I hope you folks had a joyous holiday. I’m on the road right now, and otherwise still enmeshed with end-of-the-semester schoolwork. Yet this caught my attention and I thought the subject worth a quick post. (h/t Rebecca Vallas)
Earlier this week the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan highlighted a shift in the paper’s coverage of inequality and poverty — especially within the city itself. She notes an earlier Times piece covering the struggle of local food pantries trying to accommodate an increase in demand for assistance in the wake of recent SNAP (food stamp) cuts.
Sullivan (emphasis mine):
Mr. McGeehan’s interviews with city residents at a Brooklyn food pantry gave the article emotional resonance and power.
After hearing from readers on this topic, I wrote a column in June about poverty coverage in The Times. I found it to be paradoxical: The quality is excellent, but the coverage, including that of hunger in The Times’s own city, could be more regular and sustained. The response to the column was strong – this clearly is something readers care deeply about.
In a previous post I mentioned that the “right to the city” was a recurring notion in urban studies. David Harvey popularized this, and one of the selected readings in my textbook is a 2003 version of his work from the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Harvey is a very prominent urban geographer, social theorist, and leading advocate of the idea of fighting urban inequality by establishing a new right to the city. By ‘right’ he refers to claims made by people with unequal ability to shape the “processes of urbanization” in a city (specifically; capitalist accumulation and class struggle, as he explains in this earlier piece). Below is the beginning of a more extended version of his argument in New Left Review from the fall of 2008.
We live in an era when ideals of human rights have moved centre stage both politically and ethically. A great deal of energy is expended in promoting their significance for the construction of a better world. But for the most part the concepts circulating do not fundamentally challenge hegemonic liberal and neoliberal market logics, or the dominant modes of legality and state action. We live, after all, in a world in which the rights of private property and the profit rate trump all other notions of rights. I here want to explore another type of human right, that of the right to the city. Has the astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years contributed to human well-being? The city, in the words of urban sociologist Robert Park, is:
man’s most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself. 
The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
Crucial to Harvey’s argument is understanding that the history of this right to the city, and the ability to mold the urban process, has been enmeshed within property rights and the development of extreme capital accumulation. In modernity, then, this right has largely been exercised by those with the power and money to shape the spatial structure of the city. Harvey challenges the status quo, of course, and advocates (in my textbook copy, at least) for the disenfranchised to re-imagine it as a “right to remake ourselves by creating a qualitatively different kind of urban sociality.” The pathway to changing this paradigm is, unsurprisingly, some form of political and social organization towards a more egalitarian view of the city.
The concept, as conceived by Harvey, is a part of a broader critique of capitalism and ‘neo-liberal’ practices outside of (though certainly related to) the scope of my focus on space and social visibility. Yet these two aspects, that the right to the city entails access and agency, and that this is a common, collective, right to reshape the socio-spatial environment are relevant. Read the rest of this entry
In a 1998 article for the journal City & Society, CUNY professor Cindi Katz published a commentary on “Excavating the Hidden City of Social Reproduction” on the privatization and revitalization of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. She briefly describes the prevailing thinking on social reproduction — the process(es) of perpetuating social structure — and how the privatization of public spaces has been an exercise in power for hiding some processes that “neoliberal” interests would prefer to keep out of the public realm.
Her focus is on the revivification endeavors pursued by the Grand Central Partnership, the public-private organization that manages the Grand Central Business Improvement District. Here are some selections from her description (various emphasis mine):
The Grand Central Partnership coalesced to deter further corporate flight from Manhattan, and to revitalize midtown in ways that would draw new forms of investment and bring middle- and upper-class visitors — local and not — back to New York. The strategy worked.
The Grand Central Partnership makes visible certain relations of wealth and power while explicitly hiding their undergirding and fallout. The stunning renovation of Grand Central Station as much as anything else in New York marks a landscape of power that both hides and hounds away the uneven relations and material practices of social reproduction that enable and produce the contemporary urban landscape of “globalized capitalism. The simultaneous revealing (of spatial forms) and hiding (of social relations) that has been their stock in trade has allowed the Partnership and its allies to revel in the success of a city recaptured for the wealthy with few noticeable qualms or objections.
