We’ve seen a lot of progressive candidates build policies around free college. But it’s not just a progressive idea. The Republican-led government of the state of Tennessee created the Tennessee Promise, a program that makes certain schools free to attend for Tennessee residents. This is because for every dollar that a state spends on higher education, they get a 3 to 4 dollar return on their investment. This can look like increased tax revenues and less reliance on social safety net programs.
40 million Americans have student loans. 97% of debt is from lack of money to live. 40 million people applied for unemployment, more than 20 million Americans face eviction by September
Truthout.org July 2020 COVID Crisis Highlights Urgency of Canceling All Student Debt
44 million Americans hold over 1.6 trillion dollars of student debt and the cost of higher education continues to skyrocket. And it’s the poor, people of color and women who are most severely impacted. The COVID-19 crisis highlights the vulnerability of debt when people are unable to find jobs or pay off loans. We look at two urgent solutions to the debt crisis. First, reporter Kathryn Styer Martinez takes a look at a free school called Berea College in Kentucky. Then, we discuss the politics of debt and how to organize a debt strike, with Thomas Gokey from the Debt collective.
Salima Hamirani: You’re listening to Making Contact: I’m Salima Hamirani and on today’s Making Contact: We look at two solutions to the student debt crisis. First, Reporter Kathryn Styer takes us to a free school called Barea College.
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Deajah Baskin: It was my mentor who brought it up to me and she told me that she had somebody who worked there, but when I found out like every student didn’t have to pay tuition I was like “yeah right…what school is gonna basically pay for every student to be able to get an education…like, that’s just that’s unheard of.”
And, we talk to Thomas Gokey from the Debt Collective about growing support for a student debt strike.
Thomas Gokey: And that next administration can and must cancel all student debt. And if they’re unwilling to do that, we need to force them to do that.
Salima Hamirani: To start our show, guest reporter Kathryn Styer Martinez takes us to San Francisco pre-pandemic, to understand why so many students are unable to afford school.
Aldane Walters: My name is Aldane Walters. I live in Richmond, California. I’m a junior at San Francisco State University.
Kathryn Styer Martinez: Aldane commutes an hour each way to school on BART. He’s an international student attending San Francisco State University. And because of that, he’s unable to take out federal loans or access most scholarships and grants. He pays almost double the tuition per term at SF State. The day before SF State ended in-person classes because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, I joined Aldane on his way to school.
Aldane Walters: I am a part of the BECA program, that’s the broadcasting and electronic communication arts, and my area of emphasis is TV production.
Kathryn Styer Martinez: Aldane knew that the best place to study would be the US. But coming to the US meant he would have to deal with the costly public higher education system.
Aldane Walters: So the question of paying tuition is, it’s very interesting because throughout my entire tertiary life, whether at SF state or before at Berkeley city college. Uh, it’s always been, I’d like to say the kindness of strangers, um, since I left Jamaica you know, it’s just been on faith and prayer and different people along the way..
Kathryn Styer Martinez: Aldane identifies as a Christian and is super active with his church. He’s received a lot of support from this community. His first two semesters at SF State were paid for by anonymous donors from his congregation. At the end of Aldane’s first semester, he found himself in a really tough spot.
Aldane Walters: So the semester actually ended, it was on Christmas Eve and I had made up my mind that, okay, if I couldn’t pay tuition that I had to go home. That’s just where the journey ended. But on Christmas Eve, I normally join a prayer call every morning with my church at 5:30 AM, that morning I joined the prayer call, but I fell asleep in the middle of it…usually I don’t hear my phone ringing when I’m like sleeping, but somehow I heard my phone ringing and I took the phone up.
Kathryn Styer Martinez: Aldane received a huge gift. Someone reached out to Charlotte, the leader of the call that morning, and offered to pay for Aldane’s fall tuition at SF State.
Aldane Walters: Somebody just randomly called up, one of the ladies in the prayer call and just gave me the $8000 for that first semester
Kathryn Styer Martinez: But a few weeks later, Aldane was back in the same boat.
Aldane Walters: This spring semester, I enrolled in classes, but SF State wanted the money before school started and I was like, uh, I don’t know about this, but I’m still gonna register. So I registered…
Kathryn Styer Martinez: SF State automatically dropped Aldane from all his classes because he wasn’t able to pay his entire tuition for the semester up front.
Aldane Walters: So I told, of course, my church family, people in my prayer circle, and they’re like, Oh, we’re going to pray with you. We’re going to email some people. But school started that Monday, I still did not have the money, and so I was like, I am still going. So I went online, I looked up the class I was supposed to do, and I went. I was like, they’re going to have to drag me out on my ear. But I am going.
Kathryn Styer Martinez: Then he got another call from Charlotte, the organizer from his church
Aldane Walters: Charlotte called me, she was like, hold on. And then she links somebody else into the call. And this person is like you went to school even though you didn’t know where it was coming from you did your part, you showed your faith and perseverance by going, and so I will pay all this $9,000 for you
Kathryn Styer Martinez: Aldane’s story is exceptional but the underlying causes are not. Higher education is expensive. And states across the country have increased the cost of public colleges to make up for reductions in state funding. And international students who come to the US to study, often have the hardest time paying for school. In other countries, such as Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Finland, Norway and Slovenia, public universities are tuition free.
Most policy papers written in the past three years agree, the rising cost of college tuition is a problem. A 2019 report by The Institute for Higher Education Policy says that, public colleges are becoming more expensive because state governments aren’t investing in them. AND Affordability and access problems are amplified when schools are located in expensive cities.
Suzanne Kahn: I’m Suzanne Khan, I’m the deputy director of education programs and the great democracy initiative at the Roosevelt Institute. Public higher education over the last 10 years has become so expensive. And you can really see that if you look at graphs, tuition has shot way up, because states in the wake of the Great Recession cut higher education budgets, they are still below what they were pre-2008 and so schools shifted those costs on to students. I think it is widely thought that higher education is a institution that advances equity, that helps with intergenerational mobility, and the problem that we are seeing at the moment is that as valuable as higher education is, now that it is so debt financed by individuals, it’s actually not doing some of those things that Americans think it should do. It’s not helping close the racial wealth gap, in fact, student debt is contributing to it.
At the same time, there’s increasing evidence that it’s also exacerbating racial and gender inequities. Black students and women are much more likely to take on debt to go to college and then they graduate into, um, a discriminatory job market and it takes much longer to pay back their debt as well.
Kathryn Styer Martinez: So we looked at the rising cost of higher education and its effects. What does the solution look like? What if, public universities were free to attend?
We’ve seen a lot of progressive candidates build policies around free college. But it’s not just a progressive idea. The Republican-led government of the state of Tennessee created the Tennessee Promise, a program that makes certain schools free to attend for Tennessee residents. This is because for every dollar that a state spends on higher education, they get a 3 to 4 dollar return on their investment. This can look like increased tax revenues and less reliance on social safety net programs.
Also, free college doesn’t necessarily mean that students won’t have to take out loans. In Sweden, where public university is tuition free, average student debt was almost 25,000 dollars because the cost of living is really high. Some colleges are addressing this issue by providing not only free education but free room and board, as well as a job. Berea College is a private, academically rigorous school, located in the state of Kentucky.
Deajah Baskin: My name is Deajah Baskin. I am an African-American woman. I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. And I am currently a student at Berea college. I major in child and family studies.
