Cherish your unexpected memories of loved ones

With Mother’s Day approaching and Father’s Day a month away, I am repeating a post from two years ago. Memories of loved ones have a way of popping up when you least expect them. Tissues may be needed.

I watched a poignant video where a young woman was presented with a birthday gift of a talking teddy bear. The bear had a prerecorded voice and she soon realized the voice was her father’s speaking to her using her name. It brought tears as her dad had passed away a year before.

This beautiful story made me think of two poignant movie scenes and a real story. The first movie scene is from “Peggy Sue got married.” Kathleen Turner played Peggy Sue, who went back in time to avoid marrying her boyfriend who eventually left her. The poignant scene occurs when she answers the phone at her mom and dad’s house and hears her grandmother’s voice, who had died years before her time travel occurred. It gives me chills to write this as she spoke to a departed loved one once again.

The other movie scene is from “Field of Dreams,” with Kevin Costner. After building a baseball field in his corn crop, the now deceased players of the Chicago White Sox, who had been banned for gambling, appear to play. But, the real reason he is inspired to build the field is his father comes to play as a young man and former ballplayer. When he asks his dad for a game of catch, it is a very emotional for me as I used to play catch with my father.

While these movies are dramatically poignant, we came across an old cassette tape of my father-in-law singing. Before he passed in 1997, he used to play guitar and sing in clubs, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, church, senior living centers, etc. So, we just sat and listened to his crooning, as he performed old standards from the 1940 – 60s. It was a treat for my wife and me. One of my favorite memories is returning from New York at night, with him and my mother-in-law singing old songs like these while riding in the back seat.

Cherish your memories, especially when they unexpectedly pop up. Sometimes, all it takes is a prompt – a song, a movie clip, an old friend, or an old piece of clothing – to flush out the memories. Or, it could be prompted by a simple question about “do you remember….?” I grieved my favorite aunt’s death in a restaurant about two years after she died when my wife asked me one of those simple questions. Remember them well.

The Harmony Project – Sing, Serve, Share – an encore

The following brief post was written five years ago, but deserves an encore performance given its theme. It is a quick read, so please indulge a few minutes of your time.

What do you get when you have a choir which does not require auditions? You get a tremendous amount of harmony, but not just the musical kind. From a recent CBS Sunday Morning report, David Brown has formed a choral group whose primary purpose is to bring different kinds of people together to sing, serve and share.

Based in Columbus, Ohio, its members must serve the community in various community projects, as well as practicing and performing. During the interview, Jane Pauley talked with what sounds like the set-up to a joke – a CEO, a warden and a Rabbi. These diverse people epitomize what the group is all about – getting to know people who are different from you, then realizing how similar we are.

Brown has even taken this concept into the warden’s prison where female inmates have their own chorus. Recently, the incarcerated chorus joined the larger one for a performance, which brought down the house.

Brown’s history has been one of being diverse. It started in high school when he moved into a new school district and was the lone white student at an African-American school. In college, he came out as a gay man. So, getting along as the non-main stream person has formed his bent toward diversity.

The Harmony Project is such a positive effort to bring out the best in us. While these examples happen on a daily basis, we need to celebrate them and our humanity by sharing our common threads. This is what America is all about. It is not finger pointing and hate speak. Let’s bring America together by celebrating our diversity, as well as these common threads that bind us.

The Wednesday Wanderer

In all fairness to Dion who sang “The Wanderer” back in 1961, this wanderer is not the womanizing man defined therein, but someone whose thoughts are wandering about. It is not unusual for some great tunes to be about not desirable folks (think “Every breath you take” by The Police).

So, let me play gadfly and wander around with a few thoughts.

I have seen graphic data which reveals vaccines are making a huge difference in cutting the rate of COVID-19 infections. The news by President Biden should be well received, but we also need to help places like India whose population is four times that of the US and too many live too close together, increasing exposure.

