Beyond the Minimum Wage

Of course we should absolutely raise the minimum wage. We should raise it in our cities, towns, states and federally. We should use any public entity that has the authority to raise the bottom—like for federal, state, and local contracts—and we should then demand that private companies follow suit.  Morality, decency and basic economics all call for lifting the wages of the lowest paid workers.

But raising the minimum is not enough, and absent a serious challenge to how wealth and power is mal-distributed in this country, may prove a fleeting and potentially short-term victory. Communities of color lost 60% of their wealth in the 2008 economic collapse. Just this year, Wall Street gave themselves bonuses greater than the total wages of a million minimum wage workers. Since the 2008 economic crash, 95% of the economic gains have gone to the top 1%.  If we don’t have a grander, bigger, bolder vision of what is possible and needed, a newly raised minimum wage could also become the maximum wage for increasing numbers of workers whose pay and standard of living is being driven ever downward.

We know parts of the story only too well. Over the last forty years the economy and politics of the country have been remade. Wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the top one tenth of one percent. The miserably low minimum wage, impact of tax cuts for the rich, and defunding of the government—they are all just part of a much bigger story. The economy is increasingly “financialized”—financial institutions are increasing their size and influence at every level of the government and the economy.  Wall Street—continuously coming up with ingenious ways to extract wealth from every part of the economy—has driven the growing wealth divide in our country.

One way to think about what has happened is that a massive redistribution machine was created and set loose on our country (and internationally). With each passing day it is increasingly sophisticated in finding new tricks, skims and scams to concentrate wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer people.

We need to consciously and systematically use the momentum, energy and excitement generated by campaigns to raise the minimum wage—as the base and launching pad—to expose and slow the redistribution machine.

How does the wealth redistribution machine work?

First, outsourcing and subcontracting: In the 1970’s, corporations were faced with rising wages for unionized workers and the growing success of the civil rights and women’s movements in challenging poverty wages, job segregation, and discrimination. The redistribution machine started experimenting with the most vulnerable workers by subcontracting and outsourcing jobs. By hiring another company to pay and supervise janitors, cafeteria and other low-wage workers, corporations found they could avoid the pressure to promote workers of color and raise wages.  Instead, they cut pay and eliminated benefits, while dodging any legal liability or moral responsibility for their actions. By subcontracting and outsourcing they were technically no longer the employer and could drive wages lower, all while still maintaining functional control of the work.

Second, de-unionizing and disaggregating work:  As a result of mergers, acquisitions and leveraged buy-outs, there is greater corporate control, concentration and monopolization at the top. At the same time, work has become increasingly disaggregated—meaning workers are rarely directly hired or paid by the entity that ultimately controls their jobs and wages. Unionization rates have plummeted.   Practices that were once used to cut the pay of the poorest workers are now the norm, spreading to increasing numbers of workers throughout the economy. Workers who organize unions find the entity that signs their check is often—ready for this?—a marginal subcontractor or franchisee of an outsourced subsidiary of a massive private equity firm, hedge fund, or other corporate entity, that is insulated legally from being picketed by workers. Corporations got the best of both worlds—control and no responsibility.

Third, profiting by driving people into debt:  The brilliance of the redistribution machine is that in sucking wealth out of workers’ pockets, it created a new market through which it could transfer more wealth to the already rich. Short of money to pay bills, tens of millions took out usurious payday loans; communities of color were targeted for predatory home equity loans and mortgages; and credit cards with exploding interest rates and bank overdraft fees drained hundreds of billions from people’s pockets. Forty million people now have $1.2 trillion in student loan debt—115,000 retirees have their social security checks garnished to repay student loans every month.  The redistribution machine’s answer to declining wages is to loan you money.

Fourth, feeding on tax dollars and gorging on government:   The City of Los Angeles pays more than $200 million a year in fees to Wall Street, $50 million more than it spends on street repairs. Nowhere has the redistribution machine’s creativity been clearer than in how it uses political power to defund government largely through corporate loopholes and bad tax policy; and then it turns a profit through complex schemes to finance, privatize, and lend to the very government it helped to defund. There is $6 trillion in government spending every year and Wall Street has used privatization schemes, outrageous fees, interest rate manipulations, price fixing, and predatory public loans products—like the interest rate swaps that helped bankrupt Detroit—to capture and transfer to the super-rich as much of the public’s money as possible.

So what to do if raising the minimum wage is essential but not enough?

We need to consciously and systematically use the momentum, energy and excitement generated by campaigns to raise the minimum wage—as the base and launching pad—to expose and slow the redistribution machine. Minimum wage campaigns can and should be the entry point for a bigger call to not only raise the bottom but challenge the very idea that the elite rich should dominate the political and economic life of the country.

We then need to look at opportunities to go on offense to reverse the massive redistribution in wealth that plagues our country.  For example:

  • Using eminent domain: Cities of all sizes can modify mortgages for homeowners who are underwater, and begin to rebuild wealth in communities of color and working class communities.
  • Refinancing federal loans and eliminating the Wall Street profit from higher education: Wall Street rakes in billions through publicly financed Pell grants at for-profit colleges; interest and fees on private loans; servicing, fees and debt collection of federal loans; and lending to higher education institutions that borrow money in the face of defunding. Refinancing existing loans and getting Wall Street out of higher education could save students and tax payers billions of dollars.
  • Renegotiating with Wall Street: Cities can band together and demand that Wall Street cut what some have estimated as $50 billion in fees that are draining much needed public revenue. Cities pay Wall Street 2 % management fees for managing pension funds (even if Wall Street loses money), they pay for “letters of credit”, “remarketing fees”, the list goes on and on.  Cities could use their combined economic clout to negotiate lower fees and less Wall Street profiting off of tax dollars.
  • Transforming major contract negotiations for the public good: Public sector unions and community groups can join together and use major contract negotiations to demand that cities, school boards and states stop wasting taxpayer money on complex interest rate swaps—and risky pension fund investments in hedge funds and private equity firms—that allow Wall Street to pay themselves outsized fees and deliver minimal returns to tax payers.
  • Holding corporations legally accountable: Cities and states can pass laws that hold corporations accountable for the working conditions throughout their supply chain, including for subcontracted workers, and create conditions that increase the ability of workers to organize unions.
  • Reinventing and reestablishing the strike:  This is the critical weapon workers need to confront, disrupt and force negotiations with the corporations at the top of the supply chain.

There has never been a better moment to challenge inequality.  Let’s learn a lesson from the super-rich: they’ve created innumerable innovations to siphon off wealth; now it’s our turn—to create innumerable innovations to slow, stop and reverse the redistribution machine.




A New Poor People’s Movement Must Have Leadership from Poor People

Imagine if the U.S. women’s suffragette movement had been led entirely by men, and its rank-and-file had been mostly male. The movement would surely have been far less galvanizing and assertive.  American women might still be denied the vote.

While some white activists made the ultimate sacrifice – their lives – on behalf of equal rights for African Americans, had the Civil Rights Movement been led and populated primarily by white people, that campaign would also have been far less passionate, insistent, and effective.  The Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts might still be languishing in Congress.

Likewise, if the LGBT crusade had merely waited for straight Americans to voluntarily grant them the right to marry, they would probably not be able to obtain a marriage license in any state, and certainly not in the 18 states where LGBT Americans can now legally marry.

We should have no illusions about the challenges in building a movement with the strong leadership and engagement of low-income Americans.

In fact, no social movement in history has been won entirely by one people on behalf of another.

Thus it is absurd to believe that any attempt to finally end hunger or poverty in the U.S. can succeed without the significant involvement and leadership of low-income Americans.

