A Nearly Hidden Horror of the Sequester

Left Margin

A Nearly Hidden Horror of the Sequester

By Carl Bloice, BC Editorial Board
Black Commentator
July 11, 2013


The story is being spread that the “sequester,” has not turned out as harmful as had been expected, indeed, that it is causing very little harm. Don’t believe it.

On June 30, the Washington Post, a predictable outlet for arguments for gutting critical social services, carried a misleading, ill-informed article by David A. Fahrenthold and Lisa Rein. It alleged that the ongoing federal budget cut “may not be as draconian in its economic impact as some (such as the President) had predicted.” Sequester “wasn’t a cleaver,” it concluded. “It wasn’t a scalpel. It was more like liposuction — carefully removing the things that would be missed the least.”

Like rental housing assistance for the poor and disabled?

The sequester refers to a section of the Budget Control Act of 2011 that went into effect March 1. As part of a deal between the White House and the Congress resulting from a deadlock over the federal budget, it reduces approximately $85.4 billion in federal spending this year, with similar cuts for years 2014 through 2021

As a result of this ungodly political deal a whole lot of people are going to suffer needlessly.

According to the The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, African Americans received 43 percent of housing vouchers to while whites received 36 percent “Without the vouchers, these families would see those costs skyrocket. Other families will lose counseling services that help distressed homeowners navigate foreclosure proceedings,” it said.

“Housing vouchers are essential for preventing homelessness, and for helping families in emergency shelters or other temporary housing move into more permanent stable housing,” wrote blogger msmolly on FireDogLake. “Often communities prioritize homeless individuals and families for receipt of these vouchers. But many housing agencies now are ‘shelving’ vouchers — not reissuing vouchers to families on the waiting list when other families leave the program. As agencies shelve vouchers because of sequestration’s cuts, the number of vouchers available to families that are homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness will shrink dramatically. This lengthens the amount of time that families remain homeless and causes other homeless families to be turned away from emergency shelters because they are full. Some agencies also are withdrawing vouchers from families that have recently received them but are still searching for a suitable apartment, and thus have not yet begun to use them. (Agencies can shelve or withdraw vouchers without notice to, or permission from, HUD.)”

Last week, housing activist Lynda Carson reported in the San Francisco Bay View community newspaper that, “a survey conducted by the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association involving 300 housing agencies from 41 states, the situation looks very grim for the poor. At least 51 agencies reported that they will terminate vouchers during the next six months, and an additional 75 agencies have reported that the budget cuts known as sequestration will result in higher rents for voucher holders throughout their jurisdictions.”

What’s more, this threat to render more people homeless is taking place under a shroud of relative silence. By and large the major mass media appears to be unaware that this is going on or reticent about delving into it. Some newspapers noted back in March that there would be severe cuts to the rental assistance programs when the sequester kicked in but not many have had much to say about it since it did – with a few notable exceptions.

“That’s because so much of what the government does affects the nation in local, decentralized ways,” economist Robert Reich wrote last April. “Federal funds find their way to community housing authorities, state unemployment offices, local school districts, private universities and companies. So it’s hard for most Americans to see that the sequestration is responsible for the lost funding, lost jobs or just plain inconvenience.

“These cuts – and thousands like them – are so particular and localized; they don’t feel as if they’re the result of a change in national policy.”

“A second reason the sequestration hasn’t been visible is that a large share of the cuts are in programs for the poor – and America’s poor are often invisible,” Reich added. “Bear in mind, finally, that the sequestration is just starting. The sheer scale of it is guaranteed to make it far more apparent in coming months.”

Funds are allotted to local communities for rental assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Section 8 voucher designed to helps low-income families, the elderly and the disabled find affordable housing. Those who receive these vouchers pay rent amounts between 30 and 40 percent of their income. Government officials estimate that as many as 125,000 families could lose assistance from the housing choice voucher program due to the sequestration cuts.

“These cuts, which housing agencies have already begun to implement (primarily by failing to reissue vouchers to families on waiting lists when other families leave the program), will fall heavily on vulnerable people,” wrote Douglas Rice for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities back in April. “Half of the households in the voucher program include seniors or people with disabilities, while most of the rest are families with children. These households typically have incomes well below the poverty line and cannot afford housing without assistance. Some who will go without assistance face extreme hardship, such as living in homeless shelters.”

“The cuts come at a time when the number of low-income families in need of housing assistance has been rising substantially, there are long waiting lists for vouchers in almost every community, and homelessness remains a persistent problem,” Rice continued.

In Fairfax, Va., as many as 150 homeless individuals or families, and others on the long voucher waiting list, are expected to be turned down this year. “We have already seen the effects of sequestration in the lack of housing choice vouchers,” said DC Coalition for the Homeless executive director Mike Ferrell, who presented the results of the annual homeless survey at the May meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments board of directors. Ferrell attributed much of the region’s progress in addressing homelessness to the use of permanent supportive housing and rental assistance programs. The freeze could impact those efforts, he said.

Penelope Gross, a board member at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, told Huffington Post May 31, “We had 50 families that were about to receive vouchers. We said ‘Oops. The funding has dried up from the federal government. You can’t have them.’ ”

“They were getting ready to be successful and suddenly they got the legs cut out from under them,” said Gross.

About 1,700 poor families in and around Sacramento, Ca. are said to face losing housing vouchers. According to Crain’s, agencies that administer Section 8 in New York City will not issue as many as 6,000 new vouchers that had been planned for this year, while thousands in the system face subsidy cuts. KCVTV in Kansas City, Missouri recently reported that 33 families there have recently faced eviction because of the sequester cuts.

Housing for the poor in Greater Cincinnati will take a huge hit in the coming months when federal budget cuts eliminate financial help for about 1,000 needy families and force layoffs at the city’s housing authority.

Officials at the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority said last week the cuts mandated by the sequester represent a massive blow to the agency, which serves more than 15,000 low-income families throughout Hamilton County. No families will be removed from the program, but no new families will be added for at least the next nine months. The agency estimates that will reduce the number of families receiving rent vouchers to 10,200 by next March, down from more than 11,200 in January. “It’s safe to say our voucher program will be reduced,” Gregory Johnson, the agency’s executive director, told cincinnati.com. “It’s unfortunate because we have a high waiting list. There are folks that definitely need help.”

The sequester means that most federal budgets must be reduced by as much as five percent. For the city of Houston, for instance, that means a reduction of $7 million in federal assistance. “One way to get rid of the $7 million cut would be to serve 888 less households for an entire year,” Tory Gunsolley, president and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority, which provides rental assistance to 15,000 households a year, told the Houston Chronicle. “Do we serve less people, or do we serve people less well?”

“Some families could see additional rent increases as the city and county end most exemptions to a rule requiring two people per bedroom, regardless of age and gender,” reported the Chronicle. “Sequestration also could slow a countywide effort to end chronic homelessness, as it becomes more difficult to use a portion of the vouchers to move homeless people into stable housing and as the increased rents for current recipients may threaten their stability.”

Sean Rogan, executive director of the county Los Angeles Community Development Commission/Housing Authority, told the Daily News in March, ” “If it comes down to us having to terminate vouchers, we’ve exempted seniors, the homeless and our special needs population,” he added. “We would terminate those who’ve been on the program the longest and have received the greatest benefit.”

Santa Clara, Ca. County official say they have lost $21 million in funding and “desperately is searching for ways to avoid the worst-case scenario — pulling vouchers from some of the 17,000 households it serves.”

“We’re being put in an untenable position of having to decide winners and losers among the most vulnerable,” Alex Sanchez, executive director of the Santa Clara County Housing Authority told the San Jose Mercury News. “We’re forced to pit one group of poor people against another group. Seniors versus the disabled. Homeless versus working-poor families. It’s an impossible choice with terrible consequences.”

That’s in Silicon Valley, where high tech moguls build mansions and rents are outrageously high.

Another exception to the dearth of media attention to the sequester rent subsidy crisis is in Berkeley, Ca. where the campus newspaper the Daily Californian reports “Looming sequester cuts pose grim challenges for city officials.” There, staff writer Mary Zhou wrote June 22, “Due to March’s federal budget cuts, known as the sequester, Berkeley Housing Authority has cut 14 subsidized housing vouchers from low-income individuals while also suspending about 200 households in the final stages of applications.”

