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FAIR HOUSING WHACKED: TUFTS STUDENTS FIGHT ADMIN PROPOSAL TO ESTABLISH “CLASSIST” DORM SYSTEM

Tufts students march against tiered housing policy. Photo by Amira Al-Subaey, Tufts class of 2019.
Tufts students march against tiered housing policy. Photo by Amira Al-Subaey, Tufts class of 2019.

 

December 5, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

More than 200 Tufts University students, faculty, and allies from surrounding communities held a march and demonstration last week to protest a new campus housing policy, according to the Boston Herald. Over the summer, the Tufts administration announced that its annual lottery system for on-campus housing during each academic year would be heavily modified to establish “14 different tiers, ranging from $8,220 to $10,219 a year, in contrast to the $7,934 students currently pay.”

 

According to a recent press release from the Tufts Housing League (THL), Tufts Student Action, and several other student groups: “The administration’s tiered housing proposal will effectively segregate dorms by income levels. Students able to afford the $2,000-a-year difference will live in the nicest dorms, while low-income students, middle-income students, and students on financial aid will opt to live in old dorms without kitchens—or be forced to live off-campus and exacerbate the lack of affordable housing in the Somerville and Medford communities. This classist pricing plan reflects the same gentrifying process that the university is imposing on the surrounding communities.…”

 

The student activists are demanding that “Tufts end this policy, commit to building a new dorm, and create a democratic decision-making structure.” They point out that the university has already been accepting more students than it can house and that this move will only force more students off-campus where they will put even more pressure on an overburdened local housing market. Pushing rental, condo, and house prices even further skyward.

 

There is clearly a good deal of student resentment about the move given that the release explains that “less than 24 hours after the initial tiered housing announcement was sent to students on July 23, THL put out a statement signed by 29 student groups and a petition which included 1,582 signatures (over 1,000 garnered in the first 48 hours alone).”

 

Tufts spokesman Patrick Collins told the Herald that “the school is simply following the footsteps of Bay State colleges.” He then “acknowledged some students would see an increase in housing costs” but said that student aid would be adjusted no matter what kind of housing they selected.

 

A quick glance at the “Tufts plans to move to a more expensive tiered housing system, because screw you” discussion on the /r/Tufts subreddit provides a window into informed student opinion on the university position. According to anonymous poster “75812”: “They don’t increase financial aid grants in proportion to cost increases, though they always claim that the ability to pay stays the same. In reality they give you more loans, and in some cases ‘review your need’ and then cut your aid entirely. A lot of my friends, particularly those involved in student organizing (hmmmmmmm) have lost all their aid and had to transfer. But it’s okay because 50k in loans meets 100% of your demonstrated need, even though you’ll be a serf for ten years! Many students on financial aid work two or three campus jobs, while others work nearly full time at off campus shops and restaurants.”

 

The THL’s “Coalition Statement Opposing the Tufts Administration’s Plan to Implement Tiered Housing Prices” echos that sentiment: “Tiered pricing would be a betrayal of low-income students, yet another indication, along with perpetually rising tuition and paltry student resources, that the administration does not care about them. This policy would invariably lead to economic segregation on campus as richer students congregate in the more expensive dorms and lower-income and middle-class students are left with the cheaper, less comfortable housing units. Despite claims to the contrary, students on financial aid may be blocked from higher-cost housing, either by complicated or inadequate reimbursement policy or by self selection.”

 

Unsurprisingly, the lived experience of on-campus financial aid students at an elite school (in terms of its $73,500 sticker price this academic year at least) like Tufts is a far cry from administration public relations speak on matters like housing. So, I think the activists are doing a fine job of researching the policy crisis the school’s action is creating and proposing an eminently reasonable solution: scrap the plan and build at least one new dorm at speed.

 

This is an old problem in Boston and environs given how many institutions of higher learning we have in the area. In fact, Boston University under the leadership of the infamous John Silber was doing pretty much the same thing when I started school there in 1984. Over-accepting students to get the (bloated) tuition and (considerable) federal loan monies that came with them, and then placing literally hundreds of the new arrivals who we called “nomads” into hotel rooms for at least a semester or two. Until the usual forces of attrition did their job, and brought student numbers down to what would fit in the already packed dorms. Which only worked after floor lounges were converted to dorm rooms. The main aspect of that past crisis that differs from the current imbroglio at Tufts was that BU did not have a tiered dorm system at that time.

 

Over the intervening decades, big private schools like BU and Northeastern have gradually built more dorms and mandated that students stay in dorms at least the first year or two—under pressure from abutting neighborhoods and city governments. But they still play an outsized role in causing our region’s ongoing housing crisis.

 

All our wildly expensive major universities—Tufts, MIT, and Harvard first among them—make the situation even worse than it would otherwise be by attracting very wealthy students in significant numbers to move to the Boston area. Who then distort the housing market on their own by offering landlords mountains of cash on demand for properties that would have once rented or sold for far less.

 

So it’s great to see a major coalition of students in the very heart of this system push back against something that will throw gasoline on the fire of bad housing policy at a school like Tufts.

 

However, I will add (as I have many times before) that we’re only going to fix all the problems that our existing university system creates—including housing crises—when we finally admit that the entire American higher education system is already public due to massive government subsidies at every level, and make the governance of all colleges public as well. While mandating university education as a right in a new K-20 system—coupled with expanded lifelong educational opportunities. All funded directly out of taxes like K-12 ed is now. Though preferably through income taxes, not property taxes… to ensure much more equality in educational outcome.

 

That’s way too tall an order for a bunch of student activists at one school to take on given everything they’ll have to do to win their current housing fight. As such, I’m just putting it out there for now.

 

Still, if enough student activists at enough colleges get behind the demand for federal higher ed reform it could happen overnight. And our society would be the better for it, when every student born in this country and every immigrant student besides is able to go all the way to grad school without paying a dime beyond taxes everyone pays anyway. Without, therefore, any of the terrible student debt that is crushing the life out of millions of former college students—young and old.

 

Sure, we’ll have to scrap a few government weapons programs to cover the new costs. And ludicrously large college “endowments”—like Tufts’ $1.8 billion war chest as of June 2017—that exist in no small part because schools get so much public money, would naturally need to be seized by the feds to help provide solid college educations for all who want one. But that’s a (super fun) discussion for another day.

 

For now, best wishes to the Tufts student activists. Hope you all force your administration to build a much-needed new dorm, and move from strength to strength in your campaign to make your school’s housing policy more fair for its campus community and surrounding communities alike.

 

Readers who would like to support the student campaign can check out the Tufts Housing League’s Facebook page at facebook.com/TuftsHousingLeague/.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GROSS POINTS BLANK: BOSTON’S TOP COP SHOULD THINK TWICE BEFORE BASHING THE ACLU

Mayor Walsh announcing William Gross as new police commissioner from July 2018 via City of Boston
Mayor Walsh announcing William Gross as new police commissioner from July 2018 via City of Boston

 

November 27, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

BPD Commissioner William Gross has had a bad few days. Last week, ACLU Massachusetts sued the city of Boston for using “a system—nicknamed the ‘gang packet’—which awards points for choice of clothes and social media selfies, and [is] used to designate ‘gang affiliation’ without any accompanying allegations of criminal activity,” according a Guardian article by DigBoston contributing writer Sarah Betancourt.

 

In response, Gross had a meltdown on his personal Facebook account—accusing the ACLU of being “paper warriors” who “turn a blind eye to ‘atrocities,’” according to the Boston Herald.

 

His attack was weak. And it was off the wall. He said that the civil liberties organization was nowhere to be found when the BPD has done tough stuff like working in East Boston and El Salvador to find ways to bring the international MS-13 gang to heel. He then said that ACLU did not have the “‘common decency’ to call with condolences after a city cop was shot in the face.”

 

“No ACLU when officers are shot. No ACLU when we help,” Gross continued.

 

ACLU Mass Executive Director Carol Rose then fired back the following statement, also in the Herald:

 

Commissioner Gross’ accusations appear to be nothing more than an attempt to divert attention from the serious issues raised by an ACLU lawsuit that seeks to uncover whether the Boston Police Department is unfairly and arbitrarily targeting people of color. … In order to make Boston a safe city for all its residents, we must meaningfully address discriminatory policing, and confront the role the gang database plays in the lives of young Black and Latinx people in our city.

 

Naturally, I’m going to side with the ACLU on this one.

 

Because, first, civil liberties lawyers are civil liberties lawyers and cops are cops. So, right away, Gross is off base in attacking the ACLU for doing its job. Which is to defend civil rights for all American citizens and immigrants to these shores. Including putative gang members. No surprise he’s doing that, though. When faced with a serious critique, it makes sense that he finds it easier to toss red meat to the “Blue Lives Matter”/“cops can do no wrong” crowd than to try to refute ACLU claims head on. Because he knows it’s going to be tough to win such a debate. Especially after the ACLU demonstrated that BPD PR about its being a kinder, gentler praetorian guard was less than truthful in a landmark 2015 report that “found racial disparities in the BPD’s stops-and-frisks that could not be explained by crime or other non-race factors.” Something local police, and their commissioner most of all, cannot have forgotten.

 

Second, cops are public servants and government employees. It’s therefore up to government officials to issue formal condolences when police officers get injured or killed in the line of duty. Which officials like Mayor Marty Walsh—who publicly supported Gross as this article went to press—do all the time. Private citizens like ACLU staff can send their best wishes at such times or not. It’s neither required nor expected of them.

 

Third, the fact that ACLU observers may be present where police are working, something that particularly irked Gross, is no surprise at all. They’re doing their jobs—which sometimes involves watching cops to make sure they’re not violating anyone’s civil liberties. While the cops are doing theirs—which all too often does result in civil liberties violations. Like tarring someone as a gang member in a database based on super sketchy criteria. And then trying to pretend that it’s no big deal.

 

Finally, if Commissioner Gross wants to trash the ACLU on such ludicrous grounds, then he has to accept that other people—like this journalist—are going to come back at him with facts.

 

For example, the fact that police cannot defeat gangs. Especially in the black and Latino/a communities under discussion in this dustup. Even assuming they want to. Which is not a good assumption, since a primary rationale for the outsized police budgets of this era is the threat of gang violence.

 

Cops can’t stop gangs because myriad problems lead to their formation. Problems that sociologists and anthropologists and psychologists have studied exhaustively for over 100 years. Problems of family. Problems of intergenerational networks. Problems of communication. Problems of geography. Problems of education. Problems of substance abuse. Problems of incarceration. And worst of all, the problems of structural racism and entrenched economic inequality.

 

Racism and poverty. Problems that at their heart are problems of capitalism. A political economic system based on economic inequality… and, in these United States, on structural racism. A system propped up by increasingly militarized police forces. Whose job, before all other jobs, is to protect the rich and powerful. And to repress the poor and marginalized. For fear they should rise up and demand a better deal. As they have done on numerous occasions in American history.

 

So, maybe Commissioner Gross should think twice before taking cheap shots at an organization whose only “failing” is trying to protect disenfranchised communities from the very police who claim they are there to do the same thing.

 

Because he may find that the conversation moves in a direction that he doesn’t like.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

QUESTION 1: THE ROAD NOT TRAVELLED

Creative Commons Public Domain
Creative Commons Public Domain

A broader appeal could have resulted in a win for nurses and patients

 

November 14, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

There was no way I was going to criticize Question 1, prosaically dubbed the Nurse-Patient Assignment Limits Initiative, in advance of Election Day. As a longtime labor advocate, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to publicly gainsay a decent union, the Mass Nurses Association (MNA). Even though I thought that its ballot campaign was a strategic miscalculation. But now that the election’s over and the PR dust around the effort is settling, I think it’s important to say something on the matter. Because I hate to see popular organizations I like make political moves that I view to be avoidable mistakes. And I really want the labor movement to go from strength to strength in this difficult era for working people. Not get crushed at the polls.

 

The referendum question, for those of you who need a refresher, aimed to mandate specific staff-to-patient ratios for registered nurses in the Bay State so that RNs would have fewer patients to care for on each shift in most situations. The aim of the initiative was to reduce overwork for RNs and improve patient care. Certainly laudable goals. And ones that the MNA and other advocates have been fighting to reach for years, according to the union’s own literature. In the course of that struggle, the MNA had tried to win better staffing ratios at the contract bargaining table, and in the regulatory and legislative arenas. All with limited success.

 

Finally, they decided to take the issue to the voters. A sensible step… when the other efforts didn’t bring the desired results.

 

But Question 1 was resoundingly defeated—with 70.38 percent voting against, and only 29.62 percent in favor. When just a couple of months ago, it looked like the union position might prevail. So I think it’s worth looking at why the initiative failed.

 

It’s certainly true that one reason for the outcome was that the hospital industry had significantly deeper pockets than the MNA and its allies. But only by a factor of two-to-one. Which is not terrible for this kind of David v. Goliath fight. According to Ballotpedia, the labor-backed Committee to Ensure Safe Patient Care raised over $11 million ($10 million plus of that sum from the MNA) to the hospital industry-supported Coalition to Protect Patient Safety’s $26 million ($25 million of that total coming from the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association).

 

If Question 1 co-author 1199SEIU—a larger healthcare workers’ union—had not chosen to remain neutral on the question it helped draft, perhaps there would have been funding parity between the two sides. Yet even without the extra money and troops SEIU would have brought with it, the MNA put an impressive organizing campaign on the ground.

 

So I don’t think money’s the main factor behind the strong no vote on the MNA ballot effort.

 

I think the big problem with Question 1 was that it took a policy wonk approach that appeared to benefit a relatively small group of workers if passed. Rather than a rights-based approach that could have demanded direct benefits for a demonstrably larger community. Namely patients. A group that includes literally everyone in the state at one time or another.

 

So, as written, the referendum question appeared to mainly benefit registered nurses. And that is where the MNA and allies immediately ran into trouble. There aren’t that many RNs. According to the Mass Board of Registration in Nursing, there were 130,048 RN licensees in 2018. Which it says includes 12,112 active advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs)—mainly nurse practitioners with master’s degrees.

 

If we subtract the APRNs, we’re left with nearly 120,000 RNs of various types out of a total workforce of over 3,500,000. Or about 3.4 percent of Massachusetts workers. A significant group. But not a major group like, again, all the once-and-future patients in the state.

 

MNA definitely tried to target the political campaign around their initiative on benefits to patient safety. The difficulty the union faced there was that the language of Question 1 was quite obviously framed more around what was good for RNs than what was good for patients. Even its committee name pointed to “safe patient care”—wording aimed at nurses—while the hospital industry committee name directly mentioned “patient safety.” In a situation where the ballot campaign’s opposition seemingly put the interest of the much larger community of patients front and center while the MNA didn’t, the union lost control of its own narrative. Which probably resulted in the one group that should have backed the question strongly—RNs—being almost evenly split (48 percent for, 45 percent against) on it by the time of the vote, according to a poll by WBUR.

