Poverty & Wealth

Kansas Bleeds the Middle Class

Are we on our way to becoming a low-wage nation? Recent trends in suburban poverty indicate that Americans are facing an uphill battle to secure well-paying jobs.

AP Images/Don Ryan
AP Images/Don Ryan K ansas City is a little bit plainsy, and a little bit Southern, straddling the Missouri-Kansas border. It is an old city, especially compared to others west of the Mississippi, fueled in its early years by farming money and trade from settlers heading west. Kansas City proper is on the Missouri side, and Kansas City, Kansas, or KCK, sits like a stepchild on the other side, absorbing most of the urban core’s poverty and crime. The cities themselves have some of the fastest-growing poverty rates in the country, but in the suburbs, the number of low-income families has more than doubled since before the Great Recession. Suburban poverty has been exploding for a decade, and that growth accelerated so much during the Great Recession that the Brookings Institution devoted a special research project to the trend, and released their report a few weeks ago. It has continued to grow: Overall, poverty in suburbs rose by 64 percent, increasing at a rate that was twice as fast...

Charting a Moral Monday, from the Capitol to the Prison Bus

Jenny Warburg
Jenny Warburg Thousands of people have been taking part in the weekly rallies. At the one on June 10, there were over 1,400 protesters swarming the Capitol building. Thousands of demonstrators have been congregating at the North Carolina State Capitol for weeks to protest the increasingly tone-deaf policies being trotted out by the General Assembly. As Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis put it in our May/June issue , There is growing anger over the GOP agenda. In April, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP began organizing what it calls “Moral Monday” protests at the General Assembly in response to the Republican assault on programs serving the state’s poorest and most vulnerable residents, timed to coincide with the opening of the session each week, the protests have drawn thousands of people to the legislature from throughout the state, a diverse crowd that has included young and old, black and white, students, working people, professionals, and retirees. Some protesters have engaged in...

Pacifiers and Pink Slips

AP Images/Joel Ryan
Would you lose your job if, for a few months, you had to run to the bathroom more often than your coworkers? Or your doctor told you to carry a water bottle and drink as often as possible? Or if you were told you couldn’t lift more than twenty pounds for a few months? Probably not, if you’re a white-collar worker. And probably not, if you’re a blue- or pink-collar worker—a janitor, factory worker, health aide, retail clerk—who’s strained your back or has some other condition covered as a temporary disability by the Americans with Disabilities Act’s Amendments Act (ADAAA, or “AD triple A,” as the insiders say it) of 2008. But yes, you might well lose your job for that if you’re pregnant. Pregnancy doesn’t qualify as a disability. So if you’re a pregnant low-wage worker, your boss could very well tell you that if you can’t follow the workplace’s standard rules—about bathroom breaks, water bottles, standing all day, or carrying trash bags weighing up to 30 pounds—you have to stay home...

Agee, Before He Was Famous

Can a rediscovered first draft of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men speak more directly to our time than the finished masterpiece? 

Library of Congress
B y age 26, James Agee had spent four years at Fortune , the glossy magazine created by Henry Luce to celebrate the American business class, filing un-bylined reportage on topics like orchid cultivation and cockfighting and the occasional skeptical item on how the new Tennessee Valley Authority was playing out. Most writers would consider it a plum job, especially in the early 1930s. But Agee, politically progressive and instinctively adversarial, was uneasy over the magazine’s thrall to the lavish life. He had ambitions worthy of a Blake or a Dostoevsky: highly personal, mythic literature meant to get “as near truth and whole truth as is humanly possible,” as he put it in a letter in early 1936. A few months later, Agee got an assignment that spoke to his ideals. As part of Fortune ’s “Life and Circumstances” series, he was to travel to Southern cotton country and live among poor working families. Agee had grown up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and he descended from Southern Appalachian...

The End of the Austerity Crusade?

Rex Features via AP Images
I s President Obama planning to reverse course on deficit reduction? You will recall that the president joined the deficit-hawk crowd in calling for more than $4 trillion of deficit reduction over the next decade; that he has offered to cut Social Security and Medicare as part of a grand bargain (that the Republicans mercifully rejected); that it was Obama who appointed the Bowles-Simpson Commission; and that his own budget for FY 2014 includes substantial spending cuts. But, with the 2014 midterm election looming and the recovery stuck in second gear with mediocre job creation, there is zero chance of a grand-budget bargain that includes tax increases, and interest rates are creeping up (which will slow the recovery further). Europe demonstrates that austerity economics are a proven failure. Even the International Monetary Fund says so . So let us read the tea leaves. First, the president has just named Jason Furman to chair the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). Furman was a...

