Category Archives: Poverty

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.


The Fight for LGBTQ Economic Equality

There is a lot to celebrate this LGBT Pride Month. The nation is waiting to hear the Supreme Court’s verdict on whether or not same-sex marriage is protected under the Constitution, which could potentially strike a decisive victory for equal rights and extend marriage equality across the US. Regardless of the outcome, the fight for marriage equality has already achieved significant wins at the state level: 37 states and DC have marriage equality laws, protecting 71% of the population. Considering that no state allowed marriage equality prior to 2004, this rapid progress is a testament to the power of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Marriage can provide significant financial benefits to same-sex couples by giving them access to each other’s social security benefits, health insurance and pensions, and by allowing them to make joint decisions on financial planning and tax preparation.

However, there is still work to be done to ensure equality for LGBTQ individuals in areas such as employment, access to services, and judicial and police protections. Currently, only nineteen states and DC ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment (see map below), housing and public accommodations, with an additional three states banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. This leaves more than half the country without anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals. This discrimination can lead to harsh economic realities for LGBTQ communities. LGBTQ individuals are disproportionately likely to live in poverty: single LGBTQ adults with children are three times as likely to be near the poverty line as non-LGBTQ singles with children, while LGBTQ couples with children are twice as likely to be near the poverty line as their non-LGBTQ counterparts.  Around 15% of transgender individuals earn less than $10,000 per year, compared to only 4% of the general population.

Source: Movement Advancement Project

These economic struggles complicate the experience of domestic violence within LGBTQ relationships. If survivors are reliant on an abusive partner for shelter, transportation, food and other needs, it may be extremely challenging for them to leave and start over independently. In 74% of cases, economic insecurity contributes to a survivor staying with an abuser for longer. Studies have found that the rates of domestic violence in LGBTQ relationships are the same or higher than for non-LGBTQ couples. The National Violence Against Women survey found that 21.5% of men and 35.4% of women living with same-sex partners experienced physical domestic violence. This was higher than the rates for cohabitating opposite-sex partners, at 7.1% for men and 20.4% for women. Transgender survivors are almost twice as likely to experience physical violence in an IPV situation as other LGBTQ survivors.

In addition, LGBTQ survivors may face unique barriers towards accessing essential domestic violence services.  LGBTQ individuals may be wary of calling the police due to fear of discrimination or the possibility of dual arrest, in which both parties are arrested instead of a primary aggressor. A 2007 study found that dual arrest occurred in 27% of same-sex DV cases, compared to 0.8% of cases with a male offender and female victim, and 3% of cases with a female offender and male victim. In 2013, 20% of LGBTQ survivors were turned away from domestic violence shelters and 41.7% were denied access to a protection order.  These resources are particularly critical for economically insecure survivors, who may have few other options to protect themselves from abuse.

Clearly, while the LGBTQ community has made great progress, the fight for equality does not end there.  Policies should protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. There also needs to be an attitude shift towards LGBTQ survivors to recognize that they need the same protections from police, the courts and service providers. Wider Opportunities for Women offers more information about the unique relationship between violence and economic security for LGBTQ survivors as well as recommendations for how we can continue to make improvements.



Another Mother’s Day and So Little Has Changed: Isn’t It Time for Public Policies that Support Working Mothers?

On Mother’s Day in 2015, so many working mothers are struggling to support themselves and their families. And unfortunately they can find very little support in federal legislation.  Today there are only three federal laws that protect mothers in the workforce: the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid job protected leave to new or expectant parents, and a provision of the 2010 health care reform that expands the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act to protect mothers who are breastfeeding in the workplace.

And these laws aren’t even protecting all working mothers. For instance, FMLA is job protected family leave that is only available to workers who met certain criteria.  Workers must have worked for their employer for at least 12 months; performed at least 1,250 hours of service for the employer during the 12 month period immediately preceding the leave; and worked at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles.  And, even more important, is this leave is UNPAID.  So if a worker cannot afford to take time off without pay, they simply cannot take FMLA without facing serious financial consequences.

The United States stands with only one other country in the world–  Papua New Guinea—that does not have a law that requires PAID family leave for new mothers and other caregivers.  In addition, the US lags behind most countries in regard to other workplace protections for parents.   The US does not have paid sick days law—forcing working mothers to work sick or come to work while their child is sick. In fact a mother can be fired for calling out of work if she or her child is sick. Working mothers also have no right to schedule control—meaning they are at the mercy of their employer to schedule their work shifts in ways that allow them to try to manage their family demands.  Childcare continues to be unaffordable and inaccessible to many mothers.  And of course, working mothers continue to face a pay gap in the workplace. Importantly since women are now breadwinners for 40% of US families with children under the age of 18, this is not just a working mother issue, this is a working families crisis.  While a handful of states have passed laws that provide paid leave, paid sick days and/or schedule control, the vast majority of working mothers are left without any protections.

Not surprisingly then, on this Mother’s Day, working mothers’ economic insecurity results, in part, from a lack of strong public policies that support working families. Working mothers are forced to address the conflicts of work and family labor on their own– often having to make hard and sometimes life-threatening choices.  And for single mothers, their situation is significantly worse. In 2013 the poverty rate for female-headed families with children was 39.6 percent, compared to 19.7 percent for male-headed families with children, and 7.6 percent for families with children headed by a married couple. In fact, nearly 522,000 single women with children (12.0 percent) who worked full time, year round in 2013 lived in poverty.  What is perhaps even more troubling is that years out of the recession single working mothers are actually MORE economically insecure. Between 2007 and 2012, the share of female-headed working families that are low-income increased from 54 percent to 58 percent, according to a Population Reference Bureau (PRB) analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.  Quite simply the individualistic approach to addressing work and family is just not working.

So on this Mother’s Day perhaps it is finally the time for “ Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” for far too long to have to have workplace protections and public policies that can actually support the economic security of mothers and their families.

Photo Source:

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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.



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


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.


Accessibility of State Judicial Websites for Survivors

While recently researching how state courts address domestic violence, I discovered wide variation in the quality of support for survivors between each state’s judicial branch website. Every website has access to protection order forms as well as other family court forms, including for divorce and child custody. However, some websites are clearer to navigate than others. Some state sites provide resources through either their family law, circuit court, district court, forms or self-help sections, but it often takes guessing to find forms for survivors. Other states offer a clear section labeled domestic violence or abuse. This section can include a detailed list of resources for survivors, such as explanations of what the court process is like, what a protection order is, how to make a safety plan, and the information from their state’s domestic violence coalition.

For all survivors, it’s important to have resources that are easy to understand and find. However, the current inaccessibility of many state court websites to people not well versed in legal language is especially problematic for low-income survivors and victims of economic abuse. Low-income survivors often can not afford to hire an attorney to help them in court or with court documents. Economic abuse is only one aspect of domestic violence but it damages a survivor’s income, credit and long-term economic security, which can make legal services difficult to obtain. Faced with no legal assistance and an inaccessible court website, survivors might continue to stay with their abusers if they do not understand their options and see no way out. Furthermore, survivors may benefit from knowing what costs and scheduling requirements might be associated with participating in the justice system process.

Alabama’s website was one of the hardest to access. Alabama’s judicial branch website does contain the forms to apply for a protection, but there was nothing else to identify what a protection order was or what the court process might entail for a survivor. In contrast, Oregon’s judicial website was easy to use and provided resources for legal, financial and crisis help. In fact, the first resource listed was for domestic violence hotlines and how to create a safety plan. Furthermore, the resources listed from the Department of Health and Human Services about domestic violence were in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Russian.

Since it can often be hard to navigate every state’s judicial websites, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) created Women’s Law, an easy to access resource that provides information from every state. Women’s Law contains opinions such as “Staying Safe”, “Preparing for Court” and “Know the Laws”. Furthermore, these sections include helpful guiding questions, like “How do I get a Restraining Order” or “How Can I Prepare My Case”. The website can also be read in Spanish. Women’s Law provided more accessible resources than a number of state’s judicial branch website and could be used as a model, along with Oregon’s website, for state courts. Providing accessible information on legal matters in this manner allows a survivor to easily navigate the court system by him or herself and get out of the relationship.


Congressional Candidate: I Couldn’t Live at American Entry-Level Wages

Ron Leach, a Democrat running for Congress in Kentucky, decided to see for himself what the working conditions are like for blue collar workers. He worked an entry-level job at UPS loading packages into aircrafts in Louisville, Kentucky for a couple of months and has recently written about his experience. You can find his full account here. To sum up, he says that without his wife’s benefits and salary:

I could not have survived the past couple months at the “entry level” of America’s economy in which an increasing majority find themselves trapped.

