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.

 

Department of Defense Proposes Expanded Consumer Protections for Servicemembers

At the end of September the Department of Defense (DOD) announced proposed changes to the Military Lending Act (MLA) that, if implemented, will expand financial protections for servicemembers and their families. Since its enactment in 2006, the MLA has protected servicemembers and their dependents from ultra high interest rates of over 36 percent on short-term, small dollar loans.

When it originally drafted the MLA, DOD narrowly defined the types of loans covered by the act and excluded credit cards, overdraft loans, military installment loans, and all forms of open-end credit from coverage. In practice this meant that the MLA covered traditional payday loans, car title loans, and refund anticipation loans but allowed companies to tailor loan characteristics to fall just outside the parameters and evade the restrictions. The DOD has now moved to close these loopholes by expanding the types of loans covered by the 36 percent interest rate cap to these commonly used products and, in doing so, preventing or at least slowing down predatory financial institutions from literally taking money right out of the pockets of our servicemen and women and their families.

The movement to protect servicemembers from cycles of debt caused by high-interest loans gained recognition as the military barred a growing number of servicemembers from duties overseas for financial reasons. Pressure from different military communities across the country motivated the DOD to research predatory lending practices on a national scale. The resulting report, released by the DOD in 2006, documented increased numbers of lender locations around military bases, an online presence catering to military families, and company names implying official military affiliation. It also found that young servicemembers with job security, a steady paycheck, and little financial literacy offered loan companies a low-risk, high-reward target for loans with interest rates as high as triple digits. Lenders even reportedly offered referral rewards for military members as well as threw "loan parties." The DOD report concluded “predatory lending undermines military readiness, harms the morale of troops and their families, and adds to the cost of fielding an all-volunteer fighting force.”  The report led to the inclusion of the MLA (H.R. 5122, Section 670) in the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act of 2007.

Although Congress aimed to strike a balance between protecting servicemembers from burdensome debt and maintaining adequate sources of healthy credit, when it came into effect in 2007 the MLA fell short in scope. The 36 percent interest cap applied specifically to tax refund loans, other loans of less than $2,000 and a term of less than 90 days, and auto loans with a term of less than 180 days. Consequently, lenders began offering payday loans of $2,001 for over 91 days and auto title loans longer than 181 days, a particularly easy transition for online lenders and lenders in states where high cost loans are not prohibited. By only slightly changing loan terms, creditors continued to successfully target servicemembers, trap them in repeat borrowing, exploit the use of allotments, and fail to provide buyers with adequate information for an informed decision.

Under continued pressure in the face of stories of damaging debt accumulated as a result of legal technicalities in the MLA, the DOD has now proposed to expand regulations to ensure military families more complete consumer protections. The proposed 36 percent interest rate cap would apply to all forms of payday loans, vehicle title loans, refund anticipation loans, deposit advance loans, installment loans, unsecured open-end lines of credit, and credit cards. Additionally, the regulations would hold creditors responsible for providing military borrowers with additional disclosures, prohibit creditors from requiring servicemembers to submit to arbitration, and put the burden of determining military status on the creditor instead of the borrower.

While it is hoped that these changes will bring needed protections to servicemembers and their families, they leave veterans and civilians unprotected from the same exploitative lending practices. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which enforces the MLA, has suggested that the protections of the MLA be extended to veterans and citizens and continues to emphasize financial education as an important component of reform. This past month, the Illinois Asset Building Group (IABG), on behalf of its members, joined organizations across the country in sending a letter to the CFPB to encourage a strong rule that will stop the debt trap and end abusive payday, car title and installment loans for all families.  You can make your own voice heard by signing our petition to the CFPB today.

MacKenzie Speer contributed to this blog post. This blog is also posted at the Illinois Asset Building Group’s website. 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Joelle Ballam-Schwan contributed to this blog post.

 

   

SNAP Challenge Day Seven -- A Few Lessons Learned

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

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

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

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

What have I felt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Day Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day Six

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

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


 

Poverty Rate Falls But Is Still High, Income Inequality Unchanged

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

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

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

Women and Children

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

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

Black and Hispanic Households

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

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

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

Income Inequality

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

Capturing the Full Picture

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

Conclusion

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

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

SNAP Challenge Days Three and Four - Unexpected Expenses

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

Day Three

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

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

Uh-oh, I forgot to bring my lunch.

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

Day Four

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

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

 

SNAP Challenge Day Two - Cheating

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SNAP Challenge Day One - We Miscalculated Our Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

Taking the SNAP Challenge: Step One-Shopping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll be blogging on this all week.

The Role of Unemployment Insurance in Keeping People Housed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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