Senate Votes to Debate Long-Term Unemployment Benefits, But Renewal Far From Certain

January 8, 2014

I spent part of last Thursday participating in a Twitter blast at Republican Senators whom lead advocates had targeted as potential votes in favor of reviving the recently-expired Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

For those unfamiliar with this tactic, it involves recruiting as many Twitter users as possible to send messages within a brief period of time. Everyone who follows them sees the messages and can join in by simply clicking the retweet link at the bottom.

Our blast targeted 14 Senators. We had sample tweets we could adapt, including the number of jobless workers in the state they represent who’d just lost their benefits.

Some of those Senators just voted to begin debate on a bill to renew the long-term unemployment benefits. Without their votes, the bill would have languished — perhaps indefinitely.

The tweet blast was interesting to me for several reasons.

First, it shows how social media like Twitter have become such an important element in advocacy campaigns. They not only rally supporters and provide a means of sharing information. They are themselves a way of communicating messages to policymakers.

I know this is obvious, but it’s really quite new. Back in the day, as my husband says, the closest advocates could get to a Twitter blast was mass fax messaging.

When I worked on Capitol Hill, I collected duplicative messages off the fax machine daily — and dumped them, as instructed. No one could know they’d been sent or received except subscribers to the mass fax services. Well, that was then.

And now Twitter and the like have also become something that many elected officials apparently see as advantageous to their own campaigns. After all, we couldn’t blast at the Senators if they didn’t have Twitter accounts.

Second, the blast shows how much so many have invested in preserving EUC. I recall few, if any campaigns pursued so energetically and with as much coordination among so many and diverse organizations.

The blast was just one small piece of a campaign that has included, among other things, polls (see here and here), online petitions, outreach to local media, link-ups to jobless workers they could talk to, op-eds, a wicked TV ad, several toll-free numbers to Congressional offices and a plethora of action alerts to generate e-mails and/or calls.

And we couldn’t have blasted the Senators with tweets that spoke directly to what the end of EUC has meant for their constituents if the U.S. Department of Labor hadn’t earlier produced state-by-state estimates of the number of jobless workers who’d immediately lose their benefits.

These perhaps because Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee asked for them. Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent reported that they were also compiling county-by-county figures, some of which I’ve seen in the press.

In short, each Senator was on notice of what his/her vote would mean back home — and at the risk of cynicism, how a vote against renewal could be messaged there.

Well, the Senate voted yesterday — not to renew EUC, but to debate the proposed short-term extension. The motion squeaked through with just the 60 votes needed — all Democrats present, the two Independents and six Republicans.

But the Republicans won’t necessarily vote to renew the EUC program. They still insist that the cost of any renewal be offset — and only by spending cuts, The New York Times reports.

Democrats worry that these would offset the economic boost that EUC benefits deliver — the equivalent of 240,000 jobs, assuming a year-long extension.

And it’s hard to know whether an offset would satisfy. Senator Susan Collins, who’s tried to broker a deal, reportedly wants to condition receipt of the longest-term unemployment benefits on enrollment in a job training program.

Without these changes, Republicans may block a vote on the EUC bill itself.

Over on the House side, Speaker John Boehner has again let it be known that he’d consider a renewal if it’s paid for and paired with “other efforts that will help get our economy moving again.”

Specifics from two of his colleagues include eliminating “back-breaking, job-breaking regulations,” approval of the Keystone pipeline and tax policy changes.

Not a recipe for a swift renewal — or any perhaps.

But one never knows about these things. What we do know is that many of the 1.3 million or so jobless workers and their families who’ve lost their benefits could be in dire straits. And even a bill that restores those benefits won’t undo the damage, though it would stave off more.

As Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said, many have gone “from a position of hardship” to a “catastrophe.” You can’t retroactively feed a child or reverse an eviction for unpaid rent.

No one in Congress can claim ignorance of this — or of the catastrophes the big numbers represent.

On the one hand, I’m enormously impressed by the strategies, coordination and sheer size of the renewal campaign — most impressed perhaps by its success in getting stories of struggling workers into the news.

