NASI Ball Award, feat. Darrick Hamilton, Heidi Shierholz & Jess Bartholow
Rebecca is joined by Darrick Hamilton, Heidi Shierholz, and Jess Bartholow for a special episode of Off-Kilter on poverty and inequality in the age of coronavirus, as part of the National Academy of Social Insurance’s 2020 Robert Ball Award event. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.
This week, we’re coming to you from the National Academy of Social Insurance’s annual Robert Ball Award, which this year is honoring two distinguished leaders in the field of social insurance: Virginia Reno and Jacob Hacker. As part of this year’s virtual event, Off-Kilter was honored to host a special roundtable episode on “Poverty and Inequality in the Age of Coronavirus” with three of our favorite experts on poverty and inequality:
NASI Ball Award, feat. Darrick Hamilton, Heidi Shierholz & Jess Bartholow
Darrick Hamilton, Heidi Shierholz, and Jess Bartholow join a special episode of Off-Kilter on poverty and inequality in…
- Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics, sociology, and African-American studies at Ohio State University and executive director of the Kirwin Institute (@DarrickHamilton)
- Jessica Bartholow, a longtime antipoverty and antihunger policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty (@Jess_Bartholow)
- Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute (better known as EPI) and former chief economist at the Department of Labor (@HShierholz)
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Hello, and welcome to an extra special episode of Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality and everything they intersect with. I’m Rebecca Vallas.
This week we’re coming to you from the National Academy of Social Insurance’s annual Robert Ball Award, which this year is honoring two distinguished leaders in the field of social insurance: Virginia Reno and Jacob Hacker. Congratulations to both of them. As part of this year’s event, which is being hosted virtually for all the obvious reasons, Off-Kilter is honored to be hosting a special roundtable episode on poverty and inequality in the age of coronavirus.
And we’ve got three of our favorite experts on poverty and inequality joining us for it. We’ve got Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics, sociology, and African-American studies at the Ohio State University; executive director of the Kirwin Institute as well. Jessica Bartholow, a longtime anti-poverty and anti-hunger advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty; and Heidi Schierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, better known, of course, as EPI, and former chief economist at the Department of Labor. So, without further ado, I’m thrilled to bring in our fantastic panelists, Darrick, Jessica, and Heidi. Thanks so much for taking the time to join me and the Academy for this.
DARRICK HAMILTON: Thank you.
HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: Thanks.
JESS BARTHOLOW: Thanks for having us, Rebecca!
VALLAS: And it’s fun to see all of you, virtually, even if I’m not getting to do this with you in a studio. Darrick, I’d love to start with you. It feels impossible in a lot of ways not to start this conversation by grounding ourselves in the many inequities of who’s actually being impacted by the pandemic. Low-income folks, communities of color, particularly black people, and people with disabilities have all been some of the groups that are hardest hit in terms of both illness or death from COVID-19. A lot of those numbers are widely known. Many of these same groups are also bearing the brunt of the early economic consequences, of course, particularly through job losses, and are also expected to bear the brunt of the long-term economic consequences as well. And that’s particularly the case if Congress fails to authorize an adequate federal fiscal response, something that all eyes are certainly on, in the waits right now in Washington.
But to help frame up this conversation, I would love if you could help sort of start off with some of what we know. What do we know about how the pandemic is playing out and the inequities in its impacts. And in particular, given a lot of what you spent your time studying long before COVID-19, with the household names, the pre-existing structural inequities that are underlying a lot of those inequities. And Darrick, thanks so much for, that’s a lot, but sort of, I think, the place to start.
HAMILTON: Well, first, thank you. Gratitude. And happy to be on this stage with my friends and colleagues, Jessica and Heidi. And I guess to get right into the question: a pandemic, which is a seemingly random event, can have disparate effects based on one’s race, one’s gender, and one’s economic situation, I think, is indicative of a national failing. A national feeling of not having the protective mechanisms so as to shield us in a social way from something like a pandemic. And, you know, it is not something that we didn’t know about. There were definitely warnings and clear understandings that eventually, and even from fairly recent history, that a pandemic would hit us and affect us. So, how is it affecting us differently? Well, we know along race that the mortality rate from the pandemic is about three times as high for black people as it is white people. And a lot of credit goes to EPI for doing the analysis to present some of these disparate effects. And we know that the economic conditions are also different, that there are different exposures to who essential workers are, who’s actually putting their lives at risk on the front line. And we know that the employment ramifications with regards to displacement from your job is also not something that is equal across race.
So, I think one thing to keep in mind, I started my answer to your question with policy choices as being indicative of vulnerability. Likewise, it will be policy choices that can lead us out of this pandemic in a way that’s more just, in a way that, frankly, we could transform our economy. We can use this as a Overton moment to not only protect the American people in a more just way, but to make sure that the next pandemic, that the next climate catastrophe, that the next economic downturn we’re better prepared for. And there are specific policies that we can talk about. I’ll hold back a little bit just by introduction, because it’d be great to get my peers into this conversation as well.
VALLAS: Well, and it’s a great place, I think, to bring you in, Jessica. A big part of what the COVID pandemic has lain bare — and I feel like that’s the phrase everyone uses, right? What has COVID lain bare? — but a big part of what it’s exposed is how precarious our supposedly strong pre-pandemic economy was, right? Lots of touting of 4 percent unemployment and the stock market. But at the heart of this, in so many ways, and how we measure the quote-unquote “strength” of our economy, it comes down to how we define the economy. Is it the stock market? Is it GDP, gross domestic product? Or is it how average Americans and working-class Americans are doing? Can they afford a basic standard of living for themselves and for their kids? This is something that you have spent a long time working on over your career, really trying to educate the public, the media, and in particular, policymakers about who the quote “real faces of poverty” are so that we can move past the us and then narrative — a narrative, I should mention, that has historically been incredibly racialized — about who is poor in the U.S., what it means to be poor in the U.S., particularly today. So, I would love to hear you talk a little bit about what poverty and economic insecurity in the U.S. looked like heading into the COVID-19 pandemic and what’s playing out right now for low-income families who are trying to weather job loss and more on top of what they were thinking already before COVID-19 hit.
