First Person

The Art of Balancing the Ledger While in Poverty

When you live at or under the federal poverty level, you’d better be good at crunching numbers. Every cent coming in or going out needs to be accounted for. My day planners have always been filled with the kind of detailed ledger you’d find in any small business: Rent, at $430 with our housing assistance, is at the top of the list, due on the first of the month. Second is Netflix, at $8, due on the 10th. On the 12th, a $25 payment for a credit card that’s maxed out at $500 and has a 12 percent interest rate. My private student loan with a balance of $2,800 is due on the 13th, and it’s often the bill I don’t pay. It has a 3 percent interest rate and a $133 monthly payment. If I am 30 days late, they start calling.

“Are you aware your payment is late?” they always ask.

“Yes,” I say. “Are you aware the payment you want is a fourth of my income?”

I can hear them shrug through the phone.

When you live at or under the federal poverty level, you’d better be good at crunching numbers.

At this point in my life, I can compute rates and payments with the skill of a Wall Street day trader. I use an available balance of one credit card to make a payment on another card. I make $50 payments to two different store cards that have 26 percent interest rates. The phone and internet bill is $50. Electric is $53. Car and life insurance bills are $62. I have two more credit accounts with 20 percent interest rates that have the largest balances, the largest payments, and close out my month with payments due on the 22nd and 24th. I immediately use the available credit on these cards to get gas and toiletries.

For the past six years of putting myself through college, I’ve had lists posted in my home by my desk or on the fridge. They would list my fixed expenses, which usually hovered around $1,100, and my income from work, which usually came in between $300 and $1,300 depending on the time of the year. During school, I received grants and a scholarship but I still came out with $50,000 in debt, a chunk of that due to student loans.

Federal poverty data released in September show I’m not alone as I juggle to make ends meet. While the unemployment rate is dropping, and parts of the economy show signs of improvement, not everyone is benefiting. According to the latest data, I am one of 46.7 million Americans who live in poverty. Factoring in the government assistance we receive for food, housing, health insurance, and child support, my total annual income hovers around $20,000. The current federal poverty level for a family of four is almost $24,000.

Over the last year, I’ve struggled to launch a freelance writing career while caring for my 8-year-old and 15-month-old daughters, and the dog we somehow acquired from the local shelter. Finding full-time work is difficult when you can’t afford daycare. And when money is so tight, even the smallest of wrenches thrown in the sputtering machine can set me back for months.

A wrench can be something as simple as my daughter’s after-school activities. I recently had to tell my older daughter that I didn’t think she could do the Nutcracker try-outs because of the $150 we have to pay upfront, and the make-up and costumes we’d have to pay for. I tried to convince her to do gymnastics again, since the gym gives us a scholarship. These are the conversations I hate the most.

I find myself asking how people in poverty are supposed to work their way out. We work so we won’t need assistance for food or health insurance, but even still, we’re not earning enough to sustain ourselves. Meanwhile, legislators are always looking for ways to pass laws that compromise our eligibility for help. Then there are always the other mishaps of life that can send your ledger spiraling. A broken transmission or a sick child can mean the loss of a hard-earned job.

The possibilities to upend the ledger are endless, real, and exhausting. For most of the last year, I sent my rent check in on time, knowing it wouldn’t be deposited until the 10th. I needed that extra time for child support payments and paychecks from the end of the previous month to go through in order for the rent check to clear. Paying the bills is like walking on rotted floorboards in your own house; at any moment an unexpected expense will cause you to fall through a hole. What’s worse, I have no back-up. No emergency credit card, no savings, and no family to help us out of a bind.

The recent poverty statistics are evidence that the economy may be improving, but not for those of us struggling the hardest to make ends meet. And every month, the scramble to pay the bills starts all over again.




Paid Leave is a Family Value and Faith Practice

Last week, when Pope Francis entered the Capitol building to give a historic address before a joint session of Congress, the pontiff carried with him a moving plea for the establishment of a “culture of care.” The Pope’s address included an appeal to dialogue with “the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and—one step at a time—to build a better life for their families.” But too many of those working parents—especially those in low-paying jobs—know just how precarious that effort to care for their families can be.

Many of us, including the pope, might very well disagree on just what makes a family, but we can all agree that the common good of our society is best served when caregivers don’t need to risk their livelihoods in order to provide care for young people. However, policies like paid sick leave—which allows workers to take time off to care for themselves or their families if someone becomes ill or incapacitated—remain out of reach for too many people.