On the other hand, I’m depressed that the human suffering just doesn’t seem to matter — at least, not enough to enough Republicans in Congress.

We should have had a year-long EUC extension before they went home for the holidays. As it is, they seemingly won’t go for a swift, simple three-month renewal to tide their long-term jobless constituents over during the back-and-forth on a longer-term deal.

Ah well, it’s not over. I’m inclined to think that Republican leaders will decide that leaving so many jobless workers and their families in the lurch is bad for the brand.

But meanwhile catastrophes loom — approximately 72,000 more every week.


Grassroots Network Gets Human Rights Into Budget Law

February 21, 2013

A recent briefing introduced me to a state budget campaign launched by the Vermont Workers’ Center. It’s quite different from most budget campaigns I’m familiar with.

And I think there are things that advocates –and everyday concerned citizens — can learn from it. So let me tell you a bit about it.

The Workers’ Center is a grassroots network that’s branched out from workplace issues to “the full range of issues of concern to working people.”

Two years ago, they racked up a significant victory — a law that promises to make publicly-funded health care a right for everyone who lives in Vermont.

Now the Center has turned its attention to the broader issue of state spending and revenue policies. And again, they’ve racked up a victory.

In this case, it’s an amendment to the state’s budget law that establishes basic principles for the budget — what it should do and how it should be developed.

The latter has to do with processes for public participation. These are still in the development stage, but apparently moving toward completion.

The what-the-budget-should-do part is potentially more revolutionary — and for two reasons.

First, it adopts a human rights framework. “Spending and revenue policies,” it says, will “recognize every person’s need for health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security and a healthy environment.”

This is far more than the symbolic gesture the DC Council made when it declared the District a human rights city. And it’s much broader than the Illinois anti-poverty strategy I wrote about some time ago.

The Vermont law essentially provides a test for virtually any spending proposal. Does it “advance human dignity and equity”? Does it help meet any of the specified needs — or more generally, “promote economic well-being … and a vibrant economy”?

Also revolutionary is the notion that the costs of meeting the Vermont people’s needs should drive revenue policies.

That, at any rate, is how a director at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative — one of the Workers’ Center’s lead partners — characterizes the “reframed” budget purpose.

As we all know, budgeting generally works very differently.

First, there’s a revenue projection and some sort of account of what the government spent and would have to spend to keep operating as it has. Also, in some cases, a spending target, e.g., the federal deficit reduction targets enshrined in the Budget Control Act.

Then the money gets divvied up — first by the chief executive, e.g., the President, the state governor, then by committees in the legislature and finally by the legislature as a whole.

Okay, I know this is over-simple. In most states, for example, the governor can veto particular items in the budget the legislature has passed — or in all but one state, the whole damn thing.

And, of course, Congress can do whatever it chooses with budgets enacted by the District of Columbia.

Nevertheless, there’s always a fixed amount of money to spend — even if the evolving budget includes revenue raisers.

Organizations representing different interests and/or communities contend for the biggest share of the budget pie they can get. This often means defending the share of the pie they’ve got — over and over again as the years roll on.

Conflicts among them may be smoothed over. That’s part of what broad-based coalitions are for. But I doubt any interest group has sat out a budget season in deference to another.

The end result is winners and losers, even within what we might call the human needs community.

This is what the Vermont Workers’ Center seeks to replace with its People’s Budget, which would stand the customary budget process on its head.

Costs of meeting people’s basic needs would come first. Revenue raisers would follow, if needed to meet those costs.

I’ve some doubts about how this process will fare when the rubber hits the road.

Will Vermont legislators actually pass tax increases sufficient to fulfill the human rights vision embodied in the budget law?

Or will there be the usual push-and-pull between spending and revenue policies? And the usual competition among interests, including the big one between those who want more spending and those who think their taxes are already too high?

Guess we’ll have to wait and see. And hope that the experiment pans out. Because it could become a model for budget reforms elsewhere.

Even in its infancy, it gives us a fresh way of thinking about how budgets are made — and what we do (and don’t). We all, I think, can benefit from that.


Did Twitter Decide the Presidential Debates?