Speaking of vaccines, I get my second one on Saturday and my wife and son will be finishing theirs later in May. The only side effects have been with my wife, who was extra tired and a little nauseous. These are small prices to pay to be safe. It is only your life and that of your family. As my Air Force veteran brother-in-law noted, it is not like you are being asked to storm a beach at Normandy.

I did notice there is one night time opinion host, whose veracity is consistently in question, advising his viewers to go up to children who are wearing masks and tell them they will call the police on their parents. Really? This is malfeasance in my view, as someone will get hurt, either the revved up person or the target of the revved up person. It is similar to the former president being responsible for inciting an insurrection that ended up with seven people dead and over 400 charged with a crime all because his fragile ego could not handle losing.

I remain dismayed how politicians can avoid working together so as not to be seen working together as that will not sit well with the base. Really? You will avoid solving problems, which people want you to do, because it will look bad to your tribe? Let me be frank – get off your duff and go make it happen. Be a leader. I do not care who gets more credit, please do something and stop the posturing.

In this vein, I have said for four years, the previous president had a golden opportunity to push through a needed infrastructure bill. He campaigned on it and Democrats were ready to discuss it.. Plus he had a majority in both chambers. He could have set sails on his presidency with a bipartisan bill out of the gate and it could have changed the course of his presidency. Yet, he chose to try to take something away from people as his first mission all because it was nicknamed for his predecessor – Obamacare. After months of god-awful legislation and process, that effort was defeated. And, that failure better defined his presidency.

That is all for now. Let me know your thoughs. They call me the wanderer, the wanderer..

American Winter – what poverty looks like (a reprise from 2013)

The following post was written eight years ago, but unfortunately still applies today. Our situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, where too many small employers had to close their doors. Some of the observations come from my volunteer work to help homeless working families. If you only have a minute, read the next to last two paragraphs, which speak volumes of why we should help.

There is an excellent documentary on HBO called “American Winter” by Joe Gantz which tracks eight Portland families who are struggling in this economy. Please check it out at www.hbo.com/documentaries/american-winter. This documentary puts a face on poverty and shows what these families are dealing with during the economic crisis. Since I volunteer with an agency that helps homeless families, I can assure you the problems portrayed in Portland are in evidence in North Carolina and elsewhere in the United States. For example, the median family income of the homeless families we help at the agency is $9 per hour. With a living wage in NC of $17.68 for a one adult/ one child family, you can see how people are having a hard time.

These people are living paycheck to paycheck and it takes only one thing to cause them to lose their house. It could be the loss of one job or the cutback on hours worked. Or, it could be a healthcare crisis.  We have people in America who are struggling and even dying because of lack of healthcare. According to The American Journal of Medicine in 2009: 62% of bankruptcies in the US are due to medical costs and 75% of the people whose illnesses caused bankruptcy were not insured or were under insured. This is the key reason we need the Affordable Care Act and for states to permit the expansion of Medicaid to cover them.

Yet, rather than make this about healthcare, I want to focus on why we have people in such crisis. I addressed many of these issues in two companion posts last fall based on Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” The first post was written on October 20, 2012 and the second on October 29, 2012. We are not talking enough about our poverty problem in the US. The middle class problem is referenced often, but where did they go? Only a few moved up in ranks, where as the significant majority fell into poverty or near poverty.

As organizations have taken efforts to improve their profit margins dating back to the 1980s, we have seen a continuous downsizing and outsourcing of jobs. Since the early 1980s, the disparity between haves and have-nots became even more pronounced with the trickle down economics which has been proven to be unsuccessful, unless you were viewing it from the higher vantage point. As a result, there were multiple pressures on the middle class, which has led to its decline.  It only got worse when the economy went south. While there has been some repatriation of outsourced manufacturing jobs to the US, they have remained overseas for the most part.

So, if the worker did not stay up to speed with new technologies and, even if he did, there are fewer jobs for those without a college education. And, with the economic crisis, we have seen even having a college education is not enough these days. These unemployed did what they must, so where they could, started getting service jobs in retail, restaurant and hospitality industries. These jobs are near or at minimum wage and make you beholden to the number of hours you are permitted to work. Unfortunately, these jobs perpetuate poverty. You cannot afford healthcare and better food options and can barely afford rent. So, if something happens to your hours or job, you may lose your home.

