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date: 27 January 2022

Economic Justicefree

Economic Justicefree

  • Louise SimmonsLouise SimmonsUniversity of Connecticut


Social work often refers to economic justice but rarely considers what economic justice truly entails. This article discusses the rationale for social workers to be knowledgeable of and involved with economic justice initiatives. It specifies several areas that comprise an economic justice agenda. Examples of advocacy and organizations which lead the campaigns are discussed. Six realms of economic justice are discussed: Inequality, workplace rights, living wage levels and minimum wages, immigrant rights in the workplace, community–labor partnerships, and social programs that support working families and individuals.


  • Macro Practice
  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Poverty
  • Social Justice and Human Rights

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.

Economic justice is a concept that is often mentioned in social work discourse but rarely spelled out in a detailed manner as a societal goal. Definitions or explanations of economic justice are often either imprecise or abstract theoretical discussions. As economist Robin Hahnel (2005, p. 131) asserts:

Although political economists are passionate about economic justice, most of us have a difficult time saying clearly exactly what it is. Instead, most radical economists find themselves in the position in which the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart found himself when required to make a ruling on pornography. In his immortal words, “I shall not today attempt further to define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” Few radical economists can define economic justice, but almost all believe they know economic injustice when they see it.

Following this reasoning, economic injustice is generally thought of as violations of rights in the economic aspects of existence and the inability of those in need to share in economic growth. The purpose is not to construct one overarching definition of economic justice, but rather to identify areas of concern, particularly in the United States, that social work can address to build a more economically just and a more socially just society. Several aspects of economic justice are important to begin the discussion: A concern over the distribution of income, wealth, and opportunity; a concern over both individual and group rights; and a recognition of the relation of racial justice and gender justice to economic justice.

Social Work: Engaging in Economic Justice

Several relevant statements empower social workers to tackle issues of economic injustice. In the United States, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2021) Code of Ethics (2021) under section 6 “Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to the Broader Society,” section 6.01 specifies “Social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments. Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice.” The 2015 Education and Policy Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), in its opening paragraph on the Purpose of Social Work Education, states:

The purpose of the social work profession is to promote human and community well-being. Guided by a person-in-environment framework, a global perspective, respect for human diversity, and knowledge based on scientific inquiry, the purpose of social work is actualized through its quest for social and economic justice, the prevention of conditions that limit human rights, the elimination of poverty, and the enhancement of the quality of life for all persons, locally and globally.

(CSWE, 2015, p. 5; emphasis added)

Moreover, these standards use the term economic justice four additional times in the sections on Competencies, Educational Policy 1.0 on Mission and Goals, and Educational Policy 2.0 on Generalist Practice.

In the Global Definition of Social Work of the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) section on “Mandates for Social Work,” comes the following: “Social change initiatives recognize the place of human agency in advancing human rights and economic, environmental, and social justice” (IASSW website). Several joint reports issued by the IASSW, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), and the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) (IASSW et al., 2012) articulate a global agenda for social work with four priority areas, including “promoting social and economic equalities” (see IASSW website).

Finally, an influential document for social work is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As social work increasingly identifies as a human rights profession, the UDHR is a critical reference point and often cited within social work education and discourse. In relation to economic justice, Articles 22 through 25 of the UDHR are concerned with social rights, including economic rights that all people deserve.

With these documents providing justification, there is every opportunity for social workers to engage deliberately with economic justice issues. This article turns next to the nature of these issues.

Defining the Realms of Economic Justice

Several interrelated areas offer an understanding economic justice and injustice. The intersectionality of issues of race, class, and gender in matters of economic justice must be underscored to fully grasp the basis for social work engagement:


Issues related to inequality within society: Income distribution, wealth distribution, and their interplay with racial and gender inequalities; measurements of poverty and their inadequacy as critical in relation to mean-tested antipoverty programs.


Rights in the workplace: The fundamental right to organize into unions and employer practices that impede this right (for social workers, the benefits of unionization have been shown to helpful in upholding professional standards and autonomy; see Alexander, 1980, Rosenberg & Rosenberg, 2006); organizing workers over work standards, that is, the right to overtime pay, protections from wage theft, job safety and health, paid sick leave, paid family leave, and more.


Wage levels and attempts to halt the “race to the bottom” that sinks American wages and economic opportunity: Raising the minimum wage; equalizing the minimum wage for tipped workers to that of other workers; a living wage standard connected to local, state, and institutional hiring and contracting; scheduling that ensures sufficient hours to maintain families.


Immigrant worker rights in the workforce: Hyper-exploitation and vulnerability of immigrant workers; agendas of immigrant rights organizations.


Community–labor partnerships and alliances with multifaceted impacts: State and local development policies, wage laws, and public benefit programs, local and state politics; recognition by labor of the need to go beyond their own self-interest by participating in such coalitions, and reaching out to community organizations to create new power constellations; recognition of the intersection of communities’ and workers’ issues.


Expansion and/or maintenance of social programs: Assistance to unemployed, underemployed, and never-employed people; expanding unemployment insurance, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), workers’ compensation for those with disabilities, and other public benefits.

This entire set of issues and many others confront people in their workplaces, their communities, and their home lives. Lack of economic justice and economic security contributes to personal and social stress such as domestic violence, substance abuse, and family stress that clinical social workers encounter. In the meso and macro arenas, a lack of work and income destabilizes communities and leads to tax base erosion, the curtailment of public services, potentially higher crime rates, and abandonment. The fate of workers’ issues, individually and collectively, has consequences in communities. Moreover, when residents in low-income communities within metropolitan areas do not share in the economic growth and development of the region, this is an economic justice issue. The next section will consider these realms more deeply.

Examining the Realms of Economic Justice and Injustice

Inequality and Poverty

The United States is experiencing unprecedented economic inequality, particularly since the 2008 Great Recession, but in trends that have developed over several decades. This coincides with neoliberalism; an attack on the welfare state, the primacy of free markets on a global scale, the curtailing of regulation, and the global quest for profits at the expense of labor (for a notable study on social work and neoliberalism, see Sewpaul & Hölscher, 2004). One measure of inequality is the Gini coefficient (GC), which ranges from 0, where 0 indicates total equality of incomes in society, to 1, in which all income is held by one person in that society.

A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2015) concerning economic conditions within the United States found that in 2015, the GC within the United States was fifth among all OECD countries, at 0.39, with only Turkey (0.40), Chile (0.45), Costa Rica (0.48), and South Africa (0.67) ahead of the United States in terms of inequality.

The report showed that Slovenia had the least inequality in 2015, with a GC of 0.25. Canada’s GC for 2015 was 0.32.

Wealth Concentration

Inequality has reached epic proportions in the United States. Researchers Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie of the Institute for Policy Studies, in their report on concentration of wealth, noted the following:

America Institute for Policy Studies, in that could fit comfortably in one single Gulfstream G650 luxury jet—now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people in 57 million households.

The median American family has a net worth of $81,000. The Forbes 400 own more wealth than 36 million of these typical American families. That’s as many households in the United States that own cats (Collins & Hoxie, 2015, p. 4).

A 2018 report by Collins and Hoxie, Billionaire Bonanza 2018: Inherited Wealth Dynasties of the United States, asserted that three dynastic wealth families—the Waltons, Kochs, and Mars—own a combined $348.7 billion, which is more than the combined wealth of 4 million typical American families. This is a 5869% increase from their total wealth of $5.84 billion in 2018 dollars, adjusted for inflation from 1982, indicative of the continuing concentration of wealth by the Forbes 400.

Moreover, wages have not kept up with productivity in the United States. While productivity grew over 2.5 times between 1947 and 2013, wages grew just under 1.5 times in the same period (Leopold, 2015). According to Saez and Zuchman (2016, p. 520), “US wealth concentration is currently high by international standards and has considerably increased in recent decades.” They estimated that wealth owned by the top 1% families grew from the late 1970s to 42% in 2012. The top 0.1 to wealth share grew from 7% of in 1978 to 22% in 2012. This trend continues unabated, as incomes for the top expand.

