St. Ambrose Reflects

These row homes on 23rd and 1/2 St were damaged by fires in the 1968 riots. St. Ambrose repaired and renovated them to revitalize the neighborhood.
These row homes on 23rd and 1/2 St were damaged by fires in the 1968 riots. St. Ambrose repaired and renovated this block to help revitalize our neighborhood.

The death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore City Police stirred Baltimore as our neighbors took their frustration to the streets to call for justice. These events have forced the city to step back and reflect on issues of poverty, racism, violence and justice- issues that have defined Baltimore’s history.

Here at St. Ambrose, conversation in the halls of 321 E. 25th St has broadened from our usual discussion of the daily developments within our programs to the greater, overarching issues facing our city. We’ve shared the reactions and experiences from our own corners of the city, debated the triumphs and falls of the city school system and police department, exchanged editorials and volunteer opportunities over email, while always reaffirming our commitment to the work that we do.

Below are a few comments contributed from staff members across departments as we reflect on the city that we love and support:

Last week, feelings of empathy for the conditions that brought the rioters to violence fiercely competed with a distaste of the self-destructiveness of the violence and heartache for its negative effects on local businesses and the citizens who relied on them.  Sprinklings of hope were added to this stew of emotions as I read, watched, and heard stories of citizens from different backgrounds coming together to clean up, restore peace, and bring healing. With renewed confidence, but a nagging sense of uncertainty, I will wait and see if this groundswell of grassroots collaboration can bring about a broader confrontation with the social and economic problems that affect this city and others like it.

So many emotions were going through my mind and heart as I watched the anger erupt.  We love our city. My daughter and family have chosen to live here and my heart ached for them.  I also thought of all the people of our world who face this and worse every day.  My hope is that we will all face the fact that we have problems.  Awareness is the first step.  Acceptance is even harder, but I think denial is being cracked.  With prayer and confidence that the force for good is stronger than the force for evil, men and women of Baltimore will talk to one another without labeling and take a step at a time.  We all swim or we all sink….we are in this together.

I am happy the six police officers will stand trial for the death of Freddie Gray. I hope that our city can move forward to peaceful protests to get our point across without violence.

Defending the city of Baltimore to friends and family who live in other parts of the country has been one of the hardest parts, but it’s always been difficult to convince outsiders that Baltimore is a great place to live. City neighborhoods define and segregate Baltimore, and for too long the rest of the city has ignored and avoided the neighborhoods where the violence erupted. At the same time, I saw a lot of the peaceful protests over the last few weeks going on downtown, and I was so impressed by how many young people are very aware of the problems that face this city and that they want to be a part of the solution. This gives me hope for the future.

As the national media shifts their attention away from Baltimore and the city searches for justice and peace, St. Ambrose continues to do the same thing it set out to do in the wake of the 1968 riots- encourage and support strong and diverse neighborhoods. Our vigor for the work that we do and our commitment to support the city of Baltimore is resolute.

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What you’d need to make in every county in America to afford a decent one-bedroom

Originally posted in The Washington Post
By Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham

Last month we wrote about a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition on how much a worker would have to earn to afford what the Department of Housing and Urban Development considers “fair market rent” in local communities across the country. The government sets these housing rates, which include rent plus utilities, based on the local market for decent-quality apartments of different sizes — neither dumps nor luxury flats. These are also the rates that HUD uses to establish local housing subsidies.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition took those fair market rents and calculated how much a worker would have to earn per hour to cover such modest housing, if we assume a 40-hour work week and a 52-week year. They call this rate a “housing wage,” and it is, unsurprisingly, much higher than the minimum wage in much of the country.

The coalition focused on one person’s hourly income that is needed to afford a two-bedroom rental, a scenario that most closely applies to single parents supporting children alone. But they also compiled data on one-bedroom “housing wages” — a metric that applies more broadly — and the organization gave us the data at the county level.

We’ve mapped this more detailed data in the interactive below. This is what you’d need to earn per hour, working a 40-hour week, to cover the kind of housing that the federal government considers modest in your county:

county rental wages

Click through for interactive version »

Mapped in finer detail than by state, several geographic patterns are clearer. No single county in America has a one-bedroom housing wage below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 (several counties in Arkansas come in at $7.98).

Coastal and urban counties are among the most expensive. The entire Boston-New York-Washington corridor includes little respite from high housing wages. Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties in California rank as the least affordable in the country (scroll over each county in the interactive version for rankings; click to zoom). In each of those counties, a one-bedroom hourly housing wage is $29.83, or the equivalent of 3.7 full-time jobs at the actual minimum wage (or an annual salary of about $62,000). Move inland in California, and housing grows less expensive.

A dark swathe of North Dakota that appears to cover the geography of the oil and gas boom stands out as well.

