Daily Digest - April 18: Inequality Was Not an Accident

Apr 18, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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We Built This Country on Inequality (The Nation)

Mychal Denzel Smith writes that the U.S. economy was built on a foundation of inequality for women and racial minorities, and that we must fight racism and sexism if we hope to close the wealth gap.

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We Built This Country on Inequality (The Nation)

Mychal Denzel Smith writes that the U.S. economy was built on a foundation of inequality for women and racial minorities, and that we must fight racism and sexism if we hope to close the wealth gap.

Oklahoma Governor Signs Law Barring Cities From Raising Minimum Wage (AJAM)

The Oklahoma law also bars cities from requiring paid sick leave or vacation time, reports Amel Ahmed. This seems intended to preempt a push for a state-level minimum wage increase, as in California and Maryland.

Treat Wage Theft as a Criminal Offense (WaPo)

Catherine Rampell asks why the consequences for stealing thousands from workers' paychecks are so much less severe than the consequences of stealing from someone's home.

Obamacare Succeeded for One Simple Reason: It's Horrible to be Uninsured (Vox)

Sarah Kliff says the eight million sign-ups are proof that insured pundits didn't understand how desperate the uninsured and underinsured were to get health insurance.

Antitrust in the New Gilded Age (Robert Reich)

Robert Reich suggests that today's concentrated wealth resembles the Gilded Age, right down to the need to break up too-large corporations. He cites the pending Comcast-Time Warner merger as a troubling example.

New on Next New Deal

Not Just the Long-Term Unemployed: Those Unemployed Zero Weeks Are Struggling to Find Jobs

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal looks at the data on those who move from one employer directly to another, without any unemployment. When even those workers struggle on the job market, wage growth slows.

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What Is Economic Growth Without Shared Prosperity?

Apr 14, 2014Joelle Gamble

It's time for the U.S. to recognize that policies to push economic growth must focus on average Americans, not "job creators."

It's time for the U.S. to recognize that policies to push economic growth must focus on average Americans, not "job creators."

Rampant inequality is putting the future of the American economy in peril. The financial recovery we have experienced the past few years has only led to massive gains for top earners and little to no change for average Americans. Decades of policies that throw more benefits to the top have not “trickled down” to the average household.

But more importantly, our current idea of economic progress is skewed. The wealthy have created this idea that “job creators” are a class of people who can magically restore out economy, ignoring the fact that entrepreneurship and innovation come from all economic statuses.

America needs to shift our economic narrative away from a heavy emphasis on GDP-based growth and toward a model that promotes prosperity for everyone. We need to think about how we generate demand in order to create jobs. This demand comes from average Americans having the ability to engage meaningfully in the economy, with fair wages without discrimination in the workplace. In short: economic progress must involve prosperity for all Americans, not just “job creators.”

Legislative battles at the local, state, and federal levels around equal pay and the minimum wage will prove crucial to changing our conception of what constitutes good economic policy. Victories in these fights represent tangible ways in which the average American worker can better his or her own economic prospects and simultaneously grow the economy.

We are seeing progress now. In January, the city of Seattle began pushing to raise the minimum wage for city workers to $15.00 per hour. Earlier this week, the state of Maryland voted to raise its minimum wage from the federal $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. Meanwhile, President Obama continues his push for federal action.

Meanwhile, in the United States, women make an average of $0.77 for every $1.00 earned by men, but growing movements are pushing the needle in the right direction. The President signed directives to clamp down on gender discrimination by federal agencies and contractors. Americans show strong bipartisan support for paid sick leave and family leave. Municipalities, are pushing through bills to make this support a reality –in New York City, Mayor De Blasio has already expanded the paid sick leave law that was established in 2013.

While the most sustainable and sweeping changes on these fronts may be best achieved at the federal level, many of the real policy battles are playing out in cities and states. This presents a real opportunity to involve a wide swath of Americans in economic justice work in their neighborhoods. If organizers on the ground build power to push a prosperity-centric policy agenda forward through both community building and new technology platforms, we can see a real shift in the narrative of what economic progress looks like in this nation.

