April 20, 2019

Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell

This was originally posted here in 2013, with a few updates:

The time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is an interesting part of the traditional Christian calendar. It symbolized the only day of the year in which Christ is thought of as being dead. By tradition, it is also the only day of the year in which the Holy Eucharist is not celebrated (except in cases of emergencies).

In Christian tradition, lots of interesting legends developed around this day. Some passages in the New Testament suggest that Jesus descended to the realms of the dead to bring liberation to captive spirits. Apocryphal gospels from the second and third centuries elaborated this theme. In the late classical and medieval period, legends bloomed about the "Harrowing of Hell" in which the spirit of Jesus trashed the place while freeing the souls of the virtuous. In Dante's Inferno, both the architecture and geography of Hell show the aftershocks of that cataclysmic event nearly 1300 years later.

I love the image of captive spirits who have long ago given up hope being suddenly and unexpectedly rescued by a power far greater than themselves or the forces that hold them down. We could use a good bit more of that.

Right now.

April 19, 2019

The right way to promote work

During the last legislative session, the West Virginia House of Delegates came dangerously close to passing a bill that could have taken away health insurance coverage from 46,000 or more West Virginians covered by Medicaid expansion.

The bill was framed as a work requirement for the 160,000 or so people who gained coverage by the expansion. Actually, it would have been more of a paperwork reporting requirement that would have created an extra layer of bureaucracy and done a lot of damage without actually promoting work.

There were several things wrong with the bill, the most obvious being that the vast majority of adults who gained coverage are already working the many low-wage but necessary jobs that don’t come with benefits like health coverage and paid sick days and are often only part time.

That’s the real problem.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in 2017 that 48 percent of private-sector jobs don’t provide health coverage. Making life more miserable for the people who hold down those jobs would accomplish nothing.

If policymakers really want to help this population move ahead in employment, rather than punish them for being poor, they might look at an innovative and nonpunitive work program being piloted in Louisiana with bipartisan support.

The state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, expanded Medicaid in 2016. Louisiana was the first deep Southern state to take that step. The rate of uninsured Louisianans declined by half over the next year. By early 2019, around half-a-million state residents gained coverage.

As is the case in West Virginia, most of those people hold down jobs, but some might only be working part time or going to school or caring for a relative with a disability.

As an effort to help people move up the economic ladder, the state recently unveiled a voluntary work training program for Medicaid expansion recipients to be piloted in Monroe and West Monroe via a collaboration between the Louisiana Department of Health and Louisiana Delta Community College.

The program will offer training to prepare people for real jobs that need filled in the local community. At this point, offerings include Certified Nurse Assistant/Behavioral Health Technician (239 hours), Commercial Vehicle Operations (160 hours), Environmental Services Technician (120 hours), forklift and OSHA 10 training (24 hours) and Mortgage Documents Specialist (18 hours).

The long-term goal is to expand the program statewide, again offering voluntary training targeted to local labor-market conditions.

In today’s climate, it’s pleasant to note that people reached across the aisle to make something work.

According to Democratic Rep. Katrina Jackson, who authored the bill, “This is not just about training but about helping our people transition to a work environment that gives them a hand up and enables them to get to the point where they can take care of themselves and their families by being gainfully employed.”

Republican Rep. Frank Hoffman, who earlier had proposed similar legislation, was equally supportive, saying, “The goal of my legislation was never to cause anyone to lose their Medicaid coverage, but rather to help them find solid employment. I am pleased that we have reached this point and anticipate great success for those who participate and make the most of this opportunity.”

This is a good example of what can happen if people put ideology aside, focus on problem solving and give what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” a turn at the bat.

(This ran as an op-ed in yesterday's Charleston Gazette-Mail.)