To Paraphrase Tolstoy: All Affluent Communities Are Alike… And So Is Each Poor Community

June 15, 2021 Leave a comment

I live in an affluent community that is like many others. We have a thriving college, an excellent medical facility, a wide array of retail options, a beautiful setting, lots of restaurants, a highly functioning local government that keeps the roads maintained, a diverse array of small locally owned businesses, and thriving civic organizations that keep our public squares full of flowers, volunteers for community service abundant, and non-profits’ coffers full. In traveling around the country, I’ve driven through many communities like one I live in…and they are remarkably homogenous whether they are located on the seacoast, in the mountains, or in the suburbs. They are full of college graduates who made a choice to live in the community and are willing to provide the resources needed to ensure the community remains vibrant.

I just finished reading Eduardo Porter’s NYTimes story about McDowell County in West Virginia, a community that relied on coal to thrive for a few generations but now finds itself a hollow shell of its former self now that the coal mines are empty. As I read it I was struck by the similarities between McDowell County and other poor rural outposts I am familiar with in the Appalachian region of Maryland, the Rust Belt, the woodlands of Northern New England, and mill towns across the country. Coal mines left McDowell County just as the factories left communities across the Rust Belt, hill farms left Appalachia, wood mills left the North Country, and a host of small mills left New England communities. In their wake, the communities left behind lack the tax base to bounce back and compete for residents with their affluent neighbors. The unskilled laborers who made middle class wages when the factories and small farms were in place have no jobs except service jobs that pay a quarter of what they earned before. And, like McDowell County in WV, small towns turn to prisons and recreation to create work for people.

There are no easy answers to the question of how to restore communities that are hollowed out when factories leave. McDowell County’s collaborative effort between schools, economic development offices, and social service agencies looks promising, but as Mr. Porter’s article notes, there’s one big hitch. Absent meaningful employment that pays more than a subsistence wage the coal-less County’s death spiral will continue.

Finding Middle Ground on Race Requires New “GI Bill”

June 15, 2021 Leave a comment

Molly Worthan’s NYTimes article, “Is There A Way to Dial Down Political Hatred“, describes the similarities between the religious divides that existed in the past and the political divides that are occurring today and concludes that there IS a way forward that could lead to more harmony between those in different political camps. That way forward is implied in this paragraph where she describes how our country overcame it’s prejudice against Catholics that existed for decades before subsiding prior to John F. Kennedy’s election:

Although a casual anti-Catholic prejudice persists in some circles today, many Americans greeted the Catholic faith of our 46th president with a collective shrug. Over the decades, a complex series of socioeconomic, cultural and ideological shifts smoothed the way for Protestants and Catholics to recognize one another as fellow humans capable of cooperating in the democratic process and even merging their families. Young lay believers contributed at least as much to interfaith understanding as bishops and theologians did. Protestants and Catholics funded by the G.I. Bill sat next to each other in college classrooms after World War II; they marched side by side in the civil rights movement; they worshiped together in the charismatic renewal movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when Pentecostal-style revivals swept all Christian denominations and made a special impact on college campuses.

The underscored phrase about the consequences of Catholics and Protestants sitting together in college classrooms after World War II thanks to the GI Bill reminded me of an aspect of the GI Bill that I was unaware of until recently.  I always believed the GI Bill was available to all soldiers at the end of World War II, a belief that was undercut when I began to dig deeply into questions about reparations. In her essay posted on the History Channel website, journalist Erin Blakemore describes the discrimination against blacks.

In housing, Black veterans found themselves unable to get mortgages to build affordable homes in the suburbs that ballooned after the second world war.  Redlining and zoning ordinances kept blacks from purchasing homes which led to a generational wealth disparity:

Though the GI Bill guaranteed low-interest mortgages and other loans, they were not administered by the VA itself. Thus, the VA could cosign, but not actually guarantee the loans. This gave white-run financial institutions free reign to refuse mortgages and loans to Black people.

Redlining—a decades-old practice of marking maps by race to characterize the risks of lending money and providing insurance—made purchasing a home even more difficult for Black veterans. Lenders froze out poorer neighborhoods, ensuring that loan assistance and insurance would be denied. And new white suburbs often came with overtly racist covenants that denied entry to Black people.

In 1947, only 2 of the more than 3,200 VA-guaranteed home loans in 13 Mississippi cities went to Black borrowers. “These impediments were not confined to the South,” notes historian Ira Katznelson. “In New York and the northern New Jersey suburbs, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI bill supported home purchases by non-whites.”

As veteran applications flooded universities, Black students often found themselves left out. Northern universities dragged their feet when it came to admitting Black students, and Southern colleges barred Black students entirely. And the VA itself encouraged Black veterans to apply for vocational training instead of university admission and arbitrarily denied educational benefits to some students…

“Though Congress granted all soldiers the same benefits theoretically,” writes historian Hilary Herbold, “the segregationist principles of almost every institution of higher learning effectively disbarred a huge proportion of Black veterans from earning a college degree.”

