Let’s stop pretending we’re a civilized nation


I’m trying to wrap my heart around the terrorist act in Charleston, SC, that left nine innocent people dead. It isn’t easy.

In the aftermath of this horrific act, I have seen apologists for the young terrorist say he’s been withdrawn and lonely in recent years.

Others have said it was an attack on the Christian faith.

The NRA says the availability of guns had nothing to do with it.

And the flag of hate still flies at the Capitol Building in Columbia.

Nine human beings are dead, their lives snuffed out by a hate-filled young man whose father gave him the gift of a weapon for his 21st birthday.

When the terrorist is apprehended, we see him being led off wearing a bulletproof vest, just in case someone wants to hurt this poor misguided white boy.

As I looked at that image, a flood of images depicting the rough treatment and the murders of young black men came to mind. And some still have the nerve to say we are “post-racist.” I think we’re more “post-civilized.”

When President Obama said people in “other advanced nations” don’t have this kind carnage on a regular basis, I wanted to remove the word “other” from his speech.

How can we call ourselves civilized when we make excuses for white terrorists while we condone killing blacks who carry no weapons?

We have the nerve to call these victims of our racism “thugs,” while calling a blatant act of racist terror an attack on Christianity.

How can we call ourselves civilized when we allow people to die from lack of access to health care?

How can we say we’re an advanced nation when we restrict voting rights, pay workers slave wages, take reproductive decisions away from women, cut funding to education, take food out of the mouths of children by cutting food stamps, send poor children to prison for missing school and advocate indiscriminate use of guns (but only among white people)?

We are quick to blame the victims of our institutional violence — an NRA board member actually blamed the death of the pastor, a state senator, on his vote to ban guns from churches.

Want to know what’s really sad? A 5-year-old girl knew enough to play dead when she saw a white man with a gun.

I don’t care if this man has a mental illness; he got a gun and killed nine human beings because of the color of their skin. I am an advocate for people with mental illnesses —  I sit on the board of our local NAMI affiliate — but I can’t advocate for a society that shrugs off this kind of violence again and again and again …

I seriously doubt anything will be done to stem the violence in this country; I seriously doubt we as a society will move to restrict guns in any way. In fact, as this terrorist was executing black churchgoers, the general assembly here in North Carolina was debating loosening what few restrictions exist here.

I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to protect my black friends or my biracial great-granddaughter, who will cheerfully tell you she’s black.

I would pray for peace, but it’s not God who will bring it. We have free will and we use it to perpetuate institutional and individual violence. It is up to us to stand up and call out people who think we need more guns and more excuses.

There is no more time for silence on these issues. Every one of us needs to work to make us a truly civilized society.








‘The least of these’ are not less than the rest of us

In Kansas, if you're on public assistance, this could become illegal for you to buy.

In Kansas, if you’re on public assistance, this could become illegal for you to buy.

I’m watching state after right-wing state in a competition to see who can be the most mean-spirited to people on government assistance.

A bill in Missouri would prevent people using food stamps from buying steak or seafood. A bill in Kansas would restrict people on public assistance from buying any kind of entertainment, going to psychics or having tattoos.

Under the bill, which passed last week by large majorities in both the House and Senate, public assistance recipients can’t spend their government aid on body piercings, massages, spas, tobacco, nail salons, lingerie, arcades, cruise ships or visits to psychics, according to CNN.

The bill also forbids spending the money at theme parks, dog or horse racing tracks, a “sexually oriented business or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment, or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.”

And it limits cash withdrawals of the funds to $25 a day, an attempt to prevent recipients from using their funds on inappropriate expenditures.

These are the same people complaining about how Democrats are setting up a “nanny state,” yet they have the temerity to tell poor people how they can and can’t spend the money they receive.

God forbid we should allow poor people to have any dignity.

As we cut taxes on the wealthy and refuse to increase minimum wage to make it even half of a true living wage, we become increasingly punitive toward the poor, while still hailing ourselves as a “Christian” nation.

