Category Archives: Poverty

What You Need to Know About How Section 8 Really Works

A guide to the Section 8 program. You’ll learn how to apply, how to qualify for a voucher and what it’s like to live in Section 8 housing.

by Maya Miller

What is Section 8 and how does it work?

The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program is a form of government rent assistance. In 2018, upwards of 5 million people across the country lived in a household that used a voucher to help pay some or all of their rent.

When Congress established Section 8 of the Housing and Community Development Act in 1974, one of the goals was to make sure people earning low wages could find “decent housing and a suitable living environment” outside of public housing units.

Today, people who meet income requirements can apply to the program to receive a voucher when they become available. If they are approved, selected and then find an apartment or house with the voucher, their local housing authority starts sending payments directly to landlords.

The payments cover some or all of the voucher holder’s rent. On average, each household will pay somewhere between 30% and 40% of its income on rent.

We found that good information about Section 8 is not easily available.

Propulica spent some time reporting on how Section 8 is working as part of a series on housing with the nonprofit news organization The Connecticut Mirror. We learned that the process of getting and using a voucher to find housing is still filled with information gaps.

“Half the battle is the information piece,” said Josh Serrano, a voucher holder in Hartford, Connecticut. He and his colleagues run know-your-rights workshops for potential voucher holders.

“If you don’t know the law you can’t obey the law,” said Crystal Carter, who received a voucher through a Connecticut housing authority but struggled to find housing. She said the companies and landlords she worked with did not always know the Section 8 laws and processes, and that created problems during her housing search.

To create this guide, we spoke with dozens of people who have navigated the voucher process, as well as with property brokers, landlords, former housing authority workers, housing lawyers and housing advocates.

This guide will tell you:

How to find out if I should apply for a Section 8 housing voucher

To get Section 8 housing, you will need to apply for a voucher.

Before you apply, you will need to know:

  • Where you want to live: Each local housing authority has different rules around Section 8. Decide where you want to live and then find the local housing authorities that are in charge of those neighborhoods. You can find a list of all the housing authorities here. Keep in mind: You can apply to housing authorities even if you don’t already live in that town. Don’t see the town you are looking for? Try looking for a regional or state housing authority.

  • How much money you and your household are making: The program is reserved for people making a certain amount of money compared with the area. Check out the housing authority’s income requirements. Then, go to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s online tool to see whether you — and the people you’re living with — fit into that category.

  • Immigration status for you and everyone you’ll be living with: At least one person in your household needs to have legal documentation to be living in the U.S. for the household to apply for a voucher. The nonprofit organization Affordable Housing Online has detailed information here.

  • Criminal history for you and everyone you’ll be living with: All housing authorities do background checks, but each one has different rules. It is possible to get approved for housing if you have a felony or if you are on parole. Ask the specific housing authorities by calling or emailing to see if you’re still eligible. IMPORTANT: You CANNOT get a voucher if you, or someone in your household, is on a lifelong sex offender registry, has been convicted of producing methamphetamine in federal housing or has been evicted within the past three years for drug-related reasons.

How do I apply for Section 8 housing voucher?

The first step to applying for Section 8 housing is to tell the housing authority you’re interested. But, there are more people who want vouchers than there are vouchers available. Most of the time, you’ll be placed on a waitlist.

Getting on a waitlist:

  • Get an email account. You will need an email account to apply. To create a free one, sign up for Gmail or Yahoo accounts.

  • Get alerts. You can sign up for services that will email you when housing authorities open waitlists. Affordable Housing Online has a website where you can see which waitlists are open. The group also has a webpage where you can sign up to get email alerts from the state you’re interested in living in. Some housing authorities have their own alert systems. If you absolutely know that you only want to live in one neighborhood, find the housing authority that oversees the area and sign up with that housing authority directly.

  • Be flexible. Apply to as many waitlists as you can, as long as you can see yourself living in that neighborhood for at least 12 months. After a year, you can look into moving while still holding onto your voucher.

  • Use a dependable mailing address. If you move around a lot, or are homeless, give the housing authority the mailing address of a friend or family member who can let you know when mail arrives for you. You can also ask local churches and shelters if you can use their mailing address. If they say yes, check in with them once a week to see if they’ve gotten any notices from the housing authority.

  • Do not pay money to apply. You never have to pay to apply to a Section 8 waitlist, and there is no way to pay to move up the waitlist once you’re on it. If you’re asked to pay, it’s more than likely a scam.

  • A doctor’s note can speed up the wait. Some housing authorities move you up the waitlist if you or someone in your household has a disability or a health issue like asthma that is getting worse because of where you’re living. If these cases apply to you, ask a doctor to write a note to the housing authority explaining how new housing will help your condition. Get and keep a copy of the note.

Steps to take while you’re on a Section 8 waitlist:

Lawyers and former housing authority workers say that being on the waitlist doesn’t mean you should just wait until you hear something. They shared a couple of important tips:

  • Take notes and photos. Keep a written record of all your communication with the housing authority. You can use your phone to take pictures of documents, emails you send or notes you take while having a phone call. Record keeping is important because there is a lot of staff turnover within housing authorities, lawyers and former employees told us.

  • Keep in touch. Respond to any notices you get in the mail from the housing authority over phone, email or mail so the housing authority knows you’re still interested in staying on the waitlist.

  • Keep applying. As soon as new waitlists in your state open up, apply. Don’t wait!

  • Join communities online. Join Section 8 groups on social media platforms. Tens of thousands of people are in the same position you are, and they have created social networks to support and help one another. Here are some of the more popular nationwide Facebook groups: Public Housing (Section 8) (Voucher Holders) HUD Tenants Group and Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) Friends.

  • Be patient. It can take months or years to get approved depending on demand. Don’t give up!

  • Keep everyone updated. Communicate with the housing authority if there are any changes in where you live, how much money you or someone in your household is making or how many people are in your household (for example, if you get married or divorced, or adopt or have a child).

What to do after being approved for a Section 8 housing voucher:

  • Be your own advocate, and ask questions if you have them. If you are missing information or have questions, you can call or email the local housing authority. It’s a complicated process, and it’s important to speak up for yourself when you don’t understand something. The housing authorities also have walk-in days where you can stop by and ask questions.

  • Hand in the paperwork on time. If you miss the deadline, your move could be delayed.

  • Don’t miss the housing authority “briefing.” All housing authorities are required to offer in-person briefings to provide you with the information you need to know before you get your voucher. You’ll get a notice in the mail that will tell you when and where the briefing is taking place. If you can’t make the briefing for any reason, be sure to contact your local housing authority. Some housing authorities give you the vouchers the same day you receive a briefing, and others hand them out a couple days or weeks later.

How do I find housing with a Section 8 housing voucher?

Once you have your voucher in hand, you should start looking for an apartment. First you get the voucher. Here’s what a voucher looks like. Yours may be different.

What to know about the voucher:

  • Check the number of bedrooms, and ask the housing authority about the rent. The voucher comes with a limit on how many bedrooms the apartment can have. The voucher does not come with a set amount of rent. So, before you start your search, you should talk to your housing authority worker about what the range of rent might be.

  • Calculate the cost of gas, electricity and other utilities (like heat). We’ve heard stories of people who ended up with hard-to-pay utility bills because they didn’t consider their cost. If you’re unclear about your utility allowance, get in touch with the housing authority or a local housing advocate.

  • You are responsible for the security deposit. Ask the property owner or landlord how much the security deposit is while you’re looking for housing because you’re ultimately responsible for paying it. You can also check whether your state security deposit assistance programs can help cover the deposit by looking up “deposit assistance program” in a search engine like Google or asking your housing authority.

Tips for the housing search:

  • Almost everyone we talked to said that it is important to document everything. Write everything down, and bring someone with you who can help take notes on your search process. You can also take pictures of everything with your phone. Here are the things you should write down:

  • The dates, times and places where meetings happen.

  • Names and job titles of everyone you meet.

  • The address of the apartment or house you want to rent, and the type of building.

  • IMPORTANT: If you are denied housing, write down the reasons you were turned down.

  • Look for housing online. HUD compiled a list of all the apartment buildings it has worked with through Section 8 and put it into a map that you can scroll through. Otherwise, you can look through:

How to apply for an apartment or house:

Once you’ve found an apartment or house that fits your needs, you should apply for a lease.

  • Submit your paperwork to the landlord. Make sure the paperwork is filled out and returned to the housing authority. You’ll get this paperwork, which includes a “request for tenancy approval,” when you get your voucher. Make sure the housing authority gets the “request for tenancy approval” and a copy of the lease.

  • Read the lease carefully. Ask questions if you don’t understand something. Housing lawyers have told us these leases can be complicated, hard to understand and can include loopholes that put you at a disadvantage. They recommend that you read through the lease alongside a housing authority staff member, housing advocate or local lawyer before deciding whether to sign.

  • Keep inspections in mind. Within a few days or weeks of the lease signing, the housing authority will set up a time to inspect the place to make sure it’s in good condition. Once everything passes inspection, you can move in.

What can go wrong:

  • The time limit. From the moment you get your briefing, you’ll have at least 60 days (it can be 90 or 120 days, depending on the housing authority) to find housing. It’s normal for people to struggle to find housing in that time frame, especially if the person is working long hours.

    • If you have trouble finding housing in that time, you can ask the housing authority for an extension. “Do it earlier rather than later,” said Erin Kemple, the executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

    • The housing authority will give you an extension so long as you can show them that you’ve put in effort to find housing. So, write down and take pictures of all the places you visit on your housing search and when you visited them (including the date and time).

  • Housing discrimination. In the 40-plus years that vouchers have been around, research shows that local zoning boards and property owners have made it hard for people with vouchers to live in certain areas.

    • Some states have responded with laws to address this practice. As of December 2019, there are 14 states that have passed laws banning landlords from rejecting tenants based on their source of rent income, which includes Section 8 vouchers. If you come across a housing listing that says “No Section 8” in one of these states, report it to the local housing authority and to legal aid or fair housing attorneys in your state.

    • If it feels like the only reason you’re NOT allowed to apply for an apartment is because you have a voucher, make sure to document it and then tell your local housing authority about the incident.

Living with a voucher

We’ve heard from people with plenty of experience in the Section 8 process. Overall, they’ve told us it’s just like living in other apartments. But there are some challenges that come up when living with a voucher that folks regularly brought up.

Here is what you need to know about living in Section 8 housing:

  • No matter what, always pay your portion of the rent on time. Always ask for receipts of your payment, and keep them on file.

  • Get everything in writing. If your landlord reaches out and tells you that you need to pay for a repair, ask for a written explanation. If you don’t think you should be paying what the landlord is asking for, reach out to the housing authority, a local housing lawyer or a housing advocate for advice.

  • Moving with a voucher. If you have lived in the same place for at least 12 months, you can move to a different neighborhood or state while keeping your voucher. This is called “porting.” You must apply. HUD has trainings and forms for porting that you can check out.

  • Unless a family breaks up, you can’t pass along a voucher to somebody else. The voucher can stay within the household if the person carrying the voucher dies, divorces or is convicted of a crime. You can’t pass along vouchers in a will or sell them.

Other Resources:


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.


How to Apply for Section 8 Housing

If you legally reside in the United States and don’t make enough money to pay your rent or mortgage, you might qualify for Section 8 housing, also known as housing choice vouchers. Although applying for government assistance can be difficult, receiving the voucher can be a big help when you’re in a tough financial situation.

Understand how Section 8 housing works. Housing choice vouchers are administered by local public housing authorities (PHA), of which there are several around the nation. Vouchers come as either project-based or tenant-based — see below for more details. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) supports PHAs, and your local PHA will help you arrange Section 8 housing.

  • Under a tenant-based voucher, a tenant gets a voucher and can move into a unit with financial assistance. If that tenant chooses to move to another unit, the voucher carries over to the next unit, offering continued assistance to the tenant wherever they decide to live.
  • Under a project-based voucher, a tenant gets assistance so long as they remain in the unit that the voucher was issued for. The voucher lasts for a specified unit and time. If the family chooses to leave the unit, the assistance does not carry over to the next unit. A family may still, however, be eligible for a tenant-based voucher.

Determine your eligibility. Whether or not you qualify for Section 8 housing is based on multiple factors, including your family's income, the median income in your area, how much rent you're paying, your assets, and the composition of your family. Here's a general breakdown of the eligibility requirements:

  • You are a US citizen or non-citizen who has eligible immigration status.
  • You earn, as a family, less than 50% of the median income for the county or city in which you choose to live.[1] In fact, most Section 8 recipients earn closer to 30% of the median income for the county or metro area in which they choose to live. That's because the PHA must provide 75% of its vouchers to families who earn less than 30% of the median income.
  • You meet other criteria based on assets and family composition.

Document your income and housing costs. Have pay stubs from your employer verifying your salary, and either your mortgage information or something in writing from your property owner that confirms your current rent. You'll need these documents to apply for vouchers.

Know what kind of voucher you need. HUD provides assistance to both renters and homeowners. Apply for a tenant voucher if you rent the premises where you’re living. Complete a property voucher application if you would like financial assistance with paying a mortgage for a condominium, townhouse or home that you own. In some cases, Section 8 vouchers can be used to purchase a modest home and make mortgage payments.

Apply for vouchers. Contact your local PHA to begin the application process. Find a list of PHAs here. Ask if it's possible to complete the forms online.

  • Get assistance with completing the necessary paperwork if you’re not fluent in English. Call your local public housing authority to find out their office hours so you can complete the paperwork in person. You should be able to schedule a time with someone who can translate or to help you complete the forms

Enrolling in Section 8 Assistance

Be prepared for a long wait. In many cases, people who apply for Section 8 are waitlisted. Your local PHA may have more applications than it can afford to approve vouchers for, and will therefore have a waiting list for applicants.

  • In some cases, there are as many as 100,000 applicants for only 10,000 spots. It can take upwards of 3 to 6 years in these areas to be enrolled in Section 8 while on the waiting list.[2]
  • Be aware of prioritizing. PHAs develop local preferences for moving applications up or down the waiting list, and may give preference to families who are currently homeless or living in substandard housing, families who pay more than 50% of their income in rent, or families who are involuntarily displaced. Inquire at your local PHA office if you have any questions about how prioritizing is allotted.
  • If the PHA in your area has more applicants than it can assist in the near future, it may temporarily stop accepting new applications.[3] Although this type of closure is not permanent, it may be beneficial to look for Section 8 housing in another county or metropolitan area if your local office is not open to new applicants.

