Daily Digest - December 16: When the Right Attacks "Corporatism," It Means "Government"

Dec 16, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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"Corporatism" is the Latest Hysterical Right-Wing Accusation: The Secret History of a Smear (TNR)

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"Corporatism" is the Latest Hysterical Right-Wing Accusation: The Secret History of a Smear (TNR)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal writes that when right-wing critics call out the Obama administation for "corporatism," or colluding with the rich to make them richer, they invoke government as the source of all market problems and forget that markets don't exist in a vacuum.

Is There a Conservative Alternative to Financial Reform? (WaPo)

Mike Konczal examines one possible alternative to Dodd-Frank proposed by Nicole Gelinas at the Manhattan Institute. He finds that she attacks policies she supported in 2009 and champions policies with no support in today's conservative movement, making it difficult to move forward.

Why Inequality Matters (NYT)

Paul Krugman argues that inequality is "the most important single factor behind lagging middle-class incomes." He also links inequality to the political reaction to the economic crisis, noting that policies focused on deficit reduction are economically destructive, but supported by the wealthy.

Justin Timberlake’s Union Tour (The Nation)

Jessica Weisberg speaks with Dana Wilson, a dancer and union organizer who helped to secure the first-ever union contract for back-up dancers on a tour. Wilson says many young dancers think they are invincible, but that doesn't keep them from needing health benefits and a pension.

The American Way of Hiring Is Making Long-Term Unemployment Worse (Harvard Business Review)

Gretchen Gavett interviews MIT's Ofer Sharone, whose research suggests that the white-collar "chemistry game" of hiring, which is focused on networking and intangibles, causes many rejected American job-seekers to think there is something wrong with them rather than the system.

Poverty Nation: How America Created a Low-Wage Work Swamp (Salon)

Joan Walsh ties the current crisis of low-wage workers who must rely on public assistance to get by to policy choices in the 1990s, which determined that any job was better than no job. These policies allowed some corporations to make huge profits subsidized by government support.

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Local Government is the Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Economic Inequality

Dec 12, 2013Joelle Gamble

With Congress gridlocked, we must look to local governments to pursue more innovative strategies for promoting equal opportunity.

With Congress gridlocked, we must look to local governments to pursue more innovative strategies for promoting equal opportunity.

Americans don’t believe in guaranteed equal outcomes, but we do believe in equal opportunity and the ability to achieve a decent livelihood if one works hard. Unfortunately, the United States, despite being the world’s largest economy, is in the top quartile of the most unequal states, along with countries like Bulgaria, and is more unequal than all of Europe. In addition to high levels of income inequality, the United States still faces a jobs crisis, meaning that many people who want to work to achieve economic stability cannot find gainful employment.

Given the congressional gridlock impeding efforts to promote economic opportunity at the federal level, we should look to community-based solutions to mitigate our unsustainable levels of inequality.

Over the past several decades, political leaders have tried to stimulate the economy on the supply side. They have provided incentives for businesses to invest in capital improvements, loosened regulations to encourage business growth, and lowered tax rates to give investors an incentive to take risks and create jobs. But we do not have a supply-side problem.

Our problem is on the demand side. Average Americans have so little wealth that they cannot afford to consume what companies sell. Income inequality has grown to the extent that those who are not at the very top can no longer afford to participate in the market.

Hyper-partisanship and the special interests that fuel it make it impossible for the current Congress to address the declining wealth of America’s middle- and low-income communities. Just look to the Ryan-Murray budget compromise: Congress is refusing to extend unemployment insurance, claiming that an extension will discourage recipients from looking for new work, while at the same time, congressional Republicans complain that the president is not creating enough jobs for those same workers. While they focus on scoring political points, American workers continue to suffer.

Given the intransigence and stalling at the federal level, what immediate actions can be taken to provide economic security and agency to average Americans? For this, one must turn to our cities and towns.

This is not a simple solution, because local governments do not have the same fiscal tools that Congress has. Cities cannot levy a progressive income tax on residents to fund redistribution, but instead must work with sales and property taxes. These taxes are regressive and punish the very people localities want to support. Some municipalities have tried to attract high-dollar business and residential developments in order to bring in revenues to support progressive programs such as universal pre-K and housing support. Unfortunately, too much development to this degree will backfire by pushing out lower-income and middle-class families.

In order to be effective, plans to address rampant inequality at the local level must be innovative. Instead of focusing on attracting developments solely as a source of tax revenue, local governments should incentivize the creation of local businesses that have fair and uplifting worker practices. For example, the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry in Cleveland Ohio, frequently referred to as the Cleveland Model, pays living wages and allows its employees to earn ownership in the company after a certain period of time. It is a prime example of providing an equal opportunity for American workers to maintain a decent livelihood and to move up economically if they commit to it.

By providing direct loans, utility subsidies, bonds for capital purchases, and other incentives to cooperative model businesses that promote high wages and greater employee agency, localities can support the growth of living wage businesses in areas where they may never have existed before. This will jumpstart a cycle of quality jobs for underserved communities and begin to remedy the demand-side economic challenges our economy faces.

While the detrimental effects of rising income inequality in America are widespread, we do not have to wait for federal action to start implementing solutions that will level the economic playing field. By supporting worker-empowering businesses close to home, local governments can both support job creation in their areas and provide workers with the opportunity they need to lift themselves out of their tough financial situations. 

Joelle Gamble is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's National Field Strategist.

 

Vintage U.S. map image via Shutterstock.com

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Corporate Education Reform Won’t Solve the Problems Caused by Poverty

Dec 11, 2013Raul Gardea

Arne Duncan’s latest gaffe highlights the critical inequities of federal education “reforms.” Reversing these trends will require policymakers to acknowledge that education alone cannot create perfect equity of opportunity. 

Arne Duncan’s latest gaffe highlights the critical inequities of federal education “reforms.” Reversing these trends will require policymakers to acknowledge that education alone cannot create perfect equity of opportunity. 

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hastily walked back his comments recently after dismissing Common Core opponents as “white suburban moms”  who had suddenly realized that their kids aren't as bright as they thought. This sparked a furor amongst parents and educators and thrust the Common Core back into the spotlight. Although the controversy over standards-based education is nothing new, it speaks volumes that the outrage doesn’t make the evening news until white suburban moms are singled out. If there is something positive to be gleaned from Duncan’s tactless comments, it is the public recognition that these federal policies have stratified education along race and class divisions—policies that Duncan presides over and advocates for as Obama’s education secretary.

Perhaps the uproar prompted by Duncan’s comments has less to do with white suburban outrage and instead signals a tipping point: a mainstream rejection of policies that are finally being exposed for their disproportionately detrimental impact on poor and minority communities. Duncan’s remarks provided a glimpse at the man behind the curtain. Race and class matter in education and Duncan simultaneously acknowledged and dismissed this.

It’s hard to sympathize with Duncan’s dismissiveness.

Common Core is just one of several examples of corporate influence in education. The foundations and consortiums behind these policies, like the Gates Foundation, Pearson, and others, all stand to profit from adoption of their methods, resources, and technology. But that’s neoliberalism in a nutshell. What is truly surprising has been the full-fledged support of high-stakes testing by the US Department of Education (DoE) under a Democratic president, continuing the infamous legacy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The mission of the DoE has been to fire “bad” teachers, as determined by their students’ test scores, and close schools which don’t meet these arbitrary and subjective goals.

Few would dispute that we should hold our educators and the children they are entrusted with to a high bar of excellence, but evaluating performance on test scores has never been a viable strategy. As Common Core test results have started trickling in, the results aren’t pretty. In New York, they show a widening of the achievement gap between black and white students. This leaves young teachers at a disadvantage since they are often placed in high poverty schools and are still learning on the job. They often have to also play the role of counselor, psychiatrist, and day care provider. So while the White Suburban Mom is disappointed because she’s tried her best to ensure the highest quality of life for her daughter, the Single Black Urban Mom who works two jobs simply can’t be as engaged with her son’s education: a child afflicted with toxic stress who then takes the same exam on an empty stomach. Ignoring these elements and relying solely on improving testing scores demeans the teaching profession and puts the students who need the most attention and wraparound services at a disadvantage.

Of course, this forms the ideological basis of corporate reform: firing “bad” teachers will fix education which will lead to middle class prosperity which will alleviate poverty. “College and career readiness” are the choice buzzwords found in the text of the Common Core. Speaking to Politico, Duncan said, “the path to the middle class runs right through the classroom.” Such a perspective, keen in the 1960s, sounds positively outmoded in 2013. As Millennials are quickly realizing, that rose-tinted vision of education as the great social equalizer simply cannot reconcile the effects of the Great Recession and decades of bad policy.

This is the crux of the issue. It really is all about money. Merit pay, standardization, union-busting, school closures, austerity budgets, unregulated charters, all coupled with persuasive messaging and the endorsement of both major political parties means corporate reform will make a few people very rich at the expense of equity and inclusiveness. Education is just another avenue where the profit motive has been pecking away at the remains of public institutions that we spent decades building.

It seems like grassroots uproar is finally coming to a head. The start of National Education Week this year saw anti-Common Core protests in New York, South Carolina, Maryland, and several other states. Much like the solidarity seen in recent fast food employee strikes and Black Friday protests from workers demanding fair wages and labor practices, teachers, parents, administrators, and legislators from all political stripes are uniting in opposition to unproven policies and their slapdash implementation across the country. Parents and educators should not be pitted against one another but realize their interests are very much aligned.

We have to acknowledge that non-school factors play a major role in learning outcomes and policymakers must know that enough is enough. Vast income inequality can lead to inequality in education, so we must ensure adequate funding formulas can meet the needs of diverse demographics. We must ensure access to affordable, quality healthcare for all families. We must further integrate schools to reduce achievement gaps. We must support the collective bargaining rights of teachers, who are often overburdened by factors outside the scope of their profession. As progressive populism is reignited, we must recognize that these issues are not about ideology but about pragmatism. Reinventing our social infrastructure for the 21st century means we simply cannot afford to treat our schools as a market ripe for competition any longer.

Raul Gardea is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Senior Fellow for Education.

Photo via Shutterstock.

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Daily Digest - December 10: A Reminder That Policy Affects Human Lives

Dec 10, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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Invisible Child (NYT)

Andrea Elliot reports in great depth on the life of a homeless girl in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. By placing this story in context with Mayor Bloomberg's housing and homelessness policies, she makes the effects of bad policy on human lives crystal clear.

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Invisible Child (NYT)

Andrea Elliot reports in great depth on the life of a homeless girl in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. By placing this story in context with Mayor Bloomberg's housing and homelessness policies, she makes the effects of bad policy on human lives crystal clear.

Study: U.S. Poverty Rate Decreased Over Past Half-Century Thanks to Safety-Net Programs (WaPo)

Zachary Goldfarb reports on a new study from Columbia University, which contradicts the official poverty rate significantly. The researchers traced back poverty using newer standards, and found that the safety net is particularly effective at protecting kids from poverty.

How Inequality Became as American as Apple Pie (The Nation)

Jessica Weisberg compares the concepts of inequality and mobility, ways to discuss poverty that appeal to opposite ends of the political spectrum. The right may prefer to talk about mobility, but social mobility in the U.S. is pretty terrible, which maintains inequality.

Let's Get This Straight: AIG Execs Got Bailout Bonuses, but Pensioners Get Cuts (The Guardian)

Dean Baker asks why the White House had to maintain AIG's contractual obligations during the bailout, even when it meant paying bonuses in March 2009, but Chicago can ignore its contracts to pensioners today.

Robbing Illinois's Public Employees (TAP)

David Dayen explains how pension theft has become a new norm. Public employees can no longer count on ever seeing the pension funds they negotiate for today, and the current retirees are in an even worse place, because many don't receive Social Security.

Tea Party Representative Supports Wasteful Government Program, Because YOHO (NY Mag)

Jonathan Chait says there's one clear tie among the government programs supported by Republican obstructionists: private profits. When sugar subsidies are "accepted norms," as Rep. Yoho (R-FL) said, it must be better to cut SNAP or Medicaid.

More Than Three-Quarters of Workers Missing from the Labor Force Are Under Age 55 (Working Economics)

Heidi Shierholz looks at a breakdown of "missing workers" (those who are neither employed nor looking for work) by age. Only a quarter of the missing workers could be early retirees, and the other 4.3 million will probably reenter the job market when it picks up.

