The New York City National Deliberation Day session was held May 3, 1998. The topic of the session was "Opportunity and Security in Urban Communities." The speakers were Shlomo Mantz, FIRST Regional Coordinator, and Marcel Van Ooyen, Counsel to City Councilman Gifford Miller (D-Upper East Side).
The first speaker was Shlomo Mantz, FIRST Regional Coordinator for New York City, who gave a presentation on the need for and the role of a national deliberative process. He spoke about the lack of communication in the American political process, the lack of empathy by politicians and the apathy of the American voters towards politics. He noted the need for a new effort and new process to restore some commonality between elected politicians and the mass of voters.
What has been happening to the American political process for the last few years? There has been a basic disconnection between the governing officials and the governed.
One of the most significant changes in the political scene resulted from the ending of the Cold War. Without that major, crucial issue to unify us, both parties have drifted towards their extremes and become more polarized.
Instead of becoming a time of new opportunities and resources, this has become a time of greater divisiveness and apathy. The Republicans drifted towards a vehement, divisive criticism of government. They also moved into an attitude of blaming and criticizing certain groups within the larger society. (This point is stated not to castigate Republicans, but rather to describe their attitude in whatever sense it reflects the country as a whole.)
We have become more divisive, more polarized. In terms of the overall political process, there has been increasing maliciousness, venom. At this time of opportunity, there is a vacuum in the heart of our political process.
Is this who we are? Has this been the American national character all along? Without a major threat or crisis, are we always going to fall to bickering and divisiveness? It seems clear that that can't possibly be correct. Creating this national deliberative process is a step towards restoring that sense of unity, that sense of common values and common purpose.
In terms of specific policy decisions, we seem to go from crisis to crisis, without any broad goals or direction. In domestic affairs, as soon as the Republicans won the majority, they made a steady series of cutbacks. When they tried to cut school lunches, they suddenly found that many voters objected. In response to protests, they canceled the cutback.
At least they acknowledged the people's feelings. But where was their awareness of what mattered to the voters? Where was their communication? Where's the commonality between the governing and the governed? There should be a way to restore the vital connection between people and their government, and that's what FIRST aims to restore.
There is a need for a new process, a new channel of communication between the people and those who govern them. The process we hope to create is one of deliberation between a range of sectors of society. The process we are building is similar to a town meeting. However it has a slightly different focus in being designed to bring together people from a variety of groups within this generation.
NDD is a step towards building that process. NDD is a step in the vital effort for citizens to restore the links of communications with each other and with their elected officials. It is a step towards restoring that unifying ideal, that understanding of common values, that shared sense of purpose.
The group was asked to brainstorm ways to strengthen town meetings and the deliberative process. They were also asked how they would like to see town meetings brought into practice? What issues would they like to see discussed? What groups or segments of society would they like to see invited to the meeting and included in the process?
One person said they feel communities should be convened on the issue of taking an interest in their most local environment. They should make a common goal of cleaning up their neighborhoods.
Also, they should take an interest in environmental aspects of urban planning. He noted that just a few trees on a busy commercial street can hugely improve the appearance.
He said that to establish this process, he would like to see the EPA brought into meetings to offer ideas. He also said there are several research organizations which study the need for a balance between industrial development and environmental preservation, and can offer good information on that.
There was a brief discussion of specific uses of a town meeting. One participant from Queens mentioned that his neighborhood had had a great deal of cohesiveness. However one of its leading citizens was imprisoned recently, and he was surprised to see how much the neighborhood ties had begun to deteriorate. He said that there had been block groups which served as neighborhood resources and had raised money, but they had withered. He would like to see a process of local discussion which would restore these groups.
================================= Shlomo went on to discuss some new political concepts which are being used in the process of planning and governing urban economies. The concepts chosen for discussion are those which are some of the newest and which have the greatest impact on our changing idea of the responsibilities of each citizen and of society as a whole. One is workfare, the other is regionalism.
Workfare is a new policy idea under which all welfare recipients must either find jobs or take part in public work programs, which are known as workfare. It also limits the total amount of time any person can spend receiving welfare benefits.