Kathryn Styer Martinez: Berea is special because the school uses what’s called a “first dollar” approach to financing. They don’t charge any tuition for all four years and they also provide housing, meals, and even set up students with an on-campus job for 10 hours a week. Any scholarships that the students earn, go into their pocket. The model is revolutionary in the US.
Deajah Baskin: So with me finding out about Berea, I honestly thought at first, that Berea was a scam. It was my mentor who brought it up to me and she told me that she had somebody who worked there. But when I found out like every student didn’t have to pay tuition, I was like, yeah right, what school is going to basically pay for every student to be able to get an education like that’s just, that’s unheard of.
So first off, what they do is they provide tuition. So, I don’t have to pay tuition at Berea. Everything is covered. My freshman year, I didn’t have to pay tuition or, I didn’t have to pay for a meal plan. I didn’t have to pay to stay there. Like my room and board. I didn’t have to pay for any of that.
And now pretty much all I pay is $200 each term. I think that with us all not really having to pay tuition. We have more time to kind of build connections with each other. Like we don’t have to find jobs off of campus. So that gives us a little bit of leeway for being able to become a part of extracurricular activities and be able to like, build connections with the other students. It gives us the opportunity to figure out who we are instead of figuring out like, how are we going to pay for school.
Kathryn Styer Martinez: Again, Suzanne Kahn.
Suzanne Kahn: I think we talk about higher education, like it’s a luxury good but if you actually look at the number of high school graduates who start college every year, the majority don’t finish. It’s understood to be necessary, to get a solid foothold in the, job market. And if that is the case, then it’s worth considering how to make it a more publicly accessible good.
Deajah Baskin: Most of my friends from high school have dropped out and a part of the reason that they have dropped out, it’s because they couldn’t afford school and they couldn’t balance having to work, go to class, do homework, and then still some way, try to have a life, you know, I feel for them because I feel like if I was in their position, I don’t really know if I would still be in school right now.
Kathryn Styer Martinez: Of the 44.7 million student loan borrowers, over a third owe 10 thousand dollars or less. People who took out student loans to pay for college but don’t finish often have small loan amounts. But they have a really hard time paying them back. In part because they don’t have a degree to help them earn higher wages.
Black and Latino students are more likely to pay for school using loans. They’re also more likely to earn less than their white peers. Student loans are one reason many black and Latino students struggle to create long term wealth. Which is often the reason people go to college in the first place. Here’s Suzanne again.
Suzanne Kahn: So I think that that means if we want the higher education system to serve as we think it should, we need to change how it’s working, so that it’s more accessible.
Kathryn Styer Martinez: But not everyone agrees on how to make college more accessible. Some want tuition free models starting with community colleges, others want a ‘college without debt’ model — which is slightly different than free college. While others argue for free colleges with a cap on income for students from wealthy families.
Deajah Baskin: If somebody’s parents are like CEOs of a company, right, and they can afford to pay that tuition and send their child to that school, then they should, if you can afford it. But most people, we can’t afford to pay that tuition, so I don’t feel like it’s right that you’re making people pay to get an education to be able to provide for their families, but they’re going to be in debt for the rest of their lives. It just doesn’t make sense. For somebody like me, I’m going to school to get a social work degree, I’m not going to school to make six figures.
Kathryn Styer Martinez: I asked Deajah about her plans after she graduates from Berea.
Deajah Baskin: I am thinking about going to grad school. I’m thinking about going to grad school for social work, for clinical social work. I obviously think about the cost first. Just because I’m going to be coming from a school where I don’t have to pay that much, so I didn’t have to take out loans like other undergraduate students had to do. They provide you with a job on campus. So I really didn’t have to go and like search for those jobs while I was still in school. So when thinking about grad school, it’s like, okay, how are you going to do all of that stuff and where do you find those things, because I didn’t really have to worry about that during undergrad.
Kathryn Styer Martinez: You were just listening to Aldane Walters and Deajah Baskin, talk about their experiences with higher education. Suzanne Kahn is the Deputy Direct of the Great Democracy Initiative and Education Program at the Roosevelt Institute in New York. And reporting from Oakland, I’m Kathryn Styer.
Salima: You were just listening to reporter Kathryn Styer Martinez and her piece on Free Schools. This is Making Contact. To hear past shows, subscribe to our podcast or get updates: visit www.radioproject.org. And now, back to our show.
Welcome Back to Making Contact. So in the first half of the show reporter Kathryn Styer Martinez highlighted a free school called Berea college. And, many organizers argue that one day, all schools should be free. In the meantime, however, most Americans are saddled with massive amounts of debt. Student debt in the US is over 1.6 trillion dollars. And that amount surpasses all other forms of debt except mortgages. Organizers are trying to help the 44 million Americans holding student loans get out from under the burden of debt. And what they want is simple – they want it cancelled. The issue even found its way into the run up for the 2020 election. Here’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Now people are in their 30s and older that have taken on insurmountable amounts of debt because we have sold them an empty bill of goods. And what we need to do is make it right. And that is why we have to both make public colleges tuition free and forgive all student loan debt at the same time.
Salima: To understand more about student debt and how to fight it we talked with Thomas Gokey, from an organization called the Debt collective.
Thomas Gokey: We’re essentially a debtors union. We want to organize collective action to refuse unjust debts. And we define an unjust debt as any debt that you’re forced to take on in order to meet a basic need. Credit card debt, payday loans, housing debt, criminal justice debt, medical bills. We oppose all such debts.
Salima: You know the idea of a union is interesting b/c we don’t usually think of being in debt as a political identity, we think of it as a personal moral failure, right?
Thomas Gokey: Your personal debt is political. We didn’t end up in this situation because we made poor choices. We ended up in this situation because of how policies are designed, about how our society is structured.
The vast majority of us wind up in debt because we’ve been denied the means to live. If you look at the statistics, there is one famous chart in particular that shows worker productivity since World War Two. And it just goes up and up and up and up. We are producing more wealth than ever before. But then if you look at the amount of wages the take-home wages, those workers who are being so productive make it’s basically been flat since the late 1970s. So even though we’re producing more wealth, less of it is going into our pocket. And most of it is going to the one percent. And that wouldn’t be such a big deal if the cost of our basic necessities were also flat lining. But that’s not the case. Health care has been skyrocketing. Housing has been skyrocketing. The cost of a university education in the US has increased 11,000 percent since I was born. And so, we make up the difference by being forced into debt. There really isn’t another choice.
Salima: Have there been other attempts to collectivized people who are indebted because it’s such a big portion of the population and there just seems to be massive political potential there?
Thomas Gokey: Yes, there’s a very long history of debt resistance. I mean, going back as far as history is recorded, the word solidarity literally means having debt in common. Basically, saying we are all going to bail each other out. You know, if you read the historians, they’ll tell you that every major revolution in history, part of that revolution was seizing the records of debt and destroying those records, whether they were on clay tablets or now, I suppose they’d be in server farms and backup tapes. But in terms of recent history, in 2015, we organized a student debt strike among former for-profit university students. And that strike resulted in over a billion dollars’ worth of fraudulent student debt canceled. We’ve recently launched a national student debt strike. And I would encourage all of your listeners to go to strike.debtcollective.org to join the strike where we want to win full cancelation of all one point seven trillion dollars’ worth of student debt. And what has worked for us in the past is pairing a direct action like a strike with a legal mechanism that already exists that, if used, would just get rid of the debt. Most people don’t know this, but I want everybody to really internalize this idea that the secretary of education, with one signature, already has the legal authority to wipe out about 97 percent of student debt, because 97% is federal student debt and the secretary of education has that authority. So, every single day that you wake up with your federal student loans, it’s because Betsy Devos wants you in debt. And we might have a different secretary of education in a little more than a year. And that next administration can and must cancel all student debt. And if they’re unwilling to do that, we need to force them to do that. That’s where the direct action comes in and that’s why we need the strike.
