Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Americans flee industrial wasteland, seek shelter in taxless Texas

Posted in Economy, poverty, Texas, United States by allisonkilkenny on June 16, 2010

Here is an interesting interactive map that shows the more than 10 million relocations made by Americans from one county to another during 2008. I took a few screen shots to highlight some interesting trends.

Sully focuses on the migration to Texas, which he calls the “Blue flight to a red state.”

I really doubt the people fleeing from New York and California are mostly diehard Libertarians, who don’t want their tax dollars going to The Man. More than likely, they’re looking for jobs, and hey, if they can save money by not being taxed by the state, what poor person is going to turn that down?

I’m not condoning that logic. After all, citizens fleeing to Texas is a race to the bottom. If all states suddenly adopted Texas’s bare bone approach, citizens would lose all kinds of services, namely because no one would be paying to preserve public services. What I’m saying is it’s understandable that poor, desperate people would see moving to taxless Texas as a perk.

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Class war: Criminalizing poverty

Posted in class divide, poverty, United States by allisonkilkenny on June 16, 2010

As opposed to supporting raising wages and passing a public option in order to forge a more egalitarian future, it appears members of the elite have committed themselves to controlling the growing underclass by criminalizing poverty.

David Walker, a lackey of billionaire and Social Security pirate, Pete Peterson, openly pined for the days of debtors’ prison, which is actually already a reality in six states.

WALKER: You know, the fact of the matter is we have to change how we do things. We are on an imprudent and unsustainable path in a number of ways. You talk about debtors’ prisons, we used to have debtors’ prisons, now bankruptcy is no taint! Bankruptcy is an exit strategy! Our society and our culture has changed. We need to get back to the opportunity, we need to move away from entitlement, we need to provide reasonable risk but we need to hold people accountable when they do imprudent things. It’s pretty fundamental.

Right! We need to hold people accountable. Er, poor people – not the rich people, who sold them the shit mortgages, and gave them credit cards with astronomical interest rates. Those people are entrepeneurs and can go free.

Digby has been reporting on the demonization of the unemployed. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has proposed an amendment that would demand mandatory drug tests for welfare and unemployment beneficiaries. Because, as one of this blog’s less enlightened commenters put it, “you gotta make sure they’re not on the crack pipe.” After all, we know the only reason people are unemployed is because they’re all a bunch of Welfare Queen drug addicts. Mind you, cocaine addicted Yale and Harvard grads won’t face this obstacle when re-entering the business world. This is just a filter for the undesirables.

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Even Worse for Young Workers

Posted in Barack Obama, Economy, labor, poverty by allisonkilkenny on February 28, 2009

Bob Herbert

unemployment-line-749345The employment situation in the U.S. is, if anything, worse than most people realize. And huge numbers of young people, ages 16 to 30, are being beaten down in ways that could leave scars for a lifetime.

Much of the attention in this economic downturn has focused on the growing legions of men and women who are officially counted as unemployed. There are now more than 11 million of them.

But a better picture of the economic distress related to employment emerges when the number of jobless Americans is combined with two other categories of workers: the underemployed (those who are working part time, for example, because they can’t find full-time work) and the so-called labor force reserve, workers who have abandoned their job searches but who would work if employment became available.

This total pool of underutilized labor has now risen above 24 million, according to researchers at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. That total will only grow in the coming months.

The Obama administration has more than enough on its plate at the moment, but before long it will likely have to consider a range of additional strategies, beyond the recently passed stimulus package, for putting jobless Americans to work.

A comparison of the number of people being thrown out of work in this recession with that of the severe recession of 1981-82 will indicate why. The peak unemployment rate was higher in that earlier recession than today’s 7.6 percent, largely because the last big wave of the baby-boom generation was entering the job market in the early ’80s. Those boomers who couldn’t find work were officially counted as unemployed.

What is different and more frightening about the current downturn is the number of people actually losing their jobs — being laid off or fired. That number is dramatically, dangerously higher.

The government uses two different surveys to gauge employment data. The household survey, based on telephone interviews, showed that job losses in the 13 months that followed the beginning of the 1981-82 recession reached 1.53 million. In the first 13 months of this recession, the number of jobs lost, according to the household survey, has been a staggering 4 million.

The payroll survey, which is based on employment records, showed job losses of 1.7 million in the first 13 months of the earlier downturn compared with 3.5 million in the current recession.

Pick your poison. This is not the kind of downturn Americans are used to.

The ones who are being hit the hardest and will have the most difficult time recovering are America’s young workers. Nearly 2.2 million young people, ages 16 through 29, have already lost their jobs in this recession. This follows an already steep decline in employment opportunities for young workers over the past several years.

Good jobs were hard to find for most categories of workers during that period. One of the results has been that older men and women have been taking and holding onto jobs that in prior eras would have gone to young people.

“What we’ve seen over the past eight years, for young people under 30, is the largest age reversal with regard to jobs that we’ve ever had in our history,” said Andrew Sum, the director of the Center for Labor Market Studies. “The younger you are, the more you got pushed out of this labor market.”

There were not enough jobs to go around before the recession took hold. So the young, the poor and the poorly educated were already suffering. Now that pool of suffering is rapidly expanding.

