Labor

I Needed Unemployment Insurance in Two Different States. It Was Radically Different.

The first time I lost my job, the owner of the small design agency where I worked sat in a chair across from me in his spandex shorts and spiked bicycle shoes.  He proceeded to lay off my soon-to-be husband Dylan and me, and then click-clacked his way back to his desk. Six years later, that image of him is the only thing I can laugh at about that day.

As our boss walked away, panic shot through my body. It was 2009. The recession had now smacked us right in the face.

When Dylan and I tried to get the two months of back pay that we were owed, the North Carolina Department of Labor flatly told us there was no recourse, and suggested we apply for unemployment benefits (UI). The process was daunting.  It required a lengthy registration and application, a long lead time before we’d receive any benefits, and a “weekly certification” to prove we were seeking new employment. Eventually, our first unemployment checks came in. Mine totaled around $150 per week, Dylan’s around $85 per week.

Our daily job searches and revised resumes were fruitless. We delayed paying bills, cashed in coin jars, and sold off the few luxury items we had, like film cameras and well-played, treasured records. But it wasn’t enough to keep us in our apartment.

We made the difficult decision to move into the basement of my future mother-in-law’s home in New Hampshire. Our unemployment benefits, though meager, were key to getting us a moving truck so we could have a roof to live under and hold onto the things we hadn’t sold.

Fourteen months later, I was laid off again—right after I had returned from our honeymoon. Dylan, too, had lost his job in New Hampshire shortly before we were married.  Instead of newlywed bliss, we faced stress and fatigue as we crunched numbers to make ends meet.

Luckily, the process for claiming unemployment was much easier and faster in New Hampshire. And since our recent jobs had paid us slightly higher wages, and New Hampshire policies were far more generous, our checks came in at $450 between the two of us—almost double what we received in North Carolina.

But the bills continued to pile up on the kitchen counter. There were stacks of legal pads on the nightstand. We postdated and subtracted to survive—a process made more difficult on an empty stomach, which was too often the case for us. We eventually applied for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  After we got through its long application process the program gave us a second huge sigh of relief. We could eat. Therefore we could think. Crunch some more numbers.

Six years later, my husband and I still live paycheck to paycheck. But the specter of poverty sits right on my shoulder. It’s there. Always.

Because I have faced the reality of living on a shoestring, I know how critical programs like unemployment insurance and SNAP are. Without them, the story of our small family would be radically different. We would not have gone on to start our own business, begun to build up our savings (albeit slowly), or, with trepidation, started to dream again.

But public assistance has become even harder to secure in states like North Carolina. Since we left, the state legislature has passed harmful cuts to the UI program. Now residents are eligible for just 13 weeks of UI—half the duration permitted in most other states. In our case, this harsh time limit wouldn’t have given us any chance of finding suitable jobs and applying for them, let alone completing the process of interviewing and securing a start date.  In contrast, the state of New Hampshire offers modest insurance benefits that gave us the boost we needed to get back on our feet.

I know too many people who work hard and get knocked down. It’s time for an unemployment insurance system that lifts people back up—no matter where they live.

Culture

5 Things to Know About How Fatherhood is Changing

Break out the grill.

Families across the country are getting ready to celebrate Father’s Day this weekend. For some people this might conjure a Mad Men-like image—a hands-off Don Draper barbecuing while he leaves the child-rearing to Betty Draper, a stay-at-home mom—the kind of “traditional” family conservatives frequently hold up as the perfect ideal.  But in America today, that image simply doesn’t reflect reality.

Here are five things you should know about the more than 70 million dads in the nation:

  1. Fathers today are more involved. They are more likely to be directly involved with their children than dads of previous generations. Today’s dads also spend substantially more time on housework and childcare than their fathers did, although women still do the lion’s share of chores and parenting.
  1. Fathers today want more time with their children. Even though dads are more involved with their children than ever before, they aren’t satisfied with their current situation—half report that they have a difficult time balancing family and work, and nearly half say they spend too little time with their children.  In fact, one-third of all fathers don’t give themselves high marks when it comes to parenting.
  1. Family circumstances are changing for fathers. The share of married, stay-at-home dads—while still small—has nearly tripled in the last 20 years. There are also 2.4 million fathers who are raising children on their own—more than ten times as many as there were in 1950. Fathers are far more likely to share the breadwinner role than they did in the past, too. In short, there has been a proliferation in the diversity in parenting situations.
  1. Today’s families are breaking down stereotypes and redefining fatherhood. Some “fathers” are in fact grandfathers—roughly 1 million grandfathers are primarily responsible for their grandchildren. And young fathers are shedding decades of stigma so they can parent with dignity—without shame and with equal access to the economic, educational, and social supports they and their families need to thrive. And tens of thousands of two-dad families will celebrate a double Father’s Day this weekend.
  1. Today’s public policies are especially harmful to certain fathers. Punitive criminal justice policies have left some fathers—especially men of color—struggling to raise their kids while incarcerated, or confronting unnecessary barriers to opportunity posed by having a criminal record—such as difficulties finding employment or housing. Draconian immigration policies have torn families apart, leaving children thousands of miles and years away from reuniting with their parents. Inadequate support for adult children with disabilities leaves families struggling to make ends meet for decades, well into the child’s adulthood.

