Communities, Individuals, and the Long Fight Against Poverty

Today, the nation confronts an unacceptable poverty rate of 15 percent. Of course, the conditions that people in poverty contend with—such as overcrowded and inadequate housing, not enough food, lack of opportunities for work, homelessness—these are not new.  So as we approach the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Economic Opportunity Act on August 20, 1964 —the centerpiece of the War on Poverty—it’s a good time to reflect not only on Johnson’s policies but also the many earlier efforts by activists to reduce poverty in our nation.

The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH) in New York City has published a book (which I co-authored with ICPH president Ralph da Costa Nunez), and launched a companion website,, to tell the history of poverty and homelessness in New York City.  These resources demonstrate what has been accomplished in the century-long struggle against poverty and also the work that remains.

To a degree, anti-poverty strategies focus on either assisting individuals or lifting communities. Johnson’s War on Poverty, for example, took a decidedly community-centered approach to confronting policy. While some of its greatest successes were policies targeting individuals—like Medicare and Medicaid and SNAP—at the core of the Economic Opportunity Act was the Community Action Program, an effort to provide greater individual opportunity by reviving entire communities.

Here are a few snapshots of other poverty warriors from our past.

Our poverty warriors have made great strides in the fight against poverty over the last century

The Progressives                                                

Community played a central role for this generation of reformers that came of age between 1890 and 1920.  They viewed neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty, substandard housing, and contagious disease as both a cause and effect of continuing destitution among families in poverty.  For this group, later called progressives, the solution lay in strengthening both neighborhood institutions and state interventions.

In the Progressive Era, settlement houses embodied the idea of community-based poverty relief. First established in London in the 1880s, settlements proliferated in U.S. cities over the end of the 19th century and into the first decade of the 20th century. At places such as Hull House in Chicago, and Henry Street Settlement or Greenwich House in New York, young men and women from the middle class came to live, assist, and learn about poor communities. A focus on community infused everything that these settlement workers did. Some of the work was cultural such as providing concerts, lectures, and art exhibits for the neighborhood. But much of the work was about providing direct assistance to poor and working class families, including: medical care, day care, kindergarten, and after-school programs so parents could find work.  The reformers also sponsored neighborhood clubs and organizations to help residents focus attention on the problems confronting their communities.

Settlements also became centers of reform. Workers collected extensive data on their communities and their expertise was central in efforts to end child labor, improve housing conditions, and provide state support for widowed or deserted mothers. In calling for these reforms, settlement workers tried to rally their neighbors to get involved, consistent with their missions as community-based organizations.

The New Dealers

The New Dealers of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration—many of whom had participated in the Progressive Movement—confronted a crisis of unprecedented widespread unemployment and poverty, the Great Depression. Their focus was on relief to those in need, a return to economic growth, and reforms that would prevent poverty in the future. The Roosevelt administration passed wide-reaching legislation to stabilize the economy, ensure protections for workers including the right to organize, and facilitate homeownership. These programs laid the foundation for an expanded middle class after World War II.

At the same time, the New Deal needed to create specific mechanisms to assist families and individuals confronting poverty. Programs such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Works Progress Administration provided temporary assistance to unemployed people during the Depression.  The Social Security Act of 1935 provided a more permanent response to economic vicissitudes and remains one of our greatest pieces of legislation for fighting poverty through today. It offered new federal assistance to the elderly, and created the system of Old Age Insurance that we now call Social Security, which has led to a marked decrease in poverty among the elderly. It also provided federal support for unemployment insurance to prevent hardship in future economic downturns. The Act also contained Aid to Dependent Children (later Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC)—a program that provided assistance to widowed and deserted mothers. The bill included no general assistance for poor individuals, but Aid to Dependent Children—while never generous and subject to the limitations of each state—would help countless families.

The Fight Today

Today, our poverty programs are a mix of both individually-focused policies and community-based approaches.  There are more than 46 million SNAP recipients, and the program kept nearly 5 million people out of poverty last year; in 2012, 26.2 million tax filers received the EITC, and it kept 6.5 million people out of poverty; and a flawed TANF provides assistance to more than 1.5 million families a month. At the same time, many community action agencies and settlement houses continue to provide focused assistance to their local neighborhoods. Programs funded through the Community Development Block Grant, and efforts like the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhoods, are also attempts to strengthen communities in ways that alleviate poverty.

Yet, as Elizabeth Kneebone of Brookings has recently reported, poverty became more concentrated over the 2000s. The solution must be more coordinated individual and community-based antipoverty programs that provide assistance and also the resources—jobs that pay good wages, housing, transportation, access to education, social services, to name a few—that would resuscitate floundering urban neighborhoods and suburban towns.

Our poverty warriors have made great strides in the fight against poverty over the last century.  Today, through both individual and community-based tactics, it’s time for our next great advance.




A New Social Contract for the 21st Century

In the 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America,” our nation’s system of work and income supports has protected millions of families from poverty, mitigated hardship, and promoted economic opportunity. Programs such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Head Start, to name just a few, have made a difference in the lives of millions of Americans. They have also proven important buffers against recessions, promoting economic recovery during periods of high unemployment and ensuring that households don’t cut back on their spending to such a degree that even more workers lose their jobs.

Yet much has changed in the past 50 years. Demographic shifts, insufficient access to jobs that pay decent wages, and an economy that increasingly serves only the wealthy few pose a new set of challenges. Meanwhile, several components of our system of work and income supports have grown weaker and been cut back—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, is the poster child of this troubling trend—and today far too few individuals and families get the help they need and deserve in hard times.

While some paint poverty as something that only happens to flawed people, in reality it’s something most of us will encounter at some point in our lives.

Too bad, but this is all someone else’s problem, right?


As my colleague Melissa Boteach points out in her column published earlier this week, four out of five Americans will experience at least one year of significant economic insecurity—defined as living in poverty or near-poverty, or needing to turn to unemployment insurance or another form of public assistance—at some point during their working years. Yep, you read that right: four out of five.  Perhaps even more staggering: half of us will experience three years or more of significant economic insecurity.

While poverty might be a condition we associate with “other people,” just take a look at the most common precipitating factors: Job loss. Birth of a child. Illness. These are life events that could hit any of us. While some paint poverty as something that only happens to flawed people, or a condition affecting a stagnant, marginalized minority, in reality it’s something most of us will encounter at some point in our lives. As Dr. Mark Rank, whose research yielded those staggering findings, wrote in the New York Times: “Put simply, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans.”

In the coming months, the Center for American Progress poverty team will explore policies that strengthen and modernize our nation’s safety net, and promote economic mobility for families on the brink. Since we’re all in this together, shouldn’t we ensure that our social contract provides adequate protection amid the ups and downs of life?




No Safe Place: How Cities Are Making It Illegal to be Homeless

Tonight, thousands of homeless people in the United States will face the possibility of arrest because they do not have a safe place to sleep. Thousands more could be arraigned for sitting or standing in the wrong place. While they must sleep rest their legs, homeless people live in cities where these and other life sustaining activities are against the law, even though shelters face a critical shortage of beds.

Criminalization laws can take many forms.  Most commonly, they outlaw sitting, sleeping in vehicles or outdoors, lying down, “hanging out,” sharing food, and camping. What makes them even more insidious is that they can be difficult to detect. Curfews on public parks are often explained by municipalities as a way to deter drug-related crimes.  In reality, they are frequently a way to ensure that homeless people don’t use park benches as beds. By not having enough safe sleeping spaces, cities are forcing their homeless persons to live on the streets with virtually no other options, and then arresting them for doing so. These laws represent a gross violation of human rights, and have received a large amount of criticism from civil rights advocates around the country and the world.

In March, criminalization laws led to a man’s death. 56-year-old Jerome Murdough, a homeless veteran, was without shelter in New York City on a cold night. Searching for a safe place to sleep, he took refuge in an enclosed stairwell in a Harlem public housing building. He was discovered and arrested for trespassing. Since he didn’t have $2,500 to post bail, he was sent to Riker’s Island Prison, where he was placed in a hot cell and ignored for hours by prison staff. According to a city official, Murdough “basically baked to death” in the cell, and was found dead on the floor. His disturbing saga highlights the dangers of criminalization laws; instead of receiving needed assistance, Murdough was treated like a criminal, and ultimately lost his life by trying to protect it.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty recently released a report entitled, No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities. The report details the alarming upward trend of these inhumane and ineffective statutes that criminalize homelessness—with specific examples from around the country—and highlights how the laws are both ineffective and also violations of human rights.

While Murdough’s death represents the most extreme effect of criminalization laws, countless other homeless people face situations every day that put their lives in danger. In No Safe Place, the Law Center recounts the story of Lawrence Lee Smith, a man in Boise, Idaho who became homeless after a degenerative joint disease made him unable to continue to work construction.

“He lived in a camper van for years until it was towed. He couldn’t afford to retrieve it, leaving him with nowhere to reside but in public places…due to frequent overcrowding of area homeless shelters. Mr. Smith was cited for illegal camping and was jailed for a total of 100 days. Due to the arrest, he lost his tent, his stove, and the fishing equipment he relied upon to live.”

In addition to a loss of property, many homeless people who are cited for sleeping in public also must pay fines that they can’t afford, which often results in jail time. A homeless woman, Sandy, tells her story in the report:

“I just basically wanted to get in a little bit safer situation so I hid . . . in this church. And they gave me a ticket and now I can’t pay for this ticket; it’s four-hundred bucks! You know, I can’t pay $80 dollars. I have no income whatsoever.”

In some cities, it is illegal to share food with homeless people. The report details the case of Birmingham, Alabama Pastor Rick Wood, who was ordered by police to stop serving hotdogs and bottled water to homeless people in a city park.

“‘This makes me so mad,’ Wood told a local news station. ‘These people are hungry, they’re starving. They need help from people. They can’t afford to buy something from a food truck.’”

Bans on food-sharing exist in 17 of the cities studied by the Law Center and are based on the wrong assumption that free food services will bring an influx of homeless persons to the area. In reality, the bans simply force people to search for food in less safe places like dumpsters and trash cans.

There has been a nationwide increase in criminalization laws since 2011, despite mounting evidence that criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way to deal with homelessness. As cities increasingly opt for these bad policies, there will eventually be no safe place left for homeless people. Instead, communities should focus on constructive alternatives to criminalization that actually work; policies like the “housing first” strategy that provides housing and supportive services to homeless people and is also much less costly than the price of jail stays and emergency room visits.

Could you survive if there were no place you were allowed to fall asleep, store your belongings, or stand still?  There are far better policy choices than criminalization and making it illegal for people to simply try to survive; policies that are better for homeless people, and better for the character of our nation.



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!