How the Department of Labor Could Help Fix the Retirement Crisis

Half of working-age Americans aren’t confident that they will have enough money to retire—and they have reason to worry, given that the typical American has only $3,000 in savings. Unsurprisingly, low-income workers are even less likely to have money set aside for retirement.

The picture is even more sobering for seniors and people of color. People of color account for 41 percent of the 55 million people without retirement accounts. On top of that, they are more likely to live in poverty as both working-age adults and seniors. Without money to draw on from their retirement (African-American and Latino  families have, on average, zero in liquid retirement savings), they are far more susceptible to the ills of senior poverty, which can include everything from multiple chronic conditions to heightened mortality rates and food insecurity.

Fortunately, there is some good news on the retirement security front. The Department of Labor recently released a set of proposed rules that, if adopted, would make it possible to help millions of low-wage workers build up a retirement nest egg. These rules pave the way for states to adopt retirement programs that automatically enroll all workers into individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

People of color account for 41 percent of the 55 million people without retirement accounts.

How will automatic retirement savings help? Well, one big reason low-wage workers have lower savings is that their employers are less likely to offer any sort of retirement plan. Indeed, workplace access to retirement plans has declined by almost 20 percent since the turn of the century as employers have sought new ways to cut costs. At the same time, evidence routinely shows that when plans are offered, many workers take advantage of them—particularly when employers automatically enroll their workers. Studies indicate that participation rates can reach 90 percent with automatic programs, creating a huge vehicle for protecting and growing workers’ savings.

Inspired by these trends, California, Oregon, and Illinois have developed state-sponsored proposals over the past few years that would establish automatic savings plans for workers in their states. However, these programs will only be effective if they pass federal muster by incorporating certain protection mechanisms—and the proposed rules allow just that.

The recent DOL action allows states to implement these important programs. As David Mitchell and Jeremy Smith of the Aspen Institute recently wrote, the new rule proposed by DOL would “give states new options for expanding coverage while at the same time reducing the burden on employers.”

This important development for retirement security deserves high praise, which is why members of the Tax Alliance for Economic Mobility submitted a letter to the DOL yesterday that strongly supports the proposed rules. The Tax Alliance, co-chaired by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) and PolicyLink, is a national coalition of advocates, researchers, and experts focused on reforming tax programs that do not work for low-income households and communities of color.

These state auto-IRA programs won’t completely fix the retirement crisis, but they will allow more low-income workers to access benefits normally reserved for the rich. Currently, the bottom 60 percent of earners are lucky to receive $200 in federal retirement tax benefits, while the top one percent receive approximately $13,000 from these same programs. But as the signers of the Tax Alliance letter wrote, the proposed rules are a “major step toward expanded retirement security options for low- and moderate-income workers.”

While low-wage workers in California, Oregon, and Illinois have reason to be optimistic, excitement should spread far beyond the handful of states that have already developed these auto-IRA programs. This action by DOL will encourage more and more states to design retirement programs that work for their citizens. And while masses of savings won’t accrue overnight, these state programs can begin to chip away at the racial wealth divide and retirement crisis facing over 100 million people living in or near poverty.


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I Served 11 Years in Prison. This Is What I Learned.

Last week I attended a presidential forum in Des Moines with nearly 1,000 grassroots activists from across the Midwest. The focus of the event was on a real economic recovery—one that creates economic security for struggling Americans and invests in underserved communities.

I felt it was important to be there. I wanted to ask candidates how they would reform a criminal justice system that is ripping apart our most vulnerable communities, especially communities of color. What would they do to redirect public funding to support—not strangle—opportunity for people of color? How would they reverse the barriers faced by the 650,000 people released from prison every year?

The issue of how to invest in our struggling communities is one that all candidates—regardless of party—need to address. Yet, for all the debates, forums, stump speeches and glad-handing, not enough of them are talking about it.

I know firsthand how a lack of hope and opportunity desiccate once-thriving families and communities.

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago during a time when parents, including my mother and father, could find work on the docks or in the factories that dotted the skyline. Our neighborhood was vibrant and solidly working-class. We had a good life. Then, one by one, the factories closed. My parents and the parents of my friends were all laid off.

