In 1992, Rush Limbaugh ridiculed Boulder Mayor Leslie Durgin for saying, “We don’t want to become the kind of community where everyone is white, upper-middle class. … We really want to have a diverse community.”
Limbaugh said she wanted to balance out the “yuppies” by importing “lower-income black people.” Durgin said she was actually concerned that “people who are working in Boulder can also afford to live in Boulder.” Increasingly, Boulder employees have ended up living in the surrounding “L” towns.
About the same time, economist Robert Reich was writing about increasing class segregation in America. The ideal of “community” was being perverted by a “secession of the successful.” Complete strangers in a well-off community can “suddenly feel intense solidarity when it is rumored that low-income housing will be constructed in their midst or that a poorer school district will be consolidated with their own.”
Reich said, “If generosity and solidarity end at the border of similarly valued properties, then the most fortunate can be virtuous citizens at little cost. Since most people in one neighborhood or town are equally well off, there is no cause for a guilty conscience. If inhabitants of another area are poorer, let them look to one another. Why should we pay for their schools?”
Today the homeless are a focus of controversy. In 2011, George Epp wrote a guest column in the Boulder Camera about “discrimination against the poor in Boulder.”
Epp, a retired Boulder County sheriff and a board member of Bridge House (a Boulder day shelter for the homeless), wrote that “[a]ttempts to locate facilities to provide services for the homeless meet with strong, sometimes hysterical opposition. When a homeless person is accused of a crime, news accounts use the term ‘homeless’ or ‘transient’ to describe the person, much the same as the reporters of the 1920s referred to ‘Negroes’ and ‘Italians.’ An irony known to those who work in the nonprofit field is that raising money for homeless animals is far easier than raising money to give a hand up to our homeless brothers and sisters.”
He asked how “[h]ow can a community that prides itself on tolerance for diversity be so insensitive to the needs and rights of its least fortunate members?”
Ultimately, homelessness requires a national solution. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing. HUD says the generally accepted definition of housing affordability is no more than 30 percent of monthly income going toward housing costs. Families or individuals who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered “cost-burdened” and can have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.
From Reagan onward, the federal government has pretty much abandoned any role in providing housing assistance to low-income Americans. The “social safety net” has been shredded. For 30 years, we have suffered a rampant growth in income inequality created by “neo-liberal” government policies of deregulation, regressive tax cuts and union-busting.
Fifty years ago, America was more optimistic. A best-selling book called The Other America by Michael Harrington helped inspire the Kennedy/ Johnson “War on Poverty.” It was quite successful. The proportion of people living in poverty dropped from 1 in 6 (1965) to 1 in 9 (1978). The War on Poverty created Medicare and it doubled Social Security payments and indexed them to inflation so that as inflation rose, Social Security benefits would also increase. As a result, poverty rates among the elderly dropped from 30 percent in 1962 to only 9 percent today.
Harrington advocated much more sweeping reforms, particularly public works programs such as the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps. He said we can’t abolish poverty until a vast grassroots movement arises and we have a “new period of political creativity.”
We need to look beyond the New Deal and consider alternative ways of running an economy. Socialism? Why not? Any good proposal that even mildly limits corporate power gets labeled “socialist.”
The Cold War is over. The taboo against discussing socialist ideas has crippled mainstream politics.
Anderson is a retired CU librarian and member of Democratic Socialists of America.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.