The Morning Call (Sunday)
Strap in Lehigh Valley, we have things to do
Well, that was the year from hell. Certainly, the worst of my 62.
Let’s just try to move on. There is too much to do.
To be sure, our most challenging problems are national in scope: the cost of a college education; universal, single-payer health care (Medicare for All); housing that is affordable; climate change; the threats posed by rogue nations such as Russia, North Korea and Iran. There is little we can do on those fronts except demand the new president and Congress deal with them honestly, appropriately and urgently.
But there are a ton of issues right here in our own little once-green spot on the planet we call the Lehigh Valley. Here is what you can expect the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley to pursue.
The big project is the completion of a strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion. For many months, now, dozens of people from the nonprofit, for-profit and public sectors have been crafting a strategy to finally unlock the doors that have kept far too many from accessing economic opportunity.
It will include better access to markets for minority-owned businesses, elimination of cash bail and other criminal justice reforms, testing (some call it “secret shoppers”) various groups to ensure they are treating people the same regardless of the color of their skin or the language they speak, more participation on boards of directors, and much, much more.
This should be a game-changer, folks.
The condition of our housing stock needs an enormous amount of funding to bring it up to modern (meaning habitable) standards. We are dramatically expanding our work in this area.
The efficiency of COVID-19 in its destruction of small businesses will open many opportunities for new businesses in this market. CACLVhas tripled its small business coaching and lending capacity.
The Lehigh Valley has successfully transitioned from an industrial economy to a broader, more diverse economy; and, yet, we have not lost the identity
and culture of that past. We have a lot of “hip” going on, with ArtsQuest leading the way. Allentown’s downtown revitalization, the Easton vibe, Bethlehem’s gentility and other factors make it a real, live, developing culture with an enviable quality of life.
We’ve got colleges, top-notch health care systems, a business community that is refreshingly progressive. Even the Chamber CEO is a closet liberal (couldn’t help outing you, Tony).
We’ve got Musikfest (I hope), minor league hockey and baseball teams and a top-notch sports and concert arena.
But we aren’t good enough. With one in eight Lehigh County residents and one in 11 Northampton County residents living below the poverty line, and a marketplace that is merciless, too many are being left behind.
The unaffordability of housing in this market and its substandard condition is worse than a crisis — it’s a disaster. It is a public health problem by causing asthma and lead poisoning. It is an education problem by forcing families to move frequently, disrupting the rhythm of their lives, especially the kids’ educations. And if the schools struggle to teach, it becomes a community development issue if people of means don’t want to live here.
Check this out: 79% of white children who live in suburban communities take the college entrance exams (SAT or ACT). Just 8% of urban Latinos take the exams, and a particularly shocking 4% of urban African Americans take them. Those three data points are all we need to understand why color and class are almost synonymous in the Lehigh Valley; they also explain tidily why there is so much income and wealth disparity in our society.
The weaknesses in our behavioral health services, from detox and residential rehab to the critical shortage of psychiatrists, are known by all, including our two, big systems. COVID-19 is a rollthe-dice complication to all these issues.
For some of us, when we are good at things, we get rewarded for it, sometimes handsomely. For poor people, those rewards, like getting paid a living wage for whatever work they do, don’t come. We have to fix that.
For our part, CACLVhas major initiatives, many of them new, responding to the issues I have raised. They are made possible by your neighbors, who give with extraordinary generosity.
Lots of really good people live here. Many are actively involved in making their/our community better. We need more. And too many people lucky enough to have their hard work rewarded are sitting it out.
Join us. Your community will be better and, if you are honest with yourself, you will be, too.
Alan Jennings is executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley.