We Have Blown a Huge Hole in the Safety Net

You can count on your fingers, and maybe a toe or two, the number of otherwise progressive public officials and policy experts inside the Beltway who want to talk about the gaping hole in our safety net for mothers and children.  Up to and including President Obama, the mainstream Democratic position on cash assistance for families with children is that we reformed welfare in 1996 and that the ensuing policy regime is a roaring success.

This is just plain wrong.

Lest I be immediately dismissed in what I am about to say (and the usual suspects will do so anyway), let me be clear that the main way to end poverty is jobs that result in a livable income, and the education necessary to get and keep those jobs.  The totality of strategies to reduce poverty also includes healthy communities and necessary services—including health and mental health services—child care, legal services, and more.  A discussion of welfare is not the same as a discussion of how to end poverty.

Whatever the facts were about the success of TANF in the flush times of the late 1990s...the recession exposed the utter bankruptcy of TANF as a public policy.

But one part of an antipoverty strategy is indeed a safety net.  And this is where people who should know better (or actually do) are averting their eyes.

Short history:  The old welfare system—Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, which existed from 1935-1996—needed to be reformed.  It did not work hard enough at helping people get jobs and become self-sufficient.  There were 14.3 million people receiving it when President Clinton was elected and that’s too many.

In 1996, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was enacted.  Just then, and quite unforeseen, the economy heated up and jobs became plentiful.   The welfare rolls plummeted and the number of never-employed single mothers obtaining jobs increased substantially.  But even then, because states had no legal obligation to grant benefits, about 2 out of 5 people who left welfare did not obtain jobs, and large numbers were turned away at the front door.

Beginning in 2001, the impressive numbers of single mothers at work began to go down, and now is nearly back to where it was before the 1996 law was passed.  But that didn’t mean that the TANF rolls went back up, because states did not extend benefits to those who were losing their jobs.  By the time the recession started, the TANF rolls were at 3.9 million.

TANF was absolutely useless as an antirecessionary tool.  Food stamps went up from reaching 26.3 million people to 48 million people, because there is a legal right to receive them.  TANF went from helping 3.9 million people to 4.4.million—and even reached fewer people during the recession in some states—because there is no legal right to assistance.

Here’s the bottom line: TANF is basically defunct in more than half the states and the percentage of children in poor families receiving cash assistance nationally has dropped from 68 percent to 27 percent.  In more than half the states, fewer than 20 percent of children living in poor families are receiving TANF.  Wyoming is the poster state.  About 600 people—4 percent of children living in poor families—receive cash aid in Wyoming.   Before 1996, with all of the faults in AFDC, the safety net at the bottom consisted of AFDC and food stamps combined.  The median income from welfare and food stamps combined was only half the poverty line, but there was a legal right to both.  No longer.

So, now 6 million people have incomes composed only of food stamps.  Stunning?  Who knew?  These are government figures and they have appeared on the front page of the New York Times.  A lot of people are averting their eyes.  Whatever the facts were about the success of TANF in the flush times of the late 1990s—and I think they weren’t so fact-based even then—the recession exposed the utter bankruptcy of TANF as a public policy.

This is enormously frustrating.  The minute the government gives someone a nickel we hear a chorus of aversion to handouts, a cacophony of complaints that these are people who do not want to work, a concert of disapproval of the character of anyone who would accept cash help (and now the disapproval extends to anyone receiving food stamps).

Of course we want to have a minimum number of people receiving cash assistance.  Of course we want to help mothers receiving TANF find work—and that help has to include child care assistance and health care coverage.  And we not only want to do those things well, which is not the case now, but we also need a safety net that is responsive to the individual problems and needs of the families it serves.  A properly designed cash assistance program for families with children would take into account the availability of work as well as the fact that recipients vary in their capacity to work.

It’s past time to acknowledge that we have blown a huge hole in our national safety net for the very most needy among us.  Shame on us.




Does Head Start Work? Wrong Question

It’s a tired debate born of selective reading and contrarian sound bites: Does Head Start work?

The research shows that it clearly does.  Decades of studies, including the most recent Head Start Impact Study, have found that at the end of Head Start, prior to kindergarten, the program shows wide-ranging positive effects on children and families from language and pre-reading abilities to parenting skills.  And even though Head Start dates back to 1965, the latest research has proven its creators right about many basic principles.

Since its inception, Head Start’s core has been a comprehensive approach to high-quality early education and a focus on the whole child—recognizing the importance of social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. Head Start children receive medical and developmental screenings and subsequent treatment for identified concerns. They receive regular medical and dental care. And their families receive parenting education, health education and support services connecting them to education and jobs. Current research tells us that this full array of services is what early education programs should offer to have a positive effect on vulnerable children.

Whether Head Start works isn’t close to the right question. Instead, we should ask why only a fraction of eligible children are being served.

But it’s not just the comprehensive approach that makes Head Start a leader.  Head Start’s rigorous quality standards and monitoring processes, commitment to serving children with disabilities, and leadership in serving children from diverse backgrounds all make it a model of a high-quality program and a foundational component of our early learning system.

Head Start’s history of evaluation, innovation, and self-improvement is just as extraordinary. It has been the subject of intensive research for five decades and much of what has been learned has been incorporated into the program through quality improvement.

Head Start has evolved over time in various ways to meet families’ needs for full-day or year-round programs or to respond to local community needs with innovative models. Program standards, monitoring, and professional development have all been revised based on research and evaluation. Most notably, the 2007 Congressional reauthorization of Head Start increased the focus on school readiness for children and established higher educational requirements for teachers. New assessment procedures require a review of teacher-child interactions, a critical component of any early education experience.

Drawing on this history, researchers have taken a careful look at what about Head Start works and what can be improved based on the findings of the recent national impact study and the broader Head Start research.

So why is there any debate at all regarding the effectiveness of Head Start?

The answer is simple—the impact study has been selectively mined for talking points.  The study found that right after leaving Head Start, children did better than their peers. It also found cognitive gains disappeared during the early elementary years. There are many possible reasons, including uneven quality in Head Start programs, uneven quality in elementary schools that poor children enter after Head Start, and the need for higher-intensity interventions than the 9-month Head Start program tested in the study. There is also much more to learn about how to sustain immediate gains for poor children over time.

Importantly, the study results do not necessarily mean that children won’t benefit later from Head Start. A robust body of research finds that while children in Head Start and other high-quality early education programs may lose immediate gains, they still experience improved outcomes later in life.  This is important:  the large payoffs to early education that researchers have found for high-quality programs in the form of increased education, employment, and earnings can happen even when there is no immediate evidence that children are doing better in school. Here too, we have more to learn.

As we deepen our understanding of the complexities of high-quality early education and its impacts, Head Start should continue its legacy of continuous quality improvement to respond to the needs of poor children. As with any program intended to advance outcomes for our children, we should learn and adapt as new research expands our knowledge base. But labeling the intervention a failure based on one study is neither sensible nor advantageous to preparing poor children for school, a goal that benefits everyone in the country.

But the biggest problem with the simplistic talking points framing the Head Start debate isn’t a selective reading of the research.  It is the distraction from what matters most:  the persistence of child poverty, which affects a quarter of our youngest children. The immediate impacts of Head Start are clear. We shouldn’t ignore or reject decades of reputable research.  Whether Head Start works isn’t close to the right question.  Instead, we should ask why only a fraction of eligible children are being served. Why, when we know what works, can we not make a significant investment to put a generation of young children in poverty on a better and brighter path?

It is our public will that we must question.




Reinvesting in Children 60 Years After Brown

On May 17, we celebrated the anniversary of a turning point in American education – a commemoration of the end – or so we hoped – of “separate but equal.” But even 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, disparities in educational opportunities throughout our country continue to result in vast economic inequalities.

On nearly every indicator that we use in the United States to measure progress, people of color are falling further behind. And it starts early.

A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children,” provides a national and state scorecard for how we are providing opportunities for children of color, using 12 indicators, such as percentage of children enrolled in preschool, high-schoolers who graduate on time, and number of children who live in low-poverty areas. There isn’t one minority group that’s meeting all of these benchmarks, and even middle-class families of color have a very tenuous hold on their economic status.

In addition, the recent data from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection show that we are exacerbating these disparities by essentially sending our children of color to schools that are not providing them with a high-quality education. For many of our children, schools become a pipeline into the criminal justice system. According to the data, Black students are suspended at much higher rates than White students, and the problem has become so pervasive and insidious that it extends to preschool. Despite representing just 18 percent of preschool children, Black children make up nearly half of all out-of-school suspensions in preschool.

This school-to-prison pipeline – one in which African Americans and Latinos are grossly over-represented – is in stark contrast to their under-representation in the higher education system, where the non-Hispanic White population is well ahead of other groups in ultimately attaining a college degree or more.

The economic inequalities we see resulting from these educational inequalities are frightening. The unemployment data released earlier this month by the Department of Labor – revealing continued job growth but stagnant wages – still show that Black and Brown people are having the hardest time riding out this lengthy economic recovery. The official unemployment rate for African Americans is more than double the unemployment rate for non-Hispanic Whites. The rate for Hispanics is lagging behind, too.

When the numbers of under-employed and discouraged workers are factored in, the crisis is even more severe for workers from every background.

With the foreclosure crisis, the financial crash, and the great recession, the inequalities of wealth have actually increased. As the Urban Institute reports, Non-Hispanic White families before the recession had about four times the wealth as non-White families, a figure that jumped to six times by 2010. Hispanic families lost 44 percent of their wealth – and Black families lost 31 percent of theirs – between 2007 and 2010. By contrast, White families lost just 11 percent of their wealth over the same period.

This broadening racial wealth gap is scary, as is the school-to-prison pipeline, and it won’t be solved overnight. But we can start by reinvesting in our nation’s children, who all deserve equal access to a quality education – one that doesn’t leave their economic future imperiled. The federal government has a number of options that it can pursue to address this crisis, including taking on a more robust role in guaranteeing the right to education; greater and more equitable investment of resources in the public school system; and tougher enforcement of existing civil rights laws. Taken together, such actions would do much to improve the lives of our children, both now and in the future.

Sixty years after Brown, it’s the least we can do.




‘Ain’t Got No Wiggle Room’

Poverty is everywhere. More than one in three Americans—106 million people—live below or perilously close to the federal poverty line. If you pick up a newspaper or magazine, turn on the radio or flip on the television, there are countless stories about poverty and income inequality. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are staking their claims to a national anti-poverty agenda. Republican presidential hopefuls like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio have suddenly taken up the issue. And six long years after the Great Recession, Democrats have finally embraced raising the minimum wage. The conversation about poverty is pervasive.

Yet, poverty is nowhere. The men, women and children who are part of the 106 million striving and struggling Americans are invisible and voiceless. They are invisible because the debate about poverty is swirling around them but does not actually include them. They are invisible because they are not recognized as people but rather as a condition or a problem. They are blamed rather than empowered. They are voiceless because they are locked out of the corridors of power where conversations about poverty are happening. At best, their stories serve as useful anecdotes that add color to the harrowing statistics.

It’s past time for people who are poor to tell their own stories so that we can then have a real conversation about what actually contributes to economic success or failure in America.

Pina Orsillo Belgrano has one of these low wage jobs that keeps her struggling. Pina, 58, is a single mother in Seattle who worked as a restaurateur, travel agent and a real estate agent in 2008 until the economy tanked and she lost those jobs. The only job Pina could find was a $12 an hour job in the hotel industry. Pina does not earn enough money to protect her home from being foreclosed.

Pina is unfortunately among the millions of people living in a society where the economy no longer allows them to afford the basics. We have the answers to solve these problems but there is a deep misalignment of power in our society that is preventing us from seeing it and getting there. That must be our north star; building power among people who don’t have it.

And that’s why the Center for Community Change Action (CCCA) is rooting our economic justice campaign in conversations with people who are living on the brink so we can hear how they define their situation and how we can make our economy fairer for everyone.

There are positive signs.  The WASH New York campaign clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of building a movement. After more than a decade of grassroots organizing, the New York carwash campaign helped carwash workers, who are paid less than minimum wage with no additional pay for overtime, fight their way out of poverty. These workers, with the strong support of community organizations, joined together to demand better pay and working conditions.

No one thought they had a chance. The owners are too big, too spread out, and there are too many of them, the workers were told.

These “carwasheros” didn’t let the naysayers stand in their way. Because of their efforts, they now have higher wages, increased job security, posted job schedules and paid leave. They built a movement and they won.

Luis Rosales, who worked at one of the big car washes in Queens for more than five years said, “This is going to be a great change for our car wash. More importantly, we were able to show other workers that it makes sense to fight and win what seemed impossible.”

