Safety Net

10 Solutions to Fight Economic Inequality

With a majority of Americans now concerned about wealth and income inequality in our country, TalkPoverty is launching a new feature, “10 Solutions to Fight Economic Inequality.” We asked experts to use this list by economist Tim Smeeding as a sample and to offer their ideas on how to dramatically reduce poverty and inequality in America. We hope you will use these lists as a resource to educate yourself and others, and that you will return here in the weeks and months ahead as we update this post with more lists from more contributors. As always, we welcome your ideas in the comments below. Anything particularly resonate? Anything missing?

Thanks for reading and sharing.

Jared Bernstein’s Top 10 to Address Economic Inequality

Melissa Boteach and Rebecca Vallas: Top 10 Policy Solutions for Tackling Income Inequality and Reducing Poverty in America

Olivia Golden: Policies to Reduce Income Inequality

Kali Grant and Indivar Dutta-Gupta: Ten Ways to Fight Income Inequality

Erica Williams: What States Can Do to Address Inequality

Valerie Wilson: Top 10 Ways to Address Income Inequality

Jared Bernstein’s Top 10 to Address Economic Inequality

(Author’s note: many of these ideas fall under the heading of achieving full-employment in the job market, such that the matchup between the number of jobs and job-seekers is very tight. This is an essential intervention for both real wage stagnation and inequality.)

  1. If the private market fails to provide enough jobs to achieve full employment, the government must become the employer of last resort.
  2. When growth is below capacity and the job market is slack, apply fiscal and monetary policies aggressively to achieve full employment. Right now, this means not raising interest rates pre-emptively at the Fed and investing in public infrastructure.
  3. Take actions against countries that manage their currencies to subsidize their exports to us and tax our exports to them. Such actions can include revoking trade privileges, allowing for reciprocal currency interventions, and levying duties on subsidized goods.
  4. Support sectoral training, apprenticeships, and earn-while-you-learn programs.
  5. Implement universal pre-K, with subsidies that phase out as incomes rise.
  6. Raise the minimum wage to $12/hour by 2020 and raise the overtime salary threshold (beneath which all workers get overtime pay) from $455/week to $970/week and index it to inflation.
  7. Provide better oversight of financial markets: mandate adequate capital buffers, enforce a strong Volcker Rule against proprietary trading in FDIC-insured banks, strengthen the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and encourage vigilant oversight of systemic risk in the banking system by the Federal Reserve.
  8. Level the playing field for union elections to bolster collective bargaining while avoiding, at the state-level, anti-union, so-called “right-to-work” laws.
  9. Maintain and strengthen safety net programs like the EITC and CTC, SNAP, and Medicaid.
  10. In order to generate needed revenue and boost tax fairness: reduce the rate at which high-income taxpayers can take tax deductions, impose a small tax of financial market transactions, increase IRS funding to close the “tax gap” (the difference between what’s owed and what’s paid), and repeal “step-up basis” (a tax break for wealthy inheritors).

Melissa Boteach and Rebecca Vallas: Top 10 Policy Solutions for Tackling Income Inequality and Reducing Poverty in America

  1. Create jobs by investing in infrastructure, developing renewable energy sources, renovating abandoned housing and significantly increasing affordable housing investments, and making other commonsense investments to revitalize neighborhoods.
  2. Improve job quality and strengthen families by raising the minimum wage to $12/hour by 2020; ensuring pay equity by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act; strengthening collective bargaining; and enacting basic labor standards such as fairer overtime rules, paid sick and family leave, and right to request flexible and predictable schedules.
  3. Make the tax code work better for low-wage working families by making permanent the 2009 Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit improvements and expanding the EITC for childless workers and noncustodial parents.
  4. Invest in human capital by expanding access to high-quality and affordable childcare and early education; creating pathways to good jobs such as apprenticeships, national service opportunities, and a national subsidized jobs program; and implementing College for All to ensure that any student attending public college or university does not need to pay any tuition and fees during enrollment.
  5. Ensure that workers with disabilities have a fair shot at employment and economic security.
  6. Reform the criminal justice system to end mass incarceration and remove barriers to economic security and mobility for the one in three Americans with criminal records.
  7. Enact comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
  8. Expand Medicaid and ensure that all Americans can access high-quality, affordable health coverage.
  9. Close tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy and special interests and raise taxes on capital income.
  10. Protect and strengthen investments in basic living standards such as nutrition, health, and income insurance. This includes reforming counterproductive asset limits, and ensuring that programs such as unemployment insurance are there for more workers if they lose their job.

Olivia Golden: Policies to Reduce Income Inequality

  1. Make work pay for all workers, including childless adults, by raising the minimum wage and strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.
  2. Ensure stability for workers and their families through access to paid leave and predictable job schedules. Pass federal bills such as the FAMILY Act, Schedules That Work Act, and Healthy Families Act that mirror strong state and local laws.
  3. Identify and tear down the systemic barriers that people face because of race, ethnicity, language, and immigration status, for example by making college prep courses equally available in high schools attended mostly by students of color or by providing work authorization and a path to citizenship for immigrant parents.
  4. Ensure that every working family can afford high-quality child care through significant investments in the Child Care and Development Block Grant, Head Start and Early Head Start, and preschool for all three- and four-year-olds.
  5. Give children and their parents a simultaneous boost through two-generational policies and investments, including home visiting, support for parental mental health, and support for parents’ career development coupled with high-quality early care and education for children.
  6. Help low-income youth and adults access employment and training opportunities that lead to economic success by fully funding the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) as well as subsidized and summer jobs programs.
  7. Fully fund Pell Grants to help low-income students access higher education and develop the skills needed to compete in a competitive job market.
  8. Ensure that everyone, including low-wage working families and single adults, has access to basic health and nutrition by expanding Medicaid in every state and increasing SNAP benefits.
  9. Strengthen capacity of states to employ more streamlined and integrated approaches to delivering key public work supports (such as health coverage, nutrition benefits, and child care subsidies) so low-income working families can stabilize their lives and advance their career
  10. Rebuild unemployment insurance and cash assistance to ensure a strong safety net that supports poor and low-income children, families, and individuals when they need it.

Kali Grant and Indivar Dutta-Gupta: Ten Ways to Fight Income Inequality

  1. Correct political imbalances—strengthen and protect the Voting Rights Act, level the playing field for political contributions, and limit the influence of corporate lobbyists.
  2. Ensure that the wealthiest people and profitable corporations that benefit the most from our political and economic system contribute their fair share: reform “upside-down” tax expenditures (spending through the tax code that disproportionately benefits those with higher incomes), limit corporate welfare, and enact a robust inheritance tax.
  3. Amplify workers’ bargaining power by increasing fines for illegal anti-union behavior, encouraging minority unions, and reversing state laws that undermine unions and prevent them from collecting dues for benefits they provide workers at unionized workplaces.
  4. Update labor standards—raise the national minimum wage to $12 and index it to wage growth, require fair scheduling for workers, target employee-contractor misclassification and wage theft, and enact the Paycheck Fairness Act.
  5. Modernize the safety net—update Unemployment Insurance to reflect the changing nature of work; increase Social Security benefits and raise the cap on income subject to taxes; expand Medicaid in every state; and address flaws in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to refocus it on employment and child well-being outcomes.
  6. Provide families tools to manage their many responsibilities—provide at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, universal early learning and care, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a child allowance, and comprehensive family planning services.
  7. Expand opportunities for current and future workers—invest in infrastructure and other nationally needed jobs; enact income-based loan repayment to increase higher education accessibility and affordability; and pursue full employment.
  8. Increase affordable housing and bolster consumer financial protection rules—promote fair and accessible banking, savings, and other financial vehicles and services for those excluded or abused by the current system.
  9. Attack racial and other discrimination across the board and enact comprehensive immigration reform, normalizing the status of more children and workers to increase their educational and work opportunities.
  10. Reduce the over-incarceration and over-criminalization by every level of government that restricts millions of Americans’ ability to support themselves and their families—especially among communities of color and high poverty areas.

