“DC’s high housing costs pushed me in and out of homelessness for 30 years”; how the shutdown hung farmers out to dry right before spring planting; PLUS: Chad Bolt returns with another roundup of the week’s biggest stories in poverty & inequality, ICYMI.
This week on Off-Kilter: as we take stock of the many long-term consequences of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history… one getting almost no attention is also one with some of the farthest-reaching implications. By halting key farm loan programs, Trump’s shutdown hung farmers out to dry ahead of the most important part of their year: spring planting season. Rebecca talks with Debbie Weingarten, a former vegetable farmer and TalkPoverty’s inaugural Writing Fellow, about the long-term consequences for already struggling farmers — and for our nation’s food supply.
Later in the show: The last 10 days of January mark the Point-In-Time Count, the annual exercise that provides a snapshot of how many people are currently experiencing homelessness in the U.S. and informs the allocation of government funds for affordable housing and homelessness. While this year’s count is still underway, the most current data available tell us that about half a million people in the U.S. experience homelessness on any given night. With the 2019 count drawing to a close, Rebecca sits down with Waldon Adams, an outreach specialist at Pathways to Housing DC, and a lifelong DC resident who has experienced homelessness off and on for nearly 30 years, about his experience being on both sides of the count. As he writes for TalkPoverty: “Many people will look at the numbers from this year’s Point-in-Time Count and ask how to decrease that number. My experience reveals a simple answer: If we don’t want our neighbors to be homeless, then we have to give them homes that they can actually afford.”
But first… Indivisible’s Chad Bolt returns to join Rebecca for another rundown of the week’s biggest stories on poverty and inequality, ICYMI — from what the shutdown taught us (spoiler: a huge swath of this country is one missed paycheck away from poverty), to some of the exciting bills House Democrats have been dropping (Social Security expansion! Paycheck fairness!), to Senate Repubs’ latest effort to make the ultra-rich even richer by repealing the estate tax… and more.
This week’s guests:
- Debbie Weingarten, former vegetable farmer & TalkPoverty Writing Fellow
- Waldon Adams, outreach specialist, Pathways to Housing DC
- Chad Bolt, associate director of policy, Indivisible
For more on this week’s topics:
- For more on how Trump’s shutdown is compounding the farming crisis, read Debbie Weingarten’s TalkPoverty article,“The Shutdown Crisis is Holding Back Farmers from Spring Planting”
- Read Waldon Adams on his experience being on both sides of the Point-in-Time Count: “D.C.’s High Housing Costs Pushed Me In and Out of Homelessness for 30 Years” and learn more about his experience here and here
- What we’re reading this week: “The Shutdown Showed How Precarious Americans’ Finances Really Are,” by Vann Newkirk II for The Atlantic
- Dig into the Social Security 2100 Act — the Social Security expansion bill that has a remarkable 203 original cosponsors in the House!
- Get up to speed on Speaker Pelosi’s renewed push to close the gender wage gap through the Paycheck Fairness Act
- It’s finally happening…. (and boy is Chad excited…): House Dems are about to request Trump’s tax returns.
- Ring your own shame bell at NYC for giving a homeless resident a “reduced” six year prison sentence for trying to buy food and toothpaste with a fake $20 bill
- And ring it again at Indiana for charging a school superintendent with felony insurance fraud for helping a sick student get urgently needed medical care worth $233
This week’s transcript:
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. This week on Off Kilter, as we all take stock of the long lasting consequences of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, one major consequence getting almost no attention is also one of the most far-reaching. The shutdown hung farmers out to dry ahead of the most important part of their year, spring planting season. I talk with Debbie Weingarten, a former vegetable farmer and freelance writer about the long term consequences of the shutdown for already struggling famers and for our nation’s food supply. Later in the show, with the point-in-time count wrapping up, this is of course the annual exercise that provides a snapshot of how many people are currently experiencing homelessness in the U.S. I talk with Waldon Adams, he’s an outreach specialist at Pathways to Housing DC and someone who has experienced homelessness off and on himself for nearly 30 years. He talks about his experience on both sides of the point-in-time count. But first, Chad Bolt, you have come back.
CHAD BOLT: Back again.
VALLAS: You must like me.
BOLT: A little bit.
VALLAS: You like me? Aww, guys he likes me.
BOLT: I don’t know why.
VALLAS: Maybe it’s because I give you a way less hard time than I gave Jeremy, which I feel like isn’t fair. He probably listens and is like, why does Chad get all this love and this mutual admiration society and I got to sit there and take my lashes every week?
BOLT: Look, what can I say.
VALLAS: It might be because you don’t work for me. [LAUGHTER] Actually it’s great to work for me guys, which is probably a good time to remind because I am hiring for a couple positions on my team if you want to come work as director of anti-poverty advocacy at the Center for American Progress or as the managing director of the poverty program at the Center for American Progress. So while I’m saying it’s actually great to work for me I feel like I should plug those jobs.
BOLT: Are those the job postings of the week, Rebecca?
VALLAS: I think we got the job postings of the week out of the way, that was good.
BOLT: Boom, that was good, knocking stuff out.
VALLAS: It feels so good to scratch things off your to do list. Do you enjoy that as much as I do?
BOLT: I love it.
VALLAS: I feel like especially in this rapid response environment where you don’t know what your day is going to look like in any given week, it feels extra good.
BOLT: I am process of scratching Off Kilter this week off my to-do list at the moment.
VALLAS: Well, but only in the way because you did it right, not because you didn’t want to — no, I won’t even ask.
BOLT: I’ll be back next week Rebecca, don’t worry, if you’ll have me.
VALLAS: All I wanted to know. So other things we’re getting to scratch off of our list this week are, at least for the moment, the government shutdown.
BOLT: Oh my God, what a great segue, you know I love a good one.
VALLAS: I know you do.
BOLT: So alright, government shutdown is over for the moment, government reopened for another three weeks, why is that good news? Well first of all, it’s good news because federal workers received their back pay, not contractors importantly but federal employees at least so they are back on the job. So what’s happening in congress now is a bipartisan conference committee is meeting to try and hash out an agreement that can provide long term funding for the part of the government that remains unfunded.
VALLAS: And you’re saying long term funding and this is really important for folks to take away because the government has been reopened for three weeks.
VALLAS: Right, that is what the continuing resolution that folks call a CR in Washington jargon does, it’s literally a Band-Aid that is giving us a reprieve for three weeks.
BOLT: It couldn’t be more than a Band-Aid and absent an agreement we will be right back here in another shutdown on February 16th.
VALLAS: So what is the road ahead? I don’t want to actually spend a ton of time talking about the gamesmanship here because I feel like that’s what all of Washington and really the mainstream media generally has been thrust into for the last six weeks or so and so I’m really looking forward to taking a break from all of that. But in a minute or so what should folks be watching in the next few weeks?
BOLT: So right now the conference committee is meeting to try and come up with an agreement. And the conference committee is comprised of Republicans and Democrats from both the House and Senate, mostly members of the appropriations committee that writes the legislation that funds the government. And we think what’s really important is that Democrats stay strong here on what the American people overwhelmingly want. And that’s no funding for a wall and no funding to ramp up Trump’s deportation machine. So there’s going to spend this past week and part of next week coming up with an agreement and then sometime the week of the 11th I think we can reasonably expect that there will be some kind of vote on the conference agreement. It could pass, it could not pass, it’s a little too soon to predict what might happen. But if something does not pass it’s likely and we know this because Trump has forecasted it, that he will declare a national emergency, use his authority to do so and try to get funding for the wall that way. Even though he has recently tweeted that the border is reaching record levels of being safe, he still is at the same time making a case that we need a national emergency to build this wall.
VALLAS: And obviously in the middle of all of that is his newly rescheduled state of the union which man, do I want to cut right now to the gif all over the internet, Nancy Pelosi with the coat, and the sunglasses. That is the visual that I think accompanies the rescheduling of the state of the union for obvious reasons but I think we’re all expecting to hear more from him in that speech about his wall for sure and maybe he’ll also make some news there in terms of what he expects to do in the weeks ahead. But Chad, we would be massively remiss if we didn’t note that during all of this shutdown nonsense, during the ongoing goat rodeo that was Trump’s temper tantrum over his wall where he was tweeting and screaming from the rooftops about border security and Mexicans and all of his usual stuff, quietly there were actually over a dozen workers at own of his golf courses who were summarily dismissed because they are unauthorized immigrants, who have worked in some cases at his golf course for as long as 15 years with their boss’s complete awareness of the state of their papers. Such is the hypocrisy of Trump’s sentiments when it comes to border security and undocumented workers.
BOLT: Totally, it underscores his hypocrisy and I think it just underscores the vast divide between the Trump administration and the folks running the executive branch in Washington and the actual lived experiences of federal workers and other effected by the shutdown. We talked last week about Wilbur Ross going on TV and saying I can’t understand why people would need to line up at a pop up food bank when they’ve missed two paychecks. But I know you’re going to hear from folks this week as the rest of the part of the show that this actually had terrible cosequences all across the country and was felt enormously by people in all walks of life.
VALLAS: I feel like it was minutes after we finished taping last week’s episodes Chad, and it was one of those moments where I was banging my head against the wall being like, man the timing didn’t quite work out because here we had done this whole segment where we were walking through the worst of the worst of some of the tone deaf things and horribly callous things that Trump and others from his administration, his millionaire, billionaire cabinet have been saying about how they couldn’t understand why as you said with Wilbur Ross, people might need to turn to food banks. It was right after we finished taping that Trump then totally himself took the cake and said I want to get the words right here, that grocery stores would just work along, work along with furloughed workers because they know who their customers are. He was implying I think we’ve all decided that somehow grocery stores were going to allow people to either obtain food for free or buy it on credit or IOU?
BOLT: Yeah, grocery store lines of credit, is that not a thing? It’s like dude, when’s the last time you went to a grocery store? That is not how it works.
VALLAS: It used to be that the measure of whether someone was in touch with regular people was whether they knew the price of milk. This so far jumps the shark on price on milk, you can’t even quite, there’s no spectrum between price of milk and “work along”, there just isn’t.
VALLAS: Some and I think this is worth raising, some have theorized that Trump knows exactly what he’s doing and has been to grocery stores and knows that you have to pay for your food and so what this is really actually a symptom of or yet another shoe to drop in the larger ark of is the conservative but hey we don’t need government, charity can just pick up the difference kind of logic. Some people have called it, [INAUDIBLE]’s all over it, the Roosevelt Institute, the volunteerism fantasy or myth. That somehow we don’t need government programs like nutrition assistance, charity can just pick up the slack. So an interesting theory that maybe that’s kind of where his brain was. But one way or another I think if the shutdown taught us anything, it really showed how, and I want to quote here a piece that was making the rounds on the internet, it’s the piece we’re reading this week by Vann Newkirk over in The Atlantic, as he put it, “The shutdown showed how precarious Americans’ finances really are.”
BOLT: That’s right. It’s true, totally underscores just how precarious the financial security situation is for so many families across the country. 40% of households in America don’t have enough savings to live at the poverty level, so this is not saying continue their current quality of life. But 40% of households don’t have enough savings to live at the poverty level for three months if their income is interrupted. That’s based on a new report out by my former employer Prosperity Now, so check that out.
VALLAS: Every time, Prosperity Now, which used the Corporation for Enterprise Development, CFED, that’s what it was called when you were there and when I came to know and love it. Every time I hear the new name I want to look at the sky and be like “Prosperity now!”
BOLT: There’s a really urgency to it.
VALLAS: It’s also a reference you wouldn’t get because it’s from Seinfeld.
BOLT: Well, this wouldn’t be Off Kilter if we –
VALLAS: Will is sitting over here literally like laughing quietly because A, he knew why I was setting that up and then B, watched you walk right into it.
BOLT: If you weren’t dragged on Off Kilter for not watching Seinfeld did you even go on?
VALLAS: Well most people have seen it so that would be a “you” problem, Chad. Just to be clear.
BOLT: I have a lot of “me” problems.
VALLAS: You were going to say something smart, I just stopped you from it.
BOLT: Well now I have no idea what it was.
VALLAS: I think you were going to explain that harrowing statistic. Basically what you were putting numbers to and what Prosperity Now put some numbers to is that 40% of households in this country literally can’t even keep themselves afloat in poverty if they lose their income like one does in a shutdown if you’re a federal worker.
BOLT: Exactly, like if they are working without pay or being told to stay home from work because the government is shut down, exactly.
VALLAS: I feel like another thing that the shutdown really showed us in a lot of ways, and we were talking about the tone deaf work along comment and velvet loafer wearing Wilbur Ross’s comments about food banks and there were so many more and we walked through a lot of them in last week’s episode. But it also I think, it showed us not just how out of touch Trump and his millionaire, billionaire cabinet and administration is, it also showed us and I really hope that this is a takeaway that people have from the moment that we’re living in, just yet another really, really stark reminder of the power and importance of lived experience when it comes to policymaking. When you have a bunch of folks running the government who have never ever had to experience a day of life where they didn’t have daddy’s money to fall back on or millions in the bank, maybe it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that they don’t understand how an interruption in income for six weeks or more might lead to tremendous financial ruin for people across this country.
BOLT: Yep, that’s exactly right. And speaking of lived experience, stay tuned to the rest of the show because you’re going to hear some of that coming up.
VALLAS: That’s right, talking to Debbie Weingarten, a little bit about the impact on farmers as well as Waldon Adams talking a little bit about homelessness, two of the major problems that this shutdown only further exacerbated in ways that have a really significant human toll. So Chad, I’m sick of the shutdown.
BOLT: Me too.
VALLAS: I’m really, really sick of the shutdown so can we like not talk about it anymore this week?
BOLT: Happy to, I do want to say one more thing, if Trump does declare a national emergency, we’ve got a resource on our website, you go to Indivisible.org, you can find out what to do if he does. Spoiler alert, your member of congress actually can revoke, can vote to revoke the national emergency status and we’ve got that all explained on our resource indivisible.org.