 

The nurses’ union also tried to make a yes vote on its initiative sound like a great struggle for the labor movement as a whole. Yet here again, it was hamstrung by the narrow language of its referendum question. MNA and other advocates strove mightily to show that a vote for Question 1 was a vote for all workers. But once people sympathetic to labor and the working class in general read the question, what did they see?

 

The question didn’t seek to expand workers’ power in any broad way. It didn’t try to expand patients’ rights, although it could have potentially improved their care. And it didn’t expand the rights of any other stakeholder communities.

 

Mostly what people saw was a question that would raise costs for hospitals and only help one group of healthcare workers—registered nurses. Not orderlies, not techs, not LPNs, not physical therapists, not respiratory therapists, not nutritionists, not speech therapists, not physician assistants, not pharmacists, and certainly not doctors.

 

Add to those problems the fact that Question 1 was too long—the summary presented on voters’ ballots was twice the length of either of the other two questions at 626 words—and too technical (using inside baseball language like “[t]he proposed law would also require every covered facility to develop a written patient acuity tool for each unit to evaluate the condition of each patient”), and it seems pretty clear in hindsight that the effort was doomed from the start. Matching the hospital industry dollar for dollar likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome enough for the MNA to win.

 

I’m writing this brief analysis to make sure that similar future efforts take such issues into account in advance. And that labor advocates choosing to embark upon referendum campaigns going forward make sure that they are rights-based and expand power for major communities of interest.

 

That is the path to victory for grassroots political campaigns of any type. Most especially ones aimed at expanding rights for working people and other currently disenfranchised groups.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

BOSTON FIDDLES WHILE THE WORLD BURNS

City government continues issuing reports while UN calls for immediate action

 

October 24, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

When writing about human-induced global warming on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to pace oneself. Because it’s such a relentlessly depressing topic that highlighting it too often can backfire. Faced with an existential threat of such magnitude that human civilization—and perhaps the human race itself—may well be doomed, people have a tendency to just tune out. Figuring that “we may indeed be doomed, but not just yet.” Which reflects a serious misunderstanding of how doom works. And more importantly, neglects to factor in how the avoidance of thinking about approaching doom makes its swift arrival all the more certain. By cultivating inaction, when immediate and militant action is called for.

 

Be that as it may, there are times when journalists like myself cannot just let a notable happening pass without comment. And Mayor Marty Walsh’s global warming-related press conference of last week was certainly such a one.

 

In keeping with previous junkets on the same theme, Walsh rehearsed yet another version of the same report he’s been trotting out for the last couple of years. This time entitled “Resilient Boston Harbor.” Where the fashionable foundation buzzword “resilient” stands in for “doing the cheapest, least effective thing possible.” Since like previous versions the report:

1) doesn’t propose binding regulation to force the corporations responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions in Boston to do what is necessary to make the city carbon neutral by its target date of 2050

2) continues to use lower estimates for threats like sea level rise and ever-increasing air temperature rather than higher credible estimates when planning city responses, and

3) doesn’t set hard timetables for actually building the limited defensive measures it does call for… measures that basically assume that efforts to make Boston—and every significant polity on the planet—carbon-neutral will fail.

 

Most everything the city might do to achieve carbon neutrality and adapt to the negative effects of global warming—beyond generating more reports—is conveniently pushed off to a time well after the Walsh administration is likely to be out of office.

 

Worse still, the new Boston paper got released just days after a devastating new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published by the United Nations—which says if governments worldwide haven’t made their nations carbon-neutral by 2040, then humanity has no hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. Meaning that we’re on track for the far worse scenarios of 2 degrees celsius of warming and above… that IPCC report authors say will be much more destructive to multiple planetary systems than previously anticipated. Making Boston’s current plans even more inadequate than they already are.

 

In fact, the only mention of completed (or nearly completed) climate remediation efforts in the press release for the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is a brief passage indicating that “a deployable floodwall system has been installed across the East Boston Greenway, and a section of Main Street in Charlestown is being elevated.” And most every proposed initiative in the report itself is still in the planning stages. Lots of nice drawings of all the stuff that hasn’t been built yet, though.

 

However, according to the Boston Herald, there was one bright spot the day of the mayor’s presser when “a group of East Boston residents stormed City Hall Plaza, demanding that he hear their concerns about Eversource’s proposal to put a substation near Chelsea Creek.”

 

It seems that the local environmental justice group GreenRoots has been trying to meet with Walsh for about a year to attempt to stop regional power utility Eversource Energy from building the structure. To no avail.

 

A petition to Walsh being circulated by the group on Change.org on the matter makes it clear why: The high-voltage substation is slated to be built in an area around Chelsea Creek (a.k.a. Chelsea River) that’s flooding more and more frequently because of global warming-induced sea level rise. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, a similar station was flooded—causing it to explode and burn. A bad enough outcome in the best of circumstances.

 

But the Chelsea Creek substation will be located very close to storage tanks holding over eight million gallons of jet fuel for nearby Logan Airport. Should those be ignited by such an explosion, the effect on surrounding neighborhoods would be catastrophic. In both human and environmental terms.

 

The GreenRoots petition concludes: “We find it odd that your office has pushed for many sustainability initiatives concerning the Creek when this project isn’t compatible with this vision.” The initiatives include measures meant to reduce flooding from sea level rise on Chelsea Creek by “connecting high points near Boardman Street and Eagle Street,” according to the city’s 2016 Climate Ready Boston report. Although that is not mentioned in the latest report.

 

The Herald reported that Walsh’s office responded with a brief statement: “‘The substation in East Boston will better support East Boston’s growing population and facilities, including the city’s investments in a new police station, ambulance bay and a public works facility,’ adding that the city worked with Eversource to choose the site.”

 

The mayor has not yet agreed to meet with GreenRoots. Yet he really should. Because how is the public supposed to take any of his administration’s global warming remediation initiatives seriously when he’s still playing politics as usual with a major energy distribution corporation for a project that could have profound negative environmental effects?

 

“The city worked with Eversource to choose the site,” the city statement says. Lovely. But how much did it work with the East Boston community? And the grassroots environmental advocacy group working there and in neighboring Chelsea? Beyond the dog-and-pony shows necessary to put the barest sheen of democracy on the “Climate Ready Boston” process of which the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is part? Not much at all, apparently. Basically Eversource wants the substation at Chelsea Creek. And it’s going to get what it wants in the current corporate-dominated political moment.

 

If Walsh is willing to kowtow to that big company on an issue of such serious environmental import, then why should anyone expect him to put the kind of political pressure necessary on other major Boston-area corporations that will be needed to make the city carbon-neutral and better prepared for global warming-induced disaster by 2050? Let alone 2040.

 

This is the guy who never saw a huge city government giveaway to major companies like General Electric during his tenure in office that he wouldn’t support. What could possibly make him change his modus operandi for conducting business as usual? Which is “give the corporations whatever they ask for—big tax breaks, free services, and public funds—and try to get a few crumbs for working families around the edges of any ‘deals’ thus cut.”

 

The obvious answer is that concerted grassroots political action will be required to pressure Walsh and politicians like him the world over to do the right thing consistently on the global warming front. Which is a herculean task, if attempted in one go.

 

But rather than take on the world’s global warming emergency all at once, Boston-area readers can send a message to Walsh that the old politics will not stand if he wants to remain in the mayor’s office—by signing the GreenRoots petition and getting involved in the fight to stop the Eversource substation from being built in environmentally sensitive Chelsea Creek.

