Showing posts with label poverty. Show all posts
Showing posts with label poverty. Show all posts

Monday, October 07, 2013

Boehner needs to hear from these mothers

Here's another email I sent to the SierraRise community yesterday. The writing was definitely a team effort on this one.

Dear Friend,

Share on Facebook!
Share on Facebook!
Jessica moved from Texas to North Carolina to settle down and raise a family. But with just one income from her retail job, it's hard to make ends meet. It's about to get even harder -- if the government shutdown continues for even a few more days, the clinic that helps her feed her four-year old son may close. [1]

Speaker Boehner has the votes to prevent this and end the shutdown now. The SierraRise community sent him over 50,000 messages last week -- including yours! -- but the stakes are only getting higher.

We've put together an image that puts the focus on moms like Jessica -- and need to spread it far and wide to put pressure the House to end the shutdown.

Share the story of America's vulnerable mothers and children on Facebook so that your friends will join you in reminding the tea party House: This shutdown is not a game!

(Not on Facebook? Click here to email the original petition to your friends instead!)

The government has been dark for five days because Speaker Boehner and the tea party have so far refused to vote on a straightforward funding bill. From EPA staff out of work to kids with cancer being turned away from treatment, millions of Americans are feeling the pain. [2, 3]

Things are about to get even worse for 9 million low-income mothers who rely on the WIC program to feed their children. These mothers have no other safety net and, in many cases, no other affordable way to feed their children. One estimate is that funds will run out in just two days if the shutdown continues, and then moms like Jessica will have to make some really tough choices.

We can’t let that happen, not to them. Speaker Boehner has the power right now to end this senseless shutdown of services and get the government going again. He and the tea party extremists need to be reminded that this isn't a game -- real people are being impacted. 9 million mothers and their children.

50,000 voices is a huge start, but it still takes a little more to get the Speaker's attention. Will you harness our momentum by sharing this image on Facebook?

Jessica isn't alone. The stories keep pouring in from across the country, and we need to make sure they're heard in Washington.

Nicole in Grand Rapids, MI, has two daughters, a two-year old and an eight-month old. She told a local reporter, "You're angry because they are taking from the kids, but you're confused because you don't know what's the next step -- I work, and I can't afford to pay rent, and buy food and buy milk." [4]

In Allentown, PA, Cierra asked about her four-month old son, "What's going to happen to my baby? ... Am I going to have to scrounge up the little bit of change I do have for formula?" [5]

It's just heartbreaking -- and completely preventable. We need to put a face on what's at risk. Stand with America's most vulnerable citizens: our young children and new mothers. Will you share our graphic and demand an end to the shutdown today?

Standing together,

Nathan Empsall
SierraRise Senior Campaigner


1. Evans, Meghann (2013 October 3). "Some worried government shutdown will affect WIC." Winston-Salem Journal.

2. Achenbach, Joel (2013 October 2). "NIH trials turn away new patients as shutdown obstructs work of scientists, researchers." Washington Post.

3. Bravender, Robin and Emily Yehle (2013 October 4). "EPA enforcement takes severe hit under shutdown." Environment & Energy Publishing.

4. Walker, Heather (2013 October 1). "Gov't shutdown may affect WIC funding: Moms confused, hurt at possible loss of food aid." WOOD TV8.

5. Rubinkam, Michael (2013 October 3). "Poor moms fear loss of subsidized infant formula if government shutdown drags on." Associated Press via the Duluth News Tribune.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

What Obamacare does, and what the shutdown does

(A friend asked me for my thoughts on the Affordable Care Act. Thought I should turn my answer into a blog post.)

The quick summary: I support the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare). It's a far, far cry from perfect legislation and has a lot of flaws, but it's much better than the previous status quo. Even if I opposed it, however, I would not support shutting down the government over it. I'm no expert, but I am a well-read news junkie and political professional, and I've included a lot of links and sources in this post you can follow for more information.

The details: The ACA can be summarized -- warning, gross oversimplification coming -- in three buckets. The first two are very popular. The third is where most of the controversy lies, but is what makes the first two possible. On that note, it's worth pointing out right at the top that though most people say they oppose the law, some of those same polls show they also don't know what's in it. And when they're asked if they support this specific policy or that specific policy, they do, without realizing they're part of the ACA. (Indeed, Obamacare has a 46-29 approval rating and the ACA is at 37-22 in a recent CNBC poll, but one's a nickname for the same legislation.)

(Rather than cite every single fact of the ACA contents I'm about to list, though I cite many, here are two other summaries: Ezra Klein and the Kaiser Family Foundation).

