A Vermont Strong case for compassion
We were Vermont Strong responding to Tropical Storm Irene. We are in the midst of another storm right now. Only those directly affected and some of their friends and neighbors realize that many Vermonters who have relied on federal support for food (food stamps), housing (Section 8), and home heat (LIHEAP), are being placed at risk by the loss of these forms of assistance. For them, a storm blows hard.
Vermont Strong now would be for us to remember that in Vermont, we are self-governing friends and neighbors. We know that the state of Vermont has depended on federal funds for many of our programs designed to protect the well-being of the most vulnerable of us in times of great economic dislocation.
It makes neither moral nor social and economic sense that in tough times, the most vulnerable are the first to take the economic hit. Aren’t we supposed to be caring for the least of us? Right now the federal cuts in spending to protect people are wreaking havoc on a system of social services and economic supports that was carefully constructed over decades.
Cutting these programs is a short-term fix that will lead to more serious and costly problems for Vermonters in the next generation. Compare this “strategy” to the heightened concern of neighbor for neighbor during and after Tropical Storm Irene.
I have no doubt that the fuel dealers who refused to accept the state’s formula for distribution of fuel to Vermonters depending for warmth on LIHEAP have good reasons. They have spoken of their inability to continue in business under this plan. This is a good example of the way that the center is not holding. Our response must not be blame.
Instead, we need to recognize that the great measure of need in Vermont cannot be met by private organizations, religious congregations. A few thousand dollars in clergy discretionary funds cannot fill the gap created by the loss of millions of federal dollars. There needs to be a public, governmental response. We need our elected leaders to speak of the seriousness of this crisis. Sooner or later, federal funding for the social safety net must be restored; indeed, increased.
A growing awareness of the pain being inflicted on our neighbors can take this suffering out of the shadows and bring it into the light where it can bear upon our conscience. We Vermonters need to join with people across the country to demand a restoration of compassion in our local communities through a restoration of compassion in the federal budget.
It is easy in Vermont not to see poverty. Closing our hearts to the great and growing dimension of the suffering will not make it go away. Cutting back on food and shelter and fuel assistance will not make it go away. We know that our congressional delegation does what it can to protect social and economic supports.
Here in Vermont, we need to join together with leaders in the social service community who are doing the best they can with their hands tied behind their backs by the federal cuts. We need to identify who is being hurt the most and put our heads together to generate the most effective community effort possible while our federal taxes are going to pay for trillion-dollar jets and billion-dollar ships.
We need to move to a state response based on systems theory, as suggested to state officials some months back at the Vermont Interfaith Action event at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. In attendance were Secretary Jeb Spaulding representing Governor Peter Shumlin, Senators Sally Fox, Tim Ashe, Anthony Pollina, and Rep. Martha Heath.
As we learned at that event, systems thinking and modeling help identify structures that fuel both virtuous and vicious cycles, informing where and how past conditions, attitudes, decisions, and actions inform the present and inform a likely future. Looking through a systems lens at cycles of poverty, hunger, disillusionment, drug use, crime — seemingly intractable problems of our time — we will discover new opportunities within our means to make investments in ourselves and our neighbors that will yield long-term benefits for all.
All Vermonters share in responsibility to each other. Even with limited funds, we can do better than we are doing. There is a storm outside and our neighbors need us to be Vermont Strong.
Joshua Chasan is a rabbi at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington.