Rick Smith shares the story behind The Rick Smith Show — PLUS: Joe Sandberg on why he founded Working Hero Action.
This week on Off-Kilter, we continue our series of August conversations with a few of the “interesting progressives” doing interesting work on poverty, inequality, and the issues they intersect with, whom we got to catch up with on Radio Row and Netroots Nation this year. This week, we’ve lined up conversations with Rick Smith, the host of the Rick Smith Show, who you may or may not know works as a full-time union truck driver when he’s not on the airwaves in Pennsylvania; Joe Sandberg, a millionaire turned EITC nerd and the founder of Working Hero Action. PLUS: we bring back Rebecca’s conversation with Alastair Gee of The Guardian on being the only homelessness editor at a major U.S. publication.
This week’s guests:
- Rick Smith, host of The Rick Smith Show
- Joe Sandberg, founder of Working Hero Action
- Alastair Gee, homelessness editor at The Guardian
This week’s transcript:
♪ I work and get paid like minimum wage
sights to hit the class by the end of the day
hot from downtown into the hood where I stay
the only place I can afford ’cause my block ain’t saved
I spend most of my time working, trying to bring in…. ♪
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. This week on Off-Kilter, we are continuing our series of August conversations with a few of the interesting progressives doing interesting work on poverty, inequality, and the things they intersect with who we got to catch up with on Radio Row at Netroots Nation this year. This week we’ve lined up conversations with Rick Smith, the host of the Rick Smith Show who you may or may not know works as a full-time union truck driver when he’s not on the airwaves in Pennsylvania. Also, Joe Sanberg, a millionaire turned EITC nerd and the founder of a Working Hero Action. Plus, we bring back my conversation with Alistair Gee of The Guardian on being the only homelessness editor at a major U.S. publication. Let’s take a listen.
Well, Rick, I have to say it is such a pleasure, having been on your show a number of times, to finally have you on Off-Kilter. Thank you so much for taking the time.
RICK SMITH: You are absolutely one of our favorite guests, hands down.
VALLAS: Well, I always love coming on. Well, and what I thought would be really fun for our listeners, because I think a lot of folks who listen Off-Kilter also probably listen to the Rick Smith Show, one of the progressive stalwart shows out there for a long time. But they might not know much about you and your story and how you came to host a radio show, you’re a lot more than just a radio host. I say that with great respect for radio hosts. So, Rick, would you tell a little bit of the story behind how you came to host the show?
SMITH: Yeah. Well, it was after George Bush got re-elected, and…. Well, after John Kerry conceded in 2004, I basically moved to hell. I moved to central Pennsylvania. Having grown up in Cleveland, it was kind of culture shock, a very different kind of environment. The first five people I met thought the Civil War was still going on or that they were going to be able to refight it and win next time. So, it was kind of culture shock for me. And trying to be part of the community, I went to Democratic Party meetings and tried to be involved in that. And that really kind of didn’t go anywhere. But while at one of the meetings, we were talking about how can we change things? How can we get messaging out? And I suggested you should start a radio show. Not that I would ever be anywhere near the microphone. I wanted no part of it. But I thought you need to build something to communicate with people.
Because look, as a 30-year truck driver and a Teamster, all my Teamster buddies were listening to Glenn Beck in the morning, Hannity in the afternoon, Limbaugh you. Go down the list of all of the right wing blather they were consuming. And they were regurgitating those same talking points. So, it was my view that you add some balance to the airwaves. Give them something else to listen to, maybe the other side of the coin, and try and compete a little bit. So, we decided we were going to — the four of us, Aaron, Sharon, and Cece and I, we decided we’re going to do this. And I went out and raised some money for my labor friends. We were able to buy some airtime on a small station in our community, and we began doing it. And as time went on, people fell off. And what we had built was actually fairly popular in the area. We had a lot of really great interaction. And as people fell off, I ended up picking up the mantle and going forward with it. So, I say I kind of fell into something I never wanted to do, wanted no part of it. I’m not a guy who will stand up on the table and say, “Hey! Look at me!” But this is kind of what it’s turned into.
VALLAS: It’s striking to me how similar these origin stories are behind our two shows actually, and that’s more than I knew about all the backdrop there. What people may not know is that this is far from your full-time job. You actually have a full-time job. You drive a truck.
SMITH: Yes. Yeah, I’m a working Teamster. At the end of the day, this isn’t a career. This isn’t a job for me. This is my passion. And I think that comes out in our programs. I have people say, “You know, I listen to you. I don’t agree with you, but I’ve never heard anybody as passionate about what you do.” And I think that comes out in how our programs come off.
VALLAS: So, how is the show received by the labor movement? Tell a little bit of the story of where it is now. And I ask that question at a moment in time where the state of the labor movement is incredibly, shall we say, precarious. I think that’s probably overly charitable —
SMITH: They’re struggling.
VALLAS: — in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Jeff Janus decision that really struck a chord in the heart of the labor movement and its funding. Now folks are probably familiar with that decision. It’s probably worth reminding a little bit of what it was. But it’s that kind of a moment that I really feel makes your show even more important than it ever really has been before. How is your show taking on the moment that we’re in for the state of the labor movement?
SMITH: Well, I mean what you have now are people who are finally realizing that labor is under attack. For a very long time, people thought oh, we’re going to be okay. We’ll whether this paper cut or that paper cut. This was a fairly fatal blow. This is turning the entire country into a right to work country for all public sector workers.
VALLAS: Which, of course, is one of those wonderful conservative misnomers, right? Because we know right to work actually is an attack on workers.
SMITH: Absolutely. Or as my labor friends say, the right to work for less. Which is ultimately what it is: less health care. I think Zach Wamp, the congressman from Tennessee, once was on I think it was the Lawrence O’Donnell Show where he was talking about VW. He said, “You know, Volkswagen invested in Tennessee, a right to work state with lower wages and less health care.” You couldn’t have come up with a better soundbite than that because they’re proud of it. They’re proud of the fact that you have no rights, you have no voice, and you’re paid less than everybody else! They’re actually proud of that. That’s, to me, one of those really insane moments why any working person would ever vote for these people.
VALLAS: What do you see as the topics that your show is in a position to take on that you don’t see represented in other mainstream media?
SMITH: I think worker-centric issues. I mean the fact that we have wages that’ve been stagnant for 40 years, health care benefits that are being more paid for by employees than employers, and retirement security that’s now completely gone. You know, when I began working, a defined benefit pension was the standard. At the end of your work, you got x amount of dollars regardless of anything. You had health care that was paid for by the employer. You didn’t pay any of it. Now we’re in a situation where there’s no more defined benefits. That’s the dinosaur. It’s dying off. We’ve got these defined contributions that no one is getting. The average 401(k) is what, about 18 grand across the country. Who can retire on that? No one. We’ve got wages that are stagnant. Then you got health care benefits that the workers are actually paying the brunt of the freight. Explain to me where all that money went. That massive redistribution of wealth from people who work and actually produce the profits up to the, well, our billionaire class. And I always like to say look, we’ve created the largest billionaire class in the history of civilization, and they’re not even grateful for it.
