Labor

The Federal Minimum Wage Has Not Been Raised in 7 Years. Here Are the States That Hurts the Most.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the last federal minimum wage increase—for seven years, it has remained at $7.25. Given the breakneck pace of state and local action—26 states, the District of Columbia, and at least 25 cities have ushered in higher minimum wages in the past two-and-a-half years—it’s easy to let the federal minimum wage fade in the nation’s rearview mirror, perched atop a distant do-nothing Capitol Hill.

But in 21 states, low-wage workers are still stuck at $7.25 per hour. That means 57 million workers—nearly 40 percent of our workforce—work in a state where the minimum wage is well beneath the federal poverty level for a family of two. What’s worse, at least 14 states have gone so far as to pass preemptive legislation that prohibits local areas from enacting their own minimum wage policies.

Source: Economic Policy Institute

Low-paid workers in these states aren’t simply being denied a long-overdue raise—they’re actually losing purchasing power. Because the minimum wage has not been indexed to keep pace with inflation, minimum wage workers are falling further behind every day that Congress fails to act.

Workers would need an extra 31 working days—more than six weeks—just to maintain their earnings from seven years ago.

In fact, a minimum wage earner in a $7.25 state who is working full-time, year-round would have to clock an additional 244 hours each year just to take home the same annual pay she did in a single year in 2009, after adjusting for inflation. Put another way, she’d need an extra 31 working days—more than six weeks—just to maintain her earnings from seven years ago.

For all our ingenuity, we haven’t yet figured out how to cram more days into a year. So, until we master the magic of time dilation, every year that Congress fails to raise the minimum wage will effectively mean another pay cut for workers in these states—and with it, a greater struggle to make ends meet.

The American people have made it abundantly clear where they stand on minimum wages. By wide majorities, voters on both sides of the political aisle—including small business owners, who occupy a special place in the rhetoric of many politicians—support raising the wage above $7.25. The research agrees: In the past, minimum-wage policy has proven an effective tool for increasing earnings and reducing poverty among working families—as well as increasing productivity and reducing turnover in the workplace—without leading to job loss.

Only one group seems to have missed the memo on America’s eagerness for higher wages: conservative lawmakers. In 2014, they rejected the Miller-Harkin bill, which would have raised the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, with the congressional vote split almost perfectly along party lines. And so far no conservatives are among the 32 senators and 160 representatives co-sponsoring the federal $12 by 2020 bill that was introduced last year.

On this seventh anniversary of federal wage stagnation, policymakers should resolve not to let another July 25—another 7/25—go by with any workers in our nation still subsisting on $7.25. Federal lawmakers have an increasingly urgent responsibility to reach out to the millions of workers whose state legislatures refuse stand up for—or worse, actively stand in the way of—their right to be paid a decent wage for a hard day’s work. If we do not, struggling workers—surrounded by the rising costs of making ends meet in America—will be left further and further behind.

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Media and Politics

Yes, Food Can Be Entertainment for Low-Income People

I woke up yesterday hungry. Since my last shopping trip four days before, I’d not eaten much, saving most of the food for my younger daughter, who is two. I also woke up with a bank account that was overdrawn, and was waiting on a paycheck that was a week overdue.

My diet is small and not varied compared to what my daughters eat. While I subsist off of eggs, chicken, frozen veggies, hummus, and apples with nut butters, they eat an assortment of fresh fruit. I love waking up and making them pancakes and bacon, cutting up strawberries and plums, and setting the table to watch them eat.

For a long time—about five years while I worked and put myself through college—it was rare that I felt pride in setting the table full of good food. My older daughter was thin, sometimes so thin I worried that our food insecurity was the cause. I hovered over her when she ate, stressing over any food she left that would go to waste.

Whenever we came into some unexpected money, like a grocery store gift certificate that I won once as a door prize, I asked Mia what we should buy. Mia, age seven at the time, exclaimed “Blueberries!” and “Raspberries!” and other fruits we normally couldn’t afford.

When birthdays came, I used food stamps to buy treats like cupcakes or take-and-bake pizza. This was our life for so long.

I love watching my toddler eat to her heart’s content. I love that she has a belly that sticks out. I love that she is visibly well-fed.

But for several months now, despite a recent dip in funds, I have been able to purchase our food without food stamps. Being able to eat good quality food has brought me joy. I love watching my toddler eat to her heart’s content. I love that she has a belly that sticks out. I love that she is visibly well-fed.

So this morning, when a friend of mine shared this blog post with me, I was deeply affected by it. The lead image is of a white man, sitting by a stove with a pot on it. He is dressed in overalls, holding a cigarette, and looks to be from the Depression-era. In the post, Joshua Fields Milburn, one of “The Minimalists,” writes of dropping from 240 to 160 pounds. He suggests that he lost the weight because he no longer looks to food for entertainment: “The difference is I don’t turn to food to entertain me, to comfort me, or to ‘get me through tough times.’”

