Katrina at 11 Years

New Streetcar Line St. Claude Groundbreaking

New Streetcar Line St. Claude Groundbreaking

New Orleans    On the Katrina anniversary this year, I’m flying out of the country for two weeks to work in the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada. It wasn’t so long ago that this was a no-fly, must-be-home day because there were commemorations, volunteer projects, and other events that noted the progress or lack of it in the years since Katrina inundated New Orleans. Katrina is in the news now only as a reference point and warning since climate triggered 1000-year rains have recently flooded parishes from the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain across from the city up the river to Baton Rouge. It’s fair to say that Katrina has been off of the front pages for some time, and now is off the back pages as well.

So, how is New Orleans doing eleven years after the storm?

In the last year a hospital opened in eastern New Orleans for the first time, and the first project in the rebuilding of healthcare in the center of the city came with the opening of the new Veterans’ hospital. That’s good, and the expansion of Medicaid finally with the election of a new governor, the first Democrat since the storm, will mean a lot to the city and the state’s lower income families.

The schools are finally on a countdown to unification after their seizure by the state after the storm and the ushering in of the largest charter school experiment in the city. The schools will finally be under the democratic control of New Orleans voters soon, though the business and charter industry is moving rapidly to control the elections. The teachers’ union, decimated by firings after the storm, is organizing again and faced two more elections this year. There was a move finally by the state to equalize support so that some of the charters, many accused of not supporting special needs children but getting a premium for more advanced programs, are screaming in opposition to the new equity in the funding formula.

The slow, slough of rebuilding and downsizing public housing is still underway, and the crisis in affordable housing is still so intense that 80,000 can’t come home, even if they wanted to do so, because there’s no place for them. The major influx has been younger and whiter. A good example of the skewed public policy was the awarding of tax credits to a developer taking over an old school property in Treme to build more affordable housing for…artists. We now will have four housing complexes for artists while public housing is still half-done. There is in-fill construction in some of the older neighborhoods like Bywater that didn’t flood, but graffiti and anti-gentrification vandalism created the opening of the old public market as too upscale for the food desert that remains in the 9th ward.

The police have announced a training program that tries to reshape the culture of the department so that officers will act rather than conceal when they see their fellow officers involved in ethical breeches. The police department reassigned all of its community-beat police because of increased crime.

There is street construction everywhere, but there are estimates that it could take another $9 billion to put the city surface roads in safe condition. Neighbors noted that a project on Galvez has been stuck in a rut for a year now with water so deep when it rains, people fear drowning. A streetcar line though is scheduled for completion from Canal Street to Elysian Fields.

I should talk about jobs, but there’s not much to say really.

So, eleven years on, we’re moving in New Orleans, that’s for certain, but still it’s too often two steps forward and one step back, and that’s where there’s progress. Sadly, there are many areas that are just plain stuck.

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Cash Flow is Huge for Low-and-Moderate Income Families

Money coins fall out of the golden tapNew Orleans   In reckoning with the daily, survival and success struggles of low-and-moderate income families given the myriad of challenges they face, sometimes the experts stumble over the obvious in one of those, “Oh, yeah!” moments that we all have. Reading a recent copy of Shelterforce magazine, there was an article called “Is Financial Unsteadiness the New Normal” by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider which offered a case study of just such a moment. They examined the demands of financial security for lower income families closely and argue that in addition to looking at income, especially annual income, and assets, as paltry as they are, we need to look at cash flow to understand the full dimensions of citizen wealth for such families. Now, we can all say together, “of course!”

In dealing with the crises facing such families in our increasingly inequitable society, economists have long noted that assets have fallen to hardly above zero for many families, especially in the wake of the clawback of home ownership for minorities. The Pew survey folks have found that 41% of all households have less than $2000 in liquid savings. Other reports have noted that many families do not have the liquid resources to deal with a financial crisis of even $400 without help from family, friends, or lady luck.

The authors point out that looking at their US Financial Diaires Study Households of about 235 families in California, Mississippi, Ohio-Kentucky, and New York City they found some discomforting information,

“…we found…evidence of a lot of volatility within the year. On average, families in the study had more than five months a year when income was 25 percent above or below their monthly average. For example, a household making $36,000 a year isn’t necessarily making $3000 a month. Based on our data, for more than five months a year, that family will earn less than $2250 or more $3750.”

