The Poverty of Relentless Disappointment: Rich Hill and a Vanishing American Dream

Rich Hill, Missouri, is about an hour and twenty minutes from Kansas City by car. According to the Census Bureau, its 2012 population was 1,341. Median household income was about $29,800, and its poverty rate was just over 27 percent — nearly double the level for Missouri and the country, but about the same as the U.S. rate for African Americans and Hispanics; the difference is that 98 percent of this poor town is white.

That’s the setting for Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos’s 2014 documentary, Rich Hill.

First we meet Andrew. “We’re not trash. We’re good people,” says the teenager. He recounts his family’s many recent moves (they’ll be uprooted three more times before the film is over), and introduces us to his sister, whom he dotes on, and his parents. His mom is possibly developmentally disabled and is missing most of her teeth. When he can, Andrew works with his father, who does “oddball jobs and stuff.” His dad is pretty good natured about it all, or at least inured to it: “You learn to survive,” he says.

When Andrew’s dad dreams, he usually dreams small, imagining a summer with enough work that he can “take the kids down to Wal-Mart, or the dollar store, and let ‘em buy whatever they want. . . . in a reasonable amount. . . .about $400 apiece worth of stuff.” He laughs at the implausibility of it.

Appachey is a bit younger; we meet him as he comes home to a dirty, crowded house, and lights a cigarette from the coils of a beat-up toaster. He tells us that his father disappeared one night when he was six and never returned. Appachey has been diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder, and may have Asperger’s, says his mom, who, lying in bed with a cigarette, appears initially to be cold and hard. But as we hear more from her, it seems she’s just worn, disappointed by her life.  She says she never had a chance, going straight from her mother’s house to marriage at 17 and caring for a growing number of children. Appachey is angry, cruel to his siblings, and looking for trouble. He’s soon enough in juvenile court and sentenced to a detention facility by the film’s end.

Harley, the third teen featured, tells us that he’s on medication to control his temper while we watch him shop for a hunting knife. His mom is in prison, and she too has just had the last of her teeth pulled. He lives with his grandmother, who is supporting them with the help of a small food stamp allowance. Harley tells us that he was raped by his stepfather, who, we’ll learn, his mother then tried to kill — it’s why she’s in prison. Harley’s always on the verge of erupting in frustration and rage.

Everyone here seems exhausted and resigned to their fate. That’s not irrational, given that even those who seem to have some hope, like Andrew, barely have a chance, so deep and broad are the forces arrayed against them: A child born poor in the U.S. is likely to remain poor; and depending upon where you live, the odds of escaping such circumstances are incredibly low. People try as best they can, but trying doesn’t correlate with success. And that’s the crucial lesson.

People try as best they can, but trying doesn’t correlate with success.

Imagine you are Harley: How will you escape your status? Will you get therapy? A more effective drug regime? Tutoring to get through school? Start saving for college? Who will pay for these things? Will you get your mom out of prison? Improve your grandmother’s earning’s power? What would you do to move into the middle class if you were this particular boy?

Many viewers and critics will see much of what is portrayed in the film as “culture,” but it’s actually structure: the product of decades of disinvestment from communities like this one, which leaves behind depressed, isolated, local economies with no jobs, a dwindling tax base, and nothing to attract business or new residents; aging, dilapidated housing stock; underfunded, inferior schools; little or no access to health care and other social services; and few people around who aren’t as poor as you are. This segregation of poor people matters, producing what social scientists call “concentration effects.” Thus, disability, physical illness, and mental illness are more common in poor families and in poor places.  The fact that there are lots of people medicated in Rich Hill — Andrew’s mom, Appachey, and Harley, at least — shouldn’t surprise us.

Nor should it surprise us that so many in Rich Hill have bad teeth or no teeth at all — it’s a clear physical marker of poverty in the U.S., and another way in which disadvantages accumulate: if you’re too poor for dental care and it shows, you’ll have a much harder time finding work, which makes you less likely to secure the income or insurance that might prevent you from losing more teeth and your children from losing theirs.

