Louisiana’s fiscal woes distract us and obscure what really ails us

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By Robert Mann

No reasonable, informed person would question the need for the current special session of the Louisiana Legislature. The consequences of losing vital state services — the result of $1 billion in expiring, temporary taxes — would be devastating.

This is a crisis. It’s as if our house is burning and the priority is to extinguish the flames and save the structure. An extended discussion about whether to renovate the house or build a new one must wait until the fire is out.

The problem is, in Louisiana, the budget flames never die.

The perennial impasse over the state’s budget — we have had 18 regular or special legislative sessions since 2008 — has distracted Louisiana’s leaders from other serious issues. It’s crippling us. And it’s robbed us of the ability to imagine and create a better state for our people.

Anyone with eyes to see knows Louisiana is suffering. We have so many deep, systemic problems that it seems our leaders don’t know where to start. The worse news is that, because of the never-ending fiscal crisis, they cannot summon the resources or energy to tackle the problems that plague our people.

Indulge me another analogy: Louisiana is like a patient with a chronic respiratory disease. Every week, he sees a doctor, who struggles to restore or improve his breathing. He prescribes new drugs. He puts him in new therapies. In his conversations with this suffering patient, the doctor spends 90 percent of his time talking about his labored breathing.

Louisiana is like that patient. We are so focused on the immediate — and justified — need to keep revenue flowing into the state’s coffers that we never have a serious, sustained discussion about the chronic problems that sap our state of its ability to thrive and survive.

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Why stop at Trump’s food-in-a-box plan? Here are some other horrible ideas the White House might consider

By Robert Mann

Politico reported the other day:

The Trump administration is proposing to save billions in the coming years by giving low-income families a box of government-picked, nonperishable foods every month instead of food stamps.

White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney on Monday hailed the idea as one that kept up with the modern era, calling it a “Blue Apron-type program” — a nod to the high-end meal kit delivery company that had one of the worst stock debuts in 2017 and has struggled to hold onto customers. Mulvaney said the administration’s plan would not only save the government money, but also provide people with more nutritious food than they have now … 

That package would be made up of “100 percent U.S. grown and produced food” and would include items like shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, canned fruits and meats, and cereal.

At first blush, this sounds cruel, ridiculous and impractical. How would homeless people get their boxes? What if you have severe allergies to foods, like wheat or peanuts?

After serious reflection, however, I must admit the Trump administration has a point. I’m all in with Washington bureaucrats deciding what food folks in New Orleans and Baton Rouge should eat. But why stop at food boxes?

How else might we eliminate waste, fraud and abuse and restrict people’s choices by shipping them goods and services in cardboard boxes?

I have many ideas. Here are a few:

Why should the states spend billions each year paying teachers, principals, school nurses and custodians? And why should schools expend millions to build and maintain costly buildings and operate busses?

Let’s replace our unwieldy education system with “Classroom in a Crate.” Under this plan, the postman would deliver your “teacher” in a box that contains reading material for your child to study after he has watched the day’s lessons on a DVD.

(Before you scoff, remember this kind of thing has been tried. In 2012, Louisiana Education Superintendent John White and then-Gov. Bobby Jindal awarded $600,000 in private-school vouchers to a school in Ruston that taught lessons via DVD. Imagine the money White and Jindal could have saved by mailing those DVDs to the students.)

Under “Classroom in a Crate,” if a student qualifies for free lunches, his box will also come with a tin of sardines from the Second World War, surplus cheese from the Eisenhower administration, a package of crackers from Operation Desert Storm and a can of condensed milk from the Nixon years.

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Why stop at work requirements for food stamps and health care? Let’s go all the way.

By Robert Mann

I’m fed up with lazy, poor families who mooch off industrious citizens and waste our hard-earned tax dollars. I agree with Sen. John Kennedy: They aren’t entitled to health care through the state’s Medicaid system.

Unemployment and laziness shouldn’t be rewarded. Let them get sick or injured and, if they survive, they’ll better understand the value of work. After the heart disease passes, they will apply the lessons they’ve learned as they rush out to find a job.

If the worst happens, at least their orphaned children will have learned a valuable lesson: The only way society should treat you as a human being worthy of life is if you are employed.

And I agree with Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge: If the poor won’t work, they don’t deserve food assistance. Going hungry for a few weeks will not only encourage mom and dad to get up and work; the malnutrition and hunger pains should also teach the kids a lesson they won’t forget.

It’s just like Jesus said when he fed the hungry multitude: “Those with a job get a fish and a loaf.”

These humane, sensible policies have inspired me to propose some additional reforms:

Why should taxpayers educate children of parents who don’t work? Let’s begin each school year by turning away all children whose parents are unemployed. Forcing mom and dad to homeschool them will teach the kids the value of a job.

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My resolutions for 2017 (or, How I plan to survive another year of Donald Trump)

By Robert Mann

Although I have never been one for New Year’s resolutions, 2018 feels different: I’ll turn 60 this year. Our son and daughter will graduate high school in May and head off to college in the fall. We’ll vacate our house, which has been decaying for years, while it undergoes renovations. By year’s end, I hope to finish a new book.

It will be a year of change, promise and uncertainty. That might describe every year, but this could be one of particular and bittersweet transition. That’s why I’m making the following resolutions:

I will work to savor every moment with my children. I love a full, bustling house, so I dread the calm that awaits after they leave. Lately, I lie awake contemplating my unpreparedness for a new life in which they are not sleeping in their bedrooms across the hall. But they’re ready for the next chapter. It’s time they flew from the nest, and I resolve — after only a few tears — to celebrate this exciting next step with them.

I will strive to better emulate my wife’s capacity for caring and friendship. For more than 25 years, I’ve marveled at her remarkable capacity for empathy and friendship. Hers is not a superficial camaraderie, but deep, caring relationships with a far-flung collection of childhood pals and newer friends. As a spiritual director in the United Methodist Church, she’s well trained in listening and counseling people on their spiritual journeys. She is also wise beyond words. She has much to teach me, and I resolve to spend more time observing her, talking with her about what matters most and walking in her compassionate footsteps.

I will spend less time thinking about politics. In December 2016, I took up woodworking again as a way to focus my thoughts, apply my hands to creative pursuits and — most important — to get my mind off politics and Donald Trump for a few hours. (It’s funny how little you’ll think about current events when you’re trying not to sever your fingers with a table saw.)

After making a few pieces for myself, I began crafting simple tables for flood victims. Next, I made furniture for a refugee family and have recently finished tables I will donate to a non-profit that rehabilitates homes for elderly people. It’s sacred, prayerful work. Bending over a workbench for hours isn’t great therapy for a sore back, but making sawdust is a salve for mind and soul.

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Christianity’s poverty of Christ

By Robert Mann

Let the historians explain how evangelical Christians lost their way, but it’s a sad fact that a large, influential segment of a major faith is unmoored from its foundational, scriptural teachings. I’m talking about those evangelicals who have religiously ignored what the scriptures say — shout — about God’s favor for the poor and his compassion for the powerless.

Too many evangelical Christians evince only passing interest in such matters, having abandoned economic and social justice in favor of political power and luxuriating in the smug satisfaction of a personal relationship with Jesus, who guarantees an afterlife without Jews, Muslims and others who don’t look or pray like them.

It’s not only evangelicals. If you want a sense of how divorced some Christian leaders are from their faith, I recommend a fascinating conversation between two prominent Christian thinkers — David French and John Zmirak — in the New York Times. The reason for the discussion, moderated by conservative columnist Ross Douthat, was to explore why Evangelicals overwhelmingly support one of history’s most unChristian presidents.

What fascinated me most was not their disagreement over whether Donald Trump deserves praise from evangelicals; it was, rather, the cursory mention of the biblical mandate to champion and care for the poor and powerless.

The discussion revolved, instead, around Trump’s personal morality and his support for the political rights of conservative Christians and their preeminent issues, including abortion and appointing conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even when more sensible evangelical leaders bemoan what’s become of their corrupted movement, they characterize the damage as abandonment, not of the poor, but of piety.Do you know how hard a Christian must work to devote that much effort talking about his faith and only mention, in passing, the poor?

It’s not that so many forget to talk about how their faith demands they treat the poor; it’s that they never seem to consider it.

Cases in point: Why are there not loud, massive protests of Christians over the obscene fact that Congress passed legislation that gives — at the expense of the poor and middle class — large tax cuts to corporations and wealthy individuals? Why are most Christians not enraged that, while it celebrates its unholy gift to the rich, Congress allowed the Children’s Health Insurance Program to expire?

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Why did being poor become a serious sin? (or, How poverty is the new pedophilia)

By Robert Mann

How did poverty, once an unfortunate economic circumstance, become a moral failing? Among conservative leaders — many who claim to be Christians — it’s often portrayed as a transgression against God and society.

The Bible may be full of admonitions to regard the poor as people who enjoy God’s favor and should spur our compassion, but the Christian cabal that runs today’s Republican Party regards wealth as the true test of godliness and virtue.

Being poor is a serious sin. Poverty is the new pedophilia!

Do these leaders really embrace this perverted theology — or is something else at work?

If you wonder why Republicans treat poverty as the root of all evil, just examine their policies: Pass massive tax cuts for the rich. Let corporations write our laws. Cut programs that help the poor.

