Safety Net

AmeriCorps Facing Foolish Cuts

As Congress returns to the business of figuring out how to fund the government in the next fiscal year, young people engaged in service in communities across the country are concerned about the consequences of proposed deep cuts to AmeriCorps. There are currently 73,600 AmeriCorps positions. The House Bill would cut 25,000 of those slots, while the Senate Bill would cut 20,000.

Either scenario would mean that thousands of low-income and disconnected young adults would miss the valuable opportunity to serve their communities, and their neighbors would miss out on the vital services that AmeriCorps members provide.

As CEO of The Corps Network, a network made up of more than 100 Service and Conservation Corps, I am extremely concerned about the potential consequences of these cuts on low-income youth and their communities.  In 2014, more than 10,500 of our Corps members were living below the poverty line, on public assistance, or were court-involved upon entry into the program. Many of these young adults were also out of school. But instead of seeing them as liabilities, we view them as “Opportunity Youth,” because of their enormous untapped potential and their desire to improve their own lives and the world around them.

As an AmeriCorps member in The Corps Network, a young person receives a stipend or living allowance to perform service projects in their communities and on public lands. These projects range from planting trees and gardens, to building playgrounds and parks, to restoring degraded environments and habitats, to weatherizing and retrofitting low-income housing.  In order to undertake this work, Corpsmembers learn technical skills and earn professional certifications.  Their experiences help them advance their education, gain hands-on work experience, and develop skills in communications, teamwork, and leadership.

I’ve been talking with our Corps about the potential impact of the proposed Congressional cuts, including with several staff and participants at the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), located just outside of Chicago.

“We might have to close. AmeriCorps and additional private funds leveraged through AmeriCorps are especially important,” said Robert Shears, YCC’s Executive Director.

YCC Corpsmember Samuel Myers told me about how AmeriCorps service has helped him transform his life.

“If not for AmeriCorps I would still be on the streets. I would not have career goals—nothing like that,” said Myers. “YCC AmeriCorps helped set me straight. [I] feel good at the end of the day because I get to do things for people that they want to do but can’t. I wish more people would realize how important it is.”

Of particular concern to both Shears and Myers is the possibility of losing funding for the AmeriCorps Education Award that can be used to pay for postsecondary education.

“The award is a huge incentive for youth to join,” said Shears. “We’re focused on trying to help those Corpsmembers get through at least their second semester of college—that would be impossible without the AmeriCorps Education Award.”

“I am going to need some help to even think about going to college,” Myers added.

Shears noted that the cuts proposed by Congress might seem pennywise but they are decidedly pound foolish.

The very programs that strengthen our young people, our communities, and our nation need to be fortified, not torn down.

“There are few [programs] that provide both education and jobs skills to local young people while also providing important community benefits,” said Shears.  “Youth who are disconnected from work and school are a much greater burden on the tax system than those who are using our program to break out of poverty. Our members also serve as important role models in their disenfranchised communities.”

Many of the service projects are specifically designed to help low-income communities address environmental justice issues.  Corpsmembers turn abandoned lots into parks, playgrounds, and gardens; install energy-saving (and money-saving) retrofits in low-income homes; plant trees and organic urban farms in places that lack green spaces; cut down invasive trees and deliver the wood to families in need in rural areas; and provide community education around environmental health issues. Through AmeriCorps funding, the Corpsmembers are making a difference in their own underserved communities ranging from rural towns and Native American reservations to low-income neighborhoods in our country’s biggest cities.

Julian Amos is another YCC AmeriCorps Corpsmember who said that without the program he “would be on the streets right now.”  He also pointed to the tangible results he sees in his community.

“Feeding people, and helping build a house for a low-income family—all of that is helping out,” he said. “It also helps people like me get to where [we] need to go—into jobs and college. I’m just trying to get my foot in the door.”

The opportunity AmeriCorps offers is especially important in the wake of a recession as young people who have limited experience and few marketable skills suffer the most.

As a 2013 study conducted by The Corporation for National and Community Service found: volunteers without a high school diploma are 51% more likely to find a job than non-volunteers; people from rural areas who volunteer have a 55% greater chance of finding employment than non-volunteers; and volunteers who have been out of work have a 27% greater chance of finding a job than out-of-work individuals who do not volunteer. In short, young people who participate in AmeriCorps – regardless of their socioeconomic background – improve their chances of finding employment, getting on a career pathway, and becoming a productive adult and citizen.

