Giving People a Second Chance at Home: Why Rental Admission Policies Should Follow the Progression of Employment Policies

This blog post was coauthored by Todd Belcore, Community Justice Lead Attorney at the Shriver Center.

Rental property owners who utilize “blanket bans,” which typically deny admission outright to anyone with a record of criminal conviction or even just a history of arrests, need to take a look at what’s happening with similar blanket bans in employment. 

This past summer Illinois became the
fifth state to enact a “ban the box” law for private employers. Most employers can no longer ask about a person’s criminal history on the initial application for employment. Only after an individual is considered a qualified candidate for the job can the employer consider a person’s criminal background. Individuals in states with “ban the box” laws have both an incentive to become qualified for job opportunities and a legitimate chance to sell themselves to a prospective employer so they can get the jobs they need to take care of themselves and their families.

“Ban the Box” laws don’t just give people who have turned their lives around a chance to work; they are also good for employers. Employers who don’t rule applicants out based on criminal history have access to a broader pool of applicants from which they can hire the best candidate for the jobs. Moreover, this hiring practice helps employers avoid possible violation of federal civil rights laws relating to employment. (
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has promulgated guidance
noting that blanket hiring bans of individuals with criminal and/or arrest histories could violate civil rights laws.)

Employment-related blanket bans disproportionately harm minorities, who have greater contact with the criminal justice system despite not actually being more likely to commit crime—especially as it relates to drug offenses. As a result, blanket bans relating to criminal history can be a proxy for discrimination according to race.

While employers in states with “ban the box” laws can ultimately reject applicants with criminal records, they may only do so after an individualized analysis of each applicant’s qualifications. This evolution in thinking honors the value of giving people second chances and goes a long way towards reintegrating people into society and advancing civil rights.    

Unfortunately, the progress made in eliminating employment-related blanket bans has not influenced similar bans instituted by property owners in rental housing. In fact, housing-related blanket bans have actually become more commonplace in recent years and have expanded to bar not just persons with conviction histories, but also individuals who have nothing more than an arrest on their record.

These housing-related blanket bans have become so pervasive that in 2011, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Sean Donovan urged housing providers to use their discretion in admitting persons with criminal history to housingYet a 2011-12 report of Illinois affordable housing providers found that this discretion was essentially used to enact far-reaching criminal background check admission policies. For example, some rental housing admission policies deny admission to anyone who has ever been arrested for anything in his or her lifetime, or impose 100-year criminal background checks on applicants. Moreover, municipal rental crime-free ordinances, which require landlords to conduct criminal background checks of all rental applicants, have proliferated. These ordinances may prevent rental housing applicants from living in certain parts of the country entirely. 

Beyond just affecting an individual’s ability to obtain housing for themselves and their loved ones, these housing bans also create serious obstacles to gaining employment, because the lack of a permanent address can make finding a job next to impossible. In that regard, housing-related bans erect the same type of civil rights impediments the EEOC identified with respect to employment-related bans.

Right now, too many people are forced to go without housing simply because of policies that may violate civil rights and that do not recognize the broader notion that people can turn their lives around. Thankfully, that can change. HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity should issue guidance, similar to the EEOC guidance, making clear that some of these housing-related policies violate civil rights laws. New HUD Secretary Julian Castro should also go beyond what his predecessor did and limit the use of arrest records and lifetime bans for minor and non-violent offenses. Affordable housing providers should follow the lead of agencies like the Chicago Housing Authority, which recently began a pilot program to allow persons with criminal histories the chance to move back in with their families. Finally, laws should also be enacted to bar the blanket bans in housing, including the use of arrest records to deny admission to rental housing.  Because everyone deserves to have a place they can call home.

Joelle Ballam-Schwan contributed to this blog post.



SNAP Challenge Day Seven -- A Few Lessons Learned

Today is the last day of my participation in the SNAP challenge. My wife and I have got leftover chicken for lunch, and pasta and broccoli for dinner again, so we budgeted all right. We wound up spending $68.25 (not counting two restaurant meals for me) for the week. That’s $1.75 less than we thought we had when we did our shopping but $8.75 more than we learned we actually had on day one of the challenge.

How would we have cut our spending for the week by $8.75? I would have saved $4 if I hadn’t twice forgotten to bring my lunch. I probably could have saved about $3 by buying the store brand of whole coffee beans instead of paying $7 for 12 ounces of Starbucks. Where would the other $1.75 have come from? Store brand cereal or lunch meats? Iceberg lettuce? No parmesan cheese on the pasta?

But that’s all hindsight. If we had simply stopped spending when we hit $60, we would have experienced real hunger. And I wasn’t quite willing to take the simulation that far.

Still, I learned a lot this week by taking the SNAP challenge and getting a glimpse of what it’s like to live on SNAP benefits. I don’t think there’s any other way to do that.

What have I felt?

Stress when I was food shopping and had to watch every penny, pass up the sales, and put back anything that I didn’t absolutely need.

Fear of going hungry when I learned that our benefits had been “cut” without notice.

Sadness when I realized that all I could afford were the basic necessities with no budget for snacks or dessert.

Mad at myself when I realized I forgot to bring my lunch and I either had to go hungry or incur a small but unaffordable expense.

Powerless when something unexpected came up and I had no flexibility to deal with it.

Mostly I felt a sense of the the desperation that SNAP recipients must experience every day from having to constantly worry about whether they will have enough food to make it through the week. 


SNAP Challenge Days Five and Six -- Making Sacrifices, Within Limits

[Editor's Note: Shriver Center Director of Economic Justice Dan Lesser is taking the SNAP challenge this week and blogging about his experiences.]  

Day Five

In the morning, a friend at the office announced that we were out of coffee. I had not been counting the office coffee I drink. I don’t know what it costs, it can’t be too much. My friend tells me he’s going to Starbucks, and I tell him I really need some coffee. He knows I’m taking the SNAP challenge, so he offers to buy me a cup. Since I basically panhandled him for the coffee, do I have to count it?

