How Access to Public Assistance Impacts Political Participation

Poverty was all Lucy* had ever known. Early in her adult life, a mixture of desperation and patriotism led her to join the military. When she left her three children and headed to the frontlines of the “war on terror,” it was with the goal of providing a better life for them. There, Lucy gained skills that she hoped would enable her to earn a steady income, but she returned home to find that good jobs were scarce, especially for an African-American woman. As a result, Lucy accepted a part-time position as a cashier making $7.50 an hour. Her pay was not enough to make ends meet while supporting her children and caring for her elderly parents. Most distressingly, she could not afford health insurance, and even though her income fell below the poverty line, she was ineligible for Medicaid.

If Lucy lived in New York, where I was born and now live, she would have access to health care. But her home state of Georgia had the second-highest percentage of uninsured residents in the country and did not plan to utilize the Medicaid expansion subsidized through the Affordable Care Act. As the summer of 2012 came to an end, she had difficulty getting her children signed up for Georgia’s Medicaid program and could not afford to pay for the immunizations required to enroll them in school. Adding to this, Tiffany, her eleven-year-old daughter, had a severe case of asthma, so Lucy placed a moratorium on all outdoor play. When Tiffany protested, Lucy regretfully explained, “You can’t go outside and play now, I don’t have Medicaid… if something happens and you have an asthma attack, I don’t have the medicine to give you.”

Lucy’s narrative is not unique. I have interviewed many Medicaid beneficiaries who recounted similar struggles. The details differ but the theme is clear: for Americans who live in poverty, the public benefits available to them are contingent on where they live. Your state legislature determines whether your kids are left without braces, whether your third degree burns remain untreated, and whether your illnesses go undiagnosed.

This is not an accident. Rather, it is a direct product of our nation’s enduring commitment to federalism, a political system that divides power between the national government and subnational entities, giving states and localities significant discretion in shaping policy outcomes.

Consider the perspective of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, whose silver-bullet solution to poverty is to “consolidate many of our federal poverty programs into flexible programs that go to our states to customize a welfare benefit for a person’s particular need.” Ryan’s ideas are widely shared. When conservatives recently gathered in South Carolina for a forum on poverty, their devotion to increasing the power of states was on high display. Common proposals involved converting Medicaid and SNAP into block grants, which give states broad flexibility to design and distribute public assistance programs—with little oversight. While conservatives reason that states could leverage this increased control to tailor anti-poverty policies to the needs of local populations, evidence suggests that such grants are harbingers of retrenchment: dramatically decreasing the resources directed to the most needy and removing any guarantee of aid.

There is a sordid history that links race, class and federalism in the United States.

In addition to promoting harmful budget cuts, block grants are simply unnecessary. States already have plenty of power over anti-poverty programs like TANF and Medicaid and, in some cases, an infamous proclivity for misusing it. States decide whether to offer certain medical services to the needy, like dental benefits and eye care. They set income caps for various forms of assistance. They choose how often beneficiaries need to re-enroll, how burdensome application processes will be, and much, much more.

What it means to be poor in Mississippi is very different in Maryland and starkly divergent from Maine. It is clear that, in the realm of poverty, states already dominate. And to what end? There is scant evidence that local control is an effective way of alleviating poverty. Instead, research demonstrates that it undermines racial and gender equality and exacerbates geographic disparities. In short, unbridled federalism takes us down an inegalatarian path.

But perhaps most troubling, such a road leads us away from a robust democracy.

For Lucy, the first word that came to mind when I asked her about politics was, “dirty.” After nearly an hour of discussing how sharply Medicaid differed across states, I asked her if she thought this was at all connected to the political system. She deftly declared:

“Instead of sitting up high and looking low, they sit high and look higher… I don’t even know who my politician is, I don’t know who half of who the higher-ups are because they don’t branch out, they don’t make themselves known. …To us, sitting down here looking at those up there, it’s like our voice, what is my little voice going to do?”

Political scientists have already shown that citizens’ experiences with the government have profound consequences for democracy. When states use their considerable authority to retract services or limit benefits, struggling Americans’ views of government are negatively affected, and they exhibit decreased willingness to engage in politics. In particular, when individuals who bear the brunt of harmful state policy decisions become aware of geographic inequities in assistance, they can begin to view the political system as arbitrary and unfair. For instance, after John, a chronically ill Medicaid beneficiary from Michigan, discovered that he could not move with his family to Arizona without risking the loss of life sustaining treatment, he began to see the government as an oppressive force in his life. Similarly, when Terrie’s grandmother visited from out-of-town and Medicaid refused to cover her prescriptions, Terrie wondered, “what kind of government” would punish you for crossing state lines? People like John, Terrie and Lucy do not experience social policy in a vacuum, but rather within a multi-tiered political system.

Devolving power to states serves many purposes and can sometimes be quite beneficial. But when it comes to anti-poverty policy, federalism has too often been used to harm those who are most vulnerable. Policymakers must take care to limit those harms and ensure that they do not imperil democratic citizenship.

State residence is a basic condition of birth and circumstance.  Why, then, should it determine access to potentially vital resources like food or medical care? We cannot fully grapple with economic and political inequality unless we ask this question and press for better answers. There is a sordid history that links race, class and federalism in the United States. Learning from our past means listening to people like Lucy and challenging both the retrenchment and the ballooning geographic inequities that accompany block grants. It also means interrogating any policy that empowers subnational governments while disempowering low-income Americans.

*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality


First Person

The Inequality of Online Dating

I recently discovered for myself the frenzy that has consumed my generation: online dating. In addition to the old standbys of and OkCupid, young, unattached people are spoiled for choice with a bevy of apps: Tinder, the one best suited for one-time hookups, Hinge for more serious entanglements, Bumble as a so-called feminist alternative (only women can initiate messages), and more. While some may declare that these apps spell the death of romance, they are here to stay. And that raises the question: casual and noncommittal as it may seem to online date, do our swipes carry material consequences for the marriage market?

In theory, apps like Tinder offer us the chance to expand our networks beyond our campuses, workplaces, and wherever else we meet people who are socioeconomically similar. But in practice, not so much. In fact, it becomes quickly obvious that, regardless of the app or website in question, users pair off within social strata—myself included.

On most of these apps, users swipe through a series of profiles that often consist of no more than a few photos and, importantly, a workplace and alma mater. (Notably, Tinder did not always feature the second set of details, unlike its competitors. It introduced this section in November to allow users to make more “informed decisions.”) In the absence of any meaningful information about a potential partner, users have a tendency to substitute employment and education—both signifiers of social status—for, say, mutual interests and compatibility. Racial biases also determine how we select matches. Among straight OkCupid users, the data show that women across the board favor men of the same race or ethnicity, while black women face discrimination on the website—a phenomenon that online daters have masterfully detailed online.

The result is that people couple up along socioeconomic lines. Case in point: of the three people I met up with from Tinder, each was white and had the social and economic capital to build enviable resumes and graduate from some of the most elite institutions in the country.

Of course, none of this is new exactly. Over the past fifty years, the likelihood that two people with a college diploma will marry each other has risen markedly. This may seem perfectly innocuous, but the fact is that this behavior, known as “assortative mating,” has reinforced the growth of income inequality in this country. In a labor market as polarized as the one we face today, wage increases have mostly accrued to college graduates. And given the tendency to marry someone with similar education levels, a pair of well-educated breadwinners can pool those incomes to form a stable financial bedrock for a marriage. Among this demographic, marriage rates have actually risen over the past few decades, while divorce rates have fallen.

The opposite is true for Americans with less education. Wages have stagnated over the past half-century as globalization has driven factory work overseas. Employer hostility coupled with changes in labor law have hacked away at union strongholds. Blue-collar jobs, which once paid wages that allowed a single breadwinner to support a family, have been replaced by low-wage work in the service sector. And so, while a steady income and job stability are hard to come by for many Americans, they remain a prerequisite for marriage, as was the case in the post-war era. The result is that Americans with lower education levels are less likely to get hitched. And if they do get married, financial strain has made them more likely to divorce. As sociologist Andrew Cherlin once said, “I think that a college degree is the closest thing we have to a social class boundary.”

