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President Bush is putting a big stake in the newly formed Office of Homeland Security under the leadership of former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. The rationale behind the formation of the office is a belief that the coordination of the disparate agencies with responsibility for security will provide the nation with a more effective and focused net of protections in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
If the president sees coordination as a means of focusing attention and action on security problems, he should take a hard look at some domestic programs — particularly those that have an effect on inner-city neighborhoods and low- and moderate-income families. Millions of citizens continue to fall through holes in underfunded safety nets administered by a multitude of departments and agencies scattered across the federal landscape. Each agency manages to manufacture glowing reports of their accomplishments, but no single official or department has the authority or standing to pull together scattered efforts and mobilize funding and public opinion behind efforts to rebuild our inner-city neighborhoods.
As a result, efforts to develop inner cities continue to lag far behind. The Clinton administration was long on rhetoric but short on developing a coherent urban policy that would have focused long-term congressional and broad public concern about the needs of low-, moderate-income and minority neighborhoods.
Housing is a good example of the federal government’s uncoordinated approach to the problems of the poor. The nation is 5 million to 6 million units short of needed units of affordable housing, and millions of existing units are dilapidated and in need of major repair.
In the organizational manual, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is listed as the lead agency on housing, but in reality what housing gets built and where is largely under the control of two heavily subsidized government sponsored corporations — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — whose political power has made them virtually untouchable.
The coordination between HUD and these corporations is tenuous. The sad condition of many of our inner-city neighborhoods suggests just how well this coordination is working.
Nearly 20 percent of the nation’s children live in poverty, most of them in inner-city neighborhoods and depressed rural areas. By adding the children in the “near poverty” category (below 200 percent of the poverty line), the figure rises to 43 percent, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. The current rate of child poverty is higher than in 1979 and is two to six times higher than in most other major Western nations. For African Americans, the child poverty rate is 33 percent and for Latinos, 30 percent.
High rates of infant mortality remain a sad part of inner cities. Black mortality rates are nearly 15 for every 1,000 live births, nearly twice the average for the rest of the population.
The Department of Labor and the Health and Human Services Department have statutory responsibilities for programs that bear on the health, welfare and job opportunities of inner-city residents. How could these programs and authorities be integrated in a coordinated assault on the ills that plague many low- and moderate-income neighborhoods?
While the nation is focusing on homeland security — is anyone really concentrating on what the growing economic downturns will mean to working families, the already poor and the near poor? No one wants to reduce security to a “hit or miss” approach.
But, unless there is an immediate effort to repair and coordinate the safety nets, it is going to be just that kind of chancy life for the millions who lose jobs.
A time-bomb is ticking on President Clinton’s 1996 welfare bill, which set a five-year life- time limit on continued welfare payments to needy families. Food stamps and unemployment compensation cover only part of the growing number of the needy as jobs are lost.
The Bush administration and the Congress have demonstrated that they can move fast in an emergency. It is an open secret that some of the speed has been generated by an overanxious desire to take care of corporate interests and wealthy taxpayers while the public is preoccupied with war in Afghanistan and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Now let’s see if they can get their act together to launch and coordinate government resources in a new effort to rectify an old problem — the neglect of inner-city neighborhoods and low- and moderate-income and minority citizens who populate many of these communities.
The president has made an appeal for pulling together all the government apparatus in a coordinated effort to strengthen security. True security rests with the people. The president should recognize that by assuring no one is left behind, including those who have long suffered the neglect of many inner-city neighborhoods. The nation will be stronger and more secure for it.
But as the recent lead headline in the Torrington (Conn.) Register-Citizen emblazoned — “It’s Very Scary — No Food For the Poor.” The nature of our national leadership’s priorities remains seriously imbalanced.
Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate and former presidential candidate. Readers may write to him at: Congressional Accountability Project, P.O. Box 1446, Washington, D.C. 20036.