Episode 10: Exploring Issues Unique to Immigrant Families and Incarcerated Families | Wendy Cervantes and Dr. Alethea Taylor

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.


Wendy Cervantes Shines a Light on Children of Immigrants

Did you know that children of immigrants – some of whom are American citizens – are excluded from government support based on their parents’ immigration status?

Some stats on this subject:

  • One out of every four children in the US is the child of an immigrant
  • Of those immigrant children, more than 90% are American citizens
  • This is one of the fastest-growing segments of the child population in the US
  • 40% of children living in poverty in this country are children of immigrants

One of the main things that impacts whether or not these children receive help has to do with whether or not their parent has a Social Security Number or just an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number).

Most immigrant families have a mixture of immigration statuses, which adds further complexity to accessing available resources.

“Policymakers have created many layers of eligibility restrictions. There’s now this very confusing patchwork of eligibility rules that make it really difficult for families to navigate.”


Public Charge and Bad Policy

Wendy talks about how a lot of confusion and hesitancy around applying for support comes from the idea of a long-standing policies around the idea of being a “public charge.”

What is a public charge? This term describes those who might be predominantly reliant on the government for subsistence through the use of certain benefits.

This meant that immigrant families looking for a path to citizenship or a green card don’t apply for certain programs out of fear of being a “public charge.” That designation could potentially derail their citizenship journey.

Although the programs that contribute to the “public charge” status were typically programs with cash payouts like TANF and SSI, under the Trump Administration, this policy was expanded to include programs like SNAP, Medicaid, and CHIP.

This rule was ultimately struck down, but it did lead to fear around these programs. Children are not getting health care coverage and nutrition programs that they’re eligible for because of the lasting, chilling effect of these policies, even when they’re overturned.

Tax Credits and ITINs

Immigrants who have ITINs pay taxes to the US government from their wages. Before 2017, those with ITINs were allowed to file for tax credits on behalf of their children, but the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 changed that rule.

One key area of work in this space is trying to return to the pre-2017 rule and provide access to millions of households with parents who have ITINs instead of Social Security Numbers due to their immigration status.

Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) have introduced the Working Families Tax Relief Act, which includes the Expanded Child Tax Credit of 2021, but it does not include tax credit eligibility for those with ITINs.

The House version of the same bill, introduced by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Suzanne DelBene (D-WA), and Ritchie Torres (D-NY) does include those with ITINs.

Listen to our episode with Rep. DeLauro.

Dr. Alethea Taylor on Her Work with Incarcerated Parents

Parenting doesn’t stop when a parent is incarcerated, and Dr. Taylor’s work with Hour Children works to reduce barriers between parents and children in that situation.

Hour Children works with women at the hour of their arrest, the hour of their visit, and the hour of their reunification.

Some stats on this subject:

  • 62% of women in state prisons have children under the age of 18
  • 50% of mothers in prison do not have a high school diploma
  • Hour Children participants have a 5% rate of recidivism compared to 30% statewide
  • Over 100,000 children have at least one incarcerated parent in New York State

Hour Children Offers a Multifaceted Approach

One of the main things that Hour Children does is facilitate visits between incarcerated women and their children. They do this through families who host the children in their homes and transport them to the facility for visiting hours.

The families also have group activities for the children, like barbecues or movie nights, so those children can build community with other kids who share their lived experience.

In the summer, Hour Children sets up “camp” where children stay with their host families for a longer period of time and see their parent more consistently during that time.

Hour Children also works with those who are incarcerated on how they can maintain connection with their children while they’re away from them. This includes how to help with homework, establishing routines as much as possible, and working with the range of emotions that the children may feel—anything from excitement to talk to their parent to anger that their parent is incarcerated. Thanks to a Robin Hood Foundation grant, Hour Children is now offering mental health services to children of incarcerated parents, as well.

Hour Children also focuses on how these parents will cope once they’re out of state custody. They offer financial management classes while incarcerated and upon release, temporary housing opportunities, childcare, food pantries, and mental health services.

Looking Towards the Future

Dr. Taylor is proud of the work that Hour Children is doing in this space, but she sees a need for sustained access to affordable housing.

