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 Once again, a small approved increase would be rescinded.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The first TANF benefits cut I wrote about rescinded a small just-approved increase.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.

Disposable Bag Fee Hits Low-Income Residents In the Pocket

January 4, 2010

The Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act. Big news in the District last June and again now, as the proverbial hits the fan.

Brief review: The bill the DC Council passed established a 5-cent fee on virtually every plastic or paper shopping bag used to pack customers’ purchases at retail food establishments, including grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, street vendors and liquor stores.

The intent, as signaled by the name of the bill, was to secure funds to clean up the Anacostia River and protect it from further trash build-up. The funds were to come from the disposable bag fees, though retailers could retain 1 cent per bag–or 2 cents if they offered customers a 5-cent credit for each carryout bag they provided.

Lots of enthusiasm for this legislation. The Council vote was unanimous. Councilmember Jack Evans, not usually a fan of new taxes, said the bill was a “first step to address” the fact that “our country’s becoming inundated with plastic bags and bottles.” Mayor Fenty called plastic bags “a menace to our waterways” and said the legislation would “have measurable impact almost immediately.”

Some, however, raised concerns about the impacts on low-income residents. These were generally discounted–in part because the most vocal source was the plastic bag industry. Besides, Councilmember Tommy Wells, who co-sponsored the legislation, pledged an ongoing supply of free reusable bags for distribution to those for whom every penny matters.

Fast forward to January 1, the day the fee kicked in.

The city had committed to providing 122,000 bags for low-income residents and seniors. News4’s Tom Sherwood reports that it had distributed 20,000 by December 29. An additional 80,000 were on order but not expected for weeks. Nothing about the 22,000 bags the city will still be short.

Bread for the City, which had planned to serve as a free bag distribution center, has posted a plea for donations because the city didn’t come through. But who knows how much its clients and other poor people will have to spend, either on bag fees or on reusable bags–even if the city gets the promised bags out the door by month’s end?

I’ve done a little back-of-the-envelope calculation. My husband and I bring home a minimum of six full bags from our weekly grocery shops. That’s at least three bags per person. According to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, there were about 96,640 District residents below the federal poverty line in 2008. There are probably more now.

So it would seem that at least 290,000 bags would be needed to protect the poorest D.C. residents from ongoing bag fees–or a minimum initial expenditure of $4.20 (99 cents per reusable bag, plus tax). And what about next year and the year after that? Reusable bags wear out. They get contaminated by leaky food packages. They get lost or stolen.

Yes, the District is legally obliged to clean up the Anacostia. And reusable bags reduce other pressures on the environment. But did anyone really think through what the bag tax would do to the budgets of the poorest households–or what would be entailed in delivering effective relief?

Low-Income DC Residents Face More Legal Problems, Fewer Services

December 30, 2009

I wrote awhile ago about the gap between low-income people’s needs for legal services and the capacities of legal aid programs to provide them. Now a report by the DC Access to Justice Commission and the DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers brings it all home.

It’s one of the most depressing reports I’ve read in a long time. And that’s saying a lot.

Last year, the DC Access to Justice Commission reported in detail on the range and types of civil legal services needed by low-income people in the District. It concluded that, even with the D.C. government funding approved for Fiscal Years 2007-8, “the needs of those who cannot afford a lawyer substantially outweigh the available services.” And that was before the recession set in.

As the new report says, low-income residents now face more severe hardships–and more legal problems. Legal services attorneys estimate a 20% increase in requests for help. Increased needs are probably greater.

Meanwhile, local legal assistance organizations are grappling with drastic funding reductions. In 2009:

  • The D.C. Bar Foundation had to cut its grant-giving in half because revenues from its usual source of funds–the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program–plummeted due to the Federal Reserve Board’s cuts in interest rates.
  • Law firms and individual practitioners cut their contributions by as much as 20% due to declines in their business.
  • Firms also laid off associates and deferred hiring, thus reducing the availability of pro bono services.

Faces with less income, the organizations cut back on staff–both full-time attorneys and other staff whose work supports the quality and quantity of legal services provided. The network as a whole has lost the capacity to represent 1,050 clients and to provide less resource-intensive forms of help to an additional 2,100.