All of which makes it hard to save and hard to spend and contributes to the problem. The irregularity of a families’ income stream means the issue for many is more “illiquidity than insolvency.”

The issue is so severe that the author’s cite a report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Pew people that 85% of the 2000 households surveyed would prefer financial stability over “moving up the income ladder.” In essence, people are voting give me stability rather than stress even if it means less cash and a lower lifestyle: a good bird in hand, rather than who knows what in the bush.

The authors found that this illiquidity creates a snowball effect on other issues as well. These are not problems solved by the bankers favorite stopgap of “financial literacy” programs either. People are very well informed that they have irregular income, and given the rise of the contingent employment and informal employment economy, they know there are going to be ups and downs. When I was organizing hotel housekeepers and other hospitality employees, all of them knew they were going to be hurting for money in the New Orleans summer as well as over Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays when the room count was down, but that didn’t mean they could grow other dollars on different trees, though many tried, more fail.

The authors correctly point out that this makes budgeting horrific, and exacerbates the affordable housing dilemma for low-and-moderate income families. You can forget about home ownership if your income never gets to the point where you can create a down payment. Of course the home ownership model for citizen wealth for lower income families is already severely challenged, if not destroyed, but recognizing the role of cash flow puts another nail in the coffin of that dream rather than in the beams of a new house.

Representing school workers in Texas who have an option of choosing to receive their money year round rather than just during the school year, our union can see that some employers have long understood the simple facts of cash flow, but clearly as Morduch and Schneider point out, that’s not enough to start seeing a solution to the problem even if underscores the continuing crisis. This is a “new normal” or a clearer picture of the old normal hardly matters, it’s a huge barrier for millions of families and getting bigger, not smaller.

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New York Times Columnist Beats ACORN Dead Horse

c99e3db826c0f4cc2688a36ce3b60e1a_XLNew Orleans   A New York Times columnist, Timothy Egan, opined in his op-ed piece on what he called the dumbing down of democracy. It was largely a semi-rant covering a wide range of topics that you would expect from what the alt-right, or whatever it’s called, would say is still the elite, effete, northeastern corridor so prized by Nixon’s Vice-President for a time, Spiro Agnew.

His unhappiness was general. People don’t read. Trump has stepped up as a non-reader leader. What they do read, they don’t understand. An alternate reality of one’s own choosing from conspiracies, the internet, friends on Facebook has substituted for real information, real books, real maps, real news, and even real temperatures. Egan points out for example that even during the hottest year ever last year found 45% of the Republican masses telling the Gallup pollsters that they “don’t believe the temperature.”

Egan’s leading point on the polarity of politics and the disease of denial for the Republican base though came from Texas, where he wrote:

“A recent survey of Donald Trump supporters there found that 40 percent of them believe that Acorn will steal the upcoming election.”

Egan could have pointed out that that figure shows progress, which it does, since following the 2008 Obama victory polling of Republicans in various areas has found the number annually who believe that ACORN stole the first and then the second election has gone from a huge majority to the lower 40 percent range. To only have 40% in Texas believing that ACORN is ramping up for ballot box theft in 2016 seems somehow encouraging to me.

But, no, Egan’s then has to beat the ACORN horse with a vengeance, saying,

“Acorn? News flash: That community organizing group has been out of existence for six years. Acorn is gone, disbanded, dead. It can no more steal an election than Donald Trump can pole vault over his Mexican wall.”

Ok, Ok, I get the point, and true enough ACORN didn’t steal any elections in the past any more than we will in the future. I’ve said the same ad infinitum, ad nauseum, but still “gone, disbanded, dead,” geez, and in the same paragraph with Donald Trump? Let’s show some respect!

And, speaking of illiterate, how can Egan and the Times-sters write “Acorn” that way with lowercase letters, when the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now was as much an abbreviation as an acronym? The New Yorker and just about everyone else knows better, but I don’t want to get off the point.