There are other ways in which Rich Hill offers useful insight. Like the struggling families depicted here, most poor people in the U.S. are or have been married — contrary to the simplistic rhetoric of many, marriage is not a magical ceremony with anti-poverty powers. There are also higher rates of unintended pregnancies among poor women.  But that’s not because they’re irresponsible, but because they are poor — contraception is expensive and may require a doctor’s supervision, two large obstacles.

Most of the adults in the film work, and those who don’t are typically looking for work, disabled, or caring for children or grandchildren (who may themselves be sick or disabled). But even working and working hard won’t get you out of poverty if your wages are low — and in 2011, one-quarter of all male workers and one-third of all female workers were employed in poverty-wage jobs.

Finally, U.S. prisons are filled with poor people, just as they are in the film, and women are the fastest growing segment (although at twice the rate for black women as for whites). Mass incarceration is a consequence of poverty and also a cause of it: Having an incarcerated parent makes children poorer, and increases the likelihood that they will have their own early encounters with the criminal justice system; that reduces their chance of completing high school, which increases the likelihood that they will be poor and incarcerated as an adult, which makes them more likely to remain poor, given the difficulty ex-offenders have getting hired. Our criminal justice system is a massive engine for making people poor, sick, and angry, and if there is any such thing as a “cycle of poverty,” it’s built and maintained by public policy.

Those who appear to have abandoned hope — and that’s many of those in Rich Hill — will be blamed for their poverty by many viewers. But as insecurity rises and mobility continues to decline, more and more families might find something here to relate to.





Fighting Poverty and Reducing Jail… in Real Time

Many of us who work in the criminal justice system have come to understand the profound connection between poverty and mass incarceration.  Put simply, individuals with criminal histories – even minor ones – find it exceedingly difficult to enter the workforce and provide for their families.  One pragmatic response to this problem is to incarcerate fewer people, particularly in local jails.

While much of the public debate and academic discourse focuses on the challenges of reducing federal and state prison enrollments, mass incarceration is a problem with a significant local dimension too.  As of June 30, 2013, an estimated 731,208 persons in the U.S. were confined in local jails; a much larger total of 11.7 million persons were imprisoned in local jails at some point over the preceding year.  More than 6 out of 10 of those jailed in the U.S. have yet to be convicted of any crime.  Indeed, many of those held in pretrial detention are actually eligible for release yet they cannot afford to post bail – often nominal amounts of money.  And contrary to popular thinking, the overwhelming majority of criminal prosecutions concern relatively minor offenses.  In New York City, three out of four cases that make it to criminal court are misdemeanors – a total of more than 235,000 cases in 2012.

Any time spent behind bars is harmful to individuals, families, and communities.  In many cases, the use of jail makes society less safe: studies have consistently found that incarceration does not deter re-offending, with some research indicating that it actually increases the odds of recidivism.  Further, while most people tend to be released after relatively short sentences, the consequences of incarceration are lasting and damaging.  The fact is we could divert a significant percentage of the American jail population without appreciably increasing risk to public safety.  Alternatives to detention and incarceration will improve the life trajectories of people living in poverty.

We could divert a significant percentage of the American jail population without appreciably increasing risk to public safety.

Brooklyn Justice Initiatives (BJI) in New York City, for example, seeks to forge a new set of responses to misdemeanor offending.  This effort is a unique collaboration—one involving the New York State Court System, the Mayor’s Office, Kings County District Attorney’s Office, Brooklyn Defenders, Legal Aid Society, NYC’s Criminal Justice Agency, the Center for Court Innovation, and the Probitas Foundation.

BJI looks to reduce the use of jail by providing judges with responsible and cost-effective community-based alternatives.  Staffed by a team of court-based social workers, case managers, and court liaisons that works in collaboration with defense counsel, prosecutors, and judges, BJI serves as an alternative to jail for two distinct populations: people with pending misdemeanor cases who face the possibility of bail they cannot afford; and people who have pled guilty to misdemeanor offenses.  For the first group, BJI offers a pre-trial supervised release program, working to ensure that defendants appear in court through close supervision and also connecting them to voluntary social services, such as job training, educational assistance, drug treatment, mental health counseling, and other needed interventions.  For the people who have pled guilty, BJI offers social and community service alternatives to jail, as well as specialized trauma-informed programming for individuals arrested for prostitution and related charges.  (Trauma-informed intervention is critical to assisting defendants arrested on these charges; they are almost invariably victims, struggling to cope with the enduring horrors of childhood sexual abuse, assault, and exploitation.)

Since its inception one year ago, BJI has diverted 557 individuals from jail, including 21-year-old Rick.  He was arrested and arraigned on a charge of criminal mischief for allegedly damaging a neighbor’s property, a misdemeanor carrying a sentence of up to a year in jail.  Although Rick had a clean criminal record, the prosecutor requested $2,500 bail because he had two other pending criminal cases, including a non-violent felony charge.  Bail had already been set on one of his previous cases—his mother had barely managed to pay it and there was no way they could afford this bail too.  Based on Rick’s verifiable community contacts and his willingness to comply with the conditions of supervision, the judge released him at arraignment to BJI. Rick then readily availed himself of voluntary educational services: he was able to earn a high school equivalency diploma and enroll in a college preparatory course.  Throughout his time in the supervised release program, Rick never missed a required phone call or an in-person meeting with his case manager, and he made it to every court appearance.  After two months, Rick’s criminal case was dismissed and sealed.

Megan, age 17, was charged with assault in the third degree after a physical altercation with a peer, also a misdemeanor.  The prosecutor contacted the victim, who had some personal history with Megan and was open to her receiving an alternative sentence.  The case was adjourned and Megan was ordered to meet with a BJI social worker for a clinical assessment.  Megan described a long history of sexual trauma, ongoing academic difficulties, and many recent struggles as a new mother of a baby boy.  She was also eager to identify personal goals, including graduating from high school, securing employment, and strengthening parenting skills.  On the next court date, the social worker recommended a combination of counseling services, job readiness training, and consultation with an educational liaison.  All parties agreed to a conditional plea of guilty to the charge, with a dismissal of the case upon completion of services.  Although she needed a lot of support and occasional crisis intervention from her social worker, Megan completed all the court-mandated services and her case was ultimately dismissed and sealed.  Megan’s criminal record remained clean, and she went on to pursue her academic and professional goals unconstrained by the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction.

Without BJI, Rick and Meagan probably would have spent considerable time at Rikers Island, New York City’s jail.  A recent report from the Independent Budget Office documents that the City’s annual cost per inmate at Rikers is $168,000 – a significant expenditure at a time of rising public needs and increasing public concern about the overuse of incarceration.  While the institutional costs of incarceration are enormous, the human toll is even greater.  And for people struggling with limited financial resources, time in jail means time away from school, work, family, and other social supports, exacerbating an already formidable constellation of challenges to economic mobility.

Brooklyn Justice Initiatives is still in its infancy.  But in a relatively short period of time, it has already shown that jail diversion is a practical and powerful step toward real system change and turning lives around.   The bottom line: anyone who cares about fighting poverty needs to pay close attention to mass incarceration (and vice versa); and anyone who cares about ending mass incarceration needs to look closely at local jail diversion as a just step in the right direction.




The Economic Opportunity Act, 50 Years Later: We Need Renewed Presidential Leadership

When President Lyndon Johnson signed his “war on poverty” legislation 50 years ago on August 20, 1964, America had a different view of itself, of poverty, even a different political lexicon.  The differences are especially vivid to those of us who have spent much of the intervening half century working to stem the tide of increased hunger and poverty, but never again with a level of presidential support commensurate to LBJ’s, nor with the same optimism and confidence of the American public.

At least since President Ronald Reagan quipped that “we fought a war on poverty and poverty won” it’s been politically incorrect for politicians of either political party to go near the issue, even with 22% of America’s children now living below the poverty line.

To appreciate how different things are, just look at LBJ’s barnstorming across the country in the spring and summer of 1964 to rally support for his Economic Opportunity Act.

Less than 6 months after President John Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson, in a lunchtime speech to the League of Women Voters in Pittsburgh put the power of the presidency on the line, saying: “We have declared unconditional war on poverty. Our objective is total victory.”

Politically, Johnson was seeking to shore up his support among JFK’s liberal supporters who were suspect of his worthiness.  But it was personal too. He’d grown up the son of a tenant farmer in a family of seven and remembered the sting of neighbors bringing needed food to his hill country home.

Those years before Vietnam, Watergate, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and race riots, were still a time when anything seemed possible. America had pulled through the Great Depression, triumphed in World War II, stared down the Soviets over missiles in Cuba, and created a secure and growing middle class.  Sargent Shriver, Johnson’s choice to run the War on Poverty, remembered: “When a War on Poverty was launched, in terms just like the war against Hitler, we were accustomed to thinking in terms of the United States being able to do big things. America bestrode the world like a Colossus.”

Back then the middle class was so secure it didn’t need to be called out, shored up, pandered to, or put on a pedestal.


What Johnson didn’t say is telling in and of itself.  In speeches around the country throughout the spring and summer the president never uttered the words “middle class”. Today the “middle class” is a non-negotiable touchstone for all political rhetoric; but back then it was so secure it didn’t need to be called out, shored up, pandered to, or put on a pedestal.

Less than a year after Johnson began making the case for the Economic Opportunity Act he signed it into law.  The legislation created Head Start, Job Corps, and Community Action Agencies, along with an expansion of social security benefits, the establishment of food stamps, and Title I legislation to subsidize low-income schools. Though not perfect, these initiatives lifted millions of Americans out of poverty and they still do.

Congressional majorities and unity following JFK’s assassination gave Johnson the luxury of political breathing room.  But in just a few years that breathing room began to shrink. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter would confront Watergate’s abuse of power and the constraints of inflation, gasoline shortages, the Iranian hostage crisis and diminished confidence in government. After Johnson, there would be good intentions and nods in the direction of ending poverty, but no risk of political capital.

The fight against poverty did not end, but for many people the battleground shifted. Social entrepreneurs took up the mantle and a new generation of activists found an outlet in innovative nonprofit organizations like the Harlem Children’s Zone, Teach For America, Communities in Schools, and KaBoom—all of which focus on aspects of economic inequality.  Some, like Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, seek to leverage the best of the Johnson era programs, ensuring access and participation in things that have proven effective, like the school breakfast program and SNAP.  But such private efforts can only go so far.

At the Rose Garden bill signing ceremony Johnson said, “We will reach into all the pockets of poverty and help our people find their footing for a long climb toward a better way of life.”  That climb has turned out to be steeper than LBJ or anyone else might have imagined.  Though the War on Poverty significantly reduced the poverty rate in America, there are still 46 million of us—more than 15 percent—who live below the poverty line.

To complete the journey, we await renewed presidential leadership.





In Our Backyard: A Golden Opportunity for Affordable Housing

“Our affordable housing issues are directly related to our progress. We developed areas that weren’t developed—we’re attracting a lot of people. When there’s more demand, the prices go up. That’s why it’s important that the government does what it can do in that marketplace.”

–Muriel Bowser, D.C. Councilmember representing Ward 4

Progress is certainly subjective.

While Washington, D.C. has indeed succeeded in attracting a lot of young, affluent professionals, its elected leaders have also presided over the loss of half of the city’s low-cost rental units. This decline in the availability of affordable housing has contributed greatly to a large increase in homelessness. Moreover, as the city’s residents and elected officials grapple with the housing issue, the voices of the homeless aren’t being heard.

Take, for example, the increase in homelessness which undermined the integrity of the D.C. shelter system. In 2010, there were allegations that male shelter workers at D.C. General Hospital were having sex with female residents. Residents complained that they were exposed to mold and forced to sleep in hallways due to overcrowding. In order to prepare for an expected 10% increase in the need for shelter, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty proposed an alternative—he wanted to covert the vacant Hebrew Home for the Aged into a family shelter. The Hebrew Home had housed Jewish retirees from 1925 to 1969. It was then purchased by the city and used for medical services for the homeless until 2008.

To ensure that economic diversity is more than a talking point, city leaders must address the affordable housing crisis.

The Department of Human Services identified the Hebrew Home as the “best facility” to provide this alternative housing. But residents of the neighborhood resisted the proposal, and so did their representative on the D.C. Council, Muriel Bowser.  Many residents claimed that it would negatively affect property values and public safety, and Bowser said that the neighborhood would have an “inordinate amount of group homes.”

Even though there was widespread knowledge about the troubles at D.C. General and the shortage of shelter space, the proposal to convert the Hebrew Home was defeated.  The situation at D.C. General has deteriorated even further, with more overcrowding, and culminated in the horrific murder of an eight-year-old girl.

We can only wonder what might have been if the Hebrew Home had housed homeless families instead of remaining vacant in a time of crisis.


Four years later, the city once again has an opportunity to create much needed affordable housing at the Hebrew Home site.

On Tuesday, D.C. residents attended a community meeting organized and moderated by Bowser and offered their views on the still vacant site as well as the adjacent Paul Robeson School. Progressive organizations such as Jews United for Justice and the Petworth Action Committee support turning the building into 100% affordable housing. In contrast, Councilmember Bowser indicated her preference that the building also include market-rent units.

The meeting was heavily attended by affordable housing advocates, and the majority of speakers supported a large number of affordable units. However, there also remains an unyielding group of residents who want majority market-rate housing. Playing on stereotypes and fears about low-income people and public housing, this group is falsely claiming that the D.C. government has already pledged to turn the building into “public housing.”

Unfortunately, the City’s official “consultation system” gives more weight to the opinions of this group than to those held by low-income people. To gauge the views of the neighborhood, the District’s Department of General Services (DGS) employed an online survey instrument—Survey Monkey—that is inaccessible to many low-income people and seniors. It also didn’t restrict the number of times a person could respond.  Although the government will also consider opinions expressed at community meetings, even those forums aren’t geared towards accessibility for all District citizens.

As Rob Wohl, a member of Jews United for Justice, told TalkPoverty:

“The way that the city does this consultation process is completely broken and easily hijacked. It’s a joke the extent to which the process privileges people who have access to whatever resources and free time. It’s rigged against low-income people, seniors, and people with families that can’t come. I’ve never been to a DC community meeting where there’s childcare.  If this is our consultative process, it’s outrageous that they made no accommodations for poor families whatsoever.”

Despite the lack of outreach to low-income people, support for affordable housing for seniors and D.C. employees was high in the survey results.  Kim, a resident who has lived in Petworth for over 45 years, commented:

“A lot of people aren’t concerned about the people who fought. Have you been over to the senior housing centers? They have a waiting list. What’s going to happen to the low-income people i.e. the seniors?”

Unfortunately—and likely due to the lack of input by low-income people—there was very little support for housing that would benefit homeless families and individuals. Even among the affordable housing advocates present, there was little discussion of the homeless, especially families living in D.C. General.

Repeatedly, the needs of the most vulnerable people among us have been minimized during the housing debate. To ensure that economic diversity is more than a talking point, city leaders must address the affordable housing crisis. The city should commit to more outreach to low-income individuals before any decisions are made regarding the Hebrew Home and the Robeson School.

Ultimately, the city should make sure that the public property it controls is used for affordable housing as opposed to simply selling properties to developers who are looking to profit off of predominantly market-rate housing. (Recent legislation, originally introduced by Councilmembers Bonds, Bowser, Graham, and McDuffie, would further this goal.) Despite concerns expressed at the meeting surrounding financing of the property, city officials and housing financing experts confirm that it is indeed possible to finance buildings comprised of 100% affordable units.

As one resident, Nina Marshall, put it:

“I hope we don’t blow this opportunity to build affordable housing in our community.”




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.

Working Anything but 9 to 5 by Jodi Kantor and Sam Hodgson (New York Times)

Last month, she was scheduled to work until 11 p.m. on Friday, July 4; report again just hours later, at 4 a.m. on Saturday; and start again at 5 a.m. on Sunday. She braced herself to ask her aunt, Karina Rivera, to watch Gavin, hoping she would not explode in annoyance, or worse, refuse. She vowed to somehow practice for the driving test that she had promised her boyfriend she would pass by the previous month.

