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Black Midwifery in the US

Since the inception of the United States, midwifery has been the most customary practice for pregnancy care and childbirth. Today, the primary care for pregnant people in most developed European countries is facilitated by midwives. However, in the United States a divide began to take root in the 1800’s, when white male physicians began to explore childbirth with greater interest. Their approach was based on a patriarchal and colonial framework that was highly experimental and racist, often times using enslaved African to test explicit drug therapies, shock treatments, and surgeries without any anesthesia.

Prior to the creation of formalized medical education in obstetrics and gynecology, midwives were the sole experts in birth work and medicine relied heavily on Native American and African American knowledge of plants and indigenous healing modalities. For millennia, birth work was considered a female occupation or “woman’s work” (Hoch-Smith and Spring, 1978; Leavitt, 1983; Rooks, 1997; Donegan, 1978; Litoff, 1990). The midwifery model of education was a indigenous model of apprenticeship under more experienced midwives that were often grandmothers who also learned from their grandmothers. In the United States midwifery was largely practiced by enslaved Africans who were responsible for women’s healthcare of all enslaved women on the plantation as well as the white women who owned them. A large part of midwifery apprenticeship on the plantation included various forms of training such as herbalism, procedures for dealing with birth complications, perinatal care, and serving as traditional healing.

Once the field of medicine became “professionalized” and legitimized by the legal system with the invention of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1927, physicians sought to dominate the field of birth work as its primary practitioners. Their claim to jurisdiction spurred racist propaganda campaigns depicting Black midwives as caricatures falsely accusing midwives of being “incompetent”, “witches”, “unclean”, “savages”, and “untrustworthy”. These physicians also lured white women to trust them because they offered “innovative” pain relief options such as opioid tampons, and mercury. In addition to the propaganda, because pregnancy began to be viewed as a pathological condition beginning in the late 1800s and continuing into the 1900s, physicians claimed that only legally trained individuals could “treat” this “condition”. Such assertions/claims served as manipulative tools that “pushed the scales” in favor of physician-assisted births versus granny midwife assisted births.

The public perception of midwives began to shift as the midwives who had for centuries in the Americas served as the primary maternal and infant healthcare providers were essentially deemed illegitimate. These smear campaigns were supported by the white male physicians who were founders and members of State Boards of Health which controlled who was able to care for and treat women in childbirth. By the 1900s white male physicians attended approximately half of births, despite having little to no training in obstetrics.

In rural America, however, Black midwives continued to attend births especially for Black folks who lived in the segregated south and had no access to hospitals in their communities. In the Southern states, Black midwives, sometimes called “granny” midwives, attended up to 75% of births until the 1940’s.

Racist laws, educational restrictions, and campaigns against midwifery care led to the dismantling of the practice especially for Black women, for example:

  • The 1910 Flexner Report recommended hospital deliveries and the abolition of midwifery. The study has since been recognized for its racist, sexist, and classist approach to medical education.
  • “Twilight sleep” was introduced in 1914, an amnesiac given to women by white physicians preventing any memories of giving birth.
  • In 1915, Dr. Joseph DeLee – a prominent obstetrician – called pregnancy and childbirth “dangerous” and “evil.” Dr. DeLee promoted the use of forceps, sedatives, ether, and other interventions that needed hospital-level care. He argued that midwives were incompetent.
  • The Department of Indian Affairs passed legislation that moved births from the home to the hospital.
  • The Shepphard-Tower Infancy and Protection Act became a federal law in 1921. It encouraged states to develop their own maternal and child health legislation. Before these changes, lay midwives practiced mostly without restrictions. The new laws severely reduced their practice in many states. For example, Alabama began requiring all midwives to obtain a license, then later required nurse-midwives to practice only in hospitals. These changes prevented 150 “granny midwives” from practicing across the state practically overnight.
  • Public health nurse Mary Breckenridge founded Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in rural Kentucky in 1925 which led to the more formalized field of nurse-midwifery also developed at this time. Breckenridge’s racist rhetoric impacted Black midwives’ entry into the nurse midwifery route though Breckenridge has been for “creating a pathway for midwifery education and certification.”

The formalization of education and certification ultimately delegitimized apprentice-trained midwives in every community. Today, less than 5% of midwives in the United States are people of color. Disparities in maternal morbidity and mortality rates are striking; Black mothers are 2-3 times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers. This impact reflects the powers and forces that disconnected midwives from their communities.

Black Midwives that Birthed Communities

Mary Coley was born in Baker County, Georgia. She began training as a midwife under the tutelage of Onnie Lee Logan. She became an advocate for the health of Georgia’s black population and was known for her willingness to work with women regardless of race in a time of segregation. It is estimated that she delivered over 3,000 babies in her career.