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

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Daily Digest - April 8: Equal Pay Still Isn't a Reality

Apr 8, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Why the GOP is Wrong About the Pay Gap (MSNBC)

With President Obama signing executive orders to fight the pay gap on Equal Pay Day, Irin Carmon lays out the shortcomings in the current system for fighting pay discrimination.

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Why the GOP is Wrong About the Pay Gap (MSNBC)

With President Obama signing executive orders to fight the pay gap on Equal Pay Day, Irin Carmon lays out the shortcomings in the current system for fighting pay discrimination.

Cities Advance Their Fight Against Rising Inequality (NYT)

Cities are working to fight inequality locally because they aren't willing to wait on the federal government, writes Annie Lowrey. Seattle, which is debating a $15-an-hour minimum wage, is a prime example.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong gave the closing remarks at Seattle's Income Inequality Symposium on March 27.

Maryland Set to Increase Its Minimum Wage to $10.10 by 2018 (WaPo)

Jenna Johnson reports on the final agreement on the minimum wage in the Maryland legislature. Maryland is the second state to take President Obama's advice and lead the charge for a $10.10 minimum wage.

Congress May Extend Corporate Tax Breaks But Not Unemployment Benefits (National Priorities Project)

Mattea Kramer points out a case of classic Washington illogic: Congress is preparing to extend corporate tax breaks worth $700 billion, but won't extend unemployment insurance because it would add $10 billion to the deficit.

GOP Grapples With The Unsettling Fear That Obamacare May Succeed (TPM)

Sahil Kapur says the 7 million Americans and potential voters who registered for insurance on the exchanges during open enrollment create a challenge for Republican candidates, whose base still supports repeal.

Yes, Rubio's Antipoverty Plan Would Cut Benefits to Working Parents (TNR)

Danny Vinik writes that it's mathematically impossible for Senator Rubio's plan to increase benefits for childless working adults and remain deficit-neutral, as his office has claimed it will, without reducing benefits to parents.

Workers on the Edge (TAP)

David Bensman looks at the difficulties faced by workers whose employers misclassify them as independent contractors. Employers do this to avoid paying workers' compensation, overtime, and even some taxes.

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Taking on Big Business Wage Theft

Apr 2, 2014Harmony Goldberg

Lawsuits show that the fight against wage theft is heating up, but workers shouldn't have to sue their employers to get paid what they're owed.

Lawsuits show that the fight against wage theft is heating up, but workers shouldn't have to sue their employers to get paid what they're owed.

Despite the extensive press coverage of the fight of fast-food workers for a $15 hourly wage, one recent development hasn’t gotten much attention: fast food workers around the country have started to win significant wage theft lawsuits against McDonald’s franchisees, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. These lawsuits raise an important question: How has McDonald’s been able to get away with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from low-wage workers? The answer is straightforward. Our system for enforcement has been so severely weakened that many employers are able to regularly violate workers’ basic rights. And the law itself is broken. Its structure allows corporations like McDonald’s to escape responsibility for the conditions in their workplaces.

In February, student guest workers won a lawsuit that charged a McDonald’s franchise in Pennsylvania with wage theft. They had been paid sub-minimum wages, denied overtime pay and charged exorbitant prices for company housing. The Department of Labor required the franchise to pay $205,977 to both guest workers and native-born workers at the franchise. This victory was rapidly followed by a wave of other lawsuits around the country.  

Last week, McDonald’s workers in three cities launched highly publicized cases charging the corporation with wage theft. These workers had experienced many types of wage theft. The workers in California claim that they were not paid for overtime work. In Michigan, workers are asserting that they were required to show up for work but were not allowed to clock in. Workers in New York allege that were not compensated for the time they spent cleaning their uniforms, required to do work off the clock and not paid overtime. The New York suit was almost immediately successful. Last week, seven franchises agreed to settle for almost $500,000.

