I run a nonprofit organization. It is called the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley. As anti-poverty organizations go, it is pretty significant in size (95 employees and a $24 million budget). I have been here for 37 years. It isn’t a job; it is my life.
I feel like I spend most of my time trying to convince people that as a society we should care more about those we leave behind. Consequently, messaging may be the most important thing I do. Like a candidate on the campaign trail who has a “stump speech,” I have stump phrases that I have used and reused over the years. For lack of a better word, I called them “Jenningsisms.”
“Our ideology is only as useful as its practical application.” That’s one of them. The traditional line in the sand over which no politician is apparently allowed to step anymore should be a lot more blurred than the chasm into which moderates seem to get tossed these days.
I would be willing to bet that most of us, on both the right and the left, would agree with the following points:
If we believe in the marketplace, we ought to be able to agree that it should be fair.
There are plenty of ways that intervention in the marketplace is appropriate, especially if we can lift up those left behind without squelching the competitiveness of those who lead the way.
Random acts of kindness are nice. But they are random, meaning they are not systematic, planned, deliberate in reasoning through the consequences. It is difficult to lay claim to being a responsible steward of the resources entrusted to us when we act randomly. Systemic adjustments need to be based on common values, perhaps the most important of which is this: everyone must assume responsibility for their own behavior and nearly everything we do, especially when it comes to systems, should be designed to affect change in a way that brings those left behind into the mainstream. That doesn’t mean we should squelch individuality but it does mean that everyone should embrace behavior that contributes to civil society.
Competition is a good thing. It drives you to excel. Even “greed” can be a positive thing if it means expanding the pie and everyone gets a piece. The best community development program is called “profit.” The best anti-poverty program is a job that pays adequate wages. Public schools should work for everyone. Burning the planet is a bad idea. No civilian should own a semi-automatic weapon. The Bill of Rights is a brilliant document. Democracy is good.
My guess is that only a tiny sliver of the population would disagree with those points.
So here is my list of “Jenningsisms.” Some sound liberal, some sound conservative. I’d welcome push-back from any ideologue, regardless of whether your ideology has practical application.
Charity is what society does when it doesn’t have justice. We should pursue justice.
You can’t have a functioning community without a functioning marketplace. And you can’t have a functioning marketplace if everyone is poor.
Our country’s approach to poverty is barely an approach; it is, rather, a retreat, a full-blown, yellow-bellied, spineless denial of what a civilized society’s role in uplifting its most vulnerable should be.
When society turns its back on the children, let’s not be surprised when the children grow up to turn their backs on society.
Society is far more threatened when poverty and despair lead to apathy and dependence than when it leads to anger and activism.
You really can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help himself.
The highest form of self-sufficiency is civic participation.
The old strategy of fighting poverty by helping people escape the ghetto was a mistake. If we help the winners escape and leave the so-called losers behind, we concede the permanent ghetto. Rather, we should strengthen the neighborhood so that those who succeed choose to stay and there are no losers.
How can you think about your long-term career goals when you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from?
How we govern and fund public education has become the most effective way we lock inequality into our system.
If God is love, isn’t everything else pretty simple?
I’d like to be judged at least as much by who my enemies are as by who my friends are.
Patience is not a virtue; it is the luxury of the powerful, the comfortable, and the lucky. Don’t ask me to be patient on behalf of folks who are none of those.
Anger is simply passion with an edge.
I think I’m cynical enough to understand what I’m up against but optimistic enough to pick the fight anyway.
And, finally, what are you doing with all that money you’re making?
So, friends, let’s have at it. The sun is setting, the clock is ticking. Eternity isn’t looking so infinite.