Media and Politics

The Obama Legacy: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, and How We Can Fight What’s Coming

In November 2008, the nation was facing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  The housing bubble had burst, the economy was hemorrhaging 700,000 jobs a month, and “too big to fail” banks were on the verge of collapse.

Severe economic pain was widespread—more than 10 million people were unemployed, up from 7 million before the crisis.  No one was hit harder than communities of color, where residents who should have qualified for prime loans had been targeted and steered toward higher-priced exotic subprimes, then lost their homes to foreclosure. As reporter Jamelle Bouie put it, the loss of wealth represented “a generation’s worth of hard work and progress wiped out.”

This was the economy our nation’s first African-American president inherited.

Barack Obama’s work to respond to hardship and deprivation began before he even took the oath of office, when he ordered his transition team to develop what would become the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act).  He signed the bill into law in February 2009.

The Recovery Act was one of the most powerful pieces of antipoverty legislation passed in decades. It extended tax credits to more people who worked in low-paying jobs—a reform that eventually became permanent, and helped lift nearly 10 million people out of poverty last year alone. It prevented more than a million home foreclosures, saved or created up to 3.6 million jobs, and helped families and communities survive the economic havoc that had been unleashed by a reckless Wall Street.

It was one of the most powerful pieces of antipoverty legislation passed in decades.

Princeton economist Alan Blinder and Moody’s Chief Economist Mark Zandi estimate that without the Recovery Act we might have faced a depression, with 17 million lost jobs (instead of about 8 million), and a peak unemployment rate high of nearly 16 percent (instead of 10 percent).  The Recovery Act’s expansion of the safety net also kept more than 6 million Americans out of poverty.

Immediately following passage of the Recovery Act, the President began work on healthcare reform, eventually signing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) into law in March 2010. The legislation established historic economic protections. Gone is the ability of insurance companies to reject people for coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions.  Gone was the chance that Americans would be too poor to afford insurance, but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid (until the Supreme Court got involved).  And gone is the chance that young adults would be cut off from their parents’ plans.

More than 22 million Americans have gotten health insurance through Obamacare, and the share of Americans without health insurance has dropped to a record low.  The law also protects millions of low- and moderate-income families who would otherwise be a single health crisis away from poverty.  Vice President Joe Biden described the significance of the legislation perfectly when he said, “This is a big f—ing deal.”

Once the Affordable Care Act was in place, Obama began working with Congress to tackle some of the root causes of the Great Recession—including the actions of “too big to fail” financial institutions. The Dodd-Frank financial reform law established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to protect consumers from unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices, and to take action against companies that break the law.

Throughout his term, President Obama worked tirelessly to make sure Americans have a fair chance at success. He launched the Promise Neighborhood and Promise Zones initiatives to improve economic opportunity in high-poverty communities—whether urban, rural, or tribal.  He signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women to file an equal pay lawsuit. He issued Executive Orders to raise wages for federal government contractors, updated a meek Overtime Rule in order to raise working-class wages, took executive action to help ensure that people aren’t held back by a criminal record, and created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to protect undocumented children and young adults from deportation.

The president also drew attention to issues that have been neglected for far too long, ranging from criminal justice reform, longstanding federal policy failures on American Indian and Alaskan Native issues, and science-based nutrition standards for school meals.  And he accomplished all of this while most Republicans in Congress refused to cooperate on virtually any of his proposals—a tactic stated explicitly by Senator Mitch McConnell, among others.

The legacy is not all positive and the work is not complete.

To be sure, the legacy is not all positive and the work is not complete. The economic recovery following the Great Recession was extraordinarily slow and painful for far too many of us—and many people haven’t recovered at all. He could have prevented more foreclosures by forcing banks to modify mortgages.  DACA and the Overtime rule were blocked by the courts, food and nutrition assistance programs were cut nearly as quickly as they were expanded, and revenues were never increased sufficiently to meet the nation’s long-term antipoverty and infrastructure needs.

That said, President Obama’s legacy is one that demonstrates a tireless commitment to making the American Dream accessible to all Americans.

As we now approach the swearing-in of President-elect Donald Trump, just about everything we have alluded to here, and much more, is in jeopardy.

That’s why in the coming weeks, TalkPoverty’s series examining Obama’s legacy will focus not only on poverty and inequality, but on what’s at risk under a Trump administration. It will address how we can protect—and eventually expand—the gains we have made over the past eight years.

No one will be more vulnerable to the changes proposed by Trump and his Republican allies than people who are already struggling. We need to be ready to fight as if lives are at stake—because they are. 

Editor’s note: TalkPoverty presents this series in collaboration with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

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Labor

Andy Puzder Brags About Low Wages. Now He’s Nominated to Be Secretary of Labor.

