Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

The Luxury of Disappointment: What Rick James Knew 30 Years Before the International Monetary Fund

This election is giving me high blood pressure, and I don’t mean the man in the Great Pumpkin outfit who is running for president.  

No, my friends, it is the folks on “my side” who bring me despair. The blue-hairs and kids that can afford to work in politics and policy are of the same breed and dependent on the same hierarchy that they claim to be against. 

Case in point: in a moment of panic I recently volunteered at a local political organization. They told me that they needed to hire five part-time workers at $10 per hour. I happen to know a few folks who need the work so I referred them. What the political organizers failed to understand—and this is often true in the nonprofit world generally—is that a grown adult who is desperate enough to work for a pittance really needs the moneyThey are facing food insecurity and other nasty things that we policy types can barely imagine. A part-time job requires as much travel as a full-time job, and people in this situation generally have to juggle several of these to stay afloat. A two-fare bus zone in my area will cost over $5 alone. While many organizations may not be able to pay a decent wage, they should consider providing travel and/or lunch to these workers. I cannot fathom how an organization that supports the Fight for $15 be so incongruous.

I have recently witnessed many disturbing episodes within the context of a ‘progressive’ workplace: A labor organization that continuously postpones filling a position without bothering to notify the candidates. An Executive Director who declines to pass along plumb job listings to the young lawyer who does pro bono work for her organization, because she doesn’t want to lose her. And most recently, the aforementioned political organization wastes the time of its potential hires precisely because their wage is so cheap.

I get that social organizations operate on a shoestring, but this doesn’t have to mean that they fail to value the time of their hires. Poor people are more time-constrained than anyone. Their time is the only thing they have to leverage. They cannot hire someone else to pick up the laundry. Many are caretakers. “Not my problem,” you say, “I have an organization to run.” An organization that gets its funding to help the very people it exploits? At what point does this become everyone’s problem? People are going hungry during this time of record profits. When do we step up and take responsibility in our little corner of the world before we, too, are shut out in the cold? 

There are many past examples of workplace problems that required an Act of Congress before employers would recognize them: sexual harassment, disability accommodations, a minimum wage, to name a few. Low wages and inequality are not just morally wrong, but it turns out that they are bad for the economy. I am deeply disappointed that our best hope for change lies in a third sector that is rife with exploitation. We cannot effect real change with the old paradigm.

People bemoan the disaffected and disconnected youth. I have a few in my own family, operating on “Brooklyn time” and failing to plan ahead. What I have concluded through my own recent dealings with the welfare system (which I try to think of as Participant-Observation research) is that these kids are not stupid; they’re meditating to diffuse a malignant rage. Disenfranchised folks that navigate the system well are required to have the patience of Job. This involves shutting down whole portions of the Self. They don’t have the luxury, the naivety—that I have displayed here—to be disappointed. They already know we aren’t going to change anything. That’s why they don’t vote.

One thing 'bout the ghetto

You don't have to hurry

It'll be there tomorrow

So brother don't you worry


—Rick James. “Ghetto Life” (1986)


Tara Marlowe is a recent graduate of Rutgers Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Tara has both a Master of Public Affairs and Politics and lived experience of poverty.