McDonald’s workers are not alone. Wage theft has become a widespread problem in low-wage industries in the United States. An influential study found that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of workers had experienced some form of wage theft in their previous week of work: they were paid below the minimum wage, not paid for overtime, required to work off the clock or had their breaks limited. An organization of fast food workers in New York City surveyed workers and found that 84% of workers had experienced wage theft in the last year.

Addressing wage theft will take a two-pronged solution: rebuilding the enforcement system in the U.S., and cutting through the smokescreen of subcontracting and franchising to hold employers responsible for the wages and working conditions in their workplaces. 

The enforcement regime in the United States has been significantly weakened over the last several decades. There has been an overall downward trend in funding for the Department of Labor. The number of labor inspectors had plummeted for years. The Obama administration has added new inspectors, but not enough to make up for the long-term decline. Meanwhile, the number of workers who need protection has grown. This pattern has to be turned on its head. If rampant wage theft is to be stopped, we need to radically increase the number of labor inspectors on the ground.

But – as Annette Bernhard points out in a new paper – increased funding is not enough. The enforcement system that we have is not well structured to deal with our current economy. It must be transformed. The penalties for employers who violate workplace regulations must increase. Enforcement agencies should partner with organizations like unions and worker centers that are in daily contact with workers. These organizations can educate workers and employers about workplace regulations, and they can provide an ear to the ground to help identify violators.

Even a radical transformation of the enforcement regime will not be enough in today’s economy. We need to change the law to deal with changes in the structure of employment. Right now, McDonald’s is structured so that the franchise owners are technically considered to be the employers. They are held legally responsible for wage violations in their stores, leaving McDonalds itself off the hook. Both recent legal victories charged franchise owners rather than the McDonald’s corporation itself. McDonald’s is shielded from blame while it continues to reap the majority of the profits that come from mistreating workers.

We need a new definition of what it means to be an employer. The current definition makes it impossible for workers to hold their corporate employers – the ones who are setting the real terms of their work – responsible. The two remaining McDonald’s wage theft cases target both the franchise owners and the McDonald’s corporation itself. That challenges the narrow definition of employer, which limits responsibility to the franchise owner. The time has come for the law to be changed. All employers - from the front-line employers up to top of the employment chain – should be legally recognized as such so they can be held accountable for the conditions in their workplaces.

Wage theft that has become an endemic problem in today’s economy. Low-wage workers should not have to turn – again and again – to private lawsuits as a solution. They deserve the basic right to be paid for their labor. To get there, we need full funding and comprehensive reform of the enforcement system in the United States, and we need legal reforms that hold central employers responsible for the conditions in their workplaces. 

Harmony Goldberg is the Program Manager for the Roosevelt Institute's Future of Work Initiative.

Photo copyright Annette Bernhardt, via Creative Commons license.

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Daily Digest - April 2: Winning the Fight Against Inequality

Apr 2, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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5 Facts About Women’s History That Will Keep You Fighting (MTV Act)

Danica Davidson talks to Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler about some of the most incredible accomplishments in women's history and the still-unfinished work of the feminist movement.

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5 Facts About Women’s History That Will Keep You Fighting (MTV Act)

Danica Davidson talks to Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler about some of the most incredible accomplishments in women's history and the still-unfinished work of the feminist movement.

Paul Ryan’s Budget: Even More Austerity (MSNBC)

Cuts to Medicare and Medicaid will get more attention, but Suzy Khimm points out that Paul Ryan has proposed dramatic cuts to discretionary spending, including Pell grants and other programs targeted at low-income communities.

The Myth of Working Your Way Through College (The Atlantic)

A graduate student at Michigan State University has examined the data, reports Svati Kirsten Narula, and the costs of a year's tuition alone now exceed what a student could make working full-time at minimum wage.

Good News! Janet Yellen Speaks English, Not Fedspeak (The Nation)

William Greider praises the new Federal Reserve chair for her clarity when speaking to the public about the economy. He says she didn't dumb anything down while asserting the Fed's plans to support job creation.

New on Next New Deal

Why Inequality Matters and What Can Be Done About It

In his remarks to the Senate Budget Committee yesterday, Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz discussed the relationship between policy and inequality, calling on the senators to take action.

The Challenges to Organizing Workers in Today's Economy

In the fourth post in his series on his new report on labor reform, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch lays out the difficulties facing labor organizing today.

Reducing Flood Risks is Worth the Effort – and the Savings

Melia Ungson, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment, writes about the Community Rating System, a program that encourages communities to reduce flood risks in exchange for lower insurance premiums.

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The ACA in Threes: The Good, The Bad and the Ways to Make it Better

Mar 31, 2014Richard Kirsch

With the first open enrollment period ending today, consider some successes, outrages, and bug fixes for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch will debate implementation issues and the future of the ACA with the Heritage Foundation's Robert Moffit tonight at New York University. For more information, click here.

The Good: Three Big Successes of ACA:

With the first open enrollment period ending today, consider some successes, outrages, and bug fixes for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch will debate implementation issues and the future of the ACA with the Heritage Foundation's Robert Moffit tonight at New York University. For more information, click here.

The Good: Three Big Successes of ACA:

The Affordable Care Act is saving peoples lives: Already. Like Kathy Bentzoni, a Pennsylvania school bus driver, who dropped her old insurance because it was expensive and rejecting claims because of her pre-existing conditions. After getting ACA coverage at $55 a month, she was able to seek care: “They found my hemoglobin level was 5.7, and the normal is 14. I needed a transfusion. It was due to a rare blood disorder. Where would I be without Obamacare? ER, 3 units of blood, multiple tests in the hospital and a 5-day inpatient stay without insurance? Probably dead.” Kathy was not alone in that fear – studies show that tens of thousands of people each year die because they don’t have health coverage.

Medicaid enrollment is a bigger success than expected: Not only is Medicaid enrolling people who are eligible for the first time – 4.6 million of them – but almost another 2 million more are enrolling who were eligible before, but had not applied. In the big push to get people to sign up for the ACA, many people who have been eligible in the past applied for the first time.

Seniors on Medicare are saving money, getting better care: While most seniors don’t think that the ACA has anything to do with them, it does. Last year, 37 million people on Medicare – seniors and people with disabilities – received free preventive care. Since the law was enacted, 8 million people enrolled in Medicare have saved $10 billion on prescription drugs, as the prescription “donut hole’ closes. And for the first time in 30 years, hospital readmission rates for people on Medicare are coming down, because hospitals are now penalized for pushing people out before they are ready.

The Bad: Three Outrages Against the ACA

States that have refused to expand Medicaid: In an example of partisan politics killing people, Republicans in 24 states have refused to expand Medicaid, leaving 5 million people who would be eligible for coverage without any recourse.

Koch brothers campaign to discourage young people from signing up: In an example of billionaires killing people, the Koch brothers have funded tasteless ads and campus beer parties in an attempt to keep young people from signing up for insurance on the exchanges.

Republican lies about job loss and the ACA: One advantage of the ACA is that it gives people the freedom to leave their jobs or reduce their work hours, and still be able to get affordable coverage. When the Congressional Budget Office estimated that 2.3 million American workers would gain this freedom over the next 8 years, Republicans falsely claimed that it would cost jobs. If anything, it will create jobs for people who fill in for those who take advantage of their new freedom. I thought Republicans liked freedom.

The Ways to Make it Better: Three Big Fixes for the ACA:

Allow Medicare to operate in the exchanges: The best way to bring price competition and access to virtually ever doctor and hospital in the exchanges would be to have Medicare offer a plan (without age requirements) in every exchange. This is the easiest and most effective way to bring back the public option.

