Analysis

Ben Carson Wants HUD to Stop Fighting Housing Segregation

Today, a child born to a low-income family and raised in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans will have beaten the odds if they live past age 67. They can also expect to make just $20,000 a year by the time they reach their thirties.

Just a 20-minute drive away, in the Uptown/Carrollton neighborhoods near Tulane and Loyola Universities, that same child could expect to live 20 years longer and take home roughly $53,000 more in annual salary.

These communities are just six miles apart, yet designed and resourced in such a way that there’s a world of difference between the lives their residents can hope to have. Being raised in different neighborhoods can determine everything from the jobs you have access to, the schools your kids attend, and the groceries you can buy.

In 2015, the Obama administration created the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule to fix this disparity. But Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has moved to indefinitely delay implementation and is proposing drastic changes that analysts predict will all but gut its efficacy.

Why this matters.

While the idea of furthering fair housing appears in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, it wasn’t meaningfully enforced over the last half century. So under the 2015 rule, communities that receive funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development are required to develop action plans to not only remedy their existing racial and ethnic segregation and neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, but to also ensure that every U.S. community is equipped with the resources and opportunities to meet their residents’ housing needs.

As nationwide data released this month grimly reinforced, the neighborhood or ZIP code you grow up in, more than ever, has a dramatic impact on whether you earn more or less than your parents did. Researchers found this impact is particularly acute for black boys who, regardless of their families’ income, face the worst outlook for escaping poverty, building wealth, and doing better than their parents.

This is merely one aspect of a racial wealth gap that has persisted since the formal founding of this nation. Today, a typical black family with an income of $50,000 lives in a poorer neighborhood than a white family earning $20,000. Government-sponsored public policies intentionally crafted to hold back people of color and cut off their communities from wealth-building opportunities, through practices like segregation and redlining, continue to drive these disparities.

What the rule was starting to do, before HUD attacked it.

The 2015 rule was meant to begin addressing this man-made problem. And early results were promising. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor of Law and Urban Planning, Justin Steil, pointed out, several municipalities were beginning to create meaningful, measurable goals as part of the new rule.

For example, New Orleans committed to developing 400 units of affordable housing in Tremé, a neighborhood near the French Quarter that is quickly gentrifying, and Seattle proposed expanding its housing affordability requirements into new areas of the city.

Other regions’ goals included increasing access to existing opportunities, such as Chester County, Pennsylvania, which committed to building 200 affordable housing units in neighborhoods already well-resourced with good jobs, quality education programs and health care services, as well as access to other essential amenities such as grocery stores, parks, and community centers. Paramount, California proposed changing its zoning codes to increase housing accessibility for people with disabilities. Wilmington, North Carolina’s goals prioritized workforce development via job training and placement programs tailored to its local economy.

America continues to grapple with the ongoing byproducts of state-sanctioned separate and unequal neighborhoods.

Dozens of communities had submitted plans under the rule. And yet HUD suddenly and without warning removed a key assessment tool from its website in May that communities were using to shape their goals.

Carson cites a “high failure rate” of analyses submitted by communities among his reasons for delaying the rule, but that justification isn’t valid. Of the 49 analyses that communities submitted to HUD between 2015 and 2018, 65 percent were accepted immediately. The remaining 35 percent were returned to communities with detailed guidance about how to fix the problems; almost all have since been corrected, re-submitted, and accepted by HUD.

This degree of success is remarkable considering the rule was being newly implemented. And, contrary to Carson’s reasoning, the fact that a few of the initial submissions were sent back to communities for corrections signals that the new rule’s standards are exacting and meaningful, and should not be interpreted as evidence of failure.

Indefinitely suspending the rule and eliminating the federal assessment tools that have been helping local communities fight segregation as well as identify, increase and ensure fair housing opportunities for all means HUD has brought this long-overdue and much-needed progress to a halt.

What now?

America continues to grapple with the ongoing byproducts of state-sanctioned separate and unequal neighborhoods that set their residents on very disparate and divergent achievement paths. The rule that the Trump and Carson HUD aim to derail and ultimately demolish is designed to tear down those longstanding structural barriers and shrink the ever-widening gap between the haves and have nots.

