Category Archives: Poverty and the Justice System

Resident Perspective: It Begins

This is the continuation of a series of journal entries depicting what it’s like to be a part of the COVID pandemic from the medicine resident perspective.

Wednesday, March 25th

Today was my first day of quarantine and now I feel like I’m a part of society. In the prior weeks, working on the general hospital floor I was constrained by daily ritual –nothing said on the news or by the government about isolating or “staying home” applied to healthcare workers, or residents, more specifically. Those working in hospitals are in the thick of it, but we have a completely different experience because we have to continue to go to work and do our jobs while everyone else has just had drastic changes dictated for their daily lives. I was working long hours every day so I didn’t observe any special social distancing; my daily routine recently had been to come home and only have about an hour before turning in for the night so I wasn’t doing much socializing. Now home and quarantined, I found out quickly how fast things could change as I spend most of the day sequestered in our bedroom away from my family and where they typically are during the day.

My wife’s mother watches our son but we’ve collectively decided that while I might feel fine, because of my high risk exposures it would just be best for her to not come until things cool off. We’re lucky that we have the opportunity to actually have this option as many families in our situation would either have to choose exposing a loved one to potential coronavirus or have the parent take time from work to watch their kid. I fully appreciate we’re privileged enough to even have that possibility.

I look out my closed bedroom window and think it’s a shame that the weather’s so nice as I’m sure everyone is itching to be outside. Spring is in full swing even on our street, as the trees are approaching full bloom, and I’m pretty sure a bird’s nest is being built in our gutter as I hear constant chirping with rustling of leaves and tin behind the upper corner of my bedroom. I can hear neighborhood kids outside playing. I look down and see groups of 4 or 5 parents awkwardly try to stay 6 feet apart on our narrow street. I’d like to kindly remind them to keep their distance, but like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I just gaze at them from the safety of my newly shuttered life.

Hearing the kids play, I wondered, what are they thinking is going on? How much have their parents told them? I don’t know what age you go from being elated you’re off from school to being worried about whether or not you and your family will survive. Do they think this is a normal occurrence and something they’ll have to deal with frequently in their lives? This must have a major impact in many different ways on kids of varying ages. I remember getting talks at school about fire safety and going home every night and practicing an escape plan with my family because I was so terrified. I don’t know what 8 year old me would be feeling about the invisible yet much more real confrontation with a virus. I couldn’t imagine having a 2 or 3-year-old that doesn’t understand that they can’t go outside to play with friends and then have to keep them entertained throughout the day. Then do it again the following day indefinitely.

I’m now realizing there will be so many unforeseen consequences, namely impacting those on the lower socioeconomic scale. When you work in healthcare during a crisis all you care about is how it impacts you and your patients. When suddenly removed, I’m forced to take a step back and come to grips with how this affects literally everything and everyone else in society. Maybe it’s because I now have my own child to look out for, but children have been on the forefront of my thoughts related to the pandemic. They may not be medically the most vulnerable in this case but they are in terms of long-lasting impact. Every facet of their lives are being disrupted—psychologically, educationally, nutritionally, and overall developmentally. Many families rely on food provided for kids at school. Expansion of SNAP benefits under Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which recently passed, may lead to unhealthier food choices for children as well, as this isn’t regulated like nutrition guidelines for school lunches. I’d also have to assume that kids aren’t getting the same quality of education if it’s all strictly remote, let alone the meaningful and necessary bonding that takes place at school. No doubt there will be a wealth of data to supply research to tell us what we intuitively know, which is when society stops functioning as usual the most vulnerable among us are impacted the greatest.

This time away from the hospital is allowing me to reflect on the many facets of life that are touched by this pandemic, so I’ll treat it like sabbatical.

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Filed under coronavirus, Education, Food, Health Care and Medicine, Pandemic, Poverty and the Justice System, Residency

Governor Wolf and the Courts Must Act Now to Mitigate Public Health Threat

On Monday morning, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed an emergency request to the state Supreme Court to order county courts to release vulnerable populations from city jails. Philadelphia activists amplified the call to action through an organized social distancing caravan targeted at key decisionmakers. These actions follow the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Philadelphia prisons and jails, which were reported last Friday.

For weeks, the ACLU, local activists, community organizations, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office have been urging the release of vulnerable populations from conditions where social distancing is impossible. The First Judicial District (FJD) courts and Governor Wolf, however, still refuse to step up to inhibit the rapid and fatal spread of COVID-19. Two weeks into the alarm being raised on coronavirus in Philadelphia, the FJD has released minimal numbers of immunocompromised and elderly individuals, far fewer than the hundreds or thousands that have been released in other jurisdictions across the country and world. The courts have also rejected emergency release petitions based on public health concerns for those detained on probation or parole violations, barring many youth and adults who pose no threat to society from returning safely home.

Despite a foreboding history of communicable disease outbreaks inside detention centers, Governor Wolf has also declined to proactively save lives by closing inhumane facilities and exercising his gubernatorial powers of compassionate release. People awaiting immigration cases in York County Prison are on hunger strike to protest insufficient measures for their safety. The Berks County Immigration Detention Facility in Leesport, PA, one of the nation’s three immigration detention centers for families seeking asylum, lost its state license to operate in 2016 due to dangerous conditions and ongoing human rights abuses of residents, including infants. Yet Governor Wolf’s administration reiterated last week that they would not issue an emergency removal order unless there is a serious threat to public health inside the walls, an irony not lost on advocates and immigrant families currently fearing for their lives at the prospect of COVID-19 entering the unsanitary facility.

Jails and prisons as institutions pose a greater public safety risk than any individual they cage. This was true before the pandemic began and is an even more urgent truth as the virus enters jails, prisons, and detention centers. These overcrowded facilities lack access to soap, sinks, paper towels, and hand sanitizer and put both those who are incarcerated and those who enter these facilities for their work at risk, as recently seen on a large scale in New York City’s infamous Rikers Island Jail. The FJD and Governor Wolf could immediately reduce overcrowding and mitigate this risk without any threat to public safety. Governor Wolf could enact massive compassionate release with just the stroke of a pen, which would free any elderly or immunocompromised person at increased risk for contracting and dying from the disease. He could also order the release of community members detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who are held for no crime other than lacking documentation while they otherwise contribute robustly to our communities. The FJD could supplement these efforts by releasing all those charged on low-level offenses from county jails and discontinuing arbitrary bail amounts. There’s no good justification for wealth-based detention in general and it is particularly indefensible during a pandemic. The courts and the governor also have the power to extend compassionate release to individuals who are up for parole review, individuals within six months of their release date, pregnant individuals, and youth in county and state detention facilities – many of whom are medically vulnerable and in conditions violating the federal ban on solitary confinement of youth because of facilities’ attempts to follow social distancing.

Community members are anxious to welcome children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, grandparents, partners, and friends home, people they have often traveled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars in travel expenses and private prison phone company bills to stay connected to during the months, years, or decades of their incarceration. Precautionary measures for COVID-19 now forbid most visits to jails and prisons. Most facilities have not replaced those visits with video conferencing alternatives or lowered costs per phone call minutes to talk with lawyers and families. This strains already obstacle-ridden bonds between those behind barbed wire and those in the outside world. If and when our loved ones are connected to the basic resources and support systems they need to survive, they are less likely to commit crime and more likely to contribute positively to society when they come home, as so many returning citizens do. In the midst of this deadly pandemic, allowing them to sustain those bonds through early release also grants them access to health-sustaining resources and the ability to social distance, preventative measures mandated by the governor himself to ward off and slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Governor Wolf and the FJD must take immediate action before they risk condoning hundreds if not thousands of preventable deaths in the state. Government inaction on continued overcrowding of carceral facilities has already resulted in chaos and deaths in places such as Italy and Colombia. Our city and state have an opportunity to instead follow the example of neighboring states, to embrace humanity and public health common sense in mitigating the disastrous effects mass incarceration will lend to COVID-19’s rapid spread.

Hannah

About the Author: Hannah Prativa Spielberg is currently pursuing a Master of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. She worked for four years as a social service advocate for the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Hannah is inspired by the leadership and love-based activism of community members and friends who have experienced life from the inside of prisons, jails, and detention facilities, who moved her to write this piece.

Hannah recommends following @YASP2, @aclupa, @powerinterfaith, @DecarceratePA, @Closethecreek, @Phillybailout, @phillybailfund, @mediamobilizing, @BBworkers, @BLMPhilly, @LILACPhilly, @JustLeadersUSA, @AmistadLaw, and/or @reclaimphila for updates and ways to get involved in the fight.

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Filed under Health Care and Medicine, Poverty and the Justice System

On Both Politics and Policy, “For All” Beats “For Some”

Medicare for All or Medicare for All Who Want It? Free college for all or free college for just the non-rich? The debate between universal (available to everyone) and means-tested (available only to those who meet certain criteria) programs has defined the Democratic primary. Bernie Sanders, often joined by Elizabeth Warren, argues for universalism, declaring education and health care to be basic human rights. Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden argue against, contending that government resources must be targeted only to those in need, rather than wasted on the rich and/or on those who ostensibly don’t want them.

On the most commonly cited rationale for each position – sustainability for universalists and resource constraints for means testers – proponents of universalism have the upper hand. Medicare and Social Security, two of the United States’s largest, most successful, and most popular programs, are as close to universal as we’ve got. By giving everyone a stake in these programs, proponents argue, their near-universality has insulated them from attack. Bob Greenstein (the President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where I used to work) points out both that these programs have been cut and that their popularity could conceivably be due to the perception that they’re tied to work rather than to their quasi-universal nature, but the Alaska Permanent Fund, a state-level universal program not tied to work, also enjoys overwhelming public support. So do universal programs that aren’t tied to work in other countries – other countries’ universal health care systems, for instance, are way more popular than our means-tested approach. It’s reasonable to expect a universal program to be more sustainable than a means-tested alternative over time.

The Buttigieges of the world counter that universal programs are too expensive; in December, for instance, Buttigieg said they would require “the kind of taxation that economists tell us could hurt the economy.” But even if you reject the notion that government spending can be substantially increased without raising taxes, concerns about higher taxes are entirely without merit. Research has consistently (and predictably) failed to support such concerns, the United States has significantly lower taxes than the rest of the developed world, and scores of reputable economists support tax proposals, like those Sanders and Warren have released, that can fund the universal programs on offer. When Buttigieg says he’d prefer to “save those dollars [that would otherwise be spent on free college] for something else,” he is presenting a false choice. It is only his and others’ political preferences, not actual resource constraints, that stand between us and full funding of all the priorities he listed: education, infrastructure, child care, housing, and health care.

Still, the most compelling case for universal programs isn’t political. It is, ironically, that they’re better at achieving two of means testing’s major goals: helping people in need and doing so efficiently. They reduce stigma, arbitrariness, usage barriers, and administrative costs.

Universal programs help people in need by reducing stigma

Most low-income people work incredibly hard to put roofs over their heads and food on their tables. Yet they’re constantly accused of being unskilled, lazy, good-for-nothing loafers in search of government handouts. Afraid of being perceived that way and/or ashamed of their economic situation, many people who are struggling to get by decide not to access the means-tested benefits to which they’re entitled. They’d rather go hungry than risk someone catching them using food stamps in the checkout line.

Correcting false stereotypes is a top priority, with universal programs a useful complement for improving the experience of people in need. If everyone received SNAP benefits (SNAP, which stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the contemporary name for the food stamp program), for example, using them would no longer identify someone as low-income. We would thus expect higher rates of SNAP usage among low-income people.

That’s exactly what we’ve seen with the school meals program following the introduction of a program called “community eligibility,” which enables schools and school districts with a certain percentage of low-income students to offer free school meals to all students – regardless of their income levels – free of charge. Research suggests that reduced stigma is at least part of the reason students at schools that have adopted this program are more likely to take advantage of school breakfast and lunch programs.

Universal programs help people in need by eliminating arbitrary cutoffs

For SNAP, the income eligibility threshold is 130% of the poverty line, or about $27,700 annually for a family of three. People who make less than that amount (provided they meet other requirements – SNAP also has an asset test and restrictive eligibility rules for various groups of people including immigrants, individuals aged 18 to 49 who don’t have children, and students) can access benefits; people who make more than that amount cannot. Under Buttigieg’s higher education plan, college is free only for families making less than $100,000 a year (and discounted for families making between $100,000 and $150,000).

Means-tested benefits typically phase out slowly – that is, benefits get gradually smaller as beneficiary income gets higher – to ensure that the sum of pay plus benefits continues to increase when people pass eligibility thresholds. But why shouldn’t a family of three making $30,000 a year get food assistance? Why should $100,001 be the level at which a family starts having to pay for college? Eligibility thresholds in means-tested programs are arbitrary and inevitably create strange, difficult-to-justify divides between people right above and right below them. Universal programs avoid this problem completely by providing the same benefit to everyone.

Universal programs help people in need by reducing usage barriers

Means testing requires some form of testing, as the name implies, to determine whether or not someone is eligible for benefits. Depending on the complexity of a program’s eligibility rules, that testing might require a form of identification, proof of residence, proof of income, or any number of other things. Eligible beneficiaries may need to mail, hand-deliver, or electronically submit one or more forms, which, as Sanders accurately observed during the December debate, “people are sick and tired of filling out.

Filling out forms and proving eligibility is much more than an annoyance for many eligible people in need. Some may not know how to read or write. Some may move and/or change jobs frequently. Some may lack an official ID. The more hoops people have to jump through to access benefits, the fewer eligible people will actually end up receiving benefits.

Government agencies can mitigate this problem with outreach efforts and assistance programs, of course. But even well-administered means-tested programs like SNAP that continue to improve in these areas don’t catch everyone they should, in part because of the access barriers means testing inherently creates – in 2016, the most recent year for which we have data, about 15% of people eligible for SNAP did not participate in the program.

Universal programs improve efficiency by reducing administrative costs

In addition to creating an obstacle for eligible beneficiaries, the complexity introduced by means testing presents a challenge for efficient government. Every form that needs to be filled out has to be processed. Eligibility has to be verified. Complex rules have to be actively managed. Means-tested programs spend a larger share of their money on administrative overhead than universal programs do.

Administrative costs for Social Security, for example, are only 0.7% of total expenses. For SNAP, one of the most efficient and effective means-tested government programs, administrative spending comprises 7.7% of its total budget. Over three-quarters of those administrative costs are “certification-related,” meaning they’re “associated with determining household eligibility.”

To be clear, the overall cost of SNAP and other means-tested programs would be many times higher, even with substantially reduced overhead costs, if they were more universal. Increased overall cost is the only real potential downside of universality. And if one were forced to choose between increasing benefits for people in need and extending benefits to higher-income people who don’t currently receive them, increasing benefits for people in need would be the clearly correct choice.