BARTHOLOW: That’s right. Thank you, Rebecca. And also, let me just say: honored to be here with my co-panelists as well and for the event and the honorees. Congratulations to you. Yeah, I think that the questions that people had about the economy before the pandemic, why are we bragging about an economy that’s the most successful it’s ever been when we also have stagnant hunger rates among children? And why, again, do we have hunger among children? We have increasing homelessness. The year before the pandemic hit, we had increases in homelessness that were the largest we had seen in our state and our country. We have an economy where people are frequently working multiple jobs. They’re working gig economy jobs that don’t have employment protections because they’ve been denied employment protections. And really kind of every step along the way, we have a social safety net, a federal social safety net, that is supposed to protect children from deep poverty, but in fact, serves less than 30 percent of those children who are eligible, and also only provides them enough benefit that keeps them in deep poverty.
We have staggering amounts of debt, not just college debt, which you hear a lot about, but also criminal justice debt. We have debt that people are paying the government in government-paid child support debt, and our child support system that actually never sends the money to children or custodial parents. We have consumer debt. A lot of times people will say, “Eh, consumer debt, that’s your fault.” But when you actually look at the details of the consumer debt, it’s not somebody running off and buying a TV or a car they can’t afford. The biggest load of debt remains healthcare debt. We’re talking about healthcare consumers where people are profiting off of denying people life-saving and pain prevention medication and services. And also, consumer debt includes buying groceries with your credit card, paying for utility bills, making sure you have the phone turned on.
And so, this economy that really isn’t working for people who are working so hard for it, right? The people making your coffee, the people, as my mom did, who are ironing your shirts, the people driving your taxicab or helping your kids get to and from school. The lunch professionals at the school who are our heroes through this pandemic are predominantly low-income women of color. How do we have an economy that we’re heralding to success on, and we’re saying, “Look how great we are,” when people can’t see that in their own real life? And so, that was what we had coming into the pandemic.
And certainly, as you heard Dr. Hamilton talk about the impact of COVID on Americans of color, specifically black Americans, the high death rates, you also see those same numbers permeate if you look at things based on income. It’s not as desperate, but pretty desperate. And that’s because people are surviving the economy that’s not working for them by doubling up in households, by working jobs that are, you know, some of them are jobs that are the essential worker jobs, and some of them are jobs that aren’t essential workers, but they’re essential to the household. And without them, they would go without their basic needs or become homeless for the first time. And you also see just a kind of general poor health. If you were healthy going into the pandemic, you’re more likely to succeed, you know, to not succumb to the disease. But we’ve neglected the health and healthcare of most Americans throughout their lifetimes. And so, many low-income Americans who don’t have the means or access to healthcare have been, you know, entered the pandemic in a world in which they have debt, they have incredible amount of stress, and they have poor health.
VALLAS: Now, in so many ways, to me, the statistic that sort of sums up so much of it, right, is the one that comes to us from the United Way through their their exercise on looking at cost of living, right? They call it ALICE, but it’s about being a low-income, income-constrained family. And they find that 43 percent of American households — and this was long before the pandemic — 43.5 percent of U.S. households were struggling to afford food and housing and healthcare and other kinds of basics. That’s the one that, to me, I kind of can’t get past in anything about this being a strong economy when it’s that kind of a swath of the population.
Heidi, I’d love to bring you in here. As a labor economist and as former chief economist at the Department of Labor, you have spent certainly more time than I think most of us studying jobs data and wage data and the low-wage labor market in particular, as well as our unemployment insurance system. And unemployment insurance, kind of in some ways, having its moment in the sun right now with jobless claims in the tens and tens and tens of millions and counting. What lessons should we take away from the COVID era, as we’re starting to call it, about the state of wages and worker protections, particularly for low-wage workers in the U.S.? And I’m curious as I ask that question as well, whether you have any takeaways from this moment about our unemployment insurance system. And kind of the big million dollar question to me, right, that jobless workers are encountering in this moment is, is it there for jobless workers when they need it? And I know you’re going to say no. So, I’m going to ask you to talk about why, since I know the answer to that question.
SCHIERHOLZ: All right. OK, wait. But I’ll sort of take those in turn so that the question about wages, I mean, you’re absolutely right. This coronavirus experience has laid bare so much about our labor market. One thing it has absolutely revealed is the lack of power that far too many U.S. workers experience. So, many workers have been required to work without protective equipment, with no effective right to refuse dangerous assignments. Most are not being granted premium pay despite having to work in dangerous conditions. And the administration has just completely failed to provide basic worker protections during this pandemic. So, one piece of information along those lines is OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, that’s at the Department of Labor has received thousands and thousands of COVID-related complaints. And this is at least as of a couple of weeks ago, they had issued two citations. They’re just like, it seems to be abdicating their responsibility to make sure that workers are safe at a time like this.