It is in this era of social stratification that a marriage gap has emerged—a gap that apps are certainly not equipped to remedy. Never mind exclusive apps like the League, which puts a premium on prestigious college degrees and high-income careers. Hinge, for example, is much more democratic—anyone can join. But it sorts users based on social networks, which means that a college graduate whose Facebook friends also have a four-year degree is far more likely to match with someone with similar levels of education.

To add to these disparities, these apps are simply used in greater frequency by the relatively affluent. While 46 percent of college-educated Americans know someone who met a long-term partner or spouse online, only 18 percent of those with high school degrees can say the same. Moreover, a full 58 percent of college graduates know someone who has dated online, versus just 25 percent of high school graduates.

Why is this the case? One intuitive theory is that low-income people simply cannot foot the bill for all of the coffees and cocktails often associated with dates. With unpredictable work schedules, which are all too common among low-wage workers, it may also be logistically difficult to make plans. And young adults with lower incomes also are more likely to live with parents and even grandparents, which makes it even harder to date.

The digital divide may also account for some differences in use. Even as smartphone ownership increases among Americans, only half of all adults with annual incomes below $30,000 possess smartphones, versus 84 percent of those who earn more than $75,000. In the more extreme cases, when people struggle to make ends meet at the end of the month, the cell phone bill is often the first to go. A full 23 percent of smartphone owners have had to shut off service due to financial constraints.

Today, 5 percent of Americans who are in committed relationships or marriages met online. I suspect this number will only climb as these apps grow in popularity. But as income inequality widens—fueled in part by our tendency to gravitate towards those who are similar to us—apps can do very little to stymie this very behavior. They very well may accelerate it.




A Bill to Let Workers Save Like Members of Congress

America is facing a looming retirement crisis. With wages stagnant and the costs of basic needs like housing, education and child care rising rapidly, it’s already difficult for low- and middle-income Americans to save. And to make matters worse, 68 million Americans currently do not have access to a retirement savings plan through their employer.

Contrast that with Congress, where every Member and millions of federal employees are able to take advantage of what is known as the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). The TSP helps ensure a secure retirement through automatic enrollment; simple, easy-to-understand, investment options; and low fees—all of which are proven to increase retirement savings.

If federal workers can have this plan, then why can’t American workers? Giving every worker who lacks an employer-provided retirement savings plan access to a plan like the TSP is a no-brainer.

That’s exactly why one of us, Senator Merkley, recently unveiled the American Savings Act, a major new piece of legislation that is based on the effective TSP model and mirrors many policy recommendations from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It would ensure that if an employer doesn’t already offer a retirement plan, each of its workers automatically would be given his or her own American Savings Account (ASA). Initially, the employer would put 3 percent of a worker’s earnings into the account with each paycheck, but individuals could choose to adjust the contribution or to opt out entirely. Employers would simply send employees’ ASA savings to the federal government alongside employee tax withholdings. Americans who are self-employed would have the option to open an ASA at any time.

If federal workers can have this plan, then why can’t American workers?

These accounts would also benefit workers by featuring the same sensible investment options that are offered to federal employees. Workers would control their own accounts directly through a website, and an independent board of directors would manage the investment of the funds.

This legislation would make a big difference in the lives of millions of Americans who are currently struggling to save for retirement, which is why it is endorsed by groups representing seniors, workers and small businesses—including AARP, UNITE HERE, and the Main Street Alliance. The Center for American Progress Action Fund found that a worker saving under a similar plan would be more than twice as likely to have a secure retirement than a worker contributing the same amount to a typical 401(k) plan—to say nothing of the difference between a worker with this kind of plan and one with no retirement savings at all.

That’s not to say that expanding access to retirement plans is a silver bullet solution to the retirement crisis. We also need to strengthen Social Security. But Social Security was never intended to be the sole source of income for retirees, which is why we need to also make it easier for Americans to set aside and build savings that can supplement their Social Security income.

