First Person

I Spent 13 Years in Jail. Not Being Able to Vote Makes it Feel Like a Life Sentence.

I grew up in Winter Park, Florida, where I was born three days after Election Day in 1970. I mention this because most of my birthdays have been associated with voting.

As a child, I couldn’t wait to turn 18 so I could register to vote and go inside the voting booth. And that’s just what I did. It made me feel like an adult, like an American citizen doing my civic duty. I voted in every election that I could.

But because I was convicted of a felony, I can no longer participate in our democracy. Florida is one of three states – along with Kentucky and Iowa – in which everyone convicted of a felony is permanently barred from voting. Amendment 4, which is on the ballot this Election Day, would restore voting rights to some 1.5 million people just like me.

I grew up in a broken home filled with all types of abuse and despair. I had no mentors, only the golden rule to keep our family business inside the home. I went from a little girl filled with hope who got good grades to a young adult who no longer cared.

I became a product of my environment, and ended up being the getaway driver in a robbery gone wrong.

Afterward, I could only think of the victim and his family and the pain they were going through. In those moments, I asked: If it was me and my family, what would I want? I would want the people involved to pay for what they did, I decided.

So I had my attorney take me to the Orange County jail and surrendered to the unknown. I did the right thing when it mattered the most, even when it was scary and the outcome uncertain.

The judge sentenced me to 15 years. I spent a third of my life paying my debt to society for my crime.

I fortunately survived. When I was given my end of sentence paperwork, I was presented with a form that I was told to sign. It advised me that I couldn’t vote anymore.

We had no ability to challenge policies designed to lock us out, and lock us back up again.

At first, I refused, because the judge had not sentenced me to the removal of my civil rights. But when I was told that I would be kept for the additional two years that were cut off my sentence due to good behavior if I didn’t sign the form, I quickly put my name on it. I wouldn’t understand the weight of that paper until after my release.

I came home with a plan to be the best person that I could. But I couldn’t get a job because of identifiers of my conviction on applications. I couldn’t go back to the college I attended pre-incarceration as an in-state student, because I didn’t have an I.D. that was a year old. My prison identification wasn’t acceptable, according to the board of governors.

When I finally thought I had broken through the invisible ceiling by obtaining my real estate license and selling a home to a cash buyer three months later, the significance of that the paper I signed in prison became clear. I took my commissioned earnings to get an apartment, but was refused; in many places, those with a felony conviction are not protected against this form of discrimination. As a professional in a business where it is our goal to make sales for profit, that was just mind-blowing.

I understood then that these things were allowed to happen to those of us with felony convictions because we could not vote. We had no ability to challenge policies designed to lock us out, and lock us back up again.

This is why the passage of Amendment 4 is so important, not just to those of us in Florida who would be affected, but to those in other states who have been denied their right to vote. It sends a message that we are American citizens, and that even though we made some mistakes along the way, we are forgiven and afforded a clean slate to become someone who contributes to society.

For my birthday this year, I am asking for the most important gift anyone can give me, and that’s to go out and vote yes on Amendment 4.



The High Costs of Trump’s Assault on the Transgender Community

A recent New York Times story revealed that the Department of Health and Human Services is considering the adoption of a radically restrictive definition of gender, viewing it as an immutable trait established at birth on the basis of genitalia. This move could have a profound impact on the 1.4 million transgender people living in the U.S., as well as intersex people, who make up around 1.7 percent of the population.

The HHS proposal would reinterpret Title IX, which bars “sex”-based discrimination in federally-funded education and is applied to a wide range of civil rights issues from campus sexual assault to affirming the rights of trans students. HHS intends to push other government agencies to adopt the same narrow and biologically inaccurate view of gender, according to the Times. The agency’s view is also not shared by the courts, which have ruled repeatedly that “sex” includes gender identity under Title IX and Title VII.

The news about HHS came just days before a report that the Department of Justice believes employers can discriminate against employees on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. Meanwhile, agencies such as the Department of Education and the Department of Justice have chosen to withdraw anti-discrimination guidance that protected transg people, while HHS quietly removed trans discrimination guidance from its website about health care discrimination. Massachusetts voters will decide on Election Day whether they wish to uphold a law banning gender discrimination in public accommodations.

This is an all-out assault on the transgender community in the United States, and it has sinister implications for other vulnerable groups as well. It will hit low-income trans people especially hard, amplifying already existing economic inequalities.

“People with low or no income already struggle to acquire adequate representation to challenge their rights in court,” Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality, said via email. “They could potentially be impacted by just the misinformation spread by this proposal. The proposal doesn’t actually rewrite laws, but it could embolden many employers or doctors or schools to disregard the rights of trans people. Those with resources enough to speak to a lawyer are more likely to know when their rights are being violated, while those who cannot might find themselves without much recourse.”

According to a 2015 report from the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress, trans people face a “financial penalty,” paying more to access health care and other services, from credit to fair housing, than their cis counterparts. They are more likely to live in poverty, with 15 percent of trans people making less than $10,000 annually in contrast with 4 percent of cis people. These numbers are even more stark for black (34 percent versus 9 percent) and Latinx (28 percent versus 5 percent) trans people.

The community overall experiences an unemployment rate double that of cis people. LGBQT people also rely more on threatened benefits programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

This state of economic precarity has a concrete impact on trans lives. For instance, the National Center for Transgender Equality has found that just 21 percent of trans people have changed over all their identification documents, due to high costs and regressive policies such as refusals to allow trans people to update identification or birth certificates without proof of surgery in some states. The lack of consistent and accurate identification can fuel discrimination, such as refusals to hire people when their identification outs them as transgender, or denial of benefits, with 16 percent of U.S. Transgender Survey respondents reporting benefits issues related to mismatching identification.

Legitimizing transphobia on the institutional level encourages harassment and abuse of trans people.

Financial instability also amplifies widespread housing, employment, education, and health care discrimination against trans people. 23 percent of trans people faced “some form of housing discrimination” in the previous year, according to the U.S. Trans Survey, while 67 percent reported being passed over for hiring, fired, or denied promotions because of their gender identity. One in four experienced problems with their health insurance. Low-income people may not be able to “go somewhere else” to access services, cannot afford alternative housing, and cannot fund litigation in cases of discrimination.

In a landscape without comprehensive and explicit civil rights protections, and with federal agencies not only refusing to enforce existing protections but actively promoting discrimination against the trans community, low-income trans people’s financial disadvantage will become much more glaring. The administration is already not enforcing Affordable Care Act protections barring discrimination on the basis of gender identity, making it challenging to access not only transition services but permitting other forms of health care discrimination; this kind of policy could make this problem even worse. Similarly, barriers to accessing identification could leave more trans people struggling to access benefits they need to thrive, such as subsidized housing, SNAP, and Medicaid.

Just as a flood of bathroom bills in 2015 and 2016 emboldened transphobic people and policymakers, moves like this fuel hatred and contribute to the distribution of misinformation about what it means to be transgender and how trans people interact with society. Legitimizing transphobia on the institutional level encourages harassment and abuse of trans people, which harms vulnerable trans populations such as sex workers, women of color, immigrants, disabled people, youth, and low-income people.

Targeting the trans community could also lay the groundwork for disrupting other civil rights, with the federal government’s pursuit of a “right to discriminate” becoming a blueprint for attacking groups such as those who are homeless on the streets of San Francisco, Native American and fighting for the right to vote in Utah, or lesbians who want to adopt a child.



San Francisco’s Prop C Would Make Tech Companies Address the Homelessness Crisis They Helped Create

National media coverage of San Francisco’s Proposition C — which would raise taxes on the city’s largest businesses in order to increase funding to address the city’s homelessness crisis — is largely focused on how the question has divided tech titans.

The highest-profile spat has been between Salesforce’s Marc Benioff and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, the former of whom gave millions of dollars to the campaign to pass Proposition C, while the latter has derided the initiative as “quick acts to make us feel good for one moment in time.”

But this debate isn’t really about tech companies and the political preferences of their wealthy CEOs. Proposition C is about our priorities at a time when wealth and power are more concentrated in America than they have been in decades.

Were Proposition C to pass, taxes would increase for 300 or so of the city’s biggest businesses, raising $250-$300 million  for homelessness supports. (Last year, the city spent $380 million on homelessness programs, so this proposal would increase that funding by at least 65 percent.) At least half of the new funds must be dedicated to permanent housing, which research shows is the most effective way to combat homelessness, with the remainder split between mental health care, shelters, and prevention efforts.

“The idea is simple. It’s about taxing our largest and wealthiest corporations and redistributing that to our most vulnerable communities,” said Sam Lew, policy director at the Coalition on Homelessness. “The everyday San Franciscan won’t be impacted by this tax. It’s really those who are making the most profit and asking them to pay their fair share and give back to the community.”

