The Bootstraps Myth

From Melissa McEwan of the blog Shakesville:

The Myth of Bootstraps goes something like this: I never got any help from anyone. I achieved my American Dream all on my own, through hard work. I got an education, I saved my money, I worked hard, I took risks, and I never complained or blamed anyone else when I failed, and every time I fell, I picked myself up by my bootstraps and just worked even harder. No one helped me.

This is almost always a lie.

There are vanishingly few people who have never had help from anyone—who never had family members who helped them, or friends, or colleagues, or teachers. 

Who never benefited from government programs that made sure they had electricity, or mail, or passable roads, or clean drinking water, or food, or shelter, or healthcare, or a loan. 

Who never had any kind of privilege from which they benefited, even if they didn’t actively try to trade on it. 

Who never had an opportunity they saw as luck which was really someone, somewhere, making a decision that benefited them. 

Who never had friends to help them move, so they didn’t have to pay for movers. Who never inherited a couch, so they didn’t have to pay for a couch. Who never got hand-me-down clothes from a cousin, so their parents could afford piano lessons. Who never had shoes that fit and weren’t leaky, when the kid down the street didn’t.

Most, maybe all, of the people who say they never got any help from anyone are taking a lot of help for granted.

They imagine that everyone has the same basic foundations that they had—and, if you point out to them that these kids over here live in an area rife with environmental pollutants that have been shown to affect growth or brain function or breathing capacity, they will simply sniff with indifference and declare that those things don’t matter. That government regulations which protect some living spaces and abandon others to poisons isn’t help. 

The government giving you money to eat is a hand-out. The government giving you regulations that protect the air you breathe is, at best, nothing of value—and, at worst, a job-killing regulation that impedes the success of people who want to get rich dumping toxins into the ground where people getting hand-outs live.

What are your thoughts?

The Way We Treat Children

If my perceptions are correct, there seems to be a growing sentiment (perhaps typical of each older generation) that today’s youth are needlessly and excessively coddled and “wussified” (to use the kinder terminology). But the apparently prevailing notion that kids nowadays are excessively spoiled is actually dangerously overstated, according to a recent article in AlterNet by Paul L. Thomas, a doctor of education and long-time teacher.

After recalling a few anecdotes regarding personal or observed mistreatment of kids (mostly in the context of school), he makes the following point:

A day or so ago, I received an email from Alfie Kohn about his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child. I noticed it was similar to a book I am co-editing, Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children. I also noted that our perspectives on children—on how parents, teachers, and society treat children—appears to be a minority view.

I have been mulling, or more likely stewing, about this for some time: What makes adults—even the ones who choose to spend their lives with children—so damned negative and hateful about those children? That is the source of my palpable anger at the “grit,”“no excuses,” and “zero tolerance” narratives and policies. I grew up and live in the South, where the default attitude toward children remains that they are to be seen and not heard, that a child’s role is to do as she/he is told. If a child crosses those lines, then we must teach her/him a lesson, show her/him who is boss—rightfully, we are told, by hitting that child: spare the rod spoil the child. I find that same deficit view of children is not some backwoods remnant of the ignorant South; it is the dominant perspective on children throughout the U.S.

As Barbara Kingsolver explains in “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby”:

>>For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do. Widows in black, buttoned-down c.e.o.’s, purple-sneakered teen-agers, the butcher, the baker, all have stopped on various sidewalks to have little chats with my daughter. Yesterday, a taxi driver leaned out his window to shout “ Hola, guapa !” My daughter, who must have felt my conditioned flinch, looked up at me wide-eyed and explained patiently, “I like it that people think I’m pretty.”

With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.<<

I’ve often noticed — and frankly even related with — the contradictory ways in which we regard children: they’re cute and enlivening on the one hand, but also irritating and burdensome on the other.  Their easily exploitable and powerless status also makes them a tempting target for venting one’s frustration or sense of inadequacy, which perhaps explains why children — along with women and the elderly — are frequently the victims of abuse in households and care centers.

Thomas also notes how the overall negative treatment of children intersects with racist and classist sentiments as well:

A child is not a small adult, not a blank slate to be filled with our “adult weariness,” or a broken human that must be repaired. It is also true that children are not angels; they are not pure creatures suited to be set free to find the world on their own. Seeing children through deficit or ideal lenses does not serve them—or anyone—well.

>>Within the U.S. culture there is a schizophrenia around kids—we worship young adulthood in popular media, but seem to hate children—that is multiplied exponentially by a lingering racism and classism that compounds the deficit view of childhood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the research showing how people view children of color:

Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too… The correlation between dehumanization and use of force becomes more significant when you consider that black boys are routinely estimated to be older than they are… The less the black kids were seen as human, the less they were granted “the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” And those officers who were more likely to dehumanize black suspects overlapped with those who used more force against them.<<

In the enduring finger-pointing dominant in the U.S.—blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming racial minorities for the burdens of racism, blaming women for the weight of sexism—we maintain a gaze that blinds us to ourselves, and allows us to ignore that in that gaze are reflections of the worst among us.

Why do the police sweep poor African American neighborhoods and not college campuses in search of illegal drugs? Why do we place police in the hallways of urban high schools serving mostly poor African American and Latino students, demanding “zero tolerance”? Why are “grit” narratives and “no excuses” policies almost exclusively targeting high-poverty, majority-minority schools (often charter schools with less public oversight)?

Here’s the basic crux of Thomas’ point.

Children are not empty vessels to be filled, blank hard drives upon which we save the data we decide they should have. Nor are children flawed or wild; they do not need us to repair or break them. Neither are they to be coddled or worshipped. They are children, and they are all our children. Yes, there are lessons to be taught, lessons to be learned. But those driven by deficit or idealized views are corrupted and corrupting lessons. Each and every child—as all adults—deserves to have her/his basic dignity respected, first, and as adults charged with the care of any child, our initial question before we do anything with or to a child must be about ourselves. In 31 years of teaching, I can still see and name the handful of students I mis-served in my career, like Billy above. Those faces and names today serve as my starting point: with any child, first do no harm.

What do you think?

The James Bond of Philanthropy

In my view, with great wealth comes great responsibility. It gives you the capacity to do tremendous good or harm in the world, far more than the overwhelming majority of fellow humans. A little-known Irish-American businessman named Chuck Feeney exemplifies the incredible moral potential that the world’s richest can exercise if they so choose. Forbes did a piece on this amazing philanthropist in 2012, likening him to James Bond for his uniquely low-key and strategic approach to charitable giving:

Over the last 30 years he’s crisscrossed the globe conducting a clandestine operation to give away a $7.5 billion fortune derived from hawking cognac, perfume and cigarettes in his empire of duty-free shops. His foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, has funneled $6.2 billion into education, science, health care, aging and civil rights in the U.S., Australia, Vietnam, Bermuda, South Africa and Ireland. Few living people have given away more, and no one at his wealth level has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime. The remaining $1.3 billion will be spent by 2016, and the foundation will be shuttered in 2020. While the business world’s titans obsess over piling up as many riches as possible, Feeney is working double time to die broke.

Feeney embarked on this mission in 1984, in the middle of a decade marked by wealth creation–and conspicuous consumption–when he slyly transferred his entire 38.75% ownership stake in Duty Free Shoppers to what became the Atlantic Philanthropies. “I concluded that if you hung on to a piece of the action for yourself you’d always be worrying about that piece,” says Feeney, who estimates his current net worth at $2 million (with an “m”). “People used to ask me how I got my jollies, and I guess I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.”

What Feeney does is give big money to big problems–whether bringing peace to Northern Ireland, modernizing Vietnam’s health care system or seeding $350 million to turn New York’s long-neglected Roosevelt Island into a technology hub. He’s not waiting to grant gifts after he’s gone nor to set up a legacy fund that annually tosses pennies at a $10 problem. He hunts for causes where he can have dramatic impact and goes all-in. “Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model,” Bill Gates tells FORBES, “and the ultimate example of giving while living.”

I highly recommend you read the rest of the article, as it eventually discusses the nuances of Feeny’s character and his rather sophisticated philanthropic methods. The amount of wealth he is donating in both proportional and absolute terms is staggering enough without the added humility and strategic approach.

It is unfortunate that amid ever-higher rates of inequality — best epitomized by the fact that a mere 85 individuals own more wealth than around half of the world’s poorest people (3.5 billion) – most of the world’s elites aren’t following in Feeny’s footsteps, or at the very least donating more than a mere percentage of their assets. There’s a lot of untapped potential out there, and even a number of us who are comfortably well-off could be doing more.

