Category Archives: Poverty

Six charts that illustrate the divide between rural and urban America

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The divide is in the data. American Community Survey (ACS) 2011-2015 5 year estimates, Table S1810, CC BY

Editor’s note: We’ve all heard of the great divide between life in rural and urban America. But what are the factors that contribute to these differences? We asked sociologists, economists, geographers and historians to describe the divide from different angles. The data paint a richer and sometimes surprising picture of the U.S. today. The Conversation

1. Poverty is higher in rural areas

Discussions of poverty in the United States often mistakenly focus on urban areas. While urban poverty is a unique challenge, rates of poverty have historically been higher in rural than urban areas. In fact, levels of rural poverty were often double those in urban areas throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

While these rural-urban gaps have diminished markedly, substantial differences persist. In 2015, 16.7 percent of the rural population was poor, compared with 13.0 percent of the urban population overall – and 10.8 percent among those living in suburban areas outside of principal cities.

Contrary to common assumptions, substantial shares of the poor are employed. Approximately 45 percent of poor, prime-age (25-54) householders worked at least part of 2015 in rural and urban areas alike.

The link between work and poverty was different in the past. In the early 1980s, the share of the rural poor that was employed exceeded that in urban areas by more than 15 percent. Since then, more and more poor people in rural areas are also unemployed – a trend consistent with other patterns documented below.

That said, rural workers continue to benefit less from work than their urban counterparts. In 2015, 9.8 percent of rural, prime-age working householders were poor, compared with 6.8 percent of their urban counterparts. Nearly a third of the rural working poor faced extreme levels of deprivation, with family incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line, or approximately US$12,000 for a family of four.

Large shares of the rural workforce also live in economically precarious circumstances just above the poverty line. Nearly one in five rural working householders lived in families with incomes less than 150 percent of the poverty line. That’s nearly five percentage points more than among urban workers (13.5 percent).

According to recent research, rural-urban gaps in working poverty cannot be explained by rural workers’ levels of education, industry of employment or other similar factors that might affect earnings. Rural poverty – at least among workers – cannot be fully explained by the characteristics of the rural population. That means reducing rural poverty will require attention to the structure of rural economies and communities.

Brian Thiede, Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology and Demography, Pennsylvania State University

2. Most new jobs aren’t in rural areas

It’s easy to see why many rural Americans believe the recession never ended: For them, it hasn’t.

Rural communities still haven’t recovered the jobs they lost in the recession. Census data show that the rural job market is smaller now – 4.26 percent smaller, to be exact – than it was in 2008. In these data are shuttered coal mines on the edges of rural towns and boarded-up gas stations on rural main streets. In these data are the angers, fears and frustrations of much of rural America.

This isn’t a new trend. Mechanization, environmental regulations and increased global competition have been slowly whittling away at resource extraction economies and driving jobs from rural communities for most of the 20th century. But the fact that what they’re experiencing now is simply the cold consequences of history likely brings little comfort to rural people. If anything, it only adds to their fear that what they once had is gone and it’s never coming back.

Nor is it likely that the slight increase in rural jobs since 2013 brings much comfort. As the resource extraction economy continues to shrink, most of the new jobs in rural areas are being created in the service sector. So Appalachian coal miners and Northwest loggers are now stocking shelves at the local Walmart.

The identity of rural communities used to be rooted in work. The signs at the entrances of their towns welcomed visitors to coal country or timber country. Towns named their high school mascots after the work that sustained them, like the Jordan Beetpickers in Utah or the Camas Papermakers in Washington. It used to be that, when someone first arrived at these towns, they knew what people did and that they were proud to do it.

That’s not so clear anymore. How do you communicate your communal identity when the work once at the center of that identity is gone, and calling the local high school football team the “Walmart Greeters” simply doesn’t have the same ring to it?

Looking at rural jobs data, is it so hard to understand why many rural people are nostalgic for the past and fearful for the future?

Steven Beda, Instructor of History, University of Oregon

3. Disabilities are more common in rural areas

Disability matters in rural America. Data from the American Community Survey, an annual government poll, reveal that disability is more prevalent in rural counties than their urban counterparts.

The rate of disability increases from 11.8 percent in the most urban metropolitan counties to 15.6 percent in smaller micropolitan areas and 17.7 percent in the most rural, or noncore, counties.

While rural-urban differences in disability have been analyzed previously, researchers have had little opportunity to further explore this disparity, as updated data on rural disability were unavailable until recently. Fortunately, the census released updated new county-level disability estimates in 2014, ending a 14-year knowledge gap.

The release of these estimates has also allowed us to build a picture of geographic variations in disability across the nation. Disability rates vary significantly across the U.S. Although the national trend of higher disability rates in rural counties persists at the regional and even divisional level, it is clear that disability in rural America is not homogeneous. Rates of rural disability range from around 15 percent in the Great Plains to 21 percent in the central South.