Know your responsibilities if you do get accepted. If your local PHA does approve your application and provide you with a housing voucher, you'll need to make sure that your current or intended living situation fits HUD health and safety requirements.

  • Safety requirements include appropriate thermal controls, running water and sanitation systems, lack of toxic building materials, and structural integrity among other criteria.
  • If you're renting, you'll be required to sign a year lease with a cooperating property owner, who will be obligated to both you and your local PHA to provide safe housing and reasonable rent.
  • You'll also be required to make payments on time, maintain the unit in good condition, and comply with the terms of the lease. If you fail to pay the landlord on time, your Section 8 assistance could be revoked.

Calculate your rent responsibility. Under Section 8 housing, you and your family will pay 30% of your monthly adjusted gross income on housing and utilities. Your voucher will cover the remainder of the cost. Your local PHA can help you calculate how much you need to budget for each month.

  • Say, for example, your monthly income is $1,000. You'd pay $300, even if the rent of the unit is $1,000. There will likely be a cap on the maximum amount the voucher can pay based on the cost of living in your area.

Avoid housing discrimination. A landlord may legally refuse occupancy for failure to pass background checks, poor credit, and other determinations, but cannot refuse occupancy to you based solely on your Section 8 enrollment.[4] Nor can a landlord charge a section 8 voucher holder more than a non-section-8 tenant.[5]

  • If you think a landlord has refused occupancy to you based solely on your Section 8 enrollment, contact your local PHA.

Know what role geography plays in Section 8 enrollment. Section 8 guidelines are different from location to location. But in general, residents who receive a tenant-based voucher for the current jurisdiction in which they live may use that voucher to live anywhere in the country. Residents who do not live in the same jurisdiction in which they applied must move to the jurisdiction that issues the voucher for at least 12 months; after 12 months, they are free to move.

  • Section 8 vouchers can also help you buy your home by getting a home loan at below-market interest rates. This enables you to use your voucher as a credit toward your mortgage rather than rent. Consult your local housing authority for more information.[6]

 

Don't commit fraud. Fraud can result in termination of Section 8 assistance, as well as restitution of funds, probation, or even prison.[7] Fraud may be defined as any of the following offenses:

  • Knowingly omitting or under-reporting income or assets from household income.
  • Transferring assets or income to achieve eligibility.
  • Falsifying or using false Social Security documents.
  • Falsifying the number of members in your household.
  • Getting assistance on top of Section 8 without notifying the appropriate parties
  • Renting out or subletting all or part of the unit.
  • Charging rent from any tenants who may be living with you.

Tips

  • You can move without losing your access to Section 8 housing. Be sure to notify your local PHA in advance, terminate your lease within lease provisions, and find new housing that fits within HUD health and safety standards.
  • Expect to wait before you hear a final determination on your application. Many Section 8 housing applicants are on waiting lists for months and even years.
  • Note that landlords must return any deposits held if the unit doesn’t pass the HUD inspection, and they have the right to turn away an applicant if the inspection cannot be completed within 10 days.
  • Click here to contact your local PHA. You can find the nearest HUD office here

Warnings

  • Don’t get tricked by professional scammers. There are fraudulent companies promising to help you complete the paperwork for Section 8 housing in return for a fee. You can get all the assistance you need to file for Section 8 housing free of charge simply by contacting the federal HUD office or your local public housing authority.
  • This article contains legal information, but does not constitute legal advice. If you feel that you need legal advice, consult an attorney.

References

  1.  http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/public_indian_housing/programs/hcv/about/fact_sheet
  2.  http://www.insidebayarea.com/ci_17060183
  3.  http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/public_indian_housing/programs/hcv/about/fact_sheet
  4.  http://www.masslegalhelp.org/common-forms-of-housing-discrimination
  5.  http://www.tenantsunion.org/en/rights/section-8-vouchers
  6.  http://www.chfa.org/Homeownership/for%20Homebuyers/Homebuyer%20Mortgage%20Programs/Section8HomeownershipVoucherProgram.aspx
  7.  http://www.hudoig.gov/report-fraud

Republished with permission under license from WikiHow.

How Wealthy Towns Keep People With Housing Vouchers Out

Section 8 vouchers should give low-income people the opportunity to live outside poor communities. But discriminatory landlords, exclusionary zoning and the federal government’s hands-off approach leave recipients with few places to call home.

by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, The Connecticut Mirror

HARTFORD, Conn. — On a sweltering Saturday afternoon last June, Crystal Carter took a deep breath as she walked toward the red “for rent” sign.

Shaded by tall oak trees, the three-story duplex looked cozy. The first floor siding was painted yellow, with white railings leading to the front door. The windows appeared new, the lawn freshly cut.

Although the property was in Barry Square, on the edge of a struggling area in southern Hartford, the family outside buoyed Carter’s spirits. Four children giggled in a recliner in the front yard, singing along to the radio while their father packed a moving truck. Across the street were Trinity College’s dignified brick pillars, the entry to the elite school’s 100-acre campus.

Carter tried to tamp down her excitement, but this looked like the kind of place the 48-year-old single mother so desperately wanted for her five kids: no mouse traps, no chipped paint trying to camouflage mold.

“You own this place?” she asked the sweat-soaked man. Yes, he said. “Are you renting it out, or has it already been rented?”

He put down a crate and offered her a tour of the first-floor, four-bedroom unit. Inside, she marveled at the modern kitchen, finished hardwood floors and large closets.

“This is a lot of space. When are you putting this on the market?” she asked.

“It’s ready, if you want to do the application,” he told her. Rent was $1,500 a month.

Carter paused.

“I’ll be paying with a Section 8 voucher,” she said.

“Yeah,” the man shot back. “I don’t do Section 8.”

Officially called Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 rent subsidies were supposed to help low-income people find decent housing outside poor communities. But, for the better part of a year, Carter had found the opposite. This was easily the 50th place she had toured since her landlord sold her last apartment and evicted her. Nearly all of them were in poor areas. They had holes in the wall, uncovered electrical outlets, even roaches and mice. When she hit upon something clean, she learned not to ask too many questions. She complimented the landlord, talked about her children and emphasized that she didn’t smoke. None of it seemed to matter, though, once she uttered two words: Section 8.

Now, as Carter showed herself out of the first-floor rental, she felt panic welling within. “There really are no doors open for people that have a voucher,” she said afterward. “It makes you feel ashamed to even have one.” Typically, vouchers come with a time limit to find housing, and Carter had already won three extensions. She wasn’t sure she’d get another.

She had just 40 days left to find a place to live.

As the federal government retreated from building new public housing in the 1970s, it envisioned Section 8 vouchers as a more efficient way of subsidizing housing for the poor in the private market. They now constitute the largest rental assistance program in the country, providing almost $23 billion in aid each year to 2.2 million households. Local housing authorities administer the program with an annual budget from Washington and are given wide latitude on how many vouchers they hand out and how much each is worth. The bulk of the vouchers are reserved for families who make 30% or less of an area’s median income. That is $30,300 or less for a family of four in Hartford.

For years, researchers and policymakers have lamented the program’s failure to achieve one of its key goals: giving families a chance at living in safer communities with better schools. Low-income people across the country struggle to use their vouchers outside of high-poverty neighborhoods.

In Connecticut, the problem is especially acute. An analysis of federal voucher data by The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica found that 55% of the state’s nearly 35,000 voucher holders live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. That’s higher than the national average of 49% and the rates in 43 other states.

The segregation results, at least in part, from exclusionary zoning requirements that local officials have long used to block or limit affordable housing in prosperous areas. As the Mirror and ProPublica reported in November, state authorities have done little to challenge those practices, instead steering taxpayer money to build more subsidized developments in struggling communities.

Dozens of voucher holders in Connecticut say this concentration has left them with few housing options. Local housing authorities often provide a blue booklet of Section 8-friendly properties, but many of the ones listed are complexes that have a reputation for being rundown and are in struggling communities or have long waitlists. Many recipients call it the “Black Book” because “you are going to the dark side, for real. The apartments in that black book are nasty and disgusting,” said Janieka Lewis, a Hartford resident whose home is infested with mice.

Josh Serrano also lives in one of the state’s poorest neighborhoods. After landing a voucher in 2018, he tried to find a place in the middle-class town of West Hartford, where his son lives part time with his mother. He also looked in nearby Manchester and Simsbury. At each stop, the rent was higher than his voucher’s value or the landlord wouldn’t take a voucher.

“There is an invisible wall surrounding Hartford for those of us who are poor and particularly have black or brown skin like myself,” he said. “No community wanted me and my son.”

Nearly 80% of the state’s voucher holders are black or Hispanic and half have children. Their average income is $17,200 a year and the average amount they pay in rent out of pocket is $413 a month.

The federal government has taken a mostly hands-off approach to ensuring the Section 8 program is working as it was originally intended. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development typically leaves it up to each housing authority to determine how much a voucher is worth, which essentially determines the type of neighborhood a voucher holder can afford. And when HUD assesses the work of housing authorities — to decide whether to increase federal oversight — only a tiny fraction is based on whether local officials are “expanding housing opportunities … outside areas of poverty or minority concentration.” (And even at that, nearly all housing authorities receive full credit.)

Moreover, federal law does not make it illegal for a landlord to turn down a prospective tenant if they plan to pay with a voucher, so HUD does not investigate complaints of landlords who won’t accept Section 8 vouchers.

Connecticut goes further. It is one of 14 states where it’s illegal to deny someone housing because they plan to use a Section 8 voucher. And the state allocated more than $820,000 in the last fiscal year to help pay for 10 investigators to look into complaints of all types of housing discrimination and provide legal assistance. “There has been an effort to try to change” housing segregation, said Seila Mosquera-Bruno, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Housing.

But those efforts have done little to prevent landlords from continuing to reject voucher holders. The groups charged with investigating housing complaints say they lack the resources to be proactive and believe they are only seeing a fraction of what’s really going on.

“Housing providers keep coming up with ways to rent to who they want to rent and find ways around housing discrimination laws,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, which investigates complaints. “There is a lot more discrimination going on than what we are investigating.”

In 2018, fewer than 75 complaints were made that accused the landlord or owner of refusing to accept a voucher or some other legal source of income, such as Social Security. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center said that figure isn’t low because discrimination is scarce but rather because prospective tenants are fearful that complaining could hurt them and know that it will do nothing to help them with their immediate needs; investigations can take longer than the time they have to find a house with their vouchers.

“In order to make it a real priority and address the real effects of discrimination in society, the government should dedicate more resources to ferreting it out,” said Greg Kirschner, the group’s legal director.

A Hartford native, Carter reluctantly moved back to her hometown in 2011 to escape an abusive relationship. She had delayed relocating, she said, because she worried she’d be taking her children from a quiet neighborhood in Florida to a “war zone” in Connecticut.

“They not from the streets. Their heart is trying to be goofy-cool,” she said of her three sons, now 10, 17 and 18, and two daughters, ages 13 and 14. “They don’t have that fight in them. I do.” (Worried about her children’s privacy, Carter asked that they not be named in this story.)

Crystal Carter (Monica Jorge for ProPublica)

She and her children moved into a homeless shelter and then an extended-stay motel. She saw Section 8 as their path to independence, and she started calling housing authorities around the state to apply for and get on waiting lists for a voucher. At first, Carter limited her search to Connecticut’s middle-class and upper-income towns, hoping to settle in a place with low crime and high-performing schools.

But with each call, she lost hope. She met the income requirements — hers was less than half the state’s average household income — but the waitlists had thousands of families in front of her, if they weren’t closed entirely.

When she found out that the Winchester Housing Authority in Northwest Connecticut had just 67 people on its waitlist, she got excited; among the affluent region’s celebrity residents are Meryl Streep and Ralph Nader. The feeling was quickly dashed. Officials barred her from the list, saying it was open only to those who already lived in the predominantly white towns. The housing authority did not return calls seeking comment.

“That lady told me I would be better off living in Bridgeport,” Carter recalled. The city is one of Connecticut’s most impoverished. “She would not send me out an application for nothing in the world, no matter how many times I called. She kept saying, ‘Go to Bridgeport.’”

Blocking those who don’t live in town from getting a housing subsidy is against the law, but housing authorities are allowed to prioritize whom they award the vouchers to.

Both ways can effectively shut out minorities. And the Winchester Housing Authority is not alone. The wealthy town of Westport — where just 1% of the residents are black and 5% are Hispanic — until recently posted on its website that it gave substantial preference to current residents and those with ties to the town for its public housing. After the Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica asked about the policy, officials removed the language from the site and disavowed the practice.

Carter decided to fight back. Her mother had worked for the Hartford Housing Authority for decades, so she was familiar with housing rules. “I pretty much know all my rights,” she said later. She called the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and soon sued Winchester for housing discrimination.

The housing authority denied any wrongdoing, and the case dragged on for more than a year. The parties settled, with Winchester pledging to open its waiting list to those outside its borders. But instead of accepting applications from Carter and others, Winchester stopped participating in the voucher program altogether.

Amid the legal battle, she landed a voucher from the middle-class town of West Hartford. She was jubilant. Then, she started searching. “There were no places no matter how hard I looked,” Carter said. “It’s not a golden ticket.”

Approaching the time limit to find housing with her voucher, she settled for Hartford, where her family ultimately moved into a quaint four-bedroom duplex on a quiet street in the South End. Another bright spot: After a few months in the city’s struggling schools, her children had won coveted spots to attend school in the suburbs of Suffield and Simsbury, which have some of the highest-performing schools in the state. (The education lottery stemmed from a Connecticut Supreme Court order in 1996 to correct the inequality inherent in the Hartford region’s segregated schools.)

The change was stark. In Simsbury, educators taught smaller classes; the school had a social worker and other staff who helped coordinate transportation for Carter’s children and enrolled them in free extracurricular programs. Clubs focused on the stock market, horticulture, mindfulness, fly fishing.

“We was grounded,” Carter said, “and didn’t have to worry about living.”

A neighborhood in Simsbury, Connecticut, one of the suburbs where Carter’s children attend school, thanks to winning an education lottery. (Monica Jorge for ProPublica)

Carter found the notice under her door. It was the summer of 2018. Her landlord of four years had sold the building, and the new owner had given her just 30 days to leave.

