I was very moved by a sermon given by the minister at the church where I am music director. It is powerful and informative, and talks about the tragedy of American children in poverty. With Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern’s permission and without further comment, I am reprinting the sermon below:
Sermon given on December 5, 2010
at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA
Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern
We’re not going to do that reading of David Huerta’s poem after all, today, because yesterday, after I’d already written my sermon, I changed my topic. Maybe it was because I’ve been listening to the news. Or maybe the music that was chosen for today was working on me unconsciously: William Luce’s words, set so beautifully to music by [UUCPA Music Director] Henry Mollicone, because there really are “demons who try to take away [people’s] childhood[s].” And then that great song of hope that Robin, Dave, and Mary sang, a vision of everyone sitting at the welcome table.
So I’ve saved the sermon I wrote on my computer, and I’ll give it some other time. I was going to talk about my childhood memories, and how our childhoods shape the people we are now. That’s what [the Worship Associates] Marianne and Peggy and I talked about as we planned this service. But then I kept thinking about the other children, the ones who suffer through childhood and grow into suffering adults. Not so much the ones here at UUCPA, where our children are mostly very well cared for, well fed, safe, and with doctors to check up on them regularly even before they get sick. They have access to good schools and safe playgrounds. But those children within our community and the many more outside it for whom childhood is a painful trial to be endured.
And I have been reading the news and feeling sick, and the more I wrote about childhood the sicker I felt. Because right now there is a war on in this country, and the most powerful weapons are aimed at children.
There are lots of different ways to organize an economy. None is value-neutral. There is an expression of values in what gets taxed—earning, investments, purchasing, property—and how much, and what loopholes and compensations exist. What kind of income is earned for what kind of work. Right there is a good example of just how much we really value children: with few exceptions, people who work with children are paid very badly. A teacher who teaches college is paid more than a high school teacher, is paid more than an elementary school teacher, is paid more than a preschool teacher. Or just look at our own congregational budget and the discrepancy between the salaries of a parish minister and a minister of religious education.
We have organized our national economy to benefit adults at the expense of children.
I want to say that again, more strongly. We have organized our economy to take money from children and the people responsible for their support, and give it to other adults. That is the value our system currently embodies. And I don’t need to convince anyone here that it contradicts all the values we hold as Unitarian Universalists.
One of the best indicators for whether a person will be poor in this country is his or her age. Non-senior adults, Americans 18-64 years of age, have a poverty rate of 11.7%, as of 2008 statistics. Seniors are doing a little better—only 9.7 percent of seniors are below the poverty threshold—but note that if Social Security benefits did not exist, that figure would leap to 44 percent. So if childhood poverty seems like a problem beyond solving, keep in mind what a successful program we have against poverty among seniors.
The worst off are children: 20.7 percent of children are poor. Every 32 seconds, a child is born into poverty –and that’s what happens, they don’t become poor, they are born poor. Fifteen percent of poor children are poor for 10 years or more. The number of extremely poor children under age 18 was 6.3 million, 8.5 percent.
Extreme poverty is a technical term, describing a certain level of income. So let me describe extreme poverty to you. It means you do not have a secure place to live. You can’t be sure whether you’ll have your next meal, and a full complement of meals is two a day. You probably have less money to spend each day than the cost of a bus ride. You or your parents have to decide whether to pay for light, heat, medicine, clothing and shoes, or transportation—or none of these, because food, water, and shelter take precedence. So you are hungry and cold all the time, you go to school in clothes that are ragged and shoes that are too small, and you never feel secure.
We think of extreme poverty as a third world phenomenon. Actually, it’s improving in most places—since 1981, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty around the world has been cut in half. In the United States, it is at its highest rate since 1975, the year we began keeping these statistics. So let me remind you again that over 6 million children in our country, yours and mine, woke up this morning in that situation and will go to bed in the same situation. And they’re kids. They can’t see an end to this nor do anything to earn any money, until they get old enough for a drug dealer or pimp to pay attention to them.
The United States is number one: of all the children in all the industrialized nations, ours have the highest poverty rate.
So how can we justify extending these tax cuts? Why are we even talking about cutting taxes for anyone but the desperately poor, but especially for the richest people in our country? The usual response is that it’s their money. When we talk about how much to tax them, we’re talking about taking away money that they earned and they have a right to it.
I’m a minister and this is a church, so I’m going to watch my language and not call that idea exactly what I think of it. Here’s another word for it: nonsense.
Again, there are a lot of ways to organize an economic system. Ours is currently organized to heavily favor those who make money from money instead of money from actually going out and earning it. So much for the Protestant work ethic. Remember those old Smith-Barney ads, with that tag line, in that great John Houseman voice, “We make our money the old fashioned way. We earn it.” That’s a bald-faced lie. They make money through gambling, and then they pat their clients on the back and assure them that they’re all working very hard, that they and their clients deserve this money.
Well, many of us do some of both. This is how the people who are promoting these tax cuts try to get us to have a sense of solidarity with the richest. They remind us that we have investments too; we, all of us, middle-class people too, have a stake in the stock market, but that’s ridiculous. For most of us, the vast majority of our income is from money we go out and earn, or have earned and then invested; it’s only the richest who make most of their money from money. They talk about the estate tax, trying to appeal to everyone who expects an inheritance, but that’s even more ridiculous. The estate tax doesn’t even apply to a spouse, or to someone receiving an inheritance of $900 or $9,000 or even $900,000. It is a tax on very rich people, plain and simple—one of our few such taxes, so of course Congress, 44% of whom are millionaires, wants to end it.
They talk about how $250,000, the proposed highest amount for people eligible for the administration’s proposed continued tax cuts (it’s $200,000 for an individual, $250,000 for a couple) really isn’t that much money, and to prove it, tell stories about people trying to live in midtown Manhattan. I know; I live in San Francisco, and living on that income, you can’t afford a mansion. Likewise in Manhattan. But you can afford a safe, comfortable home in a safe neighborhood. You can afford to buy the things you need and lots of the things you want.
No matter where you live in this country, if $250,000 a year isn’t enough for you and your partner, you are living beyond your means.
And if you want a tax break on that income, you’re asking other hardworking people to pay for it. You’re asking children to pay for it: hungry children, children who don’t go to the doctor when they’re sick, children who don’t have a playground nearby that hasn’t been surrendered to crack dealers. We have the money to deal with all of this, but we’re funneling it all to luxuries for the rich.
None of this is news. But it’s getting worse. In 1976 the richest 1 percent of Americans took home a little under 9 percent of the income. Now they take home almost 24 percent of income. And income is not the most relevant category for people who own so much property, so let’s add that important fact: the richest 1% hold 34% of the net worth of our population—more than everyone in the bottom 50% combined.
So, let’s see, we’re pretty full today, so what’s about one-third of the chairs?: back to here (point), well, all of those chairs are for just two people. Richard and Jack, they’re for you—no one else can sit there. Everyone else, you can cram into the seats that are left.
And what about the complaints from some political directions that close to 50 percent of Americans pay no taxes? Well, first of all, that ought to be a badge of shame—because it shows how many people earn so little money that their income isn’t even subject to taxes (or to be precise, the income taxes they do pay are wiped out by the Earned Income Tax Credit they receive). But it’s not really true, because of course it’s only talking about income tax, federal income tax. Poor people pay state taxes and local taxes and sales taxes and payroll taxes just like the middle and upper classes.
No, not like the middle and upper classes—because if you earn one dollar, 15.3 percent of it goes to Medicare and Social Security. (So, great, you’ve got about 85 cents left.) If you earn $200,000, only 9.5 percent of it does. And the more you earn, the lower that percentage drops. Earners of $500,000 pay only 5.5 percent of their income to FICA. Social Security is a powerfully regressive tax, and what is the bipartisan deficit control panel suggesting? Raising the limit so that people earning over $106,800 pay Social Security taxes on more of their income, maybe even (and here I’m going to say something really shocking) on all of it? No. They’re proposing that we cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age, and are getting bipartisan praise.
That latter proposal is particularly cynical because it proposes to have the first change, to 68, kick in in 2050, when most of today’s working adults will have already begun collecting their benefits. The next phase, which would raise the retirement age to 69, would not kick in until 2075, when most of us will be gone. These proposals are aimed at today’s children, in the cynical hope that those of us who are earning now will do the math, sigh with relief that our benefits will start rolling in at 67, and let the country’s children suffer the consequences.
Why are we not going out into the streets to demand that this stop?
