Trying to Survive in a Broken Economy

My name is John D’Amanda, and I have been a loyal employee at a McDonald’s in Oakland, California for five years. Prior to working in fast food, I was a small business owner like millions of Americans. I made good money washing windows for houses, stores, malls, and contractors in the San Francisco/Alameda/Contra Costa counties area. But when the economy tanked, my business went with it as people tightened their belts and stopped hiring window washers. I lost many customers, struggled to pay my bills, and was eventually evicted from my apartment. I even lost the car that enabled me to travel to my jobs and couldn’t afford to buy another car. I came close to being out on the street.

I continued to work throughout my struggles. Like many others in the new economy, I went from owning my own business to a low-wage, part-time job in the fast food industry. And, even though I found work at McDonald’s, my wages were not enough to rent an apartment of my own, pay medical bills, or buy a car. Fast forward five years and I still experience unpredictable hours, and I am rarely scheduled for even 25 hours a week.

In light of my financial situation, I have cut back on living costs as much as possible. I rent a shared room in a house where I also share a bathroom and kitchen with 7 other people. Although taking the train to work would be much faster, I save money by commuting on the bus. In the evenings, it can take as much as 2 hours to get home. I’ve proactively applied for food stamps, but due to my work schedule and commute time, it has been impossible for me to attend the required in-person meetings.

When Americans work hard, we deserve to be paid enough to support ourselves and our families.

In America, we’re told that if we work hard, we can make it. If we cut back and save and scrimp, we will succeed. I have done these things and I’m still struggling. And so, I’m looking for answers. I ask the people making the policies in Washington, D.C. and California – how did our economy become so broken? What else would have you me do to survive?

Things have improved for me somewhat — my city passed a $12.25 per hour minimum wage, and the raise, which just went into effect, helps me keep up with my bills. Maybe I will be able to save up enough to buy a car so that I can start up my window washing business again. But, with this raise, I have to choose between saving for my business and covering basic living costs such as dental care. I am one disaster away from losing everything.

For example, last month, I went to the emergency room with severe tooth pain. The doctor pulled 7 teeth in one sitting. Now I need dentures that I can’t afford to pay for. My friends and family back home in Florida are going to pass the hat to help me out. But that’s not the way it should be. This isn’t how we fix our broken economy and provide opportunity to people.

We need to fight for $15 an hour. I can speak for myself when I say that, if I made $15 per hour, things would totally change. I could buy a car, afford regular dental care, and maybe even be married and have a house. I could save to reestablish my business and get back on my feet. When Americans work hard, we deserve to be paid enough to support ourselves and our families. That’s why I continue to fight.


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The Other Baltimore Story: Ronald Hammond and ‘Routine Injustice’

Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it would investigate police practices in Baltimore in the wake of demonstrations sparked by the death of Freddie Gray. The next day the tragic story of Ronald Hammond appeared in the Baltimore Sun. Hammond grew up in foster care, suffered from depression, and became addicted to drugs. He was on probation for selling $40 worth of cocaine when he was caught with $5 worth of marijuana. For this minor infraction, Judge Lynn Stewart-Mays revoked his probation and sentenced him to twenty years in prison. Presumably, the judge believes this punishment is consistent with justice. The prosecution continues to defend the draconian sentence. Other than the public defender who is fighting for Hammond’s freedom, everyone else in the system seems to view Hammond as just another expendable life in Baltimore.

That the DOJ is now investigating the Baltimore shooting is a testament to the fact that the nation has suddenly awakened to the disregard that some police departments have for the lives of our most marginalized citizens. In Freddie Gray’s case, a cell phone video helped to publicize the abuse, and then widespread demonstrations forced public officials to pay attention.

