Congress Again Ignores Poor People

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law (Shriver Center) recently released its 2013 Congressional Poverty Scorecard, the only comprehensive analysis of the voting records of every Member of Congress on poverty issues.

The Shriver Center, working with experts in twenty different subject areas, identified the House and Senate floor votes in 2013 that had the greatest impact on the interests of poor people.  Each Member of Congress was then graded based on their performance on those votes.

The ratings are based on floor votes on a wide range of issues. In 2013, the hottest areas were votes relating to reauthorization of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and budget and tax issues. The SNAP votes were on amendments that set program funding levels and sought to greatly restrict participation in the program. The budget and tax issues included spending cuts tied to raising the debt limit and Hurricane Sandy disaster relief, and budget resolutions and the budget agreement.

In addition, votes in many other areas were used, including funding for legal services, comprehensive immigration reform, international food aid programs, curtailing voting and labor rights, and the obligatory attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The results were not surprising. They showed that Congress is bitterly divided, with 97% of the Senators and 95% of the Representatives graded at one extreme or the other, receiving an A, D or F. Only a small handful of moderates received a B or C.

As long as legislative districts lean heavily toward one party or the other, the only threat to a member’s reelection is a primary challenge from someone in the member’s own party who is more extreme. This inclines members to vote in an even more partisan way. In such an electoral environment, compromise is politically dangerous.

This partisan gridlock prevents Congress from passing laws that address our nation’s major problems. While this hurts everyone, it is especially detrimental to poor people who have the most to lose under the status quo.

Another major finding was that the Congressional delegations from states with the highest poverty rates tended to have the worst records in fighting poverty. Something other than the interests of a relatively large percentage of people living in poverty was motivating them.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson announced a War on Poverty and pursued a hugely ambitious legislative agenda to that end. While great progress was made in the first decade after this war was declared, and poverty was cut by one-third, the Poverty Scorecard demonstrates how Congress has now abandoned the effort to fight poverty.

Take a look at the Scorecard. See how your House member and Senators voted and hold them accountable.




The David and Goliath Story of our Time: Fighting for Living Wages and Worker Protections

Your taxi driver, the wait staff at the restaurant you like, the person doing your manicure—they all have something important in common: all have been excluded, in some way, from traditional labor protections.

Over the years, these protections have been what safeguards the right to a minimum wage, overtime pay, health and safety protections, and the right to form a union. Without them, low-wage workers—the very people on whom we rely on a daily basis—are disempowered and often trapped in poverty.

These excluded sectors have banded together to create worker centers—non-profit, community organizations representing specific occupational sectors—mostly made up of “immigrant workers and African-Americans who labor in jobs that do not pay a livable wage.” The first crop of worker centers emerged over two decades ago in response to the waning power of traditional labor organizing and the unique needs of laborers of color.  They provided a critical community touch point in advocating and organizing for just workplace practices. Since then, they have grown to create national bodies representing all major sectors, and include: the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Guestworker Alliance, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, among others. By one estimate, there are now over 200 worker centers across the United States fighting for fair wages, paid leave, and other workplace protections.

Today, low-wage industries employ 1.85 million more workers than at the beginning of the 2008 recession and represent some of the fastest growing sectors in the economy. These industries include restaurant work, retail, and caregiving, all of which have high volumes of immigrants, people of color, and women in the workforce. When we see that these same people also make up a disproportionate amount of working Americans living in poverty—earning a fraction of the wages of their white, male counterparts—we should look to their employers for answers.

The $600 billion restaurant industry, specifically, is the largest employer of people of color in the United States. Thirty-nine percent of all workers making the minimum wage or below work in this industry, making it the largest low-wage employer. Simply raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would increase the combined incomes of people of color by $16.1 billion—nearly 300,000 of those affected would be workers of color in the restaurant industry. Additionally, 2 in 3 tipped workers are women, and the tipped minimum wage has been stuck at $2.13 per hour since 1991. All of this points to the fact that at the frontlines of the gender and racial wage gap, workers making poverty wages are bravely taking on giant, moneyed interests like the restaurant industry. This is truly the David and Goliath story of our time.

In some cases, workers are winning. Last year, ROC United was instrumental in securing paid sick days for tipped workers in Washington, D.C. The National Domestic Workers Alliance also successfully fought to provide minimum wage and overtime protections for homecare workers.

In many ways, worker centers are a contemporary economic necessity. Since people of color are the rising majority, it is imperative that we improve job quality in sectors that currently employ these workers at high rates. Worker centers become even more needed as traditional labor organizations and workers’ rights are threatened in Congress, in individual states, and in the Supreme Court with the recent Harris v Quinn decision.

Nearly 51 years ago, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, activists called for not only desegregation, but also dignified jobs and decent wages.  And tomorrow at 10:00am ET, the Center for American Progress marks the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act—which included historic protections at the workplace—with an event: “Passing the Baton: The Next 50 Years of Civil Rights and Economic Justice”.  Watch live as an intergenerational group of civil rights activists offers ideas about how to renew and invigorate a movement focused on civil rights and economic security.

Many low-wage workers are already leading the way.  This is an opportunity to find new ways to get involved.





The Other Side of Caregiving: Selfless Acts Punished by Zero Contributions to Social Security Benefits (UPDATED)

80-year-old Sara Moore of Chicago spent years outside of the paid workforce caring for her sick father, and then other family members. She worked hard – in a selfless act of love – and yet all those years of caregiving amounted to zero wages, and zero contributions towards her Social Security benefits.  Consequently, Sara has little savings and receives less than $1000 a month in Social Security benefits, barely enough to survive.

Caregivers like Sara should not have to sacrifice dignity in their own retirement to take care of family – be it an aging parent, a child, or a relative with disabilities.

The hidden cost of caregiving is in the impact it has on working families who have to struggle to survive without a wage.

Today, New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey is introducing a bill in Congress that would address this injustice.  Groups across the country like the Center for Community Change Action, the National Council of Women’s Organizations, and others, are rallying around the bill which would provide an earnings credit in the Social Security benefit calculation while an individual is caring for a child under a certain age, a disabled family member, or a senior in need of care.

Tonight you can hear from Rep. Lowey and others about this important issue by joining a teletown hall that starts at 7:30pm ET.

Family comes first – whether it’s your aging Mom who gets more opinionated every day or the newborn you swear already smiles, providing for your family is not negotiable.  When it becomes necessary to stay home and care for someone then our Social Security system should honor family by taking into account some of that lost time from the paid work force.

We are long overdue to recognize the largely female workforce of caregivers for the time, energy and effort required to care for loved ones outside of the paid workforce.  The hidden cost of caregiving is in the impact it has on working families who have to struggle to survive without a wage.  Millions of Americans like Sara Moore are doing the essential work of caregiving, and that number is growing. A caregiver credit is about honoring the time, effort and love that people put towards caregiving as work.  As more and more people in our country step up to do right by family as caregivers, it’s only right that their work be recognized in our Social Security system through a caregiver credit.

Even in a fractured Congress, Rep. Lowey’s bill should be something that garners supporters from both sides of the aisle.  Every one of us knows someone who has sacrificed to care for a loved one.  It’s time to truly honor those caregivers by lifting up women’s issues, expanding Social Security… and sponsoring Rep. Lowey’s bill.

UPDATE: Click to listen to Representative Lowey’s tele-town hall on this topic.



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.