Maybe because it isn’t our children? (I know it’s not my child—she’s provided for.) Because we’re reading the writing on the wall and quietly planning for private school because our state refuses to collect taxes for good public schools, creating 529s because there’s so much less public funding help for college, putting away extra retirement so that our kids won’t drown as this tide rises?
But I know you good people of this congregation, and I know you are not so cynical. I know that your hearts do bleed for other people’s children, and that you’re not content to teach yours to climb their way to comfort on the backs of others scrabbling in the dirt.
As the “Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength” point out—these are the folks who got a flurry of press a couple of weeks ago for advocating that their taxes be raised—this would not only be cynical, but naïve. We are trashing our own economy, and the little island of safety will get smaller and smaller, with fewer and fewer of us able to manage. We already see it here in this privileged community of Palo Alto and other surrounding towns, where people whose earnings should make them comfortable are instead stretched thin trying to pay, privately, for what used to be paid for from a public fund. That was back when the idea that all of us should pool our resources to ensure that all babies and children are healthy, safe and educated as they grow into the next generation of adults, was not considered socialism, but fairness and good sense.
And this is also getting worse. The Earned Income Tax Credit was created by a Republican, Richard Nixon, inspired by Milton Friedman, an icon of conservative economics. It was expanded by Ronald Reagan. And today, people who call it socialism receive serious attention instead of the scoffing laugh that assertion deserves.
So, what can you do? You probably already know this information and already agree with me. If not, I hope I’ve changed your mind. But your senators are going to oppose the extension of tax cuts to the richest 2% of Americans, and I don’t know who every person’s representative is, but with most of them around here, most likely they are too, so what can you do?
We can oppose tax cuts for middle-class people unless they are paired with policies that help end child poverty. Like the “Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength,” this gets press because it’s people refusing policies that financially benefit themselves.
We can do everything we can to refuse to benefit from unfair economics. If I ever earn more than the $106,800 that’s taxed for Social Security, I’ve pledged to give that 12.4 percent of that portion of my income to organizations that help people rise out of poverty. That ought to be the US government, but since they don’t want it, I’ll give it to someone who does.
We can pull our money out of the machine that turns money over to the rich. That doesn’t mean an end to investment, but it’s absolutely an end to usury: no making money off other people’s desperate need for a loan. (Your best bet, by the way, might be a Muslim bank: they take seriously their religion’s prohibition on overly-high interest.) And for other investments, let’s return to the basic idea behind investment: not a gamble that hopes to turn a dollar into more than a dollar, but a way to support worthy projects that need capital. We can find an entrepreneur who’s doing something worthwhile and lend them some money, and go ahead and take a reasonable dividend for our risk. A simpler start is to move our money to socially responsible funds—there are entire brokerages that deal only in such investments. I’m proud that the UU Ministers’ Association took its retirement money out of Fidelity. We had pressed them for years to take more socially responsible stances, but they wouldn’t budge, so we changed to TIAA-CREF. It’s only a halfway measure, but it’s giving the kind of signal investment companies understand. And it happened only because a few stubborn people kept insisting that it was not all right for Unitarian Universalist ministers to earn money off the things Fidelity was earning money from, like the genocide in Darfur.
There was a poor people’s campaign once, in this country. The man who was organizing it was Martin Luther King, Jr.—can you imagine what this country might be like today if this man had been able to lead the poor as he led African-Americans, to peacefully, insistently, unstoppably demand justice? There are people working to organize the poor today. We can support them with our dollars, with our time, and by voting as they urge us to.
We can tell the president and our members of Congress that if they don’t powerfully support a change in policy toward lifting children out of poverty, in 2012 we’ll back a candidate who does. They remember Ralph Nader. When he skimmed a few percentage points of the New Hampshire vote from Al Gore in 2000, it cost Gore four electoral votes that would have made notorious Florida completely irrelevant—he’d have won the election. Everyone but Nader himself acknowledges that this is true.
I’d like to close with a prayer for all kinds of children, written by Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.
We pray for children
Who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
Who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
Who like ghost stories,
Who shove dirty clothes under the bed and never rinse out the tub,
Who get visits from the tooth fairy,
Who don’t like to be kissed in front of the carpool,
Who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone,
Whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry.
And we pray for those
Whose nightmares come in the daytime,
Who will eat anything,
Who have never seen a dentist,
Who aren’t spoiled by anybody,
Who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
Who live and move, but have no being.
In memory of our own childhoods, may we create a better world for all children