It is important to keep in mind that the rule is not only focused on stopping segregation and discrimination but also on actively investing in neighborhoods where people currently live so that those communities are well resourced. The bottom line is that people should not be forced to move away from their community and existing social networks in order to access the basic supports necessary to have a good life.

The department is required to accept public comments until Oct. 15 about these proposed changes. Any member of the public — individuals, organizations, or community groups — can submit comments and let their voices be heard on the importance and fate of this equity tool.

Editor’s note: The public can submit comments on the proposed rule in the Federal Register. For additional instructions, see the guide produced by the Center for Effective Government.

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Review

Read a Book: Fall 2018 Releases for When the News Is Too Much

After I graduated from college, I stopped reading books. I still read constantly — the Internet is great at inundating us with writing — but it was always piecemeal. I’d take in a few hundred words from breaking news reports or beloved blogs, or a few thousand from think pieces. For a while, that felt like it worked.

Then the Trump administration happened. For the past two years, reading the news has felt like inviting the worst parts of humanity to practice punching me in the solar plexus. What’s worse, on days that felt comparatively slow — when we weren’t on the brink of war or gutting our health care or bulldozing our immigration law — I got anxious. I was starting to depend on the Trump administration to provide me with something to which I could react.

That mode of thinking is exhausting. Even worse, it’s limiting. Instead of focusing on what society has the potential to be, I was focused only on the depths to which I hoped we wouldn’t sink.

It turns out that books can be a helpful remedy to this problem. They provide room for writers to explore, to indulge nuance, to push on boundaries, and provide readers the time to reflect on what’s been written. And, unlike Twitter, they don’t shine a bright electronic light in my eyes when I’m trying to go to bed.

This the first in a regular series rounding up books the TalkPoverty staff loves. We’re kicking it off with new releases that are all relevant to today’s most pressing issues, but excel in delving into the shades of gray that are often missing from breaking news coverage and Twitter threads.

 

Fiction

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling

In some ways, The Golden State is a classic road novel: It follows its main character, Daphne, as she flees San Francisco and sets out for the high desert of California. She’s looking, like so many travelers before her, for freedom, adventure, and a break from bureaucracy. The catch is that unencumbered freedom isn’t a real option: Every point in Daphne’s journey is marked by her caretaking of her 16-month-old daughter, Honey.

Daphne’s relationship with her daughter, and with motherhood, has a fullness and honesty I’ve only seen once before (in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts). She loves her daughter desperately, but her exhaustion and frustration with Honey’s needs and tantrums slowly build into something like dread and rage. The result is a novel that’s both beautiful and challenging, probing ideas around domesticity and freedom of movement that, in worse books, are treated as if they are opposites.

For you if: You’re interested in experimental stream-of-consciousness works, or themes around immigration, parenting, and domesticity.

 

The Caregiver by Samuel Park

Park’s last novel, completed shortly before his death, is another, completely different, mother-daughter tale. It alternates between 1980s Brazil and 1990s Los Angeles while the main character, Mara, cares for a woman dying of stomach cancer who dredges up memories of Mara’s complicated relationship with her mother. It’s a story about the way Mara survived in both countries — as an undocumented caretaker in the United States and as a poor child in Brazil — that’s engaging, if slightly soapy.

The book alternates between being thrilling and introspective, vacillations that are almost certainly due to Park imbuing the women for whom Mara was caring with the same illness that was killing him.

For you if: You want to a novel with compelling characters that’s heavy on plot, or themes around being undocumented or providing health care.

 

Non-fiction

Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World by Annie Lowrey

Universal Basic Incomes are officially mainstream, but advocates of the policy — from Silicon Valley tech bros to libertarians to Black Lives Matter activists — are strange bedfellows with very different explanations for why we should give everyone a monthly cash sum.

Lowrey’s book walks through each group’s justification for backing the policy. She’s thorough and respectful of subjects throughout, but clear about whose arguments she is — and isn’t — buying.

For you if: You want an accessible long read on a newly-trendy economic policy.

