“If by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal", then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal.”
John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage

Poverty in America

Robert Reich Explains the Economy

Tea Party Pubic Service Announcement

January 31, 2010

Are We up to the Obama Challenge? - Is Obama?

In his State of the Union address, president Obama challenged anyone in the Congress with a better plan for health care to come forward, when he said:

“But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Here's what I ask of Congress, though: Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people."

He did not challenge the American people to do so, perhaps because we have already spoken. The majority of Americans have consistently favored a public option for health care insurance. And there is a better plan out there that will provide universal, single-payer coverage. A plan already exists - one that the majority of users are satisfied with – it is called Medicare, and the plan is Medicare for All.

As far back as 1991, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that “If the nation adopted...[a] single-payer system that paid providers at Medicare’s rates, the population that is currently uninsured could be covered without dramatically increasing national spending on health. In fact, all US residents might be covered by health insurance for roughly the current level of spending or even somewhat less, because of savings in administrative costs and lower payment rates for services used by the privately insured.

Then, two years later in 1993, the CBO again found “Under a single payer system with co-payments ...on average, people would have an additional $54 to spend...more specifically, the increase in taxes... would be about $856 per capita...private-sector costs would decrease by $910 per capita. The net cost of achieving universal insurance coverage under this single payer system would be negative.”

Since 1998, nonpartisan studies of health care in at least nine states demonstrated that singe-payer plans would produce savings in the $billions and expand coverage. These states included Massachusetts, Vermont, Maryland, California, Maine, Rhode Island, Missouri, Kansas and Georgia.

In one example, The Kansas Health Policy Authority hired an outside consulting firm to do a fiscal analysis of expanding coverage. They found that single payer would reduce state health spending by $869 million annually, while expanding coverage to all individuals and families currently without insurance.

In spite of all the evidence that supports single payer, and the citizen support for a public plan, the Congress is still unable and unwilling to consider the one option that would truly benefit the most Americans, and bring us in line with all of the other industrialized countries in the world.

Medicare for All would provide the following:

Universal coverage – guaranteed comprehensive coverage for all Americans
Affordability – 95% of people would pay less than they are currently paying
Choice – Patients would still have a choice of hospitals, physicians and providers.
Cost – Annual savings of approximately $400 billion based upon reducing administrative waste, negotiated hospital costs and bulk purchasing of prescription drugs.

Currently there are over 1,300 private insurance companies and a confusing number of federal and state programs. By enrolling in just one program the administrative waste caused by duplication and excessive paperwork will be reduced. Additionally, through one national plan, the risk is spread much more broadly, reducing costs to individual participants.

Medicare costs are expanding exponentially because it is made up of only the most medically needy demographic – the elderly. By enrolling a broader and younger population the costs are spread more broadly among high users and lower users, benefitting everybody through reduced costs.

Isn’t it time we brought some sanity into the health care debate, and actually made decisions based upon facts and not exaggerations and disinformation.

We can change the debate, by following the simple prescriptions laid out by President Obama in his State of the Union Address where he challenged the Congress to offer an alternative to his plan, and even earlier than that at a town hall meeting in March, 2007 when he extolled the crowd by telling them:
“… if you have a thousand people or a couple of thousand people writing letters I promise you that Congressman or woman pays a lot of attention. They really do. Of course, you’ve got to have a thousand or two thousand people writing letters in every Congressional District or at least in a majority of the Congressional Districts in order to actually implement policy.”

Our work is cut out for us. The lobbyists and special interests do not rest. In fact, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision, the health insurance industry now has carte blanche to spend as freely as they like to influence the outcome of legislation, and to support candidates opposed to health care reform while punishing its supporters.

In fact, the only special interest group that has not been heard in this debate is the American people. Isn’t it time we had our say?

Here are some web sites where you can get more information and can take action. Any of these would be a good place to start - just as long as we start

Medicare for All

Physicians for a National Health Program

Health Care Now

Single Payer Action

Labor Campaign for Single Payer Health Care

Single Payer Now

Unnatural Causes

January 30, 2010

Bob Herbert on Howard Zinn

A Radical Treasure

Think of what this country would be like if Howard Zinn and others like him never bothered to fight for what they believed in.


