Action In Concert Builds Community

The community development movement has grown tremendously in size and scope over the past few years. Thousands of CDCs now produce a wide range of low-income housing, from single family homes built with HOME and Hope VI funding, to multi-family units developed with the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

But still, as more of us have come to realize, buildings are not enough. On the 30th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, his words to this effect are still appropriate:

Action on any one front alone will not succeed. Providing a man a job, while in my judgement the most important step we can take, will not improve the schools his children attend or assure that medical care will be available even though he can afford it. Building new housing without providing social services or transportation to get to work or accessible health services will result in one slum replacing another. Improving the quality of education or job training without any promise of a job at the end will not ease the dropout rate. But action on all these matters in concert will build a community.

In this issue, we look at two fundamental steps beyond housing that build community – creating decent schools and assuring that jobs offer family-supporting wages.

A Good School for Everyone

Those of us fortunate enough to do so will choose where we live based, often, upon the quality of a neighborhood’s schools. But those with limited housing choices need not accept poor schools.

“Across the country,” writes Barbara Taveras, “a growing number of parents, community, and youth activists are undertaking hundreds of organizing efforts to address the core issue of education reform – how to create effective public schools that can serve all children well.”

These groups include national and regional organizations like the Industrial Areas Foundation and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and local groups like Mothers on the Move in New York City.

Their efforts run the gamut from improving the quality of education and services at a single school building to creating fundamental changes in whole school systems.

Community Schools

One growing result of parent and community interaction with the public school system is the “community school” movement. Community schools such as the Camden Middle Community School in Newark, NJ, profiled by Karen Ceraso, stay open beyond the regular school day and offer a range of programs and activities to children and adults. As syndicated columnist Neal Peirce recently observed, such programs strive to “draw public schools into the full lives of their communities.”

Living Wages

Politicians from the President on down are touting the good news – welfare rolls are down! No doubt many of the people who have left welfare are employed and on track to self-sufficiency. But most states are not tracking those who have left, and many of the people in transitional work programs are receiving neither living wages nor the training they’ll need to rise from poverty.

Worse still, many employers are replacing their regular employees with low-wage or subsidized-wage “workfare” employees. This game of musical chairs not only threatens the ability of those coming off welfare to become self-sufficient, but also threatens the hard won gains in living wages made by low-income workers around the country.

One of the nation’s most effective battles for decent wages was conducted by the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee (SSC) in Baltimore. “SSC began organizing low-wage workers in 1994 and won the first living-wage ordinance in the country,” writes Alisa Glassman. “The ordinance, Bill 716, went into effect in July 1995 and raised the minimum hourly wage for all employees of service contractors for the City of Baltimore to $7.70.”

The success of SSC is due in great measure, says Glassman, to the collaboration of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in creating SSC. Similar campaigns conducted around the county by ACORN and other groups are described by Winton Pitcoff.

Welfare Reform’s Opportunities

The benefits of living wages to individuals and their communities should be self-evident. Apparently, to many officials and employers they aren’t. And so ACORN, BUILD, and scores of others keep fighting.

Other benefits of certain welfare reform-related programs are coming to light. A number of companies, including Giant Foods, United Parcel Service, and American Airlines, that have hired welfare recipients “have found, to their surprise, that such workers stay on the job longer, with less turnover, than other employees,” according to a recent study reported by The New York Times (5/27/98).

The article attributes this, in part, to the range of support services available to welfare recipients, including job training, child care and transportation assistance. Now that welfare is gone, it’s time to talk about making these “benefits” available for all workers; not as “entitlements,” but because it benefits us all. By creating secure, living-wage jobs, employers benefit by reducing their training-related costs. At the same time communities benefit when workers have the freedom to focus on the elements – schools for example – that allow their families to thrive.

Series NavigationTransforming Public Schools >>Bringing School Home >>Making Work Pay >>Divide and Conquer >>The Board and Fundraising >>School and Community: Repairing the Bridge >>The Rocky Road to Training Consolidation >>Legislative News >>
Harold Simon is the former executive director of the National Housing Institute and former publisher of Shelterforce.

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