VALLAS: Which is why Chad Bolt is proudly the associate director of shameless plugs at Indivisible. We’ll have that on our nerdy syllabus page because of course we will.
BOLT: Thanks Rebecca.
VALLAS: So I’m closing the door on the shutdown this week, we’ll give folks updates ongoing as we need to and obviously we’ll do lots of checking out what happens at the state of the union next week too but moving on for the moment. I want to know and I feel like this is sort of transitioning universes to even go from the Trump administration and the chaos that was this shutdown, to say, the Democratic House where we have a very different set of conversations going on. But what are some of the good things coming out of the House these days?
BOLT: Well we’ve got a lot of good news actually happening in the House this week. Democrats are using their control of the chamber to make a strong statement about their priorities and one bill that got introduced this week is HR 7, the Paycheck Fairness Act. I’m a former Barbara Mikulski staffer so I’m really heartened to see introduction of this legislation by Rosa DeLauro. I don’t think I need to tell any listeners of this show that the gender wage gap is real, it’s persistent, gold standard research continues to bear that out. Which is exactly why we need legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act. So just to really quick get into what it does, and I should actually probably start by saying hey, don’t we have this already, because it’s one of the standard misconceptions around this issue. Yes, we do already have the Equal Pay Act, it was passed several decades ago, it was the first statement that Congress made that there should not be and that pay disparities between men and women based on sex were illegal. But it does have a number of loopholes that employers, as you can imagine have used to continually pay women less. And yes we do have the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, that passed in 2009, it was the first legislation that Barack Obama signed into law.
BOLT: Exactly, boom. But that legislation extended the statute of limitations to bring cases under the Equal Pay Act so that the courthouse doors were not closed to women when they wanted to bring a challenge.
VALLAS: Which is particularly important when you think about this from a practical standpoint. Literally people were not able to exercise their rights because by the time they found out they’d been discriminated against too much time had gone by, that’s where something wonky like the statute of limitations can come in and bar the doors to the courthouse.
BOLT: And that’s exactly what happened with Lily Ledbetter when she brought her case against Good Year which is why it was so important that that legislation was a priority for Democrats when they controlled both houses of congress. But there are still a number of root causes of the gender wage gap that the Paycheck Fairness Act is intended to address. So really quick, one it prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who discuss wages because one way that pay disparities are often discovered is through informal conversations that workers have with one another, and the problem obviously is that your employer can retaliate against you for having those informal conversations. So this legislation prohibits it. it takes salary history out of the hiring process so that an applicant can’t be held back by previously unequal pay. There’s research out there that shows that the gender wage gap starts as soon as women graduate from college and then you can imagine that the disparity only compounds from there as they move further into their career. They start out lower and because a lot of times your current salary is based in part by your previous salary the disparity only grows.
VALLAS: So might sound like a common sense thing when it comes to employer hiring practices but it only further compounds existing disparities that are holding women back.
BOLT: Because the Equal Pay Act, again, this is legislation that is on the books, but it does allow employers to set salaries based on factors other than sex and so what that allows employers to do is say OK, well I’m basing a lower salary for you on your previous salary. It’s not about sex, it’s about your previous salary, that’s a loophole that employers use and the Paycheck Fairness Act would close that loophole. Finally it would force employers to prove that disparities in pay are not related to sex. And that’s a switch from current law where they don’t bear the burden of proof. And there’s a lot more than the law would do. We’ve got an explainer on our website at indivisible.org, maybe Rebecca will put it in the syllabus.
VALLAS: I don’t know, I’m gonna think about it. Just kidding, it’ll be on the nerdy syllabus page.
BOLT: But there’s more good news to get to this week in congress as well.
VALLAS: Now I hate to do the one step forward, two steps back thing, but with the current climate that is what we have.
VALLAS: And it’s not just the current political climate, it’s also our current Supreme Court for folks who might have forgotten, that’s become an extension of the Trump administration and a Republican controlled senate in so many ways. And so while we’re watching this really exciting momentum grow around the Paycheck Fairness measure you were just mentioning, simultaneously and I’m sure we’ll have news to report next week on the show, on Friday we’re going to learn whether the Supreme Court is going to grant what’s called certiorari so basically are they going to take a case or not on a case that is about whether employers can use salary history to justify those gender based pay disparities you were just describing. So effectively if this case does get accepted and with the current makeup of the court we could watch a massive hole be blown in the Equal Pay Act in a way that could set us back even farther than where we already are.
BOLT: Yep so stay tuned for that.
VALLAS: Sorry to take the wind out of the sails of the good news for a second.
BOLT: Let’s get to Social Security.
VALLAS: Yeah, let’s get back to good news. That’s another really exciting thing this week, literally I’m going to pull a Jeremy, as we’re taping today on Wednesday we also saw House Democrats move forward with one of the things that is higher on the list than almost anything for the American people on a bipartisan basis when you look at the polling and that is expanding Social Security, Chad.
BOLT: Yep this is a really exciting move by Democrats again to just say we are doing this in the first month of the new congress, this is a priority for us to actually expand Social Security benefits. And I love seeing this because I’ve talked before on this show about how, especially when it comes to economic issues, Democrats have tried, have seeded turf to Republicans, accepted their core critiques of a progressive economic vision and said OK, we’ll play on your turf Republicans but what we’ll try to do is still win on your turf. And so for the longest time Democrats agreed oh yeah, we do need to do something about Social Security, it’s probably going to require cuts to benefits, raising the retirement age.
VALLAS: And by do something about it that just hot out of the gate buys into the conservative myth that somehow we have a crisis in Social Security which is actually a funding shortfall that could very easily addressed if —
BOLT: Yeah so right now Social Security is funded by a payroll tax, and maybe listeners of the show have heard of that before but here is the major problem. Only the first $133,000 of a person’s income is subject to the payroll tax that funds Social Security. So imagine you’re somebody who makes more than that. How this works in practices is that the payroll tax is automatically taken out of your paycheck everytime you get paid throughout the year and then once you’ve hit that $133,000 mark, that’s the number for 2019, it’s like you get a raise because that amount of tax just automatically stops getting taken out of your paycheck. So you didn’t do anything to earn the raise, nothing changed at your job it’s just that the government stops collecting payroll tax on the rest of your income.
VALLAS: So it’s basically like people who are not super rich and don’t make more than $133,000 a year, that’s for an individual by the way, that’s a lot of money, people who make less than that pay Social Security taxes all year round.
BOLT: All year, exactly.
VALLAS: But people who make more than that get basically a tax holiday for the rest of the year.
BOLT: Yep, that’s exactly right. And raising the cap on income subject to the payroll tax would go so far to solve Social Security’s long term solvency it’s a really, really simply step that Democrats can and should take because it not only does it shore up Social Security solvency but it also gives us the flexibility to expand benefits.
