Media and Politics

The Biggest Beneficiaries of Housing Subsidies? The Wealthy.

It’s almost the first of the month, and that means rent’s due. That rent or mortgage check is the single biggest expense in most Americans’ budgets, so it’s no wonder that Congress directs a ton of federal dollars to housing. But what should be surprising—and infuriating—is that a lot of this support goes to housing the wealthy, while very little goes to those who need help landing a stable home. These policies aren’t accidents—they’re bad choices that we should simply stop making.

We’re in the middle of an affordable housing crisis

The United States is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Nearly 1 in 3 households with a mortgage devotes more than 30 percent of their income to their home. The situation is even worse for renters—more than half of America’s 38 million rental households are shouldering a cost burden.

Some of this crisis is fallout from the Great Recession, which brought homeownership rates to historic lows. African-American and Latino households were hit particularly hard, because of predatory lending practices that targeted racially segregated communities.

Congress spends a lot on housing, mostly through tax programs

Given these crises in housing affordability and homeownership, congressional strategies to support housing deserve special scrutiny.

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Congress supports housing in two main ways: rental assistance programs and homeownership tax programs. In 2015, the price tag for federal rental assistance programs—which includes Section 8 housing vouchers, public housing, Homeless Assistance Grants, and other programs—was $51 billion. In contrast, two of the largest homeownership tax programs—the Mortgage Interest Deduction and the Property Tax Deduction—cost $90 billion in 2015. That’s nearly double the amount spent on public benefit housing programs.

The biggest beneficiary of the billions spent on homeownership tax programs? The wealthy.

There’s nothing wrong with providing support through the tax code—benefits are benefits, whether you get them from your local HUD office or on your tax return.  The important question is: who benefits? Rental assistance programs are designed to help those who will benefit most—primarily individuals and families with less income and less stable housing. But this isn’t the how Congress designed homeownership tax programs. All told, households making over $100,000 a year received nearly 90 percent of the $90 billion spent on the two tax programs discussed above. Households making less than $50,000 got a little more than 1 percent of those benefits.

It gets uglier. There are nearly eight million low-income homeowners that struggle to pay for housing from month to month. On average, low-income households get about eight cents per month from these two homeownership tax programs. Eight cents. There are also about four million middle-income households paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The average monthly benefit from these tax programs for middle-income earners? Twelve bucks. Don’t spend it all in one place.

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In contrast, the top 0.1 percent of earners—folks with an average annual income of more than $9 million—get an average of $1,236 per month (nearly $15,000 per year) from just these two homeownership tax programs. That federal benefit is much more than the typical cost of rent in most American cities, and it’s going to wealthy households who really don’t need help keeping a roof over their heads.

Why these tax programs are so upside down

So why are these tax programs so out of whack? It’s no accident—it’s how the programs are designed. Most low-income families don’t even qualify because they don’t itemize deductions. Even among those that do qualify, every dollar they deduct is worth less than a dollar that a high-income earner deducts. As nonsensical as it sounds, the value of homeownership tax support goes up as your income goes up. In addition, higher-income households get bigger deductions when they buy bigger houses (or bigger yachts, which qualify for the same tax benefits).

If we ran the Food Stamp (SNAP) program the same way we run our housing tax programs, low-income parents buying a simple, nutritious meal for their kids would get somewhere around zero dollars in federal support. Millionaires charging their MasterCard with a $5,000 FleurBurger, seared foie gras, truffle sauce, and bottle of 1995 Château Petrus would get a few thousand dollars in federal benefits.

Clearly, this would be a crazy way to run a social program—but this really is how we structure billions in support for wealthy homeowners through the tax code. Even worse, study after study shows that the Mortgage Interest Deduction doesn’t even succeed in boosting homeownership.

How we can get away from this upside-down system

It’s not hard to think up a better way to spend $90 billion. That’s the focus of the Turn it Right-Side Up campaign, which zeroes in on reforming unfair tax programs like these homeownership boondoggles. We could redirect this spending to help lower-income Americans save for a down payment, or use some of these funds to create a first-time homebuyer credit, or create a simple refundable credit for all homeowners. Or all of the above.

In other words, there are options that don’t include flushing billions in tax subsidies down a golden toilet in a millionaire’s yacht (which he claims as a second home, for the tax break). Next time someone argues that we can’t afford to fix widespread housing insecurity, our response should be that we can’t afford to keep spending so much to house the wealthy. Let’s make a different choice—let’s start using these homeownership tax programs to actually solve the affordable housing crisis.

