Join us tomorrow for a lively conversation with Martin Luther King III, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Dr. Delores Jones Brown, Professor and Director of John Jay College Center on Race, Crime and Justice and former NYPD officer and John Jay Lecturer Eugene O’Donnell.

Join us tomorrow for a lively conversation with Martin Luther King III, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Dr. Delores Jones Brown, Professor and Director of John Jay College Center on Race, Crime and Justice and former NYPD officer and John Jay Lecturer Eugene O’Donnell.

All The Wrong Food In All The Wrong Places

Liz Lamoste

It’s fairly obvious that the city of Detroit has a whole host of pressing problems to solve. The Governor, Mayor, and City Council just entered into a consent agreement to help keep the city afloat financially, and are now sorting out core governance issues. Despite a small drop last month, Detroit’s unemployment rate is 17.8% in comparison to the national 8.2% rate. Indeed, Detroit has a bad reputation that carries throughout the country.

Though Detroit residents are working hard to improve the city while highlighting the city’s positive features and redeeming qualities, we still need to have an honest conversation about which problems to address, in what order, and to what degree. To start, I think Detroit needs to tackle food insecurity and vacant land issues; the growing urban agriculture movement can mitigate these problems and help empower communities throughout the city.

Food Insecurity: The US Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as households that lack consistent access to adequate food for active, healthy lives. In 2010, the Detroit Food Policy Council estimated that Detroit’s food insecurity rate was at least 30%, compared to the11% national average. The problem isn’t just that people in Detroit don’t have enough food to eat. The Fair Food Network published a case study on access to food in Detroit, which identified several additional problems: lack of healthy and affordable food and retailers, neighborhood safety, and environmental contamination. Some interviewees also mentioned racial tensions, as some “African American residents say that food quality, service, and condition of their neighborhood stores are unacceptable, and feel disrespected by the store owners, who are often from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and live outside their neighborhoods.”

Vacant Land: At its core, Detroit is too big for its population, and the city needs to adapt in order to survive. Detroit officials and other stakeholders have been talking about “right-sizing” the city over the past few years, and the Detroit Works Project is a city initiative that is trying to figure out just what to do with this space. While these conversations will likely remain controversial, prompt and thoughtful action is necessary, and in this case proof is in the statistics. By area, Detroit is about 138 square miles. From 2000 to 2010, Detroit’s population declined by 25% and is now about 713,000. According to the Detroit Residential Parcel Survey data, about 581 of the city’s 3116 miles of highways and streets front vacant lots. And, 10,683 of the city’s 32,913 blocks are made up of at least 25% vacant lots. The costs of maintaining this lack of land use are too high for the city to bear.

Last month, the University of Michigan Food Stamp Advocacy Project organized a panel that asked whether urban agriculture/urban farming can help put vacant land to good use and promote food security. First, Professor Alicia Alvarez, director of the Community & Economic Development Clinic (CEDC), which provides legal support to community-based nonprofit organizations in Detroit, discussed how her work supporting community-based organizations engaged in urban agriculture has made her believe that urban agriculture can positively impact the city.

The next speaker, Professor John Mogk of Wayne State University Law School argued that urban agriculture is a great opportunity to productively use otherwise vacant land to help support communities through providing access to healthy foods, fostering community development through improving neighborhoods, and reducing crime.

Finally, Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network Malik Yakini emphasized the importance of undoing racism in the Detroit food system by “rejecting the missionary attitude of whites who come into our communities, via grant funded nonprofits, to lead us to the urban agricultural promised land.” He also pointed out that urban agriculture can be used to connect more Detroiters to affordable, healthy, and delicious food. Mr. Yakini’s group advances urban agriculture by running the D-Town farm, supporting food justice activism, and engaging in policy advocacy projects.

The panelists both contend that city officials need to work with community groups and other stakeholders to address the operational, legislative, and regulatory challenges currently facing urban agriculture in Detroit. This point left me with a host of critical questions about what city and community collaboration would look like and achieve. For example, if the city is “right-sizing” and is going to end up rezoning several different neighborhoods, what does that mean for up and coming farms? Also, how much urban agriculture does the city want within city limits? How will Detroit deal with the Michigan Right to Farm Act, which in many respects leaves Detroit powerless to regulate commercial farming.

While there need to be more discussions about the mechanics and vision(s) for urban agriculture in the city, the punch line was that if city officials and communities work together, urban agriculture can be an opportunity to reduce food insecurity, empower communities, and put otherwise vacant land to productive use. I agree entirely.


Liz Lamoste is a second-year student at the University of Michigan Law School,  a native of Suburban Detroit, and a 2009 DMI Scholar. She is a board member of the Michigan Universal Health Care Access Network (MichUHCAN) and an outgoing co-chair of the Food Stamp Advocacy Project (FSAP). You can contact her at or follow her on twitter @LizLamoste.



Testimony for the New York City Council: Traffic Safety and Enforcement

This afternoon, I had the opportunity to testify in front of a joint hearing of the Transportation and Public Safety committees.

Proceeding with Caution – An Examination of NYPD’s accident response and enforcement of traffic rules relating to cars, bikes, and trucks


Testimony: John Petro, Policy Analyst for Urban Affairs
Drum Major Institute for Public Policy
February 15th, 2012


My name is John Petro, and I am a policy analyst with the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. About 16 months ago, I began researching the subject of traffic safety in New York City and published my results last June in a report called Vision Zero: How Safer Streets in New York City Can Save More Than 100 Lives a Year.


Saving over 100 lives a year is something that I think everyone in this room can support. But for some reason, we seem to accept traffic fatalities as something inevitable, something that we as citizens or as policymakers cannot control. But this is not true. Other cities have cut traffic fatalities in half—some in as little as six years. I’ve found that there are proven methods to reduce them, to stop the needless death and pain, and to eliminate this very serious threat to public safety. Cutting fatalities in half is an important goal: that’s how we can save over 100 lives a year.


Traffic crashes are a very serious threat to public safety. It is the number one cause of injury-related death among children under 14 and the number two cause of injury-related death among New Yorkers of all ages. In fact, traffic crashes pose the same level of threat to public safety as gun murders. Over the past ten years more traffic-related incidents have been recorded as the cause of death by the New York City Department of Health than firearm-related homicides.


Every 35 hours, one New Yorker is killed in a traffic incident. In other words, they were killed while simply trying to get from point A to point B.


All of us in this room are responsible for whether or not traffic incidents occur—we all use the city streets in one way or another. But those that engage in dangerous driving are especially responsible. In New York City, speeding is the number one cause of fatal traffic crashes.


Policymakers are also responsible for whether or not traffic fatalities occur on the scale that they do. There are proven methods to reduce traffic fatalities in urban areas. Most seek to ensure that motorists don’t exceed 30 miles per hour. Where pedestrians and bicyclists are present, keep automobile speeds between 20 and 30 miles per hour and your fatality rates will drop.


That’s why bike lanes reduce fatalities. They tend to prevent drivers from speeding. That’s why widening sidewalks at intersections works: they cause drivers to slow down to legal speeds, to observe pedestrians and others as they make a turn. These methods have proven to work in academic studies and in journals of medicine and injury-prevention in the cities that have tried them.


That’s why these policies should have the broad support of the elected officials in city government: they save lives.


Cities that have widely adopted 20 mph zones have seen traffic fatalities drop. Berlin in Germany—the home of the Autobahn—has converted 70 percent of its road network to 20 mph zones. It also has a traffic fatality rate half of New York’s. This is where the report gets its name: if New York had the same traffic fatality rate as Berlin, Paris, or Tokyo we’d save over 100 lives a year.


The enforcement of traffic rules is also critical for the prevention of traffic fatalities. Most fatal crashes are not just accidents—drivers often choose to engage in risky behavior like speeding that contribute to fatal crashes. However, without the expectation that traffic laws will be enforced, they will routinely be broken. For example, one study of 13 city intersections found that 39 percent of the drivers were speeding.


One effective enforcement method is the use of speed cameras, which have been proven to reduce speeding, crashes, and injuries. Cameras are especially beneficial when you consider that they use few police resources—officers are not diverted from other tasks. Speed detectors—especially mobile units because otherwise drivers simply learn the location of fixed cameras—give drivers the expectation that enforcement may occur anywhere and at any time.