Data reveal notable differences between rural and urban America. American Community Survey (ACS) 2011-2015 5 year estimates, Table S1810, CC BY

A variety of factors may be behind these regional and rural differences, including differences in demographics, economic patterns, health and service access and state disability policies.

While this survey provides a glimpse into the national prevalence of disability and reveals a persistent rural-urban disparity, it is important to note its limitations. Disability is the result of an interaction between an individual and his or her environment. Therefore, these data do not directly measure disability, as they measure only physical function and do not consider environmental factors such as inaccessible housing.

Lillie Greiman and Andrew Myers, Project Directors at the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities at the University of Montana; Christiane von Reichert, Professor of Geography, University of Montana

4. Rural areas are surprisingly entrepreneurial

The United States’ continuing economic dominance is perhaps most attributable to the very smallest elements of its economy: its entrepreneurial start-ups. Nearly 700,000 new job-creating businesses open each year. That’s almost 2,000 every day, each helping to create new market niches in the global economy.

Most people mistakenly believe these pioneering establishments occur in overwhelmingly in metropolitan areas, such as in the now-mythic start-up culture of Silicon Valley.

Yet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it is in fact nonmetropolitan counties that have higher rates of self-employed business proprietors than their metropolitan counterparts.

Furthermore, the more rural the county, the higher its level of entrepreneurship. Some of these counties have a farming legacy – perhaps the most entrepreneurial of occupations – but farmers represent less than one-sixth of business owners in nonmetro areas. Even for nonfarm enterprises, rural entrepreneurship rates are higher.

The reality is that rural areas have to be entrepreneurial, as industries with concentrations of wage and salary jobs are necessarily scarce.

Start-up businesses have notoriously difficult survival prospects. So it is perhaps even more surprising that relatively isolated nonmetropolitan businesses are on average more resilient than their metro cousins, despite the considerable economic advantages of urban areas, which boast a denser networks of workers, suppliers and markets. The resilience of rural start-ups is perhaps due to more cautious business practices in areas with few alternative employment options.

This resilience is also remarkably persistent over time, consistently being at least on par with metro start-ups, and regularly having survival rates up to 10 percentage points higher than in metro areas over 1990-2007.

Stephan Weiler, Professor of Economics, Colorado State University; Tessa Conroy and Steve Deller, Professors of Economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Brian Thiede, Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology and Demography, Pennsylvania State University; Lillie Greiman, Research Associate, The University of Montana; Stephan Weiler, Professor of Economics, Colorado State University; Steven C. Beda, Instructor of History, University of Oregon, and Tessa Conroy, Economic Development Specialist, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This article republished with permission under license from The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Criminalization of Poverty: Woman Describes Fines & Arrests After $1.07 Check Bounces

The Ferguson Protest brought national attention to predatory court systems in the St. Louis Area. However, St. Louis wasn't the only local predatory system. The civil rights being demanded by groups such as Black Lives Matter ultimate help protect the rights and privileges of all American. exist to help teach Black people and others about the law and their rights and how to envoke them so they can better protect themselves from predatory situations. 

We continue our look at what the ACLU calls an illegal debtors’ prison in Arkansas by speaking with a former resident who wrote a check for $1.07 for a loaf of bread. She describes how after her check bounced, her debt ballooned with fees and fines to nearly $400, and police officers twice came to her job to arrest her. Since then, she has been caught up in Sherwood’s Hot Checks Department. We are also joined by lawyer Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who says the woman’s experience is common.

Full Transcript Below:

Is an Arkansas Town Operating a "Hot Check" Court as an Illegal Debtors' Prison?

A woman in Sherwood, Arkansas, just spent 35 days in a county jail after she accidentally bounced a $29 check five years ago. Nikki Petree was sentenced to jail last month by a judge accused of running a debtors’ prison. She had already been arrested at least seven times over the bounced check and paid at least $600 in court fines. Her release comes as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU and an international law firm have filed a lawsuit to challenge the modern-day debtors’ prison in Sherwood. We speak with Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who says Sherwood jails people in violation of a long-standing law that forbids the incarceration of people for their failure to pay debts.

Full Transcript Below:


$1.07 Bounced Check for Bread

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Janice, who is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, who’s been caught up in Sherwood’s Hot Checks Department for decades. One check she wrote for $1.07 for a loaf of bread bounced. The debt ballooned after fees and fines to nearly $400. She currently has a warrant in Sherwood’s Hot Checks Department and wishes to remain anonymous for fear of arrest.

So, Janice, you’re in profile; you don’t want to be seen. But explain what happened to you.

