Criminal Justice and Poverty–The Disturbing Connection

March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Notice the dramatic increase in the 1980’s pictured in this graph from Wikipedia.

It’s alarming and ironic that in America, the land of the free, we have the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth. Overcrowded prisons hold 2.3 million people- a number so big it rivals that of 92 countries in the world! 60% of the prisoners are of a racial or ethnic minority. More than 1/3 are Black.

Why are there so many prisoners?  One reason for these prisoners are mandatory sentencing laws, enacted throughout the 1980’s such as “three strikes” you’re out, which drive people to prison in numbers unlike any other time in our history. America is tougher on crime and defines criminal activity loosely now and unevenly state to state. For example,  80% of increased prison sentences in the 90’s were for non violent possesion of marijuana. Yes, marijuana. In my city, police look the other way for minor possession of this drug but in other states it means prison time. A 2010 Pennsylvania commentary contends that non violent offences there, such as shoplifting, drunk driving, and juvenile crime were being sent to prison more often than they were sent to treatment programs.

How do these sentences relate to poverty? The majority of former prisoners, stripped of voting rights, food stamp access, public housing eligibility and many other basic rights and services, experience a 40% reduction in lifetime wages and constantly fight unemployment. According to a 2010 study by Harvard professor, Bruce Western, only 1 in 4 former prisoners will escape poverty. This in turn has heavy impact on the children in a prisoner’s family and is a cause of generational poverty.

Legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, summed up the impact that “justice” now has on America, on African American people, and on poverty in a January 2012 interview with Democracy Now, “I think we’ve become blind in this country to the ways in which we’ve managed to reinvent a caste-like system here in the United States, one that functions in a manner that is as oppressive, in many respects, as the one that existed in South Africa under apartheid and that existed under Jim Crow here in the United States,” she begins. “Although our rules and laws are now officially colorblind, they operate to discriminate in a grossly disproportionate fashion…millions of poor people, overwhelmingly poor people of color, have been swept into our nation’s prisons and jails, branded criminals and felons, primarily for nonviolent and drug-related crimes…[and] are ushered into a permanent second-class status, where they’re stripped of the many rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement…”  Please consider reading the transcript of Alexander’s 2012 Democracy Now interview. She discusses the problem in greater depth and describes how her life evolved from legal scholar into her role as an advocate.

Justice is blind. Let’s tell her what actions are being taken in her name. Prisons have evolved from institutions built solely to ensure public safety into industries profiting from social injustice. They represent America’s tragedy; wasted lives and minds and failure to address the needs of minorities and poor people.  There is a proper role for correctional imprisonment and rehabilitation of criminals but, today, we also need to rehabilitate our justice system which is dramtically out of balance and no longer solely functioning to protect society. It has become a root cause of generational poverty and a primary reason for higher poverty rates in communities of color.

Busting The Myth of Emergency Rooms and Uninsured Care

November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s a myth that goes like this: uninsured people use ER’s like doctors offices, default on payments, and drive up premiums for everyone else. It’s a phenomenon called cost-shifting but its effect is really blame-shifting. It’s true that ER costs are exorbitant enough to cause payment defaults or financial crises for unisureds and poor people but, in fact, most stay as far away from ER’s and doctors offices as they possibly can. Studies show that they use the emergency room only when there’s a health emergency.

Overuse of ER services tends to happen when insured people are uncertain if their symptoms are urgent or else are incentivized to seek care in the one stop shopping environment of an emergency room. The copay is manageable and every conceivable test is available but the resulting cost to their insurer is huge and it boomerangs back in the form of increased premiums for everyone. The top trend in ’09 was to push rising health care costs back on employee healthcare plans. Since the opening of this century employee contributions to health plans have increased 131% making participation in health plans impossible for the working poor. 

Want more proof of this contention? To capitalize on the trend of insured people using emergency rooms instead of doctors offices, hospitals are building and marketing expensive new free standing ER’s in affluent neighborhoods. Private rooms, valet service, bring your insurance and come on in!  Why do they do that? Because Federal law allows ER’s to charge more for their services. Yes, alot more and ER’s also get higher remibursements from insurance companies because, as part of larger hospitals which are merging and becoming hospital monopolies,they can strong arm insurance companies under the rally cry of patient protections. They also strong arm their own doctors into meeting the monopoly’s bottom line. The “First do no harm” ethic mixes with the business mandate of “First make it profit” and we get higher premiums for all, questionable health benefits, and unreachable treatment costs for patients with poor and low incomes.

Poverty Compounds Troubles for Children in Immigrant Families

November 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

Children born into immigrant families often live in a scarier world then most of us. Aggression against their families flares in our country and is institutionized in the department of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE deported 46,000 parents in the first six months of this year according to researcher Seth Freed Wessler speaking to Democracy Now. When parents are deported or detained their US born children often enter the foster care system and sometimes never see their mother and father again. This is the subject of a new study called Shattered Families. Immigrant children also may be living with abuse. Women in abusive relationships can be afraid to seek help because they fear deportation and lack social support. In some cultures more than 40% of women are subject to domestic violence

This isn’t a blog about deportation, domestic violence or immigration but this context is important in understanding the special hardship children in immigrant families face when they also endure poverty. 4.2 million kids in immigrant families are in poverty and their experience is uniquely hard because so many of those families can’t get food stamps or low income health insurance because of law and bias. 