He describes working conditions common to many in the US. The job is physical and involves some risk, although he says that UPS tried to mitigate that risk where possible. However, the job only paid $8.50 per hour and workers weren’t eligible for employer-based benefits for a year. The 2013 BEST wage for Louisville, Kentucky for a single worker with benefits is $13.31 per hour. Without benefits, that worker needs to earn $14.98 per hour just to cover basic expenses. The lack of employer-based benefits leaves workers to find their own insurance. The wages paid barely keep workers off of Medicaid, assuming full time work. They will all be eligible for heavy subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. The need for health insurance is clear, as Leach notes several serious injuries among his coworkers, all new hires.

NELP estimates that more than one quarter of American workers make less than $10 per hour and EPI estimates that 28% of workers will be low-wage workers into the next decade.

We no longer have an economy that rewards hard work or playing by the rules.  We are increasingly becoming a nation of declining fortunes for the majority and a nation in which the American dream is increasingly beyond reach and social mobility is one direction – down – for a growing majority.  


Let’s Be Clear: A Universal Basic Income Does Not Ensure Basic Economic Security

Sparked by a proposed ballot referendum in Switzerland, the prospect of ensuring all Americans a basic income has been resurrected.

A universal basic income (UBI) is one of those rare policy ideas which has support on both sides of the aisle. Progressive, anti-poverty advocates are excited about ending extreme poverty,  increasing workers’ bargaining power and bolstering the safety net. And as Bruce Bartlett summarizes, the idea of a direct cash payment has earned support from more conservative and libertarian-minded critics of government bureaucracy and an extensive ‘welfare state’.

There’s still a sizable leap from opinion pages to the floor of Congress for policy ideas like this, of course. Even advocates acknowledge the proposal is unlikely to be adopted any time soon. But so far as these debates shape the political conversation about how to address low wages, poverty and inequality, it is important that its benefits and limitations be well-investigated and understood.

Proponents have argued that a universal basic income could “replace all other government benefit programs.” Whether this is possible depends on the value of the basic income. Generally, those who make this argument assume it would be somewhere between $5 and 10,000 a year, much lower than the value a family in poverty might gain from access to housing vouchers, SNAP, child care assistance, and Medicaid or CHIP. The value of these benefits would far exceed ten thousand dollars – as well they should! A basic income of $10,000 is far, far below what families need to be secure.

WOW has long advocated that eligibility and benefit levels for income support programs be determined using our Basic Economic Security Tables and Elder Economic Security Standard Index. Compared to the federal poverty levels on which eligibility for these programs is usually based, these Indexes are much more accurate measurements of families’ income needs. Comparing the BEST to local median wages demonstrates how poorly today’s wages and even standard public assistance cover the cost of basic expenses, such as rent, groceries and child care. A UBI can, however, be used to increase family economic security if it is added to the current array of support programs. Such an income can help families on the edges of poverty become more financially stable as they work towards economic security.

And this is not to mention the additional financial challenges faced by families with unique issues, including mental or physical illnesses and disabilities. The institution of a UBI should not take back housing assistance or health services that help families meet these challenges.

However burdened by bureaucratic inefficiencies, our patchwork of welfare programs still have the potential of delivering the level of support that families need to achieve basic economic security. A universal basic income offers some important benefits, but it should work with current programs, not be sold as a replacement for them.


Unemployment Insurance is Necessary for an Economic Recovery

While we are reassured that the budget deal doesn’t contain any new taxes and rolls back some of the sequester cuts, it’s clear that the long-term unemployed will be left out in the cold. Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) expires on the 28th. While the unemployment rate continues to tick down, more than 37% of those currently unemployed and looking for work have been out of a job for at least six months. While the economy has picked up there are still three job applicants for every job opening.

The EUC is vitally important to the long-term unemployed- over 1/3 live in households below the poverty line. These are also the households that are the most likely to spend any money they receive in benefits quickly, giving a boost to the economy. Cutting these benefits will not only impoverish American families, but hurt the economic recovery.

Congress has never cut off EUC benefits when long-term unemployment was so high. It must not do it this time.