The Truth About Marketplace Health Plan Rates

You may have heard stories about dramatic increases in private health insurance rates since the implementation of health reform. Although Illinois insurance carriers recently sent preliminary 2017 rates to regulatory authorities, we likely won’t know what the final prices and plans for next year look like until closer to the beginning of open enrollment. But we already know that misinformation about increased rates is being hyped by the media.

Fingers crossed behind backThis is a lie about Obamacare plans that we’ve heard before. What stories about these proposed rate filings often miss is that, even if premiums go up, financial assistance (through tax credits) to help pay for those premium increases as well. Simply put, the majority of consumers in the Marketplace won’t feel the premium price increases that the media often focuses on.

A new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proves the point. The report found that, last year, the average cost of Marketplace coverage for people getting tax credits went from $102 to $106 per month—a modest increase, especially when you think about how costs for everything tend to rise.

In Illinois, 75% of Marketplace consumers receive tax credits based on their income. By design, tax credits increase if the cost of the benchmark plan (the second lowest-cost silver plan) goes up. So if all premiums in a market go up by similar amounts, consumers who get tax credits will not necessarily pay more, because their tax credits will go up to compensate.

In addition, if a Marketplace consumer isn’t happy with his or her current plan—either because the premium went up or for another reason—the consumer has the ability to, and in fact is encouraged to, come back and shop around. According to HHS, nearly 50% of returning consumers selected a new plan for 2016. In Illinois, that number was greater than 50%, and those consumers saved an average of $636 annually.

The stories we keep seeing about big rate increases happen only in a world that doesn’t exist. As the HHS report notes, “the average premium changes reported in insurers’ rate announcements assume a scenario in which no consumer leaves the Marketplace, no new consumers enroll, nobody switches plans, no new plans are offered, and no one receives tax credits.” We know from the past three years of Marketplace experience, these assumptions do not reflect reality. Beyond the fact that the majority of Marketplace customers receive tax credits, we know that consumers whose income or job situation changes will move between the Marketplace and employer-subsidized plans or Medicaid. Moreover, for better or for worse, the Marketplace is robust with choices (the number of plans in Illinois increased from 410 choices in 2015 to 480 choices in 2016) so people will often “vote with their pocketbook” and switch plans.

Of course any increase in premium prices for Marketplace consumers will be a hardship to many. Moreover, out-of-pocket costs (like high deductibles) continue to concern Illinois consumers. However, it’s important to step back and remember that before the Affordable Care Act, affordable, quality health care was completely out of reach for many consumers—for example the millions of people with pre-existing conditions. And for many more, health care plans excluded important services like maternity care or mental health treatment.

Now, Illinois consumers have the option to purchase quality health plans and have the financial assistance to help pay for them. The media need to acknowledge the immense benefits of these tax credits, if they are going to responsibly report on premiums.

The Justice-Involved Are Key to Justice Reform

The 70 million justice-involved Americans—individuals with arrest or criminal records who have been socially, politically, and economically starved by our failing criminal justice system—deserve a seat at the table where justice reform is being discussed. Their anecdotal experiences, combined with data, serve to illustrate the systematic failures of our criminal justice system and the collateral consequences that create barriers to employment, housing, and public benefits. Their voices have an important potential to impact policy.

Woman studying at libraryHigher education is an important area for reform. The U.S. Department of Education’s recently released report, Beyond the Box, Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals, describes college and university policies and practices that have limited access of the justice-involved to higher education. The report noted the importance of campus safety, which is vital given the rise of sexual assault on college campuses, while also ensuring that blanket criminal background policies do not discourage qualified candidates from applying in the first place. The report includes many recommendations, options, and examples of current commended practices at schools, including:

  • Delaying the request for, or consideration of, criminal justice information collected until after an admission decision has been made;
  • Giving students the opportunity to explain their criminal justice involvement and preparedness for postsecondary study;
  • Offering targeted academic and career guidance to students with past justice involvement; and
  • Using on-campus employment opportunities to help formerly incarcerated individuals create an employment history.

Removing barriers to higher education for our justice-involved population has the potential to enrich the classroom experience, as these students “are able to bring a unique perspective to classroom discussion with their peers.” Moreover, professions that require a college degree can benefit from having justice-involved individuals, who have personal and practical knowledge of the criminal justice system, in their workforce. For example, as teachers and counselors justice-involved individuals can provide insight on how to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline. As attorneys, justice-involved individuals have the potential to represent people whose shoes they’ve walked in, and to inform the legal community of the pitfalls of criminal statutes and procedure.

States such as Ohio have already acknowledged the importance of incorporating the voices of justice-involved individuals in their criminal justice reform efforts. House Bill 130 called for the formation of an Ex-Offender Reentry Coalition that serves as a guiding hub for expanding and improving reentry efforts across state and local agencies and communities. The bill requires the coalition to have a member that has been convicted of one or more felonies or misdemeanors in Ohio, and be “willing to share the challenges or barriers that have occurred as a result.” Only when we listen to the challenges and barriers faced by justice-involved individuals can their experiences be elevated into effective policies.

The Department of Education’s recommendations would help justice-involved individuals move into professions that place them at the table of justice reform. Institutions of higher education should step up and pull out their chair by implementing these recommendations. By removing barriers to education for the justice-involved, we remove barriers to justice reform. 


More Americans Live on Less

If you stopped at Starbucks for a cup of coffee on your way in to work today, you have already spent more than what many in the United States subsist on for an entire day. Some level of extreme deprivation has always existed in America — but, in the past two decades, the number of people in its grip has exploded. 

This — the steep rise of extreme poverty, particularly among households with children — was the topic of a panel discussion at the Harold Washington Library here in Chicago recently. The event’s featured speaker was Kathryn Edin, a sociologist and one of the nation’s leading poverty researchers. She spoke about her and Luke Shafer’s recently published best seller, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America — a mix of sociology and storytelling that puts faces to the millions of Americans who live on virtually no income.

$2 billsAs Edin explained, her and Shafer’s book reveals a troubling trend. Since the late 1990s, the share of Americans living below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) has fluctuated between roughly 11% and 15% of the population. But within that group, an increasing number of households are living in what Edin and Shafer define as “extreme poverty.” In 1996, about 636,000 households subsisted on less than $2 per person, per day, in income. By 2011, that number had ballooned to 1.5 million — a 160% increase.

