Welcome back to Supreme Court Sunday! Today’s case is about the Commerce Clause and it drives some people crazy.
Have you ever wondered why the Commerce Clause gives the Federal Government the power to regulate everything from recreational drug use to racial discrimination? The answer goes back to a stubborn Ohio farmer named Roscoe Filburn.
To back up, the Commerce Clause is article 1, section 8, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution which states that Congress has the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” That was originally a straight forward power; for example, the founders envisioned a scenario where your train runs from Maryland to Pennsylvania and Congress can mediate the dispute between the laws of Maryland and Pennsylvania where they conflict.
The case which changed that narrow reading of the commerce clause started in June of 1940 when some agents of the government came to Roscoe Filburn’s farm. They were there to help.
You see, the nation had been reeling from the dust bowl and the Great Depression and the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to put a price floor on wheat. Because that price floor takes us out of the normal framework of supply and demand, the price floor had to be accompanied by limits on wheat production. Fines were issued on any wheat produced over a certain threshold.
Roscoe Filburn exceeded his wheat quota and he was fined. The problem as Mr. Filburn saw it, was that he wasn’t selling his wheat, he was feeding the wheat to his livestock. Mr. Filburn sued the federal government claiming that they had no right to say anything about wheat that isn’t being used in interstate commerce, and in fact never reaches the market at all.
The unanimous opinion of the Court delivered by Justice Robert H. Jackson concluded that Mr. Filburn’s actions could be regulated as they constituted a sort of “negative commerce.” That is to say, Mr. Filburn was engaging in a commercial activity because if he had not grown his own feed he would have bought wheat off of the open market to feed his livestock. They also noted that if every farmer grew his own excess wheat the grain market would be severely depressed.
This case would continue to be expanded over the subsequent decades, but Wickard v. Filburn was really the seminal moment where every aspect of our lives became “interstate commerce.”
I know I’m not alone in seeing this case as something of a headscratcher. Am I engaging in interstate commerce when I sew a dress rather than buy one, or nurse my baby rather than buying formula? It feels like the same thing to me, and we are all in agreement that there are at least some areas of our collective lives with which the Federal Government has no business interfering.
That said, the Federal Government needs to have poverty alleviation programs with teeth and the wheat quotas were an essential part of that program. Also, this case directly opened the door for the Federal Government to address segregation and Jim Crow laws as applicable to interstate commerce, and I think we can all agree that the end of Jim Crow was a moral victory, if somewhat delayed.
What do you think? Should we have found another route for the Federal Government to step in to end injustices? Do you feel as bad as I do for poor Roscoe Filburn? Let me know in the comments!
 Not really.
Supreme Court Sunday is a new weekly column on The Kitchen Table where we will take one landmark Supreme Court case each week and discuss the background, findings, and implications of that case in a conversational and accessible style. There will be no legal sacred cows in this series, everything is up for discussion. Hopefully we'll all learn something, have a few good conversations and have some fun!
This case deals with the Fourth Amendment rights of students who attend public schools. Basically, the Court was asked to decide whether a public school vice principal, a government official, could conduct a warrantless search of a juvenile student’s belongings, and whether the fruits of the search could be used to charge that juvenile with a crime.
The facts were never in dispute, 14-year-old TLO and a friend were caught smoking in the bathroom of their public school, they wound up in the vice principal’s office to be disciplined. While TLO was arguing that she hadn’t been smoking, her vice principal demanded to see her purse and began rifling through it. He discovered marijuana and paraphernalia, and eventually TLO confessed that she had been dealing marijuana at school, and she was charged in the juvenile courts.
Everybody agreed that the search of TLO’s bag in another context, such as by a police officer in the park or in her home would have constituted a violation of her Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure, but the question before the Court was whether school children relinquish their right to privacy in the context of a public school.
Justice Byron White delivered the opinion of the Court. He noted the special relationship that schools have with students, where they act in loco parentis or in the place of the parents. That is to say, we as parents ask the schools to stand in our stead at least to some extent while we place our children in the care of the schools. That said, when a school disciplines your child, they don’t have the same immunity from the fourth amendment which you do. (Feel free to unreasonably search and seize things from your kids’ purses all day long.) The school is acting as a government agent when it conducts the search.
Justice White noted the need to balance a school child’s right to privacy with the right of the school to establish a well-ordered learning environment. He concludes: “It is evident that the school setting requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject.” Justice White held that the search of TLO’s belongings was reasonable under the eased restrictions.
Justice William Brennan’s compelling dissent brings this into sharp relief, noting that the departure from the traditional probable cause standard was an unnerving harbinger of continued abridgement of student rights. Justice Lewis Powell’s concurring opinion called for a further abridgement of student rights.
So, what do we think about this?
I always revert to a communitarian position. We are as “our brother’s keeper” and trusting a teacher to take the actions which a troubled child needs to get help, including discipline, must be part of that. We’ve taken a strong stand that public education is toward the development of virtuous citizens. On the other hand, I definitely have a visceral reaction to this decision. Teens should have some measure of autonomy, right? And Justice Brennan was right, our schools have become little prisons in recent years.
I could be wrong about this, but I was educated at a public school that tried to teach me “virtue” but wound up teaching me the Enlightenment and the Sexual Revolution. I just don’t think schools are that good at teaching virtue, and as a corollary, enforcing virtue. What do you think? Do you agree with the Court’s decision? Let me know in the comments!
 This is not legal advice. Nothing in Supreme Court Sunday is legal advice.
In a recent post about the economics of poverty, I mentioned the difficulty of poor parents being forced to put their children into childcare, further cutting into the little they are paid for their jobs. More recently, Tara Ann Thieke delved much deeper into the darker side of childcare in an article entitled Invisible Caregivers, Invisible Children. An ensuing conversation with a mom who in fact enjoys working outside the home led me to think more about the positives and negatives of this whole cultural phenomenon, but I found myself torn between two different strains of thought, which would sometimes agree with—but frequently contradict—one another. My internal dialogue went something like this.
It really bothers me that both parents are frequently forced, by economic necessity or social pressure, to go to work and leave their children in the care of others all day, weakening family ties and contributing to an epidemic of troubled youth. We need to change the way we do and view things, to ensure that parents can freely raise their own kids, or society is bound to suffer more in the long run!
This is a little one-sided. In fact, many couples make a thoughtful decision for both parents to juggle family and career for the benefit of all. Mothers are able to get out of the house and spend time with other adults, keeping their minds sharp, and gaining a sense of self-worth beyond their identity as a parent. Fathers are relieved from the sense of being solely responsible to support the family. Children can still have quality child care, while benefiting from parents who set an example of holding jobs and from the added financial stability. How is this a problem?
I’m not here to judge every parent’s career choices. There may be cases where this works out great. But the point is, we shouldn’t HAVE to choose between financial (and perhaps mental) stability and spending quality time with our children. Family relationships are weak enough as it is—we don’t need to be forcibly making them worse!
Relax! This is nothing new. In fact, there have been many situations throughout history where parents have had to do work that was not possible with children underfoot. Kids were left with neighbors, nannies, grandparents, or perhaps older siblings (at one time, these might have been 5- or 6-year-olds), and families were not destroyed. Or the kids were put to work themselves. Yep, overseers instead of babysitters. We’ve actually got it a lot better now, with laws preventing many of these dangerous and abusive practices.
