Neighborhoods Matter a Lot in Determining the Future

Demolition of housing project in New Orleans

Demolition of housing project in New Orleans

New Orleans   A new study being prominently reported argues powerfully that the neighborhood where you live and are raised may have way more to say about determining your future than many families or policy makers or government officials may have been willing to admit. That’s scary for many considering the abandonment of much of urban policy and investment by the federal and other branches of government in recent, and likely coming years, unless there is a major, almost revolutionary shift. Implicit, but unstated, in the dry report melting economics and math together, is how important strong community organizations, like the ones build by ACORN in lower income neighborhoods, could have had the ability to dislodge the depressing path of the future.

Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, reported on this harder look at the numbers in The New York Times, reviewing a dissertation being completed by one of his students, Eric Chyn, that is finding that the impact of neighborhood, always understood to be powerful, is even more devastatingly so than earlier assumed. Previous studies have found that children relocated from more difficult environments at a young age outperformed their peers economically by a substantial amount. These studies looked at winners and losers of a lottery in a public housing project, comparing the winners, those who were given a housing voucher to move out, with the losers, who those who were trapped inside. Chyn found that the impact was understated, because everyone entering the lottery was motivated to win, so that the real difference was between those who wanted out, and those who were stuck there. He looked at a more random set of people moved in and out as public housing buildings were dismantled in Chicago and the figures jumped out like screaming demons in an everyday Halloween.

The lack of a serious national housing policy that allows families better odds of emerging in the future is ignored by the right with their pretense of personal responsibility and not pursued as a mission on the order of the search for the Holy Grail on the left. It’s not a two-handed problem, where on the one hand this, and the other hand that. Unless we dramatically improve living conditions – and – opportunity in low-and-moderate income neighborhoods and force economic and racial mobility in communities, health opportunities, educational offerings, and job prospects, then the only thing we seem to be doing is making careers for economics to calculate the level of our failure.

And, part of the equation has to be support, one way or another, of vibrant and aggressive community organizations, and developing the organizers who build them, so that the ways and means to carry on the fight and have people participate in the push will be in place, as well as the ability to hold government and institutions accountable for making the changes that can redirect dismal futures to ones with hope and promise.

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Does Hillary Clinton Have a Real Plan for Income Inequality?

Victims of MFIs display their daily payment cards in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. The Reserve Bank of India has appointed a sub-committee to look at governance issues. Photo: The Hindu/C.V. Subrahmanyam

Victims of MFIs display their daily payment cards in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh.  Photo: The Hindu/C.V. Subrahmanyam

Halifax    It’s time to start getting serious now that reality is sinking in and giving us a better look at a possible political future. There’s woe and rage about wage stagnation, the few future prospects of family-supporting jobs, deindustrialization, and millions stuck in grinding poverty while others have been allowed stupendous riches, and while fingers are pointing wildly, if Hillary Clinton is going to be the standard bearer for hope on any of these fronts, does she have a plan? Do we have any hope?

President Obama floated an interesting notion of wage insurance that would provide a cushion for a couple of years by making up a large part of the difference between a former job at higher pay and a new job at whatever was available in order to allow workers a transition and the ability to try to stay on their feet. This is not a guaranteed annual income proposal, which is what we need, but a shot in the right direction, even though it has no current or likely chance of passage. So far Hillary Clinton has danced around the $15 per hour minimum wage fight, arguing that, yes, a raise is needed, but, geez, not that much. She has also concretely argued for an increase in the earned income tax credit, but once again, you have to actually have a low-wage job for EITC to give a worker and her family much of a break. Once again, this doesn’t alleviate poverty.

For all of Clinton’s talk about women and children both domestically and in her recent past as Secretary of State and via the Clinton Foundation, it is still hard for me to believe she has been uncoupled from President Bill Clinton’s bargains with the devils on “ending welfare as we know it” that has put a hammerlock around the necks of many of America’s poorest families, while opening the door on tax breaks that have created an entire new class of the mega-rich. Her constant drumbeating for micro-lending and microfinance in her career is also very disconcerting, since at best microfinance is a job-buying subsistence program, not a poverty reduction scheme. Increasing debt is a guarantee for most families of an accelerated poverty trap, not an escape hatch. The support of microfinance institutions is widely understood now as simply smoothing the path for new markets under the existing financial models, not narrowing the inequality gap.

