Policy Shop

Policy as if people mattered

Responsible Contractors Only

For hundreds of thousands of low-paid employees of federal contractors, the executive order President Obama announced in his State of the Union address will make a important difference in their incomes and lives. While the president cannot unilaterally raise the minimum wage for all working Americans (only Congress can take that action—and they should) he is exercising the executive power he has to mandate that federal contractors pay employees doing the public’s business at least $10.10 an hour as new contracts are negotiated and old ones come up for renewal. As Demos has consistently argued, the executive order is a major victory for low-wage workers , especially the contract and concession employees organizing with Good Jobs Nation who repeatedly went on strike for higher pay. Now as the executive order is finalized, it will be important to see that the new minimum wage for contract workers is not just proclaimed on paper but enforced. Enforcement is a particularly serious concern...

A California Study Gets Same Day Registration Wrong

In response to a declining voter turnout rate, California recently implemented big reforms to help boost the turnout rate: online registration, same day registration (SDR), and relaxing the vote-by-mail deadline. A recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California analyzed the impact of the changes and claims that while online registration and the relaxed vote by mail deadline were worthwhile reforms, SDR might not be. The SDR analysis in the PPIC report, however, is flawed in fundamental ways that negate its conclusions about SDR. For starters, there are serious issues with the methodology of the report. As Barry Burden , a leading academic on SDR, wrote to me in an email about the PPIC report: Skeptical readers of the report should ask more questions about the methodology. The appendix does not provide sufficient detail about how the analysis was done. It's not even clear which states are categorized as having SDR. Table B3 has only 12 observations (6 states across 2 years...

Our Enormous Retirement Subsidies for the Rich

In the State of the Union address, Obama revealed that he will be implementing a myRA plan , which is basically an Individual Retirement Account administered by the government. Savers will put the money in after-tax (like a Roth IRA), the accounts will be small (capped at $15,000), and the returns will be modest but guaranteed. David Callahan had some preliminary coverage of the myRA idea and retirement security in general yesterday. The Economic Policy Institute also wrote on the plan , largely panning it as being inadequate. Indeed, it is hard to see how such a small account is meant to accomplish much or what this is supposed to do for low-income people who simply do not have any real money to put aside. But before people start rattling off alternative account proposals that are much better, it behooves us to collectively recall just how much money the federal government is already devoting to subsidizing private retirement accounts. Those in policy circles tend to be aware of this...

President Obama Takes Action to Raise the Pay of Low-Wage Federal Contract Workers

Sometimes in America, when low-paid workers stand up and speak out, even the President of the United States takes notice. This is one of those moments. This morning, the White House announced that President Obama will sign a “Good Jobs” Executive Order requiring government contractors to raise the minimum wage for their lowest-paid workers to $10.10 for all new and renegotiated contracts. The president will include this announcement in his State of the Union Address tonight. Tonight President Obama will use his executive authority to give a boost to hundreds of thousands of hard-working Americans. The nation as a whole benefits from an economy where all workers earn a decent living. While it’s unfortunate that the order cannot apply to existing workers until their contracts are renegotiated, the president’s action adds momentum to the fight for a federal minimum wage increase that would benefit all Americans. In signing this order, the president has taken action. Now it is up to...

Why Obama Must Announce a Good Jobs Executive Order in the State of the Union

I fear that John Boehner is not going to raise the minimum wage. It doesn’t matter that 76 percent of Americans support a wage hike , or that studies indicate that the minimum wage reduces poverty and that raising it would boost our economy and create jobs . And I’m worried that if, in his State of the Union Address next week, President Obama again calls on Congress to raise the minimum wage, even in the most powerful and evocative terms, that won’t move Boehner to act either. But there is a glimmer of hope: when it comes to at least one group of low-paid workers—the more than 500,000 low-wage employees of federal contractors—President Obama doesn’t have to wait for Congress in order to take action and improve jobs. The President can act himself, through an executive order similar to the one President Johnson signed in 1965 to ban employment discrimination by contractors. According to the Washington Post , the President is considering announcing a “Good Jobs” executive order in his...

