Wednesday, August 31, 2005

More On Katrina and New Orleans

It appears that dear friends of ours in New Orleans lost their home and everything in it.

As of yesterday afternoon, two levees had given way to flood waters. Now the question is, how to deal with the water, repair these essential barriers and rebuild life in this amazing, charming, unforgiving, old city?

Our friends, Wayne and Ann, will recover.

They are amazing people who have devoted their entire lives to being present for others. Today Wayne went out and purchased a new chain saw and a generator. Already he plans on returning to help out with the recovery and re-building efforts.

Even people with financial security and where-with-all will find it tough going.

Thousands and thousands of others won't do nearly as well. Imagine for a moment what the poor will face in the days and weeks ahead.

I heard today from New Orleans that one man committed suicide inside the Superdome by jumping off one of the upper decks to his death below.

Originally the plan had been to transport the very ill and the feeble into the meeting rooms of the dome. However, so many low-income persons had no where to go that authorities opened the building to anyone who needed a safe place to hunker down and wait the storm out. Thousands remain in the building whose roof was badly damaged by Katrina's passing.

Tuesday morning's edition of The Dallas Morning News published a front page photo of two women swimming for their lives in the flood waters. I found the image haunting. Thankfully, they were rescued.

The happenings in this wonderful, now wounded city break my heart.

Unfortunately, New Orleans offers us an unique opportunity to study what happens to an urban area in the aftermath of both a horrific natural disaster and five years of massive federal spending cuts in social and human services. With the so-called "safety net" already tattered and badly torn, it will be instructive to watch and see what happens over the next several years in the areas of housing, public health, education, mental health and nutrition in this city.

Ironically, we may see a better response in the wake of this weather disaster than would have been the case had the storm never hit this city.

Every day in every urban center in America a disaster is underway.

Compared to the one that now ravages New Orleans, these other crisis situations play out more slowly, so as to be almost undetectable. But the stress and the pain is there and at work in a steady, eroding manner.

Keep New Orleans in your heart and prayers today.

While you are at it, remember all of the cities of our nation and the poor who reside in them.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The High Price of a College Education Today

For several years our organization has been involved in enabling teens to take the SAT exam in preparation for entrance to college and university life.

The process has been a real struggle. We've taken all sorts of approaches to offer opportunity to as many low-income, inner city high school students as possible.

We've enjoyed some success across the years.

One of the plans we tried a few years ago involved recruiting youth from one of our area public high schools for our summer SAT prep class. The students enrolled toward the end of the spring semester. Then they attended class three hours daily for a three-week period.

Since most of these students had to have summer jobs, we arranged to pay them $6.00 an hour to attend our classes. In addition, we paid for all materials, supplies and two pre-tests to determine their progress from start to finish. A partnership we enjoyed with the University of Texas at Dallas provided the instructors.

The outcomes were gratifying.

The students were highly motivated. They worked hard. We had no discipline problems at all during the course of study. Best of all, a number of our students made great progress.

We have used other methods to accomplish this same outcome with varying degrees of success.

We are committed to seeing as many of our high school students as possible go on to university study.

We know that higher education is essential to whatever success these young people will enjoy going forward.

Given this background, I need to get something off my chest.

I am offended by one of the current recruiting commercials being used by the U. S. Army to entice young men and women to enlist for military duty.

The scene for this particular ad is a kitchen in what seems to be the home of a single mother who has an older teenaged son.

The young man struggles to inform his mother that he has signed up for the Army. He finally blurts out that it is "time for him to be a man" (a recurring theme in more than one of these commercials) and that by joining the Army he has found a way to pay for his own education.

The mother smiles a nervous smile and I guess the teen goes off to war. If he survives, I suppose he can return to college.

All of this at the same time our government is cutting back on Pell Grant funding for low-income students. Thanks to recent changes in public policy at the federal and state levels, it is harder than ever for low-income students to progress beyond high school to college.

Of course, if we can't fund tuition and books, we can send these youth off to Iraq in hopes that when they come home they will still be interested in higher education.

Is it just me or does them seem really out-of-whack?

Oh, yes, one more detail. The young man in the commercial happened to be a person of color just like most of the eager students in our SAT prep programs.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

God's Values

What does God value most?

Seems a good question for people who believe in God to be asking these days, what with all the national debate about values, politics and the nation's soul.

I realize that the Bible can be manipulated like an encyclopedia of statistics--the interpreter can make it prove up almost anything he wants it to support.

Still, there are deep, rich veins of truth and clear emphasis that cannot be ignored, or so it would seem. The problem is much of the heart of scripture is ignored these days, especially in our national values debate.

Take for example the poetic piece found at Isaiah 58:1-12.

This passage is from the post-exilic period in the history of Israel. Having returned from a long, harsh captivity in Babylon, the nation struggles to get back on its feet and to rebuild its political, economic, social and religious life.

It is obvious from the reading that the people remain highly devout, very religious. They enter into days of fasting, prayer and repentance, as is indicated by the reference to "sack cloth and ashes" (5). These are people who seek God's counsel and desire to be in close contact with God (2).

But their devotion has no good result. For all of their religious activity, God does not come to their aid. God does not respond. God seems to ignore them (3).

At last, God speaks.

"Let me tell you the kind of 'fast' that gets my attention," God says (6).

"Here is the order of worship I'm looking for!"

Pay your laboring class fairly (3b).

Stop your quarrelling and fighting (4).

Loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free (6).

Share your bread with the hungry (7).

Bring the homeless poor into your house (7).

Provide clothing for those who need it (7).

Take care of your family (7).

Meet the needs of those who suffer (10).

These are the things that God values according to Isaiah.

The passage is full of promise. Those who value what God values will receive countless affirmations as they move through life. The promise here is that God will go with those who value what God values. Their cries will not go unheeded. They will be protected, sustained and supported. As some of my friends often tell me, God will "show up" for people like this!

Read the entire passage. You will hear the promise and the resolve.

The concerns of this ancient Hebrew poem are strangely absent from most of our national values debate here in the United States. In my view, we avoid these fundamental values to our own peril as a people.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Child Care and Jobs

Almost a decade after Clintonian welfare reform, millions of Americans have moved from public assistance rolls out into the marketplace of work and productivity. A really tough-minded plan that guided people to work succeeded in cutting the number of welfare cases in half across the nation.

Now Congress must reauthorize the legislation. Debate about funding the new version of the legislation has been fierce, to say the least. And, no new bill has emerged. In fact, the old plan has been extended ten times to accommodate the continuing argument.

Recently, The New York Times ran a brief editorial focused on competing plans for funding the child care portion of the new legislation. The House of Representatives proposes a limited increase in funding of $1 billion over the next five years, not enough to cover the cost of inflation.

Few things are as important to working families as child care. As more people go to work, as is the hope and intention of the reform efforts, more child care will be required.

The Senate suggests a more rational plan that provides for $6 billion over the next five years.

Parents cannot work if they have no place to leave their children.

