First Person

Who Are the ‘Legitimate’ Poor?

Recently, I disobeyed a cardinal rule of the Internet and decided to read comments on an article I once published in the Missoula Independent. I had begun writing about raising my daughters on very little income, which opened me up to a lot of criticism. One comment in particular stuck with me: “Her writing at once presents her life as being self-determined and [resulting from] a series of purposeful choices while claiming the right to be looked at as a victim of circumstances, of the system.” Drawing upon common stereotypes, this commenter accused me of choosing to be poor, wallowing in it, and even capitalizing on it by writing about my experiences.

These commenters are representative of the all too common assumption that someone is choosing to stay poor because they are lazy. But being poor and qualifying for government assistance is not an easy life. I think that, given the choice, most if not all people would choose to have a job that supports their basic needs and affords them a vacation once in a while. This idea is borne out by the evidence; four out of five participants in the food stamps program are either working or not expected to work due to their age or because they have a disability.

It’s as if these legislators are looking only to help the poor person who fits an ideal mold.

Jumping through hoops to receive assistance is exhausting and further stigmatized by legislators who introduce laws that limit access to resources. For example, Kansas State Senator Michael O’Donnell—who successfully advocated for legislation to ban people from using cash assistance to see a movie or go to a swimming pool—is eager to take his place as an arbiter in determining which poor person is “legitimate.” Who is the “real” victim and who will turn around and take advantage of the assistance, using it toward, heaven forbid, a leisurely activity once in a while. Who has made poor decisions and who has found themselves without a home due to causes beyond their control. It’s as if these legislators are looking only to help the poor person who fits an ideal mold, the one most like Oliver Twist.

At Christmas time, the search for Oliver Twist goes into full gear. Many people get into the holiday spirit of giving and maybe tip their waitress a little more, drop some change in the bucket next to the Santa Claus outside the department store, or go as far as organizing food, clothing, and toy drives for needy families. But although a majority of Americans say the government should do “a lot” to fight poverty, many will confine this support to people they view as the “deserving poor,” like children or veterans. As a friend said to me recently: “You are probably a part of a small percentage of moms and dads who are legitimate in their need and how you are getting by.”

And in their rush to judge who is legitimate, other acquaintances have told me that I’m not “really” poor. They assume that since I’m white and educated, I’m broke but not living in poverty. And now that I am on my way to making a pretty decent living that is close to putting me over the federal poverty line, I’ve thought about this a lot as well. What is the difference between being impoverished and being temporarily broke?

Artist Toby Morris’s comic in The Wireless brilliantly illustrates this difference. Individuals who are “broke”—the archetype of the student from a middle-class family eating ramen noodles comes to mind here—can draw upon family assets or social capital to support taking risks or to mitigate economic hardship; by contrast, millions of Americans are impoverished by setbacks, like the loss of a job or a sudden illness, from which they lack the resources to recover. I was born into a poor family that had been living on very little for generations. My parents were 20 when they had me, and when I was in the eighth grade, my mom was the first in our family to graduate from college. I wasn’t able to participate in a lot of extracurricular activities, and my parents encouraged me to work and make my own money from a young age. The lack of money was a source of constant stress in our home.

Disadvantage accumulates over time. Over the years, I have not been able to turn to family or any hidden assets for support. My parents couldn’t afford to pay for my college education, and I had to take out loans in my own name to pay for it. So when I was faced with debilitating hospital bills in my early 20s, I had to declare bankruptcy despite working 12-hour days, six days a week. Ten years later, the bankruptcy has been wiped from my credit report, but the debt I accrued in college will still keep me from accessing the funds I would need to purchase a decent vehicle or a house.

In a country where we trumpet equal access to opportunity, poverty and the stigma that comes with it present barriers to self-actualization.

In a country where we trumpet equal access to opportunity, poverty and the stigma that comes with it present barriers to self-actualization. After trying to be a paralegal and a counselor, I chose to pursue my dreams of being a writer. But unlike my wealthier peers, I felt like I was hurling myself through college, spiraling wildly and uncontrollably into debt, in pursuit of a fantasy I’d had since I started writing at the age of ten. The guilt that comes with pursuing writing as a career is not necessarily shared by an upper- or even middle-class person. Writing and the arts in general are often reserved for wealthy people, who don’t blink at the costs of attending retreats or investing time to create something that is not guaranteed to generate a lot of cash. By contrast, to avoid judgment, the poor must be able to point to a steady paycheck to demonstrate that they are “legitimate,” meaning that they have in fact been working and contributing to the formal economy.

