What the Media and Congress Are Missing on Zika and Poverty

Where is the sense of urgency?

In recent weeks, that is the question I continuously find myself asking as I read media accounts of Zika and follow the funding debate in Congress.

Somewhere along the way the focus shifted.  What began as coordinating a response to Zika that is rooted in smart public health policy and caring for our fellow citizens became a funding fight on Capitol Hill in which many conservatives seem completely divorced from reality—particularly the reality of low-income women and children of color living in the South.

This disconnect is not due to a lack of information.  Indeed, lawmakers know well that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that Zika will likely wreak disproportionate havoc on the southern United States. Due to an increase in summer mosquito populations, the South could be a breeding ground for Zika transmission.  Moreover, as the summer months approach, the CDC reports that the number of Zika cases is on the rise.

The Obama Administration certainly hasn’t ignored the urgency of this moment. In February, the Administration announced a $1.9 billion plan to track transmission of the virus, increase testing, institute vaccine research, and prioritize access to health care for low-income pregnant women who are at-risk.  Since then, the President has met with governors from each state and announced a coalition of public health experts and local and national decision-makers who will work together to address transmission of the virus. Yet proposals in the House and Senate both fall well short of what is needed to address the current public health threat.

As the CDC has made clear, the most common way to contract Zika is simply through bites from infected mosquitos. The virus thrives in warm environments with standing water, making low-income people in the South who live in homes without air conditioning, or lack door and window screens, particularly vulnerable.  Additionally, people working jobs that require extended periods of time outside—such as farmworkers and other predominately low-wage workers—are more likely to be exposed to the virus.  Zika can also be transmitted sexually by men to their partners.

In the South, poverty stricken communities overwhelmingly include people of color who lack access to the kinds of things that will help protect wealthier populations—like health education, livable wages, adequate shelter, and other social support services. Being economically disadvantaged also often translates to a lack of access to comprehensive health services, including reproductive and maternal health care and pediatric care. This is particularly important with regard to Zika, since transmission of the virus among pregnant women can lead to severe birth defects in fetuses, including a congenital brain condition known as microcephaly which can result in developmental disabilities in children.

There is currently no treatment available for microcephaly. Over time, the direct costs associated with caring for a child with the condition could easily exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars for a family—including costs for child care, health care, and lost wages due to providing for a child with a disability.  Expenses like these will increase hardship for low-income families who are already living on the brink.

That is why low-income women need comprehensive counseling and access to the full range of contraceptive methods to prevent unplanned pregnancy right now. Both male and female condoms must be made widely available.  When pregnant women test positive for Zika and want to carry their pregnancies to term, timely prenatal and postnatal care are critical.  Low-income women of color are more likely to delay care and medical treatment for many reasons, including a lack of access to healthcare, no paid leave at work, or inadequate childcare options.  In the event that a woman has to make the decision to terminate her pregnancy, safe abortion should be part of the full continuum of reproductive health care options made available.

With funding for these urgent needs currently held up in Congress, state and local public health responders have been slow to scale plans at the community level. Many local health systems are already operating under strained or inadequate resources, both programmatically and financially, and they need the federal government to step up and respond to these pressing public health concerns.  It comes down to this: we simply do not have time to waste.

What will it take for Congress to recognize the urgency in addressing Zika? We have the opportunity, resources, and plans to protect the American people from this virus.  However, without access to necessary comprehensive health care and social support services, low-income women and families could be looking at even deeper levels of poverty and poorer health outcomes on the horizon.



Discriminatory Bathroom Law Also Worsens Economic Inequality

In what was widely hailed as an important moment in LGBT history, the Department of Justice recently came out strongly against North Carolina’s HB2 law. The law, which prohibits safe bathroom access for transgender and gender non-conforming people, has also been criticized by advocates and the many communities that are directly impacted by the legislation.

But what is often left out of media coverage on HB2 is the fact that it does more than restrict bathroom access.  It also amends the state’s Wage and Hour Act to prevent any city, county, or other political jurisdiction within the state from passing or enforcing legislation or voter-mandated pro-worker policies, including minimum wage increases and paid family and medical leave laws. These restrictions have a tangible impact on people and families, including transgender and gender non-conforming communities, who are more likely than their peers to be job insecure and living in poverty.

