India, COVID19 and Inequality

India: Under Lockdown

Al Jazeera (2020)

Film Review

This documentary focuses on the devastating impact of India’s COVID19 lockdown on millions of the country’s migrant workers. India is experiencing a similar pattern to China, with many rural adults migrating to the city for work – and sending money back home to their families.

When Indian prime minister Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown on March 24, he ordered 1.3 billion residents confined to their homes with four hours notice. The immediate effect was to leave millions of casual workers without jobs and with no means to return to their rural villages.

The filmmakers focus on New Delhi, a city of 20 million. When public transport was shut down, thousands of migrant workers tried to walk home along the freeways. Most were stopped and sent back to the slums. There they live, without soap or running water, in makeshift huts, many made from cotton sheets.

At the time of filming, the government was trying to provide two meals a day (consisting of rice and soup) for millions of stranded migrant workers. However it’s estimated several hundreds of thousands missed out.

In New Delhi, United Sikh Volunteers helped fill the gap by cooking and distributing balanced meals to starving migrant workers. People could ring a hotline to let the Sikh volunteers know where food was needed. Their goal was to reach 10 slums a day.

An even bigger problem than food for poor residents was access to medical care. To keep beds open for COVID19 patients, free public hospitals turned away patients with cancer and other life threatening illnesses.

 

New Zealand: Highest Per Capita Homeless Rate in OECD

New Zealand: A Place to Call Home

Al Jazeera (2020)

Film Review

This is a documentary about homelessness in New Zealand, which (as of 2017) has the highest per capita homeless rate in the OECD. The film mainly focuses on Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and the work of Auckland Action Against Poverty. AAAP has a primary focus of finding emergency housing for homeless Aucklanders. At present a minimum wage family Auckland family spends 70% of their income on rent. This usually leaves them two paychecks away from homelessness.

Although there are currently 14,000 Aucklanders on the waiting list for low income housing, our current government only plans to build 6,000 state houses over the next four years. This despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s campaign promise to build 100,000 state houses over 10 years.

Last year despite expert advice to increase benefit levels (for single parents, the unemployed, disabled, and retired) by 50%, our coalition government spent millions of dollars on emergency motel accommodation for homeless families.

In Auckland, filmmakers interview a number of Auckland’s “invisible” homeless residents. Rather than sleeping rough, they are camped out in cars, garages, and the living rooms of friends and extended family.

Filmmakers also visit Northland, a rural area absorbing growing numbers of Auckland’s homeless. Owing to the scarcity of rental accommodation, many of Northland’s homeless families live in buses, sheds, lean-tos, and tents.

A Northland Maori leader talks about mortgage his to purchase for abandoned state houses he has relocated from Auckland. After rehabilitating them, he charges homeless families $275 a week to buy them. He has asked the Prime Minister to declare a Northland housing emergency to help his trust qualify for $11 million in funding. This cover land and rehabilitation costs for an additional 500 abandoned state houses.

Thus far she has declined.

Prime Minister Ardern and Housing Minister Megan Woods also declined to be interviewed for this documentary.

 

Priced Out: 15 Years of Gentrification in Portland Oregon

Priced Out: 15 Years of Gentrification in Portland Oregon

Directed by Cornelius Swart (2016)

Film Review

As of 2015, Portland was the most “gentrified” city in the US. The term “gentrification” describes the large scare displacement of African Americans from their traditional inner city communities. It typically occurs when city authorities create significant amenities in Black neighborhoods to lure white residents back from the suburbs. This new trend reverses a 100 year process in which whites migrated great distances to avoid living near Black people.

Growing demand from white professionals for inner city homes, leads to exponential increases in house prices and rents that make homes unaffordable for low income African Americans.

