Posts Tagged ‘Poverty Line’

Perhaps the Bloom is Off the Rose..

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

It’s sometimes said that social media – like blogs, Facebook and the like – is a good way to share your thoughts, perspectives, feelings, shortcomings, hopes and aspirations with others, in the hopes – I suppose – that such sharing might lift your own mood. I have honestly never been one for wearing my heart on my sleeve, or broadcasting my particular moods, whatever they may be, to others… whether they be in the same room or a virtual room 6,000 miles away in cyber-space. Perhaps thats a product of my “Lace-curtain” Bronx Irish Catholic upbringing which taught me those feelings are best that are kept to oneself. Although that is still the case – and despite an almost genetic predilection to privacy – these days, I am really feeling the need to share in the hopes that my current funk will lift, so I ask that you please indulge me. Although I have always been “the glass is half full” kinda guy, at this time of year I seem always to get a little down, and I think it’s because I I suffer from a kind of condition – not diagnosed officially, but I feel it its symptoms right down to my bones just the same. Clinically, the term for this  self-diagnosed malady is know in medical circles as “Seasonal  Affective Disorder – SAD for short – and it’s mostly brought on in sufferers  by  decreasing exposure to natural sunlight as we move from the summer into the winter months – resulting often times in depression. Many years ago, I attributed an onset of this autumnal melancholy to the long, bright days of Summer giving way to the dwindling twilight of Fall (especially when I was working in a windowless human resources office in the basement of a newly opened nursing home in the South Bronx sponsored by Catholic Charities!) Today however, I am quite certain that the blues I’m currently experiencing are almost certainly not caused by too little exposure to the electromagnetic spectrum: can’t possibly be…firstly: because the Office I currently work from here at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center has two big beautiful windows that face southward into the sunlight, with wonderful views of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, and second: I always keep my blinds pulled full up. No, in recent years my “sad” state has been brought on by a gloom with a much different origin altogether – and although the cause is still very much seasonal, it is not at all natural; completely manmade its effects are evident in every corner of our country, and the cure for this depression is unfortunately not as simple or plentiful as a good dose of God’s gift of sunshine.

No, the culprit that holds me hostage in my present state is the tenor of conversation – public and private – in our country, and not on any singular issue in particular, but on almost every subject. Whether religion, or politics, or government, or business, or family, or community, justice or peace, it seems to me that in recent years it has become nearly impossible for we Americans – a people who so cherish the ability to speak to (and presumptively be heard by) one another that we placed this prerogative first in the list of enumerated rights deemed essential for a free people to govern themselves, second only to the ability to worship our Creator in the manner that our conscience dictates – to have a civil conversation on just about any issue at all.  I think that much of the cause can be attributed to the noise pollution that are the cable television political talk channels and the phenomenon of shock radio, but regardless of where you want to stick the blame, the damage has already been done. Once the calendar turns and we enter the electoral season, the arrow on the “conceivability meter” on the possibility of holding civil conversations’ on civic matters switches from borderline difficult to the “red zone” of downright impossible –  bringing on much frustration;  and in my case with a side order of depression to boot. Things have gotten so bad that I have really begun to dread the advent of Labor Day – not so much because its arrival signals the un-official end of Summer – although there is that aspect too – but mostly for the conversational toxicity that its passing has come to presage.

This wasn’t always the case – with me at least. Funny enough, as a much younger man I used to relish the coming of the campaign season, even with all of the tumble and tussle of policy, personality, principle and pragmatism that our democratic electoral process guarantees. Growing up in the Northwest Bronx and later South Westchester in the 1970s and 80s,I was – like all children – influenced by my environment  potlical and otherwise,  and two of the political figures that were greatly admired in my household growing up were – paradoxically – Robert F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. From the first of these great men I grew up understanding that part of our collective responsibility is to try and “make gentle the life of this world – especially those who are less fortunate then ourselves, and from the other, coming of age as I did when it was “morning in America”, I grew up with the optimistic belief that not only were such endeavors as making life “more gentle “possible, but that such noble deeds were part and parcel of what made us a great nation. This belief was further re-enforced when as a college and law student in the late 1980s I saw how concentrated long term, social, artistic, religious and political efforts on behalf of human rights and human dignity could – for the most part non-violently – dismantle unjust, entrenched and repressive political systems from the Philippines, to South Africa, to the entire Soviet Block.

These earth-shattering and nearly miraculous changes edified my belief in the real possibility of non-violent political change, and animated my career choices for years to come. Certainly, my career here at the Archdiocese of New York was motivated by and benefited from such hopeful belief: having coordinated what is now going on 16 annual Public Policy Forums up in Albany – not to mention countless Faithful Citizenship presentations in parishes, schools and other forums – the belief in the possibility of change in support of human life and human dignity is almost a bone-fide occupational qualification for my job!

And while I still believe in the possibility of political change supportive of the vulnerable and suffering and remain overall a hopeful person by nature, I have to admit that my confidence that we are on the right path in support of such an agenda has wavered as of late. Perhaps the bloom is off the rose…as you can read, I have admittedly been at this a long time – and the recent years have harsh ones, with domestic terror attacks, two of the longest wars this country has ever fought and is still fighting, and the worst economy we have had in decades.  I am afraid that there may be something more amiss then just these things though, things which I made a brief mention of earlier. Sadly, today it has to my estimation, become significantly harder to speak of ourselves – in any meaningful sense – as a “we” – an essential requirement for a self-governing people as the first three words of our country’s foundational document indicates. Instead we are broken up into sub-groups whose zero-sum competitions are never ending: whether we are one of the so-called 99%, or the 1%, or the 47%, the 15% or the 8%…it seems to matter less where you fall in one or several of these sub-groups (many of us – or our family members – fall into several) as much as that your inclusion in that sub-group puts you on one-side of an insurmountable chasm between you and your opposite. In recent years, these political divisions have begun to infiltrate the body of the Church itself – as is evidenced this year by the unending sound byte competition between motor-coach riding Religious and members of the Ayn Rand Society at prayer – and the results of all this separating of people has been, in my view, tragic.

Election Day is just under two weeks away. On that day, votes will be cast and we Americans will decide on the leadership of our nation for next four years – and at the end of that day (unless the Electoral College goes all loopy on us….) the winners of the contests for the Presidency and Congress will become the leaders of not just 1% of us, nor 8% of us, not 15%, nor 47%, not just bus riding nuns, nor libertarian lay people – not even just 99% of us alone, but they will instead need to lead and govern 100% of “We the People”- all of us….Tough job…..it always has been, but I’m afraid it is only getting tougher. All the division that we are creating is turning us not surprisingly into a very fragmented nation. To move forward on a path together will take smarts and skill – which I know both Presidential candidates have – but it will also take a plan. I would never be so presumptuous to say that I know the best path out of this mess that we have gotten ourselves into, but there is a plan that I recently heard of that I think could be helpful to this task. Its an older plan – eighty plus years at least – but its inspiration goes back millennia. I first heard of this plan last Friday when I was reading Cardinal Dolan’s remarks at this past Thursday’s Al Smith Dinner held here in Manhattan at the Waldof-Astoria is support of various charitable efforts of the Church here in New York. In his remarks, the Cardinal spoke of some of the public policy concerns of the man for whom the prestigious charity function is named: Alfred E. Smith, the 42nd Governor of New York State and first Roman Catholic nominated for the Presidency in 1928; Smith – the Cardinal went on to explain – was a man who believed that government had a responsibility to be on the side of the “un’s” : “the unemployed, the uninsured, the unwanted, the unwed mother, the unborn, the undocumented, the un-housed, the un-healthy, the unfed and the undereducated”.  This is in a sense less a “plan” as much as it is an approach to governing – a posture to be taken which recognizes all of the “un-planned” for calamities that can befall individuals, families and entire communities. Some may say that this approach is too simplistic and lacks policy detail, but to me if put into practice it would quite literally lift all boats.

And speaking of postures, there is to my thinking another posture that we all – the Presidential Candidates, other candidates, our leaders, “We the People”…all of us – need to adopt to move forward together: not a posture of dominance or one of submissiveness, of subservience or superiority, but instead a posture of reverence – the bowed head and open hands of prayer – because it is only from that posture, and that posture alone, that we can ever hope to open one another’s hearts.

Give Them Something to Eat…

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Dear Readers…

Sorry about the little delay in posting, but like so many others lately I have been – if you’ll pardon the ubiquitous pun – a little “pre-occupied”.

