This Is What $15 an Hour Looks Like

In July, Emeryville, California, passed the highest city-wide minimum wage in the country. Here’s how workers’ lives changed – and didn’t. As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation.

On a crisp November morning in Oakland, 50 people dressed in red T-shirts burst into a McDonald’s, bringing breakfast orders to a halt. From behind the counter, several cashiers gaped at the scene, where an orderly line of customers had been replaced by a rowdy crew that bounced and shouted, calling for the restaurant to raise its wages to $15 an hour. A supervisor whipped out her cell phone and began filming. The chant, directed at the workers, grew louder: “Come on out-we’ve got your back!” After giving it some thought, three female employees walked past their supervisor, clocked out, and joined the protesters. The crowd erupted in cheers.
The group, which included striking fast-food workers from across the East Bay, gathered afterward in the parking lot to celebrate. They would hit half a dozen restaurants before the day was over, part of a nationwide movement that has grown to attract low-wage workers across multiple industries. Among the strikers was Shardeja Woolridge, who works part-time at a McDonald’s in the nearby city of Hayward, where she lives with her mother in a two-bedroom apartment. Woolridge earns $9 an hour, California’s minimum wage; her mom receives disability benefits. It’s not nearly enough. They’ve received eviction notices and had their electricity shut off. The 19-year-old recently enrolled at Berkeley City College but struggled to pay for textbooks. “I can hardly buy my own soap or deodorant,” she says. Behind her, workers hoist a red-and-black banner that reads #fightfor15.
I ask Woolridge what might be different if she made $15 an hour. “Whoa,” she says. “Fifteen.” Her eyes turn to the cloudless sky. “Whoa,” she repeats, her voice trailing off. She could help pay the rent. She could stock the fridge with food. She could afford Wi-Fi. Above all, she could finally stop fighting so much with her mom. “We are constantly butting heads,” Woolridge says. “She doesn’t understand that I don’t have money. I’m like, `This is really all I make,’ but she can’t get it.”
The movement for a $15 minimum wage began three years earlier, on a chilly fall morning in 2012, when 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City. Their demand was audacious: $15 an hour was more than twice what many of them earned. But more strikes and protests followed, with the movement spreading quickly, driven by workers like Woolridge. What had started as a targeted campaign under the slogan “Fast Food Forward” grew to include low-wage workers across numerous industries.
“Movements are built on big, bold, aspirational demands,” says David Rolf, president of SEIU 775, who led the fight in 2013 for the $15 minimum-wage ordinance in SeaTac, Washington, home of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Rolf credits the Fight for $15 with shaping a “monumental shift in political discourse.” It’s not just that Bernie Sanders is championing the cause; during a recent Republican presidential debate, the first question to candidates was whether they supported the increase. The Fight for $15 has become the rare labor fight that is too big to ignore.
When workers at the bottom of the economy suddenly receive a significant bump in pay, what changes? What doesn’t?
Still, for workers like Woolridge, a $15 minimum wage remains a bold thought experiment. Certain cities have adopted the $15 standard, but their rollouts have tended to be gradual: Seattle’s minimum wage for large employers will reach $15 in 2017, Los Angeles’s in 2020. Yet if we walked one block west of this McDonald’s in Oakland, we would enter the city of Emeryville, where, last July, the minimum wage for many workers jumped to $14.44 overnight. And now that Emeryville boasts the highest citywide minimum wage in the country-one that approaches and will eventually surpass $15 an hour-it has become a testing ground of sorts. When workers at the bottom of the economy suddenly receive a significant bump in pay, what changes? What doesn’t?
* * *
Emeryville is a wedge of a city long over-shadowed by its neighbors, Oakland and Berkeley. It once teemed with card rooms, speakeasies, and brothels, serving as a destination for folks who wanted to do the sorts of things that weren’t allowed back home. During the Great Depression, local district attorney Earl Warren-who would later become chief justice of the United States-famously declared Emeryville “the rottenest city on the Pacific Coast.”
Today, that frontier feel is mostly gone. In the center of town, where drunken fans once cheered a minor-league team, sits Pixar’s sprawling campus. Dozens of biotech and pharmaceutical firms are based in the city, and industrial sites have been scrubbed clean and replaced by the sort of retail development that has taken over suburbs across the country. The city’s current reputation, to the extent that it has one, is as the mall of the East Bay. There’s a Home Depot and an Ikea, a Gap, J. Crew, and Forever 21. Though it spans just under two square miles, Emeryville boasts four shopping centers, with The New York Times describing it as a “retail mecca.”
That mecca needs workers. According to the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, in 2014 there were about 22,000 workers in the city-twice the number of residents. “Emeryville was a gritty industrial place that became a boomtown, a major corporate center,” says Jennifer Lin of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, or EBASE, a labor-backed group that supported the minimum-wage hike. But the boom was concentrated at the top: About one in 10 employees in Emeryville-2,227 people-earn the minimum wage. That’s roughly four times the national rate.