This has ominous long-term implications for the country. The economy cannot perform well with such a large cohort of young people condemned to marginal economic status.

Young men and women who remain unemployed for substantial periods of time find it very difficult to make up that ground. They lose the experience and training they would have gained by working. Even if they eventually find employment, they tend to lag behind their peers when it comes to wages, promotions and job security.

Moreover, as the economy worsens, even the college educated are feeling the crunch.

According to a report by researchers working with Mr. Sum: “While young college graduates have fared the best in maintaining some type of employment, a growing fraction of them are becoming mal-employed, holding jobs in occupations that do not require much schooling beyond high school, often displacing their less-educated peers.”

Employment problems have festered in the United States for decades. The economy will never be brought to a state of health until those problems are more thoughtfully and more directly engaged. This will become more and more clear with each passing month of this hideous recession.

“Slumdog Millionaire”: A Hollow Message of Social Justice

Posted in media, poverty by allisonkilkenny on February 24, 2009

Mitu Sengupta, Alternet

Dharavi

Dharavi

Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire”, perhaps one of the most celebrated films in recent times, tells the rags-to-rajah story of a love-struck Indian boy, Jamal, who, with a little help from “destiny,” triumphs over his wretched beginnings in Mumbai’s squalid slums. Riding on a wave of rave reviews, “Slumdog” has now won Hollywood’s highest tribute, the Academy Award for Best Picture, along with seven more Oscars, including one for Best Director.

These honors will probably add some $100 million to “Slumdog’s” box-office takings, as Oscar wins usually do. They will also further enhance the film’s fast-growing reputation as an authentic representation of the lives of India’s urban poor. So far, most of the awards collected by the film have been accepted in the name of “the children,” suggesting that its own cast and crew regard it (and have relentlessly promoted it) not as a cinematically spectacular, musically rich and entertaining work of fiction, which it is, but as a powerful tool of advocacy. Nothing could be more worrying, as “Slumdog”, despite all the hype to the contrary, delivers a deeply disempowering narrative about the poor that thoroughly undermines, if not totally negates, its seeming message of social justice.

“Slumdog” has angered many Indians because it tarnishes their perception of their country as a rising economic power and a beacon of democracy. India’s English-language papers, read mainly by its middle classes, have carried many bristling reviews of the film that convey an acute sense of wounded national pride. While understandable, the sentiment is not defensible. Though at times embarrassingly contrived, most of the film’s heartrending scenarios are inspired by a sad, but well-documented reality.

Corruption is certainly rampant among the police, and many will gladly use torture, though none is probably dim enough to target an articulate, English-speaking man who is already a rising media phenomenon. Beggar-makers do round-up abandoned children and mutilate them in order to make them more sympathetic, though it is highly improbable that any such child will ever chance upon a $100 bill, much less be capable of identifying it by touch and scent alone.

Indeed, if anything, Boyle’s magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, greatly understates the depth of suffering among India’s poor. It is near-impossible, for example, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and an upper-class accent. But the real problem with “Slumdog” is neither its characterization of India as just another Third World country, nor, within this, its shallow and largely impressionistic portrayal of poverty.

The film’s real problem is that it grossly minimizes the capabilities and even the basic humanity of those it so piously claims to speak for. It is no secret that much of “Slumdog” is meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the 213-hectare spread of slums at the heart of Mumbai. The film’s depiction of the legendary Dharavi, which is home to some one million people, is that of a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion. Other than the children, the “slumdogs,” no-one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers, thieves, and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal’s schoolteacher, a thin, bespectacled man who introduces him to the Three Musketeers, is inexplicably callous. This is a place of evil and decay; of a raw, chaotic tribalism.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism and creativity, and is a hub of entrepreneurial activity, in industries such as garment manufacturing, embroidery, pottery, and leather, plastics and food processing. It is estimated that the annual turnover from Dharavi’s small businesses is between US$50 to $100 million. Dharavi’s lanes are lined with cell-phone retailers and cybercafés, and according to surveys by Microsoft Research India, the slum’s residents exhibit a remarkably high absorption of new technologies.

Governing structures and productive social relations also flourish. The slum’s residents have nurtured strong collaborative networks, often across potentially volatile lines of caste and religion. Many cooperative societies work together with grassroots associations to provide residents with essential services such as basic healthcare, schooling and waste disposal, and tackle difficult issues such as child abuse and violence against women. In fact, they often compensate for the formal government’s woeful inadequacy in meeting the needs of the poor.

Although it is true that these severely under-resourced self-help organizations have touched only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, it is important to acknowledge their efforts and agency, along with the simple fact that these communities, despite their grinding poverty, have valuable lives, warmth, generosity, and a resourcefulness that stretches far beyond the haphazard and purely individualistic, Darwinian sort portrayed in the film.

Indeed, the failure to recognize this fact has already led to a great deal of damage. Government bureaucrats have concocted many ham-handed, top-down plans for “developing” the slums based on the dangerous assumption that these are worthless spaces. The most recent is the “Dharavi Redevelopment Project” (DRP), which proposes to convert the slums into blocks of residential and commercial high rises. The DRP requires private developers to provide small flats (of about 250 sq. ft. each) to families that can prove they settled in Dharavi before the year 2000. In return for re-housing residents, the developers obtain construction rights in Dharavi.

