Poverty & Wealth

Full Employment Is the Best Social Program

The optimistic debate about what could happen in the United States after the unemployment rate goes down

AP Photo
The unemployment rate’s drop to 7.8 percent, reported last week, marked the first time since 2009 that the rate was below 8 percent. It’s fitting that this occurred shortly after someone who predicted the rate couldn’t get below 8 percent changed his mind. Until a year ago, president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Narayana Kocherlakota had argued that there may be a new normal unemployment rate of 8.7 percent, and that adjusting the rate at which banks borrow money would do little to help. Now he argues that the Fed should commit to keeping rates low until unemployment is declines—a position in line with those hawkish about our unemployment crisis. Kocherlakota’s arguments were popular among the right, with conservatives like David Brooks name-checking him in his national column. But they also found support from a surprising ally: former President Bill Clinton. Clinton went on David Letterman's show and NPR in 2010, quoting Kocherlakota to argue that we were “coming out of a...

Obama's Other War

What’s weighing President Obama down? In a brilliant essay, Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic (and a Prospect alumna) argues that the emotional toll of his job—particularly, of presiding over two wars and having to reckon with their casualties—has emotionally “shut down” the president. “Running a drone war that kills innocent civilians, ordering the death of militants, overseeing a policy that’s led to an increase in American casualties in Afghanistan, and delivering funereal remarks at a ceremony honoring the returning remains of a slain American diplomat,” she writes, have taken a toll on the “easy swagger and rambunctiously playful enthusiasm” that he displayed in his 2008 campaign. I think my friend Garance is on to something serious here, but I want to broaden the diagnosis. Every night, we know, Obama reads ten of the multitude of letters that Americans send him to let him know what their lives are like, to ask him for some kind of help. At a time when the American middle...

Crying Fraud, Then Creating It

(AP Photo/The The Hutchinson News, Travis Morisse, File)
For once, the Republicans were right. They have been obsessively claiming that voter-suppression measures are necessary because of widespread “ballot fraud.” However extensive investigations by the mainstream media have shown that ballot-fraud is a convenient myth . Even the Bush administration, in an extensive five-year search, turned up no evidence of the kind of voting fraud—fake IDs, voting in the name of dead people, folks being bribed to vote—that the Republicans routinely allege. Republicans, evoking the tactics of the pre-civil rights segregationist South, simply want to make it more difficult for people who might support Democrats to exercise their right to vote. Some five million people, mostly minorities and the poor, are at risk of being denied their right to vote in 19 states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures, according to a report from the Brennan Center. Happily, the courts have struck down the most extreme of these measures, in Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin...

Are Women Better Off than We Were Four Years Ago?

(Flickr/Lekere)
Last week I confessed that I don’t like presidential election season. I don’t like the trivialized reportage, the horse-race-ification of serious subjects, and the narrowed vision that settles in on policy folks during these months. I especially don’t like the question “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” This suggests two things to which I object: first, that the president is in charge of how well-off I am, when all of us know that American politics and global economics are far more complex. Second, that “better off” or “worse off” can be reduced to my current income and immediate financial prospects, even if those were dependent on the president. So I’m going to hijack that question for my own purposes and ask: Are women better off than we were four years ago—not just financially, and not just in ways affected by President Barack Obama’s administration, but overall? Episode one: Show me the money. Despite the fact that I dislike the reduction of life to finances,...

Pennsyvlania Voter ID: Now Requested But Not Required

(AP/ John C. Whitehead)
Thanks to a decision today by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, Pennsylvania's controversial voter-ID law will not be in effect in November. Though voters will be asked for one of the several allowable government-issued photo IDs at the polls, those who do not have such identification will still be able to cast the usual ballot. But the future of the law is still murky, and the legal battles will likely extend far beyond election day. The controversy over the state's voter-ID law over the last few months has been contentious. While those promoting the law initially argued it was needed to prevent voter fraud, there's been no evidence of voter fraud in the state, and the state did not cite any examples of voter fraud in legal proceedings. But there was partisan advantage. According to several studies, voter-ID requirements disproportionately impact poor and nonwhite voters, who are more likely to lack the required identification. These are, coincidentally, the voters most likely...

