Poverty & Wealth

Moses of Mississippi

Bob Moses organized for voting rights during the darkest days of the 1960s South. Today, his fight for civil rights continues, with a project to help inner city kids succeed in the classroom.

B ob Moses did not speak at the March on Washington. The Harvard student turned-rural organizer spent the day before picketing outside the Justice Department, with a sign quoting St. Augustine that read: “When There Is No Justice, What Is the State but a Robber Band Enlarged?” Moses wanted the federal government to protect the civil rights of poor black Americans, who were beaten and killed, whose churches were burned, whose fundamental personhood was under assault for trying to vote in Mississippi. White Mississipians wanted to kill Bob Moses: they shot at him, imprisoned him, beat him savagely on city streets. After one of those beatings—one day in Amite County—Moses rose to his feet, gathered himself, and walked into the county courthouse. Inside, blood dripping from his head, he alerted a baffled clerk that the two men with him wanted to register to vote. “I just couldn’t understand what Bob Moses was,” a Mississippi native said later. “Sometimes I think he was Moses in the Bible...

When Giving It the Old College Try Fails

Almost half of Americans drop out of college and are left with debt. Is it time for a bigger investment in vocational training for young people? 

AP Images/Jae C. Hong
AP Images/Jae C. Hong J esse Bonds graduated from high school in 2002 in Clinton, Arkansas, a town of 2,600 people on the southern edge of the Ozarks. He tried college for half a semester, but found the computer-programming courses he enrolled in too advanced. After that, he worked for the state’s power utility for about six months building substations, but his crew was laid off once the work was complete. He was looking for a new career when he was hired as an electrician at a new hospital being built in 2003, and when the work was done he realized he wanted to continue working as an electrician. He decided to enroll in ITT Technical Institute to get a two-year degree in electronics engineering. “I saw all the commercials and stuff,” he says. “And I got into the admissions office and they’re like, ‘Oh you scored the highest of anybody that’s come through here on this test in the last couple of years. You’ll be perfect for this program.’” In retrospect, Bonds realizes they were doing...

Why Supersized CEO Pay Is the Worst—in Three Charts

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Flickr/seadigs A t the Institute for Policy Studies, we’ve tallied the top 25 highest-paid CEOs for each of the past 20 years. That’s a total of 500 richly rewarded executives—each one of whom made more in a week than average workers could make in a year. We’re told CEOs deserve these massive rewards because they add exceptional “value” to their businesses. They’re getting “paid for performance.” Really? Hmm. Let’s consult the numbers. Institute for Policy Studies Let’s start with the firms that led our nation into financial crisis. Of the 500 places on our annual top-paid lists, 112 are filled by Wall Street CEOs who drove their companies to bankruptcy or bailout in 2008. Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers made the top 25 highest-paid list for eight consecutive years until his firm’s bankruptcy precipitated the financial crisis. And how about CEOs who end up getting fired? No one could possibly consider them “high performers.” Yet fired CEOs make up another 39 names on the highest-paid...

Nikki Giovanni Remembers 1963 with a New Poem

AP Photo/Jim Wells
AP Photo/Steve Helber Nikki Giovanni is one of America’s most famous poets. She is a New York Times bestseller, a one-time Woman of the Year winner from Mademoiselle and Ebony magazines, a recipient of the first Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, and a holder of a Langston Hughes Medal. She wrote that “writing is … what I do to justify the air I breathe.” Below is a poem she penned for the Prospect , reflecting on the March on Washington 50 years later. We, too I was home In Lincoln Heights Named for Abraham As many other small black Communities are Only 20 years old Not cowardly I had picketed Rich’s Department Store in Knoxville I sat in with Fisk University In Nashville But not all that Brave Mommy didn’t want Me to go Neither did my father and I wondered Would it matter 50 years later I know It did We watched We prayed We, too, were inspired I didn’t go I stayed home And reminded myself: We also serve Who sit And Wait Jenny Warburg Nikki Giovanni, currently an English professor...

The Six Months That Made the Sixties

The March on Washington marked the beginning of a tumultuous half-year whose events would shape the decade's legacy. 

