A Movement to End Poverty

It’s going to take a movement to end poverty.

I didn’t know that when I started doing anti-poverty work in 2001.  I was teaching at American University, and I volunteered to deliver food to people living in poverty in Washington, D.C. In apartment after apartment, I witnessed something that shook me: Families living with empty cupboards and refrigerators. Children living in homes without any furniture. Mothers and babies sleeping on the floor.

That was a life-changing moment. I went home and founded A Wider Circle out of my one-bedroom apartment, initially collecting furniture from people I knew to give to people I didn’t know, and leading life skills and professional development workshops in shelters. Since that first year, we have furnished 22,000 homes throughout the Washington region and led 3,500 workshops.

I recognize that it takes more than a bed, or educational programming, to get out of poverty. It takes comprehensive job training. It takes connecting people with skills and education with other people who have not had the same opportunities. It takes a visible grassroots effort that includes all segments of society—government, business, nonprofits, schools, faith and civic groups, and communities—connecting and creating change together.

In short, it takes a movement.

A movement made up of people like Dr. Leonard Brock, who is leading “ROC the Future” – Rochester, New York’s community-wide initiative dedicated to ensuring that all children receive the opportunities and support they need – from birth to career. Dr. Brock has the respect and credibility to lead the charge; the son of a single mother, he grew up in public housing in Rochester’s worst neighborhood and went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees.

“The challenges we face are systemic,” he says. “Silos do not work to address systemic problems. We need all hands on deck.”

It takes leaders like Scott Miller, founder and CEO of Circles USA. Scott believes “the responsibility for both poverty and prosperity rests not only in the hands of individuals, but also with societies, institutions, and communities.” His model matches low-income families with community members who volunteer to serve as “allies,” supporting families as they become self-sufficient.

It takes more than a bed, or educational programming, to get out of poverty. It takes a movement.

The movement needs allies in the business community like Kelly Caplan. Community Outreach Coordinator at Washington Gas, Kelly is committed personally and professionally and understands what’s needed for major change to occur. She knows the first step toward our nation ending poverty is “believing that it is possible.”

Sixteen-year-old Sejal Katherine Makheja believes. Two years ago while volunteering at a D.C. nonprofit, she met Juan, who talked about his struggles finding a job. Sejal found his situation hard to comprehend until her father explained that many people don’t have advantages–such as access to a high-quality education–that she has. So she told her parents she wanted to help Juan get an education. Her family paid for Juan to go to community college, where he earned his certification in construction. Soon after, he landed a fulltime job.

“That small gesture changed his life,” Sejal says. “I want to replicate that again and again.” And she is, through her organization, The Elevator Project, dedicated to “lifting the financially disadvantaged one person at a time.”

Many think that ending poverty is unrealistic or downright impossible. Start where you can. Donate a bed. Or professional clothing to help someone get a job. Donate your time as a mentor. Join people living in poverty and coalitions of professionals from diverse fields from around the country at the March 28 National Conference on Ending Poverty.  You will leave the conference more connected with people devoted to ending poverty, and more equipped to take action.  As Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman–who will keynote at the conference–writes in So Rich, So Poor: “Our side has one main weapon… Our weapon of mass construction when we use it – is us.”

In October, I met Maseray Bundu when she enrolled in our week-long job training program. The single mother of three is doing everything she can to become self-sufficient, despite the many obstacles she faces–from raising a child with asthma to finding a fulltime job that pays a living wage. Her email address reflects her eternal optimism. It reads: “EverForward.”

It’s time to make sure Maseray and so many others in poverty are no longer struggling alone. It’s time to build a movement to end poverty.

Ever Forward.


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As Affordable Rent Disappears, Lawmakers Propose Slashing Funds that Could Help

Last week, the Washington Post reported on a D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute study which found that there are virtually no apartments available on the open market in the nation’s capital that are affordable for low-income households. The number of apartments that rent for less than $800 fell by 42 percent in the last decade, from more than 57,700 in 2002 to 33,400 in 2013; and the number of houses with rents between $800 and $1,000 also showed a significant drop during that timeframe.

But even as we are learning more about the magnitude of the rental crisis in the streets surrounding the U.S. Capitol and across the nation, many Republicans in Congress want to prevent Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from funding the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund, two programs that provide resources to help build and preserve affordable housing nationwide.

The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 directed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to place a sliver of their earnings each year into the two funds. But before those contributions ever began, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) had to bail out the mortgage giants due to the financial crisis. As part of the rescue activity, FHFA suspended contributions to the funds.

