- Created on 11 October 2013
(CNN) -- Let's play a little game.
Which of the following signs did protestors hold at the March on Washington, 50 years ago this week, and which were held up this year by fast-food workers:
1. "WE MARCH FOR HIGHER MINIMUM WAGES COVERAGE FOR ALL WORKERS NOW!"
2. "WE ARE WORTH MORE"
3. "I AM A MAN"
4. "WE MARCH FOR JOBS FOR ALL A DECENT PAY NOW!"
The exclamation points, which apparently were more popular in the 1960s (despite what Twitter would have you believe!!!), are your best clue.
Signs one and four are from 1963. Two and three are from 2013.
Fifty years later, it's easy to forget that the full name of the 1963 "March on Washington" was actually "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."
But flip through some pictures from that rally, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech and where civil rights leaders, to borrow his words, bent the arc of history towards justice and greater equality, and you'll see protest signs that put the economy as a front-and-center issue, just as it is now.
"CIVIL RIGHTS PLUS FULL EMPLOYMENT EQUALS FREEDOM."
Fast food workers demand fair pay
President Obama, in commemorating the 50th anniversary of that march this week, smartly picked up on the theme that economic equality is "the great unfinished business" of King's vision for a just and fair America.
"...[A]s we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life," Obama said Wednesday. "The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran."
The subtext of his argument: Class may be the new race.
It's not that all battles for racial equality have been won -- they haven't -- or that we live in a post-racial society. But, in some remarkable and troubling ways, class has become an increasingly significant barrier to equality in modern America. The gap between rich and poor has been growing in the United States since the late 1970s, and our level of income inequality, one proxy measure for that gap, is now on par with many sub-Saharan African countries.
It's become more difficult for the poor to move up into the middle class and more difficult for the middle to dig in its heels to stop from slipping into poverty.
The American mantra of "work hard and you'll get ahead" is not always enough to sustain people. It's harder now to secure a financial future.
This is the theme that underlies much of what's happening in America today. And it's something that goes back much farther than the recent recession.
The fast-food workers, for example, who scheduled demonstrations across the country on Thursday, are frustrated by the fact that they can't make ends meet on $7.25 per hour. If you doubt whether that's true, please take a look at one fast-food worker's budget. Some workers, as Forbes reports, have to choose between paying for rent or food. "Should I pay my light bill (or) should I pay my gas?" one fast-food worker asks in this CNNMoney video. "I never can pay it all at once."
"Right now the gas is off," she says.
The workers demand a living wage of $15 per hour.
I'm not sure what the fair wage would be. That's the subject for another column...or perhaps a book. But I do know that, as The Atlantic reports, fast-food workers in Australia make $14.50 an hour, about twice the U.S. minimum wage.
And burgers haven't become too expensive Down Under.
Some context is helpful for understanding that movement as well.
The U.S. minimum wage is actually lower than it was in the late 1960s. Five years after King's speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the federal minimum wage, when converted into 2013 dollars, was $10.70, compared to $7.25 now. (The nominal minimum wage, according to the Congressional Research Service, was only $1.60 per hour in 1968. The $10.70 amount is adjusted for inflation).
Education is another example. There's evidence poverty is a better indicator of educational achievement than race.
"According to a 2011 research study by Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon, the test-score gap between the children of the poor (in the 10th percentile of income) and the children of the wealthy (in the 90th percentile) has expanded by as much as 40% and is now more than 50% larger than the black-white achievement gap -- a reversal of the trend 50 years ago," Sarah Garland writes for The Atlantic.
"Underprivileged children now languish at achievement levels that are close to four years behind their wealthy peers."
Four years behind their peers.
Just because of their income.
That challenges the very notion of who we are as Americans.
We see ourselves as a middle-class country -- a place where anyone can work hard and succeed. And many do. We're a country of fighters.
But it's become more difficult for the non-rich to make it.
The country has made great strides toward racial equality since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But, in the 50 years since King's speech, economic justice seems to have become the more distant dream.
- Created on 10 October 2013
This summer, minimum wage workers in California abandoned their posts at fast food restaurants and retail stores for spots on the picket line. They joined workers in cities across the country to demand an increase in the minimum wage.
Their efforts paid off last month when California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill to raise the state minimum wage over the next three years to $10 an hour.