Diane Ravitch on the "Effort to Destroy Public Ed"

(Flickr/Kevin Lock)
Diane Ravitch receiving a National Education Association award in 2010. Click here to read part 1 of the Prospect 's interview with the former assistant secretary of education. When Diane Ravitch changed her mind about education reform, she became one of the leading critics of a movement that dominates American policy. For the most part, both Democrats and Republicans now push to make school systems resemble economic markets. They want fewer teacher protections, more testing, and more charter schools for parents to choose from. President Barack Obama's Department of Education, headed by education reformer Arne Duncan, shares many policy goals with those of George W. Bush's administration. Ravitch herself was once part of the movement, promoting student assessments and helping to create voluntary academic standards. After serving as assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, she held positions at the pro-school-reform movement Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and was a member...

Diane Ravitch Talks School Reform, the Chicago Strike, and the "Testing Vampire"

(Credit: DianeRavitch.com)
Click here for part 2 of the Prospect 's interview with the former assistant secretary of education. Diane Ravitch is famous* for two things: championing the education-reform movement, then leading the opposition to it. The movement, which broadly supports an agenda that emphasizes student assessment (a.k.a. testing) and school choice (a.k.a. charter schools), has come to dominate American education policy. For the most part, both Democrats and Republicans now push to make school systems resemble economic markets. They want fewer teacher protections, more testing, and more charter schools for parents to choose from. President Barack Obama's Department of Education, headed by education reformer Arne Duncan, shares many policy goals with those of George W. Bush's administration. Ravitch herself was once part of the movement, promoting student assessments and helping to create voluntary academic standards. After serving as assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, she held...

They Work Hard for the Money

(AP/Mel Evans
(AP/Mel Evans) Cargo containers are stacked on the deck of the Mediterranean Shipping Company's vessel at Port Newark in Newark, New Jersey. As work becomes increasingly a matter of machines building or moving other machines, workers either lose their jobs or—if they are fortunate enough to keep their jobs—become vastly more productive. Productivity surged in the U.S. during the early years of the current downturn when companies laid off workers by the millions and replaced them with machines. Revenues per employee at the S&P 500, the Wall Street Journal reported, rose from $378,000 in 2007 to $420,000 in 2010. And yet, the wages and benefits of employed Americans experienced no corresponding increase as workers’ productivity rose. Indeed, over the past quarter-century, as economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have reported, all productivity gains have gone to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans. In the quarter-century following World War II, by contrast, productivity...

Reaping What Elections Sow

(Flickr/ BKM_BR)
In 2010, Tea Party mania influenced elections at every level—congressional races and governorships, most famously. But the biggest impact was on state legislatures, where 21 house or senate chambers flipped from Democratic to Republican control. In states like Texas, Republican majorities turned into supermajorities; in the Texas House, Democrats were no longer needed to make up a quorum. All the legislative energy was on the side of Tea Party Republicans. They made sweeping, historic changes—to labor laws, to health care, to reproductive rights, and, most of all, to state budgets and public school funding. In a few weeks, voters in most states will be choosing new lawmakers again. They'll make their decisions based in part on how they believe the incumbents governed over the last two years. But because of the massive scale of changes ushered in by Tea Party Republicans, it's going to be extremely difficult—if not downright impossible—for voters to judge the effects of those changes...

Your Credit Score Could Be A Fake

Say you want to buy a house or a car and you need a loan to do it. You do what every personal finance site recommends and obtain a free copy of your credit report from annualcreditreport.com . Then, urged on by the ads from TransUnion, Equifax, or Experian—the “big three” credit reporting firms that compile the reports—you opt for not only the free report but also shell out for what the companies promise is your actual three-digit credit score . A number! Now, you may think, I know what the auto lenders and banks making mortgages really think of me. I have a sense of what rates I qualify for and what type of car or home I can afford. There’s just one problem: the score you paid for is likely not the same one potential lenders will use to assess you . In fact, it could be way off. What many consumers don’t realize is that they have no single “credit score”— FICO alone has more than 49 different scoring models . And new research from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) finds...

"One Thing I've Learned: We're All Vulnerable."

