Last week I found myself with a last-minute invitation to become a fly on the wall of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. Since the last conference in June 2011, an widespread movement called Occupy Wall Street has arisen to protest the fact that 99% of the country does not have meaningful access to their government. As a member of the 99%, and without hesitation, I used the last of my credit and favors from friends to arrange for my child's care and my own accommodations in DC, and I hopped on a flight to the Capitol 12 hours later.
The U.S. Mayors Conference is where the 99% can find the leaders with the most realistic solutions to our nation's problems; those who are charged with carrying out the federal, state and local policies that most directly affect our families. Standing alone they are just bricks, but twice each year they come together to make a very powerful wall.
Comparatively speaking, most mayors are in fact accessible on the local level, however, the tragedy of our media industry is that the politicians and programs that are effective rarely receive adequate coverage.
Attendance at this particular conference was up, undoubtedly because at the helm of the organization now sits President Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles, California. Villaraigosa's commitment to drawing in more leaders and using innovative solutions to the problems faced by municipal leaders was clearly reflected by the conference itinerary as well as an impressive list of speakers from President Obama's Cabinet, Congress, and the media -- even the comedian Jimmy Tingle's performance at the gala.
On Tuesday, we heard from various mayors about their juvenile delinquency and youth and families programs, and we also heard from Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis about the new summer youth employment initiatives. The Department of Labor has announced that it will be investing hundreds of millions of our tax payer's money to fund jobs for youths between the ages of 16-24 this summer. If done well, this could be very good for our country's youth, who might otherwise spend the summer relaxing.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, perhaps the most impressive woman in politics I have ever met, hit the nail on the head when she stated, "Make sure that the people you are hiring for the summer youth programs are qualified, enthusiastic, safe, and actually want to work with children."
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson quickly became my hero when he presented his excellent work on education and keeping children actively engaged in school. Rather than focus on the things wrong with the system, he chose to recognize the diverse leadership strategies of the mayors by highlighting the many excellent early childhood education programs in different cities that effectively reduced delinquency and increased proficiency of students and teachers. It costs $230 per day to keep a child in juvenile detention center. The biggest indicator of a child's success in life is their level of engagement in their education, and Mayor Johnson's work was a solid answer to the concerns of parents and educators faced with flagging budgets.
Several mayors raised legitimate concerns that the Department of Justice is going to allow the banks to cut a deal that leaves municipalities holding the bill while the 1% and banks receive immunity and bail outs. If you watch the tapes of conference presentations on C-SPAN, you can feel the tension in the air as the mayors confronted speakers from the new consumer protection board. The general consensus was that "the foreclosure rate in my town has become unmanageable as banks become overly aggressive to collect on mortgage payments from struggling families who are unemployed. What can we do to help them stay afloat?"
The answer to the mayor's concerns about the banking, housing, and jobs crisis from the Obama administration is, of course, "never again" and the Department of Labor's Summer Youth Corps grants. But is the goal of the DOL programs really to revamp the economy and train youths, and if so, what are we really training them to do? What will their unemployed parents be doing while the children work?
As a parent, I have serious concerns about the summer youth programs. The DOL programs will be run in tandem with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, whose track record with youths could use improvement. Despite the fact that the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect found that children are six times more likely to die in the State's care than those with their parents, it is still assumed by some politicians that if you are poor, then you must need the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services programs to tell you what's best for your own family.
In the back of every parent's mind is undoubtedly the "Kids for Cash" scandal, and more recently the Penn State scandal which brought to light the deficiencies in our mandatory reporting laws. Has HHS addressed these concerns to ensure our young people are going to be safe this summer?
For the following reasons, rather that invest more grant money into "old reliable," I think that the mayors in the country should pressure the Obama administration to invest a little more hustle into selecting mentors for the summer jobs program. In addition, I recommend the following to promote government integrity and protect American families:
- Occupy Wall Street: Diffuse tensions between Occupy protesters and mayors by giving the Occupy protesters a moment at the podium to tell you what their solutions are. Occupy's message is that the average person does not have access to government and their leaders are ignoring them. It would cost the Mayors nothing to take this initiative, which would then place pressure on congress and the courts to address the larger concerns of protesters regarding corruption and fraud in government and industry.
- Training the next generation: Many of the "partners" in the summer jobs program, such as Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, State Street Corporation, Wells Fargo, and Price Waterhouse Cooper are responsible for this nation's economic crisis, they have not used TARP funds to repair the problems, and therefore, should be immediately removed from the list of sponsors receiving DOE grants to train our youth.
- Promote gender equality in government programs: Make sure that adequate resources are spent on recruiting and mentoring girls into the Summer Youth Program. Men still occupy 84% of leadership roles and women's pay is still far less, with the gender gap widening as we get older.
- Grant steering, kickbacks? Make sure the Department of Labor summer programs are not just funneling more grants to those employers already receiving billions in grants to do the same thing with the Fatherhood Initiatives and offender release programs, such as:
- Protect families with government transparency, accountability: Fire Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for failing to address the public's complaints of widespread fraud, extortion, and child trafficking within her administration. Just today it was announced that an FBI sting in Florida netted 40 alleged pedophiles, including teachers, coaches, and PGA golf pro Stephen Wesley Thomas. We cannot afford to continue to allow Sebelius to cut blank checks with no strings and send our disadvantaged children into unsafe programs Sebelius's administration refuses to vet or properly oversee.
New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman spoke at the lunch on Wednesday. He said in order to survive in the 21st century, America needs to become the place where inventions are imagined, not just made; that being busy is not enough to sustain our position as world leaders, that somewhere along the line we lost our innate sense of "hustle" to wheel and deal.
Mr. Friedman may be right about the global economy, but it is my opinion that Americans are now required to purchase the right to express any innovations they may have at a financial cost they cannot afford. This includes innovative mayors whose campaign war chest donations are filled by the people, not corporations. I think there should be a law that for every dollar a corporation or political action committee donates to a candidate, they must donate three dollars to the public schools in the state in which they are registered. That way the poor kids experiencing "lack of free speech" will have a better chance of purchasing their First Amendment rights as they get older.
On the whole, I found the convention inspiring. On an average day, I am in my home office using government reports and databases to discover whether grants coming from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services actually reach the children they are intended to benefit in an efficient and effective manner. Quite often I do find fraud, corruption, and grant steering, even child trafficking, but my ultimate goal is to use the ideas from the convention to figure out a way to change the laws to improve these programs to protect the children affected and increase their opportunities in life. It was an honor to be there.