Ms. Arilla Smiley was trained by the local Health Department in Brunswick Georgia and apprenticed with her mother-in-law. She received her license to perform midwifery in 1963 and retired in 1987. During her career as a midwife, Ms. Smiley delivered over 1,000 babies in Mitchell County.

Maude Callen was a nurse-midwife in the South Carolina Low country for over 60 years. Her work was brought to national attention in W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay, “Nurse Midwife,” published in Life on December 3, 1951.

Margaret Charles Smith delivered more than 3,000 babies. In 1949, she became one of the first official midwives in Green County, Alabama, and she was still practicing in 1976 when the state passed a law outlawing traditional midwifery. In the 1990s, she cowrote a book about her career, Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife, and in 2010 she was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.

Bibliography
Abbott, Andrew. 1988 The System of Professions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Donnegan, Jane B. 1978 Women and Men Midwives: Medicine, Morality, and Misogyny in Early America. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Fraser, Gertrude Jacinta. 1998 African American Midwifery in the South: Dialogues of Birth, Race, and Memory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Hoch-Smith, Judith and Anita Spring. 1978 Women in Ritual and Symbolic Roles. New York: Plenum Press.
Leavitt, Judith Walzer. 1987 “The Growth of Medical Authority: Technology and Morals in Turn-of-the-Century Obstetrics.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1(3). September. 230-255.
Leavitt, Judith Walzer. 1983 “Science Enters the Birthing Room: Obstetrics in America Since the Eighteenth Century.” The Journal of American History. 70(2). 281-304.
Litoff, Judy Barrett. 1996 “Forgotten Women: American Midwives at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Pp. 425-441 in Childbirth: Changing Ideas and Practices in Britain and America 1600 to the Present, edited by Phillip K. Wilson, Ann Dally, and Charles R. King. New York: Garland Publishing.
Pringle, Rosemary 1998 Sex and Medicine: Gender, Power, and Authority in the Medical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Radcliffe, Walter. 1989 Milestones in Midwifery and the Secret Instrument: The Birth of the Midwifery Forceps. San Francisco: Norman Publishing.
Rooks, Judith Pence. 1985 Midwifery and Childbirth in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Anaheim City Council opt to Impound Sidewalk Vendor Equipment the Day Before Valentine’s Day

Just before Valentine’s Day, I attended a City of Anaheim City Council meeting where the city voted to shower sidewalk vendors with heartbreak instead of appreciation and inclusivity.

The city council unanimously amended an existing sidewalk ordinance to include impounding of sidewalk vendor equipment and codifying non-vending zones.

The street vending issue has often pitted some brick-and-mortar business owners against vendors in Anaheim. Three or four business owners argued in support of these harsher measures for sidewalk vendors. They arrived that evening in full support of the proposed amendments to the sidewalk vendor ordinance. They operate along the busiest street corridor that leads to the biggest amusement parks and resorts in Anaheim.

It was a typical verbal back and forth, with vendors accused of unsightliness and even criminality, and vendors asserting that far from creating problems, they contribute to the city’s local economy.

I listened while a local hotel manager, blamed sidewalk vendors for deterring, “potential buyers from legitimate businesses, and.”  Another hotel manager argued that sidewalk vendors pose a threat to public safety. She cited a recent shooting directed at a street vendor. Yes! She blamed the victim for the violence brought on them stating, “they bring cash only business which makes them susceptible to more crime.” She continued to say that sidewalk vendors bring in an “unsavory crowd.”

When the item later came up, the city council asked for a staff report and the Deputy City manager noted that street vendors have not accessed Anaheim’s permit process. Since 2018 only about five flower vendors and no food vendors have obtained permits.

The report, however, left me wondering about the city’s approach to sidewalk vending. It seemed to focus on enforcement and stereotypes, while not addressing the glaring gaps in outreach and lack of intense educational efforts.

The evening’s absurdity peaked when the report cataloged taco stands as “large scale operations” as the most problematic vendors, even linking taqueros to human trafficking rings. Yet when asked by council members for confirmation of suspected trafficking, none was supplied by city staff.

There was a lot of bureaucratic conflation of types of vendors. Health and Safety buzzwords were dropped throughout the presentation. Yet, no distinction was made between merchandise vendors and food vendors. All vendors in no vending zones will face confiscation of property as an enforcement mechanism. They will have the ability to confiscate sidewalk vendor equipment without the presence of County of Orange Health Inspectors alongside them.

Their focus will remain on large scale sidewalk food vendors and event and resort area vendors. Anaheim code enforcement patrols 6 nights a week with two of those nights alongside County Health Inspectors.

These enforcement efforts have led to, “141 citations in 2022 to 423 citations in 2023; in addition, in partnership with Orange County Health Inspectors staff confiscated the food and/or equipment of 112 vendors in 2022 and 174 vendors in 2023,” according to the Deputy City Manager.

The overzealousness to enforce and confiscate property is worrisome, cities should place their efforts in educational and informational outreach. They should understand that as folks acclimate to County of Orange Health requirements, education serves as a better measure towards compliance.

How many sessions for sidewalk vendors were held by the city? The staff report gave no quantitative data of how much resources were put into informing sidewalk vendors. These are important questions to ask when looking at the dismal number of permits.

Are cities putting more effort into enforcement measures or bridging gaps to truly make these permits accessible to these sidewalk micro entrepreneurs?

Cities wouldn’t have to invest so intensely in enforcement if you invested in a more informative/educational approach.

Anaheim, impounding equipment will economically devastate vendors, it will not improve compliance. Cities should work with their local health department to collaboratively find ways to increase permit numbers through education and outreach.

Making Food Prescriptions a Reality in California

If you are a Type 1 diabetic there are two constants in your life: the rising cost of insulin or the constant pain of the pricking needle. Now, imagine your doctor offered a new alternative to help manage your glucose.

What if your doctor could prescribe food tailored to your specific nutritional needs?

Unbeknownst to many, such a program has been in the works for the past five years. Food prescription pilots outside of the state have been around for decades. Around 2018 California officially began its food as medicine services. By early 2022, the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) began a 5-year initiative to reform Medi-Cal, called CalAIM.

CalAIM is attempting to address the root causes and complex health needs in various communities across the state. Beginning in 2022 the DHCS began to offer 14 community support services that health plans can opt-in to, they provide an alternative to higher-cost medical services. Designed to address people’s health-related social needs, some of these community supports include navigation services for housing and sobering centers. By the end of 2022, all 58 counties in California offered at least two community services,  while 16 counties offered at least 10, and 3 counties (Sacramento, Riverside, and San Diego County) offered all 14 community support services.

The second most popular service among all counties is the Medically Supportive Food & Nutrition (MSFN) support. The spectrum of medically supportive food and nutrition interventions includes: medically tailored meals, medically supportive meals, food pharmacies, medically tailored groceries, medically supportive groceries, produce prescriptions and nutrition supports when paired with food provision. Different counties have different approaches to where and how food is received. Whatever the approach, around 26,000 Medi-Cal members have used this community support.

These amazing food and nutrition supports have been proven to be successful at helping people to treat, manage, or even prevent chronic health conditions as seen in pilots and studies not only across California but also nationally. These programs are an especially critical tool towards achieving health equity goals since BIPOC communities are disproportionately impacted by health issues and poverty. A recent study shows that Black Californians are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than white Californians and more than 10% more likely to be diagnosed with high blood pressure.

Western Center’s own Whitney Francis shares her experiences on the frontlines of this work, “Having previously worked in food pharmacies, I’ve seen first-hand how our patients were empowered to manage their health through accessing fresh produce weekly, especially for patients who struggled with issues such as food and housing insecurity.”

The time is now to make Medically Supportive Food and Nutrition (MSFN) accessible to more Californians. We need to be scaling this CalAIM support up; this means investing in outreach and education to make providers and patients aware of this community support and how to access it, assisting food/nutrition providers in establishing contracts with health plans, and establishing Medically Supportive Food and Nutrition as a permanent part of Medi-Cal.

Last year, Assemblymember Mia Bonta from Oakland introduced AB 1644, a bill that would transition medically supportive food and nutrition services a from an optional service under a time-limited waiver to a permanently covered benefit under Medi-Cal. While the bill did not get past the Appropriations Committee, the Medically Supportive Food & Nutrition coalition, co-led by SPUR and the Food as Medicine Collaborative who co-sponsored AB 1644, are preparing to reintroduce a similar bill, AB 1975. One of the major updates to the bill this year is more robust language incentivizing sourcing food from small and medium-sized farms, minority-owned farms, and farms using organic, regenerative, and other climate-smart practices – if passed, this would be a big win for the health of Californians, the planet, and our local economies.

California needs this — make no mistake this is an opportunity to invest in the long-term health of Californians. The benefits of food as low-cost medicine far outweigh the immediate costs it is said to incur for our state.

Whitney Francis agrees, she says, “these kinds of health interventions help to bridge the siloes between healthcare and social and economic factors that impact one’s health. That’s why I’m excited to support advocacy efforts to expand access to these services under Medi-Cal.”

I agree with my colleague, 2024 should be the year we make medically supportive foods and nutrition a more accessible reality.

There is no other time than now to take bold steps and get AB 1975 across the finish line and make an impact on Black and Latinx lives and offer food as medicine.

To stay updated on legislative advocacy for AB 1975, you can visit MSFNCA.org/contact and sign up for the Medically Supportive Food & Nutrition coalition updates.

‘Tis the Season…To Donate (Unspoiled) Food

By Abraham Zavala-Rodriguez, WCLP Outreach & Advocacy Associate

One in five Californians suffers from chronic hunger, but a growing food rescue effort is poised to shrink that number.

About two years ago, one of the most significant waste reduction mandates went into effect across the state. SB 1383 ambitiously seeks to reduce organic waste  by 75% by 2025.  This means that around 20 million tons of potential waste may soon be diverted from landfills to kitchen tables.

Throughout California, municipalities  are setting up  programs to  ensure that grocery stores, produce marts, corporate kitchens, schools,  and other commercial food generators  set protocols to inspect leftover food before it spoils and see that it reaches those who are hungry as fresh as possible. For years prior to SB 1383, many food generators resisted donating food. Now with legislation, a robust network of waste reduction programs and streamlined donation processes,  support is growing.  

For example, Food Finders, which has a network of over 470 partners across five counties in Southern California, has been helping food generators comply with the mandate. In particular, they facilitate same-day, donor-to-recipient delivery of edible foods.

Thanks to SB 1383, food rescue programs reach out to organizations to ensure organizations know how to communicate with local public works departments to help them become compliant. During the COVID-19 epidemic, enforcement lagged, but the work of educating food donors is back on track. 

When Food Finders engages with new partners, it provides guidance that includes defining what is “edible” food. Presently, the definition can vary, say, from store to store, because there is no federally mandated expiration date. One store may pull food three days before expiration date, others may pull it the day of. The next step for averting food waste? Federal expiration standards.

A recent study found that more than 90% of Americans misinterpret food labels, leading to the disposal of perfectly good food. This, in many ways, exacerbates the issue of “donation dumping.” 

As the work in food recovery continues without a federal mandate clarifying what is spoiled, we must remind ourselves: if you won’t eat it, don’t donate it. 

 

Settlement Finalized in Katie A. vs. Los Angeles County Mental Health Lawsuit

After more than 20 years of litigation, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Western Division, has given final approval to a settlement in the longstanding case Katie A. v. Los Angeles County. The Court’s action ends a federal class action lawsuit that, over time, led to significantly improved mental health services for children and young adults in foster care or who face imminent risk of placement in foster care. 

Filed in 2002, the suit alleged the county and state agencies failed to provide legally mandated health care services to youth in its custody. The lack of mental health services harmed foster youth by increasing the likelihood they would be removed from their homes.  Removals compound trauma for foster youth, making the lack of appropriate care even harder for children already struggling with mental illness.

“In the beginning of this lawsuit, we saw many youth have multiple moves due to behaviors that weren’t being addressed with treatment, and they were losing important connections to family and community,” said Antionette Dozier, one of Western Center’s lead attorneys on the case. 

While the County has instituted numerous new systems as a result of the lawsuit, perhaps most noteworthy is the now-standard practice for youth to receive intensive home-based mental health services that aim to keep youth with severe mental health needs in a homelike setting. Previously, they were more likely to have been  hospitalized or sent to a group home.

The County first settled the lawsuit in 2003 and agreed to provide mental health services, in addition to a long monitoring process. Plaintiffs filed a successful motion in 2009 to enforce the original settlement provisions.

Eventually, the plaintiffs reached separate settlement agreements with both the state and LA County in the case.

Co-counsel include: Disability Rights California, Bazelon Center for Mental Health, National Center for Youth Law, Public Counsel.

 

New EBT Card Protection Available

A new application (for phones) is now available that can help you protect your EBT cash and food benefits. The EBT website now also has these additional security measures. The electronic thefts of benefits has dramatically increased, and these different options can help you keep your benefits safe.

 

The mobile phone application is called “ebtEDGE.” You can install that application on your phone through GooglePlay or the iStore. For computer and tablet users, you can access the card functions through the EBT cardholder portal at this link.

 

People with existing cardholder accounts set up on the website portal will have their information carried over to the new system. The first time you log in, however, you will be asked to set up challenge questions and answers for increased security. People first setting up their website accounts will also need to set up those questions/answers.

 

If you get a message that the username/password is ‘invalid’ OR you want to register for the first follow the instructions on the login page of the application.

 

EBT Customer Service will be available to help you: · Customer Service Email: [email protected]

· Toll-Free Customer Service Number* 877-328-9677

*also found on the back of EBT card

 

EbtEDGE will allow you to easily change your PIN – even turning it off until you want to use the card, so people cannot electronically steal your card and PIN information. You can also stop the card from being used out of your county or state, and other security measures. Click here to see all the new ways you can protect your benefits.

Garden Party 2023 Reflections

Western Center’s Garden Party 2023 was a night for the ages. We gathered in community, indoor and outdoor, and virtually, on October 19th to celebrate social justice and anti-poverty trailblazers at the Ebell of Los Angeles. Our annual fundraiser contributes to our own work while giving us the space to shower glitter on colleagues and partners in this fight for a more just world.

Over 300 friends, colleagues, mentors, activists, and more gathered for this beautiful, heartfelt night. Crystal Crawford, Western Center’s Executive Director, opened the night by bringing our attention to the 60 anniversary of the March on Washington and the 60th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed 4 little Black girls in Birmingham. While highlighting the connection between these historic social justice moments and the founding of Western Center, she celebrated the progress that has been made with completion of the long-awaited final report of the California Reparations Task Force this year.

In addition to the spirit of celebration in the air in recognition of Western Center’s 56 years of legal and legislative victories, the night was also heavy with grief as we mourned innocent lives lost in Israel and Palestine. Honoree Gina Belafonte powerfully drew a throughline from colonization to slavery to the abject terror and violence happening in Israel and Gaza.

It’s a stark reminder of the people we’ve lost along the way for justice, for desegregation, for voting rights, for a right to live with dignity and respect. So many are not here with us today, but we can celebrate them, say their names, and honor them in our own fights.

Our emcee, Chike Robinson, highlighted several Western Center victories and drew our attention to the jump in poverty, the largest single year jump, due to the refusal of policymakers to continue lifesaving programs like eviction assistance, the child tax credit, and more.

But those paying attention knew this would happen. Ending poverty takes all of us, and it takes direct and meaningful action, not the status quo.

We were privileged to honor four individuals and one firm this year, all of whom have been amazing partners in this work.

Harry Belafonte and Gina Belafonte received our Inaugural Derrick Bell Award 

Harry Belafonte was more than a musician, actor, activist, and philanthropist. He was a force. He was a freedom fighter. He was an anti-apartheid warrior. He was a movement mentor extraordinaire. He encouraged and challenged generations of artists of color to stretch the ways they moved within the industry and their communities.

Gina Belafonte is an award-winning Producer, Director, Actress, Educator, Prison Abolitionist, and Freedom Activist. She has been using art as a tool for over 25 years to communicate messages of hope and civic engagement.

Derrick Bell was a distinguished legal scholar, prolific writer, and tireless champion for equality. His work inspired the development of critical race theory, a body of legal scholarship that explores how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions. Professor Bell was a co-founder and past Executive Director of Western Center.

Covington & Burling, LLP  received the Max Gillam Pro Bono Award 

Covington & Burling, LLP did 1,500 plus hours of extraordinary pro bono work in Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action v. the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). Covington worked alongside Western Center and our partners to hold the state accountable for multiple systemic failures in distributing Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds intended to keep people housed during the pandemic. 

The Max Gillam Pro Bono Award memorializes preeminent litigator Max Gillam, who served as pro bono counsel when Western Center faced an attack aimed at shutting our doors and ending federal support for legal services providers

Eva Paterson, Civil Rights Activist & Social Justice Champion received the Earl Johnson Equal Justice Award

Eva Paterson is a civil rights champion and litigator with more than four decades of experience. Paterson co-founded the Equal Justice Society, a legal organization transforming the nation’s consciousness on race through law, social science, and the arts and served as its President from 2000 through August 31, 2022.

The Earl Johnson Equal Justice Award is named after and presented by Justice Earl Johnson (ret.), Scholar in Residence at Western Center on Law and Poverty, who served as an Associate Justice of the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, from 1982 to 2007. Both Justice Johnson and Eva Paterson are graduates of Northwestern and both made history when they served as Student Body President.

Yolanda Arias, Managing Attorney, Legal Aid Foundation of LA received the Mary Burdick Advocate’s Award 

Yolanda Arias, Managing Attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, was selected unanimously by Western Center attorneys to receive this honor. This award recognizes Yolanda’s extensive work as a litigator, trainer, and mentor in the field of public benefits, medical debt, foster care, and immigration.

Mary Burdick joined Western Center as a staff attorney in 1975, later serving as co-Senior Counsel, and ultimately, Executive Director. During her tenure, Mary argued two of the three U.S. Supreme Court cases ever argued by Western Center attorneys, Cabell v. Chavez-Salido, 454 U.S. 432 (1982), and Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552 (1988). 

Throughout the night we listened to music by DJ T-Kay (Dublab) who blessed us with worldwide diasporic sounds including Brasilian jazz, African funk, and Latin soul.

And we ended the amazing night with singer and philanthropist Aloe Blacc performing “Someday We’ll All be Free” in a moving special musical tribute to Harry Belafonte. 

A special thanks to the Western Center Development Team as well as their partners – the Ebell of Los Angeles, Carol Kono-Noble, First Option Entertainment, Designs by Her, Fotospark, Pablo Aguilar photography, and House of Printing for working tirelessly to make Garden Party 2023 a success.

We look forward to seeing many of you at future events and webinars, and we’ll see you next year for Garden Party 2024.

Time for Change: Rethinking SSI’s Asset Limits

Time for Change: Rethinking SSI’s Asset Limits

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program was created to provide financial support to low-income individuals with disabilities. While the program aims to offer a safety net for disabled folks with low income, one often-overlooked aspect is the impact of asset limits on SSI recipients. These limits force recipients to live on the edge of economic insecurity, preventing them from saving and achieving financial independence. It is time to significantly raise or eliminate the asset limit, like we have for programs like SNAP and Medi-Cal.

Today, the federal monthly SSI benefit is $914 for individuals and $1,371 for couples. As a means tested program, SSI considers all income and resources an individual has or has access to. Several factors can reduce the already modest benefit amount including other sources of income like Social Security, pensions, child support, or living with someone who provides support. 

Current asset limits require individual recipients to have less than $2,000 in assets and couples have less than $3,000. Some assets include cash, bank accounts, stocks, land, life insurance, vehicles, and anything that can be liquidated in a short amount of time. Even retirement accounts that have penalties for withdrawing funds are included. Unfortunately, these asset limits vary for individuals and couples, putting couples with disabilities at a disadvantage. To be equitable, couples should have a $4,000 resource limit. Instead, the limit is capped at $3,000 –a $1,000 penalty. This discourages couples from marrying and economically penalizes them for doing so. Certainly, the Social Security Administration (SSA) should follow a consistent resource limit so individuals and couples can be on the same level.

The asset limit issue stems from values set in an economy from five decades ago in1974. If these limits were to be adjusted for inflation, they would be around $12,378 for individuals and $18,507 for couples. Crunching the numbers, this shows a significant difference of $10,000 to $15,000 in assets, that present price levels are six times higher than in 1974, and that the 1974 dollar has lost significant purchasing power over the years, making these limits increasingly inadequate. 

Restricting savings to $2,000 and $3,000 hinders a recipient’s ability to achieve self-sufficiency and leaves them vulnerable to unexpected expenses from health crises, appliance breakdowns, or economic recession, which disproportionately affect recipients, making it that much harder to recover. As exemplified with Nicholas Hemachandra, an SSI recipient with autism, he has to cut back on hours and spend most of his earnings to avoid losing his benefits. Ray, Nicholas’ dad, hopes for a day when his son can have his own apartment when he is no longer around. However, with the $2,000 limit, it “stops him from (buying) pretty much anything (Hyatt)”. These limits create unnecessary uncertainty for parents like Ray and many others. Coupled with inflation, they further strain recipients that are struggling to keep up with rising grocery prices and housing costs. Raising these limits would encourage saving, reduce the need to exhaust savings before meeting basic needs, and encourage recipients who can, to work. 

Another issue with the outdated limit is its tendency to disrupt benefits and services, causing “churn.” On average, “70,000 beneficiaries have their benefits suspended annually”(CBPP) due to excess resources. Beneficiaries who exceed the limit not only lose benefits, but for many, more importantly, access to Medicaid. SSI eligibility automatically qualifies them for Medicaid. No senior or person with disabilities should ever have to miss essential medications or lose access to lifesaving services because of savings.

Furthermore, raising the limit would simplify the system and reduce administrative costs. Every year 40,000 beneficiaries have their coverage terminated forcing them to go through the hassle of reapplying. The Center on Budget Priorities and Policies states that SSI administration consumes 35% of SSA’s costs, even though it serves fewer recipients than SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance), which costs 19%. 

Another finding to highlight from CBPP’s article is increasing limits has limited fiscal impact. Raising them to $10,000 and $20,000 for couples only boosts participation to 3%, while $100,000 results in a 5% increase. Surprisingly, removing the resource limit entirely results in a 6% expansion, just 1% more than the $100k threshold. This is because individuals applying for SSI typically have minimal savings, especially recipients with disabilities who have limited earnings.

Scaling resource limits to $10,000 and $20,000 wouldn’t significantly increase costs. In fact, the Center on Budget Priorities and Policy has projected an $8 billion increase over ten years, representing about 1% of program costs over that period. 

These proposed policy changes have the potential to alleviate SSA financial strain and, more importantly, empower this vulnerable population towards economic independence. While they may not drastically increase in program participation, they can help uplift recipients to a better state of economic well being and independence. Additionally, it’s important that we push for more dialogue in the policy space and look into other programs such as SNAP and TANF with more flexible asset limits.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting this September, the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act was introduced in Congress which aims to update SSI’s asset limits. Western Center supports this bill and will be advocating for its passage.

In conclusion, SSI’s resource limits have far-reaching consequences, forcing recipients on the edge of poverty, hindering financial security, and causing benefit interruptions. Updating these limits is vital for promoting self-sufficiency and ensuring a more effective, equitable system.

Albertson-Kroger Merger: bad for local community food security/food access, bad for local independent grocers, and bad for worker’s rights.

Albertson-Kroger Merger: bad for local community food security/food access, bad for local independent grocers, and bad for worker’s rights. 

By Abraham Zavala-Rodriguez, Outreach and Advocacy Associate

Business boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were encouraged to stay at home and therefore ate more at home and used more utilities. Food costs increased, demand was high, and people continued to work through these difficult times. Grocery workers, distribution workers, and meat packing workers became sick and died as a result of COVID-19. Profits for these big grocery chains soared at historic rates while deaths increased among frontline workers

When you go to the grocery store, you see shelves and shelves of goods – from canned goods to diapers to fresh fruits and vegetables, to dairy to poultry. What you may not think about as often is the labor and logistics that went into stocking those shelves. 

Truck drivers bring food from across the country from warehouse centers to the store sites. Workers unload the truck and stock the shelves early in the morning and late at night, and others inspect the deliveries to assure the best quality. 

Depending on the grocery chain; you’ll see grocery store workers alongside personal shoppers fulfilling digital orders via an app. The grocery industry is evolving and profiting post-pandemic. Fierce competition is scaling up amongst big corporate grocers. 

In a move that will impact everyone from employees to grocery shoppers, Kroger announced its plans to acquire Albertsons for nearly $25 billion almost a year ago. This move would combine two of the largest grocery chains nationally. The deal creates a grocery chain amassing 5,000 locations across the U.S. Kroger representatives claim that it is the best option in balancing competition against Walmart and other big brands.

However, a study by the Food and Water Watch groups found that between 1993 and 2019 the number of U.S grocers fell by 30%. The U.S Department of Agriculture found that between 2005 to 2015 the market share of local independent grocers dropped in 41% of counties across the U.S. 

Small mom and pop businesses and your local bodegas or mercaditos will continue to get boxed out amidst consolidation of big corporate chains. These closures impact areas typically already experiencing food access issues. The top five grocery chains own half of the entire market, with Walmart dominating a quarter of the overall market share. 

At the beginning of this month, Kroger and Albertsons announced it will sell 400 stores to C&S Wholesale Grocers, a move meant to ease the approval process. 66 of these stores are in California. The deal is pending approval by the FTC. Make no mistake, these big grocer cartels control food prices and will hurt local economies no matter how many stores they sell to get federal approval. 

The California Attorney General’s office has expressed serious concerns with the merger. The Attorney General has the power to review and stop mergers that are anti-competitive and will cause serious harm to consumers. 

This ongoing shift of large operators consolidating will allow them to dominate price negotiations with suppliers further impacting small local operators, increasing prices and diminishing access to food. 

This merger also touches on Black and Latinx health and access to medicines. A recent USC study showed that Black and Latinx communities lack access to pharmacies. 2,254 Kroger stores have a pharmacy in store while 1,700 Albertson include a pharmacy onsite. The concern is that the merger will lead to low performing stores with pharmacies closing, widening the pharmacy access gap. Millions would have no place to pick up their medication or would have to go long distances to do so. 

Community advocates and labor groups have spoken out against the Kroger-Albertsons merger, saying the move will hurt everyday people by raising prices and impact the livelihood of grocery workers. Less competition means chains can raise prices and consumers will have few, if any, other options. The same goes for employees, who have less bargaining power and fewer choices if they want to find a different job. 

Alarmingly, the merger will lower wages for 746,000 grocery store workers in over 50 metropolitan areas of the U.S.,” with total annual earnings dropping by $334 million in those locations.This will impact all workers across these major cities, not just those Kroger-Albertson workers. 

“These major corporations are playing monopoly with the livelihoods of our communities because they have only looked at our communities through the lens of dollars and cents and never through the lens of humanity. People who live in these communities that will soon be abandoned with no resources to rely on are tired of the white flight mentality that has continually been perpetuated by CEOs who only came to the neighborhood to take the community’s resources until they are dry,” says Christopher Sanchez, Policy Advocate for Western Center on Law and Poverty.

As the merger remains under Federal Trade Commission (FTC) review, community groups and labor remain vigilant and in opposition to the latest monopolization by large corporations over food price and access. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) opposes the merger. According to UFCW, Kroger has not been responsive to calls by the union to be more transparent about the deal. 

