Episode 2: Dr. C. Nicole Mason, Institute for Women's Policy Research, and Erin Boggs, Open Communities Alliance, Talk Breaking the Cycle of Childhood Poverty and Solutions for a Better Future

We address the travesty of child poverty.

Our hosts, Jeff and Carol, introduce each other to our listeners.

This podcast is based on Jeff’s book, “Invisible Americans.” He is a prolific American economics writer.

Carol is an Emmy-winning journalist, activist, and author. She most recently was the president of the ERA Coalition, a group devoted to amending the Constitution to protect women.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason was Born Bright 

Carol and Jeff introduce our first guest, author and activist Dr. C. Nicole Mason. 

Recently named one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine, Dr. C. Nicole Mason is President/CEO Emeritus of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). She has written hundreds of articles on women, poverty, and economic security. 

Carol recommends that everyone in the country read Dr. Mason’s book Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey From Nothing To Something In America. 

Dr. Mason goes on to introduce herself and discuss her background. She was raised in Los Angeles by a single mother. She had a “rough-and-tumble” life and became the first person in her family to graduate high school. She ascended to great academic and professional heights, but her upbringing informs the work she does – which is to find out why some children fall through the cracks and explore what we should do about it. 

Fighting Old Ideological Biases About Poverty

Jeff asks Dr. Mason about the idea that the poor are responsible for raising themselves out of poverty. Dr. Mason’s impetus for writing her book was the challenge the narrative that poor people are poor because of choices that they make. 

“One of the things I set out to do is say it’s actually systems and structures, not people and behaviors.”  

The Emotional Toll of Childhood Poverty

Carol talks about Dr. Mason’s description of the emotionality of growing up in poverty. Dr. Mason shares she didn’t have awareness of her own poverty until she got to college. She felt shame and embarrassment while people discussed programs like Headstart, AFDC, and food stamps, which she had used herself.

But after leaning into those conversations in college, Dr. Mason developed the language to express the emotional trauma of growing up in poverty. She remembers as a child feeling less than, feeling unworthy of support, feeling inadequate.

Her dream for other children in poverty is that they should not have to push in the same way she did. She wants them to be welcomed and told they can and should do things. That’s not the case, and Dr. Mason mentions that it’s not only difficult to overcome these things emotionally but materially.

The Myth of Upward Mobility

Carol cites a statistic that Dr. Mason used, that only 4% of impoverished people actually make it to the middle class. She asks, “After all of this work all of these systems, all of the years and years of this, is it still that low?”

Dr. Mason confirms that it is still that low, and it is even harder now than it has been previously due to: 

  • Inflation
  • The COVID-19 pandemic 
  • Widening wealth gap
  • Wage lag
  • Cost of education and student debt

And for impoverished families, it's like winning the lottery. You're more likely to win the lottery than you are to escape poverty.”

This seems to fly in the face of the idea of America, which is that if you work hard enough, you can make opportunities to ascend to the middle class and have a better life.  

“Well, You Did It.” 

Dr. Mason talks about how she encounters people who misconstrue her life experience. Since Dr. Mason was able to escape poverty, that offers “proof” to some critics that it is, in fact, possible to escape poverty. 

She often faces questions like, “Well, why don’t people just go to college? Why don’t they just manage their money better?” 

Dr. Mason thinks that she gets these questions because most people don’t actually want to admit the way they feel about poverty, impoverished people, and the reasons why some people live in poverty.

Racism Around the Child Tax Credit

Dr. Mason talks about the stereotypes surrounding things like the Child Tax Credit, which helped pull 2 million children out of poverty. The discussions around the Child Tax Credit were not rooted in truth or facts, but in stereotypes. 

Senator Manchin was a great example of this when he explicitly said that parents wouldn’t actually spend the money on their kids but would instead spend it on booze and drugs. 

“This is really just the demonization of poor people.”

The Intersectionality of Gender Pay Gap Issues

Carol asks Dr. Mason to discuss how equalizing the pay gap, especially for women of color, would have a huge impact on the number of families living in poverty. 

Dr. Mason emphasizes that thinking in terms of getting paid “80 cents, 67 cents, 54 cents” on the dollar is very abstract. She wants our listeners to realize we’re talking about real dollars, real money in people’s pockets. 

“It’s deferred dreams. It's less money for food. It's struggling and thinking about which bill to pay first.”

During the pandemic, Dr. Mason says there was a “she-cession,” not just a recession, and that almost a million women haven’t returned to the workforce. People make ends meet wherever they can by creating underground economies, bartering, sharing, doing other things because there is no support.

Listen to Episode 1 with xx to learn more about living on less than $2 per day.

Dr. Mason’s list of priorities to address some of these issues are: 

  • The Child Tax Credit
  • Universal childcare
  • Paid sick and family leave
  • The expansion of universal Pre-K.

