Making Ourselves Feel Better

Many years ago, when working with suicidal children, I was in a staff meeting in which children who were in our program were referred to as having “failed.” They were said to have “failed” in their placements or in their family. Even though I had been at my position for less than a few weeks, I raised my hand to object to this sort of characterization. The Executive Director argued the legitimacy of his point with an attitude of you’ll feel the same way once you’ve been around the block a bit more. More than fifteen years later (and having been around the block, albeit not in the field of direct care) I still hold that those kids were not failures at all.

We hear some of the same language being applied to members of the underclass. That they have somehow failed to avail themselves of all the great opportunities for success that America holds. Or we are told that poor folks are that way because of pathological behaviors, such as drug addiction or alcoholism, that are somehow innate in just these people.

What this language of failure is really meant to do, though, is not to describe (at least accurately) the plight of either of these groups. Rather, it is a way to make ourselves (adults, non-poor) feel better, to let ourselves off the hook and to collectively demonize others for what are often failures of our society, its structure and its values. It mischaracterizes reality and makes very complex matters into simplistic good/bad narratives.

When we label children who try to take their own lives, or are in danger of harming themselves, as “failures” we shift blame away from adults, our mental health system, and our values as a society. Take a moment to think about what on earth would make a four year old child want to run in front of a car or an eight year old try to cut her wrist. It’s chilling, to say the least. These were children who had been abused, molested and neglected. They sought an escape from the pain they were faced with every day. And yet, we want to say they failed? No, it is we who have failed.

And we fail in myriad ways, as adults, as a society, to nurture and protect our children. But we also fail to truly help the needy. We provide a meager social safety net, because we are too busy blaming poor people for being poor.

We refuse to be introspective and thoughtful, because to do so would lead to the inexorable conclusion that we are a sick society. We turn a blind eye to child molestation when it is carried out by someone who wears a collar or who coaches a football team. We ignore sexual assault when it’s the star quarterback. We drug test public assistance recipients because we would rather believe they are all shiftless junkies than examine the role that class and white privilege play in our society. We dismiss domestic violence when it’s someone whose records are platinum. We sweep vicious bullying under the rug because those gay kids probably just brought it on themselves.

It is far, far easier to either ignore our very real problems than to account for our shortcomings. God forbid, we might actually even try to remedy some of them. Instead we will continue to worship at the shrine of the dollar, label all those who have needs as failures, and entertain ourselves to death. After all, that is the new American way.

The Best Present I Ever Got

With the holidays passed it is a good time to reflect not on the presents I received this year, but rather to write about what is, without doubt, the most important gift I ever received. It will probably come as no surprise to the people who know me that this gift came from my parents, with whom I am still incredibly close. This gift is not something tangible, but it is (one would hope) something that all parents would give to their children, along with love- my values.

This year, like the past several, I gave to charity in my parents’ names. As I sat down at my computer to select a charity and to find just the right quote to include in their e-cards, I meditated on why I was doing this and what it means to be engaged with the world around us. What follows is my attempt to capture those thoughts and feelings and something of a description of from where they came.

I was raised in a decidedly non-religious household. My folks seemed to only go to church for weddings and funerals, though I would frequently go to Sunday school and later church with my paternal grandmother. I do not believe that any of my grandparents (other than paternal grandmother) were particularly religious, either. Yet, my parents both grew up in families that we are at least nominally Christian/religious. All that is to say that I am not convinced that the values my parents passed on to me were driven by religious teachings or beliefs, no matter how much they align with what might be called Christian social justice teachings (of a Protestant/Methodist character).

From a pretty young age (probably younger than I can recollect, as I am old), I was taught not only to respect others, but that we had an obligation to others. That meant giving to charity, donating clothes, and volunteering time (especially my dad with youth sports). My family was not wealthy (probably middle that rose to upper middle by my teen years), so this service to others was not rooted in any sense of noblesse oblige. Rather it was a deep and abiding belief in the value of others, regardless of personal characteristics like income, race, or education. I was taught to always think of others and not to be consumed with material things (I still struggle with the latter).

