Nuns on the Bus remind the national conventions about the needs of the poor

They stopped for lunch in Peru, Ill., at an independently owned pizza parlor that they made sure had a fair wage and other worker-friendly policies. Then it was on to Bloomington, where they toured a day care program at the Y.W.C.A. of McLean County and spoke with immigrants, immigration lawyers and public health care providers. At night, they told a group of about 90 people gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church—many of them Catholic—that our current tax code “isn’t working” for the poor.

Welcome to the Nuns on the Bus tour 2016.

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As they did in 2012, a group of Catholic sisters are traveling the country, speaking out on behalf of the poor and marginalized in the lead-up to the presidential election. The tour is once again being organized by Sister Simone Campbell, S.S.S., executive director of Network, a social action group in Washington, D.C. Campbell galvanized the Democratic National Convention four years ago with her deeply personal address focusing on the needs of the poor.

I spent a whirlwind day with the nuns as they made stops in Illinois en route to this year’s presidential conventions. “We are on the road in response to the divisive rhetoric of the 2016 election cycle and as an answer to Pope Francis’ call that a healthy politics is sorely needed,” Sister Simone told me.

Their theme this year is “Mend the Gaps: Reweave the Fabric of Society.”  Wherever they go, the nuns talk about a living wage for workers, access to health care for all, affordable housing, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, family-friendly workplace policies and tax reform that alleviates the burden on the poor and middle class.

Of the widening gap between rich and poor, Sister Simone asks, “How did we get into this mess? We discovered at Network that it was policies, conscious policy choices made in the late ’70s and early ’80s that resulted in this huge wealth and income disparity. And we realized if policies created the gaps, policies can change the gaps.”

The sisters say they plan to do as much listening as talking. In an effort to address political polarization, they are asking delegates at both conventions a series of questions about their concerns to determine areas of agreement between both political parties.

“We are going to compare notes to see where we meet as a nation. I have a hunch [the hopes of both group of delegates] will be quite similar,” Sister Simone says. “I call us equal opportunity annoyers. I’ll annoy the Democrats and I’ll annoy the Republicans to care for those we advocate for.” This week, the sisters have been invited to give three workshops on social concerns as the Democrats meet in Philadelphia.

Sister Simone described the Nuns on the Bus as “Pope Francis voters” and says there is room for improvement in both parties’ platforms when it comes to serving the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

“Pope Francis, when he visited the United States, spoke strongly about the importance of being involved in politics, but in a way that brings the needs of those most exploited and marginalized into the conversation,” she says.

“Speaking for those who struggle and are exploited means we can’t be loyal to just one party, because no one party embodies all good policies. We have to be faithful to the people.”

The day I traveled with the sisters, members on the bus included the Sisters of Mercy, Dominicans of Peace, Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Ursulines, Franciscans, Daughters of Charity, Sisters of the Holy Family, Comboni Missionary Sisters and Sisters of St. Agnes. Sister Simone is a member of the Sisters of Social Service.

This year’s contingent of nuns includes five attorneys, a psychologist, a licensed clinical social worker, educators, pastoral associates and social workers.

Their colorful bus is hard to miss as it lumbers along highways and rolls into cities. Its sides are emblazoned with the “Nuns on the Bus” logo, as well as a quote from Pope Francis and a map of their 2016 tour route, which will take them to 13 states in the Midwest and Northeast. Inside there are two rows of leather swivel chairs, a small kitchen to keep snacks and brew coffee, a tiny conference table and a big-screen TV the nuns say they don’t have time to watch.

“It’s pretty fancy. It’s not something we’re used to, but for such a long ride it’s good to have comfortable seats,” Sister Simone says.

Their day begins with prayer, says Sister Susan Francois of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and includes “listening to where God might be speaking to us through the people we meet, through the Scripture of the day and just being open to the experience of being together and forming community.”

 Much of their time on the bus is spent emailing, giving social media updates on their tour and practicing their talking points for when they hold “caucuses” with members of the communities where they stop.

On this day, Sister Susan rehearsed the opening of the short talk she was to give later that night on the tax code. “Sadly our tax code, instead of prioritizing raising the revenue we need for the common good, over the past 30 years has been perpetuating the inequality and widening the gap,” she said. “Pope Francis put it well when he said it’s not enough to let a few drops fall whenever the poor shake a cup that never runs over by itself.”

 Sister Simone said she is heartbroken over the violence plaguing the country, including the shooting deaths of both police officers and many African-American citizens. She attributed the violence in many communities to “fear and feeling threatened, feeling like there are no options.” She added, “These are desperate communities, and so violence becomes the answer. Our opportunity for change there is to bring hope.”

