Recession alert: we need a new unemployment insurance system

With the Federal Reserve pushing up interest rates, we appear headed for a new recession.  Sadly, our unemployment insurance system remains broken: too few unemployed receive benefits and the benefits are far too low.  As a result, the next recession, when it comes, will again bring unnecessary suffering to millions of workers and their families.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Federal action during the recent pandemic crisis shows how our unemployment system can be dramatically improved. The problem is that many business and political leaders are content with the system as it is now.  That means it is up to us to start agitating for reform, and the sooner the better.

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The U.S. experience: racism and COVID-19 mortality

Are you searching for a way to highlight the negative consequences of racism? Try this: Justin M. Feldman and Mary T. Basset, in a recently published study, found that if everyone living in the United States, aged 25 years or older, died of COVID-19 at the same rate as college-educated non-Hispanic white people did in 2020, 48 percent fewer people would have died, 71 percent fewer people of color would have died, and 89 percent fewer people of color aged 25-64 would have died.  

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The dollar costs of inequality: They are greater than you think

Pretty much everyone accepts that inequality is a big problem in the US.  But it is doubtful that most people truly grasp how successfully US elites have captured the benefits of economic growth and, as a result, how much the resulting inequality has cost them.  Here is one estimate of that cost—according to Carter C. Price and Kathryn A. Edwards, authors of a Rand Education and Labor study on income trends:

[the] aggregate income for the population below the 90th percentile . . . would have been $2.5 trillion (67 percent) higher in 2018 had income growth since 1975 remained as equitable as it was in the first two post-War decades. From 1975 to 2018, the difference between the aggregate taxable income for those below the 90th percentile and the equitable growth counterfactual totals $47 trillion.

That $2.5 trillion was enough to give each and every worker in the bottom nine income deciles an additional $1144 a month, every month of the year. That is life changing money for tens of millions—and that is only a partial measure of the costs of inequality.

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Economic inequality means retirement insecurity for most US households

This is far from a “hot take”: financial wealth in the United States is highly concentrated, with most households, especially Black and Hispanic households, owning few financial assets.  One consequence is that many Americans are likely to face a very challenging retirement.  Sadly, if economic and social conditions remain as they are, we can expect to see an ever-growing number turn to for-profit crowdfunding platforms, like GoFundMe, for help in meeting expenses. 

The study

A recently published study by the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit research and education organization, using data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, paints a disturbing picture of the distribution of financial assets by generation, net worth and race. 

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Black Lives Matter protests are saving lives

The research is pretty clear that oppressive economic and social conditions are bad for one’s mental and physical health.   And there is also research showing that protesting is good for one’s mental and physical health.  As Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a psychiatrist at Yale University explains:  

Can protesting and other forms of activism help people break out of those negative thought cycles? Yes, because protesting alone is therapeutic. It is acting on hope and it is also, in the case of oppression, therapeutic.

Now we have a study that finds that protesting actually saves lives.  More specifically, that Black Lives Matter Protests reduce police killings.  As Travis Campbell, the author of the study, concludes, “census places with Black Lives Matter protests experience a 15 percent to 20 percent decrease in police homicides over [the period 2014-2019], around 300 fewer deaths. The gap in lethal use-of-force between places with and without protests widens over these subsequent years and is most prominent when protests are large or frequent.” 

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Profits over people: frontline workers during the pandemic

It wasn’t that long ago that the country celebrated frontline workers by banging pots in the evening to thank them for the risks they took doing their jobs during the pandemic. One national survey found that health care workers were the most admired (80%), closely followed by grocery store workers (77%), and delivery drivers (73%). 

Corporate leaders joined in the celebration. Supermarket News quoted Dacona Smith, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Walmart U.S., as saying in April:

We cannot thank and appreciate our associates enough. What they have accomplished in the last few weeks has been amazing to watch and fills everyone at our company with enormous pride. America is getting the chance to see what we’ve always known — that our people truly do make the difference. Let’s all take care of each other out there.

Driven by a desire to burnish their public image, deflect attention from their soaring profits, and attract more workers, many of the country’s leading retailers, including Walmart, proudly announced special pandemic wage increases and bonuses.  But as a report by Brookings points out, although their profits continued to roll in, those special payments didn’t last long.

