Instead of Shaming the Poor, Let’s Raise the Minimum Wage

Yesterday I joined Fox and Friends for what they billed, in typical Fox News fashion, as a “fair and balanced debate.” The topic was a Maine mayor’s call to publish the names and addresses of all recipients of public assistance online as a sort of “poverty-offender registry.” Mayor Robert MacDonald of Lewistown announced this ugly proposal last week in an op-ed in the local Twin-City Times, offering the justification that Mainers “have a right to know how their money is being spent.”

My conservative counterpart on the show—Seton Motley, a one-man political operation he calls Less Government (hey, at least he gets points for being straightforward)—defended “shaming the people who are sitting on welfare” as a tactic to get them off of assistance, and to crack down on what he termed “widespread welfare abuse.”

As I pointed out when my turn came to speak, the real shame is that our nation’s minimum wage is a poverty wage. In the late 1960s, the minimum wage was enough to keep a family of three out of poverty. Had it kept pace with inflation since then, it would be nearly $11 today, instead of the current $7.25 per hour.

Video provided by Media Matters for America

And it’s not just workers earning the minimum wage who are struggling: Working families have seen decades of flat and declining wages, while those at the top of the income ladder capture an ever-rising share of the gains from economic growth.

As a result, millions of Americans are working harder than ever while falling further and further behind. And many are juggling two and three jobs in an effort to make enough to live on: 7 million Americans are working multiple jobs. (Remember Maria Fernandes, the New Jersey woman who died in her car after trying to get a few hours of sleep in between her four jobs?)

Many low-wage workers need to turn to public assistance to make ends meet. In fact, researchers at Berkeley found that the public cost of low wages is more than $152 billion annually, in the form of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Medicaid, and other work and income supports that workers must rely on when wages are not enough to live on. The researchers also find that more than half—56 percent—of combined federal and state spending on public assistance goes to working families.

Contrary to conservatives’ claims that a bump-up in the minimum wage would “kill jobs,” a large body of research shows that past minimum wage increases at the federal, state, and local levels have boosted earnings and cut poverty among working families, without leading to job loss.

Past minimum wage increases have boosted earnings and cut poverty among working families, without leading to job loss.

And it’s not just teenagers earning extra spending money who stand to benefit from raising the minimum wage. The average age of workers who would get a raise is 35—and more than 1 in 4 have kids. (Then again, Motley went so far as to say that people earning the minimum wage shouldn’t have children… Oy.)

If Mayor MacDonald, Motley, and their cheerleaders in the right-wing media really want to shrink spending on public assistance, then instead of wasting their time shaming people who are struggling to make ends meet—which, of course, is the sole purpose of Fox News’s recurring segment “Entitlement Nation”—they’d be wise to embrace raising the minimum wage. Indeed, my colleague Rachel West has found that raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour, as Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Bobby Scott have proposed, would save a whopping $53 billion in SNAP in the coming decade—more savings than the $40 billion in cuts proposed by House Republicans during the last round of Farm Bill negotiations. In Maine, the single-year savings in SNAP from a minimum wage hike would top $31 million.

Whether or not Mayor MacDonald’s widely criticized—and likely illegal—proposal for a public assistance shaming database gains traction—even in a state that’s been leading the nation when it comes to policies that punish its citizens for being poor—we should see his and Fox News’ poor-shaming for what it is: an attempt to divert attention away from the real causes of poverty, as well as the solutions that would dramatically reduce it.

For pushing harmful policies and bullying people who are struggling to provide for their families in an off-kilter economy, Mayor MacDonald and his friends in the right-wing media are the ones who should be ashamed.



First Person

Looming Sequestration Cuts Would Harm Head Start Families and Communities

Editor’s note: In 2013, 20,000 children lost access to Head Start during the federal shutdown. This disruption in services followed drastic cuts to Head Start’s budget as a result of sequestration, which reduced by 57,000 the number of available slots in the Head Start and Early Head Start programs for the upcoming fiscal year.

Funds for Head Start were restored by Congress in 2014, but tensions during recent budget negotiations have left Head Start families bracing themselves once again. The temporary solution reached by Congress would maintain funding at current levels through December 11. But if Congress doesn’t reach an agreement on the budget before then, Head Start programs could be subject to massive sequestration cuts, and vulnerable families may be without access to services.    

Victoria Hilt of Bremerton, WA was homeless and six months pregnant when she turned to Head Start. She describes her family’s experience with the program and the impact sequestration had on her community.

