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Poverty, Protest and Power from Below

Friday, December 28th, 2012

A friend recently sent me a cartoon depicting two workers in conversation: One says to the other, “Remember when nurses, teachers, municipal workers and poor people crashed the economy and took billions in bonuses and bailouts?” “No”, his buddy responds; “Me neither” nods the first.

If we’ve learnt anything from the economic crisis and Great Recession it’s that big business and their friends in government are brilliantly adept at blaming the victim. And through their control of the corporate media and power to shape and influence public debate, elites have been successful at convincing many of our fellow citizens that public sector workers, unions, and the poor are indeed to blame for the economic mess created by Wall Street and Bay Street, the big banks and high flying financiers.

With cuts to social programs and the assault on unions, ordinary people are being made to pay for a crisis that is not of their making. In the meantime, cor­porations continue to benefit from large tax cuts and sit on piles of cash. The rich escape tax in­creases and park their wealth in offshore accounts while public libraries close, teachers’ wages are frozen, and the poor struggle to put food on the table, avoid eviction, and cope with the daily grind of life on a low income.

Employers have used the crisis to restructure workplaces, increasing in­security for the majority of working people. Keeping workers in fear of being replaced is one method by which bosses maintain a quiescent and com­pliant workforce. Creating precarious jobs—such as temp work that is difficult to unionize under our ar­chaic labour laws—is another. The post-recession jobs recovery has seen pre-recession full-time work replaced with part-time, temporary, and other precarious forms of employment. Quiet workers make for big profits and happy employers.

Governments have used the crisis and resulting budget deficits as an excuse to roll back the hard fought gains of the labour movement. Both Harper and McGuinty have passed or threatened to pass back-to-work legislation to stop workers from exercising their rights to bargain collectively or to go on strike to defend their wages and working conditions. Weakened unions hamper the labour movement’s traditional role as a counterweight to the influence of big business on government.

Workers on welfare or disability have also been under attack. The Ontario government’s poverty re­duction plan has been put on hold. While McGuinty has raised welfare rates, these increases have not even kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris Conservatives levels, the govern­ment would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. In addition, anti-poverty measures such as the Ontario Child Benefit have been cut.

So the next few years, and likely the next decade, look tough for all working class Ontarians, but especially for those already living near or below the poverty line; those who were vulnerable prior to the Great Recession are made even more vulnerable since. Low-income Ontarians are confronting fewer child-care subsidies, extended waiting lists for social housing, and persistent unemployment and underemployment. More people than ever are caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employ­ment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, are derided as “unfriendly to business”.

How then do we make gains in a climate of auster­ity? Confronted with the resources of the rich and pow­erful, how do we mobilize power from below to defend our past victories and fight for social justice?

We should look to history for guidance. In the 1930s and 40s, Canadian workers went on strike for union recognition and better wages and working conditions. In 1943 alone, one in three workers engaged in strike action. Unemployed workers set out to march on Ottawa to demand they be treated with dignity and respect. Those struggles led to the legiti­mization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to ordinary folks.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened in­equality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition government. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that our silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.”

We may not control great riches or other sources of power like the police and the military, but we do have the power to refuse to go along with agendas of the elites. Society’s ability to function requires that stu­dents go to classes, tenants pay their rent, workers do their jobs, and the poor remain quiet and polite. If we decide not to cooperate, not to go to classes, to with­hold our rent, to occupy welfare offices, or withhold our labour, we can exercise power from below. But we can’t do these things without organization. That’s why it’s more important than ever to join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group and collectively defend our past victories and work toward building a better, more just world.

 

Published as “How the Powerless Can Win” in the Fall 2012 edition of the Tough Times community newspaper

Why people on welfare are poor (and why the rich like it that way)

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Who benefits from a miserly welfare system in which social assistance rates are set below the poverty line? Ontario’s Social Assistance Review Commission has heard from hundreds of social assistance recipients and anti-poverty activists and they have all said the same thing: welfare is broken and needs to be fixed. Rates are too low, rules are too punitive, and the system does more to punish than to help the poor. Yet for government and their rich friends, the welfare system is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

Poor relief, as welfare was originally called, was never designed to be a benevolent handout to the poor. From its roots in England’s Poor Laws through to the Harris Conservative’s social assistance reforms of the mid-90s, welfare has operated on the principle of “less eligibility.” The historic 1834 report on Britain’s Poor Laws, issued at the behest of King William IV, stated: “The first and most essential of all conditions, a principle which we find universally ad mitted, even by those whose practice is at variance with it, is, that his (the relief recipient’s) situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible (i.e., desirable) as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class.”

Over 150 years later, the logic remains: The recipient of social assistance should never be better off than the lowest paid wage worker in the labour market. This is exactly what Mike Harris had in mind when his government introduced workfare and cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent, and why the McGuinty government has done so little to reverse these changes. Since the early 1990s, Ontario’s labour market has been characterized by the growth and persistence of low wage and insecure jobs, or “precarious employment.” One in six workers in the province is making a poverty wage. Whether employed part-time in the fast-food industry or working as a security guard through a temp agency, the growing ranks of the working poor live in a world of labour market insecurity. Many workers cycle between low-wage employment and periods on social assistance, as they don’t often have the hours required to qualify for employment insurance.

Business needs these workers to maintain the low-wage-big-profits model of the “Wal-Mart economy” in which the rich get richer and the poor get dead end jobs. And governments across the country are in no mood to provide decent jobs through an expansion of public sector employment, or reverse the deregulation of labour markets that they’ve so vigorously pursued. With these shifting trends in employment, welfare functions to ensure a cheap and flexible workforce to populate the lower reaches of the province’s labour market. To paraphrase University of British Columbia professor Jamie Peck, welfare today is not about creating jobs for people who don’t have them but about creating workers for jobs nobody wants.

Miserly benefit levels, restrictive eligibility criteria and the ritualized stigmatization of those who must navigate the administrative maze that is welfare, are all in keeping with the government’s desire to ensure a job at any wage, under any conditions, remains prefer able to the receipt of social assistance. The province’s tooth-and-nail fight to keep social assistance recipients from having greater access to the special diet program (which they may do away with altogether) is only the latest manifestation of maintaining the principle of less eligibility.

So the rich benefit from a system that pushes the poor into low-wage jobs. Low wages mean bigger profits for those who own and control the majority of wealth. And employed workers who see the treatment doled out to those on social assistance think twice about leaving a bad job for welfare. So what are poor people and their allies to do when faced with a welfare system designed to do more damage than good? Well, the first thing we can do is join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group (PPAG) and fight like hell to better the system and our lives. Our collective strength is greater than that of any one individual. Second, we need to work with our partners in the labour movement to ensure that all jobs are good jobs with living wages. Together we can ensure that both the welfare system and the labour market provide economic security and dignity. Only then will we have a system that benefits the rest of us and not the rich.

 

Published in Tough Times Summer 2012

 

Occupy Wall Street!

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Here’s my latest Politics As Usual blogpost for POUND. More on Occupy Wall Street to come…

I doubted them; I really did. After so muted a reaction to the housing foreclosures, Wall Street’s robbery of the public purse, the disappointment of a Yes We Can President consistently uttering No We Can’t, the record number of their fellow citizens falling into poverty, the hunger, the unemployment, the homelessness, the Tea Party, the bullshit media…I didn’t think our American brothers and sisters had it in them to mount a mass protest movement which calls out the injustice being foisted on them by the rich and powerful, that names names, that challenges the oligarchs, and demands a better world…but they have. Single mums, trade unionists, college students, the unemployed, Vietnam vets, Democrats, socialists, anarchists, liberals…they have taken a downtown Manhattan park and made it their Tahrir, their Liberation Square. Could the Arab Spring be followed by an American Autumn?

With Occupy Wall Street in its third week, and showing no signs of abating (even after pepper spray and 700 arrests), the movement has begun to spread. ‘Occupy (name of American city here)’ are popping up all over the US. And now we can look forward to October 15th when Occupy Toronto makes its debut. I’ll be there; will you?

The mainstream media has done such a piss poor job of covering this movement but at the least The Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter got things somewhat right with this piece. Check the link here.

Welfare isn’t broken, so it won’t be fixed

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

On Thursday, provincial Finance Minister Dwight Duncan will deliver the government of Ontario’s budget for 2010. As reported in last Wednesday’s Star, Duncan is set to announce investments in post-secondary education as part of the province’s Open Ontario plan and has pledged not to embark on a reckless deficit reduction program that would threaten jobs, services, and Ontario’s economic recovery.

It is also widely expected Duncan will announce action on the province’s social assistance programs, Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). And while anti-poverty advocates have long demanded major improvements to these programs, they shouldn’t hold their breath.

In pre-budget consultations, as they do year after year, advocates for the poor – and often the poor themselves – have claimed that Ontario’s welfare system is broken and needs to be fixed. And in many ways, they are right. With welfare rates at inadequately low levels, each month thousands of poor Ontarians must choose between paying the rent and feeding the kids. They turn to food banks to supplement their monthly cheques. They forego the everyday essentials many of us take for granted – things such as basic toiletries, haircuts and some of the creature comforts that make our stressful lives a little more bearable. Ontario’s poor endure the daily grind of poverty and they do so, remarkably, with their sanity and dignity intact. Given this context, fixing welfare means raising the rates and ensuring poor Ontarians maintain a decent standard of living.

That welfare is broken is not just the cry of anti-poverty advocates and “radical” activists; groups like the multi-sector Toronto City Summit Alliance and economists such as the TD Bank’s Don Drummond have called for a much needed modernization of the province’s income security policies. It is this widespread recognition that something must be done about poverty in Ontario, and the social policies which are meant to address it, that led the McGuinty government to adopt Breaking the Cycle, the province’s poverty reduction strategy which aims to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent over five years.

So why is the government unlikely to overhaul social assistance any time soon, if ever, despite its apparent commitment to an anti-poverty agenda? Sure, minor adjustments may well be made: for instance, currently an able-bodied unemployed person who has exhausted their employment insurance benefits must be destitute (i.e. with little savings) before becoming eligible for social assistance. Calls to exempt the first $5,000 of a welfare applicant’s savings, as they do in Alberta, may be heeded by the McGuinty Liberals. But despite these potential changes, welfare on the whole will not be fixed, chiefly because from the perspective of government and the business community, welfare is not broken.

To understand why is to understand the function of welfare. Poor relief, as welfare was once commonly called, was never designed to be a benevolent handout to the poor. From its roots in England’s Poor Laws through to the punitive social assistance reforms of the mid-1990s, welfare policy has operated on the principle of “less eligibility.” The historic 1834 report on Britain’s Poor Laws, issued at the behest of King William IV, stated: “The first and most essential of all conditions, a principle which we find universally admitted, even by those whose practice is at variance with it, is, that his (the relief recipient’s) situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible (i.e., desirable) as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class.” Over 150 years later, the logic remains: The recipient of social assistance should never be better off than the lowest paid wage worker in the labour market. This is exactly what Mike Harris had in mind when his government introduced workfare and cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent, and why the McGuinty government has done so little to reverse these changes.

Since the early 1990s, the Ontario labour market has been characterized by the growth and persistence of low-wage, insecure jobs or “precarious employment.” One in six workers in the province is making a poverty wage. Whether employed part-time in the fast-food industry or working security through a temp agency, the growing ranks of the working poor live in a world of labour market insecurity. Many workers cycle between low-wage employment and periods on social assistance, as they often don’t have the required hours to qualify for employment insurance. These workers are disproportionately racialized minorities, women, youth and recent immigrants. Business needs these workers to maintain the low-wage-big profits model of the “Wal-Mart economy” and governments across the country are in no mood to provide decent jobs through an expansion of public sector employment or reverse the deregulation of labour markets they’ve so vigorously pursued.

With these shifting trends in employment, welfare functions to ensure a cheap and flexible workforce to populate the lower reaches of the province’s labour market. To paraphrase University of British Columbia professor Jamie Peck, welfare today is not about creating jobs for people who don’t have them but about creating workers for jobs nobody wants.

Miserly benefit levels, restrictive eligibility criteria and the ritualized stigmatization of those who navigate the administrative maze of welfare, are all in keeping with the government’s desire to ensure a job at any wage, under any conditions, remains preferable to the receipt of social assistance. The province’s tooth-and-nail fight to keep social assistance recipients from having greater access to the special diet program (which they may do away with altogether) is only the latest manifestation of maintaining the principle of less eligibility.

So while anti-poverty advocates are right to claim that welfare is broken, in the eyes of the province and the business community, welfare is working just fine.

 

Published in The Toronto Star, March 24th 2010

Not a Dismal Scientist: A Review of Jim Stanford’s Economics For Everyone

Friday, September 11th, 2009

On the cover of Jim Stanford’s book Economics For Everyone there is a blurb by Naomi Klein that reads, “Stanford is that rare breed: the teacher who changed your life. He has written a book — both pragmatic and idealistic — with the power to change the world.” Anyone who scoffs at Klein’s description is not familiar with the work of Jim Stanford. For Stanford is anything but a dismal scientist: in his economic writing he makes clear complex concepts and processes, cuts through the ideology of the ruling class and their servants in the economics profession, and empowers the everyday people upon whose labour our economy rests. And he does this mercurially through a variety of mediums, whether in his column for The Globe and Mail, appearing on CBC television and radio, or in his work for the Canadian Auto Workers union. He’s Canada’s answer to American public intellectuals such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz — only more radical — and indeed our most formidable political economist since John Kenneth Galbraith migrated south so many years ago.

It’s only fitting then that Stanford would undertake the sorely needed task of writing a popular introduction to modern capitalism. Such books face a dilemma: do they provide a thorough but lengthy guide to the subject or risk dumbing down the material in the cause of accessibility? To his credit, Stanford has written an accessible but methodical introduction to the economics of capitalism which explicates the subject from the ground up, beginning with a discussion of the basics (work, tools, and profit) to the complexity of globalization, financial markets, and the causes behind the peaks and troughs of our volatile economic system. The book’s conclusion, A Dozen Big Things To Remember About Economics, is an excellent capstone which lays bare the absurdity of neoclassical economics. The witty illustrations of Tony Biddle that accompany Stanford’s text make the most serious and demanding subject matter a little more bearable.

Socialists might be somewhat disappointed with the space that Stanford devotes to a discussion of alternatives, but the absence of a blueprint for a democratically controlled socialist economy is less a comment on the author than it is on the current impasse of socialist politics and thought. With the current economic crisis, the book may be in need of a second edition. While the imbalance between the real productive economy and the speculative paper economy that has been a theme of Stanford’s work for years gets decent treatment, Economics For Everyone was published just prior to the global meltdown of the capitalist economy. However, a great addition to the book is the accompanying website (www.economicsforeveryone.ca) which contains lesson plans for educators, including a sample course outline, lecture slides, and a comprehensive glossary of terms. While the lesson plan section of the site is not complete, it is due to be finished in the near future.

All in all, Economics For Everyone is an invaluable book and a necessary addition to the library of popular educators, trade unionists, activists, or any person trying to make sense of the conundrum that is modern capitalism. And as Stanford makes clear, the first step to transforming the system is knowing how it works and for whom. To this end, Economics For Everyone has made a vital contribution.

Published in Canadian Dimension Volume 43, Number 5 Sept/Oct 2009

Neoliberalism’s Legacy: A Gaping Hole in Canada’s Social Safety Net

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

There’s a hole in Canada’s social safety net and the evidence is all around us: from the homeless on our streets to the growing number of our fellow citizens who rely on food banks for their daily sustenance. The hole was made by successive governments whose mantra of paying down the debt and controlling inflation at any and all costs has put our country in a precarious position as we slide further into economic despair.

It didn’t have to be this way. The Great Depression highlighted the need for a stronger social safety net. In the post-war years, countries in the industrialized world set about building a welfare state and implementing a regime of social citizenship. The idea of social citizenship and the social rights it entailed, as British sociologist T.H. Marshall so eloquently theorized, was necessary for the fulfillment of civil and political rights. For Marshall, without a guarantee of the basic necessities of life and protection against the vicissitudes of the market, civil and political rights could not be exercised to their fullest extent and citizenship thus remained incomplete. Post-war legislation, from public pensions and social housing, minimum wages to welfare, guaranteed citizens the right to retire in a state of dignity, the right to shelter, and the right to work at a decent wage and have access to material support from the state when unemployed.

There have always been exclusions and silences in Canada’s regime of social rights. Aboriginal people, immigrants, and other racialized groups could not enjoy the benefits of social citizenship to the same extent as others. And prior to the struggles waged by the feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s, women primarily had access to the social wage through their male-breadwinner husband.

But despite these limitations, social citizenship was widely recognized by states and citizenry alike as a legitimate and worthwhile ideal. As the economic clouds of the 1970s formed and governments turned their attention to fighting inflation, social citizenship lost favour among ruling elites. In the era of neoliberalism, where governments are concerned with rolling back the state and allowing the market to work its “magic” for the well being of “all”, social rights fell victim to successive cutbacks in government expenditure and an ideology of individualism. Social policy became synonymous with, and subsumed under, employment policy: The goal of government was not to provide protection from the vagaries of the market, but to put people to work so they could protect themselves. The social safety net became a trampoline, bouncing those who had fallen on hard times and had become reliant on government support back into jobs, no matter what their wages or working conditions.

The impact has been devastating. Not only do we see rising inequality and poverty, the growth of the working poor and the homeless, but the economy’s ability to recover from economic downturns has been severely hampered by the withering away of what economists call the automatic stabilizer. Typically, as the economy enters a downturn, government tax receipts fall, expenditures on income supports rise (as more people are laid off) and the government likely runs a deficit (assuming it make no cuts in expenditures). The automatic stabilizer refers to that increase in government expenditure on income supports (such as welfare and EI) that occurs in an economic downturn and thereby props up aggregate demand (people’s ability and willingness to buy goods and services) and in theory, eases out the recession. Yet the automatic stabilizer loses its impact as the government dismantles the welfare state and undermines social citizenship.

Take the case of Employment Insurance. What was once a right has become a luxury for the few, as millions of workers facing unemployment during this crisis will not be able to access EI and instead must rely on that program of last resort, welfare or social assistance, which has been severely undermined by cutbacks and downloading. Currently, only 54 per cent of the unemployed are eligible for EI benefits with 41 per cent actually receiving them. In an effort to make our labour market conform to the neoliberal mantra of “flexibility” and “competitiveness”, these reforms can have the perverse impact of drawing out recessions over a longer period of time.

As the economic crisis has so devastatingly demonstrated, neoliberalism as a financial model has failed. Deregulation of financial markets and a skewed distribution of the economic surplus has created a series of speculative bubbles, from dot-com to real estate, that have done little to promote sustainable economic growth and have left markets floundering in their wake. As a social model, neoliberalism cut a hole in the post-war safety net, weakening the welfare state and the social protections and regime of citizenship it entailed. Living through boom times, although evidence of this hole was apparent amongst society’s most marginalized, buoyant markets and consumer credit meant less people fell back on the safety net. For many, the size of the hole was masked. The markets are no longer buoyant and consumer credit is drying up. As the economy plunges into a deep recession and unemployment grows, if government’s at all levels don’t act, we are about to see how big that hole really is.

Published on www.rabble.ca, Feb 10 2009

The Economic Crisis is an Urban Crisis

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Marcus is my neighbour in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, New York. In past decades, Bed-Stuy, as it’s known to New Yorkers, became a symbol of urban decline. Drug dealing was brazenly out in the open and shootouts between rival gangs over territory were common throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Marcus was involved in what he calls “the street-corner economy”. Imprisoned for a few years, he recently returned to Bed-Stuy looking for work. Yet many of New York’s inner-city neighbourhoods have experienced unemployment rates hovering around 20%, double that of the city’s overall rate, and even in times of strong economic growth. Now as the economy slips into recession, work is even harder to come by. “I never got jobs, ‘cause employers would look at my criminal record,” Marcus tells me, “but now, there just isn’t anybody hiring”. He has found some work guarding a boarded up house for a local property developer and is paid $3 an hour under-the-table. Without much of a social safety net to cushion the impact of poverty and joblessness, Marcus is again looking to “alternative survival methods” to get by.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was praised for New York’s falling crime rates during his administration’s tenure of 1994 to 2001. Yet the factors combining to ‘clean-up’ New York included a recovering economy in the mid to late 90s, bouncing back from the crushing recession experienced in the earlier half of that decade, paired with a particular neo-conservative approach to social inequality. Bed-Stuy is spotted with what criminal justice experts have come to call “million-dollar blocks”. These blocks get there name from the fact that so many of their residents have been sent to state prison that the total cost of their annual incarceration exceeds $1 million. “Million-dollar blocks” are concentrated in the poorest neighbourhoods of the city and given the racialization of poverty in North American urban centers, such neighbourhoods are predominantly African-American and Latino. As Giuliani slashed welfare rates, cut access to affordable housing, and pumped up police budgets, his strategy for dealing with poverty and the poor was punitive.

All this should lead policy-makers to some sobering analysis of the current economic crisis and its implications for cities such as Toronto. The economic crisis is an urban crisis and governments at all levels with have a choice of directions to take for dealing with the social fallout that the crisis entails. The Giuliani approach is one direction. Those concerned with social justice, must establish an alternative program.

The United Nations has weighed-in on the issue in an important report released November 4th, largely ignored by the media with the U.S. presidential election dominating public discourse. The report, entitled State of the World’s cities 2008-2009: Harmonious Cities was issued by the UN’s urban affairs agency, UN-Habitat. In sum, the report stated that we live in a historic moment with the number of people living in urban areas for the first time in human history exceeding those dwelling in the country-side; in this, the fate of cities and the fate of humanity are increasingly intertwined. But the report also made some disturbing conclusions for North American cities. It highlighted the racialized inequality in Canadian and American urban centers and noted, “High levels of inequality can lead to negative social, economic and political consequences that have a destabilising effect on societies…[They] create social and political fractures that can develop into social unrest and insecurity.” Summarizing the report’s findings, the head of UN-Habitat had this to say, “It is clear that social tension comes from inequality. The trickledown theory [that wealth starts with the rich] has not delivered. Inequality is not good for anybody.”

The report reinforced decades of urban research. Ten years ago American’s most recognized expert on urban inequality, and one-time advisor to Bill Clinton, Harvard professor William Julius Wilson concluded in his book When Work Disappears: The World of the Urban Poor, “Crime, family dissolution, welfare, and low levels of social organization are fundamentally the consequence of the disappearance of work”; countering conservative claims that the so-called pathologies of the poor were the cause of poverty, not the consequences of it. Wilson called for a public works program similar to that launched during the Great Depression and other policy measures to reduce urban inequality. As we enter an economic downturn which may last for some years, the conclusions of experts such as Wilson and UN-Habitat deserve some reflection.

The current crisis could have been avoided. It’s not simply “subprime mortgages” or “debt-swaps” at the heart of this financial mess; it’s an economic model, that of neoliberalism and its ‘trickle-down’ assumptions. As real wages have been relatively stagnant for workers since the 1970s and productivity increasing, big business has recorded record profits. While workers have been left to maintain their standard of living by taking on more household debt, much of these record profits have been pumped into the ‘paper’ economy of casino capitalism where the world’s financiers, hedge fund operators and mutual fund magicians have looked to create new wealth by speculating on a range of financial assets. This has led to a series of speculative bubbles, from dot-com to real estate, of which the latest crisis is merely the most recent manifestation of a reoccurring phenomenon under neoliberalism. This wealth could have been redistributed to working people who spend money in the ‘real’ economy of goods and services and thus fuel economic growth, or to governments who could engage in the massive projects necessary to rebuild crumbling urban infrastructures and bring our cities into the 21st century.

Alas, this did not happen. Government surpluses were largely squandered on corporate tax cuts. In this context, the so-called New Deal for cities takes on new meaning. The New Deal crafted by U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, under intense pressure from the labour movement, saved the economic system from the ravages of the worst crisis it had experienced. That New Deal entailed a redistribution of wealth to working people, massive investment in the public sector, and guaranteed the rights of workers to organize for a share of the economic surplus. Cities became central to the New Deal, undergoing modernization and renewal, and thus stabilizing capitalism through urbanization. Today, the needs of cities and those who toil in them must be pivotal in the reconstruction of our economy along more just and egalitarian lines. As the UN report makes clear, the consequences of ignoring urban inequality are devastating. And the Giuliani approach doesn’t equal less government spending, just spending on police and prisons, not social programs and affordable housing.

As for the average family that works more hours for less pay, accumulates record amounts of household debt, and sees public services decline for lack of investment, the periodization of this economic crisis to the last year is a bit of an insult. When I asked Marcus’ neighbour June, a New York City transit worker facing layoffs, what she thinks of these economic times, she replied, “We’ve been in crisis for some time now; I don’t know where y’all have been.”

Published on www.rabble.ca , Nov 2008