First Person

I Went from Being Homeless to a Full-Time Writer. Trump Wants to End the Programs That Got Me Here.

Six years ago, I lived with my then 3-year-old daughter, Mia, in a studio apartment. During the day I worked full-time as a maid, cleaning the houses of wealthy people. At night, I stayed up completing coursework for online college classes.

It got so cold that winter that my daughter and I slept in the living room, because I couldn’t afford to heat the entire apartment. So instead we kept the doors to the room closed tight, and huddled together on the small pull-out couch I’d found for free.

It snowed quite a bit—more than my 1983 Honda Civic could handle. For an entire week, I tried to will the snow plows to come down the steep little alley where we lived. Every day that I missed work meant another bill I wouldn’t be able to pay: first electric, then rent.

I was in this situation because, two years earlier, I fled from my daughter’s father after he punched out a window in our home in the middle of January. He’d left, then called to say he wanted to return with the landlord (who’d always been a source of fuel for his anger) to fix it. I called the police for safety.

With that decision, I found myself homeless with a 6-month-old. I worked as a landscaper while we moved from a homeless shelter, to transitional housing, and finally to our own apartment. We couldn’t have made it out of the shelter without help from an elusive grant called Tenant-Based Rental Assistance, which helped close the gap between what we could afford and what an apartment actually cost.

Eventually, I found a full-time job that also allowed me to go to school full-time. But the job only paid $8 an hour—not enough to provide for a family. Even working full-time, we had to go without basics. I had to budget for when I could purchase a new sponge or paper towels. I needed food stamps to help feed myself and my daughter, because, after paying rent, gas, and utilities, most months I only had 50 dollars left for things like toilet paper, soap, and tampons.

At the end of that winter, I got money back from the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. I was able to buy tooth brushes, curtains, a desk to do homework on, blankets, and a bed I still sleep on today. I bought a heated mattress pad, so I didn’t have to heat the whole apartment at night. My daughter Mia and I went to sleep at night, cozy and warm, but I still lived in a fog of hopelessness, anxiety, and doubt.

I didn’t have a family who could financially or even emotionally support me. My daughter’s father still tried to cut me down every chance he could. I worked my way through school, but I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t had help meeting basic living standards. Food stamps, rental assistance, and tax credits were the things that kept us afloat. I received utility assistance, and sometimes a voucher for gas so I could get to work. I used WIC (Women, Infants and Children) coupons for milk, bread, eggs, and peanut butter, which became the staples of our diet.

A month after I graduated college, I gave birth to a second little girl. Eventually we were able to move into safe and secure housing I could afford, and it meant I could focus on my chosen career as a writer. Within eighteen months, I’d published pieces in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and secured a book deal with Hachette Books after an essay at Vox about my years working as a maid went viral.

Now all of the programs that helped me and my daughter get ahead are under attack.

These plans would just kick people when they are already down.

The ACA repeal would roll back access to Medicaid, and federal funds for child care, food stamps, rental assistance, and more face the chopping block. They’re at the mercy of an administration and conservative politicians who don’t have to worry about what would happen if they worked full-time and still didn’t have enough to give their children the basics in life.

These plans would just kick people when they are already down. We need good quality food, not whatever has the most calories at the cheapest price. We need regular check-ups and to be able to afford prescription medications. We need treatment for our backs that ache from long hours working jobs that no one else wants to do—like scrubbing your floors, or caring for an elderly person you love. These are jobs that are vital to keep our society running smoothly.

Maybe folks like Donald Trump and Paul Ryan need to work one of those jobs. Maybe they need to stand out in the cold of December, ringing a bell in a Santa suit. Maybe they need to go home to an unheated house with bare cupboards, still hungry from their one meal a day at the soup kitchen. They need to go home to children who won’t have dinner. Children who had to sit in an office during recess because their family couldn’t afford to get them a coat that year.

Maybe Donald Trump and Paul Ryan need to spend a night on a pull-out couch, snuggled up next to their children for warmth, only to wake up the next day and do it all over again.



TalkPoverty Radio Is Now Off-Kilter

Anyone else feeling like things are a bit off-kilter?

Inequality remains at historic heights, with the 20 richest Americans now holding more of the nation’s wealth than the bottom half of the population. Meanwhile, two branches of the nation’s government are now run by people who are committed to fighting for the wealthiest among us—instead of the 1 in 3 Americans struggling to make ends meet.

A white nationalist president is sitting in the White House, hell-bent on further marginalizing anyone who doesn’t look or pray or love like him, and proclaiming a “mandate” to advance hateful policies despite having won just one-quarter of Americans’ votes.

Nearly every day we wake up, there’s a new assault on our civil rights. The president has declared war on the media, in favor of “alternative facts.” And the Supreme Court may soon hold five votes to overturn Roe v. Wade.

But momentum is growing every day to resist the new administration’s dangerous and divisive agenda.

Women’s marches across the globe the day after his inauguration drew crowds that dwarfed Trump’s own the day before. “Indivisible” groups modeling the Tea Party’s tactics in service of progressive resistance have sprung up in all 50 states and all 435 Congressional districts, descending upon town halls and demanding meetings with their members of Congress to ensure their voices are heard.

People of all colors and faiths have taken to the streets to stand with immigrants and Muslims, in opposition to hateful and xenophobic policies telling them they’re not welcome here. And earlier this week, protests broke out in cities across the U.S. just minutes after the administration announced that it would be reversing protections to enable transgender students to use the correct bathroom for their gender, as Americans called to #protecttranskids.

For the next four years, resistance is our only option

For those of us who believe in a level playing field; in protection from discrimination on the basis of color, creed, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity; in a safe and healthy environment; in a free press; in high-quality education for all students, whether rich or poor; in women’s rights to control our own bodies; and in health care as a right—for the next four years, resistance is our only option.

That’s why, starting today, TalkPoverty Radio—which launched two years ago as the only weekly radio show dedicated to covering poverty and inequality—will become Off-Kilter, a radio show and podcast by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Devoted TalkPoverty Radio listeners: Don’t worry, the show will be more of what you already know and love—just with an extra dose of resistance (and snark). You’ll still be able to find us in all the same places—We Act Radio, the Progressive Voices Network, and as a podcast on iTunes—plus a few new outlets as well. And I’ll still be hosting each week.

To kick off our first episode right, we’re joined by Sarah Jaffe, Nation Institute Fellow and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (a history of American resistance movements, and required reading for the moment we’re living in); Ezra Levin, Executive Director of Indivisible and one of the authors of the Indivisible Guide; and Dorian Warren, President of Center for Community Change Action.

Thank you for listening so far. We hope you’ll join us moving forward.

Editor’s Note: Listen to the first show here, and find new episodes of Off-Kilter on Soundcloud, and follow the show on Facebook and Twitter



Bill O’Reilly’s Defense of the White Establishment Shows How Flimsy It Is

After the 2016 election, Bill O’Reilly argued on the O’Reilly Factor that changes to the Electoral College—an issue of heated debate, at the time—would amount to “power taken away from the white establishment” and a “profound change in the way America is run.”

O’Reilly’s rant was essentially a love letter to whiteness. It comes from the same place as Dave Chappelle’s famous SNL skit, in which he gets his first tax bill as a rich person and exclaims: “Ah [man]! I just got this money!”

O’Reilly might as well have said, “Ah, man! I just got this whiteness!”

I. O’Reilly Suffers From “New White Syndrome”

It is said in religion that there’s no zealot like a convert. O’Reilly’s people (the Irish) are converts to whiteness, and a zealot O’Reilly has become. The result is Newly-White Syndrome, a close cousin of Chappelle’s New Money Syndrome. O’Reilly’s overdone chest-thumping about his whiteness reflects the need to hear it aloud—convincing himself as much as us.

O’Reilly surely resents that the English long-regarded the Irish as inferior. He may know that Ralph Waldo Emerson grouped his people with Africans, Indians, and East Asian people—whom he referred to simply as “Chinese”—as individuals who would never “occupy a high place in the human family,” as only the “Caucasian race” could. And he might be aware that Thomas Carlyle opined that the Irish “seem quite unfit for self [-] government.”

This is O’Reilly’s family history. The only glimmer of hope was offered by the head of the American Eugenics Society in 1911: if the Irishman “cleans himself up—very well, we might receive him in a generation or two.”

II. In Search of Whiteness

Bill would’ve had an easier time becoming white in Latin America, where you could literally buy whiteness—a “gracias al sacar.” It was “a royal exemption that provided the privileges of Whiteness.” But in the United States, the English wouldn’t let you buy whiteness. Not outright.

So the Irish intermarried.

Thomas Jefferson thought it took four generations of intermarriage to eliminate inferior blood. By that estimation, many of the Irish who came here in the mid-1800s potato famine were still pushing out mixed breeds when O’Reilly was born in 1949. And O’Reilly – Irish dad, Welsh mom – would be generations from meeting Jefferson’s purity standard.

Therefore, immigrants started changing the things that were within their power—like their names. Allen Konigsberg became Woody Allen. Ralph Lifshitz emerged Ralph Lauren. The Irish and Welsh anglicized with common name changes, like:

Ó Gallchobhair→ Gallagher
Uigínn → Higgins
ap Hywell → Powell
ap Siôn → Jones


Ó Raghallaigh → O’Reilly

Immigrants also jettisoned accents and engaged in what economists call “signaling” to prove their respectability. Wearing “Oxfords, not brogues” is signaling, as is driving a certain kind of car and adopting “WASP sensibilities.” And one of the most important forms of signaling was to play one’s part in the racial hierarchy.