Republican Senators Olympia Snow (Maine) and Charles Grassley (Iowa) are carrying the fight to see the new agreement funded at this more adequate level.

You can help them and the families who need access to this invaluable asset. Write your Senators today and voice your support for their efforts.

Here's the address you'll need to write both of your Senators today:

Senator __________________
U. S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Your voice will make a difference for and with working families.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Christian Jihad?

Pat Robertson is certain. That is why he issued his fatwa earlier this week.

He evidently believes that the United States is somehow "God's nation" and that anything the nation does to protect its self-interest is acceptable. His recent statement about Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez was startling.

Robertson told his 700 Club audience, speaking of Chavez, "If he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop."

Nice one, Pat.

So, let's see. A Christian minister and founder of the powerful Christian Coalition, the ultra-right wing and amazingly influential political action organization, advising murder as a viable diplomatic remedy for handling a neighbor with a different political and economic theory, while expressing what appears to be a higher concern for oil than human life.

Robertson claims that his concern is prompted by Chavez's leftist political and economic posture that would transform Venezuela into "a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism. We have the ability to take him out and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another 200 billion dollar war to get ride of one, you know, strong arm dictator."


What is he after here, Christian jihad?

Is this his suggested response in a day when we are trying to combat and neutralize terrorism? Wonder why so many other nations consider the U. S. a nation of hypocrites? Talk about playing into the hands of Al Queda!

Has this guy ever read a word Jesus ever said?

The 700 Club boasts an audience of one million viewers or more. Why on earth would anyone tune in again?

But, be assured, many will. Scary fact.

Many Christian organizations quickly denounced Robertson.

But, you know what is frightening? Many did not, including the Traditional Values Coalition, the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition.

Headlines in Wednesday's national newspapers could have read, "Fundatmentalist, Terror-Prone Cleric Calls for Jihad-Like Assassination."

How is Robertson different from a Muslim extremist set on "taking out" one of our highly placed leaders?

So, what has this to do with the cities of our nation?

Just this: an extremely influential and well-organized subset of our culture views life and faith through the same lens as Robertson. The view is not only extreme, it is thoroughly un-Christian.

This viewpoint finds charity relatively easy to perform. Robertson's television ministry has touted its various works of compassion in order to raise millions.

But people who think like this usually want nothing to do with justice, the establishment of comprehensive civil rights and liberties, systemic social change or class uplift. No wonder such "thinkers" applaud every cut back in public initiatives designed to accomplish just these things among our urban poor.

There is a connection here.

For Christian people life should be all about values and how we understand Jesus.

Pat Robertson doesn't get it.

But be sure of this, as hard as it may be to fathom and in spite of his forced apology, he knows exactly what he is doing and saying.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Hunger--Our Shame

On Monday of this week over 350 individuals visited our emergency relief Resource Center here in inner city East Dallas.

Monday was "PAN day" at Central Dallas Ministries. People and Nutrition is a collaborative endeavor underwritten by the North Texas Food Bank, our good friends at Catholic Charities and the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

The intention of PAN is to provide supplemental nutrition to elderly and disabled adults and to children.

PAN is a blessing to the very low-income participants who visit us each month.

There were so many people here on Monday that we literally found walking through our interview room almost impossible.

In the stress and the heat, everyone cooperated with joy, hard work and gratitude.

The following day over 200 individuals visited us. Things were "back to normal."

Hunger is real in Dallas.

Finding food for your family is a real challenge, if you are working and still impoverished.

It is very, very clear to me that the nation is failing its people who live at "the bottom."

There is no national strategic plan, no logic model for attacking poverty and overcoming it.

In light of all of our resources this fact is a genuine national tragedy.

It is our national shame.

Wanna talk values today?

This situation is immoral.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Price of War, The Cost to Our Cities

As of 2 p.m. (CST) on August 23, 2005, the war in Iraq had cost U. S. taxpayers $189,476,500,321. This according to estimates from Congressional appropriations to date.

Take another look at that sum.

What could the nation have done with this money had we not gone to war in Iraq?

Well, . . .

We could have built 1,706,057 additional housing units.

We could have paid for 25,096,232 children to attend a full year of Head Start.

We could have provided health insurance for 113,459,062 of our fellow Americans.

We could have hired 3,283,653 public school teachers for a full year.

We could have provided full-pay, four year scholarships to public universities for 9,185,415 students.

We could have fully funded global anti-hunger efforts for 7 years.

We could have fully funded worldwide AIDS programs for 18 years.

We could have provided basic immunizations for every child in the world for 63 years.

According to the National Priorities Project, the source for this comparative information, here in Texas the cost of the war totals $16.6 billion. I expect that kind of money might have helped us move toward a solution for public school funding.

The tab for Dallas stands at over $890.7 million.

Hmmm. Wonder what the city of Dallas could have accomplished with that kind of tax savings? Hunger, education, employment training, housing, nutrition, health care. . .as I think about it, the list is almost endless.

It may be about time to ask some questions. I believe that is especially true if you really care about poverty, cities and justice--not to mention peace!

I know all the arguments and the now standard rhetoric about "fighting terrorism."

But, really now, are bombs and troops and firestorms really as effective at battling our enemies as solid diplomacy or effective initiatives to improve global health and develop economies and new markets?

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took up the anti-war cause toward the end of his life during the Vietnam era, some people did not understand. But Dr. King did. He knew that the needs and the rights of under-paid, struggling sanitation workers in a city like Memphis, Tennessee were tied directly to the billions being spent in futile jungle warfare on the other side of the world.

History repeats itself. The cities of the nation suffer needlessly and we do not have the results we desire.

[To watch the spending in real time check out and]

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A challenging blog to check out this week!

Dr. Jim Walton is one of my best friends and a faithful partner in the community and human development work we are attempting here in inner city Dallas.

Ready for his titles and a very abbreviated job description?

Jim serves as Medical Director & Senior Vice President, Office of Community Health Improvement, Health Texas Provider Network, Baylor Health Care System and as Director, Institute for Faith Health Research-Dallas (a subsidiary of Central Dallas Ministries).

Jim, and everyone who stays around him for long (!), works to improve equity in community health by increasing health care access and by reducing outcome disparities.

As our leader of the Institute for Faith Health Research-Dallas, Jim investigates the role of faith and its impact on personal and community-level health improvement.

All of this to say, check out his new blog!

Dr. Jim is posting about once each week right now. Everything he writes is interesting and provocative. If you want a jolt to help you think differently about health and community, tune in to his blog at:

You won't be disappointed. After you've been there, spread the word to others who care about health and our nation's inner city communities.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Life in the USA

A funny phenomenon works overtime here in the United States.

It is what I call "the law of the highest-placed."

It plays out something like this.

When asked about quality of life issues in this country, instinctively we think of the experiences of those who enjoy the best of things. And, we somehow find it logical to regard those experiences as our national norms.

How are we doing with health care in the U. S.?

