Food for Thought About the Food on Our Thanksgiving Table

November 23, 2016

Last December, Barbara Ehrenreich took us to task for exercising gratitude. Well, not all of us, but the many who’ve heeded the research—often distilled into self-help guidance—that promotes gratitude because it’s so good for us.

Even those of us who still actually bother to thank people who’ve done nice things for us—rather than, for example, just jotting them down a journal—don’t escape scot-free.

Because, says Ehrenreich, we’re unlikely to feel thankful for the labors of low-income people—and because our gratitude, in and of itself, won’t make a damn bit of difference to them.

The op-ed struck me at the time as more appropriate for Thanksgiving than for the new year we were about to ring in. And perhaps Ehrenreich wrote it for publication then. In any event, I’m recurring to it now, thinking especially about the people whose labors feed us.

Not them only, however. Our Thanksgiving celebrations depend on other low-income people too—the clerks at the grocery stores, the workers in the other stores where we bought the napkins, candles, etc.

They won’t all have a Thanksgiving Day because many of the grocery stores will stay open so we can pick up what we forgot—and because a goodly number of us will start our holiday shopping while we’re still digesting turkey. That, at least, is what stores offering the extra-early Black Friday sales intend.

But back to our food.

Recent events have raised our consciousness of very disgruntled people in rural communities. They’re not, for the most part, actually poor. Or so one gathers from the polls. But many of the people in rural areas are—among them, those who plant, weed and harvest the fruits and vegetables that we’ll have on our tables.

They’re generally supposed to get paid at least the federal minimum wage. So they’d earn slightly over $15,000 a year if they worked full time, year round. But many don’t because crops have growing seasons.

That’s only one reason that farm workers are reportedly among the lowest-paid in the country—paid so little that 25% of their families have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the Department of Labor’s latest (not altogether current) survey.

For one thing, not all farm owners have to pay the minimum wage. The Fair Labor Standards Act exempts those who use fewer than 500 “man days” during any calendar quarter, i.e., the equivalent of 500 people working each day.

Sounds like a lot, it but translates into roughly seven workers per quarter, according to Farmworker Justice. It means, in fact, that about a third of our country’s farm workers can legally get paid less than the minimum wage.

Others may wind up short because they’re paid by how much they harvest—so much per bucket, for example. The burden thus falls on them to prove how much they’ve earned, whether more than the minimum wage or less. If less, than they’re owed the minimum.

That’s the most they’re entitled to under federal law. The FLSA doesn’t require farm owners to pay time and a half to workers who put in more than 40 hours a week. California and a few other states mandate overtime pay.

But surely not all farm workers who ought to get it do. Nearly a third of those the Labor Department surveyed spoke no English whatever. Nearly as many spoke only a little. And only 20% said they could read English well.

They’re ripe for wage theft and other abuses, e.g., lack of protection from poisonous pesticides. This is all the more true because nearly half—or perhaps even more—have no legal authority to work here.

Even farm workers born in this country or equipped with green cards run more than the usual risks if they try organize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions because they’ve no protections under the National Labor Relations Act.

Well, most of us look forward to Thanksgiving dinner because of the turkey, not the green beans or the mashed sweet potatoes (especially if they’ve got marshmallows mixed in). The pies are a different matter, of course.

What I’ve already said about farm workers applies to those who feed birds, clean up after them and toss them into crates, then onto the trucks that take them to the slaughterhouses—commonly and euphemistically called processing plants.

What life’s like for workers in plants that process turkeys isn’t easily learned—at least, for someone sitting at a computer. But we can learn quite a bit about workers in chicken processing plants. And presumably conditions are comparable.

Pay is low, though generally more than the minimum wage. Hours can be extremely long. But we can guess from past investigations that workers don’t always get paid for overtime. A recent survey of workers in Arkansas poultry plants found that 62% had experienced wage theft of one sort or another.

Further—and more singular problems—have to do with working conditions. Processing involves a lot of tasks, as Oxfam America explains in its lengthy report on workers in the processing plants owned by our major suppliers.

Basically, the birds get hung upside down on a line that speeds along very fast. Workers must keep up. They can’t always go to the bathroom when they need to. They suffer unusually high rates of repetitive motion disorders and other injuries. They’re exposed to harmful chemicals.

They can’t take time off when they’re sick or in too much pain to work without losing pay—and perhaps their jobs. Well-founded fears of job loss causes them to put up with whatever they’re subject to—especially immigrants, documented and otherwise.

I suppose it seems I’m trying to infuse guilt into what’s supposed to be a special day of gratitude. That’s not my intent, though I confess to feeling a little queasy about the low price I paid for my turkey.

Readers who felt stung by Ehrenreich’s column argued that pausing to focus on what we’re grateful for can make us more generous—even “lead to greater efforts to bring about social change.”

I see some truth in this—if we move beyond the things we’re grateful for to a heartfelt understanding of the privileges they imply and beyond that too. Because knowing we’re more privileged than some other folks does nothing

The food on our table (wine too maybe), the people gathered round, the warmth of the house, the security—these are all privileges and, often as not, derive from injustices in our social and economic systems.


What We Know About DC Parents Up Against the TANF Time Limit

November 3, 2016

The working group deputed to advise on the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program gathered various kinds of information before making the recommendations I recently blogged on.

Among the most influential, I’d guess, were two newly-gathered sets of data that tell us — and decision-makers — more about the 6,560 or so TANF parents whose families will be at or over the 60-month lifetime participation limit next October, unless the Mayor and Council agree to an alternative.

For one set, the Department of Human Services did what seems a limited analysis of the families’ case records. For the other — and to me, more enlightening — it asked the parents some questions. The working group’s report includes an analysis of the results.

They bolster the case for eliminating the time limit because they cast grave doubts on the parents’ prospects for getting — and keeping — jobs that pay enough to support themselves and their children. Not such grave doubts for all, however, if they’re given more time in the program.

Here’s a sampling of what we learn.

Twenty-two percent of the survey respondents reported they were working, but very few of them full time. All but 39% usually worked for no more than 30 hours a week.

The fact that most of those already over the time limit have children under 10 helps explain this, but so may the hiring and scheduling practices that depress earnings for so many low-wage workers.

Nearly half the working parents earned less than $250 a week. A mother with two children would need about $388 a week, every week, just to lift the family over the federal poverty line.

About half the parents hadn’t participated in TANF for 60 months running. Three-quarters of those who’d left had done so because they’d gotten a job and/or began earning too much for their families to still qualify.

About the same percent were back in the program because they’d lost their jobs or couldn’t find a job that would enable them to support their families. These may include the 11% who said they’d re-enrolled because they couldn’t afford child care. Seems they’d lost the subsidies TANF parents get.

Their resumes may have lacked proof of the high-level skills so many local employers require. Thirty-one percent of the parents surveyed said that lack of sufficient education and/or training made it difficult for them to work.

The same percent are currently trying to get a GED or high school diploma — hardly something they could invest as much (if any) time in if kicked out of the program.

They’ll have a hard time getting any job without even this minimal credential. The unemployment rate for working-age residents with less is nearly 20%, according to the most recent analysis we have.

More than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require at least some postsecondary education by 2020, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projects.

This, of course, suggests that the job market will remain very tight — if not get tighter — for the least educated TANF parents. Hence, the need to ensure that TANF will remain a safety net for them and their children.

But it also argues for eliminating the time limit in a different way because 38% of the at-risk parents are taking college-level courses now. And scholarships the District provides exclusively for TANF parents probably help them cover the costs, as do the childcare and transportation subsidies.

Lack of work experience caused problems for 35% of the parents — perhaps some of the same who cited insufficient education and/or training as a barrier.

Far from all parents face only these barriers. More than half cited at least one sort of health problem as a reason they weren’t working, looking for work or regularly participating in a TANF training program.

Physical health problems pose a barrier for well over one in three. The case review found 18% with mental health needs that remained unmet — presumably meaning that the parents still suffered from them.

The federal Supplemental Security Income program provides modest cash benefits for people whose disabilities make self-supporting work impossible.

But relatively few who apply get them — and none who can’t prove, among other things, that their disability will last at least a year (or that they’ll die sooner) and precludes any sort of paying work.

A top-flight TANF expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put the chances that the 60-month or over parents could make up for their lost benefits with SSI at no more than 10%.

Understandably, more than half the parents facing lifetime banishments from TANF believe it will be harder for them to meet their families’ needs. An additional 25% don’t know.

They’re, of course, viewing their prospects in today’s job market. Come the next recession — and one will come — there’ll be fewer job openings and more recently-employed people competing for them.

What then for the many thousands of families tossed out of TANF — and others who’ll reach the 60-month limit during the downturn?


What Made DC Councilmembers Back Off Just Hours?

October 27, 2016

Picking up where I left off on a dormant, though perhaps not dead proposal to make the lives of some low-wage workers less hectic — and perhaps less cash-strapped too.

I’ve already summarized the problems the proposed Hours and Scheduling Stability Act would have addressed, for whom and how. Here, as promised, are the main arguments that apparently persuaded a majority of DC Councilmembers to shelve it.

But I should first note that the bill the Council tabled was substantially different in various ways from the version opponents testified against. The responsible committee clearly sought to accommodate objections.

Nothing it could do, however, to placate the chain businesses the bill covered because they want to keep on doing exactly what they’re doing now. And, they say, their workers want that too. Or so one gathers from their champions who testified.

Our Businesses Are Unique

Spokespersons for retail stores, restaurants and other businesses in the hospitality sector, e.g., bars, nightclubs, all claimed that each and every one has unique staffing needs — and the best way of meeting them.

The bill would impose a “one size fits all” system — a case of government micromanaging operations “typically decided between employers and employees.”

Note here — and not here only — how the erratic schedules and insufficient hours workers have complained of become mutually agreed-on, win-win arrangements.

Workers Will Be Harmed, Not Helped

We’re told, by one spokesperson after another, that workers value the flexibility in their schedules. If they can’t work the hours they’re scheduled for, they just tell their manager, who usually finds someone else to fill in.

But that wouldn’t happen any more because the business would have to pay that someone for an extra hour.

This is true, but only if the manager asked a particular worker to fill in. The business would then owe her, on average, less than twelve bucks, I figure. No such hit to the bottom line if workers just agreed to switch hours or freely volunteered. So the much-touted flexibility isn’t necessarily hampered.

We find other overblown harms in the testimony. The National Restaurant Association, for example, claims that the bill “prohibits restaurants from offering part-time employment to new employees.” But it doesn’t.

It could, however, deny some prospective workers part-time jobs because businesses would have to offer current part-timers more extra hours first. Several spokespersons referred specifically to students trying to earn money to pay for their educations.

Some still might gain jobs in the covered businesses. But they couldn’t count on schedules that would let them go to classes, do their homework, etc.

More generally, spokespersons equated part-time work with “flexibility” that accommodates workers’ needs. That’s, in fact, how large retail stores “create and maintain” their schedules now, says a senior vice president at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Reading the testimony I’ve summarized here, I felt as if transported to an alternative universe. Schedules designed as workers want them, readily changed when they ask, generally far less than full time because that’s their preference.

What then to make of the fact that four out of five low-wage D.C. workers surveyed said that getting more hours was important to them? Or that nearly one in four said they’d been disciplined and/or told they might be fired when they asked for a different schedule?

Or the McDonald’s cook who was told she’d have to choose between work and going to school?

The District Is Piling On

The curbs on erratic schedules, pay disparities and hiring are the straw that would break the camel’s back, all the heavy hitters said.

Businesses already have to pay a higher minimum wage. They’ve got to provide some (modest) amount of paid sick leave. They’ve got to provide a transportation benefit (though not necessarily to pay for what their employees must shell out to get to work and home again).

They can’t automatically refuse to consider job applicants who’ve got criminal records. They’ve got to deal with tougher protections against wage theft.

The fast food restaurants and other carryouts have had to switch from styrofoam cups, plates and the like to more environmentally-friendly alternatives.

The skyrocketing growth of the local restaurant industry has already slowed — not because the market is reaching capacity, as one might think. More likely the collective impact of the mandates, says the National Restaurant Association’s local affiliate.

Both it and its parent warn that the hours and scheduling requirements will stunt the growth of “homegrown chains” because they’ll chose to open only as many restaurants as will keep them exempt (and far less profitable than they might be).

So the District will forfeit tax revenues — not only what the restaurants would pay, but what workers who live here would. Because, make no mistake about it, the bill’s a job killer. Further proof that the District is not “a business-friendly city.” Thus, a further incentive for businesses to locate just across the borders.

How often have we heard this, folks? How often the claim that proposals to help low-wage workers will harm them instead?

Others Dampers on the Bill

I don’t want to leave the impression that the bill would have solved the problems low-wage workers struggle with. Nor that a Council majority would have passed it if spokespersons for the retail and restaurant chains hadn’t come out with all guns blazing.

The Bowser administration didn’t expressly oppose it. But the Director of the Department of Employment Services leaned heavily on the negatives — mainly, but not entirely related to compliance and enforcement.

Basically, a very business-friendly position, reflecting the Mayor’s. So she might have vetoed it. We’ll never know.

But the initiative will rise again from the ashes. The head of the recently-formed Subcommittee on the Workforce has announced a public roundtable* on fair scheduling for November 3. So we can look for another lively exchange — and, I think, another bill.

* A roundtable is essentially a hearing open to testimony by anyone who signs up or submits a written statement by date certain.


Just Hours Not Just Yet, DC Council Decides

October 20, 2016

A DC Council majority recently decided to table a bill that would have given some low-wage workers more predictable schedules — and, in some cases, more wage income too.*

The nay-saying Councilmembers could have let a newly-formed subcommittee try to fix what troubled them, as its chair urged them to. They instead killed the proposal for the rest of this Council session — and, of course, opened the door to further efforts to block it.

We’ll surely see them, since they succeeded so well this time. We might also, I suppose, expect efforts to further scale back the worker protections that the tabled bill provided — just in case the Council won’t altogether cave again.

I’d thought to dive right into the debate, but realized it wouldn’t make much sense to anyone who didn’t know what the parties were arguing about. So I’ll deal here with the bill itself and why supporters (self included) say it’s needed. Look for the arguments that apparently won the day in a followup.

Which Workers Would Have Benefited

Only some workers in the District would have gained schedules they could rely on for even a couple of weeks — or the chance to gain more hours, also more predictable.

The bill set requirements only for retail businesses, including restaurants that were part of chains — at least five nationwide for businesses that sell goods and at least twenty for restaurants.

The report that inspired the bill focused mainly on workers employed by retailers, restaurants and other food services businesses, e.g., grocery stores, but the survey it reflected also included others — people who work for cleaning services, for example, and for parking lots and garages.

So the bill could have gone much further than it did — and, in fact, went further when introduced. The committee that narrowly approved the bill revised it to exclude hotels, healthcare facilities and six other types of enterprises.

Why Workers Need Predictable Hours and Schedules

The aforementioned report cites several major problems that irregular schedules cause, though the survey also picked up problems all low-wage workers face, i.e. simply not enough money and the consequences thereof.

Erratic schedules specifically make it very difficult for workers and their families to budget, since pay is inevitably erratic too. The workers can’t take second jobs to ease the financial stress because they may have to show up at the first.

They can’t improve their prospects in the labor market by getting more education or training — again, because they don’t know which hours they’ll be free.

They struggle with childcare arrangements, not knowing when they’ll need someone to look after the kids. Nor, one guesses, whether they can pay the fees when due. Further problems, including extra fees when they can’t pick their kids up on time.

And still other problems when they or their kids need medical or dental care, when they need to talk with a teacher, etc.

National research and advocacy organizations have flagged problems of another sort — threats to the safety net benefits many of the workers and their families need.