VALLAS: And it’s I would go one step farther and say it’s not just a step that Democrats should take, it’s a step that we would love to see Republicans join them in taking because when you ask the American people, I feel like people know what I’m probably about to say but it bears repeating but when you ask the American people what they want when it comes to Social Security, it’s not just Democrats, it’s not just older folks, it’s not just lower income folks, it is people across party lines, people across demographics, people across income levels including rich people who say I want to see Social Security expanded, not cut in terms of benefits that people can expect to receive when they retire so that people aren’t working incredibly hard their entire lives and then retiring in poverty, which is what’s happening to countless people across this country in their older years.
But we also see people overwhelmingly across all those cuts that I just mentioned including party lines say and I’m willing to pay more to see that happen. And the polling actually tells us overwhelmingly folks are totally down to see rich people pay their fair share, and we know that not just in the Social Security context but also in the tax conversation broadly as we’ve been talking about so much, you and I, on this show. But actually people are willing to see payroll taxes increase too which I think is just further evidence of how safe the Social Security expansion is for Democrats but also for Republicans politically if you think about what voters want.
BOLT: This is another example of Congress needing to catch up to where the American people are.
VALLAS: So I’m happy to leave the good news there and not to take any wind out of the sails on Social Security, lots more to come on this show about that. But I will note for our birthday of the week, happy birthday to FDR, President Franklin D. Roosevelt who of course brought us Social Security, he established it as part of his New Deal in 1935. This is his 137th birthday, so happy 137 FDR, you don’t look a day over 29 unless you’re Howard Shultz in which case you apparently you don’t know what FDR looks like or looked like because you thought he was president within the last 50 years, I’m just going to leave that one where it is.
BOLT: I got nothing to add there.
VALLAS: Will’s like, check!
BOLT: Took the words right out of my mouth.
VALLAS: So Chad I heard that there’s a hearing happening next week that literally has your name all over it.
BOLT: There is.
VALLAS: Are they calling it the Chad Bolt hearing?
BOLT: So they have not and that’s totally fine. But there is a hearing next week at the Ways and Means committee, at least according to reporting, I don’t think it’s been officially noticed that the oversight subcommittee of the House Ways and Means committee intends to have a hearing on the need for president to [DRUM ROLL] release their tax returns!
VALLAS: Woo! Show me your tax returns, honey, is of course what Chad’s about to say.
BOLT: That’s the hashtag. So this is really important and this oversight hearing is part of a broader effort of Democrats in support of HR 1, which we’ve talked about before on this show, is the democracy reform package that Democrats are moving and really behind. And part of that legislation is a requirement that presidents and other senior elected officials released their tax returns. So I hope that in addition to talking about that very important provision of the legislation that this hearing will also focus on the unique authority of the House Ways and Means committee to obtain Donald Trump’s tax returns. Listeners of this show will remember that Trump has broken with decades of precedent in refusing to release them and there’s a lot that the American people can and should learn.
VALLAS: I really want to take actually, hey Will, I feel like we should record Chad doing his shtick because how great would it be that when we get to this point in the show most weeks we could actually just allow Chad to take a coffee break and listen to himself be like and here it is, the tax returns matter. So and record —
BOLT: Literally I’m looking across the table at Rebecca and she’s like taking a phone break, she’s like, oh checking my texts, getting ready for my next meeting.
VALLAS: Not because this isn’t important but because you indeed are a broken record on this in the way that you should be and it seems to be getting attention because they’re holding this hearing. So Chad, sorry you can finish your thought now.
BOLT: Yes, and we were really pleased last week, Indivisible, along with our friends at Tax March and Stand Up America sent a letter to Chairman Neil saying hey, really the time is now for you to do this, the American people have a right to know, everything from the tax returns. Do his foreign business entanglements present a conflict of interest when he is conducting foreign policy on behalf of the United States, to what extent is he going out of his way to avoid paying the taxes he legally owes? Per the October 2018 New York Times article that went into some of that, how much is he standing to benefit personally from the tax law that he and his Republican enablers pushed through congress in 2017? So there’s a lot that we could learn and I do hope that the House Ways and Means committee will take their oversight authority seriously and get moving on getting the tax returns.
VALLAS: Now in the last couple of minutes we have, we got to ring the shame bell, the shame bell, we’re not saying any words well this week Chad, I’m having real trouble saying words.
BOLT: It’s OK, just ring the shame bell.
VALLAS: We’re going to need to ring the shame bell a few times to close out this segment. So, if we could get a little shame bell ready Will, for ring number one shame on Senate Republicans for bringing back the idea of trying to repeal the estate tax, Chad, I’m going to give you the 30 second challenge of why this one matters.
BOLT: Yeah so this is a terrible idea. The estate tax is one of the most important measures we have to battle raging wealth inequality. And again, I just want to underscore, you are not going to be subject to the estate tax unless you individually stand to inherit more than $11 million. Is that anybody in this room?
VALLAS: Uh, not me.
BOLT: Is that anyone listening?
VALLAS: Will? Will is also a no, alright.
BOLT: You’ve got secrets Will, I know.
VALLAS: Yeah but not that one.
BOLT: So unless you’re going to inherit more than $11 million, this is not for you. What we need to do is lower the threshold of an estate’s value that’s subject to the estate tax. It was $1 million in 2002, Republicans have raised it now, the value of an estate that’s exempt from the estate tax, they’ve raised it to $11 million, we should also raise the rate of the estate tax. In 2002, it was 50%, Republicans have lowered it to 40%, again this is an important measure to battle wealth inequality and we should be expanding it, not repeal it totally.
VALLAS: Chad, shame! Shame!
[GONG] [DEEP VOICE: “Shame”]
VALLAS: He says it so much better.
BOLT: That was beautiful and for the record that was not me, that was some other voice.
VALLAS: Yeah, it was the shame bell.
VALLAS: Will’s like, that was me. [LAUGHTER] Great, so just want to put in context some of the numbers you were just saying. So for the $290 billion over the next ten years that repealing the estate tax would cost the U.S. economy —
BOLT: Yeah, Rebecca, tell us what else we could do with that.
VALLAS: I feel like this is the what could we do with that amount of money segment. Well, happy to tell you Chad, answer; we could end homelessness in America and we would have enough change left over to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers without dependent children. How ‘bout that?
BOLT: Yeah and it’s not as if these are academic ideas. Democratic contenders in 2020 have already seized on this idea on expanding the estate tax. Elizabeth Warren for example has a proposal to expand the estate tax and plow that money back into affordable housing programs for Americans who need it most.
VALLAS: Which sounds a little better to me in terms of priorities than allowing people to have enough money to have a boat inside their boat inside their boat, which is what we’re talking about at these dollar figures. Will, get the shame bell ready because we have a couple of other ones we want to call out here that are actually local in focus and we gotta do ’em quick because we’re so out of time Chad. But you know, it’s not like that’s unusual for us because we get talk-y.
BOLT: It’s a lot to cover.
