Safety Net

The Top 3 Things You Need to Know About the 2013 Poverty and Income Data

New data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau show that four years into the economic recovery, there has been some progress in the poverty rate as it fell from 15 percent in 2012 to 14.5 percent in 2013, with gains especially strong for children, whose poverty rates fell by nearly 2 percentage points. There was no statistically significant improvement, however, in the number of Americans living in poverty. The share of families struggling on the economic brink also remains elevated, with about one-third of Americans—33.9 percent—just one paycheck, sick child, or broken-down car away from poverty.

Women, people of color, and young workers are among those hardest hit by the recession and the subsequent weak recovery.

These data further confirm what many working families experience on a daily basis—the economy is off-kilter, with gains from economic growth concentrated at the top, and low- and middle-income families continuing to struggle with stagnant incomes and barriers to employment.

In this context, here are three things you need to know about the new data for 2013 and how they affect looming policy choices:

  1. The economic recovery is not translating into income growth more broadly, as a result millions of families are trapped in economic insecurity;
  2. Young workers are still struggling to stay afloat, even though they are more educated than in previous generations;
  3. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, there has been some progress for women and people of color, but persistent racial, ethnic and gender disparities remain.

These trends and their implications are examined below.

Economic growth isn’t being shared

Adjusting for inflation, median family income stayed flat between 2012 and 2013 and remained lower than in both 2007 and 2000. This decline in family income is due in large part to stagnant wage trends.

Given that the vast majority of Americans, including those at the bottom of the income scale, rely on their paychecks and work-related benefits as their primary source of income, wage stagnation is obstructing our ability to improve economic security and cut poverty. As economists at the Economic Policy Institute recently documented, real wage growth has been negative since 2000 for workers in the bottom 30 percent of the wage distribution and basically stagnant for workers in the middle. Only workers in the top 5 percent have seen solid gains.

Flat incomes combined with rising costs have also meant that household balance sheets are in trouble. Flat wages mean that low- and middle-income families must borrow to keep pace with the rising costs of basic goods and needs such as child care and health care. This leaves families more vulnerable to economic shocks, which can send them spiraling below the poverty line. Moreover, as Figure 1a shows, increasing income inequality has exacerbated the increase in wealth inequality, with families in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution experiencing particularly large declines in net wealth between 2001 and 2013.


Absent policy action, these trends are likely to continue. In August 2014, low-wage industries such as food services, retail, long-term care, home health care, and temporary help comprised 37 percent of new jobs in the private sector. Fortunately, there is evidence that establishing and strengthening basic labor standards is part of the solution. A recent Economic Policy Institute analysis showed that in the past year, real hourly wages declined for all workers except those in the bottom 10 percent of the wage distribution, with workers in states that raised their minimum wages accounting for the increase. This underscores that public policy—and specifically, minimum-wage increases—have an important role to play in combating wage stagnation.

As the economy slowly recovers, improving job quality and boosting wages must be a central strategy to ensure that the gains of economic growth reach struggling families.

Young workers are still struggling to stay afloat, despite more education than previous generations

While children experienced significant declines in their poverty rates in 2013, these gains were less dramatic for youth transitioning to adulthood. According to the new Census data, 19.4 percent of people ages 18 to 24 had incomes below the poverty level last year, and young adults ages 25 to 34 did not see an improvement in their poverty rates, which were stuck at 15.8 percent in 2013. High poverty for these groups is particularly striking given their education levels. Young people today are much more educated than their counterparts 50 years ago; yet 18- to 34-years-olds today face higher poverty rates than people of the same ages and educational levels did 50 years ago. Figure 2a charts poverty trends for 25- to 34-year-olds by education level between 1968 and 2013. It shows, for example, that even poverty rates for young people with college degrees or more were about twice as high in 2013 as in 1968.


While some of this increase is due to continued high unemployment, there has also been a clear long-term trend toward higher poverty rates for young people at all levels of education. The vast majority of young people living in poverty today have a high school diploma or more, and more than one-third have some postsecondary education, including 14.5 percent with a bachelor’s degree or higher.  (See Figure 2b.)

Higher education is still a key pathway towards economic security, making it possible for millions of Americans to join the middle class. As Figure 2a shows, the more education one has, the less likely he or she is to be poor, with workers who have at least a four-year college degree experiencing the lowest poverty rates.


The high poverty rates of young people carry long-term consequences. Researchers have found that college graduates who started their careers during recessions earned lower wages over the next 15 years compared to college graduates who entered the workforce in a better economy.

Improving the mobility and opportunities of young workers will require improving job quality. This can be done by raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, adjusting it annually to keep pace with the costs of living, and enabling young, childless workers to access the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); providing more avenues for young people to access employment—for example, through expanding apprenticeships; and addressing their crushing levels of student debt through refinancing options.

Despite some progress for women and people of color, persistent disparities remain 50 years after the Civil Rights Act

The poverty rate is too high across the board, but certain groups face much higher risks of poverty and economic insecurity than others. These include women and people of color.

Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it is important to acknowledge the progress that has been made in cutting poverty, particularly for African Americans. From 1966 to 2013, the share of the private sector workforce comprised of people of color rose from 11.2 percent to 29.7 percent, and women’s share grew from 31.2 percent to 48.2 percent. As Figure 3 shows, black poverty rates fell from 55 percent in 1959 to 27.2 percent in 2013, due partly to greater civil rights protections and opportunities in the labor market. And Latinos were the only racial or ethnic group to see a statistically significant decline in their poverty rate in 2013.