Yet for decades, many of the upper-middle-class white activists who have led and populated the national anti-hunger movement have essentially taken the position that if they merely “put a face on hunger” – i.e., tell the stories of struggling Americans and display photos or videos of hungry Americans – then average Americans would be so moved and outraged that they would instantaneously support the public policies necessary to end the problem. While I am thankful that some organizations do give scholarships to allow some low-income individuals to attend anti-hunger conferences, most attendees are still upper-middle-class and white; relatively few hungry people – or even formerly hungry people – participate in these meetings, much less lead them. Can you image an American Federation of Teachers convention without educators or an American Legion convention without veterans? The failure of anti-hunger organizations to more fully include the people we represent has made us so weak that we have mostly failed to counter-act right wing policies that increase hunger.

While we certainly still have more work to do to help middle class Americans understand that it is in their self-interest to decrease poverty and hunger, our greatest single challenge is to mobilize our base, ensuring leadership and activism by many more of the 49 million Americans that suffer from food insecurity.

Imagine the political power behind 49 million Americans acting in unison to fight on their own behalf. After all, if you combined the 4 million members of the NRA, the 11 million members of the AFL-CIO member unions, the 1.5 million members of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the nearly 1 million members of the Sierra Club, and the 7 million members of the National Right to Life Committee, that’s still less than half the number of Americans who struggle against hunger.

We should have no illusions about the challenges in building a movement with the strong leadership and engagement of low-income Americans. Our entire society and our political system reinforce the cycles of empowerment for the wealthy and disempowerment for the impoverished.

For the nation’s elite, any activism is consistently rewarded. They vote regularly and donate to candidates.  As a result, elected officials tend to respond to their needs, which reinforces their perception that political activity matters, so they continue their political activism.

Low-income people can’t afford to donate to campaigns, and generally vote less frequently, so they get less attention from elected officials, which reinforces their original, negative, perception that politics don’t matter and their participation won’t make a difference anyway.  Even in Democratic Party primaries, wealthy people vote more frequently than low-income people.

Another challenge is that Americans who are low-income and food insecure don’t want to think of themselves as poor and hungry. In contrast, top goals of other movements were to make African American, women, and LGBT people proud of their identity. Yet the greatest goal of low-income and hungry people is usually to escape their condition. It’s darn hard to organize among individuals whose top goal is to no longer be a part of the group being organized.

But just because such organizing is difficult, doesn’t mean it isn’t both crucial and possible.

Witnesses to Hunger, started in 2008 by Dr. Mariana Chilton, is a research and advocacy project partnering with what they call the “real experts on hunger—mothers and caregivers of young children who have experienced hunger and poverty.” Through their photographs and testimonials, the Witnesses advocate for their own families and others and seek to create lasting changes on a local, state and national level.

In New York City, the group I manage, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, coordinates a Food Action Board (FAB) program to train low-income New Yorkers to lead advocacy efforts. FAB members lobby elected officials, testify at public meetings, and communicate through local and national media.

Our current FAB members are diverse. Darrel Bristow is a father of four who previously served in the Marines.  Mariluz Brito is a single mother of three who is unemployed and struggles against hunger, but even though she immigrated legally, she has not been in the U.S. long enough to qualify for federal SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits. Soraya Diaz is a part-time student at Lehman College in the Bronx, who lives with her elderly grandmother and mother. Ann Jenkins retired from her job as a receptionist at Albert Einstein Hospital and now needs SNAP to feed her family. Oralia Morand is a longtime volunteer in various soup kitchens and pantries who is the widow of a veteran. Jackie Williams is also an active volunteer, a single woman with breast cancer and a SNAP recipient, who performs freelance work when she can.

When these courageous fighters speak with elected officials or the media, the conversation is entirely different than when I do. They speak with an urgency and poignancy that no non-poor advocate can even approximate. They transform policy requests from abstract notions that can be negotiated away over time into flesh-and-blood demands that must be met immediately.

