Mutual Aid for Incarcerated People Is More Than Just Bail Funds

As Americans across the country lead nightly protests against the historical racism and violence of our police forces, they are being met with violent cops in paramilitary gear — and sometimes, the actual military. In the past few weeks, Portland has been ravaged by secret police who are disappearing protestors into unmarked vehicles; soldiers in D.C. were given bayonets to quell protestors; police in Buffalo, NY shoved a 75 year-old man to the ground, then walked around his body while blood leaked from his ears; and a reporter in Minneapolis lost her left eye after she was shot with a pepper round.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country. Public health officials recommend isolation, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. They certainly don’t recommend inhalation of chemical agents like tear gas and pepper spray, which are being used liberally against protestors. Protestors put in jail and incarcerated people held in prisons are not given options to isolate or maintain recommended hygiene practices to protect themselves from coronavirus.

Mutual aid — people coming together to meet basic needs that aren’t being met by our current government or other systems — is a critical part of the response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black people. It can include money, time, or resources, and is a political act of solidarity amongst individuals and communities, rather than charity. People on the outside are coordinating rapid-response bail funds; providing jail support to find out where arrested protestors are taken, arranging bail if applicable, and waiting for their release; and fundraising for injured protestors. Monetary support like GoFundMe fundraisers to pay for medical bills, safe houses, and other forms of care are “a way to be there for our people, to build community, and to ensure that people are cared for,” according to Micah Herskind, an Atlanta-based organizer and writer. “I think jail support is another way to live out the abolitionist truth that ‘we got us.’ It’s also saying that there’s a role for everyone in the struggle — some will be in the streets, some will be doing support from home, some will be at the jail to welcome those who are released.”

According to abolitionist Mariame Kaba, “Mutual aid is not new […] It’s basic survival work that relies on the fact that human beings are interdependent.” She pointed to this chart created by Dean Spade as a way to show the important differences between mutual aid and charity, including the fact that mutual aid is an effort to flatten hierarchies without expectation of anything received in return. According to Spade, where charities and NGOs have high costs to operate and must follow government regulations, mutual aid is volunteer-powered, resisting the government’s efforts to “regulate or shut down activities.” K, a Black nonbinary organizer in Brooklyn, echoed this: “Mutual aid is so effective because it works outside of the bureaucracy of the nonprofit industrial complex. People have more control and autonomy over how aid is distributed and used, and also because mutual aid contains a political education component, longer-term relationships are built.” When it comes to mobilizing resources to support detained protestors, it also means having the speed to respond with the urgency the situation demands.

Mutual aid, however, extends beyond short-term, urgent needs. Many protestors and organizers realize that the murders of Black people at the hands of the police are just one part of a very violent system and many of those working to help protestors normally support incarcerated people. Incarceration is another violent — and often deadly — form of oppression for Black and brown people, and as with the protests, K notes, coronavirus has complicated the response.

Communities are coming together to act where the government refuses to.

Due to stay at home orders, mailing checks and visiting the post office have to be done “strategically” and loved ones can’t visit their family or friends in prison. Even when mail can be sent out, K said “prisons are limiting people’s access to mail and lying about it.” Morale is low on the inside, where some people “are being forced to stay inside their cells for 23 hours a day.” People on the outside are struggling with lost jobs and access to resources, but “with the help of our comrades on the inside,” K said they are doing their best. Amani Sawari, the statewide coordinator of the Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act, knows this well. Sawari is fundraising to help incarcerated people access prevention products like hand soap and disinfectant, putting money in people’s commissaries to get around Michigan Department of Corrections’ very restricted mailing. Sawari said it is integral “that the community step up in order to provide these materials to people in prison.” In New York, Survived and Punished NY and the Inside/Outside Soap Brigade similarly began a combined grassroots fundraising effort to send commissary money to incarcerated people while continuing decarceration efforts. They stress the importance of direct monetary aid because of the mail, movement, and other restrictions due to COVID-19.

In addition to bail out funds for protestors, a COVID-19 Bail Out Fund has been organized to get people out of New York City jails if they cannot afford to pay bail. Many people held in jails haven’t even been convicted of a crime, but are trapped inside because bail can often be unaffordable. In fact, the vast majority of people in jails — nearly 500,000 people — are held there in pre-trial detention. Release Aging People in Prison’s Melissa Tanis points out there are a large number of people who could be released immediately, regardless of innocence. Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) Co-Founder and Executive Director, Gina Womack, explains they are advocating releasing youth from detention, where outbreaks have unfortunately already begun. Womack stresses that “[D]uring a crisis, the facilities could be put on lockdown. In the aftermath of Katrina, when prison staff couldn’t get to work, youth went without food and sanitation for days.” If a similar situation arose due to COVID-19, the results would be inhumane and devastating to incarcerated youth.

Rapid-response mutual aid is necessary for the survival of incarcerated people, and taking to the streets to prevent further incarceration and police violence remains of the utmost importance. That said, while the ultimate goal is decarceration, it’s heartening to see the swift action of organizers in response to crises. Faced with unprecedented challenges during both a global pandemic and a national movement, “communities are coming together to act where the government refuses to,” according to K.



45,000 California Child Care Providers Just Won the Largest Union Election in Decades

On Monday, 45,000 family child care owners and employees in California voted to join a union in a landslide, the largest union election the country has seen in two decades, according to organizers. In a mail-in secret ballot election, 97 percent voted to join Child Care Providers United (CCPU), a coalition of larger unions Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) that will bargain with the state over how it subsidizes child care.

The vote is the culmination of a 17-year fight to be granted the same right to organize that is available to their counterparts in 11 other states, including Washington and Oregon to the north. The fight started long before Miren Algorri, a family child care provider in San Diego, opened her family child care center. When Algorri first immigrated to the United States from Mexico, she became an assistant to her mother, who ran her own family child care. Algorri watched the children her mother cared for while her mother went to organizing meetings.

Algorri took up the mantle when she got her license to operate her own child care. In the more than two decades that she’s run her business, she hasn’t been able to take a single hour of paid sick leave. “That’s inhumane, that is criminal,” she said in an interview. She only has health insurance because she’s on someone else’s plan; when she was younger and a single mother, she had no coverage and paid hundreds of dollars to cover her daughter’s medical issues. “I cried myself to sleep countless nights,” she said.

She still can’t afford to offer health insurance to the assistants who now work for her. For providers like Algorri, who accept children whose parents pay for care with state subsidies, the rates are set by the state. With what the state pays her for caring for an infant, she’s barely making $4 an hour. But she needs to pay her assistants at least minimum wage. “They deserve way more than the minimum wage, because they’re shaping the future of California,” she said. But in order to compensate them adequately, that means that many months, after her other expenses, she doesn’t have enough money to pay herself a salary. So, she goes without.

It’s a common theme among family child care operators in California. In a 2019 survey, the top challenge providers said they faced was low wages, followed by receiving few benefits. Nearly one in five that had closed said it was because of the lack of benefits. Nationally, child care workers make on average less than $24,000 a year.

“Being underpaid, underrepresented, overworked is not something that I wish upon anybody,” she said. “We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. That’s what the union means.”

The union vote result was announced on an emotional Zoom call on Monday, and in reaction child care providers across the state took themselves off mute to cheer and clap. “This election is historic,” said Zoila Carolina Toma, a child care provider in Los Angeles, on the call, with a classroom chalkboard and shelves full of supplies in her background. “Together we are unstoppable.”

“I cannot find the words to describe how I’m doing,” Algorri said. “I have been crying, I have been laughing… I’m overwhelmed with joy because I know that wonderful things are coming for us.”

Even before Monday’s vote, 2,500 child care workers in the state had joined SEIU without having the formal right to organize and bargain. Then, in September, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill finally granting providers who receive state subsidies the ability to form a union. “I’m so proud to be a little bit a part of your journey,” Newsom said in a pre-recorded video played on the Zoom call. “You had the moral authority, and…now we have the formal authority enshrined in this historic vote.”

We don't want to be 78 years old still trying to lead circle time.

The vote, however, is only the start. “Today the real fight begins,” Algorri said. Now that they voted to unionize, they’ll be able to bargain directly with the state for improvements in the child care system. As they negotiate their first contract, their priorities will be ensuring a livable wage for providers, good health insurance, and a retirement plan. Nancy Harvey, a child care provider of 16 years, said on the Zoom call, “We don’t want to be 78 years old still trying to lead circle time.” They also want to ensure professional development and training.

The child care provider workforce in California is overwhelmingly female and 74 percent people of color, according to the union. “This is not just a victory for union rights and economic justice,” Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME International, said on the Zoom call. “It’s a movement led by women of color. Your win today is an important step toward gender justice and racial justice.”

They also care for many children of color, and as part of their negotiations plan to push the government to expand access to child care. The vision of the union includes “excellent early education for all in California regardless of what you look like, where you come from, where you live, regardless of ability, regardless of language,” said Max Arias, executive director of SEIU Local 99.

All of these things are even more necessary in the middle of the pandemic. Across the country, more than 70 percent of child care providers say they’re incurring substantial new costs for staff, cleaning, and personal protective equipment to operate safely. But they have little wiggle room to cover those expenses. Over 40 percent said they had to close in May. Two out of five say they will have to shutter permanently unless they receive public assistance.

Many of the union members are already sick with COVID-19, some even hospitalized and intubated, according to union leaders who were on the Zoom call. Algorri has kept her doors open throughout the crisis to care for the children of essential workers, even as many of her families lost their jobs and had to keep their children home. She’s had to implement new procedures — such as asking parents to bring their own pens for sign in and having the children change into a child care-specific set of shoes — and spend a lot more on personal protective equipment and extra cleaning supplies. She wants a contract that will ensure providers keep getting paid if they close due to the coronavirus crisis, and will offer them extra support to keep their doors open.

“We’re not asking. We’re going to demand,” Toma noted. “It’s time to demand what we deserve, what our families deserve, what the people in California deserve.”

“I know wonderful things are coming our way,” Algorri said. “I’m just excited.”



A New UBI Pilot is Targeting Former Foster Kids in Silicon Valley

“From freshman year to senior year I was in 21 different placements — group homes [and] foster homes. It was hard to go to school, especially. It also really affected me because I never really felt like anywhere was home.” Kody Hart, an upbeat person with a positive outlook, will be 25 in August. He aged out of the foster care system when he was 18, after six years of state-run care. He doesn’t have family money to fall back on and is working hard to stay afloat, pay off educational debt, and find a way to move out of the increasingly expensive Bay Area.

Every year, 150 young people age out of the foster care system in California’s Santa Clara County. Statewide, 90 percent of foster youth don’t have a source of income when they leave state care, and between rent, school, clothing, food, and other living expenses, surviving in the Bay Area as a foster youth in transition is difficult.

The average cost of rent in San Jose, located in the southern part of the county, is $2,790. Up to 50 percent of foster youth experience homelessness when they leave state care, and in Santa Clara County alone, nearly 50 percent of those under the age of 25 who lack access to shelter had spent some time in the foster care system. Statewide, nearly 50 percent of foster youth are chronically absent from school, 60 percent of foster youth in transition don’t have a high school diploma, and most don’t go on to obtain a college degree. As a result, many higher-paying jobs are not accessible.

A new pilot program put forth by the county’s Board of Supervisors aims to make life easier for young people like Hart by providing the country’s first universal basic income for foster youth in transition. A universal basic income has been shown to increase educational attainment, health care coverage, and provide access to healthier food for all people, but results are especially pronounced for people who are low-income.

For a 12-month period that started in June 2020, eligible young adults will receive $1,000 every month, no strings attached. The program is designed for young adults aged 21 to 24 — an age range at which many become ineligible for other social safety net programs — and eligibility is based on a number of factors, with higher priority given to 24-year-olds. Young adults must have been dependents of Santa Clara County between the ages of 16 and 21, and must currently live in the county.

For 23-year-old Bayleen Solorio, the UBI payments she’ll receive through the county will help her address her number one issue: housing. Before the onset of the pandemic, she was “tight on cash,” and now that businesses are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s working one shift per week at her job. The UBI is coming at the right time, but it still might not be enough to last through this economic downturn.

Solorio said the UBI program will offer her “that extra cushion I [need] to afford to pay off my debts.” The program “is going to help me a lot with financial struggles,” she said, and potentially address years of inadequate financial support. Solorio says that her main emotional struggle now is navigating her depression, and the UBI will make it easier for her to manage daily life.

For most, if not all, of the 72 young people enrolled in the program, the UBI isn’t just a guarantee of income, but a pathway to continue school and an opportunity to step back and think more broadly about their lives, rather than just focusing on the day-to-day. Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said that county staff will check in with the recipients every three months to offer financial guidance that they may not have received elsewhere.

Foster children don’t have networks and support systems that can help them launch.

Chavez explained that the UBI program was born out of a long-held belief that young people in the “custodial care” of the county community should be cared for as if they were her own — or any parent’s in the area. It’s not an unreasonable approach to early adulthood: 70 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds nationwide are supported financially by their parents, which is its own informal basic income program that keeps young adults afloat while they find their footing.

“Foster children don’t have networks and support systems that can help them launch,” Chavez said, noting that she has long been invested in the wellbeing of her constituents from a “justice” perspective. “When you’re making investments in justice, you’re launching human beings to reach their highest capacity,” she says. As she sees it, providing a UBI isn’t about charity.

This “justice” framework addresses more than the need for financial support: It speaks to the multi-layered challenges that await foster youth in transition when they age out of the state-run system. States largely get to shape policy including when young people “age out” and what financial and social services are made available to them. For instance, in California, some former foster youth are eligible for educational assistance. Most of these funds have an age limit and aren’t necessarily calibrated with the rising cost of living. What’s universal, however, is the way that the foster youth system disconnects young people from their home communities, suffers from chronic underfunding, and doesn’t address emotional and mental needs of foster youth prior to the onset of illnesses.

Chavez is aware of the UBI’s shortcomings, mainly that a fixed income for a certain period of time can’t solve all of the problems with the foster care system. Still, it may keep youth in transition financially solvent while they work out for themselves what adult life looks like. “This small amount of money offers a little bit of [protection]” Chavez said, “For our foster programming this is a new area, that our success or failure of the Board [is measured] as guardians of our children.”

In addition to providing financial guidance to the youth, county staff will conduct routine interviews with recipients of the basic income to evaluate its efficacy. Chavez hopes that the program inspires action in other counties around California and potentially in other states.

“Being in the foster care system did one thing and one thing only: It helped me become codependent,” Hart says. But initiatives like this one could actually allow Hart to build economic independence. “With programs like these, I’m able to actually be comfortable somewhere.”



As Eviction Bans Expire, Renters Turn to Credit Cards

Just off the major traffic artery of 16th Street NW in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where gentrification has forced out generations of Latinx and Black renters, an eight-story apartment building is blanketed with hand-painted signs: “FOOD, NOT RENT” the black-and-red lettering reads. “CANCEL RENT.”

Julissa Pineda, 22, has lived in the building, Richman Towers, with her mother and two brothers for three years. In March, shortly after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency in the city, Pineda was laid off from her job as a restaurant server. Almost immediately, Pineda, who is the main earner in her family, knew she would not be able to afford her rent without borrowing heavily: The family pays $1,950 per month for their two-bedroom apartment. “Sometimes we need to buy a couple things,” she said. “It is necessary to have money.”

Other families, some of whom have called the building home for nearly 30 years, were in similar positions, Pineda said. Many worked paycheck to paycheck in the service industry, and after they lost their jobs, had no idea how they could continue to make rent. Along with other families in her building, Pineda began organizing residents to lobby its landlord for rent forgiveness. But five months into a pandemic that has killed more than 550 people in D.C., neither their public pressure nor private lobbying has been successful.

Pineda says that some of those families — including her own — have resorted to increasingly precarious ways to pay rent, including borrowing money from friends and high-interest lenders, or in the case of other Richman Towers residents, by slapping the balance on a credit card.

Renters in D.C. and around the country are struggling to make their way in a city that’s been flattened by the one-two punch of a pandemic and recession. Even in times of relative regional prosperity, D.C. is a difficult city to live in: It consistently ranks as having one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, as well as one of the nation’s highest rates of income inequality, with the top fifth of earners making about 29 times more than the bottom fifth.

Down the road, how will they pay those credit cards off?

So it’s no surprise that renters are underwater. By mid-June, more than 116,000 people — a figure equal to nearly one in every six people who live in the capitol — had filed for unemployment in D.C. By the end of the first week of June, the percentage of people in D.C. who were able to pay all or part of their rent dropped three points from the same period last year, according to data collected by property management software company RealPage, to under 83 percent, one of the highest drops in the country.

As the effects of historic mass layoffs begin to throttle the economy — and renters’ wallets — rental data indicate that more people than ever are relying on their credit cards to make rent. Those who are able, anyway: 8 percent of people in D.C. are unbanked, and 27 percent don’t have access to a line of credit.

“The concern we have is that these effects would snowball. That [renters] would use these alternative methods to pay rent, and then that high interest becomes a vehicle for more debt to incur,” Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, testified during a June 10 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development, and Insurance. “There is a very real risk of people being forced into homelessness because they’re being forced to find alternative methods to cover their rent costs.”

Two widely used rental management software companies, Entrata and MRI, used data from around the country to report spikes in credit card rent payments of up to 7 percent compared to spring of last year. Other initial studies indicate that up to 18 percent of families using their credit cards to make rent have done so for two months in a row. Meanwhile, housing policy experts are beginning to warn lawmakers about the long-term implications of the practice. “Of course the question then becomes, on down the road, how will they pay those credit cards off?” Andrew Aurand, vice president of research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said of lower-income renters. “It’s troubling. It’s concerning.”

Still, in D.C., some local officials are actually encouraging renters to take on this debt. On June 8, the city’s local trial court created an online payment system that suggests people going through eviction proceedings pay the rent they owe with e-checks and credit or debit cards, with processing fees that cost as much as 2.5 percent of the total transaction.  In an emailed statement to TalkPoverty, a spokesperson for D.C. Superior Court said “It is not required that funds be paid online. As the [court’s] June notice indicates, tenants can continue to pay their landlord.” But while paying rent on a card isn’t mandatory, the mere availability of the offer puts pressure on already cost-burdened residents.

“There are transactional costs associated with all of these different things, but having a 2.5 percent transactional cost to pay for rent is very high,” Harrison said. “And it’s just something that, if you don’t have a lot of income, it’s not something you can budget for.” It’s not uncommon for landlords to try and evict tenants over unpaid bills as small as $25 or $50, or about as much as the extra credit card processing fees they’re faced with paying now.

Visa, meanwhile, reported a 7 percent increase in its quarterly revenue — more than $400 million — since this time last year.



Why Are SNAP Benefits So Confusing That Even Social Workers Can’t Figure Them Out?

