We Don’t Need to Be a “Voice for the Voiceless”

I’m tired of hearing that I need to be a “voice for the voiceless.” And, unfortunately, I hear it often. Brochures and commercials and inspirational speeches regularly call for me to be this “voice.” Most often, the so-called “voiceless” are individuals living in poverty. And here’s the thing: while they’re muffled, hushed, pushed down and left out—they are not voiceless. They do not need our voices; at least not in the way many people think they do. What they really need—these folks who are working two jobs but are unable to make ends meet, or deciding between buying groceries or paying the electric bill—is for us step out from behind the microphone, make room at the table, and give them a chance to speak.

Recently, I attended a small event in the South Texas town of Alamo, right on the U.S.-Mexico border. It was a gathering of individuals from across the country, all of whom had a stake in the Summer Meals Program: program administrators from the Texas Department of Agriculture, high-ranking officials from the USDA, and a few individuals who traveled to Texas from their offices in the White House. We were all there to kickoff a summer meals program run by a local organization called ARISE.

ARISE was founded in 1987 by one woman, Sister Gerrie Naughton of the Sisters of Mercy order. She was living and serving in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. She understood that for things to improve in her community, change needed to be led by the community members themselves—particularly the women of the community.

ARISE was based on respecting the dignity of every individual and recognizing the existing strengths of women in their communities. Through these values, the organization has identified needs and strengthened the very fabric of the communities it works with for more than 20 years. When it first set up shop in Alamo, a small Toyota truck served as the group’s “community center.” But the women of ARISE needed a place to gather—a place to house education and job training classes, as well as provide a safe setting for their children. So they purchased a small home and began to focus on connecting their community with any resource they could.

What they really need is for us step out from behind the microphone, make room at the table, and give them a chance to speak.

Over the last several years, ARISE helped Alamo get better police protection, more streetlights, and a park. Its leaders have partnered with the local sheriff’s office, the county commissioner, and the public school systems in order to achieve these goals. I made my way to Alamo because the women of ARISE recognized that children in their community were going without meals during the summertime; they reached out to the Texas Hunger Initiative where I serve as director to connect with the Summer Meals Program.

As a result, ARISE served hundreds of meals this past summer while also offering children educational and afterschool programs.  The gathering I attended was a celebration—a celebration of kids getting the meals they need, and a celebration of envisioned women from a colonia serving their own community. This was not an initiative conceived by a visionary nonprofit leader from an affluent community or implemented by program experts from Washington. This positive change happened because the women of ARISE saw a need and made their voices heard. The women of ARISE—living on the U.S.-Mexico border in unincorporated colonias—fit the characterization of the so-called “voiceless” perfectly, but clearly they are far from voiceless. The question is whether people will listen.

Thankfully, there are other groups across the county working to create opportunities for low-income people to speak out and be heard. The Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University—and specifically its Witnesses to Hunger project—works with mothers and caregivers of young children who have experienced hunger and poverty, and helps them find avenues to advocate for their own families. These real experts on poverty and hunger tell their own stories in their own words and document their experiences through photography. By sharing their testimonials and photographs with local organizations as well as state and federal policy makers, these women (and some men) are working to create lasting, systemic change. As Witness to Hunger member Tianna Gaines-Turner put it in her testimony to the House Budget Committee last July: “My neighbors and I know what’s going on in our own communities, more than anyone else. We’re fighting already for our families and our neighbors. We need to be taken more seriously by our state and federal governments.” Yet all too often, policy makers, the press, and even advocates, don’t make sure that people who experience poverty are at the table when decisions are made and their expertise matters most.

During my years in anti-hunger work, the work of the anti-hunger community continues to get better and better. We have developed efficient systems for getting food to individuals who need it. We have galvanized policy experts and advocacy to help pass significant pieces of legislation. But we’re still falling short when it comes to involving low-income individuals as an active part of the solution. Food-insecure families have, in large part, been seen and served as clients rather than as people who are fundamental to finding the solutions we need to address hunger and poverty. While our intentions might be good when we try to be a “voice for the voiceless,” the fact is that if we continue to exclude low-income people from participation in decision-making then we are contributing to their oppression.

