Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
In his September 15 speech to the nation, President Bush asserted that poverty in America is mostly restricted to the nation's Southern states.Like a lot of right-wing ideologues when it comes to issues of race andpoverty in America, he's in denial.
Many Republicans seem to believe that poverty is confined to one region ofthe nation, that the past (i.e. what Bush called a "history of racialdiscrimination") should shoulder the blame for the problem, and thatindividuals make choices that determine their station in life. Bush'ssupporters hold the White House and the Republican agenda blameless, andargue that the president's vision for building an "ownership society" willenable America's poor to build a better life for themselves and their families.
The first thing wrong with such arguments is that poverty is not simplyfound in the deep South, as Bush suggested in primetime. Poverty is a factof life in every city and state nationwide. Sociologist Andrew Beveridge(at the request of the New York Times) recently conducted an economicsurvey of New York City and confirmed what other studies have alreadyshown--that New York is divided between the rich and the poor. Thisfabulously wealthy city has more than its share of entrenched poverty andracial economic disparities.
In the Bronx, the poverty rate is 30.6 percent, outranked only by threeborder counties in Texas where living costs are far lower. Overall, NewYork City's poverty rate was 21.8 percent, and people of color are morethan twice as likely to be poor as non-Hispanic whites. Beveridge's studyrevealed as well that the bottom fifth of Manhattan's income-earners arepaid two cents for each dollar that the top fifth currently earns.Economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute argues that Manhattan by itself is actually "an amplified microcosm" of poverty in the nation at large. (Manhattan is also leading the way when it comes toanother ominous trend: as the Fiscal Policy Institute recently warned, the city'smiddle class is being wiped out.)
America's claim to shame is that it has the highest level of poverty inthe industrialized world. Bush's four and a half years of trickle-downtheories have failed miserably. The poor have become even poorer. Thenation's poverty rate has climbed from a 27 year low of 11.3 percent to12.7 percent last year. Thirty seven million Americans are living belowthe poverty line, a group so large, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter pointed outin a post-Katrina cover article, that it amounts to "a nation of poorpeople the size of Canada or Morocco living inside the United States."
Bush may talk about addressing poverty in this rich nation, but hiscoldhearted agenda has made the problems much more pronounced. Hisadministration gave a massive tax break to corporations and thewealthiest individuals in his first term; since then, despite evidence ofrising income inequalities, a growing sea of red ink, and $200 billionneeded to fight the war in Iraq and another $200 billion we will spend torebuild the Gulf region, Bush has ruled out repealing any of his tax cutsfor the rich.(And this while household incomes failed to rise for fiveconsecutive years--for the first time on record.)
Bush leads a Republican party that has refused to increase the minimumwage (stuck at $5.15 an hour since 1997), tried to cut Medicaid, foodstamps, housing for the poor, Social Security, and promoted "faith-basedinitiatives" to rally "armies of compassion" that are supposed to assistthe poor through the right-wing panacea of charitable, religious giving.His Gulf Opportunity Zone is a sham. And while this White House tries tocut worker's pay in rebuilding the Gulf region, it lines the pockets ofthose poster boys of corruption--Halliburton and KBR--with no-bidcontracts. As Derrick Jackson wrote in the Boston Globe last week, Bush'splan "will squeeze yet more pulp out of the poor."
If there is a bright spot amidst the despair and catastrophe, it is thatsome in the mainstream media have started addressing issues ofpoverty, race and class in America. I don't know how long this momentwill last. But if some in the big media consistently and aggressivelyreport on poverty and class as central issues in US politics and society--and a few leading political figures find the political will, theimagination and the courage to fight for policies that have proven to workin tackling such an intractable problem--maybe we will see some progress.
Somehow, the disconnect persists. Despite a steady stream of polls and statements indicating public opposition to the war in Iraq, the stay-the-course consensus continues to suffocate DC.
Last week, a New York Times poll showed that 52 percent of Americans want immediate withdrawal, and that only 44 percent now feel that the United States "made the right decision in taking military action against Iraq." Yet, aside from a select group of representatives--like Progressive Caucus chair Lynn Woolsey, who convened an unofficial hearing on withdrawal last Thursday--calls for real change have been met with deaf ears on the part of the political class.