That’s all they offer. And since most Republicans in Congress have many more middle-income constituents than millionaires, they need a distraction so rank-and-file voters won’t grow wise to how they’re being conned.

That’s why attacking the poor is so useful. If the GOP can pit the middle class against those in poverty, many middle-class voters won’t notice wealthy taxpayers and big corporations picking their pockets.

Among the latest practitioner of this cynical strategy is U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who champions a massive tax cut for the rich as he promotes legislation to vilify poor families by imposing needless work requirements on those receiving help from the federal-state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Two other Louisiana Republicans, Reps. Mike Johnson and Clay Higgins, are co-sponsors of his bill.

Graves bases his work requirements on the false assumption that most people who receive food stamps cheat the system by refusing to work. If treating those down on their luck like criminals is what you want, then Graves’ bill is for you.

Graves also slanders poor people as lazy. “There are talented people across our country who aren’t pursuing the full potential of their capabilities largely because government incentives make it more profitable in some cases to stay home and collect welfare than to pursue personal growth and responsibility through work,” Graves said in a press release about the bill.

That is false and an ugly slur. Most poor people work more hours at their jobs than does Graves. Moreover, there are precious few examples of low-income assistance programs that discourage work. A wealth of research proves that a job is almost always more profitable than government help.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Let’s face facts: Louisiana is sick and dying

By Robert Mann

Two questions have dogged me lately: If I could go back 18 years, would I raise my children in Louisiana? Would I still view this as a place that would nurture and educate them, offer opportunities for personal and financial growth and help my wife and I imbue in them the values important to us?

When my son and daughter were born, I believed the answer was yes. I had hope. Even three years ago, I still had faith in Louisiana, as I wrotein a column to young people who considered abandoning the state: “Stay here, find like-minded people, organize them, expand your influence, demand change, but don’t give up on this amazing, beautiful place. Its good people — flawed as we might be — are worth your efforts.”

When I wrote that, I believed Louisiana had brighter days. I hoped there was a small flame of desire to recreate something great here. I thought Louisiana’s people wanted to redeem their state.

I was wrong.

Today, I ask only, “Is this as good as it will ever be?” The answer, I believe, is yes. It’s not getting better and could get much worse.

For all its rich and diverse culture and abundant natural resources, Louisiana is the sick man of the United States. We’re an economic basket case and a toxic waste pit of environmental neglect and misconduct.

We are the state most adept at missing opportunities and abusing and wasting our abundant natural resources.

Louisiana is my home in every way and, at 59, I cannot imagine living anywhere else. And yet it’s time to admit this is a place with no visible promise and little hope. To pretend otherwise is to engage in delusional thinking. We must face facts.

I’m not saying everyone should give up and leave. I’m staying and fighting for our future. There is much work to do, and I believe I can make a difference. I suspect most of you feel the same. But if we’re staying, we must be honest about Louisiana’s deplorable condition and bleak future.

Blame our leaders, if you like. But the problem is us. On average, we aspire to mediocrity; we are happy with good enough. We live in a land of plenty but view the world from an attitude of scarcity.

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What Tiger Woods’ arrest can teach us all about humility

By Robert Mann

I don’t know what emotion you experienced when you heard the news of Tiger Woods’ arrest on DUI charges, but I thought, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.”

I’ve been careful to avoid driving while impaired but that doesn’t mean I haven’t sometimes wondered, “Should I have had that second drink?” And who knows how I graduated college with a clean record. I was sometimes stupid and reckless.

But here’s the truth: I was lucky.Screenshot 2017-06-01 06.54.38

Woods’ arrest — and a few poor souls I’ve seen shuffling along the streets — have me thinking how we often indulge the conceit that our station in life results from our good sense, smarts or diligence. We’re quick to congratulate ourselves for the hard work and intelligence that vaulted us to the (relative) top of the economic pile.

If we see some person who can’t support his family or gets into legal trouble, we credit our moral superiority and the industry that prevents us from a similar fate.

The hard truth I struggle to remember is this: Our success is not entirely the result of our intelligence and bustle. We get more lucky breaks than we recognize or acknowledge. One guy gets pulled over for drinking and driving. The other doesn’t. Random chance influences our lives and secures our successes more than shrewd planning.

If you are a white male born in the United States in the 20th century, you begin with advantages that more than two-thirds of the world never enjoys. You will not face racial or gender discrimination and life will seem much more egalitarian to you than to someone in Sub-Saharan Africa or Bangladesh.

And if you are born into a family with any resources at all — enough to secure a decent education, good nutrition, great health care and ample recreation time — you have hit the jackpot. You begin with a massive head start over 80 percent of humankind.