OK, but let’s not let “better” be the enemy of “best.” We cannot expect to farm our kids out to be raised by others and not end up with weaker relationships as a result. At least, in the past, culture dictated that families go through the motions of sticking together. Now when things fall apart, the results are often totally broken homes. The frequency of both parents working outside the home obviously isn’t the only reason for the breakdown of the family, but it’s still got to be a contributing factor. Is it really worth taking this risk just to have more people in the work force?
It depends on the specifics of the job. Are we talking about a day job that still allows families to have quality time together on evenings and weekends? Or a "flexible" job that makes family routines virtually impossible? Are parents taking turns watching kids, but never getting time with each other? Are parents being intentional in the time they do spend with their children? Let’s not oversimplify things here. There are problems, but it’s not as simple as whether or not both parents work.
True, we can and should maximize the time we do get with our children. But parents miss out on so much either way! Aren't we supposed to be the ones who hear our children's first words and see them take their first steps? Why should someone else get that privilege? Shouldn’t that at least bother us a little?
It could, but it doesn’t have to. It takes a village to raise a child. We don't own our children. They are autonomous humans and it's unrealistic to expect their entire early childhood experience to be tied up with their parents. There’s nothing inherently wrong with other people helping to raise our kids. In fact, it could be a very good thing, as children benefit from interacting with other adults who have a range of gifts, abilities, and interests. Would we want to deprive them of that?
If the point is to give our children added benefits, then why do we treat childcare workers like dirt? They are notoriously overworked and underpaid, not to mention totally underappreciated. And we expect them to care for our kids as lovingly as we would? Caring for children can be tiresome and seemingly simple, yet it is vital and challenging to do it well. At the very least, if we want our children to “benefit” from childcare, then we need to start treating childcare workers like the valuable contributors they are.
Yes, it makes sense that childcare workers should receive fair compensation. And not all of them work in childcare “sweat houses.” Many of those with the worst monetary compensation are actually family members helping one another out precisely because they do love each other. Sure there are extreme cases of parents farming out their kids into terrible situations, or getting quality care and then stiffing those who provide it. But what we need is for parents to make wise choices, whether as consumers or as employers. If they are failing to do so, that is not “society’s” fault.
We should certainly hold the wealthy responsible for how they treat their domestic employees. But how many of the poor are even able to make these kinds of choices? Most are stuck with whatever option they can best afford—whether it’s an ideal situation or not. And then they go out and work jobs that pay only a little more than what they are paying for childcare. It would be so much better for everyone if these moms could just stay home and raise their own kids—and in the long run, the social costs would probably be lower.
That's assuming, of course, that all parents are well suited to raising children. Unfortunately, the ability to produce a child does not necessarily correlate to the ability to raise a child well. I don't mean to be cynical—I strongly believe that most parents do want the best for their kids—but some parents are truly miserable in the role of full-time caregiver, and others think that being physically present is the only thing that matters. If this discussion is really about the children, then we need to take these situations into consideration as well.
Fair enough. I understand the need to "take these situations into consideration." If there are cases where parents and children are truly that miserable with one another, then we need to make sure they are getting the support they need. Say parenting classes, Mommy's Nights Out, better relationships with family members and neighbors, and so forth. Even plain old "respite" time, if you please. But we don't have to pit one problem against the other. I'm talking about situations where parents desperately want and need more time with their children, but it simply isn't an option.
OK, assuming that parents WANT to be at home spending more quality time with their kids (and by the way, this could be dads as well as moms), it would be nice for them to have that option. But, realistically, what happens when they do? Mostly, the moms are the ones who stay home “for the kids,” and ultimately their careers suffer. Because even if we somehow make this option affordable, it isn’t fair to employers to expect them to pay the same wages to someone who has taken 10 years off as to one who has spent the same 10 years keeping up with the industry. And then we wonder why we have gender pay gaps! We need to be careful that our zeal to help in one respect does not lead to harm in others.
Well, maybe we need to be compensating women for raising their own families, instead of assuming that stay-at-home-moms are just living a life of leisure, sitting around watching TV all day. Or stop acting like careers are the most important thing in life. (Isn’t that male-oriented thinking already?) Or maybe we just need to stop being so materialistic. Or at least do something about ridiculously bloated living costs! The problem is, we’re so steeped in a culture that tells us “this matters and that doesn’t” that we don’t even realize how messed up our priorities are!
Look, we just need to treat people fairly. Give them options. Stop shaming them for the choices they make (especially moms who actually enjoy juggling family and career), but take dire economic necessity out of the picture. Maybe with something like a UBI, more parents would be able to make better choices for their families. BOTH parents could work shorter hours and spend more time with their kids AND each other. People would get into child care because they love kids, not just because they need whatever job they can get. I think that would solve many of our most pressing problems.
Yes, I think we can agree on the need for options. And for options that stay "optional." There really isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, is there? But we can at least work together to support healthy relationships within families, whatever those look like. And of course to be supportive of those who care for children, in whatever capacity.
And to support other moms, even when the choices they make are different than ours. We simply can't know, or expect to know, everything that goes into the decisions they make. We need to give each other the freedom to pursue what works best in our unique situations, without fear of condemnation. And extend grace when things don't always turn out perfectly.
And they never do, do they? Yes, we can certainly all extend more grace to one another!
by Tara Ann Thieke
International Women's Day coincided with the recent book by psychologist Erica Komisar, "Being There" crossing my path again. Her book is rooted in her work with children, and nothing is more fraught than our attitudes to families and child care, so reviewers put their fingers in their ear and blamed the messenger. We continue to be inundated by glib platitudes, and anyone who challenges the consensus is shouted down.
This got me thinking yet again about my own silence on childcare, a silence I only occasionally break to hint that something is amiss. This entails being swiftly attacked and so I retreat. For a decade I worked as a nanny, at daycare, and in foster care. I loved every child I was lucky enough to care for. I focus on that, because who wants to argue with people emotionally motivated to interpret facts in the most comfortable way?
But everyday I'm bombarded on social media by people using children to push agendas. People who guilt others while claiming to hate guilt. To judge while rejecting judgment. Those who most benefit from our current arrangements demand more of the same solutions, silencing caregivers and children. What happens is the actual children become props for the agenda of others while caregivers are silent or ignored.
So today I'm going to speak about what happens to real children in the culture and economy we've created. Here is the tip of the iceberg of what I observed.
Scene One: A 3-year old child screams every morning when they wake and I'm there instead of the parents. Wails on the floor. It takes about 30 minutes to calm them down everyday. By the time this child was four though, and continuing until I left the position, things had changed. They would scream when their parents came home. We had to find ways to sneak me out of the house. The child called me "mom," something that greatly upset me and I discouraged every time it happened without fail.
When the child was told I was moving they sobbed everyday until my last day. I cried too, but couldn't allow the child to see the extent of my distress. I was disappeared from the child's life (not my choice). The child has zero contact with the person who was their primary daily caregiver for over 2 years, when this child formed their earliest memories.
What happens to a child when someone they love like a parent is shown to just be an employee who can be erased? When their caregiver is disposable?
What happens when the child becomes an adult and wants to look back, and the person who remembers all the stories, who observed and adored and treasured every day, can't share their memories with the child? A blank space exists for the child and for the caregiver.
