Category Archives: Family Economic Security

New HUD Report Illuminates Options for Survivors of Domestic Violence

This week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in partnership with Vanderbilt University, released the short-term findings of their Family Options Study, which followed more than 2,000 families experiencing homelessness over an 18 month period. Their research evaluated the effect of several types of interventions on housing stability and the well-being of homeless adults and children. The families in the sample were randomly assigned one of the interventions: housing choice vouchers, community-based rapid rehousing, project based transitional housing, and care as usual. The study found that housing choice vouchers, which grant families permanent subsidies to use in the private housing market, had the greatest effectiveness. While the vouchers were of similar cost or less expensive than the other interventions, they decreased rates of future homelessness, lowered psychological distress and improved mental health. They were also shown to decrease the prevalence of domestic violence. In the six months prior to the survey, families receiving housing choice vouchers had half the incidents of domestic violence as those families receiving care as usual. This result supports earlier HUD qualitative research in which housing subsidy recipients reported that their subsidies helped them escape abusive situations and establish new lives independently.

More effective services are essential to ensure that every domestic violence survivor has the opportunity to access safe housing. In the new HUD study, nearly half of their sample had experienced physical abuse or threats of physical abuse from an intimate partner. Other studies have found even higher rates of violence:  one study in Massachusetts found that 63% of homeless women were victims of intimate partner violence. Other studies have found that between 22 and 57% of women become homeless as a direct result of domestic violence or sexual assault.

Although domestic violence survivors make up a disproportionate share of homeless individuals, they do not always receive the services they need. In 2014, a 24 hour census of domestic violence service providers across the country found that although around 36,000 women were receiving residential services, another 6,126 women were turned away in a single day, largely due to lack of funding and limited resources. The ability for survivors of domestic violence to access housing assistance after leaving an abusive situation is critical. Abusers often isolate their victims from social support, so they may not have friends or family who could take them in. In addition, abusers will frequently control their victims’ finances, limit their access to cash and credit, and prevent them from working, so they may have little or no money available to pay for another place to stay. Without access to shelter, they may have few other options than to sleep on the streets or in their car or return to their abuser. Studies in two different cities found that 44% of homeless women have stayed in abusive relationships because they had nowhere else to go.

The need for improved services and better funding for homeless individuals fleeing domestic violence is clear. Domestic violence survivors need secure, stable housing options to keep them safe from harm and to help them begin to rebuild their lives. Research like HUD’s Family Options Study is an encouraging step in identifying innovative and cost-effective methods of enabling housing security and preventing future incidents of domestic violence. While the long-term results of the study will not be released until 2017, these early findings lay the groundwork for smarter housing policies and more informed services for families experiencing homelessness.

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Connecting to a Lifeline: Technology and Survivor Safety

Access to technology like phones and the internet are critical for domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking survivors’ safety. Cell phones allow survivors to call law enforcement or an ambulance to the scene of a crime, which may stop that violent incident and start the path to recovery. They allow survivors to stay in contact with the criminal justice system, whether to cooperate with a prosecution, communicate about upcoming hearings or receive notification about an offender’s release. In addition, phones and the internet are primary methods for survivors to research and contact appropriate services in their community, including health care, child care, shelters, rape crisis hotlines and other survivor services that are specific to their unique needs like languages or disabilities. If survivors still live with an abuser or had to relocate because of violence, this technology may be even more necessary to stay connected to these vital sources of information and economic justice.

Technology is also essential to achieving economic security, which is directly linked to survivor safety and independence. Not only is reliable internet needed for job searching, it is also increasingly necessary to apply for such opportunities. Currently over 80% of job positions with Fortune 500 companies must be applied for online and over 60% of American workers use the internet for their job duties. Information and applications for training and education programs, benefit programs and other financial services are often only accessible online as well. Furthermore, one study estimated that the typical American consumer saves $8,800 a year by accessing bargains and comparison shopping on the internet.

Unfortunately, low-income survivors may not be able to afford this technology. They may have lost their jobs due to an abuser’s interference or they may be facing high health care, housing, childcare or other costs stemming from violence. An abuser may have destroyed previous cell phones or computers as a means of control and intimidation and the cost of replacement can be prohibitive, especially to replace a phone out of contract. Survivors who leave an abusive partner may be struggling to make ends meet on their own while no longer benefiting from the economies of scale that couples experience.

For these reasons, WOW recognizes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for taking steps this week to expand their valuable Lifeline program, which is currently helping over 12 million low-income American households pay their landline or cell phone bills. One of the new proposals before the FCC would allow broadband internet to also be subsidized for participants. To qualify, household income must be at or below 135% of the federal poverty line or they must take part in a federal assistance program such as Medicaid, TANF or SNAP. A preliminary vote  is anticipated in mid-June with a final vote possible by the end of the year.

Survivors and service providers may also benefit from programs such as Verizon’s Hopeline, which collects cell phones and accessories and donates them refurbished to domestic violence organizations for survivors. However, although technology may be essential for survivors to access services and achieve independence, it can also be used as a tool by abusers to control, harass and stalk survivors. Advocates and survivors should be aware of resources such as the Stalking Resource Center’s Use of Technology to Stalk website and course and NNEDV’s Technology Safety Plan Guide to help protect survivors against abuser manipulation of these tools. 

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To Be Savored: A Victory for New Jersey Seniors

When I heard that Governor Chris Christie had signed the New Jersey Elder Index bill, I was thrilled. A long-term collaboration between Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) and the New Jersey Foundation for Aging had finally culminated in enactment of a bill (A3504/S2231) which will really make a difference for New Jersey seniors!

The new law, sponsored in the state legislature by Assemblyman Joseph Lagana and Senator Loretta Weinberg, gives NJ’s Department of Human Services (DHS) a powerful tool for assessing and addressing the needs of seniors in the state—the New Jersey Elder Economic Security Standard Index (NJ Elder Index). The NJ Elder Index is based on WOW’s Elder Economic Security Standard Index (Elder Index), which was developed by WOW in association with UMass Boston Gerontology Institute.  The Elder Index is a measure of what it costs older adults to make ends meet—at a very basic level—in every state and county across the nation.

In New Jersey, many Area Agencies on Aging and other nonprofits have been using the NJ Elder Index for years to understand and plan around the economic conditions of those they serve, but this legislation takes it to a whole new level. The state itself will update the NJ Elder Index annually, and will consult it in making recommendations for program funding, suggesting public benefit eligibility levels, benchmarking program impacts, designing public outreach, and evaluating case management.  On top of that, DHS will calculate long-term care costs for NJ seniors—a potentially very large expense for which older adults are often unprepared. Armed with this data and related research, DHS can create a more meaningful and effective response to senior needs now and in the future.

The victory is sweet for the citizens of New Jersey, specifically its seniors, and for WOW and the New Jersey Foundation for Aging (NJFA). NJFA’s Executive Director, Grace Egan and Program Manager, Melissa Chalker, have both spent many hours in briefings, presentations, and personal conversations with fellow nonprofit staff, county and state policymakers, and anyone else who would listen about the economic insecurity faced by NJ elders. A strong voice for policies and programs that help fill the gaps for struggling seniors, NJFA has constantly been in the trenches fighting to preserve and expand energy, food and housing assistance for those struggling to get by.

And so we pause to celebrate the moment, salute our partners, and acknowledge, with appreciation, the foresight of NJ’s Governor and legislators who have just taken a step forward for elder economic security. Hats off to all!

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Why Workplace Leave and Flexibility Matter

Working as an advocate for low-income families at Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), I have always been grateful for a good job, a safe home and some stability. I consider myself incredibly fortunate and am thankful every day because I know that in a moment’s notice, this all can change. Economic insecurity is just one emergency away for so many of us. A year ago I faced that emergency.

Pregnant with my first child, I knew my life was in for a big change. My husband and I consciously decided to start a family at a point in our lives when we felt stable and reasonably economically secure. I knew things would be difficult – like most new parents I worried about my ability to balance work with family responsibilities and the cost of raising a child – but I never imagined nor was I prepared for the challenge we faced. While traveling to upstate New York and nearing the end of my fifth month of pregnancy, my water broke. After being admitted into a hospital more than seven hours from home, the doctors were able to stabilize my and my baby’s condition. We suddenly found ourselves facing a life-threatening emergency with no option of returning home for an unknown amount of time.

After being admitted into the hospital, I called my boss to explain the situation. I did this without fear of losing my job. WOW made accommodations so that – per my request – I could work remotely from the hospital and allowed me to maintain a flexible schedule to accommodate the uncertainty of my situation. Fortunately, my husband received the same response from his employer and he was able to stay in Syracuse with us. With my job secure, I still had health insurance to cover the high cost of the specialized care that we would need. Our combined medical bills would total well over a half million dollars, a sum that would have bankrupted us without excellent coverage.

How much did these workplace accommodations and good health benefits mean to the economic security and emotional well being of my family? At 24 weeks gestation our son faced terrible odds – survival rates were between 50% and 70% and he would likely face moderate to severe long-term health problems. Not having to worry about my job or ability to pay the hospital bills reduced my stress, allowing me to remain strong and positive, which certainly prolonged my pregnancy and affected my son’s well being. While most women experiencing their water breaking so early into their pregnancy deliver within 48 hours, we were able to delay labor and buy him precious time. Three weeks after being admitted to the hospital my son, Henry, a tiny 2 pounds 7 ounce fighter, was born 13 weeks prematurely.

Being away from home with no option to be transferred to a local hospital due to the precariousness of Henry’s health, we were faced with many more unexpected expenses, particularly a need for temporary housing. Organizations like the Ronald McDonald House of Central New York, where we lived for three months during my son’s stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, provided us with housing and food at just a fraction of the cost we would have paid for a hotel room. Furthermore, because of Henry’s low-birth weight he was eligible to receive Social Security Insurance benefits during his hospitalization. While the process of accessing this benefit was incredibly cumbersome and frustrating, this support helped us cover the some of the additional expenses we faced being away from home.

2014 was the most difficult and heart-wrenching year of my life, but I am happy to say despite those many terrifying months and hardships, my son is now a thriving and healthy one-year-old. Unlike many others, our story had a happy ending.

I am sharing my story, not only because I am grateful, but also because this demonstrates why all families need these types of protections and supports when things go wrong. Employer flexibility and the ability to work remotely enabled me and my husband to keep our jobs and benefits with no undue hardship on our workplaces. Having health insurance meant that we were able to afford the care that saved my son’s life. Community services and safety net programs helped to provide support to us in a time of need and reduced the amount of debt we accumulated. All of these elements are critical for family economic security and without them my life might be very different today. I am incredibly fortunate to still have my job, not be crippled with debt, and most importantly that our irrepressible Henry is with us today. I don’t want our experience to be the exception, it should be the rule.

SGB and Henry

 

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Promoting Women’s Economic Security: Acknowledging the Effects of Trauma

Since its inception in 1964, Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) has helped women create pathways and overcome barriers to economic security through direct services and advocacy driven by research. Our roots are grounded in providing job training and workforce development through a gender lens. While we now primarily use this expertise to provide technical assistance and training to organizations across the country, we still maintain connections with some local service providers here in Washington, DC.

In 2008, we began a partnership with the District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH), which provides emergency and long-term safe housing, and innovative homelessness prevention services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. WOW provides career and economic counseling to survivors in their programs. While the physical and health impacts of abuse were apparent, the economic impacts of abuse often proved to be more of a barrier to their safety and recovery. Many of the survivors we work with faced a number of economic consequences as a result of their abuser’s actions including:

  • Job loss or lost wages due to interference from the abuser at work or time off to recover from abuse;
  • Unfinished education due to missed classes or a need to relocate;
  • Eviction and damaged tenant history due to law enforcement involvement;
  • Debt from healthcare, relocation costs and replacing damaged property;
  • Damaged credit and identity theft;
  • Loss of personal property; and,
  • Coercion into crime such as dealing drugs, fraud and/or prostitution.

