Monday, November 30, 2009

NY Times: THE SAFETY NET Food Stamp Use Soars, and Stigma Fades

The New York Times reporters Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff write about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or the Food Stamp program, which provides assistance to families needing help with food. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has an outline of the program here.

Normally, the benefits are limited to 3 months for unemployed childless adults, but this rule is suspended in many areas due to the economic downturn. The program also contains a work incentive, in that for every dollar of additional income a beneficiary earns (assuming she or he is within the program's income limits), benefits decrease only by 24-36 cents. DeParle and Gebeloff find that the program is getting increasing enrollment during these hard times, and that while a lot of people have scorned it as a welfare program that encourages dependency, a lot of beneficiaries really need the help and need to be coaxed into applying. Some excerpts:

MARTINSVILLE, Ohio — With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.

It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as ordinary as the groceries it buys. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese, swiping them at counters in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs.

Virtually all have incomes near or below the federal poverty line, but their eclectic ranks testify to the range of people struggling with basic needs. They include single mothers and married couples, the newly jobless and the chronically poor, longtime recipients of welfare checks and workers whose reduced hours or slender wages leave pantries bare.

While the numbers have soared during the recession, the path was cleared in better times when the Bush administration led a campaign to erase the program’s stigma, calling food stamps “nutritional aid” instead of welfare, and made it easier to apply. That bipartisan effort capped an extraordinary reversal from the 1990s, when some conservatives tried to abolish the program, Congress enacted large cuts and bureaucratic hurdles chased many needy people away.

From the ailing resorts of the Florida Keys to Alaskan villages along the Bering Sea, the program is now expanding at a pace of about 20,000 people a day.


The Safety Net
A Program Once Scorned
With millions of jobs lost and major industries on the ropes, America’s array of government aid — including unemployment insurance, food stamps and cash welfare — is being tested as never before. This series examines how the safety net is holding up under the worst economic crisis in decades.
Previous Articles in the Series »

The Recession’s Impact
Faces, numbers and stories from behind the downturn.

Interactive Map
Food Stamp Usage Across the Country

Slide Show
Once Scorned, a Federal Program Grows to Feed the Struggling
Times Topics: Food Stamps

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It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as ordinary as the groceries it buys. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese, swiping them at counters in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs.

Virtually all have incomes near or below the federal poverty line, but their eclectic ranks testify to the range of people struggling with basic needs. They include single mothers and married couples, the newly jobless and the chronically poor, longtime recipients of welfare checks and workers whose reduced hours or slender wages leave pantries bare.

While the numbers have soared during the recession, the path was cleared in better times when the Bush administration led a campaign to erase the program’s stigma, calling food stamps “nutritional aid” instead of welfare, and made it easier to apply. That bipartisan effort capped an extraordinary reversal from the 1990s, when some conservatives tried to abolish the program, Congress enacted large cuts and bureaucratic hurdles chased many needy people away.

From the ailing resorts of the Florida Keys to Alaskan villages along the Bering Sea, the program is now expanding at a pace of about 20,000 people a day.

There are 239 counties in the United States where at least a quarter of the population receives food stamps, according to an analysis of local data collected by The New York Times.

The counties are as big as the Bronx and Philadelphia and as small as Owsley County in Kentucky, a patch of Appalachian distress where half of the 4,600 residents receive food stamps.

In more than 750 counties, the program helps feed one in three blacks. In more than 800 counties, it helps feed one in three children. In the Mississippi River cities of St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, half of the children or more receive food stamps. Even in Peoria, Ill. — Everytown, U.S.A. — nearly 40 percent of children receive aid.

While use is greatest where poverty runs deep, the growth has been especially swift in once-prosperous places hit by the housing bust. There are about 50 small counties and a dozen sizable ones where the rolls have doubled in the last two years. In another 205 counties, they have risen by at least two-thirds. These places with soaring rolls include populous Riverside County, Calif., most of greater Phoenix and Las Vegas, a ring of affluent Atlanta suburbs, and a 150-mile stretch of southwest Florida from Bradenton to the Everglades.

Although the program is growing at a record rate, the federal official who oversees it would like it to grow even faster.

“I think the response of the program has been tremendous,” said Kevin Concannon, an under secretary of agriculture, “but we’re mindful that there are another 15, 16 million who could benefit.”

Nationwide, food stamps reach about two-thirds of those eligible, with rates ranging from an estimated 50 percent in California to 98 percent in Missouri. Mr. Concannon urged lagging states to do more to enroll the needy, citing a recent government report that found a sharp rise in Americans with inconsistent access to adequate food.

“This is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression,” he said. “It’s time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people.”


The program’s growing reach can be seen in a corner of southwestern Ohio where red state politics reign and blue-collar workers have often called food stamps a sign of laziness. But unemployment has soared, and food stamp use in a six-county area outside Cincinnati has risen more than 50 percent.

With most of his co-workers laid off, Greg Dawson, a third-generation electrician in rural Martinsville, considers himself lucky to still have a job. He works the night shift for a contracting firm, installing freezer lights in a chain of grocery stores. But when his overtime income vanished and his expenses went up, Mr. Dawson started skimping on meals to feed his wife and five children.

He tried to fill up on cereal and eggs. He ate a lot of Spam. Then he went to work with a grumbling stomach to shine lights on food he could not afford. When an outreach worker appeared at his son’s Head Start program, Mr. Dawson gave in.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Mr. Dawson, 29, a taciturn man with a wispy goatee who is so uneasy about the monthly benefit of $300 that he has not told his parents. “I always thought it was people trying to milk the system. But we just felt like we really needed the help right now.”

The outreach worker is a telltale sign. Like many states, Ohio has campaigned hard to raise the share of eligible people collecting benefits, which are financed entirely by the federal government and brought the state about $2.2 billion last year.

By contrast, in the federal cash welfare program, states until recently bore the entire cost of caseload growth, and nationally the rolls have stayed virtually flat. Unemployment insurance, despite rapid growth, reaches about only half the jobless (and replaces about half their income), making food stamps the only aid many people can get — the safety net’s safety net.

Support for the food stamp program reached a nadir in the mid-1990s when critics, likening the benefit to cash welfare, won significant restrictions and sought even more. But after use plunged for several years, President Bill Clinton began promoting the program, in part as a way to help the working poor. President George W. Bush expanded that effort, a strategy Mr. Obama has embraced.

The revival was crowned last year with an upbeat change of name. What most people still call food stamps is technically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

By the time the recession began, in December 2007, “the whole message around this program had changed,” said Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington group that has supported food stamp expansions. “The general pitch was, ‘This program is here to help you.’ ”

Now nearly 12 percent of Americans receive aid — 28 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Latinos and 8 percent of whites. Benefits average about $130 a month for each person in the household, but vary with shelter and child care costs.

In the promotion of the program, critics see a sleight of hand.

“Some people like to camouflage this by calling it a nutrition program, but it’s really not different from cash welfare,” said Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, whose views have a following among conservatives on Capitol Hill. “Food stamps is quasi money.”

Arguing that aid discourages work and marriage, Mr. Rector said food stamps should contain work requirements as strict as those placed on cash assistance. “The food stamp program is a fossil that repeats all the errors of the war on poverty,” he said.

The cost of war: Are Americans willing to pay it?

Bruce Bartlett, a conservative, asks a question on Forbes that all Americans should consider very carefully: what are the true costs of war, and are Americans willing to pay for them?

In recent years, Republicans have been characterized by two principal positions: They like starting wars and don't like paying for them. George W. Bush initiated two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but adamantly refused to pay for either of them by cutting non-military spending or raising taxes. Indeed, at his behest, Congress actually cut taxes and established a massive new entitlement program, Medicare Part D.

Bush's actions were unprecedented. During every previous major war in American history, presidents demanded sacrifices from rich and poor alike. As Robert Hormats explains in his 2007 book, The Price of Liberty: Paying for America's Wars, "During most of America's wars, parochial desires--such as tax breaks for favored groups or generous spending for influential constituencies--have been sacrificed to the greater good. The president and both parties in Congress have come together … to cut nonessential spending and increase taxes."

During World War II, federal revenues roughly tripled as a share of the gross domestic product (GDP) and the number of people paying income taxes expanded tenfold, from 3% of the population in 1939 to 30% by 1943. In 1940, a family of four needed close to $80,000 of income in today's dollars before it paid any federal income taxes at all. By the war's end, it saw its effective tax rate rise from 1.5% to 15.1%. (Today such a family only pays a federal income tax rate of about 6%.) But taxes weren't the only way the war was paid for. Spending on nondefense programs was cut almost in half, from 8.1% of GDP in 1940 to 4.4% in 1945.

Even during wars closer in magnitude to those in which we are presently engaged, significant sacrifices were made. In 1950 and 1951 Congress increased taxes by close to 4% of GDP to pay for the Korean War, even though the high World War II tax rates were still largely in effect. In 1968, a 10% surtax was imposed to pay for the Vietnam War, which raised revenue by about 1% of GDP. And there was conscription during both wars, which can be viewed as a kind of tax that was largely paid by the poor and middle class--young men from wealthy families largely escaped its effects through college deferments.

