First Person

What a Real Anti-Poverty Movement Looks Like

There’s no point beating around this bush. An anti-poverty movement led by the middle and upper classes is doomed to failure. Equally, a partisan movement will never manage to get much done. That said, it’s never a bad thing when people discuss these things – there are 45 million people living in poverty in America, after all. Poverty looks like everything.

Occupy Wall Street was a great moment in the progressive movement. It did a lot to change the national discussion about poverty and inequality. But to people like me – from a small town in rural Utah – it looked like a bunch of confused, disaffected youth. Progressives understand their own language, why you might lead a group of thousands by consensus. I saw a woman who had named herself Ketchup waving jazz hands on national TV and realized that this movement wasn’t for me or my people.

I watched the Tea Party form – a populist movement as far as most of its participants understood it. My family members are Tea Partiers, waving guns and flags and talking about federal overreach. But to people like me – a center-left libertarian sort – it looked like a bunch of angry Baby Boomers trying to regain their glory days and demanding that those of us in the younger generations continue to pick up the tab for their lifelong profligacy. Keep your government hands off my Medicaid, indeed. That movement wasn’t for me either.

A movement that works has to be apartisan. It has to be pragmatic. It has to avoid divisive social issues – there are plenty of programs we can agree on, plenty of problems we can point out. It doesn’t matter whether a McDonald’s worker agrees with abortion or not, they still deserve a higher wage.

America’s working classes are pragmatic people. It’s the only way to survive. When a cook loans a cashier ten bucks until payday, nobody’s vetting each other for their ideological purity on drones or gay marriage. It’s just workers helping each other out, because one thing you learn in the service industry is that you’re all in it together.

That’s the ethos that will create a real anti-poverty movement. That’s the coalition that can win.

We need a robust debate in America on social issues. But we do ourselves no favors by essentially splitting our potential support in half before we even get started. Two-thirds of Americans live paycheck to paycheck – what if we got them all asking about counterproductive welfare regulations, talking about how ridiculous it is to worry about the spending habits of the lower classes when there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around?

What would happen if two-thirds of America decided that partisanship isn’t working out so well in Washington and started demanding better?

We, all of us who spend our lives worrying about making rent and buying our kids new crayons when the old ones have been crushed into wax dust, need better representation. We need officials to worry about what happens when they ignore us as surely as they worry about their donors.

The truth is, there isn’t a millionaire in the world who could craft a coherent welfare policy. Programs that require you to quit your job to attend job training courses to get benefits, because nobody remembered to write in an exception, or misunderstandings about the differences in generational vs. situational poverty – those exist because the wealthy tried to imagine what poverty must be like. And they guessed wrong.

A strong movement will be made up of the people who are poverty experts because they have lived in poverty.

A strong anti-poverty movement will be led by the people who understand what poverty really is, why it happens, how we could create workable solutions. A strong movement will be made up of the people who are poverty experts because they have lived in poverty.  There is no one leader in this movement; there can’t be. It has to be a broad coalition of strange bedfellows, because there are 45 million people living in poverty in America. That many people can’t look like any one thing.

Political leaders also need to remember that flyover country is the vast majority. Plenty of people live in coastal megacities. But less than 40% of Americans live in a coastal county. That’s a lot of inlanders that are only courted during political campaign season. If we want to build a movement that will last, we need to accept that we’re going to have to talk to people like me – people who are disaffected by what works in cosmopolitan cities, people who are actively repelled by those tactics.

We will win when finding solutions to poverty becomes more important to us than any other issue, when we stop condescending to people who hold different beliefs and values and start recognizing that just like a restaurant crew, we’re all in this together.

I think most people will understand that people have firm opinions on things. But strategically speaking, I think it’s a good thing if you can say, for example, that people on either side of a fight as divisive as reproductive healthcare access can agree on raising wages. For now, I want to be able to demand fair treatment at work, where my political and social values are largely irrelevant. I want proper safety equipment. I want to be able to file workers’ comp without fear of retaliation. I want paid sick leave and maternity leave and a schedule that I can count on two weeks in advance. I want a wage that reflects the work I put in.

Those things, you can build a coalition around. And when we put the workers in charge of their own destinies, we’ll find that we can win.


First Person

Thinking of My Mother and Our Broken Economy

When I was growing up, I was a “latch key” kid, a popular term for a child who has to come home and lock himself in after school because no one else is home. I was raised by a single mother who worked long hours at a convenience store in Apex, North Carolina. We stayed in a singlewide trailer on a small plot of land owned by our neighbor in the nearby town of Fuquay-Varina. My mother did what parents do – she tried hard to provide for her child.

She taught me that you have to work hard for what you need. By age 10, I was pumping gas at a local gas station to make extra money. At 14, I was working as a camp counselor during the summer. At 16, I got a job at Burger King. It was important to my mother that I understood what it was like to work to make money because we had so little of it.

While I was at Burger King, I met other employees, mostly women, who were working there to provide for their children. They too had latch key kids who were instructed to come home, have a snack, and work on homework until their mother came home. While the pay wasn’t that much, it was a job for them. And these mothers also subscribed to the notion that you have to work hard for what you need.

