On Monday the NY Times covered a fascinating new study on social mobility. As you can see from the map above, there’s huge variation in the likelihood a kid from a low-income family will end up making it out of poverty depending on where they live.
Despite popular misconceptions about the “American Dream”, kids who grow up poor in the US are less likely to climb into the middle and upper classes than their counterparts in Western Europe, Canada, etc. This is a phenomenon dubbed “The Great Gatsby Curve”— countries with high levels of inequality also have low levels of mobility– i.e. if the rungs on the ladder are farther apart, it’s harder to climb the ladder. Poor kids in the US suffer from a weaker social safety net, worse health care and nutrition, more unstable housing, limited access to childcare, preschool, and college, and have to compete with rich kids who are even richer than kids in other countries (and have the resulting advantages in life).
Now let’s assume the American Dream is not just some bullshit platitude and we really do care about opportunity for all, regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth.
We might be feeling pretty hopeless right now. Fixing America’s crisis of inequality sounds overwhelming, and this useless Congress has a snowball’s chance in hell of creating any costly new social programs like universal preschool.
But what this study says to me is that it’s possible to make a significant difference at the local level. The trap of intergenerational poverty in places like Atlanta, Memphis, and Charlotte might be worse than any country in the industrialized world. But places like Salt Lake City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle have social mobility comparable to places like Norway and Denmark.
What explains the differences? Why are rags-to-riches stories in Chicago much less common than its rival metropolises of NY and LA? Why is a poor kid in San Francisco twice as likely to become successful as a poor kid in St. Louis? Can growing up poor in Seattle really give you four times better of a chance in life than in Memphis?
When you look at the map, the worst regions are clearly the Deep South and the urban industrial core of the Midwest. I associate these areas with entrenched black-white patterns of inequality and segregation. But the article notes that in cities like Atlanta, while opportunities to rise in society are scarce for poor blacks, they are just as scarce for poor whites. Maybe communities like Atlanta are more likely to see poverty in racialized terms (“Those people are not like me”), weakening their support of attempts to advance opportunities for poor folks of all races.
But let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
The authors were looking for proof that tax credits aimed at reducing child poverty like the EITC lead to better social mobility. But unfortunately they found that local tax policies had only a small correlation with class mobility.
So what can we do to at the local level to increase opportunity? Which of these factors is most easily and clearly impacted by public policy?
It’s interesting to note that the factors that most strongly correlate with lack of opportunity are things you might associate with a social conservative policy agenda: promoting traditional family structures, community ties, and religious participation. So why then is the South, the heartland of social conservatism, the huge red swath on the map with the least opportunity? I’d argue this is because social conservative policies are extremely ineffective at actually accomplishing things like reducing teen birthrates, and often counterproductive (see: birth control, sex ed).
I don’t think anywhere in America we’ve actually developed effective policies to make people have stronger family ties or be more active in their communities. (I do think we could mitigate some of the negative effects of widespread single motherhood with things like universal preschool and paid maternal leave though.)
Unfortunately the factors most directly tied to government policy (college tuition, local public spending, etc.) are at the bottom of the list. Seems like if state/local governments want to raise social mobility the best thing they can do is increase per-pupil school funding, but even that has a pretty weak correlation. Clearly the focus should be on reducing high school dropouts, but how exactly policymakers should do that is the tougher question.
I think the most interesting part of this study is the link it establishes between social mobility and segregation along racial and economic class lines. In a sprawled out, highly segregated city like Atlanta, people in poor black neighborhoods are much more isolated from decent job opportunities, good schools, social networks and other resources.
Cities and counties should be paying close attention to this. Plan dense, walkable, mixed-income neighborhoods. Provide quality public transit connecting low-income communities to job and educational opportunities. Focus economic development and infrastructure spending on the urban center, not just on the suburban outskirts. Don’t allow wealthy NIMBYs to block affordable housing in the suburbs and don’t allow developers to gentrify poor people out of revitalizing urban neighborhoods. Smart growth is not just about sustainability and hippy shit. It’s about the goddamn American Dream. It’s about everyone having a fair chance to make it. Bald eagles and apple pie and all that.
Last but not least, for the community organizers out there: Notice that “Social Capital Index” there at the top? That measures people’s civic engagement and level of involvement in community groups. Whether you’re organizing community activists to increase school funding, provide subsidized childcare or better public transit, the act of organizing people itself enhances economic opportunity as much as any policy change. Helping strengthen people’s ties to each other and to their community is one of the key foundations of social mobility. The best thing we can do is organize from the grassroots to make this American Dream a reality.
My reaction to the final fiscal cliff compromise was something along the lines of an exhausted sigh and shrug. Seems fine I guess. The whole manufactured crisis thing is hard to get worked up about after a while.
But I began to think… maybe there’s something being overlooked here: In an odd way, this could be seen as the first national policy victory of the Occupy Movement.
Like the fiscal deal or not, in 2013, the 1 Percent will pay the highest tax rate they’ve paid since 1979.
At the movement’s peak, although I was excited about its potential, I was kind of a pessimist about Occupy. I wrote then that without institutionalizing itself, it would dissolve before achieving the kind of national policy victories that the Tea Party had won.
But there is something to be said for the more intangible impact of social movements. They shape the thinking of everyone from your everyday dude on the street to professors, journalists, leaders of organizations and even presidents.
During Occupy Wall Street’s initial explosion onto the scene in 2011, I was in DC interning for the White House Council of Economic Advisers. It was fascinating to see how think tanks, economists, columnists, even the great global institutions of capitalism like the OECD and the IMF all felt it necessary to respond to Occupy and start talking about income inequality and how to address it.
Then one day the chief economist at the CEA brought all of us into her office to watch on TV as the president gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. It didn’t create much media buzz, but she insisted this was an extremely important speech. And it was. It was the moment where Barack Obama publicly shifted to the strategy and message that won him re-election a year later.
Since the Tea Party’s rise and the miserable beatdown congressional Democrats had taken in 2010, the president had spent the past year moving his rhetoric to the center and trying to appease the right wing. Although in 2008 he originally campaigned on letting the Bush Tax Cuts expire for those making over $250k a year, he had outraged progressives like me in 2010 when he compromised with House Republicans to fully extend them for two more years (which would eventually lead to the fiscal cliff).
But as we saw in his shift on gay marriage, presidents, like any human being, change their minds sometimes. I believe it’s safe to say Occupy changed Obama. After that speech in Osawatomie, when for the first time he talked about the 99% and the 1%, he took a combative approach, with a clear emphasis on one issue: economic fairness. That was the message he used to successfully define the choice between him and Mitt Romney, and what ultimately won him the election a year later.
And in the first major political battle after the election, negotiating with congressional Republicans, he drew a line in the sand back to his original campaign promise that the Bush Tax Cuts must expire on incomes over $250k. Of course, being Barack Obama, he then crossed his line in the sand and offered a new threshold of $450k. But this one he held firm to. And interestingly enough, this is roughly the income level that puts you in the richest 1% of Americans.
So the One Percenters will pay the lion’s share of the tax increases in the fiscal deal. Meanwhile, thanks to the almost-impressive vicious stubbornness of the GOP, the incredibly-rich-but-not-quite-obscenely-rich Two Percenters (roughly incomes between $250k-450k) got the best deal. In fact, the downright impoverished will see a larger tax hike than they will next year. But at least in the Occupy frame of the world, the Two Percenters are still part of the 99%.
If anything this deal shows the sticking power of Occupy’s successful framing of our political economy as a conflict between the 99% and the 1%. This frame has, maybe for the first time, made its way into something written into law.
I’m sure if you asked most of the folks who participated in General Assemblies at the height of the Occupy Movement they would not be jumping with joy about this slight increase in the top marginal tax rate. But even if it wasn’t exactly their dream, in a way this is their victory.
Like millions of others looking for a relatively stress-free holiday family activity, I watched Les Miserables this weekend.
I was struck by an unshakeable feeling of the story’s old-ness. Maybe it’s the way characters can fall absurdly in love with each other on sight or decide to die after performing tragic monologues.
But to me the clearest sign this story was written in a different time is its unapologetic political statement. Les Miserables is not about economic inequality in 19th century Europe, it’s about a man’s struggle with personal transformation while being trapped in the sins of his past. And yet it recognizes that the personal is political and the political is personal. The suffering Jean Valjean experiences is wrapped in the context of the political and economic system he lives in and the villain is this system, even more than it is Javert.
This all made me wonder: Why don’t we have bestselling novels about class struggle anymore?
The original Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, despite political criticism, was a huge financial success in the western world of the 1800’s. But today our popular culture seems to shy away from placing characters within a political context.
I want to focus on Hollywood here. Novels and plays were the medium for popular culture consumption in the 19th century, but today movies and TV are the way regular people interact with storytelling. (Also if I start talking about books I’d end up revealing, through my complete ignorance, the fact that I mostly stopped reading them at the age of 16.)
I did some research (okay, it was Wikipedia) on the top grossing movies of the 1990’s and 2000’s. (1990 is the beginning of the After Lucas era, before which nothing is relevant). Pretty much the closest we’ve got in the A.L. era is The Matrix, which gets points for symbolism. Maybe at best some sort of vague, fuzzy critique of organized religion in the Da Vinci Code. Avatar I guess says something about environmentalism and respecting indigenous people?
If anything we’ve moved into the superhero movie era—where our heroes are individuals who seek not to change society, but to maintain law and order. Perhaps the perfect counterexample to Les Miserables is the latest Batman movie. Here the masses, discontent with inequality, are easily swayed by manipulative demagogue villains and can be whipped into a dangerous corrupt mob unless fought by a multi-billionaire heir of a military contracting corporation who can use its sheer firepower to restore the status quo. The political statement is only that social change is at best irrelevant, or at worst an illusion, a convenient backdrop for the epic battles of heroes and villains.
So the more important question: Why?
Is the medium of film, with its badass special effects, simply more suited to the empty-headed action movie? Or are writers and producers, or at least the most talented ones, becoming more politically apathetic? Maybe consumers just don’t want to watch political stuff, so political critique is reserved for niche indie film festival audiences and never makes it to the mainstream.
Whatever the reason, this is a problem for those of us in political work. Social movements cannot exist without artistic and cultural works to win the hearts and minds of the public. A blockbuster movie is worth a thousand press releases and a bestselling novel is worth a million petitions.
This is a political organizer’s cry for help to the storytellers of the world: Can we get some movies about the modern-day 99% up in here that don’t involve us getting our asses kicked by Bruce Wayne in a bat costume?
There is no better story to explain the true insanity of American politics than the fiscal cliff.
The Media is Ignorant and it’s Making Everyone Else Ignorant Too
An explanation of the strangeness of this whole debate has to start with pointing out that the name itself is wrong. It’s the product of the 24 hour news cycle which has produced a shockingly ignorant TV press corps that cannot possibly go several months without running around screaming about the latest invented apocalyptic crisis. There is no “cliff” of economic doom we’re about to plunge over on January 1st like Wiley Coyote. It’s really a gradual slope.
But slowly going down that slope would still be bad. Why? Basic economics says governments are supposed to run deficits during economic downturns. They borrow rather than raising taxes to spend money on things like bridges, schools, the military, creating jobs for construction workers, teachers, and death-machine manufacturers. The “fiscal cliff” is the large increase in taxes and cuts in spending scheduled to happen in 2013, which could put us back into recession.
Yet the media has created the perception among people that this is some kind of “debt crisis”, and we therefore need take this moment to deal with our national debt. In fact, it’s the opposite. Going over the fiscal cliff will almost completely eliminate the deficit (graph on right). Yes, that’s right. We could literally lock Congress in a big cage for the next year and the deficit would pretty much go away. But that’s a bad thing, because it would tank the economy.
The Tea Party is Seriously Insane
So why aren’t the Tea Party crazies who are so obsessed with reducing the deficit cheering about the fiscal cliff?
If, as they’ve bizarrely insisted, the deficit under Obama is what’s been holding back job growth, shouldn’t the fiscal cliff be the Biggest Stimulus Ever?
In fact, a large part of the fiscal cliff is because of the automatic trigger budget cuts that they demanded when they held the debt ceiling hostage and almost caused the US to default.
So did they stop believing in austerity and suddenly become true believers in Keynesian economics? No, apparently they don’t really believe anything and are just fucking crazy and angry about anything Obama does.
Congress Either Doesn’t Know or Doesn’t Care What Regular People Want
The truth is, right or left, no one wants to go over the cliff. In fact, normal people (read: not members of Congress) are mostly in agreement. A wide majority supports allowing the Bush tax cuts for the rich to expire on schedule. And although Republicans like spending cuts in theory, when you ask them about the specific cuts their congressional representatives are talking about, they no longer support them.
The fiscal debate has featured all kinds of ridiculous antics from Congress. We may have officially entered the Twilight Zone, when Senate Minority Leader McConnell (who has led more filibusters than anyone in history) I shit you not, filibustered his own bill.
But at a deeper level, this shows who Congress is really accountable to. Even though Congress agrees on tax rates for 98% of Americans, the debate is stuck because House Republicans are holding the whole thing hostage over tax cuts for the richest 2%. And although the fiscal cliff cuts to the military are much more widely supported than cuts to Medicare, Congress is stumbling over themselves to protect the defense budget and fairly willing to throw grandma under the bus. Why? Because death-machine manufacturers have really good lobbyists and old poor people don’t.
Not Just the Tea Party, but the Republican Party in General is Seriously Insane
Clearly a significant portion of our country has become utterly unhinged from reality. Not only were they convinced there was no way Obama could win, they still have trouble believing it even after the election is over.
You don’t get to lose elections and then make demands. Especially because Obama can get what he wants by doing nothing, letting all the tax cuts expire on January 1st, then asking Congress to vote for a tax cut just for the lower 98%, which they’ll all vote for.
Truth is, people are tired of the GOP’s shit. That’s why Obama won. That’s why in polls Americans overwhelmingly say they will blame Republicans in Congress if the fiscal cliff happens.
But here’s the best part. If they don’t get their way, Republicans are threatening to start a whole new hostage situation over the debt ceiling. The only thing that could make this more crazy is if as a compromise for raising the debt ceiling, Republicans demand another Supercommittee, which fails again, leading to automatic budget cuts that become another fiscal cliff that needs to be averted.
Maybe we’ll just be trapped in an infinite loop until we die.
Community organizing is typically associated with large urban areas. Since the beginning of modern community organizing, the most disenfranchised low-income communities of color have been concentrated in urban America, so most social justice organizations grew within urban spaces.
However, today more black, Latino and Asian people live in the suburbs than in the urban core. For about two decades, young white urban professionals have been migrating back into inner cities to be closer to job opportunities and escape the long commutes of suburbia, finding them more appealing as planners and businesses have reinvested in downtowns and crime rates have fallen. The skyrocketing rents and evictions from urban gentrification have pushed low-income communities of color out to older suburbs, moves which were aided by subprime mortgages, the housing bubble and local openness to booming sprawl development. At the same time, new immigrants to the US are increasingly moving directly to suburbs and rural areas in search of jobs rather than entering in traditional gateway cities.
In this sense, California is a glimpse into the future of the rest of the country. The tech boom in the Bay Area drove working-class families out of San Francisco and Oakland and into Pittsburg, Antioch and Stockton. The housing bubble pulled black, Asian and Latino families from LA into cities on the outskirts like Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario in search of cheap housing and job opportunities. The vast agricultural regions of the Central Valley and the Central Coast have boomed in population with Latino immigrants. The result is that not only is California as a whole majority-minority, but every significantly populated region of the state is too.
I believe community organizers should be accountable to our people, wherever they live. The fact that the vast majority of social justice organizations are still in urban areas, while most low-income people of color are not, is a serious failure of the social justice movement as a whole. We need to build our capacity to organize in many of the places where our communities live and are suffering from regressive social policies, lack of public services, vicious attacks on immigrants, etc. due to the void of progressive political influence.
Half a year ago I made a conscious choice to move to a rural/suburban area to organize. Now as my organization goes through strategic planning, I’m thinking a lot about the challenges, but also the opportunities. I think that as more social justice organizations appear in rural and suburban America, we’ll learn to better adapt our organizing models to the unique conditions here.
I know it will take much smarter and more experienced people than me to figure all of this out, and I know I’m not the first person to delve into this subject. But here are some of my thoughts so far:
1. Scarcity of progressive organizations means groups can’t specialize. There are often only a handful of relatively small organizations willing to collaborate on campaigns, they are often more service or cultural oriented, and unions, churches and neighborhood associations are much more conservative than their urban counterparts. In urban areas like Oakland, SF or LA, there is a vibrant ecosystem of organizations, all of whom have their own niches and strengths– this means some groups can focus on policy research while others focus on grassroots basebuilding while others focus on developing coalitions, messaging and strategy while others focus on electoral campaigns. Here an organization like mine has to spread itself between all of the above on multiple political issues.
2. Conservative elected officials. In most of these areas, city councils, commissions and school boards, the key decision-makers, do not yet reflect the recent demographic change. These towns have been run by “good ol’ boy” networks for a long time, and the elected officials are mostly old white men who are much more conservative than the people they now represent. They are skeptical of progressive policies and feel unaccountable to the majority of their constituents.
