(Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
NEW YORK - The world is looking at the federal government shutdown and sees "a democracy that's not working,'' former president Jimmy Carter said Thursday.
The stalemated Congress needs to follow the rules of a building site, said Carter, who is visiting the city to rehab Superstorm Sandy-damaged houses with Habitat for Humanity.
"We respect authority. When we have a building superintendent or house leader, everybody that works on the Habitat site pays attention to instructions for the well-being of everybody,'' Carter said in an interview with USA TODAY. "Secondly, there's no distinction about whether you're a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew or Democrat or a Republican or a man or a woman - you're all working for the same goal.''
Carter, 89, returned to New York City's Lower East Side to visit a six-story apartment building he helped rehab in 1984, in the first of what has become an annual work trip with hundreds of volunteers. Just four years out of the White House, the Carters slept on the floor of a church while they worked with 42 others on the building, which was trash-filled and virtually roofless. The decrepit shell became apartments now worth many times the owners' original investment of cash and sweat equity. Most of the 19 apartments are still occupied by their original owners.
"I like to start with something that's not there, just a concrete foundation, and at the end of a five-day week to have a complete house,'' Carter said. "We give a family a Bible and a key to their own homes, and we all ... weep on each others' shoulders.''
With his wife, Rosalynn, Carter sat with a group of residents in the 550-square-foot apartment of Don Kao, who runs a drop-in youth center. The group snacked, snapped photos and reminisced about the building's original security guard, who had been living in a cardboard box and earning money by recycling cans, and the way the neighborhood was before its recent rapid gentrification.
In the nearly 30 years since he worked on the Mascot Flats, as the building is called, Carter said, he has helped Habitat build thousands of homes, but federal spending on affordable housing has been in a long decline.
Tax policies that favor the rich, loosened regulations on campaign finance, and slow regulation of banks have all contributed to "a generic change in the federal government attitude'' toward spending on housing, he said. "The average person who wants to buy a home has no representation, relatively speaking, in Washington and the folks that are lending the money and making the profits, through their lobbying efforts, will prevail.''
Carter is outspoken about the negative effects of "legalized bribery'' through unfettered corporate political donations and Congress' failure to enforce rules designed to keep banks from repeating the low-quality lending that caused the foreclosure crisis.
The result, he said, has been growing economic inequality that has all but killed the American dream, a "lowering of expectations'' about the ability to get ahead. "The middle-class people we knew when we first started building Habitat homes, a lot of them now are having to resort to food stamps,'' Carter said. "Upward mobility, which used to be a hallmark of America, is nonexistent.''
Americans not directly affected by the struggle to find a home have forgotten that it is "a basic human right.''
"A decent home is key to gains in education and income for families, and to lower crime rates in neighborhoods, he said. "A family that has a decent home has ambition for their children to go to school, to go to college. ... Those things don't happen when someone is sleeping on the street.''