"To the 110th Congress...."January/February 2007 issue of Poverty & Race
With the change in leadership and direction triggered by last November’s elections, we asked members of the PRRAC Board and Social Science Advisory Board to provide a paragraph with their suggestions as to what the 110th Congress should do to effect progressive change around the race-poverty intersections. Herewith the results. — CH
Congress should pass legislation for an universal health care system, high minimum wage standards, elimination of the tax cuts for the wealthy, more spending on No Child Left Behind legislation and other measures that would be especially helpful to those in the race-poverty intersections. Congress also needs to initiate a broader, deeper rethinking of poverty and race, by holding hearings on the broad goals of “social inclusion.” That term conveys the objective of not only reducing economic inequalities but social and political inequalities as well. Congressional hearings could illuminate the inadequacies of “poverty line” definitions, point to the much broader awareness of the scope of social exclusion and stress the need for embracing social inclusion as the poverty-race goal. Poverty reduction efforts should not be regarded as simply aimed at bare survival on the fringes of society but strive to bring everybody into the mainstreams of society. That goal involves not only reducing income and wealth inequalities; it seeks the full participation, socially and politically, of “the poor” and those discriminated against by race and gender in American life. The European Union has made bold steps in that direction. It is time for the U.S. to move along the social inclusion route to the “One America” theme that some Democrats are advocating.
S.M. Miller (email@example.com), a PRRAC Board member, is a Fellow at the Commonwealth Inst. in Cambridge, MA.
Strengthen Collective Bargaining
Congress needs to give working people a better chance to bargain collectively in unions of their choice. An increase in the federal minimum wage is long overdue, but it is less effective than protecting workers’ rights to organize on the job and to join labor unions. To cite only one relevant example, union cashiers earn an average of $11.22 an hour, while non-union cashiers earn $8.33, almost a third less but still well above any new federal minimum wage. During the Bush years, the Republican-dominated National Labor Relations Board has consistently aided employers’ refusal to sign union agreements even after workers voted overwhelmingly for union representation. The Board’s Republican majority has defined labor laws in the interest of employers and has effectively stripped workers of protection in organizing and collective bargaining. At the end of 2006, for example, the NLRB voted along party lines to expand the definition of “supervisor” so as to exclude at least 8 million workers, many of them working at low wages and without health benefits, from the right to union representation. A Democratic Congress cannot by itself reverse these measures, but through aggressive oversight it can pressure the Administration to cease its attacks on organized labor, and it can bring much more public attention to the shameful conduct of the Bush Labor Board.
William Kornblum (firstname.lastname@example.org), a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
William L. Taylor
In education, the most important thing the next Congress can do to improve the opportunities of children in poverty and those with other special needs is to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act. While the law is still in the early stages of implementation, there are many promising signs that it is providing opportunities that did not exist before. In some communities where there were only one or two high-achieving schools serving economically disadvantaged students, now there are many. At many of these schools, teams of teachers (not just reading or math teachers) are working together to improve achievement in language arts and mathematics, and now in science. There are improvements to be made in the law. The provisions calling for high-quality teachers should include a measure of effectiveness, not just certification. The choice provisions should be recrafted so that children in schools in need of improvement have opportunities in schools outside the district where improvement is needed. Growth models are a new way to measure student growth that will introduce more flexibility into the law. And ways must be found to prevent schools from diluting standards of proficiency. At the same time, civil rights advocates must resist changes in the law that would lower standards and relieve school authorities of accountability. And, of course, more financial resources are needed, resources that should be more equitably distributed.
William L. Taylor (email@example.com), a PRRAC Board member, is Chairman of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, DC.
