News from Think Progress
- The U.S. already has a high-quality, universal childcare program — in the military
June, 22 2017
The Pentagon has managed to sever the link between adequate care and exorbitant fees.
Tech Sgt. Parker and her husband always knew they wanted to have a big family. Today, they have five children between the ages of three and 16.
Multiply five by the typical cost of daycare, and they could have been looking at spending more than $190,000 over their children’s early years. Yet the cost of childcare never stopped them. Thanks to Parker’s 17-year career as a linguist for the Air Force, all of her children have been cared for in the military’s childcare system where she never has to pay more than about 10 percent of her income.
Parker’s experience with the childcare available on her base has been overwhelmingly positive. “When they come home, I’m like, ‘Wow, you guys learned all this today,’”she said of her children in the program.
In most daycare centers, turnover rates among providers are extremely high. Not in Parker’s. A woman who taught her 16-year-old when he was little is now teaching her youngest child. “It’s just amazing,” Parker said. “She’s been there forever.” Her eldest children still like to go back in and say hi to their former teachers.
“The childcare centers on post are pretty much like a second home for my children,” Parker said. “The teachers there are really invested in the kids.”
“The childcare centers on post are pretty much like a second home for my children.”
She knows how lucky she is. There were a few months when one of her children was put on a waiting list and Parker had to make use of off-base, private-sector childcare for six months.
“It was a real shocker, a big price difference,” she said. “[For] what we were paying for her weekly, I was able to put my one child in military childcare for months. It was that big of a difference.”
She’s not even sure she and her husband could have had the size family that they wanted if she had always had to rely on that kind of daycare — the only one available to most American parents. This was driven home at one posting in particular, where she found herself working with a lot of civilian coworkers. “A lot of my coworkers, you know, we talked about this, childcare,” she said. “I had a coworker for example who used to talk about how her and her husband were talking about maybe having a child or not. I was surprised to hear how much thought went into, ‘Well, can we afford the childcare,’ before they even got pregnant.”
“We just wanted to have kids,” she explained of her own situation. “I felt like if I were a civilian, that definitely would have had a huge impact on whether we kept having kids or not.”
Parker has benefitted from something few in the civilian world realize exists: in the military, the U.S. government currently runs a high-quality, universally accessible, affordable childcare program for its employees. The government’s one existing universal childcare program is also the country’s finest.
How it works
When an enlisted parent enrolls her child in a child development center with the military, she will only ever pay a percentage of her income — about 10 percent depending on what she makes. Everyone gets subsidized care based on income, not on rank or the child’s age. In the civilian world, by contrast, full-time childcare typically eats up 20 percent or more of a family’s income. For a single parent, it’s more like a quarter. And the younger the child, the more it costs.
A military family making $50,000 a year pays about $100 a week, with low-income families paying $59 and no one paying more than $206. In some states, on the other hand, civilian childcare can cost more like $250 a week.
The military’s child development centers are widely used; more than half of families with two spouses in in the military rely on on-base childcare, while just under 40 percent of those with children under 13 use it routinely so they can work.
The affordability of care is thanks to a huge and important difference between the military system and the one all other parents have to navigate: In the civilian world, the amount and quality of childcare is directly dependent on how much parents can pay. In the military, that link has been severed, and families receive consistent care regardless of how much they’re able to contribute.
The military uses a strict formula: it calculates how much it costs to provide high-quality care for a child, and then multiplies that by the slots that it wants to provide. That calculation includes what it costs to pay childcare providers a decent wage as well as to create safe, stimulating classrooms.
Rather than going directly to parents and asking them to fork over that sticker price, however, the military commits to only asking parents to pay what it considers to be affordable. Government funding then makes up whatever difference there is between what parents can pay and what it costs to provide that care. In 2013, government funding covered about two-thirds of the cost.
“We broke the link between parent fees and personnel costs.”
“We broke the link between parent fees and personnel costs,” explained M.A. Lucas, who was the founding director and program manager of the Army’s Child Development Services System. “You have the fair share fees on the one side, and you have the appropriate wage [for providers] on the other, and the armed services make up the difference.”
It’s the opposite of how things work everywhere else, where little public assistance is available to either parents or childcare centers, and the quality and availability of care is directly linked to how much parents pay. “In essence, we ask the childcare workforce to subsidize the difference between the revenue [generated] either through parents or through, in some cases, a government subsidy” by paying them less, said Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.
It’s not just parents who benefit. The 23,000 childcare providers in the military system have a completely different experience than in the civilian market. Once they completed the required education and experience, staff at the centers were paid an average of $15 an hour in 2013, on par with other Department of Defense employees with similar training and experience. In typical years, their pay rises yearly along with all government employees. The average for private sector childcare workers, on the other hand, is about $11 an hour. Military providers also get health insurance, retirement benefits, and sick leave.
