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Written by Jim Jordal   
Friday, 28 August 2009

SHARED RESPONSIBILITY IN THE STRUGGLE AGAINST POVERTY

By Jim Jordal

We live in an age that enshrines rights over responsibilities and entitlements over those benefits that formerly resulted from hard work and frugality. You’ve heard of the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution) and can probably name many of them, but have you ever heard of anything like a Bill of Responsibilities?

Well, such a document does exist in the form of the Ten Commandments and the various laws and behaviors found in the Mosaic Code, or Law of Moses. Through centuries of judicial decisions these moral and ethical codes later morphed into the English Common Law that became the foundation for American jurisprudence. So today we have a legal system delineating the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a manner closely related to the moral and ethical content of the Mosaic Code.

In order for society to be free of either excessive restraint (dictatorship or absolutism) or excessive freedom (anarchy or license) there must be a balance between the rights and responsibilities of citizens as well as government. But, since the tendency of all human systems is to move toward extremes, we never seem able to attain the balance we need, especially in the areas of economics and finance.

Regarding the struggle to gain adequate incomes, decent housing, quality education, and basic medical insurance for the poor in America, we need to understand that it is not a game of either entitlements or rigid authoritarian behavioral demands. Yes, the poor have suffered mightily as the playing field tilted in favor of corporate power over the past several generations. So there do exist systemic and cultural reasons for many of the dysfunctional behaviors exhibited by the poor, especially in the family setting. But we also need to understand that media accounts of violent gangs, trashed housing, rejected educational opportunity, endemic crime, excessive luxury expenditures, illegitimate children, and various addictions do not help the cause of the poor. In fact, these accounts lend new ammunition to those who say the problems of the poor are too great to be overcome with money and programs, so we don’t even have to try.

Yes, it’s true that many of these dysfunctional behaviors are the result, not the cause of poverty. But it’s also true that the poor bring some of their problems upon themselves. So what would a balanced, reasoned, and fair approach to ending poverty entail?

It seems to me that we need to do everything possible to level the playing field so everyone has adequate opportunity to create a decent life. We have already removed some of the institutional barriers to human development, and must now conquer those that remain. But this will be difficult because those that remain involve certain basic values that are counter-productive to what we say we want.

We need to understand that it is virtually suicidal for any society (or family) to allow its people to frolic in unrestrained licentiousness, greed, or even "normal" business practices while agreeing to pick up the pieces when collapse follows. But that’s essentially what we did with the S&Ls 20 years ago and the banks during the last 10 years. So if we’re going to bail out businesses or people from the effects of their excessive behavior, then we must as a matter of survival provide at least minimal limits to that behavior in the form of regulatory commissions, laws, and sanctions like public disapproval.

For example, we claim that freedom is a basic right that should be available to all citizens. But do we mean freedom to eat ourselves into Type 2 diabetes, one of the leading causes of our vastly increased medical costs? Or freedom to pollute our children with media violence and sex, causing more violence and sexual behavior as children act-out what they see? Or freedom to borrow money so we can have whatever we want, resulting in unsustainable individual and national debt?

Today the pendulum of power has swung far over toward the rights of giant global corporations to enact laws favorable to themselves at the expense of labor, the public, and the earth. That must soon end. But what must also happen is for Americans to realize that long-lost values of personal responsibility and concern for others must be reinstated. When we damage ourselves by our negative behavior, we also directly or indirectly damage all other people.

So we need again to understand something that biblical Cain forgot--we are our "brother’s keeper." We all have an interconnectedness that must be honored if we are ever to end poverty and create the society envisioned in the Declaration of Independence. A good role for the church in this struggle would be to teach and model personal behaviors conducive to family financial success, and to advocate strongly against both counterproductive personal behaviors and the structures and systems of society creating the vast income disparities that allow poverty to continue.