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?

Are Poor Parents Bad Parents?

November 15, 2009

Surely the vast majority of poor parents do the best they can for their children. Still, a disproportionate number of them wind up losing their children to child welfare agencies.

One reason seems to be that more child abuse and neglect actually occur in poor families. According to the latest U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, children in families with incomes below $15,000 a year were 14 times more likely to be harmed by some form of abuse and 44 times more likely to be endangered by physical neglect than children in families with annual incomes of at least $30,000.

Data like these have led the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform to call the view that child mistreatment cuts across class lines a myth. After all, it says, child abuse is linked to stress, and poor families tend to be under more stress than rich families.

But, as NCCPR goes on to argue, many child protection laws virtually define poverty as neglect. In Illinois, for example, it’s failure to provide “care necessary for [a child’s] well-being.” Here in the District of Columbia, negligent treatment is “failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care.”

The D.C. law goes on to make an exemption for deprivation due to lack of financial means. But there are reasons to believe this is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Consider, for example, that 34 children were put into foster care last year because of “inadequate housing.”

Perhaps other reasons were linked to poverty as well. More than half the 2008 foster care placements the Child and Family Services Agency reports were because of “neglect (reported/alleged).” There’s a lot of room here for judgments based on how well children fare when their families are poor.

Now we all know what happens when child welfare agencies leave children in homes where they shouldn’t be. But there’s also a lot of evidence that children are taken away from their parents when other options would be better for them.

What if the parents who lost their children due to “inadequate housing” had received housing vouchers or other assistance to improve their living conditions? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that a number of studies indicate that children are seriously damaged by foster care placements. For example, a large study of young adults who’d been in foster care found that they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans. A third of them reported some form of maltreatment by an adult in the foster care home. Only 20% of them could be said to be “doing well.”

And then there are the horrible cases of children who died from abuse or neglect in foster care homes.

So when we see an exponential increase in foster care placements, as we have in D.C., we shouldn’t conclude that the child welfare system is working. We should try to find out more about the cases. Were the children being abused or willfully neglected? Or was the “neglect (reported/alleged)” something that could have been readily addressed by safety net programs or other services?

Or do a fair number of the placements reflect misjudgments on the part of the caseworkers? Professor Matthew Fraidin at the University of the District of Columbia Law School recently testified that 60% of the cases handled by his students resulted in the children’s being returned to their homes because, when confronted, CFSA agreed they weren’t being abused or neglected.

Was any racial prejudice involved? According to the latest CFSA assessment by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, as of January 2009, 98% of the children in out-of-home placements whose race was known were black. That’s about a third more than the percent of D.C. children who are black. Seems like an awfully big point spread to me. And here again we’ve got studies that make the question worth asking.

Unfortunately, neither we nor interested experts can get a good fix on whether children are being taken away from their parents because of their poverty and/or race. Here in D.C., as in most states, child welfare proceedings and records are closed to everyone not directly involved in the case.

What would happen if we let some sunshine in?

NOTE: I’m deeply indebted to Professor Fraidin for calling my attention to this issue and taking the time to educate me. The sources reflected here came largely from him. The analysis and errors, if any, are my own.

Congress Approves Free Suppers For Poor DC Children

October 9, 2009

A piece of good news in the midst of so much doom and gloom. The just-passed final version of the Fiscal Year 2010 Agriculture Appropriations bill makes the District of Columbia eligible for federally-subsidized suppers for low-income children in after-school programs.

As I wrote awhile ago, D.C. was added to the eligibility list in the bill the House of Representatives passed. But it was dropped in favor of Wisconsin in the bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee–maybe, just maybe because the chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Committee represents Wisconsin.

The version the House and Senate agreed to includes both D.C. and Wisconsin, plus Nevada and Connecticut, which was also in the House bill and is, not coincidentally the home state of the chair of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

In view of the politics here, a lot of credit goes to our non-voting representative in the House and to D.C. Hunger Solutions, which worked hard behind the scenes to get the District’s need for free suppers on the radar screen.

What the Director of D.C. Hunger Solutions says is true not only for D.C. families, but for families nationwide. Parents who are working extra-long or non-traditional hours or struggling to get into (or back into) the workforce need extended after-school care for their children. These children need more than a snack, even if their parents have the time and resources to serve a nutritious evening meal at home. And many don’t.

So, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I hope Congress will go on to consider the unmet needs of poor children in the 37 states that still aren’t eligible for the subsidized supper program.

That’s only part of the unfinished agenda. Congress needs to change the program eligibility requirements because poor children can’t get even a subsidized snack, let alone supper, in an after-school program, except one operated by a school, unless they happen to live in an area where at least 50% of school-age children are poor. That may not be much of a problem in D.C., but it certainly is elsewhere.