And then another thing is this just sheds light on just how low workers’ wages really are. And one thing we’re hearing a lot about is this $600 top-up per week in regular unemployment insurance benefits. So, right now, if you’re applying for unemployment insurance, you’d get your regular state benefits plus an additional $600 per week. It’s just gotten a kind of conversation around that. It’s been met with a ton of hand wringing where people being concerned that this is going to create this moral crisis among these recipients because they may not want to go back to work at their lower-paying jobs. And that’s a whole nother conversation, whether there really is this work disincentive effect, and if there is, what we should do about it. And I’m happy to talk about that. But the thing that sort of cuts through this is, what I always want to say is, the clearest thing all that says is that wages are just way too low for huge swaths of our workplace. There’s been this crisis has really been revealing a lot about our labor market.
And then your question about the unemployment insurance. I actually have this kind of love/hate relationship with the unemployment insurance system right now. I’ve been deeply frustrated with it, but also deeply grateful to the UI system. So, the frustration with the system has everything to do with the fact that we have massively underinvested in these programs for decades. We just have let them flounder. The biggest example is when the recession hit, all of these unemployment insurance agencies were putting out job openings for people who know how to program in COBOL, which is a language I learned in the ’80s. But these systems have been so neglected, they’re still programed in these ancient languages. They’re just not equipped at all to handle something as big as what we’re going through now. We set them up to fail. That’s the incredibly frustrating side. But the part of this that, the part of me that is so grateful for these systems is that they are providing an absolutely crucial lifeline to millions of people right now. The data are a little murky because of all the stuff I already said. The reporting on these things has been sort of tricky during this time. But it looks like more than 25 million people right now are on unemployment insurance benefits. It’s the thing that is maintaining our economy right now and keeping people afloat who otherwise would see their living standards plummet.
And then one of the things about that is a third of the people who are on unemployment insurance right now are on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. And that’s the new program that Congress stood up in response to this pandemic to get coverage, to get unemployment insurance benefits to people who fall through the gaping holes in our regular unemployment insurance system. The fact that a third of people who need unemployment insurance benefits right now are on this new thing for people who are ineligible for regular UI really underscores just how many people fall through the gaps in our regular UI system. But I’m deeply grateful for that Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. It’s providing benefits to millions. It’s leaving out still big groups that we should be getting aid to. For example, if you’re an undocumented immigrant, you’re not covered. You have absolutely no access to any of the benefits right now that are keeping people afloat in this. Which is terrible from a humanitarian perspective, but also terrible from an economics perspective. Because that means those workers will have to drastically cut back on their spending, and that will hurt us all and drag on the recovery. But so, yeah.
So, to quickly sum up: this has really, this crisis has really revealed how little power many workers really have in this country, how low their wages were, and then how important at a time like this that we really do have a well-functioning unemployment system to get people benefits when the economy is, when the labor market is sort of ripped out from under them.
VALLAS: Yeah, I feel like my function in life is always to hear someone say something and say, “Oh! That makes me think of the statistic!” So, I’ll do it again. But the stat that jumps out to me, Heidi, right, sums up those huge gaps that you’re talking about, and people might be thinking to themselves, oh, if I lose my job, I’ll get unemployment insurance. But the statistic heading into the pandemic, if I’m getting this right, was we were at historic lows in terms of who was actually covered and was able to get unemployment insurance if they lost a job through no fault of their own. It was as low as one in four workers who could access jobless benefits. That’s what you mean when you say, gap.
SCHIERHOLZ: Yep, yep. It’s huge. We have temporarily filled some of those gaps in. But this expansion of unemployment insurance benefits, that gets benefits to, say, independent contractors, gig workers, and others, that’s set to expire at the end of this year when millions of those workers will still desperately need it.
VALLAS: Right. So, Darrick, going back to you, I will confess — and this is probably obvious to anyone watching — we titled this panel back in May when the focus of most people’s attention was very much the coronavirus pandemic and little else. Obviously, the national conversation has changed immensely in the past few weeks. The uprisings against police brutality and the Movement for Black Lives are what feels in a lot of ways, to me personally, like a potential tipping point, I know to a lot of people as well when it comes to police brutality and possibly broader structural changes in law enforcement. And we’ll see how far this conversation is able to go. But meanwhile, generations-long histories of structural racism that also result in different forms of devaluation of black lives are hardly restricted to law enforcement in the U.S. The racialization of the debate around public assistance — and that’s a big part of what I’m thinking about here and kind of taking this next question to you — it has long imbued systemic racism throughout means tested programs and their structures, as well as the broader societal culture and stigma attached to receiving public assistance. Would love to hear you talk a little bit about, since I know how you think a lot about this, how structural racism has infused the economic policy, the tax policy, the anti-poverty policy landscapes, as well as the systems and institutions that are attached to them in ways that amount to policy violence, a phrase that I’ve heard Rashad Robinson of Color of Change use many times, and which I think powerfully describes what we’re talking about here. And in ways that are really parallel to the brutality that plays out much more visibly in the streets. So, talk a little bit about the structural racism in our other policy spaces that you’ve spent a lot of time studying.
HAMILTON: Great. Thank you for that question. It’s obviously a deep question. And before, I want to go back really quick and just say a couple of responses and additions or elevations from Heidi’s comments. I love the, heard use of the word “power” and “worker power.” And I think about this event tonight and Jacob Hacker and his book The Great Risk Shift, which is about power. It’s about the ways in which we shifted risk and power from a public responsibility or corporate responsibility onto people and individuals, and along with that risk, onto individuals to absorb a lot of the vulnerabilities that happen in our society, like exposure to a COVID-19 pandemic, for example. So, the notion of a temporary extension of UI, that’s immoral! It should be a permanent extension. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t offer a public social safety net to all workers. And gig workers, that distinction from non-gig workers is a neoliberal — and I’m going to use the word “trick” — because those are certainly employees of firms and don’t have all the agency that might go along with what we traditionally think of as self-employment.