Erica Williams: What States Can Do to Address Inequality

  1. Make state tax systems less regressive. State tax systems tend to ask the most from those with the least because they rely heavily on sales taxes and user fees, which hit low-income households especially hard. States can move their tax systems in a more progressive direction by strengthening their income taxes, adopting state earned income tax credits (or other low-income tax credits) to boost after-tax incomes at the bottom, and rejecting tax cuts that disproportionately benefit higher-income families and profitable corporations.
  2. Expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
  3. Raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation. States can raise wages for workers at the bottom of the pay scale by enacting a higher state minimum wage and indexing it so that it keeps up with rising living costs.
  4. Protect workers’ rights. States can raise wages by protecting workers’ right to bargain collectively and by strengthening and enforcing laws and regulations to prevent abusive employer practices that deprive workers of wages they are legally owed.
  5. Improve unemployment insurance.Unemployment Insurance helps workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own to avoid falling into poverty and to stay connected to the labor market. States that have cut benefits should restore those cuts; others should build on recent efforts to fix outmoded rules that bar many workers from accessing benefits.
  6. Establish subsidized employment programs for low-income parents and youth that provide temporary jobs of last resort (mostly in the private sector), such as those many states created in 2009 and 2010 through the TANF block grant.  These programs proved popular with participating businesses, families, and state officials of both parties.
  7. Improve the safety net. States can streamline the process for enrolling in child care assistance and other work supports. They also can boost the prospects of poor children by raising the amount of temporary cash assistance available to the neediest families, improving access to food stamps, and helping low-income families afford to rent a home in neighborhoods near good jobs.
  8. Spend less on prisons, more on schools.In recent decades, states imposed extremely harsh corrections policies that greatly increased both the number of prisoners and their average sentence, at great cost to state budgets.  By making these policies more rational, states could shift funding from prison to more productive investments, without harming public safety.
  9. Improve school funding formulas.  K-12 schools in low-income neighborhoods are often poorly funded because the local property tax base is so weak.  As a result, children from these neighborhoods begin their education without the resources and supports they need to succeed.  States can help by adopting funding formulas that give extra support to low-income districts.  Many state funding formulas don’t push back very much against these inequities; some even worsen them.
  10. Expand early education.States can help families work and kids learn by investing in quality, affordable early care and education programs, as well as after-school programs.

Valerie Wilson: Top 10 Ways to Address Income Inequality

(Author’s note: Given that the primary source of income for most Americans is the pay they receive from their jobs, wages seem like a logical place to start addressing inequality. These ideas are drawn from EPI’s Agenda to Raise America’s Pay.)

  1. Raise the minimum wage: Raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 would benefit about a third of the workforce directly and indirectly.
  2. Update overtime rules: Moving the overtime threshold to the value it held in 1975—roughly $51,000 today—would provide overtime protections to 6.1 million workers and provide those workers with higher pay.
  3. Strengthen and protect workers: Strengthen collective bargaining rights to help give workers the leverage they need to bargain for better wages and benefits and to set high labor standards for all workers, and support strong enforcement of labor standards to protect workers.
  4. Regularize undocumented workers to lift not only their wages but also the wages of all workers in the same fields of work.
  5. Provide earned sick leave and paid family leave, which would not only raise workers’ pay but also give them more economic security.
  6. End discriminatory practices that contribute to race and gender inequalities through consistently strong enforcement of antidiscrimination laws in the hiring, promotion, and pay of women and minority workers.
  7. Prioritize very low rates of unemployment when making monetary policy: Policymakers should not seek to slow the economy until growth of nominal wages is running comfortably above 3.5 percent.
  8. Create jobs through targeted employment programs and public investments in infrastructure.
  9. Reduce our trade deficit by stopping destructive currency manipulation.
  10. Use the tax code to restrain top 1 percent incomes.



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Ending ‘Debtors Prisons’ for Arkansas Renters

While it may not sound like something that should be legal in modern-day America, being arrested for failing to pay rent on time is a reality for some Arkansans, thanks to a state law – known as the criminal eviction statute – that has been on the books since the early 1900s. Under this law, renters can face a criminal conviction and up to 90 days in jail for being one day late on their rent.

