When Discretion Means Denial Redux: How HUD Policies Continue to Deprive Housing to Persons with Criminal Records

We’ve been at this crossroads before—this is our Groundhog Day. In 2011, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Sean Donovan urged HUD-supported affordable housing providers to use their discretion in admitting persons with criminal histories to housing. But a 2012 Shriver Center report found that affordable housing providers in Illinois were essentially using this discretion to enact far-reaching criminal background check admission policies. We found rental housing admission policies that denied admission to anyone who had ever been arrested for anything in their lifetime. Other policies went so far as to impose 100-year criminal background checks on applicants. In short, HUD’s unchecked deference to housing providers for their criminal background check policies resulted in draconian, blanket-ban formulas that could run afoul of civil rights laws. Our 2012 report urged HUD to take action to limit these policies and to ensure that housing providers make individualized determinations of an individual’s criminal history based upon the seriousness of the crime, how long ago it occurred, and any evidence of rehabilitation, among other factors. Since that report, however, HUD has taken no action to change its policies or curb troubling criminal background check policies by its housing providers.

Now, almost three years later, a review of over 300 admission policies from across the country has found that these problems are not unique to Illinois.  Indeed, draconian, blanket-ban admission policies among HUD housing providers are now the norm across the nation. Essentially, nothing has changed—public housing authorities and federally subsidized project owners continue to use their discretion, granted by HUD, to deny admission to applicants for arrests, and they frequently automatically exclude applicants with any kind of criminal record.

These housing admission policies are increasingly challenged as a violation of civil rights laws, something long recognized by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding aggressive employment background checks. HUD must acknowledge well-documented evidence of racial bias within the criminal justice system that results in racial minorities having disproportionate contact with that system. Because HUD is bound by civil rights laws it can no longer ignore the draconian policies it has essentially sanctioned. HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity should issue guidance, similar the EEOC’s, making clear to housing providers that some of these housing-related policies violate civil rights laws and can be considered a proxy for discrimination according to race. Current HUD Secretary Julian Castro should also go beyond what his predecessor did and ban the use of arrest records; ban lifetime or blanket bans; and obligate housing providers to make individualized determinations based on the seriousness of the crime, the number of years passed since the offense was committed, and any evidence of rehabilitation.

We’ve said this all before however. Now it’s time to start listening. 


Illinois's Business Establishment Agrees: Illinois Must Raise Revenue, Stabilize Spending

The Civic Federation, a venerable pillar of Illinois’s business establishment, has for many decades championed the need for fiscal responsibility, including restraints on state spending and revenues to assure a stable business climate. On February 12, 2015, the Institute for Illinois’ Fiscal Sustainability at the Civic Federation released its State of Illinois FY16 Budget Roadmap. The Budget Roadmap consists of a 5-year plan that would achieve a balanced budget each year and eliminate Illinois’s $6.4 billion backlog of unpaid bills.

The Civic Federation’s Budget Roadmap would accomplish these goals and bring our state fiscal stability and a strong environment for business investment by limiting annual state spending increases to the 2% current rate of inflation and increasing annual state revenues by various means.

The Budget Roadmap makes these key findings:

  • Balancing the state budget with spending cuts alone would require discretionary spending to be cut by 25% and “could involve the elimination of large portions of government services widely regarded as essential.”
  • General Funds expenditures not related to pensions increased by only $133 million from FY 2008 to FY 2014, an increase of less than one half of 1%, while the Consumer Price Index increased by 10% during that same period.

The Roadmap makes the following major recommendations for the next five years:

  • Limit future state spending to 2% annual increases, the projected rate of inflation.
  • Retroactively increase the personal income tax rate from 3.75% to 4.25% with it eventually becoming permanently set at 4%.
  • Broaden the sales tax to include services.
  • Tax the retirement earnings of individuals with non-Social Security earnings over $50,000 (Illinois is one of only three states that does not tax retirement earnings).
  • Temporarily increase the sales tax on food and non-prescription medicine to 6.25% (SNAP [Food Stamps] recipients do not pay sales tax on food purchased with SNAP benefits).
  • Ameliorate some of the impact of these tax revenue measures by increasing the state earned income tax credit for low-wage workers by 50%.
  • Explore ways to decrease the cost of providing health insurance to state employees and retirees (options limited by court decisions).

While further analysis is needed to determine the exact effect of this plan on low-income people, we are encouraged that the Civic Federation has recognized the need to avoid harming vulnerable people.

Several important conclusions flow from the Budget Roadmap’s findings and recommendations:

  • Governor Rauner’s claim that the current level of state spending is not “sustainable” is false.
  • Governor Rauner’s assertion that the way to achieve prosperity is to lower taxes and provide more capital to wealthy “job creators” is without merit.
  • Our current fiscal situation does not justify cutting state spending for important priorities that matter for quality of life and business climate, or programs that serve our most vulnerable fellow residents, including the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, people with disabilities, the elderly, the homeless, and needy children. Such cuts are unnecessary and cruel.

The Civic Federation’s Budget Roadmap will be a key measuring stick for the proposed FY 2016 budget that Governor Rauner will announce on February 18.


What I Learned About the Unfinished Struggle for Racial Justice from Michelle Alexander

Northwestern University recently concluded a 10-day celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., his enduring legacy, and his contributions to all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity.

The keynote address at this seminal event was given by Michelle Alexander, an acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, legal scholar, and Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State University. Previously, Prof. Alexander was the Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California.

Prof. Alexander’s extraordinary book,
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, argues that, by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness. The book was highly acclaimed and became a bestseller.

I had the privilege to be among the packed audience at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall for Prof. Alexander’s address. The audience was literally transported by her impassioned call to embrace with new vigor the struggle for true and equal justice for everyone, regardless of race or color.

Prof. Alexander reminded us that the goal of fairly realizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “Dream” is daunting given our country’s alarming rate of incarceration of racial and ethnic minorities. Between 1980 and 2000, under the guise of the “War on Drugs,” the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans, or one in every 31 adults, were behind bars, on probation, or on parole.

Moreover, an individual’s initial incarceration constitutes just the beginning of a life confined to the margins of society. As Prof. Alexander asserted, a criminal record, whether felony or even misdemeanor, becomes haunting and indelible and adversely affects employment, housing, welfare benefits, and even the right to vote.

Prof. Alexander’s unassailable argument is that the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s have not translated into basic human rights and equal justice.

The fate of millions of people may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to reexamine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society. As clearly demonstrated by the recent and sad events of Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere, we have arrived at a "fork in the road." Prof. Alexander asserted that "the civil rights victories of the past will be meaningless if all people do not have basic rights to escape from poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice." It is incumbent upon all of us to better understand the nature of the struggle for equal justice in America and to do all in our power to move toward the establishment of basic human rights for all people.

The standing-room-only crowd at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Auditorium was captivated by Prof. Alexander and was challenged to move more strenuously forward in the pursuit of justice, especially on efforts to end mass incarceration and help individuals avoid the collateral consequences of criminal records.

If you have the opportunity to attend one of Michelle Alexander’s speeches, do so. You will certainly not be disappointed. Indeed, it will be unforgettable. I, along with many others heartily recommend her book to you, The New Jim Crow, published in 2010. While you may find it replete with sadness, you will also find it illuminating. In recent days and months, many have been asking what can I do? One answer is to really educate yourself about the issues and starting or continuing with Alexander’s work is an excellent step.

Thomas C. Kingsley, Esq. (Ret.), is a volunteer attorney at the Shriver Center.


Invest in Children's Health Today to Reap Benefits Tomorrow: Renew the Children's Health Insurance Program

Editor's Note: This blog post was coauthored by Janine H. Lewis, MPH, Executive Director of EverThrive Illinois.

Ben Franklin was right when it comes to health coverage for kids. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. New research shows that investments in children produce long-lasting returns by preparing children for success in school and life. Especially in difficult economic times, Illinois must continue to invest in children’s health insurance programs that are proven to improve health and educational outcomes for children, and even increase college attendance, and boost future income. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is one important and proven investment. Federal CHIP funding of the All Kids program has been successful in providing high-quality, cost- effective health insurance for hundreds of thousands of children—which has helped to bring Illinois’s children’s coverage rate up to more than 95 percent, one of the highest rates in the country. When children’s health needs are met, they are better able to learn in school, and parents have less medical debt and miss fewer days of work. By ensuring our kids have the health care they need, we can create a stronger future for Illinois.

Federal CHIP funding of the All Kids program has been successful in providing high-quality, cost- effective health insurance for hundreds of thousands of children—helping to bring Illinois’s children’s coverage rate up to more than 95 percent, one of the highest rates in the country. Unfortunately, no new CHIP funding will be available after September 2015 without congressional action. Without federal CHIP funding to support the All Kids program, Illinois may lose as much as $454 million in federal funds in 2016 alone, and thousands of Illinois households are unlikely to have an affordable, comprehensive health insurance coverage option for their children. The President recognizes CHIP’s importance and included it in his proposed budget. Now, we need to work to ensure that Congress recognizes CHIP’s importance and success and passes legislation as soon as possible to renew funding for this crucial health safety net for kids.

What is the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)? In Illinois, CHIP is a federal funding stream that strengthens the All Kids program to cover the cost of nearly 175,000 Illinois families eligible at All Kids' “higher” income levels who otherwise would lack affordable health insurance coverage. CHIP funding makes it possible for Illinois to cover children with family income up to 318% of the federal poverty level (FPL) (about $6,320/month for a family of four); CHIP also provides federal funding for Illinois to provide health insurance coverage to pregnant women and their babies—all of whom live in families with income no greater than 213% of the FPL (about $4,360/month for a family of four). For children in All Kids whose services are funded with CHIP dollars, monthly premiums range from $0-40 per child with a maximum of $80 per month for two or more children, and cost sharing for office visits ranges from $3.90 - $15 per visit. Thanks to CHIP funding, these children receive pediatrician-recommended services that children need to reach important developmental milestones, such as screening, prevention, and medically necessary diagnostic and treatment services and dental, vision, mental health, and hearing services. Any gap in funding will leave kids without critical medicines and treatments they need and also cause them to miss wellness visits that can cause small problems to balloon into lifelong issues. When children’s health needs are met, they are better able to learn in school and parents have less medical debt and miss fewer days of work.  By ensuring our kids have the health care they need, we can create a stronger future for Illinois. Continued CHIP funding will give hardworking families the peace of mind of not being one accident or illness away from financial disaster due to their kids’ unpaid medical bills.

CHIP gives Illinois the flexibility to run programs that work best for them.  CHIP allows states to experiment with different program designs that work best for their state. CHIP also allows states to earn extra state funding for simplifying their enrollment and renewal processes and for increasing enrollment of uninsured children in their Medicaid program. In the past five years Illinois has received more than $60 million in bonus payments under CHIP—and Illinois is one of only nine states to receive bonus payments for five consecutive years.

CHIP is the most effective way to cover kids at the lowest cost.  CHIP is the most effective way to cover kids at the lowest cost. In Illinois, children ages zero to eighteen comprise 57% of the overall Medicaid program enrollment but account for just 26% of the total cost. A recent study of the long-term effects of kids on Medicaid confirmed that giving kids health coverage may boost their future earnings for decades. And the taxes they pay on those higher incomes may just help pay Illinois back for some of its investment.

CHIP delivers coverage through private insurance companies. CHIP is a public-private partnership, and private partners can’t sign contracts when the funding source is in doubt. Pursuant to state statute, Illinois will enroll more than half of its Medicaid consumersincluding children—into managed care. These managed care companies rely on CHIP dollars. Renewing CHIP funding for at least another five years gives these private insurance partners and Illinois the ability to better plan their budgets.

CHIP is a proven program with a history of bipartisan support that provides kids with the health care they need to stay healthy and succeed. Governors and state legislatures are planning their state budgets now, and any uncertainty leaves their bottom line in jeopardy. Governors from 39 states—such as our neighbors in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin--have weighed in on the importance of CHIP, with Republicans and Democrats alike calling on Congress to move quickly to renew federal funding for CHIP so they can continue to provide struggling families with vital health coverage for their kids. 

Without federal action, we stand to undo nearly 20 years of progress connecting kids to the health coverage they need to develop and thrive. If CHIP funding is not renewed, Illinois may lose as much as $454 million in federal funds in 2016 alone. By renewing this proven, bipartisan program, we can protect and build on our progress for the nation’s children, help Illinois as it plans its budget, and provide Illinois’s kids with the coverage and quality care they need to reach their full potential.




The Shriver Center's 2015 Illinois Legislative Agenda

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law improves lives through the development of innovative and effective programs and policies that advance justice and opportunity for low-income people. Our work on the ground in Illinois informs our national work to improve policies and programs. Throughout the Illinois legislative process Shriver Center advocates stand up with and speak out on behalf of low- and middle-income individuals whose needs and concerns are too often overlooked when policy is formed. Building on our experiences in Illinois, we collaborate with colleagues in other states and other national organizations to advocate for the best anti-poverty policies and practices.

Below is a summary of the policies that the Shriver Center will advance in Illinois’ 2015 legislative session. These legislative initiatives are critical to ensuring that all people have an opportunity to secure economic and social stability. These initiatives will ensure passage of a state budget that does not disproportionately burden low- and middle-income communities; ensuring access to affordable, quality healthcare and housing for all people in the state; and establishment of a justice system that not only punishes, but also provides pathways for people who have turned their lives around to take care of themselves and their families.

The Shriver Center’s advocacy work is of critical importance, and we cannot succeed without your help. You can support our work by signing up for action alerts, reaching out to your local senators and representatives to explain why you support legislation that will improve the lives of low-and middle-income community members, and by supporting our work by making a donation. Together we can win the fight for social justice and economic opportunity in Illinois across the country.

Community Justice

The Shriver Center’s Community Justice Unit advocates for laws and policies that increase access to employment, education, health care, housing and more for men and women who have made mistakes in their past and have turned their lives around.

Shorten the waiting period before sealing petitions can be filed. Shriver Center advocates will seek to shorten the length of time that men and women must wait to petition the courts to limit who can see their old criminal record. This would allow hardworking and law-abiding men and women to be in a position take care of themselves and their families sooner.

Eliminate lifetime bars to employment. Statutory bans to employment and licensure in certain sectors of the economy (e.g., the park district, education, public health) prevent individuals with criminal records from obtaining good jobs. Shriver Center advocates will work with a coalition of advocates to replace lifetime statutory bans with a finite waiting period so that people who have turned their lives around will be able to access these crucial sectors of employment.  

Protect employers who responsibly consider applicants with records. Shriver Center advocates will work with employer groups to develop legislation that will improve the process used when considering individuals with old criminal records for employment and to provide incentives for using such a process.

Expand eligibility for certificates of good conduct. After a waiting period following incarceration, certain individuals are eligible to apply for a certificate of good conduct, which decreases the harmful impact of a criminal record. Certificates of good conduct, which are granted by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, provide evidence that an individual has been rehabilitated for employment and other purposes. Shriver Center advocates will seek to expand eligibility for certificates of good conduct by removing more of the types of convictions that currently bar people from applying.

Advocates will also work to ensure that defendants are informed about the collateral consequences of conviction (e.g., those related to education, employment, housing, and licensure) prior to pleading. We will seek to declassify criminal offenses so that more defendants will be eligible for probation and so that judges will have more discretion to render appropriate sentences given the facts of a given case. We will also advocate for a mechanism to allow people to finish sentences early if the laws they were punished under are subsequently ruled unconstitutional or if the sentencing scheme is changed to reduce the mandatory minimum or length of the sentence.

Budget and Tax Justice

Ensure adequate revenue to meet needs. As tax and spending issues take center stage under Governor Rauner’s new administration, advocates in the Shriver Center’s Budget and Tax Justice Unit will work throughout the 2015 session to ensure that critical programs that serve low-income people throughout the state are sustained. The Shriver Center will again will take a leading role in the Responsible Budget Coalition, which seeks to obtain adequate revenue to avoid cuts to state-funded programs.

Economic Justice

The Shriver Center’s Economic Justice Unit works to ensure access to income supports, such as cash assistance and food and nutrition benefits, which provide a basic level of economic stability. We also advocate for programs that create an opportunity to get ahead, including child care assistance and low-income tax credits.

Defend critical public benefits. This session, Shriver Center advocates will continue to lead opposition to harmful bills that would decrease access to critical public benefits or stigmatize or dehumanize their recipients. These include any bills that would (1) mandate that all applicants for and recipients of public benefits pass a drug test, (2) require a photograph on the SNAP (Food Stamp) EBT card recipients use to redeem their benefits, or (3) limit SNAP recipients’ food choices.

Increase the State Earned Income Tax Credit. Illinois’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) helps make work pay by providing a refundable state tax credit to low-income wage earners. In the spring session, a bill will be filed that would double Illinois’s EITC to 20% of the federal EITC over five years, in 2% increments. The Shriver Center is also a core member of a coalition led by Voices for Illinois Children that is working on this issue.  

Health Care Justice

Improve Health Care Access. Advocates in the Shriver Center’s Health Care Justice Unit will work to continue improving health care in both public and private programs in Illinois, to continue operation of the outreach and enrollment assister program, which helps Illinois residents obtain health coverage, and to assure prompt and accurate eligibility, enrollment, and re-enrollment procedures in the state.

Housing Justice

The Shriver Center’s Housing Justice Unit works to expand housing options for low-income individuals and to ensure that tenants’ rights are honored and protected in state law and policy.

Stop municipalities from penalizing victims of violence. Municipalities throughout Illinois have enacted ordinances—often referred to as crime-free or nuisance property ordinances—that penalize residents or landlords when police are contacted regarding an incident at their property. These ordinances treat victims of crime who are reaching out for emergency assistance as nuisances, punishable by eviction. In partnership with the ACLU of Illinois, the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Housing Action Illinois, Open Communities, and the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, Shriver Center advocates will advance a bill this session prohibiting municipalities from enacting or enforcing an ordinance that impose penalties based on calls for police service. This bill, sponsored by Senator Toi Hutchinson, will ensure that domestic violence survivors, individuals with disabilities, crime victims, and other innocent tenants are not discouraged from reaching out for help at the threat of eviction.

Women's Law and Policy

The Shriver Center’s Women’s Law and Policy Project (WLPP) promotes legal and policy solutions to improve the lives of low-income women and girls.

Grant employment protections to domestic workers. Domestic workers play a critical role in the Illinois economy, working to ensure the health and prosperity of Illinois families and freeing others to participate in the workforce. Despite the value of their work, domestic workers have historically been excluded from the state law protections extended to workers in other industries. This has led to a workforce, predominantly composed of women supporting their own families, which is isolated and vulnerable. WLPP will continue to partner with the Domestic Workers’ Coalition and reintroduce legislation that would grant domestic workers employment protections, such as the right to the state’s minimum wage, the right to be free from sexual harassment, and the right to one day of rest in a workweek. The bill’s sponsors are Representative Elizabeth Hernandez and Senator Ira Silverstein.

Increase the state’s minimum wage. The current minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 an hour—about $17,000 a year. Inaction at the federal and state level has allowed the minimum wage to erode over time. Had the minimum wage kept pace with inflation, it would be $10.90 today. Over the last four years, Illinois has been a battleground on this issue. In November 2014, voters overwhelmingly supported a referendum in favor of raising the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour. A 2014 bill, which was supported by the Shriver Center and a coalition of workers and advocates, would have phased in an increase in the state’s minimum wage from $8.25 to $11 per hour over three years. In December, the Senate passed legislation that would have increased the minimum wage, but that also would have prevented local governments from enacting their own wage increases and would have extended tax credits to certain employers. Ultimately, even with strong public support, the state legislature failed to pass minimum wage legislation in 2014.

In 2015, the Shriver Center, in collaboration with Raise Illinois and others, will continue to advocate for a raise in the state’s minimum wage. Moreover, we will fight off state initiatives that would prevent local governments from enacting their own wage increases and that would offer tax credits to businesses that could devastate the state’s already precarious budget situation.


Remembering Dr. King - Is There a Place for Extremists?

Today, as we remember and honor one of our country’s leading exponents of activism in the fight for unity and equal opportunity, we also face ongoing divided government in Congress and in many parts of the country. These divisions have resulted in inactivity and a tedious inability to get things done—important problems remain unsolved and even routine matters prove too tough to finish. 

Dr. King had a lot to say about the need for people of good will to unify around issues that demand action, especially the interlocked issues of poverty and race.  Although his most famous accomplishments and words involved race equity and civil rights, he was killed while pursuing the essential next step: economic justice. Dr. King advocated for the government’s role in ensuring a humane safety net, a fair opportunity for upward mobility, and a voice for people in poverty – some power – to determine what the government would do on these issues.  He had shifted his focus, highlighting that racial justice could not be complete without economic justice.   

One year before his assassination, Dr. King gave a speech on poverty at Stanford University (his “other America” speech). Pursuit of economic justice had provoked backlash and hatred on the streets of Chicago and firm resistance from people who had previously supported the civil rights movement in the South. He noted:  

[W]e must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It's more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job.  It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality

In the same speech Dr. King stressed that, while the changing of hearts and minds is essential to the ultimate goal of equality, legislation—a role for government—is also required. He noted that, while you cannot force a man to love you, you can prevent him from lynching you. Laws, enforcement, and programs are needed to realize the dream of economic justice for all.

Later, while he and his allies were in the midst of launching a major effort on poverty in Washington, Dr. King went to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. In his last sermon (the famous “mountaintop” speech), he explained to the audience that the cause was urgent, and not something for religious patience:

It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.  

Today, our legislatures seem to be under the control of extreme elements that refuse to compromise or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to participate in governing with people who do not think exactly like them. We live in an era where compromise is equated with weakness. Too often, elected officials seem to prefer no action to accomplishments that are not fully aligned with their ideas.  In the face of injustice and poverty crying out for action, our country’s progress has been held hostage by extremists of stasis.

Dr. King had things to say about extremism. Earlier in his career, he had been jailed in Birmingham for leading nonviolent disobedience to the Jim Crow laws. In a public letter, moderate “liberal” clergy had criticized him for these tactics and called them—and him—extremist. In response, Dr. King explained how he at first resisted that accusation, but then realized he should embrace it:    

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? … Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

The cause of economic justice is still urgent, and it too often is blocked by extremists of stasis. Today, as we ponder Dr. King’s legacy, we should understand the important role of government in ensuring fair opportunities for upward mobility, and we should welcome creative extremists in that just cause.  



Secure Choice Will Ensure a Secure Future for Many Workers

Secure Choice bill signingMark January 4, 2015, down as a date to remember—one of the greatest legislative wins for families and individuals facing and living in poverty became law in Illinois. Called Secure Choice, it takes what corporate America has known for years, that employees are more likely to save for retirement through a payroll deduction, and provides the same opportunity to millions of Illinois employees whose employers previously never offered such a vehicle. In turn, many more people will retire with economic dignity and not into poverty. Adding to the meager average of $15,228 a year that workers relying on social security alone would each receive, Secure Choice boosts workers’ own savings potential via a payroll deduction that, in turn, immeasurably increases their overall retirement financial health.

This is a victory for all Illinoisans. First, millions previously without access to such accounts now can utilize a payroll deduction to save for retirement. Second, on the cost front, most of the costs of administering the accounts will be funded by the pooled assets of the participants, and all Illinoisans will benefit when more of its citizens are able to fund their own retirements.  

Importantly, low-wage workers and persons of colors, who disproportionately have been without access to payroll deduction style retirement savings plans, will now have access to a retirement savings option at their jobs. These groups, who have been traditionally left out on the sidelines, or worse, targeted for predatory banking products, now will have a safe asset building tool that works, which will ultimately increase their wealth over time and help them break the cycle of poverty.

While a handful of other states--Massachusetts, Oregon, California, Maryland, and Connecticut--are at various stages of researching and implementing retirement automatic payroll deduction plans, Illinois’s Secure Choice is the most comprehensive and groundbreaking so far. Remember the words, Secure Choice. We predict that more and more states will implement similar, common sense plans.

A special note of gratitude: In our efforts to support Secure Choice, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law was joined by many coalition partners, including AARP, the Illinois Asset Building Group, Heartland Alliance, the Woodstock Institute, and the Service Employees International Union, along with a long list of other community and small business supporters. We thank them for their tireless efforts. On behalf of the communities we represent, we also thank Illinois Senator Daniel Biss and House Representative Leader Barbara Flynn Currie for their unprecedented leadership and Governor Pat Quinn and State Treasurer-Elect Frerichs for their unwavering support of Secure Choice. 


Two Legal Aid Programs Secure Unemployment Benefits for Domestic Violence Survivors

L.S.’s abuser found her at her workplace in Georgia. She felt that she had no choice but to leave her job and escape to a domestic violence shelter with her children. Another woman, E.C., lived hundreds of miles away in Washington, D.C., but faced a similar problem. Her abuser showed up repeatedly at her workplace, and to appease him, she broke workplace rules by allowing him onto the property. She lost her job as a result.

Without the income from their jobs, L.S. and E.C.’s situations became ever more precarious. They applied for unemployment insurance benefits, but Georgia and D.C. did not approve their claims.

Both women turned to their local legal aid programs for assistance. And during the same week in June 2014, both women won their cases in their respective courts of appeals.

The attorneys for L.S. and E.C. have written about their work on these cases in our two most recent advocacy stories. Jennifer Mezey and Drake Hagner with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia wrote about their work on E.C.’s case. Their challenge was to ensure that the courts interpreted D.C.’s unemployment coverage of people who lost their jobs “due to domestic violence” in such a way as to give full benefits to people in situations like E.C.’s. Lindsey Siegel and Kimberly Charles of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society wrote about L.S.’s case and their work to make sure Georgia’s unemployment insurance program considered escaping domestic violence to be “good cause” for leaving a job.

While the particular laws and facts of their cases differed, these advocacy stories show that L.S. and E.C.’s attorneys approached their cases in similar ways. Both used appellate advocacy for one client to benefit a broader group of people. Both secured an amicus brief from a domestic violence advocacy group to support their reading of the unemployment law at issue and how that law covered their clients’ actions.

Perhaps most importantly, both the D.C. and Atlanta attorneys built a robust record at the administrative hearing level. In both cases, a key part of that record was the testimony of a domestic violence expert who gave context to L.S. and E.C.’s actions and explained how abuse and fear affect a victim’s decision making.

Each of these advocacy stories is interesting on its own terms, but when read together, they paint a rich picture of the diligent advocacy that legal aid programs take to improve the lives of their clients and others in similar situations. Economic independence is often necessary for someone who has experienced domestic violence to escape the situation. Making unemployment insurance available to support survivors if the violence follows them to work can help them avoid having to choose between their safety and their economic well-being.

Life, Liberty, or Ferguson

Last week we encouraged the Shriver Center community and government officials to embrace systems-thinking and implicit bias research to develop solutions and strategies to prevent deaths like that of Michael Brown. Today in the wake of yet another grand jury decision not to indict a white police officer for the death of an unarmed African American, we want to express our support and stand with the many protesters in Ferguson, New York City, Cleveland, across the country, and in the world.

Dr. King acknowledged that there comes a time "when silence is betrayal" as he chronicled the emotional and spiritual journey that led him to speak out against the Vietnam War. At that time, Dr. King wasn’t just speaking out against war; he recognized that he “could never again raise [his] voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos (referencing his condemnation of their damaging property in protest) without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: [his] own government.”

Dr. King determined that silence would be betrayal if he continued to ignore the struggles of those oppressed, the damage being done by the country’s unresolved addiction to violence, and those whose lives are irrevocably altered due to the fear of violence. 

In that spirit, we must ask ourselves, at what point does our silence and inaction rise to the point of complicity and betrayal? 

That time is now. We cannot turn our backs on the men, women, and children feeling the heartache on all sides of these tragedies. We cannot look the other way and hope that our country will somehow grow stronger as racial animus and distrust deepens. We cannot forget how violence, and the fear of violence by the police or actual criminals, imprisons people in their homes and communities and deprives people of the justice they are to be guaranteed. Many minority communities, who experience intrusive, abusive, and often illegal police practices, essentially live under a different and far less protective Constitution.     

Now is the time for us to join our brothers and sisters who courageously protest in every corner of the world. We should work together, and use our influence, talent, and democratic and legislative processes to establish transparency, accountability, training, and the compassion required to extinguish the enduring flames of fear, and distrust. Let’s also consider:

1. Improving police hiring and training by:

a. Improving hiring as it relates to people of color;

b. Taking better account of the psychoprofile of the candidates for hire;

c. Including police training on theories of implicit and subconscious bias; and 

d. Creating better scenario training for police so a larger decision tree comes to mind besides "shoot" when situations escalate. 

2. Improving police accountability by: 

a. Having police log the race of all individuals they stop to better illustrate disproportionate contact with minorities; and,

b. Requiring police body cameras that record all stops (and requiring that they notify tech immediately if there is a malfunction).

3. Improving media coverage of positive community interactions, positive outcomes of good police work, and police apologies for mistakes made.

4. Providing ways for trusted community members to have the authority to work with police and respond more efficiently to the needs of their neighborhoods. 

While these kinds of improvements are critical, a framework focused only on improving police accountability and community relations will fall short of advancing systemic change. Just as Dr. King worked on many fronts, including racial discrimination in public accommodations and housing, education, and job inequality, so too must the legal aid community continue its efforts to address the multiple issues that impact access, opportunity, and equality. For example, by

  • targeting economic and workforce development efforts in communities principally composed of people in the lowest economic quartile (no trickle down, direct action) and teaching all interested the 21st century skills necessary to get jobs in burgeoning sectors (tech, healthcare); 
  • increasing education funding and allocating funds so schools that serve communities with greater needs are supported; 
  • overcoming and remedying entrenched residential racial segregation existent in Ferguson and communities throughout the United States that deprive communities of color of a meaningful and equal opportunity to succeed; and 
  • strategically advancing economic development of those communities to advance real community revitalization.

Now is the time for members of the legal aid community to support protesters’ efforts and to make sure our work is designed to ensure an America that honors Her promise to all of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Carol Ashley, Vice President of Advocacy, and Kate Walz, Director of Housing Justice, contributed to this blog post. 


Marching Forward in the Face of Ferguson

If the Ferguson situation conveys a message, it’s that issues of race are rarely resolved in the heat of the moment. To slow down and eventually quell the epidemic of young African American men dying in police-involved incidents and in our own communities, we must employ what we know works to dismantle racism and disparate outcomes—systems thinking. It is not enough to say that the criminal justice system is broken or that we need more community policing. To move this country forward, we must examine how education, housing, employment, health care access, and the justice system interact to perpetuate racism and poverty.  

We also need to embrace the scientific research on race—including research on implicit bias and social cognition. Statements by individuals, including Darren Wilson, that they “do not see color” or that race does not affect their decision-making are belied by research. We all have biases, and until law enforcement agencies recognize that truth and implement necessary training and support, appropriate debiasing cannot and will not be incorporated into policing policies and individual police actions. In turn, we will continue to run in circles. 

What you can do to make a difference? 

  • If you work in the nonprofit advocacy or legal world, ask whether your organization operates in silos or whether your staff are working together to tackle issues using systems thinking approaches and employing a racial justice lens. 
  • If you work in the private sector and have a pro bono or foundation arm, ask whether the projects you fund address racial disparities and outcomes.
  • If you do vote, ask candidates—both national and especially local (sheriffs, county board presidents, mayors, city council) if they accept and embrace systems-thinking approaches between governmental departments and whether they are willing to utilize implicit bias and social cognition principles in administrator and staff training, particularly for law enforcement.
  • If you don’t vote, start voting.

As an anti-poverty organization, the Shriver Center recognized that our own work was limited without a more explicit inclusion of racial justice issues. In 2014 we launched the Racial Justice Training Institute (RJTI), and we have worked with legal aid and nonprofit legal organizations across the country to continue and, for some, to begin the process of employing a racial justice lens in advocacy work. We know that the Wilson, Zimmerman, and many other cases will not be the last tragic incidents of their kind. But we will continue to support and work with our civil rights colleagues, activists, civil legal aid, and community organizations to take a systems-thinking approach and employ implicit bias and social cognition research to properly understand the causes of problems and to learn how to solve them most effectively. And together, we will continue our march towards a better America.

A Tale of Two Approaches: How Cities Respond to Domestic Violence

Across the country, victims of domestic violence struggle to secure housing after escaping abuse. As a result, domestic violence is among the leading causes of homelessness in the United States. Despite the national scope of the crisis, cities and local governments are often the ones tasked with directly addressing the problem in their communities. Their solutions at times could not be more different, both in terms of their objectives and effects on survivors of domestic violence.

Take New York City, for example, which recently began a rent subsidy program to move victims of domestic violence out of shelters and into affordable housing.  The program further supports victims by connecting them with a team of counselors, legal aid attorneys, and other service providers. Additionally, after correlating homicide rates with increasing incidents of domestic violence, the New York Police Department dedicated resources to targeting and decreasing the numbers of homicides involving intimate partners in the City.

New York’s approach—aimed at giving survivors stable housing, support, and protection—stands in stark contrast to a recent policy trend among over 1,400 other local governments that have enacted crime-free housing programs and nuisance property ordinances. These ordinances increase homelessness and housing instability among victims of domestic violence by requiring landlords to evict entire households—including victims—for suspected criminal activity on rental properties., Landlords are often incentivized to evict all of the tenants rather than risking fines or the loss of their rental license, even in instances where eviction is not required by the ordinance. 

Many cities also penalize victims for calling the police by deeming those calls a “nuisance” that the property owner must abate by evicting the tenants.  As a result, victims are effectively forced to suffer silently or risk homelessness. A major barrier encountered by advocates is breaking the cycle of silence, as many victims of domestic violence already struggle with shame or fear that calling the police may lead to retaliation or further harm.. By linking calling the police to losing your housing, these ordinances undermine the long-standing efforts of domestic violence advocates to ensure that victims feel safe and empowered to call the police. As a result, they are  decreasing public safety in communities throughout the country.  Recognizing how these ordinances harm victims, Pennsylvania recently passed a law prohibiting municipalities from punishing victims of crime for calling for help.  

This penalization of victims for calling the police for the acts of their abusers is also disproportionately felt by low-income women of color, and therefore raises serious fair housing concerns. A 2013 study of Milwaukee’s nuisance ordinance found that women from inner-city, minority communities are bearing the brunt of its enforcement, noting that these women are forced to make the impossible choice “between calling the police on their abusers (only to risk eviction) or staying in their apartments (only to risk more abuse).”

Though New York City is on a promising path towards ensuring that more victims of domestic violence will be safe in their homes, the majority of cities across the country are choosing the wrong approach—too often leading to tragic consequences for women.

Could the U.S. Supreme Court Take Away a Financial Lifeline for Health Care Consumers?

Meet John, a 53-year-old self-employed contractor in Southern Illinois who works construction jobs and earns about $23,000/year. Up until January 2014, when health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) began, he had never had health insurance because it had never been affordable. John has suffered three heart attacks and a broken femur, and his hospital and doctor bills for these illnesses have been a heavy financial burden. 

In October 2013, an in-person assister in Illinois helped John to complete a Marketplace application for health insurance through HealthCare.gov. John was pleased to be offered many options for affordable, quality coverage, ranging from paying $0 per month for a Bronze or low-end Silver plan to only $180 per month for a high-end Silver plan, because he was eligible for premium tax credits, which reduced his premium costs dramatically. John ended up selecting a Silver Multi-State plan that cost less than $15/month. It has a $250 deductible and an out-of-pocket maximum of only $2,000 for the year.  John is relieved that he now has affordable health insurance and can receive the cardiac care he needs to stay healthy and continue working.     

This is a great example of what the Affordable Health Care Act was meant to do—and what is at risk in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to review King v. Burwell.

On November 7, the Supreme Court announced it would review King v. Burwell, the Fourth Circuit’s decision upholding an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rule extending tax credits to federally established marketplaces. The parties appealing the Fourth Circuit decision claim that tax credits should be available only to consumers purchasing insurance in a marketplace operated by a state, and not to consumers purchasing in a marketplace operated by the federal government. If successful, this case would remove the ability of health care consumers in about three dozen states, including Illinois, who use the federally facilitated marketplace to access premium tax credits to reduce the cost of private, quality health plans. In other words, the majority of low- to moderate-income health care consumers (those who earn up to $47,000 a year for one person and up to $95,000 a year for a family of four) would have to pay full price for health insurance in the individual marketplace, making it out of reach—again.

To put this into context, 77% of Illinois consumers and an overwhelming 87% of consumers across the nation accessed financial assistance to purchase plans in the federal Marketplace. If those tax credits were stripped away, not only would this have a devastating impact on the health and lives of millions of people like John, but it would create what economists call a “death spiral” in the health insurance market. Without financial assistance, healthy people would leave the Marketplace, making the premiums go up for those who remain, which would cause them to leave as well.

The implications of such a potential decision are severe. However, it’s critical to remember 3 things:

  1. Open enrollment—which starts on November 15—will not be affected in any way by the Supreme Court’s announcement.  Health care consumers should review plans, enroll in coverage, and feel confident that their tax credits are safe and can be used to help lower the cost of their coverage.
  2. In the unlikely event the Court rules against providing tax credits to millions of Americans, consumers will not be required to pay back those tax credits.
  3. Premium tax credits have helped over 168,000 people in Illinois and over 4 million people across the nation access health care that they can afford, and the Shriver Center will continue to inform consumers about their health insurance options through the Affordable Care Act.

John and millions of other consumers relied on the promise of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to provide affordable, guaranteed health care coverage. Over two thirds of states including Illinois relied on the intent of Congress in creating the ACA to provide financial assistance to consumers nationwide, regardless of whether the state or federal government administers the marketplace website. Now the focus turns to the Supreme Court to ensure that those promises are kept. Consumers and states will be watching the Court’s decision closely to ensure that healthcare stability and equality across the nation is maintained. 

The Biggest Winner on Election Night? Criminal Justice Reform

As even the tightest election battles come to a close, pundits are analyzing the biggest winners, losers, and everything in between.

There’s no doubt that criminal justice reform should be in everyone’s column for “biggest winners.”

This is thanks in large part to the strong majority of California voters who voted in favor of Proposition 47.

Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, imagines a world where men and women don’t have to spend their lives in prison simply because they once possessed drugs or stole something from a store. A world where individuals addicted to drugs or alcohol aren’t somehow expected to recover from their addiction in a cement and steel cell. Or a world where the only men and women in jail and prison for lengthy periods of time are people who are determined to be an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” This initiative was supported by a broad base of constituents, including everyone from Newt Gingrich to Van Jones.

Specifically, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act—now California law—will do a few very simple, necessary, and common-sense things:

  1. Treat men and women who commit certain non-violent drug or property crimes as misdemeanants, not felons.
  2. Allow those imprisoned due to these convictions an opportunity to petition the court to shorten their sentences.
  3. Save the state literally hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
  4. Invest the money saved into schools, assistance for victims of crime, and mental health and drug treatment necessary to actually address the underlying cause of much of the criminal activity associated with such charges.

Every community and every state deserves to have safer neighborhoods and better schools.  Responsible and thoughtful reform like the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act delivers both. Tell your elected officials that now is the time for thoughtful and responsible criminal justice reform like this. If Newt Gingrich and Van Jones can agree on it, anyone can. 


Census Bureau Confirms Anti-Poverty Measures Continue to Help Many

For a family trying to make ends meet, each addition to and subtraction from the monthly budget can mean the difference between ending the month with food on the table and skipping meals. For folks in poverty, day-to-day financial decision-making often requires sacrificing one basic need to meet another. Recent data on the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), released on October 16 by the Census Bureau, show that important programs, like nutrition assistance and housing subsidies, prevent millions of families from dropping below the poverty threshold.

Critics of anti-poverty programs often cite the high official poverty measure as evidence that anti-poverty programs have been a failure. What they ignore is that the official poverty measure omits important income support programs like SNAP benefits (Food Stamps) and low-income tax credits from its calculations. The inadequacies of the official poverty rate motivated fifteen years of research on poverty measurement that culminated in the introduction of the SPM, which includes the value of non-cash benefits in its resource estimates and takes into account other important factors, like geographic variation in the cost of living, to measure poverty. By including these additional factors, the Census Bureau can provide a more accurate measure of poverty as well as data on how many Americans are kept out of poverty by particular programs. Based on the Census Bureau’s analysis, in 2013, anti-poverty programs prevented 39 million people from dropping below the poverty threshold. Without these programs, poverty in America would be a shocking 28.1 percent applying the SPM.

Here are some additional noteworthy successes for 2013:

  • Without Social Security, the overall poverty rate would have risen from 15.5 percent to 24.1 percent, trapping 26.9 million more people in poverty.
  • Without refundable, low-income tax credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the child tax credit, the poverty rate would have risen from 15.5 percent to 18.4 percent. These credits helped 8.8 million Americans avoid poverty
  • SNAP (formerly food stamps) lifted 4.8 million Americans out of poverty, and school lunch programs kept 1.4 million children out of poverty.
  • Under the SPM, the poverty rate for Americans living in deep poverty (less than half of the poverty threshold) was 5.2 percent while the official poverty rate estimated 6.5 percent of Americans lived in deep poverty. Significantly, the percentage of African Americans in deep poverty is reduced from 12.3 percent (official poverty rate) to 7.7 percent (SPM)

Even with all the support these programs provide to Americans, the SPM is still 15.5 percent, a percentage point higher than the official poverty rate. Since its first release in 2011, the SPM has been consistently higher than the official poverty rate because, just as the SPM accounts for more financial supports than the official poverty rate, it also includes more essential costs in its analysis. Americans over 65 exemplify this discrepancy: even though 38 percent of seniors relied on Social Security to keep them out of poverty in 2013, the SPM for this group was 14.6 percent compared to the official poverty rate of 9.5 percent. In other words, if social security did not exist the poverty rate for seniors would have been 52.6 percent, largely due to the high medical out-of-pocket expenses many older Americans face.

So while the SPM highlights the importance of non-cash benefits and tax credits in reducing poverty and enhances our understanding of demographic trends, it also acknowledges necessary expenses for critical goods and services that the official poverty rate ignores. Under any measure, poverty remains a large and complex problem. The 48.7 million Americans still in poverty, and those hovering above it, deserve the most comprehensive set of solutions necessary to reduce poverty.

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



Rehabilitation and Community Renewal: Including Individuals with Criminal Records in Neighborhood Restabilization Efforts

The recent foreclosure crisis had the most severe impact on low-income and minority neighborhoods. Although the number of new foreclosure filings is now declining, the poor neighborhoods hit hardest continue to struggle to overcome the impact of housing abandonment and disinvestment. Vacant and blighted properties still plague neighborhoods, families are still fighting to stay in their homes, and hundreds of thousands of properties still enter the foreclosure process each year.

Many policymakers and local governments have responded with concern about the secondary effects of property abandonment and vacancy, particularly increases in disorder and crime. Neighborhoods affected by the foreclosure crisis experience physical deterioration and residential turnover, leading to a perception that the neighborhood lacks protection and “eyes on the street.” Vacant properties may also provide a safe haven for crime. In response, many local governments and housing authorities have relied on policies and practices that target individuals with criminal records as a threat to their neighborhoods. Ironically, however, these policies in fact increase displacement and crime in the communities they are meant to protect. Without stable housing, many men and women with criminal histories struggle to maintain mental health treatment, overcome substance abuse, and secure employment—which increases the likelihood they will re-offend.

Housing instability remains one of the primary barriers to individuals’ successful reintegration into communities after interaction with the criminal justice system, but policies that limit housing opportunities for individuals with criminal records are still widespread. Instead of mandating individualized screening that considers any mitigating circumstances behind an applicant’s criminal history, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development grants substantial discretion to both public housing authorities and private landlords renting government-subsidized units. This discretion is often abused by public housing authorities, whose implementation and enforcement of overly restrictive local policies leads many individuals and families to be unnecessarily excluded from federally subsidized housing.

Individuals with criminal records also encounter discrimination in the private rental market, as many landlords employ criminal records checks as a method of screening applicants. Some admissions policies used by private landlords bar admission to applicants with criminal records of any kind—including records consisting only of arrests, or decades-old convictions for minor offenses. Policies enacted by local governments compound this problem by putting pressure on landlords to keep properties “crime-free.” Over 100 municipalities in Illinois alone have enacted crime-free rental housing ordinances in recent years, penalizing landlords for suspected criminal activity on their properties.

Policies and practices that exclude individuals with criminal records from stable housing will only serve to increase homelessness and jeopardize safety in our communities. Communities that develop partnerships with men and women who have interacted with the criminal justice system, on the other hand, may be able to fight the problems of blight, crime, and destabilization. This alternative approach has been adopted by the Green ReEntry Program—an interfaith collaboration run by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs, and the Southwest Organizing Project in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood.

Chicago Lawn was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis and is still experiencing its effects. In 2013, the long-term vacancy rate in Chicago Lawn was nearly twice as high as in the rest of Chicago. One three-square-mile area alone had 479 vacant homes. As a result, civic institutions in Chicago Lawn have suffered, and neighbors have opted to move away from the community rather than to invest in abandoned properties. Instead of working to keep individuals with criminal histories out of the neighborhood, the Green ReEntry Program has partnered with them to develop a creative solution. The program employs men and women with criminal records to convert vacant properties in Chicago Lawn into affordable, environmentally friendly housing. This redeveloped housing then serves as a stable place for them to call home.

The Green ReEntry Program recently acquired a vacant building that had been marked for demolition after a series of criminal incidents took place on the property. The building was a site for drug dealing and prostitution, and a recent sexual assault galvanized the community to do something. The Green ReEntry Network—comprised of neighbors, priests, imams, and rabbis—organized to acquire the property and worked with individuals with criminal records to rehabilitate it and to give them a place to live. The Chicago Lawn building now includes eco-friendly insulation, efficient appliances, and a backyard vegetable garden. The basement will serve as a public space for community meetings. The men and women living in the rehabilitated Chicago Lawn building are settling into their community, and actively participating in the process of improving it. The Green ReEntry Program is now working to acquire two additional properties in the neighborhood to retrofit.

The Green ReEntry Program’s approach represents an interesting model of rehabilitation that could hold promise for other neighborhoods across the country. The model is based on the recognition that finally moving past the devastation of the foreclosure crisis will require a unified effort, while continued exclusion will only increase homelessness and perpetuate crime in our communities.