Ulises’ American Dream Deferred

“As time went on, I saw how my own country, the place where I lived, was actually a bad place. I would see people fight and I thought that would be my life. I thought, that’s me–then I turned 4.”

That’s not a joke. Ulises, an undocumented 16-year-old high school junior living in the Bay Area, is a living example of poverty prematurely aging a child’s soul while impeding him in so many other ways.

Ulises was born in Mexico City in 1998. There were 16 people living in his house, his mom gave birth as a teenager, and his father left in 2003 to find work in California.

“‘For a better life,’” Ulises remembers his father saying.

Ulises and his father were close, and when they were separated, Ulises felt confused and lonely. His father sent money but not letters.

“I was so angry with my dad because there was so little information about him,” he says.

Soon enough, older boys from the neighborhood stepped in to fill the void. When Ulises was 5 years old, an older boy he calls Loco pulled him out of a scuffle in the street and earned his loyalty.

“He was bad like me—you could say gangs—he was in one like me,” Ulises says.

Loco was around 18 and a good fighter. He taught Ulises some martial arts moves, which would come in handy.

“I started getting into more trouble,” Ulises says.

Soon another man, older, whom Ulises won’t name, started plying him with food, like a hamburger covered in pineapple and jalapenos that Ulises to this day describes lovingly. In return, for reasons Ulises doesn’t remember or can’t understand, the man expected the little boy to fight.

“I really regret knowing him,” Ulises says. “He taught me not only how to fight but how to not feel anything, and to not give mercy. I was being used. Even though I was just a kid, I did things no kid should do. That doesn’t make me a kid. That makes me a criminal.”

At 8, Ulises’ mother told him the family would be going to the United States to reunite with his father. He didn’t believe her.  His grandfather drove his daughter and her three children the 30 hours from Mexico City to Tijuana, where they met a coyote who helped them cross the border. Ulises remembers walking through the desert for three days with a dozen strangers.

“My mom was more scared than I had ever seen her,” he says. “She kept looking at us [children], from one to two to three.”

His father met them at a safe house where the travelers left one by one.

“Finally it’s our turn and I don’t even recognize my dad,” Ulises says. “At first he didn’t talk to us, he talked to the person who brought us.”

His dad then drove them to Oakland where he worked as a cook in a Chinese restaurant.

Elementary school was hard for Ulises. Surrounded by Chinese classmates, he was bullied for not understanding English. There were fights and, finally, tears. He says it took 18 months to feel normal, but he still doesn’t feel welcome.

“The only thing I knew growing up was that this country didn’t want any immigrants here,” he says. “Both of my parents live in fear about it. They tell me, ‘Try to get good grades, be a nice kid.’ For years I was fighting and they never told me that in my own country.”

But in the opinion of Ulises and his parents, the difference in the United States is opportunity.

“In Mexico my mom was not able to look me in the eyes and say ‘you will be someone in life.’ And here she was able to say it,” he says.

Many of his old friends in Mexico are in jail, and he heard that Loco was shot and killed. Ulises is in high school in Berkeley and attends an after-school program called College Track that will be with him through college graduation. It’s where we met and set up the supports to help him earn a college-eligible GPA and a college-ready ACT score.

Ulises is also eligible for the California Dream Act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 to give undocumented students access to state financial aid and institutional grants at public universities.

“It’s a country where you can have a little bit of hope,” Ulises says.

A little bit.

Ulises narrowly missed the chance to work legally in the United States. Established by President Obama’s executive order in June 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) grants federal agencies prosecutorial discretion for young people who meet certain criteria, including entry into the United States before the age of 16. But Ulises, his sister, and brother are ineligible.

“Bad timing,” Ulises says.

So while he waits for immigration reform, his family moves forward. His sister just started college, and his mom recently gave birth to a baby girl, a U.S. citizen. The family still lives below the poverty line, but Ulises dreams of majoring in business and earning a culinary degree, following in his father’s footsteps.




The Hard Work of Poverty: Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth

“It is impossible to be good with money when you don’t have any.”

Linda Tirado, Hand to Mouth

In an essay called Why I Make Terrible Decisions, Linda Tirado explained how behavior that seems irrational or irresponsible might actually be sensible and smart if you are poor and the only options available to you are bad ones. That essay has been expanded into a book, Hand to Mouth, and it’s sharp, funny, and foul-mouthed in a manner entirely appropriate for the subject matter. It’s not “too angry” as one reviewer suggested, nor is it “vindictive.”

Hand to Mouth is, instead, indignant: Tirado is outraged not merely that so many people can work so hard for so long and still have so little to show for it, but that those same struggling people are then blamed for their state — dismissed or demonized by demagogues and hacks as lazy or irresponsible. There is only passing mention of Rep. Paul Ryan, but the book might as well be a long subtweet directed at him and others who insist, against all evidence, that if you are poor in America it is because of your own failure to be sufficiently diligent, chaste, sober, or thrifty.

The majority of all poverty in the U.S. is the result of forces beyond individual control

Tirado’s own experiences with poverty are an eloquent rebuttal to such claims, but don’t conclude that this is merely a memoir or a collection of anecdotes; her story shows us in powerful, personal terms what the evidence reveals to be true for millions of other people too.

