Update on ‘The New Jim Crow’

ACLU reports that the state’s prisons were lifting a ban on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and have

further committed to review its policy and all current lists of banned materials for appropriate revision. We commend the DOC’s quick action, but even as we celebrate the return of “The New Jim Crow” to prison shelves, we must not be distracted from the work that remains to be done.

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Censorship and ‘The New Jim Crow’

The Huffington Post is reporting that

Michelle Alexander’s 2012 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is off limits to inmates as a matter of policy at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont, according to documents provided in response to a public records request from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Prison censorship is not unusual, and may even be justified in some cases. But it is difficult to understand how prohibiting access by prisoners to a book that details the racial disparities of American prisons, a book so well-researched and written numerous national awards and has become part of the national policy debate on prison reform, serves any legitimate purpose beyond offering prisoners a sense of how they are being damaged by the current system.

“The New Jim Crow chronicles how people of color are shut out of society by mass incarceration,” the letter states. “That the very prisoners who experience the worst racial disparity in incarceration in the country should be prohibited from reading a book whose precise purpose is to examine and educate about that disparity adds insult to injury.”

Information is the key to understanding one’s plight, and that understanding is key to making change. The incarcerated need the same access to information as the rest of us so they can be a part of the process of fixing our criminal justice system.

A living wage is more than the minimum

The minimum wage debate too often gets mired in a discussion of immediate cost to small business. Groups like the Chamber of Commerce frame the issue within this context: Businesses have a limited amount to spend. Increasing the cost of a hour of work, therefore, means they will be able to pay for fewer hours. This, they say, will lead to fewer jobs and fewer working hours for those who are working.

It’s a neat argument — based to a degree on reality — but it’s also a sham. It attempts to recast business owners self-interest in an altruistic light. The poor, low-wage worker. She’s the one who will suffer. What else can I do?

It’s also counter-productive, as David Dayen points out in The L.A. Times. Raising the wage floor — i.e.., the minimum — is “not harmful, but actually critical in the current economy,” he writes.

Fast food restaurants have been engaged in what Dayen calls a price war, pushing menu items designed to attract low-wage consumers but that generate almost no profit. Restaurants say they need these “value”deals to be competitive, which “suggests that purchasing power at the low end of the economy has become so corroded that sellers must fall over themselves to offer prices that barely enable them to make a profit,” he writes.

So businesses cut costs — which makes investors happy, but leads to stagnant wages, especially at the low end of the spectrum.

Wall Street investors encourage companies to cut labor costs; record profits have resulted, with more national income going to the ownership class. Most of the gains since the recession have come at the high end. While low-wage workers are finally seeing some boosts — mostly from minimum wage increaseslack of housing affordability and cost of living rises in areas like health care continue to put them behind.

We can call this the WalMart conundrum. WalMart and other low-price retailers are affordable options — often the only affordable options —for low-income and working class families, but this affordability comes at the cost of their own incomes. WalMart and its ilk keep prices low by suppressing wages and by limiting hours. The bulk of its workforce is made up of part-timers, meaning the company does not have to provide healthcare. His leaves many of these workers seeking public benefits — which essentially is a socialization of low-wage work.

Dayan, again:

The clear solution, both for workers and the businesses they frequent, is to raise wages. Henry Ford figured this out more than 100 years ago. Reckoning that consumers and the workforce were one and the same, Ford sought to cycle more money through the economy, increasing the likelihood that people would purchase his cars. He also wanted to lower labor turnover and retraining costs by giving workers an attractive These aims doubly resonate for minimum-wage jobs. Turnover costs are enormous in fast food and other low-wage sectors. And the correlation between higher salaries and sales is arguably greater in restaurants and retail than for auto assembly lines. Paying people more becomes practically an imperative in an economy so dependent on consumer spending.

In New Jersey, the minimum wage is now indexed to inflation, which means it ticks up annually. But its base was far too low to make the kind of economic impact needed. As New Jersey Policy Perspective pointed out in December,

The new minimum wage still falls very short of what it takes to get by. In fact, it covers just 41-57% of the basic household budget for a single adult full-time worker with no children.

And make no mistake, he bulk of workers earning the minimum are not high school kids. NJPP reports that four of five minimum wage workers are 20 or older, nearly half work full time and another third work 20 to 35 hours a week. More than half are women and one in five are parents.

I’ve interviewed a lot of workers, a lot of businesses, labor unions, the Chamber, and others over the years in an effort to get a better understanding of the wage issue. There is merit in both sides’ arguments, I think, but only if you severely proscribe the terms of your argument. In this case, the public debate over the wage has been narrowly framed to exclude human rights questions and to embed the rights of profit over all else. Small business owners are just as much at the whim of corporate America as low-wage workers, are being sacrificed in similar ways to ensure that the record profits we’ve been witnessing continue their growth unabated and without any real effort to share the wealth.

Minimum wages, as they’ve been conceived to this point, only nibble at the edges. Even $15 an hour is too low in a state like New Jersey. Housing costs alone will eat almost half of the $30,000 a year the $15 wage would generate.

One potential solution is a guaranteed minimum income –or essentially paying people for being citizens. We have a form of this in place, if you think about the array of social safety net programs designed to offset economic deprivation — various forms of welfare (WIC and TANF, general assistance), food supports (SNAP), utility aid, healthcare, etc. These are based on the idea that government can (should) soften the blow for those chewed up and spit out by capital. A guaranteed minimum income takes these disparate aid programs, simplifies them and makes them universal.

I don’t pretend to have the details or to view basic income as a panacea. But it is worth discussing — which I invite readers of this post to do in the comments or on Twitter. Just make sure you tag me (@newspoet41).

Can’t pay the rent

Studies of housing costs have been pretty consistent in recent years. Low-income families struggle, paying far too great a portion of their income toward (usually) rent to make ends meet without sacrificing other necessities.

Yesterday’s Brookings Institute blog post — “Is the rent ‘too damn high’? Or are incomes too low?” — only reinforces that point, though it asks a second important question about the other side of the ledger: incomes. It is a chicken-and-egg problem. Is it the low income that makes the rent unaffordable, or the high rent that makes it difficult for those at the bottom tier? 

The evidence would seem to indicate both, though what matters ultimately is that “Low-income renters in the U.S. face acute problems balancing the cost of housing and paying for other necessary expenses.” The median low-income renter “pays more than half of its monthly income on rent, and has less than $500 per month remaining after rent.” That’s $500 a month — $125 a week — to cover all other expenses, including transportation (bus, car, insurance, fuel, repairs), food, clothing, sometimes utilities, etc. This is mitigated, the post points out, by various federal and state programs, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, food and health care assistance, and others. This helps, but does not alter the underlying dynamic, and is not likely to get better any time soon — given that the squeeze has only grown tighter over the last 15 years.

As Brookings reports,

The share of income spent on rent has increased substantially since 2000. In 2015 the median renter in the bottom quintile of the income distribution spent 11 percentage points more of their income on rent than they did 15 years earlier in 2000 (Figure 2). This increase in rent burdens occurred through each business cycle period including the period prior to the financial crisis (2000-2006), the economic downturn (2006-2009), and the subsequent recovery (2009-2015).

All income levels were affected, but not to the same degree. “In part,” Brookings writes, “this is because rents do not rise proportionally with income. The lowest income renters pay about half the median rent of the highest income renters, but earn only 10 percent of their income.”

Brookings makes several recommendations:

  • “Make federal housing assistance an entitlement, not a lottery.”
  • “Cut housing subsidies to wealthy homeowners, increase subsidies to poor renters.”
  • “Maintain and expand income supports for low-income families.”

These would be useful, but only nibble at the edges. They will help, but not truly address the systemic issue — the reality that capitalism creates winners ands losers, that it seeks to maximize profit at the expense of anything that might interfere with the ability to generate profit. Air quality, water quality, human needs, all fall prey.

Beggars Can Be Choosers: An essay on dignity

IMG_0005I wrote this essay a couple of years ago, though I feel it remains valid. We must see the homeless, the poor, the refugee as human. We have to grant them their personal agency. We cannot, as we have for too long, imposed a hypocritical moral posture on them.

On a street corner, a homeless man is offered a sandwich. He turns it down. The offerer is shocked, even offended. “You don’t want a free sandwich?” he’s asks.

“I don’t eat ham,” the homeless man replies.

The exchange raises several questions: If I offer a sandwich to a homeless man, does he have a responsibility to accept it? Does he, by virtue of his circumstances, forfeit choice? And do I, thanks to my laudable generosity (born of luck, hard work and some level of privilege), have the right to be offended?

Read the full essay.

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One cheer for Rubio

Marco Rubio in a photo on his Facebook page.

As expected, Rubio caves and the rest of the Republican Party has fallen in line.

*

AP has an update here saying the GOP has included a larger credit to appease Rubio. (Updated 11:45 a.m.)

***

Let us now praise famous mediocrities.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a man once viewed by many as the GOP’s best hope for the White House, is throwing a monkey wrench into Republican plans to cut taxes. Rubio, as the AP reports,

The Florida senator declared Thursday that he’ll vote against the $1.5 trillion bill unless House and Senate negotiators expand the tax credit that low-income Americans can claim for their children.

His objection shrinks the already thin Senate majority, but doesn’t doom the tax bill — unless a second Republican defects — so we should be glad he’s taking a stand. This is especially true because he is making the child tax credit the hill he seeks to defend.

We shouldn’t be grateful, however, or alter our view of Rubio, who remains a conservative to his core. His objection is a narrow one, not focused on the broader failings of this “reform” package as both tax and economic policy or its inherent unfairness. Expanding the tax credit only nicks at the disproportionate impact of this corporate giveaway or the broader societal economic disparities that we’ve allowed to fester.

More notes on homelessness

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I have an essay at Patreon that is part of a campaign to raise some money for independent journalism covering the least powerful members of our society. I call it “an experiment in journalism,” one designed to help provide good content in an era when fewer paying outlets exist for writers

The danger is that coverage of things like homelessness and low-wage work, immigration and criminal justice, may not get the kind of coverage needed. I don’t necessarily mean coverage of the politics, though that is important. (I continue to write for NJ Spotlight, if sporadically because of my teaching schedule.)

I’m talking about writing that addresses these issues from the point of view of the homeless and the immigrant, that is not afraid to take a stand, that is both local and universal in its scope.

What I’m asking is that my readers help — by buying my books, As an Alien in a Land of Promise, Stealing Copper, and Certainties and Uncertainties through Patreon, becoming a patron and helping to support my journalistic and creative efforts. In exchange, you’ll get the books and early access to new material.

Read “Food Lines” at Patreon.

Homelessness is a symptom of the disease

Photo by Hank Kalet: A homeless man sits outside the New York Public Library.

America doesn’t have a homelessness problem. It has a capitalism problem.

The Associated Press reported earlier this week that the population of homeless Americans “increased this year for the first time since 2010.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released its annual Point in Time count Wednesday, a report that showed nearly 554,000 homeless people across the country during local tallies conducted in January. That figure is up nearly 1 percent from 2016.

Of that total, 193,000 people had no access to nightly shelter and instead were staying in vehicles, tents, the streets and other places considered uninhabitable. The unsheltered figure is up by more than 9 percent compared to two years ago.

The story — and rest of a thorough package — focuses on trends in West Coast cities, where numbers have risen more quickly than elsewhere.

The AP pegs much of the increase to housing costs, rather than incomes. But the two work hand in hand and need to reach an equilibrium. Rents should track incomes in that the available housing should be affordable to those who need it. But scarcity rules, and the desirability of urban areas is driving up rents even for housing that once would have been viewed as working class. That means workers are priced out and, for many, forced onto the streets.

The culprit here is not the landlords, however. That’s too easy. It is the larger system in which the landlords operate. The culprit is capitalism.

“Corporate capitalism,” as I wrote several years ago, “is about minimizing costs and maximizing revenues.” It does that my increasing prices as high as it can get away with, while slashing wages in the same manner. The effect is this imbalance.

In this way, homelessness remains “the unfortunate by-product of a corporate capitalism that views workers as interchangeable cogs in a larger machine.”

Wages have “been disconnected from what it takes to live an even modest existence in most areas, leaving them to fall behind and sometimes fall into homelessness.”

For those without skills — or for those struggling with medical or mental illnesses and addiction — the system can be far more unforgiving. They have no value, no way — aside from an inadequate welfare system and patchy set of social services – to survive in a country that commodifies everything from housing to health care. So we consign them to the scrap heap – or the woods at the outskirts of a former seaside resort.

This is unsustainable. Housing and utility costs, food prices, health costs all continue to rise, but wages have stagnated. The minimum wage, which has not been increased nationally in six years, does not pay enough to keep a full-time worker out of poverty. And the companies that rely on these workers – and provide them with the health insurance, the food, the housing they need – are earning record profits.

This is not just an issue of housing prices, but of structural greed and an almost religious faith in markets that history cannot support. Markets have their uses, but when it comes to the necessities of life, they are flawed instruments at best.

If we are truly interested in addressing the issue of homelessness, we have to start asking questions about the broader economic systems under which we operate.

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