Tuesday, April 15, 2014

These Problems Are About Policy

The first time I read Eli Saslow's now-Pulitzer-winning article on a family that gets by using government programs, including SNAP (food stamps), I was a bit depressed by the reality of it. The family just seemed like they weren't trying to get out of the trap they were in.

The second time I read it, though, several passages stood out that are both more important and more actionable. The mother in the family, Raphael Richmond, who is 41, has six children of her own (ages 11 to 25) and also feeds other kids from the neighborhood and her extended family.

Only once, when [Raphael] was in her early 30s, had she lived without government assistance. She had moved her children into a two-bedroom apartment near the Southwest waterfront and signed a lease for $925, working as a home health aide during the day and as a prep cook at RFK Stadium at night. "Climbing the ladder," she said, but then came the reality of what that meant. The increase in her income disqualified her from food stamps, and buying food with cash left nothing to pay the gas bill, and cutting off the heat made the winter seem endless, and the combination of the cold house and the 60-hour workweeks aggravated her arthritis, damaged her heart and compelled her to quit work and apply for disability.

After nine months, she packed three duffel bags and took a bus to the homeless shelter. Her family spent two months in the shelter and two years in transitional housing and then received a voucher for a four-bedroom house in Anacostia with a leaky ceiling and a front-porch view of a highway underpass. The subsidized rent was $139 a month.
This bit of detail points up a problem that is fixable. Why don't we figure out how to better cushion those transition points when benefits cut out, so people can continue to make progress to self-sufficiency, rather than driving them back to survival mode?

The other passages concern Raphael's daughter Tiara:
For 22 years, Tiara had successfully avoided what she referred to as the "ghetto woman traps." She had arrived at adulthood single and childless, a talented musician with a high school diploma and a clean record - "a miracle," Raphael called her. And yet none of those successes had earned her anything like stability, and she had little in her life that qualified as support. Her mother, fearing the next trip to the emergency room, had made her the default guardian for four younger siblings. Her absentee father, a Puerto Rican, had given her nothing but smooth brown skin, soft dreadlocks and, with some reluctance a few years earlier, a phone number where he could be reached in case of emergencies. Believing her life consisted of one long emergency, Tiara had called him the next day, only to learn the number was fake.

At the moment, the only "options" she could list for her caseworker were the new EBT card with her name on it and a food training class hosted by DC Central Kitchen. The class was free, but it was also three months of training that didn't guarantee a job. The class flier had been sitting on the kitchen table for weeks. "Must be able to lift 50 pounds," it read. Must stand for hours. Must work in a noisy environment.
The ads made it sound so easy to get a job in the budding economic recovery of 2013—"Hiring now!" one read; "Start tomorrow!" promised another—but recent experience made Tiara believe she had better odds "playing lotto," she said. The unemployment rate in Ward 8 was 24 percent, triple the national average, and there were an estimated 13 job seekers for every open position. She had been offered a security job, but first the company wanted $500 to train her. Marriott had openings at a new hotel, but the application required her to submit a background check online. So she had gone to the police station and paid $9 for a form showing that she had no criminal record. And then enrolled with a nonprofit group that gave out free computers and scanners, since the ones at the nearby library always seemed to be broken. And then learned that she could only pick up the computer in Rockville, four bus transfers and a Metro ride away.

The latest advice from a caseworker assigned to help with her job search was to "make a list of options" and "stay prayerful"...
Yeah, stay prayerful, Tiara. That'll help. But not as much as if we were using the federal tax dollars that go to subsidize oil companies, agribusiness, and other big corporations to instead fund a jobs program like CETA.

These problems are about policy. As Matt Bruenig points out, single motherhood doesn't have to cause child poverty. That's something we as a society let happen.

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