Monday, August 19, 2013

Why Do We Hate Poor People?

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
James 2:1-7

Why do we hate poor people?

Seriously. Maybe hate is too strong a word, but it’s a visceral reaction.

A friend posted an article from The Atlantic by Eric Schnureraug titled, “Just How Wrong Is Conventional Wisdom About Government Fraud?” A summary at the top of the article said, “Entitlement programs, from food stamps to Medicare, don't see unusually high cheating rates -- and the culprits are usually managers and executives, not ‘welfare queens.’”

The article does not break new ground. Anyone who has been paying attention probably knows that the government has made great progress in reducing the fraud in food stamps and other benefits to poor people, and that the bigger fraud issues are at higher levels.

Schnureraug concludes:

“For the most part, fraud isn’t the product of scheming low-income beneficiaries … living high on the hog on your dime, but rather someone other than the beneficiary standing to make a buck off it. Medicare and Medicaid fraud is largely committed not by patients -- very few people are trying to rip off taxpayers to obtain unneeded spinal taps or root canals -- but by providers: unscrupulous (or sometimes just incompetent) doctors and hospitals billing for procedures the patient didn't need or didn't receive."

Again, not surprising.

If we know that most of the fraud is not at the bottom of the food chain, why has the government been working so hard to eliminate fraud at that level? Of course, fraud is wrong at every level, but that begs the question. Why are we so focused on fraud committed by poor people?

Years ago, before the advent of electronic transfers and debit cards, when Food Stamps were given out at coupons, it was very obvious when someone used them at the grocery store. I can remember standing in line behind someone using the coupons and looking at what was being purchased. Was she buying potato chips? If he needs Food Stamps, how can he afford cigarettes? I can also remember that when I would catch myself unconsciously judging the stranger in front of me and turn aside, I would quickly find that my eyes were not the only ones focused on a stranger’s purchases.

One of the key lessons of modern life is that when we read articles on line we should not read the comments. It makes no difference what the article is about. We should never read the comments. Never.

But of course I did read the comments on the Atlantic article. Although the article was nuanced and discussed many types of public and private fraud, and suggested several steps that could be taken to reduce fraud, the comments were almost all very narrowly focused on fraud committed by poor people.

Many of the comments shared a common theme. One writer declared:

“I object to giving money to people that WON'T work. I object to paying for their health care and their groceries. I object to politicians who buy votes by providing welfare for scumbag loafers.

“Here's an idea: when we wrote the constitution we screwed up. We give the vote to people that have no stake in making the system work. We should thus limit the vote to tax payers and veterans. Let the scumbag loafers starve.”

If pressed, I’m sure the writer would say that he does not hate poor people, he hates lazy people. According to the article, the best estimate is that fraud committed by Food Stamp beneficiaries amounts to about one percent of the total. It is amazing how much energy we invest in trying to reform that one percent.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Bigotry, Homophobia and the Olympics

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 7:12

Have you seen any of the videos of gay Russians being beaten and abused because they are gay? You might assume that the videos were posted by gay activists to expose the brutality, but you would be wrong. They were posted by Russian vigilantes trying to terrorize their gay sisters and brothers. It’s frightening stuff.

The videos and the anti-gay mobs that have gathered to suppress every demonstration of opposition to the new law against “propaganda” supporting “non-traditional sexual relations” provide clear evident that the critics are right when they say that the new law is basically government sanctioned homophobia.

The measure was signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in June with overwhelming support from the Russian legislature, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Russian people. Not surprisingly, it has set off a wave of international criticism, particularly in relationship to the Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, next February.

The controversy has cast a long shadow over the world track and field championships, held this week. Some athletes have spoken out against the law. Nick Symonds, an American runner, dedicated his silver medal in the 800 meters to gay friends. Swedish high-jumper Emma Green Tegaro painted her fingernails in rainbow colors as a symbol of her opposition to the law and her support for LGBT rights.

But the spotlight shined brightest on a high profile Russian athlete who spoke out in support of the new law. Yelena Isinbayeva, who won her third world championship in the pole vault this week, declared her support for the law and appealed to athletes from other nations to respect her country’s views on homosexuality.

“It’s unrespectful to our country,” she said at a news conference. “It’s unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We have our law, which everyone has to respect.” The law, she said, reflects the culture of the Russian people. “It’s my opinion also,” she said. And then she went on to say, “You know, to do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation, because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people. We just live boys with women, and women with boys.”

“When we arrive to different cultures, we try to follow their rules,” She explained. “We are not trying to set our rules over there. We just try to be respectable. And also we ask everyone to be respectful to our place, to our culture, to our people.”

It is an interesting argument: You respect the rules in my country and I will respect the rules in your country. Respect our culture just as you would want us to respect your culture.

There is a place for cultural relativism. But this isn’t it. The respect for diverse cultural customs and institutions does not extend to bigotry and persecution. When Jesus told us to treat others the way we would want them to treat us, he was not suggesting that we should have a mutual tolerance for each other’s bigotry.