Carter was deflated. It had taken so long to find this apartment, and she had no free time; she worked long hours as a ramp loader at the airport for an Amazon Prime subcontractor. Further, the conditions of the education lottery restricted her options; in order for her children to remain in their current schools, they had to live in either Simsbury or Hartford. So when the deadline to move passed, Carter refused to leave. Her landlord filed for eviction. The legal fight lasted for months.

On a frigid morning in January 2019, Carter saw her children off to school and then headed to Hartford Housing Court, a brown brick building a half-block from the state Capitol.

The courtroom was packed with families facing eviction and their landlords’ attorneys, but when the bailiff yelled out her name, she still felt humiliated.

Carter pleaded her case above the squeals of a restless baby in the gallery. She told the judge her choices were bleak: either remain in the duplex and eventually be evicted, or leave and become homeless.

“I just can’t find an adequate four-bedroom. It’s not like I’m just sitting there. I know the man want me out. It’s obvious the man want me out,” she told Judge Rupal Shah. “I’ve been looking in Hartford. I’ve been looking in Simsbury. …”

But not having anywhere to go is not a valid defense — the judge gave her 10 days to move.

Eviction rates are high in Connecticut, with 1 in 18 families in Hartford evicted each year. While some skipped rent or damaged property, others are forced out because of new ownership or rising rents. Landlords will often start the eviction process on tenants in good standing to speed up the move-out process, said Nancy Hronek, a housing attorney with Greater Hartford Legal Aid. Regardless of the circumstances, an eviction stains a tenant’s rental record, making it more difficult for them to find a new place. Some housing advocates call it the “Scarlet E.”

A blighted neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut, near where Carter searched for housing. (Monica Jorge for ProPublica)

On the morning of Feb. 7, Carter heard a knock on the door. It was a state marshal. She hadn’t finished emptying the apartment, so the marshal began hauling her belongings outside. Within minutes, her furniture was strewn across the front lawn. Her children helped her load everything into a moving van. Fog hung in the air as they drove away in silence.

Her family crammed into a relative’s apartment in a nearby city. The whole family slept in one room; the three boys in one bed, Carter and her two girls in another. Often, one of them would sleep on the couch in the family room. Everyone stuffed their clothes into a single dresser. The rest of their things moldered in storage.

The social worker at school tried to get the kids into free camps and after-school clubs, but they started to act out. They resisted getting up for school, and their grades started to suffer. The principal called to express concern.

“Now we shelled in this house,” Carter said. “This neighborhood, it ain’t really great, so my kids are just stuck in a room all day playing video games or on YouTube.”

Then, Carter lost her job; the shipping business where she worked took a hit and the company downsized. She redoubled her housing search.

Carter woke before dawn. Sitting at a half-moon table in the dimly lit kitchen, she opened her phone to review apartment listings on a handful of websites while her children slept. Facebook Market, Craigslist, Trulia, Zillow, Apartments.com. She kept checking her phone for notifications of new offerings in Simsbury and Hartford.

It had been four months since her eviction.

“Every day, I look — and nothing works out,” she said.

Most of the listings were in impoverished communities in Hartford. Carter doesn’t drive, so she would line up tours and then ride the bus for an hour to the city. Many of the units she described as “shitholes.”

The Obama administration had tried to change this dynamic. In 2011, HUD piloted a program in the Dallas area that raised the value of vouchers in high-cost areas and decreased their value in impoverished communities as a result of a legal settlement. The idea was that more money would provide more choice, encouraging voucher holders to seek housing in safer areas with high-performing schools.

The Obama administration changed federal rules to expand the program, but the Trump administration in 2017 suspended an expansion of the initiative to poor cities like Hartford.

Carter sued HUD in 2017 in federal district court in Washington, seeking a court order increasing the value of her voucher in the more affluent neighborhoods of Hartford. The judge ruled in her favor.

Researchers have found that raising the voucher’s value in certain neighborhoods worked to make more housing available within the voucher’s price range. The share of rental units in better-off areas that voucher holders could afford jumped from 18% to 41%, according to New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

But now, two years later, Carter often found herself turned away from nicer places. That summer, she saw an ad for an idyllic Cape Cod in a quiet neighborhood, so she called the management company to arrange a tour. But when she disclosed that she planned to pay with a voucher, the firm told her it was no longer available and suggested listings in poorer areas. When Carter passed by a few weeks later, she saw a “for rent” sign on the front lawn.

Frustrated with her online search, Carter sometimes asked friends and family to drive her around the better-off sides of Hartford looking for unlisted apartments. She also relied on her social network to send her tips. She heard about the yellow house in Barry Square from her oldest son, who came across it while he was out with friends.

“There is no place for us,” Carter said. “How can I say this without being too blunt: Everybody don’t want us in their backyard. It’s not a color thing. It’s a voucher thing. Nobody wants us.”

Around the country, the federal government has largely outsourced investigating housing discrimination complaints to watchdogs like the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

After disability discrimination, the second most common type of complaint Connecticut’s watchdogs receive is that a landlord won’t take a voucher or another legal source of income. But only 17% of people who suffer discrimination actually end up filing a complaint, research shows.

Like most apartment hunters, Carter had no time to file complaints. After the Barry Square landlord rejected her, she headed to another open house, which she had found on Craigslist. It was a five-bedroom in the Clay Arsenal neighborhood, a part of Hartford known for drug dealing. Her oldest son had once witnessed his friend being shot in this neighborhood in a carjacking.

“My brain is telling me don’t do this,” she said. “My kids aren’t built for this life”

She pushed her hair into her black duckbill newsboy cap and walked up the stairs. Inside, she scanned the floor and saw glue traps to catch mice. “It’s just as a precaution,” the owner said. Carter thought about her 13-year-old daughter, who has severe asthma; rodent infestations can trigger the condition.

As she made her way into the main bedroom, she looked at the doors. A dog had scratched through the flimsy material. The carpet was worn. And a hallway closet had been turned into a bedroom. The rent: $1,600.

Carter couldn’t wait to leave. She stepped outside, and the landlord assured her that she would have the carpets cleaned and the doors repaired. An exterminator would come monthly.

“Do you take vouchers?” Carter asked.

“That’s not a problem,” the owner responded.

Time was running out. In late July, Carter’s relative heard from their landlord. There were too many people in the apartment.

Carter and three of her children stayed while her two older sons moved in with her brother about 20 miles away. Her grasp on her voucher was also tenuous. It had been set to expire in August but, after attorneys at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and the civil rights group Open Communities Alliance took up her case, she won a 30-day reprieve.

She’d turned down the apartment with mouse traps. But now she was forced to consider a different place in the same neighborhood; it too had mouse traps. Panicked, she started the process of finalizing a lease by sending paperwork to the Hartford Housing Authority.

Even then, she hit a snag: Housing officials approved the apartment but not the entire rent.

Carter called everyone she thought could help. Among them was Erin Boggs, a civil rights attorney she met years ago during the waiting list lawsuit.

It was a long shot, but Boggs sent emails to her advocacy network, including a Catholic deacon whose parish is in Simsbury. The town is mostly wealthy and white, with a latticework of bike trails and a pedestrian bridge lined with flower pots. Rental stock was sparse. In her note, Boggs described Carter as a “civil rights hero” who needed a hand. Within hours, the deacon called a member of his congregation.

Josh Livingston rented a handful of houses in town and had just purchased a four-bedroom Cape Cod set on a wooded lot, just off the main road. The two talked about how much harder life is for people with fewer resources. The next morning, Livingston emailed Boggs, “I can’t stop thinking about the chance to help Crystal and her family live in Simsbury.”

Livingston had listed the Cape for $2,300 a month, plus utilities. But Carter’s voucher, adjusted for the area’s higher income, would only cover $2,222. He agreed to the reduced price and to cover utilities.

In mid-August, Boggs called Carter with the news. Carter was shocked. She had roughly two weeks left on her voucher and soon went to tour the house. The Cape was across the street from a “Welcome to Simsbury” sign adorned with purple mums. It was bigger than any place Carter had ever imagined herself living in. Fronted by a lawn peppered with colorful leaves from the tall trees, the two-story house had a detached garage and carport. Inside, there was an eat-in kitchen, a fireplace and a sunroom.

Carter and her landlord, Josh Livingston, outside her new rental home in Simsbury. (Monica Jorge for ProPublica)

Later, when a housing inspector came to confirm that the property was safe, Livingston glimpsed the prejudice that Carter experienced. “He said to me: ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a fantastic house. I really hope they don’t ruin it,’” the landlord recalled.

Carter and her family moved in just before Halloween. Someone left a welcome pumpkin and leaf wreath on her front stoop.

On a recent Saturday morning, she was busy tidying the kitchen before work; she had found a job at the Stop and Shop grocery store across the street. A roast defrosted on the counter, near a stack of coupon leaflets. On the windowsill above the sink was a homemade blue and red painted welcome plaque given to her by one of her children. Next to the dinner table, a sign reading, “Life is better at the beach.”

“It’s just so cozy,” Carter said.

In the living room, family photos rested on built-in bookshelves, and donations from the nearby Catholic Church were slowly filling the space: pots and pans, firewood, side tables. Upstairs, the children had their own bedrooms.

Carter still marvels at the turnaround. “My story is different only because I had all these people who know people,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. I would be in the slums.”

Carter in her new rental home in Simsbury. (Monica Jorge for ProPublica)

Her children are now able to participate in Simbury’s after-school clubs because they can catch the late bus home. Her 14-year-old daughter just joined the fencing team. At night, Carter and her kids spend hours sitting next to the hearth of their fireplace, scanning the woods for the bears that her neighbors talk about.


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.

 

IRS: Sorry, But It’s Just Easier and Cheaper to Audit the Poor

Congress asked the IRS to report on why it audits the poor more than the affluent. Its response is that it doesn’t have enough money and people to audit the wealthy properly. So it’s not going to.

by Paul Kiel​

The IRS audits the working poor at about the same rate as the wealthiest 1%. Now, in response to questions from a U.S. senator, the IRS has acknowledged that’s true but professes it can’t change anything unless it is given more money.

ProPublica reported the disproportionate audit focus on lower-income families in April. Lawmakers confronted IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig about the emphasis, citing our stories, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Rettig for a plan to fix the imbalance. Rettig readily agreed.

Last month, Rettig replied with a report, but it said the IRS has no plan and won’t have one until Congress agrees to restore the funding it slashed from the agency over the past nine years — something lawmakers have shown little inclination to do.

On the one hand, the IRS said, auditing poor taxpayers is a lot easier: The agency uses relatively low-level employees to audit returns for low-income taxpayers who claim the earned income tax credit. The audits — of which there were about 380,000 last year, accounting for 39% of the total the IRS conducted—are done by mail and don’t take too much staff time, either. They are “the most efficient use of available IRS examination resources,” Rettig’s report says.

IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig at the Capitol on May 15, 2019, in Washington. Rettig says increasing audit rates of the wealthy depends on whether the IRS budget grows.

On the other hand, auditing the rich is hard. It takes senior auditors hours upon hours to complete an exam. What’s more, the letter says, “the rate of attrition is significantly higher among these more experienced examiners.” As a result, the budget cuts have hit this part of the IRS particularly hard.

For now, the IRS says, while it agrees auditing more wealthy taxpayers would be a good idea, without adequate funding there’s nothing it can do. “Congress must fund and the IRS must hire and train appropriate numbers of [auditors] to have appropriately balanced coverage across all income levels,” the report said.

Since 2011, Republicans in Congress have driven cuts to the IRS enforcement budget; it’s more than a quarter lower than its 2010 level, adjusting for inflation.

Recently, bipartisan support has emerged in both the House and Senate for increasing enforcement spending, but the proposals on the table are relatively modest and would not restore the budget to pre-cut levels. However, even a proposed small increase might not come to pass, because it’s unclear whether Congress will actually pass any appropriations bills this year.

In response to Rettig’s letter, Wyden agreed in a statement that the IRS needs more money, “but that does not eliminate the need for the agency to begin reversing the alarming trend of plummeting audit rates of the wealthy within its current budget.”


Republished with permission under license from CommonDreams.

Study shows private schools aren’t better for low-income students

Low-income students don’t benefit more from private school than public school, suggests research from scholars at the University of Virginia.

The study, forthcoming in the Educational Researcher, offers new insights to help inform debates about whether children from poor families would learn more and earn higher test scores if they were able to attend private school.

Several states use public money to offer lower-income students vouchers to pay for private school. More than a dozen states allow individuals and corporations to donate a portion of the state taxes they owe to nonprofit organizations that provide private school scholarships to certain types of students – generally, those who have a disability or come from lower-income households, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. These private school vouchers and corporate tax credit scholarships are among several school choice options that have grown in popularity in the United States despite widespread criticisms.

For this new study, researchers analyzed data collected from a group of 1,097 kids in nine states who were followed from birth through age 15. The scholars looked at how many had attended private school between kindergarten and their freshman year of high school. They also looked at how the kids performed as ninth graders on a range of benchmarks, including test scores.

When the scholars did a simple comparison, they learned that students who had attended private school at any time in their academic career performed better on most benchmarks than students who only attended public school. But when the scholars controlled for factors related to family resources — the household income-to-needs ratio, for example — they got a very different picture.

They discovered that kids who went to private school and those who only attended public school performed equally as well in the ninth grade in terms of math achievement, literacy, grade-point averages and working memory. They were just as likely to take more rigorous math and science courses, expect to go to college, have behavioral problems and engage in risky behavior such as fighting and smoking.

The findings didn’t change based on where students lived. In other words, the findings also applied to students in urban and rural areas.

“By simply controlling for variation in family income, the majority of these differences in outcomes were eliminated,” explain the researchers, Robert C. Pianta, who’s the dean of and a professor at UVA’s Curry School of Education, and Arya Ansari, a postdoctoral research associate there.

“The apparent ‘advantages’ of private school education … were almost entirely due to the socioeconomic advantages that selected families into these types of schools and were not attributed to private school education itself.”

Some of the other key takeaways from their study:

  • About a third of children had attended private school for at least a year at some point between kindergarten and grade 9. Those who attended private school went for an average of 5.73 years.
  • Among the kids who went to private school, the largest proportion enrolled during kindergarten. Twenty-three percent started in kindergarten compared to 17 percent in third grade, 16 percent in sixth grade and 14 percent in ninth grade.

Looking for more research on private schools? Check out this collection of research on private school vouchers and student achievement.  We also have write-ups on private colleges, including a research roundup on historically black colleges and universities and another one on affirmative action in university admissions.

Republished with permission under license from Journalist's Resource.

Violence is a symptom of oppression and poverty

By Randall Hill

"Your children ain't violent because they black" … "what are you putting in my malt liquor white boy? … "malt liquor is sold by white companies but only sold in black neighborhoods and you ain't checked it to see what's in it!" – Dick Gregory, 2008 State of the Black Union 

The violence including murders happening in the City of St. Louis is a symptom of decades of intentional oppression, poverty, and exclusion. The violence in St. Louis is concentrated mostly in low income, black neighborhoods, 40% of black households in St. Louis are living in poverty. Those neighborhoods became low income because resources and opportunities were removed.

We need to stop trying to treat the symptom (violence) rather than finding a cure to the causes of the disease. As long as the disease festers in our community, the symptoms will keep multiplying and infecting other communities. Victims of poverty, children who are missing basic necessities and who struggle with poor healthcare or nutrition are more likely to encounter or engage in violence.

When you're black and poor in St. Louis, your opportunities to escape poverty are sabotaged. Schools in black neighborhoods are designed to make kids fail by providing substandard education, eliminating trade programs such as carpentry, defunding enrichment programs like art and music, non-existent honors program and criminalizing normal childhood behavior. Just last month, a court ruled that it was reasonable to handcuff a black 7-year-old hearing-impaired child for crying because he was being taunted by a group of boys.

Young black men are profiled and targeted as gun-toting drug dealers, although white people are more likely to deal drugs. Black people who do end up selling drugs, often do so because they become desperate and don't see any other option. Most people would never choose behaviors resulting in prison or death if they had other options. Harsh punishment breeds resentment which can lead to violence, we need to focus more on treatment and education.

Nearly four years ago, we published an article titled, "Crime Won't Decrease Until Oppression Decreases". That year, St. Louis had the highest murder rate in the country and not much has changed, except the increasing number of young children dying. Our communities are under attack and our primary response is to hold vigils and rallies. It's time to stop begging for change and start demanding change with direct action!

"Protest minus disruption or violence equal failure".  We need to disrupt the systems that benefit from our oppression and destruction. The law is the primary means by which our community is oppressed but very few black people understand how to perform legal research and use that research to benefit them. Unscrupulous businesses, slum landlords, shady creditors, and even corrupt municipalities weaponize ignorance to enrich themselves. 

Bail bondsmen, private prisonsdigital jail devices, companies that contract for cheap prison labor, thousands of vendors that cater to correction facilities, and non-profit organizations including those that are poverty pimps would all lose income and funding if major reductions in prison populations occur. 

There are 6.7 million people under correctional control including 2.3 million people behind bars. The criminal justice industry employees roughly 3 million people. For every two people under correctional control, a person in the criminal justice system is employed. Our freedom equals unemployment for others, see the articles, "What happens to a prison town after it's prison closes?" and "Kit Carson prison in Burlington to close; 142 jobs lost".

Question everything, especially mass media and even things you've believed to be true your entire life. We've been fed a diet of half-truths and lies all our lives. During the 1980s and 1990s, people bought into the lies about crack and addicts were criminals that should be locked up. Now that white people are increasingly becoming addicted to drugs, its a national health crisis and suddenly the error of criminalizing addicts became clear. 

City Government & Police

Now some are calling for more police and the criminalization of gun possession, the end result would be more black people criminally charged for behaviors considered a constitutional right for everyone else. Mayor Lyda Krewson stated St. Louis should be allowed to issue concealed weapons permits.

Where there are no guns, there are no gun deaths. Let me be clear, I am not pro-guns at any cost. If it was possible, I could even be in favor of an absolute gun ban for everyone. However, I believe it would be almost impossible to repeal the second amendment. With that said, I would never support restricting the rights of only a particular group of people. 

In Missouri, it is your constitutional right to bear arms including a concealed weapon. Any attempt to deprive the citizens of St. Louis of that right is unconstitutional. The vast majority of people committing violent crimes in St. Louis are criminals using illegally obtained guns. Requiring gun permits in the city would create barriers to law-abiding poor (mostly black) residents from being able to afford the permit fees. As Tupac stated, people living in the most dangerous areas need weapons the most.  

Recently, Mayor Krewson said she wants to relax the residency rule to hire police officers. The result of that policy would be more racist white officers policing a population they don't understand in a community they have no ties to. Racist cops and a previously racist prosecutor unfairly targeted and criminalized black men especially youth. Some were forced to accept plea deals rather than spend months in jail awaiting a trial. Atlanta’s population is about 54 percent African-American and 38 percent white. Its police force is 58 percent African-American and 38 percent white and Atlanta pays officers roughly the same as St. Louis City. Atlanta doesn't seem to have a problem recruiting and retaining black police officers, so why does St. Louis? Racism may not be the only reason, but it is among the reasons. 

It's generally understood that police exist to keep order. What's not understood is that order is white supremacist patriarchy. – Zellieimani (Twitter 10-9-2014)

The year following Zellieimani's tweet, a leaked memo revealed that 12 white police officers on a specialized narcotics team in Dothan, Alabama, planted drugs and guns on over 1,000 innocent young Black men. All of the officers reportedly were members of a Neoconfederate organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels "racial extremists".  Cobb County, GA police Lt. Greg Abbott, stated, "But you're not black. Remember? We only kill black people,"  to a white woman afraid to move her hands during a traffic stop. 

St. Louis Police Department has a long reputation for being a racist organization. Most recently an investigation of racist Facebook posts resulted in 22 St. Louis City police officers being barred from bringing cases to the prosecutor. How many innocent young Black men did those 22 St. Louis police officers plant drugs and guns on? 

Mayor Krewson if you want more black police officers, partner with St. Louis Public Schools and bring back the officer friendly program; encourage officers to go into predominately black schools to remove the fear of encounters and to spark interest in careers in law enforcement. How about creating a junior police academy program, similar to ROTC, to get high school students interested in law enforcement. Create an apprenticeship program where kids from high crime areas can apprentice in police offices during the summers before their junior and senior years. They could help in call centers, data entry, general office tasks, social media, and other functions where they become more familiar and comfortable with the idea of law enforcement as a career. Find out how other cities such as Atlanta recruit and retain black officers and at the same time develop methods to weed out racist and abusive officers.

Cure Violence

The City has announced plans to implement Cure Violence, a program created by Gary Slutkin, a white doctor in Chicago. I'm not sure giving $8.5 million to a white savior is the best way to go, the staff members with decision-making power appear to be all white. Cure Violence began as the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention in 1995 and implemented its first program, known as CeaseFire, in 2000, but Chicago aka Chiraq does not have the best reputation in regards to violence.

We already have plenty of non-profit organizations in St. Louis, why not fund and utilize existing programs; Cure Violence doesn't seem much different from the efforts of Better Family Life. Another underfunded organization doing great work helping at youth risk is the Demetrius Johnson Foundation. 

Opportunity is the best cure for violence that occurs in the City of St. Louis!

How about encouraging partnership between organizations. Instead of wasting millions of dollars with developers like Paul McKee, funnel funds to joint program between St. Louis YouthBuild and North Grand Neighborhood Services (NGNS). This would provide construction job training to at-risk youth while at the same time restoring St. Louis' housing stock and providing affordable housing.

Why not call a non-profit summit a sort of meet and greet where St. Louis Government and non-profits can get together and figure out how they can partner to solve issues. There are plenty of underfunded grassroots organizations already in target neighborhoods doing quality work and could do wonders with additional funding. 

Solutions

Solutions to the problems facing the black community will require individual and collective sacrifice. Solutions will require time, effort, creativity, and money.

Beware of Strangers Bearing Gifts

What seems like an act of goodwill may mask a hidden destructive or hostile agenda. In order to find effective solutions, we must first realize that what might look like a solution could actually be a trap. There are some who disguise themselves as friends but have declared war on black people and "all warfare is based on deception".

Margaret Sanger, the founder of what today is Planned Parenthood, was a racist eugenicist who wanted to exterminate the black population thru birth control. Under the pretense of better health and family planning, Sanger deceived and convinced some of the most prominent black doctors and well educated black clergy members into supporting her scheme. The black elites were so concerned with economic empowerment and garnering the respect of whites, that they jeopardized the very survival of Black people in America.

It seems to me from my experience … that while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table which means their ignorance, superstitions and doubts.

We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal.

We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members. – Margaret Sanger: 1939 Letter to Dr. Clarence Gamble

The Civil Rights movement reached its peak with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The vicious racists who killed Emmett Till, bombed churches, sicked dogs and sprayed hoses didn't just suddenly disappear, they simply faded into the background. Ku Klux Klan members traded their sheets and hoods for police uniforms, judge robes, the suits of politicians and prosecutors. Since overt discrimination had been outlawed, they implemented a tactic of covert racism.

Racist politicians created policies that sabotaged President Johnson's Great Society legislation including the  Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Food Stamp Act of 1964, Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Programs created during Johnson's administration were implemented in ways that wreaked destruction on the black community. Listen to Dr. Umar Johnson's discussion about how the black community has been under attack since 1970.

Between 1934 thru 1962, St. Louis' murder rate was usually between 6-13 per 100,000 people. After 1963 it begins to rise and then rises further during Nixon's "War on Black People", then again during Reagan's first term and then peaked during the crack epidemic. Chicago experienced a similar trend, 1974 was Chicago's deadliest year with 970 homicides, we checked because Cure Violence originated there.

More recently, three-strike laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, truth in sentencing laws, harsher punishment for certain drugs so-called solutions promoted to reduce crime resulted in mass incarceration and destroyed generations within the black and brown communities. Desperation to reduce gun violence appears to be setting the stage for gun possession to become the new mass incarceration tool.

Others Don't Care

Although oppressive discriminatory practices by others are directly and indirectly responsible for many of the issues plaguing the black community, most people outside our community don't care.

How often do you think about those 2.8 billion people on the planet who struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion people who lack reasonable access to safe drinking water?

Do you ever think about how many of those people's are forced to work in dangerous conditions so that you can purchase cheap products at Wal-Mart and DollarTree?

Probably not, because you're too busy concentrating on your problems. That's how other people feel about our problems, they don't care. Dave Chappelle expressed this sentiment during his NetFlix special, "Sticks and Stones" while talking about the opioid and heroin crisis.

Regardless who caused our problems, we better work at fixing them, because others don't care enough to fix them for us.

Support Our Champions

A person who truly fights or argues for a cause or on behalf of someone else is a champion. Champions are rare, so when you have one, it behooves you to vigorously support them. Kimberly Gardner has become an unexpectant champion. I've never met Kimberly Gardner, but I did vote for her.

In December 2016, prior to Ms. Gardner's swearing-in ceremony, I stated in a post, "if Ms. Gardner proves to be a fair prosecutor, there will certainly be those that will attempt to distort her statements, vilify her actions and generally discredit her. There is a private prison system that stands to lose millions of dollars under a non-oppressive system".

Kimberly. Gardner has exceeded my wildest expectations, shown tremendous courage, and has gained my utmost respect. She's actually trying to fight the disease. She's created a list of officers who she won't accept cases from including 22 officers for racist Facebook post. Ms. Gardner has removed or reduced amounts of cash bond for minor, nonviolent offenses. She is also expanding diversion and drug court programs and ending prosecutions of low-level marijuana possession cases.

Two white prosecutors who served under Gardner's predecessor, Jennifer Joyce, conspired with white police officers to cover up a police beating of a handcuffed suspect, recently lost their law licenses because of their crimes committed while prosecutors.

The white St. Louis Police Officers' Association, has called for Gardner's resignation. Jeffrey Roorda, the association's spokesperson was fired from the Arnold, MO police department for making false statements and filing false reports.

 

It's not surprising that a police association with a racist history would target the City's first black prosecutor, especially since she is holding police accountable for their unethical and illegal actions. The Ethical Society of Police, founded by African American Police Officers was created to address race-based discrimination within the community and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

As long as Ms. Gardner continues to champion our rights and act as a buffer between police abuses, we need to provide as much support as we can provide to her and others who similarly act on our behalf.

Withdraw Support from Betrayers

I felt betrayed after the democratic mayoral primary. Of the four major black candidates, I had previously voted for three. Antonio French was the only candidate I hadn't voted for because I did not live in his ward, but my parents did. As I mentioned in "Black Ego lost the St. Louis Mayoral Race", "How is it possible that three intelligent, seasoned politicians didn't understand they would split the black vote so severely that none of them would win?" 

When I see all the obstacles Kimberly Gardner is facing, I often wonder how things might have been different if she had a black mayor to work with. Remember, much of her opposition is coming from the police who are under the mayor's chain of command. I also wonder if the violence might have been reduced and some of those children's lives spared if things had worked out differently.

I've lived in the city for nearly 40 years and moved shortly after the last election. However, if still a city resident, I would not vote for any of the candidates who couldn't work together to ensure a black power structure in St. Louis City.

Different Ideas

We must respect different ideas. No one idea or solution will solve all our issues and problems. Just because your idea is different from mine doesn't make yours wrong. We need to work more closely together on the things were agree rather than fighting over what we disagree. Disagreement slows progress. "United we stand, divided we fall".

Washington vs Du Bois

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) the most influential black leader of his time preached a philosophy of self-help, racial solidarity and accommodation. He urged blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and material prosperity thru education in the crafts, industrial and farming skills. 

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) a founding member of the NAACP,  advocated political action and a civil rights agenda. He believed that developing a group of college-educated blacks, 10% of the black population “the Talented Tenth” would provide direction and leadership for the other 90% to change their social and economic status. Although Du Bois early on agreed with Washington’s strategy, later he decided it would serve only to perpetuate white oppression, which he expressed in his book, "The Souls of Black Folk".

The Washington/Du Bois dispute divided African-American leaders into two camps; Washington's accommodationist philosophy or Du Bois philosophy of agitation and protest for civil rights. Washington was born a slave, didn't know who his father was, was raised in the south and taught himself to read. Du Bois was born three years after the Civil War, was raised in Great Barrington, MA, a relatively tolerant and integrated community of 4,000 with only about 50 blacks. With encouragement from his teachers, Du Bois was the first black student to graduate from his high school.

Washington's and Du Bois' circumstances and upbringing were polar opposites, so naturally, because of their vastly different experience, their perspectives were different, so they had different ideas and solutions. We needed both Washington's practical approach for the masses of black people especially in the South and Du Bois approach of developing educated leadership. Those two giants might have achieved so much more working together instead of working against each other. 