The Man Who Cultivated Malala

By now most readers no doubt know of Malala Yousafzai, the brave teen activist who advocated for education and women’s rights in a Taliban-dominated part of Pakistan before nearly dying  at the hands of a Taliban gunman. The assassination attempt — which has done little to silence her — rightly elevated her to international attention while highlighting the plight of women and girls in Pakistan and the brave efforts of reformers like Malala to change the status quo.

Now the man who has been most fundamental to Malala’s courage, her father Ziauddin, is entering the spotlight for his uniquely progressive role in helping his daughter realize her remarkable potential on her own terms. “Why is my daughter so strong?” Yousafzai asks. “Because I didn’t clip her wings.” A simple but profound point about the role that parents should play in their children’s lives, especially within societies that seek to oppress and stifle them.

Check out his incredible and inspiring TED Talk below. It’s well worth your time.

It’s beautiful to see how much this son and daughter team have managed to defy stereotypes and societal pressure to become mutually reinforcing and supportive of each other, leading as much by example as through activism. I can’t wait to see what amazing things they’ll accomplish in the future, especially as Malala begins to realize her dream of continuing her education and no doubt learning more about how she can help the world.

 

What Martin Luther King Jr. Stood For

Martin Luther King Jr. remains one of the most enduring and popular figures in American history, and rightfully so: his brilliant oratory, moral integrity, and steadfast dedication to social justice make him a timeless role model for people across the world.

But like most prominent figures, especially those who promoted such ambitious goals, many have come to challenge King’s contributions; namely, whether his goals were ultimately achieved. Given the persistence of racial inequality — highlighted by disproportional rates of poverty, imprisonment, and the like — it’s easy, if not understandable, to consider King’s dream a failure (or at least a work in progress).

While I sadly don’t have the time to share my own thoughts on the matter, I’ve found a great piece on DailyKos that more or less echoes my views as well. I recommend you read the whole article, but the following excerpt represents the crux of it:

So yes, Dr. King had many other goals, many other more transcendent, non-racial, policy goals, goals that apply to white people too, like ending poverty, reducing the war-like aspects of our foreign policy, promoting the New Deal goal of universal employment, and so on. But his main accomplishment was ending 200 years of racial terrorism, by getting black people to confront their fears. So please don’t tell me that Martin Luther King’s dream has not been achieved, unless you knew what racial terrorism was like back then and can make a convincing case you still feel it today. If you did not go through that transition, you’re not qualified to say that the dream was not accomplished.

That is what Dr. King did—not march, not give good speeches. He crisscrossed the south organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives.

Once the beating was over, we were free.

It wasn’t the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act that freed us. It was taking the beating and thereafter not being afraid. So, sorry Mrs. Clinton, as much as I admire you, you were wrong on this one. Our people freed ourselves and those Acts, as important as they were, were only white people officially recognizing what we had done.

What are your thoughts?

A Socialist Speech From the Heart of Capitalist America

Last fall, Kshama Sawant made headlines around the country (if not the world) when she became the first Socialist elected to the Seattle City Council in over a hundred years (and one of the few publicly socialist figures in any major U.S. city). She took office on January 1st, declaring that “I wear the badge of socialism with honor”. This was her inaugural speech:

This city has made glittering fortunes for the super wealthy and for the major corporations that dominate Seattle’s landscape. At the same time, the lives of working people, the unemployed and the poor grow more difficult by the day. The cost of housing skyrockets, and education and healthcare become inaccessible.

This is not unique to Seattle. Shamefully, in this, the richest country in human history, fifty million of our people—one in six—live in poverty. Around the world, billions do not have access to clean water and basic sanitation and children die every day from malnutrition.

This is the reality of international capitalism. This is the product of the gigantic casino of speculation created by the highway robbers on Wall Street. In this system the market is God, and everything is sacrificed on the altar of profit. Capitalism has failed the 99%.

Despite recent talk of economic growth, it has only been a recovery for the richest 1%, while the rest of us are falling ever farther behind.

In our country, Democratic and Republican politicians alike primarily serve the interests of big business. A completely dysfunctional Congress DOES manage to agree on one thing—regular increases in their already bloated salaries—yet at the same time allows the federal minimum wage to stagnate and fall farther and farther behind inflation. We have the obscene spectacle of the average corporate CEO getting seven thousand dollars an hour, while the lowest-paid workers are called presumptuous in their demand for just fifteen.

