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“A New American Ethos”: In America These Days, You Can Never Be Punished Enough

We will call her Jane Doe.

We really have no choice, given that that’s the only identification found in the court document. Jane is 57, a Jamaica-born permanent U.S. resident living in New York City. She is a licensed nurse and a mother. She is also a convicted felon.

In 2000, Jane, trying to raise two young daughters on $15,000 a year and an $80 weekly child-support check, was recruited by her then-boyfriend for an insurance scam. They staged a car accident and tried to collect on a claim.

It didn’t work. Jane was convicted on fraud charges and sentenced to 15 months in prison. She was released in 2004.

That’s when her ordeal began.

Her debt to society paid, Jane set out looking for work. She was rehired by a former employer and worked there two years. Then the state Office of Professional Discipline suspended her license for two years for professional misconduct — not because she had done anything wrong, but because of the old conviction.

In the years since, Jane has found barricades on every avenue of gainful employment. Job interviews and even job offers mysteriously evaporate when employers learn about her record. She tried to get a business license to start her own company, only to be rejected twice because of it.

Last year, Jane tried to have her record expunged. Judge John Gleeson denied the request a few days ago, explaining that Jane doesn’t meet the legal standard. But Gleeson — the same judge who sent her to prison — then did something extraordinary. He appended to his 32-page opinion a “federal certificate of rehabilitation.”

Understand: There is no such thing. The official-looking document carries no legal force. It’s just something Gleeson had made for Jane so she can show prospective employers that a federal judge considers her rehabilitated. He says a woman who was convicted once, a long time ago, of a nonviolent crime from which she saw no profit and for which she has served her time, ought not be punished for it the rest of her life.

“I had no intention,” wrote Gleeson, “to sentence her to the unending hardship she has endured in the job market.”

If you consider this a heartwarming story, you miss the point.

Yes, Gleeson did a good and generous thing. One hopes it has the desired effect. But it is unconscionable that Jane Doe’s situation ever reached this extreme.

The shift of American penal philosophy from rehabilitation to punishment has had many disastrous effects: prison overcrowding, mass disenfranchisement, fatherless homes. But the most self-defeating effect is embodied in denying ex-felons employment once they’ve served their time. If you deny them the ability to do lawful work, what obvious option is left?

Granted, there are sometimes good reasons to deny a given ex-felon a given job; no daycare should hire a newly released child molester, for example. But what Jane Doe is facing is rooted less in common sense caution than in a new American ethos where punishment never ends.

That should be anathema to a nation of second chances. Lawmakers must enact reforms that curb the power of employers to discriminate against former felons — or that incentivize their hiring. Questions about criminal records should not be allowed on job applications; a person should have the chance to make a good impression at the job interview without being automatically ruled out for doing some stupid thing a long time ago.

Jane Doe was lucky to have Gleeson on her side, but she shouldn’t have needed him. She did something stupid, yes, but she was duly punished for it.

Except that in America these days, you can never be punished enough.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, March 21, 2016

March 22, 2016 Posted by | Convicted Felons, Criminal Justice System, Non-Violent Crimes | , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Sympathy For The Speaker” GOP Leaders Appear To Know They Have A Credibility Problem

I have sympathy (not much, but some) for John Boehner.

When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, the Republican House Speaker is nearly always between a rock and a hard place.

On one hand, he and the GOP leadership must stand against President Barack Obama’s health care law, because the longer it remains on the books, the more likely those who receive its benefits are going to support Democrats, not Republicans.

On the other hand, if someday the Republicans repeal the law, after having returned to the White House with congressional majorities, they will be forced to devise an alternative — an impossibility given the reactionary impulses of today’s GOP.

In the former scenario, Republicans lose.

In the latter scenario, they lose.

So Boehner must thread the needle while hoping his credibility as a GOP leader isn’t badly tarnished, even as rank-and-file Republicans discover through their experience that Obamacare isn’t actually a harbinger of North Korean-style totalitarianism.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Boehner reiterated the Republican position on health care on the May 3 broadcast of Meet the Press, saying that Obamacare wasn’t working.