What else could the NYPD be doing to help reduce traffic fatalities? The department could focus on reducing the incidence of dangerous speeding by setting benchmarks and targets. For instance, the NYPD could work with the Department of Transportation to set targets to reduce the number of drivers that exceed the speed limit by more than ten miles per hour: a reduction by 50 percent over five years, for example.


More generally, traffic crashes need to be treated with the same seriousness as other incidents that cause injury and death. For example, the difference between the investigations into the elevator incident from last December—in which a woman was killed—and the traffic crash that killed Mathieu Lefevre could not be more different. In the case of the elevator incident, the city’s response was swift and firm: the Department of Buildings quickly inspected all 650 elevators owned or maintained by the company involved, and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office also launched a criminal investigation into the botched maintenance work. It was a horrible incident necessary of a thorough investigation.


The question I would like to leave before the committee is this: why are traffic crashes treated much less seriously? Through careful street design, through targeted enforcement, and by changing the culture that accepts traffic death as a part of every day life, we can dramatically reduce the number of fatalities that occur on the city’s streets nearly every day.


Thank you.

Conservative Alternatives to the DREAM Act: New and Hardly Improved

Afton Branche

In this election season, discussions of immigration reform have been light on serious policy talk and heavy on partisan posturing. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama reiterated his commitment to getting immigration reform done, using strikingly similar language to what he said in past addresses. For their part, Republican presidential hopefuls have been committed to spending more money at the border and rejecting any comprehensive immigration reforms. But when the right has presented fresh ideas on immigration, they seem to be motivated by restrictionist ideology rather than a consideration of common sense.

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts ruffled feathers recently with his strange and inhumane idea that out of status immigrants “self-deport” back to their home countries; fellow frontrunner Gingrich quickly attacked this unrealistic policy. But Romney’s most alienating statement on immigration so far was his stunning promise to Iowa caucus audiences that he would veto the DREAM Act.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, aka the DREAM Act, would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children, provided that they graduate from high school and attend college for two years or serve in the military. This legislation has been around for a little over ten years; in December 2010, the DREAM Act passed the House, but failed in the Senate.

Opponents to the bill frequently claimed that DREAM Act eligible immigrants, once legalized, would be able to petition on behalf of their undocumented parents, resulting in massive “chain migration.” It is true that naturalized citizens can petition for residence for their parents; but under the Act, applicants must wait a minimum of thirteen years before even becoming eligible for citizenship. Even then, the fact is that it’s very difficult for relatives already living illegally in the US to become permanent residents through this process. The DREAM Act is hardly the open door to citizenship that opponents claim it to be.

The most troubling line of reasoning against the DREAM Act is based on the idea that undocumented youth and young people are somehow the “other” and that this policy only benefits a special interest group. With legal status, conservative opponents say, these individuals will steal jobs and take spots in colleges that should otherwise be reserved for real Americans. But DREAM Act beneficiaries have grown up in America, speaking English and attending our public schools; despite their origins, these young folks are hardly “aliens.”

And providing a path to legal status for these residents will empower them to give back to our economy and society. According to a new UCLA study, the DREAM Act could yield a whopping $3.6 trillion in economic output over the next forty years; with legal status and the incentive to continue their education, immigrants can get better jobs and contribute much more to our economy. The DREAM Act would enable immigrant youth to start businesses, pay income taxes, and buy more consumer goods; clearly these positive outcomes won’t just pay off for special interest groups.

Thanks in part to the efforts of immigration advocates and youth activists, the 2010 defeat of the DREAM Act was hardly the end. During this election cycle, Republican candidates and conservative voices on immigration have been speaking out against the current iteration of the bill, and suggesting radical ways to improve it.

In an op-ed for The Hill, Robert Gittelson of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform proposes a “conservative alternative to the DREAM Act.” To avoid the possibility of a “back-door amnesty” to undocumented parents of eligible children, Gittelson suggests changing the “Democratic version of the DREAM Act” so that beneficiaries would only be allowed to stay in the country as non-immigrants or guest workers. In this way, there is no way for newly legalized immigrants to sponsor anyone for residence. In the beginning of the piece, Gittelson agrees that children of immigrants deserve compassion. Then why limit their options just to appease chain migration alarmists? The fact that DREAM Act beneficiaries may someday be able to sponsor their parents in the future does not warrant consigning them to an inappropriate immigration status today.

