Labor

Millennials Support Unions—So Why Don’t They Join Them?

This is another article about Millennials, and how we value fulfillment over money in our jobs, and experiences over things. But it’s also about why—it’s about how, when the financial crisis hit, we were the ones who couldn’t get jobs. Or money. Or things. And it’s about how, when our country decided that higher education was no longer a public good, we were the first generation hit—really, truly hit—by the staggering cost of college and the interest rates that went along with it.

This is an article about security, and empowerment, and how Millennials feel disengaged from the political process, but not from politics. In the end, this is an article about unions, and how maybe, just maybe, they could be Millennials’ silver bullet.

In 11th grade I began each day at 7:15, fingering my way towards the off button on my alarm clock. I never hit snooze in my three years at that school, not once. For me, in boarding school, there was no time to snooze. I was out of my league in every way, from the clothes I wore, to the way I spoke, to the way I thought. My class at Andover was the 234th entering class, the 34th that admitted women, and the first to receive need-blind admission.

My second period class was U.S. history with Mr. Jones, a notoriously hard teacher who sometimes played a game called “attendance” with us. He’d ask us for our favorite band, television show, or movie of the moment. If he didn’t like an answer, he threatened to mark us as absent for the day. The school only granted you five “free” absences per the term—any more and you were assigned extra work duty.

Near the middle of the term, as we inched closer and closer to the precise center of our textbook, we began learning about the labor movement. Our textbook, despite its colored pages, featured only black and white images of factories filled with older white men—perhaps a necessary product of the time, perhaps not.

I’m not sure if any kids in the class had family members who worked in unions. No one said they did. No one said they didn’t.

After midterms, I mostly forgot about unions. I graduated from high school and then college, and landed a job at a think tank. My first day was June 1. By the end of the month, I had signed a union card.

***

“There’s this perception that young people don’t really care about their work, like insurance and benefits. Because they’re young,” Eunice How tells me.

Eunice is 26, Chinese Malaysian American, and an organizer with the UNITE HERE union in Seattle. Her parents, who are ethnically Chinese, immigrated to the United States when they were denied access to higher education in Malaysia. They moved to Illinois, where Eunice was born, then to Singapore, then back to Illinois, and then Eunice moved to Washington state for college, where she’s lived ever since.

Do we care about insurance and benefits? I wonder. Do I care about insurance and benefits?

I pause and think back to when I was offered my job. I was lying in my bed fiddling about, in the last few weeks before college graduation, when a representative from HR called to offer me the job.

“Really?” I asked.

“…really,” she said, skeptical of my skepticism.

“I’m sorry,” I stuttered back. “I’m just. I’m surprised,” I said.

When did employment become a surprise? When did the story change from sending out one résumé to sending out 100?

Millennials are a generation defined by insecurity.

Millennials, generally defined as those aged 18 to 35, are a generation defined by insecurity. Our lives were rocked by national insecurity, with 9/11 and terrorism and the Iraq War, and then financial instability, when we watched parents and relatives and loved ones across the country lose their jobs in the wake of the greatest economic recession in recent memory. A recession that was so sudden, so unforeseen, that it reverberated across families, towns, and local economies like an earthquake, leaving behind a tremoring 10% unemployment rate.

Today, Millennials are still reckoning with the aftermath. And, if history is any indication, we always will be. Recessions tend to follow generations: if you enter the economy during a recession, when demand for jobs is high but the supply is low (and so are wages), your earnings will stay low even when the recession fades. It’s no wonder that, according to recent polling, Millennials are the only generation that prioritize economic stability over economic prosperity.

Financial insecurity is like trying to build an Ikea bookshelf after you mess up the first step: the bookshelf will never balance quite right. Financial insecurity affects the job you decide to take, where you live,  whether you buy a house, how many kids you have, if you have kids, how much money you put toward your health care, whether you can travel to see the world, and your views, beliefs, and relationships.

Unions improve conditions for workers in many ways, from higher wages to stronger benefits, but, taken together, they can be summed up in one word.

What do unions offer young workers? I ask Eunice. “Security,” she tells me.

