Safety Net

Disability Is a Cause and Consequence of Poverty

Disability is both a cause and consequence of poverty.

It is a cause because it can lead to job loss and reduced earnings, barriers to education and skills development, significant additional expenses, and many other challenges that can lead to economic hardship.

It is also a consequence because poverty can limit access to health care and preventive services, and increase the likelihood that a person lives and works in an environment that may adversely affect health.

Half of all working age adults who experience at least one year of poverty have a disability.

The result? Poverty and disability go hand in hand. The poverty rate for working-age people with disabilities is nearly two and a half times higher than that for people without disabilities. Indeed, recent research finds that half of all working age adults who experience at least one year of poverty have a disability, and nearly two-thirds of those experiencing longer-term poverty have a disability. People with disabilities are also much more likely to experience material hardships—such as food insecurity; inability to pay rent, mortgage, and utilities; or not being able to get needed medical care—than people without disabilities at the same income levels. The same goes for families caring for a child with a disability.

In addition to income poverty, individuals with disabilities are also nearly twice as likely to lack even modest precautionary savings in case of an unexpected expense or other financial shock. Fully 70 percent of individuals with disabilities responded that they “certainly” or “probably” could not come up with $2,000 to meet an unexpected expense, compared to 37 percent of individuals without disabilities.

Yet the intersection of disability and poverty is too rarely discussed. In fact, until recently the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual report detailing income, poverty, and health insurance coverage didn’t even include poverty rates for people with disabilities. It does now, and the data released earlier this week put the poverty rate for working-age people with disabilities at 28.4 percent in 2013, compared to 12.4 percent for those without disabilities.

Yesterday the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Senator Tom Harkin, took up this issue in a hearing and a report based on 400 interviews with people with disabilities who are struggling on the brink.

Toya, a woman in her thirties with Cerebral Palsy who was interviewed for the report, describes needing to buy new shoes each month because of her walking pattern. Another woman interviewed talks about having to purchase “special clothes because of my body distortions, and lots of day-to-day adaptive equipment that insurance doesn’t cover.” Anne, who is blind, relates that while she’d like to work a second job, the additional time it takes her to get ready for and take transportation to and from work makes it impossible.

Many of the interviewees discuss a lack of reliable accessible transportation. A man in his 30s with a physical disability describes his struggles with para-transit: “My work is located outside my local zone which requires long wait times at transfer stops. To go to work it could take me 2 hours-plus to travel 9 miles and I have to call the day before to arrange this at 6:00 a.m.” The difficulty of finding affordable accessible housing is mentioned frequently as well. One woman describes her wait to obtain affordable housing through the “Section 8” program: “In order to find housing, you’re put on a list that is years long. I keep having to call them and see if somebody died and make sure my name stays on the list.”

Interviewees also discuss restrictive and outdated asset limits in the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides modest income support to individuals with significant disabilities and very low incomes and assets. Individuals are prohibited from having more than $2,000 in assets—nearly unchanged from the original level set in 1972. Had the asset limit been indexed to inflation when the program was established, it would be more than $8,500 today. As one woman put it: “The requirements of SSI make it difficult to save money, such as for medical emergencies, internship experiences, or purchasing expensive equipment.”

It’s critical to note the progress that has been made in the past several decades. The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted nearly 25 years ago, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantees that people with disabilities have “equal opportunity” to participate in American life. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), enacted the same year, requires that students with disabilities be provided a “free, appropriate public education” just like all other students. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act expands access for people with disabilities to education and training programs, programs for transition-age youth and young adults transitioning to adulthood, vocational rehabilitation, and more.

But as Chairman Harkin noted at yesterday’s hearing, much work remains. In order to break the link between poverty and disability, it’s imperative that disability be expressly contemplated as part of a broader antipoverty agenda, not as a separate issue or afterthought.

