The Costs of Being Poor

Two new books explore how difficult the housing market and criminal justice system make it to climb out of poverty.

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Looking for the Next Generation

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1964, students from around the country traveled to Mississippi to participate in Mississippi Freedom Summer. Working hand-in-hand with civil rights organizations and African American residents of Mississippi, these students helped to shine a spotlight on the deep injustices of Jim Crow. At the same time, these students came to see the world with “Mississippi eyes,” deepening their own commitment to racial and economic justice in ways that would last a lifetime.

To mark the anniversary of Freedom Summer, I’ve been working with OUR Walmart and Columbia University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE) on a program to document and address the economic disenfranchisement that contourwalmartinues to afflict our country.  Students from around the country, hand-in-hand with Walmart worker-leaders, will participate in an intensive summer of organizing and oral history documentation.

The project will last from May 26th to August 3. We will begin with an intensive four-day training in organizing, oral history, and video co-facilitated by OUR Walmart and INCITE, to take place between May 26th and May 29th at Columbia University. Students will then travel in teams to one of four regions across the country, where they will embed themselves with existing workers’ organizations. For the next nine weeks, students will be a part of ongoing organizing campaigns, with a particular focus on conducting oral history interviews with workers, customers, and community members. The group with then regroup in New York City at the beginning of August (August 1-3) for a debrief and celebration, where we will plan next steps for the campaign.

We’re looking for a few good students to make this program work.  Do you know one of them?  If so, please let me know or send them my way!

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Will You Help My Parents Get Divorced on Google?

Almost eight years ago, my parents–Robert Reich and Clare Dalton–separated.  Six years later, in January of 2012, they got divorced.  I was twenty five at the separation, thirty one at the divorce.  As any adult child of divorce can tell you, it was still hard when it happened.  But it all happened a long time ago, and both of my parents have found wonderful new partners who make them very happy.  The wounds have mostly healed.

googleBut for all its searching, aggregating, synthesizing, and disseminating, Google has not been keeping close enough tabs on the personal lives of my family of origin.  Google “Robert Reich” on your iPhone, and the second fact that appears–after the specific dimensions of my father’s very short stature (4′ 10″)–is that his spouse is Clare Dalton.

What’s more, my parents seem helpless to change it.  Both of them have sent personal emails to higher-ups at the company.  No dice.  What they have been told is that the easiest way to correct the page is to publish new material setting the record straight.  If my dad writes an Op-Ed about his new wife, or dedicates one of his regular radio commentaries to the end of his marriage to my mom, then maybe it will become true on Google.

For me, the error isn’t so meaningful.  Honestly, it’s kind of a relief.  I mean, I figured privacy had ended, that Google, the NSA, the FBI, Facebook, and Twitter had all been listening in as my brother and I processed the drama back in 2006.  But I guess they all missed that conversation, and the ones that followed, and all the electronic ink spilled over the last decade as everyone in my family processed the split.

It’s somewhat comforting for me that Big Brother hasn’t been watching, makes me feel like the dystopian full-information society about which we have all been warned is still some ways off.  But it’s not comforting for my parents, or for their new partners.  For them it feels like blackmail–like the only way they can bring their online presences into the present is to make their private lives even more public.  And what does seem disturbing to me is how little control we have about the information out there about us, even when we are willing to set the record straight.  The Google executives my parents have contacted seem committed to their algorithms even when they know they have led to falsehood.

So here is the request, an experiment:  Will you link to this page?  I’ll let you know if it changes the Google page.


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Traveling Salesmen

My grandfather, Edwin Reich, turns 99 this month, and my family is going down to visit him in Boca Raton next week.  He’s been on my mind more than usual.  Ed, or Bapa, began his career as a traveling salesman in the 1930s, hawking fancy fur coats throughout the Northeast to those few who hadn’t been hit so hard by the Great Depression.  Then, in an ill-advised business move, he switched to selling carpet sweepers; and not the brand that people wanted to buy.  He struggled in those early years, although you wouldn’t know it now.  He went on to start a small clothing store alongside my grandmother Mildred, retired early, and seems to have the spent the better part of the last thirty years playing golf, reading the newspaper, and doing some kind of magic with his investmtraveling salesmanents.

A couple months ago my warm and encouraging editor, Suzanne Gordon, sat me down and told me I should get out there to promote my book, With God On Our Side: Labor Struggle in a Catholic Hospital.  I needed to speak about it.  I needed to blog about it.  I needed to ask my friends and relatives to tweet about it.  My stomach lurched a little.  Suzanne noticed, but persisted.  She does not give up easily.  And she’s right, after all.  I should be shouting about my book from the rooftops!  The dignity of work and importance of labor unions are issues I care deeply about.  And a book is a perfect platform!  Why not stand on it?  Or jump from it?  Or do whatever one does with a platform?   If I’m honest with myself, I think part of the appeal of the academic world is the privacy I get to feel inside it.  But at the same time I believe that those of us in this world should be more public and engage with others about our work.