Racial Economic Inequality

Within the United States, the enormous income and wealth gaps between whites and non-whites contribute to economic and racial injustice. Many indications of this imbalance exist. A 2019 report by the Institute for Policy Studies stated that the 2018 median household income for non-Hispanic white Americans was $62,769, while for Black households it was $36,615 and for Latino households it was $40,800. More profoundly, median net worth, which includes financial assets and nonfinancial assets (housing and other property), was an astounding $146,984 for non-Hispanic white households as opposed to $3,557 for Black households and $6,591 for Latino households (Collins et al., 2019). This is known as the “racial wealth gap.” A Pew Research Center report of 2014 analyzing Federal Reserve data revealed the median net household worth of non-Hispanic whites in 2013 was 13 times greater than Blacks and 10 times greater than Hispanics (Kochhar & Fry, 2014).

Poverty and Its Measurement

The extent of poverty in the United States is of concern for social workers. Child poverty is of paramount concern. For the year 2018, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey measures of poverty included the following: For the entire population of over 319 million people, over 41 million lived below the poverty level, including some 3.78 million children under 5 and close to a total of 13 million children under 18 years of age. According to the advocacy group Child Trends, 16.2% of all children under 18 live in poverty (Paschall & Bartlett, 2019). The 2018 poverty statistics also revealed that close to 19 million people lived on incomes under 50% of the poverty level.

The poverty rate is established each year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and in 2020 for the 48 contiguous states is $12,760 for a one-person household; for a two-person household, $17,240; for a three-person household, $21,720 (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2020). Poverty is devastating for anyone, but disproportionately impacts among people of color in the United States.

Poverty measurement is considered problematic and outdated by many researchers and analysts. Rossi and Curtis (2013) discuss the inadequacy of the continued use of the federal poverty measure. They note that the poverty level was devised in the 1960s using an “economy” food budget (a minimally adequate weekly supply of food) and multiplying it by three, with the assumption that food costs would be one-third of a family budget and clothes and shelter would take up most of the remaining two-thirds. This figure is indexed each year by the rise in the Consumer Price Index. However, as critics point out, since the 1960s, there have been large increases in housing, medical, and childcare costs, and other items in family budgets. Thus, if the poverty level is used to calculate eligibility for means-tested programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, or others, the threshold remains low in relation to the actual costs of goods and services in the contemporary economy, even when multiples of the poverty level are used (such as 125% or 150%). Many families whose incomes hover just above the poverty level or even a multiple (e.g., 125% or 150%), are living in poverty for all intents and purposes, but may be denied benefits or services that they truly need.

Rights at Work

The extent of unionization is one measure of the collective power by workers and their unions in the economic system. Within the United States, unionization of the entire workforce peaked in the mid-1950s, at approximately 35% and has declined precipitously ever since. As of 2019, just over 11% of the workforce was unionized (US BLS, 2020). The most highly unionized sector in this period was the public sector, with some 33.6% of public sector workers represented by unions. However, with concerted efforts in some states to curtail the collective bargaining rights for the public sector employees and the layoff of public employees, public sector unionization shrunk as well. The Janus decision by the U.S. Supreme Court makes maintaining unionization levels among the public sector difficult as it allows public sector workers to opt out of union membership and dues payment while still enjoying the wages and benefits negotiated by unions in their workplace.

The union organizing process is cumbersome. Often employers use sinister strategies to minimize union success. Although workers are deemed to have the right to organize under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, an entire industry of union avoidance—“union-busting”—use intimidation and delaying tactics. Moreover, weak sanctions for employers who violate workers’ legal protections make following the NLRA process of conducting yes/no elections for workers to decide if they want a union extremely difficult for unions to win (Human Rights Watch, 2000; Lafer, 2007; Levitt with Conrow, 1993). Even if workers vote yes to having a union, employers often make it difficult or impossible to negotiate first contracts through collective bargaining. Still, despite these obstacles, unions still attempt to organize workers.

Table 1 demonstrates the difference in pay (in labor’s vocabulary, the “union difference”) between unionized and nonunion workers of various demographic groups as of 2019. For almost all workers, but particularly lower-wage workers, the union differences imply vastly different capacities to support a family. Benefits and other employment-related practices also vary dramatically based on union representation or its absence.

Table 1. Median Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Wage and Salary Workers by Union Affiliation and Selected Characteristics (Full-Time Workers)


Median Weekly Earnings (16 years and over)

Union Members

Nonunion Workers

All workers




White men




White women




Black or African American men




Black or African American women




Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, men




Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, women




Asian men




Asian women




Source: US BLS (2020), union members in 2019.

In several sectors, the union difference is dramatically reflected. For example, in service occupations union members’ median weekly earnings were $874 compared to nonunion workers at $573; in building maintenance the respective earnings were $706 to $567; and in healthcare and social assistance the difference in respective earnings was $1008 to $851 (US BLS, 2020). (For more such details, readers are referred to the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual report on Union Members issued each January for the preceding year.)

Newer Types of Labor Organizing

Given the difficulties in the union organizing process, and the fact that several types of workers were exempt from protections under the NLRA, various workers have taken up different types of campaigns to assert workers’ rights. During the process of the U.S. Congress enacting the NLRA, compromises with southern Democrats for their support resulted in exemptions for domestic workers and agricultural workers from the Act’s protections. The fact that a large proportion of these workers were African American was a factor in maintaining the racial hierarchy of the Jim Crow era.

As of 2021, among these groups of workers and other workers who are in sectors that are difficult to organize along traditional NLRA processes, new forms of advocacy are taking place that invoke the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. The FLSA specifies wages, hours, and other concerns that workers are entitled to, regardless of union status, including the 40-hour work week, overtime for hours worked after 40 hours, the right to have breaks, the right to be paid for all hours worked, and other concerns. Workers in such sectors as restaurants, domestic work, and agricultural work, as well as tipped workers, day laborers, workfare workers, formerly incarcerated workers, and taxi drivers are pursuing their respective grievances by using the FLSA. Organizations for various worker groups have won lawsuits to recover lost wages or overtime pay and fight other forms of wage theft. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), has developed campaigns for Domestic Workers’ Bills of Rights in several states, stipulating standards that employers of domestic workers (mostly women and/or immigrants), must meet. Affiliates in other states work on establishing help lines and conducting training for domestic workers. Their national executive director, Ai-jen Poo, was a 2014 MacArthur fellow, and has gained national and international recognition for her efforts and the efforts of the NDWA.

Another national organization, Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), with chapters across the country, is involved in restaurant workers’ issues. Their agenda includes raising tipped minimum wages (the One Fair Wage campaign), developing grievance procedures, advocating for raises, developing sexual harassment policies, paid sick days, job security, and antidiscrimination policies in restaurants (ROC United, n.d.). They call for developing career opportunities for restaurant workers and “high-road” strategies for restaurant owners. One of ROC United’s national leaders, cofounder Saru Jayaraman, provides important accounts of the restaurant industry in her books, Behind the Kitchen Door (2014) and Forked: A New Standard for American Dining (2016).

These two groups and other organizations all have invigorated the labor movement (readers can consult the websites and materials of these individual groups for more information).

Wage Levels

Issues of wages take place in collective bargaining and in public policy debates on all government levels. In the public policy arena, the minimum wage is a prominent issue. A federal minimum wage exists that covers the entire United States, but states can have higher minimum wage rates. In addition, tipped workers, notably in restaurants, have a minimum wage substantially below the minimum wage for other workers. The inadequacy of minimum wage levels has led to: (a) campaigns to raise the minimum wage; (b) movements to use alternative determinants of wages, such as the living wage; and (c) development of what is known as a self-sufficiency standard (SSS) or wage to reflect the true amount of wages needed to sustain people and families more accurately.

The Minimum Wage and the Tipped Workers Minimum Wage

A federal minimum wage was established in 1938 under the FLSA. The 1938 rate was $.25 per hour, and it has been raised gradually over time to the level of $7.25 as of 2016 where it remains as of this writing in 2021. It was initially limited to employees engaged in interstate commerce, and amendments to the Act included more workers (US Department of Labor, Wage, and Hour Division, n.d.). States can enact their own minimum wage laws. Some 29 nine states, 2 U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wage rates than the federal minimum, and 16 states and Puerto Rico use the federal rate. Five other states have no minimum wage laws, and so the federal minimum wage applies automatically, and two states—Georgia and Colorado—have lower minimum wage rates; however, the federal rate applies to most workers in those states (see US Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division). As previously stated, several groups of workers were historically excluded from minimum wage mandates in these protections, both on the federal level and in individual states. These exclusions now are invigorating campaigns to cover these workers. In addition, the lower minimum wage for tipped workers, mainly in the restaurant industry (at $2.13 as of 2021), under the assumption that these workers will make up the difference (and sometimes more) through tips for their service. Seven states—Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington—mandate that tipped workers receive their state’s minimum wage. And 26 other states, plus the District of Columbia, have tipped worker minimum wages that are higher than the federal $2.13. The remainder use the $2.13 as the wage rate (US Department of Labor, Wage, and Hour Division, n.d.).

If it were assumed that one full-time worker works 40 hours per week for 52 weeks at the federal minimum wage, that person would earn $15,080 as of early 2020. This is slightly above the poverty level for a single individual, but below the poverty rate for a two-person household with one wage-earner and a nonworking dependent (a child or an elder). Thus, across the United States, movements to increase the minimum wage are active. Given the difficulties in moving legislation through the U.S. Congress, often campaigns are on the state level. Among the 29 states with higher rates, with a range of minimum wages, campaigns also exist led by ROC United for “one fair wage” to raise tipped workers’ rates to those of all other workers.

Social Movements to Raise the Minimum Wage

The inadequacy of minimum wage rates has spawned movements on city, state, and national levels to raise the minimum wage. In 2012, a campaign by fast-food workers and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began what became known as the “Fight for 15,” a demand for an hourly wage of $15 and the right to unionize.

The idea of a $15 per hour minimum wage picked up considerable support, particularly in political battles in states and localities. This campaign grew nationally, encompassing periodic strikes and job actions, in combination with community support and legislative initiatives. Several notable victories include: In April 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law to phase in an increase in California’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York signed legislation to raise New York City’s minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2018 and the city’s suburbs in 2021, and to set a $12.50 minimum wage in upstate New York (Greenhouse, 2016; Meyerson, 2016). In addition, several cities have adopted this measure—Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Pasadena—as has SeaTac (a Seattle suburb) (Greenhouse, 2016).

The Living Wage Movement

The Living Wage movement formed in the 1990s to raise issues inherent in the contracting of municipal services, and the granting of tax breaks to developers and the resulting creation of poverty-level, low-wage jobs through these processes. Several accounts state that there are approximately 140 cities, counties, and universities in the United States (Luce, 2012) and campaigns have expanded globally into the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere (Luce, 2005, as cited in Brooks, 2007). The specifics vary from location to location, but the thrust of these efforts is to mandate that firms that do business with cities or other entities must pay their workers a wage that is “typically well above” the federal minimum wage in order to provide incomes for workers such that they are not in poverty (Brooks, 2007, p. 438). In many cities, there is one living wage for employers who provide health insurance and a higher level for those that do not. In addition, these rates are adjusted for inflation annually.

Hourly rates in 2011 for several cities, as documented by Luce (2012), are such that in Boston, it was $13.02; in Portland (Oregon), it was $9.50 for those with health care coverage or $11.26 without health coverage; and in Miami, it was $10.58 with health insurance or $11.63 without health coverage.

Business interests vigorously oppose these campaigns in localities, thus the local political arena is often the site for heated campaigns. Some living wage proposals are voted on by local city councils or county boards, while others are in local referendums. There are losses, as well as wins (Brooks, 2007). Coverage varies according to which specific groups of workers are covered, so the impacts vary. However, as Luce (2012, p. 19) notes, the “living wage can have a large impact on workers who receive the wage.”

