This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Graduate It!

                  “Faced with an imminent $28.6 million deficit in its healthcare plan, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Board of Pensions unveiled at its Oct. 27 meeting here [in Hilton Head, SC] a new dues structure that for the first time could result in plan members sharing the dues cost of their healthcare coverage.”
                  “Under the proposal, member dues beginning in 2014 will be 19 percent of effective salary. Those mandatory dues would also cover 65 percent of dependent coverage, which would be optional. (Dues for 2013, which include family coverage, are 21 percent.)
                  “A fixed premium/flat dollar amount would be added to cover the remaining 35 percent for dependent coverage. Members may choose from among differing levels of coverage for dependents: member plus partner, member plus child(ren), and member plus family (partner and children) . Dependent coverage would be paid by the employing organization, the plan member or a combination of the two.”
--Presbyterian News Service, November 2, 2012 
            Ok, when did Paul Ryan get on the Board of Pensions?  Because his basic approach, which is that if there is a deficit anywhere it is poor people who should be made to pay it off, is precisely what it sounds like the Board is currently contemplating.
            The dues system itself, because it is “flat” (that is, every church pays the same percentage of a pastor’s Total Effective Salary into the plan), is regressive.  The people and churches who are least able to afford it have to pay the same percentage into the system as churches and pastors who make considerably more money.
            Of course, we are told, the richer churches pay more, which is technically true in terms of actual dollars: eg. 32% of $100,000 is more than 32% of 50,000.  But these are the same kinds of arguments we hear from secular “flat tax” advocates.  A flat tax would be a windfall for the wealthy, as it would hammer everyone else.  To pay 10% of a $25,000 income in taxes would mean having to live on even less: $22,500.  But someone who makes $250,000 a year can pay 10% ($25,000) in taxes and still have $225,000 to squeak by on.
            This is not Jesus’ kind of math.  In Jesus’ way of counting, a poor widow’s single penny is “more” than the larger amounts donated out of the excess of the wealthy (Mark 12:41-44).  It’s not quantitatively more; but it is morally more.
            So the flatness of the Board of Pensions premium was always unfair.  (It was even more unfair when there was a cap, of all things, on premiums, giving high salaries a break.  The point to that is beyond me.)  The proposal to lower the premium will force lower paid members to pick up the slack themselves because their churches won’t be able to afford it.  But ministers making higher salaries will be in a better position to make up the difference, but it is more likely that their rich churches will simply do it for them.
            We already have a growing crisis of compensation inequality in our denomination.  This proposal will only exacerbate it.
            Instead of solving this deficit in the medical side by sticking it to young, poor ministers, especially those with children, we need to preserve and improve the community nature of the plan.  Why not simply graduate the premium.  If you make a higher salary, you should pay a higher percentage than someone making a lower salary.  Ministers making the minimum, especially in small churches, can pay the proposed 19%, and retain full coverage.  But the percentage would increase with a pastor’s salary, so that the top rate might be like 23%.  Thus we will have retained fair benefits, and increased the income to the plan from the people who can most afford it.
            (This would also make up for those years when there was that idiotic cap.)
            Some will not like this.  We will get into ugly arguments about the “viability” of small churches versus large ones, and the need to pay high salaries “to attract the best talent,” or some other such anti-biblical, self-serving, corporate-minded “reasoning.”  Some will threaten to reduce their per capita and/or mission giving, or whatever.
            But to ask young and poor ministers, and those with families, to bear the brunt of making up this deficit is wrong.  If more has to be paid, why not ask those who have more to give more?   

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