Analysis

How to Not Listen to People in Poverty

On July 9, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan held the fifth in a series of hearings entitled “A Progress Report on the War on Poverty.” The hearings have included seventeen witnesses: academics and policy wonks, social service providers and advocates, a politician and faith leaders. But until Tianna Gaines-Turner was asked by the Democratic minority to testify at this hearing, the Committee hadn’t heard from a single person actually living in poverty. Seventeen experts on poverty and, among them, only one poor person.

One might assume that the experience of a woman trying—along with her husband—to build a secure life for her family on poverty wages and federal assistance would mean a lot to representatives who are trying to assess the effectiveness of the government’s anti-poverty programs. And, at first listen, it might have seemed that the members were open to learning from Gaines-Turner. Ryan quoted from her previous written testimony in his opening remarks, affirming her assertion that to reduce poverty we must understand and address the needs of whole persons, rather than treating “people as numbers.”  He said that he hoped the committee would “listen and learn” from her testimony.

And Ryan wasn’t the only committee member who praised Gaines-Turner’s unique contribution to the series of hearings. There were at least six explicit mentions of how important it was to have her—a person living in poverty—there to testify. Both parties seemed grateful that they had an opportunity to hear a real account of struggles with financial insecurity. What unfolded, however, revealed that some legislators had a very different objective.

Heather Reynolds of Catholic Charities Fort Worth and Jennifer Tiller of American Works DC were the two other witnesses selected by the Republican majority for the panel. Their testimony, and a large number of the questions asked by conservative representatives, reflected a real bias in these anti-poverty discussions: the entrenched belief that poor people will have the better life that they want when they get a job.

Both Reynolds and Tiller insisted on the importance of getting their clients off of government assistance and into employment whenever possible—they testified that these steps were key to their organization’s definition of successfully getting clients out of poverty. Work-first policies and work requirements for welfare programs where mentioned repeatedly. The importance of “accountability” and “independence” was raised more than a few times (though always in reference to individuals receiving government assistance, until Gaines-Turner noted that there should be accountability for corporations like Target and Walmart, which bank huge profits while paying poverty wages or exploiting tax loopholes). “Receiving federal aid” was used interchangeably with “dependence on the government.”

If this had been a hearing on work-first programs or the efficacy of work requirements for recipients of federal aid, that might have been expected. But the title of this hearing was Working Families in Need, and Gaines-Turner and her husband both already have jobs.

Simply put, conservative members of the House Budget Committee didn’t show up on July 9 to listen to Gaines-Turner or to learn about the experiences of the working poor. They came to preach what they think they already know about people in poverty. They made Gaines-Turner repeatedly remind them that she and her husband have jobs, and when she tried to pivot to other issues that complicate her financial security—low wages, lack of affordable childcare, asset limits in assistance programs—she was asked whether or not she would prefer to be independent rather than rely on the government. It was embarrassing—not for Gaines-Turner, who handled the pressure and condescending questions with grace—but for the members who showed how unwilling they were to use this hearing to actually listen and learn rather than just hear themselves talk.

Anti-poverty programs will never be as successful as they could be until we listen to people in poverty when they share their experiences.

Perhaps no member exemplified more than South Carolina Representative Tom Rice the desire to repeatedly assert his own opinion rather than listen to Gaines-Turner talk about her experiences.  After getting all three witnesses to confirm that federal anti-poverty programs alone will never lift a person out of poverty, Rice focused on Gaines-Turner with a clear goal— get her to admit that a job is the only way out of poverty:

“If they just simply rely on federal programs and don’t try to make themselves better and go out and get a job will they ever get out of poverty?” asked Rice.

“Do you agree with me that that’s the path out of poverty? That they have got to go out and get a job?”

“If you rely on federal programs, you’re never going to come out of poverty. The only way out of poverty is to be self-reliant and find yourself a job.”

