Poverty & Wealth

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...

Dan Cantor's Machine

Timothy Devine
Timothy Devine E lection night, New York City, November 5, 2013. Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, the candidate for both the Democratic and Working Families parties, is racking up a huge victory after running on a platform that calls for raising taxes on the rich and raising wages for workers. Shunning the usual Manhattan-hotel bash, de Blasio has decided to celebrate in a Brooklyn armory, where his supporters have gathered to mark the end of the Michael Bloomberg era and, they hope, the birth of a national movement for a more egalitarian economy. In one corner of the packed armory, Dan Cantor is talking with old friends and young activists who either work for him or used to—two groups that, combined, probably include about half the people in the hall. Cantor, who is 58 years old and of medium height, is wearing a black suit and tie but exhibits a touch of the willful schlumpiness that comes naturally to certain New York Jewish males. His most prominent features are a white streak...

The Year in Preview: Labor's Outlook

AP Images/PAUL BEATY
L abor—unions and the broad working class of wage workers—hasn’t had a good year in a very long time. Union membership continues its long, slow decline, as does median family income. But if nothing else, 2014 should be a clarifying year in the life of several legal and organizing struggles that will either advance or retard the progress of labor. The Cold Hard Numbers The labor year begins in early January when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its union-membership numbers. Despite recent high-profile fights over public-sector unionism—teachers and government workers—union density among public employees has stayed remarkably steady, somewhere around 35-36 percent of the public-sector workforce. Private-sector unionism (the iconographic male union members of yore—autoworkers, steelworkers, truckers, coal miners) continues, year by year, to creep lower and lower—last year, density stood at 6.6 percent, probably the lowest since the beginning of the 20 th century. The members of...

The Year in Preview: Paul Ryan's Misguided Poverty Plan

N ext year will mark the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, launched by President Lyndon Johnson. But don’t expect a golden anniversary party for the tired, poor, huddled masses. Johnson’s initiatives passed beginning in 1964 and throughout his second term, and were aimed at the communities left out of policies that had created the widespread prosperity enjoyed by most Americans after the Great Depression—especially the rural poor and African Americans. It wasn’t long, however, before those programs came under attack. The next president, Richard Nixon, used resentment over expanded rights and anti-poverty legislation to wrench the votes of Southern whites away from the Democrats: Ronald Reagan began dismantling these programs in the 1980s. Since then the country has concerned itself more with policies that help businesses grow than with the plight of the least well off. It’s part of the reason we suffered through the Great Recession, and why poverty remains stuck at 15 percent...

The Vindictiveness of the Vitter Amendment

W ith poverty stuck at a decades-high rate of 15 percent, food stamps have proven to be one of the best ways to stop low-income Americans from slipping deeper into poverty. So it’s under attack, of course. Last week, majority leader John Boehner warned that a deal on the farm bill, through which the food-stamp program is authorized and funded, was not coming together. The House and Senate have passed dramatically different bills and now leaders in both chambers are scrambling to come up with a compromise bill that can pass both chambers and be signed by the president before the current legislation expires at the end of this year. With the House scheduled to adjourn this Friday, time is running out. The biggest fight is over how crop subsidies are calculated and which crops they go to, but there is also disagreement on cutting food stamps. The question isn’t whether food stamps will be cut, but by how much. Food stamps are an entitlement, which means the program grows according to need...

On Inequality, Obama's Words Aren't Enough

President Obama speaking Wednesday on inequality.
There are times, like the speech Barack Obama gave yesterday on economic inequality, when he reminds liberals of what we found so appealing about him. The address can stand among the most progressive statements of his presidency. Not for the first time, Obama declared inequality "the defining challenge of our time," and articulated an eloquent case, based in American history and values, for the damage it does and why we need to confront it. So why was I left feeling less than enthusiastic? Because over the last five years, Obama has succeeded in doing so little to address the problem. "Making sure our economy works for every American," he said, is "why I ran for president. It was the center of last year's campaign. It drives everything I do in this office." If that's true, then his presidency hasn't been particularly successful. Now granted, it's not as though he hasn't been awfully busy. And he still has some notable achievements in this area, none greater than the Affordable Care...

Reversing Broward County's School-to-Prison Pipeline

AP Images/Phil Sears
AP Images/Phil Sears W hen, after a nationwide search, he was hired two years ago to serve as superintendent of Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, Robert Runcie began brainstorming ways to close the racial achievement gap. At the time, black students in the sixth-largest district in the country had a graduation rate of only 61 percent compared to 81 percent for white students. To find out why, Runcie, who once headed a management-consulting firm, went to the data. “One of the first things I saw was a huge differential in minority students, black male students in particular, in terms of suspensions and arrests,” he says. Black students made up two-thirds of all suspensions during the 2011-2012 school year despite comprising only 40 percent of the student body. And while there were 15,000 serious incidents like assaults and drug possession reported that year, 85 percent of all 82,000 suspensions were for minor incidents—use of profanity, disruptions of class—and 71 percent of all...

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