Tag: poverty

Jesus and brain science agree: money kills empathy

science-103112-003-617x416By Alan Bean

Although you would never know it from listening to American preaching, Jesus linked poverty with the kingdom of God and affluence with sin.

The text of the first sermon Jesus preached was taken from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable (Jubilee) year of the Lord
(Luke 4)

Notice that all the recipients of kingdom blessing are poor, afflicted, marginalized people.

The last sermon Jesus preached prior to his arrest and crucifixion linked kingdom participation with practical ministry to the poor and dispossessed.  Kingdom people feel the pain of a hurting world and respond with creative acts of mercy that clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, and provide justice for the oppressed. (Matthew 25)

Jesus was about feeling the pain of the world and responding with acts of mercy. Feeling pain that doesn’t belong to you (empathy) and healing action are part of the same kingdom dynamic.  What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

The American marriage between free market capitalism and American evangelical piety makes Jesus impossible.  His words are inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.  We want to love Jesus and ascribe to an onward-and-upward, God-wants-to-succeed, greed is good ethic.  We want God and mammon; Jesus and the blessings of capitalism.

And now the counter-intuitive teaching of Jesus is being confirmed by brain science?

A recent study by Canadian neuroscientists at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University suggests that as financial and social advancement changes our brains–and not in a good way.  As money and social standing increase, the study finds, our ability to empathize with poor and marginalized people rapidly diminishes.

If you are building your world on the rock-hard words of Jesus, none of this will come as a surprise, but what’s the takeaway?

Jesus taught that affluent people (that’s me, and it’s probably you) can’t enter God’s merciful kingdom unless we rewire our brains.  As we climb the social ladder, the harder our task becomes.  Not only will we not feel the pain of less fortunate people, we will not want to feel their pain.

Moreover, we will find ourselves surrounded by people who propound clever theories to explain why helping poor people only creates dependency.  These arguments are sleazy, silly and self-serving, but, reinforced by prominent pulpiteers, pundits and politicians, they sound like common sense.  Stay too long in this echo chamber and Jesus is the one who sounds silly.  Eventually, we can’t hear him at all.  We still talk about loving Jesus, but we are worshiping a word, not a person.

So, what’s the alternative?

The first step is to take Jesus at his word, even if that word runs counter to the messages screaming from the smart phone, computer and television screens that shape our thinking.

Secondly, we must find a circle of like-minded disciples who share our desire to take Jesus at his word.  If you don’t have such a circle, create one from scratch (I realize that this can be socially awkward, but your salvation depends on it).

There is good news.  Mounting evidence suggests that American Christianity, evangelical, mainline and Roman Catholic, is beginning to feel the deep contradiction between Jesus and American common sense.  People who take the Bible seriously can’t lie to themselves forever.

Mercifully, Jesus wasn’t subtle about this stuff.

Will the talking heads please shut up so we can have a real poverty debate?

By Alan Bean

January 8, 2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of president Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty and Democrats and Republicans used the occasion to tout their very different descriptions of and proscriptions for the poverty problem.

If this low-key exchange were scored like a fight, the Republicans would win by TKO.

This article in The Hill, a generally non-partisan news source, quoted representatives from both major parties; but the red team dominated the story.

The Democrats were championed by president Obama and Senate majority leader, Harry Reid.  In a speech tailor made for the occasion, the President opined that “If we hadn’t declared ‘unconditional war on poverty in America,’ millions more Americans would be living in poverty today.”  Reid, for his part, thinks the Republicans are “cold-hearted” for refusing to extend unemployment benefits.  That’s it for the Democrats.

Then the Republicans took control of the story.   (more…)

Being compassionate when compassion ain’t cool

 By Alan Bean

Charles Blow says America has become a heartless nation (see his column below).  Ask the person on the street for the primary reason for poverty in America and 24% will tell you it’s because welfare prevents initiative.  Another 18% will blame crummy schools.  Then its family breakdown (13%), and lack of a work ethic (also 13%).  These are all explanations endorsed by the conservative movement.

You won’t hear any of the issues favored by progressive Americans until you work much further down the list.  Lack of government programs checks in at 10%, and persistent racism polls at a dismal 2%.  Unless people of color were excluded from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (an unlikely prospect), the liberal diagnosis of society’s ills doesn’t even appear to be playing well in the minority community.

It’s not enough to lament that America has become “a town without pity” (for younger readers, that’s an allusion to an old Gene Pitney song inspired by a 1961 movie).  In the 1960s, an American president could launch a war on poverty without worrying too much about the political fallout.  Then America’s glory years were overtaken by an era of economic anxiety.  When people worry about money, they turn inward and politicians follow suit. (more…)

Stupid things we still believe about poverty

By Alan Bean

Emily Badger clearly doesn’t live in Texas.  Her take on “stupid things we used to believe about poverty” are still going strong in the Lone Star State and in the great American heartland generally.  While the charts below indicate that progress has been made in the last couple of centuries, the last three decades have seen the creation of a dramatic wealth gap that is commonly presented as a necessary condition of economic health.  Get too concerned about the guy at McDonald’s toiling for minimum wage and the big boys would be out of business.  Then where would we be?

