Our Rights Will Not Be Taken Away Shout Voters In The 2012 Election!

November 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Did your state enact new Voter ID laws prior to the 2012 election? If so, yours was one of 19 states that attempted to revise and/or narrow voting rights. However, “many of the attempts at voter exclusion went just too far,” writes Tova Wang in post election analysis on impacts from the ID laws that threatened to disenfranchise people of color, those in low income lifestyles, and voters from older generations.  The drive to suppress voting instead spurred Latinos and people under thirty to vote in greater numbers and motivated African Americans to turn out in force matching 2008 enthusiasm.

The ID laws, discussed in an earlier post, were largely weakened, blocked, and postponed before the election. In the case of Minnesota, 2012 voters overturned voter ID requirements. The Justice Department used section 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1962 to block laws and maneuvers in Texas, Florida, and South Carolina. That effort was successful in stopping changes before the 2012 election but now, in a new threat to voting rights, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to section 5 brought by Shelby county, Alabama.  Section 5 authorizes the Federal Government to require states with a history of discrimination to request clearance from the government before they make changes to their voting laws.

In a May 2012 speech, US Attorney General, Eric Holder, stated that section 5 is a “powerful tool in combating discrimination…”  He noted, “It has consistently enjoyed broad bipartisan support – including in its most recent reauthorization, when President Bush and an overwhelming Congressional majority came together in 2006 to renew the Act’s key provisions – and extend it until 2031.”

However, recognizing this section’s importance to enforcement of voting rights, attacks on section 5  increased as voter ID laws swept the country. Holder states that more suits were filed to challenge section 5 in the past two years than in the past 50! Lower courts have upheld section 5 but early next year the Supreme Court will hear arguments against it. By June 2013 the Supreme Court will decide on this important issue. Their ruling will dramatically impact our nation either by striking down the core of the Voting Rights Act or supporting this law in recognition that it’s as relevant today as it was in ’62.

The Connection Between Transportation Planning And Poverty

May 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the effort to alleviate poverty there are many areas of American society we can change and improve that will bring relief and greater support to the lives of poor and low-income familes. An option seldom considered is to reform the way planners envision transportation.  Where is it  placed? Where are its on/off stops? What does it cost? What restrictions do we attach to ridership?  But we need to do more than embed thoughtfulness and awareness in the transportation planning process we need to end its long history of entanglement with enduring poverty.

From it’s role in disempowering African Americans during the slave economy, when roadways were controlled by plantation owners and impassable and unsafe for most black people,  to “white only” ridership limitations on railways then busses in the early to mid 20th century, transportation limitations and locations have fueled poverty and disempowerment.  Planned site locations and designated on/off stops have historically hurt or not served minority communities from the building of Transcontinental Railways and the Interstate Highway System to today’s Light Rail and Metro bus networks. 

A main goal of transportation has always been to open up and facilitate commercial markets, expand real estate transactions and development and enable the strength of our transportation industries.  Often absent from planning discussions is the positive role transportation could play in the preservation and enablement of low income and poor communities.  One example of a missed transportation opportunity happened in Seattle, Washington with the building of Light Rail. Crosscut, a local web news source, asked why a planned station stop at Graham street, near low income and minority neighborhoods, was not being built. A Sound Transit executive said that the stop “didn’t add ridership…” and would only “serve the convenience of people already there.” You may be scratching your head about that statement as I was. Isn’t the convenience of people the reason for transportation?  But Crosscut saw the real goal. A stop at Graham wouldn’t spur development like other planned stops on Light Rail and that is how transportation fails to serve minority and low income communities. The people who anticipated the Graham stop now have to walk, if they can, significant distance for their transportation. Why are we neglecting the complete value of our transportation systems by stranding people who really need its service in favor of market expansion? Does that really make civic sense?