First, the ACA forces some reforms of insurance itself. The biggest piece here is that it bans insurance companies from turning away new customers who are already sick -- ie, who have a "pre-existing condition". That kind of discrimination made sense for someone who gamed the system by waiting to buy insurance until they were sick, but what about someone who got sick when they couldn't afford insurance and can now never get it, or who lost their job & insurance while already sick? Equally importantly, one such "pre-existing conditions" was being a woman, because you might get pregnant and cost the insurance company more, so women often paid 50% more than men for an equal product. That's now illegal. Other reforms include a ban on lifetime caps, allowing younger people to stay on their parents' insurance until they're 26, Medicare cost cutting measures to help lower the cost curve (if not actual cost) of health care (yes, it may lead to rationing, but if one opposes that, it's worth noting that the insurance corporations already do it)(this is what Palin called the death panel, but it's for whole policies, not individual grandmas), requiring the inclusion of maternity care and birth control in policies (some conservatives, especially Catholics, argue that this is an assault on religious freedom, not just for religious organizations -- I might agree -- but also for religious small business owners -- I don't), requiring insurance companies to spend a certain % on actual care rather than overhead, and more. Because of some of these cost-cutting and efficiency-increasing reforms and a few other provisions (fees on those who opt out, more efficiency in certain Medicare programs, and a few other small taxes and fees), despite a big price tag, the law actually REDUCES the deficit.

The second bucket: It expands insurance coverage. What launched this month are these exchanges or marketplaces where people can browse many different health insurance plans. The bill also includes subsidies for folks up to 400% of the poverty level (how much you can get is tied to your income). So all of a sudden, better insurance at a lower price than ever before is available to many of the nation's 47 million uninsured legal residents. Just this week, many now-former opponents are finding they can save lots of money and get better care.

Third, the only way to make this work is to require everyone to get insurance -- the individual mandate. By bringing in more young and healthy consumers, the insurance companies are able to afford everything I outlined above; otherwise, it would be a huge burden for them. But, it's not just a revenue necessity if you want the above. It's also good policy -- when someone without insurance gets sick and can't pay their hospital bills, one of two things happens. Either the price for everyone else goes up, like with shoplifting, or the government picks up the tab. And of course, preventive care or catching diseases early is much cheaper than waiting until you're really sick. So requiring everyone to have health care will both make all of the above possible and lower costs. BUT, this is the most controversial provision, more so even than rationing, requiring birth control coverage, or even new taxes. Libertarians and right-wing conservatives say it's an assault on our freedom -- that the government shouldn't be able to force us to buy something we don't want. I disagree for at least three big reasons: The benefits far outweigh the costs; my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins (quoting Justice Holmes), hence the second point in this paragraph; and if we can require driver's insurance for getting a car, why can't we require health insurance for using health care -- and how could we morally block the uninsured from using it? We'd be a country of people bleeding in the streets.

One other mandate is that businesses with at least 50 employees must give insurance to their employees or pay a small fine. (Another attack on our liberties, I guess.) This is blunted by the facts that new tax credits will help small businesses and that 96% of businesses over 50 employees already offer health care anyway. Some, like Trader Joe's and Home Depot, have even decided to cancel existing insurance for part-time employees because they can get better insurance for less on the exchanges. (There has been a drop in workers' hours lately that many blame on the cost of the employer mandate, but other economic factors may also be at play.)

In no way is any of this socialism, ie, where "the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution" are held by the government. The ACA does not force anyone to have government-run insurance like Canada; in fact, it doesn't even give anyone new that choice via a "public option." Instead, this actually forces people into doing business with the PRIVATE insurance companies. This is indeed a MARKET-BASED solution based on ideas from… wait for it… Republicans in 1989 and again in 1993. Small wonder the one governor to do something similar at a state level was the business-minded Mitt Romney in 2006.

So yeah, I support it. I tried to mention some of the opposition's arguments in order to be fair, but I think these trade-offs are worth it. It's certainly not ideal, for many reasons, I acknowledge that. A public option would save money and be more efficient. It's more focused on expanding coverage than it is lowering costs, but we need both. There are still many, many problems left to solve, including that: insurance and care shouldn't be for-profit or tied to employment; the Medicare "doc fix" that costs doctors a fortune unless fixed annually still exists; many GOP governors are turning down the law's paid-for Medicaid expansion on principle and thus some poor folks will remain uninsured; and for-profit hospital systems will still order way too many unnecessary tests because they know insurance companies will pay for them, thus driving up costs for all of us. But despite these flaws, some problems are fixed and the new ones that have been created are smaller than the ones that were fixed, for a net gain.

Yes, like with any new law, it has not just gaps but glitches and failures -- the website rollout has highlighted a few. No big new law is perfect, but as implementation exposes flaws, Congress usually fixes them -- look how many times Medicare's been overhauled. That's not happening now; the GOP refuses to let those bills pass. Either live with the broken law and suffer the political consequences or repeal all of it, they say, which hurts Americans. Not to be overly partisan, but just looking at the facts, I can't help but believe that's spiteful, harmful, and perhaps even unpatriotic.

