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Too Painful to Ignore 

by Robert Herold


After One Spokane, now what? This is just one of many questions facing our new mayor. Because this program made so small a dent, if West does nothing at all, then One Spokane will quietly drift off into history, and we will go back to arguing over the size of the city's human services budget. After all, we know that those who are in need of help have few political resources, and that those with resources usually have other fish to fry. As the Bible maintains, the poor will always be with us.


One community notable, when I put the question to him, responded: "Poverty in Spokane? It is to be endured, as it always has been."


From a historical perspective, this statement is accurate. But as an economic development proposition, it doesn't make much sense at all. And from a moral perspective, how can it be justified?


The truth of the matter is that we all pay the price of enduring poverty in Spokane. The costs come in many different forms, from crime to social services; the former is the result, and the latter is the Band-Aid. To his credit, John Powers tried to move the issue beyond social expense. He challenged us to endure poverty no longer because enduring poverty was not the moral thing to do. In this column, however, I criticized his One Spokane effort. I thought then, and do now, that while he brought ideals and energy to his calling -- and that was what it was for him -- he simply did not possess the temperament, experience and knowledge necessary to succeed.


That said, Powers did not invent the problem. Moreover, he appealed to our better selves. He worked from morality back to social costs, and from social costs to the challenge that we need to turn the corner on Spokane's history. Alas, after setting the bar so high, he brought us folk music. (One sympathetic observer said to me, "the mayor apparently thinks we can sing our way out of poverty."). Yes, a few more poor people in town learned how to take advantage of tax breaks, but when compared to the challenge and the promises, it wasn't enough to appear effective. Mayor Jim West, I believe, is too experienced a politician to make Powers' mistakes.





But Spokane shouldn't turn its back on the problem that Powers put on the table three years ago. It's a good sign that West has assembled a transition team of knowledgeable people to discuss the matter. But please, no more "facilitation" sessions. Spare us the folk singers and $20,000 consultants.


As the New Year begins and we launch yet another administration, permit me a few modest suggestions for Mayor West's consideration, some ways to frame the issues and solutions:


* Insist on good public policy analysis. The Powers administration produced a pile of valuable data, but data and analysis are two different things. Indeed, aggregate data can never answer the question about what needs to be accomplished. No, Mayor West needs serious, directed analysis; he needs the quality of public policy analysis produced by the Congressional Research Service. Obviously he can't get it on that scale -- after all, we are dealing here with local government -- but surely that level of quality and that focus could be achieved with a little help. How he gets that help opens up a related discussion that he needs to propel.


* View poverty in all its dimensions. In this day and age of specialized government, all too often mayors restrict their sphere of interest to the range of their formal authority. They become overly sensitive to turf issues. For example, take public education. Not the mayor's business, you say? I suggest that K-12 and beyond is a strategic factor in the battle against poverty. So why wouldn't a mayor want an answer to the basic question, How are we doing? Recently, a few mayors -- notably like Richard Daley in Chicago and Jerry Brown in Oakland-- became deeply involved in ousting superintendents, eventually even urging a city takeover of the schools. They reasoned that public education, like war, is too important to be left to the generals, or "experts" as was the case. I'm not calling for such a radical approach, but for too long our leaders have only interested themselves in their traditional area of responsibility. They avoid butting in. But butt in they should.


* Educate the city. The truth is, cities are limited in what they can do about such entrenched and systemic problems as poverty. Actually, as regards to governmental actions that might make a dent, George Nethercutt is much better positioned than any local official. So how are the poverty reforms working for Spokane? How will the new Medicare Act affect our residents? The mayor's office should be a source of information on how the decisions made in Olympia and the other Washington will impact Spokane. This will not only empower those who are willing to make the effort, but it could also set expectations at a more realistic level.


* Show you care. It's true that sometimes there's nothing a mayor can do about a pesky social problem. But at least he can acknowledge it. Powers helped the community in at least beginning to understand the complex issues that create poverty. That's a big step. Spokane can be a generous and charitable place, and with the bully pulpit at his disposal, West can at least direct our attention at issues that deserve it. If solutions or even just more effective Band-Aids are to emerge, perhaps they will come from continuing the community discussion that was started by One Spokane.





Comments? Send them to letters@inlander.com





Publication date: 1/08/03

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