VALLAS: Now we’re having a conversation at Netroots Nation. This is one of the conversations I’m having with kind of leaders in the progressive space who have really interesting stories to tell. A lot of the conference at Netroots this year, because it is in Philadelphia, is very focused on Philly. I haven’t seen a lot at the conference or really anything that acknowledges the rest of the state, which actually is where a lot of the poverty is —
SMITH: Well, into Pennsylvania.
VALLAS: — that’s hidden. It’s not the Philadelphia, the face of poverty in a lot of ways in this country, given that it’s the poorest big city in the country. What is the state of things in Pennsylvania when you get outside of Philly where most of the cameras are?
SMITH: Well, I mean I think you have a lot of the same problems you have everywhere. You have a lot of poverty, you have a lot of low-wage jobs, and a lot of people struggling. I mean at the end of the day, the big cities have their problems. The rural areas have similar problems with poverty. Only, I think they hide it a lot better. To me, poor is poor. You know, as a kid who grew up in a housing project on the West side of Cleveland, I understand what it’s like at the end of the month: there’d be nothing in the cupboards. I understand what it’s like to not be able to afford to pay for medical costs or food on the table or worrying about if you’re gonna be homeless. And I always believe that people don’t want handouts. People want jobs.
And I did a panel here on how you’re going to win back the working class. And I said the way you win back the working class is you help them. How are you going to make their lives better? How are you going to make sure that they’re able to keep a roof over their kids’ head, put food on their kids’ table? How are you going to make sure that they don’t have to worry about if their child falls and breaks an arm that it’s going to break them? How are you going to push policy that’s going to do that? Because for 40 years, Democrats have either been complacent or actively destroying those things that did that in the past. The Democratic Party used to be the party of we, the working people. I don’t know where they are today.
VALLAS: Well, let’s talk a little bit about that because — and that was going to be sort of my next question with — the panel you were just referencing and part of the conversation you’re part up here at Netroots this year is about winning back the working class. That’s sort of one of those buzzword phrases that gets thrown around all the time, and it’s seen as the Holy Grail in the wake of 2016 when a lot of folks on the left started to wake up and realize maybe we weren’t reaching the people we thought we were reaching and who we thought we sort of had in the bank, right, as part of our base. And the white working class in particular has probably received outsized attention relative to the broader working class, which we know is a lot more diverse than just white folks.
SMITH: Right. I didn’t say white working class.
VALLAS: You didn’t, but a lot of folks in the media do. That’s something I think you acknowledge in a much more fulsome way than many others. What is your message about how we can do better? It’s yes, obviously about advancing the right kinds of policies. And a lot of those conversations happen at this conference every year. But it’s also about how we talk to people and whether we’re talking to people as opposed to just about them, right?
VALLAS: And that’s something you talk a lot about on your show.
SMITH: Absolutely. I mean at the end of the day, Democratic voters, you know, we talk a little bit about the Reagan era Democrats. The reality is they were talking to them. And this is the thing that the right has done masterfully that the left has never been able to do. And I would argue that the right invests much more heavily in infrastructure for media, be it radio, television, digital platforms. They do much more than the left does. And I look here at Netroots Nation. You look at Radio Row here. There are a handful of programs here. You’ve been to CPAC. You’ve seen their Radio Rows. It’s like six times this. They invest in the vehicles to get their message out.
And they don’t call the working class stupid. This is one of my big gripes about the left is they think every working-class person is an uneducated, knuckle-dragging mouth breather. And the reality is that’s not true. These are people who love what they do, they work with their hands, and that should be something that we reward, something we respect. The sad reality in my lifetime, I’ve seen us move from really respecting someone who has a trade, someone who can take a sheet of metal or a block of wood and turn it into something, to now we degrade that work. Now if you’re not wearing a tie and sitting in the corner office, we don’t respect that. And I’m hoping that changes, and the left has been one of those entities that’s looked at those folks with a kind of a jaundiced eye and used them as the useful idiot. Well, they’re not stupid. They’re not knuckle-dragging mouth breathers. They are intelligent folks who look, they know when they’re being used.
And this is what I think the last election kind of was about. You had Hillary in West Virginia go, well, all those coal jobs are going. Where you had Trump who was going, we’re bringing them back. We’re gonna make America great. You’re great. You’re a great American. It’s a whole difference. Now, is it B.S.. Absolutely? But it’s a whole different way of talking to them.
VALLAS: Rick, one of the things that you and I have talked about off the airwaves before and which is one of the reasons that your show is a lot more rare than I wish it were, and mine too, is how hard it can be to create and then keep funded platforms that actually are covering issues about poverty, about working-class Americans, about the absence of extensive resources. You were talking about the comparison to what Radio Row at CPAC might look like. I will confess I have not been there, so I can’t tell you I know what it looks like. But I can guess, and I’m hearing you describe it. And the resources poured into that kind of a right-wing media infrastructure is no secret. Tell a little bit of your experience putting a show on the airwaves, keeping a show on the airwaves that costs money to produce. It takes time to produce. But it isn’t really where the money is.
SMITH: Although if you’re looking to get rich, this ain’t it.
SMITH: This is not where you’re going to make money. And look, I have my job. My career is what it is. This is my passion. This is what I wake up every day thinking about: how are we going to change the world? How are we going to fight the good fight?. How are we going to make things better for my children? You know, I talk about myself an awful lot in the program. My upbringing was one of poverty. I grew up in a place where I’ve seen people beaten, stabbed, shot. I have seen man’s inhumanity to man front row. Our house was robbed numerous times of not possessions but of food. I mean that’s the kind of desperation that my children, because of my union card, are never going to see. I’m never going to have to look my kids in the eye and know that they’re hungry, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And as a parent, I want that for no child. Not just for myself, but for no one. In the richest country in the history of civilization at its richest point, that’s the least we should be able to do is to make sure no child goes to bed hungry, and no parent has to be in that position.
I’m a big fan of work. We should have public works programs and make sure every person has a job, unquestioningly. And for me, those are the things that I think are really important. On the funding part, there’s no money in this. We eke by. Our labor friends support us to the point where we can pay our bills. But this isn’t a lucrative living. So, if you’re think of getting into left politics and left radio, maybe something else.
VALLAS: But how do we get to the place where we have more of this kind of content, more of these platforms that are led by and giving voice to people who themselves are impacted by the policies that otherwise are getting treated in such an nuanced and often myth-based way in the mainstream media?