Really well! Did you hear about the incredible new robotic surgical procedures that maximize a patient's chances of survival?

How about housing issues?

Really well! So well that about our only problem in that regard is a possible "housing bubble" created by the amazing growth in property valuations and balance sheet equity.

Even if I am needing health insurance or more fit and affordable housing, the fact that a group of Americans have all that they need and more, somehow seems to help me believe that we are all doing very well and that it is just a matter of hard work and time before I and lots of others will "arrive" as well.

This perception also causes us to believe that our national quality of life is the best in the world overall and is not in need of reform or change.

Funny how this works to neutralize action to improve the quality of our national life for more of our people.

Community organizing for public policy change is hard slogging because of the power of this part of our national mythology. Media weighs in to promote the story. It also sells lots of little "packages of success" to the lower reaches of our economic strata, compounding the idea that things are really better here than anywhere on earth. Why would anyone want to complain, criticize or act for change?

One of the very significant results of "the law of the highest-placed" is that we simply ignore reality about a host of issues.

Against all of this, consider the following.

The United States ranks 27th overall in population below the poverty line, last among the 17 member states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the first-world, developed nations).

According to The Economist Quality of Life Index, the United States ranks 13th in total quality of life, even though we have the highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the fourth highest GDP per capita. According to the United Nations Human Development Index, we rank 8th overall today, as compared to 1st as recently as 1990.

According to the World Health Organization, the United States ranks 37th of 191 countries in health care system performance, last among industrialized countries, although we spend almost 15% of our GDP annually on health care--more than any other industrialized country. Year after year we get a very poor return on our national investment.

According to the Human Development Index, the United States ranks 27th of 28 countries in life expectancy at birth, which puts us behind Barbados. We rank 36th in infant mortality, a higher death rate than Portugal, Cuba, Aruba, and San Marino.

The US ranks 12th of 18 countries with 20.7% of adults lacking functional literacy skills (Human Development Index). The US ranks 10th with a total of only 87 percent of adults ages 25 to 34 having finished high school. This puts us behind such nations as South Korea, Norway, the Czech Republic and Japan (OECD).

According to Unicef (2002), the United States ranks 18th in educational advancement, with 16.2 percent of 15-year-olds falling below international benchmarks, compared with Japan at 2.2 percent, Canada at 5 percent, Britain at 9.4 percent, and France at 12.6 percent. At the same time we are spending more per student on average than any other country.

What about our environment? According to Columbia University's Environmental Sustainability Index, the US ranks 51st of 142 nations in environmental sustainability.

The United States has the largest prison population rate in the world (686 per 100,000 of the national population), followed by the Cayman Islands (664), Russia (638), and several former Soviet countries.

All of this is enough to at least cause us to pause and reflect about how we are doing, don't you think?

No doubt, the growing gap between the well-off and the not-so-well-off in our nation explains part of our challenge today.

The very worst thing we can do is to act as if none of this is true.

For people in the city the challenges are inescapable.

Surely our faith has some direction to offer us as we consider future plans, actions and responses to our national reality.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Churches and building programs

Churches spend lots of money on buildings and real estate.

Many of these same congregations often ask what they can do to help "poor people" in the inner city.

After years of watching churches, I have decided that they will never stop building buildings.

But, what if, churches decided to start building different kinds of buildings? What if the church in America got serious about developing real estate in a different manner?

Some churches already get this and they are doing it and very successfully.

The Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) partnered with the Fort Dupont and Additions Resident Council and the city of Washington, DC to build 147 townhouses on the site of the old Fort Dupont public housing project. Low-income buyers purchased the new homes, priced below market value, almost immediately.

The project was complicated, difficult and took a long time (1999-2005).

Over 97% of the homes were purchased by first-time home-buyers who earn no more than 65% of the area's median income. Twenty of the homes were set aside for families with annual incomes between $15,000 and $20,000.

Thanks to WIN's leadership, a consortium of local religious organizations helped finance the $19 million development with a $3 million, zero-interest, soft loan. Another faith oriented group, The Nehemiah Program, provided gift funds to qualified buyers to help with down payments and closing costs.

The new neighborhood sprang to life almost over night.

The development is called Dupont Commons. What had been a blighted, crime-infested, public housing development is now a livable community complete with a large park next door and a commercial shopping district that includes a DC branch library, a Safeway supermarket and a CVS pharmacy.

WIN plans to build 1,000 for sale homes throughout the District. So, the creative work of building by these churches is just beginning!

The church in America could make a significant difference in depressed and challenged communities. All that is needed is a new vision as to what type of buildings churches ought to be constructing.

Friday, August 19, 2005

What do people without homes need most?

Joe Weisbord joined Fannie Mae at the national office about six months ago. His official title is "Senior Policy Analyst Homelessness Initiatives."

Joe has spent his career finding ways to assist people who need housing.

He was in Dallas yesterday for a series of meetings. I spent about four hours with him. I learned a lot about a tragic, continuing problem facing our nation and my hometown.

During the course of any year over the past decade, approximately 3 million Americans experienced homelessness. For around a quarter million people, homelessness is a chronic condition.

Interestingly, less than 10% of the homeless consume almost half of the homeless assistance resources that are available to communities like Dallas.

Shelters do not provide a solution to the problem.

Solid research tells us that doing nothing to address the issue of homelessness is actually more expensive than developing and implementing effective responses to the problem.

National studies reveal that supportive housing solutions--i.e. providing stable, permanent housing with supportive services for tenants--saves money, lots of money.

For example, studies conducted by the Corporation for Supportive Housing have shown that well-managed supportive housing reduces emergency room visits by as much as 57%; emergency detox services by 85% (I really get this stat--put me on the street with no resources and in about a month I would need detox in the worst way!); and incarceration by 50%.

The same research indicates that by providing stable housing options for people, earned income rises by a full 50%, employment grows in this population by 40% and well over 80% remain in the housing for at least one year!

A current national goal, agreed upon by the President, our Governors and Mayors from across the nation (to date over 180 states and localities have signed on), is to end chronic homelessness in 10 years. One benchmark of success is the plan to develop 150,000 new units of supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals.

Joe Weisbord came to Dallas to share how it is that Fannie Mae plans to pitch in to help the nation achieve the goal through its American Dream Commitment.

Thank God for Fannie Mae!

Here at Central Dallas Ministries, we have a single room occupancy apartment project on the drawing boards. We hope to develop between 150 and 200 "studio" apartments that are high-quality, beautiful and affordable for our fellow citizens and neighbors who need places to call home.

Anyone who would like to help us is more than welcome!

We think we have it figured out. After all, it is not really rocket science.

What people without homes need most is, well, homes.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Grandmothers and baseball--lessons for the city

Summerton, South Carolina is anything but urban. Located about 50 miles southeast of Columbia and 115 miles south of Charlotte, North Carolina, the tiny hamlet is home to just over 1,000 residents.

The median annual income in this quiet, rural town stands at $21,563. Since 1996, only six new homes have been built in Summerton.

