Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

West Virginia Communities Unite Behind Historic Teacher Strike

It’s day four of the West Virginia teachers’ strike, in which nearly 20,000 teachers across the state are demanding higher pay and better health insurance.

On Tuesday, union leaders finally secured a meeting with Republican Governor Jim Justice—meaning the strike could end today if demands are met. The teachers, coordinated by the American Federation of Teachers–West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association, technically are barred from striking, so their recent approach is not only brave, but highlights the urgency of their difficulties: Many teachers are forced to take second jobs to make ends meet, and low salaries (teacher pay in West Virginia ranks 48th in the country) and inadequate benefits likely contribute to West Virginia’s teacher shortage.

Justice, a billionaire, signed into law meager pay raises last week, which prompted the walkout, had admonished the nearly 20,000 striking teachers—and 10,000 striking support staff—saying they “should be appreciative of where [they] are” and “should be back in the classroom.” Justice did propose raising the natural gas severance tax, saying the revenue could provide raises for teachers.

Residents and local businesses are demonstrating their support by bringing food, water, and coffee, to the teachers, says Chad Webb, the partnership coordinator of Reconnecting McDowell, an AFT-led county revitalization initiative. “Driving through McDowell County, businesses have [signs saying] ‘We support our teachers.’”

Local support for what amounts to the largest teachers’ strike in state history—across all 55 counties—is a continuation of West Virginia’s rich legacy of labor activism, with some teachers even wearing red bandanas—an homage to the coal miners of the early 20th-century labor battles, who wore red bandanas and were thus called “rednecks.”

Just over the state border, teachers in Pittsburgh, a city that shares that same strong labor history, are planning to strike this Friday if their union and the school district cannot reach a contract agreement.

Urban Institute Study Finds Millions of Americans Live in Higher Education Deserts

Millions of American adults cannot access any type of higher education based on their location, according to a new study from the Urban Institute. Released last month, the report found that 3.1 million Americans, at least 1.3 percent of the adult population, live in a complete education desert: They have no public university available within 25 miles nor do they have broadband service to access online classes.

Although many studies have been conducted on physical access to higher education (16.3 percent of Americans do not live near postsecondary institutions), this study was the first to look into broadband’s impact on connectivity in higher education. “Complete education deserts,” according to the study, have insufficient access to the internet, defined as less than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and three Mbps for uploads (the national average is 64 Mbps for downloads and 23 Mbps for uploads). Students in complete education deserts live more than 25 miles from a college that admits at least 75 percent of applicants.

These may be conservative estimates, the institute found. The researchers used the maximum advertised speeds from DSL providers to determine how many Americans lack internet access, even though actual speeds are sometimes half as fast. Although the study found that 2.2 percent of Americans lack sufficient internet speeds, a 2016 Federal Communications Commission report says the number is closer to 10 percent. According to the education study, two out of every three online deserts are physical ones as well, so the number of Americans living in complete education deserts is likely closer to 6 or 7 percent.

This phenomenon hits Native Americans the hardest: 11.8 percent live in complete education deserts and 22.6 percent live in physical education deserts. “This study demonstrates what many Native Americans, rural Americans, and other Americans living in education deserts already know: The internet has not untethered all of us from our geographic locations,” researchers said in the report. “As long as broadband access depends on geography, place still plays an important role in access to higher education.”

Living in an education desert affects education levels, income, and overall quality of life. The median income for an individual who does not live in an education desert was $15,000 more than a person who does not have access to higher education ($56,500 compared to $41,000).

People who live in education deserts are also 6 percent less likely to graduate from high school and 18 percent less likely to graduate from college. Only 45 percent of people in complete education deserts are currently enrolled in college, compared to 61 percent of people who live in an area with broadband and have access to local universities.

To bridge this gap, researchers suggest the federal government help increase broadband access by funding broadband deployment projects in rural areas. Once communities have faster internet speeds, colleges could help students access higher education by continuing to provide aid for books, supplies and transportation. Community colleges could also partner with selective public and private institutions in the area to create programs that allow students to ease into a four-year program after starting at a two-year college or receiving an associate degree.