This is a huge issue throughout the state: cost of living has far outpaced minimum wage.

Those coming back into the community face additional barriers. Rent is astronomical, and it can be difficult for those with criminal records to get and sustain work at all, let alone work that pays a true livable wage.

Long-Term Programming

Dr. Taylor thinks one key to the low recidivism rate of their participants is their sustained contact with Hour Children.

“They do not leave within two months, five months, six months. They're with us for years.”

Hour Children works with women and their children on an individual basis to assess and provide what they need over time.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Carol Jenkins

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

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

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

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

We are longtime colleagues and friends.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Jeff Madrick 

This edition of the Invisible Americans Podcast, we talk about two groups of vulnerable children often overlooked: children living in immigrant families and the children of incarcerated women. Both groups are heavily influenced by poverty.

Carol Jenkins 

We began with the concern for a million or so children and immigrant families who are ineligible for key support programs, even if they were born here are themselves American citizens. If any member of the family has only an ITIN, or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number--given to people who are unable to get a Social Security card--then the children can be excluded from services.

Jeff Madrick 

That's the case with the Working Families Tax Relief Act, reintroduced in the Senate by Senators Bennet of Colorado and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. The Act includes the Enhanced Child Tax Credit that lifted so many millions of children out of poverty in 2021. But the Senate version does not include eligibility for those with ITINs. The House version of the bill reintroduced by Representatives Rosa DeLauro, Suzanne DelBene, and Ritchie Torres does include them.

Carol Jenkins 

To more fully understand this crisis for immigrant children, we reached out to Wendy Cervantes of CLASP, the Center for Law and Social Policy. She is director of immigration and immigrant families there. Thank you so much, Wendy, for being with us to explain to us why—still--children of immigrant families are being discriminated against when it comes to support in this country. It doesn't make any sense at all to us.

Wendy Cervantes 

I have been working at the intersection of immigration policy and children's issues over the course of my career. And I have two primary goals throughout my career, which is, one, to educate policymakers and the general public about the importance of children of immigrants to our country's future, as well. And then the second goal has been to ensure that immigration policies, as well as all the policies that matter to kids’ education, access to health care, food, housing, childcare, and economic supports, that all of these types of programs also benefit kids and immigrant families.

And, I mean, the bottom line is that if you want to alleviate child poverty in the US, you absolutely have to include kids in immigrant families. Children of immigrants make up one in four of all children in the US now. And they represent one of the fastest growing segments of the child population. And the vast majority--more than 90%--are US-born citizens.

And yet, these kids continue to have poverty rates that are more than double that of their peers with native-born parents. About 40% of children living in poverty in the US are children of immigrants. And that's for a lot of reasons. It's partly because they're--you know, their parents are more likely to work in lower wage jobs, but also because immigrant families face significantly more barriers to health care and nutrition assistance programs and other types of government supports.

Jeff Madrick 

Many advocates in your position blame it mostly on racism of some kind or other. Do you agree with that?

Wendy Cervantes 

Yes. Unfortunately, you know, as our child population continues to diversify, so it does the xenophobic and racist rhetoric out there by, you know, a range of policymakers. And while, you know, a lot of this rhetoric is really misguided and deeply harmful, I think it's important to recognize that it also strikes a chord with much of the native-born population that's worried about their own economic security and whether, you know, there's enough resources for them.

And so I think it's easy for them to fall into the trap of believing people who tell them that immigrants are taking their share of this limited pool of resources, even though that's really not true. We know that immigrants are contributing to their communities. They're paying taxes. And I think it's also important to recognize that we know that immigrants and their children, especially those that are US citizens, are here to stay, and we ultimately need them to do well.

Jeff Madrick 

Are there any studies where social policies do help immigrant children, like as there are with poor kids, measurably poor children?

Wendy Cervantes 

Even some of the most recent research that was done on the Expanded Child Tax Credit, and its, you know, amazing ability, and its amazing success and being able to cut child poverty in half in such a short amount of time. I think one of the reasons that policy was so successful was because of how inclusive and automatic it was. So in addition to being fully refundable, it was available to all parents, regardless of immigration status.

And had it not been, I think the significant impact we saw, particularly for Latino children, would have been much less impressive. I also think it's important to note that during the pandemic, when, you know, so many families were really relying on those stimulus checks as a lifeline, immigrant families, including those who had children who are US citizens, many of these families were denied stimulus checks, and many of them--including 2.2 million citizen children--didn't see any support from stimulus checks until well after a year into the pandemic, even though they were disproportionately impacted.

But once they did have access to those stimulus checks, then we saw immediately the effects of a family has finally been able to make ends meet and getting above the poverty line.

Carol Jenkins 

If you can explain a little bit more for our audience that we're talking mostly about children who were born in this country and who are American, but the discrimination comes when anyone in the family apparently does not have a Social Security number, or some sort of recognition, and they are all denied support.

Wendy Cervantes 

Yes, it's really important to remember that children and immigrant families predominantly live in mixed status families. And so that means there can be range of statuses among the families. Although I think it's also, as I mentioned earlier, the majority of kids and immigrant families are US citizens. The vast majority, 90%, are actually US citizens.

There could be kids who have an undocumented parent and have another lawfully present parent, but because over the years, policymakers have created many layers of eligibility restrictions, there's now this very confusing patchwork of eligibility rules that make it really difficult for families to navigate, as well as for providers.

And ultimately, at the end of the day, I mean, these exclusions and restrictions have been successful at leaving people out. But they're not only leaving people out, like immigrants. They're also leaving out millions of children, including US citizens, who would be eligible for these programs.

Otherwise, you know, I guess, in a way, restrictive policies are successful at being restrictive, but they're also very, very harmful.

Jeff Madrick 

Well, President Obama was quite active in this area. I think he was, relatively speaking. President Trump was the opposite. He pulled the plug on most of the major programs. What was his rationale?

Wendy Cervantes 

Well, Trump, you know, came into office with the goal of making life as difficult as possible for immigrants. And he did that for all immigrants, including those that are lawfully present. There was a lot of things that were done that were harmful under the Trump administration, but in particular was a rule that he introduced and ultimately finalized, which was the public charge rule.

And this is related to a policy that's, you know, been in the books for a long time, a policy with its own racist, you know, history. But essentially, it’s a policy that's been in place to basically try to determine who might be ultimately predominantly reliant on the government for their subsistence or to provide for them and based on their use of certain benefits, as well as other factors. And it's been essentially used as part of this test to see whether someone can enter the US through an immigrant visa or qualify for a green card.

And so it's really important to immigrant families, especially for those that are here and who want to get on a pathway to citizenship and get a green card to make sure that they don't become determined to be a public charge. And so it does create a lot of confusion for families. And sometimes they get misinformation and may not apply for programs that would not make them a public charge, either for them or for their kids just out of fear of not, you know, somehow compromising their ability to get a green card.

And so the Trump rule did a lot of things to really fundamentally change that long-standing policy. And one of the most dangerous things it did was actually expand the types of programs that would make someone potentially a public charge. And, you know, historically, it's always been just cash benefit programs like TANF and SSI. The Trump rule would have expanded it to other programs like SNAP and Medicaid or CHIP.

And fortunately, that rule was struck down by the courts, although it was implemented for a short period of time right at the beginning of the pandemic. And now there is a new Biden rule in place that basically just kind of clarifies the long-standing guidance that's been used for most of our history.

Even today, we still hear a lot of confusion, a lot of uncertainty about where that policy stands. And we still hear about families not enrolling their kids in really critical health care coverage or nutrition programs just because they're worried about there being implications for them to apply for a green card in the future. And that's I think one of the most important things to remember, is that some of these policies--like the policies that were implemented under the Trump administration--they have a long, chilling effect that can remain even after these policies are no longer in place.

Carol Jenkins 

We're looking at very much interested in the Child Tax Credit that was so helpful that lifted so many children out of poverty. And we understand that we've talked with Congresswoman DeLauro, whose House Bill American Families Act does include immigrant children, children and immigrant families. But we are told now that the Senate version does not. It has led to many of our colleagues indicating they will not be able to support the Senate version because of this. Can you talk with us a little bit about that?

Wendy Cervantes 

Another example of how anti-poverty programs leave out children and immigrant families are tax credits. And this child tax credit is very timely one to talk about. Historically, it's been available to all tax filers, including parents who file with a Social Security Number, as well as those who file with what's known as an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, which are essentially taxpayer identification numbers that are for people who can't otherwise get a Social Security Number.

So these are people who are paying their taxes. And so immigrant parents who file with an ITIN have been able to historically apply for the credit for on behalf of their children who are eligible, both kids who have a Social Security number as well as children who themselves may not have a Social Security Number, so have an ITIN.

And so this was how Child Tax Credit eligibility had been up until 2017 under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act where for the first time, children with an ITIN were cut out of the deal and were no longer eligible to access the Child Tax Credit.

So with just that exclusion, we saw about a million children suddenly lose access to this really critical credit to help lift their families out of poverty. And that's been the case since that bill was passed. And there has been a lot of efforts over the years to try to restore that eligibility for these approximately one million children who are still left out.

And so we were very happy to see the House bill, as you mentioned, restore that eligibility for ITIN children. But unfortunately, the Senate bill did maintain that exclusion. And I think it's important to recognize that the exclusion will sunset in 2025. But given--as someone who's worked on this issue for a very long time, we know it's always hard to restore eligibility. And so we do expect there to be a fight in 2025 to be able to restore eligibility for these kids, who are kids who are growing up here and are going to are going to be part of our country's future and who need access to this to this critical support.

Carol Jenkins 

So, Wendy, are you optimistic? You say that as we record this, Pramila Jayapal in Congress has been a part of introducing a bill that will make things a bit easier. Talk to us a little bit about that.

Wendy Cervantes 

Yeah, actually, just today, Representative Jayapal. And Senator Hirono introduced a bill that's called the Lift the Bar Act, which would essentially undo this really problematic policy that's been in place since the 1996 Welfare Reform Law, which essentially created significant barriers for immigrants to access federal means tested benefits like TANF, Medicaid, CHIP, and SNAP. And it created for the first time this arbitrary five-year waiting period for lawfully present immigrants to access these programs, this bill that was introduced today would ultimately remove that five-year waiting period.

We have seen some efforts since the ‘96 law to try to, you know, recognize the fact that, you know, vulnerable populations, including children, can't wait five years to access health care, to access food. And so there has been some progress over the years to address this really problematic five-year waiting period.

So for example, unlawfully present children now no longer have to have a five-year waiting period. That was something that was unfixed back a few years following the passage of the ‘96 law. And then also, states were provided with the option to waive the five-year waiting period under the reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program in 2009. And about half of the states have chosen to do that recognizing the importance of kids and pregnant people having access to those supports.

But there still is a five-year waiting period in place in states that don't take up that option for access to health care, as well as for most lawfully present adults. And that's really harmful for kids because at the end of the day, as the research shows, parents who have access to the support they need are better able to support their kids. And it also increases the chances of their kids having access to those same programs. And in fact, we know that by lifting the bar, as we call it, would actually help about 1.7 million citizen children around the country and improve their parents’ access to these programs, as well as their own access to health care and nutrition assistance. And that was introduced today with about 100 co-sponsors.

And it's really a reflection of the work that advocates have been doing over the years to really educate policymakers about why this was such a bad policy in the first place, to restrict access to these programs in this way, and we have seen the harmful impacts of this policy over the past 25 years that it's been in place.

Jeff Madrick 

Of the many possible social policies, in addition to the Child Tax Credit, which do you think are the most important to pass for immigrant children?

Wendy Cervantes 

Ultimately, we need to have a comprehensive approach to this. And I do think that some of the opportunities that we have right now that are really important is this policy of like undoing the five-year waiting period and some of the restrictions that were created for immigrants, specifically under the welfare reform laws of ‘96. But also, you know, performing the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit to make them more inclusive of immigrant families. I mentioned the restrictions that immigrant families face with regards to accessing the Child Tax Credit, but even the parents have to have a Social Security Number to qualify for the earned income tax credit. So there's an even larger population of immigrants that are left out, with citizen kids that are left out have the opportunity to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit.

And there's a significant amount of research that shows how more inclusive tax policies would help drive down child poverty, in particular for communities of color and immigrant families. I also think that we ultimately need to pass a pathway to citizenship. I mean, a lot of the barriers that I've talked about impact undocumented immigrants as well as lawfully present immigrants. But undocumented immigrants are also another segment of the population that's really vulnerable.

We have about 5 million children who have at least one undocumented parent. And they're vulnerable in many ways, not only because their parents have limited options for work and tend to work in low wage jobs and are also ineligible for a range of the benefits that support working families. But then they're also at risk of being deported and separated. And that also creates a whole range of difficulties for families, in particular to their economic security when a primary breadwinner is suddenly deported. The family that's left behind, including the parent left behind, and the children are often left with very little means to make ends meet.

And so there's a lot of research that also shows how much a pathway to citizenship and access to legal status really helps improve the economic security of immigrant families and their children.

Carol Jenkins 

Wendy, we would like to ask you one question about the child labor laws and the use of immigrant children in what we would consider to be unsuitable working conditions. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Wendy Cervantes 

The child labor issue isn't something that's new. Of course, it's gotten a lot of attention in the media recently, given the number of children that had been entering the country alone that have been exploited by employers and placed in really dangerous situations. And I think it's important to recognize a few things here.

One is that at the end of the day, most kids who are coming here alone--and also kids who are growing up in the US and working in these jobs because we also know that there's a lot of US citizen kids working in the fields, for example, that are part of migrant farmworker families, some that are US citizens, as well as immigrants, as well--But the underlying issue here is poverty.

And a lot of the kids who are coming here alone, some of them are absolutely being exploited and being taken advantage of by sponsors that aren't even their family members. But even those that are working to really help support their families back home are doing so because they're the only ones who can provide for their families. And so I think it's important to remember that there are less restrictive policies to allow children to come here with their families will help ensure that they don't get into the hands of sponsors who are going to exploit them or traffic them.

And it will also decrease the chances of them having to work because they'll have their parents here to help support them. You know, many of these kids and their families are those who are validly seeking asylum. And then ultimately, once they're here, it's important that we have policies in place for when they're able to apply for asylum or obtain status, that we also have policies that are inclusive and will help support them and pull them and their families out of poverty.

Jeff Madrick 

It's an awfully long agenda, given it's much less talked about than other poverty issues are, so it seems to me.

Wendy Cervantes 

I ultimately think that, you know, as much as immigration is politicized in this country, that ultimately when it comes to kids, I think across the political spectrum and across communities, there is a fundamental belief that we need to do right by our children and an understanding that children are the future of this country. And so I do feel hopeful about the future, especially given the resilience that I've seen an immigrant families across the country. And so thank you for covering this topic. And thank you for the work that you do, as well.

Carol Jenkins 

Thanks so much. Thank you.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Carol Jenkins 

We turn now to child poverty and incarcerated mothers: 62% of the women in state prisons have children under 18 years old. Half of the mothers, over 50%, do not have a high school diploma. Most never earned more than the minimum wage. A third were unemployed when they entered the system. When they are released, these mothers face even steeper economic hurdles, and the question of whether they will be reunited with their children. In New York State alone, we are talking about more than 100,000 children with parents in prison.

Jeff Madrick 

Dr. Alethea Taylor is executive director of Hour Children, which stands for the hour of her arrest, the hour of their visit, and the hour of their reunification. Working in New York state with the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Hour Children provides supportive visits with mothers and children in the prison and housing, education and training for women preparing to reenter the outside world with their children. The recidivism rate in their program is 5%, as opposed to 30% statewide.

Carol Jenkins 

Alethea, thank you so much for being with us. I was so moved when I came to your luncheon recently, to hear your story and to hear the stories of mothers that Hour Children has helped. It's really incredible work. Do you mind relating at all your history with the correctional facilities and how you came to this work? That would be terrific.