But as noted above, that choice is a false one. There is no question that the US government has the money to offer increased benefits through universal programs. The only question is whether we will choose to spend it on the worthy goals of helping people in need and improving government efficiency for everyone.

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Filed under 2020 Election, Education, Health Care and Medicine, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

Feel the Bern and Vote for These Philly Judges on Tuesday, May 21

Last Sunday, Bernie Sanders published an op-ed decrying America’s system of criminal punishment for “effectively criminalizing communities of color.” Noting efforts already underway to end cash bail in Philadelphia under the leadership of community organizers and District Attorney Larry Krasner, Sanders urged “the citizens of Philadelphia [to continue this progress and] cast their votes for progressive judicial candidates in this month’s primary election.”

Voters can choose up to 6 of the 28 Democrats running to be a judge in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Knowing that Philly residents compelled by Bernie’s op-ed may be wondering who deserves their vote on May 21, I asked my sister Hannah, who closely follows criminal justice issues and is my moral role model, to provide specific recommendations. Hannah is currently getting her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. She has extensive knowledge of the Philadelphia court system through both her past job in the public defender’s office and the activism she engages in with a variety of social justice organizations around the city.

Because Philadelphia’s Democratic judge pool leans conservative, there aren’t any candidates Hannah enthusiastically supports. There are, however, three judges she finds good enough to bullet vote for: Anthony Kyriakakis (#19 on the ballot), Tiffany Palmer (#23), and Kay Yu (#27). I have provided brief descriptions of those three candidates below.

Voting recommendations for Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia

#19, Anthony Kyriakakis (5th Ward): A lecturer at Temple Law and Penn Law, Kyriakakis is a private defense attorney and former prosecutor who says incarceration rates are too high, sentences are too long, and defendants are treated unequally along racial, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and class lines. He has been interested in representing low-income defendants since his time with the Harvard Defenders at Harvard Law and volunteers as a pro bono Child Advocate in family court. Campaign website: https://anthonyforjudge.com/

#23, Tiffany Palmer (9th Ward): A daughter of public school teachers, Palmer began her career in 1998 as a public interest lawyer at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights and soon became the organization’s legal director. She co-founded the private family law firm she currently works at in 2003 and has won numerous awards, including being named one of the nation’s “40 Best LGBT Lawyers Under 40” in 2011. She says her “own experience with having her long-term partner treated as a legal stranger has shaped her commitment to fairness, inclusion, and equal treatment under the law.” Campaign website: https://palmerforjudge.com/

#27, Kay Yu (15th Ward): Yu’s own experience as an undocumented immigrant has informed her advocacy for increased ballot access and voting rights. While she is an employer-side lawyer in private practice, she has also chaired the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations for four years and worked to update Philadelphia’s civil rights policy. She won several awards in 2018, including being named Attorney of the Year by the Asian Pacific American Bar Association. Campaign website: https://www.kayforjudge.com/

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Filed under 2020 Election, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion, US Political System

Dear Councilman Grosso: Please Be Our Ally and Support 77

Dear Councilman Grosso,

We’ve met before. I worked at a bar in Chinatown that you used to frequent. We only spoke a few times, but I remember feeling proud to have you as our guest because you had a reputation for being an ally – an advocate for women and for the LGBTQ community. I’m writing to you today to ask you to be an ally to vulnerable workers in Washington, D.C. by supporting Initiative 77, which will raise the wages of tipped employees and help stabilize a flawed system.

The restaurant industry in Washington has afforded me many opportunities as both a bartender and manager. I have a deep respect for my service industry peers, and when my colleagues came out against 77, I voted “no” alongside them. In retrospect, the pressure in the industry was substantial to oppose, and then to repeal. Yet when the voters of D.C. popularly supported 77, I began to realize that our conversation about the initiative had been imbalanced. We had not heard from bartenders who supported 77 and, perhaps most importantly, we had not heard from many of the most vulnerable members of our industry.

In support of these vulnerable workers, I testified against the repeal of 77 after most of the Council had left for the night, dashing from work after last call at 1:00 a.m. and returning to close the bar after my testimony. While I waited my turn, I heard the fears of my colleagues who work in some of the city’s most renowned restaurants. They testified that 77 would catalyze the decline of our vibrant restaurant industry. Many fears reminded me of those I heard when other voices lobbied against paid sick days. Meanwhile, so many whose fears are realized on a daily basis went unheard that night. Once more, I will try to speak for them, as one of them.

I have felt the volatility of subsisting on tips. At that Chinatown bar, our staff sometimes missed a week’s income when bad weather drove everyone away. More recently, while pursuing my graduate degree, I worked daylight hours, which cut my income to a fraction of what it had been. While I earned meager tips off a handful of guests, I meticulously cleaned and prepped the bar for the busy night ahead. The system allowed my hard work to go unpaid.

I believe that Initiative 77 is a step toward professionalizing this industry and giving all tipped workers the stability and respect that they deserve. This is a bill meant to help the most vulnerable in our industry. It is for women who smile through degrading treatment because we need a tip. It is for underpaid immigrants who toil tirelessly to keep things running, often doing double the work for half the pay. It is for the welfare of our residents who are not chosen to work in the city’s highest-grossing restaurants.

I have seen enormous, unjustified disparities in pay. As a manager, I’ve seen the books. I’ve seen what restaurants spend on turnover, and I’ve witnessed the revenue lost from an undervalued and sometimes uninspired workforce. I also know that rising expenses are absorbed through small increases in food and beverage prices. The industry will shift to accommodate a higher base wage.

The Council has repeatedly asked these vulnerable workers to show themselves. It has asked why they have not spoken more loudly. Councilman Grosso, as an ally, I believe you know better. These groups are more dependent on good relationships with management and staff than they are on any city law. And they already voted once. I am asking you to stand for them. I am asking you do what’s right.

Supporting 77 is a way for you to stand for the rights of all tipped workers across our city. With your support of 77, you’re not choosing between restaurants and workers; you’re choosing to create a more just and equitable system for all.

Aubrey DeBoer

Aubrey DeBoer is a bartender and restaurant manager in Washington, DC with nearly 10 years of industry experience. She has been a Ward 5 resident for the past eight years.

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Filed under Business, Gender Issues, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System

Listen to Tipped Workers

Minimum wage expert Dave Cooper said on a recent podcast episode that the DC Council’s September 17 hearing on DC’s Initiative 77 was “probably the craziest city council hearing/state-level policy hearing I’ve ever been to, and I’ve testified in a bunch of different places.” DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was, as Cooper noted, hostile to anyone speaking in favor of upholding the initiative and raising wages for tipped workers. Observe Mendelson interrogate Sophia Miyoshi, for example, a five-year veteran of DC’s tipped-wage workforce who helped run the “Yes on 77” campaign. As the video below shows, Mendelson looked her up on social media and used the fact that she had recently moved and hadn’t updated her Facebook and LinkedIn pages to try to discredit her testimony.

Miyoshi’s voice is an important one, especially given the “No on 77” campaign’s constant refrain that we should #ListenToTippedWorkers. It is true that a number of servers and bartenders have spoken out against receiving a raise. But in addition to their arguments’ inconsistency with the facts, these workers comprise an unrepresentative subset of employees in DC’s tipped industries. For one thing, a full 27 percent of DC’s tipped workforce labors outside of the restaurant industry. Nathan Luecking, a high school social worker in Ward 8, testified that the tipped jobs most commonly available to the parents of students he works with are not in “the higher-end restaurants uptown,” but as “hairdressers, nail technicians, parking lot attendants, and food delivery drivers.” He noted how one student’s parent, who works as a hairdresser, “does well on tips when folks have money to spend, like back to school or after tax refund season. However, for the rest of the year, she struggles to make predictable income, and some months she can’t pay her rent or utilities on time.”

