products distributed through their network of organizations (CDM is one of them) stands at almost 6,000,000!

Second, a phrase in their mission statement stood out to me: "eliminate hunger." Most folks or organizations don't think in those "end game" sorts of ways when it comes to hunger. But then, that is Jan and that is NTFB!

Earlier in the day a report crossed my desk from the Center on Hunger and Poverty (www.centeronhunger.org), a division of the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

As I read over the bulletin, I thought how much work there is to do in this country when it comes to chronic poverty, hunger and the related issues.

Consider the following facts:

  • The U. S. Department of Agriculture reported recently (in Household Food Security in the United States, 2004) that between 1999 and 2004 the number of American households experiencing hunger rose by 43%.
  • 38.2 million Americans live in households that suffer directly from hunger and food insecurity (i. e. cutting back on food requirements due to inadequate income).
  • Nearly 14,000,000 children are among this group.
  • Households with children have double the rate of food insecurity as compared to those without children.
  • Over 47% of all food-insecure households have incomes above 130% of poverty, which in most cases makes them ineligible for food stamps.
  • In 2004, the average food-secure household spent 33% more for food than the typical household of the same size and composition that experienced hunger.
  • In the month prior to the 2004 survey, 55.2% of all food-insecure households received help from one or more of the three largest federal food assistance programs: food stamps, free or reduced-price lunches or the WIC program.
  • 20% of food-insecure families received emergency food from a food pantry, church or food bank during the 12 months prior to the survey.
  • 34.9% of food pantry users did not participate in any of the three largest federal food assistance programs.
  • Texas leads the nation in the prevalence of food insecurity.
  • Coverage of food-insecure households by the three largest federal food assistance programs continues to be low.

Dr. J. Larry Brown, leading student of domestic hunger, observed in the report, "This chronic level of hunger so long after the recession ended means that it is a man-made problem. Congress and the White House urgently need to address growing income inequality and the weakening of the safety net in order to get this epidemic under control."

And now, legislation sits in the U. S. House of Representatives to further cut back on funding for food assistance programs.

Got to pay for that big tax cut for all those needy folks at the top!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Consider a Move to Inner City Dallas--We'll Make It Easier for You!














Inner city neighborhoods face so many challenges in part because of their economic demographics.

Racial segregation, still a big problem in our nation, is now joined by economic or class segregation as a big contributor to decline in urban communities.

Paul Jargowski, Professor at University of Texas at Dallas, maintains in his important book, Poverty and Place, that when 40% or more of a neighborhood's population is poor by federal standards, that neighborhood will not work for its residents.

Thus, one of our primary challenges in depressed neighborhoods is to see that the "poverty percentage" stays well below this deadly marker. Communities that enjoy mixed use, mixed incomes and mixed housing stock tend to work in a way that promotes healing and hope.

For several years now--about five to be exact--we have been working hard to create such a community of hope in inner city East Dallas. Later this month we will break ground on our long-awaited development. "Eastside Commons" will include 237 units of high-quality rental housing built in attractive new urban dimensions. Fifty-five of the units will be set aside as public housing and the remainder will be market rate, but below comparable rents in the downtown area. The public and market units will be indistinguishable from one another. Only the residents will determine which is which.

In addition, the new community will include 45,000 plus square feet of retail space along the historic Hall Street corridor on the east side of Central Expressway in walking distance of downtown.

Across the street sits the Roseland Towne Homes community, a completely rebuilt public housing development where we have been very active since 1996. CDM recently assumed responsibility for managing the new community life center located in the middle of the development.

Here's what we need: urban pioneers who will move to our new development because they care about people, poor people who are reaching for a better life. We need men and women, young and older who will move our way intentionally to assist us in building a strong, well-connected urban community where low-income families can live next door to middle class families.

Mixed developments like we are about to build have worked in other cities. We feel that our efforts will pay off here in Dallas.

I've attached images above of what we will build.

I can provide you many more details, if you are interested.

Let me hear from you!

Monday, December 05, 2005

School Choice Vouchers

Can't seem to get the kids off my mind this week.

We've observed the critical importance of education and educational opportunities here in inner city Dallas over the past 12 years. Children who receive encouragement, attention, mentoring and affirmation in connection with their schooling tend to find hope and a reason to really learn and to explore.

Whenever a conversation turns to public education, someone always asks about or champions "school choice vouchers" as an option that we all should consider. I try my best to listen to folks with this opinion. Most of the time I am able to be civil at least. But, I must admit it is getting harder and harder for me.

I think that is true because in many cases, not all I am sure, but in many cases the hidden agenda is not about the impact of vouchers on educational outcomes. There is a social ideology underneath most of these discussions. I suspect the hidden agenda is about race, class, perceptions around safety and even moral norms and mores as defined and conceived by those who push vouchers.

I've noticed that one simple observation, couched in a question, seems to turn these conversations upside down.

Recently, I was having such a discussion with a school leader from another county. The subject of vouchers came up. So, I asked my question.

"How many private school desks are in your county today?"

My new friend pondered for a moment and then he replied, "Probably 500 or less."

"And, how many students in the county who need an education today?" I followed up.

"Something over 20,000," he quickly replied.

"So, given these numbers, why are we even having a conversation about vouchers?"

There is an answer to that question, but it has nothing to do with educating our children, not all of them, not even a good percentage of them.

Jeremy Gregg, Director of Development here at CDM, did a bit of research on this matter for us. You may have seen his comments on an earlier post this week. It is more good, reality-based information to keep in mind.

