Real information and actual facts

Real information and actual facts April 6, 2011

This is how newspapers are supposed to work when they’re doing their job.

First, a reporter does his job, taking a look at the economic reality facing the paper’s readers and the actual effects that proposed government policies will have on that reality. Michael Symons’ article “As poverty rises in NJ, cuts target aid” did exactly that.

Poverty is rising, demand for food stamps has rocketed and the job market remains tepid at best, more than three years after the economy began to crater.

Against that backdrop of need is a harsh reality anti-poverty groups say they struggle to overcome: Much of the public doesn’t want to hear about it. Driven by Gov. Chris Christie here and tea partiers in Washington, the conversation is all about cutting government services — the faster the better.

Then the richest man in town does his job, writing a letter to the editor praising the reporter for telling the truth and — because this particular rich man isn’t like the millionaires that Gov. Christie and the tea partiers think should be the primary beneficiaries of government action — criticizing the governor for trying to balance the state budget by cutting vitally necessary aid to the poor while giving bigger tax breaks to people like him.

Here’s that letter:

Thank you for your March 27 front-page story by Michael Symons, “As poverty rises, cuts target aid.” The article is one of the few that highlights the contradictions between a policy of large tax cuts, on the one hand, and cuts in services to those in the most dire conditions, on the other.

Also, you’ve shone some light on anti-poverty workers and analysts such as Adele LaTourette, Meara Nigro, Cecilia Zalkind and Raymond Castro, among others, all of whom have something important to add to the discussion: real information and actual facts about what is happening below the poverty line.

These are voices that in our current climate are having a hard time being heard, not just in New Jersey, but nationally. Finally, your article shows that the cuts are eating away at the lower edges of the middle class, not just those already classified as in poverty, and are likely to continue to get worse over the next few years. I’m always glad to see my hometown newspaper covering these issues.

Bruce Springsteen, Colts Neck

And then, finally, the editorial board of the paper gets off the fence and sides with its reporter and with the “real information and actual facts” of the matter, publishing an editorial with the appropriately imperative headline “Help those who are falling behind.”

The famous line from the gospels, “The poor you will always have with you,” is as true today as it was thousands of years ago. Our front-page story in last Sunday’s Asbury Park Press, “As poverty rises, cuts target aid,” certainly confirmed that.

What also is true these days is that New Jersey is not doing nearly enough to aid the increasing number of those in poverty or those living on the margins, which now includes many who once considered themselves part of the middle class.

… State budget cuts, past and present, have contributed to the problem. In Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget now being debated in Trenton, there are actions the state can, and should take, to mitigate the pain for those least able to absorb more of it.

… There is no legitimate fiscal reason for the so-called “shared sacrifice” required to fix the state’s still faltering economy to fall so disproportionately on our most vulnerable citizens.

Bravo and well done, Asbury Park Press.

I do want to quibble, however, with that editorial’s misattribution and misapplication of that “famous line from the Gospels.”

“The poor you will always have with you,” isn’t from the Gospels. It’s quoted there, by Jesus, but that’s not where it’s from. It’s from Deuteronomy.

“The poor shall never cease out of the land,” Deuteronomy 15 reads in the King James Version. “There will always be poor people in the land,” is how the New International Version renders the phrase.

Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy for an audience that he knew would recognize those words as coming from the books of Moses. He knew that they knew the phrase was from Deuteronomy, so he knew they would know the context of the passage he was quoting. That audience, knowing that context, could be trusted to understand what was being said in a way that we American readers have demonstrated we cannot.

Because we love to quote this phrase — “The poor you will always have with you” or “There will never cease to be some in need” — and we almost always do so in a way that suggests that this is inevitable, that this is just the way things will always be and nothing can be done to change it. We almost never quote this passage in its original context — which suggests exactly the opposite. In its original context, “There will always be poor people in the land” is a bitter rebuke — a condemnation of an inexcusable, epic moral failure.

That rebuke was the essence of what Jesus was saying when he repeated this passage as a rebuke to Judas Iscariot. And it’s a rebuke that American Christians desperately need to learn to hear, because it’s also directed at us.

Go back and read the entire chapter of Deuteronomy 15 and you’ll find that this fragment of it quoted famously by Jesus is part of a kind of syllogism, a conditional statement. The full idea, the full statement in Deuteronomy 15 says this:

There will be no one in need among you … if only you will obey the Lord your God by observing this entire commandment. … There will never cease to be some in need on the earth. (NRSV)

There shall be no poor among you … if thou carefully hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all these commandments. … The poor shall never cease out of the land. (KJV)

There need be no poor people among you … if only you fully obey. … There will always be poor people in the land. (NIV)

If you obey, then there will be no poor among you. But you do not obey, so therefore there will always be poor among you.

“This entire commandment” described in Deuteronomy included the Jubilee and Sabbath laws governing the forgiveness of debts, plus a whole host of other laws that made up the Levitical safety net. Taken as a whole, those laws really would have ensured that there would be no poor in the land. But those laws were never put in place, never enforced, never obeyed, never followed — not even during the reigns of the good kings.

The only time during which anything like those laws was in place was in the wilderness, when God was in charge of supplying an alternate currency. Manna, unlike gold, couldn’t be hoarded — only shared.

“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said 2,000 years ago, quoting a scripture written many centuries before that. And for all those many hundreds of years this has been descriptively accurate. For all of that time, the poor have, indeed, always been with us — the living proof of our perpetual, perennial moral failure.

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