But even if I didn't support the ACA, I would still be opposed to shutting down the government over it. When the government shut down in 1995, it was because Congress and the president couldn't agree over HOW to fund it. This time, they're saying we'll only do X if you do Y on a separate issue, even though we basically all agree on X. The votes exist to pass a straightforward spending bill, but the Speaker of the House won't bring it tothe floor. Instead, he's putting party before country and bowing to a majority of his caucus -- a majority of the majority, but a minority of the chamber -- that says don't fund the government unless a recently re-elected president agrees to defund or delay his biggest accomplishment. And it's not just a majority of our elected lawmakers who would support a "clean" funding bill if they could vote on it, but a majority of Americans. 72% oppose halting the government over health care (Quinnipiac) -- but no vote is allowed. Can you imagine anything more undemocratic (lower-case d)?

The law was passed and signed. Obama then campaigned on it and was re-elected by a comfortable margin, Democrats expanded their Senate majority and won a plurality of the popular vote for the House (but thanks to gerrymandering, not a majority of seats), and the Supreme Court ruled the law Constitutional. And now a reduced GOP majority in one half of one branch won't do their jobs and fund the government unless the other side gives up their entire agenda? That kind of tactic is unprecedented in modern history. Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't ask the GOP to stop trying to change or even repeal Obamacare -- that's what they stand for (or rather, against) -- but there's a huge tactical middle ground between shutting down the government and giving up. Shutting down the government means 800,000 workers without paychecks; a hit to the small businesses near their offices like lunch delis and Walgreens; no EPAenforcement of clean air or clean water; a potential suspension of the WIC program that helps 9 million low-income moms feed their children; shuttered National Parks (that's not just ruined vacations, but a huge economic blow to park-border towns like West Yellowstone, MT or Forks, WA); a suspension of safety inspections for food, new drugs, and new consumer products like toys and cars; a suspension in science and cancer research funds; a slimmed-down FEMAand National Weather Center just as another hurricane barrels through the Gulf; kids with cancer being turned away from new treatment at the NIH; no veteran's benefits or disability checks; a halt to the CDC flu program at the beginning of flu season; no processing of new mortgages or small business loans; and so on and so forth. How the hell is that worth fighting expanded access to affordable health care, no matter what the law's specific provisions may be? And like I say, the votes exist to end this shutdown right now. The Senate can't pass the House bill, but the House can pass the Senate bill; Boehner just won't give it a vote. Also, this.

I have problems with the Democrats too, but this is not "a pox on both your houses." Some of the best lawmakers we've ever had were Republicans, but they're sure not in office right now.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sermon: You Always Have the Poor with You

Delivered at Christ Church Washington (Episcopal) Parish; Washington, DC; 03-17-13. Year C, Fifth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21 • Psalm 126 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • John 12:1-8.

After Hurricane Katrina, I spent several months as a disaster recovery intern for the Diocese of Louisiana - in fact, that internship was the start of this blog. One of my starkest memories of that time is of standing in the abandoned Lower Ninth Ward Walgreen's parking lot where we ran a distribution center, listening to a destitute subcontractor tell his story to a deacon.

This subcontractor had just finished two weeks' worth of work, but was being ripped off with no available recourse. The stolen pay was devastating to his business, his crew, and his family, and he was understandably quite worked up and distraught. The deacon listened, prayed with him, and apologized, saying all I can give you is a hug and these Vienna sausages. The contractor insisted no apologies were necessary, replying, "No, you already gave me everything. You listened to me - you made me feel human and loved again. No one has done that in months."

There are many others here this morning who, like that deacon, do far more for the poor than I can ever hope to do. Today's Gospel is a particularly tough one for those of us focused on that mission: "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

It's been said that this is one of the most frequently abused verses in the Bible - that it is used to justify ignoring the poor as the basis for such non-Biblical quotes as "The Lord only helps those who help themselves." On Google, I found several pundits, like Bryan Fischer, using the verse to attack their political opponents and compare their motives to those of Judas. And if you've seen Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Jesus Christ Superstar," you might remember the Christ character's line, "Surely you're not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot."

But we know that that's not what Jesus meant. Helping the poor - not just the poor of spirit, but the unemployed, the prostitutes and bums, the "crackheads and welfare queens" - is mentioned more than any other topic in the Bible. This is who Jesus ate with. But if that's what this Gospel is not about - then what is it about?

I think that that deacon in Louisiana was on to something. He was serving the poor, but he was doing it as part of something bigger.

But we'll come back to that. First, let's take a step back and think about what it must have been like that night.

It was only the previous chapter of John that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and the authorities are terrified about what this means for their own power. Jesus and Lazarus are now both marked men - indeed, Good Friday is only eight days away. But for all the foreboding dark clouds ahead, one joyous fact, remains: Lazarus has been raised from the dead! Our brother is returned! His sisters Martha and Mary invite the Apostles into their home for a celebration. Worries are set aside, if only for one more night.