Base the employer mandate on a play or payroll tax: As I’ve explained here, the best way to get rid of the convoluted system of employers paying a penalty for employees who work more than 30 yours a week, would be to have employers who don’t provide coverage pay a percentage of payroll for health care, just like employers now do for Social Security.

Lower the premiums and out-of-pocket costs: While the ACA is providing affordable coverage for millions – and will offer lower premiums than 29 million people are paying now – they are still too high for many families. And the out-of-pocket costs in the cheaper plans are way too high. The subsidies should be increased for middle-income people – funded by progressive taxes – and the high-out-of-pocket plans ended. 

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 signing the Affordable Care Act copyright George Miller, via Creative Commons license.

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Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: Expanding Access to Family Planning

Mar 31, 2014Ellen CheslerAndrea Flynn

Download the paper by Ellen Chesler and Andrea Flynn.

Download the paper by Ellen Chesler and Andrea Flynn.

Poverty shapes the lives of an increasing number of American women and their families and has many consequences, including high rates of unintended pregnancy. Conservatives, eager to further dismantle federal programs and defeat the new Affordable Care Act (ACA), have recently rekindled the idea that marriage promotion will reverse rising rates of poverty, unintended pregnancy, and single parenthood. To the contrary, addressing the root causes of poverty requires multiple interventions and far more generous government programs across a range of issues, particularly the expansion of reproductive health and family planning information, care, and services. This paper reviews the recent literature on women’s poverty and health and argues that accessible and high quality family planning services for poor women remain an essential component of poverty reduction. It also looks back at the history of policy debates over this question in the hope of finding a path toward renewed bi-partisan consensus.
 
Key Arguments:
  • Family planning is a fundamental right of women and the foundation of human security.
  • Single women in poverty head a growing percentage of U. S.  households. Addressing their needs requires multiple policy interventions, but none can work if women are denied the agency to make – and act on – well-informed reproductive health decisions.
  • U.S. subsidized family planning programs meet only 54 percent of national need. The ACA will help bridge the gap, although its promise is threatened by legal challenges to the contraceptive mandate. Women deserve insurance coverage for the contraceptive method of their choice, without qualification. 
  • Many low-income women will fall through insurance gaps. Every state should expand Medicaid. The federal government should lift Medicaid’s five-year eligibility requirement for documented immigrants and increase Title X funding to address increased demand for services.
  • We can learn from history. Research since the 1970 adoption of Title X illustrates that access to improved family planning methods promotes responsible decision-making and reduces unwanted pregnancy and abortion. By contrast, abstinence-until marriage and marriage promotion programs advanced by conservatives have failed and been discredited. 

Read "Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: Expanding Access to Family Planning," by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler and Fellow Andrea Flynn.

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Daily Digest - March 19: What Colleges Can Give Back

Mar 19, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Op-Ed: GW Can Fight D.C.’s Income Divide with Endowment (The GW Hatchet)

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Op-Ed: GW Can Fight D.C.’s Income Divide with Endowment (The GW Hatchet)

David Meni and Zach Komes, leaders of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's George Washington University chapter, suggest their school should invest in financial institutions focused on community development.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Associate Director of Networked Initiatives Alan Smith explains Rethinking Communities, a Campus Network project examining how colleges and universities can have do more to help local economies.

Economic Reform Is a Human Right (The Nation)

Radhika Balakrishnan and James Heintz argue that a human rights framework can lead to better social and economic policy; for example, bailing out the banks but not homeowners could be considered a human rights violation.

Conservatives Defend Inequality out of Self-Interest — Nothing More (The Week)

Class interest keeps the wealthy from admitting that inequality harms economic growth, writes Sean McElwee, but they don't necessarily have bad intentions. He instead calls on them to do some self-examination.

The House GOP's Obamacare Alternative Won't Curb Health Care Costs—But It Will Enrich the Insurance Industry (MoJo)

The Republican plan includes restrictions on medical-malpractice lawsuits. Stephanie Mencimer cites a recent Florida Supreme Court decision, which declared that such restrictions only serve to increase profit for the insurers.

Costly Loans Are Drawing Attention From States (NYT)

Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Rachel Abrams report on the ways that short-term loan providers are working to get around existing regulations, and how states are starting to crack down.

The Polar Vortex Kept Shoppers at Home—Will the Economy Pick Up Now? (The Atlantic)

Matthew O'Brien looks at a study on car sales in January, which shows weaker growth in the states with the worst winters. But sales are everything: he says we'll know the economy is really picking up when people take on more debt.

Fast-Food Workers Get New Ally in New York City Fight for Fair Pay (The Guardian)

New York City's public advocate, Tish James, is stepping up to help in the wake of wage theft lawsuits against McDonald's, reports Jon Swaine. She's proposing legislation to create a whistleblower hotline to fight these practices.

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Daily Digest - March 14: The Golden Arches Get Served

Mar 14, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Breaking: McDonald’s Workers Mount Class Action Suits in Three States (Salon)

The workers are alleging different forms of wage theft, such as unpaid overtime, in California, Michigan, and New York, at both corporate locations and franchises, reports Josh Eidelson.

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Breaking: McDonald’s Workers Mount Class Action Suits in Three States (Salon)

The workers are alleging different forms of wage theft, such as unpaid overtime, in California, Michigan, and New York, at both corporate locations and franchises, reports Josh Eidelson.

A Business Upside to Obama’s Overtime Move (WaPo)

Jena McGregor writes that since productivity starts to drop as workers put in more than 40 hours a week, employers who hire more staff instead of paying overtime should see productivity increase.

The Secret Benefits Of Paid Sick Days For All (ThinkProgress)

Bryce Covert looks at some of the less obvious changes that come with paid sick leave, such as increased employer trust in employees, employee retention, and morale and productivity boosts.

How We Built the Ghettos (The Daily Beast)

In response to Paul Ryan's recent comments on inner city poverty, Jamelle Bouie explains how housing policies in the mid-20th century, which excluded black homebuyers, created today's racial wealth gap.

UAW Appeals to NLRB Board to Keep 'Outside Groups' out of Decision on New Union Vote (Chattanooga Times Free Press)

Dave Flessner reports that United Auto Workers is pressing to keep the National Right to Work Legal Foundation and Southern Momentum out of upcoming arguments, and Volkswagen agrees.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch looks at why UAW's efforts in Chattanooga failed despite VW's support, and what that says about U.S. labor law.

The Battle for Chattanooga: Southern Masculinity and the Anti-Union Campaign at Volkswagen (In These Times)

Some of the union supporters at the VW plant in Chattanooga hoped a union would change the culture of self-reliance and working through pain that led to injuries on the job, says Mike Elk.

Some Jobless Facing Eviction After Loss Of Benefits (HuffPo)

Andrew Perez and Arthur Delaney report that organizations tracking stories from the unemployed have seen an increase in evictions since Congress failed to extend long-term unemployment benefits.

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Prevention Over Punishment: The Push to Reduce Gun Violence in Chicago

Mar 4, 2014Janaè BonsuJohnaè Strong

Chicago should seek new methods of violence prevention that strengthen neighborhoods and focus on healing, because these methods are more effective and more cost-effective.

Chicago should seek new methods of violence prevention that strengthen neighborhoods and focus on healing, because these methods are more effective and more cost-effective.

