First Person

The Floor Beneath Our Feet

Last year, I participated in AVODAH’s Jewish Service Corps in New York City, engaging in antipoverty work, leadership development, and communal living with my fellow corps members.  AVODAH placed me with the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), where I advocated for people who had been wrongfully denied public assistance and food stamps.

Throughout the year, I witnessed the remarkable resilience of my clients, and they remain at the forefront of my mind today.

One of the women I worked with owned a single bar of soap, and she used it to wash her dishes, clothing, children, and herself. Another client had to spend her last ten dollars to buy diapers for her daughter, but that meant she couldn’t afford the $2.50 subway ride to see her doctor and get treatment for her chronic seizures. A different client lived three miles away from the nearest food pantry, and she walked there in the winter three times a week, while pregnant, after the food stamps ran out.

These stories may seem extreme, but they are hardly unique. In New York City, 31 percent of children live below the poverty line. In a city of just over 8 million people, 1.9 million must turn to food stamps. It is not surprising that so many New Yorkers need nutrition assistance as 45 percent of people in NYC live below 150 percent of the poverty line, which translates to less than $35,775 a year for a family of four. For far too many in our city, access to food, housing, and healthcare is a daily struggle and never a certainty.

I finished my AVODAH service in July, but these individuals continue to face crises on multiple fronts. Some have cancer and cannot afford to go to the doctor. Many face eviction. Most skip meals to feed their children. Nearly all have no computer or access to the Internet.

How can families start climbing the ladder of social mobility when they have no solid floor to stand on?

In my work with NYLAG, I learned first-hand that public assistance is often critical to a family’s survival. I saw that a $215 monthly rental subsidy could avert a person’s pending eviction and that $347 a month in food stamps could allow a mother and her daughter to start eating healthy meals together. What at first seemed like modest amounts made noticeable differences in people’s lives.

At the same time, it quickly became obvious that our system of public benefits is hardly enough and needs fixing. Who can find an apartment in NYC for $215? How can a mother and her child afford enough food with $347 a month, $11 a day? What are we trying to accomplish by providing people with public benefits that are hardly enough to get by?

We use many metaphors to justify public benefits, recalling the importance of safety nets and the need for ladders out of poverty. But the metaphor most appropriate to me is that people need a floor beneath their feet. How can families start climbing the ladder of social mobility when they have no solid floor to stand on, when they are free falling through an abyss?

For public benefits to meet their goals, they should ensure that every American has access to the basic goods and services they need to survive. They should be sufficient so that families can afford adequate housing, nutrition, healthcare, and education – the primary prerequisites for family stability and mobility.

To be sure, one of the goals of public assistance should be to help those who can work find jobs. My clients who can work desperately want stable employment because they know that a reliable income offers them the best chance to provide for their families. But a parent who spends half his week in housing court, or who cannot afford child care, or who has to race between the doctor’s office and a welfare appointment, faces significant barriers to finding a job. Public assistance can provide the stability people need to pursue regular work. Cuts to social welfare programs may improve short-term budgets, but they inflict great costs on society by exacerbating the instability of people living on the brink in this country.

It is appalling that our neighbors, people living in our same zip code, might have a single bar of soap or skip meals to feed their children. Providing for people’s basic needs is both just and good public policy. We cannot let people in our midst starve or go homeless, and offering basic stability makes it easier for people to find reliable employment if they are able.

Our democratic principles and economic justice are indivisible. If we truly believe that all people are equal and deserve the same rights and opportunities, then we must ensure that every American has an open path towards a noble wellbeing.




Political Courage and Homelessness in New York City

Few things in life are rarer than real political courage.

How often do you find political leaders, particularly elected officials longing to stay elected, standing up for locally unpopular issues at the height of their controversy? This is the province of unique experience, strange curiosity and genuine oddity.

Yet at a time of dramatically increasing stigmatization of poor and especially homeless people, particularly in New York City’s Queens Borough where several new homeless shelters have or are scheduled to open, New Yorkers have been treated to an extraordinary show of bravery from political leaders speaking out for what is unpopular among their electorate seemingly just because it’s the right thing to do.

That’s about as quirky as the Big Apple itself.

In July, the City’s Department of Homeless Services opened a family homeless shelter in the defunct former Pan American Hotel in Queen’s Elmhurst neighborhood. It opened on an emergency basis, meaning without the normal requirements for review, public notice and community input.  The emergency occurred because the City is required to provide shelter by court order, but increasing homelessness – especially among families – resulted in there being no more room at bursting-at-the-seams city shelters.

The emergency allowed for speed in opening the new facility, which promptly filled and then overflowed with homeless people, but it most assuredly didn’t avoid the generally expected response of “Not-In-My-Backyard” protests. For weeks, residents and community groups in the heavily immigrant neighborhood held demonstrations regularly.  Sometimes it got ugly, including scenes on TV of locals screaming at shelter residents – including teenagers and younger children – name-calling, and alarmingly threatening crowds.

Then a remarkable thing happened.

It’s not just about providing the resources to support these programs, it’s about providing a little bit of hope.

Elmhurst’s City Council Member, came to the shelter  and publicly handed backpacks out to the kids as part of a back to school drive. A former school teacher, he talked about the children’s education and offered shelter residents encouragement. He did this in public, in his own district, where there was charged opposition to the shelter.

That’s a profile in courage.

Shortly thereafter, the City Council’s Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents an adjoining, mostly middle class Queens district, wrote an article in the Daily News about his own family’s experience with poverty and homelessness.  His was an all too common story—a lost job, his family wearing out its welcome in the homes of extended family, and then living at an “awful place”—a city shelter circa 1970. It was a story most people who knew or voted for the Councilman had never heard.

Van Bramer succeeded in putting a face on homelessness. He captured many readers, if only briefly, in the realization that the next homeless family might be very much like their neighbors, their relatives, or perhaps even their own family.

“As the city declares war on inequality and Mayor de Blasio rightly takes a humane and honest approach to ending homelessness, we must all be part of the solution,” Van Bramer wrote. “All human beings have a right to shelter. Some may say that’s feel-good liberalism run amok, but in the City of New York, it happens to be the law. We must house our homeless and that means finding places for families like mine to live and begin again.”

Telling his story, at that particular moment, is another profile in political courage.

In these times, when poverty and homelessness are so stigmatized, it’s inspirational to see these acts of courageous leadership. As Van Bramer writes, it’s not just about providing the resources to support these programs, it’s about providing “a little bit of hope.”





Broadening the Fight for $15

At 6 a.m. last Thursday, a small group of people gathered at the Burger King on the corner of North Avenue and Hunt Street in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. They were fast food workers, home care workers, and those who support their cause. By the time the sun came up and North Avenue began to bustle an hour later, their numbers had doubled to about 40 people.

“We can’t survive on 7.25!” they chanted as cars zoomed by. When the light was red, they shouted at the cars, “Honk for 15!” Many drivers happily obliged.

This was the first in a series of actions held last Thursday in concert with workers across the country fighting for a minimum wage increase. The “Fight for 15” campaign, named after the goal of attaining a $15 minimum wage, is backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), community-based organizations like Atlanta Jobs With Justice, and many individual workers.

For several workers, this was not the first action they attended for wage increases.

“This is my third one,” said Armondo, a local Burger King employee. “My manager and I got into it a little bit because I’m supposed to be at work. But this is important, so I’m here.”

Keyona, who also works at Burger King, has been involved in other actions too.  “This is like my fourth time. It’s all right—trying to get more money for us to live [comfortably],” she told me.

According to Armondo, the group of about 40 workers and organizers meets three times a month to plan actions like these. They are mostly fast food workers from a number of different establishments, including Taco Bell, Zaxby’s and Domino’s.

Thursday’s actions, however, included a number of home care workers as well.  Marie has been a home care worker for 26 years and is also a fast food worker.  She lives and works in a group home Friday through Sunday; works as a delivery driver for Domino’s pizza Monday through Thursday evenings; and watches children in her home Monday through Friday during the day.

Even with three jobs, Marie still has trouble making ends meet. “The rent was due on the first. It’s the third. I haven’t got it,” she said. “The car insurance is $200. I haven’t got it. The gas bill is $143. I haven’t got it.”

With low wages and few hours, the workers often need assistance to support themselves and their families. “I make just enough to pay rent,” Armondo said.  “I have to ask for help from my family for other things.”

Some, like Yolanda, also a Burger King employee, qualify for some government assistance, but still need to ask family for help. “I don’t work enough hours for childcare [assistance], but I qualify for food stamps. If it wasn’t for my mother, I wouldn’t even be able to work because I wouldn’t have anybody to watch my child.”

Keyona echoed similar challenges; “I get food stamps, but you can’t pay bills with food stamps.”

When people are unable to pay their bills, it doesn’t just affect them. “When you have to ask your 23-year-old daughter to help you pay your cell phone bill, that is humiliating,” Marie said.

Bringing in home care workers like Marie is part of a broader effort to make the Fight for 15 movement more inclusive and far-reaching. Rather than pushing for higher pay and better working conditions for a specific group, SEIU and its partners are fighting for changes to the minimum wage at the municipal, state and national level that would impact all workers. The Center for Community Change—where I am a Writing Fellow—is one of the organizations that is actively supporting Fight for 15 efforts nationwide.

So far, the campaign’s efforts appear to be paying off. Since the Fight for 15 started about two years ago, 13 states as well as 10 city and county governments have raised their minimum wages.  Seattle raised its wage to a groundbreaking $15 an hour, and San Francisco residents will vote in November on whether their city will do the same. We certainly have not seen the end of the fast food worker strikes.  The only question that remains is how many more states and municipalities will join the growing ranks of those that are doing the right thing and raising the minimum wage?

For Marie, taking part in the actions is important.  “When I do this, I know it doesn’t stop with me,” she said. “We’re not just speaking up for ourselves; we’re speaking up for all the workers out there like us.”




Kentucky Shows What Can Happen When a Poor, Conservative State Expands Medicaid

In a state best known for horses, bourbon, and poverty, a quiet transformation is taking place. Kentucky ranks in the bottom five for almost every health statistic imaginable. It’s also been among the most vigorous of state actors in implementing the Affordable Care Act. That combination makes it an interesting case – what happens when a poor, unhealthy state does its best to take advantage of the ACA?

The short answer is that over a half million people – in a state of only 4.4 million – sign up for healthcare. About 75 percent of those who signed up didn’t previously have health insurance, so the uninsured population has dropped by 42 percent and the uninsured rate has gone from more than 20 percent to less than 12 percent.

Although the health-care exchanges that were created by the Affordable Care Act have gotten most of the news coverage so far, it’s the expansion of Medicaid that has had the biggest impact, with about 80 percent of the newly insured in Kentucky getting coverage through Medicaid.

In the Supreme Court’s June 2012 decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the court ruled that states could opt out of the Medicaid expansion without losing any of their current Medicaid funding. Many policy analysts didn’t think the ruling would have a major impact, since the federal government is paying for the entire expansion for the first three years and gradually reducing to 90 percent in 2020. As MIT healthcare economist and Affordable Care Act architect Jonathan Gruber put it, “When the Supreme Court decision came down, I said, ‘It’s not a big deal. What state would turn down free money from the federal government to cover their poorest citizens?’”

More than a few, as it turns out.

Only 27 states and the District of Columbia have opted into Medicaid expansion.  In Kentucky’s case, it found that expansion would actually save money, delivering a $15.6 billion boost to the economy while creating almost 17,000 jobs—all while insuring its most vulnerable citizens. As Governor Steve Beshear wrote in a New York Times op-ed defending the decision, “…to those more worried about political power than Kentucky’s families, I say, ‘Get over it.’ … and get out of the way so I can help my people. Here in Kentucky, we cannot afford to waste another day or another life.”  He called the reform “the single most important decision in our lifetime for improving the health of Kentuckians” and said the state would “come out ahead in terms of both health outcomes and finances. In fact, if we don’t expand Medicaid, we will lose money.”

In contrast, as Gruber notes, the states choosing not to expand Medicaid “are not just not interested in covering poor people, they are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness.”

The non-expansion states already have, on average, poorer health outcomes and large uninsured populations, and now they will fall even further behind healthier states. The difference is already visible in survey data, according to Gallup.


If the 23 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid were to instead opt-in, nearly 7 million additional people would likely receive coverage. These states are also passing up on more than $400 billion in federal funding.

This slow expansion of Medicaid is not unprecedented. In 1966, when federal funds for Medicaid were first available, only 26 states had programs up and running by the end of the year. By 1970, however, 48 states offered Medicaid. It wasn’t until 1982 that the last hold-out, Arizona, finally opted-in.

One of the tricks for providing healthcare in states where Obamacare is politically unpopular is—well, not too tricky: call it something else. Although ‘Obamacare’ remains unpopular in Kentucky, ‘Kynect’—the name of the state’s health insurance exchange—is popular.

The faith community is also playing a major role in pushing for expansion, arguing that it is a moral issue, and noting Jesus’ role as a healer. Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Senior Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, reminded policymakers that the millions of people caught in the Medicaid gap “are not numbers, these are our church members and family members. So for us, this is a matter of life and death.” Towards the end of August, the Moral Monday Movement marched on 12 state capitols urging governors and legislators to expand Medicaid.

In my own church in Kentucky, I have already seen the benefits of expansion.  One of our members who works for wages that are too low to afford health insurance, but were too high to qualify for Medicaid prior to expansion, finally has access to healthcare. For the first time she stopped worrying about what would happen to her if she were to get sick before she was old enough to qualify for Medicare.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute have provided a state-by-state breakdown of what opting-out of Medicaid expansion is costing in both human and financial terms. Find out what your state is missing out on, and then urge your decision-makers to follow Kentucky’s lead.



Editors Note: Listed states had not expanded eligibility as of July 2014. They include Indiana, Pennsylvania. and Utah, which have pending waiver proposals to expand eligibility. Totals may not add because of rounding. Note that Pennsylvania announced last month that it will expand Medicaid.




Food Stamps, 50 Years Later: Stop Impeding, Start Improving

The Food Stamp Act of 1964 was signed into law 50 years ago, launching a food assistance program that has been a lifeline for millions of hungry Americans. Five decades later, our political leaders – national, state, and local – need to acknowledge the enduring value of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP—the modern incarnation of food stamps), stop making false arguments to justify gutting it, and focus on improving America’s most effective tool in the fight against hunger.

Because hunger is an ongoing problem in America, our nation has steadfastly supported a federal nutrition assistance program that feeds hungry families as it boosts local economies. Though some politicians disingenuously argue otherwise, it still does both of those things very well.

SNAP reduces food insecurity and, in 2012 alone, lifted more than 4 million Americans out of poverty. More than half of those individuals—2.1 million—were children, who are potentially the most devastated by hunger due to increased risk of poor health, hospitalizations, developmental delays, behavioral problems and low academic achievement. Of course, food insecurity causes harm at every age, and SNAP is effective as well for millions of seniors and working-age adults in blunting the harshest impacts of hunger and poverty.

In terms of economic benefits, SNAP creates markets, and spurs economic growth and jobs in both rural and urban communities, at grocers, farmers’ markets, military commissaries, manufacturers and farms. In addition, because SNAP beneficiaries spend 97 percent of their allotments in the month they are issued, the economy as a whole benefits. Research conducted by Moody’s Analytics and USDA estimate that there is between $1.73 to $1.79 in economic growth per $1 of SNAP benefits.

With so many proven advantages—not to mention a historically recognized moral and bipartisan responsibility to care for our nation’s most vulnerable citizens—why do so many leaders attempt to justify cutting the program, or trot out tired reform proposals we know won’t work?

Food insecurity causes harm at every age, and SNAP is effective in blunting the harshest impacts of hunger and poverty.

For example, the recent Farm Bill cut SNAP benefits and access to the program in several ways, hurting low-income, hungry people as well as our economy.

Most recently, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan doubled-down on a warmed over bad idea when he proposed to take 11 safety net programs, including SNAP, and convert them into a single block grant for states, with few minimum standards other than the kinds of harsh conditions for beneficiaries that Rep. Ryan favors.

Ironically, the weaknesses of programs converted into block grants—how they lose support over time as their goals are watered down, funds are diverted to more politically powerful constituents, and the grant become less effective and more vulnerable to attack—are highlighted by Rep. Ryan’s companion proposal. He would expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to childless workers—a good step—but pay for it by eliminating the Title XX Social Services Block Grant, as well as other low-income programs, including the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for children and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program.

Such proposals are a waste of policymakers’ time and focus. Our nation would be much better served by implementing thoughtful solutions to hunger that focus on expanding opportunity and reducing poverty, rather than weakening programs that support working and unemployed adults, children and seniors.

First and foremost, we need to improve economic outcomes for families in the workforce through better wages, benefits, and supports like the EITC and the refundable Child Tax Credit. We need to strengthen child nutrition programs so children have access to food both in and out of school. We also need to improve SNAP so people have more resources to purchase a healthy diet. The current, woefully inadequate monthly allotments are based on the outmoded Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), a descendant of a diet developed for emergency use in the 1930s.

A recent Institute of Medicine report found that SNAP benefits are not enough for most beneficiary households—and don’t do enough for food security and food purchasing power. Other research—including USDA’s own analysis of a recent (temporary and now eliminated) benefit increase provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—has shown the powerful effect of a healthier allotment.

Fifty years after our nation’s legislators took on the fight against hunger, today’s leaders need to put politics aside.  It’s time to acknowledge SNAP’s necessity and value; correct its shortcomings and build on its strengths; and celebrate its historic contribution to the well‐being of America and its people.