We Must Fight Poverty With Justice

Terrance Heath

As Pope Francis brings his powerful message on poverty to America, the U.S. Census Bureau’s report on poverty rates reminds us that our efforts to fight poverty are working, but we’re still not doing enough.

Safety net programs — like food stamps, Social Security and unemployment benefits — are keeping millions of Americans from falling into poverty. But they’re not enough to significantly lower the poverty rate. By some estimates, 2014 was the strongest year of the economic recovery so far. Nearly three million jobs were added last year; the most since 1999. Between 1.2 million and 1.6 million more Americans worked full-time in 2014 than 2013. Job growth alone made it a “breakout year” for the economy, but it made little to no difference in reducing poverty.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s report, “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014”:

● The 14.8 percent poverty rate, accounting for a record 46.7 million Americans living in poverty, remained the same.
● More people went to work last year, but 3 million Americans worked full-time last year, and still ended up below the poverty line, just like 2013.
● Median family income remained basically the same.

Economic inequities based on race and gender remain virtually unchanged.

● The poverty rates for African Americans and Latinos remains well over 20 percent, compared to 10.1 percent for whites.
● African-American children saw a 3.4 point increase in their poverty rate; the only group of children that saw an increase in their poverty rate.
● The median income for white households was $60,300, for African-American households $35,400 and Latino households $42,500.
● Asian households had the highest median income in the United States at $74,300 in 2014.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) offered the expected Republican response to the Census report, that our efforts to fight poverty aren’t working.

“Our current approach to fighting poverty, though well-intended, is failing too many Americans,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican. “This disappointing data, five years into an economic recovery, underscores the need for a new effort to modernize our country’s safety net programs.”

Ryan is wrong, of course. The Supplemental Poverty Measure — which takes into account the government programs designed to assist low-income families and individuals — shows that the very safety-net programs Ryan and his fellow Republicans want to cut are keeping millions of Americans out of poverty.

● Social Security is keeping 26 million people out of poverty.
● Food stamps keep 4.7 million out of poverty.
● Housing subsidies keep 2.5 million out of poverty.
● The Earned Income and Child Tax credits keep 9.8 million out of poverty.
● Unemployment insurance benefits keep another 1 million out of poverty.

What we’re already doing to reduce poverty levels is working. The problem is that we still aren’t doing enough. Digging deeper into the data reveals that perhaps justice is the missing ingredient in our efforts against poverty.

Wages

More jobs have not meant less poverty. Last year’s record job growth didn’t reduce poverty, because most of the jobs added to the economy are low-wage jobs. Over most of the last four decades, the benefits of increased productivity and profits have gone to those at the top of the income ladder, while wages for the middle-class and working poor have remained flat or declined.

We can begin to solve the problem of stagnant wages by starting where there is the most need and increasing the minimum wage. The Obama administration backs a minimum wage increase, which has been stuck as $7.25 per hour for six years. While Republicans in Congress block any attempt to raise the federal minimum wage, activists have launched a nationwide movement to increase the minimum wage to $15.00 an hour. This month, New York governor Andrew Cuomo approved legislation to gradually increase the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15 an hour. The decision follows similar increases in cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Equal Pay

Women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households. Yet, even in what was supposed to be the best year of the recovery so far, the 78.6 percent ratio of women’s and men’s median annual earnings for full-time workers remains unchanged.

About 71 percent of mothers are working mothers. Of these, 68 percent are married, and thus have access to men’s incomes. One-third of them are single mothers, whose earnings are their family’s sole support. Pay equity would make a serious dent in poverty.

● Nearly 60 percent of women would earn more if working women were paid the same as men the same age doing similar work.
● The poverty rate for working women would be cut in half; the poverty rate for working single mothers would fall by nearly half.
● The U.S. economy would produce an extra $447.6 billion, if women received equal pay.

Family-Friendly Policy

Women’s risk of poverty jumps drastically when they enter their twenties. Women between the ages of 25 and 34 have a poverty rate 6.9 times higher than men, and it doesn’t begin to come down until women are in their 40s. This gender gap parallels women’s prime reproductive years.

On average, American women have their first child by age 26. Women begin juggling the responsibilities of work and family, and lose out on pay that’s already less than what men earn. When they get older, they experience the cumulative impact of those pay differences. The gender gap picks up again as women age. Women between the ages of 65 to 75 have a poverty rate 2.9 percentage points higher than men, and it jumps to 7.1 percentage points higher after age 75.

This has mostly to do with policy. The U.S. is one of the only developed countries that doesn’t have guaranteed maternity (or paternity) leave, or ensure paid sick leave and other paid time off. That, combined with the lack of support for child care and flexible schedules, not only hurts women, but hurts their families, too. Making these changes would further reduce their risk of poverty.

Criminal Justice Reform

Going to prison can be expensive when you’re already poor. Our broken justice system is sinking families into poverty, especially women, according to “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Family,” a survey of the formerly incarcerated, families, employers, and focus groups of those impacted by incarceration, conducted by the Ella Baker Institute for Human Rights.

The U.S. now accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population — and about 25 percent of its imprisoned population. From the mid–1970s to the mid–1980s, America’s incarceration rate doubled. A University of Chicago study found that tough-on-crime laws increased the likelihood of prison sentences. From 1985 to 2000, the likelihood of a long prison sentence nearly doubled for drug possession, tripled for drug trafficking, and quadrupled for non-aggravated assault.

The trend toward mass incarceration hit African-American families the hardest. Of African-American men born since 1970, one in four went to prison by their mid 30s; among high school dropouts, seven in ten went to prison. By 2000, more than one million African-American children had a father in jail or prison — half of whom were living in the same household as their children before their incarceration.

When a family member is incarcerated, families are saddled with fees, fines, and debt, at the same time their economic opportunities diminish.

● Phone calls and visits to prisons alone accounted for 34 percent of the families surveyed falling into heavy debt.
● 48 percent were unable to cope with the costs associated with conviction.
● Among families making less than $15,000 per year, 58% were unable to afford these costs.
● Average debt incurred for court-related cost was $13,607; almost an entire year’s income for families making $15,000 or less.

More than half of the fathers in state prisons report being the primary breadwinner in their family. In the Baker Institute survey, nearly two in three families were unable to meet their basic needs: 49 percent struggled with basic food needs; 48 percent had trouble meeting housing needs.

Mass incarceration removes the primary breadwinners from already poor households, while at the same time burdening family members on the outside. Women often bear the brunt of the burden. In 63 percent of the cases in the Baker Institute survey, family members on the outside were responsible for court-related costs; 83 percent of those family members were women.

Mass imprisonment impoverishes families, and worsens the circumstances of those living on the razor’s edge of poverty. Legislation like the Justice Is Not For Sale Act, introduced in Congress by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), can relieve such poverty by:

● Ending for-profit prisons.
● Reinstating the individualized, risk-based assessments of the federal parole system, thereby shortening sentences and reducing the prison population.
● Increasing oversight to prevent overcharging of inmates and their families banking and telecommunication services.

The FBI reports on police departments in Ferguson, Missouri and Newark, New Jersey revealed how local police departments and courts collude to fill local government coffers by levying court fines and fees against poor, mostly African-American residents, and jailing those who cannot pay, while tacking on even more fines. . Such practices turn local jails into modern-day debtors prisons.

Campaign Zero, launched by #BlackLivesMatter activists, points the way out of this cycle, and urges local and state governments to:

● End police department quotas for tickets and arrests
● Limit fines and fees for low-income people
● Prevent police from taking the money or property of innocent people

Fight Poverty With Justice

All of the suggestions above have something in common that sets them apart from the safety net programs that already keep millions out of poverty. Welfare has been transformed into a term used to demonize the neediest among us. But its actual definition — “the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group” — is a reminder that safety net programs are the way we show that we, as a country, care about “the health, happiness, and fortunes” of our poorest citizens.

Welfare is a necessary part of any effort to deal with poverty. So is “the quality of being fair and reasonable,” also known as justice.

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