1950s Capitalist Propaganda and Opportunistic Egalitarians

In yesterday's post, I wrote about the broad history of inequality under capitalism . In many countries that have undergone capitalist development, inequality has moved in three stages. First, inequality rapidly escalates. Second, the rise in inequality slows down and actually reverses. Third, inequality shoots up once again. Interestingly, when the United States was in stage two, some advocates of capitalism became very fond of egalitarian arguments. Whereas Marx predicted that capitalism would cause inequality to increase inexorably, the second stage seemed to show that wasn't true: As you can see, the market incomes of the bottom 90 percent (blue) actually grew faster than the market incomes of the top 10 percent (red) for quite some time, with the 1950s and 1960s being right on the crest of that trend. From this, Simon Kuznets, writing in the 1950s and 1960s, developed a whole theory of two-stage capitalist development , with the latter stage being a march towards egalitarianism...

It's Not Just New York: The New Era of Progressive Urban Politics

Staging imaginary competitions between cities and their elected leaders certainly makes for catchy headlines: “ Step Aside, New York City. Los Angeles's Populism Is for Real ” asserts the title of Nancy L. Cohen’s recent piece in The New Republic . “Later this month,” Cohen explains, “two [Los Angeles] City Council members will introduce a motion to raise the minimum wage to a nation-leading $15.37 an hour for hotel workers—nearly double the California minimum wage of $8.” Very welcome—but that’s just hotel workers. In Seattle, meanwhile, Mayor Ed Murray is vowing to start paying all municipal employees at least $15 an hour, and told Salon ’s Josh Eidelson that “I think that we are gonna get to $15” for all of Seattle’s private sector workers as well. The headline of that Salon article? “Move over, de Blasio: Meet the big-city mayor vowing to get his city a $15 minimum wage.” It appears that New York City, with its much-heralded progressive mayor (and the less-recognized but...

Marriage and Poverty

Oddly enough, there is a gang of Republicans who have recently taken up the mantle of poverty . With the exception of Mike Lee, who has proposed to increase the Child Tax Credit, none of the people in this gang has come out with anything remotely interesting or worthwhile. Gang member Marco Rubio recently stepped out of his study, revealing that he had determined the old conservative marriage arguments are still the way to go : The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage. I have three things to say. Piling poor people into houses together misses the point. Matt Yglesias has a good response to Rubio, in which he explains that this marriage point is really about economies of scale and the way we measure poverty in this country . In a one person family, the amount of money it takes to be above the official poverty line is...

The Circle of Scam

Step right up! (Wikimedia Commons/ZioDave)
I've long held that what William Goldman said about Hollywood—"Nobody knows anything"—is equally true of Washington. At the same time though, people in politics are particularly adept at finding those who know even less than they do, and scamming them into giving over their political support or their money, or both. I thought of this when reading the long investigation The Washington Post published the other day on the byzantine network of organizations the Koch brothers have established or funded to funnel their ample resources into politics. There are dozens of groups involved, and money moves back and forth between them in intricate ways. The Post was able to trace $400 million they spent in the last election, but since there were a number of organizations whose money they weren't able to track, the real number is almost certainly higher. As a tax law expert quoted in the article says, "It is a very sophisticated and complicated structure ... It's designed to make it opaque as to...

A Specter Is Haunting Alaska—the Specter of Communism

Jesse Myerson wrote a piece about economic reform at Rolling Stone , which really set conservatives off. In particular, they were real keen on calling his proposed reforms communism. "Ever noticed how much landlords blow?" — a 63-year-old man, trying to sell communism to the youngsters. http://t.co/s0dTJZ5pOv — Radley Balko (@radleybalko) January 4, 2014 "What birther crap is to lifting the lid off ugly right-wing Twitter, that communism piece was to lifting the lid off ugly left-wing Twitter." — Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) January 5, 2014 Hoping to bring some sense to the discussion, I explained on Saturday that four of the five reforms Myerson advocated already exist in America right now in one form or another . Here I want to build on that with a special focus on Republican-controlled Alaska. Why Alaska? Because it already has two (and arguably three) of Myerson's proposals in place right now. It is, I guess, America's great communist province. In 1976, Republican...

