Workers march in front of a Miami-Dade courthouse under construction to protest stolen pay. (AP Photo/J. Pat Carter)

If the Florida House Republicans have their way, here is what the state’s workers would stand to lose: paid sick leave, a living wage, wage theft protections and equal opportunity benefits (for same sex couples, for example).

That’s because an assortment of bills—including one introduced by House Majority Leader Stephen Precourt that would nullify nearly all of these pro-worker policies—would pre-empt local ordinances and leave it up to the state to implement (or not) any of these measures. Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm writes that these bills were “ghost written by special-interest lobbyists.”

It would mean the end of the fourteen-year-old Miami-Dade County living wage ordinance. A new anti-wage theft law that passed just last month in Alachua County would be nixed. The paid sick leave initiative that 52,000 Orange County residents got onto the ballot for 2014—gone.

“What makes it all even more ridiculous is that we have no state-level Department of Labor,” said Jeanette Smith, director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice (SFIWJ). “So even if the legislature did pass any worker protection laws—which they aren’t—who is going to enforce them? All they are doing is lessening the rights that are currently there for workers.”

The timing of this smackdown on working Floridians couldn’t be worse. A new report from the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Florida International University indicates that more than 23 percent of the state’s residents live in poverty, with children 1.5 times more likely than adults to live below the poverty line of approximately $23,000 for a family of four.

How this all plays out in the legislature is still up in the air and might be determined today—the last day of the session. Bill authors have carved out exceptions to the wage theft pre-emption for Miami-Dade (which has recovered $600,000 in lost pay since 2010) and Broward counties, but not for Alachua County. This is especially strange since the companion bill in the Senate was introduced by freshman Senator Rob Bradley, who represents Alachua. Smith said that the Alachua County Commissioners and their staff have spoken out against the pre-emption—even in Senate hearings—but Bradley hasn’t backed down.

“I’m sure he’s representing someone in Alachua but it’s apparently not the county or the workers,” said Smith.

If Bradley’s bill clears the Senate, the pre-emption of local wage theft laws is a done deal—and that’s a big deal, because prior to the county ordinances, workers effectively had no place to turn for help.

“If the bill passes, we have to flood the small claims court system which would now be responsible for addressing this, and let them see the depth of the wage theft problem,” said Smith.

Majority Leader Precourt’s anti-worker bill was made a tad (but just a tad) less anti-worker in the Senate—with local ordinances for a living wage, paid sick leave and equal opportunity benefits permitted for government employees and contractors (tough luck for all other workers). Initially, Precourt insisted that the House wouldn’t pass the bill if it included the exceptions for these workers. According to Smith, the hope was that Precourt’s determination to keep the state from joining the twenty-first century might be Floridian workers’ best hope, as a number of Senate Republicans would be reluctant to follow his totally regressive path.

But late yesterday, the House passed the Senate’s version of the bill. That means, as of today, there is no possibility of local pro-worker laws for wages, paid leave and equal benefits except for government employees and contractors.

“This is a huge undermining of local control,” said Smith. “The House wanted to make it so local governments couldn’t even set standards for their own [employees and contractors], but at least we beat that. Now local governments just can’t say anything regarding the private companies in their areas—which is bad enough.”

The verdict is still out on the legislation pre-empting local wage theft laws. There is hope that the bill might be dead, but advocates won’t know for sure until the session ends today.

“No matter which way this goes, we need to band together and recognize that this is all about a voting process, and getting people in there who represent our interests,” said Smith. “Too many people still don’t recognize that, and they don’t know until the deed is done what’s been taken away from us.”

California’s Homeless Bill of Rights

Last week the California Assembly’s Judiciary Committee passed AB 5, The Homeless Bill of Rights, by a vote of 7 to 2. At a time when homelessness is increasingly criminalized, this is an important step towards helping people instead of punishing them for not having a home. Advocates overcame strong opposition to the bill, in part through a grassroots movement of homeless and poor people that mobilized hundreds of people to rally and lobby the Democratic members of the committee.

There are now approximately 160,000 men, women and children who experience homelessness in California on a daily basis, about 20 percent of the nation’s total homeless population. The state ranks second worst in the number of homeless children, and third worst in the percentage of children who are homeless, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. A 2011 US Conference of Mayors report attributed the rise in homelessness across the nation—despite the recovering economy—primarily to unemployment and a lack of affordable housing, in that order.

Yet the response by political leaders in California and other states hasn’t been a sympathetic one—it’s largely been to prosecute those who are struggling.

A report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty notes that criminalization of homelessness has taken many forms, including: enactment of laws that make it illegal to sleep, sit or store personal belongings in public spaces of cities without sufficient shelter or affordable housing; selective enforcement against homeless people for violating seemingly neutral laws like loitering, jaywalking or open container ordinances; sweeps to drive homeless people out of areas—which often results in the destruction of their personal property, including medications and personal documents; punishing people for begging or panhandling; and restricting groups from sharing food with homeless people in public areas.

“What cities and counties are doing right now to respond to homelessness isn’t helping, it’s making the problem worse,” said Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, another cosponsor of the legislation.

In contrast, some of the measures proposed in the Homeless Bill of Rights include the creation of hygiene centers with bathrooms and showers; allowing people to rest, sit or sleep in public spaces; access to counsel during civil prosecutions; and protecting people who offer food in public places. It would also instruct local governments to track laws and arrests that target homeless people and report them to the district attorney.

“This bill is really about basic justice,” said Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, who authored the bill. “People who are homeless not only have to struggle with life on the street, [but] the indignity of being treated like criminals because they have nowhere to eat, sit or sleep except in public.”

Bartholow was particularly moved by testimony from homeless people from Los Angeles who were woken up and arrested at 6:02 am due to a law against sleeping in public past 6. Another disabled woman in a wheelchair had lived on the same street corner for many years and been arrested more than a hundred times.

“Not for committing a crime, not for blocking a street or sidewalk—just for sitting there in her wheelchair,” said Bartholow.

Bartholow said that too many homeless people also end up in jail because they can’t pay the citations they receive for sitting in a public space. “So they have to spend time behind bars, because they sat peaceably in a public space, because they have no private space to sit in,” she said.

The bill now goes to the Appropriations Committee, where costs will be considered for measures such as the hygiene centers, legal representation and reporting requirements of local jurisdictions. Bartholow said that advocates will look for ways to “ameliorate costs,” but that this bill is a critical step in changing how we address homelessness and poverty as a society.

“The greatest misconception about this bill is that it somehow makes things more dangerous by allowing people to rest in public places,” she said. “But the bill in no way protects malicious or antagonistic behavior, or blocking doorways or pathways. It protects people’s right to rest—which is a human need. People who don’t have a private space to do that need to be able to do that somewhere. And sometimes the only place available is a public space.”

You can follow the campaign to pass this bill here.

Child Care and No-Win Decisions

Guest post by Carol Burnett

In a recent article in The New Republic (“The Hell of American Day Care”), reporter Jonathan Cohn investigates what he describes as the “barely regulated, unsafe business of looking after our children.” Lax regulation leading to unsafe child care is indeed a critical issue that needs to be addressed; and so is the huge unmet need for affordable child care options for low-wage working parents.

Cohn acknowledges that the tragic example used as the frame for his article—a child care fatality—is relatively rare. But what is not at all rare—and what really gets to the root of the problem—is the heartbreaking, no-win choice the mother was faced with in trying to find child care that she could afford on her low wage.

Mothers across the country face this dilemma constantly. They too often work in jobs that don’t pay enough to meet a family’s basic needs. Or they want to work, or go to college for a shot at a better career, but can’t afford child care. Or the welfare work requirement forces them into low-wage jobs where they can’t afford child care.

Mothers with young children make up our nation’s poorest families. If they earn the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, that’s roughly $15,080 per year (though minimum wage jobs rarely provide full-time work because employers restrict hours to avoid paying benefits).

Wider Opportunities for Women developed the Self-Sufficiency Standard to calculate the wage a worker would need to earn in order to afford a family’s basic needs, based on the family’s size and geographic location. The tool shows that parents need to earn far more than a minimum wage, and if the family includes a young child or infant, the wage required is significantly higher due to the high cost of child care.

Our nation does have a child care assistance program that is supposed to help low-income working parents afford child care—the federal Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) block grant to states. This program is hugely helpful for the families it serves. Unfortunately, it only serves about 18 percent of eligible children, which means that 82 percent of eligible children do not receive the subsidy. Eligibility requires a parent to be both working and low-income. Waiting lists are swelling in every stat­­­­­­e—millions of parents wait for the child care they need in order to continue working.

What makes our lack of commitment to providing affordable quality child care for all families even more frustrating is that we know what children need for successful outcomes later in life. In fact, we know more than ever before about the kind of environment, interactions and experiences children need to support their cognitive, physical, social and emotional development.

We also know what working parents need. Other countries such as France provide examples of systems that provide quality care for children so their parents can work. And we have an example in our own country: the Military Child Care Act that transformed an abysmal child care system into a system that is the best in the nation.

If the need is so great, we know what to do, and the consequences of failing are so dire as illustrated by The New Republic article, then why haven’t we created a national system of quality child care for all working parents?

Polls show that Americans believe that child care is a parent’s personal responsibility and that there is no social obligation to help parents pay for it. The result of this prevailing opinion is that mothers buy the child care that they can afford: wealthier mothers are able to buy high quality care; poor mothers—mostly single mothers and women of color—usually cannot. Thus, a vicious cycle of inequity and inequitable outcomes continues.

In this country where all child care is financed with parent fees, child care providers struggle to cobble together resources to pay for their services. Where the ability of parents to pay is limited, providers barter with them, or serve families for free, or reduce rates. For the few families lucky enough to receive subsidies, the reimbursement rate to providers is low—four-fifths of states reimburse below the 75th percentile of the current market rate. Reimbursement is also unreliable—parents have to apply and re-apply frequently through an often cumbersome process. Even worse, states are whittling away at this already inadequate assistance. Erosions in payment are occurring at the same time that quality requirements are being ramped up, which might lead to even fewer affordable options for low-income families.

The child care subsidy program that is so critical to affordable services for working parents is bemoaned as lacking quality standards. But a system starved for revenue cannot enact quality improvements without more resources: increasing staff education levels requires increasing child care wages; enhancing the learning environment means buying more books and learning materials. Some states have initiated quality-rating systems, but in doing so they are often reducing the supply of direct child care services for low-income working parents in order to fund these efforts.

President Obama is proposing significant additional investments in our nation’s early childhood system: pre-k, Early Head Start, Head Start, the federal child care block grant to states, home visiting, 21st Century Learning Centers, etc. But these pieces of our system are like pieces of a puzzle: some parents qualify for some of these services, and some of these services are only available to serve some children some of the time. Parents and providers have to navigate all these fragments and try to piece them together into a seamless system of service.

While all of these investments are sorely needed—and President Obama should be commended for his proposal—if we truly want to solve the problems faced by low-income working parents, then we need a seamless system: one that provides the secure, quality care children need for good outcomes, at an affordable cost that allows parents to remain employed.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, has said, “No parent should have to choose between the child they love and the job they need.”

I couldn’t agree more. Until we build a system of affordable, quality child care for all families, we will continue to force parents into making no-win decisions.

Carol Burnett is the executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, a statewide organization of parents, providers and community leaders working together to improve the quality of child care for all of Mississippi’s low-income children.

Get Involved

Stand with Chicago fast food and retail workers!

Fix the Sequester Cuts for the Poor, Not Just Congressional Travel

Toolkit: #TalkPoverty & Take Action on Sequestration

Clips and other resources (compiled with James Cersonsky)

NYT Uses News Story to Express Dislike of Danish Welfare State,” Dean Baker

Workers Organize to Fight the ‘Part-Timeification’ Trend at Juicy Couture, Other Chains,” Sheila Bapat

Why Women and People of Color Keep Getting Shafted in the Growing Restaurant Industry,” Sheila Bapat

What Can Poverty Fighters Learn from Immigration Reform?” Deepak Bhagarva

Rural Unemployment Surpasses Urban Rate,” Bill Bishop

Farmworkers Dig Into the New ‘Blue Card’ Plan,” Michelle Chen

Sequester Impact: April 26-May 2,” Coalition on Human Needs

Amid ‘Obama Flight Delays’ And Deal Making, Sequestration’s Impact On The Poor Goes Ignored,” Bryce Covert

The Sequestration Myth,” Daily Show with Jon Stewart [VIDEO]

Courts’ Campaign to Squeeze Poor Debtors Goes Awry,” Daniel Denvir

Norristown ordinance encourages landlords to evict domestic violence victims says ACLU,” Daniel Denvir

Fast food walkout… in Chicago,” Josh Eidelson

Homeless advocates seek restoration of funding,” Kate Giammarise

The Bangladeshi Blood on America’s Hands,” William Greider

Small donors could change imbalance of power,” Bob Herbert

The Consequences of Long-term Unemployment for 4.6 Million Americans,” Richard Johnson

NPR & disability: Who pays for ‘public’ radio, & what ethics govern an age of venture philanthropy?” Jennifer Kates

How Pay Inequity Hurts Women of Color,” Sophia Kerby

Hope, Love and Strategy in the Time of the Zombie Apocalypse,” Stephen Lerner

Top 6 Policies to Help the Middle Class that Won’t Cost Taxpayers a Penny,” David Madland and Karla Walter

Criminalization of homelessness—local impact, global issue,” National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

Losing Ground: A Profile of Florida’s Families in Poverty,” Research Institute on Social & Economic Policy

City Report Shows More Were Near Poverty in 2011,” Sam Roberts

In era when small-town lawyers are vanishing, South Dakota tries subsidies,” Karen Sloan

All Work, No Pay,” Joseph Sorrentino

The California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program,” Aleta Sprague

Ohio and Macalester Sit-In, Chicago and Wittenberg Walk Out,” StudentNation

A California Town Bleeds From Sequestration’s Cuts,” Gabriel Thompson

The Coming Revolution in Public Education,” John Tierney

Retail and Fast Food Workers Strike in Chicago’s Magnificent Mile,” Micah Uetricht

Governor Cuomo and the Working Families Party: Eve of Destruction?” Katrina vanden Heuvel

School closings traumatize vulnerable children,” Julie Woestehoff

Building Health Communities With Fresh Produce,” Brad Wong

House GOP Plans Even Deeper Food Stamp Cuts,” George Zornick

Studies/Briefs (summaries written by James Cersonsky)

Less Than Equal: Racial Disparities in Wealth Accumulation,” Signe-Mary McKernan, Caroline Ratcliffe, Eugene Steuerle and Sisi Zhang, Urban Institute. Just how much has the racial wealth gap grown? For one, more than race-based income inequality. In 2010, the average income for whites was twice that of blacks and Latinos—roughly the same multiple as in 1983. Over that same period, the wealth gap has gone from five to six times more for whites than blacks and Latinos. One fault line in the persistent—and growing—wealth gap is age: in their early 30s, white families have 3.5 to 4 times the wealth of black families at the same age. In addition, the recession took an uneven toll: while white wealth declined by 11 percent from 2007 to 2010, it went down 31 percent for blacks and 40 percent for Latinos. For Latinos, this loss came largely from lower home values; for blacks, from shrinking retirement accounts.

An Uneven Recovery, 2009-2011,” Pew Research Center. Between 2009 and 2011, US Census data reveals, the mean net worth of the top 7 percent of households increased by 28 percent—while dropping 4 percent for the rest of the population. While the total sum of household wealth increased a whopping $5 trillion over this period, the entirety of that gain went to the top 7 percent. The imbalanced recovery is due, in part, to class-based differences in asset-holdings: wealthier households often have their assets concentrated in stocks and other financial holdings—which have rebounded handsomely—while others’ assets are more concentrated in their homes. To make matters worse for less wealthy households, the first two recovery years saw a drop in ownership of stocks and mutual fund shares from 16 percent to 13 percent.

Stuck: Young America’s Persistent Jobs Crisis,” Catherine Ruetschlin and Tamara Draut, Demos. For the younger population, the economic recovery has yet to arrive. Not only are 10.3 million 18 to 34-year olds currently unemployed or underemployed, but the economy would have to add 4.1 million jobs for young adults to return to pre-recession levels of employment. Youth unemployment is even more severe for people of color: 25 percent higher for Latino workers compared to white workers, and double for blacks compared to whites. Moreover, labor force participation for young workers was at its lowest point in 2012 in more than four decades. And 18- to 24-year olds who do have work languish in some of the lowest-paying industries: retail (20 percent of this population) and food service (also 20 percent). How even to begin remedying the youth jobs crisis? The report offers four proposals: a youth jobs corps; higher minimum wages; expansion of unionization and collective bargaining rights; and investment in community college and vocational training.