Given the limited number of workers subject to living wage ordinances, the backers of such ordinances also tend to support raising the minimum wage on the federal and state levels, unionization campaigns, community benefits agreements for development projects (more on this in the section on “community-labor coalitions”), and coalition-building that engages in economic justice issues (Brooks, 2007; Luce, 2012). Moreover, this debate is a foundation for the more recent set of movements in the 2010s (particularly surrounding the Great Recession and national elections since that time), Black Lives Matter and public discourse surrounding wages and inequality.

Self-Sufficiency Standards (SSS)

Social work professor Diana Pearce is widely known for developing a measure of economic self-sufficiency that has become known as the Self-Sufficiency Standard (SSS). Pearce (2019, p. iv) claims:

The Self-Sufficiency Standard is a measure of income adequacy that is based on the costs of basic needs for working families: Housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, and miscellaneous items, as well as the cost of taxes and the impact of tax credits.

Synthesizing several pieces of earlier work by Pearce and Brooks (2003), Rossi and Curtis (2013) employ Brooks and Pearce to define the SSS as “the amount of income necessary to meet basic needs (including paying taxes) in the regular marketplace without public subsidies or private or informal subsidy (Brooks & Pearce, 2000, p. 2).” This standard attempts to calculate an adequate, decent wage for a family, and assumes affordable, standard housing, but it does not include assets such as a vehicle or savings/retirement accounts (Pearce & Brooks, 2003, p. 122).

Such SSS measures have been developed for specific states, broken down by regions within these states, so that regional variations in housing costs and other expenses are factored. In addition, the SSS varies by family size and composition so that expenses such as childcare for small children or changes in the food needs as children reach teenage years can be calculated. (These reports and data are available on the SSW website.)

A similar calculator of true living costs has been developed by Dr. Amy Glasmeier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), known as the Living Wage Calculator. Not to be confused with the Living Wage movement, this calculator provides similar information to the SSS based on location and family size.

The SSS is not utilized by social welfare programs in determining benefit levels. The reality of the cost of living at a modest level is not a benchmark in programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). However, as Pearce and colleagues have developed these standards in various states, they provide rationales for crafting more realistic programs to assist families and individuals. SSSs have been cited by low-wage workers’ and women’s advocacy groups, who argue about how to meet the true unmet needs of many in the United States.

Immigrant and Immigrant Worker Rights

Immigrant workers, particularly undocumented ones, are vulnerable in employment situations and other aspects of life. Unscrupulous employers exploit this vulnerability by engaging in wage theft, irregular scheduling, and human trafficking, ignoring unsafe working conditions, and, as advocates for domestic workers emphasize, engaging in sexual harassment and violence. Undocumented individuals face many problems, including raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities, the complexities of mixed-status families, racial profiling, and more, especially draconian policy proposals and legislation by public officials and candidates for office.

These abuses are unimaginable to many in the United States. The garment industry, particularly in Los Angeles, is especially noted for its exploitation and lawbreaking (Milkman, 2000; Wong & Monroe, 2006), following patterns that resemble the sweatshops of the early 20th century on the East Coast. Yet, from the work of organizing immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented, people have emerged as important labor leaders, as detailed by Milkman and Wong (2000). Across the country, the Justice for Janitors movement, spearheaded by the SEIU, has raised the wages and improved the working conditions of thousands of janitors. There are many inspiring examples of immigrant workers’ courage in organizing to improve their working conditions and their lives, coinciding with new organizations to confront the myriad of problems.

One development is the emergence of immigrant worker centers that assist immigrant workers in many communities in the United States. These centers began to form in the 1990s and 2000s. A significant work on these centers by Janice Fine (2006) provides an analysis of their functioning as a mixture of advocacy, community organizing, community centers, and labor organizing. They provide education on employment rights, assistance on immigration issues and filing wage and hour claims, provide English classes, and serve as places where immigrant workers can develop a sense of community and solidarity. The centers vary, but in general, they develop due to exploitative practices of employers. In some cities these centers also serve the needs of African American workers and incorporate the issues of Black immigrant workers. Some may focus on specific groups such as day laborers or garment workers, while others work on multiple workers’ issues. In 2006 Fine noted that there were 137 such centers (Fine, 2006, p. 3). By 2018 the estimate was 226 (Fine et al., 2018). Some centers have cooperative relationships with unions and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