SMITH: You got to invest in it. Look, at the end of the day, it comes down to investment. I’ve talked to wealthy donors. And on the left, they fund politicians. On the right, they understand you have to build infrastructure. You know, you listen to the fact that Rush Limbaugh at one time was on something like 1,200 radio stations across this country. You couldn’t go from one end of the country to the other without hearing him the entire way. That wasn’t by accident. That was because they invested in it, they stuck with it, and they understand that they’ve got to be in people’s ears, in their eyes, and on their minds 24/7, 365. Which is why you have so many working people who now espouse values that the right has been pumping into their mind for so long.
Give you a quick story. I have a Teamster buddy of mine who said, during contract time, he goes, “You know, if there was no union here, we’d make more money.” And I said, “Well, if that’s the case, why are you still here? And where is that place? Let’s find that unicorn. Show me where it’s at.” Now he couldn’t because it doesn’t exist, but it’s what he was led to believe because that’s what he heard on the radio. He simply was regurgitating what he had heard. And over my 30 years, I had a front row seat to this entire bill. When Limbaugh started, it was a joke. He was the outlier. He was the guy who everybody was, “Aw, that’s impossible.” But because they’ve been hammering us for so long, it’s now the mainstream thought. We’ve got to do that kind of investment in infrastructure, that kind of investment in coordinated messaging. You know, the one thing that I think most talk radio listeners don’t understand is how coordinated the message is, how it really is political theater.
Every day, I was just telling somebody, every day I get emails from the RNC, from the Heritage Foundation, from Judicial Watch, from all these groups who are saying, hey, this is the issue of the day. Here are two or three guests. Here are clips for you to play. They basically program every radio show in the country in a very coordinated and thoughtful process. And they’ve been doing it for decades. There was a couple of years, about 10 years ago, the scandal Limbaugh was paying people to call into the show. Political theater is what that is.
VALLAS: In the last couple of minutes that we have, Rick — and I feel like I could sit here and talk to you all day, and so, let’s schedule that at some point — what do you see as the other biggest myths that you’ve heard come out of the mouths of working folks that you come into contact with every day in your work and in the labor world that your show is explicitly working to take on, that you believe have been advanced by right-wing radio?
SMITH: They’re concerned about health care, and the big thing that the right has pushed is that more division. The right is masterful at divide and conquer. So, while we’re talking about how do we get everybody health care? How do we make sure everyone gets access to care that they need when they get sick? In this country, you have the right to see a lawyer if you get into trouble. You don’t have a right to see a doctor. What I got out of the last debates from my listeners is, I don’t have health care. I don’t have affordable health care. I’ve got high deductibles, but yet you’re talking about giving illegal immigrants health care. That’s how the Republicans have always divided us: They’re going to get it. You don’t get it, so nobody should have it. And that, to me, is just one of those insane things. Because in my lifetime, the idea of hey, Rebecca, you’ve got something. How do I get it? Went from you’ve got it. I don’t have it. Screw you! Nothing for you!! I don’t know when that changed.
VALLAS: So, Rick, for anyone who isn’t already following you, doesn’t already listen to the show and everyone should, where can they find more?
SMITH: TheRickSmithShow.com. You can follow us on Twitter @RickSmithShow. Facebook, you know, all of your podcast sites: Podbean, Stitcher, iTunes, all of those. We make sure that the show is very easily accessible. And if you have direct TV or Dish Network, check us out on Free Speech TV Saturday nights at 7 p.m.
VALLAS: Rick, thank you so much for what you do with the show, for taking the time that is not your full-time day job to produce one of what is one of my favorite shows out there and one that we need a lot more of. You’re awesome.
SMITH: I appreciate it, Rebecca. You’re one of my favorite people. And anytime you want anything, you just call.
VALLAS: Don’t go away. More Off-Kilter after the break. I’m Rebecca Vallas.
[hip hop music break]
Welcome back 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. Continuing our series of conversations with interesting progressives doing interesting work on poverty and related issues that we had at Netroots Nation this year, next up is Joe Sanberg, a millionaire turned EITC nerd and the founder of Working Hero Action. Let’s take a listen.
VALLAS: Joe, thanks so much for taking the time to come and hang out on Radio Row.
JOE SANBERG: Thanks for having me.
VALLAS: So, as part of a series of conversations I’m having with interesting progressives who are doing interesting work, I will confess I did not know who you were before Netroots and before meeting you. And you’re doing a ton of work around workers issues and tax credits. So, before we even get into what Working Hero Action is and the campaigns that you’re running and some of the cool stuff out in California, let’s back up a little bit. Who are you? How did you get to this work? You’re a real rich guy.
SANBERG: Well, I grew up in poverty, and the question of ending poverty is a personal matter to me. My mom raised me by herself, and when I was a teenager, we lost our home to foreclosure. From as young as I can remember, my mom worked as hard as a mom can work. And seeing these experiences from being young and a teenager showed me from an early age that this idea that we’re told that if you work hard and play by the rules everything works out OK is an illusion. It’s an illusion for the family I grew up in and all of our cousins and friends. And it’s an illusion for most Americans. We live in a moment where almost 8 out of 10 Americans live paycheck to paycheck, yet we’ve abandoned the definition of poverty to what the statisticians say it is. If you earn below this certain arbitrary mathematical poverty line, you’re poor. Yet if you earn a few thousand dollars above it, you’re somehow middle class. But you when 8 out of 10 people live paycheck to paycheck, I think it’s accurate to say that the middle class is dead, and we have a massive poverty crisis.
When I went to college at Harvard, it was like culture shock. You know, you’re surrounded by these folks whose great great great great great great great grandparents were wealthy. And I felt a lot of discomfort and like you didn’t fit in. And I felt like I had to hide what was going on in my family and the threat of losing our home to foreclosure. I worked extra jobs to send money home to help my mom pay her bills. And I was an activist in college: ran College Democrats, was involved in Justice for Janitors, and was focused on trying to help others. When I was graduating, I wanted to provide financial security for my mom. So, I went to the career services office and applied for some jobs at fancy Wall Street firms. I didn’t know anything about business or finance, but I wanted to send money home to my mom. And so, I convinced a Wall Street firm to hire me because I said my experiences as a community organizer were transferable to doing investing.
VALLAS: Did that work?
SANBERG: I think they hired me partly out of a sense of humor. So, I spent this first part of my career, seven years out of college, working on Wall Street and was able to create savings for my mom but lost myself. And I saw where we all saw from some degree of distance and that is this industry that hijacked Main Street on behalf of making a lot of money for a small number of people. When I was 29 — and today I turned 40, so a little more —
VALLAS: Happy birthday.
SANBERG: Thank you. So, a little bit more than 10 years ago, my brother and I were having lunch. I remember exactly where it was, at this place called King’s Fish in Orange, California. And he told me that my 18-year-old self wouldn’t like my 29-year-old self. And it really scared me because I was a good at 18. I really liked who I was. That sparked me to leave that first part of my career on Wall Street and move back to California over 10 years ago to try and build things that fix problems instead of create problems. And really my north star has always been since then be someone that my 18-year-old self likes.
