50 Years Later: Why We Must Remember

This has been a summer of half-century commemorations, wonderful and gruesome.

Last week we celebrated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the greatest and most important advance in civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.  The week before we marked the horrible murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi, as part of a remembrance of the 1964 Freedom Summer.

We have to remember all of it.  So many American children growing up today – even college and graduate students – know nothing of it.  They have probably heard of Dr. King, but that’s about it.

We have to remember the murders and the lynchings just as we have to remember the Holocaust.  History does repeat itself.  There is no certain immunization against going backwards, but the best chance of preventing retrogression is to remember, to be vigilant, and to be ready to act when we see signs of it appearing.

And we have to remember the achievements.  Now is a time when many people despair of continuing progress toward justice in all of its forms – racial, economic, and social.

We need to remember the courage – of the people of Mississippi and residents of other Jim Crow states, and also those who came from elsewhere to fight for change.  These are people who put their lives on the line to confront awful injustice that seemed to be permanently entrenched. (And everyone should watch Stanley Nelson’s brilliant film, Freedom Summer, now showing on PBS.)

We need to remember the power of movements that expressed the power of many – really the only kind of power that can fight the power of money and bigotry today.

We need to remember that progressive politics made into law by elected officials can truly be the art of the possible, not merely a continuing exercise in futility.  We need to remember that deep and corrosive injustice need not take the explicit form of state-mandated segregation.  Mass incarceration, predatory lending and other strategies of residential segregation, horrible public schools, and more – these are the structural and institutional forms of racism in the 21st century.

The best chance of preventing retrogression is to remember, to be vigilant, and to be ready to act

I went to Mississippi with Robert Kennedy in 1967, where we saw extreme malnutrition that bordered on starvation – the ultimate result of which was the food stamp program we have today.  The near-starvation is gone but severe and persistent poverty persists.  The political class in Mississippi has discovered that – even with the right to vote and the fact of numerous African-American elected officials – assuring the continuance of deep poverty helps to keep the real power equation as it is.

To a great degree in Mississippi and elsewhere, the racism of the 21st century is one laced with a new apartheid of poverty and exclusion – one that also encompasses the people of Appalachia, of Indian reservations, and of towns like Port Clinton, Ohio where deindustrialization has engendered the same loss of hope and social disintegration.

One powerful point that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his must-read Atlantic article, ‘The Case for Reparations,’ is that 18th century rebellions against slavery included both slaves and white indentured servants, until the white power structure figured out how to pry the whites away from their interracial alliance.

The civil rights movement was, among other things, an endeavor of black and white together – a bonding based on a joint fight against evil even though the partners were not similarly situated in their suffering.

We need to once again find that kind of politics: one that cuts across racial, ethnic, and class lines to pursue those issues directly affecting the daily struggles of the people at the heart of the movement; and one that simultaneously maintains and articulates the identities and unique histories of people of color.  Neither will suffice by itself.

This, too, is part of the proper commemoration of the events of half a century ago.





Congress Again Ignores Poor People

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law (Shriver Center) recently released its 2013 Congressional Poverty Scorecard, the only comprehensive analysis of the voting records of every Member of Congress on poverty issues.

The Shriver Center, working with experts in twenty different subject areas, identified the House and Senate floor votes in 2013 that had the greatest impact on the interests of poor people.  Each Member of Congress was then graded based on their performance on those votes.

The ratings are based on floor votes on a wide range of issues. In 2013, the hottest areas were votes relating to reauthorization of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and budget and tax issues. The SNAP votes were on amendments that set program funding levels and sought to greatly restrict participation in the program. The budget and tax issues included spending cuts tied to raising the debt limit and Hurricane Sandy disaster relief, and budget resolutions and the budget agreement.

In addition, votes in many other areas were used, including funding for legal services, comprehensive immigration reform, international food aid programs, curtailing voting and labor rights, and the obligatory attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The results were not surprising. They showed that Congress is bitterly divided, with 97% of the Senators and 95% of the Representatives graded at one extreme or the other, receiving an A, D or F. Only a small handful of moderates received a B or C.

As long as legislative districts lean heavily toward one party or the other, the only threat to a member’s reelection is a primary challenge from someone in the member’s own party who is more extreme. This inclines members to vote in an even more partisan way. In such an electoral environment, compromise is politically dangerous.

This partisan gridlock prevents Congress from passing laws that address our nation’s major problems. While this hurts everyone, it is especially detrimental to poor people who have the most to lose under the status quo.

Another major finding was that the Congressional delegations from states with the highest poverty rates tended to have the worst records in fighting poverty. Something other than the interests of a relatively large percentage of people living in poverty was motivating them.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson announced a War on Poverty and pursued a hugely ambitious legislative agenda to that end. While great progress was made in the first decade after this war was declared, and poverty was cut by one-third, the Poverty Scorecard demonstrates how Congress has now abandoned the effort to fight poverty.

Take a look at the Scorecard. See how your House member and Senators voted and hold them accountable.




The David and Goliath Story of our Time: Fighting for Living Wages and Worker Protections

Your taxi driver, the wait staff at the restaurant you like, the person doing your manicure—they all have something important in common: all have been excluded, in some way, from traditional labor protections.

Over the years, these protections have been what safeguards the right to a minimum wage, overtime pay, health and safety protections, and the right to form a union. Without them, low-wage workers—the very people on whom we rely on a daily basis—are disempowered and often trapped in poverty.

These excluded sectors have banded together to create worker centers—non-profit, community organizations representing specific occupational sectors—mostly made up of “immigrant workers and African-Americans who labor in jobs that do not pay a livable wage.” The first crop of worker centers emerged over two decades ago in response to the waning power of traditional labor organizing and the unique needs of laborers of color.  They provided a critical community touch point in advocating and organizing for just workplace practices. Since then, they have grown to create national bodies representing all major sectors, and include: the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Guestworker Alliance, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, among others. By one estimate, there are now over 200 worker centers across the United States fighting for fair wages, paid leave, and other workplace protections.

Today, low-wage industries employ 1.85 million more workers than at the beginning of the 2008 recession and represent some of the fastest growing sectors in the economy. These industries include restaurant work, retail, and caregiving, all of which have high volumes of immigrants, people of color, and women in the workforce. When we see that these same people also make up a disproportionate amount of working Americans living in poverty—earning a fraction of the wages of their white, male counterparts—we should look to their employers for answers.

The $600 billion restaurant industry, specifically, is the largest employer of people of color in the United States. Thirty-nine percent of all workers making the minimum wage or below work in this industry, making it the largest low-wage employer. Simply raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would increase the combined incomes of people of color by $16.1 billion—nearly 300,000 of those affected would be workers of color in the restaurant industry. Additionally, 2 in 3 tipped workers are women, and the tipped minimum wage has been stuck at $2.13 per hour since 1991. All of this points to the fact that at the frontlines of the gender and racial wage gap, workers making poverty wages are bravely taking on giant, moneyed interests like the restaurant industry. This is truly the David and Goliath story of our time.

In some cases, workers are winning. Last year, ROC United was instrumental in securing paid sick days for tipped workers in Washington, D.C. The National Domestic Workers Alliance also successfully fought to provide minimum wage and overtime protections for homecare workers.

In many ways, worker centers are a contemporary economic necessity. Since people of color are the rising majority, it is imperative that we improve job quality in sectors that currently employ these workers at high rates. Worker centers become even more needed as traditional labor organizations and workers’ rights are threatened in Congress, in individual states, and in the Supreme Court with the recent Harris v Quinn decision.

Nearly 51 years ago, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, activists called for not only desegregation, but also dignified jobs and decent wages.  And tomorrow at 10:00am ET, the Center for American Progress marks the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act—which included historic protections at the workplace—with an event: “Passing the Baton: The Next 50 Years of Civil Rights and Economic Justice”.  Watch live as an intergenerational group of civil rights activists offers ideas about how to renew and invigorate a movement focused on civil rights and economic security.

Many low-wage workers are already leading the way.  This is an opportunity to find new ways to get involved.





The Other Side of Caregiving: Selfless Acts Punished by Zero Contributions to Social Security Benefits (UPDATED)

80-year-old Sara Moore of Chicago spent years outside of the paid workforce caring for her sick father, and then other family members. She worked hard – in a selfless act of love – and yet all those years of caregiving amounted to zero wages, and zero contributions towards her Social Security benefits.  Consequently, Sara has little savings and receives less than $1000 a month in Social Security benefits, barely enough to survive.

Caregivers like Sara should not have to sacrifice dignity in their own retirement to take care of family – be it an aging parent, a child, or a relative with disabilities.

The hidden cost of caregiving is in the impact it has on working families who have to struggle to survive without a wage.

Today, New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey is introducing a bill in Congress that would address this injustice.  Groups across the country like the Center for Community Change Action, the National Council of Women’s Organizations, and others, are rallying around the bill which would provide an earnings credit in the Social Security benefit calculation while an individual is caring for a child under a certain age, a disabled family member, or a senior in need of care.

Tonight you can hear from Rep. Lowey and others about this important issue by joining a teletown hall that starts at 7:30pm ET.

Family comes first – whether it’s your aging Mom who gets more opinionated every day or the newborn you swear already smiles, providing for your family is not negotiable.  When it becomes necessary to stay home and care for someone then our Social Security system should honor family by taking into account some of that lost time from the paid work force.

We are long overdue to recognize the largely female workforce of caregivers for the time, energy and effort required to care for loved ones outside of the paid workforce.  The hidden cost of caregiving is in the impact it has on working families who have to struggle to survive without a wage.  Millions of Americans like Sara Moore are doing the essential work of caregiving, and that number is growing. A caregiver credit is about honoring the time, effort and love that people put towards caregiving as work.  As more and more people in our country step up to do right by family as caregivers, it’s only right that their work be recognized in our Social Security system through a caregiver credit.

Even in a fractured Congress, Rep. Lowey’s bill should be something that garners supporters from both sides of the aisle.  Every one of us knows someone who has sacrificed to care for a loved one.  It’s time to truly honor those caregivers by lifting up women’s issues, expanding Social Security… and sponsoring Rep. Lowey’s bill.

UPDATE: Click to listen to Representative Lowey’s tele-town hall on this topic.



First Person

Words Matter When Talking Poverty

Now and then, I volunteer as a consultant for the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness.

A few weeks ago they invited me to join them and other groups in Trenton, N.J. for a day of lobbying politicians regarding issues related to housing and jobs. Many voices, many issues.

I asked the director of the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness, Deb Eliis, if there was only one thing The Coalition could accomplish in the next year, what she would want it to be.

She answered: “A Homeless Shelter in Ocean County.”

We need a fresh working definition of poverty that portrays their personal and financial struggles with dignity and respect.

Ocean County is where I live.  I know that there are seven facilities in Ocean County that house, care for, and try to find permanent living situations for stray animals, but not a single one that provides the same services for humans.  Toms River is the second largest township in Ocean County and one of its most affluent. I lived in Toms River until a month ago before I moved into permanent affordable housing in a nearby town. When I lived in Toms River I worked with the faith-based Homeless Outreach mission, so I also know that on any given night in Toms River there are between 30 and 40 people (that we know of) living scattered throughout its wooded areas. In case you have never been to a homeless encampment – and as someone who used to be homeless – I can tell you this: there is no way anyone – no matter your age – can live that way for very long without developing serious physical and mental ailments. These people will sooner or later end up in an Emergency Room, which is the least efficient and most expensive way of not dealing with this problem of homelessness.

My contribution to the meeting in Trenton was to get agreement on not calling it a “homeless shelter” and instead refer to it as an Emergency Housing Relief Center.  I feel strongly that words such as ‘shelters’ and ‘the projects’ should be dropped from our vocabularies when we are referring to people living in acute financial distress.

Why? Because words matter.

Check out this vintage 1976 ditty from a former B-list actor in California: “She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”

The ‘she’ is the infamous ‘welfare queen’ who in fact didn’t exist, and the person making the lumpen remark, Ronald Reagan, goes on to become President of the United States in 1980.

The remark helped to turn back a decade of progress in eliminating chronic poverty in America, and marked a significant turning point in American attitudes toward their fellow citizens receiving financial aid and/or food assistance from the government.

Once again, we are back to where we were in the 1970s –defining poverty, rather than just tackling it head on.  But this time we have to be ever more vigilant about not letting it be defined by people who are prejudiced and use negative stereotypes.  We need a fresh working definition of poverty that reflects peoples’ real life experiences and portrays their personal and financial struggles with dignity and respect.