January 26, 2010

New Study Shows Majority of Americans Still Support Health Care Reform

A new study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Health Care Tracking Poll, clearly demonstrates that the majority of Americans still support health care reform despite media coverage and the disinformation campaign being waged against reform. While Scott Brown’s election upset victory was seen as a referendum on health care, in reality it was a referendum on the power of big money to influence elections and obfuscate the issues. This explanation is supported by the results of the January Health Care Tracking Poll, which clearly demonstrates that when people are asked about specific proposals that are contained in the current health care reform legislation they are more supportive than when asked about their support for health care reform, as they understand it. This dichotomy of opinion demonstrates that supporters of reform have not been as effective in getting their message out as those who oppose reform, and that we should not minimize the impact of corporate money in affecting this outcome.

Let’s take a look at the numbers and see how they clearly demonstrate the success of disinformation.

While only 42% favor the current reform legislation, it is important to note that only 41% say they are opposed to it. Not exactly a groundswell or opposition nor support, but the numbers change drastically when respondents were asked specifics about the plan and their support.

The big-ticket item that the opposition keeps stressing is that we cannot afford this reform and that it will add billions of dollars to the federal deficit. However the federal Office of Management and Budget has found that both the Senate and House proposals would actually result in reducing the federal deficit. But this is just another example of “don’t bother me with the facts.” The study found that 60% of respondents believe that health care reform, as it is currently proposed, will increase the federal deficit. This breaks down along party lines, with 83% of Republicans believing this and 43% of Democrats. But among that crucial and growing electoral demographic – the independent or unaffiliated voter – 68% believe that it would add to the deficit. In light of this, it is easier to understand Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. Until now it has been credited to “voter anger.” In reality it is a result of voter response to a carefully crafted disinformation campaign. Massachusetts has 1.5 million registered Democrats, 500,000 registered Republicans, but it also has 2 million people registered as independents. It appears that Republicans and independents were open to Brown’s campaign ads claiming that we cannot afford health care reform because it is too expensive and will add to the deficit.

In spite of this, 54% of those polled believe that “given the serious economic conditions facing the country it is more important to take on health care reform now,” while 39% believe that “we cannot afford to take on health care right now.” So one must ask, why do we consistently vote against our own best interests and in the case of health care our own beliefs? Fear is an important motivator, and Brown and the Republicans have been masterful in both creating that fear and then tapping into it to push their agenda and stop meaningful reform. Further confusing the issue, the study found that 42% of respondents expected the country to be better off if reform is passed and 37% expected us to be worse off. It would seem that people are confused rather than angry. But, rather than addressing this confusion, it appears that the Democrats will be responding to the anger message and once again following the Republican playbook with both eyes wide open, going into defensive mode and allowing the opposition to set the agenda and the terms of the debate.

Other issues that are currently contained in the legislation, receiving solid majorities of support include:
• 73% support tax credit to small businesses
• 67% support heath insurance exchanges
• 60% support extending covering dependents through age 25
• 60% support closing the Medicare “doughnut hole”
• 59% support increased income taxes on the wealthy
• 57% support subsidy assistance to individuals
• 56% would support reform if they knew it would help reduce the deficit
• 56% would support reform if it included provisions to cover at least 31 million currently uninsured
• 53% support taxes on drug and medical device manufacturers
• And, despite the hype and hysteria about a public option, 53% say that they would support reform if it contained this option.

So, it would seem the public is not angry, but rather we are confused. Solid majorities want heath care reform that would include expanded coverage for the uninsured, that would include the much maligned public option and would include increased taxes for the wealthy and drug companies. To understand the impact of awareness of what is actually contained in the proposed legislation and support for this legislation, the researches cross-referenced respondents awareness about components of the legislative efforts with their support for reform. Again, these findings demonstrated that there is much misunderstanding about what the proposed reforms actually are and what their impact will be.

Only 15% of respondents acknowledged that they were aware that the proposed reforms would actually reduce the federal deficit, but 56% stated that they would be more likely to support reform when they were informed of this fact. Only 44% were aware that the now infamous Medicare doughnut hole would be closed, but 60% said they would support legislation that contained that element. Forty-eight per cent of respondents were aware that coverage would be extended to 25 years old, but upon hearing that this as already contained in the legislation, 60% said they could support it.

These are just a few examples of how supporters of health care reform have failed to get their message out, and how effective opponents were at getting out misinformation that turned voter support against reform.