Almost 60% of the population is African American, with right at 40% white.

I saw Summerton on ESPN's Sports Center program over this past weekend.
The story was about six grandmothers ranging in age from 58 to 80. Five black. One white.

They shared at least a couple of things in common: faith and concern for the children of Summerton, especially those from West Summerton--the poorest section of town.

The women noticed that many of the children of the community had little to do during the summer months. Many went unattended with nothing productive to occupy their time.

Baseball, another love the women shared, seemed to be the answer!

Together the grandmothers lobbied local officials and business leaders to restore an abandoned baseball field to usefulness. What had been overgrown and weed-infested became a picture perfect little park.

The women started a drive to gather equipment. They raised funds for uniforms. They created a baseball league for 40 children from scratch. They called the effort "Pride in Summerton Baseball."

Their biggest challenge was finding a coach to run the program. None being obviously available, they gathered around home plate and they prayed.

A local truck driver heard about their efforts and he called to volunteer some equipment and support. Before he knew what hit him, he was the coach!

At the end of their first summer in operation everyone regards the project as a huge success.

The young children I saw in the report were all smiles and filled with the right kind of pride. They learned the game. They enjoyed the teamwork and the discipline. They responded to the love and concern of adults who really care about them. It was obvious they had enjoyed a very good summer.

The grandmothers are already planning for fall baseball. The story ended with a vision that someday Summerton players would be in the Little League World Series!

I don't know about that, but I do know that these grandmothers understand community development. They seem expert at leveraging social capital to achieve great community outcomes. Taking what was available to them and forgetting what was not, these very ordinary women worked significant change in an entire town.

What these women did in tiny Summerton, South Carolina is the same sort of thing that needs to be done neighborhood-by-neighborhood in the inner cities of America. People coming together around shared concerns can make a difference no matter what their economic status.

The grandmothers of Summerton, South Carolina have a lot to teach us!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Medicaid: Who's It For?

Last Monday afternoon, I heard U. S. Representative Joe Barton (Republican from the 6th Congressional District here in Texas) speak to a group of health care providers and advocates. We assembled at Parkland Memorial Hospital at the invitation of Dr. Ron Anderson, President and CEO for our public hospital system.

Congressman Barton is a powerful fellow. He chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee in the U. S. House of Representatives and this year he is chair of the conference committee made up of Representatives and Senators who must come up with reconciliation plans for matching legislation with budget by the end of September.

I have no idea why this is true, but the good Congressman's committee is in charge of Medicaid legislation and funding. He was in town to listen to our ideas on how the health insurance product for the poorest Americans ought to be managed, funded and reformed.

In the course of his presentation, he mentioned that 85% of the costs associated with Medicaid have to do with elderly Americans who use the program to provide long-term, end-of-life care.

Medicaid was originally conceived as a program to serve the health care needs of the poor. It has morphed into a plan to pay for the end-of-life care for many Americans who really aren't poor. More on that in a moment.

Mr. Barton began by telling us that his committee needed to shave several billion dollars off of Medicaid appropriations over the next decade. He was looking for solutions and invited us to offer our ideas.

I think I have at least a partial solution. I think I know where to find the savings he is looking for. It won't be popular, but it would be fair.

Here's how my idea would work.

Close the loop holes on all of the middle class people, like me, and families, like mine, who abuse the system by shifting the wealth of elderly parents to their children before they die. By making this wealth transfer, prosperous aging adults can currently qualify for Medicaid as a long-term care strategy when they should be using a portion of their accumulated wealth to pay the bill themselves.

What is saved for middle class families is lost for the poor, the ones for whom the program was designed in the first place.

Rather than cutting back on care for those who are really poor, Congress should shut out those who aren't. If the nation wants a long-term care program for middle class people, then it should build one, but not on the backs of or at the expense of our poorest citizens.

I know Mr. Barton could find his $15 billion, or whatever the number actually is--he wasn't too clear on that himself.

The Medicaid mess is a good example of how those at the very bottom "take it on the chin" again and again.

It is not right.

In fact, in my book it is immoral.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Jobs "Growth," Public Perception and the City

Pollsters report being bewildered by what seems to be an "expanding economy" that is greeted by an overall dissatisfaction with things economic on the part of the American public. Recent data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics provides some answers.

Media outlets report only the bare bones. Last week we heard reports that 207,000 new jobs were created in July. What was not reported (why do our media sources insist on being so shallow?) were details about the nature of these new jobs.

Here's the rest of the story:

26,000 of these jobs were tax-supported government positions (13%).

181,000 were private sector jobs.

177,000 of these private sector jobs (98%) were found in the domestic service area.

30,000 positions were food servers and bar tenders.
28,000 were in health care and social services.
12,000 were in real estate.
6,000 were in the field of credit intermediation.
8,000 were transit and ground transportation positions.
50,000 were in retail trade.
8,000 were in wholesale trade.
7,000 jobs were in construction, with most being filled by immigrants.

Bottom line: the jobs being created today provide generally low wages for those who land them.

Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, put me in touch with these statistics. He believes that what we are watching in terms of job creation is the slide of the American economy into Third World patterns (see his essay at

This likely explains how job numbers can be up, but citizen satisfaction is down.

As I think about future impact on our cities; again, I find myself troubled.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Forces that shape cities

While cleaning out some old files--six years old to be exact, I came across a fascinating summary of a report issued by the Fannie Mae Foundation in October 1999. Titled "The American Metropolis at Century's End: Past and Future Influences," the report spotlighted the top ten influences on American cities over the past 50 years and then went on to predict the top factors that will shape urban areas during the coming half century.

The report involved a survey conducted by Robert Fishman, history professor at Rutgers University, and was based on 149 responses from leading urban historians, planners and architects.

I find the lists, looking backward and forward, most interesting.

Here they are.

Top ten influences over the past 50 years:

1. 1956 Interstate Highway Act and the dominance of the automobile.

2. Federal Housing Administration mortgage financing and subdivision regulation.

3. De-industrialization of central cities.

4. Urban renewal: downtown redevelopment and public housing projects (e.g., 1949 Housing Act).

5. Levittown (the mass-produced suburban tract house).

6. Racial segregation and job discrimination in cities and suburbs.

7. Enclosed shopping malls.

8. Sunbelt-style sprawl.

9. Air conditioning.

10. Urban riots of the 1960s.

Fishman noted that the single most important message in the survey findings is the overwhelming impact of the federal government on American cities. Public policies promoted suburbanization and sprawl.

The top 10 influences over the next 50 years:

1. Growing disparities of wealth.

2. Suburban political majority.

3. Aging of the Baby Boomers.

4. Perpetual "underclass" in central cities and inner-ring suburbs.

5. "Smart Growth"--environmental and planning initiatives to limit sprawl.

