Spotlight Exclusives

Bright spots and causes for hope during harrowing, challenging year

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

At the end of this harrowing, challenging year, Spotlight asked some of its 2020 contributors to offer reflections for developments in the poverty/opportunity space that give them hope or make them thankful. We’re grateful to each of them and to all our readers and supporters and wish you a happy and healthy holiday season.

“Broadly, I am thankful that our institutions held up against an unprecedented attack on our democracy. More specifically, I am thankful that we will have our first Black chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. David Scott (D-GA), who has promised to hold a hearing on the plight of Black farmers in America and policy solutions. Along those same lines, I am thankful to Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) for introducing the Justice for Black Farmers Act to address the millions of acres of lost farmland and billions of dollars in lost intergenerational wealth that Black farmers have suffered. Additionally, there was a bipartisan fix in the 2018 Farm Bill to a particular obstacle Black farmers face in accessing USDA loans—called “heirs property.” The fix has languished with the Office of Management and Budget and I’m hopeful that the new Administration will make it a priority. Finally, I am thankful to Stacey Abrams for making justice for Black farmers a key part of her agenda, especially since everyone is listening to her now, as we should.” –Greg Kaufmann, poverty journalist and advisor to SouthStrong

“Given the major impact of the pandemic and the demand for a stronger response, now is the time to reimagine programs from policy to practice to ensure they are most effectively serving participants. At the same time, we can do away with harmful policies such as safety net public charge and work requirements that don’t work. Through this reimagining, we can create policies and programs that treat everyone with dignity and bring us closer to achieving economic justice. We are excited about several projects that will explore using behavioral science to advance those goals in 2021 and beyond. Our recently launched narrative change project through our Shared Prosperity Catalyst initiative will study harmful and false poverty narratives, and explore ways to shift those narratives by centering the voices of people with lived experience and using behavioral science. We believe that if we can shift these narratives, we can create the political will to promote more generous social policies and ultimately greater equity. Simultaneously, we plan to continue to work closely with a diverse and growing set of partners- from state administrators to local nonprofits- to use behavioral science to optimize their programs to better serve individuals and families. Through these partnerships, we hope to push forward the transformative change that is needed now more than ever, and ultimately make 2021 our most impactful year yet.” – Allison Yates-Berg, Vice President, Ideas42

“During this difficult year, it was encouraging to watch our partners rally and adapt to the pandemic and resulting economic catastrophe — for instance, state human service agencies simplified processes for accessing needed benefits, Per Scholas moved 521 students and 200 staff to a virtual training environment in one remarkable week, Child First converted their early childhood home visits to telehealth, and Lorain County Community College in Ohio leveraged their successful SAIL program to flexibly respond to students’ needs during the pandemic. 2021 will be another challenging year, particularly for those communities most affected by the devastation of the pandemic. But I am heartened by these examples of leaders who combine a passion to serve with a commitment to using the best evidence available to address the problems we face.” – Virginia Knox, President, MDRC

“In 1968, the Kerner Commission concluded, ‘It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens – urban and rural, white and black, Spanish surname, American Indian and every minority group.’ As I have spoken around the nation on the relevance of the Kerner legacy today, one of our best-received African American-Latino-Native American alliance building forums was in Albuquerque – where Bill Spriggs, chief economist of the AFL-CIO, skillfully organized and Sindy Benavides, executive director of LULAC, insightfully communicated. The powerful keynote was by Congresswoman Deb Haaland, who now has been nominated as Secretary of the Interior. That nomination was only possible because democracy worked in 2020, barely. But nonprofit organizations did get out the vote. Decentralized by state, vote counting was efficient, for the most part. The court system upheld the message of the people. Now the work ahead is to seize the day, further strengthen alliances for democracy and integrate in more constituencies to complement Black Lives Matter and Reverend William Barber’s moral revival continuation of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice. – Alan Curtis, President and CEO, Eisenhower Foundation

“This past year was excruciating on a number of levels. But one little acknowledged bright spot was the success of federal policy in preventing hardship from spiking. With the rapid passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act; the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act; and the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, Congress provided over $2 trillion in emergency support for families, businesses, and other public and private sectors. While there were early claims that food hardship had spiked—claims that colored subsequent impressions of the state of hardship—my research with Angela Rachidi demonstrated that this evidence likely reflected differences between surveys administered before and after the declaration of a national emergency in March. The most careful research, by scholars at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy, found that poverty actually fell initially, thanks to the relief legislation, before gradually rising over the rest of the year. By June, poverty exceeded its pre-lockdown level, but as of September, it was less than two points above its level from a year earlier. The Columbia researchers estimated that the poverty rate would have risen from 15 percent in February to a high of 20 percent absent the relief legislation, but it actually rose no higher than 17 percent through September. We can wish that policymakers had done more during the fall—and we should not soon forget the abject failure to contain the spread of the virus more effectively—but we should not disregard the success of the antipoverty policy response at the start of the pandemic.” – Scott Winship, Resident Scholar and Director of Poverty Studies, American Enterprise Institute