These core values have driven or at least helped to shape every decision I have made as an adult. I entered politics because I wanted to serve others and improve the lot of children in our public education system. I worked in direct care of children, rather than the far more lucrative financial services sector, because so many things are more important than money. (I should note that my ability to work for less than market wages was completely underwritten by my parents’ willingness to subsidize my rent and other expenses.) I went to graduate school for public policy so that I might hone the skills necessary to create a better society, via robust social welfare and educational systems. I’ve worked in public finance for much of the same reasons. And, I now work in program evaluation in STEM education as a way to address dramatic educational achievement gaps. Along the way I have also continued to give to charity, volunteer my time and advocate for policies that would help to ensure a more just society.

As cliche as this might sound- I owe who I am to the values my parents have instilled in me. They taught me to be a compassionate, loving person. And that is the greatest gift anyone could ever receive. I am forever grateful.

What We Owe (archives)

Does God call us to take care of our less fortunate fellow men? That is a question much on my mind in recent weeks. You see, as part of my daily commute to school and the gym I pass by areas where the homeless of Atlanta congregate and sleep. Every night I drive by church steps where men and women sleep. Every day I see the lines for food at the soup kitchens. And I think to myself, what is so wrong in our society that these men and women are forced to live their lives in doorways and public parks. And, why aren’t we doing more about it?

All too often we turn away from the problems of homelessness. We either chose to lament that our government does not do more to alleviate their plight. Or, we simply chose to ignore the downtrodden among us. Perhaps it is because we see ourselves in these faces. What makes me or you or any of us different from the man or woman sleeping on a park bench? Think about it. Maybe you can persuade yourself that you are somehow better off because of your own life choices or that you are inherently better than these people. But, if you look deep inside your soul, do you really believe that?

I look at my own circumstance and I have a very comfortable life. I have a graduate degree and will finish my law degree in another 18 months. I drive a reasonably nice car and have a fairly high standard of living. But what if I was not born into the family I was? What if my parents could not, or did not, have the means to support me? What if my dad had lost his job when I was ten? Or if my mother had been stricken with breast cancer? Any number of small changes in life could have put me in those same soup kitchen lines and sleeping in church doorways.

There are those among us who content themselves by blaming the homeless and poor for their plight. And, sure there are some folks who made wrong decisions that caused their problems. But there are many others who simply have not made it in our society through no fault of their own. If you are passed through school without being able to read or write, is it your fault? If you have a mental illness is it your fault?

There are tens of millions of people in America who go hungry and without shelter every day. And yet we can spend billions of dollars to invade foreign countries? We give away huge tax breaks to millionaires while others cannot afford a cup of coffee. We encourage the exportation of jobs to third world countries while the only job some people have is washing windshields in traffic.

To say that we have our priorities skewed is an understatement. All of the world’s religions include in their teachings a calling to serve the poor. Yet we fail to heed this call. We have grown selfish and callous towards those who are less fortunate. We seem to be of the belief that the way to happiness and knowing God is to have the latest and shiniest goodies. We build ornate palaces in which to live, spend and worship, while allowing our brothers and sisters to sleep outside like wild animals.

We must change our ways if we are to ever attain salvation. We must help her out when she is down; mend his scars when he is injured; feed her when she is hungry; clothe him when his clothes are torn. In short, we must heed God’s call to service; we must cease our consumerist ethic, where happiness is judged by material wealth and replace it with a new one in which service to others and being a good person are of primary concern.

(originally posted September 2006)

Let Them Eat Dirt

The poverty numbers out today are not only discouraging, but they highlight the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots in our society. Sure, it is hardly surprising that in a time of deep recession that poverty would increase. But we should be cautious not to write this off as a mere side effect of the Great Recession.

The problem we face is not merely poverty itself, but the yawning gap in income inequality. And while some of the policies we might enact to reduce poverty are short term in nature, the real effort must be focused on reducing income inequality. Programs such as unemployment insurance and food assistance are stop gap measures that do very little to ensure that a person, or family, remains above poverty. (In fact, such assistance programs do not even get a person or family up to the poverty level.)

What we really need are programs and policies that will reduce the enormous, and unsustainable, gap between the super rich and the poor. Adequate funding for primary and secondary education, scholarships and reduced tuition for public colleges and universities, public housing, and other social safety net programs must be strengthened. These types of programs help to promote upward mobility and poverty reduction over the long run.