6. Internet.

7. Deterioration of the "first-ring" post-1945 suburbs.

8. Shrinking household size.

9. Expanded super-highway system of "outer beltways" to serve new-edge cities.

10. Racial integration as part of the increasing diversity in cities and suburbs.

Fishman reports that respondents were in more disagreement about the future than the past. Most believe that the "urban crisis" will only intensify and continue going forward.

The two lists provide much to ponder, don't they?

I have a hunch that if the exercise were repeated today, just six years later, the ranking of the Internet would be much higher.

It seems clear that sound, thoughtful, intentional public policy can affect real world outcomes. People who live the cities of America need to be exercising more influence.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Beyond Me to Us

The preacher had me from his first word.

He must be almost 80-years-old. White wavy hair and amazing stage presence, this gentleman carefully, lovingly and powerfully "unpacked" the text he had chosen.

In about twenty minutes he pressed my heart up against important truth.

He didn't waste my time. He didn't let me off the hook. He didn't insult my intelligence. He wasn't cute or cuddly or, well, religious.

He was real. Real about the world where I live everyday.

The thing that really got me though was how he framed the implications of his message.

It wasn't about me. It wasn't about any one individual.

The whole point had to do with "the us" of faith.

He called a community, a group, a movement to action in a way that I haven't heard in a long while.

He suggested that we could think and act together above and beyond the isolated needs and selfish concerns of any of the individuals gathered to experience worship. There was no suggestion of a cheapened salvation in isolation from my community and its pain, its need and its injuries.

He suggested, no, he insisted that we were all "in over our heads," but that together, with hearts turned toward a power beyond our own capacity, we--that is right, "WE"--could really make a difference in this city and in our world.

As I listened to him, I thought about the other sort of messages that were being heard elsewhere across the city. I've heard them hundreds of times. I've delivered them myself. Sermons that played to individualism and the consumerism that always comes packaged with such a focus on the "I" of life.

The pastor who stood before me Sunday insisted that I grow beyond such shallow concerns. He nailed our problem as a nation. He put the spotlight on our shame.

He simply asked that "we" do better together.

I'll be back tomorrow, Sunday, to hear more.

Friday, August 12, 2005

We Get What We Don't Pay For

The on-going squabble about the new Homeless Assistance Center (HCA) here in Dallas would be comical if it weren't so darned exasperating and tragic.

What I find really interesting are the persistent tirades from business owners downtown who play like Chicken Little, assuring us that the presence of a growing number of the homeless in downtown Dallas is the equivalent of a falling sky.

A number of these angry prophets of doom bought vacant buildings on the cheap and are now developing mostly upscale apartments for wealthy consumers who find downtown hip.

Don't misunderstand me here.

I am proud these developers are working downtown. May their tribe increase!

Some are even including "affordable" units in their developments thanks to the requirements imposed by some of the public funds they secured to make the deals work. Never mind that the working definition of affordable as established by HUD is still far too expensive for millions of Americans and thousands of Dallasites.

Still, their work is vital to the renewal of our city's core.

What gets me about the protests of these downtown property owners over the homeless is their apparent disgust that borders at times on surprise that the problem won't just go away or somehow be handled by city leaders.

What else should we expect here in Dallas and across the nation when it comes to the swelling numbers of the homeless?

We are getting exactly what our public policy over the last twenty-five years guaranteed would happen.

Think about it.

Drastic cuts in funds for mental health services have resulted in more mentally ill persons "residing" on our streets.

The absence of truly reforming resources inside our prisons, including mental health services, returns hundreds of people annually to our city without a life plan, without a home and without much hope.

Funding has all but evaporated for addiction and substance abuse treatment.

State and national housing policy has failed to produce the needed housing units for low-income persons. Right now public policy is cutting back on housing options and development for those at the very bottom. As a result, we should only expect more homeless persons to show up downtown in the next few years.

Health care access is not improving. Many people end up on the street following major illness after exhausting the few resources they may have had prior to getting sick.

Our legislature can't even agree on a school funding bill to pay for public education in the state. And we continue to be shocked and dismayed at the drop out rate. Come on. Please.

Employment rates keep creeping up, but the wages keep falling in terms of real dollar values.

The gap between rich and poor widens. People fall off into the abyss of the street.

And the best we can do is debate about "how to get 'em out of downtown."

It is time we all woke up and realized how penny wise and pound foolish our current political intelligence actually is.

We are getting today exactly what we don't pay for.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

$10,700 Gross. . .REALLY Gross!

What would you do if you had to carve out a living on a minimum wage job?

Most people never consider the question.

Every time the issue of raising the minimum wage comes up, politicians and business people argue the idea down.

"Jobs will be lost."

"Business won't be able to pay and people will be laid off."

"Raising the minimum wage simply drives up costs of consumable goods and services, a fact that eventually makes life harder for minimum wage workers."

We need to look deeper.

First, the facts: the current minimum wage is $5.15 per hour.

A person earning minimum wage on a full-time, 40-hour-a-week job earns gross wages of $10,700 annually.

This amount is $5,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of three. It is over $8,000 below the line for a family of four.

Second, the erosion of the real value of the minimum wage (and all other wages for that matter!) over the past several decades has been dramatic. The purchasing power of the minimum wage adjusted for inflation is over $3.50 below what it was in 1968. To attain the purchasing power of 1968 dollars the minimum wage would need to rise to $8.70 per hour.

The hourly wage required to rent a two-bedroom apartment at fair market value here in Dallas, Texas is between $16 and $17 an hour.

If we raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, as The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2005 suggests be done over a two-year period, the results would be most helpful to low-income families.

The annual difference would amount to $4,368.

Over 15 million laborers in the United States would be positively affected by this change.

What would the gain mean in terms of real life impact?

Try this list:

Over a year of child care (if you can find a really good deal).

Tuition for a community college degree.

A year-and-a-half of heat and electricity.

Over a year of grocery purchases.

Eight months rent in a low-income neighborhood.

Propaganda to the contrary, evidence from past increases in the minimum wage reveals that such action does not have a negative impact on employment or inflation.

And, even with this sort of raise, our lowest wage workers will still face enormous challenges that must be worked through. A comprehensive package of other social and economic benefits need to be restored and enhanced for working people at the bottom, including health care, supplemental food and nutrition resources, housing subsidies, child care assistance, transportation and skills upgrading.

People who work hard in America should be able to make a life for themselves and their families.

Everyone understands the value of work.

What is needed now is action to properly value work in terms that matter. . .at the bank and in the pockets of the poor.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Dead for the Lack of Daring

The words jumped off the plaque on the wall, stopped me in my tracks and forced me to think and to feel deeply.

"Unless we dream we shall never dare. Unless we dare, we shall never realize what we have dreamed."

These words of Ralph B. Rogers, the father of public broadcasting in Dallas, drive home a powerful truth--one that we must never forget as we work and live in the heart of the city.

Most of our failures today are the result of our failure to dare.

The status quo remains entrenched, not for a lack of intelligence, but because of our unwillingness to risk and to stretch beyond what's comfortable or generally accepted.