Modern fatherhood comes many forms. So instead of relying on antiquated policies that fit outdated images of fathers and families, we must advance contemporary pro-family policies, including workplace policies like paid sick leave and fair scheduling practices that enable dads to better balance family and work; comprehensive criminal justice reform that breaks down barriers to opportunity; immigration policies that allow families to come out of the shadows and thrive; and economic improvements like raising the minimum wage, access to higher education, and affordable, high-quality childcare that help families achieve the American Dream.

You know Dad doesn’t want another tie this Father’s Day.  He doesn’t want the same old public policies that were created for the Drapers either.

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Labor

What Happened When North Carolina Cut Unemployment Insurance for Thousands of People

This spring, workers in Salisbury, North Carolina gathered to share how layoffs at a truck manufacturing plant had affected their families and communities. In the past, workers who were laid off when demand for new trucks had fallen turned to unemployment insurance, or UI, to make ends meet until the market improved. UI is earned insurance that nearly all American workers contribute to automatically when they earn wages. If workers are laid off, UI benefits are supposed to temporarily replace a share of their lost income while they search for a new job.

But their experience will be different this time. Not only is it unlikely that jobs will return quickly, but draconian changes in the state’s UI program have meant that workers can no longer rely on the program to help keep them afloat until their next job. One man shared that his UI benefits represent less than one-fifth of what he used to earn—only about half of what he would have received from the social insurance program during previous periods of unemployment.

He is not alone. A young woman who was laid off from her job at a non-profit in North Carolina’s capitol Raleigh—a city recognized for its relatively strong labor market—is still struggling to find work in her field and has taken part-time jobs since her unemployment insurance ran out. Despite her graduate degree and solid work experience, opportunities to continue in her career or pursue a new one have been stymied by the immediate need to pay for rent and food.

Just 1 in 10 jobless workers in North Carolina receives UI—the lowest level in the nation.

Meanwhile, prospects for workers are only getting worse, as solidly middle-class jobs in North Carolina’s remaining manufacturing counties continue to be lost. And, given how unlikely it is that these lost positions will be replaced by good jobs, these layoffs could spur a ripple effect in the local economy, harming every community business from the suppliers who sell parts to manufacturing plants, to local grocery stores and restaurants that serve the workers these companies once employed. In the past, UI benefits could have given cash-strapped unemployed workers money to spend, stimulating consumer demand that would keep these businesses operating—but North Carolina’s policymakers have crippled the program.

It’s clear that North Carolina’s workers—and its economy—need UI more than ever. However, extreme policy choices have left the state’s UI system unprepared to address the fallout of these layoffs, let alone the next economic downturn.

As a result of years’ worth of tax cuts for businesses, North Carolina’s Unemployment Trust Fund was quickly overwhelmed when unemployment rose during the Great Recession, and the state went into debt to pay the UI benefits it owed. In 2013, rather than restoring the program to solvency, leaders in the General Assembly instead pushed through cuts to North Carolina’s UI program that reduced the number of weeks workers could collect benefits, slashed UI’s weekly benefit amount, and limited job training and workforce development opportunities.

These changes have been devastating to North Carolina’s working families. As a result, North Carolina’s UI system went from being fairly average compared to other states to downright stingy. Today, just 1 in 10 jobless workers in North Carolina receives UI—the lowest level in the nation. And, although nearly a third of jobless workers are out of work for 26 weeks or longer, the state offers just 13 weeks of UI for them to fall back on. This is coupled with steep benefit cuts: The average weekly benefit has dropped to a meager $233—just one-third of what is required to meet the basic needs of a family with one adult and one child in North Carolina.

In the name of helping businesses, North Carolina’s leaders took an extreme approach that will actually hurt its economy: When the next economic downturn arrives, UI payments will be insufficient to ensure that workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own can maintain their spending and thus generate the demand for goods and services produced by local businesses. Even more troubling is the fact that cuts to unemployment insurance—a program designed to sustain the American middle class—come at a time when North Carolina is experiencing the fourth-largest decline in the nation in the share of adults with middle incomes. Cuts to the UI program have likely exacerbated this trend: Many workers are now forced to take jobs for lower pay because they cannot afford to search for higher-quality employment. By tearing down UI—a program intended to ensure that job loss doesn’t push working families off the economic ladder—lawmakers have actually acted to expand the ranks of workers earning low wages.