When workers do not have access to a retirement plan at their workplace—either because their employer doesn’t offer one or because of the nature of their work—they are unlikely to save for retirement. Expanding access in the manner called for under the American Savings Act would help shore up our retirement system—which, ever since the decline of private-sector pensions, has increasingly failed to meet the needs of a significant part of our workforce.

It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a Member of Congress, or you work part-time or full-time for a huge corporation or a small business: every American worker deserves access to a financially secure retirement.


First Person

Living in Poverty Amid Affluence

As income inequality grows among Americans, so does the tension it fuels.

As one of millions in this country struggling to make ends meet, I am weary of inequality and poverty—not only from my own personal hardship and the financial hurdles that exhaust me each day, but also because of the differences in treatment I experience compared to the more affluent.

Case in point: Denver, my hometown—one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. In Denver, the poor and the well-off are practically on each other’s doorsteps. On the 16th Street Mall in Downtown Denver, young professionals walk past homeless individuals daily. Recent college graduates hit the bar scenes in posh Cherry Creek or the exploding RiNo District as minimum wage workers prepare customers’ food and clean their homes—just one of the two or three jobs they likely juggle. At the King Soopers in Stapleton, one customer pays for groceries with a Platinum MasterCard and the next with an EBT card. And in areas like Park Hill, while the majority-black side of the neighborhood struggles with poverty and gang violence, middle and upper class families—mostly non-minorities—live in architecturally ornate homes valued at over a half-million dollars.

These inequalities are more than visual—they add to the huge burden that already weighs on those of us who face economic hardship. Research has demonstrated that inequalities in the housing market drive up rents, and Denver is no exception. While I am grateful that my children and I have been able to live in a two-bedroom apartment for eight years, my rent went up by 11 percent this year and it has been a struggle to meet that increase every month. At this point, I cannot afford a three-bedroom rental (which would be helpful to accommodate my growing children), let alone secure the money to put down a deposit.

Where there is stark hardship in close proximity to wealth, there will be unrest and desperation.

And there are also psychological impacts that arise from these inequalities. A 2010 study highlighted this phenomenon when it revealed that countries with high levels of income inequality face high rates of mental illness. In no country was this more evident than in the United States, where income inequality is associated with heightened risk of depressive symptoms and anxiety disorders. This also applies to Denver—I’ve seen firsthand that where there is stark hardship in close proximity to wealth, there will be unrest and desperation.

There are times when I struggle with envy, wishing that I could simply afford a bigger place to live that was closer to the kids’ schools, my evening and weekend jobs, and our friends. My children and I are frugal and enjoy everything we can on a minimal budget—which means not going to full-price movies more than two to three times a year, rarely visiting museums or attending events that cost money, and avoiding vacations. In fact, last summer my kids and I took our first vacation in years—and it was 48 hours long. While we appreciate all that we are able to do and what we do have, it only exacerbates our hardship when we struggle to make rent month after month, and then look across the street to see a manicured lawn, two nice cars, and a double- or triple-sized garage attached to the five bedroom house that holds a family of four.

To make matters worse, my daughter’s friends started excluding her from their plans, saying, “There wouldn’t be a problem if you just had an iPhone.” My child was distraught, telling me, “They don’t understand because their parents haven’t lost their jobs, they’re not on food stamps, and they live in nice homes and drive nice cars.”

The inequalities don’t stop there. We can’t afford to live close to school so my kids spend a significant chunk of their after-school time in the car and with me at work. When other kids are benefiting from enrichment activities outside of the classroom (and have nannies to facilitate the process), my kids go without because I am not always able to be there at drop-off or pick-up time due to my unusual work schedule, and I cannot always afford the fees. It’s these kind of income-based differences in afterschool participation that fuel the widening achievement gap between rich and poor.

And then there are health issues. I haven’t been to a dentist in years because it has been a major challenge to find one who still accepts Medicaid—it’s generally more cost-effective for doctors’ offices to accept private insurance, which more and more Denver residents are able to afford. Unfortunately, the same principle applies to mental health care. And when those in poverty or on the brink of it cannot afford care, mental health needs often go untreated. Meanwhile, those who can afford a therapist or psychologist get the help that they need and it positively impacts their health.

