In Our Backyard: Beyond Closing D.C. General, Time for Real Change


inourbackyardThe headline of an October 2007 press release read: ”Closure of D.C. Village Gives Way to Best Practices.”

D.C. Village, an emergency shelter for homeless families, had been widely criticized for “inhumane” conditions. In the press release, former Mayor Adrian Fenty said, ”One of our first major steps in changing the delivery of homeless services is the transformation of our family shelter system.”

The administrations of Mayor Fenty and his successor, Mayor Vincent Gray, both failed to live up to that promise. By 2010, flooded with more homeless families than the city has ever seen—in part due to a lack of affordable housing—District officials packed up to 200 families into the D.C. General emergency shelter which was designed to serve a maximum of 135 families.

History is now repeating itself. Residents have suffered insect bites that required hospitalization and have gone days without heat and hot water. In March, a D.C. General employee allegedly kidnapped eight-year-old Relisha Rudd from the shelter. She’s not been found.

This winter, a D.C. Superior Judge ordered the Gray Administration to stop housing homeless families on cots in the shelter on freezing nights. Dora Taylor, spokeswoman for Mayor Gray’s Department of Human Services (DHS) disagreed with the order. She said:

“Certainly we strive to provide the best possible environment for families as evidenced by the approximately 800 or more families that we have placed at our apartment style shelters, private rooms at the D.C. General Family Shelter and over 470 hotel rooms.”

Her reaction to the injunction reads more like a tourist’s travel review of the nation’s capital than an indictment of a system that humiliates and harms families with no other options.

How many administrations will be elected before the discussion shifts from “reforming” the system to actually changing it?

B.B. Otero, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, offered this take on the need for change at D.C. General: “Reforming the system is the only thing that can help families achieve self-sufficiency and lift themselves out of poverty, but it is not the stuff of newspaper exposés.”

Which brings us back to 2007 and the closure of D.C. Village: we heard this “reform” language back then and poor families have little to show for it. Expecting parents to “lift themselves out of poverty” while managing the chaos of their circumstances as well as a broken system ought to be unacceptable to everyone that calls D.C. home.  Any parent forced to choose the crumbling shell of what once was D.C. General Hospital over the streets must wonder—are they being punished for falling on hard times?  Broken windows and no guarantee of running water or heat ought to shame us all.

Yes, of course the system must be changed, and that begins with an end to the constant game of keep away between DHS, The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, D.C. City Council and the Mayor of the day—all of them refusing to address the issue in a substantive way. While homeless families live in horrible conditions, these groups and political leaders point fingers and avoid accountability at all costs. This needs to end. Appropriate funding is a start but money alone will not solve the problem. The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness received $13 million dollars to run D.C. General on behalf of the city, and look at the results.

How many administrations will be elected before the discussion shifts from “reforming” the system to actually changing it?  A new mayor and a new Council are on the horizon, but it is already business as usual with the mayoral campaigns. None of the candidates are talking substantively about how they would change this system that is an affront to basic human dignity.  Sound bites do not magically transform into action.  Candidates court wealthy donors, the business community, and developers, but exclude low-income families.

Candidates for mayor should sit down with families at D.C. General and commit to more than simply closing the shelter’s doors. Tell those agencies and individuals responsible for these conditions that the status quo will no longer guarantee their employment. Include families that are currently receiving services as equal partners in the creation of a planned response to the housing crisis in D.C.

Winter will be here before we know it, and unless we change the way we are doing things—make no mistake—some of our city’s most vulnerable children will be left out in the cold.






What We’re Reading

Welcome back to What We’re Reading, where we share 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.

I Tried to Live on the Minimum Wage for a Week, by Ted Strickland (Politico)

Washington is in a bubble that keeps our representatives away from the experiences of those they actually represent. We need to understand the challenges faced by Americans who are being left behind in our economy. That’s why I joined members of Congress and dozens of organizations in taking the Live the Wage challenge […] and asking those in Congress to actually try living on the minimum wage for a week before opposing an increase that would help millions of Americans who currently live in poverty.

Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland describes his past week participating in the Live the Wage Challenge, calling attention to the fact that it’s been 5 years since the federal minimum wage was last raised to $7.25/hour. Spoiler alert: $77 per week is not enough to live on. Strickland reminds us that a lot can change in five years, like gas prices. On average, it costs $13.20 more per week to fill the tank than it did in 2009, which makes a sizable dent in a minimum wage budget. As Strickland recounts his struggles—from skipping meals, to getting sick, to eventually running out of money—we can’t help but think that we’d see faster progress if more policymakers stepped up to the plate and “lived the wage.” Want to hear more about Strickland’s experience? Catch him on Hardball with Chris Matthews.

Why “Can’t Make Ends Meet” Trumps “Poverty,by Karin Kamp (Moyers & Company)

First, Americans who are struggling do not see themselves in abstract language like “the poor” or “poverty.” This is partly because such language is seen as quite pejorative in America. To be poor is to have failed in pursuit of the American Dream. In too many ways, people who are poor are reviled. The first thing we need to do is stop blaming people and start talking about their real lives. Second, we need to stop talking about the economy in ways that make it seem like the weather. The economy is a result of the rules we create and the choices we make.

What if anti-poverty advocates are using the wrong words? Kamp interviews Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change, which recently performed “the most robust scan available of attitudes toward poverty” by surveying 700 Americans living below 200% of the poverty line. The results? Many people living in poverty ignore political debates that impact their lives because they do not identify with the language used. Interestingly, many social movements gain power by uniting people around shared identities—from race, to gender identity, to sexual orientation. However, Bhargava explains, most people are not eager to claim the identity of being poor—for good reason. The key conclusion is that we need to move from nouns to verbs, meaning that describing families’ lived experience—from living paycheck to paycheck to working irregular hours—is much more empowering and mobilizing than calling them “low-income” or “poor”.

History Suggests Ryan Block Grant Would Be Susceptible to Cuts, by Richard Kogan (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

Ryan says that the block grant would maintain the same overall funding as the current programs.  But even if one thought that current-law funding levels were adequate, they likely wouldn’t be sustained over time under the Ryan proposal: history shows that block grants that consolidate a number of programs or may be used for a wide array of purposes typically shrink — often very substantially — over time.

Have you heard the expression, “don’t feed the trolls”? That’s what we fear we’re doing when we keep Rep. Paul Ryan’s recent poverty plan in the spotlight. As many experts in the poverty field have argued, it’s not a serious, evidence-driven attempt to address poverty. Instead, it’s largely a repackaging of old ideas—including block grants (which he now calls “Opportunity Grants”)—that have failed in the past. Still, it’s important to recognize how harmful consolidating 11 programs into a single block grant would be for low-income families. Therefore, this short-and-sweet Center on Budget and Policy Priorities post is a must-read. One look at Kogan’s table, titled “Most Major Low-Income Block Grants Have Shrunk Significantly over Time,” is enough to make anyone doubt the “opportunity” in Opportunity Grants.

U.S. Paid Family Leave Versus the Rest of the World, In Two Disturbing Charts, by Bryce Covert and Adam Peck (ThinkProgress)

In the United States, new parents aren’t guaranteed any paid time off. Instead, if they have worked for a certain amount of time at a company with 50 or more employees, they are guaranteed the ability to take 12 unpaid weeks off for the arrival of a new child. That leaves us in lonely company. Out of 185 countries, the United States is one of just three that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave, the others being Oman and Papua New Guinea. Over half of the countries that provide leave give at least 14 weeks off.

There is nothing a policy wonk enjoys more than a good infographic. Covert and Peck’s piece features two, illustrating how the United States is an extreme outlier on the world stage with regard to paid maternity and paternity leave policies.  Covert and Peck pair the graphics with shocking facts about the state of family leave across the country, and show how California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are leading the way towards progress.

To keep up with our reading list throughout the week, make sure to like TalkPoverty on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@TalkPoverty)! You can also sign up for our weekly emails on the homepage.



Something we can all get behind: Subsidized Jobs

“How can we get more low-income adults into jobs, so they can better support their families and move up the economic ladder? … One approach to achieving this goal is through supporting subsidized jobs.” – Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA)

This idea was a frequent refrain—repeated yesterday by Republicans and Democrats alike—at a hearing convened by Congressman Dave Reichert, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources.

As my colleague Rachel West put it in a column published yesterday:

“It is high time for Congress to re-examine the evidence on subsidized jobs… an effective tool for increasing economic security—and ensuring that those who have been left behind by the labor market have access to job opportunities.”

My appreciation for the power of subsidized jobs has its roots in North Philadelphia. Fresh out of law school in the Fall of 2009, I was a new attorney at Community Legal Services (CLS) and the Great Recession was in full swing. Nationally, unemployment was approaching 10 percent. In Philly, unemployment was nearly 11 percent—and fully a quarter of the city’s residents were living in poverty.

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka, the stimulus package), federal funding was made available for states to establish subsidized jobs programs. In partnership with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, we at CLS drafted a plan for what ultimately became Way to Work Pennsylvania—a statewide, subsidized jobs program that created 20,000 jobs for adults and youth around the Commonwealth.

While short-lived—the program ran from May 2010 through the funding’s expiration in September of that same year—Way to Work was by all accounts a great success. A partnership between Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry and the Department of Public Welfare, Way to Work connected low-income Pennsylvanians with private, nonprofit and public sector jobs paying up to $13 per hour. Per federal guidelines, priority populations for jobs placement included the long-term unemployed, low-income youth, welfare recipients, and people with criminal records (even people with minor records, such as a summary offense or an arrest without a conviction, can face significant barriers accessing jobs).

From the start, Way to Work was a win for both struggling Pennsylvanians and employers. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on small businesses that were able to expand by taking on Way to Work employees, alongside profiles of people like Barbie Izquierdo, a mother of two who had been been out of work for more than a year before getting a subsidized job at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.  Izquierdo then obtained a permanent position with the organization when one opened up. “This job has given me stability,” she told the Inquirer. “I’m living proof that Way to Work works.”

In all, 39 states and Washington, D.C. launched programs, using $1.3 billion in federal funding to place some 260,000 workers into subsidized jobs—which comes to $5000 per worker.  If you think the numbers are compelling, watch the personal testimonials of workers and employers who benefited from Pennsylvania’s program.

But the clock was ticking. The federal funds were set to expire at the end of September 2010. Workers and employers banded together and lobbied Congress to extend the deadline so that the programs could continue. Governors of red and blue states alike—including then-Governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour (R)—joined the chorus calling for the funding to be extended. In Pennsylvania, people felt so strongly about Way to Work, that a large group—including several employers—hopped a bus down to Washington in the July heat to tell members of Congress what Way to Work meant to them.

Despite bipartisan support, reauthorization of the federal funding failed to advance when the Senate couldn’t muster 60 votes, and the funds expired on schedule. Most states scaled down their programs as the funding dried up.

But as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Center on Law and Social Policy point out, the legacy of these programs is a blueprint for how subsidized jobs can serve as an effective tool for boosting economic security and mobility.

As West notes, subsidized jobs do not lessen the need to raise the minimum wage and pursue job creation, but:

“…when job opportunities remain elusive for whole groups of workers—even as economic conditions improve—these workers are denied the chance to protect their families from poverty and hardship, and chart a path to the middle class. As Congress evaluates the evidence on subsidized jobs programs, our lawmakers should consider subsidized jobs as an important strategy to increase economic mobility for those workers who need to get a foot in the door.”

Let’s hope Congress takes a serious look at an idea backed by something so rare it is now considered an anomaly: strong bipartisan support.





A Historic Executive Order for Good Jobs

Today is a great day for American workers.

President Obama will sign an executive order that in essence demands that companies clean up their acts and comply with labor laws if they are to receive federal contracts.  Now they will have to disclose any past violations of wage and safety laws, and other worker protections such as the right to not be discriminated against because of race or gender, and companies with a track record of violating workplace laws will no longer receive the federal contracts they have come to expect.

To put this change in perspective: the United States federal government is the largest purchaser of goods and services in the world, spending $500 billion a year on government contracts.  More than one in five workers are employed by a company that contracts with the federal government.  Further, reforms that are initially limited to contractors – such as when President Johnson signed an executive order banning gender and racial discrimination – often later expand to the broader workplace.

Responsible contracting reforms will put millions of dollars into workers pockets, reduce workplace discrimination, and increase safety.

In short, the executive order that will be signed today will have a significant impact on the lives of American workers.

Unfortunately, our current system for reviewing a contractor’s history of workplace safety and wage violations is inadequate and has allowed those with poor records to continue to receive government contracts.  In fact, according to a recent report by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), companies that currently receive government contracts comprise one-third of the top offenders of workplace safety and wage laws.  From 2007 to 2012, wage theft by federal contractors amounted to $82 million in back wages for workers – hardly insignificant, especially for low-wage workers whose families are living on the brink.  During the same five-year period, 42 workers employed by companies with government contracts died due to workplace safety violations. Responsible contracting reforms will put millions of dollars into workers pockets, reduce workplace discrimination, and increase safety.

This executive order will be good for America’s taxpayers.  Contracting with companies that have egregious records of workplace violations – companies that are bad actors – frequently wastes taxpayer dollars and results in low-quality services to the government. According to a report by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, between 2005 and 2009, one-fourth of all government contractors that had the worst workplace safety records also had performance issues ranging from cost overruns to development delays to outright fraud.

This executive order will move the nation towards rewarding businesses that want to do right by their workers and taxpayers. Law-abiding businesses will celebrate this change.  They will no longer be placed at a competitive disadvantage with companies that reduce costs by paying lower wages than those required by law and by cutting corners on workplace safety.

All too often, the federal government has contracted with companies based on their ability to provide low-cost services – no matter what they are doing in the workplace.  President Obama’s action today will be a game changer – it will help ensure that companies follow the law, and that good companies are rewarded while bad actors are held accountable.

Perhaps most importantly, today’s action will improve the workplace as well as the pay for millions of workers who are struggling to get by – workers whose needs and rights have too often been on the periphery when it comes to awarding lucrative federal contracts.

With this executive order, those days are over, and that’s something worth celebrating.




The Three False Premises of the Ryan Poverty Plan

Paul Ryan has received a lot of attention for his recent poverty proposals. One wonders why, given that he has demonstrated time and again that he’s either unaware of the research on the topic, doesn’t understand it, or is intentionally misrepresenting it. In any case, he should be ignored.

But he’s Chair of the House Budget Committee, a leader within his party, and, whatever poverty scholars and more serious analysts might wish, he will still set many of the terms of the poverty policy debate in DC. He should be ignored, but he probably can’t be.

So what’s so bad about Paul Ryan’s thinking about poverty?

First, there’s nothing new in it. He offers block grants, cuts to programs, new work requirements, school vouchers, regulatory repeal, more money to faith-based initiatives, and privatizing social services, presenting us with little more than fresh marketing for tired ideas that — when tried in the past — made people’s lives worse, not better. Even the proposals that might seem promising are badly designed — like his way of expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit.  With the possible exception of his proposals to reduce some mandatory minimum sentences — which advocates of all stripes have been agitating for for decades — it’s old wine in old bottles.  Why should we treat it as newsworthy or innovative?

There’s a deeper problem with Ryan’s approach beyond the details of his proposal.  The foundation itself is rotten: the project is built upon three fatal, false premises.

The first assumption is that poverty is a complex problem — that we don’t know what works to reduce it, and that we need more data and more research.

This is wrong, and there are two easy ways to see that we could reduce poverty right now. First, we could look overseas. Every other rich democracy on the planet has a lower poverty rate than we do. They do it in all kinds of different ways, but most depend on generous, national, universal, programs — the exact opposite of what Ryan proposes. Can reducing poverty really be that hard if everyone else has figured it out?

We can also look to our own history. In 1959, official poverty rates among people over 65 were higher than for any other age group.  Today, they are lower than for any other age group. What happened? Social Security, which became more generous and nearly universal over time. It turns out that if you send people money every month — wait for it — they will be less poor.

The second assumption undergirding Ryan’s plan is that private or not-for-profit agencies are inherently more effective than public ones, and that state and local approaches do better than national ones — “devolution,” conservatives used to call it.

These particular claims, not borne out by the evidence, are rooted in the idea that long ago we had a golden age of private charity and civic volunteerism that provided effective, targeted aid to poor people — the kind of assistance that impersonal, distant government is incapable of delivering, the argument goes. This is pretty bad history, but its bad history with a pedigree.  Real historians, like Gertrude Himmelfarb and David Beito — and pretenders, like Marvin Olasky and Newt Gingrich — have made these kind of assertions in previous eras of “reform,” and even helped shape the harmful welfare policies of the Clinton years.

So Ryan is merely cribbing from the anti-welfare moralists of the 1980s, who were actually drawing on 19th century social thought. And those arguments were based in earlier British Poor Law philosophy that insisted that cash aid to poor people was only going to make them worse off. These are really old ideas that have been discredited by more than a century of increasingly sophisticated social science.

Paul Ryan wants the very government that he doesn’t trust to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving and to treat them accordingly

More simply: you can’t have much knowledge of US history if you think overall well-being was better in the 19th century before the creation of the modern American welfare state, weak though it may be. And it is comparatively weak. Yet when Ryan claims that US social welfare programs have failed, he never includes the fact that every effort to expand them — from the Progressive Era to the New Deal to the Great Society — has been met with determined opposition, disproportionately from wealthy, white, Southern men (once Democrats, they are now Republicans). This is especially true of efforts to improve the well-being of women and people of color. The extent to which social welfare programs come up short today — as with the 2009 Recovery Act or the 2010 Affordable Care Act, for example — is in no small part due to Ryan’s Party trying to make them fail.

The final false premise that frames Ryan’s proposal is that poor people need counseling and guidance; they are broken and in need of fixing.  As a consequence, the Ryan Plan is built on intrusive casework and the micro-management of poor families’ lives (limited government is rarely a priority where poor people and people of color are concerned). But too often caseworkers are an obstacle to be overcome, not a boon to those looking for help too get by (and I say that as a Professor of social work). And perhaps that’s really the purpose of Ryan’s plan: research going back at least to the early 1960s shows that the more professional caseworkers there are in a city, and the more they are involved in the provision of relief, the less likely people are to get material assistance.

For Ryan, poverty is a failure of character.  Just as ideologues have done for centuries, he wants the very government that he doesn’t trust — not even with basic service provision — to distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” and to treat them accordingly, even in the absence of evidence that those categories represent any recognizable reality. What he envisions might as well be called the Office for the Reformation and Redemption of the Poor, and for all of his supposed efforts to listen to people living in poor communities, he never comes to realize the most simple truth. As one homeless man put it to me a few years ago, “I’m not stupid, I’m just poor. People don’t seem to get the difference.”

Paul Ryan’s power must be taken seriously. But his analysis of the causes of poverty and possible ways to reduce it should not be.