President Carter's Interview
Bearing His Cross - Part 1


During the Reagan years, some economists attributed a much older aphorism to John F. Kennedy who said, in a speech about a dam project in Arkansas, "A rising tide lifts all boats."

They, in turn, used it to emphasize that a healthy economy helps all people. Therefore, we ought to build the economy and let the economy take care of the people who are at the bottom of the heap.

There is truth in the fragment. A rising tide, does indeed float all boats .. all boats in the water. Here is the problem. Not all boats are in the water. If one is disenfranchised or marginalized, that one may not even be able to get to the pond.

Our great challenge is not charity. It is certainly not to provide an ongoing system of dependency. Our challenge, as a society, is access. Access is a justice and fairness issue. Sure, we might need to help people learn what to do with their access and provide sustaining support while their boats are getting seaworthy and ready to launch, but the idea is to get everyone in the water ...

OR ... at the very least, to remove obstacles to the point of entry.

The ancient Hebrews understood it. It was written into the Torah. It was reflected in the laws of gleaning and the years of Jubilee.

People need access and many do not have it. There is no point of entry to healthy and affordable food, to business and job opportunities and to adequate, quality, efficient, and economically sound health care.

Access takes up-front investment of money, time, energy, and, most of all, imagination. It requires engagement at all levels of society, preferably from local upward and outward. it requires collaboration, cooperation, and a degree of collegiality.

Access can open doors to sustainability. It takes a while, but with access to ideas, services, products, and people, individuals and communities can assume more and more personal responsibility for their own sustainability.

People can agree about access. I live in a community where left wing political types have joined hands with right wing political types to fight hunger. We all agree on the project. It is non-partisan. There are many opportunities for our ideological paths to part, but when they intersect, access happens.

People can grow some of their own food in the inner city, but sometimes they come up against local ordinances that restrict their ability to sustain themselves.

Hospital emergency rooms are nightmares. People are crowded into waiting rooms hoping to get expensive treatment for ailments that could be treated better by a nurse practitioner during normal business hours. Our policies and business models, however, restrict access and all of society pays more than fair market value for the product delivered.

Providing access can look like charity at first, but if it leads to empowerment, it can be as self-serving a deed as the best supply-side economist could desire. In the long view, building productive, sustainable citizens rises the tide as well, and floats even more boats.

What floats your boat?

I participate in several community benefit organizations. I sit on the board of some. Most are faith-based. Our supporters are motivated by many factors, but primarily by stories. The stories are those vignettes about what happens when people can get good boats to the water.  Many give back. Stronger families make stronger communities. Stronger communities mean greater productivity and fewer remedial supportive services.

Do all give back? No. Out of ten lepers healed by Jesus, only one came back even to say, "thank you." But one can make a huge difference. Our volunteers do not primarily work for the thanks or the recognition, but for the results. The same is true with donors. They want to make a difference with their efforts and with their dollars.

Access is a justice issue, but it is also a pragmatic way of looking at the world.

It takes patience to create entry points and then to help people realize that gates which were previously closed are now open. Some people have been trained on dry land and, even though they long for the pond to fish and float, they need some guidance and encouragement to get there and to do the things that  must be done to be successful.

The stereotype of the poor is that they are lazy and want handouts. I don't see much of that. I see generous people who want an opportunity. Yet, they are so accustomed to doors being closed or blocked that they have learned survival skills that sustain them, but keep them from thriving. If a crack opens in a door, some of the more energetic and motivated souls may find it and excel. Others just will not see it. They have been conditioned to exclusion and they are conditioning the next generation the same way.

We have ongoing issues, but even in these, an access-oriented approach can be pragmatically and compassionately effective. We will always have people with "disabilities." They will need special access. Children cannot make their own way in the world and some will, through no fault of their own, have parents with "grown-up problems." We will, most likely always have to deal with mental illness, addiction, and people in society who refuse to cooperate or help themselves. But we can create entry points for them as well.  However, my focus here is on the majority who simply need for us to stop blocking the entry points.

How do we create access? That is the question and if it was an easy question to answer, I would not take your help in figuring it out. But it is not easy and it does require your help. It requires all of us, asking hard questions and working together to build bridges, on-ramps, and launching points for those who are disengaged, disenfranchised, and discouraged.

For my Christian friends, be motivated by this. Access is a big deal too God who invested everything to give people access to Himself.

    " ...through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God." (Romans 5:2, NIV)

    "For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit." (Ephesians 2:18, NIV)