House Republicans Set to Promote Single Motherhood

August 3, 2015

Seems the House will vote next month on budgets for the agencies lumped together as Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. Some increases, many cuts. Two of the latter would deny low-income women safe, reliable, affordable contraception.

There’s something extremely perverse about limiting women’s opportunities to postpone childbearing until they feel ready to fulfill — alone or with a spouse or partner — the heavy-duty responsibilities of motherhood.

Especially perverse, given all the expressed concern about single mothers, their dependency on welfare, how they’re breeding criminals, etc.

Labor-HHS-Education Overview

The House bill would cut total spending for the programs it includes by $3.7 billion. On top of cuts made since 2010, they’d have $29 billion (16%) less in real dollars, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

Republicans claim they’ve got no choice because the Budget Control Act caps spending on domestic programs subject to annual appropriations.

They could, of course, have adjusted the cap — or done away with it altogether — by adopting a more balanced approach to deficit reduction, as the President’s proposed budget would and Senate Democrats seem ready to insist on.

Cap aside, it’s still the case that the Appropriations Committee foisted the largest dollar cut — and the second largest percent cut — on Labor-HHS-Education.

Predictable Defunding of Health Care Reform

HHS would take a $216 million hit, as compared to its current budget. By far and away the largest part reflects a near-total block on spending related to the Affordable Care Act — a significant source of expanded health insurance coverage for birth control, as well as other preventive services.

Were the budget to become law, which it won’t, HHS could no longer operate health insurance exchanges in the 34 states that haven’t created their own — or in three others that use its infrastructure.

Hard to see how this wouldn’t mean loss of the subsidies that make health insurance affordable for low and moderate-income people — or the related measures that limit out-of-pocket costs for health care.

Low-income individuals and families could also wind up without affordable health care, including no-cost family planning services, because the Republicans’ bill effectively bars HHS from covering most of the costs of newly-eligible people in states that have expanded their Medicaid programs.

Hammering another nail into the coffin, the House bill would prohibit HHS from enforcing certain consumer protections.

These are intended to prevent insurance companies from denying coverage or charging higher premiums, based on health conditions or gender. They also require most companies to cover birth control, as well as numerous other preventive services at no extra charge.

Renewed Direct Attack on Family Planning Services

The Labor-HHS-Education bill would zero out funding for Title X of the Public Health Service Act — the source of grants to nonprofits and public agencies that provide free or low-cost family planning and certain other preventive services, e.g., screenings for sexually-transmitted diseases and for cervical and breast cancer.

They can’t use the funds for abortions. But earlier zero-funding efforts leave no doubt that House Republicans intend to cripple Planned Parenthood, which, as we all know, does perform abortions, using privately-donated funds and, in some limited cases, funds it can claim from Medicaid.

Now, I’m hardly the first to observe that if you object to abortions, then you should want women to have the option of effective, affordable birth control.

For women (and men) with incomes below the poverty line, Title X-funded services, including contraception, must, in most cases, be free. Somewhat over 70% of Title X family planning clients qualified in 2013, the latest year we’ve got official figures for.

Folding in the near-poor, we see that defunding Title X would jeopardize family planning and other reproductive health services for more than 4 million people, mostly women.

Roughly 3.5 million of them either began or continued using some form of contraception as a result of their last visit to a Title X center. Some who didn’t were pregnant or wanted to be.

Anti-Anti-Poverty Choice

Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill has persuasively argued that encouraging and enabling women to deliberately choose motherhood, rather than just “drifting” into it is a more realistic poverty prevention strategy than the patently unsuccessful efforts to promote marriage.

The end result would be fewer poor single mothers — thus fewer children growing up in poverty, with all the disadvantages that entails. Fewer women forced to compromise education and career goals too. Fewer at risk of depression and perhaps abuse.

Yet LARCs (long-acting, reversible contraceptives) — the surest protections against unplanned pregnancies — can reportedly cost as much as $1,000, counting only one followup visit after the initial insertion procedure.

That’s a formidable barrier for low-income women — or rather, would be without effectively enforced ACA requirements, expanded Medicaid coverage and family planning services covered by Title X.

