CNN commentator Gloria Borger correctly pointed out Tuesday night that the election results tell a story about demographics: President Obama and other Democrats were victorious in large part because they built a coalition of non-white and women supporters. According to ABC exit polls, Obama beat Romney last night among non-white voters 60 to 39 percent, dwarfing his 2008 numbers against McCain. And, Obama won over women voters by an estimated 12 percent, holding onto his margin among women voters from 2008.
But the love affair between Obama, Democrats generally, and non-white and women voters is not about identity politics. It is at its core about economics. Ultimately, the administration’s narrative over the past four years showed a strong commitment to issues affecting those who are not economically privileged in the United States—and even before the “47 percent” comments surfaced, this difference on economic issues became a critical point of distinction between Obama and Governor Romney.
In terms of health policy, the Affordable Care Act has been critical for many non-white and women voters for many reasons. Possibly carrying the most weight is health reform’s Medicaid expansion, as it is such a critical program for both non-white Americans and women. In addition, the President and Democrats’ near unwavering support for women’s reproductive health has solidified their relationship with women voters: health reform’s contraceptive coverage benefit was also popular among many women voters.
In terms of pay equity, much has been said about Obama’s decision to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as his first act as President. In addition to reversing a harmful Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Company, this law became an important symbol that President Obama takes issues of economic inequity seriously.
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Looking ahead to the next four years, this strengthened “marriage” between Obama, Democrats generally, and non-white and women voters could help carve a path to genuinely progressive economic policy. For example, this administration has a chance to support a national paid family leave program. Paid family leave helps eliminate the financial struggle people face when they take time off of work to care for family and new babies. Paid family leave also help address pay equity and gender wealth disparity: it is typically women who leave the workforce to care for their new babies or for sick relatives, and these departures from the workforce can take an economic toll. Currently only three states offer paid family leave programs: California, New Jersey and Washington state. According to Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women and Families, a few members of Congress are currently building a movement around paid family leave that could find its way to Obama’s desk at some point in the next four years.
The second Obama administration could also continue to back the Paycheck Fairness Act, a proactive piece of legislation that could give employees the ability to ask for information about salaries and any gender disparities that may exist. While the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act only restored rights the Supreme Court had stripped years earlier in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Company, the Paycheck Fairness Act could help employees identify and address salary discrepancies that exist in the workplace. President Obama supported the Paycheck Fairness Act and was disappointed by the Senate’s rejection of the law this past June. This new Senate, armed with 20 women including several powerful advocates like Elizabeth Warren, could manage to pass this legislation.
Finally, and arguably most important, the second Obama administration has a strong chance of appointing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s successor. Ginsburg has demonstrated a deep commitment to women’s economic equality, both through her rulings on reproductive justice issues, as well as employment matters (United States v. Virginia and Frontiero v. Richardson). Also worth noting is that, without blinking, President Obama nominated two women justices to the United States Supreme Court back to back—Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan—and in so doing has helped normalize the idea of having women on the Supreme Court. The possibility that President Obama will appoint Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s successor could be another important legacy of his second term.
Tuesday night was a resounding victory for progressive voters, and speaks volumes about the potential to make headway on an array of progressive economic issues at the federal level. President Obama’s victory led the way; along with new Democrats in the Senate including economic justice advocate Elizabeth Warren, he could help create a formidable progressive economic agenda. And in shaping his legacy, Obama could use the next four years to truly address economic inequality in the United States.
But the two Republicans also have something else in common: They are brazenly anti-immigrant.
Despite a misleading article from the Daily Beast asserting that Pence has had a “love affair with immigration reform” and has “spent his political career decrying anti-immigrant rhetoric,” the governor’s record on immigration tells a different story.
Let’s take a look at Trump’s “xenophobic” and “racist” campaign thus far, and how closely Pence’s voting aligns with that position.
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Despite being called “racist” by members of his own party, Trump’s immigration plan is largely consistent with what many Republicans have called for: a larger border wall, increasing the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, requiring all U.S. companies to use E-Verify to check the immigration status of employees, increasing the use of detention for those who are undocumented and currently residing in the United States, and ending “birthright citizenship,” which would mean the U.S.-born children of undocumented parents would be denied citizenship.
