The new year begins in Washington with Rep. Nancy Pelosi becoming the first female speaker of the House. Speaker Pelosi will then put the House to work in January 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.
Will the new faces in charge and that ''down payment'' on a new agenda make a difference? Across the country, the unmet needs are great; the neglect rampant; the challenges staggering.
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: prenatal 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 seeking to get off drugs. They need investment in infrastructure. The collapsed levees in New Orleans are but the visible symbol of urban sewers, bridges, transit systems that are suffering from years of inadequate investment. Cities need investment in schools and teachers.
Beginning with President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, conservative governments have focused on reducing the obligations of the wealthy and increasing the burdens on the poor.
Now, voters are looking for change. And some leaders are beginning to stand up. John Edwards opened his presidential campaign in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, calling on Americans to put new focus on poverty in this nation. He has spent the last years on the front lines, joining with citizen movements seeking to raise the minimum wage, with workers seeking to organize on the job. He understands that America cannot thrive as two nations, one affluent, one impoverished.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich opened his presidential campaign by calling for the United States to get out of Iraq. Kucinich suggests that those who say they are against the war and keep voting unlimited funds for it are like drug peddlers who oppose the use of drugs in principle but keep the dope supply coming. Legislators who do so say they are supporting the troops, but the best support for the troops is to bring them home.
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 toward 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 an extraordinary jobs program 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 -- and ultimately pay for themselves. With will and imagination, this Congress could launch that initiative immediately.
Similarly, the president pledged once to ensure that ''no child would be left behind.'' But he never paid for his promise. This Congress could begin to provide poor children with a fair start education.
None of this will happen, however, unless citizens of conscience get moving. This new Congress already is hearing more from entrenched corporate lobbies defending multibillion-dollar subsidies than from the poor seeking good schools, farmers seeking markets for new energy, 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.
© Copyright 2007 Sun-Times News Group