To begin to change all of this, we need organized mass movements of workers and young people, relying on their own independent strength. That is how we won unions, civil rights and LGBTQ rights.

Again, throughout the length and breadth of this land, working people are mobilizing for a decent and dignified life for themselves and their children. Look at the fast food workers movement, the campaigns of Walmart workers, and the heroic activism to stop the Keystone XL pipeline!

Right here in SeaTac, we have just witnessed the tremendous and victorious campaign for fifteen dollars an hour. At the same time, in Lorain County, Ohio, twenty-four candidates ran, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as ‘Independent Labor’ and were elected to their City Councils.

I will do my utmost to represent the disenfranchised and the excluded, the poor and the oppressed—by fighting for a $15/hour minimum wage, affordable housing, and taxing the super-rich for a massive expansion of public transit and education. But my voice will be heard by those in power only if workers themselves shout their demands from the rooftops and organize en masse.

My colleagues and I in Socialist Alternative will stand shoulder to shoulder with all those who want to fight for a better world. But working people need a new political party, a mass organization of the working class, run by—and accountable to—themselves. A party that will struggle and campaign in their interest, and that will boldly advocate for alternatives to this crisis-ridden system.

Here in Seattle, political pundits are asking about me: will she compromise? Can she work with others? Of course, I will meet and discuss with representatives of the establishment. But when I do, I will bring the needs and aspirations of working-class people to every table I sit at, no matter who is seated across from me. And let me make one thing absolutely clear: There will be no backroom deals with corporations or their political servants. There will be no rotten sell-out of the people I represent. [...]

The election of a socialist to the Council of a major city in the heartland of global capitalism has made waves around the world. We know because we have received messages of support from Europe, Latin America, Africa and from Asia. Those struggling for change have told us they have been inspired by our victory.

To all those prepared to resist the agenda of big business—in Seattle and nationwide—I appeal to you: get organized. Join with us in building a mass movement for economic and social justice, for democratic socialist change, whereby the resources of society can be harnessed, not for the greed of a small minority, but for the benefit of all people. Solidarity.

Needless to say, it’s pretty controversial stuff, though it shouldn’t be. As one of my friends noted, you can change “Seattle” to any major city in the country, and her observation, if not her prescription, would still apply.

Sex Sells…But Not For Social Causes?

Given all the attention levied at social justice groups like PETA and FEMEN — both of which are notable for their use of female nudity during protests and campaigns — one would think the tactic has merit. After all, these and other groups are obviously trying to garner attention, and raising awareness is central to addressing any number of causes.

However, Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon points to some research from Australia that confirms what many critics — even those sympathetic to these causes — have long pointed out: that the use of sex does little to further these campaigns, and if anything harms them:

Two new University of Queensland studies on “Using Sexualized Images of Women” have found that when subjects view sexy PETA ads, “Intentions to support the ethical organization were reduced for those exposed to the sexualized advertising” and “that behaviors helpful to the ethical cause diminished after viewing the sexualized advertisements.” In one of the studies, researchers found that men who viewed the ads were likely to report arousal (shocker), but that they were no likelier to support the cause itself. Renata Bongiorno, the lead researcher on both studies, says, ”There’s a negative link between dehumanization and the treatment of others, it reduces concern.… If you are using images that are dehumanizing, it’s likely to backfire.”

Williams goes on to note that merely gaining attention isn’t enough, and that social justice groups need to lead by example or find other creative ways to raise awareness besides realizing on (mostly) female nudity.

But attention is not support. Headlines don’t end animal cruelty or cure cancer, or, in the case of Miley, increase public sensitivity to say, breastfeeding mothers. “Awareness” is a self-serving, largely meaningless term, a rationalization for petty, demeaning stunts. This new research supports the nagging feeling many of us have held for years – that rather than filling people with warm helpful feelings, the true byproduct of using women’s bodies as window dressing appears to be boners.  Advertising consultant Jane Caro tells the Canberra Times, ”Sex only sells if you are trying to sell sex.” You want to sell ethics? Try using ethical behavior.

Do you agree? What are your thoughts?

Factsheet on Racial Inequality in U.S. Justice System

Incarceration Trends in America 

  • From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people
  • Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners.
  • Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, 1 in ever y 31 adults, or 3.2 percent of the population is under some form of correctional control

Racial Disparities in Incarceration

  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
  • 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
  • Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).

