The workers aren’t the problem
Federal unemployment benefits expired yesterday, giving privileged politicians a fresh opportunity to fall back on tired stereotypes instead of stepping up for the people who need them the most.
Editor’s Note: I’m back from a wonderful vacation and feeling grateful to have created such rich memories with my closest family and friends.
While I was away, I decided to reduce the number of newsletters The Supercreator publishes from four to two at least through the rest of the year. I’ve switched to and from a daily cadence a couple of times this year because I always end up missing the chance to write to you four times a week. But the daily deadline has also given me an excuse to renege on some other creative projects and personal goals that would level-up the value of my work and your reading experience. And I deserve to go into the new year with no regrets.
The Friday morning newsletter will be free and feature a recap of the top stories of the week with original reporting, sharp commentary and thoughtful analysis. I’ll also feature conversations with some of my favorite creators too. And beginning next week, these Tuesday afternoon columns will be exclusive to premium subscribers and feature reported essays, reader Q&As and other experimental features along with plenty of reading recommendations and Michael’s Picks.
The freedom to try, fail, adapt and innovate is what I envisioned when I left corporate media to go independent. And it’s been possible thanks to this vibrant community of creators, influencers, activists and organizers who believe creative professionals should be able to live off their work and that government should serve all of us — not just the rich and powerful. Thank you for making this work possible.
I’ve been thinking lately of a seminal moment in my childhood when I was reminded that my Black middle-class family was different from those of my white peers.
One of my friends said his Dad gave him “the talk.” I didn’t know which one he was referring to so I asked which one. He jerked his head, and said, “the sex talk,” as if I should have known. But he was obviously unaware that in Black households, there are so many talks that force you to grapple with things young people shouldn’t ever. And I harbored deep resentment when I realized realize most young white people my age didn’t ever. By the time, I got the sex talk — albeit the heterosexual version — I was too exhausted to give a nanoshit about no damned birds and bees.
Because there’s the police talk we get for how to navigate encounters with law enforcement so we make it out of them alive. There’s also the work ethic talk, in which we learn that Black people have to “work twice as hard to have half of what they have.” The “they,” of course, being white people.
I internalized this teaching as evidence that something was wrong with me — more specifically, my Blackness. Because that was the only thing that differentiated me from my white classmates. We grew up in the same neighborhoods. My mom showed up to parent-teacher conferences just like theirs. And even though, I despised the inflexible structure the public education, I excelled when I wanted to in honors classes just like them.
But what I would later realize is that even though I’m fine just the way I am, white supremacy requires a villain for white people to exist as heroes. And within the context of American capitalism, that villain is the myth of the lazy colored person. To work ourselves into enervation is to prove to white people that we’re worthy of the basic necessities that should have never been attached to employment in the first place.
Yet here we are, a day removed from the expiration of three federal programs — Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) and the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provided an extra $300 per week to Americans out of work due to dual health and economic crises wrought by COVID-19 — that represent what one left-leaning think tank characterized as the “largest cut-off of unemployment benefits in history” and have given way to tired tropes about people preferring to mooch from the government instead of pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.
Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, will romanticize his origin story to tell you that’s what his parents did. His dad is from Cuba, who left the country in the late fifties to attend the University of Texas at Austin while receiving political asylum from the United States after his student visa expired. Cruz, who earned degrees from Princeton and Harvard, will tell you he got there before ascending to Congress through a singular combination of familial grit and determination. And when journalists like Ken Sweet at The Associated Press report on the limited options available to those who are struggling to make ends meet, Cruz will literally tell them to “Get a job” because working poverty wages during a pandemic is the key to economic nirvana.
For most people, a job isn’t enough to survive. Most people need two or three — or support from loved ones — to do so. Meanwhile, senators have been in a protracted debate over whether to raise the minimum wage from 7.25𝑡𝑜15 for years. (It’s been 12 years since it was increased, the longest stretch since the minimum wage was first adopted in 1938. And according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the minimum wage would be nearly $26 today, or more than $50,000 a year, if it had kept pace with gains in the economy’s productivity over the last 50 years.
This isn’t the worker’s fault. But a mix of trickle-down economics, CEO worship and ignorant Republican talking points about personal responsibility have given workers the notion that they’re the problem when it’s our country’s work culture that should be reckoned with. And with every chance they’ve gotten, conservative politicians have not only downsized our social safety net but also optimized it against a few scammers at the expense of those who trusted their government would be there for them when they needed it the most.
Cruz’s tough talk ignores the barriers back into the workforce that existed long before the pandemic. Too many families still experience difficulty finding affordable care for their kids and parents. Student loan debt still puts too many borrowers in the no-win position of handling their everyday expenses and risking default or living like a pauper to make sure Navient’s coffers are filled. And while these are universal issues, they are particularly cruel to Black and brown people who are gaslit into believing they decades of divestment in their communities has nothing to do with why the twice-as-good ethos has betrayed too many of us.
Most of these issues will be somewhat resolved if Congress passes a budget that includes the pillars of President Biden’s Build Back Better domestic agenda this month. But who knows with senators like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin making nonsensical arguments based on flimsy hypotheticals to the contrary. I’m confident Manchin and his fellow conservative Democrats will ultimately vote for the budget, but not before squabbling with their progressive counterparts and compelling voters to wonder if the Democratic Party is functional enough to govern the House and the Senate for two more years come next November.
An empowered workforce is a potent antidote to all of this muck. And according to Axios’s Dan Primack, labor unions now represent a larger percentage of US workers than at any time in the past five years after decades of decline. Meanwhile, on Labor Day yesterday, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh reiterated the president’s commitment to overseeing a “pro-worker administration. This includes ensuring that all workers have fair pay, health care, and unemployment benefits, ensuring safe workplaces and a secure retirement, and investing in career education and job training,” Walsh said to Sarah Jones at Intelligencer. “These are not just policies to me — these are real, tangible needs for millions of Americans, and I will continue fighting for them.” But that’s probably of little solace to the folks who lost their unemployment insurance yesterday and, like the kid version of me, are tired of the talk and just want to be able to feel as though their best can one day be good enough.