Lessons from Seattle and $15 an Hour

It wasn’t that long ago that Xochitl Cureno was paid minimum wage as a deli clerk. She had to scrape by to make ends meet, and between rent, gas and food there was no wiggle room if her son got sick or her car broke down. Finally, after eight years working at the same store, she’s being paid $15 an hour.

As hard as it still is sometimes for her to make ends meet, Xochitl thinks more about her co-worker, a single mom with two children, who is paid a lot less. Almost her entire paycheck is spent on rent and childcare. Last week, her co-worker – and more than one hundred thousand workers like her – got a well-deserved raise when the Seattle City Council voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

This vote has been a long time coming. While it took bold leadership from the City Council and Mayor Ed Murray, this achievement is about more than politicians. Through this victory, Seattle has demonstrated that when diverse groups unite – community organizations like OneAmerica Votes and Washington CAN!­, labor and faith-based groups, and the small business community – we are a force to be reckoned with.

We know our economy works best from the bottom up, not the top down.

It was nearly two decades ago that a coalition of community and labor groups came together to raise Washington state’s minimum wage and index it to inflation, giving Washington State the distinction of having the highest minimum wage in the country.

But that wasn’t enough. At less than $10 an hour, the state’s minimum wage still left many people living in Seattle unable to afford life’s basic necessities, and it was clear from workers that we had to set the bar higher. From them we heard the demand, “Fight for $15,” and we took up the challenge. What once seemed impossible is now a reality.

Two years ago Seattle workers enjoyed a similar victory, when the small business community joined us in the fight to win paid sick days for workers – and win we did.

Last year, community groups and labor unions began the Fight for $15 by setting our sights on SeaTac, the city outside of Seattle that’s home to the state’s major airport. This effort built on an ongoing campaign to raise the wages and improve the working conditions of workers at the airport and Port of Seattle.  Last November SeaTac residents voted to raise the pay for more than 6,000 low-wage workers to $15 an hour.

But the Fight for $15 really took off last year with the fast food workers striking throughout the country.

And as the campaign gained momentum, politicians’ ears perked up. They realized that raising the minimum wage was a winning issue and that they shouldn’t stop there. More and more, elected leaders were noticing that platforms based on higher wages and good jobs help win votes at the ballot box.

Elected leaders are now paying attention to the young, single women and minorities – the “rising American electorate,” as they were dubbed by the Obama campaign – who suffered the greatest harm during the economic downturn. These individuals are the ones who have the most to gain from economic policies – and policymakers – that value people who work.

So we’re definitely onto something here in Seattle.

We know our economy works best from the bottom up, not the top down.  The plan to raise the minimum wage in Seattle recognizes that our local economy is stronger when low-income and middle class families have greater economic security and more money to spend. There will be a $2.9 billion stimulus to low-wage worker households in the Seattle region as a direct result of this wage hike.

The vote here in Seattle has energized the growing national debate over income inequality in America.

Those at the very top have built a system in which their wealth is created by people who are paid meager wages under despairing conditions. Make no mistake – Wall Street, big banks, corporate CEOs and many of the wealthiest members of our society reap huge rewards because they pay other workers poverty wages.

Fights across America for higher wages, better working conditions, and benefits are about building an economy that creates prosperity for all, especially the 106 million Americans – more than one in three of us – who live at or near the federal poverty line, on less than about $37,000 annually for a family of three, struggling to afford the basics.

The message of the Seattle victory is clear: Working people are demanding  – through a diverse coalition with a common voice – that they be paid what they have rightfully earned.

For too long, threats and intimidation – whether overt or lurking below the surface – have confined low-wage workers to a system that essentially exploits their work and transfers the wealth that they create to the top.  This comes at a real cost to the economy.  Despite the fact that productivity in this country has surged over the past 30 years, wages have stagnated, leaving workers less able to provide for their families, and less able to purchase goods and services which promote economic growth and good jobs in their communities.