But as egregious as the police conduct is in these killings of unarmed black men, it is routine injustice – the utter disregard for the humanity of those arrested and processed every day, often for minor offenses – that wreaks far more havoc on the poorest people in our nation. For every person killed by a police officer, tens of thousands are arrested and processed into prison cells. Ronald Hammonds flood our overflowing penal system, with 2.2 million people now sitting in America’s jails and prisons. They come out incapable of securing housing, employment, or educational loans. Many are not allowed to participate in the democratic process. They are literally rendered second-class citizens.

This routine injustice has destroyed countless lives, families, and communities. But we are so used to it that there is no sense of public outrage. And yet, every day, judges, prosecutors, and elected officials help perpetuate this system, and there are no cell phone videos to record it or demonstrators out there demanding change.

However, there is, in theory, a built in protection against routine injustice – the right to counsel. Lawyers are the guarantee that people will have their voices heard. But Hammond did not have a lawyer when he admitted to possessing marijuana. Fifty-two years after the Supreme Court made clear in Gideon v. Wainwright that the lawyer is the engine necessary to ensure justice, our nation’s public defenders are overwhelmed, under-resourced, and unable to ensure every person brought so carelessly through the system is treated justly.

As egregious as the police conduct is in the killings of unarmed black men, it is routine injustice that wreaks far more havoc on the poorest people in our nation.

But despite these challenges, our public defenders fight mightily—even as most others in the judicial system wish they would just go away and stop interfering with the “efficient” processing of people who are arrested.

The protests in response to the killing of Freddy Gray were led by members of neglected communities throughout Baltimore who denounced the inhumane treatment they receive at the hands of city officials. But the official response only reinforced the demonstrators’ position that their lives are devalued by those in power. While a relatively small group of protesters engaged in destructive behavior, police declared war on all demonstrators. In the first week nearly 500 protesters were arrested, many illegally – swept up for simply being in the vicinity of protests.

Officials in Baltimore showed no regard for the rights of those they rounded up and jailed. Rather than questioning the decision to deal with protesters by locking them up, Governor Hogan facilitated this response. He immediately suspended a Maryland rule that requires anyone detained by police to be brought before a judicial officer within 24 hours to ensure that no one is illegally deprived of their liberty. The Governor’s position was clear: if the rules designed to protect individual liberty make it difficult to process arrestees, they can be disregarded.

Nearly half of this wave of arrests occurred on a single day. Because of the rioting – which Dr. Martin Luther King once described as “the language of the unheard” – the Governor closed the courts the next day. Judges and prosecutors took the day off.   As a result, many protestors were held for two days without any charges being filed, only to be released with no apology for the infringement upon their rights. Never mind the toll these illegal detentions may have taken on the detainees’ employment status, family obligations, or other commitments.

But if no one else felt a sense of urgency about this situation, the city’s public defenders did. They immediately mobilized to challenge illegal detentions and to visit terrified citizens who otherwise would have had no idea why they were being held or what to expect next. They worked throughout the day to interview the detainees and to ensure that their rights were protected. What these public defenders found was jarring.

One public defender described the conditions under which the protesters were confined—many of them “held for days even though they hadn’t been charged with any crime.” There were fifteen women in one cell that was designed to hold a few people for a few hours. Each cell had one sink and one toilet. Water was scarce – the women were instructed that the water from the sink was not safe for drinking. There were no beds, pillows or blankets. There was not enough room for all of the women to lie down at the same time. The women were given four pieces of bread, a slice of American cheese, and a small bag of cookies three times a day. The women didn’t want to eat the bread, so instead they used the slices as pillows “so that they wouldn’t have to lay their heads on the filthy concrete floors.”

By the time the rest of the criminal justice system returned to work on Wednesday, the public defenders had succeeded in demonstrating the illegality of many of these detentions and as a result nearly half of the arrestees were released without charges ever being filed.

But against the backdrop of the demonstrations, this story of how arrested citizens were treated received little attention.   This routine indifference is the story of criminal justice in America. While the six officers charged in the killing of Freddy Gray are back home, many of the Baltimore protesters continue to be held on bonds they are unable to afford.

