What a Budget That Invests in the American People Looks Like

Nearly two years ago, Center for American Progress President and CEO Neera Tanden wrote, “We have a historic opportunity to address poverty today, because the interests of low-income people and the middle class are converging.”

As the first vice-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), I couldn’t agree more.  In fact, it’s one of the reasons I was proud to unveil the CPC’s budget for Fiscal Year 2017—The People’s Budget: Prosperity Not Austerity; Invest in America.  It offers evidence-based fiscal policy that boosts both short- and long-term economic growth, while also reducing the deficit by more than $5.1 trillion dollars over ten years. More importantly, it demonstrates that We the People can rise in this economy together, and that current levels of poverty and economic inequality aren’t inevitable—they are the result of policies that don’t put hard-working Americans first.

While conservatives are battling over how much to cut vital programs that help the 46 million people in poverty, our budget recognizes that serious economic hardship is something that will affect most of us. More than half of all Americans will experience at least a year of poverty or near-poverty during their working years.  If you include people who will endure at least one year of unemployment or who will need to turn to the safety net, that represents nearly 80 percent of us. That’s why The People’s Budget reinvests in our country after years of austerity policies, which have cut the social safety net and resulted in crumbling infrastructure across the country.

Americans are working longer hours and taking home pay checks that haven’t kept up with the rising cost of health care, housing, and education. We must find a pathway out of poverty for low-income Americans and restore economic security to the working class. That begins by investing in infrastructure, investing in education, and investing in wage growth to increase opportunity for all.

The People’s Budget invests $1 trillion to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, which would ensure that our roads, bridges, railways, and facilities will be strong, and that no town will experience the kind of devastation that we are witnessing in Flint, Michigan.  In all, we create 3.6 million well-paying jobs to push our economy back to full-employment, and the increased demand for workers will help spur across-the-board wage growth. We also protect collective bargaining, seek to close the pay equity gap, and increase funding for worker protection agencies in order to crack down on wage theft, combat overtime abuses, and safeguard workers’ retirement savings. In short, we recognize that the struggles of people in poverty and the middle class aren’t due to a lack of hard work—they are due to the lack of a fair deal.

Current levels of poverty and economic inequality aren’t inevitable.

When it comes to ensuring that children in working families are prepared for success, The People’s Budget tackles the current inequities in education head on. From pre-school through college, every student deserves a high-quality affordable education and a fair shot at the American Dream. That’s why The People’s Budget provides pre-K for all students and fully funds Early Head Start to help families during the critical prenatal through toddler years. We fully fund Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the most powerful tool that we have to drive improvements in educational outcomes for low-income children. Finally, our budget creates a federal matching program that supports state efforts to promote debt-free college, and invests in federal student aid programs to ensure that students with the greatest need aren’t priced out of a higher education.

In addition to creating good jobs for workers and educational opportunities for their children, The People’s Budget ensures that those workers can afford housing for their families.  This isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s the smart thing to do.  For example, new research demonstrates that housing assistance during childhood is associated with higher adult earnings for girls; and among black households, increased earnings for both boys and girls when they reach adulthood.  Yet only 25 percent of families that qualify for federal housing assistance actually receive it; and nearly 8 million low-income families pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

The People’s Budget fully funds programs to make housing affordable and accessible for all Americans.  Moreover, at a moment when there are a record 1.3 million homeless students in our public schools, we invest $11 billion to end family homelessness through vouchers, new affordable housing units, and rapid rehousing assistance in cooperation with the efforts of cities, counties, and tribes.

By now—after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and historic levels of inequality—we should realize that there is really no separation between the interests of people with low incomes and those of the middle class. The People’s Budget is an aspirational document indicative of our shared progressive values that puts a down payment on a brighter future for all Americans, ensuring every family struggling to make ends meet has a fair shot at the American Dream. It’s past time that we embrace policies that will dramatically reduce poverty, restore economic mobility, and grow and strengthen the middle class.


First Person

The Need for a Budget Proposal That Works for All Families

Today, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee is considering the question of how trickle-down economics failed in the War on Poverty. This hearing sharply contrasts with the House Republican budget proposal, which would cut programs for low- and moderate-income people by about $3.7 trillion over the next decade without asking for a single additional dollar in tax revenue.

