social concerns

Why Drug Testing Welfare Recipients is a Bad Idea

SB 2279 and HB 1308 would subject poor families to drug testing and treatment as a condition for receiving economic assistance. Though well-intentioned, would be counter-productive to helping poor families and fails the basic test of a Christian society.

(1) Asking why a person is poor has its value, but not for the purpose of determining whether the person deserves help.  The person deserves help because he or she needs help.

(2) SB 2279 makes our social assistance system do the job of law enforcement.

(3) States that tried drug testing found very few drug users, but testing costs a lot to administer. The money wasted is money that could be spent on treatment.

(4) The research tells us that we cannot treat substance abuse problems unless we first take care of the family’s basic needs.

(5) Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is not a cash hand-out program.  It is a comprehensive program that requires work participation.  If those jobs require drug testing for safety reasons, the participants will be tested.

(6) The state does not currently have enough drug treatment programs. Poor persons should not be hurt further because, of no fault of their own, they can’t get into a program.

Wisdom from St. John Chrysostom

Action Alert – No on SB 2279 and HB 1308

Why Drug Testing Welfare Recipients is a Bad Idea
SB 2279 and HB 1308 would subject poor families to drug testing and treatment as a condition for receiving economic assistance. Though well-intentioned, would be counter-productive to helping poor families and fails the basic test of a Christian society.
(1) Asking why a person is poor has its value, but not for the purpose of determining whether the person deserves help.  The person deserves help because he or she needs help.
(2) SB 2279 makes our social assistance system do the job of law enforcement.
(3) States that tried drug testing found very few drug users, but testing costs a lot to administer. The money wasted is money that could be spent on treatment.
(4) The research tells us that we cannot treat substance abuse problems unless we first take care of the family’s basic needs.
(5) Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is not a cash hand-out program.  It is a comprehensive program that requires work participation.  If those jobs require drug testing for safety reasons, the participants will be tested.
(6) The state does not currently have enough drug treatment programs. Poor persons should not be hurt further because, of no fault of their own, they can’t get into a program.

Contact Your Senators and Representatives Now!
There are TWO bills in separate chambers.  Please send separate action alerts for each.
Contact your Senators NOW and ask them to VOTE NO on SB 2279.
Message: Please vote no on SB 2279. Poor families need help, not punishment.
SB 2279 could be voted on as early as Thursday, January 26.
 
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Contact your Representatives soon and ask them to VOTE NO on HB 1308.
Message: Please vote no on HB 1308. Poor families need help, not punishment.

Column: Truly Accepting the Refugee

The controversy over placing refugees in the state reminded me of a story about a Sixth Century Egyptian monk.  The story goes like this:

Going to town one day to sell some small articles, Abba Agathon met a cripple on the roadside, paralysed in his legs, who asked him where he was going. Abba Agathon replied, “To town, to sell some things.”

The other said, “Do me the favor of carrying me there.” So he carried him to the town.

The cripple said to him, “Put me down where you sell your wares.” He did so.

When he had sold an article, the cripple asked, “What did you sell it for?” And he told him the price. The other said, “Buy me some bread,” and he bought it.

When Abba Agathon had sold a second article, the sick man asked, “How much did you sell it for?” And he told him the price of that also. Then the other said, “Buy me this,” and he bought it.

When Agathon, having sold all his wares, wanted to go, he said to him, “Are you going back?” and he replied, “Yes.” Then he said, “Do me the favor of carrying me back to the place where you found me.” Once more he picked him up and he carried him back to that place.

Then the cripple said, “Agathon, you are filled with divine blessings, in heaven and on earth.” Raising his eyes, Agathon saw no man, it was an angel of the Lord, come to try him.”

(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward.)

Abba Agathon’s attitude of acceptance and charity is one we should emulate, not just in our personal lives, but also in how we act as a society.  It is one modeled after Christ himself, who embraced and healed, rather than distanced himself from, the lepers.  (Please, readers, do not dismiss Jesus’ actions as unrealistic for us because, being the son of God, he could heal himself.  Jesus was also man and capable of catching disease.  Besides, he was surrounded by disciples who could also could also become infected.)

Not only did Abba Agatha not refuse to take the cripple to town, the monk didn’t even ask the man why he needed to go to town. Abba Agathon was probably selling items he had made in his desert cell for sustenance. But he did not refuse the request to use the money raised to buy the cripple what was asked. The story does not say what other items were bought.  They might not have even been needed in Abba Agathon’s mind.  The monk did not ask for an accounting.  He just gave as asked.