Salima: So when you say you’re asking people to join a debt strike, what does that mean? Are you asking people to just stop paying?
Thomas Gokey: That is a very good question. It can be dangerous to default on your student loans as an individual and we are not encouraging people to essentially commit financial suicide. What we are recognizing is that every year a million people do default simply because they can’t pay. And if you’ve already defaulted and you’ve already taken the consequences, we want people to reframe that as being on strike.
In addition to that, even before the pandemic, over half of all people with federal student loans were already not making any payment month to month, many of them in ways that are completely safe, completely protect you, whether you’re on forbearance or a deferment or if you’re on one of the various income driven repayment plans where because of your income and your family size and some other factors, your monthly payment has already been lowered to zero dollars a month. Those are all completely safe ways to join the strike.
At the current moment, most federal student loans have been suspended through October 1st, and they might extend that suspension even further, which means that we have a real golden opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity to organize everybody to join a student debt strike where it is completely safe to do so. And if we get the power in numbers, we can never pay again. We can force this current administration or the next administration to cancel all student debt. You know, one of the things that we’ve always been told is that you have to pay your debts. The system doesn’t work if you don’t pay your debts. What we’re seeing with the pandemic is that that was never true. They can suspend these payments. And there’s all kinds of bad things happening in the universe right now. But none of them are caused by us not paying our student debt.
Thomas Gokey: We need to fully, publicly fund public universities. The additional amount it would take to make all two and four year public universities completely free to attend is roughly the amount of money that we spend to wage a racist war on drugs every single year. It’s not that we don’t have the money it’s that we don’t have the political power. And right now, in this crisis, universities are going to be hit very, very hard. They’re one of the first areas that is cut when austerity measures are taken. We’re already seeing CUNY openly discussing laying off 25 percent of their staff. One thing that most people don’t realize is that our public universities themselves are debt financed.
So, the University of California borrows billions of dollars from Wall Street just to run the university, and then they pay that money back with interest. And they negotiated a very low interest rate because they said we can always raise tuition if we need to pay back this debt. So, you know, the University of California is bleeding millions and millions of dollars every single month. A lot of dominoes are falling in a lot of directions and a lot of really big institutions are gonna be toppled. And we need to fight for not just free education, but a liberating education. And it’s going to be a real big fight. We have everything to play for. We have a lot that is very valuable that we could lose. But there’s also a lot that is very valuable that we could win.
Salima: So in response to what you just mentioned, I guess one of the arguments would be, well, if the University of California is borrowing billions of dollars off of the private market, how can the government fund public universities across the country? Do they have the money to do it?
Thomas Gokey: Yes, the federal government has the money to do that. It raises so many questions, right? Like the University of California receives most of its revenue from private sources. So in what sense can we really call it a public university? It would maybe be more accurate to say it’s a private university that receives a federal subsidy. The Federal Reserve has been buying and bailing out banks and corporations. But there was a question raised just within the last year: Why didn’t the Federal Reserve do the same thing with Puerto Rico? Why didn’t they do the same thing with Detroit? Why is it that they forced Detroit to take on severe austerity and cut people’s pensions and shut off people’s water when the Federal Reserve could have treated them the same way they treat a Wall Street bank and just buy the debt and destroy it? And within the last year, when this question was posed to the Federal Reserve chair, he said, oh, well, we don’t, we don’t think we have the authority to do that. Well, now that the pandemic has hit, the Federal Reserve has suddenly discovered they have had that authority all along and they’ve set up something that they’re now calling the municipal liquidity facility, which we in the debt collective have decided, if we ever form a band, we would name it the municipal liquidity facility. And it’s basically intended to buy up municipal debts. There is no reason why the government couldn’t buy up a university’s debt, write it down and then publicly fund the university instead of forcing it to borrow from Wall Street for its operating costs.
Salima: OK, Thomas, so why organize a strike? Why not just go through Congress or other established political avenues?
Thomas Gokey: If we wait for Congress, we’re gonna be waiting forever. There is pending legislation in Congress just recently introduced in the last year that would cancel all student debt. But no big structural change like this has ever happened from the top down. It’s gonna be from grassroots organizing, civil financial disobedience and direct action that forces this to happen. I mean, Betsy Devos and Joe Biden are not going to do this willingly. When we won that billion dollars worth of debt discharge, we had to drag the Obama administration kicking and screaming every single step of the way. And we’re still fighting for every single penny discharged. None of it has been given to us. We really had to struggle for it and we’re gonna have to struggle for the rest of it.
Salima: You were just listening to Thomas Gokey, an organizer with the Debt Collective, and as always we have more information on our website. And that does it for this edition of Making Contact.
And we want to hear from you! Join the conversation on Facebook — Our Twitter handle is Making_Contact and on Instagram we’re makingcontactradioproject.
The Making Contact Team includes:
Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Lisa Rudman, and Sonya Green. I’m Salima Hamirani. Thanks for listening to Making Contact!
PART OF THE SERIES
Roughly 11 years after the Great Recession, the social and economic inequality of the U.S. has been laid bare by a pandemic. This time, however, there is no skills gap to blame for job losses and unemployment: Workers in all sectors of the workforce are losing jobs and careers. As a result, community college students — 35 percent of undergraduates, including a high percentage of low-income and non-white students — who have followed expedited and limited curricula to a place in the existing economy, have found themselves, again, at the whims of the economic, political and cultural interests that have little concern for their future role in determining what we do next. They also face cultural and political crises that call into question the very idea of what it means to live in a democracy.
As the pandemic ravages the country, it’s been business as usual for too many community college leaders and politicians. Politicians propose more job (re)training. The American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, co-chaired by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Ivanka Trump, offers plans to re-skill displaced workers by offering “better access to online tools and remote learning” and by involving businesses in assisting community colleges with designing curricula for job (re)training. Community college leaders call for much the same. Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, stated that as community colleges emerge from the pandemic, “[i]t’s especially important for two-year colleges to continue training ‘essential’ workers.” Using the language of the ongoing pandemic, students are now “essential” or “human capital stock” with dwindling rights and protections. What these groups deny or fail to grasp is that we are living in a failed state.
The economy that students have been rushed into has collapsed and the “education” they received has done little to prepare them. They live in a country more than willing to send them off to work without concerns for their health while the wealth of billionaires increases. More job (re)training for jobs that can disappear overnight or forever is not the answer to the systemic inequality and social upheaval in a country that is tipping into chaos. While students struggle to make ends meet, community college leaders treat the moment as a minor pause instead of a challenge of citizenship and creativity.
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There has been little or no thought given to the role these students would play, or that through their labor and activism, they might change the world instead of being another “brick in the wall.” As a former community college president (who served as an adviser to the Obama administration during the Great Recession) described it, “Macomb [Community College] is working with the federal government and other community colleges to better prepare students for the world that exists, not the world they want to live in.” This thinking perpetuates the misbelief that technocracy is stable and self-sustaining, and that the best that community college students can hope for is to find a slot in the economy that is skilled enough to elevate them out of menial labor.
It was always dishonest to portray career and technical education (CTE) as “enough” for these students, leaving them at the mercy of economic and cultural forces that saw them as first marginal and now disposable. Continued economic and social inequality and the lack of consideration for their needs and protection is now clear. We should take this moment to do more than fine tune the online programs we use to remotely teach our students, and ask what skills they need to survive on their own terms.
What our students require is not more (re)training and technical skill but the education that prepares them with the historical, narrative, and dialogical perspectives they need to fend for themselves when the technocracy crashes and burns; to advocate for their own rights and living conditions — their own agency.
Amid the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the future direction of higher education, community colleges have a role — but not as a “nouveau college” so closely aligned with workforce training that it resembles a defunct for-profit Corinthian College more than an educational institution. Rather, there exists the opportunity for community colleges to re-envision their mission, to reclaim the ideals expressed in the report titled “Higher Education For American Democracy” (also known as the Truman Commission Report).More job (re)training for jobs that can disappear overnight or forever is not the answer to the systemic inequality and social upheaval in a country that is tipping into chaos.
After World War II, the Truman Commission identified community colleges as “laboratories” of democracy and argued that community college students deserved an education that prepared them for citizenship in a democracy: “Equal opportunity for all persons, to the maximum of their individual abilities and without regard to economic status, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, or ancestry is a major goal of American democracy.” The current crises show how little of that promise and potential has been realized. If democracy is going to become equitable, multicultural and multiracial, which it must do to survive, students need to learn how to create and live in that new world. Now is the time to rethink and revitalize the linkage between education and democracy, and in the process, to reintegrate and rearrange the balance in the community college curriculum of different disciplines, pedagogues and areas of knowledge.
Historically we have treated democracy as a formal arrangement of institutions, laws and protocols. The COVID-19 pandemic, coming as it has during an administration not much interested in institutions, laws and protocols, has made it painfully clear that democracy requires more. With respect to education, it requires a renewed inquiry — to use educational reformer John Dewey’s term — into what we know and what we seek to become. In Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey argued that education was a critical link to expanding and realizing our democratic potential. His focus on inquiry was not to review what we already know or to strengthen existing orthodoxy, but to challenge us to think about what we don’t know or how our current approach is too limiting and too exclusive.
The humanities should be the site of that inquiry — not to privilege what has been done but to do what needs to be done. A call for more humanities is a call for a New Humanities, one less concerned with canonical assumptions and more directed toward how this narrative of cultural development has failed; one that moves from teaching the canon to inquiry-based dialogues about cultural narratives. As Susan Searls Giroux writes in Take Back Higher Education, “We have to open up rather than close down our classrooms to dialogue and debate over contemporary issues and hot-button topics that most concern our students.” A New Humanities must teach students how to engage in dialogue, create historical and cultural perspective, and to engage in the hard work of making a government that is fair and inclusive.
Schools can’t do this on their own, but they must be a part of it. Democracy is not natural. It is hard work: We have to learn how to do this work through practice and modeling. Teaching people to accept a cultural, political and economic reality dictated by an elite to “just to get a job” is exposed as the con it is during these crises. As narratives about the U.S. are being challenged and are more open to critique than at any time in the last 50 years, the humanities become a method and a forum for remaking the country.
There is nothing in CTE or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curricula that will guide or inform the hard ethical decisions and value choices we face. Doctors in Wuhan, Milan or New York City deciding who gets intubated and who doesn’t is not a technical problem; it is an ethical one. The divisions in our society exposed and intensified in the current crises can only be addressed and healed in a dialogue that includes members of society who have not traditionally had a voice in such conversations, including community college students, who are often members of the most marginalized groups. Even the more local and mundane issues around what “learning” means now that we’ve all been forced out of our normal routines is going to require a conversation about more than what app works best for virtual meetings.Teaching people to accept a cultural, political and economic reality dictated by an elite to “just to get a job” is exposed as the con it is during these crises.
The humanities have a role to play in not only reframing the curriculum but in restructuring our ideas about the 21st-century community college and society at large. The future we should be building is not one of subservience to the demands of business — to an economic system that has never worked in favor of our students — but one of student agency through active participation in a democracy. The question now is not whether or not community colleges will evolve to better fit the emergence of a new social and intellectual challenge; they have no choice. The question is how that evolution will unfold and who and what interests will be served: Students? Democracy? Corporations?
We need options, and we need more inclusive ways of developing and thinking about those options. If we want to move forward as a democracy — an assumption not at all clear at this juncture — then we have to provide an education that models, critiques and contextualizes the neoliberal fantasy of a technocracy that has shaped a curriculum more conducive to the needs of corporate interests than those of our students. After 40 million people applied for unemployment, it is absurd and obscene to tell students that a job is enough. If we’re about to embark on a new political and cultural journey, they deserve a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion.
This might be the last opportunity the community college has to be more than a credentialing agent for corporate simulacra. This is a moment of incredible uncertainty and vulnerability. We should seize it.
More Than 20 Million People in US Face Eviction by the End of September
READING LISTRACIAL JUSTICEMan Killed by Mexican Police for Not Wearing Mask Sparks Protest MovementEDUCATION & YOUTHPost-Pandemic Education Must Move Beyond Mere Job TrainingEDUCATION & YOUTHSchools Are Struggling to Avoid Worsening Inequity When They ReopenPRISONS & POLICINGRacism of Policing Resulted in the Torture and 18-Year Incarceration of My SonRACIAL JUSTICEEven in Death, Black Bodies Face Environmental RacismPOLITICS & ELECTIONS“New Right” Leaders Are Co-opting Progressive Language to Mislead Voters
One in five Americans who live in rentals could face eviction by the end of September as Congressional Republicans move to cut off unemployment assistance and other coronavirus relief, according to an analysis by the Aspen Institute.
More than 20 million people — roughly 20% of the 110 million Americans living in rented homes — could face homelessness by the fall, according to the analysis, which used data from the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project.
“We’re… going to face the biggest homelessness crisis that this country has faced in decades, probably since the Great Depression,” former Democratic presidential candidate and HUD Secretary Julián Castro said in an interview with Salon. “We’ve never seen anything like that in our lifetime… Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump — it’s not surprising that they’re so disconnected from the lives of everyday people. That’s what people are thinking about. That’s what they’re worrying about. How am I going to pay the rent?”
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The federal government and many state and local governments have issued partial emergency eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, though these vary in degrees of protection and are set to expire in the coming weeks. More than 20 states, including hard-hit Texas and South Carolina, have already allowed eviction proceedings to resume and only about a dozen states will have any eviction protections by the end of the summer unless further action is taken. The federal moratorium, which was implemented under the CARES Act, is set to expire on July 25, after which renters will get 30 days notice of eviction proceedings.
These moratoriums paused evictions but provided no rent relief, meaning that renters unable to pay during the pandemic will be on the hook for months of back rent once they expire.
Though it’s impossible to predict exactly how many people will be affected, “the number is just insanely massive,” said Vincent Reina, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies housing policy.
“I really wonder what is the number that makes people convinced enough that this is actually a topic worth intervening,” he said in an interview. “Without a multi-pronged meaningful response, what you’re going to see is increased levels of eviction, increased levels of housing instability, increased levels of homelessness that have larger ramifications.”
House Democrats approved a $100 billion rental assistance and $75 billion homeowners’ assistance program last month, but it was rejected by Republicans, who called it a non-starter in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has already vowed not to extend the $600-per-week federal unemployment benefits in the next phase of coronavirus relief as Senate Republicans and the Trump administration declare premature victory over the pandemic.
“Every American has been affected from the closure of our economy to caring for the sick and mourning those tragically lost, but under the leadership of President Trump our Transition to Greatness has already begun,” White House spokesman Judd Deere told The Washington Post.
But both the health and economic crises are far from over. The United States hit a record-high 60,000 new confirmed infections in a single day this week and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicted that number could soon hit 100,000 per day.
Though Trump has touted recent jobs reports as proof that the crisis has ebbed, economists argue that the economy has been buoyed by unprecedented federal relief, which is now set to expire.
Unemployment rose higher in the first three months of the outbreak in the US than it did during two years of the Great Recession. More than 44 million people have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began, nearly 30% of the entire federal workforce.
The economic crisis has left millions unable to pay rent, a fact that will not change when crucial relief programs expire. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the unemployment rate is not expected to fall below its pre-pandemic level until at least the end of 2030.
Even President Donald Trump’s properties have sought rent relief, citing hardships from the coronavirus crisis. Trump’s Palm Beach golf club sought rent relief over the “significant impact” caused by the shutdowns. The Trump Organization also asked the Trump administration for a break on its lease agreement for the Trump International Hotel in DC after it stayed empty throughout the pandemic.
The eviction crisis poses an unprecedented economic threat because of housing instability issues that predate the coronavirus.
“There’s a housing supply problem of just not enough units being built, and so that compounds over time,” said Reina, who co-authored an upcoming report on the eviction cliff for The Justice Collaborative with Kathryn Howell, the head of the RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It’s driving up rents at all ends of the spectrum so you have that reality of the fact that the supply response to the demand for housing in many markets has been insufficient.”
There has been a “distinct lack of federal intervention” on housing affordability, he said.
“We rely on one major production program for affordable housing, the longterm Housing Tax Credit Program, and while that produces really important housing units, a lot of households who live in those properties may still find themselves housing cost burdens because… they’re so low income that they’re well below the income threshold, and therefore they’re still paying a fair share of their income towards rent or a disproportionate share of their income towards rent,” he said. “The private market’s not supplying the units enough and there’s a lot of factors that drive that, not the least of which is nimbyism and restrictive land-use practices and owner processes that drive up costs and kind of delay production time. There is a lack of federal support, particularly for the development of low-income housing. There’s a lack of federal safety nets.”
The government has offered vouchers and other programs to help low-income renters but these programs have been “largely oversubscribed,” Reina said.
“The number of eligible households, the number of households who actually receive these subsidies is way disproportionate,” he said, adding that estimates show there are “four eligible households for every one subsidy.”
Not only have affordable housing programs been “largely insufficient,” the US population is rapidly aging.
“The number of people who are elderly and disabled and poor is only going up, and these are households who aren’t going to make more money,” Reina said. “These are households who are largely past the wage-earning ages, or at least the age where their wage is going to increase at a meaningful level to reduce their housing cost burdens, and so there’s a large compounding reality that essentially built over time without an adequate market or government response to it.”
These issues have been exacerbated by the economic crisis. The Census Bureau recently found that 25.9% of households reported that they missed last month’s rent or mortgage payment.
Some cities are developing rent relief programs to respond to the unprecedented housing crisis, relying on a mix of local tax dollars, federal aid, and even donations. But these programs are “still insufficient,” Reina said, because federal unemployment benefits are set to expire at the end of the month and “the level of those benefits going forward are a big element of keeping people at a level of income where they can afford their housing.”
“There is absolutely a need for very meaningful federal support in housing policy, both in stabilizing markets, in creating incentives for more products for the private market to provide, but also indirect subsidies to households to production and essentially across the spectrum,” he said.
But local governments are being asked to develop novel rent support programs without federal support. Senate Republicans have pushed back against providing relief to local and state governments who are facing a historic revenue shortfall and any state and local aid in the upcoming relief bills is expected to fall far short of the $1 trillion approved by House Democrats last month.
The local programs being developed are not enough to make up the shortfalls felt by landlords, leaving cities to also contemplate “programs that target owners specifically,” Reina said.
The scale of the crisis requires significant federal intervention.
“When you get this meaningful level of federal infusion, you’re relying a lot less on local dollars, particularly while local dollars are diminishing at a rapid rate,” Reina said. “It places a lot of strain on the ability of localities to really respond to everything meaningfully, particularly in areas like housing, and so that’s where those federal dollars become all the more crucial in the current moment.”
Without federal assistance, millions of people will be plunged into turmoil.
“Where do they go? Do they double up? Do they become homeless? Do they move to another unit until potentially they’re evicted again?” Reina pondered. “There’s formal evictions, which might amplify as courts open up, as state and local eviction moratoria end, as the federal eviction moratoria end, but as we know, very clearly from a lot of the eviction research that has been going on around the country is that there’s a lot of informality to eviction and people being pushed out of units that don’t fully get captured by all of those numbers, and so that’s happening at the same time.”
Landlords would also face default on their mortgages. In areas where housing prices are stagnant or falling, landlords may simply decide to walk away from housing units or choose to defer maintenance and repairs, which would lead to lower housing quality.
“One thing that is very clear is that the need for assistance existed before COVID and it’s been really amplified during COVID… the immediate implications are for the lowest income households, particularly the lowest income renters who are most at risk of losing their housing,” Reina said. “What that means for their personal welfare, their economic welfare, their kids’ welfare, their overall health, but then it has much larger systemic implications for what it means for the owners of these properties, what it means for revenue for cities… So those amplifying effects become overwhelming when you think about… the scale of households we’re talking about right now.”
Mass evictions could also worsen the health crisis.
“We’re telling people to socially distance and shelter in place when, in many cities across the country, having a home or a roof over your head was actually something that people were struggling to have at all, and then when you think of issues of doubling up, the issues of needing to move, the issue of you need to find housing, potentially moving multiple times, the challenge around living on the street, accessing shelters,” Reina continued. “When you put that in the context of a global health pandemic where one of the biggest recommendations people are landing on is consistently social distance from people, what you realize is that the social distancing becomes almost like a luxury that low-income households can’t afford so therefore they’re even more susceptible to the virus itself.”
Reina has worked with several cities in developing their rent relief programs and hopes that lawmakers around the country acknowledge that while the pandemic has been an economic shock to millions of households, “low-income households are facing economic shocks on a persistent basis.”
“You have to hope that this will sustain beyond the current structure, which relies very heavily on an infusion of federal dollars,” he said. “That might go away when people feel like we’ve responded to COVID, and this goes back to this idea that these local rent relief programs are one of the many important tools we need in place and that they should exist, and they should not just exist because of COVID. They should exist because there’s longstanding challenges around issues of housing security, housing stability, and housing affordability, and this represents a really meaningful form of intervention that can really help households, not just now, but at points in the future.”
The current crisis, he argued, magnified longstanding problems that have gone unaddressed for years.
“I don’t want to be too hyperbolic about some of this but there’s a lot of uncertainty… The level of need is quite large and it’s not going away. It’s building off of past unmet need and essentially accelerating it,” he said. “If this plays out, even for a fraction of these households the way we might expect it to, that’s a staggering number of people who are being negatively affected by our current housing challenges.”
How to Fix Child Poverty
by Jeff MadrickKnopf, 231 pp., $25.00
a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, edited by Greg Duncan and Suzanne Le MenestrelNational Academies Press, 596 pp., $70.00 (paper); free PDF available at nap.edu/25246
It’s been three decades since the Annie E. Casey Foundation published its first Kids Count report, an annual collection of statistics on child well-being attractively packaged and broken up by state to maximize local coverage. (The most recent edition tells West Virginians that they lead the nation in teens who are not in school or working and New Mexicans that a quarter of their children live in high-poverty neighborhoods.) After the presidency of Ronald Reagan had filled the airwaves with images of crack houses and tales of welfare queens, Kids Count was part of an advocacy effort to reframe the poverty debate around children. The reasons were clear: “kids” were sympathetic in a way that “poor people” were not.
The strategy enjoyed some success, most notably in expansions of children’s health insurance, largely financed by the federal government. But for the most part the poverty debate stayed focused on adults, especially after Bill Clinton captured the White House in 1992 with a pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” Conservatives insisted that poor adults work more, and liberals sought to “make work pay”—pay better, that is, through tax credits, child care, and increases in the minimum wage. The politics of poverty has continued to focus mostly on adults, with America’s high levels of child poverty largely ignored. It took coronavirus to bring the problem back into view, as child hunger reached levels three times higher than the worst of the Great Recession—a reminder of just how vulnerable America’s poor children are.1
In talking with scholars over the past year, I’ve been struck by how many substantive reasons there are for focusing on poor kids—even more now than three decades ago. Neuroscientists have shown how much of a child’s developmental trajectory is set during the first few years of life, before children even start school. Economists have shown that even a brief episode of poverty, especially in early childhood, can have life-long consequences—leading to fewer years of education, lower earnings, and worse health in adulthood. It’s also become harder to excuse America’s exceptional child poverty by arguing that the US enjoys exceptional mobility compared to other rich countries—that the poor have more chances to rise. Research suggests the American advantage in class fluidity has declined or disappeared, if it ever truly existed. Other rich countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have proven that child poverty can be cut and offered examples of how to cut it. A favorite tool is a cash grant known as a child allowance, a guaranteed income for families with kids. After Canada began offering up to $6,400 a year per child, its child poverty rate fell by a third.
Among those arguing for a child allowance is Jeff Madrick, a progressive journalist focused on economics, whose new book, Invisible Americans, is a call to action on child poverty. There is broad support among congressional Democrats for an American allowance, with a majority of the party in both chambers on board. (Notable supporters range from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California progressive, to Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado centrist, though Joe Biden has not taken a stance.) Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy estimated that a grant of $3,000 per child ($600 more for children under six) would have reduced child poverty in the US, before the pandemic, by 42 percent—among black children by 52 percent.
The chances of enacting a child allowance are unclear—though it once seemed a long shot, we’re living through an upheaval in which assumptions of what’s politically plausible are rapidly shifting. Congress has already spent trillions to stimulate the economy and replace income lost in the coronavirus crisis. How much the expanded aid will constrain the rise in poverty is unknown. In mid-May Democrats proposed spending another $3 trillion, and included a child allowance in the plan. Republicans dismissed the overall proposal as profligate. Yet if the Democrats capture Congress in November and Biden wins the White House, one can imagine a bill that creates a child allowance meeting his willing pen.
Areport published last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is an essential document for understanding child poverty in this atmosphere of crisis. Called A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, it came together in unlikely fashion after two House Democrats (Barbara Lee and Lucille Roybal-Allard, both of California) persuaded the Republicans who controlled Congress in 2015 to fund a study of ways to reduce child poverty by half in ten years, as the United Kingdom had done under Tony Blair. The academy, which was founded in 1863, convenes ad hoc groups of prominent scholars to give the government scientific advice. The panel of fifteen was led by Greg Duncan, a distinguished economist from the University of California at Irvine and a careful empiricist, and included several conservatives, most notably Ron Haskins, a policy analyst and former Republican congressional aide who wrote the 1996 law “ending” welfare. The Roadmap is a work of consensus and scholarship, not liberal advocacy.
Had nothing else come of it, the report would have been worth the effort simply for three pages of revised data that show that child poverty rates have already fallen in half since the 1960s, when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “war on poverty.”2 That finding undercuts a major tenet of modern conservativism: that the government’s antipoverty programs—food stamps, housing aid, health insurance, child care, job training, and the like—have been futile or worse. “The Federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won,” Ronald Reagan said in 1988 to devastating effect. His argument, that government cannot reduce poverty and that it is harmful to try, has been passed down among conservative politicians as if on granite tablets. Newt Gingrich, who in 1995 became the first Republican Speaker in four decades, claimed that “after the War on Poverty programs were adopted, the years-long decline in American poverty suddenly stopped.” One of his successors, Paul Ryan, recycled the same notion while casting himself as a fresh antipoverty thinker. “Washington has spent trillions of dollars on dozens of programs to fight poverty,” he said in 2016, “but we have barely moved the needle.” To such claims, the academy implicitly and decisively responded, “Bunk.”
You’d think the answer to a question as basic as whether child poverty has declined would be clear—a starting point for debate, not a subject of debate. But the measurement of poverty in America is plagued by technical and ideological disputes. The Census Bureau’s Official Poverty Measure, which dates back to the 1960s, has become all but meaningless, since it counts only a family’s cash income before taxes. This ignores most of the aid that poor families get, which now arrives either in non-cash form (such as food stamps and subsidized housing) or through the tax code (most significantly, the refundable earned income tax credit, which delivers a cash bonus of up to $6,600 year). So by official standards, a family that gets $10,000 a year from food stamps and tax credits is just as poor as if it had received nothing. If hundreds of billions in antipoverty spending doesn’t appear to be reducing poverty, that’s because the statisticians don’t count it.
Recognizing this, the Census Bureau in 2011 began publishing a Supplemental Poverty Measure that includes a fuller accounting of benefits and taxes and also local variations in the cost of living. The government hasn’t gone back to create a historical series using this fuller poverty measure, but a team of scholars has.3 Drawing on their work, the academy found that child poverty, more accurately measured, has fallen from 28.4 percent in 1967 to 15.6 percent in 2016. By contrast, the official measure shows that over this period child poverty slightly rose.
The implications of this revision are profound. Child poverty, prepandemic, remained too high—much higher than in comparable countries. But the halving of child poverty makes it hard to sustain the conservative critique that we fought a “war on poverty, and poverty won.” To continue the military metaphor, a half-victory might demand a surge and not a surrender. Appreciating the efficacy of the safety net has only become more important in the midst of a pandemic that has crippled the economy and increased hardship.
Congress asked the academy to assess how much damage poverty does to kids. The question is harder to answer than it might seem. It’s clear that children raised in poverty suffer worse outcomes, like lower earnings and less educational achievement. But correlation isn’t causation. What hasn’t been certain is whether the lack of money itself harms children or whether other problems that harm children also cause the lack of money. Parental depression, for instance, might be the root cause of a child’s problems, and the family’s poverty might be a separate manifestation of the parent’s mental health. A poor mother’s lack of education might be what hampers her child in school, rather than her low income per se. If it is a lack of money that holds children back, a check might provide the solution. But if poverty is merely a symptom of other issues, money might not help; with problems like addiction, it might even hurt.
