Rev. Dr. DeForest B. Soaries Jr. is pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, and author of dfree: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery. He served as New Jersey Secretary of State under Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman and twice served as a political appointee of President George W. Bush. UrbanFaith last talked to Soaries in December 2010 about his book and the personal debt crisis among African Americans. As President Obama and Congress moved closer to resolving the federal budget debate, we asked Rev. Soaries to share his thoughts on the debt-ceiling controversy, the role of race and class in the debate, and reasons for the bitter polarization in Washington. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: What are your thoughts on the federal budget debate?
REV. SOARIES: Having worked in Washington, it did not surprise me that Congress would have such difficulty coming to an agreement. Most of the legislation that’s passed in Washington goes through similar trauma and drama. It’s just that this one, like few others, was under the spotlight and we were able to see all of the challenges. It didn’t surprise me that it came down to the wire. It didn’t surprise me that there was division on both sides of the aisle. The process is not unusual. This is the way Congress operates.
I’ve read critiques saying there is a lot of unnecessary hype surrounding this debate. What do you think is the cause?
The Tea Party has made the national debt a very serious issue and their success in the mid-term elections put them front and center. When you have single issue type zealotry in the legislative process, the word compromise is a bad word and the legislative processes require compromise. No one ever gets all of what they want. That wouldn’t be democracy; that would be a dictatorship.
The national debt is a very serious issue, but the underlying issue in Washington is not so much how much money we owe. It’s more: what is the proper role of government? The Democrats generally feel that it is appropriate for government to sponsor programs that address human needs and the Republicans generally assume that the primary role of the federal government is defense, to protect the country, and that most other activities should be left to the market and private sector. Conservatism and Liberalism have two very different views of the role of government. Once you establish what your view is on the role of government, you then have a perspective on how government should spend money.
When President Bush borrowed over $6 trillion mainly to subsidize and pay for war, the Republicans did not mind that because they believe that war, defense, and security are appropriate roles and responsibilities for federal government. Over the last 40 to 50 years, the debt ceiling has been raised twice as often under Republicans as it has been raised under Democrats. Republicans don’t mind debt as long as the debt is paying for something that they deem appropriate, and Democrats don’t mind debt as long as it’s paying for something they deem appropriate.
You were an appointee of the Bush administration, but it sounds like you don’t share Republican opinions on this issue.
I’ve never shared most of the opinions of George W. Bush. I was appointed twice by President Bush. The first time I was appointed was to serve on the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York. That bank is a part of a system that provides more money for affordable housing than any other source in the country. That’s why I agreed to serve. My second appointment was to chair the Election Assistance Commission that was supposed to correct the voting problems that were revealed in the 2000 election. I was appointed by Bush to chair a bipartisan commission of two Democrats and two Republicans. From the time I was there, every decision was unanimous. I went to Washington for a very specific task, and that was to help states repair their voting systems so that when people vote, we know that the voting has integrity.
You were also New Jersey’s Secretary of State under Governor Christine Todd Whitman.
I was, and compared to the Tea Party, Gov. Whitman was a Democrat. I had no philosophical or ideological conflict working with the Republicans in New Jersey because, prior to Chris Christie, the Republicans in New Jersey were very moderate.
We just published a roundup of potential consequences of the federal budget crisis on the African American community. What do you think the consequences will be?
African Americans are in a very difficult situation. Pew Research just revealed last week that 35 percent of blacks have no net worth or negative net worth. That’s one-out-of-three. The FDIC reported last year that 54 percent of blacks either have no bank account or they don’t use their bank account regularly. That’s half. Our unemployment rate is sky high; it’s over 20 percent in most black neighborhoods. Our savings rate is just about zero. The majority of our people are living marginal lives economically.
Couple that with the fact that over the last two decades, the majority of us who have had good jobs have had them in the public sector. This is what’s so devastating. The majority of blacks work in the public sector and the majority of whites work in the private sector.
When you talk about reducing the size of government, you’re really talking about a disproportionate impact on African Americans. If you talk about reducing and changing the pension construct, you’re talking about a disproportionately high percentage of African Americans whose pensions come from the public sector. Even when you talk about Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security, a disproportionate number of African Americans use those resources to survive.
