The Fed Will Continue to Support the Recovery—But For How Long?

This afternoon, the Federal Reserve announced that it will keep interest rates near zero for the time being, maintaining its critical support for the sluggish economic recovery. The decision came as a surprise to many observers on Wall Street, including analysts at Citigroup, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase, who expected a rate hike to be announced today. But citing instability in the financial market and the global economy, the Fed said today it would not raise rates in the short term. Some six years after the recession officially ended, today’s decision is a sign that the economy is still far from recovered.  

The decision comes less than a month after Fed Up, a nationwide coalition of economists, union members, and grassroots activists, descended on the central bank’s annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to demand that the Fed not abandon its role in the recovery. As I reported last month for The American Prospect, Fed Up organizers cited large racial gaps in unemployment and poverty as well as paltry wage growth as indicators that the recovery has yet to reach millions of communities, particularly those of color. During the symposium, the coalition held teach-ins on economic policy and delivered a petition to Fed leaders demanding they hold off on a rate hike until more Americans had a chance to feel the recovery.

“This is a victory for the working families who stepped up with innovative organizing to send the Fed a clear message: Our voices belong in the debate about our economy,” said Fed Up Director Ady Barkan in a statement today. “With the recovery still far too weak in too many communities, it would have been economically devastating—and immoral—to slow the economy.”

Although indicators like unemployment are near pre-recession levels, as economist Josh Bivens argues, there’s plenty this number keeps hidden, particularly the number of people who have given up looking for work. Today, the employment-to-population ratio for prime-age adults is less than half of where it was in 2008 as millions of workers remain unable to find employment. Bivens and his colleagues at the Economic Policy Institute refer to these people as “missing workers.” Wage growth, Bivens adds, has been similarly pessimistic, barely keeping pace with inflation.  

And even these modest gains have been dramatically uneven. According to Census data released this week, the poverty rate among black Americans is more than two-and-a-half times the rate for whites, and has actually gone up over the past year. Similarly, black unemployment and underemployment has remained at more than twice the rate for whites.

It’s groups like these that would feel an interest rate hike most dramatically, Bivens said in a statement today. “Tightening before the economy has reached genuine full-employment is not just a mistake,” he said, “it’s a regressive mistake that would hurt the most vulnerable workers—low-wage earners and workers from communities of color—the most.”

“Today’s decision by the Federal Reserve to keep short-term rates unchanged is welcome,” Bivens added.

But the Fed’s reasoning for keeping interest rates low doesn’t seem to have much to do with issues like racial inequality or unemployment—in a statement released today, the Fed cited “solid job gains and declining unemployment” since the central bank’s last meeting in July. Rather, the Fed seems more worried about “recent global economic and financial developments” that could hamper growth.

In a press conference today, Fed Chair Janet Yellen reiterated that “the recovery from the Great Recession has advanced sufficiently far, and domestic spending is sufficiently robust” to warrant a rate hike now, but “in light of the heightened uncertainty abroad ... the committee judged it appropriate to wait.”

Moreover, the Fed still expects to raise interest rates by the end of this year, whether or not the job market sees much improvement. Over the past few months, Fed governors have hinted strongly that a rate hike would come by the end of the year, and many analysts expect an interest-rate hike at upcoming Fed meetings in October or December. If the Fed is serious about supporting a broadly shared recovery, it should hold off on this rate hike until more Americans have a chance to feel the recovery. 

Outsourcing Substitute Teachers in Philadelphia Gets Off to a Bad Start

Last spring, officials from the Philadelphia School District announced plans to contract out substitute-teaching services, saying they could not effectively manage the responsibilities in-house. At the time, approximately 60 percent of substitute teaching jobs were filled daily, and officials said a private vendor would be able to fill more open positions. Naomi Wyatt, the chief talent officer for Philly public schools, said they paid more than $18.6 million annually for substitute teaching expenses, including reimbursement costs for traditional teachers who fill in when subs cannot be found.

The announcement effectively meant that the district would seek to use non-unionized substitute teachers that they could pay at “market-rate.” It eventually hired Source4Teachers, a New Jersey-based company that provides schools with substitute teachers, substitute paraprofessionals, and substitute support staff. The company works in nearly 200 districts throughout the U.S. and dozens locally, but Philadelphia School District is its largest client.

Though the cash-strapped urban district denied they were contracting out to save costs, the pay differences for substitutes between last year and this year are substantial. Source4Teachers pays between $75 and $90 per day for uncertified substitutes, and $90 to $110 for credentialed ones. By contrast, the district had paid $126.76 for uncertified substitutes, and $160.10 for credentialed ones. The biggest difference is for retired substitutes: the district had paid retired subs up to $242 daily, depending on their educational degrees and college credits; under Source4Teachers, retired educators receive the same rate of pay as all other teachers.

“They assured the teachers that their pay would be ‘similar’, that was the word they used,” said retired teacher Kenneth Schamberg to The Philadelphia Inquirer in July. “Since when is a 61.9 percent pay cut similar?”

The new academic school year started this week, and The Inquirer reported today that Source4Teachers is off to an embarrassing start. On the first day of school, it had filled only 11 percent of open substitute teaching positions, which meant 477 city classrooms did not have teachers. The rate and number of vacancies were roughly the same on Wednesday and Thursday, too. 

Owen Murphy, a spokesperson for Source4Teachers, said they hope their “learning curve will soon go away” and that they will produce more teachers fast. So far, the firm has just 300 workers credentialed and ready to take on substitute teaching jobs, but Murphy says hundreds more are currently in the midst of applying. He also said he expected far more substitutes who worked for the district last year to apply to work with Source4Teachers, but so far that hasn’t happened. They hope to eventually have a pool of 5,000 substitutes ready to call on for work.

Wyatt said that other big urban districts like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit also outsource substitute-teaching services.

The president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Jerry Jordan, suggested that district officials intentionally manufactured a substitute teaching shortage in order to outsource the jobs. He referenced a 2012 Boston Consulting Group report that recommended privatizing the positions. Jordan told The Notebook, a non-profit education news site in Philadelphia, that he knew of qualified substitute teachers who were not called in to work.

"It’s unclear how much money this move will save the School District. But we have no doubt that this will have a tremendous negative impact on educator morale, which is already at an all-time low in Philadelphia,” Jordan wrote. “These are the kinds of actions that, in the long run, will severely compromise the ability of our educators to create positive learning environments for our children.”

Three Ways the Planned Parenthood Hearing Was a Ridiculous Show Trial

Yesterday, a mostly male group of GOP lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee made good on their promise to “investigate” Planned Parenthood, by holding a hearing on the heavily edited and widely debunked “sting” videos released by the Center for Medical Progress, which, despite its misleading name, is not a medical organization.

But the hearing was clearly not designed to seek the truth.

First, it ignored the fact that Planned Parenthood provides basic health care to millions of women. The hearing happened amid threats of another government shutdown over funding for the organization. Gianna Jessen, an anti-choice activist who was invited to testify as an “abortion survivor,” said, “Planned Parenthood receives $500 million of taxpayer money a year to primarily destroy and dismember babies.” Of course, the Hyde Amendment stipulates that no federal funds go toward abortions, and only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services involve abortion procedures (which, as a reminder, is a woman’s right).

That fact is also something Jessen doesn’t seem to understand, but the Republicans let her testify anyway. “We often hear that if Planned Parenthood were defunded, there would be a health crisis among women without the services they provide, “she said. “This is absolutely false.”

No, that is absolutely true. Women’s lives are put at risk without abortion access and the other services that Planned Parenthood provides. In Texas, where it was effectively defunded, fewer women have access to the health care they need. In El Salvador—where abortion is outlawed—the cause of death for 57 percent of pregnant females between the ages of 10 and 19 is suicide.

Second, the hearing was centered on misleading videos being evidence of illegal activity. Despite the fact that the videos were released by the Center for Medical Progress, no one from CMP was at the hearing and Representative Trent Franks even admitted to having not seen the unedited videos. This did not stop him from continuing to push the false narrative that seemed to be the theme of the show trial. “Numerous video recordings have been recently released that incontrovertibly document corporate officers and employees of Planned Parenthood,” he said, “casually discussing their rampant practice of harvesting and selling the little body parts.”

In reality, the Planned Parenthood officials were discussing the perfectly legal practice of tissue donation. But the videos were edited to remove the portions where they repeatedly said that tissue donation is not for profit. And when hearing witness James Bopp, the lawyer for the National Right to Life Committee was asked to comment on the legality of the videos, Bopp declined, saying, “I was advised that that’s not the purpose of the hearing.” Of course, the videos are what spurred the hearing in the first place, but being under oath is likely a powerful inducement to not speak about videos that are deliberately misleading.

Third, the hearing was glaringly one-sided. Not only was no one from CMP present, neither was anyone from Planned Parenthood. In fact, Priscilla Smith was the only pro-abortion witness present and though she is not a doctor, Franks continually asked her questions that should be posed to someone in the profession. “How do you know it’s viable, without a medical professional?” Franks asked about fetuses. “I’m not a doctor,” Smith promptly responded.

The hearing lacked legitimacy, reality, and truth. Republicans can claim to care about the unborn as much as they would like, but the purpose of this hearing was to find even more ways to restrict a woman’s right to abortion, and her control over her own reproductive health. 

Details Emerge for Baltimore’s Plan to Privatize Public Housing

A little over a year ago I reported on the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD)—the federal government’s new plan to preserve public housing by turning units over to the control of private developers. Instead of Congress supporting public housing through direct subsidies to local housing authorities—a responsibility which they’ve persistently shirked for decades—RAD would enable private companies to rehab and manage public housing units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. Developers would have to keep rents low, and their contracts would continually renew to prevent companies from turning affordable units into market-rate rentals.

Baltimore residents learned last summer that their city would be converting 40 percent of its public housing stock through RAD, but up until this weekend little was known about how exactly developers would be subsidized. On Saturday, Sun journalist Luke Broadwater shed some light, reporting that the city will issue tax breaks worth millions of dollars, and will sell its public housing complexes “for far less than their state-assessed value.” The nearly $100 million collected from the sales will be invested back into the city’s remaining public housing stock.

Through public record requests, Broadwater found that ten developers will be excused from paying $1.7 million in local taxes per year for at least the next 20 years. In addition to city tax breaks, each developer who buys a public housing complex will also receive millions of dollars from the federal government, through federal tax credits and “developer fees.”

Baltimore is one of the first cities to finalize its deals under RAD, and community members have mixed feelings about how officials pushed forward with the program. Housing advocates, tenants, and union workers have led protests, raising concerns of public housing loss, resident displacement, and middle-class job cuts. In general, the city has not been forthcoming with concrete details to assuage anxieties.

As Broadwater reports, Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved the tax breaks—“without details publicly revealed or debated” in April by a 4-1 vote. Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, controls three of the five board seats. The city comptroller and the city council president hold the other two.

The city council president, Bernard C. "Jack" Young, voted against the tax breaks, citing his general opposition to privatizing public housing. He also worried about the possibility of losing hundreds of public sector union jobs through RAD conversions, like maintenance workers and building monitors.

Carl Stokes, a local councilman, said he’s supportive of the deal because at least the incentives will support low-income people living in buildings that desperately need maintenance and repair. Baltimore has a history of awarding tax breaks to build flashy waterfront developments and tourist attractions.

Nationally, HUD Secretary Julian Castro has called RAD “the answer” to housing issues in many struggling communities. While Congress has so far approved just 185,000 public housing units to be transferred to the control of public developers—out of a total of 1.2 million units—public housing authorities, real estate companies, and other stakeholders have been lobbying Congress to lift the program’s cap. California Congresswoman Maxine Waters sent a letter to President Obama in December urging him to directly fund public housing rather than depend on private developers to save the units. "Put simply,” she said, “if the price of accessing private capital is to put public ownership at risk, then that price is too high.”

As Baltimore’s situation suggests, it might be cheaper for Congress to just increase direct funding for public housing, rather than rely on a costly mix of tax breaks, subsidies, and developer fees. Yet such a move is doubtful to happen any time soon. But while RAD appears to be the most likely way officials aim to preserve crumbling units in the near future, even the most optimistic experts cannot guarantee that it will protect the nation’s public housing units over the long-term. 

California Teachers Unions Push for Cushion Before Upcoming SCOTUS Case

This fall, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that could severely weaken the power of public-sector unions. The justices will decide whether such unions can charge “agency fees” (also known as “fair share fees”) to individuals who wish to dissociate with their union’s political lobbying but still benefit from workplace collective bargaining.

These reduced annual dues help stave off “free riders”—those who enjoy the advantages of union membership without financially contributing to the union’s work. The case’s lead plaintiff, Orange County teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, insists her free-speech rights are denied by paying agency fees, and argues that unions won’t actually suffer if she wins in court. “It’s hard for me to describe,” she told The Washington Post. “I just want liberty. I want to stop this silencing of my voice and the silencing of millions of teachers out there.”

As the Prospect’s Justin Miller put it, “the Friedrichs case has the potential to overturn decades of legal precedent [since 1977] that has become intractably embedded in union strategy—and state law.”

In the meantime, The Sacramento Bee reported that teacher unions in California are pushing Governor Jerry Brown to embrace a last-minute measure that would permit unions to address all new teachers during their orientations. Such conversations could help unions recruit new members, and thereby mitigate the negative effects of an unfavorable ruling in Friedrichs. As reporter Christopher Cadelago wrote:

Up against the clock in the Legislature, the labor groups are pushing for a bill that could give unions some time—a half-hour—to meet with employees to voice the benefits of union participation. That, some believe, could prevent workers from fully withdrawing from their ranks if the court rules against fair share fees.

One version of the teacher unions’ bill is “nearly identical” to a California bill that grants unions up to 30 minutes to speak to new home health-care workers during their orientation period. That law was passed shortly after the Supreme Court’s 2014 Harris v. Quinn ruling, which said that Illinois home health-care workers could not be required to pay agency fees. (Harris v. Quinn avoided the free-speech questions that will be considered in Friedrichs.)

Groups like the Association of California School Administrators, the California Association of School Business Officials, and the California Special Districts Association say that bills like the ones proposed by the teacher unions should be considered only after the Supreme Court makes its final decision in Friedrichs, and only when there is more time available for public comment.

I’d guess that if California legislators were planning on supporting a bill like this, they’d wait until after the Friedrichs decision came down, just as the home health-care worker bill passed after the Harris case was decided. Either way, we won’t have to speculate for much longer, because California’s legislative session ends this week.  

The For-Profit College Industry Is Losing its Most Loyal Politician

Congressman John Kline is not exactly a household name, even to D.C. politicos. And for the past dozen years, he’s preferred it that way. Kline has successfully flown under the radar while quietly becoming one of the most powerful politicians on education policy, reaching his apex in 2011 when he took the helm of the Education and the Workforce Committee.

Kline, who represents Minnesota’s 2nd District, announced yesterday that he will not be seeking reelection in 2016. While most are likely focused on the fact that this opens up a crucial seat in a noted swing district, you can be sure that the for-profit higher education industry is heartbroken.

That’s because Kline has notoriously been the industry’s closest political ally, taking gobs of contributions from for-profit education groups while fighting back regulations on the Hill designed to rein in the problematic sector. Nobody in Congress has taken more money from for-profits than John Kline—and since his appointment as the head of the education committee, his coffers have been flooded.

In 2010, he received $57,000 from for-profit institutions, according to OpenSecrets. In 2012, $204,000. And in 2014, $186,000. The money comes from the biggest (and most lucrative) for-profit education groups in the country. Most notable of them all is Apollo Education Group, which owns the biggest for-profit chain, University of Phoenix. In 2013-2014, the group spent nearly $400,000 in campaign contributions and in 2014 alone spent nearly $1.4 million in lobbying.

As the industry has exploded over the last ten years, so has its political influence and lobbying presence. Given that these schools are heavily dependent on federal student loans, wielding power at the Capitol is essential. The industry has become a political target for reform as it has become known for predatory recruiting tactics, lackluster training, and abysmal student outcomes. Recruiters regularly target low-income minority students who are prime candidates for financial aid, as well as military veterans who have GI Bill funding. When President Obama pledged to regulate the industry in 2010, lobbying became a priority. In 2009, the industry spent $2.9 million in lobbying; by 2011, that number reached $12.5 million.

The money has paid off so far as legislative reforms have run into various roadblocks. That’s mostly thanks to John Kline, who controls what education policy comes before his committee. In 2014, a bill that would have prevented for-profits from milking the federal aid system and targeting military veterans died within 15 minutes of being introduced in his committee. Kline said that the bill was “nongermane” to his hearing on financial aid.

Time and time again, Kline has used his position in Congress to beat back attempts at regulating for-profits all the while claiming that his biggest campaign contributors have no influence on his politics.

So as Kline announces his impending retirement, let’s keep an eye on what he does with the rest of his term as the gatekeeper on education policy. It will also be interesting to see the industry scramble as they try to find a replacement lap dog to continue championing their right to profit off the exploitation of vulnerable students. 

There's Plenty of Evidence on the Value of School Integration

I read an exchange on Twitter yesterday between Maggie Severns, an education reporter at Politico, and CJ Libassi, a researcher at the Education Policy Initiative, an organization committed to “applied, policy-relevant research for improved educational outcomes.” They were discussing my recent piece about Obama’s record on school integration. I was struck in particular by this part:



I found it surprising, and worrying, that a prominent education journalist and an education policy researcher would both say that they have looked around and cannot find “any actual evidence” on the value of school integration.

