Safety Net

Fighting for My Life, Again, Under Trump

Content Warning: The following article contains graphic depictions of domestic violence. 

For 22 years, I did what many Americans do: I worked, I attended college, and I worked some more. I paid my taxes, I voted with my heart just as much as with my mind, and I obtained a career. I did everything right.

Then, on June 30, 2016, my fiancé shot me in the back of my head at point blank range.

As I lay dying, I watched the man I loved turn his gun on himself and take his own life. I was left for dead, but I fought for my life through unimaginable darkness, hurt, and pain. I survived. I am broken, but alive.

I think about that night a lot. I think about it because it shapes everything about my life now, and not just because the bullet fragments in the back of my head and neck leave me in pain. I think about it because the disability I have now, that I acquired with a one-second pull of a trigger, turned my life upside down.

I used to be a senior court clerk within the New York State Unified Court System. My fiancé was a New York State Court Officer-Lieutenant. Together we earned well over $150,000 per year. My career offered great benefits, a pension, and health insurance—and I was privileged enough to take them for granted.

I lost everything because my fiancé decided my life was not worth living. For the past 14 months, I fought to prove that it is: first by surviving, then by working to regain my dignity, self-worth, and independence.

Now, I find myself fighting the same battle with a different opponent. Once again, someone is deciding my life is not worth living. Except this time, it’s my president, and it’s the senators and representatives of my country telling me I have no worth.

Right now, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans are working to pass a budget that takes desperately needed resources from the people who need them the most. In his 2018 budget, Trump proposed cutting $70 billion from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which would take away income from up to 1 million Americans with disabilities like me. The House budget, which lawmakers are trying to pass this fall, isn’t as specific but the effects could be the same.

This is not the life I worked for.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, justified these cuts by calling SSDI “very wasteful” and suggesting that not everyone on it is “truly disabled” and people need to “go back to work.” The thing is, I’d love to. This is not a life I wanted, this is not the life I worked for. It is the life that was forced upon me. But I’m at the mercy of those who think this was a choice.

There are a lot of things about what happened to me that I won’t ever understand. I don’t understand why my fiancé got his service weapon back after he’d struggled with his mental health, or why he decided to shoot the person he said he loved. And I don’t understand why any intelligent, self-aware individual would think that my life was a choice—a choice to live a life where food is not a guarantee, where I am never quite sure if I’ll be able to visit the doctor for life-saving treatment or if I’ll have to suffer in pain forever, until the pain paralyzes me.

I live in fear every single day that the people I elected to help me, to help America, will take my life and the lives of millions of other Americans. We are failing as a nation if we continue down this path, if we take from the weakest to feed the strong.

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Justice

Not Guilty in St. Louis: The Cycle of Verdict, Protest, and Police

Jason Stockley, the former St. Louis cop charged with murder for killing a suspect at point-blank range, was found not guilty on Friday. The verdict was announced at 9:00 a.m. on September 15, 37 days after the trial closed and six years after Stockley killed Anthony Lamar Smith. Protests began immediately and don’t look as though they’ll end anytime soon.

There are events morning and night: People have staged die-ins, blocked intersections, and marched for miles every day in the sweltering Missouri heat. There is always someone with water or sandwiches or voter registration forms nearby, and a volunteer medic every few hundred feet. There are legal observers and a drum line, but no hint of reconciliation in the air.

Annie Smith, the mother of Anthony Lamar Smith, gave a press conference on Friday at the site of her son’s death. “I didn’t get justice, so I can’t have any peace,” she said.

The weekend has been split, as it usually is in St. Louis, between massive demonstrations that are angry but peaceful and smaller nighttime protests that devolve into broken windows and tear gas. The property damage has been in a different section of the city every night, led by younger and angrier protesters, and there is tension between people who think breaking windows is violence and people who argue that it’s not as violent as killing people. The chant “you kill us, we kill your economy” is a two-edged sword, and in the daytime it sounds like thousands of people making commerce inconvenient and at night it sounds like dozens of people making commerce disappear.

A fully militarized police force had seized control again, chanting, 'Whose streets? Our streets!'

On Sunday morning, people gathered in the Delmar Loop, which had seen the worst of the damage, to help clean up and board up storefronts and paint murals on the plywood. Then they went to protest. That’s how St. Louis has been since 2014 at least, when this cycle ingrained itself into the city.

By Sunday night a fully militarized police force had seized control again. They chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!” after arresting dozens of people—media, legal observers, and protesters alike. An undercover police car reversed through a crowd marching through a street in downtown St. Louis on Sunday, after which a line of riot police protected the car while protesters de-escalated the situation.

A funny thing about new normals is how easily people accept them; most people seemed upset but not shocked by these incidents. They expected the not guilty verdict and were ready for it—and for the police response. Journalists have been arrested at St. Louis protests before, the most famous example being Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly while they worked from a Ferguson McDonald’s in 2014. And on Saturday, a woman named Pat Washington was hit by a truck during a protest, though her injuries were minor and she finished the march. Two other times this weekend I’ve seen cars simply keep driving through the crowd.

If you are looking for a 2017 dystopia, it’s in St. Louis. It is entirely usual and patently unacceptable for the police force to do many of the things they’ve been doing on video over the last few days: firing projectiles toward residents at random, macing people who came out of a bathroom, knocking over and kicking elderly women before arresting them on spurious charges, running cars into crowds, using strobe lights on crowds of protesters at night knowing there were epileptics in the area, and putting a synagogue under siege on Shabbat. It is messy and complex here. There are shades of 2014, with the same protesters demanding the same changes and the same authorities quelling the unrest. But is it also three years later, and as a nation we are debating whether it’s appropriate to have Sean Spicer on the Emmys or whether it’s okay for the president to tweet a video of himself hitting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball.

On Monday morning, protesters arrived downtown by 7:00 a.m. Protests are expected to continue into Tuesday evening. Police and news helicopters circle above, and people wonder aloud why they don’t just admit a cop was guilty for once instead of putting everyone through all this again.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on the trial over the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith. Read part one.

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Labor

Inequality Is Probably Costing You a Lot of Money

When political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson released Winner-Take-All Politics in March 2011, it made headlines. The book’s vivid descriptions of how moneyed interests had come to dominate the Washington political scene captured media attention and helped shape conversations around public policies affecting economic inequality.

But while Winner-Take-All Politics got a lot of attention, the media missed a crucial part of the book: Rising inequality comes at a high cost to individual workers. In the book, Hacker and Pierson presented calculations showing that if inequality had stayed constant from 1979 to 2006, the bottom 90 percent of Americans would make up to 36 percent more per year than they currently do.

Half a decade later, inequality is still growing. It also still isn’t getting the media attention it deserves, even though it’s making a massive impact on Americans’ lives. It’s like climate change: There is nothing “new” about growing inequality, so it gets pushed out of the news in favor of White House scandals and presidential tweets. But just like global warming, economic inequality is slowly but surely destroying the livelihoods of many Americans.

You can see this quite clearly when you look at how the distribution of household income has changed over the past 50 years. I extended Hacker and Pierson’s original calculations to include incomes from 1968 to 2015, giving us about two decades’ worth of additional data beyond other recent calculations. The wider timeframe shows an even deeper decline in income than the authors originally reported.

The table below breaks this down by income bracket. The second column shows what each group’s average household income was in 2015; the third column shows what the group’s average income would have been if inequality had stayed the same between 1968 and 2015.

table 1

Source: Author’s calculations based on 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

If it weren’t for the increase in inequality, the bottom 40 percent of households would be making more than 35 percent more today.

The 'winners' from increased inequality are really a small group of incredibly rich Americans.

The gains, of course, have gone to the very wealthiest Americans—especially those in the top 5 percent. Due to the rise in inequality, higher-income households—those in the top 20 percent of the income distribution but not in the top 5 percent—have seen a 9 percent increase in their annual incomes. But incomes for households in the top 5 percent are 26 percent higher—an increase nearly three times as great. This reveals something important about the nature of rising inequality: The “winners” from increased inequality are really a small group of incredibly rich Americans, who are taking increasingly large shares of the total national income.

table 2

The findings are pretty difficult to refute. Conservatives have long argued that household income statistics are unreliable because they fail to account for differences in household size. But the increase in inequality appears just as real even when we look at “equivalence-adjusted income shares,” which control for differences in household size and composition.

In fact, the figure below shows that households in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution have actually seen their share of national income decline more when we use the equivalence-adjusted household income that addresses conservatives’ concerns.

table 3

The poorest fifth of households saw their share of national income decline from 4.2 percent in 1968 to 3.1 percent in 2015, a drop of 1.1 percentage points. However, if we instead look at equivalence-adjusted income, their share of the national income dropped more than twice as much (from 5.8 percent to 3.4 percent, a drop of 2.4 percentage points). Conservatives are right to say that normal household income statistics can be misleading; but that’s because the normal statistics understate the rise in inequality, not because they overstate it.

The rise in inequality is no statistical mirage. It is undoubtedly real—and its effects have been pernicious. Our country’s poorest households lose more than $4,000 every year as a result of the growth in inequality; lower-income families lose more than $11,000; and middle-class families lose around $13,000. That money could pay for real things that families have to do without, whether it’s better food or new shoes, a trip to the doctor or a great summer camp.

If the rise of economic inequality is going to be the great untold story of our time, then reducing inequality should be the greatest progressive objective of the 21st century.

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Safety Net

This Year’s Poverty Data Look a Lot Different When You Break Them Down by Race

Yesterday’s Census release of data on income, poverty, and health insurance demonstrated two things: There are policies that work for people who are struggling, and there is still a lot of work left to do—especially for people of color in America.

It is encouraging that the people who saw the worst losses in the years since the Great Recession—specifically African Americans and Hispanics—saw the biggest earnings gains for the second consecutive year. Real median incomes increased 5.7 percent to $39,490 among African Americans and 4.3 percent to $47,675 among Hispanics. But the racial income gap is still stark—the median income among non-Hispanic whites stands at $65,041.

image

Source: Economic Policy Institute.

The racial wage gap also persists as black men earned 71 cents for every dollar earned by white men in 2016, and Hispanic men earn 66 cents on the dollar. Among women, it has actually grown worse since 2007: Black women now earn 79 cents for every dollar earned by white women, and Hispanic women earn 69 cents on the dollar.

It is therefore not surprising that although poverty rates for all groups were down, they remain highest among African Americans (22 percent) and Hispanics (19.4 percent), compared with whites (8.8 percent). African American and Hispanic children continue to face the highest poverty rates at nearly 31 percent and 27 percent, respectively. African American children are three times more likely to be in poverty than white children.

image (1)

Source: Economic Policy Institute.

While the Census releases new data every September, it is notable that the solutions remain the same every year: People need investments in quality training and good jobs in their communities; they need a safety net that protects our basic living standards for food, housing, health care, retirement (Social Security); they need access to good schools and higher education; they need child care that doesn’t cost more than a year of college tuition; and they need a minimum wage that isn’t a poverty wage.

The solutions remain the same every year.

Many of the key policies that helped people in poverty achieve some gains are at stake in upcoming congressional debates on the budget. Conservatives will continue to go after the investments that cut poverty in half year-in and year-out, such as Medicaid and affordable health care. They will call for tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, even though the wealthiest 5 percent already captured 22.5 percent of all income last year. Nowhere on the agenda is there discussion of a just minimum wage and a real jobs plan that would target those who continue to struggle at the economic margins—disproportionately people of color—doing low-wage or unpaid work.

Recent gains need to be protected in the current political environment, but we also need to stay focused on a vision of how every man, woman, and child has the opportunity to fully participate in our economy and thrive.

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Safety Net

Census Data Show We’re Finally Back to Pre-Recession Poverty Levels. Trump’s Budget Risks Erasing Those Gains.

Today, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual snapshot of poverty, income, and health insurance in the United States. And following 2015’s historic gains, 2016 was another banner year on all three fronts: Poverty is now finally back to pre-recession levels, dropping from 13.5 percent to 12.7 percent; median income is up 3.2 percent to $59,039; and the share of Americans without health coverage has continued to decline, reaching a new record low of 8.8 percent.

But while all this is cause for celebration, today’s data also serve as a stark reminder of how much is at stake in the current political climate. That’s because they reflect continued progress made in 2016 thanks to policies such as the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion and investments in programs that help families afford the basics, from Social Security to nutrition assistance, to tax credits for working families—all of which are at risk under President Trump’s and congressional Republicans’ budgets.

Ironically, as he’s been known to do on more than a few occasions, President Trump may try to claim credit for this continued progress, even though it predates the start of his term. But whether or not he pretends they’re his gains, the data make clear the difference policy choices make—and how much worse off struggling families would be under Trump’s Robin Hood in Reverse agenda.

New analysis by my Center for American Progress colleagues Rachel West and Kate Gallagher Robbins shines a light on just how much worse off poverty would be if Trump’s budget became law. If just three of Trump’s proposed cuts had been in place in 2015—the latest year for which data are available—a staggering 2.3 million more Americans would have been poor that year. This analysis takes into account Trump’s proposed deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly food stamps); his call to eliminate the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which helps 6.7 million Americans afford their energy bills; and the increased out-of-pocket medical costs millions of Americans would face due to Trump’s proposed rollback of Medicaid expansion.

Of course, these three cuts only scratch the surface of Trump’s agenda. His budget also calls for deep cuts to Social Security, critical disability programs, education and job training, school nutrition, job-creating infrastructure investments, and nearly every program or policy that helps working families make ends meet and get ahead. The House Republican budget released this summer shares much of the same DNA. But even just the three budget cuts my colleagues looked at risk erasing all the gains we saw last year.

Meanwhile, Trump and congressional Republicans are pursuing massive tax giveaways for the ultra-rich and corporations, in an effort to bring about a historic upward redistribution of wealth under the guise of “tax reform.” Indeed, Trump’s proposed elimination of the estate tax alone—a tax that affects just the richest 0.2 percent of estates—would cost the same as feeding more than 6 million seniors through Meals on Wheels, yet another critical program he’s targeting for deep cuts.

Minimum wage increases were likely a major driver of the declines in poverty.

Trump talked a good game during his campaign, pledging to fight for the “forgotten man and woman” and restore prosperity to communities that have been left behind. Meanwhile, Speaker Ryan has spent years styling himself as a supposed poverty crusader, famously taking a “poverty tour,” hosting a poverty summit featuring Republican presidential candidates, and releasing a big plan to overhaul key antipoverty programs. But today’s data serve as Exhibit A of the gargantuan gap between their rhetoric and the reality of their policies.

If Trump and Ryan were serious about cutting poverty and fighting for communities left behind, they’d embrace the policies that brought about declines in poverty and rising incomes in 2015 and 2016—like raising the minimum wage. State and local minimum wage increases were likely a major driver of the declines in poverty and rising incomes we saw over the past two years—and, tellingly, in states that had enacted minimum wage increases, low-wage workers saw faster wage growth in 2015 than workers in states whose minimum wages remained flat. They’d close the book on repealing the ACA and slashing Medicaid, programs that together have brought the nation’s uninsurance rate to historic lows. And they’d abandon their proposals to slash nutrition assistance and other programs that help families afford the basics, which cut poverty nearly in half in recent years while also boosting mobility in the long-term.

But instead, they seem hell-bent on snatching any gains working families have seen in recent years and funneling them upward so millionaires and billionaires can buy a second yacht.

So as we digest this year’s Census data, let’s not get out the balloons just yet. Instead, we should let them be a lesson to us about how much is at stake—and the policy agenda we need to build an economy that works for everyone instead of just the wealthy few.

This article originally appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

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