What We’re Reading

Welcome back to What We’re Reading, where we share 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.

Black, Asian Residents Unite to Save Low-Income Building Near Chinatown, by Robert Samuels (Washington Post)

Saving their D.C. apartment building seemed impossible, but the tenants association president resolved that he would try. So Kevin Rogers and fellow board member Vera Watson set out on a Saturday to knock on every door in the egg-yolk-colored halls of Museum Square. The problem: More than 70 percent of their neighbors were Chinese. Most were elderly and spoke little English. Rogers and Watson needed to convey the urgency of the matter, a complicated confluence of community development, tenant rights and city law.

It’s a disturbingly common tale: neighborhoods revitalize, only to push out the lower income residents who stuck with them through the rough times. Washington, D.C. is no exception to growing displacement, but it does have a unique tool to fight it. The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act gives tenants the first right to make an offer when their building goes up for sale. So far the policy has preserved at least 1,500 affordable units across D.C. But what happens when a building owner sets the price impossibly out of reach? That’s exactly what is unfolding in Chinatown, where over 200 low-income residents have banded together in attempt to save their home. The added complication? The majority are elderly Chinese immigrants who will face extreme challenges living anywhere else. So far, the tenants have secured one more year in their building, but the story is far from over.

A New Report Argues Inequality is Causing Slower Growth. Here’s Why It Matters. By Neil Irwin (New York Times)

The fact that S.&P., an apolitical organization that aims to produce reliable research for bond investors and others, is raising alarms about the risks that emerge from income inequality is a small but important sign of how a debate that has been largely confined to the academic world and left-of-center political circles is becoming more mainstream.

If you do not believe low income people or progressive advocates when they say that rising income inequality is bad for the economy, maybe you’ll believe your forecasting firm. S&P recently released a report stating that “the current level of income inequality in the U.S. is dampening GDP growth.” To explain why this is so groundbreaking, Irwin situates S&P in the world of economics research. The firm does not aim to advance political ideology or social policy; they simply aim to give practical business advice. Thus, their report could signal a paradigm shift in the way that the business community views income inequality and increase the imperative to address it.

Minnesota Café Charges 35 Cent ‘Fee’ To Protest Minimum Wage Hike, by Alexander C. Kaufman (Huffington Post)

Minnesota raised its minimum wage by 75 cents to $8 last week — the first increase in the state since 2009. An owner of the café claimed the 35-cent fee was a way of “thumbing my nose at the law change,” according to CBS-affiliate WCCO. “Shame on your protest over a small increase in pay required by law,” wrote Facebook user Terry Edgar in a one-star review. “Hopefully customers will not continue to patronize your cheapskate establishment.”

If you find yourself at the Oasis Café in Stillwater, MN, your huevos rancheros are going to cost a bit extra. The management believes an extra “minimum wage” fee is a clever way to protest the state’s new $8 minimum wage. The customers think differently and have stormed social media in protest. Even more appalling, another local chain, Blue Plate Co., actually pledged to start taking back money from servers’ tips.

Rich Kid, Poor Kid: For 30 Years, Baltimore Study Tracked Who Gets Ahead, by Juana Summers (NPR)

Monica Jaundoo didn’t have an easy life growing up in Baltimore in the early ’80s. “I remember being so immune to death, so immune to shootings, killings. I just remember wanting them to rush, like, get the body out the way so we can get back to playing hopscotch or dodgeball,” she says […] And so her story raises a question: How can a child with the deck stacked against her get out and get ahead?

Johns Hopkins researchers recently published the results of a study that tracked about 800 low-income Baltimore children all the way through adulthood. Their goal was to discover which factors truly impact a child’s life chances. The ultimate conclusion is disheartening: they found that, “a child’s fate is in many ways fixed at birth — determined by family strength and the parents’ financial status.” Only 33 subjects moved into the high income bracket after 30 years.  Summers illustrates the findings by profiling two subjects, Monica and John. She also unpacks employment and incarceration rates, underscoring how racial discrimination also plays a huge role in shaping life outcomes.