By deliberately destroying survivors’ ability to be economically secure, abusers often eliminate the very resources they need to escape abuse and recover. The survivors we serve are lucky in the sense that they were able to enter a transitional housing program that provides them with safety and stability while working to rebuild their lives. Those who can’t access the limited resources available to survivors are often unable to break free from violence and abuse. But even when survivors do find these programs, the economic impacts of abuse may be so significant that they may never fully recover without the right interventions.

Providing immediate safety is first and foremost. But providing safe housing is not enough. Survivors need health and counseling services to help them cope with trauma. Once physical and mental health needs are addressed, we can then begin the long process of helping survivors recover from the economic impacts of abuse. Only then are survivors ready to develop and implement a plan that will help them become more economically secure and independent in the future. This often requires rebuilding damaged credit, getting training or education so that they have the skill-set needed to obtain good jobs that pay a living wage and offers benefits, accessing income support to provide interim stability and getting restitution to recover financial losses. Temporary and flexible financial support is critically important. Few jobs pay wages that would enable a single worker with children to cover all their monthly expenses, and those that do require years of training or experience. This reality often leaves survivors with few options but to remain in an abusive situation.

The economic consequences of violence and abuse are significant and complex. If we are to effectively promote women’s economic security, we must take into account and address the impacts of violence against women. When one in four women experiences rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, addressing the intersections of violence/abuse with economic security must be a priority for all organizations seeking to eradicate poverty and promote gender equity.

 

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Older Women In the Workforce: Building Pathways to Economic Security

When Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) was conceived of in the 1960s –a period in which women began entering the workforce en masse– its mission was to make the labor market equally accessible to women. Today, those efforts have expanded to include building pathways to economic security for women, their families and seniors.

Women’s History Month is a great time to reflect on the journey of older workers in the labor force across the years and the economic insecurity some face. Many older workers find themselves struggling financially and unprepared for retirement. The long-term unemployed, along with older workers who are recalibrating due to the economic downturn, job loss, children leaving the nest, divorce or other life changing events, often need assistance to return to the workforce or make a career change. Age discrimination and lack of access to retraining are barriers that impact the employability of older workers. Policies that promote the hiring of mature workers and integrate them in training programs (which typically tend to focus on Millennials and Generation Y), would go a long way toward moving this cohort into economic security.

WOW’s research on the needs and incomes of individuals aged 65+ and living independently in the community indicates that 45% of seniors– 40% of men and 49% of women– are economically insecure. Addressing this challenge over the long-term will require higher-paid work and new skills development for low wage workers –especially women. Workforce development assistance programs should aim to improve or augment the skills of older workers so that they will qualify for higher skilled, higher wage jobs. Women in particular would benefit from career counseling, education including vocational-technical programs and STEM initiatives, job training, and internships or apprenticeship programs for middle-skilled and high paying jobs.

Home Health Aides and Personal Care Aides (direct-care workers) are among the fastest growing jobs – about 90% of which are filled by women.  In 2010, the average age of a direct-care worker was 42. One study estimates that “by 2018 …one third of personal care aides will be 55 and older, an increase from 22% in 2008.” Unfortunately, a $10.58 median hourly wage for all direct-care workers fails to provide a fair living wage. Therefore, this kind of work–while increasingly important for an aging society–is unlikely to be an answer to older women’s economic insecurity dilemma.

Among barriers to older women’s employment is the notion that older workers cannot contribute to the success of an organization. While discredited, this belief continues to produce age discrimination in the workplace. Yet an older worker is quite capable of adapting and mastering new skills, even those that are technology-related. A prospective employer might hesitate to invest in a 55-year old new hire out of concern that  s/he may not remain an employee for the next 15 – 20 years. However, neither will a younger hire. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014, “median employee tenure was generally higher among older than younger ones…A larger portion of older workers than younger workers had 10 years or more of tenure.”

Communities and employers benefit when older workers are encouraged to remain in the workforce for as long as they are able and wish. It makes good business and economic sense to welcome and retain these employees. Middle-aged and older workers offer experience and expertise and they tend to be more professional, mature and loyal.

Although the age at which people qualify for full Social Security retirement benefits varies depending on the year they were born, life expectancy is longer than for previous generations –especially among women– and many will be mentally and physically capable of working through their 70s and sometimes their 80s. Working beyond 65 provides individuals with an opportunity to defer retirement, continue paying payroll taxes, delay accessing retirement funds and continue growing their savings and investments. Gainfully employed older individuals will not only increase their own economic security, but will reduce pressure and dependence on Social Security and other public support systems. Plus, according to the New York Academy of Medicine’s (NYAM) Age Smart Employer Compendium of Strategies and Practices, “longer work lives will generate increased consumer spending, which drives economic growth and new job creation.”

Investments in effective, expanded, multigenerational, and diverse public/private training, internships, apprenticeships, and education programs, along with nondiscriminatory hiring practices and workforce development systems, are crucial in maximizing the performance and productivity of workers of all ages. And a productive workforce is central to being able to compete as a nation in the globalized economy of the 21st century.

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America Saves – Or Not

The end of America Saves Week (February 23-28, 2015) should not be an excuse to suspend our efforts to (1) save, (2) spread the word on the importance of saving for retirement and other purposes, and (3) continue working to remove barriers to saving. Low and inadequate retirement savings and/or lack of access to 401(k)s, pensions, and other savings platforms result in increased dependence and pressure on our Social Security system. This is a crucial issue for all Americans, but especially for women. WOW’s research shows that half of all women age 65 and older living independently in the community experience economic insecurity—with much higher percentages for women of color.

There have been efforts on both the national and state levels to address barriers to saving for retirement—with uneven results. For example:

  • In response to data showing that “one third of people (36%) in the U.S. have nothing saved for retirement”, and “14% of people ages 65 and older have no retirement savings”, the US Department of Treasury launched the myRA savings program in December, 2014 –a no fee, no hidden cost account–intended to provide a “simple, safe, and affordable retirement savings option” for working Americans.
  • In February 2015, President Obama announced that he had asked the Department of Labor to modernize its rules under ERISA to ensure that investment advisers do not offer financial advice tainted by  conflict of interest, and that they put  hardworking Americans’ interests first. It is estimated that $17 billion is lost each year due to conflicted investment advice.
  • In January 2014, a bill was introduced in West Virginia’s legislature to establish the West Virginia Voluntary Employee Retirement Accounts (VERA) Program, which would expand access to retirement plans to all employees and employers who wish to participate. According to H. B. 4375  nearly fifty percent of West Virginia workers have no access to employer-based retirement plans. However, despite vigorous advocacy by West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy (WVCBP) and other groups, opposition led by the insurance industry prevailed and the legislation died.
  • The Minnesota’s Women’s Economic Security Agenda (WESA), a multi-issue campaign mounted by the Minnesota Women’s Consortium—another WOW partner—and other advocates, resulted in legislation that included creation of a Minnesota Secure Choice Retirement Savings Plan.  In February 2014, HF 2419 and its companion Senate bill, SF 2078, were introduced to establish such a plan; in the end, however, only a study of the issue was commissioned.
  • In January 2015, Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a bill creating the Illinois Secure Choice Savings Program Act. The Act is intended to promote “greater retirement savings for private-sector employees in a convenient, low-cost, and portable manner.”
  • In March 2012, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts signed a bill into law that provides retirement options for nonprofit organizations. This new law’s effective date was January 1, 2014 and applies to the “not-for-profit employer “who employs “not more than 20 persons…”

Having access to retirement savings plans/programs during one’s working years, and being assured of non-biased investment advice by financial advisors can make a big impact on economic security in retirement.  WOW commends and joins with those at the state and national levels who are working to bring these reforms about.

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Middle-Class Economics: Pathway to Economic Security?

Economic security was a strong and welcome theme in President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union (SOTU) address. He started by introducing a newly coined phrase, “middle-class economics,” and then defined it as “the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” This economics would provide opportunities to all—including the sometimes forgotten midlife and older workers who need to recalibrate, upgrade or obtain new skills so that they can earn higher wages, help their families make ends meet, and save for retirement down the road.