Want to find lasting and sustainable solutions to poverty and hunger? Stop speaking for the so-called voiceless, and start working alongside them to make their powerful voices heard.



Fact-Checking FOX on SNAP

Video content provided by Media Matters

Once again, FOX News has completely mischaracterized the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), claiming that the President is “buying votes” by keeping millions of Americans on the SNAP rolls despite the “full economic recovery.” That statement is demonstrably false and racially tinged.

Here’s why it’s false:

First, whether or not an individual person is enrolled in SNAP is ultimately the responsibility of state governments, most of which are now run by conservative Republican governors. The federal government sets broad SNAP eligibility guidelines but states actually “enroll” people.

Second, the President isn’t running for office again. As he noted in his recent State of the Union address, he’s already won two campaigns and is finally free to carry out the remainder of his term focused on substance over politics. So, the claim that he’s keeping people on the SNAP roles to buy their votes is absurd on its face.

Third, out of the 20 states with the highest rates of SNAP participation, 16 voted for Governor Mitt Romney in the 2012 Presidential race and the same states overwhelmingly voted for Senator John McCain in 2008.

Fourth, the SNAP rolls rose during the presidencies of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama because poverty rose during both presidencies, even in times that the stock market was soaring. The FOX segment also fails to take into account the great lengths individuals have to go to in order to enroll in the SNAP program, which by the way, has a fraud rate of about 1 percent (about half the criminality rate of the U.S. House of Representatives). The implication that signing up for SNAP is easy just isn’t true. It’s far easier for billionaires to get their tax refunds than for hungry Americans to get SNAP.

Hunger is a massive problem in America. Despite growth at the top of the economy, in 2013 there were 49 million Americans who were food insecure. The reason 46 million Americans are now on SNAP is not because the President is attempting to buy votes or persuade people with handouts. It’s because hunger is a huge problem, which our government has failed to take on to the extent necessary to adequately fix the problem. Because child nutrition programs are also inadequate, 16 million American children live in households that lack sufficient food. (See:

It’s far easier for billionaires to get their tax refunds than for hungry Americans to get SNAP.

It’s also offensive and false to imply that hungry Americans and SNAP recipients don’t want to work. USDA has found that—with regard to families with children suffering from food insecurity and hunger—68 percent contained at least one adult working full-time, 10 percent had at least one adult working part-time, 7 percent had an unemployed adult actively looking for work, and 7 percent were headed by an adult with a disability. The main problem is low wages and few jobs, not laziness.

Here’s why the FOX segment is racially tinged:

Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney and much of the right blamed their 2012 loss on higher minority turn out and the supposed gifts that Obama gave to minority voters. This Fox broadcast is playing off similar racial stereotypes, despite the fact that the plurality of SNAP recipients are white.

The largest reason for hunger in America today is conservative policies that reduce wages and slash social safety nets. The very conservatives who pushed the policies that sunk our economic ship shouldn’t complain when we are forced to provide life preservers in the form of food for the drowning. It’s no wonder the most conservative states are also the hungriest.

The reality is that all of us, including every employee at Fox News, relies on government sometimes. Fox News Founder and head Roger Ailes majored in radio and television while at Ohio University; this government-run – arguably socialist institution – provided a vital push to Ailes’ career.

Shame on FOX for perpetuating race-baiting, victim-blaming lies and half-truths to the American people. They deserve more, including a government that doesn’t allow its people to go hungry.




The False Assumption: Everyone Wants to End Poverty

The debate about income inequality and poverty in America is generally carried out with the underlying assumption that everyone wants to end poverty, and there are well-meaning though different approaches to doing so.

But what if that’s not true? What if the assumption is false? Should we continue carrying on this corrupted debate?   Or should we look for other means to address the scourge of poverty in America?

Even before we examine the issue more deeply, it seems obvious on the surface that there should not be rampant poverty and homelessness in the wealthiest country in the history of the world that has the ingenuity to put a man on the moon, and computers in peoples’ laps.

Two recent reports – one by The New York Times and the other by the Economic Policy Institute – provide convincing evidence that, in fact, if income distribution trends would have remained as they were prior to 1979, the poverty rate in America would have fallen to 0 percent some 10 to 20 years ago.

So why didn’t that happen?

In a recent post on AlterNet, writer Paul Buchheit argues that the nearly 1 in 2 Americans living in or near poverty are now being treated like expendable and disposable commodities. These are the people whom former presidential candidate Mitch Romney and other financial elites refer to as “the takers” not “the makers.”

If you are a member of the ruling financial elite in this country – and have very little or no contact with people outside of your class and believe that if they are living so poorly it must be their fault – why would you not advocate for disposing of these dregs and drags on your free-market, Machiavellian capitalist aspirations?

Do we call people out for not only perpetuating the problem, but doing so in order to exploit and profit from it?

That’s not a rhetorical question; it actually seems to be happening.

New York Times columnist David Brooks provided the intellectual rational, such as it is, for the belief that poverty is caused by the poor and not by income inequality when he wrote that we should be focusing on the “interrelated social problems of the poor” rather than the well-documented, siphoning off of the nation’s wealth by the financial elite.

But Buchheit points out some of the ways that the wealthy not only scapegoat the poor in America, but carry out an intentional strategy to exploit them.

These strategies include depleting the wealth of the middle class and working poor. The economic data supports the notion that since the Great Recession in 2008 the amount of wealth owned by the top 1% of Americans has grown exponentially, while the rest of us have gotten less. According to a recent report by the Levy Economics Institute, it’s even worse than that: the richest 10% took 116 percent of the income gains between 2009-2012, with the top 1 percent taking 95 percent. Median wealth, on the other hand, dropped about 40 percent from 2007 to 2013.

Another tactic used to exploit people living on the brink is stripping away their income. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), nearly three-fifths of the jobs regained during the recovery (2009 to the present) have been low-wage jobs ($7.69 to $13.83 per hour) – the kind that made up just one-fifth of the jobs before the recession.

Real estate owners are also making housing of any kind unaffordable to most people. As the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports, “In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent.” They also point out that more than one-eighth of the nation’s supply of low-income housing has been permanently lost since 2001. A chilling result of this: more than 600,000 Americans were homeless on any given night in 2013.

What little disposable income a “taker” may have gets fleeced (ironically, taken away) by predatory pay day lenders, rental centers, and assorted fines and fees such as those that bolstered the local economy in Ferguson.

Next, of course, comes criminalization and imprisonment. While no one involved in creating and profiting from the financial crisis – that led to millions of lost jobs and foreclosed homes, and trillions of dollars in lost wealth – went to jail, more low-income Americans are being imprisoned than ever before. And with the privatization of prisons, inmates now often have to pay for their stays (even while awaiting trial).

Even when you ‘play by the rules’ and manage to get into affordable housing, as I did last year, they find ways to make it more difficult for you to maintain the secure foothold you need to work your way up.

A legislative provision in last year’s Farm Bill excludes people from receiving a portion of their SNAP assistance if they do not pay their own utilities separate from their rent. (I found this out when I demanded a fair hearing with Social Services regarding my SNAP benefits.) When you are in affordable housing—or receive Emergency Housing Assistance—you pay one-third of your income for rent, which helps cover the cost of utilities. But you are not billed directly for those utilities, so this new provision allows the government to cut off or significantly reduce your SNAP benefits.

Well, I could go on and on painting this picture of what it’s really like to be stuck in poverty in America, but here’s the main point: Do we go on debating this problem with good faith that both sides are determined to end this gruesome reality, or do we call people out for not only perpetuating the problem, but doing so in order to exploit and profit from it?

In previous articles for Talk Poverty, I’ve called for a paradigm shift—an intellectually violent revolution in which one conceptual world view is replaced by another. I don’t think we can have that intellectually violent revolution until we realize that all sides of the debate are not equally determined or committed to solving the problem of poverty in America. We have to admit this before we can possibly fix the problem.

What exactly do you want, 1%ers? How many more pounds of flesh will it take before you allow the rest of us in America to exist with a modicum of ease and dignity?