“It's about making change and changing policies so that families and children are no longer suffering, regardless of race.”

Our second guest, Erin Boggs, on Inequality, Geography, and Race

Erin Boggs is the Executive Director of Connecticut's Open Communities Alliance, which has been fighting for housing equality since 2013. 

Erin tells our listeners that Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the country, and like other segregated areas, the places that are primarily Black and Latino are also very low income. 

“And that is something that really grows out of our history of intentional segregation.”

The Open Communities Alliance has a two-pronged approach to how they help the most vulnerable among us: 

  • Changing hearts and minds to impact future policies
  • Leveraging current civil rights laws to protect people’s civil rights

Erin talks about racial covenants, which were legal documents that restricted sale or rental of property to anyone who was non-white. In Connecticut, these laws were technically on the books until 1967. 

These racial covenants set us on the track to where we are today, paving the way for the wealth gap because Black and Latino families didn’t have the ability to build wealth. 

Jeff adds that he is from the infamous Levittown, which had some of the first racial covenants, and that he didn’t meet a person of color until he was in college. Carol adds in that in Levittown, the US government participated in subsidizing mortgages for white families and stacked Black and Latino families into vertical ghettos where they could only rent.

Erin Talks Policy

Open Communities Alliance is involved in numerous pieces of litigation regarding the housing voucher program and is hoping to effect change there.

They’re also currently fighting a lawsuit against the town of Woodbridge, Connecticut, about their exclusionary zoning policies. 

Thirdly, they’re fighting for Fair Share Planning and Zoning, which would require towns in Connecticut to play a role in planning and zoning for affordable housing as currently required by law. But Open Communities Alliance is building in more detail and structure for towns across the state.

They’ve also created an organizational coalition called Growing Together Connecticut, which seeks to address housing issues across the state.

Solutions that Erin sees to the housing crisis are: 

  • Building more affordable housing
  • Only allow evictions for good cause
  • Make sure eviction records are recent and relevant 
  • Set families up to spend 1/3 or less of their income on housing, which would allow them to save for homeownership, retirement, etc
  • Subsidized housing at the federal level
  • Mixed-income communities 


Dr. C. Nicole Mason, Jeff Madrick, Carol Jenkins, Erin Boggs

Carol Jenkins 00:16

Hello, and thanks so much for joining “The Invisible Americans Podcast” with Jeff Madrick and Carol Jenkins. We address the travesty of child poverty here.

Jeff Madrick 00:26

There are nearly 13 million children living in serious material deprivation in America, and we don't see them. They are our invisible Americans. And we plan to change that.

Carol Jenkins 00:39

A couple of words about us. The podcast is based on Jeff's book, “Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty.” He's an economics writer, author of seven and co-author of another four books on the American economy.

Jeff Madrick 00:56

And Carol is an Emmy-winning journalist, activist and author, most recently president of the ERA Coalition, working to amend the Constitution to include women.

Carol Jenkins 01:08

And we are longtime colleagues and friends.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Carol Jenkins 01:17

They call it intergenerational transmission of poverty: how impoverished parents produce impoverished children, generation after generation. The idea of escaping poverty, one of the popular concepts in American life, doing it by heart individual work, is actually rarer than one would like to think. In fact, children moving up and out of poverty is lower in the United States than in any other developed country in the world.

Jeff Madrick 01:49

Our first guest today did it. Dr. C. Nicole Mason spent her childhood in hunger and deprivation and wrote a best-selling book about it - Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing To Something In America. From the low expectations of her beginnings, she rose to Fortune Magazine's list of top 50 world's leaders. The researcher and scholar of women's lives and economies is president emeritus of the Women's Policy Research Institute.

Carol Jenkins 02:23

Nicole, thanks so much for joining us. I've been following your career for lo these many years. And again, as I told you, I just reread your book, Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing To Something In America. And I recommend it to everyone in this country, if you really want to understand how we got to where we are today. We should do that. If you could tell us a little bit about your life and why you do the work you do.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 02:54

Thanks, Carol, for having me on. And, you know, I just feel like we go way back. And we've been working alongside one another for about 20 years now. So thank you again for having me on your show. And it's great to meet you, Jeffrey. 

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California by a single mother. She was a teenager when she had me. And it was a rough-and-tumble life. And very early on, I had a vision for myself about who I could be in the world, and through a lot of grace and a lot of good people, I was able to manifest a lot of great things in my life. 

I'm the first one in my family to graduate from high school to go to college and to obtain an advanced degree. Despite all those things, what I know to be sure is that everyone who starts out where I start out doesn't have that same chance and those same opportunities. And so one of the reasons why I wrote Born Bright was to not only talk about my experiences, but also talk about, you know, why it is that some of us – or some children early on fall through the cracks and what we should do about it? 

