How Pennsylvania Punishes Poor Parents for Jerry Sandusky’s Actions

This article was originally published at

A woman and her ex-husband shared custody of their 18-month-old daughter. After spending the weekend at her dad’s house, the girl was returned to her mother’s home with a case of diaper rash.

The dad notified the mom of the rash and gave her a tube of ointment that he had been applying. The mom watched the rash for several days, applying the ointment as directed by the medication’s instructions. When the rash did not go away, she took her daughter to the doctor, who found that the rash had become infected and reported the mother to the local child-welfare agency for child neglect.

The mom had done what almost every parent would have under the circumstances—she had treated the rash, watched it closely, and ultimately made the decision that it required medical attention. However, she was placed on the civil statewide Childline and Abuse Registry and lost her job as a home health aide. Until she was able to get a hearing and clear her name—a process that can take as long as a year—she was unable to get another job in the profession she had been trained in.

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, the Pennsylvania legislature passed 23 bills containing hundreds of amendments to the Child Protective Services Law (CPSL). Exactly two of those amendments may possibly have stopped Sandusky’s abuse of children at an earlier stage. Most of the other changes involved redefining child abuse and expanding background checks in ways that are increasingly—and irrationally—resulting in significant consequences to the employment, reputations, and child custody of low-income people, especially people of color.  These consequences inevitably have great impact on children and families.

We’ve heard about the college professors and parent volunteers in schools offended by the inconvenience and intrusiveness of having to get child-abuse background checks. Little, however, has been reported about the people most affected by these background checks: low-wage employees, such as cafeteria workers, school secretarial staff, home-health aides, and day-care teachers.

Many people are being needlessly barred from employment—sometimes even losing long-term jobs—due to criminal records that are extremely old, minor, or irrelevant to their ability to safely be employed around children. Many more are barred from jobs because of placement on the registry without any court proceedings, or even proof. Under the new amendments to the CPSL, these consequences are being exacerbated.

Many people are being needlessly barred from employment due to criminal records that are extremely old, minor, or irrelevant.

Protecting children is necessary and commendable. But the registry is an arbitrary and inaccurate tool for assessing who presents a risk, either to their own children or those under their care at work. Yet the registry is regularly used as a screening tool. People with “indicated” reports are listed in the registry and barred from working in day care, education, health care, nursing homes, paratransit, and a growing number of other jobs, predominantly ones filled by low-wage workers.

Placement on the registry has always been too easy. When a county agency responsible for children’s welfare receives notice of suspected child abuse or neglect—from a teacher, a doctor, a neighbor, and (not too rarely) sometimes an angry ex-spouse—it is required to investigate the allegations within 24 hours. After speaking with the child (if that child is of speaking age) and any other relevant parties, and reviewing whatever evidence is available, the agency makes a decision whether or not to “indicate” the report—that is, place the suspected perpetrator on the registry.

There is no hearing, no opportunity to present evidence. A caseworker checks off a box, and an individual is placed on the registry effectively for life—unless this person successfully appeals within a very short deadline. The individuals concerned are not entitled to view the investigation file before or after placement.

All too often, indicated reports are based on faulty or incomplete investigations, or on actions or omissions by parents or caretakers that simply do not meet the statutory definitions of child abuse. Even with a careful investigator, the sometimes-fine distinction between lawful discipline through spanking and abuse can be lost.

In the experience of Community Legal Services, some social workers and supervisors put people on the registry too casually and do not comprehend the significant financial and emotional toll on the family that can ensue from a child-abuse report.

From an institutional perspective, checking off the box seems like a less intrusive option than removing a child from the home, and creates a record that the agency “did something.” It is a matter of routine. We also see many instances in which false accusations of abuse are raised in the course of contentious custody disputes, a circumstance that can be noted by a social worker as a concern, but disregarded in a “better safe than sorry” posture

The recently expanded definitions of child abuse make this bad situation worse. The removal of the word non-accidental from the definition increases the risk that parents and caretakers will be placed on the registry for accidents that happen in the normal course of children’s lives.

It is now child abuse if a parent or caretaker acts or fails to act in a manner that creates a “reasonable likelihood” of injury, whether or not an injury actually occurs. Neglect is defined as, among other things, any repeated or prolonged act that “threatens a child’s well-being.” These are extremely low standards; all parents make judgment calls, knowing their child and their individual and family circumstances, that arguably could carry a reasonable likelihood of harm to body or well-being.