AP Images/Anonymous
AP Images/Anonymous U nless you’re tyrannized by the laws of calendars and clocks, the “Sixties” (as opposed to the 1960s) were born not on a day or at a given hour. Rather they emerged from the six months between August 28, 1963, and February 23, 1964, the midway locus falling on November 22—three dates marking episodes as irrevocable as they were momentous. The March on Washington (“for Jobs and Freedom,” to give the event its precise title) on August 28 was at once the start of something and the culmination of what unfolded the preceding decade. This included a Supreme Court ruling on racial segregation, a woman who refused to change seats on a bus, federal troops enforcing the integration of Southern schools, a minister imprisoned during a close presidential campaign, the savage murders of black and white civil rights workers, and the proposal of landmark legislation only two months before by the president of the United States. The march was most notable for the appearance by the...

Prison Reform: No Longer Politically Toxic?

AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli
AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli I n the two weeks since Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department would no longer charge low-level drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences—and would consider releasing some elderly, nonviolent prisoners early—something remarkable has happened. There’s been no major outcry from the right. While the attorney general certainly has no shortage of outspoken detractors in the Republican ranks, the initiative hasn’t prompted any major voices to decry him as “soft on crime.” In fact, in plenty of conservative circles, he’s earned praise —or something close to it. “Eric Holder gets something marginally right,” wrote the Daily Caller . Not long ago, the lack of a right-wing furor would have been unthinkable. So would Holder’s initiative; criminal-justice reform has long been politically toxic for Democrats as well as Republicans. But in 2013, even with an administration whose policy proposals almost always prompt pushback...

One Way to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Since the Great Recession began in 2007, no one’s had more trouble finding work than low-income Asian, black, and Hispanic male teenagers. That’s the main idea in two recent articles in The Wall Street Journal (available here and here ) that rely on research from Andrew Sum, a professor who produces a remarkable number of papers for Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies (CLMS). As Ben Casselman, author of The Wall Street Journal articles, notes, working during the summer is not only a way for high schoolers to earn money. People who held jobs in their teens are more likely to graduate from high school, and to be employed and have higher earnings in their early 20s than people who didn’t find paid work during the summer, according to a CLMS paper titled “The Continued Crisis in Teen Employment in the U.S. and Massachusetts.” Also worth noting, in that and other CLMS papers, are connections between jobless teenagers and high-school graduation rates that should catch...

Dangerous Deportations

AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini
AP Photo/Guillermo Arias The Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which sits across the border from Texas, can be a scary place. With one of the largest ports of entry to the United States, Tamaulipas is a coveted drug-trafficking corridor disputed by the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas, and an outside gang called Sinaloa. The spiral into violence began in 2006, when the Mexican government started an all-out war against these criminal organizations. At the height of conflict, newsrooms got attacked, battles often involved grenades, and gruesome mass killings were common, even as the military patrolled the streets. Drug-trafficking organizations are not only into smuggling these days; they engage in theft, piracy, extortion, and, more recently, kidnapping. A U.S. Department of State travel warning in July 2013 advises U.S. citizens to avoid nonessential travel to the area: “The kidnapping rate for Tamaulipas, the highest for all states in Mexico, more than doubled in the past year.” Mexico’s National...

The Socialists Who Made the March on Washington

AP Photo/Eddie Adams
AP Photo, File The Team Assembles “I n 1956, when I was a student at Brooklyn College, Mike Harrington told Tom [Kahn, another Brooklyn College student] and me to go up to this office in Manhattan, on 57 th Street, to work with Bayard Rustin,” Rachelle Horowitz remembers. Harrington (who was to author The Other America , which sparked the War on Poverty), Horowitz, and Kahn were all members of the Young People’s Socialist League, a democratic socialist organization of no more than several hundred members nationally. Rustin, their elder, boasted a longer left pedigree: a brief sojourn in the Communist Party in the ’30s, then—repudiating the Communists and affiliating himself with the Socialist Party—working for socialist A.J. Muste’s Fellowship of Reconciliation; founding the Congress of Racial Equality with fellow socialist James Farmer in 1942; doing time in Leavenworth during World War II for protesting the segregation of the armed forces; traveling to India to study nonviolent...

When I'm Old and Gay

The American Prospect/Steve Moors
Steve Moors W hen Marcia Hickman and Sue Spirit first started talking retirement 20 years ago, they mostly worried about the location and the weather. In Ohio, where they met and ran a women’s retreat together, Marcia missed the mountains of her upstate New York youth. Sue wanted a place “with seasons.” The pair, who will celebrate 30 years together in August, describe themselves as “mostly out”—Marcia hasn’t told her three children she and Sue are a couple, but she figures they’ve put it together by now. She and Sue hadn’t thought about settling down with other gay people until they learned about Carefree Cove. “Around 2000 we heard about ‘lesbian land’ being started in North Carolina,” Sue says. A planned residential community for older gay men, lesbians, and transgendered people, “the Cove” was then an empty 165-acre plot 20 miles outside of Boone, a small university town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The backers had an opening bargain: For $2,000, you could come down and pick your...

