Safety Net

How Real Food Can Help Fight Poverty

On January 8, 1964, in his State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson announced the launch of the War on Poverty. While the programs implemented since then have done a tremendous amount to mitigate hardship in America—the poverty rate would be nearly twice as high without the safety net—our nation’s rate of poverty and growing income inequality are a black stain on our body politic. While the official poverty rate is 15 percent, fully four out of five Americans will experience at least one year of poverty or another form of significant economic hardship at some point during their working years.

It’s time to renew our nation’s deep commitment to ending poverty. This commitment shouldn’t be made out of mere sympathy but in the interest of our nation as a whole. But getting out of poverty starts with a healthy body and healthy mind. Let’s all agree that an adequate, nutritious diet is something each and every one of us needs—and deserves. This shouldn’t be a stretch for most of us to see and understand.

More and more we are realizing how our diets impact our physical and mental health. Lack of access to adequate, nutritious food prevents students from thriving academically and workers from performing at peak levels at their job. Healthy food is an important engine to propel students and workers out of poverty. This is not to oversimplify the problem, or to suggest that this is all that needs to be done, but it is a very important starting point. Access to real food is foundational to climbing out of poverty.

Let's all agree that an adequate, nutritious diet is something each and every one of us needs and deserves.

As someone who has played a lot of sports in my life, and even coached a little, I know that when it comes to athletics and improving and developing talent it all starts with fundamentals. This means recognizing how interconnected the issue of poverty is to many other issues like health, education, being safe, feeling cared about, and good, healthy food. A student cannot learn if he is full of sugar and processed food—or distracted by hunger pains. An adult can’t stay healthy if he or she needs to eat the cheapest, most accessible and most processed food for years at a time. The most basic thing we can do to lay the foundation for good health, and academic, social and financial success, is to eat—as Michael Pollen has put it—real food. We are what we eat, period.

When it comes to health and wellness, and solving the gut-wrenching issues of poverty and hunger, we need to get back to the fundamentals. We need to grow more of our food in or near our cities, which can drive investment into our poor neighborhoods. We need ‘edible classroom’ programs which can get more healthy food to our kids, teach our students about where food comes from and the knowledge of how to grow it. We need a garden in every school yard, a kitchen in every school where students can learn to prepare the food they grow, and a salad bar in every cafeteria. And we need to protect and strengthen investments in our bedrock federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Child Nutrition programs.

Our current policies make healthy food inaccessible for millions of Americans, while subsidizing and making pervasive fake foods that give us diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure—which lead to higher healthcare costs down the line.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—yet policymakers continue to make penny-wise and pound-foolish decisions.  Every dollar wasted on the current approach is money that can’t go to investments that bring more justice to our broken economic system.

There are leaders that are already making connections between the food we eat, our health and well-being, and the poverty we see all around us. Laurie David’s new movie, Fed Up, includes commentary from Katie Couric, First Lady Michelle Obama, and former President Bill Clinton. Dr. Mark Hyman, a thought leader in the area of food and nutrition, says the country cannot afford the cost of bad food, and the bad health that follows. In one of his recent blog posts, he said that because of bad food, “….our kids are sicker, leading to an achievement gap that limits our capacity to compete in the global marketplace, and 70 percent of our kids are too fat or unfit to fight, threatening our national security. These are not small problems.”

Pilar Gerasimo, a writer and editor, says that health is the “gateway” to power. Without optimal health and vitality, she says, everything else that we want to do gets harder. The bottom line is this: integrating healthy eating and wellness into our social safety net will energize our current programs, strengthen the mental and physical well-being of those who need them, and inspire more Americans to support a new approach that will better position families in poverty to work their way up the ladder to the American Dream.

 

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Labor

This Labor Day, Let’s Remember Those Who Can’t Afford a Day Off

In a recent New York Times article, reporter Jodi Kantor describes the challenging lifestyle of Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old single mother who is a Starbucks barista with an erratic work schedule. The article chronicles Jannette’s seemingly impossible balancing act of seeking childcare, pursuing an education, and providing for her family.

