Felicia Wong

Roosevelt Institute President and CEO

Recent Posts by Felicia Wong

  • In Seattle, Calls for a Higher Minimum Wage are Calls for Democracy

    Mar 28, 2014Felicia Wong

    Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong spoke yesterday at the Income Inequality Symposium in Seattle, where she gave the closing remarks, calling on our memories of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal to urge Seattle into action on raising the minimum wage. Her prepared remarks are below.

    Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong spoke yesterday at the Income Inequality Symposium in Seattle, where she gave the closing remarks, calling on our memories of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal to urge Seattle into action on raising the minimum wage. Her prepared remarks are below.

    Thank you so much, Mayor Murray, David Rolf from SEIU 775NW, Howard Wright, and all of you who have served on the Mayor’s Task Force or spent so much of your time fighting for economic growth and economic justice.

    Today – we feel like a nation at the crossroads, on the brink.  But let’s remember: we’ve been here before. The story is familiar. Poverty and income inequality are on the rise throughout the United States. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have a job, you’re struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, a select few do very, very well for themselves. The President, facing a critical midterm election, addresses the nation. Raise standards for workers, he says, and he calls for laws to raise the national minimum wage, too.

    I’m talking about 1938, when the President was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When FDR took office, there was no federal law guaranteeing a minimum wage for American workers – and in fact throughout the 1930s the President battled a recalcitrant and conservative Supreme Court, and conservative business establishment, on behalf of workers. In his 1938 address to Congress, FDR said such a law was long overdue. He said it was morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable for so many people in the United States to earn poverty wages. To quote Roosevelt: “Aside from the undoubted fact that the people thereby suffer great human hardship, they are unable to buy adequate food and shelter, to maintain health, or to buy their share of manufactured goods.”

    That’s the key. FDR understood that the minimum wage was an issue for our hearts and for our wallets. Again and again, he returned to the point that businesses could not thrive unless workers did. Without workers, an economy cannot grow.

    It was a tough fight, and FDR didn’t go it alone. He had what he called his Brains Trust -- lawmakers, academics, activists, and business leaders. Their job was to figure out economic policies under which everyone could prosper. FDR went to Congress with their proposals. The result: the Fair Labor Standards Act, a keystone of the New Deal, along with the Social Security Act. With the FLSA we got a federal minimum wage as well as the 40-hour workweek and standards for overtime pay. These underlie modern labor policy.  These are issues that are hotly debated even today.

    As we’ve seen over the course of this day’s symposium, fixing our country’s inequality and wage problems will – once again – need the good ideas and expertise of a brain trust. We have been fortunate to hear from important partners such as Maud Daudon from the Chamber of Commerce, Saru Jayaraman from Restaurant Opportunities Center - United, and leaders from other cities such as Supervisor John Avalos from my hometown of San Francisco and Wilson Goode from Philadelphia.  Innovation is a team sport. FDR understood this, and so does Mayor Murray.

    I work at the Roosevelt Institute in New York City.  And I am here today because Seattle is at the center of the nation’s most important fight.  

    At Roosevelt, we think of ourselves as an ideas and leadership shop. I won’t claim that we ask ourselves “What Would FDR Do?” in every situation. But we certainly try to capture his spirit of innovation and collaboration in our work. We support public intellectuals like Dorian Warren, whom you’ve heard from today, and Mike Konczal, Joe Stiglitz, Annette Bernhardt, Richard Kirsch, and others. They plunge into all facets of the inequality problem – which President Obama has rightly called the defining problem of our time.  They envision solutions, including a new labor agenda for the 21st century.  This includes raising the minimum wage and providing paid sick leave, and also includes new standards for the right to organize, the enforcement of labor laws, and strategies to combat labor market segregation by race and gender.  At Roosevelt we also support some 10,000 undergraduates across the U.S. who dig in deep in their local communities – designing and fighting for policy solutions at the city level.

    We at the Roosevelt Institute believe – as does everyone here – that we all do better when we all do better. But: wages have been backsliding for decades now. The typical American family makes less today than it did 25 years ago. I know we have heard a lot of statistics today, and they can seem overwhelming, but consider this for just a moment: 16 million children live in homes where their families are not sure where the next meal is coming from. Five years after the Great Recession officially ended, there are still three times as many Americans looking for work as there are job openings. And, as we’ve discussed today, new jobs aren’t good jobs.  The most recent BLS statistics forecast a low-wage trajectory through at least 2020.  Only one of the 20 occupations expected to add new jobs requires a college degree, and most of the kinds of jobs we will be creating offer low or moderate pay.

    From FDR to President Obama to each and every one of us here today, whether right or left or center: we can all agree that no one should work a full-time job and worry about putting food on the table for their family.  

    But this is not just about morality, not just about the “we should” and the “we shouldn’t.”  This is about economic fundamentals. When people can’t even buy groceries at the end of the month, they can’t do all of the things – go to a baseball game, go to dinner at a restaurant – that drive economic growth and make our towns and cities strong.

