Thanksgiving Thoughts On Safety Nets

November 23, 2010

Let me be up front about this. I’m having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit.

I know I’ve got an enormous amount to be thankful for — my health, my loving and ever-patient husband, my home, which is now fully restored from the fire damage of two winters ago, friends, an extended family, including a wonderful second mother, an occupation and a nest egg that should keep us secure through our “golden years.”

But I can’t stop thinking about the millions of Americans who can’t count all these blessings — and who are now dependent on a tattered safety net that’s likely to be yanked out from under them. Surely will be if the Republicans in Congress stand fast on their pledge to drastically roll back federal spending.

I’m acutely anxious for those whose plight I know best — my fellow District of Columbia residents. So many unemployed or in jobs that don’t pay enough for them to afford the high cost of living here. A chronic problem made worse by the recession. For many of them, an upswing in the local job market won’t be enough.

Budget cuts have already damaged the local safety net. And now we’re told there have to be more cuts to get the budget back in balance. Councilmember Jack Evans is all for this. “Make as many cuts as possible,” he says, “so we can stay away from revenue hikes.”

I’m thankful not all Councilmembers share his view — especially thankful for my own Councilmember Tommy Wells’s outspoken support for a tax increase.

He’s of course concerned about the safety net programs under the jurisdiction of the Human Services Committee he chairs. But the argument he’s making for progressive reforms in our tax system reaches beyond his turf.

His recent response to a DC for Democracy questionnaire echoes remarks he made during the last budget cycle. The Council, he observes, made “steep cuts in services for the most vulnerable…. My wife and I were not asked to make any sacrifice.”

Nor were my husband and I. But we’d pick up our share of the burden in a heartbeat. Because we know first-hand what a strong safety net can mean.

Back when that fire broke out, our safety net was homeowners insurance.

We called our agent as soon as the smoke cleared enough for us to get back in the house — and discover that we had no heat and a bedroom open to the great outdoors.

Within an hour, someone was on the phone telling us about reservations they’d made for us in a comfortable, centrally-located hotel. Our agent showed up with a check for incidental expenses.

The next day, someone else called us to talk about what sort of apartment we’d like and where. And someone else to tell us about the company’s arrangements for storing our belongings, sending our smoke-reeking clothes for specialized cleaning, even lining up a restoration expert for our beloved “art collection.”

Without this safety net, we’d have been literally homeless. In our car for the night, I guess. Then in separate shelters for men and women until we somehow located something more stable and secure — and figured out how we’d liquidate assets to pay for it.

My wish for the District is a safety net that’s as broad, responsive and individualized as ours. I understand this is pie in the sky.

But I hope that next Thanksgiving we’ll have a budget that puts a higher priority on basic human needs than on the investment portfolios of the wealthiest residents.

If you hope so too, Save Our Safety has an editable letter you can send to the Council. Or use the text to leave a message for Chairman Vincent Gray at 202-724-8032.

UPDATE: The Save Our Safety Net letter is now addressed only to Council Chairman Gray.


DC Safety Net Programs Stronger Than Most, But That’s Not Saying Much

October 11, 2010

You’re probably all familiar with the old vaudeville routine. “How’s your wife?” “In comparison to what?”

It came to mind as I read a new brief from the Institute on Women’s Policy Research that gives us hard facts and figures (mostly the latter) on how public benefits served poor women during this now officially-over recession.

On the one hand, the major benefits programs IWPR looks at — health insurance, food stamps and TANF cash assistance — reached only a fraction of the women in need. On the other hand, the District of Columbia did considerably better than most states and better than any of them with TANF.

Here’s a brief comparative summary.

Health Insurance. At first glance, health insurance programs look much stronger than the other two benefits programs. However, IWPR reports the total number of poor women who had health insurance in 2008.

Nationwide, 20% of those with coverage had it through their employer or a union or purchased it themselves. Only 28% had coverage through Medicaid or some other publicly-funded program specifically for poor people.

That said, more than 68% of poor women had some form of health insurance. Or flipping it over, as IWPR does, 31.7% didn’t.

Coverage at state levels varied widely. The District ranked second, with 9.6% lacking coverage — bested only by Massachusetts, whose health care reform program inspired major elements of the federal reform package. Texas ranked last, with 50.3% of poor women on their own for health care costs.

Food Stamps. According to the IWRP report, close to 62% of poor women didn’t get food stamps in 2008. The District delivered this main form of nutrition assistance to only 41.1% of its poor women residents.

Twenty states did better — led by Maine, with 56.4%. Not much of an achievement, but reflects some effort to overcome the challenges posed by outlying rural communities there. Not a mitigating factor for the District, of course.

TANF Cash Benefits. The biggest safety net holes here. No surprise given the major flaws in the program — insufficient federal funding, other incentives to reduce caseloads, inflexible work requirements, enthusiastic uses of financial sanctions and the lifetime eligibility limits adopted by most states.

Nationwide, a shocking 88% of poor women with children received no TANF cash benefits in 2008. The District ranked highest in the percentage supported, but all that took was reaching 39.7%. Far better than the 21 states that served fewer than 10%. But again not the kind of figure you’d like to celebrate.

The IWPR brief uses figures from the 2008 American Community Survey. As you may know, the Census Bureau has just released the 2009 ACS figures. Maybe, just maybe a reanalysis would produce less dismal results.

But what we’ve got here clearly indicates that major components of the safety net are letting large numbers of poor women and children crash to the ground. And try as I might, I don’t see the political will to save them.


At Least Would-Be Mayor Vincent Gray Is Honest

May 12, 2010

One thing I like about DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray. He’s honest when it comes to his mayoral campaign. Some months ago, I recall, he confessed he wasn’t sure he’d run because if he lost, he’d be out of a job.

Now another sterling instance of Gray’s candor. Feisty Save Our Safety Net volunteer Mike Wilson got in his face at a campaign event. Said he hoped the Chairman was with them on the proposed new top tax brackets. Gray said he shared some of their “sentiments.” But he wasn’t sure “the timing is the best.” Not because of the recession, but “well, the elections.”

Is he worried that a majority of D.C. residents would vote against him if he supported the tax increase? Only about 5% of them would have to pay more. A far larger percentage would be affected by the proposed cuts in safety net programs that the increase could avert.

Or is he afraid to get pounded with Mayor Fenty’s claim to have solved the budget gap without raising taxes? Gray has already said, in effect, that the mayor’s proposed budget is smoke and mirrors–putting himself forward as the leader who will, once again, produce a plan that “provides services in a fiscally responsible way.”

And he’s publicly stated his support for pre-K and child care programs for all D.C. infants and toddlers. This in contrast to the cuts the mayor has proposed.

So where will the revenues come from? Seems that Gray is still trying to figure that out. No harm there. But he’s had time enough to decide where he stands on a tax proposal that dates back to last year.

After all, he was quick to decide against one revenue-raising option. All it apparently took was a barrage of e-mails from riled-up health club members for him to announce that he wouldn’t be putting an expansion of the sales tax on the table.

I’ve admired Chairman Gray’s leadership, though I’ve not always agreed with the results. But now he seems preoccupied with how the political winds are blowing and keeping the people who fund campaigns happy–not to mention using the budget deliberations as an occasion for Fenty-bashing.

We need Councilmembers who will stand up for choices that serve the needs of our community as a whole. Will Gray measure up to the “character, integrity, leadership” he claims?


Protest Pits DC Sales Tax Expansion Against Safety Net

May 7, 2010

Just when I thought I’d heard everything comes an orchestrated groundswell of grassroots protest against the proposed expansion of the D.C. sales tax. Seems that relatively well-off fitness buffs are outraged that their gym memberships and yoga classes might be taxed.

The sales tax expansion is part of a package of revenue-raisers proposed by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and the more than 60 members of the Fair Budget Coalition. As they say, the sales tax hasn’t been updated to reflect the fact that people now purchase a wide variety of services, as well as the goods to which the tax applies.

If the DC Council doesn’t adopt some reasonable measures to increase tax revenues, the Fiscal Year 2011 budget will have to be balanced by devastating cuts in core programs and services.

We can get a glimpse of what this will mean in the mayor’s proposals for child care subsidies, adult education and training, affordable housing programs, community health services, legal aid for low-income residents and temporary cash assistance for those with severe disabilities.

Another glimpse, were one needed, in yesterday’s massive layoff of child welfare workers, including every one of those who provide much of the direct, day-to-day support for foster children and children at risk of removal from their families.

Yet at the very moment these workers were getting their pink slips, e-mails about the potential health club sales tax were flooding Councilmembers’ inboxes.

Whom will we hear from next? People who object to paying a few dollars more for private golf lessons, cleaning services for their hot tubs and professional advice on their closet space?


Save Our Safety Net Campaign Relaunched

March 26, 2010

The dark cloud over last year’s District budget deliberations had a silver lining. As I noted in my review of the Fair Budget Coalition’s new report, advocacy on behalf of low-income District residents shifted to a savvier strategy. Instead of just insisting on spending at or above prior levels, advocates offered recommendations for balancing program cuts with revenue-raisers.

At the same time, they reached out to engage a broader base of supporters, including a number of local congregations and small businesses. The campaign also birthed an online grassroots component–Save Our Safety Net. This was initially a one-time effort to raise awareness of pending cuts and let the DC Council hear from concerned constituents.

The Save Our Safety Net website has been relaunched as an ongoing source of information, stories and opportunities to weigh in. Unlike some more staid sites, it’s essentially a framework for diverse social media–original videos, tweets, petitions and, coming soon, a blog.

The SOS website aims to be a virtual community of individuals–a platform for voices that aren’t generally heard in the halls of the John A. Wilson building. The hope is to build an active coalition of residents whose lives are or have been affected by our local safety net programs and others who care about their well-being and the well-being of our community as a whole.

As with the FBC report, the bottom-line message is the need for a balanced approach to this year’s budget shortfall. Safety net programs have already taken more than their share of cuts–a total of $100 million, SOS says. It advocates instead a new top tax bracket for the city’s highest-income residents.

You can help give force to this message by signing the petition to the mayor on the site’s home page. And be sure to click the box(es) if you’ve received a safety net service and/or would be affected by the tax proposal. The latter, I think, is especially important.

We’ve heard a lot about how better-off residents and small businesses will flee to the suburbs if District taxes are made more progressive. We haven’t heard, but can reasonably assume that Mayor Fenty and DC Councilmembers are anxious about their re-election campaigns too.

They need to know that funding sources–for the city and for their campaigns–will do their share to save our already-tattered safety net. And that includes holding them accountable for how they choose to balance the budget.


Further Thoughts On Our Safety Net and the Deserving Poor

January 20, 2010

Awhile ago, New York Times reporter Jason DeParle wrote a first-rate piece on the patchwork of programs that passes for our safety net. Health care, housing, food stamps, cash assistance–each its own “separate bureaucratic world” with rules that often collide with others.

A recent symposium hosted by the Urban Institute took a deeper dive into the the sorry shape of our safety net and what we ought to do about it. For me, the biggest take-away was the explanation of the gaps and inconsistencies DeParle’s article illustrates.

The “jumble” we’ve got results in part from differing views of government over time–belief in a strong federal role during the Depression and again in the 1960’s, deference to states and the private sector taking hold in the 1990’s.

It’s also the product of conflicting values–fairness, individual freedom, family and community and, very importantly, self-reliance and the value of work. Taken as a whole, its goals are to protect the vulnerable and to provide both basic financial security and equal opportunity. But some programs focus on one and some on another. They can work at cross-purposes–even internally.

Still there’s a common thread. Benefits should go mainly–or exclusively–to those who deserve them. And the way you deserve them is by working or having worked.

Children are a partial exception here because benefits for them are designed to help them grow up to be workers. There are also some limited exceptions for people who we’ve decided can’t work through no fault of their own–for example, individuals with severe disabilities. Not included are people who face barriers like lack of skills, race discrimination and/or a criminal record. And, of course, recent immigrants are beyond the pale.

No panelist seemed inclined to question this notion of the deserving poor. As I’ve written before, Ron Haskins is a true believer. Not so Demetra Nightingale (source of the above). But she apparently believes that reforms to our safety net have to respect our existing framework of values, i.e., give primacy to the work ethic.

From a practical political perspective, she’s probably right. But I wish it were otherwise.

I’m not questioning the value of work. For me personally, it’s been a continuing source of personal fulfillment, connectedness and autonomy. So I’m all for programs that help people who want to work–and I believe most do–find employment that offers them reasonable security and satisfaction.

But I wonder about assigning value only to paying work. Why insist that self-sufficiency trumps contributing to the common good–that getting a paycheck makes one more deserving than raising a child or campaigning for a cause or cleaning up the neighborhood?

More basically, I’m troubled by the paradigm. By and large, we seem to view our safety net as an act of collective charity extended to individuals we deem worthy of our care. So we debate who is deserving and how much we can afford to dispense to them once we’ve taken care of other priorities.

What if we instead viewed the safety net as an essential component of our shared interest in a healthy, prosperous, humane community?

I realize this is a pie-in-the-sky notion for a country that’s built on a myth of rugged individuals boot-strapping their way up the economic scale, looking out for themselves and their families, responsible for all they and their forebears have amassed.

But I think we’d all be better off if we thought more about the welfare of the whole and less about who deserves welfare.

NOTE: For a bird’s-eye view of the complexities and internal conflicts in our safety net, take a look at the charts reproduced from Repairing the U.S. Safety Net, co-authored by Nightingale and her Urban Institute colleague Martha Burt.


Census Numbers Bad and Going To Be Worse

September 12, 2009

The Census Bureau’s 2008 report on income, poverty and health insurance coverage confirms what we already knew. The recession has pushed an enormous number of people into poverty. Between 2007 and 2008:

  • The number of people living below the federal poverty threshold increased by nearly 2.6 million–from 12.5% to 13.2% of the population.
  • The number of poor children increased to more than 14 million–19% of all children.
  • Nearly 34% of black children and 30.6% of Hispanic children were poor.
  • The number of children in deep poverty (below 50% of the poverty threshold) rose to nearly 6.3 million–8.5% of all children.

But this is only part of the story. The Coalition on Human Needs gives us a table that compares the most recent figures to the figures for 2000, just before the last recession set in. It shows that in 2008:

  • There were 8.2 million more poor people and nearly 2.5 million more poor children than in 2000.
  • The percentage of people in poverty was 1.9% higher and the percentage of poor children 3.2% higher.
  • The number of children in deep poverty was more than 1.6 million (2.1%) higher.

And that’s still only part of the story because the recession has deepened since 2008. Last year’s unemployment rate averaged 5.8%. It’s now at 9.7%. And economists foresee no turnaround until some time next year, if then.

The Economic Policy Institute projects that by 2010:

  • The poverty rate will have climbed to 15.1%–and to 31.6% for blacks.
  • More than one in four children will be living in poverty.
  • More than 46% of single-mother families will be below the poverty threshold–up from 37% in 2008.

Economists at the Brookings Institution have come to similar conclusions, though their numbers are slightly different. And they doubt the poverty rate will get back to its 2007 level during the next 10 years.

So, they say, the extra funds the economic stimulus package provides for disadvantaged families “will fade away long before the poverty rate is expected to peak.” We need to shore up the safety net for the long term, as well as to ensure that more people have the education and training they need to benefit from the opportunities the economy will ultimately provide.

Deborah Weinstein at CHN also calls both for continuing aid in the economic stimulus package and for investments that will create jobs and renew the economy. Failure to act, she says, will delay our further recovery. But it’s also “a moral wrong, since it causes preventable harm to vulnerable people.”

The harm she’s talking about speaks for itself in the poverty thresholds all these dire figures are based on. Nearly 40 million people below these thresholds–more than 17 million people at half or less than these.

Surely we can’t just tell these people to tighten their belts, keep on striving and wait for better days.


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