A homeless family at the DC Village shelter. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

More than one-third of Americans who use shelters annually are parents and their children. In 2011, that added up to more than 500,000 people.

According to Joe Volk, CEO of Community Advocates in Milwaukee, prevalent family homelessness is no accident.

“In 2000, we as a nation—and the Department of Housing and Urban Development—made the terrible decision to abandon homeless children and their families,” said Volk, speaking at a Congressional briefing on The American Almanac of Family Homelessness, authored by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. “Families for a decade have been ignored.”

As the Almanac makes clear, federal attention and resources have focused instead on chronically homeless single adults—usually the most visible homeless people in communities across the country, most of whom have severe intellectual or physical disabilities. There was a recognition that it is far less expensive to place these men and women in their own apartments with access to social services—called the “Housing First” model—than to continue paying the long-term costs associated with jail time, and recurring treatment at emergency rooms and hospitals.

The federal government’s plan was to use the savings gained by reducing homelessness among single adults to fight family homelessness. But that hasn’t happened.

Since 2007, there has been a 19 percent decline in chronically homeless single adultsIn contrast, family homelessness has increased by more than 13 percent over the same period. Matthew Adams, principal policy analyst for ICPH, noted that the number of homeless school-aged children surpassed 1 million for the first time during the 2011-12 school year—a 57 percent increase since 2006-07.

“This is basically all a result of focusing our fiscal and human capital solely on single adults,” said Adams. Despite a rise in extreme poverty, a decline in affordable housing, a shortage of rental subsidies, high unemployment and a foreclosure crisis, this strategy hasn’t changed—with the exception of provisions in the Recovery Act that are now expired.

While the long-term costs of family homelessness are more difficult to quantify than are those costs associated with single adult homelessness, they are nevertheless significant and real (costs to the nation’s character aside).

The Almanac explores the toll that housing instability, poor nutrition and lack of quality health care takes on homeless children: they experience twice the rate of chronic illnesses; twice the rate of learning disabilities; and three times the rate of emotional or behavioral problems as their peers who have stable housing. Homeless children have less than half the rate of proficiency in math and reading as their housed classmates. It’s not surprising that less than one in four homeless children graduates from high school—what’s surprising is that that one child manages to graduate at all.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act is supposed to ensure that all homeless students have equal access to education. But despite the dramatic rise in homeless students since 2006, only one in five school districts receives education assistance grants to help them.

To the extent that family homelessness is on the federal government’s agenda at all—and there is a federal goal to end family homelessness by 2020 (the goal for ending single adult and veteran homelessness is 2015)—there is real concern among many advocates that HUD is attempting to use the “Housing First” approach to help homeless families. Although they agree that it has shown success with single adults, these advocates argue that it simply isn’t the right solution for many—or even most—homeless families.

“It’s a whole different dynamic for families,” said Volk, who operates shelters and permanent housing for both single adults and families.

Volk said that an intellectually or physically disabled homeless single adult is usually able to qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is $770 per month in Wisconsin. That stable income is sufficient to rent a fully furnished apartment with utilities paid in his state. 

In contrast, a single mother must apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which in Wisconsin is $653 per month no matter the size of the family. She then must meet a work requirement, arrange for child care, buy furniture and pay for utilities, among other challenges. If her child is sick and she stays home from work, she is sanctioned by the TANF program. She might lose her $653 assistance, consequently fall behind on rent and begin her slide towards homelessness again.

Dona Anderson, director of ICHP, said there is way too much emphasis on getting families out of shelters quickly, rather than making sure they don’t return to the shelter again.

“What could we do if we could serve families in a dedicated, serious fashion for 12 to 24 months? And really address those education barriers, employment barriers, really get these families stabilized so that once they leave a shelter we don’t see them coming back?” said Anderson. “Can we address those deeper-seeded needs rather than just the initial crisis that brought them to the shelter?”

Volk agreed.

“We’re moving people out of shelters too fast and then we wonder why they don’t succeed,” he said. “They don’t succeed because we didn’t give them enough time and enough support before they moved out. We need to rethink how we work with homeless families.”

Anderson spoke of a 16-year-old in New York City who was homeless in junior high school. He lived in a shelter “targeted for him” and was able to participate in a high quality after-school program, residential summer camp, and a youth employment program. He’s now a successful student who is looking at colleges. In contrast, she met a 4-year-old homeless child in Las Vegas who has no access to a shelter, and is bouncing between motels and hotels with his father, getting by on a fast food diet. He lacks the stable environment “that kids that age especially need in order to develop and grow and be ready for school.”

“I tell these stories to illustrate the differences in how children are served, and how they aren’t served, when they are experiencing homelessness,” said Anderson.

The Almanac includes recommendations for what the 113th Congress can do for homeless families now, including: converting the mortgage interest deduction into a tax credit—as proposed under the Common Sense Housing Investment Act—in order to permanently fund The National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) and support Section 8 rental assistance. (The NHTF was enacted by Congress in 2008 to increase the supply of affordable housing units, but it has never been funded.) There are now just 3.7 million housing units for every 10 million extremely low-income renters. Another key recommendation is to implement the reforms laid out in the Improving Access to Child Care for Homeless Families Act—pretty fundamental for homeless parents to have access to child care if they are going to find stable housing and jobs.

But the first step—the big step—seems to be this: see the problem of family homelessness, admit it and commit to doing something about it. And don’t for a second believe that working with a single adult is the same thing as working with a family with so many moving parts. 

“We can solve the problem of people living on the street for both singles and families at the same time,” said Volk. “It doesn’t have to be an either/or, and it can’t be—as long as we have children that have to live out on the streets.”

TANF: A Good News Story From the States

Guest post by Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—the program created by welfare reform in 1996—is a flexible block grant, meaning that while the federal government sets some general rules, states have been given an enormous amount of control, both over the ways that they spend the federal funds they receive and over the rules that they set for families receiving TANF cash assistance. This flexibility results in an enormous amount of variation from state to state.

Most of the time, when I see an article about a state legislative proposal that affects TANF cash assistance, it’s about something bad that is happening. Outrage drives people to forward the article to their friends, to press the share button or to retweet. This is helpful—for example, the public outrage over the Tennessee proposal to punish families for children’s failure at school by cutting benefits led to the sponsor withdrawing the bill. But the good things that some state legislators are trying to do in TANF don’t always get as much attention. So, this week, I’m highlighting some of the positive developments in the states.

Asset limits: Many states have rules denying cash assistance to families who have modest levels of savings. These rules are outdated, as the low benefit levels, stringent work requirements, and time limits on benefits are sufficient to ensure that families won’t apply for TANF unless they really need the help. Moreover, these rules add to administrative costs and discourage low-income families from developing the habit of saving. In recognition of this fact, Hawaii acted this legislative session to eliminate the TANF asset limit. A California bill to exclude the value of a car from the asset limit has cleared the Assembly Human Services committee.

Family caps: Early in welfare reform history, a number of states adopted “family cap” policies, under which children who are presumed to have been conceived while the parents were receiving cash assistance are denied benefits. These caps were created to eliminate the presumed “incentive” that some felt was driving families to have more children so their cash benefits would increase. This policy has never been shown to reduce family size, but does increase child poverty and hardship among some of the most vulnerable families. The California Assembly Human Services committee has cleared a bill to repeal the family cap (known as the “maximum family grant” in California) and provide benefits to currently excluded children. This legislation is supported by a partnership of anti-poverty organizations and groups that oppose abortions.

Employment and training: The most reliable way to help families escape poverty is through employment in good jobs. However, many states spend only a small fraction of their TANF funds on employment and training programs. Massachusetts is considering amendments to the budget bill that would create and provide $2 million in funding for a “Pathways to Family Economic Self-Sufficiency” Pilot program to support a range of education and training activities related to gainful employment, including paid work-study positions, plus supportive services such as case management, job placement assistance, career counseling and funding to help with emergency needs. The Nebraska legislature is considering a bill that would use existing TANF funds to create a subsidized employment program, modeled after those created under the TANF Emergency Fund that infused federal stimulus funds into TANF during the depths of the Great Recession. This would give employers opportunities to bring on additional employees to help their businesses grow, using wage subsidies that would phase out over time, following the model that Mississippi’s STEPS program used under the Emergency Fund. Low-income workers would earn wages while acquiring valuable real work experience.

We know that when negative bills related to TANF are passed in one state, the next year there are sure to be copycat bills in other states. Hopefully, there will be a new crop of positive bills springing up this year and next, and that many of them will become law and lead to cross-pollenization of similar positive bills in other states.

Elizabeth Lower-Basch is the Policy Coordinator at CLASP, the Center for Law and Social Policy. CLASP seeks to improve the lives of low-income people by developing and advocating for federal, state and local policies to strengthen families and create pathways to education and work.

Banks Got Nowhere to Run to, Baby: From Boise to Salt Lake City

You can’t really talk about poverty and rebuilding wealth without talking about the practices of the big banks—from predatory payday lending, to unnecessary or even illegal foreclosures, to borrowing money at zero percent interest from the Federal Reserve and then lending it to state and local governments at much higher rates, all while lobbying to avoid paying taxes.

That’s why I thought the alliance between activists from Idaho, Minnesota and Oregonall coming together to challenge US Bank at its shareholder meeting in Boise this week—was so important. On Tuesday, they called on US Bank to pay its fair share in taxes; write-down mortgages to help stem the foreclosure and underwater mortgage crisis; and end payday loans with exorbitant interest rates. 

“We’re standing with the people of Idaho and folks across America who want US Bank to do the right thing,” said Rob Sisk, president of SEIU 503 and a groundskeeper at the Oregon State Capitol. “We want US Bank to stop predatory lending, whether it be to individuals or our state and local governments. US Bank needs to pay its fair share in taxes to fund critical services.”

Some of the activists who came from Oregon, Minnesota and Idaho to take action at the US Bank Shareholders Meeting in Boise. (Credit: SEIU 503)

Inside the shareholders meeting, a case was made for comprehensive foreclosure legislation that would: require banks to assign struggling homeowners a single point of contact; ban the practice of “dual tracking” where the bank is working with the homeowner on a solution while also pursuing a foreclosure; and create a mediation program to bring banks and homeowners together to discuss alternatives to foreclosure.

“A US Bank customer shouldn’t have to buy a share and drop everything to go to a shareholders meeting and demand to be treated fairly,” said Eric Fought, communications director of Minnesotans for a Fair Economy. “These banks hope that no one will fight back and for too long that was the case. In Minnesota and throughout the country, we’re making sure those days are over.”

US Bank had moved its shareholders meeting from Minneapolis—home of its corporate headquarters—to Boise, because activists dominated the meeting in Minnesota last year, too. This Tuesday, Wells Fargo will attempt to hide out in Salt Lake City after thousands of protesters descended upon its shareholders meeting in San Francisco last year.

The courageous people participating in these actions aren’t waiting on change to come from Washington—they're leading change and calling on us to join them.

How Does Congress Vote on Poverty?

Yesterday, the Sargent Shriver National Center of Poverty Law released its sixth annual Poverty Scorecard for the year 2012, grading every Member of Congress on his or her voting record in fighting poverty.

“Congress made few strides in reducing poverty last year,” said Dan Lesser, Director of Economic Justice at the Shriver Center. “It’s our hope that by sharing these grades and holding lawmakers accountable, the Shriver Center will help to spark a legislative environment that has low-income families’ best interests in mind.”

The Poverty Scorecard evaluates votes on legislation that would have had a strong impact on the US poverty level—which now stands at more than 46 million people living on less than about $18,000 for a family of three.

According to the Shriver Center, in 2012 the only significant legislation from an anti-poverty perspective that was passed by Congress and signed into law were the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act and the American Taxpayer Relief Act. All other legislation that would have made a significant contribution in the fight against poverty was killed.

It is worth noting that members with worse grades in the fight against poverty tend to come from states with higher levels of poverty; members with good grades tend to come from states with lower levels of poverty.

700 Disability Advocates on the Hill

On Wednesday, nearly 700 disability advocates—including individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities—fanned out across Capitol Hill to meet with members of their congressional delegations. They spoke about issues that are vital to their security and well-being, and ability to participate in our economy and society, including: Medicaid and Community Living, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, employment and education, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the ABLE Act.

“As we continue our efforts to protect Medicaid, Social Security and other important programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, nothing is more powerful than the personal stories shared by our advocates on the Hill,” Marty Ford, director of The Arc’s Public Policy Office, told me. “They make a huge impact on their Members of Congress, and their efforts over the last two years have helped us save these lifeline programs.”

You can get involved helping to promote and protect the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities here.

Featured Campaign: Tell Wendy’s to Stop Profiting From Farmworker Poverty

Wendy’s seems content to continue profiting from farmworker poverty.

While five of the biggest fast food companies have signed onto the Coalition of Immokalee Worker’s (CIW) Fair Food Program—a historic partnership among farmworkers, tomato growers and eleven leading food corporations to advance the human rights and dignity of farmworkers—Wendy’s continues to refuse.

By adding a penny-per-pound to the price of tomatoes that they buy from Florida, participating companies have paid over $10 million since January of 2011 to help increase farmworkers’ incomes, and their commitment to buy Florida tomatoes only from growers who participate in the Fair Food Program has turned their immense purchasing power into a tool to eliminate human rights abuses in the fields.

Of the five largest fast-food corporations in the country—McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, Taco Bell (Yum Brands) and Wendy’s—Wendy’s is the only one refusing to participate in the program.

The fast food chain claims that it doesn’t need to sign onto the Fair Food Program because it is part of an “independent non-profit purchasing cooperative.” Unfortunately, the corporation has run up against the investigative prowess of CIW—which has helped the US Department of Justice successfully prosecute six cases of farm labor servitude in Florida over the past 15 years. It’s clear that Wendy’s purchasing entity is neither “independent,” in any real sense of the word, nor even remotely adequate as an alternative to CIW’s Fair Food Program—which just last week was recognized by the White House as “one of the most successful and innovative programs” in the world to prevent and uncover modern-day slavery.

Tell Wendy’s that dealing squarely with farmworkers is far more important to you than eating square hamburgers—get involved here.

Get Involved

Demand a Higher Minimum Wage Now

New Revenues, Not Cuts, for Economic Growth

Week of Action: Confront the Corporate 1 Percent

#TalkPoverty & Take Action on Sequestration


Ending Hunger Through Citizen Service: Free Training Conference (Saturday, April 20, 9:00 AM–1:30 PM, Barnard College, New York, NY). The New York City Coalition Against Hunger is working to fundamentally change the way people think about volunteering to fight hunger from once a year food drives around the holidays to long-term, skills-based, high-impact work. As part of that effort, it is co-sponsoring this conference with Community Impact at Columbia University to offer training to area nonprofits, businesses, civic groups, senior citizen groups, religious congregations, government agencies, student and youth groups and concerned individuals on how to implement structured high impact volunteer activities to better meet the long-term food needs of low-income people. Register here, free and open to the public.

Market-Oriented Education Reforms’ Rhetoric Trumps Reality (Wednesday, April 24, 9:00–10:30 AM, Economic Policy Institute, 1333 H St NW, Washington, DC). A new report from the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education employs comparable, reliable data across three high-profile “reform” districts to gauge the impacts of these policies and compare them with other large urban districts. Overall, the results are not promising. A distinguished panel of education experts will discuss the report findings and their policy implications at the district, state and federal levels. RSVP here.

Leaning In With Child Care: A Discussion On Childcare Jobs And The Need For Quality, Affordable Care (Thursday, May 9, 12:00–1:30 PM, The Aspen Institute, One Dupont Circle, NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC). The next discussion in The Aspen Institute’s Working in America series, it will cover the challenges facing working parents in need of child care as well as ideas and policies for improving the quality of jobs in the early care and education industry. Moderated by New York Times economics reporter Catherine Rampell. RSVP here.

Featured Poverty Coverage: Yesterday’s Dropouts—Adult Education in DC

This five-part series by WAMU education reporter Kavitha Cardoza examines the struggles adults face long after they leave school without a diploma. Many This Week in Poverty readers might be particularly interested in the “Changes Coming To The GED Program” story, but all are worth taking the time to check out.

