Public Subsidies of Low Wages

publicbenefitsNew Orleans      The Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California has released a report looking at many federal and state subsidies directed at relief for lower income Americans.  All good.  What they found though is that a huge percentage of this kind of support is not in Republican ideological terms, helping people get their lives together to get jobs, but is in fact subsidizing the low wages of existing work.  In the words of the chair of the center, our old comrade Ken Jacobs, “This is a hidden cost of low-wage work.”

The Center’s new report defined a working family as any family that included a worker averaging at least 27 hours of work weekly.  Under that definition, looking at the statistics that were available to them, almost 75% of the people helped by federal programs like food stamps, EITC, and Medicaid are headed by workers.  Based on their calculations the cost of such public support for working families was over $152 billion per year.  Working families were the biggest beneficiaries of federal programs aimed at the poor in all but six states.  Make a mental note or jot this down on a piece of paper nearby:  this does not include anything involving health care support based on the Affordable Care Act because no figures were available yet for such calculations.

Don’t misinterpret these figures.  I’m 100% for what I call “maximum eligible participation” as a key ingredient for “citizen wealth.”  In fact I think we need to redouble our efforts to make sure all families that are eligible for any of these programs are in fact receiving the benefits.  That’s what they are for, so we should make them work.

Where the rubber hits the road on welfare versus work is that the ideological drift since President Clinton has shifted most federal and state support towards workers and away from providing the underpinnings for the poor that would platform their ability to build stable lives, and, yes, even access more education and work.  There is only so much money and so many ways to slice the pie though, so instead lawmakers have retreated from attacking poverty and moved instead towards subsidizing lower wage work as we have increasingly become a service-based, lower waged economy over the last generation.

The inescapable argument of the Berkeley report is that if employers were paying fair wages, less subsidy would be required. At one level the report is feeding into the right ideology that maybe there is something wrong with workers getting food stamps, EITC and other support.   At one level the report is feeding into the right ideology that says we should support lower waged work and that maybe there is something wrong with workers getting food stamps, EITC and other support.  That is not their theme and is inadvertent, but that’s the cloud that hangs over a figure like $152 billion, as more red states will claim they should cut back support to workers, as we have seen recently with the retraction of support for providing food stamps for many men without dependent children.  Every dollar of that money is well spent, and more should be spent in fact, but as long as we are publicly subsidizing low wages, we are not able to provide more critical support to the lowest income families to pull them out of poverty, and that’s worse than a shame.

Signs at the Borderland of Gentrification

New house infill construction in Frey Parking Lots

New house infill construction in Frey Parking Lots

New Orleans    In New Orleans in the Bywater-Marigny neighborhoods where I live and work were in the throes of a long drawn out, desultory stretch for decades since the 1980s.  We were going to be “hot” one day, but who knew when.   Into the latter years of the 20th  Century, one thing or another like the oil glut, our low per capita income, and rigid boundaries of race and class between Uptown and Downtown along the directions of the Mississippi River held property values within limits and rents towards reasonable, especially in Bywater.  Marigny was too close to the French Quarter so was under siege earlier and more often, until with some relief we could cross the Franklin Avenue safely and then breathe with some relief past the Press Street tracks of Bywater’s official boundaries with working class shotgun doubles the primary housing stock dating back 100 years to the Irish and German workers who had covered the canals and persisting in a multi-racial and largely affordable community.  The River formed the boundary on the south and the neighborhood stayed on high ground thanks to the alluvial floodplain over thousands of years.  St. Claude Avenue marked the northern border of our skinny district.  On the other side of St. Claude in the 9th Ward was a “tweener” to Claiborne as the housing became less historic and the demographics more African-American in our majority black city moving north.