“The real issue I feel passionately called to address within this is the challenge of white privilege,” Sister Simone added. “I have had to learn just how privileged my life is. To not have to worry if I am stopped by the police that I’m likely to be shot. I don’t have to have that apprehension and that is something my little, thin covering of skin gives me. This is not to say end that privilege, but it is a privilege that should extend it to everyone.”

Telling the stories of the people they encounter remains central to the sisters’ effort. Campbell spoke of two young women she recently met. One works full-time at a minimum-wage job and still has to live in a homeless shelter in Washington D.C., because she cannot find affordable housing.

Another woman is a college student who fears she will never graduate because her tuition keeps rising.  “At a time in her life when she should be feeling most confident, most creative and most engaged, she is instead feeling threatened,” Sister Simone says.

Sister Simone calls the bus tour “a surprising ministry” that the sisters feel called to by the Holy Spirit. “Often in the New Testament, it says Jesus and the apostles got up and went. For us, it’s about getting up and going. We don’t always know where we’re going. But for me, it’s just about being faithful.”

Judith Valente is America's Chicago correspondent.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Joshua DeCuir
1 year 4 months ago
"Sister Simone says. “I call us equal opportunity annoyers. I’ll annoy the Democrats and I’ll annoy the Republicans to care for those we advocate for.” Except I really do not see this lived out in Sr. Simone's actions. As a Republican, I am among the first to say that many, many of the policies advocated by some in my preferred party are far from the mark. Yet take an issue like school choice - an issue that has bipartisan support & a proven (although not perfect) track record of giving poor children of color a real chance for the best education. When Sr. Simone visited Louisiana, neither she nor her sisters visited any alternative schools serving these communities. Instead, she spoke at the annual conference of the Federation for Teachers, which has spent millions of dollars seeking to undo the gains made in Louisiana for poor children seeking better educational outcomes. Likewise, she says in the interview that it was conscious policies in the late '70s & 80's that contributed to rising income inequality, but she completely ignores the period during which Bill Clinton was President in the mid 90s where income inequality rose even more. Her arguments over the minimum wage display no sensitivity or awareness of the possibility that such a policy could have negative economic consequences - she doesn't have to believe the consequences, but an acknowledgment that there are possible costs, as well as benefits would be nice. So it seems to me that when push comes to shove, Sr. Simone reverts to standard Democratic politics. And seeing as how she avoids the topic of abortion like the plague, I think it does no good to mention that issue.
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 4 months ago
“Bill Clinton was President in the mid 90s where income inequality rose even more.” I’m curious, more than what? Can you reference a web page or book listing inequality by year or by president? US billionaires have been multiplying like rabbits since Reagan (they quadrupled under Reagan alone). Middle class income has grown dramatically with a democrat in the white house. http://politicsthatwork.com/graphs/income-growth-parties-middle-class
Joshua DeCuir
1 year 4 months ago
"Can you reference a web page or book listing inequality by year or by president?" Sure; here are two sources: 1. A NY Times article from early 2000s noting that the growing disparity in income growth among the top earners: '"The wealth of those in the top 10 percent of incomes surged much more than the wealth of those in any other group. The net worth of families in the top 10 percent jumped 69 percent, to $833,600, in 2001 from $492,400 in 1998. By contrast, the net worth of families in the lowest fifth of income earners rose 24 percent, to $7,900.'" http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/23/business/economic-inequality-grew-in-90-s-boom-fed-reports.html 2. A column by James Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute wherein there is an income distribution graph from Thomas Piketty's work which shows the drastic gains among the top earners: https://www.aei.org/publication/occupy-1990s-inequality-soared-during-bill-clinton/ *Please understand that I am not wholly knocking Bill Clinton's economic record; but it can both be true that income levels overall increased and that income inequality also drastically increased.
J Cosgrove
1 year 4 months ago
Most of the so called income inequality is due to stock holdings. During the late 90's the stock market soared making those holding stocks extremely rich on paper. Similarly since 2009, the government has been printing money by the Fed and this money essentially went mainly into stocks. Again increasing wealth by stocks. An indication of this is the lack of other investments and the incredibly low interest rates around the world. It is even negative in many countries which means you lose money by keeping it in fixed investments. Hence stock prices have risen. This is far different from previous centuries when wealth was concentrated in land and resources. That is not what it is today. A better way to look at economic inequality is consumption. Here is a paper summarizing testimony given to Congress two years ago. http://bit.ly/2auoiQb Here is the conclusion of this paper
