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Hartselle Enquirer

Alabama must continue to battle poverty

By Staff
Stephen Foster Black, Guest Columnist
With the recent release of new census data on poverty, we learned that the number of Americans without health insurance is continuing to increase. There are currently 47 million uninsured people in our country, 8.5 million more than there were in 2000.
No matter how hard state governments work to increase efficiency, improve education, health care, and so on, true progress can only be built on values. Progressive change in Alabama will require a spirituality of social responsibility – a reason for action that transcends individual interest.
As a college education becomes more critical in equipping our citizens for an increasingly competitive world economy, we must not forget the role our system of higher education can and should play in preparing students to serve as effective, engaged and ethical citizens.
One of the most significant challenges faced by colleges and universities in fulfilling this mission is addressing the impact that our consumer culture is having on the current generation of young people. In a state with a proud tradition of hard work, close knit communities, and faith in God, too many of us have become captive to a consumer-driven culture that encourages a purely personal understanding of self-fulfillment, causing us to feel less and less obligated to our fellow citizens in common projects and goals.
Not surprisingly, many elected leaders perpetuate a definition of obligation that simply stresses charity while ignoring justice and the skills of citizenship. By merely focusing on alleviating the effects of poverty, charity, by itself, fails to challenge the complacency of citizens. Justice, on the other hand, by seeking to eliminate the causes of poverty, leads directly to challenge, self-reflection and tension.
Our colleges and universities cannot, in good conscience, merely be occasional volunteer providers for the poor. Often best situated to offer vision, credibility and leadership, our institutions of higher education must participate in helping Alabamians increase the realm of duties we define as moral responsibilities. Working toward a degree in one of our many institutions of higher education, our students must realize that with the privilege of being better educated than three-fourths of our state's population comes an obligation – an obligation to understand that every individual's life has dignity and worth, and everyone's health, education and potential to succeed is worth fighting for.
As our state tax structure places an unfair burden on average working families, as countless children remain uninsured, we should all feel a duty to act. With Alabama's distinctive sense of values rooted in the church, the land and the community, the requirements of us as citizens should be understood in their theological dimensions. No other state's college graduates should be as well furnished to embrace the Biblical mandate: "For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required" (Luke 12:48).
The Alabama Poverty Project, The Center for Ethics &Social Responsibility at The University of Alabama, Impact Alabama and the UAB Center for Urban Affairs are pleased to announce To Whom Much is Given – a statewide conference on service learning in higher education, to be held Sept. 27 and 28 in Tuscaloosa. The first of its kind in the state, this conference will bring together professors, administrators, students, and community partners from campuses and organizations across Alabama to establish a network of best practices in facing issues of poverty in Alabama.
With more than 20 campuses participating, the goals of the conference include examining service learning (curriculum-based community service) through the unique lens of poverty and building a commitment to institutionalizing the sustained practice of quality service learning opportunities that address vital community needs throughout our state.
A progressive future for Alabama will require our colleges and universities partnering with business, civic and faith leaders to inspire communities to reevaluate their priorities and move from silence, apathy and accommodation to active engagement.
This new era will be stamped in history as the point at which our institutions of higher education reasserted their commitment to assist students in developing a distinctive definition of moral and civic maturity, making the values and skills of citizenship a hallmark of a college education received in Alabama – and in the process, helping to create a better world for our children.
Stephen Foster Black is an attorney and director of the University of Alabama Center for Ethics &Social Responsibility.

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