It would be bad enough if North Carolina had stopped there. But unemployment insurance cuts have been made worse by state policymakers’ eagerness to pursue every punitive measure available to them across other critical programs.

For example, state leaders have implemented a time limit on access to food assistance in counties whose labor markets were deemed too weak to provide jobs to all those who want to work. In addition, they’ve refused to invest state dollars in specific skills training or career pathways that would allow jobless workers to prepare for future jobs and new careers. And they have made too little commitment to helping rural communities—and those struggling with the loss of manufacturing jobs—rebuild their economies.

Our state leaders must commit to pushing forward better policies that support jobless workers in North Carolina. However, the UI system is ultimately a state-federal partnership. So key federal reforms are important to ensure all those who are jobless and seeking work in our state have a better chance of staying connected to the labor market.

A first step for the federal reform is to set minimum standards for state systems—including North Carolina’s—that are based on what works to support the economy and connect unemployed workers to jobs. Such minimum standards must include the provision of at least 26 weeks of UI benefits for laid-off workers, and benefit amounts that are sufficient to support jobless workers while they seek a new job. Beyond that, federal investments should place a greater emphasis on re-employment services so that jobless workers can connect with local employers and access skills training they need to advance their careers.

North Carolina’s unemployment insurance cuts surpass nearly all other states’ in their harshness, and have been a disaster for jobless workers and their communities. What state policymakers are likely to discover when the next recession arrives—if not before—is that these cuts will come at enormous cost to our economy as well.

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Media and Politics

Paul Ryan Just Changed the Definition of ‘Welfare.’ That’s Dangerous.

The poverty plan released last week by a House GOP task force begins not with a summary of poverty and wage trends, but with an overview of what it calls “the welfare system.” Entitled “A Better Way,” the 39-page plan repeats the word “welfare” some 60 times. Yet, it contains no mention of the minimum wage, paid medical and family leave, and Social Security. For the task force, it seems, the pressing question isn’t how to fix the economy to reduce poverty and promote shared prosperity—it’s more to the tune of: “What should we do about welfare?”

This focus is misplaced. To compound that, the task force uses the label “welfare” in a strange way. Traditionally, the term “welfare” has been understood to mean the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which provided income assistance up until 1996, and to some extent its successor, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). But the task force employs the term “welfare” in a much broader way—any program that has a means test or targets funds to low-income areas receives such a label. Medicaid, Pell Grants, the Earned Income Tax Credit, child care assistance, and job training are all “welfare.” So are Single-Family Rural Housing Loans, the Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection program, and a long list of other programs.

At the same time, the task force’s skewed definition of welfare excludes many of the benefits and services that make up the so-called welfare state, which includes Social Security, Medicare, and a long list of subsidies provided to individuals. Many of these benefits accrue to wealthy people—for example, tax subsidies such as the home mortgage interest deduction, the largest housing program in the United States, provides substantial cash benefits to well-off homeowners. Similarly, employer-provided health insurance, and particularly the employer-provided health insurance provided to high-income people, is massively subsidized through the tax code.

So why does “A Better Way” focus so much on “welfare,” and why does it define it in such an unusual way?

One likely answer comes from political scientist Martin Gilens’ book, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Reviewing public opinion polls, Gilens noted that most Americans opposed spending more on “welfare,” but strongly supported concrete policies that help struggling families—just as long as they’re not tagged as “welfare.” Gilens concluded that opposition to “welfare” is driven largely by racial stereotypes, and fed by “racial distortions in the media’s coverage of poverty.” In particular, black Americans are over-represented in unsympathetic media portrayals of poverty, and in ways that reinforced the stereotyping of them as lazy. Similarly, as Professor Sanford Schram has noted, “welfare” did not become “a political epithet” in the United States until it was associated with African-Americans in the decades following the civil rights revolution.

Is the House task force intentionally using “welfare” as a racial dog whistle—that is, to make a coded appeal to whites in order to increase racial resentment and diminish support for anti-poverty programs? We can’t say for sure. But the term’s racially charged history, coupled with the task force’s novel use of it to apply to all means-tested services and benefits—but not to forms of welfare that disproportionately benefit the relatively affluent—doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Earlier this year, House Speaker Paul Ryan disavowed his use of the word “takers.” In the same speech he said: “I was callous and I oversimplified and castigated people with a broad brush. There is a lot of that happening in America today.” Yes, Speaker Ryan, indeed there is, and the task force’s report on “welfare” is the most recent example.

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Media and Politics

It’s Not Just Climate Change Anymore. Meet the Right-Wing Poverty Deniers.