At lunchtime, I realize that I left my lunch on the kitchen counter at home again. I normally bring my lunch to work, so this is not something new I am doing for the SNAP challenge. As my friends can attest, I’m just forgetful.

That’s one of the biggest differences between people who are on and are not on SNAP. The consequences of making a mistake, like forgetting your lunch, if you’re on SNAP are pretty severe--you might not eat that day. For the rest of us, when we forget our lunch, it’s hardly noticeable; we just go and get takeout. 

On my wife’s advice, I go to a nearby drugstore and get a package of ramen noodles, the cheapest way to fill up. I’m going to Wrigley Field this afternoon with an old friend who’s visiting from New York, but no way can I afford ballpark food.

At the ballpark, my friend offers to get me a hot dog, but I tell him I just ate. He looks at me funny—why would somebody eat just before they go to a baseball game and miss out on ballpark food? Later, he texts me from the concession stand and asks if I like peanuts. “No,” I lie. Then, he again offers me a hot dog. 

After the game, my friend and I are meeting some other friends for dinner. Again, I spend somewhere close to a full week’s SNAP allotment on a restaurant meal (paying for a portion of my friend’s dinner too). Ignoring the SNAP challenge rules, I don’t count it. But what would I do if were really on SNAP and I had an old friend visiting from New York? I have no idea.

Day Six

Pretty uneventful. It’s a Saturday, which makes it easier in that you don’t have to worry about forgetting to bring your lunch. On the other hand, there are plenty of temptations in the pantry.

That night, my wife and I watch a movie with our new puppy. A perfect time for popcorn. Can’t do it.    


Poverty Rate Falls But Is Still High, Income Inequality Unchanged

What is the state of poverty, in this 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty? According to Census Bureau figures released last week, and to the surprise of some experts, following increases in poverty due to the Great Recession, the poverty rate finally began to fall in 2013, year four of the economic recovery.

The overall poverty rate declined to 14.5% in 2013 from 15.0% in 2012—the first significant decrease since 2006—and the poverty rate for children under age 18 was down significantly to 19.9% from 21.8%, the first time the child poverty rate has declined since 2000.

Yet, while the poverty rate has finally begun to fall, it is still two points higher than it was at the start of the Great Recession in 2007. Over 45 million Americans live in poverty. And, while the reduction in the poverty rate might initially feel reassuring, further examination of the numbers reveals persistently high levels of inequality reflected in economic trends for women, children, people of color, and folks at the lowest income levels.

Women and Children

Women still made only 78 cents for every dollar men earned in comparable employment, an insignificant increase of one cent from last year. Families maintained by a female householder had a median income of $35,154 compared to $50,625 for families maintained by male householders and $76,509 for households maintained by married couples. Although overall poverty rates fell for both men and women between 2012 and 2013, women still experienced poverty at a rate of 15.8% as compared to 13.1% of men.

The numbers grow starker when looking at women with children. In 2013, children represented 23.5% of the total population but 32.3% of people in poverty. One in five related children under age 6 lived in poverty, and 55% of related children under age 6 with single mothers lived in poverty, more than five times the rate for related children in married-couple families.

Black and Hispanic Households

Despite the significant, 3.5% increase in Hispanic median household income, a large disparity in income based on race and ethnicity remained. Median Hispanic household income was $40,963 while median White, non-Hispanic household income was $58,270. Black households had an even lower median income level of $34,598.

The ratio of Black to non-Hispanic White income, 0.59, has not changed significantly since 1972, the first year the Census Bureau collected data for this specific comparison. Not only are the gaps not closing, Black and Hispanic households have experienced larger and more persistent median income decreases than White households since median income was at its height in 1999, with Black households earning 13.8% less than they did in 2000, Hispanic households earning 8.7% less than in 2000, and non-Hispanic White households earning only 5.6% less since 2000.

In 2013, the poverty rate of black children (38%) and Hispanic children (30%) was much higher than that of non-Hispanic white children (11%).

Income Inequality

With the Gini Index, a Census-published measure of income inequality, unchanged from its record high level last year, and the median household income level far below pre-recession levels, the wealthiest households have disproportionately benefitted from the economic growth of the last four years. The share of national income that goes to the top fifth of households, which has been growing for decades, was 51.0%, a historic high. That means the top 20% of households received more of the nation’s income than the bottom 80% combined.

Capturing the Full Picture

The official poverty rate offers an important but flawed view of poverty in the United States because it does not account for important noncash income supports received by low-income individuals and families and it underestimates living expenses. Later this month, the Census Bureau will release the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which modernizes the poverty measure by accounting for the role of programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) and refundable tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in measuring household income. The SPM provides a way of evaluating the effectiveness of these programs in fighting poverty. In 2012, if the Census Bureau counted SNAP benefits towards income, 3.7 million fewer people would have been living in poverty. Counting the EITC would have reduced the number of children in poverty by 2.9 million.


Even though the experts’ prediction of a stagnant poverty rate was wrong, they had something right: not much has changed. One in seven Americans and nearly one in five American children are poor. Moreover, women and children and people of color still experience huge income disparities compared with others, and the rich are benefiting from economic growth far more than the poor.

The author thanks MacKenzie Speer, Economic Justice and Opportunity VISTA, for her extensive work on this blog.

SNAP Challenge Days Three and Four - Unexpected Expenses

[Editor's Note: Shriver Center Director of Economic Justice Dan Lesser is taking the SNAP challenge this week and blogging about his experiences.]

Day Three

I forgot that I had a breakfast date with four of my friends/work colleagues today. Even worse, it was my turn to buy. Breakfast for four at a sit-down downtown restaurant: $65.31. More than our full week’s $60 SNAP allotment.

The SNAP challenge rules are clear. “All food purchased and eaten during the challenge week, including dining out, must be included in the total spending.” Ah, but I’m a lawyer and I’ve found a loophole. Under the rules of the SNAP program itself (not SNAP challenge rules), benefits may not be used to buy a prepared meal at a restaurant.  So I don’t have to count breakfast, right? Or do I?