Gaines-Turner has already found herself a job. What she needs—and what she was asking the members of the committee to consider—is help with the myriad of factors that prevent her from working her way to financial security. If Rice, Ryan, and Indiana Representative Todd Rokita had listened to her, they would have heard Gaines-Turner talk about some of the issues that matter to a person in poverty, even when that person already has a job: healthcare, childcare, transportation, paid sick leave, just wages, safe and affordable housing, equal pay, asset limits. Perhaps they even would have heard her talk about the most shameful part of the reality of the working poor in our nation: that we let them go to work to provide for their families and continue to live in poverty, and make them feel isolated, dehumanized, and dismissed while they are trying to share in the American dream.

It’s truly shameful that Ryan, Rice, and other conservative members held a hearing to not listen to Tianna Gaines-Turner. She already knows what they still need to learn: anti-poverty programs in this country do work and they can work more effectively; but they will never be as successful as they could be until we listen to people in poverty when they share their experiences.

And that goes for all of us.

 

 

Related

Analysis

Diaper Shortages Leave Low-Income Kids Behind Before They Can Even Walk

Ask a county social worker, a food bank director, or any organization that assists families in low-income communities, and you will likely learn that they all experience a similar predicament each month. They do not have enough diapers. Diapers are the most requested basic need item, and organizations always run out.

Unmet diaper needs impact families’ ability to work and the public health of the communities where they live. Because diapers are required by most child care facilities, lack of diapers can reduce access to work and poor diapering can facilitate the spread of disease in public spaces.

According to The Diaper Bank, an adequate supply of diapers cost $100 or more per month. Making things worse, safety net programs such as TANF, SNAP and WIC do not allot money for diapers. Benefits themselves are already low. In California, the maximum TANF benefit—which provides cash assistance—is no more than 40% of the federal poverty level (around $670 per month for a family of three). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, there isn’t a state in the country with a TANF benefit higher than ½ of the federal poverty line. To get by, families report diapering less. Some even report that their infants or toddlers have spent a day or longer in one diaper, which not only leads to potential health risks for the baby, but also puts them at risk for social, emotional and behavioral problems, according to a Pediatrics study.

Here in California, there are eleven diaper banks that are part of the National Diaper Bank network. Meeting the unmet diaper needs of very young children with donated diapers is their business, and they too report shortages on a regular basis and admit to covering only a small percentage of the state.

Until we confront the deep inequities that start at birth, our poorest children will be hampered by unequal footing before they even learn to walk.

This is what I learned when I started advocating in support of a bill introduced in California this year by Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez and Senator Holly Mitchell to address the growing unmet need among poor families with infants and toddlers. The idea that we need legislation to address unmet diaper needs usually gets a chuckle out of most people at first. However, the grim reality is that a lack of an adequate supply of diapers can have severe mental, emotional, and developmental impacts on parents and children. In response, Assembly Bill 1516 would provide an $80 per month diaper supplement to eligible children receiving public assistance and would create a public-private partnership fund to help facilitate the distribution of financial donations and diaper contributions to the neediest of families.

My work on the bill is through the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) at the Women’s Foundation of California. The WPI trains women about how the legislative process works and how to advocate for legislative change. Since I am a single mom who knows how costly it can be to keep an infant adequately diapered and how difficult it can be to try to figure it out on your own, I am motivated to make the most of this opportunity. Still, I am most inspired by the personal stories and the sense of how real policy decisions can impact real people’s lives.

A mother I know who has three little girls is one of these real people whose story has inspired me. She was working several jobs, but was still living under the poverty line and receiving just over $100 a month in TANF assistance, when extra hours at work and $20 more in her paycheck made her ineligible for the TANF program.

She lacked job security at her hourly jobs, and the loss of the income from TANF left her family on unstable footing. As a result, she struggled to meet her children’s basic needs. She told me about how she forced her children to potty train way before they were ready to save money and about her feelings of being overwhelmed with stress during this period in her family’s life.

Throughout the legislative session, the team of advocates working on this bill has heard other powerful testimonies about the consequences for children when parents are unable to make it through the end of each month without reusing lightly soiled diapers or prolonging periods between diaper changes.

I don’t know if Assembly Bill 1516 will pass and, if it gets passed, if it would get signed. But I hope that its introduction has helped to educate lawmakers in our state’s Capitol about the great risks associated with deep poverty and unmet diaper needs and to inspire them to do something about it.  I also know that bills like this one, which tackle the real needs of real people and real policy solutions, are desperately needed from Sacramento to Albany and in every state capitol in between.  Until we confront the human and fiscal costs associated with allowing children to live in deep poverty and the deep inequities that start at birth, our poorest children will be hampered by unequal footing before they even learn to walk.

Related

Analysis

Talking Finance and Faith: Payday Loans and Franciscan Pawnshops

We sometimes hear from people deeply committed to one or both that religion and the market should keep to their separate spheres. In my Catholic faith tradition, there’s a long history of religious people taking positions on what makes financial transactions useful and just, and intervening to make reality closer to the ideal.

For much of Christian history, the Catholic Church opposed charging any interest for loans, which was regarded as sinful “usury.” In late antiquity, St. Augustine described loans as one form of charity: he assumed that the lender would charge no interest, providing a service to the needy borrower at some cost to themselves. He realized that many of those who need loans in order to get by are poor people whose needs should be at the forefront of Christian concern. Out of this same realization, some Italian Franciscans began to open pawnshops, called montes pietatis, in the 15th century, running them as charitable organizations to help poor people access small loans. As it became clear that these local practices were helping people in need, official Church teaching changed. In 1515, Pope Leo X proclaimed that charging “moderate” amounts of interest so that loan organizations could be maintained was legitimate under church law. (Despite this acknowledgement that lending at interest could be done morally, deep-rooted stigma against Jewish moneylenders, who had historically responded to Christians’ need for loans, affects European and US culture even today.)

If you hear a Christian call out “usury” today, like theologian Alex Mikulich does here, likely they’re not decrying all charging of interest but suggesting that a certain type of loan is predatory, unjust and harmful to the borrower. Catholic groups use this tradition effectively as they fight some of the most exploitative practices of payday lenders in states like Illinois, Kentucky, and Minnesota.

A new film, Spent: Looking for Change continues the dialogue about the payday loan industry. Two things are clear from this powerful film. First, many current practices of the payday loan industry are indeed exploitative and harmful to families who already find themselves on the edge. One family in the film estimates that by the time they pay off a loan of $450, they will have paid more than $1700 in interest. Another borrower was not allowed to pay off her loan until she could pay in full—racking up more interest although she could have been making payments, and eventually losing the car that she needed for work. Second, while payday lenders and check-cashing services charge fees that could accurately be described as usurious, they fill an otherwise unmet need. As many as 70 million people in the U.S. are excluded from the traditional banking system, because of issues like bad credit, no credit (a potential result of the cautious choice to avoid credit card use), or lack of geographic access to traditional banks.

The film is sponsored by American Express, which is announcing new financial products designed to help those underserved by the traditional financial system, like the people featured in Spent who turn to usurious lenders. This seems consistent with a trend noted in the New York Times earlier this year: in response to rising inequality within the U.S., companies are shifting their offerings to appeal to either very wealthy, or increasingly poor consumers. It’s encouraging, I suppose, that one result of this trend could be more affordable financial services for people who historically have needed them. But let’s not forget that high inequality comes with a host of other social ills.

Let’s also not assume that because the market is beginning to respond to this need, anti-poverty activists can just sit back and relax. The makers of Spent created a petition to legalize prize-linked savings accounts.  Supporting Elizabeth Warren’s plan to allow Post Offices to offer affordable financial services seems like another promising response. Watching and sharing Spent is a great way to keep the conversation going.

And I’d encourage people of faith, and everyone concerned about poverty, not to stop there. Microcredit agencies like Grameen America and Kiva Zip help individuals and groups—maybe even you, or your congregation—make interest-free loans to small-business owners in the US and abroad. Run on donations, they boast impressive repayment rates and help people in need avoid the most predatory operators in the financial system.

Call them today’s Franciscan pawnshops.

 

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Announcement

What We’re Reading this Week

Welcome to the second installment of What We’re Reading this Week, where we share 5 must-read articles about poverty in America 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 our top picks this week:

Paying Employees to Stay, Not Go, by Steven Greenhouse & Stephanie Strom (New York Times)

“If we really wanted our people to care about our culture and care about our customers, we had to show that we cared about them,” Mr. Pepper said. “If we’re talking about building a business that’s successful, but our employees can’t go home and pay their bills, to me that success is a farce.”

We’ve heard the refrain from conservative pundits and musty Intro Economics textbooks: raising the minimum wage will cause widespread job loss and hurt the economy overall. In practice, however, we often see the exact opposite outcome. In fact, states that raised their minimum wages this year saw higher levels of job growth. How can this be? Greenhouse and Strom show how employers who pay higher than the minimum wage actually benefit. Specifically, the article examines fast food chains like Boloco and Shake Shack, which offer workers competitive wage and benefit packages and yield positive returns like reduced turnover and enhanced customer service.

I Clean High School Bathrooms, and My New $15/Hour Salary will Change Everything, By Raul Meza (Washington Post)

I feel fortunate for what I have. I also feel tired a lot, from all the work and from lack of sleep; sometimes I get as little as two hours a night. But what I miss most is time with my son. He’s always asking, “Daddy, where are you going?” Leaving breaks my heart every time. When I think about making $15 an hour, I think mostly of the time that money could buy with my son.

A critical piece often left out of minimum wage debates are the stories of the workers and families who will benefit from a raise. Raul Meza is one such worker whose life is about to change, as his union just negotiated a contract that will raise the wages of 20,000 school workers to $15/hour by 2016. Because Meza has never made more than $10/hour, he’s constantly forced to forego time with his son to work evenings and weekends. As Meza anticipates what life will be like at his new wage, we’re reminded of how raising the minimum wage not only strengthens bank accounts, but also strengthens families.

50 Years After Civil Rights Act, Many Households of Color Still Struggle to Get Ahead, by Alicia Atkinson (CFED)

Many want to believe the injustice is over, yet we see over and over again how these factors compound and leave households of color with significantly lower amounts of wealth compared to white households. Specifically, the average African-American and Latino household still owns only six and seven cents, respectively, for every dollar in wealth held by the typical white family. At CFED, we know that income alone is not enough to succeed in the American economy. Having wealth and owning assets like a house or car can improve families’ lives by providing a stable place to live and reliable transportation to get to work.

July marks the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. While it’s important to celebrate how far we’ve come in combatting systemic racial discrimination, Alicia Atkinson of CFED reminds us how far we still need to go, specifically in addressing the persistent racial wealth gap. As Atkinson explains, today “we face a quieter, more insidious discrimination” that erects barriers to building savings and wealth in communities of color. It’s important to look closely at the research Atkinson presents on how the financial market is currently serving communities of color in order. To best honor the Civil Rights Movement’s legacy, we must keep fighting to ensure that equal opportunity is not an unfulfilled promise.

This is What Happened When I Drove my Mercedes to Pick Up Food Stamps, by Darlena Cunha (Washington Post)

“We didn’t deserve to be poor, any more than we deserved to be rich. Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment. I still have to remind myself sometimes that I was my harshest critic. That the judgment of the disadvantaged comes not just from conservative politicians and Internet trolls. It came from me, even as I was living it.”

Cunha details what it’s like to turn to social safety net programs like WIC and Medicaid as a white, college-educated woman from an affluent background. A constellation of factors led her to apply for assistance, including the housing market crash, a sudden layoff, and the unexpected birth of twins with serious medical needs. Cunha’s story underscores the fact that poverty is much more common and fluid than many realize; in fact, research shows that more than 40% of American adults will be poor for at least a year of their lives. Cunha relates to the stigma that so many people who receive public assistance face, detailing the judgment she experienced in the grocery store while using her food stamps. Of course, what sets Cunha apart from many other WIC recipients is that her story has a happy ending: she recovers financially and is able to keep her Mercedes. The article suggests the role of social privilege in helping people like Cunha regain financial footing.

