Saturday, 14 February 2009

Raising the Minimum Wage - a campaign promise that must be fulfilled for our cities to thrive...

The Stimulus Package has been passed in Congress. It is a big step in the long journey to economic recovery. To wrap up my urban renewal and equal opportunities series of posts (for the time being), I want quickly to draw attention to one of the smaller steps we must take, and which is on the President's urban renewal agenda: Minimum wage. The President proposes to raise minimum wage by 2011 to $9.50 an hour and index it to inflation. Again, this is the type of issue that during hard economic times is also hard push, particularly with employers. Some people will say that we just need to get more people into jobs - ensuring livable wages is icing on cake.

But in both the U.S. and the U.K. we can't let social justice aims be buried because of the recession - this would be counter to a commitment to building sustainable economies and communities. Let's hope the President continues to demonstrate a strong federal commitment to urban renewal, and builds on the Lilly Ledbetter Act, by raising the federal minimum wage. Of course, Equal pay legislation and raising the minimum wage must be part of a wider package of reforms that seek to ensure real employment equity. See, for example, Ann M. O'Leary's concerns about the limits of the Lilly Ledbetter Act in closing the gender wage gap. For a clearer understanding of urban poverty and employment, I suggest a read of Polly Toynbee's Hard Work, which gives a portrait of life in London as a working person in poverty. And for a similar portrait in the U.S. check out Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Policing American Cities Fairly - time for some trans-Atlantic urban exchanges?

My initial focus in the urban renewal agenda is equal opportunities. This is an area where UK campaigners sometimes look to the U.S. and think they're doing a better job over there. Now with our first Black President, many people are even more convinced. I'm not going to get into that debate. I will say, though, that the President has set out a robust civil rights agenda. With this post, I quickly want to draw attention to one area where U.S. policy-makers and representatives from urban police forces could do with an exchange with folks from London and other major British cities: racial profiling (known in the UK as 'stop and search'). President Obama co-sponsored federal legislation proposals on this and passed Illinois legislation requiring the Department of Transport to record the race, age, and gender of all drivers stopped for traffic violations so that bias could be detected and addressed. Effective implementation and follow up, where bias is detected, will be important in building confidence among all urban-dwellers that they are being treated fairly and that public services are working for them, rather than against them.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Employers and the Stimulus Package - the word from Chicago

Well, if you saw my previous post, you'll see that I'm interested in what government - at fed and state level - will be doing to ensure that employers are creating fair and inclusive workplaces as part of both the economic recovery and modernization agendas. Yesterday, John Kass from the Chicago Tribune sought to address the same issue. Not endorsing his views, but sharing them with you. In part, because he writes about a proposed provision for the Stimulus Package that's been scrapped. The provision is meant to require all employers to use government provided software to check the immigration status of prospective employees. This is an issue for UK cities and employers (and no doubt, Europe more widely), where the legal requirements on employers were strengthened in 2008. What interests me about Kass' article is that employers and campaigners here in the UK have both raised the issue that employers find it difficult to know an applicant's status. In turn, such difficulties with the system, according to UK campaigners, potentially have a detrimental impact on social justice. Kass worries about businesses undercutting their competitors by hiring cheap, illegal labour. Key social justice issues raised in the UK (and I assume also in the US) are (a) the poor treatment of these workers, and (b) some employers respond to stronger requirements on them to check immigration status by refusing to hire people from certain communities because they don't want to run the risk of falling foul of the law.

In this context, employers and campaigners might (albeit for different reasons) think that the software used in the U.S. is a good thing (and would be beneficial to businesses here in the UK). Regardless, this is definitely a shared policy issue/challenge on both sides of the Atlantic. As for what this agenda means for American and British cities - beyond the issue of software - the backdrop to this issue is increasingly hostile views and attitudes towards migrant workers during a recession, and the knock on effect these can have on inter-community relations in urban areas - where the majority of migrants workers live.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Why modernizing our cities must also mean modernizing the workplace...

The Economic Stimulus Package is national legislation which (even without earmarks) lays the needed foundation for change at state and local levels. With record layoffs taking place, creating sustainable employment is a priority. In his press conference, the President emphasized that a key metric for success of the initiative will be the saving and/or generating of 4 million jobs. The President described his vision of creating jobs through investing in making homes, transport, public spaces etc, more energy efficient. As he did so, I was thinking about the people who will do those jobs and that alongside the commitment to modern - in the form of energy efficiency - we also need an equally strong commitment to modern in the form of fair, equality-based and inclusive workplaces. Our cities depend on it.

However, the workplace equality agenda is a sensitive one in both the U.S. and the U.K. Even during good times, many employers (particularly smaller ones) readily see equal opportunities policies as costly and burdensome. Sometimes the general public sees them as unfair. All the more reason to applaud that the President signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, at the same time that he was having to emphasize to people the seriousness of economic difficulties at hand. Similarly, in the U.K., equal opportunities is also on the political agenda. And UK policy-makers are aware that - as the economy recovers and jobs grow - the goal of getting more people off welfare and into work requires active steps by employers to ensure their workplaces are not unjustly discriminating and are actively inclusive.

While many campaigners over here often look to the U.S. as doing a much better job at fair employment, the truth is we still have much work to do back home. Evidence shows that discrimination in recruitment is prevalent. This matters to urban renewal because our cities are full of talented individuals, who run the risk of being limited in how they can participate in the labor market because of their race, ethnicity, disability, age, parenting responsibilities etc. Although a range of factors contribute to the employment outcomes of an individual, employers have a key role to play by taking steps to dismantle barriers to equal access and by being creative in how they manage their workplaces to enable equal access to labor market participation and progression.

