Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Amish self-reliance

I read this article several years ago and saved a copy. It doesn't appear to be free-to-read anywhere online at the moment so here it is:

Plain Independent: What the Amish Can Teach Other Americans about Reducing Reliance on Government

by Hannah Lapp; The American Enterprise, Vol. 8, November-December 1997

“I don't know what there is to talk about” said Lydia. “I can put it in five words: We don’t take government handouts.” Standing at the door of her kitchen in a calf-length blue dress and white apron, she studied my notebook uncomprehendingly.

I was visiting the home of the young Amish mother in hopes of gathering information on how the Amish people sustain themselves independent of government programs, even in times of crisis. While Lydia wasn’t averse to my visit, sitting down in the middle of the afternoon was obviously not her habit. “It doesn't seem I’ve done anything all day!” she exclaimed as she ushered me to a chair on the front porch. “I washed the laundry and sewed a few things. I canned some zucchini and string beans.”

Lydia’s mother, Mary Ann, and father, Jacob, had agreed to gather at her home in Clymer, New York, for my interview. Her small daughter Lena and son Myron rushed at their grandparents as they arrived and pounded on Jacob’s legs with shouts of “Grandpa, Grandpa!”

It was Jacob who was able to provide me with specifics on how the Amish have through three centuries managed their affairs from cradle to grave without making use of government aid programs. In between blowing up balloons for his grandchildren and listening to their breathless tales, the elderly Amishman described his people’s tradition of mutual aid.

Staunch self-sufficiency has been a way of life for the Old Order Amish since 1693, when Jacob Ammon founded the group as an offshoot of the Swiss Reformation movement. In those days Europe was dominated by church-state alliances intolerant of religious dissenters; so the Amish fled to North America during the 1700s, settling mostly in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Today, Amish congregations with a total population of about 150,000 are found in 22 states.

The Amish, who sometimes describe their way of life as “Plain,” have been remarkably successful at maintaining their religious and cultural identity inside America’s melting pot. The faster the world around them changes, the more strongly they seem to stand as a people apart. Amish religious ordinances which require, among many other things, plain, modest dress and reliance on manual labor and horsepower--have much to do with this. The most important distinctions in the Amish way of life--“earning our bread by the sweat of our brow” and “taking care of our own,” as one Amishman put it--capture individual initiative and harmonize it with community interests in a cycle that endlessly sustains both.

While the rest of the world haggles over capitalism versus socialism, Amish society simply turns its back on every welfare program in the book, from public education to Medicaid, and yet provides for its needy in a manner enviable anywhere. The Amish scorn modern thinking on topics like self-esteem and women’s liberation, yet turn out men, women, and children who possess the very sense of identity and purpose so wistfully sought by modern people. All this the Amish accomplish without compulsion and without a national leadership.

I can understand why it’s tempting for outsiders to view the Amish as mysterious, and to portray them as either leading idyllic lives or, on the other hand, laboring under deep, dark secrets. My own family associations with the Amish convince me there is nothing mystical about them. They contend with all the maladies common to human existence and in so doing have a great deal to teach the rest of us. But because propagating their beliefs abroad is not the Amish way, only through observation can we learn from them.

On the evening I visited Lydia’s home in Clymer, in the southwest corner of upstate New York, the family had just received word of the death of a well-known and loved elder in their church. Lydia’s husband, Andy, took a break from farm chores to gather on the front porch with his family and parents-in-law as they exchanged bits of news on how Manass Troyer had succumbed to brain cancer. Lydia and her mother, Mary Ann, reminisced on how well Manass had been just three and a half months earlier, working a sawmill job full-time at age 71. The illness struck suddenly, and by the time it was discovered was too far advanced to treat. Week after week, relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances had nursed the cancer patient in his own home and surrounded him with affection. Family members were getting worn out, Mary Ann admitted, so church friends, including herself and her husband Jacob, pitched in.

Mary Ann told me that just getting tests at the hospital had cost the Troyer family $18,000, and more medical bills followed. Their savings took care of only part of the expenses; fellow church members chipped in the rest. Since the Amish shun not only Medicare and Medicaid, but health insurance in general, medical expenses constitute the single greatest financial burden. Lydia’s family had its share as she grew up; Mary Ann needed gall bladder surgery, and Jacob was ill and off work at one time. Also, Lydia’s two youngest sisters are learning-impaired, one of them with Down’s Syndrome.
How, I asked, do other church members know when a family can’t handle its bills on its own? Do they go to the minister to ask for aid? And where does the money come from? “It’s very seldom that anyone has to ask,” Lydia replied. “Someone they know usually sees they have a hard time handling things and tells the deacon.”

Jacob explained that “there is no fund layin’ around doing nothing.” During their Sunday worship service, which is held in a member’s home and attended by the 25 to 35 families that make up a “church district,” the deacon stands to announce hardship cases. If there was a $30,000 hospital bill, for example, the cost would be divided up between a hundred districts. The deacon would then announce his church district’s share of $300, and each member would come forward with a donation fitting his financial ability. Jacob noted that the donations often add up to a little more than is needed.

“You never tell anyone else how much you gave,” Mary Ann added. “You just give what you can.” If the donations are anonymous, I challenged, how does the deacon know each member will give enough? The women didn’t see that as a problem. “You’d always rather give than be the one who needs it,” they answered in unison.

Reciprocal intergenerational bonds are in evidence whenever you visit Amish homes and communities. John A. Hostetler, a prominent author on Amish culture, notes that child nurture is considered the society’s most important adult activity. Children, in turn, are expected to nurture others as soon and as much as their capabilities allow. Practically as soon as he can walk and talk, the Amish child is helping with chores in the home, looking after younger siblings, and following older family members around to learn skills. Giving of oneself is so deeply associated with self-importance that Amish youth are strongly work-oriented and proficient in a vast array of jobs. As one Amishman told me, “By the time they are 14, 99 percent of our young people almost can’t wait to get out of school and get to work.”

Whether young, handicapped, or old, each Amish person seems to have something to contribute to the community. I asked Mary Ann about her youngest daughters, aged 28 and 26, who are disabled and still living at home. It wasn’t too hard raising them, she said; in many ways they were a help rather than a burden. Lydia chimed in that her youngest sister was a really good worker--Lydia had even had her over as a maid when Lydia’s baby was born.

Jacob cited his 86-year-old mother as an example of how their society provides for old age. The house that belonged to the old folks was bought by Jacob’s brother, who built an addition onto it for his widowed mother. “How do you decide which of the children or grandchildren is responsible for their parents’ care?” I asked. “I don’t know if anybody really decides,” said Jacob thoughtfully. “I took care of her for a while. Then my brother bought the house; so he was responsible.”

The Amish believe the elderly, when in decline, should remain among kin if at all possible, to reap the satisfaction due them for a lifetime of service, as well as to continue contributing to their families in ways they can, such as overseeing children. This experience implants in Amish children an acceptance of the path of aging and dying.

In an era of astronomical medical costs, dealing with extended illness without Social Security benefits can be a test of faith. The largest doctor bills require help from more than the usual hundred church districts, Jacob told me. Fund-raising campaigns--such as quilt sales, which can draw in contributions from the non-Amish--are sometimes organized. The Budget, a weekly newspaper published in Sugarcreek, Ohio, and read in Plain communities across the nation, regularly advertises showers and benefit auctions for hardship cases.

With a circulation of 20,000, The Budget is an important link in an Amish-Mennonite network of self-help, education, and mutual aid. Most Mennonite groups share with the Amish a disdain for public assistance. Unlike the Amish, however, they actively engage in mission and charity projects beyond Plain circles. Page after page of The Budget lists first-person updates by Mennonites stationed in these projects, ranging from disaster recovery efforts in the U.S. to anti-poverty missions in South America and Romania. Amish readers thus garner information on affairs around the world. “Scribes,” as contributors are called, may simply wish to update their cousins on church news, births, deaths--every imaginable event. In the “Information Please” column, readers ask about things like locating lost poems or acquiring replacement parts for kerosene lamps. Tips are shared on topics ranging from food processing to home remedies to planting by the moon.