While cell phone video has helped to tell the story of deadly police abuse, the story of routine injustice is being told by public defenders. They took to social media, television, and blog posts to document the egregious treatment of those arrested.   They served as the voice for people who would otherwise be voiceless. Baltimore shows how, collectively, public defenders who speak on behalf of marginalized people and communities remind us of their humanity and how we all should be treated.

While public defenders have largely been ignored in the conversation about how to reform our broken criminal justice system, as events in Baltimore demonstrate, they are an essential part of the solution. And while it is encouraging to see outrage over what happened to Freddy Gray, justice demands that we muster equal outrage over the Ronald Hammonds of the world, and that we support our public defenders who are trying to make things right.



Following Mother’s Day, Stop Blaming Mothers

In a tradition just as American as Mother’s Day and apple pie, we are often blaming mothers for our nation’s social ills. Historically, low-income, immigrant, and nonwhite mothers have served as easy scapegoats for tough problems like poverty, delinquency, unrest, and “lawlessness.” The recent viral media fixation on Toya Graham, the Baltimore “#MomoftheYear” demonstrates that this trend is in full force. Ms. Graham was caught on video trying desperately to pull her 16-year-old son away from the Baltimore protests. Later, Ms. Graham admitted to reporters that she had “lost it” and was in shock when she was slapping him saying, “That’s my only son, and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray.” In other words, she did not want another young black man to lose his life to racial profiling.

And, who could fault her? Unfortunately many Americans can, relying on stereotypes that expect too much from individual mothers. For example USA Today repeated a tweet that read, “If she raised her son better, she wouldn’t have needed to do that.” And even when the New York Post retorted to support her actions, they similarly relied on these exaggerated notions of personal responsibility, “What Baltimore Mom and Baltimore Son illustrate is the forgotten truth that societal problems begin in the home. More often than we tend to admit anymore, problems can be solved there, too.”

In my own research on mothers raising kids with the burgeoning numbers of invisible disabilities – from ADHD to emotional, behavioral, and higher functioning autism spectrum disorders – I heard many such stories of blaming individual mothers. We have thankfully progressed past the 1950s and 60s when autism was believed directly caused by cold and withholding “refrigerator mothers.” But I discovered that mothers now are criticized if they are not relentlessly tracking down the best treatments, schools, medications, and services to maximize their vulnerable child’s development. We find it easier to shame mothers raising kids with invisible disorders — to send the problems back home to be solved — rather than face the impact of our nation’s disordered economy and lack of opportunities.

We find it easier to shame mothers rather than face the impact of our nation’s disordered economy and lack of opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, I found that single mothers report receiving the most blame from school personnel, healthcare providers, and sometimes from child protective service workers. I spoke with three white single mothers who had received complaints against them of possible child abuse or neglect when their kids were disruptive or aggressive in school. Yet each of these mothers was quickly cleared of any wrongdoing, and two were even happy about the support they received from social workers investigating their “broken” homes. It was only the one black single mother who had her struggling daughter removed from their home. They were only reunited after two years of family court supervision. She told me, “I think that’s what really shocked them, too . . . that I have not missed one social service meeting, one school meeting, one group home meeting. I was at every court-order thing. I guess it took them two years to realize I was a dedicated parent.”

Mothers raising children of color also knew that their children’s disruptive or unruly behavior would be framed through racial lenses. Like Toya Graham, mothers I met raising black sons feared the pernicious stereotype of “dangerousness” that leads to disparate rates of suspensions, expulsions, school failure, and, consequently, the frustration boiling over on the streets of Baltimore. One African American mother, an accomplished professional, feared this was happening to her son even at the age of 6. He was, she explained, very tall for his age, as well as active and impulsive. She hoped the ADHD diagnosis would protect him, but maintained constant vigilance at his private school, where in previous years, “two young black boys . . . I don’t think they were even in the first-grade yet . . . were asked to leave the school.”

