LaJuana Clark is a formerly homeless, still struggling District of Columbia resident. She spoke as the lead-off expert at a recent event the Coalition on Human Needs and partners sponsored to explore what we know works — and doesn’t — to reduce poverty and expand opportunity.
A big takeaway for me — and not only from her story — is the need for stability, why so many low-income people don’t have it and what policymakers could do about that. The story here, with a few policy remarks.
LaJuana had a job. She lost it, and the significant other she was living with kicked her out. So she slept on the street for a couple of nights and then in the apartment house lobby. She found a shelter to take her in, another job and an apartment.
Then her wages were garnished. So she couldn’t come up with the rent and was back on the streets. She’s in what the nonprofit operator calls an affordable housing community now — a source of stability, plus caseworker services.
She’s working toward an associate’s degree in information technology, while also working part-time as a security guard — trying, in other words, to become fully self-sufficient, while sufficing for herself to the extent she can.
But her employer cut back on her hours. So she’s earning about $1,000 a month — the current minimum wage in the District. She pays $200 of that to get to and from work and school. She’s presumably got to pay other costs for her IT training too.
She’s better off than many low-wage workers. She’s stably housed, at least for now. She’s got affordable health care because the District has expanded its Medicaid program, as the Affordable Care Act envisioned.
And she has no children — thus no childcare costs or needs to carve out time for kids. Nor needs to pay for their clothing, transportation, school supplies, etc.
If she gets sick, she’ll have some paid leave — another advantage to living in the District. But as a part-time worker for a small organization, she’ll probably have very little and perhaps no job if she’s got to take more time off from work anyway.
She could again have her work hours cut, even if she always shows up when scheduled. And her schedule could change at any time, perhaps creating conflicts with the hours she’s supposed to be in classes.
Even the fact she’s responsible for no one but herself has downsides. The federal Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, does very little for childless workers like her.
District now matches the federal credit. But that’s still a maximum of $506. And LaJuana will get less than that because the credit starts phasing out before earned income is enough to lift a single person over the federal poverty line.
So she’ll still hover just above it — if nothing further happens to destabilize her life. A big if, given what’s happened to her before.
CHN et al. hosted their poverty and opportunity event in response to the House Republicans’ anti-poverty plan — now commonly (and aptly) called House Speaker Ryan’s plan. Not surprisingly then, LaJuana was asked what she would say to him if she could.
“Put yourself in my shoes,” she said. “What would you do?” Not what we find in his plan — unless the allusion to increasing the EITC refers to expanding it for childless workers, a reform he earlier supported.
Supported, however, only with an offset that could make things worse for poor and near-poor people generally. And supported only as an alternative to raising the minimum wage.
LaJuana should count herself lucky that his views have no influence on District policymakers, who’ve already boosted the wage far above the federal and will now boost it to $15 an hour by 2020, plus further increases to keep pace with inflation.
Her question, however, is one that federal and state policymakers should ponder. They, after all, get paid a whole lot more than even the highest minimum wage, know their schedules far in advance and get paid even when they must (or choose to be) absent.
Some states and the District have moved on several fronts to provide low-wage workers and their families, if they have them, with some modicum of stability. Bills pending in Congress would afford them more stability no matter where they live.
I’ve got more to say about these, but will conclude here with a couple of general remarks.
As LaJuana’s story suggests, stability has many interlocking parts. Some are beyond the reach of public policies — relationships with significant others, for example. Others aren’t, e.g., the wage floor, how much pay workers can count on receiving.
Publicly-funded programs that fill in what wages won’t cover provide some stability too. LaJuana, for example, knows she’ll have food — at least most of the time — because she receives SNAP (food stamp) benefits.
We all need a fair degree of stability in our lives. Not only our well-being, but our productivity depends on it. We need stability to figure out what we want to achieve, plan how to get there and then follow through.
La Juana’s doing just what folks like Ryan want low-income people to do — working for pay, while trying to better her prospects by pursuing more education.
It’s what she wants to do — and surely what we want for her. But anyone who walks in her shoes would know that she wouldn’t have gotten as far as she has if she’d had to scramble for shelter every night and enough food to keep her going. Nor if she’d suffered from untreated illnesses, including those such hardships cause.
And anyone would know that she and many other low-wage workers need laws that give them more stability than they’ve got now.
NOTE: CHN has posted a video recording of the event. So you can hear what LaJuana and the other speakers had to say for themselves. See some interesting slides too.