If this sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because it is. Seattle’s city council passed and then rescinded a corporate tax to bolster funding for homelessness prevention in April, backtracking after the city’s biggest companies — and most prominently Amazon — objected and threatened to put a direct vote over the issue onto the ballot in November. Amazon also halted a construction project in the city during the dispute, threatening to blunt its economic activity if the tax remained in place.

“I and other people out on the streets have reached the conclusion that this is not a winnable battle at this time. The opposition has unlimited resources,” said one city council member who voted first for the tax and then for its repeal.

A similar dynamic is at play in San Francisco ahead of November’s vote. The threat from big businesses, such as Square, Lyft, Stripe and the others who have donated to a “No on C” campaign,  is that Proposition C would kill jobs or deter companies from coming to the Bay Area without solving the homelessness problem. However, a report from the city controller found that were the tax enacted, there would only be 725-875 fewer jobs in the city over the next 20 years, amounting to just 0.1 percent of total employment, while the measure would provide housing for thousands of people.

The “Twitter tax break” saved companies $34 million in 2014 alone.

One of the selling points for Proposition C campaigners is that the measure would simply offset some of the tax benefits that corporations received in 2017 courtesy of the Trump administration and conservatives in Congress. It would also begin to counteract some of the vast under-investments that the federal government has made in affordable housing funding since the Reagan administration, says Lew.

“Because of that huge divestment in public housing, there’s been an increase in homelessness across the United States and there hasn’t been a reinvestment in that in the last 30-35 years,” she said. “What we’re saying in San Francisco is that we’re going to be leaders in providing housing for people who need it. We’re actually going to spend the money that we need to spend to house people.”

San Francisco has about 7,500 people who are homeless, according to the latest data, which is almost certainly an undercount due to the inherent difficulties in accessing the homeless population. People experiencing homelessness in San Francisco are also disproportionately people of color or members of the LGBTQ community, per the city’s most recent survey.

Homelessness in both San Francisco and the U.S. has risen in recent years for many reasons, but one of them is growing economic inequality. In California and San Francisco in particular, that inequality is boosted in no small part by the presence of America’s tech titans. Plenty of research has shown that tech clustering is responsible for the growing wage gap in big cities, and for the divergence between wages in those cities and elsewhere. And that clustering didn’t happen completely organically: San Francisco provided tax breaks to tech companies that settled in the city, with one known as the “Twitter tax break” saving companies $34 million in 2014 alone.

Tech workers have seen their incomes rise in California. Everyone else hasn’t been so fortunate.

Tech workers, especially at the richer end of the income scale, have seen their incomes rise in California. However, everyone else hasn’t been so fortunate:  According to a recent report, wages for 90 percent of California workers are lower than they were 20 years ago.  There’s also no shortage of stories about other inequalities in the Bay Area, on everything from food to transportation to education.

Even a decent paying job is no guarantee of affordable housing, thanks in part to the tech-industry driving gentrification and increased housing prices in California’s major cities. Average rent in San Francisco varies depending on how it is calculated, but many analyses place it above $3,000 per month. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, renting a modest two-bedroom home in the city requires a wage of more than $60 per hour.

These figures, not which tech CEO said what on Twitter, get at the essence of Proposition C. The only question that really matters is: Will San Francisco will ask its wealthiest corporations to pay slightly more so that thousands of currently homeless people can have a roof over their heads?

“We’re on this national platform now because two CEOs of tech companies are fighting about whether it should be passed,” said Lew. “But at the end of the day we’re fighting for a measure that’s going to save lives regardless of what billionaires are thinking.”



Winter Is Coming, and Fuel Costs Will Hit the Poor the Hardest

Winter is coming, and it’s going to be colder for some than others.

“Starting junior year,” recalls Alexis Stewart, a West Virginia-based writer and musician, “my mom said we couldn’t afford heat and I had to ‘suck it up.’ I don’t know if we didn’t qualify for [the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program] those years or if the funding ran out before they got to us. I bought a space heater with money from my part time job, but because of the poor insulation, I’d still wake up to a stiff frozen blanket.”

Stewart grew up in a low-income household and today still struggles with the cost of heat. While living in one antiquated shared home in Huntington, “the food bank used to see a lot of me between November and March” thanks to high heating bills that were challenging even when split among six people.

Stewart is not alone in experiencing the “heat or eat” bind. A 2015 Department of Energy study found 25 million American households skipping food and medicine to pay for energy, with 7 million reporting they did so every month.

A household faces a high-energy burden, also described as energy insecurity or fuel poverty, any time heating costs exceed 10 percent of its income. Prices for fuel oil and propane spike in January and February, during the coldest part of the winter, and are on track to increase in 2018 over 2017, with propane costs per gallon across the country 8 cents higher in October 2018 than October 2017, according to the Department of Energy. (The amount of fuel needed by a household varies significantly depending on location, temperature, insulation, and other factors.)

Electricity prices tend to peak in summer, reflecting cooling costs, but are also on a steady upward trend. And these numbers do not necessarily capture the true cost of heating a home to a comfortable temperature, as Stewart’s experience demonstrates, only what is spent on heating.

Data show high energy burdens hit low-income people particularly hard, and that prices are heavily racialized as well, with Black households paying more thanks to inequalities in access to credit, paired with pricing structures that can penalize households that use minimal electricity. Elderly and disabled people can also face a high energy burden between medical conditions that may necessitate warmer temperatures and their higher poverty rates.

Poorly maintained heating systems and homes that lack energy efficiency updates can drive up heating expenses even further. A 2017 WUFT investigation in Gainesville, Florida, identified “substandard housing” as a significant culprit in differential energy costs, noting that low-income people are more likely to live in homes with energy efficiency shortcomings. Lauren Ross, Director of the Local Policy Program at American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, notes that her research has shown this to be a particular problem in rural areas, where housing stock is of much poorer quality.

Precise numbers on deaths associated with extreme cold are a subject of dispute, as there are many ways to define a cold death beyond obvious cases of hypothermia caused by exposure, but it’s a certainty that cold kills. Secondary illnesses and other complications associated with cold can cause cold-related deaths as well.

A 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on deaths attributed to weather on death certificates found that two thirds — about 1,200 people annually — were associated with cold, with those in low-income communities much more likely to experience weather-related deaths. In 2015, a Lancet paper found deaths attributed to cold were 20 times more common than those associated with heat, making particular note of the fact that extreme cold wasn’t the leading cause of death: Even moderately cold temperatures were enough to kill.

Cold also makes people sick, especially elders, disabled people, and the Black community, according to the Lancet research. Cold can cause health problems for people with preexisting heart conditions, respiratory disorders, and more. A 2010 UK study noted children raised in cold conditions experienced developmental delays and other health complications.

Carbon monoxide poisoning caused by broken or unvented heaters used in enclosed rooms to combat cold, as has been observed in households trying to heat themselves without power after storms, is also a potential issue for households struggling with energy insecurity.

Precise numbers on deaths associated with extreme cold are a subject of dispute ... but it’s a certainty that cold kills.

The consequences of being unable to afford heating go further, though. Being unable to pay utility bills can reflect negatively on tenants’ credit and may indicate that a household is at risk of foreclosure or eviction; utility bills were identified as a potential cause of homelessness in a 2007 University of Colorado, Denver analysis of the state’s Point in Time homelessness count.

Programs such as LIHEAP and the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program are designed to address these issues, but they fall short on funds, community outreach, and scope — they sometimes have rigid rules that will allow a program to replace a heater, but not to repair a badly warped door that allows freezing air to blast through a house, for example.  Financial assistance programs administered by utilities and community organizations have similar shortcomings. So people often rely on support from churches, friends, family, and strangers – sites like GoFundMe include fundraisers asking for help filling fuel oil tanks, paying off delinquent bills, and repairing heating equipment.

LIHEAP, established in 1981, offers state-administered funds to people making 200 percent of the federal poverty level or 60 percent of state median, but it is a first-come, first-serve program that often runs out of funds before it’s reached all the people who need it. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, just 20 percent of households who qualify receive funding each year. The Trump administration has also tried to eliminate the program, twice.

But increasing LIHEAP and efficiency program funding alone won’t solve the bigger problem. State-by-state laws on maintenance of heating infrastructure and whether landlords are required to provide heat vary widely, creating uncertainty about landlord responsibility for the safety and operability of heating equipment. Even in states where landlord responsibility is clear, tenants may fear retaliation if they ask for repairs or energy efficiency improvements.

Ross says many local programs aimed at addressing these problems don’t take advantage of stacking available funds — like federal dollars and a regional energy efficiency grant – to address underserved households with improvements that will lower energy bills and improve quality of life. Changes to restrictive policies that limit how funds can be spent are also necessary.

“In adulthood, I’ve moved an average of once every two years in the past ten. Most of those were mostly economic driven,” said Stewart. Lower heating bills — and higher wages — could change that.


First Person

We Voted for a Union at Columbia and We’re Willing to Fight For It

Graduate workers at Columbia are the people who teach courses and discussion sections, grade papers and exams, hold office hours and meet with students. We’re the teaching assistants and research assistants who conduct the daily work essential to keeping the university’s many labs and research institutes running.

However, the pay and benefits we receive do not reflect our vital role within the institution, so we voted to unionize in December 2016. The federal government certified the union election months ago, but the university has refused to come to the bargaining table. We went on strike in April to protest this denial to recognize our democratically chosen union, and we’re willing to do so again.

The inability of Columbia workers to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits has many concrete consequences. They are felt day by day, such as when one of us is sitting at the dentist, reading through treatment plans and weighing the costs.

Fillings? Have to happen. Everything else can certainly wait, right? New glasses might be in order, but aren’t covered by insurance, either.

During the academic year, around half of our pay goes toward rent, and our summer stipends force us to stretch around $3,300 (before taxes) across three months. Stipends vary across departments, but they aren’t all guaranteed and can depend on individual advisers’ access to grant money. So we do what many of our colleagues do: Take care of only the most urgent concerns while putting everything else off.

For some, that even means putting plans to have a family on hold, since Columbia’s $2,000 annual child care subsidy, while a saving grace for those who receive it, still barely puts a dent in covering the cost of child care in New York City.

The university has not only refused to recognize our union, but also engaged in a long battle to prevent us from holding a vote in the first place. In fact, the Columbia administration argued in front of the National Labor Relations Board that graduate workers are not workers at all, and then actively propagandized in an attempt to dissuade workers from voting to unionize.

The administration lost both battles, with the NLRB affirming graduate workers’ right to unionize in August of 2016, and 72 percent of the graduate worker body subsequently voting in favor of a union in December.

It would require a minuscule fraction of Columbia’s budget to cover dental and vision insurance for its graduate workers or to increase the child care subsidy, which makes its refusal to recognize our union worse. What amounts to pocket change for a university with an endowment of $10.9 billion would mean a drastic increase in the quality of life for graduate workers.

Harvard, Brown, Cornell, NYU, The New School, Tufts, Brandeis, American University, and Georgetown have all recognized their graduate worker unions and are at various stages of negotiations or already have agreed to a contract, while Columbia remains steadfast in its attempts to deny us our rights. The contract negotiated at NYU awarded grad workers some of the benefits we deserve, such as dental coverage, and increased their stipends.

We know that rising inequality in the United States is making it increasingly difficult for those without privileged backgrounds to succeed.

As sociologists, we know that rising inequality in the United States is making it increasingly difficult for those without privileged backgrounds to succeed. We also know that unions reduce inequality, increase wages, and improve conditions for workers of color. The issues at stake are not just material, however. For example, union organizing is helping to provide much-needed support for graduate workers experiencing sexual harassment.

Columbia’s administration is led by a Board of Trustees whose members include investment bankers and venture capitalists, high-powered lawyers, real estate developers, and a pharmaceutical executive. When they persistently — and illegally — ignore multiple NLRB decisions and refuse to bargain with our graduate worker union, it is clear that they are engaging in the same attack on workers that has led to the concentration of income and power for those at the top of the economic hierarchy.

These attacks make apparent the hypocrisy and ease with which powerful institutions depicting themselves as defenders of democracy align with some of the Trump administration’s worst policies, so as not to forgo a drop of their control and capital.

And as sociologists, we know, too, that power concedes nothing without a demand. Since the administration has made it clear that it does not intend to respect the NLRB’s rulings, and since recent Trump appointees to our nation’s courts are unlikely to side with workers, we have few options left other than withholding our labor – which, of course, Columbia claims is not labor at all. We hope a prolonged strike will tip the cold economic calculations surely underlying the administration and the Board of Trustees’ decisions.

Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and a co-chair of the prestigious National Academies of Sciences’ committee on the future of voting, has said that “Nothing is more essential to a functioning democracy than the trust citizens have in casting their ballots.” However, he and the rest of administration have not extended that principle to recognize the results of our legal, democratic vote in favor of unionization.

So our union is ready to demonstrate not only that our labor is critical to the functioning of the university, but that as workers, we have power in numbers – and the power to strike. Because when democracy is under attack, what do we do? Stand up and fight back.