 

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

This pocket-sized rebuttal to the oft-cited Hillbilly Elegy re-situates Appalachia as part of the United States, instead of the far-thrown Trump Country that has been the subject of media fascination.

Catte, a historian from East Tennessee, walks readers through the region’s history with industry and race, and current residents’ organizing efforts around land and labor. While the book doesn’t transform the region into a liberal paragon, Catte does portray it with the kind of nuance you would expect from a real place: one with serious problems, a complicated history, and a lot of very different people trying to figure out what to do next.

For you if: You’re still talking about Linda Tirado’s drunk reading of Hillbilly Elegy.

 

Memoir

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh

Sarah Smarsh has been treated as a sort of spokeswoman for the working class since her viral essay, “Poor Teeth,”  captured her family’s experience with a blend of honesty, compassion, and humor that only comes with real experience. Her memoir, Heartland, is written from the very same place as the essay that made her famous: One that has the audacity to love and respect a poor family.

The book tells stories that are equal parts joyful and horrifying, and situates her family’s life in the policies that made it impossible for them to afford health insurance or compete with agribusiness. It’s not quite perfect — the framing device featuring a non-existent daughter doesn’t quite land for me — but it’s an extremely powerful and pointed meditation on class in America.

For you if: You’re a sucker for a beautiful memoir.

 

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper

Before Rebecca Traister published her much-anticipated Good and Mad, Brittney Cooper had written an entire treatise on the power in black women’s anger, and the contempt the country has for it.

Eloquent Rage focuses on the web of sexism, racism, and class, grounding Cooper’s understanding of all three in her own coming of age. And, most importantly, it takes on the current feminist movement — one often grounded in whiteness — and forces readers to recognize how that “fucks shit up for everybody.”

For you if: You prefer your life lessons delivered by someone else’s grandma.

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First Person

Trump Is Rewriting Our Immigration Law To Come After Families Like Mine

Late last month, the Trump administration released a draft rule that would change the way immigration works in the United States. Under the proposal, immigration officials will try to predict whether a person applying for a green card might receive government assistance, like Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program, at any point during their future life in the United States. If it seems possible — because the applicant isn’t wealthy or has a disability — then the green card will be denied, even if the applicant has met all of the other criteria.

There have been rumors that this might happen for months. The first time I heard about it, I was sitting in my summer internship with the city of Dallas. One of my supervisors asked me if I was familiar with possible changes to the “public charge rule,” which requires immigrants to prove that they will not use government benefits before they are granted permanent status. When I shook my head no, she gave me a handout that explained who would be affected.

Individuals with visas or legal permanent residents. Check.
Individuals who have used any federal assistance programs. Check.

I held my breath when I read it, my eyes darting from line to line while I felt the walls close in. This was about my family. They were looking for me.

My parents moved to Dallas from Chihuahua, Mexico in the early 90s. My brothers and I were all born in the United States. We used Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program to get our standard vaccines as kids, and my parents got their health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. We followed all the rules and did exactly what we were supposed to do.

I always follow the rules. I just started my senior year of high school, and I have my days completely packed with extracurricular activities. That means debate on Mondays and Wednesdays, LULAC meetings Wednesday mornings, mock trial on Tuesdays, We Fight Fear meetings after school, volunteering Saturdays and Sundays, and SAT prep in between. I don’t climb back into bed until 12 a.m., after finishing homework, sending emails, and setting up meetings.

I’m not just doing these things because I like them. I’ve never felt I have the option to turn down opportunities, because if I push myself hard enough to get a scholarship then all the late nights will be worth it.

I’m in the process of setting up my Common Application profile for college. I always knew that my parents wouldn’t be able to afford my tuition, and that I would have to cobble together grants and scholarships to pay my way. So it’s up to me to prove to colleges that they should pay for me to attend.

But when I heard about the new immigration rule this summer, I had to second-guess the one thing I was most certain about: going to college. If I applied for Pell Grants to cover tuition, was that going to count against my parents? If their income dipped below the threshold in this new immigration rule, would I need to stay home and get a job to ensure they weren’t targeted? If I followed through on my dreams, and on all the work I’ve put in, would I be betraying my family?