The fact is that how much money you have relative to others matters: from the level of health care you can afford, to the quality of your kids’ education, to where you can live. And as the gap widens between those who have enough and those who are barely making it, it threatens to divide us as a country and as a society.



What Second Graders Can Teach Us About Inequality

Two of the most widely cited statistics on inequities within the American labor market are that the average woman earns just 79 cents for every dollar earned by a man, and that the black unemployment rate is typically double that of whites. While these statistics are partly accounted for by differences in occupation or education, gender pay inequities persist even among men and women in the same job, and the two-to-one unemployment disparity exists even for blacks and whites with the same level of education. What this means is that even among otherwise socioeconomically similar individuals, we can still observe differences in pay or employment that arise from discrimination.

Although the explicitly discriminatory policies and practices that created these disparities are now illegal—thanks in part to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed employment and pay discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin—the inequities persist. That’s because many of the channels through which opportunity is passed, like social networks, are shaped by biases based on race and gender. Regardless of whether these biases are conscious or subconscious, patterns of old-fashioned segregation stand in the way of eradicating them.

Recently, I gained some profound insight into this phenomenon from a most unlikely place: a second-grade music class.

The fact that it was a music class in a racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse elementary school offered a powerful symbolism. Here were kids from two different classrooms, with distinct cultures, family backgrounds, and personalities blending their voices together in harmony. Yet, even with the freedom to sit almost anywhere they chose, the students self-segregated by race and gender to a large degree. This seemed innocent enough at first. After all, it’s human nature to gravitate toward those we share more in common with or with whom we feel most comfortable. However, the broader implications of this tendency became more evident as the class went on.

Halfway through the period, the kids began an exercise in which one student would bounce a ball to the rhythm of the song the class was singing. Each time they finished a verse, that student would pass the ball on to someone else to continue the song. After a few rounds, one of the girls in the class spoke up about the fact that the boys were only passing the ball to other boys. When the teacher asked if other people had noticed the same thing, every girl and even a few boys in the class agreed. After enlisting the students to come up with a solution to make the game fairer to those who had been excluded, the exercise resumed under the new rules. Shortly after, another student mentioned that only students from one classroom were getting the ball. By the time they worked through that problem, time had run out for them to complete the exercise.

There were at least three important takeaways from this simple example that can be applied to the way we perceive and address race and gender inequities in this country.

  • The costs of inequality and discrimination may be more heavily born by those who have been discriminated against, but they are problems that belong to all of us—as such, individuals in leadership have a responsibility to listen to, acknowledge, and pursue solutions to these problems. For example, due to racial and gender biases, industries and jobs with a higher concentration of women and people of color tend to have lower pay—often minimum wage. As a result, these workers are more likely to earn poverty-level wages and need to turn to public assistance, which means that American taxpayers essentially subsidize the employers who pay inadequate wages. But policymakers can take action to rectify some of this. According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 would not only lift wages for 35 million workers, many of whom are people of color, but it would also save $17 billion in public assistance spending annually.
  • Ending discrimination requires moving beyond a basic acknowledgement of the problem to honest, inclusive, and constructive engagement on the causes and solutions. For example, in order to target enforcement of equal pay laws and gain better insight into discriminatory pay practices, the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently announced a proposal to annually collect summary pay data by gender, race, and ethnicity from businesses with 100 or more employees. If implemented, this would be an important first step towards identifying bad actors and holding them accountable.
  • Segregation exists in nearly every area of American life, including in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and places of worship. Regardless of intent, the result is often exclusion and marginalization of people outside our immediate social circles. In the end, this limits the full range of what could be available to all of us. Historian Richard Rothstein has painstakingly documented the history of racially explicit federal, state and local policies that have segregated African Americans into isolated slums across the country. These policies have created a legacy of racial injustice that has garnered national attention in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago and Flint.

I was heartened to see a second-grade teacher address biases within her classroom. Now it’s time for more of our political and business leaders to follow suit.