UHaul at the Press Street tracks

UHaul at the Press Street tracks


Tire Shop

Last Barber Shop

Last Barber Shop

Everything changed with Katrina almost a decade ago.  Where our community was 30% white, it is now 70% white.  Where housing averaged $400 per month, it takes luck and roommates to handle $1000 a month now.   Housing values tripled and quadrupled.  In our city, now smaller by more than 80000 people with many more lost in the diaspora and others still coming to take their places, taxes are higher, services are more scarce, streets are potholed to dangerous degrees, and change is everywhere for better or worse, like everywhere else.  Regular reports now rank our small piece of turf as one of the “hot” neighborhoods in the country, like the Brooklyn of the South, except more popular.   When the stretch towards Claiborne was renamed by North Bywater by real estate agents, I knew we were in deep trouble.

St. Claude "Hobo Camp"

St. Claude “Hobo Camp”

 Healing Center with For Lease Signs in Windows

Healing Center with For Lease Signs in Windows

Thrift Shop

Thrift Shop

Discount Furniture

Discount Furniture

Coffeehouses are now sprinkled along St. Claude and throughout the neighborhood, including Fair Grinds, which we just opened in the back of our own building, whose former life was spent as a snowball machine and distribution center and mixing kitchen, not unlike the one ACORN occupied years ago in a former funeral home.  Discount furniture stores still hold on in some blocks while in others they take on new lives as art galleries.  Where we once proudly visited the last public market owned by the city before the storm for a great and affordable po’boy, there is now a newfangled food court of sorts where $8 bucks might get you something of a snack and bran muffins are going for $4.50 apiece.  A Spanish grocery around the corner from our old house is now a hip restaurant called Red China with a picnic table in front.    Developers are claiming Frey’s hot dog plant as the site for new housing construction and high end condos.  What was St. Claude Hospital remerged as a Catholic nursing home and is now vacant and waiting for more apartments and condos.  Across from the old fish market is something called the New Orleans Healing Center home of the food cooperative that has real meaning in our continuing food desert as well as a playhouse, yoga classes, and a bookstore already closed as the hopes of the bleeding edge entrepreneurs, many from parts unknown, earn bitter lessons in the perils of plotting the gentrifiers’ progress as faster than the reality of people.

Furniture Lay Away

Furniture Lay Away

St. Margaret's at Desire and St. Claude - Condos to be

St. Margaret’s at Desire and St. Claude – Condos to be

Frey Hot Dog plant -- condo wannabe

Frey Hot Dog plant — condo wannabe

Former doctor's office snow Art Gallery

Former doctor’s office snow Art Gallery

Even where the newspapers trumpet the fact that a bar, wine shop, or restaurant seems to open every week, the old neighborhood is hard to erase and holding on.  Liberty and H&Block have offices on the street.  You can still buy seafood at a couple of places.  Corner stores still outnumber wine bars.  Family Dollar and the Dollar Store both do big business.  We still have a patch where homeless folks share tents, tarps, and a fire barrel.  Laborers still stand waiting for work at Franklin and St. Claude across from our last gas station on St. Claude. There are still three used tire and fixit places, though the fourth just closed.  And, as long as there continues to be a revival tent on St. Claude, this old, diverse sturdy community will continue to maintain some bulwarks against the constant push-out and blanching of gentrification, absorbing change in its own way and still feeling like home for all of us.

Family Dollar

Family Dollar

Sign of Dora's up top, Red China below

Sign of Dora’s up top, Red China below

Revival Tent

Revival Tent

Storefront Church

Storefront Church

The Vietnam War Nightmares Continue

 Pham Thanh Cong, the director of the My Lai Museum, was eleven at the time of the massacre. His mother and four siblings died. “We forgive, but we do not forget,” he said.Credit Photograph by Katie Orlinsky

Pham Thanh Cong, the director of the My Lai Museum, was eleven at the time of the massacre. His mother and four siblings died. “We forgive, but we do not forget,” he said. Credit Photograph by Katie Orlinsky

New Orleans       So many wars, so little time.   We have come to the point where when someone asks an American “about the war,” we have to say, “Which one?”   One of the two Iraq wars?  Afghanistan and its continuing and unending conflicts?  Like I said, which one?  For people of a certain age though the answer continues to be Vietnam and its fifty year nightmares that persist for many people.