Someone who has gone to American high school and speaks English should absolutely not be classified as a guest worker. The endemic problems of our guest worker programs are well documented; in short, these programs leave immigrant workers open to labor exploitation and degrade labor standards that all workers rely on. We should not expand this system without reform. Further, classifying DREAM Act beneficiaries as “non-immigrants” obviously goes against the spirit of the program. The non-immigrant program is for international visitors coming to the U.S. temporarily, a large category that includes fashion models and au pairs, but should not include DREAM Act beneficiaries. There is nothing temporary about migrating to the U.S. as a teenager, learning English, and marrying a U.S. citizen.

Gittelson also suggests lowering the qualifying age for the bill from 35 years old as a way to trim the potential pool of candidates. (This is despite a recent study that finds only 825,000 individuals would realistically be eligible for legalization under the bill.) If we agree that someone brought to the U.S. as a minor who has gotten an education and stayed out of trouble should be allowed to legalize, then lowering the age limit to exclude a 35 year old who meets these requirements seems arbitrary.

The worst “amendment” to the DREAM Act by far would allow undocumented youth to get on the path to citizenship only through military service. Gittelson’s op-ed also endorses this plan, while Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have come out in support of the bill. The idea that we only offer citizenship to undocumented students willing to serve and potentially sacrifice their lives in the military but not those who want to further their education is ridiculous, and some say racist. To undocumented youth, the message is clear: America doesn’t want you to be an educated citizen, but will let you sacrifice your life to be a veteran citizen.

I understand the need to tweak the DREAM Act and improve its chances, but this is not the right way to do it. Would-be lawmakers and their advisors should come up with a solution to ensure the DREAM Act only covers intended beneficiaries without resorting to needless restrictions. At the end of the day, it’s hard to believe the existing policy is the problem, and easier to think that politics as usual has gotten in the way of a successful DREAM Act.


End the Culture of Accepting Traffic Deaths

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein

In December, a horrific elevator accident killed a young executive named Suzanne Hart in Midtown Manhattan. The city’s response was swift and firm: the Department of Buildings quickly inspected all 650 elevators owned or maintained by the company involved, and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office also launched a criminal investigation into the botched maintenance work.It was a horrible incident necessary of a thorough investigation.

Two months earlier, another horrible incident resulted in the death of a young New Yorker. However, the difference between the city’s responses to both incidents is stark and shocking.

In October, Mathieu Lefevre was struck and killed by a truck while commuting home on his bicycle in an industrial part of East Williamsburg. The truck driver left the scene.

The NYPD tracked down the driver that struck Lefevre a few days later, the truck having been found parked a few blocks away. The driver claimed he never felt the collision and was unaware that the incident took place.

No charges were filed against the driver and the NYPD brought the investigation to a close, falsely concluding with the notion that Lefevre had run a red light.

It wasn’t until after being threatened with a lawsuit by the victim’s family that the NYPD released the file of the investigation. This is when certain facts of the incident became known: investigating officers were unable to take pictures of the incident because of a faulty camera (no camera phones, I suppose); and video footage from a private security camera captured the incident, showing that the truck driver struck Leferve while making a right hand turn without signaling. This video proved that Lefevre did not run a red light and makes it difficult to believe that the driver was unaware that the collision took place.

But one especially eerie detail stands out: the NYPD had taken pictures of the victim’s family while attending a rally in support of better enforcement of traffic laws. It was in the file.

Why was the city’s response to these two tragedies so different? There is a general culture that simply accepts traffic deaths as a way of life; this is a culture of acceptance. Traffic deaths are, after all, common. One New Yorker dies roughly every 35 hours in a traffic incident.

But traffic deaths are entirely preventable with careful street designs, such as bike lanes and other safety-enhancing measures implemented by the city’s transportation commissioner, Jannette Sadik-Kahn. Instead, elected officials and opinion pages generally deride her and her policies.

