Poverty & Wealth

The Socialists Who Made the March on Washington

AP Photo/Eddie Adams
AP Photo, File The Team Assembles “I n 1956, when I was a student at Brooklyn College, Mike Harrington told Tom [Kahn, another Brooklyn College student] and me to go up to this office in Manhattan, on 57 th Street, to work with Bayard Rustin,” Rachelle Horowitz remembers. Harrington (who was to author The Other America , which sparked the War on Poverty), Horowitz, and Kahn were all members of the Young People’s Socialist League, a democratic socialist organization of no more than several hundred members nationally. Rustin, their elder, boasted a longer left pedigree: a brief sojourn in the Communist Party in the ’30s, then—repudiating the Communists and affiliating himself with the Socialist Party—working for socialist A.J. Muste’s Fellowship of Reconciliation; founding the Congress of Racial Equality with fellow socialist James Farmer in 1942; doing time in Leavenworth during World War II for protesting the segregation of the armed forces; traveling to India to study nonviolent...

When I'm Old and Gay

The American Prospect/Steve Moors
Steve Moors W hen Marcia Hickman and Sue Spirit first started talking retirement 20 years ago, they mostly worried about the location and the weather. In Ohio, where they met and ran a women’s retreat together, Marcia missed the mountains of her upstate New York youth. Sue wanted a place “with seasons.” The pair, who will celebrate 30 years together in August, describe themselves as “mostly out”—Marcia hasn’t told her three children she and Sue are a couple, but she figures they’ve put it together by now. She and Sue hadn’t thought about settling down with other gay people until they learned about Carefree Cove. “Around 2000 we heard about ‘lesbian land’ being started in North Carolina,” Sue says. A planned residential community for older gay men, lesbians, and transgendered people, “the Cove” was then an empty 165-acre plot 20 miles outside of Boone, a small university town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The backers had an opening bargain: For $2,000, you could come down and pick your...

The High Probability of Being Poor

Late last month, the Associated Press ran a report about economic insecurity that managed to gain some traction in certain parts of the political internet, and since then, again and again in certain relevant debates. The statistical bomb dropped in the first sentence of the report really says it all: Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream. To be clear, this figure pertains to the percentage of people facing these problems at least once in their life , not the percentage of people facing them right now . Also, it should be noted that this figure cannot, by itself, be a sign of deteriorating economic security. To show things are deteriorating, you'd have to know whether this figure used to be lower than 80 percent, and we do not know that. Shortly after the AP report blew up, the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto responded with a...

The Ex-Con Factor

AP Photo/Toby Talbot M ercedies Harris was 27 in 1990, when he was arrested for drug possession and distribution in Fairfax, Virginia. Harris had served in the Marines, but the death of his brother in 1986—killed by a hit-and-run driver—sent him down a familiar path. “I was angry and I couldn’t find the guy who did it,” Harris says. “I got into drugs to find a way to medicate myself.” Upon his release in 2003, Harris, who had earned his GED in prison, found a job and began to rebuild his life. He faced the usual practical challenges: “I couldn’t get on a lease, I had no insurance, I had no medical coverage, my driver’s license was expired.” But he found one obstacle that was especially difficult to overcome: He couldn’t vote. Virginia is one of four states—along with Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky—that strip voting rights from felons for life. The U.S. is the world’s only democracy that permits permanent disenfranchisement. While most states have some restrictions on felons voting, it...

Stop Worrying about Food Stamp "Fraud"

Over at the Weekly Standard blog, Jeryl Bier raised an alarm on Friday about the rise of food stamp (aka SNAP) fraud. The howler in the piece is that although the headline says food stamp fraud is up 30 percent, you soon realize that the fraud rate only rose from 1.0 percent to 1.3 percent. Bier rightly deserves a ding for a ridiculously misleading use of statistics. In response to Bier, Jonathan Cohn points out the misuse of statistics and makes the straightforward case for food stamps . That case is old but worth repeating here: food stamps stabilize households and the economy in bad economic times, pull millions out of poverty, and have very low overhead. Also, the program runs quite well! Beyond Cohn’s takedown, I think we should point out that the kind of food stamp “fraud” Bier is complaining about is not even a problem. The USDA calls the type of fraud in question “trafficking,” and it basically amounts to individually swapping out food stamp dollars for actual dollars. Despite...

Ezra Klein's Blind Spot

(Flickr/Son of Broccoli)
On Monday, Ezra Klein argued that “conventional wisdom on Washington is that corporations win every fight and everyone else—particularly the poor—get shafted" is, wait for it, "wrong, or at least incomplete." He posits that advocates for the poor have increased their influence during the Obama era, pointing to rising food stamp rolls and Obamacare as evidence. His central thesis attacks a straw man: Corporate America and the poor can both wield a lot of power at the same time, as they’re not typically locked in a zero-sum struggle with each other. If anything, it’s the middle class, or perhaps the upper-middle class, that’s been left out. Lo and behold, none other than Larry Bartels, author of the definitive Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, took to the Monkey Cage to rebut Klein , citing this chart: Bartels sees what Klein does not: there’s a larger economic context. Redistributing income, via food stamps or an Obamacare tax increase is not only...

