A Local Economy Where People Matter

By Liz Brace

What does "economic justice" mean to you? Does it mean equal opportunities for everyone? Social equality? Is it "an economy that treats people as if they mattered," as suggested by Ron Ehrenreich of the Syracuse Cooperative Federal Credit Union? However you conceptualize it, economic justice is an idea that the US, including Syracuse, has yet to embody - something well worth working toward.

Graphic: Estelle Carol and Bob Simpson, www.carol-simpson.com

What Are the Problems?

Ehrenreich noted three factors important to understanding the economic context in Syracuse: de-industrialization, suburbanization and urban redevelopment. "Syracuse is still suffering from de-industrialization," he said. Mark Spadafore, CNY Labor Federation Field Coordinator, agrees. Spadafore said Syracuse's economy is "pretty consistent to what you're seeing nationally. We were very dependent on heavy manufacturing which is going out of the country." Spadafore explained that as the better-paying factory jobs have gone away, there has been an increase in service sector jobs such as retail, health care, and hospitality. "It's not like people aren't working; they're working. But the service sector cannot provide them a way to sustain themselves in the community and not be dependent on the government." Without the sufficient wages, benefits and pensions that a factory job would have provided, people don't know how they'll retire. "They're living right on the edge," Spadafore said, even if they work two or three jobs. If one thing goes wrong, they could lose everything.

Ehrenreich argued that Syracuse has also suffered because of suburban sprawl. New York State policies subsidized growth in the suburbs, providing capital for building outside the city, but little capital was supplied for revitalizing urban areas. Further compounding the problem, the State supported the building of beltways, like Route 481, which encouraged business to move out of cities. The problem is that our population hasn't expanded, and someone has to pay for these things.

Ehrenreich's third factor in understanding Syracuse's economic situation, urban redevelopment, grew out of the post-WWII development period and an assumption that the growth would continue indefinitely. The federal government funded the urban redevelopment project, which was started in the late 1950s. The so-called urban redevelopment actually involved the bulldozing of poorer, "undesirable" neighborhoods inhabited primarily by minorities, and "redeveloping" them into housing projects. From the Oncenter, Everson Museum and the War Memorial (near State and Harrison Streets) to the hospitals up near Syracuse University, neighborhoods were bulldozed in the name of urban redevelopment, Ehrenreich explained. The urban redevelopment area was then torn apart by the construction of Route 81, which ran right through it. Thus, many of the low-income residents who had not already been pushed out of the city by the redevelopment project were forced to live on strips of land isolated from the rest of the city by the highway.

Toward a SANE Economy
The crisis our community faces now has roots in the economic and development policies of the past. Today, Phil Prehn of Syracuse United Neighbors says that "we're losing a homeowner every three days on the south and west sides. The city itself has only about 40 percent home ownership - our area is 31 percent. We found we're losing more and more people." So, what are we going to do about this? What are people already doing to help the city of Syracuse and work toward economic justice? "People in city government have pretty good ideas, but their ability to act on them is minimal because they're so under-resourced," Ehrenreich said. Fortunately, a new non-profit organization, Syracuse Alliance for a New Economy (SANE), is taking on Syracuse's economic problems through the involvement of community members. SANE wants "to hold governments and corporations accountable for the creation of quality, family-supporting jobs, secure health care, affordable housing and a safe, clean and healthy environment."

SANE begins work in an area that already has a number of organizations striving to address economic problems. Prehn's organization, Syracuse United Neighbors, "teams up with National People's Action against sub-prime lenders to put pressure on large corporations and get them to review and repair loans" and helps community members become homeowners and rearrange the terms of their loans. Ehrenreich stated that the Syracuse Cooperative Federal Credit Union "deploys capital to under-resourced neighborhoods and people," and provides technical assistance and financial education, as well as a variety of loan funds to create first-time homebuyers. But no matter how much help is out there, the attainment of economic justice lies in the hands of the people. "To achieve a real, long-lasting economic justice," Ehrenreich said, "people have to participate in more than just working. They have to have a say about issues in their neighborhood, health and safety, about how money is spent." It all comes down to speaking up for justice. As Prehn said, "we need to aggregate enough people to make enough noise to pull the lever and get something done."

Contact information for SANE. Contact information for Syracuse Cooperative Federal Credit Union. Contact information for Syracuse United Neighbors.

Liz is completing a summer internship with the PNL editorial committee, and will be returning to Middlebury College in the fall. She plans to pursue a writing career.