VALLAS: So, how did that then take you into such a strong focus on tax credits? That’s a pretty wonky area for folks who maybe are coming from the poverty space. We talk a lot about it on this show because we’re all nerds, but you tell me you’re a nerd too.
VALLAS: What brought you to the Earned Income Tax Credit as such a big part of what you’ve worked on?
SANBERG: Yes. Well, I am proud to be a nerd, especially a nerd who’s passionate about ending poverty. When we’re trying to do big things, we have to marry both a vision of accomplishing what seems unattainable with steps that get you to that path, right? And I think we are challenged in doing both of those things at the same time. I think there’s this false tension in the progressive movement and in the Democratic Party between setting out for audacious courses and incremental change. The reality is we have to do both of those things at the same time. We have to have a north star. In my case it’s end poverty. But you also have to know how to advance towards that end every week, every day, every month.
And in the case of the Earned Income Tax Credit, I learned about a program that actually was a big help to my mom. When I was growing up, I remember her getting her federal earned income tax credits in the springtime, which she’d use to catch up on bills. For our listeners who don’t know, the Earned Income Tax Credit is a cashback credit you get on your tax return. Think about it like a negative income tax. Even if you don’t earn — excuse me — even if you don’t owe any money, you still get cash back on your tax return. It’s for people who earn low wages. And five years ago when I was thinking about what I could do to fight poverty in California, I realized that California was one of the states that didn’t have a state version of Earned Income Tax Credit, which is really weird because we have these illusions about California as a progressive island. The truth is actually far different. California has the highest rate of poverty in the country. One out of five Californians live in poverty the way that statisticians define it. Another 7 out of 10 Californians couldn’t afford a $500 surprise expense. So, as much as I love being a Californian, California is a place that’s miserable for people who aren’t rich. It’s a very broken place despite what Democratic politicians may say on Twitter.
And when I realized the state didn’t have an Earned Income Tax Credit, I decided I would create one. And I hadn’t done much in politics since college, so I just kind of dusted off the cobwebs off my shoulders and looked on the Internet and tried to find the how-to on getting a state to create an anti-poverty program.
VALLAS: I have to say I’m loving the thoughts of what the Google search terms are, “how to create a large anti-poverty program for my state.”
SANBERG: Correct. Correct!
VALLAS: I’m hoping resources from the Center for American Progress might’ve come up?
SANBERG: Yes, yes, yes, absolutely. Well, really simply, I thought, how do people change the law? They hire lobbyists. Now usually, people hire lobbyists to make the laws preferential for their big companies so that they can make more money. But I thought well, what if we hired lobbyists to make the laws better for poor people? And so, that’s what I did. I hired lobbyists that usually work for big companies and instead, paid them to work for poor people. And they’re just as effective working for poor people as they are big companies. We got the state to create an Earned Income Tax Credit in 2015, but when the state created it, it didn’t put up any outreach monies. Now people might ask, why do you need outreach money for a government program? But this is actually a big challenge of our movement and a big untapped area for progress. And that’s every year in the whole country combined, there’s about $80 billion of state and federal monies in programs for low-income people. 80 billion that’s unclaimed, not subject to political debate. It’s there, but low-income people don’t get it because they don’t know about it. And the Earned Income Tax Credit is one of the big examples of programs that people could get, but they don’t get because they aren’t aware of it. And so, without outreach money, I thought our state’s Earned Income Tax Credit was doomed before it even began.
And so, again, I’m taking it really elementary approach to it. I figured well, I just have to do it myself. So, I started a nonprofit, and of course, the only thing I did myself was creating a great coalition. Our coalition partners deserve so much of the credit. And we created a 100-organization coalition to run EITC community organizing every year. And so, in the first two years, we served about 400,000 low-income Californians under the program CalEITC 4 Me. We went into communities, delivered free tax preparation for low-income Californians, and made sure they got their EITC. Then what we did in 2017, is we organized and activated the low-income Californians we had served with free tax prep to be their own lobbyists and call Sacramento and demand an EITC expansion. So, we sent about one million text messages in the spring of 2017, and 50,000 low-income Californians called their legislators in Sacramento. On the back of those Californians, the state tripled the EITC.
And then that was so much fun winning for poor people, we did it again in 2018. And the state doubled it again, so tripled and then doubled. And that was so much fun, we did it again in 2019, and our new governor just double and a halved it. And so, now a program that started in 2015 for about 400,000 people, in 2020 will reach 3 million people. 3 million people. It’s so important that people know about this because when they hear the idea of end poverty it sounds like something that’s unattainable and unfinishable. But if we have hundreds and thousands of people who are doing things like CalEITC 4 Me, eventually actually, you get there.
VALLAS: Now, that’s the story behind how you got involved with work around the EITC and also very significant and impactful activism that’s resulted in what’s now being hailed as one of the more ambitious steps that governors have taken in recent memory to reduce poverty in their states from Governor Gavin Newsom, as you’re describing. But you’ve also started to create infrastructure that’s bigger and more expansive and has a broader scope than just tax credits, and that’s where the organization that up top I introduced you with Working Hero Action comes in. What’s Working Hero Action about, and why did you start that organization?
SANBERG: Well, I started Working Hero Action to take national our fight to end poverty using the blueprint that we started in California, which is fundamentally about creating organizing power and capacity within low-income communities. We’ve had this trend on the Democratic side to use influencers disproportionately to get things done. And we’ve also had this trend over the last couple decades where we only go to low-income people when we need them to do something for us. And then we wonder why they don’t vote. But if instead, we’re there for low-income people when they need us for something and build real relationship, then they’ll be there for the whole movement when it comes time to vote. And what we did in California around the EITC is a case in point. Low-income Californians called Sacramento because we’d been serving them for a couple of years, and their advocacy was part of this ongoing relationship we had created. Well, we want to create those relationships times tens of millions across the country, so we launched Working Hero Action to extend our work into Iowa, into South Carolina, and into Ohio.
VALLAS: And those are some interesting states to mention. I feel like they might have something in common if you start to think about those states. Those are all states that are considered early states for the primary. Was that strategic Is that part of what you’re thinking here? And is Working Hero Action and its theory of change in some way a direct response to some of the lessons learned from the 2016 election?
SANBERG: Very much. One of the things that’s made our approach to EITC organizing unique is we apply a campaign politics approach to it. You, of course, know the idea of Get Out The Vote. I think about what we do as Get Out the Tax Return. And there’s a vigor and a relentlessness to our approach that I think is borne of this shared sense of urgency that we can’t settle for anything less than reaching everyone who needs help. That we should be angry and urgent and working tirelessly for the cause of ending poverty. And I have so much respect for people who pour their hearts into nonprofits and philanthropy, but some groups that’ve been doing this for a very long time are just a little bit complacent. Understandably so, because when you’re in the fight for decades, it’s hard to maintain urgency every single year. And that’s why, in the process of change making, you always need an infusion of new blood because that new blood brings vigor. And in 20 years, there’ll be a new group of folks who will bring new blood too.
