Issue 205 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US

Sharon Smith

Frederick Engels' book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, described the miserable living conditions of workers in Britain's leading industrial centres. Using careful documentation, he showed how capitalism had forced workers to live in the most horrifying poverty: whole families housed in a single room and often forced to sleep in a single bed, amidst filth and vermin. As he wrote of the inner city, 'Hence it comes, too, that the social war, the war of each against all, is here openly declared...and that the powerful few, the capitalists, seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains.'

More than 150 years later, Engels' words ring just as true for workers throughout the world even in the richest industrial societies. The US is a case in point, where working class living conditions have declined sharply as more workers have fallen into poverty in the last two decades. A group of reporters for the New York Times recently documented this in an investigative series which concluded, 'The low wage jobs of the new economy cannot pay the rent.'

They tell of the growing number of working class families living in hovels, such as the single room with no sink and no toilet shared by the family of Ana Nunez on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Two of her three children, Kenny and Wanda, who are teenagers, sleep in a bunk bed. She shares a bed with her four year old, Katarin. They must travel down a long hallway to reach the bathroom, which they share with their neighbours. When the reporter noted how crowded the family must feel, Ana Nunez said, 'At night, when the mice crawl over us in bed, it feels even more crowded.' When asked what he does to find privacy, 18 year old Kenny said, 'I close my eyes.' Last winter, the entire family came down with tuberculosis. For this, the family pays $350 per month.

The Nunez family is not so unusual. In fact, it is estimated that tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of poor families in New York City alone live in similar conditions. Reporter Deborah Sontag wrote, 'As expected, the reporters found illegal immigrants in some of the makeshift homes. But many of the worst apartments were filled with considerably more established New Yorkers, foreign and native born alike, people working menial jobs as well as those on welfare, young mothers and elderly widows and single men battling mental illness or addiction.'

The poorest fifth of New York City's population now spend 80 percent of their incomes on rent, compared with 60 percent ten years ago. Meanwhile, 336,000 families are on a waiting list for government housing assistance. But the city government recently stopped taking new applications for subsidised housing, arguing that it would take six years to interview those already on the waiting list. Thus, while more than half of those who rent apartments in New York are poor enough to qualify for housing assistance, most have no hope of ever receiving it. And New York's mayor recently announced that families living doubled up would no longer be eligible for a space in the city's homeless shelters. Meanwhile, a study of living conditions and health in the Bronx showed that crowded living conditions and childhood tuberculosis are both as high now as they were at the height of the Great Depression.

New York's statistics are mirrored nationally. Five million families now pay more than half of their before tax income in rent and two million are households in which the household head is working. About 15 million low income families are eligible for federal housing assistance, but fewer than 5 million receive any. For those without jobs, the situation is the most desperate. As Times reporter Jason DeParle wrote, 'Whatever one chooses to think about welfare mothers and their children, the nation makes no pretence to house them: only about one in four nationwide gets rental assistance, and in North Carolina the rest live on cash stipends that average about $270 a month. In other words, a mother on welfare could spend 100 percent of her cash income for rent and still have only half what the government says it costs to rent an apartment.'

Yet, for all the election year rhetoric about family values, US law makers continue to slash away at cash assistance to the poor. Poor living conditions make stability in family life virtually impossible. In the District of Columbia, which includes the capital, Washington, it has been estimated that up to half of the city's children living in foster homes could return to their parents if the families had stable housing. Instead most poor families must make a choice each month when paying the rent means foregoing other necessities, including food. There is a direct link between the high cost of shelter and undernourishment, as a recent study showed, poor children are most likely to be underweight during the 90 days after the coldest month of the year, when the choice is to freeze or go hungry.

Even while slashing welfare benefits and lecturing welfare mothers Clinton added insult to injury. Last autumn, he reduced the number of new subsidised housing units to zero (outdoing Ronald Reagan, who had already slashed them to 40,000 per year). Meanwhile, Clinton offered a campaign promise to wealthy homeowners to virtually eliminate capital gains taxes on the sale of expensive homes. And the government already spends $66 billion per year more than four times what it spends on low income housing on tax breaks to homeowners.

Capitalism's current phase in its war against workers bears remarkable resemblance to its brutal beginnings. Marx wrote in Capital, 'Every unprejudiced observer sees that the greater the centralisation of the means of production, the greater is the concentration of workers within a given space; and therefore the more quickly capitalist accumulation takes place, the more miserable the housing situation of the working class. "Improvements" of towns which accompany the increase of wealth, such as the demolition of badly built districts, the erection of palaces to house banks, warehouses, etc, the widening of streets for business traffic, for luxury carriages, for the introduction of tramways, obviously drive the poor into even worse and more crowded corners.'

He could have been writing yesterday.


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