Clips and other resources (compiled with James Cersonsky)

Resurrecting Brownsville,” Ginia Bellafante

Questions and Concerns Over SEPTA’s Fare Hikes and New Payment Systems,” Jake Blumgart

Working Across the Aisle to Make Affordable Housing a Reality,” Christopher “Kit” Bond and Nan Roman

Bloomberg by the Numbers,” Alleen Brown

Hundreds of Working Families Converge on Capitol,” California Labor Federation 

Sequester Impact: April 10th-17th,” Coalition on Human Needs

Poverty Drove Women Into Kermit Gosnell’s Clinic,” Bryce Covert

Poll: Voters Back Paid Sick Days, Distrust Lawmakers,” David Damron

U.S. Near Bottom of List for Child Well-Being,” Economic Hardship Reporting Project

AFL-CIO’s Non-Union Worker Group Headed Into Workplaces in Fifty States,” Josh Eidelson

Raising San Jose’s Minimum Wage: A Q&A With Marisela Castro,” Equal Voice News

Pittsburgh nonprofits work to remove stigma attached to state ‘welfare’ agency,” Kate Giammarise

Chicago student: ‘Violence will never cease until we find a way to make money out of peace', Melissa Harris-Perry [VIDEO]

Reduce poverty to improve overall health,” Carly Hood

The United States of Inequality,” Moyers & Company [VIDEO]

The Gilded City: Struggling to Survive in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York,” The Nation

Collaborating to Improve TANF Resources for Families Experiencing Homelessness,” The National Center on Family Homelessness

VITA = tax simplicity = tax reform,” National Community Tax Coalition

Sequestration Effects: Cuts Sting Communities Nationwide,” Sam Stein and Amanda Terkel

Responsible Redevelopment: Protecting Renters in Changing Neighborhoods,” Margery Turner

Market-Oriented Reforms' Rhetoric Trumps Reality,” Elaine Weiss and Don Long

State employees say LePage pressured them to deny jobless benefits,” Christopher Williams

Sequester Stalemate Cuts Legal Aid, Child Care, Housing,” Brian Wong

Studies/Briefs (summaries written by James Cersonsky)

Depression in Low-Income Mothers of Young Children: Are They Getting the Treatment They Need?” Marla McDaniel and Christopher Lowenstein, Urban Institute. Maternal depression is linked to a host of children’s developmental issues. This report parses the relationship between depression and income. In the past year, 8.8 percent of low-income mothers with children ages 0 to 5 had a major depressive episode, compared to 6.8 percent of higher income mothers. Among those affected, 69.7 percent of low-income mothers experienced severe interference with their daily life, compared to 53.5 percent for their higher income counterparts. Disparities in treatment make matters worse: 37.3 percent of low-income mothers reported no treatment, compared to 25.3 percent of higher income mothers. Among low-income mothers, insurance status widened the gap further: 49.4 percent of uninsured mothers received no treatment, compared to 33.1 percent of those with insurance. Finally, even those who do receive treatment face a variety of barriers that could make the treatment less effective. Medicaid expansion and streamlining stipulated by the Affordable Care Act, the report argues, offer some hope.

2013 Fair Housing Trends Report: Modernizing the Fair Housing Act for the 21st Century,” National Fair Housing Alliance. This report explores the scope of ongoing housing discrimination. Forty-five years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, landlords can’t legally discriminate on the basis of race or sex, or against people with disabilities and families with children. Nonetheless, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is still legal in 29 states, and on gender identity in 34. Only 12 states have protections against discrimination on the basis of tenants’ source of income. In 2012, a total of 28,519 complaints were investigated by HUD, the Department of Justice, state and local government agencies or—in 69 percent of these cases—private, nonprofit fair housing organizations. The data reveal the need for a stronger, more inclusive Fair Housing Act: complaints on the basis of source of income went up 38 percent since 2011; sexual orientation, 43 percent; marital status, 63 percent; and gender identity and expression for the first time.

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.

Quote of the week

“In Columbia, [South Carolina] many of our shelters won’t accept males over age 13. So if a family has an older, male child, than shelter may not be an option. So maybe a mother decides to stay in the home and put up with the physical and emotional abuse a little bit longer until she can figure out some other strategy.”
—Deborah Boone, McKinney-Vento Coordinator, Richland County School District One, Parents and Students Succeed Project. 

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 on Sundays at Moyers & Company. You can e-mail me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter.