Analysis

Utility Policy Reform Must Be a Focus for Lawmakers

More than a decade ago, when Ms. Charles needed some help catching up on her utility bills and maintaining service for her home, she was able to receive a payment agreement from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC).  But, like many low-income Pennsylvanians today, she recently learned the hard way that opportunities like that are no longer available, thanks to a 2004 Pennsylvania statute that favored utility company collections at the expense of essential consumer protections.

Working for the Philadelphia School District, Ms. Charles was able to manage her utility bills and other living expenses.  Her hardship began in late 2011 when she was diagnosed with cancer and shortly thereafter was laid off.  Out of work, and recovering from surgery, she started to fall behind on her Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) bills.  As her unemployment compensation ran out, she faced the loss of essential gas heat service.  Her doctor submitted medical certificates to PGW, explaining that the loss of heating would aggravate her condition.  But when her medical certifications ran out three months later, PGW shut off her gas.  She called the Pennsylvania PUC but they turned her away.  Why?  Certain provisions in Chapter 14 of the Public Utility Code limit payment agreements and impose harsh reconnection fees that are simply unrealistic in times of hardship.

A loss of utility service can be disastrous for low-income customers.  There are the immediate health and safety risks, and city agencies may also have no choice but to break a family apart in order to ensure that children are safe.  In the case of Ms. Charles, she learned that a loss of service can also result in eviction.  Her landlord told her she would be evicted if she didn’t pay off her $2800 utility balance to protect the property from a municipal lien—a PGW collection tool enhanced by Chapter 14—and restore service as well.

Low-income Pennsylvanians end up making impossible choices between medicine and food as they try to manage their utility bills.

Ms. Charles reached out to friends and family for help and they came through so she could get her account current.  Shortly after her 65th birthday, with winter looming, and her income boosted by social security retirement benefits, Ms. Charles’ PGW service was finally restored.   She was luckier than many Philadelphians under similar circumstances, who—with no one to turn to—are cast out of their homes.

When Pennsylvania’s General Assembly added Chapter 14 to the Public Utility Code in 2004, it did so with the recognition that the law was an experiment.  That’s why it included a ten-year sunset provision in the hopes that lawmakers wouldn’t ignore whatever effect the law ended up having on consumers.  Turns out that sunset was a very good idea.  As detailed in our recent report, Out in the Cold, Chapter 14 is a horribly misaligned law which includes as its stated purpose “eliminating opportunities for customers capable of paying to avoid timely payment of utility bills.”  But instead, Chapter 14 has resulted in the loss of essential utility service for low-income customers who are incapable of always paying their bills in full and on time.  It has led to record numbers of utility shut offs and record numbers of customers entering the harsh winter without utility service.

It should come as little surprise that Chapter 14 has had such damaging consequences.  It was originally enacted without public hearings at the urging of utility company lobbyists who claimed widespread payment abuse by customers.  A January 2006 assessment by Joseph Rhodes, Jr., a former PUC Commissioner and member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, found that the lobbyists’ claims had been hollow and it urged repeal.  Advocates called for restoring consumer protections for low-income customers.  Yet despite the clear need for reform, the General Assembly recently reenacted Chapter 14 with minimal changes, ensuring that low-income Pennsylvania utility customers will continue to be placed at risk.

Without access to payment arrangements, and reasonable restoration terms, low-income Pennsylvanians end up making impossible choices between medicine and food as they try to manage their utility bills; or they live without heat while they wait for charitable assistance or help filing for bankruptcy, and the utility service protections that come with it.

To protect the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians—and to ensure that people like Ms. Charles have options when they are facing dire circumstances—utility policy reform must become a central mission of lawmakers.

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Analysis

The Faces of Senior Poverty Are Likely Women of Color

Imagine the face of senior poverty. Who do you see? If you see a woman, especially a woman of color, you’d be spot on. That’s because the same challenges that affect women in their younger years, follow them and magnify as they age—income inequality, low wage jobs, discrimination, societal expectations of women as caregivers, lack of financial education. When you add declining health, longevity as compared to male partners, racial disparities, and disability to the mix, the result is a full-blown crisis of illness, hunger, depression, and isolation.

It should therefore come as no surprise that 1 in 5 women over age 65 who lives alone in America is living in poverty.  Yet it isn’t even on the political or media radar. I’m talking about women who must make daily choices between heat and medicine—who consider suicide on a regular basis, like the women in this video.