Dr. Alethea Taylor 

Thank you so much for having me, Jeff and Carol. I'm honored to be in such great company. And I'm honored to be in the company in serving women who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. The way that I came to this work was that -- I've been working with women as an internship from my master's degree program. And I realized that I fell in love with serving women who had done time for all very reasons and given them a second chance. But what I didn't realize over the years as to how much this also had affected my own life, and that my own story was wrapped up in it.

I learned that later, but my own father was also incarcerated at one point and then my brother was incarcerated for 19 years, and I was a family member--not necessarily with my dad because I was younger, but with my brother, I was instrumental in really helping him while he was incarcerated and being that family member that ensured that he got visit. I really believe that us always seeing him and visiting him was one of the reasons why he did well in this and sort of did the rehabilitation, and now he's home.

And I'm proud of the opportunity to still be doing this kind of work. And Hour Children, it's only over the last several years that I realized how much my life is mirroring what we have done for our women, where host families make sure that kids can come and visit for the weekend and stay with them to actually see their kids while they're in prison, and that these particular families take their time to say, “Hey, I can host the child for the weekend so that our children can then take that child into the prison to visit their families.”

Jeff Madrick 

That's what I was so impressed by, that you can bring the kids into the prison and spend some time with their mothers. Is this a common practice in America?

Dr. Alethea Taylor 

No, it's not. There are not a lot of organizations that are doing this kind of work, where you are actually picking up the kids and bringing them to their family members who are incarcerated. And we're proud that we are able to do a summer camp, as well, where for three to four weeks, over several days, three days, we set up a camp system inside the prison. So the child will see their mother for at least three to four days consistently, and sometimes a week. So we're very excited about doing that this summer again. And that's why we were raising money to make sure that these kids can come from all over New York State to stay for a week or host families and see their moms consistently for five days.

Carol Jenkins 

Alethea, many people don't realize that most of the women, a huge percentage of women who are incarcerated have children, and who are under 18 years old. I mean, is it like 60 to 70% of the women who are in prison or in jail have children? They've left children somewhere that they want to be reunited with. And most of those women, you know, don't have high education and didn't have full-time well-paying jobs. So we're really thinking about an economic issue for children whose mothers have to find some way of supporting them when they do come out. So talk to us a little bit about the programs that you offer. It's quite substantial.

Dr. Alethea Taylor 

I think what happens is that people forget that you are a parent, whether you're incarcerated or not, that you are mothering--or fathering, for the men--while you're incarcerated. So what we do is we teach women how to be a mother while behind the bars.

We actually have classes that they attend so that they can learn how to do homework with the child. They learn how to talk about what happened at prom, what happened in the teacher-parent meeting that you went to. We ask them to attend the teacher-parent meeting. We advocate for them to make sure that they're attending that. All of this is a part of the stability of the woman.

And also, we teach them about budgeting, finance. They don't make a lot of money while they're inside. However, their family members may also contribute to funds that are inside. So we also help them, talk to them about that about health and nutrition. And how do you operate in this space that is not normalized?

And think about that, especially the women that are coming home. Financial management is so important because you're leaving prison with only $40. And so how do you leave a place that you've been in for 20 years with $40 on your back? So one of the things that we do is that we provide housing, childcare, a food pantry for food security, and we do mental health services, as well. This is all in the community when the woman comes home. And what we're helping them is to build to do is to build stability, when they come home.

And we are able to say to them, “Hey, we know that it's going to take time for you to get back on your feet. So this is what we're going to do for you for this time period.” Because people forget, it's 20 years. The times have changed.

You went in when we were doing tokens, and you come back out to credit cards. As for the subway system, that's a huge time lapse. So those are the types of things that we do and also them understanding what finances they have or do not have access to and how we can find a work and other services and educational opportunities so that they will be okay and build economic stability on the outside.

Jeff Madrick 

What do you feel is missing from your program? What would you like to do a lot that you aren't able to do?

