First Person

After the Election: Organize, Mobilize, Agitate…then Vote.

Editor’s Note: On the weekend following the election, the Half in Ten campaign co-hosted a poverty summit in Miami, Florida with Catalyst Miami, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a community and economy that benefit all of the state’s residents.  More than 200 political and civic leaders, advocates, and community residents discussed a range of issues and strategies to address them, including: Medicaid expansion, immigration reform, criminal justice, housing and transportation, wages and opportunity, education, and media coverage of poverty. 

Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard closed the summit with the following remarks.

I lead the Florida Democratic Party so on Wednesday I was pretty spent emotionally and physically.  But this anti-poverty summit we had just around the corner made me psyched.  It served as a reminder: “Time to get up off your butt.  We got work to do.”

We’ve got to organize, and we’ve got to change hearts and minds.

And we have a message that we can’t forget and have to keep pushing: People are suffering.  People are suffering.  People are suffering.  Not only in Miami, Florida, but nationwide—and we must serve as a catalyst for change.

There is a lot of money, and a lot of egos, trying to deafen this message.  And we need to stop waiting on ‘go betweens’ to deliver our message for us.

You don’t need people to be your voice—you are the voice

You all are the halls of power.  You don’t need people to be your voice—you are the voice.  You need to be active—at city hall, at the state capitol, and in Washington, DC.

People will see in you a chance to change the world we live in.  They will see the ability to be their own Gandhi, their own Dr. King, their own catalyst for change.

There’s only one way to change income inequality in this country: organize, mobilize, agitate and disrupt the current flow of B.S. from Tallahassee to D.C.

Your job is to hold the policymakers fully accountable.  And that doesn’t begin at the ballot box.  It needs to be a constant barrage that says, ‘If you are not the change agent I need, you are dismissed.’

And we need to believe in the power of the vote.  Scotland recently voted on whether to separate from Great Britain—89 percent of the voting population participated.

That’s called democracy.

Denmark—on a regular basis—has no less than 86 percent voter participation.  That’s why they have a $22 an hour minimum wage.  Unionized labor.  Universal healthcare.  Paid college tuition.  How?  It begins and ends with 86 percent participation every election.

When you average about 40 percent participation like we do in the United States—you get what you deserve.

So organize, mobilize, agitate—be the change agent you need to be.



‘Poor Gays’

“Poor gays!”

No, that’s not a statement of sympathy for a discriminated minority – but rather a subsection of that minority which gets little notice. The intersection of LGBT people and poverty is a largely overlooked reality.

Cameron and Mitchell, Modern Family’s much beloved gay couple, live in a lovely home and not only have the resources to adopt an Asian child, but the time to dote on her. Neil Patrick Harris and his husband in real life, David Burtka, have two adorable twins, and presumably the resources to hire nannies to watch the children while they pursue their careers. Judging from gay couples in the media, one might be tempted into believing that LGBT people are all thriving and reasonably affluent — not to mention overwhelmingly male and white. Nothing could be further from the truth.

An extraordinary report, New Patterns of Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community, by M.V. Lee Badgett, Laura Durso and Alyssa Schneebaum from the Williams Institute (UCLA School of Law), presents a much more complete and accurate view of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people and families than the one that resides in most people’s minds.

The authors note that in reality same-sex couples are more vulnerable to poverty than married couples who are different-sex. Children of same-sex couples fare even worse—they are almost twice as likely to be poor than their peers in different-sex couple households. The most vulnerable of all are African-American children in gay male households—they have a poverty rate of more than 52 percent—higher than any children in any other household type. Children living with lesbian couples are also struggling with a poverty rate of nearly 38 percent—this compared to a national child poverty rate of approximately 20 percent (also atrocious).

The report authors point to some of the reasons so many LGB families are living on the brink, including, “susceptibility to employment discrimination, higher rates of being uninsured and a lack of access to various tax and other financial benefits via exclusion from the right to marry.”