JANICE: On several occasions, I have been arrested by Sherwood Police Department for bounced checks, insufficient funds checks. I’ve even been arrested on my job—two different jobs, as a matter of fact, one—with two different hospitals. My checks has totaled, I would say, less than $1,000 worth of checks. And they’re little, small checks. I was a bad manager. I didn’t keep a good register, so, therefore, I had bounced checks. Some were $20. Hundred dollar may have been the highest number of checks that I wrote. But I have had accumulated fees up to thousands of dollars in fees and costs, on roughly less than $1,000 worth of checks.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you go into the—before the judge on these cases, what’s the process? What happens there?

JANICE: He just bring you before him, and, like they say, you sign a waiver. You go up before the judge, and he assesses your fees and court costs, and give you a monthly payment amount, until you have to pay this monthly payment by such, such date. You have a 10-day grace period. If it’s not paid, then there’s another failure-to-pay warrant issued and additional costs and fines assessed to the amount you already have.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, part of your struggle is you have MS—is that right, Janice? And you’re trying to deal with medical costs, as well?

JANICE: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: And is this Judge Hale that you’re going before, who Kristen Clarke just described?

JANICE: Yes, it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you allowed to bring in a friend, a family member, a lawyer at your side?

JANICE: Now, if you do retain an attorney, an attorney can be there, but family members and friends are not allowed in.

AMY GOODMAN: So what is your situation right now?

JANICE: Right now, I have not been there since somewhere around 2008. And I have an active warrant, because I could not afford to pay the monthly payment that he had assessed of $200, because I feel as if I have paid, you know, restitution on the checks that I’ve previously wrote, but these are all accumulated fines and court costs that has been assessed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And they’ve come on several occasions to arrest you on your job? I find this hard—this is a civil issue. Why they would be coming to arrest you on your job?

JANICE: Because that’s what they do. Even though they know your address, your home address, they will come out to your job, opposed to your home. And this has caused me to lose two jobs because of that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kristen Clarke, what about that, this issue of—I mean, normally, if somebody writes a check that they don’t have funds for, the bank will send them and issue, you know, a charge, but having law enforcement come in and arrest you for this, especially on your job, is this—is this illegal?

KRISTEN CLARKE: This abusive debt collection practice is part of the scheme. The clients that we represent in this case have had the cops show up at their doorstep and insist that they pay money now, or they are threatened with arrest. I am heartbroken to hear the story of the woman who just spoke. But again, we know that these are not isolated cases. This is a systemic pattern that exists across Sherwood and across Pulaski County. This is a court that has made big business out of preying on the backs of poor people. And they have made the focus on the most marginalized people in this community the focus of this court. People who have written small checks that are returned for insufficient funds, that is the focus of this court. And I can’t tell you how many people we’ve talked to who have stories like the woman who just spoke. We represent a cancer patient in this case. You know, he was hospitalized and receiving chemotherapy. And two—you know, a few checks bounced for very small amounts, and this man has been jailed and remains indebted in thousands of dollars to a court. Every time someone appears before Judge Hale, he imposes more court costs, more fines, more fees. And there is no way out for the people who are entrapped in this system.

AMY GOODMAN: So where does the lawsuit go from here, Kristen?

KRISTEN CLARKE: Well, we filed a federal class-action lawsuit. The woman who just spoke may indeed be somebody who is a member of this class. We will fight. We believe that Sherwood is a poster child, if you will. This is a classic example of a debtors’ prison. And we believe we’ll be successful at the end of the day in securing relief for the poor people of Sherwood. We believe that when somebody faces criminal charges, that they should have a lawyer by their side. They should have a judge who warns them about their rights and who counsels them about their rights and respects their due process rights. We will—we will fight on.

And then we’re going to look elsewhere around the country, because we know that this is a nationwide problem that we face. All around the country, we’ve seen the resurgence of debtors’ prisons. We’ve seen the criminalization of poverty. So, we are going to fight until we end this practice and bring our courts in line with that 1983 ruling from the Supreme Court that says you cannot lock poor people up merely because of their inability to pay a fine or fee.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Kristen Clarke, with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. And, Janice, thank you for being with us—not her real name. She is in shadow, but that’s because of what she faces as a poor person who is a victim of Sherwood’s Hot Checks Department in Arkansas.

– END –

35 Days in Jail, For $29 Bounced Check

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Arkansas to look at the case of a mother who just spent 35 days in a county jail after she accidentally bounced a $29 check five years ago. Nikki Petree was sentenced to jail just last month by a judge accused of running a debtors’ prison. Petree had already been arrested at least seven times over the bounced check, and paid at least $600 in court fines—more than 20 times the original debt. Petree said, quote, "Every time I go to jail, they’d let me out immediately for $100. They’d turn around and add $600 or $700 more to my bond. I couldn’t afford to pay. They cornered me, and there was no way out from underneath it. I felt overwhelmed and hopeless," she said.

