The Racism and Rural-Urban Divide Behind Work Requirement Exemptions

New Orleans   Imposing work requirements to punish the poor seems to be spreading like a virus around the country.  It’s an ugly, mean spirited kind of thing, but a closer look at the way state politicians are trying to carve out exemptions to these requirements reveals even more about the self-serving blindness behind the exemptions and the direct racism and parochial bias at work.  Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia are among the states trying to both impose work and carve out exceptions.

Michigan seems among the most blatant.  There white legislators are trying to punish the poor in the cities where minority populations dominate while protecting their own constituents in rural, white areas by exempting anyone living in counties that are suffering from 8.5% statistically recorded unemployment.  I say “statistical” because virtually no expert in labor economics believes that we accurately capture real levels of unemployment.  I don’t want to get on a tangent though, because in Michigan there are no legislators who do not know the dire poverty experienced in many cities like Detroit and Flint, and the extreme level of unemployment in these cities or the fact that the populations are majority minority, yet by making counties the trigger area for the exemption, the work requirements will block access to benefits there.

The Department of Agriculture in dealing with work requirements for food stamps for example classifies smaller geographical areas as “labor surplus” areas in order to provide exemptions.  This is certainly better if policy makers were trying to be fair rather than punitive, but it’s still not good enough.

Why aren’t other factors relevant as qualifications for exemption like access to affordable transportation.  Once again Michigan’s majority Republican legislators are revealing their true selves on this count.  Auto insurance is ridiculously high for residents of the city of Detroit.  On the doors with ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign there we were finding rates that ran $4 to $6000 per year.  When families owned cars, they were often registering them with friends or family who lived outside of the city or riding naked, both of which have risks.

Lawyers and others rightly point out that these kinds of exemptions in Michigan and around the country are inviting civil rights lawsuits by the score.  We better hope they are filed quickly, because people could starve without access to food stamps, die homeless because they are blocked from housing by new requirements proposed by HUD, or fall at the doorways of hospital because work requirements in many states block them from Medicaid.

The America of forced work and denied benefits is a brutish and nasty place.

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Bringing Our People to the Graduation Line – Go Pounce!

New Orleans     What is “pounce?”  I actually know, because I’ve spent time over a bunch of years in the downtown campus of Georgia State University.  This blue panther head seems to be everywhere around the sprawling and expanding downtown campus.  Walking from the parking lots up and down the hills in Atlanta near the capitol to the classrooms of the School of Social Work or the cafeteria or the popular Waffle House, I sometimes wonder how many years it will be before the school has grown so large that it will be running programs in the capitol hearing rooms during their recesses.  It might actually be a good thing, because the record of GSU in many areas is becoming a benchmark for others, which is not the same thing many of us can say about the legislative accomplishments in that building.

GSU is getting some recognition for something that is obvious to any of us that have spent time in their classrooms or with their students.  This is a diverse campus where African-Americans are everywhere, not speckled about here and there.  The leadership of GSU is paving the way by doing the “right” thing, rather than the popular thing.  Rather than trying to rejigger their curriculum and scholarships to chase after big, rich state and elite universities, they have focused on how to bring their student population success.  For example, in the last five years, Georgia State University has awarded more bachelor’s degrees to African-Americans than any other nonprofit college or university in the country.  They have developed programs to bring their students to the finish line, not just run them through the application mill.

It’s not just African-Americans either.  The Hechinger Report in 2016 reported that:

From 2003 to 2015, according to GSU, its graduation rate (finishing a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting) for African-American students rose from 29 to 57 percent. For Hispanic students, it went from 22 to 54 percent. By 2014, for lower-income students (those eligible for a federal Pell grant), it reached 51 percent — nearly the same as for non-Pell students. Its graduation rate for first-generation students went up 32 percent between 2010 and 2014.

 

We’re talking about success across the board on those metrics at a time when we read daily about the hand-wringing of elite and other schools with way more resources bemoaning the fact that they can neither recruit not graduate lower income and minority students even though they keep drinking at the same well and doing the same things over and over.

Luckily, other institutions both here and abroad are studying how GSU is pouncing on this situation.  Maybe they’ll learn something, maybe not.

From my experience I can tell you one thing for certain:  it’s hands’ on.  When ACORN has been involved in several practicums on issues like remittances with undergrads and predatory installment land contracts with graduate students, there’s constant attention and discipline in the professor’s expectations, not just an online grade eval like I receive from some of our other university partners in the US and Canada.  Heck, the professor in our just completed program got out and doorknocked with the student team and showed them some tips on the street.  That’s the kind of involvement that moves students – and the rest of us – to the finish line, as all four of our team got their Masters in Social Work (MSW).  Of course, the professor was Dr. Fred Brooks, former ACORN organizer and canvass director, so who would be surprised, but the fact that he is there on the ground with GSU says something amazing about their program – and accomplishments – as well.

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