The numbers of LGB parents raising children (biological, adopted and step-children) is not small—and they are not mostly from coastal metropolitan centers no matter what pop culture and the media might lead you to believe. In fact, the states with the largest concentrations of LGB couples raising children—between 22-26 percent of all LGB couples in these states—are Mississippi, Wyoming, Alaska, Idaho and Montana.

It is time we recognize how the interlocking oppressions of race and gender affect our LGBT community

Yet most of these states do not currently have marriage equality and its attendant benefits for married couples and their children. In every state except for Florida, Maine and the District of Columbia, between 15-22 percent of LGB couples are raising children. So this is clearly not just an urban phenomenon. Indeed, as reported in the New York Times, “the data show, child rearing among same-sex couples is more common in the South than in any other region of the country… Gay couples in Southern states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are more likely to be raising children than their counterparts on the West Coast, in New York and in New England.”

It is very difficult to separate the effects of being LGBT and poor from the additional factors of race and gender. All of these factors come together in a perfect storm which increases the likelihood of poverty among LGBT families raising children.

In Race/Ethnicity, Gender and Socioeconomic Wellbeing of Individuals in Same-sex Couples, report co-authors Bianca Wilson and Angeliki Kastanis found that people of color involved in same-sex relationships are more likely to have kids compared to whites in same-sex couples. In fact, 1 of every 3 individuals in same-sex couples raising children is a person of color. Further, while all couples with children “generally fare worse with regards to educational attainment, insurance coverage and median income”—kids are expensive!—“this is especially true for individuals in same-sex couples.”

“These data further indicate the need for public policies that aim to support families with children in achieving educational and economic goals in ways that simultaneously support racial/ethnic and sexual orientation equity,” said Wilson.

There are several ways in which Congress could help remedy this situation. States could pair Medicaid expansion (23 states currently do not have it) with a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10. Congress could expand and strengthen both the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). Poor LGBT people would especially benefit from legislated protections and non-discrimination policies in the workplace.

It is time we stop thinking of the LGBT community as mostly white, affluent, gay males, and begin to recognize how the interlocking oppressions of race and gender affect our LGBT community and conspire to make our poverty rates higher than the norm, especially for those of us raising children. We need a deeper exploration of how sexual orientation, race and gender intersect, if we are to combat the poverty that – perhaps surprisingly – pervades much of our community.



Raising the Minimum Wage and Affordable Child Care Go Hand in Hand

A few years ago, a young man named Israel and his wife enrolled their daughter in one of our Early Head Start programs. Israel, the son of Mexican immigrants, worked long hours as a barber. His wife worked too, but the family still lived below the poverty line.  Initially, they were simply glad that their daughter had a welcoming and safe place to go every day, and that they could work more hours without paying for costly childcare. But gradually Israel began to notice something he hadn’t anticipated.

“I realized that even though my daughter was the one in the program, our whole family was benefiting,” he says. “The teachers taught us to be hands-on parents, and to set aside family time to eat together, talk, and share together.”

The program provided more than just child care, it helped the whole family.

For low-income families like Israel’s, poverty complicates every aspect of their daily lives, from holding a job, to finding transportation, to raising healthy children. For these families, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent executive order raising the hourly minimum wage from $11.90 to $13.13 for employees at projects that receive more than $1 million in city financing is an important step forward.  Contrary to misconceptions about people in poverty, these families work, and they work hard. In fact, there are 265,000 low-income families in New York City with at least one working parent. The new wage will increase the annual income of thousands of workers from $16,640 to $27,310, lifting a family of four above the federal poverty line.

While an increased minimum wage will be an enormous help to struggling families, it isn’t enough. We need to invest in other work supports that ease the economic strain on families and create thriving communities.

The Economic Policy Institute calculates that to achieve a “modest living standard,” a family of four needs $94,676 to live in New York City, including over $2,000 for child care each month. When even middle class parents are “crushed by the cost of child care,” you know that low-income families are feeling the pain even more. In the state of New York, the average cost of an infant child care center consumes 58% of the state median income for a single mother. One study found that child care is the single greatest expense among low-income families in the city.