Because of the AmeriCorps cause and the clear pathway to greater economic security that the program offers, demand already hugely outpaces available AmeriCorps slots. In 2011, 582,000 AmeriCorps applications were received for only 82,000 slots. As a result of budget cuts, AmeriCorps slots presently stand at around 73,000—now Congress is considering cutting that by another 25,000.

The very programs that strengthen our young people, our communities, and our nation need to be fortified, not torn down.

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Justice

A Successful Campaign in Philadelphia to Eliminate Unsubstantiated Criminal Debt

Imagine going to the mailbox to find a notice saying that you owe tens of thousands of dollars to the courts and you’ll be locked up if you don’t pay.

John, Mary, and Lawrence* don’t have to imagine it. All three were shocked and scared when they received notices from the Philadelphia courts threatening arrest, driver’s license suspension, and referrals to collections for alleged court debts of tens of thousands of dollars. John received a notice threatening arrest because he supposedly owed $10,000 to the courts. Mary received threatening phone calls from a collection agency—and a notice that her public assistance would be cut off—if she didn’t pay an alleged debt of more than $40,000. Lawrence was told he owed more than $150,000.

Seeking help from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) where I am an attorney, John asked: “I was never convicted of anything—how can I owe any money, let alone thousands of dollars?”

Thus began a 4-year advocacy campaign by CLS and many allies to stop the Philadelphia courts from harassing the city’s poorest residents.

In the fall of 2010, the Philadelphia courts undertook an effort to collect an estimated $1.5 billion in “criminal debt,” including forfeited bail, supervision fees, restitution, and fines and costs going back to the 1970s. No effort had ever been made to collect these monies before.

Without investigating whether the debts were accurate, and relying solely on an error-ridden computer database, the courts sent notices in 2011 to more than 320,000 Philadelphians, or roughly 1 in 5 of the city’s residents. This effort made about as much sense as trying to get blood from a stone: by the court’s own estimation, at least 70 percent of the individuals being chased for old debts had no means to pay, since they were very low-income, unemployed, elderly or disabled.

The lion’s share of the alleged debts stemmed from forfeited bail judgments—penalties that are automatically assessed when defendants fail to show up for a court date. (It didn’t matter if an individual had a good reason for missing court, returned to court soon after, or had a case that resulted in a non-conviction—sizable judgments were assessed despite such circumstances.) The cost of missing a single court date ran as high as $100,000.

Because the Philadelphia courts had never previously taken action to collect these assessments, most individuals had no knowledge of owing any money. Indeed upon completing probation, many people were told by probation officers that their debts had been paid. Yet decades later, scores of low-income Philadelphians suddenly received phone calls or letters that threatened substantial collection fees—on top of what was allegedly owed—unless payments were made promptly. Hundreds of individuals sought legal help from CLS.

In many of these cases, individuals faced large bail forfeitures despite having missed court for reasons like hospitalization or being in prison. Court files were frequently missing or lacking any documentation to substantiate the alleged debts; some files even reflected that the debts were incorrect. Most CLS clients were able to get their judgments reduced or eliminated altogether—more than $1 million in bail judgments were eliminated for our impoverished clients.

In some cases, however, the court’s rulings still left people with thousands of dollars of debt. CLS appealed, arguing that the Philadelphia courts’ debt collection practices violated the law governing the forfeiture of bail.  While we were not successful in the appellate courts, our litigation did bring further attention to these unjust collection practices.

Localities desperate to close budget gaps have increasingly turned to fines and fees to fund their law enforcement and court systems.

Our work on this issue also introduced us to Philadelphians who became the faces and leaders of our campaign to reform the collection process and to implement due process standards. We also built a dynamic coalition of advocates and other stakeholders, including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Defender Association, local social service providers, and others who worked directly with the communities that were being chased for these debts. We met with representatives of the Philadelphia courts, the Mayor, and other state and city policymakers, advocating not only against an unjust policy of trying to make the poorest residents of the city bear the burden of funding the financially strapped courts, but also that these collection efforts were penny-wise and pound-foolish—it cost more to fund this approach than the city could ever hope to recoup from its lowest-income residents.