Policymakers have a number of policy solutions at their fingertips that could make a real difference today. Expanding Medicaid would make it possible for more low-income Americans to access preventive care, and reduce financial strain for low-income individuals with disabilities. Ensuring paid leave protection and paid sick days would benefit both workers with disabilities and workers who care for family members with disabilities. Raising the minimum wage would boost the incomes of many workers with disabilities, who are especially likely to work in low-wage jobs. Likewise, boosting the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers without dependent children would benefit many workers with disabilities, who are less likely to have children.

In addition, investing in affordable, accessible housing would enable more people with disabilities to obtain safe and stable housing and live independently. And investing in accessible transportation would enable more people with disabilities to take jobs that they currently can’t get to and from without spending hours in transit. We also need to update the SSI asset limits and improve the program’s work rules so that beneficiaries can keep more of their earnings and save for the future. Similarly, simplifying the work rules in the Social Security Disability Insurance program would make it easier for beneficiaries to test their capacity to work.

These are just first steps, but they would go a long way to ensuring that poverty and disability no longer go hand in hand.

Author’s note: The Center for American Progress’ Poverty to Prosperity team is exploring policy solutions to strengthen and modernize our nation’s safety net to reflect 21st century realities, and to better facilitate economic mobility for families on the brink.

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Safety Net

Activists and Scholars Respond to the New Poverty Data

This week, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that there was a statistically significant decline in poverty last year.  It is the first decline since 2006, and just the second since 2000.

Worth celebrating, right?

Hardly. While the reduction in poverty might be significant from a statistical perspective, it’s not from a people’s perspective: 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2012; 14.5 percent in 2013—more than 45 million Americans lived in poverty in each of those years.  Further, historic levels of income inequality remain unchanged, with incomes flat for low- and middle-income Americans.

What is most frustrating, tragic, infuriating—pick your adjective—about this status quo that wastes so much human potential, is the fact that we know the kinds of policies and actions that would not only reduce poverty, but reduce it dramatically.

TalkPoverty.org asked a group of scholars and activists what we need to do to achieve Census numbers that we can truly get excited about.  Their responses reveal some of the rigorous research that should inform our priorities and policy choices, and also widespread activism that isn’t waiting on an anti-poverty movement, it’s building one.

Hilary Hoynes: “Remember the successes and get behind policies that work.”
Sarita Gupta: ‘What are you doing in this movement and can you do more?’
Dr. Deborah Frank: How Poverty Affects Children’s Health
Deepak Bhargava: Change this Broken System
Valerie Wilson: ‘Policymakers have been slow to use data to inform their agenda’
Sally Steenland: ‘Infusing grassroots protests and political advocacy with righteous indignation’
Alice O’Connor: Half the Battle
Deirdra Reed: ‘This is not your grandma’s skid-row poverty’

Hilary Hoynes: “Remember the successes and get behind policies that work.”

The Census poverty release this week contained some good news – particularly notable is that poverty rates fell significantly for children – but overall poverty rates remain high relative to their levels prior to the Great Recession.

We have the data to know “what works” against poverty and inequality—and that our policies truly matter.

Looking over the longer term, poverty can be best described as remaining stubbornly high over the past decades. Some conclude that this lack of progress in our fight against poverty implies a failure of our safety net. However, this misses the important countervailing force of stagnant or declining wages; in this light, the lack of a rise in poverty over the past 20 years represents (sadly) somewhat of an achievement for public policy. We have the data to know “what works” against poverty and inequality—and that our policies truly matter. A federal minimum wage increase to $10.10 would lift 4.6 million people out of poverty. The Earned Income Tax Credit, together with the Child Tax Credit, lifts roughly 4.7 million children or 9 million persons above the poverty line annually; SNAP raises 2.2 million children or 5 million persons above poverty. Increasing incomes for these families leads to improvements in health and children’s well-being.

We need to remember the successes and get behind policies that work.

Hilary Hoynes is a Professor of Public Policy and Economics and holds the Haas Distinguished Chair in Economic Disparities at the Goldman School of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley.

Sarita Gupta: ‘What are you doing in this movement and can you do more?’

The fight against poverty is already here, it’s happening, and it can work if we challenge ourselves to focus on the real and immediate solutions that help everyday working people create a pathway to economic stability.

The good news is, we’ve already begun to do that in cities and states across the country. In Massachusetts, we passed a domestic workers bill of rights designed to protect home care workers against poverty wages and working conditions. In San Francisco, we’re working to pass a retail workers bill of rights aimed at tackling the erratic, on-call scheduling practices that keep hourly and shift workers in a constant cycle of financial unpredictability. In Illinois, Connecticut and Oregon, we’re piloting a fair-share fee legislation that requires businesses that cheat their workers out of wages to pay a fee to offset their role in keeping employees in poverty.

So we’re making strides, but there’s still so much work to be done if we are to create more good jobs that pay good wages, invest in our communities, and strengthen the voice that every day people have in our democracy.  We need you, the reader, to ask yourself what you are doing in this movement and can you do more?  That’s how we’ll achieve the change we seek.

Sarita Gupta is the executive director of Jobs With Justice, an organization leading the fight for workers’ rights and an economy that benefits everyone.

Dr. Deborah Frank: How Poverty Affects Children’s Health

To me, a pediatrician for 38 years, I know the 2013 poverty numbers represent names and faces, including the poorest Americans – infants and toddlers and their families. Doctors know that poverty stacks the odds against children in the womb with poor nutrition and high levels of stress hormones, altering the intrauterine environment and leading to early deliveries and low birth weight.

Poverty’s toxicity does not end at birth. At Children’s HealthWatch, my pediatric and public health colleagues and I have conducted extensive research since 1998 on children up to their fourth birthday in five urban hospitals across the country.  We and other researchers showed that children in families who experience the most basic level of material hardships associated with poverty — not enough nutritious food, inadequate or inconsistent access to lighting, heating or cooling, and unstable housing — suffer negative health and development effects, which constrain the next generation’s opportunities to live healthy lives as successful participants in education and the workforce.

Children in poverty cannot wait for the slow recovery from the 2009 recession to finally arrive. We need to expand and protect programs to keep all our children nourished, warm and safely housed. It is not the federal deficit I worry about, but the preventable and treatable deficits in the bodies and brains of America’s young children.

Dr. Deborah Frank is the Founder and Principal Investigator at Children’s HealthWatch, and professor of Child Health and Well-being in the Department of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine.

Deepak Bhargava: Change this Broken System

It is outrageous that in the richest country in the history of the world, the vast majority of people are never more than a degree away from poverty.  New data shows that a good job has the power to move that needle in the right direction for children.

On Tuesday, the Census Bureau released data showing the child poverty rate has decreased for the first time since 2000. In 2013, enough parents were able to find full-time, year-round work to help 1.4 million children escape poverty.

At the Center for Community Change, the communities we work with know that the best anti-poverty program is a job that pays enough to allow families to make ends meet. Unfortunately, our broken labor market delivers too few jobs and unfair pay in exchange for hard work. We live in a system where no matter how much money people’s work brings into their company, they get paid as little as the CEO can get away with, and when they work harder, the increased wealth they produce goes right into the CEO’s pocket or company coffers.

Some of the people we are working with to change this broken system include carwashers in New York City; the formerly incarcerated in Texas; unemployed people in Washington, DC; and retail workers in Minnesota.  The Center for Community Change is working with grassroots groups fighting for access to good jobs and good wages in over 20 states.

People work in order to make the future brighter for their kids and more secure for their families.  America needs jobs that pay enough for people to earn a decent living and to have a decent life.

Deepak Bhargava is Executive Director of the Center for Community Change.



Valerie Wilson: ‘Policymakers have been slow to use data to inform their agenda’

We know that nearly 70 percent of the income of Americans in the bottom fifth is tied to work, either in the form of wages, employer-provided benefits, or tax credits that are dependent on work (such as the Earned Income Tax Credit).  We also know that in the past year, real hourly wages declined for all workers except those in the bottom 10 percent of the wage distribution, and that the increase for these low-wage workers was due to the states that raised their minimum wages.