With the higher pay, however, come greater expectations. Staff at the military’s centers have to have at least graduated from high school or gotten a GED and must pass a background check. Just 16 states, on the other hand, require that lead providers have the same educational credentials and only 10 require a background check.
Then there’s the training, which is ongoing. “The military trains all day. Training is inherent in the military’s day to day activities,” Lucas said. So it was natural to expect that childcare providers would constantly work to improve what they do. There’s even an on-site trainer, usually with an advanced degree, at every site.
But unlike in the private sector, where there is rarely extra money to pay someone more if she attends a training seminar or gets a higher degree, each round of training ensures more pay for military childcare staff. “As their education and training and experience increases, their salaries increase very systematically, very predictably, and in exactly the same way as everyone else who works alongside them in the military,” said Deborah Phillips, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University who has studied the military’s system. “There are no incentives at all to do something else to increase your wages.” Turnover is lower because pay incentivizes people to stay. Not to mention that it creates an atmosphere of constant learning and support.
“It’s a matter of pride, really, to work in the military childcare program,” Phillips added. “They really are the jewel in the crown of the military.”
“It’s a matter of pride, really, to work in the military childcare program.”
The military also has robust systems to make sure quality and safety standards are met and kept up. “The secret is enforcement of the standards,” Lucas said. “You can have all kinds of standards, but if nobody follows up…”
All centers have to be accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children; by 2013, 98 percent of the military’s child development centers were accredited, with the rest in the process of getting accredited or renewing their accreditation. They must also comply with four annual unannounced inspections to ensure compliance with standards for health, safety, and even curriculum, classroom environment, and class sizes.
“There’s not a single military childcare dollar that goes to an unlicensed, uninspected childcare facility,” Phillips said. In the civilian world, by contrast, only 11 percent of daycares are accredited by either the National Association for the Education of Young Children or the National Association for Family Child Care. The military system was the only one to earn a B grade for quality regulations in a 2013 ranking — every state scored lower.
The Waymires have sent their son Bruce, now three, to a child development center at Fort Meade since he was about three months old. Even at such a young age, it’s clear how much the quality at his center matters.
“He can already count on one hand,” Mathew, his father, said. “He knows most of his colors, knows a whole bunch of different animals. They’re even helping potty train him.”
He’s picked up social lessons as well. “They teach him all types of manners, how to interact with kids of different ages,” Mathew said. He knows the difference between playing with a young infant and an older child; when family members ask Bruce to come over, he quickly obeys.
It’s not just a happy coincidence that Bruce has learned so much at his center. The providers put a lot of work into his care. “They actually have these matrixes where they track the children’s emotional development, communication skills, physical development, how they socialize with each other, with adult supervisors,” Mathew said. “It’s actually very surprising, in a good way, that they went in that depth with the…tracking of the information.” The parents often get daily feedback.
Having had to put Bruce in a civilian daycare for about a month before their slot opened up on base, the Waymires understand how much this kind of care stands out. “He didn’t get that at the civilian daycare we took him to,” Mathew said. “They were like, ‘He ate half his lunch, we changed his diapers.’” They had to pack Bruce’s lunch every day, but most days the staff didn’t seem to make much of an effort to get him to eat it and just tossed whatever he left unfinished in the garbage.
Bruce’s childcare center offers other perks that ease the burden of juggling raising a family and military service. It opens at 6 a.m., allowing the Waymires to drop Bruce at 6:30 and make it to work, which also starts early. It also provides breakfast, lunch, and snacks, meaning Bruce’s parents don’t need to pack food for him.
And the cost is doable. “On the civilian side, I thought it was really expensive out there, the prices they were asking,” Amanda, Bruce’s mother, said.
The cost of the civilian center they used was “at least double” the cost of military childcare, said Mathew. “It was very eye-opening when we had to transfer Bruce to that one.”
“A Cinderella story”
Things weren’t always like this for military families who needed childcare. In fact, conditions were so dire just a few decades ago that they sparked congressional hearings.
“The story of military childcare in this country has often been referred to as a Cinderella story,” Phillips, the Georgetown University psychologist, said. “It really went from a system in distress to the largest employer-sponsored childcare program in the country that is now considered a model for the nation. And all of that happened over the course of five to ten years.”
In 1982, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report finding that the military’s childcare facilities were in appalling shape. The majority of Army and Navy buildings that housed daycare centers didn’t even meet fire and safety codes, nor did a number in the Air Force and Marines. The GAO also found that the military’s own standards were inadequate — many classrooms exceeded ratio caps, there were no requirements for staff training or classroom materials, and no centers were required to be regulated or inspected by outside organizations.