The net impact of the GI Bill, then, was an INCREASE in wealth disparity.

The original GI Bill ended in July 1956. By that time, nearly 8 million World War II veterans had received education or training, and 4.3 million home loans worth $33 billion had been handed out. But most Black veterans had been left behind. As employment, college attendance and wealth surged for whites, disparities with their Black counterparts not only continued, but widened. There was, writes Katznelson, “no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in postwar America than the GI Bill.”

Today, a stark wealth gap between Black and white Americans persists. The median income for white households in 2019 was $76,057, according to the U.S. Census. For Black households, it was $46,073.

Ms. Wortham’s NYTimes article comes to the same conclusion that the Supreme Court reached in Brown v. Board of Education: if people from different backgrounds sit next to each other in classrooms they begin to understand their differences and those differences are minimized. In reading how Protestants and Catholics funded by the G.I. Bill sat next to each other in college classrooms after World War II led to the elimination of anti-Catholic sentiments a generation later, I can only wonder what would have happened had the GI Bill encouraged inter-racial attendance to college and inter-racial housing.

And here’s the bottom line for me: individual Americans can believe that they are not racist and they can say they don’t know anyone who is racist… but how can we look at what happened to my parent’s generation and NOT say that the system was NOT racist?

If He is a Man of His Word, Joe Manchin May Save Democracy

June 14, 2021 Leave a comment

Readers of this blog know that I often decry Reagan’s famous campaign quip “”The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help” and the phrase from his inaugural address stating that “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” I find that sentiment abhorrent because it assumes that “the government” is an organization run by faceless bureaucrats whose sole purpose is to usurp power from free-enterprise entrepreneurs who, left to their own devices, would ensure the well-being of citizens. In a totalitarian world “the government” is such an enterprise. But not in our country, which is a representative Democracy. In America, “the government” consists of those elected to public office by those who choose to vote. Those who are elected to office, in turn, pass policies and laws that are implemented and enforced by employees hired by those elected to office. In America, contrary to the implied message of Ronald Reagan and explicit message of Donald Trump, there is no “Deep State Government” forcing individuals to bend to their will. Nor are there “government schools” brainwashing innocent children with “socialist values”.

In our representative Democracy, those who work for “the government” are devoted to serving the public. Over the course of my lifetime working for, with, and on elected boards I don’t recall working for or with anyone who wanted to earn lots of money or impose lots of power. At the local and state level, the elected and appointed officials I worked with all believed they were representing the interests of those who elected them, fulfilling the mission of the organization they served, and doing what they believed was best for the well-being of the voters who put them in office. I did not always agree with their perspectives, but I believed their hearts and minds were aligned.

One of the sad realities of democracy is that it moves very slowly and incrementally. But that slow pace has one benefit: it ultimately results in a consensus that is morally, practically, and fiscally sound. Manchin claims he is attempting to seek by focussing on elements of SB 1 that had bi-partisan support. The “wings” of both parties have become increasingly disdainful of this kind of incrementalism, seeking vast overhauls instead of modest changes… but democracy functions slowly but surely when Manchin’s model of incrementalism is accepted by both parties.

I am not at all certain that those members of the GOP elected to the House and Senate today are at all interested in incrementalism or progress. Their adherence to party dogma and their desire to impose that dogma on everyone overrides their desire to find an acceptable middle ground. Moreover, because their dogma is based on the premise that government is the enemy they are doubly troubled when the government takes action that is widely supported by the voters, for it demonstrates that government CAN provide a helping hand. When the GOP Senate Majority leader pledges to defeat any legislation proposed by the administration or the opposing party bi-partisanship goes out the window.  When a majority of the GOP House members support the lie that 2020 election was “stolen” bipartisanship is even more elusive.

Mr. Manchin and other middle-of-the-road incrementalists are proceeding on the assumption that a bi-partisan agreement can be achieved despite the rhetoric of Mitch McConnell and the intransigence of many House GOP members. If Mr. Manchin is a man of his word and the GOP fails to accept ANY small changes to SB 1 or fails to fund ANY broadly-supported infrastructure with broad-based taxes, I trust that those, like Manchin, who seek bi-artisanship will forge ahead with “small-ball” legislation and make the voters aware of their reasoning. By introducing a succession of bills providing all voters with reasonable access to the polls, funding clearly needed and universally acceptable infrastructure projects, and providing opportunities for further education and training of the workforce, the Democrats could illustrate their intention to improve the well-being of voters and the GOP’s intention to offer no reasonable alternative. In doing that, the Democrats could live up to their name— and save Democracy from dogma.

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