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.


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.

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


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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