The High Probability of Being Poor

Late last month, the Associated Press ran a report about economic insecurity that managed to gain some traction in certain parts of the political internet, and since then, again and again in certain relevant debates. The statistical bomb dropped in the first sentence of the report really says it all: Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream. To be clear, this figure pertains to the percentage of people facing these problems at least once in their life , not the percentage of people facing them right now . Also, it should be noted that this figure cannot, by itself, be a sign of deteriorating economic security. To show things are deteriorating, you'd have to know whether this figure used to be lower than 80 percent, and we do not know that. Shortly after the AP report blew up, the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto responded with a...

The Ex-Con Factor

AP Photo/Toby Talbot M ercedies Harris was 27 in 1990, when he was arrested for drug possession and distribution in Fairfax, Virginia. Harris had served in the Marines, but the death of his brother in 1986—killed by a hit-and-run driver—sent him down a familiar path. “I was angry and I couldn’t find the guy who did it,” Harris says. “I got into drugs to find a way to medicate myself.” Upon his release in 2003, Harris, who had earned his GED in prison, found a job and began to rebuild his life. He faced the usual practical challenges: “I couldn’t get on a lease, I had no insurance, I had no medical coverage, my driver’s license was expired.” But he found one obstacle that was especially difficult to overcome: He couldn’t vote. Virginia is one of four states—along with Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky—that strip voting rights from felons for life. The U.S. is the world’s only democracy that permits permanent disenfranchisement. While most states have some restrictions on felons voting, it...

Stop Worrying about Food Stamp "Fraud"

Over at the Weekly Standard blog, Jeryl Bier raised an alarm on Friday about the rise of food stamp (aka SNAP) fraud. The howler in the piece is that although the headline says food stamp fraud is up 30 percent, you soon realize that the fraud rate only rose from 1.0 percent to 1.3 percent. Bier rightly deserves a ding for a ridiculously misleading use of statistics. In response to Bier, Jonathan Cohn points out the misuse of statistics and makes the straightforward case for food stamps . That case is old but worth repeating here: food stamps stabilize households and the economy in bad economic times, pull millions out of poverty, and have very low overhead. Also, the program runs quite well! Beyond Cohn’s takedown, I think we should point out that the kind of food stamp “fraud” Bier is complaining about is not even a problem. The USDA calls the type of fraud in question “trafficking,” and it basically amounts to individually swapping out food stamp dollars for actual dollars. Despite...

Ezra Klein's Blind Spot

(Flickr/Son of Broccoli)
On Monday, Ezra Klein argued that “conventional wisdom on Washington is that corporations win every fight and everyone else—particularly the poor—get shafted" is, wait for it, "wrong, or at least incomplete." He posits that advocates for the poor have increased their influence during the Obama era, pointing to rising food stamp rolls and Obamacare as evidence. His central thesis attacks a straw man: Corporate America and the poor can both wield a lot of power at the same time, as they’re not typically locked in a zero-sum struggle with each other. If anything, it’s the middle class, or perhaps the upper-middle class, that’s been left out. Lo and behold, none other than Larry Bartels, author of the definitive Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, took to the Monkey Cage to rebut Klein , citing this chart: Bartels sees what Klein does not: there’s a larger economic context. Redistributing income, via food stamps or an Obamacare tax increase is not only...

Six Charts that Explain Why Our Prison System Is So Insane

flickr/wwarby
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would be issuing instructions to federal prosecutors that could result in fewer mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, it wasn't the risky policy change it would have been only a few years ago. With crime on a two-decade-long downward arc, politicians and policymakers don't have to worry as much as they used to about being tagged as "soft on crime." In fact, there's so much toughness already built into our criminal-justice system that unless we start lopping off thieves' hands, it couldn't get much tougher. Though the change Holder announced would affect only those convicted of federal crimes, it has brought renewed attention to our enormous prison population. And just how enormous is it? What follows are the details. In 1992, there were 1.3 million inmates in America's prisons and jails; by two decades later, a million more had been added (the data in this article are taken from the Bureau of Justice...

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