Poverty & Wealth

How Big Data Could Undo Our Civil-Rights Laws

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iStockPhoto B ig Data will eradicate extreme world poverty by 2028, according to Bono , front man for the band U2. But it also allows unscrupulous marketers and financial institutions to prey on the poor . Big Data, collected from the neonatal monitors of premature babies , can detect subtle warning signs of infection, allowing doctors to intervene earlier and save lives. But it can also help a big-box store identify a pregnant teenager —and carelessly inform her parents by sending coupons for baby items to her home. News-mining algorithms might have been able to predict the Arab Spring . But Big Data was certainly used to spy on American Muslims when the New York City Police Department collected license plate numbers of cars parked near mosques, and aimed surveillance cameras at Arab-American community and religious institutions. Until recently, debate about the role of metadata and algorithms in American politics focused narrowly on consumer privacy protections and Edward Snowden’s...

Race-Blind Admissions Are Affirmative Action for Whites

L-R: Brooke Kimbrough, Coach Sharon Hopkins and Rayvon Dean of the University Prep Debate team.
B rooke Kimbrough always dreamed of becoming a University of Michigan Wolverine. Her score on the ACT—a college-readiness test—dwarfs the scores of most of her classmates. Earlier this month, she was part of a winning team at the National Urban League Debate Championship in Washington, D.C. Last week, she became a powerful symbol for exactly how Michigan's race-blind college admissions policies have failed. In December, the University of Michigan informed Kimbrough that her application for admission had been wait-listed. Two months later, she received the letter that she had not been accepted. But instead of conceding defeat, Kimbrough decided to fight. Today she hopes that her story will highlight how Michigan's current approach to race in admissions fails exceptional students of color. Black students comprise just 4.6 percent of the 2012 freshman class; in 2008, the number was 6.8 percent. Over the course of this year, I had the honor of working with University Preparatory Academy...

Cuomo's Wedge

AP Images/Mike Groll
O n Monday, Mary Fallin, Oklahoma’s Republican governor, signed legislation forbidding her state’s cities from enacting ordinances that set their own minimum wage standards or that entitle workers to paid sick days. Even in hard-right Oklahoma, citizens were collecting signatures to put initiatives raising the minimum wage and mandating sick-day on the Oklahoma City ballot. Fallin has now put an unceremonious end to such egalitarian frippery. As an increasing number of cities have considered setting their minimum wages higher than those of their states, conservatives in state government have moved to strip them of that power. Most Southern states explicitly forbid their municipalities from indulging in such displays of egalitarian economics. In Washington, a Republican state senator has introduced legislation that would keep Seattle from raising its wage. In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker is backing legislation that would strip cities of the right to enact living wage...

Three Cheers for Taxes

Flickr/Tobias Scheck
Tomorrow is tax day, when millions upon millions of Americans find themselves saying, "Grumble grumble govmint taxes grumble grumble" as they stand in a slow-moving line at the post office to mail their returns off to the tyrants in Washington. Every year at this time, I feel it's my duty to remind everyone of a few important facts about taxes, the most important of which comes at the end, so you'll have to wait for the payoff. But here we go: Taxes in the United States are extremely low by international standards . How low? Really low. We're near the bottom of comparable countries. The good folks at the Center for Tax Justice have put together some informative charts which I'll be using for the rest of this post; here's the first one , showing where we stand compared to the other countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development: Only Chile and Mexico have lower total taxes than we do, and over time we've been moving down that list. In 1979 we ranked 16th out of...

Yes, Being a Woman Makes You Poorer

AP Images/Susan Walsh
S enate Republicans blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act yesterday, a bill that would make it illegal for employers to punish workers for discussing wages and would require them to share pay information with the Employment Opportunity Commission. President Barack Obama has already signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from punishing employees who talk about their pay. These two actions were pegged to the somewhat made up holiday called “Equal Pay Day” celebrated Tuesday, and were discussed by many in Washington in merely political terms : evidence of attempts by Democrats to woo women voters and a continuing sign of Republicans' “difficulties” with them. Elsewhere, pundits and writers wanted to discuss whether the pay gap really existed. A few years ago, some conservatives and a few liberals began to attack the much-talked-about fact that women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar as untrue, based largely on the idea that the gap itself was mostly accounted for by...

Beyond Corruption

AP Images/Mark Lennihan
T here was a time in our history, thankfully long past now, when bribery was common and money's slithery movement through the passages of American government was all but invisible, save for the occasional scandal that would burst forth into public consciousness. Today, we know much more about who's getting what from whom. Members of Congress have to declare their assets, lobbyists have to register and disclose their activities, and contributions are reported and tracked. Whatever you think about the current campaign finance system, it's much more transparent than it once was. But if outright bribery is rare, should we say that the system is good enough? It's a question we have to answer as we move into a new phase of the debate over money in politics. In the wake of last week's Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. F.E.C. , many liberals are nervous that the Court's conservative majority is poised to remove all limits on how much can be donated to candidates and parties. For their...

Soldiering on an Empty Stomach

AP Images/Keith Srakocic
S ince the start of the Recession, the dollar amount of food stamps used at military commissaries, special stores that can be used by active-duty, retired, and some veterans of the armed forces has quadrupled, hitting $103 million last year. Food banks around the country have also reported a rise in the number of military families they serve, numbers that swelled during the Recession and haven’t, or have barely, abated. About 2,000 food-stamp recipients listed their occupations as active-duty military in 2012, according to the most recent data from the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food-stamp program. It’s a tiny fraction of the 47 million Americans who receive food stamps on an average month. The military also has its own program designed to provide families with additional money for food so that they don’t qualify for food stamps. Uptake is low—only 427 families used it. Those who work on anti-hunger issues worry that there are more complicated reasons...

More Than Corruption Threatens the Integrity of Our Democracy

AP Images/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
W hat does it mean to corrupt an elected official? A coal executive walks into a member of Congress’s office with a $100,000 check in hand and says, “I will hand you this check if, and only if, you vote against any fracking permits on federal land—it’s bad for the local water supply, and besides I don’t need the competition.” The Representative accepts the check and then votes “nay” when the time comes. Is that corrupt? Most people would say yes—it’s a paradigm case. After all, there is a quid pro quo exchange—you do this, I give you that. Does it make a difference if that check goes into the Congressman’s personal pocket, his campaign account, or to an allied Super PAC? Probably not to most people. The Congressman wants to be re-elected, probably more than he wants a Porsche, so either of the latter scenarios certainly provides a thing of value. Now what if an environmental group walks into the same Congressman’s office and says “We’re here to talk to you about the upcoming vote on...

The Conversation: Joshua Steckel and Andrew Delbanco

AP Images/Mel Evans
I n the fall of 2006, Joshua Steckel left his job as a college counselor at an elite private school in Manhattan for a public high school in Brooklyn. His new work, guiding low-income students, put him on the front lines in the effort to bring more socioeconomic diversity to the nation’s selective four-year campuses. Far from assuming that college was a choice, many of the students who entered Steckel’s cubicle had internalized the message that higher education was a world from which they were excluded. Steckel’s book, Hold Fast to Dreams ( New Press, March 25), folds his students’ stories into a larger social perspective on the barriers that exclude low-income teenagers from the nation’s colleges. The book, a collaboration between Steckel and his wife, the writer Beth Zasloff, follows ten of Steckel’s students as they apply to and then enter college. The students’ challenges are vast and varied. Mike lives in a homeless shelter, caring for his younger brothers while his mother,...

America's Class System Across The Life Cycle

I am not usually one for a long charticle, but occasionally it's worthwhile to step back and summarize what we know. Here, I tackle America's class system, across the life cycle. 1. Poverty Spikes Stress in Children It starts in the womb . It never lets up . 2. Income Inequality Means Enrichment Inequality More money, more activities. 3. Rapid Schooling Divergence Although there is essentially no observed class-based difference in the cognitive abilities of children in their first year of life, that ends quickly . 4. Logical Consequence of Divergence: Drop Outs Little to no enrichment activities, cognitive abilities stunted by poverty-related stress, and years of falling behind does what you would think it does . 5. Further Behind Than Ever Come College Time These figures probably understate the severity of the gap as well because those on the low end who’d score the worst probably never bother to take the SAT anyways. 6. Traditional College Students: Rich Kids The richer your parents...

Piketty's Triumph

Three expert takes on Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Piketty's data-driven magnum opus on inequality.

Courtesy of Fondation Jean Jaurès
In the 1990s, two young French economists then affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, began the first rigorous effort to gather facts on income inequality in developed countries going back decades. In the wake of the 2007 financial crash, fundamental questions about the economy that had long been ignored again garnered attention. Piketty and Saez’s research stood ready with data showing that elites in developed countries had, in recent years, grown far wealthier relative to the general population than most economists had suspected. By the past decade, according to Piketty and Saez, inequality had returned to levels nearing those of the early 20th century. Last fall, Piketty published his magnum opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century , in France. The book seeks to model the history, recent trends, and back-to-the-19th-century future of capitalism. The American Prospect asked experts and scholars in the field of inequality to...

The GOP's Racial Dog Whistling and the Social Safety Net

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
Y ou've no doubt heard the famous quote about race in politics spoken by the late Lee Atwater, the most skilled Republican strategist of his generation. Liberals have cited it for years, seeing in it an explanation, right from the horse's mouth, of how contemporary Republicans use "issues" like welfare to activate racial animus among white voters, particularly in the South. Race may be an eternal force in American politics, but its meaning and operation change as the years pass. It's time we took another look at Atwater's analysis and see how it is relevant to today, because it doesn't mean what it once did. Atwater may have been extraordinarily prescient, though not in the way most people think. If a certain word unsettles you, you might want to read something else with your coffee, but it's important we have Atwater's quote, spoken in 1981 during an interview with a political scientist, in front of us: " You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't...

The Missing White Poor

A famous white poor person. (photo by Dorothea Lange)
You may have heard about how last week, Paul Ryan made some unfortunate remarks about poverty, blaming it at least partly on, well, lazy black people: "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular," Ryan said, "of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with." The reason many people got angry about this is that when we talk about poor white people, nobody suggests that it's a product of a pathology that lies within those particular people. Republicans may think persistent poverty in rural areas is a regrettable thing, but they aren't delivering lectures to those people about their "culture." It's kind of a generalized version of the fundamental attribution error —people like me are poor because of conditions outside themselves, while people unlike me are poor because of their inherent nature. Ryan's words set off...

What Is Left?

A response to Harold Meyerson

I was not surprised by the substance of Harold Meyerson’s criticisms of my recent Harper’s essay (“ Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals ,” March 2014). I have known for some time that he and I disagree fundamentally on the reasonable scope of a political left in the United States and, correspondingly, whether one actually exists and/or how to go about building one as an effective social and political force. I was somewhat disappointed, however, at the tired hook to which he tethered his criticism. He characterizes me as viewing the political scene “from space” or a “stratospheric height" which leads me to miss crucial details on the ground. That’s just dismissiveness masquerading as evaluation. I could characterize him as limited by the myopic perspective of the inside-the-Beltway crowd, which renders him incapable of seeing the patterns that those details form and reflect. No doubt, each of us would be to some extent correct about the other, but that doesn’t...

Greyhound Therapy

In many of South Jersey's counties, homeless people seeking services are offered a one-way ticket to Trenton or Atlantic City.

Flickr/Germeister
Flickr/Germeister W hen Thomas Jones, a native of Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore, wanted to get clean and straighten out his life, service providers in his county gave him a one-way ticket to Trenton, 60 miles away. “In Asbury Park they didn’t have assistance—no shelter, no soup kitchen,” he said. “They just push you out to Trenton or Atlantic City.” Other homeless men recounted similar stories. When they got out of prison or lost their jobs and couldn’t keep up with the bills, they sought help. Instead, they were offered one-way bus rides to the Trenton or Atlantic City, home to the Trenton and Atlantic City Rescue Missions, the only two comprehensive shelters for adults without children in the southern half of the state. The practice—shipping homeless people off to cities better-equipped to provide services—is common enough in southern New Jersey that it’s come to be known as “Greyhound Therapy.” It’s difficult to quantify given that it’s not an official policy and there is no...

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