Janine Jackson interviewed Rebecca Vallas about welfare and poverty for the October 2 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
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Janine Jackson: A mayor in Maine suggests publishing the names and addresses of anyone receiving public assistance, so people can see how their “money is being spent.” Part of the problem, said Lewiston’s Robert Macdonald, is that the state’s schools attract too many special education students and, well, you know what freeloaders they can be.
Depressing as it is, such calls are only one expression of a familiar worldview: that the poor’s problems are cultural and behavioral, and they can, and should, be shamed out of them. There is a counter-narrative, but how can we amplify that and maybe even inject it into the 2016 election? Rebecca Vallas is the director of policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, and she’s co-host of Talk Poverty radio. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Rebecca Vallas.
Rebecca Vallas: Thanks so much for having me.
JJ: You had the experience of debating this issue of exposing and shaming public aid recipients on Fox News, where such ideas thrive. What, I wonder, is your goal as a communicator when you go into a forum like that, and how did you try to turn that particular conversation?
RV: Why would I possibly want to go into the lion’s den, is what I hear you asking. I think it’s a great question. I think that, unfortunately, Fox News is one of the leading offenders in terms of advancing narratives and myths and misperceptions that really can end up being the basis for terrible policy, that hurt not just low-income people, but really working families and everyone but those at the top of the income ladder.
And Fox’s recurring segment “Entitlement Nation,” where you see these dollar bills falling from the sky into outstretched hands, which was the segment I went on at Fox & Friends, is really kind of a great example of how they do this. They hosted what they billed as a fair and balanced debate, as of course they would call it, and my reason for wanting to go on and to talk about this issue was because I think it really offers a rich pivot opportunity for people who want to actually talk about solutions.
The people who advance ideas like creating a poverty offender registry–which is the way I think of this online database of people who need to be shamed for turning to public assistance–people who advance that kind of idea, like this Lewiston mayor, like Fox News, they are not offering any solutions. What they are doing is trying to distract from real solutions. And so what I talked about was, let’s focus on the real problem, which is that we’ve got these structural barriers to people being able to make a living, like the poverty wage that is our federal minimum wage and that leaves millions of Americans, who are working harder than ever, needing to turn to public assistance to make ends meet.
JJ: It’s interesting, because a Fox host and another guest said almost like, we agree with you on the minimum wage–not exactly, but no one should have to support a family on a minimum wage job, because if you have a minimum wage job, you shouldn’t have children. Besides the heartlessness of that, presumably it also means that people who lose their job, or lose wages, or become disabled, should retroactively un-have the children that they no longer deserve. Logic, along with humanity, seems not to be at a premium here.
RV: That’s well put, and I couldn’t agree more. I think it also fundamentally misunderstands who it is that’s making the minimum wage in America. There’s this misconception that it’s just some teenagers who maybe are earning some spending money on the side so they can go to the mall.
The reality is that 88 percent of workers earning the minimum wage in this country are over age 20, so not teenagers, and that a third have children, and about 40 percent are over age 40. So here we are talking about a population that is definitely not teenagers or even just secondary earners; it’s people who are having to cobble together multiple jobs to make ends meet and even then, that can end up not being enough.
I’m reminded of that horrible and tragic story that made national news last year: a woman named Maria Fernandez who lived in New Jersey, and she’d cobbled together four jobs to try to support her family, and one of them was at Dunkin Donuts, and she ended up dying in her car because she had needed to try and get some sleep in between her four jobs, and there she was, parked in the parking lot outside of her Dunkin Donuts that she worked at, and that’s where she drew her last breath. That’s the face of poverty in America today. Not the people sitting on the couch eating bonbons that Fox News would have you believe is who it is.
JJ: Right, right, and the Census Bureau just released data showing that there is little to no improvement in poverty and family incomes, despite a falling unemployment rate, which would seem to undermine that whole “get a job” argument. But let’s set aside the idea that people who rely on public assistance don’t deserve children, or don’t deserve seafood or cookies, which are other things we’ve heard. What are some of the responses to poverty, legislatively, politically, that to you look possible?
RV: I think raising the minimum wage is something that we have seen a real groundswell of support for across the country. While we are not seeing conservatives at the federal level willing to entertain, let alone embrace, that idea, when it comes to raising the federal minimum wage, we are seeing a flurry of activity in states and localities across the US. And that is something that has been a real cause for optimism, and it’s really the result of many years of successful and tireless organizing by fast food workers and others, who are raising their voices and are actually achieving change.
Other important policies include paid leave. We are the only developed nation in the entire world that doesn’t have paid leave. And when we’re at a point where one in three Americans is just a paycheck away or just a sick child or an illness away from poverty, because they could lose their job if they miss a shift at work, that’s a situation that really affects a whole swath of the American population and working families. Again, also an issue that conservatives have been very slow to embrace, despite the fact that they claim to now be very interested in poverty and inequality.
And a third issue, that I will name because it is gaining a lot of attention at the federal level as well as in states and cities, is criminal justice reform. Mass incarceration is a huge, huge driver of poverty in America, as well as the criminal records that people can end up facing for the rest of their lives, and which are associated with barriers to housing, to employment, to education and training and more.
And we are finally seeing traction gained at the federal level, and across the country at the state and local level, when it comes to actually talking about and enacting policies that would not only reduce mass incarceration but would also give people a second chance. Just to put a number on that connection: If not for mass incarceration and the criminal records that can haunt people for decades thereafter, our poverty rate in this country would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004. So that’s, I think, a real positive trend.
JJ: It also illustrates how policies don’t have to have “poverty” in their name in order to be anti-poverty in effect, and so we need to really understand how to connect those dots to see what kind of policies can have an impact on an issue that we all care very much about.
Let me just ask you, finally: When presidential candidates talk about inequality, for example, they mostly talk about the middle class, whatever that means, but poor people are not generally approached as a constituency at all. Really, no one speaks for them, much less to them. What role do you see, or would you like to see, poverty playing in this election?
RV: I’d really like to see a growing awareness of who is poor in America, and the fact that it’s not some stagnant class of 14 or 15 percent of our population who are living in poverty, year in and year out; the reality is actually much different. It’s that poverty is not a lifelong identity, it’s an experience, and it’s something that actually is a commonplace experience. More than half of Americans will experience at least one year of poverty, or of being right on the brink of poverty, at some point in their lives. And actually that number rises to 4 out of 5 Americans if you include a year of being unemployed or a year of needing to turn to the safety net.
So it’s not about some “other” that’s a “them.” It’s really about us, and I think that would change how people view the policies that we need to be focusing on, to make sure that we all are not only in a place where we have access to opportunity, but also have security when we experience the messy ups and downs of life.
JJ: Rebecca Vallas is the director of policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, and co-host of Talk Poverty radio. Thank you so much, Rebecca Vallas, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
RV: Thanks so much for having me.