While mandatory paid maternity (and often paternity) leave is nearly universal across the globe and broadly popular with policy experts and the public, it’s had difficulty gaining traction in Congress. But by learning from the lessons of the Fight For 15 movement that has increased the minimum wage in cities across the US, advocates could soon find this policy sweeping the country like wildfire, with DC as the first spark.
Why a Popular Policy Goes Nowhere in Congress
Much like paid family leave, the public overwhelmingly supports raising the minimum wage, which has absolutely no effect on whether a congressional bill will be signed into law. Momentum for a higher minimum wage is being fueld by the combination of a political landscape dominated by a national debate over economic inequality and an economic landscape where a wageless economic “recovery” has failed to raise average workers’ incomes. Support for raising the wage is shared broadly across race, age, income, gender and even political party divides because for most people it’s a simple moral issue: no one who works full-time should live in poverty. Yet while few people support a low minimum wage, lobbying powers like the Chamber of Commerce and National Restaurant Association have managed to grind the issue to a halt in Congress. Corporate interests with deep pockets are able to hold Republican lawmakers tightly in line with the business agenda while also maintaining a firm grip on Democrats in swing districts seeking big money donors for tough reelection battles. In the gridlocked era where virtually zero meaningful legislation has been signed into law since the Tea Party wave of 2010, something like the minimum wage is dead on arrival, no matter how much popularity it has with the public.
Paid family leave has similar broad support, including a majority of Republicans—who would be against parents being allowed to spend time with their newborn children? Its growing popularity is tied to rising concerns about American work-life balance as the average workweek reaches 47 hours and American women’s presence in the workplace has stalled while continuing to rise in other countries. Major companies like Netflix have gained recent national attention and praise for adopting paid family leave for their workers (although they exclude their low-wage workers who need it most, showing why we can’t rely on the benevolence of our corporation-people-friends). It’s become a major campaign issue in the 2016 presidential election, playing a prominent role in the first Democratic debate and even getting lip service from Marco Rubio. Yet despite being one of the most popular kids at the public policy party, family leave faces the same impossible odds in Congress as the minimum wage.
Why the Fight for 15 Movement is Working Anyway
Despite a congress made dysfunctional by GOP obstruction and corporate money, the national movement to raise the minimum wage went in two years from impossible to unstoppable. When fast food workers first began striking in 2013, demanding $15/hour wages, serious journalists and political pundits inside the beltway dismissed the cause as laughable. But the labor and social justice organizers working to lay the groundwork of the FightFor15 movement knew what they were doing. The strategy had been tested already with a push for a modest $10 minimum wage ballot initiative in San Jose delivering a win in 2012. The first $15/hour minimum wage victory came in 2013 with a massive and expensive battle in the tiny town of Seatac, WA, whose economy is anchored by the Seattle-Tacoma international airport. Seatac was the perfect place to prove that 15 was possible. Meanwhile nearby, the $15 minimum wage debate had landed in the center of the Seattle mayoral race and after the election the city council negotiated an agreement with business interests to pass an increase, bringing national attention as the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage. Wage increases continued to sweep the left-leaning West Coast, especially the many cities of the San Francisco Bay Area. Moderate minimum wage hikes were put on the ballot across the country in the 2014 election, passing in four rural red states. When the Los Angeles City Council reached an agreement this year to pass a $15 wage in the second largest city in the US, raising up a low-wage workforce many times the size of Seattle or San Francisco, there was no denying that $15 had gone from pipe dream to national benchmark.
The strategy was a tectonic shift for the labor movement. Traditionally unions have invested massive resources into electing Democrats to Washington, DC and trying to push them to take a pro-labor stance on federal legislation, a strategy which has had little success on key issues like opposing trade agreements and removing barriers to workers unionizing. Yet over the past few years, organized labor has experimented with investing heavily in local grassroots organizing, including fast food and retail workers who face long odds of forming unions under current laws. They’ve pushed full steam ahead with minimum wage campaigns, often using ballot initiatives to bypass elected officials influenced by corporate donors and ride strong support among regular people to victory.
Fight for 15’s strategic brilliance is based on a few key concepts perfectly tailored to the political environment of the 2010’s:
- Going Hard: Winning these battles requires maximizing the one asset we have– people power. By staking out a position like $15/hour strong enough to actually excite and mobilize regular people (even if the conventional wisdom of political elites said it was impossible) Fight for 15 built an unstoppable movement from the ground up.
- Going Local: The farther away from regular people the decisionmaking process gets, the less power everyday working people have and the more power corporate lobbyists have. Pushing for citywide or sometimes statewide minimum wage hikes built grassroots momentum and kept the movement from being bogged down in Washington DC.
- Going Simple: Of the many policy ideas to address economic inequality, the minimum wage is one of the simplest, which paints the choice for voters in clear moral terms. The more this battle is fought out in broad daylight rather than in backroom negotiations over the wonky details of obscure policy, the more it draws a clear divide between corporate lobbyists and regular people.
Why Paid Family Leave is Next
The DC proposal for paid family leave picks up on all of these strategic elements. It’s the first time paid family leave has ever been done at a city level. It’s also far bolder of a proposal than any state has adopted, with no state offering more than 8 weeks or coming close to fully paying workers’ normal income during that time. (Here in California you can get up to 6 weeks at 55% of your normal wages by tapping into your state disability benefits). The DC plan is 16 weeks fully paid leave for workers who earn up to $52k a year, with half pay above that, and includes adoption and LGBT families. And while it’s a little more complex than a minimum wage increase, the overall concept is a simple one that makes obvious sense to the average voter.
While a majority of American workers earn above $15 an hour, only 11% of Americans have paid family leave. Paid family leave makes the biggest difference in the lives of working-class women, but it also helps bring in the solidarity of professional-class women who know how precarious their own economic status can be and how awful family care policy is in the US. And it taps into a growing number of men, especially young men who came of age in a time of shifting gender roles, and genuinely want to be present in their children’s lives but are being held back by Stone Age workplace policies and cultures that don’t accommodate paternal leave. In fact, men doubled their share of taking family leave after California adopted paid family leave in 2004.
A good campaign can be led by the people who are most directly affected, brings in new people to the movement and energizes those who are already part of it, makes tangible lasting change in people’s lives, exposes the bad guys for how shitty they truly are, and ultimately shifts the balance of power. That’s what Fight for 15 has done and that’s what paid family leave has the potential to do too.
It’s part of something bigger
What’s happening right now is not just a series of campaigns to raise the minimum wage. It’s the revival of a labor movement that engages the vast majority of Americans who aren’t union members. It’s collective bargaining at a mass scale of not just one company’s employees, but the population of entire regional economies like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. It’s not just minimum wage increases that are being won by this strategy. Many of the ballot initiatives and ordinances have also included paid sick days and wage theft enforcement. San Francisco has even begun to lay out the right to a predictable, sane, work schedule.
In the 21st century, grassroots local movements are not just going to lead the way on increasing the minimum wage. They’re going to push cities and counties and states to pass stronger enforcement of existing wage laws, enact paid sick days, paid family leave, reasonable hours and scheduling, health and safety standards, and perhaps even equality for the most disenfranchised workers excluded from many labor laws like domestic workers and farmworkers.
Movements like Fight for 15 that raise standards for all workers from the bottom up are reminding us why we ever had a labor movement in the first place. They’re reminding us why fighting for the dignity of working people matters. They’re reminding us that when it comes to the national debate on economic inequality, workers outnumber and outvote bosses. They’re reminding us that when we organize, we win.
From an outburst in open feminism in media and popular culture, to the growing strength of grassroots activism around issues like sexual assault, reproductive rights and equal pay, in recent years the fight for gender equality has undergone a revival among the American mainstream public. This could have huge implications for the raging debate on economic inequality.
The knife of American poverty cuts deep, but it has always cut deepest against women and people of color. Politically marginalized groups have long been on the front lines of right-wing attacks on the working-class and poor. This is the only way conservative politicians can be accountable to an elite agenda that prioritizes corporate profits, while still saving face with their voter base of white working-class men.
This is why so many basic labor protection laws exclude jobs like farm work and domestic work historically performed by people of color and women. And although most Americans on welfare are white working-class people, this is why the movement to dismantle welfare in the 1980’s-1990’s was largely driven by rhetoric targeting urban black welfare recipients, ultimately wreaking devastating harm to poor women and children across racial lines.
Yet while the racial skew of poverty and economic inequality is highly visible in American political debates, the gender skew is often invisible and unspoken. Conservatives have a good reason not to talk about it: the danger of 150 million women finding their economic interests to be more closely aligned with the left. But why have progressives failed to talk about women and economic inequality? Perhaps because in the past four decades where inequality soared, the feminist movement (like many other progressive social movements) was struggling, a shadow of its former political strength.
If mass feminism had been more well-organized and politically powerful in the 80’s and 90’s, and more accountable to the concerns of low-income women, could the left have stopped what was perhaps the most devastating attack on single mothers ever enacted in United States history? It’s hard to know. But what is important is the question before us now: If feminism is truly making a resurgence among the American general population, will it be the force that allows us to break through on economic inequality?
For decades, we’ve seen the same battle lines in political struggles around support programs for the poor and the rights and wages of workers. Corporate interests push lower wages, taxes, and regulations to grow their profits, while labor unions and organizations representing people of color fight for the opposite. As you might imagine, the corporate interests usually win. While women’s organizations and other groups on the left have often weighed in on the debate, it has traditionally been in a backseat role. (The labor movement’s history of sexism plays no small role in this dynamic.) So the core political coalition for fighting poverty in the US has traditionally been made up essentially of people of color and union members. The former has grown over the last few decades while the latter has shrunk, consistently leaving the political base against inequality a mathematically outnumbered minority for an entire generation.
But although it is rarely framed this way, poverty is overwhelmingly a women’s issue. Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women, and seven in ten Americans living in poverty are women and children (mostly kids in female-headed households). An economy that increasingly puts profits before families through lack of paid parental and sick leave, unaffordable childcare and preschool, and workers’ lack of control over hours and scheduling, is forcing many American women to leave the labor force. The ongoing attacks against teachers and other unionized public service workers fall heavily on women, as the public sector provides a huge share of female employment and much less gender wage inequality than the private sector. There are even unseen gender dynamics at play in debates like whether tipped workers should be excluded from the minimum wage (most tipped workers have historically been women, who face rampant sexual harassment in service professions, especially when tips at the whim of the customer make up virtually their entire incomes.)
As feminism picks up steam again with the American public, the sheer number of female voters makes it a political force to be reckoned with. This is also not your grandmother’s feminism: the modern feminist movement is much more inclusive of working-class women and women of color. Modern feminists are not simply content to lean in to climb their way up the corporate ladder, but are instead organizing collectively to fight for economic equality for women as a whole through systemic policy change.
The Democratic Party is already starting to seize the opportunity. In the 2014 midterm elections, one of the party’s strongest messages focused on how the Affordable Care Act banned a common practice of insurance companies charging women higher premiums and improved the affordability of reproductive healthcare. Another powerful campaign message hammered Republicans for voting against legislation to address unequal pay between men and women in the workplace. Meanwhile, it seems that Hillary Clinton’s policy team is preparing an economic agenda for 2016 that pushes back against economic inequality with an emphasis on women and families.
It’s a smart move for Democrats. There’s a reason the party’s pivot towards a firmer stance on economic inequality has been politically successful. What could be a better issue than one that energizes Democrats’ core base voters of people of color, young people and non-married women, while simultaneously driving a wedge between white working-class men and the corporate elite that dominate the Republican Party? More importantly, what could be a better issue than one that actually fundamentally, tangibly and immediately improves the lives of people of color, young people, women, and white working-class men while hurting the pocketbooks of the corporate elite?
