Bearing Witness and Calling for a Good Jobs Executive Order

Today, underpaid workers from federal buildings all across our nation’s capital are on strike, calling on President Obama to do more than raise their wages to $10.10 an hour.  The President’s Executive Order doing just that was signed in response to a half dozen strikes that the workers engaged in over the past year, raising their voices and bearing witness to violations of labor law happening on federal property.


 Low-wage federal contract workers strike at Union Station for a Good Executive Jobs order. They were joined by Interfaith Worker Justice, SEIU, NETWORK, Members of Congress, and other organizations.

People I have talked with about this have said “The workers have won, they got a raise.  Why should the President take more action to address their concerns?”

I urge them, and anyone else who believes that a $10.10 minimum wage is enough to support a family to walk a mile in the shoes of Karla Quezada.  Karla has worked for more than a decade prepping food, making sandwiches and working the cashier serving customers at the Ronald Reagan federal building in Washington DC.  A single mother, she has worked day-in and day-out, sometimes more than 70 hours per week, trying to support her family.

In a complaint with Department of Labor (DOL), Karla alleges that she is a victim of wage theft.  She says that Subway never paid her the overtime premium that she was due when she would work more than 40 hours in a week. According to the complaint, Karla went on strike to highlight the abuse of federal contract workers, and her employer cut her hours, hoping to force her to quit and find another job.  But Karla has other ideas and greater resolve.

She has continued to raise her voice, highlighting the fact that wage theft and other abuses are taking place in federal buildings.  Karla and her coworkers joined with other federal contract workers to file that complaint with the DOL about their stolen wages.  It’s been over a year since the first complaint was filed, and the workers have not yet gotten a response.

I’m reminded of this Bible passage in Romans 4:4 – “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.” Raising wages is a great first step, but it’s not enough.  We need to guarantee that workers like Karla are paid every single penny of the money they have earned. It’s the moral thing to do, the right thing to do.  I believe the American people agree. Our tax dollars should not go to companies that are violating not only moral imperatives, but also actual laws.

In fact, our contributions as taxpayers should help guarantee that the jobs our tax dollars create are good jobs that can support a family, not keep hard working people living in poverty.

President Obama can do more to help federal contract workers.  A recent report by the public policy organization Demos found that if the president where to take action on a Good Jobs Executive Order he could put 20 million Americans on a path towards the middle class.  Eight million workers and their families employed in jobs created by taxpayer dollars could stop relying on public assistance in order to make ends meet.


A Good Jobs Executive Order could give preference to those companies that pay a living wage and provide good benefits, follow the law, allow workers to collectively bargain and don’t overspend on CEO pay.

Why should taxpayers reward companies that exploit their workers who are our neighbors and friends?

Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faith leaders agree and are supporting these workers in their struggle for fairness and a real opportunity to achieve the American dream.  Our faith compels us to stand with them, because their struggle is just and it is our struggle as well. Karla and her coworkers are not doing this out of selfishness. Millions of workers that Karla has never met can benefit from the risks she and her coworkers are taking.  Although they don’t all know each other, they do share one thing:  Taxpayer dollars are being used to keep them in poverty.

The President can change that with the stroke of his pen.




Three Ways to Create Jobs and Lower Poverty

The market is not providing enough jobs. There are 9.5 million people without work; six million children are living with at least one unemployed parent. The jobs that are available are too often inadequate, with not enough hours and volatile schedules that make it exceedingly difficult to supplement with other income. Median family income has not risen appreciably in 20 years.

That’s why in my last piece I echoed a call to combine a guaranteed $4,800 credit for every child with a guaranteed $15,000/year job for every family. That combination would drop child poverty to below one percent. The economic case for the child credit is simple and powerful: child poverty is really expensive, and addressing it early saves a lot of money in the long run.

Can the same economic case be made for a guaranteed job? To do so, you’d have to find jobs that cost the public more by not paying people to do them than the proposed $15,000 annual salary. You’d also have to find jobs that you reasonably believe the market would not provide alone. Finally, you’d want to find enough jobs that you could actually move the needle on poverty and employment.

I can think of three areas of public job provision that should meet all three criteria.