When I think of fixing our broken economy, I recall those mothers, my mother—women who work hard doing whatever they can to provide for their families. They work low paying jobs while also maintaining a household and planning for their own future and the future of their children. So when I attended the “Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All” campaign launch in Washington, D.C., I had these mothers on my mind.

“Making a major investment in areas of concentrated poverty, largely African-American and Latino communities, is necessary to create a level playing field after generations of deliberate disinvestment,” said Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change. He opened the event by talking about the current state of our economy and stressing the need to ensure working people can support their families.

There are people fighting so that families across the country can be unapologetic in raising their children and living better lives.

It’s been a long time since I lived in that trailer in Fuquay-Varina. Now I live in Durham where Black and Latino people in my community have long sought affordable housing and better jobs. So I understood when Gloria Walton, President and CEO of Strategic Concepts in Organizing & Policy Education (SCOPE) stated that a shift to “putting families first” meant “that everyone has an opportunity for a good-paying job, jobs that are safe and sustainable, with career paths that can support a family, particularly those that suffer from structural racism and discrimination.”

To achieve this goal, we must invest and empower the communities most impacted, while working one-on-one to get individuals involved in building a movement to change their lives and situations. Indeed, Walton noted, “The people most impacted – people struggling every day trying to make ends meet – have to be at the center of solutions, so local organizing and campaigns are at the heart of building larger movements and transformative victories.”

I remember when organizers I had learned from and fought beside in Durham joined with residents of Lincoln Apartments to fight eviction and bring attention to the lack of options for low-income families in our city. They canvassed residents to talk with them about their concerns, and then met with them individually to train them and support them as they stood up and spoke out at meetings with city officials. Those residents included mothers who worked in retail, at fast food restaurants, or as nursing assistants, making just above minimum wage.

I am thankful for my upbringing. My mother was a model of will and determination. She sometimes apologizes for the challenges we faced, but I let her know there is no reason to apologize. I am grateful for everything she did. She was the first person I called when I got back home because I wanted to let her know that there are people who are dedicated to fighting for change – fighting so that families across the country can be unapologetic in raising their children and living better lives.

Rasheen Aldridge, a young organizer with Missouri Jobs With Justice in St. Louis, spelled it out beautifully when he said our communities are facing “issues that cannot wait no longer. Issues that need to be acted on right now because these are lives that are at stake. These are families that need to be fed; these are people who are asking themselves if it is going to be heat, or electric, or is it going to be food?”


First Person

Social Services: Listen to People Who Have Experienced Poverty

In 2009, after caring for a terminally ill parent, I became homeless and destitute due to circumstances beyond my control.

The Unites States Interagency Counsel on Homelessness provides funding to states for programs designed to create permanent housing situations for individuals and families in danger of becoming homeless. All of these programs are administered by local Boards of Social Services—often simply called “social services.” Where I live in Ocean County, New Jersey, the Board provides a motel room for emergency housing through a program called Special Response. Motel owners located on the Jersey Shore subsidize their incomes during the winter months by taking in clients of social services through this program.

So I was in a motel room in a seasonally deserted town I was unfamiliar with and told that I have three months to find permanent housing. I was given a W-9 tax form to present to potential landlords. The W-9 would allow the local housing agency to pay landlords as vendors of the state. However, I soon found out that most apartment owners wouldn’t take me in for three purported reasons: One, the owners claimed that if they took me in then they would be legally obligated to take in any other client that social services sent their way; two, they said that the local Housing Office at social services was unreliable and took forever to pay rents; and three, as I would soon learn myself, they said that the Housing Office was notorious for arbitrarily changing its policy regarding housing assistance.

Most people in a situation like I was in give up and return to whatever it is they were trying to get away from – abusive spouses, dysfunctional families, drug-and crime-infested neighborhoods. And then there are those – such as the survivors of natural disasters, and people who lost jobs and had homes foreclosed during the Great Recession, and veterans who were denied benefits – who have no place to return to and all too frequently end up wandering the streets during the day and setting up tents on public land at night. Because these people are no longer enrolled in any housing program, this is a statistical ‘success’ to local officials administering the program, even as the number of homeless people rises. This cynical manipulation of statistics is a betrayal of the public trust given to the local Board of Social Services to provide financial and housing assistance to members of their communities who need it.

While I was still in my home and recovering from the loss of my mother, I became a member of a small nondenominational church that administered a community homeless outreach program. Local apartment owners utilized the outreach as a way of ‘screening’ prospective renters. They were willing to rent to people who had rent subsidies, but first they wanted to be assured that they are not opening their doors to former rent truants, violent criminals, drug users, or other problematic tenants.

That’s how I secured ‘permanent’ housing within three months. I’m not sure what I would have done without the involvement of this grassroots program that helped me navigate my local housing office’s byzantine process.