King vs Malcolm X

Half a century later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X would also split black leadership into two camps. Again, we have two men with vastly different backgrounds. King was the descendant of prominent ministers went to college earned a Ph.D. and became a minister himself. Malcolm X's father was murder and he became a foster child after his mother was hospitalized with mental issues, he later engaged in drug dealing, gambling,  racketeering, robbery, and pimping and went to prison where he became enlightened by another inmate. Dr. King's non-violent integration movement and Malcolm X's any means necessary racial separatism philosophy were both valid strategies. Unfortunately, they both denounced the other's strategy.

There are roughly 44 million Black people in the United States and we all face some form of discrimination. Forty-six percent of us are in poverty, the working poor or the working class earning $35,000 or less; 40% are in the middle class earning between $35-100K, the upper 14% includes the upper middle class and wealthy. Poverty by itself does not necessarily result in violence, the majority of poor people are non-violent. Poverty coupled with discrimination, oppression and poverty being criminalized, people become desperate and or hopeless. Those at the bottom face the most number of barriers and experience the worst oppression. 

"The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose." – James Baldwin

Non-violence vs Violence

According to the latest 2018 U.S. Census figures, there are 46,919,000 African-American with a per capita income of $23,993 generating total income of $1,125,727,567,000. In 1934, W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of, "A Negro Nation Within a Nation". If African-Americans were a country, we'd have the 17th largest economy by GDP in the world between Indonesia and the Netherlands.

Countries have diplomats and soldiers working together employing both peaceful tactics and force when necessary. There's no reason a movement can't utilize different tactics at the same time to arrive at a common goal. Near the end of their lives, both Malcolm X and King slightly adjusted their philosophies. A year before his death, King stated, "My Dream Has Turned Into a Nightmare". Like Washington and Du Bois, King and Malcolm X might have achieved more working with one another.

Groups such as the National African American Gun Association (NAAGA) are increasingly aware of the need for self-defense and may one day be positioned as a deterrent against violence from outside groups. Organized armed groups of black men might even organize into neighborhood patrols.

Violence isn't always physical, sometime we must inflict economic violence to achieve our goals. Imagine what would happen if a large percentage of black people boycotted Christmas to protest a particular issue or form of oppression. Affected retailers and manufacturers might be motivated to speak out or intervene. If corporations can speak up for LGBT bathroom rights, the companies we spend our dollars with should speak up for us as well.

Education

Even though the St. Louis area is home to SLU, Wash. U, Harris-Stowe, UMSL, Fontbonne, SLCC, Ranken and a number of other colleges and universities, the quality of education in the City of St. Louis has been horrible for decades and no one can seem to come up with solutions.

Washington University has a $7.5 billion endowment, St. Louis University's endowment is $1.3 billion. Wouldn't it be great if those and other institutions funded grants or scholarships to St. Louis Public School students who commit to teaching in the district for a minimum number of years. Those teachers would then be able to better relate and understand the challenges of their students because they were those students.

But it probably won't happen. There are many smart people at Wash. U. and SLU, if they wanted to help, they probably would have done something before now.

Wash. U. and SLU both have law schools. Certainly they've known for decades about abuses occurring in St. Louis area courts. After just a few visits to courtrooms, I saw the abuses instantly, that's why I created this self-help legal information site by myself. Those law schools could have easily provided meaningful online self-help legal information decades ago. 

Maybe the city could partner with Ranken to offer technical education to students who commit to a revitalization program where their skill would be used to help repair the houses of elderly and disabled residents. Instead of burdening poor residents with housing violation fines and court fees, maybe they could be referred to the revitalization program for low-cost repairs and repayment arrangements.

Independently educate yourself and your children. Supplement your child's education with additional material, especially if they attend public schools; "how can you expect powerful people to give you the training, give you the education to take their power away from them".

Check out our "Free Money for College" page to find funding for your child or yourself, there's no age limit. 

Individual Efforts

What can you do individually to make things better? 

  • Educate yourself thru self-study by using public libraries, the Internet and other resources to develop new skills so you can develop sources of income outside of your job. This is how businesses are created which leads to the employment of others. 
  • Where you spend your money is where your create jobs. Patronize businesses in your own neighborhood which supports job creation.
  • Before you stop patronizing a business in your neighborhood, talk to or write the owner and express the reasons why you are dissatisfied with their product or service so they might improve.  
  • Black business owners, understand decades of negative imagery and stereotypes put black businesses at a disadvantage, even among our own. Most of us are familiar with the saying "black people have to work twice as hard to get half as much". Your business has to price its products and service competitively, you must treat your customer with respect, you must invest profits back into your business and constantly improve.   
  • Share your knowledge with others. Not everyone knows what you do. Sometimes the difference between someone failing and succeeding is the proper knowledge. Think about the knowledge and advice that was passed along to you and how helpful a particular piece of advice was. Give that gift of knowledge to someone else, it could quite literally save someone's life.
  • Provide a home to child thru foster care or adoption.
  • Volunteer or donate to an organization trying to make a difference in St. Louis.
  • Ask your church or any organization you donate money to explain exactly how they use your donated money. 
  • Reach out and get to know your neighbors. Join or start a neighborhood watch or association. 
  • Stand up for your individual rights no matter how small. Rights and privileges are seldom taken away swiftly; they are usually taken away slowly almost unnoticed until one day they are gone 

Dr. Kwaw Imana, Class of 2000 at Morehouse College, delivered a powerful Valedictorian speech where he rejected a Rhodes Scholarship, the oldest and most prestigious scholarship in the world, because of Cecil Rhodes racist history. Imana compared it to a person of Jewish descent being offered a Hitler scholarship and challenged his fellow graduates to create businesses and institutions in black communities.   

Churches and Organizations

Black churches, organizations and community members could partner together form a non-profit corporation to act as a central clearinghouse for resources. Black organizations and institutions compete against each other for government grant funding. Competing for that funding drains resources and once secured, yearly audits are required to show how funds were spent. Pooling the resources of multiple organization under the umbrella of a single entity would be more efficient and those resources could become much more effective.

"the educated Negro does not understand or is unwilling to start small enterprises which make the larger ones possible." – Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro 1933

As we mentioned during a reparations post, Black churches take in an estimated $12-13 billion per year, which is greater than the GDP of dozens of entire nations. How much of those funds are being spent to benefit the community in which you live? If a fraction of church donations were pooled together think about the endless possibilities: schools, homeless shelters, urgent care clinics, hospitals, business incubators, convention venues and more. Consider how the Catholic church builds schools, hospitals, senior housing, and nursing homes all under the Catholic Charities Umbrella.    

The Betrayal of the Black Elite

Drugs

We have declared drug use to be a health crisis, so we need to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs, otherwise, we are declaring drug addiction is a crime. In the United States, drugs became illegal in the early 1900s due to racism and drug enforcement tends to highly disproportionately affect minorities.

Many other countries including Spain, Italy, Germany, and Mexico have already decriminalized small amounts of drug possession. Canada is treating opioid addiction with prescription-grade heroin. In August 2009, Argentina’s supreme court declared in a landmark ruling that it was unconstitutional to prosecute citizens for having drugs for their personal use – "adults should be free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state".

Decriminalizing drugs would reduce many of the criminal justice encounters that create conditions which result in violence. It will also free police officers to concentrate on other crimes.

Conclusion

Violence always indicates that something else is wrong. Treating violence as a symptom of a disease is a step in the right direction. As long as the disease goes untreated, all of us including our children are in danger of becoming victims. 

A handful of people participated in the civil rights movement that provided new rights to everyone and protected denied rights to oppressed people. Had more people participated greater achievements might have been made.

What will you do? If your plan is to let others tackle this problem, then it will never be solved. If you can identify just one person who needs help and then assist them, you can change the world!

Restricting SNAP benefits could hurt millions of Americans – and local communities

by Cindy Leung, University of Michigan and Julia A. Wolfson, University of Michigan

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to restrict access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

SNAP is the primary way the government helps low-income Americans put food on the table. According to the government’s own calculations, an estimated 3.1 million people could lose SNAP benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps, through a new proposal that would change some application procedures and eligibility requirements.

SNAP benefits help millions of families put food on the table. JACEK SKROK/Shutterstock.com

We are nutrition and food policy researchers who have studied the effects of SNAP on the health and well-being of low-income Americans. Should this change go into effect, we believe millions of Americans, especially children, and local communities would suffer.

Americans access their SNAP benefits through cards issued by the states. United States Department of Agriculture

Helping families and the economy

SNAP helped 39.7 million Americans buy food in 2018.

Federal research has found that the program reduces hunger, particularly in children – who make up 44% of its beneficiaries.

Hunger and poor nutrition harm children’s health and hinder their development. Kids who don’t get enough to eat have more trouble at school and are more likely to experience mental health problems. One research team found that people who had access to SNAP as children earned higher incomes and were less likely to develop chronic diseases like diabetes once they grew up.

“My eating habits have improved where I can eat more healthy than before,” a Massachusetts woman who had recently been approved for SNAP told us. “It is like night and day – the difference between surviving and not surviving.”

SNAP benefits also ripple through the economy. They lead to money being spent at local stores, freeing up cash to pay rent and other bills. Every US$1 invested in SNAP generates $1.79 in economic activity, according to the USDA.

Trying again and again

The Trump administration has repeatedly attempted to slash SNAP and make it harder for people who qualify for benefits to get them.

Its 2018, 2019 and 2020 budget proposals all called for cutting spending on food stamps by about 25%.

The Trump administration also worked with Republicans in Congress to try to tighten eligibility requirements. Had this policy been implemented, all beneficiaries between the ages of 18 and 59 deemed “able-bodied” would have had to prove they were working at least 20 hours per week or were enrolled in school. According to government projections, some 1.2 million Americans would have eventually lost their benefits as a result.

Congress, which would have needed to approve the change for it to take effect, rejected it in December 2018. The White House then sought to change work requirements through a new rule that has not yet taken effect.

In July 2019, the Trump administration again sought to restrict access to food stamps without any input from Congress, this time by going through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – a program that gives low-income families with children cash to cover childcare and other expenses.

Currently, most states automatically enroll families in SNAP once they obtain TANF benefits. The new rule would prevent states from doing this. Even though 85% of TANF families also get SNAP benefits, the vast majority of them still live in poverty.

The government is seeking comments from the public about this proposed change through September 23, 2019.

Replacing food stamps with ‘harvest boxes’

Other changes to SNAP could also take a toll.

The Trump administration’s proposed budgets have also called for changing how the government helps low-income families get food they have trouble affording. Its 2019 budget proposal called for replacing half of SNAP benefits with what it called “harvest boxes” of nonperishable items like cereals, beans and canned goods.

According to research we conducted with low-income Americans, 79% of SNAP participants opposed this proposal, with one of the primary reasons being not being able to choose their own foods.

“People who are struggling are already demoralized,” a New Mexico woman who uses SNAP benefits told us. “Being able to make our own food decisions is something that keeps us feeling like human beings.”

Congress rejected the concept but the White House included it again in its 2020 budget draft.

Advocates for food aid fear that recent proposals to change how SNAP works would reduce the share of Americans who get these benefits by making it harder to qualify and enroll in the program. Should this major transformation ever occur, children and families won’t have access to critical benefits that help them avoid going hungry.

Tracking the demand for food stamps

Although the Trump administration has until now largely failed in its effort to cut SNAP spending, the number of people getting food stamps is already declining. This trend began during the Obama administration, in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Since the economy is doing well overall, the number of people on food assistance programs has fallen. The reason for the decline is that the number of people who are eligible for these benefits rises when the economy falters and falls when conditions improve. As a result, the government is spending less on food stamps without cutting the SNAP budget.

Case in point, 7 million people have already left SNAP due to better economic stability. In parallel, federal spending on SNAP budget has dropped from $78 billion in 2013 to $64 billion in 2019.

If the Trump administration wants to shrink SNAP, reduce costs and have fewer low-income Americans receive benefits, we believe that the best thing it can do is to keep working to improve the economy – particularly for low-income Americans, who have been reaping fewer benefits from the improving economy than others in recent years.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Released from prison by Obama, now on the dean’s list

Obama Sends Letter to Prisoner He Freed Who Turned Her Life Around

President Obama let Danielle Metz out of prison. Then she enrolled in college and made the dean's list. Obama heard about Metz's success and sent a letter telling her how proud he is of her for turning her life around and graduating college.

“I am so proud of you, and am confident that your example will have a positive impact for others who are looking for a second chance, Tell your children I say hello, and know that I’m rooting for all of you.”

Barack Obama's letter to Danielle Metz. (Photo: Danielle Metz)

Danielle Metz's full story about her journey from jail to college is below.

From prison to dean’s list: How Danielle Metz got an education after incarceration

by CASEY PARKS

NEW ORLEANS – The sun glowed gold, and a second line parade was tuning its horns just a few streets away. But Danielle Metz had missed half her life already, and she couldn’t spare the afternoon, even one as unseasonably warm as this mid-February Sunday.

She climbed the stairs to the shotgun house her mom had bought in uptown New Orleans more than half a century ago. Metz slipped through the screen door, then shut it tight enough to keep out the sun. Inside, she dug through a box next to her bed and pulled out the clothbound journal that a woman had given her in 1996, when they were both incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, California. Metz hadn’t kept much from the 23 years she spent in prison, but the journal had been too special to leave behind. She opened it and read the dedication as a reminder of what she hoped to accomplish now that she was out.

“To Danielle — There’s so many things we can’t get in here, but knowledge and education can’t be kept out by walls.”

Growing up, Metz had believed that college was for white kids and for “Huxtables” — black people she named after the upper-middle-class family in “The Cosby Show.” She knew, as she looked at the laptop screen, how improbable people might think earning a degree would be for her now. She’d dropped out of high school her junior year. At 26, a judge had sentenced Metz to three life sentences plus another 20 years for her role in her husband’s cocaine distribution. She’d thought she’d never see New Orleans again, let alone visit a university.

Even after President Barack Obama granted her clemency in 2016, Metz believed she couldn’t go to college. Nationwide, less than 4 percent of formerly incarcerated people have a bachelor’s degree, according to a report released last year. The chances seemed especially low in Metz’s home state. Louisiana had long held twin records, the world’s highest incarceration rate, and the country’s lowest rate of black college graduates. Put together, this meant tens of thousands of residents lacked a viable pathway to middle-class security.

