What We’re Reading this Week

Is it Friday already? Welcome back to “What We’re Reading this Week,” where we share 5 must-read articles about poverty in America that grapple with critical issues, inspire us to action, challenge us, and push us to see both problems and solutions from new angles.

Check out our top reads of the week:

Three Steps We Can Take to Solve Poverty, From Someone Who Knows Firsthand, by Tianna Gaines-Turner (Moyers & Company)

When my son was sick, I had to stay at the hospital with him, so I couldn’t go to work; my husband had to stay home with our twin babies, so he couldn’t work. Here’s the problem: neither of us had paid sick leave, so we lost hours on the job, and we lost pay, too. The result was we could not afford to pay our rent on time, nor our light bill. From there, we became homeless.

As to be expected, Paul Ryan’s most recent War on Poverty hearing included stale, demeaning rhetoric from some members of Congress about poverty. For instance, according to Representative Tom Rice of South Carolina, “the only way out of poverty is to be self-reliant and find yourself a job.” Lucky for the American people, we had a game-changer: Tiana Gaines-Turner, the first person actually living in poverty to testify. This week, our first-must read comes from Ms. Gaines-Turner, who published a list of policy recommendations to alleviate poverty that she had included in her testimony. As Gaines-Turner states, “It’s time to call in the experts. My family, my neighbors and people like me know the solutions.” We couldn’t agree more.  Her recommendations are comprehensive and strikingly commonsense, because they are informed by real experiences.

Want to hear more from Ms. Gaines-Turner about her experience testifying before the House of Representatives? Check out her interview with Melissa Harris Perry on MSNBC:


It is Illegal for Homeless People to Sit on the Sidewalk in More than Half of U.S. Cities, by Scott Keyes (ThinkProgress)

Criminalization is an ineffective approach for the simple fact that it does “nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness.” These laws do not provide housing to poor people, or help alcoholics with their disease, or provide childcare to struggling parents. They simply trap homeless people in a cycle that criminalizes their very existence.

In 9% of U.S. cities, it is against the law to share your food with a homeless person. Yes, you read that correctly. This is just one of many kinds of anti-homeless ordinances that have been cropping up across the United States in recent years. Keynes presents data from a recent National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty study that found sharp increases in laws criminalizing homelessness since 2009. These measures are not just cruel; they’re lousy policy. Keynes explains that tax payers spend millions of dollars each year to jail homeless men and women for “quality-of-life” offenses. As it turns out, this policy approach is three times more expensive than an alternative that actually addresses the root issue: giving the homeless a place to live.

Obama Should Set His Sights Higher, by Katrina vanden Heuvel (The Washington Post)

The U.S. government is the largest employer of low-wage workers in the nation, with the $1.3 trillion it spends on purchasing goods and services. The president, standing in the proud tradition of Roosevelt, could issue a Good Jobs Executive Order that would reward companies who pay their workers a living wage, allow them a voice at the workplace without having to go on strike, adhere to federal workplace safety and fair labor standards and limit the pay of their chief executives to some reasonable ratio to that of their average workers.

How should President Obama react to Republican threats to sue over his use of executive orders? According to vanden Heuvel, he should “double down and raise the stakes” by enacting a Good Jobs Executive Order, which could put 21 million Americans on the road to the middle class through measures like living wages. Vanden Heuvel contextualizes the need for a Good Jobs Executive Order by linking the historical decline of unions to today’s staggering inequality. Of course, she recognizes that low-wage worker protections will not come without furious pushback from corporate and conservative forces. However, vanden Heuvel asserts, “well-paid, productive workers aren’t simply an idle luxury; they are a vital necessity to any prosperous economy.”

Should Housing Policy Support Renters More? The Opinion Pages: Room for Debate (New York Times)

In many of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, buying a home again looks like a risky investment, and in places like Boston, Miami and Washington prices have risen enough that buying is no longer the bargain it seemed to be a few years ago. That perhaps explains why the American public is now divided on whether homeownership is a good long-term investment, and a majority now see homeownership as less appealing than it once was. Should housing policy be more balanced, supporting rental housing and homeownership on a more equal footing?

