America’s Homeless Working Poor

The Working Poor and Homeless in the US

Four Corners (2017)

Film Review

This Australian documentary challenges whether job growth in the US (25 million new jobs in ten years) really represents economic recovery. The film makes three important points: 1) the vast majority of new American jobs are minimum wage part-time jobs, 2) well-paid middle class jobs continue to vanish, and 3) approximately one-half of US workers live in poverty.

The film follows three families. The first, in Orlando Florida, consists of a single mother of three who works 70 hours a week for Dunkin’ Donuts and MacDonald’s. Earning $8 an hour, she and her family live in a cheap motel because they can’t afford rent. She sleeps 1-2 hours a night, and her mother-in-law provides childcare while she works.

The second family is a couple with two children who live in a homeless camp in the parking lot of a Seattle church. The wife works full-time as a cashier at Seattle Center, and her husband takes temporary construction jobs when he can find them. Most of the camp residents are employed workers with kids.

The third individual is a middle aged machinist in Erie Pennsylvania who has been just been laid off from General Electric Transport after 13 years. The factory is moving to Fort Worth Texas. GE anticipates cutting wages in half because Texas in a non-union state. In addition to losing millions of industrial jobs when manufacturers moved overseas in the eighties and nineties, the US lost an additional five million industrial jobs in the last 15 years.

 

Is South African Gearing Up for a Race War?

Reaping Divine Justice: South African Farmers Brace for Race War and Land Expropriation Debate

RT (2018)

Film Review

This documentary concerns proposed constitutional changes by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa that would allow the ANC government to expropriate white farmers’ land without compensation. Twenty-five years after the fall of Apartheid, 35,000 white families and businesses own 80% of South African land.* Meanwhile the Black majority suffers from 30% unemployment (50% in youths under 25), accompanied by high levels of homelessness, malnutrition and lack of clean drinking water. In fact, several studies reveal that Black Africans are now worse off economically than they were under Apartheid.

The highly religious Afrikaans farming community are arming themselves to the teeth for civil war. They anticipate that with Ramaphosa’s recent reelection, the ANC government will try to confiscate their land by force, as occurred in neighboring Zimbabwe.

The extreme racism revealed by some of their comments is mind blowing. They have no shame whatsoever in expressing their belief that God created them to fulfill a role superior because Black South Africans “lack a civilized way of life” and are “incapable of managing their own farms.”

The only serious drawback of this documentary is its failure to examine the role played by  white and foreign  owners of South Africa’s rich diamond, gold and platinum mines. These mine owners are notorious for their mistreatment of their Black workforce (which can include killing them when they strike for better wages and working conditions – see Police Fire Teargas at Miners and South Africa Miners on Strike)

There was a shortlived campaign by the ANC’s youth wing in 2011-2012 to nationalize South Africa’s mines. It was quickly sniffed out by President Jacob Zuma’s notoriously corrupt administration.**

The main argument South African economists used to oppose nationalization was that it would ruin the South African economy. They claimed the government would suck out all the profits, leading to a loss of productivity. I don’t buy it. It implies letting foreign investors suck out all the mining profits (thus systematically impoverishing the Black population) isn’t ruining the economy.

Ramaphosa purposely delayed his proposed constitutional changes pending the May 8, 2019 election results. He has now been reelected. At this point, homeless Black Africans have been peaceably squatting on large white and foreign land holdings, where they build shacks and grow small amounts of food. Thus far, the courts have sided with the landowners, but evictions are on hold pending an appeal.


*According to the New York Times, companies and trusts own the largest share of South Africa’s land (much of it acquired since the end of Apartheid). There are also a large number of white farmers with 50-year leases to farm on public land.

**In February 2018, the ANC forced former president Jacob Zuma to resign (replacing him with Ramaphosa). A clear pattern was emerging of Zuma and other ANC leaders accepting bribes and kickbacks from domestic and foreign businesses.

 

 

Working Class Reality TV: The Final Episodes

Hard Earned – Episodes 5 and 6

Al Jazeera (2015)

Film Review

The final episodes of Hard Earned (“Fight for Fifteen” and “New Beginnings”) reveal mostly positive outcomes for the five families – in part due to their resourcefulness and in part (in my view) to extremely good luck.

Chicago: DJ loses his union job because it requires a car and he can’t afford the expense and upkeep. He finds a new job as field director for a voter mobilization campaign.

