Friday, April 28, 2006

Immigration reform (from The Progressive Populist

Immigration Reform

Undocumented workers are no longer invisible. Taking to the streets in March and April to protest punitive immigration controls being pushed by US Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), millions who had previously toiled in obscurity are now escaping the shadows to demand respect and a place at America's table.

The walkouts came in response to legislation sponsored by Sensenbrenner that would build a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border and turn undocumented immigrants into felons, subject them to immediate deportation and bar them permanently from gaining legal status. The bill also would make it a criminal act to give aid to any undocumented worker.

Its supporters claim that sealing the borders will safeguard Americans and improve both physical security and the job security of low-income Americans. While there are legitimate concerns about the impact that illegal immigration has on low-income workers and on the cost of services, the real foundation for the Sensenbrenner bill and efforts by the close-the-border crowd is xenophobia.

"There is no immigrant crisis -- other than the one created by a small but vocal stripe of opportunist politicians, media demagogues and freelance xenophobes," the columnist Robert Scheer wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in March. "So it has been throughout the history of this country when anti-immigrant hysteria periodically reigns during low ebbs in our national sense of security and vision."

The current immigration debate is no different. Sensenbrenner and its jingoist allies are playing "to the national security and economic fears of ordinary Americans," Robert Kuttner wrote in the Boston Globe. In an atmosphere of anxiety over terrorism and concern about wages, the legislation would seem to have a ready audience.

But the Sensenbrenner bill will do little to address those concerns or make for a saner immigration policy. The legislation targets the Mexican border, though it wasn't Mexican immigrants who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. And while "wide-open immigration slightly depresses wages, especially among unskilled workers," Kuttner wrote, stanching the flow of immigrants will do little to stir up the stagnant waters.

That's because illegal immigration is only a small part of a larger and more complicated web of problems, among them an absurdly low minimum wage and lax labor-law enforcement, a broken health-care system, and a slavish adherence to the profit motive that causes employers to seek out the cheapest workers, wherever they are and wherever they come from.

"[I]n the current debate we should be discussing not only how to treat people when they get to the border but what makes them come -- growing inequality between North and South, the need to escape poverty and the hope that success will make it possible to send money home," The Nation wrote in an April editorial.

It is a sentiment echoed by the author Paul Rogat Loeb.

"[F]looding this or any country with cheap labor can and will drive down wages, especially when unions are being busted and undocumented workers live in fear of deportation," Loeb wrote in April on the Common Dreams News Center ( "If we don't create enough global justice so desperate people don't continue leaving their homes in search of a glimmer of hope, then all but the wealthiest will succumb to the worldwide race to the bottom."

In the meantime, however, we must find a way to deal with the estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented workers currently living in the United States, and that means taking them -- and their demands -- seriously.

The new "mass movement," The Nation wrote, will (and it emphasized will) transform American politics. "[W]hether it takes two years or ten, this movement, bolstered by its growing social and electoral clout, will have its demands addressed: family reunification; a solution to the visa backlog, now at 6.2 million and counting; and the coveted 'path to citizenship' that allows immigrant workers to build lives with a future."

And make no mistake, most of the people who have come here want to stay here. There is just no other way to read the signs and banners declaring, "We Are America" and "Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote."

Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press, weekly newspapers in central New Jersey. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2006

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Putting food on everyone's table

Dispathces: Putting food on everyone's table
A column by Hank Kalet from the South Brunswick Post

The statistics are startling.

About 12 percent of American households in 2004 experienced some level of food insecurity — meaning they did not have enough food to sustain "an active, healthy life for all household members" — according to the federal Department of Agriculture.

Blacks were hit hardest, with 23.7 percent experiencing some food insecurity in 2004, while 21.7 percent of Hispanic households also experienced food issues.

And the figure for households headed by single mothers is particularly staggering: a whopping 33 percent, or one in three, according to the USDA.

As an audience member at Monday's meeting of the Monroe Township League of Women Voters, which focused on food insecurity, said: "It's hard to comprehend."

Read the full column here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Hank Kalet and Steve Bates will be in Cranbury on Friday

Hank Kalet (left) and Steve Bates (below) will be at the Gourgaud Gallery in Cranbury Town Hall on North Main Street on Friday night. Bring some food for the local food pantry. Show starts at 8 p.m.

Frank O'Hara on Borzoi

Knopf — a division of Random House — has been running its Borzoi Reader daily poems this month, in honor of National Poetry Month. Today’s poem, "Poem" by Frank O’Hara, is a marvel of economy and language. Check it out here. ¶

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Fighting hunger

An editorial in America, the National Catholic Weekly:

Hunger here in the richest nation in the world? Impossible, one might think. But the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual Hunger and Homelessness Survey makes it clear that hunger and food insecurity (not always having access to enough food to meet basic needs) not only exist, but are on the rise. The increase is reflected in the fact that the two dozen cities surveyed found that requests for emergency food at pantries and similar sites had risen on average by 12 percent. In many cases, moreover, the requests were not just for short-term emergency needs, but also to fill ongoing food deficits. For some that means filling in the gap when the monthly food stamp allotment runs out, often by the third week of the month. Emergency food providers also said that in almost half the cases, they either had to turn people away or else apportion less than what they had previously provided. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 38 million people live in homes marked by food insecurity.

Some cities reported jumps of over 30 percent for emergency food assistance. In virtually all the cities, the survey reported that low-income people have to make painful choices: whether to pay for rent, medicine, utilities or food. “Food is being pushed farther down the list of priorities,” reported providers in one city. Another respondent put it succinctly: “More demand and fewer resources.” And yet many of those living in food-insecure households are employed. Phoenix, Ariz., for example, reported that 38 percent of recipient households had at least one adult person working and nevertheless experienced hunger and food insecurity. A survey by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, done in conjunction with America’s Second Harvest, discovered that almost half its clients live in the suburbs. Hunger and food insecurity, in other words, are found not only in inner-city neighborhoods.

Participation in the federal government’s food stamp program—an entitlement program for low-income people—has grown steadily over the past few years. A sad footnote is that almost 40 percent of eligible persons throughout the country are not enrolled. In New York City alone, an estimated 700,000 eligible people do not take part in the program. As a result, New York state ranks 36th in the country in the percentage of eligible people participating—a reflection of the Giuliani era, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that caseworkers illegally denied food stamps to thousands of poor people. An often underestimated consequence of lagging participation is the loss of billions of federal dollars nationwide that, when translated into food stamps, could boost local economies through their use in local stores and

Unnecessary barriers make access to the program difficult. In some parts of the country, the sheer complexity of the process can be a deterrent, especially for people with limited education or for whom English is not the first language. New York (along with Arizona, California and Texas) require fingerprinting, a procedure that, according to one anti-hunger advocate, makes applicants feel like criminals. Other obstacles include long hours spent in food stamp offices to establish eligibility, a special hardship for low-wage workers who must take time from their jobs to apply for the program. This may result in pay cuts. Frequent recertification also presents problems. Iowa, however, has taken positive steps to simplify its own process, with an aggressive outreach effort, a toll-free number and recertification required only twice a year. Iowa also allows the use of electronic cards, which enables users to avoid the stigma often associated with paper coupons.

Despite the nutritional benefits to low-income people who use the various federal programs, the president’s FY 2007 budget is proposing cuts that would weaken these benefits. Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center told America that the projected cuts represent “several steps backward.” One backward step is a measure that would limit states’ ability to provide food stamps to 300,000 people in working families that are low-income but receive cash welfare benefits. Another negative change would entirely eliminate funding for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. Currently, this program assists almost half a million seniors with monthly food packages containing nutrient-rich food supplements. Low-income seniors are already at risk of food insecurity because of rising medical costs that can reduce the amount of money available for food.

Congress should firmly resist cutting back on federal nutrition programs and focus instead on strengthening them in such a way as to eliminate hunger and guarantee food security in the United States.

The Working Poor

I have just finished reading a book that should be required reading for everyone living in America. David Shipler's The Working Poor offers a glimpse into the world that far too many Americans inhabit, a world of insecurity in which every mistake, whether larger or small, can be magnified by economics into a life-changing and life-threatening catastrophe.

America, the National Catholic Weekly, offers this by William Bole on the book:

In the debate over poverty in the United States, there are just two ideas, or at least it often seems that way. One is that people are poor because of “the system” and hat any real solutions will have to come from forces outside the individual, namely government. That is the view from the doctrinaire left. Then there is the right’s idea: people are poor because of their own bad choices, and things won’t change until people change themselves.

Left and right have been churning out these arguments for years, and the political debate has become as stale as the 39-cent loaves of white bread sold at factory outlets patronized by the poor. What is new is that the right unquestionably has the upper hand, in an era when the arguments of the affluent go almost unchallenged.

There are not many doctrinaire leftists around anymore, when it comes to poverty. But recently, the New York Times columnist David Brooks tried to make an example of John Edwards, the U.S. senator who spoke often of “two Americas” while campaigning this past year to become a presidential candidate. Brooks praised the North Carolina Democrat for talking about poverty, but blamed him for talking about it in economic terms, as Karl Marx did.

