Birdseye on Citizens’ Wealth in Atlanta

Financial Justice Ideas and Issues Labor Organizing

World of CokeAtlanta It’s not often I get something that seems like a focus group on Citizen Wealth and the issues it raises, but that’s almost exactly what I enjoyed in Atlanta in a class of 35 on the “Economics of Poverty” where as part of the required reading they had gone through my book with a fine tooth comb.  When I asked the students how many of them had issues with student loans and thought there was a problem with how much talk there was about education as a poverty reduction strategy versus how little action there was economically that made that a reality, not surprisingly all but one of the hands of the students shot up.  The one was on full scholarship!

The questions were music.

“Why didn’t the IRS do more outreach to ensure participation in the Earned Income Tax Credit?”

“Why didn’t the government move the program away from the IRS to someone who would make more happen with it?”

In Atlanta where I found later that foreclosures are a big enough issue that Ken Johnson, the Southern Regional Director of the AFL-CIO told me they were quietly sponsoring a hearing on the lack of activity on modifications for various unions, I was not surprised to hear many questions on why so little was being done in this area as well.  This was a class under Professor Fred Brooks at Georgia State University and the students were social work or sociology undergrads or graduate students, so I was not surprised that there questions were closer to the ground.  One woman asked an especially poignant question about a friend who was droning on student loans, penalties and collection fees, and trying to somehow put the pieces together.  I was saddened to suggest she consider bankruptcy, though I warned her that I no longer believed that was sufficient to escape student loan burdens, it at least might give her some relief.

A panel that then discussed the Citizen Wealth themes with representatives from 9 to 5, Association of Working Women, the Teamsters, and the Atlanta Prosperity Campaign were also on point and very interesting.  The APC did 10,000 tax returns in 40 locations the woman shared with me after the panel, and was trying to benefit test as well now, though only able to directly move applications for food stamps, but this made a difference since Atlanta participation was less than 70% of eligibles there.  9to5 told the story of how close they came to passing a living wage ordinance in Atlanta though they, like so many places like Louisiana, Texas, and now Florida, had been thwarted by action of the state legislature taking away the right of cities to regulate anything about wages.  Ben Speights, the local Teamsters organizing director who I had know from his time at ACORN in Vegas, told the story of the struggle of workers to get a union at the Coca-Cola bottling plants in Atlanta in the shadow of the corporate headquarters, but the tale was not ending well yet for all of the workers’ courage.

It was exciting to feel the energy from the students, many of them committed to staying in Atlanta and making a big difference, as well as how much organizations are trying to make happen around income security in the city and to hear the number of folks asking for help to make more happen, but at the same time one could feel a city in crises without enough being done.

This is becoming a familiar song in too many cities around the country with too many of the same refrains.