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Julianne Malveaux

"Obama" as a Prefix

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(NNPA) The right wing seems determined to associate President Obama with any government program that helps people on the bottom. Thus, the term Obamacare was used to attack the health care program that President Obama fashioned and worked with Congress to approve. While Obamacare is not perfect, it brings more people into the health care system, and further solidifies the safety net that many have attempted to fray.

Now these folks are running with the term “Obamaphone,” which speaks to the fact that President Obama has simply extended a Lifeline plan that was authorized by Republican President Ronald Reagan when it was clear that those who were either isolated by poverty or by their rural status needed telephones to connect themselves to the world.

The Reagan program used taxes on some of us to provide telephones for the rest of us. People were able to get a telephone that offered basic service for a basic fee. With the onset of technology, Lifeline customers had the option of getting a landline phone or a cellular phone. This is not an Obama initiative. It began in 1996.

Those who get a subsidized telephone have numerous restrictions. They don’t get to choose their phone, but are offered whatever is available, usually a refurbished phone. They get 250 minutes a month if they get a cell phone. The 250 minutes is about four hours a month, or an hour a week. Is this really some kind of rip off, or is it a reasonable way to bring people on the periphery to the center? What do you do with no phone when there is a medical emergency or even a job call? Absent Lifeline, you are yet again a peripheral citizen.

Obamaphone? Give me a break. Until the Tea Party began to hold sway on our national consciousness, Republicans were among those who embraced the notion that every American should have basic telephone service. Now, anything associated with government assistance is associated with President Obama, despite the fact that both Democratic and Republican presidents have attempted to assist people at the bottom, albeit with different levels of energy.

Let’s not forget that it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who pushed the “welfare reform” that limited government assistance to 60 months or five years. When President Clinton, long a favorite among African Americans, proffered a 1996 reform that I described as “welfare deform,” several of his African American supporters excoriated him. He weathered the storm, as did the public assistance program. Still, nobody describes it as Clintonwelfare. It was an ill- conceived and pandering policy change that allowed President Clinton to brag that he’d gotten “tough” on public assistance.

Associating President Obama with government support to the poor is a subtle way of associating people of African descent with public assistance, and with the pejorative term “welfare.” This is a most understated form of racial coding, a coding that enabled former Congressman Newt Gingrich to describe President Obama as a “food stamps” president and to falsely assert that President Obama “put” more people on food stamps than any other president in history. Does Mr. Gingrich remember the Great Recession that the scion of his party, former President George W. Bush, enabled, or is he too busy purchasing jewelry for his blushing bride of a decade to pay attention to our nation’s economic situation?

One in six Americans lives in poverty. More than one in four African Americans and Latinos live in poverty. One in 10 of all Whites live in poverty. The Great Recession and economic restructuring have kicked these diverse groups of poor people, many who are grateful for food assistance, to the curb. President Obama has been responsive to this group of people to the extent that a hostile Congress has allowed it.

If I were President Obama, I’d be flattered by descriptions of Obamacare and Obamaphones. I would not even mind having food stamps being described as Obamafood. Would we prefer to describe poverty as Romney starve, or sequester starve? Make it plain. Associating President Obama with health care, Lifeline telephones and healthy eating is to his credit, not his detriment.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

The Burden of Unemployment

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(NNPA) Unemployment rates were “little changed” in March 2013 – they were either holding steady or dropping by a tenth of a percentage point or so. The unemployment rate dropped from 7.7 to 7.6 percent representing a steady, if painstakingly slow, decrease. This declining unemployment rate was reported with some circumspection because even as the rate dropped, nearly half a million people left the labor market, presumably because they could not find work. Further, in March, the economy generated a scant 88,000 jobs, fewer than in any of the prior nine months. An economy that many enjoy, describing as “recovering,” has not yet recovered enough to generate enough jobs to keep up with population increases.