It’s much harder for Members of Congress to explain to a SNAP recipient who is standing right in front of them why they are proposing SNAP cuts than it is to explain it to a mere advocate.  For example, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted in January for a Farm Bill with more than $8 billion in SNAP cuts, two-thirds of House Republicans, and nearly half of House Democrats, voted for the cuts. But, because low-income people in New York City were so vocal in opposition to the cuts, as were local hunger groups, 10 out of the 11 House members from the city voted against them.

Both current events and history prove that direct advocacy by low-income Americans fighting for their own interests can have a massive impact.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., responding to near-starvation conditions found in parts of the U.S. in the 1960s, viewed access to food as a civil rights issue, saying: “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger?” King made the hunger issue a central component of his Poor People’s Campaign. After King’s assassination, the movement, led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, camped out on the Washington Mall to dramatize the issue and call for the expansion and creation of federal nutrition assistance programs. These efforts generated widespread media attention.

In the years following the encampment on the Mall, the president and Congress jointly expanded the Food Stamp Program and federal summer meals programs for children from relatively small pilot projects into large-scale programs, and created the National School Breakfast Program and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program which provides nutrition supplements to low-income pregnant woman and their small children.

These expansions succeeded strikingly in achieving their main goal: ending starvation conditions in America. In 1979, the Field Foundation sent a team of investigators back to many of the same parts of the U.S. in which they had previously found high rates of hunger in the late 1960s. They found dramatic reductions in hunger and malnutrition and concluded: “This change does not appear to be due to an overall improvement in living standards or to a decrease in joblessness in these areas… The Food Stamp Program, the nutritional components of Head Start, school lunch and breakfast programs, and…WIC have made the difference.”

These efforts proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that, when poor people band together for peaceful actions to push the democratic system to meet their needs, they can have spectacular results. Conversely, over the succeeding decades—when serious organizing efforts among low-income people lagged—our political system outsourced jobs, reduced wages, and cut poverty and nutrition programs, and, consequently, hunger soared.

That is why every poverty and hunger group in the country should begin or expand their efforts to better engage low-income people, whether such activities are modeled on the Witnesses to Hunger, our FABs, or other proven models. Foundations and private donors should also encourage these endeavors by funding them.

The time is long overdue for another, true Poor People’s Campaign. As is the case with every successful movement, the people with the most to gain will always be the activists who make the biggest difference.



First Person

Invest in Residents Who Want to Work

My name is Gary Crum and I am a proud resident of the Oliver community in Baltimore. I am also an employee of The Reinvestment Fund Development Partners (TRFDP)—founded by Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) and The Reinvestment Fund (TRF)—which develops land and buildings for affordable housing in East Baltimore.

I have lived in Oliver for the entire 31 years of my life.  In the last two years, I have buried more than nine friends and family members—six of them because of gun violence. You can’t tell a grown man not to sell drugs if you don’t have anything else to offer him. I got into trouble early in my life, and I was locked up for drugs. When I got out and got my second chance, I chose a different path. But my friends lived a certain lifestyle—a street life. Where we live, without a job, in order to eat you have to live a street life. This is the reality and you can’t escape it.

After my best friend, Yarndragus, was shot in the middle of the street in broad daylight, I knew I had to make a change.

If those six friends could’ve found good jobs, they would still be alive today. That is why I believe we have to get Baltimore and Maryland working.  I have been working with TRF and BUILD for the last two years, and I am grateful.  I have seen firsthand how change starts—with meaningful work for the residents of the neighborhoods.

Now, I work with young people who want to work. I take them to job fairs and to apply wherever I see companies hiring—from the new hotels being built down downtown to restaurants to construction sites throughout the city. It’s easy to get 50 young men and women to come with me to apply, but you can see the frustration in their faces when no one in the group gets hired. Our young people want to work, but there’s nowhere for them to go to find a job.

