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The Black Commentator - The Real Issues: Hunger, Housing, Heating Oil...and the War - Left Margin

The news that Spam (the kind you eat) sales were on the rise should have been enough of a tip-off, but with sales at Starbucks slackening you knew things were getting bad. The number of people applying for food stamps - by people who would never have been expected to before recently - is soaring, as is the price of the most common things we eat. And now on top of everything else some of those items, like rice, are becoming scarce.

“Millions of poor Americans risk going hungry if food prices continue to rise and food agencies struggle to cope with rising costs, dwindling resources and a huge increase in demand,” Chris Bryant wrote in the Financial Times last week. “Already more and more poor people in the US are turning to charity and government assistance as they struggle with rising food costs and soaring fuel bills. Even some stores are restricting bulk rice purchases as the grain reached a fresh high yesterday.” “That's the canary in the coal mine,” Laurie True, executive director of the California Women Infants and Children Program Association, said about the rash of new people seeking assistance. “These are people that don't normally claim benefits.”

As if all that weren’t bad enough the New York Times reported April 25 that “After struggling with soaring heating costs through the winter, millions of Americans are behind on electric and gas bills, and a record number of families could face energy shut-offs over the next two months, according to state energy officials and utilities around the country.”

“The escalating costs of heating oil, propane and kerosene, most commonly used in the Northeast, have posed the greatest burdens, officials say, but natural gas and electricity prices have also climbed at a time when low-end incomes are stagnant and prices have also jumped for food and gasoline,” the paper said.

Meanwhile, a recent Reuters report suggests that far more people are going to be losing their homes than we have been led to believe. Indeed, the projection, if accurate, is terrifying. A group of analysts from the Credit Suisse said last week that if U.S. home prices continue to fall and credit remains tight, 6.5 million homes could face foreclosure by 2013. That would amount to 12.7 percent of all mortgages compared with a foreclosure rate of 2.04 percent in the last quarter of 2007, they said. Falling home prices have made an increasing number of U.S. homeowners more vulnerable to default, the report said. Nearly a third of subprime borrowers owed more than their home was worth at the end of last year, and that figure will double to 63 percent in 2009. Home prices are expected to decline 10 percent this year and cease falling after another decline of 5 percent next year. Last week, Rep. Barney Frank, chair of the House Financial Services Committee, warned that unless Congress comes up with new measures to deal with the mortgage crisis, the looming US recession could be “longer and deeper” than expected.

The people who have a fuller picture of the economic state of the union aren’t about to tell us how bad things really are. If they can help it, they are certainly not going to offer a negative prognosis even if they are convinced one is warranted. In fact, the current crop of political candidates have been warned not to paint too dismal a picture as it might prompt panic selling or hoarding. There is even the problem of panic saving. If most people use the few hundred dollars in this summer’s tax rebate allotments offered by the Bush Administration and Congress to pay down their credit card debt the chief beneficiaries will be Visa and MasterCard and there will be little stimulus to the economy.

However, there are increasing signs that working people aren’t buying the current economic reality show: the prices of gas at the pump, salad oil in the supermarket, and a rise in the number of people not finding work have an effect. Consumer confidence is at a 26 year low.

All this is directly connected with this year’s Presidential election contest. “Perhaps the candidates are afraid the American people can’t handle the truth about what it would take to meet the nation’s economic challenges,” the Times said editorially April 25. “Or perhaps they are underestimating those challenges. In either case, it’s hardly confidence-inspiring at a time of war and economic crisis.”

Following the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson pointed out that contender Barack Obama got the most votes from people who said the Iraq war was the most important issue.” “But that only accounted for 27 percent of the voters,” he wrote “Double that said the economy was the most important issue. Clinton won among those voters, 58 percent to 42 percent. Clinton had a double-digit victory among voters who earned between $15,000 and $75,000. Such voters made up 54 percent of the voters in Pennsylvania.”

“The big issue in this campaign is the economy and jobs. But if you were to ask most voters how Senator Obama plans to fight for them on this crucial matter, you’re likely to get a blank stare,” wrote Times columnist Bob Herbert last Saturday. “He should be pounding that message home with a jackhammer. Give the voters an economic program to wrap their arms around. Let them know: ‘I’m for you! And this is what we’re going to do!’” Sounds like reasonable advice.

As I listen to and read the campaign speeches it’s clearly not what’s happening and I think that’s just what those who don’t want us to think about the economic pain – and how the way the wars in the Middle East hamper our ability to do anything meaningful about it – would have it. That’s the reason for the deliberate effort to turn the contest into one about race. While the media concentrates its attention on Obama’s pastor’s clumsy – but not entirely inaccurate – views, and the candidate’s clumsy – but not entirely inaccurate - sociological take, Sen. Hillary Clinton gets attention for her views on the economy. It’s not much to hug; she’s still in the trust-me-I-feel-your-pain mode with nothing to offer that in a meaningful way confronts the seriousness of the situation.

And John McCain? He seems to be trying to look like he cares. But Times columnist Gail Collins got his number right: McCain “the guy, you may remember, who’s going to be the Republican presidential nominee - has been visiting the poor lately. Appalachia, New Orleans, Rust Belt factory towns. This is a good thing, and we applaud his efforts to show compassion and interest in people for whom his actual policies are of no use whatsoever.” Editorial Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Click here to contact Mr. Bloice.

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May 1, 2008
Issue 275

is published every Thursday

Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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