Category Archives: Poverty and the Justice 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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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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Filed under Education, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System

Good Policy Is the Goal. Compromise Should Not Be.

Matt Bruenig just wrote an excellent series of posts dismantling a misguided “Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream” from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution.  Bruenig’s posts explain why the plan’s emphasis on education, work, and marriage will not accomplish its goals (I’ve made similar points about education and family structure before).  While it’s important to note that education and work (and family strength and stability, which are critically different from family structure) have value – improving education and the availability of good jobs can boost economic mobility – the evidence is clear that we will not equalize opportunities for more than an unacceptably small subset of kids until we both reduce inequality and make sure kids’ basic needs are met.

Richard Reeves, a researcher I really like who participated in drafting this unfortunate “consensus plan,” describes it as a triumph of realism over purism.  In doing so, he draws a false equivalency between what he calls “purists on both political extremes: those on the right who simply see government as the problem, and fantasize about sweeping away vast swaths of institutional architecture and funding, and those on the left who imagine that simply taking money from some and giving it to others will cure society’s ills.”

“Liberals” (or, in the parlance of the report, “progressives”) and “conservatives” are the labels DC insiders typically use to categorize people on one or the other of these false extremes, as shown below.

LiberalConservativeBut the idea that these are two equivalently absurd “sides,” and that the best course of action is thus to compromise by meeting in the “middle,” is unfortunately a major impediment to good policymaking.  It is harmful primarily because it fails to capture how certain views and proposals are more ethical and evidence-based than others.

For example, if our goal is to reduce poverty and boost the opportunities of poor children, evidence shows that the “purists” Reeves describes on the “left” have a much more legitimate claim than those on the “right.”  Government programs like Medicaid, SNAP (formerly food stamps), and the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, work very well on these fronts, as do direct cash transfers and more robust social insurance systems around the world.  Redistribution may not “cure [all of] society’s ills,” but it definitely works as intended in most cases, while gutting government programs, especially during times of economic hardship, doesn’t.  It is simply incorrect to suggest otherwise, but the categorization scheme above implies that each “side” has an equally legitimate perspective.

Consider how similar reasoning could be applied to current presidential debates on immigration.  Donald Trump’s platform (build a wall across the border, end birthright citizenship, and don’t let any poor people into the country, among other crazy ideas) could represent the perspective on one “side” of the political divide, while Bernie Sanders’ plan to bring 11 million people out of the shadows could represent the other.  Both Trump and Sanders say they want to put “the needs of working people first – [over those of] wealthy globetrotting donors” (Trump’s words).  The AEI/Brookings brand of “realism” could result in the adoption of a decent chunk of the Trump immigration agenda; it clearly isn’t an approach that makes for desirable policy.

Reeves is right that there are a “diversity of views” among those on each side of this uninformative partisan divide, and the AEI/Brookings team correctly notes that nobody “has a monopoly on the truth” – even Donald Trump occasionally has a good idea and even smart, principled politicians like Bernie Sanders sometimes get things wrong.  Yet a better political categorization scheme would explicitly note that Sanders’ policy positions are far superior to Trump’s on the two criteria that matter most: ethical considerations and the degree to which proposed policy ideas are supported by available evidence.  The tool below does so.

Political Tool.003

The x-axis is an “ethics axis” and requires us to think through John Rawls’ veil of ignorance.  As I’ve explained previously:

“Privilege-defending” viewpoints and policies that ignore the veil of ignorance – those that mainly consider the ideas, desires, and needs of people already in power – fall on the left side of this axis.  “Power-balancing” viewpoints and policies developed after reflection about the veil of ignorance – those that more ethically think through the concerns and needs of less-privileged people – fall on the right.  The vertical or “accuracy axis” of the tool orients us to the facts; it plots views according to the degree to which a combination of sound theory and empirical evidence informs them.

The ideal policy, developed with consideration of the veil of ignorance and using the most accurate interpretation of the facts, sits in the upper right hand corner.  This tool thus provides several advantages over…the traditional Left-Right spectrum.  First, it forces us to think about what matters; we cannot plot opinions on this tool without ethical and intellectual analysis.  Second, the tool captures that objectively good policy (policy in the upper right hand corner) is more desirable than the “center” of opposing viewpoints.  Third, it gives us a common framework to discuss policy ideas with people with different perspectives, orienting our conversation to two pillars – truth and justice – instead of normalizing disagreement as inevitable.