As the Democrats circle the wagons and get ready to retreat even further on health care reform, they should pause a moment and take stock of their primary failure – getting out correct information about the bill. While they are scrambling to regroup in the face of the Republican victory in Massachusetts, the biggest risk is taking away the wrong message from this electoral defeat. Voters are confused and in many cased disappointed. They need a consistent and coherent message and something that they can believe in. These are two things the Democrats have not been able to put forth, leaving the field open to disinformation intended to create voter confusion and anger.

Perhaps the best example of how successful this disinformation campaign was at creating anger based upon confusion was the battle cry heard over the summer of “keep the government out of my Medicare.” Amazing how opponents were able to convince people that the government was not capable of providing quality health programs, even though the majority of Medicare recipients are satisfied with their health coverage. In the most convoluted of reasoning, people believed that if they were happy with Medicare, it could not be a government program - solipsistic thinking at its worst.

Rather than retreat, we need to see an aggressive campaign to inform the public and to put a real public option back into the legislation. Isn’t it time we gave the people what we want and need, not what corporate America would have us believe is good for us?

January 24, 2010

What did the Supreme Court just do to our democracy? | freespeechforpeople.org

We the people can take back our democracy, but we must act NOW!

Follow this link, watch the video, then take action!

What did the Supreme Court just do to our democracy? | freespeechforpeople.org

January 23, 2010

Corporations are People Too

If indeed corporations are people as the supreme court would have us believe, shouldn’t they also be held to the rule of law, pay taxes and fulfill their communitarian role in society. Instead we have American corporations, benefitting from government protectionism and historically low tax rates, that relocate their corporate offices offshore to avoid taxes and build factories in third world countries to avoid US government regulations such as health and safety, minimum wage, right to organize and other basic human rights that we take for granted.

In a well publicized sham a few months ago, the US government embarrassed the Swiss government into revealing US holders of numbered Swiss bank accounts. Well now that corporations are people too, why are we not forcing those US corporations with fancy, and albeit empty offices in the Cayman Islands and other tax free havens to pay their fair share of taxes as American corporations.

Along these lines, the five Supreme Court judges who just gave our democracy away to corporate control, did not even specify in their ruling that a corporation had to be an American corporation to influence US elections. So these former US corporations who have created bogus operations in places like the Cayman Island to avoid paying taxes, now have carte blanche to use the money they save in taxes to influence US elections. But as bad as that may seem, this ruling opens the way for any foreigh corporation to exert undue influence in any US election. So all the billions that we send to countries like China and Saudi Arabia may finally come back to the US – in the form of influence peddling. Of course we all know that is already going on but now it will be legal and above board.

One not too absurd scenario that this could lead too, as far out as it seems, is that Al Qaeda can constitute itself as a legal corporation, using a phony front, like so many illegal operations already do, and use its resources to influence US elections rather than spending their money on guns and bombs. Wouldn’t that be ironic, Al Qaeda wins through legal means following the play book set forth by the US Supreme Court.

If you want to see how this decision can play itself out, we can look at a less phantasmagorical example. In fact we have to look no further than the recent Senate election in Massachusetts. Currently, there is no actual limit on corporate spending in federal elections, only that corporations can’t give directly. So to get around this, corporations have been donating millions to front organizations, without limit, to influence elections. One such recipient of this corporate largesse has been the US Chamber of Commerce. Each year, the Chamber accepts millions from US corporations and places so-called issues ads in races across the country.

In the last weeks of the very short special election in Massachusetts, the US Chamber of Commerce spent $1 million supporting Scott Brown. Before this onslaught of ads funded by corporations through the Chamber, polls showed Brown trailing Martha Coakley by about fifteen points. Once the ads fueled by this largesse hit the airwaves and the web, Brown started gaining in the polls and Coakley’s lead began to shrink. The final vote gave Brown a five-point lead, winning 52% to 47%. Perhaps the most successful intrusion of corporate influence since the now infamous Harry and Louise ads that helped to defeat the Clinton attempt at health care reform.

Is it a coincidence that both Coakleys’ defeat and the Supreme court decision opening the corporate floodgates to infuence elections and legislation occurred in the same week? And is it a coincidence that these two events also happened in the same week that President Obama released his plans to reguate banks? Perhaps the message to Mr. Obama and the public here is that if you try to regulate financial institutions so that they do not cause another financial meltdown, they will have their representatives on the court ensure that they can continue in their profligate ways without regard to the collateral damage caused. Another example f the pernicious influence of unlimited corporate funds. Now your vote is worthless, and don't let anybody suggest differently.