One of those workers is Ty’Ler Wright. The 23-year-old has worked at Pak ‘N Save, the city’s largest grocery store, for three years. She applied for the job largely to help her mother, Sonya, who also works there. Growing up, Wright, who has two younger siblings, watched her mom negotiate payment plans to remain a step ahead of bill collectors. The family moved several times before finally renting a house in West Oakland, a few blocks from the Emeryville border. “She never asked me to help her pay, but I had seen her struggle,” Wright says, standing next to her mother in the store’s parking lot after a shift. “I was not about to be in someone’s house and not help out.”
What is certain, at this early stage, is that many people are now earning more than they ever did before.
Wright was hired as a part-time courtesy clerk, collecting wayward shopping carts and cleaning bathrooms for $8 an hour. It didn’t take long to realize the job didn’t do much to help the family. Her weekly checks were as low as $150, the money gone practically as soon as it arrived. Still, she stuck it out, landing a full-time schedule and rising to become head of the dairy department. But her wages stayed at the state minimum, which grew to $9 an hour last year.
This spring, news that Emeryville workers would be getting a raise spread quickly at Pak ‘N Save. “We were all very excited,” Wright tells me, smiling widely. Though it was a warm afternoon in August, she was bundled up in a gray UC Berkeley hoodie to ward off the chill from the refrigerator aisles. “It feels like we’re actually making money.”
It was less than two months since the raise, but Wright had already noticed a “major, major change” in her life. The obvious difference was financial: After taxes, her weekly checks now come to nearly $500. She can pay her bills, help her mom out, and still have what she calls “rollover money” to put in the bank. This has lightened everyone’s load. “My mom is way more relaxed,” she says, gesturing to Sonya, who smiles and nods.
The future looks different, too. “With $9, I was thinking, `Do I really want to do this for much longer?'” says Wright, waving at a co-worker. “Now, we’re at the top.”
* * *
The movement to raise the minimum wage has swept through the Bay Area like no place else, with each day seeming to bring news of another city that has implemented an increase or is seeking to do so. Recently, the mayors of eight cities in the South Bay-the heart of Silicon Valley-announced that they were contemplating a regional wage that would eventually reach $15 an hour. “Two years ago, if you had said you wanted a $15 minimum wage, it was unthinkable,” says EBASE’s Lin. “Now, it’s virtually unstoppable.”
In the East Bay, Emeryville was nudged along by Oakland, where voters overwhelmingly passed a measure last November to raise the minimum wage to $12.25 an hour. At the time, it was the nation’s highest, supported by a coalition of labor and community groups called Lift Up Oakland. After the vote, coalition members sat down with Emeryville’s elected officials. Ruth Atkin, the mayor at the time, asked the organizers how they had settled on $12.25. “I knew about the Fight for $15, so why not go higher?” Atkin recalls, speaking to me at an Emeryville food court in September. Someone in the coalition explained that $12.25 was what they thought they could win.
Being an elected official in Emeryville isn’t glamorous; it’s a part-time gig, with politicians receiving only a modest salary. Atkin is a social worker by day, working for Contra Costa County on healthcare-related issues. She figured a minimum wage should get a family near financial self-sufficiency and settled on a benchmark of 138 percent of the federal poverty line-the threshold at which the family would no longer qualify for expanded Medicaid. “I literally took out federal poverty charts by income and did the math,” Atkin says. The result was roughly the figure that Emeryville already used in a living-wage ordinance for city employees. “At that point, we said: `Let’s just have our living wage be the new minimum wage.'”
The debate over the proposal was relatively muted. Most concerns came from small-business owners worried that they couldn’t absorb the rapid wage hike, which amounted to more than 60 percent. Eventually, a compromise was hammered out: Companies with more than 55 employees would pay the $14.44 rate, while smaller businesses would start at $12.25 and move to $16 over several years. The California Restaurant Association, a powerful trade group, came out against any sort of raise, arguing-as it has elsewhere-that minimum-wage increases lead to job losses and price hikes. But neither Atkin nor the four council members found that argument persuasive. “Look at the cost of living in the Bay Area,” she says. “It’s even hard to make it at $15 an hour.”
Atkin is right, of course. I spent several days hanging around Ikea, one of Emeryville’s largest employers, which uses a janitorial contractor to clean its store. The janitors are mostly Latina immigrants who, prior to the increase, earned $9 to $10 an hour. One woman had cleaned the store for nine years without a raise. Though quick to note that she appreciated the extra pay, the woman told me she actually didn’t feel any relief, because her rent had recently gone up by $400 a month. Rents in Oakland, where many Emeryville employees live, are rising faster than anywhere else in the country, with the median one-bedroom apartment now fetching $1,980. Given this context, many people I spoke with didn’t feel that they were getting ahead, only that they weren’t falling behind quite so quickly.