VALLAS: It’s a lot to cover when you care about poverty and inequality in this country and you have these people in charge right now. So shame bell number two goes to New York City law enforcement because they decided that it’s a great idea to lock up a homeless man who used a counterfeit $20 bill trying to buy food and toothpaste, they have now given him a reduced sentence of 6 years in prison for the crime of being hungry and unhoused and needing basic supplies. So just want to ring the shame bell number one for New York for law enforcement with totally the wrong priorities despite ongoing conversations about criminal justice reform and the criminalization of poverty so shame for New York City for this one and I want to name the man, his name is Levi Mitchell and he’s 53 years old. He had initially been sentenced to serve up to 8 years in prison so his reduced sentence is six years. So shame.
[GONG RING] [DEEP VOICE: “Shame!”]
VALLAS: And our third and final shame bell for this week at least goes to Indiana where the superintendent of a small school district in that state has been arrested and charged with felony insurance fraud. Chad guess what she did and what her great crime was? She took a sick student to the doctor and she paid for his treatment with her son’s health insurance. I want to give a little bit of background on this teacher. And really the superintendent of this school district, her name is Casey Smitherman. She runs the school district in Elwood, Indiana and her crime here is for caring so much about her students, including one who has been facing poverty and homelessness and real significant family transition issues. She noticed that a 15 year old student whom she had actually helped out before, she’d bought clothes for him, she’d helped him clean his house, she really was helping him have the basics he needed so that he could even begin to learn in the classroom. He hadn’t shown up at school. She was concerned about him, he was maybe actually at risk of being placed in a foster home and so she found him sick at home. And he needed medical care so she jumped into action, took him to a doctor to get evaluated and yeah, she used her son’s health insurance to register him, not knowing what else to do in this situation and guess what? The total bill for the treatment was that he received that now the superintendent is being charged with felony insurance fraud for, it’s $233.
VALLAS: For a kid who’s facing poverty, homelessness, no one really taking care of him and they’re actually really going to after this teacher for a felony offense.
BOLT: Wow, that’s terrible.
VALLAS: So one last shame bell for us Will for Indiana.
[GONG RINGS] [DEEP VOICE: “Shame!”]
And we’ll keep folks posted on all of these stories at they move forward in the weeks ahead. Chad, I really appreciate that you still like me despite the raging that I do on you.
BOLT: Of course, it wouldn’t be a taping of Off Kilter without it.
VALLAS: And don’t go away, lots more Off Kilter, after the break, next up talking with Debbie Weingarten, a former vegetable farmer and a freelance writer about how the shutdown has screwed over farmers right ahead of spring planting season. Don’t go away.
You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. With Trump’s government shutdown over for now we’ve all been taking stock of just how far reaching and long lasting the consequences will be. While all eyes were on the chaos the shutdown caused to nutrition assistance like SNAP and food banks popping up across the country to feed furloughed federal workers, getting far less attention have been the farmers who’ve been hung out to dry ahead of the most important part of their yearly calendar, spring planting. To talk about the long term consequences farmers are facing across the country as a result of the shutdown, I’m thrilled to talk with Debbie Weingarten, a former vegetable farmer and freelance writer about her recent article for TalkPoverty, entitled “The Shutdown is Holding Back Farmers From Spring Planting”. Debbie’s also a TalkPoverty writing fellow. Debbie, thanks so much for taking the time to join the show.
DEBBIE WEINGARTEN: Thank you so much for having me.
VALLAS: So Debbie, the title of your piece I think explains very clearly what’s at stake here. There’s a quote in it that I want to pull out, you actually quote Iowa radio news director Robert Leonard, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, “Had [President Trump] set out to ruin America’s small farmers, he could hardly have come up with a more effective, potentially ruinous one-two combination punch than tariffs and the shutdown.” Help us understand, what had this shutdown been and what are the impacts of it for farmers when it comes to this upcoming spring planting season?
WEINGARTEN: Yeah, well I think that quote is so gut punching. And I think in order to understand how much was effected by the government shutdown, it’s worth backing up and looking at the USDA as a whole. The Farm Service Agency is one of 29 agencies that is under the umbrella of the USDA, provides all kinds of services including farm loans. And farm loans are really essential to farmers of all varieties, from commodity farmers, to vegetable farmers. And then besides farm loans, if you look at the USDA in general, providing slaughterhouse and food safety inspections, and federal crop insurance, of course SNAP and school lunch programs, so beyond just loans, which is what I focused on in the article, this was a huge, lots of programs went offline that support agriculture.
VALLAS: So help make that concrete. Your piece actually profiles several farmers and really highlights specific impacts that the shutdown has had for them. Who are some of the people that you highlighted in the piece?
WEINGARTEN: So I actually highlighted some friends of mine who farm in North Carolina, Steven and Becca. I went to college with Becca and we both ended up farming and then I left farming but have remained in the agriculture world. And we talk about their farm all of the time. And so I called her a couple weeks into the shutdown and said how’s the farm, how are you doing? And the response was like, our hands are tied. We can’t get into the ground because we can’t access the programs that we rely on through the Farm Service Agency. So to make that more concrete, usually what happens is they go into the FSA office and there are a thousands of FSA offices across the country, so there are county or state offices. And you as a farmer, you register your farm with the FSA, you bring in your business plan, you have a loan officer, and there you work with that person, that FSA employee to figure out what programs you qualify for depending on what you want to do this year. So some farmers are expanding their operation, some farmers are interested in placing a section of their farm into a conservation program, some farmers are getting certified organic, there are all kinds of things that you might be doing. Steven and Becca take out an annual operating loan through the Farm Service Agency every year. They usually lock in January 1st and apply for that loan. The loan carries them all the way through the season because it takes so long, your plants sit in the ground for a long time before they generate revenue. So it’s a really critical, they can’t run their business without it.
VALLAS: You have a paragraph in this piece that I want to read because I feel like it just so helpfully explains what you were just getting into in terms of why these loans are so important. You talk about tomatoes and you say, “Take tomatoes. At the beginning of February,” the farmers you’re talking about “order seedlings from a local greenhouse, which requires a 50 percent deposit. By mid-March, they’ll begin fertilizing and prepping their fields, and seedlings will be transplanted in mid-May. They’ll spend money on inputs — fertilizer, irrigation and field supplies, fuel for their vehicles, shipping boxes, and labor — for tomato plants that won’t mature to generate revenue until mid-August.” And as you point out, “That’s at least six months without cash from sales.” So here you are talking about a particular couple of farmers but the USDA loans out over $5 billion a year to help farmers buy this kind of property and equipment and things that they need to make the season work.
WEINGARTEN: Exactly, and farmers are really different types of borrowers, which is something that the FSA understands. When farmers are often cash poor but they might be asset rich. They might not have much in their bank accounts but they own land or they own equipment and it’s usual put up as collateral. And because of that, because they are different types of borrowers they may not be able to qualify for traditional loans through a traditional bank. And the second thing is that farming is seasonal. So like you said and like that paragraph points out, a farmer plants in the spring and then doesn’t see any money for that crop sometimes until fall. And so the FSA, the loans are structured to allow farmers the flexibility to take out a loan at the beginning of the season, to pay it back at the end of the season and it’s really geared towards the realities of farming.
