By Elizabeth Anderson, Princeton and Vox.com
We usually assume that “government” refers to state authorities. Yet the state is only one kind of government. Every organization needs some way to govern itself — to designate who has authority to make decisions concerning its affairs, what their powers are, and what consequences they may mete out to those beneath them in the organizational chart who fail to do their part in carrying out the organization’s decisions. Managers in private firms can impose, for almost any reason, sanctions including job loss, demotion, pay cuts, worse hours, worse conditions, and harassment. The top managers of firms are therefore the heads of little governments, who rule their workers while they are at work — and often even when they are off duty.
Managers often conceal decisions of vital interest to their workers. Often, they don’t even give advance notice of firm closures and layoffs. They are free to sacrifice workers’ dignity in dominating and humiliating their subordinates….We are told that unregulated markets make us free, and that the only threat to our liberties is the state. We are told that in the market, all transactions are voluntary. We are told that since workers freely enter and exit the labor contract, they are perfectly free under it. We prize our skepticism about “government,” without extending our critique to workplace dictatorship.
We are told that unregulated markets make us free, and that the only threat to our liberties is the state. We are told that in the market, all transactions are voluntary. We are told that since workers freely enter and exit the labor contract, they are perfectly free under it. We prize our skepticism about “government,” without extending our critique to workplace dictatorship.
How bosses are (literally) like dictators: Americans think they live in a democracy. But their workplaces are small tyrannies
Consider some facts about how American employers control their workers. Amazon prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this “time theft.” Apple inspects the personal belongings of its retail workers, some of whom lose up to a half-hour of unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched. Tyson prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom. Some have been forced to urinate on themselves while their supervisors mock them.
About half of US employees have been subject to suspicionless drug screening by their employers. Millions are pressured by their employers to support particular political causes or candidates. Soon employers will be empowered to withhold contraception coveragefrom their employees’ health insurance. They already have the right to penalize workers for failure to exercise and diet, by charging them higher health insurance premiums.
How should we understand these sweeping powers that employers have to regulate their employees’ lives, both on and off duty? Most people don’t use the term in this context, but wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in some domain of life, that authority is a government.
We usually assume that “government” refers to state authorities. Yet the state is only one kind of government. Every organization needs some way to govern itself — to designate who has authority to make decisions concerning its affairs, what their powers are, and what consequences they may mete out to those beneath them in the organizational chart who fail to do their part in carrying out the organization’s decisions.
Managers in private firms can impose, for almost any reason, sanctions including job loss, demotion, pay cuts, worse hours, worse conditions, and harassment. The top managers of firms are therefore the heads of little governments, who rule their workers while they are at work — and often even when they are off duty.
Every government has a constitution, which determines whether it is a democracy, a dictatorship, or something else. In a democracy like the United States, the government is “public.” This means it is properly the business of the governed: transparent to them and servant to their interests. They have a voice and the power to hold rulers accountable.
Not every government is public in this way. When King Louis XIV of France said, “L’etat, c’est moi,” he meant that his government was his business alone, something he kept private from those he governed. They weren’t entitled to know how he operated it, had no standing to insist he take their interests into account in his decisions, and no right to hold him accountable for his actions.
Over time, national governments have become “public,” but in the US workplace governments remain resolutely “private”
Like Louis XIV’s government, the typical American workplace is kept private from those it governs. Managers often conceal decisions of vital interest to their workers. Often, they don’t even give advance notice of firm closures and layoffs. They are free to sacrifice workers’ dignity in dominating and humiliating their subordinates. Most employer harassment of workers is perfectly legal, as long as bosses mete it out on an equal-opportunity basis. (Walmart and Amazon managers are notorious for berating and belittling their workers.) And workers have virtually no power to hold their bosses accountable for such abuses: They can’t fire their bosses, and can’t sue them for mistreatment except in a very narrow range of cases, mostly having to do with discrimination.
Why are workers subject to private government? The state has set the default terms of the constitution of workplace government through its employment laws. The most important source of employers’ power is the default rule of employment at will. Unless the parties have otherwise agreed, employers are free to fire workers for almost any or no reason. This amounts to an effective grant of power to employers to rule the lives of their employees in almost any respect — not just on the job but off duty as well. And they have exercised that power.
Scotts, the lawn care company, fired an employee for smoking off duty. After Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) notified Lakeland Bank that an employee had complained he wasn’t holding town hall meetings, the bank intimidated her into resigning. San Diego Christian College fired a teacher for having premarital sex — and hired her fiancé to fill her post. Bosses are dictators, and workers are their subjects.
American public discourse doesn’t give us helpful ways to talk about the dictatorial rule of employers. Instead, we talk as if workers aren’t ruled by their bosses. We are told that unregulated markets make us free, and that the only threat to our liberties is the state. We are told that in the market, all transactions are voluntary. We are told that since workers freely enter and exit the labor contract, they are perfectly free under it. We prize our skepticism about “government,” without extending our critique to workplace dictatorship.
The earliest champions of free markets envisioned a world of self-employment
Why do we talk like this? The answer takes us back to free market ideas developed before the Industrial Revolution. In 17th- and 18th-century Britain, big merchants got the state to grant them monopolies over trade in particular goods, forcing small craftsmen to submit to their regulations. A handful of aristocratic families enjoyed a monopoly on land, due to primogeniture and entail, which barred the breakup and sale of any part of large estates. Farmers could rent their land only on short-term leases, which forced them to bow and scrape before their landlords, in a condition of subordination not much different from servants, who lived in their masters’ households and had to obey their rules.
The problem was that the state had rigged the rules of the market in favor of the rich. Confronted with this economic situation, many people argued that free markets would promote equality and workers’ interests by enabling them to go into business for themselves and thereby escape subordination to the owners of capital.
No wonder some of the early advocates of free markets in 17th-century England were called “Levellers.” These radicals, who emerged during the English civil war, wanted to abolish the monopolies held by the big merchants and aristocrats. They saw the prospects of greater equality that might come from opening up to ordinary workers opportunities for manufacture, trade, and farming one’s own land.
In the 18th century, Adam Smith was the greatest advocate for the view that replacing monopolies, primogeniture, entail, and involuntary servitude with free markets would enable laborers to work on their own behalf. His key assumption was that incentives were more powerful than economies of scale. When workers get to keep all of the fruits of their labor, as they do when self-employed, they will work much harder and more efficiently than if they are employed by a master, who takes a cut of what they produce. Indolent aristocratic landowners can’t compete with yeoman farmers without laws preventing land sales. Free markets in land, labor, and commerce will therefore lead to the triumph of the most efficient producer, the self-employed worker, and the demise of the idle, stupid, rent-seeking rentier.
Smith and his contemporaries looked across the Atlantic and saw that America appeared to be realizing these hopes — although only for white men. The great majority of the free population in the Revolutionary period was self-employed, as either a yeoman farmer or an independent artisan or merchant.
In the United States, Thomas Paine was the great promoter of this vision. Indeed, his views on political economy sound as if they could have been ripped out of the GOP Freedom Caucus playbook. Paine argued that individuals can solve nearly all of their problems on their own, without state meddling. A good government does nothing more than secure individuals in “peace and safety” in the free pursuit of their occupations, with the lowest possible tax burden. Taxation is theft. People living off government pay are social parasites. Government is the chief cause of poverty. Paine was a lifelong advocate of commerce, free trade, and free markets. He called for hard money and fiscal responsibility.
Paine was the hero of labor radicals for decades after his death in 1809, because they shared his hope that free markets would yield an economy almost entirely composed of small proprietors. An economy of small proprietors offers a plausible model of a free society of equals: each individual personally independent, none taking orders from anyone else, everyone middle class.
Abraham Lincoln built on the vision of Smith and Paine, which helped to shape the two key planks of the Republican Party platform: opposition to the extension of slavery in the territories, and the Homestead Act. Slavery, after all, enabled masters to accumulate vast tracts of land, squeezing out small farmers and forcing them into wage labor. Prohibiting the extension of slavery into the territories and giving away small plots of land to anyone who would work it would realize a society of equals in which no one is ever consigned to wage labor for life. Lincoln, who helped create the political party that now defends the interests of business, never wavered from the proposition that true free labor meant freedom from wage labor.
The Industrial Revolution, however — well underway by Lincoln’s time — ultimately dashed the hopes of joining free markets with independent labor in a society of equals. Smith’s prediction — that economies of scale would be less important than the incentive effects of enabling workers to reap all the fruits of their labor — was defeated by industrial technologies that required massive accumulations of capital. The US, with its access to territories seized from Native Americans, was able to stave off the bankruptcy of self-employed farmers and other small proprietors for far longer than Europe. But industrialization, population growth, the closure of the frontier, and railroad monopolies doomed the sole proprietorship to the margins of the economy, even in North America.
The Industrial Revolution gave employers new powers over workers, but economists failed to adjust their vocabulary — or their analyses
The Smith-Paine-Lincoln libertarian vision was rendered largely irrelevant by industrialization, which created a new model of wage labor, with large companies taking the place of large landowners. Yet strangely, many people persist in using Smith’s and Paine’s rhetoric to describe the world we live in today. We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control — but most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government. A vision of what egalitarians hoped market society would deliver before the Industrial Revolution — a world without private workplace government, with producers interacting only through markets and the state — has been blindly carried over to the modern economy by libertarians and their pro-business fellow travelers.
There is a condition called hemiagnosia, whose sufferers cannot perceive one half of their bodies. A large class of libertarian-leaning thinkers and politicians, with considerable public following, resemble patients with this condition: They cannot perceive half of the economy — the half that takes place beyond the market, after the employment contract is accepted, where workers are subject to private, arbitrary, unaccountable government.
What can we do about this? Americans are used to complaining about how government regulation restricts our freedom. So we should recognize that such complaints apply, with at least as much force, to private governments of the workplace. For while the punishments employers can impose for disobedience aren’t as severe as those available to the state, the scope of employers’ authority over workers is more sweeping and exacting, its power more arbitrary and unaccountable. Therefore, it is high time we considered remedies for reining in the private government of the workplace similar to those we have long insisted should apply to the state.
Three types of remedy are of special importance. First, recall a key demand the United States made of communist dictatorships during the Cold War: Let dissenters leave. Although workers are formally free to leave their workplace dictatorships, they often pay a steep price. Nearly one-fifth of American workers labor under noncompete clauses. This means they can’t work in the same industry if they quit or are fired.
And it’s not just engineers and other “knowledge economy” workers who are restricted in this way: Even some minimum wage workers are forced to sign noncompetes. Workers who must leave their human capital behind are not truly free to quit. Every state should follow California’s example and ban noncompete clauses from work contracts.
We should clarify the rights that workers possess, and then defend them
Second, consider that if the state imposed surveillance and regulations on us in anything like the way that private employers do, we would rightly protest that our constitutional rights were being violated. American workers have few such rights against their bosses, and the rights they have are very weakly enforced. We should strengthen the constitutional rights that workers have against their employers, and rigorously enforce the ones the law already purports to recognize.
Among the most important of these rights are to freedom of speech and association. This means employers shouldn’t be able to regulate workers’ off-duty speech and association, or informal non-harassing talk during breaks or on duty, if it does not unduly interfere with job performance. Nor should they be able to prevent workers from supporting the candidate of their choice.
Third, we should make the government of the workplace more public (in the sense that political scientists use the term). Workers need a real voice in how they are governed — not just the right to complain without getting fired, but an organized way to insist that their interests have weight in decisions about how work is organized.
One way to do this would be to strengthen the rights of labor unions to organize. Labor unions are a vital tool for checking abusive and exploitative employers. However, due to lax enforcement of laws protecting the right to organize and discuss workplace complaints, many workers are fired for these activities. And many workers shy away from unionization, because they prefer a collaborative to an adversarial relationship to their employer.
Yet even when employers are decent, workers could still use a voice. In many of the rich states of Europe, they already have one, even if they don’t belong to a union. It’s called “co-determination” — a system of joint workplace governance by workers and managers, which automatically applies to firms with more than a few dozen employees. Under co-determination, workers elect representatives to a works council, which participates in decision-making concerning hours, layoffs, plant closures, workplace conditions, and processes. Workers in publicly traded firms also elect some members of the board of directors of the firm.