Mary alone among the Apostles seems to know what's coming and what it means. She takes this last celebratory occasion, this last happy moment together, to honor Christ. By anointing Him with perfume, she is preparing Him for death and burial. And by letting her hair down, she is doing it in a very intimate and personal way.

Despite the earlier quote, this scene is actually my favorite song from "Jesus Christ Superstar." In it, Mary sings a lullaby to Jesus: "Try not to get worried, try not to hold onto, problems that upset you - don't you know everything's alright, yes, everything's fine." But then, like bad news or politics at the Thanksgiving table, Judas completely misses the point and loudly interrupts everything.

In John, Jesus seems to reply not to Judas, but to the whole room: Yes, Judas is half right. Serving "the least of these" is one of our biggest missions - but it is also part of something even bigger still. You will always have the poor, He says, so you must always serve them. But, do not serve them for their sake, or for your own - serve them for me, says the Lord.

Service is just an effect. The cause is our loving relationship with the one true God. All else, including loving our sisters and brothers and seeing God's image in them, flows from that beautiful, challenging relationship.

Isaiah writes, "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" That night at Mary's house, the new thing was so close. It was barely a week away - not just the Cross, but the resurrection. The conquering of death, the conquering of grief and sorrow. The eternal reminder that things of this world, like death and poverty, are not final. We are reconciled to our loving Creator. This is the new thing God is doing - this is the Good News! Mary knew this, so she drew closer to Christ. But Judas couldn't see it. For poor Judas, the things of this world remained the only things.

This is why loving our neighbor is but the second commandment. Loving the Lord our God is still the first. This means step one is always pouring out the perfume on Christ's feet - not because God is some narcissist needing praise, but because, as the webcomic Coffee With Jesus points out, worship isn't for God - it's for us.

Worship isn't for God - it's for us. Through it, we grow closer to God. And when we find that closeness, it is only natural that we would want to spread it.

When, like Mary or the deacon in New Orleans, our service is service before God, two things happen. First, physical bread goes farther. For Judas, worldly service was the highest calling to which he could aspire. But because that is not actually true, he still felt empty - and turned not to Christ to fill that hole, but to greed. He would happily donate, say, 290 silver pieces, but steal 10 for himself. Had Judas been able to act in joy and give to the poor because he saw in them God's image, he would not have felt the need to steal, and they would have had more silver.

Second, when service is a means, not an end, we find that bread is not the only thing involved. Far more happens than simple economics - grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, hope, and love all come too. This is what I learned from that deacon in New Orleans. These are the things the contractor received, to the point that, for at least that one half hour, he barely cared that he hadn't been paid.

But if I may stop being preachy for a moment - I certainly fail at this. When I walk to work, past Union Station and the Postal Museum, I intentionally cross the street so that I'm not hit up by the same beggars each morning. Now we can have an argument about the effectiveness of giving money to a man on the sidewalk instead of to Bread for the City, but that would miss the point. I find myself avoiding my brothers, focusing more on the awkwardness of this world than on the dignity of a personal exchange or the love of Christ. I have a very, very long way to go.

But together, we can remember Paul's exhortation - we press on, we keep trying, precisely because Christ Jesus has made us His own. It's hard, but that's okay, because we get to start over and try again, every single day.

No matter what other critical values we have - challenging Pontius Pilate (or the White House or Wall Street), caring for creation, even spending time with our families - none can be fulfilled on their own. As Cara+ said last week regarding the Prodigal Son, it's all about walking towards Jesus.

And just as Jesus wasn't really talking to Judas in the Bible, I don't think Mary was really singing to Jesus in "Jesus Christ Superstar," either. She too was singing to us. When we see the new thing God is making, when we put our hope and trust in God alone, and not in the things of this world, then like Mary sang, we truly can "try not to get worried, try not to hold on to problems that upset you. Don't you know everything's alright, yes, everything's fine." When we lay our burden downs, look to Jesus, accept that love, and let everything else, including service, flow from that relationship first - then "everything's alright, yes, everything's fine."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On redistribution, free markets, and government handouts

I posted the picture at right to Facebook. A high school friend called Obama a "commie pig" in the comments. When rebuked for his words, he wrote this, and then liked his own comment:

People need to learn to fail. Free market means working hard for your money. Let the rich get richer - they earned it, and some day, so will I. I will earn my money from taking from the poor if need be - if they just consume and not contribute themselves. Envy is the character of the left. You all hate the rich, until you are rich yourselves. Fairness and wealth redistribution simply means misery together. Since you all probably rely on government payouts anyway, Obama has already bought your vote. Go ahead and be the middle class, I plan on making millions.
Here was my response:

We don't have a free market in this country - not when the biggest corporations can house profits off shore, get tax incentives that start-ups don't get, buy up the media to decide what consumers learn and what they don't, and receive government protection for their losses while their profits are private. The American free market is a nice idea, but also a myth.

