When They Get Out

In July 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission approved long overdue revisions to sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking offenses. This action is the result of widespread agreement that the disproportionate sentences for certain drug-related crimes are a civil rights violation and an unjust, ineffective, and costly set of policies.

Considering that around 50% of inmates in federal prison are incarcerated for drug charges, the new guidelines promise to lead to a significant reduction in mass incarceration.  In fact, beginning in November 2015, the shorter sentences can also be applied retroactively to over 40,000 eligible prisoners. These bipartisan reforms represent a beacon of hope for many inmates and their families.

However, progress in sentencing must be matched with equal attention to what will happen to former prisoners after they are released.  Reentry is never as simple as opening the gates and letting someone out.  Even short periods of incarceration cause major life disruptions, including the loss of jobs and housing.   These barriers, plus expensive court fees, make rebuilding a life immensely difficult and complicated.  Because of their time and jail and overcrowded living conditions, reentering citizens often suffer severe mental and physical effects such as PTSD and a much higher rate of communicable diseases.  Given the many serious obstacles that come with involvement in the criminal justice system, few people are able to navigate reentry without significant support.

Without effective reentry policies, the myth that criminals can never change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yet despite the clear need for assistance, former offenders are blocked from many federal and local aid programs that are designed to help people secure basic necessities. Probation officers in some jurisdictions even give out tents to their clients because they know that it will be difficult to find a place to live. Even social services that are available are often difficult to access, since many former offenders lack things like a valid driver’s license, car, and a working telephone.

One widely acknowledged key factor in successful reentry is employment, which is extremely difficult for ex-offenders to obtain.   Even individuals with solid work histories and marketable skills are rejected repeatedly, often on the basis of their status as a reentering citizen, although their charge does not impact their ability to do their job.  When they finally do find an employer willing to hire them, the job is often low-paying and unsustainable.

As a direct service worker who provides employment services to reentering citizens, I worked with a middle-aged woman who had a single shoplifting charge but a decade of solid work experience in an office.  She struggled for two years to find work and finally settled for a low-paying janitorial job.  An employment specialist at another agency told her not to bother looking for a better job until her charge was at least five years old.  People who have served longer sentences face the additional barrier of long gaps in their resumes; lack of familiarity with modern technology; and disconnection from support systems.

At best, many individuals in this situation become dependent on nonprofit aid and social services.  At worst, they re-offend and are once again involved in the criminal justice system.  This vicious cycle serves no one.

In order to ensure that the new sentencing guidelines will bring the most benefit, we must improve the existing reentry process.  Here are five ways to do that:

  1. Shore up existing, successful reentry programs and share their models.  Ensure that nonprofit agencies and government programs can handle increased caseloads and provide the material support people need as they transition back into the community;
  2. Update laws to remove barriers that keep ex-offenders with drug charges from receiving benefits like SNAP, TANF, or housing assistance.
  3. Eliminate penalties that serve no public safety purpose.  For example, license suspension is a common penalty applied to force people to pay court fees and fines.  When you take away someone’s ability to drive, you greatly decrease their ability to work and pay what they owe. People can even be re-incarcerated for failure to pay, destroying whatever progress they have made, and trapping them in cycles of incarceration.
  4. Update employment laws related to the hiring of ex-offenders.  Many jurisdictions have begun this process with ban-the-box legislation.  But these laws will do little if they merely postpone a negative answer.  There need to be laws with real consequences for discrimination against former offenders or substantial incentives for companies that have positive second chance hiring policies.

Real rehabilitation and successful reentry are possible.  The new sentencing guidelines are a great start but they need to be matched with an equally strong push for smart, effective reentry policies.  Without such measures, the myth that criminals can never change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


First Person

Tour Guide to Homelessness

Editor’s Note: This piece is an edited essay based on a compilation of real life interviews between the author and her social worker.

Oh, hi. I’m Lydia. I’ll be your tour guide to HOMELESSNESS today. If you could, please just take your shoes off at the door… socks, too… much appreciated. Oh, and you can leave your dignity there, too – you won’t be needing that. Oh, dear, you’re not really dressed for the occasion… But, that’s ok. I’ll help you. Don’t worry… Just take my hand… here, let’s go.

Ok, first—if you could fill out this form. Yeah—that one too… then, uhm… turn it over and put your name here… sign here… there, yeah—there too. Initial this…and sign that, good.

Now, flip the page—what did you say your name was? Actually, never mind. Let’s speed this up, it’s almost lunch… Okay, read this, sign that… Initial here, here and here…. Now, date it…. No, you don’t need a copy, it’s just for my files.

