Blog For The City

Chairman’s Corner

This is the launch of  a monthly series “Chairman’s Corner” – where our Board Chair, Paul Taskier, will write about a variety of topics that impact Bread for the City and indeed the community and nation at large. We invite you to Read, Enjoy and Share!

We have all just witnessed momentous changes in our national landscape. June, 2015 will long be a month remembered for the changes it ushered in, or cemented in place.

President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, has now survived two serious legal challenges and appears firmly in place, providing protection and affordable health care for millions who were refused coverage or who simply could not afford its substantial costs.

Deeply held religious beliefs to one side, this month also marked the demolition of barriers that prohibited same sex marriage, finally erasing a prohibition that denied equal protection of the laws to those who love and wish to marry a person of the same sex.

These are sea change events in American life, but I believe that while we celebrate now that our world has changed for the better, we will, as time passes, adjust to the ‘new normal’. We, or our children, will take these as indisputable truths. Of course we have health care insurance that covers us notwithstanding prior conditions, of course we all have to share, depending on our means, in the cost of care for everyone, of course anyone can marry anyone he or she loves, of course it’s unacceptable to discriminate against someone because of sexual orientation.

But this month we have also confronted the shocking and horrible murder of nine righteous people who opened their hearts and their church to a stranger. And while we witness national outrage at that act of terrorism — ostensibly undertaken to provoke a race war — and are gratified that the Confederate battle flag, a mark of racist hatred to blacks, is finally recognized as being inappropriate outside a museum, the struggle against the systemic racism in our society is barely in its infancy.

Why, when the Emancipation Proclamation was over 150 years ago, and Brown v. Board of Education was 50 years ago, do we still have issues? If we can readily accept that there is a sea change in how we approach universal health coverage or whether it is a civil right to be LGBT, why is there still any issue about full racial equality? Why is it not universally accepted in America that of course it doesn’t matter what color your skin is? How is it that we can accept sea changes in other parts of our national life and blithely deem full racial equality as unattainable in our lifetimes?

There is no doubt that our national landscape has changed from the times of slavery and segregation – an African-American President is solemn witness to that. But as President Obama said in Charleston at Rev. Pinckney’s funeral, we’ve had conversations about race, endlessly; it’s time to stop talking and start doing.

I have previously written about Bread for the City’s commitment to racial equity, and how we require all of our staff members to attend two days of training on racial equity. It is, essentially, sensitivity training to help us understand the daily burdens that our society’s history of racism places on black Americans. Our clientele is almost wholly people of color, the vast majority of whom are African-American. So, in the way we approach our clients — and in the way we understand ourselves — we need to embrace the stark divide in racial equity and in our awareness of racial inequity.

White people, I am sorry to say, are mostly unaware of their sense of societal privilege vis-a-vis black Americans. Centuries of oppression, slavery, degradation, denial and diminishment weigh heavily. Do we really need to ask why white financial net worth is, on average,14 times greater than black net worth? Or why more black men are imprisoned, mostly for minor drug offenses (many of which are no longer crimes in many states and the District of Columbia), than there were people in slavery before the Civil War? Or why the cities with majority black populations have significantly higher percentage populations living below the poverty line?

After Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Grey in Baltimore and the tens of thousands of other, less known, victims, is there any question that black men are treated differently in our society? Can it be in any way acceptable that black children have to be carefully taught how to interact with police lest they become victims themselves? Or that African-American drivers always have to be concerned lest they be pulled over by the police for DWB – Driving While Black? A grim joke – far too often a reality.

Our national conversation on race must take on new urgency. One hundred fifty years after the end of slavery we should not learn that good people were slaughtered because of their color and to force others, through fear, to “go back.” Go back to Africa?! After 300 years in America, after building this country, shedding blood in its wars, and taking part in every piece of the American story? How can such a demented narrative even be enunciated in this day and age? I myself thought that narratives like this were the product of a past long overtaken, and I am horrified to learn that apparently hundreds of thousands of Americans still subscribe to profoundly racist beliefs, and belong to organizations deemed racist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. If nothing else, we must support the Southern Poverty Law Center and help it in its struggle to identify and shut down seedbeds of racial hatred.

But we also need to engage in introspection. White attitudes to people of color are steeped in privilege, entitlement and, all too often, a sense of superiority, fostered by the systemic racism that pervades our society. We need to think more deeply about attitudes that are so ingrained that they are almost reflexive. How often have I heard racist or anti-Semitic jokes or off-hand comments by ostensibly good people? How do those words even pass their lips? I think it’s because they don’t question the underlying assumption of superiority that whiteness in America provides. That – the underlying assumption of superiority – must be challenged, from within and without. We cannot achieve racial equity unless that is purged from our common understanding.

I fear though, that the ‘new normal’ of health care coverage and LBGT rights will not translate as easily or readily to racial equality — not with the burden of 300 years of oppression weighing it down.

Bread for the City addresses the daily burdens of that oppression: poverty – poverty that limits food, limits housing, limits representation and limits medical care. We alleviate the burdens of poverty and make poverty survivable. A modest goal, and a worthy one. But we also strive to address the conditions that perpetuate poverty. Racial inequity over-arches all those conditions, but three main areas can make real differences: housing, jobs and education. With stable housing, a good job and an education that makes a good job attainable, people have the basic tools to lift themselves from poverty.

