The parking below the Trenton State House that accommodates all of the legislature’s late model SUVs and cars was filled to capacity on Nov. 30 during a jam packed lame duck session day. Out in front of the Legislative Annex a couple of hundred labor, social justice and environmental activists protested Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to let the state’s 2.5 percent Corporate Business Tax Surcharge lapse on entities that post more than a million dollars in annual profits.
Activists from New Jersey Policy Perspectives, NJ’s Working Families Alliance, the CWA, HPAE, the state’s largest nurses’ union, Citizens Action, Make the Road New Jersey, the Domestic Workers Alliance, Immigrant Resource Center, and the League of Conservation Voters all stood behind a larger than life mock check made out to Walmart, Amazon, and Exxon for $1 billion from the State of New Jersey.
“We cannot give the largest corporations in the world a $1 billion tax cut on the backs of working people across New Jersey,” Antoinette Miles, the Interim Director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, told reporters and supporters. “We need this revenue to fund our communities, our schools, our infrastructure, and our environment. The writing is on the wall with the fiscal cliffs on the horizon, and we have a solution right here. Lawmakers need to stop this tax cut and have these big corporations pay what they owe.”
As my InsiderNJ colleague Fred Snowflack observed, there were no legislators in attendance at the rally.
Gov. Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs man, is committed to letting the surcharge lapse at the end of the year as originally planned as if the economy has recovered sufficiently the state can forgo the revenue. He must be informed by the MSNBC commentators looking to boost President Biden who cite the 5.2 percent growth in the Gross Domestic Product, the taming of inflation, and the upward pressure on wages as evidence of a robust economic recovery. These same pundits voice their annoyance that polls indicate voters are anxious about the economy.
But all of those data points that frame their worldview are in the national aggregate and nobody lives or votes there.
This view from 10,000 feet makes it easy to overlook the pockets of real despair all around us that are a manifestation of the real limits of democracy to counter the excesses of 21st century global capitalism. Have you ever noticed that both political parties direct their conversation to the middle class? It’s as if recognizing the 85 million low wealth and low wage Americans would expose the predatory aspects of a system that’s increasingly being fueled by wealth inequality.
Several of the attendees at the Trenton CBT rally were making the case that the $1 billion the surcharge generates would be better spent on stabilizing the shaky finances of NJ Transit that provides the bus and rail service upon which the state’s low wage essential workers and poor rely. In a state where politicians spend several millions of dollars on campaigns to win a state office that pays only $49,000 a year, there’s a real disconnect between the politicians and the people that worry about their bus fare.
These two cohorts are on different planets and there is nowhere in the nation where that is more evident than in the historic city of Trenton where well-heeled legislators can drive into their parking spaces in the bowels of the Capitol Complex avoiding entirely the dire economic circumstance of the people that actually inhabit the state’s capital, most of whom are people of color and often depend on mass transit.
Just a few blocks from the State House Capitol Complex, which cost close to $300 million to renovate, dozens and dozens of store fronts are boarded up and just a handful of businesses are open in the middle of a weekday. In between vacant buildings with fractured facades the alleys are packed with trash and debris along with evidence of past failed revivals.
Several people are waiting in the bus shelter in front of the imposing but now vacant First Trenton National Bank that bares an historical marker commemorating that in December of 1787 it was the site of New Jersey’s ratification of the Constitution of the United States. More than a decade earlier in December of 1776, New Jersey’s capitol was the scene of the Battle of Trenton where after a high stakes crossing of the Delaware River, General George Washington “defeated a garrison of Hessian mercenaries” setting “the stage for another success at Princeton a week later and boosted the morale of the American troops.”
A half block away from the empty bank, a man is sitting on the sidewalk up against a street sign and injects a needle in his arm in broad daylight as the traffic goes by and his consciousness drifts somewhere else, anywhere else.
Trenton’s population peaked in 1950 at almost 130,000. Today, it’s around under 90,000. Coming out of the WWII production boom there were over 70,000 private sector jobs with companies like Lenox, Boehm, American Standard and Roebling.
“With its strategic location on the Delaware River, as well as its rail and canal access, Trenton developed into an industrial and manufacturing hub early in this country’s history,” according to Trenton.250, the city’s long term master plan. “Ironworks and potteries flourished first in Trenton, with steel and ceramics developing into iconic Trenton businesses, followed by rubber manufacturing….After the city’s chamber of commerce had held a contest for a civic slogan, ‘Trenton Makes The World Takes’ was selected to reflect the city’s manufacturing prowess.”
As both political parties embraced the notion of global free trade, for decades federal tax policy actually incentivized U.S. corporations to expand outside of the United States, setting into motion the deindustrialization of places like Trenton that were so prosperous First Trenton National Bank was built with cathedral scale doors. Today, money flows past the City of Trenton to tony suburbs, gated luxury communities, offshore tax jurisdictions and overseas to better investment opportunities.
Close to two thirds of Trenton’s households are living in poverty or struggling month to month to make ends meet, according to data from the latest United Ways ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, and employed) Report. The per capita income is $25,633, as compared to over $51,000 statewide. With a median household income of $52,508, Trenton’s is roughly half of the state’s over $96,000 median household income.
Dr. Stephanie Hoopes is the director of the United Ways ALICE project which grew, from a pilot study in Morris County, to a national effort tracking the local economic conditions in all 3,000 U.S. counties. Hoopes told InsiderNJ that Trenton’s poverty contrasts dramatically with the surrounding suburban Mercer County where two thirds of the population are not struggling month to month and doing slightly better than the state as a whole where 37 percent of households are either living below poverty or struggling month to month to get by.
