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Photos: Martin Luther King Jr. peace walk commemorates a legacy of equality and justice

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was honored in D.C. with a vibrant peace rally and parade featuring the annual MLK Peace Walk, which emphasized unity, social change, and a poignant call to end violence.

Chicago gun violence activists ask Congress to follow suit in community health reforms

Alongside doctors, Chicago-area public health experts and community advocates shared their own experiences with gun violence with lawmakers, calling on them to step up to do more to treat the crisis.

As gun violence soars, lawmakers, experts debate how best Congress can address the crisis

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, doctors and medical experts framed gun violence as a public health crisis that needs to be addressed through prevention and intervention programs, just as diseases do.

Auto safety regulators on track to recall 52 million airbag inflators

The NHTSA hosted a meeting Thursday to walk the public through its initial decision to recall 52 million airbag inflators, backed with data from experts.

Sanders accuses Starbucks of ‘most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign’ in US history

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz denies breaking the law despite NLRB complaints.

Video: A night at the Museum, in Washington

Video: A night at the Museum, in Washington

WASHINGTON — The National Gallery of Art opened up its doors last Thursday night for an evening of music and dancing. The theme of the event was "Sheroes," in celebration of women's history month.The event also offered a preview of the Smithsonian American Women's...

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WASHINGTON – A day after President Biden’s State of the Union, a Texas judge issued a temporary restraining order, blocking the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) from investigating two parents for providing gender-affirming health care to their 16-year-old transgender daughter.

The restraining order only applies to the Doe family and its lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Texas and Lambda Legal on Tuesday. However, District Judge Amy Clark Meachum will consider a request for a broader injunction next Friday. 

Advocates are encouraging at-risk families to seek legal assistance prior to any potential investigations.  

“This is a critical victory and important first step in stopping these egregious and illegal actions from Texas officials,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, in a press release. “We are relieved for our plaintiffs and ready to keep fighting to stop the governor, commissioner, and DFPS from inflicting further harm on trans people and their families and communities across Texas.” 

After Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s call to consider gender-affirming health care for minors as child abuse under state law — and Gov. Greg Abbott’s public support of the opinion — parents supporting trans children were put at legal risk, with some even considering moving out of state. 

President Biden condemned anti-trans legislation in Texas and nationwide in a statement released on Wednesday. 

“Elected leaders in Texas have launched a cynical and dangerous campaign targeting transgender children and their parents,” Biden said. 

Abbott and Paxton’s push to consider parents’ provision of gender-affirming health care to minors is “government overreach at its worst,” the president added. 

“The Governor’s actions callously threaten to harm children and their families just to score political points. These actions are terrifying many families in Texas and beyond. And they must stop,” he said. 

Biden also referenced his State of the Union promise to always have transgender Americans’ backs, adding that he and the first lady “will continue to fight for a future where all children can thrive.”

Medill News Service spoke with Erin Reed, a trans right advocate and transgender woman, on what the above federal guidance and provision of resources mean for her community. Reed had previously told MNS that Biden’s remarks on “LGBTQ+ Americans” during the Tuesday address were hopeful but not enough.  

“This mobilization of federal resources feels like a breath of air in the middle of this experience where it feels like we’re just drowning in legislation targeted towards trans people,” Reed said. “There’s more morale now, and it seems like people are hopeful now.”  

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra called the current treatment of transgender Texans “discriminatory” and “unconscionable” and encouraged Texans to contact the Office for Civil Rights to report their experience if feeling unsafe or threatened. 

 “At HHS, we listen to medical experts and doctors, and they agree with us, that access to affirming care for transgender youth is essential and can be life-saving,” Becerra said. 

HHS has released guidance on how local governments can use state child welfare agencies to “advance safety and support for LGBTQI+ youth,” as well as guidance on illegality of denying health care based on gender identity, as well as restricting doctors and health care providers from providing medical assistance. 

“I definitely still don’t have any hope on legislation, on the Equality Act, anything like that,” Reed said. “Our best bet is through a mixture of state and local laws where these laws can be passed, and then executive branch guidance and support and mobilization of resources and enforcement of federal law in non-discrimination and constitutional protections that we have.”

More details and resources can be found in the HHS statement

Both the Texas and federal decisions come as a variety of advocates across the nation – including immigration and trans rights – demanded Congress and Biden actually take action, rather than reiterate promises of protection. 

“I want to see the follow through,” Reed said.

Health Action Conference Tackles Intersection Between Health Access and Racial Justice

WASHINGTON – A father slept by his sister’s side as she cried in the hospital after losing four of her limbs to unchecked diabetes.

The family didn’t have insurance, so they couldn’t have treated her condition earlier. 

Laura Guerra-Cardus witnessed their struggle first-hand as a med student in Texas. The experience pushed her to fight against the reasons why many Americans lack medical coverage and access to health care. 

“I was constantly struck by times when medicine could only provide bandaid solutions for problems with much deeper roots, like poverty and racial injustice,” said Guerra-Cardus.

Health advocates like Guerra Cardus, policy makers and activists from across the country gathered virtually on Tuesday to listen to panel conversations on the multifaceted issues that surround health and racial inequity, and to engage in workshops about social media activism, new technologies for campaign strategizing and lessons from the COVID-19 vaccine.

“COVID-19 has made it impossible to ignore everything that is wrong with this balkanized and still badly broken healthcare system, where people of color are the first to get sick, yet last to get access to care, and in the frontlines when it comes to discrimination,” said Frederick Isasi, executive director of Families USA, which hosts the conference.

Panelists noted how racial injustice, a large factor in health care inequity, encompasses many issues including reproductive rights, disability rights and housing security.

“You can see [it during the] pandemic, in which people with disabilities are seen as expendable and disposable, and that has everything to do with racism, eugenics and who is deemed worthy of survival and who is not,” said Ola Ojewumi, founder and director of Project ASCEND.

The problem of systemic racism becomes even more complicated with housing. The history behind the housing market and current practices of gentrification have been rooted in race-based discrimination, according to Sidney Betancourt, a housing advocacy organizer for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“We know there’s been studies shown that depending on your zip code, that will be a determinant of your health outcomes later on in life,” Betancourt said.

The activists who should be leading the solutions to these problems, explained reproductive rights organizer Monica Simpson, are those who are people of color, who are disabled or who are themselves impacted because these populations have lived experience that can inform their work.

“People are understanding that we do not live single issue lives,” said Simpson, executive director at SisterSong. “Audre Lorde told us that. And now we’re seeing what that looks like in practice.”

As an example of how intersectionality can be applied to advocacy, Ojewumi pointed to the rallying of disability activists through social media. 

By connecting large groups online voicing similar concerns over the ableism of Center for Disease Control and Prevention policies, disability rights activists were able to sit down with the CDC director and discuss potential harms towards their high risk community.

With a growing need for affordable medical care and lowered prescription drug pricing, the benefits of Biden’s proposed Build Back Better bill were emphasized by several speakers including the president himself, in a pre-recorded keynote address.

“I’m sure what ultimately comes out of this Congress will not fulfill our hopes nor our needs, but we must secure all of the progress we can achieve when we can achieve it,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas).

During Tuesday’s closing remarks, Laura Guerra-Cardus received the award of Health Justice Advocate of the Year for her work as deputy director of the Children’s Defense Fund in Texas. She spoke on the health coverage gap and urged health advocates and activists at the conference to continue their fight to close it.

“What I know is that the pendulum doesn’t just swing back our way,” Guerra-Cardus said. “It’s not something we ride on passively when we are down. We don’t just sit, we organize. We build power and we pull the pendulum back towards justice.”

Video: Local businesses concerned about Sunday’s anti-vaccine-mandate rally

WASHINGTON – Sunday’s anti-vaccine-mandate rally at the National Mall has local business owners concerned, especially after posts on social media suggested some attendees plan to enter stores to challenge the District’s mandate. 

“It’s hard enough with regular folks sometimes just coming in not wanting to show their cards,” said Tony Tomelden, owner of The Pug, a local bar on H Street NE.  

Called “Defeat The Mandates: An American Homecoming,” the march is about protesting the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, not the vaccine itself, according to Trevor FitzGibbon, communications consultant for the march. 

“This is about unifying people of all stripes to come together and oppose the idea that forced vaccinations on people isn’t okay,” said FitzGibbon. 

While most businesses aren’t planning to board up or close doors for the day, fear lingers in the air, especially after the January sixth Capitol insurrection. 

“We’re all just vaguely more on edge after one six,” said Tomelden.

Watch the video report here:


Census report on child support payments doesn’t account for income disparity

WASHINGTON — A semi-annual U.S. Census Bureau report on child support payments for the year 2017 fails to take into account the circumstances of parents with different levels of income, a practitioner said this week. 

“We want to help people to have an appreciation for the difference between somebody who was deadbeat, meaning they had funds, they have the obligation to pay financially for their children, they had the means to do it. And for whatever reason they choose not to do and not to pay,” said Joe Jones of the Center for Urban Families, “versus another group of dads who are low income, who are simply dead broke, and they have an obligation to pay, they want to pay, they don’t have the means to do so.”

While there is mention of higher income individuals in the report, there is no explicit discussion of how child support orders can impact people with lower income — particularly when the orders exceed their means. 

This data —  which is often used by other federal agencies and officials to determine funding and resource allocation — serves as a good starting point for learning about the receipt of child support payments but needs additional work to have true impact, according to Jones, the founder and CEO of the Maryland-based community center. 

For starters, the report could have practical influence if used by state officials, for example the National Conference of State Legislatures, to reform some child support policies. 

“The one thing you don’t want to do is to have a child support order so outlandish that it makes a person destitute because it strips that person of all their income,” Jones said. “We were able to get signed into law, the self sufficiency reserve, which basically says you can only create a child support order based on documented income. So that practice is no longer allowable, because it’s a law.”

“But you think about the amount of debt that has accrued over time, and whether or not it’s in a community’s best interest, to allow a population of people to have that level of debt that can never be collected,” he said.

Restricted zoning harms communities of color, experts say

WASHINGTON – Restrictive zoning policies are a chief force behind the nation’s continued housing shortage, experts said at a Bipartisan Policy Center panel on Tuesday.

“We are experiencing the longest economic expansion in history (and) at the same time, seeing the fewest units produced on record,” said Up for Growth CEO Mike Kingsella. 

According to the legislative advocacy organization’s 2018 report, from 2000 to 2015, the U.S. fell 7.3 million homes short of meeting housing needs. This means that for every 10 new households formed, the housing market has only responded with approximately seven new homes, Kingsella said. 

“We have systematically under-produced housing relative to housing needs,” he added. 

This is due in part to exclusionary zoning, or policies made with the intent to exclude and separate housing uses, according to Kingsella. 

Studies show that these policies that restrict low-cost, high-density housing can act as “geographical segregation” by disproportionately impacting low-income people and communities of color. While wealthy, often white families, can live in ideal neighborhoods with ample access to transportation and other amenities, little affordable options push others out. 

“The originators of many of these policies had the segregation of not only real estate and housing types in mind, but also the folks that inhabit it,” Kingsella said. “(It’s) really an exclusionary and dark park of our nation’s land use in housing market history.” 

People of color have faced compounded hardships during COVID-19, which has exacerbated the housing crisis. Lost and reduced income has made paying rent difficult. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that between last September and October, 28% of Black renters and 18% of Latino renters were not caught up on rent – compared to only 12% of white renters. 

“It was motivated by…desire for very explicit racial segregation. Also there was a very clear desire for class separation,” said University of Georgia professor Sonia Hirt about the chief motivations behind zoning laws’ implementation in the U.S.

Hirt emphasized the connection between homeownership and generational wealth. 

“The home is actually a very important part of wealth creation for the American middle class,” she said.

Without homeownership opportunities, it can be difficult to escape generational wealth gaps, Kingsella said. 

“Certainly, in areas that are historically redlined there are, in general, a lack of homeownership opportunities,” he said. “So there is a compounding effect in terms of the racial wealth gap going back to many of these barriers that are stymieing housing production writ large.”

The impacts of restrictive zoning policies on housing options is evident in places like Connecticut, which has the highest rate of income segregation in the country.

“91% of Connecticut is zoned for single-family housing,” said Sara Bronin, a Cornell professor and founder of the nonprofit coalition Desegregate Connecticut. “In this entire state we have 2% of our land that allows for multi-family housing – which really is the process that would enable that housing to be built.” 

Desegregate Connecticut created the Connecticut Zoning Atlas to visualize state zoning and districting and reveal inequities — the first of its kind online interactive to be done on a statewide basis. 

Kingsella pushed back against the often-used argument that affordable housing harms local economies. 

“(Up For Growth) found that the U.S. GDP could increase to the tune of $2.4 trillion cumulatively over a forecast period of 20 years,” he said. 

Looking forward, Kingsella said the good news is that “Congress has recognized that the housing underproduction is a national issue.”

“The quantity of legislative proposals aimed at dealing with this are increasing, and we’re encouraged by the momentum that we’re seeing,” he said, citing the excitement about the Housing Supply and Affordability Act, which is part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better framework. 

If Democrats end up moving forward with efforts to pass incremental versions of the president’s signature legislative agenda, the HSAA would provide $1.75 billion for a planning grant program that would enable cities to reform zoning codes.

Lawmakers: Elderly and Disabled Americans Struggle Most With Financial Literacy

WASHINGTON – Lower financial literacy among Americans, especially those 65-and-older and those with disabilities, creates challenges for long-term money management, experts and nonprofit leaders told lawmakers on Thursday.

“Seniors end up as greeters at Walmart when they should be enjoying the golden years of their lives,” said Dorothea Bernique, founder and executive director of Increasing H.O.P.E. Financial Training Center.

Bernique blames a lack of knowledge, money and money management skills.

Increasing “just-in time” financial literacy – getting guidance as they’re making decisions such as claiming social security, enrolling in Medicare and annuitizing a 401(k) – can be pivotal for seniors and those with disabilities.

And though the focus of the Committee on Aging Panel is older Americans, the lawmakers and experts also discussed resources at the federal, state and local levels to promote financial literacy for all age groups, even young students, as financial knowledge among U.S. adults has decreased over time.

“In 2009, 42% had high financial literacy,” said Gerri Walsh, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) senior vice president of Investor Education. “By 2018, only 34%, and an early look at the 2021 data collection suggests levels have fallen slightly further.”

Yet Americans with disabilities face additional concerns, including higher spending and less access to financial education.

“To have a disability, it just simply costs more,” said Thomas Foley, executive director of the National Disability Institute, told MNS.

Precisely an additional $17,690 a year, if the individual with disabilities cannot work, according to research by the institute.

“Making sure that not only that there are policies in place to remove these barriers to financial inclusion, but then that the financial education materials and curriculum are… accessible to people with disabilities,” Foley said.

But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said for certain individuals, improved financial education does not mean improved financial wellbeing.

“Low income families navigating a thin social safety net that gives them too little help, all the education and counseling in the world can’t magically make two plus two add up to ten,” Warren said.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., raised doubts on increasing financial education at the federal level.

“I look at the federal government, it’s really nice to see a place dispensing that valuable information, maybe prefacing a little bit in terms of what it tries to preach,” Braun said.

This year, the committee has zeroed in on financial literacy as the focus of its annual bipartisan report, released on Thursday.

For Hmong farmers, access to COVID-19 funds hampered by multiple challenges

Madison resident and farmer Mylia Vang didn’t apply for some of the $100 million in COVID-19 relief grants for Wisconsin farmers because she didn’t know the money existed.

Vang, 44, who makes between $20,000 and $30,000 per year selling asparagus, zucchini and other vegetables she and her husband grow on 3 acres of leased land in Verona, said she doesn’t usually keep up with the news because English is not her primary language. And no one reached out to her to share the information before the deadlines for two rounds of grants in 2020 and 2021 passed.

“I had no idea,” Vang said.

Vang’s experience is not unusual among the state’s large Hmong population, according to advocates for the state’s largest Asian ethnic group. Technology and language barriers, as well as the lack of a specific advocacy organization for Hmong farmers, made accessing the grants a challenge for many, said Phil Yang, a Dane County farmer who migrated to Wisconsin from Laos with his family more than 30 years ago.

Yang was able to access $10,000 in grants, which he said helped his operation survive the pandemic. But he also holds a doctorate and speaks fluent English.

“It’s easy,” said Yang, 48, of the application. “We get money every time.”

Yang was elected to the Dane County Farmers’ Market board of directors right before COVID-19 hit. He’s the first Hmong person to hold the post. Since the beginning of his tenure, Yang said, he has found it a challenge to convince Hmong vendors to upgrade their business models.

Many Hmong vendors don’t accept credit cards nor use mobile payment systems such as Square, Yang said.

Yang said he recently explained the benefits of credit cards to one vendor who refuses to accept card payments. Yang said the vendor worries he will have to pay more in taxes, which is why his stand is cash-only.

“On average, about 80% of our sales come through credit cards,” Yang said of his bakery. “They don’t understand what this means to them.”

Pandemic costs

Wisconsin is home to the third-largest Hmong population in the United States, according to U.S. census data. Some 6,000 Hmong live in Dane County, according to the 2011-2015 American Community Survey, and farming is a primary or secondary source of income for many.

In the 1970s during the Vietnam War — known as the “Secret War” within the Hmong community — the first generation of Hmong arrived in the U.S. as refugees fleeing Thailand and Laos. Many of them had been farmers at home, and they settled in Wisconsin because of the region’s rich farmland.

During the pandemic, many Hmong farmers could not sell their products because all the farmers’ markets were closed, said Hmong Institute Board President Mai Zong Vue.

Vue said she helped set up meetings between Hmong farmers and buyers from a local food bank to make up for the hit to farmers’ incomes.

“As a result, a few Hmong farmers were able to be a vendor and sell it to them,” she said. But she said it took a lot of work because there’s no formal support system in Dane County that works to connect Hmong farmers to resources.

“Everything from data to documentation to advocacy and a formal (outreach) group is nonexistent,” she said.

Also to help farmers find buyers when outdoor markets closed, Groundswell Conservancy community director Yimmauj Yang helped set up a small market in Dane County last May.

In collaboration with the Center for Community Land Trust Innovation, Yang’s team opened up the space to local vendors, free of charge.

“In order to limit the barriers, we have to replicate,” she said. “There’s no pivoting that needs to be done in terms of online technology.”

Yimmauj Yang, who is Hmong, has relatives who are farmers. Also because of her work that focuses on advocating for land access, she said she’s well connected among the Hmong farming community.

During the pandemic, none of the farmers she spoke with knew there were relief funds for farmers, she said. And when she told them about the application, they weren’t meeting the gross income to receive those funds.

The first round of funding required a gross annual income of $35,000, which was too high for many small-scale Hmong farmers, Yang said. A second round of funding lowered the income requirement to $10,000 a year. Both rounds were capped at farms making $5 million.

“I know many, many farmers who make less than $10,000,” she said. Those farmers still won’t be eligible to apply, she said.

Thinking about what’s next

The support system for Hmong farmers looks much different in Minnesota. A Twin Cities-based nonprofit, the Hmong American Farmers’ Association, has been working to address language and knowledge barriers since 2011, said HAFA executive director and co-founder Janssen Hang. The group does extend membership to some farmers in western Wisconsin.

The group offers several programs such as business development trainings and crop growing workshops, and it helps connect Hmong farmers with alternative markets such as schools and hospitals. During the pandemic, HAFA applied for six grants and most recently was approved to receive $600,000 that it will divide among farmers and put toward the group’s community farm, Hang said.

Having the farmers’ group has “really changed the dynamic,” Hang said.

For Hmong family farmers growing and selling produce as a second source of income, there’s less incentive to think long-term, Phil Yang said.

While Yang can still remember riding water buffalos and harvesting rice with his mother in Laos during the 1980s, many young people are leaving the industry to pursue jobs elsewhere. So there’s less reason to plan for sustained growth, he said.

What’s more, Yang said due to a lack of translation services, many Hmong farmers think grant-writing is like producing a 20- to 30-page paper. Many Hmong farmers are turned off by their idea of the process and say they don’t have time, he said.

Sweeping relief packages from the top are well-intentioned, said Yimmauj Yang, but there are barriers at every step in the pipeline. “It’s not trickling down.”

Published in conjunction with The Wisconsin State Journal

VA home loan program popular among veterans gets bad rep from sellers

WASHINGTON – Although the Department of Veterans Affairs backed a record 1.44 million homes loans for veterans and service members in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, members of Congress and veterans’ advocates said Wednesday that sellers remain leery of VA-backed loans due to misinformation about the difficulty of appraisals.

Sellers are less likely to accept VA-backed offers than conventional ones, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors released earlier this year. While 89% of sellers said they were likely to accept an offer from a buyer using a traditional bank loan, only 30% said they would do the same for a VA-backed purchaser.

Misinformation about VA appraisals, which many sellers believe are more complicated than regular appraisals because homes must meet a series of minimum property requirements determined by the VA, has contributed to a prejudice against VA-backed loans, Veterans of Foreign Wars Associate Director Erica DeVito told a House Veterans’ Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

“Many veterans attempting to purchase a home using a VA loan are finding they simply cannot compete,” said Subcommittee Chairman Mike Levin, D-Calif.

But sellers’ fears aren’t totally misplaced. The average wait time for an appraisal conducted by the VA is 14.8 business days, said VA Loan Guaranty Service Acting Executive Director John Bell. Non-VA appraisals can take less than two days to process,

The VA has 6,000 appraisers nationally, according to Bell, but advocates on Wednesday called for a bigger workforce and suggested paying workers more as an incentive.

“There’s a shortage of certified appraisers, and VA appraisers are even harder to find,” said National Association of Realtors President Leslie Rouda Smith.

Of the NAR’s 1.5 million members, fewer than 1% are formally certified to work with veterans, active service members and eligible military spouses to find the best housing options for themselves and their families, she said.

Higher inspection standards among VA appraisers also deter sellers from accepting VA-backed offers, said DeVito. 59% of sellers said stricter inspection requirements reduce the attractiveness of the VA loan, according to the NAR survey.

DeVito said the VA should do more outreach among veterans and sellers to dispel myths about the home loan program.

“The trepidation of sellers to want to entertain offers from a VA purchaser [is] clearly an issue,” said Levin. “We have to make sure that people are competitive.”

Published in conjunction with Logo

Congress wants a national climate corps. These local groups have already been doing the work.

WASHINGTON — As the possibility of a national civilian climate corps is being considered in Congress, Black and brown community leaders hope lawmakers will collaborate with and learn from local efforts that have already taken root across the country.

The Biden administration’s Build Back Better Act, which would allocate $2.25 billion for staffing a civilian climate corps, passed the House Nov. 19 and awaits Senate action.

In addition, President Joe Biden advocated for a climate corps in his January executive order on tackling the climate crisis, and nearly a dozen lawmakers — including Sen.Ed Markey, D-Ma., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., — have introduced climate corps bills within the last year.

“This is our FDR moment,” Markey said at an August news conference, referencing former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s initiative to employ Americans on government projects and end the Depression. “In the 1930’s, FDR created … a Civilian Conservation Corps in order to deal with the problems of the 1930s. Well, we’re updating it to a Civilian Climate Corps, to unleash the same level of talent, but this time, to do it with intersectionality.

The Civilian Conservation Corps ran from 1933 to 1942. It was largely targeted toward white men.

Tonya Gayle, who is Black, is the executive director of Green City Force, a corps in New York City that trains young adults ages 18 to 24 living in low-income housing to create equitable, green communities while learning new skills that could translate into good jobs.

“We don’t want (elected officials) or others to just make up a plan for how we should do this,” Gayle said. “They need to come talk to all of the groups that are already doing it and then build on that.”

Many activists have been fighting for racial justice and environmental justice for decades, Gayle said. Green City Force is part of the Corps Network, a group of over 100 climate corps nationwide that was established in 1985.

According to Martha Ross, senior fellow at Brookings Metro, an effective climate corps needs to focus on projects that matter to local communities and to invest in resources such as counseling and career development to connect young adults with future opportunities.

Tatijana Ollivierre works with the Green Team at Groundwork Somerville, a program that empowers high school students from marginalized backgrounds to be environmental leaders. Green Team members work on Groundwork’s urban farm and attend workshops to become community leaders in racial justice and environmental justice.

In an August press conference, Markey said the Green Team in Somerville, Massachusetts, is a model for a national climate corps.

Ollivierre, who is Black, got involved with the community farm as a sophomore at Tufts University. As a young person of color from an immigrant family, she said, her needs and experiences were often underrepresented.

“The resources that we needed were so obvious to us and it was super frustrating that no one seemed to be listening and responding.”

By working alongside Black and brown high schoolers on Groundwork farm, Ollivierre said, she has been able to give students advice and connect them with resumé help, therapy and tutoring resources.

Ollivierre now works as the organization’s Youth Development Manager

For Ollivierre, growing her own food on the urban farm has been an important step in reclaiming her history and relationship to agriculture as a Black woman in the United States.

“This is a way to actively regain space in this country and actively reclaim your personhood,” she said.

Similarly, Gayle said Green City Force works to empower young adults of color by acknowledging them as experts of their own communities, encouraging their talents and giving them their own voice whenever possible.

Participants also get paid, Gayle said, which can allow them to support their families and to take advantage of other opportunities.

“We’re trying to create systems change. We’re trying to create future green cities, and we’re trying to create spaces where there is an actual positive future for these marginalized frontline communities,” Gayle said.

Watchdogs say Government could do more to help Homeless Youth

WASHINGTON — When Dani Seltzer is invited to talk to schoolchildren or chats with people in her Arlington, Virginia, community about what homelessness looks like, she says the image in people’s minds at the start of her talks is usually an adult man or woman asking for money on street corners. 

Rarely do they picture a young person in their late teens or 20s — a member of Generation Z — couch surfing in friends’ or families’ homes or without a place to stay, never having a place to call home. 

As the board chair of Borromeo Housing, Inc., which supports young homeless mothers, Seltzer said that many young people who are homeless are stigmatized as having done something to cause their homelessness or as just “bad kids,” which makes them feel discarded and invisible.

One in 10 young adults aged 18-25 experience homelessness, according to a 2017 University of Chicago study. The Government Accountability Office and other experts say homeless young people are also harder to track in federal reporting than other people experiencing homelessness because they are undercounted in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s point-in-time count — the yearly estimate of how many people are experiencing homelessness on a single night.

The GAO and local groups that provide housing say the federal response to homelessness often gives lower priority to young adults who are homeless compared with other groups — such as those who have been homeless for longer periods of time or those with disabilities. 

In a report released this month, the GAO recommended that HUD and the Department of Health and Human Services provide more guidance to local providers on how to help young people who are homeless. 

According to the report, HHS uses a broad definition of youth homelessness, including staying with friends or at motels, while HUD’s definition is narrower, excluding those situations in many cases. Because of that, many find navigating which benefits are available to different types of people to be challenging, said Andy Pauline, assistant director of the GAO’s financial markets and community investment team.

He recommended federal agencies work on an interactive tool to help housing and service providers for homeless people better understand the definitions.

Sean Read, chief program officer for the Washington housing service provider Friendship Place, said there should be a uniform definition of homelessness between HUD and HHS. 

“Sometimes there are individuals that are trying to navigate resources from both sides, and they may qualify for one but not the other,” Read said. “Sometimes the ability to access a resource or program on the other side can really lend to their long-term stability. Sometimes it’s the key.”

According to a HUD official, the agency has no plans to alter its definition. Instead of expanding who is eligible for HUD programs, the official said the solution is to increase funding for the programs. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act is one way of doing so, he said. 

HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Read added that young people have unique needs. While the federal government has one centralized system for individuals seeking housing resources, Washington has separate systems to accommodate different demographics, including youth, veterans, single adults and families.

While Read said Washington’s system could be used as a model for replication on the federal level, the HUD official said the agency has seen the greatest success on a national scale when processes and service providers are coordinated, not separated or fragmented.

Triina Van, homeless services coordinator for the Arlington County Department of Human Services in Virginia, also said having separate systems for different demographic groups could result in pitting the groups against one another for resources.

She added that there is a difference in philosophy in serving young homeless people. Some organizations focus on temporary or transitional housing, whereas others have a “housing first” approach to move homeless individuals into permanent housing quickly, she said. 

“Without necessarily saying one is right or wrong, there’s a tension there,” she said.

Van said that all of Arlington County’s homeless nonprofit partners have direct relationships with the faith community, whether through donations, in-kind contributions or volunteers.

Seltzer said that is true at Borromeo Housing, Inc. as it aims to help young mothers by providing housing to help them become successful on their own and disrupt the cycle of dependency on shelters or other subsidized housing. 

“In the values that we lead with and guide by, I think faith is ever-present,” she said.

“I can put a roof over your head today, or I can show you a way that you can put a roof over your head for the rest of your life and create a different mindset, lifestyle, expectation, for not only yourself but for your children so that your children are never part of that ongoing cycle,” she said.

While Borromeo Housing is privately funded, many of its volunteers and donors feel called by their faith to serve. 

“The programs that support (young adults experiencing homelessness) have a much bigger charge than to just put a roof over their heads. They need people that are willing to say, ‘I see you, I believe in you, I care about you and I expect more from you,’” she said. 

Safety, equity and climate justice top priorities in new Transportation, Interior partnership

WASHINGTON — Expanding public access to national parks by increasing transportation options will be a top priority in discretionary federal spending, said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg arrives for the signing. (Mary Yang/MNS)

Buttigieg and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Wednesday signed a symbolic agreement detailing a plan for the two departments to work together to increase access to national parks and other federal lands.

Standing against a backdrop of red, orange and yellow leaves across from Lincoln Memorial, the secretaries spoke about their commitment to help underserved communities.

“Not every family can afford to take a vacation to a national park and not all parks are fully accessible to people with disabilities,” said Haaland. “We don’t want there to be any barriers.”

The agreement comes after President Joe Biden signed into law on Monday a $1 trillion infrastructure deal that includes a five-year reauthorization of the Federal Transportation Program, which provides dollars for repairing National Park Service roads, bridges, trails and transit systems, according to the Transportation Department.

“We’ve got to prepare for the decades ahead,” said Buttigieg.

The infrastructure law also will provide for thousands of zero emission school buses and a national network of electric vehicle chargers, primarily in rural and tribal areas that can be spread out, he said.

Native Americans are two to three times more likely to die in car crashes than any other ethnic group and have the highest per capita rate of total traffic deaths, according to an Interior Department press release.

“When we talk about a plan around access, we must do so with an eye toward equity,” said Haaland.

The agreement signed Wednesday will help to ensure that the Department of Transportation prioritizes the needs of tribal communities in future planning projects. Historically, transportation planners in tribal communities have not served members well, according to a survey by the Federal Highway Administration.

The FHA is conducting a study to analyze planning issues in order to improve the Tribal Transportation Program, which was allocated $3 billion in federal funds as part of the infrastructure deal.

“When we talk about a plan around access, we must do so with an eye toward equity,” said Haaland.

Opportunity Zones’ tax break program left neediest communities behind, experts say

WASHINGTON — More than 80% of nearly 9,000 low-income areas named “Opportunity Zones” as part of a 2017 tax break program received no money in 2019, federal records show.

The reason: There’s no incentive for wealthy taxpayers, who receive generous tax breaks for investing in the zones — which are designated economically distressed areas — to give to those who need it most, Brookings Institution expert David Wessel told a House Ways and Means subcommittee on Tuesday.

The Opportunity Zones program was established in 2017 as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to spur investment in low-income communities. In exchange for their investments in vehicles known as Qualified Opportunity Funds — which distribute money toward nearly 9,000 designated areas — wealthy taxpayers can receive significant tax benefits.

As of 2019, $29 billion had been invested across all Opportunity Zones, according to a Government Accountability Office report in October, but just 1% of the zones received half of those investments, said Wessel. What’s more, zones that received Opportunity Zone money were better off economically than those that received zero dollars, according to an April Joint Committee on Taxation analysis.

Wessel, a Brookings senior fellow and author of “Only the Rich Can Play,” a book about Opportunity Zones, said he doubts the program will be repealed because it’s so popular among mayors and governors who tend to support any development tool available to them.

“But if we can’t fix it, we should repeal it,” Wessel said Tuesday.

Some Republicans expressed frustration with calls to end the tax incentive, which they said had bipartisan support in the previous Congress. “We are still incredibly early in the process,” said Rep. Mike Kelley of Pennsylvania. “The limited data that we do have is pointing to success,” said Kelley, the top Republican on the oversight subcommittee, which held the hearing.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, the New Jersey Democrat who leads the oversight subcommittee, said the program doesn’t require investors to demonstrate job creation or build affordable housing, which makes it difficult to assess whether investments are producing positive economic change for the Opportunity Zone residents.

Jessica Lucas-Judy, GAO strategic issues director, testified that because of data limitations, the Internal Revenue Service cannot adequately ensure that investors are complying with regulations.

Long-standing issues in the IRS’ reporting system and additional reporting delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a data processing backlog, Lucas-Judy said.

“It’s hard to know whether the incentive is having the intended effect on communities,” she said.

Although the IRS developed plans to ensure taxpayers comply with requirements, those plans depend on data that isn’t readily accessible, Lucas-Judy said. Thus, the IRS could have trouble tracking investors who aren’t following the rules.

The nearly 9,000 Opportunity Zones encompass more than 10% of the nation’s population. Residents who live in the designated tracts tend to have lower incomes, experience higher poverty rates and are more likely to be non-white, she added.

But wealthy taxpayers benefiting from the Opportunity Zones program tend to be white, and in 2019, the average investor had an annual income of $1.1 million, said Wessel.

“If we want to create a scenario where people living in Opportunity Zones can become owners and can have a share of their local economy where they can invest locally, we’re going to need to think through alternative structures and vehicles,” said Urban Institute Senior Fellow Brett Theodos.

The GAO in its report recommended that the IRS research the risks posed by limited data and that it take steps to mitigate non-compliance by wealthy investors.

The IRS has agreed to the recommendations.

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Medill Today | February 15, 2024