October 22, 2012

Shortly before the first Presidential debate, I got an e-mail urging me to tweet three specific questions to Mitt Romney. The subject line read, “The debate will be decided on Twitter.”

Oh sure, I thought. A bunch of us tweet Romney and he’ll address these questions. “How do you plan to create jobs when you keep shipping them overseas?” Etc.

But this wasn’t what the sending organization had in mind by deciding the debate. It had borrowed its subject line from a recent Politico post, which itself was borrowing from a couple of other sources.

They were saying that real-time tweets would shape the post-debate story reporters would tell.

At the very least, the initial Twitter conversation among political reporters would decide who won and who lost, Nathan Gonzales at The Rothenberg Political Report predicted.

New York Times political blogger Michael Shear also views Twitter as a tool to influence debate coverage, but for the campaigns, not the likes of thee and me and only when neither candidate is the obvious winner.

Both Gonzales and Shear focus on what we could call insider conversations. The promise in my e-mail was that I, along with lots of other tweeters, could interject ourselves and thus shape the post mortems.

We’ve no way of knowing, I suppose, what prompts journalists to fix on particular story lines — other than obvious things like what they and their editors think is newsworthy, e.g., winners and losers, and the political bias of the source they write for.

There may, however, be some limited evidence for the influence of mass tweeting.

For example, we know that some major progressive organizations tweeted fact-checks as the first two debates were going on. They’ve got reporters following them — and others who presumably broadcast the more notorious non-facts to their own followers.

And it’s certainly the case that we’ve had a spate of columns on misstatements, distortions, evasions and Romney’s latest disclaimers of positions he’d espoused, even just a few weeks ago.

But they weren’t the post-debate narrative. And they don’t show much of anything about how we grassroots tweeters can shape — let alone decide — a major political debate.

Which brings me to a somewhat different Twitter campaign.

Greg Kaufmann at The Nation launched it with a hashtag — #TalkPoverty — a shorthand, as hashtags must be, for an effort to “push the issue of poverty into the mainstream political debate.”

The post I’m linking to here was the first in a series that focused on questions posed by experts. We could tweet the articles and/or the individual questions, of course.

The Half in Ten Campaign called on its supporters to tweet about poverty issues, using the #TalkPoverty hashtag. It even sponsored a webinar to get novices up to speed on Twitter and created a prefab tweet for anyone who was still timid or just plain busy.

Kaufmann and others, including Half in Ten, gave us the Twitter handles, i.e., user names, for the debate moderators so that we could tweet factoids and questions directly to them.

Well, there sure were a lot of #TalkPoverty tweets — a new crop every day for weeks. I’m told they reached, on average, nearly 350,000 Twitter followers a day — twice as many on debate days.

Anyone who watched the first debate knows what happened — or rather, didn’t happen.

One use each of the words “poor” and “poverty” — both by Romney and neither in the context of saying what, if anything, he’d do to help the people he fleetingly referred to.

Even a broader content analysis, including words and phrases like “low-income,” “welfare,” “food stamps” and “Medicaid,” found that only 10% of the candidates’ statements focused on poverty.

On the other hand, the virtual silence on poverty as a policy issue did become one of the post-debate storylines — not, of course, as often told and retold as the emergence of yet another Romney, the President’s apparent funk or the mystifying tax numbers.

Some columnists were prompted to write about the issue that “went missing,” as the Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capehart put it.

Did this secondary narrative — Twitter-shaped or otherwise — influence the content of the second Presidential debate? Did the ongoing tweet stream itself have an impact?

Not so as you’d notice. But then the second debate consisted largely of answers — or talking points passed off as answers — to questions from the audience.

Not much interest in the plight of poor people there, we gather.

Or perhaps moderator Candy Crowley, who chose the questions, thought that the rest of us wouldn’t be all that interested, judging from her many years of experience as a political reporter and post-debate narrative creator.

Kaufmann thinks that Obama did talk poverty, though without using the p-word.

The policies he cites would certainly be better for poor people than Romney’s tax cuts for small businesses. But I think it’s a stretch to view them as policies specifically designed to fight poverty.