President Obama recently made headlines after signing an executive order requiring federal contractors to grant workers up to seven days of paid sick leave each year. But the fact remains that out of the 22 wealthiest nations in the world, the United States is the only one without any form of guaranteed paid sick leave for workers. As a result, only about 43 percent of workers have reported the ability to take paid leave to care for a sick family member. Nearly a quarter of American workers report losing a job or being threatened with job loss for taking time off to care for a sick child or relative.

The common good of our society is best served when caregivers don’t need to risk their livelihoods in order to provide care

While paid family and medical leave impacts all families, it especially impacts women. Six in every 10 mothers are the primary, sole, or co-breadwinner for their family. This includes both single mothers and mothers with an unemployed spouse or partner at home. And about a third of all children in the United States live in a single-parent household; nearly half of them are already living below the poverty line. Forty percent of their parents are working in low-wage jobs—the types of jobs least likely to offer paid sick leave.

Many working families simply cannot afford to take the time they need to care for their children when they get sick. For a family headed by a sole breadwinner who earns the average wage for workers without paid sick leave, it would take just three days of missed work to be driven below the federal poverty line. With over one in five churchgoers estimated to be living in households that earn less than $25,000 a year, people of faith must come to realize that this kind of instability—and injustice—is a reality for many of the people in their congregations.

This desire to care for our children is a human instinct, a family value, and a faith practice. The scriptures appeal repeatedly to God as a nurturing parent who always comes to the aid of their children. Most of us are familiar with the imagery of “God the Father,” and scripture pushes us further. God the Mother speaks through the prophet Isaiah to promise: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” In the Christian New Testament, Jesus remarks at how often he has “desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

Faith advocates have endorsed more just, family-friendly workplace policies for years. It’s now time for people of faith—whether in the pulpits, in the pews, or in politics—to stand up, speak out, and actively promote paid sick leave as a real family value and faith practice that impacts every working family. In a real “culture of care,” when parents inevitably get that call from the school nurse, they can leave their desk, or register, or assembly line and offer the care their children need. State and federal elected officials and business leaders—especially those claiming to be pro-family and pro-faith—should take the steps necessary to make access to paid leave a reality for all working families.




Congress after Pope Francis: Take Action for the Common Good

As I sat in the gallery watching Pope Francis deliver his historic address to Congress, I believed this could be a transformative moment for our nation’s legislators, one that provides a clear call to action for the common good.

Unlike some, I don’t see official Washington as a soulless place. Many here are hungry for something better than the politics we have now. One reason Pope Francis’s visit resonated so deeply was that he repeatedly called us to our better selves. He believed all of us—including our political leaders—could heal the “open wounds” that surround us, and that gave many of us hope.

One of my favorite passages from Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, reads: “Our goal is … to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”

As he also said to the prisoners he met in Philadelphia: “Any society, any family, which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children, and views that pain as something normal or to be expected, is a society ‘condemned’ to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain.”

Just prior to the pope’s visit, I led our fourth annual “Nuns on the Bus” trip. Our goal was to meet with people in communities from St. Louis to Washington, and gather stories of their suffering and their work for the common good. We are now sharing these stories with our elected officials, and an iPad of the collection was also given to Pope Francis during his visit.

Today, in contrast to the pope’s vision of justice, we see a disconnected Congress mired in hyper-partisanship, so removed from the lives of people like those we met on our tour that some legislators actually consider shutting down the government a useful strategy. Never mind how many people would be harmed by a loss of services and pay, or the pope’s calling on Congress “to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good.”

Rather than scolding Congress for its shortcomings, however, Pope Francis chose to raise up four Americans as representative of who we really are. Everyone could readily identify Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, but many of us were deeply touched when he included the lesser-known Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Pope Francis has called all of us to create an economy of inclusion, one in which all can thrive and no one is shut out.

An ardent pacifist, Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker movement that continues to feed and shelter people in poverty. Thomas Merton sought to bring people together, promoting peace and dialogue so we could truly become one united family. Both led controversial lives and represent the “bruised, hurting and dirty” church that Pope Francis seeks, “rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (Joy of the Gospel 43).

With some urgency, Pope Francis has called all of us—especially our lawmakers and key economic players—to create an economy of inclusion, one in which all can thrive and no one is shut out. He once wrote that “growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.” (Joy of the Gospel 204).

Even though the pope didn’t mention them explicitly, there are actions Congress can take right now to help fulfill his vision. Legislators should raise the minimum wage and make permanent key improvements to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit that are set to expire in 2017, while expanding the EITC to include younger childless workers and noncustodial parents who are presently taxed into poverty. Congress can also make sure that all people have access to healthcare by strengthening rather than attacking the Affordable Care Act, and encouraging all states to expand Medicaid coverage. As the pope told Congress, “Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ and ‘an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded’….”

The son of immigrants, Pope Francis often reminds us that immigrants deserve to be treated justly and with compassion. “The rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected,” he said last week. “…When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.”

When I think about our nation’s current broken immigration system, I think about Katherine, a 15-year-old we met in Kansas City during our bus tour. When her parents went to pay a traffic ticket, they were deported. She and her five siblings moved in with their grandmother, a major financial burden on the family. Most heartbreaking was when Katherine’s 11-year-old sister attempted suicide because she thought one less child would help makes things “better” for her distraught grandmother.

With that kind of suffering so prevalent among so many people who are trying to build a better life for their families, there is no excuse for congressional failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform. They must do so now.

Finally, we all know that racism is at the core of many of our problems. When I think about the crisis of systemic racism, I think about the pain of African American mothers whom I met in Saint Louis during a conversation with “Mother 2 Mother.” This discussion group meets regularly to talk about the differences between raising black and white children in the U.S. One woman spoke about the horror of seeing Michael Brown’s body in Ferguson: “I remember the blood triggering me to a state of anger like I had never been there before because I could only imagine if that was our boy, if that was our grandboy… What’s the difference between Michael Brown and my grandson? Nothing.”

If #BlackLivesMatter to our politicians, they must respond to the unique challenges confronting communities of color, including fear and racism within our police forces that have led to the unjust killings of black and brown people, housing discrimination, food deserts, a lack of opportunities in jobs and education, and much more. By honoring Dr. King, the pope reminded us how this civil rights icon moved our nation toward justice. We can and must continue in that quest.

Let us live out Pope Francis’s message to bridge divides and transform our economy and our politics. We the People know that our country must move toward justice for all. I pray that Congress heard what Pope Francis said and will work with us to make that happen.



Instead of Shaming the Poor, Let’s Raise the Minimum Wage

Yesterday I joined Fox and Friends for what they billed, in typical Fox News fashion, as a “fair and balanced debate.” The topic was a Maine mayor’s call to publish the names and addresses of all recipients of public assistance online as a sort of “poverty-offender registry.” Mayor Robert MacDonald of Lewistown announced this ugly proposal last week in an op-ed in the local Twin-City Times, offering the justification that Mainers “have a right to know how their money is being spent.”

My conservative counterpart on the show—Seton Motley, a one-man political operation he calls Less Government (hey, at least he gets points for being straightforward)—defended “shaming the people who are sitting on welfare” as a tactic to get them off of assistance, and to crack down on what he termed “widespread welfare abuse.”

As I pointed out when my turn came to speak, the real shame is that our nation’s minimum wage is a poverty wage. In the late 1960s, the minimum wage was enough to keep a family of three out of poverty. Had it kept pace with inflation since then, it would be nearly $11 today, instead of the current $7.25 per hour.

Video provided by Media Matters for America

And it’s not just workers earning the minimum wage who are struggling: Working families have seen decades of flat and declining wages, while those at the top of the income ladder capture an ever-rising share of the gains from economic growth.

As a result, millions of Americans are working harder than ever while falling further and further behind. And many are juggling two and three jobs in an effort to make enough to live on: 7 million Americans are working multiple jobs. (Remember Maria Fernandes, the New Jersey woman who died in her car after trying to get a few hours of sleep in between her four jobs?)

Many low-wage workers need to turn to public assistance to make ends meet. In fact, researchers at Berkeley found that the public cost of low wages is more than $152 billion annually, in the form of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Medicaid, and other work and income supports that workers must rely on when wages are not enough to live on. The researchers also find that more than half—56 percent—of combined federal and state spending on public assistance goes to working families.

Contrary to conservatives’ claims that a bump-up in the minimum wage would “kill jobs,” a large body of research shows that past minimum wage increases at the federal, state, and local levels have boosted earnings and cut poverty among working families, without leading to job loss.

Past minimum wage increases have boosted earnings and cut poverty among working families, without leading to job loss.

And it’s not just teenagers earning extra spending money who stand to benefit from raising the minimum wage. The average age of workers who would get a raise is 35—and more than 1 in 4 have kids. (Then again, Motley went so far as to say that people earning the minimum wage shouldn’t have children… Oy.)

If Mayor MacDonald, Motley, and their cheerleaders in the right-wing media really want to shrink spending on public assistance, then instead of wasting their time shaming people who are struggling to make ends meet—which, of course, is the sole purpose of Fox News’s recurring segment “Entitlement Nation”—they’d be wise to embrace raising the minimum wage. Indeed, my colleague Rachel West has found that raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour, as Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Bobby Scott have proposed, would save a whopping $53 billion in SNAP in the coming decade—more savings than the $40 billion in cuts proposed by House Republicans during the last round of Farm Bill negotiations. In Maine, the single-year savings in SNAP from a minimum wage hike would top $31 million.

Whether or not Mayor MacDonald’s widely criticized—and likely illegal—proposal for a public assistance shaming database gains traction—even in a state that’s been leading the nation when it comes to policies that punish its citizens for being poor—we should see his and Fox News’ poor-shaming for what it is: an attempt to divert attention away from the real causes of poverty, as well as the solutions that would dramatically reduce it.

For pushing harmful policies and bullying people who are struggling to provide for their families in an off-kilter economy, Mayor MacDonald and his friends in the right-wing media are the ones who should be ashamed.



First Person

Looming Sequestration Cuts Would Harm Head Start Families and Communities

Editor’s note: In 2013, 20,000 children lost access to Head Start during the federal shutdown. This disruption in services followed drastic cuts to Head Start’s budget as a result of sequestration, which reduced by 57,000 the number of available slots in the Head Start and Early Head Start programs for the upcoming fiscal year.

Funds for Head Start were restored by Congress in 2014, but tensions during recent budget negotiations have left Head Start families bracing themselves once again. The temporary solution reached by Congress would maintain funding at current levels through December 11. But if Congress doesn’t reach an agreement on the budget before then, Head Start programs could be subject to massive sequestration cuts, and vulnerable families may be without access to services.    

Victoria Hilt of Bremerton, WA was homeless and six months pregnant when she turned to Head Start. She describes her family’s experience with the program and the impact sequestration had on her community.

When I was six-months pregnant I left an unsafe living situation and became homeless. I went to my local WIC office, where I received information on prenatal care and nursing and was directed to an Early Head Start program. The WIC office told me the program would help me learn how to best care for myself in order to have a safe pregnancy and prepare to be my child’s first teacher. In the end, Early Head Start and Head Start would do that for me and so much more.

Since birth, my daughter, now age four, has grown up in the Head Start buildings with exposure to the same staff over that time period. The program has taught me about many aspects of healthy child development—from routine visits with the pediatrician and dentists, to positive father-daughter relationships, to social-emotional and cognitive development. My daughter and I have learned not only in the classroom, but also through home visits, parent-child activities, policy council meetings, board meetings, and everyday interactions with staff. Early Head Start also connected me to the Kitsap Community Resources Housing Solutions Center, where I was able to find temporary housing and, ultimately, the home where my daughter and I have now lived for four years.

I’m hardly alone. Throughout the nation, Head Start and Early Head Start are helping struggling families—and the communities where they live—build a better future.

When a family’s foundation or a community’s assets are weakened or cut, progress is slowed or even halted.

When sequestration hit my hometown of Bremerton, Washington, Head Start had to cut the number of slots available for children. Many of these families had no other options for high quality care. The staff also took a cut to their benefits in order to maintain the high quality of services provided to the families who were still able to attend. These cuts disrupted the continuity of care for the children. Some “non-essential” personnel such as kitchen aids and training aids were let go. Other employees were asked to take on more tasks without a pay increase. Job insecurity made some staff members seek employment elsewhere—who could blame them? Federally-funded jobs were on shaky ground to say the least. The agency has now reduced staff down to the bare bones needed to meet the existing performance standards. If the sequester hits again, the program will have no other option than to further reduce the number of slots available. This bad policy is a disservice to the future of our community and many others: When a family’s foundation or a community’s assets are weakened or cut, progress is slowed or even halted.

I can’t even imagine where my daughter and I would be had we not had this incredible resource available to us.

Prior to Head Start, I was struggling to find my voice and my direction—homeless, pregnant, and sometimes hopeless. Through the program, I not only found a home, but I also attended finance classes and learned how to provide for my family on a budget. I learned the importance of self-care, and how this sets an example for my daughter. Using the skills we learned through the program, I am successfully co-parenting with my daughter’s father. Engaging in Head Start has also reignited my passion for learning, helping others, and advocating for policies that help people build a better life just like I have. I am back in school, working on completing a degree in political science so that I can pursue a career in grant and policy writing. I’m very involved in early learning and welfare policy in my community, and am interested in perhaps running for elected office someday so that I may continue contributing to my community in a positive, powerful way.

But that’s down the road. Right now I’m concerned about this: Head Start might not be available to me and my daughter and too many other families if Congress doesn’t act soon. If my daughter can’t attend Head Start, I worry that she will fall behind developmentally, and that I will not have a high quality program to send her to while I pursue my educational and employment goals and forge a path toward financial independence.

Head Start is crucial to families and communities that are most at-risk. Take it away, and you are simply making a life on the brink more precarious.