And surely Congress should do something about the reimbursement rates too. Hard to see how an after-school program can serve tasty, nutritious suppers when the maximum reimbursement rate is, as for lunches, just $2.85 per meal.

Bring Free Suppers To Poor DC Children

August 8, 2009

I wrote awhile ago about the enormous stress on after-school programs in the District. More children are showing up for these programs hungry because they didn’t have dinner the night before. One more thing to chalk up to the recession.

The best these programs can do is serve more hefty snacks and let children take extras home. Even this is creating big budget pressures because the federal government reimburses at a maximum of $0.74 per snack. And, for sites that aren’t run by public schools, snacks for children over 12 aren’t reimbursed at all.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Under existing legislation, eligible programs in 10 states can get reimbursed for serving suppers. The Fiscal Year 2010 agriculture appropriations bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would add the District to the list.

The companion bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee wouldn’t. But the full Senate could add D.C. when the bill comes to the floor.

Those of you who don’t live in D.C. can support this action by e-mailing or calling your Senators. It’s a good step toward expanding the supper program nationwide when the Child Nutrition Act is reauthorized. No comment here on how we D.C. residents lack our own leverage.

The District has made great strides with its after-school nutrition programs. In 2008, they served about 14,650 children–more than five and a half times as many as in 2004. Just think what a difference it would make if even some of these programs could serve all school-age children a healthy evening meal.

Safety Net Fraying For Poorest Families

July 8, 2009

A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities presents a half-full, half-empty picture of our nation’s safety net programs.

On the half-full side, the report finds that, in 2005, the safety net, as a whole:

  • Reduced the number of Americans living in poverty by 44%–or nearly 31 million.
  • Increased the average disposable income of those who remained poor from 29% to 64% of the poverty line.
  • Lifted 76% of very poor children–7.3 million–to above half the poverty line.

But this safety net includes programs that aren’t for low-income people only–notably, Social Security, unemployment insurance and the child tax credit.

Looking only at means-tested benefits, i.e., those we ordinary think of as parts of the safety net, CBPP finds that, in 2005, they lifted 14 million Americans above the poverty line.

The half-empty side is that safety net programs have become much less effective at shielding children from deep poverty, i.e., living in households with incomes below half the poverty line. For example, in 1995:

  • Aid to Families with Dependent Children lifted 76% of children above half the poverty line. The 2005 figure for TANF, which replaced AFDC, was just 21%.
  • Food stamps lifted 61% of children above half the poverty line. By 2005, the figure had dropped to 42%.

If the means-tested benefits had been as effective as they were in 1995, 1.2 million fewer children–more than half the total–wouldn’t have been below half the poverty line.

And half the poverty line is poor indeed. In 2005, it was just $10,698 for a family of four, according to the measure CBPP used. (This measure adopts changes to the official poverty measure that were recommended by the National Academy of Sciences and are, once again, pending in Congress.)

The single largest factor in fraying the safety net was the replacement of AFDC with TANF, combined with state-level TANF rules and practices that have significantly reduced participation rates. In the early 1990s, about 80% of families eligible for cash assistance through AFDC were receiving it. In 2005, TANF cash assistance was going to just 40%.

Meanwhile, parts of the safety net for childless adults were eliminated or cut back. At the federal level, the same law that established TANF barred out-of-work childless adults from receiving food stamps for more than three months in any 36-month period. By then, state-level general assistance programs, which were once their last resort, had all but disappeared.

Much has happened since 2005. The unemployment rate in June of that year was 5%. It’s now at 9.5%. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have slashed key safety net programs, and the budget-balancing isn’t over.

The economic recovery package includes a number of measures that boost safety net supports, but they’ll expire by the end of 2010–at least a year (probably more) before the unemployment rate turns around. So the first order of business is to extend these measures–or, better yet, strengthen and make them permanent.

But even when the recession ends, we’re still going to have a safety net that fails to protect the poorest families. So the programs that comprise it should be revisited. The Food Research and Action Center has ideas for food stamps and other nutrition assistance. TANF is due for reauthorization next year and is clearly another prime candidate.

Will Low-Income People Gain From Climate Change Legislation?

June 14, 2009

Last week, I wrote about how the Markey-Waxman climate change bill would cushion the cost impacts on low-income households. There’s a flip side: What might low-income people gain from a shift to a “green economy?”

First off, an effective climate change law would avert the impacts of unchecked global warming. We’re talking here about increasing risks of floods and droughts, loss of coastal and agricultural lands, more powerful hurricanes and a host of other harmful environmental changes.

