Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Attacks on religion, liberty by Robert P. George  and Katrina Lantos Swett: “It is both ironic and tragic that in this season of universal goodwill the Christian communities of the ancient Biblical lands should find themselves in grave danger. Let us stand in solidarity with them today, and let us rededicate ourselves to the cause of protecting the religious liberty of men and women everywhere.”

Which Policies Reduce Income Inequality? by Laura Tyson: “President Obama has made significant progress combating income inequality. Under his leadership, the federal income tax system has become more progressive, and Obamacare is the most progressive social-insurance program since Medicare and Medicaid began in 1965. But there is far more to do. Raising the minimum wage is the right next step.”

The Church in 2014 by Michael Sean Winters: “The pope will continue his focus on the poor and challenge those of us in the affluent West to re-think our assumptions about economics and the good life, and he will continue to articulate this concern as key to evangelization. And, I suspect he will continue to tone down the culture wars. The difference in 2014 is that while last year we had symbolic and rhetorical steps in this direction, in 2014 we will see concrete acts and decisions, putting structural, organization flesh on his priorities.”

Changed, Not Ended by Julia Walsh: “I am not worried about changes in religious life; I am excited. I trust that God is up to something amazingly good. I believe that God is helping religious life evolve to meet the changing needs of society. I pray that we will have the courage and freedom to let go of anything that slows us from moving into God’s hope-filled future. I am glad I will be with sisters, strengthened by the legacies, traditions and prayers of our elders. Thank God, by grace, we are in this together.”

In China, one in five children live in rural villages without their parents by Washington Post: “More than 61 million children — about one-fifth of the kids in China — live in villages without their parents. Most are the offspring of peasants who have flocked to cities in one of the largest migrations in human history.”

Yes, You Should Talk Politics With Your Family by Anna Sutherland: “Family life is not always peaceful, but in a world of instant gratification and echo chambers, it’s a healthy check on our self-centeredness, our egos, and our confidence in our own ideas.”

Archbishop Kurtz on the new pope by Greg Hillis: “When it comes to the implications of Pope Francis’ message for himself, Archbishop Kurtz hears the pope saying to him and to all clergy: ‘Don’t become distant from the people you serve. Find ways to hear people, to visit people… The Holy Father is not asking us to see the person from a distance. He’s asking us to be close up.’ And indeed, the archbishop said, it is this accompanying of the person genuinely and lovingly that has to come before all else, because ‘if there is not that attempt to seek to accompany, then there will be no credibility.’”

Syria’s children suffer, and the world just shrugs by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: “The world has devoted a great deal of diplomatic energy to securing Syria’s chemical weapons. It has yet to do the same for securing Syria’s children.”

Out of jobs, out of benefits, out of luck by David Frum: “People who can’t work still must eat. Americans in distress have a claim on the rest of the nation. Extend unemployment insurance. Sustain food stamps. While we’re looking for a new deal, at least quit deluding ourselves that the old deal is still operable. It’s not. It has passed on, from everywhere except our increasingly outdated memories.”

The resurgent progressives by EJ Dionne: “You might summarize the revived left’s basic gripe with this question: Why was it so much easier to spend public money on rescuing financial institutions than on rescuing families caught in a cycle of unemployment, collapsing incomes and foreclosures?”

Listening to the Founding Fathers by Michael Gerson: “The broad purposes of the modern state — promoting equal opportunity, providing for the poor and elderly — are valid within our constitutional order. But these roles are often carried out in antiquated, failing systems. The conservative challenge is to accept a commitment to the public good while providing a distinctly conservative vision of effective, modest, modern government.”

States make moves toward paid family leave by Washington Post: “The moves on the state level, advocates say, are a sign that people are tired of waiting for Congress to act to bring workplace laws dating to the 1930s, when a majority of mothers were at home, in line with a modern workforce, in which a majority of mothers work.”

Rocky Mountain High? by CNS: “Denver Police Chief Robert White said in late December that his staff will not actively enforce bans on recreational smoking in public, adding to some parents’ fears that the murky situation will become a legal free-for-all.”