Edwards was a bad target. While on the stump, he referred to the need for both individual responsibility and social justice in bridging the chasm between affluent Americans and the invisible Americans. Inadvertently, however, Brooks showcased the right’s one-way view. “A person’s behavior determines his or her economic destiny. If people live in an environment that fosters industriousness, sobriety, fidelity, punctuality and dependability, they will thrive,” he wrote on March 2, with not a hint that economic circumstances might conspire against them as well. And Brooks is among the less ideological conservatives.

That column applauded David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor, which Brooks called “wonderfully observant.” Brooks would do well to observe more closely what Shipler has done in making visible the lives of these forgotten Americans.

Others would do well to listen along as Shipler enters sympathetically and unsentimentally into some of these lives, into poverty’s tangled web of cause and effect.

Shipler’s journalistic journey began in 1997. He went to black neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and white towns in New Hampshire, to malnutrition clinics in Boston and sweatshops in California, and numerous points in between. It was a time of giddy prosperity that sailed past the people profiled in his book, yet they rarely blamed others for their conditions, as Shipler says they reasonably could have done.

“They often blame themselves, and they are sometimes right to do so,” he says.

Whether it’s dropping out of school or having babies out of wedlock or doing drugs or showing up late for work, Shipler finds enough examples to illustrate the conservative contention that poor behavior generates poor people. At the same time, he finds ample illustration of what liberals mean when they speak of structural causes of poverty, like failing schools and decrepit housing. Most valuably, he sheds light on the ways in which all these personal and social forces are intertwined.

“Working poverty is a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another: not just low wages but low education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just poor housing but also poor parenting, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households,” writes Shipler, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.

Shipler gets to know a young mother and father who reap a minor windfall from the federal Earned Income Tax Credit—and use it to get tattoos. In the same pages appear frugal mothers who plot ways to put cheap, nutritious meals on the table.

Some stories are unbearably sad. One of the most gripping is that of Caroline Payne, a single mother in New Hampshire. She had much going for her, including a two-year college degree and glowing evaluations by her supervisor at Wal-Mart. Still, she was trapped in one of the superstore’s low-rung jobs, partly because of something she did not have: teeth. She could not come up with the money for dentures, and cashiers are supposed to smile. Payne was also afflicted with depression, which at times led her to neglect her appearance. She faced the frequently impossible challenge of keeping inflexible jobs while tending to the special needs of her 14-year-old daughter, who suffered from mild mental retardation and the aftershocks of sexual abuse by her father, Payne’s ex-husband. Depression and mild retardation are threads that run through these lives, as is sexual abuse of children. One chapter is titled “Sins of the Fathers,” as in biological fathers, not Catholic priests.

The needs of the working poor are not well served by the usual false choices of ideological debate—between strong families and strong government, better values
and better policies, personal and social responsibility. Shipler points a finger of blame at both left and right, yet he is not blindly evenhanded.

“The political opponents have to cross into each other’s territory to pick up solutions from the opposite side,” he advises. But he also suggests that while many liberals have done this by signing on to welfare reform, conservatives have yet to step onto the liberal ground of government assistance.

The final words of Shipler’s remarkable reportage are, “It is time to be ashamed.”

These stories should tell pundits and politicians that it is also time to end the either-or choices.

Here is an interview with Shipler.

-- Hank Kalet

Friday, April 21, 2006

A reminder: Voices of Reason in Cranbury

An evening of music and poetry
Friday, April 28, 8-9 p.m. or so
Gourgaud Gallery, Cranbury Town Hall
North Main Street, Cranbury

Voices of Reason, an arts collective formed to raise money for antipoverty
groups in central New Jersey, and the Cranbury Arts Council are hosting an
evening of music and poetry. Admission is free, but audience members are
asked to bring a non-perishable food item to be donated to the Trenton Area
Soup Kitchen and Skeet's Pantry of the Presbyterian Church of Cranbury.

The event features singer-songwriter Steve Bates and poets Hank Kalet and
Howard Zogott.

The format will be informal, with music and poetry interspersed and
questions encouraged from the audience.

Voices of Reason's first release -- the CD/literary magazine combo, The
Other Half/The Other Side of the Street will be available for sale. It sells
for $10. Proceeds go to Elijah's Promise Soup Kitchen in New Brunswick,
Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and Homefront of Mercer County. Voices of Reason,
PO Box 293, Dayton, NJ 0881;; or

The first Voices of Reason chapbook is ready for sale

I'm not a particularly good blogger, apparently.
But we are back with some news: Voices of Reason's first chapbook, "Suburban Pastoral" by Hank Kalet, is out and can be purchased for $3, plus $1 shipping. Send checks payable to Hank Kalet to Voices of Reason, P.O. Box 293, Dayton, NJ 08810. All proceeds go to organizations fighting hunger in central New Jersey.


About Me

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Poet, journalist, blogger, political columnist, professor of journalism and writing. I live with my wife, Annie, and my dogs in Central Jersey.