Perhaps, as Kaufmann’s expert interviewee says, the word “poverty” evokes such negative stereotypes that candidates can’t break through if they use it.

If that’s true, then doubly so for proclaiming a renewed war on poverty.


Bits on Uphill Battles — and Downward Falls

August 13, 2012

Another scrapbook of fragments that didn’t get into posts I’ve written, plus some thoughts I had along the way.

Winning Battles, But Not the War

As I wrote about amendments that didn’t get into the Senate’s Farm Bill, I realized, again, what hard times we progressive advocates face.

Basically, we’re reduced to giving thanks — even to legislators themselves — because bills that affect low-income people aren’t as bad as they could have been.

We see this not only nationally, but here in the District of Columbia.

The Fair Budget Coalition, for example, proclaimed victories when high priorities, e.g., homeless services, a delay in further TANF benefits cuts, got into the list of things that will get funding if the Chief Financial Officer predicts more revenues — lots more — than the estimate the budget was built on.

Not faulting FBC  here, especially when the coalition — and others — averted some truly harmful cuts and got some money back in the Housing Production Trust Fund as well.

But I long for victories that actually move us forward.

Upward Mobility in Black and White

My recent post on the Pew Center’s economic mobility report alluded to its findings on blacks born to low-income parents. I’d wanted to include them, but the draft was already pushing against my somewhat indulgent word-count limit.

So here they are, plus some additional race gap facts.

  • The percent of blacks who grew up in the bottom fifth of the income scale is nearly six times greater than the percent of whites — 65% as compared to 11%.
  • More than half (53%) of blacks stay there, while only a third of whites do.
  • Well over half (56%) of blacks raised in the middle fifth fell down to the second or bottom fifth as adults. Less than a third (32%) of whites raised in the middle fell.

What about blacks in the top two fifths? The Pew analysts say the percent — even for both together — is too small to calculate mobility “with statistical certainty.”

Not, I think, surprising. What is to me is how much more slippery the middle rung on the ladder is for blacks.

Disparities in parental income, education and employment opportunities — all in part reflecting persistent race discrimination — can explain why it’s harder for blacks born at the bottom to climb the ladder.

But what accounts for the greater downward mobility — the reverse, if you will, of the American Dream?

Part of the answer apparently is that the median family income for blacks is lower than for whites in every fifth that can be reliability estimated. So even a relatively small income loss can drop them into the next fifth down.

But the plummet to the bottom fifth calls for more explanation than I can ferret out of the report.

Life Is Unfair, in Economese

Found this in a very wonky paper by economists Flavio Cunha and James Heckman: “The best documented market failure in the life cycle of skill formation … is the inability of children to buy their parents and the lifetime resources they provide.”

In other words, children born to parents who’ve got the education, temperament, time and money to invest in developing their cognitive and noncognitive skills, e.g., perseverance, self-control, aversion to risky behaviors, are more likely to become economically and socially successful than children who by “accident of birth” have parents who don’t.

We knew this, of course. And the Pew report indirectly confirms it. But whoever knew it was a defect in our free market system?


Open Court Proceedings Could Change the Child Welfare Narrative

March 4, 2012

Professor Matthew Fraidin sent “a small, friendly amendment” to my post on child welfare narratives. I said that he had previously focused on the need to open now-secret child welfare proceedings, but had turned his attention to narratives.

He explains that the two issues are intimately inked, as follows:

As I pointed out in an article in the Maine Law Review, the closure of child welfare courts plays an important role in creating the inaccurate narrative by suppressing stories other than horror stories.

My speech at the University of Michigan, which you discussed in your post, is an effort to depict the narrative that might exist if the much more common, much truer stories of child welfare could be told — stories of racial disparity, stories of child taken from their families unlawfully and unnecessarily, stories of lawyers who haven’t met with their child or adult clients, stories of judges who openly ignore the law.

Laws creating secret courts not only limit the people who may enter and observe the proceedings. They also limit the stories that may be told by those allowed to enter.

