Big Fat Greek Lie

It’s time for another episode of everyone’s favorite poverty podcast!

This week we talk to Joan Walsh, Editor at large for, MSNBC political analyst, and author of “What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America.” We discuss 2016, the stigma around poverty, and race in the U.S.

joan walsh

But first, we’re joined by Craig Harrington, Economic Policy Program Director at Media Matters for America, to discuss why comparing the U.S. economy to the Greek debt crisis makes no sense, and why conservatives are doing this anyway. We also talk to Liz Ben-Ishai, Senior Policy Analyst at Center for Law and Social Policy, on how we can protect workers and help business at the same time by simply making work schedules predictable, and how new legislation can help.

Here are 6 moments you can look forward to hearing on this week’s episode:

1) “Charlie, it was meant to mock you. You’re an idiot!”

2) “Hashtag Trump your cat, for our listeners.”

3) “In defense of Donald Trump, he’s had some crowds – they were just paid actors.”

Donald Trump

4) “One thing that makes a good ally is doing more listening than talking.”


5) “People say dumb things on Twitter – I’m not talking about Paula Deen here…Oh boy.”

Paula Deen

6) “It seems odd to employ tactics or strategies that undermine your business.”


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The State of America’s Babies

Zero to Three – a leading advocate for infants and toddlers – recently released its 2015 State Baby Facts, examining how 12 million babies and toddlers in every state and DC compare with the nation in three areas critical for healthy development: good health, strong families and positive early learning experiences.

While the broad range of indicators presented reveal both opportunities and challenges for our country’s newest citizens, one startling truth leaps out: Nearly half (48 percent) of infants and toddlers live in families who are poor or near poor, while  young children of color have the highest poverty rates. Black infants and toddlers have a poverty rate that is triple that of their white counterparts; Hispanic and American Indians have a rate that is more than double.

What is the takeaway? An alarming number of today’s babies – tomorrow’s workforce – are spending their early years in distressed economic circumstances, impacting their health, their families, and their opportunities for learning.

Low Birth Weight

What happens before a baby even enters the world can impact later development.  Low birth weight can stem from the limited access to resources facing families in poverty, such as lack of early prenatal care and health insurance. States with higher rates tend to be those with higher poverty rates.  These infants are more likely to have serious health problems and long-term disabilities, which can impair learning and affect school readiness.

The state of America’s babies is critical – it’s when we lay the foundation for our future workforce.

Nationally, about 8% of babies are born with low birth weight.  In fact, babies born in the U.S. are more likely to be low birth weight than those born in almost every other developed country.  States with the lowest rates cluster between 6% and 7%, and states with the highest go up to 11%.  The national health goals established a target of 7.8%, which 23 states currently meet. However, this goal is much more modest than the 2010 goal of 5% – which no state and only small pockets around the country ever achieved.

The disparity between African American newborns and other racial or ethnic groups is particularly striking.  African American babies are almost twice as likely as white babies to be low birth weight.  This difference has puzzled scientists for decades and cannot solely be explained by access to prenatal care or socioeconomic status.  Much current attention is focused on the cumulative stress African American women experience during their lifetime.

 Stress at a Young Age

The young children behind the poverty stats are spending their most vulnerable years in stressful circumstances that undermine healthy child development – from food insecurity to unstable housing to parents struggling to make ends meet. By age three, almost half of the toddlers in poverty have had one or more adverse experiences, such as childhood abuse, neglect, or exposure to other traumatic stressors. Chronic stress can undermine development – emotionally and biologically – and can be toxic to the developing brain.  It changes how the nervous system manages adversity and how the immune system resists infection, as well as impairs brain areas that affect attention, memory and thinking.  Poverty literally gets under the skin.

The good news is that babies are resilient, even in the face of such challenges. The key is strong, nurturing relationships – they can buffer the toxic effects of chronic stress. Close relationships with trusted adults give babies security, allowing them to become confident learners.

Quality Child Care

All parents want to give their children the right start, but it’s not always easy. Three of every five mothers with an infant are working, meaning access to high-quality child care is essential to supporting family economic security and early learning.  Working parents quickly learn that without paid family leave it’s too costly to stay home and care for one’s baby.  Moreover, child care takes a big bite out of paychecks. For single mothers, the average cost of infant care is more than 40% of median income.

Quality child care can have a positive effect on cognitive, language, and social-emotional development, and thus school readiness.  The strongest effects are found with the most at-risk children – but they are often the ones whose families can least afford it.

The reverse is also true: poor quality care can have a detrimental effect.  Much of the infant-toddler care in this country is of poor to middling quality.  Few states set sufficient standards that promote quality interactions for children with well-trained – and suitably compensated – providers. Simply put, child care is not just a work support, it’s an integral part of early childhood education.

The state of America’s babies is critical – it’s when we lay the foundation for our future workforce. When babies and families have the supports they need, we create innovators, thinkers, and stronger communities. Our shared vision of a prosperous future will be realized only if there is a robust quality of life for babies today.


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.”