Why Young People Are Joining Unions Again

At the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., rays of sunlight break through an unseasonably cold March, through the ordered, brutalist buildings that line Pennsylvania Avenue. Hundreds of thousands of people crowd the avenue, just as they have been crowding legislators’ phone lines and email inboxes in recent weeks. On a stage strategically positioned in line with the Capitol building, 17-year-old Cameron Kasky, a Parkland shooting survivor, delivers this proclamation:

To the leaders, skeptics, and cynics who told us to sit down and stay silent, wait your turn: Welcome to the revolution. It is a powerful and peaceful one because it is of, by, and for the young people of this country. Since this movement began some people have asked me, do you think any change is going to come from this? Look around, we are the change. Our voices are powerful, and our votes matter. We hereby promise to fix the broken system we’ve been forced into and to create a better world for the generations to come. Don’t worry, we’ve got this.

Kasky’s statement was, of course, about guns. Seventeen of his classmates and teachers had been taken from him, and from their families, friends, and their own futures, five weeks earlier by a gunman who used an automatic weapon to kill 17 people in 6 minutes and 20 seconds. But they were also taken by a system—a political system wherein a vast majority of Americans, and particularly young Americans, support policies to clamp down on gun deaths but politicians, bought off by the NRA, do not listen.

Young people are at a tipping point. They are frustrated by a system whose cracks were etched into place by preceding generations, but have only fully metastasized for theirs. They experience suffocating levels of student debt alongside declining wages and income equality while watching companies monopolize entire industries, and sometimes even nationwide elections. Representation—actual representation—feels more like theory than reality.

People are, finally, beginning to take notice of young people’s activism to fix that system. However, many are mistaking the new wave of media coverage dedicated to young people’s political activism for young people’s newfound political activism. It’s not that young people were ever politically dormant; it’s just that their activism has existed in places where older generations aren’t used to looking: on college campuses, like the Know Your IX movement and tuition equity campaigns for undocumented students, and inside activist movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #ByeAnita and #Occupy.

Young people’s activism has existed in places where older generations aren’t used to looking

And now, increasingly, unions.

For the first time in decades, union membership is on the rise among young people. Historically, younger people have not been unionized, and their rates of union membership trail older adults by wide margins. But, just like the gun laws that are already being amended, that too is beginning to change.

According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), in 2017, there were 262,000 new union members in the United States. Seventy-five percent of this increase came from young people (which EPI considers those aged 34 and under, but for the purposes of this article, broadly refers to the older subset of Generation Z and most Millennials, ages 16 to 35). Young people also hold the most favorable attitudes towards labor of any generation, and their support for political parties skews heavily towards those that support pro-worker policies (like standing against “right-to-work” laws), including the Democrats and, increasingly, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

But for some reason, unlike previous generations, young people’s workplace organizing isn’t seen as an integral part of their organizing, writ large. While plenty of people are documenting the rise of young people’s union membership and plenty more describing young people’s leadership in activist spaces, what’s missing is the idea that these two phenomena are actually one: Young people are turning to outside outlets that allow them to exercise their politics in the wake of a political system that, by and large, does not.


In a piece for Jacobin Magazine, Micah Uetricht sketches out the ebbing relationship between democracy inside and outside the workplace, and, relatedly, the relationship between economic and political democracy. To Uetricht—a sociology graduate student who focuses on labor, member of the DSA, and associate editor at Jacobin—activism is activism, whether it takes place at the workplace or outside of it. “It’s a relatively recent development that we think of what happens at work as some kind of separate sphere of our lives in general,” he says. He adds: “Young people understand that and don’t like living in a dictatorship in the place where they spend 8 or 10 hours of their day.”

Uetricht experienced something similar at his first job out of college, when he worked as a cashier at an airport making minimum wage. He says he and his co-workers were treated as less than human on a daily basis, and they eventually decided to unionize, granting him a newfound sense of agency: “I had never felt as powerless as I did when I was a cashier making minimum wage. Conversely, I had never felt as powerful as I did when I joined with my co-workers, confronted my boss, and won.”