 

Then folks can plug into the growing number of local battles to bring environmentally destructive natural gas utilities like National Grid and Columbia Gas to heel.

 

And along the way, a political movement may coalesce that can force Boston city government to take stronger long-term action to stop all activities that add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—while saving the city from global warming-induced sea level rise and the many other deleterious effects of climate change that have already begun at our current 1 degree celsius average air temperature increase planetwide since the dawn of the industrial era.

 

But human society had best not take too long with such activist baby steps. Because the IPCC report is quite clear: If we have not taken giant leaps toward global carbon neutrality by 2030—only 12 years from now—then there will be no hope of stopping warming at the Paris Climate Agreement’s “aspirational target” of 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040.

 

If we can’t do that, then cities like Boston will have bigger crises to worry about than “just” accelerating sea level rise and ever-higher average air temperature. We will have stepped off the ecological precipice… and our doom will be upon us.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

EDITORIAL: A NOTE TO BOSTON-AREA JOURNALISM STUDENTS

Let’s talk

 

October 17, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

So you’re a journalism student. This is a tough time to do what you’re doing. No question. According to Data USA, American colleges grant well over 10,000 journalism degrees a year. And sure, some of those are graduate degrees; so not all of those diplomas are going to newly minted journalists. Only most of them. But according to the Pew Research Center, the number of newsroom jobs dropped by 23 percent between 2008 and 2017—from 114,000 to 88,000. A loss of over 26,000 “reporters, editors, photographers and videographers” who “worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and ‘other information services’ (the best match for digital-native news publishers).”

 

Many of the journalists who lost their jobs in that period are trying to hang on in a swiftly shrinking news industry. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them.

 

Yet colleges keep pumping out trained journalists.

 

Here in the Boston area, we continue to have a reasonably strong news sector. But it’s taken some serious hits in the last couple of decades. The region’s flagship daily newspaper, the Boston Globe, has downsized its staff repeatedly over the years through buyouts and occasional layoffs, and its main competitor, the Boston Herald, was recently bought by a venture capital firm and has become a shadow of its former self in short order. Radio news outlets like WBUR and TV news outlets like WCVB have been somewhat more stable, if smaller, employers of journalists. The biggest weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, folded outright in 2013. And an array of community newspapers have suffered from waves of mergers and consolidations—leaving fewer jobs in that part of the market, as well.

 

Meaning that students like you keep getting degrees in journalism—and related majors like communications, English, and literature. And you keep fighting to wedge your foot in newsroom doors in hopes of grabbing any of the declining number of full-time reporter jobs while the grabbing’s still decent. Despite the lack of anywhere near enough of said jobs to go around in cities like this one.

 

Why? Well, from my frequent conversations with aspiring journalists from schools around the area, near as I can figure, you all uniformly think that being a journalist is an important job and you’re very keen to do it. I’m sure journalism’s enduring popularity with students is also partially due to the surprising tenacity with which an air of romance and adventure hangs around the profession—helped along by an array of books and movies from All the President’s Men to The Year of Living Dangerously that remain touchstones in popular culture. Even as journalism’s reputation continues to take a beating from right-wing politicians and their followers.

 

The one explanation for your collective ardor for jobs in a waning profession that I’ve never heard from any journalism student is that you all are somehow doing it for the money. And how could you? Journalism is one of the worst-paying professions out there—with an average annual wage of $51,550 for full-timers in the US last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though more and more working journalists are freelancers without a steady gig… rendering even that figure functionally fantastical.

 

Nevertheless, such passion is precisely what motivates my colleagues and me at DigBoston. We’re certainly trying to make a living as working journalists… and trying to make it possible for as many of our peers as we can to do the same. But we’re mainly in the news game to provide our readers with the information they need to be engaged citizens (and residents) in our still relatively democratic society—while covering all the stuff that makes life worth living. And to have fun doing it.

 

For us, money isn’t the most important consideration. Not because we don’t need money to survive like (almost) everyone else. We totally do. Rather because if that were all we were focused on, we wouldn’t be able to practice journalism in this era of uncertainty. Since we know that nobody has yet hit upon a new economic model to fund news production anywhere near as successful as the failing old models once were.

 

Despite that fairly grim reality, we really like to help train other people to be journalists. Especially young people who have decided to take the leap and devote their lives to the trade. To pass the torch and all that. So, periodically, we like to write notes like this one to let journalism students know that if you’re serious about risking everything—your future economic security, your love life, and your sanity (on occasion)—to speak truth to power, or simply for the joy of writing solid copy about any subject that you’re really passionate about, then we want to talk to you.

 

We have an increasingly robust internship program at DigBoston. We’ve been attracting a growing number of fantastic and talented students to spend 6-8 hours a week working with us for a semester (or two). And we haven’t reached our capacity. We even accept recent graduates in some cases.

 

It’s a competitive application process, and we don’t pick everyone. But if you’re a journalism (or photography or multimedia or visual arts or design) student interested in working with a crew that does what we do first and foremost in the service of democracy, drop us a line at internships@digboston.com.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

EDITORIAL: WHY ADVERTISE WITH DIGBOSTON?

To support independent journalism and beat back marketing propaganda, for starters

 

September 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Many people have taken to loudly bemoaning the supposedly sudden arrival of “fake news” since the 2016 presidential election… while becoming belatedly aware of the accompanying slow decline of print newspapers that are—whatever else one might say about them—the beating heart of American journalism.

 

Every other kind of news media owes its existence to these “dead tree” publications. Traditional radio and TV news outlets, and every form of digital news operation on the internet, are all possible because print newspapers—most commercial, some nonprofit—have been fielding thousands of reporters in hundreds of cities for decades. Doing the kind of deep ground-level reporting that makes all the hot (and more often shallow) takes on other media possible.

 

Advertising has been the main source of income for commercial print newspapers since the mid-19th century, and the advent of web-based online advertising blew a vast hole in that revenue stream. Precipitating, in no small part, the downward spiral in their fortunes over the last quarter century.

 

One result of newspapers shrinking and all too often ceasing to exist has been what one might call the rise of the marketers. With fewer and fewer full-time reporters doing their jobs, marketing firms have leapt to the fore. Offering a flood of “free” content to every conceivable type of news operation. Ceaselessly expanding the empire of the original fake news in the process. A fake news that, make no mistake, has existed for as long as there has been news.

 

Because rich and powerful institutions have always hired marketers or their equivalents. And marketers—in thrall to whichever institution hires them—are paid to lie to the public. And are therefore the polar opposites of (most) journalists. Especially journalists at an independent metro newsweekly like DigBoston.

 

As a journalist-owned, journalist-run newspaper, we send reporters out into the communities we cover every week in search of information that’s as close to whatever truth may be happening as it can be. We then do our damnedest to faithfully report what we observe to our audience.

 

So, we can say with certainty that no human organization is good all of the time. Least of all the big corporations that run our society. But big corporations are the very institutions that spend the most money on paying marketers to spew propaganda at every level of news media.

 

And increasingly, understaffed and underfunded news outlets take even this worst of free marketing copy—this disinformation, this fake news—and run it. Day in and day out. The public, for their part, can be forgiven for having trouble discerning reasonably honest reporting from unreasonably dishonest marketing copy. There’s nothing new about that either. Some people are critical about any news they encounter. Some are not. But marketing has gotten so sophisticated and so pernicious that even the wary have trouble telling the difference between journalism and propaganda.