“Low-income families who are really struggling in this economy don’t have the resources to mount a huge campaign to bombard Capitol Hill,” says Amelia Kegan, senior policy analyst at Bread for the World. “They are most likely to be left out of any legislative attempts to mitigate the impact of sequestration. Congress needs to replace sequestration and deal with the entire thing and take a much more balance approach.”

Kegan added: “We don’t want to see a situation where those who are the most vulnerable are the ones left bearing the brunt of deficit reduction.”

I’ve been stewing about it for days now. I want to ask the important people in Washington – starting with the one in the White House – how could they let something like this happen? How, in the richest, most powerful country on the planet, could they visit such cruelty on people?

“With the sequestration, America has adopted austerity economics,” wrote Reich, a former U.S. secretary of labor. “Yet austerity economics is the wrong medicine at exactly the wrong time. Look what it’s done to Europe.”

And look what it’s doing to unemployed, low income and people with disabilities right here at home.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Bloice is one of the moderators of Portside. Other Carl Bloice writing can be found at leftmargin.wordpress.com.


The Well Travelled and Disastrous Road from Kabul to Benghazi

Left Margin

By Carl Bloice, BC Editorial Board
Black Commentator
May 23, 2013


In his book Blowback, published in 2000, the author and scholar, Chalmers Johnson, wrote: “World politics in the twenty-first century will in all likelihood be driven primarily by blowback from the intended consequences of the Cold War and the crucial American decision to maintain a Cold War posture in a post-Cold War world.” In 2003, in a preface to the book’s second edition, he wrote that the attacks of September 11, 2001 “descend in a direct line” from events in 1979, when the CIA launched “its largest ever clandestine operation.” the secret arming of mujahideen to wage a proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, “which involved the recruitment and training of militants from all over the Islamic world.”

“The blowback from the second half of the twentieth century has only just begun,” Johnson concluded.

Johnson died a couple years ago. I bet were he around today he would spot the line – sometimes direct and other times indirect – running from Afghanistan to Libya and on to Syria, and even touching on the April 15 premeditated murder of innocents at the Boston Marathon.

Last week, the Financial Times wrote that Qatar had fallen into second place when it comes to providing arms for the forces out to overthrow the Syrian government. Partly, it said this is because of “concern in the West and among other Arab states that weapons it supplies could fall into the hands of an al-Qaeda-linked group, Jabhat al-Nusrah, which has gained strength over the past year.” The story went on, “Diplomats also say the Qataris have had trouble securing a steady supply of arms, something the Saudis have been able to do via their more developed networks. Those networks are a legacy of past endeavors in places such as Afghanistan, where in the 1980s the Saudis helped bankroll US-led support for Mujahedeen fighting against Soviet occupation.”

The Saudis and the Qataris spent a lot of money recruiting, transporting and arming fighters for the Libya war as well. There, “Al-Qaida played a key role in toppling Gadhafi and remains a potent threat,” UPI reported May 14.

The Cold War is ostensibly over but training and arming the bad guys never stopped.

I have no idea what really went on in official Washington following the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi but the policy makers must have had serious concern about it appearing that once again, forces unleashed by the U.S., Britain and France had bit the hand that fed them.

Outside the devastated consulate after the attack, a young member of a Libyan security team told an interviewer that the group suspected of storming the building had been considered on the side of the good guys.

On May 14, New York Times columnist, David Brooks, made an intriguing statement. “Furthermore, intelligence officers underestimated how dangerous the situation was,” he wrote. “They erred in vetting the Libyan militia that was supposed to provide security.” Maybe one day he will elaborate.

Describing the emails that were turned over by the Obama Administration to Congressional investigators, Eli Lake, the senior national security correspondent for Newsweek, wrote May 14 in the Daily Beast that there was “extensive discussion on the evening of September 14 about whether the talking points should mention Anwar al-Sharia, a jihadist militia member. The original CIA draft stated he was a likely participant in the attacks. Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman at the time, asked whether or not mentioning the group would prejudice the investigation, and the FBI in later emails did not object (to what?). Still, the final version excised the reference to Ansar al-Sharia as well as a reference to Facebook posts the group had created suggesting a link to the attacks.”

And how about the Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the bombing in Boston that killed three and wounded more than 260? A short time before the terror attack, the eldest, Tamerlan, was in Manchester, NH having tea with a friend, Musa Khadzhimuratov, a Chechen exile that the New York Times identified as a “former separatist fighter.” He had once been a bodyguard for Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen separatist leader now living in London. On May 14, the FBI searched Khadzhimuratov’s home, inspected his computers and gave him a lie detector test.

Khadzhimuratov told the Voice of America that he and Tsarnaev the elder had met three times, visited a local shooting range together and never talked politics.

Then there is Graham Fuller, a high CIA official whose daughter married Ruslan Tsarnaev, uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers, who, according to numerous accounts, was quite familiar with the project to recruit and train terrorists for use in the former USSR.

Because people in the “intelligence” community don’t usually talk out loud about such things, we may never know the real story behind the Moscow arrest of the U.S. spy with the ugly wig, pocket knife, compass and roll of dollars. But no one has refuted the Russian’s claim that he was trying to recruit a Russian who specializes in the affairs of the North Caucasus. According to the Guardian (UK), “The US has not reacted to the expulsion of Ryan Fogle, who Russia said was caught in a sting operation last week while allegedly attempting to recruit an FSB agent focused on anti-terrorism efforts in Russia’s North Caucasus.”

Throughout the Cold War, the CIA had “assets” in that troubled part of the then Soviet Union that includes Chechnya and it has never ceased to stir that pot.

Last week, CNN reported that “Russian authorities asked U.S. officials to investigate Tamerlan before the trip, saying they believed he was becoming increasingly involved with radical Islam. The FBI investigated, but found no evidence of extremist activity and closed the case.” U.S. officials probably had good reason to be wary about following up on Russian warnings and inquiries about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

According to the Guardian (UK), “The US has not reacted to the expulsion of Ryan Fogle, who Russia said was caught in a sting operation last week while allegedly attempting to recruit an FSB agent focused on anti-terrorism efforts in Russia’s North Caucasus.”

Last year, with the governments of Britain and France leading the pack and the U.S. “leading from behind,” they launched yet another attempt to use a popular political uprising to overthrow a government they once wooed and then turned against. What has it wrought? According to UPI, “Eighteen months after the downfall of Moammar Gadhafi, Libya remains a powder keg with a government unable to control dozens of armed groups whose lawless marauding has created a security crisis that’s driving off desperately needed foreign investment.”

And, “Security officials say there are about 500 militias and armed groups across Libya, most of them competing with one another. Libya’s Warrior Affairs Commission estimates these total around 250,000 men who hold allegiance to warlords, tribal leaders and Salafist groups rather than to the government that’s struggling to emerge.”

Writing May 13 in the neoconservative organ Commentary, arch neocon Max Boot described what he considers “the real scandal” around Benghazi – “the shameful failure of the Obama administration to extend state-building assistance to Libya’s pro-Western leaders after having helped them to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. The inability of the Libyan government to control its own territory created the conditions that led to the 2012 attack – and those conditions have not changed since.”

Boot went on to quote a recent Reuters dispatch from Tripoli that said “More than 18 months after the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s new rulers have yet to impose a firm grip on a country awash with weapons. Rebel groups that helped to overthrow him are still refusing to disband, and remain more visible on the streets than the state security forces.”

Ethan Chorin, a former U.S. diplomat in Libya and expert on the Libyan economy, chides the U.S. for having been “unprepared for the ability of terrorist groups to undermine advances toward civil authority there.”

“In short, if the United States and its NATO and Arab allies had learned from the Iraq experience and implemented a full, well-supported plan for Benghazi, covering everything from technical assistance to security and staffing, we might have averted the attack and the momentum it has given to extremists.”

