This little vignette summarizes the "predicament of the prosperous." In a society which plays a kind of musical chairs with too many people racing around too few chairs, winning and losing are par for the course. I am a winner; he is a loser. It is also curiously reminiscent of the Good Samaritan Parable - the priest and the levite walked by on the other side of the road; the Samaritan stopped to help. Only I was priest and levite, not Samaritan. Telling the parable is easy; living it is not.
This is Palm Sunday in the Christian world. It is also Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Membership Sunday. What do the two have in common?
Only this. Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, championed the poor, while challenging the rich. How do I know? My Bible professor told me so.
Morton Scott Enslin was a staunch Baptist and a conservative Republican. Nonetheless, he portrayed Jesus as a friend of the poor. That was why the authorities were initially suspicious and finally fearful of his presence in Jerusalem during that last fateful week. Enslin contended that "the common people heard him gladly." Jesus also said it was "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God," a text curiously forgotten by those who find prosperity to be a sign of God's blessing.
Several years ago, while returning from a Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Board of Director's meeting, the issue of poverty in the midst of plenty really hit me. The Service Committee works to empower the powerless, reduce poverty, and harness Unitarian Universalist energies to do so. Its Promise the Children program makes it one of the nation's leading child welfare advocates.
But back then I had read a UNICEF report about the deaths worldwide of over 40,000 children daily, just after reading a Wall Street Journal story about top business executives with incomes in 6 and 7 figures who worried about their financial well-being - they weren't sure they had enough. This juxtaposition angered me, and in that dramatic moment I vowed to make my ministry one of constantly challenging the affluent and advocating for the poor.
I have been thinking a good deal about welfare reform these days. Most recently I read a provocative article by Peter Edelman, former welfare advisor to President Clinton, who resigned in protest over the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 - welfare reform. Edelman is husband of Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, friend, or former friend, of Hillary and Bill Clinton. Edelman asked, "What is the worst thing President Bill Clinton has done?" Signing that bill won hands down.
Not only do Edelman and I hate welfare as we know it, so do the vast majority of welfare recipients. But before we literally throw out the baby with the bathwater, we ought to acknowledge what it has accomplished.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Baines Johnson's Great Society War on Poverty have cut the number of poor elderly in half, given millions adequate health care, and have lifted other millions out of poverty.
To personify that admittedly inadequate achievement, I recently asked a former member of our church, whom I will call SR, and who has given me permission to tell her story, to detail her experiences on welfare. She was a self-described "middle class mom...(with) two great kids and a job I loved, working with kids with physical disabilities." Getting out of a bad marriage had taken any excess funds she had, but she owned (with the bank) a small home and "was blessed with children who thought shopping at thrift shops was more of an adventure than the malls....We were the poor folks in a rich suburb, but we managed, and were happy."
However, her teenage daughter had cystic fibrosis, a debilitating and ultimately fatal illness. When her daughter's condition deteriorated quickly, SR felt she needed to be home with her to provide the increasingly time-consuming therapies that were her only hope of staying alive until donor lungs were found. "Within 6 weeks, I had completely run through my savings, and applied for public assistance....
Since both her children were "special needs" kids, she also received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for both of them and about $60 a month in food stamps; her son was eligible for free school lunches.
"We made it, but just barely. We could cope with our very reduced circumstances because we knew this was a temporary situation....Public assistance did not save my daughter's life, but it gave us the chance to give her the best shot possible. I was able to spend her last year with her, and at the same time meet the needs of her brother. Without public assistance to enable me to be home, there is no doubt in my mind (she) would have died much sooner. But taxpayers would have paid a horrendous bill in the meantime for the 24 hour nursing care she required. I can't begin to imagine what the stress of having to work, instead of being with (her) would have done to me physically and emotionally.
"I am very grateful for public assistance, but receiving it was neither pleasant nor easy." SR detailed problems with case workers, lack of privacy in welfare offices and humiliation in using food stamps at suburban grocery stores.
Her daughter died three-and-a-half years ago, and SR stayed on public assistance for another year, while beginning grad school. Having found grant money and a loan program, she chose to stop receiving welfare benefits, though as a student she was still eligible. Now she has moved from our area and is working in a not-for-profit clinic providing health care to poor children.
"I am once again part of the middle class, and expect to be out of debt soon. When I hear people gripe about people on welfare, I quietly say that I was a welfare Mom, too, and that I was not an aberration, but absolutely the norm, two years and off. Two of the nurses I work with have also needed public assistance at one time in their lives. I suspect that the experience of being in need, and receiving help, is part of why they are working for low pay, and providing wonderful care to a difficult population."
It is hard to say how this story would have turned out under the new welfare reform regime. Many of the props which supported SR are missing now. About 135,000 children will be reclassified as not disabled and will lose SSI benefits - especially those with multiple problems, no one of which is serious enough to qualify under the new and more stringent requirements. Food stamps and child nutrition programs have been cut.
A five-year life-time limit has been imposed, a "drop-dead" feature designed to end welfare dependency. Interestingly Medicaid has not suffered such severe cuts - why? Perhaps because many middle class people have parents in nursing homes paid for by Medicaid. Governor George Pataki's father lived for many years in a retirement home - paid for by taxpayers.