What Next?

It’s doubtful that the final budget for the upcoming year will deny all funds to Title X. The Senate’s Labor-HHS-Education bill — still in an earlier stage than the House bill — would allocate $257.8 million to the program.

This, however, would represent a cut of roughly $27.8 million. Even level funding would almost surely mean less available for services because program costs rise, much as our own living costs do.

What next year’s budget will look like is anybody’s guess, especially because the President has said he’ll veto any spending bill that reflects the caps.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans — not quite all, however — have decided to make a cheap political gesture, before the pseudo-scandal stales, by denying federal funds of any sort to Planned Parenthood — the largest of our nonprofit family planning providers.

“[H]ard to see other clinics stepping in to fill the gap,” Vox health care blogger Sarah Kliff remarks. Indeed. We probably won’t see that sort of gap, however — at least, not right away.

But we won’t see enough funding for affordable family planning and other preventive healthcare services either.

UPDATE: I’ve learned that the Senate Labor-HHS-Education bill has cleared the full Appropriations Committee. So it is as far along as the House bill.

 

 


Housing Vouchers Best Solution for Family Homelessness

July 30, 2015

Here in the District of Columbia — and elsewhere — we’ve had a lot of back-and-forth on rapid re-housing as a tool for ending homelessness. No one doubts that it ends homelessness for awhile, since participants get a short-term subsidy to help cover rent.

The issue is rather whether they can get their act together to the point they can pay full rent when their subsidies expire — generally, at the end of a year, though in some communities up to 18 months.

A study for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests families often can’t — at least, not for very long.

The study was one of those controlled experiments. Researchers gave homeless families in twelve communities one of three types of housing assistance that moved them out of shelters. A fourth group got only the “usual care” the community offered, e.g., more time in the shelter, some supportive services.

Which form of assistance families got, if any had nothing to do with their past history or other characteristics that could affect their near-term prospects, e.g., parental employment, health.

The researchers then looked at how they were faring a year and a half later. Forty-seven percent of the rapidly re-housed reported they’d recently been homeless or living doubled up with friends or family members because they couldn’t afford rent on their own.

This is statistically no different from what families who’d gotten no housing aid reported. By contrast, only 22% of families who’d gotten regular indefinite-term housing vouchers had again been without a home of their own.

So in the simplest sense, the study, which is still ongoing, confirms what most advocates have long said. The best solution for family homelessness is affordable housing. Most wouldn’t be homeless if they just had enough help to pay rent.

Families may also benefit from services, but they generally don’t need what the researchers term “specialized homeless-specific psychosocial services” — an underlying assumption of at least some “usual care” and transitional housing programs.

The study, however, tells us more than this. Families secure in their housing because their vouchers didn’t have fixed end dates fared better on a range of well-being measures.

For example:

  • Fewer children in the securely-housed families had been placed in foster care or sent to live with a relative.
  • Fewer parents reported psychological distress or showed measurable signs of substance abuse.
  • Half as many experienced violence by an “intimate partner,” presumably what most of us refer to as domestic violence.
  • Fewer families suffered from food insecurity, i.e., couldn’t always afford enough for everyone to eat enough (or perhaps anything).

Turning — as of course, one must — to cost issues, we learn that housing vouchers were cheaper than either rapid re-housing or transitional housing.

These are direct costs only. Families with housing vouchers cost, on average, a tad more than those in rapid re-housing once the services they received because they sought them out are factored in — roughly $136.50 more per month.

Emergency shelter, plus “usual care” services cost far more. And interestingly, the services accounted for 63% of the total. Not a great ROI on that investment, it seems.

The president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness says it’s misleading to compare voucher costs to those of “crisis interventions.” This seems reasonable on its face because voucher costs were — and will be — ongoing.

And it’s just the sort of thing one would expect from the head of an organization that’s heavily invested in promoting rapid re-housing. But rapid re-housing has been sold as an effective strategy for ending homelessness, not a short-term solution, as she now says.

Followers may recall questions I raised about the rapid re-housing success rate that the District’s prime homeless services contractor reported — and the former head of the Department of Human Services cited.