Scene Two: Working at an elite preschool. One of my programs oversees toddlers from 18 months to 3 years, and that's where I spend 5 hours a day. It's one of the most expensive preschools in the area, a year's worth of education costing the same as nearby universities. You can't do better than this for playground equipment, class size, toys, books, etc.
Each time a new child is brought to the program they scream. They are hysterical about their parents leaving. We are supposed to tell the parents it is natural, nothing to worry about. It is horrible to watch. The parents who are upset are told by their spouses or the head teacher that they are making a fuss and to just go. Their own attachment and concern is framed as harmful.
Eventually the children do learn their parents are gone and they "adjust." I remember one child, adopted, who was dropped off around 6 am and picked up at 6 pm. The child often acted out. It was dismissed as behavioral issues and the adoptive parents didn't want to hear about it. So we were forbidden from talking about it, left to jerk from crisis to crisis. The real problem was obvious to the caregivers: the child was an orphan who had been taken from their home across the world and left with a series of revolving semi-strangers for 12 hours a day. When the child got home it was dinnertime, bathtime, and bed. The child was considered disruptive, but of course the behavior was totally normal considering the circumstances, and that was what needed to be changed.
Every rule at this school was broken, all boundaries were negotiable except one: you do not get to go home. No matter how much you cry, your parents are gone and you are here. I wondered why this was the only rule enforced.
Scene Three: I'm a live-in nanny in a very wealthy, exclusive community largely composed of centrist Democrats. As the only American nanny working for a woman with a large group of friends, I become the go-to person for scheduling playdates, sports schedules, etc. I'm also the only nanny paid a decent wage. The others are immigrants imported specifically for their current position. If they speak up about being on-call 24 hours a day, they'll lose their jobs. Many of these women have children and grandchildren back in their home countries.
They're miserable about it if you talk to them. It takes a while for them to trust me because the mothers treat me as an "American." And while it's a lesser deal, I'm lonely, cut-off from the other nannies' cultures, no one to connect with.
The moms tell me I'm "one of them." It's weird to me that they say this, as if they don't realize how incongruous it is with the sentiments they express when they talk politics. But it is true to an extent. If I say "No" to something I don't have to worry about being deported. I'm not sending my paycheck home to my grandchildren. And I'm not told my virtual indentured servitude is an example of the system "succeeding."
The moms joke about when I'm going to get a "real job." The lesson being that caring for their children isn't a real job. Boy, it shows in the way they treat the caregivers!
The parents all demand maternity leave, quality pre-schools, and profess admiration of a meritocracy where an immigrant's children can go on to join the white-collar class. But not one of them wants their own daughter to be a caregiver. They want "more" for them. What the heck does that teach their child? What does it teach the caregivers?
Peers who profess themselves to be socialists, egalitarians, literally roll their eyes when I tell them what I do. They demand quality childcare but laugh in private at those who do the work. I find this very interesting.
Scene Four: I'm working in foster care. Some children are removed from their mother because of abuse. The mother's boyfriend had hideously injured the youngest two children (not his). I had care for the three eldest of the 5, who had a different father, long gone. The children are placed in a stable home with a foster mother who does full-time childcare. After a long period of adjustment they begin to flourish. But it is a tragedy because they ache for their mother, who truly wants them, but also neglects them during supervised in-home visits. Having been required to read all the case histories I'm aware of how much the mother herself as been abused. It's a terrible cycle of abuse, neglect, and a failure by the authorities to do anything other than disrupt. Achieving stability is an ideal that we take no concrete steps towards achieving.
The system rushes to reconcile them though the home they will be returning to is completely disruptive (you don't want to imagine it, I promise.) They will go back to daycare while their mother works terrible jobs she's forced into by the system. Is the daycare better than the home? Yes, but not by much. The "care" centers I visit for these children are full of overworked, underpaid, exhausted women. Some are saints, others give you the chills. You feel for all of them regardless, because how did the world get this way? The broken mother, the broken workers, the broken children.
But when I go home to my newspapers and social media feeds I read about how we need more early quality education. Quality? For whom? The rich will continue to get the quality care they've rigged the system to achieve. The children of the wealthy will cry, scream, and be miserable at first, but they'll be forced to adjust. And the pretty toys and fancy schools the parents can pay for guarantee the children will be successful, though whether they will be "happy" or well-adjusted is an entirely different matter.
As for the poor, their mothers will work unfulfilling jobs. They will never, ever "have it all." They will not be helped to be home with their children; they will not be taught how to build a stable home because that would be judgmental. They won't be offered help to make their relationships "stick." They'll be used as cheap labor for stadium food kiosks until they can be replaced as a machine. Maybe they'll still be allowed to clean toilets, I don't know.
Children of the poor will have weary mothers who seek comfort in the arms of men with no investment in them, who have never been taught to be invested in themselves. These men will hurt them, they will sexually abuse them. The data is there however much you don't want to look. I didn't want to at first either, and became majorly depressed after endless days of reading the most gruesome legal documents. An existential crisis was prompted where I had to rethink every cliche I'd ever absorbed.
I came out of these years with my teeth grit and determined I would sacrifice anything to never have to put my children into daycare. I didn't want to do that to them, or to the caregivers. 'Have it all" is cheap rhetoric that encourages us to disconnect from our mutual dependence, and no one is more dependent then babies and children.
Of course I also knew most people didn't have my experiences, that most of them were doing what they'd been encouraged to do from their own childhoods (and the rest had been pushed against the wall by the economy.) On days like International Women's Day I would hear from them, the women whose children I'd cared for, the women turning away from the pain I had seen on a daily basis and reframing everything in terms of the wage gap, of lack of maternity leave, of the need for earlier and earlier preschools. And on these days my heart aches all over again.
You're not a bad guy because you've used a daycare. Nor, in the rush to switch from denial to acknowledgment, is it all the patriarchy's fault. There's very appealing things about not having to change diapers all day. We've made being caring for small children exhausting and lonely. Where are the other moms for me to talk to when I'm home alone all day with toddlers? Where are the kids playing outside? Who are my neighbors that I can ask for help when we move too frequently to get to know them? No, I entirely understand that in a culture which has made motherhood so unrewarding, those fortunate enough to do work they love will do so. It's a tragedy the women who do work they don't want to do are neglected, but still, I understand that working as a publisher, lawyer, or doctor can be vastly more fulfilling than re-reading the works of Dr. Seuss.
After making a case for why childcare is not working for children though, many will move from "Daycare is fine" to "It's not fine and that's because of men." This couldn't be less helpful. Some men made the system, some women helped exacerbate it. And most of those men and women were taught this is what works.
That may sound completely deterministic, like equating victims and the victimizers. But that's the insidious nature of sin: it pits everyone against each other, blurring responsibilities. Who did what to whom? We all have a reason why we ended up where we are. So what happens next?
That's where the good news lies. We have free will. We may not be responsible for what happened yesterday. But we can forgive the system-makers, ask forgiveness for our complicity, and free ourselves to start making different choices, imagining different ways of doing things. Tomorrow can be different, if we can acknowledge what's happening today without getting lost in blaming other people for yesterday.
We can put the most vulnerable at the center again, and the most vulnerable are impoverished mothers and children.
To end this on a more positive note, here are things I was privileged to do that I wish every parent could do: I sat next to children as they read their first words. I saw their eyes glow when they accomplished a new task. I held their hands when they cried and watched them forgive others. I watched them be silly, charming, messy, empathetic, loving, creative, exhausted, and brave. I came home everyday with wonderful stories. I watched children grow up; how lucky was I? These shouldn't be my memories, they should belong to the parents. But I'm grateful for them all the same.
I want to build a world where every parent has more of those memories. I want to build a world where those who care for children are not devalued or tossed aside. I want to build lasting connections for children rather than uprooting them constantly. I want caregivers to not have to pick between a paycheck and being with their own families.
I want to build a world that sees the work which takes place in the home as valuable, as the work of our hearts, and not as something to be outsourced. When we outsource the work of the home, we outsource our own lives. Let's reclaim the home and find a way to make the economy work for it, rather than dismantle the home to build an economy that can't figure out how to adequately value things which have no price, like the joy of a child and mother together.
by Skylar Covich
In her recent blog post “Connecting the Dots”, Tara Thieke asks us to engage in dialogue together to examine the roots of social problems, including all types of violence from abortion to school shootings to foreign policies and trade policies that cause immense suffering. The most obvious rejoinder is that when we stop and think too long as we sift through all of the ideological noise for holistic approaches, we fail to take the incremental actions necessary to promote justice. From her past work, I know Thieke understands this struggle between reflection and action well. The ethos she has sought to cultivate in the Dorothy Day Caucus is to engage all perspectives, but not to let that engagement paralyze action.
Our society is struggling with vast ecological, economic and cultural crises. Every move that a government makes will be opposed by one powerful interest or another, and those who seek to thoughtfully engage all interests may be left thinking that almost any action will lead to massive unintended consequences. The ecological instability of our civilization was brought home to me with the recent fires that destroyed hundreds of homes in my area, and the mudslides that came with the next rains, which claimed the life of an acquaintance.
If, as many claim, these disasters are part of a pattern of global climate change, what should be done, when many of the proposed solutions are likely to cause economic disruption without necessarily addressing the problem?
Our economy, in addition to suffering from the effects of our ecological crisis, fails to provide an adequate income even for those who are working as hard as possible, largely because of a combination of greed and inefficiency in both the private and public sectors. What can be done? We could fund more government programs, but that would require tax increases that could hurt small businesses and the working class too. Tax the rich too much more and they will threaten to take their business out of the country. And all of that without addressing the ecological and cultural crises. On the other hand, cutting government services will not incentivize innovation as many conservatives claim, but will instead lead to chaos and suffering. Sarah Field captured these issues well in her recent post for the Kitchen Table.
Everyone agrees that our cultural crisis makes ecological and economic inefficiency much worse, but what can be done? The balance between individual liberty, family, community solidarity and global responsibility is nearly impossible to maintain well. People are either overworked or underworked; they are given great opportunities through increasing technology but become far too dependent on it; they either have nowhere to belong, or they are so loyal to their interest group that they fail to recognize the legitimate needs of other interests. Those who are proud of their conservative upbringings are now linking up with converts to religious traditionalism from the secular left (myself included), who believe we need to critique the sexual revolution.
Even as our culture changes, religious communities need to be given all possible room to make those critiques and live as good examples within the framework of their doctrines. If not, one of the more horrifying consequences is that many of those who feel left out of the current cultural direction, if they continue to engage in politics at all, will be targets for recruitment by the bitterest and most destructive elements of the alt-right. Meanwhile, lawmakers in some states will pursue policies that are harmful to the dignity of human life and the family, such as a bill in Washington state legalizing for-profit surrogacy and redefining parenthood. Those who grew up on the secular left are now linking up with people who grew up in a largely conservative environment who critique the failure of religious communities to live up to their high doctrinal standards. Many of them believe that intersectionality, a model that has gained mainstream interest after decades in academic social science and some left-wing spaces, can best build a framework to welcome those in marginalized spaces. But the focus on intersectionality leads to ideologically motivated attacks on some socially conservative women and racial minorities, who are treated as if they are brainwashed tokens rather than thoughtful individuals with their own experiences and ideas.
Thoughtful social conservatives do not want to see anyone in pain, but concerns about the unintended consequences of amending long-standing religious doctrines remain. Thus, it’s hard to build trust between sides of the culture war, which does, despite the declarations of some, continue.
Some of us have sought to find political alternatives. The “California Four” members of the American Solidarity Party who are running for governor, Congress or city council, seek to bridge the economic and cultural divides with dialogue rooted in love, but with firm policy priorities that would, all things considered, make people’s lives better if adopted.
There's Desmond Silveira: https://ca.solidarity-party.org/desmond-silveira-governor/
Brian T. Carroll: https://sites.google.com/view/carroll4congressca22/
Ed Rushman: http://www.rushman.org
and Kevin Egger: http://www.kevinlegger.com
Along with the 2016 Maturen-Munoz campaign:
As well as last years campaigns by American Solidarity Party candidate Monica Sohler for New Jersey legislature:
And Chanda Crutcher, a last-minute independent write-in campaign for US Senate from Alabama whom the Dorothy Day Caucus endorsed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5pqe19YMMg&t=4s
Finally, there is the recent campaign by ASP member Mariane Bovee for Thiensville, Wisconsin village board. They all deserve our attention and praise, no matter their outcome. They will, through prayer, courage and a little luck, be the beginning of a new renaissance of candidates who run for office with the goal of pursuing solidarity. They, and those of us who support them through Imago Dei Politics, will take the best from religious frameworks like Catholic social teaching and Reformed social thought, ideological frameworks like Christian democracy, distributism and the Consistent Life Ethic, the multi-partisan American tradition of fighters for the working man through our elections and institutions such as William Jennings Bryan and Robert La Follette, the New Deal liberals and those conservatives who mounted reasoned critiques against growing federal bureaucracy while still insisting on the need for solidarity; and religiously inspired social movements like the Catholic Worker movement, the African-American civil rights movement, and labor unions from the Knights of Labor to Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers. We take what is good in these traditions, learn from their mistakes, and adapt them to our modern, even postmodern challenges. The new organization some of us who met through the American Solidarity Party are founding, Imago Dei Politics, will assist these efforts by examining elective and legislative politics through the religious framework that many are looking for; the belief that, though politics in itself cannot be in the image of God, we must continue the fight to keep the ethos that all are made in the image of God within the public discourse.
As it is now, though, no wonder, with all the confusion and political paralysis discussed above, that many fail to prioritize the most important places where action is needed, as captured well by some examples in the beginning of this recent First Things essay, "Goodbye Heraclitus," in which the author wonders why there aren’t as many protests about the addiction crisis and student loan crisis as over the antics of the Trump administration and its Democratic opponents.
Meanwhile most largely give up on political action and hold on to whatever normalcy is left, and say, like the women of Canterbury in T. S. Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral faced with “king’s rule or baron’s rule": “We do not wish anything to happen... For us the poor, there is no action; only to wait and to witness.”
We are pleased to announce DDC members voted today, March 3, to transition into Imago Dei. We thank everyone for their input and support during this process.
We voted to allow the current DDC Steering Committee to act as a transitional executive committee until we vote in a new executive committee and board of trustees. Elections will be held between March 25 - 31. We encourage candidates to announce soon so we can spend this month discussing issues.
Finally, we will be developing temporary subcommittees in order to begin building the new website, developing a reading list, switching over social media accounts, and researching candidates. Please let us know if you are interested in volunteering!
