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Julianne Malveaux

Debilitating Poverty is Corrosive

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(NNPA) The fall of the Roman Empire is best captured in the phrase that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”. Set on pursuing his own pleasures and indulgences, Nero could not see the walls crumbling around him. Similarly, our leaders seem oblivious to the walls crashing in on us, bickering about the way that relief on our employment situation should be structured, while poverty rates are soaring.

The data that came out last Tuesday included no surprises, but in some ways, it was a stunning indictment of the economic gridlock that has plagued us for the past year. While Congress has been yammering on about debt ceilings, more and more Americans are without work; more and more have experienced poverty.

The poverty rate rose from 14.3 percent to 15.1 percent between 2009 and 2010. That means that the number of poor Americans grew by 2.6 million people, from 43.6 million to 46.2 million. For the past three years the poverty rate has continued to rise, and income has continue to decline. In the past year, the average income has dropped by 2.3 percent to $49,445. Of course, the African American level of income saw a steeper decline, from $33,122 to $32,068, or by 3.2 percent. While median Black income dropped by more than a thousand dollars a year, white income, from a higher perch, saw a lesser decline of about $900, or from $52,717 to $51,846, about 1.7 percent. With much less, African Americans are hit much harder.

Thus, while the overall poverty rate is 15.1 percent, it is 27.4 percent for African Americans, 26.6 percent for Hispanics, and 9.9 percent for whites. More than 40 percent of African American children live in poverty. There are further indications of increased poverty and dire news for years to come. There are 2 million more “doubled up” households, meaning that more than one family is living in the same home. Yes, we used to do this “back in the day”, but today entire families are moving in together because of economic exigencies. Poverty rates for youngsters, those under 18, have risen from 20.7 to 22 percent. Nearly a third of those families headed by women are in poverty, and women are still earning 77 percent of what men earn. Are civil rights laws being enforced in this age of so-called fiscal prudence, or would the likes of Michelle Bachman throw the civil rights agencies under the bus, as she promises to do with the Department of Education if she is elected President?

As poverty rises, the number of Americans without health insurance is also on the rise. 49.9 million people, one in six Americans, have no health insurance. For African Americans, it’s one in five; for Hispanics, it’s nearly one in three. Those who sit at the margins of this economy languish there without the ability to deal with preventive health care, and unable to afford medical treatment in times of illness. This erodes our national productivity and well being. Why can’t health care be a simple human right in our nation?

The Census report Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010 (http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p60-239.pdf) details the ways that poverty has increased in just one year. In some countries, this would be a cause for alarm. In the United States, it seems to be business as usual. While poverty strikes come communities harder than it does others, the fact is that we have more people in poverty than we have had since we began to measure poverty in 1959, and we’ve only seen poverty at this level twice since 1965. Then, we declared a war on poverty. Now, we seem content to accept it.

Those who are poor are victims of a corroded economy. While many would like to blame the 46.2 million Americans who are experiencing poverty, the real culprit is our nation’s economic failure. We are economically unhealthy, we are not generating jobs, compelling investment, or focusing on our future. Our children have fewer prospects that many of us had because even those who follow the rules find the payoff lower and the risks higher.

This does not mean that we should give up. It means that we should organize and galvanize ourselves to take our economy back. Dozens of congressional representatives have ignored the poverty data, but they wouldn’t be able to ignore it if we grabbed their attention. More than 40 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. planned a Poor People’s Campaign. Who will plan it now?

Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Racing Toward The Bottom

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(NNPA) While a Department of Education program embraces “a race to the top”, our nation’s current stance toward our 14 million officially unemployed people represents nothing less than a race to the bottom. We are content to report, month after month, unemployment rates in excess of nine percent, to use questionable language to describe tepid performance, and to assuage ourselves with myths that the economy is in recovery because GDP growth is up. Imagine that one of our children came home from school with a report card that showed a drop from a C- to a D, and she reported her grades as “substantially unchanged”. She would, substantially, find her allowance cut, her study hours increased, her privileges restricted. But when high unemployment continues month after month, an unsatisfactory outcome in and of itself, we hear nonsense and platitudes.

Fourteen million people are just the tip of the iceberg. When we look at those who are discouraged, dropped out of the labor market, and all of that, we are looking at something closer to 20 million people. Among African Americans we are looking at more than one in four without work, and in inner cities, we are looking at nearly one in two men who do not work. Employers won’t create jobs, government won’t create jobs, and rhetoric won’t put people back to work.

