Our Perceptions About the “Unworthy Poor” Haven’t Changed

I first learned about the history of the “unworthy poor” when I pursued my Master of Social Work degree. I read about the social movements in the early 20th century and how they tended to divide people in need into people whose poverty was outside of their control – for example, widows or orphaned children – who were deemed deserving of help from society; and people whose poverty could be blamed on their own bad decisions or laziness – they were written off as unworthy of assistance, or the unworthy poor. The implication in the history books was that this bias was a thing of the past.

At Princeton Seminary, in a theology class on the life and writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I came across this same assertion that the American ethos about people in poverty had changed. In Dr. King’s Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, he writes of the attitudes in the early 20th century:

“At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s ability and talents… the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber… We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent.”

King’s analysis is spot on in terms of poverty being largely caused by an economy that doesn’t provide full employment.  But his belief that America had progressed beyond its perception of an unworthy poor was inaccurate.

I have been studying and working in the field of social work for nearly twenty years, and I have seen the unworthy poor resurrected time and again in debates about what America should do about poverty. My college sociology classes in the late 1990s coincided with the implementation of a sweeping welfare reform bill that focused on “personal responsibility.” My grad school days saw appeals from “compassionate conservatives” that social services should be left to the churches and non-profits that they claimed were better equipped to help people change their lives.

The insidious narrative of the “welfare queen” left no room to consider their circumstances or their desperation.

Then, in my first social work placement, I encountered firsthand the consequences of the belief that social policies should punish struggling people for their “poor decisions.” I remember two young mothers, each with a child and no source of income.  They turned to our county welfare program for help to meet their children’s basic needs. Both mothers received a small monthly cash grant, but they were denied emergency housing assistance because each had “caused her own homelessness” as determined by the welfare office. In desperation, they moved in with new boyfriends, neither of whom were willing to use birth control. The result was unwanted pregnancies. The response from the system was horrifying: these unborn children would receive no help from the state because their mothers had gotten pregnant while receiving cash assistance.  The insidious narrative of the “welfare queen” left no room to consider their circumstances or their desperation.

Now, more than a decade into my career in social justice advocacy, I have grown accustomed to social policy proposals being based on the assumption that people experience poverty because of their own failures. For example, when national leaders rail against the nation’s largest anti-hunger program and slash its funding in the name of reducing “dependency”—a dependency that in fact doesn’t exist—they are really saying that people in poverty are lazy and should be forced to fend for themselves. It is still acceptable, even popular, to ascribe moral weakness to people in poverty rather than to examine the economic and social structures that hold them there.

Despite Dr. King’s overestimation of progress in attitudes towards the poor, his core message remains relevant today: Only when we change a system that traps so many Americans in a struggle to meet their basic needs will we create an economy defined by opportunity and the chance for anyone to thrive.


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Safety Net

A Story of Why We Need Housing First Right Now

We need a national Housing First plan implemented as soon as possible if we are to effectively deal with the problem of homelessness in America. This is a story that explains why.

I became homeless in 2009 and out of necessity learned how to make the services administered through the Ocean County New Jersey Board of Social Services work for me. They included housing assistance provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), food assistance (SNAP) through the US Department of Agriculture, and cash assistance through the General Assistance program made available by the State of New Jersey.

I am now in permanent Federal Affordable Housing and no longer need social services myself. So I try to use my own experience to help people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless get the social services they need. Currently, Emergency Housing Assistance offered through the Ocean County Board of Social Services is not easy to qualify for. The bureaucratic process is difficult to comprehend, and negotiating through it when you are facing housing insecurity and are stressed out is exceedingly difficult.

For example, I was contacted by members of a local church in my community after they had encountered a young man who was homeless hanging out in a shopping mall. They had given him some new clothing, and now wanted to arrange for me to meet with him because I have experience in homeless outreach, particularly in Ocean County.

In meeting with the young man, it was immediately clear to me that he was in serious trouble, mentally and emotionally. He could not maintain eye contact, tell me what he did that day, or articulate any plans he had for getting out of his present situation. He was sleeping in the wooded areas at night where he couldn’t be seen, and then wandering around during the day trying not to be seen. In my experience, this isolation is a recipe for serious psychological and emotional damage.

I asked him if he wanted a room in a motel or shelter for the night. He enthusiastically said yes.

The bureaucratic process is difficult to comprehend, and negotiating through it when you are facing housing insecurity is exceedingly difficult.

