As we start a new year it is always good to look back and reflect on happenings during the last year. While there were good things, without a doubt, 2014 was a year filled with problems of all sorts. The United States has become a country that accepts violence and gun-related mass murders as a way of life. That is a most sad commentary on our times. Mass murders no longer shock us and neither do the locations involved. We should be safe in our schools, our workplace, our shopping areas, our churches and certainly in our homes. But are we? I believe all will agree that the answer is a responding no.
Dr. Neal Berte, who served with distinction as President of Birmingham Southern College before he retired, wrote a piece in The Birmingham News recently that I am going to set out below. It is a very good look at where we are in Alabama. Sadly, the rest of the country falls into the same state of affairs. Let’s take a look at Dr. Berte’s assessment.
PEOPLE OF FAITH MUST BE MORE RESPONSIVE TO THE LESS FORTUNATE
For good reason, Alabama prides itself on being one of the most “churched” states in our country, with high attendance and participation in worship, mostly Christian faith communities. That is certainly something to celebrate, but it does call to mind some questions regarding what those of us as people of faith have a responsibility to do on behalf of others. We are reminded by Jesus of the greatest commandment: “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself.”
As we think about Alabama related to the responsibility of people of faith for those less fortunate, particularly in this season of the year, at least three Alabama “realities” come to mind.
First, the latest study by the National Center for Children in Poverty reports that of the nation’s 50 states, Alabama by far has the highest income taxes on the poor. The study goes on to note that Alabama requires citizens to begin paying income tax on earnings of $12,600 a year and this is the lowest threshold of any state in the country. Numerous reports indicate that our poor many times wind up at the end of the month having to choose between whether to buy food, purchase needed medicine, or pay the power bill.
Recently statements by leaders of not-for-profits in our community indicate huge increases in the need for food distributed through food banks and churches, some increases by as much as 50 percent. Alabama is only one of four states with no tax break on groceries, yet proposals to the Alabama Legislature every year seem to fall on deaf ears. Sales taxes, especially on necessities like food, are highly regressive because low-income people must spend most of what they make on taxable goods.
What is missing, Lord?
The second reality that comes to mind relates to predatory lending in our state. According to the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, 59 percent of first-time borrowers take out a payday loan for regular, recurring expenses that include rent, mortgage, utilities and food.
The study goes on to say that the average borrower is indebted five months a year. As pointed out by the Alliance for Responsible Lending in Alabama, interest rates of 456 percent and 300 percent for payday and car title loans in Alabama are exorbitant by any standard. We have had a number of legislative proposals to provide a reasonable cap of 36 percent as the maximum annual interest rates on payday and auto loans.
At least 18 cities and towns in Alabama have put some restrictions on payday and title lenders, and there have been numerous proposals calling on the legislature to enact meaningful reform to the payday and car title loan industries but to no avail. The Bible is clear – usury is wrong, and by any standard, lending at triple-digit interest rates is usury.
Third, Alabama is now ranked 44th among states in child well-being as reported in this year’s national Kids Count report published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report indicates that 290,000 Alabama children, 26 percent, lived in poverty in 2012, up from 21.5 percent in 2000.
The Department of Health and Human Services set the poverty level for a family of four at $23,850 for this year, and while the report commends Alabama for the state-funded First Class Pre-Kindergarten program that has helped more children succeed in school, this program is still accessible to just 12 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds.
What is missing, Lord? Is it You? Or is it us?
Neal R. Berte is President Emeritus of Birmingham-Southern College. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I believe what Dr. Berte says is directly on point. His message should be put on the desk of every member of the Alabama Legislature when they come to Montgomery for their organizational session and the message delivered to Gov. Bentley in the event he failed to read it in the Birmingham News. In fact, it should be required reading for all elected officials in Alabama, including our Congressional Delegation. It might just be a needed wake-up call for all of us
I sincerely hope that each of our readers and their families had a blessed Christmas. I wish for each a blessed and joyous New Year. Hopefully, it will be the best year ever.
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