Poverty & Wealth

Fast Food Shouldn't Mean Low Wages

(Flickr/GenBug)
From Burger King to Walmart , the low-wage workers we depend on to staff America’s consumption-driven economy are tired of being overworked and underpaid, and they are letting their bosses know. Early this morning, fast-food workers in New York City went on strike across more than half a dozen chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Domino’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Papa John’s. Backed by community groups like New York Communities for Change , United NY , and the Black Institute , as well as various representatives of religious organizations, fast food workers are asking for a chance to work with dignity in an industry notorious for its fast pace, low wages , and often erratic scheduling. Also notorious for high turnover , fast food workers have historically had a difficult time organizing for better conditions. As reported by Steve Greenhouse at The New York Times : Leaders of the effort said that workers were walking off the job to protest what they said were low wages and...

Snatching Defeat out of the Jaws of Victory

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Invited guests listen as President Barack Obama speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building about extending middle-class tax cuts before they expire in January. The president said he believes that members of both parties can reach a framework on a debt-cutting deal before Christmas. P resident Barack Obama, to his great credit, has drawn a bright line. Taxes have to revert to the rates that were in effect before the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2 percent. This is crucial because the less the very rich pay, the more others have to pay either in the form of less tax relief for the bottom 98 percent or on program cuts like Social Security and Medicare. Or has he drawn that line? Yesterday, the White House put out the word that the president was willing to be “flexible” on the question of tax rates for the top bracket. Specifically, that means the president will accept the Republican idea of getting some of the needed revenue by closing loopholes rather than...

How Sandy Saved Occupy

The protest movement's disaster-relief efforts have helped it connect with the “99 percent” it had trouble reaching in its Zuccotti Park days.

(Flickr/Michael Fleshman)
(Flickr/John de Guzman) Volunteers at an Occupy Sandy distribution center on Staten Island H ow did we get here? This is the question occupying “occupiers,” as they call themselves, at their first post-Sandy community-wide meeting. On this cold November night just before Thanksgiving, “here” is the St. Jacobi Lutheran church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where at least 300 Occupy Sandy volunteers have crammed into the pews. But “here” is also the uneasy juncture of political protest and disaster relief where this newly formed organization finds itself. Occupy Sandy’s story began in the hours just after the superstorm hit, when “a few of us occupiers were just texting each other at like 2 a.m. seeing how we could help,” recalls Bre Lembitz. A lanky 22-year-old whose blond curls are shaved close on one side of her head, Lambitz suggested bringing meals to the shore, and “everyone was totally down to do relief work.” So the next morning, she and a few others from Occupy Wall Street created...

Why You Shouldn't Shop at Wal-Mart on Friday

(Flickr/Laurie O'Findy)
A half century ago America’s largest private-sector employer was General Motors, whose full-time workers earned an average hourly wage of around $50, in today’s dollars, including health and pension benefits. Today, America’s largest employer is Wal-Mart, whose average employee earns $8.81 an hour. A third of Wal-Mart’s employees work less than 28 hours per week and don’t qualify for benefits. There are many reasons for the difference—including globalization and technological changes that have shrunk employment in American manufacturing while enlarging it in sectors involving personal services, such as retail. But one reason, closely related to this seismic shift, is the decline of labor unions in the United States. In the 1950s, over a third of private-sector workers belonged to a union. Today fewer than 7 percent do. As a result, the typical American worker no longer has the bargaining clout to get a sizeable share of corporate profits. At the peak of its power and influence in the...

The Collapse of Black Wealth

Prince George’s County was a symbol of African American prosperity. Then came the housing crisis.

(Jesse Lenz)
Jesse Lenz W hen Joe Parker was a young, newly married public-school administrator who wanted to buy a home in 1974, he didn’t even think about leaving Prince George’s County, Maryland. It was where he and his parents had grown up. But when Parker first tried to bid on a house in a new development in Mitchellville, a small farming community that was sprouting ranch and split-level homes on old plantation lands, the real-estate agent demurred, claiming there were other buyers. In truth, the development had been built to lure white, middle-class families to the county, which sits just east of Washington, D.C. Parker never told the agent that he served on a new county commission to enforce laws forbidding housing discrimination. He just persisted, he says, until he and his wife were able to bid. “My wife kept saying, ‘Why don’t you tell him?’” Parker recalls, but he refused to pull rank. “I said no, because what does the next black man do?” The next black families did arrive. Throughout...