ACORN is alive and well all around the world and through ACORN International even continuing to be active in the United States with affiliates in anti-lead fights in Louisiana, internet access campaigns in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Arkansas with Comcast, housing rights in Pittsburgh and Arizona, the rights of mental health consumers in Alaska, and the beat goes on. Furthermore, many of the ACORN affiliates that reorganized several years ago have been continued the strong tradition in California, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arkansas, and elsewhere. The conservative blogosphere and the Breitbart folks and their friends continue to keep ACORN’s name in front of their viewers rightly aware that the movement of low and moderate income families for their own organization and the power they need to win justice and equity is not easily stopped and could rise and erupt at any moment.

So, yes, election theft is a ridiculous fantasy for the Republicans in Texas and elsewhere to hold on to, but sometimes your enemies know you better than your friends, and they just might be onto something by keeping an eye on ACORN itself and its progeny, because the work goes on, the spirit is indomitable, and as ACORN members have always chanted, The People United Can Never Be Defeated.

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Hot Check Court Another Debtors’ Prison for the Poor

Sherwood's Hot Check Court Arktimes

Sherwood’s Hot Check Court arktimes.com

Little Rock   My brother-in-law and I agree on a million things, but those are family things, construction projects, upkeep of my trailers, automotive advice, and fixing anything and everything, but we do our best to NOT talk about politics, because he’s what you might call a Huckabee-man in Arkansas terms, and I’m anything but. We know where each other stands, so we know how to walk around most of the rocks in the road. This morning at dawn before I pulled out he said, “You got to see this!” He was following the news on Facebook, so I went over and looked over his shoulder where he was pointing. “Do you know about the “hot check” court? They’re running a debtors’ prison over in Sherwood.” I was all no, yes, and out the door. What the heck was a “hot check” court?

He was on to something though. Out of curiosity, I googled hot check court in Sherwood, which is a suburban enclave in Pulaski County across the Arkansas River and up the road from Little Rock. What you find with Google’s help is that, yes indeed, the City of Sherwood actually has a “Hot Check Division” of the Sherwood District Court of Pulaski County. How could it be that this little town has enough hot checks to have its own division? Are people driving from all over the county, the state, and the South in order to try and pass hot checks? The answer is, yes, sort of.

What had caught my brother-in-law’s eye was that the ACLU and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law had joined to file a suit for several defendants over the practices of this hot check division arguing that they were effectively running a court as a money printing machine exploiting low income defendants by larding on fines, court costs, and penalties connected with the original offense to milk the defendant and when they couldn’t bleed them dry, they were jailing them to keep the system going. The lawyers weren’t shy about referencing how similar this Arkansas mess was to Ferguson, Missouri where this was a system on steroids. They were also quick to mention that the Justice Department had jumped in and sued several venues around the country for using minor infractions as cash machines for their towns and cities.

In a report by the Associated Press one plaintiff is a good example of this system:

The plaintiffs in the case include Nikki Petree, a 40-year-old Arkansas woman who has been in jail for more than 25 days because she was unable to pay more than $2,600 in court costs, fines and fees related to a bounced check she wrote in 2011 for $28.93. According to the lawsuit, Petree initially faced $700 in court fines, fees and restitution, but the amount ballooned over the years due to related failure to appear and failure to pay charges.

The City of Sherwood of course denies everything. Their claims though seem hollow. They argue that it is only after the third or fourth hot check that they jail someone, and that they offer payment plans to resolve the earlier problems. I’m sure no one has every bounced a check, which is what a hot check is, essentially an NSF or non-sufficient funds matter, but these days if you are on not on top of your balances or a deposit goes bad, you could bounce a half-dozen checks in one sitting, bing, bam, boom! And, the City is in cahoots with the County, because Pulaski County has been sending over hot checks for more than 40 years to Sherwood to crank this ATM for them.

The AP reports that this adds up to a pretty penny.

The groups say Sherwood relies on the hot check fines and fees as a significant revenue source for its operations. The city’s receipts from district court fines and forfeitures were estimated to be at least $2.3 million in the 2015 fiscal year, Sherwood’s third-highest revenue source after city and county sales taxes, the lawsuit said.

Before you start South-bashing and pretending that this is just something you find in the backwoods or in broke-ass states like Arkansas, the lawyers are clear this situation exists in a lot of counties around the state for sure, but all of us know that this is common increasingly all over the South and the country, and certainly not confined to Missouri, Arkansas, North Carolina, and other places that have been in the news for creating modern day debtors’ prisons on the backs of the poor in order to avoid fair taxation and harder political choices.

