First Person

Unemployment Insurance Helped My Family When We Needed It Most. So Why Are Lawmakers Trying to Cut It?

In 2012, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At the time, I was devastated—I imagined a life of injections and pills, MRIs, and neurological exams to manage the constant muscle spasms, fatigue, and forgetfulness that come along with MS. I worried about my husband and daughter, and how my diagnosis would change their lives. I was afraid I would not be my best self for them.

I decided I wanted to do more than just survive, so I did the things that people do when they embrace their lives. I took a spontaneous girls’ trip. I went to a Jill Scott concert. I bought myself a fancy pair of shoes, and I cut my hair short.

For a while, I felt like everything would be OK. Then, a few weeks after my 35th birthday, I lost my job.

The morning that I was laid off, I knew something was wrong as soon as I walked into my boss’s office. There was a woman in the room I’d never met before, from Human Resources. She said all the things she is trained to say to soften the blow—“it’s not you, it’s the budget,” and “there are ways to deal with a ‘Reduction in Force’”—but there was no amount of wordsmithing that could change the facts.

I was unemployed.

That night, I sat down with my husband to figure out how we were going to make ends meet. We made a lot of deep cuts in our budget, including taking our seven-year-old daughter out of the aftercare program she loved. We tried to explain it to her the best we could and she seemed to take it in stride—but her sleep terrors told a different story. One night, in her sleep, she asked: “Mommy, what happens if we run out of money?”  My heart was broken, but I couldn’t tell her how worried I really was.

The truth is, her aftercare wasn’t the only major loss. I also lost my health insurance, which is crucial for managing my symptoms. The medications and appointments are expensive, and without them I could form new lesions on my brain that make the condition worse. Plus, stress alone can exacerbate MS. Treatment for that requires IV steroids—another expense, which leads to more stress, which leads to more symptoms.

The problem is, it’s hard to stay calm when your identity is being called into question. I had been working in public health for a decade, and I’ve kept a steady job of some kind since I was 13 or 14 years old. I was raised to be a “worker bee”—I’ve been staff at daycares, offices, restaurants, and my church’s youth program—and I didn’t know what to do without a job.

I searched for a new position with fervor: I checked with community colleges, health departments, department of human services, and universities. It was important to me to find a job that I loved, and that matched my experience, but they were few and far between—and my family needed an income.

To help us get by, I applied for unemployment benefits. I completed most of the process online, and I was able to call and speak to someone when I had questions. Soon, I was approved and began receiving a weekly stipend.

The benefits certainly didn’t replace my job—they only make up for about one-third of my income—but they’ve given us a little time. We have been able to keep our two-year-old in daycare so that I can go to job interviews, and we can pay the power bill, buy groceries, and put gas in the car. But my benefits are about to run out, and our household expenses are not.

Compared to a lot of Mississippians, I’m truly blessed. Last year, less than 15% of unemployed people in the state received these benefits—the other 85% were left to piece together a living however they could. Still, politicians are talking about cutting the program even further.

I can’t help but wonder if they have ever had to walk a mile in these shoes. Have they had to make the decision to take their children out of school? Or choose between paying the mortgage and buying groceries? If they had, maybe they’d choose differently.



The Gender Wage Gap Is Wider in States with a Low Minimum Wage

Last week, the Census Bureau delivered a spectacular report card to the nation for the 2015 calendar year. Poverty fell dramatically, working- and middle-class households saw a long-awaited jump in income, and the share of Americans without health insurance shrank to an all-time low. Even the fine print—the footnotes breaking progress down by race, gender, age, and so on—contained cause for celebration.

As part of this good news, the gender wage gap finally stumbled across the 80 cent threshold. That means that in 2015, the typical full-time working woman earned 80 cents for every dollar earned by her male counterpart. To be sure, it’s only an inch of progress from the previous year’s 79 cents. But any step in the right direction is welcome news, since the gender wage gap is a key reason why women continue to experience higher poverty rates than men.

However, these gains weren’t consistent across all 50 states. A second round of Census data released on Thursday revealed that while no state has yet closed the gender wage gap, places like New York and Delaware are getting closer, with working women earning nearly 89 cents to men’s dollar. But in states like Wyoming and Louisiana, the gender wage gap was just 64.4 cents and 68 cents, respectively.

These stark state-by-state differences aren’t coincidences. In states where the minimum wage increased in 2015, workers with the lowest incomes—those whose wages were in the bottom 10 percent—experienced much faster wage growth than workers in states where no minimum-wage change took place. This wage growth was particularly strong for women, who make up two-thirds of low-wage workers. And in the 21 states where low-wage workers are stuck at $7.25 an hour for the seventh year in a row, the gender pay gap is nearly 25 percent wider than in higher minimum-wage states.

Gender Wage Gap in States with a $7.25/Hour Minimum Wage

If the minimum wage were increased to $12 by 2020, 19.6 million working women would see their wages rise. But Congress—steered by the Republican majority—has stubbornly refused to follow states’ successful examples and heed the will of the voters. Not a single Republican lawmaker has stepped forward to support raising pay for millions of working women—and other struggling low-paid workers across the country—by co-sponsoring the Raise the Wage Act. This federal minimum-wage legislation, introduced last year by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), would raise the wage floor to $12 over a period of five years and gradually phase out the separate sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, which has stood at $2.13 per hour for 25 years. It’s a move supported by more than 3 in 4 American voters, including a majority of Republican voters, yet Congress has yet to pass the bill.

The lawmakers who are dragging their feet on increasing the minimum wage could look to their home districts to see the dire need for the policy. In $7.25 states, working women are struggling disproportionately; poverty among working-age women in these states was more than 7 percent higher than in other states. However, when 80 percent of the U.S. Congress is made up of men, and more than half of its members are millionaires, maybe voters shouldn’t be surprised when lawmakers show they’re out of touch with the challenges facing working-class women.

In a country where 23 of the 30 lowest-paying occupations are female-dominated—and working-age women are 35 percent more likely than men to live in poverty—it should be self-evident that an economic justice agenda and a women’s economic justice agenda are one and the same. Once policymakers recognize this, they should line up behind the public policies that pick up the pace of economic progress for working women



Is New Orleans ‘Better’ After Katrina? Depends Who You Ask.

In August 2015, New Orleans’ University Medical Center opened its doors for its first patient. Before being damaged in Hurricane Katrina, it had been known as Charity Hospital—a place where all of the city’s residents could seek care regardless of ability to pay. But after the storm, the entire Charity health care system—the only state-run, state-wide public hospital system in the U.S.—was disassembled in favor of a system of privately run hospitals. This rapid move toward privatization has come to define the post-disaster city.

Although more than a decade has passed since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, there is a stark discrepancy between those who can access the resources they need to rebuild their communities—the relatively affluent—and those who cannot. This has been fueled in large part by a market-based approach to recovery, which considers economic recovery more important than restoring social services. And when privatization comes at the expense of public goods, it’s the poor who pay the price.

For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s rebuilding program paid homeowners based on the market value of their houses rather than on the cost of repair. This left many black working-class homeowners unable to rebuild their homes, because they lived in areas with lower market values—a result, in part, of discrimination past and present. The limited resources to rebuild, combined with the dramatic reduction in public housing—many large public housing developments were shuttered—have fueled the city’s affordable housing crisis.

Public schools met a similar fate. After the storm the city eliminated jobs for 7,000 teachers, who were dismissed without pay. The city also began moving towards a charter-based school system—a model based on market-driven ideas of choice, efficiency, lack of centralized oversight, and limited union control. This switch pushed many of the city’s most disadvantaged students out of high performing schools through a process known as “creaming” that is designed to inflate test scores.

The force of a global economy

Why has funding for disaster recovery shifted away from supporting citizens’ and communities’ needs, and towards models that favor privatization of public services? The answer lies in the shifting nature of the global economy.

Beginning in the 1970s, the deregulation of finance, transportation, and the environment—as well as the loosening of trade barriers—increased the flow of goods and jobs across national borders. This shifted manufacturing out of the U.S., and created pressure to compete globally for ports, shipping, finance centers, and tourism, as well as other high-end service industries such as the medical industry—areas in which New Orleans has historically played a significant role.

This shift happened on a city level too, and it fundamentally changed the relationship between local governments and their citizens. Governments have moved from public management to entrepreneurship, with an emphasis on increasing the economic standing of their city. Since the focus following a disaster is on restoring economic growth, the decision-making process for post-disaster cities—such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or the greater New York region after Hurricane Sandy—often increases inequality of access and delivery to much needed public services, such as health care, affordable subsidized housing, and public schools.

A vulnerable health care system

In New Orleans, the health care system is perhaps one of the clearest examples of how this harms the city’s poorest residents. As the main trauma hospital, New Orleans Charity Hospital should have been a key component in recovery efforts. Though it was damaged during the storm, the National Guard had cleaned and restored the hospital so that it was able to receive patients within a few weeks. However, state and local officials chose to keep it shuttered. Instead, they opened an interim hospital and continued with plans to build a new hospital complex that would require razing nearly 70 acres of a national historic district.

For state officials, Hurricane Katrina presented an opportunity. As early as 1991, a strategic plan from the Louisiana Health Care Authority showed that officials who oversaw the state hospital system had been looking for ways to get out of the business of “charity,” and to move away from the two-tiered system that left the Charity hospitals serving most of the state’s uninsured. This was raised again in the early 2000s after Louisiana State University took over management of the hospital, when a report commissioned by LSU argued that the proportion of low income patients the hospital was serving was hampering its financial stability. But as long as Charity Hospital remained open and serving predominantly indigent patients, it would be hard to justify the expense of constructing a new building.

The damage sustained during Katrina provided the justification and funds for a new building with a new name. This was shown most pointedly in the fight over FEMA funds to repair the hospital—FEMA initially estimated repairs would cost $23 million, but the state and LSU fought for nearly $500 million to fund the hospital’s full replacement. When asked for comment, representatives from LSU said “planning for a replacement hospital was well underway with appropriated state funding from the Louisiana Legislature.” LSU had received $1.8 million for a master plan study in 2003 and was seeking funding for a move before Katrina. But even after Katrina, the state only offered $300 million towards construction of the 1.2 billion dollar hospital.

For ten years, Charity Hospital remained shuttered while the new building, now renamed University Medical Center, was constructed. Officials hoped to build a public-private partnered “destination” hospital that would be the lynchpin in the larger effort to transform the medical corridor into an economic engine for the city, though a leaked draft study challenged the hospital’s financial footing, particularly in light of the changing federal health care rules. This same report did note the successful effort to rebrand the hospital.

In the meantime, the city suffered the gutting of a trauma center and psychiatric care facility after one of the most traumatic social disasters. Psychiatric patients who had been served at Charity ended up in the local jail— notorious for human rights abuses—in higher rates. When community members questioned why Charity could not be reopened to serve the population as a hospital for the future (at meetings the author attended in Spring of 2011 on Charity’s reuse, as well as meetings on the process of expropriating houses in the new hospital’s footprint)—as a study suggested could be done for a much lower cost—board members replied that the Charity facility “does not meet the programmatic requirements for the LSU hospital moving forward.” LSU declined to comment on this conversation, but stated that “it was well documented that Charity Hospital was no longer an appropriate building for health care.”

Remaking our cities

It’s worth asking: In what image are cities remade after disasters? Public schools and the Charity system were in need of funds and a system-wide overhaul before the storm, but a narrow view of how to fix these pre-existing problems moved both towards privatization.

Much of the national conversation after Hurricane Katrina focused on the inequalities of class and race that made New Orleanians vulnerable before the storm. But throughout the recovery effort that vulnerability has not changed for many of the city’s poorest—a particularly dangerous risk as cities face more disasters, more often, as a result of climate change. Shifts in formerly public institutions often to private and non-profit oversight did not increase access as much as they removed decision-making from public oversight, and changed the nature of public participation in these key institutions.

If cities are going to be prepared for the future and foster sustainable communities, they should seriously question whether a healthy business environment is more important that the health of its citizens. Now, Louisiana is faced yet again with another long recovery from massive flooding. It also has new leadership, which has placed the health care of its citizens as a primary concern.  Hopefully, we will see something new emerge from the waters.



Coaching Parents Reaps Huge Benefits for Kids in Poverty. Why Don’t We Do More of It?

Last week the Census Bureau released new data that showed one of the largest single-year declines in poverty in almost 50 years. This is certainly news to celebrate, but it’s important to remember that poverty for some groups—particularly young children—persists at unacceptable rates. Nationwide, more than 1 out of every 5 infants and toddlers lives in poverty. For children of color, the numbers are even worse: 30% of Hispanic children, and nearly 40% of African American children under the age of four live in poverty.

This has serious consequences, both for the individual children and for the country as a whole. The infant and toddler years are a critical time period for child development, and they can shape a person’s outcomes for the rest of their lives.  And since our country is growing more diverse every year—the majority of young children are now children of color—the soaring poverty rates among children from diverse backgrounds is risking our long-term economic stability.

Home visiting programs, which connect families with trained professionals who help create healthy and safe home environments, are proven to directly address many of the harmful impacts of poverty before the effects take hold. The benefits are dramatic—families who voluntarily participate in these programs have improved child and maternal health, increased school readiness, prevented child abuse and neglect, and reduced participation in the juvenile justice system.

Here’s how it works

When parents bring their baby home from the hospital, they don’t come with a handbook. Home visiting aims to be the next best thing, by connecting parents and families with professionals—who may be nurses, social workers, or other trained parent educators—in their own homes through regular visits. Home visitors partner with parents to develop strong parenting skills, ensure child and family safety, and access other community resources and social services.

The services families receive during a home visit can vary depending on the specific needs of the family. A home visitor may work with a new mom to help her understand the importance of breastfeeding, or how praising a child can reinforce positive behavior. They may screen for signs of child abuse and neglect or domestic violence, and refer families to other health and social services. Home visitors will also help parents to set goals for the future—they might work together to develop a plan to go back to school, look for a job, or identify safe and reliable child care.

The results are impressive

Home visiting programs have been proven to benefit everything from child and maternal health, to increasing school readiness, to reducing child abuse and neglect. In 2014, 70% of federal home visiting program grantees saw reductions in the rate of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drug use among enrolled mothers.  Similarly, 79% of grantees saw an increase in the household income of families participating in home visiting, and 76% saw an increase the rate at which women and families are screened for domestic violence.

These programs are so effective that they end up saving taxpayers money in the long-run. For example, improved health among participating families can lead to Medicaid savings by reducing health care costs, and improved school readiness can boost a child’s academic achievement later in life and lower participation rates in special education. In fact, for every dollar invested in these programs, we see a return of up to $5.70 in reduced federal and state costs and social benefits.

But it doesn’t reach enough people

Home visiting only reaches a small portion of families living in poverty. In 2015, 145,500 children and parents—less than 10% of families in poverty across the US—received federally-funded home visits. Even when home visiting services are available, many of the people who would benefit are unaware that they exist or unfamiliar with how they work.

What’s worse, federal funding is at risk of expiring if Congress fails to act. The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting, or MIECHV, program is the single largest funding source for home visiting—it’s the only guaranteed source of funding in all 50 states, and it provides $400 million per year to expand evidence-based programs. Since it was established in 2010, MIECHV has expanded home visiting programs so that they now reach families in every state, the District of Columbia, and 5 territories across the United States. After the original authorization ended in 2014, MIECHV received two short-term reauthorizations—the most recent of which is slated to run out at the end of September 2017.

Where do we go from here?

Without action from policymakers, the families who currently participate in the federal home visiting program may lose a critical source of support. Worse yet, millions of others will never benefit from a highly effective program. In many states, MIECHV is the only source of financial support for home visiting, and without it services would disappear.

Rather than letting a highly effective program expire, Congress should increase MIECHV funding and extend the program for a minimum of five years. That way the program will reach more of the families who need it, and states will be able to focus on providing services rather than worrying about finding sustainable funding.

As we see from last week’s Census data release, there are still too many young children and children of color bearing the burden of poverty. In the long run, this will only exacerbate inequality and harm our country’s economic outlook. Home visiting has the potential to address inequality before its effects are realized—if the program is given a chance to succeed.



Want to Reduce Domestic Violence? Treat It Like An Economic Issue.

In the world of conventional wisdom, there are “women’s issues” and there are “economic issues,” and never the twain shall meet. The right to college, economic; college sexual assault, women’s. Affordable healthcare, economic; access to abortion, women’s. Livable wages, economic; the wage gap, women’s. You can begin to see the issue: We separate the two spheres in our thinking, but in reality they’re so closely intertwined that they might as well be the same thing.

Domestic violence is a classic “women’s issue.” Although both women and men can be victims (and although both men and women can be violent) studies estimate that up to 97% of abusers are men with female partners; between 1994 and 2010, the Bureau of Justice says, 4 in 5 victims of intimate partner violence were women.

