Special deal: Buy the book and help the homeless

Hank Kalet

Through the end of April, $5 from every purchase of As an Alien in a Land of Promise will go to the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness to aid their work advocating on behalf of New Jersey’s most vulnerable..

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On Hamiltonian democracy and Paterson

Cross-posted from Channel Surfing:

The Nation has a piece by Richard Kreitner on Alexander Hamilton’s real legacy — a financial system tilted toward investors and a failing New Jersey city that Hamilton essentially created.

Hamilton’s theory was that

industrial America would indirectly benefit the many because it directly benefited the few. “It is a truth as important as it is agreeable, and one to which it is not easy to imagine exceptions, that everything tending to establish substantial and permanent order, in the affairs of a Country, to increase the total mass of industry and opulence, is ultimately beneficial to every part of it,” he wrote. “On the Credit of this great truth, an acquiescence may safely be accorded, from every quarter, to all institutions & arrangements, which promise a confirmation of public order, and an augmentation of National Resource.” Today, we call this trickle-down economics. Hamilton made it the cornerstone of our political order.

The result was an comic bubble that burst in 1792 — and sent numerous Hamilton cronies to jail. Paterson’s population fell from 500 to 43, he writes, and the public-private partnership created to underwrite the city’s creation proved a disaster, thanks to its lack of accountability and surfeit of privilege.

Founded on Hamilton’s hypothesis that the pursuit of private gain could be harnessed to serve the public good, Paterson was a failure from the start.

Paterson rebounded two decades later “after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and Jefferson’s controversial embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 forced the United States to develop its own manufacturing,” made possible, as well, by “the exploitation of slave labor.” The Silk City grew — until labor conditions and rampant inequality led to a massive and violent strike. What followed was a century of collapse.

If Paterson was a pioneer of industrialization in the United States, it was also a pioneer of deindustrialization: In the 20th century as in the 18th (and today), arrangements that relied on the coincidence of the interests of the few with those of the many were in danger of fraying the moment those interests became misaligned.

Ultimately, Kreitner writes, Paterson

was used by its industrial titans so long as it made no claims on their wealth, and abandoned as soon as it did. Ever since, it’s been ignored—by the nation of which it was to be a model and by the wealthier, whiter communities in its own backyard.

I haven’t seen the musical, but it is clear it is not meant as history. The casting choices, the hip-hop songbook, the focus on Hamilton’s origins, all play into the American mythology and contradict the current anti-immigrant zeitgeist in important and transformative ways. The real Hamilton, however, also offers important lessons — about the failures of the American economy, inequality and crony capitalism.

NJ Spotlight: Small-Business Group Asserts Minimum Wage Hike Would Jeopardize Jobs

From my story today on NJ Spotlight:

Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost in New Jersey if the state’s minimum wage increases, according to a study by a small-business coalition.

The claim adds new fuel to the debate over hiking the state’s minimum wage, less than five months before voters determine the fate of a $1 increase and proposed indexing of the state’s minimum to inflation.

The study by the National Independent Business Federation says that New Jersey could lose about 31,000 small-business jobs over the next decade if the referendum question passes. The reason, according to the study, is that the wage hike and indexing would increase business costs and create a level of uncertainty for business owners about their labor expenses.

Supporters of the wage hike, however, say the study is misleading and does not account for the widespread impact that increased wages would have on the economy. The boost in income for low-wage workers will act as a stimulus, they argue, because workers earning the minimum or near the minimum will then spend money they currently do not have, which will create additional revenue for small businesses.

The minimum wage increase will be on the Nov. 5 ballot as a constitutional amendment, along with the election of the governor and the entire state Legislature.

To read the entire story, go here.

NJ Spotlight: ‘Renters: Hurricane Sandy’s Invisible Victims’

I have a story at NJ Spotlight today on the plight faced by renters displaced by Hurricane Sandy.

Steven Zitz moved to Sayreville when he was in high school and had lived in the Sayreville-South River area for the past 20 years. He had his own business as a house painter and had been working regularly despite the stagnant economy.

Superstorm Sandy changed all that.

His aunt’s house, where he was renting a room, was badly damaged. He lost his work van and has been staying with an uncle in Brooklyn since the storm, unable to work and unable to qualify for government assistance.

“I’m in a very tough spot,” he said. “My back is not only to the wall, it’s through the wall.”

Zitz is one of the thousands of renters who still find themselves scrambling to rebuild their lives. While state and federal agencies have assisted 21,000 renters, several thousand more have likely fallen through the cracks, though the number is difficult to pin down, advocates for low-income residents say. Unlike property records, such as deeds and mortgages, the state does not require that lease agreements be filed with the counties. And many landlord-tenant arrangements are informal, operating on a month-to-month basis.

State officials say they are doing what they can for renters and that the state’s recovery plan includes what the administration calls “a range of rental housing activities designed to replenish rental housing stock lost to Sandy, rehabilitate affordable rental units left uninhabitable by Sandy, and provide affordable housing for special needs populations.”

For more, read here.

When a choice amounts to no choice at all

This story from The Times of Trenton today is not about parenting, though that is the frame in which it is being reported. The story is about the difficult and dangerous decisions poor parents are forced to make everyday and the consequences they often face.

Sheena Johnson was arrested in April after police found her living in a Ewing storage locker with her two sons, ages 5 and 10. She apparently had been living with a boyfriend and, when they broke up, she found herself without a place to live. Her answer, which she now says was an error in judgment, was to move into the storage locker. She apparently had been living there for about a month when she was arrested (she also faces charges that she slashed the tires of her boyfriend’s car). According to an April 30 story in The Times,

He said the family went to restrooms at local businesses to brush their teeth and use the bathroom and were eating granola bars, applesauce and other packaged foods. Johnson told police she sometimes got a hotel room or brought the children to friends’ houses to shower, Mennuti said.

Her trial on abuse and neglect charges is supposed to start today, according to the Times. The story is a troubling one because, as the judge in the case points out, there are services available for families in need. At the same time, the reality is that most of these services are stressed beyond their limits, with shelter space now at a premium. There are also issues of trust, with many low-income families assuming the worst of social welfare agencies.

Her lawyer, Dan Toto of Lawrence Township, says

the Johnson case is fundamentally about people living outside the margins and struggling to make ends meet.


“She doesn’t have a substance abuse problem, she doesn’t have a drug problem, she’s just poor,” he said. “They’ve made that a crime now.”

I’m not sure I would go that far, though there are many laws on the books that make the lives of the poor more difficult than they need to be. In this case, the use of the storage locker may have seemed like an expedient way of gaining shelter, but it also was not healthy for the children. It was a bad decision on Johnson’s part, but may have been one of the few decisions available.

And that is our fault. We have made it too easy to become poor in this country, while also eviscerating the programs designed to help the poor and making sure that the stigma of poverty is debilitating. There is not enough affordable housing in New Jersey or nationally, especially for those at the lowest rungs of the income ladder, and there are not enough jobs that pay living wages, let alone poverty wages.

Sheena Johnson’s bad decision may cost her custody of her family, along with her freedom, but aren’t we culpable to some degree for creating a system in which her choices were so limited as to be almost no choice at all?

Minimum wage campaign kicks off

An NJ.com story on today’s official kick-off of Raise the Wage’s official campaign to pass a state referendum that would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.25 and index it for inflation shows the shortcomings of this kind of approach. While Raise the Wage — a coalition of unions and other organizations — intends to focus on grassroots organizing, its kick-off press conference featured the biggest names in New Jersey Democratic politics, which meant that the coverage was going to focus on, well, politics.

Here is the lede:

Two Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, the party’s nominee for governor and top union leaders this morning kicked off a campaign to raise state’s minimum wage.

What follows, interspersed with some quotations about the need for a higher wage, is essentially more of the same — which unfortunately implies that the campaign is less about the wage-hike than about Democratic politics.

The issues, as some of the speakers apparently made clear, is about ensuring that low-wage workers earn enough to survive and the need to decouple the minimum wage from politics by tying it to the Consumer Price Index. The wage, which was last increased to $7.15 in 2005, though a federal increase pushed it to $7.25 in 2009. The wage, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, is now worth $6.17 an hour in constant 2005 dollars. Gordon MacInnes told me back in January that, had the 2005 wage kept pace with inflation “it would be $8.52 an hour.”

That, Booker said at today’s press conference (NJ.com) is the crux of the issue.

“You look all around this region and poor working people are having to pay more for rent, more for food, more for gas, more for transportation, more for tuition,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the frontrunner for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, told about 65 people gathered at the New Hope Baptist Church. “All of these costs going up but minimum wage has stayed the same.”

Critics of the hike say will cost jobs, that it is too much of a wage hike too soon and that the escalator clause is bad policy. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a Democratic bill that would have increased the wage to $8.50 with cost-of-living adjustment for just that reason.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver disputed those claims:

“You will hear all kinds of arguments about why New Jersey can’t elevate the minimum wage. It’s a job killer. Businesses will leave the state. A host of different arguments,” Oliver said. “But we continue in New Jersey to provide tax breaks for millionaires, corporate tax incentives for businesses. But we will turn our backs on the lowest wage earners in the state?”

Polling shows the wage hike to be popular, though it has not received a lot of attention. It has been — and likely will continue to be — overshadowed by the governor’s race and now the U.S. Senate rate. The Raise the Wage campaign should bring it more exposure and, hopefully, the debate over the wage increase will get its own full hearing by the voters between now and November.

Large numbers of seniors falling behind

By Hank Kalet

New Jersey seniors are facing a shortage of affordable rental units, which is contributing to their growing inability to cover basic costs, according to a report issued last week by the New Jersey Foundation for Aging.

The “New Jersey Elder Economic Security Index: Addressing Basic Needs” was prepared by the New Jersey Foundation for Aging, the Legal Services of N.J. Poverty Research Institute and Wider Opportunities for Women in Washington. It found that housing costs account for nearly half of the average New Jersey senior’s monthly costs, highlighting “the need for more affordable housing.” Other basic costs, like food and medication, can be addressed by expanding and simplifying access to existing state and federal programs.

cover of report copyIn addition, the cost-of-living for seniors, according to the report, has increased by 8 percent since 2009 without a corresponding increase in Social Security or other income.

“They are losing ground and they don’t have a chance to make up the difference” between rising costs and stagnant incomes, said Grace Egan, executive director for the New Jersey Foundation on Aging. “And over time they have less of a chance – they have less assets and more dwindling assets with less of a chance to regroup.”

The index, according to the report’s introduction, is meant to identify the amount of annual income seniors need “to age in place with dignity” and can be viewed as a sustainability or economic security index for seniors. Based on U.S. Census data, it was originally issued last fall but was reissued on Friday to re-emphasize the findings, Egan said.

According to the report, monthly costs for seniors range from $2,110 for a single senior who owns his or her own home, but has no mortgage, to $4,017 for a couple who owns and has a mortgage. The monthly cost of living for a single senior in a one-bedroom rental is $2,330, while costs for a senior couple rise to $3,237 per month.

Costs include “only those goods and services essential to health and welfare,” according to the report, such as rent or mortgage, utilities, insurance and property taxes; food; premiums for Medicare and other, out-of-pocket heath costs; transportation; and other miscellaneous expenses.

Overall, housing accounts for 47 percent of the costs, health care for 19 percent, food for 10 percent, transportation for 9 percent, with miscellaneous costs like clothing and cleaning products making up the remaining 15 percent.

Egan and other advocates for seniors say the statistics show a need for a more aggressive effort to build affordable housing, both for seniors and for working families, and expand the federal Section 8 housing program, which provides vouchers to low-income renters offset their costs.

The state’s affordable housing program has been in limbo for the last three years as the state Supreme Court attempts to sort out arguments over the future of the program. Three separate lawsuits are in play – one concerning an executive order abolishing the Council on Affordable Housing, one concerning the seizure by the state of local affordable housing trust-fund money and a third concerning disputed rules for the latest round of housing.

In the meantime, advocates for seniors say more can be done to address other needs. They are calling for an expansion of senior-targeted property-tax rebates, the continuance of tenant rebates for low-income renters, an increase in the state Social Security Insurance supplement and other financial assistance programs, especially those meant to offset medical co-payments, expansion of community-based long-term care and aging-in-place opportunities, simpler access to nutrition and health programs, and expanded outreach initiatives to enroll more seniors in existing programs designed to provide financial assistance.