Jeff Madrick 04:12

Do you get frustrated when people say -- it's an old ideological bias in America -- that the poor are responsible for raising themselves?

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 04:23

I still get pretty angry, actually. And that was the biggest impetus for writing the book was to, you know, challenge that narrative, that poor people are poor because of choices that they make, or people should pull themselves up by the bootstraps. And one of the things I set out to do is say that it's actually systems and structures, not people and behaviors. 

And if we look at those systems and structures that, one, allow only a few out at a time or, you know, then we would see that it's more systemic than it is individual, and then to tell the stories of people, you know, very hardworking people who, you know, have two or three jobs and still are impoverished. And for many people poverty, and the, the things that are associated with it are the is the number one barrier to escaping poverty.

Carol Jenkins 05:15

You express so well the emotional toll that it takes on children. You know, we often talk about the hunger and the poor education and all of that, but the emotional toll that it actually takes on children, if you can tell us a little bit about that.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 05:30

I have to say that I didn't know that I was poor until I got to college. And I was in class, and they were talking about programs like Headstart, AFDC, and food stamps. And for the first time, I realized that, you know -- All those programs, I was very familiar with and had used those programs as a child, and they were talking about the programs in the context of people being poor. And, you know, a wave, a warm wave washed over my body. I was embarrassed. I felt shame. Those were my first feelings. 

And then I leaned into the conversation a little bit more. And I finally for the first time had language for my experiences growing up and the emotional trauma – That’s all I have to say about what, you know, poverty, and having language for and having language for my feelings of, you know, going into a social service building. And this is as a kid. You feel this as a very young child, feeling less than or unworthy of support and help and services. 

And then I think about where I am now and the mental toughness, you know, it takes to overcome those feelings of inadequacy and not belonging and unworthiness. You know, and that in itself is a journey.

Jeff Madrick 06:56

How do you go back to the five-year-old or the eight-year-old or the 10-year-old and teach them some of those things, that they are worthy that they can take control of themselves?

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 07:09

You know, I think it's really hard because everything around them is telling them no. And I'm, you know -- I've always been a feisty little, something. I mean, you know. And so I would get told no. I would say, why not? Or I would still push. 

What I think about, you know, those other young people is that they shouldn't have to push. They should be able to walk through and have people welcome them and say, “You can do this. You can have this.” And that's unfortunately not the case. 

So even if, you know, I'm a voice, and I say, “Yes, you can, and, you know, I did it—" But if there's so much around them in their schools and their communities and neighborhoods that are saying that it's not possible. I think it's really hard to overcome, both emotionally but also just materially. It’s, you know, emotional, but it's also like, you need people to help move those barriers out the way for you.

Carol Jenkins 08:02

What statistic are you using now? I see that at one point, you were saying 4% of the impoverished actually make it to the middle class. After all of this work all of these systems, all of the years and years of this, is it still that low?

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 08:19

Yeah, it's still the same. And I think it's gotten even harder, because, you know, we've had inflation. We've had the pandemic. The wealth gap has widened. You know, wages are still lagging. And so it's made it more difficult for people to access the middle class. Education, the cost of, you know, post-secondary education is out of reach for most families. You know, student debt has skyrocketed. So it's really harder, I would say, to reach the middle class for most families. 

And for impoverished families, it's like winning the lottery. You're more likely to win the lottery than you are to escape poverty. I find that really discouraging in a place like America, where, you know, it's built on this idea that if you work hard enough, you can get to the middle class. You can have a better life. 

But I can -- speaking for myself, and I just look at my own family, and some of the people, the friends that who, again, are very bright, very smart, who are still impoverished, living hand-to-mouth. And so, you know, I know firsthand that it's not about individual choices and behaviors.

Jeff Madrick 09:31

Did your white middle class audience ever believe you? Or should I put it differently? How often do they believe your stories when you tell them?

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 09:43

You know, I think it's a bit of a mixed bag. Anyone who, you know, goes outside of their comfort zone or, you know, ventures outside of their usual, you know, places, they understand what I'm talking about. 

But a lot of times, I use my story to say, “Yes, I was able to navigate broken systems. But I shouldn't be the only one. And you shouldn't have to do that.” But sometimes people see that as a proof point to say, “Well, see, you did it. So what are you talking about? It can be done. And people just have to do what you did.” 

I run into that a bit more often because, you know, I don't think most people would admit the way they feel about poverty and people and the reasons why they are impoverished, because I'll get questions like, “Well, I don't really understand. Why don't people just go to college? Or why don't they just manage their money better?” Those are the kind of questions you get in response to why someone is still – people live in poverty.