Unfortunately, we live in a society and political climate where such investments are viewed as budget busters, despite their long term benefits. An entire political movement is fueled by the idea that someone, somewhere is getting something for nothing. And propelled by the rhetoric of personal responsibility, such that the poor are solely at fault for their plight. Never mind our legacy of discrimination, never mind an economic landscape tilted in favor of those who already have so much, never mind a political system bought and paid for by corporate cash. The true reason you’re poor or homeless or hungry is because you have some inherent character flaw, some type of malignant laziness.

And so we fail not only to address poverty in the short term, but we ignore or even exacerbate income inequality. The same people who refuse to adequately fund poverty reduction are the same who want to renew an enormous tax cut to the wealthiest Americans. And while they try to paper over the true motivation with economic arguments, the reality is that there is scant evidence that the Bush tax cuts created jobs. Yet there is loads of evidence that shows pumping those same dollars into poverty reduction efforts will increase aggregate demand now, and reduce poverty (thus ensuring economic growth) in the future. There is simply no sound policy argument to be made for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

But the real rank hypocrisy on fiscal policy is that these same people who wish to continue a tax cut for the rich are the same ones who crowed about the impact on the deficit of extending unemployment benefits. So, increasing the deficit hundreds of billions of dollars so Paris Hilton can get a tax cut is good, ponying up $34 billion to help those without a job is going to break the bank?

The old saying, attributed to Marie Antoinette, about eating cake showed how out of touch an aristocrat was with the peasants. The GOP and the Tea Party have turned that into something even more despicable- let them (the poor, jobless and hungry) eat dirt.

Fixing Social Security

We are, once again, in the midst of another debate about Social Security. This is being fueled by contemporary fears about the deficit and debt. And lurking behind the scenes, as always, are the professional Social Security haters like Pete Peterson.

First off, we should dispense with the notion that Social Security is any sort of crisis. According to the trustees, the fund has sufficient revenue to last until 2037. While that is nearly thirty years away, it is not a bad idea to be proactive about ensuring Social Security’s long term stability. However, as I will argue below, raising the retirement age is not the right policy choice.

Current law dictates that the Social Security payroll tax is capped at an earnings level of $106,800. This presents policymakers with a host of revenue options, but two that are most appealing- (1) eliminate the earnings cap and pay out higher benefits to reflect the higher taxes collected; eliminate the earnings cap and pay no additional benefits. It is estimated that the first option would close roughly 95% of the trust find’s 75 year projected shortfall, which would necessitate a 0.1 percentage point increase in the payroll tax. Option 2 would actually do more than close the 75 year projected shortfall, and give policymakers the option of lowering the tax rate or banking the surpluses. (for full explanation, see here)

Either one would be a sensible, and simple, solution to addressing Social Security’s longterm soundness. Unfortunately, we live in a time where a tax increase is seen as some great scourge that will ruin our economy. Never mind that if given the option most voters would support lifting the earnings cap rather than cutting benefits.

Bolstered by an alliance between Tea Party, Republicans (yes, one in the same, I know), “fiscally responsible” Democrats and professional entitlement opponents like Peterson, we are now having a debate about raising the retirement age. The debate is dishonest from the get-go, as the retirement age at which someone can receive full benefits has increased since the 1930’s. It currently sits at 67 and provides incentives to wait until 70.

The notion of officially raising it to 70 seems to have the most appeal to people who, like myself, hold at least a four year degree and work in a white collar industry. It is particularly attractive to members of Congress and the wealthy, though. You see, retired Representatives and Senators enjoy a very generous defined benefit retirement plan. They do not have to rely on Social Security, even to help get by, as most other Americans do. And the wealthy, of course, have been able to bank significant retirement assets outside of the Social Security system.

But there are many others who support an increase in the age who are neither wealthy nor members of Congress. People who are not unlike myself. We work in offices, doing work that may be at times mentally stressful, but is never physically difficult. It’s easy to work that type of job until you’re 70 or 75 or maybe even 80+ if you wanted. But the key here is that people like me would be making a choice to work beyond normal retirement age because our jobs have not left us bruised and battered. Or worse.