Since the mid 2000’s poverty rates for immigrant families have increased the most in Suburban areas across the country. Suburbs aren’t often prepared to deliver poverty support much less poverty support to foreign born families. Outside of cultural and language differences other differences distinguish immigrant families from native born poor. They’re more apt to be a married couple with children and more often include a family member that’s working full time but not earning enough to support the household according to an August study from the Brookings Institution. For exact figures on immigrant poverty in your state and a fuller explanation of the issue read that study.  It may help you understand why so many people are working hard for fairer treatment of our immigrant neighbors.

Riding the Tail of the Boomer Generation

October 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

50 is the new 30 as confident and fit people might tell you. However, young as they may feel, life at 50 isn’t getting any easier professionally or economically for that cohort. In 2010 media began to notice people in their fifties who suffered layoffs weren’t getting new work or, if they were, it was taking an awfully long time. A New York Times article profiled the problem noting that by 2009 unemployment for the 55+ set was at a record 7.4%.  Age demographics often group 55-64 and 45-54 so it’s a little hard to tell what specifically happens to people 50-59 but, poverty figures for those groups seem to reflect employment problems for 50somethings. In 2010 23% of 55-64 and 24% of 45-54 were living at 200% of the poverty level. 

Those hardships are corroborated by a report published in September now indicating that 4.9 million young boomers (50-59) were at risk of hunger in 2009. That’s a 38% increase over 2007.  Can you visualize 4.9 million people? It’s more than the total population size of Alabama. That report also tells us that the most dramatic spike in food insecurity was with people at or above twice the poverty line which would include those 24% of the 50 somethings mentioned above.  And, if you’re African Americans or identified as Hispanic you were twice as likely to have food insecurities.

People in their fifties who are out of work or food insecure have unique challenges. They’re too young to stop working, ineligible for social security or medicare, and too young or too old for most food relief programs.  They also face a world of dwindling retirement resources, uncertainty in the social security program and disappearing pensions so they will need to work longer.

Having difficulty getting food leads to nutrient deficiencies and is known to compromise health particularly leading to depression, chronic diseases, diabetes and problems with the activities of daily living. Greater medical costs for society result.  I urge government policies and programs that  include people in their 50’s as a way to head off an overwhelming oncoming waste of human resources and hardships for the tail end of our boomer population.

Coming Out In A Still Hostile World

October 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

October 11, 2011 is National Coming Out Day. That’s a day for supporting friends and family who are Gay, Lesbian or Transgender. It’s a day to press for equality. It’s a day when LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) members are encouraged to “come out,” be open, and share the full spectrum of who they are.  But for many LGBT low income and homeless people full disclosure of sexuality leads to hate and discrimination in places where they go to seek shelter or support.

Recent reports from The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), New York based Queers For Economic Justice (Q4EJ) and Anti Violence Project pour out incidences and harsh experiences that homeless and low income LGBT people face.  On this day promoting visibility of all that we are these studies highlight the risk and complexity that minority communities face when they are visible and do stand up for their experience.

In Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness,  the NGLTF finds that family conflict over gender identification is a primary factor driving youth into homelessness.  Estimates from counts across the nation suggest that LGBT youth comprise upwards of 20 and as high as 40% of  the more than 1 million homeless youth in our country. Youth continue to find hardship on the streets and are 7 times more likely to become crime victims. Safe shelter is hard to find. In New York, for instance, 60% of shelters are run by a facility that repeatedly threatens and abuses LGBT youth because of their sexual orientation.  Despite large numbers in the homeless community very little federal funding, targeted programs, or appropriate housing is provided for LGBT youth.

Queers for Economic Justice’s report: A Fabulous Attitude: LGBTGNC People Surviving and Thriving on Shelter, Love, and Knowledge reports that LGBT homeless youth often stay homeless or low income into young adulthood. In this report, using studies and interviews with 200 respondents, Q4EJ writes, “Survey takers contend with harassment from landlords, evictions, and egregious conditions in shelters. LGBTGNC (Lesbian, Gay,  Bi, Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming) people who are homeless negotiate unprofessional, discriminatory, and dangerous treatment in many vital social service agencies, including being denied services (40%), falsely arrested(24%) and physically (22%) and sexually assaulted (10%).”  

Sadly a 2010 report by The Anti Violence project concludes that LGBTQH (Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender, Queer, HIV affected) communities with long histories of discrimination and violence faced increased rates of violence in 2010 noting that murders in the community are at the second highest level in a decade. Their findings of abuse and indifference within the system were consistent with NGLTF and Q4EJ. 61% of 362 victims interviewed said police attitudes toward them were indifferent, abusive or deterrent. 

Please join me today in pledging to support more funding and research directed toward LGBT low-income and homeless communities. Consider “liking” the Anti Violence Project on Facebook or donating to the  Human Rights Campaign. If you know someone who is LGBT let them know today that you appreciate and support who they are.

Minimum Wage And The Poverty Line

May 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Have you heard the argument that minimum wage laws don’t solve poverty?  Many of the critics saying that have no experience of poverty and believe a high minimum wage will discourge business.  My state, Washington, has the highest minimum wage in the nation and I’ve seen no data suggesting that it dramatically impacted business strength.  In fact we’re beyond the discussion about minimum wage and onto the debate about paying a “living wage.” But, I’ve got a different take on why minimum wage laws don’t solve poverty.

If you’re lucky enough to find work 40 hr/wk and 51 weeks of the year but live in one these 10 states: Georgia, Mississippi, Lousiana, Montana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Minnesota, or Alabama then you know that you can’t reach the poverty line working for minumum wage.  Even if you live in Washington you’ll get no farther than 165% of the poverty line working full time at minimum wage. Not in one of the states, not one single state, could you live above the poverty line if you were supporting a partner and child by working for minimum wage.

A  family with 1 child can’t  reach 200% of the poverty level, often the cut off for minor government assistance, even if both parents work fulltime at minumum wage in any state in America. Keep in mind too that they have childcare costs if they’re both working. Is it any wonder why 1 in 3 families is now working poor

In 2010, 4.4 million people worked at or below the federal minimum wage of 7.25/hour. Each state is free to set their own minimum and 11 are below federal standards.

The next time you interact with sales cashiers, a bartender, desk clerks at the resort you visit, or the friendly people at your child’s daycare please remember that they may be taking home poverty wages. You might’ve guessed they didn’t make much money but you probably didn’t realize that those people, who would never tell you this, may be the faces of America’s working poor.

See also: Not Getting By on Minimum Wage, Sept 27 2011

The Long Blog About The Slow Road To A Realistic Poverty Measure

May 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

How do we define basic need?  Supposing we differ in our answers can we agree that it’s a far cry from needs in 1960? There’s really no argument on that point is there? Yet, the threshold defining poverty is based on the 60’s-a time where women mostly stayed at home and single parents were uncommon.  Life changed but  poverty threshold measurements didn’t.

Poverty “thresholds” are used to count people in poverty, they’re statisitcal measures; abstracts. Poverty “guidelines,” based on the thresholds, affect quality of life.  They’re used to qualify families and individuals for public assistance.  Over the years, our increasingly antiquated measurements impacted guidelines causing the poor to try harder and harder to make 1960 standards fit into 1970, 1980, and 1990 budgets.  The thresholds also failed our government because, as methods of poverty relief  became less and less cash based (ie-food stamps, tax breaks, energy assistance), the simplistic old meaurement system was unable to capture programmatic effectiveness.  Were programs making a difference? Was everyone in poverty getting poverty relief?  Our measurements weren’t telling us.

Congress called for a review in the 90’s.  The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) evaluated and reported on needed changes in 1995. They suggested assessing basic need through a method of bundling  food, clothing, shelter, and utility prices and adding a mulitiplier that would adjust for the cost of  household supplies, personal care, and non work related transportation. They called for the  factoring in of geographic price variations. It was a sophisticated advance over the existing  threshold that used only a bundle of food times the multiple of 3 (based on the 60’s notion that food was 1/3rd of a household budget) to determine need.

NAS also recommended adjusting the income tests determining degree of need. They proposed adding  net earnings plus in-kind public assistance received (food stamps etc)  and subtracting the costs of commuting, childcare, and medical expense.  They concluded that “the proposed measure, compared with the current measure showed a lower poverty rate for people in families on public assistance and a higher poverty rate for people in working families.”  Current income tests analyze only gross income and other monies such as interest income with no consideration for in kind assistance or the costs of working life so many people who struggle are not qualifying for financial help. 

No action was taken on the recommendations from NAS.  And, though US Census grew more concerned about accurately measuring the number of poor in America and implemented experimental poverty measures, the movement for change died in George W Bush’s administration.  A recent Washington Post article about this history writes, “Although the poverty measurement is largely of interest to academics today, it has the potential to alter our perceptions of who is poor, how persistent a problem poverty is and whether policies should be reordered.”  I’d add that it has the potential to help alot of people whose 21st century needs aren’t being detected by a 20th century tool. It’s not an intellectual matter to people whose lives depend on it’s accuracy.

President Obama’s Adminstration has done a few things to help poverty but including funding to update the thresholds was one of the quietest and most meaningful acts he’s taken to help  poor and low income Americans.  The Supplemental Poverty Measure  won’t impact guidelines soon but it will give government good data on the success rate of poverty relief programs so it can emphasize distribution of assistance that really matters. In the long run this is the first step in better supporting fnancially vulnerable populations.  Thank you President Obama.

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