I always struggled with the reality of poverty in a country with such abundance. Why, I wondered, are some people so persistently poor? Why isn’t there enough food, enough money … just enough, for everyone? 

As my understanding of the world has grown, I’ve discovered some answers. It’s why I love what our founder Wendi C. Thomas often says: “Poverty isn’t an accident; it’s a robbery.” 

That phrase acknowledges the structural and cultural inequities that create and keep people in poverty, the many ways that low-wealth people are exploited by those with power. It points away from imagined failings in people and toward things like the lack of affordable housing, payday lending and under-resourced schools. 

Our worker and labor reporter Brittany Brown had a conversation with Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy that illustrates other ways low-wealth people are robbed. The DA has revived the office’s Economic Crimes Unit, aiming to refocus it on wage theft, job misclassification and other forms of worker exploitation. 

In Brittany’s piece, Mulroy shared his vision for the unit and why he wanted to restart it. More practically, it laid out how workers can access its power, naming what exploitation might look like: minimum wage violations, overtime violations, illegal deductions, misclassifying employees as contractors to avoid paying benefits. 

These crimes most often happen to those in low-wage industries, which are mostly made up of women, people of color and immigrants. 

As Mulroy suggests in the interview, this isn’t a small problem. A 2021 report by the Economic Policy Institute showed that nationally more than $3 billion in stolen wages were recovered for workers between 2017 and 2020. That’s considered a small portion of the wages stolen. And it can happen in major companies. A 2018 report by Good Jobs First and the Jobs With Justice Education Fund ranked FedEx second to only Walmart in its list of parent companies with the largest cumulative wage theft penalty totals. The amount was north of $500,000,000. 

Yet even smaller amounts can cause great harm, the report points out. “Consider a full-time, minimum wage worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour who works just 15 minutes “off the clock” before and after their shift every day. That extra half-hour of unpaid work each day represents a loss to the worker (and a gain to the employer) of around $1,400 per year, including the overtime premiums they should have been paid. That’s nearly 10% of their annual earnings lost to their employer that can’t be used for utilities, groceries, rent or other necessities.”

Mulroy considers the unit part of his mission to rebuild trust in the DA’s office, particularly among those most vulnerable in the community. He shows a willingness to look at what makes a complaint about an employer a violation of law. A crime. A robbery. 

It is part of our work, too, to look at these crimes. We’ll keep asking questions about why some have and others don’t. We know there is enough for everyone, there are just some people taking more than their share and you should know who they are. 

As Wendi also says, “Good journalism targets the thieves.”

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at adrienne.martin@mlk50.com

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to info@mlk50.com.