Not Enough Money for Low-Income DC Residents, But Tax Cut for Wealthy Unchanged

May 26, 2016

As you local readers probably know, the DC Council passed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year last week. Some changes in what the Mayor had proposed for programs that serve low-income residents.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s overview of the budget confirms what I’d expected. Mostly, a bit more here, a bit more there. No more for some critical priorities. And less for at least one. (The one large, new investment it cites — for new family shelters — isn’t part of the budget proper.)

I suppose we’ll be told that the Council did its best with what it had to work with. I don’t know because I don’t know nearly enough about the funding needs and prospective impacts of every program and service the budget covers.

But I do know that the Council could have had more revenues to work with. It had only to postpone — or better yet, repeal — the tax cuts prior legislation has made automatic whenever revenues rise above the estimate used for the latest budget.

The triggers have already reduced otherwise available revenues by many millions of dollars — dollars the Council could have used to shore up under-funded programs.

So much water under the bridge. And as the Chairman, who likes those triggers says, the revenues lost from cuts not yet triggered couldn’t have been used for the new budget. But the Council could have had them to spend as early as next fiscal year — and thereafter.

All tax cuts are not created equal, of course. Some on the pending list will benefit residents who’ve got enough income to owe taxes, but not a lot.

The second cut on that list, however, is a higher threshold for the estate tax. The most recent revenue forecast indicates that it will lock in soon, DCFPI’s latest account of the trigger impacts says.

So henceforth, no assets a deceased resident leaves to heirs will be taxable until they’re worth $2 million — twice the current minimum.

As things stand now, this will be the first of two estate tax cuts. The second — and considerably larger — will raise the threshold to the same minimum as applies to the federal estate tax, currently $5.45 million.

Why the District should embrace a regressive measure gained in a crisis by Congressional Republicans who could never be elected here baffles me.

True, the Tax Revision Commission recommended parity with the federal threshold, including the ongoing upward adjustments for inflation. But the Council could have taken a pass, just as it has on the revenue-raisers in the Commission’s package.

The District will forfeit $18.8 million next fiscal year alone, according to DCFPI’s estimate. And for what?

Not so that more money can pass to charities tax free. Bequests to them are already exempt. Not so that surviving spouses will have more to live on, since what passes directly to them will also still reduce the value of what counts toward the threshold.

Not even necessarily what other heirs wind up with, since a will-maker can give them as much as $14,000* each or the equivalent every year while still alive — again reducing the value of what’s potentially taxable afterwards.

The estate tax giveaway won’t just make larger investments in programs that reduce hardships for poor and near-poor residents unnecessarily difficult. It will increase income inequality in the District by giving the rich more, as well as denying the poor supports and services that help close the income gap from the bottom.

And the gap will grow from one generation to the next in part because of the way the taxable value of assets is determined. Essentially, it’s set at their value when the person bequeathing them dies.

So heirs pay capital gains taxes when they sell the assets for more, but no tax on how much the assets’ value increased between the time they were purchased and the time inherited.

And, of course, heirs don’t have to sell them. They can pass them along to their heirs, compounding the revenue loss — and wealth at the top of the income scale.

The estate tax then is a way of partly recouping the loss and, at the same time, averting a rollback to the inordinate wealth concentration of the Robber Baron days.

The higher the threshold, the less an already-shaky control on income inequality can do. And the gap between the richest and poorest District households is already very large — larger, indeed, than the DCFPI analysis I’m linking to shows because it doesn’t drill down to the top 1%.

Their incomes averaged well over $1.9 million in 2012, the latest year I’ve found figures for. This, recall, is income for a single year, not also what could readily be converted to income.

Now, no one — not even Bernie Sanders — is talking about taking so much from the rich and giving it to the rest that incomes would be equal. Nor is anyone talking about taking all the wealth the rich have accumulated when they die.

The major focus — and DCFPI’s recommendations reflect it — is reducing the gap by lifting incomes at the bottom and making those incomes more sufficient for basic needs, e.g., by ramping up investments in housing they can afford.

Not all income-lifting measures would require the District to spend more public funds. But some surely will, including workforce development and (you knew I was going to go here) reforms in the rigid Temporary Assistance for Needy Families time limit policy.

Leaving the estate tax threshold where it is won’t give the District as much more tax revenue as it needs. But the giveaway isn’t chump change either.

And it’s got nothing going for it, except a hugely successful and duplicitous PR campaign. Surely Councilmembers know better. And I’d like to think their donors not only know better, but want better for our community.

* This is the current threshold for the federal gift tax, which will rise over time to keep pace with inflation. The District has no gift tax.


Lots to Like in New Overtime Rule, If You’re Not an Under-Paying Employer

May 23, 2016

Time for a celebration. And the U.S. Department of Labor has supplied a cause, as you may already have read. After far too many years and a lengthy process, it’s issued a final rule updating overtime requirements.

The rule reflects some concessions to upset employers. Basically, it sets the threshold below which all salaried workers must receive one-and-a-half times their regular pay when they work more than 40 hours a week to $913 a week, rather than the estimated $970 originally proposed.

The lower threshold reflects a different standard — the 40th percentile of what full-time salaried workers get paid in the lowest-wage region defined by the Census Bureau, rather than the national average. The rule uses the same standard for prospective updates.

Nevertheless, a very large initial increase from the $455 a week that’s been in place since 2004 — and, for the first time, adjustments that won’t require a new rulemaking. These will ensure that an ever-increasing number of employees doing basically the same work for only a bit more pay can’t be classified as over-time exempt.

The Labor Department says that somewhat over 4.2 million workers — 19% of those now exempt — will gain overtime protections or a raise. These are workers paid less than the new threshold.

But it another 8.9 million will benefit, its says elsewhere. The difference between them and the others, economist Jared Bernstein explains, is that they should already be getting overtime pay, but aren’t because employers have taken advantage of loose duty definitions to classify them as exempt.

They include assistant restaurant managers, as I’ve written before, and other workers designated as managers who spend most of their time doing work that requires minimal skills and no decision-making to speak of.

The Economic Policy Institute puts the number of workers directly affected at 12.5 million, saying it’s used both the Labor Department’s proposed and final rules and data from the Census Bureau’s ongoing Current Population Survey.

Both the Department’s and EPI’s impact analyses include a variety of breakouts — by gender, for example, race/ethnicity, age and highest formal education level.

They also break out the total by state (and would-be state). So we learn that roughly 11,000 more workers in the District of Columbia may have to get paid overtime — this, according to the Labor Department.

EPI estimates 29,000 — 16% of District workers, instead of 4%. The big gap here — and other differences — reflect EPI’s view that the Labor Department underestimated the number of workers who should have been receiving overtime pay, but weren’t.

One way or the other, substantially more workers — and not only in the District, of course — may get paid more. They won’t all necessarily get paid for the extra hours they put in, however.

As Bernstein suggests, employers may bump up some workers’ salaries to just above the new threshold — and then presumably use those squishy duties tests to exempt them from overtime pay. The Labor Department sees this prospect too.

Employers may instead just hire more workers so that everything that needs to get done gets done within the 40-hour per worker week. EPI estimates 120,000 new retail jobs nationwide — the same estimate another source made when Labor proposed the higher threshold.

This could make life better for some of the roughly 7.9 million workers now unemployed and actively looking for work, including about 25,300 in the District.

We simply don’t know how employers will respond. We can be pretty sure, however, that they’ll have a harder time taking advantage of workers they’ve exempted.

The Vice President of the National Association of Manufacturers, which strongly objects to the new rule, inadvertently discloses the abuse of exemptions.

Small manufacturers, she says, “cannot afford the burdens of a 99 percent salary increase for management employees” now exempt. Think how little they’re paying those employees, who’ve had to work extra hours for free.

The National Restaurant Association says basically the same thing. And it warns that restaurant owners may shift salaried employees back to paid-by-the-hour positions, suggesting that they’ve extracted extra hours and now won’t.

It also says it will support legislation to block the new rule — either directly or by denying the Labor Department funds to enforce it. It’s got some muscular allies — the National Federation of Independent Businesses, for example. And they won’t have to start from square one.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has already committed his majority to fighting the rule. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to block it too. But unlike Ryan, he can’t count on the votes needed.

So we can indeed celebrate –and hope for the best. Because the next administration could do away with the rule. Clearly wouldn’t if it’s Clinton’s, but ….

 

 


Why So Many People at Risk of Hunger in DC and Nationwide?

May 19, 2016

We may all be Washington, D.C., as the Mayor’s slogan implies, but we’re not all sufficiently fed. In fact, 90,900 (13.8%) of us don’t always have enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle because we can’t afford it, according to Feeding America’s latest Map the Meal Gap report.*

The “us” here includes 29,820 children (nearly 26%) of those living in the District in 2014, the most recent year Feeding America could get data for. They’re not necessarily underfed, but they live in food insecure households and so are, at the very least, at risk of hunger.

Troublesome as these figures are, they’re better than those for the prior two years — especially 2013, when the food insecurity rate for all District residents was 15% and, for children, 30.5%.

On the other hand, the child food insecurity rate is 5% higher than the national rate, though the overall rate is slightly lower.

What can we tease out to explain such relatively high food insecurity rates in the District? First off — and this is true everywhere — families with children are more likely to be hard up for food money than families without them.

They’re still short, even with SNAP (food stamp) benefits and other federally-funded nutrition assistance, e.g., WIC, free or reduced-price school meals. Or so it seems.

Here in the District, nearly three-quarters of food insecure residents have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line — the threshold Feeding America uses because the District has taken advantage of an option that allows residents with incomes this high to have their eligibility for SNAP considered.

Doesn’t mean they’ll all qualify. Their income, after deductions must still be no greater than 100% of the FPL But broad-based categorical eligibility, as the option is called, does seem to make a difference.

For children, Feeding America uses 185% of the FPL — the maximum income for WIC and reduced-price school meals. By this measure, somewhat over two-thirds of food insecure children qualify for nutrition assistance.

The flip side of these figures, of course, is that a quite high percent of food insecure District residents, including children have household incomes too high for any federally-funded nutrition assistance.

Both those aided and those not face a problem that the Feeding America report is really about — what it calls the meal gap, i.e., the difference between the per-meal cost of food and what individuals and families can afford.

It does some complex number-crunching to arrive at the gap — or more precisely, gaps. The end result for the nation as a whole is $2.89.

The meal gap in the District is notably higher — $3.49 per meal or more than $73 a week, assuming three meals a day, every day, as Feeding America does. This surely goes a long way toward explaining the high food insecurity rates.

On the one hand, as I’ve said, many food insecure District residents have incomes to high to qualify for SNAP, which would supplement their own budgets.

The city is also home to residents who’ve got incomes well below the threshold, but don’t qualify because they’re undocumented immigrants — or documented, but haven’t lived in the country long enough.

On the other hand, those who do qualify won’t have enough to cover the costs of reasonably healthful meals all month long. A parent with two children, for example, can get at most $511 a month — or about $1.87 per meal for each family member.

Closing the local meal gap would have cost roughly $56 million two years ago — and more than $24.5 billion nationwide. That’s a lot of money. Which tells us why Feeding America maps the gap.

The organization, as you may know, supplies food to a national network of food banks. Some of the food comes from federal agencies, it says. The rest — and far greater portion — comes from private-sector sources, e.g., food processors, grocery chains and monetary donations it uses to buy food.

The banks, in turn, channel the food to nonprofits that serve prepared meals and/or distribute groceries to poor and near-poor people in the area they serve. They too may get food from private-sector sources and buy more, using cash or cash-equivalent donations.

And they may get some from the Emergency Food Assistance Program — a variable mix that the U.S. Department of Agriculture parcels out to state agencies and they, in turn, to the banks and/or community action agencies.

Here in the District, 132 pantries, dining rooms, other programs that serve meals and/or snacks and the DC Central Kitchen, which prepares meals for some of them, depend in part on what they receive from the Capital Area Food Bank.

Narrowing the meal gap will obviously require more food — and more money to not only buy it, but distribute, store, prepare and deliver it.

We surely can’t look to this Congress, though we can hope it doesn’t widen the gap. That’s what House Republicans would do if they succeeded in converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have repeatedly envisioned.

It’s what their latest plan would probably do, even without the block grant, because it puts a tighter squeeze on non-defense programs that depend on annual spending choices. This already-shrunken part of the budget includes WIC, parts of TEFAP and several sources of funds for free or low-cost home-delivered meals.

Highly doubtful we’ll see the cuts this year. But it’s obvious that the meal gap will remain — and probably grow, as it already has — without more public funds to shrink it.

* The food insecurity rates Feeding America reports for states and the District are slightly higher than those USDA reported. This apparently is because the agency uses two-year averages to compensate for the relatively small size of its survey sample.


What Does the Supreme Court Immigration Case Have to Do With Poverty in America?

May 16, 2016

CLASP has partly answered a question that’s been on my mind: Why should we who focus on poverty in America care how the Supreme Court rules on the immigration case it’s considering? Turns out we should care a lot and for a variety of reasons.

Simple Synopsis of the Case

As you may know, the case involves an “action” the President took in late 2014. Two parts, issued as directions through his head of Homeland Security in effect exempt certain undocumented immigrants from deportation for some indefinite time, unless they commit “serious crimes” or seem a threat to national security.

One expands the eligibility of people brought to this country when young — a group originally protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals guidelines.

The other, commonly referred to as DAPA, covers the parents of children born here — and therefore, American citizens — and those who’ve become lawful permanent residents, provided the parents have lived here continuously for at least five years.

Both deferrals, like the original DACA, enable the immigrants covered to apply for legal authority to work. Arguably, nothing new. A regulation issued during the Reagan administration allows any “lawfully present” immigrant to get a work permit.

Texas, joined by 25 other states filed a lawsuit, alleging that the President had exceeded his legal authority — and in a way that would cost them money.

The judge who heard the case at the district level ruled for the states. And he issued an order covering all states, not only those within his court’s jurisdiction. The appeals court majority upheld the order.

So the Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court, saying basically that the President had merely exercised his authority to set enforcement priorities and that the alleged costs were either speculative or irrelevant.

The Supreme Court thus has to decide whether the order can stand — or decide it can’t, now that it’s shy a member.

Effects on Deferred Action Families

A ruling for the administration would mean that roughly 4.7 million people in this country will no longer live in constant fear of deportation. Most are parents who fear losing their children and vice versa.

Many of the families live in poverty, as CLASP says, because, as it doesn’t say, the parents often have jobs that don’t pay even the legal minimum — or sometimes anything — since undocumented immigrants will hardly file claims of wage theft.

The parents can’t get any federal safety net benefits to compensate — and still couldn’t, unless their status changed. In some cases, their children can because they’re citizens. But the parents are unlikely to claim those benefits because that too would alert the authorities to their presence.

So the children are likely to suffer from hunger, insufficient (or no) health care and other harms those benefits help prevent — for example, by providing affordable, high-quality early education.

A friend-of-the-court brief filed by CLASP and 75 other organizations engaged in children’s advocacy and/or education argues that children with parents at risk of deportation also suffer psychological harms — toxic levels of stress, for example, because both they and their parents fear separation.

These multiple harms, it says, “undermine their long-term prospects for self-actualization and educational and economic success.”

Even worse harms if a working parent is deported, including loss of most or all family income and the consequences thereof, e.g. homelessness, the instabilities of life in foster care.

Potential Effects on Other Poor and Near-Poor People

No administration — not even one headed by the candidate I need not name — is going to deport the millions of immigrants the contested action covers.

That would take an enormous investment of federal resources, while doing nothing to protect our country — and us, as we go about our everyday lives — from genuine threats. It would instead pose something more certain than threats to major sectors of our economy.

So we’ll have DAPA parents and DACA young adults — some now parents — either still living in the shadows or free to live as openly as thee or me. Many work, though how many remains unclear — for obvious reasons.

As I’ve already suggested, they’re highly vulnerable to exploitation. What this means, among other things, is that employers can pay minimal wages to other workers and deny them basic safety protections and benefits.

If the workers don’t like it, well, they’re readily replaceable by others who’ll just hunker down. So it’s not only the undocumented immigrants who’d have a better shot at a living wage – and lives with their lungs and limbs intact — if the Court upholds the action.

Giving DAPA children the security they lack could also benefit other poor and near-poor children because state and local governments would have to spend less on efforts to remedy preventable harms — remedial education, for example, and child welfare services.

Less need for such efforts too because the children who are citizens would be more likely to receive safety net benefits that help prevent the many well-known, lasting harms of hunger, untreated illnesses and the like.

And there’d be more tax revenues, of course — from both the workers and the businesses they buy from. Which could lead the latter to create more jobs — a potential opportunity for workers now legally-authorized, but under-employed.

Altogether then, more funds to spend on low-income families, regardless of immigration status.

A Stop-Gap Measure

The President’s action is no substitute for immigration reform, as he made clear. We have an estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the country — thus more who’d still be insecure and vulnerable than reprieved.