That is why access to early childhood education, quality childcare, and after-school programs should be implemented hand-in-hand with minimum wage raises—they serve as a multiplier of a family’s earned income because parents don’t have to pay for costly or unsafe child care, and they also allow parents to go to work. The proof is in the data: More than 70% of New York City parents with kids in an after-school program said that the program made it easier for them to keep their jobs; that they missed less work; and that they were able to work more hours. Low-income parents with child care subsidies are also less likely to have child care disruptions that hold back their careers or result in job loss.

These programs are an investment in our future too. The Child Center of NY works with some of the most impoverished communities in New York City, in neighborhoods like South Jamaica, Corona, and Far Rockaway.  Every day we meet hardworking parents who seek our services because they want their children to learn and succeed—to interact positively with their peers, form relationships with adult mentors, and learn outside of the classroom too.  We also work with whole families to help them achieve their goals too.

When Israel came to our Head Start program it was perfectly clear that he knew the value of hard work.  His own parents had worked long hours at multiple jobs when he was growing up.

“They didn’t have much time to spend with us,” he says. “I wanted more for my family than that.”

Our staff encouraged him to be involved with his daughter and her class. He began helping in the classroom and encouraged other fathers to do the same. He ran for president of the program’s Parent Council and won, and became more involved with his children at home too.

By the time both of his children had completed our Head Start program, Israel had developed his leadership skills, which in turn helped him find investors in the community so he could open a barbershop. Now, five years later, Israel owns the shop—a neighborhood institution just a few blocks away from the Head Start program. He has eight employees and earns more money working fewer hours than he did prior to starting his own business. He spends the extra time with his children and is currently planning to renovate and expand his shop.

Israel says The Child Center gave him the confidence and the means to strengthen his relationships with his children and to grow his business. In our poorest neighborhoods, there are countless men and women who want to do the same—to work hard and make a better life for their families and communities.

Decent wages and quality affordable childcare will create new opportunities to do both.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify which workers will receive the New York City wage increase.



One of the Most Important Civil and Human Rights Battles of Our Time

Criminal justice systems across the country have come to accept, and perpetuate, a shameful standard of justice for poor people.  The basic humanity of the indigent accused is too often denied, and the democratic necessity of access to effective counsel is too often ignored.

Gideon’s Promise is a movement of hundreds of public defenders nationwide who are working together to change this unacceptable status quo.

In 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, civil rights abuses were prevalent and devastating in the arena of criminal justice. So it is no coincidence that during that same year, the United States Supreme Court sought to address the role that race and class played in the administration of criminal justice.

In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court required that the state provide poor people accused of a crime with an attorney.  It noted that a layperson simply cannot effectively navigate the labyrinth of laws and procedures that make up the criminal justice system.  Only the right to counsel would ensure that a person accused of a crime would receive justice.

But the right to counsel is only meaningful if state-appointed attorneys have the same skill, training, resources, and level of commitment as lawyers who represent people with means.  As I began working on criminal justice reform efforts across the South a decade ago, I saw systems that fell far short of providing basic standards of representation for poor people. I met countless young public defenders who had begun their careers filled with enthusiasm, only to have the passion beaten out of them by a system that effectively expects public defenders to help process poor people into prison cells.

There is no greater threat to equal justice than when our public defenders are beaten into submission.

These lawyers were deprived of the resources, training, and support they needed to live up to their constitutional obligation. They were forced to handle crushing caseloads that didn’t allow them to give the time their clients deserved and needed. Many began to feel hopeless and eventually quit. Others were worn down, resigned to the status quo. A few remained inspired, continuing the Sisyphean task of fighting a system that had abandoned its quest for equal justice. But all too often these individuals were like a lone voice screaming against a deafening wind.

In 2007, my wife and I founded Gideon’s Promise to build a strong community of public defenders who would have the training and support necessary to immediately improve the standard of representation for their clients.  We wanted to develop this community into a movement—one focused on changing a criminal justice culture that is anything but just, and pushing back against the forces that pressure public defenders to simply process clients.