It’s easy to look at these numbers and frame domestic violence purely around sexism: If patriarchy says a man is king in his home, and if women’s lives and needs are deemed less worthy than men’s, then it follows that many heterosexual relationships descend into a nightmare of control and violence as the abuser asserts his supremacy in the most literal way possible.

But if you shift your focus just a little bit to the side, to the realm of money and work, another pattern emerges — and it may prove to be far more useful in terms of crafting policy that saves victims’ lives.

In one study, 60% of domestic violence survivors reported losing their jobs as a direct consequence of the abuse. 98% said that abuse made them worse at their jobs — they couldn’t concentrate because they’d been attacked, or were anticipating an attack when they got home. Generally, abuse victims miss work more often, come in late more often, are hospitalized for injuries more often, suffer more long-term and chronic health conditions (depression, PTSD, substance abuse), and thereby accrue more medical debt. When you add in the economic abuse present in 98% of abusive relationships—anything from sabotaging job interviews to holding a monopoly over family bank accounts to simply making sure that things like cell phone contracts are in the abuser’s name—it’s no surprise that a woman who does try to leave her abuser frequently finds that her entire financial support structure disintegrates when the relationship does. It’s for precisely this reason that the majority of homeless women are domestic violence survivors.

The division between “economic issues” and “women’s issues” is artificial.

The point of this catalogue of horrors isn’t to tell you domestic violence is bad, which (I hope to God) we can all take as a given. It’s to demonstrate that the division between “economic issues” and “women’s issues” is artificial. Money is our society’s most concrete form of power. And when we look at domestic violence through money, what we see is a power play: women are kept captive to male violence because they can’t afford to live without the men who hurt them.

That’s why it’s essential to treat domestic violence as an economic issue. It allows us to craft responses that go beyond the moral (“don’t be violent”) or even the purely gender-based (“don’t be sexist”—always good advice!) and actually alleviate specific burdens.

In Pennsylvania, for example, there are two measures on the table: One, a move to remove all cancellation fees for abuse victims who have to abruptly leave their cell-phone contracts, and give them a new phone number if requested. Two, a move to allow women who are being abused to terminate their leases without penalty. Those seem like small things, maybe even trivial—but if your abuser still has access to your phone, he may be able to see who you’re calling, or even use your GPS to find you, making stalking more possible. And you can’t “just leave” if breaking your lease will damage your credit and make it impossible for you to rent your next home and begin to rebuild your life.

These specific, practical policies are not only effective, they require policymakers to take a feminist, victim-centered approach: Talk to victims, listen for common stories, and figure out what common tactics abusers are using and precisely where debt-relief or financial aid should be applied to benefit victims best. The cell phone bill, for example, stems in part from a specific situation in which a woman’s abuser smashed her cell phone because he knew she couldn’t afford a new one, thus draining her bank account (she couldn’t stop paying the bill) and limiting her ability to reach out for help.

Annamarya Scaccia, who has reported on the Pennsylvania bills, says these smaller interventions can precede and prevent the necessity for larger ones.

“The most direct connections aren’t always the most obvious or violent,” Scaccia told me. “When an abuser wipes out your account to embarrass you at the store or when they smash your cell phone knowing you can’t afford another one, these can easily be framed by the abuser as accidents or lies, and the victim ends up looking ‘crazy’ or ‘overreacting’ (which of course has a gendered element). These smaller (so-to-speak) moments of abuse often proceed [more severe abuse].”

To be clear, cultural work is also deeply necessary. As long as women are fundamentally seen as less worthy than men, the violence they experience directly in abusive relationships will simply be repeated in other, subtler ways throughout their lives, as they move from the men who attack them to the bosses who pay them less or the male co-workers who denigrate their contributions. Needless to say, if more employers benefited from real education about how domestic violence works, and more workplaces had plans for dealing with it, fewer victims would lose their jobs.

But when we allow ourselves to move toward an understanding of domestic violence and sexism as economic issues—with all the seriousness and “real” political heft that implies—then we have both more urgency and more acuity in dealing with them. And when we include gender in our economic understanding, our policy stops being a sort of generalized “uplift” and starts providing specific and targeted aid. We can stop sifting our thinking into “real” issues and “women’s” issues, and start thinking about the ways both feminism and economic justice cohere to make real, immediate changes—which we have to do, in the end, if we want to impact sexism at all.