Again, thank you all for your involvement. We look forward to continue to support the ASP, and in getting more people involved in our mission to advance a political vision based upon the fundamental dignity of every child of God.
-The DDC Steering Committee
by Christopher Hunt
Across our country we suffer thousands of violent deaths per year. The supermajority comes from the use of guns. I know, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. It is a people problem, not a gun problem. OK. I get that, and I agree. But... the most successful tool used by people to kill themselves or another human being is a gun, as well as accidental gun deaths while cleaning, hunting, or when a child gets a hold of an adult’s firearm. In these discussions we need to play the story all the way through. We need to look at what the foreseeable consequences of our actions and inactions will be.
Violent murders and gang killings, suicides, and accidental deaths are all fruits of an invasive and aggressive plant. These aren’t the only fruits of this plant, but they are ones that need to be dealt with now. We need to dispose of the fruits with immediate, superficial means, and work arduously to eradicate the roots over time to keep the fruit from finding another outlet to plant it’s seed. Most people are only talking about tackling the problem of the fruits, while ignoring the roots. We are going to take both on, together, in this essay.
What can we do to stop the gun deaths from happening? Let’s start with the violence at schools, as it is so fresh in our minds. There are many steps that can be taken, some more controversial than others.
This violence has been going on for decades now, and we should already have a sufficiently staffed and well-trained counseling department in our schools to help children who are dealing with trauma, abuse, bullying, mental health issues, and chemical imbalances. As we are all paying taxes, these offices should be available for charter and private school students as well as homeschool students. We could have a regional psychiatrist and medical doctor oversee a cluster of schools. This is already done in many clinics where there is no on-site doctor, but there is a doctor available for further consultation. A nurse practitioner, with a doctor’s approval, can write prescriptions. This could give our children with the need for professional care easy access. The staff can also confer with parents, teachers and law enforcement whenever appropriate. Such offices do not yet exist. Let’s get it done.
While we are on the subject of mental health, why don’t we step back and look at the problem on a grander scale. Suicide, especially suicide by gun, is a growing problem. We need mental healthcare available to those who have had traumas, whether it be from going to war, losing family members, abuse, or neurological issues. Those at risk and those suffering from PTSD need access to care, and many do need institutionalization as well. In the past, asylums were often places of dread. In order to serve the needs of our fellows that require full time care, we must proceed with love and compassion, as well as the best modern psychiatric care. For our fellows that need outpatient care we need to have professionals available for counseling and psychiatric treatment.
We should already be implementing x-ray machines and metal detectors at all entrances to schools, and monitored cameras at all entrances and exits. A silent alarm can call attention to an opened exit door to those monitoring the cameras. This will dissuade many would-be violent offenders immediately. At the least, they would find it very difficult to get into the buildings with ill-intent. This still leaves the playgrounds and parking lots open for devastating action.
It would be extremely effective to have armed guards and/or staff at our public schools. Many of our teachers are competent and can wield a gun well. A simple gun course will not be effective training. A three or four week intensive-training course on gun safety and use, with much practical application, followed by stringent testing could help us locate the most appropriate members of a staff to take on this responsibility.
An untrained but armed teacher or staff member can possibly cause a crossfire during a mass shooting incident magnifying the death and injury toll. If the armed teacher has poor marksmanship or panics, accidentally killing a student or fellow staff member, they may become the victim of accidentally shooting, and maybe killing (A) student(s) or (B) fellow staff member(s).
A mix of armed teachers with proven competence through training and seasoned veterans working together would be the best choice. Those who are battle-tested and have fought for our freedoms can act under fire and eliminate the threat. Many of our veterans would jump at the opportunity to continue serving their country in this manner.
Another very controversial (and unconstitutional) means would be a ban on guns, or stronger restrictions on gun ownership. This would be difficult on many fronts. There are so many unregistered guns throughout the country, and so many criminals with guns that it would take decades to get the gun count down to a manageable number. Criminals do not care about the laws, and will not obey any new laws that are put in place.
There is also the constitutional battle. After all, this is in the Bill of Rights. It would be quite a task to get the Second Amendment overturned. Many law-abiding citizens would be willing to be branded criminals rather than giving their guns to the government. And this means of prevention just gets messier and messier; “cold dead hands,” anyone?
There are calls for banning so-called “assault weapons”. If by “assault weapon” we mean a fully-automatic, or a three-round burst gun, those are virtually banned. Only dealers and very highly trained individuals with very expensive tax stamps can even own them. The general public cannot access such firearms. They are extremely regulated.
Many hunting rifles and pistols are semi-automatic (every time you squeeze the trigger, a round fires), and a magazine can be changed in a split second. So round capacity of a magazine is not very relevant. The gun demonized so often in the media, the AR-15, is less powerful, has a smaller caliber, and a shorter range than most other hunting guns. There are some made with larger calibers, but the general caliber is .223 and .556. These two are almost if not impossible to tell apart. The .223 has a stronger load, and lower quality AR-15s cannot shoot a .223 bullet, which happens to be the military round. These calibers are so weak that most states will not allow you to hunt anything but small game with them. They are great varmint guns. Many people own them in order to kill pests around their property or hunt rabbit and squirrel.
Background checks: everyone seems to think this is a good idea and it has been offered lip service for years. I do not know why this has not been integrated into our society nation-wide. Perhaps it is the cost of doing it. Background checks do not mean that the guns must be registered, only that the person buying the gun must be able to pass a background check to purchase the gun. We need an integrated system that connects in real time to criminal records and other pertinent records that are in existence. This system does not exist.
As mariners we have TWIC cards and Merchant Mariner Credentials. They both require background checks. One is an NSA check, the other a military check. These two systems are not integrated. State records are not in an integrated system. What we do need to have an integrated system that draws from state, federal, FBI, NSA and every other system in use by our community to vet people, and track their records. Big brother: I know. None of us wants the government in our business, or at least many of us do not. But, these records are already out there, they are just not connected or in a single system. They should be.
Sometimes the system will fail. The Pulse shooter, for instance, was very strongly vetted. He beat the system because he was clean. The Texas church shooter would have been denied the sale of the gun had his dishonorable discharge been properly reported and recorded. So even if we get background checks up to the highest standard, bad guys will still legally get guns. Just a lot less bad guys than before.
There is an idea that I had long balked at: insurance. I still balk at that, but I have been thinking and reading a lot. Rather than an insurance, perhaps a $1 per month per gun tax would be appropriate. This tax could fund training courses in gun safety and use, as well as gun safety advertisement and media. These taxes can be used to help fund the armed guards, metal detectors and x-ray machines at the schools. These funds can also be used to aid those affected by gun violence.
A gun tax of this variety could only be realized if all guns were to be registered. This is another idea I do not like. Regimes in the past have disarmed citizens and then subdued them through state-inflicted violence. Many of us do not want the government to know what we have: it truly is not their business. But what is the reality today? We have a society rife with immoral and amoral people. Many of them own guns. Legally. Many will not violate the law of man, or not get caught. (the law of man? -TT)
The fact is our society no longer values virtue and morality, and those who are virtuous and moral are often derided. Look at Vice President Pence. The man will not be alone with any woman other than his wife. There were many articles written to humiliate him because of his commitment to virtue and morality. He does what every married man should do; or, rather, he does not do what every married man should not do. He refuses to put himself in temptations way, he chooses to have the utmost respect for his wife, and he chooses to be a good example and refuses to cause scandal. Yet for this, he was attacked.
