Despite Ongoing Budget Impasse, Progress Against Poverty in Illinois

John Bouman at a budget rally in SpringfieldGovernment, at all levels, has a critical role to play in securing justice and opportunity for people in poverty or otherwise at risk. So as Congress remains highly polarized and gridlocked, it is important to take advantage of opportunities for progress at the state level. This is where critical decisions affecting at risk populations increasingly are being made.

From afar, Illinois might not look like a shining example of a state picking up where the federal government has become incapacitated. After all, the state legislature and the governor are locked in a record-long budget impasse that is eroding the state’s social and human service infrastructure and, in the process, causing some our state’s most vulnerable citizens to suffer.

But despite the ongoing budget impasse and its devastating consequences, Illinois achieved many substantial anti-poverty victories during the most recent legislative session. This spring, the Shriver Center advocated for several bills in the Illinois General Assembly that will advance justice and improve opportunities for low-income people. When signed by the governor and enacted into law, each of these bills will help low-income individuals and families take one more step away from poverty.   

Protecting Domestic Workers. Domestic workers play a critical role in the Illinois economy.  They care for the elderly, clean homes, and nurture children, ensuring the health and prosperity of Illinois families and freeing others to work outside the home. Their work ultimately makes all other work possible. Despite the value of their work, domestic workers have historically been excluded from protections under laws extended to workers in other industries. This has led to a workforce, predominantly composed of women supporting their own families, that is isolated and vulnerable.

The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, HB 1288, establishes a definition for domestic work and extends worker protections to domestic workers, including the right to the state minimum wage, to be paid for all work hours, to one day of rest per week for workers that work for one employer more than 20 hours a week, and to protection from sexual harassment on the job. This bill, which will benefit an estimated 35,000 domestic workers in Illinois, will ensure that domestic workers are treated with the dignity they deserve.  

Providing a Lifeline to Victims of Human Trafficking. Victims of trafficking, torture, and other serious crimes desperately need a safe place to live, adequate food, immediate attention to their physical and mental health needs, and an opportunity to stabilize their lives as they cooperate with law enforcement, adjust their immigration status, and obtain work authorization. The current processing time for visas ranges from 5 to 16 months, leaving these immigrants vulnerable to further exploitation and harm.

The Shriver Center, in partnership with Heartland Alliance, advocated for SB 3007, which provides access to critical services for immigrant survivors of human trafficking while they await a decision on their visa applications. SB 3007 provides access to state-funded SNAP, cash assistance, and Medicaid for up to one year while the victim is preparing his or her visa or asylum application. SB 3007 has passed both houses of the legislature and awaits the Governor’s signature. The first program of its scope in the nation, this bill is expected to provide a lifeline to roughly 700 people annually.

Ensuring That Children Benefit from Child Support. Child support can be an important source of income for low-income families. However under current Illinois law, a family receiving cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program gets only $50 of a child support payment, no matter the amount the noncustodial parent actually pays. The rest of the child support payment is kept by the state and the federal government. SB 2340 will increase the amount that these families receive from child support payments paid by noncustodial parents to the maximum permitted by federal law. This will encourage on-time child support payments and let children see that both their parents are doing their best to care for them. Once signed into law, the changes will go into effect on January 1, 2017.  

Helping Cash Assistance Recipients Get the Education They Need. Although education is essential to moving people out of poverty, 35.9% of TANF recipients have less than a high school education. Most TANF recipients are required to engage in work activities at least 30 hours each week. But, under current law, obtaining a high school diploma or GED certificate is classified as a non-core activity for adults over 19 years of age. SB 2906 amends the Public Aid Code to add attendance in high school and GED programs to the set of activities that count as a core work requirement activity for TANF recipients. Once signed into law, this bill will allow the Illinois Department of Human Services and TANF recipients to prioritize these important activities and ensure that more recipients complete their high school educations.

Protecting Survivors of Domestic or Sexual Violence. Employees coping with sexual or domestic violence deserve to feel secure and safe in their employment, which is vital to their economic security. The Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA), originally enacted into law in 2003, established employment protections for survivors and their families. HB 4036 expands VESSA protections to all employees working in Illinois. Newly covered employees may take unpaid leave to seek medical attention, domestic violence or sexual assault services, counseling, legal assistance, and other activities needed to address the violence. Employers are also prohibited from discrimination based on an employee’s status as a survivor or a family or household member of a survivor. Once signed into law, the amendment would go into effect on January 1, 2017. 

Ensuring Consumers Can Make Informed Healthcare Decisions. The health care system can be confusing. Health care consumers need clear and accurate information so that they can make informed decisions about their health care. The Empowering Meaningful Choice in Medicaid Managed Care Act, HB 6213, ensures that Medicaid managed care consumers can access more up-to-date provider directories, see clear guides showing what drugs are and are not covered, compare plans by performance measures, and know who to call if they have problems getting care. HB 6213 has passed the House and Senate with unanimous support; a few amendments bringing technical changes need to be voted on before it's sent to the Governor for his signature.

Extending Health Coverage for Children. Children who have health coverage are more likely to have an ongoing relationship with a doctor, receive preventive care, early diagnosis, and treatment, and they have better health outcomes. In 2005, Illinois extended eligibility for public health insurance program to cover children from working poor families, including children who have no access to public or private insurance on the marketplace due to their immigration status. As of January 31, 2016, the Covering All Kids Health Insurance Act covered almost 41,000 children.

However, Covering All Kids was set to sunset on July 1, 2016. HB 5736, which passed both houses of the Illinois legislature, amends the law to extend coverage to October 1, 2019. This ensures that needy children will continue to have access to preventive and primary care and makes our communities healthier. 

Diverting Youth from the Juvenile Justice System. Seventy percent of youth arrested in the U.S. are living with a mental illness, and 50-70% of youth in the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for a mental illness. Youths living with mental illness deserve opportunities for treatment in the community--not ineffective and costly entanglement with law enforcement and the juvenile justice system.

SB 320, the Opportunities for Youth Diversion Task Force Act, will bring policymakers, community advocacy groups, community-based service providers, health care systems, law enforcement, and juvenile justice partners together in a task force to review evidence-based best practices for diverting youth to appropriate community-based mental health services. The task force will prepare an action plan and make recommendations to the General Assembly and Governor that will increase the number of youth experiencing mental illness diverted away from the juvenile justice system.

Impasse Continues. Looming over all of that progress, however, is the ongoing state budget impasse. Thanks to Governor Rauner’s hostage taking, Illinois recently entered its second straight year without a budgetand now wears the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country without a budget for the current fiscal year.

The lack of a budget has caused widespread suffering in Illinois. The human and social service infrastructure is crumblingstaff are being laid off, programs are shutting down, and people are going without services. The impasse is effectively undermining Illinois’ ability to fight poverty, and our state is growing weaker as a result.   

While the impasse has taken a devastating human toll, it has also reaffirmed an important lesson on the critical, proactive role that government must play in a functioning society. If our other victories this session demonstrate the potential for state-level government action in the fight against poverty, then the budget impasse illustrates what can happen when state government fails in that pursuit. 

Shriver Center advocates, in collaboration with the Responsible Budget Coalition and other organizations, have been on the front-lines of fighting for a responsible budget that includes revenue necessary to fund vital services. We will continue that fight until the State of Illinois has a budget that demonstrates its commitment to fighting poverty and promoting prosperity. 


Justice = Love

The following spoken-word essay was delivered at the opening of the Shriver Center’s 2016 benefit on June 14, 2016, by Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, Community Justice Staff Attorney at the Shriver Center.

Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley

I would like to start this evening with words from a hero, who but not for his fearless compassion for humanity, we would not be here tonight celebrating the work of his legacy.

The most important thing that I know about living is love. Nothing surpasses the benefits received by a human being who makes compassion and love the objective of his or her life. For it is only by compassion and love that anyone fulfills successfully their own life’s journey. Nothing equals love.Sargent Shriver

Decades later the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law has found something that does equate to loveJUSTICE. That is to say, when we as human beings make compassion and love the objective of our lives, we fight for justice. Justice not just for those who look like us, live near us, or share our same struggle, but for society as a whole. Because, in the words of Sargent Shriver, “the War on Poverty asks everyone to get in the fight.”

So we must ALL fight for justice when victims of trafficking do not have access to public benefits.

We must ALL fight for justice when there are barriers to quality and affordable housing.

We must ALL fight for justice when women are still denied equal pay, and WE MUST ALL fight for justice when race, gender and LGBT status become the basis of hate.

Here at the Shriver Center we fight for all of these things because we believe that justice is not a limited fund account and love is not a budgeted expense.

The only thing that limits our access to the bank of justice in this country is hate, greed, and apathy, they are the bank tellers. That is why when we collectively fight for justice and equality, we are not crying for a handout for the people we help, instead we are demanding the funds in their account, the account of basic human rights. And that is why we fight with them.

We fight with them because fighting with them is fighting for society.

Fighting with them is fighting for the creed of our constitution, though not crafted with many of us in mind; we are all nonetheless entitled to its promises.

We fight with them because fighting with them is fighting for Love, the foundation of humanity, without which we cannot stand.

So tonight I hope we can all revel in the power of love and the work it inspires us to do! We must remember that gender and racial justice do not belong to one side of the aisle; instead it should be the aisle, the area of space that we share and have in common because love does not have a political party. Love is what transcribed the document that consummated the marriage of this country’s union. All men are created equal. Those are our vows to each other. We must continuously strive to live by those vows. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said to, “Stick with love, because hate is too great a burden to bear.”

So tonight I ask you all to do two very important things:

  1. Stick with love, because it is the path to justice, and
  2. Walk this path, with this organization, this country, and most importantly humanity.

More than 500 supporters gathered at the Shriver Center’s 2016 annual benefit to celebrate the impact we’ve had on policies that create better opportunities for people living in poverty. We were proud to honor John G. Levi and Martha Minow with the Sargent Shriver Equal Justice Award for their outstanding contributions to social justice. Watch our video to learn more about our work and how you can join us in the movement to create a just society. 




A Remedy for Workers in Chicago: Paid Sick Leave Ordinance Heads to City Council

Workers who are sick should stay home from work. And if their children are sick, they should keep them home from school. Workers should not have to choose between their paycheck and their own health or that of a family member. Unfortunately, 42% of the private workforce in Chicago — just over 460,000 workers — are unable to access a single paid sick day, and are forced to make these impossible decisions.

Lack of access to paid sick time is an epidemic plaguing workers throughout the entire labor market, but it’s most prevalent among those paid low wages — those least able to afford missing out on even one day of pay. Nearly 8 in 10 workers in Chicago who earn less than $20,000 annually are unable to earn paid sick leave. For these workers, especially those supporting a family, a single sick day can be disastrous. Take low-income working mothers: two thirds lose wages when they must care for a sick child, and nearly one in five have lost a job due to sickness or caring for a family member.

Limited access to paid sick leave doesn’t only undermine the well being of workers and their families; it’s also a public health liability and a drag on the economy.

Paid sick days are especially uncommon in occupations that require frequent engagement with the public. Over 3 in 4 of the workers preparing food in Chicago, for example, lack access to paid sick days. No one wants to work while sick, but these workers have no other choice — and are forced to expose other workers and consumers to potential illness as a result. The consequences can be widespread: a study published in the American Journal of Public Health (AMJPH) found that lack of paid sick days contributed to an additional 5 million cases of influenza-like illness in the United States during the flu pandemic of 2009.

Businesses aren’t immune to the consequences of a no earned sick time policy, either. When workers show up to work sick, they often aren’t able to operate at full productivity. This phenomenon — known as “presenteesim” — costs American businesses $160 billion annually.

Recognizing the threats posed to the City of Chicago by limited access to paid sick leave, Aldermen Proco Jo Moreno, Toni Foulkes, and Ameya Pawar have offered up a remedy — an ordinance that would bring paid sick leave to all workers in Chicago. The ordinance would allow employees to earn one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked, up to 5 full work days in a 12-month period. Workers would also be able to carry half of any unused sick time — up to 20 hours — into a subsequent year. The ordinance applies to business of all sizes and to employees who have worked for an employer for 80 hours within any 120-day period.

Chicago residents, like Aldermen Moreno, Foulkes, and Pawar, have also recognized the importance of bringing paid sick days to all the city’s workers. In a non-binding referendum in 2015, 82% of Chicagoans who cast ballots voted in favor of allowing all employees to earn paid sick time.

If the voices of Chicagoans are heard and the ordinance is passed by the City Council, Chicago will join more than 20 other cities and 5 states that are benefiting from paid sick leave. After instituting its groundbreaking paid sick leave ordinance in 2007, San Francisco, for example, saw increases in job and business growth compared to 5 neighboring counties. In a survey conducted 3 years following implementation, over half of all workers in San Francisco reported experiencing benefits, and two thirds of employers expressed support for the ordinance.

Everyone gets sick, and it’s a universally unpleasant experience. But falling ill shouldn’t derail one’s financial stability. A family shouldn’t lose food off the table because of a head cold; a working mother shouldn’t lose her job because her child caught the flu. Alderman Pawar has referred to paid sick leave as “just a baseline of decency.” We agree. The Chicago City Council should pass the paid sick leave ordinance. It’s good for workers. It’s good for business. It’s good for Chicago.

The ordinance is expected to be voted on by the Chicago City Council on Wednesday, June 22. Please contact your Alderman today and urge him or her to support the paid sick leave ordinance

Update: VICTORY! On Wednesday, June 22, 2016, the paid sick leave ordinance passed the Chicago City Council by a 48 to 0 vote. Beginning on July 1, 2017, nearly all workers in Chicago will earn up to five sick days per year — including the over 460,000 workers who previously lacked access. Chicago joins the over two-dozen cities with paid sick leave policies.

The Shriver Center wants to thank the coalition of workers, advocates, organizers, and labor and community groups that made this landmark victory possible. Thanks also to Aldermen Proco Jo Moreno, Toni Foulkes, and Ameya Pawar for their leadership on this issue.

More Americans Live on Less

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog.


State Policymakers Battle over Doctrine While Real People Suffer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Reason to Celebrate Tax Day

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

Well, kind of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog.


Let's Resolve to End Food Insecurity

How are your New Year’s resolutions coming? For many of us, the New Year brings a renewed commitment to making healthy choices, particularly when it comes to the food we prepare for ourselves and our families. 

Child eatingFor the 48 million Americans who struggle with food insecurity, however, January is not a month for diet books and juicing. Instead, it’s another month to worry about how their family will get its next meal. Despite the economic recovery, one in seven American households, and one in five households with children, lacks consistent access to adequate, nutritious food. With limited budgets, low-income families are faced with the daily stress of making decisions between spending money on food or other essentials, like utilities, transportation, medical care, housing, child care, and education. In the face of these choices, many families  adopt coping mechanisms, the most common of which is purchasing inexpensive, unhealthy food.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), the largest federally funded nutrition program, provides monthly benefits to low-income Americans to supplement their food budgets. Money from SNAP can be spent at authorized retailers, and some farmers markets, on foods that recipients prepare and eat at home. SNAP recipients nationally spend over 85% of benefits on fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, meat and meat alternatives. Beneficiaries also increase the amount of money they spend on groceries each month, instead of simply replacing their food budget with SNAP dollars. By supplementing, not replacing, grocery budgets and allowing for the purchase of more nutritious food, SNAP reduces food insecurity in low-income households.

In addition to helping a family afford healthier food, SNAP promotes long-term health and stability. Children who receive nutrition supports are healthier across a variety of measures and more likely to finish high school. A report recently released by the White House Council of Economic Advisers details the long-term benefits of this program. Mothers who received support during pregnancy had fewer low birth-weight babies. Adults who received support when they were children have lower obesity rates and metabolic syndrome and are more likely to have completed high school. And women who are helped by SNAP show significant improvements in overall health and economic self-sufficiency.

On January 1 of this year, Illinois made a commitment to keep working Illinoisans and their families healthy by expanding SNAP eligibility for low-income households with high expenses. This change to eligibility, specifically increasing the gross income limit from 130% to 165% of the federal poverty level, means that a family of three with up to $33,149 in annual income may now qualify for SNAP (depending on their expenses). The previous cutoff for a family of three was $26,117.

This expansion in eligibility for SNAP is the result of an advocacy campaign led by the Shriver Center and Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights. The legislation enacting this change, Senate Bill 1847, was sponsored by Senator Daniel Biss and Representative Robyn Gabel.

An estimated 40,000 households and 80,000 people in Illinois will become eligible for SNAP, and more than 80% of the benefits will go to households that include children. Moreover, the state economy will benefit from up to $60 million in additional, 100% federally funded SNAP benefits that will be spent in our communities. Long-term, this change will keep Illinois families healthy and support children in school.

As we resolve to form healthy habits for ourselves this year, let’s also support programs like SNAP, which help over 2 million Illinoisans make nutritious choices. Everyone in Illinois deserves a healthy 2016 and, for many, access to SNAP and other public benefits offer critical support to make this happen.

MacKenzie Speer contributed to this blog post. 

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.


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.  

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. 

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.

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.

Lessons from the past, planning for the future

A Timeline of Legal ServicesFor over 100 years, visionary lawyers and other leaders have struggled to establish a comprehensive system to deliver some measure of equal justice to all Americans. Throughout this history, those leaders have argued that access to civil legal aid is essential to democracy. As Reginald Heber Smith put it in his seminal 1919 treatise, Justice and the Poor, without equal access to the law, “the system not only robs the poor of their only protection, but it places in the hands of their oppressors the most powerful and ruthless weapon ever invented." 

From humble beginnings in New York in the late 19th century, to a federal program in the 1960s initiated by Sargent Shriver under the auspices of the Office of Economic Opportunity, to establishment of the Legal Services Corporation in the 1970s, civil legal services gained a foothold as an important priority and grew. As evidence of the success of the strategy, civil legal services encountered retrenchment and battles for survival in the 1980s and 1990s.  Programs were forced to adapt their delivery models and develop new funding sources.

The history of the civil legal aid movement is outlined in a recently published Clearinghouse Article by Victor Geminiani, which reviews Earl Johnson Jr.’s three-volume treatise, To Establish Justice for All: The Past and Future of Civil Legal Aid in the United States. Noting the debt we owe the leaders who came before us, Geminiani urges the importance of pursuing systemic advocacy as an important part of delivering equal justice for low-income clients. Although “systemic advocacy is usually the fault line for most political and public support” for legal services, Geminiani argues it is essential for us to use the law to attack basic barriers to fair and equal treatment from governmental institutions and people in power.

As the political environment has evolved, policy development at the state level has taken on more importance for low-income clients and communities. In implementing even the most aggressively “national” federal initiatives, states and localities make dozens of choices involving funding, program design, staffing, and evaluation. Moreover, many important issues affecting people living in poverty, like criminal justice, jobs and workplace issues, domestic or community violence, and most aspects of public education, involve little or no role for the national government.

In recognition of this, the Shriver Center has recently organized the Legal Impact Network, a group of state-based and state-focused law and policy organizations. These organizations are dedicated to working with and for people in poverty and community-based leaders to provide the professional services needed for them to have an effective voice in these state and local policy debates. The organizations have the subject matter and procedural expertise, policy knowledge, and legal skills to identify and evaluate the state policy choices, engage in litigation where necessary, educate allies and the general public, and otherwise drive important systems change. The Legal Impact Network is exploring ways for this work to be more effective and productive when co-strategized and coordinated across multiple states. The Legal Impact Network currently includes organizations from 29 states, which have 37 million of the 49 million Americans living in poverty.  

Geminiani effectively summarizes Earl Johnson’s important history of civil legal services, including the substantial accomplishments of legal services advocates and their clients in the past century. He makes a compelling argument for the continuing expansion and improvement of all aspects of this mission, but especially that advocates should continue to pursue systemic advocacy on behalf of low-income clients and build networks, like the Legal Impact Network, to support that work. 

View a full size version of the timeline here.


Illinois Must Continue to Provide Vital Benefits, Regardless of Failure to Pass State Budget

As Illinois’s budget impasse continues, the failure of Governor Rauner and the state legislature to pass a fair, adequate, and fully funded budget is beginning to have an impact. Late last week, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit seeking to clarify what payments the state can and cannot make in the absence of a state budget. At issue, among other things, is the state comptroller’s authority to continue to pay state workers.

Importantly, the state also has an obligation to millions of low-income Illinoisans who are recipients of public benefits or beneficiaries of health care coverage. Earlier in June, the Shriver Center formally reminded state officials of their obligations under existing consent decrees to continue to provide these important services. The agreed order entered yesterday by the court in People v. Munger authorizes and requires the comptroller to continue to provide cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled programs, medical assistance, and child care assistance regardless of the lack of a state budget.

Millions of Illinois residents who would suffer needlessly by losing their income and health care coverage due to the lack of an operational state budget can feel secure tonight that their benefits will continue uninterrupted. Now it’s time for the governor and the state legislature to work together toward a budget that serves all of Illinois and includes the sustainable revenue needed to fund the programs that families need.


Workers Tell the Illinois Senate That They Need a Raise in the Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Days

At a subject matter hearing last week before the Illinois Senate, workers and advocates spoke about the great need for an increase in the state minimum wage (currently at $8.25 an hour) and access to paid sick days. Minimum wage worker Gloria Davis gave an account of the difficulties she faces subsisting on such a low wage, and home care worker Gail Hamilton spoke of her need for paid sick days, mainly so as not to put her clients at risk if she is ill. Restaurant owner Mark Forinash told Senators that paying his workers far above the minimum wage and providing access to benefits increases worker productivity and is a determining factor in the success of his business.

Opponents, including a business owner, a spokesperson from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, and representatives from the Illinois and Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, argued that these reforms would be serious job killers that would cause a reduction in employee hours and benefits and ultimately business closures.

While these are certainly not new refrains, they have gained traction among opponents despite their inaccuracies. In 2013 the Center for Economic and Policy Research concluded that increases in the minimum wage often have little to no impact on employment levels for low-wage workers. Generally, employers are able to shift or cut costs without dismissing employees, and they often see cost savings through reduced turnover and increased productivity. Moreover, the small increase in costs resulting from a raise in the minimum wage typically represents a modest portion of expenses for businesses. Municipal-level projections echo this conclusion. San Francisco recently voted to raise its minimum wage to $15 by 2018, and a study conducted by University of California, Berkeley projected increases in operating costs to be only 0.2% for retailers and 3.0% for restaurants.  

Paid sick days

Paid sick days can also lead to reduced turnover and increased productivity. It is estimated that the decreased productivity when employees work while sick costs the national economy $160 billion each year. While the opponents testifying before the Illinois Senate claimed that paid sick days will surely lead to job loss, evidence from Connecticut, the first state to enact paid sick days, suggests otherwise. Since the law’s implementation, few employers in Connecticut have made reductions in employee hours and the industry most affected by the law—leisure and hospitality—has actually seen job growth in recent years.

The fate of an increase in the state minimum wage and enactment of paid sick days is unclear. The Shriver Center and its coalition partners remain hopeful that a paid sick days bill will pass the Illinois General Assembly this year along with a minimum wage increase to $11 (phased in over three years) with no strings attached--no language that would prevent local governments from enacting their own minimum wage laws, as Chicago has done, or providing tax credits to businesses that pay low wages, which incentivizes paying low wages and could devastate Illinois’s already precarious budget situation.


Chicago Gets a Raise

Chicago is a city with a proud working class tradition. Carl Sandberg called it the “stormy, husky, brawling City of Big Shoulders.” Yet, in recent years the hard work of many low-wage Chicagoans has failed to support them. Although the cost of living has increased and the supply of affordable housing has dropped, the minimum wage has remained static.

That’s about to change. The City of Chicago Minimum Wage Ordinance will raise the minimum wage from $8.25/hour to $10/hour starting on July 1st. This will affect more than 200,000 workers and their families. With this ordinance, Chicago joins a number of cities across the country that, in the face of federal inaction, have raised their minimum wages.

Minimum wage infographic

Chicago’s minimum wage will continue to increase incrementally on every July 1st until 2019, when it will reach $13/hour. After 2020, it will be annually indexed to the Consumer Price Index. Ultimately, this will raise the wages of approximately 410,000 Chicagoans (nearly 31% of the city’s work force) and lift 70,000 people out of poverty.

Tipped workers are not left out of the equation. Their wages will increase from the current rate of $4.95 to $5.45 on July 1, and then be annually adjusted. And, notably, the ordinance covers domestic workers, a group that has historically not been afforded employment protections like workers in other industries.

The Shriver Center continues its advocacy work to raise the minimum wage at the state level. Illinois’s current minimum wage of $8.25 an hour is unlivable, and 110,000 full-time Illinois workers and their families live in poverty. No one who works for a living should live in poverty. 

Moving forward, Chicago’s minimum raise increase will offer many low-wage workers a real chance to secure economic opportunity and upward mobility. Now, Chicago’s minimum wage workers will be able to take some of the weight off of their “Big Shoulders.”


An Invisible Hand: Engaging People on Poverty Through Art

An Invisible HandWhy are Americans ambivalent about poverty? One out of six of us, including one out of three African Americans (and only slightly fewer Hispanics), and over one out of five children, is poor. In recent years, vast numbers who thought themselves safely in the middle class stared poverty in the face, losing jobs, homes, life savings, and peace of mind. And growing numbers are born into poverty, economic isolation, and racial and ethnic disadvantage. Most Americans encounter poverty every day, on their commute or at their work, or within their own families or relationships. Yet we fail to take action to fight it.

Our apparent ambivalence consists of, on the one hand, a continuing sense of generosity and concern about people in need and, on the other hand, a tendency to depersonalize and blame people for their own poverty. We embrace of the concepts of “fairness” and equal opportunity, but we are also reluctant to address the problems of poverty head-on through public policy. To some extent this is a symptom of the major ideological dichotomy in American life in our times—the vastly oversimplified argument over “personal responsibility” versus “community”—and what that means for the role of government in solving problems. This ideological confrontation has led to gridlock in American political life. It has hampered pragmatic problem-solving.

We must put the ideologies aside and focus on the realities around us. Art can help us do that. It can show us who people living in poverty are and what their surroundings are like. It can show us their personal, family, and community challenges, as well as their remarkable persistence and courage in trying to deal with these obstacles. It can show us individuals as well as trends.

Socially engaged art can also illustrate policies that help as well as policies that need improvement. By literally and metaphorically showing us truths about the nature of poverty and people who live in it, art can help us understand that this is no region for ideological over-simplification and stereotyping, either of people or of policy solutions. It is a region for pragmatic problem-solving and constant effort.

That’s why I’m grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with David Weinberg Photography on their current exhibition, An Invisible Hand. Through the images and sounds presented in this exhibition, visitors can begin to learn more about the diverse experiences of the 48 million Americans living in poverty.

Poverty is as multi-faceted as people and communities are. That should not be intimidating. If poverty’s causes are diverse and complex in each person’s case, so are the factors that can help them escape it. That’s why the Shriver Center works across multiple issue areas. We tackle the many interrelated issues that affect poverty and focus on laws and policies that will make systemic change. Often one increment of fairness or opportunity is enough to tip the scales in a positive direction.

We hope that you will join us in furthering the conversation about poverty at An Invisible Hand. Winning the fight against poverty depends on public understanding and concern. We should end our ambivalence and get focused on solving the problem of poverty.

Progress Against Poverty: Shriver Center Advocates Win Legislative Victories in the Illinois General Assembly

The scheduled Illinois legislative session ended on May 31, but a special session will continue into at least June due to budget-related matters. We, however, want to pause and thank the bill sponsors listed below for their efforts to support and protect the interests of individuals and families with low-incomes. 

We also want to thank all the supporters of the Shriver Center's work. Your phone calls to legislators and electronic filing of support during hearing made a difference! If you have not already, please sign up to receive legislative action alerts and updates from the Shriver Center.

Community Justice

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

Eliminating the Lifetime Bar to Employment in Schools. HB 494, which has been passed by both chambers and awaits the governor’s signature, ensures that individuals with old convictions for drugs or offenses attendant to human-trafficking and homelessness will no longer be denied the opportunity to work or volunteer in schools. Instead, local schools will be given the discretion to consider applicants with these records seven years after they complete their sentences. Advocacy for this bill was led by individuals with records along with the Shriver Center and a diverse coalition of community members, social service organizations, and advocacy organizations. The bill was sponsored by Representative Kelly Cassidy and Senator Patricia Van Pelt.

Reducing Waiting Periods for Sealing of Convictions. HB 3149, sponsored by Representative John Cabello and Senator Terry Link, passed out of the General Assembly with true bipartisan support. The bill promotes self-sufficiency and rewards motivated, hard-working men and women who have turned their lives around and sought higher education by allowing them to ask the courts to limit who can look at their old record (process called “sealing”) prior to the required four-year waiting period.

Expanding Eligibility to Certificate of Good Conduct. HB 3475which was crafted and advocated for by the Shriver Center, will allow individuals with felony convictions involving violence to become eligible to petition for Certificates of Good Conduct (a certificate awarded to individuals that can prove they are rehabilitated, law-abiding citizens which will aid in gaining employment). This enables individuals to gain access to employment, occupational licenses, and other opportunities following completion of their sentences. This bill was sponsored by Representative Rita Mayfield and Senator Kimberly Lightford.

Increasing Much Needed Access to the Sealing of Criminal Records. SB 844 allows individuals with old convictions to petition to limit who can look at their criminal records two years after completing their supervision (making this uniform, as some supervisions required a significantly longer waiting period) or three years after completing the sentence for their conviction (versus four years). The Shriver Center drafted, worked to introduce, and advocated for the passage of a bill that would allow people to access record sealing sooner than currently allowed by law. The bill was sponsored Representative Esther Golar and Senator James Claybourne. 

Economic Justice

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

Defending critical public benefits. The Shriver Center and its coalition partners successfully blocked all of the legislative proposals this session that would have decreased access to critical public benefits and/or stigmatized or dehumanized their recipients. These included bills that would have (1) mandated that all applicants for and recipients of public benefits pass a drug test, (2) required a photograph on the electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card used by recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) to redeem their benefits, and (3) limited SNAP recipients’ food choices.

Expanding SNAP Eligibility to Include Working Families with High Living Expenses. The Shriver Center and Heartland Alliance led the successful advocacy effort to pass SB 1847, which expands eligibility for SNAP benefits to 40,000 low-income working families in Illinois. These families will receive, on average, $125 per month in SNAP benefits to supplement their food budgets. SNAP benefits are 100% federally funded—SB 1847 will inject $60 million in federal funds into Illinois’s economy at no cost to the state. SB 1847 passed the Senate, passed the House with strong bipartisan support, and moves to the governor’s desk for his signature. The bill was sponsored by Senator Daniel Biss and Representative Robyn Gabel. 

Health Care Justice

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

Defending Against Medicaid Cuts. The General Assembly rejected massive cuts (over $1.5 billion) to Illinois health care programs that Governor Rauner sought in his proposed fiscal year 2016 budget. Instead, the House and Senate passed budgets for the relevant state departments that that leave intact current eligibility standards and categories of covered health care services while making modest reductions (2.25%) in provider rates. The public had responded strongly in opposition to the proposed cuts. Thousands of people called or emailed their representatives and senators, and thousands more went to Springfield to rally against cuts and speak in person with legislators. Many people movingly described the harm the proposed cuts would do to them or their family members at hearings in Springfield and Chicago. 

The struggle for funding for needed services is not over, however. Governor Rauner is threatening to veto the budgets passed by the General Assembly. We urge the Governor to join with the General Assembly to enact laws securing the revenue needed to cover the budgeted services.  

Improving Recordkeeping on Medicaid Enrollment. The Medicaid Managed Care Transparency Act, HB 2731, requires the state Medicaid agency and Medicaid Managed Care companies to report monthly, on the Medicaid agency website, information on Medicaid enrollment, HMO enrollment, language preferences of Medicaid applicants and beneficiaries, and data on successful and unsuccessful Medicaid reenrollments. The information in these reports will help advocates identify glitches in the enrollment and reenrollment process that are causing denials and terminations of eligible people. HB 2731 passed unanimously and will be sent to the governor's desk for his signature.

Housing Justice

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

Protecting Survivors of Domestic Violence. SB 1547, sponsored by Senator Toi Hutchinson and Representative Anthony DeLuca, protects survivors of violence and persons with disabilities who need police assistance. Its passage will ensure that no more survivors of domestic violence or people with disabilities are harmed through the enforcement of flawed local ordinances. With the support of over 80 organizations throughout the state, and bipartisan support in both the Senate and House, the bill unanimously passed both chambers and will be sent to the governor. The ongoing efforts of both advocates and community members have been critical in ensuring that this bill passed the General Assembly and will ultimately become law in Illinois.

Women's Law and Policy

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

Granting Employment Protections to Domestic Workers. Domestic workers play a critical role in the Illinois economy, working to ensure the health and prosperity of Illinois families and freeing others to participate in the workforce. Despite this, domestic workers have historically been excluded from state law protections extended to workers in other industries. The Shriver Center’s WLPP is leading the effort of the Domestic Workers’ Coalition to secure passage of HB 1288, the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. The legislation grants domestic workers basic employment protections, such as the right to the state’s minimum wage, the right to be free from sexual harassment, and the right to one day of rest in a workweek. The bill’s sponsors are Representative Elizabeth Hernandez and Senator Ira Silverstein. HB 1288 passed the House on May 29th with a veto-proof majority. The bill is currently pending in the Senate. The Senate will act on the bill when it reconvenes on June 9th.  

Increasing the State’s Minimum Wage. The current minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 an hour—about $17,000 a year. Inaction at the federal and state level has allowed the minimum wage to erode over time. Had the minimum wage kept pace with inflation, it would be $10.90 today. This year, the WLPP and its allies continue to advocate for a raise in the state’s minimum wage, phased in to $11 an hour. Currently, no minimum wage bills are moving in the Illinois House or the Senate. However we expect an increase in the minimum wage to be part of the negotiations on the budget and other topics between the House and Senate Democrats and Governor Rauner.

Paid Sick Days for All Workers. Forty-three percent of private sector workers in Illinois (over 2.5 million) have no right to a single paid sick day. Workers can be fired for missing work if they are sick or caring for their sick child or elderly parent. The WLPP is working with the Illinois Earned Sick Time Coalition to pass legislation that gives all workers in Illinois access to paid sick days. The legislation introduced in the Illinois General Assembly allows employees to earn up to seven paid sick days (or 56 hours) per year. Senator Toi Hutchinson is the Senate sponsor, and Representative Christian Mitchell is the House sponsor. Unfortunately, neither bill passed out of committee. However, we are hopeful that paid sick days will be included as part of the negotiations on the budget and other topics between the House and Senate Democrats and Governor Rauner.


Spring Legislative Session Update

It’s the midpoint of Illinois Governor Rauner’s first legislative session, and the Shriver Center is hard at work in Springfield. Shriver Center advocates are pursuing legislation that will advance the interests of low- and middle-income Illinoisans. Amidst budget cuts to key programs, our advocates work to maintain and expand access to these programs, preserve and defend housing and employment opportunities, and forestall measures that would inhibit progress the state has made.

Below is an update on some of the legislative initiatives the Shriver Center is pursuing. Please join us in supporting the passage of these bills.

Community Justice

Lifetime bar bill. HB 494 removes lifetime bars to employment in schools for individuals with old drug, prostitution, and public indecency convictions so schools have the freedom to hire applicants with old convictions if the school deems it appropriate. The bill passed out of the Elementary & Secondary Education: School Curriculum and Policies Committee with an amendment that includes special provisions for certain narcotics offenses. It is now on the House floor waiting for a vote.

