How do we take care of our own? It’s a deceptively simple question that’s so fraught with contention in the American public discourse that we could devote this and every issue of Shelterforce to the cacophony of answers it provokes.
In recent months, the question has surfaced again in the heated rhetoric over immigration reform. Conservatives sought to convince working people that they carry crushing social and economic burdens imposed by Washington-in this case, arguing that the American way of life would be diminished if the nation expands to include presently undocumented aliens. It’s a strategy of distorting economic realities the right has used before to spur middle- and working-class Americans to vote against their own best interests. And it’s whipped up grass-roots opposition to congressional action on pending legislation to give illegal aliens a path toward legal status.
Listen to opponents of the legislation and you’ll hear a potent mixture of fear, anger, and an inchoate sense that the federal government is obligated to help Americans before giving a hand to others. Anti-immigration activists pushed those buttons to move the public rightward on the question.
Yet a careful listener can also hear some voices of opposition speaking in terms that diverge from the politics of resentment and remind us that Americans’ impulse to take care of our own still trumps right-wing fear-mongering about the evils of big government and social engineering. “A lot of our American people in Detroit are hurting,” Monique Thibodeaux, a middle-aged Michigan office manager opposed to the immigration bill was quoted as saying in a New York Times feature on the grass-roots “roar” against the plan. “It’s just not right.”
What would it take to make Mrs. Thibodeaux’s view a fulcrum to move the national debate in a progressive direction? Maybe all it would take is responsible and responsive leaders prepared to channel Americans’ best impulses for the common good.
A recent Zogby International poll of “likely voters” showed that 58 percent want a presidential candidate in 2008 who “sets a goal of halving poverty within a decade.” While the survey was silent on affordable housing, it offered intriguing clues to respondents’ attitudes: The majority rejected the idea that poor people are responsible for their poverty, instead blaming high costs and low pay.
While the Zogby poll didn’t link these concerns to the crisis of housing affordability, the connection is clear: According to the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies’ “State of the Nation’s Housing 2007,” one in seven households pays more than half its income for housing. And the bite is bigger for low-wage and part-time workers, retirees, and the disabled.
More than four in five respondents told Zogby that they’re looking for a candidate with solid ideas for “solutions oriented at combating problems experienced by many impoverished families.” They favor policies to improve education for all; end predatory-lending practices targeted at low-income families; raise the minimum wage; expand the Earned Income Tax Credit; expand food-stamp programs to end hunger and ensure good nutrition; and guarantee universal health care and child care. If they were asked, I imagine they would have added decent, affordable housing to the list of policy priorities they want to hear from a presidential candidate. The real question is why the housing question isn’t on the table at all most of the time.
As an editor who views a magazine — and a Web site — as an ongoing conversation, I have a sense of excitement about coming to Shelterforce at a political moment ripe with the possibility of real change. Getting housing questions on the national agenda in the 2008 election season is a challenge that galvanizes us at Shelterforce. The magazine has a long, proud tradition of creating a space where practical, progressive solutions to the nation’s social and economic inequities are aired and examined through the lens of affordable housing and community-building. I invite you to share your ideas and join me in what promises to be a vitally important conversation.