The progressive left is at its best when it combines visionary politics with pragmatic action, when it makes people’s lives better in a concrete fashion. Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps began as an ambitious idea that ultimately sent millions of young people into the woods to plant trees, build trails, and restore the landscape, while providing an income for their struggling families. The “sewer socialists” of early-20th-century Milwaukee, Wisconsin, earned a reputation for coupling their ideological values with commonsense projects like improved water, electricity, and sanitation systems. Their present-day comrades, the Democratic Socialists of America, drew praise last month when the group’s New Orleans chapter launched a mutual-aid clinic to repair people’s broken brake lights for free. And Bernie Sanders has funneled his immense popularity and idealism into an electrifying piece of legislation that would expand Medicare to all Americans, directly benefiting millions in the most intimate manner. All of these are examples worth lifting up and learning from.
City leaders too—whether local elected officials or grassroots organizers—are churning out a particularly promising blend of aspiration and application these days. From free-school-lunch programs and public banks to a rising West Coast tenants’ movement bent on revitalizing rent control in the region, progressives are laboring at the level of local politics to build programs and policies that will turn this country into a less hostile and punitive place. As a brief respite from the endless flow of bad news in Trump’s America, we offer a few stories of visionary pragmatism from the last month.
In New York City, Free Lunch Is Real
From behind a phony Midwestern smirk and without a hint of irony, the billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos likes to tell people that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” She said as much to Bernie Sanders during her confirmation hearing as secretary of education last winter, and she gleefully repeated the slogan again at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. DeVos, though, didn’t know what she was talking about. Her quip was mistaken then and, thanks to New York City’s Department of Education, it is even more mistaken now.
On Thursday, September 7, the city rolled out a new program that will provide free lunch to all 1.1 million public-school students in the five boroughs. Although 75 percent of students in the city were already eligible for free lunch, this program will offer approximately 200,000 additional young people access to the program, and will save their families some $300 a year. What’s more, since the program truly universal, those who rely on the program will no longer have to worry about being stigmatized for doing so.
Like similar initiatives in Chicago and Boston and Detroit, the program is a strike against inequality, a move meant to improve the lives of the young people who reside within the city’s borders. “It’s pretty transformative,” says Liz Accles, the executive director of Community Food Advocates, whose organization ran a persistent campaign in support of universal free school lunches in New York. “From one day to the next, the city reversed decades of bad policy that have divided children in the cafeteria by income.”
Accles’s organization worked hard to make the new policy a reality. It built a coalition of elected officials, unions, parents, adolescent health organizations, and more to make sure Bill de Blasio followed through on what had been a promise during his 2013 bid for the mayor’s office. The campaigners had initial success in 2014 when the city implemented universal free lunch in all of its stand-alone middle schools. Now, with the September announcement, their work is complete.
“A core and foundational barrier to participation has been this poverty stigma associated with the free-lunch program,” Accles says. “Once students are divided by income, it marks the free-lunch program as a program for poor kids. And kids, especially as they get older, become more aware of income disparities and fear being labeled, and so some of them stop eating altogether.”
New York City’s new program, in other words, will help tackle classism in the cafeteria. Even if our beloved education secretary doesn’t like it, free lunch is real.
In the Bay Area, the Public Banking Movement Rises
Corporate banks, as everyone knows, have caused a hell of a lot of mischief in this country. From redlining to predatory lending to the recent scandal that saw Wells Fargo open millions of fraudulent accounts in its customers’ names, profit-seeking financial institutions seem willing to engage in all kinds of unsavory practices in order to enrich their shareholders.
But there’s a movement on the rise to weaken the power of corporate banks and replace them with financial institutions that are owned and managed by cities and committed to putting public interest above profit. It’s a movement to create public banks.
