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.


Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" Means More Poverty and Less Opportunity--Unless You're Wealthy

It took only five hearings on the “Progress of the War on Poverty,” as well as multiple requests by the anti-poverty group Witnesses to Hunger, but House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has finally invited a person with direct experience to testify. Tianna Gaines-Turner, a mother of three who makes $10.20 an hour, knows what it is to experience poverty. At the hearing on July 9, Gaines-Turner explained to Chairman Ryan that between her low wages and those of her husband, who makes $8.50 an hour, as well as the cost of caring for her children’s health problems (two suffer from epilepsy and all three suffer from asthma), her family struggles to make ends meet. As a result, Gaines-Turner and her family have been homeless in the past and have had to make tough decisions like choosing to skip meals for themselves to provide food for their children. Gaines-Turner’s story, however, is unlikely to affect Ryan’s understanding of poverty. Despite recent efforts to position himself as the right’s anti-poverty crusader, including embarking on a “listening tour,” Ryan repeatedly has demonstrated, in the form of budget documents, hearings, reports, and speeches, that his real priority is to further advantage the already-rich. The most recent and revealing example of this distorted agenda is Ryan’s budget resolution for FY 2015.

Ryan’s budget plan is called the “Path to Prosperity,” but don’t be fooled—it reads more like a “path to adversity.” Behind the rhetoric is more of the same—an austere plan that heavily favors the already-rich.  A majority (69%) of Ryan’s proposed budget cuts are in programs for low-income people. And yet Ryan still finds room in the budget to carve out major tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% and major corporations. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ President Robert Greenstein has said, the budget is “an exercise in hypocrisy—claiming to boost opportunity and reduce poverty while flagrantly doing the reverse.”

Ryan says he is all about creating opportunity. And yet, he proposes gutting the very programs that create opportunities for people to escape poverty, including Pell Grants and job training. The irony isn’t lost on us—nor is the disproportionate impact this budget will have on low- and middle-income Americans. Here are some of the reasons we shouldn’t take Ryan’s words at face value and instead let the numbers speak for themselves:

1. The Ryan budget plan shreds the safety net. Some of the most important and effective safety net programs, including SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid, are on the chopping block in the Ryan plan. For example, Ryan proposes resurrecting draconian cuts to the SNAP program that the House passed in September and combining them with further steep cuts that would cut $137 billion, or 18% of the program, in total, over the next decade. The plan also block-grants the program starting in 2019, meaning states would receive a fixed sum each year. This is troubling for two reasons. First, SNAP works so well because of the cyclical nature of its spending, which increases to meet demand during times of recession and widespread economic hardship, and falls to pre-recession levels once economic conditions improve. The recovery from the last economic downturn is a testament to this; already, SNAP spending as a share of the economy has begun declining. By capping the program at a fixed amount that would be unable to rise to the level of increased need in a recession, the Ryan plan would undermine what makes the program so effective: its responsiveness to economic conditions. Second, the dramatic cuts in the Ryan plan would force states to choose whose benefits to cut even further—will it be working parents, poor children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, veterans, or other people struggling to make ends meet? SNAP benefits provide just $1.40 per meal—how much more does Chairman Ryan think he can cut?

Going hungry isn’t the only thing struggling families would have to worry about under the Ryan plan—another basic need, health care, would also be jeopardized. The Ryan budget saves nearly $2.7 trillion by slashing access to health care for low- and moderate-income people. It achieves these savings by repealing the parts of the Affordable Care Act that provide coverage for low- and moderate-income people and by converting Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program into block grants with significantly reduced funding. Under this plan, over 40 million low- and middle-income Americans, or 1 in 8 Americans, would become uninsured by 2024. Ryan’s plan fails to include any meaningful health insurance alternatives for the millions that will be left uninsured.