A large portion of this motivated-push to “clean up” the area surrounding the terminal was the displacement of the homeless. Read the rest of this entry
Earlier this year in the journal Public Culture Saskia Sassen had an essay titled “Does the City Have Speech?” If nothing else it’s an interesting thought exercise, using ‘speech’ in a more abstract legal sense (with a humorous nod to Citizen’s United). She posits that “there are events and conditions that tell us something about the capacity of cities to respond systemically — to talk back,” or something along the lines of inferred intent within actions that occur in a conceptual space between the structural and social urban world. Her full argument, which she describes as just “the building blocks,” is more detailed than I’m interested in getting into here. Rather, there is a part of her essay I’d like to highlight for the purpose of further exploring power and powerlessness.
One of the factors that can, in the framework she presents, lead to “speech acts” is characterized as the ‘complexity and incompleteness’ of the city. The reasoning goes something like this: major cities, or more accurately, global cities, are complex and incomplete sites for broader systemic cultural and institutional change. Through a more compressed scope they play a key role in establishing norms and identities, and these are often diffused into smaller cities and urban areas. It is within the interplay between this complexity and incompleteness that the city can present “the possibility of making,” or the opportunity from certain circumstances to create urban capabilities for change.
In exploring that aspect Sassen makes the following point about powerlessness
In 1959 the sociologist C. Wright Mills released The Sociological Imagination, a seminal piece of work that is required reading for the field. Mills defined the sociological imagination as the ability to “understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals.” A part of exercising this understanding involves distinguishing between troubles and issues: the former concerning the individual and the latter important for matters that transcend any one person.
Here is how he describes this principle in regard to unemployment (emphasis mine):
In these terms, consider unemployment. When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for it’s relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to finds its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.
To my eye this perspective excludes approaching issues, such as mass unemployment, with the idea that aggregate outcomes are the result of millions of people choosing to be lazy. Which is another way of simply acknowledging that there are influential aspects of society that happen to be greater than any one person. Maybe our proposed solutions shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
Note: I’ve been a bit hunkered down with coursework of late, hence the absence of school related posts. That’ll be changing here I press ahead to complete a term paper, a part of which will be arranging my thoughts on source material. Blogging seems to help with that aspect, so for a few weeks here there will be less politics and policy commentary. If you follow Punditocracy solely for those things I apologize in advance.
The working principle for studying the urban social environment is that space and place matter, both in the sense that people shape them and are in turn shaped by their interactions with social structures. Recently my coursework has focused on how these aspects matter in terms of the marginalized embodying multiple identities in urban communities.
In Alder and Brenner’s work this applied to their study of lesbian communities. In short, they differed from gay men as a reflection of their gender: akin to women in general they had less access to capital which affected their rootedness in the community; they were more likely to be caretakers of dependent children, which meant they approached space and place with different needs and motivations based on this status; finally, they continued to hold a gendered vulnerability to violence in public spaces. Likewise, Melissa R. Gilbert’s study of survival strategies in Worcester, Massachusetts dealt with ‘spatial entrapment’ and the agency of women interacting with their place — rooted in their social environment as individuals with a class, race, and gender identity.
I thought of these factors when reading Alyssa Coppelman’s “Young, Gay, and Black in a Southern Town” on Preston Gannaway’s photographic work. Gannaway spent time with Tavaris Edwards, a young man living in public housing in Chesapeake, Virginia. What stood out to me was this description of Edward’s relationship to his (predominantly black) neighborhood: Read the rest of this entry
Jonathan Cohn at the New Republic, as a leftward commentator, has consistently struck the best tone and balance on health care reform. One of his recurring frames through which to discuss the Affordable Care Act applies to both supporters and opponents; namely, to admit that the law consists of a series of trade-offs. For the former that means acknowledging that some part of a portion will indeed be getting a less-favorable deal on their health insurance, while the latter should concede that people will indeed benefit by gaining coverage they were previously denied. As with anything, of course, context is important here.