Black Women Will Be Most Affected by Janus

Janus v. AFSCME could profoundly affect the ability of public-sector workers to improve their wages and working conditions. The case threatens the right of the majority of workers to bargain with their public employer, through their democratically elected union.

While the outcome of Janus will affect about 17 million public-sector workers across the country, black women in particular could be hurt by Janus, as they are disproportionately represented in public-sector jobs. They make up 17.7 percent of public-sector workers, or about 1.5 million workers.

Black women have traditionally faced a double pay gap—a gender pay gap and a racial wage gap. EPI research has shown that black women are paid only 65 cents of the dollar that their white male counterparts are paid. However, unions help reduce these pay gaps. Working black women in unions are paid 94.9 percent of what their black male counterparts make, while nonunion black women are paid just 91 percent of their counterparts.

If the Supreme Court decides in favor of weakening unions, it will impact the future of democratic decision making in the workplace and the preservation of good, middle-class jobs in public employment that have traditionally benefited African American women who have chosen to serve the public for their careers.

 

Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Booed Over ‘Harvest Box’ Idea

The Trump administration’s controversial proposal to transform some Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) benefits into “America’s Harvest Box,” did not go over well at a national meeting of anti-hunger advocates.

“As with any innovative idea,” said Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Brandon Lipps, speaking at the Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington on Monday, “there are questions to be answered and details to be worked out. We want to hear from you on this.”

He did.

Lipps was met by a chorus of boos from conference attendees when he claimed the Harvest Box program would be more “efficient” (it likely wouldn’t be), and that recipients would maintain more than half of their benefits on their EBT cards so they could “supplement the staple foods in these boxes.” Some attendees even walked out of the room, and one question from the audience, about how the USDA reconciled taking away people’s foods with preserving their dignity, was drowned out by cheers and applause.

“[Agriculture] Secretary Perdue is genuinely concerned about the soon-to-be $21 trillion deficit that we have in this country,” Lipps said to more boos, and even some laughs. (According to the Congressional Budget Office, the GOP tax plan will increase the deficit by $1.4 trillion to deliver tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.)

The recently released 2018 president’s budget proposes cutting SNAP by $213.5 billion over the next decade. The idea of delivering boxes of government commodity food to SNAP recipients in the form of so-called Harvest Boxes was met with fierce criticism from anti-poverty advocates.

Conference attendee Denalerie Johnson-Faniel, director of the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank in Trenton, New Jersey, told the Prospect that the Harvest Box idea is “antiquated” and that the USDA “didn’t put enough time and energy” into actually coming up an innovative proposal. She points to the nutrition issue with the boxes, highlighting the sodium present in government foods and how the box doesn’t provide fresh produce.

“It takes away the voice of the American citizen,” Johnson-Faniel says. “People should have a decision in what they eat.”

The Overlooked Electoral Power of Voters with Disabilities

A new national poll of voters with disabilities released this week spotlights a dramatic shift in their political leanings toward Democrats. Numbering in the tens of millions, voters in the disability community boast a huge political and electoral power that could prove decisive in this year’s midterms. Yet for a group with such potentially significant electoral strength, remarkably little attention has been devoted toward learning more about their political behavior.

The poll, conducted by Greenberg Research for the nonprofit RespectAbility, reveals that more than half of registered voters identify as being a part of the disability community, whether they have a disability themselves, or they have family or close friends with disabilities. And signs point to this sizable population’s support shifting to the Democrats.

People with disabilities have on average a more negative opinion of President Donald Trump, and by a 16-point margin favor the Democratic candidate in a generic 2018 congressional ballot. “The biggest negative feelings toward the Republican Congress is among people with disabilities,” said pollster Stan Greenberg during a teleconference briefing on Tuesday. This hasn’t always been the case—in 2014, they broke for the Republicans by 11 points, and were split in 2016. “Something is happening that’s affecting the kind of even split, the swing-voter status of people with disabilities,” Greenberg added.