The organizations have adopted various strategies to cope with staff shortages. Many limit access or the types of services provided. By and large, cases involving complex issues, long-term representation and/or substantial resource commitments seem to have fallen victim to the need to provide some assistance to as many people as possible.

Resource constraints have also forced the organizations to limit efforts that can most effectively address the needs of large groups of clients–advocacy, systemic litigation and test cases. This is obviously a vicious circle, since resources committed to broad-based change would tend to limit the individual emergency needs that are now consuming all the resources.

Prospects for next year look even worse:

  • The District’s grant to the D.C. Bar Foundation, which channels funds to providers, has been cut by 20%.
  • Budgets for the DC Office for Victim Services and other agencies that provide grants for legal services have also been cut. Reported losses to providers exceed a total of $100,000.
  • Foundations that have struggled to sustain their funding for legal services will have to cut back due to significant declines in their assets.

Thus, the report says, the crisis in civil legal services representation will get worse before it gets better–unless there is substantial change.

How do we get there? First, I think, we need a much broader and deeper appreciation of why our community as a whole needs a robust legal services network.

The epigraph to the report, by Justice Learned Hand, puts it well: “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one fundamental commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.” That’s what we’re doing now–economizing at the expense of fairness, inclusiveness and shared prosperity.

Say what you will about tough economic times. I say it doesn’t have to be this way.

School Breakfast Program Feeds Fewer Than Half of DC’s Low-Income Students

December 28, 2009

The latest U. S. Department of Agriculture’s food security report tells us that 16.7 million children live in families who can’t always afford to feed them enough of the right kinds of foods for a healthy, balanced diet. Many of them–and other children as well–start their school day unready to learn because they’re hungry.

In a recent survey for Share Our Strength, 62% of teachers reported that they regularly see children come to school hungry because they’re not getting enough to eat at home. More than 90% said that hungry students are likely to lack focus and/or energy and to under-perform on tests.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Since 1975, the federal government has subsidized in-school breakfasts. As with lunches, children in families at or below 130% of the federal poverty line can get breakfasts for free. Other low-income children can get them at a maximum cost of 30 cents per meal.

The Food Research and Action Center has been tracking low-income children’s participation in the school breakfast program since 1991. It has consistently found far lower participation rates than in the school lunch program. Its state-by-state report for the 2008-9 school year shows that an average of 10.1 million children a day got a free or reduced-price lunch but not a breakfast.

For the last three years, FRAC has also been reporting on school breakfast participation in America’s biggest cities, including the District of Columbia. It’s just issued its latest scorecard.

So how are we doing? Not as badly as some, but not nearly so well as we should be.

  • In 2008-9, 48.4% of D.C. school children who got free or reduced-price lunches also participated in a school breakfast program.
  • This was slightly below the median for the 25 big city systems and a whopping 47.3% below the top-ranking system (Newark, New Jersey).
  • It was 2.7% lower than the District’s 2007-8 participation rate. Only six other big city systems had decreased rates.

What do we make of this? Well, for one thing, the District lost out on more than $1 million in federal nutrition funds–the additional amount it would have gotten if its breakfast program had served just 70% of low-income students who participated in its lunch program. And more than 4,000 children would have had a better chance to thrive and learn.

As I’ve said before, there seem to be lots of reasons school breakfast participation rates are generally low. The District has already addressed some of them by instituting a universal breakfast program, i.e., free breakfasts for all children, regardless of income.

As a next step, DC Hunger Solutions has recommended programs that reach children who can’t get to school in time to eat a regular cafeteria meal before the school bell rings–“grab and go” packages, in-class meals and/or “second chance” breakfasts after the first period. The new FRAC report indicates that some D.C. schools have such programs. Maybe there should be more.

What else should the District be doing? Why are we failing to tap millions of federal dollars that would help about 17,840 more poor and near-poor children start their school days properly fed?

NOTE: Cross-posted on DC Food for All–a forum of “eaters and advocates, growers and wonks … working to bring healthy, sustainable and affordable food to all.”