Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Take Action on Hunger

September is Hunger Action Month. In 2006, more than 37 million people, more than 12 percent of all Americans, were living in poverty. Most of those struggled to find enough food each month. Two years later, after major disasters, with employment rates falling, the cost of living rising, and the country embroiled in a frightening economic crisis, the numbers must be even higher, and they will probably continue to rise. Feeding America, a national organization devoted to fighting hunger, is working hard to address the problem. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Vicki Escarra, President and CEO of Feeding America.

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

A Mexican Take on Immigration

So much of the talk about Mexican immigration over the past few years has focused on U.S. government policy. Congress keeps debating immigration policy, and both the media and community leaders keep offering advice and arguments. Yet we almost never hear about how the issue looks to Mexicans. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Armando Labra, who represents northeastern Ohio in the Consejo Consultivo – the consulting council – of the Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior, a Mexican government organization that provides services for and maintains connections with Mexicans who are living outside of their home country.

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

What Congress Can Do About the Economy

No doubt, the economy is the most troubling and important issue in American politics this year. As we listen to the speeches at the two conventions, we heard many expressions of concern and lots of promises to make things better. The real question is, what can government do about the economy? Of the three branches of the federal government, Congress seems to have the best chance of taking action to make a difference, because they design legislation that regulates how business and government services operate and because they oversee both taxes and federal spending. The President can recommend, promote, and decide whether to approve the policies that Congress develops, but in practical terms, it’s legislation that matters.

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

Race, Class, and Politics

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 Liberty, Austintown, and Boardman seem to view JEDDs as a form of civic blackmail that offers them no benefit, Williams argues that the experiences of other communities, especially Akron, suggest that this model of regional cooperation will bring economic growth to the whole metropolitan area. As Williams points out, Akron’s mayor pushed for JEDDs 15 years ago, and the same suburban leaders who resisted then are now strong supporters of the program, because they see tangible and significant benefits in their communities.

It’s a hard sell in the Youngstown area, mostly because many in the suburbs view the city as a problem rather than a resource. I’ve had too many conversations with suburban leaders who argue that the Valley should simply give up on the city. “Tear it all down and make it one big park,” one suggested. As Williams points out in our interview, the idea that the suburbs of Youngstown could exist without the city is absurd. Erasing the various government, education, business services, and health care jobs in the heart of Youngstown would be as economically-devastating to this area as closing steel mills was 30 years ago. And imagine getting rid of the city’s incredible cultural resources – the Butler, the two historical museums, Mill Creek Park, or all the arts organizations that bring us music and theater.

But that this isn’t just about economics. It’s about race and class. The suburbs of Youngstown grew dramatically in the 1950s and 60s for two reasons: upward mobility and white flight. Economic growth and strong unions allowed industrial workers to afford suburban homes and to send their children to college, creating a growing middle class in what had long been a working-class community. That same economic growth allowed more African Americans to buy homes in the city, which scared away many white families. That pattern isn’t unique to Youngstown, but its effects remain especially strong here. And it has created persistent divisions, fear, and even resentment. That division becomes political when the city wrangles with suburban communities over water, jobs, and taxes for parks and public transportation.

Youngstown’s struggles have long been national news. Just in the past year, we’ve been recognized by the Wall Street Journal for the 2010 plan and criticized by Forbes as one of America’s “fastest-dying” cities. We’ve seen important changes in productive directions in recent years, but we have a long way to go. To get there, we need forceful leadership and effective strategies for economic growth, but we also need to build stronger partnerships with surrounding communities and to move past the divisions that make regional efforts almost impossible.