Poverty & Wealth

The Least We Could Pay

AP Photo/Jim Mone, File
AP Photo/John Minchillo I n his campaign to drum up public support for a post-recess budget deal with Congress, President Barack Obama has repeated a call he first made in his 2013 State of the Union speech: an increase in the federal minimum wage. This past January, he called for a $9 minimum wage, up from the $7.25 rate that has remained unchanged the past four years. This week, at an Amazon packaging facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he said : “[B]ecause no one who works full-time in America should have to live in poverty, I will keep making the case that we need to raise a minimum wage that in real terms is lower than it was when Ronald Reagan took office. That means more money in consumers’ pockets, and more business for companies like Amazon.” A $9 federal minimum wage is higher than any current state’s minimum wage except Washington’s. When Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan and other Republicans dismissed the President’s call to raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation...

Strikes, Alliances, and Survival

Flikr
Fast-food workers in seven cities are set to walk off their jobs today in one-day actions, escalating what is quickly becoming a nationwide effort to win pay hikes in one of America’s premier poverty-wage industries. Backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the campaign is succeeding in publicizing the plight of low-wage workers in a growing number of states and cities. How it goes about actually winning higher wages, however, remains unclear. For its part, the AFL-CIO is preparing for its biennial convention this September, at which it will begin to hammer out some kind of formal affiliation or partnership with other, nonunion progressive organizations such as the NAACP and the Sierra Club. There are changes afoot within the union’s Working America affiliate—a Federation-run and –funded neighborhood canvass that has expanded from a purely (and brilliantly successful) electoral operation, building support for progressive Democrats among white working-class swing-...

The Depressing Picture of Economic Mobility in America

Today's New York Times has a big article by David Leonhardt on a new study of income mobility with a bunch of interesting findings, the core of which is that, especially for middle-class and poor people, where you live matters tremendously to your chances of improving your economic station. Here's an excerpt: But the researchers identified four broad factors that appeared to affect income mobility, including the size and dispersion of the local middle class. All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods. Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups. Regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates. But the researchers' analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and...

What Tom Friedman Doesn’t Understand About the Economy, Part 72

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
“Average is over,” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman likes to proclaim, and in at least one particular, he’s right. Friedman no longer writes average columns. With each passing week, his efforts become steadily more moronic. His latest , in Sunday’s paper, is entitled “Welcome to the Sharing Economy,” and in it, Friedman mistakes economic marginality and desperation for innovation and opportunity. The subject of this particular essay is Airbnb, a website where travelers go to rent bedrooms in other people’s homes. “There’s an innkeeper residing in all of us!” Friedman effuses, as he recounts how Airbnb may have as many as 200,000 people per night this summer plopping down in some stranger’s kid’s bedroom. Enthralled by the sheer techno-innovation of it all, Friedman doesn’t pause to ponder just what would impel a parent to turn over junior’s room for a few bucks. Could it be that the factory closed? That Wal-Mart pays so little? No matter: “Ordinary people can now be micro-...

The Great Detroit Betrayal

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
AP Photo/Duane Burleson D etroit has filed for bankruptcy. Most of the spot-news coverage has focused on the immediate fiscal crisis of the city, but the immediate fiscal crisis really isn’t what got the city into such deep trouble. Certainly, Detroit’s contracts with its employees and its debts to its retirees don’t explain anything about how and why this once-great city has come to such grief. Those contracts and retirement benefits are par for the course for major American cities—certainly, no more generous than those in cities of comparable size. Any remotely accurate autopsy of the city will find the cancer that killed Detroit was the decline of the American auto industry. The failure of U.S. automakers in the '70s, '80s and '90s to make better cars at a time when foreign-made autos were beginning to enter the U.S. market was surely one factor. Another was the trade deals that made it easy for Detroit automakers to relocate to cheaper climes—most particularly, NAFTA, which...

Rhode Island’s Small Victory

AP Photo/Susan E. Bouchard, File
AP Photo/Mel Evans W hen Governor Lincoln Chaffee signed the Temporary Care Giver’s Insurance law last week, Rhode Island became the third state—along with California and New Jersey—to grant paid time off to care for a sick loved one or a new baby. Rhode Island’s law, which goes into effect in 2014, will not only provide most workers with up to four weeks off with about two-thirds of their salaries (up to $752 a week), it will protect employees from being fired and losing their health insurance while they’re out. Workers will be able to use the time to care for a broad range of people, including children, spouses, domestic partners, parents, parent-in-laws, grandparents, and foster children. And, though the maximum single leave is four weeks, each parent can take four weeks off to bond with a new baby. A mother recovering from birth could combine that with an additional six weeks paid through an existing state program, bringing her total paid time off to ten weeks. An entire family...

The Food Stamp-Out

House Republicans’ newest tactic to dilute one of the most successful social welfare programs in the country’s history. 

AP Images/Michael Stravato
Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted to pass a farm bill—a bill that influences everything from your lovely weekend farmers market to the subsidies that have led every food in America to be made from corn—without what is normally its biggest component: nutrition programs, including food stamps. It introduces a new wrinkle into a two-year fight over the farm bill, a sleepy piece of legislation that must be passed every five years and is normally uncontroversial. Senate leadership, which passed a farm bill earlier in June, has said it won’t pass one without the food stamp portion. Senator Debbie Stabenow, the chair of the Senate agricultural committee, released a statement with a reminder of that yesterday: “The bill passed by the House today is not a real Farm Bill and is an insult to rural America, which is why it’s strongly opposed by more than 500 farm, food and conservation groups.” The split came after a bit of a ruckus: Last month, House leadership brought the farm bill...

Affirmative Action's Ominous Future

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak O ne thing the three most anticipated cases of the recently completed Supreme Court had in common: They left the big questions unanswered. Hollingsworth v. Perry , by ducking the question on jurisdictional grounds, left the constitutional status of state bans on same-sex marriage unresolved. Shelby County v. Holder theoretically permitted Congress to update the preclearance formula to put the teeth back into the Voting Rights Act. However, the Court gave lower courts and future Supreme Courts no useful guideline for how Congress could proceed. (Admittedly, the answer for how Congress can constitutionally proceed, at least for the Roberts Court, is almost certainly "it can't.") The term's clearest passing of the buck was the decision in the affirmative-action case, Fisher v. University of Texas . While many people (including me) expected the Court to use the case as a vehicle to declare virtually all affirmative action in public higher education...

The Part-Timer Problem

The Obama Administration’s decision to delay for a year the penalty that employers (in firms of 50 or more employees) must pay if they don’t provide health insurance to their workers shines a light on a problem that may be even more profound than getting health coverage for every American: that is, the decline of the American job. The employer mandate was designed for an economy in which American workers were employed in what had been normal jobs. In firms of 50 or more, all workers who put in at least 30 hours a week were either to receive coverage from the firm or else the firm would have to pay the government a $2,000 yearly penalty. Problem is, fewer and fewer workers are putting in 30 hours a week. To begin with, labor-force participation is at its lowest level since women increased their work-force participation in the 1970s. It has declined even during the past four years of so-called recovery. The past four years have also seen a rise in the percentage of workers who are part-...

Murky Language Puts Homes Underwater

Banks around the country are exploiting a loophole to foreclose on homes that shouldn't be in the crosshairs. 

AP Images/Don Ryan
AP Images/Don Ryan Revelations from Bank of America whistleblowers show widespread and ongoing abuse of homeowners seeking loan modifications to avoid foreclosure. Customer service representatives were told to lie about pending modifications and were given bonuses for pushing homeowners into default. The allegations mirror continued complaints about “dual tracking,” a practice where mortgage servicers pursue foreclosure while deciding whether or not to grant a loan modification. Servicers at the five biggest banks were required to pay $25 billion in fines and agree to dozens of new guidelines to curb these abuses as part of last year’s National Mortgage Settlement. While the banks argue that they have fixed any outstanding problems, a recent report from the settlement’s oversight monitor, Joseph Smith, showed continuing violations in several key areas, though not to the degree that housing advocates claim . This discrepancy between homeowner complaints and bank pleas of innocence can...

Class-Based Affirmative Action Is Not the Answer

Economic diversity is just as irrelevant to actual equality as racial diversity has been.

 

AP Images/Charles Rex Arbogast
AP Images/Charles Rex Arbogast T he reason affirmative action matters is not because of the possible educational benefits of diversity but because it raises a more fundamental question: do race-conscious admissions policies amount to unjustifiable discrimination against white people or are they an appropriate response to both past and present discrimination against black people? But even though racism against blacks and Latinos remains a real issue in American society (the idea that whites are also its victims is a joke the Supreme Court has never gotten), the fundamental inequalities in American life today—the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer—are not produced by discrimination and cannot be resolved by anti-discrimination. And affirmative action—whether class-based or race-based—is only a way of buttressing those inequalities. As is, indeed, the entire emphasis on education as the key to a more economically just society. In other words, the reason both affirmative action...

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...

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