As a commentary on the national minimum-wage debate, this map is limited. While it suggests that a minimum-wage worker can’t afford housing in Seattle (where the one-bedroom housing wage is $17.56 an hour), in reality that person probably finds housing by renting a room in someone else’s home, by living in the cheapest part of town, or by working considerably more than 40 hours a week. (Remember George W. Bush’s praise for the “uniquely American” story of the single mother of three who worked three jobs in Omaha?).

But this map does succinctly portray dramatic variation across the country in housing costs, and it suggests that proposals to modestly raise the minimum wage won’t fully solve this problem. While median incomes vary broadly by county, just as housing costs do, the incomes for people who work at the bottom end of any community’s wage spectrum do not.

Top ten most expensive counties

State County 1-br. housing wage
California Marin $29.83
California San Francisco $29.83
California San Mateo $29.83
Hawaii Honolulu $26.58
Massachusetts Nantucket $25.83
California Orange $25.23
New York Nassau $25.17
New York Suffolk $25.17
California Santa Clara $24.87
California Alameda $24.13

Thirty counties in Arkansas are all tied for the honor of least expensive housing wage, at $7.98 an hour: Ashley County, Boone County, Bradley County, Calhoun County, Clay County, Columbia County, Desha County, Drew County, Franklin County, Fulton County, Howard County, Izard County, Jackson County, Lafayette County, Lawrence County, Logan County, Marion County, Mississippi County, Monroe County, Montgomery County, Nevada County, Newton County, Phillips County, Randolph County, Scott County, Searcy County, Sharp County, Stone County, Woodruff County and Yell County.

Shortage of housing for the poor grows

Originally posted on The Baltimore Sun

By Natalie Sherman, The Baltimore Sun
nsherman@baltsun.com

6:07 PM EST, March 8, 2014

It’s growing increasingly difficult for the poorest families in Baltimore to find affordable rental housing, and some housing advocates worry new housing policies such as privatization could make the problem worse.

An analysis by the Urban Institute found a yawning gap between the number of low-income renter households and affordable units available in every jurisdiction in the country.

In Baltimore City in 2012, there were 43 affordable units available per 100 extremely low-income households, down from 58 in 2000, according to the study published last week. The number dropped to 16 in Howard County in 2012 from 38 a dozen years earlier.

The forces behind the widening gap vary. Many experts say the gap comes down to money: The private market rarely builds or rehabilitates units for the poorest families, cities and states can’t afford it, and federal spending hasn’t kept pace.

“You can only house the really low-income with a significant cash subsidy, and the question is: Where is that money going to come from?” said Robert Embry, a former Baltimore housing commissioner who is now president of the Abell Foundation.”Housing was only provided when the federal government made money available, and the federal government is reducing its role in this area.”

The Urban Institute’s report came out the same week the Housing Authority of Baltimore City disclosed a plan to sell 22 of its high-rises — nearly 40 percent of the city’s stock of public housing — to developers that would modernize the facilities. The plan raised concerns that that might further reduce the availability of public housing among some advocates.

The Washington-based think tank’s report defined extremely low-income as households earning less than 30 percent of an area’s median income — meaning less than $25,700 a year for a family of four in 2012 throughout the Baltimore area. Affordability is measured as housing that costs less than a third of a household’s income.

The number of such families rose by as much as 10 percent in Carroll County and 60 percent in Baltimore County during the 12-year period, according to the analysis. Meanwhile, the supply of affordable units in the counties fell drastically, driven in part by surging demand for rentals at all income levels.

In Baltimore City, the number of these low-income families increased just 2 percent, but the affordable rental supply fell by about 24 percent, with much of that drop occurring before 2006, the Urban Institute found.

The study’s count of available units does not include what are considered substandard units or affordable apartments occupied by higher-income households.

For the families that do rent affordable units, federal programs are critical: Nationwide, 97 percent of the 3.26 million affordable units available to extremely low-income renters receive federal assistance, the institute estimated. Local waiting lists for some housing voucher programs are thousands of people long — 25,000 households in Baltimore County alone.

But since the 1980s, federal housing policy has shifted from deep subsidies to supporting private developers with tax credits and public financing in exchange for rent limits on some of their apartments. That has limited funds for public housing and Section 8 vouchers that guarantee rent does not exceed 30 percent of a qualified family’s income.

The new programs allow landlords to rent subsidized units to families with a wider range of incomes, still below an area median income. The looser requirements assure broader access to affordable housing and help avoid concentrations of poverty, policymakers said.

“There are people at different income levels that need assistance, and we try to make sure that we’ve got integrated housing opportunities,” said Patricia Rynn Sylvester, director of multifamily housing for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

The policy changes have left out the poorest families, said Trudy McFall, chairman of Annapolis-based nonprofit Homes for America and president of the Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition

“It’s good to have housing that’s more of a mix of incomes,” she said. “The problem is we’re not beginning to replace very low-income units with these new programs.”

