TalkPoverty Readers on What Obama Should Say in #SOTU

This week, in anticipation of President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, hosted a Twitter storm, asking participants to explain why the President should #TalkPoverty during the State of the Union (#SOTU) and what he should say about our economy and families living on the brink.

In a single hour, nearly 500 participants posted 1600 tweets. Those tweets reached 5 million unique Twitter streams. For all of you who participated, thank you!

Beyond the impressive numbers and reflections, the Twitter storm demonstrated two things.

First, the facts and figures tweeted by organizations and online activists reveal the intersection of race, age, and gender in poverty statistics: That one in seven women are poor and that a majority of minimum wage earners are women is society’s failing. That 50 percent of African-American babies and one-third of Latino babies are poor is society’s failing. That men of color, and their families and communities, suffer overwhelmingly from an excessively punitive criminal justice system is also society’s failing.

Second, there is a formidable and passionate community that cares deeply about poverty in America and is working hard for change. There is strength in our numbers, and part of how we will succeed in making our agenda a political priority is by continuing to #TalkPoverty, continuing to collectively make our case, and coming together to take action however and whenever we can.

We hope that the President will prioritize the dramatic reduction of poverty not just in his State of the Union address, but in the remainder of his presidency.  In doing so, we hope he will help inspire high-quality media coverage of poverty that has been lacking, and strong legislation at the local, state and even federal level.

Please join TalkPoverty and other online activists again on Tuesday, when we will be live tweeting during the State of the Union address. Offer your thoughts using #TalkPoverty and #SOTU, and ask your friends to join us.  Also, don’t miss our first episode of TalkPoverty Radio on SiriusXM Insight this Saturday at noon.  Witness to Hunger member Tianna Gaines-Turner will talk about the state of her community in Philadelphia, and will be joined by Senator Sherrod Brown, Melissa Harris-Perry, and other special guests.

Thanks for all you do. Here were some of our favorite tweets:

SOTUtweetstorm_pic4 (2)

SOTUtweetstorm_pic1 (3)

SOTUtweetstorm_pic2 (3)

SOTUtweetstorm_pic5 (3)

SOTUtweetstorm_pic6 (2)

SOTUtweetstorm_pic7 (2)

SOTUtweetstorm_pic8 (2)

SOTUtweetstorm_pic10 (2)



Social Security Disability Insurance: A Primer for Rand Paul (and Everyone Else)

Well, that was fast.

Congress hasn’t been back even two weeks, and the conservative attacks on Social Security are already in full swing. As ThinkProgress reported last week, House conservatives kicked off the 114th Congress—literally on Day One—with a midnight rule change that prohibits a routine rebalancing of the Social Security trust funds, effectively manufacturing a crisis and putting millions of Social Security beneficiaries at risk of needless benefit cuts.

The plot thickened further yesterday when Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) took aim at beneficiaries of Social Security Disability Insurance with a series of incredibly offensive remarks at a private meeting with legislative leaders in Manchester, NH. In a situation resembling Mitt Romney’s famous remarks about the “47 percent,” Senator Paul’s comments were caught on tape by American Bridge, a left-leaning PAC that conducts opposition research to aid progressive candidates:

If you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting a disability check. Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club. Who doesn’t get up a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts? Everyone over 40 has a back pain.

Senator Paul is just the latest conservative member of Congress to mock disabled workers for whom Social Security is a vital lifeline. But particularly coming on the heels of the dangerous rule change, the Senator’s remarks serve as a worrisome harbinger of what we can expect from conservatives in Congress in the coming weeks and months. So let’s get a few things straight. As Shawn Fremstad and I have written for the Center for American Progress, and in numerous outlets such as ThinkProgress, National Journal, and others:

The Social Security disability standard is among the strictest in the developed world—and most applications are denied. According to the OECD, the U.S. disability benefit system is the most restrictive and least generous of all member countries, except for Korea. Fewer than four in ten applicants are approved, even after all stages of appeal. Beneficiaries have severe impairments and illnesses like cancers, congestive heart failure, kidney failure, multiple sclerosis, emphysema, and severe mental illness. Many have multiple impairments. Medical evidence is the cornerstone of the disability determination process, and in most cases, medical evidence from multiple medical professionals is required to establish eligibility.