I called a 3-digit number for an Ocean County Board of Social Services’ special response unit that is set up to address emergency situations (although the County’s website says, “Funding is limited so assistance is not always available”) . They have teams available to quickly come and pick up people who are homeless, give them shelter, and take them to a social services office in their county the next day to see if they qualify for more permanent assistance.

I called them, but they wanted to talk with the young man, not me.

They ended up turning him down because he told them the truth: he’d been homeless for four months. Special Response “responded” by saying that they only take people who have been homeless for two weeks or less.

So I arranged to pick him up the next day where he was living in the woods and take him to the Ocean County Social Services office myself. There, he applied and qualified for SNAP and General Assistance, which then allowed him to apply for Emergency Housing Assistance.

In order to qualify for Emergency Housing Assistance, however, he was also required to appear once a week at the Ocean County One-Stop Career Center, located on another side of town and outside the reach of public transportation; and a substance abuse counselor who was also located far from the social services office.

I knew that he—and others like him who are chronically homeless—often can’t meet these requirements and therefore don’t receive the emergency housing they desperately need.

This is why we need Housing First.

Housing First uses a simple model that has been proven to work: it first provides people with housing, and then provides supportive wraparound services in mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment. Housing First apartments are scattered throughout a community which helps formerly homeless reintegrate into their communities. Perhaps the most significant innovation is that Housing First doesn’t put preconditions on eligibility. Other approaches exclude people from receiving housing assistance because they suffer from mental illness, including addiction. Finally, Housing First saves taxpayer money over the long haul, reducing costs that are otherwise incurred by the public for stays at shelters, in jail cells, and in hospital emergency rooms.

After our visit to social services, I discussed the young man’s situation with others in my homeless outreach network. We agreed that the best available alternative for him was to enter a 10-day shelter provided by a local faith-based group. From there he would be able to transition into an in-patient behavioral rehabilitation center that would—upon successful completion of their program—hopefully guide him into permanent housing.

The question all of this begs is this: since only one in four low-income renter households receives federal rental assistance—and a lack of affordable housing is a leading cause of homelessness—shouldn’t we be devoting a larger share of our affordable housing dollars towards a nationwide, Housing First model?

It’s the right thing to do and it saves money. What the hell are we waiting for?


Media and Politics

Big Cuts for Labor, Health, Education Programs Reflect House Committee Priorities

In its 2016 funding bill for labor, health and human services, and education programs, many of which support low- and moderate-income Americans, the House Appropriations Committee has made clear that it considers these programs a low priority.

The Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education bill cuts these programs by $3.7 billion below last year’s level.  Moreover, these cuts would compound years of flat or shrinking funding, due largely to the tight funding cap on non-defense discretionary spending of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), so that total funding for programs in this bill would fall to roughly one-sixth below its 2010 value, adjusted for inflation.

Major cuts include the following:

  • Education: The bill cuts federal education programs, many of which serve low- and moderate-income students, by $2.5 billion. In particular, funding for elementary, secondary, and preschool education programs would fall to one-fifth below its 2010 inflation-adjusted level.  The bill would eliminate more than two dozen education programs, including Preschool Development Grants, which give states money to build or expand high-quality preschool programs in high-need communities, and School Improvement Grants, which provide grant funding to boost student achievement in low-performing schools.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS): The bill cuts CMS funding by $649 million, or roughly one-sixth. CMS operates Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and it implements many aspects of health reform, including the federally run health insurance marketplaces and health reform’s consumer protections. That cut, along with language that would stop HHS from implementing most of health reform, would effectively block most assistance that helps low- and moderate-income people ; it could also hamper Medicare operations.  All told, CMS would have less funding than in 2010, before health reform took effect — and that’s before adjusting for inflation or Medicare’s growing numbers of beneficiaries.
  • Job training: The bill cuts job training funding by $135 million which, after years of deep cuts, brings funding to 23 percent below its 2010 level, adjusted for inflation. The bill’s main job training cut comes from reducing by two-thirds funding that provides extra help in responding to large disruptions such as plant closings, mass layoffs, and natural disasters, as well as to support demonstration projects and technical assistance.
  • “Title X” family planning: The bill eliminates all funding, which totaled $286 million in 2015, for Title X, which supports clinics that offer family planning and related preventive health services, such as screenings for cancer and sexually transmitted infections. The funding is a key source of revenue for these clinics, which reduce or eliminate charges for low-income patients (many of them uninsured). The clinics served more than 4.5 million patients, according to HHS, and helped avert an estimated 870,000 unintended pregnancies in 2013.
  • The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS): The bill cuts CNCS funding by $367 million, or more than one-third. The cuts primarily target AmeriCorps, which provides funding for public service jobs, frequently in economically disadvantaged areas. These cuts would shrink the number of AmeriCorps positions and threaten the modest educational stipend that AmeriCorps workers receive after completing a year of public service work.