Now that Fannie and Freddie have regained their financial footing, FHFA Director Mel Watt has lifted the suspension and given the go-ahead for the mortgage giants to resume payments into the funds. But for conservatives in Congress, even this small measure of assistance to poor families is too much. When Watt announced his decision near Christmas last year, the Republican-controlled House Financial Services Committee deemed it “a lump of coal to every taxpayer.”

Members of Congress should look out their office windows more often, or better yet, visit surrounding neighborhoods.

In January, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) introduced legislation that would prevent Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from directing money to the two funds until they are out of conservatorship. The bill is almost identical to one he authored a year ago, which garnered 22 cosponsors, including House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX). As lawmakers deliberate the Republican budget proposal this week, it’s likely we will see efforts to end the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund resurface.

If members of Congress are ignoring what’s happening right in their own backyard, then they probably are ignoring what’s happening across the country, too. The cliff-dive in rental affordability is not limited to our nation’s capital. Data shows that more than half of all renters in the nation spend more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing (and most extremely poor households pay more than half of their meager incomes), leaving precious little for groceries, medication, transportation, and other necessities of life. For example, in California – Rep. Royce’s home state – there is a serious housing affordability crisis, with average monthly rents about 50% higher than the national average.

Any moves to cut the funding for the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund ignore the dire need for them across the country right now. Unfortunately, it’s a trend with Congress. Our lawmakers have repeatedly cut rental assistance programs, even though the number of households in worst-case scenarios – living in abysmal housing or having to use more than half of their income on rent – has only increased over time.

Members of Congress should look out their office windows more often, or better yet, visit surrounding neighborhoods – then maybe they would get a clue about our affordable housing crisis.  Passing legislation to slash these two funds would not only make the housing situation worse, it would be an insult to hard-working families who are already struggling to make ends meet in every state and district.



Mississippi Judge Bars Public Defenders from Representing Clients

Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) is asking the Department of Justice to investigate recent events in Hinds County, Mississippi, where a judge is refusing to allow public defenders to represent their clients in his court.

Judge Jeffrey Weill seems to believe public defenders should be more deferential to him and less passionate in the representation of their clients.  Apparently disapproving of the zealous advocacy of one public defender, Judge Weill removed her from all of her cases and, according to Public Defender Michelle Harris, to identify any specific behavior that violated the lawyer’s professional obligations to her clients, or the court.  In doing so he has disrespected the right to counsel for the poor. When the Hinds County public defender office refused to abandon those they are charged with serving, and collectively resisted Judge’s Weill’s attempts to further interfere with their representation of clients, he held an attorney and the head of the office in contempt.

This case is yet another example of local authorities disregarding the rights of our most vulnerable citizens.  It should leave every person who is concerned about justice troubled.  Wielding power to interfere with fundamental rights of the least powerful is exactly what our Founding Fathers feared the most.  Few things could be less consistent with what our Constitution demands of those given the privilege to preside as judge.  Many of us are a paycheck away from needing the services of the public defender should we be wrongly accused of a crime.  The citizens of Hinds County are fortunate to have a public defender willing to fight for their constitutional rights.  They should demand their judges do the same.

Our Founding Fathers valued liberty above all else, and in the 6th Amendment guaranteed every individual a lawyer to ensure a fair fight, whenever liberty was at stake. In a nation committed to equal justice, the public defender is essential to ensuring that one’s ability to protect his or her fundamental rights does not depend on income.

For every person accused of a crime who can pay for a lawyer, four more are too destitute to do so.

Sadly, public defenders are often not given the respect and support they need to protect the most vulnerable among us.  Since our poorest citizens are prosecuted and punished more than those with means, true justice remains elusive.  For every person accused of a crime who can pay for a lawyer, four more are too destitute to do so.  Public defenders are left to fight back against a system that has accepted an embarrassingly low standard of “justice” for the poor.

No one should respect the critical role of defense counsel more than a judge.  Judges should be committed to protecting the most marginalized and supporting those who advocate for them.  But some judges, like Judge Weill, apparently think the courtroom belongs to them, rather than the public.  They think they can dictate how a lawyer defends her client and somehow still be impartial.  That kind of behavior is a great threat our democracy.

This case is particularly shameful, but it is hardly unique. Across the country we see judges who abuse their power at the expense of the powerless, and only when public defenders are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve can this situation be corrected.




Targeted Investment Could Reduce Poverty in NYC By 69 Percent

From 2009-2013, one in five New Yorkers lived below the poverty line. This amounts to 1.7 million poor people living in New York City households. Research by the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) shows that the City’s poverty rate declined slightly between 2005 and 2008 but then increased between 2008 and 2012. The CEO analysis also shows that poverty would have been even higher without government policies such as refundable income tax credits and housing subsidies.

