Continuing the March of the Civil Rights Warriors in Selma

I recently watched Selma, a stirring movie about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and so many others who sacrificed to make our nation live up to its most cherished ideals of equality and liberty for all Americans. Like many others, I left feeling the film is as much a reflection of battles we are fighting today as it is about civil rights victories of the past. But I viewed these parallels from a unique point of view. As the President of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that trains and supports public defenders in some of our nation’s most broken criminal justice systems, I work with lawyers who are on the front lines of arguably this generation’s most important civil rights struggle—the effort to reform America’s criminal justice system. If we are to fix this national civil rights crisis, public defenders will have to be part of the solution.

Selma is set in 1965, and—just as we did 50 years ago—we continue to view some lives as less valuable than others. We still embrace an embarrassingly low standard of justice for our most marginalized populations. We persist in promulgating policies that ensure certain communities will never be able to fully participate in our society.

2.2 million people are incarcerated at any given time in America, far more than any other country in the world. Nearly 6 million have lost the right to vote because of a criminal conviction. Countless others are rendered ineligible for student loans, public housing, benefits necessary to care for their families, and employment opportunities. The victims of this injustice are almost exclusively poor. They are disproportionately people of color. Our race- and class-based system of mass incarceration is tearing apart families, destroying communities, and making it almost impossible for children of incarcerated parents to ever break the cycle. So, much like 50 years ago, we need a movement to address this civil rights imperative.

Like any other feature-length movie focusing on a complex event, Selma was reduced to a simplified narrative in which the heroes overcome adversity to achieve victory—the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But, as much as Dr. King sought to push for policy reform, his larger vision demanded much broader transformation.  He understood that while a law can temporarily force those with a warped sense of justice to change their behavior, true equality only occurs when we collectively embrace it as a fundamental and inviolate American value; when we reshape our culture into one which truly views each and every citizen as deserving of respect and dignity.  King fought not only for legislative victories, but also the transformation of the hearts and minds of Americans. Selma was part of a broader campaign designed to shine a light on the inhumane treatment of African Americans and awaken our national consciousness to the fact that this behavior violates our greatest ideals.

We still embrace an embarrassingly low standard of justice for our most marginalized populations.

Likewise, if we are to realize equal justice today, we must work to transform a criminal justice narrative that assumes people in our poorest communities are somehow inherently dangerous; that measures justice by the harshness of the punishment; that lumps the world into categories of “us” and “them” with law enforcement as “the good guys” and those they police as “the bad guys.” Strategies to reform unjust polices are necessary. Of course we must scale back the criminalization of an ever increasing index of behavior. Certainly we should end a system of bail that detains people pretrial simply because they are too poor to pay the bond that is set. We absolutely need to reform overly punitive sentencing laws.

But if we do not change the fact that we have come to equate justice with punishment and to associate the most negative qualities with race and class, equal justice will remain elusive. Those who administer our justice system will continue to disproportionately monitor, arrest, prosecute, and punish poor people and people of color. We must work to transform our assumptions about our most marginalized populations and how they deserve to be treated. So, while policy reform plays an important role, as was the case 50 years ago, we need a movement to transform the hearts and minds of a nation.

Public defenders can help to drive this campaign. With 80 percent of people accused of crimes too poor to afford an attorney, public defenders are the voice of our impoverished communities in the criminal justice system. By organizing public defenders, we can harness the collective voice necessary to speak up for the humanity of people in these communities and to infuse the system with values essential to justice.

A movement of public defenders has the power to reframe the criminal justice narrative in this country—an essential precursor to sustaining a movement for reform. Lawyers for the poor have the opportunity to humanize their clients every time they speak in court. Public defender leaders can spread the message more broadly as they speak on behalf of the populations they represent in meetings with judges, policymakers, and the community. There are thousands of public defenders across the nation speaking for millions of people whose voices are routinely ignored or dismissed. Their clients are frequently cast as demons, when in fact they are the people who bag our groceries, care for our children, and serve us in restaurants. Most Americans are a paycheck away from needing a public defender. Yet, we do not see people caught up in the criminal justice system as part of our shared community. Until we see these lives as just as valuable as the lives of people we care about, we will not have equal justice. We must mobilize this army of advocates to achieve that transformation of hearts and minds.

That is how we will continue the march that so many heroic civil rights warriors began in Selma.



On Black History Month, King, and an End to ‘Whatever’

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to announce a new monthly column on the intersection of faith and activism, by Reverend Michael Livingston, Executive Minister at The Riverside Church in New York City. Inspired by the work of the church in the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Livingston sees faith and political activism as essential partners for social transformation. In 1975, he was ordained by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and began his ministry in Los Angeles and New York before becoming campus pastor at the Princeton Theological Seminary. After leading interfaith and ecumenical efforts at the International Council of Community Churches and the National Council of Churches (NCC)—where he was president and director of the NCC’s poverty initiative—Rev. Livingston joined Interfaith Worker Justice as national policy director in 2012. His work keeping the voices and needs of marginalized communities at the forefront of public discourse have enriched faith-based advocacy. While Rev. Livingston is now returning to the roots of his career and congregational ministry, his leadership continues to play a vital role in building a more effective progressive movement and a more just nation. 

Look for his column here during the first week of every month.

I am often deeply disturbed by our remorseless witness. We are all implicated; we share responsibility for our witness of well-defined evil.

We don’t protect our most vulnerable children; we value people according to arbitrary standards blind to the image of God on every face; we are too quick to kill and to slow to forgive; we tolerate the desecration of the only earth we will ever know. We give a platform to political leaders who want to “take back our country”—by setting policies that favor the wealthiest over everyone else, selling public schools to the highest bidder, and tearing apart the safety net that sustains the elderly and assists our most vulnerable—as if their words and ideas are worth listening to, or are grounded in principles worthy of our attention or even support.

Our response? Too often it is tantamount to this: “Whatever.”

We allow injustices to persist as if solutions are someone else’s responsibility. We watched our Congress over the last six years—as we slid deeper into recession, as our immigration crisis worsened, as tragic deaths from gun violence killed children school by school, people in movie theaters, women and children in the sanctity of their homes—do less and less, making history for inactivity. Even now, behind all of the soaring rhetoric is a shocking lack of action. It’s almost as if Congress said, “Whatever.”  How will we respond?

February is African American History Month, so rest assured there will be plenty of posturing by our elected leaders. I hope we will revisit a figure often celebrated at this time of year—but I hope we will have a new appreciation of his example, and what his example should mean in our daily lives.

The time for “whatever” has long since passed—it’s time for a collective and unbridled demand for justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a young man, going about his daily business, following his predictable path when God called. He was a preacher’s kid from a solid middle class upbringing, attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, Boston University School of Theology, earning a Master of Divinity and a Ph.D. He was on a Yellow Brick Road headed for Oz. But God had need of him and he joined the ranks of prophets like Samuel, Amos, and Jeremiah; like Martin Luther, and Dietrich Bonheoffer; like Gandhi, Ella Baker, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many others that could be named.

In part, what distinguishes King and these moral giants is the fullness with which they heard the cry of injustice and responded. And we can all hear it if we listen, and we can all respond. As Callie Plunket-Brewton remarked, “The overwhelming witness of the prophets is that God has no tolerance for those who prey on the weak, who abuse their power, or who eat their fill while others are hungry.”

God has no tolerance for “whatever.”

And King had no tolerance for it either. In 1959 he said, “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” Six years later, in 1965, he described his vision for where that career in humanity should lead us: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”

Today, are we not a society that has lost its conscience? One only has to listen to the foolishness that passes for debate in any political season—and there is one on the horizon—or to the witless chatter on our televisions to feel the weight of “Whatever” pulling us down into the gravity of our condition.

But I have hope. I have hope that people of faith in every tradition will heed the words and examples of King and other prophets, and will wake up and rise up, will speak up and stand up; will turn for a moment from entertaining ourselves, buying things, cheering sports teams and entertainers, and insist on a world where children have clean water to drink and safe places to sleep; where the elderly can rest secure, the fruit of their labor beyond the reach of politicians; where a good public education awaits every eager child and a job with a living wage is there for every adult willing and able to work; where health care is a right, not a privilege, and humanity has matured beyond the illusion that our security is gained by weapons and wars.

This month we will celebrate many great African Americans whose contributions to better our nation and world seem incalculable. But rather than set them apart, let us learn from their example and respond as they would have responded. I long for the day when people of all faith traditions call upon those who exercise power in our nation with words lifted from the heart of our faith—so that our living may be transformed. The time for “whatever” has long since passed—it’s time for a collective and unbridled demand for justice.




President’s Budget: Increasing Mobility and Opportunity for All

In his State of the Union address, President Obama put a laser-like focus on “middle-class economics”, calling for policies that ensure every American has a fair shot at economic security. While the President may not have said the word “poverty” in his address, his FY2016 budget, released today, makes clear that “middle-class economics” must also expand the population of people to whom that term applies. Infused throughout the president’s budget are policies and proposals that would provide a smoother pathway for people struggling on the financial brink to not just find a bit of security, but to have a shot at climbing the economic ladder through policies to create good jobs, support strong and healthy families, update our social contract for the 21st century, and remove barriers that keep people trapped in poverty. We’ll review a few of the highlights below.

Good Jobs
Strong Families
21st Century Social Insurance
Removing Barriers to Opportunity

Good Jobs

The President calls for a new investments in infrastructure projects such as ports, bridges, and roads, which would create millions of new jobs that pay a living wage.

The budget also includes significant investments to prepare American workers for medium- and high-skills jobs, including $60 billion for the president’s historic proposal to make community college free for students who keep up their grades, as well as funding to ensure that Pell grants don’t erode with inflation. Other funding would allow a doubling of apprenticeships over 5 years, and a significant expansion of re-employment services, and other workforce development programs that serve low- and middle-income workers.

Importantly, the president’s proposal includes significant new funding to help some of the most disadvantaged workers in the labor market. The budget includes $3 billion for a “Connecting for Opportunity Initiative,” which would make summer and year-round job opportunities more widely available and offer competitive grants to create educational and workforce opportunities for at-risk youth. Recognizing that subsidized jobs are an important tool for helping disadvantaged workers, the president’s budget also redirects over half a billion dollars to a “Pathways to Jobs” initiative to help states partner with employers to create these positions. The budget provides additional funding for subsidized jobs under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

Finally, the “First in the World” program would fund evidence-based and promising practices to improve the likelihood that low-income students could complete degrees and have a better shot at medium- to high-skill jobs in today’s economy.

Strong Families

CAP’s recent report on family policy underscores that policies that strengthen the economic foundation of families are an important part of ensuring that all families are stable, healthy, and strong. To that end, the president’s budget includes several key initiatives to ensure that families don’t need to make choices between a needed paycheck and bonding with a new baby, or going to work without affordable and quality child care.

Specifically, the President’s budget includes a proposal that provides incentives for up to five states to adopt earned paid leave legislation so that the birth of a child or illness of a family member doesn’t send a family into an economic tailspin.

The President reiterates his commitment to providing preschool for all by providing matching funds to states that set up preschool programs, but also offers up a historic expansion of childcare assistance, tripling the maximum child and dependent care tax credit to $3,000 and enabling more families to claim it.

The proposal also includes substantial investments of $82 billion over 10 years in the Child Care and Development Fund to help states offer subsidized child care to low-wage working parents. This could boost the number of slots available by more than 1 million. The budget also increases investments in quality infant and toddler care by expanding access to the Early Head Start program and ensures that children in Head Start can access full-day, full-year programs, which helps parents to work and improves outcomes for kids. The president’s budget continues his commitment to evidence-based home visiting programs that provide professionals like social workers and nurses to pregnant women and new moms in order to help parents support their child’s healthy development. The funded programs have shown a range of positive outcomes including lower rates of depressive symptoms and stress for parents and higher grade point averages and graduation rates for the children in the long-term.

21st Century Social Insurance

Given that four out of five Americans will face at least a year of significant economic insecurity at some point during their working years—and half will experience three years or more—we must ensure that our social contract provides sufficient protection amid the ups and downs of life.

To that end, the President’s budget includes important investments to strengthen several key elements of our social insurance system. He proposes bold reforms to Unemployment Insurance to make it respond more effectively as a stabilizer during recessions; ensure that long-term unemployed workers get the assistance they need without Congress needing to extend benefits; and help individuals secure comparable jobs as quickly as possible through investments in vital re-employment services.

Additionally, while the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is one of our nation’s most effective antipoverty programs, it largely misses childless workers and noncustodial parents, who remain the only group the federal government taxes into poverty. The President’s budget would expand the EITC for these workers, while also making permanent the 2009 improvements to the EITC and the Child Tax Credit, currently set to expire in 2017.

Finally, the President’s budget includes a commitment to keeping our Social Security system strong for current and future generations. To that end, the President would rebalance the old-age and survivors’ fund and the disability insurance fund to put both on sound footing for the next 20 years and to prevent a shortfall in the disability fund. (Rebalancing is a routine step that has been taken 11 times in the past when either fund has faced a shortfall—and it is the only option available to avoid needless, across-the-board benefit cuts for millions of disability insurance beneficiaries—which is what would happen if Congress fails to act before the disability fund’s reserves are depleted in 2016). With his budget, the President is sending a clear message to Congress that it would be irresponsible to threaten the benefits of nearly 9 million disabled workers and 2 million spouses and children for the sake of Congressional politicking. The budget also proposes much-needed increases in administrative funding for the Social Security Administration to reduce the backlog in disability hearings, and mandatory funding to ensure that the agency can do critical program integrity work.

Removing barriers to opportunity 

As a recent CAP report highlights, one group that faces significant barriers to opportunity is the approximately 1 in 3 Americans who have some type of criminal record. To ensure meaningful access to second chances, the President proposes increased investment in programs that support successful reentry. For instance, the budget includes a doubling of the Second Chance Act Grant program, which provides funds to state and local agencies and nonprofit organizations that provide services to support reentry and reduce recidivism; significant increases in resources for Bureau of Prisons programs that support mental health treatment and residential reentry centers, and the establishment of a new program to maintain and strengthen familial bonds for incarcerated individuals with minor children.

Moreover, recognizing that an individual’s zip code should not determine his or her life chances, the President proposes important investments to tackle place-based and concentrated poverty, including an expansion of the Promise Zones initiative, which aims to revitalize high-poverty communities through comprehensive, evidence-based strategies while helping local leaders access federal funding. The President designated five Promise Zones in 2014, and will name another 15 by the end of 2016.

Additionally, the President’s budget includes several policies to ensure that workers with disabilities have a fair shot at employment and economic security. For instance, it provides demonstration authority and funding for key federal agencies to explore early intervention strategies to support workers with disabilities in remaining in the workforce, as well as incentives for states to better coordinate services.


Budgets are about choices. One important choice that cuts across all of the above themes is the president’s choice to reject the spending caps imposed by sequestration in his budget. These caps are due to re-emerge in the next fiscal year absent congressional action, which would have disastrous consequences for our economy and for families. Sequestration costs jobs and erodes funding for skills training; sequestration undermines family economic security by kicking children out of Head Start and child care slots; it hurts the most vulnerable by slashing programs such as affordable housing and nutrition aid for babies and toddlers; and it means fewer resources for investments in community development in distressed neighborhoods, second chances for ex-offenders, and other opportunity-boosting programs.

But the president’s budget isn’t just about damage control. It makes real investments in cutting poverty and boosting economic mobility. In fact, the study that launched the Half in Ten campaign several years ago showed that raising the minimum wage, expanding the EITC and Child Tax Credit, and making childcare more broadly available to low-income families could cut poverty by 26% over 10 years. Those types of investments are all in this budget.

While a Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to adopt the president’s budget, there are opportunities for bipartisan movement—including on the EITC, subsidized jobs, and common-sense reforms to our criminal justice system. But even if Congress were to ignore the vast majority of the president’s budget blueprint, it is important for advocates to pay attention. Budgets are about choices, and the President’s budget underscores that we can achieve deficit reduction while making investments in key aspects of economic opportunity: good jobs, strong families, a 21st century social contract, and removing barriers to opportunity. The question is this: can we build the political will to make these choices happen?




The Question for Lawmakers Who Might Backtrack on Expanded Health Coverage: Seriously?

With two weeks left in the second enrollment period for Affordable Care Act health coverage, marketplace enrollment is projected to reach between 9 million and 9.9 million people this year. That’s a net increase of between 2 and 3 million people gaining coverage through the marketplaces. Millions more will gain coverage through Medicaid expansion.

That’s something to celebrate – but the celebration could be short-lived for many people. Instead of figuring out how to get more people health coverage in 2015, many newly-elected and re-elected state legislators and governors are actually plotting how to take health care away from people who just received it for the first time.

It’s a real threat to people who’ve just gained coverage through Medicaid expansion – especially in states where incoming lawmakers are openly hostile to anything related to the Affordable Care Act. Those at greatest risk of losing coverage are women and people of color.

In Arkansas, where 211,000 people recently gained coverage, the state legislature must reapprove the Medicaid expansion plan by a three-quarters majority again in 2015. The incoming Republican governor is unenthusiastic about the plan – and expansion opponents won seats in the legislature. That doesn’t bode well.

In Ohio, where more than 400,000 people have coverage under Medicaid, the state legislature is also required to reauthorize the program in 2015. And in New Hampshire, where more than 20,000 people enrolled in just three months, the new Republican majority in the NH House of Representatives will also take a fresh vote on the program as well.

The continuing failure of more than 20 states to adopt any expansion plans at all, and the prospect of newly elected legislators revoking expanded coverage for hundreds of thousands of residents, represents a serious health threat to women.

A recent 50-state report card on women’s health by the Alliance for a Just Society clearly shows that most of the states that rejected Medicaid expansion have poor or failing records on women’s health. When it comes to ensuring that women have access to health care, the majority of legislators in these states have turned their backs on women.

Being denied access to health care is the latest Jim Crow.

The 2014 Women’s Health Report Card ranks and grades every state in the country on 30 distinct measures of women’s health. The results: 17 of the 21 states that rejected Medicaid expansion received final grades of C, D or F – and 13 of those states received a D or F.

Politicians in these states are failing women, but they are especially failing women of color who are more likely to be working low paying jobs, not covered by health insurance, and are least likely to have access to medical care.

The number of black women without health insurance is at least 20 percent higher than for women overall in 17 states. The uninsured rate for Latina women is at least 50 percent higher in 44 states. Black, Latina, and Native American women without access to health care have dramatically higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and infant mortality than other women.

While it’s encouraging news that Wyoming, Montana, and even Idaho seem to be moving toward Medicaid expansion, it will also leave our nation with a disturbing illustration of how alive and well racial segregation is in America. Take a look at the map of states that are refusing coverage to their most vulnerable residents: being denied access to health care is the latest Jim Crow.

Lawmakers in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid yet should move quickly to adopt expansion plans this year. If they don’t, they will bear the responsibility for their states falling even further behind on women’s health, and worsening racial disparities in our health care system.

As for lawmakers considering a vote to take health care away from thousands of their constituents, all I can ask is: Seriously? Do you really want to do that?

It’s one thing to stand in the way of people gaining access to quality, affordable health care. But it’s something else when people have just experienced quality, affordable health care for the first time, and then you snatch it away from them.

I can’t imagine that many will take kindly to it. And just in case anybody’s forgotten, there’s another election just a couple years away.




A Solution to America’s Devastating Retirement Shortfall

You probably don’t know about it, but you should: there is a huge “retirement savings gap” in America. The gap is the difference between the assets available to families and the assets that they need to retire at age 67 without incurring a significant lifestyle change. A 2013 study by the National Institute on Retirement Security found that among working households ages 25-64 the collective gap is between $6.8 trillion and $14 trillion.

Really more like a gorge than a gap.

This shortfall is distributed among a very broad swath of workers. In fact, the median retirement account balance for working-age households is $3,000. In other words, the typical working family is on a path to severe retirement insecurity.

Some of the causes of this crisis have to do with economic transformations we’ve undergone in recent decades. For one thing, stagnating—and in many sectors, declining—wages make it hard for workers to devote adequate resources to retirement. Additionally, the much-noted transition in the private sector from defined benefit pensions to defined contribution retirement schemes like 401(k) plans has shifted massive amounts of risk to workers, and, in many cases, decreased the value of retirement benefits — especially for workers who don’t begin putting money in their accounts early in their working life.

The typical working family is on a path to severe retirement insecurity.

On the other hand, one cause of the crisis has been around for decades. Throughout the many changes in the American economy, labor market, and retirement system, the share of workers lacking access to employer-based plans has been alarmingly high, usually hovering between 40 and 50 percent. Though workers whose employers offer no plan could theoretically open an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) on their own, the data are overwhelmingly clear that far too few of them do.  A number of reasons fuel this phenomenon. First, sitting down and making one’s own financial plans for a retirement that might be many decades away is difficult and counter-intuitive. Second, the array of investment products available in today’s marketplace is complex and bewildering. Finally, low- and middle-wage workers often wind up paying very high fees.

Fortunately, the Illinois Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program, signed into law on January 4th, addresses several of these problems. Through this legislation, many workers will now be automatically enrolled in a Roth IRA with a 3% payroll deduction. All workers qualify who have worked for a company with at least 25 employees that has been in business for at least 2 years, and offers no retirement plan. Workers may opt out, or select a contribution level other than 3%.

In many ways, this is a modest idea: it doesn’t require employers to fund these accounts, and it doesn’t involve any government subsidy. On the other hand, it tackles some major issues. First and foremost, it directly takes on the problem of access to employer plans. Secondly, by enrolling people by default unless they want to opt out, it will increase participation. Finally, by pooling a huge number of participants into a single program, workers—especially those who have low wages and work for comparatively small firms—will benefit from fees that are far lower than many would have otherwise paid.

The idea of the automatic enrollment IRA for workers without access to employer plans has been around for nearly a decade. It was invented by Mark Iwry, then of the Brookings Institute (now at the U.S. Treasury Department), and David John, then of the Heritage Foundation (now at AARP). It was supported in 2008 by the presidential campaigns of both Barack Obama and John McCain, and has been introduced in dozens of state capitols. However, due to opposition from the financial industry, no state was able to enact a law implementing such a program—until we passed Secure Choice in Illinois.

Interestingly, after years of battling with special interest groups over this legislation, most of the concerns recently expressed are focused on the question of why the law doesn’t go further. Some have asked why the employee contribution level is only 3%, or why it doesn’t escalate incrementally every year. Others point out that by exempting businesses with fewer than 25 employees, we’ll leave too many workers without coverage. These points are all sound. Indeed, the Illinois Secure Choice Program, while a major step, will not entirely solve the problem of retirement security for workers in the state who currently lack access to workplace plans. What’s more, it makes no progress on wage stagnation or most of the challenges associated with the shift to defined contribution retirement plans.

So we still have much more work to do if we are to create truly adequate retirement security for all workers. But after many years of changes in retirement policy that have usually meant bad news for American workers, I’m proud to have played a role in moving our society in a new direction, and I’m energized to build on this momentum and strive for progress in the years to come.