Dallas Fed Chief Robert Kaplan Takes an Interest in How Poor Dallas Lives

Robert Kaplan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and confirmed member of the 1 percent, spent three hours on a DART bus on Monday morning.

Granted, the bus had been chartered for the occasion, meaning that Kaplan didn't get the full DART bus experience. No scruffy gentleman sat across the aisle, kind-of-but-not-really trying to disguise his pulls from a 24-ounce can of Steel Reserve, no pulling up to a stop just in time to see a connecting bus, the only one for an hour, pulling away.

Still, it was a real DART bus traveling through real Dallas neighborhoods, and it was populated with real human beings, several of whom were poor. If it wasn't quite the full-blown DART experience, it was at least a reasonable simulation.

Kaplan's bus tour was organized by local groups allied with Fed Up, a national campaign aimed generally at highlighting the lopsidedness of the economic recovery and specifically at convincing the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low.

Locally, it's a diverse coalition. On the bus with Kaplan were representatives of a handful of labor unions as well as groups dedicated to fighting predatory lending, eliminating food deserts, addressing educational disparities, protecting construction workers and reforming Wal-Mart's labor practices. Each wanted his or her issue highlighted, which is why the tour took three hours.

In order, the bus visited:

  • The blighted Mill City neighborhood, where the Texas Organizing Project briefed Kaplan on the community-schools initiative it's piloting at Paul Lawrence Dunbar Elementary, one of the city's poorest. Occupants of the tumbledown homes across from the school puzzled at the idling DART bus while Principal Dionel Waters spoke of how the neighborhood's sky-high unemployment rate could be a minor blessing given how quickly parents could show up when they were needed, but mostly it is a curse.
  • Lincoln High School, where construction worker Angel Briones with the Workers Defense Project told of getting fired by his employer after breaking his hand on the job. Kaplan squeezed Briones' hand when he had finished.
  • Cornerstone Baptist Church, which used to be a grocery store. The Reverend Mike Waters, who pastors a few blocks away at Joy Tabernacle AME, spoke of the paucity of grocery stores in southern Dallas and the time he went to buy some mayonnaise at his community's lone grocery store only to discover a jar on the shelf that was covered in dust and two years past its expiration date.
  • The Cash America Pawn location a few yards down Martin Luther King Boulevard, where Faith in Texas board member Gordon Martinez recounted how payday loans ruined his marriage and life and urged more stringent regulations on predatory lenders. A desolate-looking older couple with some belongings in a shopping cart propped themselves against the building.
  • These weren't officially on the tour, but Kwik Stop Liquor, Kwik Stop Beer & Wine, Kwik Sak Liquor, Kwik Sak Discount Beer & Wine, Good Price Beverages and Buck & Ruck Cut Rate Liquor occupy a remarkably short stretch of MLK Boulevard.
  • Miller Yard, the homely Union Pacific hub on South Central Expressway, where a leader with SMART, a rail union, spoke of having 20 to 30 members on paid leave and the 150 on temporary furlough since the yard was running at two-thirds capacity. He gave the mic to a luckier rail worker, who used to work "five days a week, set schedule, saw my family every night" but is now commuting to Midland.
  • Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market at Hall Street and Central Expressway, where Wal-Mart worker Marc Bowers told of being fired for protesting the retailer's working conditions. Terry Dunn, an organizer with Making Change at Wal-Mart, spoke of the need for "real jobs" that pay enough to support families.
  • Lew Sterrett jail, where Joel Jones, who was arrested for felony theft in 2010 after being caught making fake returns to retailers, talked about Project Phoenix, which gives nonviolent, first-time felons training, direct paths to jobs  and chances to clear their records.
The whole bus tour played out like a game of musical chairs. Kaplan sat in a bench seat at the front while the seats on either side were taken by a pair of nervous activists, who switched out at every stop. 

It was a bit awkward, but it's worth reiterating how remarkable it is that Kaplan consented to participate. He's not a politician. His job does not require him to care, or to pretend to care, about the plight of the working man. Even if it did, it wouldn't require him to spend three hours on a DART bus chartered by a group whose very name — Fed Up — is a slight against the organization he heads listening to a parade of grievances about how the economy has left behind the working poor and minorities.

Kaplan's predecessor, Richard Fisher, certainly didn't bother. The bus tours organizers said his office wouldn't even meet with them.

Furthermore, despite his blue-blood background — Goldman Sachs exec, Harvard professorship — he has thought a lot about and seems genuinely troubled by rising inequality. It's bad for people, and it's bad for the economy.

Of course, Kaplan's authority as fed president is limited largely to spearheading economic research and casting a vote about whether or not to raise interest rates, and he danced around activists attempts to pin him down on the latter, but it can't hurt to have more economic decision-makers who are aware and concerned about the economy's lower tiers.