Greg Kaufmann | The Nation


Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

Talk About Poverty (#TalkPoverty): Jessica Bartholow's Questions for Obama and Romney

This is the third post in TheNation.com’s #TalkPoverty series—an effort to push a deeper conversation about poverty into the mainstream political debate. The series profiles people working on poverty-related issues, and lays out the questions they want President Obama and Governor Romney to answer. You can read the first posts here and here.

In 1967, five years before Jessica Bartholow was born, her father returned home from the Vietnam War a broken man. Although Richard Bartholow had survived a battle lasting several days right next to a network of underground tunnels, the experience severely traumatized him. An Army psychiatrist prescribed lithium shortly before he was discharged.

When he arrived back in the United States, military personnel simply dropped Richard off at the Oakland Commissary.

“There was no consideration for what that would mean for him or his family,” Bartholow told me. “There was no screening, or assistance in transitioning soldiers back to civilian life. There was no understanding that post-traumatic stress disorder can be passed on for generations—that it travels with the family and community.”

Richard lived on the streets for a couple of weeks before phoning his wife, Jacquelyn. She convinced him to tell her where he was and let her bring him home.

Civilian life proved difficult for Richard. Since he had never finished high school, he worked in construction. He also self-medicated by drinking. Rainy season was particularly bad—not only was there little work available, it was also the same time of year that he had originally shipped out to Vietnam.

“My dad would go into a real state that would end with the family in crisis almost annually,” said Bartholow.

As a result, her family moved almost every year between the time Jessica was 5 and 12.

“Unlike today, there weren’t credit scores that resulted in an inability to get housing, so we’d just move on to the next house when we couldn’t pay rent,” she said.

Jacquelyn always worked—as a bookkeeper, salesperson, clerk and donut maker—and then from home when Richard’s condition deteriorated severely.

“He couldn’t leave the house for years, and she had to be there to prevent suicide,” said Bartholow. “She took up laundering and ironing clothes. She did it throughout my high school years to pay the rent and keep things going. But it’s not an easy job, it doesn’t pay well and there were always all kinds of chemicals.”

Like most people in poverty today, Bartholow’s family moved in and out of poverty—sometimes below, and sometimes a little above the threshold.

“We were never middle class,” she said. “We vacillated between poverty and working class—there used to be a distinction in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not sure there is much of one today with the proliferation of low-wage jobs people are trying to get by on.”

Bartholow and her older sister, Linda, had no books, one pair of shoes each for the year and clothes from the thrift store that her grandmother bought for them on Christmas or birthdays.

“But you don’t really notice those things when you are a kid,” said Bartholow. “The only thing that is truly an experience—that you don’t forget—is hunger. Food is something you notice that other people have, and you don’t.”

Dinners were often peanut butter and bread; lunch at school was frequently a biscuit and an apple from a neighbor’s tree. And then there were the summer and winter breaks.

“It was weeks of Bisquick for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said. “As a kid, when you’re living off Bisquick, you know things are bad.”

Bartholow recalls an incident from the fourth grade the day after her grandparents brought over turkey for their Christmas meal. In the refrigerator was a bit of leftover turkey, a couple sticks of butter, and Bisquick. One of her neighborhood friends came over to play, and when she looked in the fridge she wanted the turkey. Jessica said no and the other child couldn’t understand why.

“We ended up fighting over that turkey,” said Bartholow. “Punches, hair pulling, kicking, scratching.”

At 13, Bartholow began working weekends with her family “selling junk we salvaged at the flea market.” A good day meant “fancy deli sandwiches with meat and cheese” for lunch; a slow day meant “donuts or a candy bar.” Shortly thereafter, her sister dropped out of school to work as a nurse’s aid to help support the family. She had asked a guidance counselor if she could finish high school through home study, but the counselor said if her “parents couldn’t keep her clothed and fed then maybe child protective services should be called.”

“My sister never went back,” Bartholow said.

It wasn’t until Jessica was a sophomore in high school—when she refused to purchase a $10 workbook for a class—that a vice principal told her she might be eligible for a school lunch program.

“It was too late for my sister, but it was an incredible relief for me not to have to worry about whether I would have enough money to get lunch throughout the week,” she said.

Despite two working adults, the family experienced not only housing insecurity and hunger, but also a lack of access to affordable healthcare. From ages 6 through 19, Bartholow didn’t visit a doctor unless it was an emergency.

“It had to be stitches or a broken bone,” she said. “Then there was this long, drawn out conversation to make sure it really was a broken bone, it really was an emergency. And you could bet there would be a fight. Because it meant we had to pay money, and that was the money for rent or food. Without healthcare, the option was you go bankrupt, you lose your house—and we did. The tensions ran high because the stakes were real.”

Bartholow and her sister learned not to speak up when they were hurt. In one incident, a sewing needle broke off in Jessica’s foot and she didn’t tell anyone for two weeks. She ended up being treated not only to remove the needle but also for blood poisoning. Linda fell while roller-skating and injured her hip. She discovered as an adult that it had been broken. Now 42, she can’t stand for long periods of time or walk long distances. She also suffers from severe arthritis in an arm and hand due to a break that didn’t heal properly—it was treated initially, but the costs bankrupted the family so there was no follow up.

“Affordable healthcare would have made a real difference in our lives then and in my sister’s life today,” said Jessica.

But the assistance that did really help Jessica—and ultimately her entire family—was financial aid for a college education. She was able to obtain federal Pell grants, and a supplemental education opportunity grant as a first-generation college student. There were also reasonable rates for loans and a credit card that she used to buy books. She was able to pay down her debts within six years of graduating college.

“I’m just not sure that’s an option for too many people today,” she said.

Bartholow calls her college education “significant” for her family in that it helped her to recognize that something was very wrong with their situation—especially the lack of help her father received after serving in Vietnam.

As a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, she bicycled by a small Veterans Administration clinic every day. By that time, Richard’s condition had deteriorated to the point that he no longer would get up from a chair, talked about “giving up,” and always kept his gun nearby.

One day, she walked into the clinic and told a doctor, “My Dad is broken and you need to fix him. He’s going to kill himself one day and everyone else in the house, I think.”

Within an hour, the doctor had Richard on the phone. He offered him a place in a lockdown treatment facility in Menlo Park, not far from Oakland. Jessica had no idea how her father would respond, but he accepted the offer. The VA also helped him apply for veterans’ disability income assistance.

“In the end, this intervention finally stabilized my family’s situation,” said Bartholow.

Today, Jessica works as a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. She describes her job as “working in different ways to improve access and reduce barriers to basic needs assistance for low-income Californians.” Sometimes it involves crafting legislation or lobbying; sometimes it involves helping with litigation to make sure people aren’t wrongfully denied benefits or services; and sometimes it involves working with the media.

Ten years ago, Jessica told Richard how proud she is of him—his service, his work to care for his family, and finally his effort to care for himself. He said he felt ashamed of what his kids had lost—that he had failed to protect them from a hurtful childhood and that he couldn’t fix that.

“And he’s right that there are things that can’t be fixed,” Jessica says. “You can’t erase what happens to a kid living on Bisquick; or a broken bone that debilitates a sister; or untreated mental health problems that lead to scars. You can only move forward and make things better for people—make sure that what happened to you doesn’t happen to other people, other kids, other parents.”

Here then are Bartholow’s questions for President Obama and Governor Romney:

1) Several prominent studies find that veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless population, with male veterans 1.25 times more likely to be homeless than non-veteran males and female veterans over four times more likely to be homeless than non-veteran females. Too many other veterans struggle simply to stay housed and keep their families together and safe. As president, what will you do to make sure that our veterans are supported in their re-entry into civilian life—with vocational support that translates their skills into good jobs with good wages; and also support for veterans whose opportunities have been limited by physical or mental injuries?

2) Millions of homeowners and renters are adversely affected by the mortgage crisis: foreclosed homes swamp the housing market and rental prices are driven up as vacancies are at their lowest rates in over a decade. As president, what will you do to make sure that families who have lost homes as a result of the housing crisis are able to secure safe, affordable housing?

3) Recent studies show that the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant program has been ineffective in preventing families from falling into extreme poverty—defined as a household income of less than $11,000 annually for a family of four—and helping them find employment during the recent recession. In fact, despite persistent high unemployment, poor parents have been subject to the same sixty-month lifetime limit on cash assistance and thirty-hour-per-week federal work requirements. (Some states have shorter lifetime limits and require more hours of work per week.) Both of you have supported greater state flexibility to ensure successful outcomes for TANF participants. Can you describe the type of flexibility that you think would be most effective in helping families? And is there a basic human right that shouldn’t be left to a state’s discretion?

4) As candidates, you have both highlighted your commitment to securing the American Dream for every child. Equal access to a high quality high school education regardless of family income is essential to this goal, as is access to post-secondary education for all high school graduates who qualify academically. What do you think is most important in securing economic mobility for all children, regardless of the incomes or educational attainment of their parents, and how will you achieve this?

5) There are many working families today that are like my own growing up—their full-time jobs, even when coupled with weekend and evening work, don’t pay the bills. It forces them to decide what they will have to go without: food, safe housing, utilities or healthcare. What is the appropriate role for the government in improving the likelihood that an honest day’s work earns a living wage?

Talk About Poverty: Mariana Chilton's Questions for Obama and Romney

This is the second post in TheNation.com’s #TalkPoverty series—an effort to push a deeper conversation about poverty into the mainstream political debate. The series profiles people working on poverty-related issues, and lays out the questions they want president Obama and Governor Romney to answer. You can read the first post here.

In 1989, when Dr. Mariana Chilton was a junior in college, she lived in Chile for a year working as an interpreter for a US reporter doing a story on “Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared.” It was just after Augusto Pinochet had been voted out of office.

Chilton traveled the Atacama Desert with “wives and daughters and sisters” who were searching for hundreds of loved ones who had been murdered and buried in mass graves.

“They were trying to call attention—carefully—to finding their loved ones,” she told me. “People were starting to learn how to come out and talk—it took their enormous courage to break seventeen years of silence.”

Fifteen years later, as an associate professor at Drexel University School of Public Health and co-principal investigator for Children’s HealthWatch, that indelible experience of breaking the silence would change her work on poverty and nutrition at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities (@HungerFreeCtr).

She was testifying before Congress on the 2007 Farm Bill, offering data on food stamp benefits and how critical they are for children’s health.

“I literally watched the Congresspeople’s eyes glaze over, and I thought, ‘Well this isn’t doing it,’” she said. “I thought of all the women that I’d spoken to who had invited me into their homes to talk about hunger in the previous two years, and that they are the ones who needed to be testifying. The people most directly affected by food policy were being left out of the conversation. How do you get their stories out? How do you break through the silence?”

With an unrestricted $100,000 award from a foundation, she decided to give cameras to women living in poverty so that they could get their messages out through photographs and testimonials.

“It was an attempt to have women speak directly to legislators at the local, state, and federal levels—with something real and tangible from their own experiences,” she said.

Some people thought Chilton was nuts—that the women would end up selling the cameras, and her project would do nothing to help change policy. Chilton disagreed.

“Whether I was getting to know the relatives of the detained and disappeared, listening to their stories while wandering the desert; or sitting with women in their kitchens in Philadelphia and learning about what their experiences with hunger and poverty were like—I always felt an absolute conviction that these stories needed to be heard,” she said.

Chilton had no idea whether the new project—Witnesses to Hunger—would work. But sitting on the sofa with Witness Barbie Izquierdo, and looking at the project’s very first photograph that Izquierdo had taken of a neighbor’s kitchen, Chilton vowed to get “her story, her presence, her photographs” to the White House.

Within a year, the original forty Witnesses were invited to testify at the US Senate, and their photographs were exhibited in the Capitol Rotunda. There are now seventy-six Witnesses, and the project has sites in Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, Providence, and soon, Camden, New Jersey. On August 5, Izquierdo did indeed make it to the White House. She and Chilton were invited there to discuss a new documentary film on hunger in America, A Place at the Table, and how it could energize a national movement to end hunger in this country.

Witnesses to Hunger is now working on a microfinance project that would help women build wealth through financial literacy training, nutrition education, access to banking services and small loans of less than $1,200. Groups of ten to fifteen women would meet weekly to encourage each other to save funds, repay loans and provide one another social support.

“You can get a woman to the White House or Senate, but when she gets back to her home she still needs money. A low-wage job or two just isn’t going to do it,” she said. “When they have opportunities to come together in groups, they help each other. And with small loans for their businesses like braiding, doing nails and hair, catering, house cleaning, providing childcare—they can thrive as entrepreneurs.”

Chilton didn’t want to be profiled nor did she want to provide questions for this post—she asked that it be about the Witnesses and that the questions come directly from them. Only when I told her that I had already planned on speaking with Witnesses for a later post in the series would she cooperate. Nevertheless—perhaps thinking I was just another schmuck from the media who didn’t truly give a damn—she still consulted with Witnesses and her staff to come up with the following questions for President Obama and Governor Romney:

1) One quarter of America’s young children under age 6 are living in homes that are food insecure—meaning their families report that they do not have money to buy enough food for an active and healthy life. Food insecurity negatively affects the cognitive, social and emotional development of young children. This cripples their readiness for school and future school performance. As president, what would you do about our growing hunger crisis in America—especially for young children?

2) Before the recession, 70 percent of households with food-insecure children had at least one parent that was employed full-time. Such a high percentage of “working hungry” American families suggests that US corporations and businesses are not paying adequate wages for American families to keep food on the table. As president, what will you do not only to increase the number of jobs available, but to improve wages in order to help Americans feed themselves, their children, and afford basic necessities?

