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"Comments on CAP Report:,"

by Mtangulizi Sanyika July/August 2007 issue of Poverty & Race

The report’s Executive Summary prescribes solutions that might have some impact on the protracted problem of poverty in the U.S. However, it raises more questions than it provides answers. The report sounds quite similar to other neo-liberal ideas that have been proposed over the years on how to address the problems of poverty within the existing rules and structures. The report implies that poverty can be reduced while maintaining the existing race-class-gender relationships within the political economy. After years of observing the failed policy prescriptions that vacillate between government and market approaches, it is my conclusion that the types of “practical” recommendations in the report are limited as permanent solutions to the protracted problem of decades-old poverty. The issue of poverty elimination is linked to a variety of other social issues requiring a paradigm shift that transforms the social, political and economic relationships in American society. Problems such as globalization, wealth concentration, militarism, the environment, gentrification, health care, etc. are intrinsically linked to the problem of poverty. Poverty is not simply a problem of insufficient income; instead, it is also a problem of “opportunity deprivation” which is structural in nature as evidenced by the decades of systemic racism, sexism and wealth-income inequalities.

For instance, policy proposals to rebuild New Orleans—a low-income, predominantly Black city — must transcend the rhetoric of equitable intent, and instead develop models of a transformed nonracial, urban economic democracy. That is to say, a “new” New Orleans must eliminate all of the prior systemic inequalities based on race, class and gender, or we are simply recreating the “separate and unequal” status quo of the past. It is not enough to argue that 10 or 20 years from now poverty will be reduced by 50%. African Americans and poor people in New Orleans should not have to wait that long, especially the 40% who have lived in disgraceful poverty since the 1960s. As we watched billions of no-bid dollars and incentives flow through the hands of the established white elites, or observed the squandering of millions of taxpayer dollars on a sweetheart deal to mismanage the Road Home program, it is obvious that the rich keep getting richer at the peoples’ expense. Radical solutions are required if poverty is to be eliminated in New Orleans. While I do not object to the proposed recommendations of the report, at best they are only transitional. Thus, I would argue that more systemic interventions are also required to eradicate both income inequality and opportunity deprivation.

The following five strategic approaches might move us closer to democracy by eradicating the race-class-gender inequalities and problems that existed in New Orleans and elsewhere for decades. Katrina simply exposed the magnitude of the problem that exists in all urban communities in the U.S. New Orleans will be a testing ground to develop an urban economic democracy that eliminates poverty.

First, reparations are due to African Americans and others who were exploited for centuries by the forces of government and capital in the building of this country. This is especially true for the resource-limited African Americans whose ancestors provided the free labor that built the agrarian South and laid the groundwork for industrialization of the North. The principle of Reparations is a well-established international legal right that is due to Black Americans and others as well. Reparations could take many forms, including wealth and land transfers, cash payments, Community Development projects that address health care, housing, education, business development and other services that may equalize opportunity.

Secondly, there should be a Victims’ Compensation Fund established for the victims of Katrina, just as there was for the victims of 9/11, to compensate all victims of this disaster that resulted from human error. A legitimate claim can be made that levee failure and government neglect imposed unnecessary harm, loss of life and material belongings, and undue suffering on thousands of people, for which they should be compensated. A starting place might be $250,000 per household.

Thirdly, as the city is rebuilt, there should be specific provisions to enhance wealth-building opportunities for Black and poor people, such as access to homeownership for public housing residents, rental dwellers and Section 8 voucher holders. As the economy expands and diversifies, there should also be opportunities for asset-limited populations to develop partnerships with developers and asset-rich firms, in order to expand opportunity and wealth.

Fourthly, the 75,000 former Orleanian workers in the hospitality industry should be paid a “livable wage” with good benefits and working conditions. This alone would remove significant numbers of Orleanians from the income poverty rolls. A minimum wage will not eliminate poverty for the working poor. Locally-based good jobs and employment training are also required.

Finally, there should be integrated federal, state and municipal policies that require schools to work, health care to be available, housing to remain affordable, public transit to work everywhere, public safety to be accountable, and deep taxation on intergenerational wealth transfers. Youth must be integrated into all aspects of poverty elimination, and illegal drugs and weapons must be eradicated from all communities.

Such a comprehensive approach is the only solution to the decades of systemic inequality and neglect. Transitional policies and programs are useful, but much more radically practical interventions are required to eliminate poverty, rather than to simply alleviate it.

Mtangulizi Sanyika is Project Manager, African American Leadership Project of New Orleans.

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