First Person

The House Farm Bill Doubles Down on TANF’s Mistakes

Even when I was a single mother facing homelessness, applying to receive cash assistance from the state never felt like a feasible option.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) goes by many names depending on the state where you’re applying for services, but the basics are the same: Recipients are assigned caseworkers and they report their progress—as often as weekly—to show that they are participating in approved work-related activities for the required number of hours. TANF means constant check-ins and a complete loss of autonomy in any chosen career path for little in return. Cash assistance amounts are detrimentally low—sometimes less than $200 a month.

In the new Farm Bill proposed by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, Conaway’s mission is to change the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps) to mirror the TANF program. Congressional Democrats adamantly argued against making such changes, which would reduce the number of people who can get the food assistance they need.

Conaway’s Farm Bill would make SNAP’s current work requirements even harsher. Nearly any non-disabled adult under age 60 who isn’t able to work 20 hours every week would only receive benefits for three months every three years. If they’re raising a child age 6 or older, they would still be subject to the new rules. If they’re unemployed or working a job that isn’t assigning them enough hours, tough luck. Much like TANF, people would need to check in monthly or risk losing their food benefits for 12 months for their first “failure to comply,” and 36 months for their second. Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY) says that that this policy is simply “a backdoor way to kick people off the program.”

Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) argued against the changes several times in the committee’s nearly six-hour meeting on the bill. “You need to understand what you’re doing,” he pleaded. “When we put the work requirements into TANF and SNAP, one of the biggest problems is lack of flexibility.”

When I applied for TANF in 2007, I had to attend work preparation classes that were several hours long. Even though I’d worked full-time for more than 10 years, I had to learn how to write a resume, how to go online and look for jobs, and I was told I should consider a career as a secretary or a baker. I had to mark these career paths on a sheet, and tell my caseworker my plan to pursue those fields, even though that wasn’t my interest. Higher education, even at the local community college, wasn’t an option. All of this seemed for show, and a waste of everyone’s time, since I was a month away from giving birth to my first child and determined to be a writer.

TANF’s maze of paperwork is so incredibly difficult to work through that many people, like me, are discouraged before they even begin

Seven years later, as a possible TANF applicant again, I now had a bachelor’s degree. I’d still have to attend those same classes, but with the added stress of finding a child care facility that would accept TANF’s payments for my daughter to attend. Midway through reading the thick packet of paperwork my caseworker had mailed me to apply, I called to ask how much money I’d receive each month as a family of three. “Probably about 80 dollars more than your child support,” she said with a sigh. “It’s probably not even worth it for you to apply.” (If a custodial parent is already receiving a monthly amount in child support, the state reroutes the payments to the agency, and pays the participant directly instead.)

“Okay,” I told my caseworker, tucking the papers back into the manila envelope before I tossed it into the trash. I was not only a qualified applicant, but one the program was supposed to help. Yet TANF’s maze of paperwork is so incredibly difficult to work through that many people, like me, are discouraged before they even begin.

House Democrats voiced their concerns that Conaway’s Farm Bill would similarly overburden SNAP recipients and program administrators if it switched to running as a work program instead of a food program. The amount of paperwork that people would be required to file on a monthly basis—and that caseworkers would need to process—would require new systems, new employees, and training. While House Democrats argued that more than 2 million people would be kicked off SNAP or have their benefits reduced, and 265,000 kids would consequently lose automatic access to free meals at school, that wouldn’t be the end of the suffering—the travesty would continue as more people would lose benefits due to misplaced paperwork or being unable to meet a new work requirement due to a lack of transportation, or child care, or caring for a family member, or any number of reasons.

“States will be unable to provide the services expected of them. And rather than take on the cost of serving their clients … it’s very likely states will take the steps to cut them off all together,” says Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH).

Despite reports that more than half of households receiving SNAP are working households—a number that jumps to 80 percent in the years before and after qualifying for food benefits— Conaway wants to force recipients to provide proof that they are worthy of getting help with food. That they are, essentially, “legitimately poor.”

Fudge argued that a better approach would be to raise the minimum wage, noting that cafeteria employees in the building where the committee met that day made less than $2,000 a month, and therefore qualified for SNAP. “In fact,” she added, “raising the minimum wage to just $12 an hour would save about $53 billion in SNAP over 10 years.”

House Republicans on the committee didn’t seem to want to hear that side of the argument, though. Instead, by turning SNAP into a program like TANF, the amount of people able to get food assistance would dwindle. One can only assume that perhaps that’s the whole point.

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First Person

You Shouldn’t Need a Law Degree to Get Food Assistance

I’m a lawyer, but I was barely able to navigate the food assistance bureaucracy in Massachusetts. Even in one of the most liberal states in this country, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) is already so hostile to hungry people that had I not had a legal education to help me steer through, I would have starved.

Now, Congressional Republicans are trying to make it even harder for the frailest, poorest, and most vulnerable Americans to access food assistance. They seek to impose harsh new work requirements that will force some of the most marginalized Americans to run a convoluted labyrinth of wage and hour verification paperwork over and over again.

It is a transparently cynical move to chop the program and take food from people who are hungry. Even those who do everything the system demands will be denied assistance—and I am absolutely certain of this, because it almost happened to me.

A few years ago, I was sick and getting sicker. I was not yet sick enough for surgery but far too sick to work.

I have Crohn’s, a chronic, incurable inflammatory bowel disease that causes my immune system to shred portions of my own small intestine. On a certain level, it’s a simple plumbing problem: the small intestine is like a long flexible pipe that brings food from the stomach to the large intestine, winding and twisting back and forth in the abdomen. When scar tissue builds up, it constricts the pipe, making it too narrow for most foods to get through. And then the pipe can clog.

Those clogs are called “small bowel obstructions” and, unlike a backed-up sink, they’re a potentially life-threatening medical emergency. I’ve experienced the special hell of having a tube shoved up my nose, down my throat, through my stomach and into my small intestine. I’ve watched as that tube sucked small bits of almond out through my nose. And, with some of the finest professors of surgery Harvard Medical School has to offer, I’ve discussed the odds that I’d live through emergency surgery if suction didn’t work.

After the almond incident, my physicians prescribed a strict low-residue and low-FODMAP diet. I was highly motivated to adhere to it; I understood the stakes. But as I got sicker and became unable to work, I could barely afford any food, never mind the diet my physicians prescribed. I didn’t have any income. So I applied for SNAP.

First, I faced an extensive application. But, more importantly, I was told that a face-to-face interview was required, and that the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), the state agency charged with administering SNAP, scheduled the interview on their timetable. As an applicant, you showed up when they told you, where they told you—or no food for you.

My life at this point consisted of debilitating symptoms: constant diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, nausea that even powerful prescription anti-emetics barely controlled, anemia, arthritis, and crippling fatigue. But despite my failing health, I had not been declared disabled by any government agency.

Despite my failing health, I had not been declared disabled by any government agency.

Under the current SNAP eligibility rules, an “Able-Bodied Adult Without Dependents” (ABAWD) between the ages of 18 and 49 can only receive 3 months of SNAP benefits in any 3-year period if they do not meet the existing SNAP work requirements. Yes, there are already work requirements for SNAP, but Congressional Republicans are pushing for still more draconian rules. They assure us that just as disabled folks are supposed to be exempt under the current rules—an exemption that has proven elusive—they will be exempt under the new regulations, too.

However, proving disability to the government is exceedingly difficult. First, it virtually requires ongoing, meaningful, affordable access to comprehensive medical care. Without medical records, government agencies are loathe to find an applicant disabled. (Yet, conservatives are also working to roll back access to health care at every turn, including by imposing work requirements on Medicaid, making care even more of a challenge to obtain.) Proving disability also often requires the cooperation of overworked health care providers in completing legal forms they’re not trained to deal with. Doctors are taught to diagnose and treat, not judge someone’s capacity to work against specific, highly technical legal criteria. And it means a lot of work for the applicant—work they may be too sick to do.

