From “political” to public affairs

The United Way’s ALICE report reveals the real situation of struggling workers

We are getting towards the end of the quarter at Evergreen, where I teach in the Evening and Weekend Studies Program, and I’ve been meeting with students to talk about their writing. These conversations are interesting, providing windows into the issues my students care about: better schools for all kids, and better working conditions for teachers; sensible, cost-effective strategies for dealing with issues of addiction; accessible gender neutral bathrooms as a step towards equity for transgender people; the dangerous ignorance about fire hazards, especially in urban areas edged with forest land; the lulling effects of the cult of celebrity, and the unethical behaviors it excuses, or, conversely, the racism that skews white fans’ perceptions of an outstanding professional athlete who is black.

In these fifteen to thirty minute sessions, as we talk about their assignments, “op-ed” columns intended not only to showcase students’ good thinking but also to highlight their rhetorical adeptness—a few students have used the word “political” to mean “we can’t really talk about this; it’s too controversial.” Structural inequality, systemic racism, and climate change have all fallen into that “too political” category—too political to talk about, too political to think about, too political for someone like me (an ordinary person, still in college) to tackle, particularly in a conversation with others. And so a discussion of fire safety circumspectly omits reference to climate change, the driving force behind the causes leading to increases in fire-conditions in our state. A discussion of the importance of designating Martin Luther King’s home as a National Historic Site elides a discussion of contemporary racism and inequality. Too political…

In a course where our focus is on the crafting of artful sentences in the context of pieces that matter to writers, we haven’t talked explicitly about what’s political. Until now, I’ve felt confident that my students and I share an understanding, at least a general one, about the world we live in: climate change is happening, fueled by human actions; income inequality is more pronounced now than it’s ever been in the U.S., the result of policy choices made over time; and racism is woven into the history and structure of our country.

What’s political?

Hearing students opt out of certain conversations, albeit written conversations with potentially distant readers, because those conversations are political, challenges me to rethink what the term political means. Wikipedia tells me that political means “of or pertaining to government or the public affairs of a country.” What my students need is a bridge to engaging in conversations about public affairs. The best coach I can think of for this is sociologist C. Wright Mills. In 1959, Mills explained the connection between public issues and personal troubles like this:

“When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual.”

Making an argument for what he called the “sociological imagination,” Mills went on:

“Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues—and in terms of the problems of history making. Know that the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles—and to the problems of the individual life.”

The key to bridging the gap between the connotations of “political” as ideological, controversial, to be avoided, lies, I think, in helping people see the wisdom of Wright’s observations. Personal troubles must be understood as public issues, and public issues must be related to personal troubles. That’s the power of the recently released ALICE report by United Way.

Addressing public affairs: United Way’s ALICE report

United Way, a non-partisan, non-profit organization whose roots date back to 1887 and the early “community chest” organizations, released its ALICE Report on the Pacific Northwest in January 2016. The acronym ALICE stands for “asset-limited, income-constrained, employed”, and the ALICE reports represent United Way’s effort to quantify, as the report puts it, “the size of the workforce in each state that is struggling financially, and the reasons why.” The crux of the issue, the report shows, is that the cost of living is higher than the salaries that most jobs pay. Consequently, in 2013, 1.6 million households in the Pacific Northwest struggled to afford basic household necessities.

United Way is making the case that the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) underreports the financial hardships individuals face—the formula for calculating the FPL is outmoded, and it fails to adequately account for the cost of living in any given area. Moreover, not only are they advocating for a different measure, but they are also describing how any one family’s “personal troubles” affect the wider community. In a one-page table, the ALICE report categorizes major expenses for household daily functioning, and describes the consequences of being asset-limited, income-constrained, and employed on the family and the community (see table).

Not only does the ALICE report attempt to show the relationship between private troubles and public affairs, the report also provides a clear analysis about why the situation exists:

Low-wage jobs dominate the local economy. More than half of all jobs in the Pacific Northwest pay less than $20 per hour, with most paying between $10 and $15 per hour ($15 per hour, full time = $30,000/year). These jobs—especially service jobs that pay below $20 per hour and require only a high school education or less—will grow far faster than higher-wage jobs over the next decade.

The basic cost of living is high. The cost of basic household expenses in the Pacific Northwest is more than what most of the region’s jobs can support. The average annual Household Survival Budget for a Pacific Northwest family of four (two adults with one infant and one preschooler) ranges from $46,176 in Idaho to $52,152 in Washington—double the U.S. family poverty rate of $23,550.

Jobs are not located near housing that is affordable. During and after the Great Recession, both housing affordability and job opportunities dropped steeply. Housing continued to decline slightly from 2010 to 2013 and job opportunities on average stayed flat, so it remains difficult for ALICE households in the Pacific Northwest to find both housing affordability and job opportunities in the same county.

Public and private assistance helps but doesn’t help a person or family achieve financial stability. Assistance provides essential support for households below the ALICE Threshold but cannot lift all households to economic stability. Government, nonprofit, and health care organizations spend $21 billion on services for ALICE and poverty-level households in the region to supplement their income, but even that total is still 25 percent short of lifting all households in the Pacific Northwest above the ALICE threshold.

Political backlash to public affairs—making personal troubles more widespread

One month after the PNW ALICE report came out, Pam Eaton, head of the Idaho Retailers Association, presented a bill to the Idaho House Business Committee that would establish a state preemption when it comes to setting the minimum wage. Several towns in Idaho have tried, as yet unsuccessfully, to increase the minimum wage in their jurisdictions. The minimum wage in Idaho currently is $7.25 per hour—the same as the federal rate. In her effort to prevent the minimum wage from being raised in local jurisdictions, Eaton persuaded the House Business Committee to hold a public hearing on her bill.

Reducing personal troubles, addressing public affairs

“An improvement in job oppor-tunities, in the form of either an increase in the wages of
current low-wage jobs or an increase in the number of higher-paying jobs, would enable ALICE households to afford to live near their work, build assets, and become financially independent.”

Under our current conditions, about a third of all households in Washington State and across the Pacific Northwest cannot become financially stable, no matter how hard they work. The only thing that will change the financial situation of the ALICE families described in this report is a combination of better-paying jobs and affordable housing. As the United Way report puts it, “Ultimately, improvements in job opportunities and a decrease in the cost of household essentials would enable ALICE households to afford to live near their work, build assets, and become financially independent.” Ultimately, the personal troubles of so many people must become the focus of our public affairs. The only way the issues raised in this report will be addressed is if we reclaim the term “political” and use it to describe what we mean when we vigorously participate in political affairs with the aim of addressing widespread personal troubles—our pressing public affairs.

Emily Lardner lives and works in Olympia, Washington.