While the program’s benefits are modest, it keeps more than four million people out of poverty each year.

Social Security Disability Insurance is coverage that workers earn. To be insured for benefits, an individual must have worked and paid into the system. Both workers and employers pay for Social Security through payroll tax contributions. Workers currently pay 6.2 percent of the first $118,500 of their earnings each year, and employers pay the same amount up to the same cap. Of that 6.2 percent, 5.3 percent currently goes to the Old Age and Survivors Insurance, or OASI, trust fund, and 0.9 percent to the Disability Insurance trust fund.

Few beneficiaries are able to work. According to data from just before the onset of the recent economic downturn, some 16.9 percent of disability beneficiaries worked at some point during the year. Of those who worked, fewer than 3 percent earned more than $10,000 during the year – hardly enough to live on. This comes as no surprise given that many beneficiaries are very sick, or even terminally ill – one in five male and one in six female Disability Insurance beneficiaries die within five years of receiving benefits, and beneficiaries are three to five times more likely to die than other people their age. Further underscoring the strictness of the Social Security disability standard, even workers who have been denied Disability Insurance fare extremely poorly in the labor market. A recent study found that among people whose Disability Insurance applications were denied, the vast majority—70 percent to 80 percent—went on to earn less than $1,000 per month. But for those who are able or want to try to return to work, Social Security’s disability programs are designed to encourage work.

Disability benefits are incredibly modest, but vital. Disability Insurance benefits average $1,140 a month, just over the austere federal poverty level for a single person, or about $35 per day. Disability Insurance typically replaces less than half of an individual’s previous earnings. While the program’s benefits are modest, it keeps more than four million people with disabilities out of poverty each year. For 80 percent of beneficiaries, Disability Insurance is their main source of income. For one-third it is their only source of income.

Social Security Disability Insurance provides protection most of us could never afford on the private market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just one in three private sector workers have access to employer-provided long-term disability insurance, and plans are often less adequate than Social Security. Access is especially limited for low-wage workers—only 7 percent of workers making under $12 an hour have employer-provided plans. In contrast, Social Security Disability Insurance protects more than 9 out of 10 American workers and their families in the event of a life-changing disability or illness that prevents substantial work. A young worker starting a career today has a one-in-three chance of either dying or needing to turn to Disability Insurance before reaching his or her full Social Security retirement age of 67.

As progressives, we don’t let people get away with denying the facts about climate change. It’s long past time to send a message to conservatives that this kind of offensive, fact-free rhetoric about Social Security disability won’t fly either.




In Our Backyard Interview: “Homelessness is Like Being Slowly Disassembled”

Alyssa Peterson: Can you explain Street Sense’s mission?

Brian Carome: We are a street newspaper, which is a model that exists in a lot of different places. Street newspapers are print newspapers that report on homelessness and poverty in the communities that they serve. They employ men and women, who themselves are homeless, to sell the paper and earn income from doing that. In our case, about half the content of the paper is also written by men and women who either are currently [homeless] or have experienced homelessness. We’ve been around since the fall of 2003.

We call ourselves a no-barrier employment opportunity. We offer orientations twice a week—every Tuesday and Thursday—throughout the year. You don’t need an appointment; you don’t need a referral; you don’t have to fill out any application; and you don’t even need to know the name of someone you’re coming to see. You don’t have to have any capital to buy any first set of newspapers. We provide you the first set of papers free.

Alyssa: What is the role of Street Sense in breaking down the stereotypes that people would think usually about homeless people?

Brian Carome: When we’re at our best, we help folks see the common ground between their lives and the lives of folks who are homeless. It takes away that sort of other, or sense of alien about folks who are homeless. And we learn that they are people just like us. They may have had different opportunities and different experiences. But they came into the world with the same hopes and dreams as everyone else.

We help folks see the common ground between their lives and the lives of folks who are homeless.

People experience Street Sense in a number of ways. It’s through the newspaper and now through the playwriting workshop. But it’s also through the one-on-one conversation that individuals have with their vendor as they’re purchasing the paper. We think those are very important conversations. And we think that they are conversations that wouldn’t happen were it not for our being here. The relationship goes both ways. It’s important for our vendors to also get to know the readers and their customers. It’s helpful for both people to find that common ground.

Alyssa: Vendors say that Street Sense is really empowering. How does Street Sense create this dynamic?

Brian Carome: I think employment really puts the finger on what we try to do. I spent a lot of my career working in shelters and housing programs. The dynamic between our vendors is so different than in a normal client-provider situation. Our vendors feel a genuine sense of ownership in the organization. They are our entire distribution network and they author half of the content of the publications. They participate in our other programs as well and demonstrate ownership.

There’s a sense of comradery. Most of the vendors who walk through the door seeking employment with us at this point are word of mouth referrals. They have been brought here by an existing vendor, folks who understand what the organization can offer to someone. They want to pass that along to someone else.

We believe in the transformational experience that our vendors have when they’re here. Again, it’s that ability to apply their talents; to use their personality to make money that really has a profound change on people and impact on people’s lives.

Video Credit: Saba Aregai (Portfolio)

Alyssa: What kind of programs are run to help foster this sense of community among the vendors and are you looking to expand this programming?

Brian Carome: We have a weekly writer’s group. That’s a tight-knit group of folks who come together every week and argue with each other and brainstorm with each other. [They] debate each other about their different perspectives on issues in the world. We also have an illustration workshop for folks who want to do illustrations for the paper. There’s also a videography workshop now and a playwriting workshop where we have a partnership with two playwrights at George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance. Our vendors both write original works and also perform them together as a small troupe.

We’re looking for ways of capturing new audiences; ways of broadening the impact of this story of homelessness and how it’s afflicting the community. The other thing we hope for in the future is to expand our geographical footprint. We’d like to open up bureaus in some of the surrounding suburbs and begin providing that vendor, self-employment opportunity to those communities as well. And also to do more public education on the issue of homelessness as it affects Arlington or Montgomery County.

Alyssa: Why do you think people who are formerly homeless continue to be involved in the paper?

Brian Carome: One is the sense of community.  In my experience working in shelters, one of the things that characterizes being homeless is a sense of aloneness and separateness. [Street Sense] helps put the blocks together to reconnect yourself to the community. And I think especially, again, for folks who are writing for the newspaper… it’s nice to see your name in print, and it’s nice to talk to people who appreciate what you’re writing.

The folks who are selling our papers are entrepreneurs; they are self-employed men and women. We give them that chance to be their own boss. I think that continues to be an attraction for folks.

Alyssa: Why is it so important that low-income people are at the forefront of the anti-poverty movement and that their voices are heard?

Brian Carome: They are not heard elsewhere. We wouldn’t exist if the Washington Post or the Washington Times was writing about homelessness every single day. So, we really feel like we fill a gap.  We want the content of the paper to have an impact on those who read it and experience it. [In the paper], you can get a first person account of what homelessness is like; how it affects someone. We think that goes a long way to bringing this community to the point that we find homelessness unacceptable.

Alyssa: Advocates anticipated that there was going to be an increase in homelessness this winter. Do you think the city is equipped to handle this?

Brian Carome: Certainly, the family shelter system is woefully inadequate. I guess most importantly though, is that there are cities across the country that are understanding that it’s less expensive to house people than it is to respond to people once they’re homeless. And we’re not doing enough in this city to embrace that approach. There are way too many folks that live outside. There are way too many families entering the shelter system.

Alyssa: How could the city be doing more?

Brian Carome: D.C. is [among] the top two or three most expensive housing communities in the country. It certainly speaks to why we have such a homelessness problem. We are wasting [money] any time we are sheltering or allowing folks to live in the street rather than giving them a place to live, even if we have to pay 100% of the rent.

And, the longer you’re homeless, the longer you’re going to be homeless. The solution is really quite simple. It’s housing people. Whether that’s providing a small rental subsidy or a complete subsidy, it’s less expensive than the millions and millions of dollars we’re spending on the shelter system—especially for families. It’s just way too wasteful. And what it does to folks—especially to kids—is very devastating and long lasting. It would behoove the city to rethink the way we approach it—especially for family homelessness.



The President and the American Indian and Alaska Native Youth Movement

Earlier in my career, I worked in the tribal criminal justice system on reservations in the Southwest.  Tribal courts were often ground zero for seeing the day-to-day challenges facing American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) youth as well as the consequences of failed policies and underinvestment in their communities.