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What Happened to Community Economic Development Strategy?

Civil Rights activists with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union occupied one of the empty buildings at the airbase to protest poverty, homelessness and political repression in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, MS January 31, 1966.

Civil Rights activists with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union occupied one of the empty buildings at the airbase to protest poverty, homelessness and political repression in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, MS January 31, 1966.

Greenville, Mississippi    Driving between New Orleans and Little Rock on my monthly route to oversee the 100,000 watt KABF in Little Rock and our union operations in Arkansas, you hopscotch from Vicksburg, Mississippi on Interstate 20 to Tallulah, Louisiana in one of the poorest parishes in that state, and go north on highway 65 through Sondheimer and Transylvania until you cross into Arkansas and Eudora. When you come to the dead end at the lake, you can either go left to Lake Village and on up to Little Rock or go right for sixteen miles and cross a modern newish bridge over the Mississippi and land in the delta town of Greenville. I had heard there was a small radio station facing some challenges in Greenville and though I had been missing a connection, it was only a half-hour out of my way to do some cold doorknocking and see if there was any way I could lend a hand.

I was interested in more than WDSV 91.9 FM and 1500 watts of power. In trying to track down the folks at WDSV, I had hit the web to see if MACE, Mississippi Action for Community Education, was still alive and well. It turned out that in fact the old “twin” organization, the Delta Foundation, was actually the license holder for WDSV. When ACORN was still a young organization in Arkansas and starting to expand, we would frequently cross paths with MACE and the Delta Foundation. Funders would ask how we were different and in some cases, suggest we should stop this community organizing stuff and just do economic development like Delta. Ed Brown, the founder of the Delta Foundation was from Baton Rouge, and was helpful when I was opening the ACORN office in New Orleans where he was living then before moving to Africa and later Atlanta. Charles Bannerman, his assistant from New York City, who ended up as the executive director of Delta was a legendary fundraiser and the darling of foundations, large and small, until his untimely death, and many ACORN leaders and organizers were Bannerman fellows over the years, which has become his legacy. Larry Farmer, the MACE community organizer, was my buddy and ally on the Youth Project board. I had been out of touch for decades, so it was worth a detour just to see what was up.

The Mississippi delta is one of the lowest income areas in the country and with its African-American majority the scene of civil rights struggles that in many ways haven’t ended yet. Economically, when you drive through Greenville, you see an abandoned housing project, for sale signs on empty warehouses, and downtown vacancies side by side with current commercial operations. When people talk about economic recovery, the conversation lingers over decades rather than just the last few years.

The Delta Foundation’s building was big and on Main Street. They had been in the small, select group of organizations that were the model for what community economic development might mean in the 70s. Two ladies saw me in the parking lot looking across the street at two radio stations. I was wondering if WDSV was over there, rather than here. They said, no, and showed me the side door where you entered the building. A woman operating a site where you could enroll in pre-TSA airport screening, helped me find the station and called up for folks to come visit with me. We then had a productive session that finally had to end after three hours so I could get on to Little Rock.

Visiting with them and with one of the original founders, Spencer Nash, who was on his way to retirement and had come back to Delta and Greenville from McComb where he had been a judge to run the organization. There had been some problems and a significant debt had to be retired, but in talking with him, it was clear the challenges were deeper than that for Delta. Their strategy had been to buy small manufacturing plants to create jobs in the Mississippi delta region. I asked him about a plant that I remembered they had bought in Memphis that made window fans. Long gone. Nash told me they had also recently sold their plant in Little Rock where they made retractable attic stairways. They had one small manufacturing operation still in the Greenville area. What happened? Nash said that competitors had moved to Mexico, and the Delta couldn’t compete on the labor costs. They provided loans and other small services now in addition to operating the radio station. In some ways their highly touted economic development strategy had been collateral damage swept up by the tidal wave of globalization that has exacerbated inequity by obliterating decently waged manufacturing jobs.

