Safety Net

New Research Documents Growth of Extreme Poverty

A new book by two of our nation’s foremost poverty researchers, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, reveals the desperate circumstances that hundreds of thousands of children and their parents increasingly face: living with virtually no cash income in an economy that requires it to meet nearly every human need.

In $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Edin and Shaefer trace this disturbing trend to the 1996 welfare law, which has gradually but inexorably gutted the cash assistance safety net for families with children. Attention to this often neglected side of our nation’s extreme economic inequality is especially timely as policymakers from both parties consider reauthorizing the 1996 welfare law. As the book vividly shows, we are long overdue to take a different path — one that upholds our nation’s values, including our responsibility to protect and empower the most vulnerable by eliminating extreme poverty.

Living on less than $2.00 per person per day is the World Bank’s standard for measuring poverty in developing countries. Through rigorous data analysis and in-depth interviews, Shaefer and Edin document the dramatic rise in extreme poverty since the 1996 welfare law. Similarly, research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities confirms a rise in “deep poverty” — income below half the poverty line, or below roughly $10 per person per day for a typical family — and shows that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), created in 1996, reduces deep poverty far less than its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Research shows that early childhood poverty causes short- and long-term harm, in turn posing enormous costs to our economy.

To be sure, many experience $2.00-a-day poverty for months, not years. But trying to make ends meet with such minimal cash resources can be devastating even for the shortest periods. For many families, perilous work, unpredictable work schedules, and housing instability add up to much longer periods of destitution. Through story after story, Shaefer and Edin show how the inability to afford basics like personal hygiene items and transportation, combined with insufficient work and meager public benefits, can drive people towards abusive relationships, precarious housing, mistreatment by employers, and impossible choices between breaking the law and feeding a child.

Perilous work, unpredictable work schedules, and housing instability add up to much longer periods of destitution

How did we get here, and how do we get out?

First, when policymakers supposedly shifted to a work-based safety net in 1996, they didn’t ensure that there would be enough decent jobs for everyone who wants one. While President Clinton’s proposed welfare overhaul in 1992 guaranteed a public-sector job for anyone who couldn’t find one, the 1996 law had no such guarantee. Both the labor market since 2000 and the experience of the successful but short-lived TANF subsidized jobs program in the Great Recession have made clear that many more people want jobs than can find them, in good times and bad.

Second, changes in the structure and funding of welfare have given states incentives to keep people out of TANF and to kick off many of those who do manage to enroll. As much as other programs like the EITC and SNAP (formerly food stamps) have done more over the past two decades to help families in poverty, including deep poverty, these improvements have been little match for the continued underfunding of housing assistance and the huge hole blown in our cash assistance safety net by the 1996 law.

$2.00 a Day shows that charities and individuals provide some help to extremely poor families, often making the difference between spending the night on the street and having shelter. But Shaefer and Edin also observe that people with the greatest need often live the farthest from available assistance. And even the communities with the most resources can’t meet the need without government help.

Shaefer and Edin suggest a straightforward strategy to change the unacceptable status quo: create jobs and prepare the most disadvantaged adults for them; update labor standards to reflect the reality of work in America today; invest in affordable housing; and provide a real safety net for times when people who want to work simply don’t find work possible given their caregiving responsibilities and other challenges.

We hope that this new book forces us all to grapple with the destructive circumstances we have allowed to persist for our nation’s most vulnerable families. We must reform our public policies to ensure that nobody faces a poverty so deep that many of us wouldn’t even believe it exists in this wealthy nation. We can’t ignore the shortcomings of our safety net that are exposed by the growth of $2.00-a-day poverty in America.



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Serving Time and Creating a Second Chance Economy

Americans believe in the idea that everyone should get a second chance—a chance to redeem ourselves and make things right. This is a guiding principle behind a “second chance economy”—one that would offer opportunity for approximately 650,000 people released from prison every year in America, and for tens of millions of others who have been arrested or convicted of a crime.

I’m one of those Americans who committed a crime and have a criminal conviction. At one point, I was just like the two-thirds of people who are released from prison or jail only to commit a crime again, be rearrested and convicted.