Then, what are we to do? If traditional job creation will not fill the void, we must consider the possibility of encouraging entrepreneurship so that people can be trained to create jobs for themselves. Enslaved people were some of our nation’s original entrepreneurs. What kind of job creation ability did it take for some of us to purchase ourselves. Throughout our history, there are people who never joined the Fortune 500, but who created jobs and opportunities for themselves and for others through entrepreneurship.

Elizabeth Keckley, the seamstress who bought her freedom and worked for Mary Todd Lincoln, and others in Washington, is an example of the kind of entrepreneurial ability so many of the formerly enslaved exhibited. Thomas Day built a furniture manufacturing company in North Carolina in 1837. Elijah McCoy, “the real McCoy” invented the lubricating cup that became an essential part of locomotive manufacturing in 1872, and made millions from that invention. AG Gaston was an entrepreneur with interests in insurance, funeral homes, broadcasting, public relations, banking, and the hospitality industry. And the list goes on. All these folk are African American, many are little know, and each of them is a story of inspiration for someone who is out of work.

Entrepreneurship will not replace traditional employment; indeed, entrepreneurs create employment opportunities for those who do not have them. Even as this administration grapples with our tepid economy, it seems that there ought to be some conversation about encouraging entrepreneurs to create value in an economy that seems to devalue the lives, and efforts of at least 20 million of our citizens, those who want to work but can find nothing. It is interesting that some banks were described as “too big to fail”, but we have easily tolerated failure in the labor market. In other words, our government was prepared to protect stockholders and bond markets, but not to protect people. The message is that if you are a banker, government will manage your risk so thoroughly that you can jump on your high horse and talk about deficit reduction just a few minutes after you have been bailed out. On the other hand, if you hold a mortgage or a job, you might as well line up for a beat-down because you are not too big to fail, indeed, you are too small to pay attention to.

Our economy is racing to the bottom because we have failed to pay attention to the details, to the small stuff, to the individuals who are being ground down and spit out by this economy. But the very folks who have been marginalized have to be the ones who will rise up and make a difference in our nation’s direction. Just as there are those who formed a Tea party, what would happen if the galvanized marginalized formed the Unemployed Party, the Worker’s Party, or the Economic Justice Party. Then the race to the bottom might turn into an explosion at the top. Or, next month and the month after and the month after, we will continue to read tepid reports about the labor market, and continue to wring our hands about the injustice of it all.

Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women. Her book, Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History, is available at www.lastwordprod.com.

The Conspiracy to Steal the 2012 Election

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(NNPA) Attorney Barbara Arnwine, leader of the D.C. based Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is on a mission. She wants to make sure that every citizen has the right to vote. On its face, it seems like a retro mission, since the right to vote has long been established. But one look at her Map of Shame, a map she shared at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s 40th Anniversary and annual conference, and the mission becomes quite urgent.

States are passing laws that require people to have a government issued photo ID in order to vote. Arnwine’s Map of Shame shows 8 states – Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina --that require a government-issued photo ID for voting. Several other require proof of citizenship, which may mean the birth certificate President Obama was challenged with producing. Sounds suspiciously close to a passbook to me. Often when these laws are enforced, the government issued photo ID must include a “current” address, which poses barriers to those who have moved. Americans have a mobility rate of 14 percent, and African Americans have a mobility rate of 18 percent. In the middle of a move, many do not return to the Department of Motor Vehicles to change the address on their driver’s license.

Government-issued photo ID does not include a Social Security card, but is usually restricted to a driver’s license or a passport. Eleven percent of all Americans, and 25 percent of African Americans, does not have driver’s licenses. In Georgia, 36 percent of those over 75 do not have a driver’s license. What about passports? The process of obtaining a passport often takes weeks, and costs upwards of $100. Requiring a government-issued photo ID may be a burden for some Americans. Yet that is precisely the intent that legislators that are assaulting voting rights have. When elections are close, it is in their interest to exclude young people, seniors, and African Americans. These voter ID laws do exactly that. Additionally, in some high unemployment states, those who owe child support cannot get a driver’s license. Talk about a double whammy. You may need a car to get to work or look for work to pay child support, but without a car you can’t look for work or get to work.

The Map of Shame shows that more than 20 states are considering the repressive laws that have been passed in the eight states that have frontally attacked voting rights, along with the two, Ohio and Florida that require proof of citizenship. Is it any coincidence that these are “swing states”? How much does this have to do with the upcoming 2012 election, where the stakes are high and the Tea Party seems determined to push our country backwards?