Smart housing policy is essential to our goal of cutting poverty in half in the next decade. Only when we have a secure home, are we able to truly thrive and benefit from other poverty-reducing measures like quality jobs and schools. Because housing policy debates can get complicated, this week’s New York Times Opinion feature is helpful in unpacking the tough issues. It features op-eds from six housing policy experts, each weighing in on a key issue—the fact that American housing policies disproportionately benefit homeowners over renters. As former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros writes, “About two-thirds of [federal] spending subsidizes home ownership, while just one-third supports affordable rental housing.” Sure, homeownership may be viewed as part of the “American Dream,” but it’s not the reality for many of us, especially low-income families. These conversations are essential in a time of skyrocketing rents and rising inequality, as critical programs like Section 8 are on the chopping block.

One Storm Shy of Despair: A Climate-Smart Plan for the Administration to Help Low-Income Communities by Cathleen Kelly and Tracey Ross (Center for American Progress)

Only 6,800 people arrived at shelters, even though 375,000 New Yorkers—including 45,000 public housing residents—lived in the mandatory evacuation zone hit hard by the hurricane. Workers eventually discovered the nightmare lurking behind low shelter turnout. Many low-income elderly and disabled residents of New York City’s public housing complexes were stranded in their dark and cold apartments without heat, backup generators, emergency boilers, or working elevators, the latter preventing many of these residents from descending multiple flights of stairs. Others endured these conditions because they had no other affordable place to stay or no reasonable means of leaving their neighborhoods because mass transit was shut down, among other reasons. 

For many, Superstorm Sandy was a tragic reminder that climate change is indeed happening, and that its effects will be costly. President Obama recently announced a final task force meeting to help state, local, and tribal leaders prepare their communities for climate change. Kelly and Ross present a critical perspective that leaders and policymakers must keep in mind when planning for disaster: our most vulnerable citizens often face the greatest environmental hazards and risks, yet they have not been a strong focus of federal recovery efforts. Kelly and Ross cover key climate change-related risks for low-income communities, from extreme heat, to food insecurity, to deep poverty. We need to do better in the face of our changing climate, and these policy recommendations are a wise step.



A Summer Vacation Free of Hunger

Do you remember what it felt like to be a kid on summer vacation? For a lot of young Americans, July and August means hanging out with friends, taking family trips, swimming wherever you can – maybe even going to camp, or curling up with a good book. But for millions of students across the country, those fun summer days are clouded by a painful reality that just won’t seem to go away: hunger.

During the school year, school districts around the country provide 22 million students with free or reduced-price school lunches. This essential nutrition service helps underprivileged kids to stay focused and competitive during the school day. But once school lets out for the year, only 1 in 7 of these children continues to receive free or reduced-price lunches in the summer. That leaves millions of kids in America hungry during lunchtime over their entire summer vacation. In New York, my home state, 1.7 million children receive free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year; in the summer, only 27 percent of them will get the nutrition they need.

We have to do better.

No child in America in 2014 should have to wake up every day wondering if he or she is going to have enough to eat before bedtime.

A problem of this proportion – millions of students going hungry during the summer because they don’t have access to a nutritious lunch – is unacceptable. This is a crisis we should all feel compelled to solve. I recently stood at the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Auburn, New York, and announced the introduction of the Summer Meals Act – a bipartisan bill that would enhance the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.

Our Summer Meals Act has four goals. First, the bill would expand which communities are eligible to participate in the Summer Food Service Program. Right now, to be eligible for summer meals, a community must have 50 percent of its children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year in order to receive meal assistance in the summer. Our bill would drop this to a much fairer 40 percent, opening up the Summer Food Service Program to many more communities.

Second, the Summer Meals Act would reduce red tape for public-private partnerships. Right now, it’s too burdensome for non-school organizations to supply much-needed meals to hungry children. Our bill would make it much easier for organizations like the local food bank or youth center to give kids the nutrition that they need.

Third, the Summer Meals Act would increase access to summer meals in hard-to-reach rural areas. Hunger is by no means just an urban problem; for many kids in underserved areas who don’t have access to healthy food, a formidable barrier is just getting to the summer meal site. Our bill would give kids new transportation options to reach their meal sites.

Fourth, the Summer Meals Act would lift the burden on hardworking parents who have to stay at their workplaces during dinnertime. Our bill would give kids the option of receiving two daily meals and a snack from the Summer Food Service Program, or even three meals, if they need them.

No child in America in 2014 should have to wake up every day wondering if he or she is going to have enough to eat before bedtime. The Summer Meals Act is a critically important bill that would seriously reduce child hunger in America. Every kid in America deserves a summer vacation that’s free of hunger.




How to Not Listen to People in Poverty

On July 9, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan held the fifth in a series of hearings entitled “A Progress Report on the War on Poverty.” The hearings have included seventeen witnesses: academics and policy wonks, social service providers and advocates, a politician and faith leaders. But until Tianna Gaines-Turner was asked by the Democratic minority to testify at this hearing, the Committee hadn’t heard from a single person actually living in poverty. Seventeen experts on poverty and, among them, only one poor person.

One might assume that the experience of a woman trying—along with her husband—to build a secure life for her family on poverty wages and federal assistance would mean a lot to representatives who are trying to assess the effectiveness of the government’s anti-poverty programs. And, at first listen, it might have seemed that the members were open to learning from Gaines-Turner. Ryan quoted from her previous written testimony in his opening remarks, affirming her assertion that to reduce poverty we must understand and address the needs of whole persons, rather than treating “people as numbers.”  He said that he hoped the committee would “listen and learn” from her testimony.

And Ryan wasn’t the only committee member who praised Gaines-Turner’s unique contribution to the series of hearings. There were at least six explicit mentions of how important it was to have her—a person living in poverty—there to testify. Both parties seemed grateful that they had an opportunity to hear a real account of struggles with financial insecurity. What unfolded, however, revealed that some legislators had a very different objective.

Heather Reynolds of Catholic Charities Fort Worth and Jennifer Tiller of American Works DC were the two other witnesses selected by the Republican majority for the panel. Their testimony, and a large number of the questions asked by conservative representatives, reflected a real bias in these anti-poverty discussions: the entrenched belief that poor people will have the better life that they want when they get a job.

Both Reynolds and Tiller insisted on the importance of getting their clients off of government assistance and into employment whenever possible—they testified that these steps were key to their organization’s definition of successfully getting clients out of poverty. Work-first policies and work requirements for welfare programs where mentioned repeatedly. The importance of “accountability” and “independence” was raised more than a few times (though always in reference to individuals receiving government assistance, until Gaines-Turner noted that there should be accountability for corporations like Target and Walmart, which bank huge profits while paying poverty wages or exploiting tax loopholes). “Receiving federal aid” was used interchangeably with “dependence on the government.”

If this had been a hearing on work-first programs or the efficacy of work requirements for recipients of federal aid, that might have been expected. But the title of this hearing was Working Families in Need, and Gaines-Turner and her husband both already have jobs.

Simply put, conservative members of the House Budget Committee didn’t show up on July 9 to listen to Gaines-Turner or to learn about the experiences of the working poor. They came to preach what they think they already know about people in poverty. They made Gaines-Turner repeatedly remind them that she and her husband have jobs, and when she tried to pivot to other issues that complicate her financial security—low wages, lack of affordable childcare, asset limits in assistance programs—she was asked whether or not she would prefer to be independent rather than rely on the government. It was embarrassing—not for Gaines-Turner, who handled the pressure and condescending questions with grace—but for the members who showed how unwilling they were to use this hearing to actually listen and learn rather than just hear themselves talk.

Anti-poverty programs will never be as successful as they could be until we listen to people in poverty when they share their experiences.

Perhaps no member exemplified more than South Carolina Representative Tom Rice the desire to repeatedly assert his own opinion rather than listen to Gaines-Turner talk about her experiences.  After getting all three witnesses to confirm that federal anti-poverty programs alone will never lift a person out of poverty, Rice focused on Gaines-Turner with a clear goal— get her to admit that a job is the only way out of poverty:

“If they just simply rely on federal programs and don’t try to make themselves better and go out and get a job will they ever get out of poverty?” asked Rice.

“Do you agree with me that that’s the path out of poverty? That they have got to go out and get a job?”

“If you rely on federal programs, you’re never going to come out of poverty. The only way out of poverty is to be self-reliant and find yourself a job.”

Gaines-Turner has already found herself a job. What she needs—and what she was asking the members of the committee to consider—is help with the myriad of factors that prevent her from working her way to financial security. If Rice, Ryan, and Indiana Representative Todd Rokita had listened to her, they would have heard Gaines-Turner talk about some of the issues that matter to a person in poverty, even when that person already has a job: healthcare, childcare, transportation, paid sick leave, just wages, safe and affordable housing, equal pay, asset limits. Perhaps they even would have heard her talk about the most shameful part of the reality of the working poor in our nation: that we let them go to work to provide for their families and continue to live in poverty, and make them feel isolated, dehumanized, and dismissed while they are trying to share in the American dream.

It’s truly shameful that Ryan, Rice, and other conservative members held a hearing to not listen to Tianna Gaines-Turner. She already knows what they still need to learn: anti-poverty programs in this country do work and they can work more effectively; but they will never be as successful as they could be until we listen to people in poverty when they share their experiences.

And that goes for all of us.





Diaper Shortages Leave Low-Income Kids Behind Before They Can Even Walk

Ask a county social worker, a food bank director, or any organization that assists families in low-income communities, and you will likely learn that they all experience a similar predicament each month. They do not have enough diapers. Diapers are the most requested basic need item, and organizations always run out.

Unmet diaper needs impact families’ ability to work and the public health of the communities where they live. Because diapers are required by most child care facilities, lack of diapers can reduce access to work and poor diapering can facilitate the spread of disease in public spaces.

According to The Diaper Bank, an adequate supply of diapers cost $100 or more per month. Making things worse, safety net programs such as TANF, SNAP and WIC do not allot money for diapers. Benefits themselves are already low. In California, the maximum TANF benefit—which provides cash assistance—is no more than 40% of the federal poverty level (around $670 per month for a family of three). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, there isn’t a state in the country with a TANF benefit higher than ½ of the federal poverty line. To get by, families report diapering less. Some even report that their infants or toddlers have spent a day or longer in one diaper, which not only leads to potential health risks for the baby, but also puts them at risk for social, emotional and behavioral problems, according to a Pediatrics study.

Here in California, there are eleven diaper banks that are part of the National Diaper Bank network. Meeting the unmet diaper needs of very young children with donated diapers is their business, and they too report shortages on a regular basis and admit to covering only a small percentage of the state.

Until we confront the deep inequities that start at birth, our poorest children will be hampered by unequal footing before they even learn to walk.

This is what I learned when I started advocating in support of a bill introduced in California this year by Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez and Senator Holly Mitchell to address the growing unmet need among poor families with infants and toddlers. The idea that we need legislation to address unmet diaper needs usually gets a chuckle out of most people at first. However, the grim reality is that a lack of an adequate supply of diapers can have severe mental, emotional, and developmental impacts on parents and children. In response, Assembly Bill 1516 would provide an $80 per month diaper supplement to eligible children receiving public assistance and would create a public-private partnership fund to help facilitate the distribution of financial donations and diaper contributions to the neediest of families.

My work on the bill is through the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) at the Women’s Foundation of California. The WPI trains women about how the legislative process works and how to advocate for legislative change. Since I am a single mom who knows how costly it can be to keep an infant adequately diapered and how difficult it can be to try to figure it out on your own, I am motivated to make the most of this opportunity. Still, I am most inspired by the personal stories and the sense of how real policy decisions can impact real people’s lives.

A mother I know who has three little girls is one of these real people whose story has inspired me. She was working several jobs, but was still living under the poverty line and receiving just over $100 a month in TANF assistance, when extra hours at work and $20 more in her paycheck made her ineligible for the TANF program.

She lacked job security at her hourly jobs, and the loss of the income from TANF left her family on unstable footing. As a result, she struggled to meet her children’s basic needs. She told me about how she forced her children to potty train way before they were ready to save money and about her feelings of being overwhelmed with stress during this period in her family’s life.

Throughout the legislative session, the team of advocates working on this bill has heard other powerful testimonies about the consequences for children when parents are unable to make it through the end of each month without reusing lightly soiled diapers or prolonging periods between diaper changes.

I don’t know if Assembly Bill 1516 will pass and, if it gets passed, if it would get signed. But I hope that its introduction has helped to educate lawmakers in our state’s Capitol about the great risks associated with deep poverty and unmet diaper needs and to inspire them to do something about it.  I also know that bills like this one, which tackle the real needs of real people and real policy solutions, are desperately needed from Sacramento to Albany and in every state capitol in between.  Until we confront the human and fiscal costs associated with allowing children to live in deep poverty and the deep inequities that start at birth, our poorest children will be hampered by unequal footing before they even learn to walk.



Talking Finance and Faith: Payday Loans and Franciscan Pawnshops

We sometimes hear from people deeply committed to one or both that religion and the market should keep to their separate spheres. In my Catholic faith tradition, there’s a long history of religious people taking positions on what makes financial transactions useful and just, and intervening to make reality closer to the ideal.

For much of Christian history, the Catholic Church opposed charging any interest for loans, which was regarded as sinful “usury.” In late antiquity, St. Augustine described loans as one form of charity: he assumed that the lender would charge no interest, providing a service to the needy borrower at some cost to themselves. He realized that many of those who need loans in order to get by are poor people whose needs should be at the forefront of Christian concern. Out of this same realization, some Italian Franciscans began to open pawnshops, called montes pietatis, in the 15th century, running them as charitable organizations to help poor people access small loans. As it became clear that these local practices were helping people in need, official Church teaching changed. In 1515, Pope Leo X proclaimed that charging “moderate” amounts of interest so that loan organizations could be maintained was legitimate under church law. (Despite this acknowledgement that lending at interest could be done morally, deep-rooted stigma against Jewish moneylenders, who had historically responded to Christians’ need for loans, affects European and US culture even today.)

If you hear a Christian call out “usury” today, like theologian Alex Mikulich does here, likely they’re not decrying all charging of interest but suggesting that a certain type of loan is predatory, unjust and harmful to the borrower. Catholic groups use this tradition effectively as they fight some of the most exploitative practices of payday lenders in states like Illinois, Kentucky, and Minnesota.

A new film, Spent: Looking for Change continues the dialogue about the payday loan industry. Two things are clear from this powerful film. First, many current practices of the payday loan industry are indeed exploitative and harmful to families who already find themselves on the edge. One family in the film estimates that by the time they pay off a loan of $450, they will have paid more than $1700 in interest. Another borrower was not allowed to pay off her loan until she could pay in full—racking up more interest although she could have been making payments, and eventually losing the car that she needed for work. Second, while payday lenders and check-cashing services charge fees that could accurately be described as usurious, they fill an otherwise unmet need. As many as 70 million people in the U.S. are excluded from the traditional banking system, because of issues like bad credit, no credit (a potential result of the cautious choice to avoid credit card use), or lack of geographic access to traditional banks.

The film is sponsored by American Express, which is announcing new financial products designed to help those underserved by the traditional financial system, like the people featured in Spent who turn to usurious lenders. This seems consistent with a trend noted in the New York Times earlier this year: in response to rising inequality within the U.S., companies are shifting their offerings to appeal to either very wealthy, or increasingly poor consumers. It’s encouraging, I suppose, that one result of this trend could be more affordable financial services for people who historically have needed them. But let’s not forget that high inequality comes with a host of other social ills.

Let’s also not assume that because the market is beginning to respond to this need, anti-poverty activists can just sit back and relax. The makers of Spent created a petition to legalize prize-linked savings accounts.  Supporting Elizabeth Warren’s plan to allow Post Offices to offer affordable financial services seems like another promising response. Watching and sharing Spent is a great way to keep the conversation going.

And I’d encourage people of faith, and everyone concerned about poverty, not to stop there. Microcredit agencies like Grameen America and Kiva Zip help individuals and groups—maybe even you, or your congregation—make interest-free loans to small-business owners in the US and abroad. Run on donations, they boast impressive repayment rates and help people in need avoid the most predatory operators in the financial system.

Call them today’s Franciscan pawnshops.