“Obamacare made it harder for employers to hire people,” he said. “You can ask any employer in America, ask them whether Obamacare has made it harder for them to hire employees, and they’ll tell you yes.”

When asked why none of the Republican Party’s dire predictions about health care came true, Boehner responded: “You know why there’s more people insured? Because a lot more people are on Medicaid.” He continued, “Giving people Medicaid insurance is almost like giving them nothing, because you can’t find a doctor that will see Medicaid patients. So where do they end up? The same place they used to end up: the emergency room.”

Events later in the week suggested, however, that something wasn’t right about Boehner’s claims. On Wednesday, the largest independent study of its kind was released. It found that nearly 17 million Americans are now covered under the Affordable Care Act.

Some lost coverage (about 6 million), according to the RAND Corporation study, but many more found coverage, with a net gain of 16.9 million. The evidence also contravenes those who say Obamacare encumbers hiring. For one thing, the largest gains (nearly 10 million) were made in employer-run insurance plans. For another, some 80 percent of the working population under the age of 65 saw no change at all in their health care coverage.

That wasn’t the only reason to look askance at Boehner’s claims. Last Friday’s monthly jobs report showed the unemployment rate had dropped to 5.4 percent, the lowest it’s been since May 2008, before Obama won the presidency. Even wages, which have not typically kept pace with inflation, rose by 2.2 percent in the past year.

So something’s wrong with the picture Boehner is painting. If most employers are offering insurance, and if the job market is expanding, why is Boehner saying that the Affordable Care Act has led to less insurance coverage and more unemployment?

GOP leaders appear to know they have a credibility problem. They are shifting their stance against Obamacare from quantity to quality. According to a report in The Hill published after Boehner’s appearance on Meet the Press, the Republicans now concede that Obamacare has covered more Americans but argue that the coverage is inferior. Hence, Boehner’s comment about Medicaid: Doctors don’t take Medicaid, and having it is like having nothing.

Such a shift raises its own question of credibility. Why would a Republican Party that equates tyranny with the presence of government in the lives of individuals be worried about the government’s role in providing quality health care to individuals?

Some might judge this as hypocrisy and thus dismiss the new Republican position as entirely unworthy of scrutiny. There’s merit to that, as Washington wallows in hypocrisy. But hypocrisy can prevent us from seeing what’s really going on. In this case, I wonder if Boehner and the leadership are worried about holding their ranks, as the temptation to defect grows from within.

Over time, the Affordable Care Act will penetrate deeper into the population. The millions of Americans who will benefit from the law will have an incentive to maintain the status quo. They’ll likely support the Democratic Party as long as the Republicans demand repeal of the law. So, as of now, a vote for a Republican, from the point of someone covered by the Affordable Care Act, is a self-destructive vote. And among those millions are conservatives.

Some might argue that in saying things about Obamacare that just aren’t true, Boehner risks alienating conservatives that make up the base of the Republican Party. Why would they trust the House Speaker if he is so consistently wrong? There’s something to that, but a likelier explanation for the GOP’s continued, and shifting, stance against the health care law is that opposition, no matter how contorted, is the best way to keep the conservatives in line.

Given time, more conservatives are going to benefit from the law. And the more they do, they more they will vote their self-interests. And that’s why I have (a little) sympathy for John Boehner.

 

By: John Stoehr, The National Memo, May 16, 2015

May 17, 2015 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, John Boehner, Obamacare | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Demand A Higher Wage, People!”: The Status Quo Of Wage Injustice And Greed-Driven Inequality Relies On Our Complicity

Chasten Florence was on his lunch break when he decided to join a protest outside a McDonald’s in New York City on Wednesday. To be honest, Florence wasn’t really sure what he was helping protest. But as he lay his body down on the sidewalk at a die-in of low-wage workers demanding a $15 wage and a union, Florence simply explained, “These are my people.”