When I was six-months pregnant I left an unsafe living situation and became homeless. I went to my local WIC office, where I received information on prenatal care and nursing and was directed to an Early Head Start program. The WIC office told me the program would help me learn how to best care for myself in order to have a safe pregnancy and prepare to be my child’s first teacher. In the end, Early Head Start and Head Start would do that for me and so much more.

Since birth, my daughter, now age four, has grown up in the Head Start buildings with exposure to the same staff over that time period. The program has taught me about many aspects of healthy child development—from routine visits with the pediatrician and dentists, to positive father-daughter relationships, to social-emotional and cognitive development. My daughter and I have learned not only in the classroom, but also through home visits, parent-child activities, policy council meetings, board meetings, and everyday interactions with staff. Early Head Start also connected me to the Kitsap Community Resources Housing Solutions Center, where I was able to find temporary housing and, ultimately, the home where my daughter and I have now lived for four years.

I’m hardly alone. Throughout the nation, Head Start and Early Head Start are helping struggling families—and the communities where they live—build a better future.

When a family’s foundation or a community’s assets are weakened or cut, progress is slowed or even halted.

When sequestration hit my hometown of Bremerton, Washington, Head Start had to cut the number of slots available for children. Many of these families had no other options for high quality care. The staff also took a cut to their benefits in order to maintain the high quality of services provided to the families who were still able to attend. These cuts disrupted the continuity of care for the children. Some “non-essential” personnel such as kitchen aids and training aids were let go. Other employees were asked to take on more tasks without a pay increase. Job insecurity made some staff members seek employment elsewhere—who could blame them? Federally-funded jobs were on shaky ground to say the least. The agency has now reduced staff down to the bare bones needed to meet the existing performance standards. If the sequester hits again, the program will have no other option than to further reduce the number of slots available. This bad policy is a disservice to the future of our community and many others: When a family’s foundation or a community’s assets are weakened or cut, progress is slowed or even halted.

I can’t even imagine where my daughter and I would be had we not had this incredible resource available to us.

Prior to Head Start, I was struggling to find my voice and my direction—homeless, pregnant, and sometimes hopeless. Through the program, I not only found a home, but I also attended finance classes and learned how to provide for my family on a budget. I learned the importance of self-care, and how this sets an example for my daughter. Using the skills we learned through the program, I am successfully co-parenting with my daughter’s father. Engaging in Head Start has also reignited my passion for learning, helping others, and advocating for policies that help people build a better life just like I have. I am back in school, working on completing a degree in political science so that I can pursue a career in grant and policy writing. I’m very involved in early learning and welfare policy in my community, and am interested in perhaps running for elected office someday so that I may continue contributing to my community in a positive, powerful way.

But that’s down the road. Right now I’m concerned about this: Head Start might not be available to me and my daughter and too many other families if Congress doesn’t act soon. If my daughter can’t attend Head Start, I worry that she will fall behind developmentally, and that I will not have a high quality program to send her to while I pursue my educational and employment goals and forge a path toward financial independence.

Head Start is crucial to families and communities that are most at-risk. Take it away, and you are simply making a life on the brink more precarious.




Cutting the Poverty Rate with Civil Legal Aid

According to the new data from the US Census Bureau, 46.7 million Americans live in poverty. That’s 46.7 million people who are making impossible choices every day between paying the rent, feeding their children, obtaining healthcare, and meeting other basic needs. And that’s not even counting the many more who are a layoff or single crisis away from a similar fate.

There are no quick or easy fixes to eliminate poverty. But there is a vital resource in our communities that helps prevent many people from falling into poverty while lifting others out of it: civil legal aid. By providing legal assistance to people who face potentially life-changing and destabilizing challenges—like wrongful evictions and foreclosures, domestic abuse, and debilitating medical crises—civil legal aid allows people to protect their homes, families, and livelihoods. And it does it in a cost-effective way: A New York Task Force study found that every dollar invested in civil legal aid delivers six dollars back to the state’s economy. Unfortunately, because of a lack of investment in this resource, many families don’t get the legal help they need and therefore face the prospect of economic ruin.

It’s all too easy to become poor. In challenging economic times and with growing income inequality, it’s often a matter of bad luck. For example, Mary is a hard-working single mother in Maine who lost her job as a hairdresser when the salon that employed her unexpectedly closed down. It was already difficult to support her three children on her salary; after losing her job and then struggling to rebuild her client base at a new salon, she was unable to continue paying the rent. She found herself and her children at risk of losing the roof over their heads.

But as is the case for many people throughout the nation, things took a turn for the better when Mary got help from a civil legal aid organization. Pine Tree Legal Assistance worked with her to challenge the eviction and negotiate an agreement with her landlord that allowed her family to stay in their home and avoid poverty and a costly stay in a local shelter.

Every dollar invested in civil legal aid delivers six dollars back to the state’s economy

Civil legal aid also helps people who are already in poverty. Monica is a former Navy officer who was discharged for misconduct following an in-service sexual assault—behavior that was a symptom of her undiagnosed and untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that resulted from the assault. Despite her service to our country, she found herself unable to access veterans’ benefits due to the discharge, and was battling homelessness, jail, and addiction. She turned to Bay Area Legal Aid in California for assistance. Civil legal aid lawyers helped Monica navigate a complex system to prove that she was assaulted in the military and consequently suffered from PTSD. She now receives veteran’s benefits—including disability compensation—which is helping her get her life back on track.

Others need civil legal aid in order to escape dangerous situations, like domestic violence. In Illinois, Kayla was struggling to support herself and her son after ending a bad relationship with her child’s father—who not only withheld child support, but physically abused her during parental visits. With the help of Prairie State Legal Services, Kayla secured a protective order against her abuser as well as several thousand dollars in unpaid child support. The award and the protective order allowed her to move to another state, lift herself out of poverty, and build a new life for her family. She now makes more than $50,000 a year working as a welder.

I wish that every story of a family experiencing poverty had a happy ending. But that’s not the case, and a lack of legal counsel should never be the reason that a family can’t work its way out of poverty. In more than 70 percent of civil cases today, Americans are headed to court without legal representation. We simply don’t provide enough resources to civil legal aid organizations, and therefore too many people go without the legal help needed to avert poverty and better their lives.



First Person

What the Pope’s Fight Against Poverty Looks Like in North Philly

Pope Francis’s call for an urgent response to poverty is unambiguous. As he writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises.”

In anticipation of the Pope’s arrival in Philadelphia, TalkPoverty visited with Tianna Gaines-Turner—a member of Witnesses to Hunger and a leader in the anti-poverty movement—to talk about what the fight against poverty looks like through her eyes.

This is what she had to say.



First Person

On My Way to Meet Pope Francis

I am a 60-year-old proud mother and grandmother, and I am on my way to meet Pope Francis.  My heart is pounding with excitement in anticipation of this once-in-a-lifetime moment. As I sit on a train to Washington, where I will attend a ceremony welcoming the Pope to the White House, my nerves increase and I ask myself: What will I say to His Holiness?

I am a devout Catholic so I will want to talk about religion. And there are other issues near and dear to me such as immigration and worker’s rights. But since my time with the Pope will be brief, I will focus on one issue—poverty.  Pope Francis is a champion of the poor, and this is a subject I know well. I am among the one million people in New Jersey living in poverty.

For more than a decade, I have worked as a cabin cleaner at Newark Liberty International Airport. I can barely afford to pay the rent for a modest apartment I share with a roommate in Newark, much less buy a ticket to fly on any of the airplanes I clean every day. Meanwhile, airline profits and CEO pay are soaring.

My faith in God gives me the strength to carry on and fight not just for myself, but for all low-wage workers.

As a Catholic, I believe that “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” I know that we need to fight for just wages. So even after working a night shift of labor-intensive work, with aches and pains in my body, I’ve participated in marches and rallies with my union brothers and sisters. I also testify regularly at public meetings to call on NY/NJ Port Authority officials to follow through on their promise to raise the wage. We are still waiting. In the meantime, airport workers must work two or even three jobs to pay the bills because the $10.10 per hour we earn still leaves us below the federal poverty level for a family of four. And it’s not just airport workers—it’s fast-food workers, retail workers, and home care workers. That’s why the Fight for $15 movement has inspired so many of us to stand and fight together. Because “those who mourn, will be comforted.”

On the train, I am wearing a beautiful traditional dress from Peru, my native country. This dress reminds of me of that bittersweet moment when, tearfully, I said goodbye to my family and friends so that I could come to America and give my five children a better life. I will tell the Pope about this arduous journey and how my faith has carried me through difficult times—times when I went without food so my children could eat. I will tell him that despite hunger pains, faith has nourished my heart and soul. My faith in God gives me the strength to carry on and fight not just for myself, but for all low-wage workers who clock-in and out of work every day but still don’t earn enough to make ends meet. As the Pope said, “the poor shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of money.”

“Poverty in the world is a scandal,” Pope Francis said. “In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.”

Does the Port Authority hear our cries? Does America?