First Person

I’m an Ordained Minister and I Support Abortion Access

Tomorrow marks the forty-third anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made safe and legal abortion available to people across the country. As we write speeches glorifying this milestone in our collective history, we must remember and honor the advocates that made it possible for women and families to decide when to have children. We also must reflect very deeply about the future of that right and about the people who are already denied its benefits. This is especially true for those of us who are people of faith.

Since Roe over four decades ago, the Religious Right has used the emotional juggernaut that is their rhetorical reach to shift the focus away from the health, security, and freedom of women and families. Instead, they propagate a narrow and misguided morality that seeks to control women’s bodies without concern for the needs in their lives and to embed a shaming narrative about abortion into the national psyche. Anti-abortion activists have employed these twin strategies—limiting access and shaming women—relentlessly for over 40 years. Unfortunately, in many ways they have been successful.

The first and likely most corrosive victory of that strategy is the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, three years after Roe. Hyde, which was framed as a compromise bill that stopped short of a full ban on abortion access, restricted the use of public funds for abortion. However, author of this amendment Representative Henry Hyde, was very clear about his motives around the compromise:

“I would certainly like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the [Medicaid] bill.”

Unable to make abortion illegal for all women, Hyde settled for a targeted assault on the options available to poor women. This attack set the stage for the ongoing strategy that Hyde’s acolytes have used ever since. Instead of directly contesting the legality of the issue, anti-abortion activist-legislators have tried to restrict access, availability, and affordability to ensure that abortion is legal only in theory for millions of women.

In many states, the anti-abortion movement has successfully constructed roadblocks to access, such as requiring women to have an ultrasound and look at the image before having abortion or mandating that they attend counseling services. Other legislators have sought to shame minors seeking abortions by limiting or erasing their rights to privacy. Still other anti-abortion legislators have pursued targeted regulation of abortion providers (otherwise known as “TRAP” laws) in the hopes of enacting regulations so burdensome that providers will be forced to close. These efforts to limit access to safe abortion services have been enormously successful.

The clock has turned back in a most vicious way.

On the forty-second Roe anniversary, a commentator said, “we no longer have the health crisis of women dying in ‘back alleys.’” Just one year later, that statement is not completely true, particularly for people of color and poor people, like a rural Tennessee woman who has been charged with attempted murder after trying to abort a fetus with a coat hanger. And in other states, women are making unsuccessful abortion attempts of the sort Roe supporters had hoped to eradicate. The clock has turned back in a most vicious way.

And, as some faith voices have supported each of these attacks, some people have been given the impression that all people of faith are against comprehensive health care that includes abortion services. But, what is often obscured is that, before Roe, faith leaders who understood the necessity of family planning in the battle against poverty were in the trenches helping women access safe abortions before legal abortion was available. Because of the desire for human flourishing—present in every faith tradition—progressive faith leaders are still driven to ensure women can access the care they need as opposed to shaming them for their health care decisions. Despite amplified voices suggesting the contrary, many people of faith still broadly understand full-spectrum women’s health care as a primary tool for the building of healthy communities. And, reproductive justice advocates understand a woman’s faith as inseparable from the rest of her lived experiences and attend to spiritual health as seriously as they do all other identified needs.

We will only be able to truly celebrate Roe when all women have access to abortion services without the stigma and judgment of others. For these reasons, as we pause to reflect on this forty-third anniversary of Roe v. Wade, progressive people of faith must raise our voices in support of the women in our faith communities. The time for staying publicly silent has long passed. Instead, if we care about women of color, low-income women, and families whose fates are too often at the mercy of anti-abortion politicians, we must be bold in our challenge to faith narratives that shame and blame. We must fill the public sphere with language of love and kindness rather than judgment and ire. We must stand up for women of faith because seven in ten women who seek abortions report a religious affiliation. Some of them will look to us for guidance. We owe them our support, our love and our voices in protection of their lives. We must not fail them!



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.


First Person

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.



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.




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.