So, that said, we could also come up with policies like a federal job guarantee. Because unemployment insurance, in my mind, is important and useful, but to reemploy the in excess of 20 million unemployed workers back into the workforce, we’re going to need more then reopening the economy and more than just providing relief for them while they’re unemployed. I think we need large investments from the public sector, not only for the purposes of re-employing workers, but to make our infrastructure, both physical in the way we traditionally think of infrastructure, as well as human infrastructure. And Jessica talks a lot about care work. To frankly bring our public power into those domains, to make sure that those vulnerabilities that exist in our society, vulnerability to physical fluctuations, physical vulnerability, as well as care vulnerability, to make sure that we’re investing in those sectors and employing people so that they don’t have the threat of unemployment even when they are working. A federal job guarantee provides that type of power to workers, whether you’re employed or not.
So, to answer your question, which is obviously critical and important because it adds a racial dimension. And, you know, if I were to offer any type of extension to the work, the great work that Jacob Hacker has done is the particular racial lens by which we were able to accomplish that risk shift from the public and corporate sector onto individuals. It was highly racialized. It was imagery of deadbeat dads. It was imagery of welfare queens. Super predators. These undeserving people by which the government was propping up in an unjust and even counterproductive way, creating perverse incentives, it was that narrative that led us to the structure that we’re in now. And it was highly racialized. And it completely relates to the fact that a police officer in broad daylight with cameras running can literally — and this is hard to say — but literally put his knee in a neck and kill another human being. That’s indicative of a devaluation of life that’s highly racialized. And it’s beyond that particular incident. It’s about the restriction of black people in terms of free mobility throughout society, whether they’re actually experiencing violence or not. It’s that threat of violence. And it would be naive of us did not link that to a larger political economy that relates to everyday transactions that we have either with corporations, governments, or individuals where black people are at a disadvantage in that transaction regardless of their characteristics because we, as a society, have devalued them.
VALLAS: And Jess, I really want to bring you in here as well, because a lot of what you have actually spent decades fighting is really a lot of what Darrick is describing, and which I think one could probably fairly describe as sort of the long history of cash assistance programs in particular as tools of civil control and even outright oppression of low-income people and particularly black people and as drivers of the criminalization of poverty. And I have to say, talking about this and actually prepping for this conversation with you guys, I was reminded and really kind of flashed back to the first ever client that I represented when I was a law student in a public benefits clinic. And my client had been accused of committing a so-called intentional program violation, an IPV, for any benefits lawyers on the left, of the SNAP program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. And the reason she was being accused of this so-called IPV and being taken to a hearing before a scary administrative law judge and being threatened with losing her benefits, it was because the welfare office had found out that she had been selling her blood plasma so that she had enough money to afford her daughter’s medications. Her daughter had a serious disability and chronic illness. And had we not won at the hearing, I had been advised by my professor who was supervising me in this case, felony criminal charges would have followed. Because she had sold her blood so she could have enough money to afford the medications for her daughter that she wasn’t able to get through wages, working at a low-wage job and trying to cobble together the various programs like SNAP to make the rest of it work. Talk a little bit about how these programs became these tools of oppression and what that kind of looks like today.
BARTHOLOW: Yeah. Well, let me pull along this thread that came along from Heidi up to Darrick. I want to bring it around as well and this thread of power, that we have used these systems and offered them as kind of a way to show that our economy serves everyone, that they have been tools of power and tools that take away power from workers as well and people. I really love that you built on that too, Darrick, because when we look at what’s happening right now, the incredible movement and people — And people who don’t know, Black Lives Matter has been a movement for some time. You might have just been introduced to them. Welcome and congratulations. But they’ve been around. They’ve been trying to make sure that people hear their message that black lives do matter and that we live in an economy and a political culture that has devalued black lives. And we need to do some truth telling around that. And that’s the heart of Black Lives Matter Movement. And I do think that what we’re seeing now, which is this kind of, hopefully, opening of minds to the chaos that I hope will lead to really amazing things. I’m with Dr. Hamilton. I feel like this could be our moment where we see things differently, and that means we do things differently.
I think that the reason we’re here right now on the streets with police brutality is because of the weeks leading up, because of COVID. As you say, it did lay bare. It laid bare not just that people were more vulnerable. And I don’t like that term because I never see somebody who’s surviving poverty as being vulnerable. These people are amazing! You know, my family, your family, people’s families who’ve gotten through poverty, you can’t get through poverty and be vulnerable. You’re tough. And so, these families that are out there, these communities of people harmed by COVID disproportionately, it is a trick. It’s a trick. It’s what Heidi said. It’s a trick! This is not, the power that is disproportionate here has been, you know, the curtain has been drawn from the wizard. And I think that people saw it all. And they saw it, and then once again — not the first time — and unfortunately, we know not the last time somebody’s life was taken so cavalierly, as Darrick says, with the videos rolling, because it doesn’t matter. The consequences haven’t been there. The promises for [unclear] were just that and only that.
So, I think that we are in the moment that we’re in because of the weeks leading up to it and people really feeling like things were so off-kilter with regards to power, and the criminal justice system and police brutality being part of it. So, I’m hoping that we can envelop this, right? Because especially for poverty, poverty, you know, it has been criminalized and continues to increase in criminalization of poverty. If you are camping because you don’t have a home, you’re a criminal. If you live in your car, and you didn’t pay the ticket, they’ll tow the car. And that car will be taken away from you. Now you’re living on the street, and you’re again, you’re ticketed for being a criminal, for living there. We’ve had, as your client, found to be a criminal for doing what any parent would and should. So, I just wanted to pull on that for a second.
