New Jersey faultlines outline our nation’s enduring divides

There's a considerable chunk of NJ that will be quite pleased about Trump's "right sizing" the food stamp program

Published January 29, 2020 6:30AM (EST)

US President Donald Trump speaks during a "Keep America Great" campaign rally at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, on August 15, 2019. (Getty/Nicholas Kamm)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a "Keep America Great" campaign rally at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, on August 15, 2019. (Getty/Nicholas Kamm)

There's a considerable chunk of NJ that will be quite pleased about Trump's "right sizing" the food stamp program

President Trump's scheduled stumping in Wildwood this Tuesday night for former Democrat Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2) comes as Mr. Trump's USDA implements its plan to kick 700,000 Americans off of food stamps, including 12,000 New Jersey residents.

"We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand," said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in a op-ed advocating the rollback before Christmas.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia filed suit opposing the Trump cuts.

"Taking food off the table of someone who's struggling won't help them thrive, and in this case, it violates federal law," said NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a statement.

Mr. Van Drew's abandonment of the Democratic Party, just before the U.S. Senate prepares to call the question about Mr. Trump's impeachment is evidence of the ever-deepening partisan divided that's about more than Mr. Trump. It is about the clashing of two worldviews, one rooted in scarcity, the other in abundance.

As we saw with the recent spate of lunch shaming in New Jersey, where local school districts found creative ways to publicly punish children because their parents were in arears on their school lunch payments, there's a considerable chunk of our so called "blue state" that will be quite pleased about Trump's "right sizing" the food stamp program.

Based on some of the social media out there and interviews I have conducted over the years, I know there are a lot of New Jersey folks who would be very happy to turn in some names of people that in their estimation should be booted from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

This gets at one of the underlying psycho-social underpinnings of the broader MAGA movement which includes its virulent anti-immigrant worldview which made it possible for the Trump administration politically to hold undocumented children in cages at the border.

This near panic about 'undeserving outsiders conspiring to take our stuff' springs from a deep and abiding belief that there is not enough to go around because we live on a planet of scarcity. By this worldview, if our nation is to ever be restored to greatness whatever surplus there is to be shared more broadly must be dispensed based on merit and our judgement of just who is really deserving.

This construct has its theological roots in the Calvinist work ethic which informs the Puritan worldview that financial success and wealth were signs of someone being one of God's selected souls for eternal salvation.

Conversely, being poor and in debt were held up as living proof of moral defect and spiritual infirmity.

From before New Jersey was a state, the powers that be saw the government as doing God's work here on earth by using its full coercive power to deprive individuals of their liberty if they fell into debt that left their creditor anything less than whole.

Baked deep into our political DNA is the central principle that our colonial or state government's core mission is the preservation of property rights and the enforcement of contracts.

This explains why New Jersey was of all the northern states was the last to abandon slavery.

According to the late Rutgers professor Dr. Clement Price, "support for the institution" of slavery "was stronger in New Jersey than in any other northern colony." Back in 2008, on the occasion of the New Jersey State Legislature's formal apology for slavery, Price told the public television program "Due Process" that "slavery was very important to New Jersey's colonial economy."

Yet even as commercial interests embraced slavery, there was a countervailing movement for abolition in New Jersey. In 1693, Quakers out of Philadelphia, whose influence extended through southern and central Jersey, issued the first anti-slavery pamphlet in North America. For the entirety of the time that slavery was countenanced by law, a vigorous debate raged in New Jersey that divided religious congregations throughout the state.

During the American Revolution, the Rev. Jacob Green, a Morris County preacher, used the tumult of the times as a powerful rhetorical opportunity to call for abolition. Thus, it was that the fault line of this great national debate ran right through the center of New Jersey.

According to David Mitros, historian and author, the Rev. Green, who established the First Presbyterian Church of Hanover, was also the first New Jersey man to go on the public record calling for the separation from Great Britain. In his book, "Jacob Green, and the Slavery Debate in Revolutionary Morris County," Mitros writes that Green, in the darkest days of the Revolution, warned from the pulpit that the nascent nation risked appearing a great hypocrite if if maintained slavery at its inception.

"What foreign nation can believe that we who so loudly complain of Britain's attempts to oppress and enslave us," Green said, "are at the same time, voluntarily holding multitudes of fellow creatures in abject slavery… [even as we declare] that we esteem liberty the greatest earthly blessing." This sermon was published in 1779 as a pamphlet by the New Jersey Journal, and helped frame the debate around the apparent contradiction of maintaining slavery while proclaiming national liberty."

Close observers of how the legislative sausage is made these days in Trenton will appreciate how a bill touted as promoting the elimination of slavery, titled the New Jersey's Gradual Abolition Act of 1804, helped actually continue to subsidize it with the public treasury.

That act mandated that children born to slaves born after July 4, 1804, would eventually be granted their freedom — for boys only after they served for 25 years as slaves to their mother's master; for females the age was set at 21. Of course, the structure of the Act of 1804 required that thousands of African American women would give birth to children that would start their lives as slaves. It also had a provision for slave owners to "abandon" these children a year after their birth to the "county poorhouse," where they would be declared a pauper and "bound out" as indentured servants to the highest bidder by the overseers of the poor "in the same manner as other poor children."

"Some slave owners took full advantage of the law," writes Mitros. "They abandoned the slave children, then bid them back to receive the state subsidy" for maintaining these "paupers," which got them $3 a month for their maintenance from the state treasury. Eventually this self-serving practice was ended in 1811, because it was consuming too much of the state's revenue.

But New Jersey official disdain for the poor was not just manifest in the state sanction enforcement of the strictures of slavery, America's original sin.

In addition to clinging on to race-based slavery, our state continued to embrace the imprisonment of debtors in prison as a method of social control which no doubt the enforcers thought would please God.

As historian Peter J. Coleman notes in his seminal account "Debtors and Creditors in America"  the state saw itself as the guarantor for all creditors no matter how small the debt.

"By 1829 one New Jersey prison held five times as many debtors as criminals, and of the 117 prisoners in the Belvidere and Flemington prisons, about a quarter owed less than five dollars and more than half had been in custody for over thirty days," he writes. "According to the Boston Prison Discipline Society, the incidence of imprisonment for debt was higher in New Jersey than in any other state, and prisoners were commonly held in 'filthy and neglected conditions' for the most trifling of debts."

But Mr. Coleman recounts our reform minded state did show some compassion in 1830 when it abolished the practice of imprisoning any veterans of the Revolutionary War who were over seventy years old.

By Robert Hennelly

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