Two Paychecks Away from Homelessness

The Las Vegas Sun newspaper has done something most other papers don’t bother with. They haven’t just paid lip service to homelessness. They actually keep on printing stories about homeless people. In July, I wrote a blog post called “More Stories of the New Homeless” One of the stories I linked to in that post was from the Las Vegas Sun.

At the end of August, the paper printed an essay by a homeless man, Rodger Jacobs, who is a freelance writer:

I am a 51-year-old professional writer; throughout my 20-year career I have been an award-winning feature documentary producer (“Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes” and multiple educational documentaries), a trade and arts magazine journalist, a successful playwright (“Go Irish: The Purgatory Diaries of Jason Miller”), a true crime author and a literary event producer. For the past two years, I have enjoyed my role as a book and literature columnist for Pop Matters, a popular online journal of cultural criticism.

But in the larger scheme of things, my credentials are utterly meaningless. In less than two weeks, my girlfriend and I will be without a home in a town where we have no friends, no family, and apparently no safety net to catch us when we fall.

I have been medically disabled for the past eight years; my primary source of income is my monthly Social Security disability payment of $926 and whatever supplemental income I can earn within the $1,000 monthly limit, but with jobs in the freelance market few and far between in the new economy, several months often pass without additional income.

It’s the story of a writer and his partner who were living close to the financial edge, and were pushed over by the ruined economy. They’ve faced one problem after another – and when you have no financial resources, the smallest problems can be insurmountable. Things like trying to get a picture ID, in order to get assistance from social service agencies:

A friend has offered to pay the cost of obtaining my birth certificate from California so I can get a Nevada ID card, but then there’s the cost of getting the affidavit notarized and, further, how can I obtain an ID without an address for DMV to send the card to?

Rodger’s second essay was published last weekend. It focuses on the kinds of responses he got from the first essay:

The day the Sun published my essay — which was intended to illustrate how close many of us are to being homeless in the Great Recession — I had planned to spend packing. Instead, I spent many of my waking hours defending myself against allegations of sloth (“30 years of not having a real job”), hypochondria, arrogance (“Your arrogance got you where you are and will keep you where you are”), weak moral and ethical judgment, prevarication (“Writers are liars and opportunists”), alcoholism, drug abuse, liberalism, solipsism, atheism (“Christ was homeless … read the Bible … take up your cross and follow the Lord”), ripping off “the system,” a defeatist attitude, poor money management, a grifter looking for a handout, and, oh yes, I need to stop smoking, get a haircut, and “renounce (my) citizenship, become a Mexican citizen and then come back as an illegal and qualify for free housing, food stamps, and medical coverage and live off the fat of the land.” (How chilling that the last comment unintentionally invokes John Steinbeck in “Of Mice and Men,” perhaps the greatest literary defender of America’s downtrodden.)

Rodger Jacobs is disabled. He has psoriatic arthritis. Many of the angry people who responded to his essay told him to go get a job at McDonalds:

I walk with a cane, sometimes I have to use an electric wheelchair that Medicare provided last year when I was under home health care by a nurse service, and my toenails and fingernails have been eaten away by the ravages of psoriatic arthritis, leaving exposed flesh with sensitive nerve endings. I cannot help Lela pack, let alone avail myself of “menial labor” jobs that so many respondents in this paper excoriated me for refusing to do should such offers come my way.

Imagine life without fingernails and toenails and then ask again why I’m not working at McDonald’s.

The lack of compassion is troubling – but the level of anger is even more disconcerting. I suspect that the anger some people have for the homeless is fueled by their own fears that they are only a paycheck or two away from being homeless themselves.

David DeGraw, writing for AlterNet, did an analysis of the official poverty rate, as was recently reported by the Census. His methodology shows that the numbers are even worse than the official numbers. One of the most chilling aspects of the story was how many of us really are a paycheck or two away from homelessness:

In my analysis, a key metric to judge the overall economic security and hardship level of a country is the percentage of the population living paycheck to paycheck. Anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck can tell you about the stress and psychological impact it has on you when you know your family is one sickness, injury or downsizing away from economic ruin. The employment company CareerBuilder, in partnership with Harris Interactive, conducts an annual survey to determine the percentage of Americans currently living paycheck to paycheck. In 2007, 43 percent fell into this category. In 2008, the number increased to 49 percent. In 2009, the number skyrocketed up to 61 percent.

In their most recent survey, this number exploded to a mind-shattering 77 percent. Yes, 77 percent of Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck. This means in our nation of 310 million citizens, 239 million Americans are one setback away from economic ruin.

I flunked remedial math in high school (true story) – but as numerically challenged as I am, I know that’s 3/4 of the population. Those of us who aren’t in the top 2% are in a very precarious position. Some of us have already skated off the ice. I hope Rodger and Lena find both help and kindness.


