McCormack Speaks

August 6, 2020
by jackli001
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Minimum Wage Continues to Stifle Economic Mobility in Massachusetts

Stephanie Haynes, MPA Candidate, Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs

Stephanie Philippe (Haynes), MPA Candidate, Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs

Back when I first graduated from the University of Massachusetts – Boston (UMB), I thought for sure that I deserved and earned my way to a life of high salaries and comfortable living. To me, I earned the right to be paid above minimum wage and people who earned minimum wage just need to work harder. It wasn’t until I had to live a real life (i.e. one that was not supported by family) that I realized minimum-wage workers are hard workers and in many instances, they are working harder than us.

One of the things that I think drives this sort of thinking is the perception of who is and who is not ‘deserving’ in our society. Crippled by social biases, many people believe that if someone is making little money it is because they didn’t work hard enough to make more. But the truth is I know people who have worked hard all their lives yet they still make way less than they need to live. Livable minimum wages help address issues of poverty. They are not a handout; rather, they should be seen as setting the financial foundation down equally, so people can be self-reliant. That way people get the chance to always move forward.

Poverty comes in all different forms. To be mindful of that, we have found ways to try to measure poverty – Absolute Poverty and Relative Poverty. When it comes to Absolute Poverty, society agrees that this is when someone is barely able to secure even the most minimal of necessities (i.e.: clothes, a home, hygiene). Here, we try to consider human basic needs and, if you cannot secure those things for yourself or provide them to your family unit, you might be living in absolute poverty. Relative Poverty measures poverty a little differently. “In this case, poverty is defined as having incomes below a certain level relative to the median income in a country. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ( uses a relative measure, defining poverty as 50 percent of the median disposable income in a given country. The relative poverty standard then changes with median incomes (Weller, 2019)”. This means you are able to provide and maintain housing, food, and shelter but, compared to many others, you are deeply struggling.

Imagine, you have been saving to buy a home for the past 10-15 years with the goal of being able to move into a good neighborhood with a monthly mortgage of $1,000-$1,250. This is the American dream and you have a job, so maintaining this home on a $40,000 salary is all you will be doing. After taking out a mortgage, your annual take home salary has already been lowered by $12,000-$15,000 annually. You are left with $25,000, which has to cover your other necessities (food, transportation, utilities, credit cards). Additionally, you may have other bills that you must pay out of that salary. By the time you have finished paying your mandatory bills, you are left with a small pool of remaining disposable income and, as such, it becomes very difficult to move up without making some serious concessions. In the real world, a lot of people do not get to be paid $40k; for them, life is a constant struggle. How can you thrive under those conditions?

Raising the minimum wage would mean that families do not have to decide between paying bills, eating, securing other basic needs, or enjoying life. Even at a $15 minimum wage, individuals would only be making $28,800 which takes them only just above the poverty threshold. When you think about it that way, it begs the question: why are we making it so hard for people to have livable wages?  In our journey to end poverty, we must consider using the minimum wage as a tool to close the equity gap.

 

Reference:

Weller, C. E. (2019). Seventh lecture: Poverty, inequality and budgets. Retrieved from https://umb.umassonline.net/bbcswebdav/pid-3313944-dt-content-rid-26097425_1/courses/B2910-2382/LN, 7th Lecture, PUBADM G 602, Poverty and Inequality, Fall 2019.docx

August 6, 2020
by jackli001
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Mental Health in the Times of COVID-19 – Describing the Necessity for Greater Access

Jeney Zhang, MPA Candidate, Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs

Jeney Zhang, MPA Candidate, Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs

As we navigate these extraordinary times amid a global pandemic, economic closures, social distancing, and transitions to online learning have severely impacted the mental health and psyche of us all. The physiological impact of COVID-19 stretches far beyond the physical illness wrought by the disease; the new normal of isolation and quarantine is taking a mental toll. Society, as a whole, is now confronted with and needs to learn how to cope with the fear and anxiety of not only avoiding contracting the disease, but also the sense of economic, social, and academic uncertainty. The stress inflicted by the onset of the pandemic and its aftermath is driving a current mental health crisis. Nearly half of Americans report issues related to mental health due to the COVID-19 crisis and a hotline dedicated to emotional distress saw a more than 1,000% increase in April as compared to last year.

Massachusetts has begun taking steps to address this important issue. On March 15, Governor Charlie Baker issued an executive order requiring insurers to cover all “medically necessary” services via telehealth, including behavioral and mental health. While this is a step in the right direction, the underlying issues of mental health treatment in America still remain. This order expands people’s ability to access behavioral telehealth, but issues of mental health parity related to decisions of medical necessity and rate structures as compared to physical health must still be addressed. Though the stigma of mental illness has decreased in recent years, the treatment and management of it still do not measure up to standards of care associated with physical ailments.

The Massachusetts Legislature is currently working to address these critical barriers to improving access to mental health care. In early February, the state Senate unanimously approved the “Mental Health ABC Act”, designed to put mental health care on par with other physical forms of medical care, remove prior authorization from insurers before receiving care, and expand mental health access to underserved populations. The bill now heads to the Massachusetts House.

The Commonwealth and the whole of America have been in the throes of a mental health crisis for decades and the current COVID-19 pandemic only serves to exacerbate the issue and further expose our lack of preparedness to handle the crisis. Though governments actions to reduce barriers and provide greater access to mental health care are moving in the right direction, the fact remains we lack the proper infrastructure to provide the care needed. The mental health care system in America is vastly underfunded, fragmented, and ill-prepared to handle the volume of new cases sure to arise from this pandemic. Even prior to the current crisis, 1 in 5 US adults suffered from mental illnesses yet less than half receive the necessary treatment. We can hope a silver lining will be found amid current hardships. Perhaps, because the pandemic exposed the already-strained mental health resources and capacity in this country, renewed attention, funding, and planning will be given to this sector as we move forward and recover.

For those suffering during these trying times, the state, other government agencies, and the University Health Services at UMass Boston offer resources supporting mental health and strategies to cope. Prioritizing your mental health and coping with the added stress will make you stronger and better prepared to tackle this new normal, for however longer it may last.

July 9, 2020
by jackli001
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Black Lives Matter – A Juneteenth Post by Center for Social Policy

On this Juneteenth, we celebrate the end of slavery. But the horrific and painful lynching of George Floyd proves that Black people are not afforded the same inalienable rights as white people. I have taken the time to learn about the murders of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and many others who were senselessly killed by those we entrust to enforce the law. I send my condolences to their families and communities for the senseless and tragic loss of their lives.

While the Center for Social Policy has always focused on uncovering the root causes of inequities – racial, gender, and class – recent events prompted me to deepen my understanding of systemic racism. After losing myself in many book lists focused on racial injustice, I realized I could start with books already on my shelf, waiting to be read. I began with Stacey Abrams Lead from the Outside, which is both a memoir and a how-to on how Abrams created and achieved her many successes in law, politics, publishing, and non-profits. I recommend Lead from the Outside for anyone seeking to understand the barriers Black women face, the extraordinary hurdles they are forced to overcome, and strategies they can apply to create pathways to leadership.

To learn more about racial injustices and law enforcement, I watched 13th, a documentary which centers around the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlaws slavery except as a punishment for a crime. It graphically depicts, from the Civil War to the present day, how the law has been grossly and unfairly applied to Black Americans. It reveals how the law has been used to justify ongoing murder, mass criminalization, prison labor, and the growing prison industry. Next up, also already on my bookshelf, I plan to finish The New Jim Crow, which focuses on how the criminal justice system operates as a means of racial control, stripping prisoners and returning citizens not only of their basic right to vote, but also of their access to housing, employment, and public benefits.

Of course, it is understanding this intersection – the need for public benefits due especially to high housing costs combined with low paying jobs – that is the focal point of the Center for Social Policy. Workers in these low-pay jobs such as frontline healthcare employees or grocery cashiers have been rebranded as “essential workers” or “heroes.” No matter how essential their labor is to our basic needs of health and food, these jobs rarely pay a living wage, offer health benefits, paid leave, flexible schedules, or other benefits that those of us non-essential workers who are privileged to work from home take for granted. It is important to remember that these essential workers are disproportionately people of color.

As a result of these low quality jobs, many essential workers are at greater risk for food insecurity and homelessness. Consequently, they need to rely on public benefits to meet basic financial needs. The challenge of balancing public benefits with income is nearly impossible, due to the benefits cliff, where a small increase in income leads to a loss of critical supports, such as housing assistance.

Our research at CSP intends to end this “incarceration by social policy” that disproportionately traps Black Americans, especially Black mothers. Transformational change is needed, starting at the federal level, and it must go hand-in-hand with reforms in criminal justice. Without it, the freedom of Blacks from slavery and death will not go far enough, as families of color will still be unable to climb the economic ladder as they watch their white peers gain a hand up each step of the way.

What does Black Lives Matter mean for the Center for Social Policy, an applied research center? Our work includes research, evaluation, technical assistance, tools, and guides. Many of our projects already focus on racial equity, but now we commit to going deeper and being more intentional with each and every project. Specifically, every project CSP undertakes will follow these guidelines:

  • Continue to center the voices of Black people and other people of color, who are impacted by economic hardship, so that our work is grounded in their lived experience. In this way, our analysis will ensure that policies and practices will not create unintended consequences for Black people.
  • Increase the use of racial equity frameworks, employing tools and assessments such as those created by Race Forward. In that way, we will be better equipped to identify and develop solutions to better address systemic racism.
  • Specifically request that partners and key stakeholders include persons of color during the research process. Our work frequently involves interviewing community and business leaders. For these projects, we will request our interview targets include at least one interviewee of color as part of the process.
  • Continue attempts to disaggregate data by race, but now share more technical details when race data are not available. Sometimes race and ethnic data are not available because it is not provided by respondents or because doing so could cause concerns about identifying specific individuals, thereby destroying anonymity. But often it is not provided by public government agencies who are either not tracking it, or may have the data but refuse to share it. In those cases, we will provide more information about the ways the data were requested and why it was not provided.