AMY GOODMAN: Nikki Petree’s release comes as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU and the international law firm Morrison & Foerster have filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit challenging the modern-day debtors’ prison in Sherwood, Arkansas. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas against the city of Sherwood, Arkansas; Pulaski County, Arkansas; and Judge Milas Hale. Petree is one of four named plaintiffs in the suit who allege their constitutional rights were violated by the Hot Check Division of the Sherwood District Court when they were jailed for their inability to pay court fines and fees. The lawsuit alleges that Sherwood, Pulaski County, engages in a policy and custom of jailing poor people who owe court fines, fees and costs stemming from misdemeanor bad check convictions. It also says they jail people in violation of a long-standing law that forbids the incarceration of people for their failure to pay debts.

For more, we’re going to Washington, D.C., to Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups that filed this lawsuit.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you explain exactly what happened to Nikki Petree? She ends up in jail for a $28-and-change check, that she didn’t realize had bounced because her last paycheck hadn’t put in, and she ends up in jail five years later?

KRISTEN CLARKE: Yeah, Nikki Petree is not alone. This is a debtors’ court system that’s been in place in Sherwood that preys on the backs of poor people. Nikki Petree is one woman who exemplifies what happens if you’re poor in Sherwood. She wrote a check that was returned for insufficient funds about five years ago. That check amounted to about $28. And since that time, she’s spent more than 25 days in jail and has paid more than $600 in fines to the local court system. That is money that she did not have. She lives below the poverty line. She remains indebted by more than $2,500 to the local court system. And she was jailed at the time that we filed this suit last week. And there are so many people like her in Sherwood. We filed this lawsuit to bring an end to a court system that we believe preys on the backs of poor people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Kristen Clarke, in that lawsuit, you raise the issue of why this is happening. You say that local courts and municipalities throughout Arkansas have used the threat and the reality of incarceration to trap their poorest citizens in a never-ending spiral of repetitive court proceedings and ever-increasing debt. But you say also that faced with opposition to increased taxes, municipalities have turned to creating a system of debtors’ prisons to fuel the demand for increased public revenue. How extensive is this in Arkansas that municipalities are using this as a new revenue source?

KRISTEN CLARKE: It’s not only the case in Arkansas, but all over the country we’re seeing the resurgence of debtors’ prisons. In Sherwood, this is a court that’s generated more than $12 million over the course of five years by imposing fines and fees over and over again on poor people who wrote checks to local merchants that were returned for insufficient funds. In Ferguson, Missouri, we saw a local court system that was built on this concept of entangling people in the court system for transit, for traffic offenses. That court generated $20 million off the backs of poor people in Ferguson. But we know that these are not isolated practices.

What’s happened is that in 1983 the Supreme Court made clear that this is unconstitutional, that you can’t lock people up merely because they are poor. But what we’ve seen is the resurgence of debtors’ prison, because there hasn’t been enough enforcement to put a check on court systems like the one in place in Sherwood. So we filed this lawsuit to bring an end to an era that’s been marked by a court system in which one judge presides, Judge Butch Hale, where he has disregarded the due process rights of poor people at every turn.

What happens in Sherwood is that people get on line outside his courtroom. They are forced to sign a waiver of their right to counsel. Nobody is allowed in that courtroom but the defendants. If you come with a family member, an advocate or friend, you’re not allowed in. There are no tapes or recordings of the proceedings, no transcripts of the proceedings. People appear without counsel by their side. No one explains their rights to them. And every time they stand up before Judge Butch Hale, he imposes fine, fee after fine and fee, and court costs on them, subjecting these people to a spiraling cycle of debt.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it is an astounding story about Nikki Petree. Didn’t she end up owing something like $2,600 on this $28-and-change check?

KRISTEN CLARKE: That’s exactly right. She remains indebted by more than $2,500, $2,600. She spent more than 25 days in jail. She’s already come out of pocket more than $600. And that’s money that she doesn’t have, because she, like everybody who appears before this court, are poor people. This is a court that preys on the most vulnerable people in Sherwood. And they make a profit off of this.

– END –

Republished with permission under license from DemocracyNOW

How racism has shaped welfare policy in America since 1935

A Halloween gathering in Los Angeles for children who live on the street, in shelters or in cars. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

By Alma Carten

A recent UNICEF report found that the U.S. ranked 34th on the list of 35 developed countries surveyed on the well-being of children. According to the Pew Institute, children under the age of 18 are the most impoverished age population of Americans, and African-American children are almost four times as likely as white children to be in poverty.

These findings are alarming, not least because they come on the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” with his signing into law, on Aug. 23, 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (P.L. 104-193).