Dr. Alethea Taylor 

I would like to have better access to housing in the sense of--we have some housing. But stable permanent housing is something that's not missing only from us. But it's a New York City issue. And that's one of the primary things we'd love to be able to do is to build more housing or find developers who are willing to take low-income individuals and, you know, participate in these low-income programs that really are going to help people move out of their low financial situations and just be more stabilized into, you know, one to two-bedroom apartment, three-bedroom apartment, whatever it is that you need for yourself, a studio.

And I think that's one of the primary things that many providers such as myself are facing because we have the housing for them to come home to. It’s how long they stay in our housing that's communal housing where you're all living together. So that's one of our challenges is getting people more permanent, stable housing because of the types of jobs they're getting is not significant for the New York City market that we have where rent is so high.

And then the other thing is the types of jobs that are available for individuals who are coming home, and the amount of dollars that they really, truly need to make to get into their own housing because some places are paying better, $16, $17 an hour. But for New York City, that's not good.

Carol Jenkins 

Talk to us a little bit about the children, their experiences in this whole setup of knowing that their mothers are away, and now they're going to visit, and now when their mothers are released, there's the prospect of reuniting the family.

Dr. Alethea Taylor 

You know, one of the things that I love to see is the excitement on the kids face when they do see their mothers while they're incarcerated. And you forget, even for a moment, that this person is behind bars because you're able to see and to feel and to touch and to hug. And the kids are so overwhelmed by it at times, and the parents, they don't get to see everyday things. So I think that connection of family, reuniting family bonding is so important for that child.

A parent saw her child lose his tooth on the visit. And it was one of the most moving things. And I didn't realize how important that was. But in that moment, seeing it happen, and you take certain things for granted. And the child was so excited to show the teeth to the mom, you know? It’s those kinds of little nuances that we forget on a daily basis. So building and maintaining that relationship is sustainable and important for our children.

The other thing is that parent-child conversation that they have every night and maintaining that connection--the child is excited. “Mommy is calling! Mommy is calling.” Or they're mad at mommy, because, “Why did you get incarcerated? Why did you leave me?” To have that conversation is really important.

The other thing that we've done, as well--we received a grant from Robin Hood Foundation to provide child therapy to some of the kids of the incarcerated parents because they are going through trauma, seeing mom incarcerated. They already may not have had the best household in the sense of--maybe instability. Some of our kids are coming from not the greatest home or families. So then to add incarceration to that is a lot.

So some of the parents requested that their kids be provided with therapy through the guardian. And so we've been doing that. So that's another way that we help. The other thing that I would say, so important is the connections that kids make with each other during those visits and during the family hosting opportunities because a family will host kids and then they get them all together in the evenings to do a barbecue, to go to a movie or whatever.

So it builds bond. Some of these kids stay in touch with each other for years and years and years. So they become friends, and then they get to understand each other. And then in our after-school club that we have in our Teen Scene program, these are all kids going through the same thing. And the staff who are working with them are people of children who were incarcerated. So all of that is done intentionally, so that everyone can really learn and glean from each other. And the child, number one, can feel supported, which is the most important thing.

Jeff Madrick 

Is there a measurable payoff from your programs?

Dr. Alethea Taylor 

We have a 5% recidivism rate. It's about 25 to 30 for New York State. So I would say for us that's definitely measurable because women are not going back to prison and or jail. Or that's truly important.

I think the other one is the keeping families united, which is a significant part of the work that we do so, you know, we had a mother that just came home. And within a month from now she will be really reunited in our housing with her two kids. And that's something we definitely want to make sure that we make happen because that child has been without the mom for so long.

She and he -- they need to be able to connect with that mother, for me, that, Jeff, is so immeasurable, that that child now gets to really be mothered and parented by this person who'd been away for maybe 15 years. Don't get me wrong, it's not always easy. And the reunion is not always successful right away.

But what we do is we keep trying again and again and again and again because mom has some things to learn, and children have some things to learn. Also, if you're taking in a teenager who you left when they were in elementary school, that's a whole different ballgame.

Carol Jenkins 

But recidivism at only 5%. That is really extraordinary.

Dr. Alethea Taylor 

Yes, women stay with us for a long time. They do not leave within two months, five months, six months. They're with us for years. And we're giving them those services and supporting them in every way that we can.

We've done things like a woman’s child needed a scholarship, and we found the funder, individual funder, who would be able to get her some funds to go to college. Those are the kinds of things that we do where it's very individualized, so that we're meeting that child's need, but we're also meeting the needs of the parent, as well.

Carol Jenkins 

Alethea, thank you so much for this tremendous work that you're doing. It is extraordinary. And Jeff has written a book about Invisible Americans, children who are left behind, and it's clear that you see the children, our children, our children, thank you so much.

Jeff Madrick 

Alethea, thanks very much. We're impressed by the good work you do.

Dr. Alethea Taylor 

Thank you so much.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Jeff Madrick

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. And 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 earned. The results were stunning, cutting the poverty rate by half. But 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 

We'd like to thank our guests today, Wendy Cervantes of the Center for Law and Social Policy, and Dr. Alethea Taylor of Hour Children for their insights. Please go to our website, www.theinvisibleamericans.com. for transcripts, show notes, guest bios, and research.

That's www.theinvisibleamericans.com. And follow us on social media. Thanks so much for being with us. Jeff and I will see you the next time.

Wendy Cervantes

Director, Immigration And Immigrant Families at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP)

Policy expertise:

Child Care and Early Education

Children, Youth & Families

Immigrant Access to Benefits

Immigrant Children and Families

Income and Work Supports

Racial Equity

Young Men and Women of Color

Wendy Cervantes is director of immigration and immigrant families. In this role, she oversees the organization’s cross-team work to develop and advocate for policies that support low-income immigrants and their families. She is an expert on the cross-sector policy issues that impact children of immigrants, including economic security, child welfare, immigration, education, health care, and human rights. Prior to joining CLASP, Ms. Cervantes was Vice President of Immigration and Child Rights at First Focus where she led the organization’s federal policy work on immigration and established the Center for the Children of Immigrants. Ms. Cervantes also served as Director of Programs at La Plaza, a Latino community-based organization in central Indiana, where she oversaw the implementation and evaluation of education, health, and social service programs. Earlier in her career, Ms. Cervantes worked at the Annie E. Casey Foundation where she managed the national immigrant and refugee families and the District of Columbia portfolios. She also has experience as a community organizer and an adult ESL instructor. The proud daughter of Mexican immigrants, Ms. Cervantes holds an M.A. in Latin American studies and political science from the University of New Mexico and a B.A. in communications from the University of Southern California.

Follow her on Twitter: WendyDC5

Dr. Alethea Taylor

Executive Director of Hour Children, Inc.

Dr. Alethea Taylor, RhD, CRC is currently the Executive Director of Hour Children, a  nonprofit organization dedicated to serving incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. Most  recently, Alethea served as a distinguished lecturer with Hunter College School of Education in  the Department of Educational Foundations and Counseling. Alethea also served as the  Executive Director with Greenhope Services for Women, helping women with substance use and  mental health disorders who were formerly incarcerated. She works as a coach centering middle  management woman of color who are formerly incarcerated. In 2013, Alethea was selected as a  Fellow of the New York University’s Research for Leadership in Action’s inaugural IGNITE  Fellowship for Women of Color in the Social Sector. 

Alethea has served as an adjunct professor at New York University, NYACK College,  and The College of New Rochelle teaching courses such as research methods, statistics, career  counseling, and medical aspects of disabilities. As an educator, Alethea conducted many  presentations and seminars addressing topics such as strategic planning, substance use disorders,  mental health, women and incarceration, reentry services, and criminal, racial, and social justice  reform. 

Alethea served on the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, Justice Implementation Task Force Working Group on Culture Change. She previously served as a liaison for the New York City Alternative to Incarceration Coalition, a member of the NY County Behavioral Health Diversion Forum, and was also a member of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive committee “Work for Success,” employment initiative for the formerly incarcerated. She has served as a member of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) Reentry Committee. She was the co-chair of the Manhattan Recovery Community Coalition.

Alethea has 30 years of professional experience including management coaching, staff development, university teaching, serving women and youth, and providing advocacy within the criminal justice community