Why the dramatic growth? Edin and Shafer show — both in their book and elsewhere — that it can be traced back to sharp reductions in cash assistance imposed by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) — popularly known as welfare reform. Passed in 1996, welfare reform replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a federally regulated cash benefit program, with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a block grant given to each state to operate their own programs. Along with giving states more flexibility — states can use federal block grant dollars to pay for a wide array of things other than basic cash assistance — it also imposed strict work requirements and time limits on aid. The reform, in effect, put an “end to welfare as we know it.”

Although the purported goal of welfare reform was to boost labor force participation, research shows that welfare reform, over time, has failed on this front. There simply aren’t enough jobs, let alone decent-paying jobs, at the bottom of the labor market to go around. So instead, it has resulted in cutting off millions of our nation’s most at risk people from a much-needed lifeline. In 1996, 68 out of every 100 poor families with children received cash benefits; by 2013, that number had fallen to 23. In a handful of states, as few as 7 out of every 100 poor families with children now receive assistance.

To be sure, the cash benefits provided in the pre-reform era weren’t enough to cover the cost of living — and families still struggled to get by — but the assistance at least provided a subsistence level of support. Now, left without a reliable safety net to fall back on, many individuals resort to precarious ways of trying to make ends meet — methods that Edin and Shafer call “survival strategies.” They donate blood plasma multiple times per week. They collect and sell discounted metal. They move into crowded and unsafe living conditions.  

Despite their persistence and resourcefulness, most are unable make it out of extreme poverty. And the harsh circumstances exact a sharp toll. Edin and Shafer didn’t conduct research on the health consequences of $2-a-day poverty, but they introduce us to families who go without food for stretches of several days, and to women and children who regularly experience physical and sexual abuse. A few individuals express a desire to die.

By shedding light on the real-life suffering caused by welfare reform, Edin and Shafer’s work has forcefully reaffirmed an important lesson: the existence and severity of American poverty are direct results of public policy decisions. Poverty persists in our country because we choose to allow it to. Failing to provide an adequate safety net is a decision we make — one driven by the same amount of agency, and carrying the same amount of culpability, as a decision to intervene proactively.

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog.


The Path to Equal Justice

For almost 100 years, the American Bar Association (ABA) has partnered with charitable and publicly funded efforts to provide legal services for the poor. 

Path through the woodsIn 1919, Reginald Heber Smith, a practitioner in a legal aid charity, argued that it was the duty of the law profession to ensure access to justice for everyone regardless of income. In his seminal book, Justice and the Poor, Smith asserted that, where the law caused injustice or unfairness to low-income clients, this duty included vigorous attempts to reform the law itself.

Smith had crucial allies among America’s top lawyers, including Charles Evans Hughes, a statesman, lawyer, and Supreme Court Justice. At its 1920 convention, Hughes engineered the ABA’s endorsement of legal services for all and the creation of a the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, or SCLAID, a committee that exists to this day.

In 1967, as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, Sargent Shriver added legal services as a service provided to low-income communities through the Community Action Program. The ABA, through its then-president, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, was a key ally in moving the legal services component of the War on Poverty through Congress.

Hearkening back to Reginald Heber Smith’s model, Shriver endorsed the notion that representation should include policy-type work, then known as “law reform.”  This was consistent with Shriver’s belief people in poor communities should be given tools to create their own paths out of poverty, not handouts.    

Landlords, investors, bankers, employers—virtually every interest group is represented in debate over policies and budgets that implicate the interests of low-income people. The lone exception, until the War on Poverty, was people in poverty themselves. Through legal services, low-income people got a seat at the table and began to win or influence some of these debates. The process was fairer, and the concept of equal justice was more complete.

Not surprisingly, the very success of this model also brought constant pressure from opposing interests to terminate or constrain it. Consistent support from the ABA thwarted efforts to terminate the legal services program, but in 1996 Congress severely restricted the ability of lawyers in frontline programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation to engage in many types of policy work in legislatures, administrative agencies, and the courts.

Since then, efforts to provide legal representation to low-income people on policy and budget debates have been funded privately, mostly by foundations and donors. Lawyers and law firms in private practice have become key leaders. They serve as board members and contributors to legal services providers. And they are pro bono co-counsel in high-impact “law reform” litigation that nonprofit legal aid organizations, standing alone, might not have the resources to undertake. 

The Shriver Center, where I work, arose in response to that 1996 crisis. Today, the Shriver Center also leads a network of state-focused law and policy organizations working in 32 states and the District of Columbia – the Legal Impact Network. Although all of these organizations have an impressive record of legal and policy advocacy victories on behalf of low-income people, some of the network’s members have very small staffs, all of them are under-funded, and all need support

Today, the ABA continues its support of the movement to ensure justice for the poor. This week, key players in the civil justice system, including advocates, pro bono providers, and bar leaders, will gather in Chicago at the Equal Justice Conference, a joint effort of the ABA and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Much of the focus at this year’s conference will be on efforts to ensure that everyone who needs an attorney can find and afford one.

Beyond access to justice, ongoing efforts by the ABA and others to support programs that provide policy and systemic advocacy for low-income clients are more important than ever. It is only with the robust participation of lawyers in every state—as board members, donors, and pro bono partners—that we may obtain the fullest measure of equal justice for poor clients.   

State Policymakers Battle over Doctrine While Real People Suffer

Toy SoldiersIt is the job of every state policymaker to consider and enact laws and policies that serve the greater good of their constituents. Yet earlier this week a New York Times editorial called out Illinois and Kansas as the leading examples of states where policymakers are doing harm instead of good. Illinois is in a record ten-month budget impasse that is eroding much of its educational and social services systems. Kansas, for its part, has deliberately blown up its revenue system, and thus also its schools and social services infrastructure. 

Governor Brownback has led Kansas into implementing the longtime dream of conservative free market zealots—lower state taxes that will supposedly stimulate business activity, which will in turn increase  state tax revenue. (George H.W. Bush called this “voodoo economics” when he was running against Ronald Reagan.) This economic theory has never succeeded in practice. Sure enough, Kansas is no exception. Reality has stubbornly rejected the doctrine, and Kansas is a mess. Governor Brownback’s Republican allies are increasingly restless as their districts suffer.

Governor Rauner’s approach has been a bit different. He argues that his policy agenda of eroding protections for workers and weakening organized labor will produce a business boom. And he asserts that this boom will drive an increase in state revenues to replace the lost income taxes he insisted on allowing to sunset. He has steadfastly demanded that Democrats enact his anti-labor agenda before he will negotiate with them on needed new state revenues. 