He writes this below the photograph of the man who looks to be living in dire straits, and most-likely is hungry. That person is not unlike many people in America who live in extreme poverty, who sometimes have to sell their food stamps for cash to pay for utilities and shelter while donating blood plasma for income because they cannot find jobs to support their families. Is Milburn drawing a parallel between the choices he makes about food, and the choices of those who are struggling in poverty?

For me the piece plays right into the hands of politicians, who judge and try to control how people who are struggling spend what little we have. These politicians push for laws to keep the poor from purchasing “luxury items” like high-end meats, seafood, and cakes, as if we are frivolous. They point to unhealthy eating habits as the cause of obesity among those trying to make ends meet, but it is not because people are choosing junk food over fruit. It is because they are walking into a store with $50 to last a family of three an entire week, and looking for the cheapest food, with the highest caloric content, that is easiest to prepare after a day of working long hours at a minimum wage job. It is because they are growing up, like my older daughter did, pressured to eat what is served because there isn’t enough to get through the month. It is because they are gorging on rare sugary treats when they are available.

Milburn’s post spurred in me a deep sadness and anger. For many food insecure people, the ability to serve their family a nice meal is indeed a source of comfort, their only entertainment, and a moment of pride.

Yesterday, when I checked the mail, I found not one, but two paychecks. As soon as those payments were deposited in the bank, I went straight to the grocery store. I bought strawberries and plums. I bought the crackers my daughter loves. When I picked her up from daycare, I told her about my trip to the store, and what I could feed her when we got home. I cut up an apricot, cooked up a package of bacon, and let her eat all the fruit she wanted. She went to sleep sticky with syrup from pancakes, greasy from bacon, and dyed red from strawberries.

It is just the three of us in our little family. In our town, and the nation, it feels as if people are struggling more. The times feel uncertain, unsafe, and sometimes overwhelming. But, despite all that, I can provide my girls a home. I can give them a space where they feel loved, valued, and most importantly, well-fed. Doing that—feeding them the food they love—is what gets me through the really hard times.

And that’s not just entertainment.

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Safety Net

Social Security Helps Twice As Many Children As We Thought

There is a key element missing in the ongoing debate about Social Security’s future:  an understanding of the impact the program has on children. It’s not just that children will eventually need Social Security when they grow old—millions of children currently rely on Social Security to stay out of poverty.

Just ask Benjamin, whose father—a distinguished Connecticut lawyer—committed suicide shortly after being placed on anti-anxiety medication. Benjamin was 12. When their life insurance company refused to pay the family’s death claim, Benjamin’s mother used the family’s remaining savings to pay off their mortgage so that they could count on a place to live. Then, she turned to Social Security to help them make ends meet.

In 2014, 3.2 million children under 18 received Social Security. Families like Benjamin’s receive benefits through the survivor insurance program, which provides income to the dependents of covered workers who have died.  Children under 18 also qualify for Social Security if they are the dependents of a parent or guardian who is disabled or retired.

But it turns out that’s only half the story.  A new study by my organization, the Center for Global Policy Solutions, found that official reports overlook children who live in extended families where someone receives a Social Security check. According to data from the U.S. Census and the Social Security Administration, an additional 3.2 million children receive indirect support in this manner from Social Security. That doubles previous estimates of the total number of children receiving benefits, bringing it to 6.4 million. It also means that 9 percent of all U.S. children benefit from Social Security, making it one of the nation’s largest antipoverty programs for children.

9 percent of all U.S. children benefit from Social Security.

Since 2001, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children benefitting indirectly from Social Security, as a result of larger socioeconomic forces. Economic inequality, income stagnation, immigration, and the recession have all contributed to the rise of extended, multi-generation families with shared living arrangements.

There has also been a significant increase in the number of grandparents who are caring for grandchildren without the direct involvement of their parents. This underscores the fact that Social Security is a multigenerational program that serves individuals at every stage of life. And while white children are still the vast majority of child recipients, children of color represent a rapidly growing share of child Social Security beneficiaries, reflecting the nation’s changing demographics.

Given its broad reach, Social Security is an underappreciated policy mechanism that—along with the more frequently discussed examples like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit—should be expanded to boost economic security for vulnerable families. As policymakers look for solutions to offset economic pressures on U.S. workers, they should integrate additional anti-poverty strategies into Social Security—such as child allowances, college assistance, and paid family leave.

If national debates over the past decade are to be heeded, there are those who will inevitably argue that the nation can’t afford to expand Social Security, even though we could by lifting the program’s cap on taxable wages (currently $118,500), and making other minor adjustments (like increasing the payroll tax by 1/20th of one percent over a 20-year period). They will claim we need to cut benefits in the name of deficit reduction, even though scholars have shown that Social Security doesn’t have a direct effect on the national deficit or debt. They will argue that Social Security trust funds aren’t sound or real, even though the bonds in its trust funds are backed by the United States government (the same guarantee that ensures the value of the dollar). And, they will completely ignore the 6.4 million child beneficiaries in their zeal to redirect the program’s funds into Wall Street-invested private retirement accounts for older adults.

The fact that each of these anti-expansion arguments can be rebutted misses the larger point: Workers and their children are caught in a broken economy.  There is an urgent, growing need for policy solutions that can strengthen the economic security of American families while ensuring children have a real chance at success in life. Social Security, and social insurance more broadly, are proven policy tools that can help meet this need.

It certainly helped Benjamin, who is now a 35-year-old elementary school music teacher. His mother still counts on Social Security, and Benjamin says if his family didn’t have it when he was growing up, they would have been “over the edge for sure.”

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Justice

The Mass Incarceration of People with Disabilities

In the wake of the tragic police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, as well as the deaths of police officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, the national debate around policing reform has been newly—and rightly—reignited.

But this is just one aspect of a broadly shared recognition that America’s four-decade-long experiment with mass incarceration has been a failure. We lock up a greater share of our citizens than any other developed nation, at an annual cost of more than $80 billion. We do little to prepare individuals behind bars for their eventual release, yet are surprised when two-thirds return to jail or prison.

Certain populations—including communities of color, residents of high-poverty neighborhoods, and LGBT individuals—have been particularly hard-hit. But all too rarely discussed is the impact the criminal justice system has on Americans with disabilities.

Over the past six decades, there has been a widespread closure of state mental hospitals and other facilities that serve people with disabilities—a shift often referred to as deinstitutionalization. Between 1955 and 1994 the number of Americans residing in such institutions dropped sharply, from nearly 560,000 to about 70,000. Deinstitutionalization is widely regarded as a positive and necessary development, but it wasn’t accompanied by the public investment needed to ensure the availability of community-based alternatives. As a result, the United States has traded one form of mass institutionalization for another, with jails and prisons now serving as social service providers of last resort.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, state and federal prison inmates are nearly three times as likely—and jail inmates are more than four times as likely—to report having a disability as the nonincarcerated population. One in five prison inmates have a serious mental illness. In fact, there are now three times as many people with mental health conditions in federal and state prisons and jails as there are in state mental hospitals.

Source: Center for American Progress
Source: Center for American Progress

Mass incarceration of people with disabilities is not only unjust, unethical, and cruel—it’s also expensive. Community-based treatment and prevention services cost far less than housing an individual behind bars. In Los Angeles County, the average cost of jailing an individual with serious mental illness exceeds $48,500 per year. By comparison, the yearly price tag for providing assertive community treatment and supportive housing—one of the most intensive, comprehensive, and successful intervention models in use today—amounts to less than $20,500, just two-fifths the cost of jail.

In addition to facing disproportionate rates of incarceration, people with disabilities are also especially likely to be the victims of police violence. Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Kristiana Coignard, and Robert Ethan Saylor—all individuals with disabilities whose tragic stories of being killed at the hands of police officers garnered significant recent national media attention—are but four high-profile examples of a sadly commonplace occurrence. While data on police-involved killings are limited, one study estimates that people with disabilities comprise between one-third and one-half of all individuals killed by law enforcement. And according to an investigation by The Washington Post, one-quarter of the individuals shot to death by police officers in 2015 were people with mental health conditions.

The United States has traded one form of mass institutionalization for another.

What’s more, once people with disabilities are incarcerated, they are often illegally deprived of necessary medical care, supports, services, and accommodations. A recent report by the Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) Prison Project highlights numerous examples of inmates denied access to needed medications, prosthetic limbs, and hearing aids; individuals with cognitive impairments unable to access medical treatment because they were unable to fill out request forms; inmates who are deaf missing medication delivery because of lack of accommodations; inmates who have sustained injuries due to lack of accessible toilets and showers; and more.

Prison and jail inmates with disabilities are also at particular risk of mistreatment at the hands of guards and other correctional employees. A 2015 report by Human Rights Watch documents an epidemic of “unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious use of force” in U.S. prisons and jails that targets inmates with mental health conditions, through harsh tactics such as chemical sprays and electric stun devices; strapping of inmates to beds and chairs for days at a time; and physical violence resulting in broken jaws, noses, and ribs, as well as “lacerations, second degree burns, deep bruises, and damaged internal organs,” and even death.

Moreover, many inmates with disabilities are held in solitary confinement as a substitute for appropriate accommodations. This practice continues despite a large and growing body of research documenting that even short stays in solitary can have severe and long-lasting consequences for people with disabilities, and particularly those with mental health conditions. Even individuals who had not previously lived with mental health conditions experience significant psychological distress following solitary confinement, as the tragic but all-too-common case of Kalief Browder brought to light last year. Browder died by suicide after being held for nearly two years in solitary confinement in Rikers Island on charges, later dismissed, that he had stolen a backpack.

Seventeen years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. L.C.—which held that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities in institutional settings is unlawful discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act—it is long past time that we brought the mass incarceration of people with disabilities to an end.

First and foremost, reversing this shameful trend will require meaningful investment in our nation’s social service and mental health treatment infrastructure to ensure availability of community-based alternatives. That way, jails and prisons will no longer be forced to serve as social service providers of last resort. But it will also require including disability as a key part of the criminal justice reform conversation taking place in Congress, and in states and cities across the United States.

Editor’s Note: A new report by the Center for American Progress, Disabled Behind Bars: The Mass Incarceration of People With Disabilities in America’s Jails and Prisons, will be released at a White House Forum on Monday, July 18. A livestream of the event is available here.

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Culture

Before They Were Hashtags

Alton Sterling and Philando Castile lost their lives to police brutality last week.  While their deaths fit an all too familiar narrative for black men and women living in America, what we haven’t emphasized enough—especially in the accounts told by media—is the value their lives held.

Before they were hashtags, these men mattered.

I can say this with certainty because I was raised in the “hood” in South Memphis that was home to a CD/DVD man like Alton and cafeteria workers like Philando. These men helped to bring light and joy to my life, and the lives of all of my community members. Our “bootleg man,” like Alton, was a fixture outside of the neighborhood shopping center—always cracking jokes and willing to cut deals with loyal customers. I was “Red” to him—a nickname given to me by several people due to my light-skinned complexion.  He remembered my love of Anita Baker and Stevie Wonder, and always made a relentless effort to make me smile, even if I didn’t purchase a CD from him that day.

My hometown is riddled with poverty and violence, and shrouded with a hopelessness that clings to its residents like the humid summer heat.  Run-down homes and buildings stretch for miles on litter-filled streets, and our community park is marked by broken swings and rotted park benches. From kindergarten through second grade, my classmates and I were dismissed early from school as soon as the summer heat began, because the school’s air conditioner was broken. In third grade, we were once sent home because asbestos was falling on us from the caved-in ceiling. I can still remember the tingly itchiness of the fibers on my eight-year-old back and shoulders.

Still, black joy found a way to exist: it came to us through the CD/DVD man who provided affordable entertainment and a charismatic, hard-working attitude to emulate; and cafeteria workers who made you feel special by remembering your favorite meal, and that you loved the butter cookies more than the chocolate chip ones.

These men mattered.

What if the media spoke about the men who lost their lives in this light? What if the accounts of Alton focused on his generosity and value to his community, instead of his mugshot and criminal record?

What if instead of replaying the gruesome video of Philando’s dying body, major news outlets shared the beautiful statement  from the Saint Paul Public School District that details how beloved he was to his colleagues, and describes the “great relationships” he had with the staff and students he helped to feed every day?

What if the media acknowledged that economic shifts hit black communities—many of which are already in poverty—the hardest?  What if it regularly explored the ways that men like Alton Sterling and Eric Garner—killed by a New York City Police Department officer in 2014—are examples of “the black men most likely to be left out of the formal economy,” who engage in “hustles to make ends meet, and are far more likely to suffer from police violence,” as Lester Spence, a professor of political science at John Hopkins University, told Salon.

When you are in poverty, and at such a disadvantage in our economy, you must hustle to create opportunities for yourself—not to build wealth, but to survive.

I hustle, too. Along with several of my peers, I engage in informal work—like housesitting, babysitting, and pet-sitting—for additional income. Are we immune from the critiques applied to Alton or Eric because we are college-educated individuals living and working in the nation’s capital?

Their humanity—along with the humanity of everyone who is living in poverty—deserves acknowledgment, respect, and honor.

Before you cast Alton as a criminal or thug, or offer up tortured logic saying that Philando “should’ve just followed the police orders,” consider these men as men. They were fathers, significant others, providers, and beams of light and love among their families and peers. They were individuals with real worth to their friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Their humanity—along with the humanity of everyone who is living in poverty—deserves acknowledgment, respect, and honor.

So before you type a hashtag in front of their names—full of rage and righteous indignation—stop and ask yourself: would these men have mattered to you before they were so tragically taken? Would you have purchased a CD from Alton? Would you have spoken to Philando? Would you have even noticed them?

Alton and Philando mattered.  Their black lives mattered before #BlackLivesMatter, and they always will.  We need to celebrate people’s worth when it truly matters the most—during their lives. Then maybe fewer black men and women will be reduced to a hashtag.

Editor’s Note: In the weeks and months ahead, TalkPoverty is committed to continuing the conversation on race, privilege, and change.  We invite your submissions at info@talkpoverty.org.

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