Just Getting a Job is Not as Easy as It Sounds

There is one factor that simultaneously promises to reduce recidivism, save money, and reduce poverty for a significant portion of the United States: employment for formerly incarcerated citizens. Employment is both the lynchpin of successful reentry and one of the most difficult goals to realize. Even individuals with marketable skills and great tenacity can struggle for months or years to find a job.

This problem of low employment rates among reentering citizens is simply too large to ignore. As many as one hundred million adults in the United States have criminal records. People with criminal backgrounds face all the same frustrations as other job seekers: a sluggish job market; a low response rate to applications; and the stigma of long term unemployment. However, in my role recruiting businesses willing to consider reentering citizens for employment, I have seen that there are additional barriers for people with criminal records that make job-seeking especially frustrating and disheartening.

One common obstacle to employment is often the lack of appropriate identification.   Many individuals’ personal effects go missing during the process of arrest and incarceration or due to the instability of their housing. Getting the appropriate documentation to replace lost identification can be difficult and time-consuming, especially from out-of-state agencies. This seemingly simple process can delay the start of a job search for weeks or months. As a consequence of this delay, many former offenders end up settling for informal work, putting themselves at risk for both wage theft and further involvement with the justice system.

If we are to address the root causes of inter-generational poverty, we must dismantle the barriers formerly incarcerated citizens face

However, stereotypes and myths remain the biggest barriers to reentry employment. Many believe “once a criminal, always a criminal,” despite studies that show that past crimes are not necessarily predictors of future actions. And, since background checks have become relatively inexpensive and easy to access through the Internet, the ability of potential employers to act on these stereotypes and myths to discriminate against people based on a criminal record has increased. Additionally, many commercially available background checks contain errors that applicants struggle to refute. Most retail chains now do background checks and, as a result, entry-level jobs that used to be available to reentering citizens are now out of reach. Further, many national companies have now outsourced this hiring process so local managers have no control over whether to hire someone with a criminal background. They simply receive an application marked hirable or un-hirable. For this reason, individuals returning from incarceration are less able to depend on their existing network to help them find employment.

In contrast, food service and building trades are two fields with relatively low barriers to entry. However, both job types are also very physically demanding and too often fail to provide living wages. Workers in building trades are also often required to have both a valid driver’s license and a working vehicle, resources that are often out of reach for people coming out of jail or prison.

When the odds are stacked so heavily against people with criminal records, we can’t be surprised that recidivism is too often the result. But we also have to wonder how much of it could be avoided if people were able to find jobs and support themselves?

Here are some steps we can take right now to improve employment outcomes for reentering citizens:

  1. For businesses, if you have had positive experiences hiring reentering citizens, follow the example of Alsco, and Virgin Companies and talk about it. If you are interested in considering an ex-offender, contact a local reentry organization. This list can help you get started.
  1. Publicize the facts about people with criminal backgrounds and share stories about people who have successfully negotiated reentry; also, increase employers’ awareness of resources like the Federal Bonding Program and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit that support second chance hiring.
  1. Make basic computer literacy and modern job search techniques a part of reentry programming in prisons and jails. Also, ensure that job training programs are matched to employment growth areas and are in fields that do not have significant restrictions for ex-offenders. (For example, HVAC is a popular training program in many facilities, but companies that hire people to go into other’s homes are reluctant to hire anyone with a theft charge or offense involving violence or sexual assault.)
  1. Finally, we need to see a movement to support local and national businesses that positively engage in second chance hiring, a kind of reverse boycott. This would help assure business owners that they will not be negatively affected by second chance hiring and that it could even help them gain popular support.

For the reasons outlined above, communities decimated by mass incarceration face the long-term, lingering effects of severe underemployment. If we are to address the root causes of inter-generational poverty, we must dismantle the barriers formerly incarcerated citizens face as they strive for self-sufficiency and financial security by obtaining a job. Most reentering citizens are able and eager to work and it makes no sense to lock them out of the job market.