For another, most of the servers and bartenders who comprise 40 percent of DC’s tipped workforce have different experiences than the people wearing “No on 77” pins. “Many of those who oppose Initiative 77 have been in the restaurant industry for 15 to 20 years and have been treated well by their bosses,” former DC tipped worker David Sexton, who also testified on September 17, pointed out to me after the hearing. “It’s great that the system has worked out for them, but for the majority of tipped workers it has not.”

Because of fears of employer retaliation, the voices of this lower-wage majority of tipped workers have been underrepresented in DC’s debate. Even when employees and bosses have a strong relationship, employees rightfully worry about taking public political stances their bosses might not like. Will it affect their shift schedule or their next request for time off? Will they be less likely to get a raise or a promotion? The safer route, if you’re struggling to make ends meet and don’t want to rock the boat, is to stay quiet. When bosses invite campaigns into their workplaces to spread misinformation and employees feel overt pressure to take certain stances – as multiple witnesses testified they did – is it any wonder more haven’t spoken out? Thea Bryan, one of the brave tipped workers who has been vocal in her support of Initiative 77, was fired shortly after giving a speech on the issue.

For those interested in hearing them, however, we now have ample documentation of these workers’ voices. Well over a dozen people who have spent time working in tipped jobs in DC courageously stepped up and testified publicly at the hearing.

“Many former tipped workers might have stayed in the restaurant industry if not for the hostility, wage theft, and abuse they faced, which is in no small part a result of the failed subminimum wage model,” Sexton told me. These are some of their and current tipped workers’ stories, in their own words.

Eric Harris Bernstein

“I have been a bartender most of my adult life. I have bartended in five cities, including for two years right here in DC, where I made a base wage of around $3 per hour. Now that I am pursuing my graduate education in the Bay Area, I have returned to bartending in order to support myself. In my current position, like all tipped workers in California, I make the full minimum wage – in my case, $13.23 per hour. I make that in addition to tips, which hover between 17 and 22 percent of sales.

I told this to a friend who bartends in the Penn Quarter and he was shocked. He had assumed, based on the National Restaurant Association’s talking points, that tipping had disappeared in California. That is the degree to which NRA scare tactics have defined and misdirected this debate. I am here to correct the record.

I am here to tell you that this additional base pay will make an enormous difference in the lives of your constituents, as it has in my own. It will lift families out of poverty, as it has in other fair wage cities and states. And it will improve the restaurant industry, as it has in booming fair wage restaurant towns like Seattle and Portland.

I’d also like to correct the record on another matter. A number of councilmembers have stated that current law guarantees DC’s tipped workers the full hourly minimum wage. It does not. Under current law, if a DC restaurant worker earns $300 in tips on Friday, but earns no tips on Monday, they are earning just $3.89 for each hour they worked that day. The balance between the tipped minimum wage and the full minimum wage is not made up by the restaurant but is pulled out of the $300 already in that worker’s pockets.

In other words, the current system pulls tipped workers down towards the minimum instead of building them up beyond it…Restaurant workers have a right to a reasonable base pay that does not eat into their tips. No other industry is exempt from this obligation.”

Thea Bryan

I have been bartending on and off for many years…Most recently I have been working at a well-established restaurant in Ward 3 called Arucola. On a recent Saturday night when it was pouring down rain I made S27. Not because no one was tipping but because it was dead due to the torrential downpour outside. Tell me, do any of you get paid less because the weather is bad? $3.89 is not a fair wage and it doesn’t make up for times when business is slow, like January, February, August, when it’s raining, when it’s snowing. Workers deserve a fair hourly wage to help offset the slow times…

There has been a lot of conversation as to why more tipped workers aren’t speaking out in favor of this initiative. I can give you my personal experience, which is the endless harassment I have received. There has been a concerted effort to find out where I work. Per the threats people want to come in and not tip me or get me fired. I have felt the wrath of other coworkers, with whom I generally have had great working relationships, only to hear them make false claims about Initiative 77 being a push to stop tipping. This is untrue. The misinformation on this has been ubiquitous and unyielding. Interesting that the same coworkers fighting against this were just weeks later complaining about not being able to make ends meet with their tips. Fearmongering of the loss of livelihood has caused many to engage in vitriolic rhetoric against anyone who is perceived as a threat.”

Woong Chang

“I’ve been living here in DC since 2009 and I’m a current tipped worker in Ward 5. I’m here today not only as a restaurant worker but also as a deeply concerned citizen, to urge the city council to respect the will of the voters and vote no on this preposterous bill named “Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018”…

Quite frankly, I could sit here and tell you all the stories, statistics, and data, both anecdotal and scientific, but…you’ve heard them all, we’ve been having this conversation since 2012. This personally is my third time testifying on behalf of raising the tipped minimum wage here in DC.

So instead, here’s something you haven’t heard much. In fact, this is why I’m fighting for the elimination of the tipped minimum wage. My dream, ever since I started in the restaurant industry, has been to see the day that my industry is ‘professionalized’…This is what I love to do and this is what I am passionate about.

Chantal Coudoux

“I am a DC native who grew up in Ward 6, moved to Ward 4 and then returned to Ward 6…I have been a part of the restaurant industry here and in California for over a decade…

As the daughter of a refugee, I prioritize the folks who work support staff roles…and do not make 60k or 80k a year in this industry; the folks who came to DC not because of the trendy restaurant scene but because of other global forces; the folks who if they lose their jobs, cannot just bounce to the next one; the folks who make restaurants run but who aren’t up front and center; the folk who might not speak English as their first language; the folk who like my father cannot vote in the U.S. because of immigration status or incarceration. These are the folks who are overwhelmingly victims of wage theft, who will not bring up to an employer that they did not receive minimum wage because this would cost them shifts or their job entirely.

To be clear, I am not one of those people. I was born with skin color privilege, the “right” nationality and the “correct” native language. But these folks are my blood and chosen family. I say all this not because they need me to “save them” or their tips or to speak for them, but in solidarity with workers whose voices were never heard in the conversation. I talked with these folks; I listened when they told me it did not matter if they spoke up or they were too scared to given the racist administration we are facing or they did not trust in the council to not overturn the initiative. Yes, industry people were split but the electorate heard these lost voices. You apparently did not, just as you are choosing to ignore voices of the electorate.”

Aubrey DeBoer

“I voted ‘No’ on Initiative 77. However, I am here today to defend it. Since the election, I have come to read and understand both sides of the issue, and I believe that many of the arguments against it were false. Furthermore, I believe the fundamental duty of a modern democracy is to respect the voice of the people. Implementing 77 is an opportunity for us Washingtonians to do just that.

For 8 years, I have worked as a professional in the service industry…

Often, our livelihoods as service workers are jeopardized by the uncertainty of what we might make that night. The minimum wage wouldn’t erase this uncertainty, which restaurant workers broadly acknowledge, but it would be a step in the right direction. Now, our tenuous tips put us in precarious situations. We are at the mercy of unpredictable generosity of guests, which subjects us to toleration of all kinds of bad behavior.