The Civil Rights Fairness Act
The U.S. Supreme Court has done a great deal of damage to civil rights remedies in the past ten years, by restricting enforcement of statutory rights under the 1871 Civil Rights Act, limiting Congress’ ability to regulate state government civil rights violations, eliminating the remedy of attorneys’ fees where defendants voluntarily comply, and so on. But there is no decision more damaging to advocates working on issues of structural racial inequality than the devastating 2001 Alexander v. Sandoval decision, which held that the prohibition on discriminatory government programs and policy under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would no longer be enforceable in court without a showing of discriminatory “intent.” Title VI, which originally helped to desegregate the schools and hospitals of the South, and which was being used more often recently to challenge systemic discrimination in areas such as environmental racism and health care access, was suddenly left without an effective enforcement mechanism. Fortunately, unlike some of the Court’s other recent mischief, the Sandoval opinion was based on statutory interpretation, not on the Constitution. So the new Congress has the opportunity to reverse the Court’s decision and restore the original intent of Title VI. The Civil Rights Fairness Act, originally introduced in the 108th Congress as the Civil Rights Act of 2004 by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. John Lewis, is a well thought-out piece of legislation that not only restores discriminatory impact enforcement to Title VI, but also repairs some of the Court’s other recent statutory decisions. We hope the 110th Congress places this bill at the top of its civil rights agenda.
Philip Tegeler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President/Executive Director of PRRAC.
Needed Immigration Reforms
An uncertain future awaits immigration reform in the new session of Congress, which has a shortened legislative calendar, in anticipation of preparations for the 2008 general elections. Immigration is not on the announced priority list of Democratic lawmakers, despite promises that immigration reform legislation would be introduced in the early months of the new session. Unfortunately, the outcome of the midterm elections represented no substantive shift in support for the kind of positive immigration reforms required to address the needs of the most vulnerable immigrants, particularly the undocumented. Immigration continues to be a controversial issue, and it appears unlikely that Democrats or Republicans want to be perceived as immigration champions by likely 2008 voters. If sweeping legislation is strongly pushed during 2007, it would undoubtedly be burdened by unsavory comprises—such as an expanded guest worker program or stepped-up employer sanctions—both of which fail to address the need for greater legal immigration and lead to further exploitation of desperate immigrant workers, and are simply bad policy. While there is not yet a consensus on strategy among immigration advocates, many believe that seeking incremental changes, while continuing to organize for greater capacity among immigrant communities, may be a more sound approach to fighting for positive immigration reform policies beyond 2008.
Catherine Tactaquin (email@example.com), a PRRAC Board member, is Executive Director of the Natl. Network for Immigrant & Refugee Rights, in Oakland, CA.
Play the Race Card and Foment Class Warfare — Some Devilish Details
Gregory D. Squires
Perhaps the most important accomplishment of the new Congress would be to legitimize open discussion of race and class issues, without participants being accused of “playing the race card” or “fomenting class warfare.” Once that is accomplished, the devil will still be in the details. Here are some specific proposals for starters: passing a minimum wage hike to $8.00/hour and building in automatic cost-of-living increases that reflect at least the impact of inflation on its buying power; enacting a national anti-predatory lending bill that builds upon rather than pre-empts strong local and state rules, beginning with a suitability standard that puts the burden of compliance on financial service providers rather than consumers; doubling funding of HUD’s FHIP program to strengthen non-profit fair housing groups that have long been the most effective enforcers of fair housing laws; passing a Home Mortgage Disclosure Act for home insurers (along with a Community Reinvestment Act for insurers if we’re feeling really lucky); and requiring all businesses receiving economic development subsidies to clearly disclose the number of jobs and compensation of all jobs to be created, with strict clawback provisions when goals are not met.
Gregory D. Squires (firstname.lastname@example.org), a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, chairs the Dept. of Sociology at George Washington University.
A Housing Package
The number-one policy objective of the National Low Income Housing Coalition has been and remains enactment of a National Housing Trust Fund, with a dedicated source(s) of revenue to support the production or preservation of 1,500,000 units of rental housing for the lowest-income people over 10 years. NLIHC’s other priorities include improvements to the HUD and USDA Rural Housing budgets, with special attention to restoring lost funding for public housing; fixing the formula for distribution of Housing Choice Vouchers; restoring vouchers lost due to the formula problems; and adding at least 100,000 new vouchers per year. NLIHC will work to deepen income-targeting in the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and prevent any loosening of income-targeting in all federal housing programs. Other issues for NLIHC are: the federal definition of homelessness, housing for ex-prisoners returning to their home communities, and full funding of federal housing research.