I know some people may say that I deserve to live in poverty because of my mistakes. But they don’t know my story. They don’t know that I was born to an abusive father and a mother with severe mental illness; or that I was given narcotics as a young child by a relative who was supposed to care for me, but instead molested me and sold my pictures through a child pornography ring. They don’t know that by the time I was 12, I was on the streets, on my way to a life of crime and addiction, and—with no adult to care for me or advocate for me—I was in and out of the juvenile justice system, never receiving the mental health care I needed.

Truth is, I don’t care if people know these things about me or not, because I love myself now and that is what matters. But I do care that people have another chance after their arrest or conviction.

I’m on the right track now, doing right by myself, my god, my family and my community. One of the ways I’m giving back to my community is by working to create an economy that includes me and others who have served our time and are following the rules of probation or parole.  A study released by the Vera Institute of Justice found that states across the country are giving people like me a second chance not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it will reduce crime and prison costs by preventing recidivism.

No one should go hungry for a crime that they have served time for, especially if they are following the rules now.

One obstacle to opportunity that many states are addressing is the lifetime ban on receiving public benefits and job assistance through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for people who have a prior drug-related felony conviction. Research has shown that this policy increases recidivism and crime and is also harmful to children as well as adults who are trying to start over.  In addition to causing hunger and hardship, it can also prevent people from getting the mental health or substance abuse treatment they need, as many of these programs rely on public assistance funding to pay individuals’ room and board. Repeal of this harmful policy has been supported by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and is included in the REDEEM Act, bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Rand Paul.

Federal law already allows states to waive or modify the ban, and many have done so. For example, this April, California lifted the lifetime ban on TANF and SNAP so that people with a felony drug conviction who are complying with their probation or parole are now eligible for nutrition assistance, income support, and job training. Approximately 6,000 families in the state now experience hunger less often, have access to job training and employment services, and their children are no longer denied child care. For me, the biggest change is the child care help that I am able to receive for the first time. After my release and getting sober, it was hard to build a new life with my son when he was denied childcare because of my conviction. Not only was it hard for me to find work—he missed out on the great opportunities offered through childcare programs.

In June, Texas modified its lifetime ban so that people with a felony drug conviction are now eligible for SNAP (although a parole violation would lead to a “two-year disqualification”, and a second felony drug conviction would result in a lifetime ban).  Last year, Missourians took similar action so that people with felony drug convictions are able to receive nutrition assistance while participating in substance abuse treatment, as long as they are following the rules of probation or parole.  While fourteen states including California have opted out of the lifetime ban entirely, two-thirds of states continue to enforce the ban—or a modified version of it, as in Texas and Missouri.

In my opinion, no one should go hungry for a crime that they have served time for, especially if they are following the rules now. I’ve gone hungry and it is an experience no human should have to go through—especially not in America, since we have the resources to prevent hunger. Being hungry also doesn’t help people who have had an addiction stay straight, or stay away from crime.

This is why I have worked with a whole bunch of people and organizations over the past couple of years to end this unfair and unsafe lifetime ban on assistance. It isn’t easy telling my story to others, but it has made a difference. Sometimes I forget how messed up my childhood was and how far I’ve come, but I will never forget this harmful policy, how it made me feel, and how it made me feel to end it.


Safety Net

Taking on My Bucket List (and Homelessness)

Before I was homeless, I had a good life. I wasn’t rich, but I was far from poor, with two fairly successful small businesses (Kai’s Mobile Auto Detailing and MerMaids Maid Service) and a rental house on Maui. I drove a Mercedes 300E and my wife had a Nissan Sentra. We had no debt.

So, how did I end up homeless? I keep wondering where I went wrong.

In December 2011, I had my first seizure. On top of that, I was having marital problems and losing clients left and right due to the bad economy. Over the next few months, I averaged 2 to 3 seizures a week and was in and out of the hospital. My wife split somewhere around that time. My businesses fell apart while I wasn’t there to run them, and I spent all my savings trying to hang on instead of cutting my losses and saving what I could. By the time I got evicted, I couldn’t even afford a storage unit. I left my house with what I could fit in a red wagon and a suitcase.