There were so few people working it seemed like every day was a federal holiday. With every passing year, during the 1970s and 80s, I saw the lights dim in my community. In a short time, we became defined by unemployment and poverty, and then drugs—first heroin, and then crack cocaine. As a young man, I saw the hustlers, pimps, and drug dealers flashing their money, nice cars, and trendy clothes. Their lifestyle represented the only glitter I saw in the neighborhood. So, at an early age, I became a hustler too. I used drugs and committed identity theft to pay for my habit.

It caught up with me and I served 11 years in state and federal prison. While there, I saw countless 17-, 18-, or 19-year-olds who were sentenced to decades in prison for drug crimes. And once you are in the system, it is designed in a way that keeps you in. It is a vicious cycle where the odds are stacked against you, every door is closed, and any small mistake sends you right back.

Any small mistake sends you right back.

It starts with the exorbitant fees and rates that incarcerated people have to pay for things like talking on the phone to stay in touch with family. It continues when people get out—often they cannot even go back home to their families because of “one strike and you’re out” policies that prevent people with criminal records from living in public or subsidized housing. Too many young men end up couch surfing just to keep a roof over their heads at night.

And then there is the job search. When I was released in the mid-1990s, the only work I could get was as a dishwasher. Eventually, I found a second job as a telemarketer. Both jobs paid minimum wage. It is nearly impossible for people coming from prison to get re-established if they can’t get a decent job at a decent wage. You can’t pay all those fines and restitution earning poverty wages.

I now live in Dane County, Wisconsin—home to Madison—where I work as an advocate for the formerly incarcerated. I see the prison system as a form of genocide as I watch hope drain from people who are permanently tagged as “felons.” It’s no wonder they don’t feel they are part of America.

We need to re-invest funds—not toward more police weapons and militarized gear that are used to threaten our communities—but toward programs that create opportunity for people and their relatives who have been scarred with convictions. We need to remove barriers that keep formerly-incarcerated people from working or living with their families. We need to identify the types of jobs available to incarcerated people and prepare them for those jobs.

I was a smart kid growing up. I learned that my people had little chance at a legitimate good life. But I hope all the presidential candidates recognize that we need an America where our young people hope for bright futures, rather than think that the best they can do in this world is not be killed.


Media and Politics

Paul Ryan’s Forum on Expanding Opportunity Won’t Expand Opportunity

This past weekend, in my congressional district, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott hosted a presidential candidate forum titled “Expanding Opportunity.”  This title reflects the longstanding attempt of House Republican leaders to frame the inequality debate as one in which, as Ryan noted in 2014, Democrats focus on “equality of outcomes” while Republicans focus on “equality of opportunity,” which their favored policies are supposedly more likely to bring about.  Speaker Ryan attempted to make a similar assertion at Saturday’s forum, noting: “We now have a safety net that is designed to catch people falling into poverty when what we really need is a safety net that is designed to help get people out of poverty.”

While I disagree with the Speaker’s attempts to dismantle Social Security and Medicare, which partially equalize outcomes by preventing seniors from falling into poverty, I wholeheartedly reject the assertion that trickle-down economic policies would do more to advance equality of opportunity than a middle-out approach.

It is sadly appropriate that the forum took place in Columbia, South Carolina, an area with some of the lowest socioeconomic mobility in the country.  According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, a child raised in the bottom fifth of the national income distribution in the Columbia area has just a 4.2 percent chance of rising to the top fifth, making it one of the worst places to grow up poor in America.  If right-wing policies expand economic opportunity, why hasn’t South Carolina, with right-wing policies prevalent throughout state government, seen the benefits?

The reality is that the Expanding Opportunity forum, while perhaps well-meaning, must not distract from the fact that trickle-down policies—and the Ryan budget in particular—would severely constrict opportunity in numerous ways. Consider the following:

