May 19, 2009

National Poverty News Roundup for 19 May

It is trite to observe that poverty, homelessness, and economic development are complex and multifaceted issues, and perhaps equally trite to claim that issues of such complexity require a wide variety of solutions. But even so, it is sometimes useful to remind ourselves that the world of politics and policy is not the sort of place where any single initiative -- even something as welcome as a new consensus on fuel economy and emissions standards -- is likely to address all of our challenges at once. Washington D.C. provides a good example of the local complexity: the impacts of poverty and unemployment in the city are persistently associated with particular wards and neighborhoods; foreclosures are clustered into particular areas of the city (and are even affecting renters in those areas); and ethnic and socioeconomic divisions persist among the users of the city's different modes of public transportation (and it's not particularly surprising that Metro riders are more affluent, given Metro's basic design as a system for moving people from the suburbs in and out of the city). All of this local diversity suggests that we have to be extremely careful in forecasting how any given policy initiative will impact the daily lives of people in the area.

Localism also seems to be the order of the day in how people are coping with their present difficulties. Whether at a car show in Alaska or in donations from dairy associations in Des Moines or peanut producers in Atlanta, the emphasis on improving the local situation is pronounced. Witness also the Brooklyn Food Conference, a gathering of activists and organizations in the New York borough designed to produce strategies for improving not just how much food is available to the community, including its poorest members, but also and perhaps most importantly the quality of that food: moving away from the paradigm of "fast, cheap, and easy" and towards, perhaps, a more sustainable model of urban farming. Call this double localism: local actors, but also a turn away from the idea that in our contemporary lives we can simply eliminate distance in favor of convenience, especially when it comes to food provision. Of course, one has to be careful, as the rhetoric of localism is easily captured by large corporations, and what is branded as "local" might not necessarily be local . . . but it's striking that even the idea of the local is gaining currency as a way to make products appealing.

Another thing that localities can do is to equip themselves and their citizens to make smarter choices. Massachusetts has approved a calorie-labeling measure, joining California and New York in doing so; will this trend continue to other states? Can the recently-announced nationwide effort to improve public housing -- an effort that must of necessity involve cooperation with local agencies and stakeholders -- learn from a recent New York City Housing Authority project that public housing and architectural innovation can be complementary? Can the process of public planning be streamlined, so that it might be easier to build a train or establish a homeless shelter? Localism is no utopian panacea; it requires effort. Perhaps precisely the kind of effort that recent college graduates, presently flocking to the Washington D.C. area and to other coastal cities in search of jobs, can provide, especially if they -- and you -- take a few minutes to read over Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp's 2009 commencement address and call to "dive in early" when it comes to working on these socioeconomic issues. I might add: dive in early, and dive in locally.

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