First Person

We Don’t Need to Wait on Congress to Fight Homelessness

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “On a single night in January 2014, 578,424 people were experiencing homelessness—meaning they were sleeping outside or in an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program.”

It is clear from the numbers alone that in communities across America—including where I live in Ocean County, New Jersey—federal, state, and local public housing assistance programs are not reaching nearly enough people.

I’ve experienced homelessness and I also volunteer at a homeless outreach center that provides clothing, blankets, tents, heaters, food, and other items that are essential to our local population of about thirty homeless individuals and couples. We also offer a hot meal and a safe place for people to gather and freely express themselves. Many of the people we serve refer to our center as their “safe house.”

Nobody in America should be dropped off to disappear in the woods when we have the resources to end homelessness.

At the end of a recent meeting at the center, a couple in their forties asked me for a ride home. They had blankets, coats, and foodstuffs—I suspected they didn’t want to traipse through the downtown business district and draw attention. I gave them a ride, and they directed me to the end of a large parking lot behind a supermarket. They unloaded their things from my car and then slowly disappeared into the woods.

It occurred to me that if they were stray animals, I could have brought them to a half dozen shelters where they would be taken in and cared for, no questions asked. But in my county, not only is there a shortage of affordable housing, there is not a single emergency shelter for homeless people. This is the reality in too many communities across America. It is not only painful to witness, it is also completely unnecessary.

One unutilized tool that could go a long way towards addressing the problem is the National Housing Trust Fund, established by President George W. Bush and Congress as part of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. The goal of the Trust Fund is to provide revenue to build, rehabilitate, and preserve affordable housing for the lowest-income families, including people experiencing homelessness. The Trust Fund is unique in its aim to increase and preserve the supply of affordable rental housing for the very low-income, as most of the fund’s money must go to people who make no more than 30 percent of area median income. The Fund also increases homeownership opportunities for these households. While Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac recently started devoting some of their earnings to the Fund, as the original legislation intended, Congress—perhaps not too shockingly—has complicated and threatened the necessary revenues for the fund.

According to ThinkProgress, a recent example occurred in April 2015, when a House appropriations subcommittee passed legislation that halted funding for the Trust Fund. The legislation instead robbed Peter to pay Paul, diverting monies from the trust fund to another HUD program, HOME, which targets people who make 60 or 50 percent of median family income. The appropriations bill that passed the House ultimately maintained this provision. With its focus on the lowest-income people, the National Housing Trust Fund is a critical resource for fighting homelessness, and these moves to slash its funding imperil people who are on the verge of losing their homes.

In contrast to the Congressional inaction, some states—including Nebraska, Washington State, and Georgia—have created Homeless Trust Funds that allow local civic groups to access monies for emergency shelters and affordable housing.

In 2009, for example, New Jersey passed a law called The County Homelessness Trust Fund Act that authorizes counties to impose a $3.00 surcharge for each document it records. These revenues, administered by a County Homelessness Trust Fund Task Force, are then used to fund housing and supportive services to individuals and families currently experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.

More than one-third of New Jersey counties have implemented the legislation, raising more than a million dollars for efforts to increase permanent affordable housing; prevent the eviction of Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries, including through payment towards rent, mortgage, or utilities; and provide supportive services for chronically homeless individuals who receive housing vouchers.

But despite bearing the brunt of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Ocean County has yet to implement such a trust fund. So what can a community like mine do to convince its local political leaders to take action?

Along with other activists and members of the community affected by homelessness—including health care professionals, trauma experts, police officers, clergy, teachers, local politicians, homeless advocates, and small business owners—I am working to get the backing of our community by framing homelessness as both a values and economic issue. The Ocean County Board Freeholders has the final say on whether or not the county enacts a Homeless Trust Fund. They have public meetings twice a month, and we’ve agreed that we won’t leave their next meeting until we get either an acceptance of our proposal or a counter proposal for eliminating homelessness. Our point is that homelessness in our county must end now, and that’s non-negotiable.

With Congress impervious to the reality and needs of its most vulnerable citizens, county trust funds are just one approach we can take towards ensuring that every person finds the stability and shelter they need to survive and thrive.

We need to take this action and many more—because nobody in America should be dropped off to disappear in the woods when we have the resources to end homelessness.

Author’s Note: For more information on how we can capitalize the National Housing Trust Fund, visit To see how other states have gone about initiating Homeless Trust Funds, visit the Center for Community Change. If there are members of your community who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, please make sure your local political and civic leaders are aware of these avenues for addressing this issue.




How Congress is Spending Billions to Make Inequality Worse

So we’re going to be completely honest with you: taxes are boring. Deductions. Exclusions. Deferrals. Refundability. God help us. But stick with us for a minute, because tax programs are crucial for reversing skyrocketing wealth inequality and turning our upside down world right-side up.

Our new animation shows that the key to understanding this is to not think of them as tax programs—instead think of them as this:


That’s right, gigantic congressional money cannons.  Because these tax programs take what would be government revenue, and give it out to folks to buy a house, go to college, or build a retirement nest egg or financial security for themselves.

At CFED, we like all of these things. We want low-wage workers to be savers and learners and homeowners and entrepreneurs. In other words, we want them to have the opportunity to build wealth. As we see it, while income is crucial for getting by, wealth is crucial for getting ahead.

But in America—the land of opportunity—wealth inequality is skyrocketing. The top 0.1 percent own about as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined. A typical single white male owns $28,900, while a typical single woman of color owns $200 or less. While wealth grows for those at the top, nearly half of Americans are mired in financial insecurity—one paycheck away from economic collapse.


…Which brings us back to those gigantic money cannons. According to our research, the federal government spent $620 billion to help Americans build wealth last year. That’s a lot of dollars shooting out of those cannons—more than $5,000 for every single household in the country.

So where’s your big benefit check?

Well, here’s the bad news: unless you’re a Walmart heir or regularly sport a top hat and monocle, those money cannons probably aren’t aimed at you. Remember that top 0.1 percent that owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent? A typical member of that elite club got $33,391 last year from the largest of these tax programs—roughly the sticker price of a Lexus or BMW. A typical American in the bottom 20 percent?  She got $77—roughly enough for a BMW’s hubcap.


In short, these upside-down tax programs are making wealth inequality even worse. There’s nothing wrong with rich people buying a new Lexus, but the rest of us just shouldn’t have to subsidize it with money that we could be using to get ahead.

It’s an expensive, inequitable, and wasteful way to help Americans afford housing, save for retirement, pay for college, and build financial security. It widens the wealth divide between the rich and the rest; between men and women; and between whites and communities of color. Instead of helping all Americans get ahead, we’re just giving a boost to the lucky few who are already at the front of the pack.

This isn’t going to change unless we speak up. Because you know who doesn’t think taxes are boring? The guy getting that Lexus-sized check every year. And you can bet he’s making his voice heard.

That’s why we made this animation. To fight for change, we have to understand the problem and the solution. We know that the government is already spending billions on wealth-building programs. We just want them to spend it smarter to help everyone get ahead.

As we enter 2016, the country is engaged in a debate on opportunity, inequality, financial security, and, yes, taxes. The Republican and Democratic presidential debates this week are two venues where this discussion will continue, and there will be many more to come. So let’s shape that debate instead of letting others shape it for us. Demand that our elected officials—and wannabe elected officials—commit to turning these upside-down tax programs right-side up. They say they want to reduce wealth inequality and grow financial security for all Americans—well, here’s an easy way they can do just that.

These policies are not going to change overnight, but to get there we first need to raise awareness about the enormity of the problem. Do your part: watch our animation, share the message, and sign up so you can stay informed and take action. Real change starts with you and a click, so do your part to turn things right-side up.



What Can Be Done to Restore Voting Rights

Our democracy is in a state of moral crisis. As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act this year, we’ve found ourselves with a political system that lets the most wealthy Americans spend a billion dollars to influence an election, but effectively blocks countless low-income people, students, and people of color from casting even a single ballot. And this disturbing reality is unlikely to change unless we demand action now.

Until recently, the history of political participation in America was one of forward progress, a timeline marked by an ever-increasing expansion of voting rights. The 15th Amendment in 1870. Women in 1920. And after decades of bloody struggle, the Civil Rights Movement—with the strong participation of Americans of faith—seemed to achieve true equality in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act is most celebrated for protecting the right to vote for African Americans, but it has also helped ensure that students, low-income Americans, and the elderly have been able to cast their ballots.

However, in 2013 the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act—one that required states with a record of racially-motivated voter disenfranchisement to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before making any changes to voter laws.

The result? A flood of new restrictive voting laws are now blocking low-income people, people of color, students, and others from the ballot box. According to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice, during the 2015 legislative session alone lawmakers from 33 states have introduced or carried over 113 bills that would restrict access to registration and voting.

What do these laws look like?

They impose barriers that keep low-income people, people of color, disabled people, and other historically disenfranchised communities away from polls. Among these barriers are strict photo identification requirements, cuts to same-day voter registration, and reductions in the number of early voting days. In a state like Alabama, which implemented a strict voter ID requirement last year and just last month closed 31 DMV offices, the result is that poor, rural voters—large numbers of them African-American—will not have easy access to the IDs they need to vote without traveling to a different county and likely missing shifts at work to do so. Faced with these kinds of barriers, and struggling to get by in our age of extreme income inequality, how many low-income Americans can actually afford to pay these 21st century poll taxes to make it to the ballot box on Election Day?

Before the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, laws like these would have likely never won approval from the Department of Justice. They would have been recognized and stopped for what they clearly are—attempts to disenfranchise certain classes of voters. Now, many are being challenged in the courts, but they’ll likely languish there for years in never-ending legal battles as election after election passes by.

Congress’ hyper-partisan “leadership” has refused to move forward with a badly needed reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act that would mend what the Supreme Court has broken.

What can people of faith—and all Americans—do about this moral crisis? Together, we need to convince Congress to act while also doing everything we can to protect voting rights in the states we call home. That means marching, protesting, petitioning and making our voices heard. We must expect no compromise, no consideration from those who seek to warp the electoral system in their favor.

To start, join the thousands of Americans who are calling on Congress to restore voting rights protections by signing the VRAforToday petition.

If you want to go a step further, look for opportunities to join protests and actions of civil disobedience. My organization, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, for example, recently organized vigils across the country to draw attention to voting rights. You can expect more actions like this from us and many other groups if Congress continues to stall on the bill before next year’s crucial national election.

To take direct action that protects voters, volunteer as a poll monitor with organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. They need help assisting voters who are facing hardship or confusion from new voting or registration laws, or monitoring polling sites for discrimination on Election Day.

Other organizations doing great work on this front include the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, and Rock the Vote. Sign up for emails from these groups and you will find many more opportunities to get involved.

This is a tough fight, but it’s a fight we can win if we all pitch in. Together, we have the power to force congressional action just as our parents and grandparents did fifty years ago when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.  Let’s make them proud.




The Grim Reality Behind the Pink Ribbon

With October behind us, so too is the frenzy around the pink ribbon—the symbol of our nationwide campaign against breast cancer. Despite month-long displays of solidarity, many awareness campaigns have turned a blind eye to perennial disparities in care. In a country where marginalized women are more likely to die from breast cancer, our efforts to curb the disease require constructive policies that work to dismantle inequities within our health systems—not pink-washed products.

One such product hit the shelves last year when oil behemoth Baker Hughes—which specializes in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”—joined forces with breast cancer foundation Susan G. Komen to produce pink drill bits. Fracking, a procedure by which oil is extracted from the ground, is highly toxic. More than a quarter of the chemicals used are known carcinogens, and some are linked to breast cancer. On top of that, fracking is more likely to occur in impoverished areas, where medical care—let alone care for breast cancer—is already difficult to come by.

A few years prior, Susan G. Komen teamed up with an unlikely ally: Kentucky Fried Chicken. The fast-food chain packaged its signature dish in pink and pledged a donation to its partner for each “Bucket for the Cure” sold. The campaign stirred a fair deal of controversy—and rightly so, as fried meats are associated with breast cancer. In addition, the campaign marketed its product—with all of its adverse health implications—primarily to the poor in a dubious effort to access hard-to-reach populations. The fast-food chain is found largely in low-income neighborhoods, where healthier food options are often out of reach for most residents.

To be sure, not all campaigns against breast cancer have raised so many eyebrows. Some 67 percent of women at high-risk ages have received mammograms within the past two years, a statistic that, while far from perfect, attests to the success of many awareness campaigns. Billions of dollars are poured into breast cancer research annually, which is surely another part of the reason that breast cancer patients now enjoy a five-year survival rate of close to 90 percent, up from about 75 percent in 1980.

Gains from the war on breast cancer have by and large sidestepped women of color and low-income women.

But a closer examination of the numbers reveals a much more grim reality. Gains from the war on breast cancer have by and large sidestepped women of color and low-income women, and instead have accrued largely to more privileged patients. Prior to 1980, such shameful disparities did not exist. Black women and white women faced nearly identical mortality rates of about 33 deaths per 100,000. But today, black women are most likely to die from the disease. Researchers say that biological differences do not account for differences in survival.

A 2015 study found that black women were between 40 and 70 percent more likely to have a late diagnosis, when they are already in the advanced stages of breast cancer. Hispanic women were 30 to 40 percent more likely to be diagnosed in advanced stages. Late detection, of course, so often translates to higher costs of care and lower survival rates.

Race even impacts the quality of treatment that breast cancer patients receive. The same 2015 study concluded that black women were between 30 and 60 percent more likely than white women to undergo inappropriate treatment for the disease, and Hispanic women were 20 to 40 percent more likely.