The homeless families I have worked with work their fannies off. There are some I speak with in churches , who believe these families are homeless because they are less moral or virtuous and that is not it at all. Per Smiley and West’s book, poverty is the absence of money. Nothing more, nothing less. A few national stats to chew on:

– 40% of all homeless families in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment;

– 75% of homeless children never graduate which perpetuates an ongoing cycle of homelessness; and

– 90% of homeless children suffer extreme stress; some worse than PTSD that former military face.

I mention these last two items, as even with all I say to the contrary, some people do not want to help the adults, who these obstinate people feel are totally responsible for their plight or are lazy. They see a chronic homeless panhandler on the street and paint all homeless people with that brush. That is a small, small subset of our homeless problem and, while we should help the chronic homeless people, there is a significant majority of homeless people who work hard, but cannot make it. Yet, I try to sell the concept of helping the kids. They did not sign up for being homeless and if we can help them, we can break the cycle of homelessness, the cost of caretaking is less, we gain a taxpaying citizen and we may be untapping a huge potential. The second place Intel Science Award winner in 2012 was a homeless girl, e.g.

We need to help these folks climb a ladder out of the hole they are in. It will be more beneficial to them and our society. And, we must provide educational paths forward, whether it be getting a GED, community or tech college schooling to learn new or improved skills. There have been some amazing things going in community colleges which can provide some paths forward. And, we need to pay people more. We have to improve the minimum wage to get at least to a living wage for an individual. It needs to be more, but if we can make that statement (making the minimum wage = a living wage) it speaks volumes and will help.

One of our dilemmas as a society is we must have a vibrant middle class to flourish. Unfortunately, the American Dream is a myth for many. We have one of the least upwardly mobile countries in the world. So, unless we make changes to our societal investments, we are destined to have only two economic classes of people. If you do not believe me, please check out my blogging friend Amaya’s website at www.thebrabblerabble.wordpress.com and check out the short video on economic disparity in our country. It is atrocious and unforgivable that this can happen in the US.

This is our collective crisis. Please watch “American Winter” or check out the above posts or Amaya’s. While “American Winter” highlights eight families, let me add a couple of more for you. One of our new Board members who works for a large bank was touring the homeless shelter and she came upon a colleague who was employed by the bank who was homeless. This stunned her that someone who worked at reasonable pay could end up homeless. Many live paycheck to paycheck in our country and it only takes a nudge for some to lose their home.

The other person I want to mention was living in a tent with her parents and younger siblings. Her dad was a construction worker and got some handy man jobs, but neither he nor his wife made enough to prevent losing their home. I highlight this teenager, as she would volunteer at a food bank to help others in need. Let me repeat this for emphasis. This homeless girl would volunteer to help people in poverty working at a food bank. We have helped this family get housed and they are climbing the ladder out of poverty. And, this young lady is now in college.

Let me shout this from the rooftops. Please help me become more vocal. We have a poverty problem in the US. We have a homeless problem in the US. We must help our neighbors and by helping them, we will help ourselves and country. Let’s help them climb these ladders. Let’s give them opportunities to succeed. If we don’t then we all will suffer.

Water problems have been around for ages – a repeat

The following post was written in 2016 during that presidential election season. Water is our dearest resource besides the air we breathe. For several years, the World Economic Forum has noted water shortages and climate change are our biggest concerns, with the latter making the former problem even worse.

The water issues that have been plaguing Flint, Michigan residents are not new. Our planet has had water (and sewage) issues dating back to when people gathered together in villages. In Steven Solomon’s book called “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization” he describes how the mastery over water resources kept leaders of civilizations in power. The needed mastery revolved around water to drink and bathe in, water to carry sewage away, water for transportation and trade and water for naval control.

Here are a few examples to illustrate this point.