III. Becoming White at the Expense of Black

America is a deeply classed society that is pretending not to be.

It’s easy to see why, with all that loose talk about how “all men are created equal” in our founding documents. But John Adams’ belief that there is always a group of people “who is the last and lowest of the human species” was left out of the Declaration of Independence.  The founders also neglected Ben Franklin’s question about who would choose to be “Slaves to those above them, provided they might exercise an arbitrary and tyrannical rule over all below them?”

The founders had their own ideas about who was at the top, middle, and bottom of these hierarchies. Jefferson divided the country into three classes: “Aristocrats, half breeds, pretenders (or, “pseudo-Aristocrats”) at the top; then the “yeomanry, looking askance at those above, yet not ventured to jostle them for the position.” Lowest are “Overseers, the most abject, degraded, and unprincipled race.”

Franklin, likewise, saw three classes: the “better sort” on top, the “middling people,” and the “meaner sort” on the bottom.  He maintained that the middle wouldn’t jostle the top because the masses prefer a “happy mediocrity.”

A group above, a group below, and one in the middle—carrying out the will of the top upon the people below them, in hopes of gaining access to that elusive elite tier.

IV. Misjudging One’s Interests

This ends tragically for everyone except those at the top. For example, in 1974 Boston, a judge ventured that black students were equal to white ones. But black schools were not equal to white ones, which meant they needed to integrate. Rather than send their kids to school with black children, mostly white and poor South Boston set the city on fire.

Meanwhile, wealthy whites stayed clear of the entire fray. They fled to the suburbs, and took their children from the schools and their capital from the city. This left behind a poorer city, with a diminished property tax base to fund the schools, and trapped both poor white and black children in failing schools. By placing their racial interest over their class interest, the white poor misfired, and made their own lives worse off.

The result, Jonathan Kozol observes, is that “poor whites, poor blacks and poor Hispanics now become illiterate together.” Boston’s Busing War proved that trying to become white at the expense of blacks doesn’t work for the reason Frederick Douglass diagnosed more than a century before: Neither rise. It only ends up “prov[ing] that if we cannot rise to the whites, the whites can fall to us.”

V. Until We’re All Free

Once, while defending the Electoral College, O’Reilly told John McCain that the Left “wants to break down the white, Christian, male power structure of which you are a part, and so am I.” Yet for most of U.S. history, McCain’s Protestants vigorously disagreed that O’Reilly’s Catholics are Christians, at all.

Moreover, clinging to that whiteness membership card the way O’Reilly does only shows he doesn’t have a firm grip on it. After all, ‘I’m the white establishment’ is something no actual member would ever say.

Color-struck, yet systems-blind, O’Reilly cannot see that he is playing the indispensable middle management role described by Jefferson, Franklin and others, without which the racial system would fall apart.  He is another “flunkey…to [the] gentry” (Frederick Douglass’s term).

This is why O’Reilly should be the object of our pity, not our scorn. Made to enter whiteness through the side door, O’Reilly’s sad response is to be grateful for the privilege. O’Reilly has not yet learned that whiteness can be a fickle lover. By the time Martin Niemöller got to write those chilling words, “First they came for the…” but “I was not a…” it was too late. The Nazis had already thrown him in Dachau. This is why Fannie Lou Hammer told a white audience in 1971, “Your freedom is shackled in chains to mine. And until I am free, you are not free either.”

Freedom comes only when we reject these assigned social categories, including race.

“When the Irish leave whiteness, there goes the neighborhood,” activist Tom Hayden notes. The Irish should leave whiteness. The existence of any racial establishment in America can never be in the interest of anyone whose last name has an apostrophe in it.

Race is something we have, not something we are. Since it was constructed, it follows that it can be deconstructed. And it should be. It brings as many burdens as benefits, even for white Americans. It would be tragic if O’Reilly never learns this. Still more tragic if America doesn’t.


First Person

Your Representatives Are Home This Week. Make Them Listen to You.

A month into the Trump administration, we can see the outline of Trump’s vision for America: An attorney general who prosecuted voting rights activists; a secretary of education devoted to dismantling our public education system; and a head of the Environmental Protection Agency who wants to dismantle environmental protections.

Between the emerging administration, and a Congress that is hell-bent on taking our country backwards—not just to before Obama, but to before Roosevelt’s New Deal—there is a clear need for citizen vigilance and activism. And Americans are meeting the moment: They’re flocking to marches, airports, and town halls; donating record amounts of money; and subscribing to responsible journalistic outlets that hold the government accountable.

Americans are showing up in record numbers, but it doesn’t actually take that many people to move the government. The Tea Party proved this in 2009, when a small segment of the electorate organized to thwart President Obama. It rallied its members against a president who had decisively won both the popular vote and the Electoral College, and whose party held majorities in both Congressional chambers—a president who did, in fact, enjoy a sweeping popular mandate for his campaign promises.  Yet by focusing their energy with laser-like precision on a local, defensive strategy, the Tea Party became a force in American politics.

What the Tea Party did was a Civics 101 lesson on constituent power: They engaged with their members of Congress, and reminded them that they have opinions—and that they vote. And they did it week after week after week.

Now we’re in the beginnings of a new movement, and we can use a similar playbook.

It worked here in Roanoke when our Congressman, Republican Bob Goodlatte, proposed legislation to gut the congressional ethics office. Constituents flooded the office with so many calls that his staff seemed dazed when they picked up the phone. Then, when the phone lines were continuously busy, 12 of us decided we were concerned enough to visit his district office in person.

We knew that it was our Representative’s staff’s job to listen to our concerns and report them to Mr. Goodlatte.  But Congressional offices will also try to control the public narrative, and even silence constituents.  We have now visited Mr. Goodlatte’s district office three times, and we were denied entry each time.

We have learned to improvise.

On our first visit we were forced to meet with his staff in a lobby on a different floor, where we delivered New Year’s cards with our messages (one of which read “Happy New Year!  We expect better!”). On our second visit we were told the same lobby was private property and no longer available for constituent meetings, so we asked his staff to meet with us outside.  There, a group of teachers and medical and insurance professionals urged Mr. Goodlatte to vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) unless he had a health care proposal to replace it.  By our third visit a week later, building security physically blocked the lobby door to keep us outside. Once again, we called Mr. Goodlatte’s staff to meet us in the winter cold so we could deliver 80 letters from constituents asking Goodlatte to vote against a federal “personhood” bill that would criminalize abortion, in vitro fertilization, and some forms of birth control.

Like the woman from Utah who sent a message to her senator via pizza delivery when his voice mail was full, we have learned to improvise and be creative.  We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure our members of Congress hear our voices.

The first weeks of the Trump administration have shown that we can win some fights if we stand together. Congressional Republicans retreated from Goodlatte’s anti-ethics legislation, and the calls and visits demanding a replacement for the ACA before a reckless repeal throws millions of people off their health insurance have forced some Republicans to admit privately that they need to slow down and govern.

Civics 101 is working again.

Right now, we have the chance to do even more. This week, members of Congress are in their home states and districts. It is their job to listen to us, so find a local group and make sure that they do. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.

This is our republic, entrusted to each and every citizen.  Every call and every visit to our representatives is another beat of the heart of our democracy.  Our system only works when we make sure our representatives are not legislating for themselves or their lobbyists, but for those who gave them the power to govern in the first place: The American people.


First Person

Dear Senator Toomey: The Cuts You Vote for Make It Impossible to Feed My Family

Editor’s Note: These are modified remarks from a “Tuesdays with Toomey” event on February 7, 2017.

Dear Senator Toomey,

You don’t know me. You have never met me, or answered any of my calls. But you have power and influence over my life—and my children’s well-being—and that scares me.

So Senator Toomey, let me introduce myself:  My name is Myra Young. I’m a mother, an advocate, and I live in poverty.

I work hard to take care of my family. For the last 22 years I worked as a certified nursing assistant, but I still lived in poverty and needed government assistance to put food on the table and to keep my kids healthy. Two months ago, the company I worked for closed and I was laid off. Now without my job, my struggle is even more difficult.  I only receive $33 a month in food stamps—barely enough to get my family through one healthy meal. My kids need fruit and vegetables, but I simply cannot afford them.

Last week, my 10-year-old son asked, “Mom, why do you cry so much?”

I told him, “Because I want to take care of you and your sister, but it’s so hard.”

But why is it so hard, Senator?

It’s hard because wages are too low.
It’s hard because we have to beg for scraps when we need help.
And it’s hard because of politicians like you, Senator Toomey.

You have everything I want: a safe home to go to, a job that pays a good wage, and a family in good health.  But you want to take away the little bit I have by cutting programs that help me—and people like me—feed my family.  That hurts us.  That keeps us down. And that makes me angry.

You are wrong, Senator Toomey.
You are wrong if you don’t protect these programs.
You are wrong if you don’t care about my family.

Would you be able to survive one week in my shoes?

Would you be able to survive one week in my shoes?  Would you be able to manage the daily struggle of trying to feed your family? Manage the stress of not knowing if you will be able to pay rent for the month? Manage the fear that your child may need health care that you cannot afford?

If I were in your shoes, and had the power to help a mother with two disabled children, I would do it.  I would make sure she has the services she needs to care for her family.  I would take care of the more than 1.6 million people in Pennsylvania who live paycheck to paycheck.

Senator Toomey, as a member of Witnesses to Hunger, my sisters and I will continue to speak out and fight for the needs of our children, families, and communities.

It’s your responsibility to do the same.