Foreclosure System Fraught with Failure

Man’s house wrongly sold in a foreclosure mistake. From the Sun Sentinel:

When Jason Grodensky bought his modest Fort Lauderdale home in December, he paid cash. But seven months later, he was surprised to learn that Bank of America had foreclosed on the house, even though Grodensky did not have a mortgage.

Grodensky knew nothing about the foreclosure until July, when he learned that the title to his home had been transferred to a government-backed lender. “I feel like I’m hanging in the wind and I’m scared to death,” said Grodensky. “How did some attorney put through a foreclosure illegally?”

This is shocking – and must be an isolated incident, right?
Apparently not:

In Florida courts, which have been swamped with foreclosure cases for several years, mistakes “happen all the time,” said foreclosure defense attorney Matt Weidner in St. Petersburg. “It’s just not getting reported.”

And the legal efforts required to resolve a foreclosure mistake are complicated. “Unwrapping it is like unwrapping Fort Knox,” said Carol Asbury, a Fort Lauderdale foreclosure attorney. “It’s very difficult.”

It seems the foreclosure system is a disaster. From WaPo:

The nation’s overburdened foreclosure system is riddled with faked documents, forged signatures and lenders who take shortcuts reviewing borrower’s files, according to court documents and interviews with attorneys, housing advocates and company officials.

The problems, which are so widespread that some judges approving the foreclosures ignore them, are coming to light after Ally Financial, the country’s fourth-biggest mortgage lender, halted home evictions in 23 states this week

The stories coming to light are horrifying:

Ally Financial is now double-checking to make sure all documents are in order after lawsuits uncovered that a single employee of the company’s GMAC mortgage unit, a 41-year-old named Jeffrey Stephan, signed off on 10,000 foreclosure papers a month without checking whether the information justified an eviction.


Beth Ann Cottrell said in a sworn deposition in May that she signed off on thousands of foreclosures a month for JPMorgan Chase even though she did not verify the accuracy of the information.


In Georgia, an employee of a document processing company, Linda Green, for years claimed to be executives of Bank of America, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and dozens of other lenders while signing off on tens of thousands of foreclosure affidavits. In many cases, her signature appeared to be forged by different employees.

Thousands of families were undoubtedly booted out of their homes because of these callous, incompetent individuals working on behalf of callous banks and assisting companies. The whole story is well worth reading.

We can hope that the new consumer protection agency being set up by Elizabeth Warren will tackle this, but it’s hard to tell just yet what will fall under the purview of the new agency.

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Which Way for the Working Class?

Last Friday, Working America and the AFL-CIO held a panel discussion titled “Which way for the working class? Elections 2010 and beyond.” The event, held in New York City, featured AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Working America Executive Director Karen Nussbaum, as well as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, Eric Alterman, journalist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and moderator  andKatrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation.

Mike Hall covers the event at the AFL-CIO blog.

Trumka said it is vital to channel working-class anger away from Fox News and Tea Party extremists who are delivering

a cynical, deeply dishonest and incoherent message—that big government is somehow to blame for the current crisis that the budget deficit will eat our children, and that illegal immigrants took all the good jobs.

However, he added, “The good news is they haven’t bought into right-wing ideology. They are just confused about who to blame.” But:

We have to offer working people something other than the dead-end choice between the failed agenda of greed and the voices of hate and division and violence.

Alterman said workers are so beaten down by the economy, “[p]eople don’t ask for raises anymore.” He also said that the labor movement and the progressive community face a tremendous challenge because

there is an alliance of the corporations and high-powered government politicians against the interests of working people.

Working America canvassers knock on thousands of doors every night, Nussbaum said, and find that there is a huge vacuum of facts and unbiased information about the root causes of the nation’s economic troubles—and working-class voters’ opinions can be shaped by the barrage from the likes of Fox News, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

But those are not deeply held beliefs and can be swayed, she said, when presented with a more balanced view and a look at the Bush/Boehner economic policies that tanked the economy and are now at the heart of the Republican agenda if they win a congressional majority. That, said Herbert, is

why the work [Working America] is doing is so critical. I would just strongly urge everyone to get to work organizing on the local level because I think it’s the only way we’re going to turn things around in this country.

Welfare to Work Program Ending

From HuffPo:

The 2009 stimulus bill created an “Emergency Fund” that allowed states to subsidize jobs via the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), formerly known as welfare. The Senate voted against reauthorizing the program in March. Last week Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) blocked a request to bring up a bill that contained a $1.5 billion reauthorization. Advocates of the program are not optimistic that a change of heart is afoot in the U.S. Senate.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the program put more than 240,000 otherwise unemployed people to work in 37 states, including 45,000 people in California. The program even has the approval of the American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Hassett, who calls it “a pretty cost-effective way to create jobs.”

