In 64′ We Waged a War on Poverty – Today We Tighten its Vice

After a mass casualty event that’s the consequence of a natural disaster like Sandy, there’s a body count but the damage is also easily discernible with downed power lines still sparking and basements that are flooded.

Across the country, two years into a global pandemic that killed close to a million Americans and infected tens of millions more, the Omicron wave is receding and the wreckage is invisible, compartmentalized in the private misery of individual families and diminished lives.

In instances where there’s catastrophic physical destruction has occurred like after the collapse and fire at the World Trade Center, there’s the need to clear the debris while at the same time assessing what damage has been done to what was left standing.

But, with Washington’s bi-partisan failure to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion Build Back Better, there’s a lack of sufficient interest to fully investigate the impacts of this once in a century mass death event, much less address our previous failures that set the stage for a chain of tragic events that were totally foreseeable.

New Jersey has recorded close to 33,000 COVID deaths and 2.1 million infections. Our state has the third highest per capita COVID death rate in the country, behind only Mississippi and Arizona.

Yet, even those data points don’t accurately map out the scale of collateral damage done in our neighborhoods of color where residents were especially hard hit by COVID where access to quality healthcare was always problematic.

Countless studies have linked poor healthcare outcomes and the prevalence of chronic disease, disparate medical outcomes, and premature death.

“The relationship between poverty and poor health are strikingly apparent in the United States,” according to the University of Chicago health researcher Julie Wagner. “People living below the federal poverty line have a shorter life expectancy and higher incidence of chronic disease than those with higher incomes. The poor, however, are less likely than the non-poor to have recent contact with a physician or engage in preventive care.”

As you drive around New Jersey’s neighborhoods, the residential facades don’t betray the psycho-social dislocation that’s happening inside behind closed doors.  Nationally, NPR reported that 200,000 children, and counting, have been orphaned by COVID, while simultaneously millions of kids face the fallout from two years of at best an erratic education.

According to the Measure of America, which tracks how many teens and young adults, 16 to 24 year-olds, are neither working nor  in school, as many as nine million young people were out of school and out of work in May of 2020, “more than twice as many as in 2019.”

The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that in 1999 just 3.9 percent of this age cohort was disconnected. By 2019, it was nationally nearly 12 percent, an improvement from after the Great Recession.

In some Cumberland County communities, according to the Measure of America, more than one in five teens and young adults are not in school and not working. In some Essex County neighborhoods almost twenty percent of this cohort is idle.

Research shows that being disconnected has socio-economic consequences that last a lifetime in terms of educational attainment, depressed lifetime earnings, as well as an increased risk of incarceration.

Last June, Gov. Phil Murphy, who has a grasp of the scale of the damage done and its roots in our state’s social conditions, appointed a COVID 19 Pandemic Task Force on Racialand Health Disparities.

“The COVID-19 pandemic ravaged minority communities throughout the United States,” Sen. Sandra Cunningham, who co-sponsored the bill that called for the creation of the panel, said. “Predominantly Black counties account for only 30 percent of the U.S. population, and yet they were the location of 56 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In order to effectively help these communities and prevent this from happening again in the future, we must understand why the pandemic hit them so hard and come up with long-lasting strategies to eradicate health disparities.”

Even before the pandemic hit, poor and low wealth families in New Jersey,  were struggling, according to the United Ways ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employer) Project with 37 percent of the state’s households living below the poverty line or struggling week to week to cover the basics like rent and childcare.

In the most recent ALICE analysis that uses 2018 data, Bergen County, which is considered a well-off county, had 38 percent of its family struggling. In Cumberland County, 51 percent fell in that crucible. ALICE households made up 48 percent of Passaic County; 46 percent of Essex County; 46 percent of Atlantic County; 44 percent of Salem County.

“From 2010 to 2018, New Jersey showed steady economic improvement according to traditional measures,” according to the most recent United Way ALICE report for New Jersey. “Unemployment in the state and across the U.S. fell to historic lows, GDP grew, and wages rose slightly.”