Drug Sentencing Disparities

  • About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug
  • 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
  • African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). (Sentencing Project)

Contributing Factors

  • Inner city crime prompted by social and economic isolation
  • Crime/drug arrest rates: African Americans represent 12% of monthly drug users, but comprise 32% of persons arrested for drug possession
  • “Get tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing, especially disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine possession
  • In 2002, blacks constituted more than 80% of the people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws and served substantially more time in prison for drug offenses than did whites, despite that fact that more than 2/3 of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic
  • “Three Strikes”/habitual offender policies
  • Zero Tolerance policies as a result of perceived problems of school violence; adverse affect on black children.
  • 35% of black children grades 7-12 have been suspended or expelled at some point in their school careers compared to 20% of Hispanics and 15% of whites

Effects of Incarceration

  • Jail reduces work time of young people over the next decade by 25-30 percent when compared with arrested youths who were not incarcerated
  • Jails and prisons are recognized as settings where society’s infectious diseases are highly concentrated
  • Prison has not been proven as a rehabilitation for behavior, as two-thirds of prisoners will reoffend

Exorbitant Cost of Incarceration: Is it Worth It?

  • About $70 billion dollars are spent on corrections yearly
  • Prisons and jails consume a growing portion of the nearly $200 billion we spend annually on public safety

Source: NAACP

Which Ten U.S. Companies Pay Their Workers The Least?

According to the financial section of Yahoo, as shared at Everlasting GOP Stoppersthese ten companies pay their employees the least. Take note of each employer’s executive compensation and net income (e.g. profits) relative to the average pay of their workers. 

10. Starbucks > U.S. workforce: 120,000 > CEO compensation: $28.9 million > Revenue: $13.3 billion > Net income: $1.4 billion > No. of U.S. stores: 5,415/7,049/13,493

Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) employs 120,000 workers across the United States. Howard Schultz, the company’s CEO, has become a billionaire by turning Starbucks from a small coffee retailer into one of the world’s most famous brands. Last year, Schultz took home nearly $29 million in total compensation. Schultz is often viewed as a progressive executive, due to his support of gay marriage and his request that customers not bring guns into Starbucks locations. In an interview with CNBC in March, Schultz cautiously supported a minimum wage hike. However, according to Glassdoor.com, baristas at Starbucks are paid an average of less than $9 an hour. Schultz has downplayed the relevance of these figures.

9. TJX Companies > U.S. workforce: 138,211 (est.) > CEO compensation:$21.8 million > Revenue: $25.9 billion > Net income: $1.9 billion > No. of U.S. stores: 2,355

The TJX Companies Inc. (TJX) operates Marshalls, TJ Maxx and HomeGoods in the United States. The company’s stores are off-price retailers, meaning they buy unsold inventory from manufacturers and other retailers and resell it at a discount. TJX’s sales have grown in the past four consecutive fiscal years as the retailer also boosted its operating profit margin. Despite the company’s success, sales associates at its stores earn less than $8 an hour on average, according to Glassdoor.com.

8. Macy’s  > U.S. workforce: 175,700 > CEO compensation: $13.8 million > Revenue: $27.7 billion > Net income: $1.3 billion > No. of U.S. stores: 844

Annual revenue at Macy’s Inc. (NYSE: M) has risen slightly over the past four years, up from roughly $25 billion in 2008 to more than $27.7 billion at the end of its latest fiscal year. Macy’s, the second-largest department store in the United States, exceeded Wall Street’s expectations this past quarter, posting large increases in sales and earnings from the year before. Earlier this year, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union ratified a five-year agreement with Macy’s that should help protect the benefits of nearly 700 Macy’s employees in Maryland and Washington, D.C. According to Glassdoor.com, associates are paid under $9 an hour on average.

