Episode 23: Child Poverty is Personal - Do You Hear Us?

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After an introduction of the Roosevelt House by Rita E. Hauser Director Jessica Neuwirth, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) offers opening remarks via recorded message.

Rep. DeLauro emphasizes the importance of focusing on children and advocates for a working families agenda, particularly the Child Tax Credit. She discusses the significance of the Expanded and Improved Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan.

"I have long believed that if our country has to live by our professed values, we start with our children."

Keynote Speaker David Ambroz Shares His Story

David Ambroz (Author, Advocate, Executive at Amazon) shares a poignant childhood experience of begging at Grand Central, highlighting the harsh reality of child poverty. He advocates for using foster care to end the intergenerational transfer of poverty and proposes systemic changes to support foster parents.

"I believe we can make that same decision about kids in poverty in this country. We can choose not have kids in poverty, other than the laws of physics, everything is a choice. We can make a different choice.” - David Ambroz

Carol introduces the three panelists, highlighting some of their accomplishments.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason

  • President and CEO emeritus of the Institute of Women's Policy Research.
  • Author of the powerful memoir "Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America."
  • Recognized by Fortune magazine as one of the 50 greatest leaders in the world.

Alex Miller

  • Writer with works featured in The New York Times and Washington Post.
  • Currently working on a memoir, "Going for Broke," about his childhood in poverty and entering the school system.
  • HRP fellow with a focus on personal experiences and challenges.

Alissa Quart

  • Author of influential works such as "Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream" and "Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America."
  • Co-creator, with the late Barbara Ehrenreich, of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
  • Editor of the book "Going for Broke."

Throughout the panel, all of the guests touch on topics relating to child poverty, their experiences with it, and solutions going forward.

Alex, who is also a military veteran, shares his story of growing up in challenging circumstances in Chicago and discusses the difficulties he faced after serving in the military. He also delves into his childhood coping mechanisms, reflecting on the impact of internalizing the belief that he needed to do things for others to be valued.

Alissa provides insight into the creation of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) and its mission to amplify voices often unheard in mainstream media. She emphasizes the importance of fair pay for writers and the need for diverse perspectives. She also discusses economic redistribution and the importance of sharing resources, focusing on her model of redistributing social networks and access to power.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason shares her personal background, emphasizing the pivotal role of a mentor, Clarence Lee, who provided her with a full tuition scholarship. Dr. Mason contrasts her approach with J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" and discusses her motivation to provide an alternate narrative addressing systemic issues contributing to poverty.

David speaks about his mother's mental health issues and advocates for comprehensive mental health care, challenging the perception that people in poverty deserve their circumstances. He also shares insights on sustaining visibility for stories related to poverty, proposing strategies learned from successful social movements.

Closing Thoughts

The speakers collectively express a need for societal change in addressing child poverty and underscore the importance of reshaping narratives, providing comprehensive mental health care, and utilizing diverse strategies for economic redistribution.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Jessica Neuwirth

Good evening, everyone. Welcome to Roosevelt House and to all of you online. I'm Jessica Neuwirth, Rita E. Hauser Director of the Human Rights Program here, and we're very excited to welcome back the Invisible Americans team and their guests to continue this important conversation on soaring rates of child poverty, and the ways in which we can help change the lives of many. 

In a country as wealthy as ours, there should be no child poverty, this is a human rights issue. And as many of you may know, this is the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee. So, I thought I would share with you article 25 of that document, which says, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care, and assistance.” So, I think this is a very fitting place, the home of Eleanor Roosevelt, to have this discussion. And she would be happy that you're all here and sad that we still have child poverty in the United States. 

I want to thank Brianna Krummenacker, and Hector Perez from our program for all of their work in making this event a success. And it's always a great honor to introduce Carol Jenkins, who is for many of us, as children, she was one of our idols on TV. But I also know her as an incredibly committed, longtime activist, having worked with her in so many different organizations, and she has shown us how much of a difference one person can make in the world. So it's a great project. And now of course, she's co-host of the Invisible Americans podcast. So in that capacity, I want to welcome her and all of you again, to Roosevelt House.

Carol Jenkins  

Jessica, thank you, thank you so much for introducing us and welcoming us to what I think of as hallowed space for all the things that were created here. Social Security, we were just in the library upstairs where Frances Perkins and the president hashed out how people would be saved, giving them support. And that's really why we're here tonight as well. Because we're concerned about the 13 million children in this country, who are on the edge of deprivation, who sometimes have no place to sleep in, you'll hear stories and who sometimes have nothing to eat, or not enough. And, you know, there's some for whom that is the situation all the time. And there are some for whom that is the situation periodically. But for those of us who are interested in working in this field, and as Jessica says, we've worked in many spheres and many organizations trying to make this a better country, for women, and certainly now for their children. 

I am sending best wishes and apologies from my co-president of the Invisible Americans podcast who is at home watching us tonight. And as many people are, we thank you for being here. And thank you for watching us from your homes. And Jeff Madrick started all of this in a sense of the Invisible Americans podcast because he wrote this wonderful book, transformative, called Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty. And when he talks about that he's not just talking about, of course, the kids themselves, but he's also talking about our country, and how depriving children of the fullest lives that they can have deprives this country of the fullest support experiences people that we can have in this country. So feel better, Jeff, and we'll see you at the next one. 

Now, this is the second convening that we've had here at Roosevelt House of three. We have one more planned for December 13. This one is called “Child Poverty is Personal: Do You Hear Us?” and our effort here is to lift in mainstream media, in public discourse the fact that there are 13 million children that we need to take care of. 