Carol Jenkins 10:43

We're looking at statistics that say that perhaps 70% of impoverished children are Black and Brown in this country. The factor that racism plays in all of this and why something like the Child Tax Credit, you know, which lifted so many children out of poverty just vanished, you know, as we were -- Jeff had worked so hard, and we were all screaming, “No, no, no! You know, this works. Give them the money. Feed them. House them.” What part do you think racism played in that?

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 11:12

I think racism plays a really huge part. I mean, even in the debate leading up to the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, there's a lot of stereotypes about what parents would do with the money, you know, the policing of the tax credit, a lot of suggestions around stipulations, like what you would have to do for the money, even though it's a tax credit. So it's not -- it's, you know -- and by the way, less than 3% of families now receive any kind of cash assistance in the US. And so racism plays a huge part, even though statistically, we know that in terms of programs like, you know, AFDC or cash assistance, the utilization across the board is, for white families, a bit higher. Disproportionate because they're more of the population. 

But the stereotypes we have are not rooted in truth or facts. They’re rooted in stereotypes. When we think about the Child Tax Credit and what and why we did -- and even when we think about the omnibus bill, why it was it was excluded, it is mainly rooted in stereotypes about who's using them and what they, you know -- whether they're deserving rather than the need of families. Because we know that, for example, the expanded Child Tax Credit pulled over 2 million families or 2 million children out of poverty. And when it was eliminated, 3.9 million fell into poverty. So, you know, we have to be very clear about there is no public will and belief in these programs. But even though we know that they work – like, we know that they work.

Jeff Madrick 12:49

Senator Manchin’s a great example of this. He very explicitly said, parents will not spend that money, the tax credit money, on their kids, when we have so much evidence that in countries in Europe or Canada, where they have substantial tax credit, parents do spend it on their kids. Do you get a lot of questions about that specifically? Will they just spend it on, you know, something like booze and drugs or not?

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 13:21

This is really just the demonization of poor people. What we know is that when families get, you know -- especially moms. When moms get money, whether it's a tax credit or any of these guaranteed income programs, they spend it on their families. It goes right back into the economy. It goes right back into communities. They spent – I remember there was -- several years back, they spent so much money trying to sus out fraud and found very little of it because people are doing the right things. 

People need support to be able to take care of their families. And when the minimum wage hasn't risen in, you know, more than a decade and hasn't kept pace with inflation, housing costs are out of control, food costs are out of control, there is a need for a really robust social safety net.

Carol Jenkins 14:08

You believe in your research that if we paid women the same thing that we paid men that, what, 40% of the poverty level would vanish? Talk to us a little bit about that. And most of the women we're talking about are women of color, who are paid less. You know, every year we go through that. This is the day six months in where Black women made what a white man made last year and eight months and 10 months and all of that.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 14:34

The 80 cents on the dollar, 67 cents, 54 cents, it really becomes abstract. You hear it all the time. And one of the things I tried to say is that like, no, this is real dollars. This is real money in people's pockets. It’s deferred dreams. It's less money for food. It's struggling and thinking about which bill to pay first. Like, it's real money in people's pockets. And when you think about single moms, you think about Black moms, you know, you think about families, they're being robbed. And over a career, women lose, you know, up to a million dollars and more, in some cases, to the pay gap. And so we saw what happened in the pandemic, when women were the first to fall out of the workforce, they didn't have a safety net. They didn't have savings. But a lot of that was because of the pay gap, that, you know, there was no money to save.

Carol Jenkins 15:25

During the pandemic, you called it a “she-cession,” right? I guess it's almost a million women who still haven't gone back to work.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 15:32

Yeah. And, you know, you have to ask, like, “Well, what are they doing to survive?” Like, I did a study a few years ago in the South. You know, unemployment rate is double digits. Jobs are nowhere to be found. Less than 3% of people receiving cash support. So I was -- I asked, and I said, “Well, then what are you doing to make ends meet?” You know, I really had to know. And some of them were not. They were really struggling. And then some of them have created an underground economy where they bartered and shared and, you know, did other things. But we have to ask ourselves, “What kind of country do we want to be?”

Jeff Madrick 16:09

Do you have a list of priorities in terms of policy?

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 16:13

Yeah, absolutely. So of course, I mean, we talked about the Child Tax Credit. I mean, of course, we can expand the Child Tax Credit. That would go a long way to lifting women and children out of poverty, families out of poverty. 

Universal childcare is top on my list, you know, when I think about the US, compared to other developed countries that have robust family policies. If, for example, families weren't spending 30% of their income on care -- in some instances more, right – so, you know, that would allow them more money to pay for housing, pay for education, pay for food, save. And so, you know, we would see a return on that immediately. 

So paid sick and family leave. The U.S. is one of the few developed countries without, you know, robust paid and sick leave family policies. 