Against these proposals, libertarian and neoliberal economists theorize that workers somehow suffer from provisions that would secure their dignity, autonomy, and voice at work. That’s because the efficiency of firms would, in theory, drop — along with profits, and therefore wages — if managers did not have maximum control of their workforce. These thinkers insist that employers already compensate workers for any “oppressive” conditions that may exist by offering higher wages. Workers are therefore free to make the trade-off between wages and workplace freedom when they seek a job.
This theory supposes, unrealistically, that entry-level workers already know how well they will be treated when they apply for jobs at different workplaces, and that low-paid workers have ready access to decent working conditions in the first place. It’s telling that the same workers who suffer the worst working conditions also suffer from massive wage theft. One study estimates that employers failed to pay $50 billion in legally mandated wages in one year. Two-thirds of workers in low-wage industries suffered wage theft, costing them nearly 15 percent of their total earnings. This is three times the amount of all other thefts in the United States.
If employers have such contempt for their employees that they steal their wages, how likely is it that they are making it up to them with better working conditions?
It’s also easy to theorize that workers are better off under employer dictatorship, because managers supposedly know best to govern the workplace efficiently. But if efficiency means that workers are forced to pee in their pants, why shouldn’t they have a say in whether such “efficiency” is worthwhile? The long history of American workers’ struggles to get the right to use the bathroom at work — something long enjoyed by our European counterparts — says enough about economists’ stunted notion of efficiency.
Meanwhile, our false rhetoric of workers’ “choice” continues to obscure the ways the state is handing ever more power to workplace dictators. The Trump administration’s Labor Department is working to roll back the Obama administration’s expansion of overtime pay. It is giving a free pass to federal contractors who have violated workplace safety and federal wage and hours laws. It has canceled the paycheck transparency rule, making it harder for women to know when they are being paid less for the same work as men.
Private government is arbitrary, unaccountable government. That’s what most Americans are subject to at work. The history of democracy is the history of turning governance from a private matter into a public one. It has been about making government public — answerable to the interests of citizens and not just the interests of their rulers. It’s time to apply the lessons we have learned from this history to the private government of the workplace. Workers deserve a voice not just on Capitol Hill but in Amazon warehouses, Silicon Valley technology companies, and meat-processing plants as well.
Elizabeth Anderson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It (Princeton University Press, 2017).
On Labor Day, alongside stories about parades and final trips to the beach, we can expect to read the usual depressing statistics about the decline of labor unions in the United States. The problem with this coverage isn’t the facts, which are undeniable — it’s the tone of inevitability.
Today, less than 11 percent of workers, including just 7 percent in the private sector, are members of a union — a dramatic drop from the 1950s, when more than one-third of the workforce was unionized. The recent loss by the United Auto Workers at a Mississippi Nissan factory, where workers voted by a three-to-one ratio against union representation, is just the latest in a long string of defeats for the labor movement.
And this decline has a real effect on families’ financial security: Researchers have shown that nearly half of the decline in middle-class incomes is due to the shrinking rates of unionization.
Few articles probe deeply into the cause of the decline, but here’s a hint: It isn’t because unions no longer make sense in the modern economy, nor is it about American workers’ supposed skepticism toward unions (especially in the South). And it’s not more evidence that the white working class stubbornly insists on voting against its own interests.
Rather, the decline of unions is a direct result of our nation’s badly broken labor laws — specifically, the ways in which those laws and court decisions fail to acknowledge, much less protect, the constitutional rights of workers.
American courts have never been kind to labor. From the beginning of our nation’s history well into the 20th century, union organizing efforts were treated by conservative jurists as criminal conspiracies and interferences with employers’ sacrosanct contract rights. Unions spent the 19th and early 20th centuries decrying “judge-made law” and seeking, essentially, to get the government and courts out of labor disputes.
This approach did notch a few victories. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 prevented the federal courts from issuing injunctions against union picket lines (which were frequently enforced at bayonet point). Many states passed similar laws to keep their courts and local police out of the fray.
But the modern labor era began in many ways in 1935, with the National Labor Relations Act, which made it the official policy of the United States to encourage collective bargaining. The act established a federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which would certify unions and punish employers that refused to deal with them. While well intended, passage of the NLRA in the form it took has had many unintended, and some extremely detrimental, consequences for organized labor.
A failure to ground labor laws in the Bill of Rights
The framers of the legislation, who at the time were leery of a conservative Supreme Court, made the pragmatic decision to root the law’s authority in the Commerce Clause, which grants Congress the right “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States.” This was the subject of no small debate at the time.
Many advocates believed that labor’s rights should be based on First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly; others thought that the Fifth Amendment right to “due process” — interpreted as a broad protection of citizens’ rights — made sense. Leaders of the American Federation of Labor had been arguing for a half-century that the 13th Amendment, which prohibited both slavery and, crucially, “involuntary servitude,” was the appropriate constitutional basis for labor rights. But the act’s framers were convinced that the Lochner-era Court that made laissez faire economics a virtual state religion would never go for more lofty human rights justifications.
Practically speaking, the court was motivated to accept the NLRA more by the wave of sit-down strikes roiling the country in 1937 than by legal theories. But conceiving of unionization as a matter of business regulation led to a very narrow interpretation of the act. Before the end of World War II, the court took away legal protections for sit-down strikers, denied striking workers the right to return to his job, and granted employers a First Amendment right to run vicious union-busting campaigns.
Much of this anti-union thrust was endorsed and enhanced by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, passed by a Republican Congress over President Truman’s veto. The law declared it illegal for union members to boycott or picket a “secondary” employer — that is, a company that they do not work directly for, but who has significant or even essential business dealings with their employer.
Most people think of the Taft-Hartley Act for its “right-to-work” provisions. The Act permitted states to allow workers to decline to join a union, or pay fees, even if they benefitted from union-negotiated contracts.
But it’s the prohibition against solidarity activism, the heart and soul of the labor movement, that’s been most devastating. A cable provider that gets into a fight with a television channel over revenue sharing can black that channel out. But if the workers at your local unionized grocery store want to keep Oreo cookies created at a scab factory off the shelves, they face steep fines, effectively banning the practice.
Restrictions on labor accelerated in 1949, when 10 unionized technicians at the Jefferson Standard Broadcasting Company, in Charlotte, North Carolina, were fired for distributing handbills criticizing their employer. Workers quickly filed a complaint with the NLRB arguing that they were participating in a legally protected activity, but the NLRB ruled that the technicians’ actions were not protected because they were not explicitly connected to the union contract campaign — they involved more general complaints.
Courts recognized “disloyalty” as lawful grounds for firing a worker
Upon appeal, the US Supreme Court issued Labor Board v. Electrical Workers, one of its most aggressively anti-labor decisions. The majority wrote, among other things: “There is no more elemental cause for discharge of an employee than disloyalty to his employer.”
Interpretation of the Jefferson Standard decision has led to decades of harsh and contradictory court decisions that chill the rights of workers to speak out. This past July, the Eighth Circuit ruled that six workers at a Jimmy Johns sandwich shop could be firedbecause they circulated memes suggesting that customers might be eating food made by sick workers. They were protesting the franchise owner’s refusal to provide paid sick days (ill workers also had find their own replacements).
The “poster attack” was “so disloyal” that it was not protected under the law, the court found. Unsurprisingly, the judges had little to say about the employer’s reciprocal responsibility to be loyal enough to its workers to let them take a day off when they get sick.
And consider the recent vote at the Mississippi Nissan plant, in which efforts to form a union were turned back. In order to determine whether workers had a legal right to form a union, the NLRB held an election with rules set forth by Congress and the courts. Among them was the requirement that only one side — the party that opposes unionization — can force employees to attend mandatory presentations of their arguments as a condition of employment. The union, according to the federal government, has no equivalent right of access or response.