That rate reflected only the percent of rapidly re-housed families that hadn’t again sought shelter through the District’s intake system, as Marta Berensin and other attorneys at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless have noted.

Most other reported success rates have a similar limit.

Things look quite different when we factor in families who started couch-surfing when their short-term housing subsidies expired — and others who became homeless, but didn’t return to the “system” that had failed to solve their problem before.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the District’s local equivalent envision a time when homelessness will be “rare, brief and non-recurring.” For some families, rapid re-housing may, by this definition, end homelessness.

But for most, subsidies that make housing affordable for the long term seem the answer — at least, among the options the HUD study assessed. Other measures to rebuild and preserve the dwindling stock of affordable housing belong in the mix too.

Because high housing costs, plus low wages and even lower publicly-funded benefits are the main problem, not personal “psychosocial” problems that need fixing.


Benefits of Overtime Rule Reform Not Only More Jobs or More Pay

July 27, 2015

My post on the Obama administration’s proposed overtime rule reform focused mainly on how it could benefit low-wage workers, even though the current rule already entitles most of them to overtime pay. For them, I argued, the story is more jobs — or perhaps in some cases, more full-time jobs.

Employers would create these jobs, rather than pay one-and-a-half times the salary rate for workers they could no longer classify as overtime-exempt. How those workers view the new rule deserves some attention too.

TalkPoverty.org profiles a woman who works for a national auto supply chain. She’s a manager and travels around, remodeling stores. She puts in 50 to 70 hours a week, but gets paid just the same as if she worked no more than 40 — just over $40,000 a year.

“I’m just so beat down,” she says. “I’m 100 pounds heavier than when I started the job.” The post nevertheless focuses on what she’d do if paid for her extra hours, as the proposed rule would require.

Well, she wants the money — needs it actually because she’s defaulting on loans her daughter took out to pay for college.

Her children are all grown now, and she apparently doesn’t have a husband or partner to come home to. She still, I suppose, has personal relationships and interests outside of work — or wishes she did.

But it seems she’d prefer the grueling scheduling — and the aforementioned impacts on her health — to adjusted duties, which might be what her employer chooses instead of paying her roughly $30,000 more a year for overtime.

Yet many workers, I think, will welcome the new overtime rule because it will mean fewer hours on the job — and lower out-of-pocket costs too. Consider what it would mean for our auto supply chain manager if her five children still lived at home.

She’d have to pay someone to care for them in the late afternoon and early evening yours, assuming they were all old for school. After-school care alone costs at least $1,100 or so — and as much as about $8,200 — per child, Child Care America reports.

And then there’d be the costs of having someone pick the kids up and care for them till next morning when she was out of town.

Alternatively, she might orchestrate care by friends, relatives and/or neighbors — generally a stressful juggling exercise. Can be guilt-ridden too, for reasons I don’t suppose I need to spell out.

Stress and guilt are both likely, I think, regardless of children, especially when overtime is unpredictable and mandatory. At least one in five workers who’d become non-exempt under the proposed rule can’t refuse to work extra hours if they want to keep their jobs. An even higher portion for those in the auto supply chain manager’s salary bracket.

These are the sorts of things that lead another woman to say that the new overtime rule “would have made everyone a lot happier in their job” if it had been in effect when she also was working as many as 70 hours a week keeping a small, short-staffed dollar store running.

Happiness in this case would have resulted from her employer’s keeping overtime in check, rather than shell out thousands of dollars more than it would have cost to have enough other workers for the low-skill tasks she had to shoulder.

We’re going to hear more about work/life balance, it seems. Jeb Bush has already set off fireworks with his remark that Americans will have to work longer hours for the economy to grow at the rate he’s promised. He’s since walked it back, but not altogether persuasively.

Clinton’s tack on growth includes, among other things, policies that would draw more women into the workforce. She alludes to higher — and equal — wages.

She also cites policies that would enable women to work “without worrying every day about how they are going to take care of their children or … a family member who gets sick” — mandatory paid sick and family leave, affordable child care and “fair scheduling.”

The last apparently refers to schedules workers know well in advance and can count on, rather than the irregular, on-and-off hours that make life so difficult for many employed by restaurants and other retail businesses.

Clinton mentions the proposed overtime rule, but as a fair pay issue, i.e., a measure to increase income. I think it also belongs in the “family-friendly” category.

I understand that some workers want — and need — all the extra income the new rule might enable them to earn. But others would welcome relief from ongoing compulsory overtime.

I know I would have. And I didn’t have children to arrange care for — and feel guilty about because I wasn’t there to help with homework, cheer at the dance recital or soccer game, etc.

The Labor Department would like to know how you who’d become eligible for overtime view the proposed reform. Likewise those of you who would have been eligible if it had been in place before.

It invites us to comment on the proposal. And having eyeballed the comments posted thus far, I’ll tell you those business associations whose gloom-and-doom predictions I earlier cited are rallying their members.

Those who support the proposal can also sign on to a petition the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress Action Fund have launched. Signers can add a personal story about how the reform would help them.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the National Partnership for Women and Families has its own petition, calling specifically for a rule “finalized as is,” i.e., not watered down to placate the business interests that want no rule change at all.

Go for it!

 

 


Low-Income Moms Weigh in on Child Nutrition Programs

July 23, 2015

My, it seems like only yesterday that Congress reauthorized the Child Nutrition Act. Yet here we are again, with hearings, proposals, petitions and behind-closed-doors presentations that will determine the shape and reach of many of our major federal nutrition assistance programs — perhaps before year’s end.

Last week, we heard from experts of a different sort — two low-income mothers who know first-hand how the child nutrition programs work. And though both had thoughts about how they could work better, the big message was that they do work — for moms, as well as kids.

The experts are Witnesses to Hunger — participants in grassroots groups brought together by Professor Mariana Chilton of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities. They bear witness to food insecurity and hunger, but also a range of other poverty-related issues.

They’re given cameras to shoot photos that capture something significant about their lives. They collaborate to create exhibits and choose issues to advocate on.

And they speak truth to power in hearings, meetings and other forums where policymakers who choose to can learn how the decisions they’ve made affect low-income families — and how those they could make would.

The CNA comprises nine federal programs that subsidize meals, snacks and serve-at-home foods and beverages for poor and near-poor children, parents and, in some cases, elderly and/or disabled adults.

The two Witnesses — Quanda and Tianna — focused largely on school meal programs and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

Witnesses collectively, however, have an agenda for the CNA reauthorization that also includes both summer meal programs and a WIC offshoot that enables some participants to get coupons or the equivalent for purchases at farmers’ markets.

Quanda opened the discussion by saying, “I love WIC.” Her first and seemingly foremost reason wasn’t, as we might expect, the supplement that enabled her to afford more than her SNAP (food stamp) benefits cover.

Rather, it was what she learned about “how to eat” so as to nourish her unborn child and why she should breastfeed her — something she says she wouldn’t have done without the education and practical how-to WIC staff provided.

She’s grateful for the supplement too, however. WIC enabled her to resume looking for work, which meant no more breastfeeding — and thus the need for a store-bought substitute. Without WIC formula coupons, she would have had to spend more than half her SNAP benefits just for the cans.

The burden would have been even greater when she learned, thanks to WIC staff, that she would have to buy an alternative to regular milk for her second child because his acute digestive problems were symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Life was still very tough, especially after he was born, and she was trying to care for her family with only their nutrition benefits and cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — probably $618 a month, since she lives in Boston.

“I am single,” Quanda said — not simply because she’s unmarried, but because she “can’t go to anyone.” She has “no mother, grandmother or boyfriend” to turn to. No such source of emotional support. No handed-down wisdom.

At times, she’d lie on her bed crying, tempted to “give up…. Nobody told me how I would feel.” But her caseworker apparently stepped into the breach. “If the programs weren’t in place, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “They say it takes a village to raise a child. I use the programs as my village.”

Quanda’s story seems likely to have a happy ending. She’s earned a teaching certificate and has a full-time job in early childhood education. Her children are in school now.

The free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches they get there ensure they have enough of the right kinds of things to eat, even at the end of the month, when her SNAP benefits run short, since they have to cover only dinners — at least, on weekdays when school is in session.

