Poverty and Homelessness are Human and Civil Rights Issues

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolution. In it he defined and popularized the concept of “paradigm shift”.  Kuhn argues that scientific advancement is not evolutionary, but a “series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions”, and in those revolutions “one conceptual world view is replaced by another”.

I feel that we need a paradigm shift in how we perceive the problems of poverty and homelessness and that it is time, right now, for an intellectually violent revolution.

We can start by no longer calling efforts to address poverty a ‘War on Poverty’. However well-intentioned that phrase might have been in its original use, it has come to mean something else entirely over time. A war on poverty now implies that poverty, and the poor, are enemies we must overcome as a society.

In an article published this week by TalkPoverty called How We Punish People for Being Poor  Rebecca Vallas points out the sundry ways our society blithely exploits the poor.  There are also news reports every day depicting how we harass, fine, incarcerate and abuse people for the ‘crime’ of being poor.

But these articles and reports do not address the underlying issue of why our society feels it has the right to punish people for being poor.

Rather than point out the reasons for that, and analyzing them – we need a paradigm shift away from the attitudes and beliefs that allow these kinds of abuses to take place as a matter of course.

So how do we do this?

We need to start by viewing and treating poverty and homelessness as what they are: human and civil rights issues.

We need to start by viewing and treating poverty and homelessness as what they are: human and civil rights issues.

We’ve seen this happen before: Blacks were characterized as inferior to Whites (and treated that way); women were thought of as window dressing for men’s lives (and treated that way); and LGBT people were dismissed as abnormal (and treated that way).

Nothing fundamentally changed in how we viewed these groups of persons until we started recognizing them as fully human, entitled to the same human and constitutional rights as anyone else.

The same has to happen now with the poor.  Here are my specific recommendations:

Decriminalize homelessness. But don’t stop there; let’s make it a criminal offense, a hate crime, for anyone caught abusing the poor and homeless just for being poor or homeless.

A national Housing First mandate. Housing is the humane and dignified solution to homelessness, not isolating, abusing, fining and imprisoning.

Do whatever it takes to force every state to accept Medicaid expansion. Basic healthcare is a human right; not something that should be denied for short-sighted political reasons.

Well, I’d like to stop right there. One of the problems of trying to address poverty and homelessness is there are so many sub-issues one can get lost in them all and end up accomplishing nothing.

This Friday, October 10th, marks World Homeless Action Day. Let’s observe it by beginning to recognize poverty and homelessness as conditions of human existence—protected by moral and civil law—and not as social abnormalities that need to be warred against psychologically, emotionally and physically.



The Unfair Price: Poverty in the LGBT Community

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Census Bureau released updated poverty numbers for 2013. You probably already know the depressing story – poverty rates remained relatively unchanged across the country; the rate of poverty for children dropped by two percentage points, but still nearly one-in-five American children lives in poverty.

What you may not know is what the numbers look like for LGBT Americans. Our latest report, Paying an Unfair Price: The Financial Penalty for Being LGBT in America, examines how anti-LGBT laws drive economic insecurity for LGBT people, including higher rates of poverty.

LGBT people disproportionately struggle with poverty. Twenty percent of LGBT people living alone have annual incomes of less than $12,000 compared to 17% of non-LGBT people living alone. Transgender people are four times more likely to have incomes under $10,000 per year than the general population despite having higher rates of education.

Poverty(click to expand the infographic)

There is a clear connection between economic insecurity and anti-LGBT laws. Nineteen states lack almost any form of legal protections for LGBT people, and that has a real, tangible economic impact. When a gay or lesbian worker can be fired legally in 29 states; when a transgender person can be denied comprehensive health insurance in 42 states; or when a lesbian couple can be evicted in 29 states—the economic toll adds up.


All LGBT Americans are affected in one way or another, but the impact of these penalties is felt most acutely by those who are most vulnerable: LGBT families with children; older same-sex couples; and LGBT people and families who are already living near or below the poverty line, including a disproportionate number of LGBT people of color and LGBT people living in rural communities.

When LGBT people are already poor, they have no ability to absorb these financial penalties. For example, a transgender person in a state lacking housing protections can be evicted without cause or warning. She then finds herself unable to piece together a security deposit for a new apartment or to afford a more expensive apartment leased by a landlord who doesn’t discriminate.

Struggling LGBT people also lack the financial resources needed to secure legal protections for themselves and their families. For example, a second-parent adoption—which allows a non-biological parent to be recognized as a parent—can cost more than $2,000. For a poor lesbian couple, this expense is too much to bear. Without a legal tie between parent and child, the couple is left to simply hope for the best, a potentially devastating situation should the legal parent die.

Our report includes a number of stories that show the devastating effect of discrimination.  But we also need more data about poverty in the LGBT community if we are to improve the economic security of all people living in the United States. LGBT people were absent in the released U.S. Census poverty numbers, although it is indeed possible to examine data on same-sex couples, as our research and research by others have shown. As for single LGBT people—since the Census doesn’t ask about sexual orientation or gender identity—researchers cannot track their poverty rates. Government surveys need to be modernized to include gender identity and sexual orientation in order to fully understand the scope of poverty and find the most effective policy solutions.

It is time to put an end to the financial penalties that LGBT Americans face simply because they are LGBT. Policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels need to update laws to prohibit discrimination against LGBT people in areas ranging from hiring to housing to credit. Policymakers also need to update the legal definitions and regulations of “family” so that LGBT families have access to the same protections and benefits that are available to other families.

Our policy responses to poverty in America are destined to fall short if they fail to address the economic experiences of LGBT families and individuals.



How We Punish People for Being Poor

This past weekend, I was part of a panel discussion on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry with New York Times reporter Michael Corkery, whose reporting on the rise in subprime auto loans is as horrifying as it is important.

In what seems a reprisal of the predatory practices that led up to the subprime mortgage crisis, low-income individuals are being sold auto loans at twice the actual value of the car, with interest rates as high as 29 percent. They can end up with monthly payments of $500—more than most of the borrowers spend on food in a month, and certainly more than most can realistically afford. Many dealers appear in essence to be setting up low-income borrowers to fail.

Dealers are also making use of a new collection tool called a “starter-interrupter device” that allows them not only to track a borrower’s movements through GPS, but to shut off a car with the tap of a smartphone—which many dealers do even just one or two days after a borrower misses a payment. One Nevada woman describes the terrifying experience of having her car shut off while driving on the freeway. And repossession of their cars is far from the end of the line for many borrowers; they can be chased for months and even years afterward to pay down the remainder of the loan.

Predatory subprime auto loans are just the latest in a long line of policies and practices that make it expensive to be poor—something I saw every day representing low-income clients as a legal aid attorney.

Predatory subprime auto loans are just the latest in a long line of policies and practices that make it expensive to be poor

Low-income individuals are much more likely to be hit by bank fees, such as monthly maintenance fees if their checking account falls below a required minimum balance—balances as high as $1,500 at leading banks such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo—not to mention steep overdraft fees. For the more than 10 million U.S. households who lack a bank account, check cashers charge fees as high as 5 percent. This may not sound like much, but consider a low-income worker who takes home around $1,500 per month: She’d pay $75 just to cash her paychecks. Add in the cost of money orders—which she’ll need to pay her rent and other bills—and we’re talking about $1,000 per year just for financial services.

Whether or not they have a bank account, very few low-income families have emergency savings, and more than two-thirds report that they’d be unable to come up with $2,000 in 30 days in the event of an emergency expense such as a broken water heater or unexpected medical bill. Out of options, many turn to payday loans for needed cash. Jon Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, gave this important issue perhaps the best treatment I’ve seen in some time, detailing how families who turn to predatory payday loans can end up trapped in an inescapable cycle of debt at 400 percent annual interest.

Then there’s the rent-to-own industry.  Through weekly installments, low-income families with bad credit or no credit can end up paying as much as two and a half times the actual cost of household basics like a washer and dryer set, or a laptop for their teen to do his homework.

Grocery shopping can bring added costs too. For families who can’t afford to buy in bulk, the savings Costco offers are out of reach. And for those without a car, living in low-income neighborhoods without a convenient supermarket, it’s either cab or bus fare to haul groceries back, or swallowing the markup at the neighborhood corner store.

And then there’s the issue of time. Something I heard about frequently from my clients when I was in legal aid was how much extra time everything takes when you’re poor. Many told of taking three buses to work and back, and spending as many as five hours in transit to get to and from their jobs every day. Those who needed to turn to public assistance to make ends meet would describe waiting at the welfare office all day long simply to report a change in their income.

Also worth noting is the criminalization of poverty and the high costs that result. In a nationwide trend documented by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a growing number of states and cities have laws on the books that may seem neutral—prohibiting activities such as sidewalk-sitting, public urination, and “aggressive panhandling”—but which really target the homeless. (The classic Anatole France quote comes to mind: “The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”)

Arresting a homeless person for public urination when there are no public bathroom facilities is not only a poor use of law enforcement resources, it also sets in motion a vicious cycle: The arrested individual will be unable to afford bail, as well as any fees levied as punishment, and nonpayment of those fees may then land him back in jail.

In an extreme example, in the state of Arkansas, missing a rent payment is a criminal offense. If a tenant is even one day late with the rent, his landlord can legally evict him—and if the tenant isn’t out in 10 days, he can wind up in jail.

In yet another penny-wise and pound-foolish trend, states and localities are increasingly relying on enforcement of traffic violations—as well as fines and fees levied on individuals involved with the criminal justice system—as sources of revenue. In Ferguson, Missouri, the city relied on rising municipal court fines to make up a whopping 20 percent of its $12.75 million budget in 2013. Ability to pay is often ignored when it comes to these types of fines and fees, leaving individuals stuck in a cycle of debt long after they’ve paid their debt to society. While debtor’s prison was long ago declared unconstitutional, failure to pay can be a path back to jail in many states.

It’s good to see the New York Times, Melissa Harris-Perry, and others paying attention to these injustices. But that’s just the first step. If we are truly interested in building an America that is defined by opportunity, we must commit to enacting public policies that support rather than impede upward mobility.

Editor’s Note: To watch both segments of the Melissa Harris-Perry show that featured Rebecca as part of a panel discussing the high cost of being poor click here and here.



Out of the shadows and out of poverty: Reducing poverty through immigration reform

The Census Bureau recently released new data on poverty in the United States. While the coverage that followed provided an overview of the new numbers, and in the case of TalkPoverty examined policy choices that would dramatically reduce poverty, there is one important issue that received little attention: the potential for immigration reform to create a pathway out of poverty, by enabling undocumented immigrants to work legally and maximize their earnings.

Today, there are an estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants living in the US. Under current immigration law, these individuals are barred from working legally and, as a result, regularly self-select into jobs that minimize their risk of detection and deportation. Most undocumented workers ultimately find themselves in low-wage jobs where they are susceptible to exploitation and unable to exert their labor rights. In fact, researchers have found that undocumented workers are nearly three times more likely to experience wage theft than legal workers. It’s a simple fact: our broken immigration system is forcing families to live under precarious financial conditions.

Our broken immigration system is forcing families to live under precarious financial conditions.

Thankfully, there are smart and much needed policy changes on the horizon.

As Republican House Speaker John Boehner refuses to hold a vote on immigration reform, President Obama is expected to take administrative action.  While the President’s action would be limited and temporary, it would greatly improve the financial security of undocumented immigrants.

Through executive action, the president can focus enforcement resources on high-priority targets, such as criminals and those who threaten national security, while permitting a specific group of people to apply for a temporary work permit and a reprieve from deportation. This process is known as deferred action and would likely be extended to undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for a significant number of years and have family ties here. But what does this immigration fix have to do with poverty?


