To 2024 and Healing Our Enduring Great Divide

Over the holiday, Gov. Murphy, Lieutenant Gov. Way, Senate President Scutari, and Assembly Speaker Coughlin put out a self-congratulatory press release saying how “incredibly proud” they were that the state’s minimum was set to increase to $15.13 an hour with the New Year. In their statement the state’s leaders said that because of a 2019 change in state law the increase was “indexed annually to inflation” guaranteeing that “working families won’t fall behind when prices go up.”

You have to wonder what planet these people occupy.

It’s certainly not the same one inhabited by 37 percent of New Jersey’s households that either live below the poverty line or struggle week to week to afford the basic necessities that the United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Project has been keeping track of for well over a decade.

Of course this is the same political class that got billions and billions from Washington in taxpayer funded COVID relief money but refused to part with  $100 million in hazard pay for the tens of thousands of lower wage essential workers who fed us, cleaned our office buildings, or guarded their perimeter during the pandemic and sometimes paid with their life for the privilege. The $500 to $1,000 one time payments, backed by the NJ AFL-CIO, were a drop in the bucket for Trenton that decided it was better to use the federal  mass death largesse to buy a new fleet of SUVs they could ride around in and to fund incumbent protection pork.

It’s important to note that there were some local and county governments, even other states like Connecticut and Minnesota , that met their moral obligation to this cohort of workers that’s disproportionally made up of people of color that society banged pots and pans for during the worst of the pandemic.

During the pandemic this was the strata of society that either had no choice but to leave their home for their “essential work” or saw their service sector job evaporate overnight when Gov. Murphy took the public health precaution of shutting down so much of the economy. Back in June of 2021 when Gov. Murphy signed the bill creating the COVID-19 Task Force on Racial and Health Disparity he paid lip service to how the COVID-19 pandemic had “disproportionately impacted our minority communities”  and that it was essential we “work together to eliminate the existing racial disparities in health care.”

But Trenton’s memory is short as Washington’s which couldn’t wait to suspend social supports like the Expanded Child Tax Credit, which for six months lifted millions of children out of poverty, and then caused a major spike in child poverty the next year when it capriciously  ended the program. Make no mistake about it, this country’s power structure has little regard for those that have a tough time getting by because it unmasks the myth of their benevolence. How else do you explain the Biden administration’s decision to “unwind” the Medicaid program that had expanded during the pandemic ensuring that millions more of America’s poorer people would be covered by healthcare insurance?

According to a recent study by Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy Center for Children and Families this totally foreseeable calamity has resulted in close to eight million individuals, including more than 3.24 million children being culled from the program. In that analysis, New Jersey saw 163,000 people dropped.

While healthcare coverage access advocates have praised the Murphy administration’s efforts to try and limit the damage done by the Biden “unwinding” of Medicaid, which saw 1.2 million dropped in Texas alone, New Jersey’s own data from it’s October report disclosed that 176,715 people had been dropped for “procedural reasons” from NJ’s FamilyCare program.

As we head into the 2024 national campaign cycle, we can’t permit the political class to have amnesia about the link between New Jersey’s and the nation’s catastrophic COVID death toll and the entrenched race based economic and health disparities that endure in 2024. While so-called Bidenomics and a union revival have helped in the margins, decade after decade of growing wealth income and wealth inequality have worn defacing and defining cracks on the face of America.

Multiple studies have documented the link between having a truly livable wage, not a minimum one like $15 an hour, with better health outcomes, a reduction in chronic disease and a longer life expectancy. A 2017 national peer reviewed study of the association between income and life expectancy looked at the income data for the entire US population from between 1999 and 2014 while checking it against the mortality data from Social Security Administration death records.

“Higher income was associated with longer life at all income levels,” the researchers found. “Men in the bottom one percent of the income distribution at the age of 40 years had an expected age of death of 72.7 years. Men in the top one percent of the income distribution had an expected age of death of 87.3 years, 14.6 years…higher than those in the bottom one percent. Women in the bottom one percent of the income distribution at the age of 40 years had an expected age of death of 78.8 years. Women in the top one percent had an expected age of death of 88.9 years, which is 10.1 years…higher than life expectancy for women in the bottom one percent.”

This is the ugly truth about what’s been happening for a couple of generations or so in America as both major political parties played a role in rigging the American economy for the nation’s wealthiest families and multinational corporations permitting wages to stagnate as America’s average life expectancy ranking globally plummeted. Consider that in 1933 the U.S. ranked eighth globally in our average life expectancy. By 1977 to 1980, we had dropped to 14th behind Norway and Japan. By 2019, before the pandemic we had plummeted to 40th.

By 2030, we are expected to drop to 64th just behind Sri Lanka, Hungary, and Thailand. Of course income is just one factor in a complex matrix that has to include our unique for profit healthcare system that’s by far the most expensive in the world that rations care based on the ability to pay. It’s ironic that the corporate media fixates on the advanced age of Biden and Trump as a defining issue, while ignoring the gross failure of the nation in its core responsibility, facilitating the longest and healthiest life possible for its people as a whole.

“As far back as the 1970s, experts showed that as countries got richer, the gains from their wealth in terms of life expectancy became smaller. But what is happening now with the United States is something else entirely,” reported the Washington Post in October. “The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, notably, occurred after a decline in health that got even worse during that period. Some experts see an alarming parallel.”