There are three important takeaways from the report: First, don’t trust corporate PR statements; once people stop paying attention, corporations do what they want.  Second, workers need unions to defend their interests.  Third, there should be some form of federal regulation to ensure workers receive hazard pay during health emergencies like pandemics, similar to the laws requiring time and half for overtime work.

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COVID-19 Economic Crisis Snapshot

 Workers in the United States are in the midst of a punishing COVID-19 economic crisis.  Unfortunately, while a new fiscal spending package and an effective vaccine can bring needed relief, a meaningful sustained economic recovery will require significant structural changes in the operation and orientation of the economy.

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Big tech support for racial justice is more talk than action

In the month following the May 25th death of George Floyd, the largest technology companies collectively pledged more than a billion dollars in support of racial justice.  Sounds like a lot of money, but for these companies it is pocket change.  And, despite the accompanying corporate statements of support for structural change to fight racism, there is little indication that they plan to back up their words with meaningful action.

Big tech is riding high

In early June Apple announced the launch of a $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative to “promote racial equality for people of color with a focus on ‘education, economic equality, and criminal justice reform.’”  But, as Jay Peters, writing in The Verge, makes clear, the amount doesn’t sound so impressive when you consider Apple’s earnings.

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Defunding police and challenging militarism, a necessary response to their “battle space”

The excessive use of force and killings of unarmed Black Americans by police has fueled a popular movement for slashing police budgets, reimagining policing, and directing freed funds to community-based programs that provide medical and mental health care, housing, and employment support to those in need.  This is a long overdue development.

Police are not the answer

Police budgets rose steadily from the 1990s to the Great Recession and, despite the economic stagnation that followed, have remained largely unchanged.  This trend is highlighted in the figure below, which shows real median per capita spending on police in the 150 largest U.S. cities.  That spending grew, adjusted for inflation, from $359 in 2007 to $374 in 2017.  The contrast with state and local government spending on social programs is dramatic.  From 2007 to 2017, median per capita spending on housing and community development fell from $217 to $173, while spending on public welfare programs fell from $70 to $47.

Thus, as economic developments over the last three decades left working people confronting weak job growth, growing inequality, stagnant wages, declining real wealth, and rising rates of mortality, funding priorities meant that the resulting social consequences would increasingly be treated as policing problems.  And, in line with other powerful trends that shaped this period–especially globalization, privatization, and militarization–police departments were encouraged to meet their new responsibilities by transforming themselves into small, heavily equipped armies whose purpose was to wage war against those they were supposed to protect and serve. 

The military-to-police pipeline

The massive, unchecked militarization of the country and its associated military-to-police pipeline was one of the more powerful factors promoting this transformation.  The Pentagon, overflowing with military hardware and eager to justify a further modernization of its weaponry, initiated a program in the early 1990s that allowed it to provide surplus military equipment free to law enforcement agencies, allegedly to support their “war on drugs.”  As a Forbes article explains:

Since the early 1990s, more than $7 billion worth of excess U.S. military equipment has been transferred from the Department of Defense to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, free of charge, as part of its so-called 1033 program. As of June [2020], there are some 8,200 law enforcement agencies from 49 states and four U.S. territories participating. 

The program grew dramatically after September 11, 2001, justified by government claims that the police needed to strengthen their ability to combat domestic terrorism.  As an example of the resulting excesses, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2014 that the Los Angeles Unified School District and its police officers were in possession of three grenade launchers, 61 automatic military rifles and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle. Finally, in 2015, President Obama took steps to place limits on the items that could be transferred; tracked armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and bayonets were among the items that were to be returned to the military.

President Trump removed those limits in 2017, and the supplies are again flowing freely, including armored vehicles, riot gear, explosives, battering rams, and yes, once again bayonets.  According to the New York Times, “Trump administration officials said that the police believed bayonets were handy, for instance, in cutting seatbelts in an emergency.”

Outfitting police departments for war also encouraged different criteria for recruiting and training. For example, as Forbes notes, “The average police department spends 168 hours training new recruits on firearms, self-defense, and use of force tactics. It spends just nine hours on conflict management and mediation.”  Arming and training police for military action leads naturally to the militarization of police relations with community members, especially Black, Indigeous and other people of color, who come to play the role of the enemy that needs to be controlled or, if conditions warrant, destroyed.