It is true that the data show the number of families receiving cash assistance fell from 12.3 million in 1996 to current levels of 4.1 million as reported by The New York Times. But it is also true that child poverty rates for black children remain stubbornly high in the U.S.

My research indicates that this didn’t happen by chance. In a recent book, I examine social welfare policy developments in the U.S. over a 50-year period from the New Deal to the 1996 reforms. Findings reveal that U.S. welfare policies have, from their very inception, been discriminatory.

Blemished by a history of discrimination

It was the 1935 Social Security Act, introduced by the Franklin Roosevelt administration, that first committed the U.S. to the safety net philosophy.

From the beginning, the policy had two tiers that intended to protect families from loss of income.

On one level were the contributory social insurance programs that provided income support to the surviving dependents of workers in the event of their death or incapacitation and Social Security for retired older Americans.

The second tier was made up of means-tested public assistance programs that included what was originally called the “Aid to Dependent Children” program and was subsequently renamed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the 1962 Public Welfare Amendments to the SSA under the Kennedy administration.

The optimistic vision of the architects of the ADC program was that it would die “a natural death” with the rising quality of life in the country as a whole, resulting in more families becoming eligible for the work-related social insurance programs.

But this scenario was problematic for black Americans because of pervasive racial discrimination in employment in the decades of the 1930s and 1940s. During these decades, blacks typically worked in menial jobs. Not tied to the formal workforce, they were paid in cash and “off the books,” making them ineligible for social insurance programs that called for contributions through payroll taxes from both employers and employees.

Nor did blacks fare much better under ADC during these years.

The ADC was an extension of the state-operated mothers’ pension programs, where white widows were the primary beneficiaries. The criteria for eligibility and need were state-determined, so blacks continued to be barred from full participation because the country operated under the “separate but equal” doctrine adopted by the Supreme Court in 1896.

Jim Crow Laws and the separate but equal doctrine resulted in the creation of a two-track service delivery system in both law and custom, one for whites and one for blacks that were anything but equal.

A ‘colored’ drinking fountain – segregation applied to welfare benefits too. Russell Lee/Library of Congress

Developments in the 1950s and ‘60’s further disadvantaged black families.

This happened when states stepped up efforts to reduce ADC enrollment and costs. As I examined in my book, residency requirements were proposed so as to bar blacks migrating from the South to qualify for the program. New York City’s “man in the house rule” required welfare workers to make unannounced visits to determine if fathers were living in the home – if evidence of a male presence was found, cases were closed and welfare checks discontinued.

Always an unpopular program

Because of the strong American work ethic, and preference for a “hand up” versus a “hand-out,” the means-tested, cash assistance programs for poor families – and especially ADC renamed AFDC – have never been popular among Americans. As FDR himself said in his 1935 State of the Union address to Congress, “the government must and shall quit this business of relief."

As the quality of life did indeed improve for whites, the number of white widows and their children on the AFDC rolls declined. At the same time, the easing of racial discrimination widened eligibility to more blacks, increasing the number of never-married women of color and their children who were born out of wedlock.

One point, however, to note here is that there has always been a public misconception about race and welfare. It is true that over the years blacks became disproportionately represented. But given that whites constitute a majority of the population, numerically they have always been the largest users of the AFDC program.

Holes in the safety net

The retreat from the safety net philosophy can be dated to the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

On the one hand, politicians wanted to reduce the cost of welfare. Under Reagan policies of New Federalism, social welfare expenditures were capped and responsibility for programs for poor families given back to states.

On the other hand, the demographic shift in the welfare rolls exacerbated the politics around welfare and racialized the debate.

Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” narrative only reinforced existing white stereotypes about blacks. The term "welfare queen", a derogatory term used in the U.S. to refer to women who allegedly misuse or collect excessive welfare payments through fraud, child endangerment, or manipulation; originates from media reporting in 1974.

Since then, the phrase "welfare queen" has remained a stigmatizing label and is most often directed toward black, single mothers.

“There’s a woman in Chicago. She has 80 names, 30 addressees, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexistent deceased husbands. She’s got Medicaid, is getting food stamps and welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000.”

Reagan’s assertions that the homeless were living on the streets by choice played to conventional wisdom about the causes of poverty, blamed poor people for their own misfortune and helped disparage government programs to help the poor.

The 1990s gear change

By the late 1990s efforts of reforms targeting the AFDC program shifted to more nuanced forms of racism with claims that the program encouraged out-of-wedlock births, irresponsible fatherhood and intergenerational dependency.

The political context for the 1996 reforms, then, was fueled by racist undertones that played into public angst about rising taxes and the national debt that were attributed to the high payout of welfare checks to people who were not carrying their own weight.