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Culture

Dear San Francisco Journalists: If You Want to Help Homeless People, Just Ask Us

Today, media organizations throughout the Bay Area are devoting a day of coverage to homelessness in San Francisco.  Aside from the fact that the project seems originally motivated by an editor’s view of homeless people as a nuisance, there is a deeper issue that makes me doubt how authentic and effective the reporting will be.

The fact is that people generally fail to understand homelessness because they don’t ask homeless people what happened to them—how it is that they ended up in the situation they are in and what their needs are.

I saw the consequences of this failure recently in Ocean County, NJ, where I now live in subsidized housing.  The Jon Bon Jovi (JBJ) Soul Foundation announced it would open a JBJ Soul Kitchen in the county. They will provide quality meals at whatever price a person can afford, or people can do some volunteer work in the café if they can’t afford to pay. If people prove reliable as volunteers they can then enroll in a training program that will teach them skills in the culinary arts and other professions.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of access to good meals when it comes to addressing food insecurity, or underestimate the value of good job training that provides marketable skills.   However, a person living in a tent in the woods—and we have more than 600 people in Ocean County living without permanent indoor shelter—does not even have access to a toilet, shower, or a place to wash clothes. What the chronically homeless in Ocean County need, most immediately and urgently, is secure housing.

The money raised to open the JBJ Soul Kitchen restaurant would have been better spent on building a safe, stable, and affordable housing facility for homeless persons in the community.  If the founders had spoken to community members who have experienced homelessness, we would have made that clear.

This communication gap is widespread.  As someone who has experienced homelessness, and spent more than a few nights in hospital emergency rooms because I didn’t know where else to go, I can tell you that when you try to explain to nurses and doctors that you are there because you fear that the continuous uncertainty and anxiety you are enduring might drive you mad, they generally react by giving you a sedative, letting you sleep, and then sending you on your way with breakfast and a few anti-anxiety pills.

I don’t recall anyone—and I mean anyone—ever asking me about my life, and what happened to me that brought me to this moment.

So I was delighted to see a sign of change recently when a professor at New Jersey State College asked me to speak to a graduating class of nursing students so that they could better understand the treatment needs of the increasing number of Americans experiencing homelessness.

Trauma gets resolved by confronting the events that caused it.

I told the class that I originally started thinking about the importance of simply asking people what they are experiencing after reading Healing Neen by Tonier Cain.  Cain experienced severe and extensive abuse during her life: abandonment, rape, physical and emotional violence, and numerous incarcerations. At every turn she was treated in various behavioral modification programs with de rigueur psycho-active medications.  But according to Cain, she did not really begin to heal until someone—a trauma therapist—simply asked, “What happened to you, girl?”

So this is the point I tried to convey to the students: if a person comes to you who has experienced prolonged periods of time without housing, don’t treat their symptoms without asking what happened. Trauma gets resolved by confronting the events that caused it. That takes time and artfulness.

Whether we want to understand the crisis of homelessness in the Bay Area or Ocean County, or a healthcare professional needs to treat a vulnerable patient, it starts with a simple question: what happened?

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Safety Net

House Rep. Mark Pocan on Poverty and What It’s Like to Share a County with Paul Ryan

Earlier this month, I traveled to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district in Wisconsin to talk to his constituents about their economic struggles and ideas for solutions.  This district has been hit particularly hard by the shipping of middle class jobs overseas, recessions, and the deterioration of labor protections.

While I was there, I also had the opportunity to speak with Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI), First Vice Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.  Rep. Pocan’s district borders on the Speaker’s hometown of Janesville, and the two congressmen share representation of Rock County as well.

Despite seeing the same conditions on the ground, and their constituents having similar experiences in our economy, the congressmen’s ideas about how to reduce poverty in their state and throughout America could not be more different.

Here is my conversation with Rep. Pocan:

Greg Kaufmann: Congressman, your district shares Rock County with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district.  Can you tell us about the changes you have seen in terms of people’s economic struggles in the area in recent years?

Rep. Mark Pocan: Yes, I share Rock County with Paul, so I have the western side, and he has the eastern side.  I also grew up in Kenosha, which is in his district, so I know the area well.  We used to have a big auto plant, American Motors, for many, many years.  Then it went away.  And we went through some of the difficulties that the Speaker’s hometown of Janesville—which is in Rock County—has more recently gone through with GM leaving.

A couple of things that really stand out.  In Janesville—having an auto plant where a lot of people had good family-supporting wages, and then having that industry and the industries that fed into it really impacted, a lot of people are out of work who had jobs that had good salaries.