  • In order to take advantage of opportunity, one must be healthy. The Ryan budget would cut Medicaid by hundreds of billions of dollars and send the funds to the states as block grants, putting life-and-death decisions in the hands of state governments. South Carolina is one example of a state government that has thus far made the choice not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, despite an estimate that such a decision would result in the premature deaths of nearly 200 South Carolinians every year.
  • Ryan’s budget would double down on this opportunity-crushing, lethal agenda by repealing the Affordable Care Act, stripping health care away from millions who have gained coverage in the marketplaces or through the Medicaid expansion.
  • Similarly, while working one’s way out of poverty is difficult under the best of circumstances, Ryan wants to make it even harder by drastically cutting nutrition assistance so that those striving to rise above the poverty line don’t have enough to eat.
  • High quality pre-K expands opportunity for a lifetime. But the House Majority refuses to support universal pre-K and would cut hundreds of thousands of Head Start slots.
  • Opportunity is virtually impossible without access to educational resources. But the Ryan budget reduces funding for education by an amount equivalent to 3,600 schools, 13,000 teachers, and nearly 1.6 million students.
  • In the 21st century knowledge-based economy, a college education is essential to career opportunities. But the Ryan budget would cut Pell Grants by $370 million, making college even less affordable for poor students.
  • For many Americans, job training and employment services are vital opportunities to gain the skills necessary for a productive career and to find jobs using those skills. But the Ryan budget would take these services away from 2 million people.
  • The Equality of Opportunity Project found that, by the time they reached adulthood, poor children whose families received a Section 8 housing voucher earned nearly $2,000 a year more than children raised in public housing projects. But the Ryan budget threatens to take this opportunity away from 100,000 families.
  • The same Equality of Opportunity Project study found that poor children whose families received an experimental voucher to move to low-poverty neighborhoods earned nearly $3,500 more when they grew up than those raised in public housing. But in 2014, 219 House Republicans, including Speaker Ryan, voted to stop an Obama Administration effort to create similar opportunities on a wide scale.
  • Republicans and Democrats agree that children born from unintended pregnancies are particularly likely to struggle for economic opportunity. But the Ryan budget would eliminate Title X Family Planning funding, which averts approximately one million unintended pregnancies every year.

As much as Speaker Ryan might want to talk about expanding opportunity without caring about inequality, it has been shown repeatedly that societies with more inequality also have less opportunity—a relationship known as the Great Gatsby Curve. If Speaker Ryan and the House majority are truly committed to making opportunity more equal, they should take steps to increase the minimum wage, expand paid sick leave, and target resources to persistent poverty communities. We could start with my 10-20-30 proposal, which Ryan appeared to be open to when I testified before the House Budget Committee in 2014.

Even the few positive proposals that some members of the House Majority support—such as bipartisan criminal justice reform—would not come close to making up for their broader agenda, which constricts opportunity for low-income families while cutting taxes for the rich by trillions of dollars.  Forums like the one held in South Carolina are good for gathering input but outcomes are needed to lift people out of poverty.


Media and Politics

What Candidates Should Say about Poverty and Opportunity at Ryan’s Forum

This Saturday, a number of Republican presidential candidates will converge in South Carolina to debate and discuss “fighting poverty and expanding opportunity in America.” We hope that they discuss the issue and its solutions based on what a balanced view of research tells us.

Here are eight things they should say at this forum.

1. Inequality is closely related to poverty and opportunity

Poverty and inequality are separate but related challenges. Poverty typically refers to a floor—set in some relation to prevailing living standards—for economic resources or material deprivation, below which nobody should fall. Inequality refers to the distribution of economic resources throughout the population, and raising floors—and lowering ceilings—would of course reduce it. To understand the connection between poverty and inequality, consider that the growing concentration of economic resources among the more affluent during the past half-century contributed four times more to poverty than changes in family structure and racial composition in the American population.

2. Both poverty and inequality create economic disadvantage and limit our economy

By creating economic disadvantage, both poverty and inequality limit the life chances of a large share of our population. Research has confirmed that childhood poverty hinders school achievement, harms health, increases interaction with the criminal justice system, and worsens labor market outcomes in adulthood. More recently, we’ve learned that stress from poverty affects brain development and a range of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, and that even growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood significantly lowers one’s chances for upward mobility. Such high costs of poverty and inequality have real, economic consequences for all of us. Costs associated with persistent childhood poverty alone amount to almost 4 percent of our GDP—hundreds of billions of dollars—every year.

3. Social and economic policy can create poverty and reduce opportunity, but not in the ways many conservatives claim

Persistent poverty and extreme inequality can be attributed in large part to the choices we make to shape our economy and opportunity structure. Had economic growth continued to produce shared prosperity as it had from 1959 to 1973, poverty would have come close to elimination decades ago. Poverty and inequality impact minorities and women disproportionately, fueled by structural disparities in criminal justice, pay, and education. For example, researchers estimate that had we not chosen our devastating path of mass incarceration, poverty rates would be 10 to 20 percent lower overall, with larger improvements for communities of color.

In contrast, conservatives push overblown claims about public programs creating work disincentives. The evidence suggests that the amount of earnings discouraged is negligible if any, and many programs like the EITC encourage work.

4. Good jobs are the best way to reduce poverty and expand opportunity

We can’t address poverty and opportunity without first acknowledging the detrimental effects of low minimum wages, deteriorating job quality, and limited worker protections. Current labor practices allow employers to simultaneously demand much and provide little in the way of support and flexibility. Unions and labor standards can help prevent workers from being shortchanged. Policymakers should take seriously calls to raise the national minimum wage, require fair scheduling for workers, fight employee-contractor misclassification and wage theft, and enact the Paycheck Fairness Act to address the gender wage gap.

Reaching full employment—both by investing in physical infrastructure (including transportation, water, and affordable housing) and by increasing employment opportunities through subsidized jobs—is one of the most effective strategies we can pursue. Jobs programs also help the children of workers and strengthen families.

5. Public benefits are enormously effective, but do far less than they could

Even people working full-time often cannot work or earn enough to meet basic needs—making the safety net essential. In 2013, work supports and antipoverty programs like Social Security, food assistance, and Medicaid lifted 40 million people out of poverty. Still, with a growing share of families living in $2.00-a-day poverty, and gaping holes in the safety net, more needs to be done to strengthen our antipoverty programs. When factoring in public benefits and tax credits, other wealthy countries do far more than the U.S. to reduce poverty and inequality.

Research has shown that we have at least partial—often cost-effective—strategies for addressing economic disadvantage. It is likely, however, that conservatives will ignore empirical evidence and turn instead to Ryan’s Opportunity Grant which—by consolidating safety net programs into block grants given to the states—poses substantial risk of actually expanding poverty rather than cutting it.

6. We must empower disadvantaged people in our political system

Significantly reducing poverty and inequality requires an explicit focus on empowering disadvantaged groups and eliminating discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and more. Democracy must also become more representative, as political science research confirms what many of us have feared: in policy disagreements between the most well-off and everyone else, the wealthy consistently win. We must strengthen and protect the Voting Rights Act, level the playing field for political contributions, and limit the influence of corporate lobbyists. We must also prevent further disenfranchisement of especially vulnerable groups by enacting comprehensive immigration reform, restoring and increasing access to legal aid, and reversing over-incarceration and over-criminalization. If people have a voice in our political and judicial systems, they will have a real chance in our economic system.

7. When work-family balance is supported, good things happen for families

Providing paid family and medical leave, home visitation, affordable child care, and comprehensive family-planning services—as well as increasing incomes for disadvantaged families through a child allowance—will promote equity and security by ensuring that all women and families are able to maintain steady work and much-needed income while having more control over their lives.

Opportunities for education and training should be accessible and affordable for all at every stage of life. Universal early learning and quality education help lay the groundwork for success in adulthood. Increasing funding for public schools serving poor children significantly reduces intergenerational poverty. All individuals deserve the chance to get ahead through higher education without debt, and when there must be debt, income-based repayment should be an option.

8. Race and gender are intertwined with poverty, inequality, and opportunity

In 2013, racial and ethnic minorities had a poverty rate that was 13 percentage points higher than that of non-Hispanic whites. Women are still 32 percent more likely to be poor than men; for women of color, the economic disparities are even worse. In 2013, white families had on average six times the wealth of Hispanic families and seven times that of African American families. Income and wealth gaps mean these families have significantly fewer resources to invest in themselves, their children, and their communities. For example, African American families have to wait an average of eight years longer than white families to purchase a home.

In case you don’t hear it at the upcoming forum in South Carolina, remember that addressing poverty and inequality can simultaneously expand economic security and opportunity while growing the economy. And with America’s economic rivals making impressive investments in children and families, American competitiveness depends in part on helping the most disadvantaged among us reach their full potential.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated from its original version.


Media and Politics

What South Carolinians Think About Ryan’s Poverty Forum

This Saturday, conservative leaders will gather in South Carolina for the “Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity” co-hosted by Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott. With an overall poverty rate of 18 percent in 2014, South Carolina ranks among the ten poorest states in the country and has one of the lowest rates of health insurance coverage. And for low-income South Carolinians, these statistics are merely a reminder of the harsh realities they face.