VALLAS: Now you also point out in this piece that this shutdown and the impact that it’s having on farmers not being able to do business as usual and aquire the funds that they need to move forward with spring planting like they would in any other year, it’s coming on top of an already existent farming crisis that we’ve talked about on this show before and that has farmers really facing dire straits in a lot of different spaces of the farming world. Talk a little bit about the timing of how this is coming in and actually exacerbating an already significant problem for so many farmers.
WEINGARTEN: Yeah, in farm country it’s being talked about as the second farm crisis. So and that’s a reference to the farm crisis that happened in the mid 1980s when we lost farmers, they were like dominos going out of business. And it was a really awful time for many farmers, especially in the Midwest and it really upended rural America and it has had long lasting ramifications on rural communities. So you lose the farmers and then you lose the schools, and then you lose the libraries, you lose all of these really important, the backbone of these towns. Right now just in Wisconsin alone, 638 daily farms closed in 2018. So we’re talking a pretty ruinous time for agriculture. Farmers are the front lines of climate change, so I mentioned in the article that Hurricane Florence cost over $1 billion to the North Carolina agriculture industry. Steven and Becca got a ton of rain, they got 50 more inches than usual, which ruined 30% of their crop this year. So farmers are dealing with climate change and then commodity farmers have been totally upended by the Trump administration’s trade war.
VALLAS: Meanwhile adding further insult to injury, something you’ve actually written extensively about for TalkPoverty over the last year or so has been the double whammy. Because you’ve got farmers who are as you’re describing real trouble making ends meet and ironically putting food on their own families’ tables and in many cases needing to turn to nutrition assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps to be able to provide for their own families. This is actually something you yourself have experience with as well and you’ve spoken about how the Trump administration’s attack on SNAP is also itself an attack on farmers.
WEINGARTEN: Absolutely I think that’s one of the things that I’ve been, it doesn’t make sense, that we have people who are working to produce food for other people who can’t afford that food for their families. And that was definitely an experience I had as a farmer. I qualified for SNAP and Medicaid when I was farming, so growing food for lots of other people that I couldn’t afford to buy myself. That’s a fact throughout the food system. So people who work in the food industry, chefs and servers and people who touch food are so, I can’t remember the statistic, but they’re quite a bit more likely to depend on SNAP.
VALLAS: So what is the road ahead now that we’ve seen this tremendous interruption in normal federal business, that’s the understatement of the century maybe with the longest government shutdown in history, now that the machinery is starting to turn back on, people are starting to try to piece things back together here in Washington DC and yet with tremendous uncertainty about how long the government reopens for, is it three weeks and no more and we see another shutdown at the end of this continuing resolution, no one knows, we were talking about earlier in the show, what is the road ahead for farmers with all this uncertainty and all of the problems that have already been caused by the shutdown so far?
WEINGARTEN: Well I think that’s a little bit unknown, I was just reading in Politico that the USDA is really trying to restructure, trying to pull money into the pot to ensure the FSA offices remain open even if the government shuts down again. And there were attempts but the USDA, they opened for a temporary period to get farmers in and funded but we have in this huge backlog, a month long backlog of work that FSA employees are trying to get a handle on. So Steven and Becca in North Carolina they don’t believe that they’ll get their loan in time through the FSA. So I think if their story is anything like the thousands of other farmers depending on FSA loans, Steven and Becca are looking at credit card advances, they’re looking at bridge loans through their local bank, they’re tyring to talk to the greenhouse where they buy their seedlings to figure out how they can still put down a 50% deposit in time. I think that farmers are scrambling. And even though the government is technically open again, that backlog is really going to have a huge impact on timing and in farming even just one week makes a huge difference.
VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with Debbie Weingarten, she’s a former vegetable farmer and freelance writer. She’s also the TalkPoverty writing fellow and you can find her piece “The Shutdown is Holding Back Farmers from Spring Planting” on our nerdy syllabus page and also at TalkPoverty.org. Debbie, thank you so much for this fantastic piece, for all of your coverage over the past year for TalkPoverty on farming, on nutrition assistance and on so many other related issues and I’m already looking forward to having you back on the show.
WEINGARTEN: Thank you so much.
VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off Kilter after the break, I’m talking with Waldon Adams, an outreach specialist at Pathways to Housing DC and someone who himself has experienced homelessness, he talked about his experience on both sides of the point in time count, don’t go away.
You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. Throughout the latter part of January each year volunteers across the nation and here in our own backyard DC participate in something called the point in time count, the annual exercise that provides a snapshot of how many people are currently experiencing homelessness over the course of one night. Every city is required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to participate in this count during the last 10 days in January. The numbers get released in the spring and they’re used by government agencies, legislators, non-profits and city officials to track trends over time and make decisions about how government funds get used to address homelessness. While this year’s count is still underway, the most current data available tell us that about half a million people in this country experience homelessness on any given night. While myths and stereotypes abound that blame houseless individuals for not having a home, a major shortage of affordable housing and a lack of jobs that pay decent wages are major drivers of America’s homelessness crisis that all too often get ignored or treated as somehow separate problems. Few people know that better than our next guest Waldon Adams, he’s an outreach specialist at Pathways to Housing DC. He’s also a lifelong resident of DC and a person who himself has experienced homelessness off and on for nearly thirty years. As he wrote about in TalkPoverty.org last week about his own experience participating in the count, “Many people will look at the numbers from this year’s Point-in-Time Count and ask how to decrease that number. My experience reveals a simple answer: If we don’t want our neighbors to be homeless, then we have to give them homes that they can actually afford.” To talk about those experiences and what he’s learned from them and is now putting into practice in his work fighting homelessness on the front lines I am thrilled to welcome Waldon onto the show. Waldon thanks so much for joining us.
WALDON ADAMS: You’re welcome, thank you for having me.
VALLAS: So Waldon your TalkPoverty essay was incredibly powerful and that’s really where I want to start. For folks who might not have read it yet, it’s on our nerdy syllabus page because of course it is. Give us a little bit of a glimpse into your experience, how did you become homeless for the first time?
ADAMS: Well I grew up with asthma and other health issues. And I remember having to take a think yellow medicine to help me calm down, to help my breathing calm down and I think I got addicted to it. and then I tried to play sports and I was always the last one running down the field. And eventually I think it grew into a depression and I ended up with manic depression. So I have some mental illness going on and I was seeing somebody as early as elementary school. As time went on I ended up having to repeat the tenth grade so I had my parents sign me up for the Navy. And I joined the Navy and my idea was to be in a sub. And I remember when I was in basic training we got to the point where we had to dive in the pool and I couldn’t swim. And they were wondering why I was in the Navy and couldn’t swim and I told them well my thought was that since I was going to be on the sub I didn’t need to know how to swim.
So that’s when my issues started, I got discharged from the Navy, I came back home, I had an accident to my hand with a quarter stick of dynamite, lost my fingers and things went really bad from there. I did work, I went through rehab and got a good job at a downtown department store, a very popular store that’s not here anymore. And I was able to obtain a place to live. I started with a room, it was affordable then, I was making a little above minimum wage, probably around minimum wage. From there I got my first apartment, I got an efficiency apartment and was in a pretty decent neighborhood. And things went on from there. My alcoholism progressed but I was still able to maintain housing because housing costs were close to what we were making. Things were affordable, I think an expensive apartment may have been $500 a month at the time.
As things went on salaries still remained in the same general range but rent, I don’t even know what happened to rent control. Because there used to be something called rent control. I don’t know what happened to that. How it changed, how the look of it changed but I didn’t even notice, it creeped up on us. But all of a sudden everything was way out of reach. The apartments were going up to $900, $1,000, I think now to get a decent apartment it’s like $1,600 for maybe an efficiency.
VALLAS: And you’re talking about Washington DC here.
ADAMS: DC yeah, and things just got out of hand. And so now you were paying more than just about all your income towards rent. So it made it hard. I had some friends that had good jobs and they had substance abuse problems and sometimes maybe they might not be able to pay their rent but they were able to catch up because their salary was enough to pay the rent. But there are other people that weren’t able to do that. If you had a regular job, if you go into a department store now, that person may be ringing up your clothes or ringing up your furniture or whatever you’re buying and that person may be going home to a shelter now. They may not be going home to their own place like you might be. Things have just changed a lot. I don’t know what we should, people shouldn’t work at McDonald’s or anywhere else now, I don’t know what’s going on now.
VALLAS: So you were, I talked a little bit about the point in time count and that actually played a really improtnat role in your being here today. You actually were experiencing homelessness and were part of a point in time count, some number of years ago. And you actually credit that moment with saving your life.
ADAMS: Yeah, because people do that, that’s how a lot of times we get resources for DC, to get an idea of how many people are out there, how many resources we need. I was one of those people that got picked up on the permanent supportive housing first program when they were starting that in DC. I think it was 2008 or so when we first started doing that and I got picked up in 2009. So I was one of the original people. And if it wasn’t for stuff like that I would never have been picked up. That’s why I’m glad we had outreach now because it wasn’t a whole lot of outreach back then. But now we can tell people that these things exist, these programs exist because at that time nobody knew about it. This was brand new.
VALLAS: So this wasn’t just about counting people it’s also about identifying folks for services they’re not receiving.
ADAMS: Right, and where they are. And also putting out the information that these things exist. That’s one of the things we do in the point in time count, or one of the things we do in outreach as well is we let people know there’s programs, there’s help available with documents and getting your ID, things like that, things you’re going to need.
VALLAS: And you in your piece that you wrote for TalkPoverty, the piece opens in an apartment building laundry room. Why is that?
ADAMS: Well I spent a lot of times in laundry rooms, there were times when it was really cold outside like right now it’s raining and it’s cold and this was one of the most miserable times for me. I was sick, I had developed HIV and this was one of times. We get pneumonia all the time, so a lot of times some of us you might find ten or twenty of us in a laundry room. I don’t know if people that do the point in time come in, because sometimes it’s private property, that’s why we have outreach because the outreach people can let you know where people be at because they can ask around and talk to people. But at that time I don’t think a lot of them would’ve caught us in places like that so sometimes they don’t get counted.
VALLAS: So now you have been on both sides of the count. You have been someone who’s been counted as you were describing but you’ve also been one of the volunteers actually participating in the point in time count. How did you get to a place where now you are housed and are actually doing work on the other side of the equation.
ADAMS: It didn’t start off like that. I wasn’t planning on getting involved in that. I was so happy that I got picked up and that I got housed that when anyone asked me to advocate for housing or advocate for these types of programs, I would show up because I really believed it. It saved my life. So as time went on I started off in advocacy with Miriam’s Kitchen and started going down to the Wilson Building and testifying about the benedifts of the Housing First and Permanent Federal Housing programs and the other housing programs. And so eventually after I left there somebody told me they had an opening at Pathways and I had gone for years without working anywhere and being fired from jobs. And so I didn’t have anything to put on a resume and so I didn’t think anybody’s going to hire me. And so when somebody told me that you know they have an opening over there I said OK. Then they asked me again, you know they have an opening over there, I said OK, I didn’t think they were really telling me to apply. So I actually went over there and took a chance and applied and when I got there I ended up getting hired and that’s how I ended up getting into the work. And I’ve learned that my experiences make a big difference, because I can identify with almost everything people are going through, whether they’re going through mental health agencies, hospitalizations, illness, substance abuse, alcoholism, everything that I hear is something that I’ve been through. So I realized how important it was for me to get involved with this and how much I was needed. I didn’t realize why they kept asking me to do this and then I realized why. Because there’s some people I can engage with that some people can’t.
VALLAS: You talk in your essay about the experience and the feeling of constantly being blamed for the fact that you don’t have safe and stable housing. Talk a little bit about that and what your response would be to someone listening right now and saying yeah well, I don’t know, it sounds like you just weren’t doing the right things. If you were, you would have housing.
ADAMS: Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t go to far into that because we are blamed for stuff we do but we are blamed, people say well it’s their drug addiction or something like that because I’ve brought up the point and I know people who’ve had the same thing, alcoholism and drug abuse. But they were able to afford where they were living and with Housing First, what I like about Housting First is that we have a shot just like anybody else to get an apartment. We don’t have to be super model citizens. We don’t have to jump through a whole bunch of loops to get housing. The only requirements for Housing First is that you don’t destroy the property, you pay your portion of the rent and you don’t disturb your neighbors. So just like anybody else in America we have a chance to get some place to live.
VALLAS: So you have a really powerful passage in this essay that I feel speaks so well to the power of the Housing First model that you’ve talking about. And we should explain what that is. Housing First is an approach to addressing the affordable housing crisis and homelessness, which starts from a pretty simple principle, which is that people need safe and stable and affordable housing first before they can really hold a job and be expected to do well in that job and keep that job or any of the other things. And I want to read a little bit from your essay that really gets right to this point. You write, “It’s impossible to explain how much of your brain homelessness takes up. It isn’t just the fact that you don’t have a home to call your own. It affects every part of your daily life, until meeting your most basic needs (What bathroom can I use? When will my next meal be? Will there be room in the shelter tonight?) requires all your time and energy.” That might seem like a basic idea to people who are listening going yeah, that’s pretty common sense. But that gets right at the crux of what you’re talking about for why this model has worked for you and for so many other people.
ADAMS: It’s a major issue. You can’t imagine, there are place, even if it’s tourists in DC, there are a lot of places you can’t, you have to find a bathroom. If you don’t have a home to go to, it’s really hard. We’ve had to go in alleys, in the back of abandoned houses, it’s just a miserable existence. So with Housing First, the thing that I like about it mostly as opposed to now there’s a need for all types of programs but I like Housing First because I’ve lived in a sober house. Where you sign something that you pay a security deposit, first month’s rent just like anybody else, but the difference is if somebody suspects you of taking one drink or using drugs one time you forfeit your security deposit, you forfeit your housing and you have to move right away. And that’s happened to me, in 100 degree weather, somebody suspected me of using, they didn’t take a urinalysis or anything. They suspected, the group votes and you’re put out immediately. You don’t get your security deposit back, you leave immediately and that’s happened to me. With Housing First all long as you pay your portion of the rent you get to stay there.
VALLAS: And people might be listening and going yeah, but how are we ever going to teach people the right lessons, what you’re describing this throwing someone’s life right back into crisis because they experienced a challenge in the road to recovery because for many people is an ongoing lifelong struggle.
ADAMS: Right my first day in Housing First, I relapsed that very night but you know what I woke up that next day and I got another chance to try again. Nobody was putting me out, nobody was saying oh you used, so you have to give up your housing, you got to go back in the street again. That’s the worst thing you can do to a person. There are people in places, they take a drink, they’re not going out of their apartment, they paid their rent. With us it’s like we’ve got to live up to a higher standard than the average person but the thing about, another thing I like about Housing First we have something called Permanent Supportive Housing and that’s case management. So once a person gets into a unit they have case management that will offer these services, if you want treatment, if you want to look for a job or mental health services, you’re not required to do it, you’re not going to lose your housing if you don’t participate but they come see you pretty often. And every now and then somebody might say hey, been living in this place, maybe I will try this. Maybe I will go to treatment, I’ve had people that moved into an apartment and they decided I’m going to try because there are a lot of times where we’ve got to treatment programs but then what happens is you get discharged from the treatment program and you go back out in the street. And the only thing I can think of then is well, I might as well keep on using. I’m only getting enough money just to get high with. I can’t afford any place to live with this.
But now that a person has a place to stay they can say well I’m going to go into a 30 day treatment or a 90 day treatment center and then they have a place to come home to. So now when they go to treatment they can concentrate on what they learn in treatment. They can concentrate and learn everything, the steps and everything else. First, when we were going through there, the only thing we wanted to do was talk to the social worker. We wanted to find out where can I go after I leave here. That’s the only thing people wanted. You’d have to, you’d be on a waiting list to see the social worker because that’s what everybody wanted to see was the social worker, trying to find a place to live. Sometimes the social worker would get frustrated, like give you a list of shelters. I don’t want a shelter I want a place to live, I want a place I can afford. If I could get a room, when I first started making the rounds to psych wards, it was a period of time where you could afford at least a room. And so sometimes I may be there for a month and keeping a little bit more money and nowadays you can’t do that. A room is maybe $900 and your SSI check may be $600 or $700 so what do you do then? There’s some people not able to work because they have serious mental health challenges, physical challenges and stuff like that. What are they supposed to do? So that’s what I like about Housing First and Permanent Supportive Housing, you have an option, somebody gives you an option. You don’t have to do it but after you’ve been there for a while and you get to sleep for a while and you don’t have that stress of trying to find a place to use the bathroom or find a place to keep your food. You may get food on the street sometimes, I had times when we would get food, we’d get a nice little bit of food so either you had to eat it up or throw it away because you had no place to put it. but now you’ve got a place to stay so now you can put it in the refrigerator, save it for another day.
And it caused me a little issues when I first moved into my own place because I’m used to eat because I don’t know when my next meal is going to be, so I would eat a lot, feel like maybe that’s going to hold me for a while, so I tend to overeat when I first moved in and then I also didn’t know how to cook. When I first moved into my own place I still went back to the soup kitchens because I didn’t know too much about cooking so I’d go out and eat all the time. And it’s been ten years and I still have a habit of eating out, you spend so many years doing that. Some of those habits are hard to break.
VALLAS: In the last couple of minutes that we have this is a week with inclement weather and a polar vortex of sorts, I think folks are calling it, a lot of people might be wondering what can we do, what can people do if they see folks who don’t have safe and stable housing out on the street, if they come into contact with folks and are worried that it’s unhealthy and unsafe temperatures outside. What kind of resources are out there that folks should be aware of particularly in the DC area?
ADAMS: Well there are several providers in the city like Miriam’s Kitchen, Friendship Place, Pathways to Housing, you can call 311 and ask for agencies because every one of thm have an outreach team and you’re going to ask for somebody to come up or you can call the government, like I said, 311. You made an important point. There were times when I was growing up, I’m from DC and there were times where I’d get myself together, I’d get a nice job, I’m going to get an apartment in this place right here, this is where I’m going to be at. And as time went on as I said, things went up and it became further and further out of reach, you start to lose hope. And there’s some people who are not engaged because they’ve lost all hope. And I’ve lost hope before too. My story is really strange how mine started because I’d given up completely. Because everything just started getting out of range and nothing’s going to happen. That’s why I believe outreach is important because there’s some things there. So I would call people to call 311 or call one of the agencies.
VALLAS: And you find Waldon Adams’ essay for TalkPoverty which is titled “DC’s High Housing Costs Pushed me in and out of Homelessness for 30 Years”, you can find it at TalkPoverty.org. Waldon, there are a lot of folks who are currently running for president or who are now in elected office who are talking a lot about affordable housing. You don’t hear as much about the homelessness side of this. What would be your message to people who are in power about what they can do, what they should do and what the half a million or so folks on any given night who don’t have a safe place to call home need them to be thinking about?
ADAMS: Well, affordable housing is important because there are people like once they, well first the Housing First programs are the first step. And then if you want to progress from there, you do need affordable housing. And some people are encouraged, well it’s time for me to go to work but if I go to work, now I’m going to lose my voucher because I’m making too much for the voucher but not enough to live anywhere. So that means I’m going back to the shelter again. So both of those play a role. Affordable housing as well as homelessness services, there need to be a lot more resources there for homelessness services as far as giving people that step up. Maybe we can spend that $5 billion on housing.
VALLAS: Amen, and you’re throwing numbers around, people are talking about repealing the estate tax for the ultra ultra rich, people with estates that are $5 million or more, for the cost of repealing the estate tax we could end homelessness in America and have some change left over. Something to think about, now Waldon, an immediate proposal from the Trump administration and from his Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, they have a proposal about homelessness and affordable housing except it’s the triple the poorest families’ rents in this country. What would happen if we saw that kind of major slashing of affordable housing.
ADAMS: Yeah, that’s kind of strange, housing is already unaffordable and now you’re going to make it unaffordable for people who can afford housing. How does that work out? There are some people that can’t, they’re stuck to a certain income and they’re stuck there. They have a permanent income, a fixed income and they’re going to raise that up so how is that a solution? I don’t understand how that’s a solution to anything. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.
VALLAS: Waldon Adams is a lifelong resident of DC, he’s an outreach specialist at Pathways to Housing DC and he is a person, as he’s been describing who has experienced homelessness off and on for nearly three decades. Waldon thank you so much for your work, for taking the time to come on the show and for your incredibly powerful essay.
ADAMS: Yes and thank you for bringing this to light.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas, the show is produced each week by Will Urquhart. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @offkiltershow and you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the WeAct Radio Network or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.