As a civil legal aid advocate for people living in poverty in Arkansas, I’ve seen firsthand how this policy represents the criminalization of poverty at its worst. For example, one couple was charged under the law when they fell behind on their $585 monthly rent payment and didn’t move out quickly enough. Another woman was sentenced to probation even though she had been in the hospital after suffering a stroke when she was served an eviction notice.

By criminalizing conduct that all other states treat as a private breach of contract, Arkansas puts struggling citizens in jeopardy of getting stuck in financial dire straits. What’s more, saddling renters with criminal records affects their ability to keep their job (or find a new one) and therefore makes them less able to afford rent. It also worsens their chance of securing a new home, which leads to homelessness for a lot of families.

When low-income individuals are charged for nonpayment of rent, they are often unable to access the legal services that they need to defend themselves

To make matters worse, when low-income individuals are charged for nonpayment of rent, they are often unable to access the legal services that they need to defend themselves. In fact, the vast majority of the approximately 2,000 failure-to-vacate cases filed each year under the criminal eviction statute involves tenants, mostly women and children, who do not have legal representation. But, in a completely lopsided state of affairs, landlords seeking to evict a tenant always have an attorney, because the court appoints a prosecutor at the taxpayers’ expense.

Thankfully, civil legal aid advocates have seen some recent success in the effort to end this terrible policy . Artoria Smith recently found herself in an eviction dispute over back rent. She was late on her rent after the landlord demanded she pay an additional $300 to cover the cost of repairing her floor. The floor was damaged because Ms. Smith had fallen through after it rotted out.

Her story could have ended like most do: with a move, a conviction, and a fine. However, she was fortunate enough to qualify for civil legal aid at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, one of Arkansas’s two nonprofit legal aid organizations.

Smith’s attorneys argued that the failure-to-vacate statute was unconstitutional, stating that it was a violation of due process and equal protection, unconstitutionally chilled her right to a trial, violated state and federal prohibitions against debtors prisons, and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The judge agreed, striking down the law in its entirety in Arkansas’s largest county, which has historically prosecuted about 25% of all criminal eviction cases in the state. This case represents a major step forward for the tenants of Arkansas. Cases in two other judicial districts in the state have recently followed suit.

Unfortunately, Arkansas lawmakers have been reluctant to consider any changes to the state’s landlord-tenant laws. In 2015, two bills that would have strengthened renters’ rights were voted down in committee in the Arkansas House. HB1814 would have repealed the criminal eviction statute and HB1486 would have enacted a very basic “implied warranty of habitability,” which would have required landlords to make residential rental properties livable for tenants. Such a warranty certainly would have helped Ms. Smith.

The Arkansas legislature will have a chance to revisit the need for more balanced landlord-tenant laws when it meets again in 2017. Until then, Arkansas legal aid attorneys will be working to achieve that balance one renter at a time.



New Ruling Highlights Why We Need the REDEEM Act

On May 21, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson ordered the expungement of the 13-year-old federal fraud conviction of “Jane Doe,” a Brooklyn home health aide. His decision received national attention for being unprecedented in the federal courts, which have no explicit authority conferred on them by Congress to expunge or seal federal criminal cases. Encouraging though it is, Judge Gleeson’s decision is most important for its illustration of the need for Congress to enact such a sealing remedy, as provided for in the bipartisan REDEEM Act (S. 675).

As my colleague Rebecca Vallas and I explained in a recent Center for American Progress report, having a criminal record is a major cause of poverty, and cleaning up a criminal record is one of the most powerful tools for overcoming the barriers associated with it. The states have recognized the power of this policy alternative, with 23 states having expanded their record-clearing laws between 2009 and 2014, as documented by the Vera Institute.

In contrast, there is virtually no statutory authority to clear records of federal court cases. Indeed, even though nearly every state permits arrests not leading to conviction to be cleared, there is no similar authority for federal cases. Even a person who is acquitted in a federal court has no explicit right to seal that case.

