Poverty & Wealth

Stress, Poverty, and the Childhood Reading Gap

AP Images/LYNN HERMOSA Most Americans think education is the key to upward mobility, that all we need to do to break the cycle is to help the next generation do well in school and rise into the middle class. A growing body of research, however, is showing that poverty and hunger can harm children’s cognitive development. The challenges of poverty, and the often-violent neighborhoods poor children live in, are impeding their progress in school. Late last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that works to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children in the United States, released a report that added evidence to that idea. It showed only a fifth of low-income fourth-graders were reading at a proficient level, compared to more than half of high-income children. What’s alarming for researchers is the fact that every subject in every class after third grade requires a textbook and critical-reading skills for full engagement in the classroom. Children already need...

A Mighty Shout in North Carolina

Jenny Warburg
*/ Jenny Warburg G eoffrey Zeger didn’t attend last year’s Moral Mondays, the series of civil-disobedience events at which more than 900 people were arrested at the North Carolina legislature. The weekday occupations, coordinated by the North Carolina NAACP to protest the state’s sharp-right policy turn, conflicted with Zeger’s work schedule. But when he learned that tens of thousands of demonstrators planned to descend on Raleigh last weekend, the private-practice social worker from Durham couldn’t stay away. “Every day I work with people whose unemployment benefits have been cut, and who are trying to get food stamps,” he told me at Saturday’s Moral March on Raleigh. “And a mother who’s working three and four jobs, and who has her children being watched by their grandparents. And they’re struggling. Ten hours a day, I’m working with people who are affected by a GOP legislature.” Zeger’s clients battle anxiety and depression, he says, as their family budgets grow ever more precarious...

Could Postal Banking Be the Next Big Thing?

This doesn't actually have anything to do with postal banking. It's just awesome. (Flickr/grilled cheese)
It's often said that being poor is really expensive, and one of the most painful ways is what millions of Americans have to pay in order to make sure their bills are accounted for. If you're poor, time and money intertwine in ways that people who aren't poor don't have to worry about. When your income and your expenses are right around the same amount, you have to worry about timing constantly. I'm not getting paid for a week, but this utility bill is due in three days, and I have to set aside enough for food and gas—how should I handle that? If I write my rent check on the same day as I get my paycheck, will the former clear before the latter? For many, the only choice to avoid catastrophes like getting evicted or having your power cut off is going to one of the payday lenders and check-cashing operations you can find in every poor neighborhood. And since those payday lenders know their customers have no other options, they make them pay through the nose. As an analysis by the...

Heat or Something to Eat? New SNAP Rules Might Force Poor Families to Choose

AP Images/Gerry Broome
The Senate is expected to vote on the Farm Bill today , which could reach President Obama’s desk later this week. A new version of the bill, which comes up for reauthorization every five years, has been delayed for two years; Congress has simply been renewing the most recent farm bill for short periods of time while the House and Senate fought over the details in the new one. Most of the fights were over agricultural subsidies, but most of the spending in the $100-billion-a-year bill goes to the program formerly known as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Participation has more than doubled since the start of the recession—from 20 million every month to about 47 million every month —largely because more people qualify for aid. That has led to attacks on the program from conservatives who said the spending levels were “unsustainable,” and the House of Representatives voted in September to cut food stamps by $40 billion. The Senate voted to cut it by $4...

Investing in Stock Buybacks, Not People

AP Images/Richard Drew
One fundamental reason why the American economy continues to limp along is that no one—at least, no one with major bucks—is investing in it. The Obama Administration countered the collapse of private sector investment in 2009 with its stimulus program, which, alas, was partially offset by all the cutbacks in state and local government spending. It’s not been able, however, to get any subsequent investment projects through the Republican House. The private sector—the corporate sector more particularly—returned not just to profitability but record profitability by the middle of 2010, but its profits have neither resulted from nor led to increased investment. To the contrary, American corporations have never sat on so much unexpended cash. Right now, their cash piles total more than $1.5 trillion, and that’s not counting the assets of the banks. The cash is concentrated in the coffers of our largest corporations, many of them tech companies. Apple leads the list with $150 billion...

Now It’s Time to Talk About Chicago’s Tale of Two Cities

AP Images/Charles Rex Arbogast
R ahm Emanuel has a favorite four-letter word for members of the labor movement. When Emanuel was White House chief of staff, he was told that tens of thousands of autoworkers could lose their jobs if General Motors and Chrysler didn’t receive a federal bailout. His response: “Fuck the UAW.” As mayor of Chicago, Emanuel became so enraged during negotiations with Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, that he shouted “Fuck you, Lewis.” (The teachers went on strike for seven days, claiming Emanuel had “disrespected” them, as well as tried to force them to work longer hours after reneging on a promised pay raise.) Few political figures contributed more to the Democrats’ realignment from a party of working people to a party of Wall Street than Emanuel. The New Democrats of the 1990s responded to the weakness of the labor movement by shifting their donor base from unions to socially liberal financiers. Emanuel was Bill Clinton’s point man on shepherding the North American...

The Republican Problem With Independent Voters

Still a problem.
As I've discussed before, there are moral judgments liberals and conservatives make about things like economics that not only underlie the positions they take on policy, but also make most of the empirical conversation we have about those issues kind of superfluous. We spend a lot of time marshalling facts to support positions that have a moral basis, when those facts have virtually no chance of persuading large segments of the population. For example, you can tell many conservatives that income mobility in the United States is lower than that in many countries, and it won't dent their belief that in this land of opportunity, everyone gets what they deserve and your wealth is a clear indicator of your virtue. The good folks at the Pew Research Center have a new poll that includes some interesting questions probing how people think about poverty and economic fairness, and it shows how on this increasingly salient question, Republicans have a real political problem. Let's take a look at...

The State of Our Union? Economically Unjust

AP Images
To honor Martin Luther King, Jr., the White House declared a “day of service” in Dr. King’s memory, and President Obama spent a few minutes on Monday helping to serve meals in a soup kitchen near the White House. Talk about a tin ear, or a timid one. For starters, Martin Luther King’s life was not about soup kitchens. It was about radical, disruptive struggle to win civil rights; and then in his last five years it was about connecting racial justice to economic justice. Dr. King took pains to define the 1963 March on Washington as about jobs as well as justice. He was murdered while helping striking sanitation workers in Memphis fight for decent wages. If we had more good jobs, and less Republican assault on what’s left of our social safety net, we’d need fewer soup kitchens. The president might have honored Dr. King’s legacy by giving a speech about that. One can sympathize—to a point—with President Obama’s wish to downplay both the radicalism and the racial aspect of Dr. King. As...

Raising the Minimum is the Bare Minimum

AP Images/Kris Tripplaar
In 1995, when John Sweeney ran the first and as-yet-only insurgent campaign for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, his platform took the form of a book entitled America Needs a Raise. If that title rang true in 1995, it clangs with deafening authority today. Which leads us to the only problem with the current campaigns to raise the minimum wage: It’s not just workers at the low end of the wage scale who need a raise. It’s not just the work of the bottom 9 percent of labor force that is undervalued. It’s the work of the bottom 90 percent. Conservatives who oppose raising the minimum wage argue that we need to address the decline of the family and the failure of the schools if we are to arrest the income decline at the bottom of the economic ladder. But how then to explain the income stagnation of those who are, say, on the 85 th rung of a 100-rung ladder? How does the decline of the family explain why all gains in productivity now go to the richest 10 percent of Americans only? And are...

New Year, Same Intellectual Dishonesty

AP Images/NBC News
AP Images/NBC News The new year searches for a theme. Sometimes annual themes come ready-made; a presidential election looms, or a war. As far as can be seen from the American Rubicon called California, the theme (for the rest of you, anyway) that ushered in the new year is: It’s fucking cold, even as those of us on the West Coast lament every dip of the thermometer below 50. The media so abhors the vacuum of manmade conflict that it rushes to render even the weather controversial. Thus Fox Nation turns the designated polar vortex into a personal taunt of Al Gore—“What global warming?”—either truly or willfully ignorant that climate change is not about vanishing winters but meteorological extremes growing more so. Nonetheless this provided temporary solace to a right unsettled by reports that Obamacare might work after all. The truth is that it’s too early to tell about Obamacare, and arguments about its success or failure are pointless except for their reflection of wishful thinking...

Class War: The View From the Board Room

T he Vice-President for Governmental Affairs has just finished his report to the corporate board of directors. “Thanks, Ted,” says the Chairman. “You and your Washington staff have done a great job. Getting that little amendment inserted in the budget bill will save us at least $25 million next year. …. Questions or comments? Paul?” Paul, the hedge fund CEO: “I’m worried about the big picture down there in Washington, Ted. It’s a mess. Deficit out of control. The anti-business attitude. Not to mention incompetence. Can’t even run a website for their own health care program. Pathetic.” “Amen,” says Hank, who used to run a tobacco company. “What bugs me is Obama’s complaining about inequality. Just whips people up. Saw them last night on the TV news, in front of a McDonald’s somewhere, screaming for more money. Makes you sick. Want money? Get a job!” “Actually Hank, those people already have a job,” says Cliff from Silicon Valley. “And lucky to have it. Plenty more out there ready to...

The GOP's Poverty Problem

Poverty is all the rage among conservatives this week, and will be for, oh, another few days at least. My guess is that this is happening largely because Democrats have made clear that income inequality is the issue they'll be pressing from now until the November midterm elections, and Republicans are concerned that it might work. So they're going to head it off by showing voters that they care about people who are struggling, too. The question is, how do you do that when you're fighting against extending unemployment benefits, trying to cut food stamps, preventing poor people from getting health insurance through Medicaid, and arguing against increasing the minimum wage? The answer, it seems, it to make public statements in which the word "poverty" appears. Marco Rubio and Eric Cantor gave speeches on it, Paul Ryan will be doing interviews on it, and you'll probably be hearing more from Republicans on the topic. Mixed in will be some advocacy for policies they've pushed for a long...

The Government Guide to Screwing Poor Homeowners

AP Images/Carlos Osorio
AP Images/Carlos Osorio T he December 28 th expiration of extended unemployment benefits, which cut off payments to 1.3 million recipients—and will cut off 3.6 million more over the next year—has dealt a painful body blow to the most vulnerable members of our society. Rolling back unemployment insurance to a maximum of 26 weeks when the average duration of unemployment is still 36 weeks puts millions of families’ lives in jeopardy. Another recently expired provision could cause comparable damage to the same population, but it has yet to trigger similarly urgent attention from lawmakers. The end of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act, which lapsed December 31, means that any type of debt forgiveness on a mortgage will result in a giant tax bill—one that a stressed homeowner cannot usually afford. Even homeowners entitled to compensation for past abuse by the mortgage-lending industry would be subject to unfavorable tax treatment. This will lead to more economically debilitating...

The Moral Calculus Underlying the Debate Over Unemployment Insurance

The FDR memorial's depiction of Depression-era moochers. (Wikimedia Commons/Stefan Fussan)
The Senate is working its way toward (possibly) overcoming a Republican filibuster of an extension of longterm unemployment insurance, after which the measure will die when John Boehner refuses to bring it up for a vote in the House. Or perhaps not; Boehner's current position is that he's "open" to allowing a vote if the cost of the benefits is offset, presumably by taking money from some other program that helps the less fortunate. Boehner might also allow a vote in exchange for a fun-filled afternoon in which a bunch of orphans and widows are brought to the Capitol building so Republicans can lecture them about their lack of initiative, then force them to watch while members of the Banking Committee and a carefully selected group of lobbyists eat mouth-watering steaks flown in from an exclusive ranch in Kobe, Japan. I kid. But there is a particular kind of moral clash at play in these negotiations, one that we don't think about very often. It has to do with the question of what...

The Urban Poor Shall Inherit Poverty

Sociologist Patrick Sharkey proves a mother’s insecure upbringing harms her child as surely as a neighbor’s broken window.   

A n apparent conundrum bedevils our understanding of African American students’ inadequate school performance: Blacks from low-income families have worse academic outcomes—test scores and graduation rates, for example—than similarly low-income whites. To some, this suggests that socioeconomic disadvantage cannot cause black student failure; instead, poorly motivated and trained teachers must be to blame for failing to elicit achievement from blacks as they do from whites. This was the theory motivating the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. That flawed conclusion overlooks the fact that low-income blacks differ considerably from low-income whites in their social-class backgrounds. Conventional analyses consider students similarly disadvantaged when their families have incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line, making them eligible for lunch subsidies. Yet zero to 185 percent of poverty is a big span; it...

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