Legislative gridlock surfaced so often in Congress in 2013 that historians will have ample room to chronicle a “do-nothing” Congress.
Lawmakers managed to shutdown parts of the U.S. government for 16 days. They averted a near default by the government and held so many philosophical disagreements about policy and priorities that many people outside Washington, D.C. openly groaned when they heard the impasse of the day.
Meanwhile, cupboards across the country went bare as the food stamp program shrunk by $5 billion just weeks before Thanksgiving. Millions of families lived in limbo as Congress failed to pass long-promised comprehensive immigration reform. And 57,000 children were kicked out of Head Start because of sequestration, the budget-bludgeoning that occurred because members of Congress were too busy fighting to agree on where to trim.
In sum, 2013 has not been the most constructive of times in Washington, D.C. Star Paschal, a mom who’s active in her Alabama community, says she’s seen just one significant thing coming out of the halls of Congress this year – hot air.
“In my opinion,” the public housing worker said, “they haven’t done anything but cause chaos.”
At one point during the gridlock, the Senate chaplain prayed to a higher power for help: “Rise up, O God, and save us from ourselves.”
All this while the stock market climbed to new heights - and income inequality remained at record levels. As the Census Bureau reported, 46.5 million people were living below the poverty line in this country. That number climbs to nearly 50 million people when different poverty measures that give a fuller picture are included.
Leaders in the capital may not have played nice together, but outside of Washington, D.C., families and grassroots advocates around the country were joining together to make things happen.
For some, it was a new school discipline policy. Or being able to draw a glass of clean water from the tap. For others, it was the promise of a little more in the paycheck. Or actually getting paid for something many people take for granted – overtime.
Sweeping policy changes? Not in all cases. But they do tell a story about patience, about persistence and about the power of people who show up, year after year, to put in the work to change policy that affects their families. Government may come late to the party; sometimes, it fails to show up at all. But in communities around the country, work is getting done.
“To me, that has been one of the biggest signs of hope in 2013,” said Melissa Boteach, director of Half in Ten, a campaign to halve poverty in a decade. “In spite of a gridlocked Congress, you’ve really begun to see advocates, activists, everyday people, taking the narrative back and building momentum for long-term change.”
A “do-nothing” Congress? Whatever. That made 2013 a year for people in neighborhoods to shine.
Changing School Discipline
In New Orleans and Los Angeles, in Greenville, Miss., and beyond, parents have been fighting the same issue for years: harsh school discipline policies.
Instead of a visit to the principal’s office, students were being suspended for infractions as minor as tardiness. Many were kicked out of school entirely. All too often, they would wind up in the juvenile justice system. It’s been dubbed the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
About five years ago, grassroots advocates in Louisiana began trying to implement a model discipline plan, along with a codified program of positive support for students. It was hard to argue with the basic premise: It’s better to change kids’ behavior than to kick them out of school.
In 2011, a bill to reform school discipline policies was passed by the Louisiana state Legislature, but it was vetoed by Gov. Bobby Jindal. When that path was blocked, advocates found another, going district by district and lobbying school administrators to implement model discipline policies.
Parents in New Orleans were among those seeking change. In some schools there, one in every four students was suspended out of school, according to the Dignity in Schools Campaign. Eventually, the district began to see things the way the community groups did. “They’re understanding that you can’t just put kids out of school for minor infractions,” explained Ernest Johnson of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children.
Last year, the district implemented the model policy.
Meanwhile, similar movements were going on around the country, led by parents and community groups. In 2013, advocates in 22 states held marches, community forums or teach-ins to change harsh school discipline policies, according to the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.
“The entire country is kind of jumping on it,” Johnson said.
Even if it means going one district at a time.
Finally, Running Water
Being able to get a potable glass of water from the tap is taken as a basic necessity. But there are pockets of the country where that isn’t a given.
“Definitely, it’s something that people deserve,” said Amy Meeks, who works with Adults and Youth United Development Association (AYUDA), an El Paso organization that’s been working on the issue for years.
In some communities in Texas, the fight has been going on for decades. The communities are known as colonias – unimproved land located outside city limits, where many immigrants live without public utilities.
“People bought the land with the idea it was going to be something better for their families,” Meeks said. “They started building, and then they realized they were struggling more.”
Over the years, community members have organized, cajoled and lobbied until, colonia by colonia, they have picked up policy wins, significantly reducing the number of people living without public water.
This year’s winners included about 700 people in four colonias near El Paso. There, residents could drive a stretch down the road and see new neighborhoods that had all the normal utilities. Yet, when they asked for water lines, they were told they’d have to wait.
Several years ago, AYUDA was able to get 2,500-gallon water tanks for residents so that they could have water delivered to their homes a few times a month. The deliveries cost about four times the average water bill. And the water wasn’t even potable. Residents had to buy their drinking water separately.
Convincing officials that things had to change was not easy.
“There was a point where they were saying there’s not really a lot of people living out there, so we gathered signatures,” Meeks recalled. “They said, ‘No,’ and ‘No,’ and ‘No,’ but we continued to go back.”
As Meeks put it, “You know what? Eventually, they’re going to have to say, ‘Yes.’”
And finally, after about 15 years, they did.
Domestic Worker Advocacy Pays Off
Talk about persistence: Domestic workers have spent decades advocating ordinary wage and hour protections. In 2013, they had several victories.
“We won a change that’s going to put hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of low-wage working women,” said Andrea Cristina Mercado, campaign director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
The movement began in the 1970s, when domestic workers began organizing to be included in minimum wage laws. They didn’t succeed. In 1974, home health care aides were specifically excluded from changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act and placed in the same category as casual babysitters.
Compared to the 1970s, the landscape for domestic workers now is different. Home health care aides, for example, are relied upon for increasingly complex care, as growing numbers of aging people remain in their own homes rather than move into institutions.
Still, wages have remained low. For home health care workers the current average hovers a little over the federal minimum wage. The National Domestic Workers Alliance said 20 percent of respondents in their surveys reported there were times in the previous month when there was no food in the homes. Advocates say more than half of home health care aides live at or below the poverty level and receive public benefits.
Around 2000, a new domestic workers rights movement began to take shape and has picked up steam in the last five years or so. States and even the federal government have begun to notice and respond.
In 2013, California and Hawaii passed domestic workers bills of rights. A federal rule change ensured that home health care workers nationwide will earn minimum wage and overtime pay beginning in 2015.
“We started talking to one another, from California to New York to Washington to Maryland,” Mercado explained. “That’s when the work took off.”
Hope for a Living Wage
As December comes to a close, the agricultural industry and the one in seven people who use food stamps are waiting for Congress to pass a comprehensive farm bill. Immigration reform is on hold. The president advocated raising the federal minimum wage in early 2013, but nothing has happened on that front – nothing, that is, in Congress.
Communities from coast to coast, however, have taken matters into their own hands. Voters in San Jose, Calif., approved an increase that took effect last year. Ditto for SeaTac, Wash., which approved a $15 minimum for some hospitality and airport workers in November. State minimum wages were increased in New York, Connecticut and California.
In Illinois, the people are pushing for a living wage as well, through lobbying, signature-gathering and acts of civil disobedience. In November, “Black Friday” rallies in front of Wal-Mart, often cited as an example of a major retailer paying low wages, led to a number of arrests.
Charles Jenkins is among them. As an activist, he puts himself in the middle of just about every social justice campaign that hits Chicago.
“I may be out in the street in the morning at a rally, and then that afternoon I may be door-knocking or flyering or phone banking,” he said. “Whatever moves the barometer a bit closer to a just society.“You name it, we’ve done it,” Jenkins said.
He feels they’ve been successful, even though the minimum wage hasn’t budged. Legislation was introduced in the Illinois General Assembly earlier in 2013, calling for a series of increases. Meanwhile, in Chicago, advocates announced in December that they had gathered enough signatures to put a non-binding referendum on the city ballot.
Jenkins is optimistic.
“I know it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s a tough grind, but I also know that when you [want to] make something happen, you don’t worry about how much work you had to put in yesterday, or today. You continue to stay positive and do positive things, and it’s impossible to fail.”