When the #metoo movement began to swell online, I laughed away the thought of posting my own experiences. Why would I? Harassment is nearly a daily issue. Tipsy guests misread my friendliness as an invitation for advances. But I just need their money. Men take advantage of a crowded room to grab me. And I just need their money. People yell insults about my intelligence or my body. And I still need their money. This is my income. Guaranteeing a stable base wage would be a step towards professionaIizing this industry and giving restaurant workers Iike me the respect that we deserve.”

Ann Eveleth

“I live in Petworth and I am a registered voter in Ward 4. I am also currently employed as a restaurant server, and I have worked in the industry for more than 15 years spread across my working life, including nearly 6 years here in the District. The proposal to overturn the will of the majority of voters who supported Initiative 77 not only threatens the benefits I expected to gain as a restaurant worker by having my industry (finally!) upgraded to 21st century labour standards, but also directly threatens to flush my own vote in favour of the initiative down the toilet, along with those of the other 47,229 voters who will be retroactively disenfranchised by such a move, especially in wards whose demographics are most representative of the most vulnerable workers in the District…

I began my first restaurant job as a high school student in downriver Detroit in the 1980s. The so-called ‘tipped minimum wage’ then , in the 1980s, was about $1.85/hr federally. Today, in 2018, more than 30 years later, it still sits at $2.13 an hour. That’s basically an increase of one penny a year over three decades – it’s practically a world record in wage suppression and it’s only been sustained due to the unbending resistance by the powerful lobbying group known as the ‘other NRA,’ the National Restaurant Association…

I have a great deal of sympathy for the genuine fears of some of my coworkers in the industry, but I submit that these fears are based on projections based on NRA propaganda in this post-truth climate, and not based on facts.”

Abdul Fofana

“I’ve been working in the hospitality/service industry for 11 years…I’m currently the lead server-slash-banquet captain at Dirty Habit DC…

I am a strong supporter of Initiative 77. I support the initiative for several reasons, but most importantly because restaurants must now make staffing decisions that both benefit the restaurant as well as its employees. Washington DC’s restaurant market is highly competitive with new restaurants constantly opening. Business owners often find themselves scrambling to fully staff their restaurant with qualified and talented individuals. Due to the oversaturation of restaurants, managers and owners are instead hiring less-experienced staff. This results in overstaffing in order to accommodate the lack of experience. Restaurants do not currently take into consideration overstaffing because of how low the wages are for their front-of-the-house staff…

With Initiative 77, the wage increases will be a benefit to guests, employees, and business. Managers can now construct hiring and floor plans with the goal of hiring talented, experienced employees…With the greater talent, less tipped employees can cover the floor…With greater talent, guests enjoy the dining experience without preventable hiccups in service. With greater talent, employees are happy with their wages, empowered to push farther in their hospitality careers, and refer others to work in such a beautiful field. Initiative 77 is a win for everybody involved in the hospitality industry.”

Matthew Hanson

“I am a Ward 7 resident, a former tipped worker, and the Director of DC Working Families. I am here today to testify in support of one fair minimum wage and against the proposed legislation to repeal it.

When voters go to the polls, we expect our decisions at the ballot box to be respected. When Republicans in Congress have attempted to interfere in our local decisions, we have stood up against their efforts, regardless of where we stood on the issue, because we understand it’s important to respect the democratic process.

For many of us, this isn’t just about defending a fair and equitable raise for tipped workers, it’s about defending our decision at the ballot box. One that voters took very seriously.”

Pearl Rose Hood

“I have worked as a tipped worker for nine years at a variety of establishments…From my very first job, and through the years, I have been distraught by the income instability and by employers’ lack of empathy in following regulations put in place to protect workers’ well-being. I experienced wage theft at Woodberry Kitchen, owned and operated by Spike Gjerde, where we tipped out a portion back into the house, so back into the pockets of its millionaire owners…

I have worked as a bartender, server and as support staff; as a busser and food-runner. I can say that support staff, who also depend primarily on tips, are typically paid much less. Support staff are often immigrants, people working more than one job, supporting many others. I don’t believe they are being fairly represented today.

I have been pressured to vote no on 77. My most recent employer required us to hand out “vote no” cards with every customer’s check. I received numerous emails detailing how to email my councilmembers and testify against Prop 77. I know of an industry colleague who was fired from her position in southwest [DC] because she would not solicit customers to vote no.

I believe there is misinformation and fearmongering from the part of employers and restaurateurs. Tipped workers, especially the lowest-earning ones, are scared for their livelihoods to a degree that keeps them from feeling able to speak up.”

Dia King

“I have been a valet driver for 4-and-a-half years. I’ve lived and worked in DC most of my life and I currently live in Ward 7.

When I first started working as a valet, I was paid $7 an hour plus tips. Now, 4-and-a-half years later, I still have not gotten a raise. Even though I have asked many times, they typically make up excuses like saying it’s not in the budget, and even one time they simply refused. Yet at the same time I have witnessed multiple increases in valet rates, and as I also noticed, when the valet rates went up, my tips went down.

I enjoy working at the hotel and all of the relationships that I have built. I have met so many amazing people, guests, co-workers and even celebrities. I have stayed at my job because I like it, but as a professional, I feel undervalued.

When working, I am required to “post up,” which means stand up straight, don’t lean for hours, have a smile on my face, greet every guest who comes to the hotel, and I’ll get 100% on my shop score if I add ‘I’ll be happy to.’

How can I be happy to make our guests happy if my company won’t take care of me? I live in a city where the cost of living is constantly going up. Rent, food and transportation continues to increase while my wage stays the same. If our guests can afford $50+ for parking then my company can afford a livable wage for me.”

Sophia Miyoshi

“I have worked in the restaurant industry primarily as a tipped worker for seven years, and throughout this time I learned that working in this industry is hard work that requires physical, mental, and emotional labor. I also learned that it is one in which abuses, biases, and harassment can run rampant. On top of the intensity of the work we also have to endure sexual harassment from customers, coworkers, and even bosses, racial discrimination in hiring and promotional practices, immigration threats, wage theft, and general daily abuses.

Because of what I experienced and witnessed working in restaurants, and all that was tolerated and normalized, I wanted to do what I could to improve the industry that I hold so close to me. I became a member at the Restaurant Opportunities Center and eventually left the industry to be brought on as a community and worker organizer, which is my role today.

I am here in support of Initiative 77…

Restaurant work is a profession, and therefore, in the restaurant industry, we should be treated as professionals. Working in the restaurant industry has been highly devalued and many people do not see or treat these jobs as a career. It is not possible for our industry to be truly professionalized when we are being paid $3 to $5 an hour. Professionalism starts with professional wages.”

Nteboheng Maya Mokuena

I am a Ward 5 resident and I am here to testify in support of Initiative 77.

Not only am I climate and racial justice organizer, but I am a former tipped employee. While some bartenders and waitresses may earn more than $15/hour with tips, that is not the case for many tipped workers in DC. I know specifically when I worked in different cafes that there would be nights when I would take home $2 in cash after splitting it with my fellow employees. My income insecurity as a tipped employee meant not only living paycheck to paycheck, but that in order to earn more tips, I did need to endure more sexual harassment, I needed to wear more makeup, and I needed to take on more shifts while maintaining my status as a full-time student at American University…

It’s important for workers to not have to depend upon the graciousness or harassment of customers to receive living wages — that is the responsibility of the government and our employers.”