Also, poverty programs in Rock County are pretty significant in helping people either transition because of a loss of a major employer, or because a number of employers over the years have left and made life more difficult.

So this is certainly a district that you would not describe as affluent.  In fact, just the opposite.  It’s had a lot of job and manufacturing industry loss in the last 20 years and that’s impacted good family-supporting wages.

GK: From a public policy perspective, when you think of the needs in the area and the way we combat poverty—what comes to mind?

MP: I am on the House Budget Committee.  And when Paul was the Chair last session, he would often put a lot of ideas around poverty out there, which largely were around block grants.  These days they now call them “opportunity granting,” but the bottom line is a lot of these ideas are really stealth ways to cut programs that assist people in poverty.

Also, if you block grant all these effective safety net programs—like housing, food stamps, and Medicaid—and just give a lump sum of money to states, I don’t have a high level of confidence that the right thing will happen for people who are living in poverty.

Take Wisconsin, for example. Governor Scott Walker hasn’t accepted federal monies for a high speed rail program—in fact, he turned back over $800 million dollars in federal monies before he even got sworn in, including $150 million for light rail even though we have the fourth worst roads in the nation and a lack of adequate funding for transit.  He was trying to make a point about not taking federal dollars.  So those are some of the bad decisions we’ve seen in just one state, much less bad decisions you could see in other states. We just can’t rely on all of these governors to continue the level of [federal] programs that are there now.  So conservatives say block granting is about giving flexibility to local governments to most strategically use the money, but the reality is people could very likely just have less money and less help during a difficult time in their lives as they’re trying to find work.

GK: I’m sure you’ve had that conversation plenty of times with Speaker Ryan. What do [conservatives] say to the fact that the TANF block grant [has gone] from over two-thirds of families with children in poverty getting assistance, to less than one-fourth getting assistance?

They don’t actually address the facts.
– Rep. Mark Pocan

MP: Well, they just keep focusing on the flexibility to allow states and local government to best direct money.  They know better than the federal government.  It’s really more of a rhetorical exchange.  They don’t actually address the facts.

GK: In contrast to focusing on block grants as conservatives prefer, what do you think a good anti-poverty proposal would do?

MP: I think most people would argue that the best poverty program is a job and anything we can do to help people find that job we should do. That means helping people acquire the skills to find a job with a family-supporting wage, so their families have the opportunity to live the American dream.  It involves things like job training, and addressing childcare needs, investing in early childhood education, and making sure people can afford higher education.   And of course increasing wages, including the minimum wage.  Right now people are taking second jobs to try to get by, and that’s taking away from spending time with their families.  So there’s a quality of life difference that definitely exists when you don’t have that stronger wage.

I’ve also always been a big fan of apprenticeship programs.  I think Germany has about a tenfold use of apprenticeship-type programs per capita compared to us.  There’s are a lot of things like that we can do to help people get on-the-job training that can turn into a good paying job, or help people overcome barriers—people who literally are going out there every single day trying to find something and can’t.  But, you know, just simply providing less resources for people in poverty and putting artificial work requirements—that actually are barriers to the time and effort needed to find a good job—are going to be counterproductive compared to things that actually help people.

GK: Janesville and Rock County actually seem like a case study in why Speaker Ryan and other conservatives’ views on poverty are entirely wrong. It’s clear that they’ve had auto plants shutting down, offshoring of jobs—that is not the fault of workers who are struggling in poverty.  Do you think Speaker Ryan is blind to this reality, or are his proposals on poverty purely ideological?

MP: Paul is a neocon ideologue, and this is how they think you solve it, based on their papers and all the rest.  But the fact is Janesville is the antithesis of their kind of argument that poverty is about someone being too lazy to work, or someone [not being] out there trying to find a job.  I would argue too many of my colleagues are millionaires and a bit too removed from poverty—that they just don’t understand the reality of the on-the-ground experience.  In fact, too often it seems like until a Republican has something happen to a family member of theirs, it’s not real.  Until they find out they have a kid who’s gay, or a kid who gets addicted to heroin, it’s not an issue, and then as soon as it is a personal issue for them, then suddenly they care.  And unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of people in Congress who are directly affected by poverty.

This interview was edited for length.

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Justice

I Was Sexually Harassed in Prison. Here’s How We Can Stop It.

In 2013, at the age of 63, I entered a federal women’s prison for the second time. Shackled and exhausted after a long drive from Georgia to Florida, I had to do an intake interview with a correctional officer immediately upon my arrival. Soon into the interview, I noticed that the officer was peppering his intake questions with flirtatious and sexual comments. Annoyed, I said, “You know I am too old for this?” He replied, “I like older women.” It wasn’t long before I learned that he also had a liking for incarcerated Mexican women facing deportation.

Within a few weeks, I was sexually harassed again by an officer. During evening rounds, two officers came by with flashlights, stopping at a number of beds. When they stopped at mine, one officer picked up my panties that I had hung on a towel over the metal bars of my bunk bed. At first I thought he had stopped to discipline me for washing my panties by hand instead of sending them to the laundry. Instead, he sniffed them and said, “I wonder if she would be good in bed.”

This treatment contrasted drastically with what was outlined as acceptable in the sexual abuse, harassment and violence orientation—presented by prison officers—that newly incarcerated women are obligated to attend. What’s more, signage all over the prison walls reminded us that officers are strictly forbidden from having sex with inmates, as mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). You couldn’t walk far without seeing the words “ZERO TOLERANCE.”

But as subsequent events in the prison would demonstrate, the signage should have read, “ZERO ATTENTION TO PREA.” In one incident in April 2014, my entire unit, which comprised more than 100 women, awoke to the evening officer having sex with a woman from my unit. The officer came in to fetch the woman after lights out, but in his rush to have sex, he forgot to lock the door separating the sleeping unit from his office.

A half-dozen curious women left the unit to watch the officer have sex with the woman and ran back into the unit to tell everyone about it in graphic detail. The resulting chatter kept the entire unit up for over an hour. But when the next officer to come on duty was told of what had happened, she ordered that the desk be wiped down and the office mopped—rather than closing the office as a crime scene. The next morning, all the women who had witnessed the incident were put into solitary confinement. The following evening, a second female officer, unhappy that her fellow officer was in trouble, threatened to withhold from our unit the only two luxuries incarcerated women have in their sleeping units: television and microwave use. As for the abusive officer, he was placed under investigation by the FBI and temporarily sent to work at the men’s side of the prison down the road.

This was hardly the first incident at the prison. My bunkee informed me that, back in 2006, the prison was on lockdown for months when an FBI agent came to arrest six officers for sexual violence. One officer, determined not to be arrested, shot and killed the agent. The correctional officer was killed too. The remaining five were arrested and prosecuted. With this history, I would have expected serious oversight by the region and the federal government to ensure enforcement of PREA. But that night, I realized most of the male officers could, with the full knowledge of prison leadership, hold incarcerated women hostage to their sexual appetites without consequence.

As many as 1 in 4 women are victimized while incarcerated.

And when I returned from prison and spoke with other formerly incarcerated women, I learned the problem wasn’t limited to my facility. Sexual violence toward incarcerated women is a problem at the federal, state, and local levels. Statistics vary widely, but a 2006 report by Stop Prisoner Rape estimates that as many as 1 in 4 women are victimized while incarcerated.  

Unfortunately, government officials have been relying on strategies that fail to address the primary problem: the power dynamics between officers and incarcerated women make it nearly impossible to report abuse. Since returning home, I’ve sat in meetings with well-meaning government officials and activists who want to end sexual violence. But their solution is a repeat of the old one: it includes new and improved manuals, more training for officers, more supervision, cameras, and a redefinition of the problem.

No manual, training, or camera will prevent an officer from whispering, “If you want to see your child this weekend, I want a blow job.” “Do you want that cushy job?” “Do you want that corner bed?” Do you want me to put money on your commissary account?” Whether it’s a threat or a bribe, incarcerated people cannot prove the conversation happened, even with cameras. No one will believe an inmate over an officer because the culture of prison is one in which officers protect and cover for each other—and incarcerated women are treated as though they are less than human.

Those who do come forward or refuse the advances of an officer risk a great deal. A vindictive officer could have an incarcerated mother put in solitary or transferred thousands of miles from her children. Even if there is no sex, but an officer feels threatened or wants to demonstrate his authority, a woman can be sent anywhere. This threat of retaliation undermines reporting rates – women will suffer the sexual violence rather than see themselves lose what little privilege they have.

Instead of doubling down on training manuals as a solution to this crisis, we should open new avenues for identifying violence and reporting it.

One way to do this is to hire formerly incarcerated people to work in our prisons and jails to help identify abusive behaviors. Due to our experiences within the system, formerly incarcerated women know what to look for—like spikes in commissary accounts, unusual job transfers, and repeated use of solitary confinement.

Trust and support are necessary for incarcerated people to come forward—and those who have spent time in prison are most able to provide it. Our shared experience of incarceration builds a powerful bond. It is that bond—along with robust protections against retaliation and accountability for officers who perpetrate violence—that will help survivors come forward in safety.

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Safety Net

The Poverty Industry: How Foster Care Agencies Exploit Children In Their Care

A Charles Dickens novel has come to life. Foster care agencies are partnering with companies to search for poor children who are disabled or have dead parents—in order to take their money for state revenue.

Consider the story of a foster child named Alex:

Alex was taken into foster care at age twelve after his mother’s death. Over a six-year period, he was moved at least twenty times between temporary placements and group homes. Soon after losing his mother, Alex learned his older brother might be able to care for him, but then his brother died. There were also hopes that Alex could go to live with his father, but then his father died as well.

Unknown to Alex, he was eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits after his father died. These funds could have provided an invaluable benefit to Alex, supplying an emotional connection to his deceased father and financial resources to help with his difficult transition out of foster care.

But without telling Alex, the Maryland foster care agency applied for the survivor benefits on his behalf and to become his representative payee. Then, although obligated to only use the benefits for the child’s best interests, the agency took every payment from Alex. The agency didn’t tell Alex it was applying for the funds, and didn’t tell him when the agency took the money for itself. Alex struggled during his years in foster care, left foster care penniless, and continued to struggle on his own.

Unfortunately, Alex’s story is not unique. Across the country, agencies and their contractors target children who might be determined disabled or whose parents have died, apply for federal disability (SSI) and survivor (OASDI) benefits on their behalf, and then apply to gain control over the children’s money. Often, the children never see the money and receive no benefit. Many states also confiscate Veteran’s Assistance benefits from children whose parents died in the military. The Nebraska foster care agency even drafted a regulation so it can claim a foster child’s burial space.

By taking their resources, foster care agencies are forcing vulnerable children to pay for their own care—when the agencies and states are already legally obligated to do so. Further, if a parent or relative serves as representative payee and uses a child’s disability or survivor benefits to help with expenses for a child’s care, the child is better off because more funds are available to help in the household where the child lives. But when foster care agencies take resources from children, the children receive no benefit; their money is used to provide neither them nor their foster care home more assistance. The agencies simply ignore their fiduciary obligations and route the funds to government coffers—while the contractors also take a cut.  All of this is usually done without informing the children or their advocates.

In contract documents obtained from public records requests, foster children are treated as “units” on revenue maximization conveyor belts (or, in the case of the Maryland foster care agency, a “revenue generating mechanism.”) They are “scored and triaged,” plugged into “data mining” and “algorithms,” and subjected to “dissection” to increase the “penetration rate” of children whose resources can be taken.

Foster care agencies have reached a point where they have prioritized their own fiscal self-interests over the interests of children in their care.

Why are foster care agencies doing this to the very children they’re supposed to serve? The agencies are underfunded. States have continued to cut funding necessary for child welfare services, including assistance to help families stay intact so that foster care is not needed. In a desperate search for revenue, foster care agencies have reached a point where they have prioritized their own fiscal self-interests over the interests of children in their care.

Cash-strapped agencies would argue that this is all for the greater good, because increased agency funds will lead to improved agency services. But the rationale fails. The notion that child welfare agencies should fund themselves by taking resources from children they exist to serve is counterintuitive, at best. Further, foster care agencies are not even better off after they confiscate children’s resources: the funds are either routed directly to general state coffers, or the state reduces funding for the agency based upon how much money is obtained from the children.

Given the intense difficulties that foster children already face—especially as they age out of care—policymakers need to address this issue. The recently enacted ABLE Act, which allows disabled children to conserve their SSI benefits, is a helpful step in the right direction—but it will only help foster children if agencies stop taking their funds. And pending legislation from Congressman Danny Davis (IL) would do just that—it would protect foster children’s resources so the children can best help themselves.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated practice. In The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens, I expose how states and their human service agencies team up with private companies to profit from the vulnerable. In addition to taking foster children’s assets, the poverty industry uses illusory budget shell games to siphon away billions in Medicaid funds intended for children and low-income adults. Child support payments for foster children and families on public assistance are converted into government revenue. Nursing homes and juvenile detention centers sedate residents to reduce costs, and pharmaceutical companies encourage the drugging through illegal marketing practices. States use nursing homes to take the facilities’ federal aid while the elderly languish in poor care. Counties and court systems hire companies to mine the poor for funds in modern day debtor’s prisons. And the poverty industry keeps expanding.

We may disagree about the best way to help vulnerable populations. But we all should be able to agree that when aid funds are generated with specific intent to help those in need, those funds should be used as intended.

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