What’s Missing from the 2021 Campaign? Harris has More than a Clue

Vice President Kamala Harris.

So far, the New Jersey Governor’s race has not been about everything other than the real-world circumstances of the millions of people that live here.

The debased multi-billion-dollar slug fest between Gov. Murphy and former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli has been all about what’s wrong with the privileged candidates, not the huge percentage of the electorate both parties have failed for generations.

Between the millions in taxpayer money and the millions from outside national groups, this high-priced non-therapeutic mud bath is mired in a fixation on the past of just these two white guys.

There’s been insufficient discussion of the future of our state that for close to a year and a half has been afflicted by a mass death event that has inordinately claimed poor people of color who are most often essential workers in a state that is one of the richest in the nation where so many whites had the luxury of hunkering down at home.

We’ve known about these brutal race-based inequities for decades. After the 1967 civil disturbance in Newark the Lilley Report, commissioned by then Gov. Hughes, flagged the linkage between poverty and race-based health care disparities and outcomes in Newark, the state’s largest city.

Among the statistics the report laid out to describe Newark’s endemic poverty: the city had the highest maternal and infant mortality rate in the nation and the highest rate of tuberculosis infection, and it ranked ninth out of 302 American cities in severity of air pollution.

A half-century since the Lilley Report was issued the COVID pandemic has driven home the enduring nature of those very same race based economic and health care disparities that continue to define Newark, our state and the entire nation.

In the decades since we have been undercounting the number of our fellow state residents struggling in the margins of poverty in a state with one of the highest cost of living.

According to a report released this past July by the Legal Services of New Jersey’s Poverty Research Institute, the federal measure we use to determine the number of people in poverty undercounted that population by more than two million.

Under that official measure that’s informed by an outdated one size fits all federal formula a family of four is only poor if they make under $21,000 a year, which means that just 800,000 New Jersey residents are poor.

Researchers at the Legal Services of New Jersey’s Poverty Research Institute found that in 2019 a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey averaged $17,316 — about $1,450 a month — claiming nearly 85% of the poverty-level family’s $21,000 in wages.

“They would be left with $3,275 annually, or $273 a month, to meet other essential needs like food, transportation, health care and taxes, according to the researchers,” the Asbury Park Press reported when the report was released.

Calculating the actual cost of living here in the Garden State the advocacy group calculated the poverty/survival wage for a family of three would be $70,372 a year. Under that calculation, over three million New Jersey residents struggle financially week to week to make ends meet amidst the pandemic.

If democracy is supposed to be an effective exercise in self-determination, it needs to be one of honest self-reflection about the socio-economic conditions of the people that live in the state mulling its leadership options.

There’s been inadequate attention on how our state’s long standing racial disparities in healthcare and wealth inequality helped drive its per 100,000 COVID death count to being the highest in the world, until we were eclipsed just recently by Mississippi.

As the pandemic appears to be easing, we need to be discussing how we support the families of the 27,000 people that died in New Jersey, many of them healthcare professionals, first responders, civil servants, transit workers, and retail personnel who got exposed as a consequence of their commitment to serve our communities.

There are well over one million people that survived an infection with this deadly virus we still know so little about. What is clear is that a substantial portion of these people are either essential workers or family members of those that served all of us.

We know that based on preliminary health studies, that as many as one in four of these people will suffer some long-term consequence of varying severity from this virus that has now killed more Americans than the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 to 1921.

Many of these families who are the arms and legs of our essential workforce are undocumented who even now have to look over their shoulder in fear, not just of the virus, but of our dysfunctional and unjust immigration system.

We know that this pandemic was particularly hard on women who have lost perhaps a generation of economic progress because two million of them were pushed out of the workforce so they could help educate their children at home while often caring for a loved one afflicted with the virus.

Under our current system, their families will be economically deprived in the short term, while they themselves will also feel it when they reach the age where they could retire and their lack of earnings from the pandemic will be reflected in their anemic social security check.

Even as we were dealing with the pandemic, our region was hit with the unprecedented downpour generated by IDA and accelerating extremes from climate change, so many of those that drowned were living in substandard basement apartments in urban immigrant neighborhoods.

As we look to the holidays, the financial press is filled with reporting on how our inadequate transportation infrastructure is helping to drive price inflation as consumer demand returns but we don’t have the capacity to move the goods they’re ordering.

By every measure, we remain a “StuckNation.”

Thankfully, we elected a President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris whose $3.5 trillion Build Back Better agenda is a 21st century version of the New Deal that FDR advanced. This 21st century iteration includes a long overdue realignment of our system of taxation which has promoted global wealth accumulation by a tiny handful of billionaires over the interests of the essential workers upon which we so rely.

Thanks to the ongoing obstructionism of the Republican insurrectionists and Democratic Senators Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Krysten Sinema, who remain captive to big donors, this lifeline which addresses so much of what’s upside down in America is in trouble.

Most of the news media coverage of the debate focuses on whether or not Biden and Harris can deliver on their ambitious agenda not why it’s about nothing less than our collective survival.

One stellar exception was the tour de force interview that WNBC’s Brian Thompson landed with Vice President Harris on her visit last week to New Jersey.

“Let’s be clear, the Build Back Better agenda is about helping families and helping working people in America who for too long have been trying to get through the end of the month without really the kind of help they need that Build Back Better can give,” Harris told Thompson. “On childcare, it’s about saying let’s bring down the cost of childcare but also pay childcare workers their value and pay what they deserve when it comes to their profession. It is about caring for the children of our nation.”

Based on the issue driven interview it’s clear the Biden team has factored in just where we are a year and a half into this once in a century health crisis.

“The work we are doing with Build Back Better is about saying let’s have paid family leave, paid sick leave,” Harris said. “If this pandemic did nothing, it certainly highlighted the importance of all working people being able to stay home and take care of sick family members and not compromise their ability to pay their rent to do it.”

It would be good if the questioners in Tuesday’s debate asked Murphy and Ciattarelli to weigh in on this once in a generation opportunity to right what’s so wrong with our nation.

“These are the priorities of Build Back Better and combining that with the bipartisan infrastructure plan its also about in New Jersey over 500 bridges are in poor conditions in need of repair,” Harris said. “In New Jersey part of our approach in terms of infrastructure is about the internet. Almost a third of New Jersey families do not have access to high-speed internet.”

It would be good if at Tuesday’s Rowan University debate if the panelists asked about what each candidate would do to address climate change, something Build Back Better addresses in a way our nation has yet to do.

Maybe the candidates could be asked just what’s contained in Build Back Better when it comes to climate change.

“The climate crisis is real,” Harris said. “It is something that has been highlighted every day when you look at the hurricanes, you look at floods, you look at California wildfires. New Jersey has been extraordinarily damaged by these extreme climate conditions and we need to invest in a number of things that will not only mitigate the harm but allow for adaptation and allow us to reduce the damage to our atmosphere that is contributing to these extreme weather conditions and that includes investing in the jobs that are about creating a clean energy economy.”

The Vice President continued. “That’s a very big part of our Build Back Better approach—understanding we have to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. There’s no question about it. It is the thing that will allow our planet to live longer and we as a species to live longer. It’s that basic.”

Precisely.

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