However, Bush and his party, which controlled Congress from 2001 to 2006, never asked for sacrifices from anyone except those in our nation's military and their families. I think that's because the Republicans understood, implicitly, that the American people's support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has always been paper thin. Asking them to sacrifice through higher taxes, domestic spending cuts or reinstatement of the draft would surely have led to massive protests akin to those during the Vietnam era or to political defeat in 2004. George W. Bush knew well that when his father raised taxes in 1990 in part to pay for the first Gulf War, it played a major role in his 1992 electoral defeat.

Consequently, Republicans resolved to fight our wars on the cheap and with deceptive cost estimates. On the eve of war in December 2002, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Mitch Daniels claimed that the war in Iraq could be fought at a total cost of $50 billion to $60 billion. Indeed, Bush even fired his top economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, for saying publicly that the war might cost between $100 billion and $200 billion.

Of course, both Daniels and Lindsey grossly underestimated the actual cost. According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost close to $1 trillion thus far. That is exactly what economists not on the White House payroll expected. (See this December 2002 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.)

In his 2008 book, What a President Should Know, Lindsey said that lowballing the cost of the war was a "tactical blunder" because it allowed Bush's enemies to claim that he lied us into war. But at the same time, Lindsey acknowledges that the administration never rose to "Churchillian levels in talking about the sacrifices needed." He also says that asking for sacrifice in the form of spending cuts and tax increases would have served the important purpose of involving the American people in the war effort. As it is, war is largely out of sight and out of mind.

According to the CRS, the marginal cost of continuing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is about $11 billion per month, with no end in sight. Although there has been some decline in spending for the Iraq war, it has been more than offset by the rising cost of the war in Afghanistan. According to OMB director Peter Orszag, it costs about $1 million per year per soldier in the field, so adding 30,000 additional troops in Afghanistan, as President Obama is expected to do next week, will cost another $30 billion per year.

The White House has given no indication of how it plans to pay for expanding the war in Afghanistan. More than likely, it will follow the Bush precedent and just put it all on the national credit card. But at least some members of Congress believe that the time has come to start paying for war. On Nov. 19, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., introduced H.R. 4130, the "Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010." It would establish a 1% surtax on everyone's federal income tax liability plus an additional percentage on those with a liability over $22,600 (for couples filing jointly), such that revenue from the surtax would pay for the additional cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan.

It's doubtful that this legislation will be enacted. But that's not Obey's purpose. He will probably offer it as an amendment at some point just to have a vote. Republicans in particular will be forced to choose between continuing to fight a war that they started and still strongly support, or raising taxes, which every Republican in Congress would rather drink arsenic than do. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see those who rant daily about Obama's deficits explain why they oppose fiscal responsibility when it comes to supporting our troops.

Obey makes no secret of his motives. He knows that deficits need to be reduced at some point and this will put pressure on spending programs he supports. "If we don't address the cost of this war, we will continue shoving billions of dollars in taxes off on future generations and will devour money that could be used to rebuild our economy," Obey explained in a press statement.

He is not alone in his fear that war presents a threat to the Democratic agenda. As Boston University historian Robert Dallek told Obama at a White House meeting earlier this year, "war kills off great reform movements." He cited the impact of World War I in ending the Progressive Era, World War II in killing the New Deal, the Korean War in terminating Harry Truman's Fair Deal program and the Vietnam War in crushing Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

At this point, Republicans are probably nodding in agreement. If it takes wars to end ill-conceived social programs, then that's another argument in favor of continuing the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. But that's a very short-sighted view because, as essayist Randolph Bourne once put it, "war is essentially the health of the State." Historians Robert Higgs and Bruce Porter, among others, have documented the pernicious effect of war on the size and scope of government. It creates a ratchet effect in which taxes and spending grow and civil liberties are restricted permanently, because when war ends, we never go back to the status quo ante.

If it takes the threat of a tax increase to get people to think seriously about whether it's worth continuing to fight wars far from home--wars that have only the most tenuous connection to the national interest--then it's a good idea. History shows that wars financed heavily by higher taxes, such as the Korean War and the first Gulf War, end quickly, while those financed largely by deficits, such as the Vietnam War and current Middle East conflicts, tend to drag on indefinitely.

If Americans aren't willing to follow John F. Kennedy and "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship" to fight a war, then we shouldn't be fighting it.

Bruce Bartlett is a former Treasury Department economist and the author of Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action and Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. Bruce Bartlett's new book is: The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward. He writes a weekly column for Forbes.

Liberation theology is alive and well

Walter Altmann writes for Ekklesia.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, twenty years ago, many critics have been quick to sign liberation theology's death certificate. Most of them did so because they understood it to be an apology for bygone Soviet-style socialism. It seems, though, that this death certificate has been issued prematurely.

It is true that liberation theologians – some more than others – used Marxist categories for socio-economic analysis and for a moral critique of capitalism's evils. However, the core of liberation theology has never been Marxism.

It is rather the compassionate identification with the poor and their struggle for justice, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus himself, which is at its heart. Instead of concentrating on social analysis, which was seen as a methodological tool, from the outset liberation theology placed greater emphasis on the crucial role of God's people committed praxis – or, in other words, the Christian communities' action inspired by faith and informed by theological reflection.

Liberation theology is spiritually grounded in – and gets its motivation from – the life changing encounter with Christ as liberator and with our neighbours in need. Their suffering is not a result of fate but of systemic injustices and oppression, which can be overcome by transformative action.

If we look at our reality today, we are reminded that poverty has by no means been overcome in the world. On the contrary, the recent international financial crisis, produced by unrestrained capitalist forces governed by greed and private and corporate interests, has increased the number of the poor – or rather, the impoverished – in the world by hundreds of millions.

Liberation theology emerged in the late 1960s in Latin America. The ground had been prepared in the 1950s by Christian base community movements aiming for social, political and economic reforms in society, and for the active participation of laypeople in pastoral activities within the church.

Latin America being predominantly a Catholic continent, the new theological approach was widely linked with pastoral and theological developments within the Roman Catholic Church, although it was from the very beginning an ecumenical endeavour. The very term "liberation theology" was proposed almost simultaneously by the Roman Catholic priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, from Peru, and the Presbyterian theologian Rubem Alves, from Brazil.

It is not surprising that in the seventies and eighties liberation theology had a strong influence on the ecumenical movement, including the World Council of Churches (WCC). The relevancy of its actions in supporting struggles for human rights under military dictatorships in Latin America, in developing effective methods of overcoming illiteracy (as did the exiled Brazilian pedagogue and WCC education adviser Paulo Freire), and in combating racism, mainly in Southern Africa, has been widely recognised.

As a contextual approach, aimed at critically reflecting on the praxis of God's people, liberation theology was never intended to become a static, dogmatic theoretical construction. Its intention was not to highlight a neglected theological theme, but rather to propose a new way of doing theology. It naturally underwent changes over the decades. At the outset it focused on the living conditions of the poor. Later, it incorporated other issues, like indigenous peoples, racism, gender inequalities and ecology.

Nowadays, liberation theology deals with the interpretation of cultures and with anthropological questions, for example the temptation of power. The goal of striving towards a more just society where there is "room for all" persists, yet the way of achieving it has shifted towards civil society action.

The influence of liberation theology goes way beyond the realm of the churches. Its contribution towards overcoming military dictatorships in Latin America and apartheid in Southern Africa has already been hinted at. Today it helps shape Latin American political efforts towards a model of democracy which overcomes poverty and social injustices. Several Latin American presidents – Lula da Silva in Brazil, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Ortega in Nicaragua and Lugo in Paraguay - have all in different ways had close contact with Christian base communities and liberation theologians.

But, above all, liberation theology continues to be very much alive and well within civil society movements and Christian base communities.


(c) Walter Altmann is president of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil and moderator of the World Council of Churches Central Committee.

What are tax expenditures and who benefits from them?

A tax expenditure is the amount of money that a government forfeits by giving a tax break for a certain activity or transaction. In the U.S., tax expenditures include the ability to deduct mortgage insurance from your income, the reduced tax rates on capital gains and dividends and the fact that the value of health insurance that your employer provides for you is excluded from your income. In terms of economics, a tax expenditure is the same thing as an actual subsidy, because the government could have taxed the activity or transaction and used the money for something else.

The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center provides information on the 12 largest tax expenditures in the U.S. The largest tax expenditure is the one for health insurance.

Tax expenditures are also not distributed progressively, meaning that the bulk of tax expenditures benefit the richest, rather than the poorest Americans. This should be weighed against the fact that a number of Americans pay zero or negative net taxes (the latter if they are recipients of the Earned Income Tax Credit). Our friends at the Tax Policy Center also provide an article discussing the distribution of the expenditures. Overall, all tax expenditures benefit those in higher income groups. If tax expenditures were eliminated, the after-tax income of the bottom quintile would decrease by 6.5% (mainly due to the elimination of the child tax credit and earned income tax credit). In contrast, the income of the top quintile would decrease by 13.5%.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

New York Times: Baby Boom of Mixed Children Tests South Korea

Martin Fackler writes in the New York Times about another facet of Asia's race problem: racism between Asian ethnicities. I previously reposted another NYT article about racism between mainland Asians and Americans of various racial/ethnic groups.