But, as tens of thousands of citizens are set to converge on the Mall this weekend for what could be the largest US protest yet against the Iraq war, and with some of America's largest cities having passed resolutions calling for a pullout, ignoring the public may no longer be politically tenable. Last week, the Chicago City Council voted 29 to 9 to become the largest US city to pass the "Bring Them Home Now" resolution. The Windy City joins Philadelphia, San Francisco, and more than fifty other municipalities that have called for withdrawal.
"When you have a city as diverse and as large as Chicago weighing in on this important issue, I think it will have real impact," Ald. Joseph Moore (49th), a leading sponsor of the resolution, told the Chicago Tribune. "We are from the heartland."
The nationwide push for local resolutions is being led by Cities for Progress, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies, which also works towards passing local bills on extending health care benefits, establishing living wages and opposing the Patriot Act. The movement has grown considerably since its inception last March, when dozens of towns and cities in Vermont called for withdrawal. Organized labor has joined in too: in July, the AFL-CIO called for "the rapid return of US troops" and scores of local, state, and national labor organizations have passed similar resolutions.
If you're tired of seeing $5 billion squandered each month in Iraq while our own national infrastructure remains in a shambles, click here to download a step-by-step guide detailing how to help convince your City Council members to pass the resolution. The tide's not going to turn without us.
We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.
"What does it mean to be poor in America? We can offer no single description of American poverty. But for many, perhaps most, it means homes with peeling paint, inadequate heating, uncertain plumbing. It means that only the very lucky among the children receive a decent education. It often means a home where some go to bed hungry and malnutrition is a frequent visitor. It means that the most elementary components of the good ife in America--a vacation with kids, an evening out, a comfortable home--are but distant and unreachable dreams, more likely to be seen on the television screen than in the neighborhood. And for almost all the poor it means that life is a constant struggle to obtain the merest necessities of existence, those things most of us take for granted. We can do better."--Paul Wellstone, "If Poverty is the Question," The Nation, April 14, 1997
We can do better. That was Senator Paul Wellstone's abiding belief. Wellstone, who died almost three years ago on October 25, 2002 in a plane crash, along with his wife Sheila and six others, was the rarest of Senators--a man of principle, courage and passion. He fused progressive idealism with a stubbornly pragmatic politics.
Setting out in 1997 to "do everything I possibly can to start the national conversation" about the realities of poverty in America, Wellstone would have found these last days to be what he often called "a teaching moment." (He always remained the former Carleton college political science professor.) And Wellstone did travel the length and breadth of this country--as Robert Kennedy had done thirty years earlier, and as Eleanor Roosevelt did during the Great Depression--talking to the poor in towns, cities and counties coast to coast. He understood that "poverty has many faces." And he wanted to "reveal for many of [his] fellow citizens the face of poverty" as it existed at the end of the last century.
Wellstone would not have been shocked to see the poor and despairing faces millions of Americans saw on their TV screens in these last weeks. And while he would have been the first to deplore the moral scandal of such poverty in the world's richest nation, he would have quickly rolled up his sleeves to help rebuild America and the Gulf region. Wellstone understood that not only was it noble and right, but it was good and smart politics to fight on "behalf of good jobs, a living wage, good healthcare and good education."
He also understood that while we need a strong and activist government, he had spent enough time in Washington "and read enough history to know that [problems of poverty] will not be solved from the top. It was a combination of the civil rights movement and the activist movements of the sixties that generated our last truly national attack on the problems of poverty....[that] in a democracy significant social change comes from the bottom up, from an aroused opinion that forces our ruling institutions to do the right thing."
On this third anniversary of Senator Paul Wellstone's tragic death, many of us feel the absence of his energy, purpose and passion. Next week his supporters will unveil a memorial, located less than half a mile from where the airplane accident that killed him went down. As Bill Lofy, Wellstone Action! communications director, describes it, the memorial will be "a place of commemoration and reflection where people can come and learn about Paul and Sheila Wellstone, their lives and the lives of the people lost on the plane crash."
While the Wellstones respected reflection, they wouldn't have wanted too long a moment of silence. They would have been on the Senate floor, or in the Delta, helping with relief efforts, organizing, legislating. And they would have wanted us by their side, working to make this country live up to its unfulfilled promise.
