In the Fight Against Poverty, Work Is Our Most Powerful Weapon

From today’s Harvard Business Review by Leila Janah:

Fourteen years ago, I left suburban Los Angeles to teach English in rural Ghana. I’d expected, like so many young people with bleeding hearts and big dreams, to make a difference by donating my time as a schoolteacher for six months. Upon arrival in the village, I was shocked to discover that my students, avid listeners of Voice of America and BBC radio, already spoke English quite well, and some could speak to me about President Clinton’s state visit to Africa. These were blind or partially sighted kids from families earning less than $3 a day.

How was this possible? I’d learned from countless TV specials on war and poverty in the continent that Africans needed aid. They needed us to send food and clothes and to build wells and schools. But on the ground, almost every poor person I spoke to told me the same thing: “We don’t want aid, we want work.” I spent the next four years studying development economics at Harvard, designing a special major to focus on African development, and later working at the World Bank to further understand the problem of poverty and how to fix it.

My conclusion after all this time isn’t so novel. But it bears repeating because we’ve lost our way: Work is the most powerful weapon we have to fight poverty and all its downstream effects, from child malnutrition to maternal mortality, both domestically and abroad. We need to modernize workforce training, incentivize companies to hire low-income people, and encourage consumers to support those organizations that #GiveWork, not aid.

Last year, the 2,000 largest companies spent an estimated $12 trillion on goods and services, a lot of it directed to suppliers that mine or harvest raw materials or make and grow things in poor countries. The fair trade movement was a strong first step in working to access these reserves of capital to fund poverty reduction directly. Started in the 1950s, it pushed purveyors of commodity goods like coffee, chocolate, sugar, and cotton to adhere to a rigorous set of core principles, including deliberately working in marginalized communities and paying living wages. And the results have been good. For example, Starbucks sources all its European espresso beans from fair trade certified producers, and Dutch company Fairphone sells the world’s first entirely fair trade Android phone, with batteries made from ethically mined minerals.

But I believe we now need something broader and simpler to mobilize companies and consumers to think differently about aid: a model called “impact sourcing,” which pushes for workforces (whether directly employed or employed through suppliers) to be economically diverse enough to include some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. This shift could, by our estimation, lift millions out of poverty in a single year.

Read the entire article here.

American households finally earn more than they did in 1999, but poverty and inequality are on the rise

From today’s Los Angeles Times “Business” section by Don Lee:

Income inequality

After a long period of plodding economic growth, significant earnings gains over the past two years have finally enabled the average American household to surpass the peak income level it reached in 1999.

The median household income in the U.S. climbed to $59,039 last year, up 3.2% from 2015 after adjusting for inflation, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

That comes on the heels of a 5.2% jump in income in 2015, the highest annual percentage increase on record.

The back-to-back increases brought the median income — in which half of households earn more and half less — above the previous peak of $58,665 in 1999.

The median household income in California rose 3.4% last year to $66,637, surpassing the earlier high of $65,852 in 2006.

The national measure of poor people in America also improved significantly for the second year in a row: The poverty rate fell last year to 12.7%, from 13.5% in 2015 and 14.8% in 2014.

That translates into a decline of about 6 million people in poverty over the last two years.

The latest poverty rate is comparable to 2007, the year before the Great Recession took hold. But there were still 40.6 million poor people in the nation last year. A household with two adults and two children is considered poor if their total income was less than $24,339.

“We consider 2015 and 2016 to be the turning point on the real median household income front, as employment and wage gains, combined with modest consumer price inflation, have boosted the well-being of many American households,” said Chris G. Christopher Jr., executive director of IHS Markit, an economic research firm.

“Real median household income has finally completed its nine-year slog of digging out of the ditch,” he said.

But the annual Census report was not as glowing beneath the surface, and economists are concerned that budget proposals curtailing things like food stamps could thwart continuing progress.

The impact of Trump’s promised tax reform could also change trends for the poor and middle class.

While the latest data showed solid gains for blacks and Latinos and younger adults, median incomes for full-time, year-round workers, men and women, were essentially flat in 2016, reflecting sluggish wage growth that has persisted into this year.

What’s more, a key measure of income disparity remains at the highest level in at least a half century.

And although the median income for urban dwellers jumped 5.4% last year to $61,521, households in rural areas saw their earnings basically stagnate at less than $46,000.

Read the entire article here.

How the wealth gap between restaurant goers and their servers is​ widening

Andrea Gillette lined up the bottles of fruit-flavored cocktails behind the bar. The guy who leans a ladder against the big chalkboard to write out the day’s fresh fish selection had just about wrapped up.

