Saturday, October 15, 2005

LIHEAP: What Would Jesus Do?

David Hawpe of the Courier Journal, asked in his recent editorial of October 12th regarding the funding of LIHEAP, “what would Jesus do”? I suspect Jesus would do the same thing he did 2000 years ago, which was to chastise us for not doing enough. Indeed, the Bible tells us that the poor will always be with us, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to find ways to end poverty. As a good friend of mine recently said, we don't get into Heaven without an letter of recommendation from the poor.

I have had the privilege of being elected twice by the citizens of South Jefferson County to represent them on the Community Action Partnership’s Board of Administrators, which is the agency that administers LIHEAP, among other programs. In fact, I’m the Board Chairman, which comprises representatives from local government, the private sector, and those such as myself who were elected to represent the Poverty Sector. CAP, as it’s called, was envisioned by President Kennedy and became the cornerstone of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty". For years it carried presidential oversight. As time passed, oversight drifted down to the state and local levels. Today, it’s up to us at the grassroots’ level to fight for organizations such a CAP to keep them fully funded.

It’s not easy. Government is looking to cut funding anywhere it can, and seems to be willing to use any excuse, and there's no reason to think the poor are exempt. With the anticipated increase in costs to keep warm this winter, funding for LIHEAP is more important than ever. In 2002, according to the US Census Bureau, Jefferson County alone had an overall poverty rate of 12%. Of those between the ages of 0 and 17, the rate jumped to 19%. The rate of poverty among the elderly and minorities was even higher. In a related article on poverty in Jefferson County, Mayor Jerry Abramson said local city leaders weren’t to blame for the high levels of concentrated poverty, which places Louisville third nationally, and cited the federal housing policy as the main culprit. I disagree with the mayor.

By decades of concentrating poverty in certain sections, local government has in effect created many of the blighted and high crime areas that taxpayers now have to pay for. It placed people who needed opportunities into areas where there were few. Local leaders cut mass transit routes in low-income areas, such as around Fairdale, leaving some with no means to seek or retain employment, or have access to various services needed to get off the public dole. Today, some local leaders are learning to take a pro-active approach to “mix-housing” developments, and they're taking another look at mass transit issues such as a light rail or reinstating some bus routes to low-income areas.

But, we must be ever vigilant and speak out to keep programs such a CAP and LIHEAP properly funded. We must insure adequate and affordable housing. We must insure children have a nutritious meal at school. We must look after our elderly. Government must not be allowed to put on blinders to poverty. Hungry children don't learn. They don't usually go on to graduate high school and get decent jobs so that they can contribute back to community as a whole. They are more likely to find their way into gangs, drugs, and ulitmately crime. Without affordable housing, families don't put down roots. Neighorhoods stagnate and decline. We loss our sense of community, and commitment. What would Jesus do? He’d roll up his sleeves and fight for the rights and dignity of least among us. Won’t you?

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