Over the last ten years or so, researchers have made special efforts to isolate the effect of income in the lives of poor families. They’ve done so in part by capitalizing on “natural experiments,” like sudden expansions of aid for one group of people that allow comparisons with other, similar groups. Evaluating this body of research, the academy delivered twin verdicts: “income poverty itself causes negative child outcomes,” and programs that raise incomes “improve child well-being.”
Translation: money matters.
The evidence comes from eclectic sources. One group of scholars found that in families receiving the earned income tax credit (EITC), children’s math and science scores had risen to a degree that predicted they would gain an additional $40,000 in lifetime income. Another research team, looking at Supplemental Security Income, a disability program, found that low-birthweight babies whose families got payments, about $650 a month, improved their motor skills more rapidly than slightly heavier babies who did not qualify. Since the heavier, healthier babies on average should have suffered fewer developmental delays, the faster progress of the lower-birthweight babies makes money seems especially significant. Yet another research effort isolated the effect of income by studying a program of casino payments that gave thousands of dollars a year to Eastern Cherokee families but nothing to their nontribal neighbors. The children in families that got the payments were significantly less likely as young adults to abuse alcohol, suffer psychiatric problems, or get arrested, and they were 15 percent more likely to finish school. That different scholars studied different programs but reached similar conclusions only bolsters researchers’ confidence that raising incomes helps poor kids.
The academy is careful not to overstate what income support achieves. The evidence that increased income boosts children’s long-term prospects isn’t uniform, and the impact often isn’t big. A modest ($1,000) increase in the EITC brought a modest (6 percent of a standard deviation) gain in math and reading scores. On the other hand, the EITC has rapidly grown, so its impact may likewise have grown. (Of course there are other reasons to help poor kids—eliminating hunger is good, even if it doesn’t raise test scores.)
Advocates for safety net programs may wish the evidence was more consistent and the gains more profound. But progress rarely arrives in leaps; it collects like compound interest, a few cents at a time. If the US benefits modestly from its safety net, it spends modestly, too. Federal spending on families with children is less than one percent of GDP, not even half the average among the thirty-six countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Australia spends nearly 3 percent; Ireland and the United Kingdom spend more. To an extent few Americans realize, high child poverty rates are a result of policy choices.
The largest federal expenditure on children comes through the child tax credit, which has expanded rapidly with little public notice and largely leaves out the poorest families. The Republican tax bill of 2017, Donald Trump’s most notable domestic achievement, doubled its value to $2,000 per child and extended it to families with annual earnings as high as $400,000. The credit now costs the government $127 billion a year, more than food stamps and the EITC combined.
But because it phases in as earnings rise, the neediest get the least benefit: a single parent with two children needs to earn about $30,000 to fully qualify. About 35 percent of children fail to receive the full credit because their parents earn too little.4 A quarter receive a partial payment, and 10 percent get nothing. Among those failing to receive the full amount are half of Latinos, 53 percent of blacks, and 70 percent of single mothers.
Republicans say the program is mostly a tax cut, not an antipoverty measure, so it’s appropriate that those who pay more in taxes reap the biggest reward. Most Democrats say it’s perverse to spend vast sums on children’s subsidies while shortchanging those with the greatest need. They would convert the tax credit, which is based on earnings, to a child allowance for all poor and moderate-income families—ideally in a monthly check, to smooth out income swings. Simply giving the current $2,000 child tax credit to all low-income kids, the academy found, would cut child poverty by about a quarter. With a few lines of altered tax code, Congress could do it in a snap.
There are thirty-seven congressional districts, in twenty-two states, where half or more of the children live in families with earnings too low to receive the full child tax credit—meaning they earn less than about $15 an hour. Last fall I took a trip to one of them, the Louisiana Fifth, which stretches north from Cajun country to the Arkansas border and includes the city of Monroe.5 I was curious to learn what childrearing was like for families too poor to get the full credit and what difference $2,000 a year might make.
In Monroe, I met a teacher’s aide named Letha Bradford who lives with her teenage sons, Tony and Micah, in a small rental home with plaques of biblical verses on the wall. Bradford has worked in the public schools for more than a decade but earns just $16,000 a year, which brings her a credit of about $1,000 per child—half as much as families higher up the income ladder. She receives other benefits but told me money was so tight that she listened to Tony’s football games in the stadium parking lot to save the entrance fee. After storms flooded thousands of homes in the city a few years ago, including theirs, the three of them spent months living in their car. Bradford and her sons told this story in good cheer with asides about finding safe parking lots to sleep in and the locations of public toilets.
One question in the debate over child allowances is whether poor families will spend the money in ways that help their children. I paid special attention, then, when Bradford said that despite her punishing budget she had been using her tax refunds to send the boys on annual Boy Scout trips, which had taken them to forty-two states, including Alaska and Hawaii. “I’m trying to instill in them that education gives you knowledge and power,” she said. To prepare for a trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, their troop leader made the boys write an essay about a Monroe man killed in the war. When Micah found the name of the man he wrote about on the wall, he said, it felt like “touching history.” The report is on file at the public library.
Money—even modest sums—helps kids in part because of what it buys, like Boy Scout trips. It also helps by alleviating stress, which researchers have found can reach toxic levels in families living on so little.6 Despite Bradford’s extraordinary efforts, the strain on the household was evident. The car they had slept in had 300,000 miles on it and regularly stalled in traffic. Food often ran short, even with a reliance on ramen noodles. When I asked the boys whether the stress affected them, they both told the same story—how the power company’s threat to shut off the lights had left their mother so upset they couldn’t concentrate in school. Tony said, “Sometimes, the look in her eye, it’s like she’s sick, but she’s not sick, she’s just stressed. It makes me feel the same way.” Micah said his teacher chastised him for losing focus, but he didn’t explain because “I didn’t want her to look down on us, like we come from a poor family.”
The National Academies estimate that child poverty costs the country as a whole $800 billion to $1.1 trillion a year—4.0 to 5.4 percent of GDP—including lower adult earnings, worse health, and higher crime. The good news about a loss so immense is that it translates into a recommendation for investment: money spent on poor kids will likely be “very cost-effective over time.”
In formulating its plan to halve child poverty, the academy examined twenty policy options—two different-sized expansions of ten different programs (including job training, housing vouchers, and nutrition assistance). No single program expansion would do enough to achieve the 50 percent reduction. But one came much closer than the others: a child allowance. Offering families $3,000 a year per child would reduce child poverty by a walloping 41 percent. The main political hurdle, beyond the cost ($54 billion, in this prepandemic measure), is the possibility that giving people money will encourage them to work less. The academy predicts that the reduction in earnings would be tiny—about two thirds of one percent. Still, for conservatives who consider maximizing work a higher priority than reducing poverty, this could provide reason to oppose the allowance.
The academy also examined four different programmatic packages, each consisting of multiple policy changes. Notably, the one that best reflected conservatives’ goal—increasing employment—did the least to cut poverty. This “work-based” package (more job training, tax credits, and a higher minimum wage) would put nearly a million more people to work at modest cost (less than $9 billion a year) but cut child poverty by only 19 percent. Cutting child poverty “only” 19 percent, of course, would be a considerable achievement—one no prominent conservative has yet championed.
By contrast, the package that would cut poverty the most was built around a child allowance. An annual payment of $2,700 per child, coupled with work incentives (expansions of childcare, tax credits, and the minimum wage), would put an additional 600,000 adults to work and cut child poverty by 51 percent. More work and less poverty—it’s expensive, but at $112 billion a year it’s less than half of what the Trump tax cuts were estimated to cost in 2020, with the main difference being that the latter mostly helped the rich. By my rough calculation, a package like this would give Letha Bradford an extra $500 or so a month to stock the cupboards and pay the electricity bill. The academy doesn’t explicitly say that a child allowance is the indispensable tool for cutting child poverty, but it’s hard to read its report any other way. At least seventeen other wealthy countries have them.
Child allowances “are the silver bullet we need,” Jeff Madrick writes in Invisible Americans. The title nods to the book’s central argument, that child poverty is a moral and economic tragedy met with a shrug. Invisible Americans synthesizes the work of dozens of researchers (to whom it is dedicated), rather than presenting original scholarship or reportage. It’s a summons to action in the spirit of Michael Harrington, whose book The Other America, from 1962, is often credited with inspiring the War on Poverty and whom Madrick cites on the first page. Just as Harrington “awakened America,” Madrick writes:
My purposes here are to document the scourge of child poverty, the many ways it damages children and limits their possibilities, to make clear the immense irresponsibility of the world’s richest nation to tolerate basically the highest child poverty rates in the developed world, and to recommend what should be done about it.
Madrick’s answer is simple: give them money. He proposes a child allowance much larger than those the academy modeled—$4,000 to $5,000 per child a year, available to all families to broaden its political appeal, but taxable so the wealthy return a large share. When given more money, he writes, “poor children do better in school, are more likely to graduate from high school, are often more stable emotionally, are healthier, make higher wages as adults, avoid incarceration, and live longer.”
Madrick is right that most Americans don’t realize how unusual our child poverty rate is, and he is right that material hardship is more widespread than the numbers suggest. That’s because hardships like hunger and eviction plague families well above the official poverty line ($26,200 for a family of four). It’s also because many more children experience poverty at some point in their childhoods than do so in a given year. “More than one out of three American children live in official poverty for at least one year,” he notes. Madrick rightly emphasizes the long-term damage child poverty inflicts and correctly notes in passing that child poverty ranks curiously low among progressive concerns. (He doesn’t explain why, and I’m not sure I can either, beyond the obvious fact that children don’t donate or vote.) Twenty years of presidential debates had passed without a question on the issue before one made it in this year, in the New Hampshire Democratic debate, where the answers generally lacked specificity or passion. (Andrew Yang did renew his call for a guaranteed income.) By contrast, think of the detailed discussion Medicare for All received. The advocacy group First Focus finds no mention of child poverty on Joe Biden’s website.
While Madrick makes many important points, several elements of his style may limit his reach. For a book on child poverty, Invisible Americans is largely devoid of poor kids. The few who appear are mostly drawn from secondhand sources or masked behind pseudonyms. Not every work on child poverty needs fresh reporting, but some humanization here would have deepened readers’ interest and understanding.
For a sense of how advocacy and portraiture can combine with force, consider my New York Times colleague Nicholas Kristof’s reporting, with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, on his childhood friends in Yamhill, Oregon, for their book Tightrope (2020). The five Knapp siblings, Kristof’s neighbors, were children of farmworkers who had risen “to the solid, union-fortified working class” when the rungs on the class ladder disappeared. Four of the five were dead by middle age, from forces within their control (alcohol and drugs) and forces far beyond it (falling wages and the loss of meaning in working-class life). When Kristof and WuDunn advocate a child allowance, the reader can feel the stakes. (Among other things, such financial support might have helped the Knapps’ mother escape the husband who beat her and terrorized their kids.)
Or take Alex Kotlowitz’s latest book, An American Summer (2019), which focused on a very different group of poor children, the victims (and perpetrators) of Chicago’s street violence. Kotlowitz’s reporting is so vivid it provokes a mix of outrage and sorrow on every page. “I ask, Your Honor, to be lenient to this young man,” pleads one mother at the trial of the drug dealer who killed her troubled son, knowing how easily the two might have traded places. A forgiving mother on unforgiving streets—the book is filled with such powerful scenes.
Madrick also limits his reach by adopting a dismissive tone toward those of a different ideological bent. A man of the left, he describes conservative welfare critics mostly as racists and opportunists without engaging their arguments. And he considers even center-left scholars worried about cultural or behavioral issues, like the rise of single-parent families, as “wayward liberals,” to be forgiven, perhaps, but not taken seriously. Can’t poor children benefit from both government aid and the emotional and financial support of two parents? One strength of narratives, like the stories Kristof, WuDunn, and Kotlowitz provide, is that they implicitly resist oversimplification by showing the complexity of individuals’ lives—a special value in a polarized age.
Lastly, Madrick is too reluctant to acknowledge the progress that had been made. He cites the National Academies study but is skeptical that child poverty had fallen by half since the Sixties. Were hardship properly measured, he writes, “a more likely reduction is 20 to 25 percent.” Measurement issues aside, he appears to fear that recognizing a reduction in poverty will undercut the urgency of the problem that remains. That’s understandable, but downplaying progress carries its own risk—the risk of making action seem futile (and unwittingly echoing the Reagan argument that “poverty won”). Indeed, falling poverty rates strengthen the argument that safety net programs work, a point that’s especially important now when so many are relying on them.
Still, Madrick’s book is not only valuable but more timely than he could have possibly imagined or desired. Invisible Americans performs a service: it elevates an issue of moral urgency, at times with eloquence, and makes recommendations that would benefit millions of children. “Cutting child poverty in half would be a great victory,” he writes:
It would profoundly reduce the cognitive, neurological, and emotional disadvantages of poor children, substantially improve child health on average, raise the downtrodden esteem of these children, and have constructive long-term consequences.
At times he may be preaching to the choir, but on that note—amen.
- 1Lauren Bauer, “The Covid-19 Crisis Has Already Left Too Many Children Hungry in America,” Brookings, May 6, 2020. ↩
- 2See Christopher Jencks’s pair of essays in these pages, “The War on Poverty: Was It Lost?” and “Did We Lose the War on Poverty?—II,” April 2 and 23, 2015. ↩
- 3Liana Fox, Christopher Wimer, Irwin Garfinkel, Neeraj Kaushal, and Jane Waldfogel, “Waging War on Poverty: Poverty Trends Using a Historical Supplemental Poverty Measure,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 34, No. 3 (February 18, 2015). ↩
- 4Sophie Collyer, Christopher Wimer, and David Harris, “Left Behind: The One-Third of Children in Families Who Earn Too Little to Get the Full Child Tax Credit,” Poverty and Social Policy Brief, Vol. 3, No. 6 (May 13, 2019), Center on Poverty and Social Policy, Columbia University. ↩
- 5See my “The Tax Break for Children, Except the Ones Who Need It Most,” The New York Times, December 16, 2019. ↩
- 6For an overview of toxic stress, see Jack P. Shonkoff et al., “The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress,” Pediatrics, January 2012. ↩