First Person

Retaking the Moral High Ground in the Fight Against Poverty

If a nation has the ways and means to solve a social problem that is devastating millions of its citizens’ lives, but it fails to act, doesn’t that mean resolving the problem depends more on moral values than on coming up with new economic policies?

The social problem I am talking about is poverty. Poverty has always been an issue that’s been framed—one way or another—by morality. For those who view the poor with moral indignation, the solution is to enact policies designed to punish; and for those who apply empathy, the goal is to create programs that are geared to empower and uplift the poor.

What I perceive, based on personal experience—I’ve worked with many public and private groups on the issues of homelessness and poverty and I’ve experienced homelessness myself—is that one’s moral perspective on the poverty issue usually defines how one goes about finding and implementing solutions to it.

The dividing line seems to be whether you think poverty is caused by people lacking the basic resources they need in order to have stable families, good educational opportunities, and jobs; or, you think that people do not have these basic resources because they lack the personal attributes and social skills needed to earn them, as was implied by columnist David Brooks in a New York Times editorial last year.

I think it’s unfair to expect that people who don’t have access to basic needs—like adequate food, housing, and health care—should live normal and productive lives. To then punish them on top of that—by denying work and income supports, for example—is not only immoral, it’s irrational as well.

Early on in the battle to end poverty in America, the moral high ground was held by those with an empathic approach to alleviating poverty, in words and actions.

One’s moral perspective on the poverty issue usually defines how one goes about finding and implementing solutions to it.

President Roosevelt proclaimed: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” He followed up those words with the New Deal, giving rise to Social Security and the modern liberal/progressive movement in America.

In his Inaugural Address in 1961, President Kennedy said: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” He then announced a “New Frontier”: policies that extended jobless benefits, aid to children, increased Social Security and the minimum wage, and financed public affordable housing.

After Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ championed the Great Society and the War on Poverty: “… Neither you nor I are willing to accept the tyranny of poverty, nor the dictatorship of ignorance, nor the despotism of ill health, nor the oppression of bias and prejudice and bigotry. We want change. We want progress.” And he backed those words up with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, The Food Stamp Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965.

In 1967, Martin Luther King wrote that “poverty has no justification in our age.” He compared it to “the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned” to produce their own food. “The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.” He launched the Poor Peoples Campaign in 1968 to try to “gain economic justice for low-income people in the United States.” He was assassinated that year.

Bobby Kennedy took up the mantle as advocate for the poor and during his presidential campaign declared: “I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” He, too, was assassinated—just two months after King.

Even President Nixon continued to build on many of these progressive policy reforms. In 1969 he called for “an end to hunger,” expanded the food stamp program, and then created the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program in 1972.

I was born in the 1950s and lived through each of these periods of inspiration, hope and optimism; each were followed—inevitably, it came to seem—by death and anguish. The sudden, tragic loss of our most gifted and promising political and moral leaders left many in my generation traumatized and deeply scarred.

In the wake of the political carnage of the 1960s, and the national emotional hangover that only worsened with Vietnam and Watergate, Ronald Reagan came onto the national scene in the 1970s with openly racist disdain for the poor. His stump speeches included references to “welfare queens” taking “government handouts” while driving a “Cadillac”; and “strapping young bucks” using food stamps to buy “T-bone steaks.”

Does anyone think for a moment that if Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X were still alive then that they would have let him get away with that racist vitriol unchallenged? But Reagan did, and he backed up his words with actions.

He took particular aim at programs and services that were effectively reducing poverty and preventing homelessness prior to his election. In his own version of a perfect storm for the poor, Reagan gutted the budget of Housing and Urban Development  (HUD); discarded the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, and as a result, scores of people suffering from mental illness became displaced, homeless, or incarcerated instead of receiving treatment in community mental health centers; and he changed the political narrative about poverty and homelessness—from one that acknowledged it as a national problem, to one that framed it as a matter of personal choice.

As President Reagan said in a 1984 interview with Good Morning America regarding the unprecedented surge in homelessness: “People who are sleeping on the grates…the homeless…are homeless, you might say, by choice.”

It’s a legacy we are still unable to escape more than a quarter century since he left office. How many of us liberal and progressive leaders are willing to take on Ronald Reagan’s view of America that has seeped so deeply into our national psyche?

I’ll start the dance. I’m a writer and David Brooks is a writer. So I’ll call him out. Your editorial in the NY Times that singled out single mothers as being one of the chief causes of poverty in America? The last thing a single mother needs is a lecture from you on the “cultural roots of the problem” of poverty that are “really the inescapable core of the thing.” What she really needs is a job that pays a wage that is sufficient to house and feed herself and her children; affordable quality childcare so she can work; and access to health care is probably a pretty damn good idea too.

If our current busting-at-the-seams economy can’t provide a living wage because it’s so grotesquely skewed to enhance the wealth of the already wealthy, then it’s our responsibility—as proudly empathic liberals and progressives—to force our politicians to enact programs that will protect, serve, and empower ALL of our citizens equally and together.




Why Congress Should Pass the REDEEM Act

At a time of historic polarization in Washington, one issue has garnered strong bipartisan support: criminal justice reform. Exhibit A is the list of strange bedfellows who have recently joined forces through the “transpartisan” Coalition for Public Safety. This new effort has brought together leading progressive organizations such as the Center for American Progress and the ACLU, alongside influential conservative groups such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, Freedomworks, and the Koch Brothers.  With George Soros’ Open Society Foundation also serving as a longtime force pushing for criminal justice reform, this reflects rare left-right synergy.

Much of the bipartisan focus in Washington has centered on the need for sentencing reform, through proposals like tackling overly harsh mandatory minimums. Sentencing reform is urgently needed, and bipartisan efforts such as Senator Lee’s (R-UT) and Senator Durbin’s (D-IL) Smarter Sentencing Act provide cause for optimism.

But the problems with our broken criminal justice system don’t end when an individual is released from jail or prison. Every year, more than 600,000 Americans are released into their communities after serving their time. Moreover, millions more end up with criminal records without doing any time–through arrests that don’t lead to conviction or through probation-only sentences.

All in all, between 70 million and 100 million Americans—or as many as one in three of us—now have some type of criminal record. And due to the rise of technology and the internet—as well as federal and state policy decisions—having even a minor criminal record can stand in the way of employment, housing, education and training, building good credit, and even meager public assistance. For example, nearly 9 in 10 employers use background checks in hiring, and 4 in 5 landlords conduct background checks on potential tenants. Even a minor criminal record can mean every door is closed to you as you seek to get back on your feet.

Even a minor criminal record can mean every door is closed to you as you seek to get back on your feet.

The result? Punishment has been transformed from a temporary to a lifelong experience for many justice-involved individuals. In addition, mass incarceration and the barriers associated with a criminal record have come to serve as major drivers of poverty in the US. This has broad implications—not just for the tens of millions of affected individuals, but also for their families, their communities, and our national economy. For example, the cost of shutting people with criminal records out of the labor market runs as high as $65 billion per year in GDP terms. Thus, as the criminal justice reform train continues to move forward full speed ahead, it’s imperative that efforts include reforms to give people a second chance.

Senator Rand Paul’s and Senator Cory Booker’s REDEEM Act, introduced yesterday, is a good first step. Take a look at this summary if you want to see everything it does. Here are three key provisions, which, if enacted, would go a long way toward putting second chances within reach for Americans with criminal records.

1. Creates a mechanism for cleaning up a federal criminal record. As my colleague Sharon Dietrich and I explained in a recent Center for American Progress report, cleaning up a criminal record is one of the most powerful tools for overcoming the barriers associated with a criminal record. While state laws vary a great deal, the vast majority of states have “expungement” or “sealing” mechanisms to allow people to put their criminal records behind them. In fact, as the Vera Institute documented in a recent report, 23 states broadened these laws between 2009-2014 through efforts such as expanding the categories of offenses that can be expunged or shortening wait times.

Yet despite the exponential increase in federal criminal prosecutions that resulted from the War on Drugs, there is no such mechanism to expunge federal records, even those resulting from arrests that did not lead to a conviction. Federal law thus lags far behind the states. By creating a judicial mechanism for sealing federal nonviolent records, the REDEEM Act thus fills an important void. (We have called for including all federal arrests that did not result in conviction, given that the presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle of our criminal justice system—but the REDEEM Act is a good first step.)

 2. Improves the accuracy of FBI background checks. Understandably, employers and other users of background checks believe the information presented there is reliable. However, that information is often incorrect or not up to date. FBI background checks in particular are notoriously inaccurate – some 600,000 jobseekers received an inaccurate FBI check in 2012. One of the most common problems with FBI background checks is that they fail to provide the outcome of a criminal case. Given that many cases don’t result in convictions or are resolved on lesser charges, having a criminal record that has not been updated to reflect the outcome of criminal charges can be highly prejudicial.

