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 kjensen@breadforthecity.org or 202-386-7006.

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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. 

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. 

Blog Series: How Social Security Gets Racist Without Really Trying – Part 1

The Social Security Act (Act of August 14, 1935) [H. R. 7260] “An act to provide for the general welfare by establishing a system of Federal old-age benefits, and by enabling the several States to make more adequate provision for aged persons, blind persons, dependent and crippled children, maternal and child welfare, public health…”Social Security

Along with Medicare, to which Social Security’s success is inextricably linked, Social Security is the most successful anti-poverty measure in our country’s history.

Social Security keeps 22 million Americans out of poverty, including 15 million elderly Americans, according to research from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and pays more money to children than any other government program. In the tattered remains of the American social safety net, Social Security remains of the strongest links.

But beneath the surface of this New Deal mainstay, there is a history, and a present reality of exclusion, discrimination, and loss.

In this blog series “How Social Security Gets Racist without Really Trying,” I will explore the ways that Social Security perpetuates, exacerbates, and is affected by structural racism.

We don’t talk about it much, compared to more obviously urgent issues like affordable housing, but helping people obtain, manage, spend, and retain benefits administered by the Social Security Administration is a huge part of our work.

About a fifth of Bread for the City’s full-time staff members work primarily on issues relating to Social Security benefits, and every program is affected by Social Security in one way or another.

DSC_1037

At Bread, we try to examine all aspects of our work through a racial equity lens, so I will try to do that over the course of the next several weeks.We will explore how Social Security redistributes money to whites from African-Americans, Hispanics, and other non-white ethnic and racial groups.

This may be surprising to those who know that Social Security’s benefit formula redistributes money from high earners to low earners and that whites out-earn other groups, but we will show how other program aspects lead to white people receiving a higher benefit to contribution ratio than other groups.

We will discuss how Supplemental Security Income keeps people poor and disincentives work and savings. This program has a disproportionate number of African-Americans enrolled, but the program perpetuates racism further when special rules and exclusions benefit white people because they are more likely, as a direct effect of racist practices, to own homes and maintain normative family structures.

In this blog series, we will also examine the racist origins of the Social Security Act and examine some possibilities for the future. We will hear from some beneficiaries of Social Security’s programs, and I will try to tell the stories of some others. FDR-SS-act

One thing you won’t hear—at least not from me—is any criticism of Social Security’s employees. They are, for the most part, dedicated civil servants committed to providing for the welfare of the elderly, the disabled, the widowed, and the orphaned. They are more likely to be people of color than the general population, although non-white (and female) employees are less common in higher ranking, higher paid positions.

Furthermore, they are vastly under resourced for the task we have given them: from 1995 to 2010, Social Security staff capacity has increased by about 5.5%. In that time, the total number of beneficiaries went up 25.5%. If you think that this gap could be made up by technology, you’ve probably never waited two years for a hearing that gets dismissed because the notice was sent to your old address and the nine databases that SSA uses did not communicate after you waited 6 hours at a field office to give someone your updated address.

For all the good intentions and hard work of SSA staff, they function in a system where race prejudice combined with power, continually leads to health and social outcomes being determined by race.

So, if we don’t blame Social Security, who do we blame? Broader structures of racism? Congress? Roosevelt and the other designers of the New Deal? Ourselves?

I hope that over the course of the next few weeks, we can offer a few observations that will help answer those questions and cause you think about Social Security in a new light.

Click here to read Part 2

Click here to read Part 3

Click here to read Part 4

Click here to read Part 5

Looking Into the Future

Two Sundays ago, the combined boards of Bread for the City, Inc. and Bread Inc. (our supporting umbrella organization) had an all-day meeting with the senior staff of Bread and many of our staff members to chart Bread’s way forward over the next five years. Our planning is still in progress, but much was covered, and the essentials of our course have been laid in.

Our supporters should not worry, we will continue to do what we already do. The plan supports our mission – to alleviate the burdens of poverty and help address the conditions that cause poverty with an unchanged motto: Dignity, Respect, Service and Justice. We just plan to do more, and to do more even better than we do now.

As you know, we serve over 30,000 people in the District of Columbia each year, with a range of services from social work support to food distribution, from legal advice and representation to medical care, from free clothing to vision care, and from pre-employment trainiSE Centerng to dental care. We make a huge difference in the lives of our clients. We are committed to making that difference. And we continually expand and improve our services, offering better quality meats and fresh vegetables to ever more people across the city, expanding our medical services, and expanding the pre-employment training program so people can get a leg up on a job.

Our new strategic plan builds on our strengths. Virtually since we opened our Southeast Center on Good Hope Road in Anacostia 11 years ago, we have been at and over capacity. The need in that part of the city swamps our ability to serve it. So we are planning to at least double the size of that center. It’s an expensive and long-term project, and it will be the subject of a fund raising campaign to pay for its substantial cost, but we would not be true to our mission if we did not step up to meet the very real needs.

Our plan also includes expanding our medical, dental and vision services, continuing to improve our delivery of high quality food, streamlining and expanding our legal services, and reaching more people with pre-employment training.

Our social workers have had notable success finding housing for our clients most in need, serving as key points of contact to help them obtain public housing assistance. But because housing is one of the key factors in helping alleviate the conditions that cause poverty, and because the District is facing a crisis in affordable housing as it gentrifies, we are planning to ramp up our advocacy with DC and federal officials to ensure that DC regains the 22,000 units of affordable housing it has lost over the last decade. So as part of Bread’s focus on justice, to keep our city the kind of diverse environment that protects the most marginalized among us, Bread will initiate a directed advocacy effort, working with other housing organizations, to ensure that 22,000 affordable housing units are added back into the District’s housing mix.

And all of these efforts would not be complete without reference to racial equity. I’ve written praffordablehousing4(2)eviously about Bread’s recognition that poverty in our city is in no small part due to systemic racial inequity. We reaffirmed at our weekend retreat that Bread will continue its focus on racial equity, on training for our staff and Board members, and on efforts to affect systemic inequity based on race.

We have an obligation to affect the conditions that contribute to poverty, and although the hurdles are dauntingly high, that does not mean that we can ignore them. Three factors are the most significant in addressing and alleviating poverty: housing, education and employment.

Until recently, Bread’s major focus has been in addressing the effects of poverty: lack of access to food, clothing, medical care, legal representation and social worker assistance. And we are not backing away from that focus; indeed, we will continue to expand our services and extend our programs. But we need to do more. We are of course not in a position to build housing, to educate our youth directly, or to be an employment agency; we are, however, in a position to advocate for increased access to affordable housing, to support calls for better education, and to help position our clients for employment. All of these things can make a difference and we are committed to doing our part to help be an agent of change. So that level of advocacy, focused on housing for now, will be a new area of Bread’s efforts.

None of this could happen though, without our supporters, without the dedicated staff at Bread and without the devotion of a truly special set of Board members, who sacrifice time, money and energy to keep us going. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions to the problems we address, but with focus, effort and support we can, and will, make a difference.

Women’s Wellness Day 2015

Many of the women who walk into Bread for the City spend much of their time taking care of other people-be it children, husbands, parents, grandchildren-and have very little time left over to take care of themselves. Bread for the City’s Women’s Wellness Day provided a space for women to take a step back from their busy lives and focus on celebrating themselves with healthy food, exercise, and pampering.

On Friday June 5th, 2015, a group of women came together at the Anacostia Library to learn, grow, and celebrate themselves. Women’s Wellness Da18490258878_e0c6763cd5_oy 2015 included live music, professional relationship advice, how to travel on a tight budget, fitness exercise, and even massages. Women enjoyed learning about ways to implement self care into their lives from real experiences of peers and clients just like them.

Our very own Courtney Dowe started the day off with beautiful singing and guitar playing. Courtney’s stunning voice and inspiring lyrics prompted the women in the room to throw up their hands and clap along.

Relationship expert Aiyana Ma’at, MSW, LICSW, LICSW-C, gave important advice on how to create and maintain healthy relationships- starting with taking a look at yourself. Women spoke openly and honestly about how they implement self-care into their lives including getting plenty of sleep, praying regularly, and even implementing some herbal remedies.

Bread for the City’s Community Organizer Aja Taylor gave advice on how to travel on a tight budget- it can be done! The first step is saving- every little bit counts. Personal trainer Megan McCoy taught exercises that can even be performed in a chair to strengthen knees, back, and core muscles. Each participant left with a resistance band and exercises they could perform with it- thank you to Athleta DC for the donation!18673272442_6ed84c1211_o

ISCOPES, a George Washington University student service group, made a delicious healthy smoothie and provided easy, healthy recipes to prepare at home. At the end of the day packed with learning, women could have their nails painted and enjoy a massage to leave feeling relaxed and refreshed.

Women’s Wellness Day 2015 was a great success! It was a day full of celebrating the strong, courageous women who walk through Bread for the City’s doors every day.

View more photos from the event. (Thank you to Jessica Del Vecchio Photography for donating her services!)


Bread for the City’s WomenStrong DC is proud to be a consortium member of WomenStrong International (WSI), a new network of organizations worldwide dedicated to empowering women and girls and to sharing what works. For more, and to learn what you can do as part of this effort, see www.womenstrongintl.org.

Ms. Johnson comes home

This morning Ms. Johnson received a calendar in the mail. It was from her rental office and read “Welcome Home 2015.” Ms. Johnson smiles widely as she tells me this and says, “Isn’t that something?” This is the first time in many years that Ms. Johnson has had a place to put her calendar. As housing prices in DC have skyrocketed she has struggled to maintain housing, often forced to rely on friends or shelters. She lives with several disabling conditions that have impacted her ability to maintain employment.

Ashley Moore, a social worker with the BFC SOAR program, worked with Ms. Johnson to apply for Social Security disability benefits and about a year later she was approved. However, even with stable monthly income Ms. Johnson was unable to find housing within her budget. The federal SSI benefit is set at $733 – well below what is needed to afford a one bedroom apartment in DC.

welcomeAt Bread for the City we work daily to support the community in the constant fight for housing dignity. Our Housing Assistance Program (HAP) is often a starting place for folks thinking about long term housing stability. We understand that safe and affordable housing is the foundation necessary to thrive. We make an effort to link clients from all departments with HAP even while focusing on other projects. Ashley connected Ms. Johnson to HAP during SOAR and they assisted her in filling out applications for several local buildings. Ms. Johnson is thankful for Ashley’s help she says “She was my life saver. She is a wonderful young lady and she’s been with me for four or five years. She fought for me and I’m thankful for everything she’s done for me and I’ll never forget her.”

After receiving her SSI benefits, Ms. Johnson continued staying between friends and shelters in the area. Finally, in April 2015, her name came to the top of the wait list at one of the subsidized buildings that HAP had helped her apply for. Her rent is set at 30% of her income and she will be able to afford her housing ongoing. Ms. Johnson is fortunate, recent studies show that 64% of low income DC residents now have to devote half or more of their income to housing costs.

Ms. Johnson has benefited from many of the services offered at Bread for the City. She’s a fan of the chicken and turkey offered in our food pantry as she doesn’t eat red meat. Together with the support of our SOAR and HAP teams Ms. Johnson has a future where she doesn’t have to worry about where she will sleep. This is a simple yet profound experience that we hope to see become a reality for everyone we serve.

Your continued support of Bread for the City allows us to be here for those in need as they work towards sustained stability. As Ms. Johnson said to me today: “This problem, trying to get housing, get my life straightened out, deal with this and that, now I’m in a place where I can take care of myself. I hope Bread for the City is open for many years to come and continues helping people that need it in the nation’s capitol. It’s a wonderful program.”

Going, Going, Gone: DC’s Vanishing Affordable Housing’ DC Fiscal Policy Institute <http://www.dcfpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Going-Going-Gone-Rent-Burden-Final-3-6-15format-v2-3-10-15.pdf>