There is a wonderful parable in our tradition: Stone Soup. Many of you know it, but in case not, it is the story of a town under siege that is running out of food. One household has a handful of barley. Another neighbor has a bit of chicken. Someone else has some carrots, one family has onions. No one has enough, and they are scared.
In the midst of the worry, an old woman drags her huge kettle into the town square, fills it with water, puts it on the fire and drops three small stones into it. People come out of their homes and ask her what she's doing. She replies that she is making Stone Soup. As she's stirring the heating water and three stones, she says to a bystander, "It would taste even better if you added your onions - they're not feeding you anyway." To others she invites them to put in their meager bits, and soon everyone is adding what they have until suddenly they have- soup! Soup for everyone, man, woman, and child, and they are saved.
That is a foundational principle of our faith - sharing what we have so all have what they need. However, too many read this parable as "SOCIALISM!!" or worse, some kind of theft. Really?
In a complex society, we pass legislation and allocate tax budgets so we can support one another in many ways. We are past the days of tribal society and are too big to depend on personal charity and actions alone. But unlike Stone Soup, some have come to see this Soup Kettle of public money as a loss to themselves, not a benefit to all. We begrudge the funds and hoard them, even though the bits won't support us individually on their own any more than the wilted carrots alone could support the hungry in the parable.
California Council of Churches and California Church IMPACT do public policy work through both education and advocacy to pass laws and budgets that will sustain programs that serve those in need. What we don't always see is how poorly they can work because the justice of providing dependable food, shelter, health care, and other services for those in need has been characterized as taking something from us as taxpayers. At the foundation of the inefficiency lies the antagonism to 'stone soup;.
Good stewardship over our public resources is essential, but we have returned to the mindset of Victorian overseers who brutalized those in poverty from a kind of Social Darwinism view of the 'deserving' vs. 'undeserving' poor. We still hear screeches about fraud and abuse when strict audits of programs show almost none exists. We call out the 'Welfare Queen", surely racial as well as class fearmongering, and we demand harsh reviews of people's personal morality from drug testing to invasive reviews of their sex lives all so they can obtain the bare minimum supports for their lives. Audits show that recipients of public support are actually far less likely to be drug users or practitioners of unfettered free love than the rest of us. Facts make no difference
In several counties where federally-funded SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Access Program - known as CalFresh here) funds are available, applications result in "deny, deny, deny" then maybe enrolled. Administrative obstruction is designed to discourage people. It works. SNAP costs the state and counties nothing other than administrative processing, but the mindset that this is a 'zero sum game', that food access takes something away from citizens, has led to these benighted policies. California's enrollment is about half of all who are eligible. That is the goal because of...well, something. It's not even clear anymore.
Our advocacy cannot be simply about the poor. It cannot be soft-hearted bleatings about the 'vulnerable'. It has to be loud, fearless, authentic clarity from us about what causes poverty in the first place.
People are not poor because of some huge moral failing. They exist in an economic and societal structure that increasingly wants them poor.
Our state and nation must highlight the deliberate policies that favor outsourcing of jobs, shuttering plants, repressing workers' advocacy, oppressing wages, reducing hours, rejecting benefits all of which push people from self-sufficiency into poverty. It is both the under-educated whose opportunities were blighted at birth and the formerly middle class who need help. They are our neighbors. They sit in our pews. They are the salt of the earth, not the dregs of society, just trying to get by as best they can.
Back in 1981 Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman asked of this renewed harshness about poverty, "Why do the rich need incentives but the poor need desperation?" Since then both our economy and our social service system have embraced the implicit notion that providing for those whom the economy has abandoned is theft from taxpayers and must be rigidly controlled along with the recipients themselves.
And yet, we could have Stone Soup. We could embrace policies that put that 'hand under the elbow' to help people rise. We could go back to first principles of how we treat those in need. We could be a nation that shares. That is a choice we can make. It's up to us.