Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Unfinished Business from the Great March on Washington

If we want to honor the Great March on Washington that took place fifty years ago today, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to nostalgia and reciting speeches. We should work to fulfill the concrete economic justice demands of the marchers.

The news media and the public, across the political spectrum, have given tremendous attention in recent days to the historic event. This attention has included an anniversary march and rally at the Lincoln Memorial, frequent news clippings of Dr. King’s speech, interviews with civil rights movement heroes, and retrospectives on our nation’s progress towards racial inclusiveness.

But precious little attention has been paid to the fact the official policy goals of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – as it was called at the time – were not only about civil rights and the end of racial discrimination.

crowds gathered at Reflecting Pool, 1963 Great March on Washington, John Lewis quote

Organizers of the March had set nine specific goals for the actions that the federal government should take to address “Jobs and Freedom.” Six of these goals were explicitly about civil rights, and have, over the past half-century, been largely achieved.

But the March on Washington explicitly called for three other goals that were aimed at basic economic opportunity for all Americans. These remain largely unfulfilled.

1.      A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide.
Yes, I suppose the Marchers succeeded. The minimum wage, which was $1.25 per hour at the end of 1963, finally reached $2.00 eleven years later. Today, it is a whopping $7.25 which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, is equivalent to $0.95 in 1963. Adjusted for inflation, the $2.00/hour demand of the Marchers fifty years ago would equal $15.25 now. Just slightly more than the $15.00 demanded at recent rallies and strikes targeting the fast food industry. The protesters at the McDonald's in Pittsburgh and across the nation are the heirs of the marchers, continuing the unfinished business of 1963. Imagine if they were joined by 250,000 companions at the mall in Washington, with headlines and live TV network coverage for their demand for a $15.25 minimum wage. Perhaps just like in 1963, their opposition in Congress would smear the march as "communist-inspired."

2.      A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas.
The news is not too bad here, as many farmworkers received Fair Labor Standards Act protection in 1966 and many domestic service workers won FLSA coverage in 1974. But farmworkers who are “traditionally” paid piecemeal for their work still get no overtime. Some home health aides defined by the law as providing “companionship” services have no minimum wage or overtime rights. And untold thousands of workers are routinely exploited by workplaces abuses such as falsified timecards and being misclassified as "independent contractors" in jobs from child care to trucking to construction.

3.      A program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed.
Direct government hiring of unemployed people to do Public Works hasn’t happened since the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Not even today’s “liberals” in Congress dare to put such an extreme measure on the agenda. In August 1963, the official unemployment rate was 5.4%. Today, it is 7.4%. Instead of celebrating that it is down from its Great Recession peak of 10.0%, why doesn’t the Obama administration propose a massive public employment program? And instead of arguing that the "stimulus didn’t work" – despite the fact that  unemployment DID decline significantly as a result – why won’t Republicans,  who claim to support the work ethic and the American dream of self-sufficiency, support such a stimulus plan? After all, some of them now want to impose work requirements on food stamp recipients. What part of “7.4% unemployment” don’t they understand? And to those who argue that public works are a waste of money, I invite you to come for a walk with me some evening at the beautiful Highland Park Reservoir. Right there on the walkway to one of Pittsburgh’s great quality-of-life public assets is the stone inscription: “Built by the WPA.”

Yes, there is much unfinished business from August 28, 1963. After half a century, it is no longer time for dreams, but time to make real a day when our children will be judged by the content of their character, not by the contents of their wallets. The best way to honor the marchers is to join their fight to end all inequality.

--Ken Regal, Executive Director

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Bullies With Buggies -- How Register Rage Blinds Otherwise Reasonable People to the Facts

I never really understood why or how people manage to monitor the grocery shopping habits of other people in their line. Yes, I might glance in someone's cart while waiting my turn in line, but I tend to look away -- sort of good manners dictating that I not stare at what people are purchasing. And beyond idle curiosity, I really don't care.

But there's a persistent group of bullies in our society who use grocery shopping to exert moral pressure on poor people to prove they "earned" the right to choose their own groceries. As a lesbian and survivor, I use the term bullies with intent because its not just an analogy -- the behavior of these people, from the lady in line at the Giant Eagle to Congressmen has a very real impact on the welfare of our neighbors including many, many children -- an impact that's profoundly harmful and destructive.

Fact: Food stamp (SNAP) fraud is very low - so low in fact that it is literally not worth investing more money into fraud prevention. Because it works. The people using SNAP at the Giant Eagle or Wal-Mart have already proven they deserve the benefit via an application and verification process.

Bully Spin: "My won't get a job and gets $1,000 in food stamps." Thus I am choosing to believe that the facts are wrong because of one person that I know. Or used to know. Or know through a friend.

Fact: The grocery stores are clear on what can and cannot be purchased with food stamps. Food can be purchased. Items like soap, paper towels, cleaning supplies, deodorant, shampoo, tampons, and tooth paste cannot be purchased.

Bully Spin: I choose to ignore that this adult cannot buy soap and tooth paste and focus instead on how I imagine she's misusing my money. I can't control Wall Street or corporate fraud or even how my own elected officials conduct themselves - I feel helpless and frightened for my own financial future, so I'm going to find SOME way to control something. Kicking the dog will suffice when I cannot kick the boss back. After all, it was my money that paid for the dog.

Fact: Most people on food stamps are working, disabled, retired or children.

Bully Spin: Maybe if I shame them, they'll work a little harder. At least I'll feel better.

Fact: Judging other people based on what you observe in one trip to the grocery store is not fair or reasonable. It is also usually not how our faith communities teach us to conduct ourselves. When you behave like this, no matter how subtle, you hurt someone - yourself. You lessen yourself as a person by casting judgment. Your kids notice and follow in your footsteps. The kids being judged notice and absorb it and feel it. The retired or disabled senior is reminded of a shame and stigma associated with not being self-reliant. You do this when you roll your eyes and mutter.

Bully Spin: I don't care. I don't think about the consequences of my reactions because I'm so concerned with day to day life. It isn't fair that I can't buy those things, that we have to scrimp, that our jobs are in jeapordy. I don't have that kind of cell phone and my kids have never had crab legs. It has to be someone's fault that I'm so tired and worn down from taking care of my family and still can't get ahead. It must be someone's fault.

This is what The Huffington Post explored in a recent poll asking Americans how people should spend their food stamps. The results are dismaying -- is it OK to buy junk food? is it OK to buy expensive organic vegetables? is it OK to buy meat? cake? or crab legs?

How about asking -- is it OK that a family with two working parents has to rely on food stamps AND a food pantry to feed their two kids? Is it OK to pay people with debit cards so they rack up fees accessing money they earned by working? Is it OK that a disabled person or a senior citizen is supposed to live on $900 a month?

In Pittsburgh, we call our shopping carts "buggies" so here's a story of a Buggy Bully from a Pittsburgh Giant Eagle via the The Huffington Post:
Janina Riley noticed a woman muttering behind her in the checkout line as she paid for food at a Giant Eagle grocery store in Pittsburgh last April.
"I can't believe she's buying that big-ass cake with food stamps," the woman said, according to Riley.
Riley, 19, had just used a government-issued debit card to pay for most of her groceries, which included a cake for her son that said "Happy First Birthday Xavier" in a theme from the movie "Cars." She glared at the women for a second, then decided to confront her.
"I was just like, 'Shut the fuck up,'" Riley said. "You don't know what I'm doing with these food stamps."
But many Americans do not want to let people on food stamps eat cake. This sentiment is particularly prevalent among conservatives in Congress. Cash register resentment of the sort directed at Riley feeds Republican animus toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Now I would like to applaud Ms. Riley for leaning in and pushing back against a bully. I'm not sure that's always the best or safest response (or effective) but I think it catches people off guard to hear people actually feel dignity and self-worth in spite of the relentless bullying.

But standing up to bullies requires allies -- it requires all of us to say "Shut the fuck up" (in our heads maybe) and then point out "You don't know!"

You don't know the person's story or situation or circumstances. You don't know how they ended up here or where they are headed. You don't know why or how they have an iPhone or a nice watch or dress in smart clothes. You don't know why they came to the store in a car nicer than yours. You don't know why they have three or four children with them.

You DO know that this is a human being, a neighbor, a person in your community -- and they deserve your compassion and respect, regardless of how they are paying for their groceries.

What more do you really need to know?

--Authored by Sue Kerr and first published by Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents. Follow Sue on Twitter: @pghlesbian24