As Wellstone wrote in The Nation, "I think we can do better. That is what Robert Kennedy always said. I think we can do better too. Won't you join me in the effort?"
(To join in the effort, and to support the future of progressive politics, consider a donation on this anniversary to Wellstone Action, the nonprofit, nonpartisan group set up by sons Mark and David Wellstone to train the next generation of progressive leaders.)
If you want to understand how the right debases our political culture, take a peek at Bernard Goldberg's screed 100 People who are Screwing up America (And Al Franken is #37), which, as of yesterday, was number five on Sunday's New York Times bestseller list. The author of the best-selling books Bias and Arrogance has another smash hit on his hands--and it comes with all the vitriol and truth-twisting you'd expect from a man who's profited enormously from his role as cog in the right-wing smear machine.
Goldberg rails against liberal villains who, he claims, are out to weaken the very fabric of America. Who's Number #2? That dangerous radical Arthur Sulzberger, scion of New York's establishment and publisher of the New York Times. According to Goldberg, Sulzberger has "done more than anyone to destroy the confidence of millions of ordinary Americans in the fairness and basic integrity of the so-called mainstream media." He's got to be kidding.
If Goldberg's nasty mud-slinging was confined to one guy or one book, we could shrug it off. But he represents a far wider problem. How do people like Goldberg get away with pouring their toxic waste into our weakened political and media circulatory system? One reason, as Nation columnist Eric Alterman tells us, is the mainstream media's willingness to roll over. The right's truth-twisting pundits and commentators distort and debase our political culture. And they rarely get called on it by the so-called MSM.
Fox News' Bill O'Reilly is one of America's most skilled mudslingers. Talking about Alterman, not that long ago, O'Reilly called Eric a "Fidel Castro confidant." (In this case, O'Reilly had to backtrack quickly when threatened with a defamation suit.) Then there's the inimitable Ann Coulter, who told the New York Observer this past January that "it would be fun to nuke North Korea" and that she was "fed up with hearing about...civilian casualties in Iraq").
In a smart piece posted at TalkingPointsMemoCafe.com, Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin argued that right-wing pundits and commentators should hold themselves to a higher standard. "A sense of decency should not be a sometime thing," he argued. When commentators write or say things that are either "flatly untrue...plain loathsome...or murderous," the slanderers should be exposed and should not be "invited back, and back, to talk shows."
Higher standards of decency and truth in our media are a worthy goal at any time, but in these last days, it's been heartening to see how some mainstream TV journalists have shed their usual reluctance to ask tough questions, tried to hold those in power accountable and raised long ignored issues of poverty and race. It's as if a window has opened. We need to monitor the truth-twisting rightwing media to make sure the window doesn't close, because if we ever needed a caring, aggressive, watchdog press, it's now.
(As for Goldberg, watch for Jack Huberman's forthcoming "100 People Who Are Really Screwing Up America," a spirited liberal riposte to Goldberg's latest screed, to be released by NationBooks.)
"It is time to come home, America. Time to look within our own borders and within our own souls," Sen. Robert Byrd said Tuesday on the Senate floor. "There are many questions to be answered and many missions to accomplish right here on our own soil."
The disaster in New Orleans has reaffirmed that America's ongoing failure to address racial injustice is our great, unaccomplished mission at home. African-Americans still face unequal treatment in housing, education, the workforce, and perhaps most insidiously, the medical care they receive (or fail to receive). Three recently released studies show that black patients are substantially less likely to receive heart bypass surgery, blood vessel repairs, joint replacements, and other important procedures than whites. According to Asish Jha of Harvard Medical School, these studies indicate that "Overall blacks and whites receive very different health care in this country."
Finally, an organization has emerged to confront the crisis of unequal care. This summer, Massachusetts General Hospital announced the creation of the Disparities Solution Center--the first institution specifically dedicated to bridging the health gap. As Dr. Thomas Inui of the Regenstrief Institute for Health Care, told the Boston Globe, "We're really finished with the time in which we need more studies showing disparities exist. Now, we need to show how to close the gaps."
The Center is being headed by Dr. Joseph Bentacourt, whose landmark study, "Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial Disparities in Health Care," brought national attention to the issue. With $3 million in initial funding, Bentacourt says the Center will be a "living laboratory" in which doctors, academic researchers, and patients will collaborate on solutions and present their recommendations to hospitals, health care providers, and government officials throughout the country.
This deep-rooted problem won't be solved overnight, but the creation of the Disparities Solutions Center is a crucial first step--the exact sort of national soul searching and forward thinking we need in these devastating times.
We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing email@example.com.
Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.
The Hurricane and its aftermath have, rightly, seized our attention. I find it hard to focus on other news--even the growing violence in Iraq. But there is a world turning and churning out there. So, when a new (and wrinkled chapter) in possibly the biggest end-of-year story--Ukraine's Orange Revolution"--sprang into the papers in these last days, I didn't pay enough attention to it.
But then I remembered the extraordinary street protests in Kiev. Who could forget the riveting images of the thousands of demonstrators, many of them students, standing for hours in the city's Independence Square in sub-zero temperatures--waving banners, chanting and protesting 12 years of corrupt misrule and what they believed was a rigged election?
But while there was something exhilirating about the democratic awakening in Kiev and other cities, there was also a good deal of rank hypocrisy on display in Washington, DC. As I wrote then: This Administration celebrates pro-democracy rallies abroad, while showing no respect for America's pro-democracy protesters. And despite the exhiliration as The Guardian's Jonathan Steele noted at the time, "to suggest that [opposition candidate Viktor Yuschenko] would provide a sea-change in Ukrainian politics and economic management is naive."
Just last week, events revealed how political infighting, accusations of corruption and pitched battles over power and property have sullied the democratic hopes of those pro-democracy protesters. The skirmishes also remind us how tough it is to translate people power into viable political change.
For an insightful analysis of the past week's developments in Ukraine--and their significance for the future of a revolution which so galvanized the world's attention--I asked Mark von Hagen, the Boris Bakhmeteff Professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies at Columbia University, for his reflections.
"This wasn't the future for which we froze on Independence Square lastwinter," laments the internet site of Pora, the political party thatclaims its origins in last year's Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Themajor source of discontent with the now dismissed government ofPresident Viktor Yushchenko has been a perception that it has becomebogged down in cronyism, corruption and counterproductive internalconflicts.
The crisis that brought on the dramatic events of last week--first thetelevised resignation of the president's State Secretary (his chief ofthe presidential administration) with demands for the resignation ofseveral other members of the government on charges that they havebetrayed the orange revolution for their personal financial gains,then the President's televised dismissal of the entire government andappointment of caretaker ministers, and most recently the angryresponses of two of the fired ministers (Prime Minister YuliaTymoshenko and Deputy Premier Mykola Tomenko)--was the culmination ofprocesses that were set in motion almost as soon as Yushchenko wasinaugurated in January.
First, the new government structure was designed to disperse power andcreated at least two (the Prime Minister and the National Defense andSecurity Council under Petro Poroshenko) and possibly three (thepresidential administration itself) axes of power that sentconflicting orders to the ministries and their officials. This wasoverlaid and in part motivated by the rival personal and politicalambitions of Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, nicknamed the "Chocolate King"for his oligarchic status in the sugar industry. Ukraine facesparliamentary elections next spring and a likely redistribution ofpower from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, in line withthe compromise worked out in December to resolve the political crisisthen. Tymoshenko represents a relatively more statist approach toeconomic reform, whereas the Poroshenko-Yushchenko team favor fastermarketization and privatization.
Almost from the start, the new government has been perceived by themedia and in opinion polls as riddled with conflicts ofinterest. Several ministers and other high-ranking officialsmaintained their profitable businesses after they took office and havecontinued to enrich themselves. This public discontent hit close tothe president's home this summer when the internet newspaperUkrainskaya Pravda published a story about the president's 19-year-oldson observed driving a BMW valued at Euro 133,000 on the streets ofKyiv, parking it illegally in the middle of a residential street, andalso sporting a very expensive cell phone. The president's firstreaction was to attack the press for doing the dirty work of theopposition (and hinting at other nefarious forces). Unfortunately,this has not been uncharacteristic of the government's responses toother exposes. The Minister of Justice was defended by both Poroshenkoand Yushchenko when it was learned that the PhD in political sciencethat he claimed to have earned at Columbia University on his officialwebsite never happened. Later the Minister even charged that hackershad violated the Columbia University registrar's system andmanipulated his records. At least in the case of the President's son,there was a different outcome. After hundreds of Ukrainian journalistscriticized the president harshly for his treatment of a fellowjournalist and for his government's attitude to the press in general,Yuschenko held a hand of peace to the offended journalist andnewspaper and apologized for his "father's" defensive impulse.
How to put this in some perspective?
Unfortunately, cronyism, corruption and even falsified credentials arehardly unique to Ukraine, as we learned again in the tragic anddisgraceful Hurricane Katrina history.
And that all this controversy has become known and is the subject of alively and critical media is a change, we hope, for the better. ThatUkraine appears to have a genuine political opposition that has accessto the media distinguishes its current situation from those in nearbyneighbors to the north, east and south. Similarly Ukraine has beenmore open to the NGO sector (including those supported frominternational sources) and did, after all, witness the most promisingpeople's movement in the region for several years.
At another level, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has nowhere thepolitical clout and inclination to reactionary nationalism that it hasin Russia; in Ukraine the Orthodox are split themselves, but also facea resurgent Greek-Catholic Church, evangelical Protestants, and a muchsmaller Jewish revival. These are generally positive trends.
Where will things go from here? Much depends on how Yushchenko reformshis government and what the new opposition will feel it can accomplishin the runup to the elections. The first two appointments, one asacting prime minister of an uncontroversial technocrat who hassurvived a couple regimes (Yekhanurov) and the second as new chief ofthe presidential administration of a former deputy minister forEuropean affairs (Rybachuk), send mixed signals. The first is seen assomeone who will not rock the boat and allow the president to reemergeas the leader of the state. The second enjoys a generally goodreputation, but is close to the president and a trusted aide. It'sclear that, as Tomenko--one of the ministers who resigned in protestbefore he could be fired--said, one stage of the Orange revolution hasclearly come to an end.
One can hope that a new government will get the nation moving forwardagain, but the experience of the past half year has reminded us to becautious when hoping that people power translates into real politicalchange.
The events of the past two weeks have laid bare America's secret: that poverty abounds in this profoundly unequal nation. As the body count in New Orleans rises, it has become abundantly clear that the plight of America's poor--who have suffered particularly harsh setbacks in the past three decades--is nothing short of an epidemic. Yet throughout this era of rollbacks and blind-eye politics, the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN) has tirelessly fought back on behalf of our nation's other half. This week, we offer a special Sweet Victory tribute to a fearless organization that has long stood on the forefront of the movement for economic justice.
In 1970, Wade Rathke arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas, and organized a drive to help welfare recipients attain clothing and furniture. Months later, the Arkansas Community Organization for Reform Now--a broad-based coalition that had grown out of Rathke's early efforts--was taking on Arkansas Power and Light, one of the state's largest corporate players. ACORN demanded compensation for local farmers whose livelihoods were endangered by AP&L's plans for a new power plant. After months of organized pressure from ACORN, AP&L backed down and dropped the plans altogether.
A decade later, ACORN had expanded into twenty different states and was creating national headlines with its nine-point "People's Platform" and squatting campaign, which hammered the issue of affordable housing into the national discourse. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, ACORN fought vigilantly against insurance redlining--a practice that, thanks largely to ACORN's efforts, is now illegal--and helped secure housing for thousands of low-income individuals.
In recent years, ACORN has been a critical player in the living wage movement and has battled courageously against the practice of predatory lending, winning a landmark settlement in a nationwide class-action suit against Household Finance (now under HSBC) in 2003. ACORN has also created alternative public schools in several cities, improved health conditions for residents living in toxic environments and worked to tear down barriers to enfranchisement across the country. In 2004 alone, ACORN members registered more than 1.1 million new voters.
Today, ACORN has an active membership of 175,000 member families, with 850 neighborhood chapters in seventy-five cities across America. In 2004, ACORN became an international organization, opening chapters in Canada, the Dominican Republic and Peru. ACORN's website features more on the organization's history and a complete list of its astounding accomplishments.
It is a tragic irony that ACORN--an organization that has perhaps done more than any other to support those whom our government has left behind--was among the victims of Katrina's aftermath. Its national headquarters, which are located New Orleans, have been severely damaged, and now ACORN needs your help. As I've suggested in previous weblogs, please consider making a donation so that ACORN can build a temporary headquarters, get back on its feet and continue to do its vital work. In times like these, we need ACORN more than ever.