Boot and Chorin are both wise enough to know the history of such endeavors but foolish enough to think the U.S. can or should step in to bring it all under control and sort out the freedom lovers from the reactionary extremists. The lesson they apparently draw from Iraq and Afghanistan is: try it again.

Chorin, however, is clear on where he thinks the trouble began. “Libya’s own ‘Islamist’ problem is itself a product in part of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan– those conflicts attracted militants looking to hone their skills in the war against Gaddafi; they returned to fight in the Libyan Revolution, and many are now back in Syria helping the Islamist factions within Syrian rebel ranks,” he wrote on his blog May 4.

“US, British and French recipes for Syria’s future seem as fraught with potential for disaster as their plans in 1916 or 2003,” wrote Patrick Cockburn in the Independent (UK) May 12. “In saying that [President] Assad can play no role in a future Syrian government, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, speaks of the leader of a government that has still only lost one provincial capital to the rebels. Such terms can only be imposed on the defeated or those near defeat. This will only happen in Syria if Western powers intervene militarily on behalf of the insurgents, as they did in Libya, but the long-term results might be equally dismal.”

“Mr. Obama would not be a decent human being – let alone a leader – if he did not have an urge to try to stop the killing in Syria,” wrote the Financial Times chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman May 14. “He is hanging back because he does not have the answers to some really crucial questions.

“If we supply weapons to the rebels, how do we know that it will not simply lead to worse bloodshed? If western intervention is decisive enough to tip the military balance, do we understand the nature of the forces that will take control in Syria? Is there any way of ensuring that a decent regime will emerge in Syria, short of a decade-long, Afghanistan-style commitment to nation-building? (And, incidentally, even Afghanistan has not worked out too well.)”

Bob Woodward has taken some flak for his view of the situation after he had read the Administration’s internal emails. (“Oh, let’s not tell the public that terrorists were involved, people connected to al Qaeda. Let’s not tell the public that there were warnings.”) Well, I think that’s more likely than Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s explanation (“In the midst of a re-election campaign, Obama aides wanted to promote the mythology that the president who killed Osama was vanquishing terror. So they deemed it problematic to mention any possible Qaeda involvement in the Benghazi attack.”). There were al Qaeda-linked “terrorists” involved. And, there were warnings dating back to 2000 and “Blowback.” When you lay down with dogs you get fleas.

In Syria and elsewhere, the U.S. is funding (with help of the freedom loving Gulf monarchies), arming and training the same terrorists it is said to be fighting in Yemen, Mali and Libya. The consequence would seem to be inevitable. Those aren’t chickens. It’s a whole flock of turkey buzzards coming home to roost.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Bloice is one of the moderators of Portside. Other Carl Bloice writing can be found at leftmargin.wordpress.com.

Austerity Has Lost All Credibility & Threatens Social Upheaval

Left Margin

Austerity Has Lost All Credibility & Threatens Social Upheaval

By Carl Bloice, BC Editorial Board
Black Commentator
May 9, 2013


When Michael Higgins, the president of Ireland, finished speaking he received a standing ovation from members of the European Parliament. In a stirring April 17 address to the delegates meeting in Strasbourg, he said the continent’s policy makers must not “ignore the fact that European citizens are suffering the consequences of actions and opinions of bodies such as rating agencies, which, unlike parliaments, are unaccountable.”

“Many of our citizens in Europe regard the response to the crisis in their lives as disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to the urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity with them in their threatened or actual economic circumstances,” Higgins, a left-leaning poet, sociologist, author and broadcaster who holds the largely ceremonial post as his country head of state, continued. “They feel that in general terms the economic narrative of recent years has been driven by dry technical concerns; for example, by calculations that are abstract and not drawn from real problems, geared primarily by a consideration of the impact of such measures on speculative markets, rather than driven by sufficient compassion and empathy with the predicament of European citizens who are members of a union, and for whom all of the resources of Europe’s capacity, political, social, economic and intellectual might have been drawn on, driven by the binding moral spirit of a union.”

Last week, Higgins said pretty much the same thing to the Financial Times, which said he told Dublin correspondent, Jamie Smyth the European Union “risked social upheaval and losing popular legitimacy” unless it changed course. He called for “radical economics” and a “radical rethink” of how to deal with the current economic crisis.

Higgins’ views stirred a political hornet’s nest in Ireland. When a Sinn Fein delegate brought up his remarks the lower house of parliament (the Dail) the day the interview appeared, the parliamentary speaker ruled such a discussion out of order.

Higgins’ expression appears to have gone over well in Ireland, however and reflects a growing sentiment in Europe that by continuing on the present path of fiscal austerity and failure to confront the problem of joblessness raises the specter of social upheaval.

“There is a sense of foreboding in the region” Financial Times correspondent Komal Sri-Kumar wrote April 30.

“Socially and politically, one policy that is only seen as austerity is, of course, not sustainable,” the president of the European commission Jose Manuel Barroso said recently. “We haven’t done everything right … The policy has reached its limits because it has to have a minimum of political and social support.”

Olli Rehn, the E.U. commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, issued a statement last month calling on the union’s leaders to “do whatever it takes to overcome the unemployment crisis.’

Meanwhile, the Economist reported April 27 that “more young people are idle than ever,’ citing statistic that show 26 million 15-to -24-year-olds in developed countries are idle and the number of young people without a job has risen by 30 percent over the past five years and across the planet 75 million young people are seeking work. “Depending on how you measure them, the number of young people without a job is nearly as large as the population of America,” said the magazine.

“The result is an ‘arc of unemployment’, from southern Europe through north Africa and the Middle East to South Asia, where the rich world’s recession meets the poor world’s youthquake,’ said The Economist. “The anger of the young jobless has already burst onto the streets in the Middle East. Violent crime, generally in decline in the rich world, is rising in Spain, Italy and Portugal – countries with startlingly high youth unemployment.”

“It is difficult to be festive when 26m Europeans are jobless and economic recession blights the continent,’ Tony Barber wrote in the Financial Times last month. “For the first time in generations, numerous parents fear that the future living standards of their children will be lower than their own. Their sense of powerlessness is all the greater because, in or out of government, Europe’s centre-left parties – once the formidable political voice of the organized working classes – no longer appear capable of fulfilling their historical mission as protectors of jobs, welfare and social cohesion.”

“Our task is to continue with policies of fiscal consolidation and keeping public accounts in order,” he said. But, he added, it was “absolutely necessary” to foster growth and job creation “so that our citizens see Europe not as something negative but as something positive,” Italy’s new Prime Minister Enrico Letta said last week.

“Politics has lost all its credibility. Either we regain it, everyone and together, or there cannot be the instruments to resolve the country’s problems.”

“Seemingly endless recession and truly catastrophic levels of unemployment are fostering distrust, despair and a rise in political extremism,” the British daily Independent observed on May Day. “Joblessness is soaring in recession-mired Italy, and a series of suicides linked to the economic crisis have hit the headlines in recent months.”

Meanwhile here at home, the April U.S. employment statistics came out last week. For the most part little changed over the month. On the jobs front the country is treading water.

The figures released by the Labor Department “means there were enough jobs to keep the unemployment rate stable, but not much more,” says analyst Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute. “While this report would be fine in good times, at a time of persistent economic weakness, it represents an ongoing disaster.”

“The American economy continues to add jobs in proportion to population growth. Nothing less, nothing more,’ observed Binyamin Appelbaum in the New York Times,’ adding that the country’s economy “is not getting any closer to recreating the jobs lost during the recession.”

“Despite more than three years of job growth, the labor market still has a deficit of 8.7 million jobs, and the lack of demand for workers means unemployment remains high, labor force participation is low, and wage growth for people with jobs is sluggish,” says Shierholz.

The April jobless rate for African Americans was 13.2 percent, practically unchanged from 13.3 percent in March. According to Steven Pitts of the University of California Labor Center, “For the nation as a whole, unemployment was 7.5 percent in the month of April; this was virtually unchanged from March when the national unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent. Among whites, unemployment was 6.7 percent; among Latinos, unemployment was 9.0 percent. Comparable March 2013 figures were 6.7 percent and 9.2 percent respectively.”