  • Every major city has had water/ sewage issues. In London in the 1850s, a  major problem came to a head which was called the Big Stink. The planners had sewage lines dropping waste into the Thames. When cholera and dysentery epidemics broke out, initially, the planners thought these were air borne diseases. But, when they realized a brewery, where employees drank free beer, had only minimal breakout, they realized the diseases were water borne. It turned out the sewage line was perilously close to the line that pulled water from the Thames to drink. Once that was remedied, the breakouts subsided.
  • In Edinburgh, the Scots had an unusual way have handling sewage. It turns out, the city dwellers would throw sewage out of their homes around 10 pm, which is the reason people smoked after meals to mitigate the smell. This made foot traffic very perilous and less than sanitary.
  • In Chicago, when the city got so crowded and filthy, city leaders realized they needed to carry sewage away, but they could not figure out how to do it. An engineer had an idea that they should lift the buildings using railroad car heavy duty jacks and build the sewage and water lines beneath the buildings.This actually worked too well, as Lake Michigan began to get filthy and fish would be coming up through the water lines into bath tubs. So, they had to remedy where the sewage was dumped.
  • It is thought that the greatest Chinese achievement is the Great Wall. Yet, a more monumental achievement per Solomon was to build a canal between the two major rivers in the country – the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. This was a massive undertaking, but led to transportation and trade across the country.
  • Solomon also advocates the two greatest achievements in US History that made us a world power is the building of the Erie and Panama Canals. The former linked the east coast with trade of goods with the Midwest, making Chicago a very important port. The latter gave us access to two oceans and helped with global trade and naval might. He also credits the two Roosevelts as our greatest water presidents, with Teddy building the Panama Canal and buying watershed rights in the west. FDR built many dams to create hydro-power.

I mention this now, as Solomon has been a staunch advocate for addressing our water problems before it is too late. Flint-like problems exist in several cities right now. Yet, this goes beyond Flint, as our planet is drying up our water resources and it is noticeable by satellite pictures. It is also being made worse by climate change, which the Department of Defense says is one of the greatest threats to our planet. And, The World Economic Forum echoes these concerns with the global water crisis being the number one risk in their 2015 Global Risks report followed by climate change inaction. Solomon is adamantly against fracking as the amount of water wasted is huge per frack. He also notes that not only climate change will make the water crisis worse, but so will over-population.

Finally, the man who predicted the housing crisis two years before it happened, who is featured in the movie “The Big Short,” has only one investment right now. He is buying up water rights. Yet, outside of the Flint issue which is being spoken to by Clinton and Sanders, no candidate is addressing our water concerns and only one Republican candidate admits that climate change is a problem, John Kasich, with both Democrats being vocal about it. These might be questions we want to ask our candidates about, especially with Department of Defense and World Economic Forum noting their concerns.

*NOTE: The city of Cape Town, South Africa has come perilously close to running out of water on more that one occasion. It was so bad, the city had a countdown clock. In Solomon’s book, it is noted Muslims are permitted to pray with sand than water, as it is such a dear resource in Saudi Arabia.

A Tuesday tale

I met with an old friend last week for lunch. He was visiting his daughter and we decided to get together, masked appropriately. He shared a wonderful story that I hope will warm your heart, as it did mine and my wife’s when I told her.

He said his daughter is a specialized nurse. He and his wife had adopted both of their children in their first week. For medical history reasons, his daughter wanted to find out about her birth parents. He gave a nice piece of advice to be prepared for the consequences which may not turn out like you want.

He went on to say she was adopted when they lived in Ohio, who changed their laws to allow for open records, provided the birth parents did not specifically say no during the transition form sealed records.

After much legwork given a common name, they found the birth mother and father. It turns out the birth mother was also a nurse and her father was the doctor her mother worked for. It was the mother who turned down the doctor’s proposal to be married, so they put the child up for adoption.

So, if that does not give you enough tingles that people she never met were also in the medical field, the next item might. We live in North Carolina, not Ohio. And, the daughter does not live in her home town having moved within the state. It turns out the birth mother lives nine miles away from the daughter.