Sandy, Myrtle, Lidia, and Dolly agreed to share the struggles they face in their daily lives in the hope that if enough people learned the truth and spoke out about it, politicians would be forced to listen and to act on behalf of low-income seniors by preserving and expanding the programs that help these women survive – Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the Supplemental Security Income program.

The life events that led these women to their current situations could happen to many women we know. They are not unusual, just everyday misfortunes and disappointments—magnified by age and economic vulnerability.

Like many poor Native American women of her generation, Dollie received only limited formal education. She came to California from Oklahoma with her family as a child and had to quit school and go to work when her father became ill. Her lack of formal education led to a lifetime of low-wage, physically demanding jobs that made saving impossible. Because many of those jobs were “off-the-books” she didn’t build the work history necessary to qualify for Social Security. She now relies on her monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit of $877 to survive.

Sandy had a good job as a registered nurse, and a middle class standard of living. She lost her husband and her ability to work her physically demanding job around the same time, leaving her with no income. Because she had a good job, she receives just enough Social Security to be disqualified from means based assistance like Medicaid and subsidized housing.  As a result she spends a large percentage of her monthly income on rent, leaving little money to cover food or her Medicare copayments and premiums.

Lidia came to the U.S. from Cuba as a child. For 20 years she ran her own barbershop business, while she raised a family, bought a home, worked hard, and thrived. She became too ill to cut hair about the same time as the housing market collapsed. She lost her home and unknowingly signed away her rights to her ex-husband’s police pension, depriving herself of around $1,800 per month in benefits. Today she lives in subsidized senior housing, struggles to afford food, and tries to avoid relying too much on her children for help.

Myrtle had a good job and a big plan for travel when she retired. Then she got injured at the workplace and had to go on disability.  Her husband then divorced her. She managed to keep her home, but she struggles daily with medical and other expenses on her limited Social Security Income benefit.

These women and growing numbers of others like them have nothing to rely on but the limited and increasingly threatened social safety net programs—like Medicaid and SSI. We all need to fight hard to preserve and expand these programs—especially with a new Congress that appears committed to reducing the assistance these programs provide.

The solutions to senior poverty are well within our grasp. As a country we have the ability to ensure that every senior has access to a safe place to live, healthy food to eat, and affordable, accessible medical care—in essence the right to age in dignity. The first step is to highlight the problem by sharing the stories of those who are suffering, then we can fight hard to preserve and expand the services they rely on to survive. Please start by sharing this blog and video.

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Analysis

Need a Lawyer? Sell Everything

In 1963, the Supreme Court declared that states are obligated to provide a lawyer to anyone accused of a crime who cannot afford one. In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Court made clear that a lawyer is essential to ensure justice is served and liberty is protected—that laypeople cannot possibly safeguard their own liberty in a complex system of law and procedure without a lawyer.

Yet, more than 50 years later, some jurisdictions deprive low-income people of the right to counsel simply because they own property or hold a job.

Imagine you are accused of a crime. Your government devotes vast resources to take you from your family and lock you away. You know you need a lawyer in order to prove your innocence. The judge demands that you sell your house to pay for one.  Few scenarios are less consistent with our nation’s ideals.

Welcome to criminal justice in much of America today, where too often the test of whether a person can or cannot afford a lawyer is so extreme that even the most indigent of defendants may be deemed unworthy of counsel. I was reminded of this as I watched a news story out of Orlando, Florida, entitled Taxpayer Money Wasted on Undeserving Defendants.  The title made me wonder who the reporter understood as undeserving of the essential right to counsel.

The story showed three examples of people who were allegedly “defrauding” the system by requesting lawyers.  Evidence that the first man could afford a lawyer was the fact that he owned a home.  Another man presumably exemplified the term “undeserving” because he owned a car.  The third example was an unemployed man who requested a public defender.

The ability to get justice in this country has become a luxury reserved for the rich. This is not Gideon's Promise.