Jesus likewise did not choose who to heal.  We know that one of the lepers was a Samaritan, a foreigner.  He did not ask them to what they planned to do after they were made whole.  He did not go and check on them later to see if they were behaving.

This attitude of acceptance should be the starting point of our policy toward refugees.  This does not mean we should throw caution to the wind.  We have obligations to protect others in the community.  Nevertheless, we should start with and always shape our policies and community responses with the spirit of Abba Agathon.

Instead of a position that says, “Well, you can come in if you do this and this and you don’t do that,” our position should be, “Welcome, if there is a problem with this or this, we will help and we hope you don’t do that.”

If there are gaps in security screening, then we should fix them rather than shutting our doors.  If there are burdens to the local schools, we should help the schools, not turn our backs on children.  If there are impacts on the social service system, we should step up our support for the system and increase charitable responses in the community.

Refugees do not choose to come here.  They are not abandoning their homelands.  They come here because they have to.

Some people expect refugees and the agencies that help them to meet all the burdens with placing refugees in our communities.  They also act like accepting refugees and whatever burdens doing so may bring as an unnecessary inconvenience far removed from the core functions of government and society.

This attitude is wrong.  Because our nation is built upon a principle of extending a helping hand and because we as a society, especially Christians, believe in doing what is morally right for others, we should view it as our job to accept refugees, just as Abba Agathon must have viewed it as his job to do what the cripple asked.  Welcoming those forced to flee should be viewed as part and parcel of who we are, burdens and all. We, not the refugees, should be expected to make the needed adjustments to our lives and communities.

Abba Agathon, pray that we embrace refugees as you embraced the angel of the Lord.

Column: Looming Issues for Next Session

1280px-2009-0521-ND-StateCapitolThe next legislative session is, depending on how you look at it, “only” or “still” five months away.  Either way, the session is approaching and now is a good time to recognize some looming issues for the next session.

The Budget 

The state budget is already the dominant issue.  The legislature just had a special session to address declining revenues, but the real work remains for the regular session.

On the one hand, North Dakota is, by some standards, doing well financially.  Unemployment is low and the state is funding some very real needs in infrastructure and education — though still not parental choice.  On the other hand, oil revenues are very low and agriculture commodity prices are taking a hit.  This means that the state is not expected to bring in as much revenue as previous years, which leads to new and difficult challenges with spending and collecting revenue.

Expect heated debates about the budget to dominate the session from Day 1 to sine die.

Human Service Needs

In February Governor ordered a set of across the board cuts for all state agencies.  These cuts hit the provision of human services especially hard.  For one thing, despite the fact that Department of Human Services targeted “new” programs for elimination, the fact remains that these were still needed programs and they were identified as such by the legislature.  Secondly, the truly needy are most impacted and are in less of a position than most of us to adjust the reduction or elimination of services.  Thirdly, some of those reductions, especially in the area of long-term care, resulted in additional losses in federal matching funds.

The Department of Human Services was spared in the second round of reductions that occurred in August, but it will likely have to present a reduced budget for the next biennium.  Just as the Year of Mercy closes, concerned citizens will have to work to make sure that our most vulnerable citizens are not left behind.

Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse

Just about every observer agrees that the state is in a crisis when it comes to behavioral health and substance abuse.  The situation was already bad before the opioid and fentanyl epidemic hit the state.  Nevertheless, while most would agree that something needs to be done, not everyone agrees on what should be done or whether there is enough funding and will to get it done.

The Department of Human Services is already in the process of reforming its delivery system through the Human Service Centers and the State Hospital.  In the meantime, an interim legislative committee has studied the matter and is preparing draft legislation for the next session.   Some of the proposals will require state funding.  There will exist tremendous pressure to not devote new funding to mental health and substance abuse services in light of the state’s budget problems.  Not acting, however, could put even more of our neighbors at risk and cost us more money in the long run through incarceration.

Incarceration Reform

Addressing our incarceration numbers is linked to addressing our behavioral health needs.  North Dakota locks up too many of its non-violent citizens for low-level drug-related crimes.  The situation is financially unsustainable and short-sighted as a policy matter.  Recommendations to lower penalties for non-violent offenses and offer alternatives to incarceration have met with some resistance.  Meanwhile, it is certain that any serious effort to address our skyrocketing incarceration rates must work in tandem with efforts to provide better and more extensive mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Medicaid Expansion

Over 19,000 North Dakotans have medical coverage as a result of Medicaid expansion passed by the legislature in 2013. Passage of the legislation, which the North Dakota Catholic Conference and the state’s Catholic health care facilities supported, was difficult.  To appease some concerns, the legislation was given a “sunset” of July 31, 2017.  This means that the legislature must renew the program during the next legislative session or thousands of North Dakotans will lose or lack health care coverage they otherwise would have.  The families impacted usually earn too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but don’t earn enough to receive subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

There is a peek at some of the issues facing the next Legislative Assembly, and space does not allow me to write about the refugee program, revision of the state’s marriage laws, and protecting legislation to help the unborn and their mothers.  Stay tuned to the conference’s Facebook page and be sure to ask your candidates about these issues.

