Analysis

What Ben Carson Doesn’t Get About Poverty

“The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease.”

Apply Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson’s latest plan and you’ll see just how brainless public housing policy could become.

Last week, Carson unveiled a plan that would, among other things, triple the minimum rent for the poorest public housing residents—from $50 to $150. The change would affect an estimated 1.7 million people, 1 million of whom are children.

His prediction is that higher rents will encourage tenants to earn more money.

“Instead of [public housing] being a stepladder it’s become a mode of life and, in many cases, for generation after generation of individuals and I don’t think it’s their fault,” Carson told the conservative online news outlet Townhall. “I think it’s the fault of the system that has basically sapped the incentive for people to work.”

There’s no doubt that HUD needs fixing. Less than a quarter of families who qualify for housing assistance actually get it.

But Carson misdiagnoses the problem when he pretends that public housing residents don’t work. Many do, just at jobs that pay too little to make ends meet.

The system that truly needs an overhaul is the American economy, which operates on the labor of millions of low-wage workers who earn too little to keep a roof over their heads without help.

“Rent Is Affordable to Low-Wage Workers in Exactly 12 U.S. Counties,” blared the headline on a 2017 CityLab story that detailed the glum findings of a National Low Income Housing Coalition study. To afford the average one-bedroom rental home, a minimum-wage worker would need to put in 94.5 hours a week, every week. Imagine working from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. seven days a week, 52 weeks a year to afford your one-bedroom—and you’ll understand just how cruel and clueless the former brain surgeon’s plan to make housing even less affordable for struggling families is. Carson proposes that public housing residents pay either 35 percent of their gross income, or 35 percent of their income from working 15 hours per week at minimum wage—whichever is the higher amount.

Imagine working from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. seven days a week, 52 weeks a year to afford your one-bedroom

“This is a particularly good time because the economy’s improved quite a bit, there are a lot of jobs now,” Carson has said—as though the line between a job and economic independence was straight and true.

It is not, as anyone who’s dealt with low-wage work—not to mention unpredictable scheduling, irregular hours, or wage theft—can attest.

Carson seems to have confused the quantity of jobs with the quality of jobs. In fact, 6 of the 10 occupations that will add the most jobs between 2016 and 2026 pay less than $30,000 per year. Number one on that list—personal care aides—accounts for more than 777,000 new jobs, but at a median pay of just $23,100 a year.

But back to the impracticality of Carson’s plan. Earning that additional $100 in monthly rent will take about 14 hours of minimum wage labor. (Of course, if the federal minimum wage were $15 an hour, as advocated by the Fight for $15 movement and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, that drops to less than seven additional hours of work per month.)

And that assumes the public housing resident can get more hours at her current job. Or that she can find another job—and has transportation to get there. In cities like Memphis, where I live, the public transportation system is pitifully inefficient. It’s a two-hour bus ride from my neighborhood to the retailer IKEA, which pays a living wage.

Then, assume that the worker can find child care for these additional hours she’s working—and that she can afford to pay for it and the rent increase.

In an April 10 USA Today op-ed, Carson conceded that the housing discrimination Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought—and that the 1968 Fair Housing Act was designed to correct—persists. But while he lauds King, he ignores what King said.

“We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished,” King told the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967.

The solution to poverty?

Money. If you have more money, you’re not poor. (It really is that simple.)

Since most people make money through their jobs, the cure to the sickness of poverty isn’t higher rents for the families struggling hardest to make ends meet.

The cure is a sizable increase in the federal minimum wage, which remains at $7.25 an hour.

Again, King’s words are instructive: “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”

Related

Feature

Tens of Thousands Mobilize to Support Arizona Teachers Amid Backlash

On Wednesday afternoon in Tucson, on the eve of Arizona’s first ever statewide teacher walkout, every intersection along Broadway Boulevard became red.

For 20 miles, under a robin’s egg sky, teachers and public education supporters lined sidewalks and curbsides, parking lots and strip malls. They formed small seas of red shirts, hats, and beach umbrellas, and waved signs proclaiming “#RedForEd” and “Arizona education deserves more.” A school social worker walked along the road, wearing a full-body sign: “Best practice is 1 social worker to 250 students. I serve 942.”