Infrastructure jobs. Congress has once again artlessly avoided fixing our highway trust fund in a sustainable way. Spending on infrastructure has fallen steadily for fifty years, and our country has dangerously crumbling roads, bridges, levees, public transit, and airports.

A Brookings Institution brief estimates that the annual economic cost of poor infrastructure is more than $170 billion. Funding a national corps of infrastructure workers would meet criterion one: it’s costly not to. It also clearly meets criterion two: inadequate infrastructure spending is not exactly a new problem. If the market alone were going to create these needed jobs, it would have by now.

Does it meet the third criterion? The proposal calls for jobs that pay $15,000 a year. For several years—at least as we upgrade our infrastructure—$170 billion in economic savings would pay for 11 million new jobs at that salary.

Community health workers. As the US population ages, healthcare spending will consume an ever-greater share of national resources. A principal economic goal, then, should be to reduce the cost of per-person healthcare spending.

The Urban Institute recently published a case for Community Health Workers, which would do just that:

Community health workers help people improve their health, manage their illnesses, and obtain services in timely and appropriate ways. Community health workers are lay people with close ties to the communities they serve who readily win clients’ trust. Trained to have health knowledge and selected for “people skills,” they promote wellness and connect clients with medical and other services, especially disadvantaged clients.

These types of services represent one of the more promising ways to keep costs down by improving health and the value of care, according to the Urban Institute. In fact, there is growing evidence that Community Health Workers do just that, but they lack adequate funding: Medicare and Medicaid don’t pay for them and so far private insurers have not done so either.

Community health workers therefore meet all three criteria: they provide cost savings, the field is not growing organically, and in the coming decades there will be great demand for their services.

An army of “sous-teachers”. This op/ed by a public school teacher argues poignantly that, for teachers, “there is never enough”—never enough time, energy, resources:

As a teacher, you can see what a perfect job in your classroom would look like. You know all the assignments you should be giving. You know all the feedback you should be providing your students. You know all the individual crafting that should provide for each individual’s instruction. You know all the material you should be covering. You know all the ways in which, when the teachable moment emerges (unannounced as always), you can greet it with a smile and drop everything to make it grow and blossom.

A good teacher knows these things, the writer argues, but with 30 hours a week of planning and grading and mandatory lunch and recess duty and overcrowded classrooms and not enough money for school supplies…no teacher can actually reach that standard.

So, let’s pair every public school teacher with a sous-teacher. Sous-teachers will complete a training program that equips them to grade simple assignments and quizzes, make copies, manage the classroom, and supervise playtime, all while leaving teachers time and space to realize the goal of that “perfect” classroom.

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen as clear an evidence base on the cost-effectiveness of this third idea. But we know that investing in children’s early development leads to health benefits and increased productivity. Improving the richness and quality of our children’s classroom seems a promising route – and in the meantime we could create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

If we, the public, adopt a long-term mindset of investing in our own economy, children, and workers, then we will find a long list of ideas that meet the criteria outlined here. It’s a matter of moving away from our “fiscal cliff” version of emergency governing to a long-term vision—one that empowers workers and families and builds a sustainable economy.





What We’re Reading

Welcome back to our reading list, where we highlight the works of reporters and others who are “talking poverty” across America. It’s been an eventful week for low-income people and advocates. Rep. Paul Ryan released a new poverty plan that would likely slash the safety net, and Congress is set to vote on a Child Tax Credit reform that would push millions of children into poverty in order to expand benefits to higher income families. We’re reminded of how quality reporting plays a critical role in holding policymakers accountable.

Here are our top 5 picks this week:

Paul Ryan and His Poverty Prophet, by Charles M. Blow (New York Times)

But, make no mistake: “opportunity” is the new “block.” And, block grants to states don’t have a great track record where poor people are concerned. First, let’s set the stage: Some of the poorest states in the country consistently vote for Republican presidential candidates, have Republican governors and Republican control of the statehouses. Many of these are the same states that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would have extended health care to more low-income Americans. What could possibly go wrong?