The question we are now faced with in New York City (and around the country) is this—how do we enhance or create new government policies to further reduce poverty? A groundbreaking new study finds that in fact we could reduce poverty in New York City by as much as 69 percent.

Commissioned by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, and UJA-Federation of New York, the study examines the potential impact that select antipoverty policies—alone and in combination—could have in reducing poverty in the City. This partnership is born out of our shared values and traditions of caring for people in need; the unparalleled reach of our combined networks in helping all New Yorkers; and a fundamental belief in the God-given dignity and potential of every human being.

We examine policy reforms related to transitional jobs, minimum wage increases, earnings supplements, tax credits for seniors and persons with disabilities, increased SNAP benefits, guaranteed child care subsidies, and increased housing vouchers.  An analysis by the Urban Institute tested the policies for their individual impact, as well as the effects of three different policy combinations with varying levels of participation.


The individual policies reduced poverty by 1 percent to 26 percent, but when the policies were combined they had a far greater effect: Combination 1 in the chart above reduced poverty by 44 percent, to 12.1 percent; combination 2 reduced poverty by 54 percent, to 9.8 percent; and combination 3 reduced poverty by 69 percent, to 6.7 percent.


The evidence is clear. Public policy must be at the center of efforts to fight poverty, and as a nation, we need to adopt policies that invest in low-income workers and their families while also removing barriers to economic stability. Ending poverty will require a significant commitment of city, state, and federal resources.  But there is also ample evidence that these investments not only improve the lives of individuals and strengthen their communities, they also ultimately reduce government spending.

There is plenty of talk these days about the importance of reducing poverty and improving economic mobility.  Our new study shows what a comprehensive plan might look like and how we can get the job done.



Is the American Dream Shifting?

For much of the past decade, The Pew Charitable Trusts has been studying the health and status of the American Dream, defined as the ability of families to move up the economic ladder over a lifetime and across generations. Economic mobility has long played a central role in our national discourse, and improving the ability of all Americans to move up the ladder has been one of the rare issues with the potential to unite the political parties.

As recently as 2009, nearly 4 in 10 Americans felt that it was common for someone to start poor, work hard, and become rich. But by 2014, only 23 percent of Americans said that hard work alone is enough to achieve success, and an overwhelming 92 percent said they value financial stability over economic mobility, an increase of 7 percentage points since 2011. These results indicate that American attitudes appear to be shifting: The American Dream is becoming less about mobility and more about keeping one’s head above water.

In late February, Pew released findings from a nationally representative survey that collected data from more than 7,000 American households on family balance sheets as well as families’ perceptions of their own financial security. This research combined quantitative and qualitative information to begin to explain the changing definition of the American Dream. The survey revealed that although Americans are starting to feel more optimistic about the economy and their own finances, most still worry about money.

Fifty-six percent rated their financial situations favorably, but the same proportion (57 percent) said they are unprepared for a financial emergency, and only half reported feeling financially secure. Many people’s descriptions of their financial lives suggest that they have reason to worry: More than half (55 percent) said that they either break even or spend more than they make and that their income or expenses fluctuate each month, making it difficult to plan and save. A full one-third reported having nothing in savings, which causes a great deal of anxiety.

The American Dream is becoming less about mobility and more about keeping one’s head above water.

In addition, many Americans experience economic shocks that strain family finances and often derail savings plans and aspirations. These unexpected expenses, combined with frequently unpredictable income, even eat away at the budgets and savings of families at the upper end of the income ladder: One in 10 of those with income of $100,000 or more has no savings, and 1 in 5 reports income volatility.

As policymakers look for ways to bolster families’ economic security in the post-recession economy, they must consider Americans’ changing perceptions as well as their financial realities. For example, specific components of savings plans, such as opt-out versus opt-in choices for 401(k)s, can dramatically increase retirement savings.

But decision-makers must also take into account that policies can present conflicting messages about—and even hinder—asset accumulation. For example, although many low-income families understand the importance of saving, a host of states include asset limits in the eligibility requirements for cash and food assistance programs, which can deter potential participants from enrolling or keep enrollees from building savings. These unintended consequences can, in turn, further compromise families’ financial security and feed the growing sense among many Americans that economic mobility is no longer readily available in the United States.

As they prepare platforms for the 2016 election, many policymakers have begun to outline proposals intended to increase Americans’ opportunities to move up the ladder. But before going too far down the mobility path, they should consider families’ priorities, attitudes, and financial realities. People can’t be economically mobile if they aren’t first financially secure.