This is How Rural Poverty is Changing, by Lydia DePillis (Washington Post)

“I think it’s more of a place-based poverty than it is demographic,” says Tracey Farrigan, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who is studying how rural poverty has spread. “People are moving to areas where they can afford to live, which are areas with less support for them. It’s kind of a cycle. So the places are poor, and the people are poor.”

Las Animas, Colorado has lost almost a third of its population since the late 1990s, along with many of its factories, farms, restaurants, and hospital jobs. Dairy Queen is the most successful restaurant in town, and the county commissioner believes there wouldn’t be enough demand for another chain like it. What happens to the people who stayed when the economy went south—those who can’t leave, or who don’t want to leave their community? What happens to their children? DePillis provides an in-depth profile of residents, revealing tough realities about the state of rural poverty today.



First Person

Time to Raise the Wage so Nobody Has to Live the Wage

Friday was my final day participating in the “Live the Wage” challenge. Living for a week on minimum wage was exhausting. Money and my budget never left my mind, and I was constantly calculating to ensure that my funds didn’t run out before the end of the week.

It’s not the first time I’ve lived on minimum wage. I’ve held jobs at a temp agency, call center, nursing home, in food service, and on the assembly line—all jobs that paid the minimum or barely above it. But back then, my situation was different. I shared a very small apartment with three friends, I hadn’t started my own family yet, and minimum wage hadn’t lost so much of its value.

That’s why the #LivetheWage challenge was eye-opening for me. Together with members of Congress and thousands of advocates across the country, I lived on a minimum wage budget for a week. Spending just $77 on our food, transportation and all incidental expenses, we hoped to gain just a small understanding of the tough decisions faced by minimum wage workers every day.

I only had to live on this budget for one week. I paid for grocery staples and gas. I couldn’t afford fresh, healthy vegetables. Peanut butter or egg salad was my daily lunch. I kept checking my gas gauge and didn’t drive anywhere but to and from work.  By the end of the week, I worried about whether I’d have enough money even to do that. There was nothing else – no latte, no haircut, no school clothes for my grandkids. I did buy a set of flashcards for my grandson. He needed to practice his multiplication, and school was starting in two weeks. But it meant I had to cut my food and gas expenses even more.

To say the “Challenge” was a challenge is an understatement, and I didn’t have to support my family on that amount.  However countless other working women continue to struggle on poverty wages. People like 9to5 member Crystal Whetstone; she works at a discount retailer in Dayton, Ohio and her highest raise in the last seven years was 25 cents. Crystal lives with her parents because she can’t afford to live alone. She can’t pay off her student debt. She can’t get ahead. Or Barbara Gertz, who has had days when she can’t even afford transportation to her job at Walmart.

It’s been five years since Congress last raised the minimum wage, and the tipped minimum wage hasn’t budged since 1991. It’s past time for jobs that pay decent wages – wages that boost the lives of women and families, and help our communities thrive. Women are now the primary or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of American households – when women do well, our economy does well.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to those struggling day in and day out to make ends meet.

“Raising the minimum wage would give my household a needed boost. I could contribute more to my household for groceries and bills and maybe even buy myself something nice every once in a while,” says Peggy Jackson, a 9to5 member from Atlanta, Ga. “Those of us earning minimum wage are trapped in a cycle of poverty because we’ll never be able to save enough money to get ahead.”

Peggy is right, and those of us who took the Challenge have a better appreciation of just how right she is.  It’s time to #RaiseTheWage now!





Beyond the Minimum Wage: What’s Really Keeping Hourly Workers in Poverty?

In the debate about poverty and rising economic inequality, we need to think beyond the minimum wage.

When we talk about poverty it’s difficult to track—and give voice to—all of the different ideas around causes and solutions that need attention. Multiply those competing demands exponentially and you may get a feel for what working people in some of the fastest growing job sectors in our economy face every day.

Shift workers—especially those in the retail sector—are subject to unpredictable and erratic scheduling practices that make it nearly impossible to plan their lives and earn a stable income. An increasing number of these workers simply aren’t able to get the hours they need in order to support their families. They are essentially trapped in a cycle of poverty, with little time or resources to make any progress toward escaping it.

These are workers who aren’t living paycheck to paycheck; they’re living hour to hour.

By giving workers the right to request a predictable or flexible schedule, this legislation would increase job quality in our country.

How can people working under these conditions set a budget?  How do they schedule medical appointments or arrange care for their children?  In addition to dealing with their erratic schedules, retail workers are often required to be on call—making sure they are available without any guarantee of a shift.

So while increasing the minimum wage is indeed a critical step in the fight against poverty, it is just one piece of a much larger, broken system in the low-wage sector.

That’s why the Schedules That Work Act—introduced last month by Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), along with Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—is so critical. It would allow every worker to have a say in their schedules—whether someone is experiencing erratic shifts, or too many hours, or needs a schedule accommodation in order to meet an obligation. By giving workers the right to request a predictable or flexible schedule, this legislation would increase job quality in our country.

At the local level, city and state governments are also demanding that the largest, most profitable retail corporations do right by their workers.

Last week, Jobs With Justice San Francisco led a coalition of labor, community, advocacy and small-business groups in introducing a groundbreaking Retail Workers Bill of Rights ordinance. The measure, authored by San Francisco Board of Supervisors members Eric Mar and David Chiu, would create new protections for retail workers who are burdened with on-call scheduling and diminished hours. The ordinance would only apply to profitable, large chain retailers—banks, fast food and restaurant chains, department stores—companies that clearly have the means to improve labor standards. If adopted, the bill would require fair scheduling practices like advance notice, adequate on-call pay, and more opportunities for part-time workers to transition to full time-employment. It would also require employers to offer more hours to current part-time employees prior to hiring additional part-time staff.

Without these kinds of reforms to scheduling and hours in the low-wage sector, we will continue to have too many people working two and three jobs but stuck below the poverty line. Nationwide, nearly eight million people are involuntarily working part-time hours. That leaves them vulnerable to poverty—nearly one in four involuntarily part-time workers lives in poverty, compared to one in 20 full-time workers. These low-quality jobs also impact the broader community because employers shift costs—particularly for health care for their workers—to our already overburdened public systems.

We need 21st century policies to address the new 21st-century workplace. Efforts like the Schedules That Work Act and the Retail Workers Bill of Rights are more than just commonsense bills; they are innovative ways to address poverty and inequality in our communities.




Breaking Barriers to Employment: The Pivotal Role of Legal Services

For the last four years, Paul has faced significant obstacles in securing steady employment, despite having a high school diploma and a year of college education under his belt. Paul applied to positions at Walmart, McDonalds, different security companies – any opening he learned of during his frequent visits to a local career center. Time and again, Paul was turned down and told he wasn’t qualified.

To change all that, Paul completed a construction apprenticeship program. Less than two weeks after he graduated, Paul had strong prospects with a construction company and a major utility company. Amidst all this good news, however, Paul received a letter that brought his forward momentum to a halt.

A “Notice of Proposed Revocation” informed Paul that his driver’s license could be revoked because of overdue child support payments. Paul had known about the child support order, but it simply wasn’t something he could afford to pay. The amount was based on his salary at a job he had lost more than a year before the order was set. Paul made cash payments directly to the child’s mother whenever he could, not realizing that those payments “didn’t count” because he was supposed to make them through the District government. After months without income he ran out of money to make any payments. But if Paul lost his license, none of the positions for which he now qualified would be available to him, and he’d be right back where he started – unable to pay his child support. Now what?

We must break the underlying legal barriers to employment.

The longer these issues persist, the more likely they are to affect job seekers and workers who lack other resources to help them cope with financial stress.

It is no secret that getting and keeping a stable job, let alone a job that pays a living wage, is already a challenge for far too many people living in poverty in D.C. and across the nation. Black workers and young workers were hit particularly hard by the recession, and unemployment rates for several groups of workers remain high today, including those without a college degree. While the overall unemployment level in the District is 7.5%, unemployment levels in Wards 5, 7, and 8 hover in the 15 to 20% range, with poverty rates as high as 25% (Ward 7) and 34% (Ward 8).

D.C. residents and advocates have improved the pathway to jobs with decent wages in part through successful efforts to raise the minimum wage, strengthen wage theft laws, remove criminal history questions from job applications, and develop employment training programs like the construction apprenticeship sought out by Paul. But, as Paul’s story reveals, these efforts aren’t always enough.

Among the legal barriers to employment are: criminal or arrest records, poor or inaccurate credit reports, child support arrears and suspended drivers’ licenses, domestic violence, prior homelessness or lack of stable housing, and other issues that may appear unrelated to employment. These barriers may distract even the most dedicated job seekers from their search, prevent a skill-based assessment of their application, threaten the credentials that make them eligible for sought-after positions, and hinder their ability to keep employment once it is secured.

As Paul’s story shows, overdue child support payments can cause job seekers to lose their driver’s licenses, contribute to negative credit reports, and ultimately can lead to jail time. Prior arrests and convictions may cause employers to reject an applicant without ever assessing whether that conviction is relevant to job performance. Ongoing domestic violence, custody disputes, unstable housing, and financial instability due to debt and predatory lending can all cause significant disruption to job searches and job retention.

For example, how does someone who is homeless or couch surfing receive information from potential employers? Or complete an application form that requires an address? Or maintain appropriate clothing for an interview?  How can a mother whose children are chronically ill from sub-standard housing conditions avoid absenteeism?  The longer these issues persist, the more likely they are to affect job seekers and workers who lack other resources to help them cope with financial stress.  And what happens when these vulnerable workers do not receive the wages they are due or are subject to excessive garnishments?

These concerns do not need to be faced alone. In many cases, civil legal services can help remove these barriers by:

  • Securing the restoration of driver’s licenses
  • Overcoming problems associated with arrest or conviction records, including record sealing, improper employer inquiries, mistaken identities or other inaccuracies
  • Providing information about credit records, correcting inaccuracies, and advising how to respond to prospective employer inquiries
  • Advocating for individuals whose child support payments are set unreasonably high or have become overdue, particularly when the individual is threatened with incarceration or loss of a driver’s license
  • Securing protection or resolving problems associated with domestic violence, child custody disputes, and child support
  • Improving and stabilizing housing and addressing health problems affecting family members, including those caused by dangerous living conditions
  • Recovering unpaid wages and remedying other forms of workplace mistreatment

Not long after Paul received notice that his driver’s license might be revoked, his apprenticeship program hosted attorneys from Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP).  The attorneys informed the trainees about the civil legal underpinnings of common hurdles facing job seekers. After participating in the presentation, Paul sought NLSP help.  An attorney prevented the suspension of Paul’s license and is now helping him secure a child support payment plan that more closely matches the amount he is currently able to pay. Shortly after he found out his license was safe, Paul got the flagger job on a construction crew, his first full-time position since 2011.

Advocating for a living wage and job training is necessary, but is also insufficient for many people who are seeking to enter or stay in the workforce.  That’s one reason why access to civil legal aid is so critical to workforce development and anti-poverty efforts. Working closely with community groups, social service agencies, and job training programs, civil legal aid programs can help job seekers identify and break these legal barriers to employment.




Community and Climate Change: How Social Cohesion Can Help Low-Income Baltimore Neighborhoods Prepare for Disasters

Over the past several years, the country has seen an increase in extreme weather events fueled by climate change. The mid-Atlantic region alone has faced major snowstorms, heat waves, and hurricanes, forcing communities to increasingly bear financial and life-threatening risks.

While many see natural disasters as “social equalizers” that do not differentiate based on race or class, the reality is that these events exacerbate the underlying socioeconomic problems that exist year round. As a result, low-income people are often hit harder by extreme weather events due to poor quality housing in neighborhoods lacking services; living in close proximity to environmental hazards; and economic insecurity. Over the past few years, the City of Baltimore has emerged as a leader in addressing these vulnerabilities and engaging these very communities to improve their resilience.

Baltimore is highly vulnerable to many natural hazards, ranging from coastal storms and flooding to extreme heat and high winds. Given the fact that the city’s poverty rate is 25.2 percent—10 percentage points higher than the national average—the city must address the concerns unique to this vulnerable population. For instance, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City serves nearly 20,000 public housing residents, including seniors, low-income households, working class and other vulnerable people. Due to the location of their original construction, many public housing buildings are vulnerable to natural hazards and require resiliency upgrades.

Low-income people are often hit harder by extreme weather events due to poor quality housing in neighborhoods lacking services

In 2013, the City of Baltimore created the Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project, an effort to address existing hazards while also preparing for extreme weather events predicted to occur due to climate change. This effort has a particular focus on low-income residents and began by speaking with them to about their concerns. The City’s Office of Sustainability is also in the process of creating a plan that will include neighborhood, resident and business “ambassadors” to assist in educating members of the community on how to prepare and respond to extreme weather. This process not only helps the city recognize the vulnerabilities people are facing, but also develops a level of social cohesion that can save lives.

A poll conducted last year by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research confirmed that neighborhoods that lacked social cohesion and trust generally had a more difficult time recovering from a disaster or extreme event. A prime example is Chicago’s heat wave of 1995, when 739 people died in mostly low-income African American neighborhoods.

One Chicago neighborhood, called Auburn Gresham—with the same racial and income demographics as other low-income African American neighborhoods—fared better than even the more affluent neighborhoods in the city. It turns out that residents of Auburn Gresham participated in block clubs and church groups, in addition to socializing at grocery stores and diners, which many other neighborhoods lacked. During the heat wave, the block clubs checked in on elderly and sick neighbors to ensure their safety—the neighborhood banded together. Baltimore is heeding the lessons from this sort of research and helping to foster these kinds of strong relationships in economically struggling communities.

Earlier this year, Baltimore’s Commission on Sustainability—comprised of public, private, and nonprofit leaders—held its Annual Sustainability Town Hall with this theme: “Make a plan. Build a kit. Help each other.” The event was held in East Baltimore—an area historically plagued with violence, high infant mortality rates, and a much higher poverty rate than the city’s average. Free transportation was provided from other low-income neighborhoods to maximize attendance.

Hundreds of people turned out.  Upon arrival, community members were asked to fill out a family emergency plan. Attendees then visited various stations to learn how city partners are helping Baltimore prepare for disasters, and were given free items for emergency preparedness kits, including flashlights and batteries, crank-powered radios, fans, face masks, can openers, and signs to place in their windows during disasters indicating whether they are “Safe” or need “Help.” The response was so positive that neighborhood groups have requested that the City repeat this event for their residents. In addition, the City plans to engage the most motivated residents to serve on Community Emergency Response Teams, which educate community members about disaster preparedness and response efforts.

According to Cindy Parker of the Commission, knowing your neighbors and recognizing their needs and abilities—such as where elderly households are or who knows CPR—is critical.

“Hopefully the activity of sort of thinking this through will help [residents] make a mental note,” she told the Baltimore Sun. “Communities who don’t work together don’t fare well.”

While this kind of preparation can make a difference for any community, it is particularly important for low-income people who have fewer alternatives, such as savings to fall back on or cars they can rely on during evacuations.

Last month, President Barack Obama announced a series of actions to help state, local, and tribal officials prepare their communities for the effects of climate change. These actions range from helping communities develop more resilient infrastructure to fortifying our coasts.

While these steps are laudable, more action is needed to address the skyrocketing risks of climate change in low-income communities. In a recent report to the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, my colleague Cathleen Kelly and I offered a number of recommendations to do just that, including bolstering the Low Income Housing Tax Credit following disasters as well as the Low Income Energy Assistance Program in anticipation of extreme cold and heat. We also recommend that policymakers foster the kind of social cohesion that Baltimore is creating by supporting programs that build relationships between community leaders and public- and affordable-housing residents; improving disaster-relief plans for affordable-housing developments; and providing technical assistance to community-based organizations to increase their ability to respond to extreme weather events.

Social cohesion plays a significant role in our everyday lives and serves as the first line of defense during disasters.  It can mean the difference between survival and tragedy. We need to work with low-income communities to prevent the next climate-related tragedy from occurring.