Thanks to campaigns in San Francisco and across the country, more people are aware that irregular, part-time work hours and poverty go hand in hand. Kantor and Hodgson provide a window into the dizzying schedule of Janette Navarro, a Starbucks barista and single mother. It’s easy to see how Navarro’s schedule creates “logistical puzzles” that strain family relationships, jeopardize her son’s spot in daycare, and even cause her to become homeless. Kantor and Hodgson explain why erratic scheduling has become so widespread. One huge culprit is new technology adopted by corporations like Starbucks to keep staffing levels at utmost efficiency, at the expense of worker wellbeing.

Michael Brown and Black Men by Charles M. Blow (New York Times)

Brown had just finished high school and was to start college this week. […] But it is clear even now that his killing occurred in a context, one that we would do well to recognize. Brown’s mother told a local television station after he was killed just weeks after his high school graduation: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway […]”

As Blow states, a key reason why 18-year-old Michael Brown’s shooting is so devastating is that it has a “sense of tragedy too often repeated.” The killings of unarmed black and brown youth like Michael Brown are not just random accidents. These tragedies are rooted in our racially biased institutions and power structures. According to Blow, we need to take a step back and examine the data on how America criminalizes people of color, beginning in school and leading to prison. As early as preschool, black and Latino students are suspended at much higher rates than white students. These disparities continue throughout the life course, shaping “truly horrific” high school graduation rates, arrest rates, and imprisonment rates.

American Mayors Pledge to Fight Income Inequality, Low Wages by Erin Carlyle (Forbes)

The numbers underscore what seems to be constant news these days: despite record levels of corporate profitability, American wages remain stagnant. That is one of several factors creating a growing income gap between the poor and the affluent: tax policy is another big one. “When we go back 30 years, we lost our way,” said Paul Soglin, mayor of Madison, Wisc. “Mistakenly we thought that tax breaks to export jobs overseas was the way to build this country’s economy.”

As Neil Irwin reported last week, business forecasters recognize that America’s rising inequality is hindering economic growth. Big city mayors, from Michael Nutter of Philadelphia to Anise Parker of Houston, have arrived at the same conclusion. On Monday, the U.S. Conferences of Mayors released grim findings on income inequality. Jobs created during the Recovery pay an average of $47,171, a far cry from $61,637—the average wage of jobs lost during the Recession. 36 mayors signed a pledge to address income inequality. Of course, the million-dollar question is how?

How Obama Suddenly Became Pro-Worker by Dave Jamieson (Huffington Post)

“This outside agitation has really helped push the president to do the right thing,” Paco Fabian, a spokesman for Change to Win, which includes the Service Employees International Union, said recently. “And he certainly deserves credit. For the first time in a long time we have a president taking executive action to help workers.”

American workers saw some significant wins in the past year. In 2014, President Obama signed executive orders to raise the federal contractor minimum wage to $10.10, protect federal contractor employees from LGBT discrimination, and require that federal contractors report labor law violations to crack down on wage theft. While these measures are important first steps, they only reach one segment of the workforce—about 1-in-5 workers. Jamieson analyzes the strengths and weaknesses inherent in Obama’s use of executive orders. One pro: policy reforms can still be enacted in a time of Congressional gridlock. One con: these reforms can be rolled back with a new president.

A Tale of Two Maternity Leaves by Darlena Cunha (Washington Post)

Rebecca Carparros works for the Federal Government. “I have to work, and I was only able to stay home with my first daughter five weeks,” she said. “For my second, I managed to get six weeks. I could have used FMLA and gotten eight weeks, but I can’t afford weeks off unpaid.” Contrast this with dual-citizen Tiffiny Rossi’s experience in Finland. She had a baby in April 2013, and is still on maternity leave. In fact, her paid leave will last until January 2015.

The United States “prides itself on its family values,” yet stands as an extreme outlier in its lack of guaranteed paid family leave. Only 11% of American workers receive paid family leave. Cunha details the ways that working mothers in the majority are forced to cope, such as returning to work when their babies are not ready, attempting to go on short-term disability, and even Internet crowdfunding.  At the same time, Cunha reminds us that better models are available. New mothers and fathers in Finland are guaranteed paid leave until their baby is 9 months old, and one parent can stay on home leave until the child is 3, without fear of losing their job. And yes, Finland’s businesses and taxpayers are doing just fine.

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