Reminds me of the scripture passage read in church last Sunday. Remember the story of Jesus walking across the Sea of Galilee and approaching the boat in which some of his followers were sailing?

Peter, the bold and impulsive one, asked if he could get out of the boat and walk to Jesus.

When Jesus replied, "Come on, then," Peter stepped out and walked. . .for a few steps. When he saw the waves and felt the wind, he began to sink. Jesus had to pull him out of the drink!

J. B. Phillips provides a great translation of Jesus' words to Peter after he had saved him from drowning: "What made you lose your nerve like that?"

The question is a good one, isn't it?

It is not enough to simply dream about change in the city.

It is insufficient to have a vision for public education that works for all of our children.

If all we do is discuss and draft great plans based on solid research about how to increase the availability and improve the quality of our workforce housing stock, we may as well pack it in.

You name the pressing urban issue--employment skills training, health care access and equity, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, the growing homelessness crisis, economic development, safety for our children, criminal activity, prison reform. . .the list is long and daunting.

And, dreams have their place.

Usually, though, we have dreams aplenty.

What we lack is daring.

Nothing, absolutely nothing that needs to change will change without a willingness to risk and to risk much.

If I am not willing to look like a fool in order to realize my dream, then I need to reconsider my dream, but even more importantly my soul, my heart. This is true for everyone claiming to care about our cities.

Here's a simple recipe for urban transformation no matter how challenging the city or the neighborhood.

Give me a group of people committed to one another.

Add to this commitment buy-in to a common vision.

Seal it all with a willingness to risk everything to realize the dream and I will show you world-changers and city-builders.

Ralph Rogers had it right.

The urban centers of America need men and women, teens and children who will step out and dare to do the impossible.

There is no other way.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Fear and the City

People ask me quite frequently, "Aren't you afraid living in the inner city?"

My answer is always about the same.

"No, I'm not afraid most of the time. Nothing in my experience so far makes me feel any more afraid here than in other places where I have lived. But there are times when it pays to exercise caution."

Fear is a powerful emotion. It possesses power to motivate or to de-motivate, that's for sure! And there are things to fear in the city, just as there are elsewhere.

How are we to manage our fears? I encounter this question often among the folks who are my neighbors. Fear can be an overwhelming force.

Yann Martel's marvelous novel, Life of Pi, offers this insight about fear in general:

"I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out. But disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier. Doubt does away with it with little trouble. You become anxious. Reason comes to do battle for you. You are reassured. Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology. But, to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low. You feel yourself weakening, wavering. Your anxiety becomes dread.

"Fear next turns fully to your body, which is already aware that something terribly wrong is going on. Already your lungs have flown away like a bird and your guts have slithered away like a snake. Now your tongue drops dead like an opossum, while your jaw begins to gallop on the spot. Your ears go deaf. Your muscles begin to shiver as if they had malaria and your knees to shake as though they were dancing. Your heart strains too hard, while your sphincter relaxes too much. And so with the rest of your body. Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.

"Quickly, you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you've defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.

"The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you." (pages 161-162)

Yann's wisdom, more fully spun out in his amazing story, counsels us to face fear.

Speak honestly to and about our fears.

Never turn away from that which we fear the most.

Keep walking, keep battling, keep speaking truth and keep trying to form alliances in the community where fear can be named and defeated.

Like Pi Patel, the hero of Yann's tale, we all encounter our own tigers and shipwrecks that must be faced, endured and, ultimately, defeated.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Do Business, Fight Poverty

"If we stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recognising them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious customers, a whole new world of opportunity will open up."

So says C. K. Prahalad, professor at the University of Michigan, in his new and controversial book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits (Wharton School Publishing). Prahalad calls big business to target the world's poorest consumers as they develop and roll out profit-making plans for the future.

Prahalad speaks of focusing on the BOP (bottom of the pyramid) rather than on those at the TOP. He argues that charity will not renew economies, that government aid and "corporate social responsibility" won't move the needle on world poverty. The problem with most traditional approaches to "helping the poor" has to do with how the recipients of assistance are regarded.

People cannot be lifted, they cannot move up if they are seen only as helpless victims.

Market forces can make amazing differences, but businesses will have to adopt new strategies and embrace completely different paradigms in order to be successful. In short BOP markets must become an important target in the future growth and success strategies of the corporations involved.

Prahalad argues that companies deciding to serve the 4-5 billion people who live on under $2 a day will find vast, new economic opportunity. The poor will benefit from having new choices and many of the penalties for being poor will fade away.

Currently, poor people around the world must pay a premium on everything from food to credit--often five to twenty-five times as much as the well off pay for the same goods and services. Prahalad is convinced that opening viable markets among the poor will be more profitable than focusing only on the TOP.

Corporations who adopt his suggestions will need to "re-engineer" their products to serve the economic realities at the bottom. Smaller packaging, lower margins per unit of sale and higher volumes will be what's needed to be successful at the bottom. At the same time, markets will need to be built from the ground up and consumers will need to be educated about everything from credit to handwashing.

Of course, critics and skeptics abound for Prahalad.

But what he writes rings true to me as I think about the urban poor in America.

Much of the market potential of our inner cities remains untapped. Poor people pay extraordinarily high rates of interest to pawn shops for small loans. They purchase food and other goods and services at a premium due to the absence of grocery stores and retail businesses that bring healthy competition to parts of metropolitan areas outside the inner city.

And yet, the market for goods and services is here.

What we need in our cities is exactly what is needed in developing nations. We need less charity. We need better public policy and more economic development that would encourage the growth of markets for people at the bottom in our cities.

Transformation would follow this sort of new development. Where are the urban pioneers for a city like Dallas?

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Sunday Meditations for Texans

Here in Texas lots of people will be in church today.

Oh yes, we are proud of our religious traditions. Living right here on the very buckle of the Bible belt, well, what could make life better?

We take our religion seriously in Texas. We are a Bible-toting, Bible-reading, Bible-believing people, us Texans, yes, indeed we are!

That being said, a recent report issued by the Office of the State Comptroller ought to give us pause as we meditate on our faith and our faithfulness as Texans on this day of religion and church attendance.

Here's a brief summary of the Comptroller's findings:

Texas ranks. . .
45th in per capita spending on public health.
46th in per capita spending on mental health.
49th in per capita spending on water quality.

Texas ranks. . .
50th in high school graduation rates.
48th in SAT scores.

Texas ranks. . .
1st in child population growth.
1st in the percentage of uninsured children.
48th in spending on child protection.

Texas ranks. . .
50th in percentage of the population with health insurance.
50th in percentage of low-income children who are insured.
48th in percentage of our poor covered by Medicaid.
45th in provision of substance abuse treatment.

Texas ranks. . .
7th in the number of persons who live in poverty.
2nd in percentage of the population that goes hungry.
3rd in percentage of the population that is malnourished.
47th in welfare and food stamp benefits.
49th in number enrolled in Women's, Infant and Children's benefit program.