If I applied for Pell Grants to cover tuition, was that going to count against my parents?

I’m not the only one who is scared. Once my mom found out about the rule, she told me she wasn’t comfortable continuing my little brother’s Medicaid coverage. He’s only 3 years old, and he has so much growing left to do. The government knew it would create this risk when it announced the new rule: Documents from the Department of Homeland Security predict that people will receive less health care, and that disease rates will increase for U.S. citizens who have not been vaccinated yet.

Those documents are talking about my little brother.

When the rule finally came out last week, and I got to look at real words on paper instead of wading through a swirl of rumors, I got a tiny taste of relief. This version of the rule won’t apply to people who already have green cards, and my mom just renewed hers. For now, I can daydream about college, and my parents can sign my brother up for health insurance.

Just a short while ago, we wouldn’t have made the cut. There are hundreds of thousands of people who still won’t. Those people, and those families, will see the opportunities they’ve worked so hard for finally within their children’s reach, only to be forced to wave them away, in case it costs them everything. They’ll do exactly what we did: pass on health insurance and decline the few extra bucks to make sure we didn’t go to bed hungry. What else are we supposed to do when the government forces us to choose between our families and our future?

Even though I’m safe for now, I don’t feel like I’ve won. This isn’t a game. Not to me, not to my brothers or my parents.

But as I sit here and contemplate which college campus I’ll be walking onto this time next fall, if I get to go to one at all, that’s what it feels like. It feels like they’re using children as chess pieces in a twisted political contest to force immigrants into the shadows of a nation we helped build.

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Feature

Hepatitis C Patients Are Being Forced Into Underground Buyers’ Clubs

Lisa Kaye Gray has been tired since she was 26 years old. Now 52, and a grandmother with rust-red hair and a lilting Louisiana accent, she is finally gaining the energy to help her grandson chase squirrels through the backyard. But her voice still breaks as she recalls decades marked by fatigue and muscle aches; early symptoms of hepatitis C.

“I missed out on so much,” she mourns. “Just being tired, not able to enjoy life.”

Gray acquired hepatitis C in 1991, and spent more than twenty years living with the virus’s effects. Though she didn’t begin to experience symptoms of major liver damage until 2015, she says she spent most of her life feeling fatigued, sometimes to the point of being bedridden, and nauseated.

Interferon treatment, the first available treatment for chronic hepatitis C, was introduced in 1996, but the cure rate was low; around 30 percent for genotype 1, the most common form of the virus in North America. It was also difficult to administer, requiring self-injection into the stomach, and came with a host of side-effects, ranging from nausea and muscle aches to long-term autoimmune dysfunction. The full treatment course lasted six months to a year. Gray tried interferon treatment for a month, but discontinued it when she learned she was pregnant.

“I’m glad I did,” says Gray. “I’ve heard horror stories about people who took it for the year.”

Gray is not the only hepatitis C patient who chose decades living with the virus over attempting interferon. David Cowley of Wales lived with hepatitis C for 35 years, refusing interferon because of its side effects and low success rate. But Gray and Cowley share something else in common: neither has hepatitis C anymore.

One day in 2015, Gray’s boss noticed that she looked, she recalls, “as yellow as the walls.” Because jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes) in patients with hepatitis C is a sign of serious illness, she immediately went to her doctor and learned that she had liver cirrhosis. She applied for disability benefits, and while waiting for a determination, began undergoing the testing procedures that would allow her to take a new kind of medicine, one with a much higher success rate and far fewer side effects.

Gilead initially set the price for full treatment between $74,000 and $94,000

Sofosbuvir is a direct acting antiviral (DAA) medication sold by American biopharmaceutical powerhouse Gilead Sciences under the brand names Harvoni, Sovaldi, and Epclusa (Harvoni and Epclusa also contain other drugs, making them single-pill regimens, while Sovaldi requires a second drug to be prescribed with it). These drugs have a 90 percent or higher cure rate across a variety of genotypes (for genotype 1, the cure rate closes on 100 percent), and Harvoni in particular boasts only mild, short-term side effects like fatigue. All three medications are consumed orally and take 12 weeks to complete. In comparison to the old treatments, these DAAs function like a miracle. Gilead initially set the price for full treatment between $74,000 and $94,000 for patients in the United States.