Elevating “bipartisanism,” “compromise,” and “realism” as goals might help a group come to a consensus wherein each “side” gets some things it wants.  It does not often result in good policy platforms, however, and the Brookings/AEI plan is a case in point.  If we want final products that are truly ethical and evidence-based, we need to reject compromise for compromise’s sake and start recognizing that some viewpoints and proposals are more legitimate than others.

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Filed under Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

Black Lives Matter Movement Gives Bernie Sanders’ Racial Justice Agenda the Push It Needs

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has unveiled a comprehensive racial justice agenda aimed at “addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic.”  The agenda includes, among other policy proposals, a call for police demilitarization, community policing, aggressive prosecution of police officers who break the law, the re-enfranchisement of those with criminal records, banning for-profit prisons, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday, youth employment programs, free college, and pay equity legislation.  Sanders also has an excellent record on racial justice issues, much better than any other candidate running for president.

In the 1960s, while a young Hillary Clinton was supporting Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater – an outspoken opponent of civil rights legislation – in his quest for the presidency, Sanders was leading protests against police brutality and segregated schools and housing, marching in the March on Washington, and working as an officer for the Congress of Racial Equality.  His voting record while in Congress, first as a Representative (1990-2005) and then as a Senator (2006-Present), has earned him consistently excellent marks from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The NAACP has given Sanders 100% ratings on its Legislative Report Cards for the entirety of his time in the Senate and near-100% or 100% ratings during his time in the House for, among many other things, voting in favor of strengthening the Voting Rights Act, anti-discrimination laws, and hate crimes legislation and against the death penalty, stringent sentencing guidelines for those caught up in the criminal justice system, and the welfare reform law of 1996 (the only blip on his record is gun control, an issue on which he admittedly has a mixed voting history, though his stance on the issue is much more sensible than many of his detractors contend).

A 20-year-old Bernie Sanders helps organize a protest of housing segregation in properties owned by the University of Chicago in the 1960s (via https://berniesanders.com/timeline/1960s/).

In the 1960s, a 20-year-old Bernie Sanders helps organize a protest of housing segregation in properties owned by the University of Chicago (via https://berniesanders.com/timeline/1960s/).

Because of that excellent record, a number of Sanders supporters have been upset by Black Lives Matter protests targeting Sanders.  Sanders supporters’ frustration seems to be borne out of two observations.  First, Sanders’ passion for economic justice – raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, breaking up the big banks, making our tax system more progressive, advancing single-payer health care – is intimately connected with a passion for racial justice.  Income, wealth, and opportunity inequality in this country disproportionately affect communities of color, and a commitment to addressing them is in many ways in and of itself indicative of a view that Black Lives Matter.

Second, and relatedly, Sanders has received a disproportionate amount of attention from protesters relative to Hillary Clinton and Republican candidates, who have almost-uniformly worse records and stances (the one exception may be Clinton on gun control) on issues affecting Black Americans (in fact, Sanders has what is by far the best record of any prominent candidate on civil and human rights across the board; he has long been a strong ally on issues affecting Latinos, the LGBT community, women, and poor people around the world).  Sanders supporters wonder why Black Lives Matter is applying pressure primarily to the candidate most sympathetic to their cause.

I myself am a strong Sanders supporter and find these observations relevant, but they miss a few crucial points.  For one thing, while racial and economic justice are intimately connected, they are not the exact same thing.  As Jennifer Roesch puts it in an excellent article for Jacobin:

It is certainly true that the struggle against racism today must entail a radical program of economic demands…It is also clear that such reforms would benefit the entire working class and reduce income inequality. But such demands cannot be delinked from, or stand in the place of, explicit demands around racism…

Fighting economic inequality is insufficient — any challenge to capital has to be coupled with race-specific demands for reform. Jobs programs would have to include affirmative-action policies and a prohibition on discrimination on the basis of a criminal record; fights to expand funding for public hospitals, schools, and services would have to recognize the specific needs of black communities hollowed out by decades of deindustrialization and neglect; and housing policies would need to explicitly target practices such as redlining and predatory lending.