That’s the same Kevin Hassett that both Mitchell Hirsch and I have written about recently. The same Kevin Hassett who thinks people earning minimum wage are being overpaid. If he thinks this is a good deal, that’s because the job creation is cost effective, and because the people who get these jobs aren’t being paid all that well.

Thanks to the Senate, instead of 240,000 working people, we’ll have 240,000 more unemployed people, with little to no hope of finding a job any time soon. Brilliant.

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Health Care Explanations

Consumer Reports explains the Affordable Care Act and what it means for you.

The Kaiser Family Foundation has also put together this video on the same topic.

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Unemployment Benefits Kept 3.3 Million Out of Poverty in 2009

The devastating impact of Wall Street’s Great Recession was all too evident in the record surge in poverty reported recently by the Census Bureau for 2009.

From Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz at EPI:

The poverty rate increased from 13.2% to 14.3% between 2008 and 2009, representing an additional 3.7 million people living in poverty for a total of 43.6 million in poverty in 2009. The poverty rate for children was 20.7% in 2009, representing 15.5 million kids living in poverty. In 2009, over one-third (35.5%) of all people living in poverty were children.

The poverty rate for working-age people (18-64 years old) hit 12.9% in 2009, the highest rate in nearly 50 years.

The official poverty threshold is defined as an annual income of $21,954 for a family of four (that’s $422 per week), or $11,161 for an individual. But, as Gould reports, the poor are getting poorer.

While 14.3% of all Americans were living in poverty last year, a record 6.3% were in so-called deep poverty, earning less than half the official poverty threshold, or subsistence rate, according to the new data on poverty released last week by the Census Bureau.

This sizable share of the American population falling below half the poverty line is particularly notable given that even the official poverty threshold – an annual income of $21,954 for a family of four – is widely considered insufficient to pay for life’s most basic essentials like food and housing. To fall below half the poverty line, a family of four would have an annual income of less than about $11,000.

How much worse would the poverty rates have been in 2009 without the expanded state and federal unemployment insurance programs? According to a report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) (pdf):

The U.S. Census Bureau announced yesterday that during 2009, 3.3 million people, including 1 million children, were kept out of poverty with income support provided through unemployment insurance (UI). (emphasis added)

source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)

In a related study, CBPP reports that a total of 6 million Americans were kept out of poverty by just seven of the provisions in the 2009 Recovery Act stimulus, including expanded unemployment insurance programs.

This analysis, which comes one day before the Census Bureau will release updated poverty figures (for 2008), examines seven of the recovery act’s provisions — two improvements in unemployment insurance, three tax credits for working families, an increase in food stamps, and a one-time payment for retirees, veterans, and people with disabilities — and finds that they alone are preventing more than 6 million Americans from falling below the poverty line and are reducing the severity of poverty for 33 million more. Those 6 million people include more than 2 million children and over 500,000 seniors.

Those numbers are conservative, says CBPP, and don’t include the impact of other Recovery Act programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) emergency jobs programs, which employ 250,000 otherwise unemployed parents and youth. Those TANF programs are set to expire this week unless Congress acts to extend them.

Without the expanded state and federal unemployment insurance benefits, the number of Americans living in poverty in 2009 would have increased by 7 million — nearly twice the actual increase. And without other key provisions in the Recovery Act, that number would have been nearly 10 million. Yet, all of those programs are under assault, threatened by legislative expiration unless they are extended.

As the report from NELP concludes:

Given the important role of unemployment benefits in keeping working families out of poverty during the recession, it’s crucial that Congress keep the Recovery Act’s remaining measures in place. The current federal extensions are set to expire on November 30, 2010, ending income support for millions unless they are reauthorized. If we allow these programs to expire, millions will be subjected to preventable poverty—hardships that will have immediate and lasting impacts for families and children.
Yesterday’s bleak release, showing a rise in poverty over the course of the past year, is yet another piece of evidence pointing to the need for Congress to take action on expanded unemployment benefits as well as focused measures to create and grow jobs.

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“We Don’t Want to Go Back to the Policies that Wrecked Our Economy”

Isaiah J. Poole of the Campaign for America’s Future has an informative post on the blog based on his interview with Karen Nussbaum, Executive Director of Working America.

From Isaiah’s post:

What she and Working America have learned through their conversations is that as many as four in 10 people they talked to are unsure what the nation should do about the unemployment crisis. What a majority will say when asked what is most important for growing and restoring the economy is that investing in jobs is the top priority, Only a tiny percentage will say “cut the deficit.”

In particular, outsourcing has emerged as the Achilles’ heel of the right, including the Tea Party candidates who are being bankrolled by the conservative political machine. Working America canvassers heard more calls for ending outsourcing in connection with the jobs crisis than any other single jobs-related issue. That suggests that progressive candidates should explain how policies endorsed by conservatives and their lobbyist backers—from trade agreements to tax subsidies—essentially encourage and reward outsourcing, even as they obstruct progressive legislation designed to rebuild the nation’s manufacturing capacity and funnel procurement dollars into American-made goods.