Meet the First Poor Person Allowed to Testify at Any of Paul Ryan’s Poverty Hearings, by Bryce Covert (ThinkProgress)

Gaines-Turner certainly knows what it means to struggle. She and her husband have weathered two bouts of homelessness together and two of her children suffer from epilepsy while all three suffer from asthma, afflictions that mean they all have to take medication daily. “I know what it’s like to be homeless and to couch surf, to miss meals so my children can have a nutritional meal,” she said. “I know what it’s like to wake up every day wondering where the next meal will come from or how to pay the bills today or will someone come today and cut off the water. I’ve been through all of that.”

As the title suggests, Covert profiles Tianna Gaines-Turner, who testified at Paul Ryan’s fifth hearing on poverty on Wednesday. Of course, it seems commonsense that those who actually have turned to America’s safety net programs would be the most important people to listen to about how they work and can be improved. However, Covert explains how it has not been an easy road to ensure that voices like Ms. Gaines-Turner’s are included in the hearings. Ms. Gaines-Turner now has a chance to tell her powerful story about struggling to make ends meet while faced with serious obstacles. The question is, will lawmakers listen?

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 TalkPoverty.org homepage.

Related

Analysis

Despite Harris v. Quinn, Domestic Workers Movement Thriving

Sometimes, when things fall apart, space emerges for new ideas to take hold. Since the Great Recession in 2008, the overall resistance from business interests to basic ideas such as raising wages has sustained. Yet there have been glimmers of an emerging pro-worker ideology, one that has begun to influence some state and federal policymakers. Among the most important developments are those stemming from the domestic workers’ movement—a movement that is working to ensure basic labor protections for nannies, housekeepers and caregivers, and that is building awareness about how essential the labor inside of homes is for the economy as a whole.

In my book, Part of the Family: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers, and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights, I discuss how domestic workers have successfully persuaded state and federal policymakers to include domestic workers within basic labor protections such as overtime. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enacted in 1938, deliberately excluded domestic workers. This type of gendered exclusion results in higher levels of poverty for women. Domestic workers are among the lowest-paid workers in the United States.  Since our nation’s earliest days they have been excluded from basic labor protections, in large part because the work of the domestic sphere — dominated by women — has long been considered not “real” work.

In recent years, amid the economic turmoil so many Americans are experiencing, the message that domestic work is real work has begun to resonate with some policymakers. In 2010, the New York state legislature enacted the nation’s first domestic workers’ bill of rights, ensuring overtime, rest breaks and disability benefits for the state’s domestic workers. California followed suit in 2013 (though the legislative path wasn’t easy, with bills vetoed in 2006 and 2012). Hawaii also enacted legislation in 2013 that expands overtime protections for domestic workers. Massachusetts just enacted legislation that ensures a day of rest per week and protection from harassment on the job. Critically, President Obama and former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis finally reversed the exclusion of domestic workers from the FLSA. These regulations would ensure that domestic workers are protected under wage and hour laws, and, barring delays, will be effective in 2015.

During these legislative battles, advocates saw clear shifts in how legislators understood the issue of domestic workers’ rights. New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver originally refused to bring the state bill of rights to the assembly floor. But over time he was persuaded to support the legislation, and upon enactment, he noted, “This bill rights a wrong that began when domestic workers were excluded from the labor protections created by the New Deal and brings us one step closer to our goal of dignity and fairness for all workers across this state.”

Clearly, the end goal is not just the new regulations. These campaigns for domestic workers’ rights help change the way that all of us — including our legislators — think about the value of workers. The movement is part of a larger movement demanding that all workers be paid a living wage; receive paid sick days that are good for workers and public health; and have the right to paid family leave that is critical for workers and those who need their care.

There may continue to be setbacks — such as the Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris v. Quinn on June 30, which weakened the collective bargaining power of many domestic workers. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason for optimism. The heightened awareness among policymakers alone is a signal of progress, though it has to be sustained. My book advocates for more funding for community organizers who work hard to ensure that workers are aware of their rights and that new laws are enforced. Shining a light on emerging activism and its successes is also crucial.

The narrative of the economic collapse can indeed evolve into a better story – one in which the Great Recession eventually led to improved economic conditions for women and for all workers.