Will the Last Really Be First?

By Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO and President of FPWA,
an Anti-Poverty and Advocacy Organization committed to
Economic Opportunity and Upward Mobility.

There is much talk today about a national racial reckoning. Thanks to developments such as Black Lives Matter, the election of Kamala Harris, and the Chauvin murder conviction, one hears a collective questioning in the Black community: Could we finally be at the threshold of historic change?

Ordinarily I would love to join in. Those who know me know I like to live in a joyful space. Injustices are real, plenty, and must be vanquished. Yet I believe we always have an opportunity to work for justice and equity. That’s why many conversations about how to now secure economic change for Black Americans concern me. Often, they lean toward pushing for opportunities for the rising class, by growing Black entrepreneurship, for example, or promoting home ownership. These conversations are valid and exciting. When it comes to those who are of low-income, however, we seem again content to send them to the back of the line.

In two recently released reports, FPWA, the organization I lead, showed how stagnating wages, compounded by racial inequalities and structural barriers to opportunity, create daunting obstacles to self-sufficiency for low-income people. A single parent working a minimum wage job of $15 per hour in Queens, NY with a baby and preschooler, for example, would need to earn nearly three times her current wage just to make ends meet. Even if she relies – as she must – on safety net benefits, she will still only achieve 68% wage adequacy (the distance between income and the ability to meet basic needs). If she grows her hourly pay to $21, she will encounter a childcare subsidy cliff, plummeting her family to only 53% wage adequacy. The unsound design of our benefits programs confronts her with impossible choices.

Driving this are measures and policies that are deeply inadequate, yet we are without the will to change them. Most federal benefits programs are tied to the Federal Poverty Level, a 1960s standard that is antiquated and woefully unrealistic. It actually undercounts poverty and at best, measures deprivation. It must be changed.

We eschew more meaningful standards, such as the self-sufficiency standard, which encompasses a more realistic array of needs such as housing, childcare, food, health care, transportation, and the cost of taxes. We know that if we use these, the number in need will skyrocket.

Congress passed an historic economic recovery bill this year, but again denied a much-needed federal minimum wage increase. The last legislated increase was in 2007. Far-forward ideas such as a universal basic income barely see the light of day.

Even where we’ve adopted compensating measures, as in New York City, our focus is on the poverty line. Is that the measure of our aspiration? When will we act so people can reach self-sufficiency and true financial stability?

For low-income families, the manifestations of the rising class miss the point. Their lived daily experience tells them that they are not the priority. We must resist the urge to reinforce this deep, persistent flaw. Unless we change this paradigm, an historic transformation will elude us. I am reminded of the parable of the vineyard workers. Some laborers who had worked many hours became agitated at day’s end when they were paid last and received the same compensation as other workers who arrived later, worked less time, and were paid first. The vineyard owner explains his equitable approach and sums up by saying “So the last shall be first, and the first, last.”

The agitated laborers thought they had disparate merit and should be prioritized. This notion can be hard to discern in ourselves; it creeps into our thinking – even into our proposals for change – and into our systems. To be advocates for a truly equitable world, we must be like the vineyard owner: resist and challenge ourselves to choose a bolder path.