In this pre-“occupation” I am seemingly in good – and teaming – company. Whether one counts themselves among the under-employed, debt-ridden and under-insured members of the 99% of the “Occupy the–Fill-in-the Blank Movement”, the over-worked and over-taxed 53%, the 18th Century Costume Wearing over-regulated Tea Party Movement, or even the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace at the Vatican in Rome; it seems that just about every-body lately is pre-occupied thinking and talking and complaining about the dismal state of the global financial system. While there is no unanimity amongst those complaining about the state of the world’s finances on how to best fix what is wrong, there definitely seems to be a consensus that things are seriously awry and that we need corrective action – sooner as opposed to later.

I actually went down a number of weeks ago with a friend to visit Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan and see for myself the goings on at the “Occupy Wall Street” Movement’s (or OWS) ground zero as it were. I had been reading a lot about the protests for several weeks from various sources, and I wanted to see for myself exactly what was going on that was sparking so much interest across the globe. What I witnessed there was a collection of people – from various walks of life and different age groups – who felt significant alienation from the direction that their society was taking, as well as a certain inability to control the powerful forces that were shaping society in what they felt to be very detrimental ways. To a certain extent, these “Occupiers” – although politically far removed from the conservative Tea Party Movement – were united with that other movement in a spirit of disenfranchisement: feeling that the world is changing in fundamental ways that are beyond the abilities of ordinary people – the 99% if you will – to control. This is certainly a feeling that I in my more despairing moments could commiserate with, and because of this feeling I – for one – was not surprised when the “Occupy Movement” sprouted legs and wings and spread to over 900 cities across the globe.

I will blog more about OWS and the events in Zuccotti Park in future posts, but for now I’d actually like to tell you a bit about another place in lower Manhattan – one of my favorite spots in the city actually, and a place only about 4 or 5 blocks west of where OSW is located – on the banks of the Hudson River in a small park located in Battery Park City. It is there that you will find New York City’s memorial to the great Irish famine that occurred from 1845 to 1852 – which began with a blighted potato crop and was exacerbated by a confluence of political inaction that increased an already desperate situation. Fully one-third of the people living in Ireland at that time – one half million – died of starvation, and another third – of whom I am a living descendant – emigrated in a great diaspora out to any ports that would welcome them all over the world. The memorial itself is beautiful: a rugged half-acre of cantilevered landscape thickly planted with native Irish flora and plants growing in fallow fields, along with the remains of an authentic, famine era Irish cottage; beneath is a stratified base of glass and fossilized Irish limestone that creates a space where accounts of historical and contemporary sentiments about hunger world-wide are etched in the glass and broadcast from an audio installation overhead. All in all, this space does what memorials at their best are supposed to do: it raises public awareness about an event that happened long ago that led to the Irish Famine of 1845-52, while encouraging its viewers to address the causes of current and future hunger world-wide.

Hunger has been in my thoughts a lot lately, primarily because for the past week I – along with our Executive Director Msgr. Kevin Sullivan and several of my colleagues here at Catholic Charities – have been participating in “The Food Stamp Challenge”, an annual campaign sponsored by the “Fight Poverty with Faith” Mobilization – of which Catholic Charities USA is a partnering organization – which ran between October 27th to November 6th; the goal of the Food Stamp Challenge is to encourage participants to live for one week on the average national benefit given to those who are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which roughly translates to approximately $31.50 per week, or $4.50 a day. Let me tell you – that’s not a lot of money…especially here in New York City, and its not easy to restrict your shopping budget for a week to what many of us might pay for a single meal in a restaurant. Being on such a restricted budget certainly presented it’s challenges, but armed with a shopping list and a calculator, I set out to the supermarket to plan out my meals for the week returning with staples that consisted mostly of oatmeal (store variety), brown rice, frozen vegetables and on sale chunk light tuna (in water of course!) These were the mainstays of my diet & accept for a Saturday night treat of a 10-piece McNugget (no fries or soda); I pretty much stayed to the challenge, winding up with just under $5.00 by weeks end. During the challenge – while I have to admit that I was not REALY every truly “pangs in the stomach” hungry – what I can tell you is that the cuisine I was eating left me definitely uninspired. While oatmeal (made with water and no milk), dry canned tuna, brown rice and frozen chopped carrots, beans, corn and peas might be healthy, they are not the tastiest things to eat on a daily basis. In fact, to give myself a little flavor, I used to use packets of soy sauce I had saved from Chinese take-out and add it to the brown rice and vegetables – that definitely gave it a flavor, with all that sodium, I shudder to consider what my blood pressure must be now!