It is hard to see how the struggles faced by mothers of young black sons in Baltimore — or the constrained options confronting mothers I met raising children with invisible, brain-based disabilities –have either been created or can be solved at home. Following this Mothers’ Day, let’s stop the mother-blame.



Safety Net

Language Barriers and Poverty in the AAPI Community

Whether it’s the debate over immigration reform or reports on the future of a “majority minority” nation, conversations around our changing demographics often center on the growth of the Latino population. While this is understandable given that much of the demographic shifts are attributed to Latinos, the number of Asian immigrants is increasing rapidly. In fact, the Asian population grew by 46 percent between 2000 and 2010, and recently surpassed Latinos as the nation’s fastest-growing group of new immigrants. This is why it is significant that the White House is holding a summit today on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as part of AAPI Heritage Month.

While we often discuss Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as one demographic group, it is important to acknowledge that experiences vary greatly within this community, particularly when it comes to economic wellbeing. For example, while Japanese Americans have a poverty rate of 8.4 percent—nearly half the national average—Cambodian Americans and Hmong Americans have much higher poverty rates at 18.8 percent and 24 percent, respectively. This is why Asian American and Pacific Islanders can be viewed as having relatively high household income, while also being one of the fastest-growing populations in poverty since the Great Recession.

One contributing factor to the differences between AAPI groups is English proficiency, as adults with limited English skills tend to have higher rates of unemployment and lower wages. This is critical as Asian Americans are among the most likely to have limited English proficiency, and one in five Asian households in the U.S. is considered “linguistically isolated,” where no one in the household over the age of 14 speaks English “very well.” And the language barrier impacts Asian Americans regardless of birth place. In fact, nearly 1 out of 10 U.S.-born Asian Americans has limited English proficiency.

English proficiency among parents is also critical when it comes to accessing the knowledge and resources necessary to help children navigate classrooms, health facilities, and even the juvenile justice system. Further, higher proficiency in English among parents is associated with better academic and economic outcomes for their children. On top of this, English language learner students—students whose native language is not English or who come from environments where English is not the dominant language—are more likely to attend high-poverty schools where resources are limited. Moreover, they must acquire language skills while studying the same content areas as their English-speaking peers, essentially doing double the work.

You need to look longitudinally. We are empowering a family and a community, not just a child.

Given the fact that English proficiency impacts employment outcomes, family responsibilities, and a child’s academic success, the language barrier can create a poverty trap for families and a loss of human capital for communities.

As the number of immigrants continues to increase, one of the most significant ways communities can respond to this influx is by ensuring greater access to English language instruction to ensure that all families can fully participate in society. In a recent report titled “The Case for a Two-Generation Approach for Educating English Language Learners,” I outline how communities should support strategies that engage parents and children and improve the academic and economic well-being of both generations. These strategies include adopting a community school model—meaning schools provide critical wraparound services for students and families.

In my hometown of Oakland, California, half the students speak a language other than English, with Spanish and Cantonese being the most common. Recently, the school district chose to move towards the community school model and provide a wide spectrum of wraparound services for all students, including: physical and mental health services, nutrition, housing, employment, parenting, and language acquisition courses. In addition, the district’s Family Literacy program provides parents with English as a second language and computer literacy courses. These classes are integrated into the child’s school, giving parents the opportunity to use the same resources as their children and gain a greater understanding of what their children are learning.

“You need to look longitudinally,” Sue Pon, director of adult education for Oakland, told Fusion. “We are empowering a family and a community, not just a child.”

Given the fact that the majority of labor-force growth in the United States over the next four decades is projected to come from immigrants and their children, investing in these two populations is critical to the success of not only these families but also the U.S. economy.




Stigma, a Weak Safety Net, and the Deaths of Jodi and Randy Speidel

This article originally appeared at The Nation.

Jodi and Randy Speidel, a couple in their mid-40s, taped a note to the front door of their one-bedroom rental home warning visitors of carbon monoxide. They let their three cats outdoors and wrote a note attesting that their next decision was a mutual one. Then, in their locked bedroom, they lit two charcoal grills and committed suicide.