Art for Hire

When will people making a living in the arts fight for their right to be compensated fairly for their contributions to culture?

(Photo by Scott Gries/PictureGroup)
T he annual, indie-heavy CMJ Music Marathon—sponsored by the weekly trade magazine that was once called College Music Journal —brought more than a thousand acts to New York City last month, for gigs stretching late into the night. When not playing, black-clad rockers wielded badges and tote bags around the West Village. There, the festival convened such panels as "Copyright Enforcement on the Edge," "A Day in the Life of a Successful Career DJ," and "Fan-durance: Sourcing Funding from Fandom." All good business talk, but, ironically, CMJ did not pay its musicians. Noah Shomberg, drummer for the Denver-based band The Foot, explains that CMJ tried to sell the festival as good for exposure, but that he resorted to “negotiating our own deals with clubs.” Evan Anderson, half of the electronic duo Exes of Evil, agrees. “It’s really hard to convince people to pay you.” Most musicians, writers, filmmakers, and painters are paid very little—a trade-off for doing what they love, the thinking...

The Great Society's Next Frontier

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh) A copy of H.R. 3200, America Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, sits on the desk of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California. A s The Washington Post ’s Ezra Klein declared shortly after voters re-elected President Barack Obama, one of the major winners last week was health-care reform. With Democrats holding on to the Senate and the White House, Republicans will be unable to repeal the law before all of its provisions go into effect in 2014—after which, the theory goes, the public will come to accept that government has the responsibility to ensure health care is available for all. This is the end of a long battle for progressives: Health care has been the major missing piece of our welfare state for nearly a century, and for decades making it part of our system of social insurance has been a primary goal of politicians, think tanks, and activists. With this piece of the progressive puzzle in place, the natural...

Fiscal Cliff: The End Game

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) President Barack Obama makes an opening statement during his news conference yesterday in the East Room of the White House. The president says the economy cannot afford a tax increase on all Americans and is calling on congressional Republicans to support an extension of existing tax rates for households earning $250,000 or less. P resident Barack Obama continued to display a new toughness about the debt negotiation at his first post-election press conference yesterday. He confirmed publicly what he has been telling progressive leaders privately. He will not give on the principle that taxes—rates as well as loophole closings—must be raised on people earning over $250,000 a year. “We should not hold the middle class hostage while we debate tax cuts for the wealthy,” he declared. Obama has also told progressive leaders that he is looking for $600 billion more in other tax increases on the well-to-do, in order to reduce the pressure for spending cuts. And he...

Romney and the 0 Percent

AP Photo
My favorite exit-poll factoid this year comes near the end of the quadrennial Edison-Mitofsky questionnaire, as reported on the NBC News web site. The pollsters asked people leaving their voting places whether Barack Obama’s policies, and Mitt Romney’s policies, “generally favor[ed]” the rich, the middle class, or the poor—and respondents could give more than one answer. Among Obama supporters, 86 percent said that Obama’s policies favored the middle class, with another 25 percent saying that they favored the poor. Only 12 percent of Romney’s supporters, by contrast, believed that Obama’s policies favored the middle class while a whopping 74 percent said that they favored the poor—not a good thing in Romneyworld. But the interesting numbers come in the answers to the question on Romney’s policies. Not surprisingly, 87 percent of Obama supporters said the Mittster’s policies favored the rich, while 0 percent said they favored the poor. Among Romney’s own supporters, only 10 percent...

The Dangers of Our Budget-Deficit Minuet

(Flickr/Austen Hufford)
The day after Barack Obama was re-elected, the Dow Jones lost 312.96 points. It wasn’t just that investors were hoping for the lower taxes and further deregulation that would have come with a Romney win. The news from Europe was bad, and pundits were obsessively focused on the “fiscal cliff” of mandatory budget cuts that will drive the economy into a new recession unless Congress jumps off its own budgetary cliff first. For once, the markets are right. But the news from Europe entirely contradicts conventional assumptions about the fiscal cliff. Greece, which has dutifully cut its budget as demanded by the leaders of the European Union and the European Central Bank, is deeper in depression than ever. The latest reports show that its economy has shrunk by more than 20 percent over four years and that the more that it cuts its deficit, the more its national debt grows. How can that be? Budget cutting in a depression just deepens the depression. The deeper the depression, the less...