All in all though, I am glad that I have taken the challenge, and I certainly do not want to complain: it seems to me that there is something unseemly about complaining about a situation that you voluntarily take on in order to attempt to understand the reality that others live but have little choice about. In fact, the past week’s experiences reminded me a little of the time that I spent in Africa last September, when we were staying in some of the guest houses with larger groups of people back in Tanzania. Often, the dinner meals that were served were put out at one time to feed all who were staying there, and we would all line up cafeteria style to serve ourselves from whatever was being prepared. I almost always found myself at the end of the line, and sometimes when I got to the front, whatever the meat that was being served was gone, and all that was left was white rice and sauerkraut (not a favorite), which I would combine on my plate and eat because I was hungry. Then – as with last week – I found after eating such a meal that I definitely was not hungry, but also not fully satisfied either; and yet – then as now – I did not complain about my meal because having been in Ethiopia in the days before – to witness first-hand the tremendous work that Catholic Relief Services does to provide food assistance to that drought ravaged region in the Horn of Africa – it would have been not only unseemly but obscene to do so.

The Food Stamp Challenge this year comes at a time of great challenge to our financially-strapped nation and its historic moral commitment to feed the hungry at home and abroad. As many of you are aware – in an effort to address the burgeoning budget crisis here at home, the Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is working on producing a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion dollars; the day that this deficit reduction plan is due is – ironically – the day before Thanksgiving. Many anti-hunger advocates are concerned that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides food stamp assistance to those struggling to put a meal on the table might be a target for massive funding cuts. In addition, another area that appears to be ripe for budget cutters is slashing financing for the State Department and its related agencies – this at a time of desperate humanitarian crises across the world; life saving, poverty-focused international assistance that fights hunger, disease and poverty makes up less then 1% of the U.S. Federal Budget, and yet the Unites States Senate is currently looking to drastically cut this funding. Sadly, it seems clear that reducing the federal deficit by 1% will not balance the federal budget; in fact, the one thing that such action seems certain to do – at a time that 12 million people in East Africa are facing malnutrition and starvation – is cost lives.

Through my work, I have been blessed to witness how such U.S. government assistance helps Catholic Relief Services and other similar agencies quite literally save live overseas, and how back home similar assistance helps Catholic Charities ensure that the families of those trying to make ends meet don’t have to literally skip meals as they struggle to pay their bills from month to month. In a recently published book “Three Famines: Starvation and Politics” about three of the greatest famines in history: the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, the Bengal famine in India in 1943-44, and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s & 80s, author Thomas Keneally writes persuasively about how politics helps to turn a crop failure into a famine. As Keneally notes, famine is caused less by a failure to produce food then it is by a failure to distribute food correctly – mostly because those in power feel they are not accountable to the starving. Unfortunately today, the hungry do not have a large and vocal constituency: and that’s where we come in!

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services are both now currently advocating with both houses of Congress and the Administration to ensure that needed hunger-related assistance – both international and domestic – is not compromised in the current deficit reduction debate; to add your voice to these efforts please press the links here and follow the related instructions; in this way you can help to ensure that the words of the Lord in the Gospel are made manifest when he said to “give the people something to eat”. After all, for Christians feeding the hungry is not some peripheral “nice thing” that we should do if we’ve got the time – its literally part of our “final exam” that Jesus told us about on the Sermon on the Mount, along with clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger and caring for the ill. Since we already know what we are to be graded on, there is really no excuse for us to get this one wrong. In fact, no less an authority then the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for World Food Day back on October16th went so far as to say that “liberation from the yoke of hunger is the first concrete manifestation of the right to life, which – despite its having been solemnly proclaimed – is often very far from being fulfilled effectively.” Its up to us to remedy this situation – to ensure that what has been solemnly proclaimed is fulfilled effectively…….While the rest of the world’s attention is focused on the 99% fighting the alleged evils of the top 1%, with the 53% somewhere in the middle, lets be sure that our attention is focused on the 15% who live here below the poverty level – and the much larger percentage of our brothers and sisters who do across our world.