Social safety net, opportunity in decline, symposium speakers say (Tulsa World)

By Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa World 

Oklahomans tend to be more into gun shows and individual responsibility than seminars on race relations, wealth inequality and holes in the social safety net.

That makes the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation’s annual symposiums all the more intriguing.

This year’s symposium is titled “The Value of Reconciliation” and deals largely with the social and economic costs of inequality.

Stemming as the symposium and the Franklin Center do from the legacy of Tulsa’s 1921 Race Riot, race was woven into much of the discussion.

But, as keynote speaker Peter Edelman pointed out, more white people live in poverty than any other ethnic group.

“Much of the remedy for poverty is across the board,” he said.

A large part of that remedy, Edelman said, isn’t even being discussed because of what he said are misguided efforts to further reduce social welfare programs.

“It’s impossible to have a serious conversation about that (nationally),” he said, “because the conversation is that we shouldn’t have this at all.”

Edelman was speaking specifically about cash payments to the poor but could have been talking about social welfare programs in general.

On the national level, Congress is looking to cut $4 billion to $20 billion from food stamps.

In Oklahoma, House Speaker T.W. Shannon has signaled his desire to finish off a health insurance subsidy for low-income workers that is already in trouble because of the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid.

Edelman said half the jobs in the United States pay less than $34,000 a year, that 14 million Americans have annual earnings of less than half the poverty rate, and that 6 million have no income at all except for food stamps, which amount to the equivalent of one-third the poverty rate.

“People say, ‘They’re trading food stamps for other things.’ Well, yes, they are,” he said. “How else are they going to pay the rent?”

Edelman said there are no simple answers for explaining poverty. Changes in the economy and single-parent families are factors, he said.

“There are all sorts of individual reasons why people are poor,” he said.

“Anybody who says it’s all structural is totally naive, and anybody who says it’s entirely a matter of personal responsibility is equally naive.”

Earlier, David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute laid out a series of statistics related to what he called the opportunity gap.

White Oklahoma households, he said, have a median net worth 18 times greater than those of black and Hispanic residents, a difference Blatt said is largely attributable to home equity.

That difference, in turn, is attributable to a variety of factors including incarceration rates, education, access to transportation and general health.

In the afternoon, the Revs. James Forbes Jr. and Donald W. Shriver Jr. discussed their long friendship and their observations on race and the consequences of discrimination and reconciliation. Shriver is the president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Forbes is the senior minister emeritus of Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church.

In concluding his remarks, Forbes said, “We should take every opportunity we can get to do stuff together that we enjoy so that we can endure the stuff that we don’t enjoy.”


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