The Pope and the President Tackle Inequality and How We Should Respond

President Obama spoke at length about the economy last Wednesday, focusing in particular on the disturbing economic inequality that exists today in the United States. He described:

“a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American. That’s why I ran for president. It was the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office.”

President Obama turned many Catholic heads by quoting another world leader who has decried the injustice of deep economic inequality, Pope Francis:

“Some of you may have seen just last week, the pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length. How could it be, he wrote, that it’s not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? But this increasing inequality is most pronounced in our country, and it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.”

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis addressed economic inequality in the strongest of terms, saying, “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality.” This language directly confronts those who downplay the morally binding nature of Church teaching on social and economic justice, often to support economically libertarian political candidates and movements.

The pope attacked economic systems that are built on social Darwinism, where human persons are objectified and used instrumentally. Pope Francis said, “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” He warned, “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading.” He cautioned, “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.”

This unjust foundation creates economic conditions that are dehumanizing and depersonalizing, including long-term unemployment, a lack of social mobility, an inadequate social safety net, and a pervasive nihilism among those who are powerless in the system. The US is facing many of the problems Pope Francis is describing, in part because of how many American politicians and citizens have accepted trickle-down economics and maintain a “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system,” just as Pope Francis describes.

Their deification of the market has led them to reject the proper role of the government in regulating the market and redistributing wealth in order to promote the common good and human flourishing. They have come to believe that the market determines human rights, instead of human dignity and our common  identity as children of God, rejecting the universal destination of goods which demands that each person must have access to the level of well-being necessary to his or her full development (which Pope Francis reminds us comes before private property). As Pope Francis notes, “Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God.” And this rejection often comes from those who proudly tout their membership in the Church. They wrongly think that charitable donations are a substitute for justice.

We can only hope that other American politicians, especially Catholic politicians, will listen to the wisdom the pope has to offer on economic justice. It is encouraging to hear President Obama praise the pope’s wisdom on economic inequality and see him focus on increasing economic justice in our country. But President Obama too should reflect on all that the pope is describing, particularly what it means to address global economic injustice, and even on issues where the two disagree, such as abortion. The program outlined by President Obama would be a good start toward alleviating some of the injustices described by Pope Francis, but far more is needed to achieve real progress toward the global common good. Both Republicans and Democrats who are authentically driven by Catholic teaching and motivated by Pope Francis’ vision have a great deal of work to do in reshaping the agenda of each of their political parties to more closely reflect a commitment to the common good.

Yet the initial reactions to both President Obama’s speech and Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation have not been promising. Congressional Republicans have not only rejected President Obama’s proposals, as we might expect in this era of hyperpartisanship, they have also failed to accept the basic economic realities that the President is hoping to address and that the pope has described. This is not surprising, since libertarianism has increasingly infected the party’s approach to governance.

What may have surprised some (though neither me, nor my wife, who predicted it) is the strong backlash against the pope’s words from the political right in the United States. Some have offered modest critiques, arguing the pope underestimates the benefits of capitalism and free markets and overestimates the efficacy of government action. Others have tried to twist the pope’s words to match their ideological agenda or have simply ignored the heart of his message, engaging in a more covert form of resistance.

Others, however, have harshly attacked Pope Francis, accusing him of Marxism and “ripping America.” The pope, like President Obama, is a threat to their delusions and designs—to their imagined vision of what America was, distorted vision of what it is, and disturbing vision of what is should be.

While these free market absolutists are incorrectly describing the pope’s mentality and message, they are right to recognize the fundamental incompatibility of economic libertarianism and the pope’s vision. Catholic teaching cannot be reconciled with a utopian faith in the market (or even a partial faith in the deifying myths of the market). The critics’ indifference to disturbing levels of economic inequality and injustice cannot coexist with an informed conscience. There is a fundamental divide that exists.

Some criticisms of the pope have exposed the myths that prevent far too many on the right, including many Catholic politicians, from embracing huge segments of Catholic teaching, particularly when it comes to economic and social justice.