The DRP is being fiercely resisted by slum residents’ organizations and human rights activists, who see it an undemocratically conceived and environmentally harmful land-grab scheme (real-estate prices in Mumbai are comparable to Manhattan’s).

Though perhaps better than razing the slums with bulldozers — which is not, incidentally, an unpopular option among the city’s rich – the DRP is far from a people-friendly plan. It will potentially evict some 500,000 residents who cannot legally prove that they settled in Dharavi prior to 2000, and may destroy thousands of livelihoods by rendering unviable countless household-centered businesses. If forced to move into congested high-rises, for example, the slum’s potters and papad-makers, large numbers of who are women, will lose the space they need to dry their wares. For the government, however, that the DRP will “rehabilitate” Dharavi by erasing the eyesore and integrating its “problem-population” into modern, middle-class Mumbai.

It is ironic that “Slumdog”, for all its righteousness of tone, shares with many Indian political and social elites a profoundly dehumanizing view of those who live and work within the country’s slums. The troubling policy implications of this perspective are unmistakeably mirrored by the film. Since there are no internal resources, and none capable of constructive voice or action, all “solutions” must arrive externally.

After a harrowing life in an anarchic wilderness, salvation finally comes to Jamal, a Christ-like figure, in the form of an imported quiz-show, which he succeeds in thanks to sheer, dumb luck, or rather, because “it is written.” Is it also “written,” then, that the other children depicted in the film must continue to suffer? Or must they, like the stone-faced Jamal, stoically await their own “destiny” of rescue by a foreign hand?

Indeed, while this self-billed “feel good movie of the year” may help us “feel good” that we are among the lucky ones on earth, it delivers a patronizing, colonial and ultimately sham statement on social justice for those who are not.

A version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star.

Mitu Sengupta is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

VIDEO: Sanford Offers Unemployed Resident ‘Prayers’ Instead Of Funds

Posted in politics, poverty, religion by allisonkilkenny on February 23, 2009

Note from Allison: Someone tell Sanford poor people can’t eat prayers.

Think Progress

praying for YOU!

praying for YOU!

Following the lead of a number of his fellow Republican governors, Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC) has given some indication that he will not accept some of the money slated for South Carolina in the $787 billion economic recovery bill President Obama signed into law last week. “At times it sounds like the Soviet grain quotas of Stalin’s time,” Sanford said yesterday on Fox News.

On C-SPAN’s Washington Journal this morning, Sanford received a call from a Charleston resident who said he lost his job because he has been taking care of mother and sister, both of whom have serious illnesses. The caller told Sanford he is “wrong” to decline the money. “A lot of people in South Carolina are hurting. And if this money can come and help us out we need it.” In response, Sanford could offer him only his prayers:

CALLER: I hope you all are not playing politics with this. People in South Carolina are hurting. You know how unemployment rates are high right now and going up higher. We are running out of money in the unemployment bank — we need money for that, the people that need help. And I’m one of them, I can’t get no help. […]

SANFORD: Well I’d say hello to Charleston because its home and I’d say hello to this fellow this morning and say that my prayers are going to be with him and his family because it sounds like he is in an awfully tough spot.

Sanford offered no other alternative solution for his constituent and instead argued that the state could not accept money to extend unemployment benefits because “increasing the tax on unemployment insurance” would negatively “impact the caller’s family” (although he didn’t say how).

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) — who sponsored an amendment to the stimulus bill that would allow state legislatures to “accept stimulus funding over the objections of conservative governors” — chastised Sanford on MSNBC this morning. “This program is an opportunity for Governor Sanford to target” the “chronically unemployed” and “chronically sick” communities in South Carolina. “I have got to believe that he is willing…to help these communities,” Clyburn said, asking,”Why won’t he?”

Watch the video here.

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Wall Street Has Spawned Our Greatest Terrorist Threat

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, politics, poverty by allisonkilkenny on February 17, 2009

Chris Hedges, Truthdig

Riots have become common occurrences in many countries as the financial meltdown continues. The U.S. military is preparing to quell civil unrest at home. (AP)

Riots have become common occurrences in many countries as the financial meltdown continues. The U.S. military is preparing to quell civil unrest at home. (AP)

We have a remarkable ability to create our own monsters. A few decades of meddling in the Middle East with our Israeli doppelgänger and we get Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida, the Iraqi resistance movement and a resurgent Taliban. Now we trash the world economy and destroy the ecosystem and sit back to watch our handiwork. Hints of our brave new world seeped out Thursday when Washington’s new director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He warned that the deepening economic crisis posed perhaps our gravest threat to stability and national security. It could trigger, he said, a return to the “violent extremism” of the 1920s and 1930s.

It turns out that Wall Street, rather than Islamic jihad, has produced our most dangerous terrorists. You wouldn’t know this from the Obama administration, which seems hellbent on draining the blood out of the body politic and transfusing it into the corpse of our financial system. But by the time Barack Obama is done all we will be left with is a corpse—a corpse and no blood. And then what? We will see accelerated plant and retail closures, inflation, an epidemic of bankruptcies, new rounds of foreclosures, bread lines, unemployment surpassing the levels of the Great Depression and, as Blair fears, social upheaval.