January 21, 2010

Democracy – Sold to the Highest Bidder

Is it mere coincidence that on the same day that Goldman Sachs – rescued by billions in tax dollars - announces $16.2 billion in bonuses, the Supreme Court rules that corporations have the same free speech rights as persons and are not subject to spending limits in political campaigns?

The court split along party lines, the Republican majority voting in favor and the democratic minority opposing. Funny, how the conservative hue and cry about activist judges has not been heard on this ruling. It seems that judges are only accused of being “activist” when they protect the rights of real people.

This ruling will go down, or at least it should, as the day that democracy, or what is left of it, in the US was sold to the highest bidder.

This is like that show on TV, “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” Well, when it comes to the majority on the Roberts court, the answer is NO! Any fifth grader could tell you without much hesitation that a corporation is not a person. If it were it would be able to vote and to hold office. Ooops, maybe I shouldn’t say that so loud, what if Justice Roberts got that idea, who knows where it could lead. Essentially the justices have ruled that money is free speech. Well then again, back to the fifth graders who could tell the justices that if money is free speech then speech is not free.

Ordinary citizens do not have access to the airwaves or to print or web advertising to get their message and opinions across. If corporations can afford to purchase airtime and individuals cannot, then to make this ruling truly just all airtime should be free thereby allowing equal access. But it seems that equal access is another concept that the court does not get, but many fifth graders would understand.

Let’s look at one simple scenario to see how this new ruling could play itself out. Today Goldman Sachs announced the distribution of $1.6 billion in bonuses, averaging approximately $500,000 per employee. If the corporation, in order to exercise its free speech rights on proposed legislation regulating banks and investment firms, decided to hold back just 10% of its bonus awards. That would leave an average bonus of $450,000. Still none to shabby.

Now, the corporation as person, has $1.6 billion dollars to spend to defeat the proposed banking legislation. That could buy an army of lobbyists, hundreds of hours of advertising on TV and reams of print advertising. In addition it could pay for operatives on the ground in every congressional district in the country. That would indeed be the end of any legislation restricting the unsavory and risky practices of financial firms that lead us to the brink of disaster.

In light of this dangerous decision by the Supreme Court, I end with a few relevant quotes from Thomas Jefferson:

The system of banking [is] a blot left in all our Constitutions, which, if not covered, will end in their destruction... I sincerely believe that banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity... is but swindling futurity on a large scale.

I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

This founding father could give Nostradamus a run for his money, it seems that way back in the very beginnings of the 19th century, Jefferson was able to predict the state of affairs at the dawn of the 21st century.

Today the Supreme Court sold our imperfect democracy to the highest bidder, but we the people can and must take it back.

January 19, 2010

The News From Massachusetts

They will probably call it the Massachusetts miracle, the seat that Ted Kennedy held in the senate for 47 years going to a Republican. Not just any Republican, but one who has vowed to stop health care reform! To call that ironic would be an understatement.

While the Democrats scamble to do damage control, and Scott Brown is polishing his truck, the stage will be turned over to the pundits and talking heads who will try to make sense out of this. In the end, Martha Coakley will take the fall for not be a good enough campaigner and taking victory for granted while Scott Brown crawled and clawed his way to victory. That would reduce this election to a mere popularity contest, which it was not.

So I will join in with these pundits and feel free to interpret the results as well. Let me start by saying there should be no mistake about what happened here in Massachusetts. Martha Coakley did not lose this election alone, in fact this was not an election about Martha Coakley versus Scott Brown, this was a referendum on the national Democratic Party and its failure to stand for something.

People are not angry, or disillusioned because the President has not fixed the economy in one year, after it took Bush eight years to wreck it. They are angry because the majority of people wanted to believe that things would be different. That the last presidential election really was about hope and change. Instead we got more of the same. Bailouts of Wall Street, escalation of the war in Afghanistan, a health plan without a public option that was favored by a majority of Americans, no let up in sight in home foreclosures and a Democratic majority that has allowed itself to be stifled by a Republican minority.

Perhaps the voters are tired of being used. Democrats talk of change when running for office, then turn their backs on their base once elected. Maybe this election was about saying “we’re tired and we ain’t gonna take it anymore.” Maybe this should really be seen as a wake up call for Democrats, start acting like Democrats and stop hiding behind the false threat of a filibuster. Everything is not negotiable. There must be certain values and ideals that you stand for.

