The Poor Need Cash

New Orleans       Other countries are increasingly getting the message:  the poor need cash.  It’s not enough in the lowest income categories to stake a claim on education, training, or jobs, especially low paying jobs inadequate to support families.

Africa’s Tanzania’s welfare scheme is called the Productive Social Safety Net and provides at about $13 per month.  Ethiopia’s program was only in the rural countryside, but has now expanded to the cities as well.  From 2000 to 2015, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa launched an average of 14 new programs per year, up from seven per year between 2001 and 2009.  Brazil saw huge gains with its Bolsa program of cash incentives to the poor.

Admittedly, these programs are meager in comparison with European social service provisions, but even some of the weakest economies in Europe still realize that cash is king for the poor.  Italy is now guaranteeing that its poorest will at least have the equivalent of $10,640 per year by topping off whatever income or benefits up to that and investing almost $9 billion to do so.  Even some policy makers and legislators in the United States are reckoning with the problem of cash for the poor as technology and corporatism try to force customers to handle their point-of-sale costs by eliminating cash.  Cities like Philadelphia and states like New Jersey are concerned that banning paper money amounts to discrimination and are passing laws to prevent cashless stores.

Recently, I have started noticing this more for two reasons.  First, I lost my credit cards going through a TSA line on way to Germany, Albania, Bulgaria, and Ireland recently, and had to depend solely on cash in foreign countries, heightening my awareness.  More seriously, I read a painful and jarring book on my travels, $2.00 a Day:  Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer.  After fifty years of organizing lower income families, the book didn’t tell me anything new as much as it was a vivid reminder at how little some things have changed and even worsened for the very poor during this period, especially after President Clinton’s so-called welfare reform.

One point that was inescapable though was how badly the very poor, living on little or nothing, are desperate for cash and the lengths that they are forced to go in order to obtain it in a period of declining to nonexistent cash welfare benefits.  Edin and Shaefer are truth tellers so there’s no sugar in this coffee.  They compare how much the discount rate is for bartering food stamps for cash in rural areas as opposed to cities.  This is real life, and it hurts.  Yes, it’s illegal to sell food stamps, but it’s a double bind for the very poor, if they have to have cash for utility bills or school clothing, it also means that they have less food with the increased risks.  Their stories of informal labor and “special friends” remind me of my days organizing with welfare rights when the ladies used to talk about the men who “brought them groceries” in exchange for tender favors.  The very poor have to do what has to be done in order to survive.  That’s not a social welfare system but a survival mechanism, and a scandal for the world’s richest country.

Perhaps even more heartbreaking and enraging for me to read was their report that the obstacles to applying for and receiving what is left of cash welfare through the TANF program are now so high in most states that many of the very poor believe that either welfare no longer exists or it is not worth the time and trouble to apply because of the constant rejections.  In the war against the poor that just adds more numbers to the body count.

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Roma Rising from Status as a Despised Minority

Roma Slum in Bulgaria

Sofia        Bulgaria and other Eastern European and Balkan nations with significant populations of the Roma minority can easily be compared to African-Americans and their situation in the American South of fifty years ago.  They are a despised minority that has begun to see some improvement after years of forced segregation, disempowerment, and secondary status, but they are still impoverished and largely powerless.  The good news, after several hours of meeting with key Roma activists in Bulgaria, where the largest Roma population in Europe lives, is that they are rising with ambitious organizational and political plans that, if successful, could be transformative over coming decades.

The statistics are dismal and contradictory.  Roma populations are seriously undercounted in the Bulgarian census with some stating their ethnicity and as much as 10% of the population leaving the question unanswered with arguably even answering disingenuously to protect themselves and their status.  Recent census figures, though disputed, count 325,343 Roma in Bulgaria or 4.4% of the population, but other figures including the European Union estimate, claim there are 800,000 or more than 10% of the total population.  Some nongovernmental groups argue that the population is increasing by 35,000 per year, and that the number is significantly more than one-million, and perhaps twice the EU estimate.

What is beyond dispute is the level of poverty in the community.  Though decreasing, 21stcentury figures hover above 60% of the Roma population below the poverty line with unemployment figures over 50%.

Illiteracy is decreasing but the situation in the schools constitutes de facto segregation even if not de jure segregation.  The government contends that there has never been a mandatory segregation policy, but that it is a matter of “administrative districts.”  There is no pretense of “separate, but equal,” rather the government argues that this situation is simply a matter of people living in close communities.  An Open Society Institute report cited in Wikipedia is explicit:

A monitoring report by the Open Society Institute found that Romani children and teenagers are less likely to enroll in primary and secondary schools than the majority population and less likely to complete their education if they do. Between 60% and 77% of Romani children enroll in primary education (ages 6–15), compared to 90-94% of ethnic Bulgarians. Only 6%-12% of Romani teenagers enroll in secondary education (ages 16–19). The drop-out rate is significant, but hard to measure, as many are formally enrolled but rarely attend classes.[66] The report also indicates that Romani children and teenagers attend de facto segregated “Roma schools” in majority-Romani neighbourhoods and villages. These “Roma schools” offer inferior quality education; many are in bad physical condition and lack necessary facilities such as computers. As a result, Romani literacy rates, already below those for ethnic Bulgarians, are much lower still for Romani who have attended segregated schools.[67]

Activists argue that housing is the key issue since the lack of a governmental support policy has led to informal and often haphazard construction everywhere, often on municipal lands without title.  Other key objections are dealing with the large youth cohort which means supplementing education and developing new community leadership styles, and ending “hate speech” and blatant discrimination.

Organizational ambitions are analogous to the civil rights movement focusing on pressuring parties and office holders without aligning or forming a separate party, but holding feet to the fire on programs and accountability both in elections and socially.  One-hundred organizations of Roma have already coalesced around some issues and demands.  Leaders have set a goal of mobilizing more than 100,000 Roma in Bulgaria over the next year, and are looking to build organizational and communications infrastructure to make the movement sustainable and powerful.

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Please enjoy Natalie Jean’s What Would You Do for Love? Thanks to KABF.

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