We had an interesting development in September when the Census Bureau released the results of what happens to children, when the child tax credit that was in place for six months, and lifted millions of children out of poverty. And suddenly when it was taken away, and they looked at what happened, many, many, many more millions of children went into poverty. And for a whole five days, this was a story in the news. It was not the lead, as I think it should have been. And I think every broadcast should start that way, “By the way people, do you know there are 13 million children that we need to think about,” and then get to the rest of the news. But for five days it was and our effort here is to make sure that it is a continuing presence that people understand because usually, when you say child poverty, people think you're talking about the developed countries someplace distant, and certainly we're going to send money and we're going to help them. They don't think that we're talking about children who live here in this country. 

We are also celebrating tonight, the work of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Alissa Quart and Alex Miller are with us. It's a new book, Going for Broke: Living on the Edge in the World's Richest Country. And you will be able to buy copies and have them signed by these two austere writers tonight, which I encourage you to do. We begin with a greeting though, from one of our heroes in the child poverty movement, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. She’s been fighting for children her entire career, most recently in the effort to restore the expanded child tax credit that lifted those millions of children out of poverty. Let's hear what she has to say. 

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro  

Hello, everyone. This is Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, representing Connecticut's Third Congressional District. It is great to join the Roosevelt House Human Rights and Public Policy Programs, and the Invisible Americans podcast for this timely event. Child poverty is personal. I want to give a special thanks to podcast hosts, Jeff Madrick and Carol Jenkins, who have been tireless advocates for tagging child poverty. I have long believed that if our country has to live by our professed values, we start with our children. Getting off to a good start should be our children's birthday. That is my vision and the moral center that focuses and drives my work in the Congress. So that is why I focused my efforts on a working families agenda, with the child tax credit as the most important piece. 

I've been in this fight for nearly two decades, and it has been different than any other legislative fight I have had in the Congress. The biggest obstacle is sheer indifference to the condition of children, particularly poor children. That is why I was so proud to have convinced by the administration to include the Expanded and Improved Child Tax Credit as part of the American Rescue Plan. And I was grateful to see it signed into law—the largest tax cut for working middle class families, vulnerable families and generations. It is a lifeline to the middle class, it lifted half of our nation's children out of poverty. 

The child tax credit should be a flagship issue for both parties and for our country. We need to make the child tax credit permanent. And at the very least, we need to extend this transformative law. And I will continue to make that fight. Extending it will help families pay for childcare, rent, utilities, gas, food, their children's education, and help people deal with the inflationary pressure that our country is facing during this cost of living crisis. 

Congress is an institution that responds to external pressure, and you are that external pressure. It is so important that each of you stand up and advocate for an expanded monthly permanent child tax credit to your members of Congress. My mother taught me two important lessons. Never give up. Never take no for an answer. And I know that each of you will never give up in the fight to end child poverty in this country. Maybe add one more point to you. We have for 50 years been looking at how we lift and end child poverty. We found it, it’s the Child Tax Credit. Thank you for inviting me to speak again.

Carol Jenkins  

And thanks so much to Congresswoman DeLauro for that. And now to hear from another child poverty hero. In fact, somebody was asking me upstairs, “How did you find David Ambroz? How do you know him?” [INAUDIBLE] And it was, I found this book when doing the research for the podcasts. I read the book. And I was so well frightened by the book, because of the experiences that he tells in it. And then moved tremendously by his success story and the fact that he succeeded despite his extremely rough beginnings. 

David Ambroz, he's the author of a searing—I call it that—memoir about his own life, as a homeless child in the streets right here of New York City. His path to success and the work he has pursued since then to end child poverty, and reform the foster care system because being homeless was only the beginning of the story. And then he went into the foster care system where he was abused beyond belief. He has been honored by President Obama as a champion of change. David, thank you so much for flying in from the coaster to be with us. We really appreciate it, David Ambroz.

David Ambroz  

I'm really honored to be here. Thank you so much, and to be with you all tonight. I'm going to speak for just briefly and share some thoughts and then join the panel. 

In the mornings, my brother or sister and I would beg on the platform at Grand Central. In the mornings, because people are always more generous before they've had a bad day. And at Grand Central because we lived there amongst hundreds of other homeless families. I was in charge of Metro North, and I'm in New York for the first time sharing the story, so I don't have to explain that it’s where the wealthy people came from. My brother begged the platform to handle jersey. I was cuter. On this particular morning, I was about four, it is burnt into my memory. The crowd parted about four feet in front of me, and then came back together behind me. No one looked at me, I was invisible. And the message from these folks was crystal clear. My life did not matter. My family's life did not matter. If we died that night in that tunnel, no one would care. I was covered in sores all over my face and body. I had lice leaping off of me, and I don't remember showering. It was early grid days, and people were afraid of people like me, covered in sores. No one looked at me, I can understand why people avoided me, I would have avoided me. But it was the occasional generosity of strangers that determined whether or not we ate. And so I sucked it up, and I begged. 

In the United States of America, there are over 13 million kids living in abject poverty. And for so many of them, the twin to that poverty will be foster care, a system designed to take care of kids whose parents can't or won't. For foster kids, the outcomes are not great, and we'll talk about that. What I propose is using foster care as a fulcrum point where we can end the intergenerational transfer of poverty for 700,000 kids every year that passed through that system. It is a missed opportunity. And with really obvious investments, I believe we can transform the issue of child poverty in this country. 

I entered foster care when I was about 12 years old, after 11 years homeless in New York City and Boston. I remember when I went into foster care, I thought, “Gosh, I'm saved.” I thought that because living on the streets of New York City, not going to school, basically being illiterate and starving for the better part of a decade, I thought this is the state they're gonna take care of us. No more abuse, they'll feed me, I'll have a place to stay. What I quickly learned was that hell had a basement. And I was about to spend a good half decade in there before I found one decent family. 