If only the age-raisers would spend some time in the coal fields, or on an oil rig, in a factory or any other number of places where millions of Americans engage in backbreaking labor everyday maybe, just maybe, they would see that raising the retirement age to 70 is no solution at all. Do we really, as a society, want to tell 67 year old laborers- hang on, just a few more years, and you’ll be there? If so, then we are no society worth living in.

Prudence Should Trump Politics

When my boss came back to the office from a briefing this morning, he told me about the December revenue numbers and my comment was something to the effect of you know they’ll spend it ASAP. Apparently, I was right. While I am overjoyed that MA revenues have exceeded projections, especially in December, I don’t think that now is the time to restore some of the 9c cuts. Between the Governor’s commitment to restore regional school transportation and the $14 million restoration of TAFDC, the money is already spent.

Now, it should come as no surprise that I favor spending on social safety net programs and believe that we (in MA and nationally) spend far too little money on these programs. So then why do I think that restoring some cuts is bad policy? Well (and hopefully I am not speaking out of school) close to half of the increase in the December revenue numbers is due to tax settlements. This is not actual revenue growth, but merely one time events. And, one or two months of okay revenue numbers does not make a healthy fiscal year. There are no guarantees that January through June will meet, let alone exceed, the October projection (new revenue projection for FY10 is due out about the 15th and it will be interesting to see how DOR/ANF view the world).

The danger here, in case it is not yet obvious, is that the state’s fiscal picture could worsen between now and the close of the fiscal year. Then what? Do we go back and make further 9c cuts? Do we take back the money we restored in January?

What the administration ought to do is put the higher revenue into the stabilization fund. I do not advocate that as a means of replenishing, but rather as a safe place to store cash in the event that it becomes necessary between now and July 1. Of course, as we get closer to the end of the FY, if revenue numbers continue to improve then we ought to consider restoring some of the painful cuts that have been made. But only insofar that those funds are not going to be needed simply to provide level services in FY11.

Alas, this just is not politically feasible. First, everyone on Beacon Hill likes to spend money. Especially given the drastic cuts that have been made this year. Plus, it’s an election year and putting money into the stabilization fund, though prudent fiscal policy, is not sexy politics. It’s really just that simple.

Stupid Religious Tricks

The pro-lifers want to spend $4 million on a Super Bowl ad. What would possess anyone to waste that sort of money on an advertisement that will be tuned out by 99.99% of the viewership? Considering that such ads have not been approved by the networks or the NFL in the past, I sense that much of this story is an attempt to get some free publicity for the forced childbirth lobby.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the ad does air. And let us further assume that the true goal of the pro-lifers is reduction of abortions (this is debatable; and I say that as someone with deep experience in the pro-life community). Is this money well spent? In other words, will anyone considering an abortion not have one due to this ad? I would say that is very unlikely. But imagine if we used that $4 million to promote better access to birth control, or provide comprehensive sex education. In other words, why not spend the money on programs that will actually reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place?

I will tell you why. Because most of the pro-life community are religious zealots who not only oppose abortion, but also oppose birth control and sex education. And there is more than a little bit of a desire to “punish those dirty little sluts.” To the pro-life community, the fetus is nothing more than a fetish or idol. It’s tempting to say that their concern for life begins at conception and ends when the baby passes through the birth canal, but they do not even care about prenatal care for the fetus or its mother. You won’t see them lobbying for adequate children’s health care or increasing aid to poor families with children, either.

And beyond the lack of efficacy is an even bigger question about priorities. Why spend $4 million to air a 30 second ad about abortion when there are tens of thousands of children going hungry each day? Or when many of those same children do not have a bed to call their own?

It’s because the Religious Right is obsessed with sex. Never mind that the Bible speaks far more often about alleviating poverty and taking care of the needy than it ever does about human sexuality. Why bother helping to feed the hungry when you can rail against some gay people who want to get married? Why try to alleviate homelessness when there are women who want an abortion?

Nothing makes me more angry than these religious assholes. They are exploiting people’s faith for monetary gain. It’s all a fucking scheme. Many, if not most, of the leaders probably care very little about gays or abortion. What they do care about, though, is the amount of money that will come rolling in every time they attack the “sinners.” I hope that there is a special place in hell for these hucksters and their flocks.