The stereotype of the typical minimum-wage worker is a teenager in need of spending money. I found few such people in Emeryville. Many of the workers were older; the younger ones were either paying for school or, more commonly, supporting their families. That usually meant parents caring for children, but not always. Sometimes teens were helping their parents, or parents were helping their parents, or a sister was helping her brother.
Next to Ikea is Emeryville’s newest shopping center, the Bay Street Mall, described as a million-square-foot “urban village.” On a clear weeknight, I caught up with Oscar Echevarria, one of the workers who kept the village humming. It was near midnight when he finished his shift as a busser and exited California Pizza Kitchen, crossing the deserted mall. His day had begun at 7 am with his other job at Chevys Fresh Mex, located several blocks away, where he worked as a janitor. Between the two jobs he had a couple hours off, so he went home to eat and shower. His workweek sometimes exceeded 80 hours.
We met up a few days later at a local café. The Mexican-born Echevarria, who is 46 and slender, was in good health. He was also exhausted. There were deep lines under his eyes, and he apologized for being several minutes late, explaining that his workload at Chevys had been particularly heavy that morning. The conversation turned to Mexico, where his wife and three children lived. He had a green card and had petitioned to bring them north, but was still waiting for a decision. “That’s where all my money goes-back to Mexico,” he said, pulling out his most recent paycheck, for $765.63. “Before, I never made more than $500.”
I asked if the minimum-wage increase had led him to consider cutting back on his hours. Echevarria laughed at my suggestion. But as he explained his situation, his eyes welled up. In 2008, his father was kidnapped for ransom back in their village; two weeks later, he was found dead. Since the tragedy, Echevarria has supported his mother as well. He rented a room for $250 a month in a Berkeley apartment that he shared with four others and kept his expenses to a minimum. After his father’s death, he petitioned for his mother to join him, too. “It’s not safe in Mexico anymore,” he said.
A few months later, on a rainy afternoon in late December, I spoke to Echevarria outside Chevys. He explained that he no longer worked at California Pizza Kitchen-he’d been fired after an argument with a co-worker-and was looking for a second job. “It’s not enough, just this,” he said, motioning to Chevys. With so many people relying on him, he’s hoping to find another job in Emeryville paying nearly $15 an hour.
* * *
It’s important to remember how recently cities like Emeryville have increased their minimum wage, an experiment that is still playing out. Over several months, I spoke with perhaps 50 minimum-wage workers, many of whom were just getting used to seeing extra money in their paycheck, or had finally begun a long-term project of digging out of debt.
The increase promises to ripple upward as well. Even in low-wage workplaces, there is an understood hierarchy that a $14.44 minimum has mostly demolished. A cook at P.F. Chang’s complained that he was now earning the same as the dishwashers. One Ikea employee reported grumbling among co-workers who were upset that they now made the same wage as new hires. I wouldn’t be surprised if the coming year finds employers raising wages again, using the new minimum as the floor.
What is certain at this early stage is that many workers in Emeryville are now earning more than they ever did before. Daniel Mercado came to the Bay Area from the Philippines two years ago with his wife and daughter. He cleaned a hotel in Manila, earning the equivalent of $12 a day. “I couldn’t save anything-too many expenses,” he says. “America was the great hope.” They moved in with his sister’s family, and Mercado was hired as a janitor in Emeryville. His daughter found minimum-wage work, too, at a McDonald’s. But his economic situation wasn’t all that different from what it had been in Manila. He soon learned a new English expression: living paycheck to paycheck. “That’s how it was,” he says, smiling wryly. In the land of hope, he was going into debt.
I interviewed Mercado in late October, nearly four months after the wage increase went into effect. (At his request, I have changed his name and not revealed his employer.) He had almost paid off his credit card and, for the first time since arriving in the United States, was starting to save money. So far, he’d put away about $1,500. It’s a modest amount, but enough to get his gears turning.
George Orwell once wrote that poverty “annihilates the future,” making it hard to plan for, or even think about, tomorrow. With a bit of breathing room, Mercado has begun to consider what comes next. Someday he’d like his daughter to go to college. A car would be nice, so he wouldn’t have to take multiple buses to work. And his own house-which he acknowledges is merely a dream for now. Mercado raises his hands to his sternum. “We are not rich,” he says. “Just in the middle. But it’s a lot better than being poor.”
[Gabriel Thompson is a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. His book, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, will be published in March.]
This story has been supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit journalism group.