Check this out:http://www.dallasrelo.com/privateschools.html

Dallas has a MAXIMUM ENROLLMENT of 21,570 in the private school system.

The DISD reports here that its Elementary School Enrollment Projections Fall 2005 stand at 98,146. This does not include middle schools or high schools.

There is no question: vouchers are not a solution if the challenge is the education of all of our children.

No, vouchers take us somewhere else. They provide "solutions" to other "problems" and they answer other questions, often unspoken questions.

Can we just be honest?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sunday Thoughts--Learning to "Think Urban"

We are conditioned to think too often only in terms of individuals. After all, that is the American way, right?

Thinking only of individuals--individual rights, opportunities, education, progress, wealth, spirituality, religion, etc.--is a dangerously narrow way to look at life. As individuals, we need to learn to see, to appreciate and to care for "the group."

The Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah provided wise counsel to his readers almost three thousand years ago when he wrote,

"But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." (Jeremiah 29:7)

Wise words.

What proves good for the whole, turns out to be good for me as well.

Concern for my individual agenda that leaves aside a commitment to what is best for everyone doesn't really help me in the end.

We need to learn to think urban. By definition that will mean that we think "group," "city," and "neighborhood" rather than just "me."

Saturday, December 03, 2005

New Orleans Reality. . .3 Months Later

From top left these images reflect the amazing devastation suffered by the city of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina:

1) A typical midtown neighborhood suffered flood waters up to 7 feet deep--houses destroyed inside, cars washed up on sidewalks--clean up makes the city look like a massive eviction notice has been ordered.

2) Giant oak trees have been lost.

3) Every home in the city has been surveyed and "marked" in an effort to be sure all survivors, as well as deceased, have been located.

4) Churches all across the city have been flooded, and many have been demolished by the combination of wind and high water.

5) The feel of displacement is overwhelming.

6) Most homes look almost normal on the outside, but when you step inside the reality is very different.

7) Of course, thousands of homes will need to be bulldozed.

8-10) What's left of the housing stock presents a major challenge to come back efforts.

Prayer for the city and her people. . .we must not forget them at this crucial time.









Friday, December 02, 2005

New Orleans

New Orleans looks like a war zone.

Better, today across the city from the 17th Street Canal at Bucktown east to the far neighborhoods what you see reminds me of a city-wide eviction. Remains of family life, history, personal treasure--all piled at the curb and covered with the residue of the black water that boiled across the city.

Day before yesterday we toured the devastation. It was a very emotional time. I was startled.

Our tour guide took us through the neighborhood where we lived during the late 1970s. Our old house was destroyed. Around the corner, where two families--our best friends--once lived, the scene was the same, if not worse.

In some yards powder fine silt mounded up against washed out houses 4 and 5-feet deep.

The neighborhoods are deserted. Almost all of the people you see on the streets are disaster relief teams, utility employees and clean up crews. Everyone is working frantically to restore what is in front of them. During the day, the population swells to around 150,000. Each night it dwindles down to much less than half that number.

There are very few places to sleep at night in the city. Businesses find it hard to open because there is no where for workers to live. Banks are closed. Few stores even open.

Most all of the hospitals remain closed.

The public schools are paralyzed with no clear plans about their future.

Utility service has been restored to most neighborhoods, but it matters very little because there are few houses fit to receive the service now.

Of course, the poorest parts of town suffered the most devastation. Fragile housing stock disintegrated in the flood. Roofs caved in. Foundations gave way. Walls collapsed.

Abandoned and totaled cars are everywhere.

It is so hard to comprehend--the scale is unthinkable.

Imagine: 23,000 acres and 284,000 homes destroyed. Seventy-one thousand businesses shut down.

I found the scenes in this city where my youngest daughter was born to be unimaginable, even as I stood taking it all in.

The people who are back, live in a semi-daze. No one knows quite what to do because no one has any real sense of what the future holds in store.

In the Bywater neighborhood we met with Nate Jones. Fortunately, this area, positioned adjacent to the destruction of the Lower 9th Ward, suffered minimal damage. Nate operates a community-based ministry out of a 48,000 square foot warehouse building. Today Nate's digs serve as a staging area for disaster relief teams from across the country.

He hopes to get back to touching the community. The big question today for him is "what community?" Will a community return? If so, how?

We drove by the Desire Housing Development, a Housing Authority of New Orleans property. These are the "projects" I used to walk through when we lived in the city. Thanks to a HOPE VI grant from HUD, the neighborhood had been transformed. Sadly, the flood destroyed the new townhomes here as well.

I am still sorting out my feelings. It will take me awhile, if I ever get it done.

One thing is clear to me. If this city is to be renewed, it will only be as the result of a serious, sustained, national effort. National, state, local, public and private interests must be marshaled and aligned and engaged or this formerly great city is finished.

As my day wound down, I looked across the street from Nate's place. An old man, a young man and a middle-aged woman were sitting on the front steps of an old, frame row house so typical of the neighborhood.

I walked across and introduced myself and we began to talk.

The older gentleman had lived in the house for 33 years. He owned it. He had remained in the house during the storm. He never left. Fortunately, the house had been spared the flooding.

The woman had relocated to Arlington, Texas for about a month, but had made her way back to her home down the street.

The young man had grown up in the neighborhood.

We visited like old friends for half-an-hour. They wanted me to know how much they loved their neighborhood, how much they hoped the city would come back.

I hope so too. I found the reason to rebuild sitting on that front porch.