More High-Poverty Neighborhoods, More Poor People Stuck in Them

December 18, 2014

Here in the District of Columbia we’ve got rumblings and grumblings about gentrification. Young strivers (mostly white) choosing to live in the city. Driving up housing costs in formerly affordable, if often rundown neighborhoods. And so driving out low-income families. Saddling the remainder with heavy rent burdens.

Gentrification — and the related debate over the pluses and minuses — are hardly unique to the District. We read about skyrocketing rents and displaced minorities in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco and other urban centers.

But a new report tells us that gentrification, though real is rare — at least, in the 51 major metro areas it covers. We should be much more concerned, it says, about high-poverty neighborhoods, i.e., those where at least 30% of the residents are officially poor.

We’ve got more of these neighborhoods now for two reasons. The first, which speaks to gentrification, is that most neighborhoods that were high-poverty in 1970 still were forty years later. The second is that well over 1,200 more neighborhoods became high-poverty during this period.

A relatively small percent of urban poor people live in high-poverty neighborhoods — roughly 4 million of the 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010. But that’s twice as many as in 1970.

Looked at another way, the percent of urban poor people living in high-poverty neighborhoods increased from 28% to nearly 39%. In other words, we have not only more high-poverty neighborhoods, but more poor people in them.

I recently heard a presentation by a mother who lives in one of the District’s public housing complexes. She objected strenuously to plans that would convert what’s surely a high-poverty neighborhood into a mixed-income community — foreseeing, it seems, that she and her fellow public housing dwellers would be dispersed.

“Deconcentration offends me,” she said. It means “I’ll be better if I live next to you,” referring to her mostly middle-class audience. This is surely a perspective worth considering.

Yet we’ve research indicating that residents of high-poverty neighborhoods are worse off specifically because that’s where they live.

For example, our public housing resident understandably wants ready access to good schools and healthful, affordable food. Well, supermarket chains generally don’t open stores in high-poverty neighborhoods, for obvious economic reasons.

Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods are frequently underfunded. And it’s not only money they lack. They tend to have less-qualified teachers and principals, in part because they’re challenging places to work. So teachers who don’t quit, as many do, will often transfer when they can.

Sociologist William Julius Wilson has long argued that lost job opportunities in the city helped explain a host of problems in high-poverty, predominantly black urban neighborhoods — more crime, deteriorating housing, failing schools, breakdowns in family and other social structures, etc.

These lead to more concentrated poverty because people who can flee to better, safer neighborhoods. So there are fewer local retail businesses because residents don’t have the income to support them. Nor can potential risk-takers get financing. And so there are fewer nearby job opportunities — and fewer working neighbors to serve as role models, mentors and networks into the labor market.

In short, as one of the authors of the high-poverty neighborhood study says, “Place plays a significant role in shaping individual economic opportunity.”

We see the results in several studies conducted for the Pew Charitable Trusts. One found that children raised in high-poverty neighborhoods were less likely to move up the income scale as adults — and considerably more likely to move down if they hadn’t been at the bottom to begin with.

Another found lower rates of economic mobility in metro areas where neighborhoods were highly segregated into pockets of wealth and poverty. These include the District and nearby suburbs, which had a higher economic segregation score than all but two of the other metro areas assessed.

The Urban Institute’s Marjorie Turner reminds us that “neighborhoods of concentrated poverty aren’t the products of ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ housing market operations.” Nor, as she and a colleague earlier wrote in reference to the Washington metro region, do they “reflect the ‘choices’ of poor families about where to live.

Public policies created them — legal segregation, then permitted race discrimination and decisions about where to locate public housing. All but the first are generally true in all the urban areas with high-poverty neighborhoods.

Now, highly-concentrated poverty isn’t only an urban problem. Nor are blacks the only people affected, though much of the research has focused on them. We find extraordinarily high poverty rates on Native American reservations, for example, and in predominantly-white hill towns of Appalachia.

We increasingly find it in suburbs, as we know (if we didn’t before) because the cop shot the kid in Ferguson — a case study in its own right of the legacy of segregation, persistent race discrimination and a failed public housing policy.

There’s obviously no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem — not even for high-poverty urban neighborhoods like those clustered “east of the river” in D.C.

Turner (and others) recommend multi-part, multi-partner “place conscious” strategies. These connect families to opportunities outside their neighborhoods, while at the same both expanding opportunities within their neighborhoods and helping those who want to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods to do so.

“A big structural challenge,” she acknowledges. But it sounds like the right approach to me. And I think the mom in public housing would like it too.


Criminal Records a Major Piece of the Poverty Puzzle

December 15, 2014

“One Strike and You’re Out,” the Center for American Progress entitles its new report on the barriers people face when they’ve got criminal records. An astounding number of people do — far more than our decades-old enthusiasm for incarcerating people would lead us to expect.

Our anti-poverty agenda “risks missing a major piece of the puzzle” if it doesn’t deal with the barriers, the CAP report says.

They’re a reason many people are homeless — and state and local governments so strapped for funds to house them. They’re even, in some places, a reason poor families go hungry. And they help account for the racial inequality that’s once again in the news.

Other bad things too, e.g., untreated mental health and substance abuse problems, a dent in our country’s economic productivity. More than I can possibly deal with in a post. So a partial overview of the problem. A followup perhaps on CAP’s “road map” to address it.

Vast Number of Criminal Records

At the end of 2012, states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories collectively had criminal record files on nearly 100.6 million people. Some files may reflect arrests and/or convictions in more than one jurisdiction, however.

An analysis by the National Employment Law Project estimated a rounded-up 65 million unduplicated files on adults in 2008-9. Still a very large number — close to one in three Americans then. And we’ve no reason to believe the percent is lower now.

Much has been made of our extraordinarily large prisoner population — by far and away the largest reported for any country in the world. But many who’ve got criminal records were never behind bars. Some were arrested, but not convicted. Some not even tried.

Others were convicted of petty, nonviolent offenses, including things like disorderly conduct, drunkenness and harmless behaviors cities have prohibited to harass homeless people out of sight — or out of their turf altogether.

Not an Equal Opportunity Problem

A book published several years ago argued, as its title indicates, that mass incarceration, i.e., the unprecedented rate at which we imprison people, has become “the new Jim Crow” — a supposedly color-blind replacement for overt racial segregation.

We’ve got federal laws prohibiting race discrimination in employment, housing, education, other federally-funded programs and (putatively) voting. But it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against felons, except in some limited cases carved out by recent state and local laws.

And felons are disproportionately blacks and Hispanics, the former even more than the latter. A recent Sentencing Project fact sheet tells us that black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men and Hispanic men 2.5 times as likely.

One in three black men is likely to be imprisoned as some point, as compared to one in seventeen white men. Though black women are less likely to go to prison, the disparity between them and white women is even greater.

What this means, of course, is that far higher percents of blacks and Hispanics will suffer the lifelong penalties of having a criminal record.

Rampant Use of Background Checks

At least 95% of people sent to state prison will be released. But that doesn’t mean their punishment will end. Their criminal records will significantly limit their opportunities for (legal) work. This is surely a major reason that more than 40% of people released from state prisons are back behind bars within three years.

People with criminal records may also have a hard time renting an apartment, even if they can afford it. They may, in some cases, have no chance at all of living in public housing, even with a family member who’s never had a run-in with the law.

The limited, but expandable public housing ban dates back to 1988. The private-sector barriers may be at least as old. But they weren’t nearly as high and wide as they are now.

In a way, the culprit here is the internet. Like much of our lives, past and present, criminal records are easy to find online. Entrepreneurial types have seized on the opportunity to provide “instant” background checks.

About 86% of employers recently surveyed ran (or commissioned) background checks on applicants for at least some jobs. For 76%, discovery of a nonviolent felony would be a “very influential factor” in the decision not to hire.

More surprising, at least to me, is the fact that roughly two-thirds of colleges surveyed in 2009 collected criminal history information from all applicants. And 55% said they considered it in deciding whom to admit.

We’ve no comparable figures for landlords. We do, however, have a survey finding that “only” 51% of landlords who managed their own buildings conducted criminal background checks. We’re left to infer that the percent is far higher — and told that neighbors are far safer — when buildings are professionally managed.

Tattered Safety Net

Criminal records are a direct cause, as well as a consequence of poverty, the CAP report says. In fact, one study concluded that the poverty rate would have fallen by more than 20% between 1980 and 2004 if we hadn’t engaged in mass incarceration.

The people whom criminal records trap in poverty may also fall through deliberately created holes in our safety net. As I’ve already mentioned, they may be barred from public housing — and for sure will be if they’d been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines, no matter how long ago.

They may also be banned, for life, from receiving SNAP (food stamp) benefits and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families if they were convicted of any drug-related felony. Eight states have chosen to preserve the absolute bans on both, though federal law allows them to opt out.

Most other states have merely modified the bans, e.g., by exempting people convicted only of drug possession or those who’ve managed to get a slot in a substance abuse treatment program.

Only 14 states have decided that one strike should never mean you’re out of SNAP and TANF. Food on the table, some cash for the dreadfully poor, job training and affordable child care all surely help people who’ve returned to the community stay there successfully.

And they mean that the ill-advised “get tough on crime” policies won’t cause more collateral damage to children than they already do.



DC Gets a Barely Passing Grade for Homeless Family Services

December 10, 2014

Last spring, a coalition of advocates and service providers developed a “roadmap” for preventing another wintertime homeless family crisis in the District of Columbia. Now, as a new winter season opens, it’s issued a report card, indicating how much progress the District has made toward the 10 goals the roadmap set.

Not the sort of report card you’d like to take home to your parents. Virtually all Cs, meaning the District has taken steps toward the goals, but too recently for the coalition to decide whether they’ll result in significant progress.

Two Ds, meaning no significant progress — or, one infers, much by way of promising steps. And a single B, for homelessness prevention. That seems pretty generous to me, since the progress described has thus far not resulted in an “up and running program.”

Like the original roadmap, the report card reflects a lot of effort to gather, assess and communicate information about the District’s homeless family services. Highly recommended reading for all concerned. I’ll confine myself here to the big picture, as I see it.

Not Enough Shelter Units (Again)

As you may recall, the Department of Human Services was overwhelmed last winter by homeless families it couldn’t legally turn away because they’d sought shelter during freezing-cold weather.

One, though not the only problem was that DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, was nearly full when the winter season began. The roadmap recommended both a plan and additional staff to move at least 100 families a month from shelter into housing so as to open up space for more.

DHS has managed to increase the rate to 63 families a month — not enough to have significantly more vacant units at DC General when this year’s winter season began. To its credit, it has contracted for hotel rooms. But there was no money in the budget for them.

The agency plans to use funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — an estimated $8.5 million, I’m told. Hard to see how this won’t mean cutbacks in programs and/or services those TANF funds would otherwise support.

At the same time, as I’ve written before, the Gray administration has proposed a plan (of sorts) to replace DC General with smaller shelters. The total number of units would remain the same.

So there’d probably still be fewer units than homeless families entitled to shelter during the winter season — and surely too few for the District to once again keep the shelter doors open year round for families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay.

More Affordable Housing, But Mostly Temporary

On the upside, the District has invested funds to support the development and preservation of affordable housing, including apartments big enough for larger families. And the DC Council has approved more funds for vouchers that enable homeless families to rent at market rates.

But the District’s strategy relies heavily on rapid re-housing, i.e., short-term housing subsidies, renewable for up to a year, provided that families measure up to expectations.

DHS has still not issued final rules for the program. And the theoretically temporary rules it issued in late June raise serious concerns — among them, the share of rent families have to pay, both initially and during renewal periods.

The rules are also highly ambiguous about whether families can get an extension of their subsidy if they can’t afford to pay full rent at the end of the year — a likely possibility for many, I’ve suggested.

DHS could, at the very least, enable nonprofit partners to provide some services and/or rental assistance to families that seem likely to become homeless again. But it hasn’t even explored the possibilities, the report card says.

One Small Step for Young Families

More than 40% of the families sheltered last winter were headed by parents who were, at most, 24 years old. Needless to say (I hope), they had very little, if any work experience. Many, the report card says, had neither a high school diploma or the equivalent — a high predictor of unemployment, even for older District residents.

Like as not, the young parents had never rented an apartment. Some probably had just aged out of foster care, since that’s a high risk for homelessness.

They often don’t have ongoing family support or other concerned adults to help with the challenges of housing, credit and the like. The same, of course, can be true for young mothers who were kicked out — or harassed out — of their homes when their parent(s) found out they were pregnant.

These are not the sort of families that rapid re-housing was designed for. Nor the sort of families that the needs assessment tool DHS relies on was designed for. The roadmap, therefore, called for reviews of the tool, the case management system and rapid re-housing itself to ensure they’re suitable for young families.

DHS has launched a small pilot program, which offers the fortunate participants more intensive services and potentially rental assistance for more than a year.

It’s not clear whether the agency can expand the program, the report card says. Nor is it clear whether DHS has reviewed — let alone modified — the tool or case management services.

Much Else Unclear

Families first encounter the District’s homeless system at the Virginia Williams intake center. Caseworkers there still have no written protocol to tell them how to decide whether to grant a family shelter. Nor, therefore, do we know how decisions are made — only that some indicate ignorance (or casual disregard) of the law.

That’s far from all we don’t know. For example, the District doesn’t release information on services families receive while they’re at DC General. More generally, it either doesn’t have or won’t release data that would enable us to determine how key elements of its homeless system are working — apparently more the former than the latter.

Part of the problem, the report card says, is that DHS contracts out much of homeless services to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. And the Partnership doesn’t deign — and isn’t required — to publicly report how it spends the funds it gets or what they achieve.

Thus, as the report card says, “it is impossible to determine if the District has allocated sufficient funding to meet the need and if programs are performing as well as they should be.”

Impossible for the roadmap coalition, which so clearly wants to help create a humane, effective system that prevents homelessness, when possible, affords shelter when that isn’t and then helps families move quickly to a safe, stable home.

Impossible for our policymakers as well. But they can make the egregiously opaque system more transparent. This ought to be a first order of business for the new administration and the new chair of the Council’s Human Services Committee.

DC TANF Families Face Benefits Cut-Offs With Dim Prospects for Steady Work

December 8, 2014

In early 2012, the D.C. Department of Human Services launched a redesigned Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. As with TANF programs nationwide, it aimed to move very poor parents with children toward self-sufficiency, i.e., work that pays enough to support the family — or at the very least, too much to make them still eligible for TANF.

Now we have an in-depth, though partial view of the results. A recently-completed review of the TANF employment component found, among other things, that fewer than half the target group of parents who, with help, had found jobs were still employed.

But even this finding overstates the self-sufficiency prospects for the more than 6,000 families who may soon have no cash income whatever because the DC Council set a retroactive 60-month lifetime limit on benefits in late 2010 and a phase-out schedule ending in total cut-offs next October.

About the Review

The Office of the District of Columbia Auditor analyzed data and other information that DHS provided, with a view toward providing the basis for some conclusions about the outcome of what it refers to as the TANF Employment Program.

The program consists of two related types of services — work readiness and job placement. Both are provided by contractors. Work readiness contractors, as the term suggests, are supposed to help parents strengthen their qualifications for paying work.

But they are responsible for helping the parents find jobs as well. This is the only thing the job placement contracts are supposed to do because the parents assigned to them have been deemed ready to work.

The auditors focused only on parents who had received TANF benefits for more than 60 months because these were the parents whom DC Council Human Services Committee Chairman Jim Graham asked about.

They looked at data collected over about 32 months — from the time the new employment program began, in February 2012, to October 24, 2014. Graham wanted results by early November.

So the auditors were up against a tight timeframe. As a result, they’re careful to say, they didn’t verify what they got from DHS, as they ordinarily would.

Jobs of Any Sort for Fewer Than Half

Though the two types of employment services differ in scope, they’re both intended to get TANF¬† parents into — or back into — the workforce and earning enough to no longer qualify for TANF. For a family of three, that would have been anything over $588 a month in 2012-13, assuming no other income.

The auditors report that about 49% of parents referred to an employment services contractor got a job — 6,145 out of 12,463. Only about 38% got jobs that could have provided steady, full-time work.

The rest got placed in jobs that were either part-time or “temporary/seasonal” — the latter presumably referring to temporary or on-and-off jobs during periods of high-volume business like the holiday shopping season.

Wide Pay Range, Including Less Than Minimum Wage

While working, the parents got paid an average of $10.58 an hour — more than the District’s minimum wage, but less than its living wage, which is now $13.60 an hour and was less during the two prior years the audit covered.

The average masks a wide disparity in pay rates. A relative few jobs paid in the $21-$50 an hour range. A far greater number — nearly 1,590 — reportedly paid less than the District’s minimum wage.

The auditors suggested (not in the report) that contractors may have reported the minimum cash wage parents got when placed in jobs that employers chose to pay at the tip-credit wage rate.

But the District’s tip credit wage is lower than most of the subminimum wages indicated. DHS perhaps could explain, but hasn’t, though I asked.

Steady Work for Very Few

As of mid-October, 2,976 TANF parents were employed — about 48% of those who’d been placed. Only 770 remained in the jobs were they’d been placed for more than six months.

We see a drop-off beginning at the end of the first month. (The auditors don’t report a figure for parents who lost their jobs or quit sooner.) Their figures do, however, show that 835 parents didn’t have their jobs any more by the time the fourth month rolled round.

Whether they’d been placed in other jobs is an open question. Indeed, the job tenure figures may not tell the whole story.

DHS informed the auditors that an estimated 3,076 “customers” in the 60-month-and-over group had left the program — a majority, it said, because they began earning too much to remain eligible. No supporting data provided.

And the agency doesn’t know whether “customers” who did earn more than the minimal maximum for eligibility remained employed — let alone how gainfully — because it doesn’t track families once they leave the program.

More Knowns and Unknowns

First off, we should recall that the auditors focused solely on parents who’d been in the District’s TANF program for quite a long time — or had cycled in and out for even longer. Results for parents who had recourse to TANF because of some singular, temporary setback might be different.

On the other hand, the parents in the sample didn’t include those whom DHS had identified as having significant, ongoing health and/or personal barriers to work, e.g., alcoholism or drug addiction, PTSD due to domestic violence.

About 60% of the rest weren’t immediately work-ready, according to the agency’s assessments. It assigned them to contractors for further education and/or development of marketable skills. Fewer than 10% completed their programs.

Does this mean they were hustled into jobs they couldn’t keep because contractors get a bonus for placements? Or did they themselves get desperate because their very low benefits had shrunk — and were soon to disappear?

Did the fact they had to scramble every day to find a place for their family to spend the night — or some used clothing for their kids — make it just too hard to satisfy the work readiness requirements and, more importantly, their employers’ expectations?

Do we need a thoroughgoing, independent assessment of the TANF employment program? Sure does seem that way.

Better Subsidized Child Care, But Could Be for Even Fewer Children

December 4, 2014

Shortly before the Senate began its extended Thanksgiving vacation, it did a remarkable thing. It again passed, by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, a bill to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

The House had already passed an amended version of the original bill on a voice vote, indicating that no member wanted dissents (if any) recorded. So we’ll soon have a generally better CCDBG, for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Not altogether the best bill we could have had, as such things rarely are. Nevertheless, a bill that will do various things to help ensure safe and potentially higher-quality child care.

And it will ensure that low-income parents can afford it for at least a year, even if they lose their jobs, end an education or training program or start earning somewhat more money than their state’s maximum for eligibility.

The hitch, however, is that it won’t add a cent to the block grant, though it does raise the cap on the amount Congress may appropriate by about $400 million over the next six years. Flat funding for the upcoming fiscal year, however.

So parents who manage to get CCDBG-funded vouchers should have fewer near-term worries about how they’ll afford child care — in many cases, the single largest expense in a family’s budget.

They should have fewer worries about their children’s safety because the bill requires, among other things, regular facility inspections, health and safety training for providers and employee background checks focused mainly on convictions for crimes of violence, child pornography and recent drug-related felonies.

And over time, parents should have fewer worries about whether their kids are getting the kind of care that develops the thinking, verbal and social skills they’ll need to be fully ready for kindergarten and beyond.

Under the former law, states had to set aside 4% of their block grant for quality improvements. The new law increases the mandatory set-aside up to 9% by the fifth year it covers. And it adds another 3% to improve care for infants and toddlers, beginning in the second year.

But there will be fewer of these less worried parents if Congress doesn’t also pass a hefty funding increase. Indeed, there already are fewer of them than in the recent past, even though the required set-aside has remained the same.

Preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicate that an average of roughly 1.5 million children a month received CCDBG-funded child care in Fiscal Year 2012.

This represents a one-year decrease of 116,400, CLASP reports — and a decrease of about 263,000 since Fiscal Year 2006.

Here in the District of Columbia, CCDBG supported child care for an average of 1,300 children — 54% fewer than in Fiscal Year 2006. And it’s hardly the case that we’ve got fewer low-income families now — or that child care has become more affordable.

The average cost of having an infant cared for in a local center was nearly $21,950 two years ago — about $3,750 more than in 2010.

A single mother earning the median for a family of her type would have had to pay 90.6% of her income for the care, unless it was subsidized. Perish the thought she had two children whose care she needed to pay for in order to work.

In Fiscal Year 2012, states and the District spent a total of $1.5 billion less on child care than they did the year before, in part because they ran out of Recovery Act money and in part because they used more of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds for other things.

Combined federal and state childcare spending fell to the lowest level since 2002, when dollars went a whole lot further. And CCBDG spending, including transfers from TANF was virtually the same last fiscal year.

For this fiscal year, Congress restored the $154 million CCBDG had lost because of sequestration. What it will do for the upcoming fiscal year is a question mark. As I said, the reauthorizing bill provides for level funding. But that doesn’t mean the block grant will get it.

Even if it does, states will have to spend significantly more to comply with the new requirements. They’ll not only soon have to invest more in improving childcare quality.

They’ll have to develop complex new plans, including a process for ensuring that certain low-income families get priority. And they’ll have to collect and make readily accessible several types of information “to promote parental choice.”

So we should have better, more accountable publicly-funded childcare systems. But the requirements could further squeeze the amount states have to spend on subsidies.

Thus,¬† CLASP says, “Far greater investment — at the state and federal levels — will be needed to reverse this troubling trend” toward fewer and fewer low-income children in child care that wouldn’t bust the family budget.

Those of you who aren’t disenfranchised District residents can urge your Representative and Senators to provide the funding CCDBG needs. The National Women’s Law Center makes this quick and easy with an e-mail you can personalize.

A “Turkey of a Tax Bill” That Could Be Back on the Table

December 1, 2014

Well, I said I expected there’d be a lot to piss me off. But I didn’t expect anything new of that sort before Thanksgiving Day. Nor did I expect the Senate’s Democratic leadership to actively contribute.

But here we are with reliable reports that about-to-be-former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, some of his colleagues and House Republicans were close to a deal that would, among other things, make 10 of the nominally temporary tax breaks (the so-called tax extenders) permanent law.

The costliest — the research and experimentation tax credit — would become more generous, reflecting changes the House had already passed. So would several other pieces of the package.

But the improvements the Recovery Act made in the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit would be left to die in 2017, pushing some 16.4 million people into poverty — or deeper poverty.

Several White House spokespersons told the press that the President would veto the package because, said one, “it would provide permanent tax breaks to well-connected corporations while neglecting working families.”

Capitol Hill staffers reportedly say that queered the deal — at least, for now. But I rather doubt Congressional Republicans and Democratic collaborators will altogether give up on the deal-making.

The “turkey of a tax bill,” as the Coalition on Human Needs called it, would still be a turkey, even if the negotiators decided to placate the President and some high-ranking Democratic objectors by folding in the missing refundable tax credits. Doesn’t seem likely now, but just suppose.

Here are three big, related things that should set off alarm bells.

Revenue Losses. The package that the dealmakers had all but completed would have cost $409 billion over the first 10 years, according to Center on Budge and Policy Priority estimates. Citizens for Tax Justice pegs the cost at $450 billion.

But the cost would actually have been roughly $530 billion, once you tack on the additional interest the federal government would have had to pay because it would have had to borrow more.

All big costs — and all because the dealmakers decided not to offset the tax cuts with any revenue-raisers, spending cuts or some combination of the two. Think how some of that money could be used to shore up under-funded programs that serve the needs of poor and near-poor people.

Fodder for the Spending Slashers. Needless to say (I hope), such large revenue losses would drive up the deficit, if Congress did nothing to curb federal spending more than it already has.

But you can bet that Republicans, who had no problem with the unpaid-for tax cuts, would swiftly revert to insisting on additional, drastic federal spending cuts (except for defense) in order to balance the budget.

The rising deficit — and hence the debt — was one of Congressman Paul Ryan’s primary justifications for his budget plans. They proposed large funding cuts for safety-net programs and others that benefit low-income individuals and families, e.g., Pell grants.

They blew away the Social Services Block Grant and, of course, the Affordable Care Act, thus also the subsidies that enable low and moderate-income people to purchase affordable health insurance. They took stabs at Medicare and Social Security benefits.

So we can expect Republicans to turn the revenues they’d cheerfully forfeited, without a peep about the deficit, into more urgent reasons to slash social programs.

Thoroughgoing Tax Reform Preempted. As you know, Republicans and Democrats, from far-right to far-left, agree that the tax code is ripe for reform.

Differences notwithstanding, they apparently envision a clean-out of a whole lot of special interest and overlapping credits, deductions, deferrals, etc., with at least some of the savings used to offset the cost of other changes, e.g., a lower corporate tax rate. (Whether to use some or all is one of those differences.)

As I said, the “turkey” bill would have made 10 of the extenders permanent in advance of such reform — and without offsetting the revenues lost. This would lower the revenue baseline, i.e., the projected revenues the federal government will collect under current law.

So Congress would effectively get more than $400 billion to use for lowering tax rates and/or preserving some of those dubious special-interest tax breaks without having to find offsets.

A reform plan could thus qualify as revenue-neutral, i.e., one that neither raised nor decreased total revenues collected, only because the extender finesse had already decreased revenues.

For the end result, return to the previous section. And watch what happens after Congress does a last-minute, short-term extender save.


Thanksgiving Break: Less Policy, More Personal

November 25, 2014

I feel I should write something relevant to the upcoming Thanksgiving Day. Yet the muse is silent — perhaps because she tends to strike when I’m pissed off about something, which is fairly often, as those of you who follow this blog know. Nevertheless ….

As I said four years ago, I have a great deal to be personally thankful for. Some, though not all of it stems from a choice I made many, many years ago. I chose to be born to parents who were comfortably middle-class — and to a mother whose father had actually done the Horatio Alger thing.

So we had economic security, which, as I noted yesterday, seems not all that common any more, especially for families with children. And I have economic security now in part because of what I’ve inherited.

My parents invested a lot in our education — some monetary, some not. My sibs and I were sent to a wonderful preschool. We were taken to museums, concerts, children’s theater performances and the like. We were read to every evening until we learned to read on our own.

And boy, were there a lot of spoken words in our house — at least as many, I guess, as the 2,150 or so an hour that supposedly help account for why children of professional parents do better in school than others. (My parents weren’t professionals, but they did talk a steady stream.)

We attended public schools, which were just okay. But my mother had the time, education and concern to help when teachers apparently couldn’t. I still recall how she enabled me to get the hang of algebra word problems, e.g., trains departing from opposite stations.

And I recall how my father showed me what was special about Gauguin’s paintings, using books of reproductions he’d managed to take with him when he left Germany just in the nick of time.

So I was admitted to the college I wanted to go to. I’m thankful for the donors who made my scholarship possible — and for the family friend who paid for my plane fares. And I’m thankful for what was then California state policy because my graduate education at a fine university cost me $75 a semester.

For all these reasons — and some sheer dumb luck — I’ve never lived in poverty. Never even had to go without anything I truly needed. I’m thankful for that. But it weighs on my mind because I understand that I’ve lived — and am living — a privileged life.

So I blog in the comfort of a home we own about people who don’t even have a room to themselves — or heat on this chilly day. People who are worrying about whether they’ll have enough to eat, rather than how they can fit any more food into a refrigerator that’s occupied by a turkey which seems much larger than when we bought it.

As a former President said, when confronted with an egregious income-based inequity, “[T]here are many things in life that are not fair.” We’ve got much more research supporting such inequities than we did then, including the lifelong unequal chances of children born to well-off and poor parents.

And it seems truer in some ways as well. We need only look at how much more income is flowing to the top 1% or at how little workers have gained from increasing productivity — so little that all but the highest-paid employees are making less, in real dollars, than they did at the outset of the Great Recession.

We know we could make life in this country fairer. More to the point, we know we could make life better for people who can, at best, barely get by day to day — and for their children, who could get something more like the start in life I had. But my heart sinks when I consider the near-term policy prospects, especially on Capitol Hill.

So I’m thankful for advocacy organizations that don’t despair, as I’m sometimes inclined to. I’m thankful for the research and analyses, the direct representation and the opportunities to collaborate and weigh in that they provide. And for their spirit, which lifts mine.

I’m thankful for the faith-based and other charitable organizations that tend to the basic needs of the underprivileged people in their communities — and for the other things they do to help them meet those needs.

As I think about our extensive nonprofit networks, I’m also thankful for the very privileged whose support helps make their good work possible — and for the many others who contribute what they can.

A last word of thanks to you who’ve indulged me in this excursion into the autobiographical mode. Back to the usual, as soon as we’ve settled into the post-holiday/pre-holiday routine. I expect I’ll find a lot to be pissed off about.


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