What's more, government needs to do what it can to motivate and support employers to take this action. Yes, for state and federal policy-makers, as well as businesses, the pressures are immense right now and giving attention to ensuring fairness and promoting inclusive cultures in the workplace - at a time of massive layoffs - might seem odd. But if, as Rahm Emmanuel says, this is both crisis and opportunity, once the Recovery Bill is signed, policy-makers should give some attention to ensuring that as businesses start to grow again, they are doing so with a commitment to modernization by being both green and inclusive.

Attention Citizens of Maine and Pennsylvania: Don't Let the Robots Win!

Apparently, anti-Obama forces (I could call them anti-stimulus, but I actually think their concern is more with preventing Obama from winning than with preventing action on the economy) have started a series of rob-calls to citizens in Pennsylvania and Maine in an attempt to pressure the moderate Republicans who support the bill.

So of you are from one of these two states, this might be a good time to call your Senator and tell them how GLAD you are that they are supporting President Obama's efforts to get something done.

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania: (202) 224-4254
Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine: (202) 224-5344
Senator Susan Collins of Maine: (202) 224-2523

While you are on the phone, in addition to expressing their gratitude to the Senators for working with President Obama to help solve this crisis, you might also want to ask them why they felt it was important to remove from the stimulus package billions of dollards in federal aid to beleaugured State budgets. These funds were among the most stimulative of all the provisions in the bill, and would have preventing significant cutbacks in services that will hurt the people of Pennsylvania and Maine.

IMPORTANT: When you call, please make sure to identify yourself as a constituent first of all. Please keep the call polite and constructive - do not rail about how "you Republicans do this or that" - simply express your view in support of the package and politely request a response if appropriate.

Remember, these are the only 3 Republicans in Congress who have so far shown a willingness to work with the President on his agenda -we want to reinforce the idea that their consituents approve of this trend and would like to see more of it.

Urban Renewal - what an expat has to say

Delighted to be a guest blogger for ObamaLondon. I'd like to use this first post to give a bit of background. Born and bred in the north suburbs of Chicago, I'm not a city girl. I've earned my urban dweller badge here in London, where I've been living for 13 years. So, what's my interest in Urban Renewal? It begins with the journey I've had with American cities. Basically, I grew up in fear of them. In the 70s and 80s, Chicago meant Cabrini Green and serious gun crime. New York meant 'Alphabet City' and danger zones to me. Sadly, I was so fearful I didn't really enjoy either city while I lived near them. Then in the mid-90s,I spent time with Operation Push folks in the South Side of Chicago. By then, the crime was far from the levels it had been before. My fear was replaced by dismay: the high-rises with burnt out apartments and broken elevators, the main street that was a couple of liquor shops, a pharmacy and a Western Union. Chicago has changed a lot since then, including with the help of our President during his community organizing days. And there are many positive urban renewal stories to be told across the country.

No longer afraid of them, I now love exploring cities and drawing on their amazing diversity and richness. Cities are often the first port-of-call where dreams of a better life begin and where the majority of wealth is produced. They buzz and excite - one of the reasons I love London. But the reality is that our cities still continue to be home to segregated communities and abject poverty. The President's Urban Policy agenda is large, exciting and needed. As we lay the foundation for economic recovery, we have a challenge - a challenge also high on the agenda here in the UK - to ensure that social mobility in our cities isn't just a dream but a real possibility for all communities. And that's why I want ObamaLondon to include a focus on urban renewal - because to me it epitomizes the American experience and ethos of pursuing one's dream (the same ethos that I reckon brought me here to London). And that's also why I want to kick off by focusing this week on equal opportunities, a high priority agenda for urban policy here and back home....on which I shall say more in my next posting. Meanwhile, if you haven't seen it, here's the link to the Obama-Biden Urban Policy platform.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Helpful Generic "Chill Out" Post for Future Panics

Dear Fellow Obama Supporters - In the interest of efficiency, let's consider this an all-purpose post for not just the current stimulus debate, but all future initiatives where you fear that Obama's Opponents are getting the upper hand. Ahem:

Hey everyone, I understand why you're worried. I know it looks like you see 5 (insert as appropriate: Republicans/ Corporate Lobbyists/ Health Insurance Representatives/ or just Opponents) on cable news for every (insert as appropriate Democrat/ Administration spokesperson/ supporter). I know it seems like the future of the country depends on our winning this important battle. I get it, I care, I'm calling my Congressional Representatives, and so should you! I'm telling my friends and family to get involved and so should you!
But at the same time, let's remember that in this battle we don't really keep score by column inches or amount of time on cable. Get good stuff done for the country = win. Fail to get good stuff done = lose.
Obama doesn't play the media cycle game the way that we are used to. He's not looking to win a shout-fest. So let's not assume just because he's not making the most noise that he's not winning. OK? Our President often doesn't just play by different rules than his opponents, he's often playing a different game altogether. We'll do our part to support him (including making noise where that's useful), but let's try not to spend to much of our useful energy on hang wringing, or to ascribe to the opposition a level of genius, organisation, and power that they simply don't have, OK?
Thanks guys!

Deeep Thoughts...

"Trying to save money on stimulus, is like finding a short cut for your jogging route. We can do it, but it undermines the whole point of the effort."

Absolutely Necessary

Obama speaks about the stimulus during his weekly youtube address, saying:

"Legislation of such magnitude deserves the scrutiny that it's received over the last month, and it will receive more in the days to come. But we can't afford to make perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary. The scale and scope of this plan is right. And the time for action is now."

Call your senator and make sure they are supporting this vital legislation to cope with what looks to be the worst economic crisis since the Depression.