Building Local Momentum for National Change
Virgil Pack works three jobs in the restaurant industry in order to support his two children. He spoke about his 60-plus hours of work each week, with no sick leave and no benefits, at an event releasing the 2014 Poverty and Inequality Indicators Report. Two of his jobs pay only a little over the minimum wage of $7.25; the third pays about $11 an hour. He is grateful to be getting health insurance for the first time, through the federal health care law. Virgil showed us how hard it is for low-income workers to make ends meet, how determined they are to seize opportunities, and how government can make a difference.
On Monday, November 17, the Coalition on Human Needs joined with Half in Ten at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in releasing Building Local Momentum for National Change. Coming out right after voters in five states elected to increase the minimum wage while quite a few candidates succeeded who don’t appear to favor minimum wage hikes, the report underscores the work that has to be done to make national progress against poverty. People believe ordinary workers are being treated unfairly in this economy, and when they get a direct chance to vote to redress that injustice, they’ll do it. And city councils and state legislatures are starting to provide some protections for workers facing a host of unfair practices – requiring employers to provide paid sick leave, or reining in rapacious payday lenders. The report describes some of these achievements, such as an ongoing fight against usurious lenders in Arizona and successful paid sick leave efforts in California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York City, and elsewhere. Expanding Medicaid in 28 states and the District of Columbia is more good news. Successes like these don’t just happen. Activists make them happen. To build on these successes and ensure that low-income people nationwide can benefit, we need federal policies and funding committed to helping people to escape poverty.
Local and state efforts are reducing poverty and improving millions of people’s lives. At the event unveiling the Half in Ten report, New York City Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Julie Menin described six important steps the city is taking, including the one million workers who will benefit from paid sick leave, a $13.13 living wage for workers in city-backed employment, and a pre-tax transit benefit to start in 2016. Commissioner Menin pointed out that places like San Francisco and now New York are proving that policies like paid sick leave do not stall economic growth. On the contrary, both these cities are seeing strong job creation. This evidence will spur campaigns in more places.
But the nation cannot make the progress against poverty we badly need without federal leadership. For one thing, millions of people live in states not as likely to enact worker protections. Just as the federal government stepped in to ensure that deep South states provided Head Start and food stamps to its poor despite a history of racial discrimination, today the federal government should be ensuring that all workers benefit from a fair minimum wage, paid sick leave and protection from excessive interest rates.
But the other role the federal government must play has to do with money. The federal tax base, real and potential, can cover substantial Medicaid and SNAP/food stamp costs, expand child care subsidies, fund infrastructure rebuilding and investments in low-income housing and education, and support tax credits for low-income workers. Most states could not handle these expenditures entirely on their own. Without the jobs, improved health and education, and increased income that come from these federal investments, poverty will remain far too high, despite the important gains achieved in some cities and states.
Right now, the federal government is not investing adequately in poverty reduction. As the report details, instead of increasing affordable child care so parents can work, we have lost over 300,000 child care placements since 2006. We’ve cut SNAP/food stamps, when we should be increasing the benefit levels. The supply of affordable housing is shrinking, but we’ve lost rental housing vouchers and have so far failed to commit funds to the National Housing Trust Fund, which will increase housing units for low-income families. Congress has – to its shame – let unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless expire.
The report reminds us how important the federal role is. It cites the Census Bureau’s research showing how many people are lifted out of poverty when you count benefits funded mostly or entirely with federal dollars. Low-income tax credits lift 9.1 million out of poverty. SNAP/food stamps raise 5 million over the poverty line; housing subsidies help 3.1 million out of poverty. But despite these achievements, poverty remains stubbornly, wastefully entrenched. We can do better, if local and state advocates demand that Congress and the President build upon and expand the anti-poverty successes that are being demonstrated around the country.