The New Year began in Washington with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, becoming the first female Speaker of the House. Speaker Pelosi, D- Calif., has put the House to work to pass the "100 Hours Agenda" — raising the minimum wage, cutting prices on prescription drugs, cutting student loan interest rates in half and revoking some subsidies to Big Oil to invest in renewable energy.
These are measures that could not even get a vote in the former Congress run by the now disgraced Tom DeLay.
Will the new faces in charge and that "down payment" on a new agenda make a difference? Will poverty remain unmentionable? Or will the new Congress turn its attention to those most in need, from rural Appalachia to the barrios and ghettos of our neglected cities?
The agenda for poor children isn't a mystery — pre-natal care, adequate nutrition, decent housing, early education, smaller classes with skilled teachers, safe streets. But the hope of giving every child a healthy start in life has dimmed over the last decade.
Will urban neglect continue? Or will we revive our cities before they explode? Cities need jobs, particularly for the young. They need affordable housing, particularly for the families of low-wage workers. They need treatment for those wanting to get off drugs. They need investment in infrastructure. The collapsed levees in New Orleans are but the visible symbol of urban sewers, bridges and transit systems that are suffering from years of inadequate investment. Cities need investment in schools and teachers so that the children with the greatest need can get the teachers with the greatest skills, in classes small enough to work.
Beginning with Reagan in the 1980s, conservative governments have focused on reducing the obligations of the wealthy and increasing the burdens on the poor. Cities took the biggest hit. Reagan's largest cuts came in affordable housing — he slashed some 80 percent out of HUD's housing budget. DeLay and President George W. Bush froze the minimum wage for a decade while squeezing any investment in cities or the poor.
Now, voters are looking for change, and some leaders are beginning to stand up. John Edwards opened his presidential campaign in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, calling on Americans to put new focus on poverty in this nation. He understands that America cannot thrive as two nations: one affluent and one impoverished. That he believes he can base his presidential campaign on this message suggests that change is in the air.
Similarly, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, opened his presidential campaign by calling for the United States to get out of Iraq. Kucinich suggests that those who say that they are against the war but keep voting unlimited funds for it are like drug peddlers who oppose the use of drugs in principle but keep the dope supply coming.
These bold voices and the new congressional leadership open new possibilities. For example, there is now a broad consensus that the United States must move towards energy independence. The Apollo Alliance lays out a broad investment agenda — a national security imperative — in conservation, renewable energy, new science and technology.
This would provide extraordinary jobs programs for the cities in making buildings more energy efficient. It would bolster small farmers as they grow the energy we will use. Unlike the money wasted in Iraq, these investments would produce jobs here, generate growth, cut our trade deficit, address catastrophic climate change — ultimately paying for themselves.
None of this will happen, however, unless citizens of conscience get moving. This new Congress already is hearing more from entrenched corporate lobbies defending multi-billion-dollar subsidies than from the poor seeking good schools, the farmers seeking markets for new energy, the cities seeking hope. Change will come only if citizens mobilize and create the demand to which the new leadership can respond. That's a New Year's resolution we should all keep.
Jesse Jackson is president and founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and a long-time civil rights activist.