This is especially true as it relates to the press reporting on these trade-offs. Yesterday he pushed back on the deluge of media coverage on some number of upper-middle class Americans facing complications over their individual insurance plan renewals. Those are due in no small part to the ACA’s regulations on health insurance in the market which mandates that, among other things, new plans cover a list of essential benefits and cost-sharing caps. These are real effects that deserve to be documented.
Yet in their pursuit to spend a disproportionate amount of time on this aspect, they’re failing to tell the bifurcated story of a larger number of Americans being affected by the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. Read the rest of this entry
Earlier this week Jonathan Cohn wrote a piece titled “Two Key Facts That Are Overlooked in the Obamacare Debate.” This was a response, in part, to recent disputes over policy cancellations in the individual market and rate shock. The first fact is that many people purchasing policies on exchanges established by the law will qualify for subsidies, of which a not-insignificant portion will be able to buy coverage with no premium.
Here I believe the competency of the debate has actually been raised. Subsidies seem to be more often raised when relevant, or at the very least briefly acknowledged. This is a good thing because when we think about how people are going to gain coverage under the law, getting money to help pay for it is a crucial component. Of course it’s probably dismissed too easily thereafter, but on the whole it’s inclusion in arguments is more prevalent. The same cannot be said of Cohn’s second fact.
Fact two: Those ultra-cheap policies are pretty threadbare. They might keep people out of bankruptcy, but they still would leave beneficiaries exposed to thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses a year.
Yesterday Dylan Matthews put up an interview with Joel Berg, the “executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.” Don’t be discouraged by the length, as it’s well-worth reading the whole piece. Berg comes across as a smart, passionate, fellow on this subject. He makes a convincing case that the characterization of the SNAP benefit expiration that occurred last Friday as being “no big deal” is absurd. The program wasn’t generous to begin with, and the reduction will bring the average benefit down to $1.40 per meal. Likewise, the sequence of events that led to cuts in food assistance — meals for seniors, WIC, food pantries — due to sequestration should be particularly galling to the left given the president’s complicity.
Yet there’s a broader point that deserves some attention too. Berg is asked about his preferred reform structure for the food safety net, and responds by advocating for a single food assistance program with one application tied to applying for the Earned Income Tax Credit. This type of consolidation is appealing because it would reduce (in his view unnecessary) bureaucracy, but also greatly increase ease of access to needed assistance. In the next response he interestingly describes the status quo patchwork of low-income food assistance as something of a bipartisan consensus to keep things kludged (re: unnecessarily complicated). Read the rest of this entry
Beyond the intense focus over the deeply flawed rollout of Healthcare.gov — which, if you haven’t already, read this incredibly back-story reporting in the Washington Post — there’s been a plethora of media reports highlighting anecdotes of rate shock and insurance cancellations. This appears to be especially prevalent in regional and local news, which is understandable, perhaps, as it’s fairly common for this level of media to explore broader issues through the stories of those affected. It’s a nominally good tactic, but as Paul Waldman notes these “exemplars” are only helpful if they’re framed in the proper context.
Those stories that rising to the top of the media food chain, where people end up doing the ’rounds on national outlets, are for the most part tales of people ‘losing’ under the new health care law. One such individual, Dianne Barrett, rode the wave of a local Florida station reporting on her insurance cancellation to several Fox News appearances. Yet like several “exemplars” before, her story of rate shock after been sent a notice that her individual insurance policy was not being renewed due to the ACA is not a straightforward tale of ‘losing.’ Read the rest of this entry
The Kaiser Family Foundation released their latest heath tracking poll for the month of October. According to the results the headline response is that the public has an unfavorable view of the implementation of the law, but overall opinions about the Affordable Care Act haven’t changed much.
Also, in a rare case of the pundits being entirely correct, more folks were paying attention to the October government shutdown and debt ceiling negotiations than the deeply flawed rollout of Healthcare.gov.