In our experience, low-income parents and caregivers are more likely to have governmental agencies involved in their lives and questioning their judgment calls; in effect, they are held to a higher standard of parenting than middle- and upper-class parents and professionals.

The CPSL amendments have also broadened requirements for background checks to an absurd degree. Now, anyone on the registry who has “routine interaction” with children at work is barred from such employment, even if children are never under their care or supervision. One government agency has interpreted “routine interaction” as passing in the hallway.

I am certainly not suggesting that convicted sex abusers be able to work in day cares or schools. However, are we really concerned that someone who once accidentally left an iron on, who didn’t treat a burn sufficiently, even who once lost it and slapped her delinquent teenage daughter, is such a danger to others that he or she can never drive a school bus, hand out food in a cafeteria, or even diligently and safely care for children in a day care?  Certainly there are individuals who inflict great harm to children and those individuals should face appropriate consequences.  But lumping them in with parents and caregivers whose actions were accidental or the result of a minor and isolated incident results only in detracting resources and energy from the more egregious cases and in deepening poverty for families.

The commonwealth should revisit the recent CPSL amendments to effect a more rational and balanced approach that will both protect children and afford parents the ability to make sound and reasoned parenting choices without losing employment opportunities for life.


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It’s Been Twenty-Five Years Since Restaurant Workers Got a Raise

“Whenever you feel like it’s probably fine to not tip your server, that’s one more bill stacking up because they’re short on money. This is food for the week that our families will go without because you didn’t think it was necessary, even after asking for everything under the sun and receiving it free of charge, mind you. This is one less basic necessity my daughter needs because even TWO more dollars is too much for you.”

These words from a young, Colorado waitress named Taylar Cordova—accompanied by an image of a zero-tip check for a meal totaling $182—set the internet ablaze this week, receiving thousands of likes, shares, and comments on Facebook and sparking impassioned think pieces about the plight of our nation’s 11 million restaurant workers.

And it couldn’t have been timelier. Thanks to the efforts of industry groups like the National Restaurant Association—or “the other NRA,” as I like to call them—which has stymied efforts to raise wages for restaurant workers, today marks the 25th year the federal tipped minimum wage has been frozen at an abysmal $2.13 per hour. And when you’re paid $2.13 per hour by your employer, or even $5.29 as it is in Colorado, you are completely reliant on tips to pay your bills.

Happy anniversary, everybody!

Twenty-five years is a long time to go without paying a significant portion of your workers—servers, bussers, hosts, bartenders—at least the minimum wage, let alone a wage that enables a family to make ends meet. And as a result, servers are twice as likely to need food stamps than the rest of the U.S. workforce, and three times as likely to live in poverty. The restaurant industry now includes 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the country.

And the fact that it’s been 25 years isn’t even the half of it. In fact, it’s only about a quarter of it. Since the creation of the minimum wage almost a century ago, federal law has mandated that tipped workers be paid less than everyone else, a practice rooted in American slavery, when employers didn’t want to pay newly freed slaves a wage. Why? Because of the undue and enduring influence of our friends at the NRA.

The NRA claims to represent small independent businesses, but APRIL FOOLS! It’s actually a front group for multinational corporations like Darden (Olive Garden), DineEquity (Applebee’s/IHOP), and Bloomin’ Brands (Outback Steakhouse). Despite the corporate welfare that these companies manage to secure for themselves, as many as 50 percent of their employees are near the poverty level and must access an array of public assistance programs—at a cost of over $9 million to taxpayers.

And thus, although heart-wrenching and unacceptable, Taylar Cordova’s story is not unique. In my travels and after talking with hundreds of restaurant workers, I’ve met countless women like Taylar—mothers working long hours to put food on the tables of others, all the while uncertain whether they’ll be able to afford food for their own tables later that night.

All Work and No Pay from on Vimeo.

All of these stories contradict the prevailing myth that tipped workers are largely white men working at fine-dining establishments, earning nearly six figures for their efforts. In reality, nearly 70 percent of tipped restaurant workers are women, 30 percent of whom are mothers, working in casual dining establishments like Denny’s, the Olive Garden, or, in Taylar’s case, PF Chang’s. These workers—42 percent of whom are people of color—also experience disproportionate rates of poverty, financial insecurity, and discrimination.

And then there’s the sexual harassment. The restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the country. What’s more, workers in states that pay the lowest possible tipped wage of $2.13 per hour experience harassment at twice the rate of their counterparts. Conversely, tipped women workers in states that have eliminated the subminimum wage are less likely to experience sexual harassment. The tipped minimum wage, combined with the practice of tipping, forces women servers to tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers, coworkers and managers in order to survive.

Altogether, this isn’t just about the huge restaurant corporations lining their own pockets. With the lives of over 11 million restaurant workers hanging in the balance, their impact is seismic. Their obstructionist efforts have deep consequences and keep the restaurant industry and our nation at large from moving in a direction that promotes equality across racial, gender, and economic lines.

But after years of hard work, and tireless efforts by workers and their allies, stories like Taylar’s are resonating because a national movement for One Fair Wage is gaining incredible momentum. The seven states that have already eliminated the two-tiered minimum wage system (including California and most of the West Coast) account for over one million tipped workers, and their restaurant industries are flourishing. In fact, California is taking a step further; state legislators announced this week they are moving forward with a plan to increase the minimum wage for all workers to $15 per hour. Many other states, including New York, Maine, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, plus Washington D.C., are considering wage increases. I urge them not to leave out women and people of color; tipped workers deserve a raise, too.

From Danny Meyer to Amy Schumer, the plight of employees who earn tips is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. It’s time for our legislators to catch up with the rest of America and establish one fair wage for all workers. We hope that on this special 25th anniversary, we’ll finally give the restaurant industry a gift it deserves: a fair wage that ensures dignity and justice for the tens of thousands of hardworking employees who make the restaurant industry what it is.


First Person

A Letter to Capital One About the Tipped Minimum Wage

Dear Capital One:

Rebecca here.

A few weeks ago I signed up for one of your credit cards. Just a few weeks after the card came in the mail, I got an email alert from you about a tip I had left. Here’s what it said:

We noticed you gave an extra generous tip on March 14, 2016, for your service at Mackey’s… We hope you left this tip because your service was exceptional. So if it’s not a mistake—or if you’ve already addressed it—there’s nothing you need to do. Have concerns about the tip? Just sign in to look at the charge in more detail. You can also contact Mackey’s directly if you need to…

I looked closer at your email to see I’d left $5 on a $14 bill.

While my tip may have exceeded 20% of the bill (the percentage conventionally considered to be a “good” tip), it was just an extra two bucks—and well within the realm of what I consider reasonable.

As a former server—and as someone who spends her days working to fight poverty and boost opportunity in America—I was struck by the great irony of receiving these emails in the weeks leading up to the 25th anniversary of the last time Congress raised the tipped minimum wage.

I was still reeling from your initial email alert when my “extra generous” tipping was flagged again. This time I had I left a whopping $4 tip on an $11 bill.

And the emails kept coming every day for the rest of the week.

I get that somewhere in there you may have good intentions. Indeed, in response to my publicly sharing your tip-shaming email alerts, your customer service department tweeted that you “like to lean on the safe side when it comes to possible fraudulent activity.”

But with April 1st marking 25 years since Congress last raised the tipped minimum wage, now seems as good a time as any to explain why I tip how I do—and why your email alerts aren’t just meddlesome and offensive, but part of the problem.

In the U.S., the 4.3 million Americans who work for tips are subject to a much lower federal wage floor than other workers. Whereas the federal minimum wage—which is itself a poverty wage—sits at $7.25 per hour, the tipped minimum wage is an abysmal $2.13 per hour, just 30 percent of the full federal minimum. And while the federal minimum wage has been increased five times since 1991, policymakers have left the tipped minimum wage to stay stuck at $2.13.

This anemic wage floor leaves workers at restaurants, hair salons, nail salons, valet parkers, airport attendants, bellhops, and food delivery workers—anyone working for tips—economically vulnerable. In fact, 12.8% of workers in predominantly tipped occupations live below the federal poverty line, and nearly 15% of restaurant servers are poor, compared to just 6.7% of the overall workforce. And nearly half rely on public assistance to make ends meet.

These disparities aren’t inevitable. Indeed, the contrast between states that have a subminimum tipped wage and those that pay tipped workers the same as other workers shows the difference that policy can make. Just 10.2% of restaurant servers are poor in states that have no subminimum tipped wage compared with 18% in states with a $2.13 per hour tipped wage.

