If politicians treat poor people like they treat dirt roads, we’re all in trouble

Seven-hundred-sixty-nine thousand-nine-hundred.

I wrote the number out so you’d have to read each word.

If that many small businesses were threatened with failure, you can bet there’d be an outcry. If that many utility poles fell, the state would be  holding hearings. If that many banks failed, the economy would collapse.

But that number does not represent businesses, utility poles or banks.

It represents New Jersey households living in the financial netherworld defined by the United Way of Northern New Jersey as the ALICE population: Asset Limited Income Constrained, Employed.

ALICE represents about 25 percent of the state’s population, and added together with the 10 percent of New Jersey households  who are living below the poverty line, the real number means that more than one-third of Jersey residents are financially challenged.

If one-third of all products sold in the state were broken, there would be a huge outcry.

So why isn’t there such an outcry for helping the people of the state who at times can be on the verge of financial ruin, one illness, one accident, one week of missed work away from losing their home or apartment, or having to choose between eating and paying the heating bill? Or one tropical storm away from having the financial underpinings to that life washed away?

If you are not among that group and do not feel the need to find solutions, then you have a cold, cold heart, or are remarkably selfish.

ALICE was the topic last week of a seminar at The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and featured CNN’s financial reporter Christine Romans as moderator and keynote speaker.

The speakers correctly pointed out the need of ALICE households for health care, help with housing costs, transportation, child care, better opportunities to earn more money. They outlined some of the root causes, and the consequences of inaction, and even raised heightened concern that the creation of the number of ALICE households is speeding up, not slowing down.

They all earnestly want to remind us all that  ALICE need to be seen as part of the fabric and vision of America.

But for too many in this county ALICE  is not part of the vision of America or the fabric, and in fact, is seen as part of that amorphous group that is destroying the fabric of the country.

And sadly, many of those who think like that are in the positions of  business, social and  political power  where they can do more harm than good.

The hostility to labor and the less fortunate is heard in their language and exampled by their actions

And it’s not even considering the open warfare against increasing the minimum wage. The opponents say any increase would be a disaster and besides anyone dumb enough to work for  minimum wage deserves it.

But that sort of thinking flies in the face of reality: Thirteen states raised their minimum wage this year, according to the Wall Street Journal. The average increase  was 15 cents an hour. In Missouri workers would have averaged $190 more in pay annually, and in Rhode Island, $570.

I think of that because when  ran a small newspaper in Maine in the early 1980s, one at which the owner gave me six months to fix it or he would close it, so he said, one of the first things I did was give all my employees a $50 a week raise, adding $13,000 to my annual payroll.  The owner, or course, complained, but I told him that if we were going to demand more and better work from them, we needed some other incentive than the pending loss of their job.

The outcome? It got easier to change the things that were wrong and  18 months later, we were breaking even.

Today we see this hostility to workers and the needy in a variety of ways.

A bill recently signed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie  that will reorganize the state’s funding for business projects might  produce a streamlined process,  but is certain to reduce wages: The one provision of the law  he vetoed removed the prevailing wage clause.  That means the bankers and builders who get taxpayer supported cash to build things make as much money as they always did, but workers at those facilities will make less.

The governor, with the help of Legislative Democrats,  also cut its support for the Earned Income Tax Credits, Ronald Reagan’s favorite anti-poverty program, in effect giving lower-income workers a tax increase.

Most times the efforts are not so subtle:  Congress wants to cut the federal budget by whacking Medicare and Medicaid, support for housing, education, programs that support redevelopment of blighted areas, and wants to add a work requirement to qualify for food stamps, as if putting all those four-year-olds to work will close the federal budget gap.

In New Jersey, the state has cut funds for public education, favoring instead more standardized tests or charter schools, when addressing  the key urban education problems of poverty, bad housing and schools with leaking roofs might go further to get to the root of the problem. But this is New Jersey which in more than 50 years had failed to find a solution to those issues, only to watch them spread to the suburbs, and as a result, have them contribute to the increase in ALICE households.

The state has cut spending on child care support, especially pre-school, health care programs for the poor, transportation, support for job training, cross training,  redevelopment and affordable housing.

So while the participants at the Rutgers seminar were talking about the need for such programs, those programs are under attack in the same state.

The subtle element here is not that state or federal funding solves the problem, but it is used by agencies to attract other funding. In the new world of poverty and redevelopment,  government funds are often the seed money  used to show other funders – private non-profits and corporations – that there are other partners seeking to address the needs.

In recent years states such as Texas, Alabama, South Dakota, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania have decided that it is better to allow some asphalt roads that are in disrepair to be allowed to revert to dirt roads, and in some cases the states have been actively plowing up the tar roads to make them dirt roads.

The reason is that the politicians don’t want to pay for road repairs, so they are letting some portions of the transportation system collapse, despite the fact that better transportation usually supports business  development by reducing travel times for goods and people.

Many surveys of out-of-state businesses that asked why they don’t move to New Jersey cited the clogged, dated transportation infrastructure as an impediment, ranking it higher than the tax burden.

Paying for road repairs was always good politics.  But not now apparently.

The fear is that ALICE is being seen as just another bad road that the powers that be don’t want to fix.

What happens then?

About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I have written at least three complete novels, have three others started and on my website michaelstephendaigle.com is the draft chapter of the latest effort,"The Swamps of Jersey."
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