With this in mind we should contemplate the reality we live in. We live in a reality where background checks are not just a good idea, but a necessity. We live in a society where many of our fellow gun owners are not of sound mind or moral character. This is a dilemma. We risk losing our arms if we opt for the tax/registration means of stopping gun violence, but it seems to me to be a just option worthy of consideration. I do not trust the government any more than you do, maybe less, but there are a lot of bad guys out there. This would slowly but surely help remove guns from the hands of violent people and others who should not have guns. Also, if a person commits an act of violence, and they have guns, it is easier to remove their guns if they are known through a registry.
Our government has proven itself dishonest over and over again. Our government has repeatedly acted nefariously: it has helped overthrow legitimate governments since the early 1800s (Mexico), not to mention how it has treated Native Americans. I had once incorrectly believed that such actions were contained within the Cold War. Many of our rights are disappearing. So, to give them access to a gun registry may well be an act equal to digging our own graves, or putting handcuffs on ourselves. Honestly, I would personally have a very hard time registering my firearms. If compelled to do so, I would be strongly tempted to bundle some up, and bury them for safe keeping. I am very torn on this one. It is worth contemplating and talking about at least rather than dismissing it off hand. Perhaps a sales tax on arms, ammunition, and accessories would be a better route.
We have a Constitutional right to bear arms. Many of us choose to do so, though there is always the risk of accidental gun deaths associated with legally owned guns. These deaths come in the form of hunting accidents, gun cleaning accidents, general negligence, and children getting ahold of guns not properly stored.
In many states, if you wish to carry a concealed firearm, you must go through a course. When I got my first concealed carry permit in Alabama, it took me less than 10 minutes to walk out of the sheriff office with my permit and a free gun lock. I do not find this acceptable. We need real, substantive gun courses.
My father and I have discussed gun safety courses many times. I have never spoken to a fellow gun owner that was against the idea of good, extensive gun training courses. There can be created a standardized gun course for hunting, a standardized course for open and concealed carry and a course that covers both. There can be permit requirements put in place for buying guns. The course should cover safety, good practice and practical application. I suspect that a thorough 20-40 hour course with a 4-8 hour refresher every 5 years would stop a lot of accidental deaths. Instructors can also be trained to notice when they notice red flags among course-takers.
After creating and implementing this course it should have full State reciprocity. This means, that if one passes this course, and receives the proper permits, the permits should be accepted in whatever state they are standing in. This is just and it should already be in place. It is ridiculous that I am law abiding on one stretch of the interstate, but acting criminally on the next stretch because I crossed an invisible line into a different state. Sufficient courses that meet or exceed a set of standards should allow those that complete it to carry wherever they are in the country.
Now that we have gone through the superficial means of dealing with the fruits of the problem, let us dig deeper, to the roots of the problem. It is not a head problem, but a heart problem. What has changed our society into a producer of such violence? Why has the value of human life been so devalued among so many of our fellow citizens? Where has the notion of true human dignity gone?
The foundation of these roots, the deepest root as it were, is the atheistic philosophies that began to take root a few hundred years ago during the Enlightenment. Following the Enlightenment there were many big name philosophers leading up to the positivism of Comte; then Nietzsche followed by some of the most influential people that have shaped our contemporary intelligentsia: Darwin, Marx and Freud.
Marx was extremely prolific, writing books and pamphlets in many languages, and writing for newspapers in many countries. Karl Marx even wrote for a newspaper here in the USA for 11 years. He was a master propagandist. He and Engels began a voyage of historical revisionism with the intent to rewrite history from a purely materialistic point of view. Their success is evident in the course books in our schools and universities. The more of these atheist philosophers you take the time to read, the more you will stand in awe of their effectiveness.
Materialism is the bedrock of atheism, and materialism is what capitalism, socialism and communism grew from. Materialism is the philosophy that asserts that there is nothing in the universe but matter. There is no soul or spirit. Everything is matter. In a materialist society, matter is to be exploited by those in power, whether it be corporations (capitalism) or the state (socialism, communism) or a mixture of the two.
Raw materials are made into other useful tools and materials, and just as a brick is a piece of material used to build a building, so other humans are used as reasoning material to build a state or corporation. Being that everything is simply matter, it is just for the more powerful reasoning matter to exploit the less powerful reasoning matter, (the general population). In other words, because we are all simply matter, we simply do not matter. This is the philosophy which governs capitalism, socialism and communism.
This is why so many of us can slave away for over 80 hours a week and still have a hard time supporting our families. This is why a corporation can lay an employee off who is about to have a baby with their spouse after they have paid the entire deductible and a $500 a month insurance bill, and have their insurance immediately cut off as well. Sure, they offer COBRA at $1900 per month, but unemployment doesn’t even break $1000. Insurance that costs up to 50% of your gross annual pay if you use it, medicine that costs several thousand percent over the cost of production: this is atheistic materialism in action. We must combat these evil and false philosophies.
The most glaring root in our society is abortion. We, as a nation, are murdering our children by the thousands as well as permitting the murder and suicide of our parents and ill through euthanasia. We cloak it with innocent words such as “choice,” “fetus,” “Death with Dignity,” “Mercy Killing.” We are killing our children to make life comfortable, we are doing it out of fear, we are forced to by others, we do it for career, we do it as a form of birth control… we are killing our ill and elderly because they are a “burden” to our life, because they are suffering, because it is hard to afford care. These two things that are legal and made normal in contemporary society preach a gospel of death. They preach a gospel of self gratification, self-centeredness and selfishness. Abortion and euthanasia tell our children that life is of little value. If it is ok to kill babies, sick people, and old people, why not anyone in between?
Parental absenteeism is a big issue in the rearing of children. There are many single parent families out there. A large portion of them are heroic in their efforts. My mother was one of those people. She cleaned houses and put herself through nursing school to take care of my 3 brothers and I. We were the janitors of a small private Catholic school in order to pay half the tuition, the other half was paid by an anonymous donor. We were blessed. But, we also did not have our father around, and our mother was working and going to school, so we did not get very much time with her either. That is harmful to children.
Many children are devastated by the divorce of their parents, incarceration or death of a parent, or a deadbeat parent, and it creates lifelong wounds that spill over into society as a whole, sometimes taking a violent form. The Florida shooter became fatherless at the age of 5, and his mother died last November. There is no doubt that these losses had an enormous affect on him, effectively carrying him over the edge. His story was a tragedy from page one. Of the 7 worst mass shootings in our country since 2005, Cruz was the 6th shooter from a fatherless home.
To dissuade the breakup of families a divorce tax could be implemented. But we must play that story through to the end. There are many abused people that get divorced for personal safety and the safety of their children. A tax can be written in a way that if one of the spouses is abusive, that spouse is responsible for 100% of the divorce tax, while there is no tax responsibility on the abused. Otherwise both parties must pay the divorce tax. This will incentivize parents to stay together and work out their differences. Families with both parents have much healthier and successful children. This may help curb parental absenteeism, and keep children from going down a path that will lead to violence.
This crisis also calls for the action of our churches and religious institutions. We need to call for our churches to start getting involved deeply in family ministry, and spousal counseling. This can be coupled with a government media campaign to promote healthy families.
Pornography cannot be overlooked either. Pornography makes people into objects of mere pleasure. It turns other humans into nothing but a tool to please. Pornography leads to all sorts of sexual perversion. It leads to violent sex crimes, to abuse of children and to human trafficking. Pornography dehumanizes people and makes it easier to overlook the personhood of persons. It also promotes promiscuity, which promotes absentee fatherhood as well as abortion, which further steals the dignity of human life.
Atheistic philosophy is a leading cause of the moral breakdown of society. Without God, man has no special place in creation. If man is simply an iteration of matter, it is of no consequence to end a human life in infancy, illness or old age. if life is not sacred, dignity is a falsehood. If we are only matter, there is no wrong in objectifying other humans through pornography, promiscuity, violence or the like. Our society, our corporations, and our laws tell us that humans do not matter. They tell us that materialism is our reality. In materialism there is no hope. In materialism, there is no love. Although you will rarely hear the overt claim of atheism, you see every day in our laws, in our workplaces, and in our schools the philosophies of atheism lived out and practiced. Society tells us that there is no God, and human life has no dignity. This makes mass shootings and other senseless acts of violence ok. “If you can murder a baby, and she can kill her parents, and he can have his ill brother euthanized, what is really wrong if I slaughter these people that cause me pain and anguish?”
Away from Teaching Materialism
A classical education that is based deeply in literature with the Trivium (study of grammar, rhetoric and logic) and Quadrivium (the study of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) is a long term, more permanent solution to the violence problem. The literature could be mainly drawn from the Good Book (for pre-school through junior high) and Great Book (for high school) programs.
Although the Good Books and Great Books draw from many cultures, ages, and civilizations, some find it to be to Eurocentric for our times. This can easily be remedied by supplementing some of the Eastern classics such as the writings of Confucius, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, the Bhagavad Gita (a very popular excerpt from an enormous book of ancient Indian lore) and selections from the Murty Classical Library of India. There are many choices that would fit superbly in such an educational outline drawn from other classical texts.
Such curricula fosters growth in virtue and helps to form a moral character while remaining secular in nature. Further, it truly teaches one how to learn. I know of at least one homeschool curriculum that has partnered with a university, and the students can even earn their bachelor degree in liberal arts by adding an extra year to the high school (Angelicum). If this became the framework of education in America, our children can start graduating with a bachelors degree, and this would go a long way to solve another problem as well: skyrocketing student loan debt.
Implementing this would be made much easier through decentralizing of school. More community charter schools, private schools, religious and secular, online public schools, and more widely used homeschooling through established homeschool curriculums, or family made curriculums. These are real means of fostering virtue and morals while growing communal bonds. Constructive relationships help people to be healthy. This is a garden for healthy relationships.
A good education is only an aid to what is learned in the home. As parents, how do we do our part? Pray with your family every morning and every night. Make attendance at your church with your children a priority. Skip the fishing and the football, don’t skip church. Fathers, studies have shown that children whose fathers practiced religion with the family stay faithful to their religion at a significantly higher rate. Give a tithe to your church and donate money to organizations that promote your faith, your values and your morals, as well as to the political causes you champion. Vote. go to political functions, attend pro-life rallies and events, get involved in charity. The most important thing that you can do, is be a role model and mentor to your children. Bring them with you to the functions you go to involving charity, religion, politics and activism.
In order to eradicate these societal evils, and to get our children to heaven, we should raise our children with the goal of forming them into holy politicians, journalists, artists, teachers, professors, actors, producers of film and TV… raise them to be our priests and preachers, our nuns and our mothers. Do not make it abstract. Talk to your children about the war that we are in. Form them into soldiers of change. Make them warriors for justice and morality. As we Catholics say concerning the sacrament of confirmation, make your children Soldiers of Christ. If we want good education, good media, good literature, good religious formation, we need to form our children into the leaders of these areas. This is what will stop the violence. This is what will bring sanity back to our society. Let’s do this together.
by Sarah Field
Why is poverty so widespread in a country as wealthy as the USA? Why don’t the poor just get better jobs? Have government programs encouraged laziness? Do we need better incentives to get people off the public dole? Or are people trapped in a system they are powerless to escape?
I’m not an economist or expert. But I’ve been following the topic for a few years now, and I’ve come to a few conclusions. Hear me out, and then let me know what you think!
People Don’t Stay Poor Because It’s Easy
Every now and then, a well-meaning friend will post a meme or an article describing the dangers of government supporting the poor. Poor people are social parasites, getting free food, free housing, free college, and free healthcare, all at the expense of their hardworking, more responsible counterparts! It’s not uncommon for someone to chime in with some corroborating anecdote. I know someone like that—living off the government and begging for handouts, but you notice she’s got a cell phone, eats good food, wears nice clothes, drives a nice car, and keep having kids. These people clearly don’t know what it really means to be poor [insert comparison made to a Third World country or the Great Depression], and certainly not how to practice frugality. At the very least, if they had any self-control whatsoever, they wouldn’t have all those kids! But this is what we get when the government offers handouts to anyone who doesn’t have the gumption to make it on their own. It’s just too good of a deal for these freeloaders to pass up!
A whole framework of blame is difficult to take apart piece by piece. But a couple of thoughts are important to keep in mind.
In reality, nobody lives a life of ease at the expense of the government. People get government assistance because they need it in order to survive. They may be surviving at a higher standard of living than their counterparts in Uganda or Haiti, but they could still be precariously close to going bankrupt, living on the streets, suffering from a preventable (and potentially contagious) disease, losing their kids, or ending up in jail because they can’t pay a fine.
Poverty Hurts Everyone—Not Just the Poor
A common theme among these anti-poverty memes is the role of government. Typically, the assumption seems to be that the less we help the poor, the better… unless you’re a politician. If only the government would stop encouraging these behaviors with so many support programs, we wouldn’t have this problem! If you want to get rid of animal pests, you quit feeding them. How hard is that to figure out? But of course, we are stuck with this horrible blight on our economy because all these freeloaders keep voting for the politicians who support them, and politicians only care about getting votes.
Aside from the dubious claims that the poor vote only for politicians who promise handouts, what these memes don’t take into account is the fact that poverty hurts everyone. Think about this. What happens when the poor go bankrupt? Lose their home? Catch a communicable disease? What happens when they end up in jail? Or when their kids end up in foster care? What happens to the next generation when they grow up without a stable home and family? Every one of these “personal” crises ultimately cost society as a whole.
To suggest, therefore, that the only reason the government supports these programs is in order to get votes is to ignore real problems that affect everyone. Programs that keep the poor more or less afloat are cheaper, in the long run, than programs to rescue them from circumstances far more dire.
But they could at least work hard like everybody else and get a better job! Of course they can’t expect to start out as managers. But that’s how the system works. You save your money, work your way up the ladder, and eventually you have a healthy middle-class income. Unemployment rates aren’t even all that high right now. Surely there is no excuse for anyone to live in chronic poverty. We’re just giving people the wrong incentives!
I’ll address these concerns in the next two sections.
Means-Based Welfare Discourages Incremental Improvements
Suppose you are a currently making $2,000/month before taxes. In addition to your income from whatever job(s) you have, you get $200/month in food stamps, and your family healthcare needs are covered by Medicaid. Now suppose you get a better job or a nice raise, and start making $2,500/month. You go home rejoicing that, finally, things are looking up! Unfortunately, this pushes you right over the limit for assistance. Gone are the food stamps, and you have to go to another form of health insurance, with a regular monthly payment and a hefty deductible. Your tax rate also goes up, so you bring home less of what you make. Oh, and maybe your new position requires new clothes (employees often have to pay for their own uniforms), more expensive transportation, or some other up-front investment on your part. All of a sudden, the extra money has completely evaporated! You were literally more financially stable BEFORE you got the better job.