The state provides incentives for developers competing for the tax credits to reserve more units for the poorest families and has partnered with the Weinberg Foundation to devote some funds to units for families at 15 percent or less of area median income, Sylvester said.

Across the country, housing officials are moving to sell public housing units to private developers, just as Baltimore said it would do last week. Proponents say it will raise millions needed to renovate the properties, in part by allowing the public units to access the tax credit financing.

The city’s federal funds for public housing capital projects have fallenfrom $30 million in 1997 to $12.8 million this year, said Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano.

In addition to Baltimore’s plan, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development documents show privatization projects from housing authorities across the state, including applications from Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

Some housing advocates said they worry private ownership will exacerbate the shortage for the poorest families, allowing developers to reduce the number of units overall or steer housing toward families further up the income ladder.

“I can’t really speak definitively about that, but one would always be concerned,” said Jeff Singer, former CEO of Health Care for the Homeless who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “It’s a little difficult to know precisely, because I am operating with a lack of information from the Housing Authority. They’ve been so secretive about the process that I don’t know what sort of contracts they’ll be signing with project developers and how they will limit the ability to rent to higher incomes.”

The average income of families in Baltimore public housing is about $12,000 a year, according to the Housing Authority.

Spokeswoman Cheron Porter said officials do not expect the makeup of tenants to change with privatization. The authority’s income-limit calculations will remain the same, and privatized units will go to households on its waiting list, currently 28,000 families long, she said.

The units will operate like so-called “project-based” Section 8 vouchers, she said.

“With a poverty rate at or above 25 percent for the city of Baltimore and our ongoing history of serving the most vulnerable population, we would not expect [income composition] to change,” she said.

McFall, whose Homes for America is one of the nonprofits participating in Baltimore’s privatization program, said it could preserve the number of housing units for the poorest families depending on how local authorities implement the program.

Moreover, she said, privatization will mean more units for the poorest families could access a state-administered pool of subsidized financing.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s new budget seeks $24 million for the Rental Housing Works program, which provides state financing for private affordable housing projects. If funded at that level, $6 million will be reserved for the converted public housing units, according to the state.

“However this budget comes out, we will be using more of the federal and state resources that have tended to go to moderate incomes, and more of them will go to preserve, maintain or rebuild housing that serves people who get a deep subsidy,” McFall said.

But, she said, that doesn’t mean she is optimistic about the affordable-housing shortage.

“It’s creating better housing, and it might create more moderate income housing, but it isn’t creating new housing units for [families] at 30 percent or below,” she said. “And therein is why our shortage grows and grows.”

ShelterForce: 2nd in Series of 50 Years of the War on Poverty

There is No “Culture of Poverty”

Posted by Josh Ishimatsu on February 5, 2014

“At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.”

– The 1965 U.S. Department of Labor Report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action

This is the second in a series of posts that I’m working on to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the architects of the War on Poverty and assistant secretary of labor under President Johnson, is popularly identified with the concept of “the culture of poverty.” While he did not coin the term, Moynihan certainly did more than most to put the idea into national consciousness, particularly in the direct association between the culture of poverty and black urban life.

But this post is not about him. It’s about how the concept of the “culture of poverty” and how Moynihan’s vision of it shapes many of our deeply held, unstated perceptions/assumptions about poverty.

And about how many of these assumptions are wrong.

The Culture of Poverty
In 1962, in his influential book about poverty (said to have inspired Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and named one of Time magazine’s top 10 works of 20th century non-fiction), The Other America, Michael Harrington introduced mainstream America to the concept of “the culture of poverty.” In 1965, then U.S. Department of Labor Assistant Secretary and former Harrington drinking buddy, Moynihan modified/expanded upon Harrington’s version of culture of poverty concepts and applied them more explicitly and specifically to African Americans in a report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

Moynihan argued that “three centuries of mistreatment” had led to a “tangle of pathology”—crime, promiscuity, lack of education—that created a near inescapable cycle of poverty and disadvantage. At the heart of this tangle—the fundamental cause of it all—was the “deterioration of the Negro family.”

Moynihan wrote: “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to [sic] out of line with the rest of American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole…”

Moynihan intended that his report would be a call to action for the nation to do more about addressing what he saw as the root causes of poverty.

The title of the report, after all, includes the words “The Case for National Action.” And Moynihan wrote that it was the responsibility of the federal government and its citizens to do more to eliminate poverty, “strengthen the Negro family” and set right “three centuries of injustice.”

However, from when the internal report leaked to the public, Moynihan immediately was the subject of intense criticism from his left flank—from civil rights advocates, feminists and anti-poverty activists who accused him of racism, sexism, victim blaming, etc. In the years following, as conservatives appropriated the report’s broken family/tangle of pathology vocabulary (while ignoring its national call to action), the term “culture of poverty” came to stand more and more for the idea that poor family values and government dependency had created poverty and that a return to “traditional family values” was what was needed to eliminate poverty, not more government programs.

Poverty Is About Jobs, Not Culture
The intersection of work, family and the economy has changed drastically in the past 50 years. More women work. Divorce and children born outside of marriage are far more common. Non-Hispanic white families of today have rates of single-female headed households and of children in unmarried households, etc. that are comparable to the rates of African Americans during the 1960s. But non-Hispanic whites still have the lowest poverty rates of any major racial/ethnic group.

White society and economic conditions did not collapse because of increased matriarchy. Of poverty populations, both Hispanics and Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have higher rates of married family households than non-Hispanic whites but both populations have higher poverty rates than non-Hispanic whites. For families in poverty, roughly 60 percent of AAPI families are households headed by married couples. For the general poverty population, roughly 30 percent of families are headed by married couples. And despite this, since the recession, AAPIs have been the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in poverty. Marriage, “intact families,” or a hypothetical cultural value placed on marriage and family structure are no silver bullet against poverty. As we have a better understanding of the many forms that families can take and as the poverty population becomes more multicultural, the causal link (at a moral/cultural level, at least) between marriage/family structure and economic outcomes seems weaker and weaker.

If there is any correlation between marriage and poverty, it is about jobs. Families with two or more wage earners (who do not have to be married and do not have to be different genders) are more likely to be able to move out of poverty than a family with only one wage earner. This makes sense in that poverty as a cold, hard statistic is primarily measure of income. Two incomes means the likelihood of more money. Two potential wage-earners means a level of insurance/ability to weather hard times if one job is lost. But this is not something that is necessarily about marriage or is something inherently about “a culture of poverty.”

There are plenty of poor people with good values and who work hard who have been and will be poor their entire lives. There are plenty of people who have had crappy home lives and whose lives are desperate tangles of pathologies but who have been and will be rich all their lives. Poverty is about income. Poverty is about jobs and job quality. Take my personal story as an example. I was raised by a single mother. My mother and father were never married, I never knew my father and my family never knew any support from him. But we were never poor. This is because my mother had a union job as a nurse at a public hospital. Not to take anything away from my mother’s personal strength or the strength of her values or of the values that she instilled in me, but poverty is about jobs and who happens to be lucky enough to have a good one (or about who is lucky enough to be born with rich parents, but that’s another story). Poverty is about scarcity, not about marital status. And because there will never be enough good jobs for everybody to have one, we know that there will always be poor people. Ascribing after-the-fact cultural causes to this inevitability obscures the real issues.

Moving Forward
The War on Poverty was initiated during heady times—urban unrest, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, etc. The time period was also saw the birth of poverty as an official government unit of measurement and the concept of poverty entering more widely into mainstream parlance. Our deeply held, mostly unstated, beliefs about poverty (and especially about poverty and race) stem from this time period, from this crucible, whether we were alive then or not. Most of us, I would wager, still think of American poverty as largely urban (more specifically, urban Northeast and rustbelt Midwest) and black. But the demographics of poverty have changed and the geography of poverty is also changing.

But regardless of the changing composition and distribution of the poverty population, much of the current debate about the legacy of the War on Poverty is rehashing old conflicts about race, about the role of government, about culture and values—a big clash of visions and mythologies that was never fully resolved in the 1960s. In this context, Rand Paul can use the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit as a backdrop to comment upon the failure of “big government” to address poverty—to sound the dog whistle of race and the supposed intractability of the culture of poverty—all the while putting out a kinder, gentler GOP rhetoric around race, poverty and tax cuts.

In the mainstream, slightly-left-of-center-world of policy wonks, whether we fully acknowledge this to ourselves or not, also continue to work from outdated and racist paradigms of race and poverty, tending to think of poverty in terms of cultural deficits while making policy prescriptions for parenting classes, school accountability, financial education, etc. Not that these are bad programs, per se. Many of these programs are worthy and are worth the investments we make in them. But we shouldn’t be putting the burden of “solving” poverty on such programs nor should we be transmitting the message to people that there is something inherently wrong with them (or their culture) for happening to be poor.

Moving forward, I believe we need a deeper, more nuanced national conversation about race and poverty. I also believe we need a broader, large-scale recommitment to economic equity and economic justice. To do both of these well, we need to revisit and re-examine all of our unstated, unconscious (racialized) beliefs about poverty and culture.

(Photo from the National Institute’s of Health Library CC BY-NC-SA)

About the author more »

Josh Ishimatsu is Director of Capacity Building and Research for National CAPACD.