Consider Oakland, California, where the City Council on September 18 unanimously passed a proposal that will set aside $100,000 for a feasibility study to determine whether it should establish its own public financial institution. The proposal, which was sponsored by Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, is the product of a long campaign by public-banking advocates in the city, who have pressed elected officials there to explore the possibility of creating a bank. Inspired by the 100-year-old Bank of North Dakota, these advocates believe that the American people would be better served if our banking system, or at least a significant portion of it, came under public control. Kaplan is herself an ardent proponent of the idea, and says that a public bank in Oakland could offer a variety of crucial services, including low-cost financing for municipal projects and student-loan and check-cashing services.
“One of the most important features of a public bank is that it doesn’t have a profit motive, so it doesn’t have for-profit shareholders that it answers to,” Kaplan says. “Instead, it answers to the community. In each decision that it makes, it is chartered for the purpose of benefiting the public rather than trying to extract the maximum amount of money from the public.”
Both Berkeley and nearby Richmond are also interested in the project, and the former has agreed to chip in $25,000 to help fund the feasibility study.
“People who care about this issue can’t stop pushing for it yet,” adds Kaplan, “but this is a very important and promising step forward.”
The Tenants’ Rights Movement Also Rises
On the weekend of September 23, 500 tenants and housing-rights organizers from all over California arrived at a high school in the city of Alameda to take part in what was billed as a “renter power” assembly. They came from Los Angeles, Richmond, and Fremont, from Pasadena, San Jose, Santa Ana, and beyond, and they were drawn by organizations like the LA Tenants Union, the Mountain View Tenants Coalition, and Tenants Together, among many others. They came to accomplish one ambitious objective: to build a potent statewide tenants’ rights movement capable of taking on the real-estate lobby.
“We have been increasingly building a movement that links individual campaigns in individual cities together into a kind of horizontal structure,” says Tony Samara, a coordinator with the Homes for All campaign in California and an organizer of the “renter power” assembly. “We are developing these mutual-support networks and scaling up into a regional and state presence.”
Samara says the idea is to create a movement strong enough to repeal California’s Costa-Hawkins Act, which places severe restrictions on what kind of rent-control laws can be established in municipalities across the state. The group would also like to implement universal rent control that would provide every tenant in California with some protection from predatory fees and rent hikes.
Samara says the movement is still in the process of being born. At the moment, most of the assembly’s participants plan to return home and continue waging local fights for rent-control and just-cause-eviction protections. Those local fights, though, are the seeds of something bigger. “The best way to advance the movement,” he says, “is for there to be more and stronger local campaigns.”
Ohio Cities Take Aim at the Pill Pushers
Marcus Madison is a city councilman in Elyria, Ohio, a town of 54,000 and the seat of Lorain County, which runs along Lake Erie’s populous southern shore. He has watched with horror in recent years as the opioid epidemic washed over his community like a toxic tide. Madison says the county saw more than 120 overdose deaths in 2016, or roughly one every three days, as little pills made in faraway laboratories (and, increasingly, lethal powders made in even more distant factories) killed his neighbors one by one by one.
“The police department here really started seeing an influx of overdoses around three or four years ago,” Madison says. “And so Dayton and Cincinnati and other cities started asking: Where did this start?”
Elyria is asking that question too, and in mid-September the small city announced that it had decided to join a lawsuit against the three key pharmaceutical wholesalers that local officials believe are most responsible for fueling and profiting off of the opioid addiction crisis here. Following in the footsteps of Dayton and Cincinnati, which filed lawsuits in state and federal court, respectively, the town says it is preparing legal action against AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson Corporation, which together, Madison says, control over 80 percent of the market for prescription opioids.
The councilman, who supports suing the drug giants, says the city’s goal is to recuperate money so that it can provide more public-health and -safety services to its citizens as it tries to combat the overdose crisis.
By teaming up with other communities to take on Big Pharma in court, “we can speak with one voice and maybe that will allow us to get the resources we need to address this epidemic.”
If Elyria and its allies succeed, perhaps they will be able to exact a little justice for the dead as well.