* * *
Finally, a brief Sweet Victory nod to Representative John Conyers and his fellow Progressive Caucus members Representative Mel Watt, Representative Jerrold Nadler, and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee for their stand against the Bankruptcy Bill. The bill, which is slated to take effect on October 17, will be another devastating blow to the tens of thousands of displaced and debt-ridden New Orleanians. Conyers and others need our help in their effort to exempt the victims of Katrina from this cruel bill that unjustly penalizes the poor. Contact your representatives and urge them to act in the interests of people over corporate interests. If not now, when?
Yesterday's New York Times's Sunday Styles section had a story about those of us called Katrina, and how we are handling the fact that we share a name with a Hurricane which has caused such enormous suffering and destruction.
The article notes how angry I was that Rush Limbaugh stooped so low as to link me to this human suffering. (He referred to the catastrophic storm as "Hurricane Katrina vanden Heuvel"). The Times reporter says that I dismissed the personal attack "and wheeled the issue into more comfortable terrain" by raising serious questions about the disaster in a recent piece.
Yes, I did raise questions about the shamefully inadequate response to the worst natural disaster in US history. But what the Times article didn't report were my personal reactions to the suffering. Nor did it convey my abiding hope that out of this tragedy--which has so starkly exposed our country's racial and class divide--will come a renewed understanding of the positive role of government in building a more just and equal America. Nor did it mention my search for how to most effectively help those hardest hit, spurred on, in part, by letters from many Nation readers asking our advice on the best ways to help.
On behalf of The Nation--and my colleagues who care so deeply about supporting grassroots relief efforts--I have made contributions to each of the following organizations listed below. I encourage Nation readers to consider these and other grassroots efforts in making your own gifts. Our website has also collected information about other ways you can help. (Click here for additional info.)
ACORN is a national, grassroots, dues-based organization of low-income people with 175,000 members. It's been highly effective in the campaigns for living wage-ordinances in 100 cities. Its headquarters was in New Orleans, and the group needs funds to establish temporary offices in nearby cities. More than 9,000 ACORN members lived in New Orleans before Katrina hit. Donations are going to locate missing members and provide housing for those who have been found. ACORN is holding town hall meetings around the country to discuss the hurricane response, and in the coming months, decisions about how to rebuild the city will take place. ACORN is one of the best hopes to ensure that the voices of those most affected by the hurricane are heard.
For more information: acorn.org
To donate: groundspring.org
Southern Mutual Help Association was founded in 1969 to help develop strong, healthy, prosperous rural communities in Louisiana. Working alongside southern Louisiana's fishermen and farmers, it is an advocate for preserving threatened livelihoods even as it assists in the process of change towards more sustainable futures.
Katrina has devastated the communities in which SMHA works. Louisiana's commercial fishers, the thousands of very poor families whose livelihood depends on fish, shrimp and shellfish from the bayous, have been virtually wiped out by the hurricane. Boats, docks and other infrastructure were destroyed, and the very waters they depend on have filled with salt, silt, and pollution, damaging and destroying fisheries. SMHA is still assessing the situation: It already knows the Acadiana region around Lafayette will have approximately 150,000 refugees looking for places to stay during the wait to return home (likely to be lengthy), and wondering how to recover and rebuild their future.
People throughout these fragile bayou communities will need long-term assistance, especially in the form of loans. But first SMHA must help stabilize the situation. SMHA has the commitment to be there for the long haul, and its mutually-trusting relationships with local communities will enable it to be effective in responding to local needs.
For more information: southernmutualhelp.org
To donate: southernmutualhelp.org/RuralRecoveryFund
Federation of Southern Cooperatives was established in 1967 to work with African-American rural communities in the South to save Black-owned land. In 1990 it successfully led efforts to pass the first "Minority Farmers Rights Bill." This membership-based organization can make sure aid is used not to deepen dependency, but to rebuild viable rural livelihoods. Their on-the-ground networks and local knowledge make them good candidates to loosen logistical bottlenecks and navigate complex politics; something national or international aid organizations cannot match. FSC is a member of Via Campesina, a global coalition of small farmers' organizations struggling for resource rights from the Mississippi to the Mekong deltas.