I Would Desire That You Pay the Ladies

AP Images/Susan Walsh
AP Images/Susan Walsh Fifty years ago today, in 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act. The idea was simple: Men and women doing the same work should earn the same pay. Straightforward enough, right? Change the law, change the world, be home by lunchtime. Well, maybe not by lunchtime . After all, back then the law still accepted the idea that men and women were born for different jobs. Newspapers like The Washington Post still had separate classified ad sections for “men’s” jobs and “women’s” jobs. Female law school graduates had trouble even getting interviews. The pre-1963 world being what it was–sexist, in a word—you’d figure activists might well have estimated that the culture would need at least a decade to catch up and treat women fairly on the job. “When I first came to the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, which is now the National Partnership for Women & Families (NPWF), in 1974, it was very fashionable to walk around with those big buttons that had “59¢” with the...

Ghosts of the Rio Grande

Every year hundreds of immigrants die along the U.S.-Mexico border. Too many are never identified. 

AP Images
AP Images T he path across the border is littered with bodies. Bodies old and bodies young. Bodies known and bodies unknown. Bodies hidden, bodies buried, bodies lost, and bodies found. The stories of the dead haunt the frontier towns from Nuevo Laredo to Nogales, and even deep within the interior of Mexico down to Honduras, someone always knows someone who has vanished—one of los desaparecidos— during their journey north. Many of those missing end up in the South Texas soil. Out on the Glass Ranch, a man named Wayne Johnson stumbles upon a skull, some bones, and a pair of dentures scattered near a dry pond. During a bass fishing tournament at La Amistad Lake, anglers come upon a decomposing corpse near the water’s edge. Late one summer night, a train rumbles down the Union Pacific Line, but it fails to rouse a father and son slumbering on the tracks. For 2012, Brooks County, with a population of just 7,223, reported 129 deaths from immigrants trying to evade the Border Patrol...

The Ugly Side of D.C.'s Corporate Bipartisanship

AP Images
AP Images/Ashraful Alam Tito Over the past month, an oceanic divide has opened between European and American retailers on the question of how to respond to the manmade epidemic of deadly disasters in the garment industry of Bangladesh, the world’s second largest clothing exporter. In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza fire on April 24, which killed at least 1,127 workers, a group of roughly 40 European retailers—including H&M, Carrefour, Bennetton, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer— signed on to a plan binding them to fund both a regimen of independent factory inspections and the improvements required to make those factories safe. But only three U.S.-based fashion companies and retailers —Abercrombie & Fitch, PVH (which includes the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Izod labels), and Sean John (Sean Combs’s company)—have become party to the compact, despite the repeated urgings of anti-sweatshop and workers' rights organizations. Wal-Mart, Gap, Target, Sears, JCPenney, and other...

Children of Color in the Persistent Downturn

At the peak of economic boom times in 2000, the U.S. child-poverty rate reached a historic low of 16.2 percent. Even then, UNICEF ranked the United States as having the second highest child-poverty rate out of 26 rich countries. The United States had a child-poverty rate twice Germany’s, five times Sweden’s, and nearly ten times Denmark’s. The only country scoring worse than the United States was Mexico. The picture is substantially bleaker today. The child-poverty rate reached 21.9 percent in 2011. For many children of color and for immigrant children, poverty rates are typically higher than the overall average, and they have worsened over the prolonged downturn. In the “good” economic times of 2000, the official Latino child-poverty rate was 28.4 percent. By 2011, that rate had jumped to 34.1 percent. For African American children, the child-poverty rate went from 31.2 percent in 2000 to 38.8 percent in 2011. Poverty is also extreme among immigrant children. In 2011, one out of two...

A Shredded Safety Net

“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.” —Mitt Romney, February 1, 2012 I n 1996, the year that Congress passed and Bill Clinton signed welfare reform, fulfilling his campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” there were 14.5 million poor children in the United States; 8.5 million children were in families that received cash assistance from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), or welfare. Even then, nearly half of poor children were not in families that received welfare. Following welfare reform, the number of families receiving assistance declined dramatically. Buoyed by the strong economy and the expansion of other key work supports, including child-care subsidies, public health insurance under Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, the number of single mothers in the workforce increased and child poverty declined. However, starting in the early 2000s, progress stalled and poverty rates...

