COMMENTARY: Somebody else's problem

(RNS) IBM's decision to cut loose 110,000 retirees from its company health plan continues a disturbing trend toward addressing problems by evading responsibility.

Rather than attack the problem of mounting health care costs -- a health care system that delivers less and costs more -- the tech giant unloads its retirees onto health-insurance exchanges and, eventually, onto taxpayers.

General Electric and Time Warner have done something similar, and an estimated 29 percent of companies are studying the idea.

In a similar manner, anti-abortion forces resist steps that would make it more difficult for young women to get pregnant and fight any steps to end pregnancies.

Instead of fixing a broken educational system, politicians cut school budgets, discourage classroom teachers, issue tests to measure how little U.S. children are learning and pour money into helping the advantaged stay advantaged.

Instead of giving an inch on gun controls, the gun lobby offered the insane suggestion that classroom teachers pack heat.

Rather than reform a health care system that favors the wealthy and harms the poor, New York state officials want to close more hospitals serving the poor -- beyond the 26 it has already closed in New York City.

Punishing the victim goes on and on. Raleigh, N.C., police threatened to arrest church members for daring to feed the homeless. New York City police stop and frisk young black men who would much rather have jobs than stand around on street corners.

The victim is an easy mark, of course. Clever bankers maneuver unsophisticated elderly into taking out reverse mortgages on their paid-for homes. States bail out foolish politicians and bureaucrats by unleashing casino gambling and lotteries on the unwary.

An attitude of scorn emerges. If some are suffering, it's their own fault. They should have paid attention in class -- never mind the hunger and chaotic home lives that dulled their desire to learn.

The poor need to get jobs, say the smug, while blocking efforts to create jobs. Immigrants just need to go home, say descendants of immigrants.

With money on the table, who cares about the victim? Businesses want customers, not liabilities. Schools want better test scores, not high-risk students. Churches want to throw dwindling funds at improving Sunday worship, rather than caring for the needy. Gun sellers want sales, not safety.

By their very nature, victims are tiresome. They lost. The pretty and handsome won, those born to privilege won, those lucky enough to get a good education won.

How do we deal with mounting resentment among downwardly mobile citizens? Funnel more wealth to the undeserving 1 percent, while subjecting the 99 percent to a maze of rules, police actions, dwindling benefits and a surveillance state.

Victims put up with it because victims become accustomed to losing. It isn't just abused women who protect their abusers.

I continue to believe that faith communities should, could and someday will step into this breach. If any organization has a charter to care for the least of these, it is churches.

Do we have the heart? I don't know. When push comes to shove, many are in it for Sunday enjoyment, not for the least of these.

Tom Ehrich is an Episcopal priest, author and former Wall Street Journal reporter  living in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Tom Ehrich is an Episcopal priest, author and former Wall Street Journal reporter
living in Winston-Salem, N.C.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)


  1. Thanks for saying so many things that we all need to keep before us.

  2. This article is silly and people (like Mr. Ehrich) need to stop “victimizing” everyone and everything. God made all of us different with individual talents & paths in life. In a perfect world, all these issues Mr. Ehrich points out do not exist or are perfectly handled. However, because all of us have a SIN problem, this will be the norm and we just have to have faith God will still provide nonetheless.

  3. While I disagree with the lefty-cliche assertions you use to describe the problem, i agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion. We in the church do need to stop pouring so much of our resources into self-care, and start directing it back to care of the ‘least of these.’ Perhaps when we do, God will provide more resources to follow, and more people will be excited about being part of churches who put their faith into action. We should be actively looking for the people and problems in our society that no one else wants to touch. Mental health issues? Homelesness? There is so much that we can do – the 99% and the 1% together, all undeserving yet all recipients of God’s unmerited favor.

  4. Tom, while the facts support all of your assertions you are way off the mark in your conclusion.

    Every church I know of in my city is stretching farther and farther in reaching out to those who are being pushed under by the powerful and the rich. Our church feeds and tutors dozens of homeless school children every week. We shelter homeless women in our parish hall. We send our kids to serve impoverished communities around our region. We raise thousands of dollars every year for a medical clinic, and we raise thousands more for schools, community workshops, health initiatives for Native Americans, and many other charitable organizations serving the poor, marginalized and victimized of our city. We grow vegetables to supply local food banks. Our members do this together and are deeply involved individually working to make a difference in the world.

    As much as we do multiplied by scores of thousands of churches, temples, synagogue, mosques and other religious institutions can never match the challenge of meeting the needs of those being thrown off the bus of our society by those in government and the private sector who are the creatures of greed.

    Ponder these facts:

    Food benefits from federal nutrition programs amounted to $96.9 billion in 2013, compared to $4.1 billion of food distributed by private charity in the same time period.4 In other words, federal nutrition programs delivered more than 23 times the amount of food assistance as did private charities. Do you really think that churches can raise $96 billion?

    In 2012, the House of Representatives passed a Budget Resolution cutting $133.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). Then they passed a bill cutting an additional $36 billion from the program. These proposals amount to more than $169 billion in cuts and would push millions of SNAP recipients out of the program. Do you think that churches can raise $169 billion to make up the deficit?

    The Harford Institute for Religion and Research estimates that there are 350,000 religious congregations in the United States. If the proposals by the House of Representatives were enacted, each congregation—big or small—would have to spend approximately $50,000 every year for the next ten years to feed people who would lose benefits or face reduced benefits.

    It is impossible for churches to make up the ground being stolen away from so many of “we the people” in our society. But I guess we can all take comfort with RobB in knowing the truth at the root of this tragedy is simply a liberal cliché.

  5. Those facts you show are both interesting and telling of a society that is letting gov’t take control of more & more….sounds like you are OK with that? You realize that is the problem, right?

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