In fact, the military has become a major cheerleader for domestic military action.  President Trump, on a call with governors after the start of demonstrations protesting the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd while in police custody, exhorted them to “dominate” the street protests.

As the Washington Examiner reports:

“You’ve got a big National Guard out there that’s ready to come and fight like hell,” Trump told governors on the Monday call, which was leaked to the press.

[Secretary of Defense] Esper lamented that only two states called up more than 1,000 Guard members of the 23 states that have called up the Guard in response to street protests. The National Guard said Monday that 17,015 Guard members have been activated for civil unrest.

“I agree, we need to dominate the battle space,” Esper said after Trump’s initial remarks. “We have deep resources in the Guard. I stand ready, the chairman stands ready, the head of the National Guard stands ready to fully support you in terms of helping mobilize the Guard and doing what they need to do.”

The militarization of the federal budget

The same squeeze of social spending and support for militarization is being played out at the federal level.  As the National Priorities Project highlights in the following figure, the United States has a military budget greater than the next ten countries combined.

Yet, this dominance has done little to slow the military’s growing hold over federal discretionary spending.  At $730 billion, military spending accounts for more than 53 percent of the federal discretionary budget.  A slightly broader notion, what the National Priorities Project calls the militarized budget, actually accounts for almost two-thirds of the discretionary budget.  The militarized budget:

includes discretionary spending on the traditional military budget, as well as veterans’ affairs, homeland security, and law enforcement and incarceration. In 2019, the militarized budget totaled $887.8 billion – amounting to 64.5 percent of discretionary spending. . . . This count does not include forms of militarized spending allocated outside the discretionary budget, include mandatory spending related to veterans’ benefits, intelligence agencies, and interest on militarized spending.

The militarized budget has been larger than the non-militarized budget every year since 1976.  But the gap between the two has grown dramatically over the last two decades. 

In sum, the critical ongoing struggle to slash police budgets and reimagine policing needs to be joined to a larger movement against militarism more generally if we are to make meaningful improvements in majority living and working conditions.

Racism, COVID-19, and the fight for economic justice

While the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the United States were triggered by recent police murders of unarmed African Americans, they are also helping to encourage popular recognition that racism has a long history with punishing consequences for black people that extend beyond policing.  Among the consequences are enormous disparities between black and white well-being and security.  This post seeks to draw attention to some of these disparities by highlighting black-white trends in unemployment, wages, income, wealth, and security. 

A common refrain during this pandemic is that “We are all in it together.”  Although this is true in the sense that almost all of us find our lives transformed for the worst because of COVID-19, it is also not true in some very important ways.  For example, African Americans are disproportionally dying from the virus.  They account for 22.4 percent of all COVID-19 deaths despite making up only 12.5 percent of the population. 

One reason is that African Americans also disproportionally suffer from serious preexisting health conditions, a lack of health insurance, and inadequate housing, all of which increased their vulnerability to the virus.  Another reason is that black workers are far more likely than white workers to work in “front-line” jobs, especially low-wage ones, forcing them to risk their health and that of their families.  While black workers comprise 11.9 percent of the labor force, they make up 17 percent of all front-line workers.  They represent an even higher percentage in some key front-line industries: 26 percent of public transit workers; 19.3 percent of child care and social service workers; and 18.2 percent of trucking, warehouse and postal service workers.

African Americans have also disproportionately lost jobs during this pandemic.  The black employment to adult population ratio fell from 59.4 percent before the start of the pandemic to a record low of 48.8 percent in April.  Not surprisingly, recent surveys find, as the Washington Post reports, that:

More than 1 in 5 black families now report they often or sometimes do not have enough food — more than three times the rate for white families. Black families are also almost four times as likely as whites to report they missed a mortgage payment during the crisis — numbers that do not bode well for the already low black homeownership rate.

This pandemic has hit African Americans especially hard precisely because they were forced to confront it from a position of economic and social vulnerability as the following trends help to demonstrate.

Unemployment

The Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting separate data on African American unemployment in January 1972.  Since then, as the figure below shows, the African American unemployment rate has largely stayed at or above twice the white unemployment rate. 

As Olugbenga Ajilore explains

Between strides in civil rights legislation, desegregation of government, and increases in educational attainment, employment gaps should have narrowed by now, if not completely closed. Yet as [the figure above] shows, this has not been the case.

Wages

The figure below from an Economic Policy Institute study, shows the black-white wage gap for workers in different earning percentiles, by education level, and regression-adjusted (to control for age, gender, education and regional differences).  As we can see, the wage gap has grown over time regardless of measure. 

Elise Gould summarizes some important take-aways from this study:

The black–white wage gap is smallest at the bottom of the wage distribution, where the minimum wage serves as a wage floor. The largest black–white wage gap as well as the one with the most growth since the Great Recession, is found at the top of the wage distribution, explained in part by the pulling away of top earners generally as well as continued occupational segregation, the disproportionate likelihood for white workers to occupy positions in the highest-wage professions.

It’s clear from the figure that education is not a panacea for closing these wage gaps. Again, this should not be shocking, as increased equality of educational access—as laudable a goal as it is—has been shown to have only small effects on class-based wage inequality, and racial wealth gaps have been almost entirely unmoved by a narrowing of the black–white college attainment gap . . . . And after controlling for age, gender, education, and region, black workers are paid 14.9% less than white workers.

Income

The next figure shows that while median household income has generally stagnated for all races/ethnicities over the period 2000 to 2017, only blacks have suffered an actual decline.  The median income for black households actually fell from $42,348 to $40,258 over this period.  As a consequence, the black-white income gap has grown.  The median black household in 2017 earned just 59 cents for every dollar of income earned by the white median household, down from 65 cents in 2000.

Moreover, as Valerie Wilson, points out, “Based on [Economic Policy Institute] imputed historical income values, 10 years after the start of the Great Recession in 2007, only African American and Asian households have not recovered their pre-recession median income.“  Median household income for African American households fell 1.9 percent or $781 over the period 2007 to 2017.  While the decline was greater for Asian households (3.8 percent), they continued to have the highest median income.

Wealth

The wealth gap between black and white households also remains large.  In 1968, median black household wealth was $6,674 compared with median white household wealth of $70,768.  In 2016, as the figure below shows, it was $13,024 compared with $149,703.

As the Washington Post summarizes:

“The historical data reveal that no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between black and white households over the past 70 years,” wrote economists Moritz Kuhn, Moritz Schularick and Ulrike I. Steins in their analysis of U.S. incomes and wealth since World War II.

As of 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, you would have to combine the net worth of 11.5 black households to get the net worth of a typical white U.S. household.

The self-reinforcing nature of racial discrimination is well illustrated in the next figure.  It shows the median household wealth by education level as defined by the education level of the head of household. 

As we see, black median household wealth is below white median household wealth at every education level, with the gap growing with the level of education.  In fact, the median black household headed by someone with an advanced degree has less wealth than the median white household headed by someone with only a high school diploma.  The primary reason for this is that wealth is passed on from generation to generation, and the history of racism has made it difficult for black families to accumulate wealth much less pass it on to future generations. 

Security

The dollar value of household ownership of liquid assets is one measure of economic security.  The greater the value, the easier it is for a household to weather difficult times not to mention unexpected crises, such as today’s pandemic.  And as one might expect in light of the above income and wealth trends, black households have far less security than do white households.

As we can see in the following figure, the median black household held only $8,762 in liquid assets (as defined as the sum of all cash, checking and savings accounts, and directly held stocks, bonds, and mutual funds).  In comparison, the median white household held $49,529 in liquid assets.  And the black-white gap is dramatically larger for households headed by someone with a bachelors degree or higher. 

Hopeful possibilities

The fight against police violence against African Americans, now being advanced in the streets, will eventually have to be expanded and the struggle for racial justice joined to a struggle for economic justice.  Ending the disparities highlighted above will require nothing less than a transformational change in the organization and workings of our economy.

One hopeful sign is the widespread popular support for and growing participation in the Black Lives Matter-led movement that is challenging not only racist policing but the idea of policing itself and is demanding that the country acknowledge and confront its racist past.  Perhaps the ways in which our current economic system has allowed corporations to so quickly shift the dangers and costs of the pandemic on to working people, following years of steady decline in majority working and living conditions, is helping whites better understand the destructive consequences of racism and encouraging this political awakening. 

If so, perhaps we have arrived at a moment where it will be possible to build a multi-racial working class-led movement for structural change that is rooted in and guided by a commitment to achieving economic justice for all people of color. One can only hope that is true for all our sakes.