Texas ranks. . .
2nd in national birth rate.
2nd in teen birth rate.
37th in prenatal care.

Texas ranks. . .
1st in toxic and cancerous manufacturing emissions.
1st in number of clean water permit violations.

Texas ranks. . .
9th in unemployment.
46th in hourly wage rate.
43rd in income distribution equality.
50th in government employee wages.

Texas ranks. . .
1st in number of executions.
1st in number of gun shows.
2nd in rate of incarceration.
5th in total crime rate.
11th in violent crime rate.
1st in number of registered machine guns.

Texas ranks. . .
44th in percentage of eligible voters that are registered.
47th in percentage of eligible voters that go to the polls.

In view of what the Bible teaches us about turning the other cheek, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, loving our neighbors as we love ourselves and caring for the poor, the weak and the oppressed, I'd say we have a lot to think and pray about on this day of faith. What do you think?

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Beyond Charity: Inner City Business Opportunities

Business opportunities abound in the inner cities of America.

Sounds counter-intuitive doesn't it?

But it is true.

Several years ago Harvard professor Michael Porter established the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City . I remember hearing Porter when he came to Dallas a decade ago.

Porter's method was ingenious. He picked out 800 zip codes in the 100 largest American cities where unemployment and poverty were at least 50% higher than in their metropolitan surrounding areas. He went to work as a champion of inner city development. The result? In those disadvantaged neighborhoods were 364 companies that grew an average of 866% in the five year period between 1998-2002!

What are the competitive advantages of inner city locations, as compared to suburban locations? Porter's list is impressive.

Most inner city neighborhoods are underserved by businesses. As a result and due to population density, they possess more buying power per square mile than other communities.

Inner city communities often are located closer to major transportation infrastructure. They also contain a labor force that responds with loyalty to new opportunities for work.

Property for development tends to be more readily available and less expensive.

Porter's working definition of an "inner-city company" is precise.

These unique companies are independent, for-profit corporations or partnerships. They are headquartered in or have at least 51% of their physical operations in an economically distressed urban area. They employ 10 or more workers. And, they have recorded a five-year sales history of at least $200,000 in 1998 and at least $1 million in 2002.

Thirty-two percent of the employees of these companies are minority as compared to just 11% nationwide. Inner-city companies provide health care, retirement benefits, life insurance, homeownership incentives and education and training at a rate well above national industry averages.

Here in Dallas at On-Target Supplies and Logistics, employees are required to pursue, at company expense, training or education that will lead to a promotion or a better job elsewhere. Employees who do not comply are fired. Albert Black, founder and CEO, says he just won't invest in employees who don't want to invest in themselves.

Inner-city companies make public schools stronger, as many higher paid employees find ways to become involved in their children's education. Further, these companies become deeply involved in the issues and needs of the communities where they are located. For many employees a company's commitment to improving the city is socially and ethically attractive.

Being close to the heart of the city provides companies a kind of cultural experience and context that stimulates and defines corporate identity in creative ways. In short, most of these companies are extremely dynamic. They are doing their part to challenge poverty and to help renew disadvantaged communities.

One of the reasons why those of us who care about attacking poverty are talking more and more about public policy, politics and economics is because we know that charity alone will never change the cities of America.

Charitable acts will always be necessary.

But what is really needed is social change at the systemic level.

Cities serious about providing opportunity for everyone, including low-income people, will work hard to encourage more corporations to move toward the city. Cities with a vision for making things work for everyone will find ways to encourage housing development and diversity in the heart of the city.

Moving beyond charity to real, sustainable change for urban areas means we need to be more than nice. We need to be smart and we need to be willing to take and to encourage creative risks.

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Hard Realities of Immigrant Labor

Immigration is a hot topic. Everyone seems to have an opinion about it.

A common theme has to do with employment and unemployment. Immigrants, especially undocumented or "illegal" immigrants, are said to be "taking jobs away from U. S. citizens."

That is likely a true statement.

The reason why it is true is more complex.

A recent report by Seven Greenhouse ("Among Janitors, Labor Violations Go With the Job," The New York Times, July 13, 2005, pages A1, A19) reveals how companies take unfair advantage of non-union janitors by contracting for custodial services.

Examples of unlawful labor practices include the hiring of minors, requiring employees to work more than 40 hours per week without overtime pay, assigning individual employees more than one name to cover up the extended hour practice, locking cleaning staff inside buildings overnight, forcing employees to work their first two weeks without pay and compensating janitors at less than the minimum hourly wage (ridiculously low at $5.15).

Janitorial services companies, attempting to come in as low bidders in competition to land cleaning contracts with large corporations, squeeze these non-union, immigrant workers to achieve their goals. Undocumented workers are easily exploited and intimidated. As a result, they put up with labor practices that citizens would not tolerate.

So, I guess they do fill jobs that U. S. citizens don't and won't.

If American companies behaved fairly in regard to this sector of the labor market, our citizens would fill these jobs. The decision to seek out labor that will work at far below livable and even legal wages opens the doors and, thus, the borders for undocumented workers.

Already during 2005, a number of large corporations have entered into multi-million dollar settlements after complaints were brought against their labor practices. Last March, Wal-Mart Stores settled with the U. S. Department of Justice for $11 million after raids on stores in 21 states. Wal-Mart uses janitorial contractors for cleaning services. These contractors employed undocumented workers to keep costs down and to secure the contracts.

Wal-Mart is not alone. Settlements have been reached with Target, Safeway, Albertson's and Ralphs. Testimony in these cases revealed that some janitors servicing these contracts worked seven nights a week for $3.50 an hour. Some reported working 364 days out of the year, with Christmas as their only day off. Others reported being threatened with firing if they took sick days.


Now let's see. Where's the problem here?

Is it that these are jobs no one else will do? I suppose so given the wages and the conditions.

Is this the fault of the immigrants? Or, is the real problem with the corporations who attempt to maximize their profits by choosing the lowest bidders without regard to social policy or basic humane considerations?

Is the problem with hard-working immigrants who take the jobs they can find? Or, is the real issue unscrupulous janitorial contractors who exploit vulnerable individuals to keep from paying citizens a legal wage with overtime and benefits?

Should our national frustration be directed at the worker who comes from south of our border? Or, would it be better to take aim at the part of corporate America that resists unions and seeks to keep wages as low as possible?

What about our own greed? What about my political will and power? Aren't we all implicated in many ways?

Seems to me we need to completely rethink the issue of immigration. And, while we are at it, we need to pay more attention to the harsh realities facing much of our labor force in this country.

The vigilantes who recently have been heralded for patrolling the Mexican border to intercept immigrants might better spend their time camped out at the Capitol in Washington or in the boardrooms of the nation's major corporations.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

City Stories: Lawyers who work for justice

[From time to time I will publish some of the real life stories from our work in the city offered up by those who are doing the hard, day-to-day work.