Seattle is showing that this does not have to be the predominant economic narrative. We know how to build an economy that no longer produces millions of workers who cannot afford even the basics.

Our goal must be to make sure every person in our nation has access to a good job.  A good job means a living wage, decent benefits and workplace protections.  It means much greater equality in compensation between men and women and people with different skin colors. It means that productivity and wages are once again aligned.

Low-wage workers, with a strong and diverse coalition firmly behind them, are finally saying enough is enough.

When Xochitl began working at the deli eight years ago, a minimum wage of $15 per hour seemed an impossible dream. Now, 100,000 Seattle workers like Xochitl, will watch as their paychecks increase, and their rent, car payments, and childcare costs become a little easier to shoulder. When we come together as we have in Seattle, we have the power to expand what people believe is possible.





Scott Walker Official Ignored Law that Protected Low-Income Kids

Twenty years ago, on July 4th , California passed legislation that prevented children who are born into families already receiving cash welfare assistance from qualifying for additional aid.  The child exclusion rule, or “Maximum Family Grant” (MFG) rule, was inspired by the worst kind of stereotyping of low-income parents that prevailed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The policy suggested that parents conceived children simply to gain $120 more per month in welfare benefits, and proponents of the new rule argued that by denying cash assistance, fewer children would be born into poverty.  Research has since proven this assertion wrong.

Under the now defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, states were not permitted to restrict eligibility in this way unless they obtained a waiver from the federal government.  Nevertheless, before the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996 (PRWORA)—otherwise known as “welfare reform”—20 states were granted waivers to exclude infants and children from receiving AFDC benefits.

But California received only a provisional waiver for its MFG rule because then-Director of the California social services department, Eloise Anderson, refused to comply with two of the federal requirements: to exempt teen parents from the rule; and to evaluate the impact of the rule on out-of-wedlock births and child neglect.

However, when welfare reform was passed—ending AFDC and creating the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program—states were no longer required to obtain waivers in order to deny aid to children.  Director Anderson wrote a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services asserting that neither the waiver nor the impact studies were now necessary.  But the fact is California state law did still require compliance with those same AFDC provisions and also that a certificate declaring that the requirements had been met be issued and kept on file.

During the massive overhaul that followed passage of welfare reform, no one noticed that Anderson—who now serves as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Secretary of the Department of Children and Families—didn’t conduct the impact studies or issue the certificate as required.   The California Department of Social Services has no record of either the certificate or studies.I e-mailed Secretary Anderson for comment but she declined.  The contact number listed on her Department’s website transferred me to a disconnected line—twice—the kind of frustrating experience that happens to low-income people all of the time.

Today, the California child exclusion rule is still in existence, denying newborns and children needed assistance which would help them meet their basic needs and promote better health and economic outcomes.

While I’m confident that this shortsighted and regressive policy will be repealed—an effort currently led by California Senator Holly J. Mitchell, chairperson of the Legislative Black Caucus—I am deeply disturbed by the 20 years of harm we have done to children and families.

How could it possibly make sense—to anyone on either side of the aisle—that welfare reform simply stopped requiring states to evaluate the impact of their policy decisions?  Had California conducted an impact study on its child exclusion policy, it would have learned that it had no impact on out-of-wedlock births and increased the likelihood of neglect for already very vulnerable children.  Further, welfare reform only allows a minimal role, if any, for the Department of Health and Human Services to call these outdated and dangerous state-based policies into question.

Today, nearly every child served by TANF lives in deep poverty—on less than half of the federal poverty line, or less than about $9,000 annually for a family of three.  Their lives are very tenuous, their hopes for the future dim.  And yet dramatic policy shifts under TANF still don’t need to be evaluated for their impact, and TANF policies that have failed people in poverty for decades are allowed to continue on unchallenged.

This July 4th, I hope California will celebrate the repeal of our TANF child exclusion law, and that it marks the beginning of a broader reexamination of welfare reform.  It is long overdue.





Stop Child Hunger: An Interview with Senator Patty Murray

Summer meals for low-income children have been in the news of late, often with the interests of urban families pitted against those of rural families.  But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) has introduced the Stop Child Hunger Act to help ensure that all children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year aren’t hungry in the summer months.  It’s a timely and important effort.  In 2013, approximately 15 percent of children who participated in free or reduced-price meals at school also participated in the federal Summer Food Service Program, due to lack of transportation, limited food distribution areas, and other barriers.

TalkPoverty spoke with Senator Murray about her bill.  Here is the conversation:

TalkPoverty: Senator Murray, what is the impetus for introducing the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act at this time?

Senator Patty Murray: Right now, across the country, students are eagerly anticipating the end of the school year and starting the summer break. But for many children, the summer months can be a time of uncertainty, not knowing when they will get their next meal. During the academic year, millions of kids can get free or reduced-price meals at school, but during the summer, many students lose that access to critical food and nutrition. When it comes to making sure children get the nutrition they need, there are no excuses. We can and must do more to prevent child hunger. This bill – the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act – would help kids who qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year get access to food during the summer months.

This issue is very important to me personally. When I was a teenager, my dad, who had fought in World War II, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and could no longer work. My mom found a job, but it didn’t pay nearly enough to support seven kids and a husband with a growing stack of medical bills. For several months, we relied on food stamps. It wasn’t much, but we were able to get by. So, I know what it’s like for families to struggle to put food on the table. I believe as adults it is our moral responsibility to take care of our children, and this bill would be a step to ensure more kids get the nutrition they need to live healthy lives.

TalkPoverty: Are there particular stories from any of your constituents that show just how needed this legislation is?

Senator Murray: I’ve heard from many parents who struggle to put food on the table, especially in the summer months. One mom from my home state said before every meal, her family prays that their food will be enough to sustain them until the next time they’re able to eat. But during the summer, those meals aren’t always enough to keep her kids’ stomachs from growling. These are parents who are doing their best to stretch every penny, and still coming up short. I’ve heard from another woman who said that last summer, she tried her best at the grocery store to shop sales, use coupons, and only buy the store-brand items, but it wasn’t enough. This legislation would help those families, and millions like them, by filling a gap in the social safety net during the summer months.

TalkPoverty:  If passed, how would the lives of low-income families improve during the summer months?

Senator Murray: This bill would target the challenge of summer hunger by helping families afford food when school is out of session. Providing families with an EBT card with funds for groceries would help replace meals that kids would otherwise get at school. Under this bill, families would receive an extra $150 for every child who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals during the school year. If enacted, it would help about 30 million children every year.

Right now, our broken and unfair tax system provides enormous subsidies to the wealthiest individuals and the biggest corporations, all while one in five households in our country struggle with food insecurity.

The bill is a common sense approach to help kids who might otherwise struggle with hunger. It’s based on a successful pilot program that has been proven to reduce “very low food insecurity,” often called hunger, by 33 percent. The pilot also resulted in children eating healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables.

TalkPoverty: What are the long-term benefits of this legislation—both in terms of children having more access to food and in moving the nation towards more effectively addressing food insecurity?

Senator Murray: When kids don’t get the nutrition they need, it can have ripple effects on their health, their development, and their chances at success in school and beyond. Studies have shown that kids who struggle with hunger and food insecurity don’t do as well in school and score lower on achievement tests. For low-income families, the challenge to put enough food on the table doesn’t end when school lets out for the summer. In fact, for many families, it can get more difficult because children no longer have access to school meals.  In 2013, only about 15 percent of children who participated in free or reduced-price school meals were able to participate in summer meals programs.

This is the kind of legislation that Congress should be pursuing. It’s based on a proven pilot program that achieved participation rates of about 90 percent in some sites. To stop hunger among children, we need to build on effective local, state, and national strategies that fill gaps in the safety net and give people the chance they need to climb the economic ladder. And that’s what this bill does.

TalkPoverty: Your legislation includes provisions to offset the costs of addressing summer child hunger by closing loopholes that reward companies for shifting jobs overseas.  Does this reflect a desire on your part that we reexamine our priorities as a nation?

Senator Murray: The legislation is fully paid for by closing a wasteful corporate tax loophole that encourages U.S. companies to shift jobs and profits offshore. So, this bill would help low-income and middle class families in two ways:  It would help more kids get the nutrition they need during the summer, while taking a step to make our tax system fairer, by encouraging companies to keep more jobs here in America, in the process. Right now, our broken and unfair tax system provides enormous subsidies to the wealthiest individuals and the biggest corporations, all while one in five households in our country struggle with food insecurity. So I do think we should eliminate loopholes for those who need it least and prioritize doing more to expand opportunities for more Americans to get ahead.

TalkPoverty: What are some of the challenges of moving this or any other anti-poverty legislation through Congress?

Senator Murray: The issue of hunger among children in the summer months is one that clearly affects every state in the nation and one that should be a concern of both Democrats and Republicans.  While I understand that any efforts to deal with hunger and poverty could be difficult based on some of the recent efforts in the House of Representatives, I believe that it is possible to achieve bipartisan consensus that would help address the problem of child summer hunger.  The best opportunity to do that will be in the Child Nutrition Act that needs to be reauthorized next year.

TalkPoverty: What role and/or responsibility do Congress and the Executive have in educating the country about issues of poverty and inequality? What is your sense of how well poverty and hunger are understood by Americans and your colleagues?

Senator Murray: I think in our country, there is a broad understanding and a long-held belief that every American, no matter their zip code or their parents’ career, should have the opportunity to succeed. In Congress, I believe it’s our obligation to enact legislation that furthers that ideal. That includes leading on issues that help struggling families find their footing and ensuring we have a strong safety net.

As someone who relied on food stamps earlier in my life, I also feel very compelled to remind other leaders that investing in children is a good investment.  Fortunately for my family, we lived in a country where the government didn’t just say ‘tough luck.’ It extended a helping hand.  Because our nation honored the commitment it made to the veterans who had served it, we didn’t have to worry too much about medical bills for my dad.  To get a better paying job, my mom needed more training.  Fortunately, at the time there was a government program that helped her attend Lake Washington Vocational School where she got a two-year degree in accounting, and, eventually, a better job.  My twin sister, my older brother, and I were able to stay in college through student loans and support from what later came to be called Pell Grants.  And all of the kids were able to stay in school because we are lucky enough to have strong local public schools.  My family got by with a little bit of luck. We pulled through with a lot of hard work.  And while I’d like to say we were strong enough to make it on our own, I don’t think that’s really true.  So when politicians refer to families like mine as “takers, not makers,” that these programs are “immoral,” or that we were in the “47 percent” who couldn’t be convinced to take personal responsibility or care for our lives, I remind them that the support we got from our government was the difference between seven kids who might not have graduated from high school or college and the seven adults we’ve grown up to be today.  Today, we are all college graduates, paying taxes, and doing the best to contribute back to our communities.  In my book, taxpayers got a pretty good return on their investment.





Student Debt, Higher College Costs Are Hurting Low-Income Americans The Most

As Americans continue to struggle with the exploding costs of higher education and crippling levels of student debt, one constituency is getting hit hardest: low-income individuals.

While student debt is an issue that impacts Americans from all income brackets, races, ages, and from every part of the country, low-income Americans face unique challenges:

Now is the time to make student loan debt a top priority in our nation.

Student debt has a greater impact on low-income borrowers than other Americans. In fact, borrowers in the least affluent one-fifth of American households faced education debt that averaged 24 percent of their income in 2010. The average for all households was 6 percent.

Grant aid is not nearly enough to cover the cost of college for low-income families. Even after factoring in grant aid, a family in the lowest quintile—with an average income of $17,011—would have to pay more than 70 percent of their income to cover college costs.

When starting out, students from low- and middle-income households already face a higher burden. They are less likely to have family assistance and more likely to have other pressures, such as a part-time job or family caretaking role in addition to classes. And many low-income students avoid applying to college altogether, citing the cost. This has resulted in a shrinking economic diversity at schools.

Low-income Americans have become a target of private lenders and for-profit colleges. Some private lenders have even manipulated financially unsophisticated borrowers in an effort to profit.

What’s more, for-profit colleges often target and take advantage of low-income individuals and people of color, leaving them with high levels of debt that they are later unable to pay off. Investigations into these corporate education giants have found deceptive and misleading practices to recruit students and more than half of students at for-profit colleges drop out within a few years.

Despite numerous investigations highlighting the deceptive nature of the for-profit college industry, this issue has ballooned. More students are enrolling in for-profit institutions, more students are dropping out before receiving a degree, and CEOs of these education corporations continue to make millions.

Mane Lavadenz knows firsthand about what a bad deal for-profit colleges are for many students.  After the real estate market collapsed, it was difficult for her to earn a living and support herself. She enrolled in some courses at UEI College, a for-profit school. Advisors there assured her, she says, that her student debt would be manageable and that she would have no trouble finding a job after graduating.

But that simply wasn’t the case: Like many of her classmates, Lavadenz graduated without any job prospects and, she says, UEI did nothing to help her. Lavadenz was stuck with $9,000 in student loans, which has now accrued to $10,000. Her experience is hardly unique. Former students of for-profit schools have found that their schools overpromised on the kinds of jobs they would land after earning a degree.

Further, for-profit colleges charge their students over 3.5 times more than public institutions, but they spend far less per student on instructional costs than public colleges and universities. In the 2008-2009 school year, for-profit schools spent $2,659 per student on instructional costs; by comparison, public universities spent an average of $9,418 per student and private non-profit universities spent $15,289.

Now is the time to make student loan debt a top priority in our nation. That is why, earlier this year, Generation Progress and dozens of our progressive allies launched the Higher Ed, Not Debt campaign—a coordinated effort to address the existing $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, caused in part by the predatory practices of the for-profit industry.

More than 60 organizations have already signed on to the campaign, including: the American Federation of Teachers, Demos, Jobs with Justice, One Wisconsin Now, SEIU, Scholarship America, Student Veterans of America, Working Families Organization, and the Young Invincibles.

While for-profit colleges are a main focus of the campaign, we’re utilizing this broad reach to focus on four key elements: college accessibility and affordability; addressing the existing $1.2 trillion in debt; civic engagement; and educating the public about the role of Wall Street in the privatization of higher education. In partnership with Higher Ed, Not Debt, Generation Progress will continue to advance long-term policy solutions, like holding private institutions accountable for bad lending practices and giving borrowers the ability to refinance student loans.

Student loan debt has severe and visible impacts on the American economy. Borrowers with tens of thousands of dollars in debt are unable to purchase homes, start families, obtain employment in certain fields, and save for retirement. It’s time to address this problem in full force. I encourage others to join in the fight to create long-term solutions to protect current and future borrowers from the economically crippling effects of student loan debt.




A Renewed Vision of Civil Legal Services as Antipoverty Work

Across the country, legal services attorneys play a largely hidden but essential role as first responders to American poverty. The family facing foreclosure after falling behind on the mortgage when both Mom and Dad lost their jobs in the recession. The mother of three, fleeing domestic abuse, who desperately needs a protective order to keep herself and her children safe. The woman with stage four cancer and six months to live, who has been wrongfully denied Social Security and Medicare. Without legal services, they would have nowhere to turn.

Day in and day out, legal services attorneys fight for the rights of poor individuals and families, providing legal help to people who cannot afford an attorney. Access to representation is vitally important.  But as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, it’s time to renew the vision of legal services as antipoverty work.

While American legal aid has existed since the turn of the 20th century, the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) as part of LBJ’s War on Poverty offered a bold new vision of legal services as an antipoverty strategy, and legal services attorneys as agents of systemic change. Catherine Carr, Executive Director of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, describes this historic shift:

Access to representation has supplanted the bolder vision of law reform and systemic change.

