Poverty & Wealth

Farm Bill on Life Support as Drought Worsens

(Flickr/David Morris)
This month, the House agriculture committee finished its work on the farm bill—a massive piece of legislation that sets policy on everything from government subsidies to food stamps. Even though the Senate had passed its version of the farm bill, which must be reauthorized every five years, no one expected House Majority Leader John Boehner to bring the House committee’s version to the floor before the August recess. Since the farm bill is likely to rile both the Tea Party caucus, which will balk at the huge subsidies that go to some of the nation’s richest farmers, and liberals, who will decry the $16 billion House republican leaders want to cut from food stamps in a time of increased need, most believed Boehner would view it too thorny an issue to bring up so close to election season. As many predicted, Boehner has signaled that he will instead extend the current bill, which passed in 2008, by one year. An extension has the political advantage of allowing Republicans to avoid...

The Deep, Dark Mysteries of Pennsylvania's Voter ID

(Flickr/ Bilal Kamoon)
Sometimes fearing the unknown isn't such a bad idea. Like, for instance, when they're serving "mystery meat" in the cafeteria. Or, on a slightly bigger scale, when your state is considering a new law that could disfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. Pennsylvania legislators had no such healthy sense of fear when it came to passing the nation's most restrictive voter ID law just a little over four months ago—practically yesterday, considering the ramifications of such a huge change to election procedures. But when the bill was being debated, lawmakers and state officials supporting the bill insisted it would be a breeze to ensure that no one was disenfranchised; everybody who wanted to vote would still be able to vote. "This is going to be an additional responsibility," said Daryl Metcalf, the Republican state representative who sponsored the bill, but "one that is not burdensome in any way." Besides, Republican Governor Tom Corbett's office said that only 1 percent of...

Who's Affected by Pennsylvania's Voter-ID Law?

Viviette Applewhite, one of the ACLU's plaintiffs (ACLU)
As the first big lawsuit against the Pennsylvania's voter-ID law starts its third day at trial, arguments about the legality of the law have focused largely on who's impacted by it. First, the secretary of the commonwealth estimated as many as 758,000 Pennsylvanians lacked the most common form of ID —those issued by the state Department of Transportation. A political scientist's study showed that number to be around a million. Either way, it's a lot of people, and we know a disproportionate number of them are poor, nonwhite, and elderly. Still, those supporting strict voter-ID laws, which require citizens to show government-issued identification before voting, often cast suspicion on anyone without an ID. They argue that you need photo identification for pretty much anything these days, and people without them must be freaks or criminals—people we don't want voting anyway. Republican Texas state Representative Jose Aliseda exemplifies this position; he recently said that anyone...

What's the Deal with the Pennsylvania Voter-ID Law?

"I voted" picture: (Flickr/ Vox Efx) Liberty Bell photograph: (Flickr/dcwriterdawn)
We get it. Real-life court dramas are not as exciting as Judge Judy (and definitely not as exciting as Judge Joe Brown). So we totally don't judge you for not knowing why the hell Pennsylvania's voter-ID law is suddenly in court. Of course, you thought you'd covered your bases when you read our early explanation of voter-ID laws. (If you didn't, well, you only need to be a little embarrassed.) You know there's basically no evidence of in-person voter fraud where one person impersonates another—the only type of fraud voter ID guards against. You know that the big fights were in Texas and South Carolina. So why is everyone so worked up about some court case in Harrisburg? Well let us be quick and leave you plenty of time for Court TV. So a bunch of states have voter-ID laws—what's the big deal about Pennsylvania? Well, not shockingly in a presidential election year, a lot of it boils down to politics. Pennsylvania is a swing state in a close election, so every vote each side can pull...

Eric Holder's New Fight Against Voter ID

(Flickr/Vox Efx)
Yesterday, Eric Holder opened a new front in his fight to preserve voting rights, as the Department of Justice announced that it would launch an investigation into Pennsylvania's voter ID law. The attorney general has been an outspoken critic of the strict new laws that require voters to show government-issued photo identification, calling them the equivalent of a modern-day "poll tax." The DOJ has blocked implementation of voter ID in Texas and South Carolina—states that, because of their histories of voter suppression, are listed in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and therefore must get preclearance from the DOJ before they can change their election laws. (Both states are fighting back in court.) But Pennsylvania, like half the states that have passed strict voter ID laws, does not need to get DOJ permission before it changes its election laws. Instead, the Justice Department has taken an entirely new line of attack. In a letter to Pennsylvania's Secretary of the Commonwealth,...

Creating a Countercyclical Welfare System

Clinton-era reforms mean that our safety net is weakest when we need it most.

Welfare systems exist to reduce the worst excesses of poverty. When poverty increases during recessions, the welfare state is supposed to rush into countercyclical action, providing a firewall against a growth in destitution. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, it’s never been the case. In recent years in particular, the American welfare system has increasingly shed itself of this key obligation. In 1996, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—the welfare system established in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act—was scrapped in favor of a more limited system, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). But in the Great Recession that began in 2008, TANF has proved a total disaster. Unemployment doubled in many states, but in most of them, the number of TANF enrollees either increased only marginally or decreased. It wasn’t always that way. “AFDC used to be countercyclical,” says economist James Ziliak of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research. The...

Do We Need a New Voting Rights Act?

(Flickr/Sunset Parkerpix)
On Friday, two counties in Southern states requested that the Supreme Court reconsider a key element of the Voting Rights Act . Both Kinston, North Carolina and Shelby County, Alabama hope the Court will find that Section 5 of the Act—the one that requires states and counties with a history of voter suppression to get permission from the feds before implementing changes to election law—is unconstitutional. The government has previously justified Section 5 under the Fifteenth Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote and prohibits discrimination based on race. The counties—both in states with new voter-ID laws—argue that the provision violates the Tenth Amendment, which gives states the right to regulate elections. Furthermore, they claim it unfairly gives states different levels of sovereignty by treating some differently than others. With voter-ID laws proliferating around the country, the Voting Rights Act has been in the national conversation for months now, and Section 5 has...

The Rich Really Are Different

Not actually Mitt Romney (image from richkidsofinstagram.tumblr.com)
In the last couple of years, we've occasionally seen stories where Wall Street types justify their enormous compensation packages by saying they work really, really hard. They stay late, they work weekends, they just keep their noses to the grindstone, and that's why they get paid what they do. Sure, $30 million a year is a lot of money. But the hedge fund manager who made it probably worked 1,000 times harder than the electrician who made $30,000. Right? I thought of those Wall Streeters and their rhetoric about hard work when considering the question of Mitt Romney's tax returns. One of the things we've found out in the whole when-did-Romney-leave-Bain controversy is that even after he retired/went on a leave of absence, he was being paid at least $100,000 a year for doing what he swears was absolutely nothing. That's a lot of money for doing nothing, at least to people like you and me, but remember that to Mitt Romney, it's peanuts. According to the information he has released , he...

Parenting without a Net

For god’s sake, let’s give Marissa Mayer, the incoming Yahoo CEO, a break. Good for her that she’s a little “ gender blind ” and didn’t notice that she was the only female in her computer science courses. Social cluelessness goes with being a code-focused nerd. No, she’s not a feminist , she doesn’t understand feminism, and she doesn’t have the right prescriptions for all women. But maybe we could decide, for a change, that she doesn’t stand for all women and for feminism as a whole, any more than Scott Thompson—her immediate predecessor in Yahoo’s churning top spot—stood for all men? And yes, Stephanie Coontz is right that Mayer, by saying she’ll work through her pregnancy and maternity leave, is giving the wrong signal to the civilian men and women beneath her at Yahoo, who might actually want to spend time with their families. Family leave is essential to most family's health and well-being. But isn’t that part of why CEOs—especially of companies in desperate need of makeovers—get...

What Poor Women Need Is ... Marriage?

Flickr/eivindw
For several years, sociologists and demographers have been discussing a new socioeconomic division in this country: the widening family divide between the highly educated and everyone else. On one side are those who get at least a bachelor's degree—or wait even longer—before they marry and have children. On the other side are those without a college education who have children—early and often—and have a series of partners (with or without marriage) who may or may not be related to their children. In the second group, an unexpected pregnancy may interrupt the woman's education; sometimes she wasn't going on anyway. The first set of families—call them "blue" families, because they cluster in those states—tend to be stable, maritally and financially, which is extremely helpful for the children's well-being. The "red" families are far more chaotic, emotionally and financially. The children's family configurations shift around them, with parental figures coming and going; the parents don't...

Romney's Swing-State Dilemma

(Flickr / Gage Skidmore)
Before Mitt Romney's Bain Capital problems seized everyone's attention, we were hearing about a different political minefield the candidate had to maneuver: While his campaign is based largely on the country's economic woes, several GOP governors in swing states were claiming economic success and recovery. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker spent his recall campaign pointing to the state's recovery, while Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell launched his own ads showing his state's progress. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad was boasting on his website of "“200,000+ new jobs" and "a 25% increase in family incomes." By late June, things were coming to a head. Bloomberg News reported that Romney's team asked Florida Governor Rick Scott to quiet down his bragging about job creation in the Sunshine State. There was a disastrous Ohio rally in which Governor John Kasich hailed his state's economic gains, and then Romney took the stage to slam the national economy. All in all, at least seven battleground...

Downward Spiral

(Flickr/401(K) 2012)
We've heard a lot about jobs in this presidential election cycle. The idea being, I suppose, that once people have a job, regardless of the wages or the hours, they can bootstrap their way to the top. Probably for similar reasons, we don't hear much about poverty. So long as there are jobs around, political rhetoric seems to say, being poor is a choice. While both campaigns will spend many many millions on ads telling you about jobs, I doubt we'll hear much about economic mobility in America or pathways to escaping poverty. Just because there's little talk, however, doesn't mean there isn't a terrifying problem. The latest report from Pew Charitable Trusts looks at economic mobility across generations, using real child-parent pairings. As I wrote yesterday, the findings are bleak. While children earn more than their parents did at their age, adjusted for inflation, the rich are getting richer faster than everyone else. That means that while you may be making more than your parents,...

The Myth of Rags to Riches

In the latest version of SimCity, a computer game that let's you pretend to be an urban planner, city residents are born into an economic class and there they remain for life. This may have been done for simplicity's sake, but the scenario makes the popular computer game disturbingly similar to the situation of most Americans. The latest report from Pew Charitable Trusts, "Purusing the American Dream," deals a stunning blow to any romantic notions of bootstrapping your way to the top. It turns out only 4 percent of those raised in the bottom 20 percent ever climb into the top 20 percent. Rather, people raised on one rung of the income ladder are likely to stay pretty close to it as adults. As the report notes, "Forty-three percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile remain stuck in the bottom as adults and 70 percent remain below the middle class." The report, from a non-partisan group that's far from ideological, shows that while in absolute numbers, the vast majority of...

Don't Blink

I've talked in the past about how unconscious bias works—and how it's an aspect of some very healthy parts of our brains and bodies. For very good reasons, we all navigate by intuition, habit, and practiced behaviors every single day. Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer have written about these neurological facts beautifully and well. Every parent knows how time-consuming it is to have to articulate and teach habits we don't even realize we navigate by. Walk on the right and pass on the left. The fork goes here and the knife and spoon go there. It's not polite to say that in public. You can't take that until you pay. Turn your head this way to breathe while you're swimming. That truck means that person delivers the mail. Don't talk back to the people in airport security. If our brains had to sort consciously through every action, behavior, and category (the way parents have to explain things all day) before we could act, we'd be paralyzed. If we didn't practice thinking in categories—...

Where Work Disappears and Dreams Die

In Gary, Indiana—the former “Magic City” of industrial might—jobs have left, and so has almost everything else.

(Flickr/slworking)
N ot all teenagers are as lucky as J’Len Glass. He trusts his parents. He knows they will always tell it to him straight. Yet the 15-year-old, who wants to be a doctor, can’t help being skeptical of his elders’ veracity—or at least of their memories—when they tell him that his shrinking, economically depressed hometown of Gary, Indiana—Steel City—was, once upon a time, a wonderful place to raise a family. That it had good public schools and well-maintained city parks and streets. That there were department stores, restaurants, movie theaters, nightclubs, and crowded office buildings up and down Broadway, its main thoroughfare. That a young guy could go outside, play some ball, flirt with girls, and not worry about getting killed in a drive-by shooting. That he could graduate high school, and if he didn’t want to go to college or join the military, he could just stay put and make a decent living in one of the smoke-belching steel mills that ringed the city and provided paychecks to...

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