Media and Politics

Trump’s Budget Is What Class Warfare Looks Like

Earlier this week, the Trump administration launched a massive salvo against the working and middle class with a budget that was every bit as absurd as its title: “A New Foundation for American Greatness.”

Trump’s spin was characteristically grandiose and empty of truth.  In a message to Congress he wrote that the budget’s “defining ambition is to unleash the dreams of the American people.”  He’s going to do that by “laying a new foundation for American Greatness,” with a “streamlined Government” that will “drive an economic boom that raises incomes and expands job opportunities” for everyone.

Let’s be clear: the only thing new about this proposal is the scale of bad conservative ideas it features. Otherwise, it’s in line with a decades-old pursuit to cut Social Security, Medicaid, and other vital protections to bankroll handouts to their wealthy patrons. Trump does this to the tune of $5.5 trillion in tax cuts—as in, more than the GDP of Japan. He promises that this windfall for the rich will lead to massive economic growth, job creation, and new revenues—so much so that the $5.5 trillion will pay for itself.

The fact is that we have decades of data showing that when it comes to tax cuts for the wealthy the only thing you can count on is that the wealthy get tax cuts.  No job creation, no economic boom—just some major shortfalls in revenue when it comes to things like paying for schools, libraries, roads, and other vital services.

Boiled down, this proposal is simply an unprecedented transfer of wealth to the very top that comes at the expense of the rest of us.  It shows a callousness towards Trump’s own voters and takes a wrecking ball to our shared basic living standards.

This proposal is simply an unprecedented transfer of wealth to the very top.

A $64 billion cut to Social Security Disability Insurance—a basic support workers pay into in case they are someday unable to participate in the workforce—would hit older workers and blue collar workers the hardest.

Another $800 billion$1.4 trillion if you include the Republican health care plan—is slashed from Medicaid. This will impact not only people with low-incomes but also those of us who rely on Medicaid for care in nursing homes.  Literally tens of millions of people would lose coverage.

Trump also takes a torch to the SNAP (food stamp) program with a 29 percent cut—this for assistance that currently averages about $1.40 a meal and still manages to produce excellent long-term educational and economic outcomes for recipients.  (If instead he focused on raising the minimum wage to just $12 an hour, it would save $5.3 billion annually in SNAP support. It’s not that people aren’t working, it’s that the damn wages are too low to pay for the basics.)

At a time when people are being priced out of college or carrying an overwhelming debt burden, Trump would reduce support for loans and grants that help make college more affordable.

Trump continues to wage his war on science and the general health and well-being of the public, with nearly $6 billion in cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), $1 billion in cuts to the National Cancer Institute, and billions more from basic scientific and medical research.  For good measure, there is a $35 million cut to the Center for Disease Control’s Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, and the elimination of federal grants for Special Olympics.  And we know global warming and environmental hazards are of no concern to Trump—he cuts Environmental Protection Agency funding by 31 percent, including one-third of the budget for climate and clean air work.

All told, Trump takes an axe to a dizzying $1.7 trillion worth of support for our basic living standards, in order to giveaway trillions more to the wealthiest among us.  He rode a wave of populism to the White House, and then spit in our faces by doubling down on historic levels of inequality.

There is only one rational response to this man and his cronies of wealthy elites and conservative ideologues: Fight harder than we’ve ever fought before.

Author’s note: One way to fight back with TalkPoverty and allies is by sharing your story about how government assistance has been there for you—or people you know—when you need it. Together, we can make sure the budget debate is about our lives, not about lies and numbers. Join the #Handsoff Campaign at HandsOff.org today.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Trump Administration proposes a 28 percent cut to SNAP, instead of a 29 percent cut.

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Culture

‘Against All Odds’ Is Required Viewing for White Progressives

“Structural racism” has become a buzzword in white progressive circles.  But every time I push a white writer to break down the meaning behind the words without success, or I see a Black Lives Matter sign in an apartment window in a gentrified neighborhood where longtime residents of color are now priced out, I have to ask myself: How much we really know about the theoretically-woke words we’re throwing around?