School desegregation conversations are complex and difficult, which is all the more reason we should strive to make our discussions as informed as they can be. I have no idea what Severns’ and Libassi’s attempts to find evidence looked like, but given that perhaps there are other mainstream journalists and researchers who have faced similar issues, I decided it would make sense to quickly post some starting points:

1. The Spivack Archive is an accessible social-science database that explores the impacts of ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic integration. Its stated purpose is to “provide scholars, education rights attorneys, policy makers, and the general public with accessible state-of-the-art knowledge.” The archive has been an on-going project led by sociologist Roslyn Mickelson since 2005. It’s received funding from the American Sociological Association, the National Science Foundation, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.

2. The National Coalition on School Diversity, which formed in 2009, has published a series of short policy briefs on the benefits of school integration. The briefs explore impacts on academic achievement, on college attendance, on poverty reduction, on non-minority student impacts, and other areas. NCSD is a coalition of educators, policy advocates, and civil rights leaders.

3. The Civil Rights Project/ Proyecto Derechos Civiles has commissioned hundreds of studies on issues related to desegregation, racial diversity, racial disparities in school discipline and other related areas. CRP is a research and policy think tank that was founded at Harvard in 1996, and has been run out of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies since 2007.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a decent place to start if you’re looking to familiarize yourself with some of the quality research. I hope more people do, especially those writing and thinking about education.  

How the NLRB Just Radically Changed Labor Relations

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board finally released its much-anticipated decision on a case that sets a new paradigm for labor relations and will likely send ripples through the workforce, particularly in the contracting and franchise sectors of the economy.

“The decision today could be one of the more significant by the NLRB in the last 35 years,” a labor lawyer who helped the Chamber of Commerce try to oppose the case told The New York Times.

The case pertained to whether the company Browning-Ferris was legally a joint employer of people hired by a contractor to staff the company’s recycling center. Ruling 3-2 along partisan lines, the NLRB answered with a resounding “absolutely.”

“It is not the goal of joint-employer law to guarantee the freedom of employers to insulate themselves from their legal responsibility to workers, while maintaining control of the workplace,” the Democratic majority wrote. “Such an approach has no basis in the act or in federal labor policy.”

The decision overturns decades of precedent that was set by the business-friendly Reagan-era NLRB. Defining a company and its contractors or franchisees as joint employers removes a shield that has been used by businesses to minimize costs, and in doing so, leave many workers with lower pay and limited protections.

As the Times explains, this decision will require parent companies, in addition to the contractor, to come to the bargaining table if its workers unionize. Previously, companies have fired contractors when their workers unionize, which would now be illegal.

While this case directly applies to contractors and the companies who hire them, labor experts are more interested in the pathways that this opens up for current efforts to organize fast-food workers. Companies like McDonald’s have long argued that they have no substantive influence over how its numerous franchisees operate their businesses, and thus aren’t the actual employers of the franchise workers. This ruling substantively means that McDonald’s, with its 12,500 franchise operations, is now a joint employer of 660,000 people.

Union organizers with the Fight for 15 and SEIU now have a considerable amount of leverage against McDonald’s headquarters. If one franchise store unionizes, corporate must come to the table as well. As Steven Greenhouse writes in The Atlantic, there are a number of pathways that union-organizing strategists are considering. They could get McDonald’s to sit down and agree to higher wages for both its corporate and franchise stores. Or they could launch a union push at so-called “hot shops” that are primed to unionize, which could feasibly result in dozens of unionized stores within a year.

The question then is how to avoid drawn-out contract negotiations. But still, it’s a breakthrough for the most vibrant labor-organizing movement in the country, and it gives organizers many more strategic options.

Apart from fast food, the decision will also have a profound impact on companies that outsource many functions to contractors. There’s been an uptick of union organizing among workers at staffing agencies or contractors hired by big tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. For instance, software-bug testers contracted by Microsoft recently voted to unionize. The NLRB decision would now require these tech giants to join its contractors at the bargaining table if workers unionize.

This is huge because it gives the ever-growing amount of temp, contingent, and contract workers a way to hold big companies more accountable for pay, benefits, and working conditions.

Not surprisingly, big business has been bracing for the decision and is not happy with the outcome. Lobbyists for the Chamber of Commerce and others in the big-biz lobby are pushing Republicans to overturn the NLRB ruling.

A vice president for the National Retail Federation had this to say: “This is further evidence that the NLRB has given up its position as an objective arbiter of workplace issues and sees itself as an advocate for organized labor as a means of imposing new workplace obligations and legal liabilities on well-known corporations.” Because, you know, increasing accountability for harmful business practices ain’t really copacetic with the corporate agenda.