Some critics of the pope have described a fanciful fairy tale in which unfettered capitalism in the US produced robust economic growth and falling levels of poverty, all thanks to the free market’s freedom from government. In his speech, President Obama described the various government actions throughout American history—from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson—that actually allowed for progress in creating a larger middle class and increased opportunity and security for more Americans while reducing poverty.

Not all government action has had a positive impact, but it is nevertheless essential, as Pope Francis made perfectly clear. For some critics, economic redistribution is theft, but for Francis, as his predecessor stated even more explicitly, it is an ethical obligation. These two views cannot be reconciled. American Catholics must choose: the Catholic position or the free market fundamentalist position. Only one is the correct moral view. (And for those who accept the Catholic view, a just redistribution is required, not a minimal redistribution that leaves many behind.)

President Obama recognizes the duties that governments have in reducing unjust inequalities and other obstacles to economic justice, which is why he said that “government can’t stand on the sidelines in our efforts, because government is us. It can and should reflect our deepest values and commitments.” President Obama spoke about “building an economy that grows for everybody.” Here we see a commitment to what Pope Francis has described as “the primacy of the human person.”

Many right-wing American politicians and pundits do not just distort the past, but are also blind to the reality of the present. They cling to the myth that the US is the most economically mobile society on the planet. President Obama described the reality:

“We’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. He’s 10 times likelier to stay where he is.”

Here we see those unjust conditions the pope has condemned. Real opportunity is absent. Hopelessness and nihilism are far too common, the results of a broken economic system. We are called to change this status quo. Fixing it requires creativity and for all of us to examine our assumptions and look beyond tired old formulas. But it all starts with admitting that there is a problem.

President Obama criticized the notion that the social safety net is acting more like a hammock. This cuts to the heart of the major political debate dividing the country. The reference is to free market fundamentalist Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand-inspired budget point man for the GOP, who has led the Republican Party’s efforts to slash essential government programs that assist the most vulnerable. President Obama explained the importance of the safety net that Ryan, who is Catholic, mocked:

“Without Social Security nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty — half. Today fewer than 1 in 10 do. Before Medicare, only half of all seniors had some form of health insurance. Today virtually all do. And because we’ve strengthened that safety net and expanded pro-work and pro- family tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, a recent study found that the poverty rate has fallen by 40 percent since the 1960s.”

Paul Ryan is hoping to repair his image, which was badly damaged in the 2012 campaign by his serial dishonesty and plutocratic mentality. His well-cultivated image of seriousness and sincerity evaporated, as the real Paul Ryan was exposed.

Instead of pushing his old preferences and trying to repackage these once again, as he did when adopted the language of subsidiarity (a concept he completely distorted) and cherry-picked statements from previous popes, Paul Ryan would be well served to look at the facts described by President Obama and the vision outlined by Pope Francis. He can side with the pope’s critics or accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. He can’t do both.

This is the choice faced by countless Catholic Republicans and conservatives. We can only hope that some will read Evangelli Gaudium and side with the pope over Rush Limbaugh. Perhaps then we might see the beginning of an extraordinary change in American politics—the emergence of a compassionate conservatism that rejects free market fundamentalism and anti-government libertarianism in favor of a commitment to government action to reduce economic inequality, increase social mobility, and achieve greater economic justice and the common good.

We need a better Republican party for the sake of the common good. We need one that is serious about addressing poverty and economic injustice. We need to see one that more closely resembles the Christian Democratic parties of the center-right that have been influenced by the Church’s personalism.

Will this change occur among those elected in Congress today? It will not. It may require changes to the way campaigns are financed, districts are drawn, and who can vote in party primaries. But ultimately it requires an emerging grassroots of Catholics (and others) who are committed to the common good and transforming their party. I hope that some millennials will embrace Pope Francis’ message and take up this challenge.