Sequestering Meals on Wheels Could Cost the Nation $489 Million per Year,” Jessica Schieder and Patrick Lester, Center for Effective Government. Under sequestration, the Meals on Wheels program is expected to lose an estimated $10 million this year. However, the net loss of this cut could be much greater. One reason is that the program allows seniors to stay at home rather than moving to nursing homes, which require greater funding from Medicaid per person. (Care funded through Medicaid is nearly three times greater for people in nursing homes than for those who stay in their own homes.) In total, the authors calculate, cutting $10 million in Meals on Wheels would hit taxpayers on the order of $479 million for the duration of this fiscal year.

Mandatory Drug Testing of Work First Applicants and Recipients Would Be Costly, Likely Illegal, and Ineffective at Identifying and Treating Drug Abuse,” Sabine Schoenbach and Tazra Mitchell, North Carolina Justice Center. North Carolina’s Work First program was started in 1996 to provide basic services, short-term training and small cash grants to low-income families. Not only is the program falling short on enrollment—between December 2007 and March 2013, state unemployment went up 4.2 percentage point, but Work First enrollment decreased by 17 percent—it’s now under attack from a new state bill that would require recipients to pass (and pay for) drug tests as a condition of applying. This brief details the policy’s wrongheadedness: the testing could cost the state upwards of $2.3 million; it likely violates the Fourth Amendment; and limitations common to blanket drug-testing mechanisms could render it ineffectual for its intended purpose.

Expect More: How Target Chooses to Shortchange Minnesota’s Communities of Color,” TakeAction Minnesota, Centro de Trabajadores en Lucha-CTUL, SEIU Local 26, ISAIAH and Minnesotans for a Fair Economy. Target is the fourth largest employer in Minnesota—and proud of its Minnesotan roots. As these groups argue, though, “There is a tremendous opportunity for Target to have a more diverse workforce—one that is paid a living wage with safe working conditions which would more honestly align with the company’s carefully crafted public image of giving back to the communities it serves.” Target’s problems are many: contracting abusive janitorial companies that have stolen workers’ wages; hiring discrimination; and actively shirking promises of job creation, in exchange for millions in public subsidies in the Twin Cities alone—and exemptions from Minneapolis’s municipal living wage. The report calls on Target to hire responsible, law-abiding contractors; adopt fair hiring practices; and deliver on its promises to create jobs in the metro-area Brooklyn Park, where it has fallen notably short.

Market-oriented education reforms’ rhetoric trumps reality,” Elaine Weiss and Don Long, Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. There’s great promise for students in rating teachers according to student tests, expanding charter schools (and therefore parental “choice”) and closing “failing” or under-enrolled schools—if you believe the billionaires, politicians and so-called reformers who will booster these policies at all costs (often, to their own financial benefit). The authors of this report rip the prevailing reform logic to shreds. Analyzing reams of quantitative and qualitative data from New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, they find the following: despite reports of success, test scores have increased less in these “reform” cities than in other districts; school closures don’t funnel students to better schools—or bolster student outcomes; and the majority of students who leave district schools for charter schools land in lower-performing environments. Instead, the authors argue, school reform should revolve around initiatives that tackle poverty and inequality of opportunity head on—for example, comprehensive childhood education in DC, college financial aid counseling in Chicago, school-based health clinics in Cincinnati, and Montgomery County’s (MD) range of holistic approaches to rating teachers and developing student programs and coursework.

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children. Poorest age group in country.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

People who would have been in poverty if not for Social Security, 2011: 67.6 million (program kept 21.4 million people out of poverty).

People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: roughly half.

Gender gap, 2011: Women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Gender gap, 2010: Women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Low-income families that were working in 2011: more than 70 percent.

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.

Percentage of entitlement benefits going to elderly, disabled or working households: over 90 percent.

Food stamp recipients with no other cash income: 6.5 million people.

Number of homeless children in US public schools: 1,065,794.

Annual cost of child poverty nationwide: $550 billion.

Mothers who are homeless as a direct result of domestic violence: 1 in 4.

Homeless mothers who will experience domestic violence at some point: over 90 percent.

Federal expenditures on home ownership mortgage deductions, 2012: $131 billion.

Federal funding for low-income housing assistance programs, 2012: less than $50 billion.

James Cersonsky wrote the “Studies/Briefs” and co-wrote the “Clips and other resources” sections in this blog.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again at Moyers & Company. You can e-mail me at and follow me on Twitter.