I managed to get a job as a maintenance man at the Maui Sunset, a timeshare condo complex, but I was still having seizures. My doctor was convinced that they were caused by heavy metal toxicity (due to a bullet that has been in my leg for twenty years), and he put me through chelation therapy twice a week for three months. But due to the horrible side effects, I wasn’t able to maintain my job. Shortly after that, I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (heart disease) and I was told that without a transplant I had two years.

Let’s face it – the chances for a homeless man with epilepsy getting on the donor list are pretty slim. My seizures are now followed by 12 hours of sight loss. And I had to wonder – is this what it comes down to? I die alone, on the streets? Nothing to leave behind? Very few people to grieve my passing?

In a weird moment of clarity that you get when you have nothing else to lose, I decided I wanted to take a bucket list tour of the United States with my little dog Savannah to see and do all of the things that I have always wanted to do.

First off, I had heard of this place in Eugene, Oregon called Opportunity Villagetiny homes for the homeless. It was touted as the city’s unique approach to solving the homeless problem. Originally I thought that I would make that a stop on my trip, pick up the plans, and bring them back to Maui to start a village there. But when I got there my impression was that it was a group of homeless people that kept taking over city property until the city just let them stay. No plans, and nothing to bring back to Maui.

Savannah and I have been on the road for more than a year now. We left Maui on June 19, 2014. We have visited just about all of the things on my bucket list: Disneyland, the Smithsonian museums in D.C. (still missing the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and the National Postal Museum), and Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Red Bank, New Jersey. I’m also a huge fan of the show Comic Book Men, and I got to spend time with the stars.

Right now, we are in Washington D.C. We have been harassing Senate staffers in order to find a Senator who will sponsor legislation for a national Homeless Bill of Rights but it’s just really hard to do without an address. I now have cards from the offices of all one hundred Senators. I even put them in alphabetical order by state. Since Rhode Island was the first state to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights, I have been able to get some response from Senator Jack Reed’s staff.

As time passes, I look more and more like just another “crazy homeless guy,” and who knows, maybe I am just another crazy homeless guy. I feel like no one is listening or taking me seriously. I have no resources or backing of any kind, and these people deal with the powerful and wealthy all day long. I wish this were like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But it feels more like Oliver Twist saying, “Please sir, may I have some rights?”


Safety Net

Remembering Katrina in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

This is an excerpt from a post that first appeared at Medium.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 80 percent of New Orleans was under water, thousands of people were displaced, and at least 1,800 people were killed. The country watched in disbelief as residents—a disproportionate number of whom were black—pleaded for help on rooftops as then-President George W. Bush watched from afar—first from Washington, D.C., then overhead from a helicopter. All the while, the city’s poorest community, the Lower Ninth Ward, had up to 12 feet of water sitting stagnant in some areas for weeks. It was the last place to have power and water service restored, and the last to have the flood waters pumped out.

Despite the dire circumstances, news outlets and law enforcement quickly began to label the black residents as “looters.” They were not viewed as people trying to survive, but rather as criminals who needed to be reined in. New Orleans Police Department Captain James Scott instructed police officers that they had the “authority by martial law to shoot looters.”

Even in our hour of greatest need, black people are often not afforded the tragic gift of vulnerability. Instead, we are an ever present threat.

And that’s what they did: All told, 11 people were shot by law enforcement officials following the storm. The most well-known incident occurred six days after Katrina hit, when members of the NOPD—unprovoked and armed with assault rifles—stormed the Danziger Bridge and began firing on a group of unarmed civilians in search of food. Two people were killed, including a mentally disabled man who was shot in the back and a 17-year-old high school student. Four more were seriously injured, including three members of the Bartholomew family. Leonard Bartholomew suffered a gunshot wound to the head, his daughter was wounded in the abdomen, and his wife Susan lost an arm due to the severity of the gun blast that hit her. Five officers were arrested and convicted. Ten years later, the Bartholomew family’s civil suit remains unsettled.

The feeling that black lives did not matter was most famously summed up by rapper Kanye West when he stated firmly during a primetime telethon that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

As Hurricane Katrina revealed, the consequences of poverty, segregation, police brutality, and environmental racism coming to a head have tragic results.

Amidst the growing threat of climate change, this perfect storm must not be forgotten. While an extreme weather event, such as a flood, heat wave, or hurricane may seem like an equal opportunity force of destruction, in reality these events exacerbate the underlying injustices that exist in our communities year round. Understanding just how vulnerable low-income, black communities are to these threats is critical to protecting black lives in the 21st century.

Today, much of New Orleans is back to normal, with more than half of the city’s neighborhoods reaching their pre-storm population levels. However, that’s far from the case for the infamous Lower Ninth Ward. In the years following Katrina, only about 37 percent of households have returned home. Black residents who wanted to rebuild simply couldn’t afford to as federal aid was allocated based on home values rather than the cost of construction. The average gap between the damage accrued and the grants awarded to residents of the Lower Ninth Ward was $75,000, more than twice the average household income of the residents there.

As Professor Beverly Wright of Loyola University New Orleans explained, “pre-storm vulnerabilities continue to limit the participation of thousands of disadvantaged individuals and communities in the after-storm reconstruction, rebuilding, and recovery. In these communities, days of hurt and loss have become years of grief, dislocation, and displacement.”

Hurricane Katrina exposed that even in our hour of greatest need, black people are often not afforded the tragic gift of vulnerability. Instead, we are an ever present threat.

Today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement—a national call to action and response against “extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes” —is focused on just that. The movement demands accountability of law enforcement, while affirming the need to invest in low-income, black communities “in order to create jobs, housing and schools.” It is this last demand that is often left out of media discussions of the movement, but is critical to the health, wealth, and well-being of African American families.

Read the full text of Tracey’s column here.

For further commentary from Tracey on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, check out the latest TalkPoverty Radio podcast, which she co-hosts with Rebecca Vallas.



Civil Legal Aid Must Play a Larger Role in Disaster Recovery

I can barely believe it was 10 years ago that Hurricane Katrina upended our corner of the world. Almost two thousand lives were lost and there are damages of $108 billion dollars and counting, making it the costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

In the terrible aftermath of a natural disaster, everyone recognizes the importance of water, food, and shelter as a first response. But one thing many people don’t think about is this: providing access to expert civil legal help is absolutely essential to rebuilding communities and lives.

Immediately after Katrina, people who had lost their jobs needed help getting their final paychecks from businesses and employers that no longer existed. Some landlords rented out damaged and dangerous properties with the promise of quick repairs that never happened. Other landlords found it profitable to rent out the same residence simultaneously to different desperate families

Moreover, a year after the storm, FEMA, claiming it overpaid thousands of hurricane victims, sent more than 150,000 collection letters. Insurance companies claimed that much of the damage was due to flooding, and that the policies they had issued did not cover those losses. And, to qualify for repair funds, people whose family records had been destroyed by the storm or who had never officially filed documents in probate court suddenly needed to prove they owned houses that had been passed down for generations. These challenges were amplified for the region’s most financially vulnerable individuals and families.


For 10 years, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), a civil legal aid organization I run, has been on the front lines helping people recover from the storm. When a landlord displaced nearly 300 families in order to charge higher rent, we challenged him in court. When lack of clear property titles threatened the ability of homeowners to access millions of rebuilding funds administered by the government, our staff and volunteer attorneys helped them clear the legal hurdles. As scam contractors exploited families who were trying to rebuild their homes, legal aid attorneys held them accountable in court. I’m proud to say we have provided assistance to nearly 400,000 people. We continue to represent Katrina survivors today, as Katrina remains our single largest civil legal aid challenge in our nation’s history.

Unfortunately, we haven’t learned our lesson about the importance of providing civil legal aid after disasters. After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, only $1 million out of the $60 billion appropriated by Congress was earmarked for civil legal aid.

If you have doubts about why we should make sure people have legal help, consider this: even today, SLLS is battling shady contractors who never rebuilt roofs or kitchens as promised, but took their customers’ money and skipped town. And FEMA—still claiming they overpaid people—is taking money from seniors’ social security checks.

I acknowledge that having access to a lawyer or some sort of legal support is not a magic fix. But it is an underappreciated model for how we should react to future disasters. Just as we have rebuilt even stronger levees to protect New Orleans, we should strengthen civil legal aid to protect our nation’s families and increase access to justice.