Though these numbers are made up, they illustrate what many people in the grip of poverty face. Sooner or later, an incremental improvement in income is going to hurt, rather than help, them.
But suppose you anticipate this, and start scrimping and pinching pennies so as to have a rainy day fund before you take the plunge. Or maybe you just want to save up for a car, so as to avoid exorbitant financing rates. Smart move, right? Well, you have to be careful about doing this, too. If you have too much in your bank account at the next evaluation, you could lose your benefits on that basis as well!
Long story short, you may not like being on government assistance, but you may have to do what you can to survive. There’s simply no point quixotically refusing assistance, only to end up on the streets or going bankrupt.
The Poor Do Not Control Poverty Rates
It’s true that unemployment is not what it was ten years ago. But “having a job” and “not being in need of assistance” are two very different things. Indeed, a good portion of the jobs currently available are barely enough to support a single adult, let alone a family. Let’s take a look at some stats to get an idea of just how many jobs do NOT provide a living wage.
Take the $15/hour threshold that many suggest should be the new minimum wage. One source shows that 42.4% of workers make less than $15/hour. It is unclear how many of these jobs are full time, but even at 40 hours/week, that’s less than $30,000 per year before taxes. At 35 hours/week (still considered full-time work) the worker gets less than $27,300/year. Where I live, a single person with no significant debt could probably survive pretty comfortably on this amount. But rural Indiana isn’t exactly known for its high cost of living. And for a couple with three kids, even $27,300 is below the federal poverty threshold.
Of course, "less than $15/hour" goes all the way down to minimum wage, and everything in between. According to one Pew Research article “about 20.6 million people (or 30% of all hourly, non-self-employed workers 18 and older) are ‘near-minimum-wage’ workers.” So out of that 42.4% making less than $15 above, only about 12.4% make significantly more than minimum wage. There aren’t too many folks who can survive on $7.25/hour without assistance. Even with two incomes, it’s going to be tough.
Finally, in terms of a job being enough to pay the bills, one must also consider that many of these jobs aren’t even full time work. Since many benefits are tied to being a full-time worker, this means that part-time workers are less likely to get paid sick time, let alone health insurance through their employer. The ratio of part-time to full-time jobs has, thankfully, improved over the last several years, but part-time work still accounts of a big chunk of available jobs. And while working two part-time jobs seems like it ought to be doable, many such jobs also require a level of flexibility that is difficult to achieve while holding another job. And you don’t get benefits or overtime by virtue of working two 30-hour-per-week jobs.
In conclusion, a huge chunk of the population can only bust through the poverty threshold by either working ridiculously long hours, or having two incomes, or both. If they have children, this means farming their kids out to daycare, which in turn means they have to earn more money to pay all their bills. (There are other options, of course. If the parents work opposite shifts, they can watch their own kids, although they may get very little time to build a healthy relationship with each other. And if they live near family or other willing helpers, or qualify for some kind of assistance, the costs can be lowered… but that doesn’t solve the “social parasite” problem.)
Now, microeconomics tells us that any one of these people could work extra hard, maybe get a degree or develop some new skill, and eventually get a better job. But macroeconomics tells us that, for a better job to open up, someone else must die, retire, get fired, or quit. As a general rule, for any person who goes UP the ladder, someone else must go DOWN.
Of course there are ways this can be shifted through businesses creating more jobs, or making lousy jobs into better jobs, and so forth. Some people can bust out of the cycle by successfully creating their own business--but that generally requires some kind of starting capital, and success rates are notoriously low. In short, real shifts in the number of good jobs are not something the average person in poverty has the slightest control over.
This is why giving the poor better "incentives" to get off the government dole is NOT going to solve this problem!
So What Can We Do to Get People out of Poverty?
First, let’s stop treating poverty like a moral failure. Most of the poor are working very hard to provide essential services for society. They provide food service, hospitality, and answer telephones. They are cashiers, nurse’s aides, and janitors. Some of them work in local government, keeping your taxes low, and some of them serve in our military. Don’t want to pay more for these services? Then have the grace not to complain when the government subsidizes these industries in the form of welfare!
But we must do more than merely acknowledge that we need these people and that we benefit from their hardship. We must do more than turn them into working beggars. Justice demands that we ensure people get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
Again, I’m not an economic expert. But there are ideas that could help. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
One popular-but-controversial option is to raise minimum wage. This, at least in theory, reduces the amount the government has to spend on welfare. Thus, it seems like it could lower taxes (although as long as we are operating on a deficit anyway, I'm not so sure). But it does put a considerable burden on the businesses and institutions that can't actually afford to pay higher wages—which could lead to fewer total jobs as owners and managers either fight to stay afloat or go under. And it eliminates lower paying options even for basic entry-level positions ideal for those who are just learning the ropes and don't even need to support themselves yet, let alone a family. Ultimately, it's bound to lead to a higher cost of living for everyone, as higher costs of production eventually get passed on to consumers. It’s only a matter of time until $15/hour in the dollars of the future is no better than $8/hour in today’s dollars.
Perhaps one way to mitigate some of these issues would be to generally raise minimum wage, but permit any given company to have a certain percentage of designated “entry level” positions or employees at any given time. This would allow for some jobs to still exist at lower wages, but not to the extent that they do today.
Yet another option might be for the government to incentivize smaller ratios between the highest and lowest paying jobs within a company. In this system, CEOs would make less, while line workers would make more. But how much real difference would it make? Would companies struggle to find talent for top positions? Would they find loopholes in the form of more disparate benefits? Are CEOs really the problem, or is it shareholders?
Or perhaps the government could simply subsidize certain types of industries with tax breaks and credits for paying higher wages, so that workers could receive fair compensation without overburdening companies, raising prices, or bearing the brunt of the stigma of "living off of handouts." Of course, that assumes, perhaps naively, that such subsidies would in fact be passed along to workers. It also leaves open the question of who would decide which industries would be subsidized, and on what basis.
Another option that has been gaining momentum is a UBI (Universal Basic Income) or Citizen’s Dividend. This is an amount the government would simply pay to everybody, regardless of need. In theory, this would cut out a lot of the overhead needed to determine who is or isn’t eligible for other assistance programs, which it would most likely replace. It would allow businesses to continue to pay people what they can afford, while giving individuals more choice in what kind of job to work (or whether to have one parent stay home with the children in lieu of sending them to daycare). Hopefully, it would help to alleviate the animosity from those who don’t get assistance towards those who do. But for those whose greatest concern is that government assistance promotes lazy habits, it is anathema. There are also concerns about how it would be funded. And finally, it is unclear what other unintended consequences could result.
We may not have all the answers yet. But we must recognize that no government program is making it easy to be poor. We must acknowledge that poverty is as harmful for society collectively as it is for poor people individually. We must stop blaming the poor for a lack of sufficient jobs, and we must stop penalizing them for planning ahead and getting better jobs. Most of all, we must get serious about ensuring that anyone willing to work can support themselves and their families.
Tara Ann Thieke