My last day as an Equal Justice Works Fellow was September 27, 2017. Since then, I’ve been writing this post in fits and starts to try and sum up the experience. Part of the difficulty is that strong opinions and emotions tend to make maudlin and trite things bubble up in the writing, and right now every thought I put down on the page feels imbued with passion and urgency and even anger. I think the best way to mitigate these risks is to begin with old news and ease into the new things. For those of you who may be reading about my work for the first time:
There’s a lot of dumb, bad discussion on the internet. A big part of what makes said discussion dumb and bad is the confidence with which one or both parties to the conversation state their claims. In the bowels of the gargantuan, rage-filled paragraphs with which these digital combatants typically bludgeon one another, it is often difficult to find a single sentence inflected with self-doubt. Everyone is an expert, and everyone’s opponents are drooling idiots.
And in American internet discourse, on no topic are Americans more confident than – well, aside from sports and movies – and television and video games, I suppose, and religion, and parenting, and specialty diets, and jet contrails, and vaccines…
Well, this rhetorical framing isn’t working at all.
…And in American internet discourse, We the People are confident about many things, but particular, we are very, very confident about What Our Constitutional Rights Are. This, taken as a whole, is a very, very good thing. A free people should think about their liberties often, and be rightfully skeptical of policies which would infringe them. Fierce debate over where to draw lines when rights conflict is an essential element of good governance in a system of government like ours.
But the unfortunate side effect of this laudable hashtag fierceness is that people and pundits will often frame assertions about their Constitutional rights in the following, overly simplistic way:
Today, The Atlantic ran an article on workers with disabilities and the sub-minimum wage.
Honestly, before reading it I didn’t even know this was an issue. In a nutshell:
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), section 14(c) allows employers who hire individuals with disabilities to pay them less than the minimum wage. According to the article, 14(c) was originally designed to provide an incentive for companies in industrial sectors to hire disabled veterans after the First World War. Today, the program is used to employ individuals with a range of disabilities who might not otherwise be able to hold down a traditional job.
However, organizations such as the Disability Rights Network and the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network argue that paying these workers less than minimum wage is an antiquated idea which demeans people with disabilities and creates perverse incentives to exploit their labor.
Hillary Clinton recently called attention to the issue on the campaign trail:
When it comes to jobs, we’ve got to figure out how we get the minimum wage up and include people with disabilities in the minimum wage. There should not be a tiered wage, and right now there is a tiered wage when it comes to facilities that do provide opportunities but not at a self-sufficient wage that enables people to gain a degree of independence as far as they can go. So I want us to take a hard look at raising the minimum wage and ending the tiered minimum wages, whether it’s for people with disabilities or the tipped wage….When people talk about raising the minimum wage, they don’t always talk about the legal loopholes that we have in it and I want to get rid of those and I want to get rid of that for people with disabilities too.
The house I always see is a deep purple and sits on a freeway overpass. Beside the window, there’s a painted military decoration – three stripes of red on a yellow field with a splash of green on either end- and the words “Vietnam Veteran” printed beside. A miniature American flag flutters proudly above the door. It’s an inspiring oddity – a small oasis of comfort suspended by a concrete span over the rushing din of Los Angeles traffic.
These houses are the brainchild of a Los Angeles resident named Elvis Summers, who made headlines last spring by constructing tiny mobile homes for homeless people. It started with one shack for his neighbor, and has since blossomed into a passion project, with thirty seven built so far. For their residents, these diminutive dwellings provide privacy and dignity. We, who have places to rest at the end of the day, often take for granted the ability to retreat, to not interact with other folks, to not be subject to the gaze and judgment of another. While these little dwellings are not a long-term solution to helping people experiencing homeless get off the street, they represent a compassionate step in the right direction.
Bafflingly, the City of Los Angeles thinks otherwise. Having designated them as prohibited “bulky items” which, pursuant to recently-passed City Ordinances, can be confiscated from homeless people without notice, the City has begun confiscating the tiny homes. As of February 25, 2016, they have taken three of the thirty seven dwellings Elvis Summers built by hand, and plan to take seven more by the end of the week. This action is the culmination of a legal fight that has been brewing since August, when the City Council first took up the issue.