Poverty & Wealth

They Work Hard for the Money

(AP/Mel Evans
(AP/Mel Evans) Cargo containers are stacked on the deck of the Mediterranean Shipping Company's vessel at Port Newark in Newark, New Jersey. As work becomes increasingly a matter of machines building or moving other machines, workers either lose their jobs or—if they are fortunate enough to keep their jobs—become vastly more productive. Productivity surged in the U.S. during the early years of the current downturn when companies laid off workers by the millions and replaced them with machines. Revenues per employee at the S&P 500, the Wall Street Journal reported, rose from $378,000 in 2007 to $420,000 in 2010. And yet, the wages and benefits of employed Americans experienced no corresponding increase as workers’ productivity rose. Indeed, over the past quarter-century, as economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have reported, all productivity gains have gone to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans. In the quarter-century following World War II, by contrast, productivity...

Reaping What Elections Sow

(Flickr/ BKM_BR)
In 2010, Tea Party mania influenced elections at every level—congressional races and governorships, most famously. But the biggest impact was on state legislatures, where 21 house or senate chambers flipped from Democratic to Republican control. In states like Texas, Republican majorities turned into supermajorities; in the Texas House, Democrats were no longer needed to make up a quorum. All the legislative energy was on the side of Tea Party Republicans. They made sweeping, historic changes—to labor laws, to health care, to reproductive rights, and, most of all, to state budgets and public school funding. In a few weeks, voters in most states will be choosing new lawmakers again. They'll make their decisions based in part on how they believe the incumbents governed over the last two years. But because of the massive scale of changes ushered in by Tea Party Republicans, it's going to be extremely difficult—if not downright impossible—for voters to judge the effects of those changes...

Your Credit Score Could Be A Fake

Say you want to buy a house or a car and you need a loan to do it. You do what every personal finance site recommends and obtain a free copy of your credit report from annualcreditreport.com . Then, urged on by the ads from TransUnion, Equifax, or Experian—the “big three” credit reporting firms that compile the reports—you opt for not only the free report but also shell out for what the companies promise is your actual three-digit credit score . A number! Now, you may think, I know what the auto lenders and banks making mortgages really think of me. I have a sense of what rates I qualify for and what type of car or home I can afford. There’s just one problem: the score you paid for is likely not the same one potential lenders will use to assess you . In fact, it could be way off. What many consumers don’t realize is that they have no single “credit score”— FICO alone has more than 49 different scoring models . And new research from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) finds...

"One Thing I've Learned: We're All Vulnerable."

You want another reason I hate presidential campaign season? It obscures real problems, the very problems the election is about . Okay, so that’s the same gripe I had yesterday . So let me introduce you to someone who's not just griping, but is doing something about it. Harold Pollack is a health policy analyst who, despite his terrifyingly smart and accomplished credentials , has an extraordinary ability to see social policy the way ordinary humans do: as a series of needlessly frustrating encounters with indifferent bureaucratic machinery. Over and over, he tells the stories of how ordinary human beings of limited abilities or limited means get dropped by the systems our society set up to help them. His stories have a liberal heart—in the sense that he clearly believes societies have a responsibility to help the weakest and most vulnerable—but contain no apologies for system failure. He lets the stories speak for themselves. And that is an extraordinary skill. For quite some time,...

So Much For The End of Men

Do you know what I dislike about presidential election campaigns? Okay, a lot of things. But among my gripes is the way presidential campaigns overshadow all other news, at least in the U.S. media. For months, the candidates’ every cough shoves everything else off the front pages and top-of-the-hour news summaries. Major news gets downgraded to fewer inches and minutes; other news simply disappears. Remember Syria , where there’s a civil war going on that in which people are battling a dictator? Did anyone notice that a new study links BPA – a chemical used in plastic food packaging –to childhood obesity? Oh, never mind, Paul Ryan got an intelligence briefing. And his eyes are blue. Yes, I get grumpy about it. I’m just not enough of a junkie to want to parse polls all day; it’s too much like debating sports scores, which are boring. I care about the election, but only because I care about the underlying issues— which are what I want to hear about, please. What kind of underlying...

Richie Rich Aces the SAT

(Flickr/sacmclubs)
(Flickr/sacmclubs) A California high schooler takes the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The College Board released its data on 2012 SAT scores on Monday, and beneath the headlines (which tallied how much SAT scores have slipped as more and more students take the test) was a revealing picture of the influence of students’ household income on their performance. The influence couldn’t be more decisive. The board measured household income in increments of $20,000—starting with students from households making $0 to $20,000 annually, then $20,000 to $40,000, all the way up to $160,000—then an increment of $40,000 ($160,000 to $200,000) and then a final category of more than $200,000. And SAT scores rose considerably at every step in the income scale. The poorest students, from households making less than $20,000 had a mean combined score of 1322 out of 2400; the next highest, 1397; then 1458, then 1497—all the way to a score of 1722 for students from households making more than $200,000...

Puncturing Myths about the White Working Class

A new survey and report from the Public Religion and Research Institute—entitled “Beyond God and Guns”—is a valuable corrective to so many stereotypes of the white working class. Particularly noteworthy in this report are the large and important differences within the white working class—by age, region, gender, and party, to name a few. For example, consider this: In mid-August, Romney held a commanding 40-point lead over Obama among white working-class voters in the South (62% vs. 22%). However, neither candidate held a statistically significant lead among white working-class voters in the West (46% Romney vs. 41% Obama), Northeast (42% Romney vs. 38% Obama), or the Midwest (36% Romney vs. 44% Obama). The report amplifies some of the findings I discussed in my “zombie” post —not only how different the white working class is within and outside the South, but how much more social issues affect the political choices of the white college-educated more than the white working class. Along...

Romney’s Bigger Lie

Lots of Republican conservatives, Paul Ryan and Bill O’Reilly among them, have taken the position that even if Mitt Romney’s rhetoric was clumsy, his point was basically right. Some Americans pay taxes; others collect benefits. But his basic claim was total baloney. When you count income taxes, payroll taxes, excise taxes, and highly regressive state and local taxes, the typical lower income working American pays about one-fifth of his or her income in taxes—more than Mitt Romney! According to a study by Citizens for Tax Justice, the bottom fifth of the income distribution paid 17.4 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The second-poorest fifth paid 21.2 percent. There are in fact about 18 percent of Americans who pay neither federal payroll nor income taxes. They are overwhelmingly the unemployed and the low-income elderly, neither of whom pay payroll taxes. As pollster Celinda Lake observes, Romney’s big lie is very important to refute. Even if voters reacted negatively...

In Pennsylvania, a Victory for Voting Rights—Sorta

(Flickr/whiteafrican)
It's a lot easier to talk about a law—and pass one—than to implement it. Just ask Pennsylvania lawmakers—and Pennsylvania citizens, and judges, and voting-rights activists. The state's voter ID law, passed by Republican lawmakers in March, is best known for threatening to disenfranchise more voters than laws in any other stae. But in mid-August, Pennsylvania Judge Robert Simpson refused to grant an injunction to stop the state from implementing the law in November. The judge said that he believed state officials' assurances that they had plans in place (though some were still not in action) to prevent widespread disenfranchisement. Those promises are not enough for the state supreme court. On Tuesday, in a 4-2 decision, the court vacated Simpson's decision. The justices sent the case back to the commonwealth court judge, requiring him to use a much higher bar than the one the state had to meet in his courtroom the last time around. Simpson originally ruled that the burden fell to the...

#OWS Is Not the Liberal Tea Party

The progressive movement is the real counterpoint to the Tea Party, and it was made much stronger by the 99 percent's successful attempt to change the conversation on inequality.

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
At an event this weekend marking the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, I was reminded why the success of these protests was so improbable in the first place. It wasn’t just that we’d tried this sort of thing before and it had never worked. It wasn’t the predominance of anarchists, whom we were all accustomed to dismissing as the irrelevant fringe at progressive protests. It was also the smell. New York City smells bad enough on its own. But put populists in a public encampment for a few days, and it stinks. After months, it’s repulsive. I was an early skeptic of Occupy Wall Street. “I want to know what democracy looks like, not what it smells like,” I wrote at the time. This was a roundabout way of criticizing the movement for its lack of polish, its incoherent leadership structure, its fuzzy demands—all that chaos that was swarming around Zuccotti Park. On its face, Occupy was a Type-A organizer’s worst nightmare. Yet, despite the odds that stood against it, Occupy Wall...

How We Should (Voter) Roll

(Flickr/crownjewel82)
David Becker is unusual in national politics. He talks about inaccuracies in voting rolls, dead people still registered, and the like. He says the bad information is a big problem. But he's not on the far right talking about voter fraud or the need for major purges to the states' rolls before an election. Instead, he's the director of election initiatives for the non-partisan Pew Center on the States. And his research tells him that better data would actually help more people vote—and make elections a smoother, more efficient process that should please folks on both sides of the political divide. Far-right groups argue that voter fraud is rampant, and demand that states do more to delete names on the lists. The left brushes off the fraud claim (citing facts), focusing instead on voter registration drives. There's not much common ground. But an investment in better tools to manage voter registration—and allow for online registration—would make a huge difference to both camps: It would...

In Pennsylvania, Voting Rights on Trial—Again

(Flickr/loop_oh)
Hey—remember Pennsylvania's voter-ID law? The really strict one that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters? The controversy over the law died down in mid-August, when a commonwealth court ruled the law would stand . Since then, however, the voting rights advocates who'd filed suit appealed to the state's Supreme Court. There, on Thursday, justices heard the case. But it garnered little in the way of headlines. That's probably because Pennsylvania no longer looks up for grabs in the presidential race. The state's strict voter-ID law, which require voters to show a government-issued photo ID, disadvantages Democratic candidates, since the law disproportionately affects poor and nonwhite voters—those more likely to vote Democratic. When the presidential race was tight, the outcome in Pennsylvania seemed like it might be up for grabs, and many worried the voter-ID law would determine which candidate would receive Pennsylvania's electoral votes—or win the whole election,...

What Does Labor Need to Do to Survive?

In reporting my piece on labor’s future (" If Labor Dies, What's Next? "), I talked with a number of labor leaders and activists about their ideas for what unions need to do differently to survive—and make a difference—in today’s political economy. Here are my edited versions of four such discussions: Randi Weingarten Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers School districts are cutting professional development, increasing class size, cutting art and music education, and blaming teachers for not doing a good job at the same time that the poverty rates for children are increasing. We can complain about that, but we have to do something about that. We can’t just tell the districts and the legislators to do a better job. What we realized is we need to solve the problem. We have to focus on quality as well as fairness. Teachers need and want to share best practices with each other. They want to know how to make their lessons more robust. Education is going...

Poverty Stays Static, But Income Inequality Widens

As economists keep telling us, the Great Recession is officially over. The U.S. gross domestic product grew by a sad 1.8 percent last year. Here's why you probably don't know it: Just about every ounce of economic gain went to the top. The Census Bureau released 2011 numbers from the annual population survey: The median household income was $50,100, which is 1.5 percent lower than in 2010. Overall, it has fallen 8.1 percent since 2007, the last year before the Great Recession. Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Jared Bernstein, an economist and senior fellow there, noted in a conference call with reporters that, before 2007, middle-level incomes were stagnant—so they were holding steady before falling. If we go back to 1997—remember those heady Clinton years?—median household income was $51,704 in 2011-adjusted dollars. Poverty didn't increase—it held steady at 15 percent—which wasn't expected because it had increased for every one of the...

Rahm's Wedge

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Put aside for a moment the particulars of the Chicago teachers’ strike and look at the broader picture. Rahm Emanuel is only one of a number of Democratic mayors and governors who are going after public-employee unions. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is also at loggerheads with the city’s teacher union. In San Jose, a Democratic mayor and city council scaled back the city employees’ pensions (and so did city voters when they were asked to ratify that decision). In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has tangled with a number of public-sector unions. The battle between management and labor seems to have spread to the very center of the Democratic Party. To some degree, this is a predictable response to the fiscal crisis states have faced during a severe recession—something’s got to give, and a number of chief executives have said it’s union benefits. Nonetheless, a number of the chief executives who’ve taken on unions are from jurisdictions with lots of rich folks on whom they’...

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