 

At DigBoston, our audience doesn’t have to worry about that quandary. We exist to report the news in the public interest. In our own way, and with our own unique broadly left-leaning voice, to be sure. But we take our job very seriously, and we work very hard week in and week out to do it to the best of our collective ability. For 20 years and counting.

 

Given that, if you know nothing else about us, know this: We do not run the propaganda that paid marketers fill our email inboxes with 24/7. Like this morning’s stupid, stupid example entitled “Wondering about a sponsored post.” That is, “wondering if you all are brainless enough to run this marketing copy for free and pretend it’s a real article by an independent journalist.” To which my colleague Chris Faraone gave our standard mocking reply, “$2,000 a post”—a price we know no marketer will ever pay.  

 

However, we’re a free newspaper. As such, even more than those bigs that have a number of different ways to make money, we rely almost completely on advertising to keep publishing.

 

We offer advertisers a lot for their money, even in today’s viciously competitive media market. Our ads are obviously cheaper than larger publications. More importantly, though, they reach people who read, who support music and the arts, who are tastemakers, and who… patronize our advertisers.

 

Because of that fact, our existing advertisers love us. And we love them back.

 

But we need more of them. We need to grow our news operation if we’re going to give the many communities in Boston and environs that we cover the constant attention they deserve. To do that we need to be able to pay more full-time reporters, and part-time ones, too. To do that, we need a bigger business staff and more salespeople.

 

All of which is only possible if more institutions that could advertise with us—all the local businesses and charities who serve the communities we cover—step up and do so.

 

Rather than spend advertising dollars on marketers who straight-out lie to people and harm our struggling democracy rather than help it.

 

Folks interested in advertising with DigBoston can email our sales staff at sales@digboston.org.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

THE MERRIMACK VALLEY DISASTER: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT OLD PIPES

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

 

September 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The events of last week in the Merrimack Valley were unfortunate by any measure. Something bad happened to the natural gas distribution system in parts of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover that resulted in dozens of homes being damaged or destroyed by explosions and fire, at least 25 people getting injured, and one person (tragically, an 18-year-old) getting killed. The leading theory for the conflagration is that it was triggered by a pressure spike in area gas pipes. But until the National Transportation and Safety Board concludes its investigation—which could take up to two years—we likely won’t know the cause of that spike. According to ThinkProgress, the Mass Department of Public Utilities will be conducting its own investigation, and Attorney General Maura Healey will oversee that effort to ensure transparency.

 

The company responsible, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts—a division of NiSource Inc. of Indiana—was so slow to respond to the crisis that Gov. Charlie Baker put Eversource Energy in charge of the cleanup effort.

 

But the magnitude of the disaster is just starting to sink in. About 8,500 homes were affected, and its occupants are being told that it will take months to replace the cast iron gas pipes under city streets and restore service. Pipes so old, and so prone to rusting, leaking, and failure, that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration started pushing gas utilities nationwide to replace them over a decade ago, according to USA Today. Yet despite being allowed to recoup such costs—which run about $1 million a mile—from their customers, utilities like Columbia have been slow to complete the needed work. Meanwhile, the thousands of residents that officials have allowed to return to their homes are forced to stay in apartments and houses that use gas for heating and cooking… with the gas shut off for the foreseeable future. As winter approaches.

 

This highlights the danger of using methane, an obviously flammable and explosive gas, as a fuel source for homes and businesses. Notwithstanding being in continuous use at millions of sites in the United States for well over 150 years, “natural” gas is not as safe as many people believe. According to the New York Times, “Since 1998, at least 646 serious gas distribution episodes have occurred across the country, causing 221 deaths and leaving nearly a thousand people injured. …” And the reasons for such episodes are not always found.

 

Perhaps it could not be otherwise, since America has allowed private companies to control the production and distribution of natural gas from the industry’s beginnings. Sure, we call those companies “public utilities” and tell ourselves that federal and state government regulate them. But, like all corporations answering to the siren call of the market, gas companies exist to make profits for their shareholders. To the exclusion of all other considerations—be they health, safety, environmental, or economic. Even though the small local gas companies of the 1800s have long since merged to become large and powerful combines, and even though they are allowed to be monopolies in the areas they control, they continue trying to save money on costs and make as much profit as regulators allow. Often quite a lot, since the phenomenon of “regulatory capture”—where a revolving door sending top staff back and forth between utilities and regulatory agencies generally assures that utilities have fat bottom lines—continues unabated. Including here in the Bay State. Whether utilities provide good service or bad.

 

Which is why National Grid—another one of the seven companies that have gas monopolies in parts of Massachusetts—is getting away with locking out 1,200 union gas workers who are trying to get a better contract for the difficult and dangerous work they do day in and day out. And why Columbia, which has already been dinged for recent safety issues in the regions of the Commonwealth gas infrastructure under its control, according to the Boston Globe, was allowed to continue business as usual until the Merrimack Valley fires brought international attention to the consequences of its malfeasance. Leading WGBH’s Jim Braude to wonder aloud on the Sept 17 episode of Greater Boston what would have happened if the gas network in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover had been owned by National Grid. A company currently trying to service its infrastructure with ill-trained scab labor—some of them managers with little or no field experience. The better to bust the labor unions that protect the livelihoods of its workers, and permanently replace them with un-unionized workers that will make its stockholders even bigger profits.

 

If all these developments were taking place in a period where there were no demonstrable environmental consequences for burning fossil fuels like natural gas, they would be dire enough. But, unfortunately, that is not the case. True, burning methane as an energy source only produces about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, there are so many methane leaks in the production and distribution of both oil and gas that any relative advantage to the environment that burning it provides is mostly erased, according to a Washington Post article on a key study in the journal Science. Given that methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So even the 2.3 percent of methane estimated to be leaking away into the atmosphere before it can be burned is enough to ruin its oft-hyped potential as a more “green” fossil fuel source that can be leaned on for decades while carbon neutral energy sources like solar are brought online on an industrial scale. Not because we don’t have the technology to do so faster, but because energy multinationals don’t want clean energy systems deployed until they’ve made all the money they can make by burning carbon.

 

Worse still, more than half of the natural gas being used in the Greater Boston area is now coming from fracked gas, according to Boston University earth and environment professor Nathan Phillips in a BU Today article. Fracking (more correctly, hydraulic fracturing) is an incredibly destructive and ecologically disastrous method of squeezing oil and natural gas out of vast underground shelves of shale rock by injecting massive amounts of water and any number of often-toxic liquid chemicals into them. Direct environmental impacts include ground, water, air, and noise pollution in those areas unfortunate enough to have lots of shale. And the technique has even been known to trigger earthquakes. Phillips also explains that fracked methane contains many impurities that may be making consumers sick. But the indirect impacts are far more problematic because fracked gas and oil have flooded the planet’s fossil fuel markets with cheap product at exactly the time we need to move away from burning carbon.

 

In a better world, the Merrimack Valley disaster would be a clarion call to move more decisively toward clean energy alternatives—at least in the affected communities as a useful demonstration project. In advance of doing so swiftly across the country, and in every corner of the globe. But we are not in that world. We’re in a world where energy corporations control the politics of the US and many other countries to their own advantage. And they want to ensure that humanity squeezes every last possible joule of energy out of fossil fuels like natural gas before allowing alternatives to finally become the dominant mode of energy production. Regardless of the fact that doing so will very likely result in a planet that’s unable to sustain advanced human civilization, and perhaps unable to sustain human life at all. If the worst global warming scenarios are allowed to become reality.

