Hopeful Signs

We hate being bummed out at the end of a millennium. Makes it tough to enjoy those 00 years. But as we approach the end of the year, the century, and the millennium, it’s hard not to be concerned.

HUD keeps churning out reports like Losing Ground and Waiting in Vain, reminding us about all the people and places that have been left out of our “growing economy.” The National Low Income Housing Coalition, in their report Out of Reach (see Shelterforce #107) tells us that no place in America has apartments affordable to minimum wage workers. Clarence Anthony, president of the National League of Cities (NLC) and mayor of South Bay, Florida, tells us that “America’s future is clouded by significant risks confronting our children today. They are chronic. They are pervasive and they continue to tear at the fabric of America’s future.” Poverty, absent parents, crime, environmental dangers, inadequate child care, dangerous forays into sex and drugs, and poor schools are some of the risks reported in Ten Critical Threats to America’s Children: Warning Signs for the Next Millennium, a report issued by the NLC, the National School Boards Association, Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, Youth Crime Watch of America, and the National Association of Child Advocates.

According to the report:

  • 14.5 million American children – nearly one in five – experience poverty.
  • During 1997, 3.2 million children were reported to authorities as abused or neglected.
  • Last year, 11.1 million children younger than 18 had no health insurance. 
  • Each year, 3 million American teens are infected with AIDS, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

And as Shelterforce readers know, millions of children go to bed every night in unsafe, overcrowded, or unaffordable homes, along with hundreds of thousands who sleep on the streets.

Very depressing. But there are a few shafts of light.

For example, 40 cities in 17 states have enacted living wage laws that require employers with city contracts or who receive municipal subsidies to provide wages and benefits that will move their low-income workers out of poverty. In many places, these regulations create an upward push on wages for similar workers. Like the Earned Income Tax Credit, living wage ordinances, promoted by a movement barely five years old, are one of the most effective anti-poverty measures around.

A new study by Good Jobs First, The Policy Shift to Good Jobs (www.goodjobsfirst.org), finds that 26 cities, 16 states and four counties require companies that receive economic development subsidies – that is, corporate welfare – to provide “good wages, health care or full-time work” as a trade-off for property tax abatements, training grants, enterprise zones, and industrial development bonds. 

And for all its doom and gloom reporting – maybe because of it – HUD is finally bringing the needs of America’s poorest communities to a national population who may be more receptive than ever to helping. In recent polls, many Americans have said that they would forgo tax cuts in favor of helping the poor.

And today, as we write this, thousands of protesters from diverse organizations that include unions, housers, and environmentalists, are in Seattle, Washington, demonstrating against the politics of globalization at the meeting of the World Trade Organization. The activists are promoting the notion that values such as justice, equity, and community must trump the only real corporate value, profit.

Planning and Research

Other hopeful signs can be found in this issue of Shelterforce. We look at community planning in Seattle’s neighborhoods. While begun as a response to NIMBYism, this four-year process did bring together thousands of people to have a voice in the way the city works. There were some – not nearly enough – opportunities for meaningful participation of low-income communities. Nonetheless, it was an important first step toward community empowerment. A few more steps like negotiations and collaborations between neighborhoods and neighborhood authority over budget decisions could help. 

Research, usually considered the province of ivory towers, is also being turned to the advantage of local communities, shaking up the climate at some universities along the way. We examine three approaches to community-based research, including a few handy ways to use your local academic talent. 

CRA Survives

In this issue we also present an analysis from the Woodstock Institute of the recent federal legislation that “modernized” the financial services industry but dealt CRA a few mighty body blows. Thanks to the incredible lobbying work of hundreds of advocates (who had not even a tiny fraction of the $275 million spent by the financial industry in 1997 and 1998 alone) around the country, CRA was bloodied but survived the crusade by Senator Phil Gramm, the Chairman of the Senate Banking committee. In addition to the analysis, we offer commentaries by advocates, activists, and even a banking organization, on the potential effect of this new legislation on low-income communities.

Clearly, the new millennium’s most hopeful sign is you, the countless advocates and organizers who fight slumlords, gentrification, homelessness, poverty, and despair. And those of you today who are also fighting tear gas and rubber bullets. We hope you all get some rest this holiday season, recharge, and enter the new millennium confident that your work, like “the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.”

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