This emotionally charged environment distorted the poverty debate, and paved the way for a reform bill that many saw as excessively punitive in its harsh treatment of poor families.

Although credited to the Clinton administration, the blueprint for the 1996 welfare reform bill was crafted by a caucus of conservative Republicans led by Newt Gingrich as part of the Contract with America during the 1994 congressional election campaign.

Twice President Clinton vetoed the welfare reform bill sent to him by the GOP-dominated Congress. The third time he signed, creating much controversy, including the resignation of his own adviser on welfare reform, the leading scholar on poverty David Ellwood.

The new bill replaced the AFDC program with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Stricter work requirements required single mothers to find work within two years of receiving benefits. A five-year lifetime limit was imposed for receiving benefits. To reinforce traditional family values, a core principle of the Republican Party, teenage mothers were to be prohibited benefits, and fathers who were delinquent in child support payments were threatened with imprisonment. States were banned from using federally funded TANF for certain groups of immigrants and restrictions were placed on their eligibility to Medicaid, food stamps and Supplementary Social Security Income (SSI).

The impact

Despite many bleak predictions, favorable outcomes were reported on the 10th anniversary of the bill’s signing. Welfare rolls had declined. Mothers had moved from welfare to work and children had benefited psychologically from having an employed parent.

However, the volume of research generated at the 10-year benchmark has not been matched, in my observation, by that produced in years leading up to the 20-year anniversary.

More research in particular is needed to understand what is happening with families who have left welfare rolls because of passing the five-year lifetime limit for receiving benefits but have not sustained a foothold in an ever-increasing specialized workforce.

Disentangling intertwined effects of racism and poverty

U.S. welfare policy is, arguably, as much a reflection of its economic policies as it is of the nation’s troublesome history of racism.

In the words of President Obama, racism is a part of America’s DNA and history. 

Similarly, the notion that anyone who is willing to work hard can be rich is just as much a part of that DNA. Both have played an equal role in constraining adequate policy development for poor families and have been especially harmful to poor black families.

Racism has left an indelible mark on American institutions. In particular, it influences how we understand the causes of poverty and how we develop solutions for ending it.

Indeed, with the continual unraveling of the safety net, the 20th anniversary of welfare reforms can be an impetus for taking a closer look at how racism has shaped welfare policy in the U.S. and to what extent it accounts for the persistently high poverty rates for black children.

Republished with permission under license by The Conversation

Alma Carten is an Associate Professor of Social Work; McSilver Faculty Fellow, New York University

Dr. Alma J. Carten earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Ohio University, her Master of Social Work degree from the Whitney M. Young Jr. School of Social Work, and her Doctorate in Social Welfare from Hunter College School of Social Work of the City University of New York. At NYU, Dr. Carten is former chair of the social welfare programs and policies area, and teaches in the social welfare policies and human behavior curricula sequences in the MSW program and social policy analysis in the doctoral program. Dr. Carten is also a consultant reviewer for the US Department of Juvenile Justice, Children’s Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families, helping to shape the national standards for child welfare outcomes. She has held a number of faculty appointments, including director and chair of the Westchester Social Work Education Consortium, and has taught at Hunter College School of Social Work and and the Behavioral Science Department at the New York City Policy Academy. Additionally, she was a member of the Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner’s Task Force on Minority Agencies. She served as president of the New York City Chapter of the National Association for Social Workers from 2000-2002.

Dr. Carten has professional experience in the private and public sectors. She served on the United Way of New York City agency membership Review Panel, and is a board member and consultant for a number of New York City voluntary social welfare agencies, the Administration for Children and Families, and the Children's Bureau at the federal level. Her work in government includes director of the Office of Adolescent Services for the New York City Human Resources Administration with responsibility for policy development and the design and implementation of citywide services for pregnant and parenting teens, interim commissioner of the Child Welfare Administration, special advisor to the HRA commissioner/administrator during the Dinkins administration, and appointed member of the Mayor's Commission on the Foster Care of Children. She has conducted research and published on family preservation programs, maternal substance abuse, child survivors of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, independent living services for adolescents, dimensions of abuse and neglect among Caribbean families, and neighborhood-based services and mental health services and the African American community.

Dr. Carten’s professional interests focus on child welfare, and the delivery of culturally competent services to children and families.  She has conducted extensive research studying the Caribbean and African immigrant communities in the New York metropolitan area.

She co-edited with Dr. James R. Dumpson, entitled Removing Risk from Children: Shifting the Paradigm, and a chapter titled "Family Preservation, Neighborhood Based Services," in Child Welfare Services: An Africentric Perspective, Everett & Leashore, co-editors. Her most recent publication “Reflections on the American Social Welfare State: The Collected Papers of James R. Dumpson,” is published by NASW Press, and she is primary editor of "Anti-Racist Strategies for Transforming Health and Human Service" in press with Oxford University Press.


