Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The diversity of "the Hispanics"

In most contemporary discussions about American culture, immigration, and politics, “the Hispanic community” serves as convenient shorthand for a large and diverse group of people. On this week’s Lincoln Avenue, Alvaro Ramirez explains how different histories, cultural roots, and places create differences and even divisions among people of Hispanic descent.

Ramirez comes to the topic via an interesting path. He immigrated to the US as a child and grew up here in Youngstown. But his journey has taken him back to Mexico and to California, for part of his education and as a college professor. While he teaches courses on Spanish language and Latino Studies, his research focuses on the great Spanish writer, Cervantes, whose masterwork Don Quixote influenced much of Western literature, including the novel as a literary genre. As Ramirez explains, this 16th century tour de force is still relevant in today’s world, as we debate the relationships between the individual and society, tensions around cultural identity, and social change.

As I commented in my blog after interviewing Armando Labra in September, I think many people in the Mahoning Valley think, mistakenly, that Mexicans are all new arrivals here. Part of that is because of all the public discussion about illegal immigration, which encourages us to assume that anyone of Mexican descent is in the U.S. illegally, and part of it may be that for most of us, Mexicans are visible locally through the several Mexican restaurants that have opened in just the last decade. But, as both Labra and Ramirez remind us, Mexican workers started coming to the Mahoning Valley in the 1920s and 30s, to work in the steel mills, just as many Italians, Slovaks, and other European immigrants did.

We also assume that all Hispanics are the same, but Hispanic culture simply doesn’t exist in the singular. Puerto Ricans have a very different history, not only in their country of origin but here in the U.S., than do Cubans, Salvadorans, Peruvians, and Mexicans. For each, national history, culture, even language vary, as do their experiences coming to this country. Even within these national groups, experiences differ. As Ramirez notes, being Mexican in Youngstown is different from being Mexican in Los Angeles. So, too, have the experiences of Mexican immigrants differed. In the 1940s, the U.S. government encouraged Mexican immigration, so those who came to El Norte then may well have different perspectives. Context matters.

So when you hear political pundits talk about “the Hispanic vote,” pay attention. Which Hispanics are we talking about? When you hear about Hispanic culture, consider which one, at which moment, and in which location.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Vote yes on Issue 8

Among the many issues on the November 4 ballot is a levy for the Western Reserve Transit Authority, Issue 8 for Mahoning County voters. In this week’s Lincoln Avenue, sociologist Denise Narcisse provides an overview of national research on the value of public transportation, but she also shares stories from the local context. You’ll find links to some of the data Denise cites in her August 25 blog on Working-Class Perspectives. As she suggests in our interview and in our blog, substantial evidence suggests that support for public transportation pays off in economic growth and improved quality of life.

Public discussions of this issue have largely reflected the long-standing divisions between the suburbs and the city and, sadly, between those with resources and those who are struggling. I stand with all of those who argue that supporting this levy is both the right thing to do in terms of social justice and the smart thing to do for the future of the Valley. But don’t listen to me. Here’s what some other area bloggers have to say:

Election day is coming soon. Vote early. Vote yes on Issue 8.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Health care jobs, the good and the not-so-good

Health care is one of the largest employment sectors in the Mahoning Valley, second only to manufacturing. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with someone who understands the role of health care in the local economy, especially the job market – Molly Seals, Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Learning for Humility of Mary Health Partners.

As Seals points out, health care jobs are satisfying, relatively stable, and more diverse than you might think. Caring for others brings emotional rewards as well as financial ones. While employment in other industries has declined, and some kinds of jobs are hard to get, employment in health care has grown significantly over the last decade, both locally and nationally. As Seals discusses in our interview, the health sector employs not just doctors and nurses but a wide range of technicians, customer service workers, and maintenance people. Many health care jobs require college education, but some do not, and many require 2-year degrees.

On the other hand, as Seals acknowledges, health care jobs are not easy. They can be stressful and physically demanding. And while demand for health care workers is growing, problems do exist. As Ohio Policy Matters reported in July, while employment is growing and fairly secure, wages have declined and working conditions create challenges. Some fields have seen growth in both wages and jobs, but some of the fastest growing job categories, such as home health aides, have seen the sharpest wage declines.

For the Mahoning Valley, the growth in health care employment means more stable jobs of many different kinds, many of which pay well and all of which contribute to the local economy. At the same time, we should advocate for safe working conditions and good wages for those who take care of us when we’re ill.

