Reinvesting in Children 60 Years After Brown

On May 17, we celebrated the anniversary of a turning point in American education – a commemoration of the end – or so we hoped – of “separate but equal.” But even 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, disparities in educational opportunities throughout our country continue to result in vast economic inequalities.

On nearly every indicator that we use in the United States to measure progress, people of color are falling further behind. And it starts early.

A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children,” provides a national and state scorecard for how we are providing opportunities for children of color, using 12 indicators, such as percentage of children enrolled in preschool, high-schoolers who graduate on time, and number of children who live in low-poverty areas. There isn’t one minority group that’s meeting all of these benchmarks, and even middle-class families of color have a very tenuous hold on their economic status.

In addition, the recent data from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection show that we are exacerbating these disparities by essentially sending our children of color to schools that are not providing them with a high-quality education. For many of our children, schools become a pipeline into the criminal justice system. According to the data, Black students are suspended at much higher rates than White students, and the problem has become so pervasive and insidious that it extends to preschool. Despite representing just 18 percent of preschool children, Black children make up nearly half of all out-of-school suspensions in preschool.

This school-to-prison pipeline – one in which African Americans and Latinos are grossly over-represented – is in stark contrast to their under-representation in the higher education system, where the non-Hispanic White population is well ahead of other groups in ultimately attaining a college degree or more.

The economic inequalities we see resulting from these educational inequalities are frightening. The unemployment data released earlier this month by the Department of Labor – revealing continued job growth but stagnant wages – still show that Black and Brown people are having the hardest time riding out this lengthy economic recovery. The official unemployment rate for African Americans is more than double the unemployment rate for non-Hispanic Whites. The rate for Hispanics is lagging behind, too.

When the numbers of under-employed and discouraged workers are factored in, the crisis is even more severe for workers from every background.

With the foreclosure crisis, the financial crash, and the great recession, the inequalities of wealth have actually increased. As the Urban Institute reports, Non-Hispanic White families before the recession had about four times the wealth as non-White families, a figure that jumped to six times by 2010. Hispanic families lost 44 percent of their wealth – and Black families lost 31 percent of theirs – between 2007 and 2010. By contrast, White families lost just 11 percent of their wealth over the same period.

This broadening racial wealth gap is scary, as is the school-to-prison pipeline, and it won’t be solved overnight. But we can start by reinvesting in our nation’s children, who all deserve equal access to a quality education – one that doesn’t leave their economic future imperiled. The federal government has a number of options that it can pursue to address this crisis, including taking on a more robust role in guaranteeing the right to education; greater and more equitable investment of resources in the public school system; and tougher enforcement of existing civil rights laws. Taken together, such actions would do much to improve the lives of our children, both now and in the future.

Sixty years after Brown, it’s the least we can do.




‘Ain’t Got No Wiggle Room’

Poverty is everywhere. More than one in three Americans—106 million people—live below or perilously close to the federal poverty line. If you pick up a newspaper or magazine, turn on the radio or flip on the television, there are countless stories about poverty and income inequality. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are staking their claims to a national anti-poverty agenda. Republican presidential hopefuls like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio have suddenly taken up the issue. And six long years after the Great Recession, Democrats have finally embraced raising the minimum wage. The conversation about poverty is pervasive.

Yet, poverty is nowhere. The men, women and children who are part of the 106 million striving and struggling Americans are invisible and voiceless. They are invisible because the debate about poverty is swirling around them but does not actually include them. They are invisible because they are not recognized as people but rather as a condition or a problem. They are blamed rather than empowered. They are voiceless because they are locked out of the corridors of power where conversations about poverty are happening. At best, their stories serve as useful anecdotes that add color to the harrowing statistics.

It’s past time for people who are poor to tell their own stories so that we can then have a real conversation about what actually contributes to economic success or failure in America.

Pina Orsillo Belgrano has one of these low wage jobs that keeps her struggling. Pina, 58, is a single mother in Seattle who worked as a restaurateur, travel agent and a real estate agent in 2008 until the economy tanked and she lost those jobs. The only job Pina could find was a $12 an hour job in the hotel industry. Pina does not earn enough money to protect her home from being foreclosed.

Pina is unfortunately among the millions of people living in a society where the economy no longer allows them to afford the basics. We have the answers to solve these problems but there is a deep misalignment of power in our society that is preventing us from seeing it and getting there. That must be our north star; building power among people who don’t have it.