It is not clear whether Governor Rauner, like Governor Brownback, intends to damage the state’s social services infrastructure or whether he regards it as a regrettable but acceptable price to pay for forcing passage of his policy agenda. In either case, at this point, ten months into the budget impasse, Illinois is damaging its systems by default much as Kansas is damaging its systems apparently on purpose.            

Last week Illinois passed stopgap funding for its universities and two- and four-year colleges and their students, and Governor Rauner signed it. So Illinois has temporarily dodged that bullet, and perhaps the agreement on this legislation is a sign of progress towards a responsible budget. 

But there is much more damage being done. In January, the United Way of Illinois (UWI) surveyed 444 social service providers throughout Illinois that rely on state funding, and nearly half of the agencies surveyed reported that they had to make cuts because of the impasse. Of those that were forced to make cuts, an overwhelming majority—85%—had to do so by scaling back on the number of clients they serve. For example, as of March, at least 3,200 homebound seniors had lost home-delivered hot meals statewide.

Service agencies have been forced to lay off many of their experienced and talented staff, perhaps never to get them back. Earlier this year, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI)—the largest social service provider in the state—announced it would cut 750 jobs, 43% of its workforce. All 29 agencies serving sexual assault survivors in Illinois have either instituted furloughs or left unfilled positions vacant—leaving survivors throughout the state without the services that are essential for their well-being. And at least 18 Teen REACH programs—which mentor, tutor and provide a safe place for at-risk children after school—have closed. Thousands of at-risk children and their families have thus lost critical after-school programming.

Much of this is permanent damage, not easily or perhaps ever remedied by an end to the budget impasse. Once a program has been dismantled—its staff reduced, its relationships with clients deteriorated, its sites closed, its cash reserves exhausted—it is incredibly difficult, expensive, and perhaps impossible to put it back together. And this can be said more broadly of the social service delivery system in Illinois; even once full funding has been restored, the State of Illinois won’t be able to simply flip a switch and return to business as usual.

Whether or not Governor Rauner intends it, whether or not he is as ideological as Governor Brownback, the emerging reality is that much damage is already done. Soon the question of whether Governor Rauner merely assigns a very low value to vital social services programs or is actively hostile to them will be solely academic. 


Tenants' Right to Organize in HUD-Assisted Housing Must Be Enforced

Crowd of peopleThe right to organize to improve your community is a fundamental hallmark of American life.  Yet low-income tenants who live in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-assisted properties, and the community organizers who seek to empower them, often face harassment and retaliation for attempting to organize to improve their housing.

Often working in tandem with community organizers, residents of HUD-assisted housing come together to form associations that represent the interests of all tenants in the housing development. Tenant associations play an important role in ensuring that resident voices are included in decision making made about the long-term affordability and quality of their homes.

Unfortunately, too frequently, property owners and managers do not respect tenants’ right to organize. In Texas, community organizers have been threatened with arrest for meeting with tenants on the property. In Michigan, a retaliatory fee was levied for use of the community room because lawyers and organizers sought to use it to work with tenants. In Illinois, a property manager refused to allow tenants to hold a tenant association election.

Perhaps most egregiously, in New York City, a large property management company proudly proclaims its policy of attempting to defuse tenant organizations by “discourag[ing] tenants from organizing into action groups” and ensuring that “such situations are identified early and the leaders are spoken to individually and at length.” This policy calls into serious question the management company’s compliance with, and respect for, HUD’s regulations, which provide for strong tenant participation rights. Yet, even when this blatant policy was brought to HUD’s attention, the online posting—and the property management’s ability to continue to operate in this fashion—remains unaddressed.

HUD regulations, at 24 C.F.R. part 245, recognize the importance of tenant participation in creating and maintaining good living environments. HUD requires owners and property managers to recognize tenant associations and organizing committees and to not interfere with any actions reasonably related to the creation or operation of a tenant association. The regulations specifically allow tenants to conduct protected activities, including canvassing, distributing flyers, and holding on-site tenant meetings without management interference. These protections extend to non-tenant community organizers, as well.

HUD recently published a notice that explains the procedure that HUD officials are supposed to follow when a violation of the right to organize is brought to their attention, including the imposition of sanctions when an investigation shows that tenants’ rights are being interfered with. Yet, HUD has never issued a notice of violation to an owner despite serious and widespread violations, allowing owners to violate the regulations with impunity.

While this is a longstanding issue, a recent HUD-funded program that partners lawyers with community organizers has increased awareness of violations of the right to organize and resulted in more complaints to HUD. The program provides legal and community organizing support to tenant associations to preserve, improve, and maintain their housing. Along with the National Housing Law Project, the Shriver Center has sent a letter to HUD illustrating the variety of violations throughout the country and including recommendations for how to protect the right to organize.

HUD must protect tenants’ right to organize and participate in protected tenant association activities. When owners and management threaten tenants with eviction, threaten community organizers with arrest, and deny access to on-site meeting space, these actions weaken the organizing effort at the building. Too often, when faced with retaliatory actions by management, tenants are afraid to participate because they are fearful of losing their homes. Until HUD begins to hold owners accountable, the right to organize and participate in many HUD-funded multifamily housing developments will remain elusive. 

The Chicago Police Accountability Task Force Recommendations Are Important for Racial Justice Beyond the Criminal Justice System

Police carAlmost two years ago, the Shriver Center pointed to the racial injustice embedded within the criminal justice system and urged that a new understanding of implicit bias could produce reforms that would prevent deaths like that of Michael Brown in a police shooting in Ferguson. Over the past few years we have seen many grassroots movements primarily led by young black organizations draw national attention to this longstanding epidemic. Last week, the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, formed in response to the similar shooting of Laquan MacDonald, urged the City of Chicago and its police department to “acknowledge the force’s history of racial disparity and discrimination.” In its final report, the Task Force states that racism, which stems in part from our city’s long history of residential segregation, “undermines the Chicago Police Department’s relationship to the community.” The Task Force put forth thoughtful recommendations to reform the current policies and practices that have debilitated the public's trust in police in Chicago and across the country. These included recommendations to:

  • create localized Community Empowerment and Engagement Districts (CEED) that collaborate with local stakeholders to develop tailored community policing strategies;
  • implement a data driven, best-in-class Early Intervention System for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to identify officers with problems before they become problems for the community; and
  • establish a Deputy Chief of Diversity and Inclusion for CPD.

The task force report echoes community voices that have long been clamoring for such reforms, but have not until now been heeded by policymakers. The findings and recommendations of the Task Force are a call for action not just for Chicago but also for the nation.

