“How come the big dogs get all the bones?”
That timeless question was the 2005 campaign slogan for then-mayoral candidate Karl Epperson. The question stood out in huge, bold typeface on fliers that featured a photo that was, to anyone who knows him, quintessentially Epperson: sitting defiantly in his electric wheelchair in downtown Chattanooga, his service dog, Rocky, at his side.
Epperson’s campaign slogan was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Electoral campaigns, even local ones, require money—and lots of it. The last three “serious” mayoral candidates—Bob Corker, Ann Coulter and Ron Littlefield—on average raised and spent more than half a million dollars apiece on their campaigns, an amount of money that the current mayoral heir-apparent, Andy Berke is well on his way to matching, if not surpassing.
The heavy financial restraints on participating, in any meaningful sense, in our “democracy” have relegated poor and working people to settling for the political guardianship of the wealthy and well-connected. Land developers, business owners, lawyers, and corporate and nonprofit executives have taken full advantage of this situation, using their positions, wealth and influence to move effortlessly through a revolving door between board rooms and government service. In our pay-to-play system, it’s no wonder that the big dogs get all the bones.
And the impact of wealth on public policy—the decisions made by government officials that determine the conditions of daily life for all of us—cannot be overstated.
Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton University, has written an extensive analysis of the correlation between wealth and political power in his most recent report, “Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.” His findings indicate that the poor, working class and middle class (the vast majority of the public) are “powerless to shape government policy” when their interests clash with the preferences of the rich. Economic inequality, he argues, translates into “severe” representational inequality. “In most circumstances,” Gilens writes, “affluent Americans exert substantial influence” over governmental policies, while “less well-off Americans exert virtually none.”
Although Gilens’ research focused on the federal government, it has implications for the local as well, where the policies of our city government all too often have no real connection to the preferences of poor and working-class people in Chattanooga.
That’s why Epperson ran for mayor—and that’s why he worked with his neighbors to organize the Westside Community Association, a grassroots organization that represents almost 2,000 poor and working-class people. On behalf of the Westside Community Association, Epperson has appeared at the Chattanooga City Council weekly, speaking on the issues of poverty and housing in our city. Recently, he and the Westside Community Association publicly issued a Report on Affordable Housing.
Some of the facts cited in the report might startle you:
—Chattanooga has been listed second in the top 10 metro areas for increases in city poverty in the United States, according to a report by the Brookings Institute.
—Chattanooga is listed as having the third-highest rising rent in the nation, only behind San Francisco and New York.
—One in two households in Chattanooga’s urban core live in unaffordable housing and are burdened by housing costs.
The big dogs are not talking about poverty, but the underdogs are. In fact, they’re not just talking about it—they are actively fighting it.
The Westside Community Association has provided the citizens of Chattanooga a very rare and unique gift: actual legislation written by poor and working-class people that would provide safe, decent and affordable housing for Chattanooga families. The Westside Community Association’s Affordable Housing Ordinance, by mandating that all new developments in Chattanooga’s urban core have a small percentage of units set aside for poor and working families, would literally provide hundreds of units of quality, affordable housing at no cost to taxpayers. These kinds of policies have been adopted by more than 200 municipalities across the country.
Affordable housing is the backbone that will help address other issues in a family's life, like education and health care. It’s time the people who run this city throw the rest of us a bone and pass this legislation.
To read the Report on Affordable Housing or the Westside Community Association’s Affordable Housing Ordinance, please visit www.chatthousing.com.
Chris Brooks, co-director of Chattanooga Organized for Action