Floors were swept, sliced lemons were crammed into a plastic bin, the trendy garage-door-style windows facing the shaded patio thrown open. Corey Ahrens brewed coffee.

Chip Kasper, the general manager, called out to the weekday crew at Fish City Grill, a bright, modern seafood restaurant at CityLine, a massive$1.5bndevelopment 20 miles north of downtown Dallas. Anchored by an almost 10,000-worker State Farm campus, CityLine also features a crop of buzzy fast-casual spots, a Whole Foods Market and a salon offering eyelash extension packages for upwards of $300.

It’s one of a handful of projects that have shifted the economic center of gravity of the nation’s fourth largest metro area; as a result, the northern suburbs of Dallas are some of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

“Got nine minutes to pre-shift!”

A little over a year ago, Fish City’s owner was worried this wasn’t going to happen.

In the roughly two decades since Bill Bayne and a partner opened Half Shells – the seed of what would become a chain of 20 restaurants – Bayne said he and his wife, who now own the Fish City company, have made a point to remember the names of workers at every level.

He takes pride in his ability to retain workers in an industry that sees high turnover. Still, as he prepared to open the chain’s outpost at CityLine he encountered an unanticipated hurdle.

He couldn’t find workers.

Bayne recalled sending his longtime kitchen manager, Frankie Argote, to “ride the rails” in search of people who looked like they might be cooks and to restaurants, where he asked managers whether they had employees who might be able to pick up more shifts. Argote recalled coming back and asking his boss, “Do we want to be cooking or serving?” Because he was struggling to find enough people to do both.

“This [location] has been probably the most challenging,” Bayne said.

As major corporate employers have swarmed places such as CityLine and the areas that surround them, a corresponding explosion of restaurants and bars has left business owners such as Bayne tapping into an almost-dry well of talent. Over the last five years, the number of jobs in food services and drinking places in the Dallas-Plano-Irving metropolitan division increased by 30.4%, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That’s almost twice as fast as growth in those jobs nationally, which was 17.9% for the same time period.

But thanks to a range of factors, the fertile job-hunting fields north of Dallas are essentially off limits to many prospective workers.

Read the entire article here.

A Better Deal for American Workers

From today’s New York Times by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY):

Americans are clamoring for bold changes to our politics and our economy. They feel, rightfully, that both systems are rigged against them, and they made that clear in last year’s election. American families deserve a better deal so that this country works for everyone again, not just the elites and special interests. Today, Democrats will start presenting that better deal to the American people.

There used to be a basic bargain in this country that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could own a home, afford a car, put your kids through college and take a modest vacation every year while putting enough away for a comfortable retirement. In the second half of the 20th century, millions of Americans achieved this solid middle-class lifestyle. I should know — I grew up in that America.

But things have changed.

Today’s working Americans and the young are justified in having greater doubts about the future than any generation since the Depression. Americans believe they’re getting a raw deal from both the economic and political systems in our country. And they are right. The wealthiest special interests can spend an unlimited, undisclosed amount of money to influence elections and protect their special deals in Washington. As a result, our system favors short-term gains for shareholders instead of long-term benefits for workers.

And for far too long, government has gone along, tilting the economic playing field in favor of the wealthy and powerful while putting new burdens on the backs of hard-working Americans.

Democrats have too often hesitated from taking on those misguided policies directly and unflinchingly — so much so that many Americans don’t know what we stand for. Not after today. Democrats will show the country that we’re the party on the side of working people — and that we stand for three simple things.

First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.

Over the next several months, Democrats will lay out a series of policies that, if enacted, will make these three things a reality. We’ve already proposed creating jobs with a $1 trillion infrastructure plan; increasing workers’ incomes by lifting the minimum wage to $15; and lowering household costs by providing paid family and sick leave.

Read the entire op-ed here.

Robocalypse Now? Central Bankers Argue Whether Automation Will Kill Jobs

From today’s New York Times by Jack Ewing:

SINTRA, Portugal — The rise of robots has long been a topic for sci-fi best sellers and video games and, as of this week, a threat officially taken seriously by central bankers.

The bankers are not yet ready to buy into dystopian visions in which robots render humans superfluous. But, at an exclusive gathering at a golf resort near Lisbon, the big minds of monetary policy were seriously discussing the risk that artificial intelligence could eliminate jobs on a scale that would dwarf previous waves of technological change.

“There is no question we are in an era of people asking, ‘Is the Robocalypse upon us?’” David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told an audience on Tuesday that included Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and dozens of other top central bankers and economists.