2. The Ryan budget plan cuts programs that create opportunities to escape poverty. For all Chairman Ryan talks about the importance of creating opportunity, his decision to cut Pell Grants by more than $125 billion over the next decade proves otherwise. Historically, Pell Grants, which enable low- and moderate-income students to afford college, have been instrumental in fostering opportunities to escape poverty through higher education. At a time when college tuition is skyrocketing to unprecedented levels, Ryan’s budget would freeze the maximum grant for 10 years, and would eliminate Pell Grants entirely for moderate-income students (who can currently receive modest assistance). As is, the maximum Pell Grant covers less than one-third of college expenses; at one time, it covered more than half of all college costs. Ryan’s budget thus makes it harder for low- and moderate-income students to attend college and break the cycle of poverty.

The plan also cuts funding for education and job training far below current levels.

3. The Ryan budget plan makes indiscriminate cuts to domestic programs. Ryan’s budget calls for at least $500 billion in cuts to mandatory programs other than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, Pell Grants, farm programs, civil service programs, and veterans’ benefits. A substantial share of spending in this category is for low-income programs, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, the low-income component of the Child Tax Credit, school lunch and other child nutrition programs, and Supplemental Security Income, which helps extremely poor people who are elderly or have serious disabilities.

4.  It’s a “balanced” budget that only helps the rich. Ryan calls his budget a pathway to prosperity. What’s hiding behind the misleading rhetoric, however, is more of the same: top-down policies that fail our economy and disproportionately burden our nation’s low- and middle-income working families. In particular, Ryan wants to cut the top individual tax rate and the top corporate income tax rate to 25% and eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, on top of repealing the Affordable Care Act’s revenue-raising provisions. Together, these tax cuts for the wealthy would cost about $5.7 trillion over 10 years, while cuts to crucial programs for low- and moderate-income people would total $5.2 trillion. And yet, the budget assumes a revenue-neutral outcome—even though the plan fails to specify a single tax loophole to narrow or close in order to make up the difference in revenue losses.

The greatest problem with the Ryan budget is that it sprints to get the budget balanced in an extremely short amount of time (just 10 years), and does it by making massive cuts that disproportionately affect low-income people. Rather than looking for new ways to raise revenues, Ryan has chosen the easy way out. This strategy largely ignores any short- and long-term economic consequences. Moreover, it ignores the fact that the proposed cuts will result in large increases in poverty and in the number of people that are uninsured. As a result, Ryan’s plan provides prosperity only for the wealthy.

Chairman Ryan can talk a good game about poverty and the lack of upward mobility. In fact, Ryan is scheduled to speak about poverty (and likely elaborate on his proposed policy reforms) this Thursday, July 24, at the American Enterprise Institute. But we do not take him seriously because of what he is actually proposing to do. Numbers, such as those in his recently-passed budget resolution for FY 2015, make it harder to obscure the truth: that poverty and those suffering from it are not Ryan’s real priority.                                

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


Bruce Rauner's Tax Plan

Bruce Rauner, the Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois, recently released his Jobs and Growth blueprint, which includes his tax plan. Here is a look at his major tax proposals and current stance on the minimum wage.

Income Tax. Rauner would reduce Illinois's current 5% income tax rate to its previous level of 3% over four years. This would cost the state $8 billion in annual revenue. Were Rauner to follow through on this pledge, he would have to find a corresponding amount in spending savings. Rauner provides no information about what programs he would cut or by how much.

Eight billion dollars is a lot of money. It’s more than the state’s general funds spending on health care ($7 billion), K-12 education ($6.7 billion), human services ($3.2 billion), higher education ($2.5 billion), public safety including prisons ($1.6 billion), or seniors ($1 billion). But Rauner does not say anything either about specific cuts or about priorities for cuts that would be needed to achieve this magnitude of savings.

Sales Tax. Rauner proposes to raise $600 million by increasing the number of services that would be subject to the sales tax. This $600 million would make up less than 10% of the $8 billion revenue loss from his income tax proposal. Thus Rauner’s overall plan is a massive cut to revenue that will trigger unspecified massive spending cuts.