Employers’ speech to captive audiences of employees is protected
As expected, managers at Nissan forced employees to attend multiple one-on-one and small group “captive audience” meetings, in which they threatened that the plant could be relocated, or shuttered, if workers voted for a union. That is nothing new. Across the country, employers make fake “economic predictions” to threaten workers’ jobs in two-thirds of all union elections, according to Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner.
But restrictions on workers’ speech don’t end at rigged elections; the government also censors what unions can do at the bargaining table. Federal law requires employers to negotiate “in good faith,” but only on a tightly circumscribed set of issues — basically just wages, hours and some working conditions. A decision to relocate a factory, as Nissan managers threatened, is not an issue unions can negotiate.
This is what makes threats of plant closures such effective anti-union tactics. Workers want unions that have the ability to veto or amend management’s decisions to downsize, subcontract, automate or shift work overseas. But in the American system, unlike in much of Europe, such matters are the prerogative of management alone. When the law restricts unions from being what workers want them to be, of course there are going to be low levels of union representation.
Simply put, employees are hampered by rules that would never be applied to corporations, or to any other form of political activism. That the government can dictate to workers what they can or cannot write on a flyer, where and how they can march, and what they can and cannot boycott, is not just unfair — it ought to be illegal.
In March 2016, the Supreme Court considered the issue of speech in bargaining in Friedrichs v. CTA, a case that deadlocked 4-4 (without Justice Scalia’s vote); in that case, conservatives argued that public-sector unions violate workers’ speech rights when they collect mandatory union fees. The goal was to bankrupt the last of the big unions. The parties are suing for a do-over in the pending Janus v. AFSCME.
Union advocates should wrest the free-speech issue from conservatives, because we have the far better case: Every interaction between the government and a union is a matter of political speech. Unions and their allies should challenge unequal restrictions on free speech and assembly as the violations of workers’ constitutional rights that they are.
As economists scratch their heads this Labor Day about why the longest economic expansion on record is not translating to increases in most Americans’ standard of living, let’s take a good, hard look at precisely how the power of unions has been curbed. Just as laws permitting collective bargaining helped build the American middle class, a vigorous First Amendment defense of workers’ constitutional rights can help rebuild it today.
Shaun Richman is a leading expert on employment issues and author of the new Century Foundation report, “Labor’s Bill of Rights.”
I study young undocumented immigrants. Here’s how DACA changed their lives.
President Trump is considering putting an end to the Obama program that has shielded DREAMers from deportation. It would be a huge mistake.
In five years, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) has provided a tremendous boost to nearly 800,000 young people who have grown up in this country, helping them contribute to their families, communities, and the US economy.
When the Obama administration launched DACA in 2012, it amounted to a natural experiment: What would happen if you gave a portion of the overall population of undocumented immigrants fresh access to employment and other opportunities?
Immigrants who applied for protection under the program — enrollment is not automatic — were at least temporarily shielded from deportations from the United States. They also got temporary Social Security numbers and two-year work permits. To qualify, they had to have arrived in the US before 2007, been 15 or younger in 2012, and either have a high-school degree or be enrolled in high school (or similar educational program).
When the program began, I started a national research project to study the effects on its beneficiaries. Those effects were profound: Under DACA, beneficiaries saw increased educational attainment, higher social mobility, and better mental health.
My research into undocumented immigrants predates DACA. From 2002 to 2015, I followed 150 undocumented young adults in Los Angeles, examining how they transitioned to adulthood in a context of limited rights. In Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America. I compared a group of people who attended college with a group that had discontinued its schooling at or before high school graduation.
Before DACA, undocumented immigrants could not translate academic achievement into professional success
Even those young adults who had attained advanced degrees found their work and life outcomes limited — and unusually similar to those of less-educated peers. Because they lacked Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, and other credentials, college graduates found they had little choice but to enter the informal, low-wage labor market.
In 2011, I sat across an auto assembly plant lunchroom table from Jonathan, who lacked a high school diploma, and Ricardo, who had two postsecondary degrees. If Ricardo had been a citizen, he would have had his choice of attractive job possibilities, but in their late twenties both men faced the same limited range of work options.