The public is also beginning to see more ACA-related ads, including those intended to raise awareness on how to obtain coverage, but only about a third of the uninsured could count themselves in that category. People also continue to feel the that “they’ve felt no personal impact so far,” but the share of the public that felt as though they had enough information finally reached a majority. You can read the particular numbers on those here, but there’s a specific chart I’d like to highlight. Read the rest of this entry
This chart was making the rounds courtesy of economist Justin Wolfers, based on a Ryan Lizza interview with Jonathan Gruber, who tried to give an approximation for effects under the Affordable Care Act.
This gained a lot of traction on Twitter, and a few blogs, certainly impressing the point that the vast majority of Americans will be left unaffected. The only problem is that, excluding the blue portion, the information isn’t really a good guess. Read the rest of this entry
In non-health care news the Treasury Department announced that the federal deficit fell below the $1 trillion mark, the first since 2009, for the fiscal year that ended September 30th. As Neil Irwin notes this was a 37 percent decrease largely based on more revenue, “up $325 billion from 2012.”
For some perspective, here is a clipped portion of the chart accompanying Irwin’s post covering this time-period (note: the bars descend from a surplus/deficit x-axis of 0.0):
In 1992, professors Sy Alder and Johanna Brenner released their study, “Gender and Space: Lesbians and Gay Men in the City,” of the spatial concentration of lesbians in an undisclosed community. Their research was a contribution to the work begun by Manuel Castells in his seminal study of gay culture and identity in San Francisco’s Castro District, published in 1983 in The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. Alder and Brenner, while taking issue with some of Castells’ assumptions, nevertheless replicated his methods for gauging urban cultural identity and political differences between gay men and lesbians.
Here is part of their conclusion (emphasis mine):
While we reject Castells’ characterization of the gender differences between gay men and lesbians, we do think there are important dimensions along which gay men and lesbians may relate differently to urban space and urban politics. These differences do reflect the fact that lesbians are women. First, as we have already argued, lesbians, like other women, tend not to have access to capital. Second, lesbians are more likely than gay men to be primary caretakers of children. Their choices about where to live will have to take their children’s needs into account. When they do locate in a lesbian neighborhood, they bring a set of interests and styles of sociability very different from those of people without children. This diversity, while a strength for the community as a whole, might also militate against the development of a distinctive urban subculture. Third, lesbians share with other women a vulnerability to male physical and sexual violence. Of course, it is true that gay men have had to defend themselves from attacks on their places and persons. And lesbians have ably resisted assaults, for example on lesbian bars. Still, it seems to us that women are more at risk in public places than are men, and that this in turn may limit lesbians’ interest in or ability to create the kind of vibrant street culture that makes an urban community.
More than twenty years later we’re in a much different, generally more accepting, context for the legitimacy of LGBT rights and culture. The details and dynamics have certainly changed, as sociologists are no longer necessarily studying sexual orientation under the banner of ‘counter-cultures’ or looking for LGBT groups in ‘hidden’ communities. These were, and continue to be, incredibly important and compelling areas of interest; yet two aspects in-particular caught my eye. Read the rest of this entry
So much great writing exists on the current kerfuffle over whether the president lied at numerous times by saying, cumulatively paraphrased, “If you like your insurance plan, you can keep it.” From several points of examination this isn’t exactly accurate. That being said, if you’re actually interested in the context for that statement and why many people who have individual insurance policies are receiving “cancellation letters,” those explanations exist — Sarah Kliff, Igor Volsky, Jared Bernstein, Jonathan Cohn, among others.
You won’t find a defense of President Obama’s repeated statements here. Like Austin Frakt wrote yesterday, as a supporter of the law I believe the trade-offs in the legislation are worth it, but that doesn’t mean I own any ill-advised political promises made on its behalf. I also don’t judge, and neither should you, the efficacy of any policy based on such statements. If all you’re interested in is passing political judgement on a second-term president, well, have at I suppose. On the other hand, if you’re truthfully worried about the real challenges moving forward, we really do “have to get past this.” Read the rest of this entry