Reforming the racially biased and discriminatory criminal justice system is important well beyond law enforcement. Arrests and convictions also sentence people to a lifetime of disadvantages and impenetrable barriers to
housing, employment, public benefits, and voting and derail them from having a fair chance in this country. While our nation has made progress in acknowledging these collateral consequences of involvement in the criminal justice system, there is a long way to go for all of these other systems on the civil side to end blanket reliance on criminal records. Blanket bans based on criminal records are unjust even when the original criminal involvement was a legitimate conviction. They are exponentially worse when the original criminal involvement was the unjust result of a racially biased and discriminatory criminal justice system.   

The actions of law enforcement officials have an important effect on youths of color. The task force describes CPD's relationship with youths of color as “antagonistic to say the least.” By acknowledging the random but pervasive physical and verbal abuse youths in communities of color experience from police, the task force draws attention to aspects of policing that do not make headline news, but nonetheless foster a relationship of distrust between police departments and the people they serve. Many black youths do not see the police as an institution that protects them. High school students on Chicago’s South Side discuss everyday instances of harassment that are too minor to merit the involvement of a civil rights lawyer but substantial enough to illegitimatize the police force collectively as a trusted source of protection. These negative encounters infiltrate every aspect of these students’ day—on their way to school, at school, and even at home. This common experience of youths of color throughout the country leads them to feel dehumanized and singled out as criminals in every aspect of their lives. 

While racial bias has severe implications within every profession, within the police it pulls a lever that starts an assembly line leading toward involvement in the criminal justice system that transforms people of color into second-class citizens. That assembly line is lubricated by a code of silence that prevents good officers from slowing the process down, fixing it, or stopping it. It is not enough for leaders to admit that there is sanctioned racial bias and discrimination within the system, furthered by a code of silence. The department needs to create a professional environment where accountability can thrive and racial bias can be acknowledged and eliminated.

The task force report is a call to action.  Its implementation through effective and sustainable action is an important measure of the commitment of the City of Chicago and this nation to make a fair chance not just a privilege for the few, but a birthright for all. 


A Reason to Celebrate Tax Day

By the end of the day on Monday, April 18, the federal government will have lifted roughly 10 million people — 5.3 million of whom are children — out of poverty, and made poverty less severe for some 20 million others.

Well, kind of.

April 18 marks Tax Day, the due date for federal tax returns. And while just about all of us grumble about paying taxes, it’s also an opportunity to acknowledge all of the important services that our tax dollars make possible — from public schooling, to consumer protection, to transportation infrastructure, and beyond. And this year, we should reserve special praise for one of our most potent anti-poverty tools — tax credits for working families.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) are refundable tax credits targeted mostly at low- and moderate-income working families. The size of the credits are tied to one’s family size, marital status, and income. These tax credits reduce the amount recipients owe in taxes to the federal government — and, if the credit for which a family qualifies exceeds their tax liability, the difference is refunded to them.

So, by the time tax season has officially ended, over 27 million families will have qualified for an average EITC benefit of $3,074. Even more families will have qualified for an average CTC benefit of $1,016.

Though these tax credits bolster the economic security of millions of working families — above and below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) — they are particularly important for the working poor. In fact, they have become one of the federal government’s most effective anti-poverty measures. According to a recent U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) report assessing the effectiveness of the social safety net over the last 50 years, these tax credits, among all other programs, did the second most to reduce overall poverty in 2014. For children, they did the most to stave off deprivation.

On top of their immediate anti-poverty impact, these tax credits have also been shown to have various other positive, longer-lasting effects — particularly for children in recipient households. Research has linked income from tax credit benefits to improved infant and maternal health, better academic performance among elementary and middle school students, greater likelihood of college enrollment, and higher earnings in future generations.

The EITC and CTC are, in short, investments that yield returns now and in the future.

But they haven’t always been this effective. In 2009, as part of the economic stimulus package, lawmakers made a few key temporary improvements to the credits that, all told, boosted their anti-poverty reach by 20 percent.

These improvements, however, were set to expire in 2017, when the tax credits would have reverted to their pre-2009 status. Had this happened, over 50 million people, 25 million of whom are children, would have suffered financially. Millions would have been pushed into — or deeper into — poverty.

Recognizing the critical role these provisions play in bolstering the economic security of millions, Congress — in a rare moment of bipartisanship — made these improvements permanent just a few months ago. This marked one of the largest anti-poverty victories in the last 20 years.

While this was a huge step forward for millions of working families, Congress missed an opportunity to fix major flaws in these credits. The EITC, for one, completely misses many low-wage workers without children and does very little for those it does reach. As a result, childless low-wage workers remain the lone group of Americans taxed into poverty by the federal government. Moreover, households with income less than $3,000 annually are completely ineligible for the refundable portion of the CTC. This leaves many families — whose budgets are the tightest — locked out of this critical income support.

Yet despite their shortcomings, the EITC and CTC are incredibly effective. And their success and unrealized potential underscores the role that government has to play in alleviating poverty and promoting prosperity. While these tax credits are particularly powerful, they are only a single part of that broader effort. Other safety net programs and investments are essential, too. The close of tax season should serve as a reminder that, though our tax dollars might support a lot of important efforts, ensuring that everyone has the resources necessary to achieve their full potential is perhaps chief among them.

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog.


HUD's Giant Leap: Secretary Castro Connects Civil Rights, Criminal Records, and Color

Taking the bold action that so many have been waiting for, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro announced today that criminal records screening may violate the civil rights of racial minorities who are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. This game-changing guidance applies not only to federally subsidized housing, but to landlords on the private rental market as well.

House made of puzzle piecesThe importance of this moment cannot be stressed enough. Up until now, HUD’s discussions about the problems of criminal record screening have been centered on giving second chances and reunifying families. Critical as these reasons are, the elephant in the room has always been race. Given that the vast majority of people involved at all stages of the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly people of color, criminal records screening amplifies racial disparities, which, if unjustified, runs counter to the promises made by the Fair Housing Act. For a long time, HUD avoided this conversation—until now.

HUD should be commended for seizing the opportunity to release this guidance when it would have been politically easier to let this moment to slip by. We have in the past criticized HUD for allowing housing protections to lag behind those in the employment sector, where the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long held that blanket bans on the basis of criminal arrests and convictions raise serious civil rights concerns. Acknowledging HUD’s steps in this area, such as the 2011 letters from Secretary Donovan, we kept finding ourselves asking for more in our Illinois report, our national report, and various letters to HUD. Fortunately, however, in the past year and a half, the momentum has been steadily building toward HUD’s official policy change.