The rest of the story remains to be told. I will add the mother who raised her is in medical research, so her daughter’s interest is most likely due to her influence and example, but DNA to help others might have also been a factor.

The story is not intended to judge anyone’s motives or reasons for placing a child in adoption. We do not know the circumstances or history of those involved. I would only surmise decisions like this must be difficult.

Franklin was on the side of the Angels and got chastised

I have written before when Franklin Graham has used his pulpit to denigrate groups of people who do not worship, love or gender present like he does. I have added it detracts from the many good things his Samaritan’s Purse organization does, when he demonizes groups. Yet, this time he is getting flak from his own followers for suggesting that people get the COVID vaccine.

Here are excerpts from an article called “Franklin Graham believes Jesus would take COVID vaccine. He’s still catching grief”.by Joe Marusak of The Charlotte Observer. A link to the article is below.

“Evangelist Franklin Graham is still catching grief from some of his Facebook followers weeks after saying Jesus would have supported getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

Based on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Graham said he concluded that Jesus would have supported getting all types of vaccines.

He said nobody should have to endure what some of his staff and their family did after contracting the coronavirus…

‘My wife and I have both had the vaccine; and at 68 years old, I want to get as many more miles out of these old bones as possible!’

Some of his followers, however, are still fuming about his COVID vaccine recommendation.

‘You my friend Franklin Graham are leading your sheep to slaughter,’ a woman posted Friday.

‘Satanic sell out,’ another woman posted.

‘STOP,’ said another last week. ‘It is NOT your job as a pastor to try and talk people into taking a vaccine that is considered experimental.’

Other comments were along these same lines. Just in the selection of these three, only one-half of one them raised an actual issue that gave him or her pause referencing “experimental.” The vaccines were rushed, but we have had the benefit of seeing the results of such along with the stops and starts. The J&J vaccine has some issues they are looking into, but for the vast most part the vaccines have been safe.

What amuses and concerns me is the vitriol used to share their opinions with the reverend, who is just trying to offer encouragement. He did exactly what I did after getting my vaccine and that is to share a positive experience. “Satanic” is a little harsh as a retort and offers no counter argument.

That is a bigger problem where people are replacing arguments with bullying and name calling. The latter does not improve anyone’s argument, even when they are a current or former politician. Being smug does not make one right, it just makes one smug.

Franklin Graham says Jesus would get COVID shot | Charlotte Observer

Walking in those other shoes

The old proverb that you don’t know what someone else is going through until you walk around in his or her shoes is routinely and historically pertinent. Yet, one of the challenges we face is we wear those shoes with our own biases and context. In other words, the socks we wear will give those shoes a different feel.

Too often, I read letters to the editor and posted comments or listen to conversation that bias the experience. It is something we must guard against. The same goes when we extrapolate personal or second-hand anecdotes to paint all circumstances with a broad-brush. In other words, the person believes every situation must be this way, as this is what I experienced on one occasion.

As a white man in his sixties, I have a context that is different from an African-American teen male. For the most part, I can go anywhere I want without repercussions. I can walk into a hotel or gathering and go unquestioned. When I am stopped by law enforcement, I am less worried that the next move I make may be my last. An African-American man dressed for church, does not have that same level of trust. And, an African-American teen is in even more in jeopardy if he acts rashly.

I also know I have that white privilege thing. The more common example of white privilege is not overt; it is people who look like me who do not know they benefit from it. It is not the blatant, in your face, white privilege seen on the news by white supremacists. It is the everyday lack of awareness.

It also can spill over into white victimization. This “I am being held down because African-Americans and other minority groups are getting more than a fair break” belief exists and is fed by more strident media and white supremacist groups. It is a way the latter groups recruit to their folds. I experienced this yesterday in a troubling conversation with an old friend. He painted too many woes with the broad brush of this white victimization. I kept thinking “really?”

There is a reason African-Americans and other minority groups feel threatened or feel their rights matter less or not at all. They have been disenfranchised for centuries, sometimes in violent or suppressive ways. We must do our best to guard against this happening, but it is still going on. . People of color are too often the victims of police shootings. It is debilitating and dispiriting. No one deserves to be treated like that.

