First Person

Words Matter When Talking Poverty

Now and then, I volunteer as a consultant for the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness.

A few weeks ago they invited me to join them and other groups in Trenton, N.J. for a day of lobbying politicians regarding issues related to housing and jobs. Many voices, many issues.

I asked the director of the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness, Deb Eliis, if there was only one thing The Coalition could accomplish in the next year, what she would want it to be.

She answered: “A Homeless Shelter in Ocean County.”

We need a fresh working definition of poverty that portrays their personal and financial struggles with dignity and respect.

Ocean County is where I live.  I know that there are seven facilities in Ocean County that house, care for, and try to find permanent living situations for stray animals, but not a single one that provides the same services for humans.  Toms River is the second largest township in Ocean County and one of its most affluent. I lived in Toms River until a month ago before I moved into permanent affordable housing in a nearby town. When I lived in Toms River I worked with the faith-based Homeless Outreach mission, so I also know that on any given night in Toms River there are between 30 and 40 people (that we know of) living scattered throughout its wooded areas. In case you have never been to a homeless encampment – and as someone who used to be homeless – I can tell you this: there is no way anyone – no matter your age – can live that way for very long without developing serious physical and mental ailments. These people will sooner or later end up in an Emergency Room, which is the least efficient and most expensive way of not dealing with this problem of homelessness.

My contribution to the meeting in Trenton was to get agreement on not calling it a “homeless shelter” and instead refer to it as an Emergency Housing Relief Center.  I feel strongly that words such as ‘shelters’ and ‘the projects’ should be dropped from our vocabularies when we are referring to people living in acute financial distress.

Why? Because words matter.

Check out this vintage 1976 ditty from a former B-list actor in California: “She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”

The ‘she’ is the infamous ‘welfare queen’ who in fact didn’t exist, and the person making the lumpen remark, Ronald Reagan, goes on to become President of the United States in 1980.

The remark helped to turn back a decade of progress in eliminating chronic poverty in America, and marked a significant turning point in American attitudes toward their fellow citizens receiving financial aid and/or food assistance from the government.

Once again, we are back to where we were in the 1970s –defining poverty, rather than just tackling it head on.  But this time we have to be ever more vigilant about not letting it be defined by people who are prejudiced and use negative stereotypes.  We need a fresh working definition of poverty that reflects peoples’ real life experiences and portrays their personal and financial struggles with dignity and respect.




Hobby Lobby: No Justice for Survivors of Domestic Violence

“The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”

-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Planned Parenthood v. Casey

In the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. decision on Monday, conservative Supreme Court justices ruled that only some women are entitled to control over their health. This decision represents the latest chapter in an ongoing conservative effort to weaken the reproductive rights of some of the most vulnerable women in the country.

Since no female justice joined the opinion, five men determined that Hobby Lobby and other “closely-held” corporations cannot be compelled to provide insurance coverage for contraception for their employees if they disagree on religious grounds. The owners of Hobby Lobby objected to covering two forms of emergency contraception and two types of intrauterine devices (IUDs) because they feel that using them results in abortion. Although this decision was predicated on objections to four types of birth control, the Supreme Court decision likely affects all twenty contraception methods covered by Affordable Care Act (ACA) regulations. This decision could potentially affect millions of women since “closely-held” corporations employ over 52% of American workers.

The majority bowed to ideology at the expense of science and common sense. There is no medical evidence that emergency contraception, IUDs, or any other form of contraception covered by ACA regulations, cause abortion. In contrast, contraception is designed to prevent unwanted pregnancies that do sometimes lead to an abortion. In an ironic twist, Hobby Lobby objected to providing insurance coverage for IUDs, which are twenty times more effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy than contraception methods lucky enough to receive the Hobby Lobby stamp of approval.

The Hobby Lobby decision furthers the separation of women into distinct economic classes

The Hobby Lobby decision furthers the separation of women into distinct economic classes—those who can afford the contraception they want and those who cannot. It undermines the right of millions of women to access vital preventative care regardless of their ability to pay. As Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissent, the cost of obtaining an IUD without insurance is practically equal to the monthly salary of a low-wage worker. Emergency contraception is also expensive—a single dose can cost more than $60. Hobby Lobby places low-income women who cannot pay out of pocket at the mercy of their employers.

The ruling is also intensely harmful to the one in three women who are currently experiencing or will experience domestic violence. An astonishing 99% of survivors report that abusers restrict access to economic resources in some way. Even though some survivors may appear wealthy, they are in fact low-income due to this economic abuse. When employers refuse to cover contraception, the vast majority of survivors cannot afford it. Making matters worse, conservatives also support huge cuts in funding for the Title X clinics that survivors and other low-income women might be able to turn to for access to low-cost contraception in the event that their employer opts out of coverage. Between the actions of a conservative court and Congress, survivors and low-income women simply can’t win.

By decreasing women’s access to contraception, Hobby Lobby empowers abusers. Forcing survivors to have unwanted pregnancies is a common tactic used by abusers to make survivors more dependent on the relationship. The mechanism? Interfering with or failing to use contraception. Twenty-five percent of adolescent survivors report that abusive partners tried to force them to become pregnant by interfering with contraception. Abusers may destroy or hide oral contraceptives; purposely rip holes in condoms or remove them during sex; fail to withdraw as a method of birth control; or forcibly remove other forms of contraception such as patches, vaginal rings, or IUDs.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends several strategies to combat this kind of reproductive coercion. They encourage health care providers to package oral contraceptives in ways that an abuser may not detect, such as in an unmarked envelope. They also promote the practice of inserting IUDs that have the strings removed so that abusers cannot detect their presence. An IUD needs to be inserted every twelve years, as opposed to a shot that needs to be administered every three months, or an oral contraceptive that must be taken daily. As a result, IUDs are arguably the best way to provide unobtrusive, effective contraception to survivors.  Thanks to five male Supreme Court Justices, however, IUDs likely just became much harder to access, and the lives of many low-income women and survivors became much harder too.

Thank you, Mr. Supreme Court.





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.