3. Low population density means organizing wide geographic regions. There is a pure logistical difficulty of having staff spread out over a wide rural area. My organization recently expanded to cover a region of over 100 miles. Since it takes two hours to drive from one end to the other, this means paying rent for multiple offices. Multiple offices also makes coordinating and supervising staff a huge challenge. And we have almost no ability to organize major actions where all of our neighborhood groups gather together for one rally, etc.
4. There are real Republicans here. And they’re angry. Although whites are now minorities in rural/suburban California due to younger migrants, the older generation that lives in many of these communities is especially conservative. Many openly express deep visceral anger about the demographic changes that have happened and still see the neighborhoods they live in as their homes that outsiders have invaded. Urban organizations are simply not used to encountering this type of opposition within their own base areas.
5. Local governments not prepared to provide services for low-income populations. The suburbanization of poverty has dumbfounded suburban governments who have never had significant numbers of poor residents who rely on buses to get to work, neighborhood parks for exercise, or community colleges for their children. Some services like public transit are simply more difficult to provide in suburban/rural communities, where low density makes it difficult to cost-efficiently run frequent bus routes.
1. Grabbing low-hanging policy fruit. Organizations in progressive coastal cities often try to develop new innovative policies to address issues like unemployment, environmental hazards, education achievement gaps, youth violence, etc. Many of the more basic victories have already been won years ago. In more conservative smaller cities, some of the best tried and true policies that make big impacts have never been passed. Rather than doing extensive research and convincing a local government to experiment with something new, organizations here can push for policies that have already been adopted in other areas and often have rigorous academic studies proving their success.
2. Filling electoral voids. As mentioned earlier, suburban and rural California is now majority people of color, but most local elected officials are still conservative old white men. Often these new diverse communities vote for the “good ol’ boy” candidates that don’t represent them because they’re the only ones on the ballot, or simply don’t vote for local offices at all due to a lack of worthwhile candidates. These elected officials aren’t used to competing hard for their seats and have yet to feel the heat of how the communities they represent have changed politically. Progressive, young, diverse candidates running for office fill a void and are relatively easy to elect.
3. Getting coverage in easy media markets. Although these areas have experienced rapid population growth, local news outlets have a small town mentality. They receive a fraction of the press releases, op-eds, or letters to the editor they would in urban areas and often have a sleepy civic life so actions organized by social justice organizations are shocking and newsworthy. Easy access to front page articles or the opinion page opens great opportunities to re-frame debates on local political issues.
4. Access to swing state and federal representatives. California’s most closely divided seats in Congress and the state legislature are in rural or suburban areas with changing demographics like the Central Valley, Central Coast and Inland Empire. Elected officials from either party have to compete hard for their jobs (now thanks to redistricting) and are often politically moderate, making them important targets on state or federal legislation. In comparison, organizations in urban areas with staunch progressive representatives have little ability to help pass state or national laws.
5. The community has a hunger for it. Places like West Oakland are a bit saturated with organizing. People are used to “the community man” from one organization or another coming and knocking on their door talking to them about some campaign, and are sometimes skeptical or have been burnt out by their previous involvement in a different organization. Not that any place can ever have too much organizing. But in rural and suburban communities, there’s a lack of engagement and action and people have a hunger for it.
So the bottom line: I don’t know what the ideal model for organizing outside the urban core is. But it needs to be done and an increasing number of organizations are doing it. I think there’s obviously a need for a stronger emphasis on electoral work. To some extent organizations may have to become jacks of all trades and not specialize in particular issues or strategies. Besides that I don’t know. Have any thoughts? Leave them in the comments.
Pretty soon the Supreme Court is probably going to hammer the last nail in the coffin of affirmative action. The court will be hearing the case of Abigail Fisher next week, a young white woman who was denied admission to the University of Texas, Austin and blames it on affirmative action.
I think progressives should take this opportunity to give up on fighting for race-based affirmative action. Not because it’s a bad idea, but because those of us who care about equality in education will be much more strategic and effective fighting for class-based affirmative action.
First I want to explain why I’ve always been a supporter of race-based affirmative action. I think institutionalized racism is so deeply embedded in every facet of our society that people’s education and economic outcomes are strongly affected by it from the cradle to the grave. I know there are some deniers out there. But if that inequality of opportunity wasn’t real, then why do racial achievement gaps persist so strongly? Let’s say certain types of people usually seem to win a hypothetical contest millions of times over. You can only really come to two conclusions: Either those types of people have some unfair advantages in that contest, or they are just naturally better. I’m assuming nobody who reads this blog is going to say white people are on average naturally smarter. So that leaves unfair advantage. Because education is so critical to success in the modern world, if some groups enjoy an unfair advantage over others, we have a moral responsibility to fight that.
As a product of the University of California system, where affirmative action was banned in 1995 by Prop 209, I’ve seen the exciting sneak preview of how this Supreme Court case will likely turn out for the country:
Yeah it’s kinda like that.
California’s affirmative action ban has led to a campus filled mostly with kids from the upper-middle-class suburbs of the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The many attempts to promote racial diversity by the UC system since Prop 209 have largely failed.
But sometimes, it’s less important what you wish could happen, and more important what you can actually win.
This Supreme Court, the most conservative in modern history, will probably strike down race-based affirmative action. Neither the majority of the American public nor the majority of our elected officials seem interested in keeping it.
A good political strategist knows when to throw in the towel. But a better political strategist knows when to seemingly throw in the towel, and when their opponent raises their hands in victory, hit them in the chin with a dirty ass upper-cut.
Social justice activists could abandon attempts to defend race-based affirmative action while organizing a broader coalition around class-based affirmative action that includes low-income whites. This is probably more politically winnable, legally defensible, and may be just a better policy for achieving social justice.
I’d propose some kind of comprehensive economic disadvantage index that includes factors like a student’s household income, parents’ educational attainment, neighborhood poverty rate, and what percent of students from their high school go to college.