When I was eventually healthy enough to apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), it took dozens of hours of work from me to gather, review, and collate my voluminous medical records (over 500 pages). It took even more time to complete the application forms Social Security sent me. I approached the work and writing that formed the basis of my SSI application like it was an appellate case before the Massachusetts Supreme Court. In total, just applying for SSI took me more than two months of working whenever I was medically able. I was fortunate enough to get approved for SSI at the initial application stage. Many people my age don’t.

Because I was so sick, I asked DTA to conduct the interview for my SNAP application via telephone. I also asked that the call be in the afternoon because my symptoms were a bit more manageable then. As an attorney, I had the benefit of knowing that the Code of Massachusetts Regulations, part of the law that governs SNAP applications, required that DTA grant my request. But DTA didn’t reply—or at least, I thought they didn’t reply.

Despite giving DTA my full, complete, and correct address, that’s not where they were sending letters. They failed to include my apartment number on the mail they sent me. (As if I lived in a house, when I couldn’t even make the rent on my half of a tiny one-bedroom apartment.) DTA screwed up, I never got their mail, and I wasn’t receiving SNAP.

I called my DTA caseworker, just as I was supposed to do. I would call and then wait on hold for 30 to 45 minutes. An operator would then answer, and transfer me to a voice mailbox. (I wasn’t given the option of directly dialing the extension.) If the voice mailbox wasn’t full, I would leave a message. If it was full, which was usually the case, I would have to start over. After another 30 to 45 minutes on hold, I’d ask the operator for a different case worker, and leave that person a message. I repeated this process daily.

While waiting for DTA to return my many messages, I could never, ever allow the phone to go unanswered—they simply wouldn’t try calling again. No matter how sick I was, no matter if I was vomiting or toileting or running a 103° fever, if I missed a phone call from DTA, during my next interaction with them, they’d accuse me of “non-compliance.”*

I was slipping through the cracks

Usually the person returning my desperate messages was someone who didn’t “know the file” and whose only reply to my desperate questions like “What do I need to do in order to schedule the formal interview?” was “Sorry, can’t help.” I was slipping through the cracks.

Because I am a lawyer, I knew that if I could somehow hang on long enough, I could eventually get my case before an administrative law judge. And, because I am a lawyer, I knew how to keep a log of every single SNAP related phone call I had in a way that a judge would understand and likely find credible. I knew which conversations I was legally allowed to record, and which I wasn’t. I knew what was important to include in the notes I took during every call. Or I did sometimes. Other times the pain, the fatigue, and the brain fog from the methotrexate—a chemo drug used to treat autoimmune diseases—was too much and I couldn’t think straight. I could only hope they didn’t call then.

And then one day, after weeks of waiting and dozens of hours spent trying to fight my way through the red tape, I finally got a piece of mail from DTA. I opened the letter outside. It was summer, and I wasn’t supposed to be in the sun because of one of the medications I was on. They denied my application because I didn’t attend the “in-person interview.” I sat in the street and cried—and I wasn’t supposed to cry, either. After choking down homemade oral rehydration solution, I got to work on this:

Picture11

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What you’ve just read is, essentially, a legal complaint and a motion for a hearing before an administrative law judge. Although the letter is just two pages, dozens of hours of research went into drafting it. Not to mention four years of college, two years of public health graduate school, and three years of law school that enabled me to research the pertinent state and federal statutes and regulations, as well as find and analyze all the relevant legal rulings. In response, DTA reversed the denial and awarded benefits retroactive to the date of my SNAP application. The entire process had taken 10 weeks.

My question for Congressional Republicans is this: Could you—while in constant pain, malnourished, dehydrated, and terrified of eating the wrong thing because it could kill you—have done better? Adding more punishing work requirements for nutritional assistance will harm some of your most vulnerable constituents.

In the wealthiest country in the world, you shouldn’t need to be a lawyer to get a little help with food.

* Editor’s note: A DTA spokesperson says that subsequent to the author’s applying for benefits, the agency has made numerous “reforms,” including: a “simplified SNAP application,” a mobile app for smart phones, a web-based portal for clients “to self-service and view their information,” and allowing any available caseworker to assist an applicant.

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Analysis

What Ben Carson Doesn’t Get About Poverty

“The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease.”

Apply Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson’s latest plan and you’ll see just how brainless public housing policy could become.

Last week, Carson unveiled a plan that would, among other things, triple the minimum rent for the poorest public housing residents—from $50 to $150. The change would affect an estimated 1.7 million people, 1 million of whom are children.

His prediction is that higher rents will encourage tenants to earn more money.

“Instead of [public housing] being a stepladder it’s become a mode of life and, in many cases, for generation after generation of individuals and I don’t think it’s their fault,” Carson told the conservative online news outlet Townhall. “I think it’s the fault of the system that has basically sapped the incentive for people to work.”

There’s no doubt that HUD needs fixing. Less than a quarter of families who qualify for housing assistance actually get it.

But Carson misdiagnoses the problem when he pretends that public housing residents don’t work. Many do, just at jobs that pay too little to make ends meet.

The system that truly needs an overhaul is the American economy, which operates on the labor of millions of low-wage workers who earn too little to keep a roof over their heads without help.

“Rent Is Affordable to Low-Wage Workers in Exactly 12 U.S. Counties,” blared the headline on a 2017 CityLab story that detailed the glum findings of a National Low Income Housing Coalition study. To afford the average one-bedroom rental home, a minimum-wage worker would need to put in 94.5 hours a week, every week. Imagine working from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. seven days a week, 52 weeks a year to afford your one-bedroom—and you’ll understand just how cruel and clueless the former brain surgeon’s plan to make housing even less affordable for struggling families is. Carson proposes that public housing residents pay either 35 percent of their gross income, or 35 percent of their income from working 15 hours per week at minimum wage—whichever is the higher amount.

Imagine working from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. seven days a week, 52 weeks a year to afford your one-bedroom

“This is a particularly good time because the economy’s improved quite a bit, there are a lot of jobs now,” Carson has said—as though the line between a job and economic independence was straight and true.

It is not, as anyone who’s dealt with low-wage work—not to mention unpredictable scheduling, irregular hours, or wage theft—can attest.

Carson seems to have confused the quantity of jobs with the quality of jobs. In fact, 6 of the 10 occupations that will add the most jobs between 2016 and 2026 pay less than $30,000 per year. Number one on that list—personal care aides—accounts for more than 777,000 new jobs, but at a median pay of just $23,100 a year.

But back to the impracticality of Carson’s plan. Earning that additional $100 in monthly rent will take about 14 hours of minimum wage labor. (Of course, if the federal minimum wage were $15 an hour, as advocated by the Fight for $15 movement and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, that drops to less than seven additional hours of work per month.)

And that assumes the public housing resident can get more hours at her current job. Or that she can find another job—and has transportation to get there. In cities like Memphis, where I live, the public transportation system is pitifully inefficient. It’s a two-hour bus ride from my neighborhood to the retailer IKEA, which pays a living wage.

Then, assume that the worker can find child care for these additional hours she’s working—and that she can afford to pay for it and the rent increase.

In an April 10 USA Today op-ed, Carson conceded that the housing discrimination Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought—and that the 1968 Fair Housing Act was designed to correct—persists. But while he lauds King, he ignores what King said.

“We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished,” King told the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967.

The solution to poverty?

Money. If you have more money, you’re not poor. (It really is that simple.)

Since most people make money through their jobs, the cure to the sickness of poverty isn’t higher rents for the families struggling hardest to make ends meet.

The cure is a sizable increase in the federal minimum wage, which remains at $7.25 an hour.

Again, King’s words are instructive: “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”

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Feature

Tens of Thousands Mobilize to Support Arizona Teachers Amid Backlash

On Wednesday afternoon in Tucson, on the eve of Arizona’s first ever statewide teacher walkout, every intersection along Broadway Boulevard became red.

For 20 miles, under a robin’s egg sky, teachers and public education supporters lined sidewalks and curbsides, parking lots and strip malls. They formed small seas of red shirts, hats, and beach umbrellas, and waved signs proclaiming “#RedForEd” and “Arizona education deserves more.” A school social worker walked along the road, wearing a full-body sign: “Best practice is 1 social worker to 250 students. I serve 942.”

One woman held a sign that read: “Arizona exports cotton, copper, and teachers,” a reference to the fact that teachers are leaving the state in droves.

I traveled the entire route with my sons—20 miles to the east side where cheering teachers stood backdropped by the Rincon Mountains, and then 20 miles to downtown where teachers waved signs from overpasses and chanted through bullhorns. My sons—who, at ages 3 and 6, believe that teachers are superheroes—drank milkshakes in the backseat, watching the red unfold intersection after intersection, and cheered them on.

But Wednesday’s demonstration was just the beginning. On Thursday morning, tens of thousands of teachers across Arizona walked out of their classrooms. More than 110 school districts closed, affecting up to 840,000 students.

*                  *                  *

Resentment among Arizona educators has been simmering for years, caused by repeated budget cuts, the misuse of sales tax monies intended for public education (as confirmed by an Arizona Supreme Court ruling in 2010), and related lengthy lawsuits between the state and its public schools seeking back payments. During the Recession, the Arizona state legislature cut $1.5 million from public schools, more than any other state, leaving Arizona schools more than $1 billion short of 2008 funding.

“There’s no toilet paper, there’s no soap, and our textbooks are like 15 years old”

Arizona currently ranks 49th in the country for high school teacher pay and 50th for elementary school teacher pay. When adjusted for inflation, teacher wages have declined more than 10 percent since 2001. Per-student spending in Arizona amounts to $7,205, compared with the national average of $11,392. There are currently 3,400 classrooms in Arizona without trained or certified teachers, and the state has over 2,000 teacher vacancies.

Inspired by grassroots teachers movements in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, Arizona teachers are using their collective power to demand change. A newly mobilized coalition, Arizona Educators United, has partnered with the state’s teachers union, the Arizona Education Association, to organize and coordinate demands. Teachers have held organizing meetings and “walk-ins” over the past few weeks, gathering together before school hours in protest of low pay for teachers and support staff—many of whom rely on second or third jobs just to get by—as well as insufficient classroom materials and per-student spending well below the national average.

Last week, when the Arizona Education Association held a statewide vote, 78 percent of the 57,000 Arizona educators who voted supported walking out. The teachers’ demands include a 20 percent pay increase; a permanent salary structure with annual raises; education funding restored to 2008 levels; competitive pay for support staff; and “no new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.”

In response to the demands, Governor Doug Ducey (R) offered teachers a 20 percent pay raise by 2020. But teachers are wary of Ducey’s plan, saying he hasn’t released details about how it would be paid for. The plan also doesn’t include raising wages for support staff, whom teachers say play critical roles in serving students.

While 74 percent of registered Arizona voters say the state spends too little on K-12 education, not everyone supports the teacher walkout. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas threatened consequences for teachers participating in the action. “A walkout is a nice term for it. It is a strike, plain and simple,” Douglas said in an interview this week, referring to a 1971 opinion from the Arizona attorney general, which said that public employees could not legally strike. Douglas suggested that teachers could be investigated, referred to the Board of Education, or even stripped of their teaching certificate.

State Rep. Kelly Townsend (R) made headlines after she responded to an email from a constituent who asked that she and other legislators find a way to fund education and avoid a walkout. Townsend, who serves as Majority Whip, responded:

I’m sure we can take it from the correctional officers pay who make minimum wage in some cases, release some of the prison population, take it from the developmentally disabled and close adult homes from the disabled, freeze Alzheimer’s research, take it from Veteran’s services, dental services for the underserved, desperately needed road funds, the university funding, and put another freeze on Kids Care health insurance.

She has since become increasingly verbal in opposition to the walkout, even threatening a class action lawsuit.

But amid the backlash, many community groups have mobilized to support the teachers, including nonprofit organizations, youth centers, and churches offering free or low-cost camps and daycares for working parents in need of childcare during the walkout. And on Thursday, more than 50,000 teachers and supporters converged at the state capital in Phoenix.

*                  *                  *

Yesterday morning in Tucson, I found hundreds of teachers, parents, and students demonstrating peacefully and passionately in front of the courthouse. Parents lifted toddlers onto their shoulders to wave at passing cars. A family spread out a picnic on a blanket in the shade. When a semi-truck drove by, honking in support, the crowd erupted into cheers. Some demonstrators planned to later join the masses in Phoenix; I overheard a lighthearted joke about the streams of teachers in their station wagons, obeying the speed limit all the way to the rally.

High school teacher Jeff Mann brought his two children to the Tucson rally. “It’s a chance for our kids to see what civic engagement is and how you fight for what matters—have your feet match your mouth,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that these are the steps we have to take, but we haven’t been given many choices. My hope is that I’m back teaching tomorrow, that the legislature comes to their senses, and that education is funded.”

A group of students from Tucson’s IDEA School stood together on a corner with their teacher, chanting and waving homemade signs. One 10-year-old in the group told me, “We’re not a public school, but we’re helping support all the public schools, because we want all the teachers to have more money and the kids to have more materials.”

“I work two extra hours a day, unpaid.”

On the same corner, seventh-grader Salome Arrieta and her mother Victoria stood together, holding #RedForEd signs. Salome said that despite her middle school receiving the prestigious A+ School of Excellence Award from the Arizona Education Foundation, there’s still a glaring lack of resources. “Whenever I go to my school and try to use the bathroom, there’s no toilet paper, there’s no soap, and our textbooks are like 15 years old,” she said.

Salome’s mother, Victoria, an elementary school special education teacher, said she walked out to support the kids. “Everyone needs a raise. Not just the teachers. When you’re a special education teacher, the support staff is an integral part of your job, and they need to be paid more, too.”

Across the street, second-grade teacher Sonya Rosales told me, “My kids are sitting on carpet from like 1976. Any activities that we do, whether it’s for Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day, it comes out of our own pockets. We get 10 reams of paper per quarter, and once it’s out, that’s it.” She said learning materials are so outdated that she’s forced to make her own worksheets. “I make everything myself on my computer. I go to the Common Core standards, and every worksheet I make myself. I work two extra hours a day, unpaid.”

A teacher named Roberta who preferred not to give her last name said she’s been teaching for 35 years and spent more than $1,000 of her own money on materials for her classroom last year. “I do the very best that I can,” she said, “If it means me spending money out of my pocket, I do that because I’m a teacher and I care about my students, and I care about seeing my students walk across that stage.”

As she spoke, her eyes filled with tears. “I’m doing this for my students. I’m a Republican, but it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. It’s about our students.”

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Interview

How to Be a Social Justice Legislator

Massive resistance has become a hallmark of American life under the Trump administration. Millions of people have clogged airports to protest Trump’s travel and refugee ban, stood with indigenous people at Standing Rock, and taken to the streets in the Women’s Marches, the March for Science, and the recent March for Our Lives.

This resistance extends beyond the nucleus of individuals organizing: Entire cities like Philadelphia are confronting threats to racial and socioeconomic justice, and showing us what bolder movements to end poverty, water insecurity, and mass incarceration look like at the local level.

I spoke with Councilmember At-Large Helen Gym, one of Philadelphia’s vanguard leaders in the city’s social justice movement, to learn more about her work.

Rejane Frederick: What does it mean to be a social justice legislator, especially in a nation that is struggling to find its moral footing?

Councilmember Helen Gym: I come out of immigrant rights work and public education work, and an Asian American movement that tried to center multi-racial coalition building. What we’re seeing right now is a merging of a lot of issues that are bringing a lot of different groups of people together—connecting interwoven systems that bring together housing, schools, criminal justice, immigrant rights, women’s issues.

“Racism is not about just your intent. It’s about the effect that you have on other people.”

For me, what it means in this moment is not that our work has changed or that the issues have changed. They’ve become more heightened. And the failure to unify across many different coalitions will be the progressive movement’s failure to win in a moment when we should unite. But we can’t do it if we are siloed, if we don’t build these multi-racial coalitions.

RF: Regarding unifying across coalitions, in 2016 you said, “Poverty and inequality are the crippling injustices that lie at the heart of the justice struggle.” Can you say more about that?

HG: For me, the indifference to poverty is incredibly profound. It’s deeply rooted in racism. It’s deeply rooted in othering. It’s deeply rooted in judgment and condemnation. And it’s deeply rooted in America’s tendency to be hyper-individualized, to focus on individual people’s problems, and not look at the broader systems that profit from poverty—not just allow poverty to continue, but actually profit from it. When we keep schools down and we fund other schools to excess. When we fail to invest in housing, when we abandon public spaces and we keep our minimum wage at their lowest levels. When we don’t fight to diversify our unions and the few paths that people of color have to living wages, all those kinds of things.

Of course, when you deal with poverty and inequality, you’re dealing with people who are in desperate circumstances. They’re going to lose their school. They’re going to lose their home. They could lose their children. These are not people who have the luxury of saying “I’ll fix this in 10 years.” You’ve got to be there in a moment of crisis and we’ve got to move people through a moment of crisis and then build for broader things.

Since I come out of grassroots movements I feel strongly about people’s development. My hope is that I pass the torch. That is the goal. To build and strengthen a bigger, broader movement. You take and occupy a moment in time, in political office—it is one lever, but not the ultimate lever.

It’s great to see people being excited about elected office, but I need to know what you’re going to do when you get in there. Who are you going to bring in there with you? What are you going to champion, and how will communities be better off when you leave?

I’m interested in how we move systems toward significant change. You’re just one small piece, and the power really lies in the grassroots movement-building that will sustain that work far beyond anyone’s term in office.

RF: You’ve talked about the ways being a community organizer has informed your work on the city council, and you’ve also talked about your theory of change. How does real change happen?

HG: We’re dealing with systems that have massive amounts of dysfunction, large failures, gaps, long-term instability, and people in power who try to patch it up, bandage it, repackage it, and rebrand it, all that kind of stuff. So I’m thoughtful about how the people who live the consequences of the policies that we create are the people who experience the most pain, but they also have a lot of solutions about what this looks like.

The really profound stuff for me comes out of some of the experiences I’ve had around public education, when the state and elected officials and civic actors and many people who had money, titles, and the power to fix something, simply walked away. They abandoned the public schools in Philadelphia, largely in the state of Pennsylvania as well. We closed down 24 schools and laid off thousands of staff. We left kids without nurses and counselors. We shut down their school libraries, abandoned them in classrooms of 60 or more, and then we said, “I wonder how they’ll do? Let’s test the hell out of them.”

I’ve always thought that was a very sick social experiment hoisted upon black, brown, and immigrant kids who live those consequences. And that, to me, is the definition of what racism is. It’s purposeful. I don’t care about intent. Racism is not about just your intent. It’s about the effect that you have on other people. Who picked up the pieces of that? It wasn’t the superintendent, the mayors, the governors, and the school board. The people who pushed hardest for the solutions were the parents, educators, organized student groups, immigrant families who had no other choice but to go to their public schools. And their work was powerful. It was moving; it was rooted outside of the halls of the School Reform Commission (SRC), and maybe outside of city halls.

Those get formed in your school yards, your backyard barbeques, when they marry with real policy, data, and information. You start working on organizing, you get groups and foundations to fund organizing. Then you start to see real movement for change. And the reality is that, yeah, it took us 17 years but I can point to so many more parents that can speak so clearly about what’s been happening that when Betsy DeVos was confirmed as secretary of education, they could take things on in that moment. They’re not surprised, they’ve heard this before, and they know to challenge it.

RF: I’m thinking about what you’ve mentioned in Philadelphia, with the charter schools and privatization movement, and the very real questions about authentic investments in public institutions. What do they look like? Why do they matter? Why is it important to continue to invest in our public institutions even when they deliver sometimes disappointing results?

HG: I don’t think people should allow dysfunctional public institutions to operate on autopilot just for the sake of saying that they support it. The reason why public institutions get targeted is because they don’t serve people as well as they should. They create or reinforce systems of inequity, whether by intent or not. So I support all these groups and people who tackle our public institutions with a fervor to hold it accountable, to see change, to diversify that institution, and to help it evolve.

But privatization is a different thing. It’s saying “I give up on the public space and I will go private.” Private is money, capital, and the power to be able to own a previously public thing. That’s an enormous amount of privilege. And the overwhelming majority of those folks are not going to look like the people they serve. There’s no obligation to serve diverse communities, marginalized communities—they’re more expensive, so if you’re running on a profit margin, don’t expect to profit off serving low-income youth, and immigrants, and helping them learn English, or helping special needs students get to a point of full capacity.

“If you’re running on a profit margin, don’t expect to profit off serving low-income youth”

When we closed down 24 public schools in Philadelphia, we probably saw the largest transfer of public land into private hands that we had seen in the city of Philadelphia. It’s a really profound thing for government to say to those that they are charged to serve, especially when they are the most vulnerable—when those communities don’t have a lot of public institutions—to say “Sorry, I simply give up. I’m passing the buck to someone else.” It’s absolutely unacceptable and we should fight against it with every bit of our body because those private institutions take our dollars, they take our children, they purport that they are smarter, more powerful, wealthier, are more efficient to do the job better. And overwhelmingly what we find is that communities become more stratified, more marginalized, less likely to have voice and exercise their voice within those privatized structures.

When public institutions are starved into dysfunction and private capital moves in, that is not helping the situation. It’s exploiting and profiting off public distress. And it overwhelmingly harms the people that are already deeply impacted.

RF: What other safeguards do we have to put into place to protect these targeted communities and ensure that any gains aren’t clawed back?

HG: Our communities are under assault daily. I’d love to say “look at all the great stuff we’re doing.” But the reality is it pales in comparison based on the kinds of assaults that communities endure, and they are really deeply traumatic. They break apart people’s ability to conceive of ways to fight back, or to think about other groups other than yourself, because you’re struggling at the moment with housing, you’re struggling at the moment because you’re terrified that your child may not come home because they’re black. You’re terrified of police monitoring the streets, terrified of a criminal conviction coming up time and time again every time you seek a job.

RF: Or immigrant parents with citizen children afraid to access the resources and programs that they need because they’re afraid that ICE might be there to swoop them up.

HG: Today there was an incredible story about how Philadelphia’s ICE office outranks every single office nationwide in terms of sweeping up people with absolutely no criminal history. In 2013, 33 percent of people swept up by ICE had no criminal record history, and now 70 percent do. And people are seeking political gain by scapegoating immigrants, by trying to pacify people and say “I’m going to send people to jail.” This dictator-like and fascist mentality around incarceration, oppression, repression of mostly black, brown, and immigrant people is really terrifying.

The thing that we have to build out right now is a way to connect these struggles together. If you care about mass incarceration, then take a look at how immigrant communities are being funneled into the for-profit private prison industry that allows rampant physical abuses. Similarly, immigrant communities who are terrified for themselves, scared of the police, scared of judges and the courts, should care about the criminal justice reform movement that has been working on this for a very long time. You can’t divorce these two movements from one another.

RF: You’ve said in the past that the backbone of the progressive movement lies in local organizing. So what is it that national advocacy organizations, think tanks, funders should do to better support the local activism, or the campaigns for justice on the ground?

HG: One, they have to recognize the importance of diversifying their own boards and staff to make sure that there are people of color, women in particular, who are listening to groups, and evaluating not just based on a numbers game—like number of people served, bang for your buck, whatever metrics people use—but also take a look at just the quality of the outcome. What is really moving things? Think tanks and policymakers need to be more cognizant of on-the-ground movement, but that doesn’t happen by sitting in Washington, D.C., or in New York City in an executive suite and tower. It really happens by being connected with people; then they can understand how to evaluate this stuff. If you see movement, go into it.

RF: Thank you Councilmember Gym, it has been such an honor having this conversation with you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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