We’re finally starting to call out racial disparities, but do we understand the history that creates them? We pledge our allegiance to inclusiveness and shared power, but do we examine the roles our own lives play in maintaining policies, practices, and cultures that continue to harm African-American friends and family, neighbors and coworkers?

It is for these reasons that I believe every white progressive (and, really, every white person) should see Bob Herbert’s new documentary, Against All Odds: The Fight for a Black Middle Class.

Herbert presents an airtight case of structural racism in America—and it’s a case I’m laying out at length here in case you don’t see the film. If we are going to throw these words around, we better understand their meaning and use that understanding to inform the work that we—white people—must do.

Lack of access to jobs, housing, and capital

When 6 million African Americans fled the horrors of the South during the Great Migration, they discovered new forms of discrimination and exclusion in the North. Some found work in factories, but most worked menial jobs—as servants, janitors, drivers, and cooks—while they were charged exorbitant rents for substandard housing in the worst neighborhoods.

One of the only pathways to the middle class that was available for black Americans was self-employment.  But without access to capital, it’s hard to grow a business. Herbert’s grandfather managed to open an upholstery business that staved off the worst of the Great Depression for his family. His father, too, opened two stores in the 1960s and ’70s.  But when his father was in a position to expand and compete with larger, white-owned businesses, he was locked out by the banks—and that was in New Jersey.

“They weren’t giving bank loans to guys who looked like my father,” Herbert says.

This lack of access to capital is a constant refrain throughout the black experience in America.  When black families could finally afford to move out of ghettos, banks wouldn’t give them mortgages.  Lenders took maps and drew red lines around neighborhoods where they wouldn’t loan to black families. (Hence the term “redlining.”)  Moreover, the federal government wouldn’t insure home loans for black people—it was literally written into the Federal Housing Administration handbook, according to former housing organizer Jack Macnamara.

As a result, black families often resorted to buying homes “on contract,” which meant purchasing them—at double or triple the value—from shady brokers on a monthly installment plan. There was no opportunity to build equity for black families—when they couldn’t make a payment they were simply tossed out and the seller would cut the same deal with another black family.  It is estimated that this legal practice drained at least $500 million from the black community in Chicago alone between 1940-1970 (and according to The Washington Post the practice is making a comeback).

Decades of wealth that black families had managed to build up vanished overnight.

Predatory schemes were still rampant in the lead up to the housing collapse in 2008.  Rather than having access to prime, fixed-rate home mortgages, black Americans earning annual salaries of $100,000 were more likely to receive toxic, subprime loans (think low teaser interest rates that later skyrocket) than white Americans with an income of just $30,000.  Major commercial banks actually incentivized these deals, paying mortgage brokers and loan officers more for the subprime loans and then selling them to eager investors who were promised higher returns.

“Businesses, banks, and brokers were deliberately wealth-stripping from communities of color,” says Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of the Center for Global Policy Solutions.

When the housing market crashed, decades of wealth that black families had managed to build up vanished overnight. Today white families average about $113,000 in financial assets, while African American families average just $5,700. Rockeymoore notes that about one-third of African Americans have no assets at all.

Keeping blacks “in their place”

Racism wasn’t all institutional. Many white citizens and politicians have conspired to limit the social and economic advances of African Americans any time they felt their own status was threatened.

For example, beginning in the mid-1940s, thousands of whites in Chicago participated in a series of riots to keep single black families out of their neighborhoods. In 1951, when an army veteran attempted to move into a rented apartment with his family of four, they were stopped by a mob of 4,000 people that ransacked their belongings and then burned the entire building down. Similarly, in 1959, when a black family moved into their newly-purchased home, a mob of 5,000 people stoned the house, threw lit torches, and chanted “we want blood.”

The history of white rioting has been buried.

Author Beryl Satter says that the riots were “common” and yet the history of white rioting has been “buried.”

“When people think of violence and riots in the street, they always think of the 1960s when black people rioted. But when white people rioted, it doesn’t even have a name,” Satter says.