When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose

Political leaders, police and news media always seem to be perplexed about violent crime, especially when it happens in unexpected areas. The recent incidents of criminal activity in downtown St. Louis prompted people to ask why some seem to have so little regard for others.

Mayor Slay pledged a crackdown on downtown St. Louis crime, but didn't promise a similar crackdown on crime in other areas. It's as if crime happening in other areas was unimportant or as if suddenly people are now committing illegal acts, but only in areas that matter. Evidently, murders and other crime that occur in some neighborhoods are less urgent than others.

Poverty and crime are related. The United Nations and the World Bank acknowledge poverty, oppression, inequality and lack of economic opportunities results in increased criminal activity. When inequalities are great, crime goes through the roof. When people see vast wealth differences, especially if the wealth disparity is based on injustice, crime becomes even worse. People who have nothing, often feel they have nothing to lose and they aren't that concerned about what others have to lose. 

Before heroin addiction became an epidemic in white middle-class communities, drug addicts, especially black ones were treated as criminals which increased the vicious nature of some crimes. Factor in poverty and drug addiction and increased criminal activity is easy to understand. Common sense tells me that since drug addiction has increased in white communities, crime has already increased or will soon. Those white drug addicts consider their drug of choice a necessity and will do anything to get them. Drug distribution networks that government and law enforcement allowed to flourish during the black crack epidemic are now fully entrenched to supply the white heroin epidemic. Ironically, most of the black heroin addicts that I have learned about recently lived in predominately white communities.

The FBI ranks St. Louis as the top US city for violent crime. St. Louis was ranked as one of the most segregated and the third poorest city with a population over 200,000 in the United States. The City of St. Louis has a legacy of racism and corruption that has contributed to poverty and current crime problems. Ferguson should have been a wake-up call for the region, instead the St. Louis City Police Chief coined the phrase "Ferguson Effect", to indicated increased crime was caused by those complaining about oppression.

The entire St. Louis Region appears to be in denial about racial and economic injustice and oppression. St. Louis has the Delmar Divide, a street that divides communities by race which gained international attention a few years ago. St. Louis has a reputation of being a racist city. In the short documentary film, "Racism in St. Louis", one film creator explained that even a homeless man in New York mentioned how racist St. Louis was.

Many of the U.S. Supreme Court Decisions concerning St. Louis involved racial issues including the Dred Scott Case which was one of the major issues leading the country to Civil War. In fact, in 1847, William W. Brown stated, "no part of our slave-holding country, is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants, than St. Louis". Racial restrictive covenants were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the St. Louis case of Shelley vs Kraemer.

Even the standard test of racial employment discrimination by the U.S. Supreme Court was created in the St. Louis case of Green vs McDonnell Douglass. Until St. Louis takes steps to correct past injustices, this city and region will continue to decline. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Theory

Just about every college student learns about a motivational theory developed by Abraham Maslow in the 1940's. His theory is taught in a variety of subjects including education, psychology, business management and marketing.

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory proposed that motivation is the result of a person's attempt at fulfilling five basic needs: physiological, safety, social, esteem and self-actualization.

Physiological needs are those needs required for human survival such as air, food, water, shelter, clothing and sleep. A person will do just about anything to meet these needs; including violent crime.This doesn't mean that only poor people commit crimes, but the motivation for committing those crimes are different.  

People of means often commit crimes of greed, so-called "white-collar crime".

White collar crime is usually financially motivated, nonviolent crime committed by business and government professionals such as bribery, kickbacks, corruption, fraud, embezzlement, insider trading and a variety of other crimes. These are not victimless crimes. A single scam can destroy a company, devastate families by wiping out their life savings, or cost investors billions of dollars (or even all three). Today’s fraud schemes are more sophisticated than ever. 

Poor people often commit crimes of need, based on perceived necessity or survival. 

When a person can't feed himself or his family and can't find work what do you think they'll do? Starve? No, depending on their level of desperateness, they will do whatever is necessary. Some will borrow, some will seek public assistance if they qualify or beg, others will steal. Some time ago, the media was reporting how theft of Tide laundry detergent had dramatically increased and most recently, a shoplifter was shot trying to steal steaks and toilet paper. Those people were stealing food and other basic need items.

Many people facing hunger or homelessness believe they have nothing to lose, and nothing is more dangerous to society than a person who has nothing to lose. St. Louis needs to start addressing the causes of crime instead of just reacting to it. 

Low-wage workers deserve disaster pay

An article written in response to recent flooding, "Low-wage workers deserve disaster pay",  made me think about my brother-in-law, Brian Collins, who was killed the day before his 23rd birthday in 1990 because he went to work during emergency conditions.