Crystal Ortiz, a master’s student studying social work at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, has been receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefits since 2017. The $200 a month she received made it possible for her to buy more fresh produce, especially bagged salad kits that made it easier for her to eat a healthy lunch when she didn’t have a lot of food prep time.

This January, that was threatened when she received a letter stating that her benefits would be cancelled if she did not fulfill a 20-hour-a-week work requirement.  When I first met with Ortiz, she stated that “I would have to make major cuts to the food that I get” if she lost her SNAP benefits.

This letter came at the same time that the United States Department of Agriculture finalized the Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) rule in December 2019. “Able-bodied adults” — defined as not receiving SSI or SSDI, without children, or who are not the caretaker for an adult — are required to work or volunteer 20 hours a week, or participate in an approved workplace training program, in order to maintain their SNAP benefits. Previously, states had been able to apply for waivers to ease those requirements, but the new rule would take that flexibility away and cost up to 700,000 people their benefits.

The ABAWDs rule is not the only restriction on eligibility requirements for SNAP — according to a spokesperson at the Illinois Department of Human Services, students enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs “more than half-time” are not eligible for the program without a special exemption. Additional restrictions ban SNAP benefits for people who are undocumented, have a drug felony, or have more than $2,250 in assets. Some of these restrictions are established by states, and may vary.

Not having enough food to eat was already a public health emergency.

In theory, a social worker like Crystal should be uniquely positioned to navigate this bureaucracy. However, social workers who use SNAP can have just as difficult of a time understanding the requirements to keep their benefits as the clients they assist. Crystal said that in class discussions about policy changes around SNAP eligibility, there wasn’t always an understanding that students were current or former SNAP recipients who were personally affected by these changes. She also said some professors would broadly mention that resources were available if students needed additional support, but specific resources were not mentioned in course materials. “I would like to see acknowledgement from the school…because if we’re not talking about it, we can’t come together,” she said, adding that this lack of discussion means students are “struggling silently.”

Even with her understanding of the SNAP requirements, Ortiz ultimately lost benefits for two months. To get them reinstated, she set up multiple meetings and phone calls with the Illinois Department of Human Services, which included taking public transit in the middle of a pandemic, waiting outside since the office was only admitting one person at a time, offering to translate for another person in line because another staffer was not available, and then meeting with a caseworker and manager to advocate for herself. The root of the issue, it seems, was her unpaid internship — she was under the impression that it counted as work, but her caseworker believed it did not since it was for class credit.

Crystal’s experience highlights the many different restrictions that already existed in the SNAP ruling even before the proposed expansion of the ABAWD requirement, and how challenging it is trying to parse conflicting information from multiple agencies. But still, even in the midst of the coronavirus, many of the restrictions hold.

Currently, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act only partially suspends the ABAWD rule: If recipients are offered a slot in a designated workfare program, they must participate in the program in order to maintain benefits. A representative from the Illinois Department of Human Services stated that all ABAWD requirements, including the requirements in FFCRA, and eligibility requirements for students receiving SNAP, are suspended until a month after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lifts the Public Health Emergency declaration. Navigating these mixed messages from different agencies can be frustrating for a social worker, but can be downright impossible for the average person unfamiliar with public benefits agencies. A page on the IDHS website states that current SNAP recipients will receive the maximum benefit starting the week of April 6.

The framing around these reversals in policy is focused on maintaining food access “during a public health emergency.” However, not having enough food to eat was already a public health emergency before COVID-19, as demonstrated by the patchwork of food pantries and soup kitchens that had challenges meeting the needs of the communities they serve. As we work to ensure that everyone has enough to eat during the immediate crisis of COVID-19, we can’t lose sight of that basic fact. If the USDA and state agencies can recognize how devastating a lack of food is during COVID-19, to the point where they suspend restrictions on one of their most aggressively means-tested programs, then they should be able to recognize this when there isn’t a pandemic magnifying the hunger crisis that existed before it.