by Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony
Is anyone paying attention to the depths of despair and hopelessness that has gripped American urban communities? While our attention is on national health care, Afghanistan and Iraq, someone better be watching our back right here in our local communities.
Certainly we need national health care and the wars must end. Yet there is also a war that is being waged inside our neighborhoods. This war has been going on far too long without very much national priority. Millions of people have lost jobs and are continuing the process of losing their homes to foreclosure. I live in the city of Detroit. Detroit is a very vibrant city with many jewels, which most folks never see. All that is ever really described is the pain of unemployment, dilapidated buildings and crime. Even though all of this is not a fair depiction of Detroit, welcome to urban America. This is also Chicago, Memphis, Charlotte, Harlem, D.C., L.A., Columbus, Baltimore, Jackson, New Orleans and right where you live. There is enough unemployment and hardship going around for everybody to get their own piece of the action.
A few weeks ago the City of Detroit Planning and Development Department called for a meeting in downtown Detroit to deal with a special economic opportunity for those without homes. This initiative, The Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, was held to provide applications for those who qualify for economic aid through the stimulus program provided by HUD. Only about 3,500 applications were available. Almost 50,000 people showed up to receive such an application. This influx of people charged on the Cobo Convention Center mistakenly believing that the Obama administration was providing monetary grants for this particular program. This was due to the fact that the news media sent a message that confused the issue. However, the mistake only provided a very accurate indication of what many already know. The depth of despair and anger in our urban cities runs deep. There were arguments about standing too long in line and people were generally upset with the slow pace of government assistance. Some even threatened to shoot folks who jumped in line in front of them. Please don’t think this occurred simply because this is Detroit. I want you to know this is your city also. You just may not have gotten the word yet. This pain is running like a deep river through the main streets of every city in urban America.
A week earlier the Detroit Edison Company called for a meeting to provide energy and utility assistance to families in preparation for winter. Thousands showed up at a location formerly used for the Michigan State Fair. The energy company was forced to shut the meeting down four hours early due to the overflowing crowd.
Detroit has lost the significant impact of the auto industry which has devastated many families. Manufacturing jobs have disappeared overseas and the government has not quite managed to fix this problem. However, let us remember the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, which says, “In order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” This issue of unemployment is a matter of national security. One cannot imagine the pain that is now in the midst of the homes of families with fathers and mothers who are without the means to support themselves and their families. If they don’t have legitimate resources to aid them as we can plainly see they will pursue other illegitimate means. Many of us cry out over the death and destruction in urban communities. Youth violence continues to rise high. Gang violence is now becoming a factor in communities where prior to this time it has not been a major concern. As our cities are forced to close down recreational centers along with a continuous exiting of meaningful employment, tensions are rising, patience is ending and hope seems to be fading. We need in America, not tomorrow, but today, a national urban strategy to address these concerns.
Have we forgotten? When unemployment is counted in urban communities it is generally in double digits. The state of Michigan has a 15 percent rate of unemployment. The city of Detroit has a 28 percent rate of unemployment. Yet we know that many have dropped out of the reporting process and are not being counted on the rolls. They are now being counted in the heavy tolls that are taken in crime, despair, family splintering and angry people. Now is the time for a new type of Humphrey Hawkins Full Employment Act. It was Oct. 27, 1978 when this bill was signed into law. Originally introduced by Augustus Hawkins and co-sponsored by Hubert Humphrey, it stated, “A bill to establish and translate into practical reality the right of all adult Americans able, willing and seeking to work to full opportunity for useful paid employment, production and purchasing power goals with proper attention to balanced growth and national priorities; to mandate such national economic policies and programs as are necessary to achieve full employment, production and purchasing power; to restrain inflation; and to provide explicit machinery for the development and implementation of such economic policies and programs.” Not since the Employment Act of 1946 which encouraged the federal government to pursue, “maximum employment, production and purchasing power through cooperation with private enterprise,” have we seen such a major government intervention.
I don’t care what you call it, we need to implement a national program to help the people of America. The stimulus program is taking too long to implement in terms of the trickle down to the streets of the nation, from the suites of the nation. This great need should not be written off as merely another government program. It is a government mandate to do what is necessary to provide, protect, promote and perpetuate the quality of life for all Americans.
If we do not do this then we can expect more crime, more gang violence, more family splintering, less faith and hope in the political system to do what it is constitutionally mandated to do. I do remember the words of former President John F. Kennedy who said on his inauguration day, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I believe now it is time to say what we have for years already done for our country. Now it is time for our country to do something for the people. Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! It is not a national option; it really is a matter of our national security.
(Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony is president, Detroit NAACP and a member of NAACP national board of directors.)