Here’s some of what we can confirm about the obstacles to getting by in the United States today, all of which can be gleaned from Tirado’s book:

In sum, Tirado is right and Ryan is wrong: The majority of all poverty in the U.S. is the result of forces beyond individual control. This is not ideology or bias but social science, and it is time we stopped humoring ignorance out of misplaced concern for “fairness” or “objectivity”. Just as we dismiss those who deny the evidence of global climate change, so should we mock those who insist that if people only tried harder they wouldn’t be poor. It’s a lie, and Hand to Mouth shows in painstaking human detail how it is a lie and why it is a lie.




Lopsided Housing Policy is Increasing Homelessness in Washington, DC

There’s good news for homebuyers in the D.C. area this fall: The Washington Post reports that analysts expect healthier inventories, stabilizing prices, and fewer bidding wars. To help boost the housing market, Councilmember Grosso introduced a “tax credit” bill last month to cut district taxes for first-time homebuyers.

We have to admit—this sounds great to us. You see, we’re both in DINK households—Dual Income, No Kids. Yuppies in comfortable, do-gooder D.C. jobs. One of us just bought a home, the other is considering it. It’s hard not to read this news and think: Ooh, is the credit retroactive? How can I get a piece of this pie?

But a growing number of D.C. families have a different question about housing: Where are we going to sleep tonight? And our housing policy isn’t helping to provide much of an answer.

Since 2008, the District’s homeless population has increased 73%. Nearly half are people living with families. Though six of America’s ten wealthiest counties are in the D.C. region, one-third of all four member households earn less than $70,000 a year.

At the same time, D.C. housing prices remain sky high. The median price for a D.C. home is half a million dollars. And though the city’s stock of luxury apartments has increased more than 70% since 2010, vacancy rates for older, more affordable apartments remain extremely low.

Taxpayers are spending more to house the wealthiest among us than they are to house low-income families.

This combination — of stagnant incomes and high housing prices — means there’s no reason to expect the rise in D.C. homelessness to end anytime soon.

The Great Recession is of course a key driver of these trends. The bad economy and lingering unemployment rates continue to hurt millions of families across the country. But macroeconomic forces aren’t the only thing prolonging the District’s current homelessness crisis. The split between housing policy for the wealthy and housing policy for most families is making things worse.

What about that legislation offered by Councilmember Grosso? The first-time homebuyer taxes that the legislation would cut help fund the Housing Production Trust Fund—the main source of funding for affordable housing in the District. So it’s a boost for wealthy homebuyers who are doing just fine, and a cut for low- and moderate-income D.C. residents who are struggling.

Unfortunately, boosting homeownership tax programs for top earners while short-changing housing programs for everyone else is a common practice for policymakers. And no U.S. legislative body does it with such aplomb as the U.S. Congress.

One of the few resources to assist low-income households with unaffordable rents is the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, or Section 8.  For four decades, this program has used private-sector solutions to make housing available to those in need.

This year, Congress scaled back rental assistance significantly, even though the housing market has become increasingly unaffordable for many Americans, particularly those with lower incomes. These cuts will result in 80,000 fewer households receiving help, deepening the 72,000 reduction caused by last year’s sequestration.

We know, we know. In this town of policy wonks and political spinners, these are just another set of numbers. It’s easy to gloss over them. But take a moment to imagine the human faces behind these numbers. Tens of thousands of fewer American households are receiving the help they need to sleep comfortably tonight. Fewer vouchers mean less stability for the elderly who scrape by on fixed income; for the adults who want to work; for the children who want to excel at school. It means scores more homeless on the street and in shelters. These are the human consequences of these numbers.

Some argue that the federal government can’t afford to spend any more to ensure that homeless families have a safe place to sleep. This is just ridiculous. Taxpayers are spending more to house the wealthiest among us than they are to house low-income families.

Wait a minute, can that be true?

In 2012, the Heritage Foundation put together a list of twelve low-income housing programs to highlight the size of government “welfare” spending. Those programs cost about $50 billion last year. This may seem like a large sum, but consider that the federal government also spent $211 billion last year on homeownership tax programs.  In fact, the top 10% of earners received about as much housing support from just two of these tax programs – the Mortgage Interest and Real Estate Tax Deductions – as the federal government spent on all of the housing “welfare programs” identified by Heritage. Simply put, the government spends some to help house low-income families, but it spends a lot more to help house high-income families.


There is one more key difference between high-income homeownership tax programs and low-income rental vouchers: the former are scheduled to grow 80% between 2011 and 2019. At the current rate, we’ll be spending $240 billion predominantly to help house the wealthy, while cutting thousands of vouchers for those who desperately need a safe place for their families. If this seems inefficient, inequitable, and callous, that’s because it is.

Congress has the power to change this. The lack of affordable housing is a crisis that our nation must address. In the District, we have families living in hotels, doubled-up with relatives or friends in overcrowded households, and even sleeping in cars. The same is true in communities across the country. We cannot allow this to continue.

We need policymakers to stop indulging the excesses of the wealthy at the expense of struggling families and individuals. We need policymakers to match the scale of the problem with real solutions to end homelessness in America.




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.