The discussion occurred as economists were more optimistic than they had been for a decade about growth. Mr. Draghi used the occasion to signal that the European Central Bank is edging closer to the day when it will begin paring measures intended to keep interest rates very low and bolster the economy.

“All the signs now point to a strengthening and broadening recovery in the euro area,” Mr. Draghi said. His comments pushed the euro to almost its highest level in a year, though it later gave up some of the gains.

But along with the optimism is a fear that the economic expansion might bypass large swaths of the population, in part because a growing number of jobs could be replaced by computers capable of learning — artificial intelligence.

Policy makers and economists conceded that they have not paid enough attention to how much technology has hurt the earning power of some segments of society, or planned to address the concerns of those who have lost out. That has, in part, nourished the political populism that contributed to Britain’s vote a year ago to leave the European Union, and the election of President Trump.

“Generally speaking, economic growth is a good thing,” Ben S. Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said at the forum. “But, as recent political developments have brought home, growth is not always enough.”

In the past, technical advances caused temporary disruptions but ultimately improved living standards, creating new categories of employment along the way. Farm machinery displaced farmworkers but eventually they found better paying jobs, and today their great-grandchildren may design video games.

But artificial intelligence threatens broad categories of jobs previously seen as safe from automation, such as legal assistants, corporate auditors and investment managers. Large groups of people could become obsolete, suffering the same fate as plow horses after the invention of the tractor.

Read the entire article here.

House Republicans Are Trying to Pass the Most Dangerous Wall Street Deregulation Bill Ever

From Mother Jones, June 7, 2017 by Hannah Levintova:
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From the earliest days of his campaign, Donald Trump has opposed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Obama-era financial reform law passed in response to the 2008 financial crisis.  Trump has characterized it as a “disaster” that has created obstacles for the financial sector and hurt growth. In April, he repeated his promise to gut the existing law.
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“We’re doing a major elimination of the horrendous Dodd-Frank regulations, keeping some, obviously, but getting rid of many,” Trump said in a meeting with top executives during a “Strategic and Policy CEO Discussion,” which included the leaders of major companies like Walmart and Pepsi. He added, “For the the bankers in the room, they’ll be very happy.”
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The Republican Congress shares Trump’s dislike of Dodd-Frank and this week, the House plans to vote on the Financial CHOICE Act, a Dodd-Frank overhaul bill that will, as promised, make banks and Wall Street “very happy” if it becomes law, while undoing numerous financial safeguards for regular Americans. (CHOICE is an acronym for “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs.”)
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The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), takes aim at some of Dodd-Frank’s main achievements: It guts rules intended to protect mortgage borrowers and military veterans, and restrict predatory lenders. It also weakens the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s ability to oversee and enforce consumer protection laws against banks around the country—upending a mix of powers that have helped the CFPB recover nearly $12 billion for 29 million individuals since opening its doors in July 2011. The bill also weakens or outright cuts a number of bank regulations enacted through Dodd-Frank to keep risky investing behavior in check in order to avoid the economic devastation of another financial crisis or taxpayer-funded bailout.

Read the entire article here.

Is the Gig Economy Working?—For Some, But Not For Most Workers

From this month’s The New Yorker magazine by Nathan Heller:

The American workplace is both a seat of national identity and a site of chronic upheaval and shame. The industry that drove America’s rise in the nineteenth century was often inhumane. The twentieth-century corrective—a corporate workplace of rules, hierarchies, collective bargaining, triplicate forms—brought its own unfairnesses. Gigging reflects the endlessly personalizable values of our own era, but its social effects, untried by time, remain uncertain.

Support for the new work model has come together swiftly, though, in surprising quarters. On the second day of the most recent Democratic National Convention, in July, members of a four-person panel suggested that gigging life was not only sustainable but the embodiment of today’s progressive values. “It’s all about democratizing capitalism,” Chris Lehane, a strategist in the Clinton Administration and now Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, said during the proceedings, in Philadelphia. David Plouffe, who had managed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign before he joined Uber, explained, “Politically, you’re seeing a large contingent of the Obama coalition demanding the sharing economy.” Instead of being pawns in the games of industry, the panelists thought, working Americans could thrive by hiring out skills as they wanted, and putting money in the pockets of peers who had done the same. The power to control one’s working life would return, grassroots style, to the people.