Seems like for this strategy to have continued to work, we would have needed a policy that “sheltered” job development projects like those owned by Delta from NAFTA and the backwash of globalization. We didn’t. And, we won’t, and it’s too late now. AM/FM, KABF, and WAMF, will help WDSV become a community force for our friends in the Delta, but there needs to be a broader and more effective strategy that works for today. Nash told me that my friends and comrades had now all passed away as well, but the problems remain and the banner has to be carried forward!

***

Please enjoy Dwight Yoakam’s Purple Rain. Thanks to KABF.

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Professor Lead-Head: A Zealot? No Way!

Dr. Marc Edwards and doctoral student William Rhoads (left) examine pipes in a home in Flint, Michigan.

Dr. Marc Edwards and doctoral student William Rhoads (left) examine pipes in a home in Flint, Michigan.

Little Rock   I should just start with some disclosures. For years my ears have been inches away from a thousand conference calls, shouts of outrage at newspaper articles, and screams at television sets for the level of ignorance and ignoring of the dangers of lead pretty much on land, sea, and air all around us. Enough so that a favored Christmas gift to our family several years ago was a water filtration system for our house. We would constantly joke about “lead heads.” I hope I’m making myself clear.

Mostly, I learned to nod at the right times, slow down if we ever happened to drive by a home rehab site that was using open air sanding, and highlight any articles in the paper or elsewhere when I stumbled over them, but gradually like lead itself, all of this began to sink in more and more clearly. Recently, as I have reported on radio and in these reports, we have been pushing schools with ACORN’s affiliates and with Local 100 United Labor Unions to test for lead in water, using the crisis in Flint, Newark, and other cities to put wind in our sails so that victory has seemed both imminent and inevitable.

When I saw there was a feature in the Sunday New York Times Magazine involving one of the heroes of the lead-safe movement, Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, I put it on the stack to read in full, knowing it was important, and that I would probably be quizzed about it later. I asked my companera, “What does the title mean, ‘The Zealot? Are they knocking your guy?” She answered, she wasn’t sure, might be the other guy in the article?

Well, I got around to reading the piece finally, and, I’m sure, they were body slamming Professor Edwards with that headline, though I understand the confusion. The reporter, Donovan Hohn, casts these aspersions widely using more inference than evidence. We are sidetracked around the fact that he is a Republican and a libertarian. The reporter tries to introduce a false paradox about whether a scientist can also be an advocate, even a Cassandra. Those seemed like low-blows. Republicans can like drinking clean water, just as there were Republicans who were consumer advocates and who vote for environmental issues. Libertarians don’t trust government. On that there is almost universal consensus across the political spectrum, and, frankly, we need more scientists who are loud and clear advocates given the threats we face, especially ones that are willing to speak truth to power.

The reporter does score some points arguing that it would be nice if Edwards built more capacity for local fights and used himself more as a nail in these controversies and was less like a hammer. That’s a point a community and labor organizer like me would make. If reporters for the Times are going to start leveling the playing field and join those of us in the “let’s build power for the people” program, they are going to have to lobby to add a few more pages to every day’s paper, because they would have to rewrite half of their articles about politicians, artists, movie stars, and every story where they focus is on the individual, rather than the collective, the “hero,” rather than the community, the big “I’s” rather the huge “We’s.” I’m ready, but until they change their standard, it seems like they are rough handling Professor Edwards.

Our experience with Edwards has been the opposite of this story. In the fight in Houston, we have reached out to him several times. He knows we are union, it’s clear from the email address to the questions, and he has been immediately accessible, totally responsive, and completely helpful. In New Orleans when A Community Voice pushed the issue, he gave them instant credibility in moving school board members to contact him, and he has been totally responsive in that situation as well. He has asked for no credit, hogged no press, and been totally supportive in each and every instance.

I could call out people and name names of scores of similar professors and big whoops where you can’t even get a response to an email, much less real help of any kind.

Zealot? If fighting for clean water and justice makes you a zealot, well, we’re charter members of that group, and we’re recruiting every day for more folks to join our ranks. Welcome aboard, Professor Edwards! Hopefully in your lab you’ve learned the old truth that when you stir the water, you’re going to get wet, too!

Dr. Edwards addressing the water crisis in Flint.

Dr. Edwards with community members addressing the water crisis in Flint.

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