VI. Conclusion The purpose of this testimony is to highlight issue of income inequality. Economists have tended to measure income inequality in different ways leading to a mixed picture of what has been happening to the gap between the rich and the poor over the last couple of decades. A review of these papers finds that some authors contend that income inequality has grown, while others find that income inequality may in fact have narrowed down over time. Another set of papers has focused on consumption as a measure of economic well-being and documented trends in consumption inequality. These papers again yield differing conclusions about consumption for the rich has fared relative to consumption of the poor. My own research finds that consumption inequality has remained fairly constant over the last few decades. Further, it documents an increase in standards of living for people at the very bottom of the income distribution. These improvements in living standards are likely a consequence of the tax and transfer system, wherein low income households have been the beneficiaries of redistribution efforts. However, it is also a consequence of significant price declines in technology items like computers and printers, driven by market competition and research and development efforts. Despite these improvements in living standards, it is well documented that more than 47 million people live in poverty today in America. Moreover, the recent recession has further caused a decline in employment rates and earning potential of families. Towards the end of this testimony, I provide some policy suggestions that might help alleviate some of these issues. The testimony argues that while minimum wages and unemployment benefits may be the preferred strategies currently employed by policy makers, these may not be the most effective means. Unemployment benefits combined with job and skills training programs as well as wage subsidies to get the long-term unemployed back in the labor market may be more efficient. At the same time, improving the targeting and efficiency of programs such as the EITC, which create the right incentives, in terms of encouraging work, may be extremely important as well. For youth, school-to-work programs that encourage apprenticeships and internships have been shown to be successful as well.
Lots of food for thought. Maybe it will help on how best to spend the money to enable those born into the bottom 20% of households to move upwards. Maybe it will make us aware of just what poverty means. It is probably not one of material goods but one that is much more intellectual, cultural and spiritual. There is probably many households that are above the bottom quintile that are intellectually, culturally and spiritually deprived. One indication is that 40% of the children are now born into a family that does not have a traditional mother and a father.
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 4 months ago
Walmart increased inequality $21 billion by announcing a $15 billion stock buyback most of which enhances the wealthy ledger. Ongoing government assistance to low wage Walmart employees leaves middle class taxpayers a $6 billion deficit. People think the 400 richest get taxed at the top rate of 39%. The 39% rate applies only to salary and wages which in 2008 accounted for less than 10% of the income for the 400 richest. The 400 richest taxpayers in 2008 had the majority of their income from capital gains taxed at only 15%. From 1990 to 2010 nearly half of all capital gains went to the wealthiest 0.1 percent. An inheritance, that moved four Walton’s onto the list of America’s wealthiest, wasn’t even taxed at 15%...the actual rate was zero.
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 4 months ago
Sister Susan notes, “Sadly our tax code, instead of prioritizing raising the revenue we need for the common good, over the past 30 years has been perpetuating inequality and widening the gap.” In 2012, the 400 richest taxpayers paid an average of 17% federal income tax, the same rate as an individual taxpayer earning $80,000. The 400 richest taxpayers in 2013 had an average adjusted gross income of $265 million and the average for everyone else was $61,700. http://money.cnn.com/2015/12/31/news/economy/richest-americans/
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 4 months ago
400 Richest Americans Paid Same Effective Tax Rate as a Family Earning $105,000. A graph shows the 400 richest tax rate from 1992 through 2010. http://www.foreffectivegov.org/blog/400-richest-americans-paid-same-effective-tax-rate-family-earning-105000 Higher tax rates on the 400 richest taxpayers appears to correlate with stronger median household income growth. See the graph in the following link: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MEHOINUSA672N
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 4 months ago
“…policies, conscious policy choices made in the late ’70s and early ’80s...resulted in this huge wealth and income disparity.” Policy choices in the '90s and 2000s continued to grow the wealth and income disparity. The Washington Post noted for the very richest Americans the successive capital gains tax cuts from Presidents Clinton (from 28 to 20 percent) and Bush (from 20 to 15 percent) have been "better than any Christmas gift". The Post concluded that "capital gains tax rates benefiting the wealthy feed the growing gap between rich and poor." Capital gains account for the majority of income for the richest 400. Over the past 20 years, about half of all capital gains have gone to the wealthiest 0.1 percent. http://crooksandliars.com/jon-perr/low-capital-gains-tax-rates-fuel-record-inequality

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