Sheila Crowley (email@example.com), PRRAC’s Board Treasurer, is Executive Director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, DC.
Help to Assure a Transparent, Effective and Equitable Gulf Coast Recovery
Congress must establish an independent national commission to monitor Gulf Coast redevelopment, thereby helping to assure transparency in the delivery of federal monies and protecting against inequitable outcomes in the redevelopment process. Despite the large federal commitment of funds to Gulf Coast recovery, more than a year into the rebuilding process access to funds remains elusive for many communities. In turn, because the communities they call home have not received their fair share of resources, many of the region’s most vulnerable citizens struggle to return. Lack of transparency—both with respect to the distribution of monies and the processes by which decisions are made and implemented—is at the heart of conflicts around a range of redevelopment issues, including subsidized housing policy, public schools, neighborhood planning, environmental justice, public transportation, health care, voting rights and business development. An independent commission with regional and national representation could go a long way toward reducing those conflicts and helping to guarantee transparency and fairness in the rebuilding process.
Chester Hartman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is PRRAC’s Director of Research.
Using the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program to Connect Low-Income Children to High-Quality Schools
john a. powell
The Low Income Housing Tax Credit program is the largest federal program supporting affordable housing opportunities for low-income families. LIHTC has worked to provide housing to millions of low-income families, but by typically concentrating affordable housing units in high-poverty, poorly resourced inner- city school districts, the program exacerbates the educational challenges facing low-income children. A tremendous volume of research has shown that attending a highly impoverished, resource-starved inner-city school significantly depresses educational outcomes for low-income students. Conversely, attending low-poverty schools is associated with dramatic improvements in academic performance. Congress must insist that a significant number of family LIHTC units be sited in low- poverty neighborhoods with high-performing schools, a reform that would provide particularly large benefits for low-income students and for the nation as a whole. In addition, Congress must mandate that race-based data be collected on occupancy of LIHTC units in order to assure that the goals of the Fair Housing Act are being upheld by the program.
john a. powell (email@example.com), PRRAC’s Board Secretary, is Executive Director of the Kirwan Inst. for the Study of Race & Ethnicity at Ohio State University.
Native Hawaiians, Between Race and Sovereignty
The ambiguous and precarious position of Native Hawaiians within America’s political system severely limits the group’s ability to overcome a myriad of problems. Like other indigenous populations colonized by the United States, Native Hawaiians have been robbed of their land, resources and culture. Today, they are economically marginalized, educationally disadvantaged, disproportionately incarcerated, and harmed by low health status. Yet, unlike American Indians and Alaskan natives, Native Hawaiians do not have nation-to-nation relations with the federal government, and thus do not have the legal power, albeit limited, granted to other indigenous groups to shape their destiny. Instead, Native Hawaiians are treated (and recognized by OMB in combination with other Pacific Islander groups) as a racial minority, which in turn has exposed Native-Hawaiian programs to court challenges claiming discrimination against whites. Defending these programs has produced mixed results: The state-level Office of Hawaiian Affairs can no longer limit its voting members to Native Hawaiians, but the fairly well endowed Kamehameha schools can continue to give preference to Native-Hawaiian applicants. Worse, the prognosis is not good as the anti-affirmative action movement gains strength. Sen. Daniel Akaka’s (D-HI) proposed Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act can provide relief by changing the legal standing of Native Hawaiians. It does not provide full sovereignty, but it does recognize Native Hawaiians as an indigenous population entitled to some degree of self-governance. After years of defeat, Sen. Akaka will have a fighting chance with the political change in the new Congress and with continued bipartisan support, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Enacting this legislation is long overdue and would begin a much-needed process of re-empowering Native Hawaiians.
Paul Ong (firstname.lastname@example.org), a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is a Professor in UCLA’s School of Public Affairs.
Deal with American Indian Poverty
According to the most recent information, those who reported being American Indian and no other race had a poverty rate in 2005 very similar to that of African Americans—around 25%, compared to 8% for non-Hispanic whites. Unemployment, type II or adult-onset diabetes, and alcohol-related illnesses and accidents continue to be significant problems on many reservations and in traditional Indian areas. This, despite the well-publicized but spotty and uneven success of some gaming operations, which have benefited some groups but not the majority of American Indians. The underlying causes of American Indian poverty are lack of education, lack of meaningful employment opportunities in many traditional Indian areas, and inadequate health care. The new Congress should look carefully at what the country is doing for American Indians and what American Indians are doing for themselves. Tribal health clinics and primary, secondary and post-secondary educational institutions in traditional Indian areas desperately need additional support. Further, the federal government can play a stronger role in sharing best practices in Indian economic development from across the country and providing assistance for small Indian businesses.
Gary Sandefur (email@example.com), a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is Professor of Sociology, Affiliate of the Inst. for Research on Poverty, and Dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Minimum Wage/College Loans/Medicare/Immigration
I am looking forward to the first 100-hour legislative sprint to see how Congress comes through with its promises to raise the minimum wage; cut interest rates on college loans; and fix the Medicare prescription program. After 100 days, I hope to see evidence of new policy leadership on complex issues that the old Congress approached with demagogic fervor like immigration and undocumented workers. Let’s get beyond the silly idea of building a 700-mile fence.
Don Nakanishi (firstname.lastname@example.org), a PRRAC Board member, is Professor and Director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center.
Reauthorizing No Child Left Behind
Roslyn Arlin Mickelson
The intended goals of NCLB are to improve the overall quality of education, to provide equality of educational opportunity to all students, and to eliminate group differences in educational outcomes. When Congress reauthorizes NCLB, it should keep its most useful provision: the disaggregation of data by subgroup. This sunshine provision is valuable because disaggregation prevents schools from masking the low achievement of disadvantaged students behind the higher achievement of advantaged children. The remaining provisions should be revised or eliminated consistent with the preponderance of scientific evidence. Congress should eliminate the sole reliance on standardized test scores to measure Adequate Yearly Progress. Current measures are rigid and cut-scores (the points above and below which a score is deemed passing or proficient) are arbitrary. Instead, assessments should switch to a growth model of learning. The school transfer option is unworkable because of insufficient seats in higher-performing schools. Using Title 1 money for supplemental services may bankrupt these programs without meeting the educational needs of targeted students. Congress should replace NCLB’s punitive sanctions with rewards. A number of the latent consequences of the current version of NCLB undercut the law’s intended goals. NCLB’s inflexible and unrealistic formulas for meeting AYP result in many terrific schools being labeled as failures and lumped together with truly dreadful ones, which then undermines confidence in public education and creates political support for vouchers, educational management organizations (EMOs) and other market-based reforms. Privatizing supplemental educational services generates profits from public education dollars. As under-performing schools attempt to meet the law’s requirements, they focus inordinate proportions of classroom time on test preparation in the subjects that are tested at the expense of activities that foster higher-order thinking and the teaching of art, music, PE and social studies. For these reasons, Congress should reauthorize NCLB with greater attention to equity-based reforms and less emphasis on market-inspired ones.
Roslyn Arlin Mickelson (email@example.com), a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
Renewing TANF’s Employment Barriers; Assisting Ex-Offenders
In the wake of the 1996 federal reforms to welfare, African-American and Latina women face race- and ethnicity-specific barriers to moving from TANF into decent-paying employment. The new Congress should do more to require states to track the fate of TANF recipients by race and ethnicity; ensure that states enforce civil rights protections in TANF; and address the specific problems facing minority families who typically have less access to family support and financial resources and lower educational levels than their white counterparts, and are more likely to face discrimination in entry-level job markets. Given the massive numbers of minority men and women involved in the criminal justice system, Congress should do more to address the needs of former offenders, including removing federal collateral consequences of drug convictions—such as prohibitions on the receipt of federal student loans—and providing additional resources for state and community-based initiatives to help reintegrate former felons into communities.
Olati Johnson (firstname.lastname@example.org), a PRRAC Board member, is Associate Professor at Columbia Law School.