The crisis faced by black America is also not solely economic — it is also a social crisis. Mass incarceration, police violence, and resegregation have devastated black communities…

This fight will require forging a unity not by collapsing the fight against racism into a broader class fight for economic equality, but by highlighting the central role of racism and making it a concern of the entire working class.

Black Lives Matter protesters wanted Sanders’ campaign to stop treating racial justice as an inevitable byproduct of economic justice.  They wanted Sanders to instead promote a specific racial justice platform complementary to his economic justice agenda, and they had every right to demand that he do so.

While I also hope to see Black Lives Matter turn the pressure up on Clinton and the Republican candidates in the weeks and months to come, criticisms of their tactics thus far – targeting Sanders and “taking over” some of his speaking events – are in my view off base.  Black Lives Matter is the type of grassroots people’s movement that Sanders prides himself on representing; he was a good first target precisely because he’s a natural ally and the candidate most likely to respond to such a protest with a policy agenda addressing its legitimate concerns.  Writing about the first protest at Netroots Nation, Joe Dinkin captured it best:

Here’s one stab at a better response [Sanders] could have given [to the Black Lives Matter protesters]: “We need a democratic revolution, and you are part of it. I admire your courage in speaking up. I learned of the troubling death of a black woman in police custody, and, yes, I will say her name: Sandra Bland. I will say her name because black lives matter. I admit I don’t have all the answers. But your fight is my fight. For dignity and equality for all. I need you to fight with me and help me learn. Together we can change both politics and culture and ensure that black lives matter…”

This constituency is demanding to have the issues of structural racism and police violence taken up within the political system…They’re forcing Sanders and other candidates to respond on an issue that it seems like they would have preferred to avoid. If Sanders responds by joining in their fight, they’ve pushed the Movement for Black Lives into the presidential debate and into the mainstream of [American] progressive politics—from which they currently and justifiably feel left out.

This is fair game, and an approach that fans of Bernie Sanders should understand…For people who simply wanted to hear the candidates answer questions and present their stump speeches, there are plenty of opportunities for candidates to share positions on the issues—at least on the ones they’re not ducking…The Black Lives Matter agenda is not the only issue of moral urgency, but it most certainly is one of them. All progressives should applaud activists who took the opportunity to push it forward.

It is quite possible that, were it not for the Black Lives Matter movement, Sanders’ racial justice agenda would not yet exist.  That it contains excerpts like the following is telling:

“At the federal level we need to establish a new model police training program that reorients the way we do law enforcement in this country. With input from a broad segment of the community including activists and leaders from organizations like Black Lives Matter we will reinvent how we police America.”

So we have two groups to thank for Sanders’ ambitious racial justice platform. Sanders and his campaign staff absolutely deserve credit for unleashing it and for being allies in the movement. Black Lives Matter deserves the bulk of the credit, however, not just for pushing the conversation on this issue forward, but also for reminding us that even the best presidential candidate won’t be able to enact the change we need without a constructively critical social movement behind him.

Update (8/11/15): The original version of this post included the following paragraph as part of the block quote from Roesch’s article:

As the historical record shows, we cannot assume that reductions in the overall level of inequality will trickle down to African Americans. In the golden age of postwar American capitalism, an era to which many left-liberals yearn to return, economic inequality was much lower than it is today, but there was no corresponding decrease in racial inequality. If anything, it was even starker — in 1959, more than half of black families lived in poverty, while 15 percent of white families did.

While it is certainly true that a strong economy on its own has never come close to eliminating racial disparities in economic outcomes, the wording in this paragraph implies that outcomes for Black Americans did not improve during “the golden age of postwar American capitalism,” an implication which is incorrect (big thanks to Dean Baker for pointing out this issue).  In fact, a growing body of evidence shows that a strong economy is especially important for Black workers.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion

Money and Power Matter. Family Structure, Not So Much.