Martha Coakley had the misfortune of being the first test of voter anger and disappointment, and Scott Brown had the advantage of being able to tap into that reservoir. If this is not to be a sign of things to come, then the Democrats have to start acting like Democrats and do what they were given a mandate to do. Let’s move away from the same old tired politics and people who got us into this economic mess, and give the people what they voted for in 2008 – change and hope.

Barack Obama promised hope and gave hope to millions of voices that had not been heard before, youth and minority youth in particular. It is a dangerous thing to give people hope, and then not deliver on that promise. In the words of Jessie de la Cruz of the United Farmworkers Union as quoted by Studs Terkel “Hope Dies Last.” Once that hope is gone and their belief in the system fades along with it, what hope do any of us have for long-term, systemic change.

If nothing else, the Massachusetts miracle or upset, depending which side of the aisle you are on, should not go unheeded. It is a loud wake up call, let’s hope somebody in the White House and in Congress is listening.

January 9, 2010

Hope Amid Devastation - Success in the face of Neglect

Amid all the devastation that is still New Orleans, the real stories of Katrina are the stories of the people of New Orleans. Those that survived and those that did not. Those that are still scattered like fallen leaves across the United States, separated from family, friends and all that is familiar, without the resources to return home or a home to return to. The stories of those that tried to ride out the storm and those that fled with just the shirts on their backs. And there are the stories of those who tried to rebuild only to find roadblocks every step of the way, whether they be government regulations, loss of required documentation, not knowing about available services until too late or those that fell victim to unscrupulous contractors and government officials.

And there are also the stories of those residents who found a calling in the aftermath of Katrina and have not only vowed to rebuild, but in the process of trying to understand what it means to return home have learned that to build community one must participate in community. I have met and continue to meet many of these people, who have come back, but in the process of returning have become part of something larger than themselves.

One such person that I had the pleasure of meeting was Mack McClendon. A man who grew up in the housing projects of the Lower 9th Ward. After returning to find his home uninhabitable he purchased a vacant and damaged warehouse to begin a business of restoring antique cars. Having obtained the building and preparing to embark on his dream Mack began to understand that what his community needed was a place and a way to recreate community. If people were going to be encouraged to return home, they would need something to return to, and this was more important than attaining his own personal dream. The Lower 9th lacked infrastructure and community services. In a community where there were multiple pubic schools, there was only one charter school. The government, through the federal Road Home program, was purchasing and demolishing homes, creating vast tracts of vacant land. Mack came to the realization that to help recreate this sense of community, the Lower 9th needed a community center more than it needed antique car restoration.

Today, Mack has dedicated himself and his meager financial resources to developing the Lower 9th Ward Village Community Center. All of his energies are devoted to building community and giving people something to return home to. As he described his own personal metamorphosis “we all have a light within us, but that light is not turned on. Then something happens and turns that light on. Once it is on it cannot be turned off. However some people never turn that light on and die without knowing what it is like.” This community center is his light, it is shining bright and it has become his passion. As he says it best, “ I have the least financial resources that I have ever had, but I am now the richest that I have ever been.

According to a March 2009 report by CNN, the Lower 9th was home to 19,000 people before Katrina, but less than 19% of these residents have returned, with a total population now of a mere 3,600 people. The others are scattered throughout the country, plopped down in unfamiliar surroundings by their government, with no means of returning home. Prior to Katrina, the Lower 9th had the one of the highest proportions of black home ownership in the country. Yet, the media has portrayed this once vibrant community as a low income, crime-ridden community that was blighted.

Mack’s story is just one of the many untold stories of people working hard to do what the government should be doing to rebuild these devastated communities.

Another person that I had the pleasure of meeting is Clifford Washington, the Coordinator of Volunteers at the Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NENA), a “resident-based approach to comprehensive rebuilding.” Clifford is a member of a large family with deep roots in the Lower 9th Ward. After Katrina, he and his wife and children were relocated first to Texas and then to North Carolina. They both left jobs in North Carolina to return to New Orleans to be with family. When a student that was with me asked Clifford if he was concerned about returning to a place where a hurricane can do so much damage, he responded by saying that the hurricanes are a part of life here just as the fires or earthquakes are a part of life in California and other natural disasters are part of living in other areas. Then, demonstrating the resilience that I have come to see in so many of the people who have returned, he stated that at least with a hurricane there can be several days warning, which is not possible for people living in earthquake or forest fire areas.