The jobs that TRF and BUILD have created have rebuilt my mixed-income community. The neighborhood I live, work and volunteer in—once drug-stricken—is now vibrant with life, joy and excitement. This past year, I and three co-workers enrolled in school paid for by TRF and BUILD. I passed a real estate class and my co-workers passed an electrician class.  I am now an assistant property manager.  I also bought my first car this year. I am excited for this job, but I could have also been depressed.

If I didn’t get this job, I would have had to go to a job hub day after day to fill out application after application. I would have had to choose whether or not to go back to school and rack up loan debt with no guarantee of a job on the other end. If I didn’t have a job, I might be out on the streets or in jail or forced to sell drugs. So, I’m standing up for myself and for the young people in my community who want to work. I’m standing with TRF and BUILD who are putting people to work, and I hope our elected officials will stand with us too.

So as the song says: “Ain’t no stopping us now: we’re on the move!”

To succeed, this is what we need: Any shovels going into the ground in Maryland over the next 10 years need to be held by Baltimoreans and Marylanders.  Baltimore approved $1 billion in school construction funding, and hundreds of millions of dollars are going into infrastructure improvements in the area. We are asking our elected leaders to invest in residents who want to work, and we are working to get voters to the polls to make sure our leaders know they are accountable to residents.




The Nation and TalkPoverty

The Nation is the oldest weekly political magazine in the United States. We were founded by abolitionists in 1865 and, spurred by that noble cause, we’ve committed ourselves to giving voice to underserved, and often ignored (and maligned and marginalized) members of society. We’re a reporter’s notebook and an activist’s bullhorn; naturally, poverty coverage is in our DNA.

In April 1929, six months before the Crash, Paul Blanshard reported from Greenville, S.C., letting millworker Gladys Caldwell (a pseudonym) explain to readers how she keeps her family alive in “How to Live on Forty-six Cents a Day.”

While running for Governor of California in September 1934, Upton Sinclair wrote “End Poverty in Civilization,” urging Nation readers to support his West Coast crusade.

And in “Poor, Proud, and Primitive,” from May 1959—several years before the region’s plight became a national issue—Harry W. Ernst and Charles H. Drake visited West Virginia’s coal country, discovering, “in this sweet land of liberty… the shaggy, shoeless children of the unwanted—the ‘hillbilly’ coal miners who have been displaced by machines and largely left to rot on surplus government food and the small doles of a half-hearted welfare state.”

We’re proud that, in keeping with this tradition, we worked with Greg Kaufmann in late 2011—when coverage in much of the media was sorely lacking—to develop This Week in Poverty, a weekly blog designed to keep the issue front and center for our readers. “We Can Reduce Poverty,” Kaufmann declared in his first entry, a hopeful note on which to begin his exploration of failed policy, public indifference, and political ineptitude. We were determined to examine poverty, and to make sure that the voices of low-income people themselves were represented.

It was also important for us to show readers how to get involved. “It’s time to stop bemoaning ‘the lack of political will’ to take on poverty and focus on what we are doing to create that political will,” Greg wrote last October. “[T]here will be no significant change without a truly broad-based movement….” In last year’s post on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Greg explained how the CIW had indeed created that political will: Its Campaign for Fair Food “forg[ed] an alliance between consumers and farmworkers” and drew non-activists (that is, anyone who shopped for food and vegetables) into the fight against illegal employment practices (including rampant sexual harassment) and criminally low wages (including involuntary servitude).

Turning on the bullhorn, Greg included at the end of his This Week in Poverty posts a digest that comprised ways to get involved (“Tell Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program”); clips and other resources (“This map shows where the world’s 30 million slaves live. There are 60,000 in the U.S.”); and vital statistics (“Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers”). This Week in Poverty represented some of the best examples of The Nation’s mission of bringing reportorial attention to issues while also drawing attention to solutions; of highlighting individuals working to alleviate or end poverty; propagating new and creative initiatives; and celebrating those sweet victories when values and change align.