The United Nations’ International Labor Organization estimates that some 50 million workers will lose their jobs worldwide this year. The collapse has already seen 3.6 million lost jobs in the United States. The International Monetary Fund’s prediction for global economic growth in 2009 is 0.5 percent—the worst since World War II. There are 2.3 million properties in the United States that received a default notice or were repossessed last year. And this number is set to rise in 2009, especially as vacant commercial real estate begins to be foreclosed. About 20,000 major global banks collapsed, were sold or were nationalized in 2008. There are an estimated 62,000 U.S. companies expected to shut down this year. Unemployment, when you add people no longer looking for jobs and part-time workers who cannot find full-time employment, is close to 14 percent.

And we have few tools left to dig our way out. The manufacturing sector in the United States has been destroyed by globalization. Consumers, thanks to credit card companies and easy lines of credit, are $14 trillion in debt. The government has pledged trillions toward the crisis, most of it borrowed or printed in the form of new money. It is borrowing trillions more to fund our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And no one states the obvious: We will never be able to pay these loans back. We are supposed to somehow spend our way out of the crisis and maintain our imperial project on credit. Let our kids worry about it. There is no coherent and realistic plan, one built around our severe limitations, to stanch the bleeding or ameliorate the mounting deprivations we will suffer as citizens. Contrast this with the national security state’s strategies to crush potential civil unrest and you get a glimpse of the future. It doesn’t look good.

“The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications,” Blair told the Senate. “The crisis has been ongoing for over a year, and economists are divided over whether and when we could hit bottom. Some even fear that the recession could further deepen and reach the level of the Great Depression. Of course, all of us recall the dramatic political consequences wrought by the economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, the instability, and high levels of violent extremism.”

The specter of social unrest was raised at the U.S. Army War College in November in a monograph [click on Policypointers’ pdf link to see the report] titled “Known Unknowns: Unconventional ‘Strategic Shocks’ in Defense Strategy Development.” The military must be prepared, the document warned, for a “violent, strategic dislocation inside the United States,” which could be provoked by “unforeseen economic collapse,” “purposeful domestic resistance,” “pervasive public health emergencies” or “loss of functioning political and legal order.” The “widespread civil violence,” the document said, “would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order and human security.”

“An American government and defense establishment lulled into complacency by a long-secure domestic order would be forced to rapidly divest some or most external security commitments in order to address rapidly expanding human insecurity at home,” it went on.

“Under the most extreme circumstances, this might include use of military force against hostile groups inside the United States. Further, DoD [the Department of Defense] would be, by necessity, an essential enabling hub for the continuity of political authority in a multi-state or nationwide civil conflict or disturbance,” the document read.

In plain English, something bureaucrats and the military seem incapable of employing, this translates into the imposition of martial law and a de facto government being run out of the Department of Defense. They are considering it. So should you.

Adm. Blair warned the Senate that “roughly a quarter of the countries in the world have already experienced low-level instability such as government changes because of the current slowdown.” He noted that the “bulk of anti-state demonstrations” internationally have been seen in Europe and the former Soviet Union, but this did not mean they could not spread to the United States. He told the senators that the collapse of the global financial system is “likely to produce a wave of economic crises in emerging market nations over the next year.” He added that “much of Latin America, former Soviet Union states and sub-Saharan Africa lack sufficient cash reserves, access to international aid or credit, or other coping mechanism.”

“When those growth rates go down, my gut tells me that there are going to be problems coming out of that, and we’re looking for that,” he said. He referred to “statistical modeling” showing that “economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they persist over a one to two year period.”

Blair articulated the newest narrative of fear. As the economic unraveling accelerates we will be told it is not the bearded Islamic extremists, although those in power will drag them out of the Halloween closet when they need to give us an exotic shock, but instead the domestic riffraff, environmentalists, anarchists, unions and enraged members of our dispossessed working class who threaten us. Crime, as it always does in times of turmoil, will grow. Those who oppose the iron fist of the state security apparatus will be lumped together in slick, corporate news reports with the growing criminal underclass.

The committee’s Republican vice chairman, Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, not quite knowing what to make of Blair’s testimony, said he was concerned that Blair was making the “conditions in the country” and the global economic crisis “the primary focus of the intelligence community.”

The economic collapse has exposed the stupidity of our collective faith in a free market and the absurdity of an economy based on the goals of endless growth, consumption, borrowing and expansion. The ideology of unlimited growth failed to take into account the massive depletion of the world’s resources, from fossil fuels to clean water to fish stocks to erosion, as well as overpopulation, global warming and climate change. The huge international flows of unregulated capital have wrecked the global financial system. An overvalued dollar (which will soon deflate), wild tech, stock and housing financial bubbles, unchecked greed, the decimation of our manufacturing sector, the empowerment of an oligarchic class, the corruption of our political elite, the impoverishment of workers, a bloated military and defense budget and unrestrained credit binges have conspired to bring us down. The financial crisis will soon become a currency crisis. This second shock will threaten our financial viability. We let the market rule. Now we are paying for it.

