Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem.
It is over. The media has almost unanimously declared this most recent legislative session the worst in recent memory. Agencies that provide basic services after disasters, floods and tornadoes, are under extreme pressure to fulfill their mandate. Tax and budget cuts seem to be the answer to everything. School districts merged, a large state controlled super district of the least performing schools is not an answer but another problem.
Most of this impacts people of color and is another resegregating the schools. The struggles of the last century taught us that separate is never equal. Now they can quibble over percentages and test scores, but the money is never there for the districts that need it most.
Then there is the fight over the Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport. I realize that perhaps most of this paper’s readers live outside the limits of Jackson, and some may actually favor the state takeover of the airport, but with the current JMAA board and management the airport is doing well, and is in the black. Many say the fact that it is owned by the City of Jackson makes the move a blatant power grab.
I want to look at the effects of the huge tax cuts, trimmed down budgets, resulting in vital services not there for people who need them. The legislature despite the prosperity hype, seems determined to keep the poorest state in the Union, poor. Some of this is nothing but mean, like cutting food stamps, further restricting what people in need can purchase, and limiting the time period a person can be on the program.
The poor have been relabeled into the deserving and undeserving poor, and most are undeserving. Poverty is defined as moral failure. Getting needed services more and more requires legal intervention, by attorneys, not social work intervention. Proof of need becomes more difficult. If revenue is short, the poor suffer.
This is national. The reason so many bills resemble each other whether targeting the poor, immigrants or whoever often are crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This group includes state legislators from all over the country. ALEC provides the framework, and they can adapt it to their particular ideology suited to their state.
There is a war against organized labor. The propaganda says that labor unions are un-American, yet it was the labor struggle of the last two centuries that gave us such things as the weekend, overtime and national labor laws to strengthen all workers.
Right to work is not right to work, but the right not to join or be forced to join a union. Workers work at the will of their employers. That puts them at risk. No one can survive on minimum wage. The national movement, “$15 and a union” has had, so far, two national days of strikes and rallies to increase the minimum wage.
Immigrant rights activists have killed more than 295 anti-immigrant bills introduced in the state legislature since 2000. Immigrants provide a huge labor pool in many labor intensive industries here in Mississippi. Many fell out of status for a number of innocent reasons, but are demonized and dehumanized. This keeps the poor divided.
As we settle into another year of being at the bottom of most everything, how should we look at this? Some are quite content with the way things went. Others are not. Their reaction runs a range from quiet desperation to speak up and show out. Those of us who see the poor as human beings needing help, have found another voice.
Especially for us Catholics this Argentine Pope is shaking things up. He is telling his clergy to get down in the slums with the poor. “Smell like the sheep.” In many addresses he has blasted elitism in any form. Even more he has gone to the slums himself. Demonstrating respect, compassion and mercy to believer and unbeliever alike.
Since Pope Francis inaugurated this Year of Mercy there have been beautiful expressions of this by parishes and communities across the country. We see that here in Mississippi, from one end to the other. We have a healthy tradition of compassion, charity and helping those in need. We need to do more of it. With all the negative rhetoric, we need to drown it out, by living that old song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
(Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem, lives at the Priory of St. Moses the Black, Jackson.)