And a future President could rescind the action, using only the same power of the pen Obama used to create it. So the security it provides is tentative.

As everyone knows, we’ve long needed comprehensive reform of our immigration system — one that recognizes the realities of our population and our economy. We can hope it would also reflect the values most, though not all of us espouse — and that we would see it soon.

Not highly likely, but better to hope for that than contemplate what might happen after November.

 


Homeless DC Families Push Total Count to Record High

May 11, 2016

The just-released report on last January’s one-night homeless count in the Washington area may deliver a shock to even those who’ve followed the homeless family crisis in the District.

The count identified more homeless families than in any year since the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments first reported them separately.

The number of homeless individuals who had no children in their care ticked down again. But the increase in adults and children counted as family members was so large as to push the homeless total up to the highest level since the counts began.

Highest Homeless Total in Thirteen Years

The count found 8,350 homeless people in the District — 1,052 more than only a year ago. This represents an increase of 14.4%.

Looking back to 2004, when the District, like other communities that receive homeless assistance grants, first had to conduct one-night counts, the total increased by nearly 43.3%.

Far More Homeless Families

The count identified 1,491 homeless families — 360 more than in 2015, making for an increase of 31.8%. The new number is about two-and-a-half times as many as in 2008, when the recession first set in and the count reports began including the family number.

The homeless families included 1,945 adults and 2,722 children they were caring for, representing increases of 36.2% and roughly 31.9% respectively.

The total number of homeless persons in families, as the report refers to them, was thus 4,667. This is twice as many as in 2004 — and an increase of about 154.2% since 2008, the lowest count on record.

About a quarter of the persons were adults no older than twenty-four — about the same percent as last year, but a higher raw number. These so-called transition age youth account for about 60% of the increase in adult family members counted.

Count of Homeless Singles Dips Again

The number of homeless singles, i.e., those who don’t have children with them, declined from 3,821 in 2015 to 3,683 this year. The new number is also somewhat lower than the counts for 2013 and 2014, but not by much.

We clearly had more homeless singles when the Great Recession hit and in the years immediately thereafter. Since then, the numbers dropped and then rose again, though not markedly. The differences may have more to do with count conditions, e.g., weather, than the homeless population.

Continuing Downward Slide for Chronically Homeless Singles

Among the singles were 1,501 in the chronically homeless subgroup, i.e., people homeless for a long time or recurrently and with at least one disability.

The District’s goal, like that of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, is to effectively end chronic homelessness by the end of 2017. It seems unlikely to achieve that. But it’s well on the way. The count identified 92 fewer chronically homeless singles than in 2015 — the fewest then since 2011, when the numbers began steadily dropping.

So we’ve got a clear downward trend, as we don’t for any other subgroup the report breaks out — except, more recently, veterans, who often have disabilities and so get counted as chronically homeless. Shows again what money can do.

Not Quite So Many Young Homeless Singles

Also among the singles were 201 transition age youth — a few more than in 2015, when communities first had to report them separately. But they’re still a small fraction of this vulnerable age group.

As is generally the case with homeless people counted as singles, some may have a spouse or other partner. Neither the count nor the homeless services system recognizes families who’ve got no children with them, as I’ve remarked before.

Perhaps Not That Many More Recently Homeless Families

The District attributes the increase in homeless families to the undeniable shortage of affordable housing in the city, but not only that.

It also cites an “increased demand for stable housing assistance that is brought to bear on the homeless system” and the recent reversion to the long-standing policy of granting shelter to homeless families year round, instead of only when they’re at risk of freezing.

What this suggests, though I doubt it means to is that the District probably under-reported homeless families in the recent past because some knew not to seek help when they needed it and so had no records in the information management system used for the counts.

That, of course, merely means that District policymakers — and everyone else concerned — has a better fix on the crisis now. But not the whole of it.

Always More Homeless People Than Counted

As I usually say when citing homeless figures based on counts, they understate the number of people who have no home of their own.

This is partly because the counts must used the limited definition of “homeless” that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development must use for its homeless assistance grants.

So they include homeless people in shelters, transitional housing and places “not meant for human habitation,” e.g., cars, subway stations, underpasses.

But they don’t include everyone living doubled up with friends or relatives because they can’t afford housing or those making do in cheap motels, unless they’ll become homeless, according to HUD’s definition, within two weeks.