Six Charts that Explain Why Our Prison System Is So Insane

flickr/wwarby
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would be issuing instructions to federal prosecutors that could result in fewer mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, it wasn't the risky policy change it would have been only a few years ago. With crime on a two-decade-long downward arc, politicians and policymakers don't have to worry as much as they used to about being tagged as "soft on crime." In fact, there's so much toughness already built into our criminal-justice system that unless we start lopping off thieves' hands, it couldn't get much tougher. Though the change Holder announced would affect only those convicted of federal crimes, it has brought renewed attention to our enormous prison population. And just how enormous is it? What follows are the details. In 1992, there were 1.3 million inmates in America's prisons and jails; by two decades later, a million more had been added (the data in this article are taken from the Bureau of Justice...

Paying It Forward on Student Debt

Chris Ison/PA Wire
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File N ext month, lawmakers will return to state capitals around the country, and as many as a dozen legislatures could consider a new proposal to tackle the growing student-debt crisis. The plan, dubbed " Pay-it-Forward " by its creator, would allow students to enter college without having to pay tuition upfront: In exchange, they would agree to pay a small and set percentage of their income after college into a public fund allowing the next generation to do the same. Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, released a plan Friday that would help provide seed money for pilot programs across the country using this model. Almost all of the new initiatives were inspired by Oregon, where the state legislature passed a bill introducing a Pay-it-Forward scheme unanimously on July 1. Barbara Dudley, an adjunct professor at Portland State University who in 2005 helped co-found the Oregon Working Families Party—a third party that has also been influential in...

Fashioning Justice for Bangladesh

AP Images/Ismail Ferdous
AP Images/Ismail Ferdous O n April 24, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,129 workers and injuring at least 1,500 more. Most were young women earning about $37 a month, or a bit more than a dollar a day. The collapse was the worst disaster in the history of the global garment industry, evoking the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City. The Rana Plaza factory made apparel for more than a dozen major international fashion brands, including Benetton, J.C. Penney, and Wal-Mart. This was the third major industrial accident in Bangladesh since November, when 112 people were killed in a fire at a garment factory producing mainly for Wal-Mart. At Rana Plaza, cracks appeared in the eight-story building the day before it collapsed. Police ordered an evacuation of the building. But survivors say they were told that their pay would be docked if they did not return to the factory floor, and most did. Bangladesh, a nation of more than 160 million, has...

L.A. Story

The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy: a new model for American liberalism?

flickr/AlphaProject
AP Photo/E.J. Flynn T ake a left as you exit the Long Beach Airport, and you’ll pass three acres of greenery named “Rosie the Riveter Park.” The park stands at the southeast corner of what had once been the mammoth Douglas Aircraft factory, where DC-3s, -4s, -5s, all the way up to -10s, were once manufactured, and where, during World War II, 43,000 workers, half of them women, built the B-17 bombers and C-47 transports that flew missions over Europe and the Pacific. World War II and then the Cold War remade Long Beach. Federal dollars funded the Douglas factory, a new naval shipyard, and numerous defense firms. An entire city—the working-class community of Lakewood, which borders Long Beach on the north—was built to house the sudden influx of defense workers. Long Beach became and remains the second-largest city in Los Angeles County. The new jobs paid well; powerful unions represented the workers in the factories and on the docks. Military spending, though, began to decline after the...

False Concerns for the Poor

(Flickr/Mark Sedella)
Fast food workers have been organizing across the country for months now, and last week a series of spectacular coordinated strikes generated a deluge of media coverage . As you'd expect, the right-wing media and pundit class came out swinging against the workers with their usual mix of hateful trashing and concern trolling. The hateful trashing mantle was best carried by talking heads at FOX News who slammed fast food workers as mediocre ingrates who should be happy to have a job at all. Comments like these remind us that the right-wing does not merely hate welfare programs due to some anti-spending, anti-government ethos. They just hate the poor in general. Even poor people who, by their very description, are in jobs working hard and seeking to negotiate up their wages with their own employer receive the same vicious treatment the right-wing pretends to reserve only for "lazy welfare cheats." For those of us who don't think the working poor are subhuman garbage, this attack strategy...

Part-Time America

AP Images/Matt Slocum
Of the 963,000 jobs created in the past six months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Household Surveys, 936,000 of them are part-time. That doesn’t mean that just 27,000 of the people hired on to new jobs got full-time work. The total for part-time jobs includes both newly created jobs and formerly full-time gigs that were cut-back to part-time, and the BLS doesn’t pose the questions that would enable it to quantify these two kinds of new part-time jobs. But factoring in both kinds, we do know that the net number of full-time jobs in America has risen by just 27,000 since the end of January. One reason that the number of full-time jobs is so abysmally low is Obamacare’s employee mandate, which stipulated that employers with 50 or more workers either had to provide all such workers who put in at least 30 hours a week with health insurance, or pay a penalty that would help defray the government’s costs for providing subsidized benefits. The administration announced...

The Long Road to a Decent Economy

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster
To underscore a weeklong initiative by President Obama on behalf of rebuilding the middle class, the latest figures on GDP growth, released Thursday, and on job growth, made public Friday, show just how far from a healthy middle class economy we are. Revised figures show that GDP growth fell to a rate of just 1.4 percent in the first six months of 2013, even less than last year’s dismal rate of 2.2 percent. These numbers are not enough to create an adequate supply of jobs, much less good jobs, much less wage growth. And sure enough, when the employment numbers for July were released on Friday, the grim trend was confirmed. Just 162,000 jobs were added in July, and most of them were relatively low-wage jobs. Average earnings actually fell. At this rate it will take another six years to get unemployment back to pre-2008 levels according to the Economic Policy Institute, and more than a decade according to the Hamilton Project. The official unemployment rate dropped slightly, from 7.6 to...

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-...

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