“As soon as we get the groceries, they’re gone the next day,” said Reed, who moved to Houston’s largest housing project five years ago to start an online sales business and has seen her family of nine’s stretched budget broken by a year-long pandemic.
Her struggle to make ends meet — a familiar one in the Third Ward neighborhood where the median income is $15,538 — was on her mind on March 17, when she received an unexpected alert that the Internal Revenue Service had deposited thousands of dollars into her account.
“I was like ‘What is this? Whoa. Is it my birthday?’ I thought it was a joke at first,” she said. “But it was real. And it’s like, finally, you’re able to breathe.”
For the former nail technician who saw demand for her company’s rhinestone-embroidered products evaporate in 2020, the stimulus money represented a rare reprieve in a year of unprecedented hardship. For the predominantly Black, high-poverty neighborhood where she lives, the infusion of millions of dollars in cash, food aid and other federal assistance from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan is a test of whether he can deliver on his ambitious promises to combat inequality by targeting the poor with a historic rush of government aid.
Whether the largest antipoverty effort in a generation ultimately produces lasting change or becomes a cautionary tale about the limits of governmental largesse is a central question now facing the Biden administration as it implements the $1.9 trillion relief plan, while also pushing for an even larger infrastructure and jobs package.
In Cuney Homes, where a procession of governmental antipoverty measures has come and gone over the decades with varying levels of failure, the challenge is especially fraught. It’s the community where George Floyd lived for most of his life, and it has become a symbol of the stubbornness of entrenched poverty in the wake of his killing last year in police custody.
The highly segregated slice of Houston’s diverse metropolis has been plagued by many of the same ills Biden has said his agenda is specifically tailored to fix: dilapidated housing, underfunded schools, food insecurity, health-care disparities, high unemployment and other forms of systemic inequality.
Several government antipoverty initiatives that swept through the Third Ward over the past half-century were unable to knock down those hurdles — leaving some in the community to question whether this time will be different.
“I think the proof will be in the pudding,” said Houston Housing Authority Board of Commissioners Chairman LaRence Snowden, whose office sits across the street from Cuney Homes. “The $1,400 that individuals are receiving is very helpful for the right now. But what are we putting in place to make sure that we are looking for the long-term impact?”
Floyd’s death last year at the hands of a White police officer sparked a national movement against racial injustice, renewed lawmakers’ interest in the plight of America’s urban poor and prompted Biden to shift his messaging and governance strategy to more directly focus on equity. The ongoing murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer charged in Floyd’s death, has further highlighted the struggles and systemic racism Floyd faced during his life. A review of Floyd’s 46-year life, most of which was spent in the hardscrabble neighborhood known as the Bricks, shows how his upbringing effectively cut him off from several pathways to middle-class stability.
Now, Biden and his allies have touted the administration’s broad, equity-focused policies as an example of government’s unique ability to lift millions of families out of similar circumstances.
While several studies have predicted that portions of Biden’s relief plan will help pull millions of children out of poverty at least temporarily, the real-world impact on families like the Reeds will be the barometer of the policies’ true efficacy, said Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.
“If we don’t make a difference in individual lives, then we really haven’t done the job yet,” said Zaterman, who has worked with the Biden administration on its economic agenda. “The folks in the community that George Floyd grew up in — that is our test of whether our models, our resources, our impact has hit our target.”
‘The hits keep coming’
Census figures show that the Cuney Homes area has long suffered from high rates of poverty, unemployment and underinvestment. More than 60 percent of households live under the poverty line, while the child poverty rate is above 75 percent, according to the most recent figures, which were collected before the coronavirus pandemic. Homeownership rates are a fraction of the citywide average, and a majority of residents and students require government assistance for food.
The pandemic and a string of natural disasters have worsened many of these disparities in the housing project, which first opened in 1940 to house low-wage Black workers.
“The hits keep coming,” said Reed, reminiscing on her five years in the Bricks. “I have neighbors that are barely able to make it due to the pandemic. It just set everybody back.”
Reed, 32, came to Cuney Homes as part of a local program aimed at boosting entrepreneurship in Houston’s low-income neighborhoods. The initiative helped her turn her nail-design skills into a business selling sparkly cups, bottles and other products.
“Bling hats, bling shirts, bling shoes — just everything blinging,” she said, wearing a pink mask covered in rhinestones, outside her home on a recent day.
But with the pandemic-related shutdowns, demand for the kinds of products that might be worn to a nightclub or a sports game dried up. Spiking unemployment rates that hit Black Americans especially hard left many would-be customers with little room in their budgets for the shiny items sold by Reed’s company, Alluring Ice.
With a fast-growing family to feed — Reed and her husband, Lawrence Moore, each have children from previous relationships — the stimulus check helped pay for “basic essentials” and investments in her business, she said.
The Biden administration has said that a typical family of four will get $5,600 under the plan. Reed declined to say exactly how much she received, but said the money will help keep her family out of financial distress for the next few months. What happens after that will depend on whether business picks up.
She may be able to tap into additional funding through initiatives pushed by the Biden administration.
Reed said she was considering applying for a Paycheck Protection Program loan after initially fearing that the multibillion-dollar initiative launched during the Trump administration had been exhausted by large corporations.
The Biden administration adjusted the program in February, setting aside $1 billion for sole proprietorships in low- and moderate-income areas. The White House highlighted the fact that 70 percent of those businesses are owned by women and minorities.
And Biden’s one-year expansion of the child tax credit is expected to begin delivering monthly checks of $250 to $300 per child to families this summer. The refundable credits — a centerpiece of the bill’s antipoverty push — will be especially impactful for children in neighborhoods like Cuney Homes, said Chuck Marr, senior director of federal tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“It’s just an infusion of money into the neighborhood, and really just giving those kids a chance,” he said. “It’s only one year, and it needs to be made permanent, but it really could be life-changing.”