This attack on voting surely has nothing to do with real voter fraud. A five-year investigation by the Bush Department of Justice showed a scant 86 voter fraud conviction, and most of these cases could not have been prevented by voter ID laws. Another study showed that only 24 people were convicted of or pled guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005. Again, photo ID laws would not have prevented this fraud. Instead of attempting to suppress the vote, we ought to be encouraging it – we have one of the lowest levels of voter participation in the world.

In the middle of an economic crisis, legislators are passing laws that it will cost millions of dollars to implement. Is this the price of democracy, of voting integrity? Hardly. It is the price of chicanery. It is officially sanctioned voter suppression that, when combined with informal intimidating tactics already keep millions from the polls. For example, in Georgia, at the cusp of an election, those who owed child support were sent letters warning them that their status might be checked at the polls. In an urban center, during an anticipated close election, voters in some precincts were called and told the election had been decided (it had not been) and they did not need to vote. Furthermore, efforts that have been made in the past to expand the electorate are now being eliminated. In some states, early voting and Sunday voting has been eliminated; in others, churches and community centers can no longer register voters. Civic organizations that once registered voters now will not because laws have been passed that make it difficult to comply with laws (such as registrations must be turned in within 24 or 48 hours), and that impose harsh penalties for noncompliance.

Some states are eliminating precinct voting. When you voted in your precinct you could walk down the street or around the block to vote. With “regional voting centers” several precincts are combined and it may be necessary to take public transportation, if there is such a thing in your area, to get to a polling place. If there is such a thing. Repressive states are refusing federal funds for public transportation because they have absolutely no interest in a mobile African American population.

The bottom line – many are planning to make voting harder in 2012 than it was in 2008. They are planning to steal the 2012 election, and activist lawyers like Barbara Arnwine are passionately fighting back. Check out the Map of Shame at www.lawyerscommittee.org.

Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Debilitating Diversions

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(NNPA) What do Congressional representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-FL), and Steny Hoyer (D-MD) have in common? Each of them has taken time to comment on the predicament of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, but none of them has mentioned the fact that the average unemployed person has now (as of May) been out of work for a whopping 40 weeks. Somehow, our Democratic leaders have allowed themselves to get caught up in the minutiae of the misadventures of their clearly disturbed colleague, without referencing the economic disturbances that too many Americans are living through. Should they have said nothing and risk the ire of Republicans? Probably not. But I’d have liked to hear Congressional leaders say that Mr. Weiner’s problems are simply not the nation’s most pressing problems. As Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) mentioned, Weiner’s actions, however reprehensible, are not law breaking. But there ought to be a law against fiddling while Rome burns, running our economy to the ground and doing absolutely nothing about it.

President Obama is being blamed for this economy, and he is in the position of attempting to fight a war without any weapons. With stimulus, he could do more job creation, but with a debt ceiling looming (and no action taken on that) there is no money for job creation. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke has little to offer – the federal funds rate is so low that he can’t dare lower it again, and the Quantitative Easing (QE2) program designed to pump $600 billion in the economy is coming to a close with $50 billion of Treasury Bills being purchased this month. All President Obama and Chairman Bernanke are left with are the bully pulpit, the microphone, and the power to urge the private sector to get involved in job creation. There are no more policy tools to stimulate job creation, yet this is our nation’s most pressing problem. If Democrats don’t watch out, the whole lot of them will be turned out from Congress a year or so from now. Yet leaders have been caught up in debilitating distractions instead of essential urgencies.

Dr. Ron Daniels, of the institute of the Black World, has referenced “non urgent emergencies.” His comments quite clearly capture the national condition. We are in economic crisis, but paralyzed by partisanship, unable to deal with it. Instead, we are caught up in the minutiae that emerge from the 24-hour news cycle and by our own prurient curiosity about other people’s business.

It is tempting to blame the debilitating distractions on the media, but the fact is that “the media” is as capitalistically driven as every other institution in our nation. If we didn’t watch garbage, they would not broadcast garbage. If we collectively said that we are not interested in those members of Congress who behave badly personally, focusing more importantly on those who behave badly professionally, the media would let it go. Congressman Weiner ought to be the fodder of the late night talks that feature comedians like Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, not serious conversations on programs like Meet the Press.

