Hey, CNN: Three #TalkPoverty Questions for the Reagan Library Debate

Editor’s Note: This piece continues a campaign at where advocates and people struggling to make ends meet will ask 2016 presidential candidates about how they would significantly reduce poverty and inequality in this country. Here are four more questions that should have been asked at the last presidential debate. 

We encourage you to ask questions of the candidates and join the conversation using #talkpoverty and #familiesvote.

The upcoming Republican presidential debate in Simi Valley, California offers prospective leaders of the largest economy in the world a chance to speak to the concerns of the 106 million Americans who are struggling to make ends meet. The looming question facing the working and middle class is this: how do we build a system that works for all of us?

The first Republican debates ran three and a half hours with 17 participants. The moderators failed to ask the kinds of questions that force candidates to say exactly how they will create opportunities for Americans being left behind. Even worse was the reinforcement of false and offensive stereotypes. When Fox News anchor and debate host Martha MacCallum asked—“How do you get Americans who are able to work to take the job instead of a handout?”—she effectively called millions of struggling Americans freeloaders.

We need a debate with powerful solutions, not tired stereotypes.

Yet the next debate will be held at the library dedicated to the President who created or propagated many of the stereotypes that are still used to demonize people who are struggling in our economy. Ronald Reagan is seen by many as a hero—a Dirty Harry who told it like it is and stood up to friend and foe alike. But to many low-income families, he is a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge, who—like the famous miser—exerted his power in a way that has made it harder for people to lift themselves up.

We need a debate with powerful solutions, not tired stereotypes.

Reaganomics was rooted in the idea that if we build an economy that puts the interests of the wealthy first, then the benefits will trickle down to the rest of society. His formula was one part tax cuts for the well-off, and three parts dismantling labor unions, cutting spending on social programs, and neutering government oversight.

The rigged rules of today’s economy are the logical conclusion of Reagan’s approach to public policy.

“In so many domains, the course was set in the 1980s,” says Luke Shaefer, a University of Michigan professor and co-author of $2.00 A Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America.  “Reagan set the course and the [politicians] who have come afterwards have taken it even further beyond.”

In our continuing series on the presidential debates and poverty, we asked Americans how Reagan’s economic legacy affects them and what they want to hear from the presidential candidates.

‘The King of Rhetoric’ pushes the stereotype of the ‘Welfare Queen’

One of Reagan’s enduring legacies was his deft use of rhetoric to push his ideas. None was more harmful than the label “welfare queen,” a pejorative term he coined that has become synonymous with black single mothers who receive public assistance.

For Gloria Walton, it is a deeply personal slur. She grew up poor in Mississippi with a single black mother who worked all of her life in minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

“My mom was working and needed public assistance to help make ends meet,” she says. “But Reagan demonized black women with this idea of the welfare queen. It’s offensive.”

Today, Walton is the president and CEO of Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE) in Los Angeles, training low-income adults in careers that will help them sustain their families. She says SCOPE combats the effects of Reagan-era policies like deregulation and cuts in federal programs, as well as wage stagnation, which have all devastated low-income communities.

Walton wants to ask all of the presidential candidates: “Economic inequality has widened. In my city, per capita income is $13,243 in South LA and $128,000 in Bel Air. What can you say to the hard-working men and women of South L.A. to justify this historically unprecedented income gap?”

The wealthy few get richer

Since Reagan, the gap between the wealthy few and the rest of us has reached historic proportions. After-tax incomes of the top 1 percent grew almost twice as quickly as they did for middle-class families between 1988 and 2011, according to data from the Congressional Budget Office.

Reagan’s efforts to weaken unions in order to strengthen corporations helped increase the gap because it reduced bargaining power and the number of well-paying jobs. When he fired striking air traffic controllers during his first term, it was considered an opening salvo on labor and a signal to corporations that they came first. Today, 11 percent of workers belong to unions, compared to 20 percent in 1983. One result has been a rise in temporary workers with few or no benefits. There are almost 3 million temporary workers in the U.S. today, more than double the approximately 1.2 million temporary workers in 1990.

Sonya Spann, 50, is one of those workers. She earns $11 an hour as a billing contractor for an insurance company in Birmingham, Alabama. Spann has no health or retirement benefits, or paid sick or family leave. But this was the best job she could find after the hospital where she worked shut down. Her husband lost his full-time job during the recession and now picks up hours working at a retail store for minimum wage.

“Every time we try to get off our knees and attempt to stand up, we get the rug pulled out from under us,” Sonya says. “What would you do in my situation and what are you going to do to create family-sustaining jobs?”

Cuts in federal programs

Current efforts by legislators to cut SNAP, require drug testing of recipients of nutrition assistance, or implement other punitive measures that reduce the number of people eligible for government aid, all grow out of the Reagan tradition.

Reagan also eliminated or cut programs that significantly funded city budgets, cementing a pattern of disinvestment in low-income urban communities that continues to limit opportunities today. He also cut funding for public service jobs and job training, gutted federally funded legal services for the poor, and reduced funds for public transit.

Pat Jones, 63, sees the effects of this deprivation on her south LA community. It is a neighborhood wracked by poverty and a lack of jobs, where families struggling to make ends meet on the minimum wage must choose which utility is the most important to pay that month, she says.

“We look at the job market here and a lot of us can’t qualify for jobs or there are no training programs,” she says. “Corporations run everything. Reagan did that.”

Jones asks all presidential candidates: “Everybody has to pay their fair share of taxes, but corporations and the wealthy have a string of exemptions and loopholes. Why can’t they pay their fair share and what are you going to do to increase investment and opportunity in low-income communities?”

Here’s hoping that presidential candidates in both parties start answering the questions that people who are struggling want answers to.



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.



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, or 215-981-3700.



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.



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.