The couple’s 20-year-old daughter had recently turned to to seek assistance for her parents, The Columbus Dispatch reported. Describing them as “the hardest-working people I know,” she wrote, “now that they literally cannot work anymore, they have nowhere to turn to.”

Chronic illnesses had forced both to stop working. They had lived without heat all winter and without water for a week. Jodi had applied for assistance and was waiting for a response. She had turned to food banks but was struggling to cook without water. They were down to $33 in savings.

Jodi herself sought help from and She in fact signaled a little hope—writing that she had “found a job that is willing to work with my illnesses.” But she also described driving more than 30 miles “on gas fumes” and not knowing if she “would make it back home or even there.”

“I have turned in every direction possible and don’t know what else to do,” Jodi wrote. “If you can help we will be forever grateful and will even pay you back once we get back on our feet.”

Stigma makes people hide in the shadows. Your next-door neighbor could be struggling with poverty and you don’t even know it.

One thing the Speidels apparently didn’t do was turn to their neighbors—some of whom said they would have offered help had they known of the couple’s struggles.

“We have become such a disassociated and anti-social society that we don’t even know our own neighbors,” a pastor lamented to the Dispatch, suggesting that a tighter community could have made a difference.

We don’t really know if their neighbors were in a position to provide the kind of resources the couple needed. But it’s notable that Jodi opted for the relative anonymity of reaching out online rather than turning to her neighbors. Over the years, I have heard from many people with low incomes about the shame and stigma of poverty, and how it keeps them from telling others about what they are going through.

In March, a couple of colleagues and I met with five members of Witnesses to Hunger, an advocacy organization whose members use photographs and their testimonials to document their experiences in poverty and advocate at the state, local, and federal levels for policy reform. We wanted to explore a campaign that would push back against the shaming of low-income people by the media, politicians, and other high-profile individuals, and support individuals who want to share their stories in order to educate the public and policymakers about poverty in America.

“Telling my story was like coming out of the closet,” said Betty Burton of Martha’s Vineyard. “Stigma makes people hide in the shadows. Your next-door neighbor could be struggling with poverty and you don’t even know it.”

Anisa Davis of Camden said she felt ashamed to tell her story until she became a member of Witnesses to Hunger. “People need to tell their stories in order to rid themselves of the baggage that comes with that shame.”

But finding the courage to tell one’s story is easier said than done, especially when much of the media and our politics not only blame people who are struggling for their poverty, they also bash them for it. Philadelphia Witness to Hunger member Angela Sutton spoke of the stereotypes propagated about people with low-incomes, such as their being “dumb, lazy, or just making babies.”

“Stories rarely show the positive changes that Witnesses and others are trying to create in our communities,” said Sutton. She said these kinds of stories would “break barriers” and help “people who are struggling to speak up.”

In addition to Jodi’s posting online, the Dispatch reports that she also had applied for assistance. We don’t know what she applied for—or whether her application would have been approved—but it’s worth looking at how hard we make it for people to get help in our country. Despite all of the rhetoric that suggests “welfare dependence” is rampant, the numbers tell a far different story.

Jack Frech, the former director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in Appalachian Ohio, recently retired after more than thirty years of service in the welfare department. He said times have changed and we have made it much more difficult to get assistance.

“I’ve watched the stigma about welfare grow at the hands of both political parties at all levels of government,” said Frech. “It is deeply ingrained in our administration of assistance programs. We have codified the belief that we are not our neighbors’ keeper. Shame on us.”

I hope a reporter does a follow up to this story: What assistance did Jodi Speidel try to obtain? Did she receive a response? What is the process for applying? Is there any expedited process for emergency assistance? How could we reform the system to prevent the next unnecessary deaths from occurring?

The unavoidable truth is this: These deaths did not need to happen, and the Speidels should not die in vain.