The City Council enacts legislation to add roadblocks to new bike lanes, bizarrely claim they hurt business, and take stabs at Sadik-Kahn. But these same elected officials do not think about the massive scale of traffic violence: about 300 killed a year and another three thousand seriously injured.

Other cities have cut their traffic fatality rates to one-half that of New York City. This means over one hundred lives a year in human terms. Only when we stop accepting traffic deaths as a fact of life and begin to treat them more like the elevator incident will we stop the violence that claims so many every year.

Everyone needs to show leadership to end the plague of violence on our roads. The Mayor needs to show zero tolerance for traffic fatalities and ensure that city agencies do the same. The Transportation Department under Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is already reducing speed limits in neighborhoods like Claremont in the Bronx and Park Slope in Brooklyn, a move proven to reduce traffic deaths but the entire city could benefit from less speeding. NYPD needs to crack down on dangerous driving like what killed Mathieu Lefevre, but it’s not just dangerous drivers who are at fault. Felix Salmon points to studies finding that 2/3rds of bike accidents happen because of unsafe cycling and safer biking would surely keep people alive. Moreover, responsibility does not rest merely with city government. Community boards and neighborhood groups should not sit back and watch pedestrians and cyclists die on their streets. And everyone has a responsibility to use the streets safely and make sure friends and neighbors do too.

In some ways, we are at the beginning of a shift similar to the movement to prevent drunk driving, which Barron Lerner recounts in One for the Road. They faced a similar misperception that drunk driving was inevitable and accidental, rather than a conscious choice to drink and drive. Changing behavior and government policy reduced drunk driving and keeps people alive. We are similarly positioned to make giant leaps in reducing traffic deaths, if we take up on the duty to do so.

Taxes and the Pig—A Christmas Story

Daniel Wu

"This year’s the first year I’ll be making enough to pay taxes,” I thought to myself on Christmas morning, pontificating about how I’ll be spending over half of my measly graduate student stipend on Boston’s crazy rent. As I slipped into the living room for breakfast, my mom hugged me and told me again how happy she was that I was home for the holidays. Then she handed me a card. On the cover was a pig wearing a Santa hat that anthropocentrically smiled at me.

“Why don’t you have to pay taxes?” I grumbled to myself. “You’re just a stupid pig.”

But the pig’s smug smile made me think. As someone who values thrift and accountability, and whose family is struggling in the recession, I felt the hesitation that comes along with sending a portion of my hard-earned cash to Uncle Sam. I had little faith that it was going to priorities I felt were important. For instance, over 50% of my tax dollars go to paying interest on military debt and wars across the world, which is triple the combined amount of Russia, China, and the so-called Axis of Evil. I could only imagine towering profits earned by this war-ready industry. To make things worse, due to tax loopholes, well-resourced corporations and people who could afford crafty tax accountants could have a lower tax rate than mine.   

To be frank, our current discourse around taxes doesn’t alleviate my apprehension. Most commentators focus on the divide between the rich and everyone else. From the right, commentators repeat the “no new taxes” mantra, while committing social services to liposuction. Want to raise taxes on millionaires? That’s class warfarenot to mention job destruction. From the left, the frame on taxes is a mouthful. Tax cuts for the wealthy contribute to growing inequality. In fact, as Paul Krugman states, the super wealthy do not create jobs, but exacerbate risk “that was mostly borne not by the wheeler-dealers themselves but either by naïve investors or by taxpayers, who ended up holding the bag when it all went wrong.” The wealthy (aka the 1%) prey on the public (aka the 99%). Taxes? It’s justice and redistribution.

But even though I was apprehensive about taxes, as a civic-minded individual, I knew that my tax dollars were a necessary pillar of the American Dream—if and only if they were used appropriately. So, I propose that we talk and think about taxes differently. Instead of focusing only on the divide between the rich and everyone else, we must also ask, “What should we use our taxes for?” Here’s one answer: Our taxes must revitalize our communities and promote the equality of opportunity. We must invest in our cities and neighborhoods; our housing, transit, food and water quality, schools, health, and job innovation. Currently, only a measly 6% of my taxes go to such initiatives. What a shame. I want my money to go into skilled planning and foresight into these priorities.

