Should a Criminal Record be a Life Sentence to Poverty?

3395450572_63bd08d814_z.jpgHaving a criminal record is a fast-track to poverty in America. While our justice system boasts the ability to reform those who have broken the law, many find that their record is a life sentence to poverty. Whether it's the "War on Drugs" or school-to-prison, people with a criminal record are more likely to be barred from sustainable employment, housing, and student aid for college. 

Rebecca Vallas' article "Should a Criminal Record be a Life Sentence to Poverty?" published both in The Nation and, shows change may be in the wind. In a surprising turn of events, the bipartisan REDEEM Act would see people who have a criminal record as reformable. People who have a record with no conviction, or who have been released from prison will be able to put their past behind them and have access to better jobs and housing. FBI background checks that are returned with inaccuracies can be challenged and updated, helping to clear the path for individuals to get back on their feet.

Rochester is already in the process of working to change how we see people with criminal records. Efforts are currently being made to end the school-to-prison pipeline. The Ban the Box Ordinance prohibits employers from asking about criminal records on applications, and the Raise the Age movement is pushing to make it illegal to charge and try minors as adults regardless of their crimes. REDEEM is a welcome bolstering in the effort to change how criminal justice is practiced. What other measures can we take to bend our criminal justice system to reformative practices over punitive?

(Photo credit: Amanda Slater, licensed under Creative Commons)

 At a time of historic polarization in Washington, one issue has garnered strong bipartisan support: criminal justice reform. Exhibit A is the list of strange bedfellows who have recently joined forces through the "transpartisan" Coalition for Public Safety. This new effort has brought together leading progressive organizations such as the Center for American Progress and the ACLU, alongside influential conservative groups such as Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, Freedomworks, and the Koch Brothers. With George Soros' Open Society Foundation also serving as a longtime force pushing for criminal justice reform, this reflects rare left-right synergy.

Much of the bipartisan focus in Washington has centered on the need for sentencing reform, through proposals like tackling overly harsh mandatory minimums. Sentencing reform is urgently needed, and bipartisan efforts such as Senator Lee’s (R-UT) and Senator Durbin’s (D-IL) Smarter Sentencing Act provide cause for optimism.

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The Inside Story of how a For Profit College Hoodwinked Students and Got Away With It

8260828342_75c94d4227_z.jpgDid you know a for-profit college degree has almost zero value?

College is one of those things many people consider a major decision that changes life for the better. Our economic downturn and 1% focused recovery has unfortunately made the guarantee of sound employment after college a greater possibility. More and more we see un or underemployed college graduates who have been fighting to find their place in a fickle job market.

What we don't talk about as often are the students of for profit colleges, educational institutions who advertise themselves as an easy option for adults who want to better their lives. They tout the success of their students, high post-college employment rates, and a quality education. What they leave graduates with are substandard, unaccredited degrees, and high student debt. 

The biggest news in the world of for-profit education is the bankruptcy of Corinthian Colleges, the company that owns Everest Institute. Rather than shutter Everest locations, Corinthian has let a debt collection company take over Everest, rebrand it, and allow current students to continue their degree programs. While this sounds like a benevolent gesture, in keeping these colleges open it allows for debts to be collected rather than erased. In response, a group of students and recent graduates has gone on loan strike.

Alan Pyke's article for Think Progress shares the stories of former Everest students, their massive debts, and how the for profit education system merely sees its students as customers bound to their services. How can we hold these institutions accountable when they fail to deliver to their students? 

(Photo credit: Michael Fleshman, shared under Creative Commons 2.0 license)

 After car accidents and back surgery left her unable to work in 2000, Patricia Ann Bowers decided to make productive use of her new, medically-imposed free time. “I decided that, being disabled, I should go for my dream of having my college degree in marketing,” Bowers said.

Bowers, now 54, had worked in marketing for Piper Aircraft in Florida for six years before the accidents. At first the marketing degree “was just a thought in my mind,” but then she saw some TV commercials for Everest College and started to wonder if online classes could be the path she needed.

“Just out of curiosity I called them up. I really didn’t expect anything to happen from the phone call,” Bowers told ThinkProgress, but the school kept calling for weeks. “They told me they could accomodate me, that I had enough funding.”