These proposed cuts to the safety net will devastate the lives of millions of Americans like me. As a single mother of three, I have spent much of my life pulling myself up by my proverbial bootstraps. I have weathered spells of unemployment, food insecurity, homelessness, and domestic violence.

But in spite of my struggles, I obtained a four-year college degree. Were it not for federal and California state programs, I would not have been able to balance the many challenges of higher education with my familial obligations. CalWorks, the income assistance program in my state, helped me to identify a cognitive disability that otherwise would have gone undiagnosed, and then helped me to secure the accommodations I needed to finish my education. Medicaid gave my children health insurance––which helped me sleep better at night. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC helped me afford groceries and feed my family. With the help of this vital assistance, I graduated with a degree in public policy in 2007. I am living proof that the safety net can work—but only when it’s adequately funded.

Since my graduation, I have continued to pursue my passion for social justice and political advocacy by working with a legal services agency. I connect low-income individuals with state and federal resources that help them keep their heads above water. The clients I work with are not “takers.” They are people who are trying to find affordable housing and nutrition assistance for their families so that they can escape abusive relationships, find a better-paying job, heal from an illness or injury, or overcome  addiction. And perhaps they, too, will one day be able to connect others with these vital programs.

I am living proof that the safety net can work—but only when it’s adequately funded.

But in recent years, I have noticed that these programs have become harder to access. When I first started at this job, the majority of my caseloads were approved with almost no issues. Now, as block grants and “work first” reforms have hacked away at many of the programs that were so crucial to my success, more and more people are seeing their applications denied. For example, today just 23 of every 100 families with children living in poverty benefit from cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, compared to 68 in 1996. In my experience, a lot of the clients who come to our agency for help have trouble keeping up with the intrusive and needlessly complicated applications, reauthorizations, and verification forms required to receive benefits. Just one missed deadline, and you can be cut off with no warning. The wait to get back into the system can be over a month long.

These realities are deeply misunderstood by many legislators. Indeed, conservatives—who seek cuts to the very programs that have served as a lifeline for me and my three daughters—peddle an oversimplified and inaccurate notion of poverty. Instead of raising wages or increasing access to affordable housing, these legislators work to further stigmatize low-income people through instituting drug testing requirements, even though very few recipients test positive for drug use, or by banning the use of SNAP benefits to purchase lobster. These frivolous “solutions” in search of a problem underscore how, unlike me, they have never had to strategize about which food pantry to get bread from, or which public restroom to wash up in, or which shelter to spend the night in with three children.

Lawmakers have an obligation to pass a budget that invests in all Americans. They have an obligation to recognize the struggles that people in poverty endure every day—not shame them for those struggles.  They have an obligation to strengthen the safety net, not unravel it. It’s not just people living in poverty who need these key federal investments. Every American who believes government can make a fundamental difference in people’s lives has an inherent interest in protecting public assistance programs.



For Low-Income Women, Equal Pay Day Won’t Come Any Time Soon

Today is Equal Pay Day, the day in 2016 until which American women must work to make the same amount of income their male counterparts earned by the end of 2015. Or at least, it’s Equal Pay Day for the “average” woman, who earns roughly 79 cents for every dollar the average man makes. By contrast, African-American women earn 60.5 cents and Hispanic women earn 54.6 cents for every dollar a man earns.

The widespread usage of the 79 cents figure corresponds to a public dialogue around equal pay that focuses on women who earn salaries much higher than the minimum wage—women who work in offices but are excluded from C-suites. But, while it is true that the gender wage gap is larger among women with more education, women who have an advanced degree will also earn much more over a lifetime than those with less than a high school diploma. And the white, middle- and upper-class women who comprise the bulk of female office workers have radically different work experiences than low-income women.

The latter group of workers, often women of color and recent immigrants, earn very low pay with few opportunities for upward mobility. These disparate experiences among women raise the question of how to create an inclusive equal pay movement that both acknowledges the very real discrimination that professional women experience in the workplace while also ensuring their own advancement isn’t achieved on the backs of other women.