You know, expansion of universal pre-K. You know, there's so many policies that would go a long way to lifting women and families out of poverty, creating a robust social safety net. We don't have one anymore. You know, making it not means-tested. If you need support, you go, and you're able to sign up for support like they do in other countries.

Jeff Madrick 17:27

I first started working on a child tax credit unconditional, an unconditional one in about 2015. And I spoke to the prominent academics. Almost none of them believed one could pass without conditions, without, as you call them, stipulations. And there in 2021, we got it. It happened. And then they took it away. It was a very frustrating experience when even well-meaning academics couldn't fully support stipulation-less child tax credits.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 18:02

We have to be bolder, you know? This is our country. You know, I think we have to be bolder in what we asked for, and we have to demand it. You know, I think we've been very incremental in our thinking, very limited in our thinking, because we don't think we can have it or get it. This is a time for us to be really bold and assert what we want and fight for it. It's not okay that in the omnibus bill, Child Tax Credit, you know, that was cut. It wasn't okay that we lost the Build Back Better, the family plan. In this moment because, you know, Carol and I, you, we've been working on this for quite some time. And I think we need some new strategies and really to, you know, build a public will around what we know will work for women and families.

Carol Jenkins 18:48

And you're in the lead of organizing that. It's the movement of movements. I think the way we think of it now is that we're all in the same boat together. You know, every single movement needs to be in the movement to save the children in this country.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 19:03

I really want to be optimistic. I'm optimistic because I think you can't continue this work without being optimistic. I think that we need to be -- hold our elected officials to account to the people. And I don't think we do that enough. 

You know, right now we don't have a real representative government because if we did, we wouldn't have the child poverty rates that we have. We wouldn't have a lot of the other issues that are happening. So I'm optimistic in that I continue to fight and continue my good work. I'm less optimistic about the lack of focus on, you know, what we really need to get down for the people, you know, at the federal level.

Jeff Madrick 19:43

For sure. Do you have a sense that you can make clear that these kids really do suffer?

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 19:49

You know, the megaphone is always on, and the amplifier’s always on for these issues. And whenever I have an opportunity, I lift them up, and I think people are listening. But I do think we need to build the broader public will around these issues in a meaningful way so that it's not just about empathizing. But it's about making change and changing policies so that families and children are no longer suffering, regardless of race.

Carol Jenkins 20:18

You had no idea until you got to college that you had been an extremely poor child in your life. And not having enough food to eat is one of the indicators.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 20:29

I'm the mother of, you know, twins. You know, they're 13 now. The difference between my life and their lives? I mean, thankful, you know, it's one generation. It’s just marked. Like, they don't know hunger. They don't know suffering. They don't know, you know? And even when I try to explain to them my life, it's beyond their comprehension. I want that for them. 

But you know what? I want it for all the children, not just my own. And so, you know, that's what I have to keep in mind, you know, as I continue to do this work. It's not just for me and my children, but it's also for those others that are just like me.

Carol Jenkins 21:09

Nicole, thank you so much for being with us and for your work.

Jeff Madrick 21:12

Thank you, Nicole.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason 21:13

Thank you so much. It's great to talk to you both.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Carol Jenkins 21:24

The most recent tabulation of the unhoused in the United States puts the number at over a half a million people with no homes at all. Then there are those with sporadic housing, dilapidated housing, housing that is just too expensive for the minimum wage jobs that are available, housing costs that take away from feeding children.

Jeff Madrick 21:48

Erin Boggs, Executive Director of Connecticut's Open Communities Alliance, talks to us now about fixing the affordable housing problem in America -- a problem of inequality, geography, and race.

Carol Jenkins 22:03

Erin, thanks so much for being with us today. I know you've been doing this work a long time. And so interesting, as you've talked about it over the years, have always talked about it in this intersectional way of racism and geography. And a simple -- what most people would think of as housing. Give us a little bit of your philosophy of the Open Communities Alliance and what do you hope to do there.

Erin Boggs 22:29

So Open Communities Alliance has been around since 2013. And I've been working on these issues in Connecticut since about 2000. We really look at the fact that Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the country. We also have, of course, segregation in many places throughout the United States. And that there is this intersection between places that are predominantly Black and Latino and also very low income. And that is something that really grows out of our history of intentional segregation. 

This has been written about by many scholars at this point, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Richard Rothstein. The culmination of the segregating policies has led to not only restricting where many Black and Latino families can live, but also restricting their ability to build wealth, and in some cases, due to other policies around segregation and discrimination in employment.

Jeff Madrick 23:31

I know when I started looking at child poverty, which is now like 2015 in a serious way, I was always stunned by the willingness of the American people to neglect poor children. When you started doing this work, how did you deal with that?