The acquisition of temporary work permits would allow undocumented workers to apply for jobs that best match their skills, thereby maximizing their earning potential. Equally important, the ability to work legally decreases the likelihood that these workers will be victims of labor abuses, ranging from wage theft to unsafe working conditions.

A recent report by the Center for American Progress estimated that greater labor market mobility and stronger workplace protections would increase the average undocumented immigrant’s earnings by 8.5 percent, or an additional $1,872 each year.  This increase in income is equivalent to 37 percent of average food expenditures—or 27 percent of average transportation costs—for families earning between $30,000 and $39,999 annually (which is the average income bracket for families with an undocumented immigrant).

It’s clear that the fiscal benefits of deferred action would pull some immigrant families out of poverty, keep others from slipping into it, and strengthen the financial security of all of these families.

But it’s not just the families of undocumented immigrants who would benefit from deferred action, all Americans would be better off. As undocumented immigrants receive temporary work permits, they will transition from the informal to formal economy and begin paying taxes legally. In fact, allowing undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least 10 years to apply for work permits would increase payroll tax revenues by an estimated $33 billion over five years—that means more resources for vital programs like Social Security that benefit everyone.

Only congressional action will completely fix our broken immigration system. And it’s only through permanent reform that the US will fully realize the fiscal benefits of bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. But until Congress takes up immigration reform, executive action would begin the process of fixing our system.

As Americans wait for President Obama to announce which executive actions on immigration he will take, they should remember that a step toward fixing our immigration system is a step toward greater financial security for everyone.




In Our Backyard Interview: Understanding Poverty and Inequality in D.C.

This interview with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) kicks off a series of interviews with D.C. service providers, advocates, and low-income people for TalkPoverty’s In Our Backyard project. DCFPI does critical work educating policymakers and the public about the policies we need to reduce poverty in the nation’s capital.

In Our Backyard aims to highlight efforts to dramatically reduce poverty and inequality in our city. If you are interested in writing for the project, please email us at

TalkPoverty: What were the reasons and the need for the creation of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute [DCFPI]?

Ed Lazere: We were created in part because the city passed a pretty steep and regressive tax cut on the idea that we needed to cut our top income tax rate because otherwise people would flee the city which is not really supported by the research at all. There wasn’t a DCFPI to respond to that argument.

We see ourselves as using a combination of research and putting the numbers out there for the advocacy community, hopefully communicated in a strategic way, and then partnering with other organizations to try to shape the city’s budget to be more focused on the needs of low-income residents; and to do research that highlights the challenges that low-income residents face, like affordable housing or poverty, and to address working conditions, like the minimum wage or paid sick leave.

TalkPoverty: Can you describe poverty in the nation’s capital for people who know nothing about it?

Jenny Reed: The poverty rate in D.C. is a little over 18%. There were about 109,000 residents living below the poverty line in 2012. Our poverty rate has continued to be high even during strong periods of economic growth in the city. We have about 1 in 4 kids living in poverty, but in the eastern and southern parts [of the city], child poverty rates are much higher. In some neighborhoods it’s 50%.

Lazere: The poverty rate consists almost entirely of people of color… African American and Latino. Income inequality is quite dramatic in the District. If you divide the population, ranking them top to bottom, the bottom earners were even with most large U.S. cities, but at the top, the average income is the highest in the country. As a result the gap between the top and the bottom is one of the highest in the country. If you’re living in a community with substantial inequality, a lot of things may be more expensive, like housing, because it’s all one market. The high-income people are shopping in the same market as you are. They’re going out to restaurants or theater and you don’t. There’s a psychological effect of being at the bottom of a rung of a very unequal society.

Reed: We have found that a large share of people in families in poverty work. For a lot of people the problem is getting access to full time year-round work, and full time year-round work that actually pays a decent wage. D.C. recently increased its minimum wage.  It will be $11.50 by 2016. The first phase of the increase went into effect July 1 up to $9.50.  We think that will help…. We did a simulation that showed if you could get everyone into a $15 an-hour job and access to full time year-round work you could move about 80% of the people [out of] poverty in D.C.