3) Currently, one in seven Americans (about 45 million people—half of whom are children) are receiving help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. SNAP is the single most important program to prevent hunger and promote healthy eating. In addition, healthcare research shows that SNAP prevents hospitalizations, promotes child development and improves school performance. The recent Farm Bill negotiations and proposed federal budget from the House recommended major cuts to the SNAP program. (There were significant cuts in the Senate version too.) These cuts will increase hunger and its associated costs that Americans will see in our schools, hospitals and pediatric clinics. As president, how will you ensure that elders, the disabled and families with children who receive help from SNAP will be protected during any budget negotiations?

4) Economists demonstrate that 40 percent of the people who are born into poverty will stay in poverty, suggesting very low mobility for poor Americans, and especially women. Low mobility disproportionately affects African-American and Latina women. If one looks at their wealth—the total value of one’s assets minus debts—single African-American and single Latina women have a median wealth of about $100, while the median for single white women is $41,500. (This despite the fact that there were more white women in poverty in 2010 than African-American and Latina women combined; and white, African-American and Latina women participate in the cash assistance (TANF) program in equal proportions.) Around the world, leaders have recognized that investing in women and girls—through group microfinance programs and access to banking services, for example—helps not only to improve their lives but lift an entire nation and boost GDP. As president, what options will you consider to reform the cash assistance (TANF) program to improve mobility for women, and especially women of color?

5) Imani Sullivan, a member of Witnesses to Hunger, said: “Why should I vote? The people in power don’t care about me. They may say they’re looking out for us. But once they’re in office, they never do anything to help the poor. They forget all about us.” Imani’s words reflect the frustration of Americans living in poverty who do not feel represented by their elected officials, who have lost faith in American democracy, and who feel they have no “place at the table.” As president, what would you do to encourage and facilitate more civic participation in America, and to ensure that our elected leaders are responsive to the needs of all American people, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or income?

If you like this post please tweet using #TalkPoverty. You can also submit your own poverty-related questions for President Obama and Governor Romney using #TalkPoverty. All questions will be considered for a final questionnaire which TheNation.com will distribute to the campaigns.

This Week in Poverty: Here's to the Houston Janitors

Last week, more than 3,200 janitors in Houston called an end to their five-week strike.

The cleaning contractors initially offered a total wage increase of $.50 an hour phased in over five years—so in 2016 the janitors would earn $8.85 an hour. The janitors asked for a raise to $10 an hour over three years.

In the end, the janitors accepted $9.35 an hour over four years, a 12 percent increase over their current pay. They also fought off an effort by the contractors that would have allowed them to underbid the union wage when competing against non-union shops.

It is distressing (though not surprising) that the janitors had to sacrifice to such an extent just to gain a raise of twenty-five cents an hour for four years. Houston is “Millionaire City,” after all, having added more millionaires to its population than any other city in the United States for two years running. These janitors sanitize the bathrooms and workspaces, empty the trash and vacuum the floors of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world: JPMorganChase, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Wells Fargo, KBR and Marathon Oil, to name a few. They do their work in the best-performing commercial real estate market in the US in terms of demand. Many in this predominantly female workforce literally have to run to clean more than 100 toilets in five hours each night.

Prior to the strike, the janitors earned about $8,684 annually. In four years, when they see their full raises, they will be paid about $10,000 annually.

This isn’t to say that what the janitors achieved isn’t significant and—more importantly—worthy of attention and great respect. They successfully organized in a right-to-work-state with a 3 percent private sector unionization rate. Texas is tied with Mississippi for having the highest proportion of minimum-wage jobs in the nation, and one in five people working in Houston makes less than $10 an hour.

Despite this anti-labor environment, over 500 workers went on strike, some were locked out and seventy-four were arrested in four civil disobedience actions.

“Any strike is hard, and any time that workers vote to go on strike it’s scary for them—it’s a huge sacrifice with a lot of unknowns,” Emily Heath, organizing director for SEIU Local 1, told me. “The resilience these workers showed—we didn’t lose people, people knew they had to see this through—they took incredible risks every day just being out on the streets, and they never questioned it. It was a struggle for better wages, and a better future for their kids. But it also became an example for Houstonians.”

Heath said that the janitors were “spurred on” by a “huge outpouring of community support—from other advocacy groups, labor unions, elected officials and people of faith.”

“I don’t think average people had understood that janitors are so poor—that they have to take on two or three jobs and don’t see their kids. The more we got those stories out there and opened people’s eyes, the more we learned that the average Houstonian actually cared and wanted people to do better,” she said. “And the workers came to realize that people were watching, and if they succeeded it could inspire other low-wage workers.”

David Madland, director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, agrees that this win for the janitors is a significant one.

“It’s a real accomplishment—especially given the macro trends in the economy,” he said. “It also shows what an uphill battle all workers face and that we need to get those trends to be much more favorable to workers.”

He points to declining median wages, high unemployment and low unionization that all result workers having very little leverage.

“That’s the entire story of the last thirty years—that workers in general have had very little economic power,” he said. “Almost all of the gains have gone to those at the very top.”

Madland’s recent report, Making Our Middle Class Stronger—35 Policies to Revitalize America’s Middle Class, includes policy recommendations to create jobs; to raise standards from the bottom; and to make basic goods like housing, healthcare and education more affordable.

“It’s really about setting a floor, and lifting up the floor, so that when the economy does well everyone benefits,” said Madland. “It involves everything from pursuing full employment, to better rights to organize, to raising the minimum wage—and enforcing basic workplace standards—because even the minimum standards are so frequently violated.”

The janitors in Houston are now determined to now play a role in raising the labor standards for other low-wage workers in the city. SEIU plans to organize airport workers (who often work below minimum wage), as well as Houston’s security guards and food service workers. Beyond efforts to organize assist other workers in organizing their workplaces, the janitors are involved in broader campaigns to protect Medicaid and fight wage theft.

Heath said there is a clear lesson to be learned from the fact that it took a Herculean effort for these workers to win a modest raise in a city enjoying “unprecedented prosperity.”

“It’s clear that our country still doesn’t value the work of service workers. We have to fight harder to make sure that the people who are cleaning the buildings, taking care of the elderly, teaching our kids—all the different kinds of service work—that those folks are coming to the forefront and that people understand and hear their stories,” she said. “And we need to be up front about income inequality. I don’t think people want to accept that people earn $9,000 a year cleaning the offices of billionaires.”

“This is a small but significant win that low-wage workers can hopefully build on to make major change in the Houston labor market,” said Madland.

Conversation With Tianna Gaines-Turner

I’ve had the opportunity this year to get to know many participants in Witnesses to Hunger—a project in which people living in poverty use photographs and testimonials to advocate for change at the local, state and national levels.

Tianna Gaines-Turner is a Witness and a friend living in Philadelphia with her husband and children. She works at Drexel University’s School of Public Health and as a homecare worker for an elderly person. I spoke with her this week about what she’s been seeing since Pennsylvania eliminated its General Assistance program and nearly 70,000 disabled people lost their sole source of income. Our conversation led to a much broader discussion about the need to change how society perceives and helps people who are struggling.

One of Tianna’s projects through Drexel is operating a “Witness-to-Witness” peer mentoring program two days a week, open to anyone. She helps people get the food, energy assistance, healthcare, school supplies, community legal services and housing services they need.

“We look at everybody as a human being reaching out for assistance—that’s what it’s about at the end of the day,” Tianna told me. “It’s people treating people as a human being and not a docket number, not a case number and not a caseload.”

Tianna reported that since the elimination of General Assistance—the “safety net of last resort” for 68,000 Pennsylvanians (90 percent of whom are temporarily or permanently disabled)—she has seen a lot more people in need of food or utility assistance. She also said in low-income neighborhoods they are seeing “more home invasions, more robberies in broad daylight and increased street violence.”

“Me and my other Witnesses knew this was going to happen,” she said. “It’s not just about General Assistance—we have schools closing left and right, libraries being closed. Some of my neighbors in the community feel that we’ve come to a point where you have to be in your house before the sun goes down to keep yourself safe.”

Legal aid lawyer Michael Froehlich of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia told me he is also seeing a marked increase in desperation.

“We have received over eighty phone calls in the past few weeks from people who have lost General Assistance,” he said. “Many of them are being evicted or having their gas or electric shut off. Almost everyone I have spoken to is disabled. As bad as it is now, I’m really worried about this winter when it gets too cold to safely be on the street.”

In recent days, Tianna has worked with a newly homeless young man, who—when asked where he wanted to be in five years—said, “I don’t want to be dead or in jail.” She also spoke with a young woman and her partner, who both work, are raising their five children, and caring for her parents. They didn’t know how they could continue to take care of the woman’s mother, who now has cancer.

“It definitely can get to you—just hearing the stories, or sitting across the table looking at someone crying, and their children are sitting in the same room,” said Tianna. “Or maybe their children are disheveled in a way that you know they may have eaten something, but clearly not enough to give them the nutrition that they need. And then just speaking to the different people who are homeless right now. How can I not think about where that young homeless man is now? Is he okay? That’s the hard part—and we have to protect ourselves.”

Part of protecting herself involves running a “Safety, Emotions, Loss and Future” (SELF) group on Thursday mornings that many of her Witness sisters also participate in. The SELF group is also confidential and open to the public.

“It helps us to be able to talk about the things we hear and see, and the horrible stories and trauma that continue to go on from generation to generation,” said Tianna. “It’s a safe environment to speak about healthy ways to be better parents, better people to ourselves, and work through traumas. And it allows us to go back to our communities and let people know you can move beyond trauma and have a healthy life. Because that’s what the work of me and my Witness sisters is all about: breaking the generational cycle of hunger and poverty that continues to go on in low-income communities.”

The work Tianna is engaged in definitely makes her angry at the way low-income people are being portrayed in the current political climate.

“They always try to say, ‘Oh, they’re trying to scam; they’re telling a lie; they’re not really hungry; they’re just lazy, sitting back and waiting on the system,’” she said. “Have they ever sat down and had a conversation with someone on SSI or Medicaid? Have they sat down with anyone like a Witness to Hunger—who has overcome so much? Smart, educated people—who just want to sit down to a decent meal; earn a decent income from their jobs; have college savings accounts for their children; and just live a normal life? What’s normal? For no child to go to bed hungry, no senior to worry about how they are going to feed themselves, no church to worry about the overflow of people coming to get a hot meal and a warm place to sleep. But if we don’t make our voices heard now then things are not going to change.”

Update on “Talk About Poverty” (#TalkPoverty)

Good news: the Obama campaign has said it will soon respond to the first five questions—from Peter Edelman—in TheNation.com’s new “Talk About Poverty: Questions for Obama and Romney” series. Not too much luck with the Romney campaign so far, but we’ll keep trying.

Also, many of you have been actively tweeting the first post using #TAP as requested, and it’s greatly appreciated. The only problem is this: turns out I’m an idiot—#TAP was a terrible choice. It’s generic and brings up way too much spam. So, The Nation’s excellent community editor, Annie Shields, suggests that we instead use #TalkPoverty. She was kind enough not to add, “Duh, Greg.”

So keep tweeting, #TalkPoverty. And thanks—because the only way we get them to talk poverty is if we demand that they talk poverty.

Get Involved

Tell Costco: Support Palermo’s Pizza Workers
Put Child Care on the Map
Be Careful What you Cut
House Resolution opposing SNAP cuts
Protect Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit
Congratulate Candy Crowley & Join the Debate!
Hear Us: Giving Voice and Visibility to Homeless Youths


Investing in Microenterprise is a Wise Economic Growth Strategy,” Sheila Bapat

For Prosperity Economics to Work We Must Leverage America’s Growing Diversity,” Angela Glover Blackwell

Timeline: Cutting Poverty and the Federal Deficit Is Possible,” Sophie Feldman and Melissa Boteach

Inmates Convicted as Juveniles Could Get Reprieve,” Hannah Dreier

Poverty Line Doesn’t Begin to Cover Those Who Need Help,” Deborah Flateman (letter)

Kinship Caregivers Gaining in Numbers,” Kate Giammarise

How to Launch a Mass Movement for Economic Justice,” William Greider

So What Is ‘Sequestration’? And What Do These Cuts Mean for Low-Income Families?” Alan Houseman

In Some States, Poverty Doesn’t Mean Poor Enough to Get Health Care,” Carla Johnson and Kelli Kennedy

Paul Ryan’s Biggest Budget Cuts are to Medicaid, Not Medicare,” Suzy Khimm

Yes, Poor Families Do Have ‘Skin in the Game’,” Kathy Mulady

Social Security Does More Than Just Protect the Elderly,” Tim Price

Everything You Need to Know About Chairman Ryan’s Budget,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Happy Birthday, Social Security,” Kathy Ruffing

Just the Facts: Obama’s Welfare-to-Work Plan,” Debbie Weinstein

Studies and Other Resources

How Raising the Federal Minimum Wage Would Help Working Families and Give the Economy a Boost,” Doug Hall and David Cooper, Economic Policy Institute. Increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.80 per hour would give more than 28 million workers a raise while generating approximately 100,000 new jobs over three years. Hall and Cooper show that the raised wage would generate almost $40 billion in increased wages for workers still reeling from the effects of the recession.

The Economic Impact a Minimum-Wage Increase Would Have in Your State,” Economic Policy Institute.

The Crisis Continues: Pennsylvania’s Medicaid Program Draws National Scrutiny Over Children’s Enrollment Plunge,” Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. Pennsylvania’s Medicaid enrollment has declined by 91,400 children in just ten months. The federal government has asked Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW) to explain the Medicaid eligibility procedures it has been using in recent months, writing that “it appears that it may have been improper to terminate Medicaid coverage” in a number of cases. DPW has not responded to date. This Week in Poverty previously reported on the state’s irresponsible actions with regard to children and Medicaid here.


Community Action Partnership’s 2012 Annual Convention (August 19–22 at the Hilton New York). More than 1100 human services professionals from Community Action Agencies serving low-income communities across the country will attend. The convention features 100-plus workshops focused on a variety of topics affecting low-income individuals, including: job creation, housing and homelessness prevention, Head Start, economic development, and asset building. If you can’t be there, you can follow @CAPartnership and #PartnershsipNYC.

Vital Statistics

50 percent of the jobs in the US pay less than $34,000 a year (Economic Policy Institute).

25 percent of the jobs in the US pay below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually (Economic Policy Institute).

Median wealth, single black women: $100.

Median wealth, single Latino women: $120.

Median wealth, single white women: $41,500.

US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent of population.

Poverty rates for minorities: approximately 27 percent of African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians, versus 10 percent of whites.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 35 percent of Latino children.

Number of children in poverty receiving cash aid: one in five.

Poverty rate for people in female-headed families: 42 percent.

Children under age 5 in female-headed families in poverty: 58 percent (US Census Bureau).

Single mothers with incomes under $25,000: 50 percent.

Single mothers working: 67 percent.

Total number of US children under age 18: 72 million.

Number of US children in low-income families (less than $44,700 for family of four): 31.9 million.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population. Up from 12.6 million in 2000.

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

Americans with no income other than food stamps: 6 million, 2 percent of population.

Twice the poverty level (less than $44,700 for a family of four): 103 million people, roughly 1 in 3 Americans.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Employment rate for people with disabilities, 2010: 18.6 percent.

Employment rate for people with no disabilities, 2010: 63.5 percent.

People ages 50 and over at risk of hunger, daily: 9 million.

Quotes of the Week

“There is a pervasive and unfortunate view that poor people do not want to work or help themselves. This is just not true. To change this perception, we must give those living in poverty a face and a voice.”
      —California Senator Carol Liu, 21st District, on “Road to Resilience Tour: Overcoming Hunger and Homelessness”

“It really galls me how you can have one person on public assistance do one thing wrong and they make it sound like everybody’s doing it.”
      —Tianna Gaines-Turner, Witness to Hunger

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter. Images of Houston janitor strikers courtesy of Izabela Miltko. Image of Tianna courtesy of Tianna Gaines-Turner, Witnesses to Hunger.

Talk About Poverty (#TalkPoverty): Peter Edelman's Questions for Obama and Romney

TheNation.com created This Week in Poverty to keep the struggles of the poor and near-poor front and center for its readers every week. Now, as we enter the home stretch of the 2012 presidential campaign, we are launching a new effort to help push the issue of poverty into the mainstream political debate.

Each Talk About Poverty (#TalkPoverty*) post will feature three to five questions for President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney from experts who know antipoverty policy inside-out. I will profile the individuals asking the questions so you get a sense of why they know what they are talking about; offer background on why these particular questions are being asked; and then lay the questions out for the candidates.

In the next month or so, when we’ve completed the #TalkPoverty series, The Nation will compile the best questions into a single questionnaire and hound the presidential campaigns for answers. You can offer your own questions on Twitter using the hashtag #TalkPoverty—some might be included in the final questionnaire.

We will also rely on your help to show politicians that people do, in fact, care about poverty and want their political leaders to address the issue in a thoughtful, informed way. Please tweet this article using #TalkPoverty, share it on Facebook and keep the conversation going in your own circles. The only way we will possibly get the candidates—and Washington—to talk about poverty is if we insist that they talk about poverty.

#TalkPoverty—tweet it, share it, use it.

When it comes to public policy and poverty in the US few people know more about it than Georgetown University Law Professor Peter Edelman. He has worked to eradicate poverty for nearly half a century, most notably as a legislative assistant to Senator Robert Kennedy and as an Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration—a post he resigned in protest over the 1996 welfare reform bill. He’s also taught and written extensively on the subject, including in his recent book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.

Edelman attended Harvard Law School and clerked on the Supreme Court. But in an interview last year he told me the big change in his life occurred when he met Senator Robert Kennedy and went to work for him.

“Here was a man who really—I think unlike anybody at that level since—was just deeply committed to doing something very serious about poverty in this country and obviously the intersection of poverty and race,” said Edelman. “I had the opportunity to go around the country with him, and to learn as he learned—from listening and talking to people and seeing problems.”

Edelman said his travels with Kennedy taught him in ways that books never could have about “the different specific ways in which power disparities arranged themselves, whether in Mississippi, the Central Valley of California, Eastern Kentucky, the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota or Mayor Daley’s Chicago.”

Edelman and Kennedy visited places that were invisible to most Americans, including: Watts, South Central Los Angeles, four months before the civil unrest in 1965; Eastern Kentucky, where the children of former coal miners were going hungry because the mines had closed; and the fields of Delano, in California’s San Joaquin valley, where migrant farmworkers were attempting to organize.

But the experience that clearly changed Edelman’s life forever occurred in Mississippi in the spring of 1967. Kennedy held hearings there to highlight the importance of the state’s multi-county Head Start program in response to political pressure to defund the program.

Marian Wright—whom Edelman met for the first time and would later marry—was then 27 and head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund office in Mississippi, as well as General Counsel to the Child Development Group of Mississippi. She was supposed to testify about Head Start, but instead told the Senate subcommittee about near-starvation that was occurring in the state. The subcommittee and staff then toured with Wright to see children “who were tangibly severely malnourished—bloated bellies, running sores that wouldn’t heal.”

“It was this incredibly awful, powerful experience that’s with me all the time,” said Edelman. “I’ll never ever forget seeing those hungry children. Seeing things stokes one’s commitment to make a difference.”

Today, Edelman has an uncanny ability to zero in on significant statistics and demographic trends and shed light on their public policy implications. He also has a knack for giving voice not only to the moral arguments that support an aggressive approach to eradicating poverty, but to the equally compelling economic arguments.

For example, in a July 29 op-ed for the New York Times, Edelman takes on the popular myth first coined by Ronald Reagan, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.”

Not so, Edelman argues. He notes work by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities demonstrating that without Social Security, food stamps, the earned-income tax credit, and the rest of the safety net, “poverty would be nearly double what it is now.” Indeed, instead of 46 million people living in poverty—living on less than $22,314 for a family of four—there would be about 86 million people living in poverty.

“To say that ‘poverty won’ is like saying the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts failed because there is still pollution,” writes Edelman.

Edelman suggests that the real reasons for persistent poverty include the proliferation of low-wage jobs; a “gaping hole” that’s been ripped in the safety net in terms of vanishing cash assistance for low-income mothers and children; and “persistent issues of race and gender” that lead to higher poverty rates for minorities and families headed by single mothers. He points to research by the Economic Policy Institute showing that half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year; and one-quarter pay less than $23,000 annually. Also, wages for jobs in the bottom half have increased just 7 percent since 1972.

These are some of the most significant trends Edelman is focused on these days, nearly fifty years after he began his life’s work combating poverty.

He now asks President Obama and Governor Romney these specific questions:

1) US government statistics show 20.5 million people with incomes below half the poverty line—less than about $9,500 for a family of three—up from 12.6 million in 2000. What will you do about this critical problem?

2) US government statistics show 103 million people with incomes below twice the poverty line—below about $45,000 for a family of four. This reflects the large number of low-wage jobs in the nation. What will you do to increase the income of these people who are struggling to make ends meet every month?

3) Urban concentrated poverty has climbed again close to the high point it reached in 1990. What will you do to help improve the quality of life of people who are currently isolated in America’s inner cities?

4) Rural poverty persists as a blight for people across the country, from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama Black Belt to the colonias of south Texas, and Indian reservations in many places. What will you do to help reduce the poverty in these places?

5) Investments in early childhood are key to children’s prospects for productive lives. Federal assistance for childcare currently reaches about one in seven of those who are eligible. What will you do to increase the availability of quality childcare to more low-income children?

More questions from experts are coming soon. In the meantime, let @MittRomney and @BarackObama know you want them to Talk About Poverty, #TalkPoverty—and send them a link to Edelman’s questions.

*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post included the hashtag #TAP, which has since been replaced by the hashtag #TalkPoverty.

This Week in Poverty: 'Respect the Worker'

Palermo’s Factory Workers in Milwaukee

In 2007, Cesar was operating the Multivac machine that wraps frozen pizzas produced at Palermo’s Pizza factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Like most of the others in the factory, he worked seven days a week—the 9 pm to 7 am shift, earning $7.25 an hour—for one of the largest frozen pizza manufacturers in the nation.

According to Cesar, he had complained to his supervisor for a week that the equipment wasn’t functioning properly—it wasn’t sealing correctly and he also needed to pull the plastic out of the machine by hand. He told me the company’s lack of responsiveness was par for the course.

“They don’t want the lines to stop,” he said. “They keep running the machines even when they’re not working right, until the machine really breaks down, then they’ll bring a mechanic in.”

For Cesar, Palermo’s emphasis on production over safety came at a great personal cost. When he was pulling the plastic out of the Mulitvac his finger got wrapped in it. He couldn’t untangle it before the knife came down to slice the plastic. He said his right index finger “was cut almost completely through, just hanging by my skin.” The finger was reattached at the hospital, but he’s still unable to move the part that was severed, and on cold days it’s particularly painful.

He returned to his job soon after the injury, but the breaking point for Cesar came in 2008. He had a supervisor who regularly told workers, “Here, the only thing we do is as my balls say it should be done. And whoever doesn’t like it, the door’s right there, they can leave immediately.”

“Those were always his words,” said Cesar. “That was around the time when people started to come to Voces [de la Frontera] to get help because there was tremendous pressure on people.”

Voces is a low-wage worker and immigrant rights center in Milwaukee, and Palermo workers complained to organizers about wage issues, health and safety violations, lack of paid sick days and a generally intimidating environment. The workers say they had gotten nowhere—repeatedly—in their efforts to get management to address their concerns.

Palermo’s declined to respond to the specific allegations raised in this article, but Chris Dresselhuys, director of marketing, e-mailed a general response.

“Palermo’s has a long history of respecting its employees, their safety and well-being, paying a competitive wage and providing an excellent benefits package,” said Dresselhuys. “Any suggestion to the contrary is insulting and without merit.… The baseless allegations made against Palermo’s represent a pattern of deception and obfuscation that is designed to harm our company, our employees and community.”

Raul, who operated a cheese shredder, has a decidedly different take.

He said he complained many times to supervisors and management about the speed of his production line. Thirteen workers were supposed to produce forty pizzas per minute, but five members of his team were often moved to a different line because the shop was understaffed. He also worried that the shredder didn’t have the capacity to handle the volume of cheese necessary to produce at that speed, so it often shorted out, forcing him to insert his hand and he feared electrocution. In addition, there was an ongoing problem with the floors—the drains clogged so people were often working in standing water mixed with oily ingredients.

“You’d be walking in water, people fell almost daily,” said Raul. “And their response was to take you to get drug-tested. It was offensive.”

Raul said he consistently raised these issues with supervisors and management for the three years he worked at Palermo’s. For that, he was branded “a big troublemaker” and someone who didn’t work hard. But he was hardly alone. Many complained of the lack of sick days and needing to work when they were ill. According to the workers, there was an unwritten rule that if a worker took three days off in six months he or she would be fired.

Emilio and Maria both worked at the factory for many years and have a 3-year-old girl. After seven years, Maria earned $9.05 per hour, working seven days a week.

“If we had a medical appointment, we were afraid to take it. If we wanted to set up an interview with a social worker for help, we couldn’t do it because we didn’t want to lose our jobs,” said Maria. “If I did make an appointment they would question what it was about. I always had to bring some kind of proof of what I was doing.”

By November 2011, the Palermo workers had had enough. They decided they wanted to form a union and turned to Voces for legal assistance.

“We were tired of just hearing [from the company], ‘Okay, we’ll see what we can do for you,’ and that’s it,” said Daniel, who had worked for Palermo’s for five years as a machine operator, a production line lead, and doing maintenance work. “We deserve something better than that.”

On May 27 of this year, 178 Palermo’s employees—about three-fourths of the company’s production workers—signed petitions authorizing an independent union, the Palermo Workers Union, to act as their collective bargaining representative.

This is when things went from ugly to uglier.

Two days later, the workers asked Palermo’s to recognize the union. The company refused, and also said that eighty-nine of the workers needed to reverify their immigration status within twenty-eight days because of an audit by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to the workers, they were also told to train a large number of temporary workers who had been brought into the factory that day. In response, the workers engaged in a brief work stoppage to protest their treatment.

The next day, a delegation of Palermo workers, elected officials, religious leaders and Voces staff met with company officials. The delegation was informed by the company that ICE had shortened the twenty-eight-day reverification process to just ten days.

But the United Steelworkers contacted the local ICE office on the workers’ behalf and were told by the supervisory agent that ICE hadn’t given Palermo’s a specific deadline to reverify immigration status at all—not twenty-eight days, not ten days—no date.

“So we caught them on that lie—which showed this clearly wasn’t about immigration, it was about union-busting,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces.

In his official statement, Dresselhuys insisted that “the situation is the result of an investigation initiated by ICE” that “determined that some employees were ineligible to work” in the United States.

“Palermo’s cooperated with ICE and obeyed the law,” he said.

The AFL-CIO petitioned ICE to suspend the audit until the labor dispute and union election were complete, asserting that it was being used to threaten the workers’ right to self-organize—a right protected no matter one’s immigration status.

The workers also became aware that the company had retained attorney Robert Simandl, whose online profile touts his “extensive experience in…advising employers in maintaining union-free status.” A poster went up in the factory that discussed “external organizations and the way [they] may negatively influence the work environment at Palermo’s,” including: “interfering with our employees in their communication with the company”; “flexibility to schedule paid time off or vacation days may be lost”; and “you will be paying an external organization to communicate for you.”

On June 1, the workers say they arrived at the factory to find that temporary workers had once again been brought in. They called a strike, with workers from the second and third shifts starting the picket line.

According to a number of accounts, when workers from the first shift tried to join the strike, doors were locked, supervisors blocked exits and workers were told they couldn’t leave and needed to return to work. Some exited through emergency doors. One worker said he was grabbed by a company vice president and told he would be fired if he left the building. According to Voces, only when the organization called the police were the remaining workers permitted to leave the building, with approximately 150 workers in all joining the picket line.

Six days later, on June 7, ICE decided to suspend the reverification process until the labor dispute was resolved.

“ICE recognized that there was a legitimate labor conflict going on,” said Neumann-Ortiz. “That was a first, and a tremendous victory for workers and immigrant workers in the United States.”

Despite ICE’s decision, Palermo’s sent termination notices the following day to seventy-five workers on the “suspect document list.” In essence, the company unilaterally accelerated the reverification process and fired the workers even though their immigration status is still yet to be determined. Additionally, Neumann-Ortiz said, Palermo’s “permanently replaced” any permanent workers and “verbally fired” temp workers who supported the strike.

The National Relations Labor Board (NLRB) then set a July 6 date for an election to determine if the majority of workers wanted to recognize the Palermo Workers Union. In a move that doesn’t at all seem to be in the interests of the Palermo workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) asked to be placed on the ballot as well. That postponed the election until July 27, allowing the company time to hire more replacement workers—eighty-two in all—potentially diluting what was initially a very pro-Palermo Workers Union voting pool. (The UFCW declined to comment for this article.)

The union vote is now once again delayed as the NLRB weighs the Unfair Labor Practices charges against Palermo’s. Voces and the Palermo Workers Union are asserting that the election process is now so contaminated that the NLRB should order immediate reinstatement of the fired workers and back pay, as well as immediate negotiations on a new contract. Neumann-Ortiz also said they are requesting that the company take direction from ICE on the reverification process, so that Palermo’s doesn’t “continue to use ICE as a tool to threaten workers.”

For its part, Palermo’s denies any union-busting effort.

“We will continue to have a fact-based discussion with our workers and provide accurate information to help those voting to make an informed decision,” said Dresselhuys. “We will also continue to adhere to all NLRB procedures and guidelines as we move toward a vote.”

A decision from the NLRB on the Unfair Labor Practices charges is expected in mid-August. If the NLRB decides the charges have merit, it could order an administrative trial, ask a court to reinstate the strikers immediately or even order the company to bargain with the union right away.

In the meantime, today marks the sixty-fourth day of the strike. There is a strike fund to help workers who haven’t been able to find other jobs and are still active in the campaign. The most recent fund distribution was divided among sixty-seven workers. Neumann-Ortiz said contributions to the strike fund are “desperately needed.”

The Palermo workers, union members, community leaders and students from the United States Student Association (USSA) also launched a national boycott of Palermo’s on Sunday, asking Costco to pull the company’s products from its shelves. According to the Palermo Workers Union, more than 50 percent of Palermo’s frozen pizza sales are to Costco, and organizations around the country are holding “informational pickets” outside of Costco stores, asking that Palermo’s sales be halted until the workers are reinstated without retaliation. The boycott will then focus on Safeway and Kroger, the next two largest retailers of Palermo’s pizza.

Boycott organizers also say that for the public this isn’t just an ethical matter of speaking out on how low-wage workers are treated, but an economic one—about how tax dollars are put to use. In the past five years, Palermo’s has received approximately $20 million in tax subsidies, construction financing and public bonds from city, state and federal sources.

Palermo’s defends its record in the community.

“We have demonstrated a commitment to the community and support numerous charities and nonprofit groups in a variety of different ways,” said Dresselhuys.

As the strike continues, increasing economic pressures have led to moments of tension between some of the workers, but these moments are the exception rather than the rule.

“We’ve all worked very honorably at this company and all we are asking for is that our rights be respected,” said Maria.

“The only right we had was to do what they told us to do,” said Cesar. “For all that’s been accumulating in the time we’ve been working there—it’s given us the strength to fight as far as we can. And the only fight we have with the company now is that they respect the worker.”

Note: The names of these workers have been changed, or last names withheld, to protect their identities.

The Houston Community and Houston Janitors

As I’ve reported previously, janitors on strike in Houston are demanding a raise to $10 an hour, phased in over the next three years. Currently, 3,200 janitors are paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually, despite cleaning the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world—Chevron, ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo, Shell, JPMorgan Chase, and others in the “City of Millionaires.”

The cleaning contractors have countered with an offer of a $0.50 pay raise phased in over five years. Even Houston Mayor Annise Parker recently said that the contractors’ stance “has left the union with no other choice but civil disobedience.”

Fifteen community and labor activists at a recent protest in downtown Houston’s energy corridor clearly agreed with Mayor Parker. They locked arms, sat down, and blocked traffic at a major intersection surrounded by high-rises. They were arrested and spent the next twenty-four hours in jail.

“We were the only gray-haired ones,” said Dave Atwood, describing himself and his wife, Priscilla.

Dave is a 71-year-old retired chemical engineer who worked for Shell Oil for over twenty-five years. Priscilla is a retired nurse who declined to give her age, but Dave says “she is a little younger than I am.” They have lived in Houston since 1971.

Dave and Priscilla first got involved with the janitors in 2006 when the workers were organizing to form a union. They attended a rally downtown.

“I had never seen anything like this in Houston, in terms of people coming out, and having a rally and a march, advocating for themselves and speaking out for economic justice,” said Dave. “And so we joined them, and we’ve stuck with them ever since as community supporters.”

“Sticking with them” has meant showing up for marches and rallies, being part of delegations that speak with business leaders, and trying to raise the public’s consciousness about the janitors’ struggle through their interfaith work. 

“Through the years we’ve gotten to know the janitors—their stories, their struggles, their humanity,” said Dave. “Many we know are mothers and grandmothers—you meet their children, get to know their families. You begin to feel like family, and you want them treated right. One struggle they have is that they [feel like] invisible members of the community because they do their work at night—nobody sees them.”

Recently, Dave and Priscilla were part of a delegation that spoke with Mark Cover, a vice president at Hines Real Estate, an international company with its US headquarters located in Houston. Also in the delegation were the Texas state director of SEIU Local 1, Elsa Caballero, a Catholic priest and nun, and three janitors.

Dave said Cover was “hospitable” and listened to the stories of the janitors and to the delegation’s appeal.

“We try to make [business people] understand that if the janitors do better, their children are going to do better, and it’s going to be better for the entire community,” Dave said. He said some of the janitors’ kids are dropping out of school to work and “help put food on the table”—that they don’t have the luxury to think about the long-term.

Cover told the delegation he’s a person of faith, too, and Dave felt good about the meeting. But that was two months ago, and Cover never responded to Dave’s follow-up email.

“I don’t see Hines taking a lead—at least it’s not visible to me,” said Dave. “Maybe he’s doing something behind the scenes.”

What frustrates Dave most of all is how easy it would be for any of these powerful corporations to step up and advocate for the janitors. He believes it’s not about the money, since what the workers are asking for “is very modest.”

“My opinion is that it’s resistance to unions. They do not like the fact that the janitors in Houston had the ‘audacity’ to organize back in 2006 and to speak up for themselves,” said Dave. “There are elements in Texas that want to ‘put people in their place’ and keep them there.”

Credit: David Atwood

Dave said his and Pricilla’s values are informed by Catholic social justice teachings, including “solidarity with your brothers and sisters in a struggle for a better life, and the preferential option for the poor.” According to Dave, the preferential option teaches that when you make decisions in society you give priority to the poor, and the impact a decision is going to have on the poor.

“And if it doesn’t have a good impact on the poor, then you shouldn’t make that decision,” said Dave.

He feels that faith institutions need to do a better job talking about justice issues in order to help people “awaken to the reality that if people are treated fairly and justly, it will be good for the entire human family.” He and other activists are doing their best to get a diversity of faith traditions involved in the janitors’ struggle.

“It’s not as if they don’t all have these basic tenets on justice,” said Dave. “Just talk about it every now and then, teach it—even if there are people in the congregation who don’t want to hear it.”

Dave and Priscilla are clear on how high the stakes are for this fight. They are hopeful that people of all backgrounds will continue to step forward—even if they are busy with their families, their jobs, their own daily grind. There have now been sixty-six total arrests for civil disobedience.

“We’ve always said that the janitors in Houston and across the nation are the vanguard for improved wages for everyone,” said Dave. “If we can be successful, I think it will have a positive effect on low-wage workers everywhere. We have to be successful. We can’t fail.”

Note: As this post went to press, an SEIU spokesman told me that the janitors were back at the bargaining table with the cleaning contractors, but no progress had been made.

What Will Jamie Do? (Continued)

In June, I wrote about Adriana Vasquez, a janitor who traveled from her home in Houston to Washington, DC, to ask JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon one simple question after he testified in Congress. She crossed the packed hearing room to the table where he sat and asked:

“Despite making billions last year, why do you deny the people cleaning your buildings a living wage?”

“Call my office,” Mr. Dimon replied, before his entourage ushered him toward an exit.

A few days ago, having heard that Mr. Dimon never returned Ms. Vasquez’s call, I checked in with the company to find out why not?

“We would be happy to speak to Ms. Vazquez,” a company spokesman told me. “We have no record of her calling us to date, but if she does, we will be happy to speak to her.”

He also said that the bank only has a branch with fifteen employees at JPMorgan Chase Towers where Vasquez works, and the corporation doesn’t own the building.

But did he think JPMorgan Chase might be able to influence the negotiations if Mr. Dimon told the cleaning contractors that the janitors who clean their offices should earn a higher wage?

The spokesman didn’t want to engage in a hypothetical.

Well, are there other buildings that JPMorgan Chase does own in Houston where they could clearly have a say in how the janitors are treated?

Those buildings are managed by outside companies who contract with cleaning services, the spokesman said. They are part of an investment portfolio managed by JPMorgan but owned by institutions, pension funds and individuals.

When I told SEIU that JPMorgan said Ms. Vasquez never called, a spokesman said that that was bunk—the union and Ms. Vasquez called and spoke with Thao Doan of the JPMorgan Chase Executive Office.

I called Ms. Doan and left a voicemail asking could she confirm this? She didn’t return my call. I’d be hurt, but there seems to be a lot of that going around.

Maybe you can do better than I’ve done at getting some answers; or, more importantly, at convincing JPMorgan that it actually does have a role to play in raising the poverty-level wages of the workers who sanitize their bathrooms and workspaces, empty the trash, vacuum the floors—do the hard work the company depends on every day to operate in a clean and healthy environment.

SEIU has launched a national campaign calling on Mr. Dimon to meet with Ms. Vasquez. You can send him an e-mail. If you get anywhere with him, let me know.

We’re all janitors now.


Wage Theft and the Attack on American Values,” David Callahan

Election Chatter Glosses Over Our Childcare Morass,” Petula Dvorak

Poverty In America: Why Can’t We End It?” Peter Edelman

Ward 8 Farmers Helps Local Food Assistance Users….” Marissa Evans

Say It Like Beckham,” Jodie Levin-Epstein

Robert Pollin: Full Employment is Possible,” GRITtv with Laura Flanders

Does Corbett have something against women?” Michael Hinkelman & Catherine Lucey

More Americans Live in Economically Segregated Neighborhoods Than 30 Years Ago,” Gwen Ifill

Knoxville Church Advocates for Fair Working Conditions,” Anthony Moujaes

Studies and Other Resources

For-Profit Colleges Use Tax Dollars to Recruit Vulnerable Students…” Algernon Austin

A Safe Stable Place to Call Home… in Arkansas,” Children’s HealthWatch

Making Children a Priority in the 2012 Tax Debate,” Megan Curran

Prosperity Economics: Building an Economy for All,” Jacob Hacker and Nathaniel Loewentheil

Where Are All the Good Jobs Going?” Harry Holzer

Examining Poverty: The Supplemental Poverty Measure,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research

Downward Trends in Federal Spending for Children,” Julia Isaacs

High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms,” Pew Charitable Trusts

Income Inequality in New Jersey,” Poverty Research institute of Legal Services of NJ

Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?” John Schmitt and Janelle Jones

Out of Reach: Rental Affordability (2012),” Urban Institute

Take Action

Be Careful What You Cut Campaign
Dignity at Darden
Raise the Minimum Wage and Tipped Minimum Wage

Vital Statistics

50 percent of the jobs in the US pay less than $34,000 a year (Economic Policy Institute)

25 percent of the jobs in the US pay below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually (Economic Policy Institute)

Quote of the Week

“I have seen days of promise and days of darkness, and I’ve seen them more than once. All history is like that. The people have the power if they will use it, but they have to see that it is in their interest to do so.”
                                                      —Peter Edelman, Georgetown University Law Professor,
                                    author of So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.comand follow me on Twitter.

This Week in Poverty: TANF, VAWA and Playing Politics with the Lives of Low-Income People

“A partisan disgrace,” declared Speaker John Boehner.

“President Obama now wants to strip the established work requirements from welfare,” Governor Mitt Romney charged.

“The end of welfare reform as we know it,” warned Robert “You Aren’t Poor If You Have Air Conditioning” Rector, of the Heritage Foundation.

The source of all of this consternation?

A memo from Health and Human Services (HHS) announcing that it will “allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.… The Secretary is interested in using her authority to approve waiver demonstrations to challenge states to engage in a new round of innovation that seeks to find more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment.”

In short, let states explore new ways to get better results from their efforts to employ low-income people in good jobs.

Sound familiar? Giving states more flexibility to run their Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs? The notion that local folks might have some of the best ideas on how to help people in their jurisdictions?

It’s straight out of the Republican playbook. Only this time around the proposal is from a Democratic Administration, so suddenly it’s not kosher.

The fact is that in 2005 Governor Romney and twenty-eight other Republican governors wrote a letter requesting more “flexibility to manage their TANF programs and effectively serve low-income populations,” including “increased waiver authority.” Indeed the New York Times reports that two of the first five states to express interest in the new waiver policy—Utah and Nevada—have Republican Governors.

“It’s really unfortunate that politics have totally overtaken this in Washington,” Liz Schott, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), told me. “This is an area where there is actually not that much disagreement that TANF programs should be focused on the best ways to help people prepare for, find and keep jobs.”

I asked Schott to walk me through exactly what these waivers would do, because deciphering this stuff is kind of like settling down to a good novel written in legalese.

Currently, much of what a state does in administering TANF is driven by an effort to meet a target “work participation rate”—which usually means having more than 50 percent of its TANF recipients (including 90 percent of two-parent families) working thirty hours per week. If a state doesn’t meet that target rate, it can face steep fines from the federal government, as we are currently seeing in Ohio.

As a result, states aren’t necessarily as motivated by a desire to connect families to good, sustainable employment as much as they are looking simply to move people into activities that fulfill the work participation requirement.

For example, maybe someone is steered into a job-training program with no job (or a very low-wage job) on the other end; and then the individual repeats that program with the same disappointing result. Or maybe the person performs a “community service” with no wage and no prospects for advancement—like sweeping the county garage, or cleaning toilets in an office building, or filing papers for a non-profit.

“Currently it’s all about whether an individual is participating in certain activities for a certain number of hours,” said Schott. “Whether that’s the right activity or an effective activity to find and keep a good job is largely irrelevant.”

Schott said that a waiver might allow a state to decide, for example, that it’s a priority for TANF recipients to obtain a GED, or to complete two years of post-secondary or vocational education.

“A state could decide that a single parent working twenty hours, plus taking care of a kid, plus going to school, is going to interfere with her ability to be successful as a parent and a worker in the economy,” said Schott. “So it could request that these parents be permitted to go to school full-time and have that count towards the required work participation rate.”

Other waiver possibilities outlined in the memo include strategies to serve people with disabilities more effectively (the employment rate for people with disabilities in 2010 was a stunning 18.6 percent); and counting people in subsidized jobs towards meeting a state’s work participation rate.

Any waiver is subject to meeting “interim performance targets” and a “federally approved evaluation.” In other words, the pilot projects have to demonstrate that they are improving employment outcomes for low-income people in order to continue.

Republicans in the House and Senate have already introduced bills that would deny HHS waiver authority. What is striking about this overreaction isn’t just GOP leaders’ hypocrisy on the issue of allowing states more flexibility, but that they went apoplectic over some pretty modest reforms—reforms that are focused on jobs and measurable outcomes. Congress has put off TANF reauthorization for a couple of years running now, but at some point—I’m guessing in 2013—it won’t be able to ignore that obligation any longer.

Can you imagine the outcry if there were good, aggressive reforms offered by Democrats—the kind found in Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s RISE Act? Among the smart changes Moore calls for are: adjusting each state’s block grant for inflation so it’s no longer frozen at 1996 funding levels, unchanged for the past 16 years; allowing education and job training to count towards work requirements; providing childcare for all work-eligible parents; and prohibiting time limits of less than 60 months.

Now that would indeed be the end of welfare reform as we know it. Or at least the end of some of its most egregious failures—and the beginning of a system with the interests of poor people at its heart.

The Real Deal on VAWA

“The House leadership’s Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) agenda seems to be much like its so-called economic agenda: it harms those who are weakest and those who need these programs the most.”

That’s how Lisalyn Jacobs, vice president for government relations at Legal Momentum—the nation’s oldest legal defense and education fund for women and girls—explains the flawed House VAWA bill and Speaker John Boehner’s refusal to reconcile it with a stronger, bipartisan Senate version.

The Senate bill—championed by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Senator Mike Crapo—passed with sixty-eight votes, including fifteen Republicans; the House bill passed along a party-line vote with twenty-three Republicans voting against it.

The Senate bill includes new protections for Native American women by allowing tribal court systems to prosecute domestic violence abusers—whether the abuser is native or not. Currently, most sexual assaults and domestic violence crimes on Native lands go unpunished, particularly by non-Native abusers.

“Indian country is the poorest of the poor, however you slice it, and Native women are more victimized than any other group of women in the country,” says Jacobs.

In a speech on the Senate floor yesterday, Senator Patty Murray noted, “One in three Native women will be raped in their lifetimes, two in five of them [are] victims of domestic violence, and they are killed at ten times the rate of the national average.”

The Senate bill also ensures that special visas remain available to immigrant women who report abuse and cooperate with law enforcement; extends protections to the LGBT community; and offers better protection for college students who face domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It also provides resources to help ensure that underserved populations—such as communities of color, the elderly, people in rural areas, people with disabilities, and others—have access to services.

Rather than proceed to reconcile the bills—with a House bill that is difficult to defend and lacking in bipartisan support—Speaker Boehner is hiding behind a procedural excuse known as a “blue slip” issue. As a New York Times editorial describes, “The Senate bill imposes a fee to pay for special visas that go to immigrant victims of domestic abuse. This runs afoul of the rule that revenue-raising measures must begin in the House.”

“Speaker Boehner is sitting there with his arms folded pretending that he can’t solve the very same problem that he did in fact solve in order to move the transportation bill,” says Jacobs. “He merely chooses not to solve it now so that he can avoid passing a bill which protects all victims regardless of immigration status, sexual orientation or anything else.”

Don’t just take Jacobs’ word for it. Five Republican Representatives wrote a letter to Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor urging them “to solve the blue slip problem as effectively as you did with the Transportation Bill.” The GOP Congressmen also called for the final bill to include the stronger Senate protections.

“We cannot allow VAWA to become another victim of election-year gridlock,” said Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL). “A strong, bicameral compromise can and should protect all victims of violence. And these recommendations reflect years of input from our volunteers and counselors on the front lines, fighting domestic violence in communities across the country.”

Time is running out. Congress is scheduled to recess next Thursday and doesn’t have too many workdays in September either. After that, it’s all campaigning, all the time.

“Yesterday we sent a letter from over 600 organizations to the House and Senate leadership urging them to complete their work on VAWA, but we still need people’s help,” says Jacobs. “Call your Senators and Representatives, tell them to finish the job before they go home. We need the improvements in the VAWA bills to become law. Survivors of domestic and sexual violence, dating violence and sexual assault, are relying on us to help get this bill out of Congress and onto the President’s desk.”

Notable Studies

US poverty rates higher, Safety Net Weaker, Than in Peer Countries, Elise Gould and Hilary Wething, Economic Policy Institute. This report finds that among similarly developed countries, the United States stands out as the country with the highest poverty rate and one of the lowest levels of social expenditures.

“The relatively low social expenditures in the United States partially explains the high poverty rate,” said Gould. “When it comes to alleviating the effects of poverty, the U.S. could learn from its peers.”

Some of the major findings: Despite the relatively high earnings at the top of the US income scale, inequality in the United States is so severe that low-earning US workers are actually worse off than low-earning workers in all but seven peer countries; more than one in five children in the US lived in poverty—this level is over two times higher than the peer-country average of 9.8 percent; the average peer countries’ tax and transfer programs achieves a poverty-rate reduction of 17.4 percentage points—an effect nearly two times greater than that produced by such programs in the United States.

Racial and Ethnic Differences in Receipt of Unemployment Insurance Benefits During the Great Recession,” Austin Nichols and Margaret Sims, Urban Institute. The Great Recession hit black workers harder; the unemployment rate was higher for non-Hispanic black than for non-Hispanic white or Hispanic workers; and black unemployed workers had the lowest receipt of Unemployment Insurance benefits, 23.8 percent compared to whites’ 33.2 percent. Differences persist even after controlling for education, past employment, and reasons for unemployment.

Commencement Day: Six-Year Effects of a Freshman Learning Community Program at Kingsborough Community College,” Colleen Sommo, Alexander Mayer, Timothy Rudd, and Dan Cullinan, with Hannah Fresques, MDRC. A report on an unusually successful one-semester program at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn called “learning communities.” Kingsborough serves many poor students and is very diverse—black, Hispanic, Asian, white, and 40 percent foreign-born students.

The program placed freshmen into groups of up to twenty-five students who took three classes together during their first semester: a developmental or college-level English course, an academic course required for the student’s major, and a freshman orientation course. It also provided enhanced counseling and tutoring as well as textbook vouchers.

This brief program increased six-year graduation rates by 4.6 percentage points—one of the first rigorous studies to show that an intervention in a community college boosted graduation rates. This increase in graduation also made the program cost-effective—the cost per degree earned was lower per program group member than it was per control group member.

Other Resources

2012 KIDS COUNT Data Book,” Annie E. Casey Foundation. Its 23rd annual state-by-state report of child well-being, this year’s edition reveals significant improvements in health outcomes and academic achievement for children in most states. Over the period of 2005 to 2011, improvements include a 20 percent decrease in the number of kids without health insurance and an 11 percent reduction in the rate of high school students not graduating in four years. But the Data Book also shows how kids and families continue to struggle economically in the wake of the Great Recession. In 2010, one-third of children had parents without secure employment—an increase of 22 percent, or approximately 4 million children, from 2008. From 2005 to 2010, the number of children living in poverty rose by 2.4 million.

The State of America’s Children 2012 Handbook,” Children’s Defense Fund. This resource provides key national information in a range of areas, as well as state tables showing how children in your state are faring and how your state compares to other states in protecting children.

A Portrait of Inequality 2012,” Children’s Defense Fund. A report showing the gross inequalities facing black children compared to white children, across all critical indicators of wellbeing. Also, “A Portrait of Inequality 2012—Hispanic Children in America.”


Concentrated Poverty and Homicide in Chicago,” Steve Bogira
Shorty’s Comeback,” Steve Bogira
The Right Embraces ‘Big Government’,” Melissa Boteach
Tax Hikes on the Working Poor,” David Callahan
Food Stamps in Elmo’s World,” KJ Dell’Antonia
America Has a Class Problem,” Peter Edelman
New Orleans’ Other ‘Million Dollar Neighborhood’,” Shereen Marisol Meraji
Summer Programs for Low-Income Youth,” Elsa Falkenburger
Protecting SNAP: Notes from the Field,” Lisa Hamler-Fugitt
Mayor Says Civil Disobedience by Janitors Justified,” Chris Moran
Renters’ Tax Credit Would Promote Equity and Advance Balanced Housing Policy,” Barbara Sard and Will Fischer
Having It All? Many Working Poor Parents Don’t Even Have Child Care,” Diana Scholl
Official Poverty Measure Ignores Key Improvements in Safety Net Since 1960s,” Arloc Sherman
Stories on Earned Sick Leave: Interview with Retail Action Project,” Spotlight on Poverty
Women for Paid Sick Days,” Katrina vanden Heuvel
Large, Profitable Companies Employ Most Minimum Wage Earners,” George Zornick

Get Involved

Affordable Housing for Parcel 42 (DC readers)
Dignity at Darden
House and Senate Bills to Increase Minimum Wage and Tipped Minimum Wage
Hyatt Boycott Goes Global

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent of population.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 35 percent of Latino children.

Number of poor children receiving cash aid: one in five.

Poverty rate for people in female-headed families: 42 percent.

Single mothers with incomes under $25,000: 50 percent.

Single mothers working: 67 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population. Up from 12.6 million in 2000.

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

Americans with no income other than food stamps: 6 million, 2 percent of population.

Twice the poverty level (less than $44,628 for a family of four): 103 million people, roughly 1 in 3 Americans.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Quote of the Week

“It seriously disturbs me that people looking in from the outside sort of draws this conclusion that the young black males or the people who are victims of the 50 million circumstances and issues that plague Central City—have just drawn a conclusion that they don’t want better—because that’s not true, that’s not what I see, I’m living it. I can honest to God tell you this: every single person that I’ve given a chance, has done well.”
      —Candince McMillian, owner of a contracting business in Central City, New Orleans, on Marketplace.

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.


This Week in Poverty

No post today due to illness. This Week in Poverty will return in full next Friday. In the meantime, check out the latest from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.  And here is the latest excellent infographic from Demos reflecting some vital statistics about poverty:

This Week in Poverty: Houston Janitors' Strike Goes Citywide

Governor Mitt Romney got all the press at the NAACP convention in Houston on Wednesday, but janitor Alice McAfee got a standing-o. She spoke to a packed auditorium about her plight and that of over 3,000 fellow janitors in the city.

The Houston janitors are currently paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually, despite cleaning the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world—Chevron, ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo, Shell Oil, JPMorgan Chase and others in the “City of Millionaires.” They are asking building owners and cleaning contractors for a raise to $10 an hour over the next three years; the counter offer is a $0.50 pay raise phased in over five years, virtually guaranteeing that the janitors continue to live in poverty.

On Tuesday, following a month of protests and one-day strikes, 250 janitors in nine buildings walked off the job to begin a citywide strike. By today, janitors from eighteen buildings will have joined the picket line. They are protesting employer harassment—including potential stripping of healthcare benefits and workplace intimidation—in response to the workers’ attempt to improve wages and benefits. The workers won’t return to their jobs until the cleaning contractors return to the bargaining table.

“We think we’ve moved past discrimination but we haven’t,” McAfee told the convention. “Now it’s low-wage workers who are treated like second-class citizens.… This fight is about putting an end to discrimination once and for all—racism, discrimination against immigrants, and discrimination against the working poor. This is about restoring dignity to all work.”

In addition to giving McAfee a standing ovation, audience members started spontaneously handing her cash—and it just kept coming; a total of $3,200 in unsolicited donations will be deposited into the janitors’ strike fund.

I had a chance to speak with Ms. McAfee on the phone yesterday about her experience at the convention, her work, and where the strike is headed. She told me she’s been a janitor in Houston for thirty years.

“And I have never missed a day, I have never been late. I take great pride in my work,” she said.

McAfee works at the Galleria Tower II and describes her job as “very hard, very strenuous.”

“They used to give me five hours to do three floors,” she said. “Now I have four hours for five floors. Something’s wrong with the picture.”

Her voice sounded distinctly elderly to me, and Adriana Vasquez had spoken of older janitors whom she worries about as they tackle grueling work. I asked would she mind telling me her age?

“Tell you what,” she said, “age and weight are two things you don’t ask a lady.”

So we moved on. Like Vasquez, McAfee said she has to literally run to finish her work on time.

“You’re running from the time you get in until the time you leave because if you’re not, no way you’re going to complete the work,” she said. “You got to punch out at 10 pm on the dot or they will write you up for insubordination because you’re not doing what they tell you to do on time. We don’t have no breaks, and when you get finished you’re so tired you need somebody to drive you home.”

Beginning at 6 pm, McAfee’s work includes “heavy floors,” which she describes as “a lot of heavy garbage, boxes, books”—both Wilson Architects and JPMorgan Chase require this kind of labor. (She cleans for Chase on the fourth, twentieth and twenty-first floors. In Congress, CEO Jamie Dimon told Vasquez to call him at his office to discuss the fact that he doesn’t pay his janitors a living wage. So far, however, he hasn’t returned her call.) She cleans kitchenettes; mops the floors; does “high dusting and low dusting”; rids glass desktops of finger smudges; cleans and dusts pictures.

“I take great pride in my work and I like to do it right,” McAfee said. “But now that they have cut the hours and increased the workload, there’s just no way for me to do it the way I want to. I’m doing eight to twelve hours work in four hours, and it’s just impossible.”

McAfee said she has been “targeted” since joining the union. Not only did her employer then increase her workload and cut her hours, her supervisor said she “wants me off the job.”

“But I do my work, stay focused, stay prayed up and move on,” said McAfee.

Moving on this week meant telling the NAACP and others her story.

“People need to know we are professional janitors and when we go to work, we work hard,” she said. “Right now we’re needing to choose between turning on our AC, or our box fan, and buying gas. We give building owners and CEOs an honest day’s work and we are only asking for a fair, honest day’s pay in return.”

Feds Investigating Pennsylvania’s ‘Drop in Medicaid Enrollment’

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the 89,000 children in Pennsylvania who have lost their Medicaid coverage—including many with life-threatening illnesses who were mistakenly deemed ineligible. It looks like the federal government is asking questions about it too.

The Associated Press reports that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) hasn’t yet received a response from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) to its letter of inquiry sent June 14.

I obtained a copy of that letter which reads in part: “A large number of cases were closed for ‘failure to provide information’ or ‘failure to return renewal form’ at a time when DPW [was] unable to process within appropriate timeframes all the information beneficiaries had submitted to verify their eligibility.… It appears that it may have been improper to terminate Medicaid coverage for lack of requested information since an eligibility worker could not have been sure that such information had not been submitted by the beneficiary.”

According to the letter, DPW agreed in mid-April to review 12,000 closed cases “to determine whether any had been closed inappropriately.” The review was to begin with “3,000 pregnant women and newborns,” and DPW staff assured that those results “would be available soon.”

“We consider DPW’s [review] of closed cases to be an important step towards understanding the drop in Medicaid enrollment overall,” the letter reads.

As of Wednesday, still no word on those 3,000 pregnant women and newborns, or on the other 9,000 cases DPW is supposed to check out.

Medicaid for 297,000 South Carolinians

As my colleague George Zornick recently observed, Republican governors can hate on the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion all they want—in the end it’s state legislatures that will decide whether low-income Americans enjoy a rare and historic victory or are once again left to fend for themselves.

In South Carolina, advocates are already working to build the kind of formidable coalition needed to convince a Republican legislature not only to pass the Medicaid expansion but also to override an expected veto by Governor Nikki Haley—no easy task, since that would require a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

“We’re going to have to build a coalition of healthcare advocates, providers, businesses and insurance companies—working with those who have a financial interest in this thing, along with those who have a human interest because it’s simply the right thing to do,” says Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, who has worked on poverty-related issues for thirty years.

According to the Urban Institute, 297,000 currently uninsured South Carolinian adults would be newly eligible for Medicaid under the expansion—232,000 of them live below the federal poverty line of $22,314 for a family of four. New federal tax credits and subsidies will be available only for people with incomes above the federal poverty line, so the 232,000 worse off citizens won’t receive that assistance either.

“By saying no to Medicaid expansion, Governor Haley is basically saying it will be status quo for the poorest of the poor—they get nothing,” says Berkowitz.

Of course, folks like Berkowitz have been making a powerful case for helping poor people from time immemorial. (See the dude Isaiah, 58:10: “And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in darkness, and thy gloom be as the noon-day.”) Their work has contributed to some great victories. But if I were a betting man—or actually just a man with a pulse and a passing interest in US politics in the twenty-first century—I’d wager this decision will come down to what the powerful moneyed interests with a financial stake in Medicaid will do to fight for something that makes complete economic sense.

A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that the federal government is picking up 100 percent of the cost of the Medicaid expansion over the first three years; nearly 93 percent of the cost over the next nine years; and no less than 90 percent after that. That’s significantly higher than the 70 percent match South Carolina currently receives for Medicaid patients.

A state’s costs for the Medicaid expansion would also be offset by reduced expenses for mental health services and emergency hospital care for the uninsured. An Urban Institute report indicates that in 2008, state and local governments shouldered $10.6 billion—nearly 20 percent of the cost—to care for uninsured people in hospitals. Another study indicates that state and local governments provided 40 percent of the funding for state mental health agencies in 2009, amounting to $17 billion. Both of these state contributions would be significantly reduced as the federal government picks up more of the tab through Medicaid services.

In South Carolina, these factors and others would result in an actual savings of as much as $678 million from 2014–19, compared to the costs of opting out of the Medicaid expansion.

“I would also note that we have a multiplier of $3.50 for every federal Medicaid dollar spent in the state,” says Berkowitz. “The one growth industry we know we have here—besides union busting and Boeing—is healthcare. We’ve got a very sick population and the opportunity to bring down federal dollars to help solve that problem and get better health outcomes. But the governor clearly isn’t looking at any of this. It’s just pure politics to appeal to her Tea Party base.”

Berkowitz believes some in the business community will advocate for Medicaid expansion because a healthy workforce and stable healthcare attract good jobs to the state. Rejecting Medicaid is also bad for small businesses that can’t (or don’t) pay their employees enough to purchase health insurance. The employees wait until they are too sick to work and then are forced to turn to emergency care.

“Businesses are better off when employees have a [regular provider], receive preventive care, and have better health outcomes,” says Berkowitz.

The real difference-makers in the Medicaid decision might be hospitals. Under the Affordable Care Act, they will receive a smaller reimbursement for the emergency care provided to uninsured people—that’s one way the government pays for Medicaid expansion and the new federal subsidies to help individuals purchase health insurance. As Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein notes, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Medicaid expansion would cut South Carolina’s uninsured rate among eligible adults by 56.4 percent—the fourth-largest drop in the nation. That significantly improves hospitals’ bottom lines.

But Berkowitz says that “the business and provider communities are not exactly profiles in courage all of the time.” When advocates worked to pass the cigarette tax ten years ago, many health care providers who privately agreed with it said they couldn’t take a public stand. It wasn’t until the tax gained traction with the public that they joined in the coalition.

Getting that kind of traction this time around might prove difficult.

“There’s just a huge lack of compassion for the poor among a lot of folks in our electorate,” says Berkowitz. “And the money being funneled to our opponents is huge. So far, the national foundations and funders who are on our side are putting money into states where the fight over Medicaid is much easier. We need them to not think of us as a lost cause. We’re not giving up this fight.”

Great Resource from Demos

Tracking American Poverty & Policy is a powerful data visualization that tracks American poverty over the decades, with breakdowns by race, gender, education and more. The tool was unveiled at Demos’ national bi-partisan conference earlier this week, co-hosted with Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy; and The American Prospect. The conference examined what low wages, low job growth, demographic and cultural trends and budget-cutting plans mean for Americans in poverty or near-poverty.

Get Involved
Support paid family and medical leave and paid sick days

Articles and other Resources

Nikki Haley Slashes Support for Violence Victims…,” Bryce Covert

To Beat Odds, Poor Single Moms Need Wide Safety Net,” Pam Fessler

House Proposes Cutting Food Stamps by $16 billion,” Food Research and Action Center

Moor Latino Children Go Hungry Under Roby Amendment,” Sarah Jane Glynn

Low Wage Rates and Low Income Very Common for Employed Single Mothers,” Legal Momentum

Study Confirms Importance of Child Care Subsidies for Working Families,” Hannah Matthews

Lawsuit: Republican Supervisors Designed System to Cheat Indigent $38 per Month,” R. Scott Moxley

For Black Americans, Financial Damage from Subprime Implosion Likely to Last,” Ylan Mui

National Coalition for Paid Sick Days, Family Leave Insurance Convenes in DC,” National Partnership for Women & Families

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent of population.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 35 percent of Latino children.

Number of poor children receiving cash aid: one in five.

Poverty rate for people in female-headed families: 42 percent.

Single mothers with incomes under $25,000: 50 percent.

Single mothers working: 67 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population. Up from 12.6 million in 2000.

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

Americans with no income other than food stamps: 6 million, 2 percent of population.

Twice the poverty level (less than $44,628 for a family of four): 103 million people, roughly 1 in 3 Americans.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Quotes of the Week

“We’re at this very unusual moment where there’s the potential for one of the biggest steps forward for low-income families in several decades if the Medicaid expansion is fully implemented in every state and the deficit reduction for the mid- and long-term that we need were achieved in a way that protects people at the bottom. But there is also a significant possibility that—depending on the outcome of the election—the entire Affordable Care Act is repealed, or perhaps even a majority of states do not take the Medicaid expansion; and, more fundamentally, we could achieve large-scale deficit reduction in a way that really devastates programs focused on low-income people, destroys the structure of Medicaid, food stamps, huge cuts in the Pell Grants for low-income kids. I don’t ever remember a time when there was the potential for as huge rollbacks as there is now.”
—Bob Greenstein, president, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,
speaking at Demos conference

“They try to pit the Latinos against the blacks—to separate us—but we’re not going to be separated, we’re together. We’re going to stand together because we are our sisters and brothers and that’s how we look at it on the job.”
—Alice McAfee, on cleaning contractors’ efforts to divide Houston janitors

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.comand follow me on Twitter.

This Week in Poverty: The Soul Sisters

I’ve long been told by a lot of smart people that the nuns who taught them growing up are among the best teachers they ever had. As a Jewish man who attended secular and Quaker schools, I never had the privilege of experiencing that. But I have now.

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve followed the Nuns on the Bus over the last couple of weeks as they went on an inspiring 2,700 mile drive across the country to educate people on the House Republican-passed Ryan budget and the damaging effects it would have on poor, vulnerable and struggling people throughout America.

I was in Washington, DC, where the tour ended—right at the United Methodist Building where The Nation ’s DC bureau is located, in fact. There were about 400 people there—mostly boisterous fans, religious and non-religious alike—and a nice turnout by the press too.

The nuns made their way from the bus to a stage backed by a huge American flag. Eye of the Tiger blared from the speakers. It was a bit funny to hear the theme song from Rocky III accompanying an entrance by seven nuns. But it was also fitting. At a time when our politics is marked by canned speech, rehearsed talking points, and predictable rhetoric, the sisters are dedicated to something that is as courageous as it is unusual:

“Sister tells the truth,” Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, said to a cheering crowd.

Sister Simone and NETWORK were the lead organizers of this effort. She has worked on poverty-related issues throughout her life, including as the lead attorney for the Community Law Center in Oakland, California, which she founded in 1978.

I had the opportunity to speak to Sister Simone about the tour, what inspired it, and what’s next for the Nuns on the Bus. This is what she had to say:

Greg Kaufmann: How did a group of nuns suddenly decide to drive 2,700 miles across the country?

Sister Simone: You know how? We asked for help. I do meditation and try to listen deeply to God’s nudgings, and for me the insight that I had was that with all of this notoriety—we’re not used to having the attention on ourselves—we needed to use it for mission. And in prayer what came to me was, “Ask for help.” So that’s what I did.

We had all of these folks come together to brainstorm, and we don’t remember who first came up with it—but it was a bus trip. That was May 14, and then on June 17 we launched the foolish thing.

Did that sudden notoriety stem from the Vatican’s reprimand back in April of American nuns—for being outspoken on social justice issues and “silent” on issues like abortion and gay marriage?

Sister Simone: Right. And the fact that they named NETWORK as a problem organization for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). They said that some of the reasons LCWR was doing poorly was because they were related to us. It was excruciatingly painful—the Vatican never even talked to us. Plus it was such a shock—we’re such a small organization, nine full-time staff. So that we were known by the Vatican at all was shocking.

I also think if Paul Ryan had never claimed that Catholic social teaching informed his budget, I don’t know that we ever would have gone on a bus trip. In some ways it’s a gift that he did it, but it’s also so infuriating.

You said that the nuns went on the road to explain to people about the Ryan budget but instead the people explained to you. You’ve worked your whole life on poverty-related issues. What is it that you learned on this trip?

The stories of people who broke our hearts over and over and over again. To meet people like Margaret’s family who came directly from her memorial service to our “friendraiser” because they wanted to raise up Margaret so that no more people would die without health insurance because they lost their job. Or Shiesha in Chicago, who is pulling her life together in this little oasis of hope on the South Side—to see her determination and work in getting her college diploma. Or Billy trying to feed his family when he can only afford to either put a roof over their heads or food on the table, so he uses the food program at St. Benedict’s dining room. Or the man who just got out of jail in Youngstown who now has this place to stay that’s like a bed and breakfast, who never felt his dignity until he had that experience. And it’s all because of the programs of sisters in these public-private partnerships.

Regarding public-private partnerships, you said in Iowa, “We each need to exercise responsibility. But responsibility only works when we’re in solidarity and community.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

I’ve begun to say that it’s an unpatriotic lie that individuals create their own advancement or pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. And what I realize is that this unpatriotic lie exists in order to protect individuals who have a lot [of wealth] already. The Constitution says it—it’s we the people, we’re in this together. And together we work to form the more perfect union.

For us, as people of faith, it’s a faith mandate. But it’s also a civic mandate, and it means in our complex society each person has to have a sense of the whole, and how he or she contributes to the whole, and how he or she receives from the whole.

Has the tour changed the way you see yourself and your fellow sisters doing your work moving forward?

This has given a new level of awareness for us, and urgency. At least for me, I’m frantic to get this message out: that our nation is hungry for an alternative that is communal, that pulls us together to solve tough problems. It is about trying to find the way to call ourselves back to being who we are. It’s a struggle for the soul of our democracy.

One of the news shows I was on said we’ve got four months left until the election, so this is a really important time. I said, “No, this is so much more than the election. This is about who we are as a nation, and who we want to be into the future.” And unless we recover and reclaim that, we are in really deep trouble and I think at risk of losing our democracy unless we begin to participate.

How are we at risk of losing our democracy?

The media treats democracy like a sports game: a candidate is up, a candidate is down—citing poll numbers as if they were betting lines. The fact is, democracy is not a game. Making it a game makes us couch potatoes, and we treat it like the Super Bowl. Democracy demands engagement and an educated populace that’s willing to wrestle with the hard questions.

How do you sustain the momentum Nuns on the Bus created so that people will wrestle with those questions?

We had no idea what the consequence of doing this bus trip was. The fact is it appears to have had a fairly large impact on individuals in the country, and on groups, and on politics.

I will never forget Janesville, Wisconsin, at Congressman Ryan’s office. That was when I began to see, “Oh my God, this is huge.” I thought because we were in his district we were going to have a really teeny turnout—it was huge. The police gave us a quick permit to hold a rally a block away at the park in front of the courthouse because the crowd was so huge, crowded on the sidewalks, there were cameras everywhere. That’s when I thought, “Wow, something big is happening.”

So now we need to continue at a really stepped-up level—not easy with just nine full-time staff. We’re still figuring out what in God’s green earth happened? What did we touch?

The three things we do know are these: our quarterly magazine on August 1 will be all about Nuns on the Bus—the places we went, the things we learned, the people we saw, [and] next steps, the way forward.

We’ll also be working to set up visits with the congress people whose offices we visited during the tour.

And probably in September we’ll do a briefing on Capitol Hill that’s not just about data—they’ve got enough data!—but I want to break their hearts with the people we saw and met. Because it’s so easy to arrogantly just dismiss programs—because you can argue about numbers and effectiveness. But tell me that Margaret should die again, and I’ll fight you tooth and nail. It’s just wrong.

If you want to stay involved with the Nuns on the Bus, you can sign up for NETWORK’s email alerts. Also, check out the Faithful Budget which was created by representatives of Muslim, Jewish, Christian and other faith traditions. The Nuns on the Bus support it, and Sister Simone says it can be summarized by her “five-word mantra”: “Reasonable revenues for responsible programs.”


2012 National Summit on Paid Sick Days and Paid Family Leave: Monday, July 9, 8:40 am & Tuesday, July 10, 8:30 am, Capitol Room of the Hyatt Regency, Washington DC. Top experts, labor and business leaders, and workers discuss the prospects for advancing paid sick days and paid leave laws at the local, state and federal levels. This year twenty-three states and DC are represented. Tuesday is a Day of Action.

50 Years Since The Other America : Understanding & Addressing Poverty in the 21st Century : Tuesday, July 10, 9 am–5 pm, The Newseum Knight Conference Center, Washington, DC. Leading researchers, practitioners, and journalists will assess how economic and policy trends are affecting poverty today, and discuss promising new policies and strategies for lifting and keeping Americans out of poverty.

Jobs Are Not Enough: Why are the Campaigns Ignoring Americans’ Lost Wealth?: Wednesday, July 11, 9:15 am–11 pm, New America Foundation, Washington, DC. What can government do to help ordinary Americans avoid ruinous debt and rebuild their wealth? Can a tax code that directs nearly half a trillion dollars in investment subsidies mostly to wealthy Americans be reformed to help average Americans build wealth? Could such an agenda put the economy back on a path to sustained, broad-based growth? Two panels discuss these and other issues.

2012 Kansas Conference on Poverty: July 25–27, Hyatt Regency, Wichita. The Kansas Association of Community Action Programs and the Kansas Community Action Network have their fingers on the pulse of poverty and what’s happening in the antipoverty community. I’ll be there and I hope you can check it out too.

Articles and Other Resources

Poor Land in Jail… Huge Fees for Probation,” Ethan Bronner

…How States are Keeping Adult Education Afloat,” Marcie Foster

The Unfinished War on Poverty,” Indivar Dutta-Gupta

The Ones We’ve Lost: Student Loan Debt Suicides,” C. Cryn Johanssen

Health-Care Law’s Medicaid Provision Too Good to Pass Up,” Ezra Klein

Protesters Deliver Petitions to Palermo Villa,” Nicole Levy

Women Biggest Losers from Failure to Raise Minimum Wage,” David Madland and Nick Bunker

A Day-Care Center’s…$10,000 Pepco Bill,” Courtland Milloy

Peter Edelman on Fighting Poverty,” Bill Moyers (video and transcript)

Looming Financial Cliff for Long-Term Unemployed,” NELP

Houston Janitors Find an Ally in Danny Glover,” Joy Sewing

Tea Party Govs Say ‘No’ to Medicaid Expansion,” George Zornick


Opting Out of Medicaid Expansion: How Many Uninsured Adults Would Not Be Eligible for Medicaid?” Genevieve Kenney, Lisa Dubay, Stephen Zuckerman, Michael Huntress. In this brief, Urban Institute researchers estimate the number of uninsured Americans in each state who would be eligible for Medicaid if every state takes the option of expanding Medicaid coverage. The authors also estimate the number of uninsured Americans who are at risk of not being covered because the Medicaid expansion is now optional. Includes state-by-state data.

Poverty in Southeast Louisiana Post-Katrina,” Allison Plyer and Elaine Ortiz. The suburbs are now home to the largest poor population in the region. The new demographics present new challenges for anti-poverty efforts as the suburban poor face difficulties in accessing jobs, safety net benefits and other work supports. This report from Greater New Orleans Community Data Center suggests a regional strategy with public-private partnerships that work across city and parish boundaries.

Get Involved/Learn

This list is by no means exhaustive, but these groups and others are working every day to generate the kind of popular and political will that helped reduce poverty by 43 percent between 1964–1973:

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Center for Community Change
Center for Law and Social Policy
Children’s Defense Fund
Children’s HealthWatch
Coalition on Human Needs
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Community Action Partnership
First Focus
Food Research and Action Center
Half In Ten
Interfaith Worker Justice
Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Legal Momentum
National Alliance to End Homelessness
National Council on Aging
National Council of La Raza
National Employment Law Project
National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
National Low Income Housing Coalition
National Partnership for Women and Families
National Women’s Law Center
Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Spotlight on Poverty
Western Center on Law & Poverty
Witnesses to Hunger/Center for Hunger-Free Communities

Vital Statistics

This excellent new infographic from Demos combines information drawn from the organization's own work, This Week in Poverty, and a recent American Prospect article written by Georgetown University Law Professor Peter Edelman.

Quote of the Week

“Forty-five counties in Ohio—half the state—have no power and haven’t since last Friday at 5:00. The estimate for restoring power in some areas is July 10th. We are nearly 100 hours into the Great Blackout of 2012 and it’s still 91 degrees. I suspect and fear people are going to die, as the right screams, ‘Who needs infrastructure spending or government?’ The food in food pantries has spoiled, all as the House prepares to make deep cuts to SNAP. So what’s next for the poor, and working poor, who aren’t going to get a paycheck because their employer lost power? A real state of emergency and Congress remains hell bent on taking food out of the mouths of the least among us.”
—Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director, Ohio Association of Foodbanks, on July 3.

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.comand follow me on Twitter.

This Week in Poverty: 89,000 Children in Pennsylvania Lose Medicaid

Since August 2011, 89,000 children in Pennsylvania have lost their Medicaid coverage, including many with life-threatening illnesses who were mistakenly deemed ineligible. The state currently hasn’t a clue whether many of these children have any healthcare coverage at all.

How did this happen?

In late summer, the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare (DPW) began notifying hundreds of thousands of families by mail that they had ten days to provide necessary documentation in order to keep their children enrolled in Medicaid. If the family missed the deadline—or even if they met it but DPW failed to process the paperwork within the ten days—they were dropped from Medicaid.

Federal law indeed requires that families prove their Medicaid eligibility annually. Pennsylvania requires verification every six months. During the previous administration, under Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, caseloads grew as a result of the recession, while county assistance offices were shorthanded due to budget cuts. Caseworkers simply couldn’t keep pace with the workload and there was a backlog of renewal applications.

Enter Republican Governor Tom Corbett and his anti-spending, anti-government secretary of public welfare, Gary Alexander. They decided to plow ahead with their new approach to eligibility verification: ten days to receive and process the overdue renewals, and an assumption of ineligibility if the applications weren’t reviewed during that time period.

Predictably, the offices couldn’t keep up with the new deluge of mail. It doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that a Republican administration—hostile to Medicaid—had identified a weakness in the system, exploited it, so that it could reduce spending while bolstering its claim that the system is broken.

Who are some of the victims wronged by the Corbett-Alexander approach to children’s health? A 5-year-old with leukemia; a 2-year-old with a congenital heart disorder; a severely disabled 12-year-old who requires home healthcare; 9-year-old twins, one with autism, the other with a hearing impairment; a 1-year-old with cerebral palsy.

Imagine, a parent of a toddler battling cancer, and suddenly a need to—as one advocate put it—“engage in a Kafkaesque process of getting your kid back on Medicaid.”

What is also deeply disturbing is this: normally when a child is no longer Medicaid-eligible in Pennsylvania parents are referred to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a federally subsidized healthcare program for low-income kids. The state takes great pride in near universal coverage of children—it offered one of the first CHIP programs in the country in 1992. But as advocates watched Medicaid enrollment fall off a cliff—89,000 dropped between August 2011 and January 2012—CHIP enrollment remained flat.

Where the hell are the kids? advocates began to ask.

DPW’s initial explanation was that the 89,000 kids dropped included families that moved out of state or were no longer income-eligible. But, when pressed for an accounting, DPW’s own analysis revealed that the number of families falling within these categories is paltry.

Secretary Alexander also played games with the numbers. As recently as May 1, during an interview on Pennsylvania public radio, he said: “It wasn’t children that were removed, it was families. We call them cases—so that there are parents and children.”

But Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving the health, education and wellbeing of children and youth throughout the state, says that simply isn’t true. It points to DPW’s own records, which show that the 89,000 figure represents children dropped from Medicaid.

Secretary Alexander also offered this explanation for the state’s actions: “The problem we have, of course, is that we have federal rules and regulations that we have to follow and we have to do those redeterminations every six months.”

Actually, the problem the secretary has is either ignorance or lying: federal law requires eligibility renewals only once a year, and in some states even a verbal statement regarding income is sufficient.

