Labor

Poor People Need a Higher Wage, Not a Lesson in Morality

This article originally appeared at The Nation.

“The idea that poverty is a problem of persons—that it results from personal moral, cultural, or biological inadequacies—has dominated discussions of poverty for well over two hundred years and given us the enduring idea of the undeserving poor.”

—Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor

In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist David Brooks called for a “moral revival,” one which requires “holding people responsible” so that we have “social repair.”

To illustrate the need for said revival—which he frames as a reassertion of social norms—Brooks offers what he describes as three “representative figures” of “high school-educated America”: a man whose mother was absent, Dad is in prison, attended seven elementary schools, and “ended up under house arrest”; a girl who was “one of five half-siblings from three relationships,” whose mom lost custody of the kids to an abuser, and whose dad left a woman because another guy had fathered their child; and, finally, a kid who “burned down a lady’s house when he was 13” and says, “I just love beating up somebody and making they nose bleed…and beating them to the ground.”

So goes the latest iteration of the “undeserving poor,” an age-old concept brilliantly excavated by the late historian Michael Katz in his book of the same title. Like the long lineage it stems from, Brooks’ rendition is as “representative” of people with low-incomes as corrupt corporate titans are of small entrepreneurs. Anecdotally, in my years working for Boys and Girls Clubs, reporting as a poverty correspondent for The Nation, and now editing TalkPoverty.org which regularly features posts from people living in poverty—Brooks’ “representative figures” remind me of exactly zero people I have met during this time. I’m not saying that these individuals don’t exist, but they have little to do with the policies or the morality we need to dramatically reduce poverty in America.

Brooks preaches that we should react to these stories with “intense sympathy,” but then ask people who are struggling questions like: “Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?”

What we really need isn’t a moral revival but a moral revolution.

“Everybody struggles,” he writes. “But we need ideals and standards to guide the way.”

Katz presciently called out those like Brooks when he updated The Undeserving Poor in 2013 not long before his death: “The role of culture in the production and perpetuation of poverty…is enjoying a revival…[This] work remains implicitly animated by the questions, in what ways are poor people different (the answer is not because they lack money) and what should be done about these differences? They are not the most important questions to ask about poverty today.”

What we really need isn’t a moral revival but a moral revolution, one that might begin with Brooks and others looking in the mirror and asking some basic questions:

Do I accept that people working full-time are paid wages that keep them in poverty?

Do I accept that workers with low-incomes can’t take a paid sick day to care for themselves or a family member?

Do I accept that many parents can’t afford the childcare they need to go to work?

Do I accept that people with low-incomes often lack the transportation needed to get to job assignments and as a result are kicked off of income assistance?

Do I accept that our public schools are separate and unequal—with some kids forced to share textbooks while just miles away an affluent community has state-of-the-art facilities?

Do I propagate myths and stereotypes about people living in poverty, or do I help spread the truth—like the fact that more than 1 in 2 Americans will spend a year in poverty or near poverty during their working years?

Do I embrace the real evidence that shows just how far a little assistance can go to improve life outcomes for people in poverty?

When it comes to morality and supporting families, I’ll trust my favorite nun over Mr. Brooks any day. Testifying at a congressional hearing on the status of the War on Poverty, Sister Simone Campbell was asked if the real blame for continuing poverty is “the fact we’ve lost our family values? We’ve got single parents and so forth?”

She replied: “I practiced family law for 18 years in Oakland. I found with low-income families that the biggest cause of family break up was economic stressors. So I think the most important piece we could do to support families would be to raise the minimum wage.”

On Saturday, Katz posthumously received a distinguished service award from the Organization of American Historians. It was well deserved, and his voice is still well worth listening to.

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Labor

Why I Joined a Worker Center

I began my career in the restaurant industry while I was traveling overseas in the Middle East. I wanted to be adventurous and live aboard after I graduated college, and I was excited to gain useful skills. Upon my return home, I was eager to plant roots in a new kitchen; I hoped that, with hard work and patience, I could utilize my skills and pursue the American Dream.