***

If you’re a Millennial, you’re likely making less money than your parents did at the same age. Wages for a 30-year-old today are lower than they were for a 30-year-old in 2004, and more Millennials live in poverty today than older generations did at the same age. In addition to earning less, each successive graduating class over the past few years has received the dubious honor of the most indebted graduating class in history; the average student debt burden per borrower now surpasses $35,000.

We’re also the most educated generation in history. And we’re part of a workforce that has become more and more productive, even though we haven’t seen that trend reflected in our wages.

That is the first reason that it’s confusing that more Millennials aren’t in unions: unions are proven to raise individual wages. According to a 2011 analysis from the Bureau of Labor Statistics union workers averaged $23.02 an hour, compared to $19.51 for nonunion workers. These gains are collective: increases in union density raise wages for nonunion members. More broadly, when low- and middle-class Americans have more money in their pockets the entire economy benefits from increased spending.

Americans seem to recognize this: in 2016, a (slim) majority of Americans said labor unions mostly help the U.S. economy. What’s more, in another Gallup poll, Millennials appear to be the generation most supportive of unions. In 2015, Gallup found that 66% of 18- to 34-year-olds approved of labor unions, versus 53% of 35- to 54-year-olds.

And yet, while Millennials appear to be the most supportive generation of unions, they’re also among the least likely to actually be in one. In 1984, 17% of 30-year-old private sector workers were covered by a union. In 2004 that number dropped to 7.6%, and in 2014 it was down to just 5.9%.

Why do Millennials value unions, but not experience their value?

While an uptick in anti-union activity explains part of the mismatch between the number of Millennials covered by unions and the number who could be, there’s another a problem. There’s a pervasive idea that unions are only for certain kinds of people: low-income, industrial, white, older, male workers. For Millennials, the most diverse generation in history, this image isn’t simply outdated—it’s prohibitive.

***

“I never really learned about the labor movement until I was in college,” Eunice says. Her mom was in a teacher’s union, but since her school was a closed shop she didn’t really have a choice in the matter. “I guess I recall thinking unions are for working class people.”

“That’s changed!” she exclaims. “There’s all sorts of people who are in unions: office staff, nonprofit workers, health care workers. It’s not just like the white man who’s a plumber! That’s the media view.”

That’s also—whether by consequence or coincidence—the view of a lot of Millennials.

Shawn Fields is 27, black, and a graduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She’s also a member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 6300. She grew up in Detroit, home of the American auto industry, and the auto workers’ unions. Union blood runs through her veins: her great-grandfather worked in the factories, and her grandmother, as a preschool teacher, was also a member of the AFT.

But Shawn never saw herself joining a union. “I didn’t think about it,” she says. “In Detroit, a lot of the unions are very much industrial, and I didn’t see myself getting an industrial job so it never necessarily occurred to me that that was an option.”

The three things that came to mind when Shawn described how she thought of unions growing up? Detroit, auto workers, older men.

When she landed at the University of Illinois for grad school, a mentor reached out and told her about the union. Though graduate students at private universities only just won the right to unionize this summer through a National Labor Rights Board (NLRB) decision, as a public university, graduate students at UIUC have been unionized since 2002.

Shawn joined and is now an active member of her bargaining unit, and has also served on the AFT’s racial justice task force.

What do you think of unions today? I ask. Who do they represent?

“It’s definitely more diverse than what I imagined when I was younger. It’s definitely young people, a lot more women and people of color than [what I thought] when I was younger,” she says.

***

Millennials are the most diverse generation in the history of the United States. When the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the country, passed a resolution in 2013 recognizing the importance of youth engagement for the future of the labor movement, it simultaneously passed a resolution on diversity. “A diverse and inclusive labor movement is essential to connecting with and representing the workforce of the future,” the resolution read.

The demographics skew in unions’ favor. Millennials are more likely to be people of color than previous generations, and some racial minorities—notably black Americans—tend to be over-represented in unions and to hold more positive views of them. According to the AFL-CIO, African Americans constitute 11.7% of the workforce but 14% of union members. At the same time, 69% of black Americans view unions positively, versus 51% of the general population.