Montgomery: The couple finally find a house and mortgage they can afford and refurbish it to enable Elizabeth’s parents to move into their basement. They have been paying the $1700 mortgage on her parents’ home since her father developed cancer. Jose finally passes his math class and starts a part-time internship at a radio station to supplement his full time job at the courthouse.

Silicon valley: Hilton quits his Google job after he learns enough English to pass a food handlers exam. However he is forced to take a second job as a busboy to pay their medical bills and higher housing expenses (they have moved out of the garage into a house they share with another couple). His girlfriend takes a minimum wage job at a market.

Milwaukee: Percy finally lands a full time maintenance job that pays $11.25 and hour, and his wife, who has severe arthritis in her knees, is finally able to retire.

Evergreen Park: Emilia finally finds a good-paying waitress job and receives additional income from speaking tours about her struggle with drug and alcohol recovery.


For earlier episodes see Fighting Homelessness: Reality TV That Depicts Reality and  Reality TV: More Truth About the American Working Class

Still Dreaming of Racial Justice in St Louis’ Black Neighborhoods

Black Lives: Struggle, Still Dreaming of Racial Justice in St Louis’ Black Neighborhoods

RT (2018)

Film Review

This RT documentary provides a brief glimpse into the lives of Ferguson residents since the murder of Michael Brown in 2015. It highlights the extreme poverty, homelessness, absence of services or jobs (in contrast to white St Louis) and the staggering number of abandoned homes. Reportedly St Louis has the highest proportion of abandoned homes of any US city.

The documentary also highlights a half dozen activists who are organizing to improve conditions in the African American community. Some have begun arming themselves in self-defense. In addition to harassment and arbitrary shootings by St Louis cops, a growing number of African American men (activists especially) are being targeted by the KKK and other white supremacist groups. Few of these homicides are investigated or prosecuted by police, resulting in a mounting number of unsolved murders.

 

 

 

 

 

Taxing Amazon and Starbucks: Seattle Passes Corporate Wealth Tax to Fund Low Income Housing

According to the The Guardian, Seattle City Council has passed a new tax that will charge large corporations $275 annually per worker to help address the city’s growing homelessness crisis.

About 60% of the tax revenue will go to new housing projects for low and middle-income Seattle residents. The remainder would go to homeless services, including shelter beds, camps and overnight parking.

Source: Tax Amazon: Seattle Passes Corporate Wealth Tax to Fund Housing

Portrait of a Homeless Philosopher

Martin

Directed by Donal Moloney (2018)

Film Review

Martin is a profoundly moving portrait of a homeless man befriended by Irish filmmaker Donal Moloney. Martin Holt, who lives under a bridge, considers himself much better off than people who live in houses – mainly because he has no debt, obligations or stress.

He maintains happiness is an illusion. Life, for him, is the simple pleasures of feeding pigeons, reading books at the library and enjoying seasonal changes.

The cinematography is stunning.

Homeless in Hawaii

Homeless in Hawaii

First Documentary (2017)

Film Review

Despite recent publicity about the high level of homelessness in Los Angeles, it turns out that Hawaii is the state with the highest rate of homelessness.

This documentary begins by exploring local efforts to criminalize homelessness via their “sit and lie” laws (which make it illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk). Hawaii Kai, the second richest post code in the US, has a residents vigilante group patrolling the streets for homeless people to report to the police.

A quote by one of their wealthier members is absolutely priceless: “You can’t have a society where one factor just takes and takes and takes.” Ironically she is referring to homeless people – even though her comment is far more pertinent to the wealthy elite she belongs to.

The film goes on to profile a campaign by Hawaii state senator Josh Green to use state Medicaid funds to enable doctors to prescribe “housing” for homeless patients. At present Hawaii spends more than a billion a year on emergency medical care for the homeless (for hepatitis, chronic infections and other conditions linked to homelessness). Green argues that millions could be saved by preventing these patients from becoming homeless in the first place.

In the last segment filmmakers visit an extremely well-organized, self-governing homeless tent city one hour from Honolulu.

Why Nearly 1% of New Zealanders Are Homeless

Who Owns New Zealand Now?

Bryan Bruce (2017)

Film Review

At present, New Zealand has the worst rate of homelessness in the OECD. In 2016, 41,000 Kiwis (nearly 1%) were homeless. Half of this number were families with children. This documentary examines the forces behind New Zealand’s homeless epidemic and potential solutions.