This week’s Census report provides an update of our nation’s progress toward greater racial economic equality.  On the positive side, between 2012 and 2013, Latinos experienced a larger decline in poverty and a larger increase in median household income than any other group.  Much of the decline in poverty occurred among children – the poverty rate for Latino children is down 3.4 percentage points to 30.3 percent.  But the rate of poverty among Latino children is still 2.8 times higher than that of whites.  Still,  that isn’t the worst news from the Census.  While child poverty declined for nearly all groups of children, it stands at an astounding 38.3 percent for African American children – 3.6 times the rate for white children.

Reducing child poverty is as much about increasing employment and wages as anything else.  Unfortunately, progress toward greater racial equity in either of these areas has been painfully slow during the recovery, and policymakers have been slow to use data to inform their agenda.

Valerie Wilson is director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE), a nationally recognized source for expert reports and policy analyses on the economic condition of America’s people of color.

Sally Steenland: ‘Infusing grassroots protests and political advocacy with righteous indignation’

The new poverty numbers released by the government show no statistical change in the number of Americans living in poverty: 45.3 million. That number is way too high. And, although it’s been stuck there for several years, we know how to reduce poverty in this country—with policies that make a measurable difference in people’s lives, like raising the minimum wage, providing paid leave and paid sick days, expanding Medicaid, and investing in child care and pre-K programs.

Another thing many of us know:  faith advocacy organizations are on the front lines working to reduce poverty. Faith communities see the human suffering that comes from living in poverty, along with the economic and social injustices that lead to being poor.  That is why faith-based groups are infusing grassroots protests and political advocacy with righteous indignation across the country.

Moral Mondays is fighting for a living wage, fair labor practices, Medicaid expansion, and other policies that recognize human dignity and the importance of family. Interfaith Worker Justice is leading the charge against wage theft and setting up worker centers across the country to fight for workers’ rights.

Along with PICO, NETWORK, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and others, faith-based advocates give each of us an opportunity to help reduce poverty. Whether we get involved on an individual, community, state, or national level, each of us can do our part and put our values into practice.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress

Alice O’Connor: Half the Battle

This week’s release of the predictably dire annual poverty statistics has provided yet another occasion to gin up the narrative of “big government failure” that blames “trillions” in social spending for fostering the behavior that makes and keeps people poor.  Liberal advocates have done a good job of countering that narrative, with evidence of just how much higher—roughly double—measured poverty would be without the legacy of increased social spending the War on Poverty helped to launch.

But today’s anti-poverty activists have also lost sight of the most powerful weapons unleashed by the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), signed 50 years ago in August 1964.  One was macroeconomic policy.  The Council of Economic Advisers linked fighting poverty to its number one policy priority of pushing the economy to its full-employment growth potential—down from the unacceptably high 5.5% to 4% unemployment—which, when combined with robust anti-discrimination, minimum wage, and labor standards, would put workers in better position to combat poverty wages, and everyone in a better position to get a decent paying job.

The other was participatory democracy, embedded in the EOA’s mandate to assure “maximum feasible participation” among the poor in local community action agencies, but more importantly realized in the legacy of grassroots organizing and institution-building that empowered poor people to demand access to the educational and job opportunities, social and legal services, and political representation more affluent Americans had come to expect.

The War on Poverty certainly didn’t get everything right.  But the view it offers of the battlefield, then and now, does tell us where and how much more broadly—beyond defending the safety net and raising the minimum wage—we need to set the sights of an economic justice agenda.

Author of Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History, Alice O’Connor is professor of history at the University of California Santa Barbara.


Deirdra Reed: ‘This is not your grandma’s skid-row poverty’

We should hold our elected officials accountable for their part in job creation and passing policies that support family-sustaining wages.

One in every seven women lives in poverty. This is not and cannot be thought of as your grandma’s “skid row” poverty. This is post-recession, soccer mom poverty. Look at your Facebook friends list and count.  Every seventh (or every one) of those women may be working full-time and still struggling to make ends meet.