I have to wonder: who isn’t legitimate in their need for help? Take the act of parenting, which is difficult even in the best of circumstances. Parenting on your own, without family to fall back on or even a supportive co-partner, often feels impossible. I can’t think of anyone in that situation who wouldn’t be legitimate, yet it’s still a common reaction to blame people who are struggling for their circumstances.

People don’t choose to be poor. They are often handed a life that only affords them that.



Why Seniors—Not CEOs—Deserve a Raise

Any conversation about tackling poverty in the United States should include protecting and expanding Social Security. The reason is pretty straightforward: Social Security is the most powerful tool available to lift people out of poverty. Nearly two-thirds of seniors depend on Social Security for the majority of their income, and millions more children and adults depend upon survivors and disability benefits. According to Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of Census data, Social Security kept 21 million Americans out of poverty in the last year alone. All told, that’s more people than any other government program.

Social Security isn’t a luxury — it’s a lifeline.

Social Security works. No one runs out of benefits, and payments don’t rise and fall with the stock market. Despite scare tactics from Republicans in Congress, the facts are clear. Social Security has a $2.8 trillion surplus. If we do nothing, Social Security will be safe for the next 18 years, and after that will continue to pay three-quarters of benefits through the end of the century.

Of course, we don’t have to sit by and to do nothing. Since its beginning, Social Security has been adjusted from time to time, and that’s what we need to do now. With some modest adjustments, it is possible to keep the system solvent for decades more, even while increasing benefits.

For the millions of Americans who rely on Social Security, the situation got worse this year. For just the third time since 1975, seniors who receive Social Security—along with many who receive veterans’ benefits, Social Security disability benefits, and other monthly payments—aren’t receiving any annual increase from their cost of living adjustment (COLA). CEOs at the top 350 American companies received, on average, a 3.9 percent pay increase last year. But seniors and veterans? Not a dime more.

That’s why a group of us in Congress have introduced the Seniors and Veterans Emergency Benefits Act (SAVE Benefits Act). This bill would give a one-time payment of $581 to those people who aren’t receiving a COLA this year—a raise equal to the 3.9 percent pay increase the top CEOs received.

Social Security payments average only about $1,340 a month—and millions of seniors who rely on those checks are barely scraping by. A $581 increase could cover almost three months of groceries for seniors or a year’s worth of out-of-pocket costs on critical prescription drugs for the average Medicare beneficiary. That $50 a month is worth a heck of a lot to the 70 million Americans who would have just a little more in their pockets as a result of this bill. In fact, according to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, that little boost could lift more than one million Americans out of poverty.

This is about our values — about how we protect each other, our families, and ourselves.

For too long in Washington, Social Security has been under assault. We’ve heard over and over that we supposedly need to gut the program in order to “save” it. But for the 21 million Americans whose Social Security benefits are the only thing keeping them out of poverty, Social Security isn’t a luxury—it’s a lifeline. The absolute last thing we should do—at the very moment that Social Security has become so essential to millions of our seniors—is to allow the program to be dismantled inch by inch.

This isn’t just an argument about math, though. This is about our values—about how we protect each other, our families, and ourselves. In an uncertain world, protection against long-term disability and a guaranteed income for the families of survivors are core parts of the anti-poverty safety net that our Social Security system provides. And, equally important, after a lifetime of hard work, people deserve to retire with dignity—and that means protecting and expanding Social Security.



Welcome to the New TalkPoverty

Right now, the mainstream media is shutting down people and programs that provide good reporting on poverty—witness the recent loss of Melissa Harris-Perry and other progressive voices on MSNBC, as well as the demise of Al Jazeera America.

Despite the clear calculation by corporate media outlets to move away from substantive, progressive coverage of Americans struggling in a broken economy, we know that there’s a hunger for this kind of content. That’s why we are proud to launch our redesigned website today, with an inaugural post by Senator Elizabeth Warren.

TalkPoverty’s growth in the past two years has exceeded the capacity of our original website. In retrospect, I’m not surprised. During my eight years working at The Nation—the final two as its poverty correspondent—there was a marked increase in anti-poverty activism. I saw it first with Occupy, and then had the opportunity to report on organizing by domestic workers, farmworkers, janitors and other low-wage workers. I saw it with the Fight for $15, too. The voices of people most directly affected by poverty and inequality began to gain greater traction in the media.

My experiences on the poverty beat—and learning from excellent reporters like Bill Greider and Chris Hayes, and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel—led to an idea: what if there was a website where people living in poverty and people working to dramatically reduce it could work together to cover the issue with a kind of range and thoroughness that one, two, or even ten poverty reporters wouldn’t have on their own?

Moreover, what if our contributing writers reflected the kind of diversity that is needed if we are to build a vibrant anti-poverty movement—including people with low incomes, policy professionals and scholars, activists and advocates, students and other young people, and elected leaders at all levels of government?

What if there was a website where people living in poverty and people working to reduce it could work together?

In pursuit of this mission, TalkPoverty has now published dozens of writers—many of them with low-incomes—exploring issues ranging from the effects of incarceration, to the relationship between poverty and disability, to representations of poverty in our culture, to solutions to inequality, and many other areas where poverty and public policy intersect. Our writers have also used the site to push back against high-profile individuals who propagate myths about poverty in America. And our weekly podcast, TalkPoverty Radio, offers us another opportunity to demonstrate what good poverty coverage looks like, as we did when we interviewed the journalist who originally broke the story of the Flint water crisis.

With this increasingly diverse content, we needed a redesign that would make it easier for people to see how all of the different things we do at TalkPoverty fit together: original reporting, in-depth data analysis, a weekly podcast, and story collection. It will now be much easier for you to find related content, so you can take a deeper dive into topics of interest. We’ve updated our data feature, so that it’s simple to access—and understand—poverty data for every state and congressional district. We’ve also made it easier for readers to share their stories, so that we can continue to feature the voices and experiences of people living in poverty, and the policy solutions that deeply affect their lives.

There is no way to replace the progressive voices we are losing from the national media landscape. But we can promise you this: TalkPoverty will continue its commitment to finding new ways to lift up the voices of people living in poverty, and showing you the progressive policy solutions that will make a dramatic difference in creating opportunities for all Americans.

In the comments below, please let us know what you think of the redesign and any thoughts you want to share about covering poverty in America.



What Super Tuesday Voters Need to Know Before They Cast Their Ballot

Today is Super Tuesday, the day that voters and caucus-goers in 14 states will make influential decisions—decisions that may determine which names appear on the presidential ballot this November and, importantly, which policy proposals are added to the national agenda.

As people in these key states head to the polls, they should take a hard look at the candidates’ plans to reduce poverty and increase economic opportunity for all Americans. As of 2014, nearly one in seven Americans lived below the official poverty level—roughly $24,000 a year for a family of four. The fact that 46.7 million Americans—including 15.5 million children—lived in poverty should come as no surprise, as rising inequality and stagnant wages continue to drive a wedge between poverty and prosperity. At the same time, the costs associated with key elements of economic security—such as child care, higher education, health care, housing, and retirement—rose by more than $10,000 between 2000 and 2012.

But this national picture masks tremendous disparities between the states. Today, families face vastly different chances of escaping poverty and moving up the income ladder depending on where they live. Children growing up in Alabama are more than twice as likely to be poor as children in Wyoming. In Massachusetts, well over half of young adults have been able to access higher education, compared to less than one in three in Arkansas.

If there is one lesson from states’ wildly different track records of reducing poverty and increasing opportunity, it’s this: policy matters.

With Congress in constant gridlock, state policymakers have stepped in to fill this legislative void, introducing a slew of recent policies—some innovative and commendable, others regressive and harmful—that affect struggling families in their states. Presidential candidates—and the voters who are deciding among them today—need look no further than our nation’s so-called “laboratories of democracy” for examples of both positive and preposterous policies.

In the new State of the States report, the Center for American Progress ranks states’ success in reducing poverty and improving opportunity, and highlights the good, the bad, and the ugly of policymakers’ recent decisions. For example, Texas voters face an uninsured rate that is more than five times that of Massachusetts. The Lone Star State ranks dead last in healthcare coverage, and is home to 20 of the country’s 30 worst counties in terms of health insurance coverage. Unsurprisingly, the state has the second-highest health insurance premiums in the country, as well as one of the highest teen birth rates. Yet Texas lawmakers continue their crusade against access to health care for residents by refusing to expand Medicaid, and imposing restrictive rules on healthcare providers that severely limit access to family planning services—particularly among low-income women.