Alternatives to DPW’s current neglectful approach have been offered: What about following up with phone calls and multiple mailings to ensure that children weren’t improperly denied coverage? Or a moratorium on dropping kids from the program until DPW is certain it is adequately processing the renewals? Or at least halting six-month eligibility reviews of children with the most serious illnesses? All of these options are permitted under federal law.

Every proposal or idea has been rejected, and tens of thousands of kids remain virtually disappeared by the Corbett-Alexander approach to healthcare.

Pennsylvania Set to Eliminate Safety Net of Last Resort

“On Sunday, nearly 70,000 Pennsylvanians with disabilities will lose their sole source of income overnight,” legal aid lawyer Michael Froehlich of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia told me yesterday.

The sudden elimination of the “safety net of last resort”—the General Assistance (GA) program—is especially troubling when one considers who is currently eligible for it: disabled or sick adults without children; domestic violence survivors, many of whom have just fled abusers (lifetime benefit capped at nine months); adults participating in alcohol and other drug treatment programs (also capped at nine months); adults caring for someone sick or disabled, or an unrelated child; and children living with an unrelated adult.

In all, over 90 percent of recipients are temporarily or permanently disabled. The 68,000 people in the program—or just about one in every 200 residents—receive approximately $205 per month. Those funds enable many people to rent a room, pay for transportation to needed appointments, cover co-pays, or escape abuse. DPW estimates that eliminating the GA program will save the state $150 million annually.

According to Froehlich, when the GA rolls were trimmed in 1982, 1994 and 1996, people were provided sixty days notice. But this time “many people won’t find out until they go to withdrawal their money next week to pay their July rent.”

There are reports that the welfare office in Philadelphia is bringing in additional guards to protect staff on Monday.

Froehlich and Community Legal Services are part of PA Cares for All, a coalition of more than 100 organizations that initially fought to save the program and then offered an alternative proposal: eliminate GA assistance for approximately 40,000 people, but maintain it for 30,000 of the most sick and disabled; plus children, domestic violence survivors and people actively participating in drug and alcohol treatment programs. That plan would cost $42.l million annually, and allow an annual savings of $107.9 million.

“We’ve just tried every way we can to mitigate the harm,” said Froehlich.

The coalition has pressed its case on both moral and economic grounds. In a May 22 “Open Letter to Pennsylvania House and Senate Members,” the coalition writes: “No child should be homeless. In fact, no one should be homeless. People with disabilities and older adults should be able to live safely and with dignity. Women and children should be able to live free from violence, especially in their own homes.”

The coalition also argues that cutting the program makes absolutely no fiscal sense.

“The loss of General Assistance will be more expensive for taxpayers,” the letter reads, noting that if just 7 percent of current recipients enter the criminal justice system, $150 million in savings from eliminating the program will suddenly be a $9 million overall cost to taxpayers. If just 1 percent of current recipients end up in psychiatric hospitals the overall cost of eliminating the program will be $20 million; and if just 20 percent end up in homeless shelters that will mean a $23 million hit to taxpayers instead of any savings. (And the coalition projects that the number of current GA recipients turning to the shelter system will be much higher than 20 percent; people will quickly overwhelm the shelters, houses of worship and human services providers.)

According to Froehlich, the most frustrating part about this decision is that the resources are available if Governor Corbett or the legislature had any interest at all in preserving the program. In fact, the state just announced a $1.65 billion tax credit to Shell Oil over twenty-five years in order to bring an ethylene cracker plant to Western Pennsylvania. According to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, “the 400 permanent jobs at the plant will come at a hefty price to taxpayers, $165,000 per year per job, or $4.125 million per job over the 25-year life of the program.”

“And the administration’s saying we can’t come up with $42 million for our alternative proposal to help the very most vulnerable, most needy Pennsylvanians?” said Froehlich.

Froehlich has begun getting calls from clients who are asking, “What’s next? What are we going to do?”

“I don’t have an answer for most of them,” he said. “I got nothing.”

Poverty and Pride

Tomorrow is the last day of LGBT Pride Month: a time for individuals to be visible and out, and for a movement of LGBT and non-LGBT people to demonstrate that we’re here and not going anywhere. It’s also a time to reflect on the progress we’ve made and to recommit to the work that remains in order to achieve full equality.

Some of that work involves paying much more attention to LGBT folks living in poverty.

A report issued by the Movement Advancement Project, Family Equality Council, and Center for American Progress (CAP)—“All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families”—notes that there are now an estimated 2 million children being raised in LGBT families, and they are twice as likely to be poor than children of heterosexual married couples. The average household income for LGBT families with children is 20 percent less than heterosexual couples with children. LGBT families live in 96 percent of US counties, and same-sex couples in the South are more likely to be raising children than those in other regions of the country.

“It’s true, we actually don’t just live in California, New York and DC,” says report co-author Jeff Krehely, vice president of LGBT research and communications at CAP. “We live all across the country—some of us have kids, some of us don’t. We’re all races and ethnicities, and our earnings run the gamut. We basically reflect the diversity of this country.”

Krehely says that even national advocates sometimes fail to recognize LGBT diversity, and the demographics in the South are a great example of that. He suggests that a lower cost of living combined with less social mobility for low-income families might explain why so many LGBT families remain in a region “not exactly known for being welcoming to gay people or minorities.”

“But knowing these kinds of demographics isn’t just about thinking more accurately about LGBT realities,” says Krehely. “It’s about being more effective as an advocate and realizing, for example, if we say, ‘We’re not going to get marriage equality in Mississippi or Alabama anytime soon, so we’re not going to play in those states,’ well, then we’re leaving behind a lot of people—including some of very the people who are most in need, and most in need of our advocacy.”

At the heart of the economic struggles for LGBT families rich, poor, and in between, is what the report calls the “legal stranger” issue. In contrast to a child of a heterosexual couple, a child born to (or raised by) two LGBT parents “may have one parent deemed a legal stranger by law, threatening to undercut family permanency.” These children lack protection when their parents’ relationship dissolves or a parent dies; the relationship to his or her parents will be recognized in fewer than half of all US states; fear of a parent’s deportation hangs over the heads of too many children of bi-national, same-sex couples.

“Say one parent is here on a student visa or a work visa,” says Krehely. “The visa expires—that parent could be deported, taken away from his or her kids. It’s more than just heart wrenching. If that parent is the breadwinner—the family’s economic security is at stake. This all impacts the well being of kids when there is this kind of instability in terms of emotional support, love, being taken care of and being provided for financially and materially.”

The legal stranger definition also leads to difficulties accessing the safety net since benefits depend on “legal” household size and income. Cash assistance, health insurance, child care assistance, educational loans and other forms of assistance may not be available to LGBT families due to the narrow legal definition of family. LGBT families often can’t take advantage of the Child Tax Credit or Earned Income Tax Credit—both of which have a significant anti-poverty effect and ease the financial costs of raising children. Social Security and Survivors Benefits are denied if a non-recognized parent dies, even if the children were financially dependent on the parent, and even if the parents are legally married in their state; surviving same-sex spouses are also denied benefits.

“The legal stranger issue is something that most people who don’t know much about LGBT people can relate to,” says Krehely. “Everybody gets into positions where you rely on those relationships to help a family member in need. What would happen if that just didn’t exist for you? ”

Some of the recommendations the report makes include: recognizing LGBT families across safety net programs and providing equitable treatment in the tax code; passing parental recognition laws at the state level to fully protect children in LGBT families; legalizing and federally recognizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples; creating stronger support services for LGBT families, particularly families of color, low-income and transgender parents.

Pride Month is great, but there are eleven other months in the year that require the same kind of commitment if we are going to get the work done. You can get involved with the groups that authored this report, Immigration Equality, Half in Ten, and many others. Anti-poverty advocates also can ensure that the concerns of LGBT people are addressed in their ongoing work.

“This isn’t about ‘special rights,’” says Krehely. “It’s about leveling the proverbial playing field.”

The Supreme Court and Medicaid

When I heard the news about Chief Justice John Roberts’s big surprise for America I was just as excited as the next guy. But then I read that the Court struck down the formidable stick that the legislation provided the federal government to compel states to expand Medicaid. Suddenly, a good day for most Americans seemed—as usual—like a mixed bag or worse for the poor as decisions on Medicaid expansion would be left to the states (see Pennsylvania above for implications).

I tweeted—because I try to do that just like the young folks now: “not to be a buzz kill, but I think the #Medicaid decision potentially sucks for poor people. Fed gov loses stick to compel states to expand.”

Then I did what I should have done before I tweeted (which is why I used to avoid tweeting altogether) and surveyed people who know a hell of a lot more about this stuff than I do. Here are some observations from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for your consideration if you are still trying to figure out the implications:

“The typical state [Medicaid program] only covers working parents who make less than 63 percent of the poverty line ($12,790 a year for a family of three) and non-working parents with incomes below 37 percent of the poverty line ($7,063 a year). Only a handful of states provide coverage to any low-income adults without dependent children.… The Medicaid expansion would cover these poor and low-income adults by expanding Medicaid to 133 percent of the poverty line ($25,390 for a family of three). CBO assumed an additional 17 million adults would receive Medicaid coverage by 2022, as a result.… The federal government will bear nearly 93 percent of the costs of the Medicaid expansion over its first nine years.… Because the expansion is such a good deal for states, they should move forward and cover low-income adults in their states. But what happens in states that do not go ahead and provide coverage? The poorest adults—primarily parents and other adults working for low wages—will be left out in the cold.”
Judy Solomon, vice president for health policy, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

“The single biggest challenge may lie in the decisions that states make regarding health coverage for uninsured people living below the poverty line—primarily working-poor parents and other adults who work for low wages.… A state would have little basis for refusing to implement the Medicaid expansion, other than for narrow ideological reasons. But in any state that does refuse to implement the expansion, a shocking inequity will arise. People with incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of the poverty line will be eligible for subsidies to help them afford coverage in the new health insurance exchanges. But people below the poverty line will not be eligible, because the Affordable Care Act assumes they’ll be in Medicaid instead.”
Robert Greenstein, president, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of work lies ahead to make sure that the poor aren’t once again cut out of a good deal.

Houston Janitors (continued)

The story of Adriana Vasquez and 3,400 fellow janitors down in Houston continues to gain traction. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote about it in her weekly column for the Washington Post, and her tweet brought the story to the attention of NPR’s Here & Now. The Matthew Filipowicz Show also gave the story quite a bit of airtime.

This Sunday, civil rights activist and actor Danny Glover will visit the city to meet privately with a delegation of janitors. They will later be joined by faith and civil rights leaders at a news conference at 2 pm (Third Ward Multi-Services Center, 3611 Ennis Street).

“It’s magnificent. It’s great that an actor like Danny Glover cares about janitors—you just don’t see that very often,” Vasquez told me. “I hope this will bring further attention to the plight of janitors and working people in Houston and across the United States.”

Get Involved
Act Now to Support WIC


Welcome Home the Nuns on the Bus: Monday, July 2, 12–1 pm, United Methodist Building, 100 Maryland Avenue NE, Washington, DC. The Soul Sisters wrap up their nine-state, twenty-eight-city bus tour to call attention to the House Republican-passed Ryan budget and the damaging effects it would have on poor, vulnerable and struggling people throughout America. Help give them the welcome and thanks they deserve.

50 Years Since The Other America: Understanding & Addressing Poverty in the 21st Century: Tuesday, July 10, 9am – 5pm, The Newseum Knight Conference Center, Washington, DC. Leading researchers, practitioners, and journalists will assess how economic and policy trends are affecting poverty today, and will discuss promising new policies and strategies for lifting and keeping Americans out of poverty.

2012 Kansas Conference on Poverty: July 25–27, Hyatt Regency, Wichita, Kansas. I’ll be there and I’m honored to be speaking. But I’m also staying for the whole shindig, because I’m going to learn a lot from the people running this show, and so can you. The Kansas Association of Community Action Programs and the Kansas Community Action Network have their fingers on the pulse of poverty and what’s happening in the anti-poverty community. Plus Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, is keynoting. My opinion: through her thirty years of advocacy experience she’s pretty much like some sort of Jedi Master on all things poverty-related. It’s kinda scary.

Articles and Other Resources

EITC Encourages Work and Success in School and Reduces Poverty,” Jimmy Charite, Indivar Dutta-Gupta, and Chuck Marr

Children’s Share of Federal Budget Decreasing,” First Focus

Evidence Free Policy Decisions: Driving an Epidemic,” Dr. Deborah Frank

Homeless Families Turn to City for Help Hind No Rooms, Risk Child Welfare Inquiry,” Annie Gowen

Women Who Don’t Have Anything Close to ‘It All’,” Katrina vanden Heuvel

Faith Reflection on the May Jobless Numbers and Older Workers,” Interreligious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs

Cutting Food Stamps While Giving the Sugar Lobby Billions,” Zaid Jilani

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent of population.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 35 percent of Latino children.

Number of poor children receiving cash aid: one in five.

Poverty rate for people in female-headed families: 42 percent.

Single mothers with incomes under $25,000: 50 percent.

Single mothers working: 67 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population. Up from 12.6 million in 2000.

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

Americans with no income other than food stamps: 6 million, 2 percent of population.

Twice the poverty level (less than $44,628 for a family of four): 103 million people, roughly 1 in 3 Americans.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Quote of the Week

“Nothing like this in recent history.” —Pennsylvania resident and longtime advocate for children and families, on the state’s Medicaid debacle

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.comand follow me on Twitter.

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