Unfortunately, the American Dream is just that—a dream. When I returned to the States, I quickly realized that in many cases restaurant workers—who often earn the minimum wage or the tipped minimum wage—are expendable in the eyes of employers. After working for about a month in a restaurant in my hometown, I began noticing improper behavior from my employer. They failed to pay me on time and accused me of stealing without presenting any evidence to back up their accusations. When I didn’t receive my paychecks on time, I had to rely on customers’ tips.

Even so, I would come to work early and leave late – not for the money but to gain experience and knowledge. I tolerated petty arguments and misdirected anger. I had a clear vision and burning motivation for a career in the restaurant industry, but I was unhappy with my work. I felt disposable and without a voice. However, since I needed to pay rent and had responsibilities, I knew that quitting would be financially unwise.

I was lucky to learn about the D.C. Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a worker center dedicated to improving working conditions and raising industry standards for all Washington, D.C. restaurant workers. Here I was, a young, broke, female, black, twenty-something-year-old from nowhere that mattered. But to organizations like ROC-D.C., I do matter. When I quit my job, and my employer withheld my final paycheck in retaliation, ROC-D.C. advised me about my options. They reassured me that I am the embodiment of the American dream and that I have a life that should not be measured by the size of my bank account.

I am the embodiment of the American dream and that I have a life that should not be measured by the size of my bank account.

ROC-D.C assisted me but I was left wondering – how can everyone become educated about their rights in the workplace? I am not alone in these experiences. Through ROC-D.C., restaurant workers come to realize that although we might be dealing with problems on a daily basis, we are also part of the solution. We have to fight for a living wage, against wage theft, and for protection so that we can stand up without fear of employer retaliation.

Restaurant workers are adults, mothers, realists and dreamers. We are living off tips, and working more than one job to make ends meet. In the words of Chuck Palahniuk (the author of Fight Club), “We’re [low-wage workers] everyone you depend on. We’re the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers.” With our laundromat-washed uniforms, nicked fingertips, and loose dollar bills, we are paid as low as $2.13 an hour.

It is time to take a stand. The minimum wages in D.C. and across the country has been infuriatingly inadequate for way too long. In Washington, D.C., servers take home a median wage of just $9.23 an hour including tips. We often rely on food stamps and have a poverty rate that is twice as high as the poverty rate of the general workforce. This unacceptable reality spurred workers and advocates to launch a successful campaign to raise wages. Former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray signed a “living wage” bill, which increased the minimum wage to $11.50 and indexed it to inflation.

Unfortunately, tipped workers will still receive an extremely low base salary of $2.77 an hour, meaning we have to continue to live off tips and the mercy of the customer.

If you are a restaurant worker in the Washington D.C. Metro area, I encourage you to get involved with ROC-D.C. We are currently running a ONE FAIR WAGE campaign to raise the minimum raise for all workers, including tipped workers. If you’re unhappy with your job, or think you’re being treat unfairly, then I encourage you to join a worker center. Get involved in a local movement that pushes for respect, fair wages, and benefits for all workers.

 

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Labor

Fight For $15 Expands to a Fight for Good Jobs

On Wednesday morning, holding a sign that read “Show me $15 and a union,” Letrice Donaldson marched with around 200 people under gray skies through East Memphis, Tennessee.

Letrice, 34, is an adjunct professor who is just a few weeks away from receiving her Ph.D. in history from the University of Memphis. She is paid $1500 to teach one class. Given the number of hours she puts in each week—teaching, lesson-planning, grading papers, and counseling students—she estimates that she makes approximately $5.36 an hour, well below the federal minimum wage. Letrice doesn’t get health insurance through her job and she has never received a raise.

“I get food stamps. I have $270,000 in student loan debt,” she said, explaining that her student debt is high because she was diagnosed with breast cancer while she was a student. Rather than dropping out and being forced to make payments without an income, Letrice took out more student loans to stay in school and continue teaching while undergoing chemotherapy.

Letrice was among the thousands of people in 236 cities across the country that hit the streets to demand higher wages and better workplace treatment as part of the Fight for $15 national day of action. The movement has broadened—workers and their supporters are no longer fighting solely to increase the minimum wage. Lettice, for example, is paid per class not per hour—so an increased minimum wage wouldn’t affect her at all.   But she needs better pay and benefits like health insurance.

For Miguel Portillo, a car wash worker in Queens, New York, he joined the movement to fight back against workplace discrimination and wage theft.  Miguel is a part of the Car Wash Workers Campaign, an effort led by Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change.  Organizing and joining a union has helped Miguel and his coworkers bargain for better wages and better working conditions.

“We’ve won a lot of things financial-wise, but the most important thing we’ve won is respect,” he said.

Still, with his hourly wage of $8.75 and his wife’s minimum wage job at a grocery store, they struggle to support their family.

Across the country in San Francisco, nearly 100 people flooded into a McDonalds at 6 a.m. on Wednesday, chanting, “Strike, strike! Organizing is our right!” Inside, people offered testimony about their struggles with low wages and unpredictable hours.

Click on the images in the slideshow to see more information about each photo. 

Isaiah Mitchelle of San Leandro, California works at Jack-In-the-Box for $9 an hour and is a member of a worker-led group called Up the Pay East Bay.

“It’s a backbreaker,” he said, describing his daily regimen of cooking, cleaning and cashiering.

Isaiah said life would improve drastically for him and his little sisters if he were to receive $15 an hour. “I could afford to save up for a car and help pay for my tuition at Chabot College, where I’m taking my general education [classes] right now.”

Maya Shankar, an undergraduate student at North Carolina State University, said that she joined the Fight for $15 when she started to think about her future.

“Once we get out of college, it’s going to be really, really hard to pay back the loans we took if we don’t have a good, stable job that we can pay it off with,” Maya said. She noted that a $15 hourly wage would nearly double her current pay at the campus library.

Maya was one of many students and faculty who came out Wednesday evening in the pouring rain to rally on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“I deserve $15 an hour,” said Sha-Love Lawrence, and in-home care provider in Atlanta. “And I need it to take care of my daughter and to make sure that she can live her dreams of becoming a doctor.”

 

We’ve won a lot of things financial-wise, but the most important thing we’ve won is respect.

Sha-Love was among a large crowd of protesters who converged on the campus of Clark Atlanta University on Wednesday. Many of the protesters were in-home care providers, holding signs such as, “I take care of your loved ones,” and “Home care workers: We take care of Atlanta.”

Sha-Love explained simply, “We can’t live. We can’t survive on $7.25. That’s exactly what I make. That’s not livable wages.”

Providing in-home care is physically demanding and time consuming, Sha-Love said. She often works until 10 p.m., and if the next person doesn’t show up to take over her shift, she has to cover their shift as well.

“$15 is just a start. We’re worth more. I take care of people’s lives. What can I do for them if I can’t take care of me?” she said.

People throughout the U.S. sent a clear message on April 15th that in addition to better wages, people also need better jobs—jobs that provide employees with regular schedules, paid sick leave, dependable hours, benefits and respect.

Several organizations are now stepping forward to act on that message at a national level. On April 29th, the Center for Community Change, Working Families Organization, Jobs With Justice, Center for Popular Democracy, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and dozens of local grassroots partners are coming together to launch Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All. It’s a major economic initiative to reinvest in low-income communities of color and bring jobs—good jobs—to everyone.

“I think it is important to fight together,” said Miguel. “If we don’t bring our fights, our campaigns, together, we are not going to accomplish anything. This fight is for everyone.”

 

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Increasing Access to Free Tax Preparation in New York City

When Cynthia went to the free tax preparation site near her house, it was difficult to convince her to take advantage of the services being offered. Cynthia was adamant about using a paid preparer who advertised a $50 bonus. She didn’t trust “free,” and she thought the paid preparer would provide better service. But a couple of days later Cynthia came back to the free tax prep site. She was angry. It turned out the $50 bonus that the paid preparer had advertised came with $600 in fees. Now she’s an advocate for the City’s free tax preparation services, and has referred friends and family members as well.

In her words, “A bonus can cost you!”

According to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data, New Yorkers claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for a cumulative $2.5 billion in refunds. The EITC—one of the greatest tools we have for fighting poverty—gives families and individual tax filers with low- or moderate-incomes sizeable refunds, depending on income level and number of dependents. Research shows that the EITC returns an average of $2,500 to eligible filers in New York City—a significant cash infusion for low-income families. More often than not, a tax refund check is the largest single check these families receive all year. In New York City, most EITC-eligible people are also eligible for free tax preparation through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) network, but fewer than 5 percent take advantage of it. Where are the other 95 percent? And why would anyone opt to spend hundreds of dollars for something that is offered for free at nearly 200 VITA sites citywide?

Clearly there needs to be an improved process for tax filing.

The NYC Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Office of Financial Empowerment has joined forces with Parsons Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) Lab, the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), Food Bank For New York City, Citi Community Development, and Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City—to create a new approach to free tax preparation services in New York City. It’s called Designing for Financial Empowerment.

The initiative is composed of three phases: discovery, during which the research team was embedded in the VITA sites and interviewed community members and stakeholders; co-design, where the research team collaborates with users, service providers, government officials, funders, and others to generate ideas to address VITA challenges; and iterative prototyping, in which one or multiple solutions will be rapidly tested at the VITA sites and revised based on user responses.

The discovery phase has already taken place. Researchers interviewed site managers, volunteer tax preparers, filers, and host organizations at VITA sites to learn firsthand about the challenges and capabilities at the sites. They worked closely with project partners to gain a better understanding of tax-related policies, services and interventions.

During this phase, the researchers learned that many filers have a misconception that because VITA services are free they are of lower quality than paid services. Some people also have a misunderstanding about who is responsible if they are audited by the IRS. They believe preparers are responsible for the accuracy of their returns, so they choose whoever promises the largest refund. This could sometimes mean choosing paid preparers for illegal benefits. Some of these opinions are captured in the Designing for Financial Empowerment Tax Time Video.

The initiative is now in the co-design phase. The design team is bringing together tax filers, policymakers, community and civic leaders, social service organizations, and local business owners, to discuss the discovery findings and co-design potential solutions for new and improved services through a series of workshops. The co-design phase will create the basis for prototypes for VITA sites.

During the final phase, prototypes will be tested at VITA sites run by Food Bank For New York City—a champion of free tax preparation services. The project’s continuous engagement with VITA clients and preparers during this phase will allow designers to make improvements based on the feedback.

The goal is that the prototypes developed by this process will not only help increase filer access at these VITA sites—and trust the services that the sites provide—but also address a capacity problem. Filers often have to wait anywhere from a half hour to several hours to have their taxes prepared. For many of them, taking time off work to wait their turn may be challenging. Moreover, childcare can be costly or unavailable, and bringing children to VITA sites can make it more difficult for filers and others who are waiting.

Although Tax Day has just passed, we’re hopeful that this initiative will help us reach the thousands of New Yorkers like Cynthia, and ensure that they not only take advantage of free tax preparation services, but also receive every dollar they’re eligible for through the Earned Income Tax Credit, NYC Child Care Tax Credit, and other refundable tax credits.

For more information about DCA’s work, visit nyc.gov/consumers and for more information about the Designing for Financial Empowerment initiative, visit dfe.nyc.

 

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Labor

At Home and Abroad, the Labor Movement Comes Roaring Back

On April 15, 2015, low-wage workers across the U.S. and around the world once again waged a flash strike intended to capture the attention of employers and policy-makers who control their wages. Protesters didn’t spend their limited monies to ride buses, trains or planes to Washington, D.C. where their actions might or might not have attracted much media attention. Instead, they took to the streets where they live and labor — in 200 U.S. cities and across the United Kingdom, Brazil, India, Italy, Bangladesh, Japan, and 30 other countries.

At a time when multi-national corporations are 50 of the world’s largest 100 economies, this movement has had to be both intensely local and expansively global. Less than three years ago, the grassroots campaign for a living wage began in scattered Thanksgiving protests by New York City fast food workers and Los Angeles Walmart associates. This year’s protests are the largest and most global labor actions ever mounted.

From Manila to Manhattan, workers are showing the face of the 21st century labor movement. On Wednesday, Fight for $15 protests gleefully short-circuited the “90-seconds-a-customer” service rule at McDonald’s. In Seoul, workers staged mock trials of Ronald McDonald for wage theft; in Manila they blocked streets and malls with singing and dancing flash mobs. Protesters uploaded clips of their actions onto You-Tube and Facebook. They Instagrammed photographs and sent fast-disappearing Snapchat messages about where to meet for the next action. In this era of social media, organizers no longer need to worry about press coverage—or at least they don’t’ need to worry as much.

We have reached a point where even an advanced degree no longer guarantees a path out of poverty.

In many parts of the world, this April’s worker protests offered local labor activists a chance to highlight their own struggles. In Brazil, unions called a general strike for April 15, in solidarity with workers in other countries and to protest recent legislative encroachments on labor rights.  In Bangladesh, garment workers have, in the last two years, built a global movement forcing scores of major clothing labels to sign an accord allowing Bangladeshi unions to inspect garment factories for safety violations. On April 24, the 2nd anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse—which killed 1,134 garment workers and injured thousands more—Bangladeshi workers will lead a global day of action to pressure brand companies to pay damages to victims and their families. Garment union leader Kalpona Akter and Rana Plaza survivor Mahina Begum were among 28 arrested last month in New Jersey for bringing that demand in person to corporate executives of The Children’s Place. This month, Benetton finally agreed to pay damages.

The living wage issue is also as local as it is global. Fifty-eight percent of the U.S. jobs created since the 2008 crash do not pay enough for workers to live on. Local workers’ protests blocked sidewalks in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where immigrant restaurant employees endure 70-hour weeks and wages that are even lower than the pitiful federal minimum of $2.13 an hour for tipped employees. Home health care workers, too, have begun to step out of the shadows where they care for fragile clients. How they find the time to organize is anyone’s guess, given that some work as many as 120 hours a week. The fight for a living wage has even started to interrupt classes on American college campuses, where three-quarters of professors are now contingent contract laborers and one in four earns so little that they require public assistance to survive.  Adjunct professors are not quite as hard-pressed as the country’s fast food workers, 52% of whom receive public assistance; home-health care workers, 48% of whom need to turn to cash, food or medical aid programs; or child care workers, 46% of whom also need government aid. Still, a majority of college professors are now employed on temporary contracts, shuttling between campuses, teaching upwards of 12 courses a year, earning between $20,000 and $25,000 annually.  They are truly low-wage workers, and they feel a real bond with fast food workers, child-care workers, and providers of at-home health care.

It is extraordinary for workers as different as these to band together. We have reached a point where even an advanced degree no longer guarantees a path out of poverty.

Perhaps that is why the movement has already had its successes.  City officials from Providence to Seattle have passed municipal minimum wages that are significantly higher than federal or state requirements. Voters in red states as well as blue cast their ballots last November for increased state minimum wages. And, most recently, the world’s largest corporations have shown signs of recognition that they must raise wages a little bit — if only for appearances.

Still, fair wages are not all that this movement seeks. Low-wage workers — in the U.S. and abroad — are demanding the right to unionize without employer retribution. That demand has met fierce opposition from employers of all sizes.

Low-wage workers have few options for exerting power over employers. One is “hitting them in the pocketbook” — staging protests that disrupt business. Another is leveraging the power of government on the side of workers: Large unions such as The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing health care workers in Connecticut — and small worker’s groups such as the Laundry Workers Center United (LWCU), representing restaurant employees in New York City — have recently filed suit for wage theft, sexual harassment, and violation of federal minimum wage and maximum hours laws.

Increasingly, employers have filed their own suits — using the Racketeering and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) — to try to hobble union campaigns.  RICO suits filed solely to hinder labor organizing violate the spirit of the original legislation, passed in 1970 to facilitate prosecution of organized crime and to limit mobsters’ ability to take over labor unions. But, from the perspective of workers, such suits only inspire more activism. As Virgilio Aran recently told me about the RICO suit filed against organized employees of Liberato restaurant in the Bronx: “For every suit they file against us we will organize 1000 times harder.”

Just a few short years after it was declared dead and almost buried, the labor movement has come roaring back. Behind it has come a powerful bipartisan sentiment that it is time to pay workers something better than poverty wages.  In the last few decades we have regressed to the wealth stratification of the 1890s. Perhaps now we can return to the majority view of the 1930s that unions have a positive role to play in a stable, healthy economy.

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