Additionally, CLS engaged in a large public education campaign to bring local, national, and even international attention to this issue. We also helped University of Pennsylvania law students produce a documentary film that was influential in putting a face on the negative consequences of the courts’ practices.

On September 30, 2014, the city and the courts finally decided that bail judgments entered prior to March 4, 2010 would no longer be collected, effectively writing off nearly four decades of alleged debts. Upon learning of the decision, one CLS client broke down, relieved, saying, “I just wanted to move on with my life.”

Indeed hundreds of thousands of low-income Philadelphians can now move forward with their lives, including many who are now eligible for expungement of their criminal records and pardons, neither of which was available to anyone owing criminal debt.

Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s criminal debt collection efforts are not unique. In a growing nationwide trend, states and localities desperate to close budget gaps have increasingly turned to fines and fees to fund their law enforcement and court systems. Ferguson, Missouri offers perhaps the most widely noted example, with the city relying on municipal court fines to make up 20 percent of its budget in 2013.

As the conversation about criminal justice reform continues in states across the country, reform of counterproductive state and local criminal debt policies—and the modern day debtors’ prisons they can create—is an essential piece of the puzzle.

*These names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals.

Author’s note: If you want to start a campaign to end unjust court collection efforts in your community, contact Suzanne Young at SYoung@clsphila.org, or 215-981-3700.

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Labor

After Labor Day, Dig In for the Fight Ahead

Between cookouts and last outings to the pool, Labor Day weekend provided all of us a chance to celebrate the end of summer. But Labor Day should also be cause for celebration of another kind: the very reason that we have weekends off, for example.  As we take stock after Labor Day, there’s much that we have accomplished, much to be grateful for, and yet so much work remains if we are to create a path to economic stability for all of us.

This Labor Day, nearly a quarter of Americans who work in the private sector couldn’t spend time with their families because they don’t have access to paid holiday time. This is just one symptom of an economic system that is out of whack—so much so that people working full-time, or two or even three jobs, can’t make ends meet. While well-connected, handsomely paid CEOs have the flexibility they need to spend time with their families and provide their children with resources well beyond the basics—too many of us are barely getting by (if that) and living to work, rather than working to live full lives.

For nearly 40 years, Americans have been working harder and more productively but aren’t seeing any change in how much they take home at the end of the week. A study from the Economic Policy Institute released this week found that many parents’ paychecks aren’t enough to cover their family’s most basic needs, and that working full-time at the federal minimum wage isn’t enough for a parent with one child to get by anywhere in the country.

Let’s celebrate the progress we’ve made together and dig in with resolve and determination for the fight ahead.

Even as the economy has turned around, most Americans have failed to see improvements in their pay, according to a recent study by the National Employment Law Project. This is especially true for those who work in the retail, food service, and home-care industries, which already are among the lowest paying sectors and have seen the greatest declines in take-home pay. All the while, more and more corporations are leaving the people who cook our food and stock our shelves without the right to stand together to demand better wages and working conditions. And, profitable corporations like McDonald’s and Walmart are keeping their employees from working enough hours to pay the bills and making their lives impossible to plan.

Despite our unbalanced economy and the reality of poverty – as well as all of the forces working against the stability families so desperately need – the past few months have demonstrated the enormous potential for change that has arrived.

Take the minimum wage wins in Los Angeles, Seattle, Kansas City, St. Louis and Birmingham; and the wage increases for home-care providers in Massachusetts and fast-food employees in New York. Or look at cities like San Francisco that have enacted measures to ensure that massive retailers provide more hours to the clerks and cooks who work for them so that they can better pay the bills. President Obama has moved to make sure nearly 5 million men and women will soon have access to stronger overtime pay, and federal contractors will have to provide paid sick leave. And recent legal decisions have made it possible for two million home-care providers to receive a minimum wage and overtime pay after relentless organizing by the women who care for our families and want to better care for their own families, too. Finally, the National Labor Relations Board has just ruled that contractors and franchise employees can organize and hold their employers accountable for unfair treatment.