Of course, there are variations in the unemployment rate, which is 6.7 percent for Whites, but 13.3 percent for African Americans. Hidden unemployment pushes the actual White rate up to 13.8 percent and the Black rate to 24.2 percent. More than 4.6 million Americans have been out of work for more than 27 weeks.

I parse these numbers on the first Friday of each month and note the vacillations in these rates. In the past four years, we have seen a downward drift in rates, but it neither been as rapid or as inclusive as we might like. We know that, in spite of talk of economic recovery, job creation is stagnant, not keeping up with increases in the population. In no month have we created the 300,000 jobs we need to “catch up” and push unemployment rates down.

We should pay attention to unemployment vacillations, but we might also consider the human cost of unemployment. Those who are unemployed experience malaise, displacement, and often depression. This malaise, or worse, affects dynamics in families, workplaces, and communities.

Some workers exhale when they dodge the bullet of a layoff. Next, they inhale when they realize that, thanks to layoffs, their workload will increase. In families and communities, the unemployment of just one person has a series of unintended costs for those close to them.

Speaking to the National Association of Black Social Workers conference last week, I reminded them that social workers are among those who bear the burden of unemployment. These committed public servants work with the threat of layoffs in their worksites, given sequestration and state budget cuts. Yet they are also challenged to advise those who have experienced the fate they may have to grapple with themselves. As employment is cut among social workers, others are forced to take on larger caseloads. Unless some of these social workers are superhuman, there will be clients who will slip between the cracks.

Heretofore, we have mostly looked at unemployment data as a reflection of the number of jobs our economy generates. We’ve also looked at those who hold them, those who lose them, and what this means in terms of poverty, education, and community health. We could expand our understanding of the employment situation if we looked at those who bear its burden.

There are politicians who rail that people are unemployed because they are lazy. The fact is people are unemployed because the economy is not generating enough jobs. The French philosopher, Albert Camus, mused, “Without work all life is rotten.” Everybody wants to be useful; and until “use” is defined as something other than paid employment, many will feel marginalized because of their vocation situation.

When unemployed, people hear about our “recovering” economy. They wonder what is wrong with them. We all need to wonder what is wrong with an economy that generates such unemployment. We need to wonder about an economy that has soaring stock prices and robust corporate profits, while so many individuals are struggling financially. We need to do more to include those at the margins into the vitality of our “recovering” economy. And we need to understand that if one in four African Americans and one is six of the overall population, experiences unemployment, this is not a personal problem, but a societal one. Will our society fix it, or let it roll? And who pays?

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Medical Condescension Can be Deadly

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(NNPA) Anna Brown, a St. Louis-based homeless woman, needed treatment for a sprained ankle. She went to three emergency rooms seeking treatment. In the third hospital, St. Mary’s Health Center, Brown was emphatic about needing care. Instead of being treated, she was arrested for trespassing, and died in a jail cell. Was she ill-treated because she was homeless? Black? Broke? All three? It really doesn’t matter. What matters is the hospital that failed to treat her may have contributed to her death.

Too many African Americans are treated in emergency rooms as criminals, not people in need of health services. After learning of the Anna Brown case, a sisterfriend shared that she had such an extreme anxiety attack that her 10-year-old son called 911. When she got to the emergency room (with health insurance, thank you), she was queried about her use of drugs and alcohol, not her health condition. It was only after her blood was tested that she was treated. So she spent four agonizing hours on a hospital bed with raspy breath, a frightened son, and no medical care.

She isn’t the only one who was mistreated. African American and Latino men with broken bones are less likely to get pain medication than others. Even children of color are less likely to receive painkillers than White children, because some physicians think they are faking the severity of their pain. When we look at health disparities and wonder why African Americans are more likely to have diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney failures, breast cancer, AIDS and other diseases, one might point to the many ways that doctors, especially those in emergency rooms, signal that Black pain is not worth treating. The result is that someone who is really hurting chooses to forgo medical care instead of dealing with medical condescension and arrogance.