YEONGGWANG, South Korea — Just a few years ago, the number of pregnant women in this city had declined so much that the sparsely equipped two-room maternity ward at Yeonggwang General Hospital was close to shutting down. But these days it is busy again.

More surprising than the fact of this miniature baby-boom is its composition: children of mixed ethnic backgrounds, the offspring of Korean fathers and mothers from China, Vietnam and other parts of Asia. These families have suddenly become so numerous that the nurses say they have had to learn how to say “push” in four languages.

It is a similar story across South Korea, where hundreds of thousands of foreign women have been immigrating in recent years, often in marriages arranged by brokers. They have been making up for a shortage of eligible Korean women, particularly in underdeveloped rural areas like this one in the nation’s southwest.

Now, these unions are bearing large numbers of mixed children, confronting this proudly homogeneous nation with the difficult challenge of smoothly absorbing them.

South Korea is generally more open to ethnic diversity than other Asian nations with relatively small minority populations, like neighboring Japan. Nevertheless, it is far from welcoming to these children, who are widely known here pejoratively as Kosians, a compound of Korean and Asian.

“We bring these children into the world, but sometimes I worry,” said Kwak Ock-ja, 48, head maternity nurse at Yeonggwang General, where a third of the 132 births so far this year have been of children of mixed background, up from almost none a decade ago. “Prejudice against these families is something society must resolve.”

The surge in births of mixed children is the product of the similarly explosive growth here in marriages to foreigners, as a surplus of bachelors and the movement of eligible women to big cities like Seoul have increasingly driven Korean men in rural areas to seek brides in poorer parts of Asia. In addition, a preference for male babies has helped skew the population so there are fewer native-born women to marry. The Ministry of Public Security says the total number of children from what are called multicultural families in South Korea rose to 107,689 in May of this year from 58,007 last December, though the ministry said it might have slightly undercounted last year.

That is only about 1 percent of the approximately 12 million children in South Korea under the age of 19. But if marriages to foreigners continue to increase at their current rate — they accounted for 11 percent of all marriages here last year — more than one in nine children could be of mixed background by 2020, demographic researchers say.

The trend is even more pronounced in rural areas, where most of these marriages take place. Among farming households, 49 percent of all children will be multicultural by 2020, according to the Agricultural Ministry.

This increase is coming as South Korea’s overall birthrate has fallen to about 1.22 children per woman of child-bearing age, one of the world’s lowest rates. While many Koreans say they hope that the rising number of mixed children will help rejuvenate their rapidly graying society, they also say they fear that a failure to assimilate them could create the sort of poor, alienated underclass of ethnic minorities they see in the United States and Europe.

The increase has also begun to prompt a national soul-searching here about what it means to be Korean. While most of these children have Korean fathers and Korean citizenship, their dual ethnicity still gives them an uncertain status in a society where membership was long seen as being based on blood.

“The hard reality of our low birthrate is forcing us to realize that we can’t be homogeneous anymore,” said Park Hwa-seo, a professor of migration studies at Myongji University in Seoul. “It isn’t easy, but there is no turning back but to embrace these more diverse families.”

The increase of mixed-background children is so recent that relatively few have even reached elementary-school age. Still, signs of strain are already appearing.

According to the Education Ministry, the dropout rate of mixed-background children from elementary school is 15.4 percent, 22 times the national average. Part of the problem, social experts say, is the mothers’ lack of Korean-language skills, which prevents them from filling the expected social role of guiding children through the nation’s high-pressure education system.

Compounding the risk is the fact that most of the foreign women marry older farmers or manual laborers. Some 53 percent of mixed families live on earnings at or below the national minimum hourly wage of 4,000 won, or less than $3.50, according to the Welfare Ministry.

However, social experts say the biggest threat to the mixed children is that they will be ostracized in a society that began grappling with ethnic diversity only when labor shortages forced South Korea to accept foreign workers in the 1990s. The risk has been underscored by recent studies showing that the children of mixed marriages are more likely to be the victims of domestic abuse or bullying in school.

“I’m afraid we are already too late in responding,” said Suh Hae-jung, a researcher on gender equality at the government-financed Gyeonggido Family and Women’s Research Institute in Suwon. “On top of getting slighted for their color, their learning is also falling behind.”

Such concerns are quietly felt by Vicky Merano, 29, who came here from the Philippines six years ago to marry a Korean rice farmer 18 years her elder. Their 5-year-old daughter, Kim Da-som, does well in a local kindergarten, and on a recent evening she proudly showed off her ability to read the Korean language’s script and several Chinese characters.

Her father, Kim Hee-jong, beamed with pride and said that his relatives accepted the girl, including his parents, who share their 80-year-old tile-roofed farmhouse. Ms. Merano agreed but said she worried about what might happen as Da-som advanced beyond elementary school.

“Maybe if they don’t see me, they’ll just think my daughter is Korean,” Ms. Merano said.

The South Korean government says it has tried to respond quickly, opening 119 multicultural family support centers across the country in the past three years to offer help in education and vocational training.

The one in Yeonggwang, a small provincial city of 57,000 residents, opened in January. On a recent afternoon, its four small rooms were filled with Chinese, Thai and Filipino women learning to use computers and sewing machines while staff members watched their young children. Teachers also offered Korean-language classes to the mothers and children.

One woman, Edna Dela Cruz, said she preferred raising a family here because South Korea had better schools and a higher standard of living than the Philippines, where she was born. But she also worries about her 6-year-old son, who wants her to speak to him only in Korean so his classmates will not treat him as a pariah.

“Koreans tell me my child will be insulted because of me,” said Ms. Dela Cruz, 33, who married a local farmer.
U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (a Democrat from Minnesota) commends a report by Richard Goldstone on Israeli actions in Lebanon. The article is dated 11/3/09.

Who is afraid of Richard Goldstone? No one should be. Not even the U.S. Congress — yet it is poised on Tuesday to condemn the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Goldstone report on violations of international law related to the Gaza war of late 2008.

Why the fear? Judge Goldstone is no Israel basher. He is famous for apprehending Nazi criminals in Argentina, for serving as chief prosecutor for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunals and for chairing the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. He is motivated by his struggle against apartheid in South Africa. A self-described Zionist, he serves as a trustee of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has said that “bringing war criminals to justice stems from the lessons of the Holocaust.”

At the outset, note that four sections of the Goldstone report deal with abuses by Hamas, including the launching of rockets into civilian towns in Israel. The report explicitly states that these rocket attacks are war crimes.

Yet despite Goldstone’s stellar reputation, the veracity of the report — and his motives — has been challenged. The detailed Goldstone report concludes that “the Israeli military operation was directed at the people of Gaza as a whole, in furtherance of an overall and continuing policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population, and in a deliberate policy of disproportionate force aimed at the civilian population.”

I agree with my congressional colleagues — and with Goldstone — that the initial U.N. resolution of Jan. 12, 2009, calling for an investigation of abuses committed during the Gaza crisis was one-sided, focusing exclusively on Israel. That resolution was used by some countries to criticize Israel without acknowledging the abuses by Hamas. Goldstone initially refused to lead the investigation because of the original flawed mandate.

But Goldstone pushed back. He succeeded in expanding the scope of the mission to include an examination of the actions of both Hamas and Israel.

Israel, however, refused to cooperate with the investigation because of the original “one-sided mandate.” What if Israel had participated from the beginning? It could have pointed out that the U.N. Human Rights Council has a history of unfairly singling out Israel for criticism. It could have described Hamas’s abuses, and it could have elaborated on the context of the Israeli invasion of Gaza, which includes a long history of attacks on civilians. Israel could have observed the difficulties of combat in urban areas. But instead, Israel condemned the effort and then attacked the final product.

I visited Sderot in southern Israel and saw the havoc and trauma created by Hamas rocket fire. Israelis there live with fear. I have condemned these attacks as war crimes and will continue to do so.

I also visited Gaza and witnessed the devastation wreaked by the recent war. I toured an American school and medical clinics devastated by Operation Cast Lead. A blockade keeps out items such as paper for textbooks and nutritious food. Gazans live in poverty, and most cannot drink their own water. These are cruel violations against the people of Gaza, 56 percent of whom are children.

The Goldstone report does not assign blame. It lays out the facts, as best as Goldstone could ascertain them, and offers recommendations for the future. Congress should use this report as a resource to understand a critical part of the world and to grasp fully the devastating human costs of the status quo.

Instead, Congress is poised to oppose the Goldstone report without holding a single hearing on a document that few members of Congress, if any, have read.

This is a mistake. The stance of this Congress will erode U.S. credibility in the post-Obama world, and it will tarnish our commitment to the principle that all nations must be held to the same standards. Rather than undermine the report or Goldstone, we are at risk of undermining Congress’s and President Barack Obama’s reputation as honest brokers.