Reading a piece by Seymour Hersh, one of the great reporters and war correspondents of our time in The New Yorker, called “The Scene of the Crime” brings the horror back quickly.  Hersh’s piece is both a reflection on his own history in covering the My Lai massacre and a contemporary revisiting and recording of a deeper understanding of the mess and mayhem that marked that horrible war.  The body count, like so much about Vietnam, continues to be uncertain but a small platoon of US soldiers killed between 347 and 504.

In 2010, the Organizers’ Forum visited with a delegation of US and Canadian organizers both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  We talked to a lot of people.  We visited the tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City, listened to the gunfire, and the guides’ description of the struggle “underground.”  We visited the Museum of the War of Liberation in Hanoi.  There was no way to escape the US role and our historical footprint in the country.

At the same time, reading Hersh about My Lai and its aftermath still shocks, especially when it now seems that such massacres were commonplace rather than unique.  How had I managed to suppress the fact that President Nixon had commuted Lieutenant Calley’s sentence after 90 days?  How had he managed to work for decades at his father-in-law’s jewelry store in small town Georgia?  There must be novelists out there that could write book after book about how that might have worked out?  Richard Ford, what are you working on now?  There’s a classic waiting to be written about the small town South and its ability to hold and protect its own – no matter what! – that is Faulknerian.   The imagination just blows up at the thought of it all!

Hersh interviews Chuck Searcy.  The Organizer’s Forum had met with Searcy to find out more about the nonprofit he helps coordinate that focuses on mine clearance through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.  Hersh obviously pulled more of his personal story out and the conflict with conscience, family, and the whole burden that so many veteran packed out.  We found him a very decent man.  He had paid  his dues.

With Hilary Clinton announcing for President we will hear the narrative that harkens back to the old culture wars that involved Vietnam, long hair, drugs, liberation, and rock and roll, rather than the new culture wars of new wars, abortion, guns, and the rest of it.  Reading Hersh on My Lai and Vietnam again it is hard to avoid the feeling that rather than embracing some kind of resolution and reconciliation like South Africa and other countries have done from their time of troubles, we have simply repressed it all and hoped that no one reminds us.

Perhaps that is why we have also seem to have learned so little and repeated the same mistakes so often.

Affordable Care Act Gap Hits Black and Hispanic Adults the Hardest

100423483-health-care-cost-insurance-gettyp.530x298New Orleans    I’m not going to say that we’re not making progress because enrollment under the Affordable Care Act continues to increase despite opposition.  On the other hand there is no way not to be disappointed and outraged about the millions of uninsured adults that are caught in the gap between politicians and good public health policy
because of the failure to expand coverage to all states in the country.

The Kaiser Foundation released a report on what the people look like that are caught in the gap, and, unsurprisingly, they are disproportionately non-white, black, and brown.

Overall, more than four in ten (41%) uninsured adults of color would be eligible for Medicaid (based on income, immigration status, and age) if all states adopted the Medicaid expansion, comparable to the share of White uninsured adults who would be eligible.  If all states expanded Medicaid, nearly six in ten (57%) uninsured Black adults would be eligible, but only about a third (34%) of uninsured Hispanic adults,
reflecting the fact that a greater share would not qualify based on  their immigration status

This isn’t pretty at all and of course it’s life and death.

The southern states is where most of the damage is done, and given their size the worst of it is obviously in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina.

Overall, more than half (53%) of poor adults in the coverage gap reside in just three states, including Texas (26%), Florida (18%), and North Carolina (10%).  However, the distribution of people in the gap across states varies by racial and ethnic group. For example, four in ten (42%) of the 1.6 million uninsured poor White adults in the coverage gap reside in Florida (20%), North Carolina (11%), and Texas (10%), while nearly half (47%) of the 1.0 million uninsured poor Black adults in the coverage gap reside in Texas (18%), Florida (14%) and Georgia (14%).  Among Hispanics, more than eight in ten (81%) of the 0.9 million uninsured poor adults in the coverage gap reside in just two states, with six in ten (61%) in Texas and one in five (20%) in Florida.