Trupti Patel

I happen to be a bartender…Last week my “sister” suffered an emotional breakdown at work. She was at her breaking point to be at work on a day/shift where all of us (2 bartenders and 6 servers) were on the floor for at least 3 hours with no patrons due to bad weather. The indifference displayed by the management to all staff that was in clear economic anxiety was the straw that broke the camel’s back. To hear ‘it’s just one bad day, it’ll pick up later on in the week’ is not a comforting response when you’re living on an economically precarious shift to shift pay cycle…I’d learn later on that she had become homeless due to the economic instability of being a tipped service industry worker and that all of her belongings were to be auctioned off that day. She was counting on coming to work and being able to earn an income that day, but when your income potential is put at the mercy of unpredictable factors such as weather, unfair scheduling, and whims of generosity from strangers it’s in reality economic roulette each shift.”

David Sexton

“I am a Ward 4 Resident. I was a tipped worker in D.C. for 2 years. I left last fall in part because of the unsustainability of the work.

I am here to testify in support of the full implementation of Initiative 77. As a former tipped employee in the District of Columbia, I found that the current wage system is volatile and hostile to workers. The subminimum wage of $3.89 per hour is little more than a tax buffer, meaning tips are the only way for servers to make ends meet. When the cost of labor is subsidized by customers, pay becomes unpredictable and can change every period. Anything from weather, illness, or a customer’s mood could impact my tips. A bad night or week meant working more shifts the next, leading to irregular schedules and unpredictable results. This lack of a safety net often led to difficult decisions. Without a fair wage, I felt compelled to go to work sick because I was afraid to lose the money. As a Type 1 Diabetic, I often worked through episodes of high and low blood sugar when I should have taken a break or gone home because I knew that I could not miss that opportunity to make money.

Under a tipped wage system, many workers also make less than minimum wage whenever they work outside of a service period. For example, at one tipped job that I held last year, up to a quarter of my shifts were spent opening and closing the restaurant before and after service. Because there were no customers during this period, my colleagues and I earned less than $4 an hour for our hard work. This drags down the average wage, forcing us to borrow from our ‘good shifts’ to offset paltry earnings. It’s an unequal system that requires workers to maintain the owner’s property and get little in return. It’s an unfair, two-tiered wage system that no white-collar employee would accept. Tipped workers deserve the same…

The movement to repeal Initiative 77 has been bankrolled by the National Restaurant Association, management consultants, and is backed by people like Mark Meadows in the House Freedom Caucus. When powerful interests publicly claim the initiative is unaffordable and spend hundreds of thousands dollars pitching to progressive voters, I have to wonder if they care about the many or the few.”

Chandrasekaran Shanmugam

I live in Maryland and work in DC. I [have been] working in [the] hospitality industry for 15 years in various positions.

I would like to bring the following to your attention in support of Initiative 77…

People voted for Initiative 77 in the same ballot that many of you were selected to represent us.

Your victory and the Initiative 77 victory are each side of the same coin. You cannot take one and ignore the other…

It is simple math that $15 per hour with tips will give more earnings than $3.89 with tips. In the states where one fair wage is implemented workers get tips in addition to the one fair wage.”

Griffin Tanner

“I’ve lived in DC for 6 years and I am a Ward 1 resident. I worked in the restaurant industry in DC for 3 years first as a runner and later as a bartender. However, this past June, after the election, I transitioned out of the industry. I believe this is significant. I am speaking here today because I am no longer at risk from unfavorable treatment from an employer and there’s several people still in the industry who support 77 but don’t feel comfortable speaking out against it in the face of “Save Our Tips” posters. So I’m here today to uplift those voices…

My own experiences working in the service industry show why initiative 77 would be a positive change for service workers.

When initially hired as a bartender, I earned $7 an hour plus tips, but about half a year into the job, our employer suddenly lowered the base wage to $3 an hour. That’s over a 50% decrease in base wage because our tips were quote unquote “high enough.” This dramatically lowered my expected earnings and affected my financial planning and security. About half of our staff quit. I considered leaving but was in in the middle of pursuing a degree and not in a position to search for a new job, so I had to rearrange my finances and cut back on spending to deal with the decrease in earnings.

Now, the company was not wrong for doing this because it was completely within their legal right. However, workers should not be subjected to this kind of unpredictability in earnings, whether it’s from changes to their base wage or from other characteristics in the industry such as inconsistencies in tippings throughout the year. With I-77, a stable base wage would prevent such unpredictability.”

Venorica Tucker

I am a 70-year-old African-American woman who has raised my children by myself (I have three sons). I was born and raised in Washington, DC and have worked in DC as a tipped worker all my life. I now live in Prince George’s County. I work very near here, at two very prominent places, providing food service and receiving a tip…

I discovered ROC and I supported many of the programs that they initiated, programs like ban the box, paid sick days, and their advocacy against sexual harassment in the workplace. I have been working to help them realize one fair wage and Initiative 77. So I was very happy on election night when I saw that we in fact had won when we were told we probably wouldn’t.

And when I hear you, Mr. Chairman, make the comment that you’ve heard the people, you’ve heard the workers, and the workers are all opposed to this – I’m a worker, 70 years old, working in this industry…For you to say that we’re saying ‘we don’t want this,’ that’s not the truth…

You’ve met with these people, not with us, the people who are for Initiative 77, but you’ve met with the people opposed to Initiative 77, and you’ve coached them, you’ve told them what to come here and say, and I am so disappointed in this kind of action.”

(Tucker’s allegations are accurate and confirmed by reporting in The Washington Post.)

If Phil Mendelson and his colleagues on the DC Council (particularly Kenyan McDuffie, Trayon White, Anita Bonds, Jack Evans, Vince Gray, and Brandon Todd) were truly interested in listening to tipped workers, these stories would give them pause. If they were truly interested in the facts, they’d take a closer look at the evidence a plethora of researchers, clergy, businesspeople, women’s rights advocates, civil rights lawyers, worker advocates, public officials, and other DC residents also presented to them at the hearing, and on many other occasions. And if they were truly interested in representing the people of DC – rather than the wealthy business executives who have donated to their campaigns – they wouldn’t be trying to repeal what their constituents voted for.

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Filed under Business, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System

Written in 2017, Relevant in 2018 and Beyond

With the year drawing to a close, and because I like lists, I wanted to highlight the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 that I believe remain most relevant for 2018 and beyond.

#10: The Trump administration’s ongoing attack on workers (The Washington Post, August 30)
Donald Trump pledged during his campaign, that, with him in office, “the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” In this piece, Jared Bernstein and I tick off a multitude of ways in which this promise has turned out, predictably, to be false. The list has gotten longer in the time since we went to press (check out Jared’s recent interview of Heidi Shierholz on how the Trump Labor Department is trying to help employers steal workers’ tips), and it will be important to continue to shine a light on team Trump’s anti-worker actions in 2018.

#9: The Paul Ryan Guide to Pretending You Care About the Poor (Talk Poverty, November 20)
Speaking of the disconnect between Republican politicians’ rhetoric and their actual actions, this satirical piece outlined the way in which Paul Ryan sells his help-the-rich-and-punish-the-poor agenda as the opposite of what it actually is. With the Republican tax cut for rich people signed into law, Ryan has already trained his sights on eviscerating programs that help the poor. Don’t let anyone you know fall for how he’ll spin it.

#8: Why Medicaid Work Requirements Won’t Work (The New York Times, March 22)
Elected officials who share Ryan’s disdain for poor people will likely try to add work requirements to their states’ Medicaid programs in 2018. Here, Jared and I explain why that policy’s main effect is just to deprive people of needed health care.

