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.”