Greg’s effort to push poverty into the 2012 presidential campaign included a series called #TalkPoverty. “Thirteen Questions for the First Presidential Debate” was a real highlight. Not only did it garner a response from the Obama campaign, but #TalkPoverty also took off on Twitter, where it still thrives today. We were thrilled when the Half in Ten campaign and its activists used #TalkPoverty to push their own questions at debate moderators and built a social media campaign around it.

Although I have mixed feelings about Greg’s decision to be a full-time activist instead of a full-time reporter, I am excited for this new project. (I am also pleased he will continue to write a monthly column for, beginning in June.)

I believe will succeed in bringing to the forefront important voices in the fight against poverty. I have always believed that many of the solutions to poverty are found by the people who have worked on this issue for years in virtual anonymity, and also in the experiences of people struggling in poverty themselves. While media coverage of poverty has improved since we launched This Week in Poverty, there still needs to be much, much more. I hope will be a resource for reporters who are looking for stories, and I wish it success. The Nation and I look forward to supporting this important and exciting effort.



A New Tool to Address Hunger in High-Poverty Communities

The 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty has helped bring renewed public attention to poverty, opportunity, and the safety net.  Debates over potential new initiatives in these areas should take account of the accomplishments of existing programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, and the school breakfast and lunch programs.  And, the school meals programs have an important new tool — community eligibility — that can make them even more effective in reducing hunger in high-poverty communities.  But eligible schools must act by June 30 to take advantage of this opportunity.

I’ve worked on the school meals programs for over 35 years, starting when I was in charge of the federal food assistance programs in the Agriculture Department during the Carter Administration.  They have long served a vital role and have continued to improve over the years with healthier meals and greater efficiency.

Under community eligibility, schools in which at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free school meals automatically, without submitting an application, can serve free meals to all students.  Students are approved without an application if they have been identified by another program (such as SNAP) as being low-income, or if they are at risk of hunger (for example, because they are homeless).

The option has been phasing in since 2011, and now, for the first time, will become available nationwide for the 2014-2015 school year.  The lists of eligible schools in all states are available here.  But schools have only until June 30 to opt in, so school districts need to move quickly to embrace this opportunity.

Community eligibility has led to a striking increase in the number of children in high-poverty areas eating school breakfast and lunch.  In schools in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan that have used the option for two years, lunch participation rose by 13 percent and breakfast participation rose by 25 percent, with 29,000 more low-income children eating breakfast daily.

This model of connecting low-income children to assistance is effective for several reasons:

  • It’s targeted.  School meals have always been available free of charge to low-income children, but community eligibility expands the school meals programs’ reach in communities with high concentrations of poverty.  Over 80 percent of the students participating in community eligibility schools in its first two years had been approved for free or reduced-price meals the prior year.
  • It’s administratively simple.  Community eligibility not only connects more low-income children to nutritious food, but also cuts red tape.  Families don’t have to complete applications or provide information on their income, and schools don’t have to process those applications or have a cashier figure out whether to provide a free or reduced-price meal every time a child goes through the lunch line.  A related benefit is that students can eat in the cafeteria without worrying about any stigma from receiving a free meal. Moreover, schools that have adopted community eligibility report administrative savings from streamlining their meals programs.  Those savings, combined with the drop in per-meal costs when more children eat, help to cover the costs of providing meals to more students.
  • It promotes opportunity.  Eating breakfast and lunch helps children start the school day ready to learn and remain focused throughout the day.  Schools that have taken steps to increase school breakfast participation, for example, report that discipline referrals and behavior problems went down and student attentiveness and attendance went up.

The national debate on poverty will continue, but let’s take this practical next step right now:  encourage the schools and districts in your state that are eligible for community eligibility to take the option.

Connecting low-income children to good nutrition to help them grow, learn, and thrive is something we all ought to be able to agree on.