And that’s why the Center for Community Change Action (CCCA) is rooting our economic justice campaign in conversations with people who are living on the brink so we can hear how they define their situation and how we can make our economy fairer for everyone.

There are positive signs.  The WASH New York campaign clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of building a movement. After more than a decade of grassroots organizing, the New York carwash campaign helped carwash workers, who are paid less than minimum wage with no additional pay for overtime, fight their way out of poverty. These workers, with the strong support of community organizations, joined together to demand better pay and working conditions.

No one thought they had a chance. The owners are too big, too spread out, and there are too many of them, the workers were told.

These “carwasheros” didn’t let the naysayers stand in their way. Because of their efforts, they now have higher wages, increased job security, posted job schedules and paid leave. They built a movement and they won.

Luis Rosales, who worked at one of the big car washes in Queens for more than five years said, “This is going to be a great change for our car wash. More importantly, we were able to show other workers that it makes sense to fight and win what seemed impossible.”

And now that the city of Seattle has a compromise deal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, the highest minimum wage in the nation, people like Pina will earn more. With the extra money, Pina will be able to meet the income requirements to receive a loan modification so she can stay in her home.

CCCA is working with local partner organizations to raise the quality of jobs (including wages, benefits, and working conditions); ensure that low-income workers and job seekers have a fair shot at those jobs; and reduce barriers to employment that currently deny opportunities for people who have been incarcerated.

Sounds too lofty? Look at what people in America have accomplished when they banded together: equal rights for women, civil rights, child labor laws, voting rights.

In Youngstown, Ohio—a city that was hard hit by the recession and has been battling to come back ever since—I heard one of the best summaries of why we need this movement for good jobs right now. An African American man, Willis, said, “That’s poverty to me…where you ain’t got no wiggle room to enjoy life.”

The rich shouldn’t be the only ones with wiggle room. That’s why we’re building a movement with Willis, with Luis, with Pina. This is the only way we will create an economy that is just and fair for all Americans—especially for those who are paid less than what it takes to get by. And it’s the only way poverty will truly be nowhere.



First Person

A Parent’s Income Should Not Determine a Child’s Future

Childcare is one of the most important issues facing parents today. I know the struggles to find affordable, quality childcare firsthand. I am the mother of two beautiful children, Asyiah, age 6, and Tasir, age 5. My children are amazing, and, just like any other parent, I want to be able to give them the best opportunities in life. I know that for them to succeed, education is key. I have worked hard and tried my best to give them their best chance of success. Despite my efforts, the sheer cost of care for my son—care that would prepare him for school—has become unaffordable.

Until recently, my son attended a childcare program that he and I loved.  He was given instruction and pushed to learn more.  He attended the same program his sister did and has been there since shortly after birth.  Being at the same center gave my son a sense of stability and security that allowed him to excel.  I am a proud mother and I love to talk about how smart my kids are.  I believe that is partly a result of the quality of the care and instruction they have received starting at an early age.

Unfortunately, due to financial reasons, Tasir had to leave his childcare center at the end of the fall.  I lost my job and had to rely on cash assistance to make ends meet but I lost my subsidy that helped to pay for childcare.  It broke my heart to have to move my son from the care he loved and relied on simply because I could not afford it.  Losing my job and then my subsidy not only cost me but it has cost my son.

The loss of the childcare subsidy is not only a snowball effect from a lost job, but it is also an obstacle to getting any other job.

I have seen the benefits of high quality childcare in the education of my daughter.  Asyiah is a smart girl. She wants to learn and do well at school.  I believe this is a result of the instruction and stable care she received in the first years of life.  She has a strong foundation to build upon.

Since losing our childcare subsidy, my son, Tasir, has had nowhere to go. For four months I have been piecing together care with a network of relatives and neighbors while I looked for work.  I know I am lucky to have people to care for my son – otherwise I have no idea how I would be able to find work again.  The loss of the childcare subsidy is not only a snowball effect from a lost job, but it is also an obstacle to getting any other job.  Without care for my son how am I able to find a new job?  It is a vicious cycle that too many families are stuck in.

While I am grateful that Tasir is safe and fed with my relatives and friends, this is not the stable care he was accustomed to and he’s not learning anything.  At his old childcare center, Tasir engaged with children his age and learned new things each day.  Now I am just focused on making sure he is safe.  I want him to excel but right now our situation is not giving him any tools to help him prepare for school next year.   My son cannot redo these last few months. They will always be a time of lost potential.

I know the importance of early education.  I did not benefit from such programs and I do not want my kids to ever fall behind, or feel left behind.  No child should miss the opportunity to learn because his or her parents lack the money to afford it.  My daughter or son could be a doctor, lawyer, or even the next president of the United States, but without education, without a strong foundation, I fear they will not get there.  That my struggles could impact my children’s future keeps me up at night.

Today, I am happy to say that I have a new job.  Ironically I am now working at a childcare center.  With my new job I am hopeful that I will be able to get my subsidy back and be able to afford care for my son.  But there is no guarantee that I can get my son back in the same program, meaning this disruption in his life might be permanent.

No child should be prevented from reaching his or her potential because the caregiver lacks the funding.  I hope that by sharing my story, I can show the need for high-quality, affordable childcare for all families. Asyiah, Tasir and all children deserve the opportunity to reach their potential.





Poverty in America: Telling the Story

It was one of those arresting moments that transfixed the room: Amy, a military veteran and divorced mother, stood up at the mic and choked back tears as she told her story. She had gone to school to become an elementary school teacher, but wasn’t able to find full time work. With two kids to support, she was earning just $15,184 a year, far below the poverty line for her family. But she was one of the lucky ones for whom there was a lifeline: after obtaining Medicaid and Section 8 housing, Amy was admitted into a program at her local community action agency in her home state of Wisconsin that helped cover the costs of returning to school.  Amy is now a reading specialist with a full time stable job and benefits and owns her own home.

The people listening to Amy’s story were journalists. They were part of an unusual event organized by NBC News, my former employer, that brought journalists and anti-poverty advocates together to do something they don’t do very often: talk to one another. Inspired by open-mic poetry slams, this was called a “poverty pitch slam.”  The pitch slam was part of the NBC News “In Plain Sight: Poverty in America” project, a special reporting initiative supported by the Ford Foundation, which I launched and ran in 2013 (the project, which recently won a George Foster Peabody award, is now in its second year, and – full disclosure – I have transitioned to a new job as program officer in the Ford Foundation’s Media & Justice initiative).

Amy was one of a dozen people who had five minutes or less to pitch their stories to the panel of journalists from around the nation, including reporters and editors from big platforms like USA Today and NBC News, as well as smaller outlets like public radio stations and the Springfield News-Leader in the Ozarks (whose Every Child project has been brilliant and powerful).

The pitch slam coincided with the 50th anniversary of the launch of President Johnson’s “war on poverty,” which generated a flurry of big-media press coverage of poverty, an issue, as Dan Froomkin pointed out last year in an essay for Nieman Reports, that the “mainstream” media tend to mostly ignore.  (A finding corroborated by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), in a new study of the three major network evening newscasts set to be released next month.)  On the January anniversary of LBJ’s speech, however, the Washington Post, for example, presented everything we presumably need to know about the war on poverty, and The New York Times judged the war on poverty a “mixed bag.”  Most of the coverage binge, as FAIR’s radio program, “Counterspin,” pointed out, focused on either methodology – how we count poverty and whether it has gone up or down over the last half-century – or on the deep political and philosophical divide that exists over how to attack poverty in this country. What it didn’t really focus on was the people, like Amy, who can tell the very real stories of what it is like to be poor, and to want to be not-poor, and how hard it is in America 50 years after LBJ’s speech to do what he pledged: to replace despair with opportunity.

But these are the stories that are out there to be told, begging to be told, and I am here to tell you that, contrary to the beliefs and fears of editors and executive producers, these are deeply personal stories that, when told, do captivate the audience of readers, listeners, and viewers.

In the first year of the NBC News In Plain Sight project, the coverage (most of it online) included stories about life on minimum wage, fast food worker strikes, hunger, urban and suburban poverty, childhood asthma in poor urban areas, homeless veterans, the “unbanked,” threats to food stamps, criminal debt, transportation for low-income workers, gays and poverty, the dental crisis for the poor, putting off parenthood for financial reasons, unemployed older workers, the disappearance of “the American dream” – and more – and viewers did not turn the channel or click away from the 100+ stories we presented. In fact, the sharing of stories via social media was robust.

So here are a few more story ideas that I didn’t get around to, but I hope somebody else will. (As Henny Youngman might have said had he been a journalist, take my story ideas … please!)