7. Darden Restaurants > U.S. workforce: 203,389 (est.) > CEO compensation: $6.4 million > Revenue: $8.6 billion > Net income: $412 million > No. of U.S. stores: 2,105

Revenues at Darden Restaurants Inc. (DRI), the parent company of chains such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, rose from just $7.2 billion in 2009 to $8.6 billion in fiscal 2013. According to Morningstar’s analysis, operating margins have been some of the best in the industry in the past few years. Additionally, instead of raising wages, the company’s funds have been used effectively “to fund growth concepts and enhance total shareholder returns.” Yet the results have not been enough for investors, some of whom have pushed for the company to split and continue to cut costs faster. In 2013, Fortune named Darden one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For,” citing access to low-cost health insurance for part-time employees. Still, pay for many workers at Olive Garden and Red Lobster is frequently less than $10.00 per hour, according to Glassdoor.com. However, many of these employees may receive tips in addition to their base pay.

6. Sears Holdings > U.S. workforce: 246,000 > CEO compensation: $1.3 million (Louis D’Ambrosio, former CEO) > Revenue: $39.9 billion > Net income: -$930 million > No. of U.S. stores: 2,073

Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD), owner of both Sears and Kmart, is in heavy competition with other department stores. The median hourly wage for department store workers was just $9.83 in 2012. At Sears, sales associates averaged slightly more than $8 an hour, while cashiers averaged $7.70 per hour. Kmart offered similar pay to its workers as well, with 105 cashiers and 75 sales associates reporting to Glassdoor.com that their hourly wages were less than $8.00. However, Sears Holdings may not have the necessary ability to increase its employees’ pay. Sales have slipped in the past few years, plunging from $47.8 billion in fiscal 2008 to less than $40 billion in the most recent year. The company has also failed to post an operating profit in either of the past two full fiscal years.

5. Yum! Brands > U.S. workforce: 694,712 (est.) > CEO compensation:$14.2 million > Revenue: $13.6 billion > Net income: $1.6 billion > No. of U.S. stores: 18,069

Yum! Brands Inc. (YUM) CEO David Novak received more than $14 million worth of total compensation in the past fiscal year. The company’s revenue rose from $11.3 billion to $13.6 billion. Hourly wages for workers at its KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell chains, however, are still often less than $8 an hour. Yum! Brands has continued to expand, opening more than five new restaurants a day outside the United States in 2012. However many American workers have expressed frustration that the company’s success has not led to an increase in their pay. This summer, fast-food workers at Yum! Brands and other fast-food chains staged protests across the country, demanding higher wages.

4. Kroger > U.S. workforce: 343,000 > CEO compensation: $11.1 million > Revenue: $96.8 billion > Net income: $1.5 billion > No. of U.S. stores: 2,418

The Kroger Co. (KR) employs 343,000 workers in 2,418 stores across the country. The company operates stores under several names, including Kroger, City Market, Dillons and others. A majority of Kroger’s employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements between the company and different unions. In the past few months, Kroger has agreed to terms with unions covering thousands of workers in Virginia and Texas. Kroger’s net profit was $1.5 billion at the end of the most recent fiscal year.

3. Target > U.S. workforce: 361,000 > CEO compensation: $20.6 million > Revenue: $73.3 billion > Net income: $3.0 billion > No. of U.S. stores: 1,778

Target Corp. (TGT) had 361,000 employees working at 1,778 stores in the United States at the end of 2012. The average listed salary on Glassdoor.com for a cashier or an employee on the Target sales floor is less than $9 an hour. In response to Target opening on Thursday, in advance of Black Friday, Target workers drafted a petition last year to “save Thanksgiving.” More than 300,000 people signed the petition. This year, Target stores will open on Thanksgiving Day at 8 p.m. That is an hour earlier than last year.

2. McDonald’s > U.S. workforce: 739,055 (est.) > CEO compensation:$13.8 million > Revenue: $27.6 billion > Net income: $5.5 billion > No. of U.S. stores: 14,157

In the restaurant industry, the hourly median wage was just over $9.00 as of 2012. However, many McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) employees are paid far less, with cashiers and crew members often earning only the minimum wage. In October, several McDonald’s employees were arrested for protesting their wages at the Union League Club of Chicago, where McDonald’s President Jeff Stratton was giving a speech. Between 2008 and 2012, sales and profit margins at McDonald’s have increased. Despite the company’s growth, employees are still hurting. All but admitting the low wages, McDonald’s encourages employees to enroll in food stamps and welfare programs.