After months of anticipation, Paul Ryan unveiled his new anti-poverty plan on Thursday. Blow reminds us to “look beyond the catchphrase dance” and analyze Ryan’s big reveal—a proposal to consolidate various safety net programs into “Opportunity Grants.” As Blow explains, Opportunity Grants are repackaged block grants, and this strategy mirrors 1996 welfare reform, which made low-income families worse off. Ultimately, Blow reminds us that behind the smoke and mirrors of carefully-crafted speeches is “a particular strand of tough-love, up-by-the-bootstraps, stop-helping-poor-folks-so-much-because-you’re-hurting-them thinking.”

We’re Arresting Poor Mothers for Our Own Failures, by Bryce Covert (The Nation)

Whose fault is it that these children were put in these situations to begin with? […] They were both mothers trying to hold down jobs to provide for their children while stuck swirling in a Catch-22. Can’t work or interview without childcare, but can’t afford childcare without a job that pays enough to cover the ever-increasing cost. Taylor and Harrell are both holding up their end of the deal: don’t rely on public assistance, go out and get work to provide for your children. Our country has reneged on its end of that deal: we’ll help you pay for someone to watch your children if you go to work.

Shanesha Taylor is a homeless mother arrested for leaving her kids in the car while she went on a job interview after her babysitter had cancelled. Debra Harrell was arrested for leaving her daughter to play alone in a park with a cellphone while she worked shifts at McDonald’s. According to Covert, Taylor and Harrell’s heartbreaking stories are a symptom of massive social policy failure. In the 1996 welfare reform process, President Clinton promised to protect necessary family supports like subsidized childcare. Covert presents some truly jarring data, such as how childcare spending has plummeted, to prove how “we broke that promise.”

The New Face of Hunger, by Tracie McMillan (National Geographic Magazine)

To witness hunger in America today is to enter a twilight zone where refrigerators are so frequently bare of all but mustard and ketchup that it provokes no remark, inspires no embarrassment. Here dinners are cooked using macaroni-and-cheese mixes and other processed ingredients from food pantries, and fresh fruits and vegetables are eaten only in the first days after the SNAP payment arrives.

McMillan provides an eloquent overview of modern American hunger.  Not only has the hunger evolved, but it’s grown fivefold since the 1960s and a staggering 57% since the late ‘90s.  Her piece is visually stunning with maps, infographics, and photo galleries that document hungry families in rural Iowa, suburban Texas, and urban New York. McMillan begins by asking us to picture what hunger looks like, and then details how many hungry families, like the Driers of Iowa, do not fit common stereotypes: they are “white, married, clothed, and housed, even a bit overweight.” McMillan asserts that the root issue is the widespread decline of living wage jobs.

When Poverty Makes You Sick, a Lawyer Can Be the Cure, by Tina Rosenberg (New York Times)

Being poor can make you sick. Where you work, the air you breathe, the state of your housing, what you eat, your levels of stress and your vulnerability to crime, injury and discrimination all affect your health. These social determinants of health lie outside the reach of doctors and nurses.

Mold, infestations, and overwhelming heat. In our worsening housing affordability crisis, many low-income families are forced to live in rental units that are poorly maintained and toxic to their health. Rosenberg details the rise of medical-legal partnerships to advocate for patients in poverty, as many now recognize the links between poverty and poor health. At last count, 231 medical-legal partnerships exist across the country, and these innovative models are producing real gains for both people in poverty and the hospitals themselves.

Fight Inequality – Schedule Fair Work Hours, by Eric Mar and Samantha Adame (SFGate)

Many retail workers aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, they’re living hour to hour, subject to erratic scheduling practices that make it impossible to set a budget, let alone schedule medical appointments or arrange for care for their loved ones, or even work a second job or upgrade their skills by going back to school. On top of their irregular and ever-changing schedules, workers find themselves kept on call, thrusting their lives even further into precarious situations.

Mar and Adame assert that simply raising wages is not enough to ensure that workers can make ends meet; we also must address the fact that roughly 8 million of us are forced to work irregular, part-time hours. Mar and Adame explain how irregular, part-time work exacerbates poverty, and highlight ongoing efforts in San Francisco to improve labor standards.



First Person

Anti-Poverty Leaders Respond to Rep. Paul Ryan believes that if we are to dramatically reduce poverty in the United States we will need a strong and diverse movement that is led by people who know poverty firsthand.

Yesterday, Representative Paul Ryan’s unveiling of his new proposal to address poverty offered the opportunity to gather responses from some of the people who might lead such a movement.

Here is what they had to say:
Tianna Gaines-Turner: About Work and People Receiving Public Assistance
Tom Colicchio: ‘Opportunity Grants’ Will Make Hunger Worse
Laffon Brelland, Jr.: ‘My Family Does Not Struggle Because We Lack Work Ethic’
Melissa Boteach: Ryan’s Case Against Himself
Peter Edelman: Compassionate Conservatism Rides Again
Anne Ford: Put Energy into Raising Wages
Deepak Bhargava: Ryan’s Poverty Plan Equals More Attacks on the Poor
Dr. Mariana Chilton: Not a Serious Dialogue

Tianna Gaines-Turner: About Work and People Receiving Public Assistance

Earlier this month, I had the honor of testifying at one of the War on Poverty hearings. I testified as a member of Witnesses to Hunger, and as a representative for millions of Americans like me who are struggling with poverty. I had hoped that by sharing my story, and my ideas for change, Congressman Paul Ryan would have released a poverty plan that listened a little more closely to my recommendations.

I do appreciate some of what he said in yesterday’s event at the American Enterprise Institute. I’m glad he recognizes that the government has an obligation to expand opportunities in America. Many of his ideas are good. Increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit would help a lot of struggling Americans—although paying for it by eliminating the Social Services Block Grant wouldn’t—and results-driven research is an important part of understanding what works and what doesn’t.

I did not appreciate Mr. Ryan’s comments about work and people on public assistance. He started out by saying that today’s Americans are working harder than ever before, but aren’t getting ahead. This I agree with. My husband and I both work part-time jobs, but we still struggle to make ends meet. Millions of Americans face similar situations as my husband and me.

But Mr. Ryan went on to explain that he wants to incorporate work into the safety net, like they did with welfare reform in 1996. I do not think this is a good idea. I stressed this during my testimony in front of the House Budget Committee. I explained that families are working. We don’t need to be placed in more work programs, we need our jobs to pay living wages, and to offer family-oriented policies like paid sick and paid family leave. This way, we can earn more, save money, and create our own safety net so that we never have to turn to the government for help again.

I am happy that Congressman Ryan ended his speech by encouraging people to send him constructive criticism, and more recommendations for him to consider when developing this poverty plan. He can be sure that I will be writing to him with more of my ideas, and more recommendations from my Witnesses to Hunger brothers and sisters.

Tianna Gaines-Turner is a member of Witnesses to Hunger, a program hosted by the Center for Hunger Free Communities at Drexel University featuring the voices and photography of parents and caregivers who have experienced hunger and poverty firsthand. She is a married mother of three children, and works with children at a local recreation facility in Northeast Philadelphia. 

Tom Colicchio: ‘Opportunity Grants’ Will Make Hunger Worse

When Congressman Paul Ryan talks about consolidating means-tested programs like food stamps, child care, welfare and housing into a single grant, he’s talking about a block grant.  And that’s something we already know all too much about.

The TANF block grant created in 1996 made cash assistance much harder to obtain.  In 1996, about 68 percent of families with children living in poverty were able to get TANF cash assistance.  Now about 25 percent can get it.  Plus, the block grant is still funded at 1996 levels so cash benefits have decreased dramatically in terms of their real purchasing power.

We can’t allow the same thing to happen with food assistance.

We already have a hunger crisis in this country.  Nearly 50 million people don’t necessarily know where there next meal is coming from.  It’s unacceptable in the wealthiest nation in the world, and it’s a crisis virtually unknown in other wealthy nations.

But hunger is also a problem we can solve—if we look honestly and critically at the policies that contribute to either making hunger worse, or to reducing it.

Lumping nutrition assistance in with other much needed assistance—like housing and childcare—would make hunger worse.  For one thing, it makes it much more difficult for our growing Food Movement to hold legislators accountable for their votes on food issues.  If they vote to cut the block grant is the money cut from food or housing? And if we leave it to the whims of states to decide how much nutrition assistance people can receive, or whether they can receive it at all—as with TANF—then how will we ever resolve as a nation to end hunger?

As I’ve written previously, it’s time we have a Food Movement that votes on a good fair food system for all.  That same movement needs to be vigilant and speak out against bad ideas that will make our food system worse.

That means speaking out in no uncertain terms against Congressman Ryan’s proposal.

Tom Colicchio is a Chef and food-activist.  You can follow him on Twitter @tomcolicchio.

Laffon Brelland, Jr.: ‘My Family Does Not Struggle Because We Lack Work Ethic’

Living in a single-parent household is tough. I grew up with my mother and two sisters, and although my mother always worked, we struggled to make ends meet. When the economy tanked, my mother lost her job. My older sister was in college, and even with the help from other outside family members and government assistance, we could not cover the cost of her education and all of our family’s other expenses.

I remember the day my mother looked me in the eye and said, “I’m going to be honest with you, son. With the way things are right now, I won’t be able to help you pay for college. What happens to you now is all on you.”

I took her advice and got to work. In addition to being a full-time high school honor student, I worked two low-wage jobs to help my family pay the bills. The years went on and things got harder at home. My family was always working. With my help, we were able to put my sister through college. I will be a sophomore at the University of South Carolina in the fall. But even with every able body in the house working, it is still a challenge every month to cover the bills.

My family does not struggle because we lack work ethic... My family struggles because of poverty wages

My family does not struggle because we lack work ethic, which Paul Ryan’s new plan implies is the underlying cause of poverty in America. My family struggles because of poverty wages, which Ryan’s plan does nothing to rectify. Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of the last time the federal minimum wage was raised. My family and I work tirelessly, but until employers are required to pay us enough to thrive, my families and thousands like ours will continue to scrape by.

Laffon Brelland, Jr. is a rising sophomore at the University of South Carolina, double-majoring in English and Spanish. He is a Junior Writing Fellow at the Center for Community Change.

Melissa Boteach: Ryan’s Case Against Himself

Yesterday, Rep. Ryan proposed a plan that would eliminate a program that consolidates multiple antipoverty programs into a single grant to states in the name of providing greater flexibility. Yep, you read that right.

While the press coverage has focused on Rep. Ryan’s “new” idea of consolidating multiple programs into a single “Opportunity Grant,” most of the coverage missed the fact that he proposed to pay for part of his plan by eliminating the Social Service Block Grant (SSBG).

The SSBG is a capped, flexible stream of funding to states that funds services such as adoption, childcare, counseling, child abuse prevention, community-based care for seniors and people with disabilities, and employment services. Last year it helped approximately 23 million people, about half of them children. The program dates back to 1981, when a series of social services were consolidated into this single grant, and since then, many nonprofits have been funded by it to provide services like case management. Sounds a lot like Rep. Ryan’s “Opportunity Grant”, right?

Unfortunately, while SSBG provides states with enormous flexibility, over time it lost a lot of political capital. Politicians began to complain that it was duplicative of other programs. Policymakers could cut it time and again without having to cite any specific consequences since the money was “flexible.”  Over time, it has lost 77 percent of its value due to inflation, cuts, and funding freezes, and in recent years, there have been attempts to eliminate it altogether.  This is surely predictive of Rep. Ryan’s new proposal.

Which brings me back to the “Opportunity Grants.”  Right now, Rep. Ryan is claiming that his plan is completely deficit neutral, and states would not lose any money.

Yet, in a cautionary tale, calls for elimination of SSBG have been supported by none other than Rep. Ryan, who out of the other side of his mouth is proposing an eerily similar idea: to consolidate, in the name of flexibility, major funding streams that currently help low-income families. In fact, Rep. Ryan proposes eliminating the Social Service Block Grant altogether to pay for his proposed EITC expansion for childless workers. In an ironic twist that he seems to miss, he claims that SSBG is “ineffective.”

Thank you, Paul Ryan, for illustrating more clearly than anyone else possibly could why your proposal is so dangerous.

Melissa Boteach is the Vice President of the Poverty to Prosperity Program and Half in Ten Education Fund at the Center for American Progress.  You can follow her on Twitter @mboteach.

Peter Edelman: Compassionate Conservatism Rides Again

Paul Ryan has a new suit of clothes, but inside he’s still just Paul Ryan.  In fact the suit of clothes is made of porcupine quills—take a close look and it’ll poke you in the eye.  He’s now seeming sweet and sympathetic in wanting to do something about poverty, but what he’s proposing is mainly a shell game—now you see it, now you don’t.

Never mind that his budgets for the past four years—which would have cut $5 trillion dollars over 10 years, with 69 percent of the cuts coming in programs for low- and moderate-income people—are still on the table.  The latest Paul Ryan says he will turn well over $100 billion in federal programs into block grants once his state demonstrations prove successful.  And he says he won’t cut any of the programs in his block grant.  Will the real Paul Ryan please stand up?

We tried compassionate conservatism. It wasn't there then—and there still isn’t.

Of course, the new and improved version of his proposals is still pretty lousy.  Block grant food stamps?  Terrible idea.  I guess he thinks it’s fine for Mississippi to say that the definition of hunger there isn’t the same as it is in Minnesota.  Make housing compete with child care by putting them both in the same block grant?  Why?  What we need is more investment in both.

Block grants are not the friend of low-income people.  TANF, among other issues, is receiving the same $16.6 billion appropriation now as it had in 1996.  The Social Services Block Grant received $2.5 billion when it was enacted in the early 70s and is now getting $1.7 billion.   I guess there’s no reference to inflation in Paul Ryan’s instruction manual.

It’s time to get real.  There are two huge problems (and lots of smaller ones) that are making it difficult to reduce poverty right now.  One is the flood of low-work in our country—which results in 106 million people with incomes below twice the poverty line, below $39,000 for a family of three.  What does Paul Ryan propose to do about that?  Nothing. The other is the huge hole in our national safety net for the poorest among us—6 million people whose total income is from food stamps, which by itself is less than about $7,000 annually for a family of three.  Paul Ryan has a proposal there—put TANF, which is already almost nonexistent in most of the country, into a block grant along with food stamps, housing, child care, and God knows what else.  How does he think that will go?

We tried compassionate conservatism.  There was no there there then—and there still isn’t.

Peter Edelman is a Professor of Law at the Georgetown Law Center, and the Faculty Director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Anne Ford: Put Energy into Raising Wages

I’ve been a nurse for more than 30 years. I worked at DC General for 17 years and as a home health nurse for 10 years before a back surgery left me unable to care for adults. So, I switched to working with children. I’ve worked in children’s hospitals and as a school nurse and I loved it. But when I lost my job of five years, I also lost a $2,000 per month paycheck – resources I needed to care for myself and pay for my mortgage, car loan, insurance, and other bills.

When I was finally able to enroll in food stamps and unemployment insurance, I received $700 per month and had to rely on my daughter’s help to make ends meet. Thankfully, I also received Medicaid, which covered my doctor’s appointments, medications, and follow-up care from my surgery. Without that care I wouldn’t have been able to leave my house. I really relied on these three benefits to survive until things could get better, same as a lot of people I met in lines, filling out forms alongside me.

With his new proposal, I can see that Paul Ryan doesn’t care about us. If he did, why would he want to make getting help harder? If he had asked any person in my situation what kind of help they needed, he never would have come up with this plan. He’s never, not for one day, walked in our shoes.

Paul Ryan and I are both Christians, and I encourage him to pray on his new plan. What he’s doing is not godly. Through my church, I volunteer at So Others Might Eat (SOME), an organization that helps people who can’t make ends meet access food, clothing, and healthcare. If Rep. Ryan’s plan goes through, the number of people needing to reach out to organizations like this will only increase, and these organizations can’t meet that kind of increased demand.

If Paul Ryan really wanted to help he should have proposed creating something, not messing up programs like food stamps that are already working well.  He should have proposed to create jobs, or increase the supply of affordable housing. He should have put his energy into raising the wages at all these jobs that don’t pay enough to survive. The truth is if you don’t have a job that pays more than the cost of living, you can’t afford the necessities to live. And that’s how we ended up with all these people with nowhere to live who are fighting every minute to put food in their stomachs.