In Portland the first area to be gentrified was Albina, a neighborhood just Northeast of downtown Portland. During the fifties and sixties, it was a thriving Black community with flourishing Black-owned businesses where most residents knew one another. In the 1970s, as manufacturing jobs moved overseas, economic conditions in Albina tanked and criminal activity increased.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Portland city authorities began investing in Northeast Portland by building a light rail service and funding various redevelopment projects. More than 1100 African American homes and scores of Black businesses were demolished for an Interstate hub, a sports stadium, and a major hospital complex that was never built. At the same time, city authorities enacted a ban against landlords renting to federal Section 8 subsidy recipients.

The mass displacement of Albina’s Black residents reached its peak after the 2008 economic crisis, which resulted in an epidemic of subprime mortgage foreclosures in many low income communities. Ironically the current house price bubble means the majority of white working class residents are also being displaced from Portland. At present 49% of Portland residents live in rental housing, and half of them spend more than one-third of their income on housing.

Fortunately since 2013, there has been significant organized resistance to continuing gentrification. It’s now the number one issue for city government. In 2015, activists forced Trader Joe to withdraw from a city-subsidized scheme to demolish yet more rental housing for a huge shopping complex. The same year, city authorities passed a right to return law, ending the ban on Section 8 housing and granting former Albina residents preferential access.

Imprisoned While Innocent: Inside the US Prison Industrial Complex

Imprisoned

RT (2019)

Film Review

This is an intriguing documentary series about three men held for lengthy periods in US prison who were later presumed innocent. Two of the former inmates are African American, and one a Scottish immigrant.

Episode One features Otis Johnson, a 73 year old African American imprisoned for 40 years for attempted murder (of a cop) – because he wore a tan jacket similar to that of the suspect. At the time of his arrest, he was a hospital worker with no criminal record and no history of alcohol or drug abuse. He also had a clear alibi at the time of the shooting.

Although his behavior in prison was impeccable, his failure to show remorse for a crime he didn’t commit led to nine unsuccessful parole applications. The parole board released him on his tenth application.

Episode two concerns Jerome Morgan who, at 17, was sentence to Angola Prison for 20 years for a murder occurring a brawl at a sweet sixteen party. The New Orleans Innocence Project began trying to establish his innocence in 2001. However his case was significantly delayed after many of his legal files were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Morgan’s Project Innocence attorney won his release by establishing that the police lied at trial by alleging the friends who supported his testimony were gang members and by obtaining affidavits from two other witnesses who the police forced to change their testimony.

Episode three concerns Scottish immigrant Kenny Ritchie, who spent 21 years on death row for allegedly starting a fire that killed a two-year-old child died. Unlike the other two ex-inmates, Ritchie obtained his release after a prosecutor allowed him to plead guilty to a lesser charge of child endangerment. This enabled prison authorities to release him on time served in 2007. This unusual plea bargain came about as a result of an extensive international campaign, in which U2, the Proclaimers, Sean Connery, Ian McGregor, Amnesty International UK, Reprieve UK, and Pope Jean Paul II all lobbied against his execution. It helped that two witnesses officially retracted evidence they had given against him.

Ritcihie, who continues to have major problems with alcohol and drug abuse, currently lives in a tent in Ohio. His ex-wife claims he once confessed to setting the fire while drunk. She also claims to be in communication with Ritchie’s dead father and the dead child.

 

 

 

How a Country (Mis)manages COVID-19 Without Sick Pay or Family Leave

Impossible Choice: America’s Paid Leave Crisis

Al Jazeera (2020)

Film Review

The US and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries in the world that fail to guarantee both sick and family leave (aka maternity or parental leave) for all their workers. Although this documentary was made just prior to the global coronavirus outbreak, it lays out clearly 1) the stark brutality of employment policies that force people to work when they or a family member is sick and 2) the significant role these policies play in spreading contagious infections – as millions of Americans show up at work with early symptoms of COVID-20.

The only good news in the film is the Family Leave and Medical Insurance Act Congresswoman Rosa DeLaura (Dem Ct) introduced in 2019. The bill would guarantee US workers 12 weeks of combined sick and family leave. Under DeLaua’s proposal, the government, rather than the employer, would manage the leave benefits, funded via joint employer/employee payroll deductions.