Issues of economic justice for immigrant workers deal with conditions on the job, in their communities, and in their homes. Particularly for the undocumented, the inability to obtain banking accounts, driver’s licenses, and other goods and services that citizens take for granted creates many obstacles to safety and security. In response, immigrants and advocates have gained legislative victories in states and localities for municipal identification cards, state-issued driver’s licenses, and other official methods enabling immigrants to access systems that require identification. In addition, a national campaign developed to grant in-state tuition and financial aid to children of immigrant parents or to children who came to the United States as infants and small children. In the late 2010s, the issue of incarcerating and deporting undocumented immigrants, putting entering immigrants in cages, and separating children from their parents outraged many in the United States, and are considered larger human rights struggles, inseparable from economic justice issues.

Community–Labor or Labor–Community Partnerships

With the labor movement facing massive assault from corporations and their various allies—chambers of commerce, trade associations, conservative political leaders, think tanks, and networks—labor increasingly needs community allies for support and is developing alliances and partnerships. These alliances began to emerge in the 1980s, taking a number of forms, evolving over time. These partnerships took such forms as strike support coalitions with significant community participation, community support for union-organizing drives, and community and union involvement in progressive candidates’ campaigns (Brecher & Costello, 1990). The formations had an instrumental quality, such that labor reached out when it was in need. However, simultaneously, communities face entrenched issues and deep needs, existing for decades and continuing to grow. Displacement, abandonment, disenfranchisement, entrenched patterns of racial inequality, and urban decay all are present in many of the cities where labor struggles take place. Community forces also wanted help from labor to confront their own issues. Thus, as community–labor alliances evolved, they began to embrace a broader agenda in which there was more reciprocity and mutuality.

One obvious sphere is the political arena, where sometimes community groups, issue advocacy organizations, and labor can find common ground. Frequently around candidates, other times around public policy questions, these partnerships can result in potent gains for community members, as with the living wage or raising the minimum wage movements. Other areas include coalitions that tackle urban development and its impacts, potentially negative or positive, on communities in which community benefit agreements (CBAs) are demanded. Such struggles are detailed in works by David Reynolds (2004, 2002). These partnerships coincided with a shift in leadership of the national AFL-CIO in the mid-1990s under John Sweeney to a more outward-looking federation that appreciated the need for community partners. In the second decade of the 2000s, with recognition of the work of groups like the Domestic Workers Alliance or immigrant workers’ centers, an invitation for these groups to affiliate with the AFL-CIO and its state and local entities was offered, as well as to civil rights, environmental rights, and other social movement organizations. This incorporation of other social justice organizations into the AFL-CIO, as well as a view of the labor movement as part of a wider range of social movements, signify a recognition that the “formal” labor movement has to extend beyond the narrow interests of workers with collective bargaining agreements and become part of a larger agenda of change. Various discussions of this shift of direction, characterized as “community unionism” by Fine (2004), “social movement unionism” by Turner and Hurd (2001), and “social unionism” by Turner (2007), all point to the need for labor to reinvent itself and be involved in communities and other social justice movements.

Specific examples of this new type of unionism that embraces community–labor partnerships include the crafting of CBAs, such as the one in Los Angeles (Feingold, 2009; LeRoy, 2009). In their examples, CBAs were crafted when the Staples Center was redeveloping and expanding in one case, and when Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) was redeveloping in another. In New Haven, Connecticut, a CBA was crafted when Yale–New Haven Hospital, affiliated with Yale University, was constructing a new cancer center (Simmons & Luce, 2009).

Sometimes these CBAs can leverage very positive impacts in communities, such as the Los Angeles examples; however, at other times, private or nonprofit entities may backpedal in their commitments, as was the case in New Haven. However, in Connecticut, there was a long-standing coalition, the Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP), in which labor, community, civil rights, environmental, and other organizations coalesced on supporting candidates and legislative initiatives (Simmons, 2000). These types of coalitions or alliances have been replicated in various cities across the United States, and a number of them are part of the Partnership for Working Families, which helps to share information and resources among 18 affiliates.