Didn’t Florence need to eat lunch? Sure, but he could spare five minutes. Working concrete on construction jobs, Florence earns more than $15 an hour and thinks everyone else should, too. “I don’t know how you can raise a household on less,” said Florence. And he’s right. You can’t.

On April 15, workers from McDonald’s, Walmart and other low-wage employers were joined by college students and adjunct faculty, domestic workers and leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement. In all, tens of thousands participated in protests in 200 cities across the United States to demand a $15 minimum wage and a union. The #FightFor15 is unconventional in that, instead of focusing on Congress to raise wages, workers and advocates are pressuring employers and also the general public—trying to foster awareness about dismal wages and working conditions and create a groundswell of support for change.

The nationwide protests were organized on Tax Day, April 15, because 4/15 is a short-hand for the campaign’s wage demands. But it was also meant to highlight the fact that the poverty wages paid by fast food restaurants and employers are so low that many low-wage workers are forced to rely on public assistance benefits to get by. In fact, almost three-quarters of Americans who depend on public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid are members of a family headed by someone who has a job.

In other words, in America today, many people are poor not because they don’t have a job but because they have a job that pays poverty wages. If the minimum wage had grown at the same rate as overall productivity since 1968, then the minimum wage would now be $18.50 an hour—instead of $7.25, the current federal minimum wage. In fact, adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage has actually dropped. In 2014 dollars, the 1968 minimum wage was equal to $9.54 an hour.

The stagnation of working class wages cannot be explained by a lack of hard work or skills. Low-wage workers have more education than their 1968 counterparts—and yet are still being paid less. And as this graph from Mother Jones shows, while worker productivity has steadily risen over the past several decades, overall wages have not grown at the same pace—even though the income of the top 1% has spiked dramatically.

As taxpayers, we foot the bill for greedy employers who pay poverty wages. For instance, because McDonald’s won’t pay its workers a living wage, taxpayers are paying $1.2 billion per year in food stamp costs and other public assistance just for McDonald’s workers alone. That’s like our tax dollars subsidizing McDonald’s profit—and greed.

Recently McDonald’s announced it would raise wages by $1.00 an hour for workers in its corporate-owned stores, which since most McDonald’s are franchise operations, means the raise will affect less than 10 percent of McDonald’s workers. Beth Schaffer, who works at a McDonald’s in Charleston, South Carolina, and came to New York for the protests, shrugged her shoulders about the raise. After all, every single McDonald’s in South Carolina is a franchise not covered by the $1.00-an-hour increase. “My customers show me more respect than my employer,” said Schaffer. As her tone made clear, that’s not saying much.

As I left the Fight for $15 protest, one of several staged throughout New York on Wednesday, Chasten Florence walked one way back to his construction site and I walked the other way. I passed the tony restaurants of New York’s Upper West Side, on what seemed like one of the first real days of spring, men and women in business suits sitting at tables on the sidewalk, taking in the sun. Most were probably spending more on lunch than the workers at the protest earn in a week. Myself included.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, with wealth and success and enjoying what comes with it. The question is, are we paying enough attention to the costs? I wondered whether the people eating their expensive lunches knew that the bussers taking their plates can barely afford to feed their own families, that the workers at their children’s daycares don’t have health insurance, that the cheap stuff they order conveniently on Amazon.com is definitely comes at a high cost to the workers who make and ship those goods.

The construction worker who joined the Fight for $15 protest didn’t know that much about the issues or the protest demands, either. But he was going out of his way to learn, and to be supportive. “These are my people,” he said. Yes, they’re all of our people. It’s time we all wake up, pay attention, be angry and stand with our fellow human beings to do something about it. The status quo of wage injustice and greed-driven inequality relies on our complicity, whether by silence or ignorance. But it cannot survive if we all stand up together and fight.