Importantly, it’s not just low pay that makes it hard to get by on the tipped minimum wage. As anyone who’s ever been a restaurant server knows all too well, working for tips is inherently unpredictable. While other workers are paid the same rate for every hour they work, tipped workers’ income can fluctuate day to day and week to week, subject to the vagaries of busy and slow shifts, good and bad weather, a booming economy versus hard times when potential customers are tighter with their pocketbooks, and more. It can be incredibly difficult to budget, plan ahead, and save for the future when you can’t predict your income.

Contrary to claims made by some in the restaurant industry—the main opponents of raising the tipped minimum wage—growth of restaurant jobs in states that pay tipped workers the same as other workers is on par with that of the rest of the country. In fact, three of the states with the top growth—Nevada, Washington, and Oregon—do not have a tipped wage below the minimum wage. Restaurants themselves can even benefit from raising wages for their workers. In addition to boosting productivity, one study of restaurant workers found that higher wages cut employee turnover by as much as half, shrinking training costs substantially.

Policymakers at all levels of government are working to address this. Legislation championed by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) would gradually raise the tipped minimum wage to 70% of the federal minimum, an important step in the right direction. Meanwhile, as the Fight for $15 movement continues to gain steam in states and cities across the U.S., there is widespread support for raising or phasing out altogether the tipped minimum wage as well, with 8 states taking action in just the past two years to boost wages for tipped workers.

Yet, Capital One: While these legislative actions are positive steps, some—hopefully many—of your customers who can afford it may choose to tip more generously than 20%, in recognition of how hard it is to get by on the tipped minimum wage. As sociologist Kathy Edin and economist Jonathan Skinner noted recently, tipping well—while hardly a panacea for poverty and inequality—is one concrete step that people can take to make a difference in the lives of low-wage workers who rely on tips.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a few ideas for how you can put your algorithms that trigger email alerts to better use.

What about sending emails with facts about the tipped minimum wage to customers who are routinely cruddy tippers?

Or alerting your customers when businesses they patronize commit wage theft?

Or letting us know when companies fail to top off workers’ pay when tips don’t get them up to the federal minimum wage, as employers are required by law to do?

But if nothing else, please stop hectoring customers like me for doing what we can to tackle poverty and inequality.


Rebecca D. Vallas



How the Fight for $15 Transformed the Political Debate

The following is an excerpt from the new book Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America, by Tamara Draut.

Back in November 2012 in New York City, a brave band of two hundred fast-food workers walked out of their jobs and into the streets to demand a better wage and the right to form a union. Just six months later, fast-food workers went on strike in six major cities across the country. As workers were joining the movement in greater numbers, the organizers added another tactic to their cam­paign: corporate shaming. Tipped off by a McDonald’s worker, the campaign made public a website that McDonald’s had created for its employees called, naturally, McResource. Part of the web­site was geared toward helping employees make a simple budget. Unfortunately, the sample budget revealed the behemoth to be just a tad out of touch with reality: It provided just twenty dollars per month for health-care expenses and nothing at all for gas expenses. Other parts of the site urged employees to adopt a healthy lifestyle by eschewing—wait for it—fast food.

Further gaffes were exposed when a McDonald’s employee called the McResource helpline and was told she would qualify for food stamps, and the website added new advice for its workers like cutting food into smaller pieces to stave off hunger. The exposure generated lots of bad publicity, even from business-friendly outlets like Forbes and CNBC, prompt­ing the company to pull the website. With the press increasingly on its side, the Fight for $15 staged its first national strike in August 2013, with workers in over sixty cities participating. Two months later strikes occurred in more than one hundred cities. Then just six months later, on May 15, 2014, fast-food workers in 230 cities, on six continents, joined the campaign, staging strikes, rallies, and protests, and bringing many supporters along with them.

But all of these actions paled in comparison to what happened on April 15, 2015, when the campaign officially expanded from fast-food workers to include retail and home care workers and even adjunct professors. It was the largest protest of low-wage workers in United States history, with at least sixty thousand people joining protests and rallies in cities across the country. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees Interna­tional Union, who has put the full resources of the SEIU behind this fight, said this about the movement: “There is not a price tag you can put on how this movement has changed the conversation in this country. It is raising wages at the bargaining table. It’s raised wages for eight million workers. I believe we are forcing a real conversation about how to solve the grossest inequality in our generation. People are sick of wealth at the top and no account­ability for corporations.”

There is not a price tag you can put on how this movement has changed the conversation in this country.

I spoke with Scott Courtney, assistant to the president for orga­nizing, about why the SEIU decided to support the campaign. He told me that when Mary Kay Henry became president of the SEIU in 2010, she asked the question “not how do we just rebuild unions and have a bigger union, but how do we make income inequality the issue that politicians in our country have to deal with?” The answer to that question over time became the Fight for $15.

The ability of the leader of the nation’s fastest-growing union to ask that kind of question, one that reaches beyond the parochial goal of fighting only for its members, is the result of over a decade of work by leaders organizing people who had been excluded from traditional union membership (sometimes by laws and sometimes by the practice of labor unions). Jodeen Olguín-Tayler was active in the effort to engage union leaders to fight for the broader social struggle of the working class. Olguín-Tayler has spent fifteen years organizing the working class, first as a labor organizer at a local union and then running a national campaign to address the needs of elder-care workers and clients. She’s now my partner in crime at Demos, as our vice president of campaigns and strategic partner­ships, and she explained the long trajectory that made the Fight for $15 possible. “We knew that social agitation and public cam­paigns that reframe and transform ‘worker issues’ into community and social issues—that is, into class issues—was key to our ability to build a movement that could put economic, racial, and gender inequality back into the spotlight of public debate.

This was a pro­active, offensive strategy to move from protesting bad conditions to winning dignity and power for a broad, multiracial working class—a class where we, people of color, women, and immigrants, would finally be recognized as equals and deserving of our dig­nity,” she explained. There were many successful predecessors to the Fight for $15, such as the living wage campaign of taxi drivers in San Francisco. All these wins demonstrated to the union move­ment that victory was possible by engaging a larger set of workers in the fight and building pressure for them to heed the call bub­bling up across the country.

With the immense courage of the workers matched with the considerable financial resources of the SEIU, the Fight for $15 has taken those proven strategies and racked up major wins. In less than three years, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have raised their minimum wage to $15. In the summer of 2015, New York State’s Wage Board approved a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers at major chains. What’s remarkable is how the demand for $15 has quickly become mainstream. “We don’t get laughed at anymore when we walk in the room,” Courtney observed, remem­bering the rough times when the movement started. Back in 2012 the demand for $15 was greeted with incredulity. Fast-food work­ers, long seen as the bottom of the economic food chain, earning $15 an hour? It’s a testament to the workers, who across race, gen­der, and age have shown a level of class solidarity America hasn’t witnessed in at least a generation. And perhaps most important, it’s brought hope to the new working class.

I asked Courtney how the movement has been able to build and maintain solidarity across such a wide range of experiences, and he talked about how the SEIU has given people the space to talk. And through that talking, they’ve come to realize that only by standing together will they be able to make their lives better. “People are smart. They get it. They get that they’ve been get­ting a raw deal, they’ve been getting a raw deal for a long time. And they haven’t had hope. They have hope now. They do believe they’re going to win. And when people come together and start thinking they can win, it’s pretty spectacular to be a part of,” he told me. This is a movement primarily, but not entirely, of people of color and immigrants, the very backbone of the new working class. And their success is made all the more sweeter by the reality that most people were skeptical at best when the first calls for $15 and a union were made. As we head into the 2016 elections, the Democratic candidates for president have already publicly sup­ported the fight for $15, meaning that one way or another, this issue will continue to take its rightful place on the national stage.

The Fight for $15 uses a strategy well honed by conservatives: Establish a strong left flank in order to make any negotiation away from the big demand, in this case $15 an hour, seem moderate and commonsense by comparison. When the Fight for $15 started, even dyed-in-the-wool progressives thought a $15 minimum wage was ridiculous. But for cities with high costs of living, like Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, a $15 minimum is actually rea­sonable. So now for other cities, like Kansas City and Cincinnati, $10.10 feels not only reasonable but maybe a bit low. The Fight for $15 has fundamentally changed what’s considered mainstream in our political debate about wages.

From the book:
SLEEPING GIANT: How The New Working Class Will Transform America, by Tamara Draut.
Copyright © 2016 by Tamara Draut.
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.



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