We picked those states, also as you noted, because we got to put the question of ending poverty in the thread of politics. The reality of the media today is that the media focuses on the horse race, right? They’ve gamified presidential elections. And while we have to work to change that over the long run, in the near term, we just have to put our issues into that thread of gamification. And so, we went to Iowa. We went to South Carolina, and we’re Ohio because we want presidential candidates talking about poverty. You know, in the first two Democratic presidential candidate debates, the word “poverty” was only mentioned three times? ,So we clearly have a lot more work to do.
VALLAS: And not in any of the questions, I might add.
VALLAS: It was completely missing from the debate that was pretty far-ranging.
SANBERG: Well, and the reason for it is understandable. There’s two Americas. There is an America where you have the 2 out of 10 people who don’t live paycheck to paycheck. And there’s the America where 8 out of 10 people do live paycheck to paycheck. The media mostly represents people who have come from the America that doesn’t live paycheck to paycheck. And if you’re part of the America that’s the 2 out of 10 not living paycheck to paycheck, the country’s working pretty well for you. What’s unfortunate for those Americans is the discord and the cacophony they hear in Washington D.C. And that’s why I think you see the Americans who are in those 2 out of 10 drawn to candidates that talk about civility and unity and bipartisanship. But if you’re in the 8 out of 10 Americans who are living paycheck to paycheck the incivility and the discord doesn’t even register for you because you’re presented every single hour of the day with this jack hammer of how are you going to pay your bills. How are you going to afford to take your kids the doctor. And so, one of the reasons why we need more diversity across the board, not just in our politics but in our media, is so that people report and ask questions from the perspective of the 8 out of 10 who are living paycheck to paycheck. What we saw in those first two debates was a media narrative borne of the 2 out of 10 Americans for whom the country’s working fine. What we need to do is shift the presidential debate towards the Americans who are in the 8 out of 10 for whom the country is failing.
VALLAS: So, back to how you come to this work and some of your own personal biography, one of the things that makes you a little bit different from maybe your average anti-poverty advocate is that you have made a lot of money over your prior career. And that also puts you in a position of being something of a different messenger on these issues than maybe your average anti-poverty advocate. Do you feel that you have a role to play? And do people of great means have a role to play in changing the conversation and flipping some of the assumptions that are out there on their head when it comes to what wealthier folks in this country want to see from a public policy perspective, and whether it is the Republican Party’s agenda that keeps making them richer?
SANBERG: Well, I don’t think we should give a [bleep] what wealthier people want to see in public policy. I think we should care about how we fix public policy to work for the people who aren’t wealthy.
Understandably, Democrats —
VALLAS: Well, I want to push back on that for one second, which is just because I say that not because I feel strongly. And I don’t think our listeners will be surprised to hear me say this, that we should be creating public policy driven by the donor class. That’s what we’re watching come out of this administration and still the Republican-controlled Senate. But to the extent that there is a pervasive conventional wisdom that somehow wealthy people want what is being handed to them universally, I wonder and am curious if you have a view on this, whether piercing that myth to some extent as you’ve been trying to do and as folks like Macenauer try to do could have value in changing the conversation and changing some of how the media treats these issues.
SANBERG: Yeah, understood. Well, I think first we have to understand every individual is very different. For me, my activism and my commitment to end poverty is borne of my liberal Judaism. The reason I’m in this fight in the first place is because I believe we’re each created with meaning and intention to do everything we can to help others. There’s this Jewish idea of Tikkun Olam, which means we have to do everything in our lives to heal the world and repair what’s broken. My passion for this work comes from my faith. And I love being a liberal Jew, and my hope is that everyone loves and accepts who they are, whether they’re Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist. So, the first thing to know about Joe Sanberg is that my conviction and who I am is based on my liberal Judaism.
The second thing is I bring a unique perspective to being a person who’s made some money because I came from nothing. And that has two implications. First, it allows me to say no one does everything by themselves. This idea of a self-made person is a bunch of baloney. Of course though, there’s a spectrum of whether you had a lot or a little when you were coming up. And I think of myself as an entrepreneur because an entrepreneur, by definition, is someone who makes stuff out of nothing and who’s resourceful. And I had to build my business career with very little. And in doing so, I recognized that I actually do nothing by myself, that we’re each lifted up by the people around us: our family, our communities, and our government that uses our taxpayer dollars to create infrastructure.
The second thing I’ve realized is that this narrative that businesspeople are best served by free market conservatism is also a load of baloney. The biggest problem that our economy faces is that people who need to buy things don’t have any money, and people who have money don’t need to buy anything. So, you don’t need an economics PhD to understand the best way to rocket fuel economic growth is to get more money in the hands of low-income people. Democrats are understandably skeptical of businesspeople who enter politics, and they should be because most people who’ve been entering politics from business perspective are social liberals who are defending the economic status quo. We don’t need any more people like that defending the economic status quo. However, I do think there’s an important responsibility that I hope to fulfill as a businessperson leveraging my credibility to criticize the status quo. The economic status quo is broken every which way to Sunday, and I have a specific insight, having seen it up close, that I’d like to share with the broader public so that they understand just how truly busted and rigged it is.
VALLAS: In the last minute or so that I have with you, what’s next for Working Hero Action, and where can folks go to learn more?
SANBERG: The number one priority of Working Hero Action is that we nominate someone who’s going to govern to end poverty. And you can go to WorkingHeroAction.org, and I hope you’ll sign up and join us.
VALLAS: Thank you so much, Joe. This was so fun getting to know you a little bit, getting to hear more about the story behind all of this, and getting to hang out on Radio Row. Thanks for taking the time.
SANBERG: Thanks for having me.
VALLAS: Don’t go away more. Off-Kilter after the break. I’m Rebecca Vallas.
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Welcome back to Off-Kilter. Continuing our episode next with Alastair Gee, a conversation I had with the only homelessness editor at a major U.S. publication. He’s at The Guardian. Let’s take a listen.
So, just bring us back to almost a year ago when this series was launching. What’s the story behind this series Outside in America? How did The Guardian come to decide to launch a series investigating homelessness in America?
ALASTAIR GEE: Well, when The Guardian opened its San Francisco bureau about two years ago, I think the editor came here thinking that the story was going to be the story that everyone expects. It’s a story about technology and Silicon Valley. And when they arrived here, I think what they realized was the story was also this humanitarian crisis, if you will, of people living on the street. Every day when we walk to our office now, there are people sleeping on the sidewalk right outside our office. And so, it was something that they were horrified by, and they felt that we couldn’t ignore it. So, that was really the genesis of the series.