50 years ago, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report called The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. The central argument in what has come to be called the Moynihan Report was that “The Breakdown of the Negro Family Has Led to a Startling Increase in Welfare Dependency,” and that “a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure.”

The Moynihan Report, published in March of 1965.

The Moynihan Report, published in March of 1965.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof thinks “Liberals Blew It” by excoriating this report. His conclusion, however, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the document’s critiques. The Moynihan Report’s faults lie not with its assertion that family stability is desirable, nor with its documentation of an increase in single-parent households, but with its insistence that family structure and Black “pathology” are primary drivers of poverty and inequality. This privilege-defending and inaccurate cultural narrative, however it was intended, implies that poor people of color are to blame for the effects of institutional racism and classism and diverts attention away from the real causes of inequity.

Those who denounced the Moynihan Report for that reason didn’t “blow it;” in fact, they presciently predicted how the report would be used to justify the false claim that “lifestyle issues” are the root cause of poverty. The real mistake is made not by people who recognize that connecting all types of families to money, basic necessities, and power is the best way to help them overcome hardship, but by those who continue to lend credence to the idea that the decline of traditional families has drastic consequences.

The lone piece of evidence Kristof cites in support of his claim that single-parent households lead to poor outcomes for low-income children is “an essay by Sara McLanahan of Princeton and Christopher Jencks of Harvard” in the March issue of EducationNext. While Kristof correctly notes that McLanahan and Jencks suggest that “growing up with just one biological parent reduces the chance that a child will graduate from high school by 40 percent,” he fails to discuss the broader context that calls his thesis into question.

First, the review McLanahan and Jencks cite (a review published by McLanahan and two colleagues in 2013, though the fact that McLanahan authored it is not mentioned in her and Jencks’s essay) found smaller associations or no relationship between family structure and other outcomes for children. As McLanahan and Jencks note about the review’s other findings regarding education, for example:

The absence of one’s biological father has not been shown to affect a child’s verbal and math test scores…The evidence for other indicators of educational performance, such as high school grades, skipping school, and college aspirations, is mixed, with some studies finding that father absence lowers school attendance and aspirations and others finding no effect.

Second, McLanahan et al themselves acknowledge that the relationships they do find may not be causal; the researchers write that “family disruption is not a random event…[T]he characteristics that cause father absence are likely to affect child well-being through other pathways.” Shawn Fremstad and Melissa Boteach explain in a comprehensive report published in January that while other studies that look at this issue find similar associations, most researchers are much more wary than McLanahan and colleagues of suggesting a causal link between family structure and indicators of children’s well-being.*

In fact, Kristof’s suggestion that the rise in single-parent households is a major driver of poverty and inequality is incompatible with some key details. For instance, while poverty levels in the United States remain far too high, they have fallen significantly over the past 50 years, in large part due to the safety net. If family structure were, as Moynihan contended, “the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation” (a contention that highlights the absurdity of Kristof’s argument that “liberal denunciations of Moynihan were terribly unfair”), this reduction in poverty would not have happened, as the number of “nontraditional” families has exploded during this time period.

Third, and most significantly, little research explores more plausible causal explanations for the relationship between economic and social disadvantage and family structure. It may very well be the case that the hardships associated with poverty make traditional families less likely, or that many of the factors that contribute to poverty and inequality also disrupt family stability.

Survey data suggests that these alternate interpretations are more likely to be accurate than Kristof’s; if nontraditional households were a cause rather than an effect or merely a correlate of disadvantage, we’d expect more support for traditional family structure among more advantaged individuals. The reverse is true, however; a study of survey results in 2012 noted that, “relative to higher income respondents, low-income respondents held more traditional values toward marriage, had similar romantic standards for marriage, and experienced similar skills-based relationship problems.” That study is consistent with Fremstad and Boteach’s summary of earlier research: “If anything, working-class people seem to value the cultural and religious aspects of marriage as much or more highly than more-educated adults.”

Relatedly, as Jared Bernstein pointed out last year, “policy interventions to encourage marriage have been shown to be quite ineffective” (and costly; as Bernstein also noted, “[t]wo pilot programs introduced in the George W. Bush years cost $10,000 per couple”). Wanting children to grow up in stable households is of course a laudable goal, but the evidence indicates that achieving household stability is not about culture, preferences, or a particular type of family structure. Instead, it is about a broad social justice agenda that addresses economic and social barriers to equality.

