Media and Politics

Reverse Robin Hood: Conservatives Take Child Tax Credit from Families on the Brink, Give to the Rich

This week, the House is set to vote on a bill that would systematically gut the Child Tax Credit (CTC) as we currently know it. We’ve seen conservatives offer this bill many times before.  In a reverse Robin Hood maneuver, they would take away CTC benefits from low-income families in order to expand them for wealthy families in the future—families with incomes as high as $205,000.

In 1998, Congress passed the CTC with the aim of bringing children in low-income families out of poverty. Depending on a family’s income, the CTC provides a tax credit of up to $1,000 per child; the credit increases as a family’s income rises, with higher-income families receiving a larger credit.  The CTC has successfully achieved its goal: in 2012, the program lifted more than 3 million Americans out of poverty.

Currently, immigrant parents of US citizen children are able to receive a Child Tax Credit by filing with an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). The IRS created the ITIN in 1996 so that immigrants who are not eligible for Social Security numbers would be able to file taxes. In practice, many ITIN filers are undocumented immigrants who are living and working in the United States.

House conservatives are attempting to punish US citizen children whose parents don’t have a Social Security card.

These workers contribute much needed revenue.  In 2010, undocumented workers contributed $13 billion in payroll taxes.  In recent years, more than 3 million immigrants have filed taxes using an ITIN, contributing nearly $1 billion in income taxes. This system has clearly allowed immigrants without Social Security numbers to come forward and strengthen the coffers of the US while receiving needed assistance for their children.

So how would things change if conservatives had things go their way with this bill?  The short answer: 4 million US citizen children would be at risk of falling into poverty.

By requiring that all taxpayers use a Social Security number when claiming the Child Tax Credit, this bill would strip immigrant parents of US citizen children of their right to receive the credit. Currently, over 2 million people use an ITIN to file for the CTC, therefore 4 million US born children would be deprived of this crucial financial assistance.

This would be a devastating blow to these families.  In recent years, the average family income of ITIN filers claiming the CTC was just over $21,200, and their average refund through the CTC was $1,800.  As the annual cost of raising a child in the US steadily increases, and real wages grow sluggishly, low-income families need the CTC more than ever.  Eliminating the ability for immigrants to claim it on behalf of their children would simply push millions of Americans into poverty and create greater costs to our country now and in the future.

Adding insult to injury, the conservative bill comes after a year of inaction in the House on immigration reform.  By failing to pass immigration reform, House conservatives denied immigrants the ability to get right with the law and obtain a Social Security card. Now they are attempting to punish US citizen children whose parents don’t have a Social Security card.

Eliminating the CTC for those who file and pay taxes under the ITIN would take food off the table and clothes off the backs of US citizen children. Unfortunately, and to the shock of no one, yet another bill is targeting some of the most vulnerable Americans in an attempt to help the already fortunate few.

 

 

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Labor

Raising the Minimum Wage: Get Local

Last month, The White House and the Department of Labor announced a new federal contracting rule that would help tackle income inequality by raising the minimum wage for contract employees. According to the Center for American Progress, 80 percent of the 5.4 million people working for federal service contractors in 2008 were earning less than a living wage for their city or region.

Raising the wage of federal employees and contract workers is a great step towards setting a wage floor for the entire nation. Governments are the largest employer in America, so when the feds pay their workers better, other sectors have to do the same in order to compete.

But there is much more that can be done to achieve a living wage, particularly at the local level.

According to the US Census Bureau, there are 19,492 municipal governments, 3,033 county governments, and 14,561 school districts in the United States.  Each one of them provides services to their constituents through the labor of millions of workers.  The public agencies that employ these workers represent an enormous amount of purchasing power.  Cities, counties and school district can follow the lead of President Obama and reform their procurement processes in order to raise wages for their workers.

Employees in positions that are traditionally public service jobs are particularly vulnerable to wage reductions when their positions are outsourced. For example, in New Jersey, K-12 school food service workers had their wages cut an average of $4 to 6 per hour—and many of their health insurance benefits wiped out—when their jobs were outsourced to companies like Aramark, Sodexo and Compass. At the time of the study, food service companies had among the highest levels of employees and their children enrolled in the New Jersey FamilyCare program, driving up poverty and likely costing taxpayers far more than any savings realized through privatization.

Similarly, Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) outsources 47% of its fixed-route bus service to Veolia and First Transit. The general manager of the RTD admits that the cost savings from the outsourced service are largely due to cuts in employee compensation. The starting pay for bus drivers employed by RTD is $15.49 per hour, compared to $12.25 for drivers with private contractors.

And In December 2009, Milwaukee County outsourced nearly 90 janitors responsible for cleaning public buildings. Working for the county, these employees earned between $13.95 and $15.75 per hour plus benefits. When the service was outsourced, the contractor paid $8.00 per hour with no benefits. With families to support, many of the workers—who had more than 10 years of experience with Milwaukee County—couldn’t afford to take the degraded jobs.

Cities can enact legislation that requires contractors to pay their employees a living wage and provide reasonable benefits. Many cities have already passed “living wage ordinances” and more should follow their lead. And while these laws are a good first step, it should also be noted that the mandated wage levels too often fall short of what would truly be a family-sustaining wage.

Some public agencies are beginning to set new standards. For example, this month the Los Angeles Unified School District raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour for its service workers who keep the schools clean, safe and operating. Service Employees International Union Local 99 advocated for the new contract—which received unanimous support from the school board and was strongly supported by the district’s Superintendent. The contract is an example of how management, public service employees and elected leaders can come together to find a solution that pays a living wage and benefits everyone.

Raising the wage floor for everyone who works for the federal, state, or local government—or for an employer that benefits from government contracts—would increase the minimum wage for the majority of American workers. Other employers would also have to raise wages to compete for talent in the labor market.

In an era of rising income and wealth inequality, these are concrete steps our elected leaders can take to make communities more equitable and our families more financially secure.

 

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Safety Net

In Our Backyard: Responding to the Affordable Housing Crisis

inourbackyard

Low- and moderate-income people across the country are facing a rental affordability crisis. TalkPoverty’s backyard in Washington, D.C. is no exception.

Over the past decade, low-income D.C. residents have been crushed under the burden of skyrocketing rents, stagnant incomes, and a loss of half of all low-cost rental units. The loss of affordable housing is counterproductive because preserving old units is less expensive than building new ones. Due to the lack of affordable housing, almost two-thirds of low-income households in D.C. pay 50% of their incomes toward rent, which is double the amount recommended by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Homelessness in D.C. is rising as a result of this crisis. The city’s total homeless population increased 13% since last year, and family homelessness has risen 50% since 2010. The rise of homelessness is expected to cost the District tens of millions of dollars—costs which could have been partially averted by a stronger commitment to preserving affordable housing.

But numbers alone can’t tell this story. They can’t illustrate the emotional harm homeless families have suffered while living in shelters with no privacy, few showers, and the lights on at night. They can’t show the frustration many employed homeless people feel when they work and work but still can’t afford the city’s high rents.

The rise in the homeless population was avoidable. D.C. already has an effective public financing tool at its disposal to preserve affordable units. The city’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) requires that the landlord give tenants the right to purchase the property before it is sold. This tool is supported by the unique D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) First Right Purchase Program, which provides low-income tenants with public financing so that they can exercise their TOPA rights and purchase their buildings. The program empowers low-income tenants because many cannot access private loans or afford private financing payments. While other communities may have tenant right to purchase laws, it is rare that tenants are provided public financing to exercise those rights.

When funded, the First Right Purchase Program is highly effective. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found that the program—funded largely by Community Development Block Grants and a Housing Production Trust Fund—has helped preserve nearly 1,400 units of affordable housing over the past decade. However, due to cuts in these funding sources, preservation fell from 292 units in 2008, to only 35 units in 2012, and 28 units in 2013. It is hardly a coincidence that homelessness spiked at a time when the city and the federal government dedicated few resources to preserving affordable housing.

Low-income residents of Columbia Heights—one of D.C.’s most diverse neighborhoods—are experiencing the lack of affordable housing firsthand. However, through TOPA, many are fighting back, allying with community-based organizations and mobilizing to protect and expand affordable housing in the area.

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The Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development held a walking tour on “Keeping Columbia Heights Affordable.” The tour visited several sites in where affordable housing had been successfully preserved or built. Photo by Aimee Custis for Coalition for Smarter Growth.

At the St. Dennis Apartments, a management company tried to force out long-term residents so that the affordable units could be converted to lucrative luxury condos. The company bought out a number of long-term residents and intimidated others into moving out. However, one family of three refused to leave the building.  For a long time, the only sign of life in the St. Dennis building was the light in the family’s window.

in our backyard

A photo of the St. Dennis Apartments, which provides affordable housing for individuals living below 60% of the area median income. Residents successfully fended off efforts to convert the building into luxury condos.

In many other areas of the country, a low-income family would have few options to prevent the sale and conversion of their building. However, by working with the NHT Enterprise Preservation Corporation & National Housing Trust as well as the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, the family was able to form a tenant association, secure financing, and purchase the building the day before their TOPA rights expired. As a result, a valuable building was preserved as affordable housing.

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Yesenia Rivera of the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) (left) and Ruth Chavez (right), who serves as Secretary of a tenant association for the 3115 Mt. Pleasant St. building, discuss their desire to use TOPA rights and the DC First Right Purchase Program to purchase and preserve the building as a cooperative for low-income residents. D.C. has a system where organizations like LEDC are contracted by the city to assist low-income tenants in organizing themselves. Photo by Aimee Custis for Coalition for Smarter Growth.

In D.C., we’ve seen that TOPA and an adequately funded First Right Purchase Program can effectively preserve affordable housing for low-income people. But due to Congressional gridlock, it is highly unlikely that there will be any additional federal funds for affordable housing programs. That makes it all the more critical that the D.C. government continue its recently strong commitment to funding its Housing Production Trust Fund.

The issue of a shortage in affordable housing is hardly limited to the nation’s capital.  Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan has said that, “We are in the midst of the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has known.” The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, supported by a well-funded First Right Purchase Program, provides a model for one way communities can respond to this crisis.

 

 

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Media and Politics

What We’re Reading this Week

Is it Friday already? Welcome back to “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.

Check out our top reads of the week:

Three Steps We Can Take to Solve Poverty, From Someone Who Knows Firsthand, by Tianna Gaines-Turner (Moyers & Company)

When my son was sick, I had to stay at the hospital with him, so I couldn’t go to work; my husband had to stay home with our twin babies, so he couldn’t work. Here’s the problem: neither of us had paid sick leave, so we lost hours on the job, and we lost pay, too. The result was we could not afford to pay our rent on time, nor our light bill. From there, we became homeless.

As to be expected, Paul Ryan’s most recent War on Poverty hearing included stale, demeaning rhetoric from some members of Congress about poverty. For instance, according to Representative Tom Rice of South Carolina, “the only way out of poverty is to be self-reliant and find yourself a job.” Lucky for the American people, we had a game-changer: Tiana Gaines-Turner, the first person actually living in poverty to testify. This week, our first-must read comes from Ms. Gaines-Turner, who published a list of policy recommendations to alleviate poverty that she had included in her testimony. As Gaines-Turner states, “It’s time to call in the experts. My family, my neighbors and people like me know the solutions.” We couldn’t agree more.  Her recommendations are comprehensive and strikingly commonsense, because they are informed by real experiences.

Want to hear more from Ms. Gaines-Turner about her experience testifying before the House of Representatives? Check out her interview with Melissa Harris Perry on MSNBC:

 

It is Illegal for Homeless People to Sit on the Sidewalk in More than Half of U.S. Cities, by Scott Keyes (ThinkProgress)

Criminalization is an ineffective approach for the simple fact that it does “nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness.” These laws do not provide housing to poor people, or help alcoholics with their disease, or provide childcare to struggling parents. They simply trap homeless people in a cycle that criminalizes their very existence.

In 9% of U.S. cities, it is against the law to share your food with a homeless person. Yes, you read that correctly. This is just one of many kinds of anti-homeless ordinances that have been cropping up across the United States in recent years. Keynes presents data from a recent National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty study that found sharp increases in laws criminalizing homelessness since 2009. These measures are not just cruel; they’re lousy policy. Keynes explains that tax payers spend millions of dollars each year to jail homeless men and women for “quality-of-life” offenses. As it turns out, this policy approach is three times more expensive than an alternative that actually addresses the root issue: giving the homeless a place to live.

Obama Should Set His Sights Higher, by Katrina vanden Heuvel (The Washington Post)

The U.S. government is the largest employer of low-wage workers in the nation, with the $1.3 trillion it spends on purchasing goods and services. The president, standing in the proud tradition of Roosevelt, could issue a Good Jobs Executive Order that would reward companies who pay their workers a living wage, allow them a voice at the workplace without having to go on strike, adhere to federal workplace safety and fair labor standards and limit the pay of their chief executives to some reasonable ratio to that of their average workers.

How should President Obama react to Republican threats to sue over his use of executive orders? According to vanden Heuvel, he should “double down and raise the stakes” by enacting a Good Jobs Executive Order, which could put 21 million Americans on the road to the middle class through measures like living wages. Vanden Heuvel contextualizes the need for a Good Jobs Executive Order by linking the historical decline of unions to today’s staggering inequality. Of course, she recognizes that low-wage worker protections will not come without furious pushback from corporate and conservative forces. However, vanden Heuvel asserts, “well-paid, productive workers aren’t simply an idle luxury; they are a vital necessity to any prosperous economy.”

Should Housing Policy Support Renters More? The Opinion Pages: Room for Debate (New York Times)

In many of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, buying a home again looks like a risky investment, and in places like Boston, Miami and Washington prices have risen enough that buying is no longer the bargain it seemed to be a few years ago. That perhaps explains why the American public is now divided on whether homeownership is a good long-term investment, and a majority now see homeownership as less appealing than it once was. Should housing policy be more balanced, supporting rental housing and homeownership on a more equal footing?

Smart housing policy is essential to our goal of cutting poverty in half in the next decade. Only when we have a secure home, are we able to truly thrive and benefit from other poverty-reducing measures like quality jobs and schools. Because housing policy debates can get complicated, this week’s New York Times Opinion feature is helpful in unpacking the tough issues. It features op-eds from six housing policy experts, each weighing in on a key issue—the fact that American housing policies disproportionately benefit homeowners over renters. As former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros writes, “About two-thirds of [federal] spending subsidizes home ownership, while just one-third supports affordable rental housing.” Sure, homeownership may be viewed as part of the “American Dream,” but it’s not the reality for many of us, especially low-income families. These conversations are essential in a time of skyrocketing rents and rising inequality, as critical programs like Section 8 are on the chopping block.

One Storm Shy of Despair: A Climate-Smart Plan for the Administration to Help Low-Income Communities by Cathleen Kelly and Tracey Ross (Center for American Progress)

Only 6,800 people arrived at shelters, even though 375,000 New Yorkers—including 45,000 public housing residents—lived in the mandatory evacuation zone hit hard by the hurricane. Workers eventually discovered the nightmare lurking behind low shelter turnout. Many low-income elderly and disabled residents of New York City’s public housing complexes were stranded in their dark and cold apartments without heat, backup generators, emergency boilers, or working elevators, the latter preventing many of these residents from descending multiple flights of stairs. Others endured these conditions because they had no other affordable place to stay or no reasonable means of leaving their neighborhoods because mass transit was shut down, among other reasons. 

For many, Superstorm Sandy was a tragic reminder that climate change is indeed happening, and that its effects will be costly. President Obama recently announced a final task force meeting to help state, local, and tribal leaders prepare their communities for climate change. Kelly and Ross present a critical perspective that leaders and policymakers must keep in mind when planning for disaster: our most vulnerable citizens often face the greatest environmental hazards and risks, yet they have not been a strong focus of federal recovery efforts. Kelly and Ross cover key climate change-related risks for low-income communities, from extreme heat, to food insecurity, to deep poverty. We need to do better in the face of our changing climate, and these policy recommendations are a wise step.

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Safety Net

A Summer Vacation Free of Hunger

Do you remember what it felt like to be a kid on summer vacation? For a lot of young Americans, July and August means hanging out with friends, taking family trips, swimming wherever you can – maybe even going to camp, or curling up with a good book. But for millions of students across the country, those fun summer days are clouded by a painful reality that just won’t seem to go away: hunger.

During the school year, school districts around the country provide 22 million students with free or reduced-price school lunches. This essential nutrition service helps underprivileged kids to stay focused and competitive during the school day. But once school lets out for the year, only 1 in 7 of these children continues to receive free or reduced-price lunches in the summer. That leaves millions of kids in America hungry during lunchtime over their entire summer vacation. In New York, my home state, 1.7 million children receive free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year; in the summer, only 27 percent of them will get the nutrition they need.

We have to do better.

No child in America in 2014 should have to wake up every day wondering if he or she is going to have enough to eat before bedtime.

A problem of this proportion – millions of students going hungry during the summer because they don’t have access to a nutritious lunch – is unacceptable. This is a crisis we should all feel compelled to solve. I recently stood at the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Auburn, New York, and announced the introduction of the Summer Meals Act – a bipartisan bill that would enhance the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.

Our Summer Meals Act has four goals. First, the bill would expand which communities are eligible to participate in the Summer Food Service Program. Right now, to be eligible for summer meals, a community must have 50 percent of its children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year in order to receive meal assistance in the summer. Our bill would drop this to a much fairer 40 percent, opening up the Summer Food Service Program to many more communities.

Second, the Summer Meals Act would reduce red tape for public-private partnerships. Right now, it’s too burdensome for non-school organizations to supply much-needed meals to hungry children. Our bill would make it much easier for organizations like the local food bank or youth center to give kids the nutrition that they need.

Third, the Summer Meals Act would increase access to summer meals in hard-to-reach rural areas. Hunger is by no means just an urban problem; for many kids in underserved areas who don’t have access to healthy food, a formidable barrier is just getting to the summer meal site. Our bill would give kids new transportation options to reach their meal sites.

Fourth, the Summer Meals Act would lift the burden on hardworking parents who have to stay at their workplaces during dinnertime. Our bill would give kids the option of receiving two daily meals and a snack from the Summer Food Service Program, or even three meals, if they need them.

No child in America in 2014 should have to wake up every day wondering if he or she is going to have enough to eat before bedtime. The Summer Meals Act is a critically important bill that would seriously reduce child hunger in America. Every kid in America deserves a summer vacation that’s free of hunger.

 

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