 

That’s why I have repeatedly called—most recently in a column about Eversource, the utility called upon to “fix” the Merrimack Valley crisis—for bringing energy companies to heel on both the environmental and economic fronts by winning the huge political struggles necessary to make them all genuinely public utilities. With a mission to provide cheap, clean, green energy like advanced wind, solar, and hydroelectric (ideally not from environmentally destructive mega-dams) power to America, and phase out all fossil fuel production, distribution, and usage as soon as possible. If we could accomplish that sea change in our energy system, other countries would be likely to follow at speed. And we might actually stand a chance of minimizing the damage from global warming, already on display with increasingly alarming frequency in the form of catastrophic storms like Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut.

 

So if you want to help the Merrimack Valley disaster victims, certainly donate to the best local charities you can find. But also join environmental groups like Mass Sierra Club, Resist the Pipeline, and HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team) that are working to end the ability of privately owned energy utilities to harm communities like Lawrence in particular and our planet’s ecosphere in general going forward. Furthermore, be sure to make your house, condo, or apartment as energy efficient you can and do whatever you can do to convert your dwelling from reliance on burning fossil fuel to using genuinely clean energy sources. Every little improvement helps. Just remember, we won’t really be able to ensure our survival as a species until the fossil fuel megacorps are stopped. Cold.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

SOME THOUGHTS ON TRANSPORTATION POLICY

Image courtesy of pxhere.com. Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain.
Image courtesy of pxhere.com. Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain.

 

August 16, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Transportation is a subject I address frequently in my columns. But, as is often the case in journalism, it’s usually necessary to write about it piecemeal given various editorial constraints. So I might cover flooding subways one week and a gonzo proposal for sky gondolas over the Seaport the next. But rarely do I have the luxury of looking at such a major policy area in its entirety. Which is nonideal because a good journalist is always interested to spark discussion and debate—and it’s difficult to have a proper conversation with readers if they aren’t aware of my general views on the topic at hand.

 

Such was the case a three weeks ago when I published a piece that took a dim view of Bird Rides dumping its dangerous electric rental scooters all over Cambridge and Somerville without first discussing the move with officials in either city… following a nationwide pattern of flouting relevant laws that is clearly its business model. About a day later, a few wags took to Twitter to slam me for having the temerity to suggest that motorized skateboards with handlebars might not be the ideal vehicles to allow on area streets in numbers. On both political and safety grounds.

 

I didn’t mind the hazing, of course. But it was vexing to watch Bird fans that clearly hadn’t even bothered to read the article in question—let alone my broad and deep back catalog—attack me as some kind of car-loving anti-environmental reactionary in the service of flogging their hipster transportation fetish du jour. Be they paid marketers or merely geeks with an idée fixe.

 

With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to run through my general views on transportation policy in this epistle. To clarify why I don’t think that any electric conveyance thrown at us by sociopathic West Coast frat boy CEOs is automatically the best way to save the planet while safely getting people around town with their groceries and pets. I will, however, leave long-distance intercity travel by land, sea, and air aside for now for the sake of space.

 

Carbon

It’s not possible to hold forth on transportation without first addressing the absolute necessity that humanity stop burning carbon to meet our civilization’s power needs. If we fail to shift from getting power from oil, gas, and coal to clean renewable energy sources like wind, water, and solar, then we are well and truly doomed. Not in centuries, but mere decades from now. Among the largest sources for global warming inducing carbon emissions are cars, trucks, and motorcycles. And with carbon multinationals like ExxonMobil dominating American politics, it’s going to be extremely difficult to institute the major changes that will be required to replace those vehicles—and the “car culture” that has built up around them—with zero carbon alternatives that will be acceptable to a broad array of communities. Yet without such a transition, anything else we might do will merely be tacking colorful bunting onto our species’ collective coffin. That said, any decent transportation network will have to be based on electricity. Unless some of our cleverer scientists and engineers come up with sufficiently powerful and portable renewable power sources (tiny cold fusion reactors, harnessing evil spinning gnomes, etc.) that don’t require plugging vehicles into charging stations for periods of time every day or three.

 

Planning

We’re not going to be able to move millions of people to new green transportation alternatives without redesigning the places where they live and work. One appealing way of doing that over time is to build dense clusters of housing and offices around major multimodal transportation hubs that are connected to each other by mass transit. Which will, among other salutary effects, help solve the “last mile” problem of getting commuters from such hubs to their homes and workplaces in weather conditions that are only going to get more unpredictable and dangerous as climate change accelerates.

 

But while it’s become fashionable and profitable for developers to build such high-density enclaves for rich people, it is generally not being undertaken for everyone else. Until it is, it’s going to be extremely difficult to successfully introduce the transportation alternatives we need. Probably the toughest issue will be converting existing urban neighborhoods and suburban tracts based on square miles of individual atomized domiciles over to sort of more compact and connected urblets without upending people’s carefully constructed lifeways by government fiat. Though, ironically, the global warming-driven imperative of our moving entire cities like Boston away from flooding lowlands onto higher ground—and eventually northward to cooler climes—will provide us an opportunity to start development from scratch in many locales. Since given the choice between staying in aging housing stock with ever worsening service and transportation options, and moving to new clusters of high-rise and low-rise buildings hooked up to a robust grid, people will likely move of their own accord.

 

Alternatives

And what are the cheaper, ubiquitous, and more efficient transportation modalities that will get us to a carbon-free future? I think trains, trolleys, monorails, and similar mass transit options will still play a vital role in moving large numbers of people from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city. In fact, I believe we need to massively expand rail lines to reach far out into the exurbs. And figure out ways to use such lines for cargo containers as well. Buses—with dedicated lanes—will remain vital in many areas. Especially where it’s too expensive or impractical to build out rail lines. Boats can also be very useful for the same purpose in most weather conditions in areas adjacent to oceans, lakes, and rivers.

 

And cars? Well, that’s a big complicated discussion, but here’s my brief take. Carbon-burning cars need to be relegated to museums and antiquarian societies for collectors and hobbyists. But there’s no getting around fact that despite all their myriad problems, most people currently like being able to jump into a car and go where they want to go. So what can replace that? At first, shifting over to electric cars will be a big help. Then there will be a debate over robot cars. And that’s a tricky one because that technology won’t work well at first, and will displace many driving jobs if not introduced deliberately without corporate malice aforethought. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if you see me attacking “public-private” initiatives to shove such cars down people’s throats.

 

Nevertheless, society will gain much if we can make the new technology work. Because fleets of robot cars can likely replace the individually owned car entirely. Allowing people to get between areas well away from major transportation hubs at will—simply by using the future equivalent of a rideshare app to order a robot car for the trip. Robot trucks will be able to deal with moving cargo point to point. And simple electric golf carts—either robotic or not—will suffice for trips around neighborhoods.

 

We can then gradually reduce or eliminate motor vehicle traffic from many roads over time—allowing bicycles (on ubiquitous dedicated bike lanes) to really come into their own. As for electric scooters? In most locales it will probably be best if they remain an idiosyncratic vehicle choice for young individuals who like to stand out from the crowd, and not accepted as a serious transportation alternative. Because they’re not. Meanwhile, flying cars, jetpacks, and the like will have to be a topic for a future article.

 

Labor

Building out transportation alternatives needs to be seen as an opportunity for new job creation, not just an excuse for job destruction for the purpose of corporate profit extraction. Such jobs should be “good jobs” with living wages, shorter work weeks (something we’ll need worldwide to compensate for the rise of the robots), and generous benefits. People losing jobs in the existing transportation sector should be retrained at government expense and get priority placement in jobs in the new transportation sector. All of said jobs should be unionized.

 

Public

As many of these transportation alternatives as possible should be public. Leaving our transit future to private companies like Uber, Lyft, Lime, Bird Rides, etc. is a prescription for disaster. Because all such corporations look out for their bottom lines first, and the public good second (if at all). And every entrant to that new sector has sought to end-run public planning processes and government regulators in a never-ending quest to make a fast buck—to the point of Uber purposely designing their payment algorithm so that their drivers would keep driving while making as little money as possible, according to Vanity Fair.

 

So if we’re going to ensure that commuters have a voice in a reasonably democratic and rational transportation planning process going forward, then we have to expand public transportation to control the commanding heights of its sector. And regardless, the role of privately owned vehicles must be minimized if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions enough to save ourselves from the worst depredations of human-induced global warming.

 

That’s my basic thinking on at least regional transportation. Happy to participate in civic dialogues on the subject any time.

 

Thanks to Suren Moodliar, co-author of the forthcoming A People’s Guide to Greater Boston [University of California Press], for ongoing ever-illuminating conversations on transportation, housing, and many other policy areas.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GREENFIELD BLUES: HOMELESSNESS IS NOT JUST A BIG-CITY PROBLEM IN MASS

Greenfield City Hall by ToddC4176 at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Greenfield City Hall by ToddC4176 at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

August 7, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

We don’t get much news about Western Mass in Boston. And since the population is relatively small in the largely rural western counties of the Commonwealth, it can be easy to miss significant stories. Because the scale of noteworthy happenings is naturally smaller there. Because our diminished metro news outlets have trouble covering the entire state. And because, let’s be honest, Bostonians don’t usually care about what happens west of, like, Brookline.

 

So at first glance, word of a homeless encampment out in Greenfield isn’t something that would get much attention hereabouts at the best of times. But for a city with a population that fell by more than 500 people to 17,456 between the 2000 and 2010 censuses—with a median household income of $33,110, and 14 percent of residents below the poverty line—it’s an important enough development to warrant a series of articles in the local press. And I think it deserves coverage here in the Hub as well.

 

Especially when the encampment is on the Greenfield Common, opposite the Greenfield City Hall (better known as the Town Hall prior to a recent change in nomenclature). Something unusual is definitely afoot.

 

It seems two local homeless people began camping on the common a couple of months ago. A number that quickly grew to 20 regular residents in as many as a dozen tents. According to the Greenfield Recorder, their “de facto spokeswoman” Madelynn Malloy “and others have said previously they are camping on the common because there is no other place that is safe for homeless residents to go and because current city law allows them to stay there day or night. There are no requirements for licenses or permits to be there and the homeless residents’ actions are not considered loitering, but public assembly. The city has an ordinance prohibiting loitering, but it only applies to sidewalks.”

 

A city count of last January pegged the homeless population at 39, but area charities have said the actual number is significantly higher—as they noted during the brutal cold snap at the end of 2017 when their shelters were so overwhelmed that the Salvation Army put up $1,600 to house people at Days Inn. Since that time, the Greenfield Human Rights Commission and homeless advocates have been pushing for the city to do more. Meanwhile, the encampment has put a very human and public face on the crisis, and has sparked meetings and debates in local government about how to find housing for the homeless.

 

Unfortunately, there seems to be at least as much concern from Mayor William Martin to get the city council to pass rules effectively banning camping on Greenfield Common as there is to find ways to house local homeless people. The latter being the obvious policy priority, if for no other reason than to relieve overwhelmed private social service agencies.

 

Most recently, a breakthrough of sorts—also reported in the Greenfield Recorder—happened when the city council voted to put a port-a-potty closer to the common than the one local churches previously made available. “According to the Department of Public Works, the cost of a temporary restroom is $150 a month and includes emptying it. The mayor’s office said the first two months of the portable toilet would be paid for by the Interfaith Council and an unnamed local business. There is no plan currently in place for funding after the two months.” The council also voted, apparently contrary to the mayor’s wishes, to decrease “regulations on churches to set up temporary shelters” and open “the former Wedgewood Gardens property on Kimball Drive as a possible site for an encampment.” The mayor then vowed to “attempt to find temporary housing solutions through a ‘rapid re-housing team’” made up of “city officials and social service and humanitarian agencies.”

 

Baby steps perhaps. But it would not do to underplay the difficult situation Greenfield government finds itself in. It’s going to take officials time to find even a stopgap solution. Large cities like Boston aren’t doing a great job of dealing with a growing homeless crisis either; so it’s obviously more difficult for smaller municipalities with fewer resources to house and provide services for even a few dozen people.

 

Particularly when, as was pointed out in a DigBoston op-ed by Lawrence social services executive Joe D’Amore in January, many communities in Massachusetts ban people from sleeping in public spaces or even “loitering” there. Which merely shifts the burden of dealing with homelessness to more densely populated and tolerant locales with more social services like Lawrence. Or Greenfield.

 

Hopefully people will retain the right to sleep on the Greenfield Common overnight when needed, and the city government will cobble together some longer-term housing options for its homeless population before winter sets in.

 

Yet however things turns out in the largest burg in Franklin County, the situation is interesting not because it is unique… but because it is sadly commonplace. Across Massachusetts and all over America the story is the same. Despite claims of a “strong economy” from Republicans and many Democrats, homelessness is ever more persistent and ever more desperate.

 

To see an actual strong economy in a place like Greenfield, one has to look back to the 1950s—when the city was home to major metal-working concerns, the largest being Greenfield Tap & Die. But that plant was sold off to a larger company in 1958, and most of its jobs disappeared over decades. The city’s last major manufacturing business, Lunt Silversmiths, went under in 2009 during the Great Recession.

 

According to the Republican, Lunt had 800 employees in 2001. And only “12 to 15” by the end. It’s difficult for even larger cities to recover from that kind of blow to their job base, let alone a small city like Greenfield.

 

It will thus shock no one that the rise of the opiate crisis tracks closely to this decline in the city’s fortunes. And it’s therefore ironic in the extreme that the former Lunt plant is now home to two drug treatment facilities, Franklin Recovery Center and Northern Hope.

 

The opiate crisis relates directly to the homeless crisis. And both relate to the ongoing jobs crisis. Increasingly unregulated capitalism, as I often write, is clearly incapable of providing good jobs for our population. As the job base collapses, people in Greenfield, Boston, and around the nation are stuck with lousy part-time, temp, contract, independent contractor, and day labor gigs. Or with no jobs at all.

 

As these downwardly mobile people see their lives collapsing, they turn to opiates. Maybe because they got injured in their precarious pseudo-jobs and got put on addictive pain killers by well-meaning doctors being suckered by criminal conspiracies like oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma of nearby Stamford, Connecticut. Or maybe because they couldn’t take the humiliation of no longer being able to provide for themselves and their families, and reached for the strongest, most reliable, and readily available chemical solace. And soon enough, more and more of these folks end up on the streets.

 

Without public jobs programs, new public housing, and cradle-to-grave public healthcare, local, state, and federal governments will not be able to fix these related crises. Even if they wanted to. Which they don’t in this era of gangster capitalism. Nor will “private” charities. Many of which already rely on shrinking pools of government money to do what little they can do to stem the tide of rising poverty.