We are ignoring one of the nation’s largest and most invisible regressive taxes: cost of living. Housing, transit, and food consume 57% of the average American’s income, and 72% if you make less than $50,000. We must find ways to invest our tax dollars that reduces the onerous costs. Public investments in mass transit make transportation more affordable for American families. Investments in affordable—and even public—housing keep housing costs down for everyone by increasing the supply. Many Americans can barely keep up with the monthly bills, not to mention saving for a child’s college education. By making our neighborhoods more affordable and accessible, we can help families invest in themselves.

 How do we pay for this investment? Let’s keep the nation’s wealthiest—the supposed “job creators”—honest. Our tax code must link the futures of both the rich and poor. “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” Martin Luther King Jr. once pointed out, “tied together into a single garment of destiny.” It’s time for those that have made tremendous fortunes in the American economy to uphold their tremendous responsibility as our nation’s supposed job creators. Instead of simply raising corporate taxes, I propose we link corporate tax rates to a national job quality index. The index compiles not only unemployment rates, but also its wages, job security, and work-life balance. If the job quality goes down, corporate tax rates go up and vice versa. 

 Let’s move from if to how. We must put a sound investment into our nation’s future opportunities onto our New Years Resolutions.

States vs. Cities: Immigration Enforcement Policy in 2011

Afton Branche

Three years into the Obama administration and no comprehensive immigration reform in sight, immigration enforcement policy seems to be going two directions, characterized by smart policymaking at the city level and ill-advised restrictive policies in the states.

This month, legislators in New York and Washington D.C. made it clear that cities don’t have to get in the business of federal immigration enforcement. Yesterday, New York City Mayor Bloomberg signed an important measure limiting the city’s role in federal immigration enforcement. The new law keeps the Department of Corrections from turning over immigrants with no criminal convictions to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) upon their release from local jail, but makes key exceptions for known gang members or those on the terror watch list. Under this legislation, the first of its kind signed into law, local officials will no longer place immigration holds on New Yorkers without criminal histories.

In Washington, all thirteen members of the D.C. Council co-sponsored a bill which prevents the Department of Corrections from detaining suspected undocumented immigrants without current or previous convictions for violent crimes. The measure further stipulates that local jails will release immigrants after 24 hours if ICE officials fail to pick them up—typically, ICE has 48 hours to retrieve immigrants from local custody. Immigrant communities in Washington and New York should feel safer knowing that local law enforcement officers will no longer be doing double duty as ICE agents; so too, should non-immigrants—fewer resources spent on non-criminals necessarily means more resources allocated toward catching criminals and identifying threats to public safety.

Cities shouldn’t participate in enforcing our outdated civil immigration laws, which are enacted and funded at the federal level. Local governments are tasked with upholding public safety and ensuring communities’ trust in city police—there is evidence that civil immigration enforcement undermines both goals. Further, there is little connection between public safety and deporting undocumented immigrants without criminal pasts. And by narrowing the population eligible for jail time, New York and Washington will save millions in jailing and other correctional costs each year.

Across the country, other localities have been taking steps to restrain costly immigration enforcement programs. In Chicago, Illinois, Arlington, Virginia and elsewhere, elected officials have passed resolutions or laws attempting to opt-out of ICE’s controversial Secure Communities program. The fingerprint sharing “partnership” engages local resources in enforcing immigration laws, so that individuals booked for local crimes have their prints automatically forwarded to federal immigration authorities. In practice, this has resulted in thousands of immigrants deported for civil immigration violations, even though they were originally charged with or convicted of for minor crimes like traffic offenses. In addition, a groundbreaking study found that the program sweeps up Latinos in disproportionate numbers, and negatively affects due process for all immigrants apprehended. Despite these concerns, the Obama administration has essentially forbidden localities from exiting the program, and plans to expand Secure Communities nationwide by 2013.

While many cities are crafting smarter policies to mitigate the impact of immigration enforcement, some states are going the other direction, cooking up costly and expansive policies. In 2011, states including South Carolina, Indiana and Alabama have attempted to tighten the screws on immigrants, passing increasingly restrictive and potentially unconstitutional omnibus laws designed to identify, deport and simply drive out undocumented families.

