Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why No Riots?

From Sudhir Venkatesh in the NYT:

But it was only several years after the stock market crash that large-scale protests, bread riots and street rebellions began to occur in small towns and big cities. That’s the most pertinent lesson of the Great Depression: people waited, with relative patience, for years for some government response before anyone looted a grocery store or fought off police officers who were evicting families. So it’s possible that if our economic hardships endure, civil unrest could follow.

But if American anger remains corralled on the Internet, into e-mail messages to Congress and in sporadic small-group protests, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will do much to assuage the anger of taxpayers. Administration officials certainly don’t seem concerned that rage will heat up and overflow; after all, anticipating unrest would mean a broad and intensive campaign to shore up housing, food and welfare safety nets. The proposed budget contains a few such line items, but a comprehensive, coordinated program to prevent violence and defuse anger would need sustained commitments from mayors, service providers and civic leaders.

Perhaps the lack of concern is warranted, as several factors make widespread revolt less likely today. Our cities are no longer dense, overcrowded industrial centers where unionized laborers and disgruntled strikers might take a public stand. Concentrated inner-city poverty has declined, too, so don’t expect 1960s-style ghetto unrest.

Our urban centers are instead corporate hubs and the victims of this recession include hundreds of thousands of white-collar workers. For obvious reasons, these folks tend not to have the particular sense of grievance — that a select few are receiving preferential treatment, that they’re on the losing end of a rigged game — that usually sets off a conflagration.

And in today’s cities, even when we share intimate spaces, we tend to be quite distant from one another. Mass disturbances are not highly orchestrated ballets. They require spontaneous interaction, a call and response among unidentified cries of rage, the possibility for a unified mass to form from a gathering of loosely connected individuals.

But these days, technology separates us and makes more of our communication indirect, impersonal and emotionally flat. With headsets on and our hands busily texting, we are less aware of one another’s behavior in public space. Count the number of people with cellphones and personal entertainment devices when you walk down a street. Self-involved bloggers, readers of niche news, all of us listening to our personal playlists: we narrowly miss each other. Effective rebellions require that we sing in unison.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

More Tent Cities

From the NYT:
Like a dozen or so other cities across the nation, Fresno is dealing with an unhappy déjà vu: the arrival of modern-day Hoovervilles, illegal encampments of homeless people that are reminiscent, on a far smaller scale, of Depression-era shantytowns. At his news conference on Tuesday night, President Obama was asked directly about the tent cities and responded by saying that it was “not acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a country as wealthy as ours.”

While encampments and street living have always been a part of the landscape in big cities like Los Angeles and New York, these new tent cities have taken root — or grown from smaller enclaves of the homeless as more people lose jobs and housing — in such disparate places as Nashville, Olympia, Wash., and St. Petersburg, Fla.

In Seattle, homeless residents in the city’s 100-person encampment call it Nickelsville, an unflattering reference to the mayor, Greg Nickels. A tent city in Sacramento prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to announce a plan Wednesday to shift the entire 125-person encampment to a nearby fairground. That came after a recent visit by “The Oprah Winfrey Show” set off such a news media stampede that some fed-up homeless people complained of overexposure and said they just wanted to be left alone.

Read the rest. But remember at all times: this is not new, it is only the scale that has changed. People who are homeless in more ordinary times are no less "deserving."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Let these buildings go!"

Hot off the presses, a release from Picture the Homeless:

Claim property for low-income neighbors, demand action from city government

El Barrio/East Harlem, NYC. —Homeless people have taken over an empty building in East Harlem, as part of a coordinated push-back against city policies that let buildings stay empty. The building, which is owned by the city, has been completely vacant for decades.

Deborah Dickerson, a homeless woman who is one of the organizers of the takeover, says “This building is dead. The city killed it. We're going in there to revive this building, and there are many more. We're not going to stop until all of these buildings have people in them. Let these buildings go!”

A massive banner hanging from the roof says THEY SAY GENTRIFY/ WE SAY OCCUPY. Community support for the takeover is high, with neighbors rallying on the sidewalk in support of the event. Neighborhood resident and community leader Gloria Quiñones says, “In my forty years of community activism on this issue, I have never seen things get so desperate. Families are doubled and tripled up while there are vacant city-owned properties and no plans to use them to house low-income folks. This is disgraceful! We know the Mayor is a great businessman and he's one of the richest people in the world, he can do much better than having poor people living on the streets.”

Local elected officials are also signaling their support for the takeover. East Harlem City Council Member Melissa Mark Viverito stated “Today's action is an exciting development and should send a message that the situation has grown too serious to ignore; that low-income New Yorkers are becoming more frustrated as they wait for the city to solve the housing crisis and that we must not hesitate in our search for creative solutions to our most pressing housing challenges.”

Organizers of the building takeover are demanding that the City Council pass new legislation to turn vacant city-owned buildings into housing for the homeless, and a commitment from city officials to conduct an annual citywide count of all vacant buildings and lots.

Dickerson adds, “Being homeless is one of the most degrading things that can happen to any human being. And for too long, people have presumed to speak for the homeless. We have a voice, we are human beings, and we deserve to live. It's too long that the warehousing has gone on. We want housing. Let the warehousing stop. We want to live in a home like everybody else. The city has made enough money on us. We want our legislation to go through. We want the city to count up all these empty buildings and lots. And we want truly-affordable housing for low-income and homeless people.”

Press Rendezvous: Meet at the corner of 116th & Lexington at 12:45PM, Thursday March 19th

For interviews with homeless people and neighborhood residents on the inside of the building, call 718-593-1979. In addition, leaders of the building takeover will be Twittering from the inside. Follow and hashtag #bldgtakeover.

Child Welfare Watch

Releases a new report: Caring for the Children of Mentally Ill Parents.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Aren't We Generous

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

When I speak about world poverty at Princeton University, where I teach, or at campuses around the country, students often suggest that America is a generous country: It's already doing its part.

When my students cite American generosity, I show them figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the amounts given by all the group's donor members. The students are astonished to find that the United States has, for many years, been at or near the bottom of the list of industrialized countries in terms of the proportion of national income given as foreign aid. After several years of vying with Portugal and Greece, we fell to the absolute bottom in 2007. Norway led the way, giving 95 cents per $100, followed by Sweden, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, and Austria. Other rich countries give less than 50 cents, with the average that year 45 cents; the United States gave only 16 cents of every $100 earned.

The ignorance of Americans about their nation's role in aiding the world's poorest people is widespread, and it has been shown in many surveys. Asked by the Gallup International Association in 2005 whether the United States gives more, less, or about the same amount of aid as other wealthy countries do in terms of percentage of national income, only 9 percent of Americans gave the correct answer; 42 percent of the respondents said the nation gave more than four times as much as was true at the time. At the extreme, 8 percent of Americans thought that the United States gave more than a quarter of its national income as aid, a portion that is more than 100 times as great as the actual amount.

Americans also suffer from gross misconceptions about how significant the country's aid is as a percentage of all federal spending. In four surveys that asked Americans what portion of government spending goes to foreign aid, the median answers ranged from 15 percent to 20 percent. The correct answer is less than 1 percent.

A majority of people in those surveys further said that America gives too much aid — but when asked how much America should give, the median answers ranged from 5 percent to 10 percent of government spending. In other words, people wanted foreign aid cut — to an amount that is five to 10 times as much as their country actually gives.

Read the rest.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Obama's Health Care Proposal

Testimony from the Budget Director. Good, clean, wonky fun. And a succinct, easy-to-read overview.