Policy Shop

Policy as if people mattered

Marriage and Poverty

Oddly enough, there is a gang of Republicans who have recently taken up the mantle of poverty . With the exception of Mike Lee, who has proposed to increase the Child Tax Credit, none of the people in this gang has come out with anything remotely interesting or worthwhile. Gang member Marco Rubio recently stepped out of his study, revealing that he had determined the old conservative marriage arguments are still the way to go : The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage. I have three things to say. Piling poor people into houses together misses the point. Matt Yglesias has a good response to Rubio, in which he explains that this marriage point is really about economies of scale and the way we measure poverty in this country . In a one person family, the amount of money it takes to be above the official poverty line is...

The Circle of Scam

Step right up! (Wikimedia Commons/ZioDave)
I've long held that what William Goldman said about Hollywood—"Nobody knows anything"—is equally true of Washington. At the same time though, people in politics are particularly adept at finding those who know even less than they do, and scamming them into giving over their political support or their money, or both. I thought of this when reading the long investigation The Washington Post published the other day on the byzantine network of organizations the Koch brothers have established or funded to funnel their ample resources into politics. There are dozens of groups involved, and money moves back and forth between them in intricate ways. The Post was able to trace $400 million they spent in the last election, but since there were a number of organizations whose money they weren't able to track, the real number is almost certainly higher. As a tax law expert quoted in the article says, "It is a very sophisticated and complicated structure ... It's designed to make it opaque as to...

A Specter Is Haunting Alaska—the Specter of Communism

Jesse Myerson wrote a piece about economic reform at Rolling Stone , which really set conservatives off. In particular, they were real keen on calling his proposed reforms communism. "Ever noticed how much landlords blow?" — a 63-year-old man, trying to sell communism to the youngsters. http://t.co/s0dTJZ5pOv — Radley Balko (@radleybalko) January 4, 2014 "What birther crap is to lifting the lid off ugly right-wing Twitter, that communism piece was to lifting the lid off ugly left-wing Twitter." — Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) January 5, 2014 Hoping to bring some sense to the discussion, I explained on Saturday that four of the five reforms Myerson advocated already exist in America right now in one form or another . Here I want to build on that with a special focus on Republican-controlled Alaska. Why Alaska? Because it already has two (and arguably three) of Myerson's proposals in place right now. It is, I guess, America's great communist province. In 1976, Republican...

The New Push for Paid Family Leave

Today, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro introduced the FAMILY Act, a bill that would grant every employee in the country access to up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. It’s a move that’s been long in coming. Really long. For the past 20 years, workers who have needed time off to care for a seriously ill family member or a new baby have had to rely on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). With its 12 weeks of job-protected leave, the FMLA has helped people hang on to their jobs while dealing with the exigencies of life in more than 100 million instances. But, about 40 percent of workers aren’t covered by the law. And, because its leave is unpaid, countless workers have qualified for time off but been unable to afford to take it. The FAMILY act, which would provide workers with two-thirds of their salary up to a cap for as much as 12 weeks, solves those problems. Polls show high levels of bipartisan support for the idea. And recent evidence from...

Yes, McDonald's Can Do Better

When I was 18, I spent a year and change flipping burgers in one of those restaurants where customers eat from a tray balanced across their car windows. It was one of the three jobs I held at the time, affording a simple budget and enough left over to save up to go to college after a couple of years. I put in hard hours for my employer and it eventually worked out just fine for me. It also makes for a nice story, but one that is embarrassingly dated. The fast food industry in which I worked is not the fast food industry of America today—just ask the thousands of workers on the streets , standing up for same opportunity to get by and get ahead that built the American Dream. For today’s fast food work force, erratic scheduling makes holding down more than one job impossible—you can’t commit to a second employer if you’re on call for the first. At the same time, low wages barely cover basic household needs, leaving millions of workers in poverty despite being employed, and making saving...

Inside the Lives of Fast Food Workers

Strikes at fast food establishments are set to sweep the nation today as part of an organizing effort that has been under way for more than a year. We should all know by now what the main concern of striking workers is. They get paid very little and that makes for a really poor existence. Although we have gotten some specific stories here and there , few have actually undertaken to systematically describe what it is like to live this kind of life. A new book just out by Jennifer Silva called Coming up Short takes on exactly this task . In the book, Silva interviews 100 working class youth (20s to 30s) to get a snapshot of what it is like to come into adulthood under these kinds of conditions. Less concerned with reiterating well-documented material statistics, Silva probes the way this kind of life affects the workers' self-concept, their notions of individuality, their notions of life progress, and their relationships. What she finds out is absolutely wretched. To be a working class...

The Latest Lie in the Push For Voter ID Restrictions

To the Republican supporters of laws that would treat the poll booth like an exclusive nightclub that asks for photo ID and other qualifications before allowing entry, the answer to why anyone would oppose this is simple: They must not want to vote badly enough. This was the logic for Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothman who last week on MSNBC said , "I really don't think they care that much about voting in the first place, right?" in response to a question about how African-American voters might be impacted by voter ID and early voting cuts. This is not anomalous thinking among Republicans. Similar comments have been made by Republican state legislators in Nevada , Pennsylvania , and Florida . In fact, they say these things so often publicly that you have to wonder if it’s some kind of dog-whistle to the more racially polarized portion of their voting base. The idea that people of color don't "care" about voting ignores how expensive it can be to meet the qualifications of voter ID...

Colbert Calls Out Wal-Mart Wages, Here's a Fix

Walmart Corporate
As usual, comedian Stephen Colbert hit the nail on the head . “Wal-Mart is taking care of its employees... Not living wage care, but can of peas care.” The late-night satirist was responding to a Cleveland Plain Dealer article finding that Wal-Mart set up a Thanksgiving food drive to benefit its own needy employees . “Critics say Wal-Mart isn't doing enough,” Colbert continued, “but they are wrong… because Wal-Mart isn't doing anything .” In fact, the company was not providing food, but requesting that cash-strapped employees help each other out. Satire is one thing, but it’s worth asking what Wal-Mart could do to improve wages for the estimated 825,000 employees that the company’s CEO recently suggested are currently paid less than $25,000 a year. In a research brief released this week, my colleague Catherine Ruetschlin and I explore one way that Wal-Mart could provide its low-wage workforce with a substantial raise without having to raise prices to consumers at all. We find that Wal...

The Single Best Argument Against Inequality

Progressives have typically attacked economic inequality on fairness grounds, arguing that it's just not right that so much national wealth is funneled to the top even as millions struggle to get by. Americans are definitely open to this argument, especially during times like now when a warped, anemic economy is mainly just raising the yachts, and not the boats of ordinary people. This is a key finding of Leslie McCall's recent book, The Undeserving Rich , which carefully scrutinizes years of public opinion polls on inequality. The problem, though, is that when economic times are fairly good, the fairness critique of inquality tends to lose traction. We saw that in the late 1990s and also the Bush years. The yachts were soaring into the stratrosphere, but ordinary boats were also inching up just enough that it was hard to raise concern about near-record levels of inequality. We could easily see this same movie again in coming years. Recent public concerns about inequality could...

The Racial Wealth Gap

This Jon Jeter piece about racial wealth inequality seemed to be making the rounds a lot over the weekend. Jeter begins thusly: For every dollar in assets owned by whites in the United States, blacks own less than a nickel, a racial divide that is wider than South Africa’s at any point during the apartheid era. The median net worth for black households is $4,955, or about 4.5 percent of whites’ median household wealth, which was $110,729 in 2010, according to Census data. Racial inequality in apartheid South Africa reached its zenith in 1970 when black households’ median net worth represented 6.8 percent of whites’, according to an analysis of government data by Sampie Terreblanche, professor emeritus of economics at Stellenbosch University. As someone who keeps track of such things , I was intrigued by the figures, but could not discern where they came from. The Census does not track wealth like this. The 2010 year suggests Jeter may actually be referring to the Survey of Consumer...

Have Hope: Conservatives Rationalize Leftist Stuff They Like

Last week, I had a co-authored piece in The Atlantic about using a universal basic income to cut the official poverty rate in half. The short of it is— as I pointed out last month here at Policy Shop —providing an annual $2,920 cash grant to every American would cut official poverty in half overnight. Although completely viable as a real-life policy that you could implement successfully, such a plan is generally dismissed as out of the question in our current political climate. While this is more or less true, I have considerable hope of the long-term viability of such a program if we can ever manage to get it going. Even though we are a much more conservative nation than our global counterparts, it is not as if those conservative tendencies and principles are consistently applied. Instead, when a left-wing program gets immensely popular, conservatives drop their opposition to it and dream up conservative-sounding rhetoric to justify it. The best example of this comes to us from...

Why Do Women Do Market Work?

Super-misogynist Gavin McInnes of Vice fame unleashed an odd hyper-masculinist performance on HuffPo Live last week , complaining, among other things, about working women. McInnes apparently thinks feminism is to blame for women becoming unhappy corporate strivers, instead of domesticated homekeepers. In making these remarks, McInnes refers to women striving to be CEOs, which suggests that when he talks about working women, he has in mind upper-class, highly-educated women trying to move up the economic power ranks. In the reality of most women, working in the labor market is not a discretionary activity undertaken voluntarily for self-liberation purposes. Like men, women work because they have to work in order to survive. There is no option. This is most obviously true for single women, but it's also true for husband-wife families. In anticipation of a piece I am preparing with Elizabeth Stoker on this McInnes blow up, I calculated the following numbers. They all come from the Census...

Sorry, John Stuart Mill Was Not a Libertarian

Libertarianism as it exists in the United States is basically a mid-20th century American philosophy, at least in origin. Owing perhaps to a combination of bad introductory classes and an urge for a longer historical pedigree, libertarians often like to pretend that great canonical thinkers prior to that time were also libertarians. But as that is an obvious anachronism, it turns out to be untrue. There are some lesser knowns here and there along the trail who might come close, but basically none of the big old philosophical names can rightly be associated with this mid-20th century libertarianism. Previously, I pointed out John Locke’s anti-libertarian transgressions , in which he observed and prescribed a solution to the intense coercion of labor contracts made between those with very unequal bargaining strength, contracts he analogized to slavery. To suggest Locke was not a mid-20 century American libertarian was so infuriating that some rather amusing, but ultimately incompetent,...

Heritage Action Is Ruining Your Government

Two days ago, it looked like moderates in the House of Representatives, led by John Boehner, had finally concocted a plan to avert a default and end the government shutdown. Then the plan went down in flames. The deal, the result of weeks of haggling, removed proposals to defund Obamacare and left in its place a provision stripping healthcare from Congressional staffers. It was an cruel deal, but a deal nontheless, with the support of a majority in the House. And it looked like it was going to pass until this: Key Vote: “NO” on House Spending and Debt Deal http://t.co/0yZCqc1wR3 #Obamacare #Shutdown — Heritage Action (@Heritage_Action) October 15, 2013 Marking a vote as a key vote indicates that Heritage Action will include the vote on their scorecard gauging a representative’s conservative bonafides. It suggests their propensity to support, and fund, a primary challenge against Republicans who vote for compromise. As the National Review ’s post-mortem on the collapse of the...

How Multi-Billion Dollar Corporations Rely on the Public to Feed their Workforce

(Flickr/Robert Banh)
Dunkin Donuts is getting a sweet deal. The company enjoyed $108.3 million in profits last year and compensated its CEO, Nigel Travis, to the tune of $1.9 million. Meanwhile, the public paid an estimated $274 million to feed, provide medical care, and subsidize the wages of their workforce. And Dunkin Donuts is not alone or even the worst offender: New studies out today from the University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, the University of Illinois, and the National Employment Law Project detail just some of the vast scope of public subsidies for fast food workers. The Berkeley/Illinois study finds that, overall, public assistance to workers in the fast food industry and their families costs nearly $7 billion a year. That includes public spending on Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—but doesn't account for free school lunches, housing assistance, or...

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