The forces that keep working people living on the brink are beginning to fall apart, and it’s not a mystery as to why: People have been standing together and pressing for change. Still, there is so much work that remains. Coming off of Labor Day, let’s celebrate the progress we’ve made together – and dig in with resolve and determination for the fight ahead.

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Labor

Why a Pro-Worker Agenda is an Anti-Poverty Agenda

Labor Day is a time to honor America’s workers and their contributions to our economy. It is also a time to reflect upon the state of workers’ economic position, and how that position has faltered in recent decades. Except for a short period of across-the-board wage growth in the late 1990s, 2015 marks a general 36-year trend of broad-based wage stagnation and rising inequality in our country, which has had real, adverse effects on low- and middle-income households. This anemic wage growth is closely tied to the stalled progress in reducing poverty since 1979, as many poor people work and their incomes are increasingly dependent upon work. Therefore, along with strengthening the safety net, the goals of anti-poverty advocates should be one in the same with pro-worker advocates: to reverse the decades-long trend of wage stagnation and promote real wage growth for all Americans.

Despite dramatic gains in educational attainment, wages have failed to grow for those at the bottom (and middle) over the last four decades. At the same time, low income household incomes have become increasingly dependent on wages. The figure below shows the major sources of income for non-elderly households in the bottom fifth of the income distribution from 1979 to 2011, using the CBO’s measure of comprehensive income. It shows that incomes of the bottom fifth are increasingly dependent on ties to the workforce. Wages, employer-provided benefits, and tax credits that are dependent on work (such as the EITC) made up 68.3 percent of non-elderly bottom-fifth incomes in 2011, compared with only 58.2 percent in 1979. While government in-kind benefits from sources such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) and Medicaid increased from 13.2 percent of these bottom-fifth incomes in 1979, to 19.5 percent in 2011, cash transfers such as welfare payments have declined 9.2 percentage points (from 18.6 percent to 9.4 percent).

For better or worse, the safety-net system has become increasingly tied to work through programs such as the EITC and the child tax credit, which only benefit households with labor earnings. While other transfers and tax credits are clearly important to families in the bottom fifth and should be strengthened, it is crucial to recognize that this group depends on pay from the labor market for the majority of their income.

In addition, despite what some policymakers and pundits might have us believe, a significant share of poor people work. The figure below shows the population of those in poverty segmented into various labor status categories. The top bar shows that 35.2 percent of the poor between the ages of 18 and 64 in 2013 were considered not currently eligible to work because they are retired, going to school, or disabled. The other 64.8 percent of working-age poor are currently eligible to work. The second bar shows us that among these currently-eligible workers, 62.6 percent are working and 44.3 percent are working full-time. Of the working-age poor eligible for employment, 37.4 percent are not working—a share that includes the 3.3 million unemployed poor people seeking a job.

On Labor Day this year, it’s important to recognize the integral role of wage growth in poverty reduction. Although hourly wage growth has stagnated for the vast majority since 1979, this didn’t have to happen—there was room in the economy for all people to see wage growth, as economy-wide productivity continuously reached new heights. In fact, if all wages had grown at the same rate as productivity since 1979 (in other words, had economic gains been more widely shared with low- and moderate-wage workers), 7.1 million fewer people would be poor and the market-based non-elderly poverty rate would be 2.6 percentage points lower today, or 13.5 percent. If we had also targeted full employment through Federal Reserve policy, for instance, the non-elderly market-based poverty rate would be 4.2 percentage points less and 11.2 million fewer people would be poor.

Policies that boost employment and wages are vital and underappreciated tools for reducing poverty. To gain momentum in the fight against poverty, fiscal transfers that help low-income families almost surely need to be accompanied by policies that foster widely shared wage growth. Without wage gains, the tax-and-transfer system needs to work harder every year simply to keep poverty rates from increasing. This Labor Day, let’s focus on the things we can do that will both help workers and reduce poverty, such as strengthening workers’ bargaining rights, raising the minimum wage, eliminating the tipped minimum wage, making sure the new overtime threshold quickly gets into place, enforcing wage theft rules, fighting for wider access to paid sick and family leave, and urging the Fed to target full employment.

People in poverty are working, now we need to make the economy work for them.

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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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