Culture

Sexual Assault Is Universal. Recovery Isn’t.

When news broke of the seemingly bottomless Harvey Weinstein scandal, it released a flood of similarly harrowing tales of sexual harassment and assault in music, academia, science, media, restaurants, government, libraries, on and on and ever on. Near countless numbers of women and a decent number of men shared their own stories in private conversation, public essays, and as part of the #MeToo hashtag on social media. One inescapable fact immediately became manifest: Sexual harassment and assault are everywhere in the human experience, regardless of profession, ideology, ethnic identity, or financial privilege.

The question of financial privilege does, however, make one enormous difference: If you’re poor, you may find it that much harder to escape the abuse, or to recover and heal.

The reasons for this are myriad, complex, and mutually reinforcing, much like the causes of poverty itself, but they can be roughly assigned to two categories: Questions of power and questions of access.

Sexualized violence is a statement of power—harassment is not flirting, and assault is not sex. In both, the perpetrator is establishing themselves as having the right to treat another human being as they will. The victim’s right to safety is void; the perpetrator has the power to say or do what they wish, and the victim has no choice but to accept those choices.

Indeed, men who harass and assault women routinely prey on those who are clearly less powerful than their attackers. Harvey Weinstein consistently visited his depravity on Hollywood’s young and aspiring; R. Kelly has long been known for plucking girls from high schools on Chicago’s South Side. As Donald Trump said in 2005, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

One needn’t be a star to have relative power over a woman, though. In a society in which women are dehumanized in private, in public, in statute, and in practice, women as a class are axiomatically less powerful than men as a class. Poverty serves to exponentially increase that power differential.

Sexualized violence is a statement of power

Women in the lowest income bracket experience sexual violence at six times the rate of women in the highest. That statistic supports something poor women already know: The poorer you are, the more likely you are to endure a man’s unwanted attention. You can’t quit the job that barely pays, you can’t argue with the uncle in whose home you must live, and you can’t afford the classes that might allow you to leave both behind.

Poverty is not only a risk factor for harassment and assault, though—poverty is often the result of harassment and assault. The victim who leaves her job may have no other source of income, and more than one-third of women who leave their abusers’ homes end up homeless. Weinstein’s victims understood all too clearly that he ultimately held power over their ability to make a living, and a vindictive restaurant manager might be all that stands between a server and her ability to feed her kids.

Then there’s the question of access to medical or psychological support. Non-consensual sexual contact is often violent; rape can of course lead to pregnancy; studies have found that alarming numbers of harassment and assault victims develop PTSD; and even short-term experiences with shock and anxiety can be temporarily debilitating or permanently life-altering. But treating all of those things costs money. Even something as simple as transportation can present an obstacle—what if there’s no bus from your neighborhood to the nearest free clinic?

Every survivor’s experience is different, and trauma is not made untraumatic by a middle class income. Women of color, trans women, undocumented immigrants, and women with disabilities all face further hurdles, complications, and intersections, regardless of income.

Yet poverty places an undeniable additional burden on anyone who has survived sexual harassment or assault. Even as we reel from the unending revelations out of Hollywood or Silicon Valley, it’s worth remembering that even healing is a privilege.

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Media and Politics

Ivanka Trump’s Child Tax Credit is a Ploy to Pass Tax Cuts for the Rich

On Monday, Ivanka Trump kicked off her tour to stump for the Trump administration’s tax package with a town hall in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She pitched an increased Child Tax Credit as a way to help families struggling with high child care costs and noted that the United States invests relatively little in early childhood education compared with other countries. Given how much Ivanka Trump’s reputation has suffered as she’s failed to impact White House policy on issues such as climate change and gender equity, she needs to show that she can deliver on promises she made during the campaign to make child care more affordable.

The details of the Child Tax Credit are not yet public, including the amount of the expansion and whether she would make changes to help children in families with very low incomes who cannot currently receive the full credit. But one thing is very, very clear: This credit is clearly designed to help make the Trump tax plan, which is heavily skewed toward tax breaks for the wealthy, more politically palatable.

The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that 80 percent of the tax breaks would go to people in the top 1 percent of earners. In other words, people like Ivanka Trump.

Just repealing the estate tax—which is only one of many planned tax cuts—would amount to a $1.1 billion windfall for Ivanka Trump and her siblings. That’s enough to pay for 100,000 children to go to child care for an entire year. And that’s before accounting for the trillions it would cost to slash the top income tax rate, give low rates to pass-through businesses, and re-open loopholes for the wealthy.

Just repealing the estate tax would amount to a $1.1 billion windfall for Ivanka and her siblings.

But Trump, the dutiful soldier, is sticking to her message. That means continuing to insist that her child care plan will support most Americans, even though the plan she pitched during the campaign would have given the average family in a county that swung heavily toward Trump in the 2016 presidential election just $5.55 per year. (Residents in Ivanka Trump’s former Manhattan neighborhood would stand to gain more than $7,000 in tax benefits.) A year later, the same principles apply. The Trump administration is looking to use empty rhetoric to appeal to working women to sell a major tax break for wealthy people like her.

To be clear, the Child Tax Credit can provide a vehicle for improving economic security among families with young children. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 16 million children in low-income working families would not receive the benefit because their families’ earnings are too low. Proposals to make the credit refundable would allow lower-income families to actually benefit, and proposals to make it more generous could go a long way to defray costs associated with raising children.

If she wanted, Ivanka Trump could go even further than taxes. She could support Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott’s (D-VA) bill to guarantee child care assistance to low-income and middle-class families, or she could challenge her father’s requests to cut the program that offers child care assistance to low-income working families and eliminate on-campus child care and afterschool programs.

Or, if taxes are really what speak to her, she could move on to expanding child care assistance through the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC). Right now, the CDCTC primarily reaches upper-middle-class families, and the $1,050-per-child credit pales in comparison to the $10,000 annual price tag at a child care center.

If Ivanka Trump wanted to make a difference, there’s no shortage of ideas. But instead, she’s selling another “by Ivanka, for Ivanka” child care plan that won’t work for the millions of families who struggle to pay for the child care they need.

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Media and Politics

Meet the Congressman Trying to Bring Fresh Food to Low-Income Neighborhoods

The grocery industry is increasingly consolidated. Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods for $14 billion sent grocery stocks tumbling and had many analysts worrying about the end of local mom and pop grocery stores.

Nowhere would be harder hit than food deserts—areas, mostly low-income, without access to fruits, vegetables, or other healthy food. According to the USDA, 6,500 census tracts, or about 10 percent of American communities, are food deserts, and 25 million Americans lack access to a grocery store.

One of the leading champions on issues of food insecurity in Congress is Indianapolis Rep. André Carson (D-IN). In 2014, a study by WalkScore.com rated the city as the worst in the country for food deserts. The following year, the iconic Double 8 Foods supermarkets—which served neighborhoods largely neglected by other chains—closed its four locations, citing declining revenues.

I spoke to Rep. Carson about his efforts to expand access to healthy meals and his recent legislation addressing food deserts.

Jeremy Slevin: What made you decide to take action on food deserts?

Rep. André Carson: In recent years, Indianapolis has been one of the worst food deserts in the country. Around 2014 we saw four Double 8 grocery stores close, and then last year it got even worse when several Marsh stores closed their doors. Many assumed that those customers would just get their groceries elsewhere. But unfortunately I think the implications were greater than that, and overnight we saw thousands of Hoosiers effectively lose access to the only grocery store they had available.

We’re talking about low-income families, often without vehicles or even access to public transit, and they’re living miles from the closest store. They had nowhere to go to buy fruits and vegetables and bread and milk, so they really relied on what they could find at their local convenience stores and fast food restaurants. The closure of these stores has created food deserts throughout the district.

JS: So tell us what your bill does to address this.

AC: The bill tries to address the absence of nutritious foods in many urban and rural communities by providing loans for the operation of grocery stores. The Department of Agriculture would provide grants to each state to establish a revolving fund, and each state would provide loans from its revolving fund for the construction (and even operation) of grocery stores, specifically for underserved communities. These loans would be made available to for-profit, non-profit, even locally-owned entities.

The states would handle loan processing and make awards to organizations that meet the requirements, but they have to have an emphasis on unprocessed nutritious foods, providing fresh fruits and veggies, providing staple foods like milk, bread, and wheat, charging prices below market average, and be sufficiently qualified to operate a store.

I think it’s important to note that priority will be given to applications that include a plan to hire workers from those underserved communities and provide information about healthy diet. They’re going to get their food from local gardens and farms, and a lot of these entities will not have beer and wine or tobacco products readily available—but I think in the future that’s an option that they can pursue if they want to go through the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission.

JS: So what’s at the root of this problem? Why are these stores closing in Indianapolis, and what’s the impediment to opening up new grocery stores in low-income areas right now?

AC: I think we haven’t brought enough attention to the issue nationally. It’s not specific to urban centers—rural communities are impacted as well. I think corporations and entities make corporate decisions that address their bottom line, but we have to make sure that the NGOs and other entities are in place so we can [incentivize] them to provide resources to these communities.

JS: Is part of the issue that it’s just not as profitable, unfortunately, in lower-income communities to have these grocery stores, and that’s why they need this leg up?

The demand is always there.

AC: Perhaps some would make that argument, but I would counter that and say that the demand is always there. If you look at the Double 8’s, there were customers there, but the facility was unkempt, the food offerings were spoiled or nearing spoilage, and it just wasn’t a great place to get food to attempt to live a healthy lifestyle. It wasn’t a sustainable existence. But the demand is always there. If you see a clean facility where healthy options are being presented, there’s a sense of pride that people will in doing business with that kind of operation.

JS: You mentioned transportation earlier, which seems like another huge driver of this. Do you think more investment in public transit in low-income communities could help stem this crisis as well?

AC: Absolutely, that’s always an issue. Folks who are on fixed incomes or have fewer means to purchase a vehicle, they have to rely on public transportation or friends and family.

JS: Do you see a path to this passing in Congress?

AC: We’re hopeful. It’s going to take a concerted effort to educate members of Congress, but also constituents and constituencies across the country to encourage and force their representatives to support this legislation. And the farm bill is a critical part of that conversation.

JS: And this is something that you’re hoping to be included in the farm bill negotiations?

AC: Absolutely.

JS: What’s been the response, if any, from the other side of the aisle?

AC: I think we’re in the midst of an austerity push, but we’re not in Europe. There are budget hawks that would be concerned about the cost of this, and understandably so. But this proposal helps their constituents. It helps spur economic growth, it helps their constituents live healthier lives, and have some sense of dignity about being able to go to a store that’s clean—where customer service is paramount, where food offerings are healthy, and the presentation is very professional.

JS: Obviously, we’re talking specifically about food deserts, but food insecurity is a problem that affects this entire country, particularly kids, that is not often talked about in the media. What more do you think we can do to shine a light on food insecurity more broadly?

AC: Studies have shown that when kids don’t have the nourishment they need, it impacts brain activity, it impacts retention in terms of memory, it impacts performance as it relates to their ability to contribute as a student and process information. And I think addressing these food deserts and having our schools be a part of this discussion will close the gap on many of these concerns. I even think that there are several attempts to get rid of the designation for free lunches for students because it removes the stigma. Schools have to be a part of this larger conversation if we’re going to address many of the issues in some of our schools that are underperforming.

JS: And we’ve even seen reports of school districts shaming kids for getting subsidized school lunches.

AC: That stigma’s been around for years. Kudos to those school districts and states that are attempting to remove the stigma. That’s something that’s been a source of bullying; it’s been a source of increased absences, so I think taking away that stigma will go a long way.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Justice

It’s Time to Stop Using Inmates for Free Labor

Last week, a Louisiana sheriff gave a press conference railing against a new prisoner release program because it cost him free labor from “some good [inmates] that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in the cars, to cook in the kitchen.” Two days later, news broke that up to 40 percent of the firefighters battling California’s outbreak of forest fires are prison inmates working for $2 an hour. Practices like these are disturbingly common: Military gear, ground meat, Starbucks holiday products, and McDonald’s uniforms have all been made (or are still made) with low-wage prison labor.

Inmates are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires that workers are paid at least the federal minimum wage. That makes it completely legal for states to exploit inmates for free or cheap labor. More than half of the 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons work while incarcerated, and the vast majority only make a few cents per hour.

Most inmates work in their own prison facilities, in jobs such as maintenance or food service. These jobs pay an average of just 86 cents an hour, and are primarily designed to keep the prison running at a low cost. Others may be employed in so-called “correctional industries,” where inmates work for the Department of Corrections to produce goods that are sold to government entities and nonprofit organizations. The highest median wages for these jobs top out at less than $2 an hour, and they’ve dropped over time—an incarcerated worker is paid less today than they were in 2001. In Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, most inmates working in prison facilities aren’t paid at all.

It is impossible to discuss prison labor without acknowledging the deep ties the criminal justice system has to the legacy of slavery in the United States. Targeted mass incarceration policies, racial bias, and other structural disadvantages have led to an overrepresentation of people of color—particularly African Americans—in prisons and jails. As activist and author Shaka Senghor notes in Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th, “The 13th amendment says, ‘no involuntary servitude except for those who have been duly convicted of a crime.’ So once you’ve been convicted of a crime, you are in essence a slave of the state.”

Though we run the risk of stating the obvious, there is a clear solution available: treating prisoners like people rather than chattel. That means paying prisoners a minimum wage for their work, and making sure the employment options in prison are designed to help people transition into their communities once they are released.

The median starting wage is 7 cents an hour.

Apprenticeship programs, which provide paid training that combines on-the-job learning with classroom instruction, may be the perfect solution. These programs can equip inmates with a marketable skill, a wage, and a credential that holds value in the labor market and can help them get a job upon release. A recent Center for American Progress report suggests using paid apprenticeships during incarceration to help inmates and their families support themselves after incarceration and reduce recidivism.

However, these programs frequently suffer the same pitfall as other prison work programs—they pay breathtakingly low wages. Since 2008, the median starting wage has been 7 cents an hour and the median exit wage 35 cents an hour—hardly enough to put inmates on the road to financial stability.

If these programs paid decent wages, they could increase economic stability of inmates, effectively easing the path to re-entry. They would allow inmates to pay off debts from their interactions with the justice system and reduce recidivism. They’re not a panacea, but well-paid apprenticeships can help put returning citizens on the road toward a good job and a secure future.

The criminal justice system has historically relied on a system of punishment and exploitation instead of rehabilitation, but we can change this going forward. Treating incarcerated people like human beings by paying them for their work is a good place to start.

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Media and Politics

D.C. Residents Are Fighting a Slumlord to Regain Control of Their Neighborhood

For the past four years, tenants in the five-building complex above the Congress Heights metro station have dealt with horrific conditions: cockroaches, rats, bedbugs, persistent flooding, roofs caving in. One resident told The Washington Post that “feces backed into her bathtub more than a dozen times – including once while bathing her 1-year-old.”

Ruth Barnwell, a 73-year-old resident and president of the Congress Heights tenants association, said that she told her landlord about raw sewage in the basement in July 2015, but they didn’t do anything about it until the following October. Barnwell has been living in Congress Heights for 34 years, but she says that they didn’t start having these issues until 2013.

“That’s when we found out the building was going to be turned into high-rises,” she says.

In 2013, two years after acquiring four of the five Congress Heights buildings, Sanford Capital and City Partners submitted a plan to the Zoning Commission to demolish the apartment complex and install 446,000 square feet of luxury offices and condos in its place. The tenants allege that Sanford—which has already racked up more than 200 housing code violations in its 19 apartment buildings across the city—has been intentionally letting the conditions degrade so that residents will be forced to move out to make way for the new development.

Robert Green, a 68-year-old resident who lives on a fixed income, says that the company has gone as far as soliciting damage. One day, as he was walking out of his apartment building, an electrician who was walking into the building stopped him. “You still live here?” The man asked. Green said yes.

“They paid me to go downstairs and mess up some wires,” he told Green. (Sanford Capital did not respond to requests for comment.)

If Sanford’s plan is to drive residents out of Congress Heights, it’s working: Since 2013, the number of occupied units of affordable housing has dropped from 49 to 13.

*          *          *

The Zoning Commission approved Sanford’s development plan in 2015, but the company can’t act on it yet. The plan requires control of all five of the Congress Heights buildings; Sanford currently owns four. In January, the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development repossessed the fifth and final piece of the Congress Heights puzzle: the vacant building at 3200 13th St SE. But the remaining residents, who would be forced to move, aren’t letting it go without a fight.

The costs of fighting a court case are so high that it’s as if residents aren’t allowed to return at all.

On September 6, the Congress Heights tenants association delivered a letter to Mayor Bowser’s office with a simple request: Instead of letting Sanford buy the vacant building in a public auction, let the current residents exercise their Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) rights to have their chosen nonprofit developer build 200 units of affordable housing on the land.

The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act wasn’t designed for situations like the one in Congress Heights—it grants renters the first right to purchase their property if the building owner wants to sell. The building at 3200 doesn’t have any tenants; it’s been vacant for years. But since it’s part of an entire neighborhood that will be demolished under the redevelopment plan, the tenants of the surrounding buildings have a vested interest in who ultimately controls the building.

If the district puts the building up for public auction and Sanford acquires it, Sanford will have assembled all the necessary pieces to execute its luxury development plan. But if the tenants are assigned ownership, they’re hoping that Sanford—now unable to complete its redevelopment—will cut its losses and sell the remaining buildings to the National Housing Trust (NHT). NHT would then execute its own plan to build 200 units of affordable housing on the land.

In either case, the current buildings will be demolished and residents will, at least temporarily, be displaced. The difference is what happens after the buildings are rebuilt.

An executive of City Partners has said that if it executes its redevelopment plan, “All current residents will be offered the chance to move back into the new building at their current lease rates.”

This is a common promise that developers offer residents when they’re displacing them, but it’s rarely fulfilled. A 2004 study by the Urban Institute found that only 19 percent of families returned to neighborhoods they were displaced from, despite promises that they could. Developers often simply ignore their previous promise and rely on residents suing them to retain their right to return. But the costs of fighting a court case are so high that it’s as if residents aren’t allowed to return at all.

The National Housing Trust has offered the tenants the same promise to return, in addition to an offer to house them at other properties in the meantime. But the tenants are more willing to believe that NHT will honor this promise than Sanford, because NHT’s goal is to build more and better affordable housing for these residents, while Sanford’s goal is to profit.

*          *          *

The District of Columbia’s affordable housing crisis extends far beyond Congress Heights. There are roughly 1,500 families, including more than 2,700 children, who are homeless on a given night in the district. And while homelessness is declining nationally, it’s grown in D.C. by almost 75 percent in the past five years. Housing is so expensive in the district that a single parent working a minimum-wage job would have to work 119 hours per week to afford a 2-bedroom apartment at market rate.

The district’s flagship program to deal with the homelessness crisis is the rapid rehousing program, which provides temporary vouchers that families can use for rent. But most reputable landlords won’t accept the vouchers, and they’re too small and too temporary to end most families’ housing insecurity, so many voucher recipients get caught in a cycle of rapid rehousing, eviction, and homelessness. Will Merrifield, an attorney who represents the Congress Heights tenants, says this creates a “subprime market for slumlords to take advantage of people with subsidies.”

Because a large portion of voucher recipients end up in Sanford properties, they receive millions of taxpayer dollars annually to house low-income families in deplorable conditions. City officials have been hesitant to hold Sanford accountable for its negligence, lamenting that it’s “not always easy” to find other landlords who are willing to house renters with vouchers. But it’s worth noting that Sanford also has direct ties to the Bowser administration: Mayor Bowser has received donations from Geoffrey Griffis, the head of Sanford partner City Partners; Mary Strauss, the wife of Sanford co-founder Patrick Strauss; and Sanford Capital itself. The Sanford Capital donation was $1,000 more than the legal limit.

“These politicians keep acting like this affordable housing crisis fell out of the sky, like it’s a piano that fell out of a window,” says Merrifield. “They created this.”

‘It’s not that we don’t have the money. It’s about leadership.’

The cycle of development and displacement is at work in almost every corner of the city. In Columbia Heights, H Street, Brookland Manor, and countless other neighborhoods, low-income, primarily black residents are being pushed out to make room for wealthy, primarily white Millennials. And the district often finances this displacement. They’ve given away hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of public land to private developers. In Congress Heights alone, they’ve allocated $103 million for a development project that will build a new practice facility for the Wizards—right across the street from residents who have to live with feces backing up into their bathtub.

At a town hall meeting in Congress Heights last week, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White (D) admitted that the district has the resources to solve the affordable housing crisis. “It’s not that we don’t have the money,” he said. “It’s about leadership.”

The tenants view their request to Mayor Bowser as the perfect opportunity for her administration to demonstrate its commitment to affordable housing. “She’s going to continue to stand with the slumlords and developers, or she’s going to come over to the people’s side,” says Barnwell. “We believe that we can win. She’s coming up for re-election, you know.”

So far, the city government seems unmoved. Polly Donaldson, the director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, offered the following statement about the tenants’ request: “The plan for the vacant building is to put it out for competitive bid for solicitation once the litigation has cleared.”

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