That report was backed up by real experiences. Lucas went out and personally took a number of pictures of the facilities. “It was just unbelievable,” she said of what she found. The buildings often had asbestos and lead-based paint. Some were in basements, others in old prisons or stables. “You would think this was 200 years ago,” she said. “In fact, it was the early 80s.”
The GAO also found that provider pay was dismal. Childcare providers had the lowest-paid position on the bases; they were paid less than those who stocked commissaries or collected trash. Thanks in part to the low pay, the system had been plagued by turnover; some sites that had rates as high as 300 percent per year.
“It was shocking,” said Helen Blank, director of childcare and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center.
This all emerged as more was beginning to be known about what it took to make a quality daycare center. A seminal study on childcare staffing across the country was published in 1989, and its conclusion was clear: wages were the strongest predictor of quality. “I think the findings were out for like 24 hours and we got a call from the Department of Defense,” Berkeley’s Whitebook, who was the main author of the study, recalled. They wanted to know how wages could help fix the system.
Demographics were another factor. The military was moving away from the draft toward an all-volunteer force, meaning it would need to attract and retain talented people. It realized “we have to start taking care of our own if we want people feel like it’s worth their while to give 20 years of their life…to the military,” Whitebook said.
At the same time, the number of women in the services was climbing; the share of women on active duty rose from less than 2 percent in 1973 to almost 11 percent by 1989. “The end of the draft came,” Lucas, the longtime Army consultant, said. And that meant that “before they were dealing with single soldiers, and now they were going to be dealing with an all-volunteer force that would come with families and children.”
“It became clear that childcare, or lack of childcare, could impact the nation’s security.”
“It became clear that childcare, or lack of childcare, could impact the nation’s security, the military’s ability to be ready to defend the country,” Lucas said. The Army conducted anonymous surveys asking whether any members had missed training due to a lack of childcare — something that impacts an entire team. “When the results came back it was quite shocking,” she said. “That was a wake up call.” The military started thinking about investments in childcare as investments in its workforce.
Then another scandal emerged a few years later when a number of military daycare centers were hit with allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by staff on the children, including a case at the Presidio base in California where 60 children were alleged to have been abused.
“That really sounded a note of alarm and became the catalyst for congressional hearings,” Phillips said. “It took a crisis.” Some members, like Ted Kennedy, got deeply involved in the cause of fixing the system’s problems.
Congress held hearings on the state of the military’s childcare system over the course of two years. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. “In the beginning they were very resistant. We took a lot of heat,” Lucas said, remembering her work to advocate for investment in military childcare. “We were called the pink steamrollers, the childcare mafia, and it wasn’t meant as affectionate either.”
But advocates like her were strategic. “We didn’t talk a lot about the children to start with. We talked about keeping soldiers on the job,” she said. They also didn’t come out of the gate asking for a huge amount of money, but instead started small and planned to increase it gradually every year.
Eventually it all led to the passage of the Military Child Care Act in 1989 with the overwhelming support of both parties. And that’s when everything changed.
The legislation gave centers a window of time to either fix or close their facilities if they weren’t up to code, which led to the construction of more than 200 centers. It required the military to establish regulations and create an inspection system with routine, unannounced visits. It implemented the sliding scale fee system and instituted the funding formula focused on how to provide quality care. And it substantially improved pay and training for providers as well as curriculum development. The latter change dropped the 300 percent turnover rates down to about 30 percent.
“They were serious,” Blank recalled. “They were willing to make the commitment to all of the components and to funding them.”
The military miracle isn’t really one, though. The same reforms that were made to its system could easily be applied to civilian daycare for all parents: higher quality standards with funding for upgrades and regular enforcement, increased pay and training for providers, and the government stepping in to fill the gap between what parents can afford and while high-quality care costs.
“It’s not a miracle,” Blank said. “It’s the determination, and you have to fund it. You have to fund it.”
The circumstances that led to radical reforms in the military in the late 80s are not really different than those that face parents in the private market today. There is little regulation or incentive for daycares to focus on quality and safety. There are many places where there aren’t any daycare slots at all. Providers are paid on par with fast food employees and parking lot attendants, with no increase for improving their skills and education. They make about a quarter less than other workers with the same qualifications and education.
And parents face enormous, swelling costs. Just as the military knew that the inability to afford good childcare would hurt its readiness and productivity, so too has expensive childcare hampered American parents’ ability to work.
“We talk about four factors in our business plan: availability, affordability, quality, and accountability,” Lucas said. “The bottom line is that [these] factors are interdependent.”
“There’s no reason why it could not provide a model for the rest of the country.”
The military’s reforms show that all of this can be addressed — but that it has to be done comprehensively and with the funding to back it up. “It holds hundreds of lessons,” Phillips said. “There’s no reason why it could not provide a model for the rest of the country. It’s a matter of what is valued and what is paid for. Those are the barriers.”
