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A Christmas Carol

Stave One

The Progressive was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed on November fourth by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  The Conservative signed it.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come from the story I am about to relate. (Dickens, 1843, p. 1) 

In her biography of Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin observes that the story of his cold-hearted miser, Scrooge, is a parable for the condition of the working class 1843. During that year of the industrial revolution, the first bored underwater tunnel is built, “The Economist” begins publication and Ada Lovelace writes the first computer program for the Babbage Engine.  Then as now, however, the poor and unemployed are considered a lazy lot and a burden to the “makers” in society.  As we first meet Scrooge, he is approached by two “Progressive” gentlemen who are attempting to create a fund to help the poor and destitute.  To them he utters the now (in)famous lines “Are there no prisons … are there no Workhouses … the treadmill and poor law are in full vigor?”  These are references to the general practice in this era to imprison or indenture debtors for failure or inability to repay.  The poor laws and debtors’ prison were generally abolished by the end of the 19th century but ever-creative States in the U.S. have used legal chicanery to effectively reincarnate them.  Debt collectors in Missouri, Illinois, Alabama and other states are using these loopholes to jail the poor who cannot legitimately pay their debts.

First, explains St. Louis Post-Dispatch[1], the creditor gets a judgment in civil court that a debtor hasn't paid a sum that he owes. Then, the debtor is summoned to court for an "examination": a review of their financial assets.  If the debtor fails to show up for the examination -- as often happens in such cases -- the creditor can ask for a "body attachment" -- essentially, a warrant for the debtor's arrest.  At that point, the police can haul the debtor in and jail them until there is a court hearing, or until they pay the bond.  No coincidence, the bond is usually set at the amount of the original debt.  As the Dispatch notes:

"Debtors are sometimes summoned to court repeatedly, increasing chances that they'll miss a date and be arrested.  Critics note that judges often set the debtor's release bond at the amount of the debt and turn the bond money over to the creditor -- essentially turning publicly financed police and court employees into private debt collectors for predatory lenders."

Marley’s ghost, nevertheless,  may have been active.  In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a new law restricting body attachments for civil debt.   In New Jersey, bill S-946/A-1910 was signed in August and passed by the voters in November.  This bill allows for non-monetary options rather than jail time to be applied to minor, non-violent offenses where the defendant does not have the ability to pay.

 In St. Louis County, MI, the practice, however, is undeterred and extended to exploit excessive collection of revenue from “predatory traffic tickets” creating an endless treadmill of jail time for minorities guilty of driving while black.  But, the events in Furguson, MI have shed a light on this practice, spurring Missouri Attn. Gen. Chris Koster to file lawsuits against 13 St. Louis Co. municipalities.

The ghosts of past, present and future may also have appeared to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress where there is clear bipartisan support for general prison reform.

“A coalition of unlikely allies has coalesced in recent months to advance criminal justice reform. These strange bedfellows -- from liberal Democrats such as Sen. Dick Durbin to tea party darlings such as Sen. Mike Lee, from the NAACP to Americans for Tax Reform -- are all proposing reductions in mandatory minimum sentences.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's calls for such reductions have been cheered by some of the same Republicans who otherwise want to impeach him. In Texas, a conservative group called Right on Crime has led the way on prison and sentencing reform -- earning plaudits from, among others, California progressives.” [2]

We must keep the pressure on our legislators to reduce and remove incentives for states and municipalities to view fines as a major surreptitious revenue stream couched in an Orwellian concept of deterrence.  Additionally, we must collectively rebuke the for profit “prison factory” mentality in our courts.  If we do this, maybe we will be worthy of Tiny Tim’s wish “God Bless us, everyone.”

 



[1] http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/payday-lenders-use-courts-to-create-modern-debtor-s-prison/article_f56ca6aa-e880-11e1-b154-0019bb30f31a.html

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/19/opinion/liu-prison-reform/index.html

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Alice in Wonderland

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” [1]  This proclamation by the Queen of Hearts to Alice neatly sums up the plight of 27.5% of the households in New Jersey as documented in a 2014 report by the United Way of Northern NJ.[2]  This is a report about ALICE, not Lewis Carroll’s Alice, but the “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” people in our society.  These are individuals or households that, although employed, cannot afford basic household necessities, as defined by United Way, of housing, childcare, transportation and health care.  While many in this group are earning more than the official National Poverty Level, they are at or below the survival level for New Jersey.  

ALICE cuts across the lines of ethnicity, marriage, gender and race.  The “trickle down” economic Conservatives will jump to the assumption that this group is predominately composed of minorities.  The Conservatives are like the White Queen who said “Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” [3]  In reality, the great majority of ALICE households, 71%, are white.  The proportion of ALICE households in these four categories correlates well with the population as a whole.  If you include education, however, it becomes obvious that this is a driving factor.  Let us look at two cases, a single adult and a family with 2 parents, an infant and a preschooler.  This study indicates that the ALICE threshold for the single adult is approximately $27,552 annually and $61,200 for the family.   The data shows that a male with a high school education will make $39,082, OK if he is single but woefully inadequate for a family.  That same male would need a Bachelor’s Degree, $72,085, to sustain this family.  Due to pay disparities, a single woman would need some college or an associate’s degree to make $32,968.  If she were trying to support this family solo, she would need a graduate degree to make $66,194.

In a culture of “The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours” 1 income inequality, ALICE households have a nearly impossible task to improve their situation.  While a higher minimum wage is touted as a solution, it would need to be well over $13 / hr just to remain in ALICE.  This would help the very poor but perpetuate ALICE.    One path to sustained improvement is a better job, but these individuals are constrained by lack of education and a lack of resources to get an education, a cost that continues to rise.  As a society, we are obligated to provide a safety net for those amongst us who cannot work.  For the others, an opportunity for education without enthralling themselves to indentured servitude to payback astronomical student loans.



[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

[3] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

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The Crisis

THESE are the times that try one's soul. The summer activist and the sunshine feminist will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their causes; but they that stand by it now, deserve the love and thanks of man and woman. Inequality, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the struggle, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon equal rights; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as equality should not be highly rated. Conservatives, with an army of billionaires to fund their oppression, have declared that they have the right to bind us to their beliefs. If being bound in that manner is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God. [1]


The crisis of which I speak is the convergence of world and political events, poised to turn back the clock on equal rights and, in particular, women’s rights. In the Middle East and particularly in Egypt, repressive conservative policies attempt to return the rights of women to medieval levels. The Egyptian parliament attempted to introduce legislation to return to female genital mutilation (a.k.a. female circumcision). In Mississippi, a new law that targets abortion services by making restrictive requirements for doctors, may force the state’s last clinic to close. Attacks by state governments on collective bargaining often affect women disproportionately. When I attend or chronicle protest marches and actions in our area, there is always the same small group of faces.  I am heartened by the positive trend of separate groups coming together to unite against the trend created by unfettered money from Conservative supporters. The NAACP now publically supports marriage equality. The Nurses Union leads a nationwide campaign to force Wall Street to pay their fair share with a transaction tax. Unions and progressives in Wisconsin united to attempt to reverse onerous policies of their governor. The “We Are Woman” March and Rally will take place in D.C. on August 18th (see article on Page 5). The summer activists say that these attempts are Quixotic and they do not turn out, even in the summer. I believe that a spark has been ignited that will grow into a groundswell of people and groups united against the Conservative power grab. Victory will not be in a month or a year, it may take a decade to reverse the current trend, but we have begun; only complacency and inaction stand in our way.


[1] The inspiration for this article is Thomas Paine’s, The Crisis, December 23, 1776. Paine, with whom I share a birthday, wrote in a time of despair for the American Revolution. I believe that his words speak across the centuries to us now giving us encouragement to carry on.

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The Red Thread

Within Greek Mythology the thread of life is woven by the Fate Clotho, her decisions can overrule the gods. In the near future, on a brisk November day, she is has two threads in her hand, one red the other blue. What is our fate if she begins to weave with the red one? 

The red strand begins to entwine in the fabric of our future as the new Conservative Legislature passes the Ryan Budget through a process of budget reconciliation blocking any Progressive attempts to stop it in the Senate.   The new Conservative President quickly signs the bill into law, ushering in the demise of Medicaid, the Affordable Health Care Act, spending on infrastructure, education and training, farm subsidies, income supports, veteran’s benefits, retraining, basic research, the federal workforce and much more.  Of course, defense spending increases and taxes drop, paid for in most part by this ravaging of social and support programs. The current elderly, in their deal with the devil, retain Social Security benefits; however, the future elderly (born after 1958) face an uncertain future.