The corporate thieves, those who insisted they be paid tens of millions of dollars because they were the best and the brightest, have been exposed as con artists. Our elected officials, along with the press, have been exposed as corrupt and spineless corporate lackeys. Our business schools and intellectual elite have been exposed as frauds. The age of the West has ended. Look to China. Laissez-faire capitalism has destroyed itself. It is time to dust off your copies of Marx.

Iceland on the Brink

Posted in deregulation, Economy, poverty by allisonkilkenny on January 26, 2009

The Independent

Two years ago, Iceland was top of the UN living index. Now it is in the frontline of the global economic crisis after the failure of its banks, reports Sophie Morris in Reykjavik.

s-iceland-largeJust a few short years ago, Iceland had much to be proud of. The good times were rolling so fast that one expected the country’s almost round-the-clock summer daylight to last all year. Business was booming, society overfed, and the capital, Reykjavik, was in vogue as a travel destination for rich revellers, gastronomes and culture lovers.

Iceland is a country of dramatic natural beauty: lunar landscapes, spouting geysers, sheer glaciers and craggy volcanic rock formations; an impressive but inhospitable isle floating in mid-Atlantic isolation. When, in 2007, it topped the UN’s Human Development Index for its high standard of living, literacy and life expectancy, the tiny community of 310,000 felt they had proved their educated, hard-working and resilient character on an international scale.

The previous year, America had abandoned its long-standing naval air station at Keflavik. Symbolically, the move set Icelanders free from more than seven centuries of foreign domination, first as a Norwegian and then a Danish colony, and for the past 65 years, less formally, under the wing of the US.

“The Vikings” had risen again, and this is the admiring title the country bestowed upon the small group of aggressive businessmen whose high-risk investing bloated the island’s economy to 10 times its GDP, buying up chunks of the British and Continental European high streets in the process. French Connection, Debenhams, Karen Millen, Oasis, Warehouse, Mappin & Webb, Hamleys and many more fell into Icelandic ownership. So did West Ham United football club. When Icelanders visited Copenhagen, they would strut into its smartest department store to buy expensive fashions from “their” shop. Like many British chains, it too was owned by the “Viking” Jon Asgeir Johannesson’s Baugur group: one in the eye for the mother country.

Few stopped to consider, let alone fret over, whether their swift financial ascent would end in an equally steep plunge into oblivion. They were too busy flying to Barcelona for dinner, opening smart boutique hotels, investing in art, planning massive public buildings and buying Range Rovers and Audi Q7s – Iceland is one of the top car-owning countries in the world.

In October, Iceland’s three main banks were nationalised and declared bankrupt. Overnight, any Icelander – and there were many – who had bought these status vehicles or invested in luxury new properties with a foreign loan found the value of their purchases plummeting as repayments soared. The currency, the Krona, fell to one quarter its value before trading in it was suspended. Thousands of hard-working couples nearing retirement age had placed their life savings in stocks with the Landsbanki, Glitnir and Kaupthing banks which led the crash. For many, every penny disappeared into the turbulent waters which connect Iceland with its American and European neighbours.

Frugal Icelanders have been stung too. Food and petrol costs are rising all the time and with interest rates nearing 20 per cent, domestic mortgages, even modest ones, are becoming impossible to service.

“The feeling is we are unable to look after our own affairs” says Hallgrimur Helgason, one of the country’s leading novelists. “We were on our own for years and we went too far, too fast, in too little time. We behaved like children and the first thing we did when the stock market opened 10 years ago was go to London and buy toy stores and candy stores. Now we are bankrupt and there will be no money for years to come and we have more debts than we can ever repay.

“We’re just like kids whose parents went away for the weekend and we trashed the entire house.”

There is no word from the government yet on how it plans to repair the damage. What does that mean for the man on the streets of a country whose coffers are empty? Are we talking soup kitchens, sheltered housing and begging on street corners? Far from it. If you’re as comfortable as Iceland was, the rot has its work cut out before it emerges on the surface.

The streets of the capital are clean and the people could not be more hospitable or charming. On Friday and Saturday nights, a succession of bars and clubs are packed out. Judging by the drunken state of most people, they are still spending money here.

Iceland’s troubles did reveal themselves during last week’s tumultuous events. Peaceful demonstrations began in Reykjavik’s main square, outside the Althing (parliament) building, had begun in October immediately after the crash. Last week they erupted in the worst riots since it became a founding member of Nato in 1949. Rocks were hurled at police and the Althing. Its windows were smashed and the building set alight. Over 130 protesters received treatment after police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and one police officer was seriously injured.

On Friday morning, human rights campaigner and protest organiser Hordur Torfason told a chilling anecdote to illustrate the desperation many Icelanders are feeling. He had received a phone call from a man who said that four generations of his family had lost everything. “He wanted me to help them build a gallows in front of the parliament building,” says Torfason. “I asked him if this was to have some symbolic significance. ‘No,’ came the answer. ‘A member of my family wants to hang himself in public.'”

“I said I would help them but not in this way,” says Torfason. “But he killed himself two days ago.”

Red Cross employees and volunteers are working overtime to prepare for depression and desperation. The relief agency has expanded and is setting up support groups and activities for the unemployed. “One of the effects of long-term unemployment is depression,” says the agency’s Thor Gislason.