Lazere: The minimum wage was passed the same day as something almost as equally monumental [that] got almost no attention, which was an expansion of our paid sick leave requirement. D.C. is fairly unique among jurisdictions in requiring every employer to provide some amount of paid leave for illness or domestic violence. [That] legislation passed in 2008, but you weren’t eligible until you’d been on the job for almost year. For most low-wage workers, they’re in an industry where the turnover is often 100% within a year, so it was likely that many, many people never got to the point where they started accruing [leave].

The bill that passed last fall made sure all workers were covered. They start accruing leave from the first day on the job, and there are no exclusions for tipped restaurant workers as there had been before. That was big. It’s pretty dramatic and people we know, particularly single parents who have the highest poverty rate, often face challenges if a child is sick. Do I stay home with them and risk losing my job because I don’t have paid sick leave? Now for at least some number of people they won’t have to make that difficult choice.

TalkPoverty: What is the unemployment rate in D.C.?

Lazere: For people with [just a high school degree], it’s about 20 percent. We’re talking about an unemployment rate that’s twice what the national unemployment [rate] peaked at during the great recession—in the middle of a city where construction cranes are everywhere, people are building ugly popup housing, [and] restaurants are opening left and right.

TalkPoverty: So what do you make of that? One guy who wrote for us in Maryland lost 6 people in two years to gun violence, this young guy. He found a job in community development and he takes people to job fairs and describes the devastation of 50 people going and getting nothing. He said just what you said: we see all of these shovel-ready projects starting and none of the jobs going to low-income people who are ready to work. What do you make of that?

Reed: Workforce development is probably one of the most important things we can do, but it’s really hard to do well. There are a couple ways the city really needs to do a better job. One is the Workforce Investment Council which they’ve recently beefed up. [It’s comprised of] business leaders, developers, labor, and government officials that are all supposed to get together and say, “This is where D.C. should be investing its workforce development dollars.” They have an executive director, but they really are just getting started.

Then there’s the workforce intermediary which DCFPI and D.C. Appleseed and Employment Justice Center advocated for. It’s sort of a matchmaker. They’re supposed to be the liaison between say the developer for the convention center hotel that was recently built and the Department of Employment Services to say, “I’ve got all of these people who have these skills. You need these people with these skills. Let’s put them together.” But I don’t think that the Workforce Intermediary has really been able do anything. They’re still kind of figuring themselves out.

Lazere: You hear from a lot of D.C. residents: “I got training for a job and then there wasn’t a job at the end.” They get understandably discouraged and not very optimistic about participating in other training after that.

TalkPoverty: You hear a lot of that with TANF training programs too…

Lazere: It’s a similar thing. They used to go through the same ropes of, “Let’s get your resume ready, let’s help you get some business clothes and teach you how to do an interview.” And a lot of people didn’t show up because they were like, “I’ve done this already. What I really need is just for you to connect me to a decent paying job.”

The District made an effort to revamp its “one size fits all” TANF employment program, largely because we highlighted the problems.  The current program is not perfect but still is far more customized than the old program.  DCFPI is in the midst of assessing how well the new TANF employment program is working.

Reed: I think that there’s concern about some of the major D.C. programs like our transitional employment program or our one-stop centers [that] haven’t really shown great outcomes. They might be giving people something to do, but it’s not connecting them to a job and that’s a big problem.

Lazere: I just learned recently that while the city monitors for the federal programs whether someone got a job and how long they kept it and ways they got it, they don’t really do that for the locally funded programs. How can you have and modify and shape an effective program if you’re not looking at how well you’re doing?

TalkPoverty: How do you think the city can balance having people come into areas that were previously less developed with providing affordable housing for low-income people?

Reed:  Where I think D.C. could do a better job is being more proactive about preservation. We absolutely need to build more affordable housing, but we also need to make sure we’re holding on to what we have. We’re not helping people stay in the neighborhoods as they develop around them. We could be more proactive about tying affordable housing preservation strategies to major economic development projects. Just like you do [an] environmental analysis, or traffic analysis, you could do an affordable housing analysis and say, “What’s at risk here? Is there project-based Section 8 housing that we think owners might want to opt-out of? Are there low-income buildings with tenants that we think the owner might try to sell? Can the district purchase it? Can the tenants purchase it? What can we do to keep the neighborhood affordable?”