President Trump has indicated he wants to move in the opposite direction, slashing funding for the military’s system in his budget. But military leaders remain steadfast. Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III told ThinkProgress in an email that the Defense Department “views childcare as a workforce issue that is critical to the overall accomplishment of the military mission.”
“To sustain high-quality programs, the department is committed to adequate funding, strict oversight, ongoing training and professional development for staff, wages tied to completion of training components, strong family involvement, and ensuring that programs meet national accreditation standards,” said Caggins.
If the Army can figure out childcare, so can the country. “You shouldn’t have to join the military to get it,” Blank said
The U.S. already has a high-quality, universal childcare program — in the military was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
- Trump’s trade rhetoric was key to his campaign. Now it’s totally incoherent.
June, 21 2017
Trump has walked back most of his comments on trade.
Trump appears to be ready to take major steps toward safeguarding the American steel industry, which has been threatened by foreign-made steel. But before you praise him for his trade policies, it’s important to look at the bigger picture.
During his campaign, President Donald Trump focused on renegotiating NAFTA, labeling China a currency manipulator, and bringing back lost manufacturing jobs. Instead, Trump has backed away from some of his promises on China and NAFTA, and is taking on smaller efforts. If Trump moves ahead with protecting the domestic steel industry, it will be one of the few trade moves that would correspond with his campaign promises. But on the whole, Trump’s trade policy is completely incoherent.
The Commerce Department has been considering whether steel imports are an economic security and national security threat. On Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross confirmed that Trump would take “bold action” to address these supposed threats.
Robert Scott, senior economist and director of trade and manufacturing policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, said there are a number of good reasons to take a broad approach that affects all sectors of the steel market, including downmarket steel production, to restore a fairly traded market and get rid of the steel glut hurting U.S. producers.
Scott said unfairly traded steel imports in 2014 helped to kill 14,000 direct jobs in the U.S. steel industry between January 2015 and December 2016, and that thousands more were eliminated in industries supported by the steel industry. “If we use trade policies to ensure steel is fairly traded, then the prices will tend to gravitate toward a long-run natural market equilibrium. If not, then domestic producers will get put out of business and we will be vulnerable to these import suppliers who will be able to charge whatever they want for steel.”
But the steel industry is just one smaller issue that is part of a much bigger program, Scott said. Scott sees the Trump administration as “tinkering at the margins with small problems” and ignoring the bigger picture. As policymakers and the media focus on his approach to steel imports, they may forget to look at his broader trade policy agenda, which has been incredibly scattered and unproductive thus far.
“It’s not by any means sufficient to deal with our manufacturing and trade unemployment crisis,” Scott said.
The Trump administration isn’t paying very much attention to currency manipulation and exchange rates and is focusing on trade deals with one country at a time. Trump has been very focused on trade deficits, particularly the trade gap with Mexico, which is $63 billion. However, 40 percent of the parts of an average Mexican product are made in the United States. His fixation on Mexico is also not productive because Mexico is not contributing to our trade problems as much as China, Germany, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.
“I think the single biggest misconception [about NAFTA] is that countries like Mexico are a big problem. The countries we have the biggest trade problems with are countries with the biggest trade surpluses with the United States, and not just with us, but the world as a whole — China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Taiwan,” Scott said. “Those are the countries we should be targeting. Those are the countries contributing to the global trade imbalance that threatens to upend the global economy as it did ten years ago in the Great Recession.”
Trump has also backed down from his campaign rhetoric currency manipulation. In April, the Treasury Department’s semi-annual report on currency practices of trading partners did not name China as a currency manipulator. The president tweeted that he would make a trade deal that would be helpful to China if China assisted him with “the North Korea problem,” indicating he would cave on a number of promises he made about trade with China during the campaign.
It’s also highly unlikely that Trump would seek major changes to NAFTA. For example, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has indicated he would like to change the “rules of origin,” which affects the percentage of content that has to be made in North America, to be more favorable to American auto manufacturers — but the proposed changes are not dramatic ones.
“My concern is that during the campaign, Trump told people NAFTA was a terrible trade deal, and I think a lot of people in the general public felt that way. It was a successful campaign strategy, but if you look at the actual changes and details, what he is talking about doing it is similar to what Obama administration proposed to do under the TPP,” Scott said.
Instead, the Trump administration has been focused on policies that would benefit the wealthiest Americans and would benefit Trump’s businesses. Owners and shareholders of what are called pass-through entities, which means they are not subject to income tax, would pay taxes for their businesses at a tax rate of 15 percent instead of 39.6 percent if Trump’s tax reform dreams came true. Most of Trump’s businesses are pass-through entities, according to CNN. He would also eliminate the alternative minimum tax, the estate tax, and the ACA surcharge on investments. The Trump administration’s waffling on trade policy, its tax plan, and its proposed budget cuts, including a 21 percent cut to the Department of Labor, suggest that for all of his talk about the U.S. manufacturing crisis, Trump is not invested in helping the people who most affected by it.