Israel can still pursue its own investigation, and critics of the Goldstone report should recognize that Israel is strong enough to withstand inquiry. Self-reflection is one of the hallmarks of a strong democracy. In fact, Israel has investigated itself in the past in connection with the Sabra and Shatila incidents. When nations like the United States, Israel, South Africa and others have pursued the truth through investigations — however uncomfortable — their people and politics have emerged stronger.

We stand for the values of democracy, truth and justice. There is no reason for Congress, Israel or any other party to fear an honest judge. Richard Goldstone is such a judge, and his report should be studied, not dismissed.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Wall Street Journal: Haven for Disabled Workers Feels Job Market's Sting

Clare Ansberry of the Wall Street Journal has an excellent article on the difficulties of a company that provides jobs for workers with developmental and other disabilities. The company had been quite successful at placing workers with disabilities. However, 60-70% of their revenue came from the auto industry, and almost all of that has dried up for obvious reasons. It is not easy to place such individuals, but work gives them critical economic security and an equally critical sense of self-worth.

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Robert Ertle, 30, has cerebral palsy and can't walk. But he can assemble car parts at a special table designed for him. After one of his frequent brain operations, he's apt to argue with his mother, Dawn Cleveland, that he should go back to work immediately.

"I like to be busy," he says.

Mr. Ertle works for Lott Industries, a nonprofit organization that trains adults with developmental disabilities to do light assembly work and other tasks. In 1993, Lott became the only program of its kind to earn the auto industry's prestigious Quality One supplier award.

Now, Lott and its 1,200 workers are in danger of becoming another casualty of recession. Seven major contracts vanished in late 2007, representing 80% of its business, when Ford Motor Co. closed a nearby stamping plant. Next, in 2008, went the General Motors contract for truck transmission parts. Earlier this year, business with a Honda parts supplier dropped off. Cleaning and other nonautomotive work also dried up as companies brought those functions back in-house to keep their own employees busy.

Lott's struggles show how an economic pall can be particularly tough on the disabled, a group that suffers from chronically low employment. As early as the 1940s, the government launched "Hire the Handicapped" campaigns, urging companies to recruit disabled veterans -- many of them missing limbs -- in a show of patriotism and goodwill. While industry supported the idea in theory, preconceptions about worker limitations often damped opportunities.

Progress has been particularly difficult for developmentally challenged adults -- those who have lifelong impairments such as autism, brain injury or Down syndrome. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 barred employers from discriminating against workers with disabilities and forced them to make reasonable accommodations -- such as wheelchair ramps -- so that qualified disabled people wouldn't be shut out from jobs. But the act didn't do anything to compel companies to hire employees with more severe mental and physical limitations. Unemployment within the nation's developmentally challenged population hovers around 80%.

Lott has been a barrier-breaker. It was founded in the 1940s by Josina Lott, a teacher who believed that children with developmental disabilities should have the chance to make a living. Over the years, it earned a name in the auto industry, where companies like Ford were flush with business and willing to give Lott's eager work force a chance.

"[Lott] was ahead of the curve," says Charles Lakin, who heads a University of Minnesota program that tracks services to the developmentally disabled. Too often, he says, programs provided training for jobs that never came up, like "screwing nuts on bolts, even though no one screws nuts on bolts." Lott also offered benefits, like paid sick leave and 15 holidays.

Despite the Detroit inroads, Lott's ranks are stalled as workers cope with pay cuts and a murky future. Because Lott is classified as a training organization, they do not qualify for unemployment. New gigs aren't likely to materialize soon, due to intense competition in the Toledo area. The city's jobless rate stands above 12%.

Joan Uhl Browne, Lott's president, wakes up in the middle of the night thinking "Oh my God, what am I going to do? It's not like other places where you risk your job and reputation if you mess up," she says. "Here if I screw up, I mess up a lot of people's lives."

All of Lott's workers have developmental impairments. Some are in wheelchairs. Others have autism. Over the years, they've tried with little success to work in restaurants or supermarkets, wiping tables and stocking shelves. One deaf man was dismissed from a local grocery for poor communication skills.

For many, the realities of the downturn are tough to process. Lott's employees don't understand why their work went away or that broader remote forces -- like oil prices and imports -- have been partly to blame. They thought they had done something wrong. Many refused to do other work, less out of stubbornness than bewilderment. "I do Ford. I make those cars," they would tell Gail Little, the Lott supervisor who was the customer liaison with Ford. "I would say, 'Honey, Ford isn't here."

Some had been with Lott since high school. Now middle aged, they had come to rely on Lott for a livelihood and self esteem that is often elusive for those with disabilities.

Eduard Kemp, 46, has had seizures since he was 6 and lives with his mother, Pearline, 79, in Toledo. A few years ago, after her husband died, Pearline suggested moving south to Memphis to be with her family. "He didn't want to move because he loves Lott," she says. His co-workers elected him president of the employee council. Eventually, he earned enough at Lott to buy his own drum set and computer. Because of employees like him, "we have to find work," says Ms. Uhl Browne.

At this point, Lott's revenues are less than half of what they were two years ago. With business evaporating, Lott began burning reserves to maintain its average $101,000 biweekly payroll. Wages and sick pay were reduced, although no workers have been released.

Ms. Uhl Browne's small staff has been scrambling to replace the auto contracts. They've cast a wide net, cold-calling businesses offering to label bottles and bundle linoleum. While dining at the bar of a local restaurant, Ms. Uhl Browne overheard a conversation between a father and son regarding their bookselling business. They needed to unload unwanted volumes. "I butted in," she says. A deal to sell Lott's document destruction services was later struck.

Lott had scored its first contract with Ford in 1980, stapling felt pads to pieces that later went into the racy and powerful Thunderbird. Workers assembled parts in an old industrial three-story building. When elevators broke, employees formed lines handing goods to one another and then down the steps to get them out the door in time. That early relationship helped Lott become essentially self-sustaining, enabling it to buy its own equipment and operate largely without subsidies from the state or federal government.

In 1993 Ford told Lott that if it wanted to continue doing business with the auto giant, it had to earn the highest quality certification, called Q1 -- just like the rest of its suppliers.

"There was going to be no more hand holding," recalls Ms. Little. Lott embarked on an intensive overhaul. It invested in new computers and training. It engineered special tables and hand-held tools for those in wheelchairs and with limited fine motor skills to help them attach clips and clamps to plastic fender and wheel parts.

Ford officials spent five days at its factory inspecting operations. Before leaving, they said Lott would be recommended for the prestigious Q1 award. "It was the greatest day of my life," says Ms. Little. Workers celebrated with an outing to the Toledo Zoo. All received blue Ford jackets.

Soon, Lott was shipping directly to Ford plants in Kentucky, Illinois and Michigan, with quality and on time ratings exceeding 99%, according to data compiled by Lott for Ford. It expanded to three production sites, with close to 300,000 square feet, and began assembling head rests and hoses for Jeep, GM, and Chrysler. By 2006, revenue reached $7 million, with Ford generating about 75%. The rest came from other car makers and non-auto assembling, packaging, recycling, and maintenance jobs.

Assembly-type work, tedious to others, was ideal for Lott employees, who thrived repeating and mastering a single activity. Taking ownership in their work, they asked to visit the Ford stamping plant to see where their parts fit onto vans and trucks and wore Ford baseball hats.

Stars like Patty Zawierucha emerged. Her specialty was belly pans and splash shields. "I loved them," says Ms. Zawierucha, 60, who has a learning disability. She preferred using her hands, now proudly calloused, instead of specially engineered tools because she could work faster that way. At times, her output was so far above average that supervisors suspected a data-entry error. Joe Murnen, chief operations officer, stood next to her and tried to match her numbers. "I tried but I just couldn't do it," he says.

Depending on the type of job, Lott workers are either paid minimum wage of $7.30 an hour or a piece rate, which is based on the competitive prevailing wage. With volumes currently down, that's translated into smaller paychecks for many Lott employees.

Michael Peters, 44, was dubbed Speedy Gonzales, "because I was so fast" adding clips, pins and foam strips to parts, he says. While working for Ford, he earned $800 and $900 every two weeks, which was enough to support his mother, Martha, in their home. "I was paying for all the household bills for me and my mom," says Mr. Peters, who wears a photo of his now-deceased mother, on a metal tag around his neck.

Mr. Peters's diligence, mirrored by many others, earned the respect of those around them. "A lot of regular guys in life think how to cheat and steal from the system," says Mike Walker, who supervises Mr. Peters and others. "These guys work hard."

Robert Ertle, the 30-year old who can't walk, is industrious by nature. In the evenings, antsy to get out of his wheelchair, he will crawl out to the garage to clean his mother's car.

"Lott is the best thing that ever happened to him," says his mother, Ms. Cleveland.

That sense of stability was shaken when Ford launched its Way Forward program in 2006. It was a much-needed restructuring aimed at saving billions by closing more than a dozen factories, including the Maumee stamping plant, which was Lott's major customer.