Uh-oh, I forgot to bring my lunch.

Having eaten an enormous breakfast, I thought I could make it until dinner. But, when my last meeting ended at 4:30, I was famished and still had a couple more hours to put in. I had to eat something. I went down to the store in our building’s lobby and poured over the merchandise, looking for the cheapest thing that would fill me up until I got home. Six ounces of trail mix for just $2, a good buy, but still $2 I don’t have.

Day Four

This afternoon we had an unplanned 350-mile car trip to Indiana. A long car trip normally entails some food-related expenses such as a fast-food meal, coffee, and a candy bar. But we hadn’t budgeted for any of that. So we brought sandwiches to eat in the car. No stopping at Starbucks for coffee. No candy bar from the vending machine at the gas station.

Taking the SNAP challenge gives you a taste of what it's like when unforeseen life events happen and you don’t have any flexibility to deal with them. You can’t do the little things that the rest of us do to cushion the blow. All you can do is grit your teeth and survive.  


SNAP Challenge Day Two - Cheating

The SNAP challenge rules are clear. They say “avoid accepting free food…at work,” I read all of the rules beforehand. Carefully.

Yet, within hours of beginning the SNAP challenge on Monday, I had cheated. I had a couple of cookies at work. Monday night, after dinner, I had two (small) handfuls of pumpkin seeds and two more of chocolate-covered sunflower seeds. On Tuesday, I had a slice of fruit bread at work and, after dinner, some dried apricots and more pumpkin seeds. At least I’ve managed to resist my coworker’s candy bowl.

When we were planning our week, my wife and I didn’t think about desserts and snacks. It doesn’t matter, we couldn’t have afforded them anyway. It’s not that I really needed the cookies and the pumpkin seeds, it’s just that a dinner of rice and beans, or baked chicken and potatoes, no matter how delicious, isn’t quite satisfying. I craved a few more tastes.

Which got me thinking about that 8% cut in SNAP benefits that occurred in November 2013. When I’ve written or talked about this before, I focused on the monetary amount that families of different sizes were losing under the cut.

But it isn’t really about the money. Rather, it’s about having the capacity to put a little variety into one’s diet. And, for a family, the opportunity to provide an occasional treat to the children. Not just three square meals a day, but some simple desserts and snacks too.

Some think SNAP recipients should only be able to use their benefits to purchase nutritious necessities. Why should the taxpayer subsidize desserts and snacks? But I would argue, based on my SNAP challenge experience, that it’s not really about the desserts and snacks either. What it’s really about is having the freedom and the agency to put some variety into your own and your children’s lives, to have some fun, to not always have to put your nose to the grindstone when you plan, budget, and do your weekly shopping. Doesn’t every kid deserve to have Flamin’ Hot Cheetos once in a while?


SNAP Challenge Day One - We Miscalculated Our Benefits

Yesterday, my meeting west of downtown Chicago ended at 1:00. Normally I would have had lunch at my favorite lunch spot in the city just a half block away. Not this week.

Red alert. My wife and I have been planning, budgeting, and shopping with the understanding that we could spend a bit over $1.50 per person per meal, which comes to $35 per person for the week, or $70 for the two of us. It turns out we were using obsolete SNAP challenge instructions, and we actually have only $1.40 per person per meal, or $60 per week for the two of us.

So we have $10 less to spend on food for the week than we thought we had. Last week we wouldn’t have cared about shaving $10 off our food bill. This week it’s a crisis.

The SNAP challenge instructions we used did not take into account that SNAP benefit amounts were cut by 8% across-the-board in November 2013, the largest benefit cut in history.

Miscalculating the amount of SNAP benefits we would have at our disposal for the week was our fault for using obsolete instructions. In contrast, SNAP recipients received no advance notice that their benefits would be cut by 8% in November 2013. They found out when they received their November benefits that they would just have to make due on $10 less for a family of two, $20 less for a family of four.

Taking the SNAP Challenge: Step One-Shopping

Millions of low-income Americans rely on SNAP (food stamp) benefits to support their families. But what is it like to shop, cook, and eat on a SNAP budget?  

For years I have worked on behalf of community members facing this real day-to-day challenge. And I have urged others who, like me, don’t have to rely on SNAP to take the SNAP challenge by committing to limit their food purchases for one week to a standard SNAP allotment of $35 per person. I have been doing this without ever having taken the SNAP challenge myself.

At a recent meeting, I urged 40 members of the clergy to take, and have their parishioners take, the SNAP challenge, and I promised them I would be doing so myself at the next opportunity. I figure that’s not a good audience to break your promise to, and so my wife and I are taking the SNAP challenge this week.

Yesterday we carefully planned our week. High protein cereal for breakfast, homemade salads for lunch, and dinners (two nights each) of black beans and rice, baked chicken and potatoes, and pasta and broccoli. For fruit we’ll have a watermelon, which is not my favorite but which seems like it will stretch the farthest.

What I hadn’t realized was how stressful the experience would be before we even got started. I just returned from doing the week’s shopping at my local grocery. It was very difficult.

I never appreciated the hardship of making sure that you don’t check out over-budget for a simple weekly shopping trip. I’m pretty good with numbers, so keeping count as I rambled down the aisles was not the hard part.

So, I shopped.  I couldn’t take advantage of many of the sale items at the store since I was limiting my purchases to the bare minimum.  I put a couple of onions in a bag—but wait—could we do with one onion?  I opened the bag and put one back. Another shopper gave me a stern look.  My plan for salads turned out to be the most expensive choice, of course.  Gee, that red and green leaf lettuce is expensive!

Coffee. I won’t be visiting the neighborhood Starbucks this week. Can’t I splurge on something? And Starbucks is $2 off and $1 less than Peet’s. When I got home from the store, my wife scoffed.