In keeping with the usual pattern, the group taking the biggest hit on the jobs front is African Americans between 16 and 19 years old. For them the unemployment rate in April was 40.5 percent, up from 33.8 percent in March for Black female teens, unemployment stood at 37.6 percent, up from 30.9 percent in March). For young black males the unemployment rate was 44.7 percent up from 37.1 % in March.

As Pitts notes, “teen unemployment rates are extremely volatile from month to month.” Yet, it is clear that the catastrophic employment situation for young African Americans shows no sign of improvement.

Over 20 percent of 18-29-year-old African Americans are without a job.

Just in case there was an impression that the May Day appeal by Pope Francis to “give new impetus to employment,” was applicable only to Europe consider this from David Leonhardt of the New York Times May 3: The U.S. “has quietly surpassed much of Europe in the percentage of young adults without jobs. It’s not just Europe, either. Over the last 12 years, the United States has gone from having the highest share of employed 25- to 34-year-olds among large, wealthy economies to having among the lowest.”

Would it really be easy to end “the scourge of unemployment?” in the U.S. economist Paul Krugman asked March 30. “Yes — but powerful people don’t want to believe it. Some of them have a visceral sense that suffering is good, that we must pay a price for past sins (even if the sinners then and the sufferers now are very different groups of people). Some of them see the crisis as an opportunity to dismantle the social safety net. And just about everyone in the policy elite takes cues from a wealthy minority that isn’t actually feeling much pain.”

“The Class of 2013 will graduate into a labor market that is still very weak,” observed Shierholz. “As discussions take place this spring about what to do for these young workers entering a dire labor market, it is important to note that although young workers are a unique group, their currently high unemployment levels do not require a unique solution. The thing that will bring down the unemployment rate of young workers most quickly and effectively is strong job growth overall. Focusing on policies that will generate demand for U.S. goods and services (and therefore demand for workers who provide them) – policies such as fiscal relief to states and substantial additional investment in infrastructure – is the key to giving young people a fighting chance as they enter the labor market during the aftermath of the Great Recession. This would require policymakers to prioritize job creation over deficit reduction.”

“Over 20 million people are in need of full-time work,” wrote Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future May 3. “Thirty seven percent of the officially unemployed have been out of work for more than 27 weeks. Wages of those who are working are not keeping up with prices. Families are losing their homes. Marriages break under the strain. The young are idled; their hopes crushed. Americans are paying a terrible price for Washington’s folly.”

“A first and urgent task must be to get Europe back to sustainable and fulfilling employment and a return to real growth,” the Irish poet said to the EU Parliament. “There is nothing more corrosive to society and more crushing to an individual than endemic unemployment, particularly among the young. Today there are 26 million people across the Union without work, 5.7 million young people, and 115 million in or at risk of poverty and social exclusion. We cannot allow this to continue.”

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Bloice is one of the moderators of Portside. Other Carl Bloice writing can be found at leftmargin.wordpress.com

Education Yes, but Young Workers Need Jobs Now

Left Margin

Education Yes, but Young Workers Need Jobs Now

By Carl Bloice – BC Editorial Board
Black Commentator
April 25, 2013


I was a wee lad when I first was told that figures can lie and liars can figure. It was a caution to be careful when looking at numbers. What brought that to mind the other day was a commentary “Why the US is Looking to Germany for Answers,” by Financial Times U.S. Correspondent, Edward Luce. Not that Luce is in any way untruthful; he’s one of the most insightful and clear-headed major media observers of the political economy of the United States today. But it was the blown up quote on the piece that caught my attention: “Siemens recently had 2,000 applications for 50 vacancies in North Carolina. Only 10 per cent passed the aptitude test.” That means that 200 qualified workers showed up to try out for 50 jobs. Luce didn’t speculate on how many unqualified applicants would have turned out if the Siemens opening had been in Stuttgart but that 1,800 people without the stipulated qualifications thought they might land work at the plant is an illustration of how desperate workers are in North Carolina where over 400,000 people are out of work and the February jobless rate was 9.4 percent. The same figure goes for the Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill metro area where Siemens has a plant and is looking for engineers. At the beginning of the year, the jobless rate for African American in the state stood at 17.3 percent.

“Not only did the state produce insufficient new jobs to bring down the overall unemployment rate, but the industries experiencing the best growth in an otherwise stagnant labor market are those industries that pay lower than average wages,” said Allan Freyer, public policy analyst with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

In February, the North Carolina state legislature reduced the maximum weekly jobless relief check from $530 to $350 and set the duration of benefits from 73 weeks to between 12 to 20 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate. As a result of the action, an estimated 170,000 workers in the state will be denied Federal emergency unemployment compensation, which is intended to aid the jobless when their state benefits have been exhausted. “Hundreds of thousands of jobless workers thrown out of work through no fault of their own will face deepening poverty as a result of this decision,” said the Justice Center.

The situation in North Carolina is replicated in various parts of the country – particularly in the South – and Luce’s observation about it illustrates the seriously inadequate response to the unemployment crisis and confusion about what has caused it.

Luce maintains that, “the US is underskilled” and “US employers insist the shortage of skilled labor is a growing problem” and “with the US participation rate continuing to plummet – last month another 496,000 Americans gave up looking for work – many US politicians are scouring Germany for answers.”

Luce noted that, “Germany channels roughly half of all high-school students into the vocational education stream from the age of 16. In the US that would be seen as too divisive, even un-American. More than 40 per cent of Germans become apprentices. Only 0.3 per cent of the US labor force does so.” What he doesn’t say is that apprenticeships are not unknown in the U.S. but their availability has greatly declined over the years. Apprenticeship job training has largely been replaced with limited on-the-job training, vocational classes, or community college courses based on paid tuition.

And, one has only to look at joblessness in the construction trades, where such programs do exist, to see that lacking skills is not the primary reason why so many men and women are out of work.

New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, weighed in on the issue last Sunday also citing the described dearth of skilled workers in North Carolina and noted that “Today states are slashing budgets for community colleges, just when every good job requires more skill.”

Luce reports that in North Carolina, Siemens is training six high school dropouts to be “robot supervisors” at a cost of $165,000 each. He is perhaps correct that the idea of channeling 40 percent of young people into apprenticeships wouldn’t go over that well here. I’m not so sure. But I can say with certainty that there are a lot of jobless kids in my neighborhood who would welcome the opportunity to learn “mechatronics,” a mixture of mechanical engineering and computer science. Especially if there are jobs waiting for them when they finish the course.

Of course nobody in a position to do so is proposing spending money on an apprenticeship program that would engage jobless youth in Cleveland, Detroit or Los Angeles; not the White House, not anyone in Congress.

But we are confronted with a much bigger problem than a lack of skills. Right now there just aren’t enough jobs to go around.

The Great Recession, and what has followed, “decimated job prospects and earnings for young workers,” a new Economic Policy Institute (EPI) briefing paper shows. In “The Class of 2013 young graduates still face dim job prospects,” found researchers Heidi Shierholz, Natalie Sabadish and Nicholas Finio. “For the fifth consecutive year, new graduates will enter a profoundly weak labor market and will face high unemployment and underemployment rates and depressed wages.”

“Because young workers always experience disproportionate increases in unemployment during downturns, young workers have confronted particularly high unemployment rates since the end of the Great Recession,” reads the paper released April 10. “For young high school graduates, the unemployment rate is 29.9 percent, compared with 17.5 percent in 2007, and the underemployment rate is 51.5 percent, compared with 29.4 percent in 2007. For college graduates, the unemployment rate is 8.8 percent, compared with 5.7 percent in 2007, and the underemployment rate is 18.3 percent, compared with 9.9 percent in 2007.”

“Young workers have also seen their wages decline,” says the EPI. “Between 2007 and 2012, the wages of young high school graduates dropped 11.7 percent, and the wages of young college graduates dropped 7.6 percent. However, the wages of young graduates fared poorly even before the Great Recession began, as most groups of young workers also saw wage declines between 2000 and 2007. In all, between 2000 and 2012, the wages of young high school graduates declined 12.7 percent, and the wages of young college graduates decreased 8.5 percent. For full-time, full-year workers, this represents a roughly $2,900 decline in annual earnings for young high school graduates and a roughly $3,200 decline for young college graduates.”