Philosophically, I don’t think anyone would disagree that government should not be big and taxes should not be high just for the purpose of big government and high taxes, but there is a very explicit racial impact from the fact that, historically, African Americans were denied access to the private sector. Good jobs for black people when I was coming up were teachers and post office employees, or the military. When you consider Washington, D.C., the federal government is basically run by black people. I’m sure that the fiscal conservatives are not all racists, but I’m also sure that they have not sat down and really considered the racial implications of what they say.
Is the reason so many African Americans have public sector jobs because of racism in the private sector, especially in hiring?
Yes, but it’s not just racist acts, it’s the legacy of racism. It’s the private sector basically being owned, controlled, and operated by whites. As government laws to protect the civil rights of blacks were passed, the government held itself more accountable than the private sector. It was easier to document and monitor the behavior of institutions in the public sector than it was in the private sector. So in the military, in the postal system, and in education, government was able to hold its own employees more accountable to equal opportunity and civil rights.
It became culturally accepted among African Americans that a good job, a stable job, is in the public sector where you are protected by civil service laws. If you could get a good job at the post office, you didn’t need much education, you could work there for 40 years and retire and live a comfortable life. That’s the old model. Now that the public sector is incapable of sustaining the level of activity it once had, and it has a devastating impact on African Americans.
Because we have such a shallow political leadership, what happens is if you say that, the first thing the Tea Party types and fiscal conservatives do is back up and say, “I’m not a racist.” That’s a knee-jerk reaction. If I preached a sermon at my church and the majority of the women got together after service and said, “That was a sexist sermon,” I can’t simply say, “I love my wife. I love my mother. I’m not a sexist.” I would have to take seriously their critique. What happens is fiscal conservatism refuses to listen to our critique because, in most of their minds, they are not personally racist. So they’re not willing to step back and analyze the racial implications of their philosophy and their policies, and therefore the discussion goes nowhere.
As the author of a book about debt-free living, you’re clearly not saying that people should abdicate personal responsibility. Are people even able to adopt a debt-free living message in the midst of this economic crisis?
Yes. The first line of defense is to control whatever resources you do have. It requires making some very important decisions. In Texas, black people spend $1.1 billion a year on lottery tickets. The University of Texas did research and discovered 58 percent of the blacks in Texas spend $57 a month on lottery tickets. There’s 1.6 million black people in Texas who are spending $57 a month on lottery tickets. So while I am concerned about the macro-economic issues, my question to them is this: Is that the best use of $57 a month? Fifty-seven dollars a month put into a mutual fund over 20 years will yield some real cash, and it’s more likely that investing or saving $57 a month will yield benefits than it is that you’ll hit the lottery when the odds of hitting the big lottery are 195 million to 1.
Has there been an increased interest in the personal finance courses your church offers given the economic situation?
Oh, sure. I started this ministry in 2005 and things were pretty rosy. People were taking out second mortgages on their houses, refinancing and pulling cash out, and getting approved for new loans in 24 hours. That was then, but this is now. The economic condition of the country and the world has motivated many more people to want to know more about how to handle their money.
Some Christian leaders signed a Circle of Protection document to defend programs that help the less fortunate, and they met with the president to urge him not to balance the budget “on the backs of the poor.” What do you think is the appropriate Christian response to this crisis?
I agree with that. However, having been in government, I understand the challenge that Mr. Obama has. The Congress has much more power over the budget than most people realize. The president doesn’t have a whole lot of power over the budget in terms of what’s authorized.
We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight. There ought to be a balanced, gradual strategy to repair the federal budget. It has to be balanced in that you can’t simply go to programs that support the most vulnerable, even if you agree that it’s inappropriate. On the other hand, it has to be gradual. You can’t do it quickly.
The Tea Party people made commitments last year when they ran for office, and what they have to take into account is that you cannot eliminate $14 trillion in debt in three months. You have to do it gradually because … there is a human story behind every item in the federal budget, and if you don’t balance your fiscal prudence with humane values, then you’ll do what my grandmother used to say: you’ll cut off your nose to spite your face.
Listen to Rev. Soaries explain the role of race in the federal budget debate.