If you’re so poor…: When many Americans see food stamp recipients who are obese, or struggling families with flat-screen televisions, they wonder how this can happen; same thing when they see a poor kid in an expensive pair of sneakers. Brian Charles, a reporter on the poverty beat in Connecticut, talks about “death by a thousand ‘no’s’.” As he explains it, what people don’t see when they see that kid in the Nikes is that the kid’s mom may have said no so many times that finally, when the kid wanted those sneakers, for once, that thousandth time, she said yes. Tell the story of those moms, and those kids. Explain how flat-screens are cheap but good schools and real opportunity are not. Explain the link between scarcity and obesity. And tell the stories through the experience of the real experts, the people who live them, by connecting with organizations like Witnesses to Hunger.

Welfare-to-work: has it worked? It’s been nearly 20 years since President Clinton enacted “welfare reform” into law.  The new law definitely did end “welfare as we know it,” but did it come through on its promise to move millions of poor Americans to work that leads to good jobs? What is the truth about TANF? There’s some great policy work on this question, but let’s not forget about the human stories – the “success stories” and the failures.

Solutions: Amy’s story is a story about programs that worked to lift her out of poverty. There are other stories like that out there, waiting to be told, and to be appreciated by an audience that wants more than doom and gloom. The Solutions Journalism Network has a lot of really smart stuff to say about how to do this kind of solutions-oriented reporting, and the TalkPoverty story bank is a great resource for people who, like Amy, are willing and ready to tell their personal stories.

I know the people who are launching well—Greg Kaufmann, from his work as a fellow poverty reporter when he was at The Nation, and the folks at the Center for American Progress through their ongoing poverty work.  They are going to bring unique voices to this blog—from people doing cutting-edge work as researchers, advocates, and activists in the fight against poverty, to the people living in poverty themselves.

I hope reporters will keep up with this blog to discover story ideas and people they should talk to in covering poverty.  There are way too many stories that still need to be told.  It would be great if we could get to a point where poverty reporters had to worry about being scooped.  We’re not there yet.




Beyond the Minimum Wage

Of course we should absolutely raise the minimum wage. We should raise it in our cities, towns, states and federally. We should use any public entity that has the authority to raise the bottom—like for federal, state, and local contracts—and we should then demand that private companies follow suit.  Morality, decency and basic economics all call for lifting the wages of the lowest paid workers.

But raising the minimum is not enough, and absent a serious challenge to how wealth and power is mal-distributed in this country, may prove a fleeting and potentially short-term victory. Communities of color lost 60% of their wealth in the 2008 economic collapse. Just this year, Wall Street gave themselves bonuses greater than the total wages of a million minimum wage workers. Since the 2008 economic crash, 95% of the economic gains have gone to the top 1%.  If we don’t have a grander, bigger, bolder vision of what is possible and needed, a newly raised minimum wage could also become the maximum wage for increasing numbers of workers whose pay and standard of living is being driven ever downward.

We know parts of the story only too well. Over the last forty years the economy and politics of the country have been remade. Wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the top one tenth of one percent. The miserably low minimum wage, impact of tax cuts for the rich, and defunding of the government—they are all just part of a much bigger story. The economy is increasingly “financialized”—financial institutions are increasing their size and influence at every level of the government and the economy.  Wall Street—continuously coming up with ingenious ways to extract wealth from every part of the economy—has driven the growing wealth divide in our country.

One way to think about what has happened is that a massive redistribution machine was created and set loose on our country (and internationally). With each passing day it is increasingly sophisticated in finding new tricks, skims and scams to concentrate wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer people.

We need to consciously and systematically use the momentum, energy and excitement generated by campaigns to raise the minimum wage—as the base and launching pad—to expose and slow the redistribution machine.

How does the wealth redistribution machine work?

First, outsourcing and subcontracting: In the 1970’s, corporations were faced with rising wages for unionized workers and the growing success of the civil rights and women’s movements in challenging poverty wages, job segregation, and discrimination. The redistribution machine started experimenting with the most vulnerable workers by subcontracting and outsourcing jobs. By hiring another company to pay and supervise janitors, cafeteria and other low-wage workers, corporations found they could avoid the pressure to promote workers of color and raise wages.  Instead, they cut pay and eliminated benefits, while dodging any legal liability or moral responsibility for their actions. By subcontracting and outsourcing they were technically no longer the employer and could drive wages lower, all while still maintaining functional control of the work.