And so, with these conflicts unresolved, I’ve begun to arrange a small book tour for myself.  This morning I took the train from Penn Station as the first flakes of Snowmageddon began to fall on New York City, and tonight I’m sitting in a hotel room in Washington D.C.  Tomorrow I talk to a gathering of the Catholic Labor Network and try to make my way home.  So far it’s been surprisingly fun to talk about the book, and satisfying to connect with others who care about the same things I do.  But when my energy starts to flag, I just think of my book as a carpet sweeper.  And it all gets a little bit easier.

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Michigan’s Attack on Unions Undermines Public Health

nurse imageHere’s a short piece I wrote on Michigan’s “Right-to-Work” legislation for Beyond Chron.

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Free at Last?

“This is the day when Michigan freed its workers.”  That’s what Republican state representative Lisa Posthumus Lyons told her colleagues in the Michigan Legislature yesterday, according to a story in the New York Times.

freedomIn case you missed it, Michigan made history on Tuesday.  Yes, Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, became the 24th state in the country to pass “Right-to-Work” legislation.  Right-to-Work legislation is newspeak for making it difficult for unions to raise money, since under these laws a workplace cannot make the payment of union dues or fees a condition of employment.

A lot can be and should be said about how pernicious these laws are; John Logan says a lot of it here.  But what has been most striking for me throughout this debacle is how much of a stranglehold the right seems to have on the concept of “freedom.”  Demolishing unions is about freedom?  Seriously?

This hasn’t always been the case.  My bedtime reading right now is Eric Foner’s brilliant book The Story of American Freedom, U.S. history told as a persistent struggle over the meaning of “freedom.”  It’s a good reminder that in other epochs freedom had more substantive, more collectivist connotations.  Franklin Roosevelt spoke powerfully of freedom from want as one of his Four Freedoms.  The Freedom Movement (you know, that thing we call the Civil Rights Movement today) linked the struggle of black Americans to the story of Exodus, and envisioned the promised land as possible only through the bonds of solidarity and moral commitment.

I’m not proposing that we need only use different language—that we can reclaim “freedom” through linguistic jiu-jitsu.  But I do think there’s a lesson here about linking what we believe is right and just to the moral principles on which the country was founded.  I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of “freedom talk,” since the way it is used today seems so far from the world as I hope it might be.  But rather than ditch the concept perhaps it’s time we work—in thought and deed—to reclaim it.

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Domestic Worker Report Hits Home

Every once in a while, when my four-year-old’s expressive chaos has gone too far, I hire people to clean my apartment.  It’s amazing—a rebirth.  Granted, my dog gets anxious and has diarrhea for the following thirty-six hours.  But that’s a small price to pay. 

The actual price tag is somewhat larger.  That’s because I use Apple Eco-Cleaning, a cooperatively-owned, environmentally friendly cleaning business.  Founded by people from NYC’s Worker’s Justice Project, the idea is to create a sustainable model of domestic work.

ImageIt’s a great organization, but paying a living wage is expensive.  That’s why most people don’t do it.  Last week, the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance released what many are heralding as the first systematic survey of the domestic work industry in the United States.  The report is a powerful indictment of the industry, and of our collective failure to regulate it:  domestic workers have been excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act since its passage in 1935. 

Among domestic workers, intimacy and exploitation seem to go hand in hand, as live-in workers are treated even more poorly than their live-out counterparts.  For example, two-thirds of live-in domestic workers reported being paid below state minimum wages (among all domestic workers the rate was 23%).  A quarter of live-in workers reported having job responsibilities that prevented them from getting at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep the week prior to the interview. 

What is to be done?  A big start would be increasing regulation of the industry, as the report suggests.  But another important part here is cultural.  As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her introduction to the report, much domestic work is intensely personal in nature, and many domestic workers come to care about the families for whom they work.  Cruelly, these emotional attachments are used to reinforce workers’ subordination:  “What is being exploited in these instances is not just the domestic worker’s labor and skills, but her sense of interpersonal responsibility, her capacity for love.” 

An important part of a domestic workers’ movement, then, is collectively reconfiguring these emotional attachments in ways that help workers have more control over their work and more agency in their lives.  The report itself, to which numerous domestic workers contributed, is a significant step in this direction.  Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, thinks we are on the cusp of bigger change:

We have an opportunity to reverse this history of discrimination, with policy changes — at the state and federal levels — that establish basic rights and standards and ensure that these workers can live with dignity and safety. Over the past decade, domestic workers in California and New York have organized to pass Domestic Workers Bills of Rights in their state legislatures. Workers in Massachusetts and Illinois are now developing their own bills of rights, but it’s time for more states to take up the task.


In a nation based on the values of liberty and justice for all, the people who are raising our children should not have trouble feeding or caring for their own children, and the people who provide care for our elders should receive support for their own retirement. We should honor, respect and value the precious labor that they provide: the labor of love that serves as the foundation of our economy.


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