I remember, for example, young people who bootlegged alcohol from local towns off the rez—at a profit for non-Native business owners—and then were caught selling it to friends from school who struggled with substance abuse.  Good-hearted tribal court judges tried to help them understand the consequences of repeated offenses, only to find that many of these young Native people simply felt they had no real opportunities ahead of them, no real future. This sense of hopelessness among low-income tribal communities across the country—and the actions that many young people take as a result—are the symptoms of a much deeper problem, not the cause of it.

The sense of hopelessness among low-income tribal communities are the symptoms of a much deeper problem, not the cause of it.

Many in our country feel as if nothing can be done about deep and persistent poverty and accompanying challenges such as substance abuse, especially in low-income places like tribal communities, and particularly on reservations.  But AIAN youth who are organizing for change across the country are bringing something unique to the table—a belief that none of these challenges are intractable, and an expectation of older generations to support their efforts to create opportunity.  Young people also believe that their tribal culture should play a powerful role in any reform efforts and in their future.

That is why President Obama’s new commitment matters—a lot.  Last month, he announced a new agenda focusing on Native youth at the annual White House Tribal Nations conference.  The agenda includes listening tours by cabinet secretaries in Indian Country; reorganizing and strengthening some education programs serving AIAN youth; a new national leadership network called “Generation Indigenous”, in partnership with the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute; and the first White House tribal youth conference in 2015.

In the President’s address to hundreds of tribal leaders at the conference, he highlighted his recent trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe where he met with a group of tribal youth:

“And the truth is those young people were representative of young people in every tribe, in every reservation in America. And too many face the same struggles that those Lakota teenagers face. They’re not sure that this country has a place for them. Every single one of them deserves better than they’re getting right now. They are our children, and they deserve the chance to achieve their dreams. So when Michelle and I got back to the White House after our visit to Standing Rock, I told my staff… I brought whoever [in my cabinet was] involved in youth and education and opportunity and job training, and I said, you will find new avenues of opportunity for our Native youth. You will make sure that this happens on my watch. And as I spoke, they knew I was serious because it’s not very often where I tear up in the Oval Office. I deal with a lot of bad stuff in this job. It is not very often where I get choked up….”

For those of us who work with AIAN youth it comes as little surprise that the President would “get choked up.”  These young people struggle with some of the most severe challenges in the country: 37 percent of AIAN children under 18 live in poverty, significantly higher than the national child poverty rate of 22 percent (according to the American Community Survey).  The AIAN graduation rate is the lowest of any racial and ethnic group at 68 percent.  For students served by the Bureau of Indian Education, the graduation rate is only 53 percent, compared to the national graduation rate of 80 percent.  One recent study showed 18.3 percent of AIAN 8th graders reported binge drinking, compared to 7.1 percent nationally. Perhaps most stunning, suicide is the second leading cause of death for AIAN youth between ages 15 and 24—they commit suicide at 2.5 times the national rate.

It’s far past time that we offer real and significant support to AIAN youth, and the President’s initiative is a good start. It puts the voices and goals of AIAN youth front and center, building off of an agenda that has been growing among youth in tribal communities across the country for years.  If done well, this initiative will lift up the great work already being undertaken by AIAN youth and provide some of the tools they need to achieve real change in their communities.

Each year, the Center for Native American Youth—a partner on the new Generation Indigenous network—publishes the Voices of Native Youth report.  Its staff members travel to tribal communities across the country to conduct roundtables with AIAN youth and identify challenges, priorities and promising solutions to address the many obstacles that they face.  In the most recent report, AIAN youth identified significant and much needed changes in education, health and wellness, and bullying and school discipline, among other areas. They also made it clear that preserving and strengthening their culture and language must be at the center of any agenda.

The President took a significant step towards empowering the AIAN youth movement to make these and other reforms in their communities.  Elizabeth Burns—a Center for Native American Youth “2014 Champion for Change” and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma— is an example of why this kind of leadership is important for a movement that has been so marginalized.  She said: “I have been told that my dream of helping other Native youth is ridiculous and that I should give up. I realized that negative comments won’t hold me back. I will make my dream a reality.”

It’s time for the rest of us to stand behind the President and youth like Elizabeth. To learn more about the Champions for Change and AIAN youth agenda visit the Center for Native American Youth.



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.