And the counters have no way of finding them or knowing that. Nor are they likely to find everyone who’s unsheltered. The count, recall, is partly a one-night search.

And homeless people don’t all cluster together in places where they’re easily found — understandably, since the District and other communities have taken to clearing out such places and taking whatever belongings the owners can’t swiftly remove.

Many homeless people don’t want to be found for other reasons — especially those who are minors, since they’d be either returned to the homes they fled or relegated to foster care. Perhaps also parents who justifiably fear losing their children.

All the more reason the DC Council should feel an even greater sense of urgency to invest more in affordable housing, including both the permanent supportive type and locally-funded housing vouchers.

And an even greater sense of urgency to change Temporary Assistance for Needy Families policy, lest even more families become homeless by next January.


No Shortage of Ideas for Better, More Affordable Child Care

May 9, 2016

I’m on somewhat of a tear about high-quality, affordable child care, as you who follow this blog know. That’s in part because I’ve discovered so much that I didn’t know and felt an urge to share.

So I’ve dealt with the extraordinarily high costs of unsubsidized care and the barrier that poses to low-income families. And I’ve dealt with quality standards and related factors.

In both posts, I’ve dwelt on money — or more precisely, lack of enough to give all low-income children, especially infants and toddlers the high-quality care they need when their parents need them to have it.

So time now to look beyond the defects to policy solutions. We’ve got a range, as I’ve already said.

One focuses strictly on what childcare workers get paid — an aspect of quality, for several reasons I’ve already tried to capture. The Fight for $15 campaign has broadened its original fast-food base by recruiting childcare workers. They too are speaking out for that increase in the minimum wage.

Sad to say, a victory would probably increase average earnings for childcare workers nationwide and in the District of Columbia, though the conventional phase-in for increases makes it hard to be sure.

The District may have a $15 minimum wage in 2020 — the last phase-in year set by what could be on the November ballot and by a bill the Mayor has sent to the DC Council. If it were effective now, it would increase the average childcare work wage.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute and DC Appleseed want the District to do something that would enable childcare providers to raise workers’ wages sooner and apparently higher, without cutting back on subsidized slots or spending less on other program quality components, e.g., educational materials, professional development.

The partners recommend increasing reimbursement rates for providers that care for children with subsidies. The measure they use for shortfalls, though not necessarily for their recommendation is 75% of what providers charge for unsubsidized care.

This is what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has long recommended. Not, however, to great effect. Only one state reimbursed at about this level last year — significantly fewer than in 2001.

One can readily infer that public funding hasn’t kept pace with need. What we know for sure is that total federal funding in 2014 dropped to its lowest level in twelve years.

Yet states and the District face a further potential cost crunch now that Congress has revamped the Child Care and Development Block Grant — the single largest source of federal funds for programs that serve poor and near-poor families.

CLASP and the National Women’s Law Center suggest that it needs more funding, even for states and the District to serve as many eligible children as they have at the same subsidy rates because they’ll have to spend more to meet the new requirements, including larger quality investments.

Bills recently introduced in Congress would go further. They would create a mandatory funding stream for the block grant, leaving it less vulnerable to annual spending choices.

The bills aim specifically to ensure high-quality care for all infants and toddlers in families with incomes no greater than 200% of the federal poverty line — about $40,300 for a three-person family now and sure to inch up over time.

States could get their share only if they had a plan to both expand access to these low-income kids and to improve quality — in part, by paying providers enough so they could meet standards specifically for the age group.

Don’t look to this Congress to pass those bills. They’ve got only a handful of cosponsors. They’re not so urgent as regular spending bills — an especially troublesome matter in the House. And their effect, if any, on the federal budget would prove troublesome in its own right.

The House bill would increase federal spending by about $25.3 billion over the first five years. The Senate bill seeks to offset the cost by collecting taxes from many U.S. companies that have managed to evade them through inversions — and others that will if the gaping loophole isn’t closed.

We already know how Congressional Republicans view a similar change — and not only, one gathers, because the Obama administration didn’t leave the matter to them.

Broader solutions floated nonetheless. The Center for American Progress, for example, calls for universal pre-K — a modest proposal, also advocated by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, among others, and already adopted by the District.

This, as I’ve suggested, addresses the need for early education, but not the need for high-quality care during all the hours parents work. CAP addresses that need too, with a tax credit to subsidