The Federal Minimum Wage Has Not Been Raised in 7 Years. Here Are the States That Hurts the Most. — Talk Poverty

Yesterday was the anniversary of the last federal minimum wage increase—for seven years, it has remained at $7.25. Given the breakneck pace of state and local action—26 states, the District of Columbia, and at least 25 cities have ushered in higher minimum wages in the past two-and-a-half years—it’s easy to let the federal minimum wage…

via The Federal Minimum Wage Has Not Been Raised in 7 Years. Here Are the States That Hurts the Most. — Talk Poverty

Don’t close the door on victims

Know those annoying people who knock on your door to sell you magazines?  How about the ones who say they are collecting money for charity? You just want to tell them no and go back to your dinner. Give it a second thought. They could be victims of human trafficking.

According to Polaris Project research door to door sales men and women may be knocking on your door against their will. It is a known form of labor trafficking. Employers who use lies, fear, intimidation or coercion to recruit and control their employees are likely to be labor traffickers.

It would not usually occur to us that door to door solicitors are victims like this. Thanks to Polaris Project and all those trying to end this scourge we know more than ever before about the signs of trafficking. They have also created safe avenues for victims to escape.

When someone comes to you door to solicit money from you for any reason you could be face to face with a person who needs intervention. It could be a moment when you can you could help a victim escape forced employment and the harm it causes.

It’s this simple. Print this information and keep it where you can find it next time someone comes around to sell you something besides girl scout cookies.

Reference card for help
Reference card for help


How to identify a victim of trafficking
How to identify a victim of trafficking


Freddie Gray Blurs the Line Between Black and White


Did you know there were 14 deaths of unarmed black males at the hands of police in 2014 alone? Four of those deaths occurred within 30 days of each other.  And these may only be the ones that drew national attention. It is no wonder people zero in on the race question.

With all the research available we know a much higher percentage of black people are killed by police than whites or Hispanics. We are letting ourselves off the hook somewhat if we stick to such a simple explanation as racism. There are just too many other correlating factors.

Consider Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. Sandtown-Winchester is the poorest census tract in Maryland.  It is blighted by decayed and vacant housing.

sandtown neighborhoodThe number of boarded up houses in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood is five  times the number in other parts of Baltimore. There are few jobs, and the  ones that are available won’t support a family. More than half of all        children   in Sandtown-Winchester households live in poverty.

Minorities’ financial stability continue to trail white peoples’ income by all measures of economic opportunity and security. The average white family brings home $57,000 per year but the average black family earns only      $33,300 per year. The gap in household net worth is even larger.

FT_14.12.11_wealthGapBars[1]It is easy to confuse racism with an attitude of disgust for the poor.  While consumer confidence among the middle class has grown to an estimated 95 points, people in Sandtown would be relieved to have a decent job and a house not rotting with lead paint.

Now some of the few amenities the community was getting are ruined. In their anger rioters burned out a CVS pharmacy that neighborhood leaders had worked hard to attract. A partially constructed senior center is scorched to the earth, as are several black owned businesses.

In an interview with the New York Times, Robert Wilson, a college student who went to high school in Baltimore, said: “With the riots, we’re not trying to act like animals or thugs. We’re just angry at the surroundings, like this is all that is given to us, and we’re tired of this, like nobody wants to wake up and see broken-down buildings. They take away the community centers, they take away our fathers, and now we have traffic lights that don’t work, we have houses that are crumbling, falling down.”

Sociologists are pointing out the underlying desperation as well. “It’s not so much racism; it’s kind of a perception of being treated unfairly, like second-class citizens,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. Mr. Lynch explained that in poorer communities in Baltimore where crime rates are higher, officers tend to use extreme policing tactics against innocent minority residents in anticipation of potential crime being committed.

A vicious cycle has evolved. The police are on the defensive just because of the neighborhood they are in – and the residents are on the defensive because police assume the worst of anyone who lives there. And round and round we go.

As a society we have to recognize how police officers may have only seconds to judge the level of danger. They are people who risk their lives on our behalf, and it’s only human for them to be on heightened alert in an area where gang activity is overt and violence is frequent.

But police departments and often their city officials must also own the fact they contribute to the fear. They have to monitor themselves, and retrain or even fire the bad cops who make the rest of them look bad. What the public perceives is a lot of effort to excuse or cover up the behavior and not much effort in changing the behavior.

The six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest have been charged with homicide. We can only hope that all of the facts come out and that justice will prevail in this case. We cannot let it stop there. Justice in this case is about much more than whether the police officers acted with such disregard for his life that they caused his death. It is about the circumstances that put him in harm’s way. Those circumstances go far beyond the color of his skin.

Note: Above picture of Sandtown-Winchester Rowhouses picture is owned by


Isn’t it time to create civil rights for the poor?

What is it we like to say in America about our justice system? Hmm. Let me think.

Now I remember… “All people are presumed innocent until proven guilty.” If we actually practiced that we would reduce the number of people in jail and its related costs. In fact we might reduce that by up to 450,000 people.

scales of justiceThis number represents about two-thirds of the jail population; people who are not convicted. They are awaiting trial. There are costs to house them, feed them, monitor them and provide medical care to them. All this before the system even proves they are guilty. What about bail? If we relied on TV dramas as reality we would expect that people, except those who committed the most serious crimes, can get bail. They can go home and then return to court on their trial date. But life is not a TV drama. In the real world five out of six individuals sit in jail until their trial date are there either because (1) they can’t afford bail or (2) because a bail agent declined to post a bond.

This issue is not about the eventual determination of inmates’ guilt or innocence. It is about the inequity in the process. Two people may be arrested for suspicion of breaking the same law. When one can afford bail and/or fees, that person can wait for trial outside of jail. When another person cannot afford those things s/he sits in jail for however long it takes for a legal conclusion about the alleged crime.

The two individuals may be suspected of the same crime; they did not do the same time.

Now many jurisdictions are charging inmates at least part of the cost of jailing them in the first place. A simple Internet search reveals the appalling practices in some local courts and governments. These practices can keep people in jail, regardless of whether they committed a crime.

Riverside County, California has a new motto: “If you do the crime, you’ll do the time, and now, you’ll also pay the dime.” That’s how County Supervisor Jeff Stone explained a new policy that requires jail inmates to pay the cost of their incarceration. Just waiting for a bail hearing gets very expensive very quickly at $142 per day. Different jurisdictions have variations on the same theme. Courts are charging fees and direct costs to those they arrest. They are creating new fees that must be paid for release.

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed. So what happens when inmates are held in jail because bail is not affordable for them? And then the impact on them multiplies because they cannot pay their fees, in addition to the original bail amount? Inmates who must sit in jail until their trial are facing mounting fees. The fees are effectively creating excessive bail. They cannot pay to get out, but they also must pay for staying in.

Charging inmates for direct costs while in jail is generally a response to budget shortfalls, as defended by many of those jurisdictions. It creates a moral problem, if not an actual legal problem, when the fees cause disparate impacts. The differing effects can easily be demonstrated:

Typical cost to a low-income inmate who is, by law, presumed innocent but cannot make bail

  • Economic hardship because low income people are more likely to have jobs where they lose wages if they are not present at work
  • Loss of wages for indeterminate period of time until trial occurs
  • Economic hardship for mounting jail fees owed to government for extended stay

The irony is that in an effort to reduce the cost burden on the court system inmate fees are going to increase the need for social supports such as food stamps and cash assistance.

Our founding fathers had great foresight in writing the Constitution. At its heart they prepared for people to act like people. Their vision anticipated the big guy will always de facto have power over the little guy. Greed can blind us to the right thing to do. Over the years Congress and the courts have added amendments to the Constitution to extend its protections when needed. Civil rights protections institutionalized in the 14th amendment have helped level the legal playing field for black people. It has generated civil rights protections to those of different colors, ethnicities, sexual orientations, disabilities and more.

Perhaps it is time to extend civil rights protections explicitly to the poor.


What would MLK jr. say about homelessness?

I read a powerful letter recently about an ignored but fundamental accomplishment of Dr. King. The writer opened my eyes in a way no one else had done.

There is a part of Dr. King’s legacy, she says, far more important than leading civil resistance. He taught the people on the ground – the ones who marched, defied Jim Crow laws, sat at the lunch counters – to accept the violence that their actions would certainly precipitate. Unless they overcame their fear of that violence they could not push the limits needed to create change.

Do we now have to teach our homeless how to accept the violence against their dignity as a way to push back against it?

“It was as if they burned my house down.”

These are the words of one man who lost everything when city police in Akron, Ohio took apart a homeless encampment and confiscated the campers’ belongings. In 2013 Patrick Moe lost his military service papers and pictures of his late wife in this “homeless sweep”.

In October 2014 Akron police once again removed virtually everything from another homeless camp. It was the latest in several the City has done since 2011. Students and professors from the Case Western School of Law have stepped in on behalf of 11 people who lost everything they owned because the police took their belongings and disposed of them. In essence confiscations imply homeless people don’t even have the right to own things.

These sweeps are part of a growing trend to criminalize people for following their survival instincts. Beyond the citations for sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping in a park the cities that claim they don’t know what else to do are disingenuous. Even police policy resources such as the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing provides guidance on how to address homeless encampments without creating even more hardship.

The Center’s advice speaks to the issue of reducing the police departments’ exposure to lawsuits about infringement on civil rights and loss of personal property. They describe processes about notification, researching whether the property is legally protected from trespassing and more. This only makes sense for a resource for law enforcement organizations. This does not make its guidance any less valuable to achieve better ways to resolve the issues fairly, without making a lot of arrests or taking property.

The report even educates its readers about the “Housing First” approach. This strategy provides supportive housing for disabled people who have long histories of homelessness. Housing First is just what the name says – the person in need obtains a safe and secure place to live so they can focus on solving the problems that led to their homelessness.

An excerpt from a chart on the Center’s web site shows the work it has done to create a useful policy and procedure template.

police policy chart on encampments

Interestingly, the Center’s report is consistent with the experience of dozens of cities trying to reduce the visibility of homelessness by imposing penalties on people for following their survival instincts. It relies on the myth that people are choosing homelessness and its misery. If we punish them enough they will suddenly have the means to gain a home.

In reality criminalization of homelessness and destruction of homeless camps are fools’ errands that only increases social and economic costs. Solutions to homelessness restore people to better health, gives them more opportunity for successful employment and reduces hospital and jail costs.

Ordinances penalizing people who have to live in tents instead of houses; who have to walk endlessly to find bathrooms open to them; and who have no better place to sit in the rain than near buildings with overhangs ignore the realities of homelessness. We can do more to solve the problem and save their lives and dignity.

Instead of solutions we are going backwards. It’s one thing to ban people from sleeping in public. Are we really going to take their cherished pictures or their only pair of boots, too?

Millionaires can get arrested for sleeping under a bridge, too

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” Anatole France, 1894

At a time when the price of housing is racing ahead of wages many cities have moved aggressively against people who don’t have homes. This aggression is not to solve the problem. It is to hide it. 71 cities across the country have passed or tried to pass ordinances that criminalize feeding the homeless, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Often called “sit/lie” laws, they bar sitting or lying down on any street, sidewalk, entrance to a store, alley or other public place. Over the last several years there has been exponential growth in the number of cities with ordinances that effectively prohibit life-sustaining activities.

  • 64 cities ban sleeping/camping in public places, a 62% increase since 2011
  • 81 cities ban sleeping in cars
  • 200 now ban sitting or lying in public places
  • 71 have banned or proposed a ban on feeding the homeless
  • 76 percent of cities prohibit begging in particular public places, an increase of 20 percent since 2011

These ordinances include criminal penalties for violations. People who do not have enough money for adequate shelter are fined for sleeping outside. Just sitting on a bench in a public park can lead to arrest or a fine.

Cities even impose fines on good Samaritans who take food to homeless people and hand it out publicly.

Daytona Beach police cited Debbie and Chico Jimenez and four friends more than $2,000 for cooking and serving hot meals to homeless people in a public park. The police cited them for violating a local ordinance that prohibits such public feedings.

Homelessness happens for a reason.

Many homeless people work or want to work. These “sit/lie” laws are punishing people because they do not earn enough money to afford housing. Adding criminal offenses to their records won’t make it easier to find work or move into better paying jobs.

People with mental illness need treatment, not jail. Easier access to quality services and affordable housing will reduce homelessness. It is actually cheaper to provide a home than a jail bed.

Investments in prevention and treatment are the logical solution for people who become homeless due to drug dependencies. In fact, many homeless people with drug addictions started out as patients in need of legitimate pain medication. Despite public perception more people are addicted to prescription medicines than to any street drug. Opiate painkillers like Vicodin and Percoset have taken many people hostage when used improperly or for too long.

It is irrational to use sit/lie laws to address homelessness. We have research and experience on how to solve its root causes. If we shift money from the costs of the justice system to housing and treatment, we will save money on jail costs and improve our communities at the same time. Moreover, our law enforcement community can spend their time pursuing criminals who are actually violent or destructive.

Once cities have created these laws they cannot pick and choose when to enforce them. Otherwise, they are leaving themselves open to lawsuits for civil rights violations. Cities that do enforce their bans fairly will round up far more people than the homeless.

Before you take a seat on a park bench make sure you do not live in one of the 200 cities where it is banned. Do not expose your compassion for others by providing food to the needy. And do not let yourself fall asleep on a public beach even if you go there to relax. Going to jail for sleeping in public would be a hell of a way to spend your vacation.





The Weight Watcher’s Guide to Reducing Poverty

scaleWeight Watchers has been around for over 50 years. While other dieting schemes have come and gone, the iconic symbol of successful weight loss remains. The company itself attributes that success to strength in numbers. It tells potential participants what they already know. Losing weight alone is no fun, and can be hard to stick with. It offers a group support solution – participants are “encouraged and inspired by people like you, losing weight together.”

The New England Journal of Medicine empirically established that social relationships have a powerful impact on weight gain. Researchers found that friends had the greatest impact on obesity and that the type of friendship made a difference.

It isn’t like we really needed a study. Just look around and you will see groups of people who are drawn together in common interests or goals. This is just as true for people in long term poverty. Researcher Reeta Wolfsohn calls this a poverty mindset. Someone with a poverty mindset lives life predominantly without any thoughts of change, of improvement or of creating a different or better future. Wolfsohn surmises that these families see an inherent message from the universe that this is as good as it gets: don’t ask for or expect more.

This does not happen only in the home. Schools in many inner-city neighborhoods are dead-ends. Instead of equipping poor children with the skills they need to escape poverty, bad schools lower their expectations and sink their hopes. Schools can be lifelines out of poverty, but they can also be lifeless houses of detention.

We learn from those around us, and children from families and schools where everyone seems stuck will absorb that belief system. If you grow up in a home where it is believed hard work will lead to a better life you see value in tackling formidable barriers. In contrast, people who have accepted they will always be poor feel it is a waste of energy. Although it is a negative influence it feels familiar and safe. People in poverty look at life as financially static.

If people surround themselves with others like them, and that affects their willingness to make changes, even positive ones, how can we help people see their potential and work to improve their lives?

The Family Independence Initiative project has done just that with its model to recruit working poor families and let them self-organize into peer support groups. After 22 years working in an anti-poverty agency Maurice Lim Miller, founder of the Family Independence Initiative, looked for a new way to generate greater self-sufficiency. Contending that no one gets out of poverty alone, Miller wanted to enroll families in groups so that they could turn to each other for help, instead of to a caseworker or a program.

In 2011 the New America Foundation published an article describing the Family Independence Initiative as “a nonprofit, community-based organization that is considered an on-the-ground social laboratory for new strategies to tackle poverty. At its core, the Family Independence Initiative approach is both radical and as old as our republic. Their philosophy is that low-income people can advance together if we re-ignite the resource sharing, mutual support, and role modeling that has historically helped immigrant families leave poverty behind. They model new policies that reward strength and initiative (as opposed to need) and are led by the families themselves, rather than programs or professional caseworkers.”

As part of the Family Independence Initiative, working poor families self-organize into peer support groups. They set personal goals for their families and obtain cash payments for reporting monthly progress. Small amounts of money can be earned when families report the actions they take. They receive about $25 to $30 in return for a range of about 50 actions they can document.

In designing the program Miller started with the question “What would the result be if families were … encouraged to turn to friends and social networks for help and direction?

FII tracked progress of participants across all study sites. Among the San Francisco cohort, the Family Independence Initiative reports that households
• increased their income by an average of 20 percent,
• half the school-age children improved their school performance,
• 3 out of 5 households reduced their debt, and
• 3 out of 4 increased their savings, from an average of $437 to $1,433

According to FII, families report that consistently charting their progress—and sharing that progress with the families in their monthly support group meetings—keeps them focused on making changes and moving forward.

The participating families can use their meetings and social network to help each other with overcoming barriers to their goals. After all, they are facing problems that they have faced individually. The difference is now they have formed relationships with others who are looking ahead and seeing hope for positive change. It turns the “poverty mindset” on its head among those who are working together.

Getting ahead in a world with growing inequality of opportunity and resources is formidable, and, like dieting, progress can be slow. The Family Independence Initiative shows participants there is strength in numbers. The participants surround themselves with believers that keep hope and success in sight.

Is your client part of the 85%?

The wait for affordable housing is getting longer and longer…unless you are part of the 85%.

In recent years HUD and state funding sources have shifted more of their investments to serve people who have been chronically homeless. These programs are not the traditional public housing and Housing Choice programs, many of which have very long waiting lists.

HUD has set aside billions of dollars specifically to serve people who are literally homeless. On the street homeless. Living in cars, cycling through shelters and sleeping in vacant houses homeless.

These programs are housing people from the bottom up. In other words, the priority is on serving those who are most needy. HUD has mandated that its special needs funding help people with two characteristics: they have a chronic and pervasive disability and they have multiple episodes of homelessness. Housing providers access the special needs program as part of a Continuum of Care (CoC) that covers local communities.

Any agency seeking grant funds knows that every point earned in the scoring can be the difference between gaining or losing the funds. In this case HUD wants CoCs to give 85% of its funding to people who are most needy as defined above.

A qualifying disability

Is expected to be long-continuing or of indefinite duration and that the disability substantially impedes the individual’s ability to live independently.

Health care practitioners licensed by the state in which they practice must verify the presence of a severe disability OR the housing provider can rely upon documentation from the Social Security Administration that the client receives SSI or SSDI income benefits. (Social Security benefits based on age alone will not prove the existence of a disability.

Disabilities can be physical, psychiatric or developmental. For HUD’s special needs program a substance abuse disorder is considered an eligible disability, as are personality disorders.

Chronic homelessness occurs when

A household has experienced an episode of literal homelessness for one year or more OR has experienced at least four episodes of literal homelessness in less than three years

Eligible Episodes of Homelessness

People who meet both of these criteria will get shortcuts on waiting lists for HUD funded housing for the homeless. If you or your clients can demonstrate these are their circumstances they will move ahead of every household that cannot show both of these characteristics.

When your client is eligible he or she will get first shot at 85 out of every 100 units of housing or rent assistance.  If your clients are eligible for this assisted housing it means they have endured terrible ordeals. Perhaps their homelessness will end and their healing can begin.



I stayed because I don’t want to be homeless

On September 17, 2013 domestic violence programs across the U.S. served 36,348 homeless victims in emergency shelters or transitional housing. On that same day 5,578 requests for housing assistance went unfilled as providers were maxed out on beds and vouchers.

That amounts to 41,926 people fleeing domestic violence in one day.  The number may be a little low because only 87% of domestic violence providers took part in the survey. Nor does it count people fleeing DV who were not seeking help from a provider.

So it’s fair to say a minimum of 41,926 people needed a safe place to stay that day.

Emergency shelters and Transitional Housing fill a need but only for a short time.  For many victims shelters are brief respites from the turmoil in their homes. Survivors of violence may be coping with depression, trauma, hopelessness and a belief they are worthless. Abusers build financial dependence as part of their hold. Healing emotionally and physically takes time. Building reliable income takes time.

Not surprising, few victims can move from their home or a shelter directly to affordable permanent housing. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s recent issue of “Out of Reach 2014″ estimates that there are only 31 affordable apartments for every 100 very low income households.

Most financial support for affordable housing programs begins with HUD, and the agency has set aside money for programs that must serve the homeless. That’s where Rapid Rehousing comes in. As its name implies HUD has begun shifting resources to more homeless prevention and for those who do become homeless, more resources to shorten the length of homeless episodes. Years of research on best practices and outcomes led to revamped programs to end homelessness. The HEARTH Act (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) recognizes Rapid Rehousing as an effective approach to reducing homelessness.

Many affordable housing programs must be retooled to meet the HEARTH Act intent and its expected outcomes. Identifying who is “homeless” is one of those elements. Fortunately for victims and advocates looking for resources the HEARTH definition carves out a special recognition of their dilemma. The new definition states

“individuals and families who are fleeing, or are attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions that relate to violence against the individual or a family member.”

Qualifying as homeless is the first step towards obtaining HUD assistance. And note that the definition does not refer to victims who have already fled domestic violence. It refers to those “attempting to flee.”

There are two primary sources of Rapid Rehousing assistance. The most significant resources (of which I am aware) come from HUD’s Continuum of Care program. Every community has a council to administer its Continuum of Care funds. The easiest way to find yours is to start at the top. HUD posts a map and index of local councils. Once you identify the lead agency you can begin making contacts about what funds are available in your community.

Your search should not stop there. Contact your city or county community development department and ask about the Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG). Once the domain of emergency shelters HEARTH expanded the use of ESG. Now its funds can pay for rapid rehousing programs.

Because ESG can pay for Rapid Rehousing does not mean it has to pay for it. Advocates will have to do some homework to find out whether ESG money has been designated for Rapid Rehousing in their community. Identify your local ESG resources directly from the Continuum of Care. You can also check with your city or county community development office to find out if it has designated any funding for Rapid Rehousing.

Advocates and survivors should advocate for help from rapid rehousing programs with this understanding – it is designed to move families from homelessness to housing who need only a few months of help paying the rent. It varies from community to community but ultimately the survivor must be able to pick up and maintain the rent.

One more caveat – resources are limited in a time of extraordinary demand. So when you hear the words “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” remember the HEARTH Act clearly intends to help those who are fleeing, or attempting to flee, domestic violence. For that we should be grateful.