    Now, consider the other half of the coin: times are not tough for everyone. In 2012 alone, the richest 1 percent of Americans took home more than 20 percent of all income – one of their biggest hauls since the Gilded Age. Corporate profits are at record levels, and corporations are sitting on huge cash reserves. Many will tell us that corporations and wealthy owners are the job creators, the engines of the economy.  Now, none of us begrudge real success. But the question is, if they’re doing so well, why isn’t the rest of the economy doing better?

    And the answer is clear: As FDR once argued, the people – middle class, working families – are the real job creators. These aren’t just strangers, or statistics. I’m talking about our friends and family and co-workers. I’m talking about us. As more and more Americans struggle to keep up - businesses can’t function.  Companies need customers, people to spend money on those products and services. That’s why holding down wages is more than just unfair. It’s also bad economics.

    Let me take a minute to tackle the arguments on the other side: that raising the minimum wage will cause unemployment, business flight, or higher prices.  But empirical research looking at decades of data – much of which we have heard today – shows that on balance raising wages has little or no negative employment effects, and in fact there is significant evidence to show that businesses – and cities and towns – flourish with higher wages, rather than lower.

    This also should make sense to any of us who manage other people. Making decisions to pay employees enough so they aren’t stressed in the rest of their lives makes good business sense, and good common sense.

    And, we are learning from very recent research.  I will cite just two important pieces.  The first is a massive study of 200 years of capital accumulation, incomes, and growth just published here in the United States.  The research suggests the problem is very big, and in fact lies in the structure of today’s entire global economy. Too much capital is concentrated in the hands of too few, and the global economy has gone awry.

    The second piece is a recent IMF study of inequality and growth in hundreds of countries showing that many equality-enhancing redistributive policies – higher taxes, more public investment – can increase growth. Win-wins are possible.  

    So these findings should give us courage. And should push us to act – because recalibrating the minimum wage is one very big step towards fixing the broken economic system and promoting growth in ways that will work for everyone.

    Let me be clear: raising the minimum wage isn’t anti-democratic, isn’t anti-capitalist, isn’t anti-free market.  FDR saved capitalism from itself.  That is what you are trying to do here today.

    It’s no surprise that we’re having this conversation in Seattle. Your city is a great hub of American business and social innovation. This city has brought to life trends and technologies, from Starbucks coffee to Excel spreadsheets, which revolutionize the way we live. And you in Seattle know that people are at the center of that innovation. Companies like Costco have built their business models on paying decent wages and benefits, retaining valued employees, and fostering strong communities.

    It’s not a top-down, trickle-down proposition. Economies grow, as our friend Nick Hanauer said this morning, from the middle out.  You have seen it work in Seattle, and that’s why Seattle is the right incubator for the sound labor policies that will shape the American economy of the future.

    By voting for a 15 dollar an hour wage floor, Seattle can move the entire region’s economy forward.  You can also set the trend for the whole country – in addition to possible federal legislation, at least eight states are considering minimum wage increases this year. You can show all of us how to build the kind of economy that grows, that is stable, and that spreads prosperity broadly.  It is a virtuous cycle.  

    If adopted nationwide, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the raise in the minimum wage proposed by President Obama could affect more than 28 million people and lift many of them out of poverty. 28 million people. At a time when the American Dream of opportunity for all is rapidly fading, those are 28 million reasons to support this proposal.

    Beyond the potential economic impact, this policy would show what government can achieve when it responds to the needs of working families. As Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Individual companies, as great as they are, can’t do this alone.  Our fates are linked, and we have to act together.  By raising the minimum wage to fifteen-dollars-an-hour, Seattle can choose democracy and start to reverse the trends that have been crushing the middle class.

    Let me close by urging the members of Seattle’s City Council to approve the 15 dollar an hour minimum wage. And as FDR told his own supporters, it is up to all of us to make them do it. A lot has changed about our country since the days of the New Deal, but one thing remains the same: Progress is possible when we commit to it and fight for it. Now is the time for us to decide what kind of economy, what kind of government, and what kind of future we want for ourselves. Now is the time for Seattle to lead the way. Thank you.

    Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

     

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  • Voters Demand a Progressive Second Term Agenda

    Nov 13, 2012Felicia Wong

    As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a call for progressives to seize the moment after Election Day.

    As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a call for progressives to seize the moment after Election Day.

    Last week’s election results weren’t just a win for the president. Across the board, voters went to the polls and registered their support for progressive values, supporting needed tax increases, passing marriage equality for gay and lesbian Americans, and giving a candidate who ran on a platform of proactive government and a strong safety net a second term. The message was clear: despite an economy that continues to recover too slowly, the direction that progressives are taking the country in is the right one.

    The polling we have done with Democracy Corps makes it plain – voters don’t want austerity or cuts in Medicare and Social Security. They want to fix the economy with long-term investments in infrastructure and a focus on jobs. And they want solutions – like raising taxes on the well-off and reforming the financial industry – that can raise the revenue to pay for it. As Hurricane Sandy made apparent, we need to update the country’s infrastructure, and we can put people back to work doing it.