A judge, held up in the story as a model jurist, interrogated the third man for daring to ask for a lawyer.  The man explained that he mowed lawns “off the books” on occasion to earn money.  That was all the judge needed.  She accused him in open court of trying to bilk the taxpaying audience of their money and denied him counsel.  The message is not subtle: anyone who owns something of value, or has any income, is undeserving of a lawyer funded by the state.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the story is that the call to deprive counsel to these people who were just making ends meet was led by “several local attorneys.”  Despite all of the taxpayer dollars used to mindlessly police, prosecute, and incarcerate poor people, these lawyers were most concerned that people hovering just above the poverty line might obtain court-appointed lawyers.  Far too many lawyers prey on people who—in their effort to prove their innocence—are forced to mortgage their homes, or borrow money they cannot afford to pay back.  Far too often these lawyers do little to deliver on their promise to provide quality representation.  One has to wonder if the real incentive of these “whistleblowers” in Orlando is that they hope to be able to squeeze these defendants once their request for a public defender is denied.

The story reminded me of countless anecdotes I have heard from public defenders across the country about judges who deny court appointed counsel because a defendant has a decent watch, jewelry, or nice clothes.  It also reminded me of a recent news story out of Waco, Texas where the county assigned a sheriff’s detective to investigate poor defendants who request counsel.  The detective visits their homes and tells them that if he determines they have been misleading in their application they could face a felony charge of tampering with government property.  (The detective also said he tells people they are required to talk to him according to the application they signed, even though the application includes no such agreement.)  Predictably, the threat causes many people to withdraw their application.  Certainly, even many honest people prefer to avoid the increased scrutiny of the law.  This is particularly true among populations that already have a distrustful relationship with law enforcement.  Lauding the cost-savings of such intimidation, the county’s indigent defense coordinator called it “helpful” and said that in a single week “several people just said, ‘I don’t want to deal with this, I don’t want to have to be bothered by the detectives — just throw my application away.’”

Clarence Earl Gideon was the Florida man behind the Supreme Court case that guarantee a lawyer to every person accused of a crime who cannot afford one.  Although he is frequently used as the symbol of the right to counsel, Gideon—who survived by doing odd jobs—ironically would likely be deemed undeserving in Orlando if he were accused today.

Most working people in this country live paycheck to paycheck.  Once wrongly accused, a good lawyer costs thousands of dollars.  It is a necessity most people simply cannot afford.  The ability to get justice in this country has become a luxury reserved for the rich. This is not Gideon’s Promise.

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Analysis

How Low Child Care Wages Put All Children at Risk

Many parents who have faced the daunting task of finding quality, affordable child care have a list of things they look for when they visit a prospective program. Perhaps that list includes an inviting classroom full of books and educational materials. Maybe a playground and a warm and nurturing teacher. But how many parents look at the wages of their child care provider? And how many question whether their child care provider is living in poverty?

A new study entitled Worth Work, STILL Unlivable Wages finds that wages in the child care industry as so low that many providers live in poverty.  The mean hourly wage of a child care worker in 2013 was $10.33 an hour or $21,490 annually. This puts child care workers in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ lowest income tier along with parking lot attendants and dry-cleaners, meaning that most child care workers live in poverty.

The combination of low wages and the rising cost of living means that many child care workers aren’t paid enough to meet their families’ most basic needs.  In fact, more than 46 percent of child care workers are in families using one of the four major social support programs—almost double the rate of use in the U.S. workforce overall. Poverty wages for child care workers is a problem in and of itself, but the impact extends well beyond workers. The 12 million children who attend child care are affected as well.

Our most vulnerable children are often facing stress from multiple sources.

Child care workers who endure the stressors of living in poverty are more likely to experience toxic stress, depression, and chronic health issues. As the number of children spending time in child care settings has increased so too has our knowledge of the link between adult caregiving and early childhood brain development. Study after study has shown the connection between better-paid staff and higher quality care. The instability and stress experienced by caregivers dealing with economic insecurity or poverty shapes their ability to provide enriching and nurturing environments for children. Often, it can result in a decreased ability to provide supportive spaces for children to develop and learn.

Importantly, high quality care is often most powerful in the lives of low-income children and children of color who already enter school behind their wealthy and/or white peers. But we also know that low-income children are more likely to be in low quality child care settings. Research shows that children who attend low quality child care settings—with high turnover or high numbers of stressed out staff—are less competent in language and social development. This means our most vulnerable children are often facing stress from multiple sources.

