Beyond the Minimum Wage: What’s Really Keeping Hourly Workers in Poverty?

In the debate about poverty and rising economic inequality, we need to think beyond the minimum wage.

When we talk about poverty it’s difficult to track—and give voice to—all of the different ideas around causes and solutions that need attention. Multiply those competing demands exponentially and you may get a feel for what working people in some of the fastest growing job sectors in our economy face every day.

Shift workers—especially those in the retail sector—are subject to unpredictable and erratic scheduling practices that make it nearly impossible to plan their lives and earn a stable income. An increasing number of these workers simply aren’t able to get the hours they need in order to support their families. They are essentially trapped in a cycle of poverty, with little time or resources to make any progress toward escaping it.

These are workers who aren’t living paycheck to paycheck; they’re living hour to hour.

By giving workers the right to request a predictable or flexible schedule, this legislation would increase job quality in our country.

How can people working under these conditions set a budget?  How do they schedule medical appointments or arrange care for their children?  In addition to dealing with their erratic schedules, retail workers are often required to be on call—making sure they are available without any guarantee of a shift.

So while increasing the minimum wage is indeed a critical step in the fight against poverty, it is just one piece of a much larger, broken system in the low-wage sector.

That’s why the Schedules That Work Act—introduced last month by Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), along with Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—is so critical. It would allow every worker to have a say in their schedules—whether someone is experiencing erratic shifts, or too many hours, or needs a schedule accommodation in order to meet an obligation. By giving workers the right to request a predictable or flexible schedule, this legislation would increase job quality in our country.

At the local level, city and state governments are also demanding that the largest, most profitable retail corporations do right by their workers.

Last week, Jobs With Justice San Francisco led a coalition of labor, community, advocacy and small-business groups in introducing a groundbreaking Retail Workers Bill of Rights ordinance. The measure, authored by San Francisco Board of Supervisors members Eric Mar and David Chiu, would create new protections for retail workers who are burdened with on-call scheduling and diminished hours. The ordinance would only apply to profitable, large chain retailers—banks, fast food and restaurant chains, department stores—companies that clearly have the means to improve labor standards. If adopted, the bill would require fair scheduling practices like advance notice, adequate on-call pay, and more opportunities for part-time workers to transition to full time-employment. It would also require employers to offer more hours to current part-time employees prior to hiring additional part-time staff.

Without these kinds of reforms to scheduling and hours in the low-wage sector, we will continue to have too many people working two and three jobs but stuck below the poverty line. Nationwide, nearly eight million people are involuntarily working part-time hours. That leaves them vulnerable to poverty—nearly one in four involuntarily part-time workers lives in poverty, compared to one in 20 full-time workers. These low-quality jobs also impact the broader community because employers shift costs—particularly for health care for their workers—to our already overburdened public systems.

We need 21st century policies to address the new 21st-century workplace. Efforts like the Schedules That Work Act and the Retail Workers Bill of Rights are more than just commonsense bills; they are innovative ways to address poverty and inequality in our communities.



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Breaking Barriers to Employment: The Pivotal Role of Legal Services

For the last four years, Paul has faced significant obstacles in securing steady employment, despite having a high school diploma and a year of college education under his belt. Paul applied to positions at Walmart, McDonalds, different security companies – any opening he learned of during his frequent visits to a local career center. Time and again, Paul was turned down and told he wasn’t qualified.

To change all that, Paul completed a construction apprenticeship program. Less than two weeks after he graduated, Paul had strong prospects with a construction company and a major utility company. Amidst all this good news, however, Paul received a letter that brought his forward momentum to a halt.

A “Notice of Proposed Revocation” informed Paul that his driver’s license could be revoked because of overdue child support payments. Paul had known about the child support order, but it simply wasn’t something he could afford to pay. The amount was based on his salary at a job he had lost more than a year before the order was set. Paul made cash payments directly to the child’s mother whenever he could, not realizing that those payments “didn’t count” because he was supposed to make them through the District government. After months without income he ran out of money to make any payments. But if Paul lost his license, none of the positions for which he now qualified would be available to him, and he’d be right back where he started – unable to pay his child support. Now what?

We must break the underlying legal barriers to employment.

The longer these issues persist, the more likely they are to affect job seekers and workers who lack other resources to help them cope with financial stress.

It is no secret that getting and keeping a stable job, let alone a job that pays a living wage, is already a challenge for far too many people living in poverty in D.C. and across the nation. Black workers and young workers were hit particularly hard by the recession, and unemployment rates for several groups of workers remain high today, including those without a college degree. While the overall unemployment level in the District is 7.5%, unemployment levels in Wards 5, 7, and 8 hover in the 15 to 20% range, with poverty rates as high as 25% (Ward 7) and 34% (Ward 8).

D.C. residents and advocates have improved the pathway to jobs with decent wages in part through successful efforts to raise the minimum wage, strengthen wage theft laws, remove criminal history questions from job applications, and develop employment training programs like the construction apprenticeship sought out by Paul. But, as Paul’s story reveals, these efforts aren’t always enough.

Among the legal barriers to employment are: criminal or arrest records, poor or inaccurate credit reports, child support arrears and suspended drivers’ licenses, domestic violence, prior homelessness or lack of stable housing, and other issues that may appear unrelated to employment. These barriers may distract even the most dedicated job seekers from their search, prevent a skill-based assessment of their application, threaten the credentials that make them eligible for sought-after positions, and hinder their ability to keep employment once it is secured.

As Paul’s story shows, overdue child support payments can cause job seekers to lose their driver’s licenses, contribute to negative credit reports, and ultimately can lead to jail time. Prior arrests and convictions may cause employers to reject an applicant without ever assessing whether that conviction is relevant to job performance. Ongoing domestic violence, custody disputes, unstable housing, and financial instability due to debt and predatory lending can all cause significant disruption to job searches and job retention.

For example, how does someone who is homeless or couch surfing receive information from potential employers? Or complete an application form that requires an address? Or maintain appropriate clothing for an interview?  How can a mother whose children are chronically ill from sub-standard housing conditions avoid absenteeism?  The longer these issues persist, the more likely they are to affect job seekers and workers who lack other resources to help them cope with financial stress.  And what happens when these vulnerable workers do not receive the wages they are due or are subject to excessive garnishments?

These concerns do not need to be faced alone. In many cases, civil legal services can help remove these barriers by:

  • Securing the restoration of driver’s licenses
  • Overcoming problems associated with arrest or conviction records, including record sealing, improper employer inquiries, mistaken identities or other inaccuracies
  • Providing information about credit records, correcting inaccuracies, and advising how to respond to prospective employer inquiries
  • Advocating for individuals whose child support payments are set unreasonably high or have become overdue, particularly when the individual is threatened with incarceration or loss of a driver’s license
  • Securing protection or resolving problems associated with domestic violence, child custody disputes, and child support
  • Improving and stabilizing housing and addressing health problems affecting family members, including those caused by dangerous living conditions
  • Recovering unpaid wages and remedying other forms of workplace mistreatment

Not long after Paul received notice that his driver’s license might be revoked, his apprenticeship program hosted attorneys from Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP).  The attorneys informed the trainees about the civil legal underpinnings of common hurdles facing job seekers. After participating in the presentation, Paul sought NLSP help.  An attorney prevented the suspension of Paul’s license and is now helping him secure a child support payment plan that more closely matches the amount he is currently able to pay. Shortly after he found out his license was safe, Paul got the flagger job on a construction crew, his first full-time position since 2011.

Advocating for a living wage and job training is necessary, but is also insufficient for many people who are seeking to enter or stay in the workforce.  That’s one reason why access to civil legal aid is so critical to workforce development and anti-poverty efforts. Working closely with community groups, social service agencies, and job training programs, civil legal aid programs can help job seekers identify and break these legal barriers to employment.



Safety Net

Community and Climate Change: How Social Cohesion Can Help Low-Income Baltimore Neighborhoods Prepare for Disasters

Over the past several years, the country has seen an increase in extreme weather events fueled by climate change. The mid-Atlantic region alone has faced major snowstorms, heat waves, and hurricanes, forcing communities to increasingly bear financial and life-threatening risks.

While many see natural disasters as “social equalizers” that do not differentiate based on race or class, the reality is that these events exacerbate the underlying socioeconomic problems that exist year round. As a result, low-income people are often hit harder by extreme weather events due to poor quality housing in neighborhoods lacking services; living in close proximity to environmental hazards; and economic insecurity. Over the past few years, the City of Baltimore has emerged as a leader in addressing these vulnerabilities and engaging these very communities to improve their resilience.

Baltimore is highly vulnerable to many natural hazards, ranging from coastal storms and flooding to extreme heat and high winds. Given the fact that the city’s poverty rate is 25.2 percent—10 percentage points higher than the national average—the city must address the concerns unique to this vulnerable population. For instance, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City serves nearly 20,000 public housing residents, including seniors, low-income households, working class and other vulnerable people. Due to the location of their original construction, many public housing buildings are vulnerable to natural hazards and require resiliency upgrades.

Low-income people are often hit harder by extreme weather events due to poor quality housing in neighborhoods lacking services

In 2013, the City of Baltimore created the Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project, an effort to address existing hazards while also preparing for extreme weather events predicted to occur due to climate change. This effort has a particular focus on low-income residents and began by speaking with them to about their concerns. The City’s Office of Sustainability is also in the process of creating a plan that will include neighborhood, resident and business “ambassadors” to assist in educating members of the community on how to prepare and respond to extreme weather. This process not only helps the city recognize the vulnerabilities people are facing, but also develops a level of social cohesion that can save lives.

A poll conducted last year by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research confirmed that neighborhoods that lacked social cohesion and trust generally had a more difficult time recovering from a disaster or extreme event. A prime example is Chicago’s heat wave of 1995, when 739 people died in mostly low-income African American neighborhoods.

One Chicago neighborhood, called Auburn Gresham—with the same racial and income demographics as other low-income African American neighborhoods—fared better than even the more affluent neighborhoods in the city. It turns out that residents of Auburn Gresham participated in block clubs and church groups, in addition to socializing at grocery stores and diners, which many other neighborhoods lacked. During the heat wave, the block clubs checked in on elderly and sick neighbors to ensure their safety—the neighborhood banded together. Baltimore is heeding the lessons from this sort of research and helping to foster these kinds of strong relationships in economically struggling communities.

Earlier this year, Baltimore’s Commission on Sustainability—comprised of public, private, and nonprofit leaders—held its Annual Sustainability Town Hall with this theme: “Make a plan. Build a kit. Help each other.” The event was held in East Baltimore—an area historically plagued with violence, high infant mortality rates, and a much higher poverty rate than the city’s average. Free transportation was provided from other low-income neighborhoods to maximize attendance.

Hundreds of people turned out.  Upon arrival, community members were asked to fill out a family emergency plan. Attendees then visited various stations to learn how city partners are helping Baltimore prepare for disasters, and were given free items for emergency preparedness kits, including flashlights and batteries, crank-powered radios, fans, face masks, can openers, and signs to place in their windows during disasters indicating whether they are “Safe” or need “Help.” The response was so positive that neighborhood groups have requested that the City repeat this event for their residents. In addition, the City plans to engage the most motivated residents to serve on Community Emergency Response Teams, which educate community members about disaster preparedness and response efforts.

According to Cindy Parker of the Commission, knowing your neighbors and recognizing their needs and abilities—such as where elderly households are or who knows CPR—is critical.

“Hopefully the activity of sort of thinking this through will help [residents] make a mental note,” she told the Baltimore Sun. “Communities who don’t work together don’t fare well.”

While this kind of preparation can make a difference for any community, it is particularly important for low-income people who have fewer alternatives, such as savings to fall back on or cars they can rely on during evacuations.

Last month, President Barack Obama announced a series of actions to help state, local, and tribal officials prepare their communities for the effects of climate change. These actions range from helping communities develop more resilient infrastructure to fortifying our coasts.

While these steps are laudable, more action is needed to address the skyrocketing risks of climate change in low-income communities. In a recent report to the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, my colleague Cathleen Kelly and I offered a number of recommendations to do just that, including bolstering the Low Income Housing Tax Credit following disasters as well as the Low Income Energy Assistance Program in anticipation of extreme cold and heat. We also recommend that policymakers foster the kind of social cohesion that Baltimore is creating by supporting programs that build relationships between community leaders and public- and affordable-housing residents; improving disaster-relief plans for affordable-housing developments; and providing technical assistance to community-based organizations to increase their ability to respond to extreme weather events.

Social cohesion plays a significant role in our everyday lives and serves as the first line of defense during disasters.  It can mean the difference between survival and tragedy. We need to work with low-income communities to prevent the next climate-related tragedy from occurring.



Safety Net

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.





Media and Politics

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.

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