There’s a new American majority, but we’re going to focus on white guys?

And yet despite the promise of these statistics, Rachel Bryan, a staff member at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—who is black and formerly incarcerated—sees a disconnect between unions’ potential and their reality.

“We’re not organizing in an effective way. We’re not organizing where [young people] are. We’re not linking ourselves back into the community in ways that young people are there…There’s a new American majority, but we’re going to focus on white guys?”

“It doesn’t work that way,” she says.

***

For the organizers I talked to, unions were about security. But for the young union members I talked to, their union experiences were defined more by a sense of empowerment. For the generation that founded Occupy Wall Street and then Black Lives Matter, the association of unions with empowerment is important.

“I didn’t feel comfortable at my old job to ask for more things, because I felt lucky to have a job,” says Jane Tandler, a 26-year-old Ph.D student at Duke University and a leader of the movement to organize the school’s graduate students. She pauses, twisting an idea around her mind.

“I’m trying to think if this is an issue of empowerment,” she finally muses aloud.

Jane first joined Duke’s graduate student unionization efforts because she wanted to improve her school’s policies concerning sexual harassment. Originally, she says, it hadn’t occurred to her that a union could help address her concerns and work to improve the policy. Now when I ask her to name how unions impact Millennials, she rattles off a list of issues prominent to our generation: Black Lives Matter, sexual assault and harassment, environmental justice. For Jane, whether she realizes it or not, unions represent a distinct kind of empowerment: the ability to organize around specific issues.

Without prompting, Shawn, the grad student at UIUC, volunteered the idea of empowerment when I asked her why she decided to join a union in the first place. “You can kind of feel very disconnected from everything” as a graduate student, Shawn says. But when a mentor introduced her to the union, she says, she had a realization: “Oh this is something I want to do that makes me feel more empowered.”

***

Economists talk a lot about matching: when the workforce’s skills match the demand of the local labor market, unemployment is low. In a similar sense, unions match Millennials’ needs. They’re a platform to agitate for higher wages and better benefits, which Millennials need to counteract the lasting effects of the Great Recession. They also provide a bridge to advocate for the issues Millennials care so deeply about.

Sometimes it feels inevitable to me: there must be a swell of Millennial support for the labor movement coming. The pieces fit too perfectly. They match. But the image problem—the idea that unions only represent older white male workers—can feel intractable. It’s not just prohibiting Millennials from securing better wages or stronger benefits—it may also be blocking Millennials from using unions as an outlet for their politics.

Millennials don’t turn out to the polls in overwhelming numbers (in fact, the numbers underwhelm). We may be withdrawing from traditional measures of political engagement, but we’re not withdrawing from politics. We demand accountability for biased policing, we rally to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and we organize against the campus sexual assault epidemic.

Unions—which, almost by definition, uplift the 99% and rely on collective action—could be the platform that finally captures Millennials’ particular breed of political engagement. Are unions—and Millennials—ready to turn the page?

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Safety Net

Everything You Wanted to Know About Payday Loans but Were Afraid to Ask

Editor’s Note: On Friday, October 7th, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will close the public comment period on a rule to rein in payday loans. Please submit a comment to tell the CFPB why a strong rule to rein in the worst payday abuses is critical.

For seven straight years the United States’ economy has been in an expansion—one of the longest on record. Even better, data released earlier this month by the Census Bureau showed that middle class and low-income Americans have finally started to benefit.

Still, a huge number of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Almost half of all Americans—a full 46%—say they would not be able to come up with $400 in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, many will turn to payday loans to make ends meet.

What are payday loans?

Payday loans are advertised as quick and easy loans that borrowers can repay when their next paycheck comes around. There’s a catch, though. The interest rates are so high—often 400% and above, compared to about 16% on the average credit card—that borrowers simply cannot afford to pay back the loan and cover basic expenses at the same time. Instead, the vast majority of loans—80%—are rolled over or followed by an additional loan within just two weeks. The result is that borrowers wind up in debt—the median borrower for more than six months in a given year.