“Those averages are concealing the hardship that had not only stayed but increased in some places and these are 2021 data points,” Hoopes said, adding that in some communities conditions have continued to deteriorate amidst an economic recovery . “All those supports that Biden was able to get passed during the pandemic are gone. One of the things we track is the unemployment rate for ALICE households, or households below the ALICE threshold state by state, community by community. and while the overall unemployment level is low, there are lots of locations where the ALICE unemployment rate is much higher.”
“We were brought up here and there was so much to do downtown back then—we had restaurants and clothing stores and now there’s nowhere to shop,” Shawn Johnson, 57, a longtime Trenton resident told InsiderNJ. “If you want to get a job you have to go to the temp agencies out in Cranberry or Yardville.
Tuyetmy Thatch, 30, is Johnson’s fiancée and walking arm in arm with Johnson. Thatch’s family came from Vietnam after the war and landed in Camden. “I speak Vietnamese and we had the right to come here after the war but I never met my grandfather who was American,” she said. “A lot of people down here have histories of substance abuse and felonies and they get turned down and turned away when they try to get help. I don’t think they should get turned down because of their clothing or because they are homeless. If they want help, they should get help.”
Thatch continued. “More people should be coming here, not running from here. I don’t think the Governor has stepped foot down here. People don’t see all these abandoned buildings. People are using the street corners for bathrooms—there’s urine and feces everywhere.”
Johnson and Thatch were homeless for several months of the pandemic but now have housing for which they are grateful. The couple said the shelter was rife with bed bugs and they had to worry about having their few personal belongings being stolen. They stop to listen to Joseph Lockhart, who was improvising on his drum set that he’s staged in front of another shell of a bank across from the historic First Presbyterian Church, which has a cemetery where veterans of the American Revolution are buried.
Lockhart, 47, is the son of a preacher who started playing the drums in his father’s church when he was eight years old and hasn’t stopped. A local non-profit pays him $50 an hour to play for a couple of hours as a way of keeping drug dealers away while he practices his ‘percussive ministry.’
“This gives young people something to focus on and something for old people to live for,” Lockhart said. “I am just trying to bring more awareness to Trenton to make sure people understand you can still make music and entertainment here. I am an antidote to people that don’t want to try and help or do things to better the situation they are in.”
He confirms but shrugs off an anecdote that Thatch shared that a kid came up to Lockhart while he was playing and complimented the drummer for his playing and then ran off with his drum cover with loose change donated by people passing by. “He must have really needed it,” Lockhart said.
Pastor Rupert A. Hall Jr. is an attorney as well as the pastor at Turning Point United Methodist Church on Broad Street that celebrated its 250th anniversary in Trenton last year. Hall is working with the New Jersey Poor People’s Campaign, the state organization that’s affiliated with the Rev. Dr. William Barber’s national movement that’s following in the tradition of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign.
“The disconnect between the city and the state is represented and highlighted by the amount of money going to the [renovations] of the state house—you go one or two blocks away and you see the dire need of renovation and rehabilitation of the City of Trenton,” Hall told InsiderNJ during a phone interview, adding that there’s been a national failure to address the very real socio-economic fallout from the pandemic particularly in the hardest hit communities of color like his city.
“This needs to be addressed,” Hall said. “One of the statistics we found in the Poor People’s Campaign was how the rich got immensely richer during the pandemic which has even widened the wealth gap. What we see is the extent to which our folks in Washington are representing the people who give them the most money from areas that resemble Mar-a-Lago.”
Halls observed that within the last two to three months Bank of America and Wells Fargo shut down branches downtown. “It’s extremely telling– once financial institutions pull out it is a sign—it’s almost a white flag in my opinion.”
Hall remains optimistic that Mayor Reed Gusciora and a recently reconstituted City Council can start to turn things around.
“This is the first time in at least six years that from my perspective that the Mayor and the City Council are cordial to each other,” Hall said. “We have a City Council that was just elected last November and out of the seven seats, six are brand new to the Council. The previous Council and Mayor was a mix worse than ‘oil and water’.”
On March 2, Trenton will be one of 30 state capitals where state chapters like the New Jersey Poor People’s Campaign will rally to raise the profile of the nation’s 85 million low wage and low wealth individuals who collectively account for a third of the American electorate. “The wealth and income gap grows larger and larger every day,” Hall said. “America’s the richest country in the world and we should not have the abject poverty that we have. Once you start talking about income and wealth redistribution, that’s a ‘no-no’ in America.”
The national grassroots effort aims at increasing voter turnout in the country’s poorest communities like Trenton where voter turnout lags considerably behind more prosperous communities, a marginalization that only reinforces itself as politicians micro-target their message to the likely voters.
The reality is that most struggling households are not even participating in our democracy, according to research by Columbia University researcher Robert Paul Hartley . Hartley found that only 46 percent of voters with household income less than twice the federal poverty rate cast a ballot in 2016, as compared to a 68 percent turnout rate for voters who had a household income more than twice the poverty line.
“They’re saying that they’re not voting because people are not speaking to their issues and that they’re just not interested in those candidates,” Hartley, told the New York Times “But it’s not that they couldn’t be.”
The act of voting is an act of faith but it’s also a way of affirming your own existence and that you and your family matter. So, in 2024, the more economically struggling Americans that cast a ballot, the harder it will be for our politicians to continue to ignore them in the future.