New on Next New Deal

Think Global, Act Hyper-Local: Campus Network Rates Colleges on Economic and Social Impact in Their Communities

Roosevelt Institute Associate Director of Networked Initiatives Alan Smith explains a new Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network initiative, in which students will help their schools find ways to improve how they affect local communities.

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Think Global, Act Hyper-Local: Campus Network Rates Colleges on Economic and Social Impact in Their Communities

Dec 9, 2013Alan Smith

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is launching a new project next month to analyze how anchor institutions such as colleges and universities affect their local economies, and help those institutions make changes for the better.

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is launching a new project next month to analyze how anchor institutions such as colleges and universities affect their local economies, and help those institutions make changes for the better.

With the social contract failing many Americans, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network has undertaken a new project to explore ways to reverse it. The things we, as Millennials, have long been told are core parts of the American bargain – public education, safe working environments, affordable healthcare, the basic ability to provide for one’s family – are becoming harder to achieve in the 21st century.

To address this daunting trend, students in our campus chapters are undertaking an experiment, which we call “Rethinking Communities.” It is based on the assumption that localities – cities, towns, and even neighborhoods – will drive the economies and politics of the future. This approach reflects the innovative thinking that has been a hallmark of the Campus Network for the past decade. The Campus Network has long looked to local action in many places as a means of influencing the direction of the nation. We see an intentional community-building endeavor as a start to counter issues raised by globalization, increased inequality, outsourcing of jobs, and changes in technological capabilities.

We reject a binary vision of the government and economy that holds that either government exists solely to support markets, or that government responds to societal challenges through regulation and policy change. The Millennial generation has had ample evidence that this dichotomy misses something: the Great Recession undercut the idea that markets are reliable adjudicators of the public good, and the recent government shutdown made amply evident that Washington cannot respond effectively to many of the immediate problems we face.

This is why the Campus Network will look to bring a different social pressure to bear: that of community governance, which draws on the strengths of local structures to fill the gaps left by the market and the federal systems. While the concept of trusting local groups to rule on local issues is not a new one, the possibilities of a truly networked system of community governance opens up huge new potential. Just as the Internet has driven down costs and other factors in manufacturing and production, we aim to explore possibilities for a new labor movement, new locally supported economies, and new ways of patching together shared identity and support from many small collaborating groups instead of a single top-down organizing force.

Our objective at the Campus Network is to take advantage of our physical presence in communities nationwide, and find optimal ways to rethink local economies. With the goal of reforming anchor institutions that are the backbone of these communities (anchor institutions are places like hospitals or colleges and universities), here’s what we’ll be doing in the coming year with chapters throughout our 115-chapter network:

Using the set of metrics developed by the Democracy Collaborative, an organization based at the University of Maryland that advocates for economic justice and increased access to democracy, that were expanded and refined by Campus Network’s membership, students at multiple chapters, including University of Tennessee, Goucher College, and the University of Michigan, will assess their own college or university. These metrics, which are akin to a report card (think LEEDS standards), have been built to define how well an institution facilitates local economic development, community building and education, health, safety and environment. By using the same set of metrics across the board, we will both grow our understanding of a how a specific institution can improve in its role as a local anchor, and contribute to a larger understanding of how anchor institutions compare to each other.

Based on these metrics, groups will write proposals that improve a specific weakness. Redirecting a portion of a University’s purchasing to focus on locally owned businesses, facilitating the creation of financially secure households, or working to improve the health of community residents are all projects that play to the social role of colleges and universities. While we work to implement these local fixes, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network will collectively create a method to grade anchor institutions across the country on how they alleviate or exacerbate economic inequality. Might this comparative process put real pressure on universities – and eventually, hospitals, airports, or even sports teams – to do a better job in responding to the needs and values of the communities where they’re based? That is what we hope to examine.

We can’t be sure if we can scale the Rethinking Communities project to our national problems, in order to rebuild the robust social contract that America has with its citizens. But through the bold and persistent experimentation of the Campus Network, we aim to see how far we can go to create new self-sustaining economies that resist the economic pressures of the larger world. And in that innovative spirit, we hearken back to the values of Franklin Roosevelt that undergird all of our work: a system that is more balanced, more sustainable, and more able to support the common good.

Alan Smith is the Associate Director of Networked Initiatives at the Roosevelt Institute.

Photo via Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network

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Daily Digest - December 9: Stepping Up When Congress Won't Raise the Wage

Dec 9, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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The Fight for Fair Wages (All In With Chris Hayes)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren discusses the possibility of a minimum wage increase, and whether Congress will do anything about it. Even if Congress won't act, he's excited by the cities and states that are pushing ahead of higher wages already.

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The Fight for Fair Wages (All In With Chris Hayes)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren discusses the possibility of a minimum wage increase, and whether Congress will do anything about it. Even if Congress won't act, he's excited by the cities and states that are pushing ahead of higher wages already.

The Volcker Rule is Nearly Finished. Here’s How We’ll Know if it’s Any Good. (WaPo)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal looks at key areas that will indicate whether the Volcker Rule is strong enough to regulate banks as intended. He emphasizes enforcement, since this rule aims to cause dramatic cultural and institutional change on Wall Street.

What is Deficit Mania Doing on the News Pages? (MoJo)

Kevin Drum points out that when reporters take for granted that Congress should prioritize deficit reduction above all else, they aren't doing their job. There's another side to this story, which considers the unprecedented nature of deficit cuts in a recession.

Wanted: More Unemployment (NYT)

Binyamin Appelbaum says that this month's job report isn't anything to be happy about. Since labor force participation has stayed basically stagnant while the unemployment rate drops, we're actually seeing people drop out of the labor force entirely.

Yes, McDonald's Can Do Better (TAP)

Catherine Ruetschlin writes about a new report she wrote with Amy Traub, published by Demos, which shows the math for how Wal-Mart and other low-wage employers could raise wages without passing on costs to consumers.

‘From Bean to Cup,’ Starbucks Labor Action Heats Up (In These Times)

Michelle Chen reports on supply chain-wide labor activism at Starbucks, where baristas are joining in solidarity with factory workers who produce their cups. The factory is pushing to allow temp workers at the factory, which would cut union negotiating power.

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Daily Digest - December 6: The Sky Isn't Falling From Minimum Wage Hikes

Dec 6, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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The Roosevelt Institute joins in mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela yesterday. Mandela received the 2002 Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal to honor his incredible legacy of civil rights work. You can read the citation written in his honor and his acceptance speech here.

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

The Roosevelt Institute joins in mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela yesterday. Mandela received the 2002 Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal to honor his incredible legacy of civil rights work. You can read the citation written in his honor and his acceptance speech here.

Minimum Wage, Major Fight (Jansing & Co.)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren argues that raising the minimum wage won't cause the sky to collapse, despite messaging from McDonald's and the rest of the fast-food industry. Higher wages would instead reinforce and grow the middle class.

Raising Interest Rates Now Would Be a Tragic Error (U.S. News & World Report)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick writes that our economy is still too fragile for the Fed to start raising interest rates. That would cause a cascade of other problems, including harming our already slack labor market.

Long-Term Unemployment is Still at its Highest Levels Since World War II (WaPo)

Brad Plumer points out that in the past, emergency unemployment benefits didn't end until the long-term unemployment rate was under half the current rate of 2.6 percent. But House Republicans don't seem to care that cutting benefits won't magically give people work.

Massachusetts Voters Will Weigh In On Guaranteeing Paid Sick Days (ThinkProgress)

Bryce Covert reports that activists turned in nearly four times as many signatures as needed to get paid sick leave on the ballot for 2014 in Massachusetts. They also delivered a petition for raising the minimum wage, but the state's legislature might beat them to it.

While Obama Talks Poverty, Stabenow Agrees to $8 Billion More in SNAP Cuts (The Nation)

Greg Kaufmann reports that while the President was giving his speech on economic inequality, the Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee was agreeing to a deal on SNAP cuts. Never before has a Democratic-controlled Senate even proposed cuts to SNAP.

New on Next New Deal

Obama Updates His Story About America

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch examines President Obama's speech on economic inequality. He says the president is presenting inequality as a roadblock to the American Dream, and progressives should run with this story to inspire action.

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Obama Updates His Story About America

Dec 5, 2013Richard Kirsch

When President Obama frames the story of the American dream as one that is harmed by economic inequality, progressives should cheer - and they should also prepare to sharpen that story and tie it to action.

When President Obama frames the story of the American dream as one that is harmed by economic inequality, progressives should cheer - and they should also prepare to sharpen that story and tie it to action.