“Historically, demographic trouble tends to presage broader difficulties of social division,”  former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, told the newspaper “recalling that it was demographers who foresaw the collapse of the communist system by identifying hugely surging mortality rates.

“There are lots of arguments about how to measure GDP, satisfaction, unemployment,” Summers told the newspaper, adding that death was “kind of unambiguous.”

“Even before the pandemic, in 2021, 41 percent of U.S. households were struggling to make ends meet,” according to the United Way’s ALICE website. “This includes households with income below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), and households who are ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). With income above the FPL, ALICE households earn too much to qualify as ‘poor’ but are still unable to cover basic household expenses.”

The analysis continues. “Over the last decade, two factors have driven an increase in ALICE households: The costs of household essentials have gone up, but wages have stagnated. While cost of living varies considerably from one state, region, and county to another, a family’s ability to afford household expenses also depends on how much they have an opportunity to earn.”

And there are pronounced racial disparities at work with the United Way reporting that 52 percent of New Jersey’s Black households and 51 percent of its Hispanic families living below the ALICE threshold where a truly livable wage would make all the difference.

Factoring in the actual local costs of living and essentials that vary, like housing and childcare, the United Way’s ALICE wage tool calculates that as of 2022, a $15 an hour wage could only provide a bare bones survival budget for a household consisting of a single working adult living only in Camden or Mercer County. There wasn’t one of the state’s 21 counties where a single parent with a child could survive on $15 an hour. And the prospects were just as bleak for a household with two parents working to support two children.

In 2022, to make a go of it in all of the state’s 21 counties, the United Way estimated it would take $26 an hour wage to cover the survival budget for a family with both parents working to support two  children  at home.

Rev. Rupert A. Hall Jr. is the pastor at Turning Point United Methodist Church in Trenton and is working with the NJ’s Poor People’s Campaign which is planning a major rally in Trenton on March 2nd.  “$15 an hour doesn’t cut it and some of our research suggests a livable wage, as opposed to a minimum wage, would be  more like $30 to $35 an hour,” Hall told InsiderNJ during a phone interview.

Between 2019 and 2021, the U.S. Census reported that poverty in New Jersey had spiked from 9.1 percent to 10.2 percent, with only Hawaii and Maryland seeing a bigger jump. Out of the 930,000 New Jersey residents in the poverty cohort, 94,000 were children under six. Over that same time frame, the state’s median income dropped by 1.7 percent.

To be fair, that same year New Jersey was one of the few states to respond to the beltway’s cutting of the pandemic era expansion of the Earned Income Child Tax Credit. Gov. Murphy signed  a child tax credit that kicked in last year that applied to families with  children under six-years-old with incomes below $80,000, with the biggest benefits of $500 per child going to households with incomes under $30,000.

Advocates are hoping that Trenton can see clearly to expand that program to families with older children this year. If you have raised children, you know it doesn’t get cheaper to maintain them.  Truly learning the bitter lessons of the pandemic and healing what’s ailed us as a nation from our founding that was rooted in slavery and the violent oppression of Native Americans is going to take an equal measure of courage and vision.

Complacency and a politics rooted in naked self-interest and personal ambition won’t cut it. We must let the Menendez ethos fall away along with the back scratching culture that nurtured it.  We have to find shame again for when the public trust is so blatantly violated. Public service must  mean serving the public, not campaign donors and sycophants.

If we want to promote work then we have to make sure it pays to work and that working people get to keep more of what they earn. A case in point would be the ongoing debate that’s likely to carry over into the next state legislative session in Trenton over the fate of the 2.5 percent tax surcharge on corporations that report more than a million dollars in profits like Amazon and Starbucks.

“Handing giant corporations a billion-dollar tax cut while getting nothing in return is a bad deal for New Jersey,” wrote Peter Chen, a senior policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective. “At a time when corporate profits are at record highs and basic public infrastructure like NJ Transit is facing huge deficits, now should be a time to help everyday residents, not bail out CEOs and shareholders. This tax cut will do nothing to boost New Jersey’s economy, but it will certainly hurt the state’s ability to pay for vital public services now and into the future.”

Assembly Member Sadaf Jaffer (D-Hunterdon) represents a younger generation of political leadership that sees these connections. Jaffer, who represents the Princeton area, grew up in Chicago. Before winning a seat in the legislature, she served as the Mayor of Montgomery, the first female Muslim American to lead an American municipality.

“The CBT should be directed to transportation,” Jaffer told InsiderNJ during a phone interview. “Public transportation is really the lifeblood of working people and I know that from having grown up using public transportation and my family using it quite a bit. There may be a disconnect where a lot of policy makers themselves don’t use it and so, perhaps they don’t see how important it is or that raising fares is such a burden and that ultimately public transportation is a resource we should be providing as a public good…The more I think about it, public transportation is one of the most important equalizers in our country.”

Exactly.

And who better to fund it than the entities that extracted so much wealth during the pandemic while so many essential workers died serving a society that too often saw them as expendable.

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One response to “To 2024 and Healing Our Enduring Great Divide”

  1. Want to heal our “great divide”. Eliminate all federal and state income taxes, so taxpayers’ monies can never be used to divide us with the numerous anti-Democratic programs like CRT, DEI, LGBTQ+, Trans Agendas, defund the police, defund the military, destroy the economy, allow illegal immigrants to invade the country as welfare parasites and terrorists, etc. Stop giving everyone money that don’t live in this country and pay their fair share.

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