Again, Trump’s proposed immigration policies align with the Republican Party’s, but it is the way that he routinely spreads false, damaging information about undocumented immigrants that is worrisome. Trump has repeatedly said that economically, undocumented immigrants are “killing us”by “taking our jobs, taking our manufacturing jobs, taking our money.”
Market Watch, a publication focusing on financial news, reported that this falsehood is something that a bulk of Trump supporters believe; two-thirds of Trump supporters surveyed in the primaries said they feel immigration is a burden on our country “because ‘they take our jobs, housing and health care.'” This, despite research that says deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently call the United States home would result in a “massive economic hit” for Trump’s home state of New York, which receives $793 million in tax revenuefrom undocumented immigrants. A recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy also found that at the state and local level, undocumented immigrants nationwide collectively pay an estimated $11.6 billion each year in taxes.
Wendy Feliz, a spokesperson with the American Immigration Council, succinctly summarized Pence’s immigration approach to Rewire, saying on Monday that he “basically falls into a camp of being more restrictive on immigration, someone who looks for more punitive ways to punish immigrants, rather than looking for the positive ways our country can benefit from immigrants.”
After Trump’s announcement that Pence would be his running mate, Immigration Impact, a project of the American Immigration Council, outlined what voters should know about Pence’s immigration record:
Pence’s record shows he used his time in Congress and as the Governor of Indiana to pursue extreme and punitive immigration policies earning him a 100 percent approval rating by the anti-immigration group, Federation for American Immigration Reform.
In 2004 when Pence was a senator, he voted for the “Undocumented Alien Emergency Medical Assistance Amendments.” The bill failed, but it would have required hospitals to gather and report information on undocumented patients before hospitals could be reimbursed for treating them. Even worse, the bill wouldn’t have required hospitals to provide care to undocumented patients if they could be deported to their country of origin without a “significant chance” of their condition getting worse.
Though it’s true that in 2006 Pence championed comprehensive immigration reform, as the Daily Beast reported, the reform came with two caveats: a tightening of border security and undocumented immigrants would have to “self-deport” and come back as guest workers. While calling for undocumented immigrants to self-deport may seem like the more egregious demand, it’s important to contextualize Pence’s call for an increase in border security.
This tactic of calling for more Border Patrol agents is commonly used by politicians to pacify those opposed to any form of immigration reform. President Obama, who has utilized more border security than any other president, announced deferred action for the undocumented in June 2012, while also promising to increase border security. But in 2006 when Pence was calling for an increase in border security, the border enforcement policy known as “Operation Gatekeeper” was still in full swing. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Operation Gatekeeper “concentrated border agents and resources along populated areas, intentionally forcing undocumented immigrants to extreme environments and natural barriers that the government anticipated would increase the likelihood of injury and death.” Pence called for more of this, although the undocumented population expanded significantly even when border enforcement resources escalated. The long-term results, the ACLU reported, were that migrants’ reliance on smugglers to transport themincreased and migrant deaths multiplied.
According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, “when a child who is not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian is apprehended by immigration authorities, the child is transferred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Federal law requires that ORR feed, shelter, and provide medical care for unaccompanied children until it is able to release them to safe settings with sponsors (usually family members), while they await immigration proceedings.”
While we feel deep compassion for these children, our country must secure its borders and provide for a legal and orderly immigration process …. Failure to expedite the return of unaccompanied children thwarts the rule of law and will only continue to send a distorted message that illegally crossing into America is without consequence.
In the four days since Pence was named Trump’s running mate, he’s also taken a much harsher stance on Muslim immigration. Back in December when Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Pence tweeted that banning Muslims from entering the United States was “offensive and unconstitutional.” However, on Friday when Pence was officially named Trump’s VP pick, he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “I am very supportive of Donald Trump’s call to temporarily suspend immigration from countries where terrorist influence and impact represents a threat to the United States.”
Wendy Feliz of the American Immigration Council told Rewire that while Pence’s rhetoric may not be as inflammatoryas Trump’s, it’s important to look at his record in relation to Trump’s to get a better understanding of what the Republican ticket intends to focus on moving into a possible presidency. Immigration, she said, is one of the most pressing issues of our time and has become a primary focus of the election.