While their swing toward the Democrats reflects a similar nationwide anti-Trump shift, recent events—such as disability rights groups’ highly publicized protests in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office over threats to the Affordable Care Act last summer—could be pushing these voters to the left. And in the weeks since the poll was conducted in January, lawmakers have done even more to alienate disabled voters. On February 12, the White House released its 2019 budget, which cuts funding for federal disability programs. That same week, the House voted to pass the ADA Education and Reform Act, which would gut key protections in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The 16-point Democratic advantage is especially notable when considering that voters with disabilities are, according to the poll, heavily working class and five times as likely to be unemployed and looking for work—and more likely to be “extremely interested” in the 2018 midterm elections. “There’s all kinds of reasons why these views and needs should be important to all political leaders and opinion informers, but some of that is self-interest,” said Greenberg.

The poll also measured the views of voters with disabilities on the GOP tax cut (half strongly oppose) and the ACA (they view it more favorably than people outside the disability community). But because of sample-size limitations, the poll was not broken up by race or gender, nor were certain historical comparisons available (for instance, how those voters with disabilities felt about the ACA in 2014).

Lauren Appelbaum, the communications director at RespectAbility, which works to get disability included in major national polls the same way race and gender is, says that the stigmatization of disability is a major reason that community is largely ignored by policymakers and strategists. Considering the political opinions of people with disabilities “is definitely something that pollsters should be doing,” Appelbaum told the Prospect. “This poll really shows that people should be paying attention.”

Campaign to Impeach Trump to Hold Thousands of Parties Across the U.S.

Need to Impeach, a group committed to paving the way to impeach Donald Trump, founded by billionaire activist and ex-hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, has organized thousands of people to sign up to host impeachment-themed parties over President’s Day weekend. The parties, which are planned for Saturday, February 17, will take place in every state, according to Need to Impeach.

Since the organization launched last October, 4.7 million people have pledged their support to the cause, with more than 6,500 pledging to host impeachment parties. Some members of Congress plan to host parties, while other parties are taking place in citizens’ backyards and living rooms. But the message, raising awareness about the impeachable offenses the group believes Trump has committed while in office, remains the same.

Need to Impeach lists abusing pardon power; violating the emoluments clause; conspiring to commit crimes against the United States; undermining the freedom of the press; and obstruction of justice as reasons to impeach the president.

Steyer also recently hosted a panel of mental health experts in Washington who suggested that the 25th Amendment—which says the vice president will assume the presidency if the sitting president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”—is a possible avenue for removal from office, citing concerns over the president’s mental health impairing his judgment on nuclear weapons.

“Every day, there’s so much bad news, where the Constitution is being diminished, and certainly the White House is being diminished,” says Camron Assadi, who plans to host a party in Denver. “Face-to-face interaction can create a bond and create some solidarity. Congress as it is now obviously is not standing up to Trump or taking any action,” Assadi adds. “The White House and the executive [need to] be reined in.”

Public support for impeachment is growing. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from December, 41 percent of all Americans support impeachment hearings. Democrats are more enthusiastic about the measure, with 70 percent in favor.

“A big part of the campaign is about is educating our base, our digital army, and letting them know the information they need to contact their lawmakers and make sure [they] know what their constituents want,” says Erik Olvera, a Need to Impeach spokesperson.

But congressional leaders are unlikely to take action on the measure: The most recent House vote to impeach Trump garnered only 66 congressional Democrats. Other Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, argue that pushing an impeachment process now could have a negative impact on current investigations.

Need to Impeach organizers are also using this weekend’s parties as an opportunity to plan for the midterm elections. Democrats need to gain 24 seats to flip control of the House, and two to win a majority in the Senate.

The White House’s Internal Trade War Heats Up

There’s a trade war brewing in the White House—and President Trump will soon have to choose a side.

In January, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recommended protectionist tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, the specifics of which were released on Friday: Ross wants Trump to place steep tariffs and quotas on the world’s biggest dumpers of aluminum and steel—most notably, Brazil, China, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

Axios quotes one anonymous “trade expert” as saying, “This would be beyond a trade war. You’re talking about blowing up the WTO [World Trade Organization].”

Robert Scott, a trade economist at the Economic Policy Institute who supports stronger trade restrictions, says such a comment is laughable. “Total U.S. steel and aluminum imports in 2017… made up less than 2 percent of total U.S. goods imports,” Scott said in an email. “If other members of the WTO want to throw out the whole deal over what amounts to a tiny share of total U.S. and world trade, then that is their problem.”