Ending my meetings with each of these extraordinary men, I thanked them for their time, and each said how grateful they were that people, like the Wheelock students, were coming to help and how much it means to the residents and those still hoping to return knowing that people out there care and are still aware of their continuing struggles.

In this installment, I would like to highlight one more person that I had the pleasure of meeting - Steve a volunteer at Camp Hope. Although not really a camp, this former parochial school building is home to up to 300 volunteers from around the country coming to help rebuild. The building that Camp Hope is located in is surrounded by blocks and blocks of vacant land and scattered homes that have been rehabilitated or are waiting to be renovated. These vacant lots are littered with the artifacts of community, setting the stage for one to only imagine the community and the people that inhabited it. The building has been leased from the Archdiocese by the St. Bernard Parish government for a six-year period. Without the homes and the families that once inhabited this community there is no longer a need for a school. Camp Hope is where the twenty-five student volunteers from Wheelock College that I have traveled here with are staying, along with other groups from churches, colleges and families that have come to help.

Steve lost everything to Katrina, his house, his car, his pet and several months after the storm his wife passed away. Although Steve’s home is just a slab of concrete today and he has hopes of rebuilding in the future, he now spends his time helping to make Camp Hope home for hundreds of volunteers who are helping to rebuild the homes of others. In addition to his volunteer work at the camp he is trying to help bring as many people home as possible. The pain that Steve experiences is palpable when he talks about how the government sent people all over the country, sometimes breaking up families, without telling them where they were going and without providing them the means to return home.

These are just thee of the extraordinary people that I have met during my week in New Orleans. The others include the twenty-five Wheelock students who sacrificed a large part of their semester break, paying their own way to come to New Orleans to help people they have never met, doing things like hanging drywall, demolding a house, painting, hanging doors and window sills. These young women did not shy away from the dirty, difficult and challenging tasks they were given, and in doing so learned about issues of race, class, community, civic engagement and how our government could fail so miserably in helping its own citizens. The question that kept coming up for the students and the people working to revitalize the communities so profoundly affected by Katrina was “ if this is America, and these are American citizens and communities, how could this devastation still exist four years later, with so little progress made?

January 6, 2010

Greetings From the Town that America Forgot.

As I spend more time in New Orleans communities that are struggling to come back from Katrina, I learn more and more of the shortness of our collective memories as Americans. Katrina is still happening here, it is not a thing of the past. The continuing impacts of the hurricane are a daily fact of life in New Orleans, unless of course you never step out of the French Quarter, where all is fun, food and music.

As New Orleans inches ever so slowly toward recovery more questions than answers remain. How could the country that created the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II tolerate such wide spread destruction and choose to do so little about it? Why do so many Americans think that just because four years have passed that things are just fine down here? Will the recent court decision finding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers partially at fault for the flooding and the ensuing devastation, mean that homeowners who cannot afford to rebuild will be able to call on the federal government to take responsibility for it role in the flooding?

While these questions remain unanswered, thousands of former New Orleans residents wait in a state of perpetual limbo, unable to return to their homes, or to rebuild on the sites where their homes once stood.

While driving around the affected areas I noticed numerous hand painted signs advertising services that cut tall grass. I had never seen signs for such a service before New Orleans. Finding an explanation for the proliferation of tall grass cutters, I also found another example of how we punish people for falling victim to circumstances beyond their control and then kicking them while they’re down. It seems that it is punishable by a $500 daily fine if you allow your grass to grow over eighteen inches high. But if your house is uninhabitable or no longer exists and all you own is an empty lot, and you have been relocated outside of the area, you are till responsible for keeping your grass trimmed. Clearly a difficult task for someone who has lost everything. So, if you are unable to cut your grass, and you are fined $500 for each day that the grass is taller than eighteen inches, it won’t be long before you cannot afford to pay your outstanding fines. As the penalties pile up, and it becomes less likely that you will be able to pay, the government can step in and seize your property for default on the outstanding fines. You can imagine where this is going. As the government accumulates more and larger tracts of real estate, it can then turn the land over to developers to build new homes that are not affordable to former residents.

The injustice in this should be apparent to the most casual observer, but it goes on. Wouldn’t it make more sense for local government to provide the grass cutting service, rather than being eager to fine people and confiscate property? But this is New Orleans, where contractors have been known to take deposits for rebuilding or repairing homes and then disappear, and where the current Mayor, Ray Ngin, is being investigated for allegedly going on a luxury Hawaiian vacation paid for by a real estate developer.

Just another day in the Big Easy

January 4, 2010

A Message From New Orleans

Greetings from New Orleans where they are experiencing the coldest January weather in more than twelve years. I am down here with a group of Wheelock College students engaged in a service learning project. Twenty-five young women from Wheelock traveled from Boston to New Orleans to spend a week helping to rebuild homes devastated in Hurricane Katrina four years ago. The President of Wheelock has made a ten-year commitment, on the part of the school, to help in the rebuilding of New Orleans. This week’s trip is the seventh trip sponsored by the College.

Now you may be asking yourself, New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina? That was years ago, hasn't that been taken care of? So many of the young people on this trip have gotten that very same reaction. So the simple answer to that question is that not very much has been done in the past four years to rebuild this City devastated by Katrina. Yes there is a lot of rebuilding going on but barely enough to make a dent in the devastation that resulted.

We are working on four houses in St. Bernard and Orleans Parishes, under the guidance of the St. Bernard Project. This organization is dedicated to helping to rebuild St Bernard parish, home to 67,000 people before Katrina left its mark. As a result of the Hurricane all 27,000 homes in the Parish were rendered uninhabitable, when the entire Parish was inundated with up to twenty feet of water for four weeks. Since Katrina, only one-third of the residents have returned, most of whom are living in FEMA trailers or in their attics that were above the high water level.

What were once vibrant communities with schools, stores, playgrounds and modest homes, are now vast tracts of empty land, abandoned or empty homes, gutted shells interspersed with renovated or newly built homes. Driving through these communities, one sees block after block of seemingly vacant lots. However, upon closer inspection you begin to notice that these are not vacant lots, they still contain the remnants of thousands of homes. Slabs of concrete, driveways, stoops, patios – all reveal the sad fact that these were once places where people lived, laughed, loved and raised their families. Now they resemble ghost towns that are ever so slowly being reclaimed.

Progress is slow but steady. Utilizing all volunteer labor, the St. Bernard Project is able to renovate a home and make it habitable for a mere $15,000. Utilizing thousands of volunteers from all over the country, they have completed the renovation of 257 homes. An incredible feat, but a mere drop in the bucket compared to the enormity of the devastation. This volunteer labor is necessary because most residents cannot afford to rebuild their homes because they did not have flood insurance. A couple of years before Katrina, the federal government inspected the levees and decided that they were sufficient o protect this area from flooding and rezoned the Parish out of the flood zone. No longer in a flood zone, it was reasonable to drop flood insurance and save a significant amount of money each year. Having made the decision to redraw the flood zone, the federal government takes no responsibility to help these people rebuild their homes and their lives.

Next door in the Lower Ninth Ward, where we watched people on TV huddling on their roofs waiting to be rescued, the rebuilding is as slow as the rescue efforts were four years ago. Brad Pitt, through his Make It Right Foundation, has been utilizing international teams of architects to design new homes that are green and designed to withstand flooding. Many of these homes are ultramodern and somewhat phantasmagorical, but they do make a statement. However, even with his celebrity and access to resources, the Make It Right Foundation, has a goal of building only 150 new homes.

It is shameful that in the Untied States, we cannot even provide the funds needed to rebuild a city after a natural disaster. A small portion of the annual budgets to wage the wasteful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be used to fund the rebuilding of New Orleans. With a little foresight, we could have rebuilt New Orleans as the first “green city” in the United States. Instead as time goes on and the government amasses large tracts of land that once supported thousands of modest homes, this land will be turned over to developers to build homes that do not serve the needs of the residents that lived here prior to Katrina.

More to come from New Orleans in the next few days. There is more to the story than the devastation of homes, the real impact is in the devastation of communities and the impact on families. And the real story is how the United States has turned its back on its fellow citizens in need. Our brief collective memories must be expanded to stay with a problem until it is finished. Why hasn’t President Obama made the same commitment to the people of New Orleans that the has made to the people of Afghanistan – t stay with the job until it is completed successfully?