Catholic Bishops: Despite Budget Cuts, Attend to the Poor

logosharpsmallBismarck, North Dakota – North Dakota’s Roman Catholic bishops, David D. Kagan of Bismarck and John T. Folda of Fargo, have released the following statement on Governor Jack Dalrymple’s order that all state agencies cut their budgets by over four percent:

North Dakota must take its time and remember those on the peripheries when cutting the state’s budget.

In response to declining state revenue Governor Jack Dalrymple has ordered all state agencies to cut 4.05% from their current budgets. We recognize the need for the governor and lawmakers to be good stewards of the state’s resources and fulfill their obligations to the people of North Dakota.  Difficult decisions will have to be made.

At the same time, we remind all involved that the state’s budget is a moral document and will ultimately be judged on how it affects the least of us.  The poor, the marginalized, the addicted, and the ill will disproportionately feel the pain of budget cuts.

We ask the governor and state agencies to resist quick simplistic solutions such as “across the board” cuts.   A compassionate and thoughtful response requires giving due priority to needs of those who will be most hurt by a reduction of services.  This will require time and serious consideration.  It may also mean that some agencies will need to make greater sacrifices than others so that we can give priority to those most in need.

We are confident that all involved will heed the words of Pope Francis when he said: “put the needs of the poor ahead of our own. Our needs, even if legitimate, will never be so urgent as those of the poor . . .”

NDCC Director in NYT: Ban on Down Syndrome Abortions Strengthens Disability Laws

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 10.36.43 AMTo the Editor:

Your article and editorial (“Abortion and Down Syndrome,” Aug. 25), about proposed legislation in Ohio to prohibit abortions because of a Down syndrome diagnosis, pointed to the lack of prosecutions in North Dakota, the only state with such a law, but did not mention the true purpose and potential impact of the law.

Read the rest . . .

The Most Important Bill You Never Hear About

1280px-2009-0521-ND-StateCapitolThe appropriation bill for the Department of Human Services may be the most important bill you never hear about.

The Department of Human Services is large.  Its budget for the 2013-2015 biennium was over $3 Billion. This session’s bill requests $3.6 Billion, but expect the final bill to be less after adjustments in light of falling oil revenues. The department has over 2,200 full-time employees. (Full disclosure, my wife is one of them.)

While it may be tempting to some to see the department’s budget as proof of an overgrown bureaucracy, the truth is that the department’s services include a wide range of programs that, if looked at individually, are not particularly large or expensive. About 33% of the budget consists of Medicaid and children’s health insurance payments, but the rest covers many other services. These include:

  • Long-term care, which includes nursing homes
  • Special needs adoption
  • Foster care
  • Care for individuals with developmental disabilities, including guardianship services
  • Autism services
  • Abortion alternatives services
  • Guardianship establishment and Vulnerable Adult Protective Services
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
  • The human service centers
  • The state hospital
  • Child support services
  • Various substance abuse programs
  • The Life Skills and Transition Center (formerly known as the Developmental Center)
  • Child care assistance
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance
  • Senior Meals Programs
  • Vocational Rehabilitation

And there are many more.  In fact, the budget request had 55 separate line items, most of which are for unique services.  Chances are, if you or a family member has ever been sick, struggling financially, in a nursing home, disabled, facing a mental illness or behavioral health problem, divorced with a child, or unexpectedly pregnant, you have had contact with the Department of Human Services.

It should be pointed out that about 60% of the department’s budget comes from federal, not state dollars.  Nevertheless, the breadth of the department’s actions and size of the total budget can make it seem overwhelming and an easy target when it comes to “trimming” government spending.  After all, the poor, sick, and struggling don’t have strong lobbying organizations.

Another challenge is that some people believe that these services should be provided entirely through private charities, especially the churches.  Certainly churches have a role to play.  Charity is a Christian obligation.  There is, however, a difference between charity, which is freely given in response to an immediate need, and justice, which is due to a person because of their dignity as a human person.  The Church teaches that we should not leave to charity that which is already due as a matter of justice.