This past Sunday, I joined C-SPAN’s Washington Journal for a discussion on the House GOP poverty plan released earlier in the week.

My conservative counterpart on the show—Robert Rector of the right-wing Heritage Foundation—made his views on poverty clear early on in the conversation when he lamented that our aid programs are “too generous.” Believe it or not, he went on, poor people in America have basic household appliances such as refrigerators, stoves, ovens, microwaves, and—gasp! —air conditioning. He accused folks on the left—and the nonpartisan Census Bureau—of “exaggerating” the state of poverty in the U.S.

These are hardly new talking points for Rector. He’s been putting out “research” on how good poor Americans supposedly have it for years. Back in 2011, Rector’s brazenly titled report, Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an X-Box: What is Poverty in the United States Today? got the attention of Stephen Colbert, who gave it the treatment it deserves on The Colbert Report: “A refrigerator and a microwave? They can preserve and heat food?  Ooh la la!  I guess the poor are too good for mold and trichinosis.”

All joking aside, the fact that Rector is still peddling this line reflects just how out of touch right-wing views on poverty are today.

For starters, are our aid programs “too generous?”

As I noted on Washington Journal, Rector should try telling that to the more than 6 million Americans whose only income is food stamps—which provides just $1.40 per person per meal in nutrition assistance. Or the 3 in 4 low-income families who are eligible for housing assistance but don’t receive it and can spend 60, 70, or 80 percent of their income on rent and utilities each month, while they remain on decades-long waiting lists for aid. Rector should see how his line goes over with the 3 in 4 families with children in poverty who are not helped by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), because it was converted to a flat-funded block grant that’s lost one-third of its purchasing power since 1996. Or even with the small fraction of families lucky enough to receive TANF—because in no state are benefits greater than half the federal poverty line.

And are poor people in America secretly living high on the hog?

Most observers view the austere federal poverty line as an inadequate measure of hardship. Experts say a family of four needs an annual income of $50,000 to achieve an adequate but basic standard of living—more than twice the poverty line for a family of four, which is a measly $24,000.

By that measure, the number of people in this country struggling to make ends meet far exceeds the 47 million Americans with incomes below the poverty line; it amounts to nearly 1 in 3 Americans—more than 105 million people—living on the economic brink today. This much larger figure is confirmed by recent survey data. In a report released last month by the Federal Reserve Board, one-third of American adults say that they struggle to make ends meet.

It is clear that after decades of growing income inequality, economic hardship can hardly be described as an “us and them” phenomenon. With working families facing flat and declining wages and gains from economic growth increasingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, economic instability is now a widespread experience.

Rector’s comments on Washington Journal made clear his proposed solution: just deny the existence of poverty and hardship in America. If poor families are actually doing just fine—they have refrigerators and microwaves, after all—then not only does that free up policymakers to slash aid programs, it also removes any need to boost wages or enact any other policies that would cut poverty and make it easier to get ahead.

But for the 105 million Americans struggling to get by, the fact that they are fortunate enough to be able to refrigerate—and heat!—their food offers cold comfort.

It’s not just Heritage who’s out of touch. Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan released a long-awaited poverty plan as part of his “A Better Way” House GOP policy agenda. He unveiled the plan at a drug rehab center, offering a not-so-subtle reminder of his views on the causes of poverty.

As Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-WI) pointed out at a Center for American Progress event last week, if Ryan truly understood poverty in America, rather than seeing struggling individuals as “broken people,” he would have given the speech at a McDonald’s, surrounded by low-wage workers struggling because of a broken economy.

Even more out of touch were the comments made by Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) at the plan’s release—he actually referred to people living in poverty as “untapped, dormant assets.”

Speaker Ryan and his colleagues’ limited understanding of poverty is also evident in the “A Better Way” plan itself, which echoes many of the themes found in their previous budgets. (This year’s House GOP budget, for example, got three-fifths of its cuts from programs that serve low- and moderate-income people, while protecting tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.)

In addition to slashing housing assistance in the midst of a national affordable housing crisis, and proposing to cut school lunches, their solutions to poverty include legalizing bad financial advice by rolling back the Obama Administration’s “fiduciary rule” and blocking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s proposed rule to protect cash-strapped borrowers from predatory payday lenders.

Perhaps even more notable than what’s in the plan is what it leaves out: any policies to create jobs or boost wages. Indeed, Ryan made clear in the Q&A following his speech that despite his previous claims to want to “push wages up,” he and his colleagues remain steadfastly opposed to raising the minimum wage.

Bipartisan interest in tackling poverty and expanding opportunity would be a welcome development. But instead of putting our heads in the sand, policymakers on both sides of the aisle must acknowledge the very real experience of poverty in America—and the many structural barriers that stand in the way of getting ahead.

That starts by admitting that poverty exists.

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