You won’t be able to keep every unit, but it’s actually a lot cheaper for the city to preserve units or build new affordable housing prior to development then to try and do it after development has started.

Lazere: The way that governments do their budgets it tends to be fairly incremental. We spent $100 million [on affordable housing] this year, so we’ll spend $102 million next year and then $103 million. That’s just not really going to work. With prices rising so fast, we’re losing ground every year. Once you’ve lost a neighborhood, you’ve lost this tremendous opportunity to preserve affordable housing for a long period of time.

We spend about $2 billion as a city on education, [and] we spend $500 million on our police department… So why is it that in a city where the number one challenge for residents is affordable housing, we spend three times on public safety when crime is going down than what we spend on housing? And the number of homeless families jumped 23% or 25% this year.

TalkPoverty: 25% THIS YEAR? When the economy’s supposed to be getting better…that goes to your recovery report. Recovery for who?

Reed: That was a huge issue this past winter. There was a really significant rise in the number of homeless families and the D.C. shelter system was incredibly overwhelmed. We put families in recreation centers for one night only and they had to reapply for shelter every day. If it wasn’t below 32 [degrees] it was tough luck. You had to be out. A pro-bono law firm brought a class action against the city. They’ve won two injunctions against the district.

TalkPoverty: Against that policy?

Reed: Both of the judges ruled in favor of the plaintiff, finding that the recreation centers violated the law. By law families are supposed to be placed in rooms or apartment-style shelters and what they did was set up partitions like what you see when you’re giving blood. It was really horrible the way they set them up. Families couldn’t get in until after 9 and they had to leave by 7 in the morning. They couldn’t use the showers even though the showers were there. There was no food. The lights were kept on all night, there was no privacy. The judges found not only was it a violation of the law but it was causing irreparable harm to the children.

Lazere: There’s a new national model that started largely with the Recovery Act of getting people out of shelter quickly through rapid rehousing because shelter is not a good place for anybody to live.

I think the issue with rapid rehousing in D.C. is with housing so expensive, most families who become homeless are very young and have very limited job experience. When you [try to] put them into an apartment that’s $1,000 a month even that’s hard to find right? Then to tell them a year from now you’re on your own [because rent is no longer covered after one year]—on a… job that pays $10.00 an hour.  A lot of families are very nervous about going into rapid rehousing because when they’re in shelter it may be crappy but at least they get to stay.

Lazere: Part of the solution is to get someone out of shelter quickly. You hope that rapid rehousing will give them the stability they need to get their life back together. But there still needs to be something at the end [when the rent subsidy runs out] for that significant number of people who may have a job that may be more stable, but still not enough to [pay for] their home on their own.

Reed: Maybe we should give people longer than a year to get settled and get to the point where they can afford the rent. We should make sure people aren’t paying too much of their income towards rent. Program rules allow maybe 45% [of a person’s income toward rent], which is way too high. I understand maybe 30% isn’t achievable, but 35% maybe max. More than that and we’re getting into a likelihood that they’re going to end up back in shelter.

There’s a lot on the homeless services front that we could be doing. We kind of backed away from our permanent supportive housing investments for the chronically homeless. It combines long-term affordable housing with intensive services. Chronically homeless are folks with severe mental health or chronic health issues and they really need intensive supports to maintain their housing.  It’s shown to save a ton of money because there’s less reliance on costly emergency services.

D.C. was progressing pretty well and just kind of stopped investing in the program. In the upcoming budget, we will start making fairly good investments again. For example, the mayor put in money so we’ll end chronic homelessness among veterans in 2015 which is part of a federal campaign as well. We can end chronic homelessness in D.C. There’s about 2,300 families and individuals. It’s not an unachievable number. There’s a plan. We just need to fully invest in it to get it done.