Monday, October 31, 2011

Religious similarities and Idiosyncrasies

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Indecision 2012: Hardcore Sects Edition - Mormonism
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Isn't it funny how 1) our religions are actually pretty similar, 2) we are all uncomfortable with the verses that say we should give our money to the poor and unwilling to acknowledge them?

(Look past the profanity...there's a great message here)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Are my tax dollars being wasted?

Each day I have individual meetings with residents who live at CityWalk, an income-based apartment complex in the middle of downtown Dallas. I visit with people who have very little to their name. I haven't had a person yet tell me that they have over $1000 in assets (one of the questions that's asked on the self-sufficiency calculator we  do with people).

As I find out about people, I have realized that my tax dollars are at work helping people. It's a very meager existence and very challenging to survive on that little, but without it, I can't imagine what would happen to so many. If people have any income at all, it might be disability due to an injury or health condition or it might be social security because they're past their prime of working. The benefits for that *might* be around $500. Many of these individuals receive up to about $200 in food stamps, depending on the situation. Finally, they receive housing (i.e. CityWalk) that allows them to pay 30% of their income instead of rent that would probably be close to double their income if they were living somewhere else.

Receiving $500/month isn't the lap of luxury (and many don't receive even that much). I constantly try to figure out how people survive with even their basic needs on that amount...especially if they have children! I know tax dollars are tax dollars. It's my money providing a "living" (if you can call it that) for someone else. The people I've talked to aren't sitting back and enjoying the good life on your dollar. Much to the contrary. They are working to be content with what they receive, but they're trying to find jobs to supplement...or replace...their current income stream from the government (even though most people who find minimum wage jobs will still need that extra help because it will only replace one of their benefits, but will still leave them in poverty).

The way I see it, each of us pay taxes to do greater good than we could do alone. Yes, someone with little or no income might be exempt or might be paying less than I am. I am ok with that because I recognize that $100 out of someone's paycheck of $500 is much different than $100 out of someone's paycheck of $1500.

Right now, I pay taxes *and* I donate money. If I weren't paying taxes, I honestly doubt my donations would increase very significantly. (just being honest) Instead, I would see that as more money going back into my pocket to spend. Plus, if the money were given back to me, I think I would be overwhelmed with wondering which one person to use my money to offset their rent and food expenses...or wondering if I should, instead, donate $10 here and $10 there to spread it out trying to help everyone...and then wonder if $10 would do any good for anyone. I would much rather the money be taken out of my paycheck each pay period so that I can be sure my small contribution can be put in with everyone else's small (or large) contribution in order to help a much larger constituent of people.

Trust me, I'm not naive. I've been working in the non-profit sector for over 16 years now. I understand that there are those who use the system. It's absurd for me to try to tell you differently. In your volunteer efforts, you will undoubtedly meet the handful of people who may explain to you the benefits they receive, which only ensures you (by their actions and decision making skills) that your tax dollars are being wasted. Let me put that into perspective.

Yes, there are some who receive the benefits and are ok with surviving on the little they receive from us and may even abuse it by continuing to use drugs or something. Those are the most visible examples of our tax dollars being "wasted." I would argue that even those tax dollars aren't being wasted, but that's for a different post.

The thing that I think about when I think about how much my government tax contribution is able to stretch in combination with everyone else in this country are the people who *do* need that extra help.

What would happen to my 55-year old friend who is on disability if he didn't have the assistance? He doesn't have family who can help him because they, too, are working at minimum wage jobs. Where would he live? How would he eat? What would happen if he had a heart attack on the street from his rough life? Would he just die because no hospital would be required to serve him? Who would care?

What would happen to my 32-year old friend who has a 6-year old son? She is constantly looking for a job...any job...but can't seem to find one who will hire her. She wants to go back to school to become a nurse. Without government assistance (i.e. financial aid), that dream would absolutely never be a reality because she has no job to pay for it to help her move further along. What would she eat? How would she feed her child? What happens when she gets some kind of treatable illness (like maybe thyroid issues...or diabetes), but can't take care of them? What happens to her son when she can't care for him any more? How does he (or she) get food? How does she feed her son healthy foods so that he doesn't get diabetes?

For those who want less (even minuscule) government and want people to provide for themselves, I have a hard time believing they have thought through these things and are willing to say, "Let them starve," or "Let them die." If they have and are still willing to say that, I am very concerned about their humanity. Does that kind of cruelty really exist in our country? Surely not. I have to believe that we are not that inhumane.