Thomas Frank in a devastating critique writing in Harper’s recently labeled much of Clinton’s work both in and out of government in the poverty reduction fight as largely a “virtue quest” rather than a serious fight against inequality or a struggle to break ground with workable policy prescriptions. He correctly pulls down the false flag of microfinance, but also gets too close to comfort on what may be the real problem of Clinton’s coziness with elites which is an embrace of what Michael Lewis years ago called “access capitalism.” Access capitalism is a world of head-nodding approval from policy makers, celebrities, philanthropists, foundations, corporate heads, former government officials, and others, which secures the common consensus, through its special access to the cronyism that both provides the infrastructure and the launching pad for “professional liberals” and same-old-story-business-as-usual capitalism and its implicit acceptance of intractable poverty and dream shattering inequality.

If that’s where she has been living, what does it take for Bernie Sanders, young activists, and the progressive forces to push her towards real programs, both domestically and internationally, before the dumbing down of the campaign and the inevitable compromises of government pull us farther away from winning change?

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ACORN in Delhi Offers Alternatives to the “Sleep Mafia”

WP_20151204_10_56_12_ProNew Orleans   It is not every day when the work of ACORN and its affiliates is written between the lines of major stories in The New York Times, but recently that was the case in a glaring, tragic story about the so-called “sleep mafia” in Delhi.

The story of privatized sleep follows a familiar pattern in this city: After decades of uncontrolled growth, the city government’s inability to provide services like health care, water, transportation and security has given rise to thriving private industries, efficient enough to fulfill the needs of those who can pay. But shelter, given Delhi’s extremes of heat and cold, is often a matter of survival. The police report collecting more than 3,000 unidentifiable bodies from the streets every year, typically men whose health broke down after years living outdoors. Winter presents especially brutal choices to homeless laborers, who have no place to protect blankets from thieves in the daytime hours. Some try to hide them in the tops of trees.

In this overview, that’s a statement of the problem and the city’s response is somewhat explained by an Indian Supreme Court decision.

A cluster of “pavement dweller” deaths prompted India’s Supreme Court to rule in 2010 that the country’s large cities must provide shelter for 0.1 percent of the population. This winter, Delhi expanded its shelter system to accommodate more than 18,000, but the number of homeless is vast — likely more than 100,000….

As always it’s more complicated than simply some poor people taking advantage of even poorer people, as sleep wallas rent blankets for 20 or 30 rupees a night to the homeless. Many of this number are migrant workers in from the vast, imperiled rural countryside of India, trying to find a way to make a living, rather than how many might read the story and equate the situation in a kneejerk fashion to homelessness in the US. It’s as bad, but it is also somewhat different.

Furthermore there is worse story of Delhi’s efforts to privatize the problem of shelter. ACORN for several years was one of a number of nonprofits that ran several sleeping shelters for migrant workers in various districts of the city, including a large facility in a Delhi Municipal Corporation building in Old Delhi. In 2015 most of the nonprofits, including ACORN’s affiliates were pushed out when the city tried to outsource the problem in a bidding scheme that divided the city into huge regions allowing larger private enterprises to capitalize on the process and squeeze experienced nonprofits out of more effective support for the workers. After the failure of that system the city now has had to revert in many cases back to better operators. Recently I heard from Dharmendra Kumar, ACORN’s director in Delhi, that we had been awarded several new contracts and had a number of the ones we had lost in 2015 returned to us.

What do we do? As Dharmendra reports:

Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counselling and sanitary napkins. Free tuitions are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-deaddiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and have created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from christmas to New year.

When I shared the Times article with Dharmendra he also sent along a picture of a “rescue” vehicle that we are using that combs the streets of Delhi between 10 PM and 4 AM in the morning locating homeless who are sleeping rough and bring them to the nearest shelter.

None of this is enough, but bringing organizations and advocates back into the picture this year restores a voice for the poor and dispossessed that offers hope for expansion of services rather than the ill-fated mega-privatization schemes.

More needs to be done, but organizations like ACORN and its affiliates are leading the way in pushing for a solution and offering help and support in the meantime.

****

Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counseling and sanitary napkins. Free tuition are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on Sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-addiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and has created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from Christmas to New Year.