What follows is a description of one of the cases that our public interest law firm here at Central Dallas Ministries recently closed successfully. I think you will find it horrific, disturbing and inspiring, all at the same time.

Because I know and love our legal staff, I bristle when people offer negative characterizations of lawyers!

Ken Koonce is Neela's lawyer and he provides this report. Larry]

Neela had left a nightmare.

During 20 years of marriage, her husband had beaten her, thrown things, shot at her, and been routinely verbally abusive. After her husband’s last beating, at the end of which he almost drowned her, she had finally gotten out.

As was often the case, there had been no warning.

He had just grabbed her, hit her a few times, thrown her in a bathtub with running water, and held her under. Her son had to pull his father off of his mother. Finally convinced that if she stayed he would eventually kill her, she got her son in the car and left.

Having left a nightmare, however, she wound up in a bad dream.

After leaving the shelter, she found a job and got a Section 8 apartment.

She somehow managed to save enough to pay a lawyer about $2,000 to get started on the divorce. But the retainer was soon exhausted, and the lawyer would not work further on the case without more money. It seemed they had barely started the process, and she already owed another $2,500. She just didn’t have it.

So she and the kids lived in Section 8 housing on her $8 an hour job while her abusive husband sat comfortably in the family home they had rebuilt from the ground up on the piece of rural property they owned, and nothing was being done to change the situation.

Then Neela came to the LAW Center at Central Dallas Ministries.

It took time.

Her husband did everything possible to delay the case, and circumstances – including the untimely death of a judge - seemed to conspire with him to do so.

Eventually, however, the case was tried, and after seeing hospital records, pictures, and evidence of her husband’s conviction for assault, the Court gave Neela sole custody of the children, child support, and 75% of the community property. The sale of the home and property generated a nice nest egg for Neela and her children.

Having summoned the courage to leave a nightmare, Neela’s bad dream is now over, too.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

On Throwing Parties

Last weekend I helped facilitate the annual retreat for a board of a national organization. We met in a beautiful resort setting on the east coast. Over the past several years the organization has turned more and more of its attention and its resources toward urban matters, especially those relating to poverty and community development and organizing.

On Saturday evening we enjoyed a wonderful banquet. I gathered from comments made during the evening that the meal had become an annual tradition with the board. It was a most enjoyable event filled with conversation, the presentation of great thoughts, beautiful music and delicious food.

At one point during the evening, the master of ceremonies read this short paragraph from the Gospel of Luke:

"He [Jesus] said also to the one who had invited him, 'When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (14:12-14)

The reading fit the evening. At each table a place had been set for an "empty chair." The place for a missing person at each table prompted the group to discuss people who weren't present, including the poor and those who live with basic needs unmet on a daily basis.

As the words of Jesus were read, I couldn't help but notice the reactions of those who were serving our tables. They stood along the back wall of the room, listening intently. They exchanged glances with one another and nodded their heads in agreement.

The "snapshot" from the weekend was poignant and instructive. Most likely some of these folks understand very well the challenges associated with poverty, low wages and long hours.

They certainly understood the truth Jesus spoke. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think there is something for churches to learn just here. Much of church life is largely incomprehensible to the "unchurched." But the clear, simple, obvious words of Jesus connect with everyone. I have come to believe that much of the activity of the church is designed to complicate this compelling and challenging simplicity! It is as if we need to be protected from the bright light of this teacher's convicting wisdom.

At the end of the evening I noticed most of the board members interacting with these hard working waiters to express appreciation. They also answered questions about their organization that these curious observers threw at them. It was interesting observing this interchange.

Jesus was correct, of course. We need to learn to throw different kinds of dinner parties in this country. And they need to go beyond the typical meals we often arrange "for the poor and the homeless."

People who battle poverty need more than a meal. They need an invitation into the lives of those who never need to worry about the next meal, the next day at work or the next evening of sleep and relaxation.

"The poor" in America need to know that they have a place at the table and that they are very welcome to take it. They need to know that the nation's dinner conversation will never be complete without their presence.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Language As Power

According to the U. S. Census Bureau (1990), 97% of U. S. residents speak English "well" or "very well."

The 2000 Census reported that even though non-English-speaking immigration has grown as a percentage of all immigrants, rates of English fluency are also on a growth track.

Despite this rise in English language proficiency nationally, the "English-only" movement has gained momentum.

Twenty-four states have taken legal action to declare English as their official language. This means that residents in English-only states must interact with their local and state governments using only English, including at the polls on election days.

The English-only movement has stirred a national backlash against bilingual education and bilingual teaching strategies.

According to Andrew Hartman in his provocative essay, "Language as Oppression: The English-Only Movement in the United States" (Poverty & Race, Volume 14: Number 3, May/June 2005, pages 1ff), "most serious research supports bilingual instruction as the best means to advance language skills, thus enhancing long-term English acquisition."

Hartman argues that there is much more to the English-only movement than educational theory. He contends that the movement's attack on bilingual education is thoroughly racist and stands in our national tradition of colonialism and social control. Doing away with bilingual education allows for the immersion of immigrant children in public schools whose job it is to "forge 'commonalities'" for the national and common good.

I was struck by Hartman's documentation of the fact that Latinos who speak only English actually are worse off economically than those who speak no English. You may be asking how could this be? The question itself arises from our acceptance of another powerful, national myth.

The fact is Latinos who do not receive the benefits of the Spanish-speaking community find that these lost assets are not replaced by membership in the English-speaking community.

Hartman makes a compelling case from an educator's perspective that bilingual instruction is the best way for children to learn to speak English. Hear him out:

"A long-term national study has documented higher student achievement in bilingual classrooms than in traditional English as second language (ESL) classrooms or immersion (English-only) classrooms. . . .The level of a person's language skills will only be as advanced as the level of his or her first language. . . .Children who are immersed and mainstreamed in English-only classrooms prior to developing abstract skills will only learn functional English. Functional English may be all that is required to enable them, as adults, to work the monotonous, semi-skilled jobs that the market demands, but it hinders these future citizens from learning how to think abstractly, which in turn limits their ability to address societal problems" (pages 7-8).

You can obtain a copy of Hartman's fascinating essay by contacting him at It will be worth the time and effort.

As I read what he wrote, I began to think about the very obvious missed opportunity right before us.

To take advantage of it, to capture it before it is too late will require that we behave as members of an authentic national community.

Our nation and our world is changing.

All of our children need language training. All of us need it as well!

It is certainly true for us here in Dallas that every English-speaking child needs to learn and master Spanish in preparation for life in our world just as badly as every Spanish-speaking child needs to develop the capacity to speak English to be successful.

Our children are together every day.

Am I wrong or is there not a great opportunity here for all of our children to help one another and in the process make our community, our neighborhoods and our nation stronger in many, many ways?

Is there no way to teach all of our children both languages and in the process allow them to deepen their understanding of one another?

Is it the funding that stops us? Or, is Hartman correct? Is it cultural and racist?

We must open our eyes and do better for the sake of our children and our future.