President-elect Trump, who campaigned as the savior of the working class, has spent the past three weeks staging a bait-and-switch of epic proportions. His pick for treasury secretary profited off of the 2008 financial crisis, his health secretary wants to cut Medicare, and his housing secretary referred to desegregation as a “failed socialist experiment.”

And now he has nominated Andrew Puzder, the billionaire fast-food executive, to lead the Department of Labor.

If Trump’s actual goal is to display utter contempt for American workers, then burger-czar Puzder is a pretty strong choice. He’s a key figure in an industry that’s notorious for labor abuses, including low wages and wage theft, and he has personally played a strong role in perpetuating those injustices. According to a recent Labor Department investigation, the majority of Puzder’s own restaurants—about 60%—were found to be in violation of labor laws.

Puzder will be tasked with enforcing the very laws he has repeatedly broken.

And now Puzder will be tasked with enforcing the very laws he has repeatedly broken.

Puzder vocally opposes labor protections that are crucial for most Americans, including overtime pay, protections from workplace discrimination, and access to affordable health care. But his nomination deals a particularly violent blow to the nation’s most vulnerable and lowest-paid workers. Despite the fact that he makes more in a day than the typical fast-food worker earns in an entire year, Puzder believes that low-wage workers are paid too much. He has been an outspoken opponent of the minimum wage, which puts him at odds with more than 90% of Americans. And his claims that higher minimum wages lead employers to cut jobs runs counter to decades of rigorous research showing that moderate minimum wage increases boost family income without affecting employment.

Nowhere is Puzder’s nomination more devastating than in the 21 states where policymakers have refused to raise the minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 per hour. The overwhelming majority of those states—19 out of 21—voted for Trump after he promised to be “a president who will protect them and fight for them.” They have been waiting more than seven years for a raise, and every year the purchasing power of their $7.25 shrinks—making it even more difficult to make ends meet. But with a Labor Secretary who thinks “some jobs don’t produce enough economic value” to justify a minimum-wage increase, a president who has declared that wages are “too high,” and a Republican Congress that has repeatedly rejected widely supported minimum-wage legislation, these workers will likely have to keep waiting.

If the federal minimum wage stays at its current level, by the end of Trump’s first term it will be worth 20% less than it was worth when Congress last increased it in 2009. That means a full-time minimum-wage worker would earn just $13,750 per year in today’s dollars—nearly 15% below the poverty line for a family of two.

Adding insult to injury, Puzder penned an op-ed last year that lambasted Americans who must turn to public assistance to make ends meet. But there’s a simple reason that low-wage workers are eligible for public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid: It’s because employers like Puzder pay their employees too little to survive.

It’s the height of hypocrisy that Trump—who sold himself as a champion for American workers—has crowned an anti-labor billionaire to be the nation’s chief advocate for working people. To preserve and protect American workers’ rights, security, and dignity—and to prevent the most vulnerable, lowest-paid workers from sinking further into poverty—lawmakers must take a strong stand against the coronation of this anti-labor secretary.

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Labor

It’s Time to Talk About the Class Divide Among Women

If you’re like me, you’re still processing what it means to live in a Trump-led America. We are still grieving. We’re desperate to find someone or something to blame, and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Despite the fact that he has objectified, threatened, and assaulted women, an astonishing 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. Among white women without a college degree, that number was 61%. The feminist narrative of female solidarity—of women helping women—fell short, and now we’re struggling to deal with the fall out.

Racism and sexism are key parts of this story. But many working-class white women pledged their allegiance to Trump for his false promises of job growth and national security. It seems these women felt invisible—but they sure are visible now.

In some ways, it makes sense that mainstream feminists were surprised to discover working-class women when the exit polls started coming in. There’s an economic gulf between women of different classes, and it’s widening. As Katherine Geier recently wrote in The Nation, “In the decades since the dawn of second-wave [feminism], educated women gained access to high-status jobs, but working-class women experienced declining wages and […] shouldered an increasingly heavy burden of care.” And while this class divide affects all women, the disparity disproportionately affects women of color.

The chasm between women of different classes is often exacerbated by the movement’s rhetoric. The highly-educated women who have been able to rise up the economic ladder have dominated the feminist agenda, and they’ve used much of that power to stress social and cultural issues like putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill and ending period shaming. These issues are important, but their over-promotion leaves the economic concerns of many working-class women behind. And the Lean In-style messaging that defines so much of modern feminism, which tells women that “feeling confident […] is necessary to reach for opportunities,” falls flat if there aren’t actually opportunities to reach for.

There’s an economic gulf between women of different classes.

Women make up two-thirds of the low-wage workforce—and almost half of those workers are women of color. These women often find themselves doing care work or working jobs in the service or retail industries that require emotional labor. With wages below $10 an hour, they barely scrape by. But these are the jobs we carve out for women, in part because women are still predominantly characterized as caregivers.