If my tax dollars can eek out survival for those I just mentioned, I truly am not as concerned about the much smaller but much more visible handful who convince us that our tax dollars are being wasted.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Contemplating Wealth

I just spent a week in Mexico at an all-inclusive resort. I made it through most of the week without thinking about anything except the book I was reading. Those thoughtless moments never seem to last long. By the end of the week, I was back in my processing/thinking/pondering mode. Yes, we had gotten a good deal on an all-inclusive resort...but the bottom line was that I was still spending a lot of money on myself. I tried to think about the fact that Mexico survives on tourism and me spending money there employs quite a few people. That is a true fact. However, I also thought about how much money I spend on myself and how little so many other people make who will never be able to enjoy the luxuries I do.

As I talked to our shuttle driver on the way back to the airport, he explained minimum wage in Mexico. He told me their minimum wage is per day. If you work an eight-hour day, you make $55 pesos. During spring break months (February-March), when he is working 14-16 hours a day, six days/week, they receive $110 pesos/day. I guess that's something like time and a half...except he's not just working 12 hours/day like he explained to me, he may work up to 16! While we were in Mexico, the exchange rate was $12.70. That's $4.33/day...or $8.66/day during the three high season months of spring break! That boggled my mind so I looked it up to make sure I understood him correctly. Yep. Here it is:

A friend of mine suggested maybe that smaller minimum wage was kind of ok because things are cheaper in Mexico. Maybe it's possible to rationalize that but with the amount we had to spend on things, I can't see it. My chair hammock cost me $20. I looked it up online and it would cost $77 here. So, yes, that's a lot cheaper...for me. My guess is it's the tourists and not the locals who are buying hammocks though. I also went out to eat at a local restaurant off the beaten path (not in the tourist area at all). Our meal cost about $30 (USD) for three of us (with tip). We each had a regular plate of food and a soda (one person had a beer instead of a soda). For someone in Mexico, that one meal would be two and a half days of work!

I mentioned the Mexican minimum wage to a friend of mine. He was just as baffled as I was. He said he wished more people realized how minuscule their wages are. He believed if they did, they would tip more. I'm not so sure. When I was in college, I took a mission trip to Africa. I remember the missionaries there telling us, "People only make about 75 cents/day so when you go to the market, don't let them fool you and talk you into paying more." It made sense to me at the time. I guess the rationale was to not throw the economy off by doing something like tripling or quadrupling someone's wage or lifestyle by being a clueless American tourist. I'm not so sure that rationale makes sense to me now. Why not pay for the services rendered and tip them adequately and why barter them down to nothing since they're barely surviving anyway? Why is the goal, in a third world or lower income country, for us to see how low we can bargain people down on their prices when the price is already cheap for us anyway?

When someone is making $4.33/day in a country we don't consider third world, is it any wonder why they might want to cross the border and hopefully do better for their family? Is it any wonder why Mexican people are willing to work the jobs no one else does in our country...even if they were engineers, attorneys, and business owners in their own country? We are willing to take advantage of what they offer us in their country. Why aren't we willing to return that favor by welcoming them into ours? It seems like a double standard to me.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What is hope?

When I started working at CityWalk, I was still sad over losing our education program at Roseland. Working with kids providing me such hope. I loved seeing the gears turn in little brains and I loved watching lightbulbs go on when they figured out something new. As they grew up and went through high school and then college, they couldn't always identify why they did what they did but I know that some of the now young adults who are majoring in political science or communication once went through our summer program where they were introduced to politicians and exposed to civil rights. I know that the young adults who went on to become educators were once teachers in our summer and after-school programs. I could see the connections and knew what we did was impacting lives.

That reality has been much harder for me to see at CityWalk. All I could see were the adults who didn't have jobs or who struggled because they didn't have the education and skills needed as a child...things that we were providing in our after-school and summer programs. All I could see were mental health, substance abuse, and the inability to interact with people appropriately...and all I knew was that I didn't have the knowledge or resources to help them. Don't get me wrong, I knew and have always known that the majority of people are great people who are struggling. I just had a hard time seeing that we, the Community Life team, were any more than a group that provided activities to make the residents of CityWalk more comfortable and make life more enjoyable in spite of their circumstances.

Over the last couple of months, my mindset has shifted. I took a trip to Common Ground in New York to see their permanent supportive housing, the original pattern for CityWalk. I met with Roseanne Haggerty, the founder, and received some tips. I learned that case management, despite my past 16 years of trying to deny my social work background, was crucial to helping people improve their life. I came back and began working toward implementing the new ideas.

We put into place a system that uses the Self-Sufficiency Calculator to assess income and expenses and helps us identify other resources that might be available to people--like SNAP (food stamps), TANF, child health insurance, free phone, and other resources. We use this as a tool to help people shift their resources and begin to become more self-reliant. For example, if someone is paying $43 for a Metro PCS phone, they can apply for the free phone. They have to limit their talking to 250 minutes/month and no text messages, but they free up $43, which can now be used toward bus passes to help them look for a job or get to work. If they apply for and receive food stamps, they can purchase healthier food for their children that then allows their child's brain to develop better and allows them to focus more in school. We help them shift their resources and problem solve how to best capitalize on and utilize those resources.

