A Lesson of Service

Times Argus | August 24, 2014

The homily at the funeral service for Jim Jeffords on Friday contained a message with meaning that reaches far beyond the confines of the church in Rutland where the funeral took place and beyond the boundaries of Vermont.

It was a spiritual message with wide application to the hurly-burly of the everyday world and the world of politics. The Rev. Dr. Steven E. Berry used a text from Matthew: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The message of the day was that Jim Jeffords, state senator, attorney general, U.S. representative and senator, was a “servant leader,” a humble man who had no interest in exalting himself.

It is perhaps cynical to think that the message of humility and service is a fine one for a sermon in a church. We all feel better when we hear those words, but reality requires us to put aside pious sermons when we engage in the battle for survival in the worlds of work or politics. It’s every man for himself in our rough-and-tumble world, and the survival of the fittest may determine the winners more surely than the Gospel of Matthew.

Certainly, there is confirmation for that view in the way that politics has worked in the years since 2006, when Jeffords left the Senate. There is no doubt that Jeffords or his predecessor in office, Robert Stafford, would have little tolerance for the polarization and paralysis that have turned the present Congress into the least productive one in history. Both men would no doubt have cringed when the present House speaker, John Boehner, boasted that it was a good thing Congress had passed fewer bills than ever before.

Members of Congress today do not act in the manner of servant leaders. In more ways than one they are serving themselves first. They meet and conduct business on a truncated schedule from Tuesday to Thursday because they prefer to be out in their districts raising money and glad-handing constituents. They are advised by their leadership that they must devote four hours each day on the phone raising money. They operate within a world of lobbyists and high rollers that is far removed from ordinary people and who have little notion of service except to serve oneself. Their own re-election is their paramount interest, and if they believe they must abandon their posts as leaders to further their own interests, they will do it.

The eulogies for Jim Jeffords painted a different picture. It wasn’t as if he was not a competitive man. His childhood friend, George Hansen, described a baseball game among sixth graders in Rutland when Jeffords’ team won the right to bat first and proceeded to put 25 runs on the board before the bottom of the first inning, when the game was called for supper. The lesson Hansen took from it was not to let Jim Jeffords bat first.

At his funeral, Jeffords’ children, Leonard and Laura, noted that he was a fierce competitor when playing hearts or Risk or Monopoly.

Competition and ambition are in the DNA of American life, but they need not be harnessed to serve the self first. And yet that is a lesson that has faded from consciousness. Jeffords’ ambition and his competitive spirit were harnessed to serve the disabled, to preserve our environment, to foster educational opportunity. Since he left office, the corrupting power of big money has only grown, and self-interest has forced to the side servant leaders like Jeffords.

Jeffords was not slick. He was not eloquent. He was not grandiose or self-serving. His children knew him as a dad who liked to putter around on his tractor in Shrewsbury or hike the hills with his dogs. People who met him may not have felt they were able to get behind his awkward style and shy demeanor to the real person, but the person standing before them was the real person. Lack of artifice left him as the man he was.

It is important to keep in mind the enduring truth of what the Rev. Berry was saying about humility and service. Only by remembering the legacy of public servants like Jim Jeffords can we change the culture so that selfishness recedes and the servant, finally, is exalted.

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Congress lining up votes to cut SNAP

House leadership is counting votes right now, trying to pass a bill that could force more than a million people to lose critical nutrition assistance. Every year, SNAP (formerly food stamps) helps more than 40 million people put food on the table. It’s one of the most effective anti-hunger programs there is. But Congress is considering changes to SNAP that will leave more than a million people hungry.

Urge Rep. Peter Welch to protect SNAP and vote no on the House Farm Bill, H.R. 2.

A hyper-partisan provision in the House Farm Bill imposes new work requirements on SNAP, stricter than those that already exist, even though 80% of the program’s beneficiaries who are able to work already do.

These restrictions will bury SNAP recipients in paperwork, bureaucracy, and red tape, making it harder—not easier—to find or maintain a job. Worst of all, the changes would weigh heaviest on people who struggle to find work because of undiagnosed disability, advanced age, or because they’re raising children. Moreover, states don’t have the resources or capacity to implement this huge new bureaucracy.