 

By: Sally Kohn,

April 19, 2015 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Poverty, Wage Stagnation | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Workers Are At The Mercy Of Markets”: The Great Recession Shifted Bargaining Power To Employers

The questions hanging over Labor Day 2014 are whether and when the United States gets a pay raise. Ever since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the job market has been in a state of heartbreaking weakness. But the worst seems to be over. As Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve Board, recently noted, monthly increases in payroll jobs have averaged 230,000 this year, up from 190,000 in 2012 and 2013. The unemployment rate dropped to 6.2 percent in July from 7.3 percent a year earlier and a peak of 10 percent in October 2009.

Gains are also reflected in cheerier (or less gloomy) popular attitudes, says public opinion expert Karlyn Bowman of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. A year ago, Gallup found that 29 percent of workers feared being laid off; that’s now 19 percent. (Millennials are exceptions; their unemployment fears rose slightly.) In March 2010, 85 percent of Americans judged jobs “difficult to find,” a Pew survey reported. In July this year, the figure was 62 percent. Although confidence hasn’t returned to pre-recession levels, there’s been a genuine improvement in mood, says Bowman.

What’s missing are wage increases. Since late 2009, hourly earnings have risen at an annual rate of about 2 percent, but when corrected for inflation, “real” wage increases vanish, reports the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. The EPI says that median hourly wages were actually 0.4 percent lower in the first half of 2014 than in 2007. Using a different inflation adjustment (the “deflator” for personal consumption expenditures instead of the consumer price index) produces a 1.7 percent gain over the same period, says Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute. Either way, wages are basically flat.

We should do better.

The Great Recession shifted bargaining power to employers. With jobs scarce, “workers just take what they can get,” says economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. Companies have controlled costs through layoffs, skimpy wage increases and greater reliance on independent contractors, jobs which often pay less and provide fewer fringe benefits. The unwritten post-World War II labor contract — in retreat since the late 1970s — finally expired. That contract presumed that large companies would provide workers with stable jobs and “real” annual increases in wages and fringe benefits.

Forget it. Wage increases aren’t guaranteed, and longtime workers are regularly dismissed. “There really is no security in the labor market,” says former Fed economist Stephen Oliner, now at AEI. On the labor market’s edges, firms like Uber (an on-call transportation company) and TaskRabbit (an online service that allows customers to solicit bids for specific jobs) have created digital markets for freelance workers. The temporary jobs provide cash and flexibility — but not much certainty or security.

Too many workers have chased too few jobs, weakening wages. But now the pendulum may be swinging in workers’ direction. Some economists contend that it already has. Two bits of information are routinely cited: the unexpectedly fast fall in unemployment; and the rise in reported job openings to 4.7 million in June, more than double the recession low and slightly higher than the pre-recession peak.

The worry is that the growing supply of openings and the shrinking pool of available workers might trigger an inflationary wage-price spiral. This concern seems premature. Other economists, including Yellen, have argued that there’s still substantial labor market “slack” (surplus workers wanting jobs), keeping a lid on wage gains. Their evidence seems stronger. Consider the U-6 jobless rate (U-6 includes the officially unemployed, discouraged workers and part-timers who want full-time jobs). In July, it was 12.2 percent, down from a monthly peak of 17.2 percent, though still higher than 2007’s 8.3 percent, before the recession.

But suppose we are nearing an inflection point, where worker supply and demand are in closer balance. That certainly wouldn’t be bad. Workers’ bargaining power would improve with tighter markets: markets where businesses have to pay a bit more to keep employees; where younger workers might have competing job offers; and where someone could quit with a reasonable expectation of finding another job. (Note that unions aren’t a plausible alternative to markets because they represent only 7 percent of private workers. The minimum wage suffers from a similar scale problem.)

A wage explosion seems unlikely; companies were too traumatized by the Great Recession to let costs get out of hand. Even in 2007, wage increases — unadjusted for inflation — were running only at about a 3.5 percent annual rate.

What’s ultimately at stake is the Great Recession’s lasting effect on labor markets. Are they in the process of reverting to their modern role, promoting steadier employment and higher living standards? Or has there been a major break from the past, ushering in a harsher, more arbitrary system whose outlines are still faint? On this Labor Day, the verdict is unclear.