Ms. Little was devastated. "We worked so hard to get that business," says Ms. Little, noting that Lott workers would sometimes find problems with the auto parts and help resolve them.

"It was nothing that Lott did or didn't do. We were appreciative of the work they did and the dedication the employees showed," says Ford spokesman Todd Nissen.

Lott President Ms. Uhl Browne, a former consultant in higher education, was hired a few months before the Ford contract ended. "I knew it was going to happen, but knowing it and living are it are two different things," she says.

After losing the Ford work, Lott secured a GM contract and invested $100,000 in equipment. Lott anticipated the arrangement to last for three or four years -- enough time to warrant the capital investment. Instead, that work dried up by the end of 2008. A GM spokesman says it was never meant to be a long-term contract. Lott says the business went away faster than expected.

It obtained another auto-related contract for more than 20 small parts for a Honda supplier. Almost immediately, the expected volume began shrinking and was cut by more than 40%.

Meanwhile, Lott's other business took a hit from the financial crisis and recession. Paper mills wouldn't accept recycled paper because prices had tanked. Local companies that employed crews of Lott workers to clean or load boxes cancelled those contracts, or greatly reduced volume.

Revenues fell to $2.6 million, with a scant $100,000 trickling in from the auto-supply business. "And we really hustled to get that," says Jeff Holland, Lott's chief financial officer.

Even though contracts were dwindling, Lott employees continued coming to work, doing odd jobs like shredding paper and repairing wooden pallets. At first Lott tried to maintain their average biweekly pay of about $200 by tapping its investment reserves. But the fund was losing money. "We had to stop," says Ms. Uhl Browne. Workers receive only what they actually earned -- even if it was just $24 every two weeks.

The speedy Mr. Peters could no longer afford the $500 a month payments to stay in his house so he moved into an apartment. Lott contacted a social-service organization to help him and others pay their bills and manage their money.

Pockets of optimism remain. The "Cash for Clunkers" stimulus effort helped revive flagging volume at the Honda supplier. A few other contracts have come through in recent weeks. One involves sorting, labeling and stacking decorative panels on pallets for delivery to retailers like Lowe's. Another short-term stint labeling containers will occupy some workers for three to four months.

"We're keeping everyone busy but we're still losing money," says Ms. Uhl Browne. "We're not out of the woods."

Washington Post: Racial pawns in the battle for same-sex marriage

Taylor Harris writes a guest op-ed for the Washington Post, giving a view of same-sex marriage from his perspective as an African-American man. It is easy for non-African Americans who support LGBT rights to dismiss his commentary as bigotry, but advocates would be well-advised to understand where he, and many African Americans, is coming from.

Their refrain was as familiar to me as dining hall food, and equally as offensive. All too often, white liberal classmates at the University of Virginia would ask, "Shouldn't blacks, more than any other group, support gay rights?"

I never understood my classmates' need to align the historical struggles of blacks with those of homosexuals and then push their quadratic equation of oppression on me. Was not one point of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," a classic text for college seminars, that blacks deserve an existence free from an assigned role? That they should not be pawns in any social movement? And even if they hadn't read the book, wasn't it clear that stereotypical assumptions based on race are regressive?

Hearing that from my white peers was one thing -- they and I often viewed race through different lenses, with mine being one shade darker than rose. But last month, one of our greatest civil rights leaders also sang the same cacophonous tune in an attempt to peg African Americans' morals and opinions to our socio-historical identities.

"Black people, of all people, should not oppose equality," Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, declared at the National Equality March in Washington.

To be clear, Bond has used this line several times, and when he says "equality," he isn't talking about the right to vote, the right to eat at a public restaurant, the right to attend an integrated school or the right to a fair trial. He is talking about the right to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

With all due respect, which Bond certainly deserves, this black person doesn't agree. And neither do two-thirds of black Protestants, according to an Oct. 9 Pew Research Center poll. Echoing President Lyndon Johnson's words at the signing of the Voting Rights Act, Bond said, gay marriage "must come; it is right that it should come. And when it has, you will find that a burden has been lifted from your shoulders."

He is right about that last point. If gay marriage is legalized, as it will be in the District this year barring congressional interference, blacks who have a moral aversion to same-sex marriage will no longer be tethered to expectations that don't bind any other racial or ethnic group.

Perhaps Bond fails to realize that he is unfairly requiring another form of "two-ness" among African Americans. Already, being both an American and black is difficult, as W.E.B. DuBois wrote. But so is being an African American and a Christian. Asking those 66 percent of black Protestants to look at religion through the veil of race is not the place even of Martin Luther King Jr.'s comrade.

Plus, the "black guilt" tactic doesn't work. If gay marriage were put to a popular vote in the District (where 55 percent of residents are African American) and failed, blacks would again take the brunt of criticism from gay rights activists. Yet no one is talking about blacks' "understanding" since same-sex marriage was voted down this month in Maine, because no one is even sure whether black people live there.

Maine is the 31st state in which a majority of voters have chosen to uphold the traditional definition of marriage. There aren't enough black people in America to hold responsible for all of those outcomes -- we're only 12.8 percent of the population.

The refrain will eventually have to change to pinpoint white evangelicals, 77 percent of whom oppose same-sex marriage. And here is the crux of the problem, the point at which we can't deny the separate and unequal treatment of blacks: What race-based fire can activists put under white Americans who refuse a new definition of marriage? None.

At best, the message to black Americans is one of skewed motivation: You were once treated as secondclass citizens. You should feel flattered by the two movements' similarities and compelled to join the fight. At worst, the message is insulting. In a recent column on same-sex marriage and those who would play the race card, the Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby summed up the linkage as: "For if opposing same-sex marriage is like opposing civil rights, then voters who backed Proposition 8 are no better than racists, the moral equivalent of those who turned the fire hoses on blacks in Birmingham in 1963."

I'm sorry, Julian. I wasn't there with you in 1963 to fight, but I still can't be your George Wallace today.

Taylor Harris is a graduate student in the writing program at Johns Hopkins University.

Sojourners blog: Obama’s Bow and R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon has a short but meaningful piece on the topic of President Obama's bow to the Japanese Emperor.

The gospel according to Aretha Franklin says: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me.”

Biblical wisdom teaches: “Give everyone what you owe him. If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:7 NIV)

President Obama’s critics have complained that he bowed too deeply to the emperor of Japan during his current trip to Asia. The argument is that such a gesture demonstrates an undue deference. It is a sign of weakness. It flies in the face of America’s value that all are created equal. I say: President Obama’s bow was a gesture of respect that does not diminish America’s greatness but rather demonstrates our self confidence and our magnanimity.

First, one cannot give what one does not have. A gesture of respect for another can only come from a strong sense of self-respect. And just as in every other act of generosity, the more one gives, the more one receives. Respect is a central element in just peacemaking. However, respect as a moral virtue is not given because we expect anything in return. It is given as a pure gift, as an act of justice.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote about the gift as something that we give without expectation of return. A gift is only a gift when it is not recognized as such. To give a gift with an expectation of return turns the gift into a trade. President Obama’s gesture of respect was a gift to the Japanese people. It was a sign of respect for their traditions of courtesy. It was a sign of respect for the emperor who is a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people. In bowing to him, President Obama was recognizing Japan, its geography, its people, its history, including the tragic history of war between our nations. It implicitly recognized the horror of nuclear war that the United States unleashed upon Japan. It was fitting that the bow should be deep.

Second, respect as a moral virtue is a form of justice. Justice says we ought to give everyone and everything their due. Respect is the justice of recognition, of acknowledgment, or paying proper attention. It is due regard. It is a way of saying that the individual, and in the case of the emperor of Japan, that which he symbolizes, is worthy of our regard, that we see an intrinsic dignity present.

There is a dignity that inheres in every human being. This is not the only occasion where we have seen President Obama bow deeply before another human being. During a conversation in the oval office about haircuts, the president bowed deeply before a child, so that the child could see the top of his head. This too was a gesture of respect, even love.

I am grateful that we have a president who will bow before emperors and children, who is confident enough in his own power and the greatness of our nation to demonstrate good manners and to show respect.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ekklesia: Sharing a liberation meal

As Americans go to share Thanksgiving meals with family, Rev. Giles Fraser writes for Ekklesia about the liberation meal that Christians share over Eucharist:

“I promise you that many will come from the East and from the West to take their place at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in heaven’s reign.” So it says in Matthew's Gospel (8.11).

Well, we as a family drove up from south to North London, from Putney to Finchley. And there we took our place around the dining- room table to celebrate Passover with our friends the Levys.

As well as the traditional Haggadah, with readings and singing in Hebrew and English, there were readings about slavery from the American South and from the War saw ghetto. We were reminded how many people continue to live in slavery of one sort or another, whether as sex workers or as child soldiers or through sheer poverty.

We listened to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech with that extraordinarily rousing climax: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Chag pesach sameach — Happy Passover.