First, there was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 affirmation of the disparate impact theory as a means of proving discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, followed shortly by HUD’s publication of the final rule on affirmatively furthering fair housing. Giving HUD much of the legal justification for today’s guidance, these important events took place during a time of unprecedented hand wringing over our country’s damaging overreliance on mass incarceration. Reversing the “tough on crime” rhetoric of the 1990s, politicians are now coming together to fix this broken system, and President Obama has been granting clemency to those who have spent too much time in prison. It is only natural, then, that HUD step in to ensure that these men and women end up not on the street, but rather in stable housing that will help keep them from returning to the criminal justice system.

So then how does this guidance protect the fair housing rights of people with criminal records?

First, it makes clear that housing providers commit a Fair Housing Act violation when they intentionally use their criminal records policies to discriminate against people on the basis of race or other protected classes. Examples of such practices can be found in a 2015 report by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center, which encountered landlords who divulged more relaxed screening policies for white applicants and more stringent policies for black applicants.

The bulk of the new guidance concentrates on how a criminal records policy, though facial neutral may nevertheless violate the Fair Housing Act under the disparate impact theory. This analysis has three steps.

First, the plaintiff must show that the criminal records policy has a discriminatory effect on a protected class, usually through data showing the stark racial disparities present in the criminal justice system.

If the plaintiff proves discriminatory effect, it becomes the housing provider’s job to justify its criminal records policy. It is not enough for a housing provider to simply say that excluding people with criminal records improves public safety; the provider must back up these assertions with evidence. HUD declares:

Bald assertions based on generalizations or stereotypes that any individual with an arrest or conviction record poses a greater risk than any individual without such a record are not sufficient to satisfy this burden.

A housing provider will have a difficult time justifying an arrest record ban under this standard, because arrests provide proof of a person has been suspected of criminal activity, not that the person actually committed criminal activity. Notably, the guidance also stresses that this analysis applies to policies that exclude people on the basis of convictions, even if the policy covers some but not all convictions. Such an analysis takes care and nuance, and HUD’s willingness to highlight these potentially gray areas demonstrates its commitment to ensuring fair policies for people with criminal records.

Finally, if the housing provider has provided a substantial, legitimate, and nondiscriminatory justification for its criminal records policy, then the task falls on the plaintiff to offer a less discriminatory alternative policy. Here, HUD strongly suggests that a less discriminatory alternative to blanket bans is “individualized assessment of relevant mitigating information beyond that contained in an individual’s criminal record” and that delaying such assessments until after an applicant’s other qualifications (e.g., financial) are established will likely save housing providers in terms of the administrative costs of such assessments.

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King led the Chicago Freedom Movement to, among other things, desegregate housing in the City of Chicago, and this movement helped spur the Fair Housing Act of 1968. By taking a stand to protect the fair housing rights of everyone, including people with criminal records, HUD has made an important contribution to that legacy today. We thank HUD and Secretary Castro for finally putting words into action. Our nation is better for it.


It's Time to Make the Gender Wage Gap History

Twenty-one cents on the dollar.

This is the striking yet typical disparity in pay, relative to men, that millions of working women faced last year.

This month, as we mark Women’s History Month and celebrate the many strides made towards gender equity, we should renew our commitment to closing the gender wage gap and ensuring that all women are able to achieve their full earning potential.

From the late 1970’s into the early 2000’s, much headway was made in closing the gap in median annual pay between full-time working men and women. But progress on reaching pay equity has all but stalled, and the wage gap has stubbornly endured, at about the same size, since 2005. Gendered pay inequity has indeed remained a fixture of the U.S. economy, persisting in nearly every occupation and at every level of educational attainment. And, as it always has, the gap hits women of color the hardest: for every dollar that a white male earns, African-American women earn only 63 cents, and Latinas and Hispanic women, just 54 cents.

So what continues to drive this disparity?

Certainly, as many rightfully point out, blatant discrimination explains a lot of it. Researchers estimate that sex discrimination could account for as much as 41% of the gap. Many women simply aren’t receiving equal pay for equal work.

But there’s more to the wage gap than just wage discrimination for the same or similar jobs.

For one, adult women, and particularly women of color, are wildly overrepresented in low- and minimum-wage industries. Of the 23 million workers who occupy positions that pay $10.50 per hour or less, two-thirds are women, and just under a third are women of color. These women have suffered greatly from wage stagnation in recent decades, due in large part to an eroding federal minimum wage — which, in terms of purchasing power, has lost a quarter of its value since 1968. Wages for these workers aren’t merely low; they are frankly unlivable.

This heavy concentration of women in low-wage work is indicative of the occupational segregation that pervades the labor market more broadly. While many of the formal barriers that kept women from working in professions traditionally occupied by men have been torn down, stereotypes about jobs at which women and men “naturally” excel still segregate industries by gender at every skill level of employment. Whether it’s driving a truck, laboring in construction, or undertaking a STEM career, women are discouraged, explicitly and implicitly, from pursuing these and other nontraditional occupations — even though they are qualified to do so. Instead, they are concentrated in industries and fill occupations that are important — as home health aides, administrative assistants, registered nurses — but not as remunerative.

But even within relatively integrated industries, men tend to be situated in positions higher up on the pay scale. For example, in the restaurant industry, men comprise 48% of the workforce, but are 54% of the managers and 86% of the head cooks. Women, on the other hand, hold an outsized share of lower-paying, front-line service jobs — like cashiering and waiting tables.

On top of facing a hefty wage penalty for doing “women’s” work, women are also hit with an undue tax on caregiving. In the United States, women shoulder most of the unpaid caregiving labor. And, as a result, they are often forced to leave or spend less time in the labor market — sacrificing earnings, work experience, and even promotions.

While the causes of the gender wage gap might be more pernicious than often acknowledged, the consequences are quite clear: these disparities in earnings undermine the financial security of not only women, but also their families, year in and year out, all the way into retirement.

The effects are particularly deleterious for women in low-wage industries. These workers, in addition to receiving unlivable pay, are less likely to have access to prerequisites that help balance work-family life and are also more vulnerable to pregnancy discrimination. For these women, calling off sick to take care of an ill child or being prematurely forced into unpaid maternity leave can be devastating. As the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) points out, the wage gap and its constitutive elements push millions of these women and their families into, or deeper into, poverty.