To our society’s shame, emergency rooms often become the health providers of last resort. Those without a regular physician are stuck going to an emergency room when all else fails. A cold becomes the flu and the flu becomes pneumonia and only when a patient is struggling for breath does she seek treatment in an emergency room. I can understand a doctor’s frustration because the patient did not deal with her challenges earlier. But well-paid emergency room doctors need to do their work without judgmental attitudes getting in their way.

Anna Brown deserved to be treated as a human being. She deserved to be treated as someone who was struggling with pain. Instead, she was treated as a criminal because she insisted on care. Thus, she was accused of trespassing, instead of being treated as someone who was hurting.

While many would describe our society as post-racial that is a specious and inaccurate description of the world in which we live. Racism muddies the water that we all swim in, and physicians are not exempted. Those who swim in muddy water reflect the muddy attitudes that are prevalent in our society. Many doctors consider themselves “culturally sensitive” but they have come to certain conclusions about poor folks, Black folks, and others that they treat. It is easier to write off a woman like Anna Brown than it is to find out what is really wrong with her.

The Hippocratic oath that physicians swear to says “first, do no harm.” From the facts that have been published about Anna Brown though, this homeless 29-year-old mother of two was harmed by a medical indifference that landed her in a jail cell instead of a hospital bed. The tragedy is that Anna Brown is not the only one who has been treated this way.

We have health disparities because people are treated differently in our health care system. We cannot talk about closing gaps without talking about the ways that medical attitudes shape the medical experience for those who are so underserved that they come to emergency rooms for help. While the jury is out on the ways that Obamacare will reform our health care system, the intent of health care reform is to eliminate tragedies like Anna Brown’s.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Can We All Just Get Along?

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(NNPA) I never considered the late Rodney King anything of a philosopher, but as one observes Washington shenanigans, especially around fiscal matters, it seems that Brother King had a point. Can we all just, maybe, get along?

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the Senate finally passed a budget by the narrowest of margins, 50-49. Four Democratic Senators jumped ship to side with Republicans, probably because they are facing tough election fights in Republican leaning states. Still, it was great to see some vision from this Senate, which called for a $1 trillion in tax increases and $875 billion in program cuts. Unlike proposals presented by the likes of Paul Ryan, who would eviscerate social programs, the Senate offers a budget that cuts social and other programs more carefully and thoughtfully. Since this is the first budget the Senate has passed in four years, one might think that they should be congratulated. But the passage of a Senate budget is only the first step. Now, the Senate and the House of Representatives have to find some common ground.

Former Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan (R-Wis) chairs the House Budget Committee and he chairs it like he thinks he is still running for office. He claims that he can save $4 trillion more than Democrats by turning Medicare into a voucher program and slashing Medicaid, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps), and other safety net programs. How will the Senate and House resolve their differences when Republicans basically refuse to bargain, and Democrats will give away the store if given an opportunity? If half of the Democrats in the Senate had the backbone of House Republican Majority Leader John Boehner, the people of the United States would be in a better position.

We can’t get along if we go along with nonsense such as a voucher program for senior health. As it is, some hospitals are closing or consolidating, largely because of the number of poor and elderly people who use those facilities. While Ryan is talking slash and burn, Obamacare, albeit imperfect, expands health care possibilities for everyone. We can’t get along with cuts in SNAP that leave more people hungry. The average monthly income for those who receive SNAP assistance is less than $700. That means families who receive this benefit are working part-time or not at all, not an unusual occurrence when the unemployment rate remains higher than 7 percent overall and 13 percent for African Americans. We can’t get along with proposals to cut educational funding, knowing education opens doors for generations to come.

How, then, will they fill the gap between the lean budget passed by Senate Democrats, and the austerity budget passed by Republicans? It is up to we, the people. A few weeks ago, a friend proposed organizing a March that would bring thousands to Washington as these budget deliberations continue to remind the Senate and the House that we are watching them. As this is the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, many marches are being planned to commemorate that critical date. But it might also be meaningful if Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign were also reenacted. Dr. King’s vision of bringing thousands to occupy government offices to highlight the needs of the poor was never fully realized, and the current gap between the House and Senate suggests that the poor will be more harshly treated now than they were two generations ago.

