In Ohio, Liz Brown Tackles Poverty, Family Leave, And Political Cynicism

What on earth could move a woman to decide in under a day to quit her job and run for public office — while eight months pregnant? Newly elected and inaugurated Columbus City Councilwoman Liz Brown says she answered the call to serve so she could better tackle systemic poverty and bring real paid family leave to her city.

“One thing I really couldn’t do from where I sat in the Economic Development office is focus in and work on poverty issues and issues of social importance to me,” Brown told me.

We were chatting over the holidays, as she was preparing to take office while caring for her newborn daughter. I was excited to talk to her because the “Issues” tab of her website — which her campaign manager Brooke Wojdynski tells me 31-year-old Brown outlined and wrote herself — has the word poverty in bold. In fact, two of her primary objectives are real world economy focused: “Fighting Poverty” and “Good-paying Jobs.”

It doesn’t take long to see Brown as the kind of legislator we don’t hear much about in national politics: a young, enthusiastic woman with a talent for connecting statistics to real stories and the confidence that she can make a difference. Stories like hers are drowned out by the latest on who made the adults’ table at the next GOP debate (Sorry, Senator Paul) and which candidate has taken the lead in outlandishly misogynistic overtures toward Hillary Clinton.

We don’t get the chance to see earnestness in our political culture very often, which makes rising stars like Brown a welcome break from the norm.

While Brown’s love for Columbus is clear — “I love the Midwest. That fidelity of the Midwest is visceral in some way, you can’t put words to it.” — she doesn’t shy away from the reality the residents of her city face; she is a cheerleader with a game plan.

“We’re a growing city in Columbus. And we have — because of that — a growing poverty problem that we have to address,” she said, briefly pausing before explaining her other powerful motivator: the news that her family was about to grow as well.

“Then earlier in the year when I found out I was pregnant, I realized our paid family leave laws for the city of Columbus were pretty bad — and they were just as bad all over the state of Ohio. So, I was a union member and I started organizing in my union — CWA Local 4502 — a platform to say we want to negotiate for better paid family leave policy.”

When Councilwoman Michelle Mills resigned in early August amid ethics questions, a vacancy was left on a board that had been filled via appointment rather than election since 1997. While preparing for the birth of her first child, Brown had less than a day to decide she was jumping in the race — declining to be appointed to the remainder of the term so that she could campaign for true constituent support. Her frustration at attempting to implement improved paid family leave policy through her union, and through traveling to organize in other municipalities, played a role in her quick decision to get in the race.

“Columbus was not behind the times in terms of other public entities, so there was a lot of work to do all over the state,” she said. “It was just one more thing so close to home for me that I wanted to get into elected leadership and push for change.”

Which is exactly what she’s doing.

Fighting For Improved Paid Family Leave

The first thing on Brown’s agenda is passing an improved paid family leave policy for the city — a goal she hopes to achieve during her first year.

With a total workforce of about 8,500 people, just helping municipal workers would affect a large number of households. And she’s not limiting this to new moms who physically need time off to recover and typically carry the bulk of the burden with newborn caregiving. She learned firsthand just how much paternity leave matters as well.

“I had read about the importance of paternity leave,” she said. “Then I had my daughter and I was like ‘Wow, this is really critical!’ My husband only got a week of paternity leave, and he had to kind of fashion that with duct tape to even get that. And it was tough — and I have tons of family in town.”

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Brown also explained that well-written paid family leave policies aren’t just about inclusive laws for parents — it’s also important to make sure adoptive and foster parents get time off just like birth parents typically do. Comprehensive paid family leave also includes people caring for aging parents, as well as siblings with disabilities and illnesses.

Few cities and states have passed paid family leave; the U.S. is woefully behind the rest of the world in parental leave laws alone, so a campaign promise to push it through a city council during her first year sounds rather ambitious. Brown is optimistic, though, and sees her city as a potential incubator for change — one of the reasons I was so excited to talk to her. The Columbus city council has a reputation for working well together, and the opportunity to see what kind of legislation and policies might be passed and tested, and then exported elsewhere, is an enticing thought.

“When I think about the Midwest I think about, first of all, it’s a huge portion of the country. The city of Columbus is 500 miles from 50% of the U.S. population,” she explained. “We have a lot of incredible economic promise — we’re a growing city for that reason, and we have a diverse economy . . . That excites me — being an enclave in the middle of the Midwest that is just incredibly well positioned to realize the new identity of the Midwest. We’re also the 15th biggest city [population 835,957].”

I double checked: Columbus is, indeed, the 15th largest city in the country, with just 15,000 or so fewer people than San Francisco.

“Being the 15th biggest city, we’re big enough to have big-city problems and we’re small enough to be able to come together to solve them. We’re just shy of a million people, and so there’s this great collaborative spirit that I think civic, private, and public leaders have about solving our challenges because we are the size that we are.”

Taking On Poverty

Brown isn’t just sunshine and roses. She’s well-grounded in the reality of the “two-city” situation in Columbus; the economy isn’t working for everyone. The child poverty rate in Ohio is up 5% from 2008 to 23% — ranking the state at 23rd overall despite the unemployment rate falling to 5.2%.

On the campaign trail, Brown talked about the lack of public transit — stat site FiveThirtyEight.com ranks Columbus 122nd in the country — and she is on the board of directors for the YWCA, which serves homeless families and has given her an up-close look at how one poorly-timed tragedy can create desperation with few resources to truly help.

“When I think about a seemingly intractable issue like the rising wealth gap and poverty rate, if we’re going to find out how not to treat just the symptoms, but treat the root cause of problems like that, I think Columbus is a place where we can do that.”

“Root causes” of poverty — a rare topic for an elected official to bring up at all, let alone voluntarily. I asked Brown why politicians and candidates rarely discuss poverty or even use the word because, as someone who has lived the majority of my adult life at or below the poverty line, it remains a perpetual frustration of mine.

“Well, it takes a community-wide conversation. It takes the ability for leaders to home in on scary statistics and capture everyone’s attention,” she said. “I’ll give you an example: here in Columbus . . . we have scary high infant mortality rates, which are a symptom of poverty. In one of our neighborhoods — Linden — 23 out of every 1,000 babies die before they turn one. Those are the kind of rates you see in developing countries, not industrialized nations.”

Brown told me that a group of community leaders recently got together to ask: “What is wrong in our city that people are so poor, this is happening?” Together, they used the rather heartbreaking and shocking Linden statistic to galvanize people.

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“I think that [kind of coordination] can help us start to have the space to talk about poverty and address it. But then you have to couple that with leaders . . . and elected officials who are willing to prioritize poverty.”

The issues of poverty and paid family leave don’t of course, exist in a vacuum. For Brown, paid family leave is an important part of tackling the infant mortality rate — both from a common sense and progressive viewpoint, and also from a proven research standpoint. It turns out that when paid family leave rates go up, infant mortality rates go down. Her experience at the YWCA has informed her on the intersection of issues that lead to real crisis for real people, and a policy that can provide immediate relief and long-term benefits to root causes are the jackpot.

“A reality of poverty is that you’re one crisis away from losing your home, from losing your job,” said Brown. “A common story [at the YWCA] for homeless families is: ‘my kid was sick; I couldn’t leave them in school; I had to go pick them up; I was on my shift at a job that doesn’t give me any paid sick time; one strike and you’re out.’ When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, one strike and you’re out also means you lose your home.”

While she emphasizes the need to “strike the right balance” when providing immediate needs like a safe place to sleep and food, Brown immediately pairs that with addressing the underlying causes that bring people to the shelter in the first place. Shelters are an opportunity to treat the symptom of poverty, she explained, but they don’t treat the root causes like a lack of paid sick time and affordable housing. She doesn’t see a conflict between assisting those in desperate circumstances today and allocating funds to ensure the overall need is reduced; it’s all a matter of how we spend our money.

“Despite the wealth of our country, too few people are living with the benefits of it,” said Brown.

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While the benefits of legislation, funding, and donations can be seen immediately — like when someone is in a bed instead of on a street — it can be harder to explain messy systemic problems and provide a long-term timeline for visible results. Brown told me that doing both simultaneously is about providing bandaids while pushing for solutions that reduce the overall need.

“If the wound is open you can’t ignore it; you have to try to heal it,” she said. “So, what we do to support food banks and homeless shelters is incredibly critical for vulnerable residents in Columbus. But at the same time we do have to — and I believe we can, by spending money in a smart way — not only fund the homeless end of the housing spectrum, but address the affordable housing crisis.”

Brown told me about a plan that started with a coalition of nonprofits who have a goal of shoring up 27,000 units over the next year. They’re planning to use existing housing stock that hasn’t been kept up, assess what can be repaired and improved, and outline what can be built and subsidized. Creating more affordable housing and passing comprehensive paid family leave would combine to drastically reduce homelessness and the cycle of poverty that begins when kids don’t have a safe place to sleep and therefore struggle in school.

“And, by the way,” Brown quickly added, “having a safe and dignified place to lay your head is really good for adults too. It’s not just about kids, right? If you want adults who can show up to work on time and can put in 100% at work, they need to have a safe place to lay their head at night too.”

A Legacy Of Change

While I don’t ascribe to the capitalistic, worker-driven reason for needing a dignified place to live, Brown sounds to me like she’s just stretching her bipartisan wings a bit with a nod to the fiscally conservative sector that needs more than a human rights’ motivation to spend taxpayer dollars on housing. It’s not just her affable demeanor or the background interviews with people who couldn’t say enough nice things about her that have given me that impression. Her upbringing stacked the deck for an early entry into elected office.

“My whole family really emphasized that your footprint is all you leave behind,” said Brown. “So, the way you walk through the world and what you do to make an impact is who you are.”

When I asked her about jumping into the family business — public service — she quickly transitioned to a favorite story about her dad, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown:

“I’m so proud of him. When I was 9 or 10, my sister and he and I were leaving church; we had to leave right before the final hymn to make it to an event. And a man saw us start to leave, got up quickly, and chased us out. This was when my dad was in the U.S. House. [The man] said ‘Congressman, I just want to thank you.’ He thanked him profusely and I could see it as a 10-year-old in his eyes — this real gratitude for something my dad had done.
“What I learned later was that the vote the man was thanking him for was against DOMA in 1996, which only 60-some in a 435-person body voted against. I’m obviously very proud of my dad’s liberal credentials and true progressivism, but beyond that, really what that story means to me — and I always get a little choked up telling it — is that the point of public service is individual impact, human impact. It’s always about the people you’re fighting for. No cause is faceless; we do this because it matters in real people’s lives.”
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