The workplace stress and uncertainty that Jannette faces day-to-day is also felt by low-income working families across the US. Fluctuating work hours and limited resources make the daily demands of family life and trying to get ahead in the economy a constant challenge, creating anxiety as families simply struggle to stay afloat.

Through its research, Children’s HealthWatch, a national nonpartisan network of pediatricians and public health researchers, has documented that job security isn’t just an economic and lifestyle issue – it affects our physical health as well.  In our brief published today – Steadying the Foundation: Maternal Job Stability, Safety Net Programs & Young Children’s Health – we describe how job instability (defined as maternal job loss or reduced work hours) increases the risk of poor health for mothers and their young children.

In urban hospitals across the country, we interviewed more than 14,000 low-income working mothers with children under age four.  We found that 38 percent of these women had experienced job instability in the past year. Compared to stably-employed mothers and their children, mothers with job instability were more likely to have poor mental and physical health, and their children were significantly more likely to be in poor health and have developmental delays. Our research also found that job instability is linked to higher levels of material hardships such as housing insecurity (living in overcrowded conditions or moving frequently) and family food insecurity (when families lack sufficient food for all members to lead active, healthy lives).

While financial loss due to job instability can end up harming the health and development of young children, our research suggests two of the largest federal safety net programs – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Unemployment Insurance – can blunt the impact. The rate of child food insecurity – a severe level of food insecurity where children have to skip meals or go without eating for an entire day – was significantly lower for children whose mothers experienced job instability but also received SNAP, than it was for the children who did not receive SNAP.  In other words, SNAP helped to buffer children from the worst effects of job instability.

Unemployment insurance (UI) had a similar positive effect, stabilizing the housing of children whose mothers had lost a job. Families experiencing job loss who received UI were 27 percent less likely to be housing insecure than those families that did not receive UI.

No one wakes up in the morning saying, ‘I think I want to lose my job today and go apply for government assistance'

Of course, no one wants to have to rely on public assistance as they juggle the demands of raising a family and inconsistent work hours or job loss. As Tianna Gaines-Turner, a member of Witnesses to Hunger in Philadelphia, puts it, “No one wakes up in the morning saying, ‘I think I want to lose my job today and go apply for government assistance and wait weeks for my unemployment to go through.’ No one wants that. But food stamps and other government assistance programs are important to help families who, through no fault of their own, end up unemployed and need a little extra help.”  She and her husband both work to support their three children but have struggled to escape poverty.

In response to the New York Times article, Starbucks has announced it would change the way it schedules its baristas in order to improve “stability and consistency.” Shifting towards a more manageable and family-friendly work environment is a good first step. However, there are other actions that policymakers should take to promote job stability and improve the health and self-sufficiency of low-income families.

First, increase the minimum wage to at least $10.10 an hour, and index it to inflation to ensure its value does not erode in the future; also expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit to provide a critical boost to low-wage working families’ incomes. Second, ensure that the SNAP benefit is calculated based on the real cost of a healthy diet to help eligible families put more healthful food on the table.  Right now, it’s based on a plan that doesn’t match the costs of living for today’s working families. Third, permit “good cause” as a qualified reason for leaving a job under UI regulations.  Currently, many workers are ineligible for UI even if they have an unavoidable and justifiable cause for resigning, such as health problems or child care issues.  Lastly, strengthen the Family Medical Leave Act so that qualified workers receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave each year for the birth or adoption of a new child, serious illness of a family member, or a worker’s own medical condition.

This Labor Day, we should recognize the kinds of workplace practices and policies that allow families to lead healthy, productive lives with stability for their children.  The solutions are within reach – employers and policymakers can strengthen economic security for all working families.

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Justice

Bank of America Settlement and the Need for Legal Aid Lawyers

Last week, Bank of America reached a record-setting $16.65 billion settlement with the Department of Justice for selling toxic mortgage securities during the housing boom. The agreement includes $30 million for states to distribute to their legal aid programs. This is encouraging news for the 1.75 million homeowners who are still in default on their mortgages, as well as the 9.5 million borrowers who are underwater and at risk of foreclosure.  But it’s not enough.

One of the best ways to prevent unnecessary foreclosures is to provide struggling families with a legal aid lawyer.  While the state guarantees legal representation for any criminal proceeding, there is no such guarantee in civil cases. Therefore, access to fair representation depends largely on the availability of free legal aid lawyers who have a long track record of helping people with no other options—such as battered spouses, people with disabilities, parents seeking child support, homeless veterans, and others without means.

Legal aid lawyers have the necessary training to help homeowners navigate the byzantine mortgage servicing system. They can identify mortgages that were illegal or predatory, and also help families make their mortgage payments by securing resources like unpaid wages, child support, public benefits, or unemployment insurance. Legal aid programs have saved many thousands of homes since the start of the financial crisis, but recently have struggled to secure funding for their vital work.  The Bank of America settlement will hopefully be helpful in this regard  but we need to do much more.

Early in the foreclosure crisis, the Center for Responsible Lending, a national advocacy group, received a $15 million grant for an innovative grant-making enterprise called the Institute for Foreclosure Legal Assistance (IFLA).  Over the course of three years, IFLA more than doubled the number of attorneys devoted to foreclosure prevention work and created a national infrastructure of training, informational materials, and networking that served as a powerful force multiplier. The program ultimately reached tens of thousands of borrowers either through individual assistance, broadly applicable policy changes, or access to critical information and materials.

Yet funding for IFLA was only available for three years, and at the end of that period, IFLA closed its doors. Since then, resources for foreclosure prevention work have dwindled even as the significant risk of foreclosure for millions of homeowners continues. Yet the IFLA infrastructure still exists, and an infusion of funds could immediately be put toward productive use without the need to build a new program.

While the Bank of America settlements directs monies to states, there is another source of federal monies that could be used to restart IFLA’s critical work: the remaining funds from the Independent Foreclosure Review (IFR).

The IFR was initiated when financial regulators found evidence that mortgage servicers had engaged in rampant misconduct when troubled borrowers came to them for help with their mortgages. The regulators first attempted to review every case individually, but that effort foundered. Instead, they decided to compensate homeowners who were most likely to have been harmed by the servicers, setting aside $3.6 billion for this effort. Borrowers ultimately claimed roughly 86 percent of the monies set aside but approximately $500 million remains unclaimed.

Regulators are considering giving those remaining funds to states for their “unclaimed funds” accounts in case homeowners file late claims. However, under this scenario, it is unlikely that much of that money will end up in the hands of homeowners seeking compensation. In fact, according to a recent letter to federal regulators from the National Housing Resource Center—an advocate for the nonprofit housing counseling community—only 2.8 percent of unclaimed funds held by New York State, and about 6 percent held by the state of Texas, reach the rightful owners every year. These funds are much more likely to end up in a state’s general funds where they could be used for just about anything, as has occurred with proceeds from other mortgage settlements.

Instead, regulators should send the states only the amount of remaining IFR funds that are likely to be claimed by homeowners. The rest of the money should be used for other foreclosure prevention efforts—including re-funding IFLA—to reinvigorate critical civil legal aid efforts, prevent unnecessary foreclosures, and help stabilize communities that are still being left behind in the economic recovery.

With the Bank of America agreement, hundreds of billions of dollars have now been collected in settlements with lenders and servicers, and families and neighborhoods should be far better off than they are now. Adequately funding national, state and local civil legal aid programs is one of the most effective ways to ensure that these settlements provide meaningful assistance to the people and communities that have been hit the hardest by the bad behavior of financial institutions.

 

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Justice

In Our Backyard: No, Child Survivors of Sex Trafficking Are Not ‘Legitimate Offenders’ Of Prostitution

This post originally appeared at ThinkProgress.

Even though the FBI has identified Washington, D.C. as a high-frequency area for sex trafficking of minors, city officials there are expressing reservations about a critical component of an anti-trafficking law that advocates say would expand protections for survivors of this violence.

Nationally, the average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation is 11-14 years old, and many of these survivors are lured by traffickers with false promises of economic security and emotional support.  Some don’t enter through a trafficker, but simply because they need to meet their basic needs of food and shelter. City Councilmember Mary Cheh and anti-trafficking advocates claim that the “Sex Trafficking of Minors Prevention Act” would take important steps toward changing that.

The proposed legislation would increase public awareness, boost reporting of missing and runaway minors who are especially vulnerable to trafficking, improve training for survivor identification, and expand access to services by requiring the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to refer minors to providers. The measure also includes a “safe harbor” provision that would require MPD to treat all minors suspected of engaging in commercial sex as survivors of trafficking, instead of arresting and charging them. National anti-trafficking advocates such as the Polaris Project support these safe harbor laws because they believe treating survivors as criminals instead of victims is re-traumatizing and harmful.

Treating survivors as criminals instead of victims is re-traumatizing and harmful.

Despite strong advocate support for the legislation, Paul A. Quander Jr., the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice — who is tasked with overseeing the police department — objects to the safe harbor proposal, among other provisions. At a public hearing on the legislation earlier this month, Quander claimed that some minors arrested for the crime of prostitution are “legitimate offenders;” that some “prostitute through their own volition;” and that some “have procurement duties amongst a group of friends, who have decided that payment for sexual favors is the best way to gain monetary security.”

When asked for additional comment on these opinions, a representative for Quander stated, “Deputy Mayor Quander believes his testimony from last month is quite straightforward and speaks for itself. Nothing has changed since then, and he does not have anything to add to it.”

Councilmember Cheh, who introduced the anti-sex trafficking legislation alongside three other lawmakers, acknowledged to ThinkProgress that the bill still requires some adjustments. However, she believes that the legislation will “expand the possibility that people can get help.”

Advocates concerned with victim-blaming more forcefully objected to Quander’s assessment of the minors who are arrested for prostitution.

“Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, any child who is sold for sex is automatically a sex trafficking victim — full-stop,” Andrea Powell, who founded FAIR Girls, told ThinkProgress. “Children cannot choose to engage in prostitution in this country and those who buy them are having sex with a victim. When a police officer arrests a child for prostitution, they are arresting the victim.  This is a human rights issue for the District and the country.”

“Children under 18 who have been sexually exploited deserve support and services, not prosecution,” Audrey Roofeh of the Polaris Project added.

Ultimately, the Deputy Mayor’s reluctance to support a core provision of the legislation may delay benefits for marginalized groups that are particularly victimized. Advocates comment that this legislation, if passed, would especially benefit runaway, low-income, disabled, and LGBT youth, who are all at increased risk of exploitation.  Other groups, such as survivors of sexual abuse and undocumented immigrants, are also disproportionately targeted because they are already vulnerable.

“The vast majority (of minors) are from families living in extreme poverty because traffickers prey on vulnerable children,” Powell explained to ThinkProgress. “Traffickers want to take advantage of young people who won’t be missed. Of those 300+ American girl victims we’ve served, only two had missing children reports. The majority were not reported missing because they were in the foster care system. Instead, they are listed as repeat runaways and non-critical missing…. Pimps tell their young victims that if they speak up, they will just be arrested and treated as prostitutes. They are told no one will believe them and they are scared of the police.”

Despite the prevalence of sex trafficking of minors, the District’s human trafficking laws are currently ranked in the bottom half of all states by the Polaris Project. Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration has yet to take a formal position on Cheh’s bill, which is awaiting markup.

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Culture

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.

 

 

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