Programs that could aim to make transportation more accessible for poor and low income families, such as help buying cars, are also lacking at the Federal level.  In fact, A Los Angeles Times feature on the working poor notes that the Federal program, Cash for Clunkers, had the unintended consequence of making it harder to find low cost used cars by taking thousands off the roads.  How many people need cars? A 2006 Maryland Study found that 30% of the state’s low income individuals didn’t have a car and that lower income workers in general were more likely to walk, bike, or take the bus. Bus service is, however, expensive and inconvenient for many low income communities in urban and suburban settings. It is non existent for nearly 40% of all rural populations according to a report from the Community Services Network, “The Stranded Poor…” 

Where it exists good, reasonably inexpensive transportation allows people to get  to schools,  jobs, retail stores, meetings and so forth.  Transportation is needed to attend interviews for human services or to visit doctors. Good transportation also supports a healthy diet because access to grocers and healthy food can be difficult with limited mobility. When transportation planners and executives neglect or intentionally bypass service to low income communities they create personal hardship, cost society more through unemployment and illness, and fuel poverty. It’s time to re-envision transportation planning and make improved mobility for poor and low income families part of project goals.

Criminal Justice and Poverty–The Disturbing Connection

March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Notice the dramatic increase in the 1980’s pictured in this graph from Wikipedia.

It’s alarming and ironic that in America, the land of the free, we have the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth. Overcrowded prisons hold 2.3 million people- a number so big it rivals that of 92 countries in the world! 60% of the prisoners are of a racial or ethnic minority. More than 1/3 are Black.

Why are there so many prisoners?  One reason for these prisoners are mandatory sentencing laws, enacted throughout the 1980’s such as “three strikes” you’re out, which drive people to prison in numbers unlike any other time in our history. America is tougher on crime and defines criminal activity loosely now and unevenly state to state. For example,  80% of increased prison sentences in the 90’s were for non violent possesion of marijuana. Yes, marijuana. In my city, police look the other way for minor possession of this drug but in other states it means prison time. A 2010 Pennsylvania commentary contends that non violent offences there, such as shoplifting, drunk driving, and juvenile crime were being sent to prison more often than they were sent to treatment programs.

How do these sentences relate to poverty? The majority of former prisoners, stripped of voting rights, food stamp access, public housing eligibility and many other basic rights and services, experience a 40% reduction in lifetime wages and constantly fight unemployment. According to a 2010 study by Harvard professor, Bruce Western, only 1 in 4 former prisoners will escape poverty. This in turn has heavy impact on the children in a prisoner’s family and is a cause of generational poverty.

Legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, summed up the impact that “justice” now has on America, on African American people, and on poverty in a January 2012 interview with Democracy Now, “I think we’ve become blind in this country to the ways in which we’ve managed to reinvent a caste-like system here in the United States, one that functions in a manner that is as oppressive, in many respects, as the one that existed in South Africa under apartheid and that existed under Jim Crow here in the United States,” she begins. “Although our rules and laws are now officially colorblind, they operate to discriminate in a grossly disproportionate fashion…millions of poor people, overwhelmingly poor people of color, have been swept into our nation’s prisons and jails, branded criminals and felons, primarily for nonviolent and drug-related crimes…[and] are ushered into a permanent second-class status, where they’re stripped of the many rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement…”  Please consider reading the transcript of Alexander’s 2012 Democracy Now interview. She discusses the problem in greater depth and describes how her life evolved from legal scholar into her role as an advocate.

Justice is blind. Let’s tell her what actions are being taken in her name. Prisons have evolved from institutions built solely to ensure public safety into industries profiting from social injustice. They represent America’s tragedy; wasted lives and minds and failure to address the needs of minorities and poor people.  There is a proper role for correctional imprisonment and rehabilitation of criminals but, today, we also need to rehabilitate our justice system which is dramtically out of balance and no longer solely functioning to protect society. It has become a root cause of generational poverty and a primary reason for higher poverty rates in communities of color.

Poverty, The Global Picture

March 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Miss our posts? Ruurbanpoor took a holiday and researched poverty in urban centers around the world which we’ll be sharing in future blog posts. Knowing the damaging impact in America when poverty increased to 15% of the population it was disturbing to see the even greater numbers of poor in other countries around the world. In sub-Saharan Africa almost 50% of the population are poor–very poor. In South America the average is 33% with countries like Paraguay significantly exceeding that number. Mexico and Central America’s poor average 47% of the population.

