Shoppers at North Bonneville, WA's "Cannabis Corner," a municipally-owned retail marijuana shop. Image via
Shoppers at North Bonneville, WA’s “Cannabis Corner,” a municipally-owned retail marijuana shop. Image via

Originally posted on April 25, 2016. 

Don Stevens is the mayor of North Bonneville, Washington, a town of about 1,000 people on the banks of the Columbia River near the Oregon border. Using authority granted by a state statute, Stevens established a retail marijuana outlet owned and operated by the town. He wears a shirt that says “Reefer Madness is not a documentary,” and his business cards list his job title as “The Marijuana Mayor.” Stevens thinks North Bonneville’s outlet is the only one of its kind in the country, but that is likely to be only temporarily true. North Bonneville’s initiative is part of a broader movement to legalize marijuana, regulate its distribution, and reap benefits for governments.

The Spread of Marijuana Legalization

As of January 2016, the states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska had authorized the sale and consumption of social marijuana. Twenty-three other states permitted use of marijuana for medical purposes. Governments benefit, not just by reducing crime but also from new revenues. According to the Washington Post, Colorado expected revenues of over a billion dollars in 2016. The realities of economic competition suggest that legal marijuana eventually will become as commonplace as alcohol.

Legalization also makes sense as good public policy. In his 2016 state of the state speech, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin proposed to allow the sale and possession of small amounts of marijuana. He acknowledged that drug addiction was a threat to Vermont’s social fabric and blamed pharmaceuticals such as OxyContin “which lit the match that ignited America’s opiate and heroin addiction crisis.” But Shumlin argued that marijuana falls into a different category and “should be authorized and regulated by the state.” He asked lawmakers to cooperate with him to develop legislation “that thoughtfully and carefully eliminates the era of prohibition that is currently failing us so miserably.”

Outright prohibition fails because demand for marijuana distorts the economics of legal production. A January 2016 report from the Associated Press described the exportation of marijuana from Colorado to other states, noting the various creative methods used in this distribution, such as “the one in which authorities say 32 people used skydiving planes and posed as licensed medical marijuana caregivers and small business owners to export tens of thousands of pounds of pot grown in Denver warehouses, usually to Minnesota.” This operation made more than $12 million in four years according to criminal indictment, because profits follow the trail of illegality. As Governor Shumlin argues, legalization will reduce the economic incentives for marijuana smuggling. more...

Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr
Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Originally published in June 2013.

Immigration – and public policies to manage it – arouses strong emotions and fierce social and political battles, not just in the United States but in most other countries across the world. Why is this true? Each nation has its own issues that inspire or enrage, of course, but there are widespread, underlying patterns that can be identified and taken into consideration by reformers.

Reformers trying to facilitate immigration are often locked in battles with groups that want to place limits on international migration. Combatants start from very different world views – not only emphasizing different values but almost speaking different languages. To avoid destructive backlashes, reformers must understand and respect the values and perspectives of all groups involved in public debates, as we can see from a closer look at the United States. more...

Photo by Marmett Tallahassee via CC
Photo by Marmett Tallahassee via CC

In January 2016, the State of Michigan declared a public health emergency in the city of Flint because the city’s drinking water was contaminated with lead. This breakdown in public health happened following an earlier emergency declaration – a financial emergency – which lead to the aggressive move by Governor Rick Snyder, who invoked authority enshrined in state law, to appoint an emergency manager to run Flint. Now activists are calling for the repeal of that state emergency manager law.

The crisis in Flint draws attention to ongoing conflicts in responses to U.S. urban crises. Is fiscal stability to be pursued at the expense of social equity, balancing budgets at the expense of helping people who live in a troubled city? Flint is hardly alone. Local governments across the United States are caught between increasing costs and shrinking revenues. From city to city, the proximate causes vary from loss of state revenues to rising costs for public services and underfunded public pensions, to outright fiscal mismanagement. But the difficulties are similar and hit poor, minority communities hardest, creating acute dilemmas of social equity. more...

A protest for the rights of fast food workers at the University of Minnesota, April 15th, 2015 Photo by Fibonacci Blue
A protest for the rights of fast food workers at the University of Minnesota, April 15th, 2015
Photo by Fibonacci Blue via

And What Can Be Done To Make Jobs and Family Life More Predictable

For decades, work-family activists have pressed for policies to give workers flexibility. Some workers, most of them relatively affluent, have seen gains. They have won the ability to adjust their schedules, to choose how many days a week to work, and even to work from home. But as my colleague Dan Clawson and I document in our new book, Unequal Time, many employers in the United States are turning the concept of work schedule flexibility on its head. For employers using disturbing new tactics, “flexibility” means that employees – especially low-wage workers – must come in whenever the boss wants and can be sent home whenever demand is slack.

Unpredictable Schedules and Insufficient Hours 

News stories have featured the chaotic schedules of young people working in retail, cleaning, and fast food jobs – many of whom must come to work with just one day’s notice or work split shifts. About a third of young adults do not know their schedule more than a week in advance. But similar problems are faced by workers of all ages. Unpredictable schedules are becoming the new normal for many U.S. employees – ranging from low-wage nursing assistants to well-paid physicians. In the retail and health care sectors, many workers must call in the night before to find out if they will be needed – and if they will earn the wages they have counted on getting. At a nursing home we studied, for example, one out of three shifts turned out to be different from the official schedule planned in advance. more...

From 1980 until the start of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, U.S. households accumulated debt at an unprecedented pace. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the ratio of total debt to disposable income – a measure that reveals households’ ability to service their debts out of current income – hovered around 70 percent. Thereafter it rose, increasing to 90 percent by 1995 and peaking at 135 percent in 2007, before declining to 110 percent in 2013.

The financial meltdown brought new attention to the debt loads facing American households, in part because many analysts fingered defaults on subprime mortgages as a chief cause of the crisis. But policy responses have focused too narrowly on financial market reforms. Certainly it makes sense to curb the unfair and fraudulent lending practices that have proliferated over the past few decades, yet new financial regulation alone won’t make most working families more economically secure. For that, we must understand and address the intertwined social, political and economic trends that have created insecure labor markets and heightened debt risks. more...

Ask Americans to draw a mental map of who lives where, and they will likely say that immigrants and the poor live in large cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, while middle-class whites make their homes in the surrounding suburbs. But these mental maps are often inaccurate. Today, more poor people live in suburbs than in central cities, and more than half of all metropolitan-area immigrants reside in suburbs. Immigration, job growth, and residential choices are making our nation’s suburbs more economically and culturally diverse. more...

Is it possible for people to live on $2 a day? This is a question most think applies to bygone centuries or impoverished Third World nations. But it turns out to matter for the 21st century United States as well. The U.S. welfare reform enacted in 1996 ended rights to cash assistance for poor families with children. Instead, welfare in America now gives cash assistance for a limited time only. Able-bodied people who apply for welfare must quickly try to find paid employment and participate in activities directly related to preparing for work. In the new system, extra benefits and tax credits go to low-income people with jobs. But what happens to those who cannot find employment – especially during prolonged periods of joblessness like the aftermath of the recent Great Recession?

To find out, we used data from the U.S. Census Bureau from 1996 to 2011 to study U.S. households with children getting by with a daily income of $2 or less, per person – adapting the poverty indicator used across the globe by the World Bank. more...

Many American workers have not yet regained their footing in the aftermath of the Great Recession, yet unemployment insurance has become politically controversial even though jobs are still scarce. Critics claim that America’s unemployment insurance program “subsidizes leisure” by “paying people not to work.” Some critics have lampooned extended unemployment benefits for supposedly turning “our social safety net into a hammock.” Congressional Republicans deferred to such criticisms in January, 2014, when they blocked the sort of renewal of long-term unemployment aid that has been traditional after previous severe economic downturns. As a result, roughly one million of the long-term unemployed saw their benefits abruptly cut off.

How much truth is there in these criticisms of unemployment benefits? By easing the financial harm of job loss, does unemployment insurance actually undermine people’s desire to find work? Does it make work less attractive or encourage the jobless to enjoy their added “leisure” time?

To address these questions, I used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to track thousands of people over time as many experience events that change their life circumstances—not just job loss, but other disruptions such as changes in income, giving up their house, suffering a debilitating illness or injury, having a child, and watching children leave the family nest. What comes through loud and clear in my study is that job loss is a severely disruptive occurrence that proves psychologically devastating to many people who experience it. The effects can also persist long after formerly unemployed people find new jobs. more...

Most research on rising economic inequality focuses on growing wage gaps between different groups of workers. But of course that is only part of the story. Just as important is the division of the national economic pie between profits going to capitalists and the “labor share” that includes all of the wages and benefits earned by workers. It’s a zero-sum game: the portion of the total national income that is not going to the workers goes to profits for capitalists.

In recent times, U.S. corporate profits have been going up at the expense of workers’ wages and fringe benefits. From 1979 through 2007, labor’s share of national income in the U.S. private sector decreased by six percentage points. What does that mean? Back in 1979, American workers claimed about 64% of national income, and if labor’s share had stayed at this level, the 120 million American workers employed in the private sector in 2007 would have received as a group an additional $600 billion in compensation. That is more than $5,000 extra per worker!

Where did that huge amount of money go instead of into workers’ wallets? It went to corporate profits, mostly benefiting very wealthy individuals. And things did not change with the recent economic recession. Although the big economic downturn of 2009 reduced corporate profits as a share of national income, the effect was short-lived. Since 2010, the golden age of swelling corporate profits has resumed. more...

By 1980, the wages earned by African-American women and white women came close to being equal, but since then the gap has nearly tripled. Meanwhile, average wages for African-American men stagnated, and wage inequalities between black and white men remained stubbornly high. In this same period, membership in U.S. labor unions has plummeted – from one in every three private sector workers enrolled in a union in the mid-1950s to just one in twenty today. So it is natural to ask whether such sharp union decline helps to explain racial economic gaps today.

Our research uses 40 years of nationally representative data and a technique sometimes called “counterfactual analysis” to discover what wage trends among blacks and whites, men and women, would have looked like if union membership in the private sector of the U.S. economy had not declined so sharply. The short answer is that union decline has made racial gaps worse, especially among women. more...