Of Safaris, Dungeons and Dragons, and the Real World of the Working Poor

CHRISTMAS EVE 2018- Out in the streets there’s that climatic whirl everywhere you go. It’s that last minute dash for those that we love. We know that come Christmas Day all our good intentions either will become reality or will be sidelined as a promissory note. 

And so it is with Trenton and the millions of New Jersey residents whose prospects would have been made all the more bright headed into 2019 with a $15 minimum living wage. 

No, not this year, perhaps next. 

There’s just such a huge gulf between Trenton’s professional political class and the families for whom such a pay hike would make all the difference.  In a system that relies on campaign cash from corporate interests it should come as no surprise that anything that protects profits wins out over people of little influence with limited means. 

That’s why when Democrats get around to delivering on their promise there will likely be cutouts and small print exceptions like for farm workers. (That’s just how Trenton kept slavery alive and well a half-century after it passed the supposed  1804 Abolition Act.) 

Governor Phil Murphy is off with his family on a  12-day African safari  while the Trenton Democrats are inwardly focused on playing ’dungeons and dragons— the who gets to be  their party leader  edition.’  (At least  Governor Cuomo  canceled his Christmas trip to Puerto Rico so he could stay home and keep the lights burning at the Statue of Liberty, which was going to be shut down by the Trump tantrum Federal government shutdown.) 

Before  Thanksgiving, I wrote in this space that if New Jersey Democrats wanted to build on the momentum off the 2018 mid-terms they needed to deliver a $15 minimum wage by Christmas for the hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class families for whom there had been no recovery. They remain most vulnerable to the next recession soon to be upon us with the stock market coming off its worst December since the Great Depression. 

For these New Jersey family things have only continued to deteriorate as  wealth concentration  and income disparity have both  surged  to the highest levels in the history of the nation. We continue to live out the consequences of several million American families losing their homes to the predations of Wall Street and the loss of $20 trillion in  household wealth. 

The bi-partisan, Beltway- solution of propping up Wall Street, but letting so much of Main Street sink underwater in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin set the stage for Donald Trump’s populist message in just enough places to hand him the Oval Office. 

The national media, Obama, and Clinton did not see it coming because it was playing out in places they didn’t know existed. Their read on the economy was informed by national aggregate unemployment data but nobody lives in the aggregate. 

One of those dozens of Congressional districts that had voted for President Obama twice and flipped for Trump was south  New Jersey’s Second District  which includes some of our state’s  poorest communities  still bearing  the visible signs of the Great Recession. 

Recently, the United Way released their annual update of the so-called   ALICE  population that is asset-limited, income constrained, employed but struggle week to week. 

According to the latest data 38 percent of New Jersey’s households live either below the poverty line or in the ALICE cohort. Between 2010 and 2016 poverty remained relatively stable at the 10 percent level. But over that same period the number of New Jersey ALICE families went from 24 to 28 percent, as wages stayed stagnant but costs for the basics rose. 

In the Second District’s Cumberland County, where so many of the state’s  underpaid farmworkers  live, the United Way found close two-thirds of the households are either living below the poverty line or find themselves in the ALICE cohort. In Essex County over half of all the households are struggling. In Salem, Ocean, Atlantic and Passaic counties close to half of all the families are just getting by. 

In the more than 200,000 households in New Jersey that are headed by a woman, 37 percent live below poverty, while another 39 percent fit the  ALICE  criteria,  leaving just 23 percent that are not struggling week to week. 

According to an analysis by  New Jersey Policy Perspective, a New Jersey family with one child needs a wage of $20.07 an hour to make ends meet. According to the non-profit think tank there’s quite a range between the state’s 21 counties— from $17.32 an hour for workers in Camden to $22.26 in Hunterdon. 

A boost of the minimum wage “would inject $3.9 billion into the state’s economy  and help over 1 million workers better afford their needs,” according to NJPP. “Today, there is no region of the state where a single worker with no children can afford basic necessities while making less than $15 per hour. The costs of transportation, food and rent are simply too high for a minimum wage worker to afford without suffering in poverty.” 

While I was in line at the check-out in the Shop-Rite in Chester over the weekend with five of our seven fishes in my cart, I asked the twenty-something working the cash register what difference making  $15 an hour would make for her and her co-workers. 

Her face lit up like it was  Christmas.  “We were just talking about that and it would be a huge raise for us,” she said. “We all start at the minimum wage here.” 

A few years ago, I got dumped by CBS News after then RNC press secretary  Sean Spicer  complained about a story I did during the primary campaign about how the GOP brand had been co-opted by Trump’s candidacy. (The story was not inaccurate, and CBS never retracted it but just took it down off the internet.) 

I went from the glamour of CBS’s West 57th Street location to continuing writing freelance and signing up for the night crew at the Mount Freedom Acme where I made $9.10 an hour. 

I figured that since it was a union-shop I could get healthcare coverage, but I was always scheduled just a few hours shy of qualifying full-time status. The guys I worked with were legacy hires whose tenure went back close to thirty-years so their hourly wage was three times what I was making. 

They were entitled to weeks of paid vacation but could never take it because at the low wage that was now offered there was nobody to cover for them. Incredibly, the union leadership were making healthy six-figure salaries. 

My co-workers on the day shift included single mothers struggling to make ends meet, retirees back in the workforce because they had lost their 401ks keeping their kids in college during the Great Recession, and middle-aged folks who had moved back in with their elderly parents because they had lost their homes. 

These are the people that Washington and Trenton have always ignored since FDR’s New Deal. Their very existence is living proof that this country is rigged to serve the interests that make money with money who own our politics, not the vast majority of us who rely on wages to make ends meet. 

They just live in another dimension.

HIDING IN PLAIN SITE: Earlier this year a New Jersey couple, whose families lost their homes to a foreclosure and short sale, told WBGO about their struggle to make ends meet looking for minimum wage jobs while eluding law enforcement along the Route 38 corridor in Monmouth County.
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