The second thing we do with each resident/neighbor is the Outcomes Star. This is a tool that allows us to start the conversation with people about where they are on motivation and taking responsibility, self-care and living skills, managing money, social networks and relationships, drug and alcohol misues, physical health, emotional and mental health, meaningful use of time, managing tenancy, and offending. This is an opportunity to ask people, "Where do you think you are on this?" and starts a conversation that allows them to tell us without us making any judgment calls or assumptions. Once a person starts talking, we are able to think about resources, programs, and events that they may be able to access.

Enter: Hope.

After meeting with around 30 CityWalk neighbors over the past few months, I am beginning to see how hope can take over. Yesterday we met with one of our neighbors who had missed two of our appointments previously. Admittedly, I was frustrated with his lack of follow through. We had a cancellation, though, so we worked him in. I could sense his resistance when we first sat has also happened with a few other people. (no one wants to be "case managed") As we started the conversation, he insisted that he was at a "10" on each item we discussed...yet, he had no job, no income, and was struggling to stay in school because he had no bus pass to get there. The more we talked and gently redirected him to examine the "3" or "4" rating based on different conversations we'd had with him, he began to agree...until he, at one point frustratedly explained, "I'm stuck! Yeah, I'm just stuck!" It was at that point, I felt like, we were able to help him connect to the resources we had to offer.

Sometimes those meetings frustrate me, too. I don't have any jobs to give. I can't fix a childhood of inadequate education. I don't have money to pay rent or a childcare center that offers free daycare. But what's happening is once people tell us more about themselves, we are able to connect them with some resources that are at the root of their problems. For some who don't have access to health care, that has been the free medical resources available in the building through a doctor who comes once a week. For others, it's the Metrocare mental health services that can also be accessed within the building (instead of having to figure out transportation across town) to help with the depression that has set in. We are able to connect people to our bible studies, game days, and community meetings and, thus, connect them to each other. We are able to converse about adult literacy issues and how we can help them walk through that process. We are able to advocate with and for them on issues that have gotten so overwhelming and frustrating that they have nearly thrown up their hands and quit trying.

A person may originally agree to meet with us thinking that if they do they will get their rent paid. However, after sitting with us for a while, they walk out without any money in hand, but with a hope that they now might have medical care, friends, productive ways to spend their time, and the connections needed to help them move forward and at least get them started.

What is hope? defines is as, "the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best."

Hope is a start. Hope is the ability to look toward something. Hope is looking at my checklist in life and beginning to work through the small things in order to prepare me for the big things. Hope is knowing I'm not a lost cause.

Hope is CityWalk.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wham! Bam! Islam!

As I flipped through my DVR'd shows to find something to watch, I saw that I had a new PBS Independent Lens episode. These days I mostly look for lighter shows...something I can veg while I usually skip over the Independent Lens recordings. However, the Wham! Bam! Islam! title caught my eye.

I watched, intrigued by the efforts of an Islamic man who has/is creating superheroes and role models that allow kids (and adults) to reframe what we've come to believe is the crux of Islam. "The idea was to offer new role models of superheroes born of Middle East history and Islamic archetypes that possess values shared by the entire world."

The TED video (above) talks about how the superheroes we all ascribe to in the United States (Superman, Batman, Spiderman) stemmed from religious origins related to the Christian faith. Naif Al-Mutawa wanted to do the same with Islam. Creating Islamic superheroes will hopefully do a few things...shift our understandings to the true focus of Islam, help us to see how basic human values cross all cultures, and help us envision brown people as superheroes instead of villanizing brown people in our society and creating unfounded fears.

The website offers a free, downloadable comic book. I struggled with the names and certain references as I read through it. Some of the concepts went over my head. I want to double check the concept with some of my Islamic friends, but my guess is that the words and references in the comics make perfect sense to those who came from an Islamic background. Maybe it's time for the rest of us to move away from our own ethnocentricity, step out of our own comfort zone, and attempt to understand history and beliefs that are much like our own, but with a different heritage. I know it would be of benefit to me to read these comics and begin to gain an understanding of the story line, if for no other reason to be able to have more knowledge about a culture that is very foreign to me, yet one that has had amazing influence in our current society.

We are in a place in our society where I have no doubt that our conversations about Islam in our American society will continue. As we make judgments about the religion and the people who ascribe to it, it is only fair to have both sides of the story...just as those of us who are Christians hope people look at both sides of the story when people like the Norwegian man write 1500-page manifestos using his Christian faith as justification.

You can find more info in the New York Times article.

Here's a free sample comic book: The 99: Origins.