For well over 3,000 years, Jews have been celebrating the escape of the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. In every country on the earth and in every conceivable circumstance, this great cry of freedom has rung out to challenge and inspire. Long may it continue.

Christians have their own version of this celebration: the eucharist. Yes, there is some dispute about whether the Last Supper was itself a Passover meal, the Synoptic Gospels indicat ing that it was and John’s Gospel that it wasn’t. But even those scholars who side more with John (and I don’t) recognise that the institution of the eucharist contains a high de gree of cultural sampling from the seder.

Which means that when we gather round the Lord’s table, we are celebrating our liberation from slavery recognised in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

These days, many self-describing “orthodox” theologians spend their lives falling over themselves to be rude about freedom as a theological principle, dismissing it as a function of liberalism or capitalism, thinking of it as mere wilful self-assertiveness.

Others dismiss liberation-based theologies as being responsible for what they see as the decline in serious theology in the United States, arguing that “serious theology” has been replaced by a politically correct obsession with victims and the marginalised.

This is total bunkum. To under stand the eucharist as a Passover meal is to recognise that the great cry of freedom is loaded deep within the DNA of all orthodox Christian theology. It has nothing to do with liberalism. Freedom is the beating heart of the story of Easter. Our salvation is thus: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!


(c) Giles Fraser is Anglican vicar of Putney, south London. He contributed a chapter called 'Easter's Hawks and Doves' to Ekklesia's 2005 book on the atonement, Consuming Passion: Why the killing of Jesus really matters - edited by Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley (Darton, Longman and Todd).

This article is adapted from Giles' regular Church Times column, with acknowledgment.

Ekklesia: How 'unity' can sacrifice justice

Savitri Hensman, writing for the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia, tells us why the search for unity must not sacrifice justice, making excellent and very clear connections between Scripture and global issues.

In August 2008, the prime minister of Japan broke with tradition by refusing to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honours two-and-a-half million Japanese war dead. Some of those commemorated had been found guilty of war crimes during the Second World War.

In the run-up to that war, the Shinto religion had been used to unite the Japanese people behind an increasingly militaristic state. While the sacrifice of those in the military who gave their lives was in some cases truly heroic, the cause was unworthy, bringing great suffering to many peoples, including the Japanese themselves.

The themes of unity and sacrifice can be found in many religious traditions. These can have negative as well as positive aspects, though it is easier to recognise this in faiths other than one’s own. There is a difference between an ascetic giving up comfort and security in the quest to become wiser and kinder and a widow being persuaded to throw herself into her husband’s funeral pyre in the custom of suttee. Though God, being merciful and aware of the human tendency to get things wrong, may give people credit even for misplaced piety, some practices are damaging, even to those communities whose unity they are supposed to cement.

The Bible indicates something of the complexity of such concepts. There is a difference between the attempt to create unity by fashioning a golden calf (Exodus 32) and the gift of unity through Christ (John 17.20-26), sacrificing sons and daughters to Molech (Jeremiah 32.35) and dying to an old self enslaved by sin so that one can be born into the freedom of the Holy Spirit (Romans 7.4-6, Galatians 5.16-24).

Indeed, sociologist and theologian René Girard has argued that religious ritual often involves uniting communities, at least temporarily, through finding a scapegoat who is sacrificed, literally or symbolically. In his view, Christianity can break through this pattern by enabling people to identify with the victim: through the crucified Christ, we can be freed from the urge to find outsiders to victimise but can instead recognise our common humanity, overcoming our divisions with our neighbours in a way that does not harm others. In today’s world, where societies are often highly competitive and unstable, it can indeed be tempting for people to feel a sense of togetherness, at least for a while, by uniting against a common target.

In responding to recent divisions in churches, some bishops have urged sacrifice in the interests of unity. After all, are these not religious values? However, it is prudent in such circumstances to probe more deeply. What sacrifice will be required, and from whom? What kind of unity is likely to result, and will this be short-lived? Will existing power relationships and prejudices be undermined or reinforced? How closely does this resemble the actions of Jesus and other great leaders who reached out to the most marginalised, and inspired those around them to show compassion across social barriers?

In doing this, it may be helpful to draw on the insights of social science, and the observations of perceptive commentators outside one’s own tradition. It is all too easy for the suffering of those with less prestige or power, or whose experience is outside the mainstream, to be underestimated. Many pious Japanese, for instance, still do not fully understand why many Chinese and Koreans were so distressed when former prime ministers of Japan paid their respects at the Yasukuni shrine.

Sometimes it will indeed be worth giving up something precious for a greater good. But in other circumstances, mercy should perhaps be valued above sacrifice (Matthew 9.13), and divisions may need to be exposed (Matthew 10.16-39) before a deeper unity can be achieved.

(c) Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka and works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK. She is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi is author of a number of research essays and a regular column. She has contributed several chapters to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

NYT: Right and Left Join to Oppose Government in Criminal Cases

Adam Liptak writes for the NYT.

WASHINGTON — In the next several months, the Supreme Court will decide at least a half-dozen cases about the rights of people accused of crimes involving drugs, sex and corruption. Civil liberties groups and associations of defense lawyers have lined up on the side of the accused.

But so have conservative, libertarian and business groups. Their briefs and public statements are signs of an emerging consensus on the right that the criminal justice system is an aspect of big government that must be contained.

The development represents a sharp break with tough-on-crime policies associated with the Republican Party since the Nixon administration.

“It’s a remarkable phenomenon,” said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “The left and the right have bent to the point where they are now in agreement on many issues. In the area of criminal justice, the whole idea of less government, less intrusion, less regulation has taken hold.”

Edwin Meese III, who was known as a fervent supporter of law and order as attorney general in the Reagan administration, now spends much of his time criticizing what he calls the astounding number and vagueness of federal criminal laws.

Mr. Meese once referred to the American Civil Liberties Union as part of the “criminals’ lobby.” These days, he said, “in terms of working with the A.C.L.U., if they want to join us, we’re happy to have them.”

Dick Thornburgh, who succeeded Mr. Meese as attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and stayed on under President George Bush, echoed that sentiment in Congressional testimony in July.

“The problem of overcriminalization is truly one of those issues upon which a wide variety of constituencies can agree,” Mr. Thornburgh said. “Witness the broad and strong support from such varied groups as the Heritage Foundation, the Washington Legal Foundation, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the A.B.A., the Cato Institute, the Federalist Society and the A.C.L.U.”

In an interview at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group where he is a fellow, Mr. Meese said the “liberal ideas of extending the power of the state” were to blame for an out-of-control criminal justice system. “Our tradition has always been,” he said, “to construe criminal laws narrowly to protect people from the power of the state.”

There are, the foundation says, more than 4,400 criminal offenses in the federal code, many of them lacking a requirement that prosecutors prove traditional kinds of criminal intent.

“It’s a violation of federal law to give a false weather report,” Mr. Meese said. “People get put in jail for importing lobsters.”

Such so-called overcriminalization is at the heart of the conservative critique of crime policy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce made the point in a recent friend-of-the-court brief about a federal law often used to prosecute corporate executives and politicians. The law, which makes it a crime for officials to defraud their employers of “honest services,” is, the brief said, both “unintelligible” and “used to target a staggeringly broad swath of behavior.”

The Supreme Court will hear three cases concerning the honest-services law this term, indicating an exceptional interest in the topic.

Harvey A. Silverglate, a left-wing civil liberties lawyer in Boston, says he has been surprised and delighted by the reception that his new book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” has gotten in conservative circles. (A Heritage Foundation official offered this reporter a copy.)

The book argues that federal criminal law is so comprehensive and vague that all Americans violate it every day, meaning prosecutors can indict anyone at all.

“Libertarians and the civil liberties left have always had some common ground on these issues,” said Radley Balko, a senior editor at Reason, a libertarian magazine. “The more vocal presence of conservatives on overcriminalization issues is really what’s new.”

Several strands of conservatism have merged in objecting to aspects of the criminal justice system. Some conservatives are suspicious of all government power, while others insist that the federal government has been intruding into matters the Constitution reserves to the states.

In January, for instance, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in United States v. Comstock, about whether Congress has the constitutional power to authorize the continued confinement of people convicted of sex crimes after they have completed their criminal sentences.

Then there are conservatives who worry about government seizure of private property said to have been used to facilitate crimes, an issue raised in Alvarez v. Smith, which was argued in October.

“A joint on a yacht, and the whole thing is forfeited,” said Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah and a former federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush.

Some religious groups object to prison policies that appear to ignore the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption, and fiscal conservatives are concerned about the cost of maintaining the world’s largest prison population.

“Conservatives now recognize the economic consequences of a criminal justice leviathan,” said Erik Luna, a law professor at Washington and Lee University.

The roots of the conservative re-examination of crime policy might also be found in the jurisprudence of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. The two justices, joined by liberal colleagues, have said the original meaning of the Constitution required them to rule against the government in, among other areas, the rights of criminal defendants to confront witnesses.

“Scalia and Thomas are vanguards of an understanding by the modern right that its distrust of government extends all the way to the criminal justice system,” said Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University.