But to truly grasp the significance of this possibility, we have to view it in historical context. From the 1930’s to the 1960’s the New Deal Coalition, made up of the white industrial working-class, the white rural poor, and most racial and religious minority groups, was the most powerful force in American history working to end poverty, and built the largest middle-class the world had ever seen. But when Nixon’s Republican Party used racial fears as a wedge to separate rural whites, particularly in the South, away from the rest of the American working-class, the coalition fell apart. Since then, America has lived without a strong political majority organized against economic inequality, and watched as the rungs on the economic ladder grew farther and farther apart. If a rising feminist movement is willing to take on economic inequality, we may finally have a chance to rebuild that majority and provide real economic security and opportunity for millions.
The hottest trend in education right now seems to be buying an iPad for every student, especially in high poverty schools. By providing tablets to students who may not have computer access at home, the theory goes, we can ensure all children in America have the skills they need to succeed in a 21st century economy.
But the sudden popularity of iPads among school administrators despite opposition from many teachers and parents should raise questions: Are iPads actually the most effective tool to bridge the digital divide? If our education system is preparing low-income children for the 21st century, what role are they being trained to play: producers of digital content or consumers of it?
Working at a community group engaging the public in major decisions on spending new funding in several California school districts, I’ve encountered mostly negative reactions to the iPad trend. Teachers bemoan distracted students (LA schools recalled their iPads after students figured out within a week how to unblock access to sites like Facebook and YouTube). Parents worry that children will get jumped walking home in rough neighborhoods with iPads in their backpacks. Most students are happy to get a free iPad, but often say they think it’s a waste of money when compared with other more urgent school needs.
With such thin community support, why are they being adopted at such a ferocious pace? Part of the answer is Common Core, new education standards where testing is now done on computers. Another part is strong marketing from Apple, who reaps major profits by controlling a staggering 94% of the market for school tablets. (While building long-term brand loyalty from a huge future customer base.) Finally, superintendents face an incentive to spend funds on things like iPads for everyone, which are highly visible and often generate positive media attention, rather than something like restoring furlough days cut from the school calendar, which is barely noticed by the public.
None of this is to argue against school districts investing in technology. I believe in integrating technology in schools and I’ve personally benefitted from these efforts. My elementary school in the 90’s was stocked with donated Apple computers, which I remember exploring with awe. I attended a technology magnet high school that had classes from video editing to web design to computer repair, as well as a mandatory tech literacy curriculum, which included learning to use Excel, Powerpoint, Publisher, Photoshop and even create basic Flash animation. I rolled my eyes at being forced to learn these programs then, but now use most of them on a regular basis at work.
Schools should be making targeted efforts to close the digital divide. More and more, college classes and middle-class jobs assume a basic level of computer skills. A lack of familiarity with Microsoft Excel or Powerpoint can cripple the career success of people from low-income families.
But the digital divide is more complicated than it appears. Surprisingly enough, smartphone ownership in the US is actually higher among blacks and Latinos than whites. We live in a society that’s difficult to participate in without the internet and many low-income families who can’t afford home computers or wi-fi use smartphones as their primary source of internet access.
The real digital divide isn’t about unequal access to mobile technology like smartphones and tablets. It’s about unequal access to real computers.
Here’s the difference: computers are producer tools, tablets are consumer tools.
If you teach a kid from a poor family how to use a tablet to surf the web, he/she has learned how to be a consumer of online content. But if you want him/her to learn how to make a webpage, rather than just look at one, they’ll probably need to learn on a computer, not an iPad.
But this isn’t just about teaching children to be web designers and software engineers. A major barrier that shuts low-income people out of white collar jobs in general is lack of more basic computer skills like being able to make a slideshow presentation for a meeting, design a simple publication about a topic, analyze and manipulate a spreadsheet of data, or even type quickly on a keyboard. None of these are skills you learn on an iPad.
It’s hard to predict the advances of technology, and maybe in twenty years I’ll look back and think this was naïve of me to say. But at a fundamental level, the whole point of a tablet is simplicity and mobility—it’s a product intentionally kept simple to allow it to be small, slick and mobile—which means it’s meant to supplement computers, not replace them. A tablet’s main purpose is to easily access content that’s actually created on a computer.
Let’s ask ourselves what we’re really trying to do here: What’s the deeper shift we’re trying to create through these school tech initiatives? Are we trying to widen the consumer base for the tech industry by making it possible for more people to watch videos and read articles online? Or are we trying to create a world that opens access to low-income communities of color as not just consumers, but producers of digital content as well?
It’s not only more cost effective, but more useful to invest in shared computer labs at school sites where students can learn to actually make things: Whether it’s writing code, editing videos, doing graphic design, turning data into charts and graphs, or making powerpoints and posters, these are 21st century skills that empower rather than commodify students.
If we’re about real meaningful access to the 21st century economy—about kids having a fair shot at living wage jobs and getting out of poverty—iPads for everyone is not the answer.
If you haven’t heard of “Men’s Rights Activists”, they’re a disturbing bunch: A loosely organized network of men primarily concerned with the injustices of being stuck in the “friend zone” and women accusing them of rape, whose activities of choice seem to be writing angry and threatening things about feminists in the dark corners of the internet.
But although the conversation has mostly been dominated by fundamentally bad people, there is an undeniable need for an open conversation between men about gender in our society.
Deeply ingrained gender roles and expectations touch every aspect of our families, our jobs, our health, in ways that are incredibly harmful not just to women, but also to men. We grew up within the constraints of a warped vision of manhood, one that says masculinity is not just about strength, but about violent aggression, not just about protective care but about possession, not just about resilience, but about never being vulnerable. This twisted caricature of manhood is reflected in the ways we treat each other every day, our laws and institutions, our economy and popular culture. A real men’s rights activism would appreciate the good in masculinity while pushing back against the ways in which our society’s distorted understanding of manhood hurts us.
The problem starts with the idea that men are invincible. That we are the ones born with the strength to fight wars and build economies. But it ends with the idea that men are disposable. That our bodies can be thrown down coal mines and into battlefields and prisons, often in the name of “protecting” women, who we view as too weak to work long or dangerous hours and endure such harsh violence and punishment. A real men’s rights activism would stand up for the rights of workers, fight our relentlessly expanding prison system, and demand an end to war.
Women continue to bear the brunt of poverty in America, with low-wage jobs justified by the assumption that women don’t need to be paid equally. But gender is also used as a tool to exploit male workers through long hours and dangerous conditions. The most under-regulated sectors of the economy, where worker injuries and deaths are commonplace, overwhelmingly employ men. Attempts to improve worker safety standards in constructing buildings, extracting minerals, managing waste, and operating heavy machinery are crushed by deep-pocketed corporate lobbying that manipulates powerful social norms viewing men as indestructible work machines. While other countries have shortened the work-week, mandated paid vacation time, supported earlier retirement, and even provided paternity leave for men to take care of newborn children, the American man is supposed to be tough and hard-working. He is not supposed to mind late nights at the office away from his family or missing most of his child’s first months of life. American males work more hours in their lifetimes than anyone else in the industrialized world. As more and more women have entered the workplace in recent decades, men are not working less hours as some might have predicted, if anything they are working more, particularly white-collar college-educated men. Where is the outrage from so-called “Men’s Rights Activists”? Who stands up for men’s rights to be more than cogs in the machine of economic production, to be safe at work and spend time with their families?
The explosion of America’s prison population in recent decades overwhelmingly affects men. The US holds more prisoners than any other nation in the world. With 5% of the population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners, due to harsh laws mandating unusually long prison sentences, heavy imprisonment of nonviolent drug users, low investment in prevention and rehabilitation, and a parole system that throws people back in prison as a response to minor violations like missing meetings. While prison policy is often labeled a black or Latino issue, it would more accurately be described as a men’s issue, with men representing over nine in ten inmates. Our ever-expanding prison industrial complex is made possible by our society’s perceptions of men—young men, low-income men, men of color—but ultimately men. We stubbornly reject proven cost-efficient and effective reforms like preventing crime by investing in programs for at-risk boys or helping formerly incarcerated men adjust back into society with education and job opportunities. Those are “hug-a-thug” women’s solutions. Real men understand that other men are violent and irreversibly dangerous—they cannot be helped by compassion but instead must be separated for decades from their families and communities. The show “Orange is the New Black” is largely successful because it depicts a women’s prison—we are capable of being horrified by the shocking conditions only once we can imagine women having to endure them. But we will never reform our prison system until we can recognize the humanity of other men.
There is no greater testament to our society’s willingness to treat men as disposable than war. Who fills the caskets that return home draped in flags? Who are the faces of the homeless veterans who line freeway exits and downtown sidewalks? Who are the survivors of war facing job discrimination and social isolation from disabilities and post-traumatic stress? When women and children are victims of war we are disgusted, horrified, inconsolable, outraged—why can’t we muster the same compassion for fellow men? We have swallowed the lie that we are so strong that our lives aren’t worth saving. If “Men’s Rights Activists” truly cared about fundamentally improving the lives of men they would be marching in the streets for peace, not grumbling about feminists on Reddit. It is not women who are sending us to die overseas, but powerful men who place such little value on the lives of other men.
These problems fall most heavily on working-class and poor men who fill our prisons, our most deadly jobs, and the ranks of our military. This puts men under an unrelenting pressure to succeed in today’s brutally competitive economy to escape the fleeting life expectancy of low-income men in America. It’s easy to think that only young men or only black men or only poor men end up behind bars or dying in Afghanistan or working in a steel mill, but middle-class college-educated men should remember that this system thrives on that mentality. Men are constantly running an economic rat race because somewhere inside we recognize that we are only one slip away from the fate we condemn other men to because we think they should be tough enough to handle it.
If we want to make life better for men, we must stop blaming women. We must remember that the gender roles that reduce women to silent property and sexual objects are the same that reduce men to emotionless machines made for fighting and hard labor. Feminists are not enemies of men, but allies in a common struggle to reclaim our humanity. When we refuse to believe women who survive rape and blame victims for “asking for it”, we feed a society that views us as uncontrollable sexual monsters who must not be provoked, that makes women afraid to see us on the street and parents afraid to trust us with their children. When we try to justify the pay gap by saying men work harder or negotiate better or deserve to make more because we financially support women, we feed a society that judges men’s worth by our ability to make lots of money and be cutthroat competitors who live for work alone and never see our families. When we defend the domination of all levels of government by “strong, tough” men and not “irrational, weak” women, we feed a society that continues to send millions of our fellow men to die in battle and rot in prison because that’s what strong, masculine leadership supposedly stands for.
So-called “Men’s Rights Activists” have only succeeded in carving out a little online world that provides an outlet for validating a few men’s deep-seated bitterness towards some particular women in their personal lives. But we deserve better than that. We deserve a world that doesn’t treat men as disposable machines, one where we live longer, freer, happier lives. We can’t get there by hating women. We can only get there by loving ourselves.
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.
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.
A recent NY Times article highlighted a study of a 1990’s government program that gave subsidies to low-income urban families to move to the suburbs. The theory was that families who left neighborhoods of concentrated poverty would experience better education, better jobs and higher incomes.
The program was a complete failure in achieving those goals. Families in the program got out of the hood but stayed poor, they just happened to live in a neighborhood where there were middle-class people physically near them.
But weirdly enough, these families experienced a large rise in happiness. The self-reported happiness for families making $20k a year who moved was equal to the average of families making $33k a year who stayed.
Was this policy a success or failure? It comes down to a deeper question: What is our ultimate goal in producing social change? Is it actually about people being happier?
I’ve got a utilitarian streak in me– I’m normally more into the issues that improve people’s everyday living conditions rather than the deeper philosophical stuff, which I find frustratingly fluffy sometimes.
And my main political passion– fighting economic inequality– is partly grounded in a utilitarian view of happiness: Studies show that extra family income brings higher levels of happiness until a certain plateau (around $75k per year in the US) after which additional money doesn’t change your life satisfaction. So boosting overall economic growth does less to improve people’s lives than ensuring the economy’s gains are shared by low and middle-income families.
But if all we cared about was happiness, we might want to give up on the social movement shit and just make funny YouTube videos or build free amusement parks for the masses. Better yet we could create some sort of creepy dystopian future where everybody lies around all day taking happy pills or living in a perfect virtual reality world.
Making people happy isn’t what motivates me to do the work I do. If it was, I’d study engineering and go make iPhones. People fucking love iPhones.
Maybe I’m a disgruntled political animal who just likes the fight itself.
Or maybe there’s some larger abstract idea of justice that matters in its own right. Maybe there’s an inherent moral problem with a world where the few have so much power and the many have so little. Sometimes struggling to tip that balance of power feels like it’s not making people more happy, but maybe there’s some deeper moral value that isn’t just about happiness.
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.
The Chicago teacher strike has sparked a heated debate about how much to blame teachers for America’s failing schools. I think this totally misses the point. American public schools aren’t failing in general, American public schools are failing poor people.
It’s time we start considering something a bit more uncomfortable. Maybe generations of education reforms to improve schools in low-income communities haven’t worked because the problem… is poverty itself?
The much-hyped failing schools you see in documentaries simply don’t exist in wealthy communities. There’s a reason they didn’t film Waiting for Superman at Bel Aire Elementary School. An unwitting viewer might then accidentally reach the conclusion that teachers unions were producing outstanding results in public schools.
In fact, even rich kids in failing urban school districts succeed. Despite the miserably low test scores of average Chicago public school students that have become a media feeding frenzy, for white children from non-poor English-speaking households, test scores in Chicago public schools are actually higher than the average school district. So if you’re a middle-class white parent in Chicago, you really should send your kids to those awful public schools– they’ll probably turn out great.
I’ve attended a low-performing public school in a low-income community and an outstanding public school, serving mostly middle and upper-middle class students. Both had teachers unions, tenure, bureaucratic school districts, and like any workplace, some people were just good at their jobs and some just weren’t.
So why the inequality? I want to get up on a mountaintop, grab a megaphone and yell “It’s the POVERTY, stupid!”
We’ve reached an odd consensus in Washington, where both Democrats and Republicans believe that teachers unions are the main barrier to improving the American education system. (Credit to Michelle Rhee for single-handedly permanently shifting the American political debate— not something most people can claim).
Yet only about one-third of the achievement gap can be explained by in-school factors. The remaining two-thirds are the result of factors outside of the school. When kids have poor nutrition or untreated health problems or unstable housing or parents who don’t have the time/education to read/talk to them in high vocabulary or they’re ducking bullets on the way to school, it makes an enormous impact on their ability to learn. Yes, teacher quality is the largest in-school variable affecting education outcomes, but most of the real difference is coming from influences outside the classroom.
I believe the reason the American education system has such a large disparity between rich and poor is because America has such a large disparity between rich and poor.
America’s education system is exceptionally bad compared to other countries at educational opportunity for low-income children. Not like that one country that attaches its own name to the word “Dream” to symbolize how they’re the land of opportunity. Oh wait. Fuck.
Well, at least there are other countries doing worse than us. Suck on that, Czech Republic!
Not only do we have high inequality in education between rich and poor students, unlike racial achievement gaps, it’s actually getting worse. Note that the big growth of this achievement gap has pretty closely mirrored the widening gap between rich and poor in the US from the late 70’s until today.
This all leads to what might seem like a dismal conclusion: Poor kids will never have high-performing schools. Even if Michelle Rhee personally teaches every one of them herself, spurred to work extra hard by the incentive of being constantly watched by a panel of parents who can drop her into a pit of spikes below the classroom with the pull of a lever.
Yes, that sounds depressing. But is it really?
I’m not saying we can’t close the achievement gap. I’m saying to address a problem, look at its root. And most of the root cause of this problem lies in factors outside the classroom related to poverty. Our political debate is totally ignoring the biggest root of the problem.
Yes, eliminating poverty in America seems harder than just converting all our schools to charter schools or replacing all teachers with TFA kids or some other education reform idea that hopefully doesn’t cost any money.
But we’ve made huge reductions in poverty before, during the War on Poverty in the 1960’s. We know how to do it, we just stopped caring a couple decades ago. In fact, I would say we know how to reduce poverty better than we know how to turn around failing schools.
Sure, we can still figure out how to make schools as effective as possible. But debating the best method of getting better schools for poor kids gives up on the radical idea that maybe those kids don’t have to be poor.