Unfortunately, the common focus on getting women access to high-paid and male-dominated fields—through encouraging women to “lean in”—obscures the fact that, for the many women who earn poverty wages and work without essential labor protections, equal pay won’t come any time soon.

Many of these women workers are people of color employed in care work. Women are over-represented in all sorts of care work, from professional jobs in teaching and nursing, to low-wage positions as nannies and home health aides. Care work—defined as any paid or unpaid role in which a worker cares for another person—can include cooking and cleaning as well as emotional labor like nurturance. A unique feature of this work is that it has historically been performed by family members, but is increasingly part of the labor market as more parents work outside of the home. But its growth in the labor market has been polarized, with large increases in low-wage and high-wage positions, but very little growth in the middle.

This trend has led sociologist Rachel Dwyer to hypothesize that job polarization in the labor market as a whole, characterized by a paucity of good middle-class jobs and growing income inequality, is a result of disparities in care work. This distribution is driven by the entry of more women into the formal workforce—often in care sectors themselves—who increasingly require the care work of others to balance career and family. Unsurprisingly, most of the high-wage job gains in care work have gone to white women, while most of the low-wage gains have accrued to non-white women, especially African-American women and Latinas. This phenomenon has reinforced racial divisions in the labor market and increased inequality among women, as seen in the discrepancies in the gender pay gap by race.

A feminist revolution that lifts up all women will not trickle down from highly visible professional women alone.

To move closer to gender equality, we must find mechanisms for empowerment of women in the formal workplace. Efforts towards workplace justice for all are already ongoing for many organizations, including those catering largely to moderate- and high-income women, like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). Still, centering issues that affect women of color, undocumented women, and those in low-wage care work jobs—and especially those who fall into all three categories—poses an ongoing challenge. Unlike pay equity for middle-class and high-income women, feminist advocacy that intersects with poverty and immigration policy is more complex, more prone to controversy, and sometimes just less sexy. Positive progress, like the recognition by NOW that immigration justice is a feminist issue in partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, show that mobilizing mainstream women’s groups on a more diverse set of issues is possible.

And yet, a feminist revolution that lifts up all women—especially those who are most disenfranchised—will not trickle down from highly visible professional women alone. Policy actions to fairly value and compensate women’s work outside the office, especially in the domestic sphere, is ongoing in many states and beginning to draw greater attention from policy researchers. Still, while labor organizations are turning a critical lens to care work, popular feminist discourse dominated by educated white women too often obscures the issue.

Acting to increase representation of low-income women and women of color in mainstream feminist circles is also a responsibility shared by all of us. This can take many forms, whether it be avoiding selecting candidates for internships or jobs who are recommended by people in your network, or making a concerted effort to hire underrepresented women to write for your publication or speak at an event.  Even further, all feminist advocates can support common-sense policy reforms to alleviate pay discrimination, like the EEOC proposal to amend employer reporting and the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Collective action is a tall order for a group as large and diverse as working women, so we recommend another simple individual step: when you receive a promotion, a pay raise, or a bonus, share that added wealth with the women who work minding your children at daycare, making your coffee in the morning, and cleaning your home. Generous tips can go a long way towards alleviating the material hardship of low-income women, and a wage increase, even further. For women employed in care work jobs, employer generosity may be the only way to get a raise, even if your state or municipality enacts a higher wage floor. While organizations like the American Association of University Women may have excellent resources on how to negotiate salary for a college-educated woman, similar strategies for low-income women are substantially less feasible, if available at all.

So, when you’re leaning in at work—this Equal Pay Day and every day—don’t forget to also pay it forward.



Guilty Until Proven Innocent

After a months-long trip to visit extended family in Cincinnati, Charles Clarke was approached by local law enforcement while preparing to board a flight home to Orlando. A tip from a ticket agent, who claimed that Clarke’s bag smelled like marijuana, had spurred the encounter.

The officers, who were working with the Drug Enforcement Administration, began quizzing Clarke, a 22-year-old African-American and college student, on his travel plans. They also asked him if he was carrying cash. Believing he had nothing to hide from law enforcement, Clarke consented to a search of his carry-on bag.