But lawmakers had come to believe that a change was imperative for the state’s future. In 2017, Louisiana became the first state in the nation to “ban the box” on public college and university applications, prohibiting school officials from asking whether an applicant has a criminal record. Metz knew that people across the country were working to help people like her go to college after prison. Though Illinois and New York failed to pass “ban the box” measures for university applications, several other states are trying to follow Louisiana’s lead. And federal lawmakers from both parties are pushing to allow incarcerated people to access Pell Grants, financial aid that they’ve been barred from using since Metz first went to prison.

Metz was grateful for the legal shifts, but political momentum alone would not carry her through school. As the parade began its march through Uptown, she scrolled through the university’s website and hovered over the tab marked “current students.” She had no idea how long it would take or how much it might cost, but Metz didn’t care. She was going to college.

Metz grew up the youngest of nine children in a city barreling toward chaos. As a kid, she considered herself lucky. Both of her parents worked — her father as a cement finisher, her mother in a bakery — and together they earned enough to buy a home three miles away from the St. Thomas Projects, a public housing development where many other black families lived. St. Thomas was so poor and violent when Metz was young that Sister Helen Prejean described the neighborhood in the opening of her book “Dead Man Walking” as “not death row exactly, but close."

Even as a little girl, Metz knew people who’d gone to jail, but her neighborhood was quiet, and her parents were dreamers. For years, her father urged her to become a nurse. Metz knew the job required a college degree, but she didn’t know anyone who’d earned one. In 1980, the year Metz enrolled at Walter L. Cohen High School, more than half the city’s black adults didn’t have even a high school diploma, let alone a university credential.

Instead, Metz longed to become a hairstylist. She’d practiced since she was a little girl on her mom, whose locks grew in so straight that people speculated she must have white ancestors. But even that goal felt unreachable after Metz became pregnant in 1985, her junior year of high school. She dropped out and assumed she wouldn’t have a career. She’d be a mother instead.

Six months after Metz gave birth to her son, Carl, his father was murdered.

Metz became a single mother just as the state’s economy was collapsing. Louisiana had long been dependent on oil — profits from the natural resource accounted for nearly half of the state’s budget then. But the price per barrel began falling in 1981, and by the mid-1980s, one in eight Louisiana workers was unemployed, the highest rate in the nation. New Orleans lost nearly 10,000 jobs, leaving few openings for a teenage mother with no credentials or documentable skills.

Metz didn’t take time to grieve. Most black people in New Orleans knew someone who’d been killed, she said. Instead, she started looking for someone to help raise her child.

Glenn Metz had money. He’d grown up poor in the Calliope housing projects, one of the most violent neighborhoods in New Orleans, but he owned two tow-truck companies by the time Metz met him. At age 30, he possessed the kind of quiet maturity that Metz, then 18, thought would make him a good substitute father for Carl. Glenn Metz wore such nice clothes and jewelry the night Metz met him that she suspected he at least dabbled in drug-dealing, but she told herself his business had nothing to do with her.

Growing up, Metz believed that college was for white kids and for “Huxtables” — black families she named after the upper-middle-class family in “The Cosby Show.” Cheryl Gerber/The Hechinger Report

According to federal prosecutors, Glenn Metz formed a drug ring just before he met the girl who would become his wife. Between 1985 and 1992, Glenn Metz and his crew came to dominate St. Thomas and Calliope, prosecutors said, distributing more than 1,000 kilos of cocaine and killing 23 rivals. Glenn Metz sat atop an organization manned by more than half a dozen enforcers, two of whom, prosecutors said, drove through town in an armor-plated pickup with the word “homicide” spelled out on the hood in gold letters.

Metz spent most of those years at home. “The Cosby Show” debuted the year she should have graduated high school, and she watched it and its college-based spin-off “A Different World” every week, dreaming of the life she wished she had. She took a few beauty school classes and occasionally cut hair in someone’s home, but Glenn Metz didn’t like when she left the house, she said. They married in 1989, and Metz soon gave birth to their daughter, Gleneisha. Metz didn’t have a social security number or any way to make money on her own. When Glenn Metz told her to ride with her aunt to deliver a few packages to Houston, Metz said, she did it.

Crack cocaine was spreading through black neighborhoods across the country then, and lawmakers blamed the drug for an increase in inner-city violence. New Orleans was especially hard hit. In 1990, the city topped 300 murders for the first time. Nearly every edition of The Times-Picayune that year carried news of cocaine busts. Police arrested scores of black men, including Metz’s older brother, Perry Bernard, for possession. As the city’s murder rate rose to the nation’s highest, investigators worked to take down Glenn Metz. His was the biggest and most violent drug ring in the city, prosecutors said. They indicted him and eight others, including Metz, in the summer of 1992.

Metz, who’d been temporarily living in Las Vegas with her husband before the indictment, fled to Jackson, Mississippi. She rented an apartment near Jackson State University and planned to enroll after the investigation concluded. When police arrested her there in January 1993, Metz figured she’d just get probation. Most people she knew went to jail “seasonally.” Her older brother had drifted in and out before a 1989 arrest netted him 13 years in a state prison.

After crack cocaine became popular, Congress adopted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, establishing for the first time mandatory minimum sentences triggered by specific quantities of cocaine. The penalties were worse for defendants charged with possession or distribution of crack cocaine, favored by African-Americans, than for those accused of possessing or distributing the powder cocaine primarily used by white people.

But Metz, 25 then, had never had so much as a traffic ticket. She believed her involvement in her husband’s narcotics sales was minimal enough that prosecutors would let her go with a warning. Police did not find any drugs with her, and she was never implicated in any violence.

Instead, federal authorities charged Metz and her co-defendants under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Lawmakers created RICO in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon as a tool to combat the Mafia, but prosecutors increasingly used it in the 1980s to fight drug rings. The charges under RICO carried automatic sentences of life in prison without parole.

The U.S. attorneys who prosecuted her case presented witnesses who were major narcotics suppliers or small-time drug dealers. They testified that Metz had driven packages to Houston for her husband and, on occasion, accepted cash payments and wired money to suppliers. The jury decided she was guilty.

Four months later, in mid-December, U.S. District Judge A.J. McNamara sentenced Metz to three life sentences plus another 20 years in federal prison.

Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt

Ankle bracelets are promoted as a humane alternative to jail. But private companies charge defendants hundreds of dollars a month to wear the surveillance devices. If people can’t pay, they may end up behind bars.

by Ava Kofman

On Oct. 12, 2018, Daehaun White walked free, or so he thought. A guard handed him shoelaces and the $19 that had been in his pocket at the time of his booking, along with a letter from his public defender. The lanky 19-year-old had been sitting for almost a month in St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, a city jail known as the Workhouse, after being pulled over for driving some friends around in a stolen Chevy Cavalier. When the police charged him with tampering with a motor vehicle — driving a car without its owner’s consent — and held him overnight, he assumed he would be released by morning. He told the police that he hadn’t known that the Chevy, which a friend had lent him a few hours earlier, was stolen. He had no previous convictions. But the $1,500 he needed for the bond was far beyond what he or his family could afford. It wasn’t until his public defender, Erika Wurst, persuaded the judge to lower the amount to $500 cash, and a nonprofit fund, the Bail Project, paid it for him, that he was able to leave the notoriously grim jail. “Once they said I was getting released, I was so excited I stopped listening,” he told me recently. He would no longer have to drink water blackened with mold or share a cell with rats, mice and cockroaches. He did a round of victory pushups and gave away all of the snack cakes he had been saving from the cafeteria.

When he finally read Wurst’s letter, however, he realized there was a catch. Even though Wurst had argued against it, the judge, Nicole Colbert-Botchway, had ordered him to wear an ankle monitor that would track his location at every moment using GPS. For as long as he would wear it, he would be required to pay $10 a day to a private company, Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services, or EMASS. Just to get the monitor attached, he would have to report to EMASS and pay $300 up front — enough to cover the first 25 days, plus a $50 installation fee.

White didn’t know how to find that kind of money. Before his arrest, he was earning minimum wage as a temp, wrapping up boxes of shampoo. His father was largely absent, and his mother, Lakisha Thompson, had recently lost her job as the housekeeping manager at a Holiday Inn. Raising Daehaun and his four siblings, she had struggled to keep up with the bills. The family bounced between houses and apartments in northern St. Louis County, where, as a result of Jim Crow redlining, most of the area’s black population lives. In 2014, they were living on Canfield Drive in Ferguson when Michael Brown was shot and killed there by a police officer. During the ensuing turmoil, Thompson moved the family to Green Bay, Wisconsin. White felt out of place. He was looked down on for his sagging pants, called the N-word when riding his bike. After six months, he moved back to St. Louis County on his own to live with three of his siblings and stepsiblings in a gray house with vinyl siding.

When White got home on the night of his release, he was so overwhelmed to see his family again that he forgot about the letter. He spent the next few days hanging out with his siblings, his mother, who had returned to Missouri earlier that year, and his girlfriend, Demetria, who was seven months pregnant. He didn’t report to EMASS.

What he didn’t realize was that he had failed to meet a deadline. Typically, defendants assigned to monitors must pay EMASS in person and have the device installed within 24 hours of their release from jail. Otherwise, they have to return to court to explain why they’ve violated the judge’s orders. White, however, wasn’t called back for a hearing. Instead, a week after he left the Workhouse, Colbert-Botchway issued a warrant for his arrest.

Three days later, a large group of police officers knocked on Thompson’s door, looking for information about an unrelated case, a robbery. White and his brother had been making dinner with their mother, and the officers asked them for identification. White’s name matched the warrant issued by Colbert-Botchway. “They didn’t tell me what the warrant was for,” he said. “Just that it was for a violation of my release.” He was taken downtown and held for transfer back to the Workhouse. “I kept saying to myself, ’Why am I locked up?’” he recalled.

Daehaun White couldn’t afford to pay $10 a day to a private company for an ankle monitor after his release from jail.

The next morning, Thompson called the courthouse to find the answer. She learned that her son had been jailed over his failure to acquire and pay for his GPS monitor. To get him out, she needed to pay EMASS on his behalf.

This seemed absurd to her. When Daehaun was 13, she had worn an ankle monitor after violating probation for a minor theft, but the state hadn’t required her to cover the cost of her own supervision. “This is a 19-year-old coming out of the Workhouse,” she told me recently. “There’s no way he has $300 saved.” Thompson felt that the court was forcing her to choose between getting White out of jail and supporting the rest of her family.

Over the past half-century, the number of people behind bars in the United States jumped by more than 500%, to 2.2 million. This extraordinary rise, often attributed to decades of “tough on crime” policies and harsh sentencing laws, has ensured that even as crime rates have dropped since the 1990s, the number of people locked up and the average length of their stay have increased. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the cost of keeping people in jails and prisons soared to $87 billion in 2015 from $19 billion in 1980, in current dollars.

In recent years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have joined criminal-justice reformers in recognizing mass incarceration as both a moral outrage and a fiscal sinkhole. As ankle bracelets have become compact and cost-effective, legislators have embraced them as an enlightened alternative. More than 125,000 people in the criminal-justice system were supervised with monitors in 2015, compared with just 53,000 people in 2005, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Although no current national tally is available, data from several cities — Austin, Texas; Indianapolis; Chicago; and San Francisco — show that this number continues to rise. Last December, the First Step Act, which includes provisions for home detention, was signed into law by President Donald Trump with support from the private prison giants GEO Group and CoreCivic. These corporations dominate the so-called community-corrections market — services such as day-reporting and electronic monitoring — that represents one of the fastest-growing revenue sectors of their industry.

By far the most decisive factor promoting the expansion of monitors is the financial one. The United States government pays for monitors for some of those in the federal criminal-justice system and for tens of thousands of immigrants supervised by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But states and cities, which incur around 90% of the expenditures for jails and prisons, are increasingly passing the financial burden of the devices onto those who wear them. It costs St. Louis roughly $90 a day to detain a person awaiting trial in the Workhouse, where in 2017 the average stay was 291 days. When individuals pay EMASS $10 a day for their own supervision, it costs the city nothing. A 2014 study by NPR and the Brennan Center found that, with the exception of Hawaii, every state required people to pay at least part of the costs associated with GPS monitoring. Some probation offices and sheriffs run their own monitoring programs — renting the equipment from manufacturers, hiring staff and collecting fees directly from participants. Others have outsourced the supervision of defendants, parolees and probationers to private companies.

“There are a lot of judges who reflexively put people on monitors, without making much of a pretense of seriously weighing it at all,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior legal adviser with Human Rights Watch who has researched private-supervision companies. “The limiting factor is the cost it might impose on the public, but when that expense is sourced out, even that minimal brake on judicial discretion goes out the window.”

Nowhere is the pressure to adopt monitors more pronounced than in places like St. Louis: cash-strapped municipalities with large populations of people awaiting trial. Nationwide on any given day, half a million people sit in crowded and expensive jails because, like Daehaun White, they cannot purchase their freedom.

As the movement to overhaul cash bail has challenged the constitutionality of jailing these defendants, judges and sheriffs have turned to monitors as an appealing substitute. In San Francisco, the number of people released from jail onto electronic monitors tripled after a 2018 ruling forced courts to release more defendants without bail. In Marion County, Indiana, where jail overcrowding is routine, roughly 5,000 defendants were put on monitors last year. “You would be hard-pressed to find bail-reform legislation in any state that does not include the possibility of electronic monitoring,” said Robin Steinberg, the chief executive of the Bail Project.

Yet like the system of wealth-based detention they are meant to help reform, ankle monitors often place poor people in special jeopardy. Across the country, defendants who have not been convicted of a crime are put on “offender funded” payment plans for monitors that sometimes cost more than their bail. And unlike bail, they don’t get the payment back, even if they’re found innocent. Although a federal survey shows that nearly 40% of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to cover an emergency, companies and courts routinely threaten to lock up defendants if they fall behind on payment. In Greenville, South Carolina, pretrial defendants can be sent back to jail when they fall three weeks behind on fees. (An officer for the Greenville County Detention Center defended this practice on the grounds that participants agree to the costs in advance.) In Mohave County, Arizona, pretrial defendants charged with sex offenses have faced rearrest if they fail to pay for their monitors, even if they prove that they can’t afford them. “We risk replacing an unjust cash-bail system,” Steinberg said, “with one just as unfair, inhumane and unnecessary.”