I am far more disturbed about the state of our economy than I am about these men behaving badly. After all, don’t we get at least one every season? And don’t we spend millions of dollars (see John Edwards) attempting to indict those with poor judgment, instead of using those millions, perhaps, to generate some jobs. What if we put all of the debilitating distractions on “never mind”? What if we failed to be titillated by grown folks acting like adolescents, and instead got agitated by the economic challenges so many of our fellow Americans face.

If you have a job, can you imagine being unemployed for 40 weeks? Forty weeks is almost 10 months; about the same amount of time it takes for someone to gestate a baby. Most people don’t have enough savings to take them through 40 weeks of unemployment, so how do they survive? Suppose these were the stories that led the news, not this Weiner thing. Come on, people! Can’t we get our priorities straight? If we made the economy a populist issue, our Congress would feel more motivated to deal with it.

I am not suggesting any abdication of morality, but I am suggesting that there is a morality that says we should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, employ the jobless, house the homeless. This is the essential morality, the Biblical morality that says we should treat others the way we would like to be treated. That means we must look at those who are economically disadvantaged with more scrutiny than we choose to look at those who are woefully and publicly morally flawed.

Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Work is a Necessity

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(NNPA) I consider myself something of a wordsmith, so I am always amazed in the work of others, especially when they are government bureaucrats. The most recent unemployment figures, which show the unemployment rate rising, and the pace of job creation slowing, are interesting and incisive. The Employment Situation says that the unemployment rate is “essentially unchanged” as it has moved from 9 to 9.1 percent. In April more than 200,000 jobs were created; in May it was a scant 54,000. Still, the situation was “essentially unchanged”. Give me a break. That means someone is fudging and smudging the fact that our economy is sputtering.

This could well be expected given the fact that most cities and states are now grappling with ways to balance their budgets, and that includes layoffs of government workers. Furthermore, we can expect a sputtering economy given the drama that is taking place in Washington around increasing the debt limit. The Tea Party folks, if they had their way, would fully dismantle government, throwing hundreds of thousands of workers into the streets. Rising unemployment? That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Yet in a society where most people work for a living, public policy must embrace work as a necessity. We have to ensure that any able bodied person who wants to be gainfully engaged in the capitalistic system has an opportunity to do so. That means that work has to work that people have to work, that people have to have the opportunity to work, that government must promote the creation of work, and that when necessary government subsidize the development of working opportunities.

Instead, we have seen a recession and a so-called recovery that has not embraced the centrality of work in our society. Too many people are living at the periphery of the economic mainstream. Those people were told, when the May unemployment rates were released, that their misery is none of the government’s concern. Yet they are homeowners and taxpayers, parents and producers, people who didn’t plan for their factory to close or for the demand for their products to simply dry up. Economic recovery is a bitter pill for some to swallow when their lives have not recovered from the drama also known as a massive shift in the ways that Americans deal with work and economic integrity.

It seems that we have all sipped on the Kool-Aid that deifies the rich. They must have it going on, and why don’t we? Why can’t we spur a populist economic movement that says something else, instead? Why can’t we embrace Dr. Martin Luther King’s message when he said “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, peace and freedom for their spirits." In other words, how come we can’t decide that everyone can eat and be educated? How come we can’t make eating and educating a cultural imperative?

To put some meat on the official numbers we should note that nearly 14 million people are officially unemployed, with 6.5 million (45 percent) of them being unemployed for more than half a year. These are just the official numbers. The unofficial numbers make these look miniscule. This is not a double the flavor, double the fun situation. It’s called double the pain.

What do we do with all this pain? How do we begin to respond to our fellow citizens? The future of our nation hinges on our ability to engage more people in the business and the work of this economy. We engage people by involving them, educating them, empowering them. Yet, we are cutting education funds because we can’t raise the debt ceiling, because we are broke.

At the end of the day, here is what we need to know. When work doesn’t’ work, life doesn’t work for too many Americans. When work doesn’t work, too many people are kicked to the curb, told they are usefulness and left to their own devices. In an entrepreneurial culture that can be a good thing. If we encourage entrepreneurship, people can invent, and promote their ideas. But when there are no open arms for those who have been sidelined, they are likely to engage in actives that can be interpreted as less than wholesome. Too many people speak of the centrality of work without understanding how to make work happen. The most recent unemployment rates remind us that too many of our friends and neighbors have been placed outside the economic mainstream. What must we do to make it better, especially when this is a burden that falls heavy on the African American community?

Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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