VALLAS: You’ve noted in some of your talking about the series and the newsletter that you send out each month with the new content as it continues, you’ve noted that you, as far as you’re aware, are the only homelessness editor at a major United States publication. And I have to say you’re the only one I’m aware of too, so it’s not just you. How did you come to be the only homelessness editor at a major publication?
GEE: This was a topic that I had covered off and on before I joined The Guardian. And so, it’s always something that, as with the editors [unclear] at the bureau, it’s just something that you can’t, there is no way to ignore it if you’re living in San Francisco. I had previously been a foreign correspondent in Russia, and when I arrived here in the U.S. in 2009, I was just immediately struck by the incredible inequality, the socio-economic disparity in the Bay Area. It’s this beautiful, wonderful place, which is unable to grapple with the misery, frankly, that’s on the street every day. And so, it’s something that I was drawn to even before becoming homeless editor, and it’s just the topic that feels very, very important and very apt to cover. So, the opportunity to cover it was something that I jumped at.
VALLAS: One of the most recent pieces in the series is one of the ones that’s gotten some of the most attention, which it’s an 18-month investigative reporting into one-way bus tickets that cities use to move homeless people basically out of their cities, sort of an out of sight out of mind policy that many people have been incredibly horrified to learn about through this important reporting. Tell us a little bit about that particular article and the reporting behind it. We’d love to hear you dig in a little bit.
GEE: Mmhmm. Well, cities have been running these kinds of programs for at least 30 years, and they have names like Homeward Bound, Project Reunification. And the premise of these programs, or how they are advertised, is that homeless people quite rightly…. I’m going to rephrase that. I guess you can edit it.
VALLAS: Totally fine. Totally fine. If you want to start the whole sentence again, that makes it easy for Will.
GEE: Cities have been running these kinds of programs for at least three decades. And the premise that the program is that it can, in and of itself, be helpful and curative for a homeless person to return to their hometown, the place they’re from, to go and live with family and that that can lead to housing stability. And so, these programs, they have names like Homeward Bound, Project Reunification. And so, we wanted to dig in and understand well, in these programs, that’s what they say they’re doing. Are these programs actually an exit from homelessness for so many people? And actually, some cities go so far as to actually include the numbers of people that they had given bus tickets to in the number, their official numbers that they report of those who have been rehoused. They define it, in fact, as an exit from homelessness. What we were surprised to learn as we dug into it was that actually, cities saying that is somewhat unfounded in the sense that very few cities do any kind of long-term follow up with the people that they give these bus tickets to. And so, it’s more or less impossible for them to actually say with any certainty whether this is the kind of solution that they say it is.
And so, my colleagues began, and I joined them 18 months ago, of making public records requests to dozens and dozens of cities trying to first of all, get records just to understand how many people have been given tickets in the first place, and then to try and work from there to understand the effects of these programs. So, we got responses from about 16 cities and counties, and that added up to around 55,000 journeys over the past decade, decade and a half. Some of these records had the names of people still on them, so we were able to try and track some of those people down and to understand OK, you booked this ticket from photo Sarasota, from New York, from San Francisco, 2, 3, 5 years ago. Where are you now? Did it work out for you?
And we were able to show that while for some people, it certainly was a really helpful thing. So, a woman named Tiffany in Fort Lauderdale, she said that, “I was an alcoholic on the streets, and my mom saved my life.” So, there were cases like that. But we also found a number of cases where people were either homeless simply in a new city, they even ended up homeless on the streets of the city that they came from. We spoke to a couple people in Key West for instance where not only were they homeless back in Key West, but as a consequence of taking the tickets, they had agreed that should they ever return to Key West, they couldn’t use the shelter again. So, these people haven’t returned to Key West. It didn’t work out. They were now sleeping on the beach. So, we found a number of cases where the promise that cities suggest would be the outcome, this idea that it’s an exit from homelessness, we couldn’t back that up in a number of cases.
VALLAS: So, it’s not just that incredibly staggering and eye-opening article that plays on some of the out of sight out of mind policies and practices that we see in communities across the country. There are others that have opened a lot of eyes, and frankly, were things I had never heard about even going back to my years as a legal aid attorney in low-income urban communities. And one in particular that jumped out to me was low-income workers who live in RVs, in recreational vehicles, being actually chased out of Silicon Valley, really part and parcel of kind of a whole thread of this kind of coverage and these kinds of practices that you’ve uncovered. How did you come to find out about that particular practice happening in the San Francisco area?
GEE: Well, with reporting in a lot of the areas that I do it’s impossible to ignore. I mean you just see these telltale signs, these really heavy sad signs of an old, rusty looking RV parked along a side street in San Francisco in these industrial areas in the city, and you just knows that there are people living inside them. And I’ve lived here now for eight years, and that’s just something that I wasn’t seeing when I arrived. But the numbers have certainly increased, and so the story that we did in Silicon Valley and Palo Alto, there’s a stretch of road down there which borders our Stanford University. It’s right on the edge of the beautiful, manicured grounds. It’s near this incredibly expensive shopping mall. It’s in Palo Alto, the headquarters of all these tech companies. And yet you have, when I was down there last summer, about 50 of these beaten up RVs lining one side of the street next to the university with people living inside of them. And the reason I went down there that day was because they had received notices that they would have to move on. And so, it was just this most astonishing, the most visceral, visual display of inequality I’ve seen. Just this juxtaposition of this incredibly expensive university, these stores, and all these poor people who have nowhere else to go.
I remember I spoke to one guy called Frank. Frank, and I’m still in touch with him actually, and he was this very gentle, sweet guy who struggled with addiction, and it had led to the breakdown of his family. And he is still out there. I spoke to him, and he has to move on from Palo Alto because the city was enforcing these new laws. And I spoke to him just last week, and he’s still just in his RV going around in Silicon Valley from place to place, grappling with the fact that communities have these quite stringent rules now about how long a vehicle can stay parked on a sidewalk. So, that’s his life now, very itinerant and difficult life.
VALLAS: And that’s another theme that really plays out throughout this series of stories is the incredibly stark inequality that can exist across even one street or even several feet. That particular story is one example. And another is a woman living on the street near Facebook’s headquarters. Yet another man died in an Amazon dumpster. So, really, an incredible ability that this series has had to really put a face on that kind of inequality. I would love to hear you tell a few more stories about the people that you and the team that you’ve been working with on this series has met along the way.
GEE: Yeah. Well, in the Amazon story, there’s one person who, one of my favorite people who I’ve met. Her name is Tygrr. That’s her street name. And so, the reason I met her was there was quite a sad story behind that. I started investigating. Well, actually I didn’t. What happened was I was reporting late last year underneath some freeways in San Francisco, and I remember it was like very rainy, dark night one night. It was appalling, appalling conditions. And I just happened to meet these living under the freeway, and they just said, “You have to look into the death of this guy call Frank. He died in an Amazon dumpster.” And they didn’t know anything more than that. They didn’t know his last name even. They couldn’t give me the address of the dumpster even. And so, I went home, and I was Googling “Amazon dumpster.” I didn’t know I’m going, how dumpster? What is this? And couldn’t find anything online about Amazon.com having dumpsters or anything. But eventually, through a lot of legwork and sort of wandering through various neighborhoods in San Francisco, I worked out that what it was, was there was an Amazon warehouse in this corner of San Francisco, and it’s completely unmarked on the outside. And so, I just basically, after wandering inside, thinking that this is the Amazon warehouse, and the unmarked dumpsters outside were these dumpsters. And I was able to get a police report and information from the coroner showing that, in fact, a man had died in this dumpster.
And so, the story was just working from there, trying to uncover the story of this man’s life. And in the end, it was a very bittersweet story. The story that I wrote, the best place to read about his life was a person that I met through that story is that dead man’s, his girlfriend. And she was called Tygrr, and she really is a tiger. If you meet her, she’s like a firecracker. She’s in her 40s. She’s full of energy. She has this bright red shock of, this bright red hair, like flaming, riotous hair. And she was incredibly upset about the loss of her boyfriend. She had photos of him in her tent. When I met her, she had planted a succulent and cactus garden near where her camp was. And she got a piece of driftwood and had written, “This is a memorial garden.” And she just was this wonderful, magnetic woman who had this very, very difficult life. She’d left home when she was 12 or 13 after dealing with abuse in her family. But I just wish that other people could meet her or that she could be out there a little bit more. She, I don’t know, there’s just something when you meet someone that magnetic and just full of joy and full of life in a place that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find it, it’s just a really rewarding thing just to meet that person. So, she was one of the people that I’ve enjoyed meeting the most.
VALLAS: So, if you had to pick one thing after this year of reporting so far, what’s the most outrageous or horrifying or really eye-opening thing that you’ve learned or discovered through reporting on this series?
GEE: Well, I think the thing that’s’ sticking in my craw right now is that I did a story at the beginning of the year on a San Francisco Public Library. And I should mention by the way that although I’m talking about all over our Bay Area stories, that’s just because where I am, we’ve been covering the entire West everywhere from Honolulu to Anchorage to L.A. to Denver. So, but a lot of my reporting was here in the Bay Area. And so, I did a story about one of the City Public Libraries in the Castro neighborhood, historic, wonderful gay neighborhood, and had a lovely public library. And a lot of homeless people tend to camp outside that library, and there’s been a lot of issues that had emerged because, understandably, for the homeless people it wasn’t a great situation. For the people who were housed down there, it was also a bit difficult sometimes just because of various complaints they had. And so, the library, as this the site where this is all happening, was in a bit of a tricky position. And so, I went to a neighborhood meeting there about a year and a half ago, and I just reported on the meeting that the library, this public institution, was considering building what the, an architect that was presenting at that meeting described as quote-unquote “defensive landscaping.” They basically wanted to put in this hardscaping that would make it hard for people to camp under the heat of the library. It would have sort of this rocky, undulating ground. They would take out the soil. They would put in these posts and whatnot. And so, I reported on that.
And I followed angry pushback from the library afterwards. They told me that they didn’t see it as quote-unquote “defensive landscaping” or “defensive architecture,” and they wanted to publish this proposal etc., etc. And we didn’t deem that valid. But I just went to the library, which is actually my local library, a couple of weeks ago, and I saw these changes that the library had been so insistent to me wasn’t “defensive architecture.” And it’s just the most, I felt so angry because it was, they have these jagged shards of rock sticking out of the ground now. And it’s just these sharply undulating cobblestones around these pinnacles of rock. So, it’s a very now uninviting place to hang out. And I suppose I should feel frustrated that a public organization has done this and that they were also so, they were so adamant that it wasn’t what, in fact, it was.
VALLAS: So, one of the things that I’ve loved about this series has been how much you have shone a light on people who are not the usual or the stereotypical face of homelessness, especially in media coverage. Was that something that you set out to do at the beginning of this series and you sought to find stories that help people understand that it’s not just the homeless man sitting on the grate who makes up the population who are homeless or precariously housed?
GEE: 100 percent. Yeah, I’m so glad you mentioned that because that was completely what I was trying to do with the series in the sense that I’m just so struck by, I don’t know if you can say the precipice, but maybe just that the, I don’t know, how close so many people are to very, very great difficulty and perhaps homelessness. I’ve always been struck by those studies put out by the Federal Reserve which show how many, what an astonishing percentage of Americans wouldn’t be able to afford say, like a $500 emergency visit. It’s something like 40, 50 percent if I’m not recalling it incorrectly. And it just strikes me that with a relatively weak safety net, that homelessness is, sure, there’s that stereotype of the homeless person. But many of us, many more of us are living in what I like to think of as the shadow of homelessness. And so, it was definitely my goal to really bring this subject and try, I suppose, make it seem more relevant to more people, because it wasn’t just this thing that was affecting these half million people on any one night — that’s the government’s numbers for homelessness — but it was actually affecting many millions more people.
And so, for instance, I did a story on adjunct professors, and adjunct professors, they teach a very large percentage of college courses, higher educational courses now. Their numbers are growing. And yet they are paid extremely poorly. And so, many of them, as I found, were either on the edge of homelessness, or some of them we even are homeless. The lead example of that story was a woman who, in a really desperate situation, told us she had to turn to sex work to fund her housing so she wouldn’t be evicted. We spoke to another woman in that story. She was living in what she described as a shack on the Florida coast. And these were all people who have, I think they will have PhDs or higher degrees. They are all incredibly intelligent, smart. They thought that they were on a course that was going to lead them to stability, but they have what’s known as these precarious jobs. They’re in, it’s called precarious employment, these jobs where the wages aren’t a steady, there’s no a full-time official contract. It’s just they’re an independent contractor sometimes. And so, that was really one of those stories where I wanted to show that homelessness, that stereotype of homelessness, is by no means all there is to homelessness in the U.S.
VALLAS: Another of the pieces that really jumped out to me as such a great example of how homelessness is everywhere around us — it’s even in the news outlets that are talking about it — you actually had a story looking at a homeless photographer who had sold multiple series to the BBC and yet was not making enough money to be able to live off the streets in supporting his work documenting homelessness.
GEE: Yeah. Yeah. I’m still in touch with Ed, actually. So, we have this call-out at the bottom of our stories where we just have people with experiences of homelessness, whether or not that’s a homeless or formerly homeless person or anyone just to write in and share their stories. And we’ve got some good stories that way. And Ed was someone who wrote to me, and he sent me this really unusual email. I think he said something like, “I’m in the remotest part of Australia right now that anyone can go to, and I have dealt with homelessness all my life. And I’m homeless right now.” And so, what Ed’s story is, Ed is, I think he’s in his 40s. And as he said, he’s a respected photographer, published in major news outlets, had exhibitions. But because of the nature of freelance photography, it’s another one of those jobs where it’s very, very precarious. And so, he, in order to devote himself fully to freelance photography, he’s not able to, he doesn’t earn enough essentially to have a home.
He’s originally British, but he doesn’t have a home. And so, the way he makes it work is he travels around the world, and he does these sort of long-term photography projects in various places. He’s worked in everywhere from Canada to just all over the world, really. And so, he wrote me from Australia where he had stationed himself for a period of months with an Aboriginal community. He was trying to find the remotest parts of Australia, and so I think that was that reference. He was west of Uluru, I think. And that’s his life. I think while he was there, he had a roof over his head. I think he’d done some sort of work. He was offering to do some volunteering somewhere, and that was how he wasn’t sleeping outdoors at night. But that’s essentially his life as a documentary photographer. He can’t afford anywhere to live, and so, he has to live outside.
VALLAS: So, I want to talk a little bit about solutions because another feature of this series and sort of theme of the series that I’ve appreciated is the connection to public policy. All the time it feels that when media are covering homelessness and people who are experiencing homelessness, it gets described as a problem that’s intractable: if only we could just figure out how to solve this problem. Your series really rebuts that myth. And again and again, one particular story that really goes to the heart of this actually draws the connection between the poverty-level minimum wage in this country and the fact of people who are working and can often be homeless. You point out in some of your reporting in one story in particular that in only 12 counties in the United States can you live on the minimum wage in a way that you are actually housed, and you can afford rent.
GEE: Mm. Yeah, yeah. I don’t think homelessness is something mysterious with this unknown solution. I think homelessness is…. Well, I don’t want to sound too crass. It’s the product of public policy and the decisions that we make as a country or decisions the government makes on what to spend, on what they prioritize. And so, as you mentioned, the minimum wage is one issue, one problem. In another story that we looked at, we compared how much was spent on the mortgage interest deduction, which as you know, most people who are the wealthier Americans, and the government, I think their tax break is the government’s [unclear] something like $70 or $60 billion on that a year. And we compared that to how much the government spends on Section 8 housing, the main form of rental assistance for low-income Americans. And the government spends twice as much on the mortgage interest deduction for wealthier Americans as it does on the Section 8 for the poorest Americans. In fact, $10 billion of the MID goes to the top 1 percent of the country. And so, that’s just a reflection of priorities. That’s linked to the fact, for instance, that only one in four Americans who need housing assistance actually receive it. And you can draw a link between that and spending priorities. So, in some sense, I don’t want to say that all homelessness is attributable to that. There are many other difficult factors related to it to do with chronic mental health issues, substance abuse issues, all those sorts of things that are a bit more ineffable. But definitely the way we apportion and spend resources is, I think a big part, of it.
VALLAS: Another one of the types of solutions that your series lifts up is specific policies or practices that have started in kind of a local way and that have started to trickle out and become models. One of those which has received a lot of attention over the past couple of years in particular is the tiny house phenomenon.
GEE: Yeah, yeah. So, states in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon and Washington, they’ve really been leading on this as far as we could tell. There are now these sanctioned communities all tiny homes, and that’s such a funny concept because when most people think of tiny homes, I suppose they think of these boutique-y kind of very cute little things that, this minimalist solution to a busy modern life or something. But of course, they’re also very, very seriously considered a solution for homelessness, and in particular, in situations I think either when you have this emergency situation where you have large numbers of people who are living on the streets. Or technically, they’re known as unsheltered. And also for instance, where you have, it’s very expensive to build affordable housing, and also maybe very complex in terms of it has to get a quick planning commission, and sort of a long timeline, etc. So, one option is to do this emergency shelter-style thing of having people live in these tiny home villages.
And I think our takeaway from that story was well, first off, there are definitely better and worse tiny home villages. Some of the ones that our reporter went to were little more than wooden sheds. I don’t think they had electricity or running water or anything like that. Could be very, very cold in winter. You might have kids living in them. At the other end of the scale, you might have these very, very posh ones where they had various amenities. And so, there was a distinction on that relation [unclear] to experts were really worried about if we really got into these tiny home villages and we’re really invested in them, what that might mean in the long-term. We spoke to the head, the former head of the Federal Homelessness Agency, and her great fear was that these might lead to eventually shanty towns, that they might become so entrenched in cities. Cities are having such a hard time funding and building affordable housing, that these tiny homes, while initially considered temporary measures, they might be there forever. And they might become an American version of a favela or something.
Nevertheless, they are continuing to be rolled out in San Jose and Silicon Valley. They have a massive plan now to unroll this model in many, many neighborhoods, and they’re encountering public opposition. But that’s, as they see it, the way forward.
VALLAS: In the last minute or so that I have with you, the number of conversations I’ve had over the years with people who say you work on poverty, I would love to write a story about this. But I just don’t know that my readers really care. This isn’t what people are clamoring to consume in a media environment that’s driven by clicks. I just don’t think I can persuade my editor that I can do a story on poverty. The number of times that I’ve had that conversation with reporters who want to cover these issues but who meet with obstacles along the way in the form often of editors and newsrooms that don’t believe that this is a set of issues that the public is interested in reading about, I can’t even begin to count. I’m curious to hear your message that you would have to folks out there who are looking to cover these issues, who are interested in surmounting those barriers. Are there people out there reading these stories, and does this series bust that myth that no one is interested in reading about poverty in the news?
GEE: People care about this so much, I can’t even tell you. The response to our series has been amazing. It’s just yeah, 100 percent if I could rebut that myth. It has been the continuing delight how engaged our readers are and how well these stories do. And I think it’s because people see this around them. People aren’t blind to homelessness. So, they said, you can’t be in San Francisco and not see it. And people want to understand it better. They want to know if there are ways they can help. They want to understand this phenomenon. And I think people are also just inherently compassionate. And so, I think readers just respond to these stories in that way as well. And so, it has not by any stretch of the imagination been a struggle to find a readership to these stories. In fact, exactly the opposite.
VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with Alistair Gee. He is the only homelessness editor at a major U.S. publication, at least that he’s aware of and that I’m aware of. You can find his series that his team has been working on for The Guardian called Outside in America at TheGuardian.com. Alastair, thank you so much for joining the show. And our listeners can also find links to several of the articles we’ve just been talking about on our syllabus on Medium.
GEE: Thank you so much for having me.
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 by Will Urquhart and David Ballard. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @offkiltershow, and you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the We Act Radio Network or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.
♪ I want freedom (freedom)
Now, I don’t know where it’s at
But it’s calling me back
I feel my spirit is revealing,
And now we just trynta get freedom (freedom)
What we talkin’ bout…. ♪