The United Way analysis continued. “Yet in 2018, eight years after the end of the Great Recession, 37 percent of New Jersey’s 3,248,970 households still struggled to make ends meet. While 10 percent of these households were living below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), another 27 percent — nearly three times as many — were ALICE households. These households earned above the federal poverty level, but not enough to afford basic household necessities.”

Initially, when so much of America was in lockdown, Congress sent hundreds of billions of dollars to airlines flying, as well keeping Main Street and MLK Blvd. afloat. But early on, in President Biden’s term a handful of Democrats teamed up with the Republicans, and voted down increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, up from the $7.25 where it has sat since 2009.

Yet, contained in President Biden’s American Rescue Plan was a lifeline for the very same households that would have benefited from the long overdue minimum wage hike. It came in the form of a major expansion of the Child Tax Credit which in just a few months had the potential to help 35 million families with 65 million children out of poverty.

The legislation bumped up the $2,000 child tax credit to $3,000 with a $600 premium for children under six years old. From July through December, these families were eligible to receive a $300 a month stipend for their children under six years old and $250 for kids from six to 17-years old.

According to an analysis by the Urban Institute, had this program been enacted into 2022 our nation would have cut childhood poverty by 40 percent.

But Beltway compassion for America’s struggling working class families was wearing thin even as their dead bodies of essential workers continued to pile up.  Delta Airlines corporate executives wrote the CDC to complain that the health agency’s COVID quarantine guidelines were too stringent and were making it impossible to keep America flying.

So, even as Omicron surged, there was this shift in the conventional corporate wisdom which defines the news and policy agenda, that the economy demanded that Washington crack the whip and get us all back to work.

Clearly, the powers that be felt Uncle Sam had been too generous to households that got COVID benefits and eviction protection. It was time to force these lazy people back into the harness that pulls the great American wealth pyramid.

This was about the time that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) started to dump on extending the expansion of Expanded Child Tax contending that he was concerned it would be used by struggling parents to buy drugs instead of food to feed their children.

The families, already hard hit by a roller coaster pandemic economy. were once again on a downward slide but not because of a new wave of a virus, but due to Manchin’s and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s resistance to Biden’s agenda and the end of the expanded Child Tax Credit at the end of the year.

 “The monthly child poverty rate increased from 12.1 percent in December 2021 to 17 percent in January 2022,  the highest rate since the end of 2020,” according to Columbia’s Center on Poverty and Social Science. “The 4.9 percentage point (41 percent) increase in poverty represents 3.7 million more children in poverty due to the expiration of the monthly Child Tax Credit payments. Latino and Black children experienced the largest percentage-point increases in poverty (7.1 percentage points and 5.9 percentage points, respectively).”

The cruelty of Congress not extending this essential lifeline was compounded by runaway inflation for New Jersey’s struggling families, and in other northeast states and cities where the cost of living is higher.

According to the Urban Institute, In every New Jersey county, except Cumberland, the real cost of a basic USDA Food Stamp meal, exceeds the federal government’s allotment. In Essex, it’s 24 percent higher, while in Sussex there’s a 21 percent premium.

Tomorrow, subject matter experts for New Jersey Policy Perspectives will make the case for Trenton to come to the aid of working families by expanding New Jersey’s state-level Child Tax Credit. Hopefully, our state legislators will follow up with some action.

A generation ago, President Lyndon Johnson enlisted the nation in a war on poverty to uplift the poor. Today, a national government captive to corporate interests, is tightening the vice on them.

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2 responses to “In 64′ We Waged a War on Poverty – Today We Tighten its Vice”

  1. I always read your columns, Bob Hennelly,
    and I am always impressed and learn from them.
    The problem is that I seem incapable of commenting in any meaningful way.
    I never seem to understand how people who have so very, very much do not want to help people who have so very, very little.

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