But then I received a letter last year informing me that the “permanent” housing program I was in was being terminated by The Board of Social Services in Ocean County. No explanation was given; no recourse offered. Trying to find alternatives before I became homeless, I applied to several federal affordable housing facilities. Miraculously, it seemed, just a few days after being told I no longer had an affordable, permanent place to live, I received a letter informing me that an affordable housing unit was available.

People assume that my local social services board coordinated this move. They didn’t. If you are fortunate enough to find a case worker who assists you with obtaining Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and other basic necessities, as I was, they are still powerless to influence the outcome of your ‘permanent’ housing situation. These types of practices are not only detrimental to the morale of the clients of social services, but to its workforce as well.

When we hear from people who have experienced poverty, we get better policy.

We need the people who administer social services at the state and local levels to do a better job of providing programs and policies that work in people’s lives.

When we hear from people who have experienced poverty, we get better policy. For example, no one who has lived in acute financial distress would have ever come up with a solution as inane as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Can you imagine? “Here’s what we’ll do: we’ll make the process of obtaining assistance more complicated and, in the end, provide fewer people with less assistance for a shorter period of time!” Sure, people flew off “the rolls” – and right into the woods, onto subway platforms and, penultimately, into hospital emergency rooms. So many have had their lives cut short as a result of homelessness.

Someone recently asked me what my first priority would be for policy reform, and this is it: lobby to get a member of the community who has experienced programs such as Emergency Housing Assistance, SNAP, or TANF, onto the Local and State Boards of Social Services. This, I feel, is the only way we can begin to get administrators to better understand the needs of their ‘clients’, and to be held more accountable for their policies and actions.

What we need is a movement that empowers individuals who have experienced acute financial distress with the political wherewithal they need to stand on their own. We’ve done this successfully with immigration and marriage equality, why not poverty?



Stop Ignoring Residential Segregation and the Concentration of Poverty

Over the last two weeks, disturbing images of Baltimore’s civil unrest have flooded mainstream and social media.

For many, the images recall other past uprisings still fresh in our nation’s collective memory. Take Ferguson, or the Los Angeles uprisings of 1992, for example. Different locations, similar scenarios, and the usual suspect – police brutality against people of color. But the similarity between what has happened in Baltimore and in other places suggests an inconvenient truth: The unrest in Baltimore is not a sporadic accident. Rather, it is a dramatic example of what has gone wrong in our society for several decades—most notably, how we have failed to deal with residential segregation and the concentration of poverty which are the underlying causes of repeated unrest.

Despite the promises of the fair housing movement and subsequent policies addressing residential segregation and poverty concentration, each continues to persist in our inner-cities and has proliferated well into the suburbs. Current efforts to break up concentrations of poverty often involve the movement of families from high-poverty areas to more affluent neighborhoods through the administration of Housing Choice Vouchers. Although vouchers and the programs relying on them – like Moving to Opportunity – have yielded positive results for many families, moving families from high-poverty areas through vouchers cannot be our nation’s only answer to residential segregation.

First, such dispersal efforts face significant barriers due to political opposition and resistance from both displaced individuals and receiving communities. Leaving one’s neighborhood and support networks can represent a critical source of social and psychological hardship. In addition, vouchers are often difficult to use in low-poverty areas, due to the current shortage of affordable housing, some landlords’ reluctance to accept vouchers, and persistent housing discrimination. Therefore, the implementation of dispersal programs often risks re-concentrating the poor into low-income neighborhoods with very few opportunities.

The problems that inner cities face are structural – rooted in institutions that restrict the resources and opportunities

The primary reason we cannot rely on vouchers alone, however, is simple: the problems that inner cities face are structural – rooted in institutions that restrict the resources and opportunities that are available to residents. Baltimore’s civil unrest is not really just a reaction against police brutality. It is a cry for recognition and social justice from marginalized communities who do not have full access to basic rights – including the right to their city – because they are locked in areas of concentrated poverty. Baltimore should serve as a wake-up call for policy makers, practitioners and advocacy groups who – in spite of their good intentions – still operate in an un-coordinated fashion and in separate silos.

There is no doubt that the revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods through housing construction and redevelopment represents a critical step to alleviate poverty concentration. Brick and mortar approaches alone, however, will not solve the problem.

Several actions would ensure that there are opportunities for self-development available to people residing in areas of concentrated poverty, including: (1) encouraging the development of job training centers and social entrepreneurship in inner cities; (2) retaining and improving existing affordable housing and protecting it from speculative private development; (3) raising minimum wages and providing access to better paying jobs; (4) encouraging a sense of hope and ownership to marginalized groups – especially among youth – by providing people of different ages the opportunity to make planning decisions in their own neighborhoods and institutions; (5) fostering healthier neighborhoods – by improving access to high-quality food resources, expanding recreational opportunities, and increasing protection against environmental hazards like lead paint, hazardous waste repositories, and landfills that are disproportionately present in low-income communities.

We, as a society, ought to stop trying to fix the symptoms of poverty concentration and instead attack its causes. How many more LA’s, Katrinas, Fergusons, and Baltimores do we need before we stop pushing the replay button as if these events were just another spectacle to watch on cable?


First Person

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.