So what’s to be done?

The complexity and high stakes of the gender wage gap demand an urgent, multi-pronged policy offensive. They include, strengthening education and training for nontraditional jobs would undermine the negative effects of occupational segregation. Paid sick leave, fair and predictable work schedules, and access to high-quality, affordable childcare would go a long way in ensuring that women aren’t penalized for caregiving responsibilities. Raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation would improve the economic security of millions of women. And, of course, policies that demand more transparency from employers and strengthen workers’ ability to raise discrimination claims would help root out discrimination in the workplace.

Women have made significant progress in the workforce in the last half century. Yet, as the persistence of the gender wage gap suggests, there is still much progress to be made. The financial security of millions of workers and their families is at stake. It’s time to make the gender wage gap history.

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog post.

Why the Promise of the Violence Against Women Act Continues to Be Denied

[Editor’s Note: This blog post was coauthored by Neha Lall, Senior Attorney at LAF.]

On October 8, 2014, Mary Ann Blakemore faced one of the darkest days of her life. Her daughter’s abusive boyfriend was at her home and demanding to be let in.  Ms. Blakemore yelled at him to leave and that she was calling the police. The police had brought Ms. Blakemore’s daughter and young children to her doorstep a few days earlier and asked that they stay until the police could arrest the man threatening their lives. Ms. Blakemore did what any mother would do—she took them in. Now she was faced with the crazed man face-to-face. After leaving for a short time, he came back and firebombed the home. Ms. Blakemore suffered burns over 25% of her body, and her infant granddaughter was also severely burned.

Child's drawingA month later, Ms. Blakemore awoke from a medically induced coma and began the slow road to recovery. As one nightmare ended, a new one began. The Housing Authority of Cook County, from which Ms. Blakemore leased a public housing unit, informed her that her unit had been destroyed. She repeatedly requested a new apartment, but they refused. Instead, housing authority officials blamed her for the fire, stating that she should never have allowed her daughter to stay in the first place. Without a place to go and no possessions to her name, Ms. Blakemore had no choice but to stay with relatives who had neither the space nor the means to provide her with a permanent home. Even after she found a legal aid lawyer to assist her, the housing authority dug in, refusing to provide Ms. Blakemore a new unit even though they were legally required to do so.

The housing authority’s actions were not mere oversight or incompetence; they were discriminatory. While Ms. Blakemore was told she had no housing options, the housing authority immediately re-housed her neighbors who were also displaced as a result of the fire. Their belongings were carefully packed and stored at the housing authority’s expense. They were treated like any crime victim should be treated—with dignity and compassion—while Ms. Blakemore was treated like a criminal.

Although Ms. Blakemore’s injuries are unusually egregious, the attitudes of the housing authority officials she dealt with are sadly all too common. In 2005, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) became law. For the first time, VAWA made clear that federal housing providers could not deny housing to or evict victims of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking due to the conduct of perpetrators or their status as survivors. In 2013, VAWA was expanded to cover most federal housing programs, sexual assault survivors, LGBT survivors, and undocumented individuals. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity also issued important guidance describing how discrimination against victims of domestic violence, the vast majority of whom are women, can constitute sex discrimination. Yet nearly a decade later, stories of mistreatment and discrimination against survivors of violence continue to come to light. Some housing authorities and project owners essentially continue to operate in a pre-2005 universe, where victim-blaming is the norm.

When the housing authority would not relent, Mary Ann Blakemore filed a federal lawsuit.  She stood up to the housing authority just as she had stood up to her daughter’s abuser. A few weeks ago, she finally secured the justice she had been denied. But for most survivors, litigation is not a realistic option. Survivors escaping abuse struggle to find safety, protect their children, and recover from trauma. Few are able to access free legal services. Holding housing providers accountable should not be another battle that survivors have to fight.

HUD should step up and enforce VAWA. Given that it is charged with administering the bulk of federal housing programs, HUD should audit and monitor housing authorities and project owners to ensure their compliance with VAWA. HUD should create a complaints procedure though which survivors can complain, directly to HUD, about VAWA violations by housing providers. If those providers are found to be out of compliance, HUD should enforce the law, just as it does when housing providers fail to maintain appropriate housing conditions.

Housing providers also need to step back and evaluate their existing policies and practices to determine if they comply with VAWA. Implementing VAWA is as much about attitude as it is about policies on paper. Knee jerk responses like those of Ms. Blakemore’s property managers spring from deep-seated beliefs that victims of violence are themselves responsible for the abuse they suffer. Staff training, collaborations with domestic violence and sexual assault programs, and a willingness by providers to dig deep to remove any bias towards survivors are some important first steps in creating an atmosphere where survivors are protected rather than punished. Only then can Mary Ann Blakemore’s tragic story become a part of our history rather than our future.


When the Media Delves into the Myth, Not the Truth, of the Housing Voucher Program

You’ve probably seen the flurry of news coverage about Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) Housing Choice Voucher households living in luxury apartments in downtown Chicago. This story insinuates that but for these 298 households living in predominately white, low-poverty neighborhoods, the remaining 45,000 households in the CHA voucher program would not be living in poor, racially segregated parts of the City of Chicago. This is just flat wrong, and this attack on families with vouchers who to seek to live in better, more integrated neighborhoods is unwarranted.

Housing in a cloudThe Housing Choice Voucher Program is one of the government's main federal housing assistance programs, giving more than 2 million very low-income householdsincluding families, senior citizens and people with disabilities, vouchers to cover a portion of their rent in the private market. Vouchers are one of the best means of relocating families to more racially integrated, lower poverty neighborhoods. Less than 1% of the CHA's vouchers have exception rents, and only a fraction of those vouchers have rents in excess of 200% of the fair market rent. Those rents will be ending soon because, more than a year ago, CHA reduced the exception rents to 150% of the fair market rent.

So the Better Government Association (BGA) and the Sun-Times published a story that was not only not news, it’s old news. Former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock made the “super voucher” controversy his final salvo before stepping down. Crains Chicago Business covered that story, highlighting some of the exception rents paid by the CHA in high-opportunity areas of the City of Chicago. Had the BGA and Sun-Times read that story, they would have also found a response from the Shriver Center and Access Living refuting much of what Schock had alleged two years ago. 

The much bigger story here is the pervasive pattern of residential segregation in the City of Chicago, where households of color primarily reside in communities with little opportunity for themselves and their families. Voucher holders, the majority of whom are African-American, are likewise clustered in high-poverty, racially segregated neighborhoods. A story about that, and the real reasons behind it, would have resulted more realistic assessment of the current state of the voucher program in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune’s documentation of the limited time voucher holders are given to find a unit, which likely leads to voucher holders taking any unit where a landlord will take the voucher, is one example of such a story.

