Friday, March 31, 2017

Poverty Isn't a Choice

Poverty Isn’t a Choice

by Ted Miller
(originally published April 2017 in Tumbleweird)

We like to pretend that bad things only happen to other people and that somehow it is their fault, as if something they did or did not do made them deserve it.  Bad karma.  Because we all know that if we work hard and stay out of trouble, we can achieve the American Dream, whatever that is. 

And so we blame the poor for being poor.  They just need to make better choices, get a better job, stop being such a leech on society.  They certainly don’t need a phone, a television or a car.  They are just lazy and don’t deserve our help.  Let’s test them for drugs to make sure they are worthy of our help.  Let’s control what they can buy with their food stamps because they don’t deserve anything better than the leftover scraps from our table.  Let’s make sure they are really living in poverty before we give them any assistance.

Maybe blaming the poor for their troubles makes us feel better about cutting social safety programs, but the reality is much different.  Seventy per cent of government benefits that help non-elderly low-income households (like food stamps and Medicaid) go to working families.  Yes, people who are working, sometimes two or three jobs, but who just can’t make a living wage.  Millions of children in the United States don’t know where their next meal will come from, and many go to bed hungry every night.  Many of those children are also homeless without a consistent place to sleep every day. 

I don’t know why, but for the past forty or fifty years these myths about poverty have crept in to our social conscience.  The so-called welfare queen who has everything taken care of by the government is a complete myth.  The idea that people somehow choose to be poor and can just live off of the government, that all poor people choose to stay that way, is insidiously evil.  And it leads to an implicit shaming of those who most need help.  When I was a teenager, I remember that my grandparents, who were hard working Missouri farmers, being too embarrassed to go to the welfare office for food stamps because their neighbors would see them.  I have a friend who walked a mile out of his way to school so his classmates would not know he was from the poor part of town.  Because somehow being poor is something to be ashamed of.

But the shame should not be on the poor.  It should be on the rest of us who look the other way and pretend that this isn’t a problem.  We should be ashamed that in this land of abundance, ANY child should go hungry.  That any working family would be considered homeless.  That those who work just as hard as the rest of us are one medical crisis away from bankruptcy.  Our public policy should help ensure that working families can take care of themselves.  There is no reason that we can’t make a living wage possible for American families.  It doesn’t require radical socialism, it just requires the political will to help those most in need; that food, housing and health care are considered a right, and that employers pay their employees a decent wage.

Today’s largest low-wage employers are in effect subsidized by the taxpayer.  In 2014, Walmart cost the taxpayers $6.2 billion in public assistance for their underpaid employees.  McDonald’s employees received $1.2 billion.  There is nothing wrong with corporations making a profit, but when record profits are in part due to suppressed wages that are subsidized by my tax dollars, the market forces are not putting the costs where they belong.

Following the great depression of the last century, we came together as a country to create social programs that would work towards eliminating poverty and its terrible effects on our society.  We need to protect those programs and continue the effort to take care of our neighbors.  Social safety nets are an important part of our society and we should be working to strengthen them, not eliminate them.

You may ask why the government should be in the charity business, but what other means of helping the poor can be as efficient and fair?  Churches and other non-profits are certainly a great help and I would not want to replace them, but they have not been able to eliminate poverty or help everyone in need.  With thousands of individual charities across the country, efforts cannot be realistically coordinated to ensure no one falls through the cracks.  And each charity has its own policies and requirements to decide who gets what assistance.  The government shouldn’t mandate who receives help from an independent charity.  Instead, the government has the ability to create policy and programs that will help all citizens.  I believe we have a moral obligation to help each other, especially those who are the most vulnerable and those who try but cannot climb out of the poverty cycle without help.

Unless you are part of a religious order that takes a vow of poverty, being poor isn’t a choice.  So let’s stop blaming the poor.  Instead of telling the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, let’s offer them a helping hand.  And let’s tell our elected government that’s the kind of public policy that makes our country great.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Freedom of Religion is also Freedom from Religion

Freedom of Religion is also Freedom from Religion 
by Ted Miller
(originally published March 2017 in Tumbleweird)

When I was a kid I often heard phrases like “It’s a free country and I can do whatever I want.”  While it is true that our country was founded on principles of liberty and freedom, those freedoms must be balanced for the good of all.  The exercise of your constitutionally guaranteed freedom shouldn’t infringe on my equally protected freedom.  As supreme court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. is quoted as saying, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."

And this is particularly important with the exercise of religion.  Freedom of religion is so important that the first amendment begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  This means that The United States specifically has no state religion.  Contrary to what some would have us believe, we are not a Christian nation nor are our laws based on any specific religion. Certainly, Christianity has strongly influenced American culture, and even though a strong majority of Americans identify as Christian, that doesn’t make us a Christian nation.

Ethics and morality are the concepts and principles that help define right and wrong in human behavior. We follow those principles to help make us better human beings. Laws tend to be written to ensure ethical behavior. Religious teachings often include a moral code of behavior. But, just as laws are not always moral, religion is not always ethical. We confuse morality, religion and ethics because they are such an integral part of our culture.  But ethical behavior does not require a religious belief, and when unethical behavior is done in the name of religion, our laws must protect those impacted by that behavior. 

Using religion to infringe on the rights of other citizens is not only unethical, it is illegal. The government has asserted the right to limit religious practices that violate individual liberties and freedoms. Although it hasn’t always been the case, if a particular religion professed that owning slaves was ordained by their god, the law in the United States would prohibit the exercise of that religious practice. Polygamy is practiced in a number of religions, but is not legal in the United States. The supreme court upheld the prohibition of polygamy in Reynolds v. United States (1879), stating that "Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices."

The constitution is also clear that religion can’t be used as a test for employment or government office. There was a time when it was feared Catholics would be more loyal to the pope than to the constitution and were therefore unfit for government office. Today, Muslims are often discriminated against because their religion is misunderstood and has been denigrated in our current political discourse. Atheists are often discriminated against for their lack of religion and it is considered political suicide to acknowledge atheism as an elected official, yet an atheist’s lack of belief cannot be used against them to deny equal treatment under the law.

The distinction between the freedom to practice one’s religion and equal protection under the law sometimes comes into conflict. The recent case against Arlene’s Flowers has been a test case in balancing individual religious freedoms with the law that prevents discrimination based on a protected class. Owner Barronelle Stutzman claimed that her religious beliefs prevented her from providing flowers for a same-sex wedding because her religion believed such a marriage was sinful. But Arlene’s Flowers is a business open to the general public and as such must treat all customers equally.  Ms. Stutzman, in her public business practice, can no more refuse service to a gay couple than she could to a mixed-race couple, a Muslim couple, or even an atheist couple. Once you open a business in the State of Washington, you agree to follow the laws of the state, including those that bar discrimination.  The so-called “right to refuse service to anyone” doesn’t apply when you are using your religion as a basis to deny that service.

If Ms. Stutzman were a minister in a church that believed same-sex marriage was against the rules of her religion, the state could not compel her to perform a same-sex wedding in her church. But that is a religious distinction, not a legal one. The Mormon church isn’t compelled to allow anyone to marry in the temple who doesn’t meet the requirements of their faith for a temple wedding. That is freedom to practice their faith and doesn’t infringe on the rights of non-Mormons.

There are some who feel that limiting the ability to impose their religious beliefs on others limits their religious freedom. They believe so strongly in the righteousness of their religion that they are unable to distinguish between the law that protects those who don’t follow their religion and their own sense of moral superiority. They claim that they are the ones being discriminated against, but their perspective is skewed by their privilege and their majority position in our culture. And they want to turn back the progress that has been made towards equality and inclusiveness under the law.

There have been a number of bills introduced into state legislatures recently, including Washington State, that would allow business owners more latitude in refusing service based on “deeply held religious beliefs.” But such laws that allow discrimination against marginalized people are wrong and likely unconstitutional. Where would we draw the line to decide which “deeply held religious beliefs” can be used to discriminate? A law that allows one person or group to negatively impact another on the basis of their religion, to treat them unfairly as anything less than equal under the law, is immoral and unethical.