Research cannot fully explain these disparities, but poverty is a clear factor, facilitated by woeful public policies and institutionalized racism. Women in low-wage jobs without paid sick leave—disproportionately women of color—are less likely to receive the preventive care necessary to detect breast cancer in its early stages. As a result, these women are more likely to die from the disease. One study found that, while 63 percent of women with paid sick leave had received a mammogram within the past year, only 52 percent of women without paid sick leave had gotten one. And it makes sense. The 40 million workers who toil without paid sick leave risk reductions in precious income or even the job itself for time away. Preventive care cannot be a luxury only afforded to those in comfortable jobs.

While breast cancer has no cure just yet, solutions to health disparities like these do exist. Paid sick leave is among them. Clinics funded through Title X—the federal grant program that is constantly under threat—offer mammograms to low-income women and serve as a lifeline for those otherwise on the margins of care. Medicaid, too, has proven an invaluable source to those in poverty, but 19 states have refused to expand the insurance program under the Affordable Care Act. This policy choice has dire consequences. It is in some of these states—like Alabama, Kansas, and Oklahoma—where women are most likely to die from breast cancer.

When black patients die from breast cancer three years before white patients, and low-income women face impossible choices between the care they need to survive and their livelihoods, we need to embrace policies—not pink drill bits—to curb our unjust health disparities.




Why Poverty Isn’t a Halloween Costume

When a website documenting the attire of Walmart customers surfaced several years ago, its popularity grew quickly. As Walmart is known for its low prices, and a sizeable number of its customers have very little money, many photos on the site featured people in outdated, worn, and dirty clothing. Phone cameras made it easy to surreptitiously photograph a person walking among the aisles – to single them out and mock how they were dressed. And so, the “People of Walmart” website inevitably became a place where visitors could laugh at the expense of an impoverished person.

Their attire built upon a larger legacy of distorting the experiences of people living in poverty.

Some of the site’s fans have gone even further, just in time for Halloween. Recently in Acadia Parish, Louisiana, the principal of a local high school and her husband, a coach at the same school, attended a costume party dressed like a couple from the “People of Walmart” website. A photo of the pair made headlines because they were blatantly appropriating poverty. That is, they were dressing up as someone who is marginalized for the sake of entertainment. This practice often occurs during Halloween when revelers dress up in Native American, ninja, and geisha costumes without having any connection to these cultures, or through crude portrayals of Latino and African American celebrities. But therein lies the rub – when Halloween or the event ends, the appropriators can simply take their costumes off and go back to a life free of racism and hardship. The rest of us don’t have it so lucky.

In this case, the principal, Lee Ann Wall, wore tight, skimpy clothing with her hair in little braids. She had tucked what appeared to be the traditional “food stamp” coupons in her bra and placed a box at her feet filled with multi-racial dolls with a sign that read, “You wait on pay day, I be waiting for da first of da month!” implying a welfare check. Not to be outdone, her husband wore a shirt that read “Baby Daddy,” with pockets full of money and a gun, along with a red bandana for a belt.

Although the couple probably thought of their “People of Walmart” costumes as harmless fun, their attire built upon a larger legacy of distorting the experiences of people living in poverty. Indeed, throughout the last fifty years—and particularly during efforts to “reform” welfare—political leaders have painted people in poverty as lazy and entitled, most famously through the Reagan-era term “Welfare Queen.” Their logic is that if enough Americans believe that most people who need benefits will refuse to work and abuse the system, it will be easier to cut anti-poverty programs without incurring a backlash.

As a single parent putting myself through college, I know well that receiving government assistance requires fighting this stigma. In advocating for myself to receive assistance or even child support, I’ve heard people say I acted like I was entitled to these benefits. Or that I wasn’t thankful enough for them, or that I didn’t use them as they were intended. Or even that those benefits aren’t meant for me; that they are supposed to go to someone who’s “really” living in poverty.

Seeing people like Lee Ann Wall and her husband engage in noxious stereotyping while they are entrusted with helping children learn is especially devastating. I wonder, “Is that the way they see me and other parents whose children qualify for free lunches?” If my child went to their school, I’d be less likely to open up to them about my struggles as a parent, knowing that their vision of someone who receives government assistance is so negative and flippant. I’d worry about my own child experiencing discrimination.

Much like poverty is not a costume that we can slip on and off for the sake of entertainment, accepting government assistance is not something people boast about. It is the admission that you cannot provide for yourself and your family. It is asking for help from a system whose recipients are compared to thieves and serve as the punchline of jokes. And now, it seems that our struggles – instead of inspiring empathy – make for nothing more than a funny Halloween costume.