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There's no #BlackLivesMatter Without Net Neutrality

15000386801_f851a6198d_z.jpgThe Internet and mobile technology are a crucial tool in today's civil rights movements. With these technologies activists can give to-the-second updates on political and social action. It ramps up citizen journalism in places and situations where journalists a.) aren't unable to be present, b.) are not trusted to provide an accurate, unbiased account, or c.) doesn't see an action as "relevant". We saw the Internet, particularly social media, be our window to what was happening in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown. 

An important ruling is going to be made at the end of this month that could potentially change all of that. That ruling will determine whether to keep net neutrality. Under the current system you pay an ISP for service, and have open access to the web. If the ruling favors corporate telecoms, they will be the ones in control of the internet, leading to payment-tier access, and potentially outright censorship of public access to the web. 

Mychal Denzel Smith's article in The Nation both examines the importance of a free and open internet in civil rights, and the importance of keeping it that way. Activists have a high risk of having their voices stifled for the sake of corporate interests and profits if the ruling goes against net neutrality. How have you used the internet lately to share information? What do you think would be stifled if net neutrality dies?

(Photo Credit: Paul Sableman, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0)

Net neutrality scored a big win recently when Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler changed course on the issue and put forth, in his words, “the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC.” The plan calls for reclassification of the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, such that the Internet would be regulated as a public utility, much like telecom services. This would prevent broadband companies from potentially charging websites for better, faster uploading and access, setting up a two-tiered Internet in which larger sites with the ability to pay these fees come to dominate the information we all have access to. Considering the odds (Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the cable-TV and wireless industries, while Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and others spent over $75 million last year lobbying on the issue), Wheeler’s decision to support an open Internet is more than welcome, if not a little shocking.

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The Shockingly Simply, Surprisingly Cost-Effective Way to End Homelessness

Homeless_Man.jpgDid you know the most cost-effective way to end homelessness is to just give people housing? It sounds crazy, but keeping people in shelters or on the streets is extremely costly, especially when you count in the costs of medical and legal emergency services. While the idea of just housing the chronically homeless sounds risky it provides one crucial element that helps get people back on their feet, stability. With stability, people are more apt to access services before problems become critical. Scott Carrier's article for Mother Jones gives us the story of how Utah is ending homelessness, through providing shelter. 

The chronically homeless, are people who are long-term homeless. While in the minority, many of these people face obstacles, primarily health related, that prevent them from taking the steps necessary to move their way into permanent shelter. These are people with severe mental illness, cancer, addiction, or physical disabilities that make finding steady income, and shelter a challenge.

The approach Carrier stresses is humanitarian, and is referred to as Housing First. Rather than defining a resident by their problems alone, Housing First programs treat residents as people first. Rather than the treatment of severe condition as a requisite for housing, it's a result of being provided housing. In fact, buildings that exclusively help the chronically homeless have case workers on staff who can help residents access the health care they need. It's a major shift in both attitude and approach.

Winter is harsh in Rochester, and shelter is limited. Sanctuary Village is the tent city  many of our chronically homeless have been living in. With this extremely cold weather more sufficient shelter has been provided, and is already full. Would a Housing First program be viable here? It would end the need for locations like Sanctuary Village, and put people in contact with life changing services before individual problems become critical, and costly. Or would another approach, like the Tiny House Movement, work better?

(Image credit: "Homeless Man" by Matthew Woitunski - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

 It's early December, 10:30 in the morning, and Rene Zepeda is driving a Volunteers of America minivan around Salt Lake City, looking for reclusive homeless people, those camping out next to the railroad tracks or down by the river or up in the foothills. The winter has been unseasonably warm so far—it's 60 degrees today—but the cold weather is coming and the van is stacked with sleeping bags, warm coats, thermal underwear, socks, boots, hats, hand warmers, protein bars, nutrition drinks, canned goods. By the end of the day, Rene says, it will all be gone.

These supplies make life a little easier for people who live outside, but Rene's main goal is to develop a relationship of trust with them, and act as a bridge to get them off the street. "I want to get them into homes," Rene says. "I tell them, 'I'm working for you. I want to get you out of the homeless situation.'"

And he does. He and all the other people who work with the homeless here have perhaps the best track record in the country. In the past nine years, Utah has decreased the number of homeless by 72 percent—largely by finding and building apartments where they can live, permanently, with no strings attached. It's a program, or more accurately a philosophy, called Housing First.

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To Check Power of Greedy Bosses, Workers Need to Bargain in New Ways

2628268905_dc044b17ea_z.jpgExploitation is the name of the game. We don't like to use that term, but the truth is that the labor movement is a long-time struggle against exploitation by the powerful.  We don't like to associate the term exploitation with our society. When we think exploitation we think of the loss of labor rights in other countries, sweat shops, or even trafficked labor on our own soil. We never think that we, American citizens, can be exploited. 

Yet that's what it is. Exploitation is the single parent working 2-3 minimum wage jobs who is still unable to afford rent, bills, or groceries. Exploitation is paying health aides and caretakers minimum wage to watch over our most physically vulnerable members of society. Exploitation is expecting more hours out of a worker while cutting benefits packages, even more so when a worker is expected to work off the clock unpaid to make sure they don't have the qualifying hours on record to earn benefits. The 1% exploits labor. 

What can be done? The same thing we've always done, collectively bargain for our needs. Sarita Gupta's article in "The American Prospect" stresses the importance of laborers, and even college athletes, to band together and demand better treatment and compensation. It may take a different form from the bargaining of the early 20th century labor movement, but that's the nature of evolution. 

We ask that you stand with us as we fight to end labor exploitation here in Rochester. That you join us in supporting the Fight For $15 and hour wages and unions for food service and care workers. We ask for support as we call out Action for a Better Community as a hypocritical organization. If they truly cared about lifting our neighbors out of poverty, they would not be contributing to the problem by paying their daycare workers poverty wages. If you know of any other workers who need our support, let us know.

(photo credit: George Kelly, from 2008 labor protest in Oakland, CA.)

Work looks a lot different today than it did 100, 50 or even 10 years ago: it’s faster, it’s automated, and it’s complex. We used to pin these shifts on globalization; now we’re tying everything to the rise of an on-demand sharing economy. And while it may seem like progress in terms of how quickly and cheaply we can get things, we can’t forget that it’s happening at the expense of regular people and their ability to work full time and earn a decent living. 

That’s because, for far too long, greedy CEOs have held all of the power, giving those of us doing the work very little room to make our voices heard. Corporate interests have been on a decades-long bender to depress wages, benefits and job standards, trapping you and me and other everyday people in an economy that’s completely out of balance for the benefit of a wealthy few. In fact, half of the world’s wealth is now controlled by the top 1 percent of the super rich.

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Why Work is Turning Into a Nightmare

1405965587000-uber-logo.jpgUber is a household name, you can find Uber drivers everywhere, some phones have the Uber app pre loaded, and it's all over the news.  It's become the alternative to using a traditional taxi service. Services along the Uber vein have been popping up over the past few years for just about any small task or odd job under the sun. The people running these services are making a boon, but what about the people who employ themselves through such services?

Robert Reich, in his article for Alternet, thinks that this is moving our work culture backwards. The big thing to remember is that people employed though services like Uber, Taskrabbit, Amazon's Mechanical Turks are all considered independent contractors. When you call upon someone to utilize a small service, most of what you pay goes to the corporation they're employed through. Pretty depressing when you think about the fact that many of those workers are using their own resources to work. These employees also do not have insurance through their employer, nor do their jobs contribute to Social Security. As Reich puts it, the "Sharing Economy" is more of a "Share the Scraps" economy, where the people doing the footwork receive whatever's left over after their contracted employer takes their cut.

Some could argue that these jobs are good side jobs, or best for supplemental income. For others it may be the only alternative to finding work in a competitive job market. It could also be argued that there is a high level of freedom in such work because you can make your own hours. On the reverse it means that people are spending more of their spare time working, and that it's difficult to compartmentalize between working to live, and free time. 

What are your thoughts? Are such services great for earning a few extra bucks? Are they a way for corporations to both exploit labor and lower their own accountability through hiring "independent contractors"? 

How would you like to live in an economy where robots do everything that can be predictably programmed in advance, and almost all profits go to the robots' owners?

Meanwhile, human beings do the work that's unpredictable - odd jobs, on-call projects, fetching and fixing, driving and delivering, tiny tasks needed at any and all hours - and patch together barely enough to live on.

Brace yourself. This is the economy we're now barreling toward.

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A Staggeringly Lopsided Economic Recovery

Camden_NJ_poverty.jpgWhat I am about to share isn't a surprise, it's more of a reinforcement of just how screwed-up and unequitable our economy is. Yes, unemployment is down, companies are doing better, the economy isn't as precarious as it was back in 2008. On the flipside the jobs that have been added are service jobs at companies that refuse to pay living wage. Things our society sees as essential (quality education, healthcare, basic living necessities) are priced as luxury commodities only for the privileged. Economic mobility is shrinking and what we call The American Dream feels like just a dream.

Indeed life is sweet for the 1%, many of whom have seen their pay increase while bottom-rung employees have watched theirs stagnate. Some saw their jobs disappear altogether, either shipped overseas or whittled down and merged with the tasks of another employee for the sake of cutting costs. Much of the money made during the recovery is being sat on by people whose only intention is to hoard it.

Zoë Carpenter's article in The Nation takes a deeper look at how this economic inequality, last seen during the Depression era, has been slowly working its way into our culture since the 1970s. It is also noted how post-Depression equity was brought about through labor laws and regulations, and more pay and power to the average citizen, something we are not seeing much of today.

What do you think will help bring back economic power to the 99%? Improved labor regulations? Affordable higher education? Higher taxes on the mega-wealthy? A combination? Which one should we focus on first? 

(Image: Camden, NJ, one of the poorest cities in the US.)


Just how strong is the economic recovery? Democrats have offered somewhat contradictory answers to that question recently. The picture President Obama painted in last week’s State of the Union address was mostly rosy. “The shadow of crisis has passed,” he declared, citing “a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production.” And indeed, the US economy added more jobs in 2014 than it has since 1999, and unemployment is at its lowest point in more than six years.

The competing, bleaker, view—described most forcefully by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren—is that the good numbers don’t accurately reflect the reality lived by America’s workers. Middle-class families “are working harder than ever, but they can’t get ahead,” Warren argued in an early January speech. “Opportunity is slipping away. Many feel like the game is rigged against them—and they are right.” The tide may be rising, but it’s failing to lift most of the boats.

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Taking Back the Streets and Their Stories, Thousands Reclaim MLK Day

USMC-09611.jpgWe forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was once seen as a dangerous rebel. We forget that our own government watched him like a hawk. The image our society has of MLK  has been de-fanged, a symbol of how far we've come, and how our society is to be deemed post-racial. Critics of the Black Lives Matter movement have used King's quotes about nonviolence as a ham-fisted means to encourage silence from those they perceive as "rabble rousers".  We have been taught to forget that King believed in disruption, and that nonviolence does not equate to silent complacency.

The fight for justice is King's legacy. Taking it to the streets is King's legacy. Wanting better public education is King's legacy. Fighting police brutality is King's legacy. Demanding equitable treatment is King's legacy. Speaking softly so that life can go on for those who would otherwise feel inconvenienced is not King's legacy. 

Lauren McCauley's article in Common Dreams shares the protests that have happened across the country in honor of King, and how these protests are the true spirit of what King stood for. Police violence may have been the final straw that birthed this new racial rights movement, but it's encompassed everything from $15 an hour minimum wage to public education reform. 

Wondering what to do next? There's plenty to do, Rochester has a number of organizations you can support including B.L.A.C.K. and Teen Empowerment. Metro Justice has a racial justice workshop in the works, keep an eye out for that! Our annual meeting is also coming up on the 31st at First Unitarian. The meeting begins at noon, where you can see what we're doing! Hope to see you there! Comment below and tell us how King's legacy inspires you!

Thousands of people took to the streets on Monday rebuking what they say is the "sanitized" version of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and calling to restore the legacy of a man whose protests, like their own, were never "convenient."

The nationwide actions marked the birthday of the civil rights leader in a year that saw renewed calls for racial justice in the face of persistent inequality, discrimination, and police targeting of communities of color.

Capping off almost a week of demonstrations, organizational meetings, and other pledges of resistance—all done with the intent to "Reclaim MLK"—grassroots coalition Ferguson Action issued a specific call for Monday: "Do as Martin Luther King would have done and resist the war on Black Lives with civil disobedience and direct action. Take the streets, shut it down, walk, march,  and whatever you do, take action."