In undermining the rights of workers, this law also undercuts what has become an important strategy through which antipoverty advocates are able to create change and influence state policy. Over the past year, cities, counties and states have moved to adopt higher minimum wages. Los Angeles, for example, passed legislation last year that raised its city-wide minimum wage to $15. And just this month, California passed a similar increase statewide, as did New York. Both states’ minimum wages are now far above the federal standard of $7.25 per hour.

We cannot be silent in the face of this race-based, class-based, homophobic and transphobic attack.
– Reverend Dr. William Barber II

Advocates in cities and counties have also had recent success in passing paid leave protections that are more expansive than what is provided by their states or the federal government. San Francisco recently adopted the most generous paid family leave law in the country, which requires all city employers with 20 or more workers to cover a full six weeks of paid family leave. Such laws have a significant impact on people and families with low-incomes, because low-wage workers are far less likely to have access to paid leave through work. Without these protections in place, workers may incur lost wages—or even be fired—if they take time off for unavoidable personal or medical emergencies.

Unfortunately, North Carolina isn’t the only state that is stripping cities and counties of their ability to pass proactive worker protections. In several other states, legislatures have either passed or introduced similar anti-worker bills—often in response to local minimum wage increases—with assistance and encouragement from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.  While Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe recently vetoed a similar bill that had made its way through the state’s legislature, anti-worker operatives continue to push damaging legislation.

The Department of Justice has rightly challenged the anti-transgender discrimination codified in HB2, but it is important to recognize that other portions of the bill deserve similar legal and political scrutiny for their dangerous impact on low-income people and communities of color.

In Alabama, the NAACP is challenging a similar law with a lawsuit against the state.  The suit claims that Alabama’s state law—which was passed earlier this year as a direct response to a city-wide minimum wage increase in Birmingham—is unconstitutional because it specifically targets Birmingham’s workers, who are overwhelmingly people of color. Last year, Birmingham became the first city in the Deep South to pass a minimum wage increase. According to the NAACP, the Alabama state legislature’s action builds upon a legacy of race-motivated preemption that was rampant during and after the days of Jim Crow.

In addition to issuing legal challenges, groups are also taking on these laws through direct action and legislative advocacy. For example, the North Carolina NAACP has joined forces with transgender rights advocates to engage in a series of protests, sit-ins, and legislative proposals that call for a full repeal of the anti-democratic HB2 law and highlight the entire range of its consequences.

“We cannot be silent in the face of this race-based, class-based, homophobic and transphobic attack on wage earners, civil rights, and the LGBTQ community,” said Reverend Dr. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina NAACP.  “Together with our many allies, we will coordinate a campaign of nonviolent direct action along with other forms of nonviolent protest that will instruct our legislators with respect to the rights of all people.”

Whether through legal advocacy or direct action, the federal government and advocates on the ground must continue to highlight and challenge the full range of damaging consequences wrought by HB2. This includes not only fighting back against North Carolina’s law, but taking on the many other pre-emptive bills across the country that will do harm to people with low-incomes and communities of color.



How One Missouri School District Took on Poverty (and a Tornado)

Joplin, Missouri, a small city in the Southwest corner of the state, is probably best known for the devastating tornado that ripped through it on May 22, 2011.  The storm killed 161 people and caused more than $2 billion in damages. Less well known is the widespread and growing poverty that is damaging the community—especially its students and schools—in quieter but no less harmful ways. But Joplin has begun to rebound, and the rest of the country should take note.

Three years before the tornado, CJ Huff, the superintendent of nearby Eldon, Missouri, was hired to lead Joplin’s 18 schools. His main charge was to raise the district’s graduation rate, which at the time hovered just above 73 percent. It quickly became apparent to Huff that the growing rate of child poverty stood in the way of reaching that goal as well as his broader aspirations to prepare students for college, careers, and active participation in a democratic society.

The Joplin school team conducted nine months of face-to-face talks with parents, teachers, and the community’s faith, business, and human services agency leaders in order to assess the school district’s needs.  They discussed everything from the transition between elementary and middle school, to mental health, to mentorship.  The plan they ended up with—called “Bright Futures”—is now a blueprint for school transformation in dozens of districts across the South and Midwest. Seven years later, Joplin’s graduation rate has risen to 87 percent.  Here’s how Huff and the Joplin community did it.

Meeting every child’s basic needs within 24 hours

As a former principal and teacher, Huff knew how difficult it is to teach effectively when students are too hungry to focus, lack needed eyeglasses, are stressed out from spending the night in a homeless shelter, or, worse, can’t make it to class because they are in the ER dealing with a preventable asthma attack. Indeed, children living in poverty in the United States are more than twice as likely as their more affluent peers to miss at least two weeks of school and thus fall behind, largely because health concerns go unaddressed.

But how would a poor and relatively small city like Joplin succeed in addressing these and other unmet needs? Huff’s team drew on all available resources. They established partnerships with local health clinics, hospitals, and individual doctors to secure physical and mental health care, so kids were in school and ready to learn. Local doctors provided physicals so students could participate in sports activities, dentists volunteered to provide emergency dental services to children whose families couldn’t afford it, and kids were referred to mental health providers free of charge as needed. Hospitals and health clinics likewise stepped up to serve students’ health care needs.

In addition, the team reached out to drug stores, grocery stores, and other businesses to assemble a pantry that school social workers could use to immediately meet basic needs such as food and clothing. They hosted a back-to-school resource fair that called upon families and local stores to help all kids start the year well-stocked with school supplies. And they built up a Bright Futures Facebook page that enabled any resident to respond to more unusual requests—like size 13 steel-toed work boots (which cost more than $100), so a homeless high school student could enroll in the technical school welding program.  (This Facebook page became popular with neighboring communities, including nearby Carl Junction School District, which in 2010 became the first Bright Futures affiliate.)

Developing local leadership and community support for long-term success

Huff knew that superintendents come and go, especially in struggling school districts. And Joplin’s mayor wouldn’t necessarily be around long either. If the schools were to improve—and also sustain and grow that improvement—locally-nurtured leaders would need to take the helm in promoting good policy.

This kind of leadership development wasn’t an easy task in a city where many families didn’t view high school graduation—let alone college admission—as a top priority.  Residents also didn’t have a clear vision of the interrelatedness of the city’s many assets and how they were all critical to the school district’s success. A key step therefore was to establish an advisory board comprised of needed allies from the city’s many institutions, including faith-based organizations to provide volunteer support, human service agencies to respond to non-academic needs, and business partners to supplement the resources that families were able to provide, as well as parents.  A second step was for each school in the district to develop its own council that would work with teachers and principals to identify and address classroom-level needs and also support and train emerging, local leaders.

Embedding service learning in classrooms, even among the youngest pupils

Huff and his team believed service learning was a natural fit for the district, but that it would require a different mindset for teachers who had long understood raising test scores to be their main objective, and who might not see the connection between service learning projects and broader learning objectives.

Service learning provides hands-on, curriculum-based opportunities for children to give back to the communities that support their education. It is intentionally designed to help students develop advanced cognitive skills while also building a sense of self-worth. Finally, it provides an opportunity for the teaching staff to showcase their talents and those of the students to the community.  In Huff’s words:

“We want the students to understand their power to give and to help all kids feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Finding needs they can address, like organizing drives for the soup kitchen or, for older students, assessing water quality to support the local agency, is empowering. And it helps them grow into the engaged citizens our country needs more of.”

The same kinds of challenges that Joplin faces limit the futures of millions of students in rural, suburban, and inner-city school districts across the country. But the Joplin experience shows us that the learning needs of young people can be addressed, and that the right actions will substantially brighten their futures.



New Overtime Reforms Will Benefit 12.5 Million Americans

A combination of inflation and out-of-date regulations has prevented too many us from getting paid for all of the hours we work. Despite the fact that our economy is increasingly productive, families across the country are feeling the one-two punch of sluggish wage growth and rising costs on the things we can’t do without: housing, child care, education, health care, and other basic necessities. When overtime protections were first introduced, they covered more than half of all salaried employees. But now a mere 8 percent are covered.

Nearly all of us are working extra hours, and the money we should be paid isn’t making it home to our families. Something in the system is broken. And at least part of that something is our nation’s overtime rules, which a few powerful corporate interests like the Chamber of Commerce and National Retail Federation have kept stagnant so that they can get as much free labor as possible and grow their own profits.

Presently, overtime protections only apply to certain individuals making up to $23,660 a year, which is less than the federal poverty line for a family of four. But the Obama Administration has issued a new rule that will help more people receive extra pay for extra work. This is the kind of action taken by presidents of both parties in the past—from Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 to Gerald Ford in 1975.Through this reform, the Administration is expanding access to overtime protections for millions of working people who are currently struggling to climb the economic ladder.

12.5 million Americans in all stand to benefit from the reform.

Soon, employers will be required to provide overtime protections for qualified employees making less than $47,476 in 2016. That means people earning below this annual salary will be paid time-and-a-half for every additional hour they work beyond 40 hours a week. And the Department of Labor plans to increase the salary eligibility level every three years to make sure people aren’t getting left behind. Odds are that this policy fix will have a significant positive effect on you or someone you know—12.5 million Americans in all stand to benefit from this reform.

Dawn Hughey, for example, managed a Dollar General store outside of Detroit where she earned just shy of $35,000 a year; and she did working 70-hour weeks without any overtime pay. But with these new overtime protections, Dawn would have earned either a substantial pay bump or had many extra hours of her life back every week.

Requiring an employer to pay people more when they work extra hours isn’t just the right thing to do. It will also help kick-start our out-of-balance economy by incentivizing employers to hire new staff, ensuring that our friends and neighbors can afford to purchase basic necessities, and boosting commercial activity on Main Street, which helps all of our communities thrive. In all, expanding overtime protections will create somewhere between 120,000 and 300,000 new hourly jobs as employers staff up to avoid paying time and a half, giving their current employees extra time with their families or much-needed discretionary time.

Our country’s wage and hour laws were enacted with the belief that Americans should earn a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Rewriting our overtime rules will not only help move us towards that goal, but also allow working people more time to live their lives outside of work and more money to spend in their communities.  And that’s key to creating an economy that works for all of us.


First Person

Middle Class Work Deserves Middle Class Wages

This post was originally published on Medium.

Single mom Elizabeth Paredes is the assistant manager of a sandwich shop in Tucson. She’s paid a flat salary of $24,000 per year. While she routinely puts in 50 or more hours each week, she doesn’t earn a single dime of overtime. That’s because, under outdated rules that govern the overtime eligibility of managers, her employer doesn’t have to pay her for the extra hours she works.

When I was a kid growing up in Buffalo, a job like Elizabeth’s was a well-paying, middle-class job. Being a manager meant being in the middle class. And rightly so. Managers supervise people, open and close the store, handle the money, and make important decisions. They should be able to own a home, raise a family and build a nest egg for retirement.

These were middle-class jobs by design. The blueprint was the Fair Labor Standards Act, which gave most Americans the right to a minimum wage and time-and-a-half pay when they worked more than 40 hours in a week. The Fair Labor Standards Act was the crown jewel of worker protection and helped build the middle class.

But because of both the erosion of the salary threshold over time and concerted policy choices made by the previous administration, that crown jewel has lost its luster. So we’re taking action on behalf of working people like Elizabeth Paredes.

New rule

Today, the Department of Labor announced a significant change to the overtime rule that simply hasn’t been working for working people. In the process, we’re making it simpler for employers to identify which white-collar workers are covered and owed time-and-a-half for work beyond 40 hours in a week.

For decades, the salary threshold under which all white-collar, salaried workers qualify for overtime has failed to keep up with the rising cost of living. In 1975, 62 percent of full-time salaried workers were eligible for overtime protection based on their pay. Today, only 7 percent are eligible under the outdated salary level. The current salary level is so low that it does not effectively identify which white-collar workers are entitled to overtime protection. That is an economy out of balance.

So we’re fixing it. We have more than doubled the salary threshold — lifting it from $23,660 to $47,476 per year. That means some 35 percent of full-time salaried workers, based on their pay, will now be eligible for overtime.

What does this mean?

It means that Elizabeth and other workers like her will finally be entitled to overtime pay. Whether they’re assistant managers at a restaurant or supervisors in the human resources department, white-collar workers who earn below the new salary threshold have their overtime protections restored.

Employers have options for how they respond to the new rule, and they’re likely to do the following:

  • Pay time-and-a-half for overtime work.
  • Raise workers’ salaries above the new threshold.
  • Limit workers’ hours to 40 per week.
  • Some combination of the above.

Who benefits?

Today’s rule change, which takes effect on Dec. 1, will benefit 4.2 million workers, making them newly eligible for overtime protections. It clarifies for another 8.9 million salaried workers that they, too, remain entitled to overtime. Now, millions of these middle-class jobs are more likely to be rewarded with middle-class pay, and the millions of Americans who sacrifice family time to work extra will earn extra. If their employer chooses to send them home instead of paying for the extra hours, then it means extra time for family or other professional pursuits.

If you work full-time in America, you should be able to get by; when you work extra, you should be able to get ahead. That’s the commonsense principle we’re reaffirming today. With today’s update to the overtime rule, Elizabeth Paredes and millions like her will be able to punch their ticket to the middle class.