Meanwhile, politicians stoke hostility towards blacks in more subtle ways. The film includes remarkable audio of Lee Atwater, advisor to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, discussing some of the tactics used to secure the votes of racist whites.

Atwater notes that politicians moved from saying “nigger, nigger, nigger” to more covert, racist talking points about “forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.”  Atwater says elected officials have been forced to adopt “much more abstract” language—often called “dog-whistles”—to communicate that voting for them means “blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

Today’s more subtle forms of racism

Herbert’s interviews with black professionals render a vivid portrayal of what middle class African Americans continue to experience in their daily lives, even internally.

Karla Swinton, a marketing manager, talks about wearing “a mask” at work so that when she hears “racially offensive” things “you take it in stride, you take a breath, you keep moving.”

Z Scott, a partner at a major law firm and former federal prosecutor, talks about being asked to type for people, or being treated as incompetent and not deserving “the chair you are sitting in.”

“Black professionals, we’re all suppressing a certain amount of rage… and it’s something that you have to manage,” she says.

And then there is the inherent insecurity of trying to provide for one’s family, knowing that you haven’t benefitted from generations of government entitlements like tax deductions on mortgage interest, 401Ks, and health insurance—or even benefits under Social Security and the GI Bill—as white families have.

Swinton’s husband, Brent, a professional fundraiser, says, “Being black middle class means wherever you’ve arrived you’ve only been there just in the span of your life.” He describes driving through a nearby white suburb and reflecting, “There is something that takes place over more than one generation that allows them to pass along a much greater head start…. I want to do that for my kids.”

What to do in terms of action?

At a recent screening in the nation’s capital, Herbert spoke of his hopes for the film: “I want people to see things that they may not have been aware of. I want them to be appalled by it.  And I hope that people will take action and say ‘we are not going to tolerate this anymore.’”

Herbert was joined by Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who appears in the film and shares his own story of being the son and grandson of sharecroppers. Both men agreed that the easiest way to create change is simply to vote—including in off-year elections.

Progressives need to fight to make sure black Americans have someone and something to vote for.

But progressives need to also fight to make sure black Americans have someone and something to vote for.  We need to support candidates who will speak the truth about structural racism in our past and present, and fight for the new equitable policies that are needed if we are serious about equal opportunity—like targeted jobs programs, greater affordable housing, and increased public school funding in communities that have been historically and chronically disadvantaged by racist policies and actions.

Indeed, in the wake of the 2016 election, with so much focus on the white working class, we need to be more vigilant—and better students of history—if we are going to find real solutions.

Being a “white progressive” involves incessantly asking tough questions—of oneself, loved ones, and social circles—about the ways structural racism is threaded throughout our country, cultural norms, and day-to-day interactions. We are not entitled to comfort and confidence—those should be fleeting sensations.  There is much to learn and even more to do to truly combat and eradicate structural racism.

As Herbert says towards the end of the film: “I don’t even think the full story of overt racism in this country has been well told… The more subtle forms of discrimination are not addressed at all.  People pretend that those subtle forms—which are incredibly debilitating—don’t even exist.”

Author’s note: For screenings at your school, workplace, or other venue, contact: Roys@publicsquaremedia.org.

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Labor

Everyone Is Overlooking a Key Part of the New $15 Minimum Wage Bill

Next week, Democrats in the Senate and House are expected to formally introduce a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024. Most of the media coverage has highlighted the remarkable consensus this bill represents among lawmakers—a $15 minimum wage was considered a pipe dream only a few years ago, and now it is co-sponsored by a majority of congressional Democrats. But an equally monumental—and largely overlooked—story behind the bill is what it would mean for the 1 in 5 Americans living with a disability.

A loophole in the current minimum wage law allows employers to pay workers with disabilities a subminimum wage that’s even lower than the federal limit of $7.25—in some cases, paying people as little as pennies per hour. In recent years, an estimated 420,000 individuals with disabilities have been paid an average of just $2.15 per hour.

The new bill would sunset the separate subminimum wage, immediately setting it at $4.25 and then gradually increasing it every year for the next six years until it is even with the minimum wage.

Disability advocates have been pushing for this type of legislation for years. The subminimum wage was initially introduced in 1938 to encourage employers to hire veterans with disabilities—and has barely budged in the nearly 80 years since. Now, the Depression-era policy does far more harm than good. Partly as a result of these extremely low wages, workers with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to be economically insecure as workers without disabilities.

The Depression-era policy does far more harm than good.

While some advocates argue that the subminimum wage offers workers a foot in the door of the labor market—paving the way to skill development, training, and an upward career trajectory—research shows that it exposes workers with disabilities to exploitation and seclusion. Last year, phasing out the separate subminimum wage was a key recommendation of the Department of Labor’s advisory committee on employment among individuals with disabilities.

In its current form, the subminimum wage pigeon-holes workers into dead-end jobs—most often at so-called sheltered workshops, where workers with disabilities are kept separate from other workers. It’s stigmatizing, sending the message that disabled individuals’ work is not as valuable as others individuals’ work. And it’s discriminatory, robbing workers with disabilities of the basic labor protections afforded to workers without disabilities and leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse.

Congressional Democrats’ embrace of one fair minimum wage taps into a growing—but so far, largely frustrated—movement. President Obama attempted to partially rectify the law by including workers with disabilities in his 2014 executive order mandating a minimum wage of $10.10 for federal contractors, but that order now faces reversal by President Trump. Only two states, New Hampshire and Maryland, have independently passed legislation to phase out the subminimum wage for workers with disabilities. Other subminimum wages, like the one that exists for tipped workers, have been able to make more progress.  Eight states ban the tipped minimum wage, and all national minimum wage bills introduced since 2012 have included provisions to partially or fully phase it out.

For the 41 million workers who struggle to make ends meet on low wages, the Raise the Wage Act is an historic step towards ensuring a livable wage for all. This call is especially significant for the millions of workers with disabilities who—after 80 years of being left without a voice in federal legislation—are finally able to join the chorus, demanding the fair shot at fair pay that all workers deserve.

Correction: The article originally stated that the bill was being introduced Thursday, May 18, but the formal introduction of the bill was delayed. 

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Media and Politics

It’s Time to Stop Shaming Students When Their Parents Can’t Pay the Lunch Bill

Last spring, a third grader in an Alabama elementary school walked into the cafeteria to get lunch. But because his lunch account was running low, he was stamped on the arm by a school employee with the words “I need lunch money” for all his peers to see.

Across the country, schools are using similar tactics to humiliate students with outstanding lunch bills. According to a troubling 2014 report from the United States Department of Agriculture, almost half of all school districts used some form of lunch shaming to get parents to pay outstanding bills. These tactics range from making children clean the cafeteria, to forcing them to wear a special wristband, to replacing their hot lunches with alternate food, to throwing away a student’s lunch right in front of their eyes—and the eyes of their peers.

School lunch debt is not an isolated problem—76 percent of school districts have kids with school lunch debt, according to the School Nutrition Association. But stigmatizing children by singling them out in these cruel and public ways is a complete betrayal of our values as a nation. No child in America should be shamed by their school for their parents’ economic situation.

No child in America should be shamed by their school for their parents’ economic situation.

For many of our most vulnerable children, school lunches provide their most nutritious—or in some cases, their only—meal of the day. Good nutrition gives children a solid foundation for the rest of their lives. It builds their brains, aids the development of their immune systems, and sets them on course for healthy growth. But when children do not receive nutritious food, we see instances of poor academic performance, especially among elementary-age children in math and reading.

Instead of shaming children or putting their health on the line, schools should work with parents to find solutions for the underlying issue. Fortunately, there has been some progress to stop this abhorrent practice. In March, New Mexico passed the first law in the United States to prohibit lunch shaming, setting an example the rest of the country should follow.

That is why I am proud to join Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) to introduce the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, which would ban schools from singling out children because their parents have not paid their school meal bills. The bill would prohibit shaming tactics, including the practice of throwing a child’s meal away rather than extending credit for meals. It would shift direct communications about debt to the parent, not the child. This is how it ought to be—a child should not be a go between for an institution and a parent.

The time has come to ensure that students no longer walk into the cafeteria afraid of humiliation. We have a moral obligation to end lunch shaming once and for all.

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Safety Net

Pell Grants Put Me Through College. Now Trump Wants to Cut Them.

I started college when my daughter was only 14 months old. We had been homeless six months earlier. My life up until I discovered I was pregnant had been blissfully unplanned. I worked a lot at random jobs, and figured someday—when I finally admitted I was a writer who would take writing seriously—I’d settle down and go to college.

But the pregnancy was unplanned, too. So was the abuse from the father. So was him kicking us out in the middle of a particularly snowy winter in northwest Washington.

A few months before my daughter Mia’s first birthday, I worked with a friend, eagerly taking up the slack in his landscaping business. I crawled through flowerbeds and junipers and pulled weeds. By the time the season ended, Mia and I had an apartment paid for mostly by a housing grant. But I knew if I expected anyone to hire me for a job with benefits, I needed a degree.

My parents didn’t raise me with an expectation that I would go to college. When I approached my dad with a list of schools I wanted to apply to during my junior year of high school, he said, “Who do you think’s gonna pay for that?” So I moved out of my parents’ house and went to work full-time for over a decade. That had seemed all right. Respectable, even. But now I needed a job that would do more than just barely pay the rent.

I was able to go to college, and get the degree I knew I needed, because of a grant the federal government provides to low-income students—the Pell Grant. It covered my entire tuition at my local community college, leaving me a few hundred bucks to live off of. I crept along that way. I found full-time work as a maid. I worked late at night, often past midnight, and through the weekends when my daughter was with her dad.

I needed a job that would do more than just barely pay the rent.

Transferring to a four-year college, for me, meant moving to a different state. I moved to the place I’d intended to go before I became a mom. I moved because, when I visited, I found a progressive community that’d be supportive of a single mom working her way through college. I moved because I needed to hold myself accountable to my dream of being a writer that I’d had since I was ten. I needed my daughter to see me pursue that dream, and not settle for anything less, because I never wanted her to think life wouldn’t afford her the same opportunity.

By that time, I paid for books and tuition with the Pell Grant and a scholarship created for survivors of domestic violence. I also took out the maximum amount of student loans to cover living expenses through the school year when I was only able to work part-time as a maid.  I lived off of a little over $1,000 a month, and my daughter bounced from preschool to the various homes of classmates when I worked or attended class. Neighbors watched her for free, and I rented the other bedroom of our apartment in exchange for help with child care.

Since I was juggling work and child care, I couldn’t take a full course load during the semesters. Instead, I took classes every summer. When the summer courses finished, I worked 10- to 12-hour days doing move-out cleans, landscaping gigs, and any other work I could find until the academic year began again.

A month before my daughter turned seven, she watched me walk across the stage to get my bachelor’s degree.

A year later, I was working full-time as a freelance writer. A year after that, I celebrated my first book deal for a memoir about my time in college, when I worked as a maid. We no longer need government assistance, but we only got here because it was there for us when we did need it. Especially the Pell Grant.

These budget cuts keep people shut behind closed doors.

In his recent budget, President Trump proposed cutting the Pell Grant’s surplus funds by $3.9 billion.  That surplus was set aside, with bipartisan support, so that recipients can attend summer school like I did. Trump also wants to cut funds for the work study program and TRIO, which mentors, tutors, and finds resources for students in need—including low-income single moms.

Trump’s plan to cut this funding will diminish opportunities for first generation students, single parents, disabled students, and low-income populations to get an education.  All that does is keep the cycle of poverty spinning. It keeps people shut behind closed doors, with the belief that opportunities just aren’t available to them.  It hurts students who can’t get the support they need through their families—because their family has no money, or no one has ever gone to college, or no one expected them to go, either.

I write today as a success story, heartbroken that others won’t have the same opportunity I did. Decreasing funds for these programs puts up road blocks that stop people in poverty from ever setting foot on a college campus, all for the sake of tax breaks for the wealthy that leave the path of the privileged pristine.

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