It makes me wonder how Republican candidates for President can pretend that they might want to increase their share of Hispanic votes in the case of Bush and Rubio in Florida and Cruz in Texas, when they have not advocated expansion of care.  What says Rand Paul from Kentucky, where care has been expanded, and he is trying to position himself to get more black votes? Is he going to step up for expansion?

We could go down the list of the Republican hopefuls.Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana are clear in their call to “let  my people die!”  But how about Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas who had his own healthcare plan once upon a time?

Expansion for all should be a litmus test for voters in 2016, just as firmly as it has been a litmus test for the opposition in Congress for the last half-dozen years.


Please enjoy The Mountain Goats “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” and Mumford & Sons “The Wolf”  Thanks to Kabf. 

The Money Primary: Ted Cruz Thins the Republican Herd and Scares Democrats

2016-money-raceNew Orleans      We now have three elections in the United States.  There’s the general election in 2016 of course when we pull the lever for our candidates, sorting out the ballot babies from the two main contenders offered by the Republicans and Democrats.  There’s the primary election where we poll between candidates earlier in the election year to see who might emerge on the final ballot.   For many of us this is a trivial exercise because our scarlet red states have watched earlier bellwethers, super Tuesdays, and significant prizes earlier in the year. This vote is often more of habit than heart.  And, then there’s the third election that happens much, much earlier where dollars, not votes, are counted that has become one of the most important, if not THE most important, primary operating solely for the one-percenters, deep pocketed, and self-interested where we are ordered to simply watch and wait.

Speaking for this vast, “silent majority,” and I can admit to have been already ticked off seeing Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side pile up such a huge league that the nomination is being all but conceded to her without any of the primaries being conducted, and then Jeb Bush streak to the lead in the Money Primary for the Republicans enough to become almost a frontrunner one day after being uncertain to run the next.  Bush being a Bush, and the Republicans being Republicans, they have become surprisingly committed to chaos and discordant voices, so a score of wannabes remained in the field, no matter how hapless and long their shots might be.

Senator Ted Cruz from Texas was an excellent example, so far right that he seemed the most radical of the crew, a captive of the Tea Party and an anarchist at heart.  The New York Times even ran a piece recently, clipping the heels off his boots by stating that he was less than heartily loved “deep in the heart of Texas.”

But, that was then, and this is now, and the Money Primary allows voting twenty four hours a day, seven days a week and follows its own whim, as money is like to do, not some regular schedule that makes it easy for pundits and papers.  In the Money Primary, Senator Cruz just put a huge ante on the table as his people confirmed that, in what seems like a one-week collection blitz, they scored and have almost finished collecting $31 million for four Super PACs that will coordinate expenditures with each other in support of Cruz.  None of this bundling for him, a Long Island private equity, hedge fund guy seems to have fallen head over heels for Ted and led the big bucks parade.  One veteran Republican fundraiser was quoted by the Times to the effect that most of the big boys would have thought they could raise and budget $30 million for the entire primary season.  With Cruz laying down $31 million almost nine months before the first primaries when all of the rest of us get to come out and play, too, I would bet he just forced the calculations to double to $60 million, maybe even triple towards $100 million for the serious candidates.