And now that the city of Seattle has a compromise deal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, the highest minimum wage in the nation, people like Pina will earn more. With the extra money, Pina will be able to meet the income requirements to receive a loan modification so she can stay in her home.

CCCA is working with local partner organizations to raise the quality of jobs (including wages, benefits, and working conditions); ensure that low-income workers and job seekers have a fair shot at those jobs; and reduce barriers to employment that currently deny opportunities for people who have been incarcerated.

Sounds too lofty? Look at what people in America have accomplished when they banded together: equal rights for women, civil rights, child labor laws, voting rights.

In Youngstown, Ohio—a city that was hard hit by the recession and has been battling to come back ever since—I heard one of the best summaries of why we need this movement for good jobs right now. An African American man, Willis, said, “That’s poverty to me…where you ain’t got no wiggle room to enjoy life.”

The rich shouldn’t be the only ones with wiggle room. That’s why we’re building a movement with Willis, with Luis, with Pina. This is the only way we will create an economy that is just and fair for all Americans—especially for those who are paid less than what it takes to get by. And it’s the only way poverty will truly be nowhere.



First Person

A Parent’s Income Should Not Determine a Child’s Future

Childcare is one of the most important issues facing parents today. I know the struggles to find affordable, quality childcare firsthand. I am the mother of two beautiful children, Asyiah, age 6, and Tasir, age 5. My children are amazing, and, just like any other parent, I want to be able to give them the best opportunities in life. I know that for them to succeed, education is key. I have worked hard and tried my best to give them their best chance of success. Despite my efforts, the sheer cost of care for my son—care that would prepare him for school—has become unaffordable.

Until recently, my son attended a childcare program that he and I loved.  He was given instruction and pushed to learn more.  He attended the same program his sister did and has been there since shortly after birth.  Being at the same center gave my son a sense of stability and security that allowed him to excel.  I am a proud mother and I love to talk about how smart my kids are.  I believe that is partly a result of the quality of the care and instruction they have received starting at an early age.

Unfortunately, due to financial reasons, Tasir had to leave his childcare center at the end of the fall.  I lost my job and had to rely on cash assistance to make ends meet but I lost my subsidy that helped to pay for childcare.  It broke my heart to have to move my son from the care he loved and relied on simply because I could not afford it.  Losing my job and then my subsidy not only cost me but it has cost my son.

The loss of the childcare subsidy is not only a snowball effect from a lost job, but it is also an obstacle to getting any other job.

I have seen the benefits of high quality childcare in the education of my daughter.  Asyiah is a smart girl. She wants to learn and do well at school.  I believe this is a result of the instruction and stable care she received in the first years of life.  She has a strong foundation to build upon.

Since losing our childcare subsidy, my son, Tasir, has had nowhere to go. For four months I have been piecing together care with a network of relatives and neighbors while I looked for work.  I know I am lucky to have people to care for my son – otherwise I have no idea how I would be able to find work again.  The loss of the childcare subsidy is not only a snowball effect from a lost job, but it is also an obstacle to getting any other job.  Without care for my son how am I able to find a new job?  It is a vicious cycle that too many families are stuck in.

While I am grateful that Tasir is safe and fed with my relatives and friends, this is not the stable care he was accustomed to and he’s not learning anything.  At his old childcare center, Tasir engaged with children his age and learned new things each day.  Now I am just focused on making sure he is safe.  I want him to excel but right now our situation is not giving him any tools to help him prepare for school next year.   My son cannot redo these last few months. They will always be a time of lost potential.

I know the importance of early education.  I did not benefit from such programs and I do not want my kids to ever fall behind, or feel left behind.  No child should miss the opportunity to learn because his or her parents lack the money to afford it.  My daughter or son could be a doctor, lawyer, or even the next president of the United States, but without education, without a strong foundation, I fear they will not get there.  That my struggles could impact my children’s future keeps me up at night.

Today, I am happy to say that I have a new job.  Ironically I am now working at a childcare center.  With my new job I am hopeful that I will be able to get my subsidy back and be able to afford care for my son.  But there is no guarantee that I can get my son back in the same program, meaning this disruption in his life might be permanent.

No child should be prevented from reaching his or her potential because the caregiver lacks the funding.  I hope that by sharing my story, I can show the need for high-quality, affordable childcare for all families. Asyiah, Tasir and all children deserve the opportunity to reach their potential.