Some must work a certain number of hours regularly to get them — those in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example, and those without children or other dependents who rely on SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Those in any of our major safety net programs can lose some or all of their benefits when their incomes rise. But then their incomes will probably fall again. And getting those benefits back takes time — especially, as CLASP notes, when a sudden schedule change forces them to miss an appointment.

What the Bill Would Have Done

The proposed Hours and Scheduling Stability Act would have done three major things. First, it would have required the covered businesses to give part-time workers more hours, if they wanted them, before hiring more part-timers.

Second, it would have required them to pay part-time workers as much as full-time workers with roughly equivalent jobs. An exception here, however, for pay differentials based on seniority systems like those built into some union contracts.

Third, the bill would have required the covered businesses to give workers their schedules two weeks in advance. No day-by-day — or even hour-by-hour — scheduling according to expected customer traffic.

The businesses could have changed schedules with a day’s advance notice, but they’d have owed an extra hour’s pay for that. More extra hours of pay if less warning.

This only if workers agreed to the scheduling change — in writing, as all the scheduling communications would have had to be. Workers could refuse and wouldn’t have to find someone else to fill in.

District law already requires employers to pay workers when they show up as scheduled and are told they’re not needed — or were scheduled for more than four hours and sent home sooner or told to sit around for awhile.

The bill would have extended a somewhat similar pay protection to workers told they should call in and be available to come in if needed.

It did, however, recognize that businesses sometimes need no workers because they can’t operate. They’ve no electricity, for example. A big snowstorm has shut down public transit. They been told to close because of a terrorist threat.

No pay owed in these or some other specified cases. Nor if a restaurant scheduled additional staff expecting a nearby event that got cancelled, thus reducing expected customer traffic.

In short, some carve-outs, but generally provisions that aim to make just-in-time scheduling and similar practices less profitable to some businesses that use them.

Or at least, seem less profitable. Relatively stable schedules can reduce turnover — and with it, the costs of hiring and training. They can also increase productivity because workers feel better, physically and emotionally — and do more to help the businesses do better because they feel better about them.

Trader Joe’s reportedly gives its workers their schedules at least two weeks in advance. And it’s doing just fine.

*  I’m linking to the Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee’s report, rather than the online version of the bill because the committee’s version reflects what the Council considered.


A Labor Day Look at Homeless People and Work

September 6, 2016

The tool I use for this blog gives me a running account of my most-viewed posts. The list almost always includes one or both of two posts I wrote a long time ago on homeless people and work.

In both cases, the headlines — the first (and more popular especially) — might seem to announce posts that said people wouldn’t be homeless if they’d just get off their butts and find jobs. Followers know I’d never argue that.

Why Don’t Homeless People Just Get a Job?” cites some obstacles to employment homeless people face because they’re homeless, e.g., difficulties keeping clothes (and self) clean, conflicts between work schedules and shelter access hours.

Why Homeless People Aren’t Working … Or Are Working and Homeless Anyway” focuses mainly on challenges that aren’t unique to homeless people, e.g., the unfavorable ratio of job-seekers to jobs, education requirements, work-related costs, background checks.

Labor Day week seems a good time for another crack at the issues. One I haven’t dealt with is how many homeless people one could reasonably expect to work. The other, which I have, is obstacles. I’ll confine myself to a couple that I’ve come to understand better.

Uncounted Who May Work and Counted Who Probably Can’t

First off, we have an uncounted number of homeless people who are living doubled up with friends or relatives and others who are sheltering themselves in cheap motels. We’ve no idea how many are working.

Some of the counted, as I’ve said before, do work. We’ve no recent data on how many nationwide. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t include them in its annual reports.

In the Washington metro area, 26% of single adults, i.e., those who didn’t have children in their care, and 37% of adults in families, i.e., those that did, were reportedly employed last January. But employed apparently means had some income from work, not steady work for pay.

These are only those counted who acknowledged income from work. Some might have chosen not to — because they don’t have legal authority to work, for example.

Second, some of the counted are not only officially homeless, but chronically so. That means, among other things, that they have at least one disability. Not all qualifying disabilities absolutely preclude work of any sort, but some surely do.

Third, a higher portion of officially homeless people nationwide are now at least 50 years old. Some have been homeless for years and have disabilities, but not all. If the technically work-able “older” folks aren’t working now, they’ll face the same barrier to employment that older job-seekers do generally.

Lastly (at least for now), homelessness takes a toll on the body — as, of course, does advancing age. So someone who’s not so disabled as to qualify for Social Security benefits could be unable to do work requiring physical strength and stamina, but without the skills and work history for a desk job.

Criminal Records Revisited

I noted before that homeless people, like others face a formidable barrier to work if they have a criminal record. But it’s more complex than I knew back then.

On the one hand, people may be homeless because of their criminal record — and thus also disadvantaged in job searches by the other complications that have no stable housing entails.

Convictions for certain crimes bar people from public housing and deny them federal housing vouchers. Private-sector landlords can reject any tenant they choose, including those with criminal records, provided they’re not demonstrably screening out racial minorities or others covered by our civil rights laws.

As you probably know by now, a criminal record doesn’t necessarily indicate conviction of a crime. Not-guilty verdicts — even arrests that don’t lead to trials — create criminal records too.

Not all public housing authorities — and probably even fewer private-sector landlords — make this distinction. Doubtful most employers do, though “ban the box” laws limit sweeping exclusions in a handful of states, the District of Columbia and about two dozen local jurisdictions.

On the other hand, homelessness may result in a criminal record for violating any one of the various laws local governments have passed to get homeless people off the streets. Perhaps out of their communities too.

The laws mostly license police officers to hustle homeless people off park benches, out of wherever they’ve parked the car they’re sleeping in, etc. But the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty, which specializes in these laws, reports arrests and even time in jail.

The National Health Care for the Homeless Council cites research linking homelessness, incarceration and certain disabling conditions, e.g., substance abuse, mental illness. So a barrier to work that leads to homelessness becomes another when the temporarily housed in jails or prisons are released.

Proof of Work Eligibility

Federal law requires employers to ensure that people they hire are legally authorized to work. Americans who don’t have passports must show them another document with a photo, plus, in most cases, proof of a Social Security number.

But homeless people may not have them, even if they once did. And if they don’t, they may not be able to get them.

A man in one of the outdoor camps the District government has since cleared out says he woke up one morning to find that the bag with all his identification documents had been stolen. Not an unusual plight.

Homeless people may also lose their photo ID and/or Social Security card when public workers confiscate their bundles or backpacks as part of one of those clear-outs. Or they may simply drop their wallets, distracted perhaps by the need to keep moving around, with all their worldly belongings.

We securely housed people lose our wallets too, of course — or have them stolen. But we can readily replace our photo IDs because we’ve got a fixed address, proof it’s ours and the money to pay for a replacement — for the required copy of our birth certificate too, if we don’t already have one.

Well, you need a photo ID to get a new Social Security card. And getting the ID poses problems for homeless and other poor people, as I’ve written before. I focused on the District’s requirements. But the proofs, though not the fee apply everywhere.

Homeless people face other barriers to legal work, I’m sure — not necessarily barriers unique to them, just as some I’ve covered aren’t. I’ve said nothing about race discrimination, for example.

I’d welcome input for yet another crack at this topic.


DC and States With “Ban the Box” Laws Ban People With Criminal Records From Work

March 10, 2016

We’re familiar by now with ways employers screen out job applicants with criminal records. Seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted “ban the box” laws to give these applicants a fair shot at gainful, legal work.

Turns out that all these states and the District have other laws or regulations that deny them any shot at jobs in various occupations where they could get paid a good bit — or become their own employer in these fields. Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?

A new report on “employment bans” from the Alliance for a Just Society suggests probably not. The bans here are laws that deny occupational licenses to people who’ve been convicted of certain crimes — or in some cases, any crimes at all.

One can see, I think, reasons for certain bans. A prudent concern for public safety could justify denying licenses as armed guards to people convicted of irrational crimes of violence when they first return to the community.