Those of us in the Democratic Party too must make sure that we have not been seduced by the status quo assumptions of our party or the libertarianism of the left. Catholics in the Democratic Party must make sure that the party’s focus on the middle class does not mean a neglect of the poor. It’s not enough to just oppose draconian cuts to essential programs; a positive agenda that allows everyone to reach their full potential as persons is also required. Both the government and civil society need to find ways to empower those who have been excluded from authentic participation in our economy and society by structural injustice. Spending more on programs that already exist will not be enough; an innovative, progressive agenda is required.

And Democrats must recognize that increasing social mobility and opportunity, along with reducing poverty and economic inequality, require not only changes in our government’s economic policies, but also changes in our personal behavior and the strength of our nation’s families. Economic injustice leads to family breakdown, but family breakdown also brings economic maladies in its wake. What is needed is a pro-family agenda, which includes efforts to reduce the economic burden on struggling families.

Finally, Catholic Democrats need to press the party to commit to protecting the most vulnerable people on the planet, from unborn children to those living in desperate poverty abroad to those threatened by the specter of mass atrocities. Increasing American efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals would be an excellent step.

Pope Francis challenges all of us to examine ourselves as persons, and this requires each and every one of us to examine ourselves as citizens and political actors. It is time to take up that challenge.


Quote of the Day

President Obama: “Some of you may have seen this last week. The pope spoke about this at eloquent length. ‘How can it be,’ he wrote, ‘that it’s not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure but it is when the stock market loses two points?’ This increasing inequality is most pronounced in our country, and it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.”


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

CCHD: Putting the Gospel into Practice by John Gehring: “At a time when 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty and extreme income inequality is growing, a contribution to C.C.H.D. is a powerful way to affirm Catholic identity and empower those struggling to lift themselves out of difficult situations.”

“Getting” Pope Francis, or Not by Michael Sean Winters: “Here, too, we see the greatest point of continuity between Pope Francis and his two immediate predecessors, both of whom, in different ways, were rooted in the Communio school of theology we associate with the Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Christian proclamation is first and foremost about God and His accomplishments and only consequently about us and our obligations, moral and otherwise.”

The Christian Intellectual by R.R. Reno: “Love and freedom. There’s nothing uniquely Christian about these qualities in an intellectual. Socrates had both. But grace perfects nature and helps us overcome our weaknesses. The Christian intellectual may not be welcome today as a Christian, but it’s as a Christian that he can be salt and light.”

TJP Sits Down with Coach John Beilein by Dennis Baker, SJ: “I do the Examen all the time during the season.  That helps me put things into perspective—how grateful I should be for the life I’ve been blessed with.  Sometimes I write my Examen down with my iPad.  I have pages and pages and pages during the season.  So I think it’s just the overall appreciation of understanding your purpose in life, understanding God’s will for you.”

The Triumph of C.S. Lewis By Fr. Robert Barron: “He was not someone to whom religious conviction came naturally or effortlessly; he had to work his way to it, in the face of often harsh opposition, both interior and exterior. This very personal struggle gives him credibility with the millions today who want to believe but who find ideological secularism and militant atheism enormously challenging.”

When Children Are Traded by Nicholas Kristof: “A first step to address this issue would be to make adoption agencies responsible for children they bring to America, including finding new homes when adoptions fail. If we have rules about recycling bottles, we should prevent children from being abandoned and recycled. The larger point is a more basic failing in America: inadequate child services. Kids don’t get the protection they need from predators, nor the nutrition they need, nor the books and reading programs they need for mental nutrition. The threat to the food stamp program, whose beneficiaries are 45 percent children, is emblematic of this broader problem. Children don’t have votes and are voiceless, so America’s most vulnerable become its most neglected.”

The GOP’s Cruel Crusade Against Food Stamps by Norm Ornstein: “I would love for all sides to find common ground here: Provide the kind of job training that will enable people to find work and move out of poverty while helping them with the basics of food, shelter, health care, and transportation. But to cut, slash, and burn that aid mindlessly without regard for the human cost is stupid, cruel, and reprehensible.”