Ultimately, we must do something to better empower the 2 million women earning a living in this sector. Changing the course is far from impossible. Decades ago, the Department of Defense made major changes to its internal child care system, including paying child care workers on par with other employees with similar education and qualifications. This reform increased pay by about 76 percent over the past 25 years. As a result, they see far less turnover and consistently receive higher quality ratings.

It’s time that we pay those caring for our children a fair wage. And that starts with parents asking the question: how much does my child care provider make? Does caring for my family force her family to live in poverty?

 

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Feature

Never Convicted, but Held Back by a Criminal Record

Tyrae T. and N.R. needed what any thirtysomething American without regular income needs: a well-paying job.  They were both ready and eager for work, yet both were turned down for numerous entry-level positions they were qualified for.  The reason?  Criminal records.  Tyrae and N.R. have never been convicted of any crimes, but they face a problem that afflicts millions of low-income Americans: arrests without conviction that are improperly used as grounds to deny employment.

Job applicants with criminal records, especially men of color, face a high hurdle to employment.  Studies have shown that black men without criminal records get callbacks for job interviews at rates below those of white men with criminal records; and for a black man with a record, the callback rate is almost negligible.

Arrests that never led to conviction shouldn’t affect employment—innocent until proven guilty is a fundamental principle of American justice, after all.  Because there is a presumption that arrests without convictions don’t hinder employment opportunities, this issue has received far less media and political attention than the employment obstacles created by past convictions.  But the fact is that when it comes to getting jobs, a mere arrest can be just as bad as a conviction for millions of people like Tyrae and N.R.

When it comes to getting jobs, a mere arrest can be just as bad as a conviction.

Many companies conduct pre-employment background checks using FBI rap sheets, which are notoriously hard to read: employers often can’t discern whether the charges resulted in conviction, were withdrawn, or dismissed.

State-level databases can be equally confusing.  In Pennsylvania, if an item turns up when an employer runs a background check through the state police, the system immediately responds with a generic code, indicating that details will follow within four weeks.  If someone only has arrests on his record, the report eventually comes up clean, but many employers won’t wait that long for the clarification—they simply move on to the next job applicant.

Other employers use unofficial court records, often available online for free.  In Tyrae’s case, two arrests—one seven years ago, the other fifteen—were visible to employers with just a few mouse clicks, and the mere existence of the arrest reports cost him multiple job opportunities.  As for N.R., the companies interested in hiring her didn’t give any weight to her recent bachelor’s degree—once they learned she was arrested on a misdemeanor four years ago, they stopped calling back.

Courts will sometimes order the expungement of arrests from criminal records, but even that doesn’t always solve the problem.  Private consumer reporting agencies—which sell background reports to employers—often maintain databases that include outdated court records; so arrests which were expunged are sometimes still reported to employers.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes that excluding applicants based on arrests-only has a disparate impact on black and Hispanic workers, and thus constitutes employment discrimination.  Therefore, under federal law, “an arrest record standing alone may not be used to deny an employment opportunity.”  In Pennsylvania, state law also says that employers may only consider convictions if they are relevant to an applicant’s suitability for a given job.  However, as Tyrae, N.R., and thousands of other people have discovered, these laws are widely and routinely violated.

The good news is that advocates can employ a number of strategies to lessen the burden of arrest records.  In many states, legal services attorneys can petition the courts to expunge or seal arrests.  In Philadelphia, Community Legal Services (CLS) did just that for N.R. and Tyrae, so their records are now completely clear.  When black and Hispanic workers are rejected as job candidates due to arrests, advocates can help them file discrimination charges with the EEOC or state and local fair employment practices agencies.  People denied jobs due to arrests may also be eligible to collect back pay, and offending companies can be forced to change their policies.  Finally, when consumer reporting agencies tell employers of arrest records that the courts had ordered expunged, workers who are denied jobs can sue the reporting agency, and also demand a correction of the background report.  CLS has successfully brought cases for our clients in all of these areas.

States should now adopt fair chance hiring laws that include reforms like “Ban the Box”—which precludes employers from inquiring about criminal records on job applications—and implement other important protections such as not considering non-conviction arrest records.

But perhaps the single most effective legislative change would be to expand opportunities for the expungement and the sealing of records.  Advocates can push their states for automatic expungement whenever possible—such as when charges are dropped after an arrested individual completes a pre-trial diversion program—and for a clear legal right to petition for expungement of all other non-conviction data.

A clean slate is the best pathway to employment and equal opportunity.

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