I was when I left poverty — And we grew up poor. Off and on, my parents worked. My dad was in construction off and on, and my mom did various different jobs throughout her lifetime. But when I left poverty, I didn’t want anything but to leave there. Just wanted to leave. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I would’ve never imagined myself on a show talking about poverty. Because I didn’t want people to know I was poor, and I didn’t want to have anything more to do with it, maybe even not know anybody who is impoverished anymore. But that wasn’t what happened. And I’m really glad I’m here.
The fascinating thing for me about all of this is how few people who are poor and are in this circumstance actually know somebody who’s not poor. How few people who aren’t poor actually know somebody who is poor or has been poor. And the voices of people who are poor and have been poor have been completely removed from that process. The reason that I came into the work of poverty was because of welfare reform. And I was, you know, in college, just finished college. Pete Wilson was leading the way in 1994 welfare reform. He began that kind of racialization. He was in the early crowd of racializing our public programs, our public safety net. And I worked for him as a Fellow. And I’ll never forget what he said. And it was in the paper, and he said, “Well, we can cut these benefits to the children who are born into poverty because their parents are just going to spend the extra money on a six pack of beer.” I was so mad. I was so angry. It was a lie. And I knew that they were all lying, that people promoting welfare reform and saying, “You know what? It’s just people being lazy. They’re just going to misuse your money.” The racial tropes that they would pull out in the welfare queen mess. All of that was a lie. And it was so obviously a trick to me that it was just unbearably unfair. And it’s when I left academia, where I thought I was going to be for my life, and began to be an organizer, a welfare organizer.
As you heard Dr. Hamilton say, we have whole systems built on these racialized stereotypes of who people are and what motivates them! Heidi said, you know, we have this kind of idea that people will be disincentivized for work if they get a little help during a global pandemic. What does that mean, be disincentivized for work? You know what? I never met anybody disincentivized for work, for getting a little help. People are disincentiveized for work by low wages, by being mistreated at their workplace, by not being offered workplace safety, often injured at work because they weren’t protected or become ill at work. Those are disincentives. Those are disincentivizing work. So, I do have this great hope that this movement we’re seeing, which rightfully has a focus on black lives and black lives vis a vis the power of the police and the racialized police system. But I think it also has its seeds in this broader understanding of all the many ways that we have brought this kind of this anger and hate towards black bodies and black people to every area of our policy-making. And I’m hopeful that we will start thinking about how to make changes across the board.
VALLAS: And you’re talking about the 1996 welfare law, of course, that was the law that famously quote “ended welfare as we know it.”
VALLAS: It converted Aid to Families with Dependent Children, AFDC, into a flat-funded block grant called TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a program people may be better familiar with today. And even though what you’re describing, which got you into this work — and I’m so glad it did because we need you — even though what you’re describing is stuff that happened decades ago, it feels very much like it’s with us today. Because, I mean, I guess the way I often think of it is it’s almost like we’re listening to the same song in a different key as we watch all of the different proposals around actually weakening programs that are already not quite what we might want them to be, whether that’s SNAP or whether that’s Medicaid. And the way that I’ve been thinking a lot about this — I know I’m certainly not alone — is that a critical lesson from this era really should be — and another one of the takeaways, as we list all of our takeaways — really should be the immense cruelty of tying something as essential as health insurance or food assistance or housing or other things to employment in the first place, right? I mean, how could that not be a takeaway for anyone who’s even a casual observer of the pandemic and how things played out? Yet, work reporting requirements has emerged as perhaps the preeminent feature of key social insurance programs, public assistance programs, over the years that end up tying eligibility for Medicaid or for food assistance to some minimum number of work hours that people are able to report. And in many ways, all of this is a direct outgrowth of that history that you and Darrick were sharing. And a lot of that is very much with us in this moment as we think about policy changes that we might be able to make moving forward.
I, personally, and I’m curious if you feel the same way, I’m curious about the entire panel’s thoughts on this: is COVID offering a moment where we might actually start to see policy like work reporting requirements broadly reconsidered in programs like Medicaid and like SNAP? This is an area that’s been incredibly rich with litigation, with advocacy over the past several years. Jess, your shop, the Western Center, has actually been at the forefront of a lot of it. But I would really love the entire panel’s takeaway on whether that’s a lesson we might be able to actually leave this moment with in a way that actually does start to force some sensible policy change. Who wants to take that one first?
HAMILTON: I’ll go.
SCHIERHOLZ: Go ahead, Darrick!
BARTHOLOW: Yeah, go!
HAMILTON: Movements move in dynamic and interesting ways. And I think COVID-19, the unrest right now that’s global now, along with — and I get all my data from EPI, so I should be writing them — that report by EPI that demonstrates that virtually all our productivity gains are going to the elite while real worker wages have remained flat. This system that is primed for some type of dynamic overture, of moving in a different direction. And I don’t know what’s going to be the match to spark it, but things are changing, and rightfully so.
And I just want to get a couple of other points in really quick. And that is the flip side of devaluation — and I’m going to try to be clever and say I’m going to go off-kilter and point out that — [chuckles] And I get that from Jessica. She went off-kilter. She used that word. Also —
VALLAS: Heidi, you’re next.
HAMILTON: [chuckles] Looking at the Netflix videos and Hulu video of Jeffrey Epstein, a flip side of devaluation is privilege, extorting extra value. And this is beyond white privilege, what Jeffrey Epstein has. Jeffrey Epstein has captured a political elite, an economic elite. When you look at that video and how he was able to get away with exploitation, extraction, and the various complicit agents and institutions that came together, this is ultimately what I think we’re fighting against: this image of such concentration of power at the top. That this is really dysfunctional, anti-democratic, and just morally wrong, and Jeffrey Epstein is just an example. But it goes back to, I think, also thinking about the white working class, if we’re talking about broad coalition of a movement to fight against this power. And this question you raised is about movement. And I think what we’re starting to see, you know, what is it? Is the white working class benefiting or not benefiting from this system? It would be nice for us to say they’re not benefiting. But I think if we’re realistic, there are some benefits. And those benefits are white privilege. What it means to not have a knee in your neck when a police is coming at you, not being the first fired and the last hired in an economic downturn.