Trump’s trade rhetoric was key to his campaign. Now it’s totally incoherent. was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
- Inexperienced former event planner to run major federal housing program
June, 16 2017
At HUD, she will oversee the distribution of billions of funds for a region with urgent needs.
Event planner Lynne Patton, a Trump loyalist without any housing experience, will run the office overseeing New York’s housing programs.
Trump named Patton to the position Wednesday, where she’ll oversee the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Region II, home to both New York and New Jersey. Vacant since January 20, the job has been in need of new shoes — but Patton may not be what many had in mind.
Up until now, Patton’s biggest claim to fame seems to be planning the wedding of Eric Trump, the president’s son. According to her LinkedIn public profile, Patton says she holds a law degree from Quinnipiac University (with an unexplained “N/A” written next to the degree), in addition to an unnamed degree from Yale University. But Quinnipiac school registrar Jim Benson told the New York Daily News that, while Patton had attended for two semesters, she never graduated. Her connection to Yale also remains unclear and unverified — HUD officials could not confirm to the publication why she had listed the Ivy League institution.
Lynne Patton also claims a law degree, which she did not earn, and cites Yale University, which she did not attend, on her LinkedIn profile. https://t.co/IPXqO7AbT1
A former senior advisor for Trump’s presidential campaign, Patton has also reportedly served as vice president for the Eric Trump Foundation (currently under investigation for fraud) since 2011. Patton’s relationship with the Trumps has dominated much of the coverage surrounding her appointment, but also turning heads is her level of preparedness for a challenging role.
It isn’t completely unusual for individuals in politically appointed roles like Patton’s to be somewhat inexperienced — but Patton’s resume still represents an outlier, according to several current and former administration officials who spoke anonymously to ThinkProgress. Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, Patton’s role was held by Holly Leicht, who came to the position with a lengthy background in planning and development. Patton, by contrast, has none, which could be a stumbling block.
Patton’s new position means she will oversee the distribution of billions of federal dollars intended for a region in desperate need of funds. Under the Trump administration’s proposed budget, around $340 million will be cut from the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) budget: $210 million for fixing aging buildings and $130 million for daily operations.
At the time the cuts were announced, New York City Mayor de Blasio emphasized that they would make the city less safe.
“What would it be taken away from? Safety and security measures for our buildings. Doors that lock. Cameras that protect residents,” de Blasio said.
The cuts have severe implications for de Blasio’s city. New York’s aging buildings require around $17 billion in repairs and more than 70 percent of NYCHA’s operational budget comes from HUD, which also funds its capital repair budget in full. But the wider region could also be impacted by the Trump administration’s desire to tighten purse strings. Currently, more than $13 billion also comes from HUD to cover relief efforts linked to Hurricane Sandy, which hit in 2012 and left several states dealing with years worth of repairs.
“I think the key issue is that whoever fills this position will be representing a significant portion of the federal investment in both affordable housing and resilient recovery from disasters,” a former senior official who wished to remain off the record told ThinkProgress. The area Patton will be overseeing “has the lion’s share of the CDBG-DR (disaster recovery) funds appropriated by Congress after Hurricane Sandy,” the official said, explaining that the funds amount to more than $12 billion and make the area arguably the largest and most important HUD region due to its scale on both housing and non-housing urban issues.
“Much of the disaster recovery money is being used for infrastructure, so that makes it critical that the HUD RA [Patton’s position] understand both urban affordable housing issues and how cities work,” the official emphasized.
According to sources, Patton’s role means she will be more of a figurehead than a policymaker, making it unlikely that she will be interacting with disbursing grants on a regular basis. But that doesn’t mean she won’t be able to influence policy — especially if specific issues arise concerning the grants themselves.
Patton is far from the only Trump staffer to lack experience prior to her role. Her boss, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon, also came to his position without any housing or urban development experience. Carson has left many baffled during his first few months at HUD. While touring facilities for low-income residents in April, Carson dismissed them as too “comfortable,” criticizing efforts to make the accommodations appealing for residents. He aroused further controversy in late May after claiming that “poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind” — a stance anti-poverty activists strongly reject.
With additional reporting from Ryan Koronowski.
Inexperienced former event planner to run major federal housing program was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
- The strange origins of the GOP ideology that rejects caring for the poor
June, 14 2017
No, that’s not what Jesus says.
The ongoing Capitol Hill brawl over health care and budget cuts is getting Biblical.