Admonishment bill. HB 2569 updates the admonishment instructions given to defendants so that defendants are properly educated on the consequences of pleading guilty to a crime. Specifically, the bill requires that defendants be informed that a conviction will impact their ability to retain or obtain housing in the public or private market; acquire loans for educational or other purposes; enroll in certain degree programs; retain or obtain employment; retain or obtain an occupational or driver's license; possess a firearm; and retain or obtain custody of a child. The bill passed out of the House unanimously and is now in the Senate awaiting committee assignment with Senator Terry Link as Chief Sponsor. 

Sealing of convictions. HB 3149 allows people who earn a vocational certification, GED, high school diploma, or some other degree to petition to have their eligible convictions sealed prior to the statutorily required four-year waiting period. The bill passed unanimously out of the Judiciary-Criminal Committee and passed out of the House with an overwhelming majority. The bill does have strong bipartisan support, and advocates are optimistic about its passage.

Health care background check. HB 3212 removes lifetime bars in the health care sector by amending the Health Care Workers Background Check Act. It replaces language prohibiting a health care employer from hiring, employing, or retaining any individual in a position with duties involving direct care for clients if the individual is convicted of committing specified offenses with language providing these employers with more discretion in hiring. The bill failed to be voted on by the Health Care Licenses Committee prior to the March deadline, and it has now been re-referred to the Rules Committee. 

Fair Sentencing Act. HB 3322 allows people to petition the courts to be resentenced if the penalty for the offense they were convicted of is modified by the Illinois General Assembly in some way so that their sentence will be consistent with what is current law. The bill passed out of the Judiciary-Criminal Committee with a close vote of 9 for and 6 against. It is now on the House floor awaiting a vote from the full chamber. 

Certificate of Good Conduct. HB 3475 expands eligibility for Certificates of Good Conduct to include people who have committed non-sex-related forcible felonies. This allows people who have made grave mistakes to have at least one avenue beyond clemency to demonstrate they have turned their lives around so they can better care for themselves and their children. The bill passed unanimously out of the Judiciary-Criminal Committee and passed out of the House with an overwhelming majority.

Sealing Criminal Records. HB 4021 shortens the waiting period to petition for sealing so people who have gone three years without committing a crime after completing their sentences have a chance to petition for sealing. The bill passed unanimously out of the Judiciary-Criminal Committee and is now on the House floor awaiting a vote from the full chamber.

Budget and Tax Justice

Ensuring adequate revenue to meet needs. The Shriver Center is a leader of the Responsible Budget Coalition (RBC), a large and diverse coalition of about 200 organizations working to secure adequate revenue to support state priorities and make smart investments. The RBC has established a profile as a leading opponent of Governor Rauner’s proposed cuts to vital services and has been working closely with Senate and House staff on hearings into the budget. The Shriver Center’s Budget and Tax Justice Unit continues to work through the 2015 session to ensure that critical programs that serve low-income people throughout the state are sustained.

Economic Justice

Defending critical public benefits. The Shriver Center, working with other advocates, successfully defeated all of the legislative proposals this session that would have decreased access to critical public benefits and/or stigmatized or dehumanized their recipients. These included bills that would have (1) mandated that all applicants for and recipients of public benefits pass a drug test, (2) required a photograph on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) EBT card recipients use to redeem their benefits, and (3) limited SNAP recipients’ food choices. 

Making working families with high living expenses eligible for SNAP benefits. SB 1847 expands eligibility for SNAP benefits to 40,000 working families in Illinois. These families would receive an average of $125 per month in SNAP benefits. SNAP benefits are 100% federally funded, and this expansion would bring $60 million into the state. SB 1847 has cleared the Senate Human Services Committee and will be taken up by the full Senate in the next two weeks.

Health Care Justice

Medicaid cuts. Shriver Center advocates along with allies across the state are working to stop the massive cuts to health care Illinois Governor Rauner proposed in his fiscal year 2016 budget (starting July 1, 2015). The governor wants to cut $1.5 billion from the Medicaid budget by eliminating care for whole classes of people, eliminating services such as adult dental, limiting access to therapies, and reducing payment rates to providers. His proposals ignore key facts about the Medicaid program; Illinois providers are among the lowest paid in the nation, and the Medicaid program's costs per beneficiary are also among the lowest in the nation. Moreover, these proposals, if enacted, would unravel progress in improving quality, outcomes, and costs made in the last several years. Shriver Center advocates work at General Assembly Appropriations hearings and through the media to inform the public about the painful impact of the proposed cuts on vulnerable people and the likelihood that, in the long run, these cuts will result in sicker people who need more expensive care.    

The Shriver Center is working with allies for the passage of
SB 1729 and HB 2731, identical bills requiring the state Medicaid agency to make available Medicaid enrollment and renewal data and data related to the quality in Medicaid managed care plans.

The Shriver Center is also working for passage of HR 253, a resolution stating that General Assembly members do not support changes to the Medicaid program that leave people without access to medically necessary care or erroneously result in eligible people being terminated from or denied Medicaid coverage.

Housing Justice

Protecting survivors of domestic violence. SB 1547, sponsored by Senator Toi Hutchinson, protects survivors of violence and persons with disabilities who need police assistance. Its passage will ensure that no more survivors of domestic violence or people with disabilities are harmed through the enforcement of flawed local ordinances. It passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in March and now has bipartisan support—over 20 co-sponsors in the Senate, and over 80 supporting organizations throughout the state. Because SB 1547 will require a two-thirds vote out of the Senate, it has a more difficult journey than most bills. For that reason, the ongoing efforts of both advocates and community members are critical in the coming weeks to ensure that this bill continues to move through the General Assembly and ultimately becomes law in Illinois. 

Women's Law and Policy

Granting employment protections to domestic workers. Domestic workers play a critical role in the Illinois economy, working to ensure the health and prosperity of Illinois families and freeing others to participate in the workforce. Despite this, domestic workers have historically been excluded from state law protections extended to other industries. The Shriver Center’s Women’s Law and Policy Project (WLPP), as part of the Domestic Workers’ Coalition, is advocating for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. This legislation grants domestic workers employment protections, such as the right to the state’s minimum wage, the right to be free from sexual harassment, and the right to one day of rest in a workweek. The bill’s sponsors are Representative Elizabeth Hernandez and Senator Ira Silverstein. Please note that the current bill number is likely to change in the next few weeks. 

Increasing the state’s minimum wage. The current minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 an hour—about $17,000 a year. Inaction at the federal and state level has allowed the minimum wage to erode over time. Had the minimum wage kept pace with inflation, it would be $10.90 today. This year, the WLPP and its allies continue to advocate for a raise in the state’s minimum wage, phased in to $11 an hour. Currently, there are bills in both the Senate and the House, but the current bill numbers are likely to change in the next few weeks.

Paid sick days for all workers. Forty-three percent of private sector workers in Illinois (over 2.5 million) have no right to a single paid sick day. Workers can be fired for missing work if they are sick or caring for their sick child or elderly parent. The WLPP is working with the Illinois Earned Sick Time Coalition to pass legislation that gives all workers in Illinois access to paid sick days. The legislation introduced in the Illinois General Assembly allows employees to earn up to seven paid sick days (or 56 hours) per year. Senator Toi Hutchinson is the Senate sponsor, and Representative Christian Mitchell is the House sponsor. Please note that the bill numbers are likely to change in the next few weeks. 

Rachel Hanley contributed significantly to this blog post. 



Congress Has a Key Role to Play in Fighting Poverty But Has Done Too Little

Poverty Scorecard 2014It’s been five years since the official end of the Great Recession and we are seeing some signs of economic recovery. The U.S. gross domestic product grew 2.6% in 2014, the best full year increase since 2010, while gains in the stock market and corporate profits have surpassed their pre-recession levels.

Unfortunately, this growth hasn’t benefitted the vast majority of Americans. Forty-five million Americans continue to live in poverty, and millions more are only one paycheck away from joining them. Real hourly wages fell or stagnated for workers at almost all wage levels, with women and people of color continuing to receive much lower pay than men and whites. Insufficient job growth and growing reliance on low-wage work, in combination with increased costs of living for everything from health care to housing, keep low-income Americans trapped without opportunities for upward mobility.

The good news? We can do something about this if our government adopts the right policies. Poverty is a problem with multiple dimensions and solutions, and we can attack it on many fronts. We know what policy decisions are needed to sustain the economic recovery and help low-income people achieve a better life for themselves and their families.

And we know that they work. Laws passed by Congress, and even bills that are proposed but do not become law, have a profound impact on people living in poverty, for better or for worse. Last year Congress took action on three of the nation’s most important anti-poverty initiatives—the SupplementalNutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps), which helped 46 million Americans put healthy food on their tables; the Section 8 housing program, which provided housing subsidies for 5 million Americans; and the Affordable Care Act, which reduced the number of uninsured Americans by 12 million people. We know from experience that these programs can greatly alleviate the effects of poverty, just as they have done in decades past.  

Every year, the Shriver Center documents and ranks the votes of every U.S. Senator and Representative on the most important poverty-related bills from that legislative session. This year, in consultation with a group of 20 experts on poverty-related topics, we chose the 7 votes in the Senate and the 18 votes in the House that had a significant effect on poor people. While the votes in 2014 covered a wide range of subject areas important to low-income people, the most significant poverty-related votes were in the areas of employment, health care, and housing.

In their biggest strides to reduce poverty, members of the House and Senate worked together across party lines to reauthorize two important programs, workforce development and child care, making them significantly more responsive to the needs of millions of low-income people. In the same year, however, Congress, especially the House, attempted to advance legislation attacking anti-discrimination laws, key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, immigrant youth, and consumer protections. Legislators also obstructed bills to improve equal pay for women, raise the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits, protect workers from wage theft, and improve college accessibility.

The Poverty Scorecard grades each member of Congress based on his or her votes on these bills. As in past years, 2014’s Poverty Scorecard shows that many states with the highest poverty rates have Congressional delegations with the worst voting records on poverty-related issues.  We can—and must—do more to ensure that Congress acts to advance justice and opportunity for low-income Americans.

When it comes to fighting poverty, we know what to do. And so does Congress. Read the Poverty Scorecard, learn about the relevant bills that were proposed last year, and see how your Senators and Representative voted. If they are not living up to what you know they can do, hold them accountable. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Shriver Center's 2015 Illinois Legislative Agenda

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

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

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

Community Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budget and Tax Justice

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

Economic Justice

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

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

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

Health Care Justice

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

Housing Justice

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

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

Women's Law and Policy

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Life, Liberty, or Ferguson

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Improving police hiring and training by:

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

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

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

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

2. Improving police accountability by: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Marching Forward in the Face of Ferguson

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

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

What you can do to make a difference? 

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

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

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.



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.


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.

Why Ryan's New Anti-Poverty Plan Is Another Missed Opportunity

On the surface, Rep. Paul Ryan may seem to be an advocate for those in poverty. His policy proposals, however, would undermine anti-poverty efforts by systematically weakening successful safety net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) and rental housing vouchers. Previously, we did the math on how much his “Path to Prosperity” FY 2015 budget resolution would damage the safety net and hurt those in poverty. Ryan’s new proposal for anti-poverty reform, introduced recently at the American Enterprise Institute, is in effect more of the same.

Ryan calls his plan, Expanding Economic Opportunity in America, a “discussion draft.” On that point, we agree. Ryan does need to have more discussions—with poor people. This newest plan is just a repackaging of ideas we’ve already seen.

The cornerstone of the proposal is the Orwellian-named “Opportunity Grant,” which would consolidate 11 existing benefit assistance programs, including SNAP, housing subsidies, cash welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF), and child care assistance, into a single block grant to states. States would choose whether to participate in the program and receive an Opportunity Grant, which would replace their current system of receiving funding under each individual program. States wishing to participate in this pilot program would have to submit a plan for approval by the federal government. Because the Ryan plan is deficit-neutral, the overall amount of federal funding would not change for participating states.

Under an Opportunity Grant, aid would be distributed to beneficiaries in a way that mirrors how the states would receive their funding: consolidated. Eligible individuals and families in those states would receive a “single payment” intended to cover multiple forms of aid. These Opportunity Grants would have to be administered by “at least two service providers” in each state—in addition to the state government offices, for-profits and non-profits could also be service providers. All of this is problematic for a number of reasons.                                             

According to Ryan, current federal programs “don’t see how people’s needs interact.” And yet, his proposal to consolidate these very different programs into a single, capped funding stream virtually guarantees that fewer individuals’ and families’ needs will be met and understood. Turning safety net programs into block grants with fixed levels of funding is one of the quickest ways to undermine the safety net’s effectiveness, as block grants by design are not responsive to economic changes. Although Ryan says a countercyclical element could eventually be incorporated into the block grant, it would not happen in the pilot stage. In addition, history shows that virtually every program that has been converted into a block grant has had its funding cut significantly in subsequent years.

The flat funding structure of a block grant also means its value depreciates over time. In the case of the Opportunity Grant, if a number of programs are combined and then the price of housing goes up, the amount allotted toward housing costs doesn’t necessarily follow that increase. In other words, the amount of funding is no longer tied to the real-world cost. This alone would greatly diminish both the reach and effectiveness of the Opportunity Grant. According to the Center for American Progress, “consolidating multiple programs into a single funding stream can reduce accountability for program outcomes and leave needed services vulnerable to later cuts.”

We’ve already seen how this played out with the cash assistance program. Since its transformation into TANF in 1996, the program’s funding has been flat. As a result, the real value of TANF has decreased by almostone-third. The program TANF replaced, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, used to reach nearly 70% of families with children living in poverty. Today, just 25%of families with children living in poverty receive assistance. The fact that Ryan repeatedly lauds this reform as an exemplary model does not bode well for the safety net under his new plan.

The Opportunity Grant would pose a special threat to SNAP and housing vouchers and other rental assistance programs, since they make up three-quarters of the funding being combined into the Opportunity Grant and would be most impacted by future cuts. These programs are our most effective anti-poverty tools, with SNAP currently lifting five million people out of poverty and rental assistance lifting three million people out of poverty.  

While states would be subject to few requirements in implementing Opportunity Grants, beneficiaries would have to comply with new, harsh standards. This includes extending work requirements for eligible recipients to every type of aid that would be consolidated within the Opportunity Grant. All recipients would also have to fill out what Ryan calls a “customized life plan” with their caseworkers that would actually amount to a binding contract punishable by the loss of assistance if broken. In addition, families and individuals would face time limits for how long they could receive any sort of assistance. Effectively, Ryan wants to add more barriers to accessing the programs that help people escape poverty.

Despite his professed concern with efficiency and holding down costs, Ryan has proposed a plan that would not only require additional funding to support, but would also create more administrative delays and roadblocks for people receiving assistance for even the most basic needs. For example, contrast the current operation of the SNAP program with how assistance would be distributed under the Ryan proposal. SNAP is currently one of the most efficient social services around. Administrative costs make up just 5% of the budget. In addition, SNAP can also be expedited—destitute families and individuals can receive benefits in just seven days. If every SNAP participant had to sit down with a caseworker and create a plan complete with benchmarks and employment requirements, as would be the case under Ryan’s proposal, the program’s ability to reach those in need quickly and efficiently would be dramatically impaired. Moreover, had Ryan listened more closely to those in poverty, he would have learned that the majority of SNAP participants are already working.  

One element in Ryan’s proposal we agree with is expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to childless adults aged 21 and over, and doubling the maximum credit and phase-in and -out rates. Currently, only adults aged 25 and older are eligible for this credit. Unfortunately, Ryan wants to pay for this by eliminating “a number of ineffective programs.” Ironically, one of those “ineffective programs” is the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), a program just like the Opportunity (Block) Grant. Before 1981, the SSBG was actually a number of separate social services, including child care, adoption, counseling, and employment services. Since the combination of these services into the SSBG, the block grant “has lost 77% of its value due to inflation, cuts, and funding freezes.” As a result, Ryan has called for the elimination of the program, saying it “is duplicative and does not have accountability.” And yet, Ryan is proposing the same plan with the Opportunity Grant.

If eliminating the SSBG and other services, including two nutrition programs (the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program), still isn’t enough of an offset, Ryan says he’ll then “eliminate corporate welfare.” Considering he just included major tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% and major corporations in his budget, we’re doubtful.

There’s nothing like missing the opportunity to give others more opportunities—and that’s exactly what Ryan did with this latest proposal. His tour around the country may have provided a valuable introduction to the extremely complex issues of poverty. But Ryan’s understanding of poverty is just that: rudimentary. A contract will not help people fight against the systemic causes of poverty. They are fighting already, with or without a contract. What they need—and what Ryan needs to understand—are policies that provide more true opportunities. No one says it better than Tianna Gaines-Turner, who testified at Ryan’s last Budget Committee hearing:

Families are [already] working. We don’t need to be placed in more work programs, we need our jobs to pay living wages, and to offer family-oriented policies like paid sick and paid family leave. This way, we can earn more, save money, and create our own safety net so that we never have to turn to the government for help again.

Ryan’s plan to combine all assistance programs into a single block grant with burdensome work and contract requirements would only limit those opportunities.

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

Utilizing Framing to Achieve Anti-Poverty Wins in an Age of Political Polarization

Recent research, surveyed in part one of this blog post, finds that Congress is more polarized than at any time since the end of reconstruction. These findings are evidenced by the Shriver Center’s recently published Poverty Scorecard, which graded 97% of the Senators and 95% of the Representatives at one extreme or the other. This polarization has led to partisan gridlock in Congress, which is especially detrimental to poor people, who have the most to lose under the status quo. Given these realities, what can be done to ensure access to justice and opportunity for all? Perhaps a more useful question is how can we work with, rather than against, this ideological divide in order to achieve political wins for our clients?

Using Moral Psychology to Understand the Roots of the Ideological Divide
As a first step it is important to understand the roots of the ideological and political divide. Jonathan Haidt, a moral/social psychologist, sheds much light on this in his recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, as well as in his earlier articles. Haidt explains that the first rule of moral psychology is “feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete.” This is why, more often than not, no number of good facts can turn political tides—our gut reaction dictates the facts and arguments we use to then rationalize that gut reaction.

The second rule of moral psychology, according to Haidt, is that “moral domains vary across cultures.” Haidt argues that his extensive research shows that morality has six major foundations, which different cultures emphasize or deemphasize to varying degrees. It turns out that Democrats utilize only three of the moral foundations, while Republicans utilize all six (granted to varying degrees). Morality is not just about caring for the vulnerable, liberty from oppression, and achieving fairness (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together through loyalty, supporting essential institutions through authoritative frameworks, and living in a sanctified and noble way (all six of which guide Republican ideology). Haidt challenges Democrats to appeal to the broad spectrum of moral foundations when campaigning and framing as a way to achieve wider buy-in.

Haidt’s final rule of moral psychology, is that “morality binds and blinds”—we are not sensitive to threats to other people’s moral systems, and they are not sensitive to threats to ours. However, if we make an effort to understand the threats to the opposite party’s moral system, there may be room for partnership. For example, Democrats and Republicans may be able to come together by acknowledging that one way to lay the foundation for healthier family partnerships (conservative goal rooted in authoritative institutions) is by improving educational outcomes for all Americans (liberal goal rooted in freedom from oppression and fairness).

Reframing as a Tool for Social Change
Haidt’s emphasis on looking to cognitive science and moral psychology to understand political ideology aligns nicely with Bill Kennedy’s 2010 Clearinghouse Review article on effective political messaging for social-change, Framing in Race Conscious Anti-Poverty Advocacy. Like Haidt, Kennedy explains that cognitive science dictates that the common ways people think about issues that affect our clients (poverty, homelessness, race, etc.) is not through facts, but through existing frames. Frames are sets of unconscious, internalized concepts and values that are “mapped into our brains by experience” and which help us to assign meaning to information and events.

Kennedy suggests, therefore, that as advocates we can and should use reframing techniques to achieve better outcomes for our clients. With reframing, we can “signal an appropriate shared value system that gives our audience permission to reach the conclusion we want them to reach.” Many of the reframing suggestions for racial justice in Kennedy’s article incorporate the moral foundations that Haidt critiques Democrats for underutilizing. For instance, “we are all one nation of shared fates” (group loyalty), and “fix the system to get fair outcomes” (fairness means proportional outcomes for the work you do).

Kennedy’s quick advice on good messaging for reframing includes:

  • Lead with solutions so the problem seems fixable.
  • Lead with values to activate a frame.
  • Never lead with facts.
  • Control the “we.” Define clients in a way that bolsters public identification with them, not in a way that reinforces “otherness” (i.e. don’t use "the poor," "vulnerable," "marginalized"; try "hard-working Americans" or "working class").
  • Do not argue against your opponent’s frame; reassert your own.

It is unclear when or how the rise of political polarization, and thus gridlock, will begin to dip in the direction that leads to better outcomes for our clients. In the meantime, advances in cognitive science and social psychology have improved our understanding of the origins of this divide. As anti-poverty advocates, we cannot afford to forgo the well-established tools of messaging and reframing to achieve shifts in attitudes toward our clients, and bring them into the “we.”  


Political Polarization Harms Poor People

Recently, the Shriver Center released the 2013 Poverty Scorecard, which measures how every member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives voted on the most significant poverty-related proposed legislation of 2013. Not surprisingly, the results revealed a deep polarization within Congress, with 97% of the Senators and 95% of the Representatives graded at one extreme or the other, receiving an A, D, or F. Only a small handful of moderates received a B or C.

Recent research by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal aggregated congressional roll call votes since 1879 and contextualized what is documented by the Poverty Scorecard. Pool and Rosenthal’s research shows that after decades of relatively little polarization, the congressional parties began pulling apart in the mid-1970s. Today Congress is more polarized than at any time since the end of reconstruction, with political ideology accounting for 93% of roll call voting choices in the 113th House and Senate.

This increase in polarization not only affects Congress. A recent Pew Research Center study reveals the American public has seen an increase in political party polarization and sorting in the past few decades as well. Looking at a survey of 10 dichotomous political values questions tracked since 1994, Pew found that the overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, from 10% to 21%. It is also clear that ideological thinking has a much stronger correlation with party affiliation than in the past; today, 92% of Republicans are ideologically to the right of the median Democrat (compared with 64% in 1994), and 94% of Democrats are ideologically to the left of the median Republican (compared with 70% in 1994).

Of course, the majority of Americans continue to choose some mix of liberal and conservative ideological preferences in the survey. What’s significant, however, is those who express ideologically consistent views are much more likely to participate in the political processtogether, Solid Liberals, Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives make up only 36% of the American public, but they represent 43% of registered voters and 57% of the more politically engaged. One can practically conclude that the higher political engagement of politically consistent voters leads to an increased ideological polarization of the officials they disproportionately elect.

It is impossible to conclude which came first—the polarization of Congress or of the wider public—but one thing is certain: these overlapping forms of polarization reinforce one another and ultimately lead to partisan gridlock. As we noted in our blog on the 2013 Poverty Scorecard, gridlock is especially detrimental to poor people, who have the most to lose under the status quo.

Low-income people also have a lot to lose within the current partisan divide because as long as ideological attitudes increasingly fall on partisan lines, attitudes about poverty, which are deeply ideological, will continue to fall on partisan lines as well. This point is reinforced by the second part of the Pew series on political polarization, which studies “political typology” by sorting people into eight cohesive political types (Steadfast Conservatives, Business Conservatives, Young Outsiders, Hard Pressed Skeptics, Next Generation Left, Faith and Family Left, and Solid Liberals) based on their responses to 23 dichotomous questionsThree of these questions addressed views on economic fairness, the safety net, and the poor. These are some notable findings:

  • The public is evenly split on whether they believe that government aid to the poor does more harm than good. But, when broken down, 86% of Steadfast Conservatives, 80% of Business Conservatives, and 86% of Young Outsiders said that government aid does more harm to the poor than good, while 91% of Solid Liberals said it did more good than harm.
  • Slightly more than half of all people surveyed said the government can’t afford to do more to help the needy; in contrast, over 85% of Steadfast Conservatives said that the Government can’t do more to help, while 83% of Steadfast Liberals said the Government should do more to help the needy.
  • The public is just about evenly split on attitudes about the poor, but there are deep ideological divides among typologies: 86% of Steadfast Conservatives say that the poor have it easy because they get government benefits without doing anything, while 86% of Solid Liberals say the poor have it hard because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.
  • Two-thirds of Americans continue to hold the belief that people can get ahead if they are willing and work hard, while a bit less than one-third agreed that hard work is no guarantee of success for most. The American myth that anyone can pull him or herself up by the bootstraps clearly continues to carry tremendous weight, obfuscating the power of social systems and structures, such as racism, classism, and sexism, to oppress and perpetuate poverty, and making it more difficult to achieve systemic solutions.

What can we learn from these findings? More importantly, in an age of congressional gridlock, clearly rooted in polarized beliefs in both Congress and the wider public, what can possibly be done to ensure access to opportunity and justice for all? Read Part II of this blog tomorrow to learn how advocates can utilize messaging and reframing to ensure access to justice and opportunity for low-income people in an age of political polarization.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Illinois Legislative Session Ends with Some Significant Gains for People Living in Poverty

Shriver Center advocates worked zealously this legislative session to achieve some tremendous reforms that will improve the lives of countless low- and moderate-income Illinoisans, as well as expand justice and opportunity for all of us. Some important pieces of legislation did not pass this session, so we will continue to fight through veto session this fall and into next year’s session. Thank you for your continued support and for contacting your legislators when action alerts arrived in your inboxes. Every voice helps!

If you have not done so already, please sign up for any or all of our action alerts so you can continue to support our advocacy efforts! 

Asset Opportunity Legislation

Let’s Provide a Retirement Savings Plan for Illinois Workers—SB 2758/HB 4595. Our coalition worked tirelessly during the legislative session to advance the Secure Choice Savings Program (formerly auto-IRA), and we moved the legislation farther than ever before. The Secure Choice Savings Program will help give millions of Illinois workers access to portable, employment-based Individual Retirement Accounts and the opportunity to build a financially secure future. Secure Choice has been endorsed by the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the State Journal-Register. The bill passed out of the Illinois Senate in April and the House Committee on Personnel and Pensions in late May. We will continue our work over the summer and hope to have the bill called for a vote in the House during the fall veto session in late November or early December. Please contact your state representative and tell him or her to support this commonsense approach to ensuring all Illinoisans have the opportunity to retire in dignity. Learn more

Budget and Tax Legislation

We Need to Maintain Stable Revenue to Protect the State’s Priorities. The Shriver Center has been a leader of the campaign for A Better Illinois, which sought to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to permit a Fair Tax. Illinois’s Constitution currently mandates that the state income tax be set at an unfair, regressive flat rate; a Fair Tax would allow people with lower incomes to pay a lower rate while individuals with higher incomes would pay a higher rate. To get on the ballot, a constitutional amendment must obtain a 3/5 super-majority of both the Senate and House at least six months before the election. The campaign came close but was unable to secure the votes needed. Efforts to put this constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2016 are ongoing.

The Shriver Center, in its role as convener of the Responsible Budget Coalition, is also leading the effort to maintain the current 5% income tax rate, which is scheduled to revert to 3.75% on January 1, 2015. If this happens, the state would lose $2 billion in revenue in FY 2015 and a staggering $5 billion in FY 2016. The General Assembly adjourned without taking action on extending the current income tax rate; instead, they balanced the budget with fiscal gimmicks that will postpone program cuts until after the November election. The Shriver Center is working for a post-election restoration of the current 5% tax rate, without which devastating cuts will be made to programs that serve low-income people and other vulnerable populations.

The Shriver Center is also a lead on legislation that would double the state earned income tax credit from 10% of the federal credit to 20% over five years. The earned income tax credit, a refundable tax credit available to low-income workers, encourages work and reduces poverty among nearly a million Illinois taxpayers every year. In a show of strong bipartisan support for increasing the earned income tax credit, 47 House members have signed on as co-sponsors of this legislation.

Contact your representatives and ask them to maintain the 5% tax rate and increase the earned income tax credit. This legislation secured widespread support but was another casualty of the General Assembly’s failure to take action on revenue.

Community Justice Legislation

Qualified Job Applicants Have a Better Chance to Support Themselves and Their Families—HB 5701.  The Shriver Center, supported by a coalition of advocates, successfully led the effort to pass the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act (JOQAA), which will fundamentally change the hiring process for over 300,000 employers and open doors for more than a million qualified people with criminal records. Currently, 92% of employers conduct criminal background checks on applicants, and 65% of them reject applicants with even one conviction of any kind. Under the JOQAA, temporary employment agencies and employers with 15 or more employees, who are not required by law to reject applicants with records, will be prohibited from inquiring into an applicant’s criminal history in any form until after the applicant receives written notification of the employer’s intent to interview or a conditional offer of employment. We are hopeful Governor Quinn will sign the bill in the coming weeks. Learn more.

Older Low-Level Offenses Are Now Eligible for Sealing—HB 2378. The Shriver Center also successfully passed HB 2378, which will give more than a quarter million men and women with minor, older, low-level offenses (misdemeanors) in Illinois an opportunity to petition the court to limit who can look at those old convictions (a process called sealing). This legislation will help ensure that hard-working individuals with old, minor convictions are not unjustly denied jobs, housing, or other opportunities. We are hoping that the Governor will sign this bill in the coming weeks, as well. Learn more.

Economic Justice Legislation

Elderly and Disabled Refugees and Asylees Now Have a More Adequate Safety Net—SB 2735/HB 4369. The Shriver Center successfully advocated for an increase in the monthly grant paid to certain elderly and disabled refugees and asylees. This AABD Grant program provides income support to elderly and disabled refugees and asylees suspended from the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program because they were not able to become U.S. citizens within seven years. These individuals’ monthly assistance will increase from $500 to $649 and will automatically increase annually so as to remain at 90% of the maximum SSI payment amount. Funding for this increase and the required statutory change were included in the fiscal year 2015 budget adopted by the General Assembly and the accompanying legislation implementing the budget. Learn more.

The Shriver Center also led the successful effort to defeat several proposals that sought to stigmatize and dehumanize recipients of public benefits, including bills that would have mandated drug testing of public benefits recipients, required photo identification on the electronic benefits cards recipients use, and limited SNAP recipients’ food choices.

We Need to Increase the Child Support Pass-through for TANF FamiliesSB 3216. This bill would increase the amount of the child support collected on behalf of families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) that is turned over to the family without reducing the family’s TANF benefits. Currently Illinois "passes through" a maximum of $50 per month of child support although the federal maximum is $200. Increasing the pass-through to the federal maximum would not only increase the income of some of Illinois’s poorest families but it would also let noncustodial parents see that their child support payments actually help their kids, and thereby encourage noncustodial parents to pay regularly and on time and be more involved in their children's lives. The bill passed the Senate and the House Human Services Committee, but concerns about its cost kept it from going to a vote in the House.  We are hopeful that it will pass in the fall veto session or next year since it has wide support among General Assembly members.  

Health Care Justice Legislation

Critical Benefits in the Medicaid Program Are Restored—SB 741. The General Assembly wisely restored some health care benefits that it had eliminated or overly restricted in the 2011 Medicaid budget reduction law known as the SMART Act.  Starting July 1, 2014, all adults on Medicaid will have access to dental services (exams, crowns, fillings, extractions, and dentures). Medicaid adult dental services still are not comprehensive; they do not cover preventive services such as cleanings or periodontal services, except for pregnant women. 

The General Assembly also restored general coverage for services from podiatrists, starting October 1; these services had been restricted in 2011 to Medicaid patients with diabetes. 

The General Assembly also lifted the 20-visit maximum for speech, hearing, language, occupational, and therapy that it had imposed in 2011. Starting October 1, Medicaid patients will be able to access as many therapist visits as are medically necessary, with prior approval from the Medicaid agency. 

Finally the General Assembly exempted anti-psychotic medication prescriptions and medicines for a group of children with complex medical needs from certain prior authorization requirements imposed in 2011. These requirements had prevented recipients from obtaining more than four prescriptions per month. 

The Shriver Center, working in coalition with other health advocates and Medicaid recipients, had been pressing for these benefit changes since passage of the SMART Act in 2011. Advocates argued that the 2011 restrictions were hurting patients and not saving money for the state because patients ended up sicker and sought much more expensive care in emergency rooms and hospitals when they could not get the medications, services, and therapies they needed

Housing Justice Legislation

Execution of Evictions by Any Peace Officer Is PreventedHB 5395Along with a coalition of advocates and the Cook County Sheriff’s office, the Shriver Center vigorously opposed HB 5395, which would allow any peace officer, including off-duty police officers, to execute an eviction in Cook County. The bill would have also limited the number of post-judgment requests to stop an eviction that a tenant could present in court. By allowing any peace officer, on or off duty, to execute evictions, the bill could expose renters to evictions at the hands of individuals who have no supervision or training in executing court orders and who lack the necessary information to understand if the eviction order is proper. The bill received a substantial amount of negative press and was ultimately not called for a vote.

Tenants Are Protected from Eviction for Minor Noise Complaints—HB 1532. The Shriver Center opposed HB 1532, which would have exposed renters to emergency eviction proceedings for minor municipal ordinance violations such as noise complaints and could have resulted in the eviction of victims of violence who called the police for help. Along with the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Shriver Center negotiated an amendment to the bill to protect people who call the police from being evicted. Ultimately, the bill did not move forward due to opposition from other organizations, local governments, and the state attorneys association. 

Women’s Law and Policy Project Legislation

Pregnant Workers Have a Right to Reasonable Accommodations—HB 8. The final version of HB 8 passed both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously. Sponsored by Rep. Mary Flowers in the House and Sen. Toi Hutchinson in the Senate, this legislation will ensure workplace fairness by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth. Three-quarters of women now entering the workforce will become pregnant. Most pregnant women need to keep working for as long as possible during their pregnancies to support their growing families. HB 8 will ensure that no woman will have to choose between a healthy pregnancy and her job. Governor Quinn supports the legislation and will sign the bill soon. The law will be effective as of January 1, 2015. Learn more.

Domestic and Sexual Violence Survivors Have More Workplace Protections—SB 3038 (formerly SB 2003 and HA 1). The Shriver Center also led the successful effort to amend the Workplace Violence Prevention Act, a law that became effective January 1, 2014. The law, pre-amendments, allows employers to obtain orders of protection on behalf of its employees who are the target of any unlawful violence, including employees who are domestic or sexual violence survivors, without notice or consultation. By allowing an employer to pursue an order of protection on behalf of an employee without notice or consultation, employers may put domestic and sexual violence survivors at greater risk of harm not only on the job, but more likely, while not at work. SB 3038 amends the law to remove any legal proceedings pursued under the Workplace Violence Prevention Act from the IDVA process. SB 3038 also provides some protections for survivors, including requiring employers to notify and consult with survivors before petitioning the court for a protective order, and provides remedies for employers’ violations of the Act. The amended bill was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House, and we hope that Governor Quinn will sign the bill as soon as possible.

Raise the Minimum Wage—SB 68 SA4/HB 3718. Instead of passing SB 68 SA4 or HB 3718, which would have raised the state minimum wage over three years from its current $8.25/hour to $10.65/hour in 2016, the General Assembly passed HB 3814. HB 3814 puts an advisory question on the ballot in the November 4, 2014, election that will ask, “Shall the minimum wage in Illinois for adults over 18 be raised to $10 per hour by January 1, 2015?” We encourage voters to support the referendum by voting yes on November 4, so that the Shriver Center and its coalition partners can win an increase for workers when the General Assembly reconvenes after the election. Learn more.

Domestic Workers Need Employment Protections—SB 1708/HB 4174. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would protect domestic workers from exploitation and unfair treatment by ensuring basic workplace protections affecting workers’ wages, work environment, and employer obligations. The bill did not pass this session, however the Shriver Center and its coalition partners continued to make progress on the language of the bill in both the House and Senate, and we will continue our efforts to pass this important legislation. Learn more.

Ensure Success in School for Pregnant and Parenting Teens and Survivors of Domestic or Sexual ViolenceHB 2213. The Ensuring Success in School legislation focuses on elementary and secondary students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence. The goal of the legislation is to ensure these students stay in school, stay safe, succeed academically and complete their education. The bill passed the House, but did not pass the Senate. The Shriver Center will continue its advocacy efforts on behalf of these students.


2013 Poverty Scorecard Confirms Congress's Lack of Attention to the Poor

Poverty ScorecardFifty years ago, in his first major speech as president, and only six weeks after President Kennedy had been assassinated, President Lyndon Johnson announced a War on Poverty. Congress then enacted a series of far-reaching programs that changed the American landscape forever. In the decade following President Johnson’s announcement, poverty in America was cut by one third.  
Back then, our political system functioned differently than it does today. Although the political parties staked out different positions on key issues, and the party out of power formed a loyal opposition to the majority party, in the end deals were made through compromise, and Congress addressed the problems of the day.
Today we have a deep and seemingly irreconcilable partisan divide in Congress. On issue after issue, the parties have staked out polarized positions and brook no compromise. This partisan gridlock results in little or nothing ever being done to address our nation’s major problems.
All Americans are victims of Congress’s inaction. But the burden arguably falls heaviest on low-income people, who have the most to lose under the status quo.
For the past six years, the Shriver Center has documented and ranked the performance of every member of Congress in fighting poverty. A surprising number of the floor votes taken by Congress each year, on bills that cover a wide range of subjects, affect the vital interests of low-income people. This year we selected 18 votes in the Senate and another 18 votes in the House that we determined, with the help of our panel of subject matter experts, to be of the greatest significance to people living in poverty. In 2013, about half of these votes had to do with the funding of government programs important to people in poverty. Many of the other votes related to the rights of low-income people, including the rights to vote, to receive needed public benefits, to fair treatment in the workplace, to access free legal services, and to be free of hunger.  
The Poverty Scorecard grades each member based on his or her score on these votes. Our primary finding – that 97% of the members of the United States Senate and 95% of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives score at one extreme or the other -- confirms the extreme nature of the partisan divide. Moderates are supported by only a handful of legislative districts and states. As long as legislative districts lean heavily toward one party or the other, the only threat to a member’s reelection is a primary challenge from someone in the member’s own party who is more extreme. This inclines members to vote in an even more partisan way. In such an electoral environment, compromise is politically dangerous.
The Poverty Scorecard also shows—again—that states with the highest poverty rates tend to have Congressional delegations with the worst voting records on poverty-related issues. Why this result? Is the backlash against poor people stronger in states that have more poor people?
Please review our 2013 Poverty Scorecard. See how your member of Congress is graded and let him or her know whether you are heartened or disappointed. Look at the records of other members. Review the vote summaries to learn what were the most important poverty-related votes in Congress last year. While the results may not surprise you, they document the state of Congress and our democracy today.  


Legislative Update: Advocates Still Hard at Work in Springfield!

We are in the final stretch of the legislative session, and excited to share with you our legislative successes in Springfield thus far. Shriver Center advocates have made great strides toward passing laws that will bring justice and opportunity to low-income Illinoisans, but there is still a ways to go!

We hope you will join our efforts over the next few weeks to carry these important pieces of legislation over the finish line and to successfully block undesirable bills. If you have not done so already, please sign up for any or all of our action alerts so you can make your voices heard in Springfield!    

Asset Opportunity Legislation

Provide a Retirement Savings Plan for Illinois Workers—SB 2758/HB 4595. In early April, the Illinois Secure Choice Savings Program legislation (formerly known as Automatic IRA) passed the Illinois Senate. With a solid and comprehensive retirement savings framework for private sector workers that saves taxpayer dollars, Secure Choice has recently been endorsed by the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the State Journal-Register. Please contact your state representative and tell him or her to support this commonsense approach to ensuring all Illinoisans have the opportunity to retire in dignity. 

Budget and Tax Legislation

The Shriver Center has been a leader of the A Better Illinois campaign, which sought to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to replace the requirement that the state income tax be set at an unfair, regressive flat rate, and instead permit a Fair Tax where lower incomes would pay a lower rate and higher incomes would pay a higher rate. To get on the ballot, a constitutional amendment must obtain a 3/5 supermajority of both the Senate and House at least six months before the election. The campaign came close but was unable to secure the votes needed. Efforts to put this constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2016 are ongoing.

The Shriver Center, in its role as convener of the Responsible Budget Coalition, is one of the leads in seeking to maintain the current 5% tax rate, which is scheduled to revert to 3.75% on January 1, 2015. If this happens, the state would lose $2 billion in revenue in FY 2015 and $5 billion in FY 2016. This would result in devastating cuts to programs that serve low-income people and other vulnerable populations.

The Shriver Center is also a lead on legislation that would double the state earned income tax credit from 10% of the federal credit to 20% over five years. Contact your representatives and ask them to maintain the 5% tax rate and increase the earned income tax credit.

Community Justice Legislation

Increase the Child Support Pass-through for TANF FamiliesSB 3216. This bill, which passed the Senate in March, requires that $100 of the child support paid for one child and up to $200 for two or more children (the federal maximum) be paid to their families rather than diverted to reimburse the government for the cash Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits the families are receiving. Currently Illinois "passes through" a maximum of $50 per month of child support. Increasing the pass-through to the federal maximum not only increases the income of some of Illinois’s lowest income families but also lets noncustodial parents see that their child support payments actually help their kids, encourages noncustodial parents to pay regularly and on time, and often increases noncustodial parents' involvement in their children's lives. SB 3216 will be considered in the House soon. House members need to hear from constituents that they should vote in favor of SB 3216.

The impetus for SB 3216 came from Fathers, Families, and Healthy Communities, a responsible fathers group that helps improve outcomes for low-income children by having their fathers support them and be more involved in their lives. The bill has the strong support of many children's advocacy groups.

Move the Box or Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants ActHB 5701On April 30 this important piece of legislation passed out of the Illinois House of Representatives with bipartisan support. HB 5701 would prohibit employers or temporary employment agencies from inquiring into someone’s criminal history in any form until after the applicant receives written notification of the employer’s intent to interview or a conditional offer of employment. The next step for the legislation is a committee hearing in the Illinois Senate, where we are hopeful for concurrence and passage. Learn more.

Seal Older Low Level Offenses—HB 2738. On March 27, HB2738 passed out of the Illinois House of Representatives, and then on May 7 it passed out of the Illinois Senate Criminal Law committee. This legislation would allow minor, older, low-level offenses (misdemeanors) to be eligible for sealing and give hard working, law abiding men and women who can demonstrate they have turned their lives around an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. It now waits in the Senate where it is expected to pass with bipartisan support. Learn more. 

Economic Justice Legislation

Increase the AABD Grant for Certain Refugees and Asylees—SB 2735/HB 4369. Shriver Center advocates continue to gather support for legislation that would increase the monthly Social Security grants to certain elderly and disabled refugees and asylees. This bill updates and indexes the monthly grant provided to elderly and disabled refugees and asylees suspended from the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program if they do not become U.S. citizens within seven years. The monthly grant amount of $500 was written into the statute when the program was created in 2004. This legislation would update the grant amount to restore it to 90 percent of the SSI payment level, as it was in 2004, and would index the amount to future increases in the SSI payment level. Learn more

Shriver Center advocates have also led the successful effort to defeat several proposals that sought to stigmatize and dehumanize recipients of public benefits, including bills that would have mandated drug testing, required SNAP (Food Stamp) recipients to carry a special picture ID, and limited SNAP recipients’ food choices.

Health Care Justice Legislation

Restore Critical Benefits in the Medicaid Program—HB 1516 SA2. Critical benefits were eliminated or severely restricted for Medicaid recipients in the SMART Act Medicaid Reforms in 2012. The Shriver Center has been advocating for restoration of these benefits, which include dental services for adults, prescription medications for people with mental health issues, and prescriptions for medically complex children. In the past two years, thousands of low-income Medicaid recipients have not been able to access necessary preventative medical and dental services and have instead been treated unnecessarily in emergency rooms and urgent care facilities, thus costing the state unnecessary spending. Learn more.

During this legislative session, we have provided expert testimony to the Medicaid Working Group—an ad hoc committee of legislators from the House and the Senate working on a Medicaid Omnibus bill. We are working in partnership with the leading children's hospitals in Illinois, the dental society, social service organizations, and behavioral health providers, and we hope that these critical services will be restored as part of a bigger Medicaid bill closer to the end of session in late May. In the meantime, Illinois General Assembly members need to hear from constituents that they want these services restored.

Housing Justice Legislation

Prevent Execution of Evictions by Any Peace Officer—HB 5395. The Shriver Center vigorously opposed HB 5395, which would allow any peace officer to execute an eviction if the Cook County Sheriff did not do so within 45 days. The bill would also limit the number of post-judgment requests to stop an eviction that a defendant could present in court. In addition to concerns that the bill would limit access to justice, especially by pro se litigants unfamiliar with technical pleading requirements, the bill could potentially lead to dangerous results for renters. The 45-day time limit would allow the sheriff no discretion to delay an eviction if, for example, on the 45th day weather conditions were dangerous. A sudden eviction in severe weather could place an evicted family—especially one at risk of homelessness—in harm's way. Furthermore, by allowing any peace officer within the county, on or off duty, to execute evictions, the bill could expose renters to evictions at the hands of individuals who have no supervision or training in executing court orders. At the end of a heated debate on the House floor, Rep. Monique Davis ultimately did not call the bill for a vote. The bill, which was supported by Realtors and financial institutions, does not appear to be moving at this time. We will watch for and oppose any efforts to revive it.

Protect Tenants from Eviction for Minor Noise Complaints—HB 1532. The Housing Justice Unit is opposing House Bill 1532, which is now pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The bill would expose renters to eviction for minor municipal ordinance violations such as noise complaints.  The bill in its current form also contains language that is vague and that violates Due Process.  The Shriver Center negotiated an agreed amendment to the bill last year which led to the bill stalling out.  We are attempting to negotiate with the Senate sponsor, Sen. Tom Cullerton, and will continue to oppose the bill if an agreement cannot be reached.  

Women’s Law and Policy Project Legislation

Raise the Minimum Wage—SB 68 SA4/HB 3718. The Shriver Center continues to work in collaboration with a powerful coalition on state legislation that would raise the minimum wage. There are 400,000 minimum wage workers in Illinois who earn only $17,000 a year, working full-timewell below the annual cost of housing, health care, electricity, groceries, transportation, and child care. We are confident that our coalition will ultimately be successful, but the legislation may carry over into veto session. Learn more.

Ensure Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Workers-HB 8. HB 8 passed the Illinois House on April 10. It has been amended in the Senate and is poised for a full Senate vote; then, it will return to the House for concurrence. Sponsored by Rep. Mary Flowers in the House and Sen. Toi Hutchinson in the Senate, this legislation will ensure workplace fairness by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth. Three-quarters of women now entering the workforce will become pregnant. Most pregnant women need to keep working for as long as possible during their pregnancies to support their families.  No woman should have to choose between a healthy pregnancy and her job.  We ask that you please contact your State Senator and urge him or her to vote yes on HB 8. Learn more.

Domestic Workers are Employees—SB 1708/HB 4169 HA 1. We continue to make progress on the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights legislation. This legislation would protect domestic workers from exploitation and unfair treatment by ensuring basic workplace protections affecting workers' wages, work environment, and employer obligations. Learn more.

Protect Domestic and Sexual Violence Survivors—SB 2003 and HA 1. The Shriver Center has also led the effort to amend the Workplace Violence Prevention Act, a law that became effective January 1 of this year. The Act allows employers to obtain orders of protection on behalf of its employees who are the target of any unlawful violence, including employees who are domestic and sexual violence survivors. Problems with the current law include the use of the Illinois Domestic Violence Act (IDVA) legal process for all actions under the Act, even when the violence is not related to domestic violence—an inappropriate use of the IDVA; and the very real danger that an employer’s pursuit of an order of protection may put domestic and sexual violence survivors at greater risk of harm not only on the job, but more likely, while not at work. SB 2003 and House Amendment 1 have been negotiated to remove the legal proceedings from the IDVA process and provide some protections for survivors, such as the obligation of employers to notify and consult with survivors before petitioning the court for a protective order.  The bill has been amended in the House, is poised to be voted on in the House, and then will be sent to the Senate for concurrence. 


Funding for Human Services in Illinois Hangs in the Balance

Funding for programs needed by the most vulnerable people in Illinois, including the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, the substance addicted, and children in deep poverty and their families, would be slashed if the temporary 5% income tax rate adopted in January 2011 falls to 3.75% on January 1, 2015, as scheduled.

On March 26, Illinois Governor Quinn released his proposed budget, which assumes that the 5% tax rate will become permanent, as he advocates. At the same time, he released a “not recommended” budget showing the funding cuts that will be necessary if the tax rate falls to 3.75%.

While Speaker Madigan and President Cullerton have indicated their support for making the 5% tax rate permanent, there are only five weeks left before the General Assembly adjourns on May 31, and yet no action has been taken.

The Shriver Center’s earlier report on the drastic cuts facing human services if the temporary tax increase is not made permanent was based on committee testimony from the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS). On April 9, IDHS testified before the House Appropriations–Human Services Committee and gave a much fuller picture of what would happen if the “not recommended budget” is adopted. This report is based on that testimony.

Overall Impact

IDHS would be required to cut its FY15 spending by $398 million, or 12.5%. Under Governor Quinn’s proposed budget, human services funding would increase by $500 million. Hence, there is nearly a $1 billion difference in proposed human services funding depending on whether the income tax rate falls to 3.75% or remains at 5%.

Another major issue is staffing. Under the “not recommended” budget, local office staff would be reduced by more than 1,000, which would decimate IDHS’s ability to provide services and lead to long delays in providing benefits.

Alcohol and Substance Abuse

Funding for alcohol and substance abuse services has been cut by $133 million since 2009. Under the Governor’s “not recommended” budget, funding would be cut by another $29 million (24%) from $120 million to $91 million. This would mean that 16,000 fewer people would receive addiction services. Many of these untreated individuals could wind up being housed in state or community hospitals, crisis centers, homeless shelters, jails, or on the streets. Moreover, 6,000 fewer jail diversions would be available, and release dates for incarcerated individuals would be delayed due to reduced access to after-release treatment services. Providers of addiction services, who last received a rate increase nine years ago, would have their rates cut.

Developmentally Disabled

Funding for services to developmentally disabled individuals has been cut by $31 million since 2009. Under the Governor’s “not recommended” budget, funding would be cut by another $189 million (18%) from $1.047 billion to $858 million. Staffing would be reduced by 782, and 25,000 developmentally disabled adults would lose community-based services. The seven state-operated facilities would risk being decertified, which would cost Illinois $180 million in Medicaid funding and expose the state to litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rebalancing, Governor Quinn’s initiative to enable hundreds of people with disabilities to move out of large institutions and into their own homes in the community would be halted.

Mental Health

Funding for mental health services has been cut by $411 million since 2009. Under the Governor’s “not recommended” budget, funding would be cut by another $54 million (11%) from $506 million to $452 million. This would mean 140,000 individuals would have reduced access to basic services, including therapy and medication, 35,000 people would no longer receive any services, and 10,000 people would not receive needed crisis services.

Rehabilitation Services

Funding would be cut by $61 million (10%) from $640 million to $579 million. This reduction would mean that 16,400 current customers would no longer be served.

Child Care

Cuts would result in 41,000 children and 23,000 families losing child care that allows parents to work or go to school.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Monthly income support grants to needy children and their families would be cut by 25%.

Early Intervention

Cuts would eliminate services for 7,300 developmentally delayed young children.

Supportive Housing and Homeless Services

Cuts would eliminate services for 13,600 people, including 500 homeless youth, which would significantly increase the homeless population.

In addition to these human impacts, these reductions in services would have multiple fiscal impacts on the state. Federal funding would go unclaimed or be forfeited, the state would be held in contempt of various court orders, and state facilities would be decertified.

Action Needed

To avert these disastrous massive cuts to human services, contact your state senator and state representative today and urge them to support the Governor’s budget including an extension of the 5% income tax rate.  

Copies of any correspondence also should be sent to the chairs of the appropriations committees with oversight of human services, Sen. Heather Steans, and Rep. Greg Harris.


Human Services Armageddon

The temporary increase in Illinois’s state income tax adopted in January 2011 is scheduled to expire at the end of 2014, at which time the tax rate will fall from 5 percent to 3.75 percent. This will cause a loss in revenue in fiscal year 2015 of $2.4 billion.

Many politicians and at least one major media outlet support letting the 5 percent rate expire. As usual, these proponents of cutting taxes and spending offer no specifics on what programs should be cut or eliminated.

Last week, at a joint hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committees, the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) provided a grim account of the impact cutting $2.4 billion from the state budget would have on human services programs.

IDHS began by enumerating the cuts that already have occurred. From fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2014, services to the developmentally disabled were cut by $31 million; to alcohol and substance abuse by $133 million; and to mental health by $411 million.

If the state budget is cut by $2.4 billion, IDHS-administered programs would be cut by $636 million, and IDHS’s staffing would be reduced by 2,500. IDHS explained the impact that cuts of this magnitude would have, assuming the cuts are made across-the-board:

Developmentally Disabled. Funding would be cut by $270 million, staffing would be reduced by 782, and 25,000 developmentally disabled adults would lose community-based services. The seven state-operated facilities would be at risk of being decertified, which would cost Illinois $180 million in Medicaid funding and expose the state to litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rebalancing, Governor Quinn’s initiative to enable hundreds of people with disabilities to move out of large institutions and into their own home in the community, would be halted.

Family and Community Services. Funding would be cut by $188 million and staffing would be reduced by 860, with over 800 of those lost staff coming from the Family Community Resource Centers (local offices). This would result in payment delays that violate federal and state law. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grants, already set at just 26 percent of the federal poverty level, would be reduced by 25 percent. Child care funding would be cut by $51 million; 39,000 children and 23,000 families would lose services. By failing to meet its state match requirement, Illinois would jeopardize $585 million in federal TANF block grant funds.

Early Intervention. Funding would be cut by $15 million and 6,000 fewer children with developmental delays would receive services.

Mental Health. Funding would be cut by $101 million, staffing would be reduced by 567, and 140,000 community-based clients would lose mental health services. More children would wind up in the juvenile justice system. More adults would go to hospital emergency rooms and become homeless.

Alcohol and Substance Abuse. Funding would be cut by $24 million, and 10,000 fewer persons with addictions would be served. More would wind up in jail, state hospitals, emergency rooms and homeless.

Home Services. Funding would be cut by $68 million, and 18,000 elderly clients would lose their services, threatening their ability to continue living at home.

When IDHS was finished with its testimony, the Senators had no questions.


The Shriver Center Goes to Springfield: Our 2014 Legislative Agenda

The new legislative session is in full swing. Shriver Center advocates hope to pass new laws that will improve the lives of low- and middle-income people and expand access to opportunity and mobility for all Illinoisans. We will also be playing defense to ensure that laws that stigmatize and punish low- and middle-income Illinoisans don’t make it past committee floors. Our Illinois agenda informs our overall work to advance justice and opportunity for people living in poverty.

We hope you will support us over the next few months to get these important pieces of legislation passed, and to block undesirable bills. Below are a few of the many pieces of affirmative legislation we are working on that are likely to require community support.

Please sign up for any or all of our action alerts so you can make your voices heard in Springfield!    

Asset Opportunity Legislation

Illinois Secure Choice Savings Program—Senate Bill (SB) 2758/House Bill (HB) 4595. Two and a half million private-sector workers in Illinois do not have access to employment-based retirement tools and are increasingly at risk of retiring into poverty. The Secure Choice Savings Program solves this problem by giving every worker in Illinois access to a portable retirement savings account through his or her employer and the opportunity to build a financially secure future. It ensures universal coverage, and is the simple, safe and affordable way to help all workers retire in dignity. Learn more. Sign up for action alerts on Asset Opportunities.

Budget and Tax Justice Legislation

Constitutional Amendment to Eliminate the Flat Tax Rate Requirement and Allow a Fair Tax—SJRCA 40/HJRCA 33. This bill would amend the Illinois Constitution by deleting the requirement of a flat state income tax rate and replacing it with the option of a fair tax, under which people with lower incomes would pay lower rates and people with higher incomes would pay higher rates. Unlike a flat tax, which taxes everyone at the same rate regardless of his or her income, a fair tax is based on ability to pay. A fair tax amendment to the constitution would give lawmakers the tools they need respond to changing economic pressures on the middle class. A vote for the fair tax amendment only puts the issue on the ballot in the general election this November, allowing voters to have the final say when it comes to whether Illinois adopts the option of a fair tax. Learn more. Sign a petition in support. Sign up for action alerts on Budget and Tax.

Community Justice Legislation

Best Candidate for the Job Act—HB 2846. This bill would codify standards for considering men and women with criminal records for employment and licensing opportunities that mirror a similar law in New York (New York Correction Law, Article 23-A) and the EEOC’s recent guidance. The bill would also create a private right of action to hold entities accountable for not adhering to this law, and ensure that those with Certificates of Good Conduct or Relief from Disability are not denied positions simply because of their record.

Moving the Box—HB 5701This bill would prohibit employers or temporary employment agencies from inquiring into someone’s criminal history in any form until after the applicant receives written notification of the employer’s intent to interview or a conditional offer of employment. 

The Shriver Center’s Community Justice advocates are also working:

  • to make sure that Minor Crimes Don’t Preclude Opportunity (HB 2378);
  • to Eliminate Lifetime Bans to Major Employment (HB 4432, HB 4471, HB 4472, HB 4473, HB 4580) for individuals who have completed their sentences and have not had another conviction within four years of their release; and
  • to support the Compassionate Release (HB 3668) of incarcerated seniors (over 50 years of age) who have served over 25 years or more (and possibly those suffering from terminal illnesses).

We are also opposing Mandatory Minimums (HB 5672). Sign up for action alerts on Community Justice.

Economic Justice Legislation

Refugee AABD Grant Update—SB 2735/HB 4369. This bill updates and indexes the monthly grant provided to elderly and disabled refugees and asylees suspended from the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program if they do not become U.S. citizens within seven years. The monthly grant amount of $500 was written into the statute when the program was created in 2004. This legislation would update the grant amount to restore it to 90 percent of the SSI payment level, as it was in 2004, and would index the amount to future increases in the SSI payment level. Learn more. Sign up for action alerts on Economic Justice.

Health Care Justice Legislation

Restoration of Adult Dental in the State’s Medicaid Program—HB 1516 SA2. This bill would require the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services (DHFS) to restore non-emergency dental services as a benefit for adults in the Medicaid program. Illinois eliminated these services as a Medicaid benefit for most adults in 2012. Restoration of these benefits is medically critical and cost effective. Every averted dental-related emergency room visit saves the state 10 times more than the cost of preventative care. Learn more. Sign up for action alerts on health care.

Housing Justice Legislation

Fair Tenant Screening Act—HB 4778. This bill establishes basic consumer protections for residential tenant applications. Among other things, it provides protections to ensure that landlords cannot charge an application fee that is more than the actual out-of-pocket costs to evaluate the application. If the landlord declines to rent, the tenant must be told the reason for the denial, and provide a copy of any third party information that led to the denial. Learn more. Sign up for action alerts on housing.

Women’s Law and Policy Project Legislation

Raise the Minimum Wage—SB 68 SA4/HB 3718. This legislation would raise the minimum wage to $10.65 an hour over three years, thus restoring it to its historic level. In Illinois, six in ten minimum wage workers are women. Over 400,000 Illinois workers in Illinois know that having a minimum wage job is not enough to keep up with inflation and stay out of poverty. Raising the minimum wage is the solution. Learn more.

Domestic Workers Bill of Rights—SB 1708/HB 4714. Domestic workers play a critical role in the Illinois economy. Despite the value of their work, domestic workers have historically been excluded from protections under state law extended to workers in other industries. This has led to a workforce, predominantly composed of women supporting their own families, that is isolated and vulnerable. SB 1708/HB 4714 will ensure that domestic workers are paid no less than the minimum wage, are paid for all work hours, and have the right to be free from sexual harassment, among other guarantees. Learn more.

Ensuring Success in School—HB 2213. The Ensuring Success in School Act addresses the educational and related needs of children and youths who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence to ensure their ability to stay in school, stay safe, and complete their education. HB 2213 fosters enrollment in school and school attendance, supports efforts to increase academic success, and provides guidance to schools. Learn more.

Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Workers—HB 8 (HA 1). Many pregnant workers are forced out of their jobs because their employers deny them simple work modifications—like a stool to sit on, permission to carry a water bottle, a break from lifting heavy boxes—that would allow them to remain productive employees, provide for their families, and maintain a healthy pregnancy. HB 8 (HA 1) promotes workplace fairness for pregnant workers by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for conditions related to pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions, unless such accommodations would cause an undue hardship on the employer. Learn more. Sign up for action alerts on women’s issues.


Shriver Center Calls on Senator Kirk to Extend Emergency Unemployment Compensation--And You Should, Too!

On February 6 the Senate failed yet again to pass an extension of Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC), this time by one vote. Illinois’s own Senator Mark Kirk voted against the extension, despite Illinois’s 8.6% unemployment rate (third highest in the country), and polling that shows voter support for the extension. Sen. Kirk’s decisive nay vote means 230,500 Illinois residents will lose benefits if the extension isn’t reinstated by the end of the year. A ticker on the website of the House Ways and Means Committee shows that the total number of Americans missing out on benefits since they expired in December crossed 2,000,000 on Tuesday, March 4. Benefits are currently capped at 26 weeks.

In response to Sen. Kirk’s disappointing vote against extending EUC, 32 Illinois organizations sent him a letter coordinated by the Shriver Center urging him to support an extension of EUC the next time it comes to a vote. Letter co-signers later spoke with Kirk’s staff regarding the letter, and they confirmed that Sen. Kirk understands the importance of an EUC extension, especially considering Illinois’s high unemployment rate. Additionally, staff confirmed that Sen. Kirk is participating in negotiations to find an “offset” to the extension but that the “pension-smoothing” offset on the table in February was too much of a “gimmick” for him to accept. A similar “pension-smoothing” offset was used to help pay for the 2012 surface transportation reauthorization law (MAP-21). In the conversation, advocates urged Sen. Kirk to consider that the long-term unemployment rate currently stands at 2.3 percent and that Congress has never let EUC expire when the long-term unemployment rate was higher than 1.3 percent, nor had Congress ever conditioned such an extension on an offset.

In addition to the offset issue, amendments to EUC that would weaken the program and tighten eligibility requirements have begun to surface. Sen. Kirk’s staff confirmed that if an acceptable offset is found, Sen. Kirk would support the extension of EUC regardless of what happens with any amendments.

Some Democrats think that Speaker Boehner would have a difficult time holding up an extension of EUC in the House, with or without an offset.

Sen. Harry Reid has signaled that the extension of EUC may come to another vote as soon as this week. It imperative that Illinoisans speak up.  

Call Sen. Kirk’s Washington, D.C., office at: 877-363-6141 (toll-free number provided by AFSCME) and tell him to do what’s right for Illinois--extend Emergency Unemployment Compensation!

The message to Sen. Kirk is simple: Please support the extension of Emergency Unemployment Compensation the next time it comes to a vote.

Here are some additional talking points you can use:

  • Illinois’s unemployment rate is 8.6%, 30% higher than the national average of 6.6%.

  • As a result of Congress’ failure to extend EUC, 230,000 Illinoisans will have their unemployment benefits terminated in 2014.

  • The people who receive EUC are not slackers; they are victims of the slow recovery from the Great Recession. There is still only 1 job for every 3 jobseekers.

  • The long-term unemployment rate is 2.3% nationally. Congress has never before let EUC expire when long-term unemployment exceeded 1.3%.

  • Ending EUC damages the economy since jobless benefits go to people who will spend the funds quickly and generate the consumer spending we need to drive recovery, growth and job creation.


Governor Quinn Announces Several Low-Income Initiatives

Governor Pat Quinn delivered his State of the State speech on January 29, 2014. He announced several initiatives for low-income people, most of which the Shriver Center has long been a leader on. The most significant ones are:

Minimum Wage—Governor Quinn announced his support for raising the state minimum wage from its current level of $8.25 an hour to at least $10.00 this year. The Shriver Center is among the leaders of the coalition that is pushing for an increase in the minimum wage.

Earned Income Tax Credit—Governor Quinn called for the state earned income tax credit (EITC) to be doubled from its current amount10 percent of the federal EITCto 20 percent over the next five years. The Shriver Center has been a leader of the coalition that successfully advocated for the creation of the state EITC and for subsequent improvements.

Paid Sick Days—Governor Quinn announced his support for requiring employers to provide all employees with at least two paid sick days per year. Advocates applauded his support for the concept, but question whether two days is enough; similar laws in other places provide at least five days. The Shriver Center is among the leaders of the Illinois coalition working for paid sick days.

Birth to Five Initiative—Governor Quinn announced his support for three early childhood initiativesconnecting expecting mothers with prenatal care, providing every child with access to quality early learning opportunities, and ensuring parents are equipped to support their children’s preschool education by creating a healthy learning environment at home. It is unclear what additional funding will be available to support these initiatives, although this may be clarified in the Governor’s annual budget address next month. The Shriver Center has long been a leader in advocating for early childhood education and care.

Another important initiative for low-income people announced by Governor Quinn is a doubling of the number of MAP scholarships for low-income college students.

Now begins the hard work of achieving these objectives. 


State of the Union: An Agenda for Action on Poverty

Income inequality, upward mobility (or the lack of it), minimum wage and income security, job creation, child care and early childhood education, a chance to attend and complete college, access to affordable comprehensive health care, the particular challenges faced by working women (who are over half the workforce and 2/3 of the minimum wage workforce). These are themes and ideas that President Obama addressed in the domestic portions of his fifth State of the Union message Tuesday night. The President called out “upward mobility” as a uniquely American value that needs to continue to be a reality. He described current and future projects and policy directions that would support this, inviting Congress to join him and promising to do as much as he can without Congress, if necessary.

The President’s message and his ideas are a strong agenda for remedying poverty. And, as he stressed, If we remedy poverty, we build and sustain the middle class. If we do not build and sustain the middle class, then poverty deepens and widens. Importantly—all of this is not only a proper but an imperative role for government.

National leadership on these issues, backed up by policy directions and funding streams, is essential. The President laid out a strong, positive agenda for the national government’s role in solving the problems of poverty. At the Shriver Center, however, we also know that the full potential of these initiatives will become helpful reality in middle-class and low-income families and communities only after the states make the necessary implementation decisions on federal laws and launch their own compatible projects. Millions continue to be uninsured across this country because their states have decided to reject the coverages offered by the Affordable Care Act. Millions of lower paid workers will not benefit from the President’s order to increase the minimum wage in federally contracted projects, but could benefit if their states followed the President’s lead and enacted their own minimum wage improvements.

The Shriver Center’s programs are focused on building the capacity for state-level advocacy on behalf of people living in poverty, so that national initiatives such as those announced in the President’s speech are fully realized in homes and communities. Our advocacy, communications, and training programs support the professionals who work to provide people in poverty with a voice and a fair chance to favorably influence these debates in their states. For example, our own advocates were among the leaders in ensuring adoption in Illinois of the expanded health coverages offered in the Affordable Care Act, and we are helping to press for an improved state minimum wage.

The President’s agenda is a strong one that can create opportunity and improve quality of life across the economic spectrum. People concerned about addressing poverty and strengthening the middle class should embrace it and work to support national action. Congress should pass it, and the President should do everything he can to advance it in the absence of congressional action. Those of us on the ground in the states should understand that the final results in our communities will depend on us. We should prepare to take advantage of the full potential that comes from the national efforts.

Farm Bill Compromise Agreement on SNAP

GroceriesAt long last the Farm Bill conferees have reached a compromise agreement that will be voted on by the full House and Senate. The Farm Bill reauthorizes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the next five years.

The compromise version of the Farm Bill includes some minor improvements to the program. What is most noteworthy, however is that all of the House proposals that would have collectively disqualified nearly four million hungry people from receiving any SNAP benefits were rejected.

That said, the compromise version does make one serious cut to the program that will have a significant effect on 850,000 people (four percent of overall recipients) in 16 states (not including Illinois). This cut is realized by tightening up on how benefits are calculated for certain recipients, as described below.

The House proposals rejected by the Senate and not included in the compromise version included:

Neither of these "work requirement" proposals included additional funding for work slots or job training programs. Both would have cut people off SNAP regardless of their willingness to work or the local unemployment rate. With three jobseekers for every job, these provisions were particularly heartless.

Other House proposals that the Senate rejected and that were not included in the compromise version included:

Over the next ten years, the Senate version of the Farm Bill made $4 billion in cuts and the House version made $39 billion in cuts. The compromise version cuts $8.6 billion.It is also worth considering that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, approved by the full House, would have cut $135 billion from SNAP over ten years.

The only cut included in the compromise version affects a program called “Heat and Eat.” The compromise bill tightens up on an element of SNAP benefit calculations. People with higher housing costs, including utility payments, get more SNAP. To promote administrative efficiency, participants who pay for their utilities separate from their rent receive a Standard Utility Allowance (SUA) rather than having to prove their actual utility costs. Under the “Heat and Eat” option used in 16 states, persons who received nominal LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefits of as little as $1 qualified for the SUA, even if they did not actually have to pay any utility bills. The compromise Farm Bill requires that such persons receive at least $20 in monthly LIHEAP benefits to qualify for the SUA. Through this change in benefit calculations, 850,000 people will see their SNAP benefits cut by an average of $90 per month.

Anti-poverty advocates are split between those who urge a yes vote on the compromise Farm Bill since they think it is the best deal we are going to get, the Heat and Eat program is not defensible on policy grounds and therefore will be eliminated sooner or later, and it is too risky to postpone the Farm Bill reauthorization until next year when there will be a new and potentially even more hostile Congress. Other anti-poverty advocates urge a no vote since they oppose any cuts to the program and the Heat and Eat cut will have such a major impact on the affected families.

Whichever side you are on, it is important not to miss the larger point. SNAP is essential to the nutrition, health, and well-being of 47 million Americans, 45 percent of whom are children. Benefits were cut by seven percent across the board in November 2013. Every single recipient was affected, including children, the disabled, the elderly, veterans, and others. The Institute of Medicine found, before the seven percent cut, that SNAP benefits are insufficient for most families to purchase an adequate, healthy diet. A new study finds that low-income people have increased hypoglycemia-related hospital admissions at the end of the month because they are out of food.

In the face of this reality, SNAP benefits should be increased, not cut. However, one must also face the political reality of who controls the U.S. House of Representatives, and the degree of their hostility not just to SNAP but to every program that low-income people rely on.  

The underpinning of the argument of those who would cut SNAP is that the program has experienced out-of-control growth. This argument entirely misses the point that SNAP is a counter-cyclical program that responded exactly as it should have to the loss of income and increased need from the Great Recession. SNAP participation has remained high during the economic recovery because that recovery has not reached low-income America—95 percent of all income growth from 2009-12 went to the wealthiest one percent and poverty has remained steady at 15 percent. Nevertheless, SNAP participation has now leveled off and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is on track to return to pre-recession levels

The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, Do We Have the "Glands"?

There is a scene in the movie “American Idealist,” an excellent biopic about Sargent Shriver, in which President Lyndon Johnson is trying to get Shriver to agree to lead the still-conceptual War on Poverty that the President had announced to the nation in his first State of the Union message on January 8, 1964 (50 years ago).  Shriver at the time was directing the Peace Corps, a globe-trotting, full-time job.  He had been called home by the president for this conversation.  Shriver was deeply committed to the Peace Corps and reluctant to abruptly take on the large new task. At a key moment, the movie uses telephone recordings to track the conversation between the earthy Texan and his urbane but tough colleague:

Sargent Shriver and President Lyndon B. JohnsonJohnson: “You’ve got the responsibility, you’ve got the authority, you’ve got the power, you’ve got the money. Now, you may not have the glands.”

Shriver:  “The GLANDS?”

Long pause….

Shriver: “I’ve got plenty of glands.” 

And so Shriver took the job (and kept the Peace Corps job, too). 

More importantly, the nation took the job. The nation, following bold leaders, had the “glands”—the guts—to undertake a war on poverty with public will and tax dollars. Shriver gathered a remarkable group of experts and devised enduringly effective programs. Poverty was reduced significantly. It is not my subject here to go into the policy details or argue about the policy choices made back then. My point is to highlight the role of public leadership and public support for fighting poverty. Back then, the leaders and the country took it on as a collective effort—a “war”—and an appropriate role for government.   

Does America have the guts to take on poverty nowadays? Does it have the leaders to describe the task and give it importance, the public will to engage in a collective effort to fight poverty? 

In 1964, Americans had a powerful can-do spirit about what could be accomplished through a national collective effort. They had seen the country conduct major public works projects to provide employment during the Depression, bring electricity to the countryside, win a World War, rebuild Europe, confront the Soviet threat, and commit to an effort to reach the moon. There was a partisan divide on many issues but also a spirit of bipartisanship in solving problems. Revelations about Appalachian and inner-city poverty had shocked a self-satisfied country lulled by the 1950s-era image of suburban prosperity. John Kennedy and, more recently, Bobby Kennedy had begun to take on poverty as a national cause.  After the assassination of President Kennedy, the country and Congress were ready to follow through on Kennedy-inspired initiatives, and President Johnson wanted to seize this moment and put his own stamp on the effort as well. The stars were aligned for a national, tax-supported War on Poverty.  (See Scott Stossel’s fine biography, Sarge, for details on all of this). 

America is a different place now. We have gone through Vietnam, Watergate, and most recently the Great Recession and many other episodes draining confidence in government. President Reagan led an ascendant conservatism devoted in large part to undermining public confidence in government. A newer wave of conservative ideology blames the poor and resists public efforts to address poverty as affronts to the personal “freedom” of wealthy individuals whose tax dollars might support those efforts. Bipartisanship in solving big problems is disparaged by many and rare. For a significant portion of the body politic there is a big shrugging off of any collective responsibility for poverty, a categorical opposition to undertaking a tax-supported public campaign to address poverty. There is no stomach for the effort.

These recent decades have eroded the American sense of confidence, mutual effort, and mission.  Nevertheless, at this 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty, there are some signs that, if the leadership has the will and makes the commitment to take on poverty as a collective challenge, the public will respond. President Obama has not announced a “war” on poverty, but he has consistently delivered a message of mutual responsibility and collective effort to raise the circumstances and opportunities of all Americans. Starting with his famous convention speech in 2004 (“it matters to me if your kid can’t read, even if my kid can”) this message has resonated widely with the American public. For my money, the positive public response to this message accounts for Obama’s two election victories—people want to engage in a good collective effort in a cause fueled by values they like to believe they own. They want to be led to it and in it. 

There is also growing concern about the eye-popping and growing income inequality in the country, and people are attentive to the stubborn persistence of the poverty rate, especially among children, and the anomaly of it in a prosperous country. Since the recession, people who had gotten used to thinking that poverty was someone else’s problem have seen it lurking at their own door. That Rep. Paul Ryan is fashioning a Republican program to take on poverty provides some corroboration that I am not alone in my reading of the public’s receptivity.  

The Affordable Care Act, in my opinion, is the single biggest anti-poverty measure in the last 50 years (since the War on Poverty era). It was not framed as an anti-poverty measure. The messaging about the Affordable Care Act suggested that it would benefit the “middle class” (which is, of course, also quite accurate). Proponents followed the advice or their media and messaging experts, fueled by polling and focus groups. They chose to use framing that works in today’s America. It’s hard to quibble with success. The episode, however, does indicate a growing public will, notwithstanding decades of government-bashing and partisanship, to undertake collective efforts supported by tax dollars to solve large problems, provided the leadership is there. 

At this 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty, there are signs that if America’s leaders take on poverty by name, the country itself may be ready to take large-scale action against poverty. There are plenty of good ideas that need public will and investment and a spirit of bold endeavor. We should make this a time that will have its own anniversary 50 years from now as a watershed in the successful fight against poverty.

Income Inequality for All

Talking about income inequality is front and center now. In an address last week, President Obama stated that income inequality is the “defining challenge of our time.” Pope Francis just devoted his first apostolic exhortation to denouncing “trickle down” economics, stating that its inherent exclusion and inequality violates the commandment not to kill. Robert Reich’s recent film, Inequality for All, aggressively brought the issue into your neighborhood movie theater last month. The New York Times has devoted an entire blog, moderated by Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics and former chief economist for the World Bank, to the topic. And have you ever seen a more complete wiki entry than this one on Income Inequality in the United States

The income divide today in America between the top one percent and the remaining 99 percent is the widest it has been since the 1920s, just before the Great Depression. While income inequality has been dramatically increasing since the late 1970s, what is especially concerning today is the significant worsening of income inequality in the aftermath of the great recession.

It is a staggering truth that 95 percent of the income gains since 2009 have gone to the top one percent. Sixty percent have gone to the top one-tenth of one percent, persons who earn at least $2 million annually. At the same time, U.S. median household income, adjusted for inflation, has fallen 4.4 percent since the great recession “ended” four years ago. It’s no surprise, then, that the richest 400 people in this country have more wealth than the 150 million who make up the bottom half of the population. That entire bottom half is poor or low-income according to U.S. poverty standards.

As far as global rankings, the U.S. ranks 96th out of 136 countries in unequal distribution of family income.

Extreme income inequality hurts everyone. Here’s how:

Income Inequality Stifles the Recovery. Increasing income inequality drains the middle class of the resources needed to support the consumer spending that has historically driven economic growth and job creation. Moreover,  fewer and fewer middle class consumers can afford to invest in their own futures, and must forego educating themselves and their children and starting or improving businesses. Many economists believe this has deflated the wages of low-wage workers and inflated the wages of educated workers, further entrenching income inequality. 

The weakness of the middle class also reduces tax receipts, especially because those at the top are so adroit in avoiding taxes and in getting Washington to give them tax breaks. Without tax revenue, we cannot invest in our infrastructure, education, and safety net programs. Thus, the cycle continues.

Additionally, inequality is associated with more frequent and more severe boom-and-bust cycles that make our economy more volatile and vulnerable.

Income Inequality Corrodes Our Democracy. Stiglitz and many others argue that economic inequality leads to political inequality and a broken decision-making process. This, in turn, perpetuates income inequality through a political process that favors the rich.

The current reauthorization of the Farm Bill is an example of how this corrosive process works. The House bill cuts $40 billion from and weakens the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) while increasing farm subsidies. Thus, the House would take resources necessary for base survival from the poor and give them to a small number of wealthy commercial farmers, whose wealth allows their political power to balloon. The economic results of this are disastrous, distorting our economy by promoting production we don’t need and shrinking the buying power of the poor.

Income Inequality Directly Correlates with Increases in Poverty, Decreased Opportunity, and Other Forms of Inequality. Of all the factors contributing to growth in poverty from 1979-2010, income inequality is the most significant, adding 5.5 percentage points to the growth of poverty during that period. Polling by the Pew Charitable Trust found that 43 percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile of the income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent of Americans raised in the bottom two quintiles never make it to the middle income quintile.

Rising income inequality also deepens the racial wealth gap, which we have been fighting for generations to undo. In 2009, the median wealth (what we own minus what we owe) of white families was $113,149, compared with $6,325 for Latino families and $5,677 for black families. Between 2007 and 2010 Hispanic families lost 44 percent of their wealth, black families lost 31 percent, and white families lost only 11 percent.

Beyond the fundamental impacts that income inequality has on our economy and political system, it frays “the basic bargain at the heart of our economy”—that people who work hard can escape poverty and get ahead. We must reverse this trend and restore true economic opportunity for all. Future blogs in this series will delve deeper into these issues and propose policy solutions to rising income inequality. 

Women Gain Back Jobs Lost Since the Recession, But Gendered Economic Inequalities Persist

Woman at workThis past summer officially marked the fourth year of recovery following the 2007-09 recession, dubbed a “mancession” by some. Men lost more jobs during the recession, both in terms of absolute numbers and percent reduction in employment, and now, in the fourth year of recovery, women are gaining jobs lost back at a faster rate than men. A recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) shows that, as of June 2013, women have regained nearly all of the jobs that they lost in the recession, while men are still struggling to catch up. At first glance, this may sound like good news for women’s employment and gender equality in the workforce. But a closer look at the areas in which men and women have gained and lost jobs in the years following 2007 reveals that the United States still has a long way to go before we can declare that women are equal to, let alone outperforming, men in the job market.

The primary reason that men were hit harder during the recession is that men are more highly concentrated in industries such as manufacturing and construction, which suffered the greatest job losses during those years. These industries have experienced slower recoveries, as well, which accounts for the fact that men have yet to gain back about 30 percent of the jobs that they lost in the recession. Industries where women are disproportionately represented, such as education, healthcare, leisure, and hospitality, however, fared relatively well. The education and health sectors in particular have expanded in the intervening years, adding over 1.6 million jobs since June 2009, 1.1 million of which went to women. It is important to consider, however, that much of the job growth that has benefitted women since the recession has been focused primarily in low-wage, low-security positions in hotels, restaurants, retail, education, and home health. And overall, more men are still employed than women: 76.2 million men as opposed to 67 million women. Job segregation and the gender wage gap remain alive and well, with men and women working in different industries and even in different areas within industries, playing a big part in these unequal numbers.

Gender inequality in the workforce is nothing surprising or new: a large part of the reason that the gender wage gap persists in 2013, fifty years after the Equal Pay Act, is that women are concentrated in lower-wage industries and underrepresented in higher-paying leadership positions in almost every industry, even those that are predominantly female. Women also continue to earn less in the same occupations. Even in Boston, home to the best-educated women of any major U.S. city, women earn an average of 83 cents for every dollar that men earn. Nationally, the wage gap is even wider, at 77 cents to the dollar.

Economic recovery since the recession has not remedied these types of gendered economic inequalities. The IWRP’s report shows that while women have gained back over 90 percent of the jobs that they lost since the start of the recession, men have gained back proportionately more jobs or lost proportionately fewer jobs within each industry relative to women. Even in education and healthcare, the industries that account for much of women’s job recovery since the recession, women’s employment increased only 6.9 percent as opposed to a 10.9 percent increase for men, a 4.0 percent gender gap in job growth within these sectors. And the gender poverty gap in the United States has not decreased, but rather increased, during the recovery, with 16.3 percent of women and 13.6 percent of men living in poverty in 2012. While male poverty has decreased since 2010 despite the relatively slower recovery of male jobs, female poverty has stagnated during that time.

The fact that women have gained back in absolute numbers the jobs that they lost since the recession should not be construed as evidence for the so-called “end of men” or even definitive progress toward economic equality for men and women. Women are still disproportionately represented in positions that pay less and offer less job security and, on average, receive less compensation for similar education and skills. Economists predict that as the economy continues to recover in the next few years, men will regain the remaining 2.1 million jobs they have lost since 2007. The issue of job segregation by gender must be considered as we look at reports that indicate positive economic gains for women. Until equal pay and equal representation across industries and positions for women are a reality, gender inequality in the workplace will continue to be an issue that deserves not only our attention, but meaningful action.

Teresa Wisner contributed to this blog post.


Another Way to Give Thanks This Season

To offset Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we now have #GivingTuesday—an opportunity to support the wide range of nonprofit work in our various communities, including the Sargent Shriver Center National Center on Poverty Law. But there’s another way to give or give back. Speak up on behalf of families facing poverty and speak out against the disingenuous rhetoric and detrimental policies and agendas aimed against low-income communities.

It’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when the straps are tethered or broken. In low-income communities, more often than not schools are under-resourced, jobs are scarce, and housing options are limited. Some may access better options by commuting or moving to better-resourced communities, but most families are left with lesser opportunities.

The rhetoric of the bootstrap theory takes many guises—the country can’t afford entitlement programs, poor people need a hand up not a hand out, I worked my way through school, why can’t they, etc. The next time you hear a politician, a teacher, a friend, or a family member espouse the bootstrap theory or one its many derivations, speak up. Challenge the misperceptions underlying these platitudes by broadening the conversation to include the complexity of past and present systemic failures that result in less access for some communities but not others.

Silence is a form of support for hostile views targeted at low-income communities. This season give your voice in support of programs and policies that provide a safety net and seek to improve the state of education, employment, and housing in low-income communities.

Act Now to Prevent Unemployed Workers from Being Cut Off of SNAP

Illinois LINK benefit cardCongress may be on the verge of cutting millions of unemployed people off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) by limiting eligibility to only those adults who are working or in a job training program for at least 20 hours per week. Persons who cannot find a job or get into a job training program would be cut off regardless of their willingness to work or the unemployment rate where they live. There is no funding for workfare or other work activities for those unable to find a job, nor are states required to provide such alternatives. 

The Farm Bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives contains two separate provisions that would cut the unemployed off of SNAP. The House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill have gone to a conference committee that began meeting last week and plans to complete its work by the end of November. The Senate version has no comparable provisions. 

Adults not raising minor children. Under the federal welfare reforms of 1996, non-disabled adults between the ages of 18 and 50 who are not raising children can receive SNAP benefits for only 3 out of every 36 months unless they are working at least 20 hours per week. However, more than 40 states, including Illinois, have received waivers of this limitation due to their high unemployment rates. The House provision would eliminate these waivers.

This population is among the poorest in America, with an average income of 22 percent of poverty, about $2,500 for a single individual. The vast majority of them do not qualify for any income support program other than SNAP. They are a diverse group—more than 40 percent are women, and one third are over age 40. Many have raised children who are no longer minors.

Proponents of this provision claim that it would limit assistance to only those who are willing to work. This is grossly misleading. Anyone who is not actually working 20 hours per week could receive SNAP benefits only for 3 out of every 36 months, regardless of their willingness to work. Although unemployment rates have been trending downward, there are still three unemployed workers for every job opening

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 1.7 million people, including 182,000 Illinoisans, would be cut off of SNAP under this provision, at a 10-year savings of $19 billion.  

Adults, including those raising minor children (the Southerland provision). The Southerland amendment is similar except for two additional features. First, it applies not just to childless adults but to all adults unless they are raising a child under age one. The entire families of parents who cannot find a 20-hour per week job would be cut off. 

In addition, states would get to keep 50 percent of the savings from cutting the unemployed off of SNAP. This financial incentive would be very enticing for cash-strapped states.

What you can do. Senator Dick Durbin, as the second highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate and with a long history of involvement in Farm Bill issues, is a key player. Send him an email urging him to make sure the Senate rejects these two provisions that would cut the unemployed off SNAP. Be sure to include “Farm Bill” in the subject line so that your email is routed to the appropriate staff person. Send your email as soon as possible—decisions are being made every day.


What the Recovery Is Leaving Behind: The Long-Term Unemployed and Living-Wage Jobs

Man filling out job applicationWith unemployment figures dropping and more people getting back to work, there are reasons to be optimistic about the labor market. However, the upswing in employment is not affecting all job-seekers equally. For workers who have been out of work for over six months (otherwise known as the long-term unemployed) prospects are as bleak as ever. Moreover, the new jobs that are being created are not the same quality as those that have been lost. As growth in lower paying jobs outpaces that of mid- and high-wage jobs, many workers find themselves with wages that they cannot live on.

recent Urban Institute report shows that older workers, minorities, single parents, and people with disabilities are disproportionately represented among the long-term unemployed. Compared to the newly unemployed, who might be looking for a first job, on temporary leave, or just completed a temporary job, nearly half of all long-term unemployed workers have lost a permanent job. Despite being casualties of a brutal recession, these workers are being actively discriminated against by employers—research indicates that if a job applicant has been unemployed longer than six months, their length of unemployment will have more influence than their industry experience on whether they will be considered for a position. The three million individuals who have been jobless for more than a year face a less than 1-in-10 chance of finding a job in a given month.

Compounding the problem for those who remain eligible for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits are cuts to both state and federal unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. State UI benefits are the benefits unemployed workers receive when they initially become unemployed—up to a maximum of 26 weeks of benefits. Federal UI benefits are generally authorized by Congress during periods of high unemployment, as experienced since the recession began in 2008. So one round of cuts to UI benefits is state implementation of the federal sequester cuts that have resulted in the deep cuts to unemployment insurance. A second round of cuts is related to state laws that have been enacted in the past few years that drastically reduced the maximum number of weeks a person is eligible to receive state unemployment benefits. Michigan (§ 421.27(d)) and Missouri (§ 288.060(4)) cut state UI benefits from a maximum of twenty-six weeks to twenty weeks, while Florida and Georgia offer less than 20 weeks. Illinois and Arkansas (§ 11-10-504(a)) cut their maximum benefit periods to twenty-five weeks. These cuts have also resulted in fewer weeks available of federal UI. And finally, federal UI benefits are set to expire by the end of this year. Slowly but surely, the unemployed are being left without prospects and without a safety net.

Furthermore, the jobs created in the recovery are not equal to the ones that were lost during the recession. Six in ten jobs lost during the downturn were in mid-wage occupations. In comparison, employment in lower wage occupations increased by 2.8 times as much as mid- and high-wage occupations during the recovery. The disproportionate growth of lower paying jobs will have serious consequences for income inequality in the future. The current fast-food worker strikes are reminders of the injustice of jobs that fail to pay workers a living wage; these jobs make it especially difficult for women and families to stay afloat and force workers to rely on public benefits. We need to provide people with wages that can keep them out of poverty and provide opportunities for career advancement.

A true economic recovery means an equal opportunity for everyone to get back on their feet. Right now, the long-term unemployed are being left behind, and quality jobs are being left out. We need to continue to fight the stigma of long-term unemployment and advocate for living wages.

Carolyn Sliwa, Employment and Training VISTA, contributed to this blog.


Reframing Justice: Hiring the Best Candidate for the Job

Historically, when men and women with criminal records applied for jobs with the State of Illinois, they were asked on the initial employment application form if they had ever been convicted of a crime. If they answered “yes” or checked the “yes” box on the form, they were usually prescreened out of the general applicant pool and never truly considered for the position sought. No matter how educated, how qualified, or how much of an asset these individuals would be to our state, they were not considered, simply because they checked “yes” in response to a question regarding their conviction history. And even if the applicant survived that prescreening, qualified men and women seeking employment were still often rejected without consideration of factors like how long ago the case occurred, how serious the offense was, the circumstances surrounding the offense, and the relatedness of that offense to the job sought by the applicant. As a result, thousands of hardworking and law-abiding men and women in communities across the state were denied positions each day despite being qualified, arguably the best fit for the job, and presenting substantially no more of a risk to public safety than the general population who have not been convicted of mistakes made in their past.

Thankfully, as of October 3, 2013, that will no longer be the case. 

Governor Patrick Quinn issued an administrative order that requires agencies under his jurisdiction to assess state job applicants’ credentials before inquiring into their criminal records (a process often called “Banning the Box”), and then, if the applicant does have a criminal record, to consider common-sense things like the amount of time that has elapsed since the offense, the gravity of the offense, and the relationship of that offense to the job sought when determining the individual’s fitness for a particular position. In doing so, Governor Quinn dramatically changed the state’s hiring process to ensure that men and women with criminal records are not automatically—and unwisely—denied access to employment.  

The practice of Banning the Box has been thoroughly vetted by states and employers. Nationwide, Banning the Box has been implemented in more than 40 jurisdictions and nearly a dozen states. One such jurisdiction is the City of Chicago, which banned the box from its employment applications several years ago. Moreover, this practice was recommended by the Illinois Poverty Commission, the recently promulgated guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and, most recently, by the Illinois Employment Restrictions Task Force, which was charged with assessing the employment barriers that confront those who have made past mistakes to determine if there are less restrictive alternatives to these policies and statutes that would not unduly harm Illinoisans. 

Ban the Box policies are frequently misunderstood by the public, perhaps because the media does not present the whole picture. These policies do not give people with criminal records a total pass. Right now, qualified men and women with past mistakes are never given a shot to be hired; ban the box simply gives these men and women the chance to take care of themselves and their families that they have earned and deserve. Their criminal histories are weighed at the point in the hiring process where they have been found to be qualified for and a strong candidate for the job. Then employers weigh whether their criminal history makes them unsuitable because of the substantial risk they may pose to the public or their employees.  

Delaying employment-related criminal record inquiries gives job applicants the personal contact with an employer needed for them to mitigate or erase the negative stereotypes that an employer may hold regarding those with criminal records. In fact, employers who have this personal contact with applicants are shown to be more than four times more likely to call back applicants with criminal records.

Without question, this order will remove unnecessary barriers to employment for the nearly four million men and women in our state with criminal records. Doing so yields tangible benefits for not only the man or woman who made a mistake in their past; it benefits their children, their family, their community, improves public safety, and saves our state money. Nearly fifty percent of the men and women in our communities with criminal records will re-offend (called “recidivism”) within three years unless they are able to acquire stable employment. If they are fortunate enough to acquire employment, the recidivism rate falls to only 8%. Accordingly, the benefits of sound policy that allows men and women in our communities more opportunities to be self-sufficient and take care of their children and saves our state millions in criminal justice costs associated with recidivism are clear. Just as important, waiting to inquire into a man or woman’s criminal record helps applicants avoid the indignity of being rejected from a job after job without ever getting a shot because of the stigma associated with those who made past mistakes. It also rewards those who work hard to overcome that stigma and rejection by pursuing further education, having no further contact with law enforcement, and being exemplary parents and community members.

Any policy that does any of those things needs to be congratulated. This policy does all of them. And for that, we commend the State of Illinois for its leadership in ensuring that the state has a just hiring policy that opens doors that are too often slammed shut on the faces of hardworking and law abiding men and women who have earned a fair shot. 

Is Poverty a Dirty Word?

As we mark International Day for the Eradication of Poverty today and approach the January 2014 50th Anniversary on the War on Poverty, I remain personally torn about the word “poverty.” Is “poverty” a dirty word that unfairly shames people and labels communities with negative stereotypes? Is the term outdated? Is it demeaning to describe individuals and families as “poor?”

Transitioning from a private firm, civil rights litigation background to an anti-poverty policy nonprofit this year, I had to come to terms with the language around poverty work. Of course, the real issue is not my own use of the term "poor" or "poverty" but rather the politicized nature of the term and its use as a code word.

The language used by some about the ”47% percent” of Americans allegedly paying no income tax is the perfect example of why I’m uneasy when I use the term "poverty." In one phrase, it conveyed the belief held by some that accessing any government program makes you lazy, shiftless and a burden to yourself and American society. Moreover, in media images, the poor are almost always African American and Latino. The convergence of these phenomena results in a convenient code that masks racist and discriminatory views.

In response, the pendulum may have swung too far back to the left. Many use anything but the terms “poverty” or “poor.” Low-income, emerging middle class, lower middle class, recession hit Americans, but rarely poor Americans or Americans living in poverty. 

I have not resolved my personal conflict on the subject, but have settled on an approach taken by many working in the anti-poverty field. When talking on the large scale, I use the terminology of anti-poverty and poverty. When I refer to individuals and families, I use the terminology of low-income. This hopefully conveys that there is no shame in living below or at the poverty line and respects individuals and families by not furthering use of hostile and inappropriate code words.

It’s time that we give people enduring poverty the respect they deserve. Poverty is not a dirty word, its worse. Poverty is an epidemic that only gets worse if continue to fail to acknowledge it. 


Major Cut in SNAP Benefits Will Take Effect on November 1, 2013

Editor's Note: We have just learned that if the federal government shutdown continues beyond October, the SNAP program will end, and there will be no SNAP benefits issued in November.

SNAP benefitsRecipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) benefits will see a 5- to 6-percent cut to their benefits next month. A household of three will receive $29 less in monthly benefits and a household of four will receive $36 less. Cuts of this magnitude are unprecedented. Here is chart showing the amount of the monthly cut in benefits by household size

There has been little if any publicity about this change. The Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS), which administers SNAP, has decided not to send notices of the change to SNAP recipients. Most SNAP recipients will not learn of this benefit cut until their November benefits are loaded on their LINK cards.

The November cut in benefits is unrelated to the recent attempts in Congress to make major cuts to SNAP. Rather, this cut results from the expiration of temporary increases in SNAP benefit levels that were included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and that have been in effect for the past four years. The total size of the November 2013 cuts will be approximately $5 billion for the 11 months remaining in federal fiscal year 2014 and an additional $6 billion across fiscal years 2015 and 2016. It is estimated that Illinoisans will lose $220 million in SNAP benefits over the 11 months beginning in November. Without the ARRA boost, SNAP benefits will average less than $1.40 per person per meal in 2014.

The ARRA increase to SNAP benefits in 2009 was meant to ease the hardship caused by the financial collapse that weighed most heavily on America’s struggling poor and middle class. USDA research has found that ARRA’s benefit boost cut the number of households in which one or more person had to skip meals or otherwise eat less because they lacked money—what USDA calls “very low food security”—by about 500,000 U.S. households in 2009. Even with the ARRA increase, between 2008 and 2012 more than 22 percent of Illinois households with children experienced times when they did not have enough money to buy food, and more than 14 percent of Illinois households without children indicated experiencing the same.

The Census Bureau recently announced that 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2012, the same percentage as in 2010 and 2011. Hence, the November SNAP cuts, coming at a time when financial recovery from the great recession is nowhere to be found in low income America, will surely increase and deepen hunger.

There is no possibility that Congress will act to prevent these cuts from going into effect next month. Organizations that work with people who receive SNAP benefits should post and distribute the IDHS poster about the change, found here.

Resources for SNAP Families and Individuals:

Census Bureau's Annual Poverty and Income Report Paints a Dark Future

Census reportEvery year the Census Bureau releases its annual report on the state of Poverty, Income, and Health Insurance in the United States. This report looks back on the data for the previous year. Last week the Census Bureau released its report for 2012. But more than looking back on the past, the report is interesting, and disturbing, for what it suggests about our future.

The continuing struggle of young adults. The youngest working age group, ages 15-24, is the only age group whose income has not increased over the past 30 years. In 1982, the median salary of a householder aged 15-24 was $31,563. In 2012, the median salary of a householder aged 15-24 was $30,604 (the difference is not statistically significant). In addition, in 2012, young adults aged 25-34 living with their parents had a 43 percent poverty rate if their poverty status is determined using only their own income and not their parents’ income.

These data speak to the problems faced by young adults. It is during these initial years of career building, when young adults generally do not yet have families, that they have both the resources and the capacity to lay a solid foundation for their entire adult life. It is also the time to build credit and begin saving for retirement and emergencies. A consequence of this stagnant median income is that young adults in 2012 are increasingly having to push these activities into their thirties. Ultimately, lowered income means lowered opportunities for young adults to invest in themselves and their future families.

The lack of a post-recession recovery. Median income and the poverty level were not statistically different in 2012 than they were in 2011. Fifteen percent of the American people lived in poverty, 20 percent more than before the recession. Real median household income lingered at $51,000, 8.3 percent lower than the pre-recession level. Thus, even now, three years after the recession has ended, the recovery has yet to reach the 46.5 million Americans living in poverty.

The poverty rate understates the true level of destitution. Fifteen percent of the overall population lived in poverty, with the poverty rate for children at 22 percent. But forty percent of those who lived in poverty—20 million people, including seven million children—lived in extreme poverty, meaning their income was less than half of the federal poverty level. A family of three in extreme poverty has an annual income below $9,765.

Income inequality has grown enormously over time. Over the past 45 years, the average household’s income has increased by $8,000, while the income of households at 90% of the median income has increased by $56,000, and the income of households at 95% of the median income has increased by $77,000. As a result of this unequal income growth, the disparity between the living standards of middle class and wealthy Americans is far different today than it was in 1967. A household at 90% of median income now has roughly three times as much income as the average household, and a household at 95% of median income has roughly four times as much.

The release of the Census Bureau reports comes against the backdrop of the U.S. House of Representatives’ vote to shred the safety net for low-income Americans by cutting $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next ten years. As bad as poverty is in America, it would be far worse without safety net programs like SNAP, which lifts nearly four million Americans out of poverty.

Kali Grant contributed to this blog post.


The March on Washington and the War on Poverty: 50-Year Anniversaries Remind Us of Need for Closer Coordination

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is a landmark moment for both civil rights and anti-poverty legal advocates. Next January’s 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty is another. During the last 50 years, it has become clear that civil rights and anti-poverty advocates have worked side by side but often not arm in arm. Lawyers in anti-poverty work and those in civil rights work often seem to inhabit friendly but separate worlds. Some legal aid advocates, whose mission is to represent people in poverty, believe poverty is the key to ending racial inequities, while some civil rights advocates believe that race is a prime factor that causes and perpetuates poverty. These are not inconsistent notions. In fact, the potential for a powerful combination of forces seems clear. Moreover, the courts’ apparent retreat on racial justice and politicians’ unwillingness to confront poverty make both groups’ work difficult and present another reason for joining forces. Creating more partnerships across the civil rights and legal aid communities will serve to strengthen outcomes for low-income families and communities of color and is a perfect way to honor the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and declaration of the War on Poverty.

The Shriver Center has always supported civil rights initiatives, but we too have partially fallen victim to the silo effect as it relates to civil right and anti-poverty work. The Shriver Center often serves as a coalition partner with civil rights organizations, and we bring a good share of fair housing cases, but we certainly could engage in more joint cases and causes with civil rights organizations. The authors of this blog, John Bouman, with the Shriver Center for 17 years and current Shriver Center President, and Carol Ashley, a civil rights education equity lawyer in private practice for 18 years and now the Shriver Center Vice President of Advocacy, did their anti-poverty and civil rights work with Chicago offices mere blocks apart without crossing paths until 2012. We fear that our situation is not atypical and that many anti-poverty lawyers and civil rights counterparts could engage in more direct work with each other.

Although reasons for the separate worlds may be benign, such as legal aid organizations’ inability to bring class actions under Legal Services Corporation guidelines, we challenge legal aid advocates to seek out opportunities to partner with the civil rights advocates within their communities as this year of civil rights milestones continues. As we approach next year’s 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, we, in turn, challenge civil rights advocates to reach out to their anti-poverty colleagues to find ways to work together.

Although we often view the March on Washington as one for civil rights, it was billed as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This should remind us all that there is little dividing civil rights activism and economic empowerment or anti-poverty and civil rights legal advocacy.

John Bouman, President
Carol Ashley, Vice President of Advocacy

Working in partnership with civil rights organizations, the Sargent Shriver Center will launch a Racial Justice Training Institute for legal aid attorneys in 2014.



Younger Americans Need to See More than the Film Clip of the March on Washington

Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on WashingtonThe March on Washington and the iconic images of the “I Have a Dream” speech are what many of my generation and the millennials following us think of when we conjure up images of the civil rights movement. It’s a wonderful moment in history—a peaceful coming together of the African American community and their supporters, culminating in one of America’s greatest speeches. As is now said, it’s an example of what makes America great. Those of us who were not witness to the hatred and violence leading up to and following the March—the recalcitrance of white southern leaders fighting Brown v. Board of Education, the use of hoses against American citizens exercising their right to free speech in cities across the south, the dehumanizing toll of living in a legally segregated society, and countless other degradations—can easily make the mental jump over the struggle and focus only on the inspiring words of Dr. King. This disconnect is fueled by our partially living the Dream. During our lifetimes many African American children could join hands as sisters and brothers with white children and be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.

The ability of post-boomer generations to distance ourselves from the awful realities of government-sanctioned and -enforced racism permits us to believe that affirmative action and racially inclusive policies and practices are no longer necessary. This, in turn, gives boomers a pass to maintain that racism is in the past, limited to a few bad actors, and does not impact our business, political, societal, and economic structures. If in addition to the “I Have a Dream” video, Americans watched film of the white crowd assembled outside of Central High School yelling racial epithets at Elizabeth Eckford when she was accidentally separated from the other eight students in the Little Rock Nine and protections of the National Guard, or when peaceful protestors, including U.S. Representative John Lewis, crossing the bridge to Selma were brutality attacked by state police, it’s hard to believe that Americans could so easily conclude that our societal systems and structures could eliminate discrimination in just one or two generations.

To truly honor the March on Washington, Dr. King, and his “I Have a Dream” speech, we need to play not only the clip from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but the hard-to-watch footage of the steps of the civil rights movement. With more than half of the U.S population growing up after the key moments of the civil rights movement and only a few pages of the K-12 history books devoted to the subject, Americans, particularly the youngest who have little exposure to an openly racist society, must observe and appreciate the depths of racism in the 1950s and 1960s if we are ever going to be able to understand today’s need for policies that address its effects.

Carol Ashley currently serves as the Vice President of Advocacy for the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and teaches education equity in the law as an adjunct faculty member at Loyola University Law School in Chicago, Illinois. 

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, Ms. Ashley encourages teachers of middle school age children to post-doctoral candidate to include the Eyes on the Prize DVD series and other collections of the civil right movement as part of their history and political courses in 2013-14 and beyond.

Employers' Obligation to Notify Employees of Their Rights at Issue in the Courts

NLRB PosterEmployee rights received another major setback recently when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rule on notification. The Fourth Circuit held that the NLRB, in issuing the notice-posting requirement, exceeded its authority under § 6 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The Fourth Circuit becomes the second federal appellate circuit to have invalidated the notice-posting rule, joining the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which invalidated the rule in a separate decision in May.

Advocates viewed the notice posting rule as a critical component to the protection of employee rights under the NLRA. Employees covered under the NLRA have the right to organize, to join (or not join) a union, to collectively bargain, to strike and picket, and to receive fair representation by a union. Proponents of the notice-posting rule viewed it as necessary because employees often fail to assert their rights under the NLRA simply because they lack information as to what those rights are and how they may be enforced. 

In issuing the rule, the NLRB attempted to address these concerns by requiring employers to post, in a “conspicuous” place within the workplace, an 11” x 17” poster that provided employees with essential information regarding their rights under the NLRA. In addition to listing employee rights protected by the NLRA, the poster would have provided examples of illegal practices by employers and provided contact information for the NLRB. If an employer failed to comply with the notice requirement, the NLRB could have deemed that employer as engaging in an “unfair labor” practice.

Soon after the NLRB promulgated the notice-posting rule in August 2011, opponents vigorously challenged it in federal court. Trade associations joined with other business associations representing employers in filing two separate suits in federal district courts in Washington, D.C., and in South Carolina. They argued that the rule violated both the NLRA and their free speech rights under the First Amendment. In particular, they claimed that the rule would have effectively forced them to publish, on their premises, government speech in favor of organized labor.

In the D.C. case, the district court severely limited the rule by effectively removing the NLRB’s power to enforce it. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals went even further, holding that the notice-posting rule violated the free speech component of § 8(c) of the NLRA and invalidating the entire rule. The appellate court contended that § 8(c), like the First Amendment right to free speech, protects not only an employer’s right to speak, but also an employer’s right not to speak or to disseminate information. After striking down the NLRB’s enforcement authority under the rule, the appellate court concluded that the NLRB would not have issued the rule based on voluntary compliance by employers.

In the South Carolina case, the district court held that the NLRB exceeded its authority under § 6 of the NLRA and therefore invalidated the rule. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. The appeals court noted that “the substantive provisions of the Act make clear that the Board is a reactive entity, and thus do not imply that Congress intended to allow proactive rulemaking of the sort challenged here through the general rulemaking provision of Section 6.”

Initially set to go into effect on November 14, 2011, the notice-posting rule never really got off the ground. The NLRB first pushed back the effective date of the rule to January 31, 2012, then again to April 30, 2012. In light of the continued legal challenges, NLRB has voluntarily stayed enforcement of the rule indefinitely while the legal issues are resolved.  

Although the recent decision out of the Fourth Circuit does not bode well for the future of the notice-posting requirement, the rule’s ultimate fate is still not yet clear. The NLRB has not yet stated whether it will appeal the D.C. Circuit or Fourth Circuit decisions to the U.S. Supreme Court. An alternate route could involve Congress amending the NLRA to explicitly provide the NLRB with the authority to promulgate such a rule; however, the current division within Congress makes this route less plausible.

The Shriver Center strongly believes that informing employees of their rights in the workplace is the best way to protect the rights of all employees covered under the NLRA, and that the posting of notices such those at issue in these cases is one of the most effective ways to impart this information. Advocates at the Shriver Center will continue to closely monitor the future of the notice-posting rule.

This blog post was coauthored by Cedric Gordon.


Task Force to Consider SNAP Distribution Schedule

GroceriesOn the last night of the legislative session, the Illinois General Assembly approved House Joint Resolution (HJR) 43, as amended, establishing a task force to recommend possible changes in Illinois’s monthly schedule for distributing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. 

The monthly SNAP distribution schedule affects the vital interests of the two million Illinois residents who rely on SNAP benefits to avoid hunger, especially the 60,000 young children, older adults, people with disabilities, working families and others who enroll or re-enroll in the program each month.

Here is why the SNAP distribution schedule is so important. When a SNAP application is approved, the household receives a partial month’s issuance that covers their needs for the rest of the month in which they applied. They then receive their first full monthly issuance in the following month. If that issuance occurs late in the month, they must “stretch” their initial partial-month issuance for a far longer period than it is intended to cover.

Here is an example:

  • The maximum monthly SNAP allotment for a household of three is $526. More than 1/3 of SNAP households are poor enough to receive the maximum allotment.
  • Assume a household of three that is eligible for the maximum allotment applies on April 11, is approved on April 16 (standard processing time), and receives their SNAP benefits loaded on their LINK EBT card on April 18 (standard). On April 18, the household would receive $351, a partial-month issuance intended to cover them for the 20 days from the date they applied (April 11) through the end of the month (April 30). This $351 is 2/3 of the household's full monthly allotment of $526.
  • If the issuance of SNAP benefits were distributed evenly across the month, and this household’s regular issuance day was the 27nd of the month, it would not receive its next issuance until May 27.
  • The household would have to “stretch” the $351 it received on April 18 for 40 days, until May 27.
  • The household needs twice as much, $700, over 40 days to avoid experiencing hunger.

Spreading SNAP issuances across the month would cause households to experience hunger not only during their first month on SNAP but also each time they leave and later re-enroll in the program. This is a common occurrence for working families whose income and eligibility for the program fluctuates. Over 70 percent of SNAP recipients are in working families with children.

To avoid causing SNAP recipients to experience hunger by having a long waiting period between when they receive their initial partial-month issuance and when they receive their first full issuance, IDHS has begun to distribute all SNAP benefits within the first ten days of the month.

Food retailers, represented by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA), would prefer that the issuance of SNAP benefits be spread out more evenly across the month. According to IRMA, an even distribution of benefits throughout the month is needed to avoid a rush on stores at the start of the month and empty stores later in the month. They claim that this creates staffing and customer service problems and prevents them from stocking adequate supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables, thus harming SNAP participants as well as retailers.

The retailers’ argument is premised on the assumption that SNAP participants spend all of their benefits on the day they receive them. This assumption is refuted by the data covering all $250 million in SNAP issuances and usage during April 2013. These data show that, although 70 percent of SNAP benefits were issued during the first ten days of the month, actual usage is fairly even throughout the month, with only a small drop-off in the last 10 days of the month.

When the Illinois Department of Human Services stood by its decision to issue all SNAP benefits during the first 10 days of the month, IRMA decided to seek a legislative solution. It drafted legislation that was never filed that would have mandated the state spread out its issuance of SNAP benefits across the month. IRMA’s legislation gave no consideration to how such a schedule would inflict hunger on SNAP participants.

As the end of the legislative session loomed and the prospects for passage of the legislation IRMA had drafted but never filed dimmed, IRMA decided instead to introduce HJR 43, which again focused solely on the retailers’ interest in having the distribution of SNAP benefits spread more evenly throughout the month and gave no consideration to how this would affect the vital interest of SNAP participants in avoiding hunger.

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights co-led successful advocacy to amend the resolution to ensure that the task force also considers the interests of SNAP participants in avoiding hunger when recommending a new SNAP distribution schedule. The amended resolution that passed the House and Senate requires that the task force's recommendations not increase hunger; adds "hunger" to the task force's name; frames the task force in the context of the SNAP program; and adds the Greater Chicago Food Depository as a member of the task force. 

In addition to a representative from the Shriver Center, Governor Quinn has appointed representatives from Heartland Alliance, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the Illinois Retail Merchants Associations, the Illinois Food Retailers Association, and the Illinois Department of Human Services to the task force. Each of the four legislative leaders has also appointed one member of the task force. The task force is being chaired by Rep. Sara Feigenholtz and Sen. Jacqueline Collins, both sponsors of HJR 43, and includes Rep. Norrine Hammond and Sen. Syverson. The task force’s report is due by October 1, which will allow for legislative action during the two-week fall veto session that begins on October 22.

Several organizations contributed to the successful advocacy to amend HJR 43 to require that the task force consider the interests of SNAP participants in avoiding hunger and not solely the interests of food retailers. These organizations include the Shriver Center, Heartland Alliance, Bread for the World, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the Illinois Hunger Coalition, Illinois Action for Children, and the Ounce of Prevention Fund. In the months ahead, anti-hunger, anti-poverty and low-income children’s advocates need to remain vigilant to ensure that, as the task force’s charge provides, any plan to change the distribution schedule for SNAP benefits must do so without increasing hunger. 


Workers Need Paid Sick Days and Fair Wages, Not Increased Hours for No Pay

Father with sick childToo often, workers have to choose between taking time off for illness and not receiving the wages they desperately need or showing up for their job despite their poor health or the poor health of someone they care for. For workers who support families, these decisions are even more difficult. In the absence of guaranteed leave for sickness or family obligations, workers fear losing their jobs or sacrificing their paycheck. Fortunately, there are viable solutions. Paid sick days help workers maintain a work-life balance, and an increase in the minimum wage would put more money in the pockets of low-income workers. We need to support policies that allow workers to take time off when they are sick and earn wages that keep their families out of poverty. But recent legislation that passed the U.S. House is a misguided attempt to give employers the ultimate deciding power and exploit low-wage workers.

Paid Sick Days

Paid sick days ensure workers are not forced to choose between their health and their paychecks. Hourly-paid employees in particular are made to feel that taking time off will jeopardize their jobs, and they often go to work despite their illness. This is called “presenteeism” and is estimated to cost our national economy $160 billion in lost productivity each year. Those who show up sick to work are often the same people who prepare our food or care for children—nearly three in four food service workers and child care workers don’t have access to paid sick leave, putting public health at risk (pg. 2-3). No one wants to work while seriously ill, but people who are supporting themselves or their families need every paid hour of work they can get. Unpaid time off has serious implications for the economic security of workers and their families. Just three and a half days of missed work is equivalent to an entire month’s groceries for the average family (pg. 1). Paid sick days clearly benefit workers, but they also help employers by reducing turnover, which can be very expensive. Five cities and one state have already introduced their own paid sick days laws with great success. San Francisco instituted a paid sick days law in 2007 and saw greater increase in job growth as well as business growth compared to the five neighboring counties. The movement in support of paid sick days laws is making progress in states across the country. Find out what is going on in your state. Additional information and resources are available here.

The Healthy Families Act

Now pending in Congress, the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286/S. 631) would set a national paid sick days standard, allowing workers to earn up to seven paid sick days each year. The Healthy Families Act would guarantee paid sick days for most workers, allowing workers in businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven paid sick days each year. These sick days could be used to recover from illness, access preventative care, or care for a sick family member, which is a crucial problem for all working parents. The bill would give victims of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault the opportunity to use their paid sick days to recover or get much needed assistance.

The Fair Minimum Wage Act

The Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010/S. 460) would help families prosper—nearly 28 percent of workers who would be affected by an increase are parents (pg. 8). Currently, a parent who works full-time, year-round at a job that pays federal minimum wage will not earn enough to be above the federal poverty line (pg. 3). We need to help families struggling to provide for children by paying workers wages they can actually live on. The Fair Minimum Wage Act would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 via three incremental increases of $0.95, and then index it to inflation. To put the present (and shockingly low) minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in perspective, if minimum wage had increased at the same rate of the average worker’s wages, it would be about $10.50 today (pg. 4). Leaving minimum wage workers behind will increase income inequality and keep families in a cycle of poverty. 

The Paycheck Fairness Act

Women workers and their families would also benefit from the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84), which would target discriminatory pay practices that contribute to the persistent wage gap between women and men. The Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen the Equal Pay Act to make investigation into employment discrimination against women more effective. Women earn, on average, $11,084 less annually than their male counterparts. This is especially hard on single mothers but also hurts two-parent families who rely on both parents’ wages.

The Working Families Flexibility Act

Unfortunately, the only proposal that has made progress in Congress so far is the Republican-backed Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 (H.R. 1406), a bill with a misleading name that would actually undermine the Fair Labor Standards Act and force workers to spend more time away from their families by increasing overtime hours without paying workers overtime wages. The Working Families Flexibility Act, despite being bad news for all working families, passed the House on May 8th with a vote of 223-204 (with only three Democrats voting for the bill). The legislation allows employers the opportunity to give workers paid time off for overtime hours worked, instead of paying workers the overtime pay they have earned. Unfortunately, instead of making workers’ schedules more flexible, the bill will cause employers to increase workers’ overtime hours. Since they do not have to compensate workers for up to 13 months, the bill hands employers an interest-free loan for the amount of money they would have had to pay as time and a half wages. Because hourly-paid workers in today’s economy cannot say no to their employers without putting their jobs at risk, employees will be forced to choose comp time instead of pay. Provisions of the bill give employers all the power, including decisions as to when workers can take their comp time (this can be refused if it “unduly disrupts the operations of the employer”), and employers can even cash out comp time for wages if they choose to do so, leaving workers who had planned on having time off with no options. The bill provides no recourse for requests for time off that are unfairly delayed or denied and no protection for employees when businesses collapse or go bankrupt.

Take Action and Contact Members of Congress! 

Contact both of your U.S. senators and your U.S. representative and let them know that you support the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286/S. 631), the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84), and the Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010/S. 460) and would like to see all these bills move forward. In addition, let your senators know that you oppose the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 (H.R. 1406). Hopefully, this bill will not move in the Senate; however you should still let your senators know that you oppose this legislation. For Illinois residents, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) is a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (also known as the HELP Committee), which all of these bills have to pass through, so contacting Senator Kirk is particularly important. Thanks for taking action!

For more information, please contact Wendy Pollack, director, Women’s Law and Policy Project, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

Employer Credit Checks: A Discriminatory Practice

Credit ScoreLenders use credit reporting information to determine a borrower’s creditworthiness and to make lending decisions. However, a new report by Demos reveals that a growing number of companies are checking credit reports as part of the hiring process.     

According to Demos, 1 in 4 unemployed people reported that a potential employer requested to check their credit report as part of the job application. Employers’ rationale for this practice is that people with bad credit scores will be less reliable or won’t be hard-working or high-quality employees. Yet the report clearly shows that negative beliefs about people with poor scores are nothing more than false stereotypes. According to Demos, financial misfortune is the major driving force behind peoples’ low credit scores, not irresponsibility or poor work ethic. Job loss, loss of health coverage, and medical debt are the leading reasons for poor credit scores—not laziness or irresponsibility. While these factors might hinder a person’s creditworthiness, there is no evidence to suggest that they hinder a person’s job performance. Additionally, African Americans and other minorities are more likely to have poor credit scores, partially due to the proliferation of predatory lending schemes that target minority neighborhoods. Often, these predatory financial products leave people with no option but to default on their loans. The practice of using credit checks in the hiring process is a clear example of structural racism and could be a driver of the ever-growing racial wealth gap.  

Moreover, credit scores are prone to error, and therefore cannot be relied upon as an accurate predictor of a person’s reliability as an employee. According to a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study, 1 in 4 consumers identified at least one potentially material error among their three credit reports that could negatively affect their credit scores. Out of the people who found errors in their reports, just 5.2% were able to have their credit scores adjusted enough to move to a lower credit risk score. This study revealed that the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is inadequate in allowing consumers to control their own credit scores. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)’s recent comprehensive study of credit reporting found that ongoing efforts to measure credit report accuracy will likely continue to rely on consumers to identify potential inaccuracies in their credit reports and to rely on the dispute resolution system to validate that inaccuracies have occurred. However, the FCRA’s existing consumer dispute process will not identify or ameliorate certain types of errors that may be associated with the credit reporting agencies’ data processes.

As part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act, the CFPB was given authority to supervise both consumer reporting companies and those that provide consumer reporting companies with consumers’ credit information, such as large banks and many types of nonbanks. In July 2012, the CFPB adopted a rule to extend its supervision authority to cover larger consumer reporting agencies, and in September it released the examination procedures it will use to examine these companies. Previously, these companies were not supervised at the federal level. In October 2012, the CFPB began accepting consumer complaints about credit reporting; for the first time, this gave consumers individual-level complaint assistance with consumer reporting agencies at the federal level. The CFPB has indicated that it may also consider the development and implementation of data quality and accuracy metrics to reduce risk to consumers and assure compliance with FCRA obligations.

As of February 2013, eight states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, Vermont and Washington) have passed laws prohibiting the use credit checks as part of the hiring process. During 2012, 35 bills in 17 states and the District of Columbia were pending related to restrictions on the use of credit information in employment decisions. Given credit checks’ low probability of providing reliable proof of a worker’s abilities and its disparate impact on minorities, this practice should be banned nationally. Moreover, when credit rating agencies make errors on reports, the person with the damaged score should not be punished. Requiring people who have suffered financial misfortune to face greater barriers to employment embodies everything America is not about. 

2012 Poverty Scorecard Shows Congressional Inaction in Fighting Poverty

Who does the least and the most to fight against poverty?Forty-six million Americans live in poverty. More than one in five children and nearly one in three single-parent families are poor. And yet, in 2012, Congress did virtually nothing to improve their lives. In fact, according to the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law’s sixth annual Poverty Scorecard, most significant poverty-related legislative proposals considered by the U.S. House of Representatives would have made poverty worse had they been enacted into law.

The 2012 Poverty Scorecard grades the voting record of every U.S. Senator and Representative on the most important poverty-related votes in 2012. We identified which votes to use in consultation with national experts in twenty different subject areas.  This year’s votes again cover a wide range of topics, including budget and tax, food and nutrition,  health care, immigrants, community and economic development, domestic violence, housing, legal services and veterans.  In all, we used 11 Senate votes and 17 House votes to grade the Members.    

In addition to showing Congress’ neglect on the issue of poverty, the Poverty Scorecard also shows that when it comes to poverty, as with other topic areas, there are very few moderates in Congress.  Based on 2012 voting records, 95 percent of the Senators and 92 percent of the Representatives were at one extreme or the other, i.e., they earned an A+ or A grade or a D, F, or F-.  Only five Senators and 32 Representatives earned a B or C.

The Poverty Scorecard found an inverse correlation between a state’s poverty levels and the voting record of its Congressional delegation.  Members with poor records in voting to fight poverty tended to come from states with higher levels of poverty whereas members with good records tended to come from states with lower levels of poverty.

The antipathy of the majority of the House of Representatives towards people living in poverty was best exemplified by its passage of Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, which would have dismantled Medicare by converting it into a private voucher program, undermined the structure of Medicaid and SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) by converting them into state block grant programs, and slashed funding for such important anti-poverty programs as the WIC nutrition program for pregnant women and young children, Pell Grants for Higher Education, mental health and substance abuse services, and workforce programs, Fortunately, the Senate rejected Rep. Ryan’s proposed budget.

Other House votes that would have made poverty worse included a vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), separate votes to repeal two key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, votes to eliminate economic and community development programs for low-income people and neighborhoods, votes to slash funding for legal services and subsidized housing, and votes to prevent the federal government from protecting the civil rights of immigrants.

Most of the Senate’s significant poverty-related votes were on proposals that would have reduced poverty. Unfortunately a minority of Senators used parliamentary tactics to block consideration of legislation needed to vindicate women’s right to equal pay for equal work, and a proposal to increase jobs for veterans by creating a veterans job corps and providing for various veterans’ hiring preferences.

The only two legislative proposals included in the Poverty Scorecard that became law were needed to avoid a crisis. One extended expiring tax cuts and unemployment benefits for 2012 and the other averted the fiscal cliff.

Congress made few strides in reducing poverty last year. More action is required for millions of Americans to have access to basic programs that allow them to lift themselves out of poverty and reach for the American dream. By sharing these grades and holding lawmakers accountable, the Shriver Center will help to spark a legislative environment that has low-income families’ best interests in mind. To learn more, download the 2012 Poverty Scorecard from our website. 

NPR--Addressing the Wrong Question About Disabilities

Several recent NPR stories reported by Chana Joffe-Walt that originated on This American Life perpetuate stereotypes and misconceptions about disability and the country’s main safety net programs that support people with disabilities. Many of these stories’ mistakes and insinuations have been pointed out and refuted in other blogs this week. These include comprehensive facts from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Media Matters fact check, strong protest from the Paralyzed Veterans of America to the stories’ skepticism about mental and other disabilities that cannot be seen, and a letter from over 100 groups that work on behalf of people with disabilities.

Ira Glass of This American Life issued a statement defending the reporter’s fact-checking of the piece, denying factual errors, and standing by the story. That statement, in turn, was rebutted by Shawn Fremstad of the Center for Economic Policy Research.

Although the blogs convincingly establish that the NPR stories make a number of errors about the disability programs, what is more disturbing to me is the tone of the reporting and the reporter’s cynical message that something is fishy with these programs. Joffe-Walt never outright claims that a significant number of the people who receive disability benefits are not in fact disabled, but reading and especially listening to the This American Life piece make it unmistakable that this is what she wishes to convey. Her stated “news” from her research is that the growth in disability benefits recipients reveals a hidden feature of our economy—that there are no jobs for lots of people with less than high school education in our economy. That’s a fair and useful point. But she clearly also conveys that she thinks there is something wrong with the disability programs, because people who tell her they would try to work if they could find a job instead are able to qualify for disability. 

Joffe-Walt says the disability definition is “squishy,” especially with respect to impairments that are not readily visible, because “you can end up with one person with high blood pressure who is labeled disabled and another who is not.” She apparently did not dig enough to find out that core inquiries in the disability determination process, which may be answered only by medical experts, are about the “severity” of impairments and the impact they have, when combined with all of the person’s impairments, on his or her ability to function in the workplace. High blood pressure, in particular, is explicitly blocked from being the basis for disability all by itself. Thus, two people with high blood pressure of different severity, in the presence of different additional medical impairments, can easily fall on different sides of the disability line. Nothing “squishy” about it, once you understand it.

Joffe-Walt questions the good faith of all 14 million Americans “on disability.” She never notes how stringent the disability requirements are, or that only 40% of applicants succeed in establishing disability. Although at times she concedes that many people getting disability benefits are actually medically unable to work, she also says that “going on disability,” which offers recipients small cash benefits and health coverage but also keeps them poor for the rest of their lives, is a “deal 14 million Americans have signed up for.” That conclusion assumes that, for most of recipients, “going on disability” was some sort of choice. But people who are disabled do not have a real choice. Their only “choice” is whether to apply for available subsistence income or to have no income at all.

The main problem I have with the piece is its paper-thin penetration of a deep problem. Joffe-Walt never examines the issues through what should be an obvious lens—what if virtually all of the people receiving disability benefits are actually disabled or medically unable to work? The real problem is not why so many people get disability benefits, but why so many people are disabled. If you spend any length of time in low-income communities, it becomes increasingly clear that there are lots of walking wounded, a reservoir of people who medically qualify for disability benefits but who have not been able to apply or navigate the system to get assistance.

Examining the issues through that lens gives rise to important questions about our health system and the healthiness of our workplaces (in addition to Joffe-Walt’s good point about the changing nature of the American job market). The one doctor Joffe-Walt could find in the Alabama county she visited apparently carries on a heroic practice. Yet one wonders how much preventive care, how much early diagnosis and treatment of conditions to keep them from becoming acute, how much well-child care, how much prenatal care is going on in that crowded practice, where so much of interaction involves assessing the disabling impact of impairments people already have. In the larger picture, there are important questions about the impact that a lack of health insurance, and its attendant lack of a regular relationship with a doctor, have on the working ability of the 50 million uninsured Americans.  

There is a huge debate raging in this country about vigorously implementing the Affordable Care Act, which has aggressive strategies to reform the health care system and insure most of the uninsured, all of which can bring down the number of people with disabilities. And we have the spectacle—in Alabama and elsewhere—of governors and legislators rejecting those reforms on ideological and political grounds. Joffe-Walt’s piece, unbeknownst to her, is a very poignant reminder of who and what those politicians are sacrificing on the altar of their political ambitions. 


Taking Aim at Chronic Unemployment and Poverty

The chronically unemployed live within or haunt the edges of every American community. Unable to find work  due to a lack of education, extreme poverty, homelessness, family instability, substance abuse, mental illness, criminal histories, or race, ethnicity, and gender bias, their plight reminds America of how far short we’ve fallen from the promise of justice and opportunity. Almost 23 million people remain unemployed or underemployed, and poverty continues to grip over 46 million Americans. On top of that, large numbers of adults and out-of-school youth in the United States are chronically unemployed. Few of them are counted in formal unemployment statistics because they are no longer, or never were, sufficiently connected to the labor force to be counted in those statistics. What if we could attack these economic and societal ills with one swing? Well, I think we can.  

The Transitional Jobs strategy is a pragmatic approach to lowering chronic unemployment and poverty that cuts through the complex reasons for a person's unemployment and starts with the desired outcome--employment. Transitional Jobs combine wage-paid work, job skills training, and supportive services to help individuals facing barriers to employment succeed in the workforce. The person is placed in a subsidized, temporary, wage-paying job. Case-managed social services are also brought to bear while the person is working and earning an income to address the factors that have blocked that person from finding work in the past. Job development services then help place that person in unsubsidized work as soon as appropriate, and job retention services consolidate a successful transition to long-term employment and a career path. 

The transitional jobs strategy has produced promising outcomes for participants, often breaking through their chronic unemployment. Research shows that Transitional Jobs programs are the most promising strategy for supporting transitions to work for chronically unemployed Americans. They offer immediate and long-term benefits to individuals, families, employers, and communities, including: reducing recidivism rates; reducing reliance on public benefits and lowering taxpayer costs; improving educational outcomes for dependent children; increasing local demand for goods and services; and benefiting employers by increasing productivity and financial well-being.

Since there has never been a federal program or budget line dedicated to the transitional jobs strategy, practitioners and a growing number of local and state government officials have had to cobble together funding to support this work. As recognition of this strategy has begun to spread, some progress has been made toward incorporating it into a national approach to solving the dual problems of poverty and unemployment. The Obama Administration is currently operating a demonstration program in the Department of Labor--the first ever application of federal funds explicitly to transitional jobs. Still, more can and should be done to advance this strategy to help a greater number of people facing chronic unemployment and poverty.

As the Obama Administration moves into its second term, here are three ways the transitional jobs strategy can be adopted to attack chronic unemployment and poverty:

1.  Creating Pathways to Jobs for All Americans through Job Creation.

The Pathways Back to Work Act is aimed at providing subsidized employment and transitional jobs for youth, the long-term unemployed, and low-income Americans, along with job training to get unemployed Americans back to work, strengthen communities, and benefit employers. With almost 23 million people unemployed or underemployed, and millions more unemployed outside of the official count, the economy needs a booster shot. Measures like the Pathways Back to Work Act would do just that and can be structured to ensure that those who are chronically unemployed have access to transitional jobs in a greater number of communities across the country.

2.  Strengthening Families through Employment Opportunities.

The child support program serves half of all poor children in the United States and 17 million children in total. While many noncustodial fathers want to be involved with their children, many live in poverty and lack the resources to provide for their children financially. Most unpaid child support is owed by these parents, and for many the lack of a steady income is a major barrier to fulfilling parental obligations.

The Obama Administration has supported demonstration projects and coordination with the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement to test iterations of the transitional jobs strategy that seek to provide noncustodial fathers with on-ramps to employment and help them meet child support obligations. The Administration could expand these programs, and the states could re-vamp their child support programs to incorporate transitional jobs programming.

3.  Transitioning Chronically Unemployed Veterans to Civilian Employment.

Current unemployment rates for new veterans are higher than rates for other veteran cohorts, and new veterans require a range of supports--including targeted employment services and supports--to reintegrate. The disproportionate unemployment numbers among veterans also reflect a deeper problem: issues rooted in their military experience create barriers to becoming or remaining employed. As a result, a veteran’s initial unemployment upon return can become chronic. Transitional jobs programs, combining employment with services to address the deeper problems, are an important element of successful reintegration for veterans.

A transitional jobs program operating independently of the VA hospital system should be considered in order to serve veterans with barriers to employment who are not enrolled or participating in VA hospital services. Transitional jobs programs currently in operation within the VA hospital system should be expanded to meet the employment needs of chronically unemployed veterans in hospital settings in a greater number of communities.

The transitional jobs strategy provides a very promising opportunity to successfully attack the problems of chronic unemployment and poverty. There are seasoned practitioners who are ready to provide information, advice and technical assistance, brought together by the National Transitional Jobs Network. They have experience applying the transitional jobs strategy in a wide variety of contexts: as part of larger public employment strategies; focused on particular populations; or as stand-alone social enterprises.  The transitional jobs strategy is an excellent way to take aim at chronic unemployment and poverty.


Federal Jobless Benefits Renewed

Layoff noticeCongress’s bipartisan approval of the fiscal cliff compromise, H.R. 8, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, includes an extension of the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program through 2013 (see Title V of H.R. 8), continuing crucial benefits for America’s unemployed workers. Many raised their voices to ensure that the unemployed were treated as a top priority in the fiscal cliff negotiations. This extension of the EUC program will help keep millions of people out of poverty.

The extension of EUC was appropriately deemed an emergency measure, which meant its cost is not required to be offset. The slow economic recovery makes this extension absolutely essential in helping people who are actively looking for work. Without the continuation of the EUC program through 2013, more than two million unemployed workers would have lost benefits on January 3, 2013, nearly one million would have run out of state benefits by March (and would not have had access to federal ones), and more than five million would have been denied EUC in 2013. In Illinois 90,000 unemployed workers would have received their last EUC payment by mid-January, and an additional 2,800 unemployed workers each week would run out of state benefits and would have no access to federally funded benefits.

Congress has never allowed federally funded unemployment insurance benefits to expire when the unemployment rate is above 7.2 percent (see figure 2), and, with the renewal of the EUC program, Congress preserves this crucial program. Although the nation’s jobs deficit is still significant, strong job creation policies and continued aid will help unemployed workers avoid their own personal fiscal cliff.

The maximum number of weeks of EUC unemployed workers may receive is determined by the number of weeks a state pays for regular benefits and the unemployment rate in that state. What does this means for unemployed workers in Illinois? For individuals who started their regular (state funded) benefits during 2012 (and therefore eligible to receive a maximum of 25 weeks of regular benefits, reduced from 26 weeks prior to 2012), and exhausted their regular benefits after September 1, 2012, it looks like the maximum number of weeks of EUC benefits they are eligible to receive is 35.75 weeks (final calculation still to be determined). This is a total of 60.75 weeks of unemployment insurance.

The Shriver Center recently published a guide to help workers through the unemployment insurance maze, A Worker’s Guide to Unemployment Insurance in Illinois. The guide covers a range of topics including eligibility issues, the claims process, and what to do if you are denied benefits. Also visit the website of the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) for the latest information about the EUC program.

For more information on how unemployment insurance is crucial in reducing economic hardship for families and in putting people back to work, visit the National Employment Law Project’s website

The Silent Majority Utilizes the Social Safety Net and Believes In It

Mitt Romney famously was caught saying to a group of wealthy donors during the presidential campaign:

There are 47 percent of the people who….are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them…And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

It turns out that, in addition to conveying an abhorrent message, Romney was pretty far off on his numbers. According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, “A Bipartisan Nation of Beneficiaries”:

  • 55% of the American people have received benefits from at least one of the six best-known federal entitlement programs – unemployment benefits, Social Security, Medicare, SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), Medicaid and/or cash welfare. These six programs generate the vast majority of federal spending on the social safety net.
  • 71% of the American people are part of a household where one or more people have received at least one of these benefits.
  • If veterans’ benefits and federal college grants and loans are also counted, 86% of the American people—6 of every 7 Americans—are part of a household where one or more people have received at least one of these benefits.

Nor can Romney blame his election defeat on the “beneficiaries” of government largesse who, he also said, would “vote for the president no matter what.” As it turns out, there is not much difference in the political beliefs of those who have received benefits from one of the six major entitlement programs and those who have not:

  • 57% of conservatives, 53% of liberals, and 53% of moderates say they have received benefits.
  • 60% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans say that have received benefits.
  • 59% of the people who voted for Obama and 53% of the people who voted for Romney say they have received benefits.

Even 2 in 5 relatively wealthy Americans—persons whose annual earnings exceed $100,000—say they  have received benefits from one of the six major entitlement programs.

Less surprising is the finding that women, blacks, and rural residents are more likely to have received benefits than their counterparts.

The Pew report also measured public attitudes towards benefits.  Fifty-seven percent of the public said that it is the government’s responsibility to care for those who cannot take care of themselves, with only a small difference between those who have received benefits (60%) and those who have not (55%).

There was a much greater difference on this point between people with different political orientations. Seventy-four percent of Democrats say that it is the government’s responsibility to care for those who cannot take care of themselves, but only 57% of independents and 38% of Republicans agree.

The report also found that some benefits are more popular than others. Providing unemployment benefits is just as popular among people who have never received them as those who have. However, among people who say the government has a duty to care for those who cannot care for themselves, there are double-digit gaps between recipients and non-recipients of Medicaid (13%), SNAP (14%), and cash welfare (17%).

President Obama and Congress have averted the fiscal cliff.  As we move on to a potential fiscal apocalypse if Congress fails to increase the debt ceiling before approximately March 1, policymakers should take careful note of the Pew report’s main findings. To reiterate, 55% of Americans have received at least one major entitlement benefit, and 7 out of 10 Americans are part of a household that includes a member who has received at least one of these benefits. Receipt of benefits is about the same across the political spectrum, with conservatives actually more likely to have received benefits than liberals or moderates. And 57% of the American people, including majorities of those who have and have not received benefits, believe that it is the government’s responsibility to care of those who cannot take care of themselves,.

Right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and others will continue to decry people who receive benefits as “takers” and disparage safety net programs for “breeding a culture of dependency on government.” As the Pew report shows, a solid majority of the American people has had a different life experience and rejects this view.

Children with Disabilities Need Support as Well as Education Kristof’s recently published piece, “Profiting from a Child’s Illiteracy,” uses stories about child poverty in Kentucky to come to false conclusions about the SSI program, which provides crucial aid to help very low-income families handle the expensive realities of caring for children with disabilities.   

Kristof alleges that parents can—and do—win SSI disability benefits for a child simply by making sure that the child is illiterate. He bases this on an opinion voiced by a schoolteacher about one child withdrawn from a literacy class. In fact, there is no such avenue for disability benefits in the SSI program, which has an extremely rigorous set of eligibility requirements. Falling behind in school cannot be the basis of a disability finding, just as doing well in school will not necessarily defeat a disability application. A finding of disability can only be based on medically documented conditions. It is very difficult for a child to prove disability for purposes of SSI, especially disability involving mental impairments. 

It is highly unlikely that the teacher in Kristof’s story had access to the child’s medical records. But based on this one anecdote containing a core mistake about the SSI program’s rules, Kristof concludes that the SSI program sometimes actually “perpetuates” child poverty by motivating—and causing—parents to deprive their own kids of their education. What a bare foundation for such a sweeping denunciation of parents in poverty raising children with disabilities!

Kristof points to an excellent early childhood literacy program operated by Save the Children in the same Kentucky area, and rightly praises early childhood education as a proven way to improve the chances a child will be upwardly mobile later in life. But he poses a false policy choice, advocating that Washington “take money from S.S.I. and invest in early childhood initiatives instead.” 

Children with disabilities clearly need both. There are strong relationships between the deprivations of deep poverty and mental health. Great early childhood literacy programs like the ones that Save the Children operate can provide much help to children in poverty who have disabilities. But the task is immensely harder if the families the children live in are abjectly poor. The bedrock strategy of the SSI program for children is to provide an essential platform of daily living support from which a child with disabilities can rise. 

If there are outlying cases involving abuse by a parent, those cases should be identified and dealt with. That is the stuff of program administration, not policy. For some reason, conservatives periodically have targeted this program for the most vulnerable children in the country, using trumped up allegations of abuse that have never held up under scrutiny. Kristof’s attack is wrapped in more sympathetic language, and he at least argues that the funds he would cut from SSI be used on early childhood education (instead of just to shrink the government), but in the end it is the same sort of unfounded attack. Children with disabilities need subsistence support and early childhood programs. Let’s not use misleading conclusions from outlying anecdotes to make a big policy mistake.   

The Fiscal Cliff and Poor People

The fiscal cliff will remain in the headlines as the January 1 deadline for reaching a deficit reduction agreement looms. What’s in it for poor people? A lot.

If Congress and the President don’t act, several things will happen automatically on January 1; the convergence of these things comprises the fiscal cliff. The Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax cut, and the 2009 improvements to low-income tax credits would all expire, causing taxes to increase on all Americans and by an estimated $2,200 for the average, middle class family. Discretionary federal spending, both defense and non-defense, would be cut drastically through a process called sequestration. Head Start, child care, WIC, housing assistance, and other low-income programs would all be affected. In addition, over two million people would immediately lose their unemployment compensation, since all extensions beyond 26 weeks would expire.

Economists agree that this combination of substantial tax increases and deep spending cuts would put the economy into recession. Therefore, President Obama and Congress will be working towards a deficit reduction agreement that would take effect before January 1 and that would spare us from going over the cliff.

For low-income people it’s of paramount importance that any deficit reduction agreement does not increase poverty or income inequality. Every previous deficit reduction agreement has adhered to this bedrock principle, as did the Bowles-Simpson Bipartisan Commission on deficit reduction.  

The items of greatest and most direct concern to low-income people in the fiscal cliff showdown are the fate of Medicaid and the 2009 improvements to the low-income tax credits.

Cutting Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income Americans, would not only harm those who are already participating but would jeopardize the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) Medicaid expansion. The U. S. Supreme Court, in upholding the ACA, said that states may not be penalized if they choose not to expand Medicaid. The ACA makes expansion financially attractive to states as the federal government picks up 100% of the cost in the first years and 90% thereafter. Cuts to Medicaid, however, may cause states to worry that future changes would make this matching formula less favorable, discouraging them from proceeding with the Medicaid expansion.

The budget adopted by the House Republicans last year would have turned Medicaid into a block grant to the states. Election results have pushed block granting Medicaid off the table. However, those who want to cut Medicaid substantially may now push for a per-person cap on the federal Medicaid match, another version of a block grant that would shift the entire risk of increasing health care costs onto the states.

The second major objective for low-income people in the deficit–reduction debate is to extend the 2009 improvements to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). These improvements increased the EITC for families with three or more children and reduced the level of earnings a family must have before it can qualify for the CTC.  Failure to extend these provisions will drive nearly one million children into poverty.

The fate of these tax credits is related to the debate about how to raise more revenue.  President Obama has insisted that the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest 2%--individuals with income over $200,000 and couples with income over $250,000--return to the pre-Bush tax cut level of 39.6% from the current 35%. The Republicans have pushed to increase revenue by reducing tax expenditures rather than raising tax rates. There are two problems with this. First, reducing tax expenditures would substantially limit the value of the charitable tax deduction to upper-income people, resulting in fewer and smaller donations to charities that provide vital services to low-income people. Second, the low-income tax credits are themselves tax expenditures and would be vulnerable to being cut if the revenue increases are achieved by reducing tax expenditures rather than raising tax rates.

The future of the Medicaid expansion, low-income tax credits that lift a million families out of poverty, unemployment compensation for 2 million people, and massive cuts in programs that serve low-income people—all are hanging in the balance.  Our message to the politicians is simple and clear—reach a deficit reduction agreement that does not increase poverty or income inequality.


New Poverty Data, Still Not Looking Good for Millions

The Census Bureau recently released new data capturing the state of poverty in the U.S. using the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). The U.S. government uses two measures for quantifying poverty: (1) the official poverty measure and (2) the SPM

The official measure, also known as the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), is used to determine the eligibility of individuals applying for means-tested public benefit programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).  

In March 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it would develop an alternative way to measure poverty and created the SPM. The SPM is an attempt to update the official poverty measure or FPL; it is generally agreed that the FPL is outdated and therefore underestimates the level of poverty in the U.S. The SPM is not intended to replace the FPL, but rather to supplement it. Thus, the FPL will continue to be the measure for determining eligibility for public benefits.

The SPM is a more robust tool for examining the overall picture of poverty in the U.S. For years, statisticians, policy analysts, and advocates argued that the official poverty measure was overly simplistic, as it is simply calculated by looking at gross pre-tax income. The SPM, on the other hand, takes into consideration geographic location, necessary expenses, taxes, and alternative forms of income such as public benefits. The final calculation of the SPM is the “sum of cash income; plus in-kind benefits that families can use to meet their food, clothing, shelter and utilities needs; minus taxes (or plus tax credits); minus work expenses; minus out-of-pocket medical expenses and child support paid to another household.”   

According to the first SPM data, which was released last November, 49.1 million, or 16%, Americans lived in poverty in 2010, significantly more than the official poverty measure for the same time period, under which 46.6 million people, or 15% of Americans, were living in poverty.

The new SPM data released earlier this month found that approximately 49.7 million or 16.1% of Americans were living in poverty in 2011 versus 46.6 million, or 15%, under the official poverty measure.  Although the report shows that there was no statistical change in the overall SPM poverty rate between 2010 and 2011, the data is still grim. According to the new SPM data, African American and Hispanic populations have significantly higher poverty rates than whites and Asians; 25.7% of all African Americans and 28% of all Hispanics were living poverty in 2011, compared to 14.3% of whites and 16.9% of Asians. Women were also more likely to be living in poverty compared to men;  53.5% of people living in poverty in 2011 were women versus 47% of men. As for poverty levels by age, according to the official poverty measure, 22.3% of children (under 18), 13.7% of adults (ages 18-64), and 8.7% of seniors (65 and above) were living in poverty in 2011. While under the SPM, 18.1% of children (under 18), 15.5% of adults (18-64) and 15.1% of seniors (65 and above) were living in poverty in 2011

Most importantly, the SPM examines the impact of various government programs on poverty. The new SPM data reveal that without Social Security the overall poverty rate would increase from 16.1% to 24.4%. Similarly, without refundable tax credits the overall rate would grow from 16.1% to 18.9%. Alternatively, if people didn’t have expenses such as child support, income and payroll taxes, work-related expenses, and medical out-of-pocket expenses, the overall poverty rate would decrease from 16.1% to 12.7%

The 2011 SPM data allow us to understand the current poverty levels in our society more clearly. There are somewhere between 45 and 50 million Americans living in poverty according to the SPM and the official measure. Yet, these measures still understate the number of people in poverty, since they focus solely on income poverty and do not even consider asset poverty. Asset poverty means having insufficient funds to meet one’s needs for three months if income were to disappear for those three months. According to the Urban Institute, 1 in 5 people, or 60 million Americans, were asset poor in 2010. Unfortunately in the 2012 election, tackling domestic poverty issues was not on either the candidates’ agenda or the media’s agenda. In a country with so much wealth and an overall increasing wealth gap as well as a worsening racial wealth gap, it is totally unacceptable that so many people are living in or on the edge of poverty, and we as a country need to bring this issue to the forefront.

This blog post was coauthored by Alex Hoffman.


Election Bodes Well for People in Poverty

The Shriver Center’s mission involves improving the quality of life and opportunities of people living in poverty. From that perspective, here are some initial thoughts on the presidential election.

Yes, as some have argued, it would be good to have a more forthright conversation about poverty in the presidential campaign, to name it as a priority to be addressed, and to hear the competing strategies. The principal framing of both sides on economic issues focused instead on the middle class. Much of that is unavoidable—the taking of advice from pollsters and experts about what messages will work during a particular passage of time to improve the chances of victory. That is a lesson all of us in the advocacy world have been struggling to learn for many years—the point is to win, to actually move the ball, not to deploy more personally satisfying rhetoric. 

A quick reminder about the time we are in helps to explain this middle-class framing. The Great Recession has dramatically blurred the lines between the middle class and people in poverty. Lost jobs, lost homes, lost health insurance, lost savings, lost credit, broken neighborhoods, and the very real threat of all those things for people who have managed to avoid them so far are all signs of the perilous nature of middle-class status. And yet the data tells us that everyone, rich or poor or in the middle, prefers to think of themselves as middle class. For most people in poverty, policies framed as advancing the middle class are policies aimed to help them.

So I’m OK with the framing. Particularly from the Obama side of things, it is hard to argue with success. Far more important than framing is the practical impact that the administration’s policies and economic plans will actually have on the prospects for people in poverty. What can we glean from the campaign and from last night? 

The acceptance speech was a resounding affirmation of the core attitude essential for a positive policy direction for people in poverty: “We are all in this together.” The election was yet another chapter in the major struggle of our times between competing narratives about national political life: “we are all in this together” versus “the primacy of the individual.”  People in poverty, and people in the middle class at risk of falling into poverty, will fare better when the general tide of the times favors the common good, mutual duty and responsibility, and the community as well as the individual.

The first level of translating this public narrative into practical outcomes that help people in poverty is the general attitude about the role of government. The campaign juxtaposed the Tea Party attitude that government is bad—because it is government—against the pragmatic notion that government is crucial to and capable of solving problems. As timely exhibited by the ongoing response to Hurricane Sandy, government can competently address emergencies without partisan rancor. The answer to government failure (Katrina) is not to jettison government but to do the job better (Sandy). What bigger emergency, what more compelling need for a smart pragmatic government role, than the thorny and massive-scale issues of poverty?

As a specific illustration of how winning these high-level arguments can produce pragmatic progress, we will now see the full implementation of health care reform. The Affordable Care Act is the single biggest blow against poverty since the 1960s—half a century, or the whole career of an anti-poverty advocate my age. It hasn’t been framed that way, but that’s what it is. It completes Medicaid, making health coverage available to everybody who is poor, which instantly makes them more employable and productive and opens the path to the middle class. It makes affordable commercial coverage available to the whole economic spectrum well up into the middle class, boosting upward mobility, and instantly eliminating the nightmare of lost coverage, bankruptcy, slow death from untreated conditions, blocked aspirations, and loss of middle-class status. The Affordable Care Act stands as a major rebuttal to those who say President Obama got nothing done, or did nothing to address poverty, in his first term.

The Affordable Care Act is a prime manifestation of “we’re in this together,” and of a pragmatic role for government in solving a major economic issue for people in poverty and the middle class. The leading critique against it took the opposite sides of these arguments—the mandate was “the biggest attack on freedom ever” (primacy of the individual) and the law was “too much government” —and failed.

From public narrative, to the role of government, to specific initiatives, the election can be understood as a promising direction for the prospects for people in poverty. It is not self-executing, however, and there are many obstacles, starting with a Congress probably not convinced that these core arguments are conclusively decided. Looming immediately ahead are the immense issues of the “fiscal cliff” that have profound implications for people in poverty. There is a compelling role for those of us committed to the improvement of the prospects of people living in poverty to help see to it that the promising direction of the election produces that improvement.        

With Governor's Veto, California Remains Behind New York in Protecting Domestic Workers

Home care workerCalifornia’s domestic workers, primarily immigrant women of color, vowed to continue fighting for labor rights after Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill (A.B.) 889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Brown said in his veto message that the bill raised too many unanswered questions. But the National Domestic Workers Alliance accused Brown of doing a “tremendous disservice” not only to the workers but to the people they care for. After multiple mobilizations in Sacramento of thousands of workers, for whom time away from work was a real sacrifice, and after New York adopted similar legislation in 2010, workers had been hopeful.

The labor of domestic workers, who care for children, older people, and people with disabilities, goes largely unrecognized, and these workers lack basic protections that others take for granted. For historical reasons, domestic workers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act and other employment laws. And because domestic workers toil in isolation in individual homes, taking concerted action can be difficult. But in recent years, across the country, they’ve found each other and begun to organize.

A decade of advocacy in New York City culminated in a state law that provides expanded overtime pay, protection from discrimination, mandatory days of rest, and other basic benefits for the tens of thousands of women who work as nannies, housekeepers, and companions for the elderly in New York State. Clearinghouse Review reported on that effort last year. Authors Ai-jen Poo and E. Tammy Kim described how a campaign that began with a focus on domestic workers’ grievances against individual employers grew into a multi-year effort focused on the state legislature. Domestic workers from the Asian, South Asian, Latina, and Caribbean communities collaborated to design the legislation. Starting in 2003, they built a base, recruited allies, and told their stories publicly. The New York Assembly passed a version of their bill in 2009; the state senate followed in 2010, and Governor David Paterson signed the bill that summer.

California domestic workers have also been organizing for a decade, and workers’ advocates were hopeful that California would follow New York’s lead, particularly given California’s large immigrant population. Domestic workers’ rights legislation had passed in the state in 2006 but was vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger, a Republican. This time, there was reason to think that the chances were better with Democrat Jerry Brown in office. After all, the first time Brown was governor—some 35 years ago—he staunchly supported the landmark California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which dramatically increased the labor rights of farmworkers.

A.B. 889 would have removed the exclusion of California’s approximately 200,000 domestic workers under other state labor laws and, in the words of Sylvia Lopez, a leader of the California Domestic Workers Coalition, recognize them as “real workers.” If Brown had signed the bill into law, Lopez and her colleagues would have been assured of the same rights other employees enjoy to meal and rest breaks, overtime pay, and workers compensation. Domestic workers who “live in” or work 24-hour shifts would have received certain industry-specific protections as well, such as the right to eight uninterrupted hours of sleep and use of kitchen facilities to cook their own food.

But Governor Brown wasn’t persuaded. In his veto message, he expressed concern for elderly or disabled employers of domestic workers, asked what the bill’s “economic and human impact” would be on employers, and also raised other questions. However, he didn’t reject the bill’s approach entirely, calling instead for the Department of Industrial Relations to “study” his questions and simultaneously to address certain domestic worker issues through regulations.

Although describing itself as “shocked” at the veto, the National Domestic Workers Alliance vowed to continue and expand its campaign in California and to move into other states as well, suggesting Illinois and Massachusetts as likely locales for new efforts. Work is only beginning in these states, and the Shriver Center will be involved in the campaign in Illinois as it unfolds.

What's Up with Vermont? Exploring the American Community Survey Poverty Data

VermontOn September 12, the Census Bureau released official poverty data that showed that the national U.S. poverty rate did not significantly change since 2010. While the poverty rate did not increase, but it also did not decrease, which is bad. There are still 46 million people in America who live in poverty, including one in every five children. That’s 25% more people than at the start of the recession in 2007 and is still the highest number in the 52 years that this data has been collected.

This past week, the Census Bureau released The American Community Survey (ACS), which provides more detailed poverty data on the state and local level.  According to the ACS data, the number of people with incomes below the poverty line grew by 0.6 percentage points between 2010 and 2011. This was the fourth consecutive increase in the poverty rate, however, this year’s increase was smaller than the increases between 2008 and 2009 (1.1%), and between 2009 and 2010 (1.0%).

According to the ACS, among large metropolitan areas, poverty rates ranged from 8.3% to 37.7% in 2011. Additionally, 27 states and the District of Columbia saw no statistically significant change in their poverty rate since 2010, while 22 states saw increases in their poverty rates. Only Vermont had a decrease in its poverty rate, from 12.7% in 2010 to only 11.5% in 2011.

Nationally, real median income dropped 1.3 percentage points since 2010, from $51,144 to $50,502. According to the ACS, 27 states had median household incomes lower than the national median, while 19 states and the District of Columbia had higher median incomes. Median incomes ranged from a high of $70,004 in Maryland to a low of $36,919 in Mississippi. Vermont, where median income rose from $50,707 in 2010 to $52,776 last year, was the only state to have an increase in median income.

The data also show that, nationally, the percentage of people without health insurance coverage decreased (16.3% in 2010 to 15.7% in 2011). In particular, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provision enabling adult children under age 26 to obtain coverage under their parents’ policies, which went into effect in 2010, decreased the number of uninsured young adults aged 19 to 25. Coverage of this group increased from 68.3% to 71.8%.  Overall, 37 states and the District of Columbia saw increases in health coverage, while 13 states had no significant change. And, once again, Vermont was the state that had the highest increase in coverage in the young adult (aged 19 to 25) group, going from 75.2% in 2009 to 89.1% in 2011. Vermont was also one of only nine states whose increase was greater than the national average.

Maybe one question to ask is “What’s up with Vermont?” since, in all of the reported poverty measures, Vermont is on the top. What specifically is the state doing to reduce poverty, and how can these efforts be translated to other states?

While it is impossible to draw a direct causal link between poverty reduction efforts in Vermont and decreases in the state’s poverty rates, there are some possible drivers of this correlation. For example, Vermont has the third highest minimum wage in the U.S. ($8.46).  Wages are one of the basic determinants of income so, logically, a higher minimum wage should reduce poverty.

Vermont has also enacted policies and programs that promote saving and asset building and protect consumers. For instance, with respect to education, Vermont allows savings in its 529 college savings program without a fee, and the state provides incentives for savings in the state’s 529 college savings program for residents. It has also developed content standards for personal finance courses that schools must implement when teaching financial education.  For business development, Vermont provides state funding through the use of federal block grant funding to support microenterprise development.  To protect homeowners from foreclosure, Vermont provides access to judicial review, regulates mortgage servicers, and limits deficiency judgments. In terms of health care policies, in Vermont, both parents and childless adults earning below 300% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) are eligible for Medicaid. Additionally, the state's Medicaid program covers basic dental care for adults and provides an extension of COBRA coverage for small firm employees.  Finally, Vermont has strong asset building policies. It has eliminated asset limits in its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program and excludes at least four categories of assets in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Vermont also has a strong state funded Individual Development Account (IDA) program. It provides tax incentives for working families such as a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) which is 32% of the federal EITC, as well as a Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit.  Finally, Vermont has strong consumer protections against predatory lending.  It caps payday lending and short-term installment loan rates (18% and 24% respectively) and prohibits car-title lending entirely.

Overall the 2011 poverty data show that there is a lot of work to be done when it comes to fighting poverty on both the local and federal level. However, poverty reduction is possible if states begin changing their public policies to promote asset building and savings opportunities and strong consumer protections to protect such savings and assets.  

This blog post was coauthored by Alex Hoffman.


Census Bureau Releases 2011 Poverty Data--Downward Trends Continue

Yesterday the U.S. Census Bureau released data on poverty and health insurance coverage for 2011. The headline is that poverty stayed the same in 2011 as it was in 2010. Not too interesting, unless one looks beneath the surface. 

Poverty: There are still 46 million people in America who live in poverty, including one in every five children. That’s 25 percent more people than at the start of the recession in 2007. The poverty level for a family of three is $19,090

Economic Recovery and Poverty: There is no assurance that poverty will decrease as the economy recovers. During the last economic recovery, economic growth was so weak and the monetary benefits of recovery were so unevenly shared that the official poverty rate grew from 11.7 percent at the start of the recovery in 2001 to 12.5 percent when the recovery ended in 2007.   

The Middle Class: Middle class living standards took another serious blow as median income fell by 1.5 percent in 2011. The median income has fallen by eight percent since the recession started in 2007. For a family with $50,000 in annual income, that’s a loss of $350 per month.

Government Programs Lifted Millions Out of Poverty: Unemployment insurance kept two million people out of poverty in 2011 and social security kept twenty-one million people out of poverty. In addition, Food Stamps (now called SNAP benefits) and the earned income tax credit are not considered when the official poverty rate is calculated because they are “non-cash benefits.” If counted, they would have lifted ten million people, including five million children, out of poverty.

Income Inequality:  Income fell for the bottom four-fifths of American households, and rose by two percent for the top-fifth, including five percent for the top five percent of households—a $15,000 increase in annual income. Apart from being unfair, this continuing growth in income inequality is a drag on economic growth and job creation, shifting resources away from persons who will spend them and stimulate economic activity.     

Overall, the Census numbers paint a picture of continuing high rates of poverty, government programs that provide an essential safety net, a major decline in middle class living standards, and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor that is undermining our economic recovery.  

This article is largely based on analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Employee or Independent Contractor? A Distinction with a Difference

WorkersThe recession has made many Americans understandably desperate for employment. Some money-hungry employers take advantage of this desperation by misclassifying new hires as independent contractors rather than employees. You know how people sometimes talk about distinctions without a difference? The distinction between independent contractors and employees is not one of those meaningless distinctions. 

Misclassifying an employee as an independent contractor can have dire consequences for the worker. Independent contractors who are injured on the job are not eligible for workers’ compensation. Independent contractors are also not eligible for minimum wage, overtime, unemployment insurance, and any benefits an employer offers to his or her employees, such as health care or vacation benefits. Even worse, the workers who are most frequently misclassified as independent contractors work in low-wage industries such as construction, home health care, landscaping, and delivery services—so they are precisely the people who need employment protections the most.

Although employers that engage in independent-contractor misclassification certainly save money, society as a whole does not benefit. The government loses tax revenue when employers misclassify their employees, and competing businesses suffer when misclassifying employers game the system.

What is being done to fight this problem? On the federal level, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor maintains a helpful website outlining the federal government’s response to independent contractor misclassification. The Department of Labor is fighting misclassification through a multi-pronged Misclassification Initiative. As part of that initiative, in 2011 the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service entered into an agreement to “work together and share information to reduce the incidence of misclassification of employees, to help reduce the tax gap, and to improve compliance with federal labor laws.” The Department of Labor has also signed memoranda with individual states outlining plans to cooperate on this issue.

In addition to working with the Labor Department, some state and local governments are tackling independent-contractor misclassification on their own. The range of state and local approaches to this problem is broad; some states, such as Illinois, have passed their own laws to reduce independent-contractor misclassification. Some states have created task forces to fight the problem through investigating alleged misclassification, filing lawsuits, and educating employers and workers about their rights and responsibilities. And some states have given their labor departments more budget dollars to crack down on this problem.

As Andrea Vaughn of the Public Justice Center discussed in a recent issue of Clearinghouse Review, Maryland has both passed a law prohibiting independent-contractor misclassification and created a task force to fight it. In her article, Identifying Misclassified Workers: Lessons Learned from Maryland’s Workplace Fraud Act, Vaughn describes the independent-contractor misclassification problem generally as well as the history behind Maryland’s 2009 law, the Workplace Fraud Act. Vaughn observes that “[t]he strength of the opposition that the Act has faced—both before and after its passage—shows the potential power that this type of legislation bears against unscrupulous employers.” Advocates for low-income workers should take note of the Maryland act and develop a nuanced understanding of independent-contractor misclassification so that they can address this problem in their own work. 

Taxing the Poor, Enriching the Wealthy: Congress Votes on Tax Policy

Tax policy has taken center stage in Congress, with two important votes in the Senate last week and two more expected in the House this week. The members of each body are voting on a pair of bills that present stark differences.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid offered a bill that would have ended the Bush tax cuts on income over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples (the 2% of taxpayers above this income level would continue to benefit from the Bush tax cuts’ lower rates on the first $200,000/$250,000 of their income). Reid’s bill also extended the 2009 improvements to refundable tax cuts for the working poor.

Senator Hatch offered a bill that would have fully extended the Bush tax cuts and ended the 2009 improvements to the refundable tax cuts for the working poor.

How the Hatch bill’s elimination of the 2009 improvements to the refundable tax cuts for the working poor squares with his pledge (and that of 39 other Senators who voted for his bill) to Grover Norquist not to raise taxes on anyone, ever, is unclear. Perhaps a footnote excluded taxes on the working poor from that pledge. 

Senator Reid’s bill carried by a vote of 51-48; all Republicans voted against the bill and all Democrats but one voted in favor. Senator Hatch’s bill went down to defeat 54-45.

This week we’ll see more of the same in the House, which will vote on proposals very similar to the Reid and Hatch bills. Expect opposite results.

Extending the Bush tax cuts on income over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples would reduce the average millionaire’s taxes by $140,000

Congressman Ryan’s even more costly budget plan, besides extending all of the Bush tax cuts, would add four new tax breaks that are heavily skewed to the wealthy, with 39% of the new tax breaks going to millionaires. Under Ryan’s plan, the average millionaire would pay $400,000 less in taxes, for a 12.5% increase in after-tax income. Meanwhile, Ryan’s elimination of the 2009 improvements to the refundable tax cuts for the working poor would cause the after-tax income to fall for Americans with income below $30,000.

These persistent efforts to give massive tax breaks to the wealthiest people in our society conflict with public opinion on tax policy. Americans think that making the tax system fairer is the most important goal for reforming our tax system; according to a recent poll conducted by Hart Research Associates for Americans for Tax Fairness, Americans believe, by a two-to-one margin, that we should raise income taxes on the richest 2% of households.

Hence, those who continually seek any opportunity to cut taxes at the top of the income scale are fundamentally out of step with the prevailing majority opinion that the wealthy should pay more in taxes, not less.

Illinois Misses Opportunity to Help Businesses and Working Families

On July 1, Illinois workers will lose ground, and our policies will continue to undermine our business climate. 

July 1 marks the second straight year that Illinois has not raised the state minimum wage. So while costs have risen on families’ necessities, many Illinois workers are less able to afford the basics. This spring, the Illinois Senate Executive Committee took testimony, including from the Shriver Center, about S.B. 1565, a bill to raise the state minimum wage to its historic value and index it to inflation. The committee voted to send the bill on to the full state Senate. But when the legislative session ended in May, S.B. 1565 still hadn’t come to a vote. This summer, it is critical we contact legislators in both the state House and the Senate, so they hear our voices and pass this important legislation in the fall.

Raising the minimum wage will help Illinois families. Over one million workers in Illinois earn at or near the minimum wage, and a third of Illinois workers earn $12 an hour or less. These workers represent all ages, demographics, and education levels. Most low-wage workers are 30 or over, and one in seven has a college degree. People who work for a living should earn enough to provide for themselves and their families. If a worker earns the minimum wage here in Illinois, $8.25 an hour, and works 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, he or she makes just $16,500. Families depend on minimum-wage workers, and there’s nowhere in Illinois a family of two with the parent working full-time, year round, can make it on just $17,000.

Raising the minimum wage will also help Illinois businesses. A recent study concluded that the proposal to raise the minimum wage in Illinois in S.B. 1565 would create 20,000 new jobs and over $2 billion in net economic activity. Right now, our businesses are suffering because of a lack of consumer spending. Two-thirds of the state economy is driven by consumer spending. Businesses can’t expand until Illinois families have more to spend. Raising the minimum wage will put money in the pockets of hard-working Illinois families, who will spend it right in their communities, helping businesses, who will in turn hire more workers. Furthermore, by helping workers cover the basic necessities, raising the minimum wage helps reduce employee turnover, increase worker productivity, and reduce workers’ reliance on taxpayer-funded public benefits.

The minimum wage in 1968, then $1.60 an hour, would be worth about $10.60 today. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, he was there advocating for economic justice for low-income workers. His work to make a more just society is as of yet incomplete, and his demand that workers be treated with dignity and fair pay rings just as true today. Raising the minimum wage is a step towards a just society, where hard work is rewarded with an income that can sustain a family.

It’s time to create a fair minimum wage that’s in line with its historic level—around $10.60 an hour—and indexed to inflation. That’s why the Shriver Center supports the Raise Illinois Campaign, and I hope you will as well.

Please sign the voter petition today, and “like” the campaign on Facebook. Then get involved, get educated, tell your story, find and contact your state legislators, and advance the fight for a fair minimum wage in Illinois.

Child Care Program Granted Emergency Funding, But TANF Applicants Subject to Reduced and Delayed Benefits

Illinois legislators have approved a $73 supplemental appropriation to fund child care subsidies in 2012. The Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) helps low-income parents who need child care to work or go to school. Parents share in the cost of care by making a co-payment based on the family’s income and size, with the state paying the balance based on a provider reimbursement schedule. In early May, the Illinois Department of Human Services sent a notice to 35,000 homes and centers participating in the CCAP informing them that unless a supplemental appropriation was approved, they would receive no payments until July for services rendered in April, May and June.

Unfortunately, a companion bill will reduce and delay the assistance provided to recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) by reinstating a 45-day application processing deadline and then paying benefits retroactively only to the thirtieth day after application. This will impose significant hardship on the most vulnerable poor families.

Child Care Cuts Would Batter Working Families

Child CareThis post was coauthored by Sessy Nyman, vice president for policy and strategic partnerships at Illinois Action for Children

There is no other way to describe it — the state budget proposals in Springfield are a disaster for working families and their children.

More than $85 million in truly frightening cuts to the Child Care Assistance Program are proposed in this budget. The CCAP helps low-income parents who need child care to work or go to school. Parents share in the cost of care by making a co-payment based on the family’s income and size, with the state paying the balance based on a provider reimbursement schedule.

These cuts include an on-average 52-percent increase in a parents’ co-payment, a significant reduction in eligibility to qualify for the program — from 185 percent of the federal poverty level to 150 percent to enter, and the elimination of a scheduled rate increase to center-based providers. This will send thousands of families out of the CCAP and force countless providers to close their doors.

In the long term, less access to child care is also likely to produce a myriad of social problems that result when young children do not get the nurturing care they need.

To make matters worse, these cuts will start a domino effect that ultimately puts low-income families with children at risk of losing valuable early childhood education opportunities.

Many families that are enrolled in the state’s Preschool for All program also receive child-care assistance or participate in Head Start programs. They rely upon child-care assistance to access care for their children before and after their child’s half-day of preschool.

Where will a family send their child after each half-day of preschool if they are no longer eligible for child-care assistance, cannot afford the massive increase in their child-care co-payment, or cannot find child care since so many providers have been forced out of business by budget cuts and late payments from the state?

If child care is cut, there will not be another option for the families that depend on it. If education is cut, we cannot expect our schools to improve. Illinois will clearly violate its constitutional responsibilities to provide for the safety and welfare of its people both now and in the future if these cuts are enacted.

Research, including that of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, shows that every dollar spent on early childhood development, including the years spent in a child-care setting, yields at least eight dollars in return. Indeed, one study after another has concluded that investing in quality early childhood education and care produces a higher rate of return than any other public investment. Illinois willingly refuses that return on investment and the economic impact it brings if it severs the links in the chain of early childhood development.

Moreover, investing in child care creates jobs and stimulates the economy. Every dollar we spend on child-care assistance makes it possible for a single mother to work, creates a job for a caregiver, and enhances the early childhood experience of a child. It also pumps dollars into local communities.

Parents need full-day child-care options in order to participate in the state’s Preschool for All programs that promote this early child development. Illinois’s early childhood system has been designed to provide our highest-risk children with the school readiness opportunities children need, and the full-day child-care options families need to work and contribute to the economy.

Preschool for All, Head Start, and child care work hand in hand to support families today and prepare children for the brightest tomorrow possible.

We live in a society that places a very high value on work and believes that every parent should support their children through work. As a society, we rightfully expect parents to put their children first, even when times are tough. It is time that we, as residents of this state, demand the same from our elected leaders — put our children first, especially when times are tough.


The Ryan Budget Plan: A Path to Hunger

Crumbs on empty plateLast week, House Republicans approved a budget plan titled The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal.  In his introduction to the budget plan, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan argues “[t]he social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens and poised to unravel in the event of a spending-driven debt crisis.”  Unsurprisingly, the Republican budget contains many cuts to the social safety net, including cuts to the Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.  The Ryan budget would cut 17 percent of the SNAP budget over ten years, beginning in fiscal year 2013. 

Despite the draconian nature of the SNAP cuts, the Ryan budget proposal is notably short on details regarding how exactly the cuts would be structured.  The only concrete proposal the Republicans offer is to convert the SNAP program into a block grant “tailored for each state’s low-income population” beginning in 2016, with benefits “contingent on work and job training.”  Block grants are fixed sums of money that the federal government gives to the states. These grants are unresponsive to changes in need and fail to provide a stimulus during economic slowdowns.

It is worth reading some of Ryan’s critique of SNAP in detail. Ryan acknowledges that SNAP “serves an important role in the safety net by providing food aid to low-income Americans,” but criticizes the program’s growth.  Ryan writes:

“Enrollment grew from 17.3 million recipients in 2001, to 23.8 million in 2004, to 28.2 million in 2008, to 46.6 million today.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “The historical relationship between unemployment and SNAP caseloads diverged in the middle of the decade … As the unemployment rate fell 1.4 percentage points between 2003 and 2007, SNAP caseloads increased by 22 percent.” The trend is one of relentless and unsustainable growth in good years and bad.  The large recession-driven spike came on top of very large increases that occurred during years of economic growth, when the number of recipients should have fallen.”  

According to Ryan, the “unsustainable growth” in SNAP participation has been driven by the program’s structure. In Ryan’s view, because states receive money in proportion to how many people they enroll, they have an incentive to enroll as many people as they can, with no incentives to make sure that SNAP recipients are working or participating in job training programs.

Let’s unpack Ryan’s assertions.  First, where is Ryan getting his numbers?  His numbers describing the relationship between unemployment and SNAP caseloads come from a March 2012 article titled ”What’s Behind the Rise in SNAP Participation?” in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s magazine, Amber Waves.  Ryan’s quotation from the article is selective, to say the least; immediately after the language Ryan quotes describing the decline in unemployment between 2003 and 2007, the authors write that during the same time period, “[t]he number of people in poverty rose by 4 percent, indicating that economic need remained high even as unemployment declined.” 

But Ryan left that part out.

Second, do the article’s authors come to the same conclusion that Ryan does?  Not really.  It is true that, over the last decade, several pieces of legislation allowed states to be more flexible in how they administered SNAP.  As the states improved their application processes and it became easier for people to apply, more people participated in the program.  But there have also been changes in federal policy that have increased SNAP participation. As the Amber Waves authors note, several agricultural bills expanded categories of exempt assets—allowing people with retirement and educational accounts, as well as car owners, to receive SNAP benefits. Ryan also ignores the 2009 increase in benefits that was a part of the American Recovery Reinvestment Act of 2009—an increase that was always intended to be temporary and will expire in November 2013.

As the New York Times pointed out in an editorial about Ryan’s budget plan, “[a]lready, most people who get SNAP benefits use them up in the first two weeks of a month, and many turn to food banks by month’s end. Cutting benefits so sharply would lead to a significant increase in hunger, particularly among children, which would quickly create dangerous ripples through the health and education systems.” Indeed, almost half of SNAP recipients in fiscal year 2010 were children. That fact might be particularly important in Ryan’s analysis. After all, children don’t vote.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has excellent resources for advocates concerned about the Ryan budget’s impact on SNAP, including a comprehensive analysis of the budget’s effects on SNAP recipients and a table describing the cuts’ state-by-state impact.  For example, in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, 844,000 people are currently scheduled to receive SNAP benefits in 2013.  That’s 844,000 people who would feel the belt-tightening effect of these cuts.

Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy recognizes the importance of SNAP to legal aid lawyers and other advocates for low-income people, which is why the Review is dedicating its 2012 special issue to hunger and food insecurity.  Historically, the Review has prioritized helping advocates stay current with trends in SNAP advocacy.  The Review recently published articles about the use of SNAP at fast food restaurants and the legality of subjecting participants to new identification requirements such as fingerprinting.  The 2012 special issue will examine SNAP’s past, present, and future, as well as physical, employment-related, and environmental aspects of low-income communities that limit access to nutritious food and affect people’s overall health.  Look for the 2012 special issue of Clearinghouse Review in the fall. 

What Did Congress Do to Combat Poverty in 2011?

Poverty ScorecardThe number of people in poverty has risen to unparalleled levels. According the most recent Census Bureau data, there were 46.2 million Americans living in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009 (an increase of 2.6 million). In other words, more than one in six Americans were poor in 2010. This is the highest number since the Census Bureau began gathering data 52 years ago, superseding last year’s all-time high.

What has been the legislative response of the United States Congress to the increase in poverty? Virtually nothing. Only one bill that will reduce poverty—legislation that will expand job opportunities and training for veterans—passed the Senate and House and was signed into law by the President in 2011.

The Shriver Center’s 2011 Poverty Scorecard, released today, rates every member of Congress on how they voted on anti-poverty legislation. In consultation with national anti-poverty experts in 20 different fields, we identified the 18 House votes and 11 Senate votes that were the most significant votes to people in poverty in 2011. The 2011 Congressional Poverty Scorecard includes a thorough summary of each vote we scored that describes the measure that was voted on and why it was important in fighting poverty. 

In past years, almost every vote important to people in poverty concerned a legislative initiative that would fight poverty. In contrast, most of the votes in 2011 that were of the greatest significance to people in poverty were votes against legislation that would have made poverty even worse.

Several votes would have eliminated programs that people in poverty rely on, including national health reform, legal services, school-based health centers, the McGovern-Dole international food program, and three important foreclosure relief and neighborhood stabilization programs.

Other votes were on sweeping proposals that affected a wide array of anti-poverty programs. These included proposals to dismantle the Medicare program, undermine the structure of Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (formerly Food Stamps), enshrine a balanced budget requirement and other ruinous fiscal principles in the U.S. Constitution, and substantially cut funding for Pell Grants for higher education, employment and training programs, the WIC nutrition program for pregnant women and young children, and mental health and substance abuse program.

In addition to making poverty worse, some of the proposals would have exacerbated the 30-year trend of growing income inequality in the United States. In particular, the Ryan budget proposal approved in the House but rejected in the Senate would have made massive cuts in federal programs, most of which would have fallen on the poor, with all of the resulting savings used to provide additional tax breaks for the wealthy.

The Poverty Scorecard is a powerful tool that advocates, media, and citizens can use to evaluate the performance of their elected representatives. Each Senator and House member is assigned a letter grade, A+ through F-, based on their overall voting performance. Members who did not vote on enough bills were not graded. In total, we graded 431 of 435 Representatives and all 100 Senators. Readers are encouraged to examine their representatives’ voting records, as well as other data available in the Poverty Scorecard, to learn more about what Congress did, and did not do, to combat poverty in 2011.



Persistent Long-Term Unemployment Demands Extension of Critical Federal Unemployment Benefits for Jobless Workers

Congress has recently reached a compromise on a measure to extend federal unemployment insurance benefits through the end of the year, which will keep 3.3 million long-term unemployed individuals from losing a critical lifeline. Without the compromise, 166,700 unemployed workers in Illinois would lose their unemployment benefits, which for most is the only way to provide for their families still struggling in the weak economy. Yet, even though the economy has seen recent sustained growth and a slight decline in the overall unemployment rate, long-term unemployment (unemployment lasting for 27 weeks or more) still accounts for 42.5% of all unemployment in the United States. And Congress’ agreement is indeed a compromise between proponents and opponents. The agreement unfortunately also reduces the maximum duration of benefits available in states with high unemployment from 99 weeks to 73 weeks. For the long-term unemployed, the deal is bittersweet.

A report from the Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative found that the challenge of long-term unemployment is persistent, which makes the extension of federal benefits even more critical. The number of workers who were out of work for at least a year nearly doubled after the official end of the recession—from 16% (2.5 million) to 31.8% (4.4 million) nationally between 2009 and 2011. States typically provide around 26 weeks of regular benefits (though many states provide less or have recently reduced the number of weeks available, as Illinois did by passing legislation last spring that reduced the total number of weeks of benefits available to 25 weeks), but in the current economic climate it often takes the unemployed far longer to find a job. Currently, jobless workers endure an average 40.8 weeks, or nearly 10 months, of job searching. For each new job opening, there are over four unemployed people.

With the odds of getting a job in the current weak economy stacked against the unemployed, federal extended benefits are monumentally important to lending individuals and families an economic lifeline while staying attached to the workforce. The nation saw the labor force participation rate (the proportion of all working-age adults who are either employed or seeking employment) decline to just 64% by the end of 2011, the lowest percentage since 1985. A decrease in the labor force participation rate such as this can in part be attributed to unemployed people giving up on their job searches, which has the net effect of pushing down the official unemployment rate since only those who are actively looking for work are counted as unemployed. The long-term unemployed may be more likely to give up on their job searches and run the risk of dropping out of the labor force completely, as the longer these individuals remain unemployed the more likely they will become “unemployable” because of atrophied work and job search skills, or dispirited by the stigma of being out of work for months or even years on end.

Unemployment insurance not only ensures that unemployed workers and their families can continue living their daily lives and meeting their basic needs, but also stirs much-needed economic activity when recipients spend their benefits at local businesses, which allows local businesses to grow and create jobs. A study by the Labor Department found that, in the depths of the recession, regular, state-funded unemployment benefits boosted employment by 1 million jobs and an additional 750,000 jobs by federal emergency unemployment benefits. The country cannot afford to lose federal unemployment benefits while the economy is still underperforming and the recovery has only begun to regain steam.

Furthermore, policymakers should not lose sight of the purpose of unemployment insurance and how it has historically functioned to benefit the economy. Misguided attacks on unemployment insurance from House Republicans (such as proposals to limit eligibility for benefits, like requiring claimants to have at least a high school diploma or GED or requiring claimants to pass drug tests in order to obtain benefits) played a significant role in the compromise. These proposals were a gross injustice to unemployed workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own. It is unfair to workers to assume a prevalence of drug use among unemployment insurance claimants when there is no evidence, and furthermore blames unemployed workers for their joblessness in an economic climate created beyond their control.

In fact, current data tell us that the scope of long-term unemployment is widespread across demographic lines, affecting millions of workers regardless of age, education level, and occupation. Thirty-four percent of unemployed workers with a bachelor’s degree in the third quarter of 2011 had been out of work for a year or longer, compared to nearly 38 percent of jobless high school graduates and approximately 39 percent of unemployed workers without a high school diploma. Whether having a certain level of education is required for a job or not, long-term unemployment affects all industries—more than 20% percent of unemployed workers in every industry had been out of work for a year or longer in 2011. What’s more, older workers who have worked hard throughout their lives may be getting hit the hardest—almost half of all unemployed workers older than 55 had been out of work for at least a year in 2011.

The compromise, which also includes an extension of the payroll tax cut, is likely to pass both the House and Senate before Congress goes on recess this weekend, and includes some drug testing provisions on workers who lost their jobs because of refusal to take an employer’s drug test. While these concessions are unfortunate, extending federal unemployment insurance benefits must be accomplished prior to the recess. It is an important step in the right direction towards fixing our economy and putting people back to work. Nonetheless, we have much more work to do, including increasing education and training opportunities for jobless workers, in order to combat long-term unemployment and its ramifications for families and communities.


Clearinghouse Review Announces Its 2012 Special Issue Topic: Hunger and Food Insecurity

Knife and forkDuring the recent economic downturn, many American families became food insecure, meaning they had limited or uncertain access to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life. In 2010, 40.3 million people received monthly benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), up from 33.7 million people in 2009 and more than double the number of food stamp recipients in 2002. Participation in school meal programs also increased, and 32 million children now participate in school meal programs each day. Food insecurity is especially troublesome among older adults, given the population’s particular health and medical needs. From 2001 to 2009, the number of older Americans at risk of hunger increased by 79 percent.

The increasing prevalence of food insecurity in America has prompted Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy to choose it as its 2012 special issue topic. Every year, the Review devotes one issue to exploration of a single topic; last year’s special issue focused on applying a human rights lens to poverty law practice, and the 2010 special issue discussed climate change and green jobs.

Helping low-income people increase their access to food through benefits programs such as SNAP, the Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACPF) has long been a traditional strength of the legal services community, and Clearinghouse Review has published many articles on these topics. Recently, the Review has published articles exploring whether states should require identification requirements for SNAP participants, the use of SNAP benefits at fast-food chains, and low-income college students’ eligibility for SNAP benefits.

However, the nature of food insecurity is evolving, as are the federal and state programs that address the problem. Assisting clients with SNAP benefits has become a moving target for legal services attorneys, who are trying to help more clients get benefits in the face of state budget cutbacks that cause delays in processing times and reduce compliance with federal legal deadlines. Children, the elderly, immigrants, and people living with disabilities all face additional challenges when trying to access nutritious food through SNAP and other programs.

As the number of food-insecure Americans grows, it will not be enough for only those legal services attorneys specializing in benefits to confront the hunger problem. To end hunger in America, advocates from many disciplines—health, education, economic development, and housing, to name a few—will need to focus on food. Moreover, it will not be sufficient for these advocates to understand the changing landscape of federal and state benefit programs. To understand why so many communities are unable to secure nutritious food for all of their members, advocates need to take a close look at the communities themselves. Many low-income communities have become “food deserts” with limited access to nutritious foods. These neighborhoods also contain few safe spaces for physical activity, which has contributed to a dramatic rise in obesity over the past decade. Low-income families are also affected by food’s production, distribution, and consumption, both as workers and consumers.

The good news is that, across the country, advocates and community leaders are developing new approaches to food insecurity. Not only are they using traditional antipoverty programs in new ways, they are helping low-income people access nutritious food through farmers’ markets, community gardens, and fresh food financing initiatives. Lawyers are dismantling state-level barriers to national food programs, helping communities rezone to have more green space, incorporating the concept of a “human right to food” into their arguments, and ensuring that, as the delivery of benefits is modernized through the use of new technologies, vulnerable clients’ ability to access benefits is not compromised.. Food banks are collaborating with unexpected partners to make sure that nutritious food does not spoil before it reaches consumers. In its 2012 special issue, Clearinghouse Review hopes to showcase dynamic and diverse solutions to food insecurity from across the country so that advocates can share their expertise with one another and design new solutions to food insecurity.

If you are interested in learning more about Clearinghouse Review’s 2012 special issue, please contact Staff Attorney-Legal Editor Michele Host. The editorial team welcomes suggestions regarding topics and authors. If you or your organization is interested in sponsoring the 2012 special issue, contact Brendan Short.


Chicago: The Most Segregated City in the Country

ChicagoAmerica overall is more integrated than ever, and all-white neighborhoods are virtually extinct. Gentrification, immigration, migration to the suburbs, and the tearing down of public housing all have contributed to desegregation over the past decade. However, there are still areas of the country that remain highly segregated.

According to a recent report by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, although Chicago has seen the second largest decrease in segregation among the ten biggest cities, next only to Houston, Texas, it is still the most racially segregated city in America.

The study uses census data and two key measures to discuss segregation. First the report examines “isolation,” which measures the tendency of members of a racial group to dominate a neighborhood. The report also measures “dissimilarity,” which is the evenness of the distribution of two racial groups across an area. Chicago’s difficulty lies in the fact that it has historically isolated African-American neighborhoods that are very rarely integrated because, unlike other neighborhoods, they are not experiencing population growth or the influx of new housing.

While segregation may be decreasing since its peak in the 1960s, racial income and asset inequality still persists and is actually growing. According to a recent Pew Study, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. This is the largest racial wealth gap since the government began publishing the data 25 years ago. In fact, the gap has doubled since the 2008 recession. Prior to the recession, in 2005, Hispanics had $18,359 in net worth (assets minus debts), African-Americans had $12,124, and whites had $134,992. After the recession, the net worth for Hispanics and African-Americans fell dramatically, while white families were left unscathed. In 2009, the average white family had $113,149 in net worth compared to $6,325 for Hispanics and $5,677 for African-Americans.

Tom Shapiro of Brandeis University, who has studied the racial wealth gap for years, says he's concerned about the long-term impact. He thinks the wealth gap will likely grow even more, unless the economy turns around soon. Not only does the economy need a boost, but so do government policies that create barriers for minorities’ financial stability and mobility. As the Manhattan Institute’s report notes, access to credit and fair housing laws significantly contribute to a city’s segregation patterns. Government programs and policies that increase access to credit and bank accounts, as well as policies that encourage saving and diversified asset holdings will eradicate segregation. During the recession, white families, whose assets were diversified, were relatively safe compared to minority families, whose assets were mainly concentrated in the housing market, which crashed. Clearly, the racial wealth gap is still prevalent in cities across America, and there is much to be done to begin to close it. Changing government policies and creating asset building opportunities for everyone is an important first step. 

Check the Shriver Brief for more coverage on access to credit, fair housing laws and closing the racial wealth gap.

This blog post was coauthored by Alison Terkel.


Pennsylvania Should Drop Food Stamp Asset Limit

Families must be able to save money in order to achieve self-sufficiency and prosper. Unfortunately, the federal government often forgets this common-sense principal. 

Many public benefits programs—like cash welfare or Medicaid—limit eligibility to those with few or no assets. If a family has assets over the state’s limit, it must “spend down” longer term savings in order to receive what is often short-term public assistance. These asset limits are a relic of entitlement policies that no longer exist, since cash welfare programs now focus on quickly moving families to self-sufficiency rather than allowing them to receive benefits indefinitely. In other words, although personal savings and assets are precisely the kind of resources that allow families to move off—and stay off—public benefit programs, asset limits actually discourage anyone receiving public benefits from saving for the future.

States have full discretion in setting or eliminating asset limits for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). They also have some flexibility to address asset limits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). Several states have eliminated asset limits in TANF, Medicaid and SCHIP, and 38 states have eliminated asset tests in SNAP.

Pennsylvania is one of these states. In 2008, when the recession hit and unemployment soared, it dropped asset limits in its SNAP program. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Works (DPW) recently announced that it wants to reinstate these tests. Under the proposal, individuals under 60 could have no more than $2,000 in assets, and individuals over 60 could have no more than $3,250, not including retirement accounts and homes. This is devastating news for the state’s 850,000 families currently receiving SNAP benefits. It would also be a blow to Pennsylvania’s economy since research shows that every $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.73 in economic activity.

This proposed policy reversal is highly unusual because the trend among states has been to eliminate asset tests. So what is different about Pennsylvania? According to Anne Bale, a spokesperson for the DPW, Pennsylvania residents have complained about fraud and abuse in the SNAP program. DPW’s hope is that reinstituting asset limits would eliminate this waste, without requiring the state to spend money on fraud detection and prosecution. However, the state recently won an award for running the most efficient state SNAP program and has one of the lowest rates of SNAP fraud in the nation: 1/10 of 1%. Moreover, the state would not really save any money since it’s likely that more caseworkers would need to be hired and all caseworkers would need to receive training on the new limits and how to apply them. Added to the cost of software to computers, asset limits and the extra workload of understaffed offices, any cost savings would be slim. It would be a no-win situation: both bad for the state’s economy and bad for people trying to escape poverty’s cycle.

This proposed policy sends entirely the wrong message: Do not pull yourself up out of poverty; rather remain in the cycle of poverty, dependent on government benefits. It’s simply bad public policy to require people to spend all their assets in order to ensure a meal on the table then tell them that they need to save and become self-sufficient!

It time to do away with asset limits once and for all. Grab your fork and tell Pennsylvania and other states to stop sticking it public benefit recipients.


Ensuring Access to Safe Drinking Water for All

Drinking fountainWhat’s most important to sustaining human life? Arguably it’s water. In fact, the United Nations recognized the human right “to safe and clean drinking water” through a resolution in 2010.

California law recognizes the right, too—sort of. The state requires water systems to provide a “reliable and adequate supply of pure, wholesome, potable, and healthy water,” but some residents of rural areas in the San Joaquin Valley, where high poverty rates abound, must pay up to 20 percent of their income for drinkable water. In the unincorporated town of Lanare, for example, residents pay $54 per month for tap water that is contaminated with nitrates (which have been linked to cancer and blue-baby syndrome), arsenic, and other toxic substances, forcing them—at least those who can pay—to spend an additional $35 per month for bottled water. In contrast, the residents of nearby Riverdale, a larger town, will build a new $5.4 million arsenic water treatment plant after passing a bond issue and obtaining a $500,000 grant from the state.

The struggle for safe water isn’t limited to California. Although the federal Safe Water Drinking Act requires most water providers to meet drinking water standards, funding realities dictate that access to safe drinking water too often depends on a community’s wealth . Most states have taken over enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act but, unlike under the Clean Water Act, which deals primarily with discharge of pollutants into surface water, states don’t get much federal funding to help meet drinking water standards. This lack of funding at every level complicates enforcement efforts.

This reality may be shifting in California, where California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), using a combination of litigation and legislative advocacy, has changed the legal landscape when it comes to low-income residents’ access to safe water.

California implements the federal Safe Drinking Water Act through its Health & Safety Code, which requires the Department of Public Health to develop a Safe Drinking Water Plan every five years. In recognition of gaps in the knowledge and enforcement capacity of the state’s myriad small water systems, the plan focuses on analyzing the water quality and service of water systems with fewer than 10,000 connections. But it’s been nearly 20 years since the Department obeyed the statutory mandate and submitted a plan—decades during which many rural Californians have been drinking water laced with arsenic.

CRLA sued on behalf of residents of the San Joaquin Valley and a grassroots organization, La Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua (the AGUA Coalition), asking the court to order the California Department of Public Health to prepare the required plan. After an appellate court reversed a dismissal of the suit (Newton-Enloe v. Horton) in April, the parties settled the case in November. The department will submit a Safe Drinking Water Plan—a detailed five-year implementation plan—within three years of the settlement. And, most important to CRLA, the department must comply with the state statute and investigate the water quality and service of water systems throughout the state with fewer than 10,000 service connections. In doing so, the department must report on and take into consideration, and attach as an appendix to the plan, any data that CRLA collects on small water systems.

On the legislative front, CRLA and other advocates helped achieve passage of a package of seven drinking water bills that, among other things, provide grants to small communities to upgrade their water systems and create a revolving fund to make “severely disadvantaged communities” (median household income less than 60 percent of the statewide average) eligible for grants covering the full costs of water treatment projects.

This advocacy dovetails with the earlier visit of Caterina de Albuquerque, the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, at the invitation of the U.S. government. Between February 22 and March 4, de Albuquerque undertook a fact-finding mission with stops in Washington, Boston, Sacramento, and to the Winnemem Wintu in northern California; she issued a formal report in August contending that “States’ obligation with regard to the right to safe drinking water and sanitation requires that water and sanitation be available, accessible, affordable, acceptable and of good quality for everyone without discrimination.” She noted that “existing federal laws generally focus on maintaining water quality rather than ensuring access for all citizens.”

While federal progress toward a right to water seems unlikely at the moment, as CRLA has shown, changes may be possible at the state level. For more on CRLA’s fight to give low-income residents access to safe drinking water, see Furthering the Fight to Make Clean Water a Right in California, in Clearinghouse Review’s September-October 2011 issue, Human Rights: A New (and Old) Way to Secure Justice.

For more information on homelessness and the right to water and sanitation see, Toward a Human Rights Framework in Homelessness Advocacy: Bringing Clients Face-to-Face with the United Nations, by Mona Tawatao and Colin Bailey and Opening the Door to the Human Right to Housing: The Universal Periodic Review and Strategic Federal Advocacy for a Rights-Based Approach to Housing, by Eric Tars and Déononné Bhattarai in the same publication.

This blog post was coauthored by Kathleen Donahue McNally.



America's Income Gap: Migration to Elections

Hundred dollar billsThe 2010 Census data released this past September showed that the income gap between Americans is widening. More specifically, the income gap between blacks and whites widened such that the average white worker’s income was about 1.7 times higher than that of black workers, which is up significantly from the 1990s. But this isn’t the case across the whole country; the suburbs are experiencing a wave of desegregation and a closing of the income gap.

Affluent black Americans, who are leaving industrial cities for the suburbs and the South, are shifting traditional lines between rich and poor. While suburbia is flourishing amidst the new flux of diverse middle-class residents. Cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and others are suffering from racial and economic inequality because, for the most part, only lower-skilled minorities have remained.

These changes in city demographics will result in political redistricting as the African American political base shifts. Chicago has had one of the biggest losses, with over 180,000 middle- and working-class African Americans leaving the city for the suburbs and the South, where housing is cheaper, schools are better, and jobs are easier to come by. Not only has such migration changed the face of major industrial cities, but it will also change the face of the upcoming elections and how candidates campaign to their new base. Once Southern red states could now become swing states or even blue states due to the influx of African Americans who have left Northern cities.

Concern and debate about wealth distribution has been the central theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Although many seem to write off the Occupy movement as a radical minority group, research shows that 92% of Americans are actually in favor of wealth redistribution. When survey participants were asked what they thought the wealth gap was, the majority believed that the top 20% only controlled 59% of wealth, a modest estimation. The truth, however, is that the top 20% control 84% of the wealth. When asked what the ideal distribution of wealth should be, people said that the top 20% should only control 34% of the country’s wealth. This disconnect among Americans’ beliefs about economic inequality, their self-interest, and their public policy preferences suggests that, if there were more awareness of the reality of the gap, people would be more likely to advocate to close it.

As the Occupy movement continues and grows, and more Americans become aware of the real level of wealth inequality, it is sure to be an important topic during the 2012 Presidential election. 

This blog post was coauthored by Alison Terkel.


Now Is the Time to Raise the Minimum Wage

We need jobs that keep people out of poverty, not in it! Raising the minimum wage is good common sense—people who work for a living should make enough money to provide for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, that’s not the case right now. If a worker earns the minimum wage here in Illinois, $8.25 an hour, and works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, he or she makes just $16,830. It’s time we raise that amount. That’s why the Shriver Center supports the Raise Illinois Campaign, and I hope you will as well. Please sign the voter petition today.

In Illinois, this year was the first year in five years that we did not raise the minimum wage. But even before this year, the minimum wage has stagnated while the cost of living continues to rise. Minimum wage earners in Illinois already have $2/hour less in purchasing power than a minimum wage earner in the late 1960s. Let’s create a fair minimum wage that’s in line with its historic level—around $10.65 an hour—and indexed to inflation.

This is the time to raise the minimum wage. Research shows, and many economists agree, that raising the minimum wage helps many workers whose income is either right at minimum, or just above it, without reducing employment. It gives a needed boost to our communities, because low-wage workers will spend the extra earnings right where they live.

Wages have fallen significantly because of the recession. The new jobs that are coming back are more likely to be low-wage than the jobs they replace. The vast majority of minimum-wage workers are adults, not teens, and many are using their low incomes to support families. If you’re lucky enough to not know what it’s like to earn a poverty-level wage, consider reading our worker stories, or this moving editorial. By helping workers have the basic necessities better covered, raising the minimum wage helps reduce employee turnover, increase worker productivity, and reduce worker’s reliance on taxpayer-funded public benefits. By raising the minimum wage, we’ll increase consumer spending, which is the driver of economic growth.

We also need to make sure more workers are even guaranteed the minimum wage. Did you know that tipped workers in Illinois currently are paid as little as $4.95 an hour? And domestic workers in Illinois have no minimum wage at all? We need to make this a just society, where hard work is rewarded with an income that can sustain a family.

The Raise Illinois Coalition has introduced a great bill into the Illinois General Assembly, SB 1565. Now it’s all of our turn to see that it passes. Please take 30 seconds to sign a petition in support of the bill and “like” the campaign on Facebook. Then get involved, get educated, tell your story, find and contact your state legislators, and advance the fight for a fair minimum wage in Illinois.


Welfare: Why Don't They Get It?

The “Welfare” Reform Proposal

Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), along with seven other Senate Republican co-sponsors, has introduced the misleadingly titled bill, The Welfare Reform Act of 2011 (H.R. 1167). The bill is an attempt to hark back to President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich’s popular federal welfare reforms  of 1996. At that time, the program that provided a federal entitlement to cash assistance for needy families, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, was repealed and replaced by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ (TANF) program, which placed time limits on the receipt of benefits and added work requirements. The new “welfare” reform bill expands the definition of welfare well beyond its popular meaning of cash assistance to needy families to encompass a wide range of other programs for low- and moderate-income people and imposes deep cuts and restrictions on them.

To support the supposed need for welfare reform, these lawmakers point out that “welfare” spending has grown more quickly over the last 20 years than have outlays for Medicare and Social Security, education, and defense. In a statement, Senator DeMint said that, “with record levels of federal spending and record levels of Americans in poverty and using food stamps, it’s hard not to conclude that federal welfare programs are failing.”

The proposed bill would, supposedly, save roughly $2.4 trillion over a decade—or twice as much as the minimum savings that the deficit-reducing Supercommittee is tasked with finding.  Specifically, the bill would:

1.     Require disclosure of total means-tested welfare expenditures in the President’s budget; 

2.     Plan an aggregate spending cap on all means-tested welfare spending at pre-2007 levels once unemployment falls below 6.5%; 

3.     Provide enforcement of the spending cap through the budget resolution process;

4.     Extend work requirements to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly known as food stamps);

5.     Incentivize states to alleviate poverty through self-sufficiency, not dependence on government; and

6.     Prevent federal funding of abortion. 

Why Lawmakers Don’t Get It:

As usual, some lawmakers aren’t getting it and, in fact, are getting it wrong.

They misinterpret the relevance of the recent poverty data—they see it as a result of individuals’ failure to be self-sufficient. The reason that there is more federal spending on means-tested programs is because there are more people in need as a result of the very deregulation of financial institutions that conservative lawmakers championed. The impact of a pre-2007 cap would be a drastic reduction in the number of families receiving needed aid. In just the first six years of the cap, programs would be cut 40 percent, and cuts would grow deeper thereafter. For example, if all programs were cut by the same percentage Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program would be cut by $144 billion in 2016 and more than $1.1 trillion over the cap’s first six years. Similarly, SNAP would be cut by $24 billion in 2016 and $153 billion over six years and job training programs would be cut by $1.4 billion in 2016 and $10 billion over six years. Needy families should not be penalized for their appropriate reliance in troubled times on welfare “safety net” programs. This is especially true when the “failure” wasn’t with these families, but rather with financial institutions. 

Similarly, increasing the work requirement for families with dependent children to 120 hours, up from 90 hours under current law, and expanding this requirement to SNAP would leave many needy families without a safety net because of their failure, perhaps for legitimate reasons (e.g., child care issues), to fulfill this requirement. Additionally, under current rules, only a narrowly defined set of activities count toward a state’s work participation rate and participation in some of these activities can only count for limited periods or if other limitations are met. Many of the activities that TANF recipients often need to be prepared for work do not count and there no evidence that participating in a narrowly defined set of work activities improves participants’ employment outcomes. Instead of increasing and expanding the requirement, it would be better to expand the type and duration of activities that can count thereby encouraging more individuals to work.

Although these lawmakers claim that public benefit programs aren’t working, the newly created Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which is an attempt to update the woefully inadequate official poverty measure that under-estimates poverty, proves they’re wrong. The SPM, which takes into account, for the first time, certain out-of-pocket expenses (e.g., taxes, housing, utilities, health care costs) and the value of government income supplements (e.g., SNAP),  that are aimed at improving the economic situation of the poor, shows the impact such programs have on poverty.

Under this new measure, almost 7 million more people would have lived in poverty in 2009 and 2010 absent government action and excluding SNAP, for instance, would have increased poverty by 17.7 percent.

This data proves that public benefit programs are an important factor in poverty alleviation, and that, especially in today’s economy, the nation cannot afford further cuts in them. Yet, that is exactly what this welfare reform bill would do. 

So how do they continue to get it so wrong? Your guess is as good as mine.


Illinois' Unemployment Rate To Grow by 5% Unless Congress Extends Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program by End of 2011

Illinois will lose 27,000 jobs in 2012, and its unemployment rate will increase from 10% to 10.5%, unless Congress approves extending the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, according to the Economic Policy Institute. EPI’s projection that failure to extend the EUC program will have such a dramatic effect in increasing unemployment is based on standard economic “multiplier” effects and the fact that the long-term unemployed—often the most desperate for resources to meet their basic needs—are apt to immediately spend any benefits they receive. Taking this consumer spending out of the economy, by failing to extend EUC, would result in lost jobs in the stores and businesses where the money would be spent. That is why failing to extend the EUC would increase the unemployment rate.

The EUC program was created as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to provide unemployment insurance benefits to the millions of Americans who lost their jobs in the Great Recession and have exhausted or no longer qualify for unemployment benefits through existing state programs. The EUC program is desperately needed given the anemic pace of job growth since the recession’s end and the long durations of unemployment that a record number of Americans are experiencing.

The EUC program will expire at the end of 2011 if Congress fails to extend it. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democratic member on the House Ways and Means Committee and the co-sponsor of legislation to extend the EUC program for a year, explains: "Never before has Congress allowed emergency unemployment benefits to expire with such a large percentage of Americans looking for work and we must not let that happen now.”

The EUC program was extended for one year near the end of 2010 as part of a grand compromise that also included a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. The EUC program has been a target of some Tea Party adherents and their supporters in Congress, who believe that extending the period that unemployment compensation is available makes people lazy and unwilling to look for work. Nevertheless, it is currently expected that Congress will agree to extend the EUC program, although what other demands will be made in return for agreeing to such an extension remains to be seen.

This blog is based on analysis and a report by the Economic Policy Institute.


Supplemental Poverty Measure:
49.1 Million Americans Poor

In March of last year, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it would develop an alternative way to measure poverty. The Supplemental Poverty Measure, which was released yesterday, is an attempt to update the current federal poverty measure that, it is generally agreed, is outdated and therefore underestimates the level of poverty in the U.S. 

Measuring Poverty

The current poverty measure was developed in 1963 and is based on the cost of a minimally adequate diet in the mid-1950s, multiplied by three. At the time the measure was developed, families of three or more persons spent about 1/3 of their after-tax income on food.  

Other than being updated annually based on the consumer price index, the methodology for measuring poverty has not changed since the measure was first developedFrom the very beginning, policymakers have expressed concern about the accuracy of the measure and proposed that it be revised.Today, the measure is badly outdated. For example, food now consumes only 1/7 of the average family’s budget.

In 1995, the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council (NAS) was commissioned by Congress to study the official U.S. poverty measure and provide suggestions on how to revise it. The Supplemental Poverty Measure released yesterday is largely based on their report, Measuring Poverty: A New Approach.

The Supplemental Poverty Measure is based on an updated market basket of goods that reflects changes in consumer spending since 1963. It takes into account household expenses such as taxes, housing, utilities, health care costs, child support payments, and work-related expenses (i.e., travel and child care). This is offset by including the value of government income supplements, such as subsidized school lunch programs, energy assistance programs, housing subsidies, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (previously food stamps), that are not accounted for in the official poverty measure. The result is that the new calculation more accurately reflects how low-income Americans are actually getting by.

Resource Estimates

SPM Resources = Money Income from All Sources

Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Taxes (plus credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit [EITC])
National School Lunch Program Expenses Related to Work
Supplementary Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children Child Care Expenses
Housing subsidies Child Support Paid
Low-Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) Medical Out-of-Pocket Expenses (MOOP)

New Data Increases Poverty Levels

Under the Supplemental Poverty Measure, 49.1 million, or 16 percent, lived in poverty in 2010, significantly more than the official measure released in September that found 46.6 million people, or 15 percent, lived in poverty. Given that the number of people in poverty in 2010 under the existing measure was the highest that it has been in the 52 years since this information has been collected, this new measure’s estimate is even more dramatic.

The annual income at which a family of four—two adults and two children—is considered living in poverty under the supplemental measure was $24,343 in 2010. That compares with the official figure of $22,113. This threshold is still low, and most poverty advocates believe that using 200 percent of the federal poverty level for eligibility for public benefit programs is more reasonable. In fact, when polled most Americans believe that the minimum amount of yearly income a family of four would need to “get along” in their community is a little more than $40,000 annually, or roughly twice both the official measure and the supplemental measure.

The figure below compares the poverty rates under the official measures and the new measure for different age groups. The percent of the population that was poor using the official measure for 2010 was 15.1 percent versus 16 percent under the new measure. The supplemental measure puts the percentage of American children under 18 living in poverty at 18.2 percent, a drop from the 22.5 percent official rate. The reason for the drop is that the supplemental measure includes benefits designed to help poor children, such as school lunch programs. On the other hand, the supplemental rate for the elderly was 15.9 percent, a 9-percent increase from the official rate of 6.9 percent. Again, the reason is that the supplemental measure’s inclusion of expenses, particularly out-of-pocket health care costs, more realistically depicts the budgetary constraints the elderly face. 

Poverty Rates Using Two Measures for Total Population by Age Group
In terms of minorities, the picture is still grim, but different. The official poverty data released in September showed that the poverty rate for African-Americans had increased faster than for the rest of the population and was just over 27 percent, and the rate for Hispanics was 26.7 percent, whereas whites’ rate was 13.1 percent, and Asians’ was 12.1 percent. Under the new measure, Hispanic poverty rose to 28.2 percent, surpassing that of blacks, 25.4 percent, for the first time. Poverty levels among whites, 14.3 percent, and Asians, 16.7 percent, were also higher under the supplemental measure. 

Public Benefit Programs Work 

Because the supplemental poverty measure takes into account in-kind benefits aimed at improving the economic situation of the poor, for the first time it is possible to see the impact such programs have on poverty. Applying the new measure, almost 7 million more people would have lived in poverty in 2009 and 2010 absent government action.

The chart below shows the effect of adding or subtracting a benefit program or expense on the poverty level for both 2009 and 2010. In general, including SNAP benefits, housing subsidies, school lunch programs, WIC, and energy assistance programs all result in lower poverty rates. On the other hand, subtracting amounts paid for child support, income and payroll taxes, work-related expenses, and medical out-of-pocket expenses result in higher poverty rates.

For instance, including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) results in lower poverty rates; without it the poverty rate for all people would have been 18 percent rather than 16 percent in 2010. The EITC had a significant effect on child poverty—if the EITC is not included, the child poverty rate would be 22.4 percent rather than 18.2 percent. Similarly, excluding SNAP would increase poverty by 17.7 percent and excluding housing subsidies, school lunches, WIC, and LIHEAP would increase poverty by 16.9 percent, 16.4 percent, 16.1 percent, and 16.1 percent respectively.

Effect of Excluding Public Benefit Programs from SPM 2009 and 2010These figures prove that public benefit programs are an important factor in poverty alleviation. Without such programs the level of poverty in the U.S. would be significantly higher. Especially in today’s economy, the supplemental measure highlights the need for such programs and reiterates the fact that the nation cannot afford further cuts in them.  

Effect of Supplemental Poverty Measure on Public Benefits 

The Supplemental Poverty Measure will not replace the official poverty rate, but instead will be published alongside the traditional figure as a "supplement" for federal agencies and state governments. It will not change eligibility for governmental benefits or the formulas by which billions of dollars in federal spending are distributed to states and localities. It will, however, provide a much more accurate view of poverty in America and better demonstrate the effect of government benefit programs in reducing poverty. 


Income and Employment Data from the 2010 American Community Survey

Last week the Census Bureau released data on the national poverty rate. As was discussed in our recent blog about this data, the number of people in poverty in 2010 was the largest in the 52 years for which poverty estimates are available. There were 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009, and the nation's official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009.

This week, the American Community Survey (ACS) data were released. The ACS is a sort of mini-census conducted annually that polls roughly three million homes per year. This survey provides demographic, social, economic, and housing data for states, congressional districts, counties, and other localities. In other words, it provides much more data on what is happening at local levels.

According to the ACS, real median household income fell between 2009 and 2010, decreasing by 2.2 percent from $51,190 to $50,046. No state showed an increase in real median household income

The ACS data also show a continued decrease in employment. Between 2008 and 2010 the nation experienced a 4.9 percent decline in the employment/population ratio, from 71.5 percent in 2008 to 66.6 in 2010. In fact, all of the 50 largest metropolitan areas, except New Orleans–Metairie-Kenner, Louisiana, experienced a significant decrease in their employment/population ratio during this time period.

Although the recession was “officially” over by mid-2009, the nation’s employment ratio continued to decline between 2009 and 2010, dropping from 68.2 percent to 66.6 percent. Although this decline was smaller than the 3.3 percent decline that occurred between 2008 and 2009, the overwhelming majority of the 50 largest metropolitan areas (43) continued to experience declines between 2009 and 2010

Income and Unemployment in Illinois

In Illinois, median household income, at $52,972, is slightly above the national average of $50,046. Yet, Illinoisan’s still experienced a 3.7 percent decline from last year’s median household income of $54,992. In terms of employment/population ratios, Illinois is again slightly above the national average of 66.6 percent, at 72.2 percent, however, the decrease between 2008 and 2010 shows that the downward trend in this ratio is continuing. In 2008, Illinois’ employment ratio was 72.2 percent, in 2009 it was 68.7 percent, and it’s now at 67.4 percent.

White House Jobs Bill

On September 8th the President, speaking before a joint session of Congress, unveiled the proposed American Jobs Act bill. The bill, which proposes tax credits for American businesses, and payroll tax cuts for all workers, is intended to get the economy going again. As President Obama stated: "The purpose of the American Jobs Act is simple: to put more people back to work and more money in the pockets of those who are working. It will create more jobs for construction workers, more jobs for teachers, more jobs for veterans, and more jobs for the long-term unemployed. It will provide a tax break for companies who hire new workers, and it will cut payroll taxes in half for every working American and every small business. It will provide a jolt to an economy that has stalled, and give companies confidence that if they invest and hire, there will be customers for their products and services."

Of particular interest, given the ACS data on unemployment, the bill, which is a combination of tax cuts, investments in infrastructure, funding for job training, and benefit extensions, contains provisions for extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. The need for job creation and the extension of benefits for those currently unemployed is underscored by the ACS data.

A complete copy of the 2011 American Community Survey data is available from the Census Bureau. A summary and the full text of the American Jobs Act of 2011 are available on the White House website.


The Nitty Gritty on the American Jobs Act

The American Jobs Act uses a variety of mechanisms to help get disadvantaged Americans working again--tax credits, economic stimulus, assistance finding a job, opportunities to get training or work experience, preventing job discrimination, and flexible funding to support innovative initiatives. The size of the bill and the scope of its strategies will hopefully prove sufficient to move the country forward to end the unemployment, disillusionment, and real deprivation that so many of us are experiencing. We have the opportunity to make meaningful investments in our future prosperity while putting people back to work.

Here’s a roadmap to the provisions of the American Jobs Act (AJA) that will help low-income individuals and the long-term unemployed. The draft bill, sent by President Obama to Congress, also includes many other provisions, many of which would create jobs. The White House has a 20-page summary of the whole act, which includes the reasons for the various provisions, and evidence of their bipartisan support. At this time, the House has not scheduled any hearings on the bill. If you’d like more information, read our longer article on these provisions.

1. Tax credits make up half the total cost of the bill, and there are many targeted at businesses and employees. In addition to a payroll tax cut (from 6.2 percent to 3.2 percent) for businesses on the first $5,000,000 in wages, there is a complete payroll tax holiday for hiring new workers or raising wages, up to a limit. Employers can also receive a tax credit for hiring a worker who has been unemployed at least six months in the last year, or who is unemployed veteran.

2. Mandatory reemployment services for recipients of Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC is generally weeks 26-79 of unemployment insurance). The federal government will reimburse states for providing services including career and labor market information, individual assessment, career one-stop orientation, and job search counseling. It’s important that the federal government, and states, reduce the burden on individuals by, for example, providing virtual services, flexible scheduling, and supportive services (such as transportation allowances and child care) for individuals at 200 percent or below of the federal poverty line to attend these programs. Additionally, the state may set up an optional self-employment assistance program for recipients of EUC.

3. Reemployment Now Program. States have flexibility to use their share of this $4,000,000,000 allocation on: individual counseling, job search skills training, and case management; innovative programs; wage insurance; administrative costs of the self-employment program; and/or Bridge to Work. Wage insurance partially compensates individuals over age 50 who were receiving EUC when they accept a new full-time job with lower earnings than their previous job. Bridge to Work is a voluntary program where individuals can work for eight weeks at a short-term job placement. Their pay is their unemployment benefits and an additional amount so their total payment equals the minimum wage (a state may also require employers to pay more beyond this amount). Additionally, the state may spend the funds on supportive services, additional wages beyond minimum, and administrative expenses. For employers to stay eligible to receive placements, they must offer at least one participant a full-time job within 24 weeks, and states may (and should!) add conditions for employer participation.

4. Short-Time Compensation Programs. Many states currently have a work-sharing unemployment insurance program in place, and under this statute those states may continue their program, and new states can create a program with the federal government. Employees who lose 10-60 percent of their hours (or state can lower the 60 number), at participating employers, receive a pro-rata share of their unemployment insurance.

5. Pathways Back to Work Fund. This fund will provide workforce development funds, often delivered through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) infrastructure, but with different outcome measures. The changed measures will hopefully address the tendency of the current WIA outcome measures to discourage service of those individuals who face the greatest barriers to work or school, while still providing accountability and transparency.

a. $2,000,000,000 to “subsidized employment to unemployed, low-income adults.” The funds may also be used for supportive services for participants, such as transportation and childcare.

b. $1,500,000,000 to provide summer and year-round employment opportunities to low-income youth. The funding must be used for “summer employment opportunities for low-income youth, ages 16 through 24, with direct linkages to academic and occupational learning, and may include the provision of supportive services, such as transportation or child care, necessary to enable such youth to participate” and “year round employment opportunities,” for out of school youth. The priorities for funding are employment opportunities in either emerging or in-demand occupations in the public or nonprofit sector, and “linking year-round program participants to training and educational activities that will provide such participants an industry-recognized certificate or credential.”

c. $1,500,000,000 of “competitive grants . . . to local entities to carry out work-based training and other work-related and educational strategies and activities of demonstrated effectiveness to unemployed, low-income adults and low-income youth to provide the skills and assistance needed to obtain employment.” Some examples from statute are: on-the-job training; apprenticeships; other activities combining work and skills training; sector-based training; subsidized employment; and integrated basic education and training. The priority for the funding will go to proposals in areas of high poverty and high unemployment.

6. Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2011. Would prohibit discrimination against the unemployed in advertizing, considering candidates, and hiring.

7. Transportation Job Training. $50,000,000 in competitive grants for transportation jobs training.  Of the total $10,000,000 would go to assist minority businesses in competing, on an equal basis, for contracts and subcontracts.

The recent census numbers show the number of Americans living in poverty is at an all time high. The national unemployment rate stands above 9%, with no new jobs created last month at all. This country needs a strong push to help unemployed workers find jobs and get the economy moving. This plan offers help to strapped communities and states by making investments in our future prosperity.


Paid Sick Days Work

AspirinOver 43 million American workers are unable to take even a single day of paid leave when they are sick or need to take care of ill family members. This number is being slowly chipped away at as cities and states pass paid sick leave legislation. On September 12, Seattle became the fourth city to pass a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance, granting Seattle workers the right to take paid time off without punishment or retaliation when they or a family member are ill or need to attend a medical appointment. Paid sick leave legislation is supported by over two thirds of registered voters, and new research on San Francisco’s paid sick leave ordinance reveals that an overwhelming majority of workers and employers are satisfied with it.

San Francisco – A Case Study

Data from San Francisco point to the overall benefits of mandated paid sick leave. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research released a comprehensive study of the effects of San Francisco’s current Paid Sick Leave Ordinance (PSLO) on both employees and employers. The study analyzed the responses of 1,194 employees and 727 businesses to survey questions regarding their experiences under the new PSLO. Passed in 2006, the ordinance allows workers to accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every thirty hours of paid work, up to nine days per year. Up to nine days of unused leave can carry over to the next year. Workers can request paid leave for either personal health reasons or to care for family members.

Over half of the employees interviewed reported “experiencing benefits” from the PSLO, even though two-thirds of employees worked somewhere that granted some type of paid sick leave before the passage of the ordinance. Employees also reported that their employers were more supportive of them taking paid sick leave and that they were better able to care for themselves and their families. Significantly, most employees took far fewer paid sick days than they were legally allowed, suggesting that employees view paid sick leave as more of an insurance policy than guaranteed time off. They also saved time off for when it was most needed, for example, workers with families were more likely to take days off to care for sick children.

Not only did employees benefit from the PSLO, but employers also reported no detriment. Two-thirds of the employers interviewed said they were satisfied with the ordinance, and almost all said they had noticed no productivity decreases. Although few employers noted any immediate benefits from the PLSO, research has shown that there might be long-term benefits for employers—workers with access to paid sick leave are more likely to report higher satisfaction with their jobs than workers without it. Higher satisfaction can lead to increased productivity and less turnover, which can save employers money. And early data indicates that after passage of the PSLO, San Francisco’s percentage growth in employment stayed strong and even exceeded the surrounding counties’.

Paid Sick Leave in the States

Although many employers do currently grant paid sick leave, many still do not. Of those employers who do, most do not allow time off to take care of family members’ health needs, and some retaliate against workers who use their leave by cutting hours, docking pay, or issuing demerits that can lead to dismissal. Paid sick leave legislation has been introduced in Congress and in almost half of the states in the U.S. But it has become law only in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, and now Seattle. Grassroots campaigns around the country have been gaining traction, with Denver set to vote on an ordinance in November. In Illinois, the Healthy Workplace Act was introduced in the last legislative session, although it failed to pass out of the General Assembly. The bill would benefit the 45 percent of private sector employees in Illinois who currently do not have access to any paid sick leave—over two and a half million people. Workers, both full and part-time, would earn up to seven paid sick days per year, with one hour of leave earned for every 30 hours worked. Paid sick days could be used for personal illness, to care for an ill family member, or for medical appointments, and employers could not punish employees for taking advantage of the paid leave.

Federal Paid Sick Leave legislation

Federal paid sick leave legislation has been gaining support since its first introduction in 2004. The Healthy Families Act was reintroduced in Congress in May in both the U.S. House and Senate, and is currently in committee. The bill would allow paid leave for personal health reasons, to take care of a sick family member, or for domestic and sexual violence survivors to recover or seek assistance. Lawmakers and employers should consider the positive outcomes in San Francisco and guarantee workers the important right to paid time off by supporting efforts to institute paid sick leave in Illinois and nationally.

More information about what’s going on in Congress and in the states is available at Family Values @ Work  and the National Partnership for Women and Families.

To voice your support for the federal Healthy Families Act, contact your Senators and Representative.


Adult Education and Family Literacy Week:
Building the Skills and Education of America's Adult Workforce for a Better Economy

During this past week, workforce groups from all over the nation have been highlighting the importance of adult education programs in providing opportunities for low-income and low-skilled Americans. Adult Education and Family Literacy Week underscores the vital need for adult education programs, so that any American who works hard can gain the training and education they need to improve their lives. These programs are important to a just and prosperous society and warrant sustained investment and innovation.

Research shows that employer demand for educated workers is growing—by 2018, 63 percent of all employment will require at least some college education. Yet in 2010, over 15 million adults ages 25 years and older had less than a high school degree (Table 2). Education remains one of the most important factors in determining an individual’s well-being, as well as that of their children, but basic skills deficiencies prevent many adults from navigating higher education and the workplace and affect their ability to thrive, especially in hard economic times. In August 2011 14.3 percent of those without a high school diploma were unemployed, compared with 8.2 percent of those with at least some college.

For many of these low-skilled adults, the adult education system is the primary source for opportunities for skill upgrading. Adult education provides literacy and numeracy services, GED preparation, English language proficiency, and other services to help adults not only gain basic skills to succeed in further higher education, but also to enter career paths that lead to family sustaining wages. According to the new census data, the median annual earnings in 2010 for adults 25 years and older with less than a high school degree was $25,856, where those with a bachelor’s degree earned $55,804. Research has also shown that for each year of postsecondary education, an adult is more likely to be employed, lead a healthier life, and have children who are better prepared to succeed in their own schooling.

More skilled workers are critical for businesses and the economy, too. Sixty-one percent of U.S. employers say it is difficult to find qualified workers to fill vacancies at their companies. More skilled workers would not only allow employers to fill jobs in sectors important to local and regional economies, but workers would also contribute more to the overall economy by expending their earned wages—over a lifetime, workers with at least a high school diploma will contribute at least $300,000 more than high school drop outs. In the current fiscal crisis plaguing the nation, low educational attainment coupled with increased demand for skilled workers has negative consequences for individuals, states, and our economic recovery as a whole.

The recession and subsequent jobless recovery are accelerating the shift to jobs that require postsecondary education, but public funding for education, training, and support services has been inadequate with growing need. Federal adult education under Title II of the Workforce Investment Act provides for basic skills instruction to 2.4 million undereducated adults – but that is just three percent of the 93 million American adults with low basic skills. Not only have these programs endured a decade of decimation in their federal funding, but state fiscal crises are further reducing funding and hindering alignment of adult education and workforce development services. Without targeted strategies to educate more low-skilled Americans as demand for skills grows, the U.S. will continue to lag behind in measures of educational attainment and economic competitiveness.

Fortunately, a number of states, including Illinois, have recognized the need for building the skills of the workforce, and have launched pioneering approaches to reach low-income and low-skilled adults. Bridge programs are an innovative strategy that helps adults succeed in education by integrating basic skills instruction, which is contextualized to a particular industry or occupation, with higher-level academic content or technical skills training. The Shifting Gears Initiative, funded by the Joyce Foundation, has spearheaded bridge model creation and career pathways development in the state. You can learn more about specific bridge programs in Illinois and their outcomes here.

Chances are, you know someone who lacks a degree or who would benefit from developing more skills in math, reading, or English language to help them find a job, or a better job. You can help support that person and raise awareness of the importance of adult education. Here are many ways you can get involved and make a difference in the lives of adult learners.  

This post was coauthored by Jessica Palek.



Poverty Rate Soars to Record High in 2010

Poor manAccording to the annual poverty data released by the Census Bureau yesterday, there were 46.2 million Americans living in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009 (an increase of 2.6 million). In other words, more than1 in 6 Americans were poor in 2010. This is the highest number since the Census Bureau began gathering data 52 years ago, superseding last year’s all-time high.

The national poverty rate climbed to 15.1 percent in 2010, an increase over 2009’s rate of 14.3 percent. This is the fourth yearly increase. The South was hit hardest, as its poverty rate climbed by 1.2 percent—twice the rate of any other region in the country.

Experts believe that these figures understate the real level of poverty in the U.S. For example, many more young adults are staying or moving back home because they can’t find jobs, and others have doubled up with friends and relatives. If only their incomes, as opposed to the entire household’s, are counted, then instead of the official poverty rate of 8.4 percent, 45.3 percent would be in poverty.

Additionally, the government’s methodology for determining poverty inadequately measures the real poverty rate in America. The federal poverty line of $22,314a yearfor a family of four and $11,139 for an individual is based on methodology designed in the early 1960s that fails to capture people’s spending and living needs in today’s economy.

The Census Bureau will release a Supplemental Poverty Measure in October 2011. This new measure, which the Bureau announced last March, is intended to provide an alternative, modernized measure of economic well-being. It will use a more accurate measure of a family’s income by including income from government programs (e.g., tax credits, nutritional support, housing and energy assistance), while deducting expenses (e.g., child support obligations, child care costs, work expenses, taxes and medical costs). It will not replace the official poverty measure and will not be used to determine eligibility for government programs. 

Middle-class American families’ income fell in 2010. The median household income fell 2.3%, or $1,154, in 2010, adjusting for inflation. Overall, median income has changed very little compared to rising consumer prices over the last 30 years. Adjusted for inflation, the middle-income family earns only 11% more than they did in 1980, while the top 5% richest Americans saw their incomes surge 42%.

Income inequality has also increased. The top-earning 20 percent of Americans—those making more than $100,000 each year—received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968. Between 1999 (the year that household incomes peaked before the 2001 recession) and 2010, income at the 50th and 10th percentiles declined 7.1 percent and 12.1 percent respectively, while the decline in income at the 90th percentile was only 1.5 percent. Although there was no change in the income ratios in the 90th to 10th percentile, the 90th to 10th percentile income ratio increased from 10.42 to 11.67 percent. Households in the top 20 percent by income saw incomes fall by 0.7 percent, while those in the bottom 20 percent saw incomes fall by over six times as much—4.5 percent—in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Households in the Midwest, South and West experienced declines in real median income between 2009 and 2010. On the other hand, median household income for the Northeast stayed about the same. More detailed state-by-state data will become available when the Census Bureau releases the American Community Survey next week on September 22nd.

Interestingly, the data note that, because more families have “doubled-up households,” the poverty statistics may significantly under count actual household poverty levels.Doubled-up households are defined as households that include at least one "additional" adult: a person 18 or older who is not enrolled in school and is not the householder, spouse, or cohabiting partner of the householder.

In spring 2007, prior to the recession, doubled-up households totaled 19.7 million. By spring 2011, the number of doubled-up households had increased by 2 million to 21.8 million, and the percent rose by 1.3 percentage points from 17 percent to 18.3 percent. Nearly 6 million young adults age 25-34 (14.2 percent) resided in their parents' households, compared with 4.7 million (11.8 percent) before the recession, an increase of 2.4 percent. As noted earlier, while it is difficult to precisely assess the impact of doubling up on overall poverty rates, the poverty rates for young adults age 25-35 would go from 8.4 percent to 45.3 percent if only their income was considered rather than the entire family’s income. 

The Census Bureau poverty data show the poverty rate for African-Americans increased faster than for the rest of the population and was just over 27 percent. Blacks and Hispanics were hit particularly hard by the recession. The rate of blacks living in poverty climbed by 1.6 percent, and Hispanics’ rate increased by 1.3 percent. In comparison, the white poverty rate grew by 0.7 percent, and the Asian poverty rate actually fell by 0.4 percent.

One recent analysis concluded that the gap in wealth between white households and households of blacks and Hispanics was the largest in 2009 since the government began publishing data on this topic a quarter century ago. According to the report, about a quarter of all Hispanic (24%) and black (24%) households in 2009 had no assets other than a vehicle, compared with just 6% of white households.

Health Insurance Coverage 
The Census Bureau’s report also showed that the number of people without health care coverage rose to 49.9 million last year from 49.0 million in 2009, though the percentage of uninsured was from the 2009 rate of 16.3 percent. The Northeast and the Midwest appear to have had the lowest uninsured rates in 2010.

The increase in the number of people without health insurance is due mostly to working-age Americans who lost employer-provided insurance in the weak economy. Between 2009 and 2010, the percentage of people covered by employment-based health insurance declined from 56.1 percent to 55.3 percent, while the percentage covered by government health insurance increased from 30.6 percent to 31.0 percent. Reaching a new low, this is the tenth year of decline in the share of people with employer-provided insurance. Interestingly, however, the percentage covered by Medicaid (15.9 percent) was not statistically different from 2009. Moreover, an additional 2% of young adults age 18-24 gained coverage due to the health care reforms that allow them to remain under their parents’ health insurance until the age of 25.

The number of uninsured people isn’t likely to decrease if the unemployment rate remains high. Despite the historic Affordable Care Act health care reform legislation passed last year, many Americans will remain uncovered for a while because many of the Act’s primary expansions in coverage will not take effect until 2014

Children and the Elderly
The share of children under 18 living in poverty also jumped to 22% from 20.7% in the previous year. In 2010, 16.4 million children younger than 18 lived in poverty, compared with 15.5 million in 2009.

Historical Impact of Recessions 
These data cover the first full calendar year after the technical end of the  December 2007-June 2009 recession. The data are bleak but not surprising.

Given that in 2010 the unemployment rate was 9% and the number of Americans who were unemployed for 6 months or more was at an all-time high, the single most important factor in the increase in poverty may be the increase in the number of people who did not work at all last year. Since the start of the recession in 2007, the number of men working full time, year-round with earnings has decreased by 6.6 million, and the number of women has declined by 2.8 million.

Taken together, the data all point to the severe and widespread financial strains of a nation in the throes of an economic crisis. And the Census data report, coming shortly after President Obama’s proposed package of $447 billion in tax cuts and spending to revive job growth and the recovery contained in the American Jobs Act, is almost certain to intensify the debate over the government’s role in helping the poor and unemployed at a time of budget deficits and painful cutbacks in public services.

As the poverty rate approaches levels not seen since Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1965, it is crucial that American families tell Congress just how important such government safety nets have been to their economic well-being. The 2010 data show that there has been a sharp increase in those households that are in “deep poverty” (i.e., households living at less than half of the federal poverty level). Deep poverty has risen to an estimated 6.3%—20.5 million people—an increase of more than 25% since 2000. This number is an indicator of “disconnected” households with little meaningful attachment to employment.  As experts note, as government programs to assist those Americans suffering from this economic downturn are cut, it won't take much for “deep poverty” to claim a share of the population the country hasn't seen in over three decades. If that happens, the current poverty numbers, as astounding as they are, will seem meager.


The American Jobs Act

Last night, President Obama finally drowned out the summer’s budget deficit political circus with an impassioned speech and serious proposal to deal with our real American crisis – the jobs deficit. Between the jobs lost in the recession, and the growth of the American population, the National Employment Law Project calculates that we have a deficit of more than 11 million jobs. The President will send Congress a bill called the American Jobs Act, which would pump a half billion dollars into the economy in 2012 through jobs-creating programs, infrastructure investments, and tax credits. The priority of this funding must be strengthening the American middle class, including creating on-ramps for those who have worked hard, but never been able to get there yet. The President’s proposal will enable us to create jobs now by making critical investments in our nation’s future prosperity. You should contact your representative immediately to ensure that Congress passes it right away.

The proposals in American Jobs Act are tried and true strategies, which have had the support of members of both political parties. The bill looks to our nation’s immediate needs but does so with a long-term goal in mind – an American “economy that creates good, middle-class jobs that pay well and offer security.”

President Obama promised that the cost of the bill will be paid through a deficit reduction plan he will introduce in ten days. The outline of the plan represents a balanced approach of increasing revenue and making additional spending cuts on a responsible timeline. These cuts must not harm the most vulnerable among us. It also will include tax reform so that the wealthiest Americans and the most profitable corporations pay their fair share. The President will also propose changes to Medicare and Medicaid. We need to see the specifics of these proposals. They must make smart changes that assure that America’s seniors and low-income individuals and families have access to quality health care for decades to come.

About half the cost of the bill is a relatively modest proposal to extend and expand the payroll tax cut. Currently workers pay 4.2% of their income to fund Social Security, but that will rise back to 6.2% at the end of the year if Congress takes no action. The proposed cut would halve the payroll tax paid by employees through 2012 to 3.1%, saving a worker who makes $50,000 per year about $1,500. The bill also would cut the payroll tax paid by small businesses for the first time. Early estimates suggest these will cause employers to add 50,000 jobs per month. Additionally, all business would get tax credits for hiring workers, especially the long-term unemployed and veterans, for giving raises, and for making capital investments. Payroll taxes go to funding Social Security, and the President indicated that the amount saved by individuals and businesses would have to be paid in through other sources of government revenue. The challenge is that we still have to continue to support Social Security and ensure its long-term viability as one of the most important anti-poverty programs in America.

The American Jobs Act also funds major infrastructure investments, including building and repairing roads, bridges, railroads and airports, and repairing and modernizing 35,000 school buildings, through a public-private fund that picks projects with two criteria: “how badly a construction project is needed and how much good it would do for the economy.” The construction industry is ripe for adding workers, including women and minorities, who have historically been underrepresented. Additionally, it provides funding for critical workers that states have cut – teachers and first responders.

The bill has many other important provisions. There are several key provisions to help the long-term unemployed. First, the bill would extend unemployment insurance another year. Without this extension, millions of Americans who have been out of work for 6 months or more would lose their benefits starting in January, and would stop spending those benefits in their communities, further damaging the economy. Second, it would prohibit employers from discriminating against someone just because they are unemployed. Third, it creates a $4,000 tax credit for businesses that hire someone who’s been looking for work for 6 months or more. However, the proposal to create a work program along the lines of Georgia Works is concerning because recipients of unemployment insurance are placed at work sites where they are supposed to be trained, but may instead just be free labor to a corporation.

The American Jobs Act seeks to create economic opportunity for all. Right now we have a crisis where young people can’t find summer work, or first jobs. This summer, the smallest proportion of youth were working compared to any summer since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started recording this data in 1948. This long-term, early unemployment is doing serious damage to their lifetime economic prospects, and we’ve seen the rioting that youth hopelessness, poverty, and unemployment have caused in England this summer. President Obama’s proposal would create more opportunities for young people and low-income and disadvantaged Americans who want to work by connecting them with training and jobs through the creation of the Pathways Back to Work Fund. We need more details on the size and scope of this program.

The American people expect the politicians in Washington to make real choices to get our economy growing again. The American Jobs Act will create jobs now through smart investments in our future prosperity, and will be funded by fair increases in revenue from big business and the wealthiest Americans. That’s true to our American values of shared sacrifice and equal opportunity.

The circus is over. Congress, go back to work. America needs you to pass the American Jobs Act, so we can get back to work too.


Banks Make Huge Profits On Food Stamps

SNAP benefits cardOver the past 20 years, electronic deposit and electronic benefit transfers (EBT) have replaced paper checks for the delivery of public assistance benefits. EBT systems deliver government benefits by allowing recipients to use a plastic card to access their benefits through ATMs and point of sale (POS) devices located in select retail outlets.

One reason that EBT systems have become so popular is that states have found that they can save millions of dollars by "outsourcing" the provision of these benefits to big financial firms. In fact, JP Morgan is the largest processor of food stamp benefits in the United States.

JP Morgan has contracted to provide food stamp debit cards in 26 states and the District of Columbia. JP Morgan is paid for each case that it handles, so that means that the more Americans that go on food stamps, the more profits JP Morgan makes. Considering the fact that the number of Americans on food stamps has exploded from 26 million in 2007 to 43 million today, one can only imagine how much JP Morgan's profits in this area have soared.

J.P. Morgan also provides unemployment insurance benefit debit cards in seven states which is ironic since it, along with other big Wall Street banks, was a major contributor to the financial collapse that lead to tens of thousands of Americans becoming unemployed. 

It seems grossly unjust that the very Wall Street financial institutions that caused the recession and received bailouts from the U.S. government and tax dollars during the financial crisis are now making money off the recession and their victims again – low income families and taxpayers. Moreover, one of the programs that was on the chopping block during the debt debate was the food stamp program. In other words, Congress was prepared to cut food assistance to families, but did not even bother examining whether big banks’ profits from administering food stamp program benefits should be cut.

As part of the recent Wall Street reform, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The CFPB, which became operational on July 21st, is now the sole federal agency focused on consumer protections. Among its responsibilities is supervision and enforcement with respect to the laws over providers of consumer financial products and services. As such, one of its early efforts should be to review the practice of continuing to allow financial institutions to profit off the very consumers they helped to defraud and deplete their assets in the first place.

To learn more about the CFPB visit its website.

To learn more about issues surrounding the electronic payment of public benefits you can view the Shriver Center’s webinar, The Next Frontier: in Public Assistance: Electronic Payment Cards.


Racial Wealth Gap Is Wide and Growing

Wealth and assets are the building blocks of economic stability and mobility. Higher levels of wealth also benefit society as a whole. Unfortunately, wealth inequality in the United States is not only wide but growing — the wealthiest tenth of American households possess almost three-quarters of the country’s total net worth. The racial wealth gap is even worse. In less than a generation (from 1984 to 2007), the racial wealth gap has more than quadrupled, mostly as a result of rising white wealth. In terms of household net worth, for every dollar owned by a white household Latinos own twelve cents and African-American families own only ten cents.   In fact, the median net wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing this data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that prevailed among these groups for the prior to the Great Recession.

Early evidence is that the great recession has already significantly increased the racial wealth gap because of catastrophic losses in wealth amongst minorities. A recent report by the Pew Research Center estimates that from 2005 to 2009 the racial wealth gap doubled – so that median white families currently have as much as 20 times the wealth of black families, and 18 times the wealth of Hispanic families. These racial wealth disparities will rise further as the after-effects of the Great Recession continue. Although the recession affected all U.S. households’ wealth, through unemployment, falling stock prices, and huge losses in home values, it affected minorities more. In fact, the foreclosure crisis has caused “the greatest loss of wealth for people of color in modern U.S. history.”

In order to understand the persistence of this discrepancy, one needs to examine the country’s historical and current discriminatory practices and policies. Even when characteristics such as income, education, and other demographics are equal, minorities continue to have less wealth than similarly situated whites. Historically, legal, or de jure, discrimination, both by the government and by private actors, increased the racial wealth gap and created the opportunity for whites to build assets at the expense of minorities. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, other facially neutral policies of the U.S. government racialized wealth acquisition, including the government’s promotion of white land acquisition, home ownership, retirement, and education, without explicitly delineating opportunities along the lines of race. Today, although racial discrimination is no longer legal, de facto discrimination still exists in terms of government and social priorities, principles, social norms, and the actions of individuals. Housing discrimination, unequal educational systems, disparate treatment in the realm of criminal justice, and disparate employment opportunities all continue the current advantages that whites enjoy.

Two critical public policy strategies in reducing this gap is identifying and eradicating current discriminatory government policies, whether de jure or de facto, and assisting racial minorities in developing assets. As advocates in the asset building field have explained, “public policies have and continue to play a major role in creating and sustaining the racial wealth gap, and they must play a role in closing it.”

At the moment, however, the federal government is actually exacerbating the racial wealth gap.  Instead of subsidizing wealth creation mostly for the wealthy, the federal government must switch to supporting asset-building strategies for those who need it most. In 2009, the United States spent nearly $400 billion on asset building policies. These subsidies, however, overwhelmingly go to those who already have significant wealth. For example, those earning more than $160,000 received an average of $5,109 in tax breaks per taxpayer, while those earning less than $19,000 received an average of only $5 in tax credits in 2009. Shifting the government’s expenditures toward facilitating the asset-building of the poor and minorities would help alleviate the legacy of racial inequality and provide needed fiscal stimulus.

Multifaceted public policies and strategies to help individuals build their own assets are also needed. Specifically, we must identify strategies to (1) promote savings, (2) increase access to mainstream credit, and (3) improve and increase financial education. Only by acknowledging that the same social system that has, and continues, to foster the accumulation of private wealth for many whites while denying it to blacks and redirecting this focus will we, as a society, begin to decrease the wealth gap that has racially divided this country for centuries.

To read more about the causes of the racial wealth gap and asset building policy solutions to bridge this gap read the “Eliminating the Racial Wealth Gap: The Asset Perspective,” featured in the July-August 2011 issue of Clearinghouse Review.

Because You Have a Refrigerator and a Stove You Are Not Poor?

RefrigeratoIf you have a refrigerator and a stove you aren’t really poor! Or at least that is what a recent report, “Air Conditioning, Cable TV and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today,” by the Heritage Foundation claims.

The report’s premise is that public policy discussions on poverty are meaningless absent a detailed description of the actual living conditions of poor households. Specifically, the report asserts that although the Census Bureau reports that over 30 million Americans are living in poverty, in reality, this number overestimates poverty because poor families own things like refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, washers and dryers, and ceiling fans. Oh and let’s not forget to include the coffee maker that poor families own instead of going to Starbucks for their $4 latte!

 Putting aside the fact that, according to 2009 Census Bureau data, 43.6 million people were actually in poverty (which is the highest number in the 51 years that the U.S. has published poverty rates), the report analyzes data from the Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) which measures energy consumption and ownership of various “conveniences.” Comparing the amenities available to poor households versus those available to all households, the report asserts that the average poor person has a living standard far higher than the public imagines. According to the authors’ analysis, both typical households and poor households each have air conditioning, washing machines and dryers, refrigerators, stoves and ovens, TVs and cable or satellites, a DVD and VCR, and cordless phones. Based on this analysis, the report concludes that poor households are living well today. As the report states, “the poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago.”

But everyone is better off today than they were 100 years ago!! The wealthy are better off than they were 100 years ago, too. The real issue is how the poor fare in today’s economy, not how they would have fared in the economy 100 years ago.

For example, the report acknowledges that, although poor households were less likely to have air conditioning in any given year, the share of all households with air conditioning has steadily increased over the past 25 years. (Admittedly, I am sitting in an air conditioned room writing this while outside it’s over 100 degrees, so I currently think air conditioning is certainly not a luxury.) The reality, however, is that poor families have air conditioning solely because most of today’s homes were constructed with it. It’s not a luxury that the poor are indulging in; it’s merely what is available in the housing market. Do we know whether poor families are actually using the air conditioning in their homes, or are they unable to because they cannot afford it?

The report also asserts that poor Americans are well housed because their dwellings are spacious compared to international standards. All American homes are spacious compared with most other countries’ housing, but that doesn’t mean that poor families are living in palaces!

According to the report, homelessness is not a problem either. The authors assert that only 240,000 out of the total 643,000 Americans without a permanent domicile are actually “homeless” because they live in cars, abandoned buildings, alleyways, or parks. The rest of the so-called homeless are in emergency shelters or transitional housing so they don’t really count as homeless. Moreover, the report explains that individuals typically lose housing, reside in emergency housing for a few weeks and then re-enter permanent housing, so the homeless rate isn’t really a problem. But how long is it before they lose this new housing because they can’t continue to pay for it? The report does admit that there has been an increase in the number of families with children who use homeless shelters, but asserts that the increase isn’t a “tidal wave of increased homelessness.” Perhaps the increase isn’t as large because those families that lost their homes have moved in with other family members. Or perhaps it’s because poor families are relying on Section 8 housing instead of sleeping the streets, though they may have to line their sleeping bags up in the gutters soon with HUD programs among the many public benefits programs that the Republican budget proposal would cut.

Similarly, the report implies that having a refrigerator, stove, and oven means that families are not poor. Families should have these items. It’s whether or not there food to put in the fridge and to cook on the stove that matters! Of course the authors also argue that food is available because, even though there has been an increase in the use of charity food pantries and soup kitchens during the recession, only one poor family in five took food from a pantry and even less ate at a soup kitchen. Would that be because more people applied for food stamps to get by instead? And, by the way, food stamps are another public benefit program on the chopping block, so there probably will be longer lines at the soup kitchen soon.

Although the recession has increased the number of families in poverty, the authors contend that once the recession ends the living conditions of the poor are likely to continue to improve as they have in the past. So I am guessing that the racial wealth gap, which has increased fourfold in the past 25 years, is likely to improve to as well? After all minorities and low-income families were the hardest hit by the recession so they should bounce back pretty quickly, if the report is correct.

The report claims that the creation of a new poverty measure is simply a propaganda tool in President Obama’s endless quest to “spread the wealth.” In other words, the new measure’s focus on income inequality rather than poverty is a way to get the American public to unknowingly buy into the goal of income leveling. Yet, even if the new poverty measure was the “Trojan horse” that the authors claim, the horse has already left the barn because research shows that 92% of Americans already favor income redistribution. 

The report correctly states that the current federal poverty measure, which defines poverty in terms of income and ignores public benefits, undercounts the economic resources provided to poor people. The new poverty measure would correct this by including such benefits into the poverty calculation. Since the new poverty measure is merely a ruse, though, I guess we shouldn’t mention that part.

Perhaps the only thing that the authors do get right is the fact that “accurate information about the extent and severity of poverty is imperative for the development of effective public policies.” They are correct when they say that “misrepresentations of poverty data lead to a misallocation of resources and, by obscuring the causes of deprivation, impedes the development of effective countermeasures.” Unfortunately it’s the data and how government dollars should be allocated that they get wrong. As the report points out, federal and state governments spent $714 billion on means-tested welfare programs in 2008. However, the federal government also spent over $400 billion in asset building policies that mostly benefit the wealthy. So maybe the right allocation would be to redistribute the asset building expenditures and tax credits from the wealthy to the poor. Perhaps then there wouldn’t be a welfare state, because the poor would actually own assets that would help them move away from welfare programs.


The H-2B Program: Flaws and Promise

Carnival workerMost of us scream on carnival rides and enjoy seasonal treats during the summer without thinking about the laborers who make these activities possible. Many of these workers travel long distances at considerable expense to take low-paying, dangerous jobs. These seasonal workers are employed through the H-2B visa program, which is ripe for change.

Under the terms of the H-2B program, U.S. employers petition for seasonal nonagricultural workers to work here on a temporary basis. (The H-2A program works in the same general way for seasonal agricultural workers.) Getting approved to host an H-2B worker is difficult, and three separate federal agencies are involved in the application and visa issuance process.

You might think that, in light of the rigorous process used to approve H-2B workers, there would be strong safeguards in place to protect the workers from exploitation once they arrive in the United States. You would be wrong. As an initial matter, under existing law H-2B workers are not even guaranteed a minimum number of work hours under their employment agreements—unlike H-2A agricultural workers, who are required to receive hours equivalent to three-fourths of the work days specified in their employment contracts.

Moreover, because there are multiple federal agencies involved in the H-2B program, it is incredibly difficult for workers to determine how to pursue an employment-related question or complaint. And, because H-2B workers apply to work in this country for a particular employer and cannot change employers once in the United States, they often feel compelled to continue working for employers who confiscate their passports, make them live in unsanitary housing, subject them to verbal abuse, and otherwise exploit and degrade them. 

Even if H-2B workers are inclined to seek legal help, organizations that receive Legal Services Corporation funding are not permitted to assist them. Thankfully, other organizations and the federal government do step in.  Earlier this year, several H-2B carnival workers from Mexico were awarded thousands of dollars following a Department of Labor investigation sparked by activists concerned about the condition of New York State Fair workers.

Fortunately, the federal government has decided to revamp the guest worker program and make it more just for seasonal workers. In March 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed revisions of the regulations governing H-2B workers. The proposed revisions are significantly more protective of workers’ rights than the current regime. 

In addition, U.S. Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Harry Reid (D-NV), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), John Kerry (D-MA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) recently launched the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011. This wide-ranging bill contains provisions addressing border security, work authorization, and paths to legal immigration—including an attempt to revive the DREAM Act. Several provisions in the bill would affect guest workers. This legislation currently has no Republican support, but it is encouraging to see lawmakers trying to coalesce around a reform plan. 

The fate of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act probably will not be decided anytime soon, but hopefully the Labor Department’s revisions to the H-2B regulations will be adopted quickly and some of the structural flaws in the H-2B program will be remedied.