“While attaining additional educational is often identified as a possible option for young people during periods of high unemployment, there is no evidence of young workers ‘sheltering in school’,” the EPI report says. “Since the start of the Great Recession, college and university enrollment rates have not meaningfully departed from their long-term trend for either men or women. In fact, though some students have had the financial resources to take shelter in school, the lack of substantial increase in enrollment suggests this group has been offset by students who have been forced to drop out of school, or never enter, because a lack of work meant they could not afford to attend.”

“Through no fault of their own, these young graduates are likely to fare poorly for at least the next decade through reduced earnings, greater earnings instability and more spells of unemployment,” said Shierholz. “Instead of focusing on deficit reduction, policymakers should be passing policies that will generate demand for U.S. goods and services, and therefore demand for workers who provide them. This is the key to giving young graduates entering today’s labor market a fighting chance.”

A succinct and clarifying look at the relationship between unemployment was proven last week by Sherry Linkon, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University. In “Is Education the Answer to Economic Inequality?” she wrote:
“One of the most common solutions offered to reverse America’s growing economic inequality is increased access to education. President Obama may have started the trend with his call for universal, high-quality preschool, but others have joined the fray. In March, Ronald Brownstein argued in National Journal that ‘Education remains critical to reversing the erosion in upward mobility that has made it harder for kids born near the bottom to reach the top in the United States than in many European nations’.”

Linkon went on to cite commentary on how “colleges and universities are failing to make those opportunities available, because higher education has become too expensive and doesn’t do enough to help lower-income students succeed.”

“On the basis of justice, we should be outraged,” wrote Linkon April 15, adding that, “We should join the thousands of college students who have organized protests against cuts to public education. And those of us who are educators should heed Mike Rose’s prescription for addressing the needs of working-class students: ‘If we want more students to succeed in college, then colleges have to turn full attention to teaching’.”

“Still, the idea that more or better college education will ‘solve’ the problem of economic inequality is just silly,” wrote Linkon. “While a college education still provides economic advantages, increasing lifetime income, achieving that benefit is harder than it used to be. These days, getting a college degree doesn’t guarantee better middle-class job prospects, but it does often bring a lifetime of debt. Unemployment rates for recent graduates remain high – 53 percent according to The Atlantic a year ago, and many have taken low-wage, hourly jobs that don’t require a college degree. Meanwhile, student loan debt has increased to an average of $26,600. For too many, higher education has become a trap door rather than an elevator.”

“I’m not suggesting that education isn’t worthwhile,” wrote Linkon. “Far from it. A good education brings many advantages, only some of which have to do with employment or income. Martha Nussbaum is just one of many scholars arguing that education has value for society. But education simply won’t address the root causes of today’s economic inequality.

“First, while state legislatures and business organizations pressure public universities to focus on preparing students for jobs in specific fields, like health care or fracking, the widely-touted ‘skills gap’ turns out to be a myth. The American economy is not being stymied by a lack of appropriately trained workers. Wharton School management professor, Peter Cappelli, suggests that we should ‘Blame It on the Employer.’ He suggests that employers ask themselves a few key questions starting with this zinger: ‘Have you tried raising wages? If you could get what you want by paying more, the problem is just that you are cheap’.”

Linkon concludes that “even when we talk about increasing access or establishing ‘universal’ programs, education addresses the individual, not the system.”

“Even at its best, education helps some working-class young people prepare to move into the middle class, an outcome that might improve the economic opportunities of those individuals but doesn’t address the broader economic structure,” wrote Linkon. “A thousand well-trained nurses might earn a decent living, but they will work alongside aides, janitors, and clerical workers who don’t. Simply put, moving some people into better paying jobs doesn’t eliminate the low-wage jobs they left behind.”

“Moreover, we should expect to see more low-wage jobs over time, not fewer, and education won’t change that.”

“If we want to improve the lives of low-wage workers and their families, we need public policies that will create more jobs, increase wages … and protect people from the financial ravages that often accompany illness, natural disasters, and other devastating and expensive events,” continued Linkon. “But how likely do you think it is that our state or federal legislators will create such policies?”

In a new report for Demos, “Stuck: Young America’s Persistent Jobs Crisis,” authors Catherine Ruetschlin and Tamara Draut examine the state of the youth employment today and find that while the overall economy is showing signs of improvement, young workers are still in a state of crisis. In an article described and made available on AFL-CIO Now April 15, they warn that if policy isn’t changed to address the challenges young people face, “we risk a generation marked by the insecurities of the Great Recession for the rest of their working lives.”

“The only possibilities for change lie in activism and organizing,” wrote Linkon. “And what does it take to foster resistance and build solidarity? As our labor studies colleagues might remind us, learning about economic, political, and social processes as well as the history of activism, theories of class, and narratives of oppression and resistance can prepare people to articulate and advocate for their own interests and for the common good.”

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Other Carl Bloice writing can be found at leftmargin.wordpress.com.

Double Whammy – A Grim Jobs Picture & a Horrible “Grand Bargain” Move

By Carl Bloice – BC Editorial Board
Black Commentator
April 11, 2013


What unfolded in the corridors of power in the
nation’s capital last week portends a serious blow to
the interest of country’s working people and it came
hard from two directions.

“First, a terrible jobs report, then a Democratic
President offers a budget that proposes cuts to
Social Security and Medicare,” wrote Dave Johnson
of the Campaign for America’s Future. “The only
thing on the public’s mind is that we need jobs –
and the President comes out with a plan to cut
Social Security and Medicare. Is he telling the public
that cuts to Social Security and Medicare are
necessary to restore the economy and fix the jobs
crisis? Because whatever the administration thinks
it is doing, that is what the public will hear.”

What they actually heard was Austerity 2013 – U.S.
style. President Obama’s offering up a cut in Social
Security (make no mistake, that’s what it is)
contravenes promises he has previously made about
not undermining the program and a recent flat out
pledge by Vice-President Joe Biden that it would not

One unnamed “senior administration official” told a
briefing last week, “The president has made clear
that he is willing to compromise and do tough
things to reduce the deficit, but only in the context
of a package like this one that has balance and
includes revenues from the wealthiest Americans
and that is designed to promote economic growth.
That means that the things like CPI that Republican
leaders have pushed hard for will only be accepted if
congressional Republicans are willing to do more on
revenues. This isn’t about political horse-trading;
it’s about reducing the deficit in a balanced way that
economists say is best for the economy and job
creation. That’s why the president’s offer – which
will be reflected in his budget – isn’t a menu of
options for them to choose from; it’s a cohesive
package that reflects the kind of compromise we
should be able to reach.”

Not “political horse-trading”? You could have fooled
me. No one even maintains that the “chained CPI,”
is going to reduce the federal budget deficit. It’s a
chit the President has put on the negotiating table.

It’s irritating when political pundits come up, as
Josh Voorhees did the other day at Slatest.com, with
various versions of: “Most notably, that means
significant cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and
fewer tax hikes than he’d like – neither of which will
please the left.” Why? Because the “grand bargain”
being concocted in Washington is not between the
right and the left, or between the Republicans and
the Democrats. It’s between big business (capital)
and labor. The losers in this case will be the elderly,
orphans, veterans and people with disabilities.
Slightly higher taxes on the well-to-do will send not
one of them to their local food bank.

“Look, this is compromise,” White House senior
adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, said last Sunday. “And
compromise means there are going to be some folks
on both sides who are not happy.” “Yes, legislative
deals require compromise,” economist Robert Reich
wrote on his blog last month. “But why is it that
deals over economic policy almost always
compromise away what a majority of Americans

This is not “everybody doing his part,” as Gene
Sperling, assistant to the President for economic
policy told the nation the other day. It’s political
horse-trading with the welfare of the elderly,
orphans, veterans and people with disabilities on
the table.

“While cutting Social Security makes no sense at all
in terms of economics or public policy, it makes
excellent sense in terms of the selfish class interests
of the super-rich,” wrote Michael Lind in Salon.com
April 5. “They have extracted about half the gains
from economic growth in the U.S. in the last half-
century and recycle some of their profits to fund
politicians, and lobbyists, as well as mercenary
propagandists who pose as neutral think tank

“This morning’s jobs report was a big negative
surprise and underscored the fact that a robust jobs
recovery, even now, has not yet solidified,” observed
Economic Policy Institute economist Heidi Shierholz
April 5. “The job growth of 88,000 in March was far
lower than the 2012 average increase of 183,000. It
is important to keep in mind that the month-to-
month numbers can be volatile, however; in this
case the first quarter average growth rate is likely a
better measure of the underlying trend. But at
168,000 per month, the average growth rate of the
first quarter is not even close to what we need – at
that rate we would not get back to the pre-recession
unemployment rate until late 2019.”

“The unemployment rate ticked down to 7.6 percent
in March, but not for good reasons,” continued
Shierholz. “The decline is due to people dropping
out of the labor force, not an increase in the share of
the working-age population with jobs. In fact, the
labor force participation dropped to its lowest point
of the downturn, 63.3 percent. What’s more, the
weak labor force participation is not due to
demographic factors like retiring baby boomers; the
labor force participation rate of the `prime-age’
population, people age 25-54, is also at its lowest
point of the downturn, 81.1 percent. It’s the lack of
job opportunities – the lack of demand for workers –
that is keeping these workers from working or
seeking work, not other factors.”

African-American unemployment slipped from 13.8
to 13.3 percent in March and black teen joblessness
fell from 43.1 to 33.8 percent. How much of that is
the result of black people finding sought after jobs
was not immediately clear. However, the labor
participation rate for African Americans as a whole
remained about the same over the month.

“What’s most concerning about these trends is the
prolonged double-digit rates of unemployment for
African American, Latino and less-educated
workers,” Tamara Draut, Vice President of Policy
and Research at Demos and author of Strapped:
Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get
Ahead , recently observed. “While much attention
has been paid to the challenges facing indebted
college graduates who are now much more likely to
be working in jobs that don’t require a college
degree, the deep and persistent high levels of
joblessness and under-employment among young
people without four-year degrees (the majority of the
generation) is a silent crisis facing our nation. And it
demands a robust and national response.”

Regarding the March jobs numbers, Congressional
Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge said, “The African
American unemployment rate fell .5 percent to 13.3
percent, the most it has fallen in six months.
However, that number remains at nearly double the
national rate with 2.4 million African Americans still
out of work.”

“While the private sector has steadily added jobs for
37 months, the public sector, where many African
Americans are employed, continued to lose them.
Last month, 385,000 more requests for
unemployment benefits were made and by year’s
end, sequestration threatens to put an additional
750,000 people with full time jobs out of work,”
Fudge added.

Daniel Gross, global business editor at Newsweek’s
Daily Beast, wrote that he had found a “small
potentially optimistic note” in the latest government
employment report. A major problem, he wrote is
that while the private sector has been recently
adding jobs to the economy cutbacks in the public
sector have been “holding back the recovery in
overall employment,” having eliminated millions of
jobs “in part by firing police officers and teachers.”
Gross noted the situation with regards to public
sector jobs at the state and local levels, last month:
“The federal government cut about 14,000 positions,
with most of those coming from the postal service.”
“The non-Washington austerity hit to payrolls may
finally be coming to an end,” he continued. “That’s
the good news. The bad news? The Washington
austerity looks like it is just beginning.”

If and when the “grand bargain” being pushed by
the White House goes into effect it will make matters
even worse.

“The optimist in me sees that yet again we had
upward revisions and simply wants to believe that
these March numbers are wrong and will be revised
upward,” wrote columnist Matthew Yglesias at Slate
Moneybox. “But hope is not a plan.”

Nor does anyone seem to have one.

No, that’s not true. There’s the Congressional
Progressive Caucus budget that is far more sensible
and humane than anything the White House is
proposing. But since the “serious” people in
Washington don’t cotton to it, the serious
mainstream media won’t give it the time of day. Oh,
yes, and there’s the President’s Jobs plan, which
seems have to have evaporated into thin air.

As Jim Dean, the chair of Democracy for America,
said, Obama’s move is a “profoundly disturbing shot
across the bow for the progressives who called their
neighbors, spent weekends knocking doors and
donated millions to reelect [President Obama].”

“With this move, Obama gives progressives one less
reason to work for Democrats – and every American
citizen one less reason to vote for them,” Progressive
magazine editor, Matthew Rothschild, wrote last

According to the AARP, its polling says 70 percent of
voters age 50-plus are opposed to the chained CPI
gambit and two-thirds of them – including 60
percent of Republicans – say they would be
“considerably less likely” to support a congressional
candidate if he or she supported it. As Solon’s Joan
Walsh reported, “On every single question,

Republicans lag only a point or two behind
Democrats in their opposition to Social Security

And, just in case, the Washington plotters are
banking on the “grand bargain” being upsetting only
to the elderly and people with disabilities, Derek
Pugh of Campaign for America’s Future, has an
important observation and reminder.

“Remember the catastrophe of 2010, when
millennials stayed home in large numbers,” Pugh
writes. “Polling data shows that a solid majority of
young adults (53 percent) wanted a Democrat-
controlled Congress. However, only 20.9 percent of
all eligible young people voted in the 2010
midterms. More than half of the people who voted in
2008 (51 percent) shied away from the polls. In the
months leading up to November 2014, Democrats
will have to try even harder to win the millennial
vote. Republicans are already poised to make some
headway: note the thousands of young people at the
Conservative Political Action Conference a few
weeks ago.”

“As the most diverse generation (39 percent are
people of color), millennials are more civically
engaged, progressive, open to change and tolerant
non-meddlers on social issues. Overwhelming, they
support same-sex marriage (78 percent), abortion
rights (68 percent), and immigration reform (78
percent). Democrats’ stance on social issues are the
main draw for young voters.”

“But demography isn’t destiny. It would be suicidal
for Democrats to take for granted a group that will
comprise almost a quarter of the electorate in 2014.
Progressive views on social issues are appreciated,
but are not sufficient. The number one priority of
millennials and the rising American electorate is
still economic recovery – and millennials need to see
Democrats being the champions of a recovery that
will allow them to rise.”

Last week, the very perceptive Grio managing editor
and MSBC commentator Joy-Ann Reid said the
President is probably confident that if he cuts the
proposed deal “Nancy Pelosi can deliver the votes in
the House and Harry Reid can do so in the Senate.”
Precious few of the people the two of them are
supposed to represent favor the Social Security
Medicare concessions, and they and their colleagues
ought to be reminded of that fact.


BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member
and Columnist Carl Bloice is a writer in San
Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating
Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for
Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a
healthcare union. Other Carl Bloice writing can be
found at leftmargin.wordpress.com

Obama in Israel: A Fine Speech, an Unfortunate Change & Not Much Hope

Left Margin

Obama in Israel: A Fine Speech, an Unfortunate Change & Not Much Hope

By Carl Bloice – BC Editorial Board
Black Commentator
March 28, 2013


Philip Stephens, the chief political commentator for the Financial Times, summed it up pretty well I think: “Barack Obama gives a fine speech,” he wrote. “He did it again in Jerusalem. Few can match the US president in wrapping intelligent understanding in the pentameters of poetry. That’s why the vaulting rhetoric so often begets disappointment. The words become a substitute for, instead of a prelude to, action.”

I don’t watch, or listen to, the President talk these days. I’ve been taken in – even moved – by his oratorical skills one too many times. I read the text the next day and try to figure out what is really being said.

“Leaders divide between those who respect the established parameters of power and politics and those who break out of them,” wrote Stephens March 24. “Mr. Obama has so far fitted the first category. For all his eloquence, this week’s trip has shown the limits of US ambition. The Middle East is burning. The president has concluded there is nothing much to be done.”

“His officials say this is unfair. The effort to repair relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and to reassure Israelis of America’s unbending commitment to their security was vital groundwork in the effort to restore peace talks with the Palestinians,” continued Stephens. “The task will now be picked up by John Kerry, a secretary of state, eager to navigate the minefield of Middle East diplomacy. That’s all very well, but Mr. Kerry’s good intentions are worthless if the president is not ready to take risks.”