“In a few days, we’ll have a better sense of the particular policies the Republican ticket will be pursuing on immigration. It all appears to point to more of the same, which is punitive, the punishing of immigrants,” Feliz said. “My greatest fear is that this ticket doesn’t seem to realize immigrants are actually an incredible resource that fuels our country. I don’t think Trump and Pence is a ticket that values that. An administration that doesn’t value immigrants, that doesn’t value what’s fueled our country for the past several hundred years, hurts all of us. Not just immigrants themselves, but every single American.”
“You’re getting out early.” Those words are music to the ears of anyone behind bars. But on Orange Is the New Black, the women at Litchfield Penitentiary tend to see release as a bogeyman rather than welcome news.
In Season four of the Netflix series, Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) learns that she’s eligible for early release. At first, this is hopeful news: Being out of prison means that she can start the process of getting her children and newly born granddaughter out of foster care. But then reality sets in: She’s leaving prison without an education or skills that will help her find a job. Even worse, she now has a criminal record. “Sure, people love to hire ex-cons,” she snaps.
This is not the first time that the show has treated release and reentry as something to be feared rather than welcomed. In the first season, Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) is released on parole. Once out, she’s faced with the realities of no housing, no support system, and no job opportunities. Though the show never specifies what she did, Taystee is sent back to prison, where she tells Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) that she deliberately violated her parole so that she could return to Litchfield.
Whether or not they meant to do so, the writers of Orange Is the New Black have sent viewers the message that prison is preferable to life on the outside. And in doing so, the show suggests that the very real systemic obstacles that formerly incarcerated people face upon release, especially where employment is concerned, are impossible to overcome—rather than drawing attention to the importance of dismantling those barriers, and the organizing being done around the country to do so.
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Over 650,000 people leave state and federal prisons each year. For many, finding stable employment is one of the first steps to surviving (and hopefully thriving) outside of prison. It’s frequently a prerequisite to finding their own housing and reuniting their families. For those on probation or parole, being gainfully employed is also a condition of staying out of prison. But finding a job isn’t easy, especially with a gap in employment history and a prison record.
Advocates, however, including formerly incarcerated people, have been working to eliminate one of the most obvious barriers: the question about past felony convictions on an initial job application, popularly known as the “Box.” In many cities, they are succeeding. More than 100 cities have passed “Ban the Box” legislation, which ends that practice of asking about previous convictions on initial applications. In 2015, the federal government also jumped on the Ban the Box wagon with Obama ordering federal agencies to delay inquiries into past felonies during the hiring process.
Ban the Box doesn’t mean that the question of criminal records never comes up. What it does is give job seekers a chance to be considered on their merits and not on their previous actions. If an applicant seems qualified for the job, they will go through the rest of the hiring process like every other applicant does. The question of past convictions may come up at some point during that process, but by then, the person has demonstrated their skills and qualifications for the job before having to explain past mistakes (as well as steps they’ve taken to ensure that they won’t land in a similar situation again).
Ban the Box has been shown to increase employment among formerly incarcerated job seekers. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, between 2004 and 2006, for example, the city hired less than 6 percent of applicants with convictions. Once it passed its version of Ban the Box, however, that percentage jumped to nearly 58 percent. Similarly, in Durham, North Carolina, the number of people hired for municipal jobs increased nearly sevenfold after it passed similar protections in 2011.
However, Ban the Box isn’t enough to ensure that formerly incarcerated job seekers are given a chance. Legislation needs to go hand-in-hand with a cultural shift toward people coming home from prison. Maria C., who returned to New York City in 2011 after a two-year incarceration for drugs, knows this firsthand. In 2015, New York City banned the box. But even before it did so, city law prohibited employers from making decisions based on convictions unrelated to the job being sought.
On paper, that should have meant that Maria should not have encountered discrimination from prospective employers. As Maria explained to Rewire in an interview, in reality, she still struggled to find work, although it is difficult to say how much her prior conviction and imprisonment weighed in prospective employers’ decision-making processes.