What I never understood at 12 years old was how 10 years before I was born, we went to the moon. And yet here I was living in a tunnel and then going into a system that nearly erased me. What happened to that American spirit that believes we can do big things together. We went to the moon, we didn't outsource it. We didn't have a computer. We decided to go there and we did it. I believe we can make that same decision about kids in poverty in this country. We can choose not have kids in poverty, other than the laws of physics, everything is a choice. We can make a different choice. It is a decision or indecision in many cases. 

Years later, my social worker told me that I was the first kid she ever detained that was excited to be detained. You damn right, I was excited. She said I did the whole Arsenio Hall thing right? Who did. I really lost that spirit very quickly though, because when I went into foster they diagnosed me as gender identification disorder queer. Therefore, I was not allowed to go into traditional foster placements. I ended up going into delinquency for young adult offenders. The violence that then began both psychological, physical and sexual is hard to discuss or share with you. But it began at 12 and it persisted. And despite their best efforts of curing, I'm still gay. [INAUDIBLE] anyone listening that’s single. You never know it's a big podcast. 

From placement to placement, I careened from one type of torture to another. The creativity and the indifference of people in this country is really hard to fathom. And I don't understand it still. Until one foster family saw what I was going through—excuse me, not even a foster family. One woman saw what I was going through and raised her hand and said, “I will take care of this kid.” She worked at the YMCA, her husband was a painter. They weren't foster parents, they were working class generously said, but they raised their hands, and they did something that Americans used to do, and maybe still could. They didn't look around and say, “Who’s going to help?” They said, “We will.” They got a lawyer they could not afford and fought for two years to get me. And they saved me. I came out of a horrendous system, many many placements, and they saved me. 

Why don't more people foster? The largest segment of our society is the middle class. Lots of surveys will tell you different issues that they face. But I want to talk about just one tonight—economic. There are economic barriers that stop people like Holly and Steve from fostering. They can't afford retirement, they cannot afford college for their kids. They can't even begin to contemplate college for themselves. What if we gave them after 10 years of good service a pension? What if we gave them interest free home loans after 15 years of good service? What if we brought the middle class to the table and allowed them to serve us as a nation with honor and dignity. We don't do that, and we wonder why people don't step up. I believe we can address some of these economic concerns. 

When I left foster care, I was struck by something, you're actually the statistics, you're more likely to die when you leave foster care than go to community college. You are more likely to be sex trafficked, when you leave foster care. If you're a woman, then go to community college. If you're a boy of color, there's a two thirds chance you're going to jail within two years of leaving foster care. We have a factory that connects poverty to foster care to poverty. And we do nothing to arrest that. The very people that we need to help foster kids achieve a different outcome are social workers. And all we do is treat them like the monster in Frankenstein. Who wasn't the monster we're the monster. 

My sister's a social worker. I once asked her, “Jessica, what do you do for a living?” You know what she told me? “Paperwork, David, I do paperwork.” Or she said she does Airbnb. She's calling for placements. Here we have a person with a high degree, incredible, prestigious university. And we have her doing paperwork instead of social work. And we wonder why they burn out. And every time there's a tragedy in the system, we attack them, mostly women, disproportionately women of color. And what do we do? We add more rules. My sister who can't afford a home within 30 miles where she works, my sister who barely earns more than my secretary does, after 15 years. We can do better. What if my sister instead of having to type into 15 different databases, what she observed in a home, took a photo and had it uploaded? What if the database is of the courts education and other services like mental health and probation? What if she just had to go to one site to download information about the kids that she serves? What if we gave her interest-free home loans? What if we treated them with respect and dignity as a society? We are still in the war on poverty and the last people fighting are these women. And we've just abandoned them. 

And finally, I want to talk about foster kids. Foster kids aren't doing great when they leave. But there is a choice and we can make it. I'm working on a project in Los Angeles to build a dorm at LA City College. We own the land. These are our kids, two to three years to figure stuff out, get a vocational degree. All of a sudden instead of putting an automobile out on the road with no engine. We put the engine in the car. The engine is a vocational to your transfer degree. We own the land, we can do it. New York knows how to build buildings, right? What if we built two of these dorms? We could instead of emancipating 1200 Kids in the state every year to homelessness, we can emancipate them to college, to your vocational. It's a choice. 

I love having written the book and I'll end with this. The names at the end of the book, I had to go through a lot of legal review, but I share them in there. Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Nelson. Do you remember the names? Eleanor Roosevelt? Larry Ellis, Francis Truffaut, dare I say Harry Potter, Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, Dr. Ruth, Steve Jobs, all foster kids. We're living in the world that foster kids invented. We just don't see them. Because they're invisible. They are going from poverty to foster care to intergenerational poverty. And I believe we can make a different choice. That's why I shared my story. And that's why I'm really excited to be here tonight with you. And you, and you, and you, especially you to have this conversation. Thank you for your attention.

Carol Jenkins  

Thank you so much. And by the way, what we didn't say in the introduction is now he's a big executive at Amazon, running the world, and told us about some program that's giving money away? What are you? 

David Ambroz  

I work in philanthropy for Amazon.

Carol Jenkins 

All right, not bad. 

David Ambroz  

Not bad, pretty happy. 

Carol Jenkins  

Thank you so much, David, for your story and delighted to know too that his two siblings also have been successful as well. We are joined now by Dr. C. Nicole Mason. I've known her since she was 20. She told her own story in her powerful memoir, Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America, quite a title. Fortune magazine chose her as one of the 50 greatest leaders in the world. She is the president and CEO emeritus of the Institute of Women's Policy Research. Thank you, Nicole, for being with us. 