Many local judges, including in St. Louis, do not conduct hearings on a defendant’s ability to pay for private supervision before assigning them to it; those who do often overestimate poor people’s financial means. Without judicial oversight, defendants are vulnerable to private-supervision companies that set their own rates and charge interest when someone can’t pay up front. Some companies even give their employees bonuses for hitting collection targets.

It’s not only debt that can send defendants back to jail. People who may not otherwise be candidates for incarceration can be punished for breaking the lifestyle rules that come with the devices. A survey in California found that juveniles awaiting trial or on probation face especially difficult rules; in one county, juveniles on monitors were asked to follow more than 50 restrictions, including not participating “in any social activity.” For this reason, many advocates describe electronic monitoring as a “net-widener": Far from serving as an alternative to incarceration, it ends up sweeping more people into the system.

Dressed in a baggy yellow City of St. Louis Corrections shirt, White was walking to the van that would take him back to the Workhouse after his rearrest, when a guard called his name and handed him a bus ticket home. A few hours earlier, his mom had persuaded her sister to lend her the $300 that White owed EMASS. Wurst, his public defender, brought the receipt to court.

The next afternoon, White hitched a ride downtown to the EMASS office, where one of the company’s bond-compliance officers, Nick Buss, clipped a black box around his left ankle. Based in the majority white city of St. Charles, west of St. Louis, EMASS has several field offices throughout eastern Missouri. A former probation and parole officer, Michael Smith, founded the company in 1991 after Missouri became one of the first states to allow private companies to supervise some probationers. (Smith and other EMASS officials declined to comment for this story.)

The St. Louis area has made national headlines for its “offender funded” model of policing and punishment. Stricken by postindustrial decline and the 2008 financial crisis, its municipalities turned to their police departments and courts to make up for shortfalls in revenue. In 2015, the Ferguson Report by the United States Department of Justice put hard numbers to what black residents had long suspected: The police were targeting them with disproportionate arrests, traffic tickets and excessive fines.

EMASS may have saved the city some money, but it also created an extraordinary and arbitrary-seeming new expense for poor defendants. When cities cover the cost of monitoring, they often pay private contractors $2 to $3 a day for the same equipment and services for which EMASS charges defendants $10 a day. To come up with the money, EMASS clients told me, they had to find second jobs, take their children out of day care and cut into disability checks. Others hurried to plead guilty for no better reason than that being on probation was cheaper than paying for a monitor.

At the downtown office, White signed a contract stating that he would charge his monitor for an hour and a half each day and “report” to EMASS with $70 each week. He could shower, but was not to bathe or swim (the monitor is water-resistant, not waterproof). Interfering with the monitor’s functioning was a felony.

The St. Louis office of EMASS, which charges defendants $300 up front to get the monitor attached.

White assumed that GPS supervision would prove a minor annoyance. Instead, it was a constant burden. The box was bulky and the size of a fist, so he couldn’t hide it under his jeans. Whenever he left the house, people stared. There were snide comments ("nice bracelet") and cutting jokes. His brothers teased him about having a babysitter. “I’m nobody to watch,” he insisted.

The biggest problem was finding work. Confident and outgoing, White had never struggled to land jobs; after dropping out of high school in his junior year, he flipped burgers at McDonald’s and Steak ’n Shake. To pay for the monitor, he applied to be a custodian at Julia Davis Library, a cashier at Home Depot, a clerk at Menards. The conversation at Home Depot had gone especially well, White thought, until the interviewer casually asked what was on his leg.

To help improve his chances, he enrolled in Mission: St. Louis, a job-training center for people reentering society. One afternoon in January, he and a classmate role-played how to talk to potential employers about criminal charges. White didn’t know how much detail to go into. Should he tell interviewers that he was bringing his pregnant girlfriend some snacks when he was pulled over? He still isn’t sure, because a police officer came looking for him midway through the class. The battery on his monitor had died. The officer sent him home, and White missed the rest of the lesson.

With all of the restrictions and rules, keeping a job on a monitor can be as difficult as finding one. The hours for weekly check-ins at the downtown EMASS office — 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Mondays — are inconvenient for those who work. In 2011, the National Institute of Justice surveyed 5,000 people on electronic monitors and found that 22% said they had been fired or asked to leave a job because of the device. Juawanna Caves, a young St. Louis native and mother of two, was placed on a monitor in December after being charged with unlawful use of a weapon. She said she stopped showing up to work as a housekeeper when her co-workers made her uncomfortable by asking questions and later lost a job at a nursing home because too many exceptions had to be made for her court dates and EMASS check-ins.

Perpetual surveillance also takes a mental toll. Nearly everyone I spoke to who wore a monitor described feeling trapped, as though they were serving a sentence before they had even gone to trial. White was never really sure about what he could or couldn’t do under supervision. In January, when his girlfriend had their daughter, Rylan, White left the hospital shortly after the birth, under the impression that he had a midnight curfew. Later that night, he let his monitor die so that he could sneak back before sunrise to see the baby again.

EMASS makes its money from defendants. But it gets its power over them from judges. It was in 2012 that the judges of the St. Louis court started to use the company’s services — which previously involved people on probation for misdemeanors — for defendants awaiting trial. Last year, the company supervised 239 defendants in the city of St. Louis on GPS monitors, according to numbers provided by EMASS to the court. The alliance with the courts gives the company not just a steady stream of business but a reliable means of recouping debts: Unlike, say, a credit-card company, which must file a civil suit to collect from overdue customers, EMASS can initiate criminal-court proceedings, threatening defendants with another stay in the Workhouse.

In early April, I visited Judge Rex Burlison in his chambers on the 10th floor of the St. Louis civil courts building. A few months earlier, Burlison, who has short gray hair and light blue eyes, had been elected by his peers as presiding judge, overseeing the city’s docket, budget and operations, including the contract with EMASS. It was one of the first warm days of the year, and from the office window I could see sunlight glimmering on the silver Gateway Arch.

I asked Burlison about the court’s philosophy for using pretrial GPS. He stressed that while each case was unique and subject to the judge’s discretion, monitoring was most commonly used for defendants who posed a flight risk, endangered public safety or had an alleged victim. Judges vary in how often they order defendants to wear monitors, and critics have attacked the inconsistency. Colbert-Botchway, the judge who put White on a monitor, regularly made pretrial GPS a condition of release, according to public defenders. (Colbert-Botchway declined to comment.) But another St. Louis city judge, David Roither, told me, “I really don’t use it very often because people here are too poor to pay for it.”

Whenever a defendant on a monitor violates a condition of release, whether related to payment or a curfew or something else, EMASS sends a letter to the court. Last year, Burlison said, the court received two to three letters a week from EMASS about violations. In response, the judge usually calls the defendant in for a hearing. As far as he knew, Burlison said, judges did not incarcerate people simply for failing to pay EMASS debts. “Why would you?” he asked me. When people were put back in jail, he said, there were always other factors at play, like the defendant’s missing a hearing, for instance. (Issuing a warrant for White’s arrest without a hearing, he acknowledged after looking at the docket, was not the court’s standard practice.)

The contract with EMASS allows the court to assign indigent defendants to the company to oversee “at no cost.” Yet neither Burlison nor any of the other current or former judges I spoke with recalled waiving fees when ordering someone to wear an ankle monitor. When I asked Burlison why he didn’t, he said that he was concerned that if he started to make exceptions on the basis of income, the company might stop providing ankle-monitoring services in St. Louis.

“People get arrested because of life choices,” Burlison said. “Whether they’re good for the charge or not, they’re still arrested and have to deal with it, and part of dealing with it is the finances.” To release defendants without monitors simply because they can’t afford the fee, he said, would be to disregard the safety of their victims or the community. “We can’t just release everybody because they’re poor,” he continued.

But many people in the Workhouse awaiting trial are poor. In January, civil rights groups filed suit against the city and the court, claiming that the St. Louis bail system violated the Constitution, in part by discriminating against those who can’t afford to post bail. That same month, the Missouri Supreme Court announced new rules that urged local courts to consider releasing defendants without monetary conditions and to waive fees for poor people placed on monitors. Shortly before the rules went into effect, on July 1, Burlison said that the city intends to shift the way ankle monitors are distributed and plans to establish a fund to help indigent defendants pay for their ankle bracelets. But he said he didn’t know how much money would be in the fund or whether it was temporary or permanent. The need for funding could grow quickly. The pending bail lawsuit has temporarily spurred the release of more defendants from custody, and as a result, public defenders say, the demand for monitors has increased.

Judges are anxious about what people released without posting bail might do once they get out. Several told me that monitors may ensure that the defendants return to court. Not unlike doctors who order a battery of tests for a mildly ill patient to avoid a potential malpractice suit, judges seem to view monitors as a precaution against their faces appearing on the front page of the newspaper. “Every judge’s fear is to let somebody out on recognizance and he commits murder, and then everyone asks, ’How in the hell was this person let out?’” said Robert Dierker, who served as a judge in St. Louis from 1986 to 2017 and now represents the city in the bail lawsuit. “But with GPS, you can say, ’Well, I have him on GPS, what else can I do?’”

Critics of monitors contend that their public-safety appeal is illusory: If defendants are intent on harming someone or skipping town, the bracelet, which can be easily removed with a pair of scissors, would not stop them. Studies showing that people tracked by GPS appear in court more reliably are scarce, and research about its effectiveness as a deterrent is inconclusive.

“The fundamental question is, What purpose is electronic monitoring serving?” said Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in St. Louis that is one of several firms representing the plaintiffs in the bail lawsuit. “If the only purpose it’s serving is to make judges feel better because they don’t want to be on the hook if something goes wrong, then that’s not a sensible approach. We should not simply be monitoring for monitoring’s sake.”

Electronic monitoring was first conceived in the early 1960s by Ralph and Robert Gable, identical twins studying at Harvard under the psychologists Timothy Leary and B.F. Skinner, respectively. Influenced in part by Skinner’s theories of positive reinforcement, the Gables rigged up some surplus missile-tracking equipment to monitor teenagers on probation; those who showed up at the right places at the right times were rewarded with movie tickets, limo rides and other prizes.

Although this round-the-clock monitoring was intended as a tool for rehabilitation, observers and participants alike soon recognized its potential to enhance surveillance. All but two of the 16 volunteers in their initial study dropped out, finding the two bulky radio transmitters oppressive. “They felt like it was a prosthetic conscience, and who would want Mother all the time along with you?” Robert Gable told me. Psychology Today labeled the invention a “belt from Big Brother.”

The reality of electronic monitoring today is that Big Brother is watching some groups more than others. No national statistics are available on the racial breakdown of Americans wearing ankle monitors, but all indications suggest that mass supervision, like mass incarceration, disproportionately affects black people. In Cook County, Illinois, for instance, black people make up 24% of the population, and 67% of those on monitors. The sociologist Simone Browne has connected contemporary surveillance technologies like GPS monitors to America’s long history of controlling where black people live, move and work. In her 2015 book, “Dark Matters,” she traces the ways in which “surveillance is nothing new to black folks,” from the branding of enslaved people and the shackling of convict laborers to Jim Crow segregation and the home visits of welfare agencies. These historical inequities, Browne notes, influence where and on whom new tools like ankle monitors are imposed.

For some black families, including White’s, monitoring stretches across generations. Annette Taylor, the director of Ripple Effect, an advocacy group for prisoners and their families based in Champaign, Illinois, has seen her ex-husband, brother, son, nephew and sister’s husband wear ankle monitors over the years. She had to wear one herself, about a decade ago, she said, for driving with a suspended license. “You’re making people a prisoner of their home,” she told me. When her son was paroled and placed on house arrest, he couldn’t live with her, because he was forbidden to associate with people convicted of felonies, including his stepfather, who was also on house arrest.

Some people on monitors are further constrained by geographic restrictions — areas in the city or neighborhood that they can’t go without triggering an alarm. James Kilgore, a research scholar at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, has cautioned that these exclusionary zones could lead to “e-gentrification,” effectively keeping people out of more-prosperous neighborhoods. In 2016, after serving four years in prison for drug conspiracy, Bryan Otero wore a monitor as a condition of parole. He commuted from the Bronx to jobs at a restaurant and a department store in Manhattan, but he couldn’t visit his family or doctor because he was forbidden to enter a swath of Manhattan between 117th Street and 131st Street. “All my family and childhood friends live in that area,” he said. “I grew up there.”

Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and columnist for The Times, has argued that monitoring engenders a new form of oppression under the guise of progress. In her 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow,” she wrote that the term “mass incarceration” should refer to the “system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls — walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship.”

As the cost of monitoring continues to fall, those who are required to submit to it may worry less about the expense and more about the intrusive surveillance. The devices, some of which are equipped with two-way microphones, can give corrections officials unprecedented access to the private lives not just of those monitored but also of their families and friends. GPS location data appeals to the police, who can use it to investigate crimes. Already the goal is both to track what individuals are doing and to anticipate what they might do next. BI Incorporated, an electronic-monitoring subsidiary of GEO Group, has the ability to assign risk scores to the behavioral patterns of those monitored, so that law enforcement can “address potential problems before they happen.” Judges leery of recidivism have begun to embrace risk-assessment tools. As a result, defendants who have yet to be convicted of an offense in court may be categorized by their future chances of reoffending.

The combination of GPS location data with other tracking technologies such as automatic license-plate readers represents an uncharted frontier for finer-grained surveillance. In some cities, police have concentrated these tools in neighborhoods of color. A CityLab investigation found that Baltimore police were more likely to deploy the Stingray — the controversial and secretive cellphone tracking technology — where African Americans lived. In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, the police spied on Black Lives Matter protesters with face recognition technology. Given this pattern, the term “electronic monitoring” may soon refer not just to a specific piece of equipment but to an all-encompassing strategy.

If the evolution of the criminal-justice system is any guide, it is very likely that the ankle bracelet will go out of fashion. Some GPS monitoring vendors have already started to offer smartphone applications that verify someone’s location through voice and face recognition. These apps, with names like Smart-LINK and Shadowtrack, promise to be cheaper and more convenient than a boxy bracelet. They’re also less visible, mitigating the stigma and normalizing surveillance. While reducing the number of people in physical prison, these seductive applications could, paradoxically, increase its reach. For the nearly 4.5 million Americans on probation or parole, it is not difficult to imagine a virtual prison system as ubiquitous — and invasive — as Instagram or Facebook.

On Jan. 24, exactly three months after White had his monitor installed, his public defender successfully argued in court for its removal. His phone service had been shut off because he had fallen behind on the bill, so his mother told him the good news over video chat.

When White showed up to EMASS a few days later to have the ankle bracelet removed, he said, one of the company’s employees told him that he couldn’t take off his monitor until he paid his debt. White offered him the $35 in his wallet — all the money he had. It wasn’t enough. The employee explained that he needed to pay at least half of the $700 he owed. Somewhere in the contract he had signed months earlier, White had agreed to pay his full balance “at the time of removal.” But as White saw it, the court that had ordered the monitor’s installation was now ordering its removal. Didn’t that count?

“That’s the only thing that’s killing me,” White told me a few weeks later, in early March. “Why are you all not taking it off?” We were in his brother’s room, which, unlike White’s down the hall, had space for a wobbly chair. White sat on the bed, his head resting against the frame, while his brother sat on the other end by the TV, mumbling commands into a headset for the fantasy video game Fortnite. By then, the prosecutor had offered White two to three years of probation in exchange for a plea. (White is waiting to hear if he has been accepted into the city’s diversion program for “youthful offenders,” which would allow him to avoid pleading and wipe the charges from his record in a year.)

White was wearing a loosefitting Nike track jacket and red sweats that bunched up over the top of his monitor. He had recently stopped charging it, and so far, the police hadn’t come knocking. “I don’t even have to have it on,” he said, looking down at his ankle. “But without a job, I can’t get it taken off.” In the last few weeks, he had sold his laptop, his phone and his TV. That cash went to rent, food and his daughter, and what was left barely made a dent in what he owed EMASS.

It was a Monday — a check-in day — but he hadn’t been reporting for the past couple of weeks. He didn’t see the point; he didn’t have the money to get the monitor removed and the office was an hour away by bus. I offered him a ride.

EMASS check-ins take place in a three-story brick building with a low-slung facade draped in ivy. The office doesn’t take cash payments, and a Western Union is conveniently located next door. The other men in the waiting room were also wearing monitors. When it was White’s turn to check-in, Buss, the bond-compliance officer, unclipped the band from his ankle and threw the device into a bin, White said. He wasn’t sure why EMASS had now softened its approach, but his debts nonetheless remained.

Buss calculated the money White owed going back to November: $755, plus 10% annual interest. Over the next nine months, EMASS expected him to make monthly payments that would add up to $850 — more than the court had required for his bond. White looked at the receipt and shook his head. “I get in trouble for living,” he said as he walked out of the office. “For being me.”


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica, an investigative news agency.

 

 

 

Getting poorer while working harder: The ‘cliff effect’

By Susan R. Crandall, University of Massachusetts Boston

Forty percent of all working-age Americans sometimes struggle to pay their monthly bills.

There is no place in the country where a family supported by one minimum-wage worker with a full-time job can live and afford a 2-bedroom apartment at the average fair-market rent.

Average Walmart workers make twice the federal minimum wage but may still qualify for public benefits.

Given the pressure to earn enough to make ends meet, you would think that low-paid workers would be clamoring for raises. But this is not always the case.

Because so many American jobs don’t earn enough to pay for food, housing and other basic needs, many low-wage workers rely on public benefits that are only available to people in need, such as housing vouchers and Medicaid, to pay their bills.

Earning a little more money may not automatically increase their standard of living if it boosts their income to the point where they lose access to some or all of those benefits. That’s because the value of those lost benefits may outweigh their income gains.

I have researched this dynamic, which experts often call the “cliff effect,” for years to learn why workers weren’t succeeding at retaining their jobs following job training programs. Chief among the one step forward, two steps back problems the cliff effect causes: Low-paid workers can become reluctant to earn more money due to a fear that they will get worse off instead of better.

Trapped

“My supervisor wants to promote me,” a woman who gets housing assistance through the federal Section 8 housing voucher program, who I’ll call Josie, told me. “If my pay goes up, my rent will go up too. I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford my apartment,” Josie, a secretary at a Boston hospital, said.

These vouchers are available to Americans facing economic hardship, based on multiple criteria, including their income. Josie was worried that the bump up in pay that she’d get from the promotion would not make up for the loss of help she gets to pay her rent.

Given the possibility of a downside, many Americans in this situation decide it’s better to decline what on the surface looks like a good opportunity to escape poverty.

This uncertainty leads workers like Josie to forgo raises rather than take the risk of getting poorer while working harder. Having to stress out about potentially losing benefits that keep a roof over their heads and food on their table prolongs their own financial instability.

The pain isn’t just personal. Josie’s whole family misses out if she passes on an opportunity to earn more. The government loses a chance to stop using taxpayer dollars to cover benefits to someone who might not otherwise need them. The hospital can’t take full advantage of Josie’s proven talents.

Not always

Some low-paid workers do get farther behind when they should be getting ahead following a raise. But getting higher pay doesn’t always make anyone worse off. Whether it does or not depends on a lot of intersecting factors, like the local cost of living, the size of the raise, the size of the family and the benefits the worker receives.

The cliff effect is something social workers see their clients encounter all the time. And it’s maddeningly impossible to figure out for the people experiencing it and researchers like me alike.

Some benefits, notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s largest program designed to alleviate hunger, do include some incentives for recipients to earn more. SNAP, as today’s version of food stamps is known, tapers its phaseout for eligibility as incomes grow, rather than rendering people ineligible as soon as their pay crosses a single threshold.

But low-wage workers, such as those in food service, hospitality and retail have no way of knowing what to expect if they get SNAP benefits in combination with other government programs, such as housing vouchers and Medicaid.

At the heart of this problem is that the help millions Americans derive from the nation’s safety net comes from a fragmented system. Sorting out the repercussions of a higher income is nearly impossible because the safety net consists of a wide array of benefits programs administered by federal, state and local agencies. Each program and administrator has its own criteria, rules and restrictions.

Because that trepidation is sometimes unfounded, my colleagues at Project Hope Boston, a multi-service agency focused on moving the city’s families up and out of poverty, and I started to do something about it.

Fixing it

To help families assess risks tied to the cliff effect, we advised the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, which oversees state-administered safety net programs, to create a digital tool. Social workers are already using a preliminary version of it to show low-wage workers what they can probably expect to happen to their benefits if they earn more money.

You have to consider a lot of variables to see whether someone will experience the cliff effect. Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, CC BY-ND

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts plans to put this tool online for all to use by Summer of 2019.

After plugging information about variables like how many members are in the household, what benefits everyone receives, the costs of their regular expenses like rent, child care and medical bills, they become better able to make informed choices about their career opportunity based on their family’s personal financial situation.

But workers need more than just a tool, they need help getting over the cliff. We also help workforce development programs implement the state’s new Learn to Earn initiative, which gives low-income families the financial coaching they need to make educated decisions that could affect their bottom line.

This problem is becoming increasingly urgent because dozens of states, cities and counties are enforcing higher minimum wages, and employers are voluntarily raising pay as well, including Target and Amazon. Some places, including Massachusetts and the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota, are even phasing in $15-an-hour minimums.

But the reality is that even after some of the biggest minimum wage increases enacted at the state level lately, many families are not earning enough to pay for housing and other basic needs without help – for which they may no longer qualify. Several states, including Colorado and Florida, are seeking solutions.This complicated and frustrating challenge is just one symptom of an overarching problem. In addition to boosting wages, it will take major policy changes, like making child care more universally available and affordable, to offset the skyrocketing costs of living for American workers.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

It’s Getting Worse: The IRS Now Audits Poor Americans at About the Same Rate as the Top 1%

As the agency’s ability to audit the rich crumbles, its scrutiny of the poor has held steady in recent years. Meanwhile, a new study shows that audits of poor taxpayers make them far less likely to claim credits they might be entitled to.

employee exits the building in Washington, D.C.

By Paul Kiel

Every year, the IRS, starved of funds after years of budget cuts, loses hundreds more agents to retirement. And every year, the news gets better for the rich — especially those prone to go bold on their taxes. According to data released by the IRS last week, millionaires in 2018 were about 80% less likely to be audited than they were in 2011.

But poor taxpayers continue to bear the brunt of the IRS’ remaining force. As we reported last year, Americans who receive the earned income tax credit, one of the country’s largest anti-poverty programs, are audited at a higher rate than all but the richest taxpayers. The new data shows that the trend has only grown stronger.

Audits of the rich continue to plunge while those of the poor hold steady, and the two audit rates are converging. Last year, the top 1% of taxpayers by income were audited at a rate of 1.56%. EITC recipients, who typically have annual income under $20,000, were audited at 1.41%.

Part of the reason is ease. Audits of EITC recipients are largely automated and far less complicated.

“While the wealthy now have an open invitation to cheat, low-income taxpayers are receiving heightened scrutiny because they can be audited far more easily. All it takes is a letter instead of a team of investigators and lawyers,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

“We have two tax systems in this country,” he said, “and nothing illustrates that better than the IRS ignoring wealthy tax cheats while penalizing low-income workers over small mistakes.”

In a statement, IRS spokesman Dean Patterson acknowledged that the sharp decline in audits of the wealthy is due to the agency having lost so many skilled auditors. And he didn’t dispute that pursuing the poor is just easier.

Because EITC audits are largely conducted through the mail by lower-level employees from a central location, they are “less burdensome for taxpayers than in-person audits as they mail in their documentation and don’t have to take time out of the workday,” Patterson said.

“Correspondence audits are also the most efficient use of IRS’ limited examination resources.”

In April, Wyden, citing ProPublica’s reporting, asked IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to deliver a plan to address the agency’s disproportionate focus on auditing the poor. The deadline has passed, but Wyden’s office said the senator still expects a response. The IRS did not comment on the delay.

The agency audited 382,000 recipients of the EITC in 2018, accounting for 43% of all audits of individuals last year. When we mapped the estimated audit rates for every county in America, the counties with the highest audit rates were poor, rural, mostly African American and in the South, a reflection of the high number of EITC claims there.

Natassia Smick and her husband were among those unlucky 382,000 households. We wrote about them last year. They live outside Los Angeles and saw their entire refund frozen in February 2018. For a couple who earned about $33,000 in 2017, that $7,300 refund was big money ($2,000 of it stemmed from the EITC). When it didn’t come, Smick said she had to abandon plans for catching up with her credit card debt.

After Smick sent in all her supporting documents, it took until this May to get a final answer from the IRS. Fourteen months after it all started, the IRS said it agreed Smick and her husband were due about $7,000, she said. But the agency disagreed on the remaining $350, because it couldn’t verify her husband’s employment for part of the year. Smick said the IRS was wrong to hold back the $350, but she couldn’t afford to contest it and further delay the $7,000.

“I’m not going to fight anymore,” she said. “We have already waited too long, and we are not in a financial position to wait another three months to appeal.”

A new study by academic and government researchers shows that there has been a big cost to these audits: They’ve discouraged hundreds of thousands of families who might qualify for the credit from claiming it in future years.

For poor taxpayers, the worst part of the EITC audits is usually the beginning. That’s because they almost always begin with the shock of the refund being held.

But the audits also hardly ever end well. According to data in the new study, most end without the taxpayer responding at all, and the poorer the audit target, the more likely that is to happen. Those with wage income under $10,000 per year, for instance, didn’t respond at all in 64% of the EITC audits. For those with income over $40,000 per year, that rate dipped to 35%.

The diminished response rate of the poorest taxpayers in part reflects that they are harder to reach: In 15% of those audits, the mail couldn’t be delivered. But earlier studies have also shown that many poor taxpayers don’t understand they are being audited or have trouble deciphering what the IRS is asking in its letters.

The EITC is aimed mainly at low-income workers with children. Last year, 26 million households received an average credit of about $2,500. Most EITC audits require taxpayers to dig up documents to show that a child meets the legal threshold of a “qualifying child,” a status that’s distinct from a dependent. The IRS has long blamed the law’s complexity as the main reason taxpayers may incorrectly claim the credit.

Smick was among the rare audit veterans who prevailed. Taxpayers rarely win against the IRS regardless of how likely they are to qualify for the credit, according to the new study, which was done by Day Manoli, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, and researchers with the IRS and Treasury Department.

The authors sliced the population of EITC recipients into categories. At one end of the spectrum were tax returns with red flags that made it almost certain they would be audited. On the other end were returns very unlikely to be audited. But, looking over time, the outcomes of those audits weren’t all that different. When those returns with red flags were audited, the taxpayers prevailed 7% of the time. The taxpayers at the other end of the spectrum — the group seemingly most likely to qualify for the credit — only prevailed 10% of the time.

The audits have a long-term impact on the lives of those who go through them, the study found. In the years after they were audited, wage earners were 68% less likely to claim the credit compared with similar taxpayers who had not been audited. They were even 14% less likely to file taxes at all.

These taxpayers surrender “benefits from potentially legitimate EITC claims,” the study authors write, and, when they fail to file taxes at all, leave money on the table in the form of other credits and withholdings.

Because the IRS conducts so many EITC audits — between 380,000 and 600,000 per year over the past decade — at the very least, hundreds of thousands of taxpayers have likely avoided claiming the credit in response to having it denied through an audit. By discouraging people from claiming the credit, the audits clash with an avowed goal of the IRS: to encourage people to claim it. About a fifth of those eligible for the credit don’t claim it, and the IRS runs education campaigns to increase uptake.

EITC recipients are audited at such a high rate in part because Republicans in Congress have long pressured the IRS to reduce incorrect payments of the credit.

The IRS estimates that there was about $18 billion in incorrect claims in 2018. In most contexts, $18 billion is a big number, but when compared with the full scope of unpaid taxes, which likely total more than $600 billion each year, it’s not so big.

And while that $18 billion number, which Republicans touted as a “big problem” in the April hearing, is often cast as a kind of government waste, the study shows things are far more complicated.

In the years following an audit, the study found, children who were claimed on one taxpayer’s return often were claimed on a different taxpayer’s return. In other words, the kids might have just been claimed on the wrong return, and if that’s the case, the money should have been paid out, just to someone else.

The authors distinguish between the $18 billion in “gross overpayments” of the credit, which would include such misdirected payments, and what they call “net overpayments,” money that shouldn’t have been paid out at all. The “net” number, they say, could be one-third to one-half smaller than the “gross” one.

The IRS, in its statement, said the study had focused on a sample of only one type of taxpayer (single and head-of-household filers), and so the estimate of “net overpayments” should not be generalized to the entire EITC-claiming population.


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.