The Rev. Jim Wallis, noted Christian liberal, recently faced off against the Rev. and Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention about the morality of the U.S. Budget Deficit and its solutions.  http://nyti.ms/n34L83.   What’s notable is Land’s claim that $700 billion of our tax dollars goes for “means tested programs” that support single parent families—an immorality that apparently should be addressed by any thoughtful policy maker.

Land’s argument demonstrates that even if you end “welfare as we know it” in the U.S.—we did that 14 years ago—it will never die as a political target.  His budget numbers were dubious, as Wallis suggested.  The primary cash aid paid to “single parents” comes through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, once known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).  State and individual entitlement to TANF was ended on the federal level in 1996, and assistance was conditioned on participation in work searches, work activities, and what is known in the trade as “rapid labor force attachment” (i.e., take the first job, regardless).    Federal payments to AFDC-TANF since welfare reform have hovered in the $20-25 billion range. See http://bit.ly/qKgiOq.  While Land is surely referring to other “related spending” on single parent families, it is difficult to reach the $700 billion mark no matter how you count it.   Total Medicaid spending, the most expensive portion of which is for those in long-term care, costs us roughly $250 billion per year, while the total bill for Food Stamps is $73 billion annually.   See http://1.usa.gov/n9DAPI .  While Land is without a doubt a “fisher of men,” (Matthew 4:19), his net on this issue is cast so wide it must include a portion of the Afghan war attributed to single parents.

It’s possible Land simply made a mistake and got his numbers wrong.  It’s not difficult when it comes to  welfare–$700 billion was the amount Congress authorized the Treasury Department to use under the Troubled Asset Relief Program(TARP) to bail out the banks in September, 2008.   See http://nyti.ms/ohQAPN.

But TARP is more than a punch line in moral debates about the budget.  It demonstrates our worship of the private market and the government’s role in ensuring its needs are met.  Let’s put aside the rhetoric about the bills we’re leaving our children.   Why, in a time of depressed consumer spending is Congress obsessed with decreasing government spending, which augments spending power, and thinks a sovereign, destined, and exceptional country like the U.S is going to follow Greece to bankruptcy?  It’s because “less government” has become an ethic onto itself, one that embraces an even more suspect ethic—the private market.

Philosopher Jan Rehman summarizes this perspective in Pedagogy of the Poor, written with Willie Baptist (a scholar-in-residence at Union Theological Seminary).  See http://amzn.to/n3rFdC.  Rehman notes that economist Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian Economist who became the father of neoliberal (market worship) theory, argued that social justice is illusory and misleading.  Why?

“Justice can only exist among individuals, [Hayek] assumes, and therefore cannot be applied to the anonymous and spontaneous mechanisms of the market.  [Hayek] frankly admits that this market gives to  those who already have.  But this is its merit than its deficit.  One cannot apply a standard of social justice if there is no one  in charge who can be blamed and to who one could appeal if the standard is not met.”  Pedagogy of the Poor, at 54.

Rehman observes that this establishes the market as a “kind of deity” which operates like a hidden God.  Attempting to understand its workings and influence its outcomes leads, according to Hayek, straight to socialism and totalitarianism.  Rehman concludes that Hayek’s hidden God is “definitely not the biblical God of the Exodus and the Jubilee Year, of liberation and social justice, but the reified rule of  money, capital, and shareholder values, namely the very  fetishism the Bible so forcefully condemns as idolatry, epitomized  in the ‘golden calf.’ “ Pedagogy, at 55.

This is the moral issue at stake in our budget deliberations.

J.Peter Sabonis Esq.

The inherent worth and dignity of every person is embodied in Human Rights.  While rarely enforced legally, Human Rights have inspired groups to organize and mobilize to achieve social change.  Grassroots groups such as the United Workers, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Vermont Workers Center have used Human Rights language to organize workers, mobilize communities, and achieve systemic change.

"Law is not power. Power comes from organized money or organized people."

The Maryland  Human Rights Authority is the legal advocacy arm and “in-house” counsel of such a group, the United Workers (UW).  Patterned after the legal unit created by Cesar Chavez in the early days of the United Farm Workers, the Maryland Human Rights Authority puts the achievement of organizing goals above the achievement of legal victories.  In representing workers or the organization, or while strategizing with organizers or members, the Authority asks simply, “What can law and legal strategies do to build power for this movement at this moment?”

Legitimate legal claims for unpaid wages, overtime, waiting time, sexual harassment, discrimination, worker safety are analyzed by the Authority not only for their legal merit, but their “discovery,” publicity, and solidarity value in advancing the goals of the United Workers.  All of these claims are treated within the United Workers as violations of human rights—the rights to worker dignity, just and favorable conditions of employment, living wages, and health—despite being litigated as state or federal statutory violations.  Legal help is provided free of charge for United Workers members.

Led by attorney, J. Peter Sabonis, who provided legal support and advocacy to the United Workers successful campaign to achieve living wages and worker dignity for laborers at Camden Yards, the Maryland Human Rights Authority has direct experience making human rights real.

The Maryland Human Rights Authority uses all advocacy tools to advance human rights in Maryland (litigation, lobbying, mobilizing), but its mission is to support organizing and the movement  to end poverty.  While it believes access to justice and legal representation is a human right, such access is not  its primary concern.  The Maryland Human Rights Authority is  not  a traditional  legal  services  organization.   It sees it clients as agents of social change and active participants in  their cases.   Litigation and advocacy are used to achieve movement  goals and to assist  in developing leadership among UW members.

for more information contact:   jpetersabonis@gmail.com   301-639-2561

By J. Peter Sabonis, Esq.  

In June, the United Workers began a series of monthly meetings with ex-offenders to discuss their employment rights.  Given the conventional wisdom, the meetings should have been over in ten minutes.  Other than an entitlement to expunge non-convictions if they happen to fall into the myriad qualifications within Md. Criminal Procedure §10-102, what rights can ex-offenders possibly have, save the right to beg, plead, or grovel before employers for the chance to make an honest living?

The notion that the behavior of felons warrants not only punishment and correction, but a loss of certain privileges of citizenship, like voting, is longstanding.    Many states, however, have had second thoughts, given evidence that conviction-related voting disqualification disproportionately disenfranchises minorities, and that participation in civic life can be an important part of individual rehabilitation and community support for the ex-offender.

But civic life is one thing—minimal economic sufficiency is another.   In Article 45 of its Declaration of Rights, the Maryland Constitution recognizes, as does the federal, that certain inalienable rights exist—rights that that flow from the very fact of that we are human.  Call it what you want—natural law,  higher law, or human rights—but the concept is clearly entrenched in our legal history.

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