Penny Wise, Pound Foolish, but Punitive to the Poor and All People

New Orleans  I happened to be sitting next to Washington University professor Mark Rank on a post-Katrina panel at Tulane University a decade or so ago.  In the intervening years Rank’s research into the real costs of poverty have become the benchmarks for assessment that the current political strategy for dealing with the poor is penny wise and pound foolish.  Attention to Rank’s recent work put him on the other end of the microphone recently for a Wade’s World radio interview  on our “voice of the people” stations.

Rank and his colleagues looked at the impact of childhood poverty and its short and long-term impacts.   Contrary to the conservative ideologues, they found that the cost of such poverty was staggering, not in payouts, but in lost potential and related costs.  They were able to crunch the numbers of lost income potential, criminal justice tensions, health care, and other key factors and found that the price tag for our current program of no-prevention-all-punishment is a staggering $1.3 trillion a year equally 5.4% of GDP.  Let these figures sink in.  By not spending the money on the front end to reduce poverty, nationally we lose that much money by our inaction.  In fact, if we were willing to actually try to reduce poverty, the economic benefits would be huge.  Rank found that for every single dollar spent to alleviate poverty we would save another seven dollars in national expenditures.   Adding a couple of other measures to their study, Rank and his team found that we would save as many as twelve dollars for every single buck we spent preventing poverty.

Yes, that’s the opposite of what we hear in the current drum beating in Congress by the Republican majority that wants to make accessing the social services safety net harder, not easier as Rank proves that it should.  They claim they are going to reduce the cost of social and health programs by requiring work.  As the Times’ columnist Eduardo Porter pointed out, the economic and historical record of such strategies only proves it is a political and ideological program not a bridge to self-sufficiency.  People simply stay poor or get poorer.  Porter writes that, “Before welfare reform kicked in [under President Clinton], 68% of poor families got help from the federal entitlement to the poor.  By 2016, its replacement served only 23%.”  The upshot is that there are four million more poor people than there were.

Looking at Rank’s work it is clear.  If we really want self-sufficient families contributing fully to the national economy and easing federal expenditures related to poverty, we need to stop pretending and playing politics with the poor, and start spending the dollars to reduce poverty.  Just as we find in the nation’s other wars, the war on the poor is more expensive that solving the problems beforehand.

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The Pope’s Talking, Let’s Hope Somebody is Listening!

Pope Francis meets refugees at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, April 16, 2016. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)  April 16, 2016.

New Orleans    Pope Francis isn’t perfect.  None of them are.  All the same, it’s hard not to root for the guy, give him an attaboy and hope he pushes the Catholic Church and its parishioners to demand more social justice and social change.

The Pope issued something called an apostolic exhortation which is several degrees lower than an encyclical and doesn’t claim infallibility but is a guidance and, in this case, both a call to action and a word of caution, particularly to conservatives in the church.  The key takeaway was the Pope’s statement that the “defense of the innocent unborn needs to be clear, firm and passionate,” but “equally sacred, however are the lives of the poor, those already born,” along with the elderly and other victims whether of human trafficking or displaced migrants.

Not surprisingly, the Pope is not signing up for membership in Planned Parenthood, but he is saying that the one-hundred percenters on this issue need to step up on the issues of poverty and the demand for more equality and equity as an expression of their faith.  He argued that an all-consuming attention to abortion is “a harmful ideological error,” especially when it deflates and devalues fights for social change or claims that the struggles for change are “superficial, worldly, materialistic, communist or populist.”  Big amen to that point!

Hitting home, the Pope stated clearly that there is no claim to good living and holiness “that would ignore injustice.”  He was clear that he was talking about progress in dealing with economic inequality in his exhortation.  Give him another big amen there!

Furthermore, the Pope argued against false equivalencies.  He lashed out at church members that would claim dealing with poverty or the desperation of migrants was somehow a secondary or lesser issue compared to what he called “bioethical questions,” meaning abortion and right-to-life issues.  In a gut punch he referred to such comparisons as something a politician might say, “but not a Christian,” which has to rank in the religious community as a beatdown.

So, the Pope isn’t perfect, God knows.  Critics are clear that his work has not matched his statements about sexual abuse by clericals within the church for example.  Nonetheless, we have to embrace him as a fellow traveler when it comes to the fight for justice and equality for all people.  His voice has power and range there.  We need to hope it’s heard and heeded.  We need all the help we can get.

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