The MLB Makes Millions on Minor Leaguers. It Refuses to Pay Minimum Wage.

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training this week, the first sign that Major League Baseball’s Opening Day is drawing near. But amid the hope that springs up with every new baseball season is an unacceptable fact: Many of the players at spring training aren’t being paid.

“Each year, every major league team has their minor league players report to spring training. Most fans don’t know those minor league players have to work 31 straight days for no pay,” said Garrett Broshius, a former minor league baseball player and current attorney who is attempting to sue Major League Baseball to ensure that minor leaguers receive fair pay for not only spring training, but all year round.

“If you’re requiring someone to work, you should be paying them the minimum wage. It’s a fairly basic principle,” he said.

Low wages, though, are the reality for most minor league players. At the lowest end of the pay scale, they make about $1,150 per month during the season, which lasts about half the year, and receive nothing during the offseason or spring training, even though they are expected to stay in shape and train.

All that unpaid and low-paid time adds up; many players make about $7,500 annually, or even less. And because they spend so much time practicing, traveling, and playing games without being eligible for any sort of overtime pay, their hourly compensation dips far below minimum wage.

“I’d work 70 hours a week, and I would get paid $45 per game, so that comes out to like $3 an hour,” said Jeremy Wolf, a former minor league player who now runs More Than Baseball, an organization that aids minor leaguers. “The hot dog vendor makes more than the players do.”

This is possible because minor league baseball players are exempt from most minimum wage and overtime pay protections. A federal spending bill that averted a government shutdown in March 2018 included the positively Orwellian “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which explicitly exempted minor league baseball players from federal pay protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act, so long as they were paid the equivalent of the federal minimum wage of $7.25 for a 40-hour week, which comes out to about $1,160 per month. The bill also explicitly said players are only paid for 40 hours of work during the season  “irrespective of the number of hours the employee devotes to baseball related activities,” and that players don’t need to be paid for spring training or the off season.

I’d work 70 hours a week, and I would get paid $45 per game, so that comes out to like $3 an hour.

Major League Baseball had been pushing for something like the “Save America’s Pastime Act” to become law for years, in order to blunt legal efforts such as Broshius’. After spending just half a million dollars or less annually on lobbying Congress between 2009 and 2015, Major League Baseball spent more than $1 million annually from 2016 to 2018.

Now the league is aiming to do the same thing at the state level, since states are allowed to exceed federal minimum wage and labor protections. At the behest of MLB,  Arizona Republican state Sen. T.J. Shope introduced a bill that would exempt minor league players from that state’s minimum wage law, which requires pay of $12 per hour by 2020, with few exceptions. He introduced it despite having clear misgivings about its legality, calling it “not ready for prime time.”

Not coincidentally, Arizona is one of the two states in which the bulk of spring training takes place (the other being Florida, where the state minimum wage is just $8.46 an hour). Broshius’ suit also brought claims under Arizona law, which the bill’s sponsor explicitly says would be undermined by his legislation.

“It’s just a preemptive strike by Major League Baseball,” said Wolf. “There a group of people that are just trying to cement not paying these employees.”

As Broshius explained, the month they work without pay in the spring can really hurt minor league players who don’t make it onto a major league roster — which entitles them to not only a minimum salary of more than $40,000 but also union protection — when they get shipped off to a new minor league team. “You go to a new place and you have to pay for your first month rent, put down a security deposit, a lot of players have student loans, and obviously you have your regular bills too,” he said.

Major League Baseball teams, not the minor league affiliates themselves, pay minor league players. They claim that paying fair wages to everyone in the minor league system would cause financial ruin, and also isn’t necessary because players have months of offseason in which they can work other jobs. Plus, they argue, minor league players are more akin to struggling actors going on auditions than daily workers who should receive steady pay.

“Their core argument is that it’s not practical to pay the players based on how long the games last or the hours they spent practicing because a minor league player isn’t doing it for a career, they’re doing it to see if [making it to the majors is] viable,” explained Lindsay Brandon, an attorney who specializes in sports law.

But, Brandon added: “Are these athletes generating revenue for these minor league teams? Absolutely.” The Texas Rangers, for instance, made $1.2 million from spring training last year. Brandon likened the case of minor league players to that of NCAA athletes, who are also attempting to earn a fair share of the revenue they generate. (Other professional sports leagues, such as the NBA or NHL, tend to pay their minor league players better.)

Compensating unpaid players for their month in spring training would amount to a rounding error for most major league teams. In fact, paying them at least minimum wage all year round would barely put a dent in the bottom line.

“If you give every player minimum wage for a 12-month season —  each team has 200 minor leaguers — each team raises their payroll by $4.5 million,” said Wolf. “$4.5 million is one average major leaguer.” Indeed, average pay in MLB in 2018 was about $4.5 million, while the league made $10.3 billion in revenue.

Why do minor leaguers put up with such shabby treatment? They don’t want to step out of line because they know that the dream of the majors, and its vast riches, is not that far away.

“I got to wear a Mets uniform. Players who are playing are blinded by that sort of thing,” said Wolf. “No one’s going to strike, no one’s going to scream union, no one’s going to do anything to make themselves stand out.”

So baseball gets to keep paying its players next to nothing, because it can.



They Used To Hold Hands Through the Wall. Now, There’s Razor Wire.

NOGALES, Arizona — The February sun reflects off the concertina razor wire strung across the U.S.-Mexico border wall like razor-sharp tinsel. The wire seemed to bloom overnight, six rows of it, placed all the way to the ground, within reach of playing children or wandering dogs.

On the sidewalk where I stood in Nogales, Arizona, a storefront window displayed mannequin brides, dressed in white wedding dresses. Not 50 feet away, the coils of glinting wire expand like a lethal slinky.

It was morning, and the town of 20,000 was just beginning to wake up. Downtown in the shopping district, a garbage truck rumbled past, and Norteño music played from stereos outside of just-opening shops. Shuttle drivers congregated along the sidewalk, waiting for Tucson or Phoenix-bound passengers to fill their vans.

In November 2018, the Trump administration ordered that the wall at the Nogales port of entry be topped with concertina razor wire. Last week, more rows of wire were suddenly added to the Arizona side of the wall, and stretched much further than the immediate port of entry. And this time, the wire was placed all the way to ground level.

Concertina razor wire is a form of coiled barbed wire, first used in World War I. It gets its name from a musical instrument which much like an accordion has bellows that expand to produce its sound. It would be a pretty name, if it were not so dehumanizing and brutal an object.

Nogales residents alerted Mayor Arturo Garino, who said he was not told that more wire would be added. “Let me tell you,” he told Arizona Public Media, “They didn’t even have the courtesy to tell us they were doing this in the first place.” He requested to meet with federal officials to discuss the issue but was refused.

A unanimous vote by the Nogales City Council on Feb. 6 resulted in an official resolution demanding that the wire be removed from city limits.

“Concertina wire has sharp razor-like blades that are coiled [and] is designed to entangle its victim as the razors slice/cut deeply into the flesh and causes indiscriminate injury which can be fatal,” reads the resolution. “Placing coiled concertina wire that is designed to inflict serious bodily injury or death in the immediate proximity of our residents, children, pets, law enforcement and first responders is not only irresponsible but inhuman.”

Indeed, we could follow barbed wire backward in time and find it present during our worst moments as a nation. First patented in 1874 by Joseph Glidden, it was used by land grabbing homesteaders to corral their animals and section off land parcels across the indigenous-occupied West. Thus, Native Americans referred to barbed wire as “devil’s rope.”

(Debbie Weingarten/TalkPoverty)

Barbed and concertina razor wire have been used to ensnare unsuspecting men on battlefields in faraway places, to imprison Japanese-American families in World War II-era internment camps, to secure modern-day prisons which disproportionately incarcerate people of color. And surely, we have all seen photographs of emaciated children penned into Nazi concentration camps by such wire?

Now, it’s being used to further cut a city in two. For many residents, who have long called their city Ambos (“Both”) Nogales, the border between the U.S. and Mexico is a forced line separating what has historically been a single bi-national community. While in 1918 — after a misunderstanding resulted in a fatal cross-border gunfight — the two countries constructed a mutually agreed-upon fence, the barrier was porous and meant as a friendly method of keeping order. Residents were easily able to cross the border to visit family members or to shop, supporting the economy of both cities.

Fast-forward to the 1990s, when the Clinton administration adopted a border security policy called Operation Gatekeeper, which severely increased Border Patrol presence and turned the friendly line into a fortified wall, made from steel landing strips left over from the Vietnam War. Crossing the border became complicated, and in some cases, impossible. Some families were split up, no longer able to visit with one another.

So began the ritual of visits to the wall, to hold hands and talk between the slats. “Especially on weekends, it’s not uncommon to see people camped out in plastic chairs on the U.S. side, while loved ones in Mexico set up tables and lay out a family meal on the other,” wrote Arielle Ziontes in a 2017 article for the Nogales International.

But Ziontes described the installation of metal sheets of mesh along International Street at a popular meeting place, which reduced visibility and prevented families from being able to touch or hold hands.

Now with the addition of the concertina wire along the Nogales wall, any other meeting places have effectively been sabotaged.

No hand would dare reach through the dangerous tangle of razor wire.

As I stood on International Street, staring through the mesh where family members used to hold hands, I noticed a Border Patrol agent parked in the shade of the wall. He rolled down his window as I approached. I asked him about the wire — when it went up, who installed it, if it will be placed at ground level for the entirety of the wall. He shrugged. He didn’t know anything about infrastructure, he said; that’s not part of his job.

“Is it the National Guard’s?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, and he rolled up the window.

If the Trump administration refuses to tear down the wire, Mayor Garino said he’s prepared to go to court. And it’s not just here in Nogales that officials are pushing back against federal directives to militarize the border. Just before President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered most of the National Guard troops stationed along the New Mexico border to withdraw from their posts, citing a “charade of border fear-mongering.”

In a speech on Feb. 12, California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he was withdrawing the 360 National Guard troops stationed at the Mexico-California border. “This border emergency is a manufactured crisis,” he said. “California will not be part of this political theater.”

After deploying additional troops to the southern border in November 2018, Trump spoke at a rally in Bozeman, Montana. “The Democrats want to invite caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to flood into your communities,” he told the crowd. And then he seemed to reassure them, saying, “We have our military on the border. And I noticed all that beautiful barbed wire going up today. Barbed wire used properly can be a beautiful sight.”

But from where I stood in Nogales, the wire was anything but beautiful. The metal coils caught the blinding glare of the sun, and the mid-morning light through the wall made shadows on the ground that looked like jail bars. Just yards away in Mexico, on the other side of the wire, children filed out into a schoolyard. I could see them dribbling a basketball, jumping rope. Their sing-song voices traveled over and through the wall.



Farming’s Next Generation Has Nowhere to Grow

The farmland clearinghouse ads read a bit like listings on a dating site, but way more practical:

Ernst Weissing is seeking to rent 20+ acres of tillable farmland in southeastern Minnesota. Land with a barn or pole shed and access to water is preferred; no house is required.

Kelly Schaefer is seeking to rent 20 acres of farmland in Minnesota, Arkansas, Oklahoma or Kentucky. Land with pasture, fencing, water, power, outbuildings and a house is preferred.

Landowners post, too, advertising farmland for rent or sale:

Ellen Parker has for sale 9.2 acres of farmland in east-central Minnesota’s McLeod County. The land consists of 3 pasture acres, 3 tillable acres and 3 forest acres.

The listings demonstrate, in part, a rapid occurrence of land transition across the United States. The National Young Farmers Coalition estimates that more than two-thirds of America’s farmland will change hands in the next two decades. But as the older generation ages out of the industry, young farmers struggle to access affordable farmland.

America’s farmers are getting older, fast. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age of the American farmer is 58 years old, and has trended consistently upwards over the last three decades. More than 33 percent of farmers are 65 or older.

Between them, these farmers manage 320 million acres, approximately one-third, of United States farmland. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 500,000 farmers will retire in the next 20 years.

The aging of the American farmer raises some big questions: Who will grow our food when these farmers are gone? And what will happen to the farmland currently managed by elderly farmers? Unless America’s fertile fields wind up in the hands of a new generation of independent farmers, they’re likely to become housing developments, fracking sites, or simply gobbled up by big agribusiness.

The primary reason young farmers can’t enter the industry is land: High land costs effectively price them out, whether or not they come from a farming background. Between 2004 and 2018, farmland inflation rates increased by approximately 150 percent. While the national average was $3,040 per acre, some states had averages well over $10,000. Rhode Island has the highest average cost per acre at $13,800.

“Regardless of geographic area, land access is the top challenge for young farmers who are currently farming and the biggest barrier preventing aspiring farmers from entering the industry … And it’s the number one reason that young farmers are quitting,” says Holly Rippon-Butler, a third generation farmer and the Land Access Program Director for the National Young Farmers Coalition. (Full disclosure: I once served as NYFC’s Arizona organizer.)

The issue of land access is a problem I’ve seen up close. Five years ago, as a “beginning farmer” — defined by the USDA as those in their first 10 years of farming — I dreamed of raising our children on the farm and providing decades of food to our community. We planted trees that I imagined would still be there when we died.

But our land payments, mortgage and equipment debt, and operational expenses felt crushing, and I could not imagine saving for emergencies or sending my children to college on my farm income — so several years in, I left the farm.

Many of my longtime friends are still farming, so my social media feeds are filled with documentation of their energy and tribulations: the glow of a field at sunset, the freak hail that annihilated a greenhouse, pigs foraging in the woods, a goat birth captured on video.

But there are also rollercoaster stories of land access. Two friends worked for three years to transition newly-purchased acreage to organic certification, only to be told during their first full season that eminent domain would mandate a gas line eventually be installed through the middle of their farm. A friend in the Midwest has been forced to relocate her entire farm several times due to leasing issues. There are stories of bad landlords, broken leases, interest rates that are way too high, the only affordable acreage too far from a local market to support it, apprenticeships gone sour, dreams quashed, and sweat equity wasted.

More than two-thirds of America’s farmland will change hands in the next two decades.

The issue of land access is also intertwined with America’s student debt crisis, as school debt can prevent a young farmer from affording land payments or qualifying for loans. In 2017, NYFC surveyed approximately 3,500 farmers under the age of 40. Respondents were 60 percent female, and included a “proportion of people of color and indigenous farmers… roughly twice that of the 2012 Census of Agriculture.” Student loan debt was the second-most cited challenge expressed by young farmers, after land access. 61 percent of respondents reported needing another job to make ends meet.

Third generation Georgia farmer Chad Hunter, whose story is featured as an NYFC case study, says federal student loan debt has prevented him from accessing additional credit to add goats and sheep to his cattle operation. “Farming is difficult,” Hunter said, “Physically, the work is demanding and unrelenting. Financially, it is hard because farmers need credit to operate until they can make a harvest. Credit is difficult to obtain with student loan debt and that makes operating difficult.”

A 2014 NYFC survey on student loan debt found that the approximately 700 respondents had an average of $35,000 in student loan debt. Of those, “[53] percent of respondents were farming but struggled to make their monthly loan payments, and 30% of respondents said they were not farming or had delayed farming because of their student loans.”

Young farmers who are priced out of owning farmland must rely on leasing acreage — often through annual rental agreements — owned by landlords, 97 percent of whom are white. “Leasing can be a great thing when farmers are just getting started, but it’s hard to make long-term investments, like amending the soil or building infrastructure, when you don’t have the security of owning land,” says Rippon-Butler. Leasing also means farmers have less collateral when applying for farm loans, which can limit the size or scope of their operation.

And relationships between landowners and farmers run the gamut from hands-off arrangements, strong partnerships, to those fraught with conflict. Inherently, though, there’s a power imbalance — one party owns the land, and the other doesn’t — which places leasing farmers at the whims of the landowner.

Some steps have certainly been taken to try to address this crisis. The most recent farm bill, passed in December, included permanent funding for beginning and disadvantaged farmer programs. Important improvements were also made to the federal loan program that supports direct farm purchases, doubling the loan limit from $300,000 to $600,000 to reflect the real estate market.

In Minnesota, where just 4 percent of farmers are under the age of 35, NYFC’s Central Minnesota chapter organized successfully for a new law that provides a state income tax credit to landowners who sell or lease land, livestock, or farm equipment to a beginning farmer. As part of the program, the beginning farmer must enroll in a farm management class, also covered by a tax credit.

Also in 2017, Colorado farmers were given a boost by a state law that reimburses farms up to 50 percent of the cost of hiring an apprentice. The program helps farmers afford the labor they need to run their businesses, and it provides paid opportunities for new farmers to gain access to land and mentorship.

Last year in New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Working Farm Protection Act into law, after it passed through the state legislature with unanimous support. It strengthened existing farmland protection laws, making state funding permanently available for programs that help keep farmland in the hands of farmers.

But more can be done. For instance, in 2015, NYFC worked with coalition partners to introduce the Young Farmer Success Act into the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2017, it was reintroduced with bipartisan support. If passed, the law would amend the 1965 Higher Education Act to include full-time farm or ranch managers or employees as public service jobs, eligible for the public loan forgiveness program. After 10 years of “income-driven student loan payments,” the loan balance would be forgiven.

“We have this huge natural resource in our farmland and in the knowledge of the farmers who have been the stewards of that land. And as our climate is changing and our world is changing, it’s so important that we protect our ability as a nation to produce food,” says Rippon-Butler. “There is just so much at stake here.”



Biased Algorithms Are Determining Whether Poor Parents Get to Keep Their Kids

Poor people give away a lot of information. If you’ve never lived under the poverty line, you might not be aware how much of our personal privacy we trade away for basic benefits such as food stamps, health insurance, and utility discounts. It’s not just Social Security numbers and home addresses, which are required as part of these applications; it includes health histories, household incomes, living expenses, and employment histories. Most people shrug off this exchange: What good is personal data when you have no money and terrible credit anyway — especially when you don’t really have a choice?

But after decades of collecting this data, the government is putting it to use. This information is feeding algorithms that decide everything from whether or not you get health insurance to how much time you spend in jail. Increasingly, it is helping determine whether or not parents get to keep their kids.

When someone phones in a report of suspected child abuse — usually to a state or county child abuse hotline — a call screener has to determine whether the accusation merits an actual investigation. Sometimes they have background information, such as prior child welfare reports, to assist in their decision-making process, but often they have to make snap determinations with very little guidance besides the details of the immediate report. There are more than 7 million maltreatment reports each year, and caseworkers get overwhelmed and burn out quickly — especially when a serious case gets overlooked. New algorithms popping up around the country review data points available for each case and suggest whether or not an investigation should be opened, in an attempt to offset some of the individual responsibility placed on case workers.

The trouble is, algorithms aren’t designed to find new information that humans miss — they’re designed to use the data that humans have previously input as efficiently as possible.

“If you give it biased data, it will be biased,” explained Cathy O’Neil, mathematician and author of the book Weapons of Math Destruction, while speaking with me for a story I wrote for Undark last year. “The very short version is that when you’re using the past as a kind of reference for how it works well, you’re implicitly assuming the past is doing a good job of rewarding good things and punishing bad things. You’re training the system to say if it worked in the past, it should work in the future.”

Historically, low-income families have had their children removed from their homes at higher rates than wealthier families. As a result, these new algorithms work to codify poverty as a criteria for child maltreatment. Some of the variables that these tools consider are public records that only exist for low-income parents, such as parents’ poverty status, whether they receive welfare benefits like SNAP and TANF, employment status, and whether they receive Medicaid. Other factors, like previous criminal justice involvement and whether or not there have been allegations of substance misuse in the past, are also dramatically more likely for families living in poverty.

If you give it biased data, it will be biased.

This bias exists even in systems that have been highly praised, like the Allegheny Family Screening Tool currently being implemented in Pittsburgh, where prior arrests and parents’ mental health histories are considered factors in whether a child should be removed. It’s similar in other, less-transparent systems, like one in Florida where tech giant SAS contracted with the Florida Department of Children and Families to research which factors were most likely to contribute to the death of a child by maltreatment. According to press releases by SAS (some of which have been unpublished since they began garnering media attention) the company used public records such as Medicaid status, criminal justice history, and substance-use treatment history.

The results led jurisdictions in Florida to zoom in on factors that apply to huge swaths of families, including mine. In April of last year, an allegation of drug use and child abandonment led Broward County, Florida child welfare investigators to investigate my family. When my drug tests were negative, the investigation pivoted to my recent financial setbacks, which had been caused by my husband’s acute health crisis. My children were ultimately removed from my care, and we have been separated for nine months for reasons that are primarily financial. My case is far from unique. Three-quarters of child protective cases in the United States are related to neglect, not abuse, and that neglect usually means lack of food, clothing, shelter, heating, or supervision: problems which are almost always the result of poverty.

Ira Schwartz, a private analytics consultant, thinks he may have found a way to help re-balance this system. He conducted a research study in Broward County — the same county in which my case is based — that discovered the current approach to child welfare substantiation is highly flawed. According to his research, 90 percent of system referrals were essentially useless, and 40 percent of court-involved cases (which typically involve child removal) were overzealous and harmful, rather than beneficial, to the families. He created his own system that, like the Allegheny tool, predicted the likelihood that a family would become re-involved with the system. But he admits quite openly that predictive algorithms like his target the poor.

It’s a discrimination factor.

“We found in our study that lower socioeconomic status was one of the significant variables that was a predictor [for reinvolvement with the system],” said Schwartz. “The issue with higher-income families is … they just don’t really come into the system because they have other options. With higher-income families, when there’s child abuse or neglect or even spouse abuse and it’s reported, they can afford to go to private agencies, get private mental health services; they can see a psychiatrist or social worker or psychologist … it’s a discrimination factor.”

Schwartz believes that these types of admittedly discriminatory computer programs can still be put to good use when combined with prescriptive analytics, which would determine the services that high-risk families need in order to remain out of the system in the future. Schwartz says this would include services like rental assistance, food assistance, day care funding, and housekeeping services. This would help welfare agencies understand which families need what services, and streamline the process of providing them. (All jurisdictions are legally required to make “reasonable efforts” to help families resolve the issues that brought them under investigation, but how agencies go about meeting that standard varies widely by location.)

The issue with these algorithms is certainly not malice on the part of their creators. Even the more secretive, proprietary algorithms being created by companies like SAS claim to want to create a safer system that results in less child maltreatment. But it’s unclear if that is possible with the data that’s available. Without comparable data from wealthier populations, which are better protected by privacy laws, the new systems cannot produce accurate results — and even if more data were added, it would mean more families are being separated and surveilled.



Poverty Forces People to Surrender Their Pets. It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.

There are all kinds of stereotypes about the people who give up their pet to a shelter: They got tired of the dog after it wasn’t a cute puppy any more, or couldn’t be bothered to cut the cat’s nails so it wouldn’t scratch the furniture, or needed a new designer mix to match their handbag. The reality is quite different.

“Forty-plus million Americans live in poverty. They have pets and they love their pets,” said Matthew Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA. Given the American average of 1.8 animals per household, Bershadker estimated that over 25 million cats and dogs are living in poverty, and he noted that 52 percent of the clients of the ASPCA Animal Hospital in NYC are living on less than $15,000 per year.

“We see people often who are in their darkest day,” said Lori Weise of Downtown Dog Rescue in Los Angeles, which is dedicated to helping people keep their pets. “They’re facing some other crisis, and they happen to own a dog.”

Weise’s organization finds many people are at the shelter because they’ve run out of options — often because they’ve run out of money — and they aren’t aware of resources to help. In one ASPCA study, 40 percent of low-income pet owners surrendering an animal to a shelter said they would have kept their pet if they’d had access to affordable vet care, and 30 percent said the same if they could have gotten free or low-cost pet food.

There’s a growing awareness that meeting the needs of low-income pet owners is central to the mission of animal rescue. “Everywhere I go, we are either involved in or are talking to people about safety net services,” said Bershadker. “It’s almost as if a few years back a massive light bulb went off in the animal welfare community and we stopped thinking about how to get animals out of shelters and we started thinking about how to keep animals from coming into shelters.”

Some programs have, in fact, been working to keep pets together with low-income owners for a while, and the people running them have learned some important lessons about what it takes. Downtown Dog Rescue, founded in 1996, has helped keep 12,000 pets from being surrendered to shelters in south Los Angeles since 2013. They don’t have fancy facilities, just a card table and two chairs outside the shelters they partner with, where they start a conversation with people who may be in a panic.

“They’re crying, bawling, shaking, maybe they have a citation — they’re scared,” said Weise. “I say, ‘if I told you I could help you, would you want to get rid of your pet today?’ And they often say: ‘Oh no, I love him.'”

Once they’ve established that someone would rather keep their pet, the counselors start to connect people to resources: a volunteer handymen that will patch a fence for someone who’s been cited for their dog running loose, low-cost training advice, and crucially, options for lower-cost vet care. In L.A., there are free spay and neuter services for low-income pet owners, as well as vets who provide a discount on services to people working with Downtown Dog Rescue. The numbers needed to help someone keep a pet often aren’t huge — Weise said it generally costs them less than $100. One challenge is often persuading vets to volunteer time and offer discounts. “A lot of them have tremendous amounts of student loans,” said Weise. “The young ones are struggling.”

Weise has found that it’s crucial to make it easy for vets to help. They work with three main animal hospitals, so no one vet is bombarded with cases. They make sure billing is free of complications: Clients show up with written vouchers stating what Downtown Dog Rescue is paying for, and there’s one point of contact for billing the organization. For their monthly free clinics, they handle all the organizational details: tables, chairs, event permits, outreach flyers. “The vets just show up, do the work and leave,” she said. “We stay in our own lanes. We don’t give medical advice, they don’t do planning and outreach, and it’s a beautiful relationship.”

As a national complement to the kind of work Weise is doing locally, the ASPCA is researching ways to lower the cost of vet care without diminishing quality. “How do we shorten diagnostic and treatment protocols?” asked Bershadker. “If the vet can diagnose more quickly with fewer tests, it’s cheaper, and if it’s cheaper it’s more accessible.” He pointed to a previous success: a technical advance in performing spay/neuter surgeries called the pedicle tie that’s allowed vets to complete the procedure in a shorter time.

We stopped thinking about how to get animals out of shelters and we started thinking about how to keep animals from coming into shelters.

Taking a broader view, Bershadker also thinks the field needs to take a cue from the legal world, which has a discipline of community-based lawyers, and find a way to make that possible for vets. “We need to create an economy around being a community veterinarian,” he said. “There’s a desire for vets to give back to their communities — we need to make it economically viable for them.” Making basic procedures more efficient is one way of doing this. More loan repayment programs for vets practicing in underserved areas like the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program are another possibility.

It’s critical that services be geographically accessible and that people are aware of them. One way to address those issues and be more efficient in general is to make use of existing institutions that already reach low-income people. One example is the ASPCA’s partnership with Food Bank for NYC to supply pet food, which in its first year has distributed nearly 100,000 pounds of dog and cat food to 254 food pantries.

“Rather than recreate the distribution system that they have perfected over time, we simply add pet food to that,” Bershadker said. “They’re happy about it because they want to serve the entire family, and we’re happy about it because the animals are getting fed.” What’s more, ASPCA puts stickers on the bags of food that inform clients about other services, so now if they need low-cost vet care, they know where to go.

Bershadker said that the animal welfare world needs to think creatively about partnerships like this with other systems such as child protective services, domestic violence services, and law enforcement. “You don’t need to rebuild the infrastructure — it exists,” he said. “You need to attach yourself to what is there.”