If feminists are serious about supporting all women, one of the steps we need to take is to open up opportunities for the women we have left behind—opportunities that are historically dominated by men.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that one leading cause of the gender wage gap is that women work in segregated occupations. For example, 88% of home health aides and 63% of food servers are women. In contrast, men have a near-monopoly on “middle skill” jobs, like transportation or information technology, which offer greater job security and tend to pay higher wages without requiring a full college degree. In the next decade, there will be more than two million job openings in these “middle skill” occupations. Recruiting more women is not only strategic for employers—many of whom report that it’s difficult to find new employees—but it’s also a necessary step towards economic security for working-class women.

Samantha Farr, founder of Women Who Weld, is working to create a path for women to enter industries that have historically excluded women. The Detroit-based nonprofit teaches welding to unemployed or underemployed women.

“Access to low-cost or subsidized programs that teach people skills needed for jobs that offer sustainable wages is critical for both human and economic development in Detroit,” says Farr. “There are several welding schools in Detroit, but most are only available to high school or middle school students and none are aimed at training welding to women exclusively.”

Farr hopes to expand Women Who Weld to nearby cities, and to renovate vacant homes in Detroit in order to house graduates of the program—many of whom currently live in temporary shelters. She says that the organization is showing both women and men that “women can forge new opportunities for themselves” and “that welding and the skilled trades can be a viable career path for a woman.”

Building a pipeline that brings women into middle skill jobs will require some shifts in policy. But we will also need to abandon deep-seated notions of how women should work. Well-to-do feminists cannot simply climb to the top of the ladder and cut out the pegs below them, especially when there are so many women struggling to get even a few steps above the floor.

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Culture

Zadie Smith’s ‘Swing Time’ Doesn’t Preach About Inequality. That’s Why It Works.

A popular argument splashed across social media feeds and bars and dinner tables is that “this is not about that.”

After Mike Brown was shot and left for dead in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, half of America tripped over itself to say it was because he was not complying with police orders—not because he was black. When a New York senator proposed a bill that would ban people from using food stamps to buy steak and lobster, supporters insisted it was about avoiding abuse of the welfare system—not about deep-rooted discomfort with social services.

In other words, we do not like the suggestion that things might be about other things, particularly when those other things would force an admission that other people’s stories might be different—and harder—than our own.

So to avoid that argument, and to be quite clear: Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s latest novel, is not about racial or economic inequality.

It is not about anything, per se. It is a novel and a work of art, and those needn’t be about anything other than the book’s narrative plot: Two half-black, half-white girls grow up together in Northwest London and grow apart. One, Tracey, is an innately talented dancer, but she was not born into the sort of existence that makes it easy for her to make a living from those talents. The other, the unnamed narrator, has the chance to go to university and become the personal assistant to a white pop star, a grueling job that nevertheless means she gets to travel the world and see how the one percent of the one percent live. The novel is an exploration of female friendship and black womanhood and personal growth and dance—a number of things that are not inequality, exactly. Because it’s not about that.

Except that inequality informs all of that.

None of that is about racial or economic inequality, exactly—but it is intertwined with it.

Early on in the book, Tracey suggests that things are different—and harder—for her because her father is black, and in and out of jail. Tracey’s story is not about that—her father—but it is shaped by him. Just as it is shaped by the reality that her mother is raising a daughter on her own, and that her body develops differently than other girls’ bodies, and that her school system does not know what to do with her, and that she herself becomes a single mother. None of that is about racial or economic inequality, exactly—but it is intertwined with it.

The narrator’s pop star boss’s story is not about the reverse side of inequality—not exactly. But the pop star is able to pay people to work out every detail of her life and never tire (because she is tiring others). She can assume that because she made it out of Bendigo, Australia, everyone else can escape the confines of their hometowns and backgrounds, too. She can navigate the bureaucracy of an African country without getting to know much of anything about it, and open up a school for girls there without worrying what problems doing so might cause. None of that is about inequality, exactly—but neither is it free of it.

The narrator herself is torn between these two parts of her life. She has to leave her racially-mixed neighborhood—and her black mother, and her mother’s way of looking at the world—when she goes to university and out into the working world. She has to make professional compromises—has to support a white woman while she sets up a school in Africa that might do more harm than good, and has to watch her practice a performance that almost certainly constitutes cultural appropriation—even though, because of who she is, she knows better.

Even as she struggles, the narrator remains painfully aware of the ways that inequality shapes the world. “There is no case I can make,” the narrator confesses toward the end of the novel, “that will change the fact that I was her [Tracey’s] only witness, the only person who knows all that she has in her, all that’s been ignored and wasted, and yet I still left her back there, in the ranks of the unwitnessed, where you have to scream to get heard.”

And what abandoned Tracey in those ranks—and left her screaming and made her friend feel it was her fault—if not inequality?