When one contrasts the House Budget with the one that comes from the Senate, one realizes that there are two starkly different visions of our country. We were presented with these stark choices when Mr. 47 Percent Romney faced off against President Obama. One could hardly call our president a flaming liberal. People chose the humanitarian Obama vision of the world instead of the elitist austerity that Romney exemplified. The people have spoken, but the politicians can’t hear.

The people are talking, the politicians are posturing, and millions are wondering how they will survive if a Ryan budget passes. Why can’t we all get along?

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

U.S. and Europe, not the Catholic Church, Blowing Smoke

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(NNPA) The selection of Argentinian cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the next leader of the Catholic Church was, in some ways, inevitable. Latin America is home to the largest Catholic population in the world, and it has been more than past time for the tradition of selecting European popes to end. Hopefully, Cardinal Bergoglio, to be known as Pope Francis, will be able to stem the tide of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church as well as put the church on the path of more transparency and integrity. Proposals to allow women to be priests and to allow married priests into the clergy are, for Catholics, revolutionary ways to modernize the church. Pope Francis, who brings a reputation of frugality and humility to the church, may well be able to deal with these proposals.

With some competition for the papal position, I am not sure why the College of Cardinals settled on Pope Francis. A nod to diversity may or may not have played a role in the selection. Still, Catholic cardinals have been able to embrace diversity in ways that other world institutions have not. When we look at world monetary institutions – the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – we find no such nods to the way that world demographics and realities have changed. While the United States and Europe are still seen as trend leaders in world economic matters, China is nipping at our heels, and both Latin America and the African continent, despite internal problems, are world players. These continents are excluded from G8 meetings where global economic leaders gather to talk policy.

The custom that the United States should nominate the head of the World Bank, and that Europe should nominate the head of the International Monetary Fund speaks to the hegemony that these two countries have assumed in world monetary matters. When Christine Lagarde was selected to lead the International Monetary Fund (succeeding the disgraced Dominique Strauss-Khan), France declared their “victory.” But, Lagarde faced unprecedented competition from countries out of the US/Europe monopoly. A Mexican finance minister threw his hat in the ring, and attracted attention, if not sufficient votes to outpoll Lagarde.

Similarly, the U.S. nominee to lead the World Bank was former Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim. While Kim is Korean born, as President Obama’s nominee to lead the bank, he maintains the tradition of a U.S. nominee to lead the bank. He has also been criticized for his lack of monetary experience. At the same time, the amazing Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, a Nigerian economist, was a strong contender for World Bank leadership. Apparently the selection of a woman of African descent was too far of a stretch for the bank.

Speaking of stretches, why has President Obama been so unable to find African Americans for his cabinet? Only Attorney General Eric Holder and International Trade Representative Ron Kirk remain in the cabinet, and Kirk is not a key cabinet member. Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, has taken on the president in a stern letter that reflects the concern of many in the African American community. Why, when Obama garnered 97 percent of the African American vote, should the African American community be so underrepresented in the Obama cabinet? Is the Obama administration running behind the conservative Catholic Church in its commitment to diversity?

Either for diversity or for merit, the College of Cardinals stepped outside its history of European domination to select a Pope from Argentina. What might have happened if the World Bank had decided to step outside the tradition of U.S. domination to select a candidate as qualified as Ngozi Iweala who, one might argue, is a far superior candidate to the U.S. selection of Jim Yong Kim? What might have happened if France had not assumed that another French leader instead of someone outside the US/Europe sphere should replace its flawed leader of the International Monetary Fund?

If our country ever gets its economics straight (instead of continuing the crisis of the month club), it will continue to be a world leader, though not forever. World demographics are changing. Catholic cardinals acknowledged it. Why can’t the U.S. and Europe?

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

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