More people are attending church, he says, not just for spiritual succour, but because food is sometimes provided for a nominal charge. Soup kitchens, emblematic of Eastern bloc poverty, might be going too far. “We believe people will be too ashamed to stand in line publicly for food,” says Gislason, “so we will organise activities and volunteer work where food is involved instead.”

Icelanders are known for their love of good food. Now is the beginning of a month when people celebrate local cuisine by dining out on traditional dishes, but one smart restaurant with a menu featuring pickled whale blubber, whale sushi and peppered whale steaks, cod liver, pickled herring, smoked puffin breast, reindeer meat and caviar, is empty save a handful of foreign diners. Panorama, a new gourmet restaurant on the top floor of the Centerhotel Arnarhvoll, has magnificent views over Reykjavik’s harbour but is equally subdued. Over in Reykjavik’s 101 Hotel, owned by the “Viking” tycoon Jon Asgeir Johannesson and renowned as a favourite haunt of champagne-loving Kaupthing bankers, there are a few suits and little else.

As many as 8,000 people braved the damp cold to demonstrate last week, the largest number to attend a public protest in the history of Iceland. On Friday, the Prime Minister, Geir Haarde, who has cancer, called an election for9 May and announced that he will not run again. Yet protesters called for his immediate resignation on Saturday. The government’s efforts amount to too little, too late, they say. They want parliament dissolved, a new constitution, and an investigation of those politicians they believe accountable. “Every other person is basically bankrupt,” said organiser Magnus Bjorn Olafsson. “This is a revolution and we want to create a new constitution like the French did.”

All walks of life were evident at the protests; well-heeled Icelanders with their designer coats and dogs were as prevalent as any other group. For many, like Gudbjorg Bjornsdottir, 47, and Runar Mar Sverisson, 50, it was their first experience of protesting. “We thought it was time we showed our support,” says Bjornsdottir, “It is not enough to sit at home. We are not here for our personal situation but for the injustice.”

Asgerdur Einarsdottir, 43, attended a party last week attended mostly by architects and graphic designers. She was the only one there to have a job. She works in Iceland’s remaining steady industry, tourism, for a tour operator which provides visitors with thrills such as snowmobiling up a glacier or driving through lava fields.

Before the crash, Iceland was prohibitively expensive. It is now far more accessible to foreigners but the running costs of her firm, owned by the parents of Barcelona striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, have gone up 110 per cent, and they are losing the lucrative business of indulgent corporate jollies.

On Reykjavik’s main shopping street, Laugavegur, bargains are suddenly to be found: in Saevar Karl, a designer department store, most items are 40 per cent off. Its manager, Tomas Tomasson, notes that Iceland is now the cheapest place in the world to buy Prada.

Everyone blames greed, political corruption and lack of financial regulation for the mess, but most know they must share responsibility. “I feel partly to blame myself,” admits writer Helgason. “We admired the brashness of the Vikings and we all got carried away. We are a young and immature society.”

Torfason says: “Things are bad and they will get much worse. But it is unlikely anyone will starve. There are people with no fixed address here, but none on the street; you would freeze to death. There is no call to be desperate. We are small but we have resources.”

This much is true. The seas are full of fish, geothermal energy and natural gas are abundant. Oil prospecting is beginning. But there is a risk that Iceland will give its riches away in a fire sale to the same Vikings who have already half-sunk the nation once.

Iceland has survived famine, volcanic eruptions and smallpox before. Now it must confront the fact that it has been blighted by a man-made disaster.

Iceland: The facts

*Population: 313,376

*Currency: Icelandic Krona (ISK)

*Unemployment in October 2008 1.9%; January 2009: 7%. Expected to rise to 8.6% in 2010.

*Inflation: 13.1%

*Interest rates 18%

*GDP per capita in 2007: $42,000

*GDP per capita now: $39,400

*The world’s eighteenth largest island, Iceland has nearly 5,000km of coastline.

*Iceland’s natural resources include geothermal power and diatomite, many rivers and waterfalls are used for hydroelectricity.

*Did not gain full independence from Denmark until 1944. Granted limited home rule in 1874.

*Althing, the Icelandic parliament, is the oldest functioning legislative assembly in the world, which was established in 930.

*In 2007 Iceland was ranked the most developed country in the world by the UN.

*The Apollo 11 astronauts trained in Iceland because of the terrain’s similarity to the moon.

No More Excuses?

Posted in Barack Obama, Economy, politics, poverty, racism by allisonkilkenny on January 24, 2009

Charles M. Blow

black-childrenFor the presidential inauguration, blacks descended on Washington in droves with a fanatical, Zacchaeus-like need to catch a glimpse of this M.L.K. 2.0. “Ooo-bama!” For them, he was it — a game changer, soul restorer, dream fulfiller. Everything. Ooo-K.

Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the majority whip, tapped into the fervor Monday night at the BET Honors awards in Washington when he proclaimed, “Every child has lost every excuse.”

What? That’s where I have to put my foot down. That’s going a bridge too far.

I’m a big proponent of personal responsibility, but children too often don’t have a choice. They are either prisoners of their parentage or privileged by it. Some of their excuses are hollow. But other excuses are legitimate, and they didn’t magically disappear when Obama put his left hand on the Lincoln Bible.