Barak Obama captured the national imagination on the strength of his ability to tell his own story as part of our national story, starting with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. He was elected and remains personally popular in no small part because of the resonance of his story with the way Americans want to view themselves. In his speech yesterday on economic mobility, given at a Washington DC hub for community organizations that fight poverty, he continued to update that story, with a sharper focus on the dire crisis of the American dream, a stronger emphasis on the role of government, and a clearer attention to race.

The President repeated the core of his story about America yesterday:

Now, the premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in the American story. And while we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity -- the idea that success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit. [Emphasis added].

Obama has consistently framed our American story in terms of our values, and then linked those values to our economic success. The focus of his speech is that the story is no longer true:

The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe. And it is not simply a moral claim that I’m making here. There are practical consequences to rising inequality and reduced mobility. [Emphasis added]

Opening his speech by saying that what he’s come to talk about is “a belief that we’re greater together than we are on our own,” he declares that the “defining challenge of our time” is “making sure our economy works for every working American.”

Obama gives a history lesson, both about how we made the American Dream real and about how it has been lost. The President makes it clear that America’s success is grounded in an activist government, from Lincoln’s land grant colleges; to Teddy Roosevelt’s trust busting and eight-hour workday; to FDR’s Social Security, unemployment insurance, and minimum wage; to LBJ’s Medicare and Medicaid. “And as a result,” he summarizes, “America built the largest middle class the world has ever known. And for the three decades after World War II, it was the engine of our prosperity.”

That last phrase – the middle class as the engine of prosperity – is at the core of the progressive economic narrative. This is a direct contradiction to the conservative story that business in a free market is the driver of wealth. That’s backwards, Obama explains, “When families have less to spend, that means businesses have fewer customers, and households rack up greater mortgage and credit card debt; meanwhile, concentrated wealth at the top is less likely to result in the kind of broadly based consumer spending that drives our economy, and together with lax regulation, may contribute to risky speculative bubbles.”

When the President gets to his telling of how we got into this mess, he skirts lightly over who is to blame, which is the biggest consistent failing throughout his rhetoric. He begins by blaming technology and globalization, ignoring the fact that the other countries Obama recognizes as having much more economic mobility than the U.S., faced the same challenges.

He then says that “As values of community broke down, and competitive pressure increased, businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage. As a trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashed for the wealthiest, while investments in things that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither.”

The President appears to be excusing business for their behavior. What he doesn’t say is that business was a leading force in breaking down those values, deciding that enriching shareholders and CEOs was more important than providing decent wages and support for communities. The reference to “trickle-down ideology” obscures the relentless attack by corporate America and the right upon Obama’s core values of “we’re greater together than on our own.”

Any powerful story needs villains and it is here that Obama punts. Teddy Roosevelt laid it on “the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics.” FDR clearly laid the blame on the “economic royalists.” For the right’s great communicator, Ronald Reagan, it was “welfare queens.” It is never clear from Obama who is to blame, which is a key reason that core parts of his story get lost. The President says that Americans have a “nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them.” The truth is that Americans have a very strong sense that the deck is stacked against them by powerful corporations and the super-rich who use their lobbyists and campaign contributions to control our government.” If Obama is going to rally people to take on those forces, he has to name them and take them on.

The President does take on President Reagan’s villain, a villain which is still at the center of right-wing opposition to Obama and government more generally. The speech yesterday was notable in that he directly challenged “the myth that this is a problem restricted to a small share of predominantly minority poor.” He says, “African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans are far more likely to suffer from a lack of opportunity.”

After acknowledging continued racism, he bridges to class, “The decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups: poor and middle class; inner city and rural folks; men and women; and Americans of all races.“ He says that we’re seeing the problems “one attributed to the urban poor” “pop up everywhere.”

So if we’re going to take on growing inequality and try to improve upward mobility for all people, we’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern. And we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts. [Emphasis added]

The point of this speech – “you'll be pleased to know this is not a State of the Union Address” he jokes – is not to give specific solutions. Given the impossibility of passing anything in the House, that would be a fool’s errand. Obama instead aims to lay out a vision for how to move forward, based on his insistence that “government action time and again can make an enormous difference in increasing opportunity and bolstering ladders into the middle class.”