1. Walmart > U.S. workforce: 1.4 million > CEO compensation: $20.7 million> Revenue: $469 billion > Net income: $17.0 billion > No. of U.S. stores:4,759

There are 1.4 million Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) associates working at the company’s 4,759 U.S. stores. Walmart recently announced it would launch Black Friday sales at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Critics of Walmart see this as adding insult to injury — forcing retail workers who already earn low wages to cut holidays short. Criticisms like these have been part of an onslaught of claims that Walmart underpays its workers. Walmart disagrees, saying that “for tens of thousands of people every year, a job at Walmart opens the door to a better life.” According to the company, a full-time hourly wage is $12.83. Some argue that the company’s number is inflated, however, reflecting the salaries of higher-paid employees. Hourly wages for sales associates are less than $9.00, according to Glassdoor.com. Walmart’s net income rose to $17 billion last year.

The Food Wasting Pandemic

In a world where around  870 million people suffer from chronic malnourishment — and tens of millions more come very close — wasting food would be a significant moral calamity. Unfortunately, as the Washington Post’s Brad Plummer reported on his WonkBlog, it’s also a disturbingly common and large scale problem, one that is hardly limited to privileged first-worlders living in abundance (although that’s a big part of it).

Between 30 and 50 percent of all the food that’s produced on the planet is lost and wasted without ever reaching human stomachs. That’s the stunning takeaway from a new report (pdf) from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

We’ve covered food waste before on this blog, but those figures seemed staggering to the point of absurdity. So I thought I’d comb through the report and pull out some of the concrete details that help illustrate just how the world can actually waste this much food. A sampling:

  • “A [survey] in India showed that at least 40% of all its fruit and vegetables is lost between grower and consumer due to lack of refrigerated transport, poor roads, inclement weather and corruption.”
  • “In mature, developed economies such as the UK and USA … entire crops, or portions of crops, can be rejected prior to harvest on the grounds of physical appearance. As a result of these factors, up to 30% of the UK vegetable crop is never harvested.”
  • “Grain wastage in store varies widely with the type of crop and the region. In a developed country such as Australia, wastage of 0.75% in stored grain is at the upper end of acceptability … [In] Pakistan, losses amount to about 16% of production, or 3.2 million tonnes annually, where inadequate storage infrastructure leads to widespread rodent infestation problems.”
  • “Many of the grain stores in the former Soviet Republics were engineered and constructed in the 1930s, and cold-storage warehouses and food processing facilities date back to the 1950s. As a result they are inefficient by modern engineering standards, and frequently both insanitary and unsafe.”
  • “[M]any less-developed nations are located in the warmer, hotter regions of the world, such as India and Africa where post harvest losses of fruit and vegetables can range between 35–50% annually, and these countries lack the engineered infrastructure required to facilitate such post-harvest cooling.”

Note that the U.S. alone wastes $165 billion in food each year, which amounts to perhaps 40 percent of our domestic supply — a staggering number in a country with a fairly high percentage of impoverished and food-insecure people. Not only is wasting food on this scale a tragedy in its own right, but it also puts pressure on our already-strained resources, namely water, land, and energy.

Thankfully, like most such social issues, there are reasonable and plausible solutions — albeit ones requiring a tremendous amount of financial and political investment.

For poorer countries, simply building better food-storage buildings could cut down massively on waste in places like Pakistan or Ghana (which lost 50 percent of its stored maize in 2008). Better harvesting technology and techniques could also help, although the report suggests that some nations like India will need more sweeping societal and political changes to cut down on waste.

Meanwhile, wealthier regions like the United States and Europe will need to think harder about not throwing out so much perfectly good food — see this old post for more on that. One small step, which Britain has been exploring of late, is to rethink their use of food labels, which often encourage supermarkets to toss out food long before it actually goes bad.

Furthermore, time is of the essence, as other global problems are exacerbating the issue:

That may not seem like a pressing task right this second, but these issues are likely to get more attention in the years ahead. Scientists say it’s going to be a challenge feeding the world as the population soars past 7 billion and climate change deals a blow to crop yields in the decades ahead. Apart from advanced farming techniques and better land management, we’ll also need to figure out how to tamp down on food waste.

Again, this would require a significant amount of political and economic capital, from both the private and public sectors. The public needs to become more aware of this issue and put pressure on politicians and companies alike to take action. It will require a significant multidimensional approach, which is no easy task given all the other complex national and global problems occupying most societies. Of course, the consequences of inaction will be far more difficult to deal with.

To learn more about the big picture regarding this topic, read this PDF essay  by the University of Minnesota’s Jonathan Foley.