Anti-Obamacare Ballot Measures: Purely Symbolic, Sometimes Ironic

(Flickr/Fibonacci Blue)
This is the seventh in the Prospect's series on the 174 measures on state ballots this year. Ever since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed, Republicans have been desperate for ways to gut it. They hoped the Supreme Court might do the dirty work, but the Court ruled this summer that the law was constitutional. They hoped to pass new legislation, but as long as Democrats have the White House and the Senate, that's a non-starter. So instead, for the time being, they are turning to purely symbolic acts of defiance. Four states have ballot measures on November 6 that, if passed, would directly conflict with the ACA. In Alabama, Florida, Montana, and Wyoming, voters can ostensibly decide to ban any and all mandates that residents get health insurance. But these "bans" would exist in name only. That's because the measures would violate Obamacare, which requires that the state's residents get health insurance or pay a fine (which the Supreme Court calls a tax). These measures will have no...

Fix the Debt, Destroy the Recovery

(AP Photo/Jim Cole)
David Walker announced his endorsement of Mitt Romney this week. The name might not ring a bell, but Walker was head of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the number one funder of deficit-hawkery in the United States. Walker, a former Comptroller General, has described himself and his crusade as bipartisan, and it is actually helpful that he has come out of the closet as a Republican. Lately, Walker has been deeply involved with the efforts to levitate the late Bowles-Simpson Commission as a template for deficit-reduction, and has been working closely with the corporate-funded “Fix the Debt” campaign of more than 100 CEOs lobbying for an austerity grand bargain. It’s worth unpacking the economics and the politics of the austerity lobby. The Fix the Debt campaign, much like the Bowles-Simpson Commission and the propaganda of the Peterson Foundation generally, contends that the projected national debt is depressing business willingness to invest now. Presumably, businesses are worried...

Turning the Cliff into a Launch Pad

One part of the dreaded fiscal cliff actually presents an opportunity that could be good politics and good economics. The temporary two-point cut in the payroll tax expires January 1 (along with the Bush tax cuts). The $1.2 billion sequester also kicks in. Deficit hawks of both parties have been saying that it’s irresponsible to extend the payroll tax cut, while defenders of Social Security like the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) are opposed to an extension for fear of diverting revenue from the Social Security trust fundsand adding ammo to the crusade for cutting back the system’s benefits. But there is a nice opportunity here to turn a lemon into lemonade. The economy is hardly robust enough to inflict a two-point tax increase on working people. For two-income households, that’s a four-point increase. That means, say, a $2,400 tax hike on a $60,000 family income. Nobody is going to remember that this was temporary; they will simply experience it as a tax increase on...

In Michigan, a High-Stakes Game for Labor

(Flickr/CedarBendDrive)
Sixth in a series on the 174 ballot measures going before voters on November 6. There's no question these are tough times for the American labor movement. In the Rust Belt, where unions once reigned, we've watched as Wisconsin's anti-labor governor handily won a recall effort and as Indiana became the first Midwestern state to embrace so-called "right to work" laws, which cripple unions by prohibiting mandatory membership and automatic dues-collection from non-members who are benefitting from a unionized industry. To quote Harold Meyerson's blockbuster Prospect feature on labor's past and future, "In much of America, unions have already disappeared. In the rest of America, they’re battling for their lives." Now in Michigan, a state where unions once wielded tremendous power, the battle for labor's survival has moved to the ballot. Several measures could bolster unions' strength in the state—or weaken it. One measure provides more protections and bargaining rights for home health-care...

George McGovern: America's Critic and Champion

The former presidential candidate challenged the country he loved while firmly embracing its people.

(AP Photo/Cliff Owen, Pool, File)
AP Photo George McGovern of South Dakota pays a visit with his wife to the floor of the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, August 25, 1968, where he will attempt to capture the Democratic presidential nomination in the National Convention starting on Monday. G eorge McGovern, the former Senator from South Dakota and 1972 Democratic candidate for president who died Sunday at the age of 90, was perhaps the greatest exponent of an alternative American patriotism of the end of the 20 th century. In this respect, McGovern’s predecessors were men and women like Jane Addams, W.E.B. Dubois, and William James. Historian Jonathan Hansen has described this critical patriotism well as the “claim that critical engagement with one’s country constitutes the highest form of love.” The critical patriot rejects the conventional patriot’s belief that loyalty to the state and, especially, to its military aims should be reflexive and unconditional. Critical patriotism fears that the patriotism of flag...

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