Meanwhile, poor people are still demonized as a matter of course.  Any suggestion that poverty is “constructed” or that a link exists between unemployment and crime is rejected out of hand (in places like Texas, at least).  We commonly face the myth of false alternatives: either criminals bear the full responsibility for their choices or society is to blame.  The idea that social pressures and bad decisions might be mutually reinforcing never comes up for discussion. (more…)

What the Bible really says about helping the poor

By Alan Bean

Jesus’ observation that the poor will be with us always may be the most abused passage in the Bible.  Fred Clark, the Slacktivist, thinks so anyway.

It always struck me as ironic that farmers in the Texas panhandle were death on welfare while feeling perfectly entitled to the farm subsidies that kept them afloat once farming was no longer a viable livelihood.  The biblical teaching on poverty is simple, straightforward, consistent, and invisible.  If you wonder what I mean by that, read on.

Dives will always be with us — and so will selfish rich jackwagons who misquote the Bible

May 30, 2013 By  

Southern Beale is not impressed with the exegetical skills of kleptocratic Tennessee Republican Stephen Fincher:

Rep. Stephen Fincher, you are a horrible person who uses the Bible to selectively justify your greedy, selfish ways. Woe unto you.

Repent, asshole.

This is not Sunday school language, and the Civility Police will no doubt be horrified that Southern Beale is stating truth so directly and so accurately. (When someone like Fincher extravagantly flaunts his bad faith arguments, the Civility Police always insist we must pretend he hasn’t done so. Pretending, euphemistic inaccuracy, and never, ever calling out self-serving liars are the hallmarks of their idea of “civility.”)

But those who fret about such blunt honesty should note that Southern Beale’s condemnation isn’t nearly half as harsh as the rebuke Jesus himself delivers in the Bible passage the congressman misquotes. Nor is it anywhere near as stiletto-sharp as the rebuke that Moses delivers in the passage from the Bible that Jesus is reciting there.

Fincher, you see, does not like Food Stamps. He wants to cut $21 billion from food aid for poor people. (more…)

Our fraudulent “debt crisis” debate

By Alan Bean

We have been hearing a lot of wailing and teeth gnashing about the federal debt.  If we keep spending our grandchildren’s money, the logic goes, the future will be bleak.

But how bad is the debt crisis, really, and how did it get that bad?  Where has the tax money gone, and why isn’t there enough of it?

You will notice that the debt Cassandras rarely talk about the balanced budgets of the late Clinton era.  Nor do they have much to say about the scandalous cost of fighting futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Nor do they want to discuss the unbridled profligacy that defined the financial and real estate sectors until the great collapse of 2008.

Instead, they focus on the temporary spike in government expenditure sparked by the Obama administration’s stimulus spending.

The debt Cassandras want us to believe that nothing can be done about poverty and that well-intentioned attempts to make life easier for poor people just make things worse.  They further suggest that “entitlement” programs like Social Security and Medicaid are the primary contributors to the debt problem.  In other words, nothing can be done to help old people and sick people and any attempt to do so will drive the nation straight into the poorhouse.

And then we read that the rich people of the world have collectively stashed an estimated $32 trillion in offshore tax havens.  I can’t wrap my head around a figure that big, but I suspect that if this money had been taxed at conventional levels, the European debt crisis would dissolve and America’s “debt problem” would evaporate.

Of course that would leave the rich folks a bit poorer.  Forbes magazine argues that if we don’t like the idea of rich people stashing their money in offshore accounts we should lower their tax burden.  That’s a lot like arguing that if you tax us at reasonable rates we will intentionally drive the nation into debt (and there’s nothing you can do about it because wealthy people live above the law).

Unfortunately, there is a lot of money to be made telling wealthy folks what they want to hear, and not much left over for those who value the truth.  In fact, considering the incentives wealthy people have at their disposal, it is amazing that we ever hear the unvarnished truth about anything.  But we do.  Sometimes even wealthy people come clean (I’m thinking in particular of Warren Buffet).

But most of the time the media are handsomely paid to prevaricate and dissemble, about money and practically everything else.  These dismal facts don’t preclude truth-telling altogether, but it is wise, nonetheless, to view the evening news as primarily an entertainment medium, a vehicle for well-heeled advertisers to maximize profit.  Most of what we hear on the news is true, so far as it goes.  Its what we don’t hear that is killing us.

And we aren’t hearing much about the $32 trillion.  And we aren’t hearing much about the obscene cost of fighting wars.  Nor are we hearing much about how the financial sector brought us to the brink of chaos.  Which explains why so few banking executives  currently reside in prison, why life for poor folk just keeps on getting harder and why the debt crisis debate focuses on 23% of the vital facts.

Where are the grocery stores in black neighborhoods?

Posted by Pierre Berastain

A good article on the racial politics of grocery stores.  Not mentioned in the article, though still relevant, is the fact that one finds alcohol more readily available in poor black neighborhoods.  Discrimination, favoritism, and privilege bleed into too often imperceptible spheres of people’s lives.

Commentary: Where Are the Grocery Stores in Black Neighborhoods?

By Kellee Terrell

When we talk about obesity in America, especially in low income, Black and Latino areas, it’s impossible to have this conversation without acknowledging the fact that mounds of studies have shown us that there is a serious lack of access to healthy whole foods, fruits, vegetables and lean meats. (more…)