The film also features the heart breaking stories of a physical therapist whose 2 1/2 month old baby died at a dodgy daycare center she failed to qualify for unpaid maternity leave; a teacher who was unlawfully fired when she used unpaid FMLA* leave to care for a three-year-old son undergoing cancer chemotherapy; and a lactation coach forced to go on welfare when her husband died, leaving her the sole provider and care of a newborn baby.


*The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers of over 15 employees to allow all workers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.

 

Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos

Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos

PBS (2020)

Film Review

This new PBS documentary about Bezos and Amazon is far more extensive than prior exposes. In addition to getting six senior Amazon managers to respond (on camera) to critics, it also reflects significant moves within the federal government to limit Amazon’s monopoly power.

What comes across most clearly for me is the stark contrast between Trump’s attacks on Bezos (on Twitter)* and Obama’s fawning attitude towards the company’s stellar financial success.

This is the first documentary to make clear that Bezos deliberately set out to create a monopoly – how he deliberately operated at a loss for more than a decade to undercut (via lower prices) and destroy his competition. The list of businesses of all sizes (including authors, publishers, bookstores, and increasingly other retailers) Amazon has put out of business is substantial. Globally, the company is directly responsible for shutting down 38% of retail outlets in two decades.

In recent years, Amazon has also set out to capture the services market at well, seeking to undercut FedEx and UPS in delivery services, Netflix in film production and streaming, Apple and Spotify in music streaming services, and Dropbox, Google, and Microsoft in cloud streaming services.

The company also has health professionals worried with their expansion into pharmaceutical sales and health insurance, likewise food retailers with their purchase of Whole Foods. Moreover in the past year, Bezos has announced his intention to launch a digital advertising platform to rival Google and Facebook.

At present Amazon essentially “owns” the online Main Street, controlling 40% of the global online market place. They also spend more on lobbying US politicians than an any other single entity. However despite all the cash flowing to Washington lawmakers, both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and a House Committee chaired by Congressman David Cicillini (Dem, RI) are investigating the need to restrict the range of services Amazon is allowed to offer, as well as their collection and use of customer data.


*Trump has attacked Amazon for tax avoidance and exploiting the US Post Office, and Bezo personally for his ownership of the Washington Post (and its attacks on Trump).

The Privatization of Childhood

Class War: The Privatization of Childhood

By Megan Erikson

Verso Press (2015)

Book Review

Megan Erikson’s 2015 book provides an elegant class analysis of the current push by Wall Street and Silicon Valley to privatize US education via voucher programs and private publicly-funded charter schools. Class War provides an in-depth examination of the dismaying effects of systematic privatization on the teachers and low income students who struggle on in brutally underfunded public schools.

Erikson’s basic premise is that the current purpose of the US educational system isn’t to educate but to permanently entrench social class divisions by sorting students into winners and losers.

For me the three basic points Class War puts across are

  1. US public schools are increasingly run like prisons, complete with metal detectors, cops, surveillance, attack dogs and random sweeps,
  2. Teachers are unfairly blamed for severe social problems that are beyond their control. Five decades of research conclusively concludes that classroom education accounts for less than 30% of a child’s education success and teacher performance only 7.5%. Achievement levels relate much more closely to exposure to complex language, access to medical care and a “healthy” home environment that provides access to books and challenging games.
  3. Claims by the CATO Institute and other conservative that increased federal education funding* won’t help are dead wrong. Research consistently shows that increasing the funding level per student**and reducing class size,*** increasing teacher pay, and providing better instructional materials (many New York City public schools fail to provide a textbook for every child) all improve achievement levels.

Erikson points to the irony of neoliberal billionaire reformers (like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg) calling for an increase class sizes in public schools (currently 40 students per teacher in New York City, while they send their own kids to exclusive private school with class sizes of 10-16. Likewise Silicon Valley executives push for early access to tablets and laptops in public schools, while sending their own kids to Waldorf schools that ban classroom computer access prior to age 13.