You have kids? You get child support? Do you know who their dads are? Do you know where their dads are? Hmm…You’re definitely gonna need to come up with some additional income before we can help you…. I don’t know how much…. You might have to come back tomorrow to complete the interview. Wait. Could you just wait here for a minute?

[20 minutes later]

Ok, just a few more questions… What did you say happened with your family? Really? When was that? Could you call them for help? Oh, and what did they say? Oh, huh…. Well, what about friends? Neighbors? Co-workers? Really… Well, do you have a contact number for them? Maybe if I called them, and told them you were about to be homeless, they might want to help you more? Well, uhmmm… I mean, we could give it a try…

So, otherwise—what’s your plan? Hmm…that hardly seems workable… Well, let me ask you this—what did you do with your tax refund? Don’t remember? We really need that information for our files… Car payment, okay, clothes… A mini vacation?!? Wow, maybe we should sign you up for budget counseling… Right. Okay, you know what else we need? Do you have your driver’s license, birth certificate, social security card, leases, utility bills, most recent bank statement…? Well, could you at least get your tax information for us? It’s just procedure, really, for our files… So, when do you think you could bring this information in? The sooner, the better…. Well, we can’t help you without it…. Sorry…. Yeah, I wish we could, but without a workable plan…. It’ll be hard to do…

Uh huh… I don’t know the answer to that, let me check on it later…. No, that’s not important. Just bring us the information we need, and maybe we can work something out from there… Meanwhile, why don’t you call your mom and dad…Oh, sorry to hear that—what about your dad? No? But maybe if you tell him your situation, and then… No, well… Uhh, I don’t know…. I don’t think so. Let me go check on that……

[25 minutes later]

Oh, hi—I almost forgot you were in here… Now, we can’t really do anything for you until you’ve exhausted all of your resources. Let me ask you this—when was the last time you smoked? drank? How often? I see, okay…. uhm, so… is this a problem for you? I mean…do you need counseling? Maybe I could give you a referral to the drug treatment program…. Right, okay… Oh, I almost forgot—could you read this and sign here? There, too. Uh-huh… That’s ok—I understand, it’s a lot to do—but we need this information for our files.

This? Oh, just a consent to talk to your counselor about the results of the drug tests you’re going to take this Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday… Have to be at work? Well, we aren’t allowed to place you until you complete this mandatory drug testing and counseling… Well, that depends. If you come up positive, we would need to have another meeting to discuss it… Yes, you have to go to every single one…. Yes, someone will be in the room with you while you pee… It’s just a process, don’t worry, everyone does it… Ok, so… did you have any other questions?

Sorry, I don’t know anything about that…. No, we won’t have an answer for at least another week or so…. Well, I don’t know, the shelters are full, and there’re no hotel or motel rooms available, so I guess you’ll just have to… make do—are you sure you don’t have anyone you can call? That’s really too bad…. Sorry we couldn’t do more for you…. Maybe if you come back next month, we might have an opening then.



The Best Poverty Journalism in 2014: My Picks

In 2015, will recognize strong media coverage of poverty on an ongoing basis.  To get that effort started, here’s a look back at some of the best poverty journalism in 2014. These 20 stories and op-eds drew attention to critical but underreported issues, rebutted persistent myths, shed light on barriers to economic security and mobility, lifted up policy solutions, provided insightful commentary on media coverage of poverty, or even served as a catalyst for change. (Stories are listed in no particular order.)

Next up: TalkPoverty wants to hear from you!

Nominate your 2014 favorites in print, web, radio, and TV poverty journalism in the comment field below, or email We will include readers’ picks in an upcoming blog and on-air as part of new TalkPoverty Radio miniseries, launching January 17 on SiriusXM’s new channel, SiriusXM Insight.

Driven into debt

by Michael Corkery and Jessica Silver-Greenberg

New York Times Dealbook

This five-part investigative series explores the rise in predatory subprime auto loans and how they can trap low-income individuals in cycles of debt. (Don’t miss the accompanying videos.)

Working anything but 9 to 5

by Jodi Kantor

New York Times

This in-depth article follows Jannette Navarro—a Starbucks barista and mother struggling to make ends meet—highlighting the effects of an unpredictable job schedule, particularly on parents. Soon after this story ran, Starbucks announced it would reform its scheduling policy.

Growth has been good for years. So why hasn’t poverty declined?

by Neil Irwin

New York Times Upshot

This important piece highlights how economic growth no longer translates into less poverty and busts two prevalent myths—that hard work is all it takes to escape poverty, and that public assistance provides “perverse incentives” against working.

What happens when your pregnant sister-in-law is paralyzed in a car accident and has no insurance

by Harold Pollack

Washington Post Wonkblog

I can’t get enough of Harold Pollack’s Wonkblog interviews. This one features an interview with Andrea Campbell, whose sister-in law was paralyzed in a car accident a few years ago, throwing the whole family into crisis. In particular, this piece does a great job of illustrating how harmful and counterproductive asset limits can be.

Poverty more common than most Americans realize

by Al Lubrano

Philadelphia Inquirer

A little known fact about poverty in America is that “the poor” are not some static group of people living in poverty year after year. This story busts that myth and highlights how four out of five Americans will experience at least a year of poverty or near poverty, or receive jobless benefits or public assistance at some point during their working years.

Fighting to forget: Long after arrests, records live on

by Gary Fields and Josh Emshwiller

Wall Street Journal

Gary Fields’ continued coverage throughout 2014 of how criminal records—including arrests that never led to conviction—serve as a barrier to employment, has been some of the best work done on this issue to date.

When poverty makes you sick, a lawyer can be the cure

by Tina Rosenberg

New York Times Opinionator

This piece highlights how low-income individuals are more likely to experience poor health—often due to adverse environmental factors—and explores medical-legal partnerships, a promising model of legal services delivery that puts legal aid lawyers on site at hospitals and medical clinics to help low-income people get free legal help to prevent eviction, utility shut-off, access needed public aid, and more.

Food insecurity in the U.S. 

Now with Alex Wagner


Alex Wagner traveled to Owsley, Kentucky—one of the poorest counties in the U.S.—to examine hunger in America and the role of SNAP in alleviating it. She then took viewers’ questions and used the opportunity to dispel myths and stereotypes about SNAP and the people who count on the program to make ends meet.

Does the media care about labor anymore?

by Timothy Noah


This story tracks the decline in media coverage of labor issues, and makes the point that with income inequality at record highs and wages for middle-class and low-income workers continuing to stagnate, the labor beat is “more important than ever.”

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Predatory Lending


The inimitable John Oliver gives payday lending the treatment it deserves in a monologue that’s equal parts hilarious and horrific. (Stick around for a special guest appearance by Sarah Silverman at the end.)

Guilty and charged

by Joe Shapiro

National Public Radio

This investigative series follows the rise of court fines and fees that can be in the hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, and which hurt low-income people the most.

Welcome to Shawnee, Oklahoma, the worst city in America to be homeless

by Scott Keyes


Keyes’ continued coverage of homelessness was unparalleled while he was at ThinkProgress. This piece explores the tribal history underpinning much of homelessness in Shawnee (the homeless population there skews heavily Native American), the city’s efforts to fight homelessness—and the wealthy Vice Mayor’s opposition to them.

Living wages, rarity for U.S. fast food workers, served up in Denmark

by Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse

New York Times

Amid fast food strikes in the U.S. calling for $15 an hour and a union, this article takes a look at pay and benefits for fast-food workers in Denmark—which as the reporters note, “their American counterparts could only dream of.”

For Louisiana moms, Paul Ryan’s poverty plan could make a bad situation worse

By Neil DeMause and Della Hasselle

Al Jazeera America

This piece illustrates the impact of “welfare reform” legislation in 1996 which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program—a very weak tool for alleviating hardship, which today helps just 1 in 4 poor children. The piece also examines how Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed policies would make things even worse.

In Florida tomato fields, a penny buys progress

by Steven Greenhouse

New York Times

This piece highlights the Coalition of Immakolee Workers’ successful efforts to curb abusive work conditions and boost pay for 30,000 Florida farmworkers. The CIW has succeeded in getting an array of major restaurant chains and retailers—including Walmart—to agree to buy only from growers who comply with the Fair Food Program.

Locking up parents for not paying child support can be a modern-day debtor’s prison

by Tina Griego

Washington Post Storyline

This story examines how unaffordable child support orders can serve as a path to incarceration—and also a promising model in Virginia that helps noncustodial parents find employment so they can afford to make payments.

Josh Eidelson’s relentless coverage of fast food strikes, tipped and low-wage workers, labor issues & workers’ rights

Previously at The Nation and Salon, and now at Businessweek, Josh Eidelson has been a crusader, tirelessly following the stories that matter to low-wage workers. (He did so much good stuff in 2014, I couldn’t pick just one!)


The media’s strange approach to low-wage workers

by Sarah Jaffe

Washington Post

Jaffe calls out her fellow journalists for treating “the people in some of the nation’s most common jobs as though they are some exotic Other rather than our neighbors, our family members, and ourselves.”

