When the word “slavery” is brought into a conversation, it turns heads. There’s just something off-putting about taking America’s centuries-long institution of brutally defining people as property for economic exploit and awkwardly outfitting it with modern context in the United States. Sure, it doesn’t seem out of bounds to talk today about slaves in India, China, Pakistan — for good reason: those countries still have millions of bona fide slaves. But the fashionable trend in some conservative circles to apply the term to anything they don’t care for — unions, wages, welfare, health care reform — is tacky, unsettling, and a nod to a certain disrespect for history.
Thus, when the term made an unannounced appearance at an Alaska Republican Party Central Committee meeting in Anchorage over the weekend, people noticed.
Sharon Jackson was invited to speak at the meeting, along with Erick Cordero. Cordero is a former Mat-Su Valley school board member, former legislative staffer to Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla), and currently is the campaign manager for the group opposing marijuana legalization. Jackson is a legislative researcher.
“They were just getting perspective from a couple of minorities on what is needed in order to, I don’t know, I guess reach out to a bigger, wider field,” she told me via phone on Monday.
When offering that perspective, Jackson told the crowd that people who depend on public assistance are subject to a new-age form of slavery. The twitter user in attendance who relayed the comments to the digital world added “#truth” as an editorial note.
“You know, personally, I truly believe that it is. It is a form of slavery,” Jackson said, when I asked if she stood by her remarks. “Maybe not necessarily in a nationality, but in a class of people. It breaks my heart to see that, you know, greater opportunities aren’t available, or, more so, readily available to the people now.”
Jackson believes that public assistance programs disincentivize Alaskans from finding steady employment and lifting themselves out of poverty. She said that she speaks with local business owners every day who are hiring, but can’t find workers because the pay is not competitive with government assistance, and said that this was tantamount to bondage.
You know, [President Bill Clinton] had [unemployment] where they had it for five years. And there was a wonderful step by step process where they could be able to work their way out of it. But that was, you know, killed when Obama presented the Obamacare. That’s no longer in effect, which I thought is sad because again that’s taking opportunities where people can better their lives. And they need it; we need it.
The Clinton-era policy Jackson referred to is the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, passed in 1996. The law replaced the federal welfare system established during the New Deal and created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a block grant program that allows states to craft their own public assistance programs and guidelines. The Affordable Care Act did not repeal or replace the state-based policy, which was most recently reauthorized in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 and remains intact today.
The Alaska Temporary Assistance Program (ATAP) receives the TANF funds. To be eligible for ATAP, recipients must have less than $2,000 in total assets (not including personal property) and make less than $1,347 annually. If local stores are failing to compete with a take home pay of $112.25 per month, the Department of Labor might want to intercede. Additionally, the benefits are capped at a 60 month lifetime limit.
The Division of Public Assistance, housed within the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and charged with overseeing ATAP, describes the program as a system that “provides cash assistance and work services to low-income families with children to help them with basic needs while they work toward becoming self-sufficient.”
The larger point being that this does not appear to occupy the same ballpark as slavery, which is a system where people are regarded as property, bought and sold, deprived of any rights; a state inherently antithetical to self-sufficiency.
Jackson shared the dais on Saturday with lieutenant governor candidate and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, who also recently chose to combine the term slavery with an open mic, speaking at a Chamber of Commerce candidate forum in May. Sullivan used it to lambaste unions: “Nobody should ever have to basically pay a fee to someone else to get a job in this state. I mean, we got rid of slavery a long time ago.”
Jackson agrees with Sullivan. She took the topic as an opportunity to delve into the proposal to increase the minimum wage, noting the ongoing protests among fast food workers across the country.
They don’t realize the more we make the more taxes we pay. And then they have the union dues on top of it, so they are probably more than likely to end up taking home less than what they are taking home now. But they don’t realize that. And that is, yeah, I would say that I do agree with [Sullivan] with that.
In Alaska, the minimum wage is $7.75. Union dues fluctuate depending on which union one evaluates, but generally comprise a small one or two-point percentage of gross pay plus a monthly fee. It would be incredibly difficult to justify the claim that workers would end up with less money at the end of the day, subsequent to a raise in the minimum wage. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, estimated in 2009 that union workers’ wages were 9.7 percent ($2.06 more per hour) higher than non-union workers in similar jobs.
As Craig Tuten wrote at the time: “Union dues are like taxes. Everybody pays a little into a pool to maximize their collective benefit. No one loves paying taxes, but we all love roads and schools and fire trucks.”
And, again, there is no universe in which this is comparable to slavery — or, economic slavery, as Sullivan later clarified. Wage slavery occurs when a person is “dependent on wages or a salary for a livelihood.”
One would argue that this is much closer exemplified by minimum wage workers living paycheck to paycheck, often in multiple jobs, and still checking in well below the poverty line.
On Monday, the Alaska NAACP called on the Republican Party to apologies for use of the term. “A retraction is long overdue,” NAACP President Wanda Laws said in a press release. “Furthermore, it is particularly disturbing to use this metaphor in light of our Country’s [sic] history of slavery in relation to African Americans.”
An apology doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
“When the term slavery is used, it’s interesting because it automatically goes to the African-American community,” Jackson explained. “We do not own the term slavery. We are not the only nationality. I mean, look at what the Jews went through.”
She again emphasized the term bondage, and said that both Sullivan’s use of the term slavery as applied to union dues and her use of it in the context of public assistance were examples of the federal government taking away freedom and the right to live freely. Jackson told me a story she had heard on the radio, about a single mother who was able to lift herself up out of property without government assistance, citing a passage from Proverbs 22:7: “The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.”
She said that the American people are naturally charitable, and that public assistance should be afforded at the individual level, not institutionalized and allocated via governmental intrusion. She maintained that this justified her use of the word.
“The bottom line is that that slavery term is not exclusive — I do not believe it is exclusive — to one nationality, but it is overall a form of bondage restricting our freedom,” Jackson said. “And that is what I would love to see overcome.”