Sunday, August 29, 2010

I have a dream...about living wage jobs


I've been thinking a lot about the root causes of hunger (poverty), and this is what I have to say on the topic today:

On August 5, 2007, the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, Dean of Duke University Chapel, preached a sermon entitled, "Is there a gospel for the rich?" (http://www.chapel.duke.edu/documents/sermons/2007/070805.pdf) If I can humbly summarize his argument, I would say that his thesis was this: that money is not inherently dirty (and perhaps having money is not inherently wrong), but that being rich makes being faithful so much harder than it has to be, because rich people are often consumed with ownership over their world. They misunderstand what it means to have things, because everything belongs to, was given to people by God. Including grace. Grace is incommensurable with other things that money can buy, and being rich makes people, as Dean Well put it, "forgetful" of this fact. The gospel for the rich (especially those who are already rich and looking around at their money in disdain) is that they can and should give their money away, not by "an unthinking throwing of money at the poor", but by investing in people, in institutions governed in such a way as to not reinforce systems of oppression, in our government in the form of taxes, and in the private sector, wielding their wealth for good rather than evil.

This is a brave thesis and one I appreciate as a person of immense privilege and a member of the upper-middle class. For many people who have already accumulated massive wealth, this is a comforting message: It's not too late. And I can see why Dean Wells went the way he did with his sermon, because I think, really, the message that it's never too late is the good news for everyone, not just the rich. But I do reject the idea (moving somewhat beyond Dean Well's point) that any type of post hoc investment can serve as an acceptable moral or faithful "safety valve". The amassing and then relinquishing of large amounts of money, I would argue, is not the best, nor the correct way, to go about changing the world. I disagree with Dean Well's rejection of the idea that "there's something inherently dirty about money" and that "every cent have is taken directly out of the pockets of the poor." While I don't think that the world economy is a zero-sum equation, there are too many instances in which the rich are getting richer while the poor (who the rich know and employ) are getting poorer. This gets back to one of the ideas I posted in my last blog entry (an idea worded so poignantly by Joel Berg:) "...Americans are willing to accept that we have poverty despite wealth, but they are loathe to consider that we often have poverty because of wealth."

During a visit to see Robert Egger, founder and president of the DC Central Kitchen (www.dccentralkitchen.org), yesterday, I was struck by his idea that focus on how and how much people give away at the ends of their lives is missing the point and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. It's not about how you give your money away; it's about how you make it in the first place. Why is it admirable to give away all of your money to help the poor, who you helped place in poverty by paying less than a living wage? Why is it socially and politically acceptable to start large philanthropies to work on health issues with money gained through ownership of a business that constructed its employment opportunities in such a way as to avoid offering health care to its lowest paid workers? Where does this pattern leave the working poor between the time they work for a corporation and the time the CEO starts a foundation to benefit the poor? It seems to me that government is letting the rich borrow billions from the poor only to take the large majority of the dividends for themselves and distribute the remaining dividends among (often) different sub-populations of poor people. The return on philanthropic investment here does not even begin to make up for the cost of pulling the money together to make that investment in the first place, evidenced by the fact that we continue to have millions who live in poverty.

Yesterday was the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream speech". But as columnist Roland S. Martin wrote yesterday (http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/08/27/martin.king.dream/index.html), the speech, actually entitled "Normalcy: Never Again" was not just about color but also about equality in economic opportunity. The "March on Washington" was actually the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom". In order to honor this man and the importance of the worst recession since the Great Depression, we should stop looking to charity to save the world. We should challenge the idea that we can get rich just to give everything away while maintaining a clean conscience. The rich (including me) must realize their role in upholding and, for some, running institutions that keep people from earning wages to keep them out of poverty. The gospel for the rich is not about investment in philanthropy, but about investment in workers. Today, I have a dream that my generation, my policy makers, my neighbors, the CEOs of companies who make products that I buy, would focus on encouraging prosperity by insisting that work really pays.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Joel Berg---quite the character


For the less nerdy but still interested friends of food policy out there, you should know about Joel Berg. He served in several high-level positions in the USDA during the Clinton administration and is now the Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. In fact, I actually sat in on a few meetings with him during my work for Ben Thomases (then-Food Policy Coordinator for NYC) and had dinner with him and a few other students during a visit he made to Duke last fall. To sum up a very big man in a few words, he is a brilliant, unapologetically liberal, often over-the-top activist who is more than passionate about people's right to food. More specifically, he believes it is the job of the government to uphold and enable that right by providing the needy with adequate nutrition assistance (SNAP, WIC and the like). I actually don't think he'd mind me saying that on the occasions I've seen him speak, both in public and one-on-one to colleagues, he has gotten so worked up that he started sweating through his shirts and wheezing between clauses in his sentences. It's both comical and inspiring to watch someone who cares that much about justice do his thing.