Medicaid covers the treatment — but there’s a catch. There are 3.5 million people in the United States living with hepatitis C, and state Medicaid programs find it difficult to afford to treat patients at the prices Gilead set. (Rough math says curing all current cases would cost Medicaid half of its annual budget). Most state Medicaid programs initially dealt with the shortfall by limiting treatment to people who meet their criteria. In 25 states that criteria includes abstinence from illegal substances, even though most new hepatitis C infections in the United States are the result of injection drug use.

In 32 states, patients must also have liver damage. Newly-infected patients, or those whose disease hasn’t progressed far enough, must wait until they suffer potentially irreversible liver damage before they receive coverage for their treatment. In addition to more time living with the symptoms, this also increases the risk of complications like liver cancer and decreases the effectiveness of treatment. In one study of economically disadvantaged patients, only 82 percent of patients with decompensated cirrhosis (a severe form of liver damage) achieved viral elimination.

Medication access is not only an issue for chronic hepatitis patients in the United States. Other countries have been battling high drug costs as well, including Australia and the United Kingdom. David Cowley was fortunate — and tenacious — enough to get into a 2013 drug trial for Harvoni in the UK. When he learned about the trial, which required a weekly trip to an office that was 200 miles from his home, he called and “pestered them for weeks” until he got in. Within months of beginning treatment, he was cleared of the virus that had been slowly killing him for 35 years. Then the drug that saved his life hit the market, and he learned the price tag.

“I was disgusted by the prices,” he says. So he decided to travel to Bangladesh to get hold of generic versions of the medication for distribution to other patients in need. Cowley was not the only person with that idea.

James Freeman, a doctor who runs a telehealth program in Australia, and Greg Jeffreys, a historian and author also based out of Australia, run what each hesitantly call “buyers’ clubs” for hepatitis C medications. Cowley, Freeman, and Jeffreys all know each other, though they operate separately. The clubs function under the same essential premise: That hepatitis C medication should be available at free or low cost to everyone who needs it. They help patients acquire the generic drugs, offering full 12-course treatments for around $500-$1000, and sometimes less based on need and availability.

“It’s pretty simple,” says Jeffreys of his service. “Someone contacts me, I ask for some kind of medical report to show they actually have hep C, I explain what it costs, they send me a copy of their report, their shipping address, their contact phone number, a payment method — whatever that might be — and two weeks later they have their medicine.”

These buyers’ clubs operate by taking advantage of personal importation laws, which vary by country. For the U.S. that means buyers must import less than a three-month supply, and they cannot sell or distribute the medication. An added provision that a medication must be unavailable domestically leaves the legality of these practices in somewhat of a gray area .

Rochelle C. Dreyfuss, co-director of the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy at New York University, says that under patent law, buying and importing a cheaper version of the same product from another country is legal, but the addition of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations make pharmaceuticals especially tricky. “I think [this] confusion is everyone’s confusion,” she notes, adding that if the FDA were to crack down, “one side will say it’s available domestically, you just have to pay more money, and the other that these patients can’t afford to buy it here.”

Although the FDA is not currently intervening in these buyers clubs, some doctors are wary and advise against importing generic drugs. After all, how can a buyer know what’s truly in them; whether they are effective or potentially dangerous?

This is a sentiment Lisa Gray understands. Jaundiced and living with disabling liver cirrhosis, Gray was eagerly awaiting her medication approval — now that she was finally sick enough to meet the criteria. But when she began receiving $1,500 monthly in disability checks after her liver damage left her unable to work, she lost the Medicaid coverage that would have paid for her treatment. (Louisiana expanded Medicaid the following year, but 17 states still have not done so). Uninsured, and unable to pay the premium and co-pay for private insurance, she began looking into alternative options.

“At first I was very skeptical,” she says of the buyers clubs. “It even went through my mind that they’ve got all these people paid to praise generics…but I found Greg Jeffreys, I talked to him, and I realized it’s not a scam.”