The New Push for Paid Family Leave

Today, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro introduced the FAMILY Act, a bill that would grant every employee in the country access to up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. It’s a move that’s been long in coming. Really long. For the past 20 years, workers who have needed time off to care for a seriously ill family member or a new baby have had to rely on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). With its 12 weeks of job-protected leave, the FMLA has helped people hang on to their jobs while dealing with the exigencies of life in more than 100 million instances. But, about 40 percent of workers aren’t covered by the law. And, because its leave is unpaid, countless workers have qualified for time off but been unable to afford to take it. The FAMILY act, which would provide workers with two-thirds of their salary up to a cap for as much as 12 weeks, solves those problems. Polls show high levels of bipartisan support for the idea. And recent evidence from...

Yes, McDonald's Can Do Better

When I was 18, I spent a year and change flipping burgers in one of those restaurants where customers eat from a tray balanced across their car windows. It was one of the three jobs I held at the time, affording a simple budget and enough left over to save up to go to college after a couple of years. I put in hard hours for my employer and it eventually worked out just fine for me. It also makes for a nice story, but one that is embarrassingly dated. The fast food industry in which I worked is not the fast food industry of America today—just ask the thousands of workers on the streets , standing up for same opportunity to get by and get ahead that built the American Dream. For today’s fast food work force, erratic scheduling makes holding down more than one job impossible—you can’t commit to a second employer if you’re on call for the first. At the same time, low wages barely cover basic household needs, leaving millions of workers in poverty despite being employed, and making saving...

Inside the Lives of Fast Food Workers

Strikes at fast food establishments are set to sweep the nation today as part of an organizing effort that has been under way for more than a year. We should all know by now what the main concern of striking workers is. They get paid very little and that makes for a really poor existence. Although we have gotten some specific stories here and there , few have actually undertaken to systematically describe what it is like to live this kind of life. A new book just out by Jennifer Silva called Coming up Short takes on exactly this task . In the book, Silva interviews 100 working class youth (20s to 30s) to get a snapshot of what it is like to come into adulthood under these kinds of conditions. Less concerned with reiterating well-documented material statistics, Silva probes the way this kind of life affects the workers' self-concept, their notions of individuality, their notions of life progress, and their relationships. What she finds out is absolutely wretched. To be a working class...

The Latest Lie in the Push For Voter ID Restrictions

To the Republican supporters of laws that would treat the poll booth like an exclusive nightclub that asks for photo ID and other qualifications before allowing entry, the answer to why anyone would oppose this is simple: They must not want to vote badly enough. This was the logic for Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothman who last week on MSNBC said , "I really don't think they care that much about voting in the first place, right?" in response to a question about how African-American voters might be impacted by voter ID and early voting cuts. This is not anomalous thinking among Republicans. Similar comments have been made by Republican state legislators in Nevada , Pennsylvania , and Florida . In fact, they say these things so often publicly that you have to wonder if it’s some kind of dog-whistle to the more racially polarized portion of their voting base. The idea that people of color don't "care" about voting ignores how expensive it can be to meet the qualifications of voter ID...

Colbert Calls Out Wal-Mart Wages, Here's a Fix

Walmart Corporate
As usual, comedian Stephen Colbert hit the nail on the head . “Wal-Mart is taking care of its employees... Not living wage care, but can of peas care.” The late-night satirist was responding to a Cleveland Plain Dealer article finding that Wal-Mart set up a Thanksgiving food drive to benefit its own needy employees . “Critics say Wal-Mart isn't doing enough,” Colbert continued, “but they are wrong… because Wal-Mart isn't doing anything .” In fact, the company was not providing food, but requesting that cash-strapped employees help each other out. Satire is one thing, but it’s worth asking what Wal-Mart could do to improve wages for the estimated 825,000 employees that the company’s CEO recently suggested are currently paid less than $25,000 a year. In a research brief released this week, my colleague Catherine Ruetschlin and I explore one way that Wal-Mart could provide its low-wage workforce with a substantial raise without having to raise prices to consumers at all. We find that Wal...

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