Many people I interviewed described chronic headaches, toothaches, ulcers, difficulty sleeping problems, eating disorders, and thoughts of suicide. They had grown up in communities around Los Angeles and, as a result of the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe, which provided them access to a K-12 education, they had attended school alongside American-born and citizen peers.
But at a critical stage in their lives, their immigration status prohibited them from accessing important rites of passage — getting driver’s licences, taking after-school jobs, and receiving financial aid for college. (Many colleges would allow them to enroll, but they were disqualified from federal financial aid.)
Life in the shadows enacts a heavy toll: The undocumented young adults in my study were the embodiment of Langston Hughes’ “dream deferred.” In my book, using a term from sociology, I argued that illegality was a “master status”: a binding constraint that overwhelmed all other traits and achievements.
DACA opened doors, and eased stress
But with DACA, things changed for many of these people. In 2013, my research team surveyed nearly 2,700 DACA-eligible young adults; additionally, beginning in 2015 we carried out two waves of in-depth, in-person interviews with 481 DACA beneficiaries in Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, New York, and South Carolina.
Just 16 months into the program, 59 percent of respondents reported having found a new job. Over one fifth of survey respondents had obtained a paid internship.
Undocumented immigrants aren’t forbidden from having credit cards or bank accounts but having a Social Security number makes it a lot easier. Almost one-half of our survey respondents opened up their first bank account after receiving DACA, and a third acquired their first credit card. Close to 60 percent of our respondents had obtained a driver’s license.
Twenty-one percent of those we surveyed reported that their access to health care had improved, sometimes because they had access to health plans provided by schools or employers.
DACA’s benefits appear to be greatest for people with degrees from four-year colleges. They were more than 1.5 times as likely to obtain new jobs and increase their earnings than DACA beneficiaries who never went to college. They were apparently able to make full use of their credentials and networks.
Our findings are now a couple of years old, but they have been corroborated. Just last week, the political scientist Tom K. Wong, of UC San Diego, released results from a similar survey of DACA beneficiaries that found that 69 percent of respondents reported moving to a job with better pay. More than half moved to a job that they thought better fit their education and training, or offered better working conditions.
Much of the political and media coverage of this group has focused on the academically gifted, but, in terms of distance traveled, DACA’s biggest success stories involve moderate achievers. Most undocumented immigrant youth end their schooling before entering college. (In fact, more than 40 percent fail to complete high school.)
Many of our respondents reported that DACA led them enroll in community college or in jobs-training programs sponsored by community-based organizations. DACA beneficiaries who completed certificate or licensing programs — in industries such as nursing, dentistry, construction, and cosmetology — experienced significant growth in salary. Sixty-eight percent who did so told us their hourly salaries increased from the $5-to-$8 range to more than $14 an hour.
Employers benefit, too, when they can hire qualified beneficiaries of DACA
Less tangible, but equally important, is DACA’s positive role in improving the mental health of its beneficiaries — and their overall well-being. More than two-thirds of recipients told us they were less afraid of law enforcement and of being deported. (Fifty-nine percent of our respondents say they would report a crime now in a case when they wouldn’t before.) And nearly 70 percent indicated that they feel less stress in general. Being able to get a driver’s license or to obtain lawful employment is about more than transportation and work: It’s about not having to always look over your shoulder.
Eighteen-year-old Carolina, who is from Illinois, told us, “My freshman and sophomore year, I did really bad [in school], mostly because I was just not motivated because … all of this is going to be worthless in the end.” When DACA went into effect, her mindset changed: “OK, I actually have a chance,” she said.
Repealing DACA would also have negative consequences for the schools, hospitals, tech firms, courts, and community organizations for which this population is now able to work. There are now hundreds of “DACAmented” teachers in US schools, whose students rely on as well as look up to.
While not a perfect policy — only a pathway to citizenship would offer that — DACA has provided a significant boost to a large number of young people. The research is clear that DACA beneficiaries have made truly impressive economic and educational gains. Ending such an important program would hurt the lives of thousands of people in cruel fashion and to no purpose. It would stain the soul of our nation.
Roberto G. Gonzales is professor of education at Harvard University and author of Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America.