In Focus

Jun 3, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Pennsylvania House GOP: Poverty Isn't a Partisan Problem

by Lauren French and Jodie Levin-Epstein
With 1.6 million Pennsylvanians living in poverty, the Pennsylvania House Majority Policy Committee, the legislative policy development arm of the House Republican Caucus, launched its Empowering Opportunities: Gateways Out of Poverty initiative in July 2013.  

The effort is designed to identify and examine “the barriers in place for individuals and families attempting to reach self-sufficiency.” The Committee recently released a mid-term report, “Beyond Poverty,” which identifies such barriers as unaffordable child care, lack of  health care, a criminal record, limited financial literacy skills, inadequate education, homelessness, mental health problems, hunger, substance abuse, lack of transportation, and  “benefits cliffs” in which earnings increases jeopardize eligibility for benefits programs.

The House GOP Committee received some kudos for being inclusive and reaching across the political spectrum throughout the initiative. For example, in a blog post entitled “Poverty Isn’t A Partisan Problem,” the free-market Commonwealth Foundation applauded the Committee for inviting stakeholders of all perspectives to share their insights. The more liberal-oriented  Community Action Association of Pennsylvania also celebrated the Committee’s work-to-date by awarding the Republican chair its Public Official of the Year for his “leadership in making poverty a priority issue.”  

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has also been complimentary, stating that “the report accurately outlines many of the barriers facing the low-income Pennsylvanians we see every day, including lack of jobs and employment opportunities, criminal records, lack of affordable child care, transportation, and health insurance, and the inability to move forward in life in the face of hunger and homelessness. We look forward to continuing to work with… the committee as they move into Phase Two of their efforts.”  At the same time, the group noted that they “would have liked to see the report pay more attention to the fact that a changing economy, with a greater share of low-wage jobs with few benefits, has made escaping poverty much harder.”

As the Committee moves forward from its initial analysis to its recommendations, anti-poverty advocates across the nation should stay tuned to see whether the across-the-aisle approach holds. While there are bound to be differences over policy solutions, there may also be some common ground. If elected officials and other stakeholders can have a healthy debate in Pennsylvania, perhaps anti-poverty policies can be the focus of civil discourse in other states and at the national level as well. After all, Pennsylvania’s slogan is “America Starts Here.”

May 7, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

House Budget Committee and Anti-Poverty Programs

By Lauren French

Can we solve poverty by cutting programs designed to alleviate it?  The 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty has given the powerful House Budget Committee and its chair, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) a “hook” to drive attention to such federal programs  and a platform for discussing whether and to what degree to continue investments in them.

Ryan has released his budget and held a set of hearings. The latest hearing, held April 30 was entitled “Lessons from the Frontlines.”

The hearing witnesses offered their perspectives on the role of federal funding in fighting poverty. The first two witnesses to testify, Robert Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, and Bishop Dr. Shirley Holloway, founder of House of Help City of Hope, work with individuals facing a variety of issues including drug addiction, incarceration, and homelessness. Both expressed criticism of federal anti-poverty spending and advocated for faith-based programs. Woodson testified that “compassion for the poor cannot be defined by how much we spend on them.” Holloway agreed with Woodson, adding that “love is greater than any dollar.”

In response to these witnesses, Budget Committee member Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) voiced her concerns noting , “we also need public policies that provide opportunity for all.”   Private charities themselves argue they cannot possibly make up for large federal cuts.  For example, the Ryan budget cuts would slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP,” formerly known as food stamps) by $137 billion over 10 years. Another witness, Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, adamantly defended federal programs such as Head Start and the Earned Income Tax Credit. “The War on Poverty has lifted millions of children and families out of poverty,” Edelman testified, “and I am very concerned that 50 years later some people think the best way forwards is backwards – trying to unravel the very investments that have had such impact and given millions of children a new lease on life and hope for the future.”

Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget makes profound cuts to those investments.   A recent analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes that the budget plan would achieve the vast bulk of its “savings”  by making cuts  to programs that serve low-income families and individuals; in fact, fully  69 percent of non-defense cuts would be made to  such programs

At the hearing,  committee Democrats challenged the “Path to Prosperity”  budget plan and stressed the need for federal funding as central to  an effective anti-poverty agenda. “We want the same thing as the other side wants, which is to get rid of programs that don’t work,” explained Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), “But damn it, many of these programs do work and many of these programs are the difference between life and death in our community.”

Click here to watch a video recording of the hearing.  

Apr 24, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Referrals Aren't Just By Social Workers Anymore

By Jodie Levin-Epstein

This piece originally appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity: The Source for News, Ideas, and Action.

“Community resources, just for you.” That’s the tag line for One Degree, an on-line referral resource launched in San Francisco. The mission of One Degree is to “connect low-income families with high-quality service providers and community resources” while “empowering them to give both positive and critical feedback on programs they use.”

Consider One Degree a hybrid of Wikipedia and Yelp with a focus on job training programs, food banks, literacy programs, health and housing, among other services.  In addition, the site enables families to manage and track the resources they find.

One Degree is a non-profit created by Rey Faustino, a social entrepreneur with a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Faustino also grew up in an immigrant working class family where teachers tried to help him and his family navigate essential social services. 

Faustino’s early career at BUILD, a college access nonprofit that boosts low-income minority youth college attainment, underscores his commitment to helping families move into the middle class. It also led to his newest initiative.

At BUILD “we were helping the kids in our program with the achievement gap, but they had other service needs that we could not address,” Faustino recounted recently to Out of the Spotlight. “One of our brightest students, at 15, had become homeless. When we tried to Google search for East Palo Alto homelessness services we got a thousand links but little useful, essential information – like eligibility rules. At the same time, we could use Yelp to find the best burrito in San Francisco. That led me down this path to figure out how to use the power of the internet to help low-income families.” 

Funding for One Degree comes primarily from foundations and individuals.  Successfully piloted in 2012, the site now has more than 1,000 registered users. Most site users are low-income single mothers between the ages of 18 and 40. One Degree has found that these users have some means of access to computers and/or smart phones. 

While no analysis has yet been done on user satisfaction, anecdotes abound.  Faustino tells the story of a single mom, an immigrant from El Salvador, who held a part-time job in a factory. To increase her hours she needed after-school care for her son.   She tried Google but it was not useful. She then learned about One Degree and within minutes of initiating her search she found an after-school program in her neighborhood that fit her needs. She subsequently used One Degree to find a skills training program. 

One Degree is building out the program, including expanding its base by reaching out to non-profit professionals in addition to families. It also plans to promote the use of texting for referrals and appointment reminders. And, Faustino recently met with potential partners in Oakland, across the Bay.

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