In recognition of this widespread problem, the REDEEM Act would require the FBI to review each record for accuracy and completeness before it can be provided to a requesting party. It would also prohibit the FBI from distributing criminal record information pertaining to arrests that are more than two years old if they don’t contain a final outcome of the case.

3. Reforms the harsh and outdated lifetime ban on public assistance for people with felony drug convictions. In many states, even meager public assistance is out of reach for people with certain types of criminal records. The 1996 welfare law included a lifetime ban on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) for people convicted of a felony drug offense. The law gives states the option to modify or waive the bans, and many have. Yet most states continue to enforce the ban in whole or in part for TANF, SNAP, or both. This outdated and harsh policy deprives struggling families of nutrition assistance and pushes them even deeper into poverty at precisely the moment when they are seeking to regain their footing. According to The Sentencing Project, in the 12 states with the most punitive policies, an estimated 180,000 women were subject to the TANF ban in 2013. The REDEEM Act would lift this ban for people who were convicted for drug use or possession. (The ban would remain in effect for people convicted of drug distribution crimes.)

As bipartisan members of Congress take up criminal justice reform, we must not lose sight of the need to include reforms to give people a second chance. Passing the REDEEM Act would be a great start.



A 5-Step Plan for Fighting Senior Poverty

When we talk about fighting poverty in the United States, the conversation is often focused on preventative measures such as education or jobs. Thanks to this focus, poverty prevention programs, policies, and corresponding social movements have made significant progress in raising wages, empowering people, reducing poverty levels and changing lives.

However, when it comes to an increasing population of low-to-no-income seniors, many preventative measures come too late.  Education and retraining initiatives, savings plans, and job creation programs won’t help someone in her 70s or 80s who is struggling just to cover room and board after a lifetime of low-wage labor.

But it’s not too late to protect the rights of seniors to a basic living.

For this growing demographic of aging poor, we cannot hold up our hands and say we should have helped them 50 years ago, or helped their parents a century ago. We must, and we can, take action.  By updating the federal safety-net programs we already have in place, we can move towards an economically stable future for people as they age.

Here is a 5-step plan to fight senior poverty:

Strengthen the existing safety net. Senior poverty would be much worse without Social Security, the Supplemental Security Income program, and Medicare and Medicaid. These programs are almost single-handedly responsible for reducing the official measure of senior poverty from 35 percent in 1960 to 9 percent today. But seniors today are rapidly losing ground. Proposals to cut Social Security benefits, increase Medicare cost-sharing for beneficiaries, or limit Medicaid coverage should all be rejected. Instead lawmakers must advance proposals to ensure that these benefits meet the growing need.

Improve the Supplemental Security Income program. The poorest two million people over age 65 receive SSI payments, but the rate of seniors in extreme poverty is increasing in part because this program — originally intended to lift all seniors out of poverty — has not been significantly updated since it was first passed in 1972. As a result, SSI essentially still leaves millions of the country’s most needy seniors in poverty. The maximum federal benefit for an individual is $721 per month (though some states kick-in a small supplement), but to be eligible a senior must have less than $2,000 in savings. In addition to the limit on savings, the SSI income disregard limits the amount of income someone can have from another source, such as from a pension or Social Security benefit, and still receive SSI. But the current SSI income disregard allows for only $20 of additional general income or $65 of earned income before there is a reduction in benefits. Updating the SSI income disregard would mean just a little more money for people for whom every dollar counts. The Supplemental Security Restoration Income Act, poised for reintroduction in Congress this spring, offers an opportunity to modernize the program.

Increase the availability of programs that provide assistance with healthcare and long-term care costs. One of the drivers of seniors’ economic vulnerability is the rising cost of health care. Proposals that would shift more of those costs to seniors will only drive more seniors into poverty. Instead, the health care programs that are designed to help the poorest seniors afford their health care – Medicaid, Medicare Savings Programs, and the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy – should be expanded, and out-of-pocket costs should be reduced or eliminated.

Push for federal support for the long-term care safety net. With 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, the number of people needing long-term care coverage is projected to rise from 12 million today to 27 million in 2050. Few seniors are prepared to pay for the costs of long-term care. For poor and economically vulnerable seniors, proposals that rely on them to save more of their already inadequate incomes in order to cover these costs are simply unrealistic. Public programs must be strengthened and modified to meet long-term care needs and to encourage the provision of more home- and community- based services.

Reauthorize the Older Americans Act (OAA). The OAA provides funding for critical services that seniors rely on to remain independent and healthy. Services include meals, benefit counseling, caregiver support, transportation, health promotion, legal services, and more. While these services are not always limited to poor older adults, seniors in poverty rely on them heavily to make ends meet and to ensure that their basic needs are met. It is time for Congress to renew its commitment to providing seniors with essential social services by reauthorizing the Older Americans Act.

We have done a great job reducing senior poverty in our nation. The next steps we must take are clear, and millions of seniors are relying on us to do the right thing and take action now.




Closing the Justice Gap for Low-Income New Yorkers

Each year, thousands of New Yorkers find themselves in Housing Court facing eviction.  All court cases are important of course, but the potential ramifications of eviction cases are particularly far-reaching.  We know that evicted families experience dislocation and, in many cases, homelessness.  This kind of residential instability increases the likelihood of all sorts of negative outcomes, including failure in school, depression, and poverty. Put simply, the evidence suggests that stable housing is the foundation of family well-being.

Despite the grave potential consequences, nine out of ten low-income New Yorkers who go to Housing Court do so without the benefit of a lawyer.  It is difficult to navigate the courts without assistance.  Filling out the necessary paperwork, requesting repairs, and negotiating with a landlord’s attorney are no simple matters, especially when you are facing the threat of losing your home.

In a perfect world, everyone facing eviction would receive legal representation.  In many cases, the presence of a lawyer can be the difference between keeping your home and getting evicted.  We can and must do more to increase the pool of lawyers available to serve Housing Court litigants.

Like many others, I have worked diligently in recent years to expand state funding for legal services that deal with the “essentials of life” like eviction.  In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council have increased funding for legal assistance programs; the City has also moved to consolidate their administration of legal service funding under the leadership of Steve Banks, the commissioner of the Human Resources Administration.

Meeting our responsibilities to the most disadvantaged in society is not a luxury and it isn’t a choice – it is a simple matter of justice.

Another key player has been the Robin Hood Foundation, which focuses exclusively on combatting poverty in New York.  Since 1988, Robin Hood has raised more than $1.95 billion in dollars, goods and services for vulnerable New Yorkers.  This includes a sustained commitment to supporting civil legal service providers, including the Legal Aid Society and New York Legal Assistance Group.

Make no mistake: funding for legal services is fundamental to the ability of courts to perform our constitutional mission.  In these difficult financial times, we often talk about the challenges of keeping the courthouse doors open.  But simply keeping the doors open is not enough.  If what’s happening inside those doors doesn’t amount to equal justice, you might as well close the courts.

Despite the best efforts of the courts, the city and private foundations, there still exists a significant justice gap in New York City, to say nothing about courts around the country. In recent weeks, we have taken a step to address this gap in our city.

The New York court system has joined Robin Hood, the Human Resources Administration, and the Center for Court Innovation to create a new program, Poverty Justice Solutions.  The idea behind it is simple.  Each year, Poverty Justice Solutions will take 20 recent law school graduates and place them in two-year fellowships with civil legal service providers in New York. These attorneys will work at different agencies but they will all be dedicated to the same goal: helping low-income New Yorkers preserve their housing and prevent homelessness.

The first Poverty Justice Solutions attorneys will be selected this spring and will begin work following their graduation in June.  These new attorneys will combat poverty by helping to reduce evictions and improve the financial stability of participating tenants.  They will also help close the justice gap, providing hundreds of low-income New Yorkers with legal assistance that they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.  In the process, Poverty Justice Solutions will also help address the challenges of a constricted legal job market, providing jobs for 20 new lawyers each year.

The Old Testament tells us: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, rich and poor, high and low alike.”  My judicial philosophy is to make sure that justice is done.  I don’t consider myself an activist judge, but I do consider myself proactive in the pursuit of justice.  That’s the idea behind Poverty Justice Solutions – and behind the quest to improve access to civil legal services in general.  Meeting our responsibilities to the most disadvantaged in society is not a luxury and it isn’t a choice – it is a simple matter of justice.



Lessons from Across the Pond: What the US Should and Shouldn’t Take Away from the United Kingdom’s Social Policy

Conservatives have long called for combining and freezing federal funding for key health, nutrition, and income security programs and then handing those funds over to the states. As evidenced by the track record of TANF and several other block grants, this strategy has historically resulted in large cuts to benefits, and made block-granted programs much less responsive to recessions and increases in population and unemployment.

Last year, Representative Paul Ryan proposed the most recent conservative block-grant proposal. Under his Opportunity Grant program, funding for the nation’s bedrock nutrition assistance program (SNAP) and several other means-tested programs would be combined into a single block grant with a fixed annual funding level. Rep. Ryan says he draws inspiration from the United Kingdom’s Universal Credit—a new means-tested cash entitlement benefit that consolidates six current benefits, including the Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit, and Job Search Allowance. The Universal Credit has gotten off to a slow start in the UK due to implementation challenges, but the government says it will be fully implemented by 2019.