Clarke was carrying approximately $11,000 in cash, money he had obtained through legal means, including his job and student loans. Before taking his trip, he had decided to bring the money with him because his mother, whom he lives with, was moving and Clarke did not want his money to be lying around for movers to find.

“I asked them if they searched my [checked] bags, and they told me yes and that they didn’t find anything,” Clarke said in a video released by the Institute for Justice, the libertarian public interest law firm that is representing him in federal court. “And to prove the fact that I didn’t have anything, I let them search my carry-on. And they didn’t find anything. I didn’t have any drugs on me, anything at all, and they still took my money.”

Carrying cash for domestic travel, of course, is not a crime. But federal civil asset forfeiture laws, as well as most state statutes, create perverse incentives for law enforcement to take people’s property. Under these laws, state and local law enforcement, working in coordination with federal agencies, can seize money under federal forfeiture law and receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds in return. And, in a distortion of justice, the burden of proof in federal forfeiture proceedings falls on the property owners, not the government. This disproportionately impacts low-income people; as there is generally no constitutional right to an attorney in forfeiture cases, property owners who cannot afford legal representation are often left with no choice but to attempt to represent themselves in court.

Clarke, who was never charged with a drug-related crime, admits to being a recreational marijuana user, but he insists that he is not a dealer. But after more than a year, the federal government is still holding his money, and 13 different law enforcement agencies, including several that were not even involved in the seizure, are lining up to get a cut of the cash through the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program. He may not see again if he cannot prove he obtained the funds through lawful means.

“I saved up the money to use for living expenses and for future savings, and now it is gone,” Clarke said. “After the money was seized, it was very hard for me to make ends meet. I had to borrow money from family, and I was embarrassed. No one should have to go through the nightmare I went through simply because they choose to carry their hard-earned cash.”

Abuse of this pernicious tool tends to impact people of color and the poor the most.

Clarke’s story is all too common. Innocent people are often negatively affected by civil asset forfeiture. Their money, homes, and vehicles can be taken from them without ever being charged with a crime, which can have devastating short- and long-term consequences for already struggling individuals and families.

When people hear stories like Clarke’s—especially those who are learning about civil asset forfeiture for the first time—they are simply stunned. They wonder how this could happen in America, where we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.

A FreedomWorks publication offers background on this troubling area of the policing. The report covers the roots of civil asset forfeiture in British admiralty law and the early days of the United States, how it is used today (primarily in the decades-long war on drugs), and the threat it represents to Americans’ due process and property rights.

While civil asset forfeiture can affect any American, abuse of this pernicious tool tends to impact people of color and the poor the most. The Washington Post, in its lauded September 2014 investigative series “Stop and Seize,” examined 400 federal forfeiture cases that were challenged by a property owner. The majority of those who received at least some money back “were black, Hispanic or another minority.”

Likewise, an analysis of Philadelphia law enforcement’s use of civil asset forfeiture released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania found that African-Americans are disproportionately impacted. Researchers discovered that police in the “City of Brotherly Love” bring in $5 million each year through forfeiture of cash and property.

Roughly a third of those whose property is seized are never convicted of a crime—and African-Americans are even less likely to have been convicted. “An estimated 7 out of 10 people whose cash is taken by Philadelphia law enforcement even though they have not been convicted of a crime are African-American,” the report explained. “One explanation for this disparity is that innocent African-Americans are more likely to be subject to unfounded arrests and property seizures in the first place, which then spawn more forfeiture petitions.”

Under Pennsylvania civil asset forfeiture laws, prosecutors need only meet a low standard of evidence to subject property to forfeiture. The burden of proof falls on the property owner. Most walk away rather than fight what could be a costly and lengthy battle to get their property back.

There are legislative remedies to restore justice. Ideally, a criminal conviction would be required before property is seized by law enforcement and the profit motive that often drives seizures would be removed by directing proceeds from forfeitures to a neutral account, beyond the grasp of law enforcement. Importantly, the burden of proof should always—without question—fall on the government.

These steps may not solve all the problems with policing in the United States, particularly as they relate to law enforcement and people of color. But civil asset forfeiture reform could be a good first step toward improving relationships with communities that look skeptically at law enforcement.



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.