#7: Seattle’s higher minimum wage is actually working just fine (The Washington Post, June 27)
The Fight for $15 has been incredibly successful over the past few years; 29 states (plus DC) and 40 localities now have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. Yet the not-so-brave quest some economists and politicians have undertaken to hold down wages for low-wage workers continues unabated, and they jumped all over a June study of Seattle’s minimum wage increase to proclaim that workers are actually better off when we allow businesses to underpay them. A closer look at the study, of course, reveals that it proves nothing of the sort, so keep this rebuttal handy for the next raise-the-wage fight you find yourself engaged in.

#6: Below the Minimum No More (The American Prospect, May 30)
Abolishing sub-minimum wages is the next front in the minimum wage wars; while many jurisdictions have raised the headline minimum wage, most have failed to satisfactorily address the exemptions in minimum wage law that allow businesses to exploit tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and teenagers. It’s about time we had one fair minimum wage for all workers, as this piece explains.

#5: Protect the Dreamers (The American Prospect, September 28)
Republican Senator Jeff Flake claims that he voted for the Republican tax bill after “securing…commitment from the [Trump] administration & #Senate leadership to advance [a] growth-oriented legislative solution to enact fair and permanent protections for #DACA recipients.” In this piece, Jared and I note how a clean Dream Act is the only approach that politicians who truly care about helping immigrants would find acceptable; Flake must be held accountable for supporting it. State lawmakers should also be pressured to take the steps we outline to combat the xenophobia emanating from the White House.

#4: U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed” (34justice, January 9)
To date, there is at best remarkably weak evidence behind many prominent politicians’ and pundits’ claims about Russian interference in the US election. I read the report that is the basis for many of these claims when it came out in January and, as I noted at the time, it’s almost comically propagandistic. Some Democrats’ disregard for actual facts when it comes to allegations of Russian hacking and “collusion” is troubling, as is the McCarthyite climate in which people who challenge the Democratic Party Establishment are accused of being secret agents of Vladimir Putin. Those who would prefer a more reality-based Russia discussion in 2018 would do well to take a half hour to watch Aaron Maté interview Luke Harding about this topic.

#3: Amen for Alternative Media (34justice, May 2)
An obsession with Russia conspiracy theories is far from the mainstream media’s sole problem. The problem also isn’t a paucity of Republican journalists, as the May/June issue of Politico posited. Instead, as my response to Politico discusses, the mainstream media’s problem is one of subservience to power. Independent media are doing the public a great service by exposing us to information and viewpoints often absent from corporate cable and major newspapers, and it is essential that we fight to protect and promote independent media in the years ahead.

#2: The Progressive Agenda Now: Jobs and Medicare for All (The American Prospect, April 3)
Given Republican control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, one would be forgiven for urging social justice advocates to focus their energies on policy defense. But that would be a mistake, as Jared and I note in this column, both because the best defense is sometimes a good offense and because, if we want to enact the policy millions of people need, we must lay the groundwork for that policy as soon as possible. There is much more beyond a federal job guarantee and Medicare for All that we have to flesh out and advocate for, but those two big policy ideas wouldn’t be too shabby a start.

#1: We Don’t Need No “Moderates” (34justice, July 29)
Putting the right politicians in power is the prerequisite for enacting most of the policy changes we need to see. Those who tell you that “moderate” or “centrist” politicians are more “electable” than social-justice-oriented politicians are wrong, and there is never a good reason – never – to advocate for the less social-justice-oriented candidate in a Democratic primary. The results of the 2017 elections only underscore this point. It’s time we got to work electing true social justice advocates to positions of power.

Happy reading and happy new year!

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

How to Spin an Agenda for the Rich as an Agenda for the Poor, by Paul Ryan

Once, at a town hall in Wisconsin, someone asked me the following question:

“I know that you’re Catholic, as am I, and it seems to me that most of the Republicans in the Congress are not willing to stand with the poor and working class as evidenced in the recent debates about health care and the anticipated tax reform. So I’d like to ask you how you see yourself upholding the church’s social teaching that has the idea that God is always on the side of the poor and dispossessed, as should we be.”

If you’re ever in a position of power and trying to simultaneously cut taxes for rich people and benefits for poor people, you’ll get asked questions like this one a lot. To make sure you’re ready for it as the tax debate heats up, I’ve written a handy step-by-step guide on how to convince your constituents that the help-the-rich, whack-the-poor agenda is the only way to go:

1) Say you share the same goals. The trick here is to convince people that you’re with them all the way on the importance of helping the poor. You just disagree about “how to achieve that goal.” Start there and you’ve quickly turned things from a moral referendum on whether we should help the poor or the rich into what appears to be a reasonable disagreement over what works best to help the least advantaged.

2) Direct attention away from what it means to be poor. People who ask these sorts of questions think that poor people simply don’t have enough money to meet their families’ basic needs. You know better. Tell them what the poor really need is “upward mobility,” “economic growth,” and “equality of opportunity.” Not only do these airy concepts all sound really good – who could be against any of them? – they also let you pivot away from the obvious solution: giving people more of the resources they lack. True, your agenda doesn’t bring about the things to which you’ve shifted the focus. But don’t worry! The narrative that tax cuts promote economic growth is one that voluminous evidence to the contrary has thus far been unable to kill; likewise, the intimate connection between inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunity is one very few interviewers will point out. People are often happy to ignore the large body of evidence on these issues and treat them as debatable.

3) Imply that poor people’s personal failings are what’s holding them back. You can’t pull off the enlightened nice-guy routine if you’re blaming poor people for their problems outright. So you need to do it subtly: say that what we really need is worker training and programs that encourage people to work (again, who’s going to be against that?). Never mind that there’s little actual evidence of a “skills gap” and that most people who can work already do. People are predisposed to believe that our success relative to those less fortunate is a result of our superior work ethic and talents (rather than a product of race, class, gender, and/or other forms of privilege and sheer dumb luck). The more you tap into that predisposition, the more people will oppose downward redistribution and support imposing burdensome requirements on the Have Nots instead.

4) Choose unrepresentative examples and statistics. People are always shocked to hear my example of “a single mom getting 24 grand in benefits with two kids who,” because of the way the safety net is designed,” will lose 80 cents on the dollar if she goes and takes a job.” They don’t need to know that very few single mothers ever face such a marginal tax rate, that marginal tax rates for low-income people are typically much lower than marginal tax rates for people with more money, that it pays to work even for the tiny group of people my example describes, or that reducing the marginal tax rates low-income people face without pushing them deeper into poverty would require investing more in the programs I want to cut, not less.

Similarly, I love to tell people that “our poverty rates are about the same as they were when we started th[e] War on Poverty,” which is more or less what the official poverty measure shows. That official measure excludes the effects of the very programs I say aren’t working, of course, and yes, there is a Supplemental Poverty Measure that refutes this claim and that analysts across the political spectrum agree is more appropriate to use, but the inconvenient truth that anti-poverty programs currently cut poverty nearly in half and have reduced poverty by 10 percentage points since the late 1960s isn’t exactly going to help us pass our agenda.

5) Hammer “focus on outcomes” rhetoric. Focusing on outcomes is popular in many fields, so this talking point – that “instead of measuring success based on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people are on those programs, [we should] measure success in poverty on outcomes” – is very effective. The fact that nobody actually measures program effectiveness by how much money we spend or by the number of programs we create is irrelevant, as is the large and growing body of research showing that the safety net boosts the long-run outcomes of children growing up in poor families, as is the havoc the tax-cut agenda has wreaked on Kansas. All that matters is that people fall for this line, nodding their heads in agreement when you say it.