On the flip side, we must acknowledge that some whites do feel victimized. Life has dealt them some tough hands or fewer opportunities. Yet, it is dwarfed by those who benefit from white privilege. In my opinion, a white person can feel both and not realize it. What concerns me is when these examples are used with a broad brush in an effort to paint over the benefits of white privilege.

With that said, we need to step back and look at why things happen without the lens of biased sources. There often are a multitude of factors that cause things to happen, but race clearly is one of those factors. Poverty is an American problem we must deal with better. Pretending it does not exist won’t make it go away. Limited and limiting opportunities in various communities are a factor. Crime and drug use can fill this void and send a community into a death spiral. Predatory lending or rental practices are an issue. Lack of educational advancement is an issue. Food deserts and hunger are issues. Family size is an issue as poverty is correlated with larger families.

These issues affect people of all colors. They impact urban as well as rural settings. Many may not realize that the largest numbers of American people in poverty are white. The propensity of poverty is higher for non-whites, but I want to make a point that poverty knows no racial boundaries. Fear is used to sell influence and recruit votes. Yet, most issues are complex and blaming other groups is not the answer. It also gets in the way of understanding challenges others may be going through and vice-versa.

I fully recognize my own anecdotes and context have flavored my opinions. In my view, we should acknowledge we have those biases and do our best to look beyond them as well. It will help as we walk around in those other shoes.

What do these folks have in common? (a reprise)

The following post was written almost eight years ago. While more states and cities have increased their minimum wages and the Affordable Car Act helps greatly, this post remains relevant.

The following people have something in common. Please scroll down the series of descriptions and let me know what is common for all of them. The names of have been changed to protect their confidentiality, but the stories are very real.

Anna is working as an office manager working full-time making $8.00 per hour. She has is separated due to a domestic violence situation and has two children.

Hope is working two jobs – one full-time as an Administrative Assistant making $11.75 and the other part-time as an intake specialist at a Human Services agency making $11.00 an hour. She is also separated due to a domestic violence situation and has four children.

Julie is working full-time as a CSR (Customer Service Representative) for a bank making just over $14 an hour. She is unmarried with three children.

Nina is working full-time as a CSR for a utility company making $12.25 an hour. She is unmarried with one child.

Sarina is an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant making $12 an hour. She is unmarried with three kids.

Paul is working full-time on a cleaning crew making $11.00 an hour. He is unmarried with one child.

Carrie and Michael are married with four kids. Michael was laid off and Carrie is working in hospitality at a local hotel making $9.00 an hour.

Felicia is a Certified Nursing Assistant making $9.60 an hour at a hospital. She is unmarried and has one child.

Dedrick is a full-time security guard making $9.25 an hour. He is unmarried with three children.

Cassandra is working two part-time jobs, one as an afterschool teacher assistant making $11.25 per hour and the other as a retail clerk for a discount company making $7.95 per hour. She is unmarried with two children.

Terry is working as a public school teacher assistant making $11.00 an hour. She is unmarried with one child.

I could go on, but let me ask the question. What do these folks have in common? They are all homeless. When I tell people that the homeless people the agency I volunteer with have jobs, these people do not believe me at first. How can they be working and be homeless? It takes some people time for that to sink in. In fact, 84% of the families we help are working. The median wage for those 84% is $9.00 an hour. I purposefully used higher figures to illustrate a point – you can make above the living wage for an individual, but still be homeless if you are a parent. The living wage in my area for an individual is around $10.00 an hour and for a one-parent, one-child family is around $19.00 per hour.

There are five additional things I want to mention that are important to understanding, preventing and climbing out of poverty:

  • Family size is highly correlated with poverty. We must do a better job on family planning and providing birth control means and education. For my evangelical readers, your kids are going to be tempted to have sex. Please do not preach a message of abstinence alone. Teach girls how to say no. Teach boys to treat girls as more than sex objects and that no means no. But, let them know that if they must have a sexual relationship, to use protection.
  • Education is key. While the economic downturn altered this statement with layoffs and downsizings, for the most part, the higher your education, the less likely you are to be homeless. For kids that fall off the track, getting them back in school or on a path to a GED is essential. Fortunately, the community college systems in cities and regions do a pretty good job at getting people educated and developed with new career skills.
  • Healthcare is very important. The absence of healthcare is the key reason for personal bankruptcy in the US and an important reason for homelessness. People cannot afford their employer plan and one of the kids get sick or has an issue. Or, the parent stopped taking his or her medications due to cost and the resulting physical or mental issue causes a problem for the family or on the job. Fully implementing Obamacare will help, but the states who did not expand Medicaid need to do so.
  • Minimum wage needs to at least be the living wage for an individual. The homeless we help work hard, sometimes at more than one job. People like to say that increasing the minimum wage impacts the number of jobs. To be honest, most studies do not support that contention. We need to increase the minimum wage to the living wage for an individual. These jobs perpetuate poverty (please read “Nickeled and Dimed in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich). Short of that, we need to increase it more than it is now and graduate it to a higher level. Yet, the same people who decry people on welfare, also don’t want to pay people for an honest day’s work. If we pay people better and not like an economic slave, then the economy will actually flourish more.
  • Domestic violence is real. About 30% of the people in our program have come out of an abusive relationship. So, the spouse is making due without one of the incomes (for the most part) as well as dealing with a court-ordered spouse to stay away from her and the kids. I have said this before. If you are in an abusive relationship – leave. He will not change – leave. He will move beyond verbal abuse and it will become physical – leave. For the sake of your kids – leave. You can live a more normal life. Domestic violence is about power and control. It is difficult, but please leave.

Our agency is built with a model of helping people climb a ladder out of homelessness. The past fiscal year, 91% of our families were back to self-sufficiency in 21 months.  We provide rental subsidies based on their ability to pay, but they must work with a social worker and meet certain milestones. We also offer Hope Teams to mentor the family and kids. We do not do for them what they can do for themselves, so they must have a savings plan, take classes on Bridges Out of Poverty, and achieve certain milestones.

We all need to better understand our poverty problem in America. We must do better, but it must begin with realizing how it happens and helping people climb ladders out of poverty. We cannot solve this problem by kicking them when they are down and placing ill-founded labels on them as reasons to dismiss them as undeserving. Not only is that cold-hearted, but it is harmful to our economic growth. As Gandhi said it so well, “a society’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate.”

Les Miserables and Social Injustice (a reprise)

The following post was written about eight years ago, but still resonates today. It remains my third most frequented post by readers, but I felt with the concerns of today, it deserved a reprise.

My wife and I have long been fans of the musical Les Miserables, so yesterday we took two of our children to see the recently released movie with Hugh Jackman as the lead character of Jean Valjean. We were not disappointed and enjoyed the movie immensely. Of course, a few people have noted some of its imperfections, yet on the whole, it is a very moving experience and fills in a few details that the play could not.

As an aside, I also enjoyed the dramatic movie made a few years ago with Liam Neeson in the role of Valjean. As for the recent musical version, I would encourage you to see it , whether you have seen the play, early dramatic movie or not. If you have seen the play, you will be even more moved by Anne Hathaway’s Fantine singing how life has killed her dreams. The music is so wonderful, sometimes the everyday tragedy  of social injustice shown in the play is overshadowed. If you have not seen the play, you will also find it enjoyable as did my teenage children.

I wanted my kids to see it for its storytelling and musical beauty, but it was also very good for them to see what poverty and injustice looks like. They have accompanied me on occasion to help with homeless families, but to see it from an omnipotent perspective like this fills in the back story and context for those in need. I mention this as Les Miserables, when translated to English means “The Miserables.” It also is reflective of a world we still live in, even in the United States with over 50,000,000 people in poverty.