That fact—that unionization campaigns often center around not simply better wages or benefits, but a sense that your voice will be heard—often goes misunderstood by those who are not connected to the labor movement. But for Uetricht, who went on to become a union organizer, the idea of worker voice, even if it’s to voice complaints about stagnant pay or subpar health benefits, is not simply one benefit of unions; it is the benefit. “The thing that you learn immediately as an organizer,” he tells me, “is that even in low-wage workplaces, the number one issue people have with their workplaces is not their low wages but a lack of respect.”

A lack of respect is also primarily driving young people’s frustration with the political system. When Kasky, the 17-year-old Parkland survivor, spoke at the March for Our Lives, he said “our voices are powerful, and our votes matter.” He said that in contrast to the status quo, in which young people’s voices are not seen as powerful, nor their votes. And, looking at recent history, it’s not hard to understand why that might be Kasky’s understanding of the status quo. Young people’s votes were spurned by an electoral college that favors rural, sparse areas, disproportionately discounting the large numbers of young people who lived in cities in 2016. Their ideas of stronger restrictions on guns, reigning in big banks, and support for the rights of LGBTQ people, immigrants, people of color, and people of varying religious views have been continually overpowered by older generations and special interests.

Seen through that lens, it’s no wonder young people have found working inside the U.S. political system ineffective, and, quite frankly, not worth their time. Instead, young people have redirected their activism toward different kinds of outlets, where their efforts may actually bring about tangible results. Outlets like unions.

What does this mean for the labor movement? A workplace is, at the most fundamental level, a microcosm of the political system. There are those who hold power, the bosses, and those who don’t, the workers. Over time, the balance of power ebbs and flows; when unions are strong, the balance shifts more heavily to the workers, and when unions are weak, the balance favors the bosses. When unions are powerful, workers have something akin to a voice in the direction of their workplace. And when unions are at their most powerful, workers have something akin to a voice in the direction of their country, a counterbalance to special interest groups like ALEC or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.


Julia Ackerly is working to build unions up to that level. Now 27, she’s worked on Democratic campaigns for most of her adult life: She worked as a field organizer and regional field director for the Bernie Sanders campaign in the 2016 primary elections, and then for Larry Krasner’s bid to be Philadelphia’s District Attorney (DA), a race that drew national attention for how Krasner sought to use the DA position to enact a progressive vision for the criminal justice system. Ackerly has always worked on campaigns that worked closely with organized labor. But she had never been in a union herself.

That changed when the Campaign Workers’ Guild (CWG) formed. The idea behind the CWG is pretty simple: It hopes to unionize campaign staffers, who experience harsh working conditions where poor pay and benefits and long hours run rampant, justified by managers as sacrifices for an important cause. CWG is currently organizing campaigns one-by-one: Its first successful organizing campaign was that of Randy Bryce, the candidate hoping to win House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Congressional seat, and it’s organized 10 more campaigns since, for a total of 11 as of March 2018. But it ultimately hopes to organize entire parties’ campaign staffs at once in the future.

“Everyone needs an outlet for activism.”

Ackerly, who helps organize campaign staffs and is now a dues-paying member of CWG herself, says that having a collective ability to be heard and respected in the workplace is a “very motivating factor towards unionization campaigns.” She singles out creating protocol and reporting structures for sexual harassment and discrimination as one of the biggest motivations staff members have for organizing. Which, tellingly, is also the one of the biggest activist movements dominating living room and water cooler conversations across the country as the #MeToo movement continues.

Young people dominate the junior staffs on campaigns and have also made up a significant portion of the driving force behind recently organized campaign staffs, according to Ackerly. Jake Johnston, the Vice President of Organizing for the Non-Profit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) (which includes some members of the TalkPoverty staff), has similarly seen young people take the lead at the organizations that have recently organized under NPEU, and at NPEU itself.