Representative Clyburn and those like him would do well to cool this rhetoric lest the enormous and ingrained obstacles facing black children get swept under the rug as Obama is swept into power. For instance:

• According to Child Trends, a Washington research group, 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers. Also, black children are the most likely to live in unsafe neighborhoods. And, black teenagers, both male and female, were more likely to report having been raped.

• According to reports last year from the National Center for Children in Poverty, 60 percent of black children live in low-income families and a third live in poor families, a higher percentage than any other race.

• A 2006 report from National Center for Juvenile Justice said that black children are twice as likely as white and Hispanic children to be the victims of “maltreatment.” The report defines maltreatment as anything ranging from neglect to physical and sexual abuse.

Most of these kids will rise above their circumstances, but too many will succumb to them. Can we really blame them?

Malcolm Gladwell probably said it best in a November interview with New York magazine about his new book, “Outliers”: “I am explicitly turning my back on, I think, these kind of empty models that say, you know, you can be whatever you want to be. Well, actually, you can’t be whatever you want to be. The world decides what you can and can’t be.”

So black people have to keep their feet on the ground even as their heads are in the clouds. If we want to give these children a fighting chance, we must change the worlds they inhabit. That change requires both better policies and better parenting — a change in our houses as well as the White House.

President Obama is a potent symbol, but he’s no panacea.

Desperate Children Flee Zimbabwe, for Lives Just as Bleak

Posted in human rights, poverty, women's rights by allisonkilkenny on January 24, 2009

New York Times

Williad Fire, 16, crossed illegally into South Africa from Zimbabwe with eight friends after the deaths of his parents and an uncle. (Joao Silva for The New York Times)

Williad Fire, 16, crossed illegally into South Africa from Zimbabwe with eight friends after the deaths of his parents and an uncle. (Joao Silva for The New York Times)

They bear the look of street urchins, their eyes on the prowl for useful scraps of garbage and their bodies covered in clothes no cleaner than a mechanic’s rags.

Near midnight, these Zimbabwean children can be found sleeping outside almost anywhere in this border city. A 12-year-old girl named No Matter Hungwe, hunched beneath the reassuring exterior light of the post office, said it was hunger that had pushed her across the border alone.

Her father is dead, and she wanted to help her mother and younger brothers by earning what she could here in South Africa — within certain limits, anyway. “Some men — men with cars — want to sleep with me,” she said, considering the upside against the down. “They have offered me 100 rand,” about $10.

With their nation in a prolonged sequence of crises, more unaccompanied children and women than ever are joining the rush of desperate Zimbabweans illegally crossing the frontier at the Limpopo River, according to the police, local officials and aid workers.

What they are escaping is a broken country where half the people are going hungry, most schools and hospitals are closed or dysfunctional and a cholera epidemic has taken a toll in the thousands. Yet they are arriving in a place where they are unwelcome and are resented as rivals for jobs. Last year, Zimbabweans were part of the quarry in a spate of mob attacks against foreigners.

For those in the know, crossing the border can be a simple chore, a bribe paid on one side and a second bribe on the other. But for the uninitiated and the destitute, the journey is as uncertain as the undercurrents of the Limpopo and the appetites of the crocodiles.

Where is it best to enter the river? Where are the holes in the barbed fences beyond? Where do the soldiers patrol? Perhaps the greatest risk is the gumagumas — the swindlers, thieves and rapists who stalk the vulnerable as they wander in the bush.

Williad Fire, 16, who arrived here on Jan. 4, is one of nine boys who came from Murimuka, a town in a mining region of central Zimbabwe. His story is a fairly typical one of serial catastrophe. He was living with an uncle after his parents died, but then the uncle died, too, stricken in November with an illness that Williad described with a mystified shrug: “He was vomiting blood.”

The boy was hungry, and scrounging in South Africa seemed to hold more promise than scrounging at home. To get train fare south, he sold his most valuable possession, a secondhand pair of Puma sneakers two sizes too big. He and eight friends then did odd jobs in Beitbridge, on the Zimbabwean side of the border, until they had saved about $35.

From there, Williad’s story takes another dismal turn. When the boys neared the river, they were confronted by the gumagumas, who pretended to be helpful, then pounced. “They hit me in the forehead with a rock,” Williad said. “I was carrying everyone’s money, so I was the one to beat.”

But they continued across the river, and here in Musina, the boys from Murimuka slept in the streets for a while, as many other youngsters do. Then they staked claim to a patch of sandy soil under the punishing sun at the Showgrounds, an open athletic field that is the designated repository for refugees. The population hovers around 2,000. Each day new people arrive, and each day familiar faces depart.

The South African government issues temporary asylum papers to about 250 of these refugees a day, entitling them to six months without worry of deportation. Unaccompanied minors are ineligible for this status, though, leaving them in an odd limbo, with no specified place in the bureaucratic shuffle.

Williad and his friends share a single blanket. They cook spaghetti over a fire fed with twigs and cardboard. Cans and buckets fetched from the trash are used as pots. Plastic bottles sliced open along one side serve as bowls.

Honest Mapiriyawo, a 13-year-old orphan, is the boys’ best beggar. Children compete at the supermarkets to carry groceries for shoppers in exchange for tips. Honest is tiny and winsome. People are drawn to his proper diction. “May I assist you?” is the phrasing he prefers.