There are many stories to be told in Les Miz, but to me there are three main themes of social injustice that resonate today. First, Fantine personifies the lot of many in the movie and in real life here in the US, that many live paycheck to paycheck, especially those in impoverished settings. It won’t give away too much of the story to say Fantine loses her factory job and has to turn to a life of prostitution to provide for her daughter. In the US, 47% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck. That includes many who are beyond poverty levels, meaning even the lower middle class have just enough money to make ends meet. Those in poverty are living on a wing and a prayer trying to make ends meet, with a significant majority paying more than the needed 30% of their income for housing and utilities to maintain a reasonable standard of living. It should be noted that 40% of all homeless people in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment in the US. To further illustrate this tragedy, of the homeless families the non-profit agency I volunteer with help, 89% are single parent women as head of household.

Second, another social injustice theme is the one between Valjean, an ex-convict who paid dearly for stealing a loaf of a bread and the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe in the movie) who relentlessly chases him for breaking parole. A quick sidebar, Valjean could not get a job with his “scarlet letter” of papers he had to carry with him. However, Valjean repays the kindness and decency afforded him by a priest (played by Colm Wilkinson in the movie who was the original Valjean on the London stage) by doing the right thing and treating others like he wants to be treated. The injustice is the fervent belief by Javert that a thief is always a thief and could not change. What Valjean demonstrates and later tells Javert “you are wrong and always have been wrong.” Valjean, like many, is conflicted with trying to do the right thing and taking advantage of the circumstances to hide from the law. By doing the right thing at great personal sacrifice and cost, he shows Javert you can change. He also learns the priest’s lesson of treating one another with decency and dignity. “There but by the grace of God, go I,” was not said in the movie but lived by Valjean.

Third, and most powerful, is the overwhelming discontentment by those in poverty. There are many more than just Fantine who are exposed to the extreme poverty of the streets. The movie does far more than the play ever could to show the filth and sickness brought about by living in such conditions. If you had a job, it was more about economic slavery, working a tireless, repetitive factory position. You dared not complain or you could be let go or “sacked” per the movie and replaced by another. If you did not have a job, without significant welfare help, people had to beg, borrow and steal. Or, in Fantine’s case, she first sold her possessions, her hair, her teeth and then her body as a prostitute.

Scrolling forward to today’s time, I have written two posts about Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” This could have been the title to “Les Miserables.” One of the misconceptions noted in the Smiley/ West book about poverty, is poverty is not due to a lack of moral virtue. It is not defined by people who do not work hard. Poverty is the lack of money, period. The homeless families we help have jobs, sometimes more than one. They work hard trying to make ends meet and do the best they can. In these earlier posts, I have encouraged people to also read “Nickeled and Dimed in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich. She lived the life of minimum wage jobs in America on purpose to see if she could get by. Her major conclusion – minimum wage jobs perpetuate poverty.

If you are earning at that level, you are beholden to a life of eating cheaper poor food, the inability to afford healthcare, jobs where you are on your feet all day which affects your health and a general lack of sleep as you try to be a worker of multiple 15 – 20 hours jobs and being a parent. And, you dare not complain, as someone else can be brought in right behind you. In Les Miserables, this is why the people rebel. They “have-nots” are tired of being taken advantage by the “haves.” This is also a major lament I have with LIbertarians and many Republicans. We need some regulations to keep things fair. Otherwise, employers who tend to chase cheap labor, will always find someone cheaper to use and let you go. We need some laws to keep things fair for the worker. If you want to advocate a true Libertarian life, go read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” The Robber Barons treated people just like the “haves” do in Les Miserables.

This is all about social injustice. Unlike people who perpetuate stories about welfare queens, etc. painting many with a broad brush of a few, we need to help people in need. I am all for empowering people to succeed. I am all for giving people opportunity to succeed. Yet, they have to climb the ladder of success. There are many who are not given this opportunity and are shunned as undesirables. They are treated with disdain and without any decency. Let’s lift others up and give them a chance to succeed. Like Valjean, let’s be enablers of success for others. I believe in the words “a community’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of its less fortunate.” The less fortunate could also be termed “The Miserables” or in French, “Les Miserables.”