On some level, Kristof recognizes that direct means of addressing economic and social disadvantage should be the focus of anyone interested in “helping American kids.” He correctly decries how our racially- and economically-biased system of mass incarceration has torn families apart, and he also appropriately advocates that we “support programs to boost the economic prospects for poorer families.” Criminal justice reforms, safety net programs like SNAP (food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and Medicaid, and pretax income-boosting policies like the minimum wage and elements of the full employment agenda will likely promote family stability, and, more importantly, they are a sampling of some of the best methods we have to reduce poverty and inequality directly. To the extent that Kristof is advocating for this set of ideas, he is absolutely right to do so.

But the general thrust of Kristof’s piece, like the narrative in the Moynihan Report before it, undermines the fights for racial and class equality. In the future, the report’s defenders would do better to stop castigating the activists who disagree with them and start listening to and reflecting on advocates’ legitimate concerns.

*Fremstad and Boteach also note that “McClanahan’s review and much of the existing research do not clearly distinguish between the effect of family structure per se and the effect of family instability,” a clarification consistent with Kristof’s correct observation that children raised by loving gay parents do very well.

Note: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on March 20.

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Everything You Need to Know About Inequality

Jared Bernstein and I just published a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation on inequality in the United States (available for download here). This presentation is first and foremost intended as a resource. Part 1 of the presentation documents the increase in inequality over the past 35 years; the trend is evident from every major data set and income definition. Inequality deniers have fortunately become a rapidly-dwindling breed, but should you encounter one, Part 1 should help set the record straight.

Part 2 discusses why inequality matters. As we summarize on our slides, inequality “reduces opportunities, undermines the democratic process, distributes growth unevenly, and may even have negative macroeconomic effects.” We provide the mechanisms behind these reasons and evidence documenting them as well. The slide notes contain a more in-depth look at these issues, as they do throughout the presentation, for anyone interested.

Fortunately, increasing inequality is not inevitable; it is “a problem that better policies can directly address.” Part 3 of our presentation explores some of these policies, measures that can begin to address inequality’s causes and counter its effects. While our slides in this section are in no way exhaustive, they’re a good starting point for the type of comprehensive social justice agenda I’ve mentioned previously.

I believe the section on equality of opportunity (or lack thereof) in Part 2 is particularly relevant for education stakeholders, as it highlights the importance of this comprehensive agenda (as opposed to a narrower, education-only policy focus). Consider the following chart, the extended version of our featured graph from slide 26:

Source: Pew Economic Mobility Project

Source: Pew Economic Mobility Project

This chart uses data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project to compare adult economic outcomes for two different types of students: students who grow up in the bottom income quintile but manage to graduate college (“poor college grads”) and students who grow up in the top income quintile but don’t make it through college (“wealthy non-graduates”). Wealthy non-graduates (49%) are almost twice as likely as poor college graduates (27%) to end up in one of the top two income quintiles as adults.

As we discuss in our presentation, inequality presents a variety of education-specific obstacles for low-income students, and addressing these obstacles (and thus facilitating college completion) is an important part of our agenda. At the same time, the less favorable distribution for low-income college graduates shown above provides a critical reminder of the importance of a comprehensive social justice agenda. If we truly want to provide low-income students with opportunities equivalent to those of their higher-income peers, we need strategies that address the needs of low-income families, strategies that address some of the direct effects of growing up disadvantaged. That means we must get the economy back to full employment. It means we need a strengthened safety net, higher labor standards, and a reversal of the decline in unionization. It also means we need better-regulated markets and improved fiscal policy. A push for quality education can’t have its intended effect unless it’s part of this larger agenda.

Jared and I hope that this presentation, by documenting inequality’s rise and consequences, provides a compelling basis for these claims. While the historically high level of inequality represents a serious threat to fundamental American values – opportunity, democracy, and broadly shared prosperity – we believe we can combat this problem if we acknowledge it and work together on solutions.

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Filed under Education, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System