Where Do We Go from Here?

y Gus Newport

Following the recent presidential election, many concerned and free-thinking Americans began to wonder, “Where do we go from here?” We soon recovered and recognized that G.W. was inheriting a mess which he himself created. As we wondered how he might get out of this, our initial thoughts were, of course, in reference to the Iraq war. Thinking Americans have long recognized that a war abroad launches a war on us at home. How many remember the dialogue referring to the “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War and immediately prior to the Gulf war? With time to recover, we recognized that the domestic scene is just as abysmal.

Let’s examine the backdrop. In the area of affordable housing, G.W.’s administration cut Section 8 vouchers to a disastrous low level. It has since become apparent that HUD strategists (if there is such a group) have put all of their eggs in homeownership programs; they forgot, however, about the state of the economy and employment, which places homeownership out of reach for the poor, the working class and, in many cases, even the middle class. For example, in recent years the rapid rise in home prices throughout California has forced many local governments to look for new tools to make homeownership affordable. Over the past twenty years, single-family homes in California have been appreciating at an average rate of over 9 percent per year; between 1995 and 2002 they appreciated over 15 percent per year. Over the same twenty years, the median family income in California has risen only an average of 6 percent per year. And the gap between what the average family can afford and what it costs to buy a home just keeps growing. As reported by the California media during the week of November 15, one out of every four Californians was thinking of leaving the state for more affordable areas.

We have learned that poverty is the granddaddy of crime and revolution. Beyond housing, what is the thinking regarding strengthening inner city and poor rural areas so that they might function with dignity and with an entrepreneurial environment that would assure vitality, growth and spirituality, rather than the crime we know is bred by dysfunctional communities? What is the response and approach of the Bush administration? It appears that the policy of this administration is to totally dismantle what remains of the New Deal. With his so-called mandate, G.W. has given the green light to more tax cuts and the privatization of Social Security. This, despite, as economist Paul Krugman describes it in a November 22 Reuters interview, a “chorus of economic thinkers who caution against such measures.” Krugman compares Bush policy to the determinants of the Argentine debt crisis of the 1990s, which ended in Argentina defaulting on an estimated $100 billion in debt. “One little-appreciated thing,” Krugman states, “is that Social Security privatization was an important source of the expansion of that debt. When asked if we look like Argentina, Krugman replied, “A whole lot more than anyone is quite willing to admit at this point. We’ve become a banana republic.” He also raised concerns that Bush’s electoral victory over Kerry “would only reinforce the administration’s unwillingness to listen to dissenting opinions.”

American urban policy unfortunately will, doubtless, continue to be neglected as the administration continues to prioritize rebuilding Iraq while underfunding HUD. And it appears likely that Bush will attempt once again to revive the “faith-based initiative,” despite difficulties faced in launching it four years ago. We all know it is not realistic to think that churches, synagogues and temples could ever carry the lion’s share of human and social service needs. And again, the last time that I looked, the Constitution still mandated separation of church and state.

Let’s face it: The New Deal safety nets have steadily unraveled due to time, wear and tampering, leaving us once again at Depression’s door. Today, in this new millennium, social conditions within the US are again grave—as evidenced by the sheer number of Americans who are unable to access or maintain an acceptable standard of living. The Bush administration is driven strictly by US capitalist industry towards growth and accumulation. There is no sense of using economic theory and social policy as a tool for achieving social health and stability. Krugman may be right in asserting that the only “bright spot” of Bush’s “dangerous” economic policies is that they might finally prompt a “tidal wave” of public protest.

Strategy Sessions for Proactive Alternatives

It may very well be that complete crisis is what it takes to motivate this country to action. I would like to think, however, that at least those of us who are involved in the field of community-building and affordable housing development might be able to put aside turf concerns and convene several strategy sessions to begin to proactively demonstrate a viable alternative. We need to come together to develop a national strategy, based on hard data, real dollar figures and regional analysis to support the kinds of policies and approaches that will truly assist those who have slipped through yesterday’s safety nets.

I recall, at the height of the Newt Gingrich revolution, being part of a working group formed by Joe McNeely of the Development Training Institute and Jim Gibson of the Urban Institute to bring together leaders of successful community-building projects to meet with a diverse body of planners, community-builders, policymakers and foundation representatives. At one meeting of the group, during a break, I showed a pilot of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative video documentary “Holding Ground.” Following this showing we had an animated discussion, and at one point the question was raised: “Gus, how is a Republican administration going to embrace such a project?” My reply was, “This project is stabilizing this community and enhancing its economy and growth potential, and frankly, I don’t care which administration picks it up or gets credit as long as we accomplish something for people in communities.” I stated that, as far as I could determine, neither party had a game plan.

Following this meeting, a woman approached me and introduced herself. She was a former investment banker from Atlanta, Georgia, at the time serving on Gingrich’s policy committee. She agreed that they needed new thoughts and ideas. She asked to borrow my tape and wanted to arrange for me to meet with the committee. Don’t worry, I will never be a Republican, but clearly a successful effort speaks across party lines. The American people can’t wait for a new administration, and of course, the opposition party’s policies do not always hit the mark.

We must reach across all divides and make rebuilding our own country the top priority. I would like to see a timeline for moving to a budget that expresses peaceful approaches, rather than one with war as a bottom line. Remember, we rebuilt Western Europe through the Marshall Plan. Can’t we launch a Millennium Plan which will produce recovery and begin to show the working people of this country that they do count and that they deserve to benefit from the spending of their own tax dollars?

We might begin with an analysis of how many new schools and new units of affordable housing we need to build per year, how many new meaningful jobs we must create per year and how best to structure and increase support for the arts to inspire cultural growth, harmony and the pursuit of tranquility and intellectual development for all. And isn’t it about time that we develop a national health plan that will assure all Americans equal access to health and medicine?

A Millennium Plan might be measured annually with data on the decline of violence, poverty, crime and school dropouts, and the increase in school completion, affordable housing units, personal wealth, equality and democratic participation. It seems like a radical idea in present times to desire that my granddaughter and all children in this country grow up in conditions that enable them to reach their greatest potential. An approach toward developing a well thought-out public policy would be a meaningful beginning. Let us make room for one another to participate.

Gus Newport is the newly appointed executive director of the Institute for Community Economics in Springfield, MA, the national community land trust intermediary organization. He is former mayor of Berkeley, CA and director of Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.

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