In other words, a lawyer involved in a child welfare case may enter the courtroom and review the documents in the court file, but s/he may not talk, i.e., tell stories, about what s/he knows or has seen or read.

In fact, the only lawfully-allowed stories are stories of criminal acts — murders, brutal injuries or severe neglect, for which adults are charted as criminals. But those don’t come from the child welfare cases and courtrooms.

In those instances, someone gets arrested, and the law places no limit on the information the policy may share with reporters. Reporters then tell the gruesome story beneath a screaming headline. And THAT creates and perpetuates the inaccurate narrative!

If child welfare courts were open to the public and press, the narrative would be much more nuanced, to say the least. We would read a diverse array of stories, including stories about lackluster lawyers, caseworkers and judges.

Most importantly, we would read about children who were taken, terrified, from their schools and homes and families, but didn’t need to be.

We’d read about children who were doing better at home than in foster care. We would read about parents who love their children, and children who love their parents and siblings, children who miss their homes and wither in foster care.

Those new stories might change our collective mindset about the child welfare system so that we would no longer think of it simply as a holding pen for animalistic parents and their children, who, inevitably in our minds, are fruit that doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“Child welfare” would be a much more complex phenomenon.

The D.C. Citizen Review Panel’s recent findings suggest that there are literally hundreds of children in foster care unlawfully and to their detriment.

The many, many stories that could be told about those children would convey a much richer, more realistic and less stereotyped image of the parents.

In the meantime, the ideas summarized in my HuffPo article represent an effort to start changing the inaccurate, destructive narrative, even in jurisdictions like the District of Columbia where child welfare proceedings are held in secret.

In my opinion, secret courts protect from challenge the inaccurate narrative created by racial bias and sensational horror stories.

You got it exactly right, Kathryn. “Chang[ing] the stories in our heads” can help us tell accurate stories, which happen to be the ones made illegal by secrecy laws.


Narratives Prop Up Flawed Social Service Programs

February 21, 2012

“The nuclear secret of child welfare,” writes Professor Matthew Fraidin, “is that most children in foster care shouldn’t be there.” And being there harms most of them more than they’re helped by being taken away from their families.

Fraidin has argued in the past that we need to let some sunshine into the now-secretive proceedings that deliver children into the care of many child welfare agencies — the District’s Child and Family Services Administration included.

He still advocates for this, but he’s turned his attention to the narrative that gives rise to the inordinate number of foster care placements.

Or perhaps it’s actually two related narratives.

One is of “brutal, deviant, monstrous parents” whose children have to be rescued from imminent injury or even death. This narrative is “drummed into our heads” by the press, which likes the sensational cases.

Also, I see, by bloggers. Daniel Hiempel, for example, accuses us of allowing “certain children to be abused, even murdered” by ignoring the “empirically true” fact that “cases of abuse and neglect soar in poor neighborhoods.”

Note the class bias here.

The other narrative extends beyond parents who get ensnared in the child welfare system. It’s the propensity of legal service providers, among others, to view low-income clients as “the sum of their needs” — to focus on weaknesses and ignore strengths.

Start instead, Fraidin says, from the premise that clients are “bundles of assets.” Look at what they as individuals can do because then they’ll bust through the narrative and emerge as “complicated, three-dimensional, real” people.

Once we change the story in our heads, we can “change the conversation.” And, I gather, represent clients differently, since Fraidin links the internal narrative change to limiting foster care entries and speeding exits.

The “we” he exhorts are lawyers — and perhaps judges. The article I’m linking to began as a speech delivered at the University of Michigan’s law school.

He refers in passing, however, to anti-poverty programs in general. And surely his message has clear implications for caseworkers and the agencies they work for — nonprofits as well as government entities like CFSA.

David Henderson, who consults for nonprofit service providers, observes that they “too often base their interventions on a presumption of irrationality among the poor” — or he adds in a comment, “assumptions of general incompetence.”

Look, he says, at programs that force parenting classes on homeless people. We’ve got many other examples of this sort.

I’m reminded of a classic — if perhaps mythical — exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

“The rich,” said Fitzgerald, echoing a theme from his Great Gatsby, “are different from you and me.” “Yes,” said Hemingway. “They have more money.”