With urbanization trending up all around the world in part because of worsening conditions in the countrysides and increasing mechanization which creates less work in agriculturally based economies, slum populations have the potential to rise to 2 billion in coming years. Nearly 1 billion live in slums now. 1 billion out of the 7 billion people in our world today!

UN HABITAT reports encouragement in the State of the World’s Cities report 2010-2011, that several million people moved out of slums in the last decade however overall slum populations are increasing. A slum is an area of land in the city that has been settled by people who don’t own the land. The city views the settlements as illegal for that reason and, in most cases, refuses basic city services such as water, sewage facilities, heat, and, of course, education. Slum populations can exceed 1 million people.

Ending Poverty and Hunger is a United Nations Millenial Development Goal. One would hope it will become a goal in the United States as well. Inequality in America is given special attention in the State of the World’s Cities report. Using a measure of equality called the Gini Coefficient* (0 being a society of financial equality and 1 being a totally unequal society)  the report notes that 40 U.S. cities have coefficients greater than .5 and America has more cities measuring high inequality then any other wealthy country.

The Gini Coefficient is most commonly used to determine a society’s economic fairness.  The most unequal cities in America are: Atlanta, New York City, Washington, D.C., Forth Lauderdale and Miami.

Golden Years Dim For Growing Numbers Of Aging Poor

January 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

If you’re poor or ever have been you know that costs others may take for granted loom and finding aid takes time, patience, and good searching skills. Many places that help require quick action and personal appearances for intake interviews. It’s a challenge for most people but for those with physical limitations, problems with memory or no transportation it’s daunting and aid can go unfound and unclaimed. That’s part of why late 2011 news announcing that 1 in 6 seniors may be poor is so troublesome. How many of those elders aren’t finding advocates who can help? I hate to imagine.

Any senior who faces the hardships of poverty is a tragedy. Old age has many natural hardships and poverty just compounds an already challenging stage of life. Prior to new Census analysis, using the Supplemental Poverty Measure, it was believed that 9% of the senior population lived that tragedy. But the more sophisticated analysis that takes into account things like the cost of medicine found that nearly 16% of our older population are struggling at the poverty line.  

“My health insurance has asked for a raise. I am having $313.00 taken out of my Social Security check now. When you take that away from $900.00 you don’t have much to pay for the rent,” writes a woman in Maryland. “I’m on Social Security disability and I am raising two grandchildren. I don’t have custody of them and I draw no extra money for help. We are living from one pay check to paycheck and still do without,” writes another. They’re two of more than 4,000 elders who contributed their story of economic hardship at One Away in order to help Congress understand financial crisis in old age and the necessity of financial supports.

Struggling seniors are members of America’s invisible community so you may not realize that, in 2010, 3.5 million lived BELOW the poverty line. Feeding America found that even if there was some money to buy food older people often had trouble accessing groceries because of health and transportation problems. Older people also have SNAP (food stamps) cards less often even though they meet eligibility criteria.

Add homelessness to the list of woes in old age. Jobs, houses, and retirement savings lost in the recession are hard to overcome in later years. Though homelessness hasn’t historically been an aging issue The National Alliance to End Homelessness anticipates a 33% rise in aging people without homes between 2010 and 2020 caused by pressures such as: financial collapse, job loss, mental health challenges, discontinued or inadequate public assistance, relationship problems, physical problems and illness or disagreements with family or friends offering shelter.

Streetlife isn’t meant for anyone but it’s especially hard on elders. In San Diego county in 2009 25% of the transitional housing population were 51+ and 28% of the local emergency shelters were over 51.   Homeless advocates view 50 as old in terms of homelessness. Many people living on the street don’t reach 62 and living outside will progress aging significantly.

Life is not getting easier or mellower for a shockingly significant percent of the aging population.You can help by contacting elected officials about saving benefits for older people and protecting Medicare and Social Security which are often the only sources of income and health protection people have. Take good care of parents, grandparents and aging relatives. If your neighbor is aging check in occasionally to see what may be needed. Aging isn’t easy. Aging with worry and financial stress is hard. Your care and support won’t solve poverty but can make someone’s life more tolerable.

