Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Long known as Second Harvest, Feeding America provides surplus food and raises money to purchase additional supplies and transport them around the country. They run food banks, like the Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley, but they also manage programs to feed children in schools and supply food for people in areas that have been hit by natural disasters.
The largest group served by Feeding America is children – about 9 million of them last year. The elderly and disabled also rely on food assistance programs. But what may surprise you is this: many of those who need help getting enough food every month are working adults. Especially as the cost of living goes up, many working people struggle to pay the rent and utilities, put enough gas in their cars to get to work, pay for health care, and still feed themselves and their families.
Unfortunately, the same forces that create increased demand for food assistance also make providing food to the hungry more expensive. Food and fuel both cost more these days. Meanwhile, almost everyone is a little worried about their personal economy, and some may be wary about giving.
The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur is coming up in a couple of weeks. On that day, Jews traditionally fast, from sundown to sundown. In my household, it’s a tradition to donate to a hunger program in honor of the holiday. For me, that transforms the fast from something that can feel like a penance to something that reflects and reinforces my commitment to social justice. You may not be Jewish, and you may never fast, but I hope Vicki Escarra will inspire you to join me in making a donation to Feeding America or some other program that helps to feed the hungry.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Mexicans have been living in the Mahoning Valley for generations, but they are not one of the groups that comes to mind when we think about the ethnic history of this area. In the past decade, the local Mexican population has become more visible, largely through the restaurant industry, but Mexicans first came to this area for the same reasons almost everyone else did – to work in the steel mills.
It’s in part because of the closing of the steel mills, and the long economic decline our region has struggled through ever since, that local attitudes about Mexican immigrants are often very negative. Anyone who comes here looking for work is seen as competition, even when they are doing work that others don’t want. Add to that the national media coverage of the rise of illegal immigration, raids on workplaces, legal battles about immigrants’ rights, and the kind of fear-mongering anti-immigrant discourse heard from commentators like Lou Dobbs – and the result is a culture of discrimination and hatred aimed at hard-working people who endure incredible hardship in order to provide for their families. It’s true that many (but not all) of the Mexicans living and working in the U.S. are breaking the law, but they are also human beings doing whatever it takes to survive.
Sadly, opposition to illegal immigration generates discrimination against Latinos in general, regardless of their legal status. I grew up in Colorado, which had a large and primarily legal Mexican population whose families had lived in the state for generations, and Mexicans were discriminated against even in that setting. In recent years, as Latinos are becoming a larger portion of the U.S. population, anti-Hispanic prejudice and discrimination have gotten worse.
What may surprise many Americans is that, as Labra explains in our interview, many Mexicans would like to see an end to illegal immigration. They don’t want to have to travel thousands of miles away from their families, risking injury, arrest, and exploitation, for the sake of economic survival. But, as he explains, the answer may lie less with the U.S. government than with the Mexican government. It would be best for Mexico if those who have left would return home. It makes sense, really. Mexico loses out when its citizens go elsewhere. Families and communities lose important members, making them weaker and less able to cope with struggles, and neither the local nor the national economy grow when so many people are leaving. The problems is that the Mexican economy is in bad shape, and the Mexican government does not seem to have an effective plan for improving it. With the rest of the global economy struggling these days, economic recovery for Mexico seems unlikely.
So, it seems, we’re stuck. Many Americans (but not all) don’t want Mexicans here, and many Mexicans don’t really want to be here. Economics keeps us together. Americans want cheap labor, and Mexicans need jobs. The only policy that will resolve the problem is a policy of economic growth.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
The difficulty is determining and successfully passing the right kind of legislation. In my conversation this week with Representative Charlie Wilson, he touted the effectiveness of the stimulus program that put a few hundred dollars extra in many of our pockets earlier this year – extra money that was quickly swallowed up by higher prices at the gas pump and catching up on bills. While I’m skeptical about whether this program made much difference, the idea that the federal government could help the economy through programs to stimulate spending makes some sense. Unfortunately, giving someone $300, or even $600, is more like giving someone a fish than teaching him or her to fish. A jobs program to strengthen our infrastructure – something more like the 1930s WPA – might make a bigger difference. It would also cost more.
Wilson also suggested that the mortgage bill passed in July and lifting the ban on the off-shore drilling, which is still under discussion, will address the problems of housing and oil prices. In both cases, we’re seeing an interesting tension between helping consumers and supporting business. It’s not in anyone’s interest, of course, for major businesses to fail, and consumers need direct assistance, as well. Still, both of these issues reflect much larger economic patterns – ways of thinking about investing and finance that emphasize profit over sustainability, our excessive appetite for fuel and other petroleum products, and the gap between our concern about sustainability and how we live day to day. But creating that kind of change in how we think may be beyond Congress. What Wilson and his colleagues can do, what they are trying to do, is develop concrete strategies for addressing specific concerns.
On this week’s show, both Wilson and Representative Tim Ryan discuss specific projects they’re working on to bring new industries and jobs to the region. Most involve hi-tech and energy industries, areas that are predicted to grow nationally and internationally over the next decade. Securing those jobs will require continued investment in education, as well as opportunities for funding new plants, new research, and collaboration across the region.
Will it work? As you look at what’s happening in the region, what do you see as the greatest signs of hope? What obstacles are we facing? Not surprisingly, our congressional representatives are optimistic, promising a better future. I wonder what everyone else thinks.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
This week’s conversation with Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams covers a lot of territory, including the challenges of regional development and the presidential election. I asked Williams to explain why he believes that Joint Economic Development Districts – JEDDS – will benefit both the city and surrounding communities. While local leaders in
It’s a hard sell in the
But that this isn’t just about economics. It’s about race and class. The suburbs of