The Sun-Times/BGA piece also completely botched why the CHA has to offer households with vouchers the chance to live in better neighborhoods. It’s not to waste taxpayer dollars—it’s to comply with civil rights laws. Housing authorities like the CHA have a duty to affirmatively further fair housing, which means they must develop programs to overcome impediments to fair housing choice for protected classes, such as racial minorities, persons with disabilities, and families with children (all three groups making up a significant percentage of the CHA’s current voucher population). The City of Chicago has that same legal obligation. For that reason, the city should not react to this story or direct the CHA to further reduce any opportunity for voucher households to live in more integrated neighborhoods.

There is a cost associated both with allowing and attempting to end residential segregation. The Sun-Times/BGA piece chose to focus on the cost to taxpayers of the 298 households (out of more than 45,000) who use their vouchers to secure an accessible unit, locate to a safe community, or get into a good school district. These are often predominately white neighborhoods in Chicago where rents are higher and landlord discrimination is pervasive. The cost to society of ignoring segregation and wagging our fingers at those policies intended to overcome it, however, is much higher. Children who grow up in poor, racially concentrated communities are more likely to face physical and mental health issues, have low educational attainment, and struggle with unemployment throughout their lives

Former Rep. Schock chose not to take the opportunity to correct his misunderstanding. But the Sun-Times and the BGA should do just that. At a minimum, both institutions should stop further propagating this message.  


The Fair Tax: Illinois Cannot Get "Out" Without It

The “Fair Tax”—an income tax system under which people with higher incomes pay a higher tax rate and people with lower incomes pay a lower tax rate—is smart tax policy.  This is the way that the federal personal income tax works, as well as how the state personal income tax works in almost all of the 41 states that have such a tax.  Except Illinois. 

Income taxThe Fair Tax fulfills model tax policy goals in three critical ways. First, it is fair in that, unlike a flat tax, it taxes based on individuals’ and businesses’ ability to pay. Illinois’s current system is deeply unfair; overall, it calls upon the lowest income households to devote a percentage of their income to state and local taxes that is three times higher than the highest income households. Second, a Fair Tax can be used to raise adequate revenue needed to fund vital services without necessarily increasing burdens on lower and middle income people and small business owners (and indeed potentially reducing those burdens). Third, a Fair Tax is sustainable because it is “elastic”, meaning that it captures revenue from the part of the economy that is growing (the upper strata of the personal income brackets), so that revenue grows naturally as the economy grows and thus keeps pace with the cost of living on the spending side. 

Remarkably, not only does Illinois not currently have a Fair Tax, our state constitution forbids it.  The lack of a Fair Tax makes the Illinois revenue system poorly designed and chronically inadequate. In fact, this poor design lies at the heart of Illinois’s current budget crisis. The poor design of the Illinois revenue system, led by the lack of a Fair Tax, keeps Illinois from capturing needed revenue from the growing part of the state economy.

Because of this poorly designed tax system, Illinois’s revenues grow slowly and do not keep pace with ordinary increases on the spending side caused by inflation and population growth. Thus the gap between revenue and spending inexorably widens, year in and year out. Filling this gap requires revenue reform, especially the Fair Tax.  

Over many years Illinois lawmakers have clung to the poorly designed system and, instead of reform, have deployed stopgap measures to make up for inadequate revenues and “balance” the annual budget. These measures have included establishing a lottery, selling the lottery, establishing gambling boats, selling state property, increasing the state’s debt and re-financing the debt. Among the most well known stopgap measures have been raiding special state funds earmarked for other purposes, skipping pension payments, and imposing long delays on payment of Medicaid bills.   

Illinois’s dysfunctional revenue system has had dire consequences for state residents. Illinois now has one of the lowest percentages of any state in the state share of education funding. This puts pressure on property taxes, already among the highest in the nation, as local property tax levies must make up for the lack of state support for education.  Illinois has become a horrible partner to contracting organizations that provide state-funded services, such as mental health treatment, services for individuals experiencing homelessness , sexual assault prevention and treatment,  job training, and much more. Illinois pays rates for these services far below what they cost, pays late, unilaterally alters contracts, and now, in the midst of the budget crisis, simply ignores the payment of these bills. Illinois cannot make smart investments in universally valued and high-return programs like early childhood services, universal pre-school, and preventive health care.   

The root of the problem is Illinois’s poorly designed revenue system. All of the problems stemming from inadequate revenue described above were evident before the Great Recession. The temporary 5% personal income tax rate imposed in 2011 was not reform—it generated desperately needed revenue to help cope with the recession, but it did not fix the problem. The rollback of the personal income tax rate to 3.75% last year took this desperately needed revenue out of the state’s coffers and turned it into leverage for Governor Rauner’s policy agenda, for which he is holding the whole budget hostage. But the governor’s policy agenda does not get at the root problem either; it grinds an ideological axe about organized labor, but it does nothing to fix Illinois’s revenue system.   

The problem is not, and never was, on the spending side. Illinois has the 5th highest overall state gross domestic product but is 33rd in state spending as a percentage of gross state product. All of the major drivers of general funds spending—education, healthcare, human services, and public safety—have long enjoyed consensus support.  Everyone agrees that, even in the best of times, this spending should be made efficiently, honestly, and transparently. But elimination of every penny of “waste, fraud and abuse” would not scratch the surface of the structural deficit created by Illinois’s dysfunctional revenue system.  

For Illinois to get all the way “out”—that is, to actually fix the structural problem that has plagued it for decades and fairly and sustainably raise revenue adequate to support consensus spending needs and make smart investments, Illinois needs true revenue reform. An essential part of that reform is the ability to enact a Fair Tax, which requires a constitutional amendment. 

Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 1, sponsored by Sen. Harmon, would put the necessary constitutional amendment on the ballot.  In order to be on the ballot in November, it needs to pass both chambers of the General Assembly with three-fifths super-majority votes by May 10.  Join the Shriver Center in supporting this long-term solution to the Illinois’s chronic budget issues. Support SJRCA 1 and join the Fair Tax campaign by contacting Kristen Kay Crowell.  