We also need to recognize that, mostly out of a desire to protect citizens, the provision of human services has become professionalized and regulated.  As a consequence, the cost of covering all these services would be beyond the capability of the charitable sector.  If you are already tired of the diocese’s capital campaigns, imagine what it would be like if churches had to raise another $1.5 Billion annually.

The Department of Human Services bill is not like an abortion or school choice bill, where you can email your legislator with a simple “yes” or “no” request.  The bill will be passed.  The question is what in it will be funded and at what level.  How, as Catholics citizens, do we engage in the development of such a bill?

Something the Wisconsin Catholic Conference recently wrote about budget bills in general applies to the Department of Human Services bill.  It wrote:

While they contain numerous facts, data, and projections, state budgets are documents through which our state makes choices and sets priorities.  They are about how needs are met and which are deferred or denied.  As such, they are moral documents that define the values of those who enact them.

While the WCC does not take a position for or against the state budget as a whole, it does address aspects of the budget that advance or hinder important priorities.  For Catholics, a vital priority is always that of meeting the needs of the poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized.

Ultimately, the budget bill is a moral document that reflects who we are as a state.  The least we can do is pray for the legislators that will review the department’s bill.

Heavenly Father, grant wisdom and open hearts to our elected officials as they decide how best to help our neighbors, especially the least among us. Amen.

Christopher Dodson, Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference

Inclusion Act Receives Strong Support from Three USCCB Chairmen

girlThree chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gave strong support for the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2015. The Act would forbid the federal government, and any state receiving federal funds for child welfare services, from taking adverse action against a provider that, for religious or moral reasons, declines to provide a child welfare social service.

“Our first and most cherished freedom, religious liberty, is to be enjoyed by all Americans, including child welfare providers who serve the needs of children – the most vulnerable members of society,” wrote Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; and Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage; in letters of support to Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) in the U.S. House of Representatives and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) in the U.S. Senate, who introduced the bill.
Highlighting the inclusivity of the legislation, the chairmen noted, “Rightly, the Inclusion Act protects the religious liberties and moral convictions of all child welfare providers. No providers are excluded by the Act.”
Some religious child welfare providers, including in Massachusetts, Illinois, California, and the District of Columbia, have been excluded from carrying out adoption and foster care services because the providers act on their belief that children deserve to be placed with a married mother and father. The chairmen said, “The Inclusion Act would remedy this unjust discrimination by enabling all providers to serve the needs of parents and children in a manner consistent with the providers’ religious beliefs and moral convictions.”
Stressing that the Inclusion Act respects the importance of parental choice, the chairmen remarked, “Indeed, women and men who want to place their children for adoption ought to be able to choose from a diversity of adoption agencies, including those that share the parents’ religious beliefs and moral convictions.”

The letters of support are available online at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/marriage/promotion-and-defense-of-marriage/upload/Ltr-to-Rep-Kelly-Inclusion-Act-2015.pdfhttp://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/marriage/promotion-and-defense-of-marriage/upload/Ltr-to-Sen-Enzi-Inclusion-Act-2015.pdf

Archbishop Wenski, Catholic Charities’ Father Snyder Ask Senate to Support Smarter Sentencing Act

The Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410) is a “modest first step in reforming our nation’s broken sentencing policies,” said the chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and the president of Catholic Charities USA in a March 27 letter to the U.S. Senate supporting the bill.
Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami and Father Larry Snyder called “one-size-fits-all” sentencing policies “inadequate in addressing the complexities of crime and community safety.” They urged the Senate to vote for the bill that, “though imperfect,” would expand options for judges handing down sentences for non-violent drug offenses and allow for reduced mandatory minimum sentences in certain circumstances.
“Rigid sentencing policies for non-violent offenses are costly, ineffective and can be detrimental to the good of persons, families, and communities,” wrote Archbishop Wenski and Father Snyder. “Prolonged incarceration often contributes to family instability and poverty. Those who finally leave incarceration face significant challenges upon reentering society, such as finding housing and stable employment, high rates of substance abuse, and physical and mental health challenges.”
They noted that the United States imprisons more people than any other nation and that the overall incarceration rate has increased 500 percent during the past 30 years. They also called the addition of three new categories of mandatory minimums in the amended bill “counterproductive.”
Archbishop Wenski and Father Snyder reiterated Catholic social teaching that the justice system should promote healing and restoration, rather than merely punishment, and echoed the words of Pope Francis that “God is in everyone’s life,” even those “destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else.”
“We continue to urge that instead of directing a vast amount of public resources to imprison more people and build more prisons and jails, the government should support effective programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, education efforts, substance abuse treatment, as well as programs of probation, parole and reintegration,” they wrote.