Re-Orient Existing Federal Programs, Especially for Education
One of the central questions facing the new Congress is how to cut into the cycle of growing inequality in living standards and access to opportunity. The bout of profligate spending and tax-cutting by Republicans leaves little budgetary slack for launching new programs. Moreover, two decades of devolution have left key decisions about opportunity and basic security in the hands of state governments. The new Congress needs to re-orient existing federal grant programs that are funneled through the states so that this spending leans against inequality rather than reinforces it. One area that urgently needs to be scrutinized and recalibrated is education. Federal and state spending on elementary and secondary education, as well as higher education, has lost much of its original inclusionary impulse. The $13 billion in Title I funds that now disproportionately aids wealthy districts now needs to be retargeted toward schools that serve low-income students. Congress must also find ways to reward states that improve access to higher education for low-income and minority students, especially access to four-year institutions. By reconceptualizing current spending programs as opportunities to promote the goal of greater equality throughout the federal system, Congress can take the first steps toward reversing the public role in abetting inequality.
Margaret Weir (email@example.com), a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is on the Political Science faculty at the University of California-Berkeley.
Housing & Community Development Challenges
On the broad issue of housing and community development policy, the new Congress should address itself to the issues/challenges posed so effectively in Xavier Briggs’ The Geography of Opportunity. Call it segregation, call it amiable apartheid, call it what you will, most of us continue to separate ourselves from each other by race and income. Some of us may do so because we really want it that way, but we certainly do so because public policy supports and encourages that behavior, both individually and collectively. The Geography of Opportunity makes clear that, whatever the cause, that behavior significantly restricts choice and access to opportunity in a country that prides itself on offering both freedom of choice and equal opportunity for all. Separate still is not equal. It is time for progressives to revisit the goals of the Fair Housing Act and related civil rights legislation in housing and community development programs. A predicate to any assessment of effectiveness of those laws is the underlying question of what we want those laws to accomplish. Is housing anything more than shelter? Can there be real “community” based upon something other than race and class? Is non-discrimination all that the Fair Housing Act promised? Is “separate but equal” a viable basis for policy and law? Is there a way to reconcile the tensions between the fair housing and community development agendas to further the positive values of both? And where there are irreconcilable differences, which values prevail? The answers to these and similar questions need to inform policy discussions and legislative proposals related to the issues of housing and community development in the upcoming Congress. They have been avoided for too long.
Elizabeth Julian (firstname.lastname@example.org), a PRRAC Board member, is the principal of the Inclusive Communities Project, Dallas.
Strengthen the Safety Net for Older Persons
As more Americans grow older as well as live longer, the accumulation of disadvantage from a lifetime of poverty and racial discrimination has led to health disparities and economic insecurity among many older persons, particularly women of color. At the same time, the coverage and quality of employer-provided health care and pensions among current and already-retired workers—of all races and incomes—have eroded so much that some researchers like Dr. Teresa Ghilarducci of Notre Dame University have declared the end of retirement and a shift from lifetime pensions to lifetime work. The reauthorization of the Older Americans Act last year marked a step forward, but I hope that the new Congress will tackle a wide range of policies appropriate for the largest and most diverse older population in our nation’s history. It’s in everyone’s interest to strengthen the safety net for a growing number of vulnerable older Americans.
Tony Sarmiento (email@example.com), a PRRAC Board member, is Executive Director of Senior Service America in Silver Spring, MD.
Immigration and Low-Wage Work
We need to understand the connections between issues of race and class, along with the shared histories and struggles of immigrants and African Americans, in order to confront the larger issue at hand—the economic and political structures that have made low-wage work an accepted norm for both groups. This country’s massive lay-offs in the manufacturing sector, the demise of unions, and the growing income gap between rich and poor are not the result of immigrants crossing the border to steal American jobs, but of the increasing availability of an international low-wage workforce in today’s global economy. The fact is that immigrants in the United States predominantly occupy jobs that cannot be outsourced by U.S. businesses seeking to compete in the global economy. As much as they may want to, companies cannot outsource jobs in the hotel, agriculture, construction, restaurant or meatpacking industries, as they have with other jobs that used to be the mainstay of the U.S. worker: auto, steel, shoes, garment, textile and electronics.