His program for government action is grouped in five categories: tax policy and investment for growth; education and skills training; empowering workers; targeted programs for hard-hit communities; and programs that provide security, from Social Security to the Affordable Care Act.

That third bucket – empowering workers – is a welcome focus, one that the President has too often skirted. “It’s time to ensure our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to -- (applause) -- so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class.” Sensing one area with current political umph, he made a big push for raising the minimum wage.

Stories need a happy ending, or at least some prospects of one. The last paragraph of Obama’s speech places that happy ending squarely on the shoulders of government, with echoes of FDR (“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us”). Obama concludes with:

But government can’t stand on the sidelines in our efforts. Because government is us. It can and should reflect our deepest values and commitments. And if we refocus our energies on building an economy that grows for everybody, and gives every child in this country a fair chance at success, then I remain confident that the future still looks brighter than the past, and that the best days for this country we love are still ahead.

While progressives are often frustrated by the President they worked so hard to elect, we have a huge amount to learn from Obama’s deep understanding of how to powerfully express our core American values and link them to a story about the government’s role in creating broadly-based prosperity. Our job is to tell a sharper version of that story – with villains and anger to motivate action – as well as with hope, through our words and through our organizing. Today’s fast food actions around the nation are a great example. We agree with the President that an America that works for all of us “is the defining challenge of our time.” And it will remain our challenge long after Obama leaves the White House. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Photo of President Obama via Shutterstock.

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Daily Digest - November 21: Lobbyists Without Big Money

Nov 21, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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Witnesses to Hunger (and Poverty) on the Hill (The Nation)

Greg Kaufmann reports on an unusual group of lobbyists on Capitol Hill: five "Witnesses to Hunger" who currently receive food stamps, who advocated for maintaining SNAP funding. Their goal was to give a face to social safety net programs.

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Witnesses to Hunger (and Poverty) on the Hill (The Nation)

Greg Kaufmann reports on an unusual group of lobbyists on Capitol Hill: five "Witnesses to Hunger" who currently receive food stamps, who advocated for maintaining SNAP funding. Their goal was to give a face to social safety net programs.

Obama’s Mystery Man for Derivatives (ProPublica)

Jesse Eisinger profiles Timothy Massad, the relatively unknown nominee for Commodity Futures Trading Commission chair. He questions if Massad may be too friendly to banking interests for this particular regulatory role.

What would the Fed do if the US defaulted on its debt? (Quartz)

Tim Fernholz says that it appears the Fed has limited tools that it could use in the event of a default, which could be a concern again in March. What few tools might be usable are so politically tenuous that just not hitting the debt ceiling would be greatly preferred.

Federal Reserve weighs slowing bond buys soon (Marketwatch

Steve Goldstein says that according to minutes released from the Fed's October 30 meeting, quantitative easing is probably coming to a close soon. But that consensus doesn't mean the Fed has decided how to end the program.

Wal-Mart's No Good, Very Bad, Pre-Thanksgiving Week (Bloomberg Businessweek)

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How Can We Help America's Opportunity Youth? Five Lessons Learned in New Orleans

Following up on an event in New Orleans this summer, Nell Abernathy, Program Manager for the Roosevelt Institute's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative, considers the steps that will be needed to help youth who are neither in school nor working.

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How Can We Help America's Opportunity Youth? Five Lessons Learned in New Orleans

Nov 20, 2013Nell Abernathy

Young people who aren't in school or working aren't beyond hope, but we need to invest more in the programs that will help them.

Young people who aren't in school or working aren't beyond hope, but we need to invest more in the programs that will help them.

The great recession has hit younger, less educated workers hardest, leaving 6.7 million young people between the ages of 16-24 out of work and out of school. These “Opportunity Youth” are more likely than their peers to experience unemployment, low wages, and poverty as adults, and more likely to end up incarcerated or in need of government assistance.

The Roosevelt Institute’s Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative went to the heart of the crisis, New Orleans, where 23 percent of young people between the ages of 18-24 are out of work and out of school, compared to a national average of 16 percent.

We asked expert academics and practitioners how we, as a country, can tackle this pressing challenge.