Gray says Jeffreys worked with her financial situation by getting his medication connection, which is based out of India, to send her a recently expired 8-week course of sofosbusvir free of cost. That left her responsible only for the other drug she needed to take with it, daclatasvir. She paid $350 for it, by credit card. When she was unable to come up with the funds for her remaining treatment, Jeffreys sent it to her free of charge.

“It was scary because you don’t know if it’s a real medication or not, but I thought what do I have to lose? I was throwing up everyday, it was horrible,” recalls Gray. “I started taking that medicine; my eyes were yellow, they got white. It was amazing.”

Gray also remembers her doctor insisting that she wait until she could find funding for the prescribed treatment course, rather than using a personal import scheme to buy generics. “My doctor literally screamed at me. [She said] ‘they’re not regulated, they could be fake.’”

But Jeffreys, Freeman, and Cowley, who now all use a shared seller out of India, insist that fear is unnecessary — at least when it comes to their medicines. Freeman reports that he has seen a 94 percent cure rate with his own patients. With the benefit of his medical background and connections with the Tasmanian government, Freeman says he’s had his drugs tested from the start, when he was importing raw materials from China, and that they are virtually identical to those found in Harvoni and other brand name medicines. Jeffreys added that the Indian connection the three use now gets the drugs directly from Mylan, who partners with Gilead Sciences to manufacture these drugs in India.

“These products are licensed by Gilead and approved by the FDA,” Jeffreys asserts. “To say they’re dangerous is crazy.”

This doesn’t mean that all buyers’ clubs are created equally. As with any unregulated enterprise, copycats have popped up on Facebook claiming to have special contracts for drugs with other countries. Although there’s no way to know for sure whether these are illegitimate, they — unlike Jeffreys, Cowley, and Freeman — did not immediately respond to inquiries for comment.

States have been slowly lifting regulations surrounding Medicaid access to direct acting antivirals for hepatitis C. As of 2017, 18 states have lifted the liver fibrosis restrictions and 22 others are granting coverage to patients with less severe liver damage; four of these require only mild fibrosis. In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services has questioned Gilead and other companies about their pricing in the hopes of being able to grant coverage for more patients. The hope is that as more drugs become available and drug costs lower, more states will lift or lessen eligibility restrictions so that patients in the United States can access these medicines through their providers.

Still, Jeffreys says he has seen no decline in Medicaid patients from the United States who need meds. “I get heaps of them,” he says about clients on Medicaid. “It’s been exactly the same for the past three years. I get probably 100 e-mails from the United States every week.”

For low-income patients like Gray, who lose or are denied coverage, these buyers clubs have become a lifeline, linking them to treatments that change their lives within months.

“It’s just an amazing feeling to know that this virus is not alive in me anymore,” says Gray, who had no detectable viral load twelve weeks after treatment. “I just get mad that my own country could not help me.”

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Feature

Inside the Effort to Organize Freelance Journalists

The New Yorker, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, Vice — whether at new media outlets or legacy publications, newsrooms across the country are unionizing. Most recently, 75 percent of the staff at The Virginian-Pilot and the Daily Press signed union cards with The NewsGuild.

While these victories are welcome for staffers who were previously working without the protections of union membership, their collective bargaining units and contracts usually omit the lowest, yet largest, rung of the newsroom labor ladder: freelancers. And without organizing freelancers, journalists’ unions rest atop a shaky hierarchy of labor, which is bound to be upset.

Finding data on the number of freelancers is tricky. Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — which are the best available — show that there are currently about 37,995 reporters and correspondents employed as staffers by newspapers, publishers, broadcasters, and other outlets, while about 83,968 people are self-employed writers and authors, a category which includes those who write for digital news organizations and blogs. The bureau predicts that the number of employed reporters and correspondents will decrease by 10 percent through 2026, while the ranks of freelance writers and authors will grow by 8 percent during the same period. David Hill, a freelance journalist and vice president of the National Writers Union, is confident that “every single media outlet” uses freelance writers.

“I don’t think anyone has good numbers on this,” says Hill. “Some might quibble with how we decide to define ‘journalist’ here, because there is a lot of freelance writing that exists in the grey area between what was maybe once referred to as blogging and what we may think of as journalism, especially online.”

Coming together to bargain collectively is key for freelancers because of the many professional difficulties they face, beginning with low pay. According to the BLS, the median pay for writers and authors was $61,820 in 2017, but that figure masks business expenses and benefits, such as health care, which freelancers must independently purchase.

Without regular work as columnists or contributing writers, freelancers must jump from assignment to assignment, pitching story ideas, negotiating rates, completing articles, and then hoping for full and timely payment. And when publications go under or change their business models, freelancers are left without any recourse but to hunt for the next opportunity.

Describing the issues faced by members of the National Writers Union, Hill says, “Their issues are the same as every freelance journalist’s: low rates, waiting for many months to get paid with no guarantee of when or if the check will arrive, and a general feeling that rates are too low to make a full-time living anymore without supplementing your freelance income somehow.”

Typically, unions focus on organizing a “collective bargaining unit,” which is a well-defined body of workers who are not considered freelancers, contractors, or temps. This is often seen by labor organizers as a strategic necessity for classifying workers as proper employees whose right to unionize is legally protected. Under current law, independent contractors don’t have collective bargaining rights; regulators have even used antitrust law to go after groups of contractors who attempt to organize.

Additionally, unions usually operate on dues collected from their members’ paychecks by their employers, in a fashion similar to payroll taxes. Freelancers typically do not have any deductions made from their payments, making dues collection a more onerous process.

A branch of the United Automobile Workers, the National Writers Union is one of the only labor unions open to freelance journalists. Without a well-defined collective bargaining unit nor access to the traditional means of collecting dues, it has been creative in its approach to organizing. Members are free to join or leave as they please and must opt into paying dues. The union counts about 850 journalists among its dues-paying members.

The union is not able to collectively bargain for these writers, since they don’t work for any one outlet, but members are attracted to its other services and benefits, such as providing individual or group legal representation in specific disputes, lobbying lawmakers for legislation protecting freelancers, and negotiating voluntary agreements with publications. Most recently, the National Writers Union reached an agreement with the socialist magazine Jacobin, stipulating minimum rates, kill fees, payment deadlines, and more.

Labor law works against us and forces us to be creative. Whatever union freelancers end up forming will be very non-traditional.

The Freelancers Union operates in some similar ways, although it is technically a non-profit organization rather than a certified union. Executive Director Caitlin Pearce estimates that 93,750 of the organization’s members are writers or editors, including journalists. Membership is voluntary and free.

“Freelancers Union offers its members a voice on advocacy issues impacting the independent workforce, resources, education, and events helping freelancers grow their network and navigate the ups and downs of freelancing, and benefits including health, dental, life, disability, liability, and retirement,” says Pearce. The organization is funded by state and private grants, donations, and paid services — the last of which has led critics to accuse the Freelancers Union of being more interested in hawking insurance products than organizing workers.

Together with two dozen other workers’ organizations, the Freelancers Union and National Writers Union were able to lobby New York City to pass the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which went into effect in 2017. The law includes provisions requiring written contracts for freelance work, mandating a 30-day deadline for payment, and awarding freelancers double damages in court. It is touted as providing the strongest protections for freelancers anywhere in the nation.

While the Freelance Isn’t Free Act is certainly the highest profile recent victory, there are ways beyond legislation that freelancers can exert their collective power. Earlier this month, 115 members of Study Hall, an online community of freelance journalists, announced that they would cease working with The Outline after the website suddenly fired a quarter of its staffers, providing an example of freelancers self-organizing independently from any union in the industry. Similar efforts with freelancers in other sectors, such as food couriers working for Uber, have succeeded where traditional unions have failed or feared to venture.

“The nuts and bolts of how to do this is very tricky, and nobody has figured out a perfect model yet,” says Hill of organizing freelance journalists. “Labor law works against us and forces us to be creative. Whatever union freelancers end up forming will be very non-traditional.”

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