We will hear more about the Universal Credit this week. At an event at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Iain Duncan Smith, UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—and the architect of the policy—will keynote a discussion of what the United States can learn from the Universal Credit.

There are already a long list of effective homegrown practices and policy reforms that are seeing results.

The fact is the Universal Credit doesn’t even remotely resemble Rep. Ryan’s proposal—or, for that matter, TANF or other block grants in the United States. Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that the Universal Credit will be an entitlement to eligible low-income people, one that is administered centrally by a single government agency.

We’re all for learning what we can from other countries, but the Universal Credit is not the most relevant policy for the United States to draw on. Among the key differences limiting its relevance to our system is the fact that one of the main problems the UK is trying to address—financial penalties for work—is far less of an issue in the United States. This is due to the design of our Earned Income Tax Credit—which kicks in at the first dollar of earnings—and the limited nature of other means-tested benefits for low-income unemployed people.

Moreover, a primer the Center for American Progress co-authored last year on the Universal Credit notes several concerns with the policy. For example, the UK’s Housing Benefit is currently a locally administered in-kind housing benefit paid directly to landlords on behalf of low-income tenants. Under the Universal Credit it will be paid directly to tenants as a cash benefit and administered centrally by the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions. This has raised concerns about how tenants, especially vulnerable ones, will manage direct payments of housing costs, and what happens if they fall behind on rent.

We do, however, welcome a conversation on how the Universal Credit can spur momentum stateside to reduce the administrative burdens associated with navigating multiple safety net programs. But it is worth noting there are already a long list of effective homegrown practices and policy reforms on this front that are seeing results. For example, the Affordable Care Act created a new, simplified system that states can use to enroll eligible people into Medicaid and CHIP, including an option to enroll people based on their SNAP eligibility.

Beyond the Universal Credit, when it comes to social policy more generally there is indeed a lot the US could learn from the UK: the UK has stronger labor market protections, more modern workplace standards, and a longstanding commitment to ensuring that working-age people—whether in or out of work, and with or without children—have access to health care for free as well as a minimum floor of housing and income assistance. While we don’t know if these types of lessons and reforms will be discussed at this week’s AEI event, any discussion of the UK’s Universal Credit and its relevance to US social policy should not be divorced from this broader context.

To that end, here are a few things we hope US policymakers do consider when taking lessons from across the pond:

  • Health services and almost all prescription drugs are free for everyone in the UK. But in the US, 22 states have refused to implement the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, leaving millions without access to care and subject to higher “marginal tax rates.”
  • In the UK, all low-income people who rent are guaranteed means-tested housing assistance; in the US only about one-quarter of eligible low-income renters receive help.
  • The UK guarantees means-tested unemployment assistance to low-income people who are unemployed—a single unemployed person without children is eligible for weekly grants that total about $450 a month[i]. The US does not have a means-tested unemployment assistance program that guarantees benefits nationwide. Low-income people can access SNAP, but the benefits are much more modest, and can only be used for food.
  • The UK provides a family allowance to all low- and middle-income families with children through its Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit. In 2015, a single parent with one child and no earnings would be eligible for about $6,300 as a basic income guarantee under just these two benefits. While the US has a Child Tax Credit, it is modest by comparison and completely excludes families with no or very low earnings.

Although some of these programs—means-tested unemployment assistance, Housing Benefit, and Child Tax Credit—will be brought into the Universal Credit, they will continue to function as entitlements with the same base benefit levels.

Beyond benefit differences, it’s also worth noting that the UK has a national minimum wage, which is updated annually and currently equal to about $9.50 an hour (it will go higher when updated later this year) and gives almost all workers a legal entitlement to paid sick days. In addition, it provides paid family leave and a comparatively expansive system of pre-K and child-care assistance. This may help explain why women’s labor force participation has grown steadily since 2000 in the UK, while trending downward in the US.

In short, the US has a lot to learn from the UK. But we should glean our biggest lessons from the UK’s policy and reform successes that have improved basic labor standards, strengthened work-family balance, and fortified benefits for low-incomes families. Efforts like these have led to better outcomes for individuals and families, including lower poverty rates, than we have accomplished to date in the United States.

[i] This and other UK benefits amounts are converted into US dollars using an exchange rate that adjusts for cost of living differences between the UK and US.