Family Poverty is Not Child Neglect
Congresswoman Gwen Moore shares the personal experience underpinning her new legislation to stop struggling families from being separated for the crime of being poor; Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance on how NYC’s taking on wage theft in the construction industry; and Jeremy Slevin returns with the news of the week ICYMI. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.
Families aren’t just being separated at the border. Every day, parents in communities across the U.S. have their children taken from them as punishment simply for being poor, under the guise of protecting children from neglect. Congresswoman Gwen Moore knows what this is like from personal experience — she battled to retain custody of her oldest daughter, while she was struggling to make ends meet as a young mother. Recently, she introduced legislation to stop other families from being separated for the crime of being poor. Rebecca speaks with the Congresswoman about her own experience being punished for her poverty — and about her new bill.
Later in the show, wage theft is often viewed as a civil issue. But the Manhattan District Attorney’s office has taken it on as a major priority for criminal prosecutions — and with a focus on construction workers, as part of a larger initiative to protect and fight for a group of workers who don’t just risk their lives in some of the most dangerous working conditions… but can also be left wondering if they’ll even get paid. To hear more about how some of New York City’s top law enforcement officials are taking the fight on behalf of the city’s construction workers to the courtroom, Rebecca speaks with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and Hildalyn Colon, the coordinator of the Construction Fraud Task Force.
But first, what’s at stake for low-income workers and families if Brett Kavanaugh gets confirmed to the Supreme Court; good news out of Kentucky (for now) on Medicaid; DC Council introduces a bill to overturn the will of the voters by repealing Initiative 77, the minimum wage increase for tipped workers that passed last month; Jeremy gets engaged (!!); and other news of the week ICYMI.
This week’s guests:
- Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-WI)
- Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance
- Hildalyn Colon, coordinator of the District Attorney’s Construction Fraud Task Force
- Jeremy Slevin, director of antipoverty advocacy (and faithful sidekick)
For more on this week’s topics:
- Learn more about Rep. Moore’s “Family Poverty is Not Child Neglect Act” to help keep struggling families together, and dig into Shawn Fremstad’s analysis finding that in at least 7 states, there are more kids are in foster care than helped by TANF.
- Find out more about how New York City is taking on wage theft and worker safety in the construction industry and engaging the community through the Construction Safety Community Project — and get all the info you need to report wage theft in NYC.
This week’s transcript
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. This week on Off Kilter, as outrage continues to mount around families being separated at the border, families are quietly being separated in communities across the U.S. for the crime of being poor. I speak with Congreswoman Gwen Moore about how the child welfare system is America is punishing families for their poverty under the guise of protecting children from neglect and her new bill to reform the practice. Later in the show, I speak with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and Hildalyn Colon, the coordinator of the District Attorney’s Construction Fraud Task Force about how the DA’s office is taking on wage theft, worker safety, wrongful deaths and more for the city’s construction workers, who aren’t just risking their lives in hazardous jobs, but who also can be left wondering whether they’ll get paid. But first Slevs, come on in, it’s been quite a week already and it’s only Tuesday.
JEREMY SLEVIN: You gave away the day of the week this time.
VALLAS: I felt the need to say I feel like it’s been many weeks, many years even and it’s only Tuesday.
SLEVIN: It’s only Tuesday but we soldier on.
VALLAS: We soldier on; also your beard’s shorter.
SLEVIN: Yes, I finally trimmed it.
VALLAS: How did we not discuss this already?
SLEVIN: Because I trimmed it yesterday ahead of this episode.
VALLAS: Did you trim it in celebration for getting engaged?
SLEVIN: I knew that would come up. [LAUGHTER] I trimmed it because I no longer had to have it now that I’m engaged, case closed, no more obligation for a beard.
VALLAS: Was that what reeled her in though, the beard?
SLEVIN: Yeah, yeah.
VALLAS: So you didn’t want to seal the deal and get married before you shaved the beard?
SLEVIN: l figured engagement was sufficient, I’ll shave it all off once I’m married.
VALLAS: Cara, I hope you’re listening because I know you like beards and this does not sound like it’s going to end well for you. Well Jeremy, I did have to start with the engagement because congratulations.
SLEVIN: Thank you.
VALLAS: Super exciting, obviously but also it’s the only good news we have this week.
SLEVIN: So we started with the good news.
VALLAS: We started with the good news. So alright, let’s move past your engagement to the other stuff people want to know about.
SLEVIN: Dire threats to our democracy.
SLEVIN: So let’s dive right into the biggest news this week, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, I’m sure many of our listeners have heard about how much of a threat Kavanaugh’s nomination is to health care, to abortion access, to everything under the sun, to the liberal consensus on the Supreme Court.
VALLAS: I want to say this before you even get into it. Already we have all kinds of conservatives and even some folks in the media telling us OK, all these people on the left have freaked out for no good reason. There they go again, the left freaking out about something and it’s there’s this narrative that no matter who the nominee was going to be and even if they had been some kind of a reasonable moderate person that the left was going to freak out no matter what because it’s a nominee of Trump’s.
SLEVIN: What upsets me about this line of thinking is a lot of people are pushing back, this is politics as usual. This is a normal nominee. First of all, he isn’t and I don’t say that baselessly. The Washington Post literally did an analysis of all of his votes and found that he is more partisan than all of his peers and that his divisiveness in rulings increase during election seasons and that is expected because of course he is a veteran of Republican administrations and Republican politics. So it is not like as is always spun when you have a Supreme Court and this is true on both sides of the aisle, oh they’re faithful to the Constitution, they’re judges. Let’s look at his record and the facts. He is a ideological judge, if you are Republican, maybe you like that. Maybe Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio also would have appointed a really radically conservative judge. But that doesn’t mean that it’s OK and we should just accept it.
VALLAS: And a lot of other people are saying well hang on, hang on, news just broke and it will no longer have just broken when people are listening now that we’ve given up when we’re taping but news broke that this was part of a deal that had been brokered between the White House and now retiring Justice Kennedy and that Kennedy had basically said look, I’m cool retiring during Trump’s term if it means you’re going to nominate this former law clerk of mine, that law clerk turned out to be Kavanaugh, and so there are some folks saying, well hang on, if Kennedy OK’d this guy maybe he’s kind of fine. Is that not true? [BRIEF SILENCE] Don’t you love when I ask you questions to? Isn’t that your favorite part of this show?
SLEVIN: That is not true. And of course the Trump administration today would not deny that those conversations took place, which in itself, we’re so inundated with flagrant violations of how our democracy functions. A president making a quid pro quo with a Supreme Court justice in exchange for his retirement is a radical departure, if not from precedent, from legality.
VALLAS: A Supreme Court justice whose son bankrolled Trump prior to his campaign, something else that came out in recent weeks.
SLEVIN: Right. So I want to get into some of the issues that haven’t been covered.
VALLAS: Are you saying I’m not letting you get to the issues? Because we can go back to your beard.
SLEVIN: I could talk about the corruption all day.
VALLAS: Not your beard?
SLEVIN: Beards, we’re coming back to the beard.
VALLAS: You don’t want to me to make you tell the engagement story, is that what this is about?
SLEVIN: Can I talk about how bad Kavanaugh is?
VALLAS: I think you can.
SLEVIN: I’m sufficiently embarrassed.
VALLAS: You know, I’ve got my fill, I said what I wanted to say.
SLEVIN: So he is notably radically pro big business and anti-worker, which I think has been mentioned in passing but for whatever reason it has not been the focus of the anti-Kavanaugh movement. But if we’re talking brass tax economic power, which the Roberts court have been not always great on, even under Kennedy, I think Kavanaugh is as great a threat in shifting the economic balance of power under the court even further. So first, he wrote an opinion saying that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was unconstitutionally structured, that ruling was later reversed but that was written by Brett Kavanaugh. Basically the watchdog agency created the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, Brett Kavanaugh said nope, shouldn’t exist. He wrote an opinion that allowed the Defense Department to curb union rights that his own fellow judge in a dissent said would entirely eviscerate collective bargaining.
VALLAS: Or what’s left of it at this point.
SLEVIN: Or what’s left of it.
VALLAS: After Janus.
SLEVIN: This was pre-Janus. He in a dissent, this was not a ruling he was in the majority on he argued that an age discrimination case should be thrown out even though this is a State Department, the State Department fired the employee explicitly because the employee turned 75, or turned 65.
VALLAS: That one feels like it’s a gray area, Jeremy.
SLEVIN: Yeah, is firing someone, because they turn a certain age, age discrimination? I don’t know.
VALLAS: Ask Kavanaugh, room for some disagreement there.
SLEVIN: So those are just a few of the highlights when it comes to economic justice. And I think the biggest takeaway goes back to what we said at the outset. This is a partisan process, a partisan judge, almost explicitly so who was nominated on a quid pro quo with a retiring Supreme Court in an explicit bid to reverse the gains made in the past 50 years and so I think you and I can agree that the argument is pretty clear cut.
VALLAS: And of course this all comes in the context of as people have been hearing about ad nauseum, but we need to not understate this or let it go, we’d be remiss if we did, this is someone who we can expect to not look to uphold the Affordable Care Act based on his precident, to potentially allow protections for pre-existing conditions to be eviscerated and of course, as you said right when we started, a person who presents a threat to Roe v. Wade and to a woman’s right to choose and potentially even as some decisions are now being scoured through and the headline’s break by the hour with new revelations, someone who might even say that contraception is not something that needs to be protect access to contraception itself. We’re talking about birth control pills here, people. So that’s the person we’re talking about here and of course the cherry on top here is being someone who also said that no sitting president should ever be able to be indicted or pursued criminally in any way, which is perhaps Trump’s number one priority out of self-preservation right now.
SLEVIN: Right, if for no other reason, the fact that Trump is nominating someone who will keep him in power should motivate people to act.
VALLAS: So we have spent most of our time as Will is signaling to us wildly on SCOTUS, which I think is appropriate. We can’t leave it here. We have to say this is not just a situation where people can sit by and hope that maybe something’s going to happen, I know we say it almost every week but I don’t think I can possibly overstate what an all hands on deck moment this is for all of the issues you just talked about, for our very democracy for the reasons we’ve discussed and there is something very specific that people can do and that is to call their senator because as folks are no doubt familiar, especially in a moment of being reminded about this by the press in all of the coverage, this is someone who needs to be confirmed by the Senate. And as we talked about last week on this show with Ian Millhiser from Think Progress, giving us the post-Kennedy world landscape look ahead, it’s going to come down almost certainly to Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski but there are other people who as well could vote no if they receive enough pressure and realize this is an unacceptable nominee. So that number as always is 202–224–3121, you know it, you love it, you use it. This is one of those times and it really is about saving SCOTUS.
So Jeremy, other stuff happened in this week that feels like it’s already been many lives and that I’m going to jump to Initiative 77 because we haven’t talked about that in a couple of weeks and now there’s some news.
SLEVIN: So new breaking news today, the DC council put forward a bill to overturn Initiative 77, which was the ballot initiative in Washington DC, which would give tipped workers a raise, it would have raised the tipped minimum wage, which is currently a poverty level $3.89, it would have raised it to $15 an hour to put it on par with other workers, we’ve discussed at length how meaningful that would be and how it has reduced poverty rates in states that have implemented these measures. Today, the council of course introduced a bill to overturn it, repealing the will of the voters in fact, all of the members who introduced this bill come from wards that overwhelmingly passed it. They literally come from the districts where this bill was the most popular. So it is a stunning, I would say an affront to democracy, it’s come after, to be honest, a very fierce lobbying campaign from the restaurant lobby who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat this and now have gone the route of trying to repeal it through the city council.
VALLAS: And important for folks to know, this is a repeal bill that has been introduced and it is literally like dropping it and running for summer break because they’re about to go on recess so nothing is going to happen imminently in terms of this bill being voted on or it having risk of passage but there’s a lot that people can be doing right now to be telling their members of council how they feel about this, particularly if you’re someone who is a worker, has been a worker, who has been a tipped worker, I think what we’re hearing and I talked about this a number of weeks ago with Thea Bryan, a bartender in DC who actually on this show reported that she believes she lost her job at a restaurant because she spoke out in favor of Initiative 77 and went so far as to actually be quoted in national press about it, including in The Washington Post. That’s the kind of fear of retaliation that many tipped workers, particularly restaurant workers are facing and describing and you wonder why council is telling us, they feel like they haven’t been hearing from many workers in favor, Thea’s story is exactly why more people aren’t speaking out.
SLEVIN: One of the upsetting things about the way that press is covering it, there’s been a couple credulous stories saying, oh a couple waiters saying now their tips are less because people think Initiative 77 has already been implemented, which of course the initiative has not been implemented and there’s no widespread evidence that tipping has declined in DC or that it has declined in any of the states that implemented it.
VALLAS: And you said no widespread evidence, there’s no evidence!
SLEVIN: No evidence, and I think what we’re seeing a desperate but unfortunately somewhat effective effort by the restaurant lobby just like they did with DC smoking ban, which you have written about to basically push back on any rules that would help their workers at the expense of the business owners and I think what the council needs to hear from are the real people effected, whether you’re a tipped worker yourself or just a constituent, there’s a site, onefairwagedc.com where you can take action, you can write your council member, call them, but this is also a precedent for other states. At least three other states are currently discussing raising their tipped minimum wage. It’s in a federal minimum wage bill and so people are watching very carefully whether the will of the voters is upheld in this case.
VALLAS: On a final note in the last minute that we probably don’t have but hey, it’s OK Will doesn’t like any of us anymore, either as it is, right? He’s nodding, he’s confirming, he doesn’t like either of us so we’re just going to go for. And as usual, I’ve spent half of the minute we didn’t have talking about how we don’t have the minute. A much needed update because it’s been a couple of weeks since we did an ‘In Case You Missed It’, and so for folks who have been tracking on this show and elsewhere the fight over policies to take Medicaid away from jobless workers in the name of so-called work requirements, which really a paperwork requirements, we all know this because everyone’s heard me speak at length and others on this show for many, many months about these policies. Big news out of Kentucky that’s actually pretty great, so I lied when I said we didn’t have any good news.
SLEVIN: Well there’s good news but there’s a grey thread on the silver lining. So the great news is a federal judge blocked the Medicaid rules in Kentucky, this was Governor Matt Bevin, they were the first state to be approved by the Trump administration to basically take away people’s health care. And they were rejected by a federal judge, which is huge news. Of course, the state is planning to appeal that and the grey thread on the silver lining is that the governor —
VALLAS: Is that a thing?
SLEVIN: I just made it up.
VALLAS: The grey thread on the silver —
SLEVIN: I think I heard my grandpa say it in the 80s sometime.
VALLAS: Will is so done with us. This minute was over and I’m getting into your metaphors.
WILL URQUHART (PRODUCER): It’s a Grateful Dead reference almost from “Touch of Grey”.
SLEVIN: See, that’s what I said, yeah, you know “Touch of Grey” my favorite Dead album.
VALLAS: I am speechless.
URQUHART: Every silver lining has a touch of grey.
URQHART: It’s one of their most famous lines.
VALLAS: Well, hang on, that’s not what he said.
SLEVIN: I had no idea that was the case.
VALLAS: But he was close enough.
URQUHART: He was pretty close.
SLEVIN: Silver lining, I’m going to look it up. Anyway, so Governor Bevin –
VALLAS: It’s better than googling “good news this week”, which was your best on-air google, just by the way.
SLEVIN: Governor Bevin, it’s important and really bad. Governor Bevin retaliated by taking away vision and dental coverage for Medicaid under Medicaid expansion. He said I didn’t get the ruling I wanted so I’m going to just take healthcare away from people.
VALLAS: I’m going to go back to the silver lining, it’s mostly a silver landscape. This is a really big piece of news. Now, it’s not the end of the road, Bevin has the opportunity to come back and resubmit his waiver request and we’ll see what ends up happening with that. But this is a huge signal to all the states, and there’s about a dozen so far considering their own versions of these policies, which Trump opened the door to earlier this year by saying hey states, let’s take away health care from unemployed people and people trying to get enough hours at their jobs and end the Medicaid program as we know it in the process. A lot of states are going to see this and go hmm, what does this mean for me? So a real opportunity for folks in the states to be applying pressure and calling their not just members of congress but their state policymakers, their governors, their legislatures and saying this isn’t the kind of state I want to live in. and so just a flag to folks who are continuing to follow those policies in the states. Jeremy and your beard, thank you so much for taking a break from your engagement celebrations to, I just wanted to get that in one more time, to catch us up on the news of the week and we will see you next week and don’t go away, next up my conversation with Congresswoman Gwen Moore about how the child welfare system is punishing families for their poverty.
You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. Families aren’t just being separated at the border. Everyday parents in communities across the United States have their children taken from them as punishment simply for being poor, under the guise of protecting children from neglect. Congresswoman Gwen Moore knows what this is like from personal experience, she battled to retain custody of her oldest daughter when she was struggling to make ends meet as a young mother and earlier this month she introduced legislation to stop other families from being separated for the crime of being poor. I spoke with her about her own experience being punished for her poverty and about the bill. Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining the show.
CONGRESSWOMAN GWEN MOORE: Oh Rebecca, thank you so much.
VALLAS: So Congresswoman, as I mentioned there have been weeks of ongoing outrage around the separation of families at the border and rightly so, and you have been one of those voices speaking out, but meanwhile, children being taken away from their parents by the government is something that quietly goes on all the time in communities across the country. And in fact, 10% of U.S. children are removed from their parents each year, I shouldn’t say U.S. children, 10% of children who are removed from their parents each year, it’s due simply to lack of adequate housing, and this is of course just one of many reasons that a parent can be labeled as guilty of neglect and you yourself experienced this first hand with your oldest daughter. So before we get into the bill, I would love to hear from you what that was like and what your own experience taught you.
MOORE: Oh Rebecca, I became pregnant at age 18 right before I was due to start college. And the conundrum was I wanted to go to college but I had a baby. And so immediately the quote unquote, “system” gave me some choices. If you need welfare dollars, we’re going to count your tuition and books as income and therefore you’re ineligible for welfare benefits. Well fortunately, my eldest sister, God rest her soul, stepped up and got a foster care license to take care of my daughter so that I could go to college. And lo and behold, a social worker came to do the surprise checks that they often do when people criminally visiting their children and they sort of busted me in my pajamas at my sister’s house and really threatened to cut my sister off of the foster care benefits because I was there in my pajamas interacting with my child.
So I was faced with a choice of having custody of my child or finishing school. And I’ll tell you, Rebecca, it was ten years, nine years before I actually received my degree because of this constant effort on my part to retain custody of my child at opposed to being a student. In addition to that, I have seen children, I’ve known children to go in and out of foster care just solely based on the poverty of their parents. And I have really, really close up and personal seen the trauma that it causes children. I have one children that comes to mind in the foster care situation who wiped feces all over the wall, who hoarded food in her school backpack and she was taken from her mother because, and really, because she was left at home because her mother didn’t have enough money, she was working, didn’t have enough money to afford child care, which of course is a huge problem for hundreds of thousands of women.
VALLAS: Now I want to acknowledge, a lot of people may be listening and saying well wait a second, we want to make sure that kids are safe, we want to make sure that they’re healthy and they’re in safe homes and nothing you’re saying and nothing I’m saying hopefully is going to be misunderstood to disagree with any of that. So just to stipulate that and get that out of the way, but at the heart of the problem as you’re describing is that in many states family poverty gets used as per se evidence of child maltreatment and thus neglect and one statistic that jumped out to me when I was looking into this and I was looking at your bill, which we’ll get into in just a second is that studies have found that 30% of kids in foster care could be returned to their families if they just had access to adequate housing. But instead of addressing the root causes, poverty and homelessness and housing instability and more, the answer is just to take away the child.
MOORE: And that’s true Rebecca. Think about it, if someone is working diligently, 40 hours a week at a minimum wage job, a single parent, they cannot afford a two bedroom flat anywhere in the United States, in an urban area, in New York City, in rural Mississippi. And so if you can’t afford housing and you’re working full time, your children can be taken from you simply because you’re unable despite your great effort and your love and connection with them, because your wages are too low, which is a problem for millions of people. What we do in this bill, the bill is actually named “Family Poverty is not Child Neglect”. What we do in this bill is make the distinction, change the narrative, make the distinction between abuse and neglect and to define abuse and neglect for what we believe it is in a standard way. But to say that neglect based on lack of resources, not having food at the end of the month is not a system neglect that should have your children removed. Instead, counties ought to provide appropriate interventions to help that family ameliorate poverty.
VALLAS: And your bill is modeled on laws that we’ve actually seen work in a small number of states. States like Texas, there’s about a dozen states that specific exempt financial inability like you were describing from definitions of neglect. So this isn’t a brand new idea out of whole cloth but what your bill would do is to make sure that states who are taking federal funds to run their child welfare programs, not to get too wonky into the weeds there, but they need to not be taking kids away from their parents solely because of poverty and construing that as neglect when it’s not.
MOORE: Absolutely, what this bill does, there is a Child Abuse Prevention act that provides grants to states to promote a healthy situations for children and we would stipulate that we would withhold funds from states that didn’t have protocols in place to discern between real abuse and neglect and just a simple poverty of parents. What they have found is that 75% of cases that are opened against a parent who’s accused of neglect and abuse, 75% of those cases are cleared but the damage is done, Rebecca. If they remove the child for six months, or for a year while they investigate only to find that the biggest problem this parent has is that they just couldn’t afford child care. They just were making $7.25 an hour and they couldn’t afford, they were couch surfing because they just couldn’t afford an apartment. And so this bill incentivizes states to make better use of these [Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act] (CAPTA) funds to really make sure that they’re discerning between abusive neglectful parents and those who are actually could be helped if they really had their poverty addressed. What we’re saying is that being poor is not a crime, being poor is not a reason to separate families and to create a situation with immeasurable harm to children.
VALLAS: Now we would be remiss if we didn’t mention there is a huge racial dimension here as well. This is not, it’s not just about poverty and this impacting everyone equally. Black children are removed from their parents and put into the foster system at much, much higher rates than other kids and while there may not be a smoking gun study finding that there’s clear bias in how these decisions get made at its core we can say at least that a big part of this is the higher rates of poverty that Black families face in this country.
MOORE: And that is the, that’s real Rebecca. There’s a disparate number of African-Americans who are poor, so there are disparate numbers of children who are taken from those homes and there are disparate numbers of children who find themselves in the foster case to prison pipeline as an example and I have seen it throughout my life in my own family, in my own community and I am so happy to be working a bipartisan congressional caucus on foster youth here in congress, it is bipartisan where thoughtful members of congress realize that foster youth are at risk for all kinds of behavior and insecurities associated with their placement in foster homes. Even though some of the foster homes may be loving environments, these homes are not as good as keeping families together. And I’m so happy, there’s a silver lining in all of the displacement that we have seen on the border, because polling indicates that 90% of Americans from any political party are conscious of the importance of maintaining family unity. And so that’s a good space for us to, it’s a teachable opportunity for us to say to taxpayers that it’s a lot cheaper to help a parent get some formula for their baby then to move them and put them in foster care.
VALLAS: A broken safety net is a big part of the story here as well and I know that you are the woman to talk to about this because you are from Wisconsin and so you’ve got all kinds of history here about what got us to the broken program that is TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because in many ways Wisconsin was ground zero for that program. But before we get into that history, I want to draw the connection here for folks who may not know what I’m about to say because it just hit me over the head like a ton of bricks when I saw this statistic. The program, TANF that I’m talking about is of course in theory supposed to help poor families provide for their kids so they can be cared for in their homes rather than in foster care. That’s actually one of the stated purposes of the program but it today, TANF today helps fewer than 1 in 4 poor families with kids. And so here’s the whooper I’m about to lay on you listeners, in seven states in this country there are now more kids in foster care than the number of kids who are helped by TANF.
MOORE: Well that’s exactly right. Under Aid for Families with Dependent Children, the predecessor program to TANF, ending child poverty was one of the goals of that program. TANF has no such goal. Their goal is really to force parents into work whether there is adequate work opportunities or not. To time limit them, there is no connection between the needs of that family and people’s eligibility. As a matter of fact, they are not entitled to any benefits under this TANF program. And in fact in Wisconsin, which a New York newspaper nicknamed ‘Frankenstein’s Laboratory’ for welfare reform, the TANF program under that auspices, vendors were rewarded with bonuses for decreasing the welfare roll. The program is set up to require states to work toward decreasing those rolls and to time limit parents, whatever their situation is.
VALLAS: And I think we can expect to see the number of kids who are in foster care continue to grow and outpace the shrinking number of kids who are helped by TANF in the times where their families are struggling because for all the reasons you’re describing and the reason the program, TANF is a flat funded block grant, time goes on, inflation goes on but the amount of funding for that program stays stuck at a flat number, so that program is continuing the lose purchasing power and we’re watching it decline in how many people it’s even able to help while all those other incentives you were just describing are in place to kick people off the program even though they’re not finding work or anything else to help them. So we can only expect this problem to get worse.
MOORE: And there’s a couple of really major points to point out about the program. Number one, the program has no restrictions as to how the state can really use the funds. In our state we’ve had them plug potholes with money that’s supposed to be used for helping poor children and families, plug budget deficits, like I’ve said, the first year of TANF programming in Wisconsin, we gave $18 million in bonuses, the CEOs of the vendors that were administering our welfare program earned more than the governor of Wisconsin did. Secondly, again, the program is time limited, and so no matter what your circumstances you can’t rely on it. And the program does not have the purpose of fighting child poverty. We, in a reauthorization of TANF would like to return that goal, the best interest of the child and stopping child poverty as a goal of these funds, not plugging potholes in your city or giving bonuses.
VALLAS: While this program, TANF is quietly shrinking and evaporating and helping almost no one in this country anymore in their time of need, of course Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, their entire agenda when it comes to poverty is to slash other programs like nutrition assistance, the SNAP program, housing assistance, Medicaid by modeling all of them after the very broken program, TANF, that you and I have just been talking about.
MOORE: Absolutely Rebecca, and it’s important to note that during the recent 2007–2008 recession there were almost no children, no families on TANF. That tells you something right there. We had high unemployment, we had depression level, recession level programs, we had a counter-cyclical economy, food stamp rolls went up because they were still an entitlement, but TANF rolls did not. So the program is definitely not intervening in the lives of poor children.
VALLAS: And yet if we’re thinking about how we can be helping poor families avoid losing their children, there’s actually all kinds of research that tells us that when low income parents receive even modest amounts of additional income, their kids risk of being involved in the child welfare system and the family’s risk of being involved in the child welfare system goes down, so we know what to do here but it’s the opposite of what we’re actually watching happen. Your bill would take a huge step in the right direction. And I would urge folks to check out the bill and more about it on our nerdy syllabus page on Medium, but congresswoman in the last couple of minutes that I have with you, I have to say, it would be hard for me to say goodbye without bringing up Speaker Paul Ryan. And I brought him up before but I mean in his own right. And part of why I’m bringing him up of course is because you guys are both members of the Wisconsin congressional delegation so he’s someone you’ve known and had sort of a special relationship for a long time dare I say. But he of course is on his way out as speaker, announced his retirement and on his way out seems incredibly eager to salvage his legacy and what’s left of it as some kind of a poverty warrior, something he’s been doing for a long time, trying to pretend that he’s the great savior when it comes to poverty. So I’m curious in the last time that we have together now, as a fellow Wisconsin congressional delegation but more importantly as someone who has experienced poverty yourself, what is your reaction when he gets lauded as some kind of great anti-poverty champion?
MOORE: Well you want to know something, he’s a nice guy, let me get that out there. But you know he has an Orweillian view of all this, what they call double speak. Because he talks about wanting to help poor people but in fact what he wants to do is to destroy Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, Pell Grants, TANF, he has a view of Ayn Rand, “Atlas Shrugged” where it’s dog eat dog, every man for himself and God for us all. He’s looking, he’s a budget deficit hawk so he feels that all of the safety net program could be better used by balancing our budget and he thinks it’s some magical connection to work for parents will occur if we just snatch the safety net away from them. I’m really disappointed with Paul Ryan, I am, I have to say that I am because he has completely bought into the notion of trickle-down [economics] and he completely, like I said, completely obfuscates the situation poor people are in. It’s a really disappointed and I’m glad he’ll be gone so that he wont be here to destroy the safety net such as it is.
VALLAS: I can’t disagree with you but I also can’t say it better than you just did. I’ve speaking with Congresswoman Gwen Moore, she’s a Democratic member of the House of Represenative, representing part of Wisconsin, Congresswoman thank you so much for taking the time to come back on the show and for your leadership in taking on this important issue of helping families stay together rather than punishing them for their poverty.
MOORE: People are poor and they’re proud and they love their children.
VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.
And I’m thrilled to speak with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and Hildalyn Colon, the coordinator of the Construction Fraud Task Force. Thanks so much to you bother for joining the show.
CYRUS VANCE: Thank you for inviting us.
HILDALYN COLON: Thank you.
VALLAS: So starting with you Mr. District Attorney, wage theft is often viewed as a civil issue. But under your leadership, the Manhattan DA’s office has taken it on as a priority for criminal prosecutions. What led your office to take this on.
VANCE: We are tasked to represent all of the members of our community, documented and undocumented, to make sure that they are like everyone, given a fair shake under the same standard of law. And it became apparently to us increasingly as we worked in the construction industry that the issues in construction were not just about safety but in fact there were companies who were regularly not paying workers, or misclassified workers to minimize the amount of money they may owe them and essentially to disempower them. Oftentimes in our cases the workers who are not paid or underpaid are undocumented individuals coming into New York City. Many of them don’t speak English as their first language or have minimal English skill at all and this is to the unscrupulous business owner, unfortunately an opportunity to take advantage of them. Now it’s a big issue in the aggregate, New Yorkers lose approximately $20 million in unpaid wages every week and a billion dollars a year. And as I said, many of the victims here are laborers, hard working men and women and it’s our belief that stealing from them is something that must be accounted for no less than stealing from any member of our communities. They don’t have a big lobby, there’s no one who stands up for these people, many of them are non-union, in fact most are non-union and so as we got into the safety aspect of the construction task force and started talking to witness, it became clear to us that there was a whole other area of law enforcement that had been lacking. This office has a historical mandate to investigate complex fraud, financial fraud and otherwise. And it was natural for us to bring a whole other avenue of investigation to our work in worker safety and construction fraud.
VALLAS: Would you paint the picture of a few cases that you guys have taken on and what they look like? I think it’s helpful to make it concrete and put a face on this. Who are the workers who are being harmed?
VANCE: Let me give you some recent cases if I can. Just this past May, two companies, Parkside Construction and Affinity HR were charged with stealing more than $1.7 million in wages from at least 520 workers who alleged were not compensated for that work that they performed at construction sites, some of them construction of very luxurious buildings here in New York City. In April of this year a company called City Metro Corp, the principals pleaded guilty to felony crimes for stealing tens of thousands of dollars from workers. And they agreed to pay nearly $100,000 restitution to those workers as a result of their guilty plea. Sky Materials Corporation, that’s related to a company that Hildalyn will probably speak about where we had a worker tragically killed, there’s an instance where there was absolute responsibility for worker safety but also in a related way Sky Materials was convicted of submitting false information about the value of the company’s payroll and agreed to pay $464,000 in back wages to workers. And that money’s now been paid in full. So these are otherwise seemingly responsibly companies building big buildings or involved in construction in important retails sites throughout Manhattan and working men and women are being ripped off and that’s just simply not something we’re going to let happen in Manhattan without addressing it.
VALLAS: What has been the outcome of this new focus for your office? You’ve named a few specific case outcomes but it seems that the hope in making this a priority is not just that it will result in greater enforcement of the law and in returning wages to workers who are having them stolen from them, but is the hope also to send a message to employers that they can’t keep taking advantage of their workers in this way and if so, if I’m reading that correctly, is it having the intended effect?
VANCE: Well, it’s absolutely true that there should be a strong deterrent effect in bringing cases against corporations where there is clear criminal liability. These are cases that historically have not been brought, they clearly should be brought and I think the construction industry, which is a massive industry, is also very interconnected and if we are charging a corporation for example, whether it’s wage theft or for manslaughter, those prosecutions reverberate through that industry. And I do believe, and I believe this because I’ve spoken to unionized labor and other organizations that work in these areas, that our prosecutions are having an impact. Secondly, the importance is not just to have an impact here in Manhattan, but to scale that impact to our adjoining counties in New York City and in Long Island and Westchester County around New York as well as other cities around the country who have called and asked about our construction task force, our focus on wage theft as well as worker safety. So in this day and age thanks to interest of organizations like yours, word of what we’re doing in Manhattan is spreading and I think we are in a small way enabling better, fairer treatment, fairer outcomes for working men and women around the country.
VALLAS: Hildalyn, going over to you, the district attorney mentioned that wage theft is just part of a larger effort by the district attorney’s office to bring justice to the construction industry for workers and construction workers’ safety on the job has been a big part of that, that was actually a big part of what led to the district attorney’s office focusing on construction workers’ wellbeing and justice overall in the first place. Will you tell a little bit of the story behind the formation of what’s known as the Construction Fraud Taskforce that you’re coordinating and that’s leading a lot of this work?
COLON: So one of the things that when we did the investigation of the Harco case, which is the basically what the worker named Carlos Moncayo, 23 years old was working at a construction site and basically he died when a 17 foot trench collapse happened. We discovered that wage theft and health and safety goes hand in hand. Some of these construction companies, if they cheat in one place they will cheat in others. We started, once we did that case and we started investigation we looked for the safety part first and then we venture into the payroll and we discovered a lot of the workers including Carlos was not getting paid over time established by the law.
So one of the things that we learned through that case is to move into another strategy and work on wage theft and see how also we can be more proactive to workers about educating about their rights but also how they can cooperate with us. We established two initiatives, one is the construction safety presentations, it’s targeted to construction workers in the field, most non-union workers, we attend [Occupational Safety and Hazard Association] (OSHA) classes, OSHA 10 and OSHA 30. For the people that don’t know about OSHA, it’s a basic requirement that is [INAUDIBLE] for people to work in the construction industry you have to take these courses. So what we are doing is actually going to this classes including, we bring investigators, they’re out on the field with us and we talk about what we do, what we’re interested in, we tell them very clearly we’re not interested in their immigration status, we want to help them and figure out what’s going on in these cases and we need their cooperation because in a lot of these cases the workers are the victims themselves. And they’re the ones that actually see these unsafe conditions, they are the victims when they see this.
So Carlos’ case was very unique because in that case we used photographs to make this case and we learned a lot from that and that’s an essential tool that we can use in the prosecution of these cases. So one of things that we did is we created a WhatsApp application for the task force and we shared among the workers and we tell them look, if you see pictures, if you seen situations that are unsafe, send us a picture, send us a video and since we established, that has been amazing how the cooperation from workers and the information that we receive on a daily basis.
VANCE: I’m going to jump in and make clear how important Hildalyn’s involvement is in this program as she said, as part of the outreach, we have gone out to the workers who are oftentimes supplied fake OSHA cards, but they need this training as part of corporate requirements to hire these folks. And we’ve reached out to them to do training that our office is funding through forfeiture dollars. But Hildalyn and her team have now met with more than 2,000 workers who have received basic education on OSHA and also on how to protect themselves through taking pictures and using the WhatsApp so it’s a very grassroots effort, it’s done under the direction of Hildalyn who is obviously bilingual and much of the conversations with these workers is going to be in Spanish. And it’s really that willingness to work directly with the workers and their families that has made the program successful. In the Moncayo case, just to be clear, what happened, this was a innocent hard working, as Hildalyn said 23 year old young man who was sent into a pit, when you dig in New York City if your head gets about a certain amount of feet it needs to be shored up so that it will not fall in on itself. But this company disregarding not just safety of their workers but disregarding warnings but one of the managers on site that they were endangering the workers continued to dig this pit until it got to between 14 and 17 feet in depth, I think it was 14 and maybe a little bit more and Carlos was in the pit at the time and it crushed him when the sides caved in it literally just crushed him.
So that’s a case that we prosecuted manslaughter charges on, the company was convicted and should have been convicted and that really has helped again, reset expectations around worker safety for construction companies in Manhattan in particular and the city of New York. That was an unusual case, it changed the dynamic in terms of prosecutors looking at these as potential criminal cases and that was an important sea change that I think is going to influence other prosecutors around New York and around the country to be more aggressive where it’s appropriate to protect workers.
VALLAS: You mentioned that you’re seeing an increase in participation and recommendation and referrals of these types of violations coming from the community, coming from folks who otherwise may have been scared to come forward because they are undocumented or have family members who are. Are you watching this new role that the community and in particular the Latino community in New York is seeing the district attorney’s office play have an impact in how they see law enforcement and the DA’s office vis a vie themselves and their community as someone fighting for them as opposed to someone to be afraid of?
COLON: Absolutely, we have seen it. Part of the Carlos case was essential to us because also to get us to the taskforce itself, reinvent themselves and transform themselves. Usually the taskforce was working with specifically government agencies, we call it traditional partners. So with the Carlos case we learned that we were missing a big portion of part of the construction agency, we actually reached out to non-traditional partners is how we call it, community groups, consulates we have a good relationship with the consulates in New York City, a lot of this construction workers take the trainings at the consulates. We also established relationships with unions, with assosicatiosn of the business industry, it helped us a lot because one of the essential things that we saw, it was like a disconnect about what is the role of our involvement and what is the role and how we can meet and give us an opportunity to know each other, to understand each other, to create cooperation in terms of what are we doing. And I think through the cases, people in the community have seen that we’re here to help and we see that for example, everytime that we have construction fatality or a situation happens when we go it’s amazing how the workers saying yes, I know you, you came to my training. I want to come forward, how can I help? And we started to see that change and it’s actually getting great results and more cooperation and also trust, which is essential for us to make this task force work.
VALLAS: What challenges have you faced in bringing these cases and do you feel that there are any policy changes that need to be made so that you are better able to achieve justice for these workers?
VANCE: I think the challenges in these cases are typical challenges that we have historically found in many of our cases. Number one, we have a victim community, which historically has been scared in many instances to talk to law enforcement and I think that’s only gotten more intense over the last year and a half. That really, that’s been challenge as I said for many years. But we are always working to try to reach out to all our New York residents, irrespective of where they come from to try to explain to them that we are an office that is safe to report to, as Hildalyn said we do not disclose their document’s immigration status to other agencies, and we see this for example in domestic violence. We have really had to think of other ways to get the message out to potential victims and Hildalyn had a very creative idea, which was very successful, which is to have a video loop playing in the waiting room for many of the consulates of Latin American countries and individuals from those companies go to the consulate for help, so if they see your message playing in the consulate, they have a greater confidence that they can reach out to that agency, ours, because it’s been supportive and has been approved of by the consulate, so that’s a continuing challenge for us. And there’s always the power dynamic between a corporation and an individual. And a fear that if they testify there will be sanctions that their family’s going to have to pay. So those are two of the problems that we’ve had.
COLON: That’s another challenge that we see. It’s hard to prove these cases, that’s why we came up with trying to get technology accessible to get information about these cases. With Harco and Carlos Moncayo, we had pictures through the whole process of when that ditch was regular construction and suddenly hours after became very dangerous. And that’s been instrumental. We have moved to encourage workers to make sure that they know how to document these conditions, what information do we need and be able to have capacity to bring that information and use it internally with our team to interconnect information. It’s been very, very successful, the amount of data that we’re receiving.
VANCE: Rebecca, another challenge that has direct effected our office, may be the case in other jurisdictions is the minimal penalties that go along with corporations committing crimes in a certain area. For example, in the Harco case, while the company was found guilty, a well established company with adequate resources to build complex buildings, the maximum fine the court could impose on the company, even where they were responsible for a worker’s death was $10,000. And we have gone to the legislature here in New York State and said that’s ridiculous. You cannot adequate deter this kind of misconduct unless you make clear that it means something when you commit this crime. If you have to pay $10,000 for being found guilty of manslaughter that’s inadequate deterrent for the company. So we are hopeful that bills that can elevate that penalty amound to $1,000,000 or more is going to be at least the minimum that we need to review and revise our laws where it comes to corporate punishment for criminal conduct.
COLON: To add to that, we’re helping to bring that conversation the other parts of the country. For example Boston, their penalties for a corporation was $1,000, a law that hasn’t changed in close to 100 years. They recently actually changed the law, they raised the penalty to $150,000 and it was because of a similar case that Harco, it was called Atlantic Drain in Boston and we helped in the DA with that case. It changed the conversation, not only here in New York but we’re making sure to send that message out to the other part of the country because I think that would also help to target these companies. Construction companies are big and sometimes they’re building, for example we have seen that they construction in New Jersey, they have construction in New York, they have the same companies in Boston, North Carolina, so we’re trying to bring this message in New York City and out to the whole country.
VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and Hildalyn Colon, the coordinator of the Construction Fraud Taskforce in the [Manhattan] District Attorney’s office. If you’re in the New York area and you yourself have experience wage theft or some other type of violation on the job you can report it, you can report it using a phone number, 646–712–0298, you can also use the WhatsApp system that has been set up, that you’ve been hearing about, we’ll have links to all of this on our nerdy syllabus page as I’m sure you expected. But District Attorney Vance and Hildalyn Colon, thank you so much to you both for joining the show and for your work to take on these horrible injustices for a population for so long has been taken advantage of with no recourse.
VANCE: Thank you Rebecca, it’s been a pleasure talking with you.
COLON: Thank you.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas, the show is produced each week by Will Urquhart. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @offkiltershow and you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the WeAct Radio Network or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.
This program aired on July 11th, 2018