To accomplish these goals and obtain the appropriate skills, some workers will need to attend college. As the President stated, “Forty percent of our college students choose community college. Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt.”

This is a vision worth pursuing. If implemented, the President’s plan would offer midlife and older workers access to resources that have often been out of reach. It would allow them to 1) attend college; 2) obtain higher-paying jobs; 3) take care of themselves and their families and 4) participate in a retirement savings plan. With respect to retirement, the savings proposals promoted in this year’s SOTU and related materials build on the “myRA” initiative the President introduced in last year’s SOTU address–a simple, easy, low-cost way for workers who do not have access to retirement savings plans through their employer to save for retirement. The myRA plan was quietly launched online by the Department of the Treasury in December 2014, and promises to be of significant benefit to many working families. It deserves broader attention and promotion than it has gotten to date.

Together with myRA, the Administration’s recommendations for access to enhanced education opportunities and a range of retirement savings vehicles could improve economic security for all. Ultimately, they could help prop up what for far too many is a broken “three-legged stool”—Social Security, pensions (which are rapidly vanishing) and savings—supporting a secure retirement. An economically secure worker translates into less pressure on families, on public support programs (pre- and post-retirement) and on federal, state and local budgets. Such an outcome would certainly enable a major part of our workforce to “feel more secure in a world of constant change.”

Please join WOW and the Elder Economic Security Initiative team in its quest to improve economic security for midlife and older workers and seniors. You may visit us at http://www.wowonline.org/elder-economic-security-initiative/.

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I’m “Not on the Menu”: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

Living off tips not only contributes to high levels of economic insecurity for workers and their families; it also makes all workers, and in particular women, vulnerable to a great deal of inappropriate behavior from customers, co-workers, and management. In collaboration with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Forward Together, and several other organizations, Wider Opportunities for Women today released the report The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry.  This report dramatically details how sexual harassment is endemic to the restaurant industry.  One of the most powerful findings is that the tipping structure – where workers are paid a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour—creates an environment and a dynamic that actually fosters sexual harassment as part of the work environment.

Surveying workers throughout the country, it is staggering to learn that two-thirds of female workers and over half of male workers had experienced some form of sexual harassment from management; nearly 80% of women and 70% of men experienced some form of sexual harassment from co-workers; and nearly 80% of women and 55% of men experienced some form of sexual harassment from customers.  And ALL restaurant workers in states that have a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, report higher rates of sexual harassment, than workers in states that pay a higher minimum wage.

Why is the tipping structure so important to this? Since restaurant workers living off tips are forced to rely on customers for their income rather than their employer, these workers must often tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers, co-workers, and management. Not surprisingly then, the restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the U.S.  While seven percent of American women work in the restaurant industry, more than a third of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from the restaurant industry. What is even more disturbing is that the high levels of complaints to the EEOC may actually underreport the industry’s rate of sexual harassment. Restaurant  workers reported that sexual  harassment is “kitchen talk,” a “normalized” part of the work environment.  And many restaurant workers are reluctant to publicly acknowledge  their experiences with sexual harassment.  This is the everyday work life for the 11 million restaurant workers in the United States.

Close to 20 years ago, when I conducted my own ethnographic research on restaurant workers, tipped workers earned the same sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour that workers today are paid.  And the restaurant workers I spoke with, almost two decades ago, talked about the ways that sexual harassment and sexual behaviors were institutionalized into the work environment.  So despite the passing of 20 years, some things have just remained the same. Tipped workers continue to remain vulnerable—both in terms of their economic security and the prevalence of sexual harassment–in America’s restaurants.  Isn’t it about time we do something about this?  Not only is it time to raise the minimum wage and eliminate the tipped sub-minimum wage so that workers can earn enough to support themselves and their families, but we need to improve the working conditions for the people who serve our food and mix our drinks.

roc

 

 

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Paul Ryan’s Safety Net Plan Creates, Not Combats Poverty

Last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled his proposal for an anti-poverty plan at the American Enterprise Institute. Shifting federal assistance towards a block grant he calls the “Opportunity Grant,” Ryan proposed to give the states responsibility to decide how they would distribute funding for eleven safety net programs. The Opportunity Grant masquerades as a plan to uplift low-class and working Americans, while ultimately pulling more people down into cyclical poverty. Historically, block grants have been ineffective and poverty is still a painful reality for many working families, which this plan fails to acknowledge. With no resources to even effectively implement such a program, the Opportunity Grant is destined to fail.

The main issue with Ryan’s proposal is the move away from adjustable assistance programs towards lumping assistance programs into state-distributed packages. To start, block grants are not responsive to economic shifts because they are distributed in fixed annual appropriations. Moreover, block grants have been historically problematic, which Ryan conveniently overlooks. When funds are administered at the state level they can easily be relocated to fill other state budgetary holes. For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that states have used billions of dollars of welfare block grants on unrelated programs – in 2011 only 29% of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds were being used towards their intended purposes.

Additionally, block grant programs tend to be chipped away at on the federal level by legislators who considered the money to be “flexible” or superfluous. A prime example of this is the Social Services Block Grant, which has lost 77% of its funding since its establishment and would be entirely cut under the Ryan plan. Ironically, this is a program that would be necessary to sustain the kind of case management Ryan wants to create under his plan. Ryan already wants to make significant cuts to programs like SNAP and Medicaid, so formatting the programs into a lump sum package will make these funds even more vulnerable to further cuts and misallocation.

Ryan’s plan is overly focused on getting people into jobs and is not concerned enough with fixing bad jobs that don’t pay well. He also overlooks other assistance that working individuals and families need to get by, like paid sick and paid family leave, both of which are not required by federal labor laws. In 2014, a full-time worker making the $7.25 federal minimum wage earns approximately $15,080 annually, only 71% of the poverty level for a family of three. This translates to approximately 8.9 million Americans working full-time minimum wage jobs who live below the poverty line. It’s clear that jobs are simply not the end-all to climbing out of poverty. In falsely considering poverty as an issue primarily for people who choose not to work, Ryan’s plan falls short of encompassing the full spectrum of poverty.

Ryan’s proposal also includes lowering the income limit for assistance cutoffs, increasing the eligibility gap and accentuating the poverty cycle even more. These eligibility “cliffs” cut people off from food and housing programs before they can afford them on their own, keeping individuals and families in limbo between self-sufficiency and assistance programs. As the name suggests, eligibility cliffs will drop recipients from help before they even get out of poverty instead of gradually reducing benefits. In fact, in some states like Colorado, simply earning one more dollar an hour could make a low-income individual lose SNAP benefits or experience drastic cuts to their childcare subsidies. Smoothing out these cliffs ensures that recipients continue to have some stability while they become more economically independent. 

Finally, a plan like the Opportunity Grant proposal is financially unfeasible because it calls for cutting funding for some programs while not adding funding for new initiatives, like individualized, paid case managers. More paperwork and bureaucracy will be necessary if Ryan is committed to such case management, paradoxically creating here what he vowed his plan would cut elsewhere. Because Ryan does not propose any increases in program funding, paying for case management staff, training and facilities will only siphon already-limited funds from the block grant. Ryan’s “deficit neutral” plan allots no more money to struggling Americans while simultaneously making it more difficult for those Americans to receive assistance at all.

The Ryan plan is riddled with inconsistencies, contradictory proposals and methods that have proven ineffective since the advent of the welfare safety net. Low-income Americans and the unemployed need assistance that will not disappear at arbitrary cutoff points and that will encompass childcare, food assistance, housing and job training. An anti-poverty plan must go further to address the real issues facing Americans today, not only reinforcing the welfare system but also raising the minimum wage, expanding worker’s protections and extending unemployment insurance. Because it overlooks the facts about poverty and what workers need to get out of it, the Opportunity Grant program will revoke assistance to those who need it most and worsen the problem of poverty in the US.

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