    So our job has just begun. Now is when we really have to roll up our sleeves and work to achieve an ambitious agenda. The politics won’t necessarily be much easier than they were over the last four years. But with a Democratic president, a Democratic majority in the Senate, and an electorate strongly behind us, progressives have an opportunity to seize over the next four years.

    Over the next few weeks, Roosevelt Institute Fellows and staff will weigh in with their thoughts on what our national agenda should look like. While we might differ on some of the specifics, we all agree on basic values and goals: reducing inequality, creating jobs, kick-starting economic growth, building a community among the American people, and regaining trust in both the private sector through functioning markets and in the government and our political system.

    On the eve of a second Obama term, and with some fundamental economic and political choices before us, we are proud to be in this historic moment together, Our goals are ambitious. We believe that our ideas can have real impact. As President Franklin Roosevelt put it 80 years ago, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation.” Nothing could be truer of our times. Progressives must lead the way.

    Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • A Platform to Build a New Deal for the 21st Century

    Apr 13, 2012Felicia Wong

    We're excited to announce the relaunch of our blog and continue the conversation about how to create a better society.

    We're excited to announce the relaunch of our blog and continue the conversation about how to create a better society.

    We at the Roosevelt Institute believe in a simple notion: ideas have power. Ideas shape almost every aspect of our daily lives: the work we do, the neighborhoods we live in, how we treat others and engage as citizens. I’ve experienced the ways Americans’ ideas inform how we organize our economy and our society firsthand. My Cantonese immigrant family was able to join the middle class in the U.S. thanks to American ideas about integrating many different kinds of people into one diverse community. It was also made possible because my parents attended the world-class public university system in California: my mother became a teacher and my father earned a PhD and went on to become an engineer. I also attended public schools funded by taxpayer dollars. All of our educations were made possible because of America’s ideas about how to afford basic opportunities to its citizens. Over my career, I’ve found job opportunities in both the public and private sectors because this country believes that both should thrive side by side. These are uniquely American experiences, shaped by our collective values and decisions.

    But to make change and have an impact, ideas must take root.  They must get up and out.  This is especially true for the kinds of ideas that Roosevelt specializes in – ideas about the best ways to encourage growth and distribution by balancing a market economy with strong government – which can be specialized and detailed.  But academics and thinkers with new ideas about how our economy can work for everyone, how to create a more fair and just tax system, and how to discuss and promote a healthy vision for government in the 21st century must be able to reach wide audiences. Ideas have to resonate with elected officials who are responsible for crafting and writing laws, activists and advocates who knock on doors and distribute petitions for change, and families at their dinner tables or friends playing cards on a Friday evening.

    Americans know that something is wrong, and they also know that it will take new ideas to improve their lives in these challenging times. The Great Recession has cost millions their jobs and livelihoods, and the recovery has felt so slow and painful for many, especially the worst off among us, that more children are living in poverty now than at any time since 1962. The middle class is being decimated by off-the-charts income inequality – we are now all the 99%. Yet our political system seems incapable of addressing the root causes of these crises, as it is so broken and co-opted that few Americans trust it to look out for them.

    But this isn’t the first time the country has lived through these kinds of challenges. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt faced down an economic catastrophe, a financial system run amok, a social safety net that barely existed, and increasing threats to democracy. They didn’t shrink from the challenge, and neither do we. What these times require are ideas and solutions that can make a difference. As FDR himself put it, we need “bold, persistent experimentation” to not just recover from the recent financial crisis, but to create policies that ensure a prosperous future that is shared by all. In short, we need a New Deal for the 21st century.

    To get there, we need to change the civic conversation. That’s why we’re excited to re-launch our blog, Next New Deal, formerly New Deal 2.0. Over the past three years, our blog has featured unique insight and sharp analysis aimed at reanimating progressive thought. It has been a platform for the people, work, and ideas of the Roosevelt Institute and a way to share all that we do with a broad online audience. We have started conversations around questions such as how to combat poverty in an age of austerity and how to restore belief in the value of government. We’ve given progressive students and young professionals a platform to share their innovative ideas for tackling today’s greatest challenges. And we’ve brought Rooseveltian solutions to those challenges into the mainstream dialogue.

    The improved reader experience on the redesigned blog will make these ideas more accessible and available than ever. We will continue exploring in depth solutions to our most intractable problems. Both established experts and emerging leaders will have dedicated spaces to share their ideas. Above all, we hope to use this blog as a laboratory of ideas, applying the work we do at the Roosevelt Institute to the most pressing problems of the day and pushing ourselves to develop and communicate bold, effective policy responses.

    The years ahead will be challenging, and issues will likely arise that we can’t even anticipate. But using the blog as a launching point, the work of the Roosevelt Institute, and the discussion we cultivate in the broader progressive movement, can help us guide drive new ideas up and out – so that we can craft the next New Deal.

    Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

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