Nussbaum also learned that many rank-and-file workers, in spite of the constant barrage of “government-is-the-problem” rhetoric, understand that government can be part of the solution to today’s economic crisis. Messages that stress government intervention to create jobs, and funding to protect vital local services, wins more support than conservative messages that advocate cutting or privatizing services, the Working America canvassers have found.

There is also a real demand among working people to hold Wall Street accountable for the collapse of the economy—more proof, as if any were needed, that proposals such as a tax on Wall Street speculation and, more immediately, allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to expire at the end of the year, make for a winning political message.

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Doing More vs. Doing Nothing

A lot of news stories make it out that a lot of people want to repeal the Affordable Care Act and get government out of health care. By contrast:

A new AP poll finds that Americans who think the law should have done more outnumber those who think the government should stay out of health care by 2-to-1.


The poll found that about four in 10 adults think the new law did not go far enough to change the health care system, regardless of whether they support the law, oppose it or remain neutral. On the other side, about one in five say they oppose the law because they think the federal government should not be involved in health care at all.

The AP poll was conducted by Stanford University with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Overall, 30 percent favored the legislation, while 40 percent opposed it, and another 30 percent remained neutral.
Those numbers are no endorsement for Obama’s plan, but the survey also found a deep-seated desire for change that could pose a problem for Republicans. Only 25 percent in the poll said minimal tinkering would suffice for the health care system.

Why haven’t we heard this before? I’d suggest two reasons, though I’m sure there are more. One is that we only hear it if pollsters ask about it, and relatively few polls have gone into detail like that, allowing people the opportunity to say that they wish health care reform had gone further. The second is the fear factor. People have had a number of months now for the all-out, facts-by-the-wayside Republican assault to fade from their minds. While most people probably never bought into nonsense about “death panels,” having more chance to think about their real health care needs and the way the system is or is not working for them, without that constant barrage of misinformation, should be providing a clearer picture by now.

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Read of the Week

Dana Goldstein in The Nation, writing about Waiting for Superman and school “reform.”

Here’s what you see in Waiting for Superman, the new documentary that celebrates the charter school movement while blaming teachers unions for much of what ails American education: working- and middle-class parents desperate to get their charming, healthy, well-behaved children into successful public charter schools.

Here’s what you don’t see: the four out of five charters that are no better, on average, than traditional neighborhood public schools (and are sometimes much worse); charter school teachers, like those at the Green Dot schools in Los Angeles, who are unionized and like it that way; and noncharter neighborhood public schools, like PS 83 in East Harlem and the George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama, that are nationally recognized for successfully educating poor children.

You don’t see teen moms, households without an adult English speaker or headed by a drug addict, or any of the millions of children who never have a chance to enter a charter school lottery (or get help with their homework or a nice breakfast) because adults simply aren’t engaged in their education. These children, of course, are often the ones who are most difficult to educate, and the ones neighborhood public schools can’t turn away.

You also don’t learn that in the Finnish education system, much cited in the film as the best in the world, teachers are—gasp!—unionized and granted tenure, and families benefit from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and healthcare, all of which are proven to help children achieve better results at school.

This is a topic that’s drawn so much attention, and on which one perspective has so dominated the attention it’s gotten even as evidence suggests most people aren’t on board with the crusade against public education. Some actual reporting, and reference to the massive amounts of existing data showing that charter schools are not a one size fits all answer, that teachers and their unions are not actually the enemy, and that creativity and reform are possible without blaming teachers as the first resort.

Goldstein’s article is a must-read if you plan to see Waiting for Superman, if you have a kid in school, if you ever may have a kid in school, if you vote for candidates with opinions about education, if you’re not voting and therefore letting other people elect officials who’ll make decisions about education, or if you yourself have plans to express opinions about school “reform.”


The Care She Needed

This is Gail O’Brien’s story: After years of paying too much for catastrophic health insurance, she and her husband, who work at jobs that don’t have health coverage, let their coverage lapse, hoping they could make it until her husband’s pension and health coverage kicked in this fall.

Then she was diagnosed with cancer, leaving her uninsurable.

“The first thing that was on my mind wasn’t, ‘Oh my God, I have cancer,’ ” Gail O’Brien said in an interview Monday. “My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to pay for it?’ ”


It was only after O’Brien found out that the new health care reform law includes a provision allowing her to buy into a high-risk insurance pool that she knew her illness wouldn’t bankrupt her family.

The provision, which kicked in in July, offers coverage to people who have been uninsured at least six months and are deemed uninsurable by insurance companies because of pre-existing conditions.

(Via Blue Hampshire)

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