One woman held a sign that read: “Arizona exports cotton, copper, and teachers,” a reference to the fact that teachers are leaving the state in droves.

I traveled the entire route with my sons—20 miles to the east side where cheering teachers stood backdropped by the Rincon Mountains, and then 20 miles to downtown where teachers waved signs from overpasses and chanted through bullhorns. My sons—who, at ages 3 and 6, believe that teachers are superheroes—drank milkshakes in the backseat, watching the red unfold intersection after intersection, and cheered them on.

But Wednesday’s demonstration was just the beginning. On Thursday morning, tens of thousands of teachers across Arizona walked out of their classrooms. More than 110 school districts closed, affecting up to 840,000 students.

*                  *                  *

Resentment among Arizona educators has been simmering for years, caused by repeated budget cuts, the misuse of sales tax monies intended for public education (as confirmed by an Arizona Supreme Court ruling in 2010), and related lengthy lawsuits between the state and its public schools seeking back payments. During the Recession, the Arizona state legislature cut $1.5 million from public schools, more than any other state, leaving Arizona schools more than $1 billion short of 2008 funding.

“There’s no toilet paper, there’s no soap, and our textbooks are like 15 years old”

Arizona currently ranks 49th in the country for high school teacher pay and 50th for elementary school teacher pay. When adjusted for inflation, teacher wages have declined more than 10 percent since 2001. Per-student spending in Arizona amounts to $7,205, compared with the national average of $11,392. There are currently 3,400 classrooms in Arizona without trained or certified teachers, and the state has over 2,000 teacher vacancies.

Inspired by grassroots teachers movements in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, Arizona teachers are using their collective power to demand change. A newly mobilized coalition, Arizona Educators United, has partnered with the state’s teachers union, the Arizona Education Association, to organize and coordinate demands. Teachers have held organizing meetings and “walk-ins” over the past few weeks, gathering together before school hours in protest of low pay for teachers and support staff—many of whom rely on second or third jobs just to get by—as well as insufficient classroom materials and per-student spending well below the national average.

Last week, when the Arizona Education Association held a statewide vote, 78 percent of the 57,000 Arizona educators who voted supported walking out. The teachers’ demands include a 20 percent pay increase; a permanent salary structure with annual raises; education funding restored to 2008 levels; competitive pay for support staff; and “no new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.”

In response to the demands, Governor Doug Ducey (R) offered teachers a 20 percent pay raise by 2020. But teachers are wary of Ducey’s plan, saying he hasn’t released details about how it would be paid for. The plan also doesn’t include raising wages for support staff, whom teachers say play critical roles in serving students.

While 74 percent of registered Arizona voters say the state spends too little on K-12 education, not everyone supports the teacher walkout. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas threatened consequences for teachers participating in the action. “A walkout is a nice term for it. It is a strike, plain and simple,” Douglas said in an interview this week, referring to a 1971 opinion from the Arizona attorney general, which said that public employees could not legally strike. Douglas suggested that teachers could be investigated, referred to the Board of Education, or even stripped of their teaching certificate.

State Rep. Kelly Townsend (R) made headlines after she responded to an email from a constituent who asked that she and other legislators find a way to fund education and avoid a walkout. Townsend, who serves as Majority Whip, responded:

I’m sure we can take it from the correctional officers pay who make minimum wage in some cases, release some of the prison population, take it from the developmentally disabled and close adult homes from the disabled, freeze Alzheimer’s research, take it from Veteran’s services, dental services for the underserved, desperately needed road funds, the university funding, and put another freeze on Kids Care health insurance.

She has since become increasingly verbal in opposition to the walkout, even threatening a class action lawsuit.

But amid the backlash, many community groups have mobilized to support the teachers, including nonprofit organizations, youth centers, and churches offering free or low-cost camps and daycares for working parents in need of childcare during the walkout. And on Thursday, more than 50,000 teachers and supporters converged at the state capital in Phoenix.