No longer were legal aid programs being designed to simply respond to the problems that individual poor people brought to intake offices; instead, the programs were to work with low-income communities to identify needs and strategically set priorities that protected and advanced the rights of poor people and poor communities as a whole.

In the years that followed, legal services proved to be an enormously effective antipoverty tool. Legal services programs lobbied elected officials, engaged in local and national social justice organizing efforts, won landmark victories in courts across the nation on behalf of their clients, and thereby brought about systemic change that benefited poor people nationwide. The watershed U.S. Supreme Court case Goldberg v. Kelly, for example, established that a poor person has a constitutional right to a fair hearing before his or her welfare benefits can be terminated.

Fifty years later, legal services attorneys continue to fight on behalf of low-income Americans who cannot afford legal help. But much of the work today more closely resembles the “legal aid” vision that existed prior to the 1960s rather than the “law reform” vision brought about by the OEO as part of the War on Poverty.

This shift is in large part due to conservative backlash against legal services as an antipoverty tool. It didn’t take long for conservatives to view a strong legal services movement as a threat.  In the decades that followed the launch of the War on Poverty, they placed restrictions on legal services programs, barring those that accept federal funding from engaging in much of the work that effects systemic change.

President Nixon prohibited staff attorneys from lobbying or engaging in political activities. President Reagan—who, as Governor of California, had battled efforts to improve the working conditions of poor migrant farmworkers—prohibited legal services programs from using federal dollars for legislative and regulatory activities as well as class action lawsuits. Even after the Reagan restrictions, many legal services programs found alternative funding sources to support their law reform activities. But in 1996, the Gingrich Congress hammered the final nail into the coffin, expanding the restrictions to any legal services program that accepted even a single dollar of federal funds.

While a small number of programs found ways to continue their law reform work—for example, by creating separate programs to receive unrestricted dollars—most responded by backing away from the kinds of systemic work that had proven most effective at impacting large numbers of poor people, in favor of the “legal aid” model of one-off individual client representation.

Today an ever-shrinking number of legal services programs—and legal services attorneys—view their role and mission as that of antipoverty work.  Access to representation has supplanted the bolder vision of law reform and systemic change.

To be sure, a handful of programs still embrace the OEO vision. As a new lawyer fresh out of law school, I had the good fortune to land in one of those programs: Community Legal Services in Philadelphia (CLS). As a staff attorney at CLS, I learned firsthand the power of the “law reform” model that CLS continues to embody, providing representation to poor Philadelphians, and using that individual representation to inform large-scale systemic work—through class action and impact litigation as well as legislative advocacy on the local, state and national level.

The cutbacks and restrictions championed by Nixon, Reagan and Gingrich have without question made it much more complicated and challenging for many legal services programs to engage in law reform. As long as the restrictions persist, unrestricted programs like CLS must take seriously their responsibility to prioritize law reform work, given that there are so few programs free to pursue it.

But even restricted programs can find ways to maximize their role as part of the antipoverty movement. Media is a powerful example, as human stories have the power to bring abstract policy debates to life. As advocates who interact with low-income individuals and families on a daily basis, legal services attorneys are uniquely positioned to tell the story of how few poor families are actually helped by TANF, for example; or how struggling families have no room for SNAP cuts; or how inadequate the official federal poverty measure is. They can paint a picture of the barriers people face in seeking to get a job—people with criminal records, for example—or what it’s like to be working full-time and still unable to rise out of poverty. They can tell the story of how and why it’s expensive to be poor. Even better, they can empower their clients to tell their own stories. offers a unique new outlet to tell these stories, and I hope to see a steady stream of contributions from legal services advocates and their clients in the months and years ahead.

But we must also look beyond the present. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and the Office of Economic Opportunity, let’s pave the way for a renewed legal services movement—one that is unhindered by restrictions and plays a leading role in bringing an end to poverty.