Continuing the March of the Civil Rights Warriors in Selma

I recently watched Selma, a stirring movie about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and so many others who sacrificed to make our nation live up to its most cherished ideals of equality and liberty for all Americans. Like many others, I left feeling the film is as much a reflection of battles we are fighting today as it is about civil rights victories of the past. But I viewed these parallels from a unique point of view. As the President of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that trains and supports public defenders in some of our nation’s most broken criminal justice systems, I work with lawyers who are on the front lines of arguably this generation’s most important civil rights struggle—the effort to reform America’s criminal justice system. If we are to fix this national civil rights crisis, public defenders will have to be part of the solution.

Selma is set in 1965, and—just as we did 50 years ago—we continue to view some lives as less valuable than others. We still embrace an embarrassingly low standard of justice for our most marginalized populations. We persist in promulgating policies that ensure certain communities will never be able to fully participate in our society.

2.2 million people are incarcerated at any given time in America, far more than any other country in the world. Nearly 6 million have lost the right to vote because of a criminal conviction. Countless others are rendered ineligible for student loans, public housing, benefits necessary to care for their families, and employment opportunities. The victims of this injustice are almost exclusively poor. They are disproportionately people of color. Our race- and class-based system of mass incarceration is tearing apart families, destroying communities, and making it almost impossible for children of incarcerated parents to ever break the cycle. So, much like 50 years ago, we need a movement to address this civil rights imperative.

Like any other feature-length movie focusing on a complex event, Selma was reduced to a simplified narrative in which the heroes overcome adversity to achieve victory—the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But, as much as Dr. King sought to push for policy reform, his larger vision demanded much broader transformation.  He understood that while a law can temporarily force those with a warped sense of justice to change their behavior, true equality only occurs when we collectively embrace it as a fundamental and inviolate American value; when we reshape our culture into one which truly views each and every citizen as deserving of respect and dignity.  King fought not only for legislative victories, but also the transformation of the hearts and minds of Americans. Selma was part of a broader campaign designed to shine a light on the inhumane treatment of African Americans and awaken our national consciousness to the fact that this behavior violates our greatest ideals.

We still embrace an embarrassingly low standard of justice for our most marginalized populations.

Likewise, if we are to realize equal justice today, we must work to transform a criminal justice narrative that assumes people in our poorest communities are somehow inherently dangerous; that measures justice by the harshness of the punishment; that lumps the world into categories of “us” and “them” with law enforcement as “the good guys” and those they police as “the bad guys.” Strategies to reform unjust polices are necessary. Of course we must scale back the criminalization of an ever increasing index of behavior. Certainly we should end a system of bail that detains people pretrial simply because they are too poor to pay the bond that is set. We absolutely need to reform overly punitive sentencing laws.

But if we do not change the fact that we have come to equate justice with punishment and to associate the most negative qualities with race and class, equal justice will remain elusive. Those who administer our justice system will continue to disproportionately monitor, arrest, prosecute, and punish poor people and people of color. We must work to transform our assumptions about our most marginalized populations and how they deserve to be treated. So, while policy reform plays an important role, as was the case 50 years ago, we need a movement to transform the hearts and minds of a nation.

Public defenders can help to drive this campaign. With 80 percent of people accused of crimes too poor to afford an attorney, public defenders are the voice of our impoverished communities in the criminal justice system. By organizing public defenders, we can harness the collective voice necessary to speak up for the humanity of people in these communities and to infuse the system with values essential to justice.

A movement of public defenders has the power to reframe the criminal justice narrative in this country—an essential precursor to sustaining a movement for reform. Lawyers for the poor have the opportunity to humanize their clients every time they speak in court. Public defender leaders can spread the message more broadly as they speak on behalf of the populations they represent in meetings with judges, policymakers, and the community. There are thousands of public defenders across the nation speaking for millions of people whose voices are routinely ignored or dismissed. Their clients are frequently cast as demons, when in fact they are the people who bag our groceries, care for our children, and serve us in restaurants. Most Americans are a paycheck away from needing a public defender. Yet, we do not see people caught up in the criminal justice system as part of our shared community. Until we see these lives as just as valuable as the lives of people we care about, we will not have equal justice. We must mobilize this army of advocates to achieve that transformation of hearts and minds.

That is how we will continue the march that so many heroic civil rights warriors began in Selma.