*In most industrialized countries, 50% of funding comes from national government. In the US the federal share is only 10-15%. This means most public school are mainly reliant on local property taxes for funding. This translate into major financial problems in poor districts.

**In public school districts with high funding levels per student, results on global achievement tests are equal to those of high performing countries like Japan and Hong Kong.

***In most European countries, administrators reduce class size to increase achievement in students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the US, the exact opposite occurs.

 

Despite Continuous Recession Japan’s Homeless Rate 1/7 of US Figure

Meeting and Helping Japan’s Homeless Part 4

LWIF (2017)

Film Review

In part 4, filmmakers interview homeless men living in one the Emergency Centers run by various NGOs. They also look at a street feeding and outreach program run by a non-profit organization called Sanyukai.

Part 5 looks at figures documenting the improvement in Japanese homelessness. In 2017, the official Japanese government homeless count was 5,534 – a private research group with did actual nighttime counts came up with a figure closer to 15,000.

This makes Japan’s level of homelessness roughly the same as Canada’s (8 per 100,000 population)

The US has 55 homeless people per 100,000 population.

The new Japanese number contrasts with close to 60,000 homeless (estimated by private researchers) in 2003.

Filmmakers attribute most of this improvement to the governments expansion of their Livelihood Protection Program. In 1995 only 880,000 citizens received Livelihood Protection. At present that figure is 2.2 million. At this point, nearly any Japanese resident with a home address can qualify.

 

How Japan Solved Homelessness

Who Are Japan’s Homeless? Part 2

LWIF (2017)

Film Review

Part 2 of this series looks at the history and demographics of Japanese homelessness. The country’s homeless problem began during the economic crisis of the mid-nineties, when companies either went bankrupt or laid off most of their workers.

Twenty to thirty percent of Japan’s homeless residents have criminal records that make it difficult to find jobs. Others have become homeless fleeing aggressive loan sharks. Most are reluctant to apply for Livelihood Protection (Japan’s welfare program) because it makes it easier for creditors to locate them.

Japan’s urban residents have little or no contact with Japan’s homeless. The latter are nearly all men. The presence of homeless women and children on the street would be a great source of shame to government and society.

Japan’s homeless tend to bed down under tents, tarps, or cardboard boxes in urban parks, on river banks, or in train stations and other public buildings.

Part 3 concerns the Homeless Self-Reliance Law the Japanese government enacted in 2002. The new law created a number of Independent Support Centers to provide beds and meals on demand. This centers, which allow a maximum stay of four to six months, also provide, training, support and loans to help their residents find.

This government program is complemented by “poverty businesses,” non-profit organizations which have converted the dormitories of shuttered factories into emergency centers. Most allow a maximum two month stay, while they assist residents in applying for Livelihood Protection (ie welfare benefits).

 

Homelessness: Contrasting Japan and the US

Why Japan’s Homeless Are Different from North America’s – Part 1

LWIF (2017)

Film Review

This intriguing five-part documentary series contrasts Japan’s aggressive effort to reduce homelessness with the apparent indifference of the US government. In my view, the stark contrast makes an important statement about the shameful greed and corruption underlying the US political system.

Part 1: The series begins by examining why Japan has always had a much lower endemic rate of homelessness than the US:

  • Japan has much lower levels of drug abuse than the US,* although alcoholism and compulsive gambling are common problems contributing to Japanese homelessness.
  • Japan, which retained its mental hospitals when the US and other English-speaking countries closed theirs down (as a cost cutting measure) in the seventies and eighties.** The majority of America’s mentally ill either end up in prison or on the streets.
  • Japan has few, if any traumatized war veterans. The latter represent a sizeable proportion of the US homeless population.

*Japan has no paramilitary organization comparable to the CIA, which openly engages in narcotics trafficking as part of its strategy to destabilize regimes unfriendly to Wall Street interests.

**In the US, the community mental health movement Kennedy started never received full funding following his assassination. Instead the mental health centers he created to replace mental hospitals have experienced continuous budget cuts dating back to the Reagan administration.