In recent months, GOP lawmakers have taken to quoting Christian scripture to defend conservative fiscal policy and their effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The first example came from Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS), who argued in early March that Jesus would support his criticism of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, an aspect of health care reform that extended insurance coverage to additional low-income Americans.
“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’” Marshall told Stat News, quoting the Bible. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”
He added that “morally, spiritually, socially,” some poor and homeless people “just don’t want health care.”
Marshall’s comments triggered a flurry of criticism from several sources, including more progressive faith writers who chided him for rebuking the traditional Christian instruction to help the poor regardless of their personal choices. The newly elected congressman eventually walked back his remarks a few days later.
“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us…There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”
But it wasn’t long before another lawmaker spouted a similar argument in a policy debate. Later that month, Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX) attempted to use scripture to justify increasing work requirements for unemployed adults who use food stamps. When a representative from a Jewish anti-hunger advocacy group cited a passage from Leviticus to argue that poor people who receive benefits should not be judged by constrictive work requirements, Arrington fired back with a line from the New Testament.
“Scripture tells us in 2 Thessalonians chapter 3:10…‘for even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: if a man will not work, he shall not eat,’” Arrington said. “And then he goes on to say ‘we hear that some among you are idle’ … I think it’s a reasonable expectation that we have work requirements.”
These statements from Arrington and Marshall are rooted in the same religious idea: that the poor and sick — or at least a subset thereof — supposedly deserve their plight, and healthy and more financially secure Americans shouldn’t be forced to care for them.
This theology has incensed many progressive Christians of late, but it didn’t appear overnight. It’s the result of a decades-long campaign by conservative lawmakers, intellectuals, and theologians to craft a theology that rejects longstanding Christian understandings of society’s needy. As debates over the budget and health care continue to escalate, it’s worth investigating the strange origins of the belief system being preached from GOP podiums.
An ancient scriptural debate
For many Christians, debates about the poor and their choices are as old as scripture itself. The God of the Hebrew Bible — i.e., the Old Testament — often inflicts illness and economic despair on those who reject the Almighty, and prophets such as Moses preach dire warnings against disappointing God.
“The Lord will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me,” a passage from Deuteronomy reads. “The Lord will make the pestilence cling to you until it has consumed you off the land that you are entering to possess.”
Yet this concept — that self-righteous immorality begets earthly woes — was either rejected or complicated in the New Testament by none other than Jesus himself. When Christ is asked by his disciples how a blind man was afflicted with his condition, for instance, he dismisses earthly concepts of sin-borne illness.
The passage reads:
As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Jesus then proceeds to heal the man, implying that “God’s works” are both his actions and, perhaps, the actions of those who heal the sick.
The tension between these two divergent concepts led to a number of different Christian teachings over the years. While many interpreted scripture to mean that all poor people should be served, others delineated between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.
The Religious Right and the “undeserving poor”
American views on the morality of the poor have evolved over the years. In the 1800s, poverty was seen as a moral failing, but that attitude changed drastically around the turn of the century as the Industrial Revolution took hold. Bettering the lives of poor — especially factory workers and children — became a rallying cry for Christians who ascribed to the “social gospel” movement popular in the early 1900s, and mass unemployment during the Great Depression complicated tidy definitions of the undeserving poor. Then, sweeping social programs created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal cemented a national system — and an ideology — that sanctioned relief for those in need (regardless of their personal choices), which President Lyndon B. Johnson built out with 1960s-era anti-poverty initiatives.
But mindsets began to shift as the 20th century wore on, and there’s strong evidence that right-wing Christian figures helped craft a form of “biblical capitalism” to counter the views of religious progressives.
In his 2014 book The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty (originally published in 1989), author Michael Katz argues concepts of the “undeserving poor” reemerged during the ascendancy of the Religious Right in the 1970s. When conservative Christian leaders began outlining their agenda, he writes, they targeted programs like welfare because they “believed [the system] weakened families by encouraging out-of-wedlock births, sex outside of marriage, and the ability of men to escape the responsibilities of fatherhood.”
Citing sociologists, Katz notes that by the early 1990s — around the same time as their cause fused with the institutional conservative movement — right-wing Christian leaders were willing to work against some of their own churchgoers when it comes to anti-poverty initiatives.
Why? Because, Katz says, the “economic fortunes” of prominent pastors relied less on government spending on programs that “poor fundamentalists might desire.”
This eventually sparked something of a cottage theological industry where thinkers concocted faith messages that couple the idea of “undeserving poor” with a passionate support for free-market capitalism. In addition to scores of individual theologians writing over the course of decades, issue-specific groups such as the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Values and Capitalism project or the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics (IFWE) sprung up to espouse a conservative and libertarian economic theology primarily geared toward evangelical Christians.