The court will hear another confrontation clause case, Briscoe v. Virginia, in January. It is a sequel to a decision in June that prosecutors may not use crime lab reports without live testimony from the analysts who prepared them.

The conservative re-evaluation of crime policy is not universal, of course. Two notable exceptions to the trend, said Timothy Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s criminal justice project, are Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

“Roberts and Alito are coming down consistently on the side of the government in these criminal justice cases,” Mr. Lynch said.

Some scholars are skeptical about conservatives’ timing and motives, noting that their voices are rising during a Democratic administration and amid demands for accountability for the economic crisis.

“The Justice Department now acts as a kind of counterweight to corporate power,” said Frank O. Bowman, a law professor at the University of Missouri. “On the other side is an alliance between two strands of conservative thinking, the libertarian point of view and the corporate wing of the Republican Party.”

Mr. Meese acknowledged that the current climate was not the ideal one for his point of view. “We picked by accident a time,” he said, “when it was not a very popular topic in light of corporate frauds.”

NYT: 3 Clergymen tell how differences of faith led to friendship

Laurie Goodstein writes for the NYT.

NASHVILLE — It sounds like the start of a joke: a rabbi, a minister and a Muslim sheik walk into a restaurant.

The three say they became close not by avoiding or glossing over their conflicts, but by running straight at them.
But there they were, Rabbi Ted Falcon, the Rev. Don Mackenzie and Sheik Jamal Rahman, walking into an Indian restaurant, and afterward a Presbyterian church. The sanctuary was full of 250 people who came to hear them talk about how they had wrestled with their religious differences and emerged as friends.

They call themselves the “interfaith amigos.” And while they do sometimes seem more like a stand-up comedy team than a trio of clergymen, they know they have a serious burden in making a case for interfaith understanding in a country reeling after a Muslim Army officer at Fort Hood, Tex., was charged with opening fire on his fellow soldiers, killing 13.

“It arouses once again fear, distrust and doubt,” Sheik Rahman said, “and I know that when that happens, even the best of people cannot think clearly.”

The three say they became close not by avoiding or glossing over their conflicts, but by running straight at them. They put everything on the table: the verses they found offensive in one another’s holy books, anti-Semitism, violence in the name of religion, claims by each faith to have the exclusive hold on truth, and, of course, Israel.

“One of the problems in the past with interfaith dialogue is we’ve been too unwilling to upset each other,” Rabbi Falcon told the crowd at the Second Presbyterian Church here. “We try to honor the truth. This is the truth for you, and this is the truth for me. It may not be reconcilable, but it is important to refuse to make the other the enemy.”

Asked what is the hardest issue they have faced, the minister and the sheik simultaneously said, “Israel.”

“Yeah,” the rabbi said, “ ’cause these guys still don’t understand.”

Across the country, interfaith initiatives are multiplying. Jews and Christians have held dialogues for years, but after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many local interfaith groups decided it was urgent to include Muslims. Many Muslims were eager, too, concerned that their faith not be defined by terrorism. There are now interfaith Thanksgivings, interfaith college clubs, interfaith women’s groups and interfaith teams building affordable housing. On Nov. 14 and 15, 100 synagogues and mosques in North America and Europe paired up for dialogues and joint social service projects.

What distinguishes the “amigos,” who live in Seattle but make presentations around the country, is a unique approach to what they call “the spirituality of interfaith relations.” At the church in Nashville, the three clergymen, dressed in dark blazers, stood up one by one and declared what they most valued as the core teachings of their tradition The minister said “unconditional love.” The sheik said “compassion.” And the rabbi said “oneness.”

The room then grew quiet as each stood and recited what he regarded as the “untruths” in his own faith. The minister said that one “untruth” for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.”

“It is a verse taken out of context,” Sheik Rahman said, pointing out that the previous verse says that God has no love for aggressors. “But we have to acknowledge that ‘kill the unbelievers’ is an awkward verse,’ ” the sheik said as the crowd laughed. “Some verses are literal, some are metaphorical, but the Koran doesn’t say which is which.”

Clearly, all three clergymen are in the liberal wing of their respective faiths. Mr. Mackenzie, 65, is a minister in the United Church of Christ, and recently retired from leading a large congregation, the University Congregational U.C.C., in Seattle. As a young man, he taught in Lebanon.

Rabbi Falcon, 67, is a Reform rabbi with a doctorate in clinical psychology who founded synagogues in Los Angeles and Seattle that meld meditation with Jewish tradition.

Sheik Rahman, 59, is a Sufi, a path of Islam focused more on spiritual wisdom than strict ritual. He is the son of a diplomat from Bangladesh, which helps explain his courtly ease. He co-founded an unusual mixed-faith congregation in Seattle, the Interfaith Community Church.

The minister and the rabbi met in a Christian-Jewish dialogue group, and the rabbi and the sheik met later when they were both on the board of a fledgling university that never got off the ground. After Sept. 11, Rabbi Falcon reached out to Sheik Rahman. They conducted several interfaith workshops, and for the first anniversary of the attacks, Rabbi Falcon invited Mr. Mackenzie to get involved, and the events were held at Mr. Mackenzie’s church. When they were over, the three said to one another, why stop now?

They began to meet weekly for spiritual direction, combining mutual support with theological reflection. Their families became acquainted over meals. They started an AM radio show, and they traveled together to Israel and the occupied territories. Recently, they wrote a book, “Getting to the Heart of Interfaith,” (Skylight Paths, 2009).

At one point, the rabbi read a line the sheik had written about the security wall in Israel and announced, “If that line is in the book, I’m not in the book.” After vigorous discussion, Sheik Rahman rewrote the line in a way that both men felt was respectful of their principles.

In the question-and-answer period at the church here, one woman challenged, “It would behoove you to start speaking in mosques.” (They already have some mosque events planned.) Others asked for practical steps to build bridges.

Afterward, Mark Wingate, a computer programmer and a Methodist, said: “Talking about the untruths of each tradition is very courageous. It gets it out of the platitude category and into dialogue.”

Mr. Wingate’s wife, Sally, added: “They had to work really hard to get to that point. Most of us are not willing to work that hard.”

New York Times: Donaldson Institute Study Details Struggles of Korean Adoptees

Ron Nixon writes for the New York Times.

As a child, Kim Eun Mi Young hated being different.

When her father brought home toys, a record and a picture book on South Korea, the country from which she was adopted in 1961, she ignored them.

Growing up in Georgia, Kansas and Hawaii, in a military family, she would date only white teenagers, even when Asian boys were around.

“At no time did I consider myself anything other than white,” said Ms. Young, 48, who lives in San Antonio. “I had no sense of any identity as a Korean woman. Dating an Asian man would have forced me to accept who I was.”

It was not until she was in her 30s that she began to explore her Korean heritage. One night, after going out to celebrate with her husband at the time, she says she broke down and began crying uncontrollably.

“I remember sitting there thinking, where is my mother? Why did she leave me? Why couldn’t she struggle to keep me?” she said. “That was the beginning of my journey to find out who I am.”

The experiences of Ms. Young are common among adopted children from Korea, according to one of the largest studies of transracial adoptions, which is to be released on Monday. The report, which focuses on the first generation of children adopted from South Korea, found that 78 percent of those who responded had considered themselves to be white or had wanted to be white when they were children. Sixty percent indicated their racial identity had become important by the time they were in middle school, and, as adults, nearly 61 percent said they had traveled to Korea both to learn more about the culture and to find their birth parents.

Like Ms. Young, most Korean adoptees were raised in predominantly white neighborhoods and saw few, if any, people who looked like them. The report also found that the children were teased and experienced racial discrimination, often from teachers. And only a minority of the respondents said they felt welcomed by members of their own ethnic group.

As a result, many of them have had trouble coming to terms with their racial and ethnic identities.

The report was issued by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit adoption research and policy group based in New York. Since 1953, parents in the United States have adopted more than a half-million children from other countries, the vast majority of them from orphanages in Asia, South America and, most recently, Africa. Yet the impact of such adoptions on identity has been only sporadically studied. The authors of the Donaldson Adoption Institute study said they hoped their work would guide policymakers, parents and adoption agencies in helping the current generation of children adopted from Asian countries to form healthy identities.

“So much of the research on transracial adoption has been done from the perspective of adoptive parents or adolescent children,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the institute. “We wanted to be able to draw on the knowledge and life experience of a group of individuals who can provide insight into what we need to do better.”

The study recommends several changes in adoption practices that the institute said are important, including better support for adoptive parents and recognition that adoption grows in significance for their children from young adulthood on, and throughout adulthood.

South Korea was the first country from which Americans adopted in significant numbers. From 1953 to 2007, an estimated 160,000 South Korean children were adopted by people from other countries, most of them in the United States. They make up the largest group of transracial adoptees in the United States and, by some estimates, are 10 percent of the nation’s Korean population.

The report says that significant changes have occurred since the first generation of adopted children were brought to the United States, a time when parents were told to assimilate the children into their families without regard for their native culture.