For Johnston, collective action has implicit ties to activism, writ large. “The reality is that our political system really has cut out a significant part of this country. I think there’s clearly a rejection of the status quo, and yet there are so few avenues to try and change that,” he says. “Whether it’s joining the DSA, joining a union, joining an advocacy campaign, or joining an electoral campaign, people are trying to change that. Everyone needs an outlet for activism.”

That’s true for young people in particular. For far too long, they’ve been on the receiving end of an economic and political system that does not work for them, while being denied the opportunity to change that system.

Whether it’s students like Cameron Kasky shouting about the NRA into a microphone that reverberates from the Capitol to the White House, young people like Julia Ackerly organizing an industry that has never been unionized before, or activists like Micah Uetricht organizing his own workplace, young people are refusing to take part in a political system that has consistently and methodically drowned out their voice. Instead, they’ve taken their voices elsewhere, to outlets like unions and activist movements where—finally—their voices are being heard.



Prison Drug Treatment Programs Are Failing People of Color

I met Karen, a 46-year-old Black mother, while I was studying the re-entry journeys of drug-involved men and women who were formerly incarcerated.* I recruited her to participate in a 60-minute interview, but even after having worked all day, she sat beside me in my office and spent several hours generously sharing her life story.

Karen had cycled in and out of prisons for crimes committed in the Greater Philadelphia area, ranging from identity theft and fraud to prostitution and strong-armed robbery. In her early 20s, a Delaware judge handed down a drug trafficking conviction that came with her first of several prison sentences. That’s when she was invited to enroll in a collective-oriented recovery program—a method that was relatively new to that prison in the early 1990s, and Karen’s first exposure to drug treatment. The program was designed to be a “total treatment environment,” where participants were separated from the distractions of normal prison life with other inmates, and instead lived and worked in a space focused on recovery, mutual support, and accountability for self-change.

Karen didn’t make it through even 5 weeks of the 12-month program before getting kicked out for insubordination to a counselor. When I asked her to reflect on her thoughts about leaving the counseling program to return to work assignments and the general prison population, her response startled me. “I loved [leaving]” she said. “It was just time for me to leave … I ended up losing weight in there. I had lost 19 pounds and ain’t nobody know who I was.”

What Karen encountered—and happily left—was a type of treatment program on which a lot of U.S. prisons rely: the therapeutic community (TC). Based on her story, and the stories of those like her, its success seems to depend on the race of the participants.


More than 1 million adults with serious mental illnesses are currently under criminal justice supervision, and the criminal legal system has emerged as one of the largest dedicated providers of substance abuse treatment for American citizens. Treatment for inmates with substance use disorder ranges from cognitive behavioral therapies, which teach patients to identify how thoughts and beliefs affect behavior, to medication, such as methadone, and even to mindfulness, which teaches students how to acknowledge and accept their present-moment struggles and design healthy ways to cope with those feelings and triggers.

Currently, more than 25 percent of state inmates and 1 in 5 federal inmates receive group-based drug treatment, typically offered in the form of a therapeutic community. The guiding approach of the TC is to provide drug-addicted inmates with a substance-free environment and group-based counseling. What sets this prison-based model apart is its focus. Unlike other programs that treat addiction, with TC, it’s understood that the person is sick, and that addiction is only a symptom of that sickness.

For White graduates, the certificate served as a badge

For example, during half-day “group shares,” participants are supposed to publicly examine their personal choices. If someone’s behavior doesn’t support the stated values of the TC, they are confronted by the community to help them “get back on track.” This recalibration takes shape first in the form of a verbal “pull-up,” where one community member makes the transgression of another known to the rest of the community. This exposure usually takes place during “encounter groups,” or “EGs,” as Karen referred to them— mandatory group-based meetings marked by harsh public shaming.