While this doesn’t address direct discrimination by college admissions officers, it would still work against the inequality affecting youth in communities of color. Students who make it through the barriers of growing up in East Oakland or South LA will still get recognition in college admissions for the struggles they faced.
More importantly, class-based affirmative action might do more to advance equity in education anyway.
The current racial categories used in admissions are not very accurate measures of students’ privilege or disadvantage. An observant college student might notice the disproportionate share of the campus’s black community whose parents immigrated from Africa and the Caribbean. Or the fact that virtually all the Asians on campus seem to be Korean, Taiwanese or Indian. Despite the fact that many Southeast Asian communities in the US have similar levels of poverty to African-Americans and Latinos, they get lumped in the same “Asian” category as wealthier groups like Indians. And even though black immigrant communities have higher education levels and lower poverty rates, they are treated the same as black communities struggling with the legacy of American slavery.
The struggle for racial justice today is largely defined by the institutionalized racism that leads to deep and persistent poverty in communities of color. It’s a deep and complex web of oppression and no policy tool is going to be perfect.
But movements have to be built on victories. At a time when a backwards fall seems inevitable, class-based affirmative action is something we can win.
Despite the single-minded focus of the presidential election on economic issues, there has been a deafening silence on one economic issue: poverty.
However, the case of the disappearing poor people in American political discussion is about to be busted wide open. Young Americans are increasingly self-identifying as lower-class, and if trends continue this could fundamentally change American politics.
Mitt Romney faced criticism recently for defining the middle-class as anyone who makes under $200-250k a year. It’s beyond me why liberals aren’t equally outraged that Obama has been basically saying the same thing by using that exact same income level as a cut off for his demands to raise taxes on the rich.
Of course Republicans don’t talk much about poverty because they don’t care very much about poor people.
But the Democratic Party has also given up talking about poverty because it doesn’t poll well. Despite Obama’s background as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago, he has virtually stopped mentioning the word “poverty” since becoming president.
Often Democrats use “middle-class” as code for everyone but the rich. But I think many Democrats have actually abandoned thinking about poverty at all.
It’s common knowledge among poli sci douchebag undergraduates that most Americans of all income levels consider themselves middle-class, so you have to frame every political issue as how it benefits the middle-class.
Right? Wrong! According to new Pew polling, somewhere in the last few years we officially crossed the threshold—only 49% of Americans in 2012 consider themselves middle-class. Now nearly a third of Americans define themselves as “lower class”.
Where is the change coming from? Mostly a big shift in Americans under the age of 30.
Experiencing hard times in a recession is very different from altering your class identity. It takes a lot for someone who grew up in a middle-class suburb, graduated from college, whose parents still expect them to be a well-paid professional, and whose friends and romantic partners all come from pretty much that same socioeconomic background, to suddenly change their identity to being “lower class”, even if their official income puts them in that statistical tier.
I think there’s actually a deeper-level shift going on among young people who came of age during the Great Recession.
So what are the implications of that kind of shift?
Lefty activist types are always moaning about the lack of class-consciousness among the American working class. Why do so many low-income people vote against their own interests because they identify as middle-class? It’s so much harder in the US to create the political pressure to reduce income inequality. No one wants to wage another War on Poverty if everyone thinks their family is the Brady Bunch.
So if that changes, it changes everything. If our generation signals a new trend, in the next generation we could see broad new demands for the political system to serve the interests of low-income Americans: single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, free universities, strong unions, affordable housing, real public transportation and a return to 1950’s-era taxes on the rich. A change in the identity of millions of young Americans could mean no less than a reemergence of the political power of the working-class.
Although most of the chatter around Paul Ryan and his radical budget proposals has focused on his attacks on Medicare, the more brutal cuts he put forward are actually to Medicaid. The key distinction is that while Medicare is a universal social program whose benefits go to all elderly Americans, Medicaid provides healthcare primarily to low-income people, and thus must be extra offensive to people like Ryan.
In his convention speech Bill Clinton stressed how these cuts to Medicaid will actually affect many middle-class families too, because it includes funds for nursing homes and disabled children of all income levels.
Why would he say this? Because it makes strategic political sense. Because large swaths of Americans at all income levels consider themselves middle-class, entitlements that benefit the middle-class like Social Security are politically difficult to cut. Meanwhile slashing benefits that go to the poor, (as Bill Clinton should know after gutting the old welfare system) is much easier for the public to accept.
Knowing that the right-wing will always regain political power at some point and want to start slashing social programs, progressives should push for universal programs that also benefit the middle-class rather than means-tested programs that only low-income people qualify for.
For example, this would mean arguing for lowering college tuition for all students rather than expanding financial aid. (It also suggests single-payer healthcare would be much harder to get rid of by future conservatives than the subsidies provided by Obamacare.)
But wait– isn’t the whole point of social programs to redistribute wealth to those most in need? Why add a large extra cost to help people who aren’t poor?
First, there’s the strategic/political reason. If we really believe things like healthcare or education or retirement security are human rights, then when we score major victories to expand access to them, we have to make our victories last. The best way to prevent future cuts is to create universal programs that people actually see as one of their basic rights as Americans, like Social Security.
There’s also an economic/policy reason. Low-income families are essentially punished when they manage to struggle their way into the middle-class because they lose government benefits they no longer qualify for. This is the precarious reality of being lower-middle-class in America, where your family faces extra burdens just as you are barely beginning to achieve the American dream. If you instead make things like college education or healthcare guaranteed at all income levels, the government is no longer essentially penalizing people for making it into the middle-class.
One potential problem is that making a program universal necessarily makes it more expensive and thus creates political challenges to passing it in the first place. However, most middle-class families already pay for things like college and health insurance, so are likely to accept paying taxes to get them for free from the government, in the same way that most people don’t mind payroll taxes to fund their Social Security benefits, because they would have had to save for retirement anyway.
On the other hand, many middle-class people might prefer privately financing education or healthcare rather than publicly financing it because of their negative views towards government. But those negative views towards government have mostly been created in the last few decades by right-wing messaging that stirred up middle-class resentment towards low-income people for being dependent on government aid (“welfare queens”, etc.) The only way to counter it is by showing middle-class voters that the universal provision of economic rights like education and healthcare is not just about helping the poor, but about stopping the rise of economic insecurity being experienced by all Americans.
It’s Labor Day! Let’s talk about unions. Specifically about how the decline of labor unions is the biggest thing young progressives should be freaked out about and aren’t.
Now that I’ve made one sweeping bold statement with minimal evidence (isn’t that the whole point of a blog?), here goes another: I believe the economic justice movement will be the most important social movement of our generation.
Income inequality has reached levels only rivaled by those that ignited the American labor movement and the New Deal, and doesn’t show any signs of turning the other direction. Clearly the spontaneous explosion of Occupy shows that this is the biggest issue resonating with our generation right now.
The decline of organized labor is one of the largest factors in the growth of income inequality and shrinking middle class of the last few decades. Although trends like globalization and technology are creating larger gaps between rich and poor across the world, no industrialized country has experienced the immense rise in income inequality that is happening here in the US. That is to say, this problem is manmade: through policy, institutions, and culture specific to our country.
As an organizer, I believe most things happen or don’t happen as a result of political struggles whose outcomes are determined by the power built by organizing people and/or money. Given that, if we can’t figure out how to reverse our shrinking ability to organize people as workers, our hopes of achieving a more fair economy look pretty dismal.
There are all kinds of differing theories for why organized labor is in decline: unions have priced themselves out of the market in an increasingly competitive global economy, public opinion has turned against them, employers have developed a hostile anti-union culture, policy change has rigged the rules against labor organizers, the growing service sector is much harder to organize, etc.
Policy does play a role—an op-ed today from economist Dean Baker highlights how Canada has not had a decline in union membership during the several decades that unions have been decimated in America. Baker credits the legality of card-check unionization drives, where a majority of workers simply have to sign a card, rather than an election where employers can delay, intimidate, and fire union supporters. However, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have created a similar system in the US died in Congress and is unlikely to pass any time soon. I think legislation requiring strict time limits for union elections and harsh penalties for employer intimidation would be a more likely alternative in the more conservative political culture of the US.
However, I think the path to real change lies in a complete overhaul of the American labor movement. Complaints about unfair rules, although true, show the myopic stagnation of modern American organized labor. At the height of the American labor movement, unions were illegal in the US. You don’t get much more “hostile policy environment” than Pinkerton detectives literally beating your ass in the streets.
The truth is, the American economy has changed completely since the 1970’s. Labor organizing has to shift as the economy shifts. Organized labor found itself at a similar hopeless low point in the 1920’s, as America had made a major transition into an industrial economy, where craft unions had become increasingly irrelevant. Skilled craftsmen had been replaced by industrial machines that employed masses of unskilled immigrant laborers who the old unions viewed as unorganizable. But the CIO built a new model of unionization that sought to organize whole factories, whole industries at a time using strikes and sit-ins. The CIO’s meteoric rise ushered in the height of the American labor movement and the largest middle class ever created in world history.
We are moving from an industrial to a service economy, and this change has dramatically accelerated during the Great Recession. Although most of the jobs lost were in middle-class sectors like manufacturing and construction, most of the jobs being gained are in low-wage industries like hospitality, food service, and retail. This is the growing share of the economy that most unions have long dismissed as unorganizable—service jobs dominated by young people, women and people of color, where worksites contain small groups of people scattered across large geographic areas who are often part-time or temporary.
We need a new organizing model for the service economy—not just unions that organize service workers, because there are a few (and to give them some deserved credit, these are some of the most progressive unions today). But a whole new model, like the CIO invented for industrial workers.
We can continue to have broadly shared prosperity and a strong middle-class with a service-based economy. Service workers can and should have the dignity of being able to afford to live in a safe home, to take care of their family when they get sick, to send their kids to a good school and to retire after working hard in life. There is no inherent reason why an assembly line worker should be able to be middle-class and a service worker should be poor, except for the fact that it is easier to organize a union under the current model in a GM factory than a Chipotle.
What should this new model look like? I have no idea and won’t pretend to. I have spent zero years as a labor organizer and only a few years as a service worker.
What I do know is that it will likely take the collective brains of a lot of great organizers to figure it out.
But what we don’t need is more of the same. We don’t need unions spending so much of their time pushing bills like EFCA that are dead on arrival. We don’t need unions fighting losing battles over trade agreements and globalization. We don’t need unions being cash cows for the Democratic Party and then being ignored as soon as elections are over. We don’t need unions clinging to the last safe harbor, the public sector, where unions are seen as a special interest pitted in opposition to the average taxpayer rather than workers fighting against corporate greed.
What we need is a real investment in organizing new workers, and an approach that is open to experimentation. (If I had more space I’d like to give credit where credit is due to the many examples where this is already starting to happen.)
So here’s where the young progressive activists come in. Of all the friends I know who went into community organizing, campaign work, policy work, nonprofits, etc. since I graduated, I only know one who decided to be a labor organizer.
If we believe in a fair, sustainable economy with human dignity for all, we must create a vibrant labor movement. If we want to rejuvenate the labor movement, it will require experimenting with new approaches to organizing service workers. And if we want the establishment of organized labor in America to try new models of organizing service workers, we young people have to start putting our shoulders up against that bureaucratic wall and pushing against the heavy inertia of tradition.
And if we don’t? It’s our asses on the line. It’s us and our friends who will be struggling to support families on that paycheck from the mall.
Happy Labor Day, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but history shows that it’s not impossible. If our predecessors could do it against all odds, so can we.
Occupy Wall Street is not the Tea Party of the Left. Those trying to predict the movement’s impact should stop wondering whether the protesters will adopt “clear demands” and look instead at strategy and structure. Pundits speculate the movement might sweep into power in Congress, as the Tea Party did in 2010. But for many of the protesters, winning the upcoming elections or passing bills is not the goal of the movement. They have a deeper discontent, struggling against the very structure of modern American society.
The Tea Party knew what it wanted immediately and took it. Far from a motley crew, the Tea Party is actually a highly regimented election machine run by some of the sharpest conservative political operatives in the country, which has harnessed the power of corporate money and grassroots organizing to relentlessly push a single legislative goal: cut everything. Occupy Wall Street’s greatest strength, its democratic spontaneity, is also a natural disadvantage that will keep it from ever becoming the Tea Party. But it could rival it by forming membership organizations to sustain networks of supporters, using an electoral strategy run by experienced progressive strategists, and rallying around spokespeople who can powerfully convey the vision of the movement.
Politicians are driven by fear and opportunity. Members of Congress will not take action unless they fear Occupy Wall Street as they did the Tea Party. If OWS rejects a legislative/electoral strategy, its absence in November 2012 will not be the fault of the protesters, but the fault of establishment progressive politicians, donors, and strategists for sitting on the sidelines.
The difference is not in type of strategy, but in the existence of a centralized strategy itself. Beneath the surface the Tea Party is run by veteran Republican Party political operatives, such as Dick Armey, who runs FreedomWorks. It is funded with a deep war chest from long-time Republican campaign donors like the Koch brothers. These strategists were the architects of the monumental grassroots pressure during the summer of 2009 that put healthcare reform on life support. They crafted the talking points that shouted down Democratic members of Congress in town hall meetings across America and jammed the phone lines on Capitol Hill. By November 2010, they had built powerful voter mobilization networks of canvassers and phonebankers, and recruited, trained, and funded candidates that swept Congress, knocking out Democrats and traditional Republicans alike.
Veteran Republican politicians like John McCain dropped their moderate leanings and moved to the right, fearing more conservative primary challengers. Democrats in swing districts feared the power of the Tea Party’s electoral machine even more. Even the Republican congressional leadership feared the threat of rebellion from the Tea Party Caucus at any hint of moderation. The Tea Party pushed their demands relentlessly, through ruthless brinksmanship over default on the national debt, government shutdown, unemployment insurance, even hurricane disaster relief. And they won big again and again, forcing trillions of dollars in cuts.
Congress does not fear Occupy Wall Street the way they feared the Tea Party. The feeble lip service of Democrats and the scornful shrugs of Republicans show they feel no urgency to meet their demands. This is not an underestimation of their strength, but a calculation of their strategy. OWS is built on disillusionment with Washington that may extend all the way to the ballot box. No one can be sure how many of the protestors will even vote in November, let alone build something like the Tea Party’s campaign juggernaut.
It’s impossible to foresee what impact the movement will have on the next election, but without a significant change of direction, it may be almost none. If this happens, don’t blame the occupying protesters. They aren’t the cause of a lack of faith in government, they are a symptom. We should blame the James Carvilles for not building electoral campaigns around this movement, and blame the George Soros’s for not funding its operations. Michelle Bachmann formed the Tea Party Caucus four months before the elections that swept the Tea Party into power. A charismatic young progressive member of Congress should be forming the “99% Caucus” in Congress right now.
The Tea Party gained influence even before the election because members knew that it would soon be at their doorstep. They were already feeling the mounting pressure of citizens who packed their events and flooded their offices with calls. This gave Tea Party organizers short-term victories, such as the watering down of health care reform and the abandonment of capping carbon emissions.
Short-term victories keep up the momentum in social movements, energizing participants who can easily lose focus or faith in their own efforts. People participating in the political process for the first time can be inspired by a new movement they identify with, but easily let down when it runs up against the wall of political inertia.
We’ll see if the Occupy Wall Street movement can win any short-term victories. It will need a clear immediate battle to focus on. This is much more important than whether or not they choose to develop a laundry list platform of demands. If they choose not to take up a legislative agenda, they could use direct action tactics like recruiting millions to switch from banks to credit unions.
If they do want to take up battles over specific legislation, like the Tea Party did with health care reform, it will require them to be feared and respected in Congress. They will need to create a situation where Democrats are genuinely afraid that if they don’t stand behind a dramatic increase in taxes on the richest 1% of Americans, they will be thrown out by a popular primary challenger from the left. Republicans in swing districts will need to be afraid that if they don’t vote against their party, a grassroots opponent will mobilize volunteers and energize donors to take their seat.
This is unlikely to happen with OWS without a significant shift in direction. They would need one short-term issue focus, a few Congressional champions to write legislation for them, a strategy for pressuring members of Congress to vote their way, and the electoral muscle to back up their threats if they don’t.
The Tea Party has a key advantage over Occupy Wall Street: easy messaging. The Tea Party has a message of destruction. Get rid of government. Take it out with a chainsaw, not with a scalpel. They don’t care how, they just want it big and they want it now. $200 billion is better than $100 billion in budget cuts. $300 billion is better than $200 billion. They don’t need a ten-point platform. They have a one-point platform.
What does OWS want? Do they want higher taxes on the top 1% for deficit reduction, job creation, social services, or lower taxes on the rest of us? The weakening of corporate influence in Washington? Stronger financial reform to prevent another meltdown? Or do they want a society that simply gets rid of big financial institutions? Do they envision the ultimate overthrow of modern multinational corporate capitalism and a return to simple regional economies, expansive social safety nets, or some sort of cooperative system?
The truth is, “they” don’t want anything. Individual people within the movement want different things—they are each disparate pixels in a picture that has yet to emerge in clarity. Whether or not to draft up specific demands is one of the main contentions between rival camps within the movement.