Poster of film festival Local Legislator playing santa and distributing gifts to homeless kids on christmas Homeless Kids with their Christmas gifts Homeless kids enjoying movie Fresh and hot food being served to homeless Feeding Homeless Kids Feeding Homeless Kid Creative corner by Homeless

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The Deep South Conundrum

Paul Theroux, NPR

Paul Theroux, NPR

Mexico City   Reading Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads is worth the ride, but it comes with some warnings.

Paul Theroux, the travel writer and novelist, is a hard guy to really like, even when you agree with him and are willing to say that his intentions are good. He just kind of goes out of his way to be off putting, embracing a continually condescending view of Southerners and the South, and often knocking at the door of racism. And, I say this as a fan. Theroux didn’t make it to Louisiana, but if he had, and I had run into him there or on the highways in Arkansas or Mississippi where I often travel and where he spent considerable time and gave hard attention, I could have been the third person who had read his work, adding mightily to the two out of one-hundred he encountered who had read any of his fifty works, having devoured the Great Railway Bazaar and Old Patagonia Express many years ago and even made it through Mosquito Coast.

It goes without saying that Theroux has been a world traveler, but the continual comparisons of the South with Africa and Asia, and Southern farmers and workers, black and white, as peasants can take some getting used to and some of his descriptions of people and many, many places are just plain offensive, even when accurate. When he tries to render his versions of local dialect, I found myself cringing and often unable to piece it together intelligibly to the degree that I couldn’t tell if he was trying to communicate or mock in doing so.

His is a work without much self-reflection or irony. If he travels back to a place repeatedly, he comes to like it, and accept the land and its people. If he’s just passing through he’s almost always downright dismissive and usually can’t avoid some stereotype about a Patel-run motel or something or another. He will quote Ovid and claim to relish an author’s anonymity, but can hardly hide how miffed he is to stumble into the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock and be unknown to one and all, to be unable to manage to get a minute with Congressman John Lewis while he is speaking to the black bourgeoisie of Little Rock, or as a longstanding, well-known writer to make an impression on Little Rock-based author, Charles Portis, who he admires. And, don’t mention former President Bill Clinton anywhere within miles of him, because he sees him as a hypocritical sleazebag and a metaphor for Hot Springs and its mixed history. His antipathy buries the troubling observation he makes about Clinton’s role in pushing through NAFTA and the devastation it brought to many areas of the struggling south as hundreds of thousands of jobs fled for lower wages.

But, even saying all of that, Theroux tries hard in many places and asks some important, often unanswerable, questions that make the book worth the climb. He searches out and gives high praise to the hard work of community development organizations in a number of states and black farmers’ self-help efforts and courage in the Delta of Mississippi and Arkansas. He does a good job in writing of the continued, unbridled racism in many of the small towns of the South, and paints an inarguable picture of the retched role of bankers and the impact of their ongoing racial discrimination in lending in rural areas and with farmers.

Over and over again he picks at the Clinton Global Initiatives and its vast fundraising prowess, as he talks to various nonprofits and development groups who are struggling to make ends meet against woeful odds, by asking them if they think they might be as deserving of some support in the dirt poor South, every bit as much as Africa or Asia. All of those he asks, bite their tongues, but politely spit out his bait, and say they haven’t ever been solicited by any of the Clinton philanthropies, but would welcome the support. Finally, talking to a black farmer somewhere around Lee County, Arkansas, and asking the same question about Clinton, the farmer simply replies that “it’s complicated,” and Theroux writes that from that point forward he stopped asking the question.

And, that showed good judgement on his part, but the real question that is overarching in Deep South, which he asks both explicitly and implicitly in all of the wrong ways but enough of the right ways, is, “Why is so little being done about the desperate poverty in the deep South?” That’s a good and fair question, and it’s to Theroux’s credit that he never tires of handling it, even if ham-handed in doing so.

Sadly, the answer in this book and so many others, is that so little is being done, because so few have a clue about what to do, and none are willing to summon the will and wherewithal to really take it on.

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Studies Find Microfinance Does Not Reduce Poverty, Assets Do

Mega-MicrofinanceHamburg  Several years ago ACORN International did a research report that seemed heresy to many, but started from the simple proposition that since microfinance is debt, debt does not reduce poverty, therefore the value of microfinance was the same as buying a job through an employment agency: work at a steep price. For many the myth of microfinance will endure and millions of dollars will continue to support what are essentially public and philanthropic investments in banking startups, not for the poor, but for the managers of the debt fueled lending agencies themselves, many of which start as nonprofits and if able to prove out their finances at high interest, convert to for-profits.

Standing out on the ledge of prevailing economic development opinion, I took note of an article in the October 2015 Scientific American that looked at the work of a Yale University based nonprofit called Innovations for Poverty Action and its founder Dean Karlan, an economics professor there. He had become suspicious of microloans while working in South Africa decades ago and seeing people constantly returning to renew loans and understanding that it didn’t add up to getting out of poverty, but instead was little more than a debt treadmill.

At some length he says:

“Over the years microloans kept nagging at my colleagues and me. Fifteen years after my first study attempt in South Africa, we now have seven randomized trials completed on traditional microloans and one on consumer lending back in South Africa…These studies found some benefits of microloans, such as helping families weather hard times, pay off goods over time and make small investments in businesses. But there was no average impact on the main financial well-being indicators – income and household and food expenditures.”

In short maybe the loans didn’t hurt them, but neither did they help them, at least enough to get out of poverty. Furthermore, Karlan noted that these microloan programs were not reaching the poorest of the poor or what they term “ultra-poor,” people living on the purchasing power of $1.25 per day.

Not to just be a Debbie Downer, IPA’s experience argues for providing the poor with a “productive asset” to make a living, giving them training on asset utilization, providing them a direct stipend for daily living or what we used to call in welfare rights – More Money Now!, giving them health support and savings tools, and regular coaching like CEOs get.

It would cost money, but at least it would be money well spent, because monitoring has already established that health and hunger were greatly improved and the very poor were making real progress in areas as diverse as Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Pakistan, and Peru.

Sounds like that could be a way to go if we were really trying to get somewhere.

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Puerto Rico Is So Screwed

2000px-Flag_of_Puerto_Rico.svgNew Orleans   Reading the papers on the financial dilemma of the United States’ Puerto Rican colony you get the notion that this is just the Greek mess that we already don’t understand clearly, but in Spanglish and closer to home. Talking to Willie Cosme, veteran of KABF, Local 100, and still host of the ever popular Salsa show on Wade’s World about his return to the island and what he sees firsthand is an eye opener.

First, keep in mind that one-third of the $78 or so billion in debt and missed bond payments that is driving the island to the financial poorhouse is made up of borrowing to essentially handle medical debt since 60% of the island qualifies for Medicaid or Medicare. Brother Cosme says the Medicaid payments are so extreme because so much of the island is now elderly. As the economy has tanked, younger Puerto Ricans have naturally moved to Florida, New York, and elsewhere to find jobs. Dennis Rivera, former head of the New York-based 1199 union and a native of Puerto Rico, is heading up a committee of insurers, hospitals, and unions to see if there’s anything that can be done to save the healthcare system on the island, but that’s still in the hope and a prayer category.

Keep in mind that Puerto Ricans are in the strange situation of being United States citizens, so they can travel and settle anywhere, but as colonists on the island itself they can only vote on state and local elections, not the Presidential election, and of course since they are not a state they have no representative in Congress, even a non-voting one like the District of Columbia. Not being a state means that they also cannot declare bankruptcy as cities and states in the USA can, so the debt just hangs like a weight around their necks. Not being able to vote and without representation, Congress has basically yawned when asked about whether there might be any plan for a bailout.

And, then to make matters worse, there’s the drought. San Juan is now on a water rationing program that gives them three days with no water and one day with water. Some 30 miles out of San Juan where Cosme’s family lives, they are on a one day with and one day without system. The los ninos weather system has dried the island out. Willie reported that some people are so desperate, they are wishing for a hurricane! To keep the tourism industry alive in the hotels and to keep cruise ships still docking, operators are buying water by the tanker truck load, as you can imagine. Opening up travel and tourism to Cuba could be yet another blow to the role of tourism as a driver in the economy, just as the weather is crippling the agricultural production.

Talking to Willie, the notion of Puerto Rico, as the rich door to the Caribbean is replaced by the thought that the island and its people are more like a prisoner in solitary confinement without hope of a parole. They might be called part of our commonwealth, but don’t have access to the common wealth. Their population exceeds that of many states, yet there is no move to fully enfranchise them. Out in the water, out of sight, out of mind.

Right now Puerto Rico is so screwed. We need to do better for our fellow citizens and companeros.

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