The Amish insistence on drawing from their own resources rather than outside institutions has been questioned in recent years by the media. In one instance, described as “the first documented murder by a person born and bred Amish,” a Pennsylvania father hacked his wife to death. The man, known to be mentally ill, was being cared for at home by his family.

In the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area, an Amish family and state officials clashed in 1995 over treatment of a child with leukemia. The five-year-old girl was seized from her father’s arms by state troopers and child-protective case workers and placed in foster care so doctors could carry out chemotherapy against the parents’ wishes. The parents regarded chemotherapy as more threatening than the disease, and they had chosen a less invasive treatment from a Canadian doctor. The outcome was that the child was brutally traumatized by the state’s intervention and died, chemotherapy notwithstanding.

The Amish do not shun modern medicine as a whole. They often use chemotherapy, organ transplants, and life-support intervention when these do not simply prolong a vegetative or terminal condition. Many Amish donate blood to the Red Cross. In The Amish and the State, contributor Gertrude Huntington writes that most court cases involving Amish health care result from differing opinions about the best care for a sick child. The Amish believe parents and the church bear the first responsibility for child-rearing, and in a number of instances they have stood on these beliefs when challenged. “Neither state officials nor medical personnel take kindly to this apparent challenge to professional authority,” Huntington notes.

A recent ABC News “20/20” report, “The Secret Life of the Amish,” drew on the tales of disgruntled former members to sensationalize the “strict” and “isolated” aspect of Amish life. It claimed the “mysterious world” of the Amish hides untold stories of rigid control and abuse. Anchorwoman Deborah Roberts worried that Amish victims often did not have access to the “safety” of public social services.

Better-informed researchers report that while the Amish creed of independence, self-discipline, non-violence, and nurture is not foolproof, the Amish are remarkably little affected by our larger society’s most serious social ills. That drug abuse, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, divorce, and juvenile crime scarcely exist in Amish circles speaks well for the quality of life enjoyed by Amish youth. When Amish teenagers do act out, it’s usually through rowdy socializing, going to movies, playing music, or similar forbidden activities. At worst, this leads to drinking and petty vandalism--or leaving the faith.

The Amish respect the larger society’s “powers that be” in functions such as controlling crime, but they refrain from litigation and political activities. When state powers intrude in ways their faith forbids, the Amish throughout their history in America have taken the position their forefathers did in Europe: Accept the consequences rather than yield. “We are taught to mind our own business and obey the government, but when the chips are down and the government interferes with our way of life, we can balk like a stubborn mule,” notes one Amishman.

A study of Amish history in the U.S. bears out the saying that freedom is never free. Individuals, from deacons to the lowliest housewife, have been tested in church-state confrontations on issues such as military conscription, Social Security taxation, and public education. The willingness of many individuals to face punishment rather than surrender their beliefs has helped secure for their people an enviable degree of autonomy. In the mid-1900s, a number of Amish parents went to jail rather than send their teenagers to public high schools. A decades-long trouble spot between the Amish and education officials was finally resolved in 1973 after an outsider took their cause all the way to the Supreme Court. In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Amish won the right to educate their children largely according to church tradition rather than state mandates.

Jacob and Mary Ann have been asked by many people whether they pay taxes. “We pay all our taxes except Social Security taxes,” Jacob said, explaining that the Amish cannot conscientiously participate in a worldly insurance system like Social Security. If they receive income tax refunds after filing, Jacob said, they rip up the check and throw it away. He and Mary Ann have refused hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars because, in Jacob’s words, “We don't want government handouts.”

The Amish pay taxes for public education like anyone else, and then pay again to school their own children. In Pennsylvania, parents who do not use the public school system are now given a refund toward an approved choice for their children’s education. Jacob told me the Amish refused any efforts by the government to help their schools fearing they’d give officials reason to tell them how to run them.

Last year an Amish sawmill in Centerville, Pennsylvania, was raided by U.S. Labor Department officials and heavily fined for employing youths under 18. The owner, Bill Burkholder, was also the employer of Manass Troyer at the time he fell ill from cancer. When I visited the Burkholder home in early August, Bill and his wife, Mary, spoke of keeping tender company with Manass during his final days.