He added that a more useful response than knee-jerk alarmism about trade wars “would be to encourage other fair trading countries to join the U.S. in eliminating exports from unfairly trading nations that are the targets of these (possible) trade restrictions.”

Ross’s proposal includes a 23.5 percent tariff on aluminum from China, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam (7.7 percent on other countries) and a minimum 53 percent tariff on steel from Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, India, Malaysia, Korea, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam (24 percent on other countries). There would also be quotas on aluminum and steel imports, limiting countries to 2017 export levels or lower, depending on the country.

The issue of trade protectionism is fueling an internal war among Trump’s top advisers. The so-called globalist wing, including Gary Cohn, Steven Mnuchin, Rex Tillerson, and James Mattis, are all vehemently opposed to imposing tariffs that they worry would spark a trade war that would upset global markets and aggravate diplomatic relations. The protectionist wing—including Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer—occupies a lonely island within the administration.

Under U.S. trade law, the president has 90 days after Ross’s January recommendations to take some type of action. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to crack down on Chinese trade manipulation—namely steel and aluminum dumping—and to restore U.S. industries, but as I reported in January, his administration has delayed and deferred action through his first year in office.

Trump, of course, notoriously flip-flops his positions based on the last person he spoke with, and it’s unclear which way he is leaning. He has already shown a willingness to implement tariffs on washing machines and solar panels. The question is whether he would defy his top military, diplomatic, and economic advisers on such a critical issue.

This was the populist fight that Steve Bannon hoped for when he was still in the White House. Trump has until April to make a final decision. Until then, the White House’s internal trade war is sure to intensify.

 

Teachers Struggle to Teach Students About Slavery

Educators struggle to teach their students about the nuances of slavery, its crucial role in shaping U.S. history, and its lasting impact on African Americans, according to a new study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The organization surveyed 1,000 high school seniors across the U.S. Only 8 percent of students could identify slavery as the root cause of the Civil War; 68 percent did not know that slavery ended after Congress passed and the states ratified the 13th Amendment.

Despite a willingness to bring these topics into their classrooms, 40 percent of teachers believe that they receive insufficient instructional support from their state education departments to teach students about slavery.

Virginia first mentions slavery in its state curriculum in second grade, when students learn Abraham Lincoln was the “president of the United States who helped to free American slaves.” That lesson comes two years after students learn about Martin Luther King Jr. According to the study, that oversight means that they have no way to understand the history behind the fight for civil rights.

In Alabama, slavery isn’t mentioned until third or fourth grade, when students learn that it was a cause of the Civil War. Presenting slavery as only one of many causes, the study said, is “a disingenuous representation that obscures slavery’s central role in causing the Civil War.”

Another 58 percent of teachers find their textbooks to be a problem when covering slavery. Textbooks used in Alabama say that a fight for “states’ rights” was the primary cause of the Civil War. When the textbook’s authors mention Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, they highlight his military exploits and ignore that he was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

But even when teachers recognize these issues, they struggle with the right approach to the topic. Teachers interviewed for the study mentioned that re-enactments of the Middle Passage and slave auctions are some of the ways to teach their students. Some teachers even report giving their students “slave names” and tying their hands behind their backs. “A discussion follows,” one teacher said, “between the two groups of students [slaves and slaveowners] as to how they felt and why things were done this way.”

Yet that kind of role-playing may not be the best method to use as a white teacher in the Bronx discovered earlier this month when she instructed students lie on the floor during a lesson on slavery. These lessons “cannot begin to convey the horror of slavery and risk trivializing the subject in the minds of students,” according to the study. Such activities can be especially traumatizing for black students.

Textbooks and lesson plans also fail to address white supremacy’s role in the institution of slavery, even though the study says “the American ideology of white supremacy … developed precisely to justify the perpetuation of slavery.” Because students aren’t taught about racism and its legacy, they fail to understand issues like police violence or mass incarceration today.

“Our interest in education about slavery isn’t just about good history education,” Kate Shuster, an independent education researcher who authored the report, said in the introduction to the study. “We are convinced that students cannot fully understand the current state of race relations in the United States if they do not understand the history and extent of American slavery.”