Alex Miller is a writer whose works have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post and in the new book, Going for Broke. He's an EHRP fellow working on a memoir about his own life as a child in poverty and entering the school system quite delayed. I think you're 11, Alex, right? You'll tell us about that. And of course, Alissa Quart, the author of such sensation-causing work as Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream  and Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, is co-creator with the late Barbara Ehrenreich of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. And she's editor of Going for Broke. Thank you all so much. Thank you a round of applause for this team. Alissa, we're going to start with you. Because this night is created to honor the work that you have done in trying to get this subject in mainstream media. So tell us how the project came about and how it works.

Alissa Quart  

This is already a sensational event, isn't it? What an incredible, powerful storytelling. Amazing, I can't wait to hear everybody else's voice raised. Barbara Ehrenreich. I was working on a film about the clinic at the center of the jobs case in 2012 and I met her. I was raising funds for it, it was called “The Last Clinic.” And she said, “I'm doing this nonprofit and you might be interested in it, Alissa.” It was basically an attempt post 2008 to get people who are not wealthy, not David Brooks, writing about poverty. That's actually a surprisingly rare thing. 

If you look at 50% of the mastheads of the mainstream, big papers in this country, most of the people went to Ivy or Ivy plus universities. I probably should, I'm not an exception to that. But I do think that there's a range of voices that we're just not hearing. And Barbara was horrified by this. She wanted to also see people paid fairly. In the 1990s, normal freelance rate was $1 a word. It’s still that. It’s gone down to 40 cents a word, right? Alex will tell you. People can't participate. You have to have hidden resources or resources to be able to be a writer, photographer, media maker. And also there's been a ton of layoffs. Between 2005 and 2014, the people who had steady jobs in news media retracted by something like 45%. And it's obviously gotten even worse. Jezebel just shut, which is like a feminist site. And every day, there's a new thing, BuzzFeed, etc, right? 

So we exist to give grants, which we then hand out to our writers and our photographers. We then develop their work. And we co publish with really mainstream places, and the thinking behind that is we fund the writers and the photographers and the filmmakers. Why we co publish is we're trying to change the mainstream media as well. So we're trying to keep these people in the media. And then we also want to be a model for some of these newspapers. Like you don't have to only have very privileged voices in your pages, you can have people who come from a multiplicity of backgrounds. And then often the stories are more powerful when they're from somebody who's an expert in their own life. Somebody who can report on something that they themselves have experienced, like Alex. 

We've had a number of other people who've experienced housing insecurity, food insecurity, who had working poor backgrounds that they were exploring, historically. Bobby Dempsey, lived in 70 different houses, growing up, she's in her stories in Going for Broke. And you know, just also people like the great newsman Ray Suarez, who started to struggle in his 60s, he was a victim of ageism. He had an accident on his bicycle, he broke a tooth, and he didn't have dental care. It’s hard to imagine—you guys probably remember him from PBS. He's like a kind of legend. And he's still a legend. He couldn't afford a dentist. We worked with him, we developed a story with him that we then published in The Washington Post. We developed a radio show with him called Going for Broke, a podcast set of films. So he's an example to me. And now he's getting a lot of work. And he says, this is part of it. And his voice is now being included, when we're talking not about poverty, but we're talking about what I call in Squeezed, the middle precariat, which is the precarious proletariat mixed with the middle class, which is a lot of people were as brainwork becomes gig work adjuncts, accountants, librarians, graphic artists, school teachers. 

I wrote a lot about school teachers who were driving Uber, and then picking up their own students. And in fact, I've employed two Uber drivers writing about their own lives, who are former journalists. So that was part of it, to try to get people to recognize the continuity of the fragile middle class. And those people who are living below the poverty line. I feel like that's a way to boost solidarity as well to not siphon people off and silo people off into these class differences. But to say, look, we have common cause we have lost the narrative of our life, we've lost this kind of understanding of security that we once had. And as workers, you'd have somebody born in 1940 had a 93% chance of exceeding their parents, economically. Someone born in the 1980 had a 50/50 chance. That's like Raj Chetty’s numbers, and I think that's something that's sort of at the backbone of what's happened to a lot of the reporters that we work with at EHRP and a lot of the people whose stories we tell. So, is that extensive enough? I mean, I'm happy to also talk about my own work more if you'd like but yeah.

Carol Jenkins  

Your own work has actually transformed the way the country thinks about. I think in Bootstrapped. Most recently, where you say that we are caught in a Little House on the Prairie scenario here, and most people don't realize that nobody is succeeding. It doesn't work for anybody, just briefly. 

Alissa Quart  

One of the points of Bootstrapped, liberating ourselves in the American dream is to try to set ourselves free from this idea of the American Dream that haunts us because it's a very—even the term pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It was a joke. When it was first coined. It was coined and it was used to describe farmers who were somewhat foolish, a philosopher who was absurd. So they actually mocked people in newspapers. They said, “He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, hahaha.” because you can't do that. And there's an understanding also with the coining of the American dream in 1931, that it was by John Truslow Adams, he actually said it's—and this is where the perfect place to be discussing this because the 30s in, you know, a progressive era. There's an understanding of the capaciousness of the American Dream, that it was for many, and it was also imperfect. In fact, that was the word John Truslow Adams used. That it would be rendered imperfectly. And we lost sight of that. 

Now, when politicians talk about the American dream, they—you do it yourself, you go for it, you're on your own, you get your cars, you get your house, you know, you get your good job, which of course, it's very hard for a lot of people to begin with, but it's also not really the original meaning of the American dream. So I sort of deconstruct a lot of these myths, including Horatio Alger, who was quite a twisted fellow if we actually started to look under the hood of ratio Alger, which I'm happy to discuss or Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was a fire breathing, Roosevelt hater, who saw the Little House on the Prairie series, as an attack on the New Deal.

Carol Jenkins  

And the conclusion is that you think that people should help each other, which is the thing that we don't really believe in, in this country. There’s something wrong with that. Nicole, talk to us about your story. You went from being a child, I love when we interviewed you for the podcast, she was saying, Yeah, I know what it's like to stand in the welfare office in the Social Security office and not getting any attention. So talk to us a little bit about your experience, and now went on to run one of the major research organizations about women's economy.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason  

I am from Los Angeles, California. And I was raised by a teenage single mother, she raised me and my brother. We experienced episodic homelessness. Often, the first meal that I had for the day was in the school cafeteria. But I didn't know that I was poor until I got to Howard University in Washington, DC. I left home at 17 because of abuse, and went to live with my paternal grandmother, and I worked during the evening and went to school during the day. I applied to Howard University. I didn't know how to fill out a college application. I didn't know the difference between a community college, state level college, I just knew I wanted to go to college. I threw everything in the application, poems, anything I could think but it became very clear, I was accepted. But it became very clear, very early on, because my family told me, they said, “Well, you're not going anywhere, you don't have any money.” I just felt so crushed because I felt like the acceptance letter was like a golden ticket, and it just crumbled. But there was a man, I won't tell you the long story, but there was a man at Howard University, the Dean of Arts and Sciences there, Clarence Lee, I'm never going to forget him. I had a mentor back in California, I'd moved to Las Vegas at that point. And she called him. I went to her and said, I don't have any money, I don't know how I'm gonna afford this. She called him and he gave me a full tuition scholarship. 

When I went to thank him, he didn't even recognize what he had done. He had changed the entire trajectory of my life. And so, when we talk about helping and being way makers for children and for people, he's an example of that. I try to be an example of that in my own way. But it was at Howard that I was able to gain language from my experiences as a young black girl raised by another black girl. My mother was 15 when she had me, and I was able to put all those things together. And in that moment, I was in a social science class, and they were talking about welfare, food stamps, all of these things. And that was the first time I had heard that those programs were for poor people. And just a wave of, I would say, shame washed over me. And then I got into it, and leaned in. And I've been doing this work ever since then. It is the work that I believe that I am called to do in different ways. And in fact, I went to get my PhD because I wanted to be an authority. I was tired of listening to people tell me about my family and my communities. And I wanted to provide an alternate narrative to answer why some people don't make it to the other side of the tracks because that was missing. There was a lot of bootstrap narrative. And I think I was telling you about, at the same time my book was released, another book was released. And we both had adverse childhoods, but we came to very different conclusions. His conclusion was like, Well, if I did it, you can do it too just pull yourself up. And I was more interested in the systems and the structures and why. 

Alissa Quart  

That’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason  

Hillbilly Elegy, it came out at the same time. So I feel very grateful to have been able to write my story. It's not only a story, it's my family story as well. It's my mother's story. It's my brother's story. It's my own. I know that there's not a lot of opportunity for us to tell these kinds of stories. 

Carol Jenkins  

Exactly. Alex, in Going for Broke, the essay, there is a very complex story of being a veteran of the United States of America. Like so many other thousands—If not, I don't know what the number could possibly be of homeless veterans who do not have support, having served the country. If you could talk a little bit about that. And I know that you're working on your memoir about being a child like David. The concept of going to school was not something that you experienced as a young child.

Alex Miller

Yeah, it’s actually what I told David when I met him, such a huge fan, because his story is so similar to mine from when I was a kid. And the thing about my childhood is that I always felt like I was born wrong. When I came out the womb, I was already dead. My umbilical cord strangled me. So, talk about adversity from the get go. I came back to life, obviously, thankfully. 

Carol Jenkins  

We’re glad.

Alex Miller

There’s never a good time to grow up into projects in Chicago. And the 90s, especially, was one of the worst times to grow up into projects. It was just this feeling of being a part of a project, like an actual experiment. The government could take all this data about how many of us died, what we were dying from, different diseases we had, but they never actually helped change things. It was always us versus us. When I grew up, I wanted to do better for myself. So I joined the military, which was really interesting because the reason I did join the military was similar to a lot of kids in my age group. 

9/11 happened, and it was the American thing to do. You want to be all you can be, you want to be a patriot, join the military. And then eventually, I started seeing all of these people in uniforms come into the school, and it was like, this is the natural thing that we do. So once I served, got out, the recession happened, couldn't get a job anywhere. And just that process of leaving the hood, finding myself back in the hood afterward, it just felt so unfair. It was such a slap to everything I believe, and it felt like a slap to me personally. I understand why it happened and in a lot of ways I am grateful that it did happen because I have a perspective that so many other people don't. And I have this ability to give agency to people who can't with a similar story.

Carol Jenkins  

You do, when you say the similarity with David, in both instances, and one of the things that's often not recognized as the status of mental health that plays into this and you've both had mothers who were having issues—mental health. David, do you want to talk a little bit about that in terms of the impact?

David Ambroz  

Well, first of all, I'm fascinated by the bootstrap comment. I had no idea where that came from. And what I always joke about is it's impossible if you don't have boots. Now I think about it. Yeah, you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps anyway, even if you had boots. Hopefully, they're cute boots. So my mom has suffered from an array of mental health issues. And the fascinating thing to me about poverty programs, is we try to silo the human being into various things to address. This is the housing silo. This is the food assistance silo. This is where you can get help for your kids. This is how you get Christmas presents for your kids. They're all different programs. And it always reminded me of a lifeboat. So you're drowning off the side of a lifeboat. And the lifeboat comes along and they’re like, we got you, and they pull you out of the water and you go. And you're very grateful for that breath. And then they drop you. But don't worry, there's someone else who's gonna pull you out a little bit, let you breathe and then throw you back. No one pulls you out of the lifeboat into it. 

My mom had an array of mental health issues. My mom wasn't going to fill out the paperwork. She just wasn't going to follow the paperwork, y'all. And what I never quite understood, for example, was we’d be in a shitty apartment, and they would evict us and we go to court. And it was a slum, and they would evict us and I remember being like, but you're evicting us, you're the government. And then this other part of the government's going to help us find an apartment. If we fill out the paperwork. It’s like the car factories, putting the tire on and taking it off. It doesn't make any sense. 

My mom's mental health issues meant that she was not able to care for us, nor was she going to be able to fill out all of the different forms and go to all the different processes. The other thing about mental health is we have given the civil rights to people to die on the street. Hundreds of them die in the United States of America every single day, as they exercise their civil rights to be mentally unfit. My mom is in assisted living today because she has a grumpy lawyer for a son, and she's alive. Many people don't have a grumpy lawyer son, and I watch other people around her devolve, fall in and out of the programs and shelter and disappear and die. 

We promised people community based mental health care, and we never fulfilled the promises as we shut down the American system. People like my mom are invisible still. And the other thing about her in particular, we somehow think people in poverty deserve to be in poverty. Like they did something wrong. I get that sense all the time. The programs that are administered, the people that administer them are not rewarded for giving out extra food stamps that month, or giving out extra rental assistance that month. If anything, it's the opposite. So we denigrate people in it. We deal with people that with all these array of issues, and then we expect them to go through this Kafkaesque process. With all these different rooms and buildings you have to go to to access services. Why don't we have a clinic in every single public school, a full clinic with mental health care? Why don't we have a closet in every clinic where homeless children get what they need? Why don't we do parental engagement truthfully, at every single public school in this country? We can make a different choice on this. 

My mom's mental health issues are treatable. And she is now an assisted living getting the services she needs to be stable. I found her when I was 22 years old, I became her guardian and I have fought for her for 25 years. It is the hardest thing I've ever done. And I list in the book the dedication to my mom who taught me forgive. And it is that forgiveness that has meant everything to me, because that skill is how I approached the world. Otherwise, I don't think I'd be sitting up here next to you. Mental health care is at the root of so much. And finally for foster kids foster kids have PTSD at twice the rate of American veterans. We emancipate them at 18. What a word, but that's what we call it. We emancipate them how apt an analogy. And then we expect them to thrive with all of their trauma, we can do better. We can make a different choice.

Carol Jenkins  

What about this invisibility? Jeff wrote about invisibility. Getting the stories told, lifting it up. David, I know you want the national campaign. Presidential candidates have to be able to state their thinking and their actions, what they plan to do about child poverty. Alissa, how do we do that? How do we make sure you have had such tremendous success in placing stories in mainstream media, which is where most, I guess still most people get their information. So how do we do this? Lift it so that it's as people say, Yes, right, I know about it. We’re gonna do something about it. What's the mechanism? 

Alissa Quart  

My personal model was and Barbara’s too, was to share my resources. So my resources were not economic, they were a social network. I had been a media worker for many years. I'd written a lot of books, I'd been an editor, and I knew a lot of people. And so a lot of what I feel like we all need to do in a variety of fields is sort of, if you are relatively well resourced or situated, is to open up your network, and kind of share it. Have a kind of redistribution of proximity and access to power. Which is, it's not quite economic redistribution. It’s a different kind of redistribution. And so that's, that's sort of how I think about it. And some of it is economic. I mean, we give grants, relatively good grants for writers and photographers. To people like Alex and keeping them going. I hope it's enough, you can tell me if it's not. 

Keeping people focused on this kind of story. 35% of our grant recipients identify as working poor, or having grown up working poor, but the rest are sort of the middle precariat, as I said, middle class reporters, but they're also struggling right now. And they're not going to be able to write about child poverty. For who, right? Who are they going to write about that for? So part of what our thing is to give them a fee to do this, but I was gonna address something you said, David, about why the deserving rich and the undeserving poor, that's like, the kind of fulcrum of my book. 

I think of loss aversion, which is a concept from psychology from the late 70s or maybe the early 80s. But I think a lot of people are afraid of losing their fragile hold of whatever they have. And maybe that's an overly sympathetic reading of a lot of people who are classist, racist, etc. But I do think that some of this is personal fear. I think it's been politically weaponized, people are more afraid of losing what they have than of getting something new, or getting something that they don't have yet. So that's like a basic tenet of social psychology. And then I also think of something theory called the just world theory. I don't know if anyone here is familiar with it. I'm assuming there's some social scientists here. But anyway, just world theory, which is that people have a sort of need to believe that there's justice in the universe. And so if somebody is struggling, it’s, they've done something, and it's sort of prophylactic, it's sort of like the way that people sometimes try to find narratives when people get sick. Oh, she smoked or whatever, they’ll back end the reason to protect themselves. So again, it's like a kind of twisted political and personal psychology a place. That’s what I think.

Carol Jenkins  

It’s so interesting. Someone said to me recently, I get it when people hate adults to use the word hate, but I don't get it if they hate kids. I get it, if you say, why doesn’t that person go to work, and for that reason, I don't like you, or I don't respect you, but I don't get it if you have the same disrespect for a child in that environment, helpless and not having chosen that, or not having the wherewithal to fix that. Where does that disrespect come from? Nicole, do you want to talk a little bit about that? I mean, not that you say, well, once you're 18 it's okay to hate you. Why haven't you done something with yourself, your life, your whatever, but if you're 17 and a half? So, at any rate, Nicole.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason  

One of the things I wanted to say is that although we might blame adults for behavior, or we blame them for their circumstances, I think indirectly sometimes kids also get blamed for living in poverty. There's an anecdote in the book where there's a senator in Georgia, and he has adjusted through legislation that poor kids in order to get free lunch, pick up a broom and clean this school to learn the value of a hard day's work and that nothing comes for free. And I thought to myself, like, he would have expected me at five to like mop the school. I do think that kids unwittingly absorb what people are feeling about adults. Even when I was going to social service buildings and standing with my mom, I could feel the disdain that they had for her, which meant they had it for me. And like you said, you remember that feeling. I remember, when I see kids selling candy or asking for a handout. I know what that feels like. The shame, the embarrassment, but feeling like I don't have a choice. So I would just ask, I do think that there's something morally corrupt about a society that we live in where we look for excuses not to support and help rather than doing the right thing, which is the right thing. 

Carol Jenkins  

David, you've been to the White House. You’ve had, as I always say, he was even interviewed by Oprah. So he’s had, I mean, around the book and work. So those are really high visibility moments, right? And so sustaining that—I mean, that's what we're looking for. How do we sustain the high visibility moments for stories like ours, so that people hear them and take action?

David Ambroz  

I mean, you outdo her every day of the week. So I am honored to be having my second conversation with you. So first, I think the thing about the child welfare industrial complex is that we talk to ourselves. Instead of using the word homeless we say unhoused. Instead of saying foster parent, its resource parent. Every five years it’s a new fetish. Permanency, resiliency, spaghetti kittens, I just can't even keep up. And in that process, words matter. They absolutely matter. However, we're alienating most of the public. 

I founded FosterMore, which is a nonprofit I co founded with an amazing person. And we co founded it because we have other social movements that have been successful in garnering sustained attention, resources, and change. Breast cancer. 30 years ago, half the population thought it wasn't their problem. You guess which. And if they did think about it at all, it was death, depression and bald. Those are language. Think about where it is today. 40 years ago we used to spit on veterans. We’re still not doing great, but we're doing better. Now it’s about employing them. Companies are putting out goals and quotas, they're gonna hire. How did those movements do that? They built the sail to catch the wind and the wind is the attention of the American public. And then they use language and knowledge to make sure that culture factories like Hollywood, told the different narrative. Then they connected into marketing to make it a economic outcome that was beneficial for companies. 

These are things we can learn from, not necessarily just adopt wholesale. FosterMore was about reprogramming people's minds. So instead of thinking all the negative racist classes, sexist things that people think, we use modern tools of marketing communication to communicate a different message. How many nonprofits spend more than a de minimis amount of their resources or educational institutions on marketing communication? Not talking about journals, like boring ads that we all get on Facebook. Google foster care, or poverty, and then Google phone and look at the difference. We need to learn from that not because it's morally righteous, but because it's working. 

I remember when I worked at Disney and they said, Oh, we have this movie about a Polynesian Prince voiced by The Rock. And I was like, No one. No one is gonna see that. Billions of dollars later. Why? Did you know that you wanted to see that? Did you know that your kid wanted to be that for Halloween? No, we trained you. You're welcome. What if we use those tools? What if all nonprofits educational institutions donated 5% of their money and hired someone four blocks away on Madison Avenue and actually made child poverty a front center issue with a billionaire, decided to market this issue. This is just one tool that we could use to communicate differently. That's how we sustain it. We are Saudi Arabia, but we have not drilled for oil. The stories and the richness of people who have experienced lived in poverty, and still are in it, or overcome it, or go back and forth. We have an untold richness that we can just mined forever. But we have to do it. And we have to do it thoughtfully, and not disrespect the public for running away from it. But be on the other side, be on that side and that side. So they simply see it and we speak to them, not down at them, not past them, but in a way that they can understand. And I believe we can, and the number one thing we should use are the stories of children. The stories of children. I believe we’re better than this. And that's what I talk about throughout the country. I've been every nook and cranny in this book, the stories of children. I think children can lead us out of this.

Carol Jenkins  

Alex, you're writing the story of a child yourself. Tell us about you as an 11 year old. David is going to profile, he's going to create the campaign around your story. And he's going to get us in the presidential debates based on your story. So Alex tell that, you know.

Alex Miller

I would love that idea, by the way. The billionaire apprentice, where billionaires compete to solve the problems in neighborhoods. And then whoever wins, they get to fund the neighborhood. That'd be awesome. We’ll see, with my situation. Because it's Chicago, and it’s the projects, there are no truancy officers. So I was pretty much just running wild. Mile and a half squared of buildings 16 feet tall. The issue with my mother was that because of her paranoid schizophrenia, I was kept out of school because God told her, I shouldn't go to school. So what we did was to go around, and she’d tell people that I was sick, something was wrong with me. And I needed to get money. She told me, “Well, you have to have a seizure now.” I didn't know what that was. But I remembered somebody doing something on ER, because I was huge when I was a kid. And so I tried to do that. And then people were like, “Oh, my God, what do you need? You need some clothes, you need some Skittles? So we would get money through making me seem like I couldn't do something or something was wrong with me. And it was because I wasn't going to school. 

Throughout this time period, I learned that I could do things and people would like me, if I did them. For them. I could get people on my side, if I told them I had a problem with epilepsy or I had a dead brother or something. I used to make up stories all the time. Because I knew that people would feel sorry for me. And if they did, they would love me. And after a while, you get told enough times that you don't matter unless you do things for other people. You start to believe it, and it becomes real for you. That’s the thing that sort of does and can translate later on in life to how you approach relationships. It hurt me a lot throughout a pretty good chunk of my life.

Carol Jenkins  

Here you are a terrific writer you're telling those stories. So continue. And we'll expect you and David to create a writers room and make big noise with all of that. Unfortunately, we have reached our—your stories are so mesmerizing. I kno, we have to do this again. And we'll do it when we break ground on your project. We had to do it before that. But I want to thank my guests, Alissa, Alex, Nicole and David, for sharing your lives and your ideas and projects with us. For those who are here, there's a reception, there's a book signing. Please take part in that and for everyone. Thank you for joining us tonight. You see that there is a way forward. There are solutions. We can be a part of those solutions. Our next event is on December 13th, where we talk about—the question is, Is Cash the Answer?. We work with the Bridge Project for that event where philanthropists are actually beginning to give money directly to mothers and their babies for a period of the first thousand days of their lives. We thank you all. Thanks so much. We will see you then and be sure to listen to our podcast.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Alissa Quart

Executive Director of the non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project

Alissa Quart is the author of five acclaimed books of nonfiction including Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream (Ecco, 2023). They are Squeezed, Republic of Outsiders, Hothouse Kids, and Branded. She is the Executive Director of the non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She is also the author of two books of poetry Thoughts and Prayers and Monetized. She has written for many publications including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and TIME. Her honors include an Emmy, an SPJ award and a Nieman fellowship. She lives with her family in Brooklyn.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro

Congresswoman, Connecticut’s Third Congressional District

Rosa DeLauro is the Congresswoman from Connecticut’s Third Congressional District, which stretches from the Long Island Sound and New Haven, to the Naugatuck Valley and Waterbury. Rosa serves as Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee and sits on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, and she is the Ranking Member of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, where she oversees our nation’s investments in education, health, and employment.

At the core of Rosa’s work is her fight for America’s working families. Rosa believes that we must raise the nation’s minimum wage, give all employees access to paid sick days, allow employees to take paid family and medical leave, and ensure equal pay for equal work. Every day, Rosa fights for legislation that would give all working families an opportunity to succeed.

Rosa believes that our first priority must be to strengthen the economy and create good middle class jobs. She supports tax cuts for working and middle class families, fought to expand the Child Tax Credit to provide tax relief to millions of families, and introduced the Young Child Tax Credit to give families with young children an economic lift.

Rosa has also fought to stop trade agreements that lower wages and ships jobs overseas, while also protecting the rights of employees and unions. She believes that we need to grow our economy by making smart innovative investments in our infrastructure, which is why she introduced legislation to create a National Infrastructure bank.

Rosa is a leader in fighting to improve and expand federal support for child nutrition and for modernizing our food safety system. She believes that the U.S. should have one agency assigned the responsibility for food safety, rather than the 15 different agencies that lay claim to different parts of our food system. Rosa fights against special interests, like tobacco and e-cigarettes, which seek to skirt our public health and safety rules.

As the Ranking Member dealing with appropriations for Labor, Health, Human Services, and Education, Rosa is determined to increase support for education and make college more affordable for more American students and their families. She is also fighting to protect the Affordable Care Act so that all Americans have access to affordable care. Rosa strongly believes in the power of biomedical research and she is working to increase funding so that we can make lifesaving breakthroughs in science and medicine.

Rosa believes that we have a moral obligation to our nation’s veterans and their families, and her concern for these heroes extends to both their physical and mental well-being. Rosa supports a transformation in how the Department of Veterans Affairs is funded, including advanced appropriations for health services, to ensure its fiscal soundness; and she successfully championed legislation to guarantee that troops deploying to combat theaters get the mental health screening they need both before and after deployment, as well as championed legislation that now provides assistance to today’s Post-9/11 veterans choosing to pursue on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs.

Rosa belongs to 62 House caucus groups and is the co-chair of the Baby Caucus, the Long Island Sound Caucus, and the Food Safety Caucus.

Soon after earning degrees from Marymount College and Columbia University, Rosa followed her parents’ footsteps into public service, serving as the first Executive Director of EMILY's List, a national organization dedicated to increasing the number of women in elected office; Executive Director of Countdown '87, the national campaign that successfully stopped U.S. military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras; and as Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd. In 1990, Rosa was elected to the House of Representatives, and she has served as the Congresswoman from Connecticut’s Third Congressional District ever since.

Rosa is married to Stanley Greenberg. Their children—Anna, Kathryn, and Jonathan Greenberg—all are grown and pursuing careers. Rosa and Stan have six grandchildren, Rigby, Teo, Sadie, Jasper, Paola and Gus.

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.

David Ambroz

Author of "A Place Called Home"

David Ambroz is a national poverty and child welfare expert and advocate. He was recognized by President Obama as an American Champion of Change. Currently serving as the Head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon, Ambroz previously led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television, and has served as president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission as well as a California Child Welfare Council member.

After growing up homeless and then in foster care, he graduated from Vassar College and later earned his J.D. from UCLA School of Law. He is a foster dad and lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Alex Miller

Author, Journalist

Alex is a Navy veteran and native Chicagoan. He’s been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vox, and Wired. He won the 2023 American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) First-Person Essay Award for his piece, "Hell in the SRO: A Veteran's True Story," in Esquire. In addition, he has also been featured in the anthologies “The Byline Bible” and “The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook.” He lives in New York and is writing a memoir about growing up in the projects of Chicago and first attending school at the age of 11.