My Blog Turns Two

December 6, 2010

Today is my blog’s second birthday. An occasion for me to thank all of you who’ve been reading what I write. Special thanks to the many of you who’ve contributed — through your comments, your analyses and your generous responses to my many questions.

In some ways, it’s also an occasion for me to celebrate. When I started this blog, I was plunging into the unknown. Had no idea whether I could sustain it, no clear plan beyond the next posting and no knowledge whatever about some of the issues I’ve addressed.

And now I’m writing my 250th posting, with some sense of presence, purpose and place in the interlocking advocacy communities I so admire.

In another way, it’s not an occasion to celebrate. My first posting was about how the DC Council had rebalanced the Fiscal Year 2009 budget with spending cuts that disproportionately affected low-income residents.

And here we are two years later with the Council considering a plan that would achieve nearly 40% of its savings by cuts in programs that serve them.

That first posting focused on a couple of issues — affordable housing and cash benefits for participants in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The cuts on the table now would be worse.

The Local Rent Supplement Program would lose $3 million. Once again, a small approved increase would be rescinded. No new housing vouchers for any of the 26,000 households on the waiting list. No additional support for new affordable housing development.

Funds in reserve would also be cut. So some who have vouchers might lose them as housing costs rise and/or the incomes of beneficiaries drop.

The first TANF benefits cut I wrote about rescinded a small just-approved increase. This time, maximum benefits, which have remained level ever since, would be reduced by 20% for all families who’ve participated for a total of more than five years.

Perhaps the Council will reject these proposed cuts. But it’s sad that we’re once again fighting the same battles. Sadder that victory would mean significantly less funding, in real terms, for these and other programs that serve low-income people.

Even so, there’s something to celebrate.

Local service and advocacy organizations have risen to the challenge. They’ve expanded their reach, developed new messaging and organizing capacities and perhaps most importantly advanced well beyond a “just say no” defense of the diverse programs that affect them and their clients.

The very fact that they’ve coalesced around a new top income tax bracket and gotten it into the gap-closing dialogue — both within the Council and beyond — indicates how far they’ve come in the last two years. If only we could say the same for our low-income neighbors.

New York City Mayor Aims To Restrict Food Stamp Choices

October 18, 2010

New York City Mayor Bloomberg has made campaigns against unhealthy diets a personal cause — highly personal, we gather, as is often the case with people who battle their own health demons.

Back in 2006, Bloomberg’s administration led the country in prohibiting restaurants from serving foods containing artery-clogging trans fats. Next it became the first to mandate calorie counts on chain restaurant menus and menu boards. Next came a crusade against the sodium content in processed foods.

Bloomberg then zeroed in on soft drinks. In March, he voiced his support for a statewide penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks that New York Governor Patterson proposed after backing off a similar revenue-raiser last year.

Now he’s in the news again with a plan to prohibit New York City residents from using food stamps to purchase soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

For this he needs approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He’s proposing the ban as a two-year experiment to see whether it has a positive impact on food stamp recipients’ health — presumably by getting them to switch to more nutritious choices.

This is quite different from Bloomberg’s other campaigns. They sought to improve the diets of all New Yorkers — rich, poor and in between.

True, the soft drink tax would disproportionately affect low-income consumers. But the food stamp restriction is still different. It would single poor people out for a novel experiment in behavioral modification. No voluntary consent here.

Nor any assurance it will work. Researchers at USDA looked at the strategy three years ago and concluded that disallowing an “unhealthful” food choice “may have limited effectiveness.” Recipients may continue buying the forbidden item with their own money. Or they may just switch to other items that deliver little more by way of nutritional value.

So perhaps people with a sweet tooth will cut back on other expenditures we consider essential rather than forego one of the few indulgences within their reach. Or maybe they won’t buy so many Cokes, but go for Hershey bars and Twinkies instead. I suppose Bloomberg would say we’ll find out if he’s allowed to proceed with his experiment.

The truth of the matter, however, is that he’s proposing the soft drink ban as a test to bring it within the ambit of “demonstration projects” because it would otherwise be clearly impermissible under federal law. Joel Berg, Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, says it’s still illegal.

USDA may think so too. In 2004, it denied a somewhat similar request by Minnesota in part because the proposed ban would “stigmatize food stamp recipients.”

Denying them — and only them — free choice in the grocery aisles “would perpetuate the myth that participants [in the program] do not make wise food purchasing decisions,” while research indicates they tend to be as “smart shoppers” as higher-income consumers.

To me, this comes close to the heart of the issue. Why should poor people be semi-coerced to eat more healthfully than the rest of us?

Granted, our taxpayer dollars pay for food stamps. So we’re subsidizing consumption of high-sugar beverages, which are said to be a leading factor in the rising rates of overweight and obesity. This means they’re also partly responsible for rising health care costs. We taxpayers bear the burden of these too.

But obesity isn’t a problem among low-income people alone. They do overall have a higher body-mass index (the common measure for healthy and unhealthy weights) than higher income groups. But, as the Food Research and Action Center reports, research shows that the risk varies by age, gender and race/ethnicity.

More importantly, higher-income groups are catching up with the poorest sector of the population. If soft drinks are the big culprit here, why not ban them for everyone?

We all know the answer. That’s why Bloomberg chose to limit his new initiative to those with the least political power — and to keep the issue out of the legislature, where the soft drink industry, its allies and influential nutrition policy experts could probably quash it.

If he wants to run an experiment, he’s got fairer and more promising alternatives. How about boosting food stamp benefits to see if recipients buy more fresh fruits and vegetables when they can afford them?

Rental Housing Grows Less Affordable For Low-Income Households

May 6, 2010

For 10 years now, the National Low Income Housing Coalition has issued annual reports on the affordability of rental housing in the U.S. It’s just released the latest. And the news is not good–either nationwide or here in the District of Columbia.

No surprise, given what we read in the papers and in other reports, like the recent update from the Center on Housing Policy. But NLIHC provides a unique perspective and alarming figures.

Though the rental unit vacancy rate is up, demand is also up, due to the continuing foreclosure and employment crises. And though, in most states, the minimum wage increased last year, there is still no state in which someone working full-time, year-round at a minimum wage can afford even a one-bedroom apartment at the applicable fair market rent. (The affordability measure here is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s standard 30% of income.)

The news is even worse for extremely low-income people, i.e., those whose incomes are at or below 30% of the median average for their area. Nationwide, there are an estimated 9.2 million renters in this category. But, according to the latest NLIHC survey figures, there are only 3.4 million available units they could afford. Seventy-one percent of extremely-low income renters pay more than half their total income for rent.

The figures are new, but the problem isn’t. As NLIHC notes, the affordable housing stock has shrunk–down 6.3% between 2001 and 2007. Meanwhile, high-cost rental stock has increased 94.3%. So the vacant units now available are mostly well beyond the affordability range for the growing number of low-income households.

As in the past, NLIHC has an online tool, plus some ranking tables to let us zero in on key data for every major metropolitan area and combined non-metropolitan areas, by state. So here’s the latest for the District.

  • A household would have to have an income of $59,760 a year to afford a FMR two-bedroom apartment. At full-time, year-round work, that’s $28.73 per hour.
  • This “housing wage” is higher than for any state except Hawaii.
  • A household would need 3.5 full-time minimum wage workers to afford the two-bedroom apartment.
  • A FMR one-bedroom apartment costs $1,116 per month more than someone who relies solely on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) can afford.

All these figures are higher than those NLIHC reported last year, when the District’s “housing wage” was $24.77 and two states, rather than one, outranked D.C.

This should be a wake-up call, if another were needed, to the DC Council, as it deliberates the proposed no-growth Fiscal Year 2011 affordable housing budget.

New Hope For Narrowing the Justice Gap

February 4, 2010

As I wrote awhile ago, civil legal services for low-income people are hobbled by two major impediments–inadequate funding and restrictions on what local legal services providers can do if they receive funds from the Legal Services Corporation.

The Corporation’s funding, in real dollars, has been declining since 1980, when its appropriation was sufficient to provide a “minimum level of access” to legal aid, i.e., two lawyers for every 10,000 low-income people in every county.

It was clear from the get-go that the Fiscal Year 2010 budget process wouldn’t do much about the funding problem. President Obama’s budget proposed $435 million for LCS–$45 million more than the Fiscal Year 2009 appropriation, but about $50 million less than LCS had requested.

The House of Representatives approved $440 million and the Senate $400 million. The negotiators ultimately split the difference. So LCS will have $420 million for the current fiscal year–about $345 million less than the Center for American Progress Action Fund estimated would be needed to restore minimum access.

But it did seem for awhile that this year’s budget process might significantly modify the restrictions. The President’s proposed budget included amendments to the Corporation’s authorizing legislation that would have allowed LCS grantees to seek attorneys’ fees in cases where they prevailed and to use non-LCS funds for activities that had been banned.

The House adopted the attorneys’ fees recommendation but left the remaining restrictions in place. The Senate lifted most of the restrictions on uses on non-LCS funds. On this matter, the House prevailed in the negotiations that led to the final bill.

But all is not lost. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) have introduced identical bills–the Civil Access to Justice Act (H.R. 3764/S. 718)–that would eliminate all restrictions on uses of non-LCS funds, except (wouldn’t you know it) participation in litigation related to abortion.

Permissible uses of LCS funds would also be broadened to permit collection of attorneys’ fees and participation in class action suits “grounded in existing law.” The prohibition on representing prisoners would be modified to permit litigation on issues related to a prisoner’s “ability to reenter society successfully.” And some non-citizens now denied representation could be served.

H.R. 3764 and S. 718 are technically bills to reauthorize LCS–something that should have been done 30 years ago. In addition to addressing the restrictions, they would also raise the permissible ceiling on appropriations to $750 million. This, the sponsors say, would be the equivalent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to the last appropriation that met the minimum access standard.

Of course, authorizing this much doesn’t mean that LCS will get it. But the figure establishes a reasonable target and a benchmark for the next five years.

The bills aren’t perfect. But they would bring civil legal services for low-income people into much closer alignment to what other Americans can receive. And they would enable LCS-funded nonprofits to engage in actions that would effectively and efficiently address the needs of large groups of clients.

So I think they deserve our support. And they’re going to need it because it’s obvious that our elected leaders can’t deal with more than a couple of controversial issues at a time. And if past is prologue, “equal access to the system of justice in our Nation” won’t be one of them.