|Vol. 17, No. 16||Jan. 8, 1998|
Closed military bases could be converted into tightly regulated small towns, giving thousands of Americans on welfare a fresh start in life, according to a new book by James Morrison, professor of consumer economics.
Morrison's The Healing of America: Welfare Reform in the Cyber Economy is a blueprint for establishing self-contained towns, or "renewal communities," that will provide residents with jobs, housing, schools, grassroots crime prevention, governance, recreation, child care and services as part of a contracted package.
The residents of each new community would be selected by a special committee made up of individuals with expertise in small town development. "The people who do the screening would come from the base area: professors, government planners, city residents, day care workers and people who see themselves as mentors," Morrison said. "Mentoring is the key to this whole thing."
Once selected, potential residents and employers would sign economic contracts agreeing to follow basic community rules and regulations. Residents would be expected to mentor their children, enter into job-related training programs and become part of a community volunteer system that provides support services to other residents. Another important component is community guidelines directed at eliminating alcohol and drug abuse, teenage violence and other behaviors that plague crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Homes and work places would be equipped with the latest computer technology, assuring low-income, unskilled workers the tools they need to retrain for the cyber economy. Everyone who lives in the town would have to participate in its operation on every level.
"I was looking for a new approach, long-term, that could endure recessions and downtimes." In these communities, "people are guaranteed jobs, a tremendous community support system, day care, elder care, education, safety...and the family is involved in every aspect," Morrison said.
Welfare recipients who would like to buy their own homes would live in subsidized housing until they began their "guaranteed jobs" and earned enough money to afford a house. But, their housing and job training wouldn't be without payment to the community. During training, they would be expected to do community service, like work in a day or adult care center, patrol for a neighborhood watch, act as a playground monitor or teacher's aide.
The base conversions would be paid for by the federal government contracting with private developers. As the homes and businesses are purchased, the government recoups its money. Those who couldn't afford to buy a home immediately would rent to own. Eventually, the towns become self-sustaining when all residents are fully employed and paying taxes. The goal is that, eventually, the community would become self-sustaining, not needing any kind of governmental help and functioning as a fully integrated "small town providing everything needed for welfare recipients to become fully actualized taxpayers," he said.
Morrison is proposing a pilot program consisting of five bases, one from each part of the country, that have the appropriate facilities for conversion into self-managed communities: Alameda Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif.; Plattsburgh Air Force Base in Plattsburgh, N. Y.; Glenview Naval Air Station, in Glenview, Ill.; Dallas Naval Air Station in Texas; and Central Florida Research Park in Orlando. Morrison says all of these bases either are closed or slated for closing by the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission, the panel appointed by Congress to recommend which of the nation's 500 military bases should be closed. BRAC has identified 70 bases for closing and will consider another 100.
Morrison has discussed his ideas with Delaware U.S. Rep. Michael Castle, who has asked for a copy of the book. He also has sent copies to U.S. Sens. Joseph Biden and William Roth, U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and all of the majority and minority leaders of the U.S. House and Senate.
In the spring, he will teach a course based on the ideas in his book and has begun discussions that could lead to collaboration on a project with the University's Center for Community Development.
"Our research shows there are a lot of myths about welfare families. We've found that welfare recipients handle money very efficiently, and they have the same dreams as middle-class Americans." They just need the chance to see those dreams come true, he added.
Photo by Jack Buxbaum