This is Part II of a five-part series on worker-directed cooperatives as an autonomous community self-development tool. Read Part I here. The full series will be available on Democracy at Work's Coop Talk after Part V has been published.
Part II: Social Exclusion and the Full Participation Economy
BY KIMBERLY WESTCOTT and RICHARD WOLFF | DECEMBER 1, 2016
The conventional wisdom in American society is that ever-improving economic conditions will realize society’s goals and that a rising tide “lifts all boats.” Since the Recession of 2007–2008, it has become increasingly clear that the economic structure works far, far better for the very few branded by the Occupy Movement as “the one percent.” Given the vast disparities between rich and poor—Oxfam reports that the world’s richest 62 people are as wealthy as half of the world’s population—full participation in United States society is a dream to be pursued. Displacement and loss define the experience of many, who are increasingly searching for a new relationship with work, community, and society.
Anger is pervasive in the Age of Trump, even for those who have done “everything required”—attended college, diligently sought employment—and came up short. A few statistics reveal the enormity of the problem: While the national unemployment rate reported by the U.S. Department of Labor for July 2016 is comparatively low at 4.9 percent for the general population, the nature of available work cannot sustain most persons. The federal minimum wage remains a grinding, Dickensian $7.25 an hour, prompting the “fight for fifteen” spearheaded by fast food workers and the SEIU that swept the country this year. Living wage work for persons without a college education is virtually non-existent. The National Center for Education reports that, in 2014, the median income for persons without a high school degree was $25,000, as compared with the marginally higher $30,000 for those with a high school credential. Generally both groups labor in workplaces without the prospect of the all-important “career ladder,” where skills are cultivated and progressively built upon over the course of one's professional life. Credentials increasingly do not guarantee employment, as evidenced by the “Gig Economy,” a large sector of which is powered by young college graduates. Factor college debt into the equation and the prospects for mobility are all but nonexistent.
Even those who have earned a college degree and can find work live precariously. The median earnings of $49,000 for persons with a B.A. is hardly the kind of income that can support the four corners of traditional middle class life: a car, a home, marriage, and children. The 2015 median household income of $56,500 heralded as evidence that the U.S. has turned the economic corner is equally dispiriting. As a result, Millennials, the bellwether for the emerging United States economy, scarcely purchase or engage in most of these things.
At the same time, black and brown people struggling in marginalized communities have come to understand that their place and participation in society is tenuous. Among those persons who had not completed high school, whites had an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent compared with 16.6 percent unemployment for black Americans. Even among those who completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, the unemployment rate was 4.1 percent for black Americans compared to 2.4 percent for white Americans with the same degree. These numbers do not capture the colossal chronic unemployment rate that has resulted, in part, from the failure to train and equip persons for work in our current economy. The Atlantic reported in December 2015 that, still, a higher percentage of white Americans obtain college degrees: 41 percent, compared to the black population’s 22 percent. These disparities are compounded by the cavernous racial wealth gap in the United States. Median wealth for white families hovers at about $134,000, compared to black families at approximately $11,000 and Hispanic families at around $13,900. Predictably black home ownership rates are lower than all but the youngest segment of Millennials.
Historic Exploitation, Prisonization, and the Need for a Reintegration–Full Participation Economy in Low-income Communities of Color
It is no longer controversial to state that the United States was built upon the appropriation of native lands and the exploitation of enslaved labor. As highlighted in The New Jim Crow, the police were developed, in part, to contain enslaved and exploited populations. Thanks to the Exception Clause of the 13th Amendment, prisons became sites of legalized enslavement and low wage exploitation—from the convict lease and chain gang systems, to today's prison shops where many presently earn between .63 cents and a dollar an hour—conditions that catalyzed the under-reported 12 state prison labor strike that started on September 9, 2016. In three states, Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas, prisoners are forced to labor for no wages at all.
Centuries of criminalizing race narratives are now perceived by many as synonymous with black identity. The relentless broadcast of lethal violence directed against black men and women in the years since the killing of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner has highlighted the state’s War on Crime tactics of containment and over-enforcement, which culminated most recently in the deaths of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Terrence Crutcher, and Keith Lamont Scott. Any casual viewer of Facebook now knows that when a person of color ventures onto the street or a public space, there is a greater than average likelihood that (s)he will be arrested, incarcerated, or killed.
The abuse of state power, like police enforcement, coupled with Jim Crow and systematic economic discrimination, like redlining and the disparate use of urban renewal, confined large numbers of black and brown persons to low-income, inner city communities that resulted in extreme socio-economic exclusion. Over the last 30 years, globalization and mechanization further reduced the size of the domestic workforce after the loss of manufacturing in the 1970s. Communities of color, like those in the South Bronx, and their inhabitants were, in effect, deemed unworthy of investment and treated as expendable surplus labor. The 1980s age of mass incarceration inaugurated the shift to a prison economy that largely benefitted underdeveloped, low-income white communities like those in upstate New York (at the expense of communities of color), which became sites for prison construction subsidized by federal funds dedicated to supporting the Wars on Crime and Drugs. Now the wave of gentrification that has seized these same isolated New York City neighborhoods, like Brownsville, Bed Stuy, and soon East New York, threatens to displace members of these communities once more.
People living at the margins who are disproportionately black, brown, and low-income have borne witness to the ways in which mass incarceration has extracted thousands of working-age males and devastated low-income communities of color. Neighborhoods with “million dollar blocks” in New York City collectively suffer from high rates of youth and adult unemployment, and failing, under-resourced schools, which in turn drive the “school to prison pipeline” of the next generation. There is urgent need of a community development–reintegration to full participation economic and legislative strategy that gives community members the opportunity to train, work, and autonomously chart development together.
New York: A Case Study in Marginalization
Of New York’s population of over 19 million, 83,608 were incarcerated and another 111,908 were on probation or parole in 2012. Of the 55,436 persons that New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYDOCCS) incarcerated that year, 47.5 percent came from New York City communities, amounting to 25,557 men and 873 women. In 2009, of the 25,060 persons released from New York State custody, 12,371 returned to New York City.
Many returnees experience high rates of unemployment, housing instability, and health challenges, all compounded by the stigma of a conviction history. Laboring under these disabilities, civic and social participation is greatly impaired; many remain unable to vote or participate in jury duty. Incarceration erodes connection to family. Returnees’ best efforts to help support families and contribute to neighborhoods are often frustrated by relationships fractured by sporadic contact, the erosion of labor market skills, institutional discrimination, unemployment, and unaddressed trauma.
Over 50 percent of New York’s formerly incarcerated are unemployed nine months to a year after their release. Thirty percent of New York City’s homeless shelter entrants have been incarcerated, with over 800 parolees residing in city shelters each day.
Eradicating poverty might have seemed like a worthy goal if the United States measure defining the poverty threshold were not subsistence level. At $24,300 per year for a family of four, poverty-level income does not guarantee a life of dignity—for many working poor it will not get people out of shelters or off of the streets. Such marginal allotments ensure stress, malnutrition, want, and chronic exclusion from the activities of daily life. Faced with the government’s degrading response to human suffering, community members are redefining for themselves what it means to be part of society and to meaningfully participate in their communities, not merely subsist in or remain trapped in a cycle of exclusion.
Compounding the devastating effects of poverty and under-employment are the overarching forces of stratification and hierarchy, racism and white supremacy, sexism and patriarchy, nativism and xenophobia that cause cumulative harm, impact life chances for generations and result in intergenerational social exclusion. These very real social forces are obfuscated by the myth of individualism propagated by capitalism, which, in a nation built upon expropriated lands and exploited slave labor, fosters the cynical notion that all can achieve liberty, equality, and independence by dint of one's hard work despite their particular race, gender, socio-economic location, immigration status, health, or other experience, which largely determines one’s place in the social pecking order. One way to defuse such false narratives is for the community at large to decide what kind of society we want to live in. How shall we value our labor, and in what environment shall we perform this work? This opens the door to broader questions: what basket of goods (and experiences) represent a decent life, what is needed to live, and how do we organize ourselves to achieve it? This examination should transcend the negative liberties contained in the United States Constitution and give range to the more expansive principles expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly as elaborated upon by economist Amartya Sen and social theorist Martha Nussbaum.
Because people have failed to realize change through customary political processes, it is time to form new economic relationships that transcend top-down hierarchical structures. These new relations should not replicate historic patterns of exploitation where resources from one community or class are extracted (i.e., commodities: labor, prison bodies) to benefit another, or rest upon an ideology supporting one group's greater worth, purity, or humanity. Wayfarers in the cynical Age of Trump are searching for a way of working and living that reflects their values, affords input into the way their time is organized, how energies are spent, and how decisions are made. One solution is the WSDE, a leveling, anti-hierarchical structure that gives everyone a sizable stake in the success of a business and paves the way for democratic participation and work with dignity. A variant on the WSDE focused more expansively on community economic development, the Community Supported Worker Cooperative (CSWC) would integrate skilled and novice workers and, where necessary, train residents including youth, the elderly and those without formalized skills, and reintegrate returning community members, such as the formerly incarcerated. Notably the CSWC development process is “open platform” and promotes civic participation by inviting residents to identify and co-build the businesses and services they want in the community, then the CSWC incubates select local WSDEs and forms training links with community colleges and union cooperatives.
Richard Wolff is an economist, a visiting professor at The New School, and the founder of Democracy at Work. Follow him on Twitter: @profwolff