Now, of course, the flip side is, can there be a collective labor movement to get an overall bigger pie for everyone? But it would be naive for us to not recognize that there are material and psychological benefits associated with being white. Now, here’s the problem. Those benefits are immoral. Those are a moral benefit if you are able to reap them at the expense of other human beings. And where I see optimism is I see the movement moving in a direction where MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the movements against fossil fuels are seeing common ground and are redefining economic value in terms of common humanity and in terms of morality and sustainability. Those are human values. And that, to me, is the game changer and where we really have a better society.
SCHIERHOLZ: I can add a couple of things. I just want to associate myself with all of those comments. I absolutely agree with all of them. I do think that what we’re seeing here is just, I mean, I’ve had conversations with people who are doing more actual thinking, real thinking right now that I have not seen in a very long time. And it just seems like there is this space. There’s a moment. But the other thing that I want to say is I’m also very, even though this space has been opened up, it’s not actually going to change unless we really work hard. There just has to be so much organizing to make it happen. Everyone on this panel and on this call knows that that’s true, but it’s just not going to happen on its own. I see with the unemployment insurance, Congress, because we had a global pandemic where they could wrap their brains around this idea that maybe that isn’t because people are lazy right now. Maybe this is, like it was such an obvious example of this is not their fault that they’re out of work, that they were willing to expand unemployment insurance eligibility and expand the benefits. But you’re already seeing that get crunched back down. Like, “Oh, no. Now, these benefits are keeping people from re-entering the labor force.” So, there was this expansion, and people are starting to think about it. But I’m worried that unless there’s a lot of organizing to build on that, it will quickly get snuffed out.
VALLAS: Yeah, Heidi —
BARTHOLOW: I have to say about what you mentioned too, this idea, like just to point out the workers who aren’t eligible for unemployment because they’re not eligible workers. I do think there’s a role for labor movement and allies and governments to say, hey, wait a second. This is misclassification of employees. And here in California, we are doing that greatly in our state on this issue. Lorena Gonzalez has led. It is a difficult fight, but we have seen the expanded group of workers and some court cases. And so, I just want to point that out, that there are in fact, it’s not — again, going back to the categorization of some of this stuff as a trick — it’s not that people were ineligible workers. It’s just that we were defining them because their employers said they weren’t employees?! That makes them not employees? And they don’t have rights as employees? And the state was being complicit in allowing the employer’s definition of their employees to be misclassified. So, I think also just calling out the untruths of our current situation is one of the most important things of this moment.
And also, the other thing I would say about all of the stuff that is happening, you know, the support from the federal government, very good. The states, too. There’s a lot coming. We’d like a lot more. But some of these things are things we’ve been asking for, for a long time. And they said, “Oh, no. So hard to do. So hard to do. No, they couldn’t be coded. Oh, online food stamp purchases? Oh, that couldn’t be done. That’s going to take a long time.” And I have to say, it took me back. I couldn’t breathe when some of these things happened, and the press was calling and saying, “Aren’t you happy!?” And I said, “No! [laughs] I’m upset.” I’m overwhelmed that the things I was told, that my community was told that they had to suffer and continue suffering for many years because it costs a lot of money and too much time to do things that you’re doing in a couple of weeks? It was a lie, it was a trick, and people need to be called out for that.
So, I do think that this kind of unveiling of the truth in all the different ways is the moment that we need right now. And I think if we rush too fast to building the system that we need now, the new government relationships, the new bond between our economy and our government and the democracy, I think if we rush too fast, we won’t have gotten a chance to really tell the narrative of all the ways in which we as citizens in our democracy, as people who participate in the economy, and as neighbors have been lied to and tricked into believing that this is the way it has to be. And that the corporate America and the stock market are the things that matter the most. So, I just wanted to point that out. It’s been, it was hard to catch my breath and move on from those moments during these last couple of months.
VALLAS: Amen. It relates, also, directly to, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about eligibility for programs, but so much of what you’re getting into and so much of what really is at issue here is also about how systems are set up and whether they’re actually systems and programs that the people who put them in place ever meant for you to be able to access. Or whether they’re ones that they meant for you to really have a hard time accessing, right? I’m thinking in particular about the kerfuffle in Florida that happened early on in the pandemic when it came out that it was by design that Floridians we’re just basically not able to apply for unemployment insurance because the system had been designed not to work, to keep the unemployment numbers low for political reasons, right? So, maybe the logical conclusion of a trend that we’re talking about more thoroughly. I’m not saying everyone out there is intentionally building systems that do not work and that crash. But, you know, when you start to think about things like bureaucratic disentitlement and setting up, say, a system to enroll in Medicaid in Arkansas that is only open online for business hours, because have you ever heard of a website shutting down not during business hours? No! There’s no other way to possibly explain those kinds of decisions, right, than it’s a feature, not a bug, to have lots and lots of people who are eligible turned away and unable to access the benefits. And that’s a lot of, Jess, what you’re really talking about here.
I think to me, that’s part of what I wonder about this moment is, Darrick, you were talking about common humanity, this being a moment where we’re starting to think about do we completely disrupt entire power systems, right, not just about individual programs or individual policies. It’s a lot bigger than that. We’ve jumped up a few levels in this conversation nationally. But as you think about these kinds of very granular decisions, which a lot of the people, I think, listening right now, watching, a lot of the folks who are involved with the academy, they’re the ones thinking about, OK, on the other side of this, what is the policy agenda that we might actually be paving a path towards, that the movement might be creating space and shifting that Overton Window to create space for?
And so, would love to spend kind of the remaining time that we have, which I wish were a lot longer than it is, talking about those policies. You’ve mentioned several of them, each of you, in varying ways. But as we start to think about what this agenda looks like and where social insurance that is informed by a paradigm of common humanity and is built for us, rather than some mythical them, what could that look like? How does that fit in? That’s what I would love to hear all of you comment on in the time that we have left. And as I ask that question, I will also channel my inner Bill Arnone and make sure that I ask each of you to also reflect on whether you think part of that should be some kind of assured income, like a universal basic income. And Darrick, I’m happy to start with you first. You look like you are ready to go there. You usually are.
HAMILTON: [laughs] You know, a lot has been said. Well, one, I hope the next time we have a podcast webinar that Jessica calls me Darrick, rather than Dr! And then, but Jessica also made the point about value in society and do we value — I’m struggling now, but — the things we value, growth, whatever we define, the stock market is what she referenced, sorry, in corporate America. I think we got to begin with, rights. I think the rights frame should be, we use jargon like socialist, capitalist, Republicans, Democrats. To hell at all that. I think we need to begin with rights. What are the rights that your human, just being a human should entitle you to? And we talk a lot about political rights, civil rights. The evolution of an enlightened society would be economic rights. That civil rights and political rights, if you are hungry, if you are homeless, those are somewhat not attainable in its authenticity. You really don’t get the right to choose if you’re hungry. So, what I think we need to evolve to is to identify an anti-racist economic bill of rights. What are the entities that allow you human capabilities? And that’s where we need to focus: on America’s most treasured resource, which is its people. That’s how we should determine economic well-being: how well our people are doing.
And in that Amartya Sen human capabilities frame and my notion of it, what are the essential goods and services where you can truly have dignity and choice and authenticity in your life? And they should not be, they’re quantity, quality, and access to them should not be rationed by a for-profit motive of profit maximization solely. There is a role for public power to ensure that everybody has adequate quantity, quality, and access to these goods. They are a right to good health, a right to a basic income like you described. Look, I’m not for UBI for the ways in which it could be implemented. If you give everybody the same amount across the economy in perpetuity, to me, that’s almost the classic definition of inflation. It’s inequality enhancing. Those at the bottom will consume, by definition. And you’re subsidizing the investment of those at the top. But I’m all for basic income. And I would be happy if the tax code incorporated that. In a way, we’ve set a precedent with COVID-19, where we sent out direct checks to Americans. We can do it. We can do it with our tax code, to periodically send basic income to literally eliminate poverty and lift up people all the way to middle class. And the EITC could be a structure by which we do it. If we extended the EITC to include those non-workers, we could literally eliminate poverty.
And income alone is not enough. I’ve referenced federal job guarantee, and Jessica referenced this as well. Part of what we are is human involves going to work and engaging in productive activities that’s not repressive. That offers us dignity in our jobs, in our activity. We’re social beings, and we’re seeing some of the stress from COVID-19, as we have to social distance, that that’s a problem. And I’m going to be — I know we have limited time — but I can go on. But that’s the frame. The frame is, you know, I’m for Medicare for All. And I can name some others. And again, the point, to me, is let’s get beyond socialism, capitalism, and those jargons, and let’s make sure whatever type of economy you want, let’s assure at a base level that human beings have the necessary ingredients they need to thrive.
VALLAS: Jess, I’d love to go to you next with this, because something we really haven’t talked nearly enough about, but which could not be, I think, even, there’s nothing more basic than this in terms of basic things that should be rights, and that’s food. That’s hunger. A huge part of your work over the years has actually had to do with fighting to protect and to expand the food stamp program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But I’m asking, you know, you’re participating in this panel, and I’m asking you this question at a moment where if anyone watching and listening is not aware of this, we are now quite literally at third-world levels of hunger in the U.S., make no mistake, given that one in three families are now reporting to the Federal Reserve, families with kids that is, that they can’t afford adequate food anymore at this point in the pandemic. And this was a survey from a few weeks ago, so I suspect those numbers are actually worse at this point. Where is the federal food assistance response in this? And do you think we’re heading towards a place where we — I know I’m certainly talking in this language. You’re talking in this language — but are we, the broader we, the very serious people ready to have the conversation that we should be having about a right to food in this country?
BARTHOLOW: Yeah, I mean, I work on food because I’ve been hungry, and I know what that looks like. I’ve also been without healthcare, and my family went without healthcare. I love the framework that Darrick has provided for all of us, right? To think about rights and that people should have those rights, not because they’re working, not because they have wealth. But they should have those rights because they are human. You should have the right not just to healthcare. I think people think about healthcare, but also to not have pain, to not have suffering. And we should break down what went right to healthcare means. It means you don’t have to go with a broken bone that’s uncared for. With food, I do believe that if this is a human right, it’s not like if you say I didn’t work the 20 hours this week, and you don’t give me food, it’s not like I don’t need food that week. I might need less food. If I’m a laborer and I’m using less energy, then I don’t need the food. But right now, we have a natural experiment with all the people staying home in their homes, doing their work. Did you stop eating because you stopped laboring your body or moving to and from? People need food to eat and to survive. This is a human right that we should acknowledge and abide by, as well as housing and the right to choice. I love that you lifted that up. A lot of times we think about the ways in which we have denied people choice. And lack of choice, lack of autonomy of who you are and how you meet your basic needs, how you decide to parent, these lack of choices that people have is, it really undermines their health, their well-being, their ability to contribute and participate.