Tell Rep. Welch to help families keep food on the table by protecting SNAP.

Work is valuable. But SNAP isn’t a jobs program, it’s an anti-poverty program. Imposing stricter work requirements on SNAP without serious investments in skills development, childcare, and transportation won’t help anyone find a job, but it will leave a lot of people wondering where they’ll find their next meal.
If Congress wants to help people find work, we’re all for it! But those efforts shouldn’t come at the expense of programs like SNAP that serve people in their times of great need.
Contact Congress now. Tell them to reject changes to SNAP that will leave people hungry. Instead, Congress should pass a bipartisan farm bill that truly helps address hunger.

The following article appeared 04/17/18 on vtdigger

Steven Berry: Even at $15 an hour, minimum wage is poverty pay

Editor’s note: This commentary is by the Rev. Dr. Steven E. Berry, a former Vermont legislator who is minister of the Congregational Church of Rupert.

An Open Letter to Our State Legislators

To argue the merits of $10.50 per hour for a 40-hour work week underscores the problem with S.40, An Act Relating to Increasing the Minimum Wage to $15 per hour. Rationalizing against supporting S.40 when $15 is far below what it costs to live in our state speaks poorly to what should be one of our top priorities — the elimination of poverty in Vermont.

Opposition or lukewarm support for S.40 underscores an indifference to Vermont’s marginalized population. No one should dignify the argument that a worker getting to $15 by 2024 is too much, too fast. The rationale is ludicrous given that a true livable wage in Vermont in 2018 is twice the current amount of $10.50.

Here’s a point that some in the legislature appear to not consider: Minimum wage was intended to be an entry level wage or a stop gap during a time of need. Minimum wage launches a young person into the workforce. Minimum wage helps a person who is retirement age supplement social security. These wages are very important for persons in these stages of life. Passing S.40 would give those who live on the margins income that is necessary. Raising the minimum wage could cause a positive ripple effect. Conversely, if it doesn’t pass many Vermonters’ standard of living will suffer and further erode as cutbacks are already taking a toll on our citizens. Legislators will determine this outcome.

Here is a list of associated concerns that legislators should consider.

Projected base outcomes and the associated costs of poverty are not a mystery. While not all our societal problems can be associated with poverty there are demographic correlations between poverty and social problems including opioid addiction, alcoholism, domestic abuse, emergency room visits, ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences), truancy, delinquency, robbery, incarceration, homelessness and mental health issues. When added together these costs to the state are immense. Poverty is ultimately far more expensive than preventing poverty in its costs to society and to the state. Should a Vermont boy or girl go to bed hungry or go to school with an empty stomach? No. But already we have thousands of children in the state for whom this is the case. S.40 would help to address this problem. A “no” vote on S. 40 is fiscally irresponsible because poverty damages lives, leaves deep wounds and often carries over to another generation of poverty.

We know that basic necessities of good food, adequate shelter, heating, and adequate health care need not be beyond the reach of every Vermont citizen. Economically it is in the best interest of society to make people’s lives as cost-effective as possible. For example, eating healthy food is a way to prevent serious health issues. Raising the minimum wage to $15 jump-starts the process and potentially brings a person closer to the goal of economic self-sufficiency. Some small business owners rightly complain they can’t get good help. Some also say they can’t afford to pay higher minimum wages. While it is in their best interest to pay more to get better employees, small business owners also need the help of legislators to solve their concerns and to make it easier to afford to pay higher wages. A moral society ensures the safety of its citizens. Security comes in many forms. One is economic and it is sometimes best provided through laws that support those who supply jobs and those who they employ.

Many of our Vermont neighbors are willing to go without luxuries and work multiple jobs just to provide for necessities. The legislature should be making the eradication of poverty a top priority. Elected officials have a responsibility to advocate for the voiceless, particularly those that live in poverty quietly and with dignity. A Vermont legislator who refuses to support the meager minimum wage act S. 40 is rejecting constituents who are often hurting the most.

Turning a blind eye to the systemic problem of poverty in Vermont is not a viable option for the future of the state. Poverty should be eradicated. Vermont legislators need to reread the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a resolution that the legislature honored in 2010. Your constituents with whom I have spoke have told me to urge you to do the right thing and pass S.40.