Bread is already a leader in preserving housing options for the poor. Our Legal Clinic lawyers have saved thousands of people from losing their affordable housing, often the one thing that is keeping their families stable. Bread is also engaged in helping people prepare themselves for a good job. Without any experience in a work setting or any exposure to the routines, norms and mores of a daily office work life, people in poverty often fail to make a transition into the working world. To change that dynamic, Bread has a Pre-Employment Program in its Southeast Center, a six week course that over the last decade, has taught hundreds of people how to manage a job. And we provide paid internships after the program that can lead to a full-time job.

These are approaches that are within our collective reach, modest in scope, but deeply important to the people whose lives they change. As I’ve recently noted in another blog, our May Board strategic planning retreat committed us to ramp up our advocacy, to engage with others in the city in leading the charge to obtain 22,000 new affordable housing units over the next decade. We hope that will make a real difference in preserving our city neighborhoods, protecting diversity, preventing gentrification that uproots families from their homes of decades, and gives housing as a stable base for education and work.

One of Bread’s bywords is “Justice.” The Bible teaches us: “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.” The commentators explain that because God gave us every word in the Bible, every word has meaning, and so, when God repeats a word, it is because He wants us to pay special attention. So we are particularly commanded to pursue Justice, in all its manifestations.

We have far to go to achieve a sea change in racial equity comparable to the sea change we are witnessing with health care and LGBT rights. I wish people were as impassioned about seeking justice in racial equality as they are celebratory about gay rights.

We need to look within and root out the attitudes that were implanted by a society imbued with its own superiority. If we can do it with gay rights, something that could hardly be spoken of in decades past, we can surely make the same efforts with race. It is long, long overdue.

Over 50 years ago, one of the giants, and martyrs, of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Let us focus on that and make it happen now. All of us are equal; all of us deserve equal opportunities. Let us take that into our hearts and work within ourselves, and with others, to make that a reality.

Paul Taskier cropped







How Social Security Gets Racist Without Really Trying – Part 5

Normative Family Structures

On June 26, 2015, millions of Americans celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to affirm the love and commitment of same-sex couples who asked, in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, “for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”

Sometime between June 26 and July 6, 2015, a group of nerds got together to amend the Social Security rulebook to reflect that they were “no longer prohibited from recognizing same-sex marriages for purposes of determining entitlement to, eligibility for, and amount of benefits and payments.”

Normative Fam Structures 2Same-sex couples will no longer be stuck in the limbo that United States v. Windsor left them in, when their marriages were sort of recognized by SSA depending on what particular benefit they were seeking and where they happened to be living. Once the dust settles from Obergefell, same sex couples will presumably be stuck in the same strange Social Security ship as opposite sex couples. This includes the good (spousal and survivor benefits), the bad (the SSI marriage penalty), and the just plain weird (rules about holding out as a married couple and the validity of marriages performed in Jamaica under West Virginian law).

Some more radical writers like Bea Esperanza Fonseca of Black Girl Dangerous observed the growing divide within the LGBTQ movement between “those of us who want to enjoy privilege and exploit others just like white straight men, and…those of us who seek liberation from the exploitative system itself.”

As a cis straight white man who has largely flourished because of this exploitative system, I’m not entitled to a seat at the table as the LGBTQ movement decides what comes next. But as a person who has lived with and loved queer friends, and as a person whose understanding of love and family has grown through encounters with clients at Bread for the City, I hope I can offer a worthwhile critique of a somewhat hidden part of the Social Security system: benefits payable on the basis of marriage.

Over a fifth of Social Security beneficiaries are people other than the workers who earned the benefits, including children, spouses, former spouses, widows, and certain parents of the workers who earned the benefits. (The raw data, using 2009 statistics, is available here. Other statistics in this blog are based on my calculation from this data, and I would be happy to share my spreadsheet if you email me.)Normative Fam Structures 1

Spouses, divorcées, and widows account for nearly two-thirds of these beneficiaries, and their benefits account for nearly three-quarters of the total benefits paid to those other than retired and disabled workers.

Married people do not pay more in Social Security than unmarried people, but they are eligible to receive more in benefits.

White people are more likely than black people to benefit from marriage-related benefits. According to a Pew Research study discussing 2012 data, 36% of African-Americans over 25 have never been married compared to 16% of whites.

Although my focus here is racial, these rules discriminate based on other characteristics of identity. Even with Obergefell, it seems unlikely that gays and lesbians will marry at the same rate as heterosexuals anytime in the foreseeable future. People with disabilities—especially people of color with disabilities—are far less likely to marry than the population as a whole.

Among whites, there are 30% more marriage-based beneficiaries per worker-beneficiary than there are among African-Americans. Social Security paid about $5.6 billion per month to whites based on marriages compared to $435 million for African-Americans, nearly a 13:1 ratio. For benefits paid to workers, the ratio was just above 9:1.

The racial gap in marriage-based benefits will likely grow as the generation with the lower marriage rates and the larger racial gap in marriage rate ages into peak disability and retirement years.

These benefits were designed with good intentions in mind. They protect women in particular by mitigating the effects of lower lifetime earnings. But they turn out to be one of “the extensive ways,” to borrow phrasing from Rutgers Professor Brittney Cooper, “that our societal structure only rewards one type of family configuration—heteronormative, middle class, property-owning, and generally white.”

Social Security allows married people—at no extra cost—to enhance their spouses’ financial well-being without providing similar benefits for other enactments of love and support.Normative Fam Structures

But the fact that some people are not married does not mean they don’t have people who love and depend on them.

Black families have been under attack in this country since their members were bought and sold as discrete units of property. The rules designed by the inheritors of slavery’s legacy still attack the creative and resilient families black people make for themselves.

During DC’s most recent budget season, we saw this dynamic play out at a Department of Human Services hearing. (Start around 6:15—this is a must see of American Democracy in action). As soon as two of our client leaders were finished testifying about their experience with homelessness and Rapid Rehousing, they were interrogated about the status of their children’s fathers.

The two women, Jeneil and Shanee, bravely challenged the assumption that adopting a normative family structure would solve their problems. Shanee spoke about pressure she and her child’s father were receiving from government service providers to get married in order to be allowed to live together. She said, “I don’t think that has to be a lawful thing to just say OK you have to [get married] just to be involved in the child’s life.”

From housing to Social Security and far beyond, the American system fails to support those families which—by choice or necessity—fall outside its norms.

“We don’t need more rules to police parents of unconventional families, writes Dr. Cooper. “We need better options for what families can look like in the first place.”

Just as those who have found their life partners and whose love and commitment is affirmed by the state should have the right to earn Social Security for their loved ones, so should everyone else.

Click here to read Part 1. 

Click here to read Part 2.

Click here to read Part 3.

Click here to read Part 4. 

Volunteer with Women Strong DC!

Bread for the City is currently seeking skilled volunteers to help with our Women Strong DC program.

Women Strong DC helps women achieve overall wellness of the mind, body, and spirit by providing a supportive environment with wellness interventions that will help strengthen women’s core areas of life. It is a free program for women living in Southeast DC.Yoga

The program is currently seeking volunteers skilled in the following areas to offer free services to participants:

● Registered yoga teachers to lead classes, workshops, or retreats
● Licensed massage therapists
● Licensed nail technicians

To learn more about volunteering with the Women Strong DC program, please contact Kris Jensen, Volunteer & In-Kind Manager, at or 202-386-7006.

How Social Security Gets Racist Without Really Trying – Part 4

Race, Politics, and the Bogus Fight over Reallocation

Chris Jordan worked all his life. Mr. Jordan (a pseudonym) is a 52 years old African-American man and suffers from congestive heart failure. He grew up near Bread for the City’s Northwest Center and used to play basketball at the Kennedy playground, which has since become the Kennedy Recreation Center.

A couple years ago, Mr. Jordan’s doctor told him he needed to quit his job as a floor technician because the strain on his heart was too much. Mr. Jordan could not afford to give up his livelihood, so he kept on working for almost a year before coming to Bread for the City for help applying for Social Security disability. We secured his benefits in just over two months—quickly by Social Security standards—but Mr. Jordan still had to spend most of his savings account to cover rent and other expenses while his claim was pending.

Social Security Disability Insurance has a five month waiting period. Mr. Jordan could receive Supplemental Security Income for those months, but to meet the $2,000 resource limit and bridge the gap between a $733 benefit and $905 in rent, Mr. Jordan had to withdraw money from his modest retirement account.

He applied for subsidized housing units through our Housing Assistance Project, so now he is waiting for his name to be called along with the tens of thousands of others on the DCHA waiting list and the lists for site-based section eight housing.

With a $1,052 benefit and $905 rent, Mr. Jordan is just barely keeping his head above water. If Congress does not act soon to preserve the benefits Mr. Jordan earned through decades of employment, he might drown.

When I wrote last week about the ways Social Security re-distributes money from people of color to white Americans, I considered the overall Title II picture and did not distinguish between old age benefits and disability benefits. If we were only looking at old age benefits, the redistribution would be even more severe, as shown by this graph in the same article from the Urban Institute:benefit to tax ratio

However, if we only looked at disability benefits, we would see a very different picture:

benefit to tax ratio 2

In this case, redistribution favors African-Americans. This is largely attributable to racial disparities in education and health that contribute to a person’s employment prospects. SSA implicitly operates on a “social” model of disability, which Rhodes Scholar Rachel Kolb defines as arguing “that an individual becomes ‘disabled’ within the constraints of a specific physical environment or social convention, not solely as a result of the static properties of the body.”

Getting to the root causes of racial disparities in health, education, and vocational achievement is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I will take a brief stab and hope people will continue the conversation.

I hope you’ll consider unequal access to primary and preventive medical care that can control diseases before they become disabling and that you’ll also consider that African-Americans were almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic white American to be uninsured in 2010 (the Affordable Care Act is starting to change this).

I hope you’ll consider that people of color are more likely to work dangerous and physically-taxing blue collar jobs that leave them susceptible to disability, and that this includes older Americans who make up a large portion of the disabled workers.

Ben and FDR

Ben and FDR

Let’s also not forget that for equally qualified job candidates, “whites with a felony conviction fared just as well, if not better, than a black applicant with a clean background.” And if you won’t consider these factors because you know too many poor people of other races suffering from these same cruel policies and inequities, I hope you’ll consider the role racism plays in upholding the systems that hurt poor and working people of all colors.

According to a Fact Sheet published by Social Security, “Disability insurance benefits constituted at least 75 % of personal income for 50% of African Americans receiving disability insurance benefits in 2013.” This brought the poverty rate among African American beneficiaries down to 28% from what would otherwise be 57%.

This is all to say that Social Security Disability Insurance is very important to African-Americans and one of the places where Social Security is most beneficial to that group. So when Social Security faces some cash flow problems, guess which program is on the chopping block?

Before we get to the obvious answer, let me digress to tell you a little bit about my personal finances.

I have two bank accounts. At each semi-monthly pay period, $450 goes to my Chase account to cover rent and utilities (I have roommates). The rest goes to a PNC account where I split money for saving and spending. I’m not going to win a Nobel Prize in Economics for this plan, but it works well enough for me and the people to whom I pay my bills. If my monthly expenses changed, I would ask my wonderful colleagues in Human Resources to change my direct deposit amounts so that I had the right amount in each account. Simple, right?

It is so simple in fact, that Congress has managed to do something similar eleven different times under both Democratic and Republican leadership as discussed in an excellent article from the Center On Budget and Policy Priorities. The 6.2% of our paychecks that finances Social Security benefits is split up between trust funds dedicated to paying Old Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance. At various times one trust fund or the other has run low, and Congress has either raised the payroll tax or simply shifted the amount of the payroll tax going into the depleted trust fund.DSC_1047

Demographic and economic factors necessitate adjustment from time to time. In 1994, when legislation was last passed to change the distribution between the two funds, the actuaries predicted that a new reallocation would be necessary around 2015 or 2016.

What the actuaries did not predict was the toxic political climate of our time. In an unprecedented move, Republicans voted to amend the House Rules to prevent a clean reallocation. They decided to use the need for reallocation as a bargaining chip for “reforms” they would like to see in the program, and have taken Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries hostage in a showdown with House Democrats. If reallocation does not occur before the trust fund is further depleted, benefits will be cut 19%.

Let’s get back to Mr. Jordan. If his SSDI benefit drops 19%—the outcome if Congress cannot find a way to solve a manufactured crisis—his income will be lower than his rent. That, for the uninitiated, is one way someone becomes homeless. This Social Security benefit is not a handout, but rather an insurance program that Mr. Jordan has paid into for years. He insured himself against retirement and disability, and we—we who elected this Congress, we who are blessed with health that enables us to work, we who draw on old age benefits no politician would dream of stealing—are threatening not to hold up our end of the covenant.

Social Security has some serious problems about its long term solvency and its efficacy that need to be solved. As in most negotiations, some concessions will be needed on all sides. These discussions might be tough, but we know how to have tough conversations.

What we can’t do is bargain when one side is holding a gun to the other’s head. And if you think that’s an exaggeration, I’ll buy you a front row seat to Mr. Jordan’s eviction.

Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 2.

Click here to read Part 3. 

Referral Advocacy – Data Driven Success!

If you follow this blog with any regularity you’ve probably seen several posts focusing on Bread for the City’s campaign to change the third-party referral system for local food pantries. Here a ‘referral’ means a written letter from an agency/organization vouching that a client ‘deserves’ access to food, clothing, furniture, or other goods.  Referrals were required as proof of a client’s eligibility – regardless of any primary proofs they could provide on their own (income statements, lease etc).

Over the last year we have intentionally listened to community experiences with referrals for food. Many clients expressed frustration at being asked to travel to Bread for the City just to get a piece of paper. Others wondered why pantries didn’t design their own intake processes to limit the burden on clients. After listening to these experiences we increased our advocacy to local pantries and the Capital Area Food Bank. We asked them to join us in exploring ways that together we could create more just and anti-racist policies. Most of them heard us and committed to creating more client centered processes. As we enter summer we can celebrate the knowledge that across DC people have lower barriers to accessing vital food resources!

We also use technology & data to inform our decision and improve our services. Our staff knew they were writing a lot of referrals – but the volume became even clearer when we ran reports and saw the raw numbers. As we started our campaign, we tracked our interventions and measured their impact. Here are some examples:

  • Between January – August of 2014, Bread for the City wrote over 1,141 individual paper referrals to city organizations as proof of eligibility for food, clothing, and in-kind goods. This model placed providers at the center of the system, and the burden of time, energy and transportation on clients.
  • Referrals were required by 16 food pantries across DC. These pantries represent less than 50% of total food pantries in DC but (as you can see in the below chart) there is high demand for their services. In 2014, we wrote approximately 94% of our referrals to 4 organizations- Martha’s Table (838 referrals), Salvation Army (117 referrals), Central Union Mission (73 referrals), Lutheran Church of the Reformation (48 referrals).

referrals graphicAfter a year of hard work & advocacy here are the exciting outcomes!

  • Participation – Client Engagement & Leadership:

BFC held open meetings and follow-up appointments with client leaders. Clients participated in meetings by sharing their experiences with the referral system and brainstorming ideas for how it could be improved. These conversations informed our outreach to pantries and internal programmatic decisions.

  • Social Capital – Relationship Building Across Community Agencies:

We teamed up with the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) to push for policy changes at the 16 organizations that required referrals. Of this group, 88% had a food partnership with the CAFB. These relationships expanded our outreach and led to an increased awareness and attitude shift in many local pantry leaders.

  • Values Informing Practice – Racial Equity Lens:

As you have heard from us, we are thinking a lot about racial equity at BFC. We are challenging ourselves as service providers to consider how we are perpetuating oppression and racism – in our own programs and also in the larger systems that we work within. Historically, social service provision has often been based on antiquated ideas of worthy and unworthy poor. We believe the elimination of paper referrals is an important shift away from a prejudiced charity model.

  • Policy – Food Pantry Changes:  

As of now 14 food pantries have agreed to drop their referral requirements. These pantries represent 88% of the referrals we wrote from Jan – Aug 2014. This is a huge shift that is already having a huge impact in the local food distribution system.

referrals graphic 2We’re proud of what has been accomplished through client leadership and community collaboration. Yesterday a staff member received an enthusiastic high five from a client because referrals would no longer be required at her regular food pantry! We feel her excitement about increased client choice and participation!

How Social Security Gets Racist Without Really Trying – Part 3

Forced Annuitization and the Grim Realities of Racial Health Disparities

“You just get out what they put in/But they never put in enough” —Stephen Merritt, The Magnetic Fields

Social Security redistributes money from African-Americans to white Americans. This claim might sound outrageous to those with prejudiced views of public benefits and those who understand the effects of Social Security’s progressive benefits formula, but it nonetheless is true, according to a 2013 paper by C Eugene Steurle, Karen E. Smith, and Caleb Quakenbush of the Urban Institute.

I encourage those of you who like social sciences papers to read their paper directly and have a lively debate about the methodology. Others may enjoy this discussion of the article by a writer from the Washington Post. Anyway, some of the key findings of the paper are reflected in this graph:

OASDI graph









Before discussing the reasons why white Americans have such a higher benefit-to-contribution ratio than other racial groups, we need to understand why it should be so surprising that an anti-poverty program would redistribute from black to white.

Traditionally, anti-poverty measures redistribute money from the rich to the poor. Food stamps, for example, are financed by a progressive income tax and pay exclusively to low-income individuals and families. Social Security—by which I mean the Federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance Benefits authorized by Title II of the Social Security Act—is a little bit different.

Title II programs are financed by taxing employees’ earnings up to $118,000 at a flat rate of 6.2% for both employer and employee. Because some people earn significantly more than $118,000, Social Security is regressive in the sense that lower earners pay a higher percentage of their overall income. Flat and regressive taxes place a further burden on low income workers because the flat tax charges them a higher percentage of the money left over after very basic living costs are met. Although the tax itself is regressive, the program as a whole is progressive because the benefit formula redistributes from higher to lower lifetime earners.

Whites far out-earn their black counterparts. According to data from the US Census Bureau, average white households earn $55,412 compared to $32,229 for black households. This gap has remained fairly consistent for the last several decades. So how is it that an insurance program that redistributes from higher to lower earners also redistributes from African-Americans to white Americans?DSC_1047

The causes are multi-fold, and I will discuss more reasons in future blogs. The authors attribute much of the redistribution to demographic change—groups growing at a faster rate will have relatively more members in the workforce and relatively fewer in the beneficiary pool—but today I want to hone in on one cause that might be even more upsetting than the effect: differences in life expectancies mean major differences in benefits.

Social Security is an insurance program with forced annuitization, meaning benefits must be paid out steadily over time as opposed to being paid in a lump sum. Additionally, benefits never run out for a particular individual, meaning that beneficiaries can collect money as long as they live.

Suppose you have two workers with identical ages and work histories. They both go to retire on their 66th birthday and are approved for benefits of $1200 a month. Person A drops dead of a heart attack the next day and never collects a check. Person B lives for another 20 years, collecting a monthly check that increases 2% every year. By the time Person B finally dies, he will have accrued over $370,000.

We can think about Social Security as insurance that provides, in the words of Roosevelt, “some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against…poverty-ridden old age.” In that case, Person A would have no more reason to complain than a person who buys health insurance but never gets sick or someone who buys homeowner’s insurance and never has her house destroyed by a tornado. (They can gripe a little about having wasted their money, but it’s almost always better not to get your money’s worth of an insurance program.)

Old age, however, is a little different from cancer and tornadoes in that people generally want to live a long time. The simple genius of Social Security is that it functions as insurance and forced savings. As an insurance program, it protects people from outliving their savings and it spares the state from spending welfare resources on those who were able to contribute during their working years. As a savings program, it means that all workers are doing something to save for old age and that they don’t lose all their retirement money if investments fail. For people living paycheck to paycheck without the luxury of the ability to save for retirement, a guaranteed check for life is one of the greatest covenants struck with the state.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, the life expectancy of a white person born in 1950 (today’s retirees) is 69.1. For an African American, that age is 60.8. The retirement age for someone born in 1950 is 66, with early (reduced) benefits available at 62, just a little more than a year too late for the average black person born in 1950 to see two nickels of her hard earned benefits.

life expectancy

That choice in statistics might seem a little manipulative, but consider some other data collected by the CDC from 2009 and published in the National Vital Statistics Reports in 2014. For the average set of 100,000 white Americans, 84, 696 are alive at age 65; per 100,000 African-Americans, only 75,834 reach that supposed age of retirement. White Americans who reach 65 will live an average of 19.1 years beyond their 65th birthdays; African-American 65 year-olds can expect to live another 17.8 years.

Assuming the same 2% per year cost of living adjustment as in the earlier example, and assuming an equal starting benefit amount based on equal lifetime earnings, those statistics imply that the average black 65 year-old will receive 92% of what his white counterpart will receive over their lifetimes. Across those stylized sets of 100,000 members of each racial group and working from the life expectancy at age 65, the black group will receive 82% of what the white group receives.

There is a lot moDSC_1051re to be said about the relationship between health disparities, race, and Social Security benefits, but I hope that this can open the discussion about the ways in which a colorblind policy with no obvious discriminatory intent can have massively disparate impacts on different racial groups. It also shows how hard it will be to find solutions to some of these problems—a move away from forced annuitization lasting until death to some sort of lump sum would be awful for the 31 percent of African-American elderly married couples and 53 percent of unmarried elderly persons relying on Social Security for more than 90% of their income.

After all, something very curious happens in the population charts after age 95. Despite having fewer survivors at every age noted from 1 to 95, African-Americans take the lead by age 100 with 2,275 people alive per 100,000 compared to 1,983 whites.

White or black, if you live to 100, you probably shouldn’t have to go out looking for work.

Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 2. 


Bread for the City Supports the Language Access for Education Amendment Act

Senior Supervising Attorney Allison Miles-LeeBread for the City has written extensively on this blog about the 2004 Language Access Act, and most notably, the DC Department of Human Services’ (DHS) repeated failures to follow the law. Senior Supervising Attorney Allison Miles-Lee testified before the DC Council on July 1st in support of the Language Access for Education Amendment Act, and about what she is witnessing on the front lines each day.

Over 70 people testified at the day-long hearing, including many immigrant community members and representatives from local organizations. Councilmember David Grosso, who introduced the bill, oversaw an energetic and passionate hearing. Attorneys like Allison testified about their frustration with seeing repeated violations of the law and inability to bring agencies into compliance under the current framework. And community members spoke of their struggles to communicate with their children’s schools and loss of important benefits as a result of agencies’ failure to provide language access. A large group of immigrant students spoke about their confusion and fear starting public school in D.C. with no language access coordinator or other assistance, including being unable to get lunch from the cafeteria and understand their class schedules. Councilmember Grosso ended the day on a high note, encouraging collaboration between himself, D.C. government agencies, and school officials to come up with an amendment that will actually work, not just a law on the books.

Today we share just a sample of Allison’s testimony.


Joint Public Hearing, D.C. Council: Language Access for Education Amendment Act

July 1, 2015

Testimony of Allison Miles-Lee, Bread for the City

My name is Allison Miles-Lee, and I am a bilingual family law and public benefits attorney at Bread for the City. I’m also a member of the Executive Committee of the D.C. Language Access Coalition.

I’ve testified a number of times before this Council about language access problems my Spanish-speaking clients have faced at the Department of Human Services (DHS). DHS has often refused to provide Spanish interpretation to my clients, which has led to breakdowns in client-worker communication, resulting in denials or reductions in my clients’ food stamps, TANF and medical insurance benefits. My clients have also been barred from meeting face-to-face with a worker when there is no Spanish-speaking worker available, asked to return another week when a Spanish-speaking front-line worker is back from vacation. One client has regularly kept her son home from school to accompany her to DHS to interpret. In other cases, DHS workers have pulled in other customers, who are strangers, and in one case the service center janitor to interpret for my clients — gaining access to their personal information about income, address, and household composition. And a number of clients have continued to receive notices and other important correspondence from DHS in English, even after they should have been identified as Spanish speakers.

During the past two years I have filed seven language access complaints against DHS on behalf of Spanish-speakers. Five of those complaints have led to investigations by the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR) so far, and after every investigation, OHR found that DHS violated the Language Access Act by failing to provide interpretation or translated documents to my clients.

DHS’s continuing pattern of language access violations despite the recent string of OHR determinations – just in my cases, not to mention those that others have filed – shows that the current enforcement structure under the Act is not working.

The Language Access for Education Amendment Act would not impose new requirements on DHS to provide language access to its customers. What it would provide is two different enforcement mechanisms that would help ensure that DHS and other agencies follow the Language Access Act and face consequences if they do not.

We support the proposal to give OHR additional powers to issue fines against agencies that are found to have violated the Language Access Act, after a complaint and investigation. That will help ensure that agencies take complaints seriously and implement staff training and other preventative measures to make sure that customers do not suffer language access violations. Likewise, providing an explicit private right of action for complainants to sue in D.C. Superior Court when their language access rights are violated will give the Act more “teeth.” If a judge finds that an agency has violated the Language Access Act, he or she can order injunctive and compensatory relief. If an agency still fails to make required changes, a complainant will be backed with the power of the court order to bring the agency into compliance.

When the D.C. Council enacted the Language Access Act in 2004, it was welcomed as groundbreaking legislation that would ensure the rights of D.C.’s diverse community to access government services. The D.C. Council recognized that “access to District services is essential to the welfare and quality of life for many limited English proficien[t] residents.” However, as we’ve seen from the years the Act has been in effect, the desired outcome is not being met. Amending the Act to add a private right of action and to give OHR additional powers to hold agencies accountable will help ensure that the original goals of the D.C. Council in passing this important legislation are met, and that all individuals are able to access crucial DC government services.

language access coalition

*Allison’s work is funded, in part, by the DC Bar Foundation /DC Legal Services Grant Program – Private Grants.

Just another Tuesday @ BFC

*Remarks by S. Tyler Hale at Venable LLP’s 2015 Civiletti Pro Bono Awards Recognition Ceremony*

I am lucky enough ttyler hale 2o be the first Venable, LLP associate to be lent, full time, to Bread for the City.

For those who don’t know, Bread for the City is an organization that has planted its flag firmly on the front lines of the fight against poverty. Bread provides not only comprehensive legal services in some of the areas that most directly affect the poor, but also social services, medical care, dental care, food, clothing, and therapeutic volunteer opportunities for the District’s “most vulnerable residents.”

Although my experience has been largely limited to legal work, I can already tell that this holistic care is what allows Bread to help in ways many pro bono legal clinics cannot—unlike how lawyers typically operate, Bread’s intention is, in the words of CEO George Jones, to work itself out of business.

I thought, though, that it might be better for me to recount the experience I’ve had with one of my clients as an example of the sort of work Bread does.

Bread for the City, along with the Legal Aid Society of DC, staffs a project commonly referred to as the “Attorney of the Day” program at DC Superior Court’s Landlord and Tenant Branch. If you’ve never been summoned to Landlord and Tenant Court in DC, consider yourself lucky—the court hears 250 cases per day, in one courtroom, in front of one judge.

The defendants in these cases are largely guilty of nothing more than not having enough money to pay the full amount of one month’s rent—that is, they are guilty only of being poor.

The “Attorney of the Day” program was established by Bread and Legal Aid to throw sandbags in front of the flood of unknowing and unrepresented tenants who are summoned to court and who daily, sign away rights. We maintain an office in the court building and take referrals from the courthouse’s Resource Center, attempting to help as many people as we can on any given day.

One day while staffing the program, I met a man who had nowhere else to turn. He spoke little English, and he came to us with a terrible story. Six months before, he had prepaid several months’ rent and left for his home country to see his wife and child. When he returned, he found another man living in his apartment, watching his TV, and even wearing his clothes. Within an hour, we were able to move for a temporary restraining order restoring his access to the property, to vacate the default judgment against him, and to void the settlement agreement that had been falsely entered on his behalf.

Later, at Bread for the City’s offices, I was able to introduce him to someone who spoke his language and could help him find better housing, introduce him to a food program where he could pick up both nonperishable goods and fresh produce, and even showed him around the rooftop garden to discuss his love of gardening. For me, this has been a life changing experience. For the full time Bread attorneys like Esther Adetunji and Su Sie Ju—two of the fiercest lawyers that I have ever met—this is just another Tuesday.

Of course, not all of us are called to be litigators and we each find different ways to use our talents and our privileges to help those around us. When we talk about pro bono service, we shorten the full phrase, “to practice pro bono publico”; that is, “for the public good”. While there is much public good to be done on the national and international stages, the concept of the public good—in my estimation—carries with it a profound sense of the local, the immediate.

When I came to Venable, I noticed immediately that it was engaged with the world directly around it. And I thank those who have committed themselves to contributing to the public good right in front of our eyes.

Venable has a strong history of being a part of the community in which we practice. The Venable Foundation contributes heartily to causes from our own block to the very edges of the District and beyond. Venable lawyers contribute to pro bono clinics in some of DC’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Even our new office looks out upon, by my count, two different homeless shelters.

Venable has given me a tremendous opportunity to engage with the community in which I live, and I hope that each of you has found the same chance to help that I have. I thank you for all that you’ve done and all that you’ll continue to do.


*BFC’s “Attorney of the Day” project is made possible through public funds awarded by the DC Bar Foundation.

How Social Security Gets Racist Without Really Trying – Part 2

The SSI Resource Limit and Home Ownership Exclusion

Ms. Smith, a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipient, came to me with a writ of restitution. That meant that her landlord would soon show up at her door with Federal Marshalls and a moving crew to throw her and her stuff out on the street.

Her landlord/tenant case was a straightforward non‐payment of rent, so she could still prevent her eviction by paying all that she owed plus court costs.

Non‐payment of rent cases occur for a variety of reasons; but frequently, it is because the cost of living is simply higher than the income people receive.DSC_1043

This is very common for people like Ms. Smith, whose sole income was Supplemental Security Income–the safety net program for elderly people and people with disabilities who do not have enough of an earnings record to qualify for a higher benefit through Social Security disability or retirement insurance. Such people have a maximum benefit of $733, approximately 75% of the federal poverty line for a household of one. In DC’s housing market, $733 is not even enough for a one bedroom apartment, much less the other costs of living that SSI is meant to cover.

My client, however, had a housing choice voucher, so she paid 30% of her income for rent, and the government paid the rest. Covering the cost of food, toiletries, transportation, clothing, entertainment, and life’s other costs, with a budget less than $500 per month is by no means easy, but our clients are pretty resourceful and we can help fill in some gaps.

Prior to coming to see me, Ms. Smith had faced some unexpected expenses that broke her already strained budget. Her father was dying, and he had some medical bills and final expenses that needed to be covered. This fell on his impoverished, disabled daughter, who did all she could to help her father in the final few months of his life. Unfortunately, this meant the rent did not get paid, and thus she arrived at our door.

Just for a second, let’s play “blame-the-victim.” Let’s wag our fingers and say that Ms. Smith should have had some money saved away for a rainy day. If you’re going to live so extravagantly off the public dole that you can afford to pay your dying father’s incidental expenses, you probably should have saved enough money so you could still pay your $219 in rent every month.Social Security

Surely she did not need every dollar of her $733 benefit (SSI rules rely on a premise that people can afford to live on 90% of their benefit), so she could have afforded to put a little money away each month. Maybe she received an inheritance or a birthday present from some cousin, kept the back-payment from the initial SSI award that took a half decade to be approved, or won a small lottery—it happens—and she should have done what all responsible Americans ought to do and save her money.

Unfortunately, because Ms. Smith was on SSI, she was not allowed to behave like a responsible American. The general rule that one is supposed to save—a rule encouraged by generous tax policies for retirement and capital gains—does not apply to people on SSI. You see, SSI is not payable to people with over $2,000 of countable resources, a number that has not changed since 1989 . Cash, savings and retirement accounts, valuable artwork, certain life insurance policies, extra cars, and everything except a few excludable items can disqualify someone from receiving SSI.

This policy is presumably meant to conserve SSI resources for those who really need it. In reality, however, it forces people to modify their behavior and keeps them from being able to handle emergencies or save for major purchases. Furthermore, the disabled members of wealthy families—in the unlikely event that they end up on SSI at all—have a variety of ways around the resource limit such as special needs trusts that are difficult to access for the poor.

Another exception to the resources limit is housing; and here, Social Security taps one of the great kegs of American racism.

declinedA home, regardless of its value, can be excluded as a resource for SSI purposes. While the aforementioned client could not save a year’s rent without triggering the resource limit, another beneficiary could own a million dollar home.

According to data from the US Census Bureau, the home-ownership rate for African Americans is 42.1 percent compared to 72.3 percent for whites. This is the effect of a long history of legalized discrimination, income inequality, predatory lending practices, limited access to credit, and good old-fashioned American violence. For anyone reading this post who has not read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” I thank you for your readership and strongly encourage you to spend your time more productively.

Among SSI recipients, homeowners have a tremendous advantage over non-homeowners. When they have a little extra money, they can take care of repairs without the money counting as benefit-affecting income or a resource. If they need to move, Social Security gives them some time to sell and buy before counting the resources against them. If they want to grow vegetables in their backyard, the produce does not count as in-kind support and maintenance that would lower benefits.

Example after example of preference to homeowners is sprinkled throughout the Social Security rulebook, useless to so many African-Americans who have been excluded from the “American Dream.”

Allowing SSI recipients to have a stable source of housing through home-ownership is a good thing—it keeps a lot of people from the situation our client was in. Ultimately, it is not Social Security’s fault that American society has made it so much easier for white Americans than black Americans toDSC_1079 buy houses and accumulate wealth. (Well, maybe a little bit. Read Coates’s article closely or continue reading this series to find out how!)

However, we need to stop compounding centuries of oppression and start resisting them. We need to allow all people on SSI to take the steps necessary for their survival and flourishing.

Congress has had the opportunity to do so through legislation such as the SSI Restoration Act of 2014 and the SSI Restoration Act of 2015 that we and others have advocated for in the past. It is time that we start enacting policies that keep people in their homes.

Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 3. 

Healthy Summer Living

Every Wednesday and/or Thursday for the next six weeks, students from Maryland University of Integrative Health will be here at Bread for the City educating our clients and staff about staying healthy during the summer months. MD health students

The healthy living series kicked off today with an informative discussion about staying properly hydrated in the sweltering temperatures that have descended upon DC. When the thermometer climbs to 80 degrees and above, it’s time to take hydration health seriously.

One of the simple ways to do this is by drinking “infused water”. Sounds fancy, but it’s really quite easy to make at home. Just choose the fruit, herb or spice that you’d like to flavor your water with, place them in a pitcher and add water. Voila! You have infused water. Some of the more popular herbs and fruits used for this recipe are mint, berries, cucumber, cinnamon and  lemon. For  stronger flavors, you can “bruise” or chop the ingredients.

In addition to adding more watInfused waterer to your daily diet, to stay hydrated you can also eat foods that naturally have a high water content. These include tomatoes, pineapples, watermelons, oranges, carrots and cabbage.

If you do find yourself outdoors and not drinking enough water, some signs of dehydration to look for are thirst, muscle cramps and headaches. You can become dehydrated if you lose too much fluid, don’t drink enough fluids or both. It is important, especially during the summer, to be aware of how much fluid you intake. Older adults with certain disease like diabetes are also at a higher risk of dehydration.

We are eagerly anticipating the upcoming sessions where we learn more about taking care of ourselves and making health a priority. Up next: Healthy Alternatives to Sugar. Be sure to join us, and in the meantime…stay cool!