As to the merits of Rauner’s proposal, we agree that Illinois should tax more services, and we support this part of his plan. Rauner would exempt “day-to-day” services such as day care centers, laundromats, barber shops, and animal care. Services he would tax include attorneys, printing, and travel agents. We may have some differences with Rauner as to which categories of services should be taxed or exempted, but we do strongly agree in principle with him that consumer services generally should be subject to the sales tax. We also credit Rauner for the specificity of this part of his plan, which details which services would be taxed and which would be exempt.

Property Tax Freeze. We agree with Rauner that Illinois has become far too dependent on local property taxes. Our biggest concern is the inequity in school funding that has resulted. However, we oppose a complete freeze on property taxes as Rauner has proposed because it generally hinders localities’ abilities to raise needed funds and forces localities to turn to regressive sources of income like sales taxes and fees. Freezing property taxes also can create severe distortions in housing markets. 

Minimum Wage. Rauner got himself into trouble during the primary campaign when, while playing to conservative audiences, he announced his support for reducing Illinois’s minimum wage from $8.25 to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. This proved to be a highly unpopular position, especially coming from a billionaire.

In his new plan, Rauner says he supports raising the minimum wage “gradually.” He does not say how much he would he raise it, or how gradually.

Rauner also makes his support for an increase in the minimum wage contingent on the adoption of business-friendly reforms of workers compensation and tort claims. This conditional support for raising the minimum wage increases the difficulty of passing it.  There are difficult political problems with each of the reforms he champions that, in addition to the political issues around the minimum wage, multiply the obstacles to any of it actually happening.

The bottom line, then, is that the Rauner tax plan would produce welcome changes to the sales tax, but as a whole would result in a massive cut in state revenue that would require an equally massive cut in spending on education, health care, human services, and public safety. Rauner offers no specifics on what programs he would cut.  And he offers support for an unspecified increase in the minimum wage contingent on controversial business reforms.   

The "Tennessee Promise": Real Reform or Empty Diversion?

As graduation season comes to an end, our thoughts return back to Republican Governor Haslam’s 2014 State of the State Address announcing a plan to provide two years of free community college and vocational school to all Tennesseans:  

This isn’t just about higher education — it’s about better jobs for more Tennesseans. It’s about building a stronger economy. . . . As we urge more Tennesseans to continue their education, we know we have to remove as many barriers as possible. For many Tennessee families, cost is the biggest hurdle to further education. That’s why tonight I am really excited to announce the “Tennessee Promise.” 

In order to participate in the Tennessee Promise, students would first have to apply for federal student aid, need-based, or merit scholarships. Tennessee would then pay the cost of tuition and fees not covered by other student aid. Similar to tnAchieves, the Tennessee Promise would place requirements on students, such as full-time college enrollment, maintenance of a 2.0 grade-point average, and completion of eight hours of community service per semester.

According to its architects, Tennessee Promise would be the only program of its kind and a revolutionary way of thinking about student loans and the societal promise that an educated and employed citizen is a responsibility of the state. The program beckons back to pre-millennium years when California and New York provided tuition-free community or city colleges to in-state students. However, after integration in New York spiked student enrollment, and funding cuts in California following property tax reductions, both states ceased to offer these programs. 

Tennessee plans to avoid these budgetary pitfalls by depending not on property taxes but instead on lottery revenues for funding. Several states, including Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina, use lottery money to provide college scholarships based on academic merit. Tennessee already offers merit-based scholarships, called Hope Scholarships, but the Tennessee Promise is for all students regardless of academic standing to attend community and technical colleges free of charge.

The announcement of the Tennessee Promise reflects the heightened interest of state leaders around the country in keeping college affordable and boosting the number of college graduates. Republican governors in Florida and Texas have attempted to reduce the cost of 4-year state schools to $10,000, by employing advances in technology such as online learning. However, the projects have not drastically changed degree programs and most students in both states already end up paying less than $10,000 for such degrees with careful planning in high school and federal or state aid already in existence.

Another pilot program passed in Oregon, called Pay It Forward, Pay it Back, also avoids the use of property tax for funding. Unlike in Tennessee, tuition would ultimately not be free for students. Instead students would pay no tuition upfront, but pay a small percentage of their income for the next 20 years to "pay forward" the cost of instruction for the next generation of students.

Some argue the Tennessee Promise is far from perfect. The plan calls for reducing Hope Scholarships for freshmen and sophomores at Tennessee's four-year universities from $4,000 to $3,000. Tennessee democrat Rep. Steve Cohen, who was instrumental in developing the state's Hope Scholarship program, argued the governor's plan could discourage enrollment from the state's top universities. "Over the last 10 years, the Hope Scholarship program that I worked for 20 years as a state senator to create has been an unparalleled success," Cohen said. "But the governor's 'promise' actually cuts funding from high-achieving students beginning four-year degree programs."

Others raise concerns about the longevity of the “Tennessee Promise” given that Governor Haslam is up for reelection this year and arguing that the program’s dependence on lottery funds is unsustainable. The program also would not apply to working adults.

“Tennessee Promise” is worth watching, but we also must not take our eyes off increasing graduation rates from four-year institutions and perhaps, most important, increasing high school graduation rates, and decreasing higher education costs across the board.

The author thanks Catharine Debelle, Training Programs VISTA, for her extensive work on this blog.



Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Fifty years ago yesterday President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964  into law, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in voter registration, in employment, in schools, and by facilities that serve the public.   We should be dancing in the streets.

Instead of rejoicing, we are worried. We think all Americans should be worried. Why? Because just days before, on June 30, the United States Supreme Court’s majority decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Store, Inc, potentially drove a truck through the protections of the 1964 law as well as any number of other federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Age Discrimination Act.

Right now, the Hobby Lobby decision does substantial damage to the health of women and girls who are employees, spouses, or dependent daughters of the over 14,000 employees of the three plaintiff businesses.  The Court held that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 protects the free exercise of religion rights of the three for-profit, closely controlled corporations that brought the lawsuits and that the businesses do not have to comply with the federal law and regulations requiring employer group health plans to cover the 20 contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration as preventive services without cost to the patient.  The companies objected to covering four of those 20 methods in their health plans, claiming those four may interfere with a fertilized egg’s attaching to the uterus and the corporations’ owners have sincerely held religious beliefs that life begins at conception.    With the Court’s decision, thousands of women who work at these companies or who are the company-insured wives or daughters of company employees will have to pay 100% of the cost if they need one of the four excluded contraceptives.   Many will not have the funds to pay these costs and will go without or use second or third choice contraceptive methods which may not be the optimal medical choice. (NOTE: Extending RFRA’s protections to for-profit corporations was a huge leap that the majority of the Court was willing to take; This “startling breadth” is discussed by Justice Ginsberg in her dissent.)

In the future, closely held for-profit corporations and perhaps all for-profit corporations that can claim they have sincerely held religious beliefs can demand to opt out of federal laws they judge incompatible with their beliefs. Hence our worry. The majority decision tries to tell us this is not a big deal, that the decision is only about contraceptive health care coverage. We can only say “Really?” Since when do American courts make decisions whose holdings are not used by other litigants to support their positions in future, not identical cases?   

It does not take much imagination to come up with claims companies might make in the name of their sincerely held religious beliefs that would strip employees and customers of rights protected by the laws of the United States. Without pointing fingers at specific religions, we’ll just say that in the past, and sometimes into the present, main line religions have claimed that slavery was okay;  that interracial marriage was sinful; that a woman’s place was in the home not in the workplace; that unmarried women should not be sexually active and should be punished if they are; that gays and lesbians are sinners; and that a long list of well-established medical procedures (vaccinations, anesthesia, for example) are against their religious tenets.    In the present day there are serious disagreements among established religions over many issues and even more disagreements among smaller groups and individuals—but all have the “sincerely held religious beliefs” that the Hobby Lobby majority opinion potentially allows to trump third parties federally protected established rights. The result could be that for-profit corporations claiming these beliefs could refuse to employ people, fire people, turn away customers, and otherwise not follow generally applicable federal laws because following them would violate their beliefs. 

The Hobby Lobby decision is slightly over 72 hours old. Already, there is much commentary and speculation about it. We suggest you look at the Center for American Progress’ thoughtful historical and legal analysis, A Blueprint for Reclaiming Religious Liberty Post-Hobby Lobbyfor a better understanding of how we got to this point and how we can move forward, undo Hobby Lobby’s damage, and continue to foster the free exercise of religion.



The New Jim Crow: Honoring the Civil Rights of Those Who Have Paid Their Debt to Society

Thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors, the immoral institution of slavery ended over 150 years ago. But the vestiges of slavery—prejudice and discrimination against people of color—remain woven into the fabric of American society.

Race discrimination continued under Jim and Jane Crow laws and the “separate but equal” legal doctrine. Thankfully, heroes of all ages and backgrounds risked everything to eradicate those immoral laws and practices so that liberty and justice could truly be available to all. As a result of their sacrifices, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and enacted, 50 years ago today on July 2, 1964, and Jim and Jane Crow laws and practices began to fade into the recesses of American history just as slavery did over a hundred years prior.

As these laws were repealed and overturned, new ways to systemically oppress people of color emerged–“new Jim Crow.” The ‘new Jim Crow’ refers to the disproportionate, mass incarceration of minorities, and the subsequent legal discrimination these men and women endure because of the resulting criminal record.

Depriving individuals of their freedom is a significant component of the criminal justice system. Depriving those same individuals of freedom after they complete their sentences should not be. Unfortunately, more than 65 million men and women throughout the nation with criminal records, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, are facing just that.

The vast majority of employers will not hire men and women with a conviction of any kind. Moreover, people with convictions face significant challenges accessing affordable housing, and a significant number of landlords are not likely to rent to someone with a criminal record. With no meaningful access to jobs or housing, how can these people, who have paid their debts to society, be truly free?

These deprivations certainly have devastating effects on the individuals affected, but they also have a deleterious effect on these individuals’ elderly parents, children, and loved ones—for life. That is immoral.

Thankfully, members of the Illinois General Assembly (on both sides of the aisle) recongnize that. Recently, the General Assembly voted to pass two bills, HB 2378 and HB 5701 (or the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act), both introduced by Representative Rita Mayfield, that will make it easier for millions of Illinois men and women with criminal records to truly have their freedom restored. Now, it is our hope that Illinois Governor, Patrick Quinn, uses his power to sign these bills into law so that this most recent incarnation of these immoral laws and practices can be addressed. This represents an opportunity for the men and women who have turned their lives around to take care of themselves and their families. The signing of these bills would also make Illinois a leader as it relates to respecting the rights of all individuals and set a standard that we can all hope other states will emulate.

Specifically, HB 5701, or the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act (JOQAA),will improve the hiring process for over 300,000 employers and open doors for more than a million qualified people with criminal records in Illinois. Under the JOQAA, employers will be tasked with first determining whether applicants are qualified for a job and offering them an interview or the job before inquiring into the applicant’s criminal history in any form. This will allow men and women who have worked hard to become qualified for positions an opportunity to access the job opportunities they’ve earned.

The other bill, HB 2378, will give more than a quarter million men and women in Illinois who have minor, older, low-level offenses (misdemeanors) an opportunity to petition the court to limit who can look at those old convictions (a process called sealing). This legislation will help ensure that hard-working individuals with old, minor convictions are not unjustly denied jobs, housing, or other opportunities.

These bills are significant on their own. But they are even more significant today as we reflect on the lives lost in the fight for freedom throughout our history and the gains they’ve won as a result of their tireless, selfless fight for what’s right.