Bill wore all the appearance of the Amish working class--the highest class to which an Amishman aspires. His hair was plastered to his brow with sweat, and his homespun shirt and denim pants bore evidence of a day of hands-on labor. Beneath this humble appearance, however, I sensed a man of extraordinary intelligence and business acumen. He has twice built a prosperous lumber operation up from bare soil.

Three years ago the Burkholder family business, which includes two of his sons, lost everything to fire. The fire broke out on a Sunday afternoon. By Wednesday Bill had re-commenced sawing lumber with the help of his community, beginning with the boards they needed to construct a new mill. The sawmill grew to employ as many as 40 people, and the Labor Department’s crackdown on Bill’s young Amish workers struck Amish consciousness across the nation. If the state can remove the young from what the Amish view as constructive, educational job experience, how can they hold together their culture?

In January of this year, the Labor Department sent a representative to meet with Bill and a couple of other Amish businessmen about labor regulations. Arriving at the sawmill, the official was instead greeted by a throng of Amishmen, 500 strong, who had come to listen and express concern about the state’s encroachment upon their way of life. Such displays of fervent albeit non-violent solidarity often induce public officials to think twice before overstepping their bounds with the Amish. In the Burkholder case, the outcome is not yet known. Bill has appealed the fines, and Amish leaders nationwide are negotiating with lawmakers for tolerance.

In talking about the Amish practice of pulling together in crisis, Bill explained that every couple of years each Amish household evaluates all its belongings, from clothes to china cabinets to horses and buggies. The value of these possessions, combined with the assessed value of their property, creates a monetary figure from which one to three dollars per hundred is “taxed” whenever a fire occurs. Bill said the same figure is also used in calculating a fire’s property damage. Assessors from a number of neighboring church districts converge upon the scene quickly to view the damage and speak to the owner. A collection for relief is then launched, based on the figure arrived at by these assessors.

Though church positions such as deacon and preacher are entirely unpaid, Amish schoolteachers receive wages. Mary Burkholder, who had five years’ experience as a school teacher, told me teachers’ wages range from $20 to $30 a day, plus reimbursement if it’s necessary to hire a driver to get to school. Each family with children in the school pays an equal percentage of the teacher’s pay, whether the family has eight children in school or one. School materials, wood for its stove, and the cost of the building whenever a new one is needed come from a general school fund for which the whole district is responsible.

An Amish-elected school board oversees the school’s needs in everything from finances to teacher-parent tensions. By law, the Amish must adhere to certain rules, such as keeping attendance records and fulfilling the same number of days in school as other students. Otherwise, the state has little control over their education system. The Wisconsin v. Yoder ruling grants them the right to graduate their children from textbook to hands-on occupational education when they complete eighth grade.
The Amish peoples’ struggle to retain parental and church prerogatives in educating their children is a continual one. They are keenly aware, however, that no guarantees protect a minority group like theirs, which lacks political muscle. Societal attitudes or political tides can at any moment swing a public official’s pen against what they hold dear. It is here that their courage stands out--and their faith in themselves, in the goodness of God, and in the ability of human beings to resolve problems among themselves rather than depending on distant legal channels.

And it is here, perhaps, that the dominant American culture seems farthest from the Amish ideal. The very concept of a coercive universal tax for public welfare is built on the premise that each of us cannot be trusted to care about our neighbor’s needs. We have not realized how much this idea rends the thread of human-to-human reciprocation that weaves a community’s fabric. Indeed, we have yet to see the full outcome of the modern experiment of controlling deeds of charity from a pedestal of power rather than arousing each individual’s sense of duty.

The Amish do not claim to offer a blueprint for the welfare of our nation. They do, however, offer us a refreshing vision of what can be accomplished by the voluntary pooling of human resources. Their example challenges the idea of central planning and control as the answer to society’s ills. In observing them in their home, I could not help but see a link between independence from state controls and free-flowing human goodwill.

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