What We’re Reading This Week

Welcome to our first What We’re Reading This Week. Beginning today, we will highlight five stories every week from reporters and others who are “talking poverty” and raising awareness across the country.

Authentic stories and good reporting play an essential role in the fight to dramatically reduce poverty in America, because silence and misinformation are among the biggest barriers to progress. When the media is not reporting the real data, or when low-income people do not have the opportunity to share their real experiences, then the vacuum is filled with the same old lies and stereotypes, and poverty solutions continue to be ignored.

Each week, we will share five must-read articles that contribute to a stronger antipoverty movement. These are works that grapple with critical issues, inspire us to action, challenge us, and push us to see both problems and solutions from new angles.

Here are this week’s five stories:

Let Them Eat Cash, by Christopher Blattman (New York Times)

“Midway through a meal of sesame-crusted tuna and filet of beef, some 200 homeless people discovered that they would not be getting money. Instead, the Rescue Mission would accept $90,000 on their behalf. You can imagine the anger and humiliation. ”

Blattman tackles the issue of cash transfer programs to the very poor, specifically Americans’ resistance to a model that has proven successful in reducing poverty in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. If you give a homeless person in New York City a lump sum of cash, will it help to lift them out of poverty or be exchanged for drugs and alcohol? What does the evidence show? As Blattman states, “We must be skeptical of stereotypes of those we purport to help.”

Don’t Call Them Dropouts: A Report on the Nation’s Nongraduates, by Linda Shaw ( The Seattle Times)

“The Alliance titled its report “Don’t Call Them Dropouts” because many of the 200 young people it interviewed asked it to stop using that term. They may not have graduated, the interviewees said, but they haven’t given up. Many are enrolled in high-school completion programs or have returned to school.”

Shaw highlights data on students who do not graduate high school on time, both in Washington State and across the nation.  Importantly, she raises the issue of how we as a society label these students and why the “drop out” label denotes preconceived notions. While many people have faced serious hardships that have kept them from school, it does not mean that they have given up on their education.

The South is Essentially a Solid, Grim Block of Poverty, by Mark Gongloff (Huffington Post)

“This should not be much of a shock, as Southern states consistently lag the rest of the country in good things like wages, economic mobility and access to health care, while leading it in bad things like poverty, obesity and general unhappiness. Another thing Southern states have in common is Republican political leaders that have spent the past decade shrinking the social safety net.”

Gongloff breaks down some of the more troubling data from a new U.S. Census report, released this week, which found that over 25% of Americans now live in “poverty areas.”  As the graphics reveal, the rise in people living in poverty areas from 2000 to 2010 was not evenly distributed throughout the country.

Top Restaurant Industry CEOs Made 721 Times More than Minimum-Wage Workers in 2013, by Lawrence Mishel, Ross Eisenbrey, and Alyssa Davis (Economic Policy Institute)

The current minimum wage is $15,080 if earned full-time, while the average pay of top restaurant CEOs in 2013 was $10,872,390—721 times more than minimum-wage workers. These corporate CEOs earn more on the first morning of the year than a minimum-wage worker will earn over the course of a full year.

We can count on Economic Policy Institute for hard-hitting data on labor market inequalities, and this snapshot is no exception. Just look at the spike in the Restaurant CEO-to-minimum wage worker pay ratio from 2006 to 2013. This piece adds an enlightened and needed perspective to ongoing debates about raising the minimum wage and economic inequality.

Beating the Odds by Kavitha Cardoza (WAMU 88.5)

“During that summer, the bills were so high so it was either, we wouldn’t have any food or we had to get rid of our electricity and our water for some time. At home, it was really bad because it was hot, the food was going bad. We all slept in a bed in our basement because it was the coolest room in our house. We couldn’t take showers in the house.”

Our final must-read is a series of ten stories from education reporter, Kavitha Cardoza. Each profiles a young D.C. area student who has overcome massive challenges in pursuit of a high school diploma. These deeply moving stories put a face on a range of poverty-related issues, including incarceration, immigration, disability, homelessness, and the death of a parent. Ultimately, we’re struck by each student’s resilience, and their hopes for the future.

To keep up with our reading list throughout the week, make sure to like TalkPoverty on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@TalkPoverty)! You can also sign up for our weekly emails on the homepage.



Nominate Someone You Know for the 2014 Torchlight Prize

As founder of the Family Independence Initiative, I believe that one of the most important things we do is reveal the power of community and collective action in some of America’s poorest communities.  We know from our work with families across the U.S.—as well as from historical successes of poor and immigrant communities throughout our nation’s history—that self-organized groups are able to take initiative, set their own priorities, and find solutions to many of the challenges that confront them.  The groups we work with are tackling issues ranging from youth empowerment to immigrant and LGBTQ rights, from improving their children’s access to education to increasing civic engagement.

This is why we’ve created the Torchlight Prize, a national, annual prize that recognizes and invests in self-organized groups of families, friends, and neighbors that are taking action to strengthen their communities.  Since its inception in 2012, the Torchlight Prize has awarded $10,000 prizes to up to four grassroots groups per year. The winning groups improve their communities by working together. And their stories are certainly inspiring.

For example, one of our 2013 awardees includes a group called Camp Congo Square in New Orleans. It started in 2006 when a group of parents—all New Orleans residents—came together to collectively respond to the large number of families who were uprooted in their city after Hurricane Katrina. The group saw an opportunity to help children deal with the trauma of that experience, while instilling a deep sense of their heritage so that they could someday help to rebuild their city. They created a summer camp centered on the history of Congo Square—a historical place within New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Park where enslaved people and, before them, Native Americans, gathered.  The camp utilizes reading, writing, math, and open discussion to explore art, while also building knowledge and respect for different values, views, and beliefs of people throughout history.

campcongo Camp Congo Square was formed by a group of New Orleans parents to help children deal with the trauma of Hurricane Katrina and to honor their heritage.

Another 2013 awardee is Somos Tuskaloosa, a group of Latino immigrants, clergy, and community members in Alabama who rallied in response to two major events that hit the Tuscaloosa immigrant community on the same day in 2011: a devastating tornado destroyed 7,200 homes and businesses; and an anti-immigration bill (Alabama HB56) was passed that is largely considered the most regressive immigration law in the country.  Somos Tuskaloosa provided the supports that Latino families needed to rebuild their lives—including services to keep the community informed about the latest legal developments—through leadership development training, “know your rights” workshops, and legal clinics.  The group has also made use of funding from the University of Alabama to develop an adult educational program that will help immigrant parents navigate the local school system and mitigate the negative effects the law has on children who are now required to prove their immigration status in order to receive education.

Somos Tuskaloosa, a group of Latino immigrants, clergy, and community members who self-organized after a 2011 tornado devastated their town on the same day that Alabama HB56—largely considered the most regressive immigration law in the country—was passed.

Yet another inspiring 2013 Torchlight Prize awardee is VietUnity, created in 2004 to support Vietnamese youth, workers, and families in Oakland, California. The vision of VietUnity is to bring Vietnamese American organizers together to share experiences, their work, and skills to better organize communities against oppressive systems, such as racism and imperialism.  Through alliance building, education, organizing, and collective action, VietUnity brings Vietnamese-identified people together to work on local issues that community members have identified as most important to their daily lives, including the need for affordable housing, education support, and employment opportunities, and issues related to gang and domestic violence.

torchlight prize
VietUnity is an Oakland-based group that uses alliance building, education, organizing, and collective action to bring Vietnamese-identified people together to promote justice within the Vietnamese American community.

Today, I would like to extend an invitation to the TalkPoverty community: Help us recognize the next set of Torchlight Prize winners. Visit our website to submit a nomination.  Whether you are a member of a group, or just familiar with a group’s work, anyone can submit a nomination.  The deadline for submissions is 11:59 PM PT on July 11, 2014.  Winners will be announced in September.

Please help us recognize and reward groups from all corners of the United States that are demonstrating the ability to solve problems in their communities with ingenuity, creativity and ambition. The efforts of these groups represent a key and sustainable route to social and economic mobility in our country.



First Person

Lawmakers Should Stop Their Rhetoric and Listen

On October 16 of last year, when I was on a Target run to stock up on some soup that was on sale, I discovered—as did millions of low-income Americans who rely on food stamps to prevent hunger—that the computer system that tracks benefits on my Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card wasn’t working.

I didn’t get an email or phone call to tell me that it wasn’t working or why. Nobody did.  We all found out when we arrived at the store, and some, like me, not until I had reached the cashier. Embarrassed, I turned to my son and tried to explain why we had to leave the store, and our dinner, behind.

Was it because of the government shutdown? How long would we be without access to the small amount in food help that my son and I receive? I had heard from friends that unless this shutdown was resolved before November 1, there would be no food stamps, veterans’ benefits or social security.  I was worried that the food stamp shutdown had started early and so were other parents in our community.

But this isn’t what captured the nation’s attention, the humility of food stamp recipients in 17 states who were turned away at the register.  People humbled by the need to ask for government help despite long work histories or who, growing up poor, never got a shot at an income above the poverty line.

Most people I know in my predicament—with incomes below the poverty level—are good people who are trying hard to do the right thing.