I am a woman of color, a working mother (and self-declared Southern Belle). As working women, we should take the U.S. Census Bureau report as confirmation that the economic pressure we feel is real; and we should hold our elected officials accountable for their part in job creation and passing policies that support family-sustaining wages.

As a Senior Organizer with the Center for Community Change, I have been working with community-based groups all year to empower women like myself to band together as we fight for good jobs with good wages, the end of income inequality, and the chance to have a secure retirement future.

At North Carolina Fair Share, a group of women who are recently retired or close-to-retirement are organizing to protect and expand Social Security, with a new credit just for caregivers.

In Atlanta, 9 to 5 and the Racial Justice Action Center’s Women on the Rise program are organizing working-age women, most of whom are heads of households, around the way that poverty is criminalized. For example, for a service industry worker who’s stretching to make it to the end of the month, a parking ticket can turn into thousands of dollars in fines and an arrest warrant.   Someone with means would just pay the ticket. Someone without means could lose everything.

In Alabama, members of the Federation of Childcare Providers of Alabama (FOCAL), most of whom are women who provide childcare in their homes, are organizing to expand Medicaid to help the families that they serve.

I hope next year, our work will have had a big impact in reducing the poverty numbers.  And I hope you will join us.

Deirdra Reed is a Senior Organizer with the Center for Community Change.

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Media and Politics

New Poverty Numbers Remind Latinos: We Must Grow Our Power

Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau released 2013 numbers on poverty in the United States and it is a mixed bag: poverty levels in the U.S. are decreasing—but not nearly enough.  In fact, the changes are so minimal that they are not statistically significant for most groups.  The two positive changes in the numbers are for children and Latinos, both of whom saw decent decreases in terms of their poverty rates and total number of people in poverty.  But the fact remains that poverty levels have not gone back to prerecession numbers for any group, wages continue to be stagnant, and family income remains unchanged.

Let’s flesh this out: it’s worth a reminder that poverty is defined as living at or below the poverty line, which for a family of four in 2013 was $23,834. Yep, that is not a typo—there isn’t supposed to be a “6” where the “2” is. Not sure how anyone makes a living with less than $30K but that is another topic for another day.

Now back to the numbers: 14.5 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2013—that represents more than 45 million people, including 13 million Latinos.  While this poverty rate is lower than in 2012, it is a decrease of only .5 percent.  Among Latinos the decrease was a respectable 2 percentage points—down from 25.6 percent in 2012 to 23.5 percent in 2013.

These poverty numbers are not a reality that we can’t change.

The Latino child poverty rate also fell for a third year in a row. In 2013, the poverty rate among Hispanic kids was 30.4 percent, compared to 33.8 in 2012 and 34.1 in 2011.  But it’s clear we still have a long way to go: there are 5.4 million Hispanic children in poverty, more than any other group; and our kids have among the highest poverty rates of any racial and ethnic group at more than 30 percent.

While the economy improved in 2013 that hasn’t translated into significantly better economic outcomes for the low-income workers or the middle class.   Median family income stayed virtually the same between 2012 and 2013, continuing its 14-year decline due in large part to stagnant wages.  Although income for Latinos did rise from $39,572 to 40,963 in 2013, it is still lower than the $43,025 that Hispanics earned in 2006.

It is also worth underscoring that millions of Latinos are working at poverty-level wages.  While the unemployment rate for Hispanics declined between September 2012 and August 2013—from 8.9 percent to 7.5 percent—more than 40 percent of Latino workers earn poverty level wages.

These poverty numbers are not a reality that we can’t change.  As my colleagues Rebecca Vallas and Melissa Boteach write there are policy solutions that can reverse these trends. For example, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would benefit 6.8 million Latinos; good jobs—with fair pay and benefits such as paid family and medical leave, and paid sick days—would also make a difference in lifting people out of poverty.  Moreover, key investments in education, job training and child care would improve the livelihoods of all Americans, including Latinos.   And let’s not forget immigration reform to help workers who are already contributing to this nation’s economy earn a good living that supports their families.

But Congress seems intent on making things worse. In 2013, this Congress enacted across-the-board cuts in education, job training, and child care services, alongside reductions in nutrition assistance, housing, and other vital programs for low-income families. Congress must change course and invest in job creation, pass comprehensive immigration reform, raise the minimum wage, and enact measures to improve the economic security of all families.

For Latinos the stakes are high.  While the reduction in poverty in our community is good news during an otherwise disappointing time (given the lack of movement on issues that we care about—like immigration reform), much work remains. This new set of numbers are yet another reminder that we need to grow our power and influence so that we elect leaders in Congress who will focus on creating and strengthening the ladder of opportunity for all Americans—including Latinos.

 

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Safety Net

Top 10 Solutions to Cut Poverty and Grow the Middle Class

Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual figures on income, poverty, and health insurance. It revealed that four years into the economic recovery, economic insecurity remains widespread, and low- and middle-income workers have seen no significant wage growth over the past decade.

With the poverty rate at an unacceptable 14.5 percent and economic inequality stuck at historically high levels, one might assume that chronic economic insecurity and an off-kilter economy are the “new normal”—that nothing can be done to fix it.

But there is nothing “normal” or inevitable about more than 45 million Americans living in poverty. It is the direct result of policy choices. With different policy choices, we will see a more equitable economy—it’s as simple as that. 

Here are 10 steps Congress can take to cut poverty, boost economic security, and expand the middle class.

In the late 1960s, the minimum wage was enough to lift a family of three out of poverty. Not so anymore.

1) Create jobs.  

The best pathway out of poverty is a well-paying job. To get back to prerecession employment levels, we must create 5.6 million new jobs. To kick-start job growth now, the federal government should invest in our infrastructure by rebuilding our bridges, railways, roads, ports, schools and libraries, neighborhood parks, and abandoned housing; expanding broadband; develop renewable energy sources; and make other commonsense investments that create jobs and boost our national economy. For example, extending federal unemployment insurance would have created 200,000 new jobs in 2014. But Congress failed to act, leaving 1.3 million Americans and their families without this vital economic lifeline. We should renew federal unemployment insurance, and also build on proven models of subsidized employment to help the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged workers re-enter the labor force.

2) Raise the minimum wage.

In the late 1960s, the minimum wage was enough to lift a family of three out of poverty.  Not so anymore. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 is a poverty wage, and had it been indexed to inflation it would be $10.86 per hour today. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and indexing it to inflation would lift more than 4 million Americans out of poverty. Nearly one in five children would see their parent get a raise. Recent action by states and cities shows that boosting the minimum wage reduces poverty and increases wages.

3) Increase the EITC for childless workers.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lifted more than 6.5 million Americans—including 3.3 million children—above the poverty line in 2012. Kids who receive the EITC are also more likely to graduate from high school and have higher earnings in adulthood. Yet childless workers largely miss out on the benefit—their maximum credit is less than one-tenth that awarded to a worker with two children. Policymakers across the political spectrum have called for boosting the EITC. Importantly, this policy change should be combined with a raise in the minimum wage—one is not a substitute for the other.

4)     Support pay equity.

With female full-time workers earning just 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, we must take action to ensure equal pay for equal work. Closing the gender pay gap would cut poverty in half for working women and their families and add nearly half a trillion dollars to the nation’s gross domestic product.  Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act to hold employers accountable for discriminatory salary practices would be a key first step.

5)     Provide paid leave and paid sick days.

The United States is the only developed country without paid family leave and paid sick days, making it exceedingly difficult for millions of American workers to care for their families without having to sacrifice needed income. Paid leave is an important antipoverty policy—having a child is one of the leading causes of economic hardship. Additionally, nearly 4 in 10 private sector workers—and 7 in 10 low-wage workers—do not have a single paid sick day, so they must forgo needed income in order to care for a sick child or loved one.  The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act, would provide paid leave protection to workers who need to take time off due to their own illness or that of a family member, or after the birth of a child. And the Healthy Families Act would enable workers to earn up to seven job-protected sick days a year.