Governor Newsom has the chance to stand once again with working people by signing UFCW-sponsored Senate Bill (SB) 725 by Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas and offer grocery workers an important and much needed safety net. This bill would ensure corporations are held accountable to employees who are laid off due to a merger or acquisition by providing workers with one week’s severance pay per year of service. While the field will never be equal, this bill provides workers and their families with important economic safety protections when mergers and corporations devastate local communities and push them deeper into poverty. 

Help urge Governor Newsom to sign this critical bill into law by sending him a quick email

We must stop this merger and all large agribusiness mergers in its tracks. Agribusiness grows and continues to make horizontal and vertical growth in the grocery industry, further cornering the market in the hands of a few. 

We must support stronger enforcement of antitrust measures and uplift leaders that will champion a stand against powerful corporations impacting our food economies.  

We must continue to push state and local governments to champion the rebuilding of local food economies and try different paths. One way is to find alternatives that are controlled by local communities. One example is Mandela Grocery in Oakland, California, a food worker cooperative. Workers share in the profits and decision making. They source fresh products from locally owned Black farms. The local community and workers have a say. 

We must not forget the workers who kept us fed during difficult times, times they were experiencing and enduring too. Hundreds of thousands of people became unhoused and turned to SNAP benefits, known as CalFresh benefits in California, to get by because wages did not increase significantly. As communities with low incomes, communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and children continue to recover, this merger and others like it will only increase avoidable food insecurity. 

California Steps up to Stop Big Tobacco From Maliciously Targeting Black Communities

Every year, over 45,000 Black lives are lost in the United States to tobacco-induced illnesses like lung cancer, heart disease, and strokes. Tobacco corporations for decades have been intentional about their predatory targeting of Black communities. Black, Indigenous, and communities of color are already denied equitable access to social, political, and economic systems which produce inequitable and preventable negative health outcomes. 

This is an industry rooted in racism, white supremacy, and nefarious capitalism. The colonialist and extractive production models used by tobacco producers had detrimental effects on Black, Brown, and Indigenous people at its origins. Today, Big Tobacco actively continues to disrupt community health initiatives meant to improve health outcomes for profit.  

In 1964, after a report by the U.S. Surgeon General about the hazardous health impacts of smoking and subsequent federal laws limiting smoking and tobacco advertising, tobacco companies shifted their marketing to target Black communities across the country. Big Tobacco had lost their biggest youth demographic, as they were banned from advertising in colleges or from handing out loose cigarettes on campus to students under 21.  

The industry thrives due to strategic co-optation of community leadership whenever it can. Tobacco industries deployed a multi-pronged effort to prey on Black communities by working with Black influencers, handing out free cigarettes through bellhops or barber shops, and funding political campaigns or supporting Black causes. Tobacco businesses have for years tried to create fake cultural affinities like the advertising campaigns for Kool Jazz Festivals with icons such as Dizzy Gillespie.  

Tobacco companies went as far as appropriating #BlackLivesMatter, Juneteenth, and used Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes in their product advertising a couple of years back. Their marketing has been a shallow and peformative public relations strategy to buy good will and actively undermine or discredit the systematic harm tobacco perpetuates. 

In 2009 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned flavored cigarettes, yet menthol cigarettes slipped by due to a split in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). A recent survey found that 85% of Black smokers preferred menthol cigarettes. Many in congressional leadership at the time received support and donations from tobacco companies.  

States like California have been taking strong steps to disrupt Big Tobacco’s assault on Black communities. This past November, Californians voted to support Proposition 31 and uphold Senate Bill 793, authored by former Senator Jerry Hill. Once SB 793, a bill to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products and tobacco product flavor enhancers, was signed into law, Big Tobacco immediately jumped into action to delay the implementation of the law by referendum. California voters saw through this self serving and dangerous ploy and voted in favor of keeping the law, with 63.42% voting to do so. In California, flavored tobacco including menthol flavors remain banned. The industry immediately shifted to introduce new cooling non-menthol tastes.  

In response, the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) and California Attorney General, Rob Bonta sent warning letters to RJ Reynolds and Imperial Tobacco Group Brands to stop these new products from harming Black communities.  

AATCLC Co-Chair Dr. Phillip Gardiner proclaimed that this violated the state’s law prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco, “we will not sit by as tobacco companies work to continue their assault on the health of Black people.” 

Big Tobacco is just one example of an issue at the intersection of public health and racial justice. Thankfully, lawmakers, advocates, community groups, and voters came together to call out their predatory and harmful practices. When we come together, we can stop special interests and protect the health and well-being of Californians.