She passes the shuttle through the loom adding one more red weft. Justice Ginsberg is eighty years old and Justice Breyer is now seventy-five. With failing health, they both retire and a “Severely Conservative” president appoints their replacements making the Supreme Court 7 to 2 Conservative. The moderating influence of Justice Kennedy is of no consequence as a challenge to Roe v. Wade is argued before the court.   With a 6 to 3 decision, the cornerstone of women’s reproductive rights is vacated and social policy begins an inexorable slide back to the norms of the fifties. The reactionary influence of this court has a deleterious effect on social justice for decades to come.

Under her fingers, the cloth passes from blue to purple to red; voter suppression in the guise of voter ID legislation, spreads across the country. The Conservative agenda, built at the clay feet of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of “I’ve got mine, you are on your own”, deconstructs the EPA, makes the repeal of DOMA a forgotten dream, gives corporations unbridled influence, and basically abandons over a third of the population to fend for themselves. Hugh Hefner, speaking about Conservative goals, wrote, “If these zealots have their way, our hard-won sexual liberation — women’s rights, reproductive rights and rights to privacy — lie in peril.” As we admire the forest of oil drilling rigs on the horizon, we take some solace that this overreach power will be reversed by the ever-changing demographics of the country. It may take a generation to swing the power in a different direction and claw our way back to a progressive society, but how much damage will be done in the interim?

Even Clotho listened to Zeus on occasion. That brisk November morning is six months away and the Fates have not yet decided. This may be the most significant election in your lifetime, you must vote, you must encourage all that you know to vote; the consequences are too grave to ignore. There is still time to persuade Clotho to pick up the blue thread.

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Waking the Sleeping Giant

The attack on women’s rights, rights long believed settled, has been on a steady increase over the past four decades. A return to near medieval religious orthodoxies has forged an alliance with conservatives determined to march backwards to a day when workers and women had few rights. Through most of this time the Giant, women’s organizations and supporters, slowly diminished and fell asleep. Granted, activism and feminism are clearly not dead, but their gigantic voice of the 60’s and 70’s is very difficult to hear.

In Wisconsin, the poster child for the attack on workers, the senate passed SB202 that repeals the Equal Pay Enforcement Act. "It really takes away the teeth and the enforcement aspect of equal pay in Wisconsin," said Sara Finger, director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women's Health (WAWH). The National Committee on Pay Equity shows that women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men make. In Wisconsin, according to WAWH, it is 75 cents, making an estimate that a family in the state can “lose more than $4,000 per year due to unequal pay."

In Indiana, Rep Bob Morris wrote a letter to fellow Republican members of the Indiana House saying that he will not support a resolution celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts of America because it promotes homosexuality and abortion. Ashley Sharp, spokesperson for the Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana-Michigan, states that it leaves sex and reproduction questions to parents. The group accepts transgender youth on a case-by-case basis.

Next comes the assault on contraception coverage by health insurers. A debate that should have been about preserving a woman’s access to birth control became a religious freedom issue dominated by clergymen. Who can forget the all-male phalanx on the first panel to testify at the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform in Washington?

Texas Director of Health and Human Services Tom Suehs signed into law on Feb 25th, a state ban on giving Medicaid funds to any doctor or clinic affiliated with organizations that provide abortion (government funds are already barred from directly funding abortion). The law may shut down the state Women’s Health Program, which funds basic health services such as mammograms and Pap smears for over 130,000 low-income Texas women–44 percent provided by Planned Parenthood.

When Susan G. Komen for the Cure withdrew its support for Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screenings, the Giant finally opened an eye. An enormous retaliation from contributors and women forced the decision to be rescinded. However, the pink ribbon organization sustained some shredding of its reputation and lost supporters for its worthy cause along the way.

In Virginia, the backlash against the Transvaginal Ultrasound Bill has caused the Legislature and the Governor to bring this back to committee. One delegate, David Albo, indicated that he experienced the vengeance of Lysistrata.

There are signs that the Giant is becoming alert to the threats. Nationwide protests are beginning but it is more important to galvanize women as a voting block. We can change the course of events but we must act at the ballot box. We have been complacent for far too long, if we don’t repudiate this trend with our votes, the we are complicit in the outcome.

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