It’s no secret that gun violence has long been a major problem in Chicago. An astronomical number of lives have been lost, the social fabric of communities has been compromised, and as a result, both morgues and prisons have continued to fill up. That gun violence is a problem is something on which everyone – liberals and conservatives alike – can agree. The grounds get muddy, however, in identifying and implementing an effective solution.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration have been pushing for a more “tough on crime” strategy to reduce gun violence in Chicago, with mandatory minimum sentencing for illegal gun possession. The original proposed Senate Bill 1342 (now House Bill 5672) included a minimum sentence of one to three years for any person caught with an illegal weapon. ‘Gang affiliation’ – which is determined at the discretion of a judge – would lead to an escalated minimum. In addition, there are currently five new bills (HB 3770 - 3774) that have been introduced by Rep. Michael J. Zalewski (D) to the Illinois General Assembly that may very well have been drafted and introduced with good intentions to deter gun violence and other crime, and keep those who engage in it off of the street. However, components of the House package are unduly punitive. For example, HB 3770 raises the Unlawful Use of a Weapon (UUW) charge to an Aggravated UUW for an individual who has committed a forcible felony as a juvenile. Thus, instead of facing a misdemeanor charge with up to one year of jail time, a defendant faces a class 4 felony that carries a sentence of up to three years of prison time, plus a fine of up to $25,000, because of a crime committed in their youth. Taken together, HB 5672 and similar legislation pose a mirrored threat that will disproportionately affect communities of color and further depress local and state budgets by funneling much needed resources into the city jails and state prisons.

A substantial body of research shows that mandatory minimums have little to no effect on crime, which even its proponents seem to accept: they expect these laws to reduce arrest rates for violent crime by only 0.6%. Aside from that, more incarceration could produce more problems than it actually solves. Many Chicago communities of color grapple with high unemployment and neighborhood instability. More incarceration would further exacerbate these issues at a steep price. In Illinois, if mandatory minimum legislation such as HB 5672 does pass, it will likely cost Illinois close to $2 billion over 10 years, and add to an overcrowded prison system. And more money for “corrections” leaves less for interventions that actually work.

In Chicago, community members and activist organizations that are no longer willing to watch the silent war against minority communities are contesting these bills through direct action campaigns and policy advocacy. These organizations include, but are not limited to the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Community Renewal Society, and Project Nia. Mirroring the progressive direction of the Obama Administration and other politicians including Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) by moving away from mandatory minimums, these organizations are advocating for funds allocated to subtractive policies to instead be used for empirically based preventative solutions to violence in Chicago communities. Two major initiatives in the works to prevent violence are 1) the expansion of youth employment in communities especially affected by violence as a preventive measure and 2) the implementation of restorative justice peace hubs as an alternative to incarceration.

BYP100 and Project Nia are working towards proposing a youth jobs bill that may look similar to the National Youth Administration (part of the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal). The bill will focus on scaling up existing employment and training programs that have been proven effective such as One Summer Chicago Plus as well as dropout and violence prevention programs such as Becoming A Man (BAM). The bill will push for the reallocation of resources to help communities most impacted by violence implement various proven and promising employment and mentoring interventions across the entire state of Illinois. These programs reduce gun violence and strengthen communities economically and socially.

In addition to the push for youth employment, Community Renewal Society is currently spearheading the Reclaim Campaign, an initiative that urges the Cook County justice system to fund community based restorative justice hubs and mental health and drug rehabilitation programs through money saved from the release of Cook County nonviolent detainees. The campaign advocates alleviating jail overcrowding and reversing the trend of warehousing individuals who pose little threat to public safety by relying more on release with personal recognizance and electronic monitoring. Less bodies in the jails can free up dollars to fund the peace hubs, which are proposed to act as a coordinating referral center in the community where offenders, victims of crime, family members, and other impacted residents can appropriately handle conflict without further violence. The restorative justice approach offers a promising alternative to retributive justice that we have seen fail us for decades.

These solutions outline a need for economically just measures and attention to community healing and restoration over imprisonment. Most importantly, these solutions begin by looking within the community and empower people to change the policies governing their homes and neighborhoods, which is the best way to achieve real social change.

Janaè Bonsu is a Lead Coordinator for the Chicago City Network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline and a Master’s student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.

Johnaè Strong is a Master’s student in the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) and Lead Facilitator of the Chicago City Network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline. 

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