“Eight million Americans have moved into poverty between May and October this year, according to a Columbia University study. We’ve also seen nearly 100,000 small businesses permanently close across the country (see Yelp report). With the unemployment rate still above average at 6.7 percent, there is lot to be concerned about for families and our economy moving into 2021. However, there are also efforts that are giving me hope. The public and private investments into Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), especially those led by and serving people of color, like the Expanding Black Business Credit Initiative’s Black Vision Fund are bringing much needed capital and support to small businesses that were not able to benefit from the Paycheck Protection Program. The energy around Baby Bonds and Children’s Savings Accounts, highlighted in this Atlantic article and Government Accountability Office report, are bringing light to solutions that can drive economic mobility and help put families of color on more equal footing as White families. It’s also encouraging to see conversations advancing again around another critical stimulus package, however, it appears this legislation will likely have half the level of benefits as the previous one, so families will still be hurting and the equity issues around access to PPP loans for small businesses may not be addressed. One thing we should be paying attention to at this time are low-income families who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Child Tax Credit (CTC) and who may be receiving a much lower refund this coming tax season due to being unemployed for a period of time this year. There are policy discussions happening around a ‘lookback’ that would allow EITC and CTC claimants to look back one year to 2019 when filing taxes to allow them to receive the credit based on more stable earnings. It’s imperative we continue finding solutions like these to help families move out of poverty and support small businesses that are critical to our economy.” – Frances Rosebush Baylor, Vice President, Partnerships & Field Engagement, Prosperity Now

“Americans who’ve spent time in the criminal justice system face bills for thousands of dollars in fees to cover such things as probation supervision, pre-sentencing reports, drug tests or electronic ankle monitors. The governments demanding the fees say they are meant only to recoup costs, not to further punish people who have already served their time. But every month, people who are formerly incarcerated face a harrowing choice–to pay their rent and bills or pay fees that will keep them out of jail. That’s why I’m so glad Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Families Over Fees Act, making California the first state in the country to repeal a blizzard of administrative fees, 23 to be exact, imposed on people in the criminal legal system and lifting $16 billion in unpayable debt off of low-income communities of color. This builds on our local work to make San Francisco the first county in the country to repeal all locally controlled criminal administrative fees. The Debt Free Justice California coalition propelled these reforms. California state senator Holly Mitchell, who authored the bill, said the law will “remove economic shackles on people who’ve already paid their debt to society.” Earlier this year, San Francisco became the first county in the nation to put people over profits–making jail phone calls free and ending the markup of commissary items in the jail store. San Francisco came to this decision after examining how the high cost of phone calls and commissary items are a significant financial drain on low-income families of color, and the effect of this financial drain on family connectedness and reentry. Charging exorbitant fees for jail phone calls and commissary goods is common across the country. But jail programs—like education and reentry services—should not depend on fining incarcerated people above and beyond their sentences, or on gouging their families.” – Anne Stuhldreher, Director of Financial Justice, San Francisco (city and county)

“People across this country have responded to the pandemic with determination and resilience. Whether it be people volunteering at food banks, donating to help their neighborhood businesses, or filling in caregiving gaps, the American people have stepped up during this incredibly challenging time. Our government institutions have also been challenged. But the tremendous fiscal response by the federal government shortly after the pandemic hit was unprecedented. Contrary to what many of us predicted, poverty in the U.S. actually declined in the early months after the pandemic, and poverty rates have only now started to slightly inch up. With another federal relief package in sight, many families in this country will avoid extreme financial hardship. That is a testament to the American people, as well as those we elect.” – Angela Rachidi, Rowe Scholar in poverty studies, American Enterprise Institute

“COVID-19 has made the structural inequities that permeate our economic, healthcare, and social systems more visible. The pandemic and the ongoing racial reckoning have led many Americans to ask more of their government, public institutions and business leaders. And many of those leaders have begun to listen—and to make room at the table for community leaders and to include voices that have been otherwise absent. As we mourn the tragic losses of this year, we have also seen examples of courage, fortitude, and uncommon grace—from essential workers driving city busses and grocery store workers stocking shelves to nurses on the frontline and bench scientists delivering vaccines in record time. There is hope amid challenge—and determination—that inclusive COVID recovery must include all of us. This is the call to action I will take into 2021.” – Kimberlyn Leary, Senior Vice President, The Urban Institute

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