While I know people who have overcome severe economic and social adversity, I’m also aware of the enormous advantage of being born into a stable family. More than the resources I enjoy, I’m grateful my wife’s parents and mine were married for more than 50 years (my wife’s more than 60). Their examples and the emotional and economic stability that emanated from them may be the greatest gift she and I will pass along to our children.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Medicaid and other antipoverty programs reward work, not indolence

By Robert Mann

It’s a common delusion among some wealthy people that their success is a product of their industry and ingenuity. They regard poverty, therefore, as a consequence of indolence and ignorance. As the British journalist Walter Bagehot once observed, “Poverty is an anomaly to rich people; it is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell.”

I can understand the indifference of so many wealthy folks, particularly Republican politicians, toward the poor. What I don’t comprehend, however, is their eagerness to vilify, ridicule and punish poverty.

That’s what Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback did recently when he opposed the expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state program that supports health care for low-income families. Brownback explained he vetoed the bill “because it fails to serve the truly vulnerable before the able-bodied [and] lacks work requirements to help able-bodied Kansans escape poverty.” In 2013, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed a similar slur against the poor as he opposed Medicaid expansion.

To the average person, Brownback’s and Jindal’s reasoning might make sense. Doesn’t giving health care to poor people make them reluctant to find a job with health insurance? It might, if most of those who would benefit were unemployed, which they are not.

By framing his opposition around the notion that the poor are shiftless moochers whose lethargy is to blame for their financial woes, Brownback, Jindal and others who parrot this reasoning are slandering those who live in poverty.

A recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that the vast majority of Medicaid recipients (almost 80 percent) belong to working households. Sixty percent have jobs. Of those not working, all but 3 percent are sick, disabled, students, family caregivers, retired or those who can’t find work.

Medicaid expansion rewards work. In most states, those most in need of Medicaid’s expanded coverage earn too much to qualify for the existing Medicaid program, but too little to claim insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

The Medicaid debate is but one front in a conservative war against the poor who, many Republicans want you to believe, are lazy bums who need tough love far more than your charity. If you buy into this caricature, you’ve been conned.

Here’s the dirty secret the servants of the rich don’t want you to learn: Many poor people work long hours in low-wage jobs. “Among the poor between 18 and 64 who are not disabled or in school in 2014,” the Center for Poverty Research at the University California, Davis, reports, “51.8 percent worked for part of the previous year.”

It’s not that poor people are lazy; it’s often that their enormous industry is so rarely rewarded with a living wage. The game is rigged against them in so many ways.

State and local governments tax them at rates two and three times that of the wealthy. They often pay more interest for car loans, higher premiums for auto insurance and inflated fees for checking accounts. In Louisiana and elsewhere, unpaid court fees can get them tossed into jail, whereupon they often lose their jobs. In Arkansas, it’s a criminal offense to miss a rent payment.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Why is ‘justice’ such a dirty word in so many churches?

By Robert Mann

Do you ever wonder how religious leaders and those in the pews can read their Bibles and then remain silent about the scandalous injustice against the poor that our society tolerates? Why isn’t the state Capitol crawling with pastors, preachers and rabbis advocating on behalf of those afflicted by poverty? Why aren’t those same religious leaders challenging their followers to storm government institutions to demand fair treatment for the powerless?6449741467_dc1a81af70_b

Reading the Bible is sometimes difficult, but understanding what it says about justice for the poor is not. Simply put, ignoring economic and social justice should be impossible for those who take their faith seriously.

Unfortunately, the poor are all too easy to ignore.

Over the next few weeks, you’ll see a flood of commentary about how this industry or that special interest will fare in the coming fiscal session of the Louisiana Legislature. Will wealthy taxpayers pay more in income taxes? What about small businesses?

Who knows which industries and individuals will come out ahead? Your guess is as good as mine — unless you’re wondering who the big losers will be. That’s easy. It’s always the same. It’s the poor.

In Louisiana, in particular, the working poor pay 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the top 1 percent pay less than half that (4.2 percent). It’s not just that Louisiana’s tax laws are unfavorable to the working poor; it’s that we punish them with a cruel poverty surtax.

We oppress them in other ways. We offer substandard child care, housing and health care and provide dreadful legal representation when they are charged with crimes. We tolerate the usurious interest rates payday lenders impose on them.

In Louisiana, we spend about $20,000 a year to house people in prison. We spend about $10,700 a year to educate our children. In both cases, the poor get the shaft. We don’t devote the resources necessary to provide them a ticket out of poverty while giving far too many of them a free ride to the state’s penitentiary at Angola.

My wife and I have been going to Louisiana prisons for 20 years for various reasons, mostly prison ministry. Do you know how many inmates from well-to-do families I’ve met? I could count them on one hand.

“How dare you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor?” the prophet Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf, warned religious people of Jerusalem more than 2,700 years ago.

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