The Republicans have already seen one candidate, Mitt Romney, their 2012 standard bearer, pushed out in the Money Primary, when his big rollers told him in so many words, that they had “been there and done that.”  Now with this Cruz news a lot of the little Republicans must have spent some time on the phones and in conference with their families, telling them they would hang in for a hot minute, but their race was “one and done.”  Count Louisiana’s governor, Bobbi Jindal as toast, but Rick Perry of Texas, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Senator Lindsay Graham, and a bunch of others are also burned to a crisp.  You might have Senator Marc Rubio as still viable, but I would bet he’s on the bubble, too. Senator Rand Paul just announced, but his race now seems way more quixotic with a Cruz ideology and money sucking up the space.  Governor Chris Christie was already late for the party, and now he’s a goner, whether he admits it or not.  Jeb Bush and his money juggernaut just realized they are in a fight to the death.  There are still a lot of candidates and Cruz is a wild and crazy guy, so some of those that can put together the cash will still be viable, but the dark horses just got pushed off the track.

On the Democratic side they just got the memo that there’s a new game in town, and they better double down if they want to be able to compete in the general election, because whoever emerges on the Republican side is going to have a pile of money and the will and ways to have raised it.   Eventually, the rest of us will get to vote, but once all the money is raised and spent, the only mystery will be if any of our votes and voices matter compared to the big buck boys and their millions calling the shots.

Karl Rove Points the Way to the White House for Democrats

election2016New Orleans               You don’t expect Karl Rove to be the voice of reason for Republicans, given his role as the master political operative between the two Bush presidencies, but these days you have embrace whatever help you can find.  In this case,  Rove was writing a “sober up” memo to the Republican faithful and trying to pop a balloon floating around their ranks that they could win the White House by doing a better job at turning out more conservatives who they were claiming they were “stay-at-home” voters last time.  Rove marshals extensive evidence in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, that the dealers of this story are essentially smoking their own dope.

The point of Rove’s message is obviously an attempt to reign in the radicals including a handful of whom are running for President in the Republican primary, the likes of Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Bobby Jindal, Senator Rand Paul, and a gaggle of others.  He is clearly stepping up as a voice of the right-center “moderate” wing of the party, and given his closeness to the Bushes, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him fronting for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s campaign.

But saying all of that, there are two sides to this coin, and the other side points the directions for the Democrats as clearly as it scolds the Republicans.  Rove’s comments go right to the heart of voter turnout and why the field program is still going to be the secret sauce for a winner in 2016.  The voter turnout dropped from 131.5 million when Obama won in 2008 to 129.2 million when he won his second term.  Rove is crystal clear that while turnout may have sagged, the percentage of self-declared conservative voters in 2012 had never been higher, reaching 39%, which is pretty scary in itself.

Rove says that,

“Republicans concerned about voters who failed to show up should look elsewhere.  There were approximately 4.9 million fewer self-identified moderates, 1.7 million fewer white Catholics, and 1.2 million fewer women who voted in 2012 than in 2008.”

Among the Catholics who didn’t vote, Rove claims they appear to be middle-class and blue collar voters, who were turned off to Obama, but couldn’t stomach Romney, largely because of his elitism.   That’s an emerging, troubling issue for the Hillary-Democrats as well.

So, what are the tips for the Democrats?  In general, they are going to have to double down to pull the same number of African-Americans as Obama did in both elections.  Hillary Clinton may think she can do that, but it won’t be easy, and it won’t be Bill, it has to be Obama himself working that base, which would temper any criticism from any candidate. Young voters are not mentioned by Rove, because the Republicans know there’s not much chance there, though Rand Paul is betting he can take a slice, and Democrats will have the same problem, except with younger women if Hillary is the candidate.  There’s also little doubt that with Hillary as the candidate there will be a significant, and perhaps historic, increase in women voting, if the campaign keeps it together.  Hillary and any of the announced candidates are not going to be able to hold onto the Hispanic loyalty against Jeb Bush or Senator Marc Rubio, but once again Obama might be the difference here given all of his recent initiatives.

Here’s my takeaway.  We’re going to hear a lot from Hillary and the rest of them that we have to appeal to the moderates to win.  Maybe so, but if you study Rove’s remarks, it also looks like to win we need President Obama to see 2016 as his third presidential election with his legacy on the line in order to hold onto the key blocks that have to perform in order to win.