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Follow the money 

I've been hoping for years that Swillburg, to mention only one city neighborhood on my list, would get substantial "targeted investment" from higher levels of government.

            And lo and behold, as the season of good tidings peaked, the government took out its checkbook, wrote a big one ($25 million), and presented it in Swillburg.

            The last preposition is crucial. The presentation was not to Swillburg.

            You might say the $25 mil was a little too narrowly targeted. It was a Lotto payout to one man who'd bought his winning ticket in a neighborhood bar. The check was literally a big one: an oversized bank draft made for a photo-op, and also designed to suck in the myriad losers whose ticket purchases fill the kitty.

            Wouldn't you know it, the winner lives not in the neighborhood but in Brighton, at least for the time being. But the bar owner got $25,000 as a secondary prize. And Swillburg had its flicker of fame --- which is good, if it brings more people to the eternally up-and-coming South Clinton-South Goodman area.

            Nothing personal. I wish the winner all the best. But I wonder about our urban areas and how lotto-capitalism fails them.

The signs of failure are everywhere. And they make for a sobering end-of-the-year appraisal.

            In mid-December, the US Conference of Mayors issued a report on hunger and homelessness this past year in 25 cities. Overall, the report said, requests for "emergency food assistance" went up 19 percent. Requests for "shelter assistance" in the 18 worst-off cities went up by the same percentage. Almost half those seeking emergency food were members of families, and more than a third of the adults were employed. And as usual, people of color bore the greatest burden: "The homeless population is estimated to be 50 percent African-American," says the report.

            Yet with all this pain, the resources to fight these problems actually became scarcer in more than half of the 25 cities.

            We've all seen the lines at the Lotto counter. Less obviously, people are queuing up for a shot at affordable housing. And it's clear from the Mayors' report that even cities in the better-off parts of the country are struggling. In Denver, for example, the average wait for public housing is 24 months; the wait there for Section 8 vouchers (another ticket to a decent place to live) is six months. Salt Lake City's stats are in the same league --- though it has even longer Section 8 waits. Miami, though, is the standout. The average wait there for public housing is 84 months, and it takes an average 60 months to get a voucher.

            What about our part of the country? Oddly, no New York cities were surveyed. But there were some Rust Belt analogues to Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, etc. Take Philadelphia: A 24-month wait for public housing, and the same length of time to get a Section 8 voucher. Or Trenton, New Jersey: again, a two year wait for public housing.

            But by gum, we've got bombs. What else is an up-and-coming, or is it a downward-hurtling, empire to do?

            Late news reports indicate War Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is threatening North Korea even as his minions are preparing for all-out war against Iraq. Of course, the threat is issued the customary way --- by assuring the peace-loving nations of the world that there's "no plan to attack," as an AP report recently phrased it.

            Pretty soon we'll strike Baghdad, then watch its shelter assistance stats go stratospheric.

Drop the final "o" from Lotto and you get another scandal: the man who praised segregation. (Trent also claimed he fell into a trap set by political enemies. He must have been thinking of some very old enemies from around here --- like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.) Lott is the personification of the pit the US is digging for itself.

            Our fearsome leaders are cruising toward disaster on a global scale. The powderkegs multiply, even apart from Korea and Iraq. Look at US policy vis-à-vis Israel/Palestine and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. You might it call it our external urban policy --- fitfully supporting the Bush-designated "man of peace" Ariel Sharon and his brand of colonialism.

            "Christmas is canceled in the streets, if not the churches, of Bethlehem," said a recent Times of London report. A Franciscan cleric at the Church of the Nativity told the Times: "Across the world billions of people will be celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, but here, at the center of all this attention, Christians cannot celebrate. We don't have the money and it is not right with people in such miserable circumstances. Our main concern is not decorations, it is getting food for the people."

            The people of Bethlehem --- on whom Israeli occupation forces impose collective punishment for the crimes of individual Palestinians and minority factions --- aren't alone. Edward Said, writing in Al Ahram Weekly just before Christmas, said the Palestinian unemployment rate is now 65 percent. More than 40 percent of the population, he said, "is malnourished, and famine is now a genuine threat."

            Of course, things don't look much different in Iraq, what with a decade of murderous US-enforced sanctions, never mind what may happen after an invasion.

            Hunger here, hunger there...

            (By the way, kudos to Sean Penn, and retroactively to Jane Fonda, with whom the rabid right wing is now comparing him. It's always encouraging when individual Americans speak honestly and take some risks for justice.)

My wrap-up wouldn't be complete without some hopeful news. And there's actually plenty of it.

            My favorite is the up-and-coming "anti-globalization" movement.

            Better to call it the global justice movement. A lot of younger people, especially, are forging ties with industrial workers, farmers, students, and human rights advocates around the world. The manifold aim is open borders, cross-cultural understanding, environmental sanity, and fair rather than "free" trade. You can judge the movement by the mass media coverage, which --- though regularly dismissive, contemptuous, clueless, uninquisitive, or absent --- has failed to discredit it.

            The common wisdom is that this movement is disorganized, leaderless. And for sure, it's anti-hierarchical. But it's actually a network of groups that make New York State's sleight-of-hand fundraising schemes --- like Lotto --- look more pathetic than shell games.

            One such group, the California-based Global Exchange, has been a leader in merging political campaigns with bread-and-butter issues. For example, the group trains a searchlight on human rights abuses in Colombia, which continue partly because of Bush administration enthusiasm for military aid and the "war on drugs." But Global Exchange has a very bread-and-butter approach, too: The group is waging its own style of war against unfair coffee and chocolate trade practices, through education as well as direct support for companies that give Third World producers a decent return.

            When you come down to it, that's what most people want: a chance to participate in the economy and get rewarded justly for their work.

            But that's a radical proposition in a country that increasingly takes from the poor and gives to the rich --- or the nouveaux riches.

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