How not to support women in the workplace

sexual harassment

Although we’re well into the 21st century, many workplaces are still grappling with how to adjust to the increasing presence and power of women in the workplace. Some of those workplaces are failing epically.  Continue reading “How not to support women in the workplace”

We need poor people in Congress

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who was once a recipient of public assistance, talks about food stamps and lawmakers' SNAP challenge. Photo via
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who was once a recipient of public assistance, talks about food stamps and lawmakers’ SNAP challenge. Photo via

We all recognize on some level that the circles that members of Congress run in are very different from the ones where most of us live our lives. But a new piece by Stephen Lurie over at The Atlantic shows just how stark the disparity really is:

For the first time, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires. Nearly 200 are multimillionaires. One hundred are worth more than $5 million; the top-10 deal in nine digits. The annual congressional salary alone—$174,000 a year—qualifies every member as the top 6 percent of earners. None of them are close to experiencing the poverty-reduction programs—affordable housing, food assistance, Medicaid—that they help control. Though some came from poverty, a recent analysis by Nicholas Carnes, in his book White Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policymaking, found that only 13 out of 783 members of Congress from 1999 to 2008 came from a “blue-collar” upbringing. None of them have experienced that poverty in decades; those who did did so under vastly different public-policy circumstances.

That’s less than 2% of members of Congress who have lived a “blue collar” lifestyle, compared to 54% of Americans who have held blue collar jobs as adults. It adds new meaning to the concept of politicians’ being out of touch.  Continue reading “We need poor people in Congress”

Where do progressives belong in elections?

photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders via Huffington Post
photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders via Huffington Post

The question of if and how to be involved in elections tends to cause a lot of handwringing and debate on the left. Many people are understandably discouraged about the possibility for change through electoral means, especially in a post-Citizens United landscape. The process feels impure to some, and it’s easy to throw up one’s hands at the two-party system.

I think most realize, however, that completely ceding the field is unwise. After working in several election cycles to educate and help elect progressive candidates based on their issue positions, I am convinced that our voices must be inserted at all levels of the process. Politics is about relationships, and forming them early, and proving yourself committed and useful, can pay dividends in the long run. But it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

Continue reading “Where do progressives belong in elections?”

When an hour of wages won’t even buy you a loaf of bread

Through high school and college I waited tables at a handful of places, mostly chain restaurants in areas where there weren’t many other sit-down restaurant options. While I was lucky enough to be a student only working for spending money, that wasn’t the majority of the people I worked with. Most were women for whom waitressing was their main source of income. Or women like my mom, a single mother recently graduated after returning to college and supplementing her income to support the family, who waited tables at the same restaurant as me at the same time (yes, when you’re a teenager you find it annoying to have your mom on your case about cleaning at home and at work).

Opponents of minimum wage increases portray this underpaid workforce as plucky kids earning some pocket money and working their way up the chain. It wasn’t true when I was waiting tables, and it’s not true now. And making a living on the minimum wage is even more precarious when you work for tips. It’s mind-boggling that more than a decade after I stopped waiting tables, most servers are still making the same $2.13 per hour:

“When you earn a wage of $2 or $5, you don’t actually earn a wage at all. Your wage is so low it goes entirely to taxes and you get a pay stub that says ‘This is not a paycheck’. It says ‘$0’. And you live off of your tips,” explains Jayaraman. Restaurant workers are also required by law to claim their tips as income. The tax on their combined income – hourly wage plus tips – is considerably more than what they would pay on their hourly pay.

Relying mostly on tips for one’s income is not just an issue of income instability, but also that of job insecurity that comes with having a seasonal job. “When you live off of tips, your rent and your bills don’t go up and down, but your income does. It varies day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year,” says Jayaraman. “You don’t actually have an income. In fact, you are interviewing for your job every time a new customer sits down.”

Saru Jayaraman of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United points out that 70% of tipped workers are women, and work at place like Applebee’s, The Olive Garden and Red Lobster. I did a brief stint at an Applebee’s in college, and in addition to a stifling amount of corporate lessons and paperwork, we were given a small number of tables to tend to so their customers would get good service–but we missed out on a high enough volume to make good money. I had the luxury of leaving if it was slow or passing off a table if I wanted to leave and hang out with friends, but a lot of the people I worked with took every customer they could get to supplement the meager hourly wage.

ROC United has a petition you can sign here to pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage for all workers, including tipped servers.

Fear begets fear: political paralysis on crime and terrorism

Politicians and pundits constantly drum up fear to move their political agendas. While the manipulative nature of the fear-mongering is frustrating, it’s nothing compared to the serious damage that is done by resulting policies. Enemies like Osama bin Laden and boogie men like Willie Horton have led to sprawling “wars” with no defined end that eat up our resources  and ruin (and often end) lives. The campaigns of fear around crime and terrorism have paralyzed our political process in a way that politicians concerned about reelection are too afraid to defy these counterproductive and unjust frameworks.

This is coming to the fore in California, where the courts have stepped in to mandate the release of thousands of prisoners from our state’s overcrowded prisons. Rather than using this court order as an opportunity to remedy a broken system, Governor Jerry Brown proposes to squander much-needed tax dollars on an even worse proposal:

Over the summer, Brown revealed a plan to spend what could end up being the bulk of the state’s $1 billion emergency reserve fund – money that is supposed to be spent in the event of an emergency – to finance the transfer of people from California’s overcrowded detention facilities into privately run prisons. “Brown said the alternative is to allow 10,000 prison inmates to go free.”

“It’s going to take some money, make no doubt about it,” Brown said of defying the federal government. But, “Public safety is the priority and we’ll take care of it,” he said, “the money is there.” The estimated cost of transferring the prisoners is about equal to what the state cut in funding for the University of California system between 2008 and 2012.

Refusing to acknowledge the real problem is an injustice to people in and out of prison. Thousands of nonviolent offenders not only unnecessarily languish in prison, but are then systematically shut out from opportunities to improve their lives, feeding a vicious cycle (if you haven’t read Michelle Alexander’s brilliant The New Jim Crow, which chronicles the ripple effects of mass incarceration, stop what you’re doing and go get it). Directing our tax dollars to private prisons continues a disturbing trend of injecting a profit motive into a broken, unjust system. And as Charles Davis points out in his piece, it means a billion dollars that could help with anything from education to emergency preparedness is squandered.

In talking to activists working on this issue, it’s clear that even some politicians who recognize the need for fundamental change are too afraid to take responsibility for it. Nobody wants to be the politician who let Willie Horton out of jail. So you get a “liberal” governor in a blue state ignoring proven solutions and exacerbating a devastating problem.

This resonated for me after ten years of organizing for a more just foreign policy during the so-called “war on terror.” Gregory Johnsen has a thorough and valuable piece about the history of the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed shortly after September 11th and the never-ending war it spawned:

More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is what America’s war looks like, silent strikes and shadowy raids. The Congressional Research Service, an analytical branch of the Library of Congress, recently said that it had located at least 30 similar occurrences, although the number of covert actions is likely many times higher with drones strikes and other secret operations. The remarkable has become regular.

The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words.

More than a dozen years since that law was passed, there has not been a significant challenge to the “war on terror” framework. Johnsen chronicles how Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) bravely stood up as the lone vote against the original AUMF, even though some of her colleagues indicated behind the scenes that they shared her concerns about the resolution. The difficulty of casting that vote a few days after September 11th is clear (Lee faced outrage and death threats), but with twelve years of distance we are still only chipping away at the injustices it engendered. Again, politicians swing too far in the wrong direction, that overcompensation an insurance policy against charges of being soft on terrorism that could be linked to an attack on their watch.

While some of the most egregious actions, like throwing up roadblocks to transferring innocent people from Guantanamo, have been led by Republicans, most Democrats haven’t challenged the orthodoxy. People from both parties praised President Obama for the targeted assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, despite the fact that the threat he posed has been called into question and the frightening precedent set by this act. Some leaders in Congress are pushing for greater transparency around the administration’s targeted killing policy, but few are willing to substantively challenge the entrenched mentality that has led to torture, incarceration of innocent people, racial profiling, and hundreds of civilian casualties.

Mulling this over brought me back to a revealing (though not terribly surprising) moment in John Oliver’s masterful pieces on gun control on The Daily Show. When asking Sen. Harry Reid’s staffer about what makes a politician successful, he responds with “getting reelected.” It’s a telling slip up. The challenges to sanity on these issues don’t make change impossible, and we have an obligation to work as hard as we can to undo these injustices. It reminds us that we need to increase the political cost of supporting these unjust, dangerous and counterproductive wars.

Republicans try to get in on income inequality debate


for those of us old enough to remember when Murphy Brown represented the evils of single motherhood
for those of us old enough to remember when Murphy Brown represented the evils of single motherhood

As the outrage at the income gap grows and more states and cities are taking action, both parties recognize this as a key election year issue. I recently heard a Democratic campaign staffer talk about the party’s eagerness to see minimum wage increases on the ballot in key states, knowing that will drive up turnout for their candidates (whether those candidates will do much to ultimately address the income gap is another question). It’s something congressional Democrats will jump on rhetorically, though the only real hope for change in the short-term is at the state and local level.

Republicans see the writing on the wall and are trying to jump in on the debate, but with a proposal that is out of step with national trends: promoting marriage. 

In his speech on poverty last week, Marco Rubio held up marriage as the primary cure for that which afflicts the poor. “The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%,” said Rubio. “But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.” To be sure, Rubio is not married to marriage as the greatest tool of upward mobility – later in the speech, he asserted, “We have the single greatest engine of upward mobility in human history at our disposal: the American free enterprise system.” (If you have a problem with there being two greatest tools in human history for lifting people out of poverty, you’re probably not a Rubio voter in the first place.)

It’s sad that the US government is so invested in promoting the institution of marriage that people are often dependent on it for access to essential services like health care. Ideally our society would take care of people regardless of their relationship status, especially now that marriage is on the decline, and many people that would have been married years ago are choosing cohabitation. It’s one thing to debate the idea of incentivizing marriage, but some conservative proposals would even punish reluctance to enter into it:

Rubio at least gestures in the direction of a pro-marriage policy by proposing to change the Earned Income Tax Credit. The credit subsidized low-income workers of modest means; Rubio would make it more generous for low-income married couples, and more stingy for single parents. It’s questionable whether Rubio’s policy would actually do much to encourage marriage, and it’s certain it would have enormously noxious side effects, by impoverishing single parents and their children.

Rubio’s proposal is at least specific. Others are merely paeans to the value of marriage without any real solutions for inequality.

It’s useful that we find ourselves in a time when commitment to addressing income inequality is seen as an electoral asset, and activists can exploit that dynamic. But we have to push for action from both parties, and hold them to moving beyond rhetoric to implementation of real policies that will help all struggling Americans regardless of their marital status.