Poverty, by America Book Summary - Poverty, by America Book explained in key points
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Poverty, by America summary

Matthew Desmond

Discover the Shocking Truth with This New York Times Bestseller

3.5 (21 ratings)
18 mins
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    Poverty, by America
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    End the exploitation of workers

    If you think of worker exploitation, what comes to mind? Child laborers from former times, perhaps, or factory personnel in inhumane conditions? In some places, these atrocities still exist. But there are also modern-day versions of labor exploitation that many people are unaware of. 

    Firstly, there’s low wages. When you account for inflation, the wages earned by most Americans today are nearly the same as they were four decades ago. In fact, the annual increase in inflation-adjusted wages since 1979 has barely scratched the surface, edging up by a mere 0.3 percent. Even in 2020, at least one million workers were compensated with hourly wages that sat at or below the minimum of $7.25. 

    Unfortunately, corporations are reluctant to initiate wage increases themselves, fearing that increased labor costs might impact profits and, subsequently, their market value. To tackle this, Congress should take matters into its own hands. It needs to raise the minimum wage and prioritize it in the same way that it prioritized workplace safety regulations. 

    However, it's crucial that the minimum wage is also reviewed and adjusted regularly, to keep pace with economic changes. Rather than depending exclusively on Congress, the authority to set the minimum wage should be delegated to the central government or a specifically appointed individual, such as the Secretary of Labor. Another more favorable strategy could involve empowering employees and employers to jointly negotiate and amend the minimum wage through collaborative bargaining agreements. 

    In addition to the concern over inadequate wages, temporary work also impacts economic well-being. Using temp agencies to fulfill their manpower requirements allows corporations to reduce their obligations to workers and increase their cost savings. For instance, tech company Apple boasts a global workforce of approximately 750,000 individuals. But a mere 63,000 of these are directly employed by the company itself. 

    Being an independent contractor or temp worker impacts an individual’s work benefits and compensation. These workers aren’t covered by employee benefits and minimum wage laws. They don’t get sick days, overtime pay, or even unemployment insurance. Additionally, temp workers can’t pursue promotions because they aren’t employed by the company in the first place. 

    How can independent contractors have a voice then? The answer lies in union power. Historically, unions have been instrumental in advocating for fair working conditions and compensation. Regrettably, organized labor saw its downfall in the early 1980s, when corporations realized they could easily onboard new hires to replace unionized workers who went on strike. Employers continue to obstruct unions today, threatening workers with business closure and job loss, and leaving a significant 94 percent of private sector workers without union representation.

    Implementing new labor laws that streamline the process of organizing and promoting sectoral bargaining would address these disparities. An approach like this aims to organize workers not only within a single store or company but also across an entire sector. By doing so, a broader range of workers – encompassing both independent contractors and full-time employees – can gain empowerment.

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    What is Poverty, by America about?

    Poverty, by America (2023) delves into the paradoxical issue of poverty in the abundant country of the United States. It explores potential solutions to this pervasive issue, based on extensive research.

    Who should read Poverty, by America?

    • Poverty abolitionists
    • Lawmakers
    • Corporate leaders and shareholders

    About the Author

    Matthew Desmond is a sociology professor at Princeton University. He is also the author of the award-winning and New York Times bestseller Evicted (2016). 

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