On the positive side, current welfare reform seeks to end dependency and put welfare recipients to work. Work is good both for body and soul. However, it is fascinating to see those who have insisted that women stay home to raise their children now want to require poor women to work or else. But there will not be enough family-sustaining jobs for the wave of new job seekers, and a recent Albany Times Union report on job growth in New York State is not encouraging.
Edelman writes, "We have been reduced to the politics of the waitress mom. She says, all too legitimately, 'I bust my tail. I don't have decent child care. I don't have health coverage. Why should 'these people' get what I don't have?'" The answer, of course, is that we need to help not only the desperately poor but also the working poor who are just barely making it.
I find the current version of welfare reform morally repugnant in its overwhelming reliance on the stick instead of a carrot. Its understanding of human nature is that people are inherently lazy and dependent, wish to exploit the public and will cheat to do it, though less than 2% do. It is arbitrary in forcing people into a "one size fits all" Procrustean Bed with little attention to human individuality or circumstance. Its provisions for child care, work training and education are grossly inadequate.
It is estimate this legislation will push more than a million children into poverty. Eleven million families will lose income, including 8 million families with children. The only deep, multi-year budget cuts actually enacted to balance the federal budget affected low income people - they have no PACs, nor do their advocates sleep in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House.
Corporate welfare, like prosperous Monroe County companies getting tax breaks without meeting job-creating requirements, middle-class entitlements like mortgage deductions and the boondoggle of military spending get a free pass. Only a few of us complain about them because many of us are beneficiaries - but this is not welfare, or is it?
This welfare legislation is "legislative child abuse," mean-spirited, ideologically driven and draconian. This "prune and punish" philosophy has compromised our nation's commitment to the poor. In America it is women and children last.
In my more pessimistic moments I believe we have ceased to be a nation of citizens, and have instead become a self-righteous collection of taxpayers. There is a moral chasm between the two.
Let me illustrate my concern. I recently attended a program at Rochester's Children's Collaborative in the YWCA with Richard Schauseil, Director of Monroe County's Department of Social Services. Having heard him assure us that children would not be hurt by the 5-year lifetime welfare limitation, I asked him what would happen to me and my children if I were a parent who had used up my five years? How does my cut-off not hurt my children? How much collateral damage to my children is acceptable in order to punish me? He didn't know - but thought they were good questions.
Perhaps I should just give up being a citizen and become simply a taxpayer. How good it will feel to spend the percentage of my income wasted on welfare, all 1.2% of it in Monroe County. How good I will feel when I receive my state income tax cut this year, and perhaps a future federal cut, knowing I no longer bear any responsibility for those who cannot compete in our increasingly competitive economy, who lose out in the musical chairs game of the modern market.
In a competitive society what do we do with the losers? What do we do with the drug-store beggar? What do we do with those who cannot find seats in the game of musical chairs that is the intensely competitive American economy?
What would I propose in its place? Do the names Milton Friedman, Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan ring a bell? Friedman, a Nobel Prize-winning conservative economist, proposed a Negative Income Tax to end poverty. He suggests an income floor under which no one would be allowed to fall - an entitlement - I would call it a citizen's wage. Poor people could build on that floor by working, keeping the lion's share of their earnings. The current system usually penalizes work effort - loss of income, health and child care benefits; it encourages cheating to survive. Working would always leave one better off than not working, very much like underfunded current programs like the federal Earned Income Tax Credit or the state Earned Income Disregard or Monroe County's Child Assistance Program demonstration project.
As earnings rise, people would be taxed at progressive levels - the more one earns, the greater percentage one pays. Friedman believes, as I believe, as most economists believe - self-interest is a powerful motivator. This plan combines the best features of the safety net and economic incentives.
In 1971, Senator Moynihan, then domestic advisor to President Nixon, proposed a similar Family Assistance Program. It was defeated by a coalition of conservatives who opposed any guarantee and liberals who thought the guarantee was too low. My opposition to that measure, a sermon on "Guaranteed Annual Poverty," is one of my most embarrassing public pronouncements. This Friedman/Moynihan/Nixon/Gilbert proposal remains a sound idea, though its adoption is somewhat akin to the chances of the University of Rochester Yellowjackets beating the Chicago Bulls.
People are not cost effective. The "street person" at my drugstore will need a social investment far beyond my personal capacity if he is to become self-reliant. Some people will never be able to make it on their own. There but for the grace of God go any one of us. But many people, like my friend SR, will be able to make it through a combination of public assistance and work if the incentives are there.
I believe as citizens we have a civic duty to "aid, care for and support" the needy as it says in Article 17 of our State Constitution. More important, I believe justice for society's have-nots is a responsibility that falls most heavily on those of us who have.
Our society is like Fulghum's game of musical chairs. It is not a game, however, but a serious struggle for the prize. And it is the winners who not only write the history, but also write the rules of the contest. There are winners and there are losers. If you are a winner, great. If you are a loser, too bad. Can't we find a better way? Can't we all find a place to sit down - together?