For the first time in years, widespread minimum wage reform is a real possibility, and we need to keep the pressure on. The current federal minimum wage is inadequate, outdated, and out of touch with the modern cost of living. In this country, a full-time job should be enough to keep a family above the poverty line and off of welfare.
Imagine a mother working a steady, full time, year round job at the federal minimum wage -- $7.25 an hour. Her annual salary will amount to just $15,080. That puts her below the poverty line for a family of two, and well below the poverty line for a family of four. To make matters worse, her paltry salary depreciates in value each year, since the federal minimum wage is not tied to inflation.
At this rate, she could put in 45, 50 or even 60 hour weeks in an effort to keep her family off welfare, but she would still qualify for -- and most likely need -- public assistance.
This is hardly a hypothetical situation. Thirty-three U.S. states and territories use the federal minimum wage, and there are over three million mothers and fathers just getting by on full-time jobs. These are not the unemployed. These are not the underemployed. These are the over employed and underpaid.
It is a travesty that millions of Americans work full time but still struggle to support their families. They are making a decision to be hard-working employees and responsible parents, but their employers are also making a decision -- to pay them poverty wages.
Raising the minimum wage is imperative, and the potential cost to businesses and consumers is less than you might think. According to a recent study by DEMOS, raising the federal minimum wage to $12.25 ($25,000 for a full-time, year round worker) would cost large retailers just one percent of total annual sales, and it would cost consumers just 12 to 18 cents extra per shopping trip. At the same time, this change would lift more than 700,000 people out of poverty.
There are several opportunities to make this a reality. In November, New Jersey voters will decide whether to raise the state minimum wage to $8.25 and tie it to the cost of living. President Obama recently suggested increasing the federal minimum wage to $9. Even below the Mason-Dixon Line, two Maryland counties are considering bills to raise their minimum wage to $11.25.
It is time for a new social contract for people at the bottom of the economic ladder. We need to stand up with workers in California and other states and demand a dignified minimum wage on the federal level and in our communities. We can no longer afford not to.
- Created on 07 October 2013
Photo: ABC News
As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) takes effect this month, it might be helpful for people to know how its prototype in Massachusetts is working, after nearly seven years.
Virtually every resident in the Commonwealth is insured. More private companies offer insurance to their employees than ever before. Over 90 percent of our residents have a primary care physician. Primary care is less likely to be delivered in expensive emergency rooms. Preventive care is up. Health disparities are down among women, minorities and low-income people. Most importantly, on many measures, we are healthier.
Those are the facts. The stories are better. I met a young woman named Jaclyn, a cancer survivor who got life-saving care through our version of an exchange. She had no way to afford care before health care reform -- it saved her life.
A self-employed man named Ken ignored his gastrointestinal symptoms for years because he couldn't afford to see a doctor or pay for possible treatments. Once insured, he was seen and treated for Stage III colon cancer and is cancer free today.
Over all these years, expanding health insurance to everyone has added only about 1 percent of state spending to our budget. Those budgets have remained responsible, balanced and on-time.
Expansion hasn't hurt our general economy. Unemployment has remained lower than the national average and economic growth has been higher. At one business incubator, a young entrepreneur told me he moved his start-up to Massachusetts because he wanted to be sure his young family had health insurance while his business got off the ground. Today that young man's company is employing others.
The nation's great health care challenge, with or without universal coverage, is controlling health care costs. Though health insurance premiums had been rising faster than inflation for many years before our reforms went into effect, we are now getting control of them. Average base rates increased more than 16 percent three years ago. They average less than 2 percent today. Some of that progress is the result of tools made available by the ACA. Indeed, early results show that for some individuals and small businesses, premiums may drop as much as 20 percent percent because of Obamacare.
In other words, health care reform works in Massachusetts. And it will work in America. We need it to. In one form or another, health care significantly affects business, household and government budgets, people's ability to get a job, and a child's readiness to learn. Accessible, affordable, quality care in all cases improves lives and in many cases saves lives. It gives peace of mind and economic security to families. It increases productivity for large and small employers as well as for students. It creates jobs and contributes to our economic strength. It's a powerful statement of who we are.
As the ACA is implemented this month, the entire country will begin to enjoy the benefits that we have seen from health care reform here in Massachusetts, and much more. Small businesses benefit from the ACA through new tax credits that make health insurance more affordable. With more carriers and plans to choose from, there is a more competitive rate-setting environment. People with pre-existing conditions can no longer be denied insurance. People who get really sick can no longer be kicked off their insurance. And kids can stay on their parents' plans a bit longer, until they can get their own.
Tea Party Republicans don't want the Affordable Care Act. Do they really mean they don't want these kinds of improvements in the lives of millions of Americans? I don't think so. Would they rather we address these issues with a government program instead of through the market-based, individual choices that are the framework of the ACA? I don't think that's true either. Have they proposed an alternative way to accomplish these goals? Nope. Despite a presidential election, a decision by the United States Supreme Court, and over 40 failed repeal attempts, it's clear that what Tea Party Republicans don't like about Obamacare is the "Obama" part of it.
In Massachusetts we're proud to be home to many "firsts." The first Thanksgiving. The first battles of the American Revolution. The first public library, the first typewriter and the first subway. Even the first chocolate chip cookie. Recently, the first state to achieve universal health care, the model for the ACA.
Firsts are hard. There are and will be challenges. But it has been and will be worth it. Just ask Jaclyn or Ken or any of your neighbors.
- Created on 04 October 2013
A damaged Capitol Hill police car is surrounded by crime scene tape after a car chase and shooting in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. On Thursday, police shot and killed 34-year-old Miriam Carey, of Stamford, Conn., after a car chase that began when Carey tried to breach a barrier at the White House. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
(CNN) -- The images filled the screen. A black car hitting barricades at the White House and on Capitol Hill, marked police cars being rammed, and the popping sounds of shots fired. More images rolled in, of heavily armed United States Capitol Police officers and of tourists running with scared and confused expressions.
In the aftermath of the scene that unfolded Thursday, a Connecticut woman is dead and a 1-year-old girl is in protective custody. The natural question people are asking is: Was it necessary for the police to shoot?
Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier said that, yes, officers of the Capitol Police and Secret Service acted within commonly accepted use-of-force policies and practices in reaction to an intentional series of violent acts.
But some have wondered whether police overreacted in this case. This is a question that comes up every time there is a shooting by police.
In fact, many studies have found that police use force less often than the public realizes. For example, a 12-month study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that only 1.4% of people who had contact with the police had force used or threatened to be used against them.
I certainly concede that sometimes bad officers do bad things, and occasionally good officers do bad things accidentally. However, I also have found that most officers are honorable men and women making split-second decisions while trying to serve their communities.
So how should you judge the use of force by law enforcement officers?
Consider reasonableness: Police officers are trained to quickly assess possible threats. Force, particularly deadly force (with firearms, in this case), may be used if officers can explain their perception of the physical threats that put them and/or others at substantial risk of serious bodily injury or death. We can't Monday-morning quarterback the officers based on information that comes out later. We can only look at what a reasonable officer knew or should have known, and did or should have done, in a given situation.
Departmental policies and police training in the United States reflect the "objective reasonableness" principle put forth in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1989 Graham v. Connor decision, which applies a three-part test to assess the seriousness of the offense, the suspect threat, and the suspect's resistance or evasiveness.
And let's also consider facts, not emotional spin. Even though at first blush it appears to be a justified shooting, there should be no rush to final judgment in either direction before an examination of the facts in a fair and impartial investigation. As Lanier indicated in her press conference Thursday night, the Metropolitan Police will be investigating, with support from the Capitol Police and Secret Service.
In the wake of last month's Naval Yard shooting, and with the specter of other past violent acts -- such as the shooting of two heroic U.S. Capitol Police officers by a man who breached security in July 1998 -- law enforcement in Washington has been on heightened alert.
Cars can be used for delivering explosive devices. And let's not forget, as at least two injured federal officers experienced in this incident: The car itself is a 2,000-pound weapon that can cause serious injury or death when used as a battering ram.
Would a reasonable officer -- faced suddenly with a driver trying to ram barricades at high-profile targets like the White House, ramming police cars and injuring uniformed officers repeatedly -- perceive a serious offense, threat, or evasiveness?
Whether the driver was mentally ill was not a factor that the officers had the luxury of contemplating as they quickly assessed the threat and decided on a course of action.
Pending the final facts, it appears that all three prongs of the "objective reasonableness" standard were present.