 

So it’s critical that people in big cities like Boston—especially press and policy makers—pay careful attention to small municipalities like Greenfield. They are canaries in the coal mine of a political economic system that can only be called failing, the less it is able to provide for the growing number of people on the bottom of our societal pyramid.

 

As such, we ignore the Greenfields of our nation at our peril. We must act now to stop the rest of our communities, large and small, from continuing their rolling collapse. A task we can best begin by rebuilding government at all levels to focus on the human needs of all of its denizens. And stop privileging the schemes of the rich and powerful few over the livelihoods of the struggling multitude.

 

Townie is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. His Apparent Horizon column is winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

POPULAR NOT POPULIST: GOV BAKER CONTINUES TO POLL WELL WITH PEOPLE HE’S SCREWING

 

July 31, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

There is no area of Massachusetts politics where it is more baffling to contemplate Gov. Charlie Baker’s ongoing popularity in the polls than the annual state budget debate. One can only draw two conclusions from such musing: either people don’t get the budget information they need from Bay State press, or a majority of Commonwealth residents simply enjoy watching poor people get kicked to the curb. While corporations are encouraged to line their pockets with public funds in ways that hurt everyone but the wealthy.

 

At no time of year is the contradiction of Baker’s popularity thrown into bold relief more than late July when he issues his line item vetoes and other modifications to the legislature’s final budget.

 

And this year that contradiction is sharper than ever. Because the most visible victims of the governor’s last budget action look to be people on welfare—many of whom are single mothers with children.

 

So last week, Baker refused to agree to a budget policy section that would remove the “family cap” that stops families on welfare from being able to receive extra benefits for children born while they were on welfare. Instead he sent an amended version of the family cap section of the state budget back to the legislature.

 

As reported by MassLive, “That amendment would lift the family cap but also change welfare eligibility laws so that an adult’s Supplemental Security Income is counted when determining if a family is eligible for welfare. SSI is a federal payment given to severely disabled adults.” … “According to state figures as of last year, 5,200 children with a severely disabled parent would lose their welfare benefits entirely under the change, and 2,100 children would lose part of their benefit.”

 

By contrast, MassLive continues, “Lifting the family cap would make approximately 8,700 additional children eligible for welfare assistance.”

 

If the family cap policy section of the budget had simply been vetoed, it could have been overridden by a two-thirds vote of the legislature like any other veto. But since its language was amended and sent back to the legislature for action, they have to vote on it like a new bill. After which, Baker has 10 days to act on it. And since he sent it back to the legislature at the end of its current session, the end of the 10 days after any new bill passes comes after the session is over. So Baker can simply veto it, and supporters will have to wait until next session to go through the entire legislative process again.

 

Advocates from organizations like Mass Law Reform Institute and Greater Boston Legal Services are crying foul, given the heartlessness of the measure and the fact that it has taken years to get the family cap reform through the legislature.

 

As of this writing, the House has reinstated the original family cap language, and the Senate is expected to do the same. But Baker will almost certainly veto it within 10 days of passage as planned. After the legislative session has ended.

 

Which is a total drag, and exemplary of a backwards view of welfare as an “incentive” to “encourage” poor people to work. Language that Baker has used when explaining his position on the family cap debate—a standard conservative view, unfortunately shared by Republicans and many Democrats alike, that poor people are poor because of individual failings like “laziness,” not for any structural reasons beyond their immediate control.

 

But here’s another way to view welfare: People are poor because just as capitalism provides billions of dollars to a vanishingly small number of big winners like Jeff Bezos and the Koch brothers, it creates millions of losers who have to struggle endlessly to make ends meet. Meaning inequality is baked into our economic system. Without strong government regulation, capitalism is incapable of even blunting the brutal impact of such inherent flaws, let alone somehow fixing those flaws.

 

Part of that inequality comes in the form of job provision. Since the drive for people at the commanding heights of the capitalist system is always to maximize profits, their concomitant drive is to do so by slashing labor costs whenever possible. One way they have done this since the 1970s is by changing labor from a fixed cost—as it tended to be under postwar American social democracy when over 30 percent of the workforce was protected by government-backed union contracts and there was a reasonable social safety net (including welfare)—to a variable cost.

 

The result? As was last the case at the turn of the 20th century while a militant labor movement spent decades fighting the “robber baron” billionaires of that era for redress, bosses can hire workers when needed at the worst possible rates and push them out when they don’t need them. Often without even having to officially fire workers—which would allow them to collect unemployment for a few months. And the largely ununionized workforce has almost no say about the conditions of its employment, or job policies in general, outside of insufficient minimum wage laws, easily avoided health and safety laws, and a few increasingly weak civil rights laws that might get a handful of people reinstated on the same bad terms on the rare occasions when open discriminatory practices by employers can be proven.

 

So by converting stable decent-paying union jobs to unstable contingent jobs—like temp, part-time, contract, day labor, and independent contractor jobs—over the last 40 years, capitalism and the capitalists who run it have ensured the creation of a growing impoverished underclass. This vast group of poor people acts as a reserve army of labor that, together with vicious union-busting that is on the verge of killing the American labor movement, accelerates the downward pressure on wages. And ensures that the only jobs that most poor people can get are bad contingent jobs.

 

When poor people can’t put together enough of these precarious non-jobs to make ends meet, they turn to welfare. But the old “outdoor relief” programs that provided poor men with jobs, money, food, and other necessities in many parts of the country were eliminated long ago (as were New Deal-era public jobs programs), and the remaining welfare system that largely benefitted poor women and children was hamstrung by the Democratic Clinton administration in 1996. Not coincidentally, its prescriptions were first tested here in Massachusetts in 1995 by our completely Democrat-dominated legislature—presided over by a Republican governor, Bill Weld. A so-called “libertarian” cut from much the same cloth as Charlie Baker.

 

According to a 2008 report (“Following Through on Welfare Reform”) by the Mass Budget and Policy Center, the one-two state-federal punch to poor women and children in the Commonwealth predictably ended up significantly cutting already meager welfare payments by imposing time limits on assistance and by mandating the most cruelly ironic possible change, “work requirements.”

 

Why cruelly ironic? Because the work requirements forced people who were poor because the only jobs available to them were bad contingent jobs to prove they were “working” before getting the reduced welfare benefits still on offer.

 

The new system was in many cases literally run by the very temp agencies that played a key role in making people poor to begin with. The “jobs” forced on people to qualify for much-denuded benefits were often not jobs at all. Welfare applicants were just “employed” by such temp agencies—now recast as privatized social service agencies—and forced to wait for “assignments” that were low-paying and sporadic. But unless they “worked” a certain amount under this system, no benefits. It was a hardline right-winger’s wet dream made flesh. The same capitalist system that made them poor now kept them poor. And state and federal government were no longer in the “business” of helping offset the worst depredations of capitalist inequality in what we still like to call a democracy.

 

So this is what popular Gov. Charlie Baker is up to when he plays games with reforms like the family cap. He’s screwing people who get a few hundred bucks a month in benefits out of an extra hundred a month for another kid born while they’re jumping through every conceivable time-wasting bureaucratic hoop and working the same shit jobs that made them poor to begin with. Meanwhile, he’s finding new and creative ways to dump more millions in public treasure on the undeserving rich with each passing year.

 

And you like this guy, fellow Massholes?! Just remember, in a “race to the bottom” economy presided over by capitalist hatchet men like Baker, once the poor are completely crushed, the working class is next. Followed by the middle class. Maybe think that over next time a pollster asks your opinion of the man.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.