My research team interviewed 300 men and women who participated in these encounter groups while incarcerated in Delaware, and several described the experience as being situated in the middle of a pinball machine, where when in the “hot seat” (literally in the center of the group of other TC residents circled around you), you are emotionally hurled from one peer’s criticism to the next. Karen described why she was glad to not have to deal with it anymore:

EG is when everybody is sittin’ around in a circle, and you sit right in the middle of that circle, and when they call your name you would turn around to ‘em and they just blow you right out. Anything that they wanted to say—cuss at you—all you do is sit up in there and you don’t do nothing.

The rationale for this element of “treatment” is to require participants to publicly admit that their choices and negative behaviors got them to where they are now. This is a critical part of TC programming, and newer residents are socialized into these norms by older residents and TC staff, many of whom are in recovery themselves.

Respondents I spoke with shared that the initiation practice breeds bitterness and despair.

Leaving the TC, however, is no simple feat. Participants aren’t assessed as making progress unless they accept that they are “sick” and that they are personally responsible for their current imprisonment and the circumstances that brought them there. But in an age of massive cuts to public benefits and derogatory myths about “welfare queens,” female drug treatment clients are already often characterized as pathologically inferior and dependent. Those without jobs, or children they care for, must tread this territory with a very light step. And for formerly incarcerated non-Whites who must also carry the disproportionate burden of discrimination in post-prison housing and labor markets, the “addict” label is even more dangerous.


My interviews with current and former White TC participants suggest that, even though they also find pull-ups horrific, they are more comfortable adopting the label of “addict.” They shared that adopting a sick role allows them to enjoy a collection of rights and pardons, including protection from having to assume full responsibility for their life circumstances, and access to more inclusive, less blame-laden care. We’ve seen the same thing with the emerging conversation about the opioid crisis and how much collective empathy has been extended to White opioid users, despite being denied to Black heroin users for decades. Justine, a 51-year old White women from the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, shared that she knew that her addict status would have hurt her recovery and post-prison reintegration prospects much more if she were not White:

When I got out of state [prison], it was like people forgave me in ways I never expected.  They thought that because they saw me doing the work, going to meetings, walking the steps—they thought that I deserved a second chance … I learned that nobody wants a pretty White girl to go to waste like that. Strangers will fight for me even if I won’t.  That’s a truth that still gets me out of trouble today.

Experiences like Justine’s underscore the benefits of White privilege and class privilege. Studies show that White job candidates, regardless of their backgrounds, are given the benefit of the doubt in the labor market in ways that are denied to Black applicants. On the other hand, Black jobseekers are more hesitant to disclose anything that confirms the drug-using or criminal stereotype that they believe employers are already harboring.

Melanie, a Black woman who had served over 10 years for a cocaine possession conviction, shared that the illness language was synonymous with “junkie” and would never help her once released from prison. Instead, she believed that those labels would only lock her out from viable job opportunities and housing options, which are already limited for poor racial minority women with criminal records. Melanie was one of many who either “faked it,” relying on a script that she believed TC counselors wanted to hear, or dropped out of the TC altogether and forfeited the opportunity to claim a formal rehabilitation status.

Other Black respondents left the program because of their desire to get out from under the state’s gaze as soon as possible. The appeal to White TC graduates of prolonging treatment for the sake of earning a certificate of rehabilitation that could be displayed to prospective employers and landlords didn’t have the same luster for Black graduates. For White graduates, the certificate served as a badge. For Black graduates, the certificate lingered as a foul stain, proof of their diseased persona that could resurface at any time.

We already live in a society where Black people simply don’t get to be pardoned, sick, redeemed, or fully human. Incarcerated people who are Black and assessed as drug-addicted are self-selecting out of the corrections-based recovery process because it simply costs them too much and nets them too little.

Damon, a Black man who had worked in construction since his teens but couldn’t find work upon returning home from prison, had this to say about flaunting the TC graduation credentials: “I can tell you this much … I don’t know what the silver bullet is, but I know that that ain’t it.”

* All first names are pseudonyms and used to protect research subjects’ privacy.

**“Black” and “White” are capitalized throughout to illustrate that they represent political categories, just as you would see when identifying an “Irish,” “American,” or “Chicano” individual.



The Founder of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism Explains Why Journalists Should Take Sides

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King gave his life fighting for racial and economic justice, yet 50 years later the living wage he called for is still out of reach for tens of millions of Americans. Forty percent of American workers earn less than $15 an hour today. For black and Latinx workers, the statistics are even worse: More than half of African American workers and nearly 60 percent of Latinx workers make less than $15 an hour.

That’s what’s behind the MLK50 Justice Through Journalism project, a year-long reporting project on economic justice in Memphis, which takes a hard look at the institutions that are keeping so many of the city’s residents in poverty.

I spoke with the project’s founder, editor, and publisher, Wendi Thomas.

Rebecca Vallas: Just to kick things off, tell me a little bit about the project and the story behind its founding.

Wendi Thomas: I guess its initial origins were out of a writing project I was doing at The Commercial Appeal when I was a Metro columnist there. I was covering the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, and I was thinking even then what we would do to mark the 50th anniversary. And so I’ve been ruminating on this for about ten years—what would it look like to honor the dreamer in Memphis? If you know anything about King’s legacy you know that that means you better reckon with jobs and wages, because that’s why King was in Memphis. It was for underpaid public employees who wanted higher wages and the right to a union. So many of those issues are so relevant still today that my team has had no shortage of stories to write and things to cover.

RV: Why commemorate Dr. King’s legacy and the anniversary of his passing through journalism? And what does journalism have to do with justice?

WT: I think King spoke truth to power. A lot of the things he said were controversial, some of the parts we don’t remember: his opposition to the Vietnam war, his critique of capitalism … and I think good journalism also speaks truth to power, at least the kind of journalism that I’m interested in doing. And while there’s a notion that journalism is completely impartial and doesn’t take sides, I think there are some things we can take sides on. I think we can take sides and say that all children should have an education, right? That shouldn’t be a controversial political position.

Similarly, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that all workers should make enough to live on. If you work full time you should make enough to make your ends meet. To the extent that we can help eliminate the systems and structures that keep that from happening, that keep poor people poor, then there is a role for justice in journalism.

RV: Did you launch the project as its own separate entity because you didn’t feel that these stories were being told adequately in mainstream media?

I think we can take sides and say that all children should have an education.

WT: After I left the daily paper here in Memphis I did a fellowship at Harvard at the Nieman Foundation. That’s where I incubated this project and figured out exactly how it’s going to work. And I don’t think that you would find this kind of journalism in most mainstream news publications, because it is very critical of the status quo. Advertisers and readers aren’t used to having their perspectives and practices challenged. That’s all new for them. And I don’t think traditional mainstream news outlets would want to rile up their advertisers like that—they’re trying to keep them happy, which unfortunately has the side effect of reinforcing the status quo, which is to keep poor people poor.

RV: As part of this project, your team conducted a living wage survey of Memphis employers. What did you find in that survey?

WT: Yeah, so we took a look at the 25 largest area employers who collectively represent about 160,000 employees. And what we found was that most companies don’t want to say how much they pay their workers. So I talked to an economist about that—what can you conclude if a company doesn’t want to tell you how much they pay their workers, whether they pay a living wage? And the answer is they’re hiding something. If companies have good news to report, they’re glad to share that.

We were actually surprised to find that the City of Memphis government, Shelby County government, and Shelby County schools all do pay their workers fairly well. I mean we’re not talking $20 an hour—but we’re talking 85 percent more than $15 an hour. And the Shelby County schools have recently made a commitment to pay its workers $15 an hour, so that’s a good thing. But when you get into other employers, say private employers like FedEx, which is headquartered here and employs 30,000 people—FedEx doesn’t want to say. They answered some of our questions, but when pressed for more information about benefits and whether they use temp workers or outsource work, they sent us a statement about how much money they give to charity events. And charity isn’t justice.

RV: A lot of the stories in this project are focused on Memphis in particular, and they really put a face on the fight for a living wage. I’d love if you would tell some of the stories that your reporters have been telling through this project.

WT: Let’s see, gosh, where would I start? We’ve written a series of stories about companies that pay their workers enough to live on—unfortunately it’s not a long list of companies and they tend to be really small, maybe nonprofits or family-owned businesses—to show that it is possible, you can have these discussions within your organization. We ran a story about a woman who works at a company that she started making $15 an hour, and now she’s able to afford a home. And so these wages aren’t just so you can get your hair done or your nails done, it’s so you can have some kind of stability for you and for your family. So those stories are always fun to tell.

Charity isn’t justice.

We did a story about hotel housekeepers, and what it’s like to work as one where you’re having to do more work with less. One of the hotel housekeepers told us that she has to bring her own cleaning supplies because they don’t supply her with those.

We even have some stories on the site in the last couple of days about how this anniversary commemoration is really not for the people who live right around the Civil Rights Museum. So if you just walk a block over from the museum, Lorraine Motel where King was killed, you walk just a block over and it’s just abject poverty, and people who feel like this commemoration is not for them. The signature event tonight is going to be $100-a-plate gala. You’d have to work 14 hours if you make minimum wage to afford a ticket. And so there’s this tension between honoring this man who came here about labor and then also respecting the labor that’s still here today.

RV: How do you think that Dr. King would want us to be commemorating his legacy and the anniversary of his passing 50 years later?

WT: Yeah, I don’t think he would give two whits about, what would be the nice way of saying it. I don’t think he would care about these galas and these celebrations and these big shindigs with lots of people pontificating. I would like to think he’d be out here in the streets with the protestors and the activists. We have about 8 protesters that were outside the jail yesterday that got arrested, dragged on the street by police, cuffed in plastic zip ties. I like to think he would be with them today were he alive. I think he would be disappointed to know that Memphis is the fourth largest metropolitan area in the nation and 52 percent of the black children here live below the poverty line. But that’s what we’ve got. And the question we need to answer is the question posed by King’s last book, which is, where do we go from here?

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on April 5. It was edited for length and clarity.



Trump’s Executive Order on ‘Welfare’ Is Designed to Pit Workers Against One Another

On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that sums up how little he understands about poverty in America.

The order, titled “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility,” carries little weight by itself. It directs a broad range of federal agencies to review programs serving low-income people and make recommendations on how they can make the programs harder to access, all under the guise of “welfare reform.”

The order’s main purpose appears to be smearing popular programs in an effort to make them easier to slash—in part by redefining “welfare” to encompass nearly every program that helps families get by. To that end, the order reads as follows:

The terms “welfare” and “public assistance” include any program that provides means-tested assistance, or other assistance that provides benefits to people, households, or families that have low incomes (i.e., those making less than twice the Federal poverty level), the unemployed, or those out of the labor force.

Redefining everything from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) to Medicaid to Unemployment Insurance to child care assistance as “welfare” has long been part of conservatives’ playbook, as my colleague Shawn Fremstad has pointed out. The term has a deeply racially charged history in the United States, evoking decades of racial stereotypes about poverty and the people who experience it. By using dog-whistle terms like welfare, Trump is erecting a smokescreen in the shape of President Reagan’s myth of the “welfare queen”—so we don’t notice that he’s coming after the entire working and middle class.

Decades of research since TANF was enacted show that work requirements do not help anyone work

The fact is, we don’t have welfare in America anymore. What’s left of America’s tattered safety net is meager at best, and—contrary to the claim in Trump’s executive order that it leads to “government dependence”—it’s light-years away from enough to live on.

Take the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP provides an average of just $1.40 per person per meal. Most families run out of SNAP by the third week of the month because it’s so far from enough to feed a family on.

Then there’s housing assistance, which reaches just 1 in 5 eligible low-income families. Those left without help can spend up to 80 percent of their income on rent and utilities each month, while they remain on decades-long waitlists for assistance.

And then there’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the program that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1996 when Congress famously “[ended] welfare as we know it.” Fewer than 1 in 4 poor families with kids get help from TANF today—down from 80 percent in 1996. In fact, in several states, kids are more likely to be placed in foster care than receive help from TANF.

Families who do receive TANF are lucky if the benefits even bring them halfway to the austere federal poverty line. For example, a Tennessee family of 3 can only receive a maximum of $185 per month, or a little over $6 a day.

Yet TANF is the program Trump is holding up as a model—hailing 1996 “welfare reform” as a wild success—despite the fact that TANF has proven an abject failure both in terms of protecting struggling families from hardship and in helping them get ahead.

In particular, this executive order directs agencies to ramp up so-called “work requirements”—harsh time limits on assistance for certain unemployed and underemployed workers—which were at the heart of the law that created TANF. But decades of research since TANF was enacted show that work requirements do not help anyone work.

Make no mistake: Pushing for “work requirements” is at the core of the conservative strategy to reinforce myths about poverty in America. That “the poor” are some stagnant group of people who “just don’t want to work.” That anyone who wants a well-paying job can snap her fingers to make one appear. And that having a job is all it takes to not be poor.

Workers are forced to turn to programs like Medicaid and SNAP to make ends meet, because wages aren’t enough

But in reality, millions of Americans are working two, even three jobs to make ends meet and provide for their families. Half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and don’t have even $400 in the bank. And nearly all of us—70 percent—will turn to some form of means-tested assistance, like Medicaid or SNAP, at some point in our lives.

Trump claims his executive order is intended to eliminate “poverty traps.” But if he knew anything about poverty—aside from what he’s learned on Fox News—he’d know the real poverty trap is the minimum wage, which has stayed stuck at $7.25 an hour for nearly a decade. That’s well below the poverty line for a family of two—and not nearly enough to live on. There isn’t a single state in the country in which a minimum-wage worker can afford a one-bedroom apartment at market rate. Many low-wage workers are forced to turn to programs like Medicaid and SNAP to make ends meet, because wages aren’t enough.

If Trump were really trying to promote “self-sufficiency”—a concept he clearly doesn’t think applies to the millionaires and billionaires to whom he just gave massive tax cuts—he’d be all over raising the minimum wage. In fact, raising the minimum wage just to $12 would save $53 billion in SNAP alone over a decade, as more low-wage workers would suddenly earn enough to feed their families without nutrition assistance.

Yet there’s no mention of the minimum wage anywhere in Trump’s order to “promote opportunity and economic mobility.”

Which brings us back to the real purpose of this executive order: divide and conquer.

Trump and his colleagues in Congress learned the hard way last year how popular Medicaid is when they tried to cut it as part of their quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And it’s not just Medicaid that Americans don’t want to see cut. Americans overwhelmingly oppose cuts to SNAP, housing assistance, Social Security disability benefits, home heating assistance, and a whole slew of programs that help families get by—particularly if these cuts are to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. What’s more, as polling by the Center for American Progress shows, Americans are less likely to vote for a candidate who backs cuts.

By contrast, vast majorities of Americans across party lines want to see their policymakers raise the minimum wage; ensure affordable, high-quality child care; and even enact a job guarantee to ensure everyone who is able and wants to work can find a job with decent wages. These sentiments extend far beyond the Democratic base to include majorities of Independents, Republicans, and even Trump’s own voters.

That’s why rebranding these programs as welfare is so important to Trump’s agenda. Rather than heed the wishes of the American people, Trump’s plan is—yet again—to tap into racial animus and ugly myths about aid programs in order to pit struggling workers against one other. That way, he can hide his continued betrayal of the “forgotten men and women” for whom he famously pledged to fight.


First Person

Medicaid Work Requirements Would Have Killed Me

In the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, broken pottery is repaired with gold. During this process, the pieces of the broken vessel are held together patiently by the steady hands of the artisan, and filled in with lacquer, which is dusted with gold.

I am that vessel, broken and restored.

I was born addicted and given up for adoption.

Dismissed from social groups and bullied in high school.

Sexual trauma as my first sexual experience.

Subsequent suicide attempt.

My sense of self began to leak, falling away from me, slipping through the cracks.

I survived Hurricane Katrina.

And the looting.

My husband was deployed to war.

My child almost died at birth—and so did I.

Another deployment.

My marriage is crumbling.

I’m a single mother.

I can’t take it anymore.


On December 7, 2011, after 7 years of addiction, I was arrested and taken to Campbell County jail. I stayed there for 9 months and was released to shock probation Shock probation is when a judge orders a person serve a short stint in jail, then releases them to serve the remainder of their sentence on probation. The theory behind the practice is that the short prison sentence will reduce recidivism for first-time offenders. in a halfway house.

I tried so hard to adjust, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have health insurance, so my ADHD and anxiety disorders were not being treated. I was getting recovery material from participating in substance abuse treatment, but I couldn’t concentrate or remember things. Three weeks later, I returned to jail because I wasn’t doing the laundry chore the right way—I kept forgetting to empty the lint trap in the dryer and use the sign-in/sign-out book.

Once I was back in prison, I had health care and didn’t need insurance. I was able to complete a six-month program for women who have dual diagnosis—mental illness and substance abuse. I graduated and was released in May 2013, a completely new human being with an education on the most important subject I could ever learn about: myself. I had a 30-day prescription and a suggestion to follow up with my primary care physician and go to a meeting.

All I needed, yet again, was health insurance.

I couldn’t work for several months after being released. My only experience was serving in bars and restaurants, but I was terrified that the job would make me relapse. I have severe back pain, and I’m allergic to the only medicine that’s legal for me to use to relieve it. Even when I was mentally and emotionally capable of going back to work, I struggled to find employment as a convicted felon on parole. I had no license, no transportation, no birth certificate. I had no money.

I lived at home with my parents and felt like a tremendous burden as they shuttled me to and from probation and parole, to free clinics, to prescription pharmacy program buildings, and to my meetings. They watched me struggle in disbelief at first, thinking I could try harder. But soon they realized how hard it was to get a job interview, let alone a job.

That’s how, almost 10 months after my release, I found myself sitting in my empty bathtub. I was fully dressed and weeping, screaming silently at a god I didn’t believe in anymore to “fix it,” or I was going to end it all.

That’s when I heard the mailman. He rang the bell and brought me a package for my father, and on top was my approval notice from Medicaid. In that moment, I literally felt like President Obama had done that just for me—to keep me here, so I’d keep fighting for myself.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that people will die if these restrictions are implemented

Just as the vessel is held together by the hands of the artisan, I was held together by Medicaid.

My doctors and I worked together fill the cracks in my life with things far more valuable and precious than gold.

Love for myself, my family, and the rest of humanity.

Coping skills for the times when I am not well.

Dedication to a beautiful, intelligent 11-year-old son.

Now, I’m pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Northern Kentucky University, with two years of experience working on the front lines of the opioid epidemic as a Kentucky State Certified Peer Support Specialist. I have helped people navigate their own road to recovery by partnering with them to identify and knock down the very same barriers I faced.

But last night, President Trump issued an executive order that could make stories like mine a lot less common. It asks any federal agency that provides assistance to low-income people to re-examine their programs and add work requirements whenever possible. It builds on a letter that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued to state Medicaid directors earlier this year, allowing states to strip coverage from people who can’t find a job.

People like me.

People who aren’t working because they can’t: because they’re sick or they have a record or they have a disability or they can’t find a job or they’re taking care of their aging parents.

People who need help.

I’ve been on both sides of the opioid epidemic, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that people will die if these restrictions are implemented. I had to fight way too hard and for far too long to get where I am today.