Appalachian Schools are Helping Isolated Students Go to College. Here’s How.

We are used to a certain narrative about concentrated poverty and education: it takes place in the inner city, features students of color, and often includes a supporting role for public housing projects.

There’s no doubt that these cities, and their schools, face serious problems that deserve our attention. But a set of very different communities are virtually invisible in narratives about education and poverty in America. These are mostly stories about white children in rural, isolated communities from Alabama to Virginia—in Appalachia. As The New York Times reported in its series on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Appalachia is one of the only corners of our country that was virtually untouched by that massive effort. And it shows.

This region has long been among the poorest in the country, and it was hit hard in recent decades by job losses in manufacturing and coal mining. Because those industries, along with agriculture, formed the backbone of Appalachian economies, higher education was a low priority—and that attitude hasn’t changed with the new economy.

Fortunately, new strategies are emerging to improve the prospects of children and families in these communities.

One of the most pervasive barriers in Appalachia is the isolation.  Towns and homes are far from one another, roads can be treacherous, and public transportation is virtually non-existent. In the northeast corner of Tennessee, Unicoi County High School Principal Chris Bogart describes the challenges of delivering the tutoring, mentoring, and enrichment activities that his students need.

“[One new staff member] suggested just giving the kids bus tokens to get home from afterschool activities, like in her prior district. Sure, I said, that would be great if Unicoi had buses,” Bogart said.

As a way to work around the lack of afterschool transportation, the school piloted an hour-long lunch.   Students eat wherever they want, which gives them the opportunity to visit the media center, get help with math homework, or rehearse a skit with their fine arts teacher, among other activities.  The faculty—who had been skeptical about the change—reports that their relationships with students, and the school climate, improved noticeably.

Isolation and a lack of transportation options also mean that many children—and adults—have never traveled beyond their immediate area. During one Unicoi High School class trip to Nashville—the first time most students had left the region—one student’s parents were so worried that they drove alongside the bus for the entire five hours. Staff at Unicoi are now researching grant possibilities to fund similar trips—including to college campuses and Washington, D.C.—so that their students have a better sense of the world and its possibilities.

According to the teachers, school board members, and social workers whom I spoke with, this kind of exposure is critical to getting their students “across the finish line” in high school and thinking seriously about college. They recounted the challenge of their own relatives having less-than-positive reactions to their declarations that they wanted to be the first in the family to go to college.  “You’re getting above your raisin’,” was one common response.

Just 22 percent of adults in Appalachia have bachelors’ degrees—fewer than in any other area of the country—because working in factories, railroads, and coalmines was the norm. The widespread loss of these employers—including the abrupt shuttering of CSX’s Erwin, TN terminal in October—is devastating Appalachian communities.  And yet, according to several Erwin community leaders I spoke with, many parents still view post-secondary education as unnecessary or even a sign of snobbery.

But educators across Appalachia are trying to change this mindset. At last month’s Appalachian Higher Education Network conference, there was a focus on helping schools create a college-going culture. Innovative ideas include annual trips—beginning as early as elementary school—to both community and four-year colleges; and partnerships that allow students to accrue college credit in their high schools, at a local college, or online. A growing number of schools host college and career festivals where teachers and principals offer testimonials about overcoming their own fears of being the first in their families to make it past high school.

When new strategies like these are bolstered by a higher education institution that is working to address the region’s needs, the impact can be even greater.

Berea College, a small liberal arts school in Kentucky, enrolls only “academically promising” students from low-income families—mostly from Appalachia—who attend entirely tuition-free. It is also home to Partners for Education (PfE), where dozens of outreach and support staff—many of whom are Berea graduates themselves—provide students and their families with a range of supports, such as Skype mentors for at-risk students who are physically isolated, mailing books to students and online book clubs to avert summer learning loss, college preparatory services, and targeted professional development for teachers.  These are exactly the kinds of activities that Unicoi and other schools seek as part of creating a college-going culture.

All of these services are reinforced by smart state policies. Thanks to a well-funded state early childhood education  initiative, one-fourth of Kentucky’s 4-year-olds attend high-quality pre-k programs (compared to fewer than one-fifth in neighboring Virginia, where programs are also of lower quality).  And the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act created Family Resource and Youth Services Centers (FRYSC) across the state to advance the goal of “removing nonacademic barriers to learning” through physical, mental health, academic, and family support services tailored to each community’s needs. For example, the FRYSC in Berea offers afterschool and summer enrichment activities as well as crisis counseling.

All of this creative work and community engagement is paying off. A recent study of the 26-county region served by Berea documented key steps toward making college a reality for many more students: better quality among early childhood education providers, more children participating in arts and tutoring programs, teachers receiving strong professional development, and math and reading scores that are rising faster than the state average.

Unique, place-based challenges require innovative policy solutions. Berea and Unicoi are showing us what some of those solutions look like.  Maybe fifty years from now if journalists return to this region, they will report on this moment, when new policies began to change the prospects of children and their families.



The Next Step for Organized Labor? People in Prison.

In the early 2000s, the small but militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) launched union drives at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s.  At the time, many in the mainstream labor movement scratched their heads. Traditionally, labor groups believed that the high turnover of fast food workers would make them impossible to organize.

Nearly a decade later, fast food workers and the Fight for $15 are a central focus of the mainstream labor movement. And, given IWW’s ability to unionize workers who once seemed out of reach, many labor organizers now look to them as an incubator of new organizing strategies.

Now IWW faces one of the biggest challenges in its history: convincing the broader labor movement to embrace the approximately 400,000 Americans employed as prison labor across the U.S.

This spring, the IWW and allied community groups organized prison labor strikes of thousands of incarcerated workers in Alabama, Wisconsin, Texas, Mississippi, and Ohio—all demanding the right to form a union. The IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has called for a nationwide prison strike on September 9th to mark the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising and claims it has the support of thousands of prisoners throughout the U.S.

“It could really shake things up,” IWW organizer Jimi Del Duca told me. “A lot of working class people are afraid to organize because they have a few crumbs to lose. [Many] prisoners have nothing to lose and that gives them courage. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

Prisoners have nothing to lose and that gives them courage. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

However, the barriers to organizing prisoners are high. Communication between prisons is difficult, as most prisoners are not allowed access to email. Even within prisons, inmates are limited in their ability to meet face-to-face.  While they are allowed to assemble routinely for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or religious activities, the 1977 Supreme Court case Jones v. North Carolina Labor Prisoners’ Union denied them their first amendment right to assemble if a warden feels a gathering is a threat to prison security. As a result, wardens block most prisoners’ union meetings.

However, Elon University Labor Law Professor Eric Fink says that prisoners may have another option. The right of prisoners to form a union has never been challenged in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union certification case, and Fink believes that prisoners could use the NLRB process to push for the right to meet regularly and form collective bargaining units. He argues that prison workers—employed by private contractors in 37 states—should have the same right to form a union as other workers employed by those contractors. According to Fink, if the IWW were to bring a case before the NLRB, then the Board could declare that prisoners are employees who are eligible to join a union.

“I think the Board is capable of saying there are issues that [incarcerated people] have the right to bargain for—such as hours and wages—as any other worker would have the right to do,” said Fink.

As for prison workers who are employed directly by the state, Fink feels they could organize more easily. Under federal labor law, each individual state has a Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) which governs how labor law is applied in the jurisdiction. Often, the leadership of the PERB is heavily influenced by local labor leadership. So, if a public sector union such as AFSCME were to endorse the right of prisoners to form unions, state-level PERBs might be inclined to extend that right.

However, there is a catch: many public sector unions also represent guards, who may be lukewarm to the idea of prisoners forming unions.

“The problem is that insofar as a number of public sector unions have prison guards as members—and sometimes in large numbers—it has an impact on the ability to have that discussion,” said Bill Fletcher, the former education director of the AFL-CIO.

Heather Ann Thompson, Professor of History in the African American Studies at the University of Michigan, believes that guards should see prisoners’ unions as a win for them, too.

“These are workplaces that are deeply unsafe and barbaric,” said Thompson. She believes that giving workers a collective voice may reduce gang violence, because it will give prisoners a structure through which they can advocate for themselves. Unions would also provide guards and prisoners with the means to push together for a safer prison environment.

Thompson also argues that it is in organized labor’s best interest to help prison workers. Some Republican governors—such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—have used prison labor to replace unionized public employees.

“Prisoners have no power to resist being employed as scab labor,” said Thompson. “Rather than resent the prisoners, the idea would be to support prison labor workers’ right to resist work.”

Prisoners have no power to resist being employed as scab labor.

It remains unclear if the mainstream labor movement will support the prison labor strike movement. Both AFSCME and the AFL-CIO declined to be interviewed, but they have indicated that they view mass incarceration as an employment issue. In April, while touring an apprenticeship program at a prison in Washington State, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “Mass incarceration has become a big business whose product is low wages and blighted lives, and the time has come for us to do something about it.”

IWW organizer Del Deluca is hopeful that the broader labor movement will support this effort. With more than two million people in prison, he sees potential in this new path of organizing.

“We could change the direction of history,” he said. “We could change the way our world works.”



Want to Lower Child Poverty? Give Families Cash.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the “welfare reform” that slashed cash income assistance in the United States. At the time, we didn’t have much scientific evidence about how children’s futures are impacted by poverty. Now, we know better.

Poverty can impede children’s brain development and harm biological processes in ways that damage long-term health. Numerous federally supported interventions, including Head Start, children’s health insurance, and child nutrition programs are deployed to ameliorate these disadvantages.  While these programs are crucial, they don’t get to heart of the matter.

What if we tackled the problem of child poverty head-on by providing a modest amount of cash assistance to parents?

In 1997, in the mountains of Western North Carolina—a region affected by grinding rural poverty—one community did exactly that. When the Cherokee Nation built a casino on the border of its reservation, they distributed the proceeds to local tribe members—the average family received $4,000 per year. Since non-tribal communities nearby lived in similar conditions, but were not eligible for the monies, these payments created an opportunity to examine the impact of cash assistance on the children who received it.

Researchers at Duke University tracked the participants from childhood into adulthood, and found that those who received the assistance “used less alcohol and fewer drugs, were less likely to commit minor crimes, and more likely to graduate from high school.”

What’s striking about this assistance—which was given without restrictions, guidance, the stigma of welfare, or the intervention of social workers—is that it paid off large dividends on problems that seemed intractable, such as alcoholism, crime, and education outcomes.  The study also made it clear that when parents have additional resources, they spend it on key investments like education for their kids, safe housing, meeting basic needs, and preventing hardships (like a broken down vehicle) that can push a family into crisis.

These results should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the success of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which provides an average of $3,000 to a working family of three. Studies have found that the EITC facilitates infant development, reducing the incidence of low birth weight. They have also shown that children in families that receive larger credits have higher test scores in elementary and middle school, and are more likely to graduate from high school and complete one or more years of college. In fact, a modest $3,000 increase in annual income for children ages 0-5 is associated with a 17 percent increase in annual earnings as adults.

Given the amount of evidence we have on how much a child’s future can be impacted negatively by poverty, and how that trajectory can be shifted in a positive direction by modest additional resources for their families, it’s time to re-imagine how we ensure that all children have the opportunity to thrive.

Universal child allowances, which exist in many industrialized countries, provide a useful model. These benefits are delivered monthly to help families cover recurring expenses, which is difficult to do with the once-a-year Child or Earned Income Tax Credits. Basic monthly benefits are modest. In Australia, Canada, and Britain they range from approximately $100 to $345 per month per child (USD).

We could establish a universal child allowance in the United States, by reforming our existing Child Tax Credit. Representative Rosa DeLauro’s Young Child Tax Credit Act (co-sponsored by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Representative Sandy Levin) would increase the child tax credit to $1,500 per year for children ages three and under, remove arcane earning thresholds that keep the credit from reaching many impoverished families, and deliver the credit monthly (or as frequently as administratively possible).

A report by the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative at the Century Foundation (where I work) modeled a number of different options for a child allowance, and found that a $2,500 universal allowance for children under six would lift 3.2 million children out of poverty—nearly twice as many as the current Child Tax Credit—at a cost of $33.7 billion (that’s less than the U.S. spends on estate tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires). Given the societal costs related to childhood poverty—more than $500 billion annually—it is a price well-worth paying.

Is it possible to move Washington to pass and implement such a bold policy? There is reason for hope. Tax reform is sure to take center stage in the next Congress, and there should be no reduction of corporate tax rates without commensurate help to our most vulnerable residents. Moreover, there is growing support from both the left and the right (and even venture capitalists) for a universal basic income, as well as popular support for family-friendly policies like paid family leave and child care. Given the broad interest in helping both low- and middle-income families, reforming the child tax credit to maximize its reach in the fight against child poverty should be a priority for any new administration.



Mitt Romney Says He Wants To “Get Wages Up.” So Why Did He Campaign Against A Minimum Wage Increase?

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney made waves last week when he reflected on the reasons for his failed 2012 presidential bid. “I was talking about policy when it would have been more effective to talk about why I favor that policy—to get wages up,” Romney told a crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “And of course our Democrat friends they wisely point out, ‘He’s talking about business all the time. He only cares about business people.’ Heck no! Business people do fine under Democrats and Republicans! It’s the middle class and the poor that need conservative principles to see rising real wages.”

First of all, this may be the most Mitt Romney-esque statement of all time (and last we checked, Mitt Romney was “not concerned about the very poor”).

Wages for low-income Americans actually decline under Republican presidents—and increase under Democrats—in part because of changes to the minimum wage.

Second, Romney’s claim that the middle class and the poor “need conservative principles to see rising real wages” flies in the face of the evidence. Researcher Larry Bartels found that income growth is not only faster, but more equal under Democratic presidents. Wages for low-income Americans actually decline under Republican presidents—and increase under Democrats—in part because of changes to the minimum wage.

In other words, “getting wages up” is a policy. It’s called the “minimum wage.” It’s been raised 22 times since 1938—by both Democratic and Republican presidents—but has remained at a meager $7.25 an hour (a poverty wage) since 2009. The reason for that? Romney’s fellow Republican Members of Congress have blocked reasonable increases of the minimum wage. In 2014, a minority of Republican Senators filibustered legislation that would have increased the wage to $10.10 an hour.

Romney, to his credit, broke with his party and came around to supporting a federal minimum wage increase two years after his campaign ended, but his records as a governor and a candidate tell a different story. As Massachusetts executive, he vetoed a minor wage hike to $7.50 an hour (the Democratic legislature eventually overrode his veto). And contrary to his most recent statements, he did talk about why he favored certain policies during his candidacy in 2012—they just didn’t involve wages.

A review of Romney’s 2012 campaign site shows no mention of the minimum wage—or wage growth at all (he did, however, have an entire page dedicated to repealing the Affordable Care Act). When pressed on his wage policy by CNBC’s Larry Kudlow, Romney responded, “Right now there’s probably not a need to raise the minimum wage. What I can tell you is had one indexed the minimum wage back to, let’s say, 1990, the minimum wage would be lower now than it actually is. Democrats make big hay of this every few years, ‘Oh, we’re going to raise the minimum wage,’ and get a lot of hoopla for it.”

Romney’s about-face is not uncommon among’ former Republican politicians. In 2014, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said the GOP should favor “reasonable increases to the minimum wage.” But Pawlenty vetoed an attempted minimum wage increase in 2008. And when he left the governorship, Minnesota had one of the lowest minimum wages in the country. And former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum—the only 2016 Republican presidential candidate to support a minimum wage increase—also opposed the legislation to raise the wage floor to $10.10 an hour.

To be clear, Romney and other former elected officials’ support for a minimum wage increase is welcome—if only their views were reflected by Republican leaders in Congress.



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.