Regionalism has gained popularity in recent years among planning experts. It involves linking all the suburbs and towns around a specific city into one regional unit. Municipalities within this network must share revenues and must make policy and urban planning decisions together.
By discussing these two concepts together we can see how complementary they are.
The popularity of workfare in recent years has led to a discussion of the responsibilities which welfare recipients have to society to work productively, and what responsibilities society has to them to provide proper training and resources.
The prominence of regionalism in recent years has led to a discussion of the responsibilities which suburbanites have towards city residents and towards urban infrastructure, even if they are not legal residents of the city, and how all can join in building up the area.
Many people are very supportive of workfare, yet become resistant when dealing with regionalism proposals. Placing these two concepts side by side can teach us a lot about the concept of responsibility which our society holds.
---------------------------------------------------- Workfare requires all welfare recipients to find jobs or do community work. It prohibits anyone from receiving welfare for more than five years total. There are other provisions, many of which relate to giving the states more power to decide themselves how to provide benefits.
Workfare has become a popular idea in response to the fact that a large number of people have been welfare recipients for a long period of time. Supporters say that it is good to create a program which will steadily move people towards work. They say that for those who can't get jobs, community work will also be good because it can teach good values and work ethics.
Opponents say that the jobs which are open to welfare recipients do not pay a decent wage. They say that workfare should not be enacted unless better training programs are provided, and programs to help those who have mental or emotional problems.
Workfare supporters reply that workfare is beneficial just by causing people to confront a work routine, and motivating them to find a better situation.
Workfare opponents state that working causes many expenses which are not incurred by regular welfare recipients, such as child care and transportation.
Workfare supporters say that workfare will motivate people to seek out new resources to help them meet those expenses.
----- Efforts at regional planning and revenue collection often are met with resistance, as being unfairly intrusive. But there are many rational reasons for regionalism.
One reason is land usage. Many urban areas have adopted regionalism because they saw uncontrolled, unplanned growth consuming a lot of forest and open spaces. Regionalism enables communities to define growth together and to plan new development. In Portland, Oregon, the local communities set a boundary around the city outside which no new developments can be built.
Another reason for regionalism is the imbalance of resources. Often, inner cities are deteriorating while suburbs are thriving. Regionalism call for financial and other resources to go from suburbs to the city. This aspect often meets with the most resistance. Opponents of regionalism call this government interference. However there is a proven connection between the prosperity of cities and of their suburbs. Suburbs' income goes up when the city does well.
An awareness of these interlocking concepts can improve our political process. Imagine the elevation in our political process if every political group offered its own comprehensive idea of the responsibilities of all groups in society, instead of picking a group to beat up on. Imagine how different things would be if, whenever responsibilities were created for one group (like workfare), they were accompanied by responsibilities placed on the rest of society (like regionalism). Imagine the improvement in our political discourse.
It is that understanding of interlocking individual responsibilities, combining to form a social trust, that is the purpose of our foundation. We hope to continue this process at future events.
The premise of this discussion, or any FIRST discussion, is that it is possible to discuss the most current political issues without becoming partisan, by discussing them in terms of the interlocking responsibilities of each party to the issues, instead of simply defining blame or criticism.
So to open debate, participants were asked, what can each group bring to the table to make urban communities better? What responsibilities would they like to see assumed by workfare recipients? Or by the government and its social agencies? Or by any of the groups discussed here?
The first item of discussion was workfare.
One person stated that his father is an immigrant who came here with children, and found it difficult to find the time or money to get an education. He feels that welfare within certain guidelines could help people like his father.
Another person said that in low-income housing near his home, he has seen 13-year-olds on welfare. He feels they need to be moved off public assistance.
He said at a public school in is area, there is an outreach program designed to help "people at the bottom". This program deals with people who are the most dysfunctional. It deals with the mental or emotional problems and moves them on. It is successful 90% of the time. This federal program was cut back along with other welfare programs during the federal cutbacks.
Another suggestion was to have community centers across the country which would have a comprehensive program for teaching values and basic skills. It should include private organizations which would offer expertise. He said this could help both children and parents.
One person replied that this had existed in his neighborhood schools but had been cut back in recent years.
Another comment was that welfare should be given a different name, feeling that this name is a bit condescending. It is degrading to be called a handout and should be considered more as a partnership with public programs.
One person stated that a friend of hers had left her husband and had difficulty covering all expenses. Her mother had helped take care of her children, but if she'd relied on welfare alone, she couldn't have done it.
The group was asked how the problem of the chronic underclass should be handled, as opposed to the individual situations described above where one person experiences hardship. Several people stated that individuals who were on welfare out of habit should be dealt with differently, but should receive sufficient programs and resources.
Another comment was that welfare should not limit possible income*people should be able to attain a higher level of income without losing benefits.
---------------------------------------------- The guest speaker was Marcel Van Ooyen, Counsel to Councilman Gifford Miller (D-Upper East Side).
Marcel stated that Councilman Miller had asked the mayor to provide statistics on what was happening to people on welfare who joined the workfare program, and had met with resistance. Marcel stated that Mayor Giuliani's workfare program is being criticized for putting workfare participants into jobs which are normally staffed by regular workers. The people who do this on workfare do not get proper training or safety equipment, since they are not considered "real" workers.
Increasingly, people are expressing criticism over the lack of training, and the lack of good conditions.
Marcel said that workfare is preventing people from getting training for better jobs. Under the new law, up to 20% of the people in a welfare program may delay working in order to take classes. However, this number is used up just by the mothers who are getting a high school education. There are no exemptions left for those who want to take college courses.
Also some people are mentally ill, and can't get work at all. If they fall outside the 20% exemption, they have no coverage.
Marcel stated that some city workers were laid off and went on welfare. When they went on workfare, some of them got the same jobs they had held as regular workers.
He stated that some feel that if workfare recipients are going to get regular jobs, it should be connected to regular training. Most training occurs through unions or trade guilds. The proportion of minorities in these organizations does not match the proportion of minorities in the overall population.
------------ Following Marcel's address, there was a discussion of the specific implementation of workfare in New York City.
One comment was that making people work in those conditions was like servitude. Workfare can be simple jobs, but if it is going to be hard ones, then workfare workers should be treated like regular workers.
Another person companies should have liability for workfare recipients, in order to motivate them to take better safe guards, and it should be permissible for workfare recipients to sue for noticeable, major violations. People on workfare have no legal recourse, so they are unable to protect themselves. Also, the people who supervise them on the job have a lot of power over the evaluation which determines their benefits, so they are afraid to protest.
Another comment was that the ACORN program has been used in NYC public schools and has been shown to be successful. It teaches them basic coping skills.
Another comment was that even if there is no formal training system, there should at least be an informal effort to continually give them new experiences or skills.
One person stated that some immigrants had moved into his neighborhood recently. He is disturbed to note how many of them go on welfare.
Also, several people said states should be more active in giving and running these services. An automatic five-year limit eliminates the ability to adapt to individual needs.
Summary of main points:
The group feels that workfare can have some positive effects. It is a useful means to address the existence of a persistent underclass. However there need to be more resources provided to enable people on welfare to find good jobs. Training should be provided within workfare. Also people should get help in paying pay the additional expenses which result from working.
Some people described actual situations they had seen where young people were receiving welfare without ever trying to obtain work. They felt that some program is needed to provide concrete help to these people, to teach them basic skills and get jobs.
There was also a feeling that even if workfare recipients are not regular employees, they should receive the safety equipment and protection which other workers do.
Summary of main points on discussion of the deliberation process and building community in urban centers:
Traditional institutions such as block associations are declining and need to be restored. They can still serve many useful functions. More needs to be done to get the next generation involved.
One issue with a lot of potential is environmental quality. This is a way to potentially attract the young. We can motivate them to take a more active interest in what's happening in their neighborhoods. The process should include both local neighborhood organizations and national groups which can inform people about issues.
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