Up, Judge of the Earth!
A Poor Catholic's Critique of American Social Policy Towards Poverty
Those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor will themselves also call and not be heard. Proverbs 21:13
This is a 150+ page paper I wrote in 1997 on Catholic Social Teaching and US social policy towards the poor. I recently excavated this and am placing it online. It's in four documents as that's the way I have it. The text has gone through about 4 platform transitions and so its not winning any awards for format, but the footnotes are there at the bottom of each page.
At that time, I had had about 20 years experience of living in poverty in the United States. This means. . .
. . . I've had the experience of having teeth rot and fall out with nothing more intensive than an over the counter NSAID for dental treatment. More than once. The first time I lost a tooth up front, where it was visible, I went to a dentist. The price for a root canal and crown was $400 (early 1980s). The dentist offered a 10% discount if I would pay him cash that day. So I pawned some jewelry to get the money, and the next day, when I showed up for the appointment, there was a bankruptcy court notice on the door. He deliberately cheated me! He knew he was declaring bankruptcy. That doesn't just happen in a day. So that money was flushed down the drain. I ended up making an illegal deal with a denturist I knew to make me a "flipper" (a one tooth partial upper) so I didn't have a big gap right up front. Denturists are the skilled crafts people who make dentures and partials. But dentists have arranged things so that you have to go to a dentist, you can't deal directly with a denturist. Given the dire warnings of the denturist "don't tell anyone about this," you would think we were dealing with illegal drugs, but it was just a little flipper. And the law that keeps people from dealing directly with denturists is a good example of a structure of sin.
. . . I became an expert dumpster diver. To this day, I remember the moment i climbed up on a grocery store dumpster to look for food. I thought to myself, "Bobby Max Waldrop, are you really about to go into this dumpster to look for food?" And the answer to that was "Yes" because I was hungry and I didn't have any money. It's amazing what you can find in a grocery store dumpster. This was winter, it was Utah, so it was about like digging through a not well organized freezer. In those days, the grocery store people were nice. They would often wait for us to show up, then they would hand us things like a dozen eggs with one broken, or a gallon of milk leaking at the top, and other such items that might be ruined if just tossed in. I remember one time we found a life-time supply of chapstick! Out of date, but we used it anyway and gave some to everyone we knew. We also for a while served a breakfast to homeless people living under a viaduct from items we found in those dumpsters.
. . . I learned to bake sourdough bread because I couldn't afford to buy yeast but flour was often given out in food boxes for the poor. I learned to cook from basic ingredients because that was what I could afford. I can bake biscuits on top of a stove or in a crockpot because I often didn't have a stove.
. . . During much of this period, I heated with wood because I couldn't afford natural gas and I could find wood for free. I can cook a whole Thanksgiving dinner and never use a kitchen stove, just using small electrical cooking appliances like crockpots, hot plates, and electric skillets.
. . . I didn't buy a single item of new clothing for more than a decade. I bought all my clothes at thrift stores and garage sales. I generally lived my life with 3 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of shorts, and 4 or 5 shirts and a few sets of socks and underwear. Typically I washed clothes in the sink using dish detergent, or would go to a laundry to wash, but brought them home to line dry in the sun (or inside if the weather was bad). I still wash my clothes using dish detergent and hang my clothes out to dry.
. . . I remember the embarrassment of making excuses as to why I didn't have a phone. I lived without a car for years because I couldn't afford one. Fortunately, in those days I lived in a city with adequate and affordable public transportation. (That wasn't Oklahoma City, by the way.) Then, when I did get a car, I became a very careful, safe, and law abiding driver, because I didn't have a driver's license (I had anarchist ideological issues in those days with government identification, lol), and I couldn't afford insurance. So I would buy insurance, pay for one month, so I could do the annual automobile registration, and then let it lapse.
. . . I know how to cram 12 people into a two bedroom house. (It helped that it was summer, and so some slept in the back yard in a tent.) And also how to work 6 people into a small one bedroom walk up apartment with a large hole in the ceiling. It had a nice Victorian balcony though. I left that place because it gentrified, and the rent went from $150/month to $600 in 1993.
. . . I've experienced the pain of an infected ingrown toenail, and the indifference of a doctor who prescribed an antibiotic I could not afford. When the pharmacist called him to ask for something less expensive, the doctor refused to change the prescription. I ended up being helped by a Christian organization that bought antibiotics in Mexico and then smuggled them into the United States and sold them at cost (the Mexican cost no less!) to poor people without insurance.The plain generic over-the-counter Mexican penicillin worked just as well on my foot as the expensive brand name demanded by the doctor.
So for me, these issues are not academic, they are real because the people are real.
First Part: A survey of Catholic social teaching, its historical, theological, and biblical basis; the documents, ten themes I identified and traced through the documents, and methods of interpretation.
Second Part: The existential situation of poor people in the US in 1997. Lots of data and my commentary on the data. Plus the beginning of my discussion of structures of sin and their impact on the poor. I think that the concept of "structures of sin" or "structures of evil" is one of the most important contributions of Catholic social teaching.
Third Part: Continues the discussion of the "structures of sin" impacting social policy in the US.
Fourth Part: Conclusion of the discussion of structures of sin. Then we "Observe, Judge, Act". This section concludes with a discussion of "structures of redemption, reconciliation, and orthopraxis." Ten specific things to be done. An epilogue. And "The Very Last Word."