The state offers “a variety of programs and services available to seniors who may be experiencing financial insecurity,” Nicole Brossoie, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, said via email. The programs include prescription and co-pay assistance, nutritional programs and utilities assistance. The programs serve between about 18,000 and 330,000 seniors.

Brossoie said outreach is generally left to the county agencies, that deal with “seniors daily through their work to ensure that the eligible apply for these programs.”

“The county Boards of Social Services also advise seniors in need of assistance of available services,” she said. “In addition, the department works closely with senior stakeholder groups such as AARP, the Foundation for Aging and various community-based organizations to spread the word.”

Jane Maloney, director of the Ocean County Office of Senior Services, said her agency is in constant contact with the county’s seniors. Ocean County has the state’s largest senior population and among the oldest, she said.

She said it is important that the various county agencies and the state maximize the number of people served by assistance programs.

“The more people we get connected to the benefit programs, then they will have more money in their pockets,” she said. “We push them to contact us to see if they are eligible for something.”

According to the report, 54.7 percent of seniors who live alone in Ocean County and 27.1 percent of senior couples live below the sustainability figure set by the index. That is a little below the state average.

Hudson, Essex and Passaic counties had the highest percentage of seniors living below the security threshold, according to the report. In Hudson, 73.7 percent of seniors living alone and 44.6 percent of couples fell below the threshold. In Essex, the numbers were 66.5 percent and 39.6 percent and, in Passaic, they were 61.1 percent and 33.9 percent.

A total of 252,470 seniors – or 42 percent — live below the Elder Index threshold, more than five times the 42,594 seniors who live below the federal poverty line.

Seniors who live alone were more likely to fall below the elder-index threshold, according to the report; 58 percent of seniors who lived alone — nearly 160,000 – fell below the threshold, compared with 29 percent of couples (92,756 seniors). The numbers also were higher for renters, according to the report; 77 percent of single, senior renters and 64.4 percent of renting couples had incomes below the threshold.

The report does not take into account catastrophic or long-term care costs, Egan says. If those are factored in, annual expenses could increase by as much as $40,000, she said.

“You can see how difficult things are by just looking at the basic expenses that presume good health,” She said. “But if you need additional personal care your costs skyrocket.”

Women were disproportionately more likely to fall below the index. Nearly 125,000 of the 160,000 single-senior households were made up of women, with 60.8 percent of those falling below the threshold. Nearly 50 percent of men in similar households were below the threshold.

Nearly 84 percent of Latino seniors who lived alone and 72 percent of African-American seniors lived below the elder index. The rate was 55 percent for whites and 56 percent for Asians. The rates for couples were 59.2 percent for Latinos, 45 percent for African-Americans, 32 percent for whites and 38 percent for Asians.

Maloney said the economy is making the situation worse for many.

“Look at the individual husband and wife that moved here back in the ‘70s,” she said. “The husband dies, the wife loses their pension and the people who thought they had their CDs, thought they were going to make some money and live off that.

“That is why we think it is important that individuals look and find out what they are eligible for,” she added. “These benefit programs really do make a difference in the lives of people.”

Egan agrees, though she thinks much more needs to be done.

“We’ve encouraged seniors to apply for nutrition and food programs, because it gives them a better quality of life and allows them to use their current assets,” Egan said. “But that doesn’t necessarily cover the widening gap between their income and their expenses.”

The best way to do that, she said, is with housing – and not just new affordable housing for seniors. There is a shortage of affordable units at every level, which creates conditions that allow people to “age into poverty,” Egan said. When a couple has to spend too great a portion of its income on housing, it is not likely to have the resources it needs to survive as it ages, she said.

“You don’t have a stepping stone into a better life,” she said.

And then, when it is time to “downsize” their housing – to move from a larger house to a smaller, more affordable one – many seniors are finding that there are few options, she said.

“What we find is that when you have lived in a community for a longtime, you don’t have an option when you want to downsize to stay in the community,” she said.

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