I also don’t agree with the premise of a universal basic income. Kind of more agree with a guaranteed income or might fit that definition of a basic income. I like the term “guaranteed income.” And that I think we should start by saying no child should live, nobody should live in deep poverty. To be like our first investment is ending poverty immediately, and then end poverty altogether. Because remember that the definition of poverty is you can’t meet your basic needs. Why would we want anybody in our democracy to be in that circumstance, be unable to meet their basic needs? They don’t have diapers for their babies. They don’t have food to get through the day. They don’t have their basic needs or housing needs, water. There’s people without water still. And we should do better than that. So, we should definitely invest in those ways.
As for the food, you know, the kind of broader food system conversation, right? I told you I began organizing with welfare reform. Food was a big piece of that. It removed food assistance to immigrants. And I think that those benefits should be restored. We shouldn’t deny somebody food because of their immigration status. Again, they are human, and they have food needs. We also deny people assistance under certain circumstances. If they weren’t working 20 hours a week, and that was called the, it’s called the time limit, the three-months time limit. And that, we have a federal rule pending and an illegal federal funding from the Trump administration. We have litigation on the case that it’s called D.C. versus USDA. And then we have Congress and the Senate that passed legislation that paused that rule. There’s legislation in the Congress right now introduced by Congresswoman Barbara Lee out of Oakland that would actually remove the rule altogether. Why is that not the proposal? Why can’t, at this moment, we recognize that actually, the right to food has nothing to do with whether or not you can find a job.
And the same for TANF. You know, as we sit here, there are people across the state who are being told if they don’t work, they’re not going to get Temporary Aid to Needy Family in the amount of 20 to 30 percent of the federal poverty line, money they really just need to feed their, you know, to make sure that their family has their basic needs met and maybe pay rent or a portion of a rent. So, I wish I could say that we are getting closer to identifying this kind of understanding of a right to food and that when we prevent hunger, we also help our food economy. People see now that our grocery workers are heroes. We’re all very concerned about restaurants and them going out of business and the restaurant workers not having jobs. And at the meantime, we have over 20 percent hunger rates in our country. But we still don’t have what I would say, a call to action, a commitment from our leaders and our country to say this doesn’t make sense. Why are we letting our food system workers lose their jobs and their economy and letting are people go hungry? I would like to see us move into that space more. We’re not there yet. It is our job. Lots of work to do. But I do hope that humanity is the center of our work and our decision making moving forward. And I think that that’s a resounding call to action for all of us.
VALLAS: And Heidi, you get the last word in the last minute that we have. So, it’s all yours. Do what you will with it.
SCHIERHOLZ: I don’t want it! So, I just I associate myself with all the comments about rights. I love the frame about human rights. I do want to talk a second about worker rights, because so many poor people actually get a huge share of their money from working. Middle-income people get essentially all of their income from working. And I think one thing that we do know is that over the last 40 years, we’ve seen this big disconnect in the economy with rising inequality and wage stagnation for most workers, with most of the growth in the economy being captured by this thin slice of people at the top. And one of the biggest contributors to that has been, that dynamic has been the decline in unionization. And so, one key part of a fair economy, of what we need to do to set up a fairer economy, is to make it so workers have the ability to join together with their colleagues to demand better wages and working conditions that will reduce racial wage gaps, it will reduce gender wage gaps, and it will reduce inequality on the basis of income. So, I think that’s a sort of key priority for where we want to go next.
VALLAS: And all of it fits together. And I want to close by thanking my amazing panel here, and I’ll do that in a moment. But lest I have sounded like an outlandish optimist for putting to you guys the question I did, particularly given much of our current federal leadership and where we are in our current politics, I will say — and this is what I’m going to keep hanging my hat on. So, these are the words I’m going to close with — don’t take it from us, right, about these radical reforms that we need. I’m going to quote here from the Financial Times editorial board. Even the Financial Times editorial board is now among the voices calling to, and I’m quoting, “view public services and public programs as investments rather than liabilities.” And I should note that this was in an editorial that warned brazenly, “that radical reforms are needed,” and that the, “virus had laid bare the frailty of the social contract.” So, if you don’t want to listen to us, take it from the Financial Times. But that’s part of what’s giving me hope in this moment, that it’s not just the usual folks calling for these types of policy paradigm shifts. It is maybe broader, given the macro-economic implications.
And I would love to have you guys back at some point in a few months so we can sort of take stock of where we are. But in the meantime, I just am so appreciative of this rights framework being the place that this conversation went, given that it’s very much where my heart is and very much where I hope that this national conversation does head when it comes to the economic policy and social insurance side of this larger and emerging and developing set of uprisings. I am so, so thrilled to have spent so much of this afternoon with you guys. And I’m just really grateful for the time. Darrick Hamilton is a professor of policy, economics, sociology, and African-American studies and many other things, too, at the Ohio State University. He’s also the executive director of the Kirwan Institute. Jessica Bartholow is a policy advocate and a total powerhouse, as you’ve now heard, at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. And Heidi Schierholz is the policy director at the Economic Policy Institute, also former chief economist at the Department of Labor. And this is Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, but this week brought to you by the National Academy of Social Insurance. With that, we turn you back over to the Academy and hope you’re enjoying this fantastic virtual Ball Award. And thanks again to my wonderful panel. Appreciate all of you.
And that does it for this episode of Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced by Will Urquhart. Transcripts are courtesy of Cheryl Green. Find us on the airwaves on the We Act Radio Network and the Progressive Voices Network, and say hi and send us your show pitches on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And of course, find us anytime on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next time.