Seems to me that we as a community could purge the narratives in our heads if we started from the premise that the poor are no different from us, except for having less money.

That would change how we advocate and what we advocate for.

UPDATE: Professor Fraidin has written a very thoughtful response to this post. As he explains, his opposition to secret child welfare proceedings and the prevalent narratives are two sides of the same coin. He also tells us some shocking things we’d learn if proceedings were open.


How Does DC Rank On Poverty, Opportunity And Shared Prosperity?

November 10, 2011

As I recently wrote, the Half in Ten campaign has issued a groundbreaking report that calls on our nation to do two related things:

  • Cut poverty in half
  • Create shared prosperity by increasing opportunities and supports for low-income individuals and families

For both goals, the timeframe is 10 years — less actually, since the report starts the clock running in 2010. That’s because many of the baseline indicators it uses come from the latest Census Bureau reports.

One of the most ambitious aspects of the project are the state-level indicators for both poverty reduction and progress toward the three big priorities the campaign advocates — more good jobs, stronger families and greater economic security.

The state-level indicators are online and include not only the most current figures, but rankings relative to other states. Links let us see the actual figures for all states.

So what do we learn about poverty, opportunity and shared prosperity in the District of Columbia? Here’s a sample.

Reducing Poverty

About poverty, most of us already know. The District has a higher poverty rate than all but two states — 19.2% in 2010.*

No news about food insecurity either. As I previously wrote, the District’s food insecurity rate last year was 13%. This puts the District above a majority of states, with a ranking of 20.

Creating Good Jobs

The indicators for creating good jobs are a mixed bag indeed.

On the one hand, the District tops all states for wage equity between men and women — an average of only 8.6 cents on the dollar separating them, as compared to 21.4 cents nationwide.

It also ranks first in the percent of young adults (25-34 year olds) with an associates degree or higher. Close to two-thirds — 63.6% — of residents in this age group have a college degree of some sort.

But only one state — Nevada — ranks lower in the percent of high school freshmen who graduate four years later. Barely more than half — 56% — of District students graduated on time in 2008.

Strengthening Families

Huge variations in the indicators for this priority as well.

Only one state — Massachusetts — has a lower percent of residents without health insurance. For D.C., the figure is 7.6% — just 3.2% higher than for Massachusetts.

But no state has as high a rate of children under 18 in foster care. No state, in fact, even comes close.

For every 100,000 children in the District, 2,058 have been taken away from their families. In the highest ranking state — Nebraska — the ratio is 1,188 per 100,000. Nationwide, the ratio is 533 per 100,000.

Promoting Economic Security

No big point spreads here, alas.

Last year, only 36.3% of jobless workers in the District received unemployment insurance benefits, putting the District below all but two states — South Dakota and Virginia.

The District also ranks below all but two states in the percent of residents (adults presumably) who don’t have bank accounts — a somewhat primitive, but useful measure for asset building.

Finally — no surprise — the District ranks lower than all but six states for affordable housing, which is here measured as the number of affordable, available rental units per 100 tenants with incomes at or below 50% of the state median.

Only 53% of lower-income tenants here have a chance at an affordable unit.

Why the Indicators?

Half in Ten provides these indicators — and plans updates — so that we can advocate for legislation that “moves … [them] in the right direction” and hold our elected officials accountable for progress.

The campaign focuses mainly on federal policies. Yet when we look at the District’s indicators, we can see that some of them have solutions close to home.

Many, I think, speak to the yawning gulf between the haves and have-nots in our city.

New evidence of this — and another indicator — from the Census Bureau, which reports greater income inequality in the District than in all but two other major cities.

That’s something our local government can address, though we need radical shifts in federal priorities too.

As at the federal level, the core issue is political will. Creating and sustaining it is our business.

Think what could happen if we all asked our policymakers — and aspiring policymakers — what they intended to do about the deplorable numbers here.

* This figure comes from the American Community Survey. As I earlier wrote, it is more reliable than the much-reported one-year figure from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.


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