Erin Boggs 23:48

Absolutely stunned by it. Absolutely stunned by it. You know, you would think that how we assist and care for the most vulnerable among us, as they always say, is sort of an indicator of the society as a whole. And so I would hope that we put a real emphasis on that. 

But I think part of this is really sharing that message with people and expanding in addition to all the work we're doing around enforcement of civil rights laws. We really see our work as two-pronged: making sure that we're changing hearts and minds and also leveraging the laws that are on the books to protect people's civil rights.

Carol Jenkins 24:30

The reason we're talking with you is that so often people do not think of this housing affordability as a part of the contributor to poverty. But the idea of being able to afford a home, whether you're renting or buying, is essential to whether or not you're poor or not.

Erin Boggs 24:49

The ability to have a home is indicative of so many other things, and it affects a family's life in a variety of ways. So there's a continuum from just having stable housing anywhere all the way up to having real choice in where to live and potentially buy and accumulate wealth. 

And so all along the spectrum that can have a huge impact on a child's future. I often talk about the impact of something -- that seems to some people as long ago -- is the use of racial covenants, which in Connecticut, the language we have found in racial covenant after racial covenant is that, “no person of any race except the white racial user occupied this property, except that occupants who may be permitted for a domestic servant of a different race.” 

And those were restrictions on where people could live and where people could rent that technically did not become illegal till 1967. And so when you think of a family, even my parents, buying their home in a mostly white neighborhood in 1967, there is a whole inheritance that comes from that that has affected our lives and is our white privilege. 

And Richard Rothstein has run the numbers. The wealth gap in the United States between Black families and white families can be almost entirely attributed to the wealth gap that came from the inability of Black and Latino families to build wealth as a result of racial covenants.

Jeff Madrick 26:27

You know, Erin, I grew up in Levittown, which now is infamous for having among the first racial covenants. I never met a person of color until I got to college and hardly even then. This restraint on people to buy housing, I think, is so misunderstood, as you're pointing out. How do you deal with it? How do you demonstrate to people? 

I know you must cite Rothstein numbers, but how do you demonstrate to people how unfair it is?

Erin Boggs 27:00

There are all kinds of tools out there right now that tell it in stories. There are visuals, and I think it's a process of reaching people in the way that they will receive the information the best and helping them understand the real impact of these historical policies.

Carol Jenkins 27:17

Jeff talks about Levittown, which was a prime example of backyard, a lovely kitchen space, the neighborhood and all mortgages, you know, participated in by the government. The US government stacked Black and Latino people, but mostly Black people, in vertical ghettos. 

They were not allowed to buy. They were only allowed to rent. And as you are pointing out, Erin, that's the inheritance back from, you know, lo these many government policies, discriminatory policies, you know, that resulted in the discrepancy that we see now. 

So talk with us about 2023 and what your policy objectives are, what you're working on -- I know there's a huge lawsuit -- and then within the bounds policies that you're trying to change.

Erin Boggs 28:10

We have brought numerous different pieces of litigation, in some cases against the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, about the way they run the housing voucher program. We have an ongoing lawsuit now against the town of Woodbridge, Connecticut, challenging their exclusionary zoning policies. 

And at the same time, we've created a coalition of organizations called Growing Together Connecticut, which seeks to in a united way address all of the different sorts of impacts of these policies. And that includes a whole package around tenant protections. That includes investing in places that have been disinvested from for decades. 

And then the third sort of core piece of our policy is focused on something we call Fair Share Planning and Zoning, which is not too dissimilar from what the New York governor is proposing right now. But it's this notion that every town in Connecticut can play a role in planning and zoning for housing that is affordable. And actually currently, our laws require them to do that. But this provides an additional layer of detail and structure for them to work within. And we are optimistic about getting something meaningful done this session.

Jeff Madrick 29:37

So many towns are now saying they won't do this. The West Coast seems to be, notably. At least, LA seems to be notably an example of this, especially given they have so much homelessness in California. How do your policies apply far away from Connecticut?

Erin Boggs 29:58

What we're focused on is squarely Connecticut, but we do work with partners all across the country. So we have some great colleagues in New Jersey, which has actually a Fair Share Policy in place that’s working incredibly well, and is being used, I think, in many ways as a model for other places like California, which is making progress on new laws and some enforceability around those laws on zoning.

Carol Jenkins 30:25

Karen Bass, the new L.A. mayor, has said she is going to address the unhoused population that has gotten to crisis level, has been there for a while. But she talks about the replacement issue, that as soon as you build housing for a certain number of people, they're automatically replaced by new unhoused people. So what do you see is the pipeline?

Erin Boggs 30:51

Well, in New Jersey, there's a plan over the next 10 years to create about 170,000 units of affordable housing and actually agreements with towns to do that. So it's very real, and it's happening. So I think part of the lesson there is that this is something we can do. 