Sociologist Paul Froese at Baylor University — a Baptist school — observed this emerging phenomenon in 2012, describing it as a “new religious-economic idealism,” or the “belief that the free-market works because God is guiding it.” He pointed to survey data reporting that Americans who feel “God has a plan” for them and their nation are far more likely to think that “able-bodied people who are out of work should not receive unemployment checks.”
“Perhaps it is the fervent individualism of American Christianity which makes free market capitalism seem like a Divine mandate,” Froese wrote. “Because evangelicals assert that you alone are responsible for your eternal salvation, it makes sense that the individual is also responsible for his or her economic salvation without government assistance, especially if God is the only assistance you really need.”
The impact of these efforts was on full display during a 2014 panel discussion at AEI, where speakers debated “a Biblical answer to poverty.” All four panelists — two from IFWE — championed the merits of traditional capitalism, and IFWE Vice President of Theological Initiatives Art Lindsley drew upon a book chapter he wrote entitled “Does God require the state to redistribute wealth?” He argued that modern concepts of jubilee — a practice referenced in the Bible and traditionally interpreted to be a period of debt forgiveness in ancient Israel — are inaccurate, and insisted that early Christians did not sell all of their possessions (despite the fact that, according to the Bible, Jesus explicitly asked them to).
“I think we would all agree that there is a place for government, a place for the church, a place for nonprofits — but there’s also a place for markets,” Lindsley said.
“Because evangelicals assert that you alone are responsible for your eternal salvation, it makes sense that the individual is also responsible for his or her economic salvation without government assistance, especially if God is the only assistance you really need.”
Meanwhile, this mindset has been exacerbated by the rise of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a form of Christianity in which adherents are taught they can achieve physical and financial success through their Christian faith — especially giving money to their pastor. Smaller iterations of this idea have existed for generations, but modern prosperity preachers now boast some of the largest churches in the country, attracting massive congregations to huge churches and even stadiums.
The wealthy pastors who head up these churches, many of whom own large homes and private jets purchased by their congregants, serve as an implicit spiritual exemplars: i.e., they are wealthy because of their faith. These so-called “health and wealth” pastors, in turn, often laud other rich individuals instead of the poor, including the growing number of prosperity preachers who have aligned themselves with Donald Trump.
GOP lawmakers begin preaching a gospel that judges the poor
Slowly but surely, disciples of this theology expanded from think tank conference rooms to the halls of power.
During the 2013 debate over the Farm Bill — which includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps — two different Republican lawmakers bolstered calls to cut the program by citing 2 Thessalonians, just as Arrington did this year. Then-congressman Stephen Fincher from Tennessee dismissed Democrats who said government assistance mirrors Christ’s call to care for the “the least of these,” saying instead “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) also repeated the verse to counter a constituent who cited the Bible to criticize his support for cutting SNAP.
“Can we in good conscience make the banker, who in this case is a good hard-working person, pay for the faults of the sleeper with bad credit? Is that the knee-jerk Christian position? Let us just force people to be ethical. Let us force an ethical outcome. Let us force justice.”
The most passionate devotee of this theology, however, is probably Rep. David Brat (R-VA), who soared into office in 2014 as part of the Tea Party wave. Brat, a Presbyterian seminary graduate who listed a visit to AEI on his academic CV, even published theological works on conservative economics. In one 2011 paper on the topic of usury, he challenged the idea that banks should lower their loan rates for impoverished people with poor credit — in other words, the “undeserving poor.”
“That borrower may not like work and may sleep all day and eat snacks while watching television,” Brat, who serves on the House Budget Committee, wrote. “Can we in good conscience make the banker, who in this case is a good hard-working person, pay for the faults of the sleeper with bad credit? Is that the knee-jerk Christian position? Let us just force people to be ethical. Let us force an ethical outcome. Let us force justice.”
Meanwhile, conservative Catholics — another key component of the Religious Right coalition—have spent years crafting similar theology for their own tradition. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), for instance, defended his 2012 budget, which slashed many public programs, by championing a version of a Catholic concept known as “subsidiarity.”
“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities…that’s how we advance the common good by not having big government crowd out civic society…and take care of people who are down and out in our communities,” Ryan said at the time.
He went on to repeat the axiom that government assistance programs keep people poor by making them dependent: “The preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.”
Ryan’s understanding of subsidiarity was widely panned in Catholic circles, but other right-wing Catholics embraced his implicit message: government programs somehow create “undeserving poor” who do not work, and only through smaller government approaches can the lowly be spurred into action.
Progressive religious pushback
Raising the specter of the “undeserving” poor may be a popular trend among GOP politicians these days, but they’re rehashing it at time when poor-focused theologies are in a state of revival.