You want another reason I hate presidential campaign season? It obscures real problems, the very problems the election is about . Okay, so that’s the same gripe I had yesterday . So let me introduce you to someone who's not just griping, but is doing something about it. Harold Pollack is a health policy analyst who, despite his terrifyingly smart and accomplished credentials , has an extraordinary ability to see social policy the way ordinary humans do: as a series of needlessly frustrating encounters with indifferent bureaucratic machinery. Over and over, he tells the stories of how ordinary human beings of limited abilities or limited means get dropped by the systems our society set up to help them. His stories have a liberal heart—in the sense that he clearly believes societies have a responsibility to help the weakest and most vulnerable—but contain no apologies for system failure. He lets the stories speak for themselves. And that is an extraordinary skill. For quite some time,...

So Much For The End of Men

Do you know what I dislike about presidential election campaigns? Okay, a lot of things. But among my gripes is the way presidential campaigns overshadow all other news, at least in the U.S. media. For months, the candidates’ every cough shoves everything else off the front pages and top-of-the-hour news summaries. Major news gets downgraded to fewer inches and minutes; other news simply disappears. Remember Syria , where there’s a civil war going on that in which people are battling a dictator? Did anyone notice that a new study links BPA – a chemical used in plastic food packaging –to childhood obesity? Oh, never mind, Paul Ryan got an intelligence briefing. And his eyes are blue. Yes, I get grumpy about it. I’m just not enough of a junkie to want to parse polls all day; it’s too much like debating sports scores, which are boring. I care about the election, but only because I care about the underlying issues— which are what I want to hear about, please. What kind of underlying...

Richie Rich Aces the SAT

(Flickr/sacmclubs)
(Flickr/sacmclubs) A California high schooler takes the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The College Board released its data on 2012 SAT scores on Monday, and beneath the headlines (which tallied how much SAT scores have slipped as more and more students take the test) was a revealing picture of the influence of students’ household income on their performance. The influence couldn’t be more decisive. The board measured household income in increments of $20,000—starting with students from households making $0 to $20,000 annually, then $20,000 to $40,000, all the way up to $160,000—then an increment of $40,000 ($160,000 to $200,000) and then a final category of more than $200,000. And SAT scores rose considerably at every step in the income scale. The poorest students, from households making less than $20,000 had a mean combined score of 1322 out of 2400; the next highest, 1397; then 1458, then 1497—all the way to a score of 1722 for students from households making more than $200,000...

Puncturing Myths about the White Working Class

A new survey and report from the Public Religion and Research Institute—entitled “Beyond God and Guns”—is a valuable corrective to so many stereotypes of the white working class. Particularly noteworthy in this report are the large and important differences within the white working class—by age, region, gender, and party, to name a few. For example, consider this: In mid-August, Romney held a commanding 40-point lead over Obama among white working-class voters in the South (62% vs. 22%). However, neither candidate held a statistically significant lead among white working-class voters in the West (46% Romney vs. 41% Obama), Northeast (42% Romney vs. 38% Obama), or the Midwest (36% Romney vs. 44% Obama). The report amplifies some of the findings I discussed in my “zombie” post —not only how different the white working class is within and outside the South, but how much more social issues affect the political choices of the white college-educated more than the white working class. Along...

Romney’s Bigger Lie

Lots of Republican conservatives, Paul Ryan and Bill O’Reilly among them, have taken the position that even if Mitt Romney’s rhetoric was clumsy, his point was basically right. Some Americans pay taxes; others collect benefits. But his basic claim was total baloney. When you count income taxes, payroll taxes, excise taxes, and highly regressive state and local taxes, the typical lower income working American pays about one-fifth of his or her income in taxes—more than Mitt Romney! According to a study by Citizens for Tax Justice, the bottom fifth of the income distribution paid 17.4 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The second-poorest fifth paid 21.2 percent. There are in fact about 18 percent of Americans who pay neither federal payroll nor income taxes. They are overwhelmingly the unemployed and the low-income elderly, neither of whom pay payroll taxes. As pollster Celinda Lake observes, Romney’s big lie is very important to refute. Even if voters reacted negatively...

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