One Economy Town Hall

New Orleans     This was an unusual event, and I’m not totally sure that I have figured it out yet, but One Economy Corporation came to New Orleans to do something they called a Town Hall about Poverty. They invited a slew of people from in and around New Orleans along with a panel of people, most notably James Carville, the Clintonista political operative, to talk about poverty. The whole thing was webcast with their CEO, Rey Ramsey, doing the Oprah style master of ceremonies job. One Economy seems to be a DC-based, corporation related and supported, non-profit specializing in increasing broadband technology access and other telecommunications, including to lower-income families. I assume they move the webcast through their broadband as a content distributor. Clearly, they have some connections since various pre-recorded sound bites with Jack Kemp, Milt Romney, and John Edwards were dropped into the show at different times. Anyway it was something, even if hard to really follow completely for a novice like myself.

Some of it was exasperating, because this was NOT a dialogue but a series of short commercials, always unchallenged, for often highly refutable propositions. On the panel one guy promoted some kind of public private business driven partnerships based on what he claimed were the amazing gains in Miami and its efforts to deal with poverty, which are preposterous given that Miami’s per capita income is even less than New Orleans’. A woman advanced an argument promoting charter schools in New Orleans with a fictionalized account of the way charters were organized after the hurricane omitting the near bankruptcy of the school board and the $20,000,000 federal subsidy to spur charters that they were forced to grab to finance any educational operations in the city. And, of course there was no comment on their lack of transparency, governance, or the fact that ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about their real performance educationally has emerged yet, and there are many rumors that their performance on educational standards is sub par compared to the regular school system.

Carville made sense though people didn’t know what to make of his comments. He argued that the only gain against poverty in any instance over the last 40 years where the US led the world was in mortality after someone reached 65, and that was because of Medicare, and it was because people over 65 voted at higher rates than anyone else. What a true point, and what a draw-a-line-in-the-sand challenge to us at ACORN to get our people voting and increase the voting percentage if we want to end poverty! He was on more shaky ground when he advocated that banks should be moving financial literacy programs.

When I spoke towards the end of the event, my message was simple. I argued that poverty was more than anything else an absence of money, and the solution to poverty was twofold: one, getting more money into the hands of the poor, and, two, keeping people and institutions from taking money out of their hands. For one, we needed to focus on maximum eligible participation among other things, which meant devising means that all entitlements for the poor were received by them in the way that some states did automatic voter registration and other programs. On two, we needed to take the fox out of the hen house and make sure that predatory programs and products were stopped. We couldn’t expect banks to do financial literacy and spend a million or two that way, while they were spending $100 million or more investing in the payday lending companies, or many more millions than that handling predatory loan product like the tax industries “refund anticipation loans.” (Big applause on that one!).

Most people seemed to want to focus on promoting their products, rather than looking at poverty in any hard and certain way and what to do about it. They wanted to talk about their paths, rather than real poverty, but, hey, one of the big comeback industries in New Orleans, thanks to Katrina, is that we have become ground zero for any discussion of poverty, so big props to One Economy for marching into town on that number.

Pretty soon we need to start doing a better job of walking the talk.

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