Gov. Rauner Is Dismantling Programs That Fight Racial Disparities in Education

A good education is essential to ensuring that a person can reach his or her full potential. But in Illinois, as in the rest of the United States, educational opportunities are profoundly unequal across racial lines. This failure to ensure robust educational opportunities for all leads to broad racial disparities in employment and income later in life. Thus, investing in programs that address these disparities by providing educational opportunities and support to communities of color should be a top priority for our political leadership.

African-American studentUnfortunately, this is not the case in Illinois. Since the onset of the budget impasse on July 1st, and continuing into the beginning of this year’s budget debate, Governor Rauner has demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice programs that meaningfully address the racial gap in education.

His refusal to negotiate a budget until his non-budget policy agenda is adopted has cut off funding to two education programsTeen REACH and the Monetary Award Program (MAP)—that have been proven to improve the educational outcomes of Illinois’s black and Hispanic students. These are programs that can help us progress towards a more equitable Illinois.   

Teen REACH offers safe afterschool programming for at-risk youth living in communities with high poverty and crime rates through tutoring, mentoring, service, and education on risky behavior. Teen REACH has demonstrated success in improving educational and behavioral outcomes for youth—almost 75% of whom are black or Latino—in the communities the programs serve. In 2014, 67% of participants went to school more frequently, 76% earned better grades, and 81% completed more of their homework.

But Teen REACH has gone without state funding since July 1st. At least sixteen programs around the state have shut down and deprived 1,500 at-risk youth of services; failure to pass a budget threatens the same result for each of the 14,000 youth who participate in a typical year.

Illinois’s MAP grants help make college education more affordable for about 130,000 students each year by providing state-funded tuition assistance to financially eligible college students. MAP grants range from $300 to almost $5,000 and are based on the number of credit hours in which the student is enrolled. MAP grants are vital in enabling students of color to attend college, as more than half of all black and Hispanic students at Illinois’s public universities are recipients.

The racial gap in college achievement is an obstacle that must be overcome in order to achieve educational equity in Illinois. While white students have a graduation rate of 56% at Illinois’s four-year public colleges, black students graduate at a rate of just 35%, and Hispanic students graduate at a rate of 42%. Fortunately, MAP grants are a proven tool effective in raising graduation rates, with MAP grant recipients graduating at the same rate as non-recipient students

Nevertheless, the MAP grants program has received no funding since the onset of the budget impasse. Most colleges and universities compensated recipient students for lost funding during the fall semester, but since institutions of higher education also have not received any state funding since July, many schools can no longer afford to do so. According to a recent survey conducted by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), nearly half of Illinois’s colleges will not be crediting MAP grants this semester, including 80% of all community colleges in Illinois. The impact of this is devastating.  Already, 1,000 students have had to drop out of college as a direct result of the loss of their MAP funding. 

In his annual budget address for the coming 2017 fiscal year last week, Governor Rauner once more demonstrated his complete disinterest in the fate of these effective programs as he announced he would continue to hold the budget and direly needed revenue hostage to his non-budget policy agenda. Instead of using his budget proposal to stand for programs that fight for educational opportunity and success for all, he used it to leverage his political agenda. It is clear that Governor Rauner has no problem allowing the dismantling of these programs to continue.

We have tools at our disposal to build a more equitable Illinois. Governor Rauner needs only to stop prioritizing his political agenda over his constituents’ needs and invest in programs that give all Illinoisans a better and fairer chance for successful and happy lives. 

Nat Schwartz contributed to this blog post. 

Celebrating Black History by Ensuring a Future for Tomorrow's Leaders

This morning, any four African-American boys or young men will hop out of bed and make their way to school. They will participate vigorously in class, crack jokes and share laughs with friends, and curiously explore personal academic interests — interests that are, perhaps, tied to what they aspire to be when they grow up.

Young Black ManAfter school, they might volunteer at a homeless shelter or work with classmates on homework, play on a sports team or sing in a glee club or choir. And at the end of the day, they will return home to loving families.

Yet, at some point in his life, at least one of these children is expected to spend time in jail or prison — a blow that will seriously disrupt his personal development, his family, and even his broader community.

So, as we celebrate Black History Month and the millions of African-Americans who have contributed to the American experience, we should also investigate the ways that we — as a country — continue to hold black Americans back and hinder their ability to make similar contributions.

African-Americans are disadvantaged in an almost countlessnumber of ways, but possibly most pervasively by what scholars have come to term the “new Jim Crow” — or the sets of “tough-on-crime” policies, law-enforcement strategies, and sentencing guidelines that over-criminalize, over-police, and over-punish millions of people. These policies and law-enforcement strategies may not explicitly target African-Americans, but black Americans bear the brunt of them. They face a higher volume of volatile interactions with police officers. They are disproportionately arrested for crimes committed at similar rates across racial lines. They are wildly overrepresented in the prison population. They are even consigned to longer prison sentences.     

Recently, we’ve all been made painfully aware of the most sensationally devastating consequences of these policies: immeasurably valuable lives are cut short, sending harrowing shockwaves through communities.

But beyond the highly publicized episodes of racially biased, and even violent, policing, mass incarceration has perniciously stripped communities of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, teachers and nurses, caretakers and leaders.

And even after time has been served, the specter of a criminal record haunts individuals, and the communities they live in, indefinitely. People with criminal records face barriers to employment, education and job training, and public services and benefits. As a result, they are unable to participate fully in economic, family, and community life — which, of course, has cascading effects.

Recognizing the deep damage inflicted by these policies, advocates have worked hard for reform. In Illinois, for example, the Shriver Center has worked with many advocacy partners to changevariouspolicies that served as unfair obstacles to employment and housing for those with criminal records.

Though these reforms are important, there is still much to be done to make the criminal justice itself fairer, less punitive, and less aggressive.

And just as importantly, we must also consider the ways that seemingly extraneous and disconnected public policy decisions contribute to these problems. The new Jim Crow doesn’t work in isolation — it is inextricably linked to poverty, lack of access to quality education, and other injustices. The schools attended by the four African-American boys referenced earlier, for example, are more likely to be under-resourced, rely on police to maintain discipline, and impose severe punishments — which all tend to drive students into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, creating a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

While the new Jim Crow is ubiquitous and the challenge to roll it back arduous, the stakes are just as high. We can’t afford to lose one in four African-American boys to the criminal justice system. This month, as we celebrate the rich history and important contributions of African-Americans, let us renew our commitment to end systemic policies and practices that prevent all Americans from reaching their full potential. We owe it to thosewhohavestruggled for freedom and justice in the past. We owe it to those currently held back. And we owe to the children of the future.

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog.