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This Week in Poverty: Me, Mom and Reagan | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

This Week in Poverty: Me, Mom and Reagan

Before we get started, a special note! Please join me and Legal Momentum’s Lisalyn Jacobs and Tim Casey at 11:00 am in the comments section on this post for TheNation.com’s first real-time discussion with commenters, moderated by Nation comments editor Sarah Arnold. We will be taking questions about today’s post, general questions about poverty, and any questions, comments, or suggestions you might have for TheNation.com’s This Week in Poverty blog. Please use the comments box at the top of the conversation thread, not the “reply” function.

Here’s the new American reality: about half of all kids will spend at least part of their childhood in a family headed by a single mother, and the typical single mother is white, has one kid, is separated or divorced, works and probably earns less than $25,000 a year.

Wait, what? Run that back to me.

Because when I was a kid being raised by a white single mom, President Reagan basically promised me we that we were different, special even. My Mom put herself through school and worked. The typical single mom, according to the president, was a “welfare queen” taking “government handouts” so she could drive her “Cadillac” and raise her “strapping young bucks” on “T-bone steaks.” He didn’t have to say she was black, lazy and never married—everyone knew it. This image persisted through welfare reform in 1996 when basic cash assistance was gutted, and it still grips the American psyche today.

But a new report from Tim Casey, senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum—the nation’s oldest legal defense and education fund for women and girls—departs from this iconic portrayal of single moms. Instead, Casey goes out on a limb and turns to data from crazy outfits like the US Census Bureau. The report is a lot less fun than the alternative universe offered by the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, because Casey stubbornly insists on using “facts.”

“There are single mothers in large numbers in all demographic groups,” says Casey, who has worked on economic security issues like welfare, poverty and childcare for thirty-five years. “They tend to have only one or two children—only about one in five have more than two children.”

Indeed about 40 percent of single mothers are white, one-third black and one-quarter Hispanic. And there are other things Reagan never told me—like, only one-sixth haven’t completed high school, 25 percent have a college degree, 55 percent are divorced, separated or widowed, and at any one time 66 percent of single mothers are working outside the home—a single-mother employment rate above the average of other high-income countries.

But despite that higher work rate, Casey reports, “the single mother poverty rate in the US is [also] far above the average in high-income countries.”

And that’s what has Casey and other advocates who operate in the fact-based world so worried. Forty percent of single mother–headed families are poor—defined as earning less than about $17,300 annually for a family of three—but only one in ten single mothers receive cash welfare assistance. The majority of the 16.4 million poor children in the United States are in single mother–headed families.

“We have a high fraction of kids growing up in single-parent families, and single-parent families have incredibly high poverty rates compared to peer countries,” says Casey. “Data shows poverty during childhood has long term effects on adult productivity, health—very negative consequences that are lifelong for kids.”

(Eck—again with the “data”.)

“So it’s not only about social justice issues like equal opportunity for women and kids, and opportunities to advance,” continues Casey, “but the impact on the economy overall going forward.”

According to economist Harry Holzer of Georgetown University and the Urban Institute—two other operations known for so-called "evidence"—US child poverty is associated with at least $500 billion in costs per year, or the equivalent of nearly 4 percent of GDP.

Casey says he’s “puzzled by this incredible reluctance in our society to adjust to the fact that we now do have a high share of kids growing up in single parent families. There is sort of this denial—a refusal to adjust social policy to match the new social reality.”

He says in the past we have done a better job in that regard—adjusting social policy when the typical family no longer had multiple generations living together, or people no longer married very young, or no longer averaged three to five children.

“When social reality changes, society has to adjust its policy to reflect the changes in family life, but we seem unwilling to do that in response to the changes in how kids live today,” he argues. “It’s a tragedy for kids who wind up spending a good part of their childhood in poverty and are denied any real chance for equal opportunity.”

In Casey’s opinion, the biggest obstacle to better social policy is “the right’s tendency to blame and pass moral judgment.” But he also says “the left sometimes refuses to come to grips with the issue as well. We have to assure that all families have the support they need and the respect they need and deserve.”

While Casey says there is “no panacea,” if he had his druthers he would “start with the most basic thing”—a return to an adequate cash assistance system.

“The welfare system simply no longer functions,” he says. “Most poor kids don’t get a dime, and those that do get assistance get a benefit that’s far, far below the poverty level.” (A majority of states now provide benefits at less than 30 percent of the poverty line—less than about $5,200 annually for a family of three—if they provide anything at all.)

Casey also has the notion that we need to expand federally subsidized childcare if we want single mothers to have a better shot at decent jobs. Currently federal childcare only reaches approximately one in six who qualify for it, and people like Casey and his subversive friends claim it helps mothers work, makes them less stressed and allows them to pay less of their income toward childcare so they have money for other things like food, housing and healthcare.

“If you look at employment rates for single mothers by age of the youngest child, the graph would be what you expect—the younger the youngest child, the lower the employment rate,” he says, using the oldest trick in the book—logic. “Why? Because the childcare isn’t there. Without greatly expanding federal funding for childcare subsidies it’s hard to see how we can expect more single parents with very young children to work. It just isn’t possible.”

Casey maintains that the biggest thing people need to come to grips with if we are to affect change is the new social reality.

“Look, you may disagree on what’s the best way to respond, but facts are facts, and we need adjust our social policies accordingly,” he says.

And that right there is the whole problem with Casey and his ilk—facts aren’t facts, not when it comes to single moms, race and welfare. We much prefer the Reagan legacy in that regard.

However, for those of you who actually do use data to inform your politics, Casey and Legal Momentum are starting a new “Single Parent Policy Advocacy Network” (SPPAN) to educate and advocate for public policies to improve the economic security of single parents and their children. You can join by simply sending a blank e-mail to sppan-subscribe@lists.legalmomentum.org.

Violence and the Workplace

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) will reportedly reach the Senate floor as early as Monday, and when it does it will have a glaring omission—no provision ensuring that victims of intimate partner violence have access to unemployment insurance.

Think about it: you’re a victim of domestic violence, or sexual assault, or being stalked, and your abuser knows where you work. You want to leave your job, or move, and start anew in a safe place. But you just barely have the resources to make the move—if you have them at all—and if you were to quit your job in at least ten states you would be out of luck as far as collecting unemployment goes. So you keep working until you hopefully can find another place of employment.

“Well, in this day and age it doesn’t take more than three days of reading a newspaper before you see some horrible article describing somebody whose estranged spouse or significant other showed up at their workplace and at minimum did them harm,” says Lisalyn Jacobs, vice president for government relations at Legal Momentum, who began working on domestic violence issues as an attorney with the Department of Justice in 1995. “More likely the person has been shot, or the person and her co-worker.”

Jacobs notes that while the needs of victims don’t change no matter where they live, the result of our state-based unemployment insurance system is a “crazy quilt of laws” across the nation. It’s not good for workers or businesses, which is why we need a federal standard requiring that states extend unemployment insurance to all survivors of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault. These provisions are particularly important for low-income women who are disproportionately at risk for domestic violence. They also don’t have the resources others might have in lieu of a paycheck to relocate.

“It’s just a reality that low-income women will need some kind of income support to make that break,” says Jacobs.

Only seven states meet the “gold standard” of providing unemployment insurance to victims of all three forms of intimate partner violence. Twenty-one states, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands extend unemployment protection only to victims of domestic violence. Twelve states address domestic violence and either stalking or sexual assault, and ten states provide no protections at all.

Basically, it’s an absurd system symptomatic of a larger problem.

“The work world has so dramatically evolved since the inception of the unemployment insurance system in 1930s,” says Jacobs. “Back then work was more state-based, and people worked for mom-and-pop businesses, or organizations operating solely in-state. Now you’ve got so many people working for national or multinational businesses, or the federal government or somebody else who has footprints across the nation.”

Jacobs gives the example of two assistant US attorneys—one living in DC, the other across the river in Northern Virginia, both working for the federal government. Each could suffer the same kind of abuse, but their access to unemployment would depend on where each resides. (Maryland has a different system too, and is considering a law this legislative session so that victims of domestic violence can obtain unemployment benefits.)

“It’s just a really problematic, antiquated system that isn’t serving survivors well,” says Jacobs. “Particularly in this economy when we know that job loss, and consequent family stress and tension, have really resulted in a lot of relationships deteriorating, and that there may be violence in the household.”

In a year when Congress has needed to address unemployment insurance extensions and the reauthorization of VAWA, now is the time to protect people from intimate partner violence no matter where they live or their circumstances. The Democratic Senate’s failure to do so is a big disappointment that will receive little if any media coverage.

However—and here’s a stunner—it seems there might be a better chance of including those provisions in a House version of VAWA. Yes, you read that correctly, the US House of Representatives—the very same one…

The Security and Financial Empowerment (SAFE) Act would require that all states extend eligibility for unemployment benefits to survivors of domestic and sexual violence, as well as stalking. It's cosponsored by Democratic Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard and Republican Congressman Ted Poe, who sits on the Judiciary Committee. Both have expressed interest in folding parts of this legislation into VAWA.

“It’s our best shot to date,” says Jacobs.

Expect opposition from the business lobby. Jacobs says that’s been the case during every state effort to expand these protections. Recently in Florida, a woman testified before a state Senate committee that she had been afraid to return to her job after her estranged partner put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger three times before it misfired. She fled with her children to a homeless shelter. The representative of the business lobby said the woman’s decision to leave her job was “voluntary.”

Yet Jacobs says whether business opposition is just a knee-jerk response, or a general stance against regulation, “the minute something happens in their own backyard they get it.”

Legal Momentum provides technical assistance to help businesses support employees who are survivors—whether they need time off for a protection order, a different work schedule or a changed location within the office, for example.

“I have literally been on the phone with employers whose names you would recognize who call me because they are now interested in policies around these issues, and almost always they are calling me because something tragic has happened to an employee,” she says. “For all the opposition they had previously mustered, they really don’t want to be the one who’s now calling me wringing their hands after an employee has been killed.”

Jacobs says she received such a call as recently as Christmas.

This might seem like a small thing—a small provision in a single bill. But it’s something that can and will save lives, a way to help someone in a desperate situation have more options.

Jacobs suggests this: “Just go to the website of your members of Congress, and say, ‘I think this is important. You’re considering VAWA legislation, I know you’ll be considering unemployment legislation. This isn’t complicated, it needs to get done.’ ”

Veterans and Poverty

With 100,000 veterans expected to return home with the end of the Iraq War and the drawdown in Afghanistan, the Center for American Progress (CAP) reports some staggering numbers on veteran poverty: one in seven homeless adults is a veteran; on any given night in January last year, 67,000 veterans were counted homeless, and four in ten homeless veterans were found unsheltered; 1.5 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and overcrowded or substandard housing.

The unemployment rate for veterans ages 18 to 24 is over 30 percent, according to unpublished 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and nearly 1 million veterans ages 18 to 64 lived in poverty in 2010.

These figures raise new questions about what it means to “support the troops.”

“Are we really willing to keep funding for yet another nuclear missile—particularly given our existing arsenal’s tremendous size—when the same funding would prevent a big cut to job training for veterans, or heating and food assistance for that matter?” says Melissa Boteach, director of Half in Ten, a campaign to reduce poverty by 50 percent over ten years. “Conversations about helping returning veterans cannot be divorced from a broader conversation on creating jobs, rebuilding the middle-class and pursuing responsible deficit-reduction that does not slash services that create opportunities for vets and non-vets alike.”

Half in Ten also held a great event and important effort at building alliances between human needs advocates and veterans.

Must Read

Michael Harrington and the ‘Culture of Poverty’,” Barbara Ehrenreich

Further Reading

Earned Income Tax Credit Benefiting Working Poor Cut in Half
‘Inexcusable’ Indifference to Extreme Poverty,” Lauren Feeney
The Myth of the Non-Paying 47 Percent,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Easing the Burden for American Parents,” Elaine Weiss
What Education Reform Misses,” Richard Doak

Notable Studies

We Pay our Early Child Care and Early Education Workforce Crap (my title): US Government Accountability Office finds average yearly income ranged from $11,500 for a childcare worker working in a child’s home to $18,000 for a preschool teacher.

Get Involved

National Partnership for Women and Families, Paid Leave Petition: Only 11 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave through employers, and the US is the only developed country that doesn’t ensure working parents can take job-protected, paid time away from work to bond with a new child.

RESULTS action to Support Head Start and Child Care Services: there are no shortage of studies that show investing in early learning programs is one of the smartest investments we can make as a country. We also know childcare subsidies are woefully inadequate, making it even more difficult for parents to work their way out of poverty.

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $22,300 for a family of four): 46.2 million, 15.1 percent of population.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children.

*Children under age 18 in female-headed families in poverty: 46.9 percent.

*Children under age 5 in female-headed families in poverty: 58.7 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population.

*Increase in deep poverty, 1976–2010: doubled—3.3 percent of population to 6.7 percent.

Increase in number of Americans in poverty, 2006–10: 27 percent.

Increase in US population, 2006–10: 3.3 percent.

[*from US Census Bureau via Peter Edelman]

Quote of the Week

“A new discovery of poverty is long overdue. This time, we’ll have to take account not only of stereotypical Skid Row residents and Appalachians but of foreclosed-upon suburbanites, laid-off tech workers and America’s ever growing army of the ‘working poor.’ And if we look closely enough, we’ll have to conclude that poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money.”
                               —Barbara Ehrenreich, “Michael Harrington and the ‘Culture of Poverty’

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