Pablo Eisenberg Senior Fellow Georgetown Public Policy Institute March 4, 2011
President Obama’s capitulation on tax cuts for the very wealthy and his proposed cuts in anti-poverty programs combined with the reluctance of progressive nonprofits to fight for their disadvantaged constituencies have placed low income and working class people in an increasingly tenuous position.
President Obama gave a moving speech in Tuscon, Arizona, preaching the need for reconciliation, after a deranged individual, using a semi-automatic weapon, killed six people and wounded thirteen others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
Yet a few weeks after his speech, the president delivered his state of the union address without mentioning problems of gun violence that disproportionately affect low income and minority neighborhoods. Nor did he recommend a renewal of the ban on assault weapons, a promise he made during this campaign in 2008.
Recently the Obama administration started retreating on its environmental regulations affecting smog and toxic emissions from industrial boilers months. Nor has EPA yet declared coal ash a toxic substance, subject to tough regulations. These actions go against his campaign pledges to implement tougher environmental standards.
Shortly before his state-of-the-union address, the president paid tribute to R. Sargent Shriver, the founder of the Peace Corps and the Johnson-era anti poverty programs, and Michelle Obama, the first lady, attended Shriver’s funeral. Nevertheless, in his speech to the Congress, he cited only one program he was planning to cut… the anti-poverty community action programs started by Shriver.
Is there no limit to the president’s broken promises?
The president’s unwillingness to support and strengthen programs aimed at assisting poor and working class people in a time of recession is particularly perverse, especially after his campaign rhetoric to address social and economic justice issues.
Throughout the country, millions of people are without jobs, are going hungry, have lost their homes, are without adequate health care and cannot receive the social services they desperately need. Low income black, Latino and rural white residents have been especially hard hit. The administration’s capitulation without a fight on tax breaks, including estate taxes, for wealthy Americans has eliminated an important revenue source that could have funded much greater assistance to those in need. So has the administration’s refusal to push hard on ending tax subsidies for sugar growers, ethanol manufacturers, large corporate farms and other major industries.
Yet the president’s proposed budget for next fiscal year not only recommends a severe cut in Community Service Block Grants (community action programs that support thousands of nonprofit organizations) but also reductions in home energy assistance projects for low income people and Community Development Block Grants, the major source of local and state money for housing and community improvement programs. Other programs such as funds for public housing and Head Start are also on the chopping block. And he has already said he will freeze all federal programs for five years, with the result that other programs targeted to the most needy will also be reduced.
By comparison, American financial institutions, which were in large measure the cause of our economic recession, are riding high. Only Bernie Madoff, who was tangential to our economic downturn, has gone to jail. Not one of the CEO’s responsible for our financial collapse is facing jail time; indeed many continue to receive their extravagant salaries and bonuses. And American businesses are sitting on $2 trillion in cash that they are unwilling to spend on jobs and capital investments. Why is corporate America not being called to account by the administration? Why aren’t they being forced to pay their fair share of tax revenues? Those conservative Republicans who are concerned about the president’s so-called socialist tendencies should be assured that they have nothing to worry about.
Who are the White House staff who are advising the President on issues that matter to poor and working class people? Few seem sympathetic to grassroots constituencies or local communities that are struggling with life and death issues. Those advisers that have any familiarity with nonprofit organizations — and there are few — appear entirely devoted to social entrepreneurship organizations that do little or nothing to address serious social and economic justice problems. While real anti-poverty programs are scheduled for the cutting board, the Social Innovation Fund, an ineffectual entrepreneurship program, is targeted to receive an increase from $50 to $70 million. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the administration has done so little to support nonprofit groups throughout the country other than the financial crumbs targeted to entrepreneurship projects.
Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s there was a great deal of passion in the nonprofit community for eradicating poverty and economic inequities. When the Johnson anti-poverty programs were seriously threatened during the Ford administration in the early 1970’s, a broad, powerful coalition of nonprofits — including women’s groups, labor organizations, social service agencies, minority groups, youth organizations and many others — quickly formed to defeat the White House initiatives.
Thereafter, a variety of national coalitions were established to address a variety of problems rooted in the country’s widespread poverty. They stoked the fires of change, supported by social movement groups like the welfare rights organizations, public housing residents’ councils, legal service client chapters and emerging community organizing groups.
The demise of social movements, the decline in the influence of labor unions and the increasing conservatism of the country sapped a good deal of energy from these anti-poverty efforts. The issue of poverty, despite its prevalence, all but disappeared from our political radar screen in the 1990’s and the first decade of this century.
Although our national poverty rate has recently increased and our economy has stagnated, the commitment and passion that our nonprofits once had about anti-poverty efforts has not been rekindled. How can this be, when so many of these nonprofits are allegedly in the business of protecting their hard-hit constituencies? Why haven’t they, especially the most progressive ones, put strong pressure on the President and his Administration to develop jobs, fight for tax equity and protect anti-poverty programs that are still left?
The answer, I suspect, is threefold. First, the rise of one issue groups, with passion only for their singular cause, has fragmented the nonprofit sector, making it difficult for them to embrace a larger vision and join coalitions with broader agendas. The large foundations, moreover, have been reluctant to underwrite such coalitions.
Second, progressives nonprofits, despite their disenchantment with the President, have hesitated to criticize or pressure the Administration “because he’s our guy”, forgetting the noble tradition of dissent in American democracy. Some have not wanted to strain their relations with the White House for fear of losing federal financial support.
Third, nonprofits in general and progressive organizations in particular have not exhibited the courage to oppose some of the administration’s most egregious initiatives and decisions. They appear to have forgotten the mission they embraced many years ago: fight to improve the conditions of the most vulnerable among us. They have lost the passion for both anti-poverty efforts and the fight for economic and social justice. The warriors of old have been replaced by complacent, fearful and gutless successors.
The nonprofit community is a powerful faction in our society. With a workforce of over 11 million and an economy that amounts to about 7% of our GNP, it has an enormous potential to influence national policy and budget deliberations. Its constituencies are probably larger than those of any other sector. But because of its fragmented nature, lack of passion and, often, weak leadership, it has failed to exercise the muscle needed to move our policy makers and legislators. Can it transcend its recent track record to bring about real change in the way this country treats its marginalized populations?
Unless nonprofits step up their efforts to preserve and strengthen programs to assist low income and working class people, the poor will continue their descent into third class citizenship, ignored by most of us, a mere footnote in American history.