The Millennial Squeeze

It's not Social Security deficits that are destroying the life chances of the young but a prolonged slump confounded by bad policies. 

AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin
AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin Generational fairness has been a big theme of the austerity crusaders, whose most strident advocates tend to be financiers and business titans of substantial net worth. Yet their calls to radically reduce social investment out of a sense of generational equity diminishes the prospects of young people. The true generational injustice has little to do with the projected public debt and everything to do with the real crisis going on right now. Today’s young adults—especially 20- and 30-somethings with young children—face shrinking opportunity and growing insecurity. The fate of today’s infants and toddlers is inextricably connected to that of their millennial--generation parents. Two-thirds of children under the age of 5 are raised by parents younger than 34. The true generational injustice is a threadbare to nonexistent social contract that has made it harder than ever before for the young to either work or educate their way into the middle class—and stay...

Children of the Great Collapse

AP Photo/Bloomsburg Press Enterprise, Bill Hughes
AP Photo/Kin Cheung Here’s a piece of good news of which you might not be aware: The U.S. safety net performed a lot better than you thought during the recent downturn, which was the deepest since the Depression. Thanks to expansions to the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and unemployment insurance—all beefed up by the $840 billion Recovery Act—the safety net almost wholly mitigated the rise in child poverty. Even middle-income households saw most of their income losses substantially offset by tax and transfer policies that sharply ramped up to help them. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of the Recovery Act’s outlays have now been spent, and pressure to reduce deficits leaves other spending on children and families under assault. While the safety net performed well during the worst phase of the downturn, other trends have been troubling. Families lost trillions of dollars in home equity, the largest source of wealth for working- and middle-...

The Wealthy Kids Are All Right

In a tough economy with dwindling social supports, children of privilege have a bigger head start than ever.

AP Photo/Luigi Costantini
T wo 21-year-old college students sit down in a coffee shop to study for an upcoming test. Behind the counter, a barista whips up their double-shot lattes. In the back kitchen, another young adult washes the dishes and empties the trash. These four young adults have a lot in common. They are the same age and race, each has two parents, and all grew up in the same metropolitan area. They were all strong students in their respective high schools. But as they enter their third decade, their work futures and life trajectories are radically different—and largely determined at this point. The culprit is the growing role of inherited advantage, as affluent families make investments that give their children a leg up. Combined with the 2008 economic meltdown and budget cuts in public investments that foster opportunity, we are witnessing accelerating advantages for the wealthy and compounding disadvantages for everyone else. One of the college students, Miranda, will graduate without any...

Promoting Human Rights versus Promoting Prostitution

PEPFAR’s anti-prostitution “loyalty oath” is hindering aid groups’ efforts to help sex workers.

flickr/Wahid Adnan
PRNewsFoto/George W. Bush Institute P eople have always bought and sold sex, sometimes risking shame or punishment. But these days, simply helping a sex worker can have costly legal and financial consequences. Under the U.S.’s flagship international aid program on HIV and AIDS, an organization that gives out free condoms at a brothel, for example, might be deemed in violation of the program’s anti-prostitution policy, and, as a result, risk losing public funding. Public-health groups see this not only as an impediment on reaching the people most in need but as a threat to their freedom of speech. After several years of legal battles, the fight against the policy has now reached the Supreme Court, which is set to rule in late June on whether Washington can financially penalize organizations that defy its official stance against the sex trade. The rule, known as the anti-prostitution “loyalty oath,” was enacted in 2003 as part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR),...

The New New Haven

Jesse Lenz
Major Ruth became a civic leader because he made a promise to his neighbor, Brian Wingate. Both had moved to the Beaver Hills section of New Haven, Connecticut, in 2003. A neighborhood of aging single--family homes that had seen better days, Beaver Hills had been targeted by the city for a housing--rehabilitation program, and, with the zeal of new arrivals, Ruth, a manager at the local utility company, and Wingate, a custodian and union steward at nearby Yale University, sought to involve themselves in neighborhood--improvement ventures. That proved harder than they had anticipated. Although New Haven aldermanic districts are tiny, encompassing no more than 4,300 residents, Ruth and Wingate couldn’t find anyone who could identify, much less locate, their alderman. “We joked that one of us would run for alderman and the other would have to run his campaign,” Ruth says. In 2010, Wingate told Ruth he was running and a deal was a deal. “It started out as a simple promise,” Ruth says, “but...

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