The film is highly critical of the neoliberal reforms in the 1980s that transformed New Zealand from a regulated economy to a so-called “market” economy, leading to low wages and soaring inequality. However it focuses mainly on the role of foreign investors, who have driven up housing costs by speculating in New Zealand real estate. Because the government no longer keeps data on the New Zealand property sold to overseas buyers, filmmakers had to go to researchers at the University of British Columbia to get a rough idea about the extent of foreign investment in New Zealand real estate.

As for potential solutions, Who Owns New Zealand Now suggests bringing back the State Advances loan program, (operating in New Zealand from the the early 1930s to the late 1960s), in which the government issued money directly (rather than borrowing it from banks) that Kiwis could borrow to purchase homes. It also examines measures other countries have adopted to discourage foreign speculators from driving up housing costs.

First and foremost the government needs to keep good data on New Zealand real estate being sold offshore. Secondly they need to discourage foreign real estate sales either by implementing a foreign buyers surtax, as Hong Kong and British Columbia do, or charging all buyers a stamp duty tax, as Australia, Canada and the UK do, and/or a capital gains tax when real estate is sold.

Among other reforms advocated in the documentary are a greater restriction in immigration levels, a return to state-funded mortgages and increased government support for cooperative housing, long term lease rentals, construction of smaller, more affordable, family friendly homes and most importantly a living wage for all Kiwis.

Owing to the failure of “the market” to accommodate their housing needs, at present approximately 1/3 of the New Zealand population requires state supported housing.

25 Years Among the Poorest Children in America

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-five Years Among the Poorest Children in America

by Jonathan Kozol

Crown Publishers (2012)

Book Review

Unlike Kozol’s prior books, which focus on the abysmal condition of inner city schools, Fire in the Ashes follows the families of specific children Kozol has befriended and their disastrous living conditions. The families he describes are either those he encountered at the Martinique Hotel homeless shelter in midtown Manhattan or those he met through an after school program at St Ann’s Episcopal Church in Mott Haven.

With a media annual income of $17,000 for a family of five, Mott Haven is the poorest neighborhood in the South Bronx and the poorest congressional district in the US. Official unemployment (which doesn’t count those who have given up and quit looking) is 14%.

The book poignantly describes the brutal living conditions the children and their families confront, including chronic malnutrition, chronic asthma (from asbestos and incinerators), sexual exploitation of mothers by shelter guards, grooming by gangs and drug dealers, untreated parental mental illness, repeated episodes of homelessness and overcrowded classrooms and schools (many of which have lost funding to private charter schools).

Kozol follows the children of eight African American and Hispanic families from primary school through adulthood, as they struggle with social service and educational systems that have virtually abandoned them.

Some of the children he befriends graduate from high school (and even college) and end up in long term employment. Others drop out and are swallowed up by the criminal justice system. In each case, the children who succeed do so because someone (a teacher, social worker, pastor or Kozol himself) offers financial assistance to ensure they received the educational support they needed.

Although Kozol (with the help of readers and supporters) has set up an Education Action Fund to assist students from desperately poor racially segregated neighborhoods like Mott Haven, he argues against this type of individual intervention as a long term solution.

The real answer, he maintains, is to provide public schools in neighborhoods like Mott Haven, with the best educational funding (instead of the worst), the smallest classes (at present most classes have over 30 pupils), and the best prepared and best paid teachers (instead of the least experienced, most poorly paid).

Co-housing: One Solution to the Housing Crisis

Big Cities Cooperative Housing

KCET (2016)

Big Cities Cooperative Housing is a short documentary about co-housing experiments in Seoul South Korea and Lyons France.

In Seoul, where 70% of the population live in high rise apartment buildings, three families have pooled resources to buy a three story house. In addition to communal cooking and social space, each family has private living space. There is also a communal vegetable garden.

The “vertical village in Lyon was first build in 2005 by a group of families seeking a non-materialistic lifestyle – who found themselves priced out of the property market. The first housing cooperative in France, it’s been the inspiration for many similar co-housing projects in Europe and Quebec, as well as French legal framework to recognize cooperative ownership.

In France, removal of residential property from the speculation-ridden real estate market has been an important benefit of co-housing.

The video can be viewed for free at Big Cities Cooperative Housing