Ruurbanpoor Looks Back at 2011

December 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

Google “urban poverty” and you’ll probably get a list of poverty news about other countries. That symbolizes how little we know or talk about poverty in America and how seldom people in poverty narrate their own experience. This blog, launched in 2011, joins other efforts in pushing for new awareness and the civic engagement of people living poor and low income lifestyles.

2011 signalled greater media coverage of movements promoting awareness of economic inequality:

  • Tavis Smiley and Cornel West launched their Poverty Tour broadcasting stories from 19 locations and promoting poverty action.
  • Occupy Wall Street united people across the nation in focusing on broad issues of economic inequality.
  • A revitilized Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign pushed for the creation of Land Trusts and staged a summer march and action plan. Democracy Now covered their work however, unlike the events above, it doesn’t appear that they broke through broadly to mainline media.

2011 produced shocking statistics and sad realities

  • New census analysis revealed the full extent of post recession poverty levels. Income levels dipped to that of the mid nineties and poverty jumped to historic proportions. The New York Times dubbed it a signal of a “Lost Decade.”
  • 1 in 8 Americans experienced hunger and food banks strained to meet needs. 1 in 4 families with children had difficulty getting food and hunger among our elders increased 80% over levels in 2001.
  • 45,000 people died in America in 2011 because they didn’ t have health care. More than 16% live without healthcare insurance now.
  • 1 in every 3 working families lost ground earning only low income wages and pushing them into the houses of relatives, into their cars and onto our streets.

Discussion about how to measure poverty and economic insecurity ramped up in 2011. The Census’ Supplemental Poverty Measure reported 16% of America at the SPM poverty line. That’s more than officially measured. The Supplemental Poverty Measure isn’t official yet and won’t be impacting who receives assistance but the fact that it’s analysis was publically reported this year indicates it may become official at some point and will certainly alter our concept of who and how many live in poverty.

State budget crises impacted a broad range of social services that had been helping people living poor and low income lifestyles. New York Human Services Coalition termed the onslaught of cuts to services during and after the recession “dismantling.”

President Obama put forward three major anti poverty programs: Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods and Byrne Criminal Justice Initiative. Promise Neighborhood funding survived vicious budget negotiations but at much less than Obama allocated. Similarly Choice Neighborhoods was funded but at half the cost allocated by the President.

That’s the major news from 2011. As numbers of poor and low imcome people continue to grow and services to help suffer setbacks this blogger anticipates movements for change will gather greater momentum. Stay tuned for another year of reports from low income, poor and homeless authors on issues affecting their lives.

Ode To Kuma Coffee House by Aaron Crosetto

December 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

A stoneway siren’s song for dusty travellers
It welcomes you
it beckons to broken shards of city bards
of workers hard and busriders sore with fare to settle
gathering, collecting like weathered leaves
with long stories to tell;
it brings up people we forgot about,
or never knew ’til now.
Ruminating over glaze of jam
laughing and lamenting crimes of Uncle Sam,
Swilling earthen bean in a tongue of war
over salty work politic–
all comers take the artist’s brush and knife
and embrace the lust of countryside
where city scapes whisper of old trolls and moldy souls
whose ghosts still linger in our doorways.

Where is a musician’s swarthy soul when you need one?
but at a coffee house.

Dipping into soup pots, a carrot stock bringing fiber
to customer’s spiritual sustenance,
a celery circumstance, a donut hole we not yet know,
a toasted cheese–an exhorted salty sentence to please!
a pearful of ginger in a muffin
to trounce your savory tongue.

Truck drivers, merchants and social workers
cutting each other off to see smoky wafts of rising steam
from the holy brew of Kuma Coffee.
It welcomes you.
It beckons to broken shards of holy bards
in all of us.
Think twice next time you ride nearby on city bus.

Kuma Coffee is located in Seattle http://www.kumacoffee.com/