Second, de-unionizing and disaggregating work:  As a result of mergers, acquisitions and leveraged buy-outs, there is greater corporate control, concentration and monopolization at the top. At the same time, work has become increasingly disaggregated—meaning workers are rarely directly hired or paid by the entity that ultimately controls their jobs and wages. Unionization rates have plummeted.   Practices that were once used to cut the pay of the poorest workers are now the norm, spreading to increasing numbers of workers throughout the economy. Workers who organize unions find the entity that signs their check is often—ready for this?—a marginal subcontractor or franchisee of an outsourced subsidiary of a massive private equity firm, hedge fund, or other corporate entity, that is insulated legally from being picketed by workers. Corporations got the best of both worlds—control and no responsibility.

Third, profiting by driving people into debt:  The brilliance of the redistribution machine is that in sucking wealth out of workers’ pockets, it created a new market through which it could transfer more wealth to the already rich. Short of money to pay bills, tens of millions took out usurious payday loans; communities of color were targeted for predatory home equity loans and mortgages; and credit cards with exploding interest rates and bank overdraft fees drained hundreds of billions from people’s pockets. Forty million people now have $1.2 trillion in student loan debt—115,000 retirees have their social security checks garnished to repay student loans every month.  The redistribution machine’s answer to declining wages is to loan you money.

Fourth, feeding on tax dollars and gorging on government:   The City of Los Angeles pays more than $200 million a year in fees to Wall Street, $50 million more than it spends on street repairs. Nowhere has the redistribution machine’s creativity been clearer than in how it uses political power to defund government largely through corporate loopholes and bad tax policy; and then it turns a profit through complex schemes to finance, privatize, and lend to the very government it helped to defund. There is $6 trillion in government spending every year and Wall Street has used privatization schemes, outrageous fees, interest rate manipulations, price fixing, and predatory public loans products—like the interest rate swaps that helped bankrupt Detroit—to capture and transfer to the super-rich as much of the public’s money as possible.

So what to do if raising the minimum wage is essential but not enough?

We need to consciously and systematically use the momentum, energy and excitement generated by campaigns to raise the minimum wage—as the base and launching pad—to expose and slow the redistribution machine. Minimum wage campaigns can and should be the entry point for a bigger call to not only raise the bottom but challenge the very idea that the elite rich should dominate the political and economic life of the country.

We then need to look at opportunities to go on offense to reverse the massive redistribution in wealth that plagues our country.  For example:

  • Using eminent domain: Cities of all sizes can modify mortgages for homeowners who are underwater, and begin to rebuild wealth in communities of color and working class communities.
  • Refinancing federal loans and eliminating the Wall Street profit from higher education: Wall Street rakes in billions through publicly financed Pell grants at for-profit colleges; interest and fees on private loans; servicing, fees and debt collection of federal loans; and lending to higher education institutions that borrow money in the face of defunding. Refinancing existing loans and getting Wall Street out of higher education could save students and tax payers billions of dollars.
  • Renegotiating with Wall Street: Cities can band together and demand that Wall Street cut what some have estimated as $50 billion in fees that are draining much needed public revenue. Cities pay Wall Street 2 % management fees for managing pension funds (even if Wall Street loses money), they pay for “letters of credit”, “remarketing fees”, the list goes on and on.  Cities could use their combined economic clout to negotiate lower fees and less Wall Street profiting off of tax dollars.
  • Transforming major contract negotiations for the public good: Public sector unions and community groups can join together and use major contract negotiations to demand that cities, school boards and states stop wasting taxpayer money on complex interest rate swaps—and risky pension fund investments in hedge funds and private equity firms—that allow Wall Street to pay themselves outsized fees and deliver minimal returns to tax payers.
  • Holding corporations legally accountable: Cities and states can pass laws that hold corporations accountable for the working conditions throughout their supply chain, including for subcontracted workers, and create conditions that increase the ability of workers to organize unions.
  • Reinventing and reestablishing the strike:  This is the critical weapon workers need to confront, disrupt and force negotiations with the corporations at the top of the supply chain.

There has never been a better moment to challenge inequality.  Let’s learn a lesson from the super-rich: they’ve created innumerable innovations to siphon off wealth; now it’s our turn—to create innumerable innovations to slow, stop and reverse the redistribution machine.