“This was a memorable speech: Obama said things that Israelis need to hear from a US president,” Michael Cohen wrote in British daily Guardian last week. “But nothing that happened on Thursday in Jerusalem will do much to make a two-state solution more likely to be realized. More than ever, both Israelis and Palestinians need not words, but actions from a US president. It remains to be seen whether those will be forthcoming.”

“Obama posed the kinds of questions that are hardly asked aloud any more in the Israeli mainstream, swamped as it is in a steady stream of jingoistic, rightwing rhetoric, associated as it has become with people who are portrayed as loony liberals and self-hating leftists,” commented Chemi Shalev, a US correspondent for Haaretz and former Jerusalem correspondent for the New York-based Jewish weekly, The Forward. “He confronted the conventional wisdom that time is on our side and the status quo is working in our favor. He asked, blasphemy indeed, that Israelis try and look at the world through Palestinian eyes. He conducted, how ironic, the kind of values-based peace campaign which so-called centre-left parties were so afraid of in the recent election campaign, because they thought it was toxic.”

President Obama said a lot of the things that need to be said in his address to Israeli students last week. For that he is due credit. His description of the cause and aspirations of the Palestinian people was on target. The problem is that the overall effect of his latest trip to the Middle East represented a step backwards.

“Obama returns to the US today and to its problems, domestic and external,’ wrote Nahum Barnea in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “He leaves us with a wonderful speech and with the same impasse that existed before his arrival.”

Contrary to the impression carried by most of the major media of this country, the Israelis were hardly unanimous in their appreciation of the U.S. President’s remarks, certainly not the members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government.

While, Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, of the Hatnua party called Obama’s remarks “important and inspiring,” Knesset member, Miri Regev, of Netanyahu’s Likud party called Obama’s speech “offensive to Netanyahu.” “I thought Obama arrived with a greater understanding of the diplomatic process between us and the Palestinians, but I see that he hasn’t changed his stances, not about settlement construction and not about two states for two nations, and decided that the young people must influence their leaders to put public pressure on the government so it will implement [Obama’s] agenda,” she said.

Another Likud representative in the parliament, Moshe Feiglin, said Obama’ speech contained “a lot of filth.”

Economy and Trade Minister, Naftali Bennett, objected to Obama’s criticizing the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and his advocating for Palestinian statehood. “A Palestinian state is not the right way,” he said. “The time has come for new ideas and creativity to solve the Middle East conflict.”

“Anyway, a nation does not occupy its own land,” Bennett added.

Bennett will be in the New York next month at the rightwing Jerusalem Post’s annual conference, sharing billing with another occupation denier, Caroline Glick, the paper’s deputy managing editor and former assistant foreign policy advisor to Netanyahu, and U.S. hawk of hawks, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, where they will discuss “Two states for two people?”)

Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party commented: “At the end of the day we would have to absorb the tragic and destructive results of the formation of a Palestinian state. That is why the nation chose a government that does not include support for a two-state solution in its guidelines, and the U.S. president, for whom democracy in a guiding principle, must respect that.”

Settlement building “will continue in accordance with what the government’s policy has been thus far,” Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a settler and member of the Home Party, told a television audience on the eve of Obama’s arrival. He said construction would continue in the occupied West Bank “more or less as it has done previously. I see no reason to change it.”

As those statements make abundantly clear, there is anything but a consensus for a “two-state solution” in Israeli ruling circles. Stephens observed that Netanyahu “scarcely disguises his disdain for a two-state agreement” and Israeli illegal settlement expansion “is designed to create facts on the ground that forestall the Palestinian state that Mr. Obama deems essential to an enduring peace.”

As envisioned by supporters of the “two state solution” – with the backing of most of the government of the world – a new Palestinian state would come into being in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967. Today that area has been colonized by over half a million Israelis, 60,000 of them since Obama inauguration.

The continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank remains the crux of the problem in historic Palestine and a U.S. policy of denying its centrality only contributes to the maintenance of the status quo.

Obama “appeared to move closer to the Israeli position on Thursday regarding resumption of long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, stopping short of insisting on a halt to Israel’s settlement expansion as he had done early in his first term,” Mark Landler wrote in the New York Times March 21 “Mr. Netanyahu could take solace that Mr. Obama drew closer to his position that the Palestinians should negotiate without first extracting a halt to all settlement activity,” Landler wrote from Amman two days later.

“The promise that his secretary of state will expend time and energy to help Israelis and Palestinians to come closer together is the minimum, practically a mere courtesy,” said the German the Center-right German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Otherwise, apart from a few unresolved doubts, Obama has completely adopted Netanyahu’s course.”

As Jonathan Tobin put it in the neo-conservative U.S. journal Commentary, Obama “said that settlements were not the core issue at the heart of the conflict and that if all the other factors dividing the two sides were resolved settlements would not prevent peace. Even more importantly, he emphasized that there ought to be no preconditions placed by either side before peace negotiations could be resumed.”

Having apparently seen the light and concluded that a continuation of the status quo can lead to nothing good, New York Times columnist, Thomas Freidman, wrote last Sunday that the Palestinians “need to drop all their preconditions and enter negotiations” and Israel needs to “halt settlements.” That’s just plain silly. If the Palestinians drop their insistence that settlement expansion stop there will be no need for it to happen. If the Israelis halt the land grabbing there’s no more precondition. As long as the Israeli colonial juggernaut rolls on there is no likelihood of a settlement, and a continuation of a “peace process,” as it has been, will only allow Tel Aviv more time to create more “facts on the ground,” which is just what the Israeli expansionists want.

“It isn’t just our perception that settlements are illegal,” said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “It is a global perspective. Everybody views settlements not only as a hurdle, but more than a hurdle to a two-state solution,” he said. “We are asking for nothing outside the international legitimacy. It is the responsibility of the Israeli government to halt settlement activities so we can at least speak. “We hope that the Israeli government understands this, he said. “We hope they listen to the many opinions inside Israel itself speaking of the illegality of settlements.”

“We should note that rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel on Thursday – a reckless and provocative act – while the Israelis showed good faith by avoiding the sorts of defiant acts, like announcing new settlements, that have marred American visits in the past,” the New York Times Editorial Board said March 21.

Well, not exactly.

While Obama was still in the region and citing the rocket attack – carried out by a obscure an al-Qaida-linked group at odds with the Hamas government in Gaza – as a justification, the Israeli government cut in half the portion of the sea where it will allow Palestinians in Gaza to fish, threatening the livelihood of some 3,000 Palestinians who depend on the sea. “There is nothing to catch within three miles from shore,” 62-year-old fisherman, Talal Shweikh, told the newspaper Ahram, “All the fish that you see in the market today came from Egypt.”

Under the terms of the Oslo Accords of 1993, Palestinians were permitted to fish for up to 20 miles off the coast. However, in 2006 this limit was dropped to three. According to one report the restrictions, enforced by the Israeli navy, have resulted in the number of active fishermen shrinking from approximately 10,000 in the year 2000 to around 3,500 today.

Israeli authorities also closed Kerem Shalom, the only commercial crossing between Israel and Gaza.

“If there is quiet, the processes easing the lives of Gaza residents will continue. And if there is Katyusha (rocket) fire, then these moves will be slowed and even stopped and, if necessary, even reversed,” an official Army Radio broadcast said. “We do not intend to give up on our right to respond to what happens in Gaza because of the agreement with the Turks.”

There is a legal term for what the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians in Gaza. It’s called collective punishment and it is against international law.

On March 22, the day President Obama left Israel, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed five resolutions slamming Israel for settlement construction and abuses perpetrated against Palestinian civilians. The U.S. was the only member of the 47-nation council to vote against the measures. Of course, most of the U.S. mass media didn’t bother to report the UN action.

“Will Mr. Obama also take the risks that will be needed to be a credible mediator and nudge the parties forward?” the New York Times said last week. “His new secretary of state, John Kerry, is eager to begin and will be in Israel this weekend, but will he have the space to conduct real diplomacy? And is there a sense of urgency on anyone’s part? In recent years, Israel has built so many settlements that the options for finding a two-state solution are dwindling.”