That said, Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans are still significantly more likely to live below the poverty line than white non-Latinos. People of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods and places with very high poverty rates, often for reasons related to systemic discrimination; to face employment discrimination; and to bear the brunt of policies that have led to mass incarceration. As with young people, their poverty rates remain relatively high despite considerable educational advancement. For example, in 1965, only one-third of working-age African Americans had a high school diploma or additional education; today, nearly 90 percent do. In short, there is still plenty of work to do to ensure equal opportunity.


The story is more mixed for women. As Figure 3b shows, while elderly women’s poverty rates dropped from 32 percent in 1966 to 11.6 percent in 2013—a testament to Social Security and other federal policies’ effectiveness—the poverty rate for non-elderly women remains elevated. While the poverty gap between non-elderly men and women has narrowed some over time, this has more to do with the deteriorating economic positions of many men than with improvements for women.


For women, basic labor standards and the workplace environment have not caught up to the reality of their central role in the labor market. The United States is the only developed country with no paid family and medical leave and no paid sick days, which forces workers to make impossible choices between work and family responsibilities. The lack of these family-friendly policies is an important factor of the persistent gender wage gap, as well as making it more difficult for families to escape poverty.

These disparities for women and people of color also affect our overall economy. By 2042, people of color will make up the majority of our workforce. Allowing racial and ethnic disparities to linger now will undercut our economic competitiveness in the future. Similarly, if we close the gender wage gap, we can cut the poverty rate of working women and their families in half and add nearly half a trillion dollars to our gross domestic product.


While the past decade of economic growth has left low- and middle-income Americans behind, there are policy solutions that can reverse these trends. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 and indexing to inflation would lift 4.6 million people out of poverty; expanding the EITC for childless adults and lowering its eligibility age would allow more young workers to achieve economic stability; and policies such as paid family and medical leave and paid sick days, investments in child care and early education, and criminal justice reform would help close persistent racial, ethnic, and gender disparities while improving our economy.

Our nation cannot afford another year of stagnation. These data should serve as a wake-up call that policy action is needed to provide greater economic stability and opportunity for all Americans.




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AmeriCorps 20 Years Later: Make it a Priority

Helping people find their way out of poverty is a labor-intensive task.  Whether you’re talking about finding mentors, coaches, and tutors for youth or helping adults access benefits, learn English, find affordable housing, or launch a job search, it is often the one-on-one attention that makes the difference.

Today, a critical, but often invisible source of human capital committed to this purpose are AmeriCorps members, and the volunteers they lead.  People like Deenie Espinoza, who came to Pima Family Literacy as a GED student and then worked there as an AmeriCorps member in 1994.  A year later, she was hired as an AmeriCorps staff member and led advocacy efforts for Arizona adult education and family literacy programs.  Today, while pursuing her master’s degree, Deenie serves as Online Academic Advisor and Success Coach for The Learning House, where she mentors students to help them reach their goals.

Or Dayna Long, who served at the LA Free clinic and went on to become a pediatrician.  As a result of witnessing the ramifications of poverty and trauma on children, Dayna founded the Family Information and Navigation Desk (FIND) to addresses the social and environmental factors that profoundly impact health.

“I am still trying to tackle the upstream causes of inequity that lead to health disparities,” notes Dayna.

AmeriCorps has grown a generation of professionals, educators, and leaders committed to ending poverty.

Deenie and Dayna, winners of the AmeriCorps Alums National Leadership Award, are not lone cases.  Hundreds of thousands of people like them gave their time and talent through AmeriCorps early in their careers and changed their own paths as a result.

When President Clinton proposed AmeriCorps two decades ago, he imagined it would transform America in a few important ways: by providing needed services, creating opportunity for people who serve, and knitting together community.

And it has.

AmeriCorps members serving through programs like JumpStart, City Year, Citizen Schools, and College Possible are succeeding at helping low-income students start school reading-ready, stay on track, graduate, and go on to college.

Others serving through LISC AmeriCorps provide financial counseling, employment and skill training, and job placement, along with home buyer counseling and foreclosure prevention services.  Because many members come from the neighborhoods where they are serving, the program builds strong community leadership.

Just last year, we worked with Maria Shriver and LIFT to develop Shriver Corps, which engages AmeriCorps VISTAs to connect eligible low-income families with the educational opportunities, job training, and access to public benefits that can help them get on firm economic footing.

AmeriCorps also offers service opportunities through youth corps, which are designed to enable youth to learn while serving; tens of thousands of young people who were out of school and out of work found pathways back into education and the workforce through this program.

By allowing flexibility in program design, national service has fueled social innovation as organizations pursuing new strategies can make use of AmeriCorps members as ground troops.

And by enabling young adults to try on new careers — and opening their eyes to the challenges facing poor communities — AmeriCorps has grown a generation of nonprofit professionals, educators, and leaders committed to ending poverty through opportunity.

These programs build on the legacy of VISTA, which for fifty years has built the capacity of agencies on the front lines of the war on poverty and is now part of AmeriCorps.  VISTA has created lasting change by helping to establish programs in adult literacy, microfinance, health services and more.

The bad news:  together, AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA are less than one-third of their authorized size; they cannot engage even one-tenth of the young people who want to serve, according to polls.

Last week, President Obama and President Clinton joined together to celebrate the swearing in of this year’s class of 75,000 AmeriCorps members.  President Obama recognized the value of AmeriCorps when he ran for office.  As he put it, “Your own story and the American story are not separate — they are shared. And they will both be enriched if we stand up together, and answer a new call to service to meet the challenges of our new century.”  He was right.

The President also pledged to “ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.”

He still has time to make that happen by putting necessary political capital behind AmeriCorps and working with Congress to make this program the priority it ought to be.




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.



Safety Net

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.”