Swing Time is a book well worth reading. It’s beautifully written, and Smith’s prose dances like her characters. She moves across decades and oceans to create characters who are neither heroes nor villains, but humans.

There are non-fiction books one can read that are explicitly about inequality, but this isn’t one of them. This isn’t about that.

Except that, yes, of course it is.

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Media and Politics

6 Reasons Ben Carson Is Unqualified to Be Housing Secretary

Update: The Trump administration announced on Monday morning that Ben Carson will be nominated for the position of Housing Secretary.

Earlier this month, when rumors of erstwhile presidential candidate Ben Carson’s role in a future Trump administration started flying, Carson made it clear that he wasn’t interested in an agency appointment. In the words of his business manager, “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

A lot can change in a month.

Despite Carson’s earlier objections, last week it seemed like President-elect Trump was on the verge of nominating the former neurosurgeon as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). And Carson, citing the fact that he once lived in a city, now believes he’s up to the task.

Here’s the problem: HUD is a critically important federal agency with a budget of almost $50 billion, 9,000 employees across the country, and programs that affect the lives of millions of people. The Secretary of HUD isn’t a vanity appointment to be bestowed upon any half-willing volunteer.

Here are six reasons why the agency deserves a qualified leader who is up to the task.

HUD Makes It Possible for Families of Color, Middle-Income Families, and Millennials to Buy Homes

One of HUD’s core missions is to help families buy a home, which is critical for building wealth. That’s why it manages the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which insures private mortgage loans against the risk of default by the borrower. That makes financial institutions more willing to provide credit—particularly to groups who have been historically excluded from homeownership, like families of color.

FHA has insured more than 40 million homes since it was established in 1934, and it’s becoming even more important in the current tight credit environment.  FHA’s market share of single-family purchase loan originations more than doubled between 2004 and 2015, and many of those loans are going to underserved communities of color where conventional credit continues to be limited.

HUD Makes Sure Low-Income Families Have Access to Housing

For many years, the private market has failed to provide enough affordable rental housing for low-income families. HUD helps fill this gap through a variety of rental assistance programs—from public housing to housing vouchers—in order to ensure that more low-income families have a decent, safe, and affordable place to live. More than 5 million low-income households use federal rental assistance, and without it, many of these families would likely experience homelessness.

HUD Promotes Economic Mobility for Whole Communities

HUD is working to break up the concentrated poverty and de facto segregation that put some communities at a major disadvantage. Last year, the department finalized a rule that requires local governments that use HUD funding to examine patterns of poverty and residential segregation—and to put forward a credible plan for addressing these challenges. That’s essential in a country that is becoming increasingly diverse—and where discrimination in housing is still alive and well.

Through programs such as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, HUD also helps many families move out of distressed neighborhoods to higher opportunity areas, where there is better access to jobs and good schools.

HUD Addresses Discrimination in the Housing Market

HUD is able to process significantly more housing discrimination complaints than any other government agency—an average of 9,201 per year from 2010 to 2013. The complaints are typically rooted in someone’s race or disability, and nearly a third result in some form of penalty against an offending lender or landlord.

There are a few other agencies that share some of the responsibility for enforcing fair housing law—specifically the Justice Department’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section—but they are not set up for efficient, large scale enforcement. As a result, the Justice Department’s annual case load is a tiny fraction of what HUD processes each year.

HUD is the Biggest Source of Funding to Prevent Homelessness

HUD provides more funding for homeless assistance than any other federal department. The department has also been responsible for the development of tens of thousands of housing units to house people who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness. HUD also helps to ensure that residents living in these units receive the social support services they need to get back on their feet, and to avoid homelessness in the future. Since hundreds of thousands of Americans still experience homelessness every day, these services are critical.

Too often, the root cause behind homelessness is domestic violence. Through its Office of Special Needs Assistance Program, HUD plays a key role in rapid re-housing and in providing homeless families and survivors of domestic violence with options that let them transition into safe, stable, and affordable housing.

HUD Helps Rebuild Communities After Natural Disasters

HUD serves as an important partner to communities rebuilding after disasters have struck. For example, the department played a major role in the recovery of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 1 million people, through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program.  The department invested $20 billion in affected states, which supported the long-term recovery of the region’s housing stock, economy, and infrastructure.

HUD can deploy CDBG-DR funds in the case of any presidentially-declared natural disasters, as long as funds are available. Just this fall, HUD deployed $500 million to help communities in Louisiana, West Virginia, and Texas recover from historic flooding. As extreme weather events increase in frequency, HUD’s role in rebuilding communities will be even more vital.

Housing is one of the biggest determinants of where and how we live, and it is intimately linked with broader issues of wealth and poverty. HUD’s vital role necessitates engaged, qualified, and experienced leadership.  Ben Carson—by his own admission—is simply not up to the task.

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