There are many organizations outside of labor that regularly partner with unions and labor federations on legislative and political issues and advocacy efforts. Dean and Reynolds (2009) offer an analysis of what they describe as “regional power”, resting on unions and other progressive forces forging coalitions, building trust, engaging politically, and creating public policies that reflect the needs of working people and the disenfranchised.

In the early 21st century, the notion of “bargaining for the common good” has been embraced by segments of labor. This involves incorporating community demands into contract negotiations. Teacher strikes, notably in Chicago in 2012 and 2019, involved community members sitting at the bargaining table and inserting their demands into the negotiations. After a several-week strike, the 2019 settlement involved more than teacher pay issues and included social workers, librarians, and other supportive staff and services that benefited the community (Sneiderman & Fascione, 2018).

It is difficult to generalize from the myriad examples of these coalitions or partnerships that exist in the 21st century or have existed in the past. They vary widely in their agendas, their effectiveness, and their longevity. They are, however, the basis of a reconceptualization of labor’s role and emerge in the context of a social and economic environment that is constantly changing and contains deep inequalities. Moreover, they are a recognition of the need to build allies and seek common ground.

The Need for a Stronger Welfare State

Economic justice necessarily involves supports for those in society who experience economic hardship stemming from racial and gender inequalities, inability to find employment with sustainable wages, layoffs, inadequate education and training, histories of incarceration, and many social conditions that deprive people of adequate incomes or opportunities. Public budgets in the United States that support these programs through various funding arrangements are often meager in comparison to those of other highly developed countries, particularly in Western Europe. The United States has embraced the notion of the so-called deserving versus undeserving poor since colonial times (Katz, 2013). However, given the economic dislocation that has erased opportunities enjoyed by previous generations, providing a social safety net that effectively deals with poverty and economic insecurity is a precursor to the achievement of economic justice.

The welfare reform program of 1996 that created the TANF program reflects a shift to a more punitive form of social welfare that places the “blame” for poverty onto those who suffer its effects. Thus, many advocates, and people with low incomes, argue for changing the work requirements, time limits, and other strictures of TANF to reflect the realities of the contemporary labor market and the difficulty in obtaining family-supporting incomes. Food and nutrition programs such as SNAP have been targeted for reductions and stricter eligibility requirements at the very time when the need for such support is so great. In the 21st century poverty has increased, and particularly during the Great Recession. Moreover, child poverty rates have risen steeply to over 20% in this period of time (Child Trends, 2015).

Economic justice also needs to encompass the issues confronting formerly incarcerated individuals. In many states, “ban the box” initiatives have been put forward to eliminate requirements on employment applications that stipulate individuals confirm their arrests and sentences. Advocates argue that such information would more fairly be ascertained later in the hiring process rather than appearing on the application. The applicant’s chance to interview and discuss whether the nature of the arrest or conviction is relevant, allowing for fairer consideration for employment.

Other employment rights in the arena of family policy, such as paid family leave and paid sick leave, are areas where the United States lags far behind other countries. Several states have instituted some moderate paid sick leave and/or family leave options, but there is no national mandate for such programs.

These varied issues and the inherent assumptions and values within the array of programs that comprise the social safety net (and many more than listed here) affect the ability to achieve measures of economic justice in contemporary times. The racial and gender dimensions of these programs reveal a disproportionate impact on low-income communities of color and on women (especially single women with dependents). Thus, the notion of economic justice must encompass a stronger social welfare state and stronger social protections for workers.


Economic justice is a multifaceted set of issues that affect individuals, families, and communities with which social work interacts. These issues are interrelated and inherently challenge corporate and neoliberal hegemony. They do not necessarily lend themselves to conflict resolution strategies, but rather to social, political, and economic power struggles. These issues of economic justice are inseparable from organizing, contestation for power, and the philosophical question of whether people believe that they have a responsibility to assist those in need, or whether unbridled quests for profit are what govern (or should govern) our society.


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