As long as you’re proposing to redistribute money from the bottom and middle to the rich, you’re going to get questions like the one I got at that town hall. There will always be those who oppose reverse-Robin-Hood-ism on principle. But if you stick to these steps, before you know it, you’ll have convinced a constituency (and perhaps even yourself!) that helping the rich is actually about helping the poor. At worst, people will just be too confused to know what to think.

You’re welcome.

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Filed under Poverty and the Justice System

34justice Partners with Run It Black

I’m excited to announce that 34justice is partnering with Run It Black, a podcast on “sports, politics, culture, and the intersection of race” from David Tigabu and Mike Mitchell.  Mike taught me much of what I know about podcasting, and David is no newcomer to 34justice, having previously authored a great piece for us on how the co-option of Christianity helps explain the election of Donald Trump.  Besides being good friends of mine and knowing far more about pop culture than I ever will, David and Mike have awesome insights about the connections between racism and various other forms of oppression.  Often containing fascinating historical context, their episodes are both entertaining and informative.

You can listen to Run It Black episodes directly through 34justice’s new Run It Black widget, which can be found on the top right-hand-side of our webpage on a desktop computer and towards the bottom of the page on a mobile device.  You can also tune in on iTunes.  Here’s a quick overview of the first five episodes (from earliest to most recent):

What to do about the NFL?
Find out why David and Mike are boycotting the NFL this year and what they think of the Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor showdown.

The Politics of Hurricanes
People of color suffer most when natural disasters strike, are often de-prioritized during our inadequate responses to such disasters, and will continue to face disproportionate harm if we fail to address climate change.  David and Mike explain.

Jemele Hill Was Right
Hill’s Black colleagues backed her up when she called Donald Trump a White supremacist, but ESPN didn’t.  David and Mike discuss the Right-wing backlash to race-conscious sports media before delving into some statistics on and possible remedies for the racial wealth gap.

Puerto Rico’s Colonial Disaster
As David and Mike note, our government has treated Puerto Rico significantly worse than it treats US states during times of natural disaster, a problem consistent with a long history of unjust policy towards Americans on the island.  They also comment on the evolution of NFL players’ protests against racial injustice.

The Enduring Significance of HBCUs
While neither David nor Mike attended an HBCU, they’ve thought a lot about the important role such institutions play in improving opportunities for Black Americans.  They note HBCUs’ many strengths, why some criticisms of HBCUs are misplaced, and the curious case of HBCU presidents accepting Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House.

Especially if you aren’t getting enough Run It Black between episodes, I highly recommend following the podcast, as well as David and Mike, on Twitter.  Happy listening!

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Filed under Environment, Gender Issues, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion, Sports, US Political System

Education Matters, But Direct Anti-Poverty and Inequality-Reduction Efforts Matter More

I once began a K-12 education talk by putting the following two questions on a screen.

1. What is the single policy change that would most improve the quality of K-12 education?
2. What is the single policy change that would most reduce the opportunity gap between low-income and high-income students?

I asked audience members to, by a show of hands, indicate which question spoke to them more.  They had three choices:

A) Question 1
B) Question 2
C) Doesn’t matter, since both question 1 and question 2 have the same answer

Stop and think for a second about which choice would have prompted you to raise your hand.

If you would have selected choice C, you would have been joined by about 90 percent of the audience at my talk.  I expected that result.  In a culture in which politicians routinely say things like “education is the closest thing to magic we have here in America” and cite low graduation rates in low-income areas as evidence of our education system’s failures, that view is unsurprising.

It’s also completely wrong.  The overwhelming evidence that choice C is incorrect falls into at least five primary buckets:

1) There are large gaps in test score performance in the United States before students enter kindergarten. The graph shown below, from the Economic Policy Institute, documents the extent of these gaps (there are gaps in various cognitive and noncognitive skills as well), and as Sean Reardon has shown, there is evidence that they close during the school year, only to reopen during the summer months.  The gaps have declined in size since the late 1990s, but they are, in Reardon’s words, “still huge.”

EPI Kindergarten.png

Inequitable access to preschool for low-income students is definitely part of the problem here, but gaps are apparent in infancy and probably due mostly to differences in housing, nutrition, medical care, exposure to environmental hazards, stress, and various other factors.

2) Decades of research into the causes of the gap in test scores between low-income and high-income students in the United States has consistently found a limited contribution from school-based factors. In the US, variations in school quality seem to explain no more than 33% of the discrepancies in test score performance; this number, which has been around since 1966, considers the influence of a student’s classmates to be a school-based factor (it arguably isn’t) and thus seems to be a conservative upper bound. Most studies put the school-based contribution to what is commonly called the “achievement gap” closer to 20%, with about 60% attributable to “student and family background characteristics [which] likely pertain to income/poverty” and the other 20% unexplained.

3) Economic success in this country is less common for low-income students who are successful in school than for high-income students who are unsuccessful in school. The graph below, made using data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project, compares the distribution of adult economic outcomes for children born into different quintiles of the income distribution with different levels of educational attainment.  If education were the prime determinant of opportunity, we’d expect educational attainment to determine these adult economic outcomes.  Yet the data show that children born into the top twenty percent who fail to graduate college typically fare better economically than children born into the bottom twenty percent who earn their college degrees.  In fact, the born-into-privilege non-graduates are 2.5 times as likely to end up in the top twenty percent as adults as are the born-poor college graduates.

Mobility - Pew

4) The test scores of students in the United States relative to the test scores of students around the world aren’t all that different than what students’ self-reports of their socioeconomic status would predict. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has an “index of economic, social, and cultural status” which incorporates family wealth, parents’ educational attainment, and more.  There is a gap in test score performance between students who score high on this index and students who score relatively low on it in every country in the world.  The size of the gap varies by country, as does the median test score, but there is a strong correlation overall between students’ socioeconomic status and their performance on standardized tests.  The first graph below, in which each data point relates the average socioeconomic index score for a decile of a particular OECD country’s students to that decile’s average performance on PISA’s math test, depicts this relationship.

OECD Test Scores - All.png

As the next two graphs show, test score performance for the bottom socioeconomic decile in the United States falls right on the OECD bottom-decile trend line, and while U.S. test scores for the second decile are a little below the OECD trend (as are U.S. scores for the next few deciles), socioeconomic status seems to explain American students’ performance on international tests pretty well overall.

OECD Test Scores - Bottom Decile.png

OECD Test Scores - Second Decile.png

5) The distribution of educational attainment in the United States has improved significantly over the past twenty-five years without significantly improving students’ eventual economic outcomes. While people with more education tend to have lower poverty rates than people with less education, giving people more education neither creates quality jobs nor eliminates bad ones, as Matt Bruenig has explained.  A more educated population (see the first graph below), therefore, just tends to shift the education levels required by certain jobs upwards: jobs that used to require only a high school degree might now require a college degree, for example.  The “cruel game of musical chairs in the U.S. labor market” (as Marshall Steinbaum and Austin Clemens have called it) that results is likely part of why poverty rates at every level of educational attainment increased between 1991 and 2014, as shown in the second graph below.

Bruenig1.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig2.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig’s analysis lacks a counterfactual – the overall poverty rate may well have increased if educational attainment hadn’t improved, rather than staying constant – but it’s a clear illustration of the problem with primarily education-focused anti-poverty initiatives.

None of this evidence changes the fact that education is very important.  It just underscores that direct efforts to reduce poverty and inequality – efforts that put more money in the pockets of low-income people and provide them with important benefits like health care – are most important if our goal is to boost opportunities for low-income students.

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