Copyright c 2016 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by Agence Global.

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The Poisoning of Flint Was Not an Accident – It Was a Crime

Filters and bottled water stacked up on a truck to be delivered to residents in Flint, Michigan, January 7, 2016. At every major decision point over more than a year, officials at all levels of government acted in ways that contributed to Flint’s tainted water crisis and allowed the public health emergency to persist for months. (Photo: Brittany Greeson / The New York Times)

The people of Flint, Michigan, have been drinking, cooking with and bathing in lead-poisoned water for two years. More than 8,000 children have been exposed. This was not an accident.

Filters and bottled water stacked up on a truck to be delivered to residents in Flint, Michigan, January 7, 2016. At every major decision point over more than a year, officials at all levels of government acted in ways that contributed to Flint’s tainted water crisis and allowed the public health emergency to persist for months. (Photo: Brittany Greeson / The New York Times)

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What does lead do to the human body? Infants and small children can suffer brain and nervous system damage, weakened immune systems and general physical collapse that can lead to death. Pregnant women have a higher risk of stillbirth or miscarriage. A raft of studies has pretty much concluded that lead can cause cancer. It causes cardiovascular diseases and kidney damage which, like cancer, can also kill. The people of Flint, Michigan, are now subject to all of these impacts and more, due to the lead in their water.

The people of Flint and other surrounding towns have been drinking, cooking with and bathing in lead-poisoned water for two years. More than 8,000 children have been exposed along with tens of thousands of other people. This was not an accident. This was a crime committed against a predominantly Black, predominately poor population that Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder couldn’t give less of a damn about.

The story in short: In order to “save money,” Governor Snyder’s hand-picked emergency manager (read: hatchetman) decided to change Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. That “save money” claim, however, has been brought into serious question by reports that Flint would have actually saved money if they stayed on the Huron line. There have been allegations that Governor Snyder made the switch in order to undermine the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department so he could ultimately privatize it. Others suggest his motivation was founded in a desire to open up new areas for fracking. The governor has made no comment on these allegations. One thing seems clear: This decision appears to have little to do with “saving money.”

If you tried to jump into the Flint River, you’d bounce off the surface. General Motors used the river as its personal dumping ground for decades; it is highly polluted, and more importantly is highly acidic. When Flint River water began flowing through Michigan’s ancient water supply system, it stripped the lead right off the pipes and delivered it to thousands of homes.

To be more precise:

In the spring of 2015, city officials tested water in the home of LeeAnne Walters, a stay-at-home mother of four and a Navy wife. They got a reading of 397 ppb, an alarmingly high number.

But it was even worse than that. Virginia Tech’s team went to Walters’ house to verify those numbers later in the year. They were concerned that the city tested water in a way that was almost guaranteed to minimize lead readings: They flushed the water for several minutes before taking a sample, which often washes away a percentage of lead contaminants. They also made residents collect water at a very low flow rate, which they knew also tended to be associated with lower readings.

The highest reading registered at 13,000 ppb. Five parts per billion of lead are a concern. 5,000 parts per billion is considered “toxic waste.” From April 2014 until October 2015 (and later, and still) the people of Flint were drinking water with up to 13,000 parts per billion of lead in it.

Governor Snyder finally got around to declaring a state of emergency just the other day. Tamara Rubin – filmmaker, executive director of Lead Safe America and the mother of lead-poisoned children – told Truthout: “The biggest problem with this state of emergency is that the people of Flint are getting biased, incomplete and incorrect information at every turn – information influenced by either politics or financial interests or both. No one is providing them with current, scientifically accurate and complete information about their children’s future – and how in so many cases, their lives will have now been profoundly changed forever.”

Two years ago, the people of Flint turned on their faucets and a brown horror came flowing out. Many people complained to the state’s government but were roundly ignored and dismissed. Meanwhile, lead, along with a gruesome rainbow of other contaminants, poured into people’s houses day after day, and Snyder’s crew ignored the whole thing. It went on for a long string of months before anyone decided to do anything about it, and the problem remains ongoing.

Here’s the kicker: Flint residents are still getting billed for water the Virginia Tech study described as toxic waste. Some are getting dunning letters for refusing to pay for water that could kill them or their children. In France long ago, it was “Let them eat cake.” Today, in Flint, it’s “Let them drink bottled water” … except a whole lot of people in Flint can’t afford bottled water, and they sure as hell can’t bathe in it.

The story of Flint is the story of the United States, and it isn’t pretty. Flint once boasted 80,000 General Motors employees, but thanks to outsourcing now only has a tenth of that. Unemployment is rampant. The river is disgusting after years of industrial pollution. Our national indifference toward our crumbling, sometimes century-old infrastructure left those pipes in the ground to deliver that lead to children thanks to the austerity policies of a right-wing governor and his national party.

Hovering over it all are the matters of race and poverty. This debacle began two years ago and should have been immediately addressed, but it wasn’t, because the people affected have no voice in Gov. Rick Snyder’s government. “Everybody knows,” wrote Flint native Michael Moore, “that this would not have happened in predominantly white Michigan cities like West Bloomfield, or Grosse Pointe, or Ann Arbor. Everybody knows that if there had been two years of taxpayer complaints, and then a year of warnings from scientists and doctors, this would have been fixed in those towns.”

Moore described what is happening in Flint as a “racial crime,” and he’s exactly right. The story of Flint is the story of the United States, of outsourcing, privatizing, rampant pollution, a stark lack of corporate accountability, poverty, joblessness, collapsing infrastructure, right-wing austerity politics and above all a crushing and pervasive racism that is literally and figuratively poisoning children.

“You can’t talk of the dangers of snake poisoning,” said former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, “and not mention snakes.” These snakes poison with lead. The truth of what has happened and continues to happen to the town of Flint, Michigan, is a national disgrace, and the people enduring it will have to live with the consequences for the term of their lives.

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Sanders and the Theory of Change: Radical Politics for Grown-Ups

A campaign for a more equal and secure economy and a stronger democracy can build power, in networks of activists and alliances across constituencies. The movement that the campaign helps to create can develop and give voice to a program that the same people will keep working for, in and out of election cycles.

Paul Krugman has joined the self-appointed political grownups closing ranks around Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders. In a piece titled “How Change Happens,” the liberal economist and New York Times columnist insists, “The question Sanders supporters should ask is, When has their theory of change ever worked?”

That must be right. It’s an excellent, sober, adult question. The answer, of course, depends what you think the Sanders campaign’s theory of change is. Krugman argues, “On the left there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions.” This, he says, was what drove the Obama campaign in 2008. By implication, he seems to mean other quixotic campaigns, such as George McGovern’s in 1972, when McGovern lost forty-nine states to Richard Nixon.

Krugman compares unrealistic, high-minded idealism with “politically pragmatic” governance, like Franklin Roosevelt’s during the New Deal. Roosevelt, he reminds us, cut deals with Southern segregationists and introduced programs like Social Security incrementally. Krugman argues that this dirty-hands commitment to halfway measures, not purity, is what it takes to get things done. Versions of this contrast have become a common refrain: Sanders sounds great, but governing, is messy, complicated, grown-up.

Krugman’s mistake is very basic. He’s wrong about the Sanders campaign’s theory of change. It isn’t that a high-minded leader can draw out our best selves and translate those into more humane and egalitarian lawmaking. It is that a campaign for a more equal and secure economy and a stronger democracy can build power, in networks of activists and alliances across constituencies. The movement that the campaign helps to create can develop and give voice to a program that the same people will keep working for, in and out of election cycles. In other words, this is a campaign about political ideas and programs that happens to have a person named Bernie at its head, not a campaign that mistakes its candidate for a prophet or a wizard (or the second coming of Abraham Lincoln, who gave us the now-cliché phrase about better angels, but had no delusion that words could substitute for power).

The campaign whose loyalists made this idealistic mistake was, of course, Obama’s 2008 run. The candidate spoke so charismatically, and seemed so much to embody a vision of realigned, common-sense, fresh-feeling progressivism, that some of us did imagine he could recast American political loyalties. Back then, Krugman was accusing Obama’s supporters of spewing “bitterness” and “venom” and coming “dangerously close to a cult of personality.” Now he’s pleased that President Obama, unlike Candidate Obama, has governed rather like a Clinton: pragmatically, with the hand he was dealt. He seems to think that supporting Sanders’s “purist” positions means “prefer[ing] happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends.” And so, he wants us to think, if we are going to be political grownups, we had better put away childish things. Like talk of truly universal health care (his only example of Sanders’s alleged extremism) or, probably, the term “socialism,” whose revival is baffling pundits everywhere.

Adulthood is charismatic and daunting. It always seems to have the drop on you. But sometimes it just doesn’t understand.

Yes, F.D.R. governed “pragmatically,” in the sense that he counted votes and cut deals. Everyone does this, with the occasional exception of Daenyras, Mother of Dragons. But what made it possible for him to pass sweeping changes in economic regulation and social support, changes so radical that his enemies accused of socialism, of being un-American, of destroying the country and becoming an American Mussolini? The answer is in two parts: ideas and power. His administration stood at the confluence of two great movements. The first was the labor unions, which had been building power, often in bloody and terrible struggles, since the late nineteenth century. The second was made up of the Progressives, generations of reformers who worked in state, cities, and universities — and occasionally in national government – to achieve economic security and update political democracy in an industrial economy that had transformed the country in the decades after the Civil War. Ideas, programs, and power swirled around Roosevelt, gave his agenda shape, and pressed it forward.

These movements were sources of ideas, and also of power. Why did all those enemies and reluctant allies end up meeting Roosevelt halfway? The answer was not not his pragmatic attitude. The reason that even some who hated him had to compromise with Roosevelt or give way was the political force he could marshal. His theory of change was no more about compromise than it was about high-minded words: It was about power. Compromise was a side-effect, a tactic at most.

