First Person

Prison-Created Poverty

No one likes to talk about the fact that “doing time” leaves the majority of returning citizens worse off than before they were incarcerated. Prior to my imprisonment, I had a very successful consulting business and I lived a solidly middle-class life. I worked hard, I traveled, and I gave back to my community and my church. I never forgot the poverty and abuse that enveloped me during my childhood and early teen years.

When I was preparing to move from seventh to eighth grade, I came home with my list of pre-selected classes—we were tracked and I was on the gifted and talented circuit.  I was able to choose two electives. My mother and I had a horrible relationship that was filled with physical, verbal and emotional violence on her part. On my part, it was fueled by reluctance to just “keep my mouf shut,” as my mother put it. However, once in a while I would play nice with her. On this particular evening she was sitting in her black leather recliner chair—it was a part of a pair, but its partner was in another home with my “no count cheatin’’ stepfather—napping before going to her third job.

“Ma, I needa figa out what Ima take fo’ my ‘lectives next year.”  (This was before I learned to assimilate and forget my first language—that would come a little more than two years later). My mother opened her eyes, sat up and responded, “Take typin’, Cupcake. As long as you kin type you neva gonna be outa job or havta clean no White folks home.” Then she fell asleep. Normally, when I asked her these questions, I was just humoring her. But something happened that evening. I looked at her tired, skinny frame. My eyes lingered on her cracked and peeling hands, and I saw a future that scared the shit out of me. I checked off Typing I and Spanish I.

During high school, I was placed in foster care with well-to-do families. I went to college, and I wanted for nothing financially because the money that used to go to my foster parents became my stipend as a young adult in “Independent Living” until I was 21. However, I had no family to return to because my last foster family left me while I was in my senior year of high school. They moved away to another state and did not take me with them.

I spent my holidays and summers with my college boyfriend’s family. I worked as a Temp and put my typing and computer skills to use. Whenever I would sign up with a temporary employment agency, they would give a typing test and completely flip out that I was Black and smart and could type over a 100wpm with less than four errors. My mother was right. In my adulthood, I was never out of a job because, when times were hard, I could fall back on my typing skills and do Administrative and Executive Assistant work. I have never cleaned anyone’s house for a living. In fact, there was a time when I was financially solvent enough to hire a housekeeper.

My mother was right until now—Post-Prison. I am now as poor as I was before I went into foster care. I am poorer than I have ever been in my entire adulthood, and I am recently homeless. Prison did not just leave me worse off financially; it caused my mental state to deteriorate to how it was when I was in foster care. Throughout my high school years, I attempted suicide several times. I spent years before my first attempt planning my own death.

While incarcerated, everyday was a battle to live. There, I was sexually bullied and physically attacked on two occasions. In my experience, this is what happens when you report your attackers in prison: the administration arranges for you to be sent to a higher security prison. And when you are attacked or threatened at the higher security prison and you report it, they lock you away in the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU). In the SHU, you spend 23 hours a day in a cell for five days a week and the entire weekend. You get one 15-minute call per month.

Prison does not rehabilitate; that propaganda is a lie. I have been home from prison for almost a year, but I am still not free.

When I was not locked in the SHU, I was put on suicide watch. There were times when I was put on suicide watch in retaliation for submitting grievances alleging I was being harassed by an officer. Suicide Watch consists of a big blue quilted gown that is accurately named the “Turtle Suit”; a quilted blanket; a cold, cold cell (so cold my fingertips turned blue); and psychiatric help in which the psychologist (if you are lucky to have one instead of an intern) yells questions about your mental well-being through the steel door. I stopped talking and eating for days at a time. Ultimately this punishment would cause me to become suicidal.

While I was not without my mental health woes pre-prison, my suicidal ideation and anxiety had never approached what I felt in prison. No one can survive that environment without internalizing the daily subjugation of dehumanizing treatment. The threat of violence was always present (from officers and inmates). The trauma from prison has caused my self-worth to deteriorate. I suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, and flashbacks daily.

I am employed very part-time with an organization and they know my story, respect me for who I am, and acknowledge my gifts. Yet on my own, I cannot even get an interview with a temp agency. I cannot pass a background check for housing, and even if I could, my income puts me well below the poverty line and I cannot afford my own place.

Prison does not rehabilitate; that propaganda is a lie. I have been home from prison for almost a year, but I am still not free. Prison has impoverished me financially and mentally, and so I cling to the hope of having a life worth living.



Bipartisan Poverty Shaming: The Moynihan Report at 50

Blaming poor people for their own misery is a convenient way to avoid recognizing or fixing the real causes of the problem. Most commonly associated with Fox News or conservative politicians, the ideological roots of this perspective are deep and bipartisan.

In August 1965 — shortly before the Watts neighborhood uprising in Los Angeles– someone leaked to the press a government report entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Written by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Labor, the report focused on the rising rate of African American households headed by women, which he claimed promoted delinquency and school failure in children. It was, he argued, the root of a “tangle of pathology” that infected black communities. In his view, black youth lashing out at police reflected psychological problems which stemmed from growing up in fatherless homes. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, in a high profile column for The Washington Post, recounted this analysis as an explanation for Watts.  The article ran with the headline “The Moynihan Report” and helped turn Moynihan into a household name.

Although he later became famous as a liberal Democratic senator from New York, one of Moynihan’s most enduring contributions has been this vicious meme about the pathology of female headed households. It was an image that he explicitly racialized and connected to welfare “dependency,” along with crime and disorder.  His 1965 report instantly became the favorite authority for conservative explanations of urban problems, and poverty in general.

Its influence endures today. Recent disturbances in Baltimore brought forth a slew of commentators offering similar reasoning; nearly all cited Moynihan. In the past few months, there have been numerous panels, commentaries, and speeches praising Moynihan and extolling the prescience of his report.  I offer a dissenting view, based on research for a book I just published.

When first released, the Moynihan Report was highly controversial and thoroughly scrutinized.  Political objections to the message were conflated with objective criticism of the quality of his work, leading to a lasting myth that poor Pat was the victim of a smear campaign.

But the critics were able to show that Moynihan’s research and scholarship were seriously wanting.  Neither his skills as an analyst nor the data he relied on were sufficient to carry the argument he tried to make. Far from being prophetic, subsequent trends have shown that decisions to marry are mainly driven by employment opportunities and income level, regardless of ethnicity. Moynihan’s emphasis on the “Negro” family, without due attention to class differences, distracted from the core problem of employer discrimination and larger systemic factors that have caused and reinforced poverty, especially among African Americans.

In spite of its many flaws, the report has had far-reaching influence on popular narratives about race and poverty, and on the policies and programs put forth to solve related problems. We must ask ourselves: Why did that happen and why is it important?

Born in the bosom of the Johnson administration and authored by a dependable liberal, the message in the report resonated along a broad political spectrum. For conservatives, most poor people were deemed to be victims only of their own bad choices, especially involving sex and procreation. Moynihan’s research vindicated that view, free of any ideological taint and with the imprimatur of liberal social science.

But this message also has had appeal for the center-left. If poverty is cultural, then it is curable in individuals through education and rehabilitation. Exploring cultural causes also gave poverty researchers a way to join the neoliberal project of the 1980s, and avoid confronting the hard adversaries of corporate power whose drive to lower wages and taxes clashed with the needs of working families. By focusing instead on behavior and attitudes in large random samples of poor people, many policy researchers encourage the belief that cleverly marketed, data-driven social engineering of people and space could largely eradicate poverty by offering escape into the middle class.

In stigmatizing and shaming the victims of poverty, we infantilize and marginalize them and silence their voices.

Programs born from these ideas have rarely worked as planned. Mass displacement out of public housing, mentors, support groups, and workshops designed to teach “life skills,” manage finances, or dress for success have yielded very meager benefits in the lives of poor people, or in reducing the poverty rate. Marriage promotion programs, the most direct outcome of Moynihan’s cautionary warning, have been dismally unsuccessful. Maybe Moynihan’s critics back in 1965 were correct that he had cause and effect reversed: Poverty makes being married harder, rather than the other way around, and simply getting or staying married will not cure poverty. In the past decade we have spent $1 billion to learn that single lesson, except we still have not learned it.

So, what is the answer? If neither fiscal austerity nor big data and smart marketing can address this problem, what can? First off, rebalancing the economy to ensure more jobs and better wages would not just tackle the root causes of poverty, but also have an effect on the family instability that Moynihan lamented. But we need to go beyond that. Back in the early days of the War on Poverty, there was a deliberate effort to infuse democracy into the process and seek “maximum feasible participation” of those affected by the problems that the government was trying to solve. Early critics of this idea, including Moynihan himself, feared this involvement and discounted its value. It should be reexamined.

Neither the conservatives who want to shred the safety net, nor the liberals who favor social engineering, are considering the potential value of organized communities in finding solutions for everyday problems resulting from poverty. Such an approach could also help revitalize grassroots democracy. In stigmatizing and shaming the victims of poverty, we infantilize and marginalize them and silence their voices. And we persist in viewing poverty as a personal failing, rather than as a breach of the social contract.

On this occasion of the semi-centennial of the infamous, paradoxical, and undeservedly resilient Moynihan Report, let’s declare an end to the fiction that struggling single mothers are the villains behind the rising poverty and inequality in our society.  Let’s call out any and all who use this ploy, and begin to build new alliances based on mutual respect and shared understanding of who were the real perpetrators in holding communities down, creating the Great Recession, and upending the lives of millions of hard-working Americans who are classified as poor.




A Worker’s Take on the New Overtime Proposal

As a manager for a national auto supply chain, Lora McCrary puts in between 50 and 70 hours a week remodeling stores across the country.

But because she’s a salaried employee, she’s ineligible to earn overtime pay. The long hours, weeks spent on the road and living out of hotels has taken a toll on her emotionally and physically.

“I’m just so beat down,” McCrary, 50, said from a job site in South Florida.  “I’m 100 pounds heavier than I was when I started the job.”

So when she heard last week’s news that President Obama wants to expand the overtime rules so that more Americans are eligible, she was excited.

“Right now, too many Americans are working long days for less pay than they deserve,” Obama wrote in an op-ed for The Huffington Post. “That’s partly because we’ve failed to update overtime regulations for years.”

The overtime threshold was last raised in 1975. According to the Department of Labor, 62 percent of workers qualified for overtime back then. Now, just 8 percent do.  In fact, a family of four would have to live in poverty before a breadwinner would qualify for overtime—the poverty threshold for a family of four is $24,008, but the overtime threshold is just $23,660.

“The rules that establish which workers are exempt from overtime pay haven’t kept up with the cost of living,” reads a Department of Labor webpage.  Under the new proposal, the federal government would lift the overtime threshold from $23,660 to $50,440.

With a salary of just over $40,000, McCrary is one of the 5 million working Americans who would benefit from the new rule.  She stands to earn up to $15,000 more annually, and doesn’t hesitate when asked what she’d do with the extra income: “I would put that money in savings for old age. I have to start to put something away to fall back on, because I don’t want to have to fall back on my kids,” she said.

McCrary’s current job offers stock options and a 401K retirement plan and she’s taken advantage of those benefits for the past two years.

But before this job, she had only one employer that offered a retirement plan and it cashed out the employee retirement accounts when the business folded.

She knows what it’s like to juggle to make ends meet. A single mother of five who are all adults now, she’s worked as many as three jobs—driving a limo, working at a hotel, and doing census surveys.

Like many parents, McCrary put her children’s future ahead of her own. That included helping them pay for college. But it sapped her efforts to save for herself.

“My daughter took out student loans that we didn’t realize were parent loans,” she said. “I’m on default on those and they grow every year.”

A $25,000 loan has ballooned into a debt of more than $40,000, she said.

“Trying to keep my kids in school and get them educated was more important than trying to put something away for myself,” McCrary said.  “I figured the worst case scenario, I could live in one of their basements.”

Nationwide, a movement has swelled that is calling attention to the struggles of fast-food and retail employees, car washers, home care professionals and others who make a minimum wage.

The Obama Administration’s proposed rule targets a specific set of employees – white-collar employees, managers and supervisors who are often full-time and salaried. Currently, if these workers put in more than 40 hours a week, it does not translate into more money in their paychecks.

“Many working families are putting in longer hours, but are not seeing their extra work reflected in their wages because they are currently not eligible to receive overtime,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change.  “Being able to receive overtime will greatly level the wage playing field that is greatly tipped in favor of the wealthy in our country.”

The proposal could take months to implement. It is subject to a 60-day public comment period. The administration can put the rule into effect through regulation. However, the conservative-led Congress can try to fight it with legislation.

Adjusting public policy to keep up with the times is long overdue, said McCrary, who has noticed that some supervisors seem reluctant to ask to be paid for all of the hours that they work.

“Some of the people have been out here for so long, they don’t even argue about it. This is the way it’s always been,” she said.  “It is time for a change.”



5 Reasons Jennicet Gutiérrez’s Protest of the Treatment of LGBT Immigrants Needs to be Heard

Two days before the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in every state of the union, President Obama gathered LGBT advocates and allies from around the country at the White House to celebrate advancements in LGBT rights that were unimaginable only a decade ago.

As the President was about to recap his administration’s numerous accomplishments over the past six and a half years—from ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the recent elimination of discriminatory bans on gender transition care from federal employee health insurance plans—he was interrupted by a woman in the audience’s urgent request for his attention.  The woman, Jennicet Gutiérrez, wanted to draw his attention to one of the darkest marks on his presidency: the abhorrent treatment of LGBT immigrants—particularly transgender women—in the more than 200 immigration detention facilities across the nation.

On June 19th, DHS issued new guidance on detention decisions for transgender immigrants that was made public on June 29th. For the first time, in limited circumstances, transgender women will be allowed to be detained in women’s facilities. Unfortunately, the guidance ignores the fact that they often should not be detained in the first place.

Here are 5 reasons why Jennicet’s protest still needs to be heard:

1) LGBT people in confinement face extremely high rates of abuse. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found nearly 40 percent of transgender inmates in prisons and local jails were sexually assaulted. We don’t have comprehensive data for immigration detention, but a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Center for American Progress (CAP) returned nearly 200 reported incidents of abuse against LGBT immigrants in detention. Moreover, the Government Accountability Office found that 20 percent of substantiated sexual assaults in immigration detention were against transgender people. Prior to DHS’s new guidance, transgender women in immigration detention were routinely detained with men, or given the option of either being transferred to a segregated pod for gay and transgender immigrants in California or kept in protective solitary confinement.

2) Many LGBT immigrants are arbitrarily detained. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognizes the particular vulnerability of LGBT people in detention. However, a FOIA submitted by CAP revealed that DHS consistently detains LGBT people who should be released. Seventy percent of LGBT immigrants who said they feared harm in detention because of their sexual orientation or gender identity could have been released under DHS’s automated intake system, but DHS instead chose detention in 68 percent of those cases.  Rather, they should be released on parole or placed in alternatives to detention pending the outcome of their cases.

While we celebrate how far the country has come in recognizing the rights of LGBT people our work is far from over.

3) Not being detained is critical for the safety of LGBT immigrants. Studies show that the factors with the greatest influence on case outcome are representation by counsel and not being detained. A CAP report found that, even with excellent legal representation, LGBT people in detention are more than 10 percent less likely to win asylum. For LGBT asylum seekers, being in detention can mean the difference between life and death.

4) In the rare instances bail is set, it is impossibly high. CAP found that while only 30 percent of LGBT immigrants in detention were subject to mandatory detention, 64 percent of LGBT immigrants in detention are detained without the possibility of bond—only 11 percent are eligible for bond. That 11 percent face a statutory minimum $1,500 bond, but more commonly the bond is set much higher, as high as $15,000. For LGBT people seeking protection in the US, who often used all the resources they had just to get here, or were living here without access to lawful employment, these amounts are nearly impossible to pay.

5) Immigrants provide guaranteed profits for private prisons. In addition to a Congressional quota requiring that DHS maintain the capacity to detain 34,000 immigrants every day, a report by Detention Watch Network found DHS is contractually obligated to guarantee for-profit private prisons that a minimum of 9,422 beds will be filled each day.  At an average daily cost of $164 per bed, these quotas guarantee for-profit prisons a lot of money, over $1.5 million every day. These quotas and sky-high profits disincentivize release, even of vulnerable populations like LGBT immigrants who should not have been detained in the first place.

The day before the White House Pride event, 35 members of Congress sent a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson expressing concern over the treatment of LGBT immigrants in detention and urging an end to the practice.

Ms. Gutiérrez’s protest was a reminder that—while we celebrate how far the country has come in recognizing the rights of LGBT people—our work is far from over.  We must continue fighting for the equal treatment, safety, and dignity of all LGBT people.



Medicare at 50: Then and Now

Fifty years ago, on July 30, 1965, Medicare was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.  The program has been keeping our oldest citizens – and those with disabilities – out of poverty ever since. Before Medicare, less than 50 percent of people ages 65 and over had health insurance, 35 percent lived in poverty, and life expectancy was much lower than now. But despite its tremendous success, Medicare faces significant threats.  We need to redouble our efforts not only to protect the program, but to strengthen it.

Throughout its history, Medicare has been effective at reducing poverty for older people and people with disabilities, and at increasing access to health care. In the program’s very first year, more than 19 million people over age 65 enrolled; access to care increased by one-third; poverty among older and disabled Americans decreased by nearly two-thirds; and personal economic security increased for older people and their families.

As Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro said, “Medicare is a bedrock part of the American social insurance system.” It has provided peace of mind for millions of Americans, who know they will have reliable health care coverage in retirement. The program covers people most in need of care—people who often wouldn’t be covered by private insurers or couldn’t afford such insurance. It also strengthens families by limiting the financial burden of health care costs for their older and disabled relatives.

Many people are unaware that Medicare has also helped change our society. For example, its creation was a huge boost for civil rights. Any hospital wishing to collect Medicare funds had to desegregate to qualify for payments. As a result, thousands of hospitals fully desegregated in only four months.

Medicare has seen many positive changes.  It added hospice coverage in 1982 and now almost half of beneficiaries who die use this important benefit. In 2008, Medicare coverage of mental health services changed, so that these services were reimbursed at the same rates as other Medicare-covered services delivered in the same care settings. As a result, hospital care for mental health services no longer costs more than hospital care for a physical health problem.

In 2010, the Affordable Care Act added a decade of economic security to the Medicare Trust Fund, increased free preventive services, and increased parity between traditional Medicare and private Medicare plans.

A recent “improvement” came about as a result of work by the Center for Medicare Advocacy – where I serve as the Executive Director – and by our partners at Vermont Legal Aid. When Medicare beneficiaries have a chronic condition, such as Alzheimer’s or Multiple Sclerosis, they often need skilled care in order to maintain their condition or slow deterioration. Medicare regularly denied such coverage because the beneficiaries weren’t “improving.” This harmful practice impeded access to necessary care and placed an unfair burden on families who were forced to pay for these services. As a result of a 2012 settlement with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, coverage for skilled care can no longer be denied simply because an individual isn’t improving. Coverage is available for skilled care to maintain an individual’s condition.

Despite Medicare’s success, it faces threats like never before. From privatization to coverage denials, to political pressure that would limit coverage and increase costs for beneficiaries in the future. However the Center for Medicare Advocacy is advocating for a number of common sense solutions that would better protect beneficiaries and help improve Medicare’s financial security, without cutting benefits or coverage. These include:

  • Paying Medicare Advantage at the same rates as traditional Medicare. Private plans should not be paid more than traditional Medicare. This would save more than $132 billion dollars over 10 years;
  • Adding a prescription drug benefit to traditional Medicare;
  • Requiring Medicare to obtain the best prices for prescription drugs — — which would save more than $141 billion over 10 years;
  • Fixing the broken Medicare appeals system by eliminating one of the first levels of review. The vast majority of reviews at the initial and second levels are “rubber stamp” denials which simply add bureaucracy and waste money. This would save around $100 million per year in operating costs.

Medicare works well for the American people and it has for 50 years. Let’s ensure that it stays strong and continues to open doors to health insurance and health care for our nation’s most vulnerable people and their families.