To combat the lack of resources and help teachers better incorporate the history of slavery into their curriculum, the SPLC and Teaching Tolerance created a guide that includes a framework for instruction and a library of primary sources. The study also recommends using historical documents in classroom instruction and strengthening state curriculum frameworks. The SPLC also suggested that to help students better understand the topic, textbooks need to convey more of the realities of slavery and present the lasting impact of African cultures and ideas.

Congress Looks to Weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act

No area is safe from plunder in the Trump era, even decades-old laws as seemingly untouchable as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Congress is expected to vote on the ADA Education and Reform Act this week (H.R. 620), which has already passed the House Judiciary Committee. Don’t be fooled by the “reform” in the bill’s title—H.R. 620 would gut key ADA protections for people with disabilities, all in the name of defending business.

For decades, businesses have used vague language in the ADA to seek favorable court rulings, claiming at various times that providing “reasonable accommodations” would constitute an “undue burden” on their finances—forcing people with disabilities to financially justify their rights in a way no other marginalized group has to.

But for Republican sponsors of H.R. 620, this doesn’t protect businesses enough. The bill requires complainants to notify a business of an accessibility violation in writing, then gives that company a full 60 days to respond, and another 120 days to make changes.

And instead of requiring actual compliance with ADA standards, H.R. 620 simply mandates that those changes show “substantial progress” in that direction. As Rebecca Cokley, the senior fellow for disability policy at the Center for American Progress, says, “Businesses could be claiming ‘substantial progress’ for decades.”

“Businesses have had 27 years to learn about and conform to the ADA’s requirements,” wrote Samuel Bagenstos last September after H.R. 620 passed through committee. “Rather than protecting legitimate business interests, the bill … would give a reprieve to enterprises that have had 27 years to comply with the law but have not yet done so.”

Supporters of H.R. 620 claim that the bill protects businesses from unprincipled lawyers and “drive-by lawsuits.” But Cokley points out that state courts and bar associations are equipped to deal with frivolous lawsuits. “H.R. 620,” she says, “is further evidence of the war on marginalized communities’ access to public accommodations. If this was any other community, we wouldn’t be talking about taking their rights back.”

Welcome to the One-Time Bonus Economy, Where Your Pay Doesn’t Go Up

The new trend of companies rewarding employees more often with one-time bonuses and less often with permanent pay increases has drawn greater attention in the aftermath of the Trump tax cuts, as corporations have made flashy announcements about how they are delivering one-off rewards to employees (though not all employees).

The New York Times had a front-page story on Sunday entitled “What Happened to Your Raise? It Could Have Become a Bonus.”

As economics reporter Patricia Cohen writes, “Ordinarily, the jobless rate and wage growth are like two ends of a seesaw: When one drops, the other is supposed to rise. But that link seems broken, and like film-noir detectives, analysts have scrutinized hard-edge statistics and fuzzier psychological indicators for clues about why.”

Part of the reason is that companies are opting to spend less of their profits on higher regular employee paychecks and more on one-time bonuses that, as we’ve seen recently, make for savvy public relations. According to a Times analysis of a survey by Aon Hewitt, a human resources consulting firm, spending on bonuses amounted to an average of 3.1 percent of total compensation budgets in 1991, but by 2017, that share rose to 12.7 percent. Meanwhile, the share dedicated to permanent raises fell from 5 percent to just 2.9 percent.

The average worker’s pay has remained stagnant for the past few decades. The shift to a bonus-based economy is part of a larger effort by business leaders to cut labor costs down to the bone. Bonuses, of course, are welcome news for many workers—but not if they’re coming at the expense of a sustained pay bump. 

Permanent salary increases mean higher fixed costs—and slimmer profit margins. One-time bonuses, with no guarantees, are cheaper. As is the outsourcing, union-busting, contracting, on-demanding, and part-timing of the American workforce. That is what is keeping wages low even in a very tight labor market.

The problem is not that corporations don’t have the money to invest in their workforce. It’s that they’re just choosing to plow it all back to the shareholders and CEOs. A recent analysis found that S&P 500 companies have promised $3.7 billion in one-time bonuses and announced more than $157 billion in stock buybacks.

The problem is that even with what many economists say is close to full employment, a tight labor market is apparently not a strong enough countervailing force for sustained pay increases over skimpy one-time bonuses. At one point, unions were that force.

 

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