The basis for such confidence was largely demographic. Though statistics about gigging work are few, and general at best, a Pew study last year found that seventy-two per cent of American adults had used one of eleven sharing or on-demand services, and that a third of people under forty-five had used four or more. “To ‘speak millennial,’ you ought to be talking about the sharing economy, because it is core and central to their economic future,” Lehane declared, and many of his political kin have agreed. No other commercial field has lately drawn as deeply from the Democratic brain trust. Yet what does democratized capitalism actually promise a politically unsettled generation? Who are its beneficiaries? At a moment when the nation’s electoral future seems tied to the fate of its jobs, much more than next month’s paycheck depends on the answers.

Read the entire article here.

Economic inequality in LA ripens new concerns about future riots

From today’s LA Times by Victoria Kim and Melissa Edelhed:

Nearly 6 out of 10 Angelenos think another riot is likely in the next five years, increasing for the first time after two decades of steady decline. That’s higher than in any year except for 1997, the first year the survey was conducted, and more than a 10-point jump compared with the 2012 survey.

Young adults ages 18 to 29, who didn’t directly experience the riots, were more likely than older residents to feel another riot was a possibility, with nearly 7 out of 10 saying one was likely, compared with about half of those 45 or older. Those who were unemployed or worked part-time were also more pessimistic, as were black and Latino residents, compared with whites and Asians, the poll found.

Researchers theorized that the turnaround may be linked to several factors, including the more polarized national dialogue on race sparked by police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, as well as by the tenor of last year’s presidential election. Moreover, many parts of L.A. still suffer from some of the economic problems and lack of opportunities that fueled anger before the riots.

“Economic disparity continues to increase, and at the end of the day, that is what causes disruption,” said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor who has worked on the survey since its inception. “People are trying to get along and want to get along, but they understand economic tension boils over to political and social tension.”Los Angeles riots rememberedThere was a moment of silence candlelight vigil in Koreatown to commemoratethe 17th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. This year’s theme focused on teaching their history to Korean American youth, many of whom were born after the riots, during which tensions between the city’s black and Korean communities exploded.

Although the city’s unemployment rate last year was about half of what it was in 1992, the median income of Angelenos, when adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was around the time of the riots. Poverty rates still remain high at 22%, comparable with the years preceding the riots.

Read the entire article here.

Read coverage of LA Times Special Edition: 25th Anniversary of LA Riots here.

Trump Cabinet Signals Embrace of Wall Street Elite

We told you so, America. Trump voters have elected a billionaire business man, with a myriad of conflicts of interest between his private companies and his new public position, and who has deep ties to Wall Street and the wealthy and political elite of this country. There will be no change under Trump; only more of the same status quo economics that has hurt ordinary working Americans and enriched the wealthy even more. It almost belongs in a Charles Dickens novel. So sad!

From The New York Times, December 1, 2016. Read the full story here.

In a campaign commercial that ran just before the election, Donald J. Trump’s voice boomed over a series of Wall Street images. He described “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations.”

The New York Stock Exchange, the hedge fund billionaire George Soros and the chief executive of the investment bank Goldman Sachs flashed across the screen.

Now Mr. Trump has named a former Goldman executive and co-investor with Mr. Soros to spearhead his economic policy.

With Wednesday’s nomination of Steven Mnuchin, a Goldman trader turned hedge fund manager and Hollywood financier, to be Treasury secretary, a new economic leadership is taking shape in Washington.

That two investors — Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Ross — will occupy two major economic positions in the new administration is the most powerful signal yet that Mr. Trump plans to emphasize policies friendly to Wall Street, like tax cuts and a relaxation of regulation, in the early days of his administration.

While that approach has been cheered by investors (the stocks of Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have been on a tear since the election), it stands in stark contrast to the populist campaign that Mr. Trump ran and the support he received from working-class voters across the country.

Don’t believe economic lies that Trump peddles this election

From today’s NYT article on Trump’s economic policy speech:

“But the economic agenda Mr. Trump described included many traditionally Republican policies that offer little to no direct benefit to working-class Americans, while giving a considerable financial boost to the wealthiest.

For example, Mr. Trump called for ending what Republicans label the “death tax.” He did not mention that the estate tax currently exempts the first $5.45 million for an individual and $10.9 million for a married couple — meaning that only the very wealthy pay even a dime. If Mr. Trump’s net worth is as large as he has says, his heirs would have a great deal to gain from eliminating the estate tax; the typical displaced steelworker or coal miner, or even a relatively prosperous retiree, would have nothing to gain.”

If disaffected workers want to make gains, they should not vote for someone who will institute “labor” reforms that make the already wealthiest American even more wealthy, while leaving workers themselves farther behind. The only way American workers will be able to make gains is by advocating for and passing labor reform that improves wages, while limiting the income gains of the wealthiest Americans who, let’s face it, already have enough to get them by comfortably.