On December 27, 1990 there was a major winter storm that pretty much shut down the St. Louis area. The police and other officials explained that conditions were extremely dangerous and urged people to not drive and stay at home. There was a call over the radio and television, however, for hospital and other emergency workers to find a way to make it to work, because they were needed.

I had just married my wife in June 1990 and I was visiting my mother-in-law's home when my brother-in-law asked for a ride to work. I explained that the road conditions were terrible and that I had barely made it there and how I wasn't planning on leaving to go home until the storm let up.

He mentioned that he heard the call for hospital workers to try to make it to work. I tried to convince him not to go and explained that they were talking about doctors, nurses and other critical hospital personnel. He replied that he might be needed and decided to go to work.  He reasoned that support staff was just as critical to hospital operations as doctors and nurses.

He caught the bus to work, but I told him if the storm let up, I would pick him up when he got off. Later that night, my sister-in-law phone my mother-in-law. The hospital called because Brian had been shot and they wanted family members at the hospital.

I drove my wife and mother-in-law to the hospital and road conditions were still pretty bad. When we arrived, my sister-in-law and her husband were already there. My sister-in-law was in tears and stated that I think he's dead, because they won't let us see him.

A few minutes later, someone came and explained that Brian had been shot in the back of his head, had died and asked my mother-in-law if she would be willing to donate his organs.  Needless to say, we were all devastated. Brian was kept on life support to keep his organs viable and my mother-in-law after a brief family discussion agreed to organ donation.

My brother-in-law, Brian Collins had been a minister from a very young age and worked for about a week as a film librarian at Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University Medical Center. He had previously been a dispatcher at Barnes Hospital, however, Brian viewed himself as working for a different department for the same employer since Mallinckrodt was a part of Barnes. However, when it came to Brian's insurance coverage, Mallincrodt and Barnes didn't see it that way.

Mallincrodt said since he was a new employee, even though he had completed all of his required insurance paperwork to properly transfer his insurance coverage. He had not been with Mallincrodt long enough for his life insurance to pay out. Even though he had been at Barnes long enough, Barnes said since he now worked for Mallincrodt, he no longer was covered by Barnes.

I couldn't believe that Barnes and Mallincrodt were standing on a technicality for an employee who answered an emergency call to action.

I felt guilty about Brian's death for a long time. I should have made a stronger argument for him to stay home. I should have taken him to work that day. Did he not call me and catch the bus because he didn't want to bother me? Did he think I wouldn't pick him up? Those and many other thoughts haunted me for years.

I loved Brian as my own brother and the world was robbed of a magnificent human being and humanitarian and future pastor. My oldest son's middle name is Brian and ironically, he is a young minister.

So when I came across the article arguing for disaster pay for low-income employees, I couldn't agree more. The article specifically mentioned health care workers,  "who are often considered essential employees and who may be required to stay and work extra shifts during a disaster."

Because Barnes and Mallincrodt wouldn't honor Brian's insurance, my mother-in-law had to rely on donations to bury her youngest son and the family's suffering was increased because of their actions.

When a person risks their life to help or protect others, they should not be abandoned or forced to bear additional burdens on their own.

Post Dispatch Article, December 29, 1990

Man Fatally Shot On Way Home From Work; Motive Unknown

By Kim Bell ; and Margaret Gillerman

Police had no suspects or motive Friday in the fatal shooting of a man walking home from work Thursday night.

Brian Collins , who would have been 23 years old Friday, was shot in the back of the head and in the neck about 9 p.m. His body was found in a vacant lot on Lillian Avenue about six blocks from his home.

''He had his Walkman tape in his ear, so when they shot him, I don't think he heard a thing,'' said his mother, Ruby Collins. Lt. Steve Jacobsmeyer said Collins ''could have been a victim in a street robbery.''

Collins had worked for about a week as a film librarian at Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University Medical Center. He previously was a dispatcher at Barnes Hospital.
''He was a good kid,'' Jacobsmeyer said.

Relatives believe Collins had taken a bus from work to Lillian and Kingshighway, then decided to walk the rest of the way instead of waiting in the snow for another bus. ''Lillian is a drug-infested area, and I told him to be careful: 'You should not walk home,' ''
Ruby Collins said. ''I always told him to call if he needed a ride.''

Relatives said that Collins almost had stayed home from work Thursday because of the bad weather. He changed his mind when he heard an announcement on television urging hospital workers to try to make it in.

''Everybody at Barnes his former employer loved my son,'' his mother said. ''They said he was so joyful and kept a smile on his face.''

The funeral for Collins will be at 7 p.m. Sunday at New Jerusalem Temple Church of God, 8204 Page Avenue in Vinita Park. Collins was a volunteer minister at the church.