I needed a whole cut-up chicken fryer. Pretty expensive. I fished through the bin and found the smallest one; there, I saved a dollar. I later learned I could have saved more if I’d bought a whole fryer and cut it up myself.

I got lucky on the lunch meat; Hillshire’s 3 for $10.

Now the moment of truth—how much did I spend? I had lost track and really had no idea. What if I went over budget? I kept imagining how embarrassed I would be with the checker and other shoppers behind me as I tried to figure out what needed to go back and what could stay. Would they be rolling their eyes at this incompetent shopper who was thoughtlessly taking up everyone’s time.

In the end, I spent $49.97. We have $20 left. I think we’ll make it through the week pretty unscathed, even counting the cost of last week’s red peppers that we’ll put in our salads, and milk and yogurt also leftover from last week. (But wait, we’re having dinner with an old friend who will be in town on Friday and our restaurant bill counts. Looks like its fast food or bust.)

At the end of the week, what will we have proved? That a couple of temporarily frugal 50 somethings with advanced degrees and a lifetime of shopping and cooking experience, unlimited planning and cooking time (not to mention drawers of spices and cabinets of equipment), and no kids demanding our attention, can make it for one week on SNAP?  Still, I have already learned a lot about the stress SNAP recipients face in planning and shopping for a week’s groceries. And, although there’s a vast difference between eating beans and rice for a week and eating beans and rice for a year or more, I expect to learn more as I continue on the SNAP challenge.

I’ll be blogging on this all week.

The Role of Unemployment Insurance in Keeping People Housed

As further evidence that the foreclosure crisis is coming to a close, July 2014 marked the 46th consecutive month of year-over-year decreased foreclosure activity in the U.S. While Illinois still experienced the fourth highest level of foreclosure activity among the states, foreclosure activity was still down from a year ago, for the 20th consecutive month. As the crisis improves nationally, it is important to assess what has worked and not worked in bringing relief. Federal programs targeting families in distress show a broad reach but perhaps less impact than hoped. And one new study has illuminated how unemployment insurance appears to have played a surprisingly important role in curbing foreclosures during the Great Recession. 

Predictably, the billions of dollars spent to prevent foreclosures through federal recovery programs have had a positive impact. The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) program saved nearly a million households from foreclosure. Moreover, through March of this year, the federal Hardest Hit Fund (HHF) spent $3.6 billion to help over 178,000 households avoid foreclosure. These programs and others such as those funded by Department of Justice settlements directly target families in distress and have made some of the on-the-ground difference communities need. But, while we should continue to make programs like HAMP and HHF available to families at risk of foreclosure, these programs did fall short of their goals and served far fewer families than initially planned.   

A loss of income undeniably impacts a household’s ability to pay the mortgage, but the receipt of unemployment insurance benefits has not previously been considered as a tool for foreclosure prevention. A July 2014 report on a study from the Federal Reserve and the Kellogg School of Management may change that. The study found a direct correlation between a state’s extension of unemployment insurance benefits and a decline in mortgage delinquency and default, and foreclosure-related relocations and evictions. 

According to the study, unemployment insurance benefits in states with higher maximums prevented significant numbers of delinquencies among laid-off workers. Where unemployment insurance benefits were higher, foreclosure-related evictions were cut almost in half. Moreover, federal measures that extended the length of unemployment insurance during the recent recession also prevented delinquencies by similar rates. 

These results underscore the significant role that unemployment insurance can have in preventing unemployed homeowners from losing their homes. The researchers found that, as a result of unemployment insurance extensions between 2008 and 2013, approximately 2.7 million delinquencies were averted, and 1.4 million foreclosures prevented. Thus, unemployment insurance helped more homeowners than other federal foreclosure prevention programs, and should be considered as a key foreclosure prevention strategy. 

The benefits of unemployment insurance don’t end there. The research additionally found that increased unemployment insurance benefits resulted in better credit access for laid-off workers, both in terms of credit availability and lower interest rates. The study also revealed more dramatic benefits to lower-income households, in particular households earning less than $35,000 a year – those individuals just below HUD’s Area Median Income for Chicago, for example, who are more likely to be more housing cost-burdened.

By keeping people housed at all income levels after they lose work, we can reduce reliance and strain on other programs. Since housing, wages, and available income are all interrelated in our economy, an improvement in one arena is likely to have an effect across the board, particularly in times of crisis.


Support the ABLE Act

A seven-year battle to pass the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act may culminate this month in a victory for asset-building, health care, and disability rights advocates—especially if Congress hears our voices loud and clear. The bill would allow individuals with disabilities to save up to $100,000 in a tax-sheltered savings account without the fear of losing federally funded public benefits. Currently the asset limit for recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid is a very low $2,000 per individual. This means that most individuals with disabilities can have no more than $2,000 in accumulated income, such as in a retirement or savings account.

Asset limits force people to “spend down” what little financial resources they may have, making it impossible for them to cope with financial emergencies or to achieve a foothold toward financial independence. For people with disabilities who cannot work, or who can work with supports that may be lost at any time, saving money for the future is vitally important. Currently, setting up a trust fund—a complicated and expensive option that does not allow the beneficiary to save on his or her own behalf—is the only way an individual with disabilities can avoid the asset limit. With ABLE 529 accounts, someone like Sara Wolff, an activist with Down syndrome fighting to pass the ABLE Act, will be able to keep her benefits, save on her own behalf, and keep working. Sara works in a law office and receives SSI benefits, but currently cannot accumulate more than $2,000 in assets without becoming ineligible for that aid.

The ABLE Act would amend Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Service Code to establish tax-exempt ABLE accounts to assist individuals with disabilities and their families in building savings to pay for qualified disability expenses, including expenses related to education, primary residence, transportation, obtaining/maintaining employment (job training), health and wellness, and other personal support expenses. Currently in Illinois, only people with disabilities who are working and enrolled in the Health Benefits for People with Disabilities Program (HBWD) are allowed to have up to $25,000 in assets and continue to receive Medicaid health coverage.  Advocates sought a generous asset limit in the HBWD (which is Illinois’s Medicaid buy-in program authorized under the federal Ticket to Work–Work Incentives Improvement Act) to encourage employment and asset building among people with disabilities. Passage of the ABLE Act would take asset-building for people with disabilities to a new level by allowing people with disabilities, working or not, to accumulate even more assets, as well as maintain all federally funded public benefits, not just Medicaid coverage.

Passage of the ABLE ACT would also be a boon to policies that support state and federally facilitated savings programs. One in five Americans has zero or negative net worth, and nearly half of households are without a basic personal safety net to prepare for emergencies or future needs. It is vitally important that we continue to support policies that create savings opportunities for low- and moderate-income families, such as children’s savings accounts (implemented through Bright Start in Illinois), ABLE accounts for persons with disabilities (pending in Congress), as well as Illinois’s automatic-IRA program, The Secure Choice Savings Program (pending in the Illinois General Assembly).

In August, Republicans and Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee unanimously voted in favor of the ABLE Act. The bill has strong support in both chambers of Congress (379 co-sponsors in the House and 74 in the Senate). This showing of bipartisan support exemplifies the growing understanding that asset limits exacerbate poverty and perpetuate financial instability. According to CFED, Congress returns to Washington in early September and may take up this bill soon after. Contact your representative and senators and tell them to support the ABLE Act!

  • Call 202.224.3121 and ask to be connected to your senators’ and representative’s offices. If you don't know who your representative or senators are, find out here: House, Senate.
  • Once you're connected, here's what to say:
    My name is [your name] from [your organization or coalition]. I’m calling to ask you to support H.R. 647 / S. 313, the ABLE Act of 2013, so that people with disabilities are able to save, expand their economic opportunity and have the chance to gain economic self-sufficiency.


Stephanie Altman contributed to this blog post.



Why Ryan's New Anti-Poverty Plan Is Another Missed Opportunity

On the surface, Rep. Paul Ryan may seem to be an advocate for those in poverty. His policy proposals, however, would undermine anti-poverty efforts by systematically weakening successful safety net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) and rental housing vouchers. Previously, we did the math on how much his “Path to Prosperity” FY 2015 budget resolution would damage the safety net and hurt those in poverty. Ryan’s new proposal for anti-poverty reform, introduced recently at the American Enterprise Institute, is in effect more of the same.

Ryan calls his plan, Expanding Economic Opportunity in America, a “discussion draft.” On that point, we agree. Ryan does need to have more discussions—with poor people. This newest plan is just a repackaging of ideas we’ve already seen.

The cornerstone of the proposal is the Orwellian-named “Opportunity Grant,” which would consolidate 11 existing benefit assistance programs, including SNAP, housing subsidies, cash welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF), and child care assistance, into a single block grant to states. States would choose whether to participate in the program and receive an Opportunity Grant, which would replace their current system of receiving funding under each individual program. States wishing to participate in this pilot program would have to submit a plan for approval by the federal government. Because the Ryan plan is deficit-neutral, the overall amount of federal funding would not change for participating states.

Under an Opportunity Grant, aid would be distributed to beneficiaries in a way that mirrors how the states would receive their funding: consolidated. Eligible individuals and families in those states would receive a “single payment” intended to cover multiple forms of aid. These Opportunity Grants would have to be administered by “at least two service providers” in each state—in addition to the state government offices, for-profits and non-profits could also be service providers. All of this is problematic for a number of reasons.                                             

According to Ryan, current federal programs “don’t see how people’s needs interact.” And yet, his proposal to consolidate these very different programs into a single, capped funding stream virtually guarantees that fewer individuals’ and families’ needs will be met and understood. Turning safety net programs into block grants with fixed levels of funding is one of the quickest ways to undermine the safety net’s effectiveness, as block grants by design are not responsive to economic changes. Although Ryan says a countercyclical element could eventually be incorporated into the block grant, it would not happen in the pilot stage. In addition, history shows that virtually every program that has been converted into a block grant has had its funding cut significantly in subsequent years.

The flat funding structure of a block grant also means its value depreciates over time. In the case of the Opportunity Grant, if a number of programs are combined and then the price of housing goes up, the amount allotted toward housing costs doesn’t necessarily follow that increase. In other words, the amount of funding is no longer tied to the real-world cost. This alone would greatly diminish both the reach and effectiveness of the Opportunity Grant. According to the Center for American Progress, “consolidating multiple programs into a single funding stream can reduce accountability for program outcomes and leave needed services vulnerable to later cuts.”

We’ve already seen how this played out with the cash assistance program. Since its transformation into TANF in 1996, the program’s funding has been flat. As a result, the real value of TANF has decreased by almostone-third. The program TANF replaced, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, used to reach nearly 70% of families with children living in poverty. Today, just 25%of families with children living in poverty receive assistance. The fact that Ryan repeatedly lauds this reform as an exemplary model does not bode well for the safety net under his new plan.

The Opportunity Grant would pose a special threat to SNAP and housing vouchers and other rental assistance programs, since they make up three-quarters of the funding being combined into the Opportunity Grant and would be most impacted by future cuts. These programs are our most effective anti-poverty tools, with SNAP currently lifting five million people out of poverty and rental assistance lifting three million people out of poverty.  

While states would be subject to few requirements in implementing Opportunity Grants, beneficiaries would have to comply with new, harsh standards. This includes extending work requirements for eligible recipients to every type of aid that would be consolidated within the Opportunity Grant. All recipients would also have to fill out what Ryan calls a “customized life plan” with their caseworkers that would actually amount to a binding contract punishable by the loss of assistance if broken. In addition, families and individuals would face time limits for how long they could receive any sort of assistance. Effectively, Ryan wants to add more barriers to accessing the programs that help people escape poverty.

Despite his professed concern with efficiency and holding down costs, Ryan has proposed a plan that would not only require additional funding to support, but would also create more administrative delays and roadblocks for people receiving assistance for even the most basic needs. For example, contrast the current operation of the SNAP program with how assistance would be distributed under the Ryan proposal. SNAP is currently one of the most efficient social services around. Administrative costs make up just 5% of the budget. In addition, SNAP can also be expedited—destitute families and individuals can receive benefits in just seven days. If every SNAP participant had to sit down with a caseworker and create a plan complete with benchmarks and employment requirements, as would be the case under Ryan’s proposal, the program’s ability to reach those in need quickly and efficiently would be dramatically impaired. Moreover, had Ryan listened more closely to those in poverty, he would have learned that the majority of SNAP participants are already working.  

One element in Ryan’s proposal we agree with is expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to childless adults aged 21 and over, and doubling the maximum credit and phase-in and -out rates. Currently, only adults aged 25 and older are eligible for this credit. Unfortunately, Ryan wants to pay for this by eliminating “a number of ineffective programs.” Ironically, one of those “ineffective programs” is the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), a program just like the Opportunity (Block) Grant. Before 1981, the SSBG was actually a number of separate social services, including child care, adoption, counseling, and employment services. Since the combination of these services into the SSBG, the block grant “has lost 77% of its value due to inflation, cuts, and funding freezes.” As a result, Ryan has called for the elimination of the program, saying it “is duplicative and does not have accountability.” And yet, Ryan is proposing the same plan with the Opportunity Grant.

If eliminating the SSBG and other services, including two nutrition programs (the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program), still isn’t enough of an offset, Ryan says he’ll then “eliminate corporate welfare.” Considering he just included major tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% and major corporations in his budget, we’re doubtful.

There’s nothing like missing the opportunity to give others more opportunities—and that’s exactly what Ryan did with this latest proposal. His tour around the country may have provided a valuable introduction to the extremely complex issues of poverty. But Ryan’s understanding of poverty is just that: rudimentary. A contract will not help people fight against the systemic causes of poverty. They are fighting already, with or without a contract. What they need—and what Ryan needs to understand—are policies that provide more true opportunities. No one says it better than Tianna Gaines-Turner, who testified at Ryan’s last Budget Committee hearing:

Families are [already] working. We don’t need to be placed in more work programs, we need our jobs to pay living wages, and to offer family-oriented policies like paid sick and paid family leave. This way, we can earn more, save money, and create our own safety net so that we never have to turn to the government for help again.

Ryan’s plan to combine all assistance programs into a single block grant with burdensome work and contract requirements would only limit those opportunities.

The author thanks Kali Grant, Economic Justice and Opportunity VISTA, for her extensive work on this blog.

Utilizing Framing to Achieve Anti-Poverty Wins in an Age of Political Polarization

Recent research, surveyed in part one of this blog post, finds that Congress is more polarized than at any time since the end of reconstruction. These findings are evidenced by the Shriver Center’s recently published Poverty Scorecard, which graded 97% of the Senators and 95% of the Representatives at one extreme or the other. This polarization has led to partisan gridlock in Congress, which is especially detrimental to poor people, who have the most to lose under the status quo. Given these realities, what can be done to ensure access to justice and opportunity for all? Perhaps a more useful question is how can we work with, rather than against, this ideological divide in order to achieve political wins for our clients?

Using Moral Psychology to Understand the Roots of the Ideological Divide
As a first step it is important to understand the roots of the ideological and political divide. Jonathan Haidt, a moral/social psychologist, sheds much light on this in his recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, as well as in his earlier articles. Haidt explains that the first rule of moral psychology is “feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete.” This is why, more often than not, no number of good facts can turn political tides—our gut reaction dictates the facts and arguments we use to then rationalize that gut reaction.

The second rule of moral psychology, according to Haidt, is that “moral domains vary across cultures.” Haidt argues that his extensive research shows that morality has six major foundations, which different cultures emphasize or deemphasize to varying degrees. It turns out that Democrats utilize only three of the moral foundations, while Republicans utilize all six (granted to varying degrees). Morality is not just about caring for the vulnerable, liberty from oppression, and achieving fairness (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together through loyalty, supporting essential institutions through authoritative frameworks, and living in a sanctified and noble way (all six of which guide Republican ideology). Haidt challenges Democrats to appeal to the broad spectrum of moral foundations when campaigning and framing as a way to achieve wider buy-in.

Haidt’s final rule of moral psychology, is that “morality binds and blinds”—we are not sensitive to threats to other people’s moral systems, and they are not sensitive to threats to ours. However, if we make an effort to understand the threats to the opposite party’s moral system, there may be room for partnership. For example, Democrats and Republicans may be able to come together by acknowledging that one way to lay the foundation for healthier family partnerships (conservative goal rooted in authoritative institutions) is by improving educational outcomes for all Americans (liberal goal rooted in freedom from oppression and fairness).

Reframing as a Tool for Social Change
Haidt’s emphasis on looking to cognitive science and moral psychology to understand political ideology aligns nicely with Bill Kennedy’s 2010 Clearinghouse Review article on effective political messaging for social-change, Framing in Race Conscious Anti-Poverty Advocacy. Like Haidt, Kennedy explains that cognitive science dictates that the common ways people think about issues that affect our clients (poverty, homelessness, race, etc.) is not through facts, but through existing frames. Frames are sets of unconscious, internalized concepts and values that are “mapped into our brains by experience” and which help us to assign meaning to information and events.

Kennedy suggests, therefore, that as advocates we can and should use reframing techniques to achieve better outcomes for our clients. With reframing, we can “signal an appropriate shared value system that gives our audience permission to reach the conclusion we want them to reach.” Many of the reframing suggestions for racial justice in Kennedy’s article incorporate the moral foundations that Haidt critiques Democrats for underutilizing. For instance, “we are all one nation of shared fates” (group loyalty), and “fix the system to get fair outcomes” (fairness means proportional outcomes for the work you do).

Kennedy’s quick advice on good messaging for reframing includes:

  • Lead with solutions so the problem seems fixable.
  • Lead with values to activate a frame.
  • Never lead with facts.
  • Control the “we.” Define clients in a way that bolsters public identification with them, not in a way that reinforces “otherness” (i.e. don’t use "the poor," "vulnerable," "marginalized"; try "hard-working Americans" or "working class").
  • Do not argue against your opponent’s frame; reassert your own.

It is unclear when or how the rise of political polarization, and thus gridlock, will begin to dip in the direction that leads to better outcomes for our clients. In the meantime, advances in cognitive science and social psychology have improved our understanding of the origins of this divide. As anti-poverty advocates, we cannot afford to forgo the well-established tools of messaging and reframing to achieve shifts in attitudes toward our clients, and bring them into the “we.”  


Political Polarization Harms Poor People

Recently, the Shriver Center released the 2013 Poverty Scorecard, which measures how every member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives voted on the most significant poverty-related proposed legislation of 2013. Not surprisingly, the results revealed a deep polarization within Congress, with 97% of the Senators and 95% of the Representatives graded at one extreme or the other, receiving an A, D, or F. Only a small handful of moderates received a B or C.

Recent research by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal aggregated congressional roll call votes since 1879 and contextualized what is documented by the Poverty Scorecard. Pool and Rosenthal’s research shows that after decades of relatively little polarization, the congressional parties began pulling apart in the mid-1970s. Today Congress is more polarized than at any time since the end of reconstruction, with political ideology accounting for 93% of roll call voting choices in the 113th House and Senate.

This increase in polarization not only affects Congress. A recent Pew Research Center study reveals the American public has seen an increase in political party polarization and sorting in the past few decades as well. Looking at a survey of 10 dichotomous political values questions tracked since 1994, Pew found that the overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, from 10% to 21%. It is also clear that ideological thinking has a much stronger correlation with party affiliation than in the past; today, 92% of Republicans are ideologically to the right of the median Democrat (compared with 64% in 1994), and 94% of Democrats are ideologically to the left of the median Republican (compared with 70% in 1994).

Of course, the majority of Americans continue to choose some mix of liberal and conservative ideological preferences in the survey. What’s significant, however, is those who express ideologically consistent views are much more likely to participate in the political processtogether, Solid Liberals, Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives make up only 36% of the American public, but they represent 43% of registered voters and 57% of the more politically engaged. One can practically conclude that the higher political engagement of politically consistent voters leads to an increased ideological polarization of the officials they disproportionately elect.

It is impossible to conclude which came first—the polarization of Congress or of the wider public—but one thing is certain: these overlapping forms of polarization reinforce one another and ultimately lead to partisan gridlock. As we noted in our blog on the 2013 Poverty Scorecard, gridlock is especially detrimental to poor people, who have the most to lose under the status quo.

Low-income people also have a lot to lose within the current partisan divide because as long as ideological attitudes increasingly fall on partisan lines, attitudes about poverty, which are deeply ideological, will continue to fall on partisan lines as well. This point is reinforced by the second part of the Pew series on political polarization, which studies “political typology” by sorting people into eight cohesive political types (Steadfast Conservatives, Business Conservatives, Young Outsiders, Hard Pressed Skeptics, Next Generation Left, Faith and Family Left, and Solid Liberals) based on their responses to 23 dichotomous questionsThree of these questions addressed views on economic fairness, the safety net, and the poor. These are some notable findings:

  • The public is evenly split on whether they believe that government aid to the poor does more harm than good. But, when broken down, 86% of Steadfast Conservatives, 80% of Business Conservatives, and 86% of Young Outsiders said that government aid does more harm to the poor than good, while 91% of Solid Liberals said it did more good than harm.
  • Slightly more than half of all people surveyed said the government can’t afford to do more to help the needy; in contrast, over 85% of Steadfast Conservatives said that the Government can’t do more to help, while 83% of Steadfast Liberals said the Government should do more to help the needy.
  • The public is just about evenly split on attitudes about the poor, but there are deep ideological divides among typologies: 86% of Steadfast Conservatives say that the poor have it easy because they get government benefits without doing anything, while 86% of Solid Liberals say the poor have it hard because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.
  • Two-thirds of Americans continue to hold the belief that people can get ahead if they are willing and work hard, while a bit less than one-third agreed that hard work is no guarantee of success for most. The American myth that anyone can pull him or herself up by the bootstraps clearly continues to carry tremendous weight, obfuscating the power of social systems and structures, such as racism, classism, and sexism, to oppress and perpetuate poverty, and making it more difficult to achieve systemic solutions.

What can we learn from these findings? More importantly, in an age of congressional gridlock, clearly rooted in polarized beliefs in both Congress and the wider public, what can possibly be done to ensure access to opportunity and justice for all? Read Part II of this blog tomorrow to learn how advocates can utilize messaging and reframing to ensure access to justice and opportunity for low-income people in an age of political polarization.


"Super Voucher" Controversy Distorts the Real Issue

This blog post was coauthored by Adam Ballard, Community Organizer and Housing Advocate at Access Living, and Kate Walz, Director of Housing Justice at the Shriver Center.

You’ve probably seen the flurry of news coverage about low-income families living in $3,000 to $4,000 a month luxury apartments in downtown Chicago via a federal housing program.  Sounds like just another story of people taking advantage of a government program, right?  Really, what could make a better news story? Perhaps one grounded in the real details and the facts behind the program being attacked. 

This controversy began with an amendment proposed by Rep. Aaron Schock (R–Peoria) to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual appropriations bill.  That amendment would prohibit public housing agencies from offering fair market rents in excess of 120%, otherwise known as “exception rents,” to landlords who participate in the tenant-based Housing Choice Voucher program. Schock’s stated rationale for the amendment is that the Chicago Housing Authority has paid rents in excess of 300% of the fair market rents, allowing voucher holders to live in tony apartments near the lakefront.

The Housing Choice Voucher program is one of the government’s main federal housing assistance programs, helping more than two million very low-income households, including families, senior citizens, and persons with disabilities, afford their housing by giving them vouchers to cover a portion of their rent in the private market. Vouchers are one of the best means of relocating families to higher opportunity and less violent neighborhoods and reducing homelessness and poverty rates for participants. The Housing Choice Voucher program also enables more than one million persons with disabilities, including veterans relying upon the veteran-specific VASH voucher program, to live independently in a community of their choice. 

Schock’s amendment and the news coverage that followed missed the mark entirely. Less than 2% of the Chicago Housing Authority’s 38,000 vouchers have exception rents, and only a fraction of those vouchers have rents in excess of 200%. For all of 2013, there were only three vouchers with rents at the 300% cap.

None of the news coverage asked the question why such high rents were even needed. Here are a couple of questions that should have been asked: Is there a person in the household who is disabled and requires a hard-to-find accessible unit that can only be found in higher-rent neighborhoods? Is the housing close to a good elementary school for the family's children? Finally, is the housing in proximity to employment that may help the family lift themselves out of poverty?

The much larger issue is that the vast majority of voucher holders in Chicago live in high poverty, racially segregated neighborhoods and struggle to find units that are accessible. Indeed, only $1 out of every $10 spent on rents through the voucher program went to neighborhoods with lower rates of poverty and more opportunity.  

Vouchers are also a lifeline for the disability community. Due to a pervasively high unemployment rate independent of recessionary cycles, the majority of people with disabilities rely on fixed-income benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). These programs are not adequate to pay rent and still have money left for the other necessities of life. Once a person with a disability receives a voucher, the challenge is to find accessible housing, especially for those with significant mobility impairments. In Chicago and many older cities, antiquated housing stock built without physical access for this population makes the search very difficult. Agencies that provide housing search assistance for people with disabilities in Chicago and elsewhere are overwhelmed by demand that is impossible to fully meet—one such agency receives over 200 unique requests every month. The answer often lies in newer buildings in higher-rent and/or gentrifying communities. In order to make these opportunities possible, exception rents (often around 200%, but in rare cases as high as 300% or more) come into play as a “reasonable accommodation” under federal fair housing and civil rights law.

The Chicago Housing Authority’s effort to improve where voucher holders live by offering them a real and sometimes first chance to live in better neighborhoods and out of institutional settings (which are still more costly to the taxpayer than an exception rent voucher), is also what civil rights laws require. Without the ability to offer higher-than-market rents to landlords, the hard reality is that voucher holders struggle to find landlords willing to rent to them. Though voucher discrimination has been outlawed in Chicago and Cook County and other parts of the country, landlords still openly discriminate against voucher holders, particularly in higher opportunity neighborhoods. This refusal to rent to voucher holders is often pretextual, where the landlord’s actual reason for refusing to rent is discrimination on the basis of race, familial status, or disability. 

When efforts were made to protect voucher holders from discrimination in Illinois, Aaron Schock, then a state legislator, opposed extending that protection. If Rep. Schock actually wants to work to improve the voucher program, let’s begin with the full set of facts, cut out the rhetoric and splashy news pieces, and support every effort to permit voucher holders to live in communities of their choice.

Protecting the Housing of Survivors of Violence Should Be a Top Priority for HUD Secretary Castro

In early July, the Senate voted to confirm San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), putting this rising political star at the helm of the nation’s federal housing programs. One can only imagine the fever pitch of requests competing for Secretary Castro’s attention. Many important issues deserve focus, including the lack of affordable housing across the nation in spite of increasing need, the slow and sometimes stymied recovery of the housing market, increasing recognition of the detrimental effects of residential racial segregation, and the failure of or outright resistance by many local governments to affirmatively further fair housing. Secretary Castro should steer his agency to develop laws and policies proactively that can address these issues for long term.

But here’s something Secretary Castro and HUD should act on immediately. In 2005, Congress’ reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) included for the first time critical housing protections for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking who lived in or were applicants to certain federal affordable housing programs. The new housing provisions were groundbreaking in that they prevented certain housing providers from evicting or denying admission to individuals for being crime victims. It is a grim reality that, before VAWA 2005 was in place, many housing providers did evict victims. And it took years of education and slow roll out of HUD rules and policy to get to the point where most housing providers covered by VAWA 2005 understood the law. 

In March 2013, President Obama signed the 2013 reauthorization of VAWA. The housing provisions in VAWA 2013 are just as groundbreaking as those in VAWA 2005. Among other things, VAWA 2013 added nine more federal housing programs to the mandate not to harm, evict, or deny admission to victims of violence, which potentially cover an additional 1.4 million households. The new law also now covers sexual assault survivors, LGBT survivors, and immigrant survivors. These  protections are long overdue. Finally, the new law permits survivors to move into other federal affordable housing in order to escape violence—a critical new tool so that survivors do not have to choose between their safety and their affordable housing. But other than a HUD notice issued in August 2013 seeking guidance on the new provisions and a brief guide to public housing authorities from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, HUD has failed to issue new policy or instructions, including basic updates to housing providers, tenants, and applicants, such as leases that spell out the new protections for sexual assault survivors. This delay puts survivors and housing providers in confusing and potentially dangerous territory, where the lack of instruction could result in evictions of crime victims at their most vulnerable time. Because more than 85% of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are women, this delay also presents a serious impediment to fair housing for women.   

Secretary Castro and HUD should act immediately to issue these long overdue policy and instructions on VAWA 2013. Because survivors of violence can’t wait for HUD to do its job.  

Updated August 13, 2014--Good News for Survivors of Violence
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued last week a new HUD VAWA Certification Form for victims of violence who are residents, recipients, or applicants of public housing, Housing Choice Vouchers, and VASH vouchers. The form has been translated into eleven other languages and incorporates the new and improved protections for survivors as a result of VAWA 2013. We thank HUD for responding to concerns raised in this blog post that there had been implementation delays with respect to VAWA 2013.