*                  *                  *

Yesterday morning in Tucson, I found hundreds of teachers, parents, and students demonstrating peacefully and passionately in front of the courthouse. Parents lifted toddlers onto their shoulders to wave at passing cars. A family spread out a picnic on a blanket in the shade. When a semi-truck drove by, honking in support, the crowd erupted into cheers. Some demonstrators planned to later join the masses in Phoenix; I overheard a lighthearted joke about the streams of teachers in their station wagons, obeying the speed limit all the way to the rally.

High school teacher Jeff Mann brought his two children to the Tucson rally. “It’s a chance for our kids to see what civic engagement is and how you fight for what matters—have your feet match your mouth,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that these are the steps we have to take, but we haven’t been given many choices. My hope is that I’m back teaching tomorrow, that the legislature comes to their senses, and that education is funded.”

A group of students from Tucson’s IDEA School stood together on a corner with their teacher, chanting and waving homemade signs. One 10-year-old in the group told me, “We’re not a public school, but we’re helping support all the public schools, because we want all the teachers to have more money and the kids to have more materials.”

“I work two extra hours a day, unpaid.”

On the same corner, seventh-grader Salome Arrieta and her mother Victoria stood together, holding #RedForEd signs. Salome said that despite her middle school receiving the prestigious A+ School of Excellence Award from the Arizona Education Foundation, there’s still a glaring lack of resources. “Whenever I go to my school and try to use the bathroom, there’s no toilet paper, there’s no soap, and our textbooks are like 15 years old,” she said.

Salome’s mother, Victoria, an elementary school special education teacher, said she walked out to support the kids. “Everyone needs a raise. Not just the teachers. When you’re a special education teacher, the support staff is an integral part of your job, and they need to be paid more, too.”

Across the street, second-grade teacher Sonya Rosales told me, “My kids are sitting on carpet from like 1976. Any activities that we do, whether it’s for Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day, it comes out of our own pockets. We get 10 reams of paper per quarter, and once it’s out, that’s it.” She said learning materials are so outdated that she’s forced to make her own worksheets. “I make everything myself on my computer. I go to the Common Core standards, and every worksheet I make myself. I work two extra hours a day, unpaid.”

A teacher named Roberta who preferred not to give her last name said she’s been teaching for 35 years and spent more than $1,000 of her own money on materials for her classroom last year. “I do the very best that I can,” she said, “If it means me spending money out of my pocket, I do that because I’m a teacher and I care about my students, and I care about seeing my students walk across that stage.”

As she spoke, her eyes filled with tears. “I’m doing this for my students. I’m a Republican, but it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. It’s about our students.”

Related

Interview

How to Be a Social Justice Legislator

Massive resistance has become a hallmark of American life under the Trump administration. Millions of people have clogged airports to protest Trump’s travel and refugee ban, stood with indigenous people at Standing Rock, and taken to the streets in the Women’s Marches, the March for Science, and the recent March for Our Lives.

This resistance extends beyond the nucleus of individuals organizing: Entire cities like Philadelphia are confronting threats to racial and socioeconomic justice, and showing us what bolder movements to end poverty, water insecurity, and mass incarceration look like at the local level.

I spoke with Councilmember At-Large Helen Gym, one of Philadelphia’s vanguard leaders in the city’s social justice movement, to learn more about her work.

Rejane Frederick: What does it mean to be a social justice legislator, especially in a nation that is struggling to find its moral footing?

Councilmember Helen Gym: I come out of immigrant rights work and public education work, and an Asian American movement that tried to center multi-racial coalition building. What we’re seeing right now is a merging of a lot of issues that are bringing a lot of different groups of people together—connecting interwoven systems that bring together housing, schools, criminal justice, immigrant rights, women’s issues.

“Racism is not about just your intent. It’s about the effect that you have on other people.”

For me, what it means in this moment is not that our work has changed or that the issues have changed. They’ve become more heightened. And the failure to unify across many different coalitions will be the progressive movement’s failure to win in a moment when we should unite. But we can’t do it if we are siloed, if we don’t build these multi-racial coalitions.

RF: Regarding unifying across coalitions, in 2016 you said, “Poverty and inequality are the crippling injustices that lie at the heart of the justice struggle.” Can you say more about that?

HG: For me, the indifference to poverty is incredibly profound. It’s deeply rooted in racism. It’s deeply rooted in othering. It’s deeply rooted in judgment and condemnation. And it’s deeply rooted in America’s tendency to be hyper-individualized, to focus on individual people’s problems, and not look at the broader systems that profit from poverty—not just allow poverty to continue, but actually profit from it. When we keep schools down and we fund other schools to excess. When we fail to invest in housing, when we abandon public spaces and we keep our minimum wage at their lowest levels. When we don’t fight to diversify our unions and the few paths that people of color have to living wages, all those kinds of things.

Of course, when you deal with poverty and inequality, you’re dealing with people who are in desperate circumstances. They’re going to lose their school. They’re going to lose their home. They could lose their children. These are not people who have the luxury of saying “I’ll fix this in 10 years.” You’ve got to be there in a moment of crisis and we’ve got to move people through a moment of crisis and then build for broader things.

Since I come out of grassroots movements I feel strongly about people’s development. My hope is that I pass the torch. That is the goal. To build and strengthen a bigger, broader movement. You take and occupy a moment in time, in political office—it is one lever, but not the ultimate lever.

It’s great to see people being excited about elected office, but I need to know what you’re going to do when you get in there. Who are you going to bring in there with you? What are you going to champion, and how will communities be better off when you leave?

I’m interested in how we move systems toward significant change. You’re just one small piece, and the power really lies in the grassroots movement-building that will sustain that work far beyond anyone’s term in office.

RF: You’ve talked about the ways being a community organizer has informed your work on the city council, and you’ve also talked about your theory of change. How does real change happen?

HG: We’re dealing with systems that have massive amounts of dysfunction, large failures, gaps, long-term instability, and people in power who try to patch it up, bandage it, repackage it, and rebrand it, all that kind of stuff. So I’m thoughtful about how the people who live the consequences of the policies that we create are the people who experience the most pain, but they also have a lot of solutions about what this looks like.

The really profound stuff for me comes out of some of the experiences I’ve had around public education, when the state and elected officials and civic actors and many people who had money, titles, and the power to fix something, simply walked away. They abandoned the public schools in Philadelphia, largely in the state of Pennsylvania as well. We closed down 24 schools and laid off thousands of staff. We left kids without nurses and counselors. We shut down their school libraries, abandoned them in classrooms of 60 or more, and then we said, “I wonder how they’ll do? Let’s test the hell out of them.”

I’ve always thought that was a very sick social experiment hoisted upon black, brown, and immigrant kids who live those consequences. And that, to me, is the definition of what racism is. It’s purposeful. I don’t care about intent. Racism is not about just your intent. It’s about the effect that you have on other people. Who picked up the pieces of that? It wasn’t the superintendent, the mayors, the governors, and the school board. The people who pushed hardest for the solutions were the parents, educators, organized student groups, immigrant families who had no other choice but to go to their public schools. And their work was powerful. It was moving; it was rooted outside of the halls of the School Reform Commission (SRC), and maybe outside of city halls.

Those get formed in your school yards, your backyard barbeques, when they marry with real policy, data, and information. You start working on organizing, you get groups and foundations to fund organizing. Then you start to see real movement for change. And the reality is that, yeah, it took us 17 years but I can point to so many more parents that can speak so clearly about what’s been happening that when Betsy DeVos was confirmed as secretary of education, they could take things on in that moment. They’re not surprised, they’ve heard this before, and they know to challenge it.

RF: I’m thinking about what you’ve mentioned in Philadelphia, with the charter schools and privatization movement, and the very real questions about authentic investments in public institutions. What do they look like? Why do they matter? Why is it important to continue to invest in our public institutions even when they deliver sometimes disappointing results?

HG: I don’t think people should allow dysfunctional public institutions to operate on autopilot just for the sake of saying that they support it. The reason why public institutions get targeted is because they don’t serve people as well as they should. They create or reinforce systems of inequity, whether by intent or not. So I support all these groups and people who tackle our public institutions with a fervor to hold it accountable, to see change, to diversify that institution, and to help it evolve.

But privatization is a different thing. It’s saying “I give up on the public space and I will go private.” Private is money, capital, and the power to be able to own a previously public thing. That’s an enormous amount of privilege. And the overwhelming majority of those folks are not going to look like the people they serve. There’s no obligation to serve diverse communities, marginalized communities—they’re more expensive, so if you’re running on a profit margin, don’t expect to profit off serving low-income youth, and immigrants, and helping them learn English, or helping special needs students get to a point of full capacity.

“If you’re running on a profit margin, don’t expect to profit off serving low-income youth”

When we closed down 24 public schools in Philadelphia, we probably saw the largest transfer of public land into private hands that we had seen in the city of Philadelphia. It’s a really profound thing for government to say to those that they are charged to serve, especially when they are the most vulnerable—when those communities don’t have a lot of public institutions—to say “Sorry, I simply give up. I’m passing the buck to someone else.” It’s absolutely unacceptable and we should fight against it with every bit of our body because those private institutions take our dollars, they take our children, they purport that they are smarter, more powerful, wealthier, are more efficient to do the job better. And overwhelmingly what we find is that communities become more stratified, more marginalized, less likely to have voice and exercise their voice within those privatized structures.

When public institutions are starved into dysfunction and private capital moves in, that is not helping the situation. It’s exploiting and profiting off public distress. And it overwhelmingly harms the people that are already deeply impacted.

RF: What other safeguards do we have to put into place to protect these targeted communities and ensure that any gains aren’t clawed back?

HG: Our communities are under assault daily. I’d love to say “look at all the great stuff we’re doing.” But the reality is it pales in comparison based on the kinds of assaults that communities endure, and they are really deeply traumatic. They break apart people’s ability to conceive of ways to fight back, or to think about other groups other than yourself, because you’re struggling at the moment with housing, you’re struggling at the moment because you’re terrified that your child may not come home because they’re black. You’re terrified of police monitoring the streets, terrified of a criminal conviction coming up time and time again every time you seek a job.

RF: Or immigrant parents with citizen children afraid to access the resources and programs that they need because they’re afraid that ICE might be there to swoop them up.

HG: Today there was an incredible story about how Philadelphia’s ICE office outranks every single office nationwide in terms of sweeping up people with absolutely no criminal history. In 2013, 33 percent of people swept up by ICE had no criminal record history, and now 70 percent do. And people are seeking political gain by scapegoating immigrants, by trying to pacify people and say “I’m going to send people to jail.” This dictator-like and fascist mentality around incarceration, oppression, repression of mostly black, brown, and immigrant people is really terrifying.

The thing that we have to build out right now is a way to connect these struggles together. If you care about mass incarceration, then take a look at how immigrant communities are being funneled into the for-profit private prison industry that allows rampant physical abuses. Similarly, immigrant communities who are terrified for themselves, scared of the police, scared of judges and the courts, should care about the criminal justice reform movement that has been working on this for a very long time. You can’t divorce these two movements from one another.

RF: You’ve said in the past that the backbone of the progressive movement lies in local organizing. So what is it that national advocacy organizations, think tanks, funders should do to better support the local activism, or the campaigns for justice on the ground?

HG: One, they have to recognize the importance of diversifying their own boards and staff to make sure that there are people of color, women in particular, who are listening to groups, and evaluating not just based on a numbers game—like number of people served, bang for your buck, whatever metrics people use—but also take a look at just the quality of the outcome. What is really moving things? Think tanks and policymakers need to be more cognizant of on-the-ground movement, but that doesn’t happen by sitting in Washington, D.C., or in New York City in an executive suite and tower. It really happens by being connected with people; then they can understand how to evaluate this stuff. If you see movement, go into it.

RF: Thank you Councilmember Gym, it has been such an honor having this conversation with you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Related

First Person

The Only Work the Farm Bill Will Create Is Paperwork

Last week, perhaps in an effort to mentally pull out of Montana’s long winter months, I organized my home office, working my way through a decade’s worth of various files, folders, and scraps of paper I’d saved for whatever reason. Some, like quotes or story ideas, I’d saved because I am a writer and writers do things like keep journals they wrote in when they were 10. Others, like pay stubs, taxes, utility bills, and child support documents, I’d held onto out of an old habit.

For several years, when I worked a scattered schedule of hours cleaning houses while putting myself through college and raising my young daughter on my own, I always carried around three months’ worth of income and expenses in a purple folder. Because of my irregular schedule, and the hand-written personal checks I received instead of pay stubs, it seemed as if I constantly needed to prove to someone that I was, in fact, in need. That I was verifiably poor.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps) was the one program we could rely on back then, even though it was difficult to sign up for it sometimes. It was, by all accounts, predictable, and something I could budget for. Most importantly, by checking the “SNAP” box on other paperwork, like my daughter’s free school lunches, our utility assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and both of my daughters’ Medicaid, I automatically qualified for benefits. No questions, no long phone conversations, no missing work to spend an afternoon waiting to talk to a caseworker. This is called broad-based categorical eligibility, and it faces extinction, joining many other cuts in the House Agriculture Committee’s 2018 Farm Bill.

During almost six hours of recent debates over the bill, dubbed the “Conaway Bill” after Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX), who presented it without much sub-committee discussion beforehand, House Democrats spent the majority of the time angrily raking the proposed repeals and amendments surrounding the nutrition program focused on food insecurity.

“Call it whatever you want, it’s reducing the SNAP rolls.”

“This bill as it is written kicks people off the SNAP program,” the committee’s ranking member, Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota barked in his opening statements. “The chairman calls it self-selection. Call it whatever you want, it’s reducing the SNAP rolls.”

The “self-selection” Peterson is referring to is Conaway’s plan to force people to complete additional paperwork. SNAP would now require recipients to prove they have worked enough hours to qualify for the program by submitting statements at the end of every month. If a person fails to do this, they’d lose benefits for 12 months; the next time for 36. That’s four years of being ineligible for food benefits for not submitting a single piece of paper or failing to meet the work requirements for a single month. Conaway refers to this as self-selecting because he considers any failure to complete paperwork to be the same as a recipient opting out of the program on their own accord. Representative David Scott (D-GA) argued it was “additional duplicate confusing paperwork requirements” put in the bill “designed to confuse folks.”

When I was in need, I had to reapply for a program every few months, whether it was SNAP, WIC coupons for milk and cereal, or child care grants. Since I was self-employed and supplemented my income with student loans, I had to provide proof of the hours I spent in clients’ homes, either by receipt of deposit of monies earned or a statement from the client. It was exhausting, labor-intensive, and often meant many hours on the phone, or at the department’s office, waiting for several hours in line—time that cost me jobs and money.

By repealing the broad-based categorical eligibility, severing the link between SNAP and programs like free school lunches and LIHEAP, many people would be forced to submit applications for several kinds of benefits separately, even having to show actual utility bills to get the amounts deducted from their income. Currently, folks who qualify for LIHEAP get a standard utility allowance, much like the standardized deductions in taxes. “This is a backdoor way to kick people off the program,” said Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY), calling out the unfairness in severing the ties between SNAP and LIHEAP. “You exempted elderly people from producing utility bills but you didn’t exempt disabled people.” In a later round of questioning, Maloney repeatedly asked the chairman and other committee members why this was, paused, and said their silence was the answer he needed.

In my office, I ran my hand over that weathered, purple folder before placing it in a larger one labeled “Single Mom Stuff.” A box full of old paperwork sat next to my feet, including a half-inch thick packet of documents I’d compiled just three years ago in an attempt to receive a grant for child care. In it, I’d tried to explain what I did as a freelance writer, and how I’d managed to work up until that point with a months-old infant and older kid in first grade. When the letter came to tell me I made $100 too much to qualify, I called my caseworker, who said, “Well, you work late at night when your children are sleeping, anyway, so you don’t really need child care.” I almost hissed at her that working until 2am wasn’t exactly by choice.

For 2 million people who would lose SNAP benefits under the new Farm Bill, and the millions of others who would eventually “self-select” to no longer receive them, either by not getting a utility bill or proof of work hours submitted on time, it undoubtedly won’t be by choice, either.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the latest version of the proposed House Farm Bill. 

 

Related

Feature

Why Young People Are Joining Unions Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, increasingly, unions.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

“Everyone needs an outlet for activism.”

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

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

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

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

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

Related