Many have pushed back on Marshall’s “the poor will always be with us” quip as well as the GOP’s misuse of 2 Thessalonians, for instance, saying lawmakers are using the lines out of context. Hundreds of faith leaders have also convened marches to decry Trump’s budget proposal as “immoral,” and spoken out against the Obamacare repeal. And one Tennessee woman even became a minor sensation after thousands shared a video of her defending the merits of the ACA — all while championing the need to care for the needy — at a recent town hall event.
“The ACA mandate requires everyone to have insurance because the healthy people pull up the sick people, right?” she said in February. “As a Christian, my whole philosophy in life is to pull up the unfortunate.”
Yet the most ardent (albeit indirect) opponent of the GOP’s theology may be one of the world’s most prominent faith leaders — Pope Francis. When he ascended to the papacy of the Catholic Church in 2013, it took him less than a year to publish Evangelii gaudium, a landmark apostolic exhortation that lifted up the issues of the needy and attacked any distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving poor.”
“God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself ‘became poor,’” Francis writes, referencing the often impoverished life of the biblical Jesus Christ. “The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor.”
Francis’ theology, in turn, has inspired him to de facto endorse policies that aid the poor. In May 2014, he called for “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits,” saying scripture demands an economic system that cares for the “poorest and those most excluded.” This belief also extends to health care: in May of 2016, he referred to employers who don’t offer health insurance to employees as “true leeches.”
Will this be enough to change the hearts and minds of conservative lawmakers? Probably not: GOP lawmakers have yet to abandon their biblical capitalism, even when conservatives and progressive Christians both criticize things like the prosperity gospel. Nor has Paul Ryan, a Catholic who says he is inspired by the pontiff but has not altered his hardline views of the poor.
Regardless, don’t be surprised if the coming legislative battles become increasingly spiritual. The GOP is counting on it.
The strange origins of the GOP ideology that rejects caring for the poor was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
- Newest pot sales numbers show Colorado on track for an even bigger payday in 2017
June, 12 2017
The green rush won’t last forever. But it looks far from over.
Three years, billions of dollars, and thousands of new jobs into Colorado’s legal marijuana experiment, we’re still nowhere near the economic ceiling of retail cannabis.
New monthly revenue figures indicate the state is on track to exceed last year’s massive sales totals for medical and recreational weed. Retail stores sold more than $125 million in product statewide in April, The Cannabist calculates based on state revenue numbers.
Through the first four months of 2017, the state has collected over $76 million in taxes and fees on almost half a billion dollars in sales.
The figures project out to a wild increase over the previous year’s sales and revenue numbers. Raw-dollar sales totals are up about 27 percent despite falling prices, according to The Cannabist’s metrics.
State revenue collections from taxes and licensing fees are almost 50 percent above where they stood at the same point a year earlier. Colorado ended up netting about $199 million in public revenue from cannabis that year.
April was the 11th straight month where Colorado businesses sold more than $100 million worth of pot — a particularly impressive streak given that retail prices have continued to fall since legalization first began.
Colorado’s own industry won’t keep lapping itself like this perpetually, of course. At some point — when enough other states have legalized, and when Coloradans have fully abandoned the black and “gray” markets for weed in favor of the fully sanctioned marketplace — the growth rates will soften.
But the 2017 trendlines aren’t just about Colorado’s first-in-the-door status. Tourism helps account for some of the growth, but it would be a mistake to read Colorado’s continued green boom as driven by out-of-staters eager to light up safely.
The real story of the 2017 growth, Marijuana Policy Group research associate Clinton Saloga told ThinkProgress, is that legalization is still moving pot activity out of back alleys and into the light.
“The continued rise in sales is due more to people leaving the black market and starting to shop in the regulated market, as opposed to a huge surge in total use,” said Saloga.
“It’s hard to say with a straight face that a lot of people are coming to Colorado just to smoke pot. Colorado has a million attractions,” Saloga said, “and if you look back at the trends, Colorado and the Denver area were increasing across all [tourism and economic] measures before legalization.”
Opponents of softer marijuana laws have often argued that decriminalization or legalization will increase usage. That’s not what MPG’s numbers show in Colorado, Saloga said. Instead, the group is seeing evidence to bear out the long-standing legalization argument that people who want to use pot will be happy to move under the umbrella of the law.
When masses of smokers, brownie aficionados, and chronic pain sufferers shift their dollars from illicit sources to official ones, they aren’t just providing a “peace dividend” to public spending for schools and other services. They’re depriving the organized drug networks and cartels of a major revenue stream.
The ongoing shift from black markets to legal ones still comes with a sour footnote. Many of those Americans who operated in the black market before they had any other option have found themselves shut out of the ongoing green rush, both in Colorado and elsewhere, as leery legislators work to ban anyone with a criminal record from being employed in the legal cannabis trade.
Newest pot sales numbers show Colorado on track for an even bigger payday in 2017 was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.