For more information: federationsoutherncoop.com
To donate: federationsoutherncoop.com/relief05.htm
It's Time for a New "New Deal"
New Orleans is destroyed, the Gulf Coast'sinfrastructure is in tatters and tens of thousands ofcitizens are without jobs as gas prices nationwiderise to record levels. Television sets brought thedestruction into all of our homes. But this WhiteHouse seemed unable to grasp the misery unfoldingbefore its own eyes.
Instead, President Bush treated the disaster as if hewere a loutish frat boy when he joked to Americansthat he had had good times partying in New Orleans asa young man and hoped in the near future to be able tosit on Senator Trent Lott's rebuilt porch in Mississippi.
But to really understand what went wrong with theAdministration's shameful response, we need to lookbeyond Bush's blame-the-other, pass-the-buck andwho-gives-a-____ attitude.
The Administration's ineptitude, as New York Timescolumnist Paul Krugman put it, was "a consequence ofideological hostility to the very idea of usinggovernment to serve the public good."
The government's failure was the result not of "simpleincompetence" in the Administration but "of a campaignby most Republicans and too many Democrats tosystematically vilify the role of government inAmerican life," LA Times columnist Robert Scheerargued. And as the Financial Times observed, "For thepast quarter-century in Washington...US politics hasbeen dominated by the conviction that what was wrongwith America would be solved by getting government offthe people's backs"--an attitude that contributed tothe criminal inaction on the part of the federalgovernment.
Indeed, you could see what the dog-eat-dog,antigovernment philosophy of the far right has reapedin the bloated bodies and raw sewage in New Orleans'sflooded streets.
That philosophy has attained new power under PresidentBush. While the Louisiana Army Corps of Engineersproposed $18 billion in projects that would haveshored up the protective levees, improved floodcontrol and perhaps prevented last week's breaches inthe levees' walls, none of these projects were funded.Instead, the White House cut the Corps' budget andactually proposed a further 20 percent cut in 2006.
Which raises the question: What steps should we taketo repair the breach that has become so apparent inour social fabric?
Here's one answer: Let's seize this moment bylaunching a twenty-first-century New Deal--with programsmodeled after the Works Progress Administration,updated for these times. Why?
A modernized version of the WPA would help ournation to rebuild New Orleans and Mississippi's GulfCoast, and repair the racial and class dividesthat we saw in such dramatic relief these past fewdays. It would rebuild and improve our nation'spublic infrastructure and (hopefully) alter the terms of ourpolitical discourse in the years ahead.
After all, Roosevelt's New Deal was so much more thansimply a vehicle for providing economic relief tocitizens in need. It gave Americans a sense of solidarity, a new social contract, as well as the chance to go to work. It also helped bring the country's infrastructureinto the twentieth century.
Take a moment to consider these statistics: The WPA, according to historian William Leuchtenburg, "built or improved more than 2,500 hospitals, 5,900school buildings, 1,000 airport landing fields, andnearly 13,000 playgrounds."
When the hurricane happened the poverty rate in NewOrleans stood at 28 percent--more than double thenational average. Fully half the children of Louisiananow live in poverty, the second-highest child povertyrate in the country (its neighbor, Mississippi, isnumber one). And as if to underscore the poverty ofour politics, the same week the hurricane devastatedthe poorest regions the Census Bureau released areport that found the number of Americans living inpoverty has climbed again--for the fourth straightyear under President Bush.
African-Americans, who are two-thirds of the city'spopulation, suffered the most in the hurricane's wake.As Professor Mark Naison wrote in a letter circulating on the web, this event is nothingshort of "a humanitarian challenge of unprecedentedproportions."
It showed "how deeply divided our nation is and howfar our social fabric has been strained" by the Iraqwar and by "policies which have widened the gapbetween rich and poor."
A post-New Orleans WPA could help to spark a new anddesperately needed moral struggle for economicrights. It could provide jobs to Louisiana andMississippi's poor and promote the goals ofequality, justice and economic opportunity acrossAmerican society.