But the central place of power does not mean idealism had no place in the New Deal. Roosevelt explained what he was doing, and why, in language that was more Sanders than Clinton, more vision than wonkery. He famously called for a Second Bill of Rights, an economic program of security, good work, and material dignity. Going back to the Founders to ground the welfare state is, let’s say, idealistic. And, while F.D.R. was willing to compromise, he was also willing to draw hard lines, calling out “economic royalists” and saying of his enemies, “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

Wow. You might hear that from Ted Cruz or possibly Donald Trump this year, but not from any of the Democrats. Roosevelt used the highest idealistic language and the toughest words of conflict. They conveyed the vision behind his program and forced other politicians to form battle lines on the landscape he defined. Then, and only then, he compromised, on his terms.

The banal response to Krugman would be that most politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose — with the exception of some recent Democrats, notably Hillary, who ease his admirably wonkish heart by never leaving prose mode. Don’t fear the poetry! one might say: it is not a theory of change, just a normal way of talking in a democracy.

But the real answer is deeper. Obama ran in poetry and has governed in prose, in quite a literal sense that one could diagram in the sentences of his speeches and press conferences. But in the stronger, older tradition of campaigns based on ideas and programs rather than personalities, candidates run to build power, and use idealistic language to explain why that power matters. Then, if they get to govern, they use it.

That is a theory of change. To answer Krugman’s question: yes, it has worked. In fact, it may be the only theory of change that has ever made democracy real. It is politics for adults.

Jedediah Purdy’s writing includes a trilogy of books on American politics and culture, most recently A Tolerable Anarchy. He is Professor of Law at Duke Law School, where he teaches constitutional and environmental law, among other topics. He lives in Carrboro, North Carolina.

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Winning the Fight for $15 in 2016

Millions of low-paid Americans rang in 2016 with a raise, as a handful of state minimum wage increases went into effect on the first day of January.

Many of those raises are a barely noticeable 15 or 20 cents an hour — little comfort to people struggling to make ends meet. But workers in the cities and states that voted for more robust wages last year saw much more significant gains.

Minimum wage workers in Alaska, California, Massachusetts, and Nebraska, for example, are finding a dollar-an-hour increase in their paychecks. Workers in Hawaii are enjoying an extra $1.25 an hour. In Seattle, some workers at bigger companies are seeing a substantial $2 hourly increase as the city’s $15 minimum wage is phased in.

The national campaign for a $15 minimum wage emerged as a leading economic justice issue last year. It’s also a critical racial justice issue: Half of all African-American workers and almost 60 percent of Latino workers make less than $15 an hour.

The momentum to raise the minimum wage will only increase in 2016 as public support grows. Yet too many states — 21 of them, concentrated mainly in the South — haven’t budged from the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, unchanged since 2009.

Many of these holdouts have deep pools of poverty. Most deny poor families health care by refusing to expand Medicaid, and nearly all have held the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers to $2.13 an hour for 25 years.

The problem with efforts to raise the wage city by city and state by state is that it leaves out workers in states without a citizen initiative process, or in communities without strong unions or leadership. Millions of low-wage workers are at risk of becoming a left-behind underclass.

That means it’s time for Congress to increase the national minimum wage — and to abolish the lower, sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. If they aren’t sure how to do it, leaders from New York to Los Angeles have provided plenty of examples.

Research from my organization, the Alliance for a Just Society, shows that a living wage for a single adult ranges from $14.26 in Arkansas to $21.44 in Hawaii. On average, a worker would have to put in 93 hours a week just to get by on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

The numbers underscore the crisis facing families in our country.

Often, low-wage workers are told that the solution is to go get a better-paying job, but the reality is there are nowhere near enough jobs that pay a living wage. The occupations with the most job openings — in retail and restaurants — pay the least, and they’re most likely to be part-time.

We’ve become a low-wage nation, with implications that reach far beyond just low pay. Low-wage jobs also mean part-time hours, unpredictable schedules, and no benefits or paid sick leave — making it impossible for workers to break even.

It’s unacceptable that anyone who works full-time in our country should go hungry, homeless, or without care for their child. This is the year to make all wages living wages. Without action, Congress is endorsing the creation of a new class of poverty among our workers.

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