Kalena Thomhave

Kalena Thomhave is a writing fellow at the Prospect.

Follow @kalenasthom

Recent Articles

Median Income Rises—But That’s Far from the Full Story

On Wednesday, the Census Bureau announced that median income had reached its highest recorded level in 2017, while the poverty rate declined. The report inspired glowing coverage from mainstream news sources, while President Trump predictably took credit.

But rosy as those numbers sound, they’re far from the full picture. While the Census Bureau’s 2017 data on poverty, income, and health insurance coverage does highlight a modest uptick in median income, that uptick looks far less impressive when adjusted for inflation.

“It’s true that the median income level … is the highest on record—but that’s not as unique an achievement as it sounds. That claim could be made in 13 or 14 previous [annual] reports,” Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), said in a call with reporters. It’s also not as if median income is the highest it’s ever been in real terms. Adjusted for inflation (and for the redesign of the census survey), we are finally at pre-recession income levels—in other words, people are making about as much as they did in 2007 and 2000 (and actually, a bit less). Plus, median income rose much slower in 2017 than it had been growing in recent years. Median income grew 5.1 percent and 3.1 percent in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

And even if we forget about inflation, last year’s income growth wasn’t exactly a pay raise for many workers. Importantly, real wages have stayed mostly flat, so the increase in median income is largely due to workers putting in more hours, which they were able to do because of a tight labor market.

But while workers are earning about what they made in 2000, corporate profits, productivity, and general growth are all way, way up. Bernstein noted that in the past 17 years, GDP is up almost 40 percent, productivity is up 35 percent, and real corporate profits have almost doubled. All of this suggests that income inequality is roaring right alongside the booming economy.

Indeed, said Bernstein, household income at the 95th percentile grew 3 percent, to $237,000—much faster than median income’s growth of 1.8 percent.

Bernstein pointed out that we can “recognize good economic things that happen for middle- and low-income families when the economy closes in on full employment.” But those positive numbers do little to bridge the widening gap between overall growth and the economic realities faced by millions of working families.

The poverty rate also fell for the third straight year, from 12.7 percent to 12.3 percent, evidence of a recovering economy. The number of people living below the official poverty line remained the same—39.9 million people, including 12.8 million children.

But even those numbers need context. The census’s official poverty threshold is flawed in many ways, and doesn’t accurately portray the well-being of families in need. This is part of the reason the census introduced what’s known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). The SPM counts consumption of things like food and housing as well as income from assistance programs, and overall gives a more complete picture of poverty. (You might be thinking, why not just turn to something like the SPM, then, if the official poverty measure is flawed? Well, the 2017 SPM is 13.9 percent, and who wants to be the president who increases the number of people counted as impoverished?)

Data from the 2017 SPM show that public assistance programs helped millions of people earn enough to keep them out of poverty. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Social Security did the most to combat poverty, keeping 27 million people above the poverty line. Tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit kept another 8.3 million people out of poverty, food stamps kept out 3.4 million, and unemployment insurance another 542,000. Rent subsidies, CBPP notes, lifted 2.9 million people out of poverty. In all, data from CBPP show that 44 percent of those who would have been poor in 2017 weren’t—because of the social safety net.

These are, of course, some of the very programs that the Trump administration has been aiming to cut. And new tax cuts—Tax Reform 2.0, which House Republicans recently introduced—would only widen the gap between rich and poor.

Like the tax cuts of 2017, these new tax cuts would also raise the deficit. And this ballooning of the deficit has in the past, as now, been used as a reason for Republicans to further cut assistance programs that low-income people—without a higher minimum wage, without strong unions, and without work supports like child care—need to simply get by.

Taking a closer look at the census data reveals a disconnect between the experience of working families and how the economy is faring as a whole—and the GOP is poised to make this disconnect worse.

Not Everyone Can Evacuate as Hurricane Florence Approaches

Many in the path of the storm, including poor residents and hundreds of prisoners, are forced to stay put.

(Steve Earley /The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
(Steve Earley /The Virginian-Pilot via AP) Ocean water rushes down the street in Frisco, North Carolina, on Hatteras Island on September 13, 2018. A s Hurricane Florence bears down on North and South Carolina, officials have ordered more than one million residents to evacuate across more than 300 miles of coastline. But as the storm rapidly approaches, and as preparations are under way to protect buildings and land, thousands of people will be unable to leave. In low-lying rural areas likely to be most impacted by the storm, many low-income residents don’t have the money to flee. Still others, like hundreds of prisoners in South Carolina, are simply not given the option. It is perhaps in times of disaster that inequality best manifests itself, because the richest and most-privileged have the resources to ensure their own safety. The story repeats itself whenever we see another “storm of the century”—which seems to happen more and more frequently. For residents of the Gulf and Atlantic...

Stop Saying Minimum-Wage Hikes Kill Jobs

A new study on the effects of an increased minimum wage on employment shows that increased wages in six cities had no discernible effect on employment. But while this is great news, the prospect of employment losses should not be how we evaluate the worthiness of raising the minimum wage.

But first, the positive news: Researchers from the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed policies in six cities that had raised their minimum wages—Chicago, Washington, D.C., Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle. At the end of 2016 (the end of the study period), minimum wages in these cities ranged from $10 to $13 per hour.

The Berkeley researchers focused on the restaurant industry, and looked at earnings across the industry in these cities and compared them to similar metropolitan areas. They found that a 10 percent rise in the minimum wage increased earnings between 1.3 and 2.5 percent—about an extra $16 to $32 each week. And there was no significant effect on employment.

According to Carl Nadler, one of the study’s co-authors, these policies “are working just as intended.”

Indeed, recent research has generally indicated that effects on employment would be small.

However, one study last year gained significant news coverage because it claimed higher minimum wages were decreasing job opportunities in Seattle. Conservatives took this evidence and used it to claim that living wages are unsustainable and would actually harm low-wage workers.

But let’s say that Seattle study, which suffered from methodological issues according to the Economic Policy Institute, was correct. Even if some people did lose their jobs, which would be terrible, isn’t it also terrible for millions of workers to be forced to live—and in many cases, raise a family—on $7.25 an hour?

“Focusing only on job loss ignores one of the main effects of minimum-wage increases: rising hourly and annual earnings for potentially tens of millions of low-wage workers—many more of whom will gain than lose,” economists David Cooper, Lawrence Mishel, and Ben Zipperer of EPI wrote in an April report.

Here’s an idea: Raise the wage, and if major job losses come (and they likely won’t), ensure there are strong unemployment insurance and job creation programs to help those few workers who would be affected.

Incarcerated Workers Demand Better Conditions in Nationwide Strike

After three weeks, prisoners will have ended their work and hunger strikes, but their demands are no less powerful.

(Sipa USA via AP)
(Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa via AP Images) Protesters demonstrate against prison slavery on September 9, 2016, in Portland, Oregon. trickle-downers.jpg T his past Labor Day gave us ample opportunity to consider workers’ rights and what policies can be implemented to bridge the inequality between workers and their bosses and make working life better. Yet, there’s a group of workers who are generally left out of this conversation: prisoners across the country, and they’ve been on strike the past three weeks to make their demands heard. Prisoners in more than a dozen states have participated in the strike, which began August 21 and is set to end September 9. The most obvious way of striking—a work stoppage—has not always been possible for prisoners, so some have gone on hunger strikes , raised banners in solidarity, or boycotted the prison store. The strike has been organized by workers both inside and outside of prisons—the coordinating organizations are Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a...

My (Zero) Time on the Manafort Jury

A couple of months ago, I was summoned for jury duty for the federal district court in D.C. for a “special” four-week trial, the “pre-selection” process for which was set to begin today, the Tuesday after Labor Day. 

A quick search on the district court’s website said that “special” trials were “mainly high-profile.” “Maybe it’s Manafort!” I joked to my friends. 

I was 99 percent certain I would not be chosen to serve on any jury, much less a high-profile one, but I blocked off the month just in case. I took my coffee creamer out of the office refrigerator, finished up stories I was working on, and even set up an out-of-office reply. I mean, I could be gone for four weeks!

On Monday night, I followed the instructions on my jury summons form and called the juror phone line to see what time I needed to report to court.

“Your jury service is over,” the automated voice said. “We appreciate your serving as a juror in the United States District Court.” 

Was there a mistake? Did I really not have to go? I called back. Same message. 

I considered that members of the press will be barred from being in the courtroom during jury selection in the Manafort trial. I considered this piece, where I referred to the Trump administration’s white nationalism. And this one, in which I called Trump himself racist.

It was probably the Manafort trial.

And then this morning, about 120 potential jurors with purple jury summonses identical to mine made their way to the court and were told the trial was Manafort’s. They’ll fill out a written questionnaire that’s meant to weed out those too familiar with the case, and official jury selection, when jurors are questioned individually, begins on September 17.

Manafort was recently convicted of eight charges of tax and bank fraud in an Alexandria, Virginia, federal court. U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson said that the jury selection process will probably take longer and be more difficult than that of the trial in Virginia because people in D.C. are more likely to follow politics.

Unfortunately, all you will get from this potential juror is this blog post—and I won’t get the book deal I was hoping for.

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