I don't envy Romney's wealth, but I do think that a man who thinks six times the median American income is "not very much" and assumes most parents can afford to pay for their kids' college lacks the perspective on the country's reality that he would need to run that country.

I'm all for the rich getting richer, when they earn it, as many do - but when I'm paying a higher tax rate than Mitt Romney and Warren Buffett, they're not earning all of it anymore, they are indeed engaging in the "redistribution" you otherwise claim to hate so much. Same for when the banks crash the economy and don't pay a penalty for it - their failure, our punishment, they didn't earn that wealth. But no, I don't hate the rich, I just despise certain aspects of the system that bankrupts our country - the system that doesn't ask them to pay the same share to the nation that made them wealthy as the rest of us do. If you think the center-left hates the rich, it's because you refuse to let the left define their own beliefs, and just believe what the right tells you about them. I'm glad taxes aren't where they were under Nixon, Ford, Carter - but they should be where they were under Clinton.

Yeah, we've all gotten government payouts - just like we've made government payins. The government paid me out just tonight, when I drove home on several public roads and pulled over for a public fire truck. It also paid me out when I went to a *public* high school with you. It'll pay out again when I'm old and collecting Social Security and Medicare, to which I'm paying in now. Something tells me that if you do make those millions that you - and every other American - plan on making, you won't stop driving on those roads, refuse those Social Security checks, hire only home-schooled employees without college degrees who want the job because it means they can finally get off EBT or unemployment, or tell the government's military they can let AL-Qaeda into your place.

I'll leave you with this quote from the commie pig - er, excuse me, inventor of capitalism - Adam Smith. "The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor... The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess... It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion."

And also this about the poor who accept help when offered, those whom Christ reminds us to love, not scorn."[Romney's] a guy who sold his dad’s stock to pay for college, who built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to support his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom. That’s great! That’s the dream. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, or the agonizing choices faced by families in which both parents work and a child falls ill. The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re drowning in it."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yesterday's Jesus, Today's Poor

Shane Claiborne says:

If you ask most people what Christians believe, they can tell you, "Christians believe that Jesus is God's Son and that Jesus rose from the dead." But if you ask the average person how Christians live, they are struck silent. We have not shown the world another way of doing life. Christians pretty much live like everybody else; they just sprinkle a little Jesus in along the way.

Before you scoff at another young hippie, think about it: Banks and coffee shops in churches. Evangelists more about t-shirts and bumper stickers than the poor. TV hosts ignoring Galatians' call for unity. What percentage of the material-based middle class families that you know would profess to being Christians?

But I don't mean to point fingers here. I'm part of the problem myself, no different than anyone else. Claiborne also says that in a survey he did for his undergraduate thesis in sociology, nearly 80% of Christians said Jesus spent time with the poor (have the other 20% ever picked up a Bible???) but less than 2% acknowledged spending time with the poor themselves. There's a big difference between writing some group a check and giving an individual a hug - and it's been a long time since I saw the inside of a soup kitchen.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

AP: Dartmouth Students a National Model for Haiti Response

I'm really proud of Dartmouth after reading this AP article:

Two days after the Jan. 12 quake, seniors Frances Vernon, Maura Cass and Alexandra Schindler stayed up until 6:30 a.m. developing a campus- and community-wide strategy to raise money for Partners in Health, an organization co-founded by Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim that has operated in Haiti for decades. Given Kim's connections to the group, the trio knew Dartmouth would send a medical team to Haiti and wanted to match that effort with the same intensity.

"We might not be trained medical professionals, we might not have the financial resources to mobilize and be on the ground in Haiti, but we have time and we have brain power," said Vernon.

What emerged from that Thursday night spent making lists and sketching diagrams on huge sheets of paper tacked to the wall was a strategy to bring together students, faculty, staff and community groups. By Jan. 16, they had signed up leaders for eight committees ranging from monetary collection to communications, and by Jan. 17, they were ready to hand out assignments to 300 volunteers who showed up at a kickoff rally...

Mark Arnoldy, a senior at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said he relied heavily on Dartmouth's model in helping create the fundraising campaign he and other student leaders are about to launch. While Dartmouth has an advantage given Kim's background with Partners in Health and the quickness with which he sought to get students involved in the relief effort, Arnoldy said he is confident his school will reach its $100,000 goal...

At Northwestern University, senior Peter Luckow said he's been impressed that Vernon and other Dartmouth students are looking beyond the immediate disaster and thinking critically about long-term issues in Haiti as well. His school has surpassed its more modest fundraising $8,000 goal and is looking to increase its goal soon.