6)     Establish work schedules that work.

Low-wage and hourly jobs increasingly come with unpredictable and constantly shifting work schedules. These erratic schedules make accessing childcare even more difficult and leave workers uncertain about their monthly income. Further, things many of us take for granted—such as scheduling a doctor’s appointment or even a parent-teacher conference at school—become herculean tasks. The Schedules That Work Act would require that workers receive two weeks advance notice of their schedules, create and protect an employee’s right to request needed schedule changes, and provide guaranteed pay for cancelled or shortened shifts—important first steps towards making work-family balance possible for all workers.

7)     Invest in affordable, high-quality childcare and early education.

The lack of affordable, high-quality childcare serves as a major barrier to reaching the middle class. Federal child care assistance reaches only 1 in 6 eligible children. One year of childcare for an infant costs more than a year of tuition at most states’ four-year public colleges. Poor families who pay out of pocket for childcare spend an average of one-third of their incomes.  Boosting investments in Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, as well as passing the Strong Start for America’s Children Act—which would invest in preschool, high-quality childcare for infants and toddlers, and home visiting services for pregnant women and mothers with infants—will help families obtain the childcare they need in order to work, and improve the future economic mobility of America’s children.

8)     Expand Medicaid.

Since it was signed into law in 2010, the Affordable Care Act has expanded access to high-quality, affordable health coverage for millions of Americans. However, 23 states refuse to expand their Medicaid programs to cover adults up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, which makes the struggle for many families on the brink much harder. Expanding Medicaid means more than just access to healthcare—it frees up limited household income for other basic needs, like paying rent and putting food on the table. Having health coverage is also an important buffer against the economic consequences of illness or injury—unpaid medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy. Studies link Medicaid coverage not only to improved health, improved access to healthcare services, and lower mortality rates, but also to reduced financial strain. It’s time for all states to expand Medicaid.

9)     Reform the criminal justice system and enact policies that support successful re-entry

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Today, more than 1.5 million Americans are behind bars in state and federal prisons, a figure that has increased fivefold since 1980. The impact on communities of color is particularly staggering: One in four African American children who grew up during this time period have had a parent incarcerated.

Mass incarceration is a key driver of poverty. When a parent is incarcerated, his or her family must find a way to make ends meet without a necessary source of income. Additionally, even a minor criminal record can result in lifelong barriers to climbing out of poverty. For example, people with criminal records face substantial barriers to employment, housing, education, public assistance, and building good credit. More than 90 percent of employers now use background checks in hiring, and even an arrest without a conviction can prevent an individual from getting a job. The “one strike and you’re out” policy used by public housing authorities makes it difficult for individuals with even decades-old criminal records to obtain housing, and can obstruct family reunification. And in more than half of U.S. states, individuals with felony drug convictions are burdened with a lifetime ban on receiving certain types of public assistance.

In addition to common-sense sentencing reform to ensure that we no longer fill our nation’s prisons with non-violent, low-level offenders, policymakers should explore alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion programs for individuals with mental health and substance abuse challenges. We must also remove barriers to employment, housing, education, and public assistance. A decades-old criminal record should not consign an individual to a life of poverty.

10)  Do no harm

The across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration—which took effect in 2013—slashed funding for programs and services that provide vital support to low-income families. Sequestration also cost the American economy as many as 1.6 million jobs between mid-2013 and 2014.  As Congress considers a continuing resolution to fund the federal government past October 1 and avoid another government shutdown, it should reject further cuts to vital programs and services which would once again take us in the wrong direction. Thereafter, Congress should make permanent the improvements made to the EITC and the Child Tax Credit as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which are set to expire in 2017. And it should protect and strengthen vital programs such as Section 8 housing, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, which suffered two rounds of deep cuts in 2013 and 2014.

Conclusion

It is not only possible for America to cut poverty, it is possible for us to cut poverty dramatically.  Between 1959 and 1973, a strong economy, investments in family economic security, and new civil rights protections helped cut the U.S. poverty rate in half. Investments in nutrition assistance have improved educational attainment, earnings, health and income among our nation’s children when they reach adulthood. Expansions of public health insurance have lowered infant mortality rates. And, in more recent history, states that have raised the minimum wage have shown the important role that policy plays in reversing wage stagnation.