Alabama’s law is the most radical, broadly requiring individuals to show “proof of immigration status for ‘any transaction between a person and the state or a political subdivision of the state.’” The implications of this provision are staggering—citizens could be required to produce papers when signing up for electricity service or garbage pick-up. It also includes language requiring public schools to determine student’s immigration status and barring landlords from knowingly renting to undocumented immigrants. According to Birmingham Mayor William Bell, the new measure “is virtually impossible to enforce.” Indeed, the law goes further than other states’ measures, even Arizona’s infamous SB1070. Beyond the obvious injustice of attempting to drive workers and consumers without papers out of the state, Alabama’s law fails as a sound piece of public policy thanks to its far-reaching unintended consequences.

The legislation allows residents to show driver’s licenses as proof of immigration status; but those with out-of-state licenses or military IDs could be forced to produce other documents when picking up car tags or signing up for membership at the local pool. It’s well known that certain populations, including African-Americans and the elderly, are less likely than the general population to have citizenship documents. Further, in the aftermath of the law, there were reports that immigrant families fled the state. The Center for American Progress found that the resulting labor shortages led to serious negative economic consequences: one farmer lost an estimated $300,000. These and other reported impacts are reportedly forcing Alabama lawmakers to consider “tweaking” the law.

Fortunately, the federal government successfully filed a complaint to halt elements of Alabama’s immigration law, and ultimately the state’s district court prevented key provisions from going into effect.  But the fight is far from over: court challenges were filed this year in Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina to turn back similarly restrictive measures.

Politicians will continue to adopt immigration hawk stances and propose backward-thinking laws against the interests of the general populace, while smart policymakers know that it’s best to leave immigration enforcement to the feds. “Cracking down” on immigration won’t decrease unemployment, improve public schools or create safer neighborhoods; it’s time elected officials put aside silver-bullet immigration laws promising otherwise.

DMI Scholars: Training the Next Generation of Policy Leaders

Apply now to be a DMI Scholar!

DMI Scholars is a “Public Policy 101” for young people who want to keep our country moving forward.The Drum Major Institute for Public Policy created DMI Scholars to identify progressive college activists from underrepresented communities and train them in the skills necessary to obtain and succeed in entry-level public policy positions.

Our two-week Summer Institute for DMI Scholars will be in New York City during Summer 2012. There, Scholars will learn to approach problems through a policy lens and meet people on the frontlines fighting for fair and just public policy.  After our intensive summer training, we will help students throughout the year explore careers in this field through internships and follow-up trainings. 

With DMI’s network and expertise, DMI Scholars will become the future Legislative Directors, Policy Analysts and Advisors who fuel the progressive movement with new ideas and effective advocacy.

We strongly encourage students of color, immigrant, members of the LGBTQ community and students from low-income and working class backgrounds to apply. All expenses are paid.

Download the application at To apply, please send application materials to

Application deadline: January 31, 2012.

Squeezing the 99 Percent

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein

The fabled American Dream suggests that by working hard and playing by the rules, any American may prosper. For the generations born in the 1950s and 1960s, this largely held true. The economy boomed, business prospered, and all Americans shared in the gains—both the richest Americans and those working themselves into the middle class.  Children expected to earn more than their parents and, by and large, they did. Times are different now, and this dream has seemingly fallen apart.

Millions of Americans are out of work or are forced to work only part-time. For Americans who are working, they are taking home less and less. Since 1973, incomes for most Americans have stagnated. Just compare the average hourly wage in 1972, $20.06 an hour after factoring in inflation, with today’s average hourly wage of $18.52. Over the same period, corporate profits doubled and CEO pay close to quadrupled. 

It’s not just wages. Many employers are cutting health and retirement benefits, squeezing the 99 percent even more. For instance, take Walmart, which posted a profit of over $15 billion last year.

Last week the retail giant announced its plan to slash health benefits for its workers. The company cited “rising costs.” But this was simply a choice made by Walmart’s executives to squeeze more from its workers at a time of sky-high profits. They expect to increase profits this year compared to last year. Class warfare, indeed.

One worker profiled in a story by The New York Times, Tammy Yancey, would now have to pay $127.90 every two weeks to get health care through Walmart, more than double the $53.80 she had been paying. But Ms. Yancey, who makes $9.50 an hour, is barely above the absurdly low poverty line  and won’t be able to afford those newly increased premiums.

It’s important to keep in mind that Ms. Yancey isn’t the only person in her situation. About one in six Americans with a job today work in retail and for many of those 24 million Americans, it may be worse. The low wages in this growing industry also drive down wages for every American hoping to find work, regardless of the industry.

Walmart executives would tell you they’re just doing their job—maximizing profits for themselves and shareholders. Free-market stalwart Milton Friedman talked of the responsibility of businesses to maximize their profits “within the rules of the game.” But clearly the rules of the game are no longer fair, and it is the responsibility of government to ensure that the rules are fair. This disconnect is at the heart of the Occupy movement that is growing across the US.

This movement should think beyond Wall Street and financial regulations and consider labor laws like the minimum wage. In today’s dollars, the minimum wage was worth far more from 1960 through 1980, hitting a high of $10.04 in 1968. It should also consider strengthening its relationship with labor unions. It is no coincidence that wage stagnation has happened in conjunction with falling union membership. Strong union membership in the retail sector would certainly help lift wages and help struggling Americans like Ms. Yancey.

Of course, Congressional Republicans would tell you that any effort that stems the flow of wealth to the top one percent would hurt employment. That’s why they oppose President Obama’s jobs bill and its tax increases on millionaires and corporate profits. But this thinking is out of step with Americans on Main Street, who oppose cutting corporate taxes and favor raising taxes on millionaires by a margin of two-to-one. Now that the Occupy movement has gained the nation’s attention, perhaps members of Congress will wake up and take notice.

The Gentrification Spaceship

Daniel Wu

My friend, John, invited me to visit him in NYC this past weekend. When he told me he lived in East Harlem, I imagined him studying under leaky, lead pipes. But at least, I imagined, he had cheap rent. When I met him in front of his white, square building (We affectionately call it his Gentrification Spaceship), he told me he paid $1000 a month, a “good deal” compared to his student friends next door who paid $1500. His spaceship isn’t cheap, especially since he makes less than $15,000 a year.  

A 2009 report by The Center for Urban Future showed that he isn’t alone; NYC is the most expensive metropolitan area in the nation. Take “Bob,” the blue-collar policeman. He’s had at least a decade of experience on the job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bob makes about $60,000 a year. That’s about $20,000 more than the average NYC resident’s income. But, when you consider the costs of food, utilities, rent, and other essentials, that $60,000 in NYC would be equivalent to making $26,000 in Atlanta. This is no surprise when a month of rent on average costs $2,800. Occupy Wall Street made a smart financial decision by sticking to the Zuccotti park benches. I urge Bob to join.

What is more disturbing is that these cost of living trends are not unique to NYC. In 2006, the Center for Housing Policy published a startling report which found that across the United States’ 28 major metropolitan areas —that includes the suburbs— working families spent about 60% of their income on housing and transportation alone. When you add in the cost of food, 75% of the average working family’s income vanishes yearly into gas stations, auto insurance bills, rental checks, mortgage statements, and supermarket receipts. High cost of living is linked to a more pervasive problem.

When examined historically, the immensity of these costs becomes more clear. Take housing. In the late 1970s, during one of the United States’ worst economic recessions, housing costs in New York City were about 3 times the median income. Currently, housing costs represent 7 times the median income. The American dream in New York City is now over twice as expensive.

These exorbitant costs affect everyone: Latinos, Whites, single parents and families, and recent college graduates. When Americans are paying so much for the basic necessities of life, more and more are going bankrupt and less and less are free to invent the next big thing and reach their dreams.

The private sector, our government, and all our local communities must act on this pressing, yet invisible issue. We must urge lenders, developers, and policymakers to create more quality and affordable housing, transit, and food systems. When we do so, we can expand opportunity for all and strengthen the middle class. My next post will specify ideas for the first point — housing — that require attention. For now, let’s hope for fewer spaceships and more affordable housing.