She applied for a job at a national wholesale chain. “Their website said they were ex-con friendly,” she recounted. Maria was called in for an interview, tested negative for drugs, and was told that the company would conduct a background check. After the background check, however, she was told that she did not get the job. She applied to other stores and supermarkets; from those, she received no response at all.
One afternoon, two months into her new job, she told her boss that she had to leave work early to see her parole officer. “After that, they started getting picky with me,” she told Rewire. Shortly after, she was let go.
The Fortune Society helped her find a second job at a warehouse. But a few months after she was hired, she said that the boss told her, “We’ll call you when we need you.” She never received a call.
At both jobs, Maria says she was asked about her record. She explained the circumstances of her arrest and incarceration as well as what she had accomplished since that time. That’s why she’s puzzled as to why she was let go after a few months. Maria spent five years in New York City; with the exception of the handful of months at the laundromat and warehouse, she remained unemployed.
Maria now lives in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a city that takes up 4.2 square miles and has a population of about 25,000 people. Lebanon and the surrounding county have a median household income of $56,000 and fewer than 3,000 employers. However, Lebanon also has a work release program, through which people in the local jail system are allowed to work in the community during the day before returning to the jail for the night. The presence of the work release program—especially in a comparatively small community—means that employers are almost certainly more accustomed to job seekers and employees who have criminal records. Within a week of arriving, Maria found work through a temp agency at a food factory where she packs croutons, chocolate, and mashed potatoes.
New York state also has a work release program; in 2010, nearly 2,000 people participated. Even so, the same willingness to hire formerly incarcerated people hasn’t seemed to manifest on a wide scale. Maria knows that the only way formerly incarcerated people like her will find jobs is if there’s a shift in culture and perceptions. Employers “should give people a chance to be able to succeed,” she said. “But employers don’t want to give them a chance.”
As Maria’s experience shows, part of this shift involves policies that create incentives to hire formerly incarcerated people. Some of these policies, like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, already exist. New York City itself has promoted the Fair Chance Act, its version of Ban the Box, even placing ads on the subway informing formerly incarcerated New Yorkers and their potential employers of this new protection. Local and federal agencies should take similar measures to promote existing opportunities.
Or, for example, consider the model of the Johns Hopkins Health System (JHHS) in Baltimore, Maryland, the state’s largest employer of formerly incarcerated people. In 2014 alone, the hospital hired more than 120 people with past prison records and, between 2009 to 2012, 430 formerly incarcerated people overall. “With 9,000 incarcerated people returning to Baltimore each year, the JHHS wanted to contribute to community re-integration efforts by providing employment opportunities,” Yariela Kerr-Donovan, the director of Johns Hopkins’ Department of Human Resources, stated in an interview with the nonprofit Senate Presidents’ Forum. To do so, they sought a Department of Justice training grant and partnered with community colleges and a training firm specifically to train people for positions inside the health system. This is a model that other large businesses can—and should—emulate.
The real-life job market is already stacked against women of color. As late as 2013, women of all races and ethnicities earned only 78 percent of what men earned. For many women of color, the wage gap widens—Black women were paid 64 percent of their white male counterparts. For Latinas, that wage gap widened to 54 percent and for Native Americans to 59 percent. (Surprisingly, Asian-American women showed the smallest wage gap, earning 90 percent of their white male counterparts. I’d like to know which Asian-American women’s incomes were surveyed and how many were members of underpaid and largely invisible workforces, such as domestic service or beauty industries, across the country.)
Now add in the disproportionate conviction and incarceration of women of color, which often exacerbates a lack of marketable skills, and you can see why efforts like Ban the Box are a necessary first step. Without a shift, however, in the ways that formerly incarcerated people are viewed—as potential workers, neighbors, and members of society—Ban the Box won’t be enough.
One show won’t make the sweeping changes necessary to overcome decades of institutional discrimination. But it can change individual hearts, minds, and hiring practices. Through Aleida’s release, Orange Is the New Black now has a storyline that could address some of the obstacles women face upon release, including employment discrimination and wage inequality. It remains to be seen whether the next season will make good on that opportunity.