First Person

It’s Time for an Executive Order to Ban the Box

When I got out of prison 30 years ago, the only job I could get took me right back inside the gates of San Quentin, where I helped inmates through the prison’s law office. What I witnessed 30 years ago is still happening now: that small box on job applications that asks have you ever been convicted of a crime continues to make it tough for formerly incarcerated folks to get a job.

When I checked in with people asking how their job searches were going, it was always the same answer: checking “yes” on that box meant their job application was tossed aside. Then one day when I went to Jack in the Box for lunch, the guy behind the counter had tattoos all over his arms, tattoos I had seen on prisoners. I asked him how he got this job and found out that Jack in the Box did not ask potential employees about their criminal records.

So 11 years ago, All of Us or None, the organization I co-founded, started the campaign called “Ban the Box” to give Formerly Incarcerated People a better chance at getting a job – so they can provide for themselves and their families, and fully reenter society. Studies have shown that three out of every five formerly incarcerated folks remain jobless one year after they are released from prison.

We’ve been successful at winning “Ban the Box” campaigns in 13 states and nearly 70 cities and counties. Now we think it’s time for the federal government to weigh in.

A few weeks ago I was part of a delegation of Formerly Incarcerated People who went to the White House to ask for its support for “Ban the Box.” We want an executive order eliminating exclusionary questions on initial job applications. We are also asking for a presidential memorandum to be issued to the Office of Personnel Management and other federal agencies, directing the government to make the necessary adjustments to federal hiring practices.

The memo should instruct federal agencies to develop policies and procedures that will conform with our request for the box to be banned in the private sector. In order for the federal government to lead, it should model the practice it wants the private sector to follow.

Some people may say that Formerly Incarcerated People are asking for an entitlement and special privileges. To them I say that we also pay taxes that finance the work of the federal government, so we deserve the same access to those job opportunities that everyone else has. Especially since no one is alleging that we become bad employees – in fact, quite the opposite is true. What really produces public safety is food, clothing, and shelter, and in order to secure those you generally need a job.

However, Ban the Box is much more than just the removal of the dreaded question about conviction history from employment applications. Ban the Box is actually a larger effort to dismantle structural discrimination. For example, we demand the right to return to our families upon release. Research shows our families are a strong source of support and may live in public housing, from which we are often banned. With the kind of pervasive discrimination we face—not only with jobs but also housing, professional licenses, and school applications—it’s time to consider laws that protect Formerly Incarcerated People from discrimination.

As Formerly Incarcerated People, we must own our civil and human rights struggle and the changes we want. Formerly Incarcerated People are a community, including people involved in national organizing. I believe the way these changes in federal hiring practices are rolled out is almost as important as the changes themselves. That’s why we are asking that the executive order be announced at a national strategy session organized by directly impacted people.

To prepare for that event, we would like cabinet-level officials to conduct ten different town halls in five different states for communities directly impacted by incarceration. This will provide venues for our community to speak with, and be recognized by, influential and prominent people in government who normally talk about us but not with us.

Imagine if this struggle were being waged by organized groups of women or farmworkers – it would be inconceivable to make so many major statements without directly addressing representatives of those organizations.  If we are going to change the circumstances in which we all live, we cannot continue to leave so many Formerly Incarcerated People – 65 million – outside of societal and government norms.

An executive order banning the box on federal contractor employment applications, supported by a presidential memorandum and announced at a national strategy session organized by Formerly Incarcerated People, would demonstrate to the marginalized population that our voices are genuinely heard, and that we do have some fundamental access to U.S. democracy.





Boosting Economic Mobility through the EITC

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is one of our nation’s most effective anti-poverty programs, helping more than 6.5 million Americans—including 3.3 million children—avoid poverty in 2012. The EITC also has the rare distinction of being regularly showered with bipartisan support—no small feat in a historically gridlocked Congress.

In addition to reducing financial hardship in the near term, extensive research shows that the EITC is also an investment in the future health and wealth of our nation. For example, a more generous EITC substantially reduces the incidence of low birth weight, a key indicator of both infant health and later-life outcomes. Recognizing these benefits, lawmakers made important improvements to the EITC under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, including boosting the credit for married couples and larger families. These improvements should be made permanent before they expire in December 2017.

In a new Center for American Progress report, we offer new ideas to build on the EITC’s success, strengthening the credit in order to increase economic mobility. In addition to boosting the EITC for childless workers—a recommendation that has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike—and lowering the age of eligibility (currently 25) to include younger workers without children, we propose making the EITC a gateway to higher education and training through the Pell Grant program. We also propose an “Early Refund” option which would allow workers to receive a portion of the earned credit in advance of tax-time, lessening the need to turn to predatory payday loans in order to make ends meet. Finally, we recommend that strengthening the EITC should go hand in hand with raising the minimum wage in order to maximize the effectiveness of both policies for low-income working families.

Sharron, a bus driver in Montgomery County, Maryland, volunteers at her local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site and knows first-hand how important the EITC is for struggling families. For low-income single parents with children, for example, the EITC can boost earnings by as much as 45 percent. For someone like Sharron, however—working full-time at minimum wage, but without dependent children—the estimated EITC next year will be just $22. If the EITC were boosted for childless workers, her credit would increase to about $542.

In addition, Sharron recently suffered an unexpected loss of income. A few weeks ago, she was transferred by her employer, and her work is on hold while the transition takes effect. As of last week she was still waiting, with no paycheck, and very little money left in her bank account. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if she has to wait much longer.

For workers like Sharron, financial shocks don’t wait until tax time. When faced with an unexpected drop in income, a medical bill, or a broken-down car, many low-wage workers are forced to turn to payday lenders for immediate financial help. But the triple-digit annual interest rates that these lenders typically charge can quickly turn a small loan into a vicious spiral of debt. To help workers like Sharron avoid these predatory loans and make ends meet, we propose an “Early Refund” option of up to $500.  While that might seem modest compared to an average EITC of $2,335, it exceeds the size of the typical payday loan, which is $375.

Weathering emergencies isn’t the only reason to allow workers to access a portion of the EITC they have earned prior to tax season. A shortfall of cash may prevent families from making beneficial investments in their own future. A required training course for a new job, a summer math camp for a talented child—these are small expenditures today that pay significant dividends tomorrow. But these opportunities for advancement are often no longer available come spring when a family finally receives its EITC.

The EITC could be bolstered as a tool for economic mobility in other ways as well. Individuals who receive federal assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and several other types of public benefits are automatically eligible for the maximum Pell Grant; we recommend automatic eligibility for EITC recipients as well. This would streamline the process for receiving federal aid for higher education and training and put educational advancement within reach for more low-income workers and their families.

Strengthening the EITC to promote financial security, encourage savings, and increase access to education and training would not only increase its effectiveness in combatting poverty, but also create new pathways to the middle class.



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.