Here’s what we learned:

I. Opportunity Youth remain hopeful and we should too.

The vast majority of Opportunity Youth remain motivated and optimistic. One of our panelists, Amy Barad, Director Strategic Initiatives at the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, summed it up well: “What makes me hopeful is the kids themselves, they really want to get and education, get a job and contribute to society. Based on responses to a national survey, nearly three-quarters of Opportunity Youth are very confident or hopeful that they will be able to achieve their goals. Over three-quarters of respondents believe that getting a good education and job is their own responsibility and depends on their own effort.”

According to a survey conducted on behalf of Civic Enterprises and America’s Promise Alliance, 77 percent of those surveyed believe that getting a good education and a good job is their own responsibility and whether they succeed depends on their own effort, and 73 percent of Opportunity Youth are confident or hopeful in their ability to achieve their life goals. Here are those results in chart form:

II. However, the obstacles to reconnection are enormous and costs of disconnection are huge.

Disconnected Youth are more likely to grow up in poverty than their peers and were hit hardest by the recent recession. They are unlikely to have role models with degrees, the qualifications they need, transportation options for travelling to a job, or access to good jobs in their neighborhoods.

“The challenge is what urban planners call a wicked problem. The factors affecting disconnected youth are numerous, messy, and inter-related," Lauren Bierbaum, Executive Director of the Partnership for Youth Development, said. The obstacles to addressing disconnection are structural and rooted in communities.

For more, see the graphs below from Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis's report One in Seven: Ranking Youth Disconnection in the 25 Largest Metro Areas.

III. Some programs are successfully tackling these challenges, and the Opportunity Youth are eager to receive the help.

Two much-heralded programs designed to support these young people include Project U-Turn in Philadelphia, which recently won $499,000 in funding from the Aspen Institute as part of a plan to identify and replicate a national model, and YouthBuild, a nationwide Department of Labor program for high school dropouts.

Because the long-term societal costs of disconnected youth who don’t get help include lost taxes, more government transfers, higher prison budgets, and more, upfront investment in these programs is much cheaper than doing nothing.

And kids really want this help. “I’m excited to see the youth that are out there and that really want these programs,” Cherie LaCour-Duckworth, from the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, told us. “They are screaming for them. But funding has been cut drastically.”

Through Project U-Turn, the City of Philadelphia launched a collaborative effort to provide at-risk youth with needed services and raised the city’s high school graduation rates from 52 percent in 2005 to 64 percent in 2012. The following graph provided by Project U-Turn demonstrates the program's success so far:

According to a 2010 survey, 50 percent of YouthBuild participants received a high school degree or GED at the end of the program and 60 percent either went on to college or found full-time living wage jobs. Here is a chart illustrating the progam's impact:

Taxpayers are going to pay one way or another, either for fixing the problem upfront or for the costs of negligence later. The following charts from Civic Enterprises' reports on its National Roadmap for Opportunity Youth and The Economic Value of Opportunity Youth show this clearly:

According to the Civic Enterprises Survey, the kids are eager and ready for this help:

IV. But here is the rub: despite the long-term societal and fiscal benefits, we are under-investing in these intervention programs.

Most programs successfully serving disconnected youth are over-subscribed, and due to austerity measures, funding is further reduced. Youth opportunity grants authorized through the Workforce Investment Act reached 90,000 young people and reduced the overall number of out-of-work, out-of-school teens. But the program has not been funded since 2005, and sequestration has reduced overall workforce training funds by an additional $1.5 billion.

AmeriCorps-funded programs, which offer young people from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to serve in communities across the country, have been found to improve graduation and employment rates. The 2009 Serve America Act passed by Congress committed to increasing the number of AmeriCorps positions from 75,000 to 250,000 by 2017. The Act has not been implemented, however, and 85 percent of the more than 500,000 applicants were turned down in 2012. 

Here's a pair of charts highlighting this problem, from the National Skills Coalition and Service Nation

V. So what now?

“The only way we’re going to be able to have an impact is if government at all levels tackles these issues,” Jerome Jupiter, from the Youth Empowerment Project, told us in New Orleans, “This is no one person’s issue. We need all hands on deck – key stakeholders at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as institutions such as higher education all must work collaboratively to address youth unemployment.” 

Nell Abernathy is the Program Manager for the Roosevelt Institute's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

 

Banner image via Shutterstock.com

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