Billed as an opportunity for conservatives to outline their major plans on tackling poverty, the forum comes after months of heightened rhetoric  on poverty and inequality—including a poverty tour by then-Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. These events are part of a concerted effort by conservative lawmakers and the media to paint the War on Poverty as a failure, even though the safety net reduced the poverty rate by more than half and lifted 48 million people above the poverty line in 2012.

Unfortunately, this newfound concern for poverty is at odds with a conservative policy agenda that would exacerbate inequality, hardship, and wage stagnation.

Under his “Opportunity Grant” proposal, Ryan has proposed converting a number of programs to state block grants, a decision that nonpartisan analysis suggests would reduce families’ ability to access key programs such as nutrition and housing assistance. In crafting this idea, Ryan and other conservatives often point to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as a model—even though it does very little to mitigate poverty and hardship and is unresponsive to recessions.

Furthermore, in their most recent congressional budgets, Republicans obtained two-thirds of their cuts from programs helping low and moderate income families, while channeling additional resources towards tax cuts for the wealthy.

South Carolinians like Dr. Ebony Hilton take issue with this approach. Dr. Hilton grew up in poverty in Spartanburg, a city located almost one hundred miles north of Columbia, as the middle child of a mother with only a high school education. Now she earns in the six figures and serves as the first black female anesthesiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dr. Hilton credits federal programs like Pell Grants for much of her success. As she told TalkPoverty, “Pell Grants allowed me to pursue higher education because when I was going through college, there was no option to call home for money for books or tuition or fees. The overwhelming amount of debt can be tremendous and can stop people from taking that extra step to pursue their life passion.”

In addition to attempting to gut programs that invest in people like Dr. Hilton, conservatives have stood in the way of policies that would raise stagnant wages, increase access to health insurance, and allow families to better balance the responsibilities of working and caring for themselves and their children.

Conservatives have stood in the way of policies that would raise stagnant wages.

For example, although a majority of Republican voters support raising the minimum wage, Republicans in Congress continue to block a minimum wage hike that would actually save $53 billion in nutrition assistance over 10 years. In contrast, longtime state advocates like Sue Berkowitz, who serves as the Director of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, view increasing wages as a core component of an anti-poverty strategy: “You can’t not examine why we haven’t increased the minimum wage in [nearly] 10 years. We can say all these wonderful things but without real plans, we’re saying we’re comfortable with people being in poverty.”

And for South Carolinians like Yolanda Gordon, conservative opposition to expanding Medicaid and providing access to paid sick days has proved economically destabilizing. Although Gordon has an associate’s degree in occupational therapy and works part-time at a non-profit helping families of kids with disabilities, she struggles to provide for her three children—each of whom has special medical needs. To add insult to injury, South Carolina has refused to expand Medicaid, leaving her without health coverage.

Due to the intransigence of the state’s conservative leaders, Gordon is one of more than three million adults nationwide—and 123,000 South Carolinians—who fall into what is known as the “coverage gap.” That is, her income is too high to qualify her for Medicaid, but too low for the subsidies she needs to afford health insurance. Without these subsidies, the average cost of the least expensive plan is around $333 per month in South Carolina.

As Gordon battles health issues like high cholesterol—which can lead to heart attacks and strokes—the state’s failure to expand Medicaid has left her in medical purgatory. In a scenario that is all too common, Gordon can’t afford medication and regular checkups without health insurance—in fact, she won’t be able to pay for an exam until next July. In the meantime, she has put herself on a diet to try to manage her condition. As she told TalkPoverty, “For those of us in states that didn’t take part in the Medicaid expansion, we just pray to God that we don’t get sick.”

If she or her children do fall ill, Gordon is not entitled to paid sick days, as employers are not required to provide them under state and federal laws. So if her oldest daughter, who has asthma, is sick at school, Gordon has to choose between earning a paycheck or taking care of her child.

The fact is that people like Yolanda Gordon need more than political posturing—they require higher wages, health care, paid sick and family leave, and increased investments in education, training, and other supports. This summit is an opportunity for conservatives to correct their legacy and set forth a policy agenda that matches their newfound rhetoric on poverty. Let’s hope they rise to the challenge.