Gideon’s Promise began with just 16 young public defenders drawn from two offices.  To date, more than 300 public defenders in 15 states have participated in our initial, three-year training and support program. A national faculty comprised of more than 60 experienced public defenders volunteer as our trainers and mentors.  We have added programs that serve our graduates, senior lawyers, and public defender leaders. With more than 35 “partner” public defender offices, Gideon’s Promise is changing the landscape of public defense for tens of thousands of people who depend on court-appointed counsel each year. Through partnerships with law schools, we are also creating a pipeline for recent graduates to join our effort where the need is greatest. Finally, by working with jurisdictions across the nation to share our model, Gideon’s Promise has indeed evolved into a comprehensive movement of inspired public defenders committed to transforming criminal justice in America.

There is no greater threat to equal justice than when our public defenders are beaten into submission.  At that point, a poor person accused of a crime has no chance. But through a strong and supportive community like Gideon’s Promise, lawyers for the poor can stay inspired and continue to fight one of the least popular, but most important, civil and human rights battles of our day.



Money, Politics & Poverty

Give Directly has garnered a lot of attention lately for advocating and implementing a radical new approach to fighting poverty in Kenya and Uganda: unconditional cash transfers.

The NGO simply targets places where there is extreme poverty and provides individuals with direct transfers of cash. In order to do this they are utilizing digital technology – providing people with cell phones and then making mobile account payments to them.

Joy Sun, the Chief Operating Officer of Give Directly and a veteran aid worker, said that aid workers in the past acted on two assumptions that proved to be wrong: 1) that the poor were poor because they were uneducated and made bad choices; and 2) that they required educated aid workers to tell them what they needed in order to get out of poverty, and how to do it.

This approach demanded a large and expensive workforce of aid workers, along with huge transfers of materials – food, agricultural equipment, housing, and infrastructure supplies.

According to Sun, a 2011 report from Shapiro & Raj  – an independent investment research and consulting firm – for every $100 in allocated resources, it costs another $99.00 to provide and service them. The report also said that more than 30% of the recipients of aid materials sold them for cash.

In July, in her TED Talk in New York City, Sun confided that many aid workers were skeptical of Give Directly’s new approach.  They feared that the cash recipients would use the money to pay for non-essential personal items – and to not work.  But according to Give Directly the data so far refutes that notion; that in fact the people who received unconditional cash transfers invested better, worked harder and made more substantial gains towards moving out of poverty than those who received more traditional forms of material aid alone.

“Dozens of studies show across the board that people use cash transfers to improve their own lives,” said Sun.

There are critics of this program, including the Stanford Social Innovation Review. They don’t question the merits or effectiveness of unconditional cash transfers; they just caution that it’s too early to tell what the long-term effects of this approach will be.

Fair enough.

We need that violent intellectual revolution that allows us to respond to issues fundamental to the wellbeing of our democracy

But as I wrote in a previous article for Talk Poverty, we clearly need a paradigm shift in how we perceive the poor and treat poverty. I quoted Thomas Kuhn who describes paradigm shifts as points of “intellectually violent revolutions” through which “one conceptual world view is replaced by another.”

I believe that unconditional cash transfers via mobile payments represent the kind of policy change that can indeed contribute to a paradigm shift in our approach to poverty. If the empirical evidence contradicts long-held beliefs about why people are poor, and how to help them work their way out of poverty—how should that inform how we deal with poverty in America?  In real terms, there are more than 46 million Americans living today with daily chronic food and housing insecurity, many of them children. Certainly, no one can claim we are using a winning formula for eliminating poverty in America.

What is the biggest obstacle to changing non-working approaches and adapting more evidence-based ones for eliminating poverty in America?  It’s the same problem plaguing American public policy in general: willful, well-funded ignorance cynically masquerading as political ideology.

If many of our politicians can deny that there is a relation between carbon emissions and climate change; or that an obscene proliferation of guns in this society is not related to the increasing number of senseless killings taking place regularly in our country; they can, and no doubt will, ignore any empirical evidence that proves transferring money directly to people who are poor will help end poverty.

We need that violent intellectual revolution—one that allows us to respond to issues that are so fundamental to the wellbeing of our democracy, including poverty.