Your waitress, your professor

by Brittany Bronson

New York Times

Bronson, a college professor, shares her first-hand experience of having to work “survival jobs” in order to make ends meet on her paltry university income. As she puts it, “my part-time work in the Vegas service industry has produced three times more income than my university teaching.”

Why Poor People Stay Poor

by Linda Tirado


Linda Tirado—whom many of us know by her Twitter handle @killermartinis—leaped to internet fame when her essay in the Huffington Post on what it’s like to be poor went viral. This piece, excerpted from her book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, highlights how “saving money costs money.”

Author’s note: To keep things fair, articles in which Center for American Progress was quoted were excluded from consideration for this list.



Leave No Civilian Behind

This article is cross-posted at

Roughly 1.4 million veterans live in poverty in the United States, and, in total, more than 45 million people live at or below the poverty line. These numbers are similarly unacceptable, yet the conversation around military poverty and civilian poverty couldn’t be more different. Common rhetoric around military poverty often follows this formula: active members of the military and veterans should not experience poverty because they served our country and made enormous sacrifices.

In a time of congressional gridlock, this often well-intentioned logic is tempting and politically acceptable. Even so, it is wrongheaded. The argument relies on damaging assumptions that avoiding hunger and poverty are something you need to earn (and consequently, that those civilians living in poverty somehow deserve hardship). It lends credence to a cynical divide and conquer approach that gives benefits to the “deserving” poor while leaving the “undeserving” to struggle.

Members of the military and veterans shouldn’t experience poverty because no one should live in poverty.

It’s time for a new approach. Members of the military and veterans shouldn’t experience poverty because no one should live in poverty. As a result of military service, veterans, active duty military and their families may require more intensive resources—such as specialized health care or hiring initiatives — than civilians to have an opportunity to succeed. They should receive them. But too many policymakers have set up programs that could benefit both civilian and military families (and our economy), but have restricted civilian access to these programs.

For example, in 2007 Congress passed the Military Lending Act, which capped the loan interest rates of several consumer loans at 36 percent for active duty members of the military. This action was spurred by a Department of Defense report that called for legislative protections on the finding that predatory lending was prevalent in the military community; that it traps borrowers in a cycle of debt and subjects them to coercive debt collection practices; and that lenders take advantage of service members despite extensive financial training provided by the military. Even though civilians and veterans experience the very same problems described by the DOD report, protections for them were conspicuously absent from the bill. This failure to protect everyone takes a toll on our economy – every year, Americans pay $3.4 billion in payday lending fees.

In another example, some states have passed “trailing spouse” clauses to allow spouses to apply for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits if one partner is transferred to a geographic location that did not allow for the other spouse to commute to their current job. This policy would benefit all families because it allows families to move together and avoid economic insecurity while the “trailing spouse” looks to re-enter the workforce in a new location. In addition, UI is one of the most effective ways that public spending can stimulate the economy. Despite the demonstrated benefits of such a policy, some states have limited access only to military spouses.

Another opportunity for expansive thinking is the coordinated efforts to reduce veteran homelessness. Ending homelessness is both a moral and economic imperative. Research demonstrates that allowing homelessness to persist is more expensive for localities than housing people in many cases. By acknowledging this reality and responding with targeted policy reforms, cities like New York and Washington, DC, have seen dramatic decreases in the number of chronically homeless single veterans.

Much of this movement has been propelled by the success of “Housing First” strategies, which house homeless individuals quickly and provide them with wraparound services such as education, substance abuse counseling, and other social services as needed. A lot of this work has taken place in urban areas – in major cities, the number of homeless veterans has declined by 12 percent from 2012 to 2013.

However, in these cities, the number of homeless people in families increased during that same period. To explain this phenomenon, Amien Essif suggests in Jacobin magazine that dramatic decreases in veteran homelessness in major cities may have occurred because limited financial resources have been shifted to target specific groups rather than expanding investments to be more inclusive. While the progress made on veteran homelessness is important, the strategy that has been embraced by some of these cities to achieve this goal is unsustainable. It perpetuates a system where vulnerable homeless populations are forced to compete over limited resources. The efforts to house homeless veterans prove that public policy and investments in housing can end homelessness. Policymakers should shift their thinking and make a financial commitment to ending homelessness for all people.

Our economy and people living on the margins need a new approach that insists no one should live in poverty. This indeed requires strong investments in members of the military and their families. But, we can’t stop there, leaving civilians and their families behind.



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.