I have news for the so-called Christians who seem to get a kick out of kicking the poor: Jesus would be ashamed of you.

If you go back and read about the man you supposedly follow, you’ll read about how he helped the poor, people with disabilities, mental illnesses and even leprosy, which was about as unclean as a person could get.

There was the woman who’s been bleeding (as in menstruating) for years. No one would go near her because she was unclean, but Jesus healed her.

Jesus reached out to “the least of these,” as are described in Matthew as people who are sick, hungry, thirsty, naked and in prison. And, he added, “whatever yo do unto the least of these, you do also unto me.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said it in another way in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.”

Instead of thinking poor people are somehow immoral, we should look at the circumstances that led them to be poor. Perhaps they’re working (most poor people do work) for minimum wage, which is less than half what it takes to live in just about every city in the nation. Perhaps they had huge medical bills after an accident or illness that was no fault of their own. Perhaps the family is headed by a single mom who has escaped a violent partner.

So many roads lead to poverty in this country, including the superhighway of low-wage work. The jobs that were lost in the 2008 economic meltdown have been replaced by low-wage jobs and states like North Carolina have cut unemployment compensation so far that people are forced to take these low-wage jobs or have no income at all.

So, we’re forcing people into poverty and then shaming them for being poor.

When I talk to conservatives about this, their answer is inevitably, “I know a guy who …”

Well, I know dozens of poor people. I work with them all the time, and almost every one of them works hard, or wants to.

I know people with illness or disability who would love to work but can’t. They’re lumped in with the “lazy” people who are working two or more minimum-wage jobs while trying to make ends meet.

The people we need to shame are the wealthy and the mean-spirited. We also need to tax the hell out of them. When we start doing that, we might see an improvement in the plight of the poor.

Politics above people. What else is new?

From my favorite cartoonist, Matt Davies.

From my favorite cartoonist, Matt Davies.

I don’t want to write about the sequester; I was hoping I wouldn’t have to.

But here we are as the two sides in Washington bicker like toddlers. Well, one side is bickering like toddlers, but they can hold things up all by themselves, which is what they intend to do.

They’re protecting their rich and powerful friends and ignoring their constituents.

So, what will the sequester do? Well, it will hold up your tax return for a few months or more for one thing. I hope you weren’t depending on that money for anything, like to help pay off a maxed-out credit card or supplementing your unemployment check.

It will send less money to things like public health, so we’ll all be more vulnerable to outbreaks of various illnesses that can kill us. Fewer people will be able to get vaccinations to keep them from getting sick and response to outbreaks will be slower.

It will cause the layoffs of 30,000 teachers and teacher assistants.

Defense contractors will face layoffs.

Unemployment benefits will be cut.

And on and on …

This is exactly what the Republicans want to happen. In fact, they’re trying to force the cuts to last a year, even if a compromise is reached.

Their rich friends won’t be hurt because those people can afford whatever they need. But what about hungry children? What about people who depend on government-funded clinics or adult day care for elderly parents who have dementia and can’t be left alone?

They like to claim it’s all about choices, but I don’t know any children who chose to have parents whose living-wage jobs were shipped overseas and who now have to work at Walmart, where 70 percent of workers are paid so little they have to rely on government assistance.

That’s right, you and I subsidize the disgustingly rich Walton family with our tax dollars so they can keep getting richer while their workers go hungry.

The Republicans don’t care about us; they don’t care if we lose our homes, go hungry or die. If they can get rid of birth control, the poor will keep pushing out babies — cogs for the money-making and war machines. We live in poverty and they get fatter.

We MUST get rid of these clowns in 2014, both at the national and state levels. They’ve done enough damage. In fact, it will take generations to fix their damage.

We need to start organizing NOW.




Government-supported retail

On Black Friday, people turned out to protest the working conditions at Walmarts across the country.

For people who don’t want any government interference, the family that owns Walmart certainly relies pretty heavily on the feds.

About 80 percent of the people who work for Walmart are eligible for food stamps. All told, these hard-working people get $1 billion in government assistance, and the Walton family walks away with billions in profits.

Walmart employees make an average of $8.81 an hour, according to IBISWorld, an independent market research group. In most parts of the country, living wage is almost double that. A living wage is what it takes to pay rent on modest living space, buy groceries, own a car and pay utilities. There is no cable TV calculated into living wage, no meals out, no evenings at the movies, no smart phone with unlimited data.

This wage adds up to annual pay of $15,576, based upon Walmart’s full-time status of 34 hours per week. That wage, if you’re a single parent with three kids, is well below the federal poverty level of about $22,000 for a family of four.

Walmart employs 1 percent of the US population, but its payroll doesn’t come close to 1 percent of total wages paid in the country.

According to a paper by the Center for Labor Research and Education at University of California Berkeley, if Walmart started paying a $12 per hour, its workers who now make less than $9 per hour could each earn $3,250 to $6,500 more per year before taxes. If Walmart were to pass this cost directly to shoppers, the average consumer would need to pay only 46 cents more per shopping trip, or $12.50 per year.

Last week, Walmart announced that it would stop offering health insurance to new employees who work less than 30 hours per week. And you can bet most new employees will work less than 30 hours per week.

The company cited the costs of the Affordable Care Act, even though the law isn’t fully implemented for another year.

It’s just another excuse to screw the workers and keep them in poverty.

Walmart can afford to pay a better wage and more benefits. Compare it to Costco, where the average employee earns about $17 an hour and has health coverage. No, the CEO won’t be able to make more than 1,200 times what the average employee makes. Big deal.

A living wage would allow people the dignity of making their own decisions about their spending instead of having to rely on the government agencies that subsidize their food, rent and health care costs.

Walmart typically goes into markets and undercuts the prices of local merchants, driving many of them out of business. It keeps wages low, and with few other options for retail jobs in many communities, its employees have to stay on.

Sure the prices at Walmart are low — they’re subsidized by all of us taxpayers.


Tired of the hate toward poor people

I just saw a meme on Facebook asking people to “like” it of they get pissed off at seeing food stamp recipients smoking cigarettes, watching cable TV or talking on a cell phone. One of the people who shared it was the daughter of a friend, a woman I’ve known since she was born.

It broke my heart just a little to see it.

Earlier I saw a post asking if the insanity at 7 a.m. at Home Depot involved (epithet for Latinos) standing in line waiting for day labor.

I work with people every day who qualify for food stamps. They do not live in the lap of luxury.

Did you know that food stamps provide less than $5 a day? Could you eat on that?

As for the people in line for day labor, plenty of them are not Latino, and they can’t find work elsewhere. In addition, undocumented immigrants do not qualify for any government benefits. Look it up.

As for what people deserve, did you know that people with certain mental illnesses almost always smoke cigarettes? No one seems to know what the connection is, but it is there.

Cell phones are a necessity for people who can’t afford a land line. Most of the people I serve have cheap WalMart cell phones and they buy a couple hundred minutes a month. When their minutes run out, they go without a phone for the rest of the month. I have yet to see a homeless person with an iPhone.

Most people who live on disability get less than $800 a month. Try to live on that.

How’s this for a story? One woman replied to the Facebook meme saying she is home all day because of a disability, and she smokes cigarettes. The government has decided she is too disabled to try to rehabilitate, in her words. She watches cable TV because there is nothing else for her to do. Even if she could get out, she couldn’t afford to do anything.

For every poor person I’ve ever known there is a story. The people I serve are NOT lazy; they are not bums and they don’t want to be on government assistance.

But if you start out poor in this country, despite the “American dream” myth, you likely will remain poor.

Nowadays, if you start out middle class, you’re likely to sink into debt and even into poverty.

Let’s say you have a good job as an art teacher. With the funding cuts to schools these days, art is one of the first programs to go. If you get laid off, what other skills do you have? Will you be able to find another job at the pay you’re making now? Not likely. Will you be able to maintain your lifestyle on half the pay you were making — or even less?

Since you can’t go out to dinner or the movies, does that mean you don’t deserve ANY means of entertainment, even basic cable? Does it mean you don’t deserve a telephone?

Very few of us are more than six months away from financial disaster. When you see someone  who is poor and talking on a cell phone, remember you could be in that same situation very easily.

Let’s talk about poverty

I just took a pledge to talk about poverty.

I took the pledge at http://www.ncjustice.org/?q=budget-and-tax/pledge-talk-about-poverty because too many people think people in poverty did something bad to get there.

The truth is that people in poverty are NOT lazy. In fact, many work two or three jobs and still don’t make enough to make ends meet. All many people can find is part-time work, and those jobs don’t come with benefits like sick days, vacation time or health insurance.

More people than ever are getting government assistance. Do you know why that is? It’s because we’ve seen a dramatic decline in workers’ rights, so wages have been going down for most people. So many good-paying jobs have been shipped overseas and replaced with low-paying service jobs that people who once donated to charity now depend on it to put food on the table.

Poverty rates have risen at a record pace, and the number of people living near the poverty level has shot up as well.

The poverty level for an individual is just over $11,000 a year. Try and live on that. You won’t be able to.

Even if you work full-time at minimum wage, you only earn $15,080 a year, based on a 40-hour work week. In nearly every city in America, you need twice that to live independently.

President Lyndon Johnson believed that if we really met the needs of just one generation, we could all but eliminate poverty. But his vision of the Great Society was derailed by the Vietnam War, and no one has had the political will since to even suggest that people in poverty deserve a hand up.

People in poverty often lose hope, and once someone has lost hope, they care a lot less about the rights of the wealthier people who seem to flaunt their good fortune.

Poverty causes crime. It breeds diseases that could be eliminated by proper nutrition (such as Type 2 diabetes).

People in poverty have shorter lifespans because of the stress they endure trying to provide for themselves and their families — not to mention their lack of access to health care.

People in poverty are not lazy; they are not mooches. Any one of us could land in the same place in a matter of months. Few Americans have enough savings to last longer than six months without an income.

Imagine if you got sick and it took a year to get approved for disability. This is not far-fetched; it took my son three years to get disability. You likely would lose your house if you’re lucky enough to own one. And even with disability, you income would be reduced drastically.

Imagine your job was shipped overseas and the only job you could find paid just half of what you used to make. How long could you survive at your current level?

How about if that new job didn’t have health benefits and you got sick? Would you be able to find a doctor who would bill you? If so, how long do you think that doctor would wait to be paid?

Meanwhile, how do you afford new clothes for your children as they outgrow the old ones?

Then what happens if your son falls down and breaks a tooth?

Now your auto insurance is due and you need that car to get to work, but you’re two months behind on your utility bill. Which do you pay?

You’ve already maxed out the credit cards in hopes you can pay it all back when a better job comes along.

Then the car breaks down and you fall another month behind on the mortgage.

Are you a lazy bum?

None of this scenario is far out. I know people these things have happened to. I have seen people foreclosed upon in similar circumstances.

I’m really tired of hearing we can’t afford to make people’s lives better. There is plenty to go around. Right now, the people in the top 2 percent are hoarding far more resources than they need to have. Their greed has become a pathology, and it needs to be addressed.

We need to make noise — a lot of noise — about poverty and our desire to eliminate it.

Please, go to http://www.ncjustice.org/?q=budget-and-tax/pledge-talk-about-poverty and sign the pledge. Then talk about poverty and the damage it is doing to human beings who deserve better.





We are not post-racist

Julia Robinson's son died April 3 after being pepper-sprayed by police in Norfolk, Va.

Being from the class of privilege, I sometimes overlook racism without even realizing it. I don’t have to think about the color of my skin and what it means to law enforcement and other power structures.

Yesterday, I went to the Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty in North Carolina as the bus stopped at the Union Grove Baptist Church in a predominately African-American neighborhood in Hendersonville, NC. The tour is sponsored by the NC Chapter of the NAACP, the NC Justice Center, AARP, the  UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity and the Institute For Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University, whose representatives have traveled the state by bus to hear stories from people living in financially struggling communities.

There I met Julia Robinson, whose 20-year-old son, Derrick Hemphill Jr., died in police custody April 3 after being pepper-sprayed.

Derrick had been in the Navy and was discharged in March (the Navy reports he received a general discharge under honorable conditions). Julia isn’t sure what happened, but police said he was suicidal and resisting arrest, so they put him in handcuffs and leg irons and sprayed him. He died on the way to the hospital.

Family members say Derrick was a good student and a happy kid. No one in his family knew he had left the Navy, and no one knew he was suicidal.

Would he have been sprayed if he were white and suicidal? I don’t know. I only know that Julia Robinson is looking for answers to a lot of questions and she isn’t finding them.

She believes her son died because of an injustice.

“He wasn’t armed,” she told me. “He wasn’t capable of killing them. Why did they have to spray him?”

If you’ve ever dealt with someone who has a psychiatric illness — and people who are well don’t threaten suicide — you know pepper spray is an over-reaction. There are better ways of subduing someone.

Julia and I hugged and cried over our lost sons. She wanted to know if she would ever get over it and I had to assure her she won’t. The feeling of lost potential will always be there. Parents should never have to bury their children. If Derrick was ill, he should have received treatment, not a discharge.

But Julia’s was only one story I heard yesterday.

Before the meeting started, we all had the chance to see the bullet marks in the side of the church building, where on March 8, police opened fire on a man who was running away from them. Officers chased the man, firing about 50 shots. Some went into the wall of the church; others hit the walls and windows of four homes near the church. Fortunately, no one was killed, but that’s just pure luck if you see where the bullets landed. The suspect was shot in the arm.

Barbara Smith was at home with her 14-year-old son and 1-year-old grandson when the shooting started on March 8.

Barbara Smith was at home with her 14-year-old son and her 1-year-old grandson when the shooting started.

“My first thought was the safety of the children,” she said. “But now, I want to see those officers fired.”

The officers are on paid leave pending an investigation.

This wouldn’t have happened in my neighborhood, I guarantee it. But in a poor, predominately African-American community, police thought it was OK to open fire next to the homes of innocent people.

“What they were saying was that they didn’t care about this community,” said community resident Tony Strickland. “I don’t care who you are, you don’t deserve to be tracked down like a dog. He didn’t have a weapon; his only choice was to run. The police knew where he lived so they could have picked him up any time.”

People in the tight-knit Green Meadows community want to know why it’s OK to open fire on an unarmed man while children sleep nearby.

State NAACP president Rev. William Barber said he thought it must have looked like a scene from a violent video game.

“It’s OK to shoot like that in a video game,” Barber said. “But you don’t do that in real life.”

Was it because Green Meadows is a mostly African-American community? Well, as I said before, it wouldn’t happen in my mostly white, middle-class neighborhood.

When things like this happen, it doesn’t matter that we have elected an African-American man as president, we are not a post-racist society.


Presenting our ideas

Some of our ideas for combatting poverty in our community. We posted them on the wall yesterday and refined them today.

I don’t like “visioning.” My experiences with it up to now have been disappointing at best. I much prefer brainstorming, and it needs to be with people who are open to ideas.

The process I went through in the last two days with Children First/Communities in Schools was very much a brainstorming session with a ton of positive energy and people from a variety of backgrounds.

I’ve been involved too many times with groups of people who want to help “those poor people,” whose intentions are good but who have no experience living in poverty. I encountered a lot of them when my kids were little and I was poor. I had to subscribe to their ideas or I was a problem mom.

It’s easy to tell someone her son needs therapy, but it loses something when you tell a low-wage working mother she has to take two hours off every Wednesday afternoon — without pay — to get him there. It’s easy for people who’ve never been poor to think they know what it’s like, but it’s better to listen to people who are poor describe their everyday struggles and work toward solutions with them, respecting them as equals.

The solutions we come up with have to work for the people we’re trying to help. Most poor people do have jobs, and those jobs don’t pay them while they’re in a parenting workshop or at a clinic. We need real solutions and we need them to be where and when people can use them.

You can’t say you’re giving children a safe place for recreation when the park and their neighborhood are separated by a four-lane highway.

That’s why I was glad to hear so many of the solutions today involve going into the neighborhoods with services at community centers that are run by people in the community. There was a suggestion of child-care cooperatives that would offer training in early childhood brain development and appropriate activities to the people who will care for children.

A lot of small nonprofits are duplicating services instead of collaborating, and one group today decided to build a coalition of service providers — nonprofits and the Department of Social Services — that communicates so all our services reach the right people, and we can build partnerships to offer stronger solutions.

We had lots of ideas for mentoring — one-on-one services that I believe in. One of my favorite ideas was for every new parent to get a visit from a nurse, doula or grandmother-type who could answer questions and guide the new parents to any services they might need. This is especially important for first-time parents, who might have little or no experience caring for infants. Nothing helps like a little self-confidence, especially when it’s paired with a telephone number they can call if the baby won’t stop crying and they need a break.

Women who became mothers as teenagers make good mentors for teen moms. They make even better mentors for teenagers who are at risk of getting pregnant before they finish school. You’re more likely to trust somebody who’s been where you’re thinking of going than a middle-aged white woman with a degree in social work or psychology. That person can be the one behind the young woman with the real-life experience. I call it a positive chain reaction.

We also talked about getting funding from city and county governments for small programs and working with state lawmakers to change outdated or unreasonable rules and regulations. We aim to engage people in the community in these efforts.

Too many government programs have taken away the ability of people to advocate for themselves; we want to give that back to people who receive services.

No one of the ideas we came up with during the last two days will eliminate child poverty in Buncombe County, but it is a step in the right direction. I believe we can reduce poverty by helping people improve their communities and giving the skills and the self-confidence to become civic leaders and bring about real change.

What does it look like to you?

My team's vision of a community where people help each other and there's enough for everyone.

I was at an anti-poverty summit today, sponsored by Children First/Communities in Schools of Buncombe County.

The activities centered around how we could eliminate poverty in a county where nearly one in four children lives below the national poverty level, an income of $22,050 for a family of four. In reality, it takes double that to be able to make ends meet here.

Parents struggle with unsafe housing, low wages, few good food choices, little or no health care for themselves, inadequate child care and a social services system that’s confusing, seemingly uncaring and traps them in poverty.

We told each other stories of families we knew — or our own families, and talked about what we might be able to do to change those stories.

We started with ideas: a home visit by a nurse to every new parent, plus a guide to parenting resources; community centers where people could go for help and rise to become volunteers and community leaders themselves; child-care cooperatives at the community college and in the community that would offer parents training in child care and age-appropriate toys and materials to promote optimal early brain development; community gardens, or trucks that sell fresh fruits and vegetables that travel to neighborhood that have no grocery stores or farm stands; access to safe recreation; help navigating the social services system; programs with rules that are flexible enough to accommodate different families and cultures, and of course, access to quality health care for children and their parents.

There were a couple hundred ideas posted on the walls before we were done.

We talked about the “benefits cliff” that removes assistance before people are ready. For example, someone who works overtime and makes a few extra dollars just winds up having to pay it in housing because the rent is tied to income, or taking away child care subsidies as soon as a mother finds work. People can’t get ahead; they feel trapped.

We were asked to illustrate our vision of what the county could look like in five years if our solutions were implemented — but we also had to talk about how they might be implemented. Who would work together to get a visiting nurse into the home of every new parent? Who would be responsible for putting together a parenting resource guide? Who would operate the community resource centers in our dream community?

At the end of the day, we were asked to write a statement of our vision. This is my group’s statement:

“We share the value of strong families and recognize the interdependence of our community. We choose to be bold and build innovative and efficient resource networks that nurture a holistic, healthy, sustainable and abundant life for all.”

It will take bold action to fix our communities and clean up the mess left by corporate greed, but we can do it, one community at a time.

Tomorrow, summit participants will talk about how we do it here.

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