Maria Blanco (firstname.lastname@example.org), a PRRAC Board member, is Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area.
Save New Orleans’ Public Housing
Congress should swiftly and effectively assuage the grievous suffering of poor, Black New Orleans residents who were ravaged first by Hurricane Katrina and then by indifference, incompetence and corruption. In particular, Congress should assure that HUD and the Housing Authority of New Orleans repair rather than demolish the 4,534 apartments in the Cooper, Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard public housing developments. NY Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff decried the proposed demolition, writing that these “solidly built” structures include “some of the best public housing built in the United States..., buildings... more likely found on an Ivy League campus than in a contemporary public housing complex.” MIT Architecture Professor John Fernandez, who has inspected 140 of these apartments, found “no... damage... that could reasonably warrant any cost-effective... demolition...; the lifetimes of... all four projects promise decades of continued service....” HANO’s own documents show that repair would be far less expensive and more effective than demolition. With New Orleans facing the worst housing crisis since the Civil War, preservation of these government-financed units is essential.
Florence Wagman Roisman (email@example.com), a PRRAC Board member, is Professor at the Indiana University School of Law.
Minimum Wage/Child Care/Health Care
Camille Z. Charles
For starters, we need to increase the minimum wage to at least $8.00 per hour. Related to this, I believe that legislation should be put into place that would require periodic increases that keep up with inflation. I would also like to see Congress work on making affordable, high-quality child care options available to working families. This could be in the form of increasing the availability of subsidies or tax credits. In addition to these issues, I think it is important that Congress continue to address the health care needs of poor and working-class Americans. Addressing these three key issues makes full-time employment work for all Americans. Given the disproportionate number of poor blacks and other racial/ethnic minority groups, confronting these issues will benefit groups that have largely been left out of discussions surrounding inequality. Key to all of this, though, is engaging in an open and honest consideration of persisting racial inequality—such discussion requires moving past (or ignoring) the complaints of those who wrongly suggest that we have reached “the end of racism” or that we have achieved a “colorblind” ideology. We simply are not there yet.
Camille Z. Charles (firstname.lastname@example.org), a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Expand and Strengthen Housing Choice Vouchers
Margery Austin Turner
I recommend a substantial expansion of the Housing Choice Voucher program—on the order of 100,000 additional vouchers annually. These new vouchers should be targeted to very-low-income families who currently live in severely disadvantaged neighborhoods and who agree to enter into a self-sufficiency contract and move to communities where their children will attend well-performing public schools. Given limited resources, it makes sense to shift from the current lottery system for allocating housing vouchers to a system that enables families to make the best possible use of their assistance. When families receive case-management and employment counseling in conjunction with housing assistance, many are able to improve their education or skills and enter the labor market, and some significantly increase their earnings and assets. And when low-income children move from distressed, high-poverty neighborhoods to neighborhoods served by high-performing public schools, academic outcomes can improve substantially.
Margery Austin Turner (email@example.com), a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, directs the Center on Metropolitan Housing and Communities at The Urban Institute, Washington, DC.
Research evidence increasingly suggests that, in addition to their contributions to the economy, immigrants offer many other benefits to US society. They have better health, and are less likely to engage in risky and criminal behaviors than comparably situated US-born individuals. Common sense suggests that we should support immigrant integration to preserve the many assets that immigrants bring with them. Yet, in the last decade, our policies appear to be designed to do the opposite. Lately, the political discourse has focused on the merits of an earned legalization program. Legal status would certainly enhance the prospects of millions of immigrants, improve their safety, and reduce exploitation. However, in addition to legalization, we should not forget that since the enactment of welfare reform in 1996, for the first five years they are in the US, legal immigrants, including children, do not have access to social and health safety net programs. A comprehensive approach to immigrant integration should include both legalization and undoing the policies that penalize legal immigrants.
Dolores Acevedo-Garcia (firstname.lastname@example.org), a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is Associate Professor in the Harvard School of Public Health.
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