According to the Partners in Health's Web site tally of personal donations, the $133,000 raised by Dartmouth as of Monday afternoon far exceeded the next highest total -- $51,000 raised by FACE AIDS, a Stanford University group.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

From BMD: The Limited Success of Indian Casinos

As previously mentioned, my political thoughts are now going onto a separate blog, Blue Moose Democrat. However, to ease in that transition, I will post some of the more substantive posts on both blogs for the first week or two.

The homepage article at on Monday was a travel piece called "An American Indian's Journey in the Land of Indian Casinos" by David Treuer. I was at first very interested to read this piece - I've given a little bit of thought to Indian casinos and studied the law that "created" them, and am quite familiar with Treuer's work. I did a paper on his first novel, "The Hiawatha", used his book of literary essays for another paper about Sherman Alexie, and have read about his work on language preservation (important stuff). I can't say I liked the novel very much, but all around, Treuer is an impressive guy. I recommend his 2008 interivew with public radio's "Speaking of Faith".

(Pictured: The blogger enjoying a George Strait concert at the Mohegan Sun casino in 2007.) So it was with eagerness that I began his article on Indian casinos, but alas, with disappointment that I finished it. My problem isn't so much with what Treuer says as it is with what he doesn't say. His points about the history of Indian casinos, their aesthetic, and his experiences visiting them are insightful and interesting, but don't paint a complete picture of Indian casinos. I'll get to all that in a moment, however. First, two excerpts of his concise-yet-informative history of federal Indian law and the history of casinos:

Historically, Indian reservations are a great place to be poor if you are Indian—and a fantastic place to get rich if you're not. It is only recently that this pattern is being reversed. For centuries, privateers, government officials, railroad barons, timber magnates, prospectors, and mining companies have made a mint exploiting Native land and resources while the Indians for whom reservations were created have gotten poorer and poorer... I felt the possibility that everything—our fortunes, our personalities, our prospects—might change at Morongo as soon as the doorman opened the door for us. This mad hope is what draws people to casinos and what has made a few Indians very wealthy...

The Supreme Court maintained that as sovereign nations, Indian tribes had always had the right to govern themselves (including civil and regulatory powers), just as all nations do, and that tribes should deal with the U.S. federal government, not with states. Kansas, for example, has no power to levy taxes in Luxemburg—and not only because Luxemburg is far away... So when you hear white people lament about how the government "gave Indians casinos" (like "life is a circle," this is a common refrain), you can say: The government did not give Indians casinos. Indian gaming is not some physical manifestation of the welfare state or a pity payment for wrongs done or injustices suffered. It is the outgrowth of a right that tribes have always had long before any other people lived in the New World: the right to govern ourselves and build institutions as we see fit. There are many other rights like that, which tribes have only begun to explore—banking, telecommunications, industrial development.

My problem with the rest of the article is that Treuer tried to celebrate casinos as having done wonders for Indian reservations, which is only half true and somewhat misleading. Take his final paragraph:

If casinos play in illusion, the illusion at Pechanga was enchanting—a beautiful casino in which one can find brotherhood, equality, and wealth. A place that rose from poverty and struck it rich and where you can, too. In short and ironically, inside a casino (that manages to suggest aristocracy, bordello, Indians and nature, the big top, and a theme park) on Indian land, I finally felt, well, American.

Treuer does have a point - casinos have done wonders for many tribes. As author Sherman Alexie says of the Spokane reservation near my own home in north Idaho, "On my reservation, there was about 90% unemployment before bingo halls and casinos; now it's about 10 percent." The problem with focusing on this positive fact is that it leaves many white people with the impression that Indian reservations are now wealthy or at least politically powerful and perhaps immoral because of their gaming. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

There are three important points to make about the limitations of Indian casinos. First of all, of the 562 federally-recognized Indian tribes, just 224 - less than half - operate casinos. And since Indian tribes are actually separate nations, tribes in South Dakota or Utah don't seem a dime from the wildly successful Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut. Secondly, almost half of casino profits remain within the casinos and their operating companies rather than going to the tribes. And finally, quite a few of these casinos are operated by the smallest of tribes or by people who didn't even know they had Indian heritage until the gaming laws were passed - in other words, by white people with Indian heritage rather than by actual Indians with sovereign authority and in need of economic assistance.

I don't mean to diminish the important role casinos play in Indian country. By some accounts, they may have created as many as 530,000 jobs, and that matters. But when thinking about these casinos, we can't make the same mistake that Treuer made - their limitations must be discussed alongside their successes, lest we forget that the average Indian family's income is 25% lower than the national median, that the poverty rate in Indian country is twice the national rate, that disease rates are higher and life expectancies shorter, or that Indian women are twice as likely to be raped as are white women (and almost always by strangers). There is still much work to be done. Recognizing that tribes have the right to operate their own gaming facilities was an important step, but far more tribal empowerment and federal recognition of sovereignty and jurisdiction must occur.