The bill does include some much-needed increases in key investments, such as medical research and special education funding.  But, given the bill’s reduced funding levels overall, those increases are only possible because of the damaging cuts it makes to other areas.

The President and congressional Democrats have pushed to raise the BCA’s caps for both non-defense and defense spending, offset by a mix of other cuts and revenue increases.  But congressional Republicans — who run both the House and Senate — have stuck to these tight caps in this year’s budget process for non-defense programs (while using a gimmick to evade the cap on defense).  With the existing cap on appropriations for non-defense programs in place, there’s little chance of adequately funding key investments in labor, health, and education programs in 2016.



Imagining a Progressive South

“The South is not, today, one whole.”

Those words, uttered by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in a March 30, 1963 essay for The Nation, are as true today as they were then. In that statement, Dr. King invoked the dedicated minority of progressive Southerners who were determined to bring racial justice to the region, while simultaneously putting pressure on the equally-dedicated majority hell-bent on maintaining the status quo.

Indeed, if anything is true of the curious collection of states commonly referred to as the “American South,” it is that things never seem to change. Or, at least, that was the story told in a recent Politico Magazine article by Michael Lind that claimed the South is simply deadweight on the rest of the nation.

Lind harps on some themes that we Southerners, and particularly progressive Southerners, are all too familiar with: our soaring economic inequality, our propensity for violence, our pitiful progress in advancing racial justice. In making all of these statements, Lind is by no means incorrect, yet the focus is wrong.

Lind commits a common error often repeated in America’s history. That is, he lifts up the tired narrative of the majority’s failures, rather than the more noble narrative of the minority’s heroics.

Lind imagines a United States freed from the “burden” of the South. He does not imagine a different, better South. But indeed there is one, if only we would give voice to it.

There has long existed a passionate and driven community of Southern progressives who have pushed not only the region but the entire country toward the realization of racial justice and true economic opportunity. When the nation lent its ear and sword to these individuals and organizations, they fundamentally altered history.

We seem to have stopped listening to those who can bring progress to the South, in favor of using it as a scapegoat

Think William Faulkner, Ella Baker, John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and of course King himself and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While there is no question that a healthy disdain for the South’s violent segregationist tactics helped these beacons break onto the political scene, it alone was not enough. Those fighting for change needed their voices amplified. And eventually, the leadership and insight of these historic Southerners, together with America’s willingness to lend support on these issues, finally moved the needle on civil rights not only in the South, but across the country. Unfortunately, we seem to have stopped listening to those who can bring progress to the South, in favor of using it as a scapegoat for the nation’s larger racial and economic woes.

We must turn the corner, linking once more with those fighting on the front lines to create a New South that values progress. This is particularly needed in the most difficult but necessary realms of economic and racial justice.

And contrary to popular belief, there is no shortage of organizations that are imagining this New South and fighting for its realization.

The Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, has provided legal representation to thousands denied fair treatment and actively lobbies for policies that alleviate poverty and dismantle racial oppression.

Empower Alabama has registered thousands of new voters in the state and continues to fight against policies that restrict voting rights.

The Campaign for Southern Equality works to promote LGBT equality and provides legal representation to LGBT individuals and families.

The Institute for Southern Studies, based in Durham, conducts research and provides grassroots support toward the goal of creating a more progressive and inclusive South.

Such organizations and the individuals who lead them carry a visual clarity, moral fortitude, and cultural awareness that can bring progress to a region that so often shuns it. But our battle only becomes more difficult when the rest of the nation refuses to recognize and support their work in favor of lazily protesting the obstacles.

Fortunately, Lind does opt to devote a couple sentences to the work of what he calls “populists, liberals, and radicals.” Unfortunately, a couple sentences is too often all that these change makers are given, and the potential for these agents to use the nation’s frustration with the South to push an agenda of justice is wasted.

Americans must begin introducing these visions of a New South into the spaces they occupy. It is true that the South is as beleaguered as Lind says, but that only means we must do more to lift up those who are reshaping it. Our movements must include those who represent the South; our collective history must focus on those who brought change; and our conversations and media must shed light on those on the ground right now.

Fifty-two years ago, the nation turned its passive scorn into active support that helped Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood integrate The University of Alabama against the tireless opposition of George Wallace. In the past two years, the same national attention helped the university desegregate its Greek system and elect only its second black Student Government Association President, Elliot Spillers.

America is and has always been defined by its implicit and explicit embrace of racial oppression and unequal distributions of economic resources—the South is more of an accomplice than the sole perpetrator. But if we can imagine a new America that transcends these injustices, then certainly we can do the same with the South. Sometimes, things do indeed change.


Safety Net

404 Error: Why Internet Access is Still a Problem for Many in Poverty

When President Obama recently announced the ConnectHome initiative in the auditorium of Oklahoma’s Durant High School, he again stated that the Internet is a necessity, not a luxury.

No kidding, Mr. President.

This isn’t news to anyone. For most people, the Internet is key to basic life functions: correspondence; applications for jobs, college, and benefits; Facebook stalking your friends’ friends’ friends, expressing yourself with 90’s TV show gifs; and participating in the oh-so-enlightened conversations occurring on message boards everywhere.

Although I jest, lack of Internet access is a serious barrier for many low-income families, and its consequences are very real: students who have broadband at home achieve higher graduation rates than those who do not; high speed Internet access is strongly associated with greater economic development for communities; and the Internet is a critical prerequisite for accessing a huge proportion of job applications. I spent the past year studying how these folks use public computing resources in Chicago, and I can tell you that having access at home, work, school, or a public center really changes what opportunities are available to you.

But none of this matters because everyone has smartphones now, right? Problem solved. Except that you can’t write essays, craft a resume, do your taxes, or animate, analyze, and code anything worthwhile on your phone. And sure enough, the effects of these limitations show: mobile-only Internet users have lower digital skill levels than people with access to desktops.

And although the proportion of people who do not have Internet in some capacity at home or work has been reduced to an all-time low, the consequences for those who remain excluded have multiplied because the vast majority of institutions provide services in a way that assumes online access. This is very bad news for the quarter of Americans who don’t have decent broadband at home.

All this being said, the ConnectHome initiative, while great for the 275,000 families it serves, won’t even make a dent in the approximately 95 million people who need it. If we’re going to have a national conversation about digital skills and Internet access, then let’s recognize that while ConnectHome and mobile Internet access play important roles in filling the critical gaps in services for our most vulnerable families, the overwhelming need for Internet, devices, support, and training in underserved communities requires a broader strategy.

The vast majority of institutions provide services in a way that assumes online access.

We’ve been here before: policymakers did attempt to address these digital disparities in the Recovery Act after the 2008 recession. The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) invested $4.7 billion dollars in broadband access and adoption, including $201 million in Public Computer Center grants to fund 3,500 new and upgraded public computer centers across the country.

For a lot of communities, these types of public computer labs are where low-income individuals who lack Internet go to get the technology and training they need. Labs are located in public housing, senior centers, schools, health clinics, community technology centers, and most importantly, public libraries, who are the real MVPs of Internet access in America, despite the massive cuts many systems have faced.

These public computer centers are heavily relied upon: for example, my research suggests that half of their 80,000 weekly users in Chicago—more than one-third of whom have incomes of under $10,000—use public computer centers every day. And, the most recent available data clocked the average wait time in about two-thirds of Chicago Public Libraries at more than three hours. And that’s a problem for users, especially low-income households, who don’t have that kind of time to wait around to access basic services. And, centers and their support staffs are doing so much more than providing Internet and computers: they’re teachers, curators of learning resources, amateur social service referrers, homework helpers, and job search coaches.

The value of public computer centers goes beyond technology itself. For teenage users in Chicago, 88 percent reported that they performed better in school through center use and one-third reported that the computer centers made them feel safer because they were off the streets. For Chicago adult users, 58 percent were looking for jobs and 37 percent of all respondents said the Chicago centers had helped them find a job, due in part to staff assistance.

These centers were dealt a huge setback when BTOP’s funding ended in 2013. Now, without a dedicated source of funding, every budget year is a battle to prevent cuts or underfunding. And, when we fail to invest in libraries and public computer centers, they are forced to cut staff and training programs or close altogether. Until the next generation of wireless provision produces better, cheaper alternatives, it’s critical that we financially support these libraries and public computer centers on a far broader scale than ConnectHome.

It’s time to think seriously and creatively about how to fund systemic, sustainable changes to get low-income households connected to the resources they need—in every community.