Healthcare isn’t the only basic need that families struggle to meet today. Putting food on the table is all too often difficult for lower-income families—in some states more so than others. Nationwide, about 14 percent of households were food insecure between 2012 and 2014, meaning that they struggled to provide enough food for economic reasons. Three Super Tuesday states—Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma—ranked among the bottom ten for food security. While the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is designed to alleviate some of the economic stress brought on by food insecurity for lower-income families, some state lawmakers have erected barriers to this national program’s vital assistance. In 2014, eight states—including Texas, Ohio, and Kansas—reinstated harsh work requirements for nondisabled low-income adults, many of who struggle to find jobs in an unforgiving labor market.

Not all states have fallen behind the curve—some states have been pushing strong progressive ideas. That means candidates can turn to multiple states for innovative policy ideas that will improve opportunity and reduce poverty. For example, Minnesota was one of fifteen states to pass a minimum wage increase in 2014. Raising the minimum wage leads to higher earnings and reduced poverty rates among working families, without negatively impacting employment.

States have also taken the reins on paid family leave and medical leave in recent years. Decades after women began to enter the workforce in large numbers, they are still more likely than men to bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities. Consequently, women are also more likely to experience a reduction in work hours or a disruption in work history, or to leave the paid labor force altogether—factors that explain about 10 percent of the gender wage gap. But states like Rhode Island have taken steps to mitigate this by enacting paid leave policies, which research shows will increase labor force participation and raise wages among women after childbirth.

Presidential candidates and Super Tuesday voters alike need only look to certain states for policies that strengthen American families and help them get ahead. At the same time, voters should hold their state’s policymakers accountable for decisions that damage families’ economic security and make sure presidential candidates learn from the states’ policies—the good, the bad, and the ugly.



A Cautionary Tale from Texas for Low-Income Women in Ohio

Last week, Governor John Kasich signed a bill into law that defunds Planned Parenthood in Ohio. If the current state of affairs in Texas is any indication, low-income women in Ohio are about to see their economic security plummet.

In 2011, the Texas state legislature barred Planned Parenthood from its Medicaid program and excluded from state health plans any clinic affiliated with an abortion provider. This policy decision has had damaging consequences for some of the most vulnerable women in the state. A recent report found that in counties where Texas defunded Planned Parenthood affiliates, there was a dip in usage of long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) and injectable contraceptives—the most effective forms of contraception available. During this time period, there was also an increase in births to mothers covered by Medicaid. Given that this surge in births occurred in the very counties where women faced new barriers to accessing contraceptives, it is highly probable that many of them were unplanned.

These troubling outcomes are also likely attributable to the Texas omnibus abortion law—known as the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) law—which went into effect the same year that Planned Parenthood was excluded from state health plans. TRAP includes a number of provisions that make it more burdensome for women to obtain abortions. Among the provisions are bans on abortions that occur after 20 weeks, restrictions on medication abortions, and a requirement that physicians have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they perform abortions. A challenge to the law is currently before the Supreme Court.

Together, these restrictive policies have threatened not only women’s reproductive health and autonomy but also their economic security. Women without coverage are more likely to forgo care in order to prioritize other basic needs like food, rent, and childcare. And some low-income patients in states with restrictive abortion laws now face prices that are triple the cost of what women in states with access and availability pay for care. The scarcity of these services also means that many women have to travel hundreds of miles to obtain annual wellness visits, cancer screenings, and maternal care. Many of these women will lose wages to travel time and, adding insult to injury, will incur the additional expenses of transportation, food, and childcare.

Perhaps most horrific of all, we know that women who have lost access to services are now attempting to self-abort in the absence of accessible and affordable abortion care. The true irony is that by enacting harmful policies targeting abortion—a safe and legal medical procedure—policymakers have jeopardized the ability for low-income women in particular to make timely and informed decisions about reproduction.

And yet, the abortion war continues to rear its ugly head. In 2015 alone, 17 states passed more than 50 abortion restrictions. Eleven states slashed funding to Planned Parenthood or any clinic that provides abortion care among its health services. As states continue to introduce this kind of harmful legislation under false pretenses, one truth remains the same: the legal right to abortion and other reproductive health services means nothing without the ability to affordably and reasonably access it.

While the Supreme Court weighs the merits of Texas’s TRAP law, and the women of Ohio brace for an uncertain future, these states should be a cautionary tale not only for 2016, but for years to come.