The story could have been quite different. “Hunger and food insecurity are a brain disease,” Chilton told us. During infancy, the brain’s neurons, i.e., its specialized messaging cells, proliferate interconnections exponentially.

But without the needed nutrients, development slows. And what doesn’t happen in early childhood won’t be made up for later.

Not long after I started this blog, I published a post, based in part on a brief by Children’s HealthWatch that summarized what was then the latest scientific evidence of WIC’s effectiveness in promoting the health and development of very young children.

I focused mainly on funding, which is still an issue, and on the need for Congress to require more fruits and vegetables in the package states must use in deciding which specific foods and beverages — and how much of each — they’ll enable parents to buy with their benefits.

The package provides for more more fruits and vegetables now. Witnesses would still like “[m]ore fruits and veggie checks,” i.e., coupons or credits they could use in grocery stores. They want more milk for older children also. And electronic benefits cards in states that still issue coupons.

These are the sorts of specific improvements that people who participate in our safety net programs can best identify.

What struck me so about what the two Witnesses said, however, was their emphasis on the broader child and family health orientation that distinguishes WIC, including their relationships with counselors. The benefits here are only partly reflected in the health data research provides.

The moms clearly want, more than anything, to see their children thrive — emotionally, as well as physically. They want to see them grow into adults who have fulfilling jobs and more financial security than they have had.

Advocacy is part of this. “We tell our stories,” Tianna said, “so our children will not walk in the same steps we do.” This is why they’re speaking out on the CNA programs they know best.

WIC, says Quanda, can help millions of moms like her “create a strong foundation for … [their] kids to break the cycle of poverty.” Seems to me that ought to resonate with policymakers across the political spectrum.

 

 

 

 


Census Bureau Busts Myths (Again)

July 20, 2015

You know the myths well, I suppose. Safety net benefits trap recipients in poverty — an assertion cagily repeated by the House Agriculture Committee Chairman just a few weeks ago. They’re a spider web, Presidential candidate Jeb Bush opines.

A new Census Bureau report tells us otherwise. About a third of the people who participated in one or more of our major safety net programs did so for a year or less during a recent four-year period that includes part of the Great Recession.

About the Report

The Census report updates a very similar program participation report issued about three years ago. Both use an ongoing survey of a sample of American households. So it’s possible to track entries into and exits from major safety net programs over time.

The report focuses on people who benefited from any of six programs that limited eligibility based, at least in part, on income — Medicaid, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program, SNAP (the food stamp program), SSI (Supplemental Security Income), housing assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, lumped together with dwindling general assistance programs.

Many, many numbers in the report — some in the text, even more in graphs. It’s hard — for me, at least — to tease out what they tell us from a policy perspective. I’ve nevertheless taken a crack at it, as follows.

Not Much Program Growth

Participation rates in the six programs rose somewhat from 2009 to 2011, but then leveled off. In 2012, slightly more than one in five people (21.3%) participated in at least one.

Medicaid had the highest average monthly participation rate, increasing from 13.9% in 2009 to 15.3% in 2012. States that chose to expand their Medicaid programs presumably accounts for this.

On the other hand, the participation rate for housing assistance remained basically flat, at 4.2%. And the rate for TANF/General assistance ticked down to a paltry 1% in 2012. Not much of a safety net there for the poorest among us.

Deterrents to Work

The new Census figures don’t deliver a clear rebuttal to the claims that safety net programs discourage beneficiaries from working. They do, however, tell us a few relevant things.

First and foremost, by far and away the high percent of beneficiaries are under 18 — most presumably too young to work. In an average month during 2012, slightly over 39% of safety net beneficiaries were in this age group. That’s well over double the participation rate for working-age adults.

Among them, 33.5% of those who were unemployed participated in at least one safety net program during the four-year period. This is more than 10% higher than the rate for their peers who weren’t counted as part of the labor force because they were neither working nor actively seeking work.

Hard to Live on Those Benefits

Anyone who thinks the safety net is a comfortable hammock ought to take a look at the Census Bureau’s findings on benefits. During the four-year period, the median benefit for all six programs was $404 a month, adjusted for inflation.

The median is skewed upward by SSI benefits, with a median of $698 a month — about 75% of the federal poverty line for a single person.

Other major cash and near-cash benefits drag the overall median down. TANF/GA participants received a median of $321 a month.

Cycling In and Out

Long about the time the Census Bureau issued its report, Vox published a post by a working woman who’s angry as all get out because people look down on her for participating in SNAP.

She says, among other things, that she doesn’t “do it all the time” — only when she can’t pay her bills and also buy food for her family. She’s never participated for more than 18 months at a stretch.

We can’t see this sort of cycling in and out in the figures the Bureau reports. But we do see something that suggests it — and more clearly, the cycling out part.

Fewer than half the people who participated in any of the safety net programs did so for more than three of the four years the report covers. Variation there, depending on program — from 49.4% for housing assistance to 9.8% for TANF/GA.

At the same time, TANF/GA racked up by far and a way the highest percent participating for no more than a year. This doesn’t, of course, mean that states’ TANF program do a great job at moving poor parents from welfare to work that pays enough to support them and their children.

It could indicate how very low some states set their income cut-offs for continuing eligibility and/or their success at cutting their caseloads by other means, e.g., with sanctions that effectively bump families out of their programs or extremely short time limits, a strategy some Red states have adopted.

It surely does, however, suggest that families don’t linger in TANF because those benefits afford them such a comfortable hammock. Or snare them in “perpetual dependence” because they’d lose the cash and have to pay higher taxes if they moved up the income ladder. (Quoting Bush again here.)

So far as SNAP is concerned, less than a third (30.4%) of those who received them did so for more than a year — whether for 12 months running or some months at one point, some months later we can’t tell.

Another 38.6% participated for three to four years. This could indicate, among other things, under-employment — not failures to work by those who could be expected to, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says.

We know, from other sources, that it indicates rock-bottom earnings by fast-food workers and many in the retail sales sector.

Will any of this make a difference to policymakers who evince such concern about how our safety net programs discourage work — and are growing by unsustainable leaps and bounds? A rhetorical question. Yet the rest of us — some policymakers included — can come to a better understanding of how dynamic “the dynamics of economic well-being” in this country are, thanks to the Census analysis.


What Would Overtime Reform Mean for Low-Wage Workers?

July 16, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the Obama administration’s proposed overtime rule reform — specifically, how it would affect low-wage workers, if at all.

Short answer is that it wouldn’t affect them directly. The main reason is that most are paid by the hour, which automatically qualifies them for one-and-a-half times their regular wage if they work more than 40 hours in a week. Not that they always get paid for overtime, mind you. But that’s a separate issue.

The proposed rule also wouldn’t directly affect workers whose take-home pay reflects a salary, rather than an hourly rate, if it’s no more than $23,660 — less than would lift a family of four above the federal poverty line. These poor and near-poor workers are already entitled to overtime pay.

Nor should the proposal affect workers who get paid more, but whose “primary duties” don’t meet specific tests, e.g., involve executive functions or exercising “discretion and independent judgment” on “matters of significance” to the overall management or business of the operation.

Workers whose primary duties don’t meet any of the tests are supposed to get overtime pay under the current rule. Many don’t, however, because the tests enable employers to exempt workers whom no reasonable person would consider executives or administrators with the scope and independence the test seems to call for.

The license employers have to exempt large portions of their white-collar workforce is not an unintended consequence of the rulemaking process.

I recall well when the Bush administration’s Labor Department moved to update the overtime rule. Fast food restaurant companies — through their associations and directly behind closed doors — lobbied hard for broad exemption criteria, unrelated to the amount of time a worker spent on those primary duties. Other business interests did the same.

They got what they wanted. So, for example, an assistant restaurant manager who spends most of her time pitching in where crew members can’t keep up could get no extra pay for doing the same things they do, but for 50 or 60 hours a week if she merely makes sure that at least two of them do what they’re supposed to and tells her higher-ups whom she thinks they should hire, fire and/or promote.

The proposed rule doesn’t alter the duties tests, though the Labor Department considered doing that and asks for comments on whether they “work as intended.”

Instead, it simply raises the pay threshold to what it would have been if it had kept pace with consumer price inflation during the last 40 years — probably $50,400 when the final rule becomes effective. The new threshold would then rise so that it continued to correspond to the 40th percentile of all weekly wages.

So the proposed rule might seem irrelevant to low-wage workers, except those whose salaries are at or barely above the current threshold. But it’s likely to affect them — just as the current rule does, but in the opposite way.

Basically, the current version enables employers to hire fewer workers than they’d otherwise need for routine tasks like cleaning floors, restocking shelves and checking on backroom inventories by shifting those tasks to “executive” staff, who have to do at least some of them for free.

Today, only about 7.6% of retail supervisors qualify for overtime, based on their salaries, the Economic Policy Institute has reported. The proposed rule would cover somewhat over 56% — and roughly 79.5% of first-line restaurant supervisors like the overworked, underpaid assistant manager.

Hard for me to see how this would not induce employers to hire more workers for those routine tasks — or in some cases, convert part-time to full-time jobs.

That’s a far cry from what the associations that lobby on behalf of affected businesses say. The proposed rule would have “a significant job-killing effect,” the National Retail Federation warns.

It also claims that the proposed rule would “force” companies to downgrade positions and to rely more on part-time, entry-level workers — halfway acknowledging, without intending to, that they’ve been relying on exempt employees to do what entry-level workers could.

The Chamber of Commerce predicts something similar — lost benefits, flexibility, status and opportunities. Here again, we’re given to understand that employers will respond by cutting back on lower-level salaries positions they’ve classified as exempt.

The Chamber also alleges harms to small businesses in particular. This, I take it, is because we’re supposed to have a soft spot in our hearts for mom and pop operations and those risk-taking entrepreneurs oft-heralded (somewhat misleadingly) as our leading job creators.

If these doomsday prophecies sound familiar, that’s because they’re very similar to what the associations and some of their members say about any and all minimum wage increases, as well as other policy changes that would make life better for low-wage workers, e.g., mandatory paid sick leave.

We’ve had minimum wage increases, of course. Numerous studies have found little or no effect on employment. In the relatively few states and cities that require paid sick leave, employers seem to be doing just fine.

Now, we’re a long way from a final rule that updates federal overtime requirements. What the Department of Labor ultimately issues could look quite different. How businesses will respond is simply unknowable, association warnings notwithstanding.

We can guess, however, that they’ll respond in different ways. They may reduce salaries so as to pay non-exempt workers the same total amount, once estimated time-and-a-half is factored in. Probably not, however, for workers already on board.

They may, as an NRF-commissioned study hypothesizes, cut bonuses and benefits, risking the loss of their most qualified workers and prospects, unless all their competitors follow suit.

They may instead make no such adjustments. They’d then probably put tighter controls on overtime. Some could, I suppose, boost worker productivity such that more gets done during a 40-hour work week.

Only so much more they can do on that score, however, especially when tasks can’t be automated. If they can be, they probably will be anyway, so long as that doesn’t bust the budget.

But I’m still inclined to think that a goodly number of employers will hire more workers to compensate for the loss of unpaid labor. The overtime rule update will thus be a job creator. Happy to see that at least one labor economist thinks so too.

 

 

 


Homeless Hard to Find, Hard to Help in Rural Areas

July 13, 2015

We who live in major urban areas have some awareness of homelessness in our midst, even if we’re not actively involved in related services or advocacy. Here in the District of Columbia, for example, we’re likely to see homeless people on the streets or huddled at Metro stations.

And we’ve got two daily newspapers that regularly report on homelessness, not to mention blogs (ahem). We can also know something about homelessness in other large urban areas. Fellow New York Times subscribers, for example, will frequently come upon relevant facts and figures, as well as personal profiles.

But what about homelessness in and around the small towns tucked up in the mountains and dotting the flatlands we see when we drive the interstates?

We know, I suppose, that there’s some desperate poverty there. But for most of us, that’s probably about it — even those who live in states with large or many rural areas.

The issue here isn’t just what we know, but what policymakers and government agencies know and what, assuming they care, they can do.

The Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline takes up rural homelessness, which, it says, states struggle with. I’m not persuaded all do, though they surely should. Yet the challenges they face are formidable.

To begin with, it’s unusually hard to get a fix on how many homeless people live in rural areas. I’ve written before about flaws in the one-night counts that Continuums of Care must make as a condition of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants they coordinate.

But there are volunteers out there counting. And COCs in major metro areas don’t have all that much turf to cover. They also have an easier time because they have networks of shelters and, in some cases, transitional housing, i.e., limited-term housing with services.

They’re required to keep — and regularly report — data on homeless people in these, as well as others that projects within their ambit serve. So no one has to actually tour every shelter and transitional housing facility for the one-night count.

States allocate the homeless assistance funds they get from HUD based on population, Stateline says. So there are fewer COCs in rural communities. One may have responsibility for coordinating such programs and services as exist in a broad swath of their state.

And for the same reason, as well as others, homeless people are harder to find because the undercounts translate into under-funding for shelters and housing specifically for homeless people. Which, of course, translates into further undercounts.

Rural areas pose other challenges for homeless people and the organizations that could serve them — transportation, for example.

The nearest shelter may be many miles from the field where a homeless family is camping out. A public agency that could connect the family to a source of housing assistance or other benefits that would improve its financial situation may also be many miles away — and nowhere near the shelter.

Needless to say (I hope), no caseworkers can do outreach so extensive as to find them. The family may not know it could get help. It might need persuasion to seek it. Many homeless people in rural areas are ashamed, Stateline says, citing advocates.

Such shame is hardly unique to poor people in non-metro areas, but perhaps it’s more common. I can think of reasons why that might be, e.g., isolation, deeply-ingrained values like self-reliance.

Stateline highlights three state-level efforts to address rural homelessness. The two that are actually state initiatives focus — or focused — on increasing the stock of affordable housing. This, of course, is the prime solution advocated for homelessness generally.

Developing new affordable housing shouldn’t pose special problems in some rural areas. Fredricksburg, Virginia, for example, where Stateline found individuals to profile, is a small town only an hour or so drive from the state capital in one direction and the nation’s capital in another.

Out in the hinterlands, however, developers don’t have much interest in constructing housing, a rural expert at a national affordable housing advocacy nonprofit says. They’d face problems due to inadequate (or no) “municipal infrastructure,” e.g., sewers, water lines, roads their heavy equipment could traverse to sites.

Yet new affordable housing would have to be widely dispersed to help end homelessness among people living in our country’s vast farmlands.

Many homeless people are employed, Stateline says. Doubtful they’d move to gain affordable housing at the risk of having no work. This, I think, would be an extraordinarily high risk for farmworkers. Yet homeless many are — if not officially, then by any reasonable standard.

Some years ago, The New York Times reported eight migrant farmworkers spending nights in a single motel room. As many as a dozen packed into a trailer. These workers don’t qualify as homeless, according to the definition COCs must use.

Nor do somewhat better-off people in rural areas. They’ve got housing, but it’s very old — and in some cases, apparently not all that well-built to begin with. It’s in constant need of major repairs.

Eventually, it can become so dilapidated that people can’t live in it any more — and become homeless, the head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition says.

What’s true for homeowners is also true for farmworkers. A third of the housing for them is “either moderately or severely substandard,” e.g., without hot water, a functional heating system and/or a roof that keeps the rain out, the National Rural Housing Coalition reports.

Yet they’re in places meant for human habitation and so not homeless. Other farmworkers officially are. The New York Times reporter found some sleeping in garages, tool sheds, caves and in the fields.

In short, homelessness and egregiously inadequate housing are a problem in rural areas. Public agencies and nonprofits face some unique challenges there.

Neither our policies nor the related funding streams seem altogether suitable. And it’s doubtful they will be so long as the problem remains at best half-hidden. Remedies for that are a challenge in themselves.

Note: I’m indebted to friend and former guest blogger Matt McKillop, now a research officer at Pew, for alerting me to the Stateline article. I invite any and all of you to contribute grist for my mill. It would not only educate me, but let me know what you find interesting — something I ponder.

 


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