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Enough of the individualistic rhetoric; the real causes of worker poverty are systemic

Jeb Bush said the path to economic prosperity is for people to work harder. That rhetoric may be compatible with our individualist political culture, but it fails miserably.

350 workers attended NOC’s Workers Rising March and Rally on July 15.
Courtesy of the author

One of the defining features of American political culture is our commitment to individualism. We are individualists in at least two senses of the word. First, we support the rights of individuals. We believe that there are some rights that belong to individuals that no government or other entity has a right to infringe upon. We are also individualists, secondly, in that Americans are more likely than people in other countries to explain social problems in terms of individual behavior. We prefer explanations that focus on individual behaviors rather than social structures and institutions that largely determine options and influence outcomes.

Nowhere is this preference for individual explanations for the causes of social problems more evident than in American rhetoric about poverty and economic success. Jeb Bush’s remarks in New Hampshire are an excellent example. At a campaign stop, Bush said:

My aspiration for the country — and I believe we can achieve it — is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, work-force participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows, means that people need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this rut that we’re in.

Let’s unpack Bush’s comment here. According to Bush, we’re having some economic problems — slow economic growth, low worker productivity, and Americans families who aren’t bringing in enough income. According to Bush, the individual behavior of American workers is to blame for these problems. Ultimately, for Bush and others like him, poverty can be explained away by attributing it to the failure of low-income people’s individual work ethic.

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Bush’s rhetoric may be compatible with our individualist political culture, but as an explanation for our economic problems it fails miserably. And it fails precisely because it focuses on the individual behavior of American workers, rather than the economic and political institutions within which they find themselves.

Two reports about working people in Minneapolis published by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) illustrate the structural challenges Minneapolis workers face when providing for their families. These reports offer a clear and direct challenge to the rhetoric Bush is promoting. 

For “Our Time Counts,” NOC surveyed more than 500 hourly workers in North Minneapolis about their work schedules, compensation, and benefits like paid sick days. Fifty-one percent of the workers NOC surveyed make $10 an hour or less. “Nearly 40 percent of workers surveyed are working part-time schedules, which is 34 hours or less per week.” People working only part-time and at low wages are struggling to provide for their families. To them, Jeb Bush would say, “work more hours.”

But as NOC’s report demonstrates, these vulnerable workers can’t work more hours. It’s not that they don’t want to. In fact, 78 percent of part-time hourly workers and even 58 percent of full-time hourly workers reported that they would prefer to work more hours than they are currently assigned. However, hourly workers have little to no control over their schedules and cannot simply choose to work more hours.

Often, they are scheduled for on-call shifts, meaning they must be available to their employers to work a shift, but they are not guaranteed work that day. The employer may choose to not call them in and the worker then loses that opportunity to gain income from a day’s work. In addition, hourly workers are often sent home early before the end of their scheduled shift. On-call shifts and sending workers home early save the employer money, but have negative effects for the workers who lose income and cannot adequately budget due to unpredictable earnings.

Some might argue that part-time hourly workers should simply get a second job if they want to be able to provide a decent life for themselves and their families. However, NOC’s research demonstrates that most workers are not free to find secondary employment. Many of the workers NOC surveyed are required to have “open availability,” which means they can be scheduled to work at any time, day or night. The challenges workers face due to open availability policies are compounded by schedules that change weekly, or even daily. “Over half (55 percent) of all hourly workers surveyed reported that they receive their schedules a week or less in advance.” Subject to open availability policies and without a set schedule, coordinating a work schedule with a secondary employer is prohibitively difficult. Unpredictable schedules and open availability policies are, then, significant impediments to secondary employment.

NOC’s other recent report, “It’s About Time,” illustrates the transit challenges that low-income workers face that make secondary employment virtually impossible. In Minnesota, people of color are disproportionately employed in low-income jobs. In addition, low-income people of color are significantly more likely to rely on public transportation to get to and from their places of employment. As NOC’s research demonstrates, workers using public transportation to commute to work pay a significant time penalty for doing so. “Every year, Black and Asian transit users spend the [hourly] equivalent of about 3.5 weeks of work more than white drivers on their commutes alone. For Latino transit users, it is nearly 4.5 weeks.” As NOC points out the transit penalty has deeply problematic effects on workers from communities of color. “That means that for a month a year more than white drivers, transit commuters of color are unavailable for working, helping children with homework, helping parents get to the doctor, running errands, volunteering in their communities, or participating in their churches.”

NOC’s reports demonstrate important ways in which the individualist rhetoric around poverty in America obscures the causes of poverty among low-income workers. Low-income workers are vulnerable to economic exploitation by their employers. They do not earn a living wage and have little control over the number of hours they work in any given week. Our labor laws and economic policies at all levels — city, state, and national — put the interests of employers over workers. To say to the most vulnerable among us “work harder” is to ignore the structural challenges low-income workers face. It’s an individualistic oversimplification of the problem.

The Minneapolis City Council has an opportunity right now to address the real causes of poverty among low-income workers by adopting a comprehensive package of worker protections, like fair scheduling requirements, mandated earned sick and safe time, and — most importantly — adopting a $15 an hour minimum wage so hourly workers can provide for themselves and their families. Six council members (Lisa Bender, Alondra Cano, Jacob Frey, Elizabeth Glidden, Cam Gordon, and Andrew Johnson) have expressed their support for improving worker protections in Minneapolis. We must ensure that the remaining members of the council cannot ignore these issues. Now is the time for all Minneapolitans to contact their representatives and demand strong worker protections that promote the dignity and well-being of all Minneapolis workers and their families.

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Kathleen Cole, Ph.D., is a political science professor in the Social Science Department at Metropolitan State University. Her view do not necessarily represent the views of her employer.

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