As the Climate Equity Alliance says, these will hit low and moderate-income people first and worst. We need only look the immediate and long-term impacts of Hurricane Katrina to know this is true.

A transition to a green economy will also create new jobs. We’re hearing a lot about these–how they’re going to spur economic recovery, how they’ll offset the accelerating loss of traditional manufacturing jobs, etc.

My question is, Who’s going to get these jobs?

Everyone seems to agree that workers will need training to qualify. Community colleges have already launched new programs. And the White House blog proclaims that “for green jobs, training is the first step.” But the training it’s talking about is to expand opportunities for the middle class–people who already have relevant skills or, at the very least, a good basic education.

What about unskilled workers and people who lack the skills and/or experience to get any job at all?

The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced that it would fund $500 million in grants to prepare workers for jobs that will be created by investments in renewable energy infrastructure, home energy retrofits and activities related to the development and production of cleaner fuels and cleaner modes of transportation.

Some unspecified portion of the grants will potentially go to nonprofits, schools, businesses and labor organizations to provide “pathways out of poverty” for “low-income and under-skilled workers, unemployed adults and youth, high school dropouts or other underserved populations.”

This is a good thing, so far as it goes. But my sense is that we’ll need to do considerably more to make the greening of the economy an opportunity for people who’ve grown up poor to work their way into the middle class.

What do you think?

Clean Energy Bill Addresses Costs for Low-Income Households

June 7, 2009

As has been widely reported, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has taken the first step toward one of President Obama’s top priorities–saving the planet from “the ravages of climate change.”

On May 21, it passed a massive bill–commonly known, after its cosponsors, as Markey-Waxman–that aims to reduce our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions through a combination of carrots and sticks. The carrots here are incentives to reduce energy consumption and/or switch from uses of fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources. The sticks are the costs of not doing that.

Both are embedded in a cap-and-trade scheme. Basically, the federal government will issue permits to emit a fixed amount of greenhouse gases, based on total caps that will be reduced over time. Companies that produce less than their share can sell their excess permits. Companies that produce more will have to buy them.

As this scheme kicks in, our home energy costs will go up. This is our incentive to use less–by switching to fluorescent lights, buying more energy efficient appliances, etc.

Costs of gasoline and other consumer products will go up too because they’ll cost more to produce and more to distribute. Last year’s spike in oil prices has already given us a taste of this.

Much of the recent debate has centered on the cap-and-trade concept–and on which interests should be fostered and which protected. We haven’t heard much about how the legislation may affect low-income households. But that doesn’t mean that no one’s been paying attention.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been working on the issue for some time. As its reports and testimony say, higher energy prices will have the greatest impact on low-income households because they spend a larger portion of their budgets on basic necessities. They are also less able to afford investments that will reduce their energy costs.

According to CBPP, the poorest fifth of households would see their costs go up by an average of $750 a year if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 15%. Their average annual income is just over $13,000, and the 2020 reduction target set in the Energy and Commerce bill is 17% below the 2005 emissions level.

So, sometime in the next 10 years, these households could face additional costs equivalent to 5.7% of their total income. These costs would rise as the emissions cap was lowered.

The House Energy and Commerce bill addresses rising energy-related costs in two ways. First, it gives free emissions permits to local utility companies, with the understanding that they’ll pass the savings on to their customers. This provision provides relief for all consumers, regardless of income.

Second, the bill adopts a version of CBPP’s recommendations for assisting low-income households. Basically, it commits revenues from the sale of emission permits to refunds based on how much the purchasing power of low-income households is reduced by higher energy prices.

Families that pay income taxes would receive a tax credit along the lines of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Other low-income households would receive their refunds through one of several mechanisms. For example, those who receive food stamps and/or certain other benefits would get theirs via their electronic benefits transfer cards.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that the bill doesn’t address the above average cost increases that some low-income families will face–for example, because their apartments are drafty or their appliances old and inefficient. CBPP recommends more generous refunds and additional funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

I wonder what the prospects for these recommendations will be. The bill that Energy and Commerce passed gives away 85% of the emissions permits the government will issue. This leaves far less in revenues than would have been the case if proponents had been able to gain support for auctioning off all the permits, as President Obama wanted.

Competition for the limited revenues will be fierce. And there may be further needs to placate legislators who don’t much like the cap-and-trade scheme or want more benefits for certain industries.

In any event, the legislation has a long way to go. Eight other House committees have a piece of the action. And then there’s the Senate. Four committees have jurisdiction there, and they’ll need to produce something that can secure 60 votes.

So if ever there was a stay tuned, this is it.