Our members watched the State of the Union last night together. Here are some of their thoughts:
"While I was pleased to hear the announcement of an increase in minimum wage for federally contracted workers through an executive order, President Obama must also put in place limitations on the payrolls of corporate executives, which will hold them accountable for funneling taxpayer money into their own pockets. That sort of change will not come from the corporate-controlled White House, so progressives must shift their focus to the grassroots, bottom-up approach."
--Yasemin Ayarci, Chapter President (@DCyasemin)
"Watching the webcast with the corresponding graphs and diagrams, I was glad to see more substantive policy and slightly less rhetoric than past addresses, but some statements on progressive causes still felt shallow. On education, I was very happy to see the backing of a pre-K expansion, but dismayed at the few new ideas presented on improving college affordability."
--David Meni, Vice President (@TheDavidMeni)
"Any congressional action this year on issues progressives care about will depend on passage in the Republican-controlled House. Last night’s speech sought important solutions to our upward mobility crisis once popular with conservatives: education reform, job training, infrastructure, and a tax overhaul. Despite many important issues left unmentioned, the solutions proposed to reduce inequality may have the support necessary get through the lower chamber--and a chance at helping alleviate the many structural economic challenges too many Americans face."
--Zach Komes, Policy Director (@ZachKomes)
"Another beautifully crafted address by President Obama but as a Progressive, I found alarming the lack of any mention about unchallenged rape endemic in the military & his comments on foreign policy were largely anodyne. In fact, the 'Pivot to Asia' was notably absent, unless this is effectively his apparent support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. On that note, I wonder when Obama will elucidate the opaque contents of the TPP treaty."
--Francisco Alvarez, Energy and Environment Policy Center Member (@F_J_Alvarez)
"I felt that the President's agenda was too broad and scattered to achieve all, or even most, of the goals that he put forth. If he devoted more effort to a single issue and made that the single crusade of the year, it would have a better chance of actually leading to real, measurable good."
--Matthew Kasturas, Freshman Representative
"While I enjoyed President Obama’s encouraging overall tone about the importance of increasing opportunities for all Americans, I found some of his policy suggestions to be a little vague. For example, although the broad idea of gun control was mentioned, specifics about his gun control platform weren't present, which is disappointing considering the amount of school shootings that have taken place in the last month alone."
--Kinjo Kiema, Freshman Representative (@Captain_Kinj)
"I thought President Obama’s speech had several strong, substantive policy proposals. However, I sincerely hope that his 'All of the Above' energy policy prioritizes renewable sources such as solar and wind, and does not include the Keystone XL Pipeline."
--Eric Wolfert, Outreach Director (@EricWolfert93)
What did you think of the #SOTU? Comment below and let us know your perspective!
YASEMIN AYARCI, CHAPTER PRESIDENT
Do you know who the main employer of low-wage workers is? You might think Walmart or McDonalds, but it’s actually the President of the United States. Through federal contracts, the national government employs nearly 2 million workers, many of which are paid wages too low to support themselves and their families. All eyes are on President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight, where reports say he will announce an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour by 2016.
The support for this move has been mounting: the vast majority of Americans support the wage raise, as doing so would improve our economy and create jobs. However, the main pressure pushing Obama to sign this order has come from below. Right in his backyard, Pentagon workers took to the streets in a strike to demand higher wages on Wednesday, following the footsteps of workers at the Ronald Reagan Building, Union Station, and Smithsonian museums. Disgruntled with their working conditions and living standards, many of these workers are hoping that their pressure will finally force the President to raise federal labor standards.
Low wages aren't just felt by federally contracted workers, like those in the District; the American taxpayer has been the biggest demographic paying the price. The federal government currently subsidizes various different services from private corporations through federal contracts, and billions of taxpayer dollars go to companies that pay their workers poverty-level wages. The progressive think tank Demos found that these private corporations have transferred nearly $24 billion in federal funds into executive pay, all while their workers are struggling to make a living. Further, as federal contractors continue to ensure that their workforce is not generating enough income to provide for life's basic necessities, employees are forced into taxpayer-funded government aid programs, like food stamps and Medicaid. In effect, taxpayers are paying the price for a system that rewards corporate executives and leaves workers with no other choice than continued poverty.
“Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it,” pledged Obama in a speech last July. Although $10.10 is not enough to pull people from poverty wages, President Obama can indeed use his powers to boost millions of workers into better living conditions with a stroke of a pen.
But with the vast majority of both political parties bought by the same corporations and wealthy donors, federally contracted workers should not rely so much on the President and the Democratic establishment for their well-being. Obama has not been short on his critiques of income inequality before, all while stuffing his cabinet with corporatists figures who have contributed to the growing inequality gap. It’s the taxpayers who will pay for an increase in the federal minimum wage; the President has not called on reforms that hold corporatists funneling money out of our government accountable. This is a band-aid move by a corporate controlled administration that has time and time again failed to make Wall Street and the banks pay for their destruction.
While I support any advances in the conditions of the working class, this movement must not be co-opted by false hope and temporary solutions. As revolutionary activist Nelson Mandela said, "[Poverty] is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings." Mandela knew that South Africa’s majority could never achieve liberation without radical restructuring of wealth and power. Indeed, a rearrangement that puts the needs of workers first is the only solution to income inequality in the United States. Our nation’s federally contracted workers must continue to build their own independent political movement that fully works to address their struggles and the struggles of all workers.
RACHEL WHITBECK, EQUAL JUSTICE DIRECTOR
The revolving door of the American prison system has been well-documented in recent decades: Two thirds of released prisoners will later return to incarceration. This is largely due to the fact that many employers believe that if an ex-convict breaks the law while on the job, the employer might be faced with a lawsuit, and they therefore screen out any applications that checked “yes” on the question of whether the applicant has been convicted of a crime. This makes it difficult for people with criminal backgrounds to find employment, which contributes to the high prevalence of those who eventually find their way back in prison.
Today, 25 percent of adults—65 million nationwide—have criminal records. Those that must indicate their conviction record on a job application cannot indicate the nature of the crime—such as whether the conviction was a felony or a misdemeanor—and many of these ex-convicts have never served time in jail or prison. In fact, in 2011, 48 percent of inmates in American prisons were being held for drug offenses. While many employers screen out applicants with criminal records, Pamela Paulk of Johns Hopkins Health System claims that, in her experience, employees with criminal backgrounds tend to be the most motivated employees with a higher rate of retention than the average worker.
As of mid-2013 10 states and 50 localities have passed “Ban the Box” laws, which prohibit employers from including a checkbox inquiring whether the applicant has a criminal record in an initial screening process. In December 2010, the Council of the District of Columbia passed the Returning Citizens Public Employment Inclusion Act of 2010, which amended the District of Columbia Government Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act of 1978. The 2010 act decrees that the District government is prohibited from inquiring about criminal history on the application form for jobs that are “not covered” (a position for which a background check is not required by law); public employers may only ask an applicant about their criminal history only after the screening process, at which time the applicant is permitted to explain any criminal history. The District does not currently require private employers to undergo the same non-discrimination practices.
On November 5, 2013, NPR News’ Tell Me More program interviewed Madeline Neighly of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). As she states, the issue of inquiring about criminal backgrounds is partly a racial issue: A 2003 Princeton University study found that a white male without a criminal record had, on average, a 34 percent chance of receiving a call after applying for a position, whereas a white male with a criminal record had a 17 percent chance. For a black man, the percentages are drastically altered: He has a 14 percent chance at a callback without a criminal record, and only a five percent chance with one. As it is, 37.8 percent of American inmates were African American in 2011. In the District, if current trends continue, three out of four young African American men are likely to be incarcerated at some time. Neighly emphasizes that convicts who have served their sentences “really need a chance to reintegrate into their community.”
Truth is, many ex-convicts are the products of underprivileged neighborhoods and troubled families. If DC passes a more comprehensive law that 'bans the box' in private sector hiring practices, thousands of residents would find it easier to gain employment to support their own futures and stop the revolving door of American prisons.
The Ban the Box Coalition is currently pushing to pass the Human Rights for Ex-Offenders Act, which aims to end discrimination against people with criminal records by private employers and land lords (except where the crime directly relates to the job or housing offered).
Click here to sign the petition to support this act, and join the GW Roosevelt Institute and the DC community in taking further action to help pass this vital piece of legislation in the District.
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