Governor Rauner, Stop Ignoring the Real State of Our State

Responsible Budget Coalition RallyIn Illinois, homebound seniors are losing meals. Hardworking low-income college students are being forced to drop out of school. Sexual assault victims and homeless veterans are going without services that are essential for their well-being.

This desperation and suffering is the true state of our state. And though you might not know it from listening to Governor Bruce Rauner’s State of the State address, it was made crystal clear when hundreds of Illinoisans descended on the Capitol last week.

A day ahead of Governor Rauner’s address, the Responsible Budget Coalition (RBC) coordinated four press conferences throughout the state to shed light on the real-life harm being caused by the enduring budget impasse. As those press conferences revealed, for many of our state’s most at risk people, living in Illinois in the absence of a responsible budget has meant living without vital services.

Julie Mavec, a case manager with Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois (LCFS), told the story of one Vietnam Veteran who, for five years prior to receiving her assistance, had been paying rent to live on a porch. With the help of Mavec and LCFS, that veteran is now in stable housing, has access to dental and health care treatment, and has been reunited with his children. The budget impasse, however, has caused LCFS to suspend some of its services, putting many veterans — like the one Mavec mentioned — at risk. “Without those services,” she concluded, “he would be out on the street — maybe even dead by now.”

For many low-income college students, the impasse has meant losing much-needed state financial support in the form of Monetary Assistance Program (MAP) grants, and thus having to drop out of school and forgo a shot at the American dream.

“It’s devastating to people like me,” said Hannah Mahaney, a single mother and full-time student at Robert Morris University. Hannah, who also works part time, explained that the suspension of MAP grant awards and cuts to daycare assistance due to the impasse are undermining her ability to finish school, provide for her daughter, and fulfill her potential. “Without quality childcare,” she added, “I will be left to wonder if my daughter is in good hands while I’m in school or at work.”

While deeply distressing, these individual stories are only emblematic of the broad-scale pain being inflicted by the budget impasse. So, in addition to highlighting these and other anecdotes, the RBC also released a report that details the extensive harm being done to individuals, communities, and local economies throughout the state.

But Governor Rauner would not need to read RBC’s report to get a sense of the damage being done. He would just need to listen to the voices of the nearly 600 Illinoisans from all around the state who gathered on the first floor of the Capitol hours before his address. After sharing more stories and rallying in the rotunda, the hundreds then marched to the third floor and urged state legislators to make them a priority.

“Hey hey, ho ho, budget cuts have got to go,” hundreds chanted in unison as lawmakers — Governor Rauner included — slipped into the House chamber for the address. The chants continued throughout the duration of Governor Rauner’s remarks, reaching such a volume that they could be heard inside the chamber.

Those calls, though loud, would fall on deaf ears. Despite the hundreds clamoring outside the chamber door, Governor Rauner treated the budget as an afterthought in his address — effectively turning a deaf ear on hundreds of concerned children, students, childcare providers, veterans, seniors, faith leaders, immigrants, and working families.

The Governor has yet to respond, but Illinoisans have delivered a lucid, powerful message: We have had enough. It’s time for Governor Rauner to stop holding the Illinois people hostage to his non-budget personal agenda. We want a budget that provides adequate revenue and does not impose painful cuts on our families and communities. Without one, our state will continue to grow ever weaker.

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog. 

Time to End the Illinois Hostage Stand-Off

Dollar bill and calculatorIllinois’s former Governor Edgar had it right months ago. Edgar characterized current Governor Rauner’s refusal to negotiate a budget until he wins concessions on his ideological policy agenda as “hostage taking.”

Governor Rauner’s plan all along has been to force opponents to agree to his “Turnaround Agenda” before he will agree to engage in the budget process, including ensuring the revenues needed for a responsible budget. He set that situation up by asking the Democrats in the General Assembly to allow the temporary 5% income tax to expire a year ago, when it could have been extended prior to his being sworn in as governor. Governor Rauner wanted to propose his own budget solution. His own budget solution last February was to announce that he would not even consider or negotiate revenue until he had won the Turnaround Agenda. 

In other words, as Governor Edgar disapprovingly noted, Governor Rauner announced that he had taken hostages. Infants, children, seniors, people with disabilities, students, victims of violence and many others in need of state services are all being held hostage to Governor Rauner’s no-revenue budget proposal.

Like most hostage-takers, Governor Rauner knew that if his demands were not met, at some point the hostages would have to begin to die, literally or figuratively. And, sure enough, the dying is underway. 

For months now, thousands of service-providers have been making layoffs and reducing services because of the state not paying them for services rendered.  Last week the situation went to another level. Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) announced late last week that, due solely to the state’s failure to pay over $6 million for services LSSI has rendered since last July, it is laying off 750 workers—43% of its workforce—and shutting down vital services for almost 5,000 people. The termination of these services—including residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health counseling, and help for homebound senior citizens—is not a consequence of a budget cut or a policy change; it is simply caused by the state’s failure to pay for services already rendered—one side keeping a contract, the other welching.    

LSSI, by all accounts, is an exemplary, responsible, low-overhead, values-driven provider of essential services to people deeply in need. LSSI partners with the state to implement state policies. But LSSI’s “partner” turned it into a hostage and let LSSI and the people it serves be casualties of the hostage stand-off. 

Another example: low-income students at the state’s public and private colleges and universities are dropping out of school by the thousands as the state fails to pay need-based student financial aid for which the students qualify and which they were promised. Many students cannot afford to start the second semester this month and are dropping out.Their schools “fronted” the grants in the first semester but cannot afford the millions of dollars it would cost to cover for the state again this semester.

All of these students are from low-income families, and virtually all of them are African American or Hispanic. They were following a dream of upward economic mobility through their own study and work—the American Dream. What kind of “Turnaround Agenda,” purportedly meant to strengthen Illinois’s economic picture, blocks the upward striving of low-income minority students and treats them as dispensable hostages?

In our form of government, the executive branch, led by the Governor, has the duty to “execute” state laws and policies—to govern. The Governor has decided instead that those laws and policies and the people they are meant to serve should be hostages.

Governor Rauner has every right to pursue a policy agenda, which he can do without abdicating his constitutional duty to govern. He can push his agenda through the legislative process. If he is forced to compromise because of political realities, then he can work to win more elections for people who agree with him. Through it all, however, he should have the sense of duty to govern. It is time to end the hostage stand-off and return to responsible governance.   

Racism, Public Safety, and the Legacy of Dr. King

We remember and celebrate the life, leadership and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., today, amidst the turmoil of police killings of Black and Hispanic youths, apparent cover-ups, and stark racial imbalance in the negative outcomes of our criminal justice system.  Paradoxically, on the day of Dr. King’s birth, the manner of his death—gunned down in public in in the midst of inescapable racial tension—resonates loudly in light of recent events. 

There is a lot to be said about the parallels between then and now: radicalized violence, unlimited access to guns, and an atmosphere of irresponsibly cranked-up, fear-mongering, hate-inducing rhetoric that mainstream leaders allow themselves to use, all but inviting or excusing in advance these atrocities. Those are the conditions that incubate, if not actually cause, things like the King and Kennedy assassinations of those days, and the bombings or health clinic massacres of today

Aside from the politics and ideology, however, is another parallel—the failure of our police and criminal justice systems to produce safety in low-income and minority communities. Dr. King’s killing was not just the shocking act of an armed zealot; it was an example—a heightened and special example, and yet at its core not all that unusual—of the role that the chronic lack of safety in lower income minority communities plays in blocking economic and social justice.

The analogy here may not be perfect, but the resonances are strong. At the time he was shot down, Dr. King was on a path to win economic justice for people in poverty (of all races), and a path that clearly laid out the inextricable relationship between economic justice and racial justice.

In Dr. King’s case, this fight for upward mobility—economic justice—was being conducted on the highly visible plane of politics and activism, and the breach of public safety that cut it short was also on that plane. Yet it was only unusual because of its visibility. Community violence as a blocking force against upward mobility was a fact then as much as now. It mattered then, as it does now, to individuals trying to take a bus to work or school or church or trying to operate a business. Racial, economic, and social causes producing lack of safety all existed. And, yes, there was a role for law enforcement in this problem, not just when it failed to produce public safety, but when it contributed to the lack of public safety through such scandals as rigged convictions and unjust punishment (including Dr. King’s own jail time), complicity in lynchings, protection of racial power structures, and more ordinary corruption.     

The failure to ensure public safety during Dr. King’s day resonates today as we deal with the incidents of police killings of minority youths. To be sure, each of these incidents is a puzzle to solve, from which we can learn lessons that produce justice across a range of issues. But they are also important examples of the larger challenge of public safety as an essential component of economic justice, and the essential role of policing (among other strategies) for producing and maintaining public safety, as opposed to contributing to a lack of it. In seeking justice, we should not forget to address the larger issue of public safety and how to train, deploy, and discipline the police to help accomplish it.

 

Updated Guide to Public Benefits in Illinois Will Help Postsecondary Students Get Ahead

You shouldn’t have to choose between making rent and making it to class or training, between putting food on the table and putting yourself in a position for a bright future, between getting by and getting ahead.

But unfortunately, these are the tough decisions that many students pursuing postsecondary degrees or job training have to make. And though most postsecondary students find it tough to support themselves, nontraditional students, including students who have dependents or who did not enter school immediately after high school, face particularly acute financial struggles.Take those enrolled in college: 71% nationwide work full or part time, and over half come from low-income households.  

Postsecondary education can be particularly challenging for women. About one out of every three woman enrolled as an undergraduate is raising a child, and women account for 81% of undergraduates who are low-income, single-parents. Juggling class or job training with work is an arduous and expensive venture in and of itself — but the added personal and financial responsibilities of parenting make it even more difficult and costly. 

Squeezed by the grind to make ends meet, many will be forced to drop out of school or discontinue job training, jeopardizing their future employment prospects and opportunities for upward mobility.

Public benefits can, and often do, serve as a critical resource for struggling students. Research has shown — time, time, and time again — that students with access to financial support are much more likely to graduate because they are able to dedicate more time to learning and less to stressing over bills.

The Shriver Center’s new publication, Getting Ahead: An Adult Student’s Guide to Public Benefits in Illinois, is intended to help struggling students get the help they need. The Guide offers information on eligibility and how to apply for a variety of benefits available to adult students. Benefits covered include SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), healthcare, Child Care, and housing benefits, among others. The Guide also includes a section with tips on how students can better advocate for themselves and protect their right to the public assistance they need.

This updated version of the Guide is published online and has been redesigned to be more accessible and user-friendly. Now, students can find the resources they need more quickly, even on a mobile phone. A PDF of the full text is also available for download.

We invite you to pass Getting Ahead: An Adult Student’s Guide to Public Benefits in Illinois on to any students, educators, school counselors, administrators, or social service providers who may need guidance. We also encourage colleges, universities, job training providers, and other social service organizations to post the Guide on their sites.

It could be the difference, for many, between being held back and getting ahead. 

If you have any questions about how to use the guide, please email studentguide@povertylaw.org.  

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog post. 

How HUD Can Help Fulfill the Promise of Second Chances

Over the holidays, President Obama commuted the prison sentences of 95 men and women, giving most of them an April 2016 release in place of indefinite imprisonment. To each person, he wrote that the president’s clemency power “embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws."

Upon their release, however, these men and women may find that the rental housing market does not always offer the same second chance to the formerly incarcerated. To give them the best opportunity to move beyond their past mistakes, the Obama Administration will need to open more than the doors leading out of prison. It must also open the doors leading into housing. Otherwise, these men and women will be left with a false hope of redemption.

Citing the importance of stable housing to the successful reintegration of the formerly incarcerated, HUD (the federal agency that directs U.S. housing policy) issued a notice in November 2015 on the use of criminal records in federally subsidized housing. Although the notice touched upon important topics, such as the improper use of arrest records to prove criminal activity, it glossed over a number of issues that are critical to addressing housing barriers for people with criminal records.

To bring attention to those issues, the Shriver Center, with the assistance of the Housing Justice Network and over 50 other organizations, sent a letter to HUD with detailed recommendations for closing the gaps that its notice left behind.

Two critical issues call for urgent attention. First is the need for guidance on developing screening criteria in compliance with the Fair Housing Act (FHA). As explained previously, this guidance will help to curtail the unjustified, disparate racial impact of criminal records screening resulting from the racial disparities that pervade the criminal justice system. Such guidance is also long overdue, especially considering that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued its policy on the use of criminal records under Title VII (the employment counterpart to the FHA) back in 2012.

Second, HUD guidance is also needed to outline a housing provider’s duty to limit its inquiry to a “reasonable time” before admission and to refrain from imposing blanket bans.

The letter to HUD discusses additional areas affecting people with criminal records that merit HUD’s attention. It asks specifically that HUD take the following actions:

  • use more affirmative language to emphasize that “one strike policies” are inconsistent with HUD’s stated commitment to expanding housing opportunities for people with criminal records;
  • require, rather than simply encourage, the consideration of mitigating circumstances across all the federally subsidized housing programs to put an end to automatic admission denials, subsidy terminations, and evictions on the basis of criminal records;
  • confirm that non-criminal citations, such as traffic and municipal violations, should not result in adverse housing decisions;
  • ensure that applicants and residents receive copies of criminal reports used against them, whether the reports come from the police or a tenant screening company;
  • clarify that public housing authorities can add people with criminal records onto current leases, such as with their family members, and that they receive the same rights as other household members;
  • eliminate rescreening requirements for participants who have already been previously screened for criminal activity, such as those trying to port their Housing Choice Vouchers, return to redeveloped public housing, or obtain special vouchers, such as Tenant Protection Vouchers and Enhanced Voucher; and
  • stress that civil rights requirements apply across all the federally subsidized housing programs, including Moving-to-Work jurisdictions and Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) conversions.

Given President Obama’s focus on criminal justice reform in the last year of his administration, the time is now for HUD to act upon these recommendations and fulfill the promise of second chances made to those who were granted clemency and to everyone like them beginning their lives again after incarceration.

On December 28, 2015, HUD sent a letter in response to the letter from the Shriver Center and other legal aid, policy, and civil rights organizations. A copy of the letter may be found here

To End Poverty, We Must Address Racial Justice

The story of Laquan McDonald’s death is unfolding here in Chicago, with many egregious, but familiar, details: an African-American teenager was killed, by a police officer who fired 16 shots ​without provocation, his fellow officers became complicit by aggressively covering it up, the police brass and City Hall and State's Attorney knew for months and dithered, the city had to be forced by a court to release the footage of the killing, and the prosecutor was driven by the impending publicity to hurry up an indictment that was already delayed too long. 

This tragedy, one more in a string of police killings of African-Americans across the country, is a continuing affront to all of us, not just the people in ​Black and brown​ communities who are the immediate victims. It casts a shadow over the whole national concept, where all of us are supposed to enjoy equal rights and opportunities, including public safety.

This tragedy is evidence that people of color live under a different and far less protective Constitution, experiencing overt racial bias, less police protection, less presumption of innocence, and more danger of affirmative abuse of power from police, with no plausible explanation other than race. These things do not happen in white communities. Laquan McDonald was killed because he was Black.

Racial bias takes many forms and infects all systems in our society. The killing of racial minorities by police is but one violent example of racial injustice. But there are thousands of other examples of racial injustice that slowly and systemically deprive racial minorities of their rights, their opportunity, and of their belief in a free and just society.

Take poverty, for example, something the Shriver Center knows well. In our decades’ long fight against poverty, we have seen safety net programs, which help families escape poverty, ensure there is enough food in the home, and aid people in gaining employment, slowly dismantled under the guise that these programs promote a “welfare society.” This stereotype is indelibly linked with the image of an African-American single mother with children.

Or take the ongoing fact of residential racial segregation; the dramatic racial impact of the war on drugs that imprisons or burdens with criminal records astonishingly disparate percentages of African-American youths; or the stark racial wealth gap multiplied exponentially through the draining of net worth in the massive foreclosure crisis. On and on.  

​The fight against racism is at the heart of the fight against poverty in America at this time.  Poverty and race are inextricable in this country. Although there are many racial disparities that must be addressed to fight poverty effectively, among the most important are disparities in public safety and in the police role in exacerbating rather than ameliorating that disparity.  

​Opportunity and justice for ​all people living in poverty​, but especially African-Americans and Latinos,​ are connected intrinsically with ​public safety​. Public safety is ​one of the core requisite​s​ for personal happiness and upward mobility through full engagement in family life, school, work, community, religious activity and other relationships.  

​We need to be able to trust the police to provide service that is effective, the same in all communities regardless of racial composition, and respectful of the rights guaranteed in our Constitution and laws. ​For too long, the members of communities of color have not been able to have that trust. In this sense, Laquan McDonald's death is not unusual; it is extreme but symptomatic. We will not effectively address poverty or racial justice until we have trustworthy policing and the public safety to which it is indispensable.   

 

Giving Thanks for SNAP

Thanksgiving tableThanksgiving is a joyous holiday gathering of plenty and comfort for most Americans. But as we give thanks for our good fortune, we should not forget the many Americans who cannot afford a bountiful feast and who worry everyday about how to put adequate food on the table. The USDA reports that over 48 million Americans are food insecure, meaning they do not regularly have access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Fifteen million are children.

Thankfully, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) has significantly reduced food and financial insecurity. In reaching nearly 75 percent of those who are eligible, SNAP helps over 40 million Americans avoid hunger, lifts 4.7 million Americans out of poverty, and helps 2.4 million children escape severe poverty. (In fact, a recent study shows that this program is twice as effective at reducing poverty as previously thought.)

In addition to increased food security and financial stability, SNAP recipients also enjoy significant health benefits — benefits that can span a lifetime. Research shows that children who receive food stamps are significantly less likely to experience obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes into adulthood. Pregnant women with access to SNAP have more successful births. SNAP truly provides access to healthy and nutritious food, with recipients spending over 85 percent of their benefits on fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, meat, and meat alternatives.

And SNAP isn’t only beneficial for public health; it’s also a boon for the economy. Research shows that, by giving additional purchasing power to people who are most likely to exercise it immediately, SNAP stimulates the economy. The USDA estimates that every $5 in SNAP benefits generates $9 in economic activity. This translates into tens of thousands of full-time jobs, particularly in the farm and retail industry.

Recognizing the importance of SNAP in the fight against poverty, advocates across the country have worked to ensure that more poor families can access this important benefit. This year, the Shriver Center, in coalition with Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights, led a successful advocacy campaign in Illinois that resulted in legislation that extends SNAP eligibility to 40,000 households and 80,000 individuals, over half of whom are children. This benefit is targeted to low-income working families with gross incomes above the income threshold but high living expenses.  

Beyond Illinois, the application process for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has helped boost SNAP enrollment in 10 other states. Nevada, for instance, saw a 14 percent increase in participation just from the surge in public engagement with assistance programs and administrators caused by Medicaid expansion. A handful of other states have also utilized ACA-funded tools — like call centers, document imaging, and electronic data matching — to improve and streamline both Medicaid and SNAP enrollment systems. Consolidating the two registration processes has been particularly fruitful. New Mexico, for example, generated a 5 percent increase in participation in just 14 months after launching a Web-based sign-up system that lets enrollees apply for multiple programs in a single session. Overall, 632,000 people will be more food secure because of the ACA.

Ensuring that all financially insecure families can access SNAP benefits will go a long way towards enabling families to enjoy abundant Thanksgivings while alleviating the daily fear of going hungry that they experience during the rest of the year.

So, whether it’s helping struggling families, advancing public health, or stimulating the economy, there is an awful lot to be thankful for when it comes to SNAP.

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog post. 

 

Happy Birthday, Sargent Shriver

Sargent ShriverToday would have been Sargent Shriver’s 100th birthday. Shriver was the right leader, the right man, for a moment in time that was a confluence of several historical trends. The trends included a thirst for economic and social justice, as well as a confidence in the country and in an active role for government in solving difficult problems. These trends met the unique talents of Shriver himself, who was able to inspire and harness the energy, youth, idealism, confidence, and pragmatic know-how of a whole generation as perhaps nobody else could have. Together they produced ideas and methods with true staying power. 

Recently, I was privileged to attend a small dinner that included people who worked with and for Shriver in the 1960s. They all told fascinating stories of how Shriver-led initiatives, including the Peace Corps, Community Action Programs, and legal services, morphed from the most general of ideas and ideals into the long-lasting programs still with us today. They told delightful tales about frantic seat-of-the-pants improvisations, strokes of genius, round-the-clock work, hardball politics, low (or no) pay, and frequent moments of comedy that characterized that time in their lives. Each of these individuals is now extremely successful; all said their years working alongside Shriver were among the best of their lives.

Shriver’s ideas and methods have staying power because he understood that building peace and fighting poverty are not separate problems. Peace-building is an essential part of creating the conditions needed for upward mobility for people in poverty. And people in poverty who perceive that they have a fair chance for upward mobility will value and maintain peace. 

In today’s America, many kinds of external conflict block upward mobility, including the open violence that plagues our neighborhoods, keeps people from working or succeeding in school, and prematurely ends lives. Building peace in neighborhoods is an essential ingredient to fighting poverty in those neighborhoods. But another kind of conflict is internal—the frustration of knowing one does not have a fair chance or the power needed to obtain a fair chance for upward mobility. That inner conflict can perpetuate poverty. 

In the face of that kind of conflict, peace-building requires the enforcement of civil rights, so that there is both the reality and the perception of a fair chance. And peace-building requires that people in poverty have a voice in policy debates—a seat at the table where decisions are made. Will there even be civil rights laws? Will there be good schools? Child care to enable work? Decent wages and working conditions? Effective policing? Whether people in poverty get their way on these issues or not, did they have enough of a voice to balance the power in the decision-making?      

Sargent Shriver and his colleagues thought these peace-building and poverty-fighting issues through.  They made sure that Peace Corps volunteers were sent to help countries and localities address issues the countries had identified themselves, not U.S. interests. Here in America, Shriver and his colleagues anchored the domestic War on Poverty in community action agencies, expressly placing them at the service of local leaders in the communities. They created a legal services program to help empower the voice of those communities in policy debates. Peace was seen not necessarily as the absence of policy disagreements, but in the fair balance of power as communities contended in the policy arena for a fair chance for upward mobility. 

Sargent Shriver would have been 100 today. He would have seen a time in which his ideas are as smart and needed as ever. As money tilts the balance in policy debates, the elements of a fair chance for upward mobility seem eroded or challenged, and communities face increasing issues of violence, there is a need for peace-building through power-building. Shriver and his colleagues showed that an active government, that provides resources to challenged communities to address their own problems and contend fairly in policy debates, and enforces the reality and the perception of a fair chance for upward mobility, not only effectively fights poverty but effectively builds peace.  

Reducing the Human Cost of Being "Crime-Free": How and Why Local Governments Should Rethink Their Nuisance and Crime-Free Laws

Reducing the Cost of Crime FreeIt’s time for local governments to seriously consider the human and legal costs associated with local crime-free and nuisance property ordinances that regulate rental housing, landlords, and tenants.  The Shriver Center’s 2013 report, The Cost of Being “Crime-Free”: Legal and Practical Consequences of Crime Free Rental Housing and Nuisance Property Ordinances, outlined the serious harm to tenants and landlords caused by these ordinances and the potential liability of local municipalities who enforced them. Yet, in spite of the report’s findings and litigation across the country over these ordinances, nearly 2,000 local governments continue to enforce crime-free and nuisance property ordinances around the country.  Each time we urge a local government not to pass a crime-free or nuisance property ordinance, we are asked, “What can be done to keep our communities safe and landlords accountable for the condition of their rental housing?”

Local governments should question if their communities are actually safer as a result of these ordinances. A common hallmark of many ordinances is a provision linking ordinance enforcement to calling the police. In short, tenants and landlords are penalized, through evictions and monetary fines, because the police have been called for help “too many times.” These provisions directly discourage tenants and landlords from calling the police, leaving them to deal on their own with crime or unsafe conditions. This is a particularly serious problem for victims of domestic violence, who need to call the police to be safe from abuse. Local governments have essentially armed perpetrators with a tool that may seriously endanger the lives of their victims and others. As a result, states like Illinois have taken steps bar local governments from enacting or enforcing ordinances that punish victims of domestic or sexual violence or persons with disabilities for calling the police.

We also must recognize the racial implications of these laws, particularly in segregated, gentrifying, or predominately white communities. The racial bias of the criminal justice system is well documented, and incidents often begin with a police call from someone suspicious of a family of color on their block. Thus, local governments may have unwittingly armed discriminatory private citizens with a tool to maintain or change the racial and ethnic makeup of their neighborhood. Given the U.S. Supreme Court decision this past summer upholding disparate impact as a theory of liability under the federal Fair Housing Act, local governments need to understand that they can be held liable for policies that have a disparate impact on one or more protected classes, unless those policies are justified as necessary to achieve an important municipal objective that could not be achieved with a less discriminatory effect. 

Municipalities have a variety of options for creating healthy, safe communities without harming landlords and tenants or facing potential liability. Our new report with our partner, Open Communities, offers several alternatives to crime-free and nuisance property ordinances, including landlord registration, a hotline for tenants to complain about building or other unsafe conditions, a regular inspection of rental properties (with required notice and consent to entry by tenants), training for landlords and local governments on civil rights and landlord tenant law, and the employment of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design principles.  The focus here is not on evicting tenants because they called the police or because the police were suspiciously called on them, but on maintaining healthy, safe, and inclusive communities. 

We urge local governments that elect to maintain their ordinances to track and annually assess whether the ordinance’s enforcement is adversely harming protected classes, such as women, families, racial and ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities. This assessment requires a local government to speak directly to community stakeholders about their experiences with the ordinance, to track the enforcement of the ordinance and its impact on tenants and landlords, and to measure any violation of local, state, and federal law as a result of the ordinance. This assessment tool is consistent with the existing obligation of local jurisdictions who receive federal housing and community funds to affirmatively further fair housing. At a much more fundamental level, it is also consistent with our values as a nation.          

HUD Takes One Step Forward to Help People with Criminal Records, But More Is Needed

Yesterday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released much-anticipated guidance to public housing authorities and owners of HUD-assisted properties on the use of criminal records screening. By rejecting arrest records as a basis to deny admission, HUD slightly opened the door to federally subsidized housing for people with criminal records. To fully remove the burden of unfair barriers for this population, however, HUD needs to take further action. Specifically, it should issue further guidance on the implications of criminal records screening under the Fair Housing Act. In addition, housing providers desperately need direction on how far back they can look into an individual’s criminal history.

What the Guidance Says

The guidance addresses five important topics. First, it stresses that arrest records – without subsequent conviction or plea of guilt – are insufficient proof of criminal activity; Federal housing providers cannot deny housing or evict someone on the basis of arrests alone. Instead, providers must rely on evidence that the criminal activity took place.

Second, the guidance states that federal housing providers have the discretion whether to admit applicants or evict based upon criminal activity. In trying to debunk the myth that “one-strike” evictions are mandatory, HUD reiterated that there is no automatic denial or eviction for every allegation of criminal activity. Indeed, HUD reminded providers that they should consider factors such as the seriousness of the offending action and the extent to which the adverse decision will affect the household, such as rendering them homeless.

Third, the guidance reminds federal housing providers that they must honor the due process rights of individuals who are denied housing or evicted from housing as a result of a criminal record. These rights include notice, an opportunity to dispute the accuracy and relevance of the criminal record before the decision is made, and an opportunity to request an informal hearing or review after the decision was made.

Fourth, the guidance warns PHAs and project owners to create and apply their criminal records policies in accordance with civil rights laws, such as the Fair Housing Act. The discretion that they enjoy, in other words, is not unfettered.

Finally, the guidance ends by providing PHAs and project owners with a list of best practices and encouraging them to read the Shriver Center’s report, When Discretion Means Denial: A National Perspective on Criminal Records Barriers to Federally Subsidized Housing. 

What the Guidance Fails to Say

As the first official document from HUD in favor of increasing housing opportunities for people with criminal records, this guidance is certainly welcome. A quick review of When Discretion Means Denial would show, however, that outstanding issues remain for HUD to address. Two issues are particularly urgent.

First, HUD must issue guidance on the fair housing implications of criminal records screening. Serious racial disparities persist in the criminal justice system. Far from contained, these disparities ripple out well past the system, adversely affecting people of color, their families, and their communities in employment, education, and numerous other areas. Housing policies that deny people with criminal records perpetuate these racial disparities without necessarily improving public safety. Fortunately, over the summer, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the disparate impact theory as a means of proving discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, thus strengthening a powerful tool for breaking down criminal records barriers that unfairly and disproportionately burden people of color and their communities. On the heels of the Court’s decision and in the midst of the unprecedented re-examination of this country’s deleterious overreliance on mass incarceration, a fair housing guidance from HUD on the use of criminal records would be especially timely. It is also sorely needed, as the demands of prospective tenants and housing providers demonstrate.

Second, HUD must give housing providers direction on how far back they can look into a person’s criminal history. There are too many instances of housing providers imposing overly long lookback periods – 10, 20, 99, 100 years – or no time limits on their criminal records inquiries at all. As long as such policies continue to exist, people with criminal records will get the message that they are not welcome in federally subsidized housing, no matter how much HUD guidance tells them otherwise. The time for HUD to grapple with this issue is now.

HUD Secretary Julián Castro recently spoke about HUD’s need to strike the proper balance between “keeping our housing communities safe and […] afford[ing] more opportunity for people to get back on their feet and not confine them to a life of scrapping and inability to ever get on the right track because of overly burdensome regulations.” The guidance that HUD released yesterday is a welcome step toward achieving that balance. To further realize its “role to play in the larger conversation about criminal justice reform and ensuring that folks have effective and fair second chances in life,” however, HUD needs to issue further guidance on the these remaining issues now – before the conversation about criminal just reform comes to a close.

In July 2015, legal aid attorneys and advocates across the country, including the Shriver Center, sent a letter to Secretary Castro and Attorney General Loretta Lynch (in her capacity as convener of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council), requesting that the federal government take concrete steps toward eliminating unreasonable housing barriers for people with criminal records. Some of the recommendations were included in the HUD guidance, and others are described in this blog post. A copy of that letter can be found here. 

 

Leadership Means Putting Needed Revenues on the Table

Mayor Emanuel should be applauded for proposing a budget that seeks needed new revenue while refraining from making deep cuts to important programs.

As an advocate for people living in poverty, the importance of government is crystal clear to me. The core services of government—those involving public safety, education, help for people at risk, opportunity for all, and a strong economy—are supported by a strong consensus. These vital functions are important to all of us, not just those who are poor or at risk. The most basic and first priority of governing is to identify these vital functions and ensure that they are taken care of. That is done by putting together a spending plan and ensuring that there are revenues to cover it.

Reasonable people​ can argue about the variations​ of all this, but the first priority of governing is to see to it that the process gets done. Many other important matters, sometimes including reforms and new policy directions, require leadership. But that leadership is flawed if it does not include the will and the ability to take care of the basics, first and always​.

Taking care of these basics is often extremely difficult, especially when it includes the need to raise adequate revenue to fund the spending plan. Raising new revenue is hard, and it should be hard. People rightly demand a strong justification for any increase in taxes they will have to pay. The burden of proof is difficult.

But raising new revenue also runs into much more than a burden of proof. Political opponents find it easy to take advantage of people's instinctive resistance to new revenues. Ideologues who oppose just about any form of government activity will never support a revenue proposal, no matter how necessary, how overdue, or how reasonable. Opposition is easy, because it can be done with high rhetoric but no requirement to take responsibility to put forward some sort of realistic alternative.

So resisting the urge either to cut vital programs or kick more debt down the road, and instead proposing increases in revenue needed to fund core functions, takes courage. It can sometimes lead to political defeat. And thus it takes leadership.

The City Council is debating the contours and details of the budget, including the needed new revenues, as it should. Ultimately, the budget may or may not come out exactly as the mayor proposed it. But I think we should take a moment to appreciate the leadership it took to look the situation in the eye, factually and realistically, assess what is needed from government and what is needed to pay for it, and then put the needed revenues on the table. 

Ask the Assisters: Three Secrets to Health Care Outreach and Enrollment Success

As Year 3 of Affordable Care Act (ACA) enrollment quickly approaches, we can look to experienced assisters to figure out how to best plan for a successful year. During the first two years of open enrollment, Illinois had a large cadre of in-person assisters: hundreds of federally funded navigators, state-funded In Person Counselors (IPCs), and Certified Application Counselors were spread out across the state from Moline to Chicago and Waukegan to East St. Louis. These assisters were located in diverse communities from Polish, Latino, and Chinese urban immigrant enclaves to communities of young invincibles in college towns to farming communities mid-state. Over the past two years they reached many hard-to-serve populations, such as limited English speakers and homeless populations that may never have gotten coverage without in-person assistance.

Yet, even with their different backgrounds and experiences, the enrollment specialists we interviewed this summer about “best practices” in outreach and enrollment all had similar things to say. When it comes to a successful outreach plan , three strategies were key:  Partnerships, Meeting People Where They Are, and Building Trust.

Partnerships           

Partnerships of all kinds – with the state, with other community-based organizations, and with other enrollment entities – made all the difference to Illinois enrollment assisters in their ability to increase their impact.

Martin Logo of the Project of the Quad Cities said that their collaboration with Get Covered Illinois helped them provide staff trainings and logistical support to enrollment assisters. In addition, the Project of the Quad Cities worked with local job training sites that provide literacy services, job skills, and counseling to unemployed and low-income individuals. The partnership included staffing information tables at events, weekly presentations, and one-on-one enrollment sessions. The Project of the Quad Cities was invited to speak during various job information classes and reached a large number of uninsured, unemployed residents who previously had minimal information about the ACA.  

Bill Green of United Way of Metropolitan Chicago stressed the importance of working with existing organizations that have a wealth of knowledge about their local community and its needs that assisters do not always recognize. For example, an agency in Chicago’s Chinatown knew that many community members commute via bus to work every morning. Assisters working with the organization decided to go to the bus stop in the early mornings to hand out flyers and make enrollment appointments. Without input from the local organization, the assisters would not have known how to reach the population in effective ways.

In another example of collaboration, navigators working within the Chicago Northwest and Southwest Consortium formed a tight collaborative of over 25 partnering enrollment organizations in highly uninsured neighborhoods in Chicago. Representatives from all enrollment organizations hold bi-weekly meetings, share their best practices and challenges, and work together toward a common goal of cultivating community enrollment opportunities. This consortium is also working together to develop and pilot a sustainable model for enrollment assistance.

Graciela Guzman, a Navigator with PrimeCare Community Health, described the enormous power of the consortium. Guzman notes that the highest number of enrollments in Chicago came out of this region because of the enrollment organizations’ high-level of coordination and resource sharing. The consortium model benefits assisters as well, giving them a place to share their frustrations and successes with others in their same positions. It also allows a forum for ongoing training, including specialized training beyond what the state can provide.

HelpHub, a technical assistance center for enrollment specialists in Illinois, and the Shriver Center provided ongoing trainings for the Chicago Northwest and Southwest Consortium. These trainings were offered at quarterly meetings on subjects such as Medicaid redeterminations and renewals, the TANF/SNAP online system integration with Medicaid, and immigrant eligibility trouble-shooting.

Building a consortium of small, regional groups of assisters can be helpful because members of the individual groups know their particular neighborhoods or communities well or can address specific needs together like outreach to new immigrants.

Meeting People Where They Are

To be effective, assisters must go to the people. As Bill Green stated, “You have to go inside the community itself.” According to Green, the most effective enrollment events by far were ones that “piggybacked on existing community events. Creating our own events didn’t work very well.”

Every interviewee mentioned the ongoing necessity of expanding enrollment assistance and health literacy by providing language access in multiple languages. A large proportion of the uninsured do not speak English, and it is important to be able to educate them about their healthcare options in languages that they can understand. For example, Martin Logo said that his organization gave educational presentations at community meetings in English, French, and four different African languages. Graciela Guzman says that a third of her clients self-reported having difficulty reading and writing in their native languages or in English, and 90% needed email accounts created because they did not previously have one and were not familiar with computers.

Megan Davy, of Peer Services in Evanston, had a particularly adventurous take on meeting people where they are. Davy knew from a long career in advertising that “word of mouth is the best advertising.” She took to the streets, walking into every business and speaking to every owner about his/her employees’ health insurance coverage. She spoke to many employees who were unaware of their need for health insurance, and even more who were unsure of how to get it. By doing this, Davy reached a large population of young invincibles. Moreover, by getting out into the neighborhood and especially meeting people where they are most often (such as at work), Peer Services was successful in getting more people educated and enrolled.

Building Trust

The best practice cited by our interviewees most often was a simple concept but one that takes time to develop. Janice Parker, a Navigator at Navicore Solutions summed it up well: “It’s not just as easy as ‘You want healthcare? Enroll!’ It’s also a matter of trust.” In most cases, this refers to the trust of community members, who aren’t inclined to put their lives in the hands of just anybody.

It takes time to invest in the relationship building. One way to build trust more quickly is for the state, medical centers, or contracted organizations to make a concerted effort to hire from the communities they serve so that they have culturally competent, linguistically expert, trusted partners from the beginning. Sometimes, building trust is as simple as speaking and distributing educational materials in the native language of a client. Graciela Guzman professed that there is “so much trust involved… They believe in your ability to get you through the process. I don’t take that lightly.” Janice Parker stressed the importance of integrating family members into the enrollment process in order to build trust. The individualistic nature of enrollment may alienate some clients, but Navigators have the unique ability to transform it into a much kinder process.

Interviewees spoke about the deep ties they developed with clients. The emotional impact of the job is huge, and assisters’ effect on the lives of their clients is tangible. Megan Davy went on to explain: “Every day, somebody hugged me and said thank you. People share their [specific individual] information. To help somebody feel safe – what’s more important than their health?” It takes skill and trust to reassure someone about privacy concerns and give them individualized assistance in the same manner that financial counselors, insurance brokers, and credit managers do.

Final Thoughts About the Upcoming Open Enrollment Period

Faced with reductions of Get Covered Illinois staff and a much smaller funded network of in-person help across the state, the coming year will bring challenges in Illinois. As Bill Green puts it, year three is certainly a “make or break year.”  Many organizations will no longer have the dedicated full-time staff to work on outreach and enrollment. In the face of these upcoming challenges, building partnerships, building trust and going to where the people are will be more important than ever.

It will also now mean that consumers may turn more to Certified Application Counselors (CACs) at health centers for help enrolling. In turn, CACs may have to do more outreach at health fairs or homeless shelters in the community and other places where uninsured populations who may have been “missed” the first and second time around can be found. Fortunately, the Illinois Primary Healthcare Association, which represents community health centers around the state was chosen as one of the sites around the country to participate in the inaugural Get Covered Academy Endowment, focused on outreach training this year. We are excited about this new partnership and the learnings they can share with the rest of the enrollment community.

As Graciela Guzman puts it. “We’ve enrolled individuals more likely and wanting to enroll in the process. We’re going to have to start thinking outside of the box to reach consumers that may not have heard the message yet or are hesitant about the process.”

From what we’ve seen of these incredibly talented, passionate assisters, they will do just that to enroll the remaining uninsured in Illinois.


 

This blog post was co-authored by Anna Kanter, intern, and Stephanie Altman, Assistant Director of Health Care Justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

The Shriver Center’s health team trains extensively on ACA implementation in Illinois and runs HelpHub, an online technical assistance center for enrollment specialists in Illinois.

Cross posted on Enroll America's blog here.

Census Data Show Little Progress against Poverty in Illinois

According to a new report released today by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and the Coalition on Human Needs based on data released in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) on September 17th, progress in fighting poverty in Illinois remained stalled in 2014. 

The data show no significant decrease in poverty from 2013 to 2014.  1.8 million Illinoisans, or 1 in 7 of us, lived below the poverty line in 2014. The change in Illinois’s poverty rate from 14.7% in 2013 to 14.4% in 2014 is not statistically significant. The proportion of people living in deep poverty  (below 50% of the poverty line) budged a little, from 6.8% in 2013 to 6.6% in 2014. Conditions likewise failed to improve for children, with a child poverty rate of 20.2% in 2014 consistent with the 2013 rate of 20.7%.  While many tout the supposed progress we have made since the Great Recession ended, it is clear that the lives of our most vulnerable residents in Illinois have yet to improve.

Racial inequalities in Illinois are glaringly apparent.  Although 10.8% of non-Hispanic whites lived in poverty in 2014, more than 30% of all blacks and almost 20% of all Latinos lived below the poverty line. Disparities are even starker among children:  40.8% of black and 27.1% of Latino children lived in poverty during 2014, compared to only 11% of non-Hispanic white children

The ACS did show marginal improvement in the national poverty rate, which fell from 15.8% in 2013 to 15.5% in 2014. Assuming an annual  poverty reduction rate of 0.3% per year--an optimistic assumption--it would take more than 25 years to cut the overall poverty rate in half, and more than 35 years to reduce child poverty to that same level.  Clearly, we face a long and arduous journey in eradicating poverty in Illinois and around the U.S.

Despite this, we do have proven poverty fighting measures that improve the lives of those in poverty.  As I explained in a recent blog about the national poverty numbers, non-cash benefits and tax credits are highly effective tools in lifting people above the poverty threshold.  In Illinois, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) lifted 478,000 Illinoisans, including 252,000 children, out of poverty from 2011 to 2013. The EITC alone injected about $2.5 billion into Illinois’s economy in 2012. Given the proven efficacy of these poverty-fighting measures, Congress should, in the midst of a stalled war on poverty, be expanding and strengthening programs like the EITC and CTC.

Instead, Congress is debating spending bills to mend our budget deficit that, if passed, would weaken many of these programs. Illinoisans lifted out of poverty by these programs now stand on the precipice of falling back into poverty, while those already living in poverty face deeper deprivation.  For example, the House spending bill would fail to renew 28,000 existing rental vouchers in addition to 67,000 vouchers already lost to the 2013 sequestration cuts of 2013, depriving 1,360 more Illinois families of housing assistance. In a state where more than 1 in 5 low-income renters already spend more than 50% of their income on rent, further regression is not acceptable.

Some in Congress have suggested decreasing funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid in lieu of the scheduled sequestration cuts. This too is a wrongheaded approach to solving our country’s financial woes—the benefits of SNAP are too many, and the damages of reducing its funding are too apparent, to accept such cuts.  For example, SNAP lifted 205,000 Illinoisans, including 94,000 children, above the poverty line from 2009 to 2012. However, cuts at the end of 2013 reduced the average monthly SNAP benefit per person per meal from $1.57 to $1.46 in Illinois. These reductions had a major impact—research shows that the 2013 SNAP cuts increased the likelihood of household and child food insecurity by 17% among households with children receiving SNAP

While progress in fighting poverty is stalled in Illinois and improving only marginally nationwide, we still have much to lose. Efforts to reduce the budget deficit should not be put on the backs of people living in poverty, and we cannot allow Congress to pass these damaging cuts unnoticed.  Instead, we should urge Congress to offset our deficits through closing tax loopholes or ending corporate tax breaks while investing in proven anti- poverty policy measures that improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in Illinois and across the nation.

Child Care Assistance Threatened in Illinois

Child care assistance is a critical resource for low-income families. Parents with reliable, affordable child care are able to work, and to work more hours and earn a greater income, than those who do not. Research shows that parents receiving child care assistance have increased earnings of as much as $7,500 per year more than families with less assistance. Unfortunately, child care also represents a significant expense, in particular for low-income workers. The monthly cost of child care in Illinois for a family with a preschooler and a school-age child is $1,469, while the monthly earnings for a family with one minimum wage earner is a mere $1,430. Women working low-wage jobs already struggle with unpredictable schedules, little access to paid leave, and a lack of work supports overall; low-income, working women and their children need the stability that child care assistance provides.
 
Recent actions by the Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s administration threaten the availability of the state’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP). In July, the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) proposed rules that make changes to the current program, most notably lowering the maximum amount of income a family may have to be eligible for assistance, adding a child support requirement, increasing copays, and increasing the use of criminal background checks for child care providers. 
 
Income eligibility. The proposed rules reduce the income threshold for CCAP from 185% of the federal poverty line (FPL) to an astoundingly low 50% of the FPL for new applicants. As a result, a family of four applying for assistance would need to have income of less than $1,011 per month to be eligible. A single parent earning Illinois’s state minimum wage of $8.25 would need to work fewer than 18 hours per week to earn below the 50% threshold. Although the proposed rules allow current recipients to maintain child care at the 185% income level, the 50% threshold essentially eliminates access to safe and reliable child care for most parents newly seeking assistance. Nine out of ten families that were approved under the previous income guideline of 185% of the FPL will now be denied under the proposed income guideline.  
 
Child support requirement. The proposed rules also require families that include any child in the household with an absent parent to open an active collection child support case for that child with the Division of Child Support Services (DCSS) as a condition of eligibility for CCAP. This is problematic as it poses a significant danger to survivors of domestic or sexual violence who may not want to re-engage with the perpetrator. It also ignores the reality of many CCAP recipients’ family circumstances; often, the noncustodial parent is also poor and either under- or unemployed, and forcing custodial parents to cooperate with child support collection may also upset the fragile balance they have found in keeping the noncustodial parents involved in their children’s lives. 
 
Call to action. IDHS will hold public hearings in Chicago and Springfield to solicit feedback from community members on these proposed rules. We have heard from low-income workers who lost their new jobs because they no longer qualify for CCAP, including domestic violence survivors on the path to financial independence who were forced to return to their abusers once child care assistance was denied. If you have been or could be affected by the proposed rules, or if you are a service provider whose clients are affected, we encourage you to testify at one of the hearings. 
 
Witnesses must bring a written (preferably typed) copy of their testimony to submit to the hearing officer. Each testimony is limited to no more than 10 minutes. You can sign up to testify at the hearing. If you are interested in testifying or are not available to testify but have information to relate, please contact Wendy Pollack, the director of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center. 
 
The details for the hearings are:
 
Springfield:
Tuesday, October 6th, 2015
10:00 AM-12:00PM
Michael J. Howlett Bldg. Auditorium
Second and Edwards Streets, Springfield, IL
 
Chicago:
Wednesday, October 7th, 2015
1:30-3:30PM
Michael A. Bilandic Bldg., Room C-500, 5th Floor
160 N. LaSalle, Chicago, IL
 
For more information on the hearings, please see the IDHS Public Hearings section of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules’ September 4th Flinn Report.
 
For more information on the proposed changes, see September’s WomanView article
 
 
 

 

Annual Census Bureau Report Shows Tremendous Progress in Health Insurance Coverage but Little Change in Poverty

The U.S. Census Bureau’s three reports relating to annual income and poverty, released last week, present a decidedly mixed bag of progress toward ending poverty in the United States. 

Health Insurance

The data show a dramatic drop in the number of Americans who lack health insurance in 2014, the first year that all of the policy provisions of the Affordable Care Act took full effect. In fact, the number of uninsured Americans dropped to its lowest rate since the Census Bureau began measuring it in 1987.  Nearly nine million Americans gained health insurance, and the uninsured rate fell 2.9% from 13.3% in 2013 to 10.4% in 2014. While racial and sex disparities in coverage persist, the rate of uninsured Blacks fell from 15.9% in 2013 to 11.8% in 2014, and from 17% to 13% for working-age women, indicating significant but incomplete progress. 

Official Poverty Measure

Despite these gains in health insurance coverage, the report showed no significant decline in the poverty rate. Nearly 47 million Americans lived below the poverty line in 2014. That’s 14.8% of us, including 21.5% of all children. This marks the fourth year in a row in which poverty rates have failed to decline significantly. As it stands, poor people, in particular poor children, have been left behind in the recovery from the Great Recession. This stagnation in progress reducing poverty is unacceptable.

More than one in every five children is growing up in poverty in the United States. Moreover, large, enduring racial inequalities persist; Hispanic children are two-and-a-half times more likely to live in poverty than white children, and Black children are three times more likely.  Aside from being a moral disgrace, childhood poverty has a high economic cost. Lost productivity, extra health and criminal justice costs, and other consequences of childhood poverty are estimated to cost the U.S. economy close to $500 billion per year, or 3.8% of our Gross Domestic Product.

Like racial equality, gender equality remains elusive. Women are more likely than men to be poor, with 14.7 percent of women in poverty compared to 10.9 percent of men. Even more shocking, 39.8% of all female heads of households are in poverty, making a clear case for stronger investments in programs that help lift women and their children out of poverty. The gender wage gap has changed little since 2007: Women working full time earned 79 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. This gap is even starker for women of color, with black and Hispanic women earning 60 cents and 55 cents, respectively, to every dollar earned by white men.

Supplemental Poverty Measure

This year, for the first time, in addition to releasing data measured against the Official Poverty Measure (OPM), the Census Bureau also released a report on the Supplemental Poverty Measure at the same time. The OPM, which is used to determine eligibility for government benefits and transfers, measures only an individual’s or family’s resources based on their gross before-tax cash income. The SPM is a far more accurate measure of a family’s wealth, and includes income from non-cash benefits like nutritional assistance (such as SNAP or WIC), subsidized housing (like Section 8 Vouchers), home energy assistance (like LIHEAP) and tax credits (like the EITC or CTC) and subtracts expenses including income and social security taxes, childcare or work-related expenses, and out-of-pocket medical care and health insurance costs. Because it accounts for these resources, the SPM offers a far more nuanced and realistic picture of who is living in poverty and the important role that these assistance programs play in alleviating poverty.

To be clear, noncash benefits and tax credits are by no means silver bullets, but they clearly improve the lives of some of our most vulnerable people. For example, the rate of children living in deep poverty (below 50% of the poverty threshold) during 2014 was 5.4% lower measured under the SPM than under the OPM (4.3% instead of 9.7%). The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) alone decreased the 2014 child poverty rate by 3.2%, while refundable tax credits, such as the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, cut child poverty rates by 7.1%. These statistics show that anti-poverty programs provide some measure of relief to many low-income households.  

Amidst a political environment that often seeks to stigmatize, denigrate, and ultimately weaken safety net programs, the 2014 U.S. Census Poverty Data should galvanize those of us committed to ending poverty. As a strong starting point, we should urge Congress, when taking up tax reform later this year, to make permanent certain key improvements, for low-income workers, in the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit that otherwise are likely to expire at the end of 2017. These tax credits are instrumental to keeping a large number of people above the poverty threshold; according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 16 million individuals, including 8 million children, will either be thrust into or fall deeper into poverty in 2018 if the EITC and CTC expire.

The 2014 Census data show that, although progress in eliminating poverty may be stalled, strong policy measures do make a substantial difference. We know what works to advance justice and opportunity for low-income people and communities. Now is the time to make strong investments in proven policy measures to ensure the best possible present and future for all Americans.