Nation Under a Microscope: Pain & Hope at the Local Level
By Antionetta Kelly, UFE Intern via the Hampshire College Civil Liberties and Public Policy program
Working as an intern at United for a Fair Economy (UFE) has helped me realize that taxes, economic policy and government play vital roles in improving our communities. UFE warns against and strives to dilute concentrated wealth and power. They work on a national scale to promote progressive economic policies that can enable all levels of government to invest in the common good, and support a grassroots economic justice movement that can bring those policies to fruition.
When we zoom in to see what's happening at the local level, in too many areas we're finding that community development remains stagnant, including in our own, Boston. Here, local decision-makers continue to place the interests of monied special interests above the needs of most residents – especially those in underdeveloped neighborhoods. Here's a snapshot of what we've been dealing with:
In 2009 – despite revenue growth in several tax categories – local officials contended that Boston was in an economic crisis, yet responded with tax breaks for large corporations and threats to lay off hundreds of teachers, public safety and other city workers.
Even more disheartening, the city has forfeited opportunities to generate significant revenue through property sales. Last year, the City of Boston sold twenty-five lots at far less than their assessed values. In one instance, a property assessed at $99,400 (currently at $114,400), was sold to a city employee for only $5,000! And, in spite of this period of austerity, our local officials have approved hefty tax breaks for corporations, relinquishing tens of millions of dollars in corporate tax revenue.
Meanwhile, our communities continue to deal with unacceptable high school drop-out rates, municipal unemployment of 8.2%, and too many neighborhoods reeling from the effects of concentrated foreclosures. In spite of that, our local officials have asked us to make sacrifices regarding public services like libraries and schools because of insufficient funding. Just before his 2009 re-election campaign Mayor Thomas Menino asserted that there wasn’t enough money to fund teaching, public safety and community outreach jobs, and when union workers in these areas refused to accept his proposed wage freezes, he threatened them with hundreds of layoffs and building shutdowns. More recently, there have been proposals to close several library branches, and claims that funding isn't available to provide enough summer jobs for local teens.
Our local government could do more to extend employment opportunities to marginalized communities, or at the very least, enforce the policies that are designed to support those efforts, like the Boston Residents Jobs Policy (BRJP). The BRJP mandates that developers hire 50 percent Boston residents, 25 percent people of color and 10 percent women; however, those quotas have been consistently brushed aside.
These types of policy decisions – ones that prioritize special interests over the residential majority – undermine our city's economic well being. The social consequences can be extremely severe – increased unemployment, wider-spread foreclosures, diminished public safety, escalating crime and violence, increased community health risks, a widening racial divide, and ultimately, the creation of economic deserts. And, the longer the causes go unaddressed, the more difficult it will be to reverse the cycles of poverty.
Boston's current socioeconomic situation isn't unique. Budget deficits are an epidemic, affecting communities in every part of the US. But, there is so much our governments -- local, state and federal -- could do to alleviate the pains millions of Americans are experiencing as a result of this recession. We can no longer allow corruption or cowardice to steer our economy in the wrong direction. It's up to us and our communities to make that change.
As Justice Louis Brandeis once suggested, state legislatures are our nation's "laboratories for democracy." Well, local governments are our nation's vanguards. Both the innovations and the power of a democratic system come from the ground up, and progressive social change will only come about when communities rise up against injustice.