What the Federal Poverty Line Leaves Out

The federal poverty line was first developed in 1963, and since then has been updated for inflation. Beyond the fact that it does not vary by geography (it’s a lot more expensive to live in New York City than in Tennessee), there are a number of flaws in the measurement. For instance, it was calculated by multiplying the cost of groceries by three (which consumed a larger portion of a family’s budget in the 1960s), while neglecting to factor in exact costs like housing, health care, child care, and transportation. But the costs of necessities like these have changed significantly in the past five decades.

In 2011, the Census Bureau released the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which was meant to improve our understanding of the state of U.S. poverty by accounting for regional variances as well as other costs such as child care. It also factors in assistance programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is important for demonstrating how federal policy can play a role in alleviating poverty.

But an even more nuanced measurement of economic well-being is the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator, which was updated yesterday to include 2014 numbers. The EPI calculator estimates how much it costs to “attain a secure yet modest living standard,” and provides data on ten different family sizes (one or two parents, with zero to five children) across 618 distinct geographic areas and cities. The new tool factors in community-specific expenses for housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, other necessities, and taxes, and the numbers it yields are startling.

For instance, in Morristown, Tennessee, which has the lowest cost of living, a two-parent, two-child family has a budget of $49,114—more than twice the 2014 poverty threshold of $24,008 for that size family. And forget economic security if you’re making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour in Morristown, even if you’re single with no children: Your monthly budget of $23,458, according to the calculator, is still well above the $15,080 in wages you’d take home in one year.

(Courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute)


One of the key findings of the updated calculator is the wide range of child-care costs across different regions, highlighting a limitation of the SPM, which applies geographic variability only to housing. According to the EPI calculator, a family of four in 500 of the 618 areas can expect to pay more for child care than for housing.

(Courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute)


Perhaps surprising to only a few, Washington, D.C., had the highest cost of living, according to the EPI calculator. That same family of four would need an annual budget of $106,493, which even the city’s higher minimum wage (set to increase to $11.50 an hour in 2016) would fall far short of. Another prominent calculator of living wages, that of MIT, finds similar discrepancies between actual costs of living and federal poverty thresholds, which can determine eligibility for certain assistance programs and provide a picture of how many Americans live with severe economic instability.

Even still, these calculations do not include such middle-class luxuries as saving for retirement or job loss, or paying for summer camp or sports programs for children—or even saving for college. It’s a more secure standard of living than our current poverty levels, but the emphasis is still on “modest.”

How Domestic-Worker Activists Helped Fight Jim Crow

From the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, to Ava DuVernay’s award-winning movie Selma, to #BlackLivesMatter activists who have refused to stay silent in the face of racial injustice, there has been no shortage of civil rights remembrances this year. And yet, there’s plenty about the struggle for racial justice many of us are not aware of. A case-in-point is the subject of historian Premilla Nadasen’s new book Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement. Nadasen’s text narrates the struggle and activism of 20th century domestic workers—women who were integral, yet rendered invisible—in the fight against racism and Jim Crow.

As someone who has reported previously on the inspiring labor organizing of domestic workers, I was floored by all the history I learned from Nadasen’s book. She focuses on household worker activists from the 1950s to the 1970s, though readers glean some context from before and after those decades as well.

You’ll learn about Marvel Cooke, an investigative journalist in the 1930s who went undercover to expose the disturbing working conditions of domestic workers in New York City. And you’ll read about Georgia Gilmore, who raised money for those boycotting buses in Montgomery, Alabama, by selling cakes and pies that she cooked daily. “Had it not been for people like Georgia Gilmore, Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been who he was,” Nadasen writes. There are others, like Geraldine Roberts who mobilized household workers to advocate for higher wages and job training in Cleveland, and Edith Barksdale Sloan, who helped to organize the first national organization of household workers: The Household Technicians of America (HTA).

Just last week, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the Department of Labor’s new regulations, issued in 2013, that entitle home care workers to minimum wage and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. For 80 years, these workers—mostly women, immigrants, and people of color—have toiled away without the basic labor protections that other workers have long been afforded. Yet while contemporary domestic worker organizations, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have been instrumental in pressuring governments to take action on behalf of the rights and needs of exploited workers, Nadasen’s book is a powerful reminder that 20th century activism, led by some truly incredible women, has helped to make our present-day victories possible.