Seals also spoke briefly about a topic I hope to pursue in more depth in a later interview: a community-wide plan to provide access to health care for the thousands of Mahoning Valley residents who don’t have insurance. The Mahoning Valley Access to Care Network met earlier this fall, bringing together local government leaders, non-profit organizations, and health care providers to discuss strategies for addressing the health care crisis.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Your time is worth more than money

What is your time worth? Tony Budak wants to recognize the value of your time and labor – not your paid job but the kinds of tasks you know how to do that could help others in the community. In this week’s interview on Lincoln Avenue, I talk with Tony about the concept of time banking, a system for tracking and using the value of volunteer labor.

The basic idea behind time banking is to encourage people to share their skills with each other and to build a stronger sense of community by strengthening connections among people. In very simple terms, a time bank keeps track of the hours you spend doing things for others. Maybe you’re helping an neighbor repair his lawnmower or volunteering at a local school. That time can be recorded in the time bank, and you can exchange it for services provided by others who participate. So when you want help with holiday baking or need a ride to the airport, you ask for help through the time bank. Every hour you put in is worth an hour of someone else’s time.

Because I write and teach about work, I find this concept especially interesting for the way it seeks to value work that doesn’t usually receive either recognition or compensation. So often, we think of work only as what we have to do to earn a living, instead of viewing it as part of how we contribute to the well-being of others. We also rarely think of work as labor we choose to do, much less labor that we control. Time banking seeks to redefine work with a focus on how it contributes to improving people’s lives and our community. We may not be able to accomplish that with all kinds of work, but valuing the work we do for each other is a good first step.

Here in the Mahoning Valley, where the local economy has been tight for a very long time, time banking seems like an idea that might help people get things done while also building stronger community connections. You can sign up to participate and learn more about the Timebank of the Mahoning Valley Watershed online.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Beyond Aid: Strategies for Fighting Poverty

In part because of the presidential election, we’ve been hearing more lately about why race matters in American culture, and here in Youngstown. And people have been talking nonstop in the last few weeks about the economy. On this week’s Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking about both, with Brian Corbin, Executive Director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Youngstown.

Most of the recent talk about the economy has focused on Wall Street, with some attention to Main Street but almost no recognition of those who live close to the street – those who struggle to get by every day. As part of its effort to move from providing aid to the poor to helping people get out of poverty, Catholic Charities USA has produced a very readable and very powerful overview of the relationship between poverty and racism, arguing that we cannot end poverty unless we address the underlying structural inequalities of American society, inequalities that are reinforced by racism. The booklet describes poverty and racism as “overlapping threats,” and it challenges white people, even those who are themselves struggling economically, to face and resist the ways that white privilege creates opportunities for them while putting up obstacles for people of color. The booklet reminds us that even if we don’t discriminate against others or hold prejudicial attitudes, we benefit from and are therefore complicit in the institutional racism that runs deep in American culture. Institutional racism gives us an unequal educational system, unequal access to credit and employment, and more.

Too often, when I talk with people about poverty and inequality, they blame those who are poor for not working hard enough. The hard truth is this: just as Vicki Escarra told us last week, most of those who are in poverty have jobs. Many work very hard, sometimes at more than one job. Some are trying to get an education to qualify for a better job. They just don’t earn enough to pay for housing, feed their families, cover health emergencies (because they rarely have health insurance), or respond effectively to other crises.

That’s part of what Catholic Charities of Youngstown found when they talked with the people they serve. When asked why it’s so hard to get out of poverty, people cited seemingly simple things: lack of access to, which can make it difficult to get to a jobs, to get their kids to school, to get to a grocery store with reasonable prices. Poor people also have limited access to banks, so when they need extra money, they can’t use credit or take out a loan, except from a business that charges high rates for short-term loans. In other words, people are poor not because they won’t work but because the system works against them.

In part because of what they learned from talking with those in need, Catholic Charities supported the bill in the Ohio legislature that placed limits on so-called “payday” lending, and they’re working on projects to create community credit unions. Other projects aim to provide better health care to the uninsured, as I’ll discuss with Molly Seals from Humility of Mary Health Partners later this fall. You can learn more about how we can fight the causes of poverty in a report by the Ohio Anti-Poverty Task Force. Among other recommendations, they suggest strategies to ease access to services like food stamps, job training, and health care.

Given what’s happening on Wall Street these days, we’re likely to see even more people falling into poverty. The efforts of Catholic Charities, the Governor’s task force, and others can help us think clearly about how to respond.