I depend on food stamps, Medicaid and unemployment insurance, but it still isn’t enough to make ends meet. But, for myself, I’m hopeful. Just this Wednesday, I accepted a full-time job as a school nurse without even asking the salary. For all those people out there who are still looking for jobs, what Paul Ryan wants to do makes me scared.

Anne Ford is a school nurse in Washington, DC.

Deepak Bhargava: Ryan’s Poverty Plan Equals More Attacks on the Poor

For those of us who wish our nation’s leaders would pay more attention to the 106 million people living on the brink in this country, Paul Ryan’s new plan to address poverty is so bad it might make us think, “Careful what you wish for.”

Rep. Ryan’s plan adopts the conventional Republican analysis that individual failure and insufficient effort is the main driver of poverty, and then revives as the solution the bankrupt block grant proposals that have failed in the past.

Let’s be clear—the premise of Ryan’s argument is wrong.  The evidence of our own history and from around the world shows that we can—through concerted government action—make a big difference in reducing poverty.  The positive effect of better labor market standards and government supports is undeniable, in the U.S. and around the world.

So what would a serious effort to reduce poverty look like? We could reduce poverty in the U.S. by 80 percent by taking three simple steps:

First, we need to raise wages so that workers earn a living wage. The minimum wage must be increased to catch up with productivity growth, and workers must have the right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages.

Second, we need to eliminate racial and gender inequality in the labor market. Poverty isn’t just an economic issue; it’s a women’s rights and racial justice issue. A paycheck should be equal to the amount of work you produce, not be based on the color of your skin or your gender.

Finally, we need full employment. We need to invest in key sectors of the economy—from the green economy to infrastructure—so that we can create millions of jobs.

This strategy would reduce poverty in America by 80 percent because it would improve access to what people living in poverty really need: quality jobs that pay a decent wage. Paul Ryan’s plan, in contrast, would give people living in poverty more of what they absolutely don’t need: blame that reinforces the conditions that keep people poor.  It would also lead to more hardship by further weakening our already frayed safety net.

Deepak Bhargava is the executive director of the Center for Community Change which you can follow on Twitter @communitychange.

Dr. Mariana Chilton: Not a Serious Dialogue

It may be surprising to hear this, but Representative Paul Ryan is actually speaking my language.

He says he is interested in developing opportunity and choice for people, and that people need careers, not just “jobs.”  He also said, loud and clear, we need to get rid of the federal red tape.   In my state, the need to collect documentation of work participation hours creates such a gnarly cluster of inefficient busy-work and red tape that it sucks the creativity and life out of entire communities.

When Rep. Ryan said “too many families in America are working harder and harder yet falling further behind,” I perked up, thinking—Right! Their wages have deteriorated. We should raise wages to a living wage.  But discussion of wages was a glaring omission in his speech.

Another worrying thing—his talk of turning programs over to the states. There’s no good precedent for that.  Consider Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which Rep. Ryan consistently holds up as a model for reform: that’s the birthplace of federal and state red tape.  Additionally, what we see on the ground with TANF is often punitive, and downright mean. Here’s an example in Pennsylvania: at a County Assistance Office, people waiting to speak to “career development workers” are actually forced to sit facing the wall with their backs to the case managers. This is dehumanizing and humiliating.

Unfortunately, that dehumanizing treatment of America’s families is what I see when I hear that Rep. Ryan is listening to his “mentors”—people who say such thoughtless, non-Christian things as “there is a deserving and undeserving poor.” Last I checked, there is no spiritual tradition, nor any political tradition, that says some people deserve to be hungry (read: poor).  Since Paul Ryan comes from a state that has the highest rates of racial disparities in wealth and in health, everything he says should be held up to our public accountability meter that measures for transparency, fairness and basic humanity.

As I was listening to Rep. Ryan, I almost started thinking I could actually work with him, and that I could join the dialogue. After all, he’s the only leader recently who has shown a public attempt to make fixing poverty a focus of their leadership. But when I saw all the men (read: no women) joining him on the discussion panel at the American Enterprise Institute after his speech, I laughed out loud.  Until Rep. Ryan starts including women—especially women of color, African American, Latina, American Indian, Asian and more—none of us can take this “dialogue” seriously.




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.