Father Albert Foley: How one priest took on the KKK by Kristen Hannum: “Everything changed for Foley in 1943, when, as a young Jesuit, he was assigned to teach the class ‘Migration, Immigration, and Race’ at Spring Hill College in Mobile. His research—which included interviewing local black Catholics and wide-ranging reading—opened his eyes: Segregation was sinful. He looked to the church fathers and social justice teachings to better understand his new realization and to discern what should be done.”

The Habit of Gratitude and Hopefulness by Christopher C. Roberts: “We are praying that a good community of peers will be in place when they become teens. And we are trying, gently for now, to prepare our girls for being different from the surrounding culture in sometimes uncomfortable ways. I hope for the moment that we’re laying in the spiritual and psychological resources to see us through whatever’s coming.”

Now and Then I Feel It’s Working by J. Peter Nixon: “There is always a temptation as a parent to think that your children are clay that you are called to shape. The truth is that we are merely stewards of something precious that ultimately belongs to God. If he can call a prodigal like me back to him, he can certainly do the same for my children if he so chooses. In the end, faith is his gift to give, not mine.”

How Children Succeed: You Should Read This by Jason King: “We need grit to be able to confront sin—personal, social, and original sin—and keep going.  We need grit, but we also do not develop it by ourselves.  We need a community that is safe enough for us to develop trust and confidence in our decisions and actions.  We also need a community that fosters vulnerability, one not closed off to adversity, not closed off to others.  We need the Church to help us become disciples who perpetually pickup our crosses and follow Christ.”

The pope is forcing us to redefine ugliness by Benjamin W. Corn: “Because our aesthetic standards are arbitrary, our definitions of beauty have shifted slightly, over time, to encompass, for example, anorexic-appearing fashion models with little resemblance to the shapeliness of Botticelli’s Goddess of Beauty. There is one vital point in that dynamic: the arbitrary—including our ideas of what is beautiful, ugly, visually acceptable, or socially stigmatizing—can change. And each of us can contribute to that change.”

In Central African Republic, thousands turn to bishop for protection by Barb Fraze, CNS: “More than 35,000 people are living on the 40-acre diocesan compound in Bossangoa, Central African Republic, seeking protection from rebels who are targeting Christians, said the local bishop.”


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

New Front in the Fight With Infant Mortality By Eduardo Porter: “Pregnant women, across the country and anywhere along the income spectrum, will for the first time have guaranteed access to health insurance offering a minimum standard of care that will help keep their babies alive.”

A Call to Moral Theologians: Biotechnology Needs More Attention by Brian Green, CMT: “Hurlbut’s overarching point of was the importance of moral reflection on our growing biotechnological power. Calling cloning and stem cells issues that have the genuine power to change the course of civilization, Hurlbut emphasized the importance of engaging these issues in the right way, because once a path is chosen we may effectively become locked in to the moral outcomes.”

High-School Sports Aren’t Killing Academics by Daniel H. Bowen and Collin Hitt: “Despite negative stereotypes about sports culture and Ripley’s presumption that academics and athletics are at odds with one another, we believe that the greater body of evidence shows that school-sponsored sports programs appear to benefit students. Successes on the playing field can carry over to the classroom and vice versa.”

Why Russia Is Growing More Xenophobic by Ilan Berman: “More and more, Russians from across the political spectrum are identifying with (and organizing around) a national identity tinged with racism.”

Lead Still Major Problem Worldwide by Kevin Clarke, America: “Even though lead poisoning is entirely preventable, lead exposure causes 143,000 deaths and 600,000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).”

Vatican Insider Interview with Bishop Robert W. McElroy: “The statements, the actions and the gestures of Pope Francis have illuminated the scandal of global poverty not with harshness, but with a gentleness of truth that stirs the conscience to recognize realities that one already knows, but prefers not to recognize.”

Don’t abandon the women of Afghanistan By Paula J. Dobriansky and Melanne S. Verveer: “The international community must work to ensure that women’s gains in recent years are protected and that Afghan women continue to make political and economic progress. Any future support for the country’s government must be explicitly tied to continued defense of equal rights and continued progress of female citizens.”

Remembering Genocide in Kigali by Kerry Weber: “Perhaps one of the most notable characteristics of the Kigali Memorial Centre is its simplicity: a small fountain; a stone courtyard; some gardens, with water fixtures flowing through them. And the long, brown slabs of brick marking the graves of 250,000 of the men, women and children who died in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.”

Vatican’s media adviser offers ‘Top 10′ ways to understand Pope Francis by Carol Glatz, CNS: “No matter how some media may want to spin it, Pope Francis won’t fit into the political categories of left or right, and he will challenge everyone with the truth of the Gospel, said the Vatican’s media adviser.”

When We Don’t Feel Like Loving Our ‘Loved Ones’ by Michael Wear: “In some areas of Christian culture, our vision of loving the stranger is expanding while our vision of loving those closest to us is restricting.”

Assad’s War of Starvation by John Kerry: “The world already knows that Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombing, arbitrary detentions, rape, and torture against his own citizens. What is far less well known, and equally intolerable, is the systematic denial of medical assistance, food supplies, and other humanitarian aid to huge portions of the population. This denial of the most basic human rights must end before the war’s death toll — now surpassing 100,000 — reaches even more catastrophic levels.”


The Narrow Path to the Middle Class, on “Two American Families”

[This post by Jeremy Zipple, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post]

I’ll cut straight to the chase: The PBS/Frontline documentary Two American Families is bleak, so bleak it may make you lose all hope in the long-term viability of the American middle class. It is also stunningly thought provoking, and if I were you I’d not waste another second on this review but would cruise over to PBS.org and start streaming it. Right now.

But, here you are, still reading. So it seems evident that I need to do a bit more to convince you that these 82 minutes of film will be very worth your time, because they are. First, these 82 minutes will be unlike anything else you’ll watch this year. Second, in an era in which TV news is mostly pundits jabbering away about stuff they know scarcely more about than you do, there remain two oases of serious investigative broadcast journalism: CBS’s 60 Minutes and PBS’s Frontline. A lamentable state of affairs for sure, but it makes a film like Two American Families all the more a gem.

In 1991, Frontline sent Bill Moyers and a film crew to Milwaukee, where they began tracking the lives of two typical working class families. Over the next two decades – yes, two decades – the crew returned to Milwaukee every few years to check up on things like familial cohesion and economic fortunes. Can you think of a program other than Frontline that has both resources and the sheer patience to embark on this sort of project? Me neither.

Third, there’s plenty of data out there charting the ever more dire economic prospects of the American middle class. As the income and wealth of America’s richest have sky-rocked, middle tier net wealth has plummeted (currently it’s at its lowest level since the early 80’s) and middle class wages have been on a similar downward spiral. Likewise, the sorts of jobs that once assured the working class of a pathway to the middle class – moderately skilled, unionized manufacturing jobs – have vanished. This film puts bleak human faces on those bleak economic facts.

When we first meet them, in 1991, these two families, the Stanleys and the Neumanns – one black, one white – are similar in most respects: recent newlyweds with young children, husbands who hold well-paid union jobs, and value systems that prize church-going faith, hard work, and family life. Both families are also bursting with optimism about the future. These working class folks are dreaming big dreams – dreaming the American Dream. We watch them imagining a climb from the working class into the middle class with all that that entails: home ownership, college education for their children, and secure retirement.

What happens to both families over the next 20 years can only be described as tragedy. As corporations chase cheap labor into non-union states and beyond U.S. borders, and as the U.S economy shifts dramatically from making goods to providing services, the Stanley’s and Neumann’s see their road to the middle class dead-end. Both sets of husbands and wives are forced to work a precarious succession of service-oriented jobs that barely keep food on the table and often do not provide for adequate healthcare, let alone mortgage payments. And with both parents working nonstop, the family life of both the Stanley’s and the Neumann’s deteriorates. Their children don’t receive the attention they need to succeed in school, their marriages are strained, and by the end of the film – Moyers pays his final visit to Milwaukee in 2012 – both families seem utterly exhausted, beaten down, incapable of dreaming much of anything.

And when Moyers checks in with their now-grown children, the picture only gets bleaker: Escalating college costs have meant that among the children of both families – a combined nine kids – only one, the Stanley’s eldest son Keith, is able to realize the dream of a college education. Keith turns out to be the one character at film’s end with a modicum of financial security and a life that stands to be different than was his parents’. And even his path through college almost wasn’t: his parents had to charge his tuition on a Discover card, wracking up insane debt in the process. This is a debt from which they’ve never really recovered, and they – and the other eight children in the two families – seem destined to endure lives as precarious as their parents.

If that’s not bleak I don’t know what is. And in a television age that tends to prize either realist escapism (Duck Dynasty? Storage Wars?) or gritty fiction (Breaking Bad? The Wire?) Two American Families offers neither a comforting escape from our own struggles or confrontation with an actual problem viewed from behind the safety glass of having been fictionalized. But being bleak and unimportant are not the same thing.

And Two American Families is exceedingly important. It puts faces on those most affected by our current political climate. It visualizes for us the effects of our seemingly amorphous discussions about the future of the American economy. It concretizes the removal of our social welfare programs. And it also dispels numerous common myths about those people. For example, poor families are often vilified as slothful food stamp mongers (and, for that matter, as mostly black). Many politicians still adamantly hem to the Puritan myth that hard work and strong family values guarantee economic prosperity. But the stunning thing about these families is that both do everything in their power to succeed… and still fail. Their lives seem a brutal struggle against forces beyond their control, against fates that do not discriminate by skin color.

Two American Families also informs present policy debates. First, it suggests the folly, in the short term, of disassembling the social safety net, which some legislators seem presently intent upon (c.f., this summer’s passage of a farm bill sans food stamps.) Many Americans who rely on social welfare programs do not do so because they’re too lazy to hold down a job but because their employment options are stunningly depressing.

Second, it demonstrates the toll the sorts of jobs available to today’s working class extracts from families. Watching this film, it strikes me that an economic situation in which both parents toil away night and day at multiple jobs and are left with no time to tend to incidentals like marriages and children is a much more serious threat to the “American family” than other, more inflammatory, causes.

Thirdly, the film forces us to consider the kind of workforce we ought to be presently designing, if we’re to survive our nation’s New Economic future, and how it compares with the one we are designing. In an economy in which decent paying low and medium-skilled jobs have almost completely dried up, strategic thinking about – and investment in – education is more critical than ever.

Finally, for Catholic Christians the message of this film takes on unique urgency. Pope Francis has been speaking relentlessly about the pressures of economic inequality and the “globalization of indifference” – a sort of unchecked capitalism that generates just the sort of subhuman conditions the Stanley’s and Neumann’s have endured over the past twenty years. For us, the Pope suggests, our religious faith should lead to interventions in the political realm, interventions aimed at fostering a more humane economy both globally and here in America. Two American Families drives that point home.

You have been warned: this film is bleak as hell. It will not distract you from one of the most difficult and pressing issues of our time, it will not even present them from the single step of removal that fiction allows. It is not reality television, but actual reality, and this reality is bleak. But it’s the need to face, to confront, this bleak reality that makes Two American Families very much worth every one of its 82 minutes.


Don’t Fall for Misdirection: It’s about Homelessness, Inequality, Unemployment and Poverty not the Debt

As I drove home last night, slowly moving down the Van Wyck Highway Service Road, I watched as an older homeless man weaved through traffic begging for help. I pulled out what cash I had accessible but he moved over to the next lane – I did not know how to signal safely for him to come over. Then the red light turned green and suddenly traffic began to race. Car after car trying to make the light and get home – and I watched in my rear view mirror as this despondent older man froze, turned slightly and stood on the white line as cars whizzed by on either side of him.  I prayed that he would be safe.

Everyone is breathing a sigh of relief – an immovable faction of the House Republicans were not able to completely undo the union and with it the global economy. And yet, on one level they have won. They have successfully made sequestration the new normal, successfully forced the conversation to the lowest level possible – keeping the doors open and the bills paid. How does one undo the devastating effects of sequestration on the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized when keeping government open at all is on the table?

In August, The Atlantic ran an article on the drop in homelessness that had occurred since 2000. Due to effective and financially supported government programs, we began to make great strides in combating homelessness.     While lauding the progress, Stephen Laurie questioned why it is that homelessness was declining and no one was bothering to tell that story:

They are unlikely to have much power in an age of austerity and there seems to be little recognition or reward to be gained for politicians by serving the homeless.

As quietly as homelessness has fallen, so too it will go up quietly – without major intervention.  The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that sequestration cuts from homelessness programs are set to expel 100,000 people from a range of housing and shelter programs this year. That’s nearly one sixth of the current total homeless population. Far from gently raising the homeless rate, it would undo a full decade of progress.

Unless the 2014 budget remedies some of the change coming to housing services in the second half of this year, the homelessness rate will soon rejoin other bleak indicators of economic recovery. The President can make a public plea for increased assistance for remarkably well-functioning homelessness initiatives. Congress can act to save the surprising success story of Bush era and stimulus programs. The general public can advocate for the vulnerable within their community.

But first, we have to notice what we’ve learned to ignore.

I do not see significant evidence that we will learn to notice what we’ve learned to ignore before it is too late. Yet, I’d like to parse out two important points in this analysis that are a bit more complicated – first, the decline in homelessness and second, the fragility of that progress and the persons these numbers represent.

Nationally, homelessness has declined significantly; however, the data is largely pre-sequestration and homelessness varies so greatly by state that the national homelessness data is deceptive.  Some states are seeing sustained reduction; my home state of New York, however, has seen a 10% increase in homelessness.

In addition, family homelessness and the number of children who experience homelessness is on the rise: around 239,000 families nationally experienced homelessness in one night in 2012.

New York City is now at a ten-year record high spike in homelessness. 21,000 children sleep in NYC shelters each night.  According to the Coalition for the Homeless, 

the number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping in emergency shelter each night has passed 50,000 – a 61% increase since Mayor Bloomberg took office in January of 2002.  The number of homeless children is now over 21,000 per night, also an all-time high.

– Child homelessness continues to surge:  In January, an average 11,984 families, up 73% since Mayor Bloomberg took office, and 21,034 children, up 22% from a year ago and 61% from 2002, stayed in shelters each night.

– Length of stay now over one year:  With few affordable housing options, the average length of shelter stay for families with children is up 10% to a record 375 days.  Families without children averaged a whopping 484 days in shelter.

In 2009, those numbers were 38,000 a night and 12,000 children.

If you survey reports on homelessness, the bulk of the funding combating homelessness comes from federally allocated funds. Programs that were initiated as part of the recovery effort are all subject to cuts under sequestration. We cannot allow the framework of the debate to be determined by those who just effectively brought the government to a halt for more than two weeks.  The issue is not abstract; it is not an ideological debate about the size of government. It is an identity crisis – who do we want to be as a nation? As a community? Do we stand for human rights or not?  Will we demand an economic structure that works for all and not just a few?

The homeless man weaving through traffic for enough money to buy dinner does not have political clout, he does not make political donations – but he is a human being with equal dignity. His physical vulnerability and desperation were so great that he was literally standing in the middle of racing cars desperate to be noticed, simply to count as human. Pope Francis repeatedly warns us about the evils of our throwaway culture. Taking a stand must begin with a refusal to throw away our neighbors, and we must begin to see those who it is so easy to ignore, to blame, and to pretend are simply numbers.  Amidst the relief that the government has reopened we must remember the real issues we need to focus on: inequality, unemployment, poverty, and homelessness.  The measure of a society is how it treats the least among us, and on last night’s 11 o’clock news Sen. Ted Cruz went on record refusing to rule out another shutdown in the new year. This certainly provides considerable evidence for Pope Francis’ indictment that the developed world runs from solidarity.  The questions is: will we continue to run or will we make it “our word”?