Why do borrowers use them?

It’s fairly common knowledge that payday loans are a trap. So why do borrowers—let alone 12 million annually—even bother?

First of all, most payday loan borrowers—who are disproportionately people of color—have low or moderate incomes and struggle to obtain credit from mainstream sources like a credit card company or banks mostly because they have low credit scores. As a result, payday loans often appear to be the most accessible option.

Most of these borrowers take out payday loans cover everyday expenses (it’s a common misperception that payday loans are used as stop-gaps for unexpected financial setbacks). Since the cost of basic necessities, like rent and child care, has surged in recent years—at the same time that wages have stagnated—many low-income Americans have been left without an adequate and reliable cash flow.

How bad are they?

Payday lenders have the right to seize borrowers’ bank accounts.

All told, the median borrower will pay $458 in fees on a typical $350 two-week payday loan. Many borrowers, however, will pay an even steeper price. Small payday loans often balloon into thousands of dollars in debt, and the effects of default are severe. If loans aren’t repaid quickly enough, payday lenders have the right to seize borrowers’ bank accounts to make sure that they are prioritized for payment above all other bills—no matter how urgent or essential. Borrowers can also end up saddled with insufficient fund fees from banks when lenders try to draw too much money from borrowers’ accounts. Even worse, an indebted borrower is more likely to have her bank account closed against her will, which pushes many consumers further out of the financial mainstream and forces them to use expensive alternative financial services—like check cashers and pawn shops—that carry higher fees and risk.

These problems affect entire families. Low-income families with access to payday loans are also more likely to struggle with bills like the mortgage, rent, and utilities. This can lead to foreclosure or eviction, which can devastate families in the short- and long-term. Payday loans are also linked with delinquency on child support payments, which deprives families of needed income and carries severe consequences for the parent unable to make payments, from a suspended drivers’ license to incarceration.

On some level, the entire nation is paying for this practice. Each year, payday loans drain more than $4 billion in interest and fees from the economy—and that’s just the direct cost.  It doesn’t include the costs associated with homelessness (like emergency shelter) for families who lose their homes, or increased enrollment in public assistance programs to cope with the debt trap.

How can we protect borrowers?

State-level efforts to cap interest rates and fees to 36% or below—as 14 states and the District of Columbia have done—are key. But attempts to regulate predatory lenders otherwise have, by and large, proven to be exercises in futility. For example, after 64% of Ohio voters elected to ban the practice in 2008, loan sharks obtained licenses as mortgage lenders and continued to peddle payday loans under that guise. Predatory lenders in Texas acted similarly. In states where payday loans have been banned altogether, lenders have lured borrowers through online channels that can operate nationwide.

This “legislative Whack-a-Mole” at the state level has made it clear that the country needs federal reform to effectively protect borrowers.

Fortunately, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau proposed new rules in June that target some of the most egregious practices in the industry. Under the new rules, loan sharks will have to determine whether prospective borrowers are actually able to repay a loan before they take one out (in most cases). The rules will also prohibit the repeated loans that trap borrowers in debt: Lenders will not be permitted to directly roll over loans or loan to those who seek to re-borrow within 30 days, unless those borrowers can prove that they will be in a better position financially. It will also place important limitations on lenders’ ability to seize borrowers’ bank accounts.

But here’s another idea: Eliminate the need altogether. If borrowers use payday loans to address chronic shortfalls, then economic insecurity has to be addressed as well through wage hikes and improvements to public assistance programs. These can go a long way to protect against cash shortages that lead families to take out loans with such insidious costs.

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Media and Politics

It’s Time to Ask the Candidates: #Wheredoyoustand on Fighting Poverty?  

Last week’s first presidential debate got off to a promising start.  The very first question of the night focused on the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us.

“There are two economic realities in America today,” said moderator Lester Holt. “There’s been a record six straight years of job growth, and new census numbers show incomes have increased at a record rate after years of stagnation. However, income inequality remains significant, and nearly half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Holt is right about the challenges Americans are facing. Nearly 50 percent of all U.S. households report that they would struggle to come up with $400 during an emergency. And 80 percent of Americans will experience at least one year of economic insecurity—either living in poverty, needing public assistance, or having an unemployed head of household.

The fact that inequality and income volatility were mentioned at all is a big deal.

In 2008, as millions lost their jobs in the midst of the financial crisis, the first presidential debate featured no questions on poverty or income inequality. And in 2012, just as Americans were beginning to climb out of the Great Recession, poverty was ignored by debate moderators—although President Obama still managed to talk about issues like low-wage work, access to community colleges and training, affordable healthcare and childcare, and pay equity. Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the presidential election this year, news networks have devoted less and less attention to poverty and inequality in favor of horse-race election coverage.

But just talking about poverty isn’t enough.

It’s critical that we move beyond talk, and focus on real solutions. Case in point: According to a recent analysis by Media Matters for America, Fox News covers poverty more than any other network on the air—but rather than educating the public on solutions, their stories reinforce stereotypes and false narratives about those of us who are struggling. Similarly, conservative politicians like Paul Ryan have delivered high-profile speeches and put forward so-called “poverty plans” for low-income communities, while still supporting trillions of dollars in cuts to antipoverty investments over ten years.

The same goes for the presidential debates. We need to know where the candidates stand on the policies that would dramatically reduce poverty and expand opportunity for everyone in America.

Where do the candidates stand on Unemployment Insurance, which is woefully underfunded and currently reaches only 1 in 4 workers who need it? What would they do to address college affordability—at a time when student debt has ballooned to about $1.3 trillion and too many low-income students are simply priced out of a college education? Where do they stand on raising the minimum wage—even $12 an hour by 2020 would lift wages for more than 35 million workers and save about $17 billion annually in government assistance programs. What about expanding Social Security—the most powerful antipoverty program in the nation—which lifted 26 million people out of poverty in 2015?

It’s time to ask the candidates: #Wheredoyoustand

The idea is simple: if the media isn’t going to dig into the candidates’ policies, we will.

That’s why this election season, TalkPoverty.org is working to push questions about where the candidates stand on poverty solutions into the presidential debate.

Unlike the first debate, the next forum will be a town hall featuring questions submitted through social media. Building off a successful 2012 #TalkPoverty campaign led by The  Nation magazine and the Center for American Progress, today we’re launching our #Wheredoyoustand campaign encouraging you to share the questions you want to hear in the next presidential debate. The idea is simple: if the media isn’t going to dig into the candidates’ policies, we will.

Share your question now.

Whether it’s through a photo, a video, or a tweet, we want to know the questions you think need to be asked. Once you’ve tweeted your questions using #Wheredoyoustand, share them on the Open Debate Coalition website so that more people can vote to hear them in the debate.

Below are some examples of questions to get you started.  It’s time to move beyond focusing on whether someone said “the p-word,” and make sure the debates address real solutions to poverty.

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Safety Net

The Hyde Amendment Made Abortion a Privilege—And It’s Holding Back the Economy

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment, the policy that severely limits the use of Medicaid to cover the cost of an abortion. Since Medicaid enrollees are predominantly low-income women, the Hyde Amendment has essentially turned abortion into a luxury item for women who can afford to pay for the procedure out-of-pocket.

Hyde is often siloed as a “women’s issue.” But when women cannot control their bodies and their reproductive futures, it is more difficult for them to advance economically. And since women make up more than half of the U.S. population, it matters when something holds women back.

Because of the Hyde Amendment, women who receive health coverage through Medicaid face two sets of financial obstacles if they need an abortion. First, they must cover the direct costs of the procedure without insurance. A first trimester abortion cost an average of $470 in 2009, which is already more money than many Americans would be able to come up with in the case of an emergency. Second, these women must also bear the practical costs imposed by state restrictions, like multiple doctor’s office visits and unnecessary waiting periods. A low-income single mother who needs to pay for travel to the nearest clinic, a night at a hotel due to a mandatory waiting period, childcare, and lost earnings from work, could end up paying an additional $1,380.