Of course the minute details of financial regulation or campaign finance reform should be worked out by legislators and policy experts. They can analyze the Volcker Rule and leverage ratios and disclosure requirements for independent expenditure-only committees. Those who say the people in Zuccotti Park need to work them out are ignoring the history of social movements. But unfortunately, the problems of political and economic inequality this movement seeks to solve will require extremely complex solutions, unlike the perceived problem the Tea Party seeks to solve, which only requires budget cutting.
Eventually, as the Wisconsin protesters coalesced around “Kill the Bill” and the Egyptian protesters demanded the resignation of Mubarak, successful protests will need a clear short-term demand that can be met by their targets. This gives them the first decisive victory they need to grow.
If OWS develops an immediate goal, their next challenge will be selling it to the public. The movement started with a much steeper uphill climb in getting media recognition than the Tea Party. It took hundreds arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge to be taken seriously by the press. The Tea Party had national spokespeople, such as Glenn Beck, who could articulate and broadcast their goals to millions from the mountaintop of the most widely viewed news network in America. This gave them message control, in addition to the natural message control that comes with wanting something so simplistic.
Think of any major social movement in American history. The first thing that comes to mind is often its spokespeople. Why? Not because Martin Luther King Jr. himself singlehandedly delivered civil rights to America. But because he was the spokesperson that articulated the movement’s vision to the average American. He provided a coherent “dream”, an idea of a more just world that people could picture in their minds, an imagined world that seemed better than the existing reality.
A spokesperson can make a radical idea make sense to everyday people. Without spokespeople, reporters delight in interviewing the most ignorant person they can find in a crowd and portraying an entire movement as insane. When reporters know the leader they need a quote from for every new political development, they interview them. Malcolm X was a communications genius, explaining the tenets of Black Nationalism with remarkable clarity and denying the media the ability to portray his followers as disorganized and confused.
This kind of message discipline requires spokespeople, and will be hard to enforce on a movement that is so democratic it resists using microphones. This highlights the real difference between OWS and the Tea Party: OWS is actually grassroots, while the Tea Party is artificial. Most Tea Party members are not regular struggling Americans who suddenly turned against Obama’s economic policies; the vast majority of Tea Party members are longtime registered Republicans who were excited about hating Obama. Their movement briefly captured the imagination of the country, but lost popularity as Americans recognized it as a cheap reproduction of old ideas. However, many OWS protesters are disillusioned people who are participating in political action for the first time in their lives, who didn’t even vote in the last election. They emotionally connect to new recruits in a way the Tea Party simply can’t, using the language of those who feel voiceless and helpless in the new American Gilded Age.
They are fiercely against hierarchy and wary of leaders of the Democratic Party who might proclaim themselves spokespeople. But movements tend to gravitate to charismatic leaders, and sooner or later, one will likely emerge. Elizabeth Warren seems like an ideal pick. If she risked her Senate bid to step into the front of this movement, she might become much more powerful than a regular US Senator. Whether someone like her can organize OWS to have focused message control will determine much of the movement’s success.
In retrospect we imagine nebulous movements, but they are built on institutions. No one joined the Civil Rights Movement. They didn’t come to a Civil Rights Movement meeting or take a Civil Rights Movement flier. They came to a SNCC meeting or an SCLC meeting or a CORE meeting. Those organizations created long-term strategies around specific issues, built networks of members on personal relationships, and executed actions around which they could mobilize people and pressure decision-makers to act.
Movements are sparked before institutions. Oddly enough, the Tea Party was ignited by an on-air rant from a stock trader turned financial reporter. OWS was launched by Canadian activist magazine Adbusters.
But sooner or later, without institutions to actively organize members, the rallies start to get smaller and smaller, while elected officials dismiss yet another has-been movement which lost its glamour. Some activists are professional rally-starters who know only one tactic: mobilizing, which they confuse with organizing. The difference between mobilizing and organizing is the ability to drive something long-term through relationship building and continuous leadership development. It takes little more than putting up posters or making a Facebook event to start a huge rally the day the government announces an unpopular decision. The question is: can you bring out a few thousand people again when lobbyists try to silently kill your bill in committee? Do you even know the names of the people you mobilized?
If I Google “Tea Party,” on the first page of results I find the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express, Tea Party.org and the Patriot Action Network. I can sign up to volunteer, donate and find events in my area on the first page of each of their websites.
This may happen with Occupy Wall Street, but it hasn’t yet. To win long-term goals like abolishing corporate personhood, requiring a constitutional amendment, OWS needs a sustainable movement. It will need to create organizations, which may not be able to function on general assembly consensus-only decision-making. A movement should never have one central organization. But OWS could, like the Tea Party, end up with several core organizations.
The Tea Party is an unusual movement with its ranks of millions ready to hit the pavement, but the checkbook of a movement whose goals coincide perfectly with corporate America. I don’t think this advantage is unbeatable. A “99% PAC” could raise Obama-esque money online from small donors and potentially go head to head against big oil, banks, and insurance companies. With the movement behind them, a fiery populist candidate could run for senate raising money online from individuals, not corporations.
This movement may build institutions as it matures. But it also may reject institutions as undemocratic and stifling. Many people, probably a few of my friends, would read this essay and complain that I’m attempting to introduce hierarchy, bureaucratize the movement or let it be co-opted by unions or the Democratic Party to win elections. But if this movement is still standing strong two years from now, it will have built long-lasting institutions to carry on the fight.
This country needs a new powerful and enduring grassroots movement with fresh ideas and passionate energy. It has not been political parties, but movements like these that have changed history. But for every successful movement, there have been ten revolutions that suffered quiet deaths of irrelevance, movements which have flashed and disappeared, slipping into the footnotes of history. If America has any chance of reversing our rampant political and economic inequality, it will need a movement like this to be strategic, to move us, to last, and to make us feel like we own our country again.