Safety Net

3 Safety Net Improvements That Could Help Keep Families Together

There is a common narrative about the families who are involved with child welfare systems—one that portrays parents as abusive and unfit (or unwilling) to care for their children. But reality is more nuanced than that. The truth is, nearly half of the families who have children removed from their homes cannot meet their basic needs and require additional supports in order to provide for their children.

This is especially true for the parents of young children. The birth of a child is one of the leading triggers of poverty in the United States, and since young children have unique costs—like diapers, formula, and child care—poor families often struggle to make ends meet.

Research continues to confirm what we already know: Children do best when they are raised by their families and in their communities, as long as it is safe. The trauma children experience when they are removed from their parents unnecessarily can have significant and life-long effects, which can be particularly damaging for young children.

Current safety-net programs—including income support and child care and nutrition assistance—are essential for low income families, but if they were modified to be more family-centered, responsive, and flexible, we could prevent unnecessary system involvement and make it easier for families to care for their children safely at home.

Three key strategies could improve existing programs so that they better meet the needs of young children and families.

1. More flexible funding sources to support families facing multiple barriers

Most safety net funding is narrowly focused on providing a specific service, such as food, rent, or utility assistance. These programs are crucial, but the limited focus of each results in gaps across the safety net that can leave families vulnerable.

Nearly half of the families who have children removed from their homes cannot meet their basic needs.

For example, one of the most common reasons that families become involved with child welfare is because caregivers are often forced to leave children at home—without adequate supervision—so that they can go to work or appointments. If families had cash resources to provide for unexpected costs such as backup child care, parents of young children could juggle multiple demands and attend work, school, or appointments while still keeping their children safe.

Funding sources that provide benefits to families through tax programs and direct cash transfers help meet this need. That’s why the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit, which lifted 9.4 million people out of poverty in 2013, are so crucial for millions of low- and moderate-income families. Child allowances, which provide cash benefits to families with young children, would provide even greater flexibility —and have the potential to significantly reduce poverty.

2. Coordinate between the programs that are designed for young children and families

For families who are navigating multiple benefit programs, overlapping, duplicative, or contradicting eligibility requirements can make it difficult to access the supports they need. For instance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work requirements are often not aligned with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). That can make it difficult for families who rely on TANF to participate in WIOA work or training opportunities, since they do not always “count” as work for TANF work participation rates.

In addition, data sharing across programs—along with other information technology enhancements—would help families get the most out of safety net programs. Many states now use document imaging systems to save and file household verifications, and provide call centers for clients to call in and report changes to their status or benefits needs. This can simplify the eligibility determination process and allow states to create a single process for determining eligibility across a number of programs.

Several states participating in the Work Support Strategies demonstration project have implemented these strategies to better integrate various procedures for major safety net programs including Medicaid, SNAP, and child care subsidies.  These states are improving coordination on intake, verification, and periodic redetermination of eligibility to create a more cohesive and easy to navigate set of work supports.

3. Make services available in locations that are convenient for families

Providing services and supports in the places where families already spend time—such as child care centers, libraries, schools, and pediatricians’ offices—makes it more likely that families will receive the essential services that they need.

For example, Project DULCE provides parents of infants with support in addressing stress, building resiliency, and developing a nurturing relationship with their young child, while simultaneously linking families to legal and other community resources—all during the course of standard well-child visits. An evaluation of Project DULCE has shown that the intervention contributes to improvements in preventive health care delivery and accelerated access to concrete supports, such as nutrition or utility assistance, among low-income families.

Safety-net programs that are flexible enough to meet the needs of families, are well-coordinated, and offered in environments that are comfortable and convenient are critical to ensuring that children can thrive at home with their families.

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Labor

Apprenticeship Programs Are Leaving Out Women and People of Color. Here’s How to Fix That.

After 14 months of incarceration in a county jail in Mississippi, Tawyna Lundberg was released with only the clothes on her back and no place to go. Two years later, she is now a certified structural welder doing preventive maintenance for an HVAC company.  She owns a car, and she’s saving up to buy her first home.

Lundberg is one of more than 250 women who have successfully completed the Women in Construction (WinC) pre-apprenticeship program in Biloxi, Mississippi.  This eight-week program prepares low-income women for apprenticeships or other construction jobs—it covers everything from basic safety, construction math, and handling power tools, to workers’ rights and the history of the trades.

Like Lundberg, many of the women in WinC face significant barriers to employment, including histories of domestic violence, homelessness, lack of access to affordable, quality child care, or inadequate health care (Mississippi has refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act).  That’s why WinC provides case management services and child care through Early Head Start, in addition to traditional job training.

“The job training is sort of a jumping off point for so many people,” says Julie Kuklinski, the program’s director. “And our comprehensive services also help participants get where they want to go.”

For some graduates, WinC may launch them into an apprenticeship, which allows them to earn a wage while learning skills on the job and through classroom instruction. Research shows that apprenticeship raises worker productivity and leads to competitive wages—the average starting wage for someone who has completed an apprenticeship program is $50,000.

Pre-apprenticeship programs like WinC not only help marginalized workers gain economic security, they also help employers establish a pipeline for diverse, skilled workers.  But there are very few programs like it across the country. As a result, apprenticeship programs are often inaccessible to the people who would most benefit from them.

Apprenticeship programs are often inaccessible to the people who would most benefit from them.

For example, the construction industry offers many high-wage apprenticeships, but in 2013 just 2.1% of these apprentices were women. At the same time, women and people of color were overrepresented in the lowest-wage apprenticeship programs, where average earnings are less than $15 per hour.

Moreover, recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) shows that apprenticeship programs are often less diverse than the occupations they ultimately serve.  This suggests that while people of color are employed in these occupations, they are less likely to receive training and obtain a credential—and therefore earn the same pay as those who complete an apprenticeship—for their work. It is not totally clear why women and people of color are underrepresented in apprenticeship programs, but discrimination in the hiring process and on the job likely play a role.

Historically, federal efforts to make apprenticeship programs more racially and gender diverse have had limited success. But that is beginning to change.

President Barack Obama recently set a national goal to double the number of apprenticeship programs over five years, and to increase opportunities for women and people of color to participate in them. To support this effort, the Administration and Congress have authorized $265 million in competitive grants for apprenticeships.

The DOL has also made achieving racial and gender diversity a priority of this grant-making process. And, for the first time since 1978, the agency has taken steps to modernize the Equal Opportunity Employment regulation that prohibits discrimination and requires affirmative action in apprenticeship programs. Given the very limited progress we have made on diversifying apprenticeships in the intervening decades, this is a critical regulatory fix.

But more must be done.

Congress should ensure that there is dedicated funding to help states and localities develop new and diverse pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. Congress should also ensure that this funding is tied to achieving goals of increased participation by women and people of color, particularly in high-wage fields.

With thoughtful and targeted policy changes like these, we can ensure that all workers—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or disability status—have a fair shot at a good job through an apprenticeship.

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Safety Net

White New Orleans Has Recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Black New Orleans Has Not.

96,000.

That’s how many fewer African-Americans are living in New Orleans now than prior to Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall 11 years ago today. Nearly 1 in 3 black residents have not returned to the city after the storm.

It was the worst urban disaster in modern U.S. history. Eighty percent of New Orleans lay under water after the epic collapse of the area’s flood-protection system—more than 110,000 homes and another 20,000 plus businesses, along with most of the city’s schools, police and fire stations, electrical plans, and its public transportation system.

Unlike last year, when the 10th anniversary meant satellite trucks clogging the streets, this anniversary is unlikely to draw much media attention—which would be a shame if I thought the coverage last year was any good.

Large stretches of New Orleans were still reeling from the disaster last summer, as those satellite trucks sat parked in the French Quarter.  There, the on-air talent did their stand-ups against the backdrop of Jackson Square and the media rarely ventured to the eastern half of the city, where most of the city’s black residents lived prior to Katrina.

On the east side they might have shot footage of the Seventh Ward, a black working-class community that was still only around 60 percent rebuilt a decade after Katrina. They could have gone to Pontchartrain Park, a black middle class community that the actor Wendell Pierce, who had grown up there, dubbed a “black Mayberry.” Pontchartrain Park was doing no better than the Seventh Ward. Or they might have reported from New Orleans East, a black professional class neighborhood still pocked by boarded-up strip malls and abandoned businesses. It is maybe 80 to 85 percent rebuilt eleven years after Katrina.

Most shocking is the Lower Ninth Ward, where the average resident was living on $16,000 a year before the hurricane. You can still drive blocks there and not see a single home. The neighborhood is still missing more than half its pre-Katrina population.

The great need in parts of the city where the tourists rarely venture was not what the media—or the city’s white civic leaders—were focused on.

Yet the great need in parts of the city where the tourists rarely venture was not what the media—or the city’s white civic leaders—were focused on. Instead, the story line was what city officials dubbed the “New Orleans miracle.” In his state of the city address a few months before the 10th anniversary, Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared victory over Katrina: New Orleans was “no longer recovering, no longer rebuilding,” he said.  According to the mayor the city was “America’s greatest comeback story,” and he oversaw a three-month celebration dubbed “Katrina 10: Resilient New Orleans.” For white communities, it was true: Lakeview, a prosperous white neighborhood on the east side that also suffered catastrophic flooding, looks better than it did before the storm because of all the new homes and businesses.

Just a year earlier, Landrieu had protested when a writer for The Atlantic referred to him as the city’s first white mayor in 36 years.  “I don’t see myself as a white mayor or the city as a black city,” he said.

But it’s hard to imagine a black mayor, in a style reminiscent of George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, triumphantly describing the recovery as a thing of the past when there was still so much suffering in the eastern half of the city.

Katrina was not an equal opportunity storm. A black homeowner in New Orleans was more than three times as likely to have been flooded as a white homeowner. That wasn’t due to bad luck; because of racially discriminatory housing practices, the high-ground was taken by the time banks started loaning money to African Americans who wanted to buy a home.

Nor has New Orleans experienced an equal opportunity recovery—in no small part because of the white civic leaders who openly advocated for a whiter, wealthier city. While water still covered most of New Orleans, Jimmy Reiss, a prominent local businessman and then-head of the Business Council, told the Wall Street Journal that the city would come back in “a completely different way: demographically, geographically, and politically,” or he and other white civic leaders would not return. That sentiment was paired with a policy approach then-Congressman Barney Frank described as “ethnic cleansing through inaction.”

Now, New Orleans no longer has a public hospital, though prior to Katrina, it was home to the nation’s oldest one. Before the storm, the city was home to thousands of units of affordable housing in a quartet of housing projects locals now call the “Big Four.” Large portions of the Big Four had escaped with little or no water damage. Yet elected officials chose to bulldoze all four anyway. The largest housing recovery program in U.S. history, “Road Home,” was created in the months after Katrina. But money was disbursed based on the appraised value of a home rather than the cost of rebuilding, even though a home in a white community was typically appraised at a far higher price than the same house in a black community. Five years after the storm, a federal judge sided with black homeowners in a racial discrimination suit against the program. But by then officials had already spent more than 98 percent of the $13 billion that the federal government had committed to Road Home.

Katrina was not an equal opportunity storm.

The irony—the tragedy—is that despite the efforts of people like Jimmy Reiss to make New Orleans a less poor city, something like the opposite has happened. The child poverty rate in New Orleans is now 4 percent—that’s higher than it was before the storm, and more than double the national average. The income disparity between rich and poor is so great that last year Bloomberg declared New Orleans the country’s most “unequal” city. And it’s hardly just the poor who are suffering. The median black household in New Orleans in 2013 was $30,000—$5,000 less than it was in 2000, adjusted for inflation. By contrast, median household income in the white community increased by 40 percent over that same period and now stands at more than $60,000.  The same young energy that is helping rejuvenate urban communities across the country is part of the New Orleans story. But that just calls into greater relief those who have been left behind during recent prosperity.

These days, little recovery money is still coming to New Orleans. It might be a flood that explains the sorry state of so many of the city’s working and middle class communities, but New Orleans today is in the same boat as any city that has suffered blight and other ills due to the subprime meltdown and the disappearance of blue-collar jobs. The answer to this widespread suffering is a comprehensive urban plan—one that helps any metropolis with struggling neighborhoods that haven’t benefited from a general uptick in the fortune of the nation’s cities. But, of course, few in power are talking about anything so ambitious.

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Safety Net

‘People In Poverty Do Work’: What Paul Ryan Misunderstands About Poverty

This country has a penchant for plans to end poverty that do nothing to actually help families struggling to make ends meet.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of welfare reform, which created work requirements and other barriers for families who need the most basic cash assistance.  The legislation was aimed at getting people to become self-sufficient.  As then-President Bill Clinton put it, “No one who can work should be able to stay on welfare forever.”

Twenty years later, it’s clear that welfare reform has left more families with fewer resources. There has been a 75% drop in the number of Americans receiving cash assistance since 1996, and a sharp rise in the number of households with children with incomes of less than $2 per day.  There are 3 million American children who now live on no money for at least three months out of the year.

Now Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan wants to build on that disastrous legacy.

With his recently released poverty plan, the Speaker called for ending 11 antipoverty programs—including housing assistance, food assistance, and child care—and combining them into a single block grant (the preferred approach under welfare reform).

Ryan claims he is focused on moving people into full-time work—the surest way to get people out of poverty, he says. And it’s true—full-time jobs that pay well and provide benefits are indeed the best path to get out of poverty.

But that’s not what Ryan is promoting, and his solution—like welfare reform before it—would not have helped me. (Nor would his votes—at least 10 times—against raising the minimum wage.)

People in poverty do work.

In my years of receiving government assistance, I worked full-time and went to school full-time. I still needed help to pay for child care, food, utilities, and school. And that’s the problem with both welfare reform and Ryan’s poverty plan: they ignore the fact that people in poverty do work, but they face challenges that people with means do not. When you don’t have money, you can’t pay for car repairs, quality daycare, or work-appropriate attire. It’s harder to overcome criminal records or inadequate educations.

When my college classes began to interfere with my work as a housecleaner, where I barely made $9 an hour, I had to go to part-time.  But because of the work requirements added during the 1996 welfare reform, my part-time work status meant I received fewer benefits. My child care grant only covered the hours I was physically in class, so I ended up paying for child care myself. To make ends meet, I took the maximum allowed in student loans, $10,000 a year, and maxed out my credit cards. By the time I graduated, I was $70,000 in debt.

I am considered a success story because I was able to use my degree to support my family through freelance writing, without government assistance. But if I hadn’t fought for years to get a better education, I would still be working full-time for less than $10 an hour, receiving several forms of government assistance to make ends meet.

Politicians like the phrase “welfare to work.” Maybe they think it’s easy to find a job because they’ve never had to pound the pavement with a dozen resumes, spending days filling out applications, waiting for call backs, then interviews, only to find they start at just four hours a week—at $7.50 an hour.

Do all of that while you’re hungry, sleep-deprived, and experiencing stress of a level that has you in “survival mode.” Do that while you have children clinging to you during a phone interview. Then go out and try to find a daycare with openings that will take your government voucher—while stressing over feeding your children and yourself and caring for the housing you’re scared you might lose.

Then. Then reform welfare, Mr. Ryan.

 

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Safety Net

What Baton Rouge Can Learn from New Orleans About Bringing Flood Victims Home

In the wake of the nation’s worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy, flood recovery efforts are now underway in Baton Rouge: Electricity is operating in certain neighborhoods, damaged floors and walls are being removed from homes, and homeowners are beginning to deal with emergency assistance and insurance—or a lack thereof.

Soon, another aftereffect of the storm will sweep Baton Rouge communities: climate refugees—people who are displaced by climate change or natural disasters—will begin the daunting task of rebuilding their lives.

Louisianans are painfully familiar with this concept. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced approximately 1.5 million people from Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  It was the second largest climate-driven exodus in US history—only the Dust Bowl exodus was larger. Roughly 40% of the people who fled the storm were unable to return to their pre-Katrina homes—and this burden was not shared evenly.

Evacuees who didn’t return to their home states were more likely to come from a lower-income household, or be unemployed, than their counterparts who did return home. Poorer New Orleans residents may have been forced to move further away, as indicated by cities as far as Philadelphia providing refuge for homeless Katrina victims, but distance wasn’t the only obstacle. The slow return of low-income housing—eight years after the storm, New Orleans still had less than half the number of pre-storm public housing units—kept the city’s disadvantaged population scattered at best and homeless at worst.

In addition to struggles with housing, poorer communities were also likely to suffer from pollution-linked physical health impacts, which are exacerbated by higher levels of psychological trauma and stress after an event like Hurricane Katrina. One study found that low-income Katrina survivors were twice as likely to suffer poor mental health outcomes as people with greater financial resources, and another noted that people who did not return to their communities had greater levels of depression than those who were able to return home.

The thousands of Baton Rouge area residents affected by this historic flooding will face the same struggle to return home that Katrina survivors experienced. Many of these survivors were already living in poverty before the floods hit. Of the 20 parishes that President Obama declared “a major disaster,” 17 had populations above the 14.8% national poverty rate, and half of the disaster-declared parishes had more people living in poverty than the state poverty average of 19.8%. Two affected parishes, St. Landry and Washington, had poverty rates near 30%.

Without efforts to bring residents of all income levels back home, the health and economic welfare of many low-income residents will likely worsen.

Leaders in the public, private, and non-profit sectors need to offer pathways home that can improve the lives of these residents and strengthen their communities.  This includes programs developed after Hurricane Sandy to shelter residents in their homes as quickly as possible, such as the Rapid Repairs program, and rental assistance for low-income households. Policies that identify and strengthen community organizations serving residents can also help people find assistance and shelter in a nearby community. Rehoming residents after an extreme weather event will also mitigate some of the exclusionary impacts of gentrification, which has been a contentious issue in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

Government officials seemingly recognize the need to bring residents back to their communities by trying to make their homes habitable as quickly as possible. Whether these efforts will extend to low-income residents this time around remains to be seen.