(Bush's approach, in contrast, favors cronyism. Lastweek, Halliburton's stock hit a fifty-two-week high,presumably because Dick Cheney's former colleagues mayreap the benefits of this tragedy securinggovernment contracts to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Bush'sapproach has been a complete failure for the poor,elderly and largely African-American population ofNew Orleans.)
A WPA-style program could also begin to address therelated crisis of the inner cities--a crisis that, asthe Center for American Progress points out, thisAdministration has contributed to--as it has"repeatedly slashed job training [to the tune of morethan $500 million] and vocational education programs."
The Milton Eisenhower Foundation has argued that thefederal government should fund 1.25 million public-sector inner-city jobs. (Its website lays out a series of "what work" programs.)
We need a twenty-first-century WPA to restore theinfrastructure not only in Louisiana and Mississippi,but in every state in America. As Representative DennisKucinich said this past week, the task ahead that is required torebuild New Orleans includes a need for "new levees,new roads, bridges, libraries, schools, colleges anduniversities and...all public institutions, includinghospitals." The government's highest priority shouldbe on affordable housing and public infrastructure,not on casinos and luxury hotels, which skewdevelopment and contribute to environmentaldegradation.
We're "the only major industrialsociety that is not...renewing and expanding its publicinfrastructure," the Eisenhower Foundation reported.Instead of pork barrel spending on absurd bridges like"Don Young's Way" in Alaska, let's have the federalgovernment spend our money wisely to modernize ourhospitals, highways, universities and otherinstitutions.
Senator Kennedy said in a Senate floor speech this weekthat "we can't just fix the hole in the roof. We needto rebuild the whole foundation." He proposedestablishing "a New Orleans and Gulf CoastRedevelopment Authority modeled after the TennesseeValley Authority in its heyday." His good idea is to"plan, help fund and coordinate for thereconstruction of that damaged region."
Finally, we must seek to upend twenty-five years of right-wingpolitical dogma that is responsible for what wentwrong in responding to this disaster.
We need a new politics of shared sacrifice and arenewed commitment to a politics of shared prosperity--with a federalgovernment playing a vital role in creating a fairer, more just,full-employment economy. These proposals are common sense ideas; how could they be considered heretical in the hurricane'swake?
This is a moment ripe to reshapeAmericans' view of government. A twenty-first-century version of the WPA wouldhalt the dismantling and begin the rebuilding of our nation'scommunities, of lives enmeshed in deep poverty and squalor, and provide some hope that thehorrific abandonment by government ofthousands of citizens will be an aberration,not a nightmarish portent of what lies ahead.
As Republicans desperately cry out of one corner of their mouths to stop the blame game, they have been blaming everyone but themselves since this catastrophe. Let's look at their ever-evolving buck-passing strategies.
Blame the Victims: Both FEMA's Michael Brown and Homeland Security's Michael Chertoff, the Mutt and Jeff of this calamity, have blamed careless, destitute New Orleaners for not evacuating. "Those who got out are fine," Chertoff told NBC's Tim Russert. FEMA sought to excuse its delays in entering the city by blaming the looters.
Blame the Locals: In a stroke of political luck, both the New Orleans mayor and Louisiana's Governor are Democrats. As the New York Times reported, Karl Rove's PR strategy is to shift the blame to the state and city officials. All Sunday, White House officials and Fox News played this card. Expect more of this line of attack.
Blame the City: In perhaps the most bizarre excuse, Chertoff pointed the finger the city of New Orleans itself, saying, "It is a soup bowl. People have talked for years about whether it makes sense to have a city like that."
Blame the Media: Last week, Brown blamed media coverage for the perception that New Orleans had descended into lawlessness. "I actually think security is darn good.... It seems to me that every time a bad person wants to cause a problem, there's somebody with a camera to stick in their face."
Look on the Bright Side: As Americans continued to drown, Chertoff came up with this gem about the rescue efforts: "There were some things that actually worked very well. There were some things that didn't."
Ignoramus Defense: When FEMA's Brown, who was fired from his last job overseeing Arabian horse shows, said he was as "surprised as everybody else" to discover there were desperate people in the New Orleans convention center, CNN Soledad O'Brien asked, "How is it possible that we're getting better intel than you're getting?" But it was left up to our physically fit President for the whopper of the week: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."
It is likely this last defense will be scrapped for obvious reasons. If only we could do the same to this Administration for painfully obvious reasons.