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Hands Up, Fast Food!

15775898778_c1e3ab384c_z.jpgIntersectionalism is the study of intersecting relationships between forms of oppression, a concept with roots in the 19th century, but no formal name until 1989, when Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term. Crenshaw's career focused on critical race theory, particularly in the feminist movement and race. Intersectionalism illustrates just how interlocked different forms of oppression can be, and shows the strength in banding together for related causes.

Again, the concept isn't new, the abolition movement and the women's suffrage movement worked together in the early 1800s, a famous example being the Grimke sisters. Today, we're seeing collaboration between the Black Lives Matter movement and Fight For 15. Diane Krauthamer's article for Counter Punch gives a more detailed look into how Fight For 15 is both working with racial justice, and low wage workers outside the fast food industry. 

Racial and economic justice are a crucial mix. The majority of black communities are in poverty, those who are working are usually stuck working minimum wage jobs. If we look at economic oppression as a form of non-visible violence, black communities are facing a double-whammy of systematic violence against their humanity. This has even been voiced in Rochester. For those who were not at the Black Lives Matter rally at the Liberty Pole the Sunday after Thanksgiving, one of the die-ins was at the intersection of Court and Chestnut, where many executive level business workers enter the downtown for work. It was a symbolic stand against big business' exploitation of its lowest level workers, and a call for accountability by companies who can make workers' lives harder with the simple stroke of a pen.

Where do you see causes intersecting? Are there any other movements that could collaborate with either Black Lives Matter or Fight for 15? 

(Photo credit: Rose Colored Photo on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

 “We are standing up for our wages because we deserve better,” says Ebony Williams, a 22-year-old Jack in the Box “crew member” in St. Louis. “And we’re standing up against racism and police brutality because the world needs a change.”

Williams, who’s seven months pregnant, makes $7.50 an hour with zero benefits. As part of the “Show Me $15” fast-food worker organizing campaign, she was one of nearly 200 St. Louis workers who walked off the job yesterday.

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Cheating the School System: Corporations Don't Pay Their State Taxes, Either

1024px-School-education-learning-1750587-h.jpgThere is no denying that public schools are in trouble, especially in Rochester: low graduation rates, punitive discipline policies that create a school-to-prison pipeline, outdated materials, buildings behind on repairs, charter schools siphoning tax dollars from public school budgets, etc. Every year it seems public schools have to figure out what to shave off to fit ever-shrinking budgets. Do they cut programs? Do they lay off faculty? How much can they stretch what little they're getting and still make sure kids are passing their standardized tests? 

We already know that major corporations loathe paying federal taxes, but we don't discuss how the same goes for state taxes. Paul Buchheit for Common Dreams writes about how state taxes are the largest funding source for public school budgets, and how corporate refusal to pay their taxes in full hurts schools. Such a refusal has a ripple effect. With less money for schools, schools continue to cut down budgets reducing the quality of education. With lower quality education, students develop fewer skills. Fewer skills leads to a weaker work force. 

Of course corporations don't consider this. Many of them bemoan the decline in quality of American labor while outsourcing jobs overseas to save their own costs, while getting out paying the very taxes that help develop a skilled American workforce. Much of the tax burden is then placed on the average citizen through property taxes, which keep increasing to meet the need vacated by lack of corporate tax dollars.  People who could once afford their homes may find themselves unable to afford the state taxes.

Education is valuable. Our public education system is there to assure every child can have an education, even though the lack of funding is creating a quality divide between public and private schools. We're seeing how that lack of quality, among other things, hurts our children. What can we do to improve education, and funding for education? 

(Image credit: Teacher in elementary classroom by woodleywonderworks, licensed under Creative Commons)

 An Apple executive recently said, "The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need." 

It's hard for a nation to build work skills when its corporations, the beneficiaries of a half-century of public support, have largely stopped paying for education. 

Most of the attention to corporate tax avoidance is directed at the nonpayment of federal taxes. But state taxes, which to a much greater extent fund K-12 education, are avoided at a stunning rate by America's biggest companies. As a result, public school funding continues to be cut, and the worsening performance of neglected schools adds fuel to the reckless demands for privatization. Inner-city schools are being devastated by this insidious process.

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