Friday, June 19, 2009

WMUR Chronicles ONE

Manchester, NH's WMUR, one of the state's two leading media outlets, ran this profile of the anti-poverty organization ONE (which the Episcopal Church is heavily involved with) a few weeks ago.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Dartmouth's new president: Global health hero Jim Yong Kim

This esteemed Ivy League institution announced the identity of its 17th president today: Dr. Jim Yong Kim, MD, who will take office on July 1, shortly after I will have graduated. From what I’ve learned of Dr. Kim today, I’m very excited about his selection. Kim has an extensive background in global health and social justice concerns. From a letter to campus from Ed Haldeman, Chair of the Board of Trustees:

Thanks to his inspiring and transformative leadership, Jim Yong Kim has had a far reaching impact throughout his career - both through his teaching and the global organizations he has led. Jim, who currently serves as Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, has worked for more than 20 years to improve health in developing countries - first as co-founder and executive director of Partners In Health, a not-for-profit organization that supports health programs in poor communities worldwide; and then, as Director of the HIV/AIDS department at the World Health Organization (WHO), where he helped change the global response to that disease…

He has been teaching and mentoring for more than two decades and teaches an undergraduate class at Harvard today. His classes have proven enormously popular (and constantly oversubscribed), and he plans to continue to teach undergraduates at Dartmouth.

Jim's visionary work has earned him widespread - and well-deserved - international recognition, including receiving a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship in 2003 and being selected as one of TIME magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World" in 2006.

Student Assembly president Molly Bode ’09 sent her own letter, as well: “William Jewett Tucker, the 9th President of Dartmouth, once said, ‘Do not expect that you will make any lasting or very strong impression on the world through intellectual power without the use of an equal amount of conscience and heart.’ Dr. Kim has the conscience and the heart to push Dartmouth to become an even greater institution.”

Partners in Health is one of my favorite non-governmental organizations, and I am excited to have its co-founder as our president. I am also encouraged by his commitment to continue teaching undergraduates himself, given that although this is technically a university, our name is Dartmouth College. We alone among the Ivies put our 4,000 undergraduates first, and for all the importance of the world’s best business school and several other fine graduate-level institutions, that is a tradition that must not change. Finally, I am thrilled about something Dr. Kim said in his introductory speech to the campus just over an hour ago:

Certainly, a vital part of that learning takes place in the classrooms in Kemeny, in Dartmouth Hall, the labs in Fairchild and among the stacks in Baker. But just as important to that learning is what happens out on Whitey Burnham Field, up on Mount Moosilauke, here on the stage in the Hop and, yes, even late at night on Webster Avenue. Education is not just about transferring knowledge, [but also] about learning how to be citizens of the world, how to work effectively with others as part of a team, and how to emerge from your studies with an enduring and robust philosophy of life.

That has always been my own philosophy of education: learning first, academics second. Experience first, and grades second. I will happily set aside busy-homework or skip a class to attend an engaging public lecture or travel to a part of the state I have never been. To have a visionary president with an extensive background in global health at PIH, the WHO, and Harvard, who stresses the role of graduate schools while simultaneously teaching undergraduates himself, and who calls life experience “just as important” as the classroom bodes well for the future of this institution. I do not know how Dr. Kim will handle his first test – surviving budget cuts and restoring the health of our endowment – but the initial signs of how he will face the following tests are strong indeed.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

From Day One: Christmas Redemption in Scripture

I posted these thoughts last year at Christmas, but thought I might repost them again this year with some slight edits.

May I write in the name of God, who is Creator, Liberator, and Sanctifier.

Throughout his life, Christ stood up to oppressive rulers and brought people from all walks of life together as equals. By forgiving our sins in the streets and fields, Christ brought down the corrupted Pharisees who told us we had to go to the Temple and submit to its powerful priests for confession and redemption. He treated women with respect, whether at the home of Mary and Martha or at the well with the Canaanite woman. Walter Wink tells us that part of the Sermon on the Mount taught people how to stand up to their Roman oppressors. There is, of course, more to Christ’s mission than just this - there is grace, salvation, love - but all too often, Christian communities forget their duty to stand up to abuses of money and power and to put God's children, every last one, first. And it turns out that that’s part of the Christmas story, too. This first occurred to me last December as I read the Rev. John Jennings' reflections on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas cautions:

We are also told that there were witnesses from the fields, shepherds taken by surprise by the news from the angels, rushing down from the hillsides, wondering in awe and then going back to their sheep, transformed by the coming of the baby.

The Wise Men were witnesses of the opposite kind. They were careful, calculating, educated men who think that they begin to discern God’s imminent arrival and who blunder their way across the region until they find what they think they’ve been seeking. They, too, go back transformed.