Yet even adoptees who are exposed to their culture and have parents who discuss issues of race and discrimination say they found it difficult growing up.

Heidi Weitzman, who was adopted from Korea when she was 7 months old and who grew up in ethnically mixed neighborhoods in St. Paul, said her parents were in touch with other parents with Korean children and even offered to send her to a “culture camp” where she could learn about her heritage.

“But I hated it,” said Ms. Weitzman, a mental health therapist in St. Paul. “I didn’t want to do anything that made me stand out as being Korean. Being surrounded by people who were blonds and brunets, I just thought that I was white.” It was not until she moved to New York after college that she began to become comfortable with being Korean.

Enlarge This Image

J. Michael Short for The New York Times
Ms. Young's visa and items that came with her from South Korea when she was adopted in 1961.
Times Topics: Adoptions

“I was 21 before I could look in the mirror and not be surprised by what I saw staring back at me,” she said. “The process of discovering who I am has been a long process, and I’m still on it.”

Ms. Weitzman’s road to self-discovery was fairly typical of the 179 Korean adoptees with two Caucasian parents who responded to the Donaldson Adoption Institute survey. Most said they began to think of themselves more as Korean when they attended college or moved to ethnically diverse neighborhoods as adults.

For Joel Ballantyne, a high school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who was adopted by white parents in 1977, the study confirms many of the feelings that he and other adoptees have tried to explain for years.

“This offers proof that we’re not crazy or just being ungrateful to our adoptive parents when we talk about our experiences,” said Mr. Ballantyne, 35, who was adopted at age 3 and who grew up in Alabama, Texas and, finally, California.

Jennifer Town, 33, agreed.

“A lot of adoptees have problems talking about these issues with their adoptive families,” she said. “They take it as some kind of rejection of them when we’re just trying to figure out who we are.”

Ms. Towns, who was adopted in 1979 and raised in a small town in Minnesota, recalled that during college, when she announced that she was going to Korea to find out more about her past, her parents “freaked out.”

“They saw it as a rejection,” she said. “My adoptive mother is really into genealogy, tracing her family to Sweden, and she was upset with me because I wanted to find out who I was.”

Mr. Ballantyne said he received a similar reaction when he told his parents of plans to travel to Korea.

The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s study concludes that such trips are among the many ways that parents and adoption agencies could help adoptees deal with their struggle with identity and race. But both Ms. Towns and Mr. Ballantyne said that while traveling to South Korea was an eye-opening experience in many ways, it was also disheartening.

Many Koreans, they said, did not consider them to be “real Koreans” because they did not speak the language or seem to understand the culture.

Mr. Ballantyne tracked down his maternal grandmother, but when he met her, he said, she scolded him for not learning Korean before he came.

“She was the one who had put me up for adoption,” he said. “So that just created tension between us. Even as I was leaving, she continued to say I needed to learn Korean before I came by again.”

Sonya Wilson, adopted in 1976 by a white family in Clarissa, Minn., says that although she shares many of the experiences of those interviewed in the study — she grew up as the only Asian in a town of 600 — policy changes must address why children are put up for adoption, and should do more to help single women in South Korea keep their children. “This study does not address any of these issues,” Ms. Wilson said.

Ms. Young said the study was helpful, but that it came too late to help people like her.

“I wish someone had done something like this when I was growing up,” she said.

Washington Post: Our leadership crisis: Where are the women?

Marie Wilson blogs on the Washington Post.

Marie C. Wilson is founder and president of The White House Project, co-creator of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work ® Day and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World.

In spite of Sarah Palin's prominence as best-selling author, Hillary Clinton's stature as Secretary of State, and 51% of the workforce now being female, we still face a crisis in women's leadership, according to The White House Project's just-published study, Benchmarking Women's Leadership.

The majority of Americans are comfortable with women leading in all sectors, but the reality is women hold only 18% of leadership positions across the 10 sectors we examined, including politics, business, law, sports, academia, journalism, religion, film/TV, nonprofit, and military.

In politics, for example, women have lost ground in the last decade as elected statewide executive officials and have made only incremental gains in Congress, where they currently comprise 17% of leadership. On a global scale, the U.S. ranks a dismal 71st out of 189 countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in terms of women in legislatures, trailing behind nations such as Pakistan, Cuba, and United Arab Emirates.

At Fortune 500 companies, women hold only 15% of board seats, 16% of corporate officer positions, and a mere 3% of CEO positions, while women of color make up only 3% of board officers and 1.7% of corporate officer positions.

Even in sectors that have traditionally welcomed women - such as the nonprofit field - the numbers reflect the same disparity. Women comprise 75% of nonprofit employees, but hold only 26% of leadership positions. Women nonprofit CEO's make only 74% of what their male counterparts earn.

The list goes on: from sports and military to religion and journalism, women are underrepresented in the halls of power and underpaid when they get there. So why does this matter, particularly when our nation faces such trying economic times?

As our Benchmarks report illustrates, the rose-colored lens through which we have examined gender in the workforce clouds this grim reality: women - and particularly women of color -- are far from achieving parity in the arenas in which their participation and inclusion matters most: positions of leadership. And contrary to the popular talking points of today, the cultural ideal for women has not shifted to an all-encompassing and gender-neutral space, but remains firmly embedded in models of wifedom and motherhood. If anything, there is evidence that this cultural ideal is becoming further entrenched as the economy triggers anxieties about gender roles within both the public and private spheres.

I have been an advocate for women's issues for over 30 years. From the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s to today's "post-modern" struggles for equality, I have learned three important things: increasing numbers and changing culture are not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing vehicles; action must be taken from the top down and the bottom up; and instituting change cannot be limited to one sector, but must be tackled in every sphere.

When we set out to write The Benchmarks Report, we were determined not only to puncture the conventional wisdom that women are leading in record numbers, but to poll experts in each sector and determine what steps need to be taken to achieve a critical mass of women leaders across the board. Here are our recommendations for closing the leadership gap:

• Work to achieve a critical mass of women in leadership roles in every sector. A critical mass of one-third or more women in leadership positions is essential for implementing and maintaining the changes recommended in this report.

• Use financial resources strategically. In choosing which firms to hire or which non-profits to fund, look through a gender lens, considering the representation of women, and women of color, on the board and in top leadership.

• Amplify women's voices in the public arena. Prominently include women leaders in public forums and media so that they in particular--and women in general--are recognized as role models and considered for boards and other top-level positions.

• Collect and analyze the data. Surprisingly little information exists regarding the representation of women, and particularly women of color, in positions of leadership in individual organizations. Regular tracking and reviewing of the numbers - including the wage gap --- are essential for setting benchmarks and monitoring progress.

• Maintain accountability through setting targets. If you lead an organization, set specific goals for including women in leadership. Create a timeline to achieve targets and impose actual consequences for failure to meet these targets.

• Improve flexibility in workplace structures. For women and men alike, increased flexibility--and a recognition of the need for work-life balance--promotes career satisfaction and job retention.

Nothing has surprised me more in working to advance women's leadership than women's own measurement of personal success and the routes they must navigate to get there. As a young woman in a major financial firm told me, "They watch you here, and if you are perceived to be too involved with your children, you are not seen as a good candidate for leadership. If you are not involved enough, you are seen as a bad mother and not to be trusted." I was shocked to hear that an older woman pulled her aside after the meeting and remarked, "There are lots of children you can love; go find them. But if you want to succeed here, don't have children of your own."

Unfortunately, that naysayer seems to be right. Perhaps that's why so many executive women who have been on the leadership track have chosen to never marry or have children (52% and 61%, respectively, according to a UCLA-Korn Ferry study; for executive men, 5% and 3%, respectively). The sacrifices women must make to ascend the leadership ranks are still disproportionate to those made by their male peers. Numbers like this show that the lack of flexibility and childcare in the U.S. is not improving fast enough to allow the numbers of women stuck in the pipeline to really ascend. Instead, they remain in lower positions or opt-out completely from the workforce. In either case, the pool of ideas, talent, and experience among our decision makers shrinks.

Over the long term, I am optimistic about making change. Three polls conducted over five years as part of our Benchmarks report revealed that 90 percent of Americans are comfortable with women leading across the ten sectors profiled, from business and politics to film and journalism. As a 2008 Pew Research Center study found, the public thinks that women - even more than men - have what it takes to be leaders in today's world, scoring women higher than men in five of eight character traits they value highly in their leaders. The recent report from Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, "A Woman's Nation," shows that, by and large, everyone believes that the inclusion of women at all levels, from government to business to our faith communities, is good for our economy and our country.

The acceleration in moving women into leadership will only occur if there is a thoughtful, creative, and committed approach to doing so. We must promote a national dialogue that sees women not as competitors for male jobs, but as allies in building a stronger economy and better institutions.

Most importantly, we need a cultural shift that values the unique leadership traits and diverse perspectives that both genders - men and women -- bring to the table, and a commitment to having them work side-by-side to tackle the challenges we collectively face. These are difficult times, indeed. Yet history has taught us that these are the moments which are ripe for greatness, if we dare to imagine and embrace a new way.