“Mr. Obama spent four years tweaking his relationship with Israel. On Thursday, he said ‘peace is possible.’ The question is: How much will he, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority invest to make it happen?”

“Gone were Obama’s demands,” Washington Post columnist, Dana Milbank, wrote as Obama was winging it back to Washington. “Suppressed were his lofty ambitions. And absent were expectations, in his audience and among the American public, that he would achieve a peace breakthrough. It was a tacit admission of failure, yet everybody seemed happier with the scaled-back aspirations.” On Sunday, the online Middle East commentary page, Mondoweiss, responded. “Does Dana seriously believe Palestinians were happier with ‘scaled-back aspirations’ that leave occupation in place?”

The Israeli daily Haaretz put the question this way March 21: “Here lies the central danger of the visit. The Israeli government and public could conclude, based on the polite tone of the president and the lack of a threat or demonstrative pressure, that Israel is now exempt from having to initiate steps toward resuming the peace process.”

“This would be a horrible conclusion,” continued Haaretz. “Obama and the United States are not a party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president of the United States is not the one who must live in a society that is being transformed as a result of the occupation and pushed to the margins of the international community. Netanyahu is correct in saying, as Washington has made clear many times, that the United States cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. But the weakness the Americans have demonstrated until now in every way over the peace process actually proves that it is Israel that must offer new plans and proposals and advance the implementation of the agreed two-state formula.

“Obama can and must make clear to Israel how the continuation of the occupation could affect bilateral relations, harm the U.S. position in the region and erode the American public’s support for Israel. He owes this to Israel and to the citizens of his country. Netanyahu, on his part, cannot settle for “surviving” the visit or for mutual pats on the back. He is responsible for renewing negotiations with the Palestinians.”

“The US president, of course, has it in his power to confound the skeptics.” Stephens wrote in the Financial Times. “He reminded the Iranian regime that he is ready to deploy America’s military might to prevent Tehran building a nuclear bomb. Every conversation I have had with those close to him tells me that he is not bluffing. But there’s the puzzle. How could a president with sufficient resolve, if needed, to start a war against Iran fail to invest the power and prestige of his office in the cause of a Middle East peace?”

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Other Carl Bloice writing can be found at leftmargin.wordpress.com.

Hugo Chavez, Brazil and the History of Social Exclusion

“We want to guarantee the access of all families to the benefits of social programs from the federal executive.”
Carl Bloice
Black Commentator
March 14, 2013
Dilma Rousseff

Last month, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff raised the monthly stipend of 2.5 million people in the country currently living below the poverty line and, according to Reuters, she did it “to make good on her promise to eradicate extreme poverty in Brazil, a nation with enormous income gaps between rich and poor.” Starting this week, she said, 2.5 million poor people would see their monthly income rise through the Bolsa Familia, or Family Grant program to the equivalent of $35. In making the announcement she said an interesting thing:”We are turning the page on our long history of social exclusion that had perverse roots in slavery.”

That statement is important for two reasons.

First, it indicates that it is quite possible to “lift all boats” and at the same time acknowledge that in doing so that communities still experiencing the effects of centuries of discrimination will particularly benefit. That’s an idea that is considered heresy in some circles of our country, including in the Obama Administration. It is important to keep in mind when one reflects on the fact that last month unemployment edged slightly downward for every demographic group except African Americans.

Secondly, Rousseff’s action and her words boldly refute the misinformation that the major mass media – as if by script –has been spreading in the wake of the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. To wit, that while poverty has been dramatically reduced in Brazil and Venezuela, Rousseff and her predecessor haven’t attacked inequality the same way the Venezuelan leader did. The Christian Science Monitor even described the Brazilian presidents as “fiscally conservative.” “In Brazil, Lula and Rousseff brought about their changes without the same type of economic shocks,” the paper alleged. “They reduced poverty faster than ever before but also guaranteed big companies a safe environment in which to invest – and huge profits.”

These people don’t even seem to be able to report the statistics right. The Monitor reported that, “In Venezuela, Chavez funneled much of the country’s oil wealth into social programs and subsidies. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty fell from 23 percent in 1999 to just 9 percent today, and both unemployment and infant mortality were almost halved.” But the Financial Times says, that Venezuela has “slashed poverty, to 32 per cent in 2010 from 52 per cent in 2000.”

The Financial Times titled its editorial on the death of the Venezuelan leader “After Chavez, a chance for progress. Clearly “progress” is in the eye of the beholder – or the beneficiary.

President Rousseff didn’t stop at direct aid to the poor. In another measure of direct government action to alleviate poverty and combat inequality she has announced plans to speed up the agrarian reform in the country with the delivery of lands to agricultores (workers in agriculture) and continued support for social programs targeted at the rural poor. Addressing the 11th National Congress of Rural Workers, she said, “I never promise anything I cannot fulfill and I am committing myself to speed up the delivering of lands. We want to guarantee the access of all families to the benefits of social programs from the federal executive.”

Rousseff is very popular (70 percent approval rating) because in her two years in office, her government has helped lift 22 millions Brazilians out of extreme poverty, which she has predicated will disappear by 2014.

According to Reuters, “Despite an economic slowdown that has dogged her administration, Rousseff extended Lula’s poverty reduction program when she took office in 2011 to add stipends for children and adolescents living in extreme poverty, farmers who engage in conservation and people who start technical training.”

While the mainstream media in the U.S. has had little positive to say about Brazilian government in the recent past, coverage of Chavez’s death has emphasized the supposedly conflicting policies between Brazil and Venezuela. The media has incessantly hyped the candidacy of Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state and leader of the center-right Justice First Party, who will face Socialist Party candidate Nicolas Maduro in a presidential election April 14. Reuters keeps describing Capriles is a “centrist” who “says he would copy Brazil’s ‘modern left’ model of economic and social policies.” However, he says he favors policies that would “permit the poorest to find jobs and stop depending on state resources.” Actually, that sounds a lot more like Mitt Romney than Lula or Rousseff.

Meanwhile, here at home joblessness remains stubbornly high, poverty grows and inequality of incomes continues to widen.

Over 46 million people in the U.S. – over 15 percent – live below the official poverty line, including 16 million children; nearly a quarter of those adults are employed. Eight million children are growing up poor. According to the group Bread for the World, 27.6 percent of African-Americans live in poverty. The poverty rate for black children stands at 38.8 percent for children under age 18 and 42.7 percent of children under age.

Meanwhile, in February, the U.S. jobless rate was 7.7 percent, down from 7.9 percent but for African Americans it remained at 13.8. According to University of California Labor Center Black Employment Project, for black teens (16-19), unemployment was 43.1 percent (an increase from 37.8 percent In January). For black female teens, the jobless rate stood at 38.1 percent (an increase from 33.2 percent in January). For black male teens, unemployment was 48.7 percent (an increase from 43.3 percent in January).

While the major media has gone to great lengths to picture Hugo Chavez, the Socialist Party of Venezuela, and, by extension, most of the Latin American left, as out of steps with the times, the embarrassing truth is that with the notable exception of the U.S. and Canada, and a couple of other oligarchic regimes, current governments in the Western Hemisphere are making concerted popular efforts to combat poverty, reduce inequality and reverse historical neglect of indigenous communities and those of African descent.

History will unfortunately record that on occasion of ceremonies laying Chavez to rest, attended by 22 heads of state and prominent personalities from across the planet, the President of the United States issued an undiplomatic, insensitive and stupid statement that didn’t even offer condolences. As Sara Kozameh of the Center for Economic and Policy Research has observed, “This will almost certainly not go unnoticed in Venezuela or Latin America, more widely.”

Right now it behooves the people in charge in Washington to recognize just who is out of step in the Americas. Instead of cooking up new measures of unnecessary austerity and threatening the welfare of seniors, children and the poor they should be heeding the examples of those in the region trying really hard – and for the most part successfully – to do some good. And they should recognize that there is nothing wrong with stressing measures that overcome “our long history of social exclusion that had perverse roots in slavery” and long standing patterns of discrimination.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Other Carl Bloice writing can be found at leftmargin.wordpress.com.