Jane Doe was desperate enough that she forged ahead with an expungement petition, even though it was the longest of long-shots. She is a Haitian immigrant who in 1997 was struggling to raise four children on a net monthly income from her home health aide job that was exceeded by her monthly rent alone. She participated in a staged accident as part of an automobile insurance fraud scheme which, had it been successful, would have paid her $2,500. Instead, she was found guilty of a federal charge of insurance fraud. She was sentenced to five years of probation, ten months of home detention, and a restitution order of $46,701 (toward which she faithfully paid $25 monthly, no matter how bad her financial position in later years). But in the eight years since her probation ended in 2007, Jane was fired from home health care jobs a half-dozen times after her background check. As a result, she has been unemployed most of the time.

In considering Ms. Doe’s petition, Judge Gleeson had to determine whether he had the authority to expunge a federal criminal case. In the absence of a federal law explicitly permitting expungement, he looked at whether federal courts have “ancillary jurisdiction” for that purpose. He concluded that of the nation’s twelve federal circuit courts of appeal, five may permit expungement, while five explicitly do not (with apparently no ruling in the other two). Even though he serves in one of the five circuits that may permit such a ruling, Judge Gleeson acknowledged that he was “acutely aware that ‘courts have rarely granted motions to expunge arrest records, let alone conviction records.’”

Judge Gleeson found “extreme circumstances” warranting expungement of Jane Doe’s case. The factors he pointed to for justification of his ruling included Jane’s otherwise clean record, the 17 years since the offense, the “dramatic” adverse impact on her ability to work, and her role as a minor participant in a nonviolent case.

But here’s the thing: While the impact of the federal conviction on Jane might be “extreme,” it is not unusual in the least. At the Philadelphia legal aid program where I work, we received more than 900 new requests for help last year alone by people whose criminal records were preventing them from working. A great many of these people also had old, nonviolent cases that cost them jobs and leave their families in poverty.

For instance, consider my following clients who have been involved in federal cases:

    • JT was convicted of sale of heroin in 1985, after a bad decision to try to sell drugs to provide for her children quickly ended when she sold to an undercover cop. She learned her lesson, served five years’ probation, and hasn’t been arrested since. Now 57, JT has been prevented from working with troubled children and from serving as a home care worker because of the 30-year-old case.
    • AA also was convicted of a single drug case in 1994. She too served five years’ probation and has avoided trouble ever since. She too has been threatened with loss of employment in a school because of her 20-year-old conviction.
    • In 1997, PV was convicted by a federal jury of harboring and concealing a person from arrest (she was accused of not turning over her common law husband to police). The judge overturned the verdict after the trial and acquitted her. But her case also remains available to the public and adds to her difficulties in getting work at age 64, despite 23 years in a very responsible position in a university until she was laid off.

Because the circuit court in Philadelphia has ruled that our judges have no authority to expunge criminal cases, I cannot file an expungement petition for these three women.

Fortunately, the REDEEM Act is a vehicle for change. Introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Corey Booker (D-NY), it would permit all three of my clients – and hundreds of thousands more – to seek to seal their records. The bill is not perfect. It limits sealing to nonviolent cases, including nonviolent arrests. All cases that have not resulted in conviction should be permitted to be sealed. But enactment of the REDEEM Act would be a very important step forward.

Judge Gleeson concluded, “[Jane Doe’s] case highlights the need to take a fresh look at policies that shut people out from the social, economic and educational opportunities they desperately need in order to reenter society successfully.” Amen to that. Let’s pass the REDEEM Act and provide the federal expungement remedy that is so desperately needed by people across the country like Jane Doe.


Media and Politics

The Half in Ten Campaign Is Now

Over the past several years, the Half in Ten campaign has partnered with advocates and organizations across the country to raise our collective voice in support of the policies that we know will dramatically reduce poverty. We have established many initiatives and tools to support advocates, and one year ago, we launched this partner website,

After a year of building and increasing its reach, we are thrilled to combine forces to offer one place online where you can learn about poverty in America and find the resources you need to do something about it. All of the data tools and action resources at are now available on this website.  Additionally, the Center for American Progress will continue to publish the Half in Ten annual report on poverty and inequality in collaboration with the Coalition on Human Needs and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. We also will continue to manage our story network, in partnership with the Coalition on Human Needs, to provide low-income people with opportunities to take action by sharing their personal stories with media and policymakers.

We’re excited to have the Half in Ten community join forces with us to learn about poverty in America and take action to build a vibrant anti-poverty movement.



CBS’s The Briefcase Pits Struggling Americans Against Each Other

Last week, CBS premiered The Briefcase, a new reality program created by David Broome, who also produces The Biggest Loser. In contrast to participants on other hit reality shows, people in The Briefcase aren’t competing for an all-expense paid honeymoon prize or the opportunity to work as head chef at a world-renowned restaurant. Rather, struggling families are presented with a briefcase filled with $101,000 cash, enough to lift them out of their current economic hardship so that they are no longer living paycheck to paycheck.

But the “life-altering sum of money,” as Broome puts it, is not offered without a stipulation: The Briefcase then callously calls on these families to determine whether they are willing to share the cash prize with another family that is judged to be in equal or greater need. The briefcase recipients are presented with information about the other family’s hardships in order to determine whether they are more deserving of the cash, or at least some portion of it. Then there is a face-to-face meeting between the families where it is revealed if and how the money will be divvied up, and—wait for it—that both families had actually been given the cash-filled briefcases and told to decide who was more deserving of the dough.

In effect, The Briefcase pits one family’s financial hardship against that of another, pushing families on the brink to “prove themselves” worthy of the cash assistance.

Asking families to determine who among them is experiencing the “most need” or is the “most deserving” is an impossible choice, one that no family should have to make. In 2006, leading up to the collapse of the auto industry, the automotive parts factory where my father worked appeared certain to close. I distinctly remember the overwhelming anxiety and looming uncertainty about my family’s economic future that I felt at 16-years-old: I began to question if we would lose our house, if I would be able to attend college, or if our family would be able to weather an unexpected medical emergency should my father lose his job.

The pitting of struggling Americans against one another is reinforced by our current economic policy and budget debates.

Feeling utterly hopeless, I prayed that another plant would be closed instead of my father’s plant. Ultimately, my father’s factory remained open, but others nearby were shutdown.

At the time, I believed my prayers were in the best interest of my family’s short-term security and long-term stability. My parents worked hard to provide for us and played by the rules; hadn’t we earned the right to be economically secure? In hindsight, I was, in effect, making the same judgment call that families in The Briefcase are asked to make: to determine whether the very real struggles and economic hardships of their own family supersede the dire financial circumstances of another family.

When I first learned about the premise of The Briefcase, I immediately thought of those workers whose families were supported by the automotive industry until they received that pink slip. More specifically, I think of their children, who, like me, may have also prayed for the security of their parents’ or caregivers’ jobs but whose lives were upheaved.

Pitting struggling Americans against one another is nothing new in the United States; the distinction between the so-called “undeserving poor” versus the “deserving poor” has long dictated policy debates on how to most effectively address poverty in America. What’s more, the pitting of struggling Americans against one another is reinforced by our current economic policy and budget debates.

At the federal level, we see struggling Americans pitted against each other through draconian, self-inflicted budget caps that pit critical domestic spending priorities – such as job training programs, affordable housing, and school funding – against one another. At the state level, we see lawmakers categorizing the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor” by passing measures such as mandatory drug testing and work requirements for people who need cash assistance. Further, we make struggling families jump through hoops that aren’t required of other people who receive government assistance.

Rather than dedicate attention to television programming that perpetuates damaging stereotypes of the “deserving poor,” the American public should devote its collective conscious to supporting policies that would lift these families out of economic hardship. Policies like increasing the federal minimum wage, enacting paid sick days legislation, expanding Medicaid in all states, investing in high quality preschool programs, and reining in America’s skyrocketing college tuition costs are just some of the many ways we can help elevate struggling American families. Maybe then these families wouldn’t need to resort to the exploitive parameters of CBS’s newest primetime addition.

In its promotional video, The Briefcase rightly points out that “across America, hardworking middle-class families are feeling the impact of rising debt and shrinking paychecks.” But by exploiting the very real and painful struggle that accompanies financial hardship, The Briefcase does a disservice to America’s working- and middle-class families by billing their suffering as primetime “entertainment.”