Another of the Murimuka boys is Diallo Butau, 15. He said his father is dead and his mother had tuberculosis. He bears the guilt of abandoning her. “If I could get some medicine, some pills, I would go back and cure her,” he said.

Georgina Matsaung runs a shelter for children at the Uniting Reformed Church. “You’ll sometimes find boys sleeping in ditches and under bridges, but you won’t find the girls,” she said with a regretful shake of her head. “The girls get quickly taken by men who turn them into women.”

The Musina area has a population of about 57,000, with an additional 15,000 foreigners, overwhelmingly Zimbabweans, at any given time, according to Abram Luruli, the municipal manager. “Many children are scattered in the street,” he admitted, though it is plain enough for anyone to see. At night, they can be found sleeping beneath sheets of plastic along the roadside, a few of them with their minds meandering from ethers inhaled from a bottle of glue.

While the stories of the refugee children are troubling — with penury in Zimbabwe being exchanged for penury here — many of the more horrifying stories in the city involve the rapes of helpless women.

Leticia Shindi, a 39-year-old widow from the village of Madamombe, said she left Zimbabwe on Jan. 4, hoping to get piecework so she could send money back to her two daughters. She had never waded across a river before, and as she eyed the muddy flow, she seized up with fear.

Two young men were preparing to lead others across, and she gratefully joined them. The guides used poles to judge the hidden depths while the rest cautiously held hands as they moved through the shoulder-deep water.

Once across, the two men robbed them all. Because Ms. Shindi had insufficient money, payment was exacted otherwise. “Take off your underpants,” she recalled one gumaguma saying. “Today I am going to be your husband.”

Chengetai Mapfuri, 29, left the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, just after Christmas, carrying her 20-month-old son, Willington. Two knife-wielding gumagumas who raped her took turns, she said, one holding the toddler while the other held her.

Aldah Mawuka, 17, is also from the Harare suburbs. She said the first gumagumas she encountered on Jan. 7 only robbed her; it was the second ones who demanded she pull down her jeans. The rapist was very direct and impatient, she recalled: “If you don’t do it, I’ll kill you.”

South Africa’s national police force is exasperated by the crimes. Capt. Sydney Ringane, seated in his office in Musina, said the surrounding wooded terrain made it too hard to catch the gumagumas. Anyway, most victims do not file complaints. After all, they are here illegally, unless remaining in the Showgrounds. “Last week, I had 1,500 ready for deportation,” he said.

The captain stood up, walking over to a computer screen. “We keep photos of the refugees killed near the border.”

He punched the keyboard and clicked with the mouse. “This woman was raped before she was killed,” he said. “She wasn’t wearing underpants. She was identified for us by some street kids.”

Mention of the children seemed to feed his exasperation. “Street kids, more all the time,” he said. “They come in as if they are playing in a game.”

He asked, “What do we do about these kids?”

Where Sweatshops Are a Dream

Posted in Economy, labor, politics, poverty, worker rights by allisonkilkenny on January 15, 2009

Nicholas Kristof

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia

Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about “labor standards,” I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh.

This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It’s a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires.

The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.

Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.

“I’d love to get a job in a factory,” said Pim Srey Rath, a 19-year-old woman scavenging for plastic. “At least that work is in the shade. Here is where it’s hot.”

Another woman, Vath Sam Oeun, hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job, partly because she has seen other children run over by garbage trucks. Her boy has never been to a doctor or a dentist, and last bathed when he was 2, so a sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous.

I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty. At a time of tremendous economic distress and protectionist pressures, there’s a special danger that tighter labor standards will be used as an excuse to curb trade.

When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop? No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.

My views on sweatshops are shaped by years living in East Asia, watching as living standards soared — including those in my wife’s ancestral village in southern China — because of sweatshop jobs.

Manufacturing is one sector that can provide millions of jobs. Yet sweatshops usually go not to the poorest nations but to better-off countries with more reliable electricity and ports.

I often hear the argument: Labor standards can improve wages and working conditions, without greatly affecting the eventual retail cost of goods. That’s true. But labor standards and “living wages” have a larger impact on production costs that companies are always trying to pare. The result is to push companies to operate more capital-intensive factories in better-off nations like Malaysia, rather than labor-intensive factories in poorer countries like Ghana or Cambodia.

Cambodia has, in fact, pursued an interesting experiment by working with factories to establish decent labor standards and wages. It’s a worthwhile idea, but one result of paying above-market wages is that those in charge of hiring often demand bribes — sometimes a month’s salary — in exchange for a job. In addition, these standards add to production costs, so some factories have closed because of the global economic crisis and the difficulty of competing internationally.

The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn’t to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there. One of the best things America could do for Africa would be to strengthen our program to encourage African imports, called AGOA, and nudge Europe to match it.

Among people who work in development, many strongly believe (but few dare say very loudly) that one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries. But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely.

Look, I know that Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people. But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns a bit less than $1 a day scavenging in the dump. She’s wearing a “Playboy” shirt and hat that she found amid the filth, and she worries about her sister, who lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her.

“It’s dirty, hot and smelly here,” she said wistfully. “A factory is better.”