There is nothing inevitable about poverty, and there is nothing inevitable about the lack of political will to dramatically reduce it.  Share this article with your friends, and get involved.

 

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Safety Net

A First Step Towards Fixing Child Care

One of the most important things we can do to help working families in poverty reach the middle class is promote access to safe, high-quality child care.  This is certainly the case for families with a female head of household, more than 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to the new poverty data released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Earlier this week, the House took a step in the right direction by passing a bill to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which is the primary source of funding to help subsidize child care costs for low-income families. Given that the Senate passed a similar bill last spring, it’s likely to see the President’s desk soon. The program—last modified in 1996 as part of welfare reform—is badly in need of updating to reflect that child care is not only a work support, but also plays an important role in preparing children for school.

The bill makes important changes to the child care system, requiring minimum health and safety standards, background checks for providers, regular monitoring visits, and information to parents so they are aware of past violations. Such changes are long overdue: a number of children have died or sustained serious injuries in child care programs because basic health and safety measures were not in place. Child care standards are also embarrassingly low when compared to service industries like beauty salons and even pet grooming. The bill will apply mostly to children in publicly subsidized child care, but is likely to help raise minimum health and safety standards at all child care facilities and prevent taxpayer dollars from supporting unsafe child care.

In addition, the bill provides some stability by allowing children to remain in the program for a year. Under the current system, families often receive child care assistance for a few months at a time because of a small change in income or job schedule, or job loss. These changes will promote continuous access to early childhood programs for children, thereby helping parents sustain employment.

Child care reauthorization also reflects bipartisan support for early childhood programs—a rarity, given today’s gridlock. With just a week left before Congress adjourns for campaign season, the fact that Republicans and Democrats worked together—and across both houses of Congress—signals that early childhood education and promoting safety and quality is a priority for both parties.

Failing to provide a quality early learning environment is a missed opportunity

While this bill marks an important step forward, there is still much work to do in order to provide affordable access to high-quality child care. The current child care subsidy program reaches just one in six eligible children. And while this bill puts minimum health and safety standards in place that will cost money to implement, there is no funding to defray costs for states. That means that improvements will come out of states’ block grant funds and reduce the number of children they can serve.  If we really want to expand the number of children who receive quality child care, we need to increase funding and tie those increases to high-quality programs.

Without additional funding, states also cannot raise the assistance amounts for families. Current levels are typically too low to support access to high-quality programs that effectively prepare children for school. With the average annual cost of a child care center ranging from $4,000 to $16,000 per year and rising, we run the risk of families turning to the unregulated and sometimes illegal child care market, which is of questionable quality.

It’s also time to move the child care conversation past health and safety standards and consider how to help families access high-quality child care—child care that goes beyond safe, custodial care to support children’s development and school readiness.

We often talk about early learning in the context of efforts to expand access to preschool. However, after decades of brain research, we know that children begin learning from birth. For better or worse, children are absorbing their environment and learning from their experiences immediately. Child care programs that are safe but fail to provide nurturing relationships with providers and enriching environments for establishing cognitive and socio-emotional skills will undermine our collective investment in child care assistance and efforts to promote future social mobility.

Given that most children spend a good deal of time in child care programs before they enter kindergarten, failing to provide a quality early learning environment is a missed opportunity. Children (and parents) don’t care if a program is called child care, Head Start, preschool, or school. To artificially talk about preschool and child care in different veins at the federal policy level is a disservice to the 12 million children who spend much of their days in child care programs. It’s also a disservice to families that would like to attend programs like state preschool and Head Start, but have work schedules that don’t allow for part-day early childhood programs.

Hopefully we’ll get another opportunity to reauthorize CCDBG before another 18 years passes. And next time around, we’ll be ready to have a discussion about how federal funds can support early learning and working families in high-quality child care programs.

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