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Poverty & Wealth

The Austerity Lobby Loses One

Flickr/Michael Pollack
Flickr/Michael Pollack A conference sponsored by Fix the Debt in Washington, D.C. takes place in January 2012. T he fiscal deal that raised taxes on the top one percent was a victory only for what it did not do. It did not cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or other public spending. Unfortunately, it merely put off the next round of jousting over fiscal issues to a time when Republicans will have more leverage. In what we might call Cliff One (tax increases for the rich), the status quo played to President Obama’s advantage. If Congress failed to act, taxes would go up on everyone. So the Republicans caved. But in the coming battles over Cliff Two (the debt ceiling) and Cliff Three (the $120 billion in automatic cuts known as the Sequester) the status quo favors the Republicans. If Congress fails to act affirmatively, the United States defaults on its debt, and highly deflationary spending cuts kick in automatically. President Obama might dispatch Cliff Two by invoking the...

For Unions, It Was a Very Bad Year

AP Photo/Detroit News, Dale G. Young
AP Photo/Detroit News, Dale G. Young Pro-union demonstrators crowd the Capitol Rotunda in Lansing, Michigan to protest "right to work" legislation being considered by the Republican-controlled legislature. A merican labor can begin the new year with thanks that 2012 is over. Not that the unions didn’t win some big victories in 2012. Their political programs in key swing states played a major role in President Obama’s re-election, both by turning out minority voters in record numbers in Ohio, Nevada, and Florida and by winning Obama a higher share of white, working-class voters in the industrial Midwest than he won in other regions. Their efforts also helped liberal Democrats hold key Senate seats in Ohio (Sherrod Brown) and Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin), and pick up Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren). In California, the nation’s mega-state, unions beat back a ballot measure designed to cripple their political programs by a decisive 12.5-percent margin, turning out so many voters that they...

Prostitution for the Price of a Happy Meal

Why food-stamp bans are perpetuating risky behaviors among America’s most vulnerable

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, file
Carla walked into my office with despair in her eyes. I was surprised. Carla has been doing well in her four months out of prison; she got off drugs, regained custody of her kids, and even enrolled in a local community college. Without much prodding she admitted to me that she had retuned to prostitution: “I am putting myself at risk for HIV to get my kids a f---ing happy meal.” Despite looking high and low for a job, Carla explained, she was still unemployed. Most entry-level jobs felt out of reach with her drug record, but what’s worse, even the state wasn’t willing to throw her a temporary life preserver. You see, Carla is from one of the 32 states in the country that ban anyone convicted of a drug felony from collecting food stamps. With the release of the Global Burden of Disease Study last week, it bears looking at how we are perpetuating burdens among the most vulnerable Americans with our outdated laws. If she’d committed rape or murder, Carla could have gotten assistance to...

Debating the Chained CPI

Flickr/The Survivor Woman/401(K)
Yesterday, I posted a piece that questioned the political and policy wisdom of President Obama’s latest offer for a budget deal. My qualms were vindicated when Speaker Boehner, rather than taking the widely leaked “progress” as a new common ground, went back to his starting point and offered his own “Plan B”. This left President Obama in just the position that he vowed that he’d be in again—“negotiating against himself.” In the piece, I also criticized the role of my friend Bob Greenstein in lending credence to backdoor cuts in Social Security. Bob is the much revered and tireless advocate for the poor who is the longtime president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. My piece questioned both his political logic in assuming that Social Security cuts have any place in this budget deal and his assumption that including them will somehow protect programs for the poor. My piece mistakenly described the annual cut as 3 percent rather than 0.3 percent, but it accurately pointed...

Social Security: Will Obama Cave?

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Barack Obama looks toward reporters shouting questions at him regarding the fiscal cliff as he walks to the White House after attending a holiday party for the National Security Council. O nce again, President Obama seems to be on the verge of folding a winning hand. Widely leaked reports indicate that the president and House Speaker John Boehner are making a fiscal deal that includes hiking tax rates back to the pre-Bush levels with a threshold of $400,000 rather than the original $250,000, and cutting present Social Security benefits. Obama, the reports say, will now settle for as little as $1.2 trillion in tax increases on the rich rather than the $1.6 trillion that he had originally sought. The difference, in effect, will come out of the pockets of workers, retirees, the young, and the poor. Especially foolish is the cut in Social Security benefits, disguised as a change in the cost-of-living adjustment formula. Before getting to the arcane...

The Billionaires' Long Game

AP Photo
From left to right, the largest Republican donors: Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands casino empire; Harold Simmons, owner of Contran Corp.; Bob J. Perry, head of a Houston real estate empire; Robert T. Rowling, head of Dallas-based TRT Holdings; and William Koch, an industrialist. I keep hearing that the billionaires and big corporations that poured all that money into the 2012 election learned their lesson. They lost their shirts and won’t do it again. Don’t believe that for an instant. It’s true their political investments didn’t exactly pay off this time around. “Right now there is stunned disbelief that Republicans fared so poorly after all the money they invested,” said Brent Bozell, president of For America, an Alexandria, Maryland-based nonprofit that advocates for Christian values in politics. “Congrats to @KarlRove on blowing $400 million this cycle,” Donald Trump tweeted. “Every race @CrossroadsGPS ran ads in, the Republicans lost. What a waste of money.” Rove’s...

Disaster Relief, Dot-Com Style

T wo days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York City, one of many desperate pleas across the city went out: "We have over 50 seniors located at 80 Rutgers Street who are without electricity, cannot go down stairs, and are running low on food supplies." Within an hour, volunteers were rushing over with supplies. But it was not a 911 dispatcher or a FEMA representative who had heeded the call for help. It was members of the Lower East Side community responding to a message on recovers.org, an online hub that helps communities direct resources and volunteers where they're needed in an emergency. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, four microsites sprung up on the system for the Lower East Side, Astoria, Red Hook, and Staten Island to connect victims in New York City neighborhoods with volunteers and supplies. A fifth sprung up for Hoboken, New Jersey. In the chaos following a disaster, information becomes one of the most precious—and scant—resources. Any large-scale catastrophe...

This Is Not Wisconsin. It's Worse.

Sheldon Dick/Farm Security Administration
Sheldon Dick/Farm Security Administration Strikers guarding window entrance to Fisher body plant number three in Flint, Michigan (1937) L et’s clear one thing up. “Right to work” laws, which permit employees working at a unionized workplace to refuse to join the union or to pay the union the cost of representing the worker, are designed to weaken the economic and political power of organized labor and, by extension, wage workers. Full stop. They allow workers to “free ride” all the benefits of a collective-bargaining agreement (increased wages, benefits, rights to adjudicate a dispute with a supervisor, safety and health requirement beyond those mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, etc.) negotiated by the union without paying any of the union dues their fellow employees pay. The vaunted libertarian argument in support of right to work would be far more convincing if libertarians supported the rights of employees to reject at their discretion the countless...

Home Is Where the Union Is

E. Tammy Kim
E. Tammy Kim Members of Damayan, a migrant domestic-worker organization in New York City T welve years ago, "Janie"—a round-faced, single mother of four—said goodbye to her children and life as she knew it in Manila. She agreed to follow a family to the U.S., where she would fulfill a contract for live-in domestic work. In her employers' Pennsylvania home, she cleaned and cared for the children seven days a week, 24 hours a day, without any days off. Her employers held her passport, and kept her at home—not once in seven years did she see friends or family. And her pay was a fraction of the minimum wage: a mere $400 per month, most of which she sent to the Philippines. When her employers moved, Janie, who asked that her real name not be used for legal reasons, found another job. She negotiated a better salary but met a new challenge: constant verbal harassment by her employer's mother. She recalls, "I cannot bear it anymore. I'm nothing to [them]. So they gave me pay, and I said I had...

Babies, Nickled and Dimed

Instead of pressuring women to have more babies, we should be investing in the ones we already have.

Flickr/Katy Pearce
Ross Douthat, whose enthusiasm for 19th-century views on sexuality can always be counted on, struck again this weekend with another column addressing his favorite concern , the sadly empty uteruses of America. He was roundly criticized by feminists, including the Prospect 's E.J. Graff. He outlined a belief that foolishly letting women decide how many babies they have will lead to American decline. The argument, always claimed to be made more in sorrow than in anger, is that women will simply have to give up on the advantages of limiting child-bearing so that we have enough young people around to take care of us when we’re old. Douthat calls for an end to our modern, feminist ways, which he calls "decadent." But I would like to offer a better, more humane solution to the problem of a declining future workforce: Instead of simply flooding the market with babies to buoy the economy, why not invest—with public funds, as a community—in the ones we have to get the same results? In order to...

We Can't All Be Royals

AP Photo
Ap Photo Kate Middleton and Prince William on their wedding day I know you can hardly stand the excitement: Princess Kate is preggers! Finally, the QEII can step out of service, passing off the baton—er, scepter—in a way that skips right past her reprobate son. Finally, she has a new generation in line that understands the royal job: Get married, reproduce, and stay honorably married. Which, as you may have noticed over the weekend, is just what The New York Times 's Ross Douthat wants us reprobate Americans to start doing. In what began as an almost sensible column, Douthat noted that public policy can help encourage working people to have families. But then Douthat ran right off the rails, chiding us for our lack of character, our selfish decadence, our end-of-empire exhaustion, and for preferring the comforts of—oh, I don’t know, maybe paying the mortgage?—to the sacrifices of raising more children. Herewith: The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-...

Republicans, Exposed

(Flickr/David Silver)
President Barack Obama’s persistence has managed to smoke out House Speaker John Boehner and the Republicans. Their just-announced plan for cutting the deficit is what we suspected: cuts in Medicare and Social Security; no higher tax rates on the rich; limits on tax deductions that would hit the middle class as well as the wealthy, but only raise half the revenue of Obama’s plan; and a lot of fudging with numbers. The Republicans might as well be parading around with a sign that reads “Kick Me.” None of this stuff solves the real problem of getting a recovery going. If you believe that deficit reduction is required, it doesn’t even solve that. And the plan cuts into social insurance programs that are hugely popular, while Obama defends them. Best of all, the corporate deficit hawks marching under the banner “Fix the Debt” are left out in the cold. Nobody is emphasizing austerity as an economic cure. Corporate Democrat Erskine Bowles is yesterday’s news (sit down, please), almost as...

Greedy Geezers, Reconsidered

(Seymour Chwast)
F or three decades, conservative critics have been warning that the elderly are living too well at the expense of the young. Since the early 1980s, financier Peter G. Peterson has been predicting that Social Security’s excessive generosity would crash the retirement system and the economy. The late British journalist Henry Fairlie, in 1988, famously wrote a piece in The New Republic with the cover line “Greedy Geezers,” faulting the elderly for living too well at the expense of the young. (Seymour Chwast) Thanks to the economic boom of the late 1990s, senior bashing went into temporary eclipse. With full employment and rising wages, payroll tax receipts swelled the Social Security trust funds. In the three years between 1997 and 2000, the system’s projected year of reckoning—when it could no longer pay all of its claims—receded by eight years (from 2029 to 2037). At that rate, Social Security would soon be in perpetual surplus. All it took to balance the system’s books was decent wage...

Fast Food Shouldn't Mean Low Wages

(Flickr/GenBug)
From Burger King to Walmart , the low-wage workers we depend on to staff America’s consumption-driven economy are tired of being overworked and underpaid, and they are letting their bosses know. Early this morning, fast-food workers in New York City went on strike across more than half a dozen chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Domino’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Papa John’s. Backed by community groups like New York Communities for Change , United NY , and the Black Institute , as well as various representatives of religious organizations, fast food workers are asking for a chance to work with dignity in an industry notorious for its fast pace, low wages , and often erratic scheduling. Also notorious for high turnover , fast food workers have historically had a difficult time organizing for better conditions. As reported by Steve Greenhouse at The New York Times : Leaders of the effort said that workers were walking off the job to protest what they said were low wages and...

Snatching Defeat out of the Jaws of Victory

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Invited guests listen as President Barack Obama speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building about extending middle-class tax cuts before they expire in January. The president said he believes that members of both parties can reach a framework on a debt-cutting deal before Christmas. P resident Barack Obama, to his great credit, has drawn a bright line. Taxes have to revert to the rates that were in effect before the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2 percent. This is crucial because the less the very rich pay, the more others have to pay either in the form of less tax relief for the bottom 98 percent or on program cuts like Social Security and Medicare. Or has he drawn that line? Yesterday, the White House put out the word that the president was willing to be “flexible” on the question of tax rates for the top bracket. Specifically, that means the president will accept the Republican idea of getting some of the needed revenue by closing loopholes rather than...

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