First Person

I Was Homeless in Rural America. Here’s How to Help Families Like Mine.

After we packed what was left of our belongings into our rusted-out minivan, my siblings and I loaded in to avoid the rain. We squeezed in among the garbage bags full of clothes, the kitchen appliances, and the weathered, mud-covered camping tent—our home for the past week. My mother slumped in the driver’s seat, defeated. Face buried in her hands, she pleaded between quiet sobs, “What did we do to deserve this?”

My mother’s words suggested that our circumstances were our fault, as if we were being punished for sins of the past. I know now that we were just poor and doing the best we could to survive—and there were many other families in rural America like us, struggling to make ends meet.

Substandard Housing

Before my family occupied a tent on a campsite, we lived in substandard housing in rural Magnolia, Illinois. The only house we could afford was in disrepair—the plumbing was a patchwork of burst pipes, some rooms did not have insulation, and all eight of us were crammed into three small bedrooms.

My parents were determined, so they persuaded the owner to allow us to live as rent-paying tenants while my father—a carpenter by trade—worked to make the house livable. My parents invested a lot of money, time, and care to make that house our home, rather than some unit of housing stock: they repaired a leaking toilet, brought running water to the bathroom sink, closed the porch to make a new bedroom, and added insulation. The only time the owner paid for maintenance was when the septic system collapsed and flooded our house with waste.

Though substandard housing is often described in terms of urban blight, suburban and rural families are actually twice as likely to face issues with things like “incomplete plumbing,” like my family did. What’s more, minority families in suburban and rural areas are twice as likely as their white, non-Hispanic counterparts to live in substandard housing—a statistical double whammy for my family.


After about a year, my family was served with an eviction notice for “refusal to pay.” The landlord was actually refusing to take payment in order to force us out, but the deck was stacked against us—and against tenants in general—in court. Careful documentation of past rental payments and major investments in the property offered no protection from being evicted without cause. My mother recalls, “we went to court to fight [the eviction], but knew we wouldn’t win.” And we didn’t.

The court determined that we had 30 days to vacate the premises. My parents searched desperately for housing options, but the eviction itself tainted our rental applications. One landlord seemed willing to overlook the risks associated with renting to an evicted family with six children, but when he heard our Latino surname—Oquenda—he suddenly struggled to find available space for us. According to a 2012 HUD report on housing discrimination, that’s fairly common: Hispanic renters are both “told about” and “shown” 12.5 percent and 7.5 percent fewer available units, respectively, than equally qualified white, non-Hispanic renters.

That is how we ended up homeless, living at a campsite in Marseilles, Illinois.


During our time at Marseilles’ Glenwood campgrounds, there were daily torrents of rain that flooded our tent and damaged our belongings. At one point, the runoff was so strong that it carried away our food cooler (we didn’t have a refrigerator), spilling our food out over the campsite and destroying the bread and buns we used for peanut butter and jelly and hot dogs.

Eventually the mud seeped through the tent’s openings, covering our clothes and blankets, and the tent became infested with ants and other insects that were seeking cover from the weather. This was a low-point for my family.

Eventually the rain stopped, and we found another site:  Maple Leaf Park.  Some of my fondest memories took place there: learning to swim, living off the crawdads and fish in the ponds, and singing songs around the fire we built from wood we gathered. We had help from food stamps and the grounds had showers, but most importantly our family’s morale rebounded.

After two more weeks at the campsite, someone offered us help. A friend let us stay with his family. Since resources like shelters and food banks are few and far between in rural areas, many homeless families end up in crowded housing or “doubling-up” with extended family or friends. We lived with that family for a few weeks before we found another home in Henry, Illinois.

Though the house in Henry also was substandard—incomplete plumbing, lack of insulation, and faulty electricity—we made it our home. It certainly beat the rain.

What’s Next

My family’s experience isn’t unique. On any given night in 2015, 32,800 Americans in rural families experienced homelessness. What’s more, the practical challenges of counting homeless people in rural areas means we may be underestimating the true size of the rural homeless population.

Structural issues—such as higher poverty rates; inadequate transportation; and limited access to shelters and services like health, mental health, and child care—make people and families who live in rural areas particularly vulnerable. This helps explain why rural homeless families are disproportionately likely to go without shelter: in 2014, rural families accounted for 15.7 percent of all homeless families, but almost 27 percent of all unsheltered homeless families (families without access to service shelters who usually live in cars, in tents, or on the street).

The rural housing crisis is not intractable. Policymakers should start by improving data collection on rural homelessness, so that they have a complete picture of the issue. They should also increase efforts to document and reduce discrimination in renting, and improve access to affordable legal services so that families stand a fighting chance when they risk losing their homes. To support the families who become homeless, policymakers should improve accessibility to shelters and other services in rural areas. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should reinstate Section 515 grants to build more affordable rural rental housing, and increase the direct loan program funding under USDA Section 502 to provide more assistance for rural homeowners.

These reforms are only possible if we choose to accept housing as a meaningful right for all Americans. Then, campgrounds could remain mainstays of family vacations—not crisis centers for homeless families.



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.


First Person

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.



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.”



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.