Someone with multiple convictions of drug dealing on a major scale perhaps shouldn’t get a license as a pharmacist right away. Denying a license to operate or work in a daycare center to someone convicted of child sexual abuse would surely seem reasonable.

But we see that the District reportedly has 72 crime-related restrictions on employment, including 35 applicable to occupational licenses or certifications and others (the number isn’t clear) that restrict business licenses. Illinois, which also has a “ban the box” law, has more than twice as many of the former.

The report, eye-opening as it is, lacks details one might wish for. Happily, the American Bar Association has an online database that specifies “collateral consequences” for licenses, by occupation and jurisdiction.

Some of the District’s one might understand, e.g., a ban on employment as a security officer after conviction of a weapons offense. Others you have to read to believe.

For example, the District denies licenses to buy and/or sell “junk/secondhand personal property” to people convicted of any felony. Any felony or misdemeanor renders someone ineligible for a real estate license or a license to act as an agent for athletes.

Most of the licensing barriers people with criminal records may face aren’t so clear because the ABA (rightly) classifies them as “discretionary.” This is true not only for the District, but for states, my random check indicates.

The District generally invests wide discretion in boards specific to particular occupations or categories thereof. They’re supposed to deny licenses to applicants with criminal records only when the offense “bear[s] directly on the fitness of the person to be licensed.”

Well, what does that mean? Whatever folks on the board decide apparently. But they’ve no such discretion when it comes to ten occupations the law exempts, leaving these to the Mayor’s discretion through the rulemaking process.

A strange collection here. Barbers and cosmetologists, for whom apparently rules were issued barring only those found guilty of “moral turpitude” — as if having knowingly filed a false tax return has anything to do with whether one can skillfully and safely cut hair (or fingernails).

Others in the exempt category include funeral directors, commercial bicycle operators and people who specialize in several types of building systems installation and repairs. What, one wonders, led policymakers to subject these occupations to different standards?

The more important question, of course, is why people who’ve paid their debt to society should suffer “collateral consequences” when they seek licenses to work in occupations they’re demonstrably qualified for, except when their records raise well-founded concerns about harms to others.

I’ve focused here on the District, but returning citizens face barriers to work that engages –and rewards — their specialized skills and/or knowledge everywhere, beyond the prejudices of individual employers. This is also true for some people who had no jail or prison term to return from.

The White House has raised concerns about these barriers, noting that as many as one in three Americans has a criminal record. Like half the states, the District has no standards specifying the relevance a conviction must have to a particular license, it says.

It cites other concerns as well, e.g., fees and the costs of tuition to meet the education or training requirements. These presumably close doors to many returning citizens, as well as other low-income people. And the need for these isn’t always obvious, as a selective account compiled for the District by the Institute for Justice shows.

Occupational licensing has burgeoned. Roughly five times as many workers were covered by state licensing laws in 2008 as in the early 1950s. Nearly two-thirds of the growth since the mid-60s reflects licensing in new occupations — and in new sectors, e.g., sales, construction.

All states and the District must soon submit comprehensive workforce development plans to receive funds authorized by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act — the new version of the Workforce Investment Act.

The plans must include success measures, with results reported separately for groups with especially high barriers to employment, including ex-offenders.

And they’re to include provisions for career pathways, i.e., individualized sequences of work experience, education and/or training and other services that will qualify them for increasingly advanced positions in high-demand fields.

Looks like a goodly number of those pathways for ex-offenders could lead to “do not enter” signs states and the District have posted. They’d be well-advised to reassess them if they want fewer re-offenders.

 


Far More in King’s Dream Than a Color-Blind Society

January 18, 2016

Not long after Congress passed the since-enfeebled Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his attention to poverty and income inequality.

This, for him, was clearly a next step, along with opposition to the country’s engagement in Vietnam. He and colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had launched a Poor People’s Campaign and were planning a demonstration akin to the original March on Washington.

King signaled the campaign’s agenda in a book entitled Where Do We Go From Here? — here being after the enactment of most of our major federal nondiscrimination laws.

His answer took off from a critique of the anti-poverty approach still reflected in many of our public policies. They proceed, he said, “from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils,” e.g., bad housing, lack of education.

Not a faulty notion, he implied. But it led to a piecemeal approach — “a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities,” etc. And the programs were neither coordinated nor sufficiently funded “to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.”

Beyond this, they all sought “to solve poverty by solving something else.” The solution to poverty is for everyone to have enough money. So “we must create full employment or we must create incomes” by establishing a guaranteed minimum.

The latter has garnered more attention — for two reasons, I’d guess. On the one hand, it seems radically progressive. On the other, it has conservative roots and current support from some minimum government types.

King had in mind something far more ambitious than proposals conservatives had floated or the version President Nixon wanted Congress to pass as a replacement for welfare. Likewise what Charles Murray more recently advocated as a substitute for all social welfare programs, including Social Security and Medicare.

King’s guaranteed income would “be pegged to the median income of society.” Once set there, it would increase automatically to maintain parity with the median.

It wouldn’t, on the other hand, go automatically to every adult or family. It would supplement, so far as necessary income gained from work and/or investments, which have always served as “an assured income for the wealthy,” he noted.

Now, one might think that full employment has gotten its proper share of attention too. But what King had in mind, as I understand it, differs significantly from the way it’s commonly understood, i.e., as a situation where everyone willing and able to work is working or merely between jobs.

This, for King, was necessary, but not sufficient. Recall that he was killed in Memphis, where he’d gone to support a strike by black sanitation workers. They had employment obviously. They were demanding safer working conditions, a wage increase and recognition of their union.

“It is criminal,” King said there, “to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.” With “wages so low,” the working poor — as most poor people in the country were, he said — “cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” In other words, poverty-level wages were a form of segregation.

King’s Memphis message grew out of the Freedom Budget developed by two other civil rights leaders. It called for, among other things, a higher minimum wage, unemployment benefits and compensation for workers injured on the job.

As the Poor People’s Campaign got in gear, the $2 an hour minimum wage the Freedom Budget called for had become a living wage. And jobs for everyone who could work had become “meaningful” jobs, including at least a million more providing “socially useful” careers in public service.

King himself had broadened the meaning of full employment in another way too. He noted — astutely, given the anxieties triggered by the first spate of big-city riots — that “Negro youth … are the explosive outsiders of the American expansion.”

Many “have left the labor market completely,” having “faced so many closed doors and so many crippling defeats.” They “are alienated from the routines of work” and so will initially “require work situations which permit flexibility.”

The jobs will also develop skills. They will nevertheless be jobs, not training, which often “becomes a way of avoiding the issue of unemployment.”

Ultimately, full employment, so understood, will help solve other major problems cited in the Freedom Budget — or so supporters thought. It would, of course, generate revenues to “finance improvements we all need,” including “decent housing” to replace the clusters that form slums.

At the same time, workers would have the wherewithal “to do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay,” as King’s Where Do We Go argued. And blacks, who were disadvantaged by discrimination, as well as poverty would have “the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.”

King hoped that the guaranteed income proposal would provide the basis for a biracial coalition, since two-thirds of the country’s poor were white. The Freedom Budget drafters — and presumably King, since he endorsed it for the SLCC — had similar hopes for full employment.

“The workings of our economy,” they said, “often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other.” They termed that “a tragedy.”

Likewise the fact “that groups only one generation removed from poverty themselves, haunted by the memory of scarcity and fearful of slipping back, step on the fingers of those struggling up the ladder.” Anyone who sees no relevance to current events is blessedly insulated from the Presidential campaigns.

We have, however, made progress, in some respects, since King unfolded his dream of an end to segregation and other then-legal forms of discrimination. Not saying we don’t have a long way to go before black children (and adults) are no longer “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But progress nonetheless.

We’d be hard put, I think, to find anything like such progress toward King’s dream of a society where no one is poor and everyone has, at all times, enough income to live on and then some. Worth pondering as we celebrate his birthday.