Co-Op Leaders in the Bunker, but Feeling the Heat

coversummer2016New Orleans   The cover story in this issue of the quarterly journal, Social Policy, laid out the case once again on the lack of diversity and democracy in the rural electric cooperatives in the 12-state southern area. The minimal representation of African-Americans and Hispanics is region-wide despite the huge populations of both of these groups throughout the region, frequently occupying majorities in many of the service areas of the cooperatives. The regional statistics are less than 5% representation for African-Americans and less than 1% for Hispanics. Women fare only slightly better, though they represent a majority in the South when we looked at these same 313-odd electrical cooperatives.

Cooperatives ostensibly are membership-run institutions with every member getting to vote to elect their representatives and on have a say at annual meetings on matters of policy. All of these cooperatives have been the beneficiaries of extensive grants and loans of public monies, usually federal, dating back to the New Deal, and many still are receiving discounted interest rates and loans for their programs and generating facilities. The USDA and their own literature claims they are critical economic development and social service providers in rural areas, and as a multi-billion dollar set of institutions they are a significant employer and economic presence in their service areas as well. Almost all of their websites and information includes language claiming that they do not discriminate. But, here we sit with facts and figures that undermine all of these claims and provide evidence of the opposite.

Frequently the story and the earlier report speak of these cooperatives and their leadership as “frozen in the fifties,” as if they have been able to hunker down and pretend time stopped and the civil rights movement, women’s movement and other major social changes that impact the same demographics simply never happened. Being in rural areas they have believed they could escape notice.

Being big, they can get away with it. In releasing the report to news outlets throughout the region, it was depressing talking to some of the small town weeklies and other news outlets that allegedly cover the news in these rural communities. They basically didn’t want “to rock the boat.” Many pleaded that the impact of reporting the story, even when obvious and well-known to some of them, because it was the equivalent of economic suicide: they needed the ads from the cooperatives and their leadership. We had noticed this group-think and stifling collaboration earlier when we had sent letters to all of the cooperatives and, almost defying all statistical or random possibility, we received not one single response, even a refusal to provide information or a brushoff or a go-fly-a-kite, just total silence.

Meeting with various cooperative experts and advocates while I was in Madison, Wisconsin recently, it was reassuring to find out that according to inside sources the report was on the agenda at the recent meetings of the board of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. One advocate speculated that there was likely not a manager of an electric cooperative in the country that had not received a copy of the report. He also believed it was likely mandatory reading increasingly for elected members of cooperative boards. All that was good to hear. They may be hiding with their heads down, but they hear the bullets whizzing by them increasingly.

If I believed in some kind of by-the-by, trickledown theory and practice of change, then I might just say, “our work is done,” and wait to see whether there might be some gradual reforms or some jump of the needle indicating more diverse representation in coming cooperative elections.

That’s not what we believe though, so to keep the heat on we are meeting today in New Orleans with our ACORN International researchers to see what the IRS 990s for the cooperative say about what these folks in the cooperative bunkers are paying themselves for directors’ fees. So far what we’re seeing isn’t pretty, but it as the cop-shows on television say, it does establish an additional motive for this kind of anti-democratic behavior which keeps the “white, right, and ready to fight” crowd running the cooperatives without real diversity or democracy, just as they have for over 75 years.

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Making Working Men More Economically Attractive

Little Rock     The headline was no tipoff on this piece in the Times’ business section.   Another article about how much the economics of single parent households really suck, blah, blah, blah, please tell us something we didn’t know, will ya?  So they did by basically in so many words and with all due concern letting we know that men, especially working men without college degrees are a problem.  How can I summarize their argument delicately…men it seems are, how can we say it, losers.

“Single-parent families tend to emerge in places where the men already are a mess,” said Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard University. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Suppose the available men were getting married to the available women? Would that be an improvement?’ ” Instead of making marriage more attractive, he said, it might be better for society to help make men more attractive.

“Make men more attractive.”  Now that’s a lifetime project for many men and, way too often, an ambition for the women, parents, and children who love them.

The argument here was based on a recent study from an MIT professor David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, his graduate assistant.  They note that there is a vicious cycle pulling some men down in their view:

In this telling, the economic struggles of male workers are both a cause and an effect of the breakdown of traditional households. Men who are less successful are less attractive as partners, so some women are choosing to raise children by themselves, in turn often producing sons who are less successful and attractive as partners. “A vicious cycle may ensue,” wrote Professor Autor and his co-author, Melanie Wasserman, a graduate student, “with the poor economic prospects of less educated males creating differentially large disadvantages for their sons, thus potentially reinforcing the development of the gender gap in the next generation.”

So as the reporter, Binyamin Appelbaum hustled around trying to get a grip on this phenomena from one academic to another, he basically found that the experts all agree:  it’s a head scratcher!

Among people who were 35 years old in 2010, for example, women were 17 percent more likely to have attended college, and 23 percent more likely to hold an undergraduate degree.  “I think the greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out ‘You need more education’ and have been able to respond to that, and men have not,” said Michael Greenstone, an M.I.T. economics professor who was not involved in Professor Autor’s work. “And it’s very, very scary for economists because people should be responding to price signals. And men are not. It’s a fact in need of an explanation.”

So it turns out there are terrible consequences at the deepest levels of society, including family life and class stratification that flow from economic inequity and the stagnation of working and lower income family wages.  No surprise there either, but the terrible nightmare that the avarice of a generation would in fact force the sins of the “fathers” of such policies fall not on their sons and daughters but on generations of low-and-moderate income families is tragic.

I have to also wonder as we wallow around looking for an explanation whether part of the paradox of making men “more attractive” economically, is that men in their precipitous financial fall have still not leaned to be the docile workers that employers demand, and whether women in their more recent climb in wages are not “leaning in” as aggressively within the workforce yet, making them more currently coveted by employers?

More training and more education would undoubtedly be good for me – and women – but finally allowing people to breakthrough and earn living wages, or what once we called “family-supporting” wages, might be the easiest way to “make men more attractive” in building and holding these families together.

 

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