These are the really important bits of the story.

Though it is the transformation that is Rev. Jennings’ focus, what jumped out at me was his use of the word “educated.” The Wise Men may not actually have been kings, but they were educated and well-respected. As astrologers, they may have belonged to some king’s court. Regardless of how you spin it, they certainly seem to have been respectable members of the upper class, something poor shepherds sleeping in a remote field most certainly were not.

We all know that Jesus came for everyone, that Galatians says in Christ there is no Greek or Jew, no male or female, no slave or free. We should pause more often, I think, to reflect upon the meaning of those words. Christ views all as equal, and He came for all. The divisions that we put up, divisions of race, income, class, education, and more, are false and to reinforce them is to mock all that Christianity stands for. To be truly Christian, we must stand up to these divisions and do whatever we can to break them down - culturally, socially, and even politically. We see this from day one of Christ’s time on earth: both the rich wise men and the poor shepherds came to see the Christ-child and stand before Him as equals. They were all filled with the same wonder and joy, no distinction was made between them.

From day one. This means that the Nativity is not just a story in and of itself, but that it also sets the tone for everything that is to come. One reason so many Jews rejected Christ as a Messiah, as a Savior, is His humble beginning. We expect our king to be born a king and behave like a king, not to roll around in smelly hay with peasant parents. But for me, this makes Him all the holier. What kind of a Messiah can truly save a people without uniting them? How can He appeal to the poor if they cannot identify with Him first? As the Archbishop said, we may not know the precise circumstances of Jesus’ birth. There might not have three wise men and they probably weren’t kings, the birth likely happened in the spring rather than in December, and the words “inn” and “virgin” may well be mistranslations. Some call this blasphemous historical revisionism, but I say, who cares? What matters is not that we have a pretty image for our Hallmark cards, but that Christ had humble beginnings, setting the tone for His entire mission.

In her song of praise, the Magnificat, Mary says of God, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” This is not an attack on or indictment of the rich or powerful, but it is an indication that the strong should not prey on the weak, and that God sees no difference from one person to the next. The former rector at Dartmouth’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fr. Henry Atkins, says if we are to try to be Christlike, shouldn’t we do what we can to identify those mighty and lift up those lowly in a modern context, to level the playing field? From the very beginning, Christ came to smash oppression and reconcile us in love and equality.

In fact, not only did Christ identify with the poor and bring them together with the educated on day one, He started fulfilling Mary’s prophesy and standing up to the mighty before even uttering His first words. King Herod wanted to kill the little guy, but Mary and Joseph did not submit to their ruler’s authority. They heeded Gabriel’s warning and fled to Egypt. Thus, the conflict between the new king of grace and the oppressive kings of old was set from day one. For the first and last time, here was a king worth submitting to, a king actually worth the surrender of our free will! From day one!

Yes, the spirit of Christmas is found in the angel’s message to the shepherds, in Mary pondering those shepherd’s words in her heart, and in the praise and worship the astrologists gave to Jesus. It is found in the cattle's lowing and in the baby’s coo. But lest we forget, it is also found in the Magnificat, in the flight to Egypt, and above all, in the coming together of Luke’s shepherds and Matthew’s wise men.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Policy papers on the Indian Health Service and affordable housing now available from EPPN

At long last, the website of the Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN) includes some papers I wrote while interning there this past summer. Among EPPN's many other wonderful resources are informative background papers on policy issues that the group has worked on. Although all papers are attributed to the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations, I wrote the new papers about affordable housing and the Indian Health Service (IHS). Here is an excerpt from the latter:

For over two centuries, large discrepancies in health have existed between American Indians and the rest of the nation. Mortality rates for diabetes, tuberculosis, cervical cancer, pneumonia, influenza, SIDS, and alcoholism are all significantly higher among Indians than the general population. Because of the federal government’s special trust relationship with Indian tribes, the United States has an obligation to provide for Indian health. Since its creation in 1954, the Indian Health Service (IHS) has successfully raised Indian life expectancy by 8 years and significantly reduced the rate of many diseases. Unfortunately, if current health conditions are to be improved, IHS will need both large funding increases and a serious administrative overhaul....

In order to erase the discrepancy between Indian health and that of the rest of the country, the Episcopal Church supports dramatic increases in IHS funding, expanding IHS services, and extending IHS authorizations. Legislation accomplishing most of these goals has been introduced in Congress every year since 2001 but none has passed. In the 110th Congress (2007-2008), that legislation is the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2008. Although it is unlikely that Congress will vote on this bill in 2008, it has come closer to passage than any similar legislation since 2000. It is hoped that similar legislation will pass the 111th Congress (2009-2010).

The full paper includes detailed numbers about specific diseases and their historical causes, more information about how IHS works, and what specficially the proposed legislation would do.