Quick, name the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (keep quiet, RedStar).
Betcha can't - it's Alphonso Jackson. He ran the St. Louis Housing Authority for 12 years, and the Housing Authority of the City of Dallas for 17 years. But mostly, he's a friend of George Bush (naturally) - and he was President of American Electrical Power in Austin, when Bush was Governor. There are rumors he's about to be replaced (it would be an easy switch to replace him with failed Maryland Governor candidate Michael Steele). Jackson replaced Mel Martinez, the new head of the RNC.
I start here to give some sense of how under the radar the public housing issue is right now. That's likely to change, as a number of urban-based Representatives move into major committee chairmanships (Charlie Rangel, in particular, comes to mind).
But public housing - like many issues for the poor - has simply languished for at least six years, and really more; while the Clinton Administration did implement a number of good ideas (including reforming the administration of public housing authorities, and ending the "warehousing" concept of high-rise boxes that isolated poor people and helped create havens for drug crime). But the moderate DLC approach they favored, combined with a Republican Congress after 1994, led to embracing schemes that have resulted in an abandonment of a long term commitment to providing housing solutions for all - in exchange for an emphasis on improving gentrification in major cities and decreasing public housing stock via the program HOPE VI, and implementing a voucher system to encourage dispersement (vouchers which rarely are accepted as widely as they should be in a program which has been underfunded), a program called Moving To Opportunity (MTO). And let's just say the last six years haven't helped (Republicans, urban policy, government programs... you do the math), and leave it at that - the overall results of these programs have been mixed, at best.
This is a roundabout way of bringing in some recent posts from RedStar, who has made redevelopment in New Orleans part of her graduate work at MIT (we are very proud of her), and who has written - with considerable brio, anger and sadness - some terrific stuff on the dilemmas there. I do not want to steal her thunder (or excessively plagiarize), so I mostly encourage looking at them (start here, go here, and check here... for starters). I'm not sure even RedStar knows, but my searching for information led me to an interesting fact - Mary Landrieu's father was HUD Secretary in the Carter Administration (after being Mayor of New Orleans), and economic development was important to him. It's sad to see that legacy being torn apart in the aftermath of the hurricanen (and it gives some additional insight into why Senator Landrieu is so passionate on rebuilding in NOLA).
The point is that it's not at all clear that the social engineering that's been going on in HUD programs and with Welfare Reform hasn't simply made the "invisible poor" just that - invisible. The welfare rolls have decreased; fewer people are using the MTO vouchers, and they are winding up in more mixed-level housing where fewer people are likely to be poor. It may be that things are vastly better, but really, we have absolutely no idea (and little data) to really back that up. Discouragements across the system have put barriers in place to people seeking help. And as Ezra noted recently, getting out of poverty requires a support system most people don't have.
RedStar wrote to me (as I was preparing this post):
One thing that I harp on over and over in my own work about Katrina is how much this Administration used it to advance their ideological agenda about government and rolling back social support programs. They denied host states access to Medicaid for evacuees, they used trailers instead of section 8 vouchers (which were used post-Northridge earthquake so successfully they re-housed ~14,000 pp in a matter of weeks...I'd have to double check the #s but it's something like that...Clinton got a lot of props for that, as you can imagine), and these kinds of actions went largely unnoticed by the public eye. We're not particularly knowledgeable about what to expect after a major disaster, and Iraq quickly resumed being a major distraction, and Americans generally missed that the Admin actually used Katrina in the worst possible way - to deliberately discount programs like Medicaid and HUD by putting all the responsibility w/FEMA - i.e., people's post-storm lives were an act of God, therefore our disaster unit should deal with it (against the rules, btw), and also, if they used HUD and medicaid and people saw how these programs can be an overall safety net for all Americans in time of crisis, then oh no! we might think they have some value. And we can't have that....
The war on the poor has been underway for the last 3 decades. First economic restructuring (Bretton Woods, etc.) got everyone feeling a little uneasy about their own security; then Reagan came in and set the tone with his welfare queens nonsense, by the time Clinton the appeaser was in charge, 16 years of backlash and globalization and widening inequality led to welfare reform; since '96 we've just set about trying to erase the poor from our rolls and minds, esp. as their ranks swell with undocumented workers, immigrants, etc. etc. (Though Americans seem to totally miss the point that only among white Americans did poverty rise when last measured in 2004; for Asians it fell and for all other ethnic groups it held. It also rose in the Midwest more than elsewhere, I think.) The poor are mostly white, but blacks, Latinos and Am.Inds. have disproportionate percentages of poor in their ranks. But people confound this info and think the poor are minorities different from them and trying to steal their jobs and make too much noise in their streets and rob their houses and hurt their wives. Or so it seems the rhetoric goes. And economic liberalism just leaves us thinking no one's responsible for one another anymore; that we're on our own, hopefully for the better; all we have is the market. No one realizes that the government makes the market.
If we're serious as Democrats about being in charge, then it's how we deal with the uncomfortable, undealt with issues that matters. I'm all for creative solutions to familar problems. But I'm with RedStar and others - gentrification in the cities (of which I am a part) hasn't solved the housing crisis, it's worsened it. And given that HUD has languished now, for years, I am disheartened at the prospects for improvement. But we won, dammit. And that means digging under the rocks and bringing some ugly facts into the light.
And then dealing with them.