In Connecticut, we know we need at least 135,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years, and our proposal would allow that to happen. We see that as a strategy. I think, in terms of the unhoused in particular, I see a lot of that as, you know, unfortunate outgrowth of our failed housing policies writ large. And so the more we can do the right thing in creating stable homes for everybody, the more we can address the root causes of homelessness, which are often thought of is associated maybe with substance abuse or mental health challenges or a whole range of other things. 

But all of those things are exacerbated and maybe only lead to homelessness when we don't have that stable housing. And so I see that as really at the core, and also all the way up the income spectrum so that we have families who are working hard, earning minimum wage or maybe even slightly above, who can then get into a position where they could actually save for homeownership. They can actually save to meet basic needs. They may even be able to go beyond that, and get to the point where they're saving for retirement, able to send their children to college. 

Like, all of these things that are really important can't happen when families are spending 50% of their income towards housing costs, which is true for about a quarter of the renters in the United States right now.

Jeff Madrick 32:37

How do you deal with the stern eviction policies of landlords that we read about all the time?

Erin Boggs 32:43

Yeah, we are seeing in Connecticut huge problems with evictions right now. You know, obviously, in Connecticut during COVID, we felt a real influx of people coming from New York City and other places. And that had an impact on our rental housing market in particular, and contributed to lots of evictions that, you know, also came about because of instability in wages, etc. 

There are a number that have to do with evictions, including that you should have evictions for good cause, which is not the case in Connecticut right now. And that when eviction records are used by landlords to assess whether they will accept a new tenant, those eviction records have to not be very old. They have to be relevant. What happens in Connecticut is a lot of that data is sort of out there, you know, on the internet and can be accessed even when they have has no relevance to whether someone would be a good renter or not.

Carol Jenkins 33:42

Erin, you mentioned some people having to pay more than 50% of their income for housing. We've talked with people who are in the food banking sphere who say that food is always the first thing that goes because you have to pay that or else you -- pay the rent, or else you will be evicted. Talk to us about what the formula should be. What should people be paying for housing?

Erin Boggs 34:10

The standard definition of when housing becomes too much is when a family is paying more than a third of its income towards its housing costs. So when we start talking about 50% of its income, that's way beyond the bounds of what housing experts and economic experts think is appropriate for a family to be spending. And it really, I think, reveals a serious problem in our housing market and the way it's functioning right now on the one hand and maybe also reveals some serious problems about our wages and whether they are at a level that will allow people to live decent lives.

Carol Jenkins 34:51

Right, and the minimum wage -- because most of the people who are showing up at food banks now are working people who are working two or three minimum wage jobs. So it goes to the economics of income. That's at the core of this problem of poverty.

Erin Boggs 35:14

And what's really interesting to see here in Connecticut is, you would think because of that, you know -- we have a huge shortage of -- we have a whole lot of open jobs right now that we can't fill because housing so expensive, we can't attract workers to the state. I'm really waiting for businesses all across Connecticut to step up and join us and say that we need more affordable housing because ultimately, it's affecting our ability to grow economically.

Carol Jenkins 35:44

And are you optimistic? Or how do you see the pipeline now? Will you catch up?

Erin Boggs 35:49

I am optimistic because it has hit a crisis point here in Connecticut, where not only is it a social justice, like we have always believed it to be, but it's become this economic issue, as well. And so we're starting to gain more supporters in a wider group of people that are focusing on this. 

We just had a, you know, forum here earlier this week, where the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and the Connecticut Realtors joined together to say there needs to be more housing in the state. So question, whether that they are going to be advocating for affordable housing or they're going to be advocating for housing that is at all levels or at the higher level is the question.

Jeff Madrick 36:38

Should the federal government be taking the lead, or at least taking the lead more than it has?

Erin Boggs 36:43

Yeah, I think there's a lot that the federal government can do. So far on zoning, the way they have approached, this has been incentive based, meaning you get certain financial benefits if you do the right thing on zoning. And that's not going to be sufficient, at least in Connecticut, where we have lots of very wealthy towns who could care less about extra money from the government. 

So they have a big role to play, I think in sort of strengthening and adding a few more sticks. They also have a really big role to play in terms of subsidized housing, and just providing that money to allow everyone to have a decent home. And they are doing that at a greater level, there was more money now for housing choice vouchers. Those are mobile vouchers that families can take with them to seek a home and those pay part of the rent and the family plays part of the rent. And I hope to see more money for actually hard units of subsidized housing, which are being done in a better way than they've been done in the past in the sense that those skyrises of public housing that Carol referred to at the beginning of our conversation are not the way we're doing public housing anymore. 

And in fact, the goal really is to do more mixed-income housing, which I think is the way to go.

Jeff Madrick 38:06

Is there a way as we do with hunger to compute how much poor housing contributes to child poverty, something like food insecurity?

Erin Boggs 38:19

There are lots of studies out there that document the extent to which housing instability contributes to poverty and poor school performance and, you know, a whole host of things. There are also some amazing studies out there about how, you know, it's not only about housing, but it's about the environment in which the housing is located, how neighborhood conditions can contribute to outcomes for kids, in particular. 

And the person who's really pioneered a lot of that work is economist Raj Chetty at Harvard, with the sort of center Opportunity Insights, where he has shown that low-income kids in mixed-income communities can actually break the cycle of poverty, both through going to -- having increased likelihoods of going to college, earning more, for girls not becoming teen mothers or single mothers. I mean, it's remarkable research and tells us that we need to not only make sure they are really choices in where people are living, but also we need to do this critical investment in places that have been disinvested for so long.

Carol Jenkins 39:36

And, Erin, as we as we close out, why do you do this work?

Erin Boggs 39:39

I do this work because I had the real honor of growing up in an environment and going to schools where I had lots of friends who didn't look like me, and I love them, and I care about them. And it inspires me to do this work every day. And also I had a father who was doing this work who definitely is an inspiration.

Carol Jenkins 40:00

Thanks so much, Erin. 

Erin Boggs 40:02

Thank you so much.

Jeff Madrick 40:11

History will judge the nation's decency in various ways. One of them will surely be the well-being of all its children. American neglect of its poor children is both inexplicable and deplorable. 

By basic measures, it has the highest child poverty rate among rich nations in the world. A generation of careful academic research has shown how damaging this has been to children's cognition, health, nutrition, and future wages. In 2021, Congress and the president adopted an enlightened program that expanded the Child Tax Credit and made it available to almost all children no matter their race, ethnicity, or how little their parents earn. 

The results were stunning, cutting the poverty rate by half. Congress refused to renew the program. in coming months, this podcast will examine the future of the Child Tax Credit and other key policies to protect children from the destructiveness of poverty. We are dedicated to restoring a bright and optimistic future for all children in this land long celebrated for equal opportunity.

Carol Jenkins 41:30

Our thanks to our Invisible Americans podcast guests today: Dr. C. Nicole Mason and Erin Boggs. You'll find more information, including show notes and transcripts and links to resources on our website, www.theinvisibleamericans.com. Jeff and I will see you the next time.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Dr. C. Nicole Mason

Author of Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America | President/CEO Emeritus of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research

Recently named one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine, Dr. C. Nicole Mason is President/CEO Emeritus of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR).

At the start of the pandemic, she coined the term she-cession to describe the disproportionate impact of the employment and income losses on women. Dr. Mason is the author of Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey from Nothing to Something in America (St. Martin’s Press) and has written hundreds of articles on women, poverty, and economic security. Her writing and commentary have been featured in the New York Times, MSNBC, CNN, NBC, CBS, the Washington Post, Marie Claire, the Progressive, ESSENCE, Bustle, BIG THINK, Miami Herald, Democracy Now, and numerous NPR affiliates, among others.

Erin Boggs

Erin Boggs has worked on issues of equity, particularly in the context of housing, for almost 20 years. After dedicating six years to a range of fair housing issues, such as the foreclosure crisis, the housing challenges faced by people with disabilities, and housing discrimination based on a range of characteristics such as the presence of children, the use of government housing subsidies, and race and ethnicity, Ms. Boggs recognized the need for an organization specifically focused on the intersection of inequality and geography.

Prior to joining the Alliance, Ms. Boggs served in a range of roles including as Deputy Director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. While at the Center she spearheaded the organization’s work on opportunity and race. Ms. Boggs also worked for the CT American Civil Liberties Union as a Staff Attorney and Interim Legal Director and practiced law with a national antitrust firm. Ms. Boggs worked at the Harrison Institute for Public Law at Georgetown University Law School and at the Center for National Policy, both in Washington, D.C.

Ms. Boggs has extensive fundraising experience, successfully obtaining funding from national and local foundations as well as state and federal funding sources. She served as a member of a group convened by the Ford Foundation to explore innovative approaches to sustainable development and housing integration. Ms. Boggs has also participated as a fair housing advisor in two Sustainable Community Initiative grants in the Connecticut region. These interagency collaborative federal grants are an effort to bring together considerations of sustainable and equitable growth to foster better regional planning.

Ms. Boggs has been involved in the production of a range of publications including those addressing zoning, opportunity, equity, and affirmatively furthering fair housing. She made substantial contributions to the 2015 Connecticut Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice. Ms. Boggs is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Georgetown University School of Law. A native of Washington, D.C., Ms. Boggs attended the D.C. Public Schools.