Instead, what America heard about on that day was the experience at one store, where the cashiers let food stamp recipients shop instead of turning them away.  Without a computer system to document how much money in benefits was on each card, some shoppers may have purchased more items than they were eligible for.  The media called it “looting,” taking any opportunity to cast a shadow on the integrity of the down-and-out.

I am a responsible, hard-working, minority single mother who returned to college, as a full-time student at UC Berkeley, after the bottom fell out of the economy. I am thankful for the help I receive and work incredibly hard as I carefully manage my limited time and money. Most people I know in my predicament—with incomes below the poverty level—are good people who are trying hard to do the right thing.

Government shutdowns, accidental or intentional, are scary for people like myself and my son who would be homeless and hungry without the temporary help we receive from the safety net that is there for all of us in case we lose our jobs, or are unable to work, or work doesn’t pay enough to afford the basics.  While our national leaders have failed to govern based on the real life experiences of most low-income Americans—and instead focus on the sensational exceptions meant to draw the ire of the television watching public—I’m proud to say that some California legislators have charted a different course.

Having heard my story when I told it on a local radio station, California Assembly Member Mark Stone introduced a bill to strengthen protections for consumers with EBT cards by ensuring that both consumers and retailers are informed when there are outages to the EBT system.  Governor Brown’s Administration has also now set up a process to inform SNAP recipients when the EBT system goes down.

This month, the Atlantic ran an article about the lack of real-life experience lawmakers have had with poverty.  It concluded that, while inadequate, perhaps more lawmakers participating in the SNAP Challenge and other poverty simulations might help build empathy and understanding among our nation’s leaders.  I don’t disagree, but I think that they could accomplish a lot more if they would simply stop their rhetoric and listen to someone who knows poverty first-hand like legislators here in California are doing.




Big Food and the Gutting of School Meal Nutrition Standards

This July, new nutrition rules for school meals and snacks will take effect.  It will mark the second phase of the bipartisan Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act that was passed by Congress in 2010.  But a debate is now raging on Capitol Hill over the standards for healthy eating that were set by that legislation.  It’s not about crafting new or better standards, but whether Congress will do an about-face, lower the bar, and turn its back on science.

Many low-income students rely on school meals as a primary source of nutrition. While Congress hasn’t been able to agree on much these days, it was able to unite around the issue of improving the diets of children in America.  Why? Because of the overwhelming scientific evidence that the diets of our children are setting them up for a lifetime struggling with disease.  One in 3 children in the U.S. are obese.  A 2012 study by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicted that obesity rates in the U.S. could exceed 44 percent by 2030, costing our country an additional $66 billion per year in medical expenses. Poor eating patterns are major contributors to childhood obesity and other chronic diseases that begin in childhood, such as Type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

But instead of allowing the implementation of these new well-founded nutrition standards, the House Appropriations Committee passed a 2015 funding bill in May that weakened standards.  That’s when the outcry began; eighty-five organizations  spoke out against the gutting of the new standards in a joint letter:

For decades, Congress has wisely ensured that federal child nutrition programs have been guided by science. Science-based decisions have served our children and our nation well.

“ We… strongly oppose efforts… to change or weaken federal child nutrition programs, including potential efforts to require the inclusion of white potatoes in the WIC Program, to alter or delay implementation of meal standards in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, or to weaken or delay rules to limit sugary beverages and unhealthy snack foods in our nation’s schools. For decades, Congress has wisely ensured that federal child nutrition programs have been guided by science. Science-based decisions have served our children and our nation well. Accordingly, we strongly urge you to oppose efforts to intervene in science-based rules regarding the federal child nutrition programs.”

The new standards for school lunches and snacks set forth in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act were written in collaboration with the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents 55,000 “school nutrition professionals.” But SNA has now withdrawn their support for the very rules they helped to create.  Last week, SNA CEO Patti Montague asked First Lady Michelle Obama to support the House bill and its weaker nutrition standards.

“Our members simply want relief from some of the onerous regulations slated to take effect this summer,” Montague said. “[They] will lead to fewer students receiving healthy school meals, more food being thrown away and many school meal programs in financial straits”.

In a letter to the First Lady and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, SNA also requested that the USDA or Congress act to prevent raising the standard for whole grains; maintain the current standard for permissible sodium levels, rather than improving it; and eliminate the requirement that students take a fruit or vegetable with their meals.

SNA justifies its new position in part by claiming that the new standards have led to more plate waste and decreased participation in the school lunch program. But the USDA points to a recent study by the Harvard School of Public health indicating that the new standards have not led to increased plate waste, and that data shows participation has actually been on the decline since 2006.

So what’s really behind this new plea from SNA?

According to writer Bettina Elias Siegel of, we need to look at SNA’s corporate ties.  The organization receives significant funding from companies like Kraft, ConAgra and PepsiCo.  These corporate sponsors would surely benefit from the loosening of school lunch standards because they would not have to reformulate popular brands in order to sell to school districts.   Also, huge food service corporations like Aramark, Sodexo and Chartwell (Compass)—which operate approximately one-fourth of school lunch programs in the US—get a lot of their business from these same major food corporations.  As noted in a New York Times editorial, “An increasingly cozy alliance between companies that manufacture processed foods and companies that serve the meals is making students — a captive market – fat and sick while pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.”

So are there legitimate concerns raised by SNA in regard to budgets, food waste and student acceptance of healthier foods?  Sure.  But maybe its response to these issues would be quite different if SNA were not financially hitched to Big Food.

The good news is that the First Lady is not backing down.  She came to her meeting with SNA accompanied by Dr. James Perrin, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics.  Perrin reminded the group that children consume up to half of their daily calories in school, so it’s important that those calories are high-quality. He called the rollback of standards “the wrong choice for children”—one that would “put politics ahead of science.”

Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s a choice that puts money and profits ahead of science and children.




Generational Poverty the Exception, Not the Rule

Poverty is worse than you think, but it’s different than you think, too.

Even if you count yourself as reasonably well informed about poverty in the U.S., what you think you know may be wrong. For example, you may know that by the official Census Bureau measure, 15 percent of the population was considered poor in 2012, about 46 million people; you may even know that there’s a lot of variation in that rate by age (it’s much higher for children and much lower for older people), by race (it’s radically higher for African Americans and Hispanics), by geography (it’s higher in the South, as it always has been, and it’s now growing fastest in the suburbs), and so on.

You may even know that the official measure of poverty is outdated and inaccurate, and that, using the Bureau’s new Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), the problem is, in truth, a bit worse: the SPM shows that more likely 16 percent of Americans were poor in 2012, or about 50 million people, and that poverty was much higher among the elderly than the official measure would lead us to believe, and a bit lower among children.

Both of these approaches share a common problem, however: they are static, point-in-time measures, telling you how many people were poor at the time of the surveys used to gather these data. But poverty in America is fluid, and people move in and out of poverty over the course of a year and over the course of their lives.

Thanks to other data from the Census Bureau, we can step back a bit to see that more common kind of movement in and out of poverty. If we look at how many Americans were poor for at least two months during 2009, 2010, and 2011, for example, we find a poverty rate not equal to the Census Bureau’s 15 or 16 percent—but twice that, at 31.6 percent. That is, over a recent three-year period, almost one-third of all Americans were poor at least once for two months or more.

U.S. household economies are fragile, so it often just takes one crisis to push a family over the edge—from just getting by to not getting by at all...

There’s another important lesson to learn from this data: while lots of Americans experienced a “spell” of poverty during those years, only 3.5 percent of the population was poor for all 36 months.  So how we think about poverty is all wrong: it’s a much more common occurrence than people realize, and the chronic, persistent, generational poverty that features so prominently in political rhetoric and media coverage is very much the exception, rather than the rule.

We can step back even further, and look at the likelihood that any American will encounter poverty at any point over the course of their entire adult lives, thanks especially to research done by Mark Rank at Washington University in St. Louis. What his work tells us is that more than 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will be poor for at least a year.  Over the same period, more than half will be poor or nearly poor, with income at 150 percent of the poverty line, or about $27,000 annually for a family of three.

So poverty in the U.S. is, in fact, a much larger problem than we think it is, and it’s one that most Americans will face.

While that’s a grim realization, perhaps it’s also a cause for hope.  Maybe if more Americans understood what their own personal stake is in committing to poverty reduction, they might be more inclined to press for higher wages, better access to affordable child care, more generous social welfare programs, a reinvigorated right to form a union, and so on. These are not policies that benefit some group of Others, but policies that serve the majority of us. If we can’t count on empathy to improve well-being, maybe selfishness will do the trick?

We live in a world of widespread economic fragility, of insecurity, of what some have come to call precarity:  According to one recent survey, about one-in-four Americans have no savings at all.

U.S. household economies are fragile, so it often just takes one crisis to push a family over the edge—from just getting by to not getting by at all: An injury that makes it impossible to work, a sudden physical or mental illness, a death in the family, a car breaking down, or even the birth of a new baby.  All of these can be traumatic economic events for a family with little or no savings and no margin for error—events that most families recover from, with time. But then the next crisis hits. And in the U.S., you can’t necessarily count on the social safety net to be there for you when you need it. And you’ll need it.

We can’t hope to address a problem if we misdiagnose it, and one of the virtues of thinking more clearly about what poverty actually looks like is that a better diagnosis might alter the political landscape.

Don’t fight poverty because you feel sorry for other people; fight poverty because the odds are increasingly high that you and your family will be poor someday, too.