But Cuney Homes has seen other highly touted government programs begin with fanfare — only to end quietly in frustration.
The sprawling, brick-clad community of 553 apartments was expected to benefit substantially in 1973, when the Texas legislature designated nearby Texas Southern University a “special purpose” school for “urban programming.”
The historically Black university set out to use the special designation to create a model for combating generational poverty, with Cuney Homes as a laboratory.
But after two years of investment from state lawmakers, the additional funding abruptly dried up, making it difficult for the school to see through its mission, said Snowden, the chairman of the Houston Housing Authority’s board of commissioners.
Decades later, the neighborhood was designated an “Opportunity Zone” in 2018 under President Donald Trump’s signature tax law, which used tax breaks to incentivize companies to invest in “economically distressed” communities. The program has had no tangible impact on the area: A national database of Opportunity Zones shows no new projects have been started in the census tract where Cuney Homes is located since the tax law passed.
Snowden said that without sustained investment, other government efforts also face long odds of being transformational.
“There’s a need for ongoing [support], but putting emphasis on things that will not just put a Band-Aid on the situation, but really cure the ill of poverty,” he said.
White House officials acknowledge that the $1.9 trillion relief plan will not be enough to break the cycle of poverty in places like Cuney Homes.
“We’ve spent so long not investing in this economic foundation, and not doing it in a way that touches and provides support for every community all across the country,” said White House economist Heather Boushey, adding that although the American Rescue Plan was a strong start, “there will still be more that we will need to focus on for helping families in poverty.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said he welcomed Biden’s effort to build on the American Rescue Plan with an infrastructure bill, which would fund long-term projects with the goal of transforming neighborhoods through affordable housing, job training and other long-term investments.
“We’ve been trying the old paradigm for a long time,” he said in an interview, referring to traditional attempts at poverty reduction through grants and other direct aid. “And that’s all fine, but it’s not reducing the number of people in that pipeline who find themselves in a moment where they are in need.”
‘Equity has to be intentional’
Turner, whose mother raised nine children after her husband died of cancer, points to his own journey from Houston’s low-income Acres Homes neighborhood to Harvard University and the mayor’s office as an example of how the cycle of generational poverty can be broken if the right policies are prioritized.
“But equity has to be intentional,” he said. “It has to be at the beginning of your strategy and your planning and at the back end.”
But Republicans have balked at the fast-growing cost of Democrats’ antipoverty agenda, decrying liberals’ approach as a failed attempt at socialism.
Paris Dennard, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, compared Biden’s strategy to handing out free fish, rather than helping people learn how to catch fish on their own.
“If you look at the notion of just pouring money at a situation, that has proven over time not to be a viable solution for creating wealth and economic freedom,” he said. “The money that you get, the $1,400, is a temporary measure that runs out quickly and still puts people in the same situation.”
IRS officials have also said they are struggling to meet a July deadline for beginning to process new monthly child tax credit payments.
And other parts of the American Rescue Plan have faced hiccups in minority communities — including the coronavirus vaccination effort and the push to reopen schools. In Harris County, Tex., where Houston is located, White residents are being vaccinated at more than twice the rate of Black residents, according to preliminary county data.
A recent walk through the community showcased how many residents’ problems defy quick fixes or monetary solutions.
John Alexander, 89, said he had not received his stimulus payment — and couldn’t access his bank account anyway because he was recently robbed while on the bus and needed help getting new photo identification.
“They took everything: my credentials, my driver’s license, my ID,” he said.
A few doors down, 79-year-old Gwendolyn Walker was also lamenting her lack of a stimulus payment.
She said she feared her daughter may have claimed her as a dependent and taken the money without her knowledge. Besides, she had more immediate needs that could not be solved by a $1,400 check.
“Every time I try to go out on my knee, I scar my knee,” she said from a broken wheelchair, pulling her dress back from her amputated right leg to reveal a black-marked kneecap.
Without a ramp in front of her apartment, she had to physically maneuver up and down the three concrete steps leading to her door. Her effort to get the landlord to install a ramp had failed, and she was now looking to move out, she said.
Veronica A. DeBoest, the 67-year-old resident council president, said she sees similar circumstances regularly on her daily walks through the community she has lived in for the past 30 years. She does what she can to help, often reaching residents long before any government program can.
“You still eating those salty chips?” she said to Walker after taking her number and promising to help look into the ramp and the broken wheelchair. “You got to get you some unsalted chips. You know you’re a diabetic, you can’t be eating those salty chips.”
DeBoest, who lives on a fixed income and has already spent the $1,800 she received in stimulus payments last year during the Trump administration, is still waiting on her $1,400 check from the new federal package.
For Shell Reed and her family of nine, the stimulus payments and other assistance have made a real difference — at least for the time being. They were able to buy a used 15-passenger van so the whole family could ride together. She bought diapers for the baby, stocked up on groceries and toiletries and put some money away for each child as start-up capital for future business ventures.
And after a tough year in which providing for the family had been such a struggle, Moore and Reed took all the kids on their first shopping trip in a long time.
“The kids are looking nice because of this,” Moore said as 13-year-old La’Jon and 12-year-old Tre’Shawn looked on in white and black blazers and matching shiny face masks.
“They went to the store and tried a suit on for the first time,” said Reed. “And they were like, ‘Mom, I feel like a million bucks!’ I was like, ‘One day, you’re going to have it.’ It was just a different feeling, being able to make them smile and make them happy.”
Tracy Jan contributed to this report.
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