The headline in the Oct. 10 Washington Times was stark: “Exclusive: Feds take jobs from disabled Americans, send them to Central Asia.” For Louisiana, the reality is even starker: Many of those disabled Americans work for the Lighthouse for the Blind in New Orleans.
The blind New Orleans workers love their jobs and do them well. But the jobs have been outsourced, with little accountability, little transparency and very little logic.
I co-wrote the story with the Washington Times’ Jim McElhatton. To avoid all partisan/ideological/local bias, the story needed national attention, not just local, and it needed to be a “straight news” story, not an opinion piece. Validating those judgments, the response has been phenomenal. Drudge hits, Reddit, FoxNation. Retweets galore. People are outraged, as well they should be, at a bureaucracy so morally blind as to apply some well-intentioned policies so counterproductively.
To counteract the bad policy choices, and restore jobs home to America and Louisiana, Louisianans should raise a ruckus.
In a nutshell, here’s the situation: A long-standing federal program called AbilityOne awards contracts to nonprofits that hire disabled workers who manufacture basic items for the military — as long as the work is cost-effective and of high quality. It’s a great program, by the standards of both head and heart. But it recently was superseded by another policy initiative, called the Central Asian States Procurement Initiative, of dubious value and even more dubious implementation.
In New Orleans, the Lighthouse workers make (or repackage to military specifications) mess trays, paper plates and paper towels. Specialization and scale allows them to do it as inexpensively, or more so, than other, larger factories. The program serves the military well, and it provides sustenance and pride for the workers.
“There are people who have nothing wrong with them who won’t get out and work, but here I have a disability, but I want to work,” said one worker, Norman Demolle, in a June interview. “I don’t want to depend on the government for the rest of my life. When you are really out there working and accomplishing goals, it makes you feel better.”
Unfortunately, as McElhatton reported, “The Defense Department changed its guidelines last year to encourage some military operations to use (suppliers abroad, from where our troops are stationed). Following the new rules, the General Services Administration created a catalog of products that Afghan and other countries’ manufacturers would be able to make for U.S. military forces there.” Thus, Lighthouse, and other AbilityOne contractors, have lost out to Afghanis — or, even worse, to Afghani middlemen for manufacturers actually located in Europe, or even (reportedly) in China.
The idea is to help the United States build new alliances and business relationships where our troops are stationed, in order to promote reconstruction, stability and bonds that make those populations friendlier to Americans.
In theory, it might make sense for that foreign-policy goal to be on equal footing with the AbilityOne goal of promoting work for our own disabled people. What’s sickening is that bureaucrats and the military’s CASPI contractors will not release a list of companies providing the products that the Lighthouse and other American nonprofits formerly had produced, and the federal government “doesn’t require the company now overseeing the procurement initiative to audit suppliers or supplies in the region.”
In short, the supposed improvements to Afghani-American relations are probably mere phantom benefits. In this case, the program called CASPI is an unfriendly ghost.
It’s bad enough to lose these crucial jobs — but to lose them to a Chinese company hiding behind an Afghani warehouse front, doing no real good for U.S. foreign-policy goals, is even worse. Senators and representatives from multiple states and both major political parties have begun expressing major concerns about the policy that takes jobs away from people like Demolle. It’s time to turn those questions into full-scale hearings and time for investigative journalists, too, to start competing for answers and to demand accountability.
Erin McQuade Wright, vice president for development and communications of Louisiana Lighthouse, brought the argument home: “We want to be able to generate our own revenue to help support our programs — but we can’t do that if the law is not being followed.”
New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is email@example.com, and he blogs at blogs.theadvocate.com/quin-essential.