Women who want an abortion but can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs inflicted by Hyde face major consequences over the course of their lifetimes.  Studies show that women who wanted an abortion but were not able to obtain one faced worse economic outcomes, were more likely to live in poverty, and often carried unwanted pregnancies to term.

This isn’t just a burden on these individual women. When women do not have the power to choose the lives they want, it affects everyone.

This isn’t just a burden on these individual women.

This is clear on a state level: The states that have the most open access to abortion are often the states that have a general climate of greater opportunity for women. In Massachusetts, where the only restriction on abortion access is parental notification, legislators recently banned employers from asking prospective hires about previous salaries as part of their effort to close the pay gap. At the other end of the spectrum, states that have the most restrictions on abortions oftentimes have lower economic opportunity for women. Alabama and Mississippi are tied for the worst economies for women, and these are also two states with significant abortion restrictions.

This matters on a national level, too. When a woman can gain access to the best opportunities for herself, she will be more productive and earn more. That allows her to contribute more to her local economy and to the GDP in a multiplier effect, where economic activity generates even more economic activity and contributes to growth. Since nearly 21 million adult women are currently covered by Medicaid, that has the potential to make a major impact on the national economy.

The way our country—and our legislators—address bodily autonomy and economic opportunity reflects the value we place on women as full members of our society. If we are a country that values women, regardless of income, then it is time to repeal restrictions on abortion. When our public policies promote the prosperity of women and families, the country prospers too.

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Safety Net

The Child Tax Credit Doesn’t Reach the Poorest Families. Here’s Why It Should.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Census released its annual data update on poverty in America. The child poverty rate remains alarmingly high—over 16% after accounting for assistance from government programs—which is both damaging to kids and expensive for the country.

Fortunately, boosting the incomes of very poor families has been found to reduce the effects of child poverty, and the Child Tax Credit (CTC)—which offsets some of the cost of raising children—should be a key part of that effort. The problem, however, is that the CTC excludes families earning $3,000 or less per year and does not provide the maximum credit to other very poor families, so the children with the greatest need don’t receive full benefits.

If very poor children received the full tax credit—just like middle-class children do—the evidence suggests we would see healthier, better educated children with greater earning power as adults.

Boosting incomes for poor young children has long-term benefits

The benefits of income support during a low-income child’s early years last a lifetime—from higher birth weights (which impact future health), to better performance in school, to higher expected lifetime earnings.

Studies consistently show that income matters most for the poorest children. After conducting a systematic review of the academic literature on the effects of income during childhood, researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science found that “there is very strong evidence that increases in income have a bigger impact on outcomes for those at the lower end of the income distribution.” For example, one study found that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) boosted children’s test scores by almost three times as much for the poorest children as for other children.

Young children warrant particular attention. They have higher poverty rates than older children or adults, and the evidence that increased family incomes yield long-term benefits for children is particularly strong for those up to age 6.

Poorest working families get little or no Child Tax Credit

Unfortunately, the Child Tax Credit doesn’t do enough to help the children who are most in need (and stand to benefit the most, too).

The CTC is worth up to $1,000 per child under age 17. However, working families with earnings below $3,000 are ineligible for the tax credit. Once a family’s earnings reach $3,000 the credit phases in slowly, at a rate of 15 cents for each added dollar of earnings until reaching the $1,000-per-child maximum. As a result, families with two children don’t receive the full credit until their earnings reach $16,333. Roughly 8 million working families received only a partial CTC or none at all in 2014 (the latest year for which data are available).

What Congress can do

The CTC’s current design means that children in the poorest working families get no benefit and many other children in deep poverty—those with incomes below half of the poverty line, or less than about $10,000 for a family of three—get only a partial tax credit. This needs to change. Children shouldn’t be denied the credit’s full benefits because their parents have fallen into desperate times and have little or no earnings.

By making the full $1,000 CTC available to all low-income children—in tax parlance, making the credit “fully refundable”—Congress could boost young children’s potential to succeed in life, starting even before their first day of school.

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