Poverty & Wealth

Needling for Change

AP Images/Jae C. Hong

For the first few years Liz Evans worked at the Portland Hotel Society, a network of homeless shelters in central Vancouver, she would arrive at her job already exhausted. On her morning walk through Downtown Eastside—a neighborhood infamous as the poorest zip code in Canada—she stepped over drug addicts passed out in doorways and sidled around alleys where people would cook dope and shoot up in broad daylight. It was 1993, and Vancouver was in the throes of an HIV epidemic. Tens of thousands of impoverished injection drug users were crammed into a fifteen-block radius. The Portland Hotel Society was one of the few housing projects in the city that welcomed drug addicts, and working there felt like triage. Evans, a nurse, trained her staff to intervene when the residents overdosed. “It was such a painful time,” Evans says. “These weren’t people who were partying or using drugs to have fun. They were poor and sick and dying.”

Why Can't You Miserable Commoners Be Happier With Your Lot?

This is the look of satisfaction Tom Perkins gets right after shouting, "Release the hounds!" (Flickr/JD Lasica)

Venture capital billionaire Tom Perkins may be new to the trolling game, but he made an absolutely spectacular debut when he wrote to the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back warning that resentment toward the super-rich in American society reminded him a lot of the Nazi campaign against the Jews. Then last weekend, he followed that bit of wisdom by proposing that the wealthy ought to get more votes than the unwashed masses, since they pay more in taxes. "The Tom Perkins system is: You don't get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes," he said in a speech. "But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How's that?"

That, you're probably saying, is abominable. Why not just let the richest one person choose the president? He's got the most money, so he's obviously the wisest and has the greatest interest in government, right? Although Perkins might not be too pleased with that outcome, since the richest person in America is Bill Gates, who seems pretty liberal, what with his efforts to improve global health and fight poverty rather than letting the sick and destitute contemplate their well-deserved fate while they gaze up in admiration at their betters.

Okay, so Tom Perkins is kind of a lunatic. But is he a representative lunatic? Do his peers up in the penthouse suite and down at the yacht club think the same things he does, or is he an outlier?

How Big Banks Are Cashing In On Food Stamps

AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli

The Agricultural Act of 2014, signed into law by President Obama last Friday, includes $8 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next decade. One way the bill proposes to accomplish these savings is by reducing food stamp fraud. When the new farm bill is enacted, many of America’s hardest working families will experience cuts in services and have trouble putting food on their family’s table. But there will be major gains for an industry that most Americans might not expect: banking.

Stress, Poverty, and the Childhood Reading Gap

Most Americans think education is the key to upward mobility, that all we need to do to break the cycle is to help the next generation do well in school and rise into the middle class. A growing body of research, however, is showing that poverty and hunger can harm children’s cognitive development. The challenges of poverty, and the often-violent neighborhoods poor children live in, are impeding their progress in school.

A Mighty Shout in North Carolina

Jenny Warburg

Geoffrey Zeger didn’t attend last year’s Moral Mondays, the series of civil- disobedience events at which more than 900 people were arrested at the North Carolina legislature. The weekday occupations, coordinated by the N.C. NAACP to protest the state’s sharp-right policy turn, conflicted with Zeger’s work schedule. But when he learned that tens of thousands of demonstrators planned to descend on Raleigh last weekend, the private-practice social worker from Durham couldn’t stay away.

Could Postal Banking Be the Next Big Thing?

This doesn't actually have anything to do with postal banking. It's just awesome. (Flickr/grilled cheese)

It's often said that being poor is really expensive, and one of the most painful ways is what millions of Americans have to pay in order to make sure their bills are accounted for. If you're poor, time and money and intertwined in ways that people who aren't poor don't have to worry about. When your income and your expenses are right around the same amount, you have to worry about timing constantly. I'm not getting paid for a week, but this utility bill is due in three days, and I have to set aside enough for food and gas—how should I handle that? If I write my rent check on the same day as I get my paycheck, will the former clear before the latter? For many, the only choice to avoid catastrophes like getting evicted or having your power cut off going to one of the payday lenders and check-cashing operations you can find in every poor neighborhood. And since those payday lenders know their customers have no other options, they make them pay through the nose. As an analysis by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau showed, "Fees at storefront payday lenders generally range from $10 to $20 per $100, though loans with higher fees are possible...A fee of $15 per $100 is quite common for a storefront payday loan, and would yield an APR of 391% on a typical 14-day loan." The median interest rate for the loans they examined was an incredible 322 percent.

If we wanted to do something about this appalling exploitation of the poor, what are our options? One solution is tighter regulation of payday lenders, limiting their usurious interest rates and requiring them to offer reasonable terms to their customers. Colorado passed requirements like that a few years ago, and they've succeeded in reducing the amount of misery payday lenders can pour upon the state's most vulnerable citizens (there are details here). But there's another option. There's an organization that has thousands of locations around the country, already performs some financial transactions (selling money orders), and is eager for new sources of revenue. It's called the Postal Service. If they began offering some limited banking services, it would seem like a win for everyone—poor Americans would get access to banking without crippling interest rates, and the USPS would make money. Who could possibly object?

Heat or Something to Eat? New SNAP Rules Might Force Poor Families to Choose

AP Images/Gerry Broome

The Senate is expected to vote on the Farm Bill today, which could reach President Obama’s desk later this week. A new version of the bill, which comes up for reauthorization every five years, has been delayed for two years; Congress has simply been renewing the most recent farm bill for short periods of time while the House and Senate fought over the details in the new one.

Investing in Stock Buybacks, Not People

AP Images/Richard Drew

One fundamental reason why the American economy continues to limp along is that no one—at least, no one with major bucks—is investing in it. The Obama Administration countered the collapse of private sector investment in 2009 with its stimulus program, which, alas, was partially offset by all the cutbacks in state and local government spending. It’s not been able, however, to get any subsequent investment projects through the Republican House. The private sector—the corporate sector more particularly—returned not just to profitability but record profitability by the middle of 2010, but its profits have neither resulted from nor led to increased investment.

Now It’s Time to Talk About Chicago’s Tale of Two Cities

AP Images/Charles Rex Arbogast

Rahm Emanuel has a favorite four-letter word for members of the labor movement. When Emanuel was White House chief of staff, he was told that tens of thousands of autoworkers could lose their jobs if General Motors and Chrysler didn’t receive a federal bailout. His response: “Fuck the UAW.” As mayor of Chicago, Emanuel became so enraged during negotiations with Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, that he shouted “Fuck you, Lewis.” (The teachers went on strike for seven days, claiming Emanuel had “disrespected” them, as well as tried to force them to work longer hours after reneging on a promised pay raise.)

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 their key table:

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.

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.

New Year, Same Intellectual Dishonesty

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.

Class War: The View From the Board Room

The 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.”

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?

Pages