By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired
I was just sitting having a cup of coffee with Jessica Bartholow, a lobbyist and civil rights activist for the poor here in California. We have our disagreements on some important issues but she is obviously passionate about her work and committed to what she does.
She was very excited this morning as an issue she has worked on for 15 years or so has come to fruition. There is a provision in the state budget passed last week that ends a lifetime ban on public assistance for felons convicted of drug offenses.
From what I understand, the lifetime ban also barred the children of people with felony drug convictions from getting public assistance like food stamps welfare etc. In addition to food stamps, felons could be ineligible for federal student loans, business loans, voting rights, adoption rights, public housing etc.
It was Clinton that signed this inhumane piece of legislation in to law as part of his cruelly named, Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that threw working class women off welfare. The bill was lauded by the US Chamber of Commerce as the "reassertion of America's work ethic" The Chamber is an organizational arm of that class that actually does no work. It has opposed statutes like OSHA and other worker friendly legislation.
The shameful incarceration rate in this country is well known throughout the world. No other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens as the US does. Driving through California one will pass these human warehouses but might mistake them for pleasure centers. Pleasant Valley, Pelican Bay (a bird sanctuary perhaps), Mule Creek are all state prisons. The crooks that govern society call them “Correctional Centers”.
The US is a brutal country if you’re poor. I would say that of all the advanced capitalist economies it is the worst one to be poor in. The millionaires (and billionaires) that make write, and enact laws, ensure that workers, even unionized workers, have the worst benefits of all the industrial nations and that the poor and most oppressed sections of society are driven deeper in to poverty.
This so-called war on drugs has made prisons a lucrative business. The cruel and racist US justice system includes the warehousing of some 2 million human beings who, after serving their obscenely draconian sentences for petty drug crime, are cast out in to society with no job, no safety net and up until now, were denied public assistance as were their children. The vast majority of the incarcerated are more accurately human beings that capitalism has abandoned; human labor power that it cannot and will not absorb.
So along with having a felony on their record, (a cop can make you a felon with the stroke of a pen as I found out) and no guaranteed job at a living wage when their term is up, the wealthy legislators deny them basic assistance like food stamps. With no social safety net and with jobs scarce, people return to the milieu that got them in to trouble in the first place; why wouldn’t they? It’s no wonder then that so many people end right back in prison again.
We can see why so many other countries consider the US so uncivilized given the brutality it inflicts on its own citizens. The US executes children and the mentally ill. There is no security here and it’s planned that way to keep people in a state of perpetual fear. Fear of our neighbors; of our co-workers and the unemployed or the immigrant that might “steal” our job. What is the army of unemployed but a constant reminder to those of us on the job that if we open our mouths, if we demand too much, there are thousands of desperate workers on the sidelines.
It is hard for me to imagine what sort of human being would support denying people such assistance and help. Upwards of $3 trillion has been spent massacring a million or so Iraqi’s. Billions more is in the pockets of a few hundred billionaires’. An independent study estimated that as much as $26 trillion is stashed away in offshore accounts dodging taxes. And the politicians in the two Wall Street parties deny the poorest of us basic needs. What a system this is.
I am happy my friend is pleased after all her efforts but I have to say that we have to draw certain conclusions from this. This savage assault on workers and the poor is waged by both political parties, Democrats as well as Republicans. There is no way forward through the capitalist Democratic Party.
Along with the elimination of the ban, the legislators passed a budget that includes hundreds of millions more for prisons. And with all the cuts they’ve already made in public services along with the job losses and huge increase in the cost of education to cite just a couple of examples, the prisons will be a lucrative enterprise for some time until the working class takes matters in to our own hands.