While he really needs no help plugging his book (he's an expert if not subtle self-promoter), I would encourage anyone who's interested to read his book, All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? (2008). We were assigned the book as part of our training, and I thought, as a public service to you all, I'd share a few surprising and interesting tidbits (stats current as of 2008):
  • 35.5 million Americans, including 12.6 million children, live in a condition described by the federal government as "food insecurity," which means their households either suffer from hunger or struggle at the brink of hunger. (15)
  • 88 percent of households on food stamps contained either a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. (18)
  • Thus, while much of the public still thinks that most poor people are healthy but unemployed, that describes less than one in five of the people in poverty--and many of those actively are looking for work. (133)
  • American as willing to accept that we have poverty despite wealth, but they are loath to consider that we often have poverty because of wealth. (139)
  • [Quoting President Bush in his 2007 State of the Union Address:] "When I graduated from college, the average corporate executive made 209 time what the average worker did. Today, it's nearly 400 times. In other words, it takes the average worker more than a year to make the money his or her boss makes in one day." (142)
  • In 2006, adult women were 41 percent more likely to be poor than adult men. (181)
  • A tenth of all black men between ages 20 and 53 are in jail or prison... (185)
  • [Quoting a 2008 Father's Day speech by Barack Obama:] "...We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child--it's the courage to raise one." (188)
  • Trying to end hunger with food drives is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon. (191)
  • A 41% increase [in the federal nutrition safety net] would entirely eliminate food insecurity in America... (238)
  • We can end food insecurity in America for just the cost of what the federal government spends on a year of agribusiness subsidies... (238)
  • [Quoting Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968:] "What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger?"
So much to think about here. You can learn more about Joel at joelberg.net and www.nyccah.org. And of course, if you ever have an opportunity to hear Joel speak, by all means go! It will be an experience you won't soon forget.

Marie

(Photo from joelberg.net)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Social Justice Boot Camp

Unfortunately I had fairly limited internet access this summer and so was unable to share all the joys of working with children with autism. I had an absolute blast and am so thankful for the staff at the YMCA, who made even the toughest (and sweatiest) hours at camp bearable, even fun! I wish I could post pictures of some of my campers because they were completely adorable. Their very "normal" looking smiles are reminders that autism and other special needs are not diseases and they're not contagious. As my co-counselor Ariel posted in one inspired Facebook update, people with special needs want what we all want, to be accepted. I also loved living with Cherrie and her family and taking a beginning wheel pottery class at Durham's Claymakers (www.claymakers.com). After several defeats at the hand of the electric wheel, I actually came out with some decent pieces (pictures to come)! I'm not sure how many ice cream bowls a girl can have, but I know I can never have enough ice cream, so hopefully I'll find a use for them all.

I'm now back in Dallas preparing for fellowship training, which includes a somewhat frustrating mix of goodbyes, packing, and endless pages of summer reading. I'll be embarking on what I lovingly refer to as social justice boot camp in DC next week, and then I'll move on to Phoenix with my new friend Matthew and way too many boxes of useless but sentimental junk that I can't seem to let go of. I'm looking forward to some new scenery, new people, and the luxurious-looking swimming pool at my Phoenix apartment complex! In preparation for my adventure in living alone, I went out and purchased a crock pot (complete with fancy timer and meat thermometer) to try out some cooking light crock pot recipes, and a new pair of running shoes, lest my crock pot creations result in significantly enlarged buttocks. Hope to share some especially successful slow cooker recipes here in the next month or so!

Finally, I have to plug Eat, Pray, Love with the ever-lovely Julia Roberts. I saw it yesterday and, from a foodie perspective, I have to agree with her conclusions about the inevitability (and acceptability) of a food lover's muffin top. Sometimes the pleasure of flavor is worth the pain of having to lie flat on your back to zip up your skinny jeans.

Until my next post, happy eating to all!

Marie