 

By: Robert Samuelson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, August 31, 2014

September 1, 2014 Posted by | Great Recession, Labor Day, Wages | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Jobs And Skills And Zombies”: Skills Gap, An Idea That Should Have Been Killed By Evidence But Refuses To Die

A few months ago, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and Marlene Seltzer, the chief executive of Jobs for the Future, published an article in Politico titled “Closing the Skills Gap.” They began portentously: “Today, nearly 11 million Americans are unemployed. Yet, at the same time, 4 million jobs sit unfilled” — supposedly demonstrating “the gulf between the skills job seekers currently have and the skills employers need.”

Actually, in an ever-changing economy there are always some positions unfilled even while some workers are unemployed, and the current ratio of vacancies to unemployed workers is far below normal. Meanwhile, multiple careful studies have found no support for claims that inadequate worker skills explain high unemployment.

But the belief that America suffers from a severe “skills gap” is one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of a zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.

And it does a lot of harm. Before we get there, however, what do we actually know about skills and jobs?

Think about what we would expect to find if there really were a skills shortage. Above all, we should see workers with the right skills doing well, while only those without those skills are doing badly. We don’t.

Yes, workers with a lot of formal education have lower unemployment than those with less, but that’s always true, in good times and bad. The crucial point is that unemployment remains much higher among workers at all education levels than it was before the financial crisis. The same is true across occupations: workers in every major category are doing worse than they were in 2007.

Some employers do complain that they’re finding it hard to find workers with the skills they need. But show us the money: If employers are really crying out for certain skills, they should be willing to offer higher wages to attract workers with those skills. In reality, however, it’s very hard to find groups of workers getting big wage increases, and the cases you can find don’t fit the conventional wisdom at all. It’s good, for example, that workers who know how to operate a sewing machine are seeing significant raises in wages, but I very much doubt that these are the skills people who make a lot of noise about the alleged gap have in mind.

And it’s not just the evidence on unemployment and wages that refutes the skills-gap story. Careful surveys of employers — like those recently conducted by researchers at both M.I.T. and the Boston Consulting Group — similarly find, as the consulting group declared, that “worries of a skills gap crisis are overblown.”

The one piece of evidence you might cite in favor of the skills-gap story is the sharp rise in long-term unemployment, which could be evidence that many workers don’t have what employers want. But it isn’t. At this point, we know a lot about the long-term unemployed, and they’re pretty much indistinguishable in skills from laid-off workers who quickly find new jobs. So what’s their problem? It’s the very fact of being out of work, which makes employers unwilling even to look at their qualifications.

So how does the myth of a skills shortage not only persist, but remain part of what “everyone knows”? Well, there was a nice illustration of the process last fall, when some news media reported that 92 percent of top executives said that there was, indeed, a skills gap. The basis for this claim? A telephone survey in which executives were asked, “Which of the following do you feel best describes the ‘gap’ in the U.S. workforce skills gap?” followed by a list of alternatives. Given the loaded question, it’s actually amazing that 8 percent of the respondents were willing to declare that there was no gap.

The point is that influential people move in circles in which repeating the skills-gap story — or, better yet, writing about skill gaps in media outlets like Politico — is a badge of seriousness, an assertion of tribal identity. And the zombie shambles on.

Unfortunately, the skills myth — like the myth of a looming debt crisis — is having dire effects on real-world policy. Instead of focusing on the way disastrously wrongheaded fiscal policy and inadequate action by the Federal Reserve have crippled the economy and demanding action, important people piously wring their hands about the failings of American workers.

Moreover, by blaming workers for their own plight, the skills myth shifts attention away from the spectacle of soaring profits and bonuses even as employment and wages stagnate. Of course, that may be another reason corporate executives like the myth so much.

So we need to kill this zombie, if we can, and stop making excuses for an economy that punishes workers.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 30, 2014

April 1, 2014 Posted by | Jobs, Skills Gap, Unemployed | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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