The work is not easy. As an example, since we know that people of color are disproportionately poor, and that systemic racism is deeply embedded in our institutions and systems, we have designed a research study that explores the relationship between employment and public benefits from a racial lens. The planned study is both quantitative and qualitative, centering the voice of impacted Black families. The goal is to develop policy changes that will alleviate identified cliff effects to encourage family stability and economic mobility.

But over the past few years, the study was rejected by three funders, and it did not fit the criteria for two other funders we were targeting.

We will keep trying. Black families deserve more than merely a right to live and freedom from slavery. Black families deserve the right to live without violence, without health disparities, without economic hardship, and so much more.

In Justice,

Susan Crandall

Director, Center for Social Policy

June 8, 2020
by jackli001
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Ubuntu – Poem by James Whitacre

James Whitacre, PhD Student in Global Governance and Human Security & Research Associate, Center for Governance and Sustainability

Ubuntu 2020 Event

For me, the poem “Ubuntu” marks a moment of solidarity in our Pan-African Graduate Scholars Association. While we have different research areas as Africanists, Africans, and African American Africans, “Ubuntu” explores a place some call home. Through a geophysical-psychology blend (Kano’s granite, etc), the poem grounds itself in Nigeria’s regional socio-cultural realities. Paying tribute to difference (because unity is not uniformity), the poem highlights a shared human orientation to the current Covid-19 scourge. A mirror peck of the ocean which is Ubuntu’s traditional meaning, this contemporary poem invites readers to transcend our “selves”, use our hearts, and contemplate our interconnection to our communities and the human whole.

One Professor,

With roots to one place,

Where 500 languages live,

In the hearts of 200 million people,

Whose feet walk, where soil speaks,

Loose sand Norths,

Granite in Kano,

Red Savannas,

Forest Souths,

Many people, sharing an orientation,

To the coming and going,

of droughts and floods.

 

Nigeria…

Now a land of who lives and who dies,

Because of a disease named after a crown,

One Professor,

With roots to one place,

Taught me one word,

Which our whole world needs now more than ever,

while we wait out this common drought:

Ubuntu. Ubuntu. Ubuntu.

“I am because you are.”

January 31, 2020
by jackli001
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National Academy of Social Insurance Recognizes McCormack School Professor’s Innovative Proposal

By McCormack Graduate School

Photo of Christian Weller, Professor, Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs

Social Security is a bedrock benefit in the United States, but are there opportunities to innovate to better serve older Americans?

Christian Weller, PhD, a McCormack Graduate School Professor in the Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs, is researching solutions to support older unemployed workers who frequently face age discrimination or severe health issues – but who don’t yet qualify for full Social Security benefits.

“The current system is particularly pernicious for [these workers],” said Dr Weller. “This is because the United States’ disability insurance system is the strictest in the world and often excludes workers who, in reality, cannot reasonably work longer.”

In December, Dr. Weller was awarded and recognized by the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI), in collaboration with AARP, for his proposal: “A New Bridge Benefit under Social Security,” co-authored with Rebecca Vallas, a disability policy expert at the Center for American Progress, and Stephanie Lessing, a doctoral student in the McCormack Graduate School’s Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs.

“We are proposing to add a new benefit to Social Security, one that would be higher than early retirement benefits but below full retirement benefits,” said Dr. Weller. “It will build a bridge into full retirement for workers who need to leave the labor force early.”

To pay for this new benefit, the team of experts calls for an end to the current system of tax deductions and exclusions for retirement savings. Dr. Weller says, “The federal government should use that money to create progressive universal savings credits and transfer some of that money to Social Security to pay for the benefit.”

The team believes older adults will achieve three major benefits should the proposal be enacted:

  • Gaining financial security – The chance of ending up in poverty due to no fault of their own would be sharply reduced for older workers who can no longer work.
  • Reducing hardships – Cut the likelihood that people will experience material struggles such as an inability to pay their rent.
  • Promote passive saving – Lower-income workers would get more help saving for retirement from the tax code than is currently the case.

The proposal was one in a package of four policy ideas that, together, begin to address problems associated with retirement insecurity. The four winning proposals, each of which was awarded $20,000, were selected through a process of blind reviews by a panel of judges, with the complementary nature of the proposals a key consideration.

The recognition reflects Professor Weller and his co-authors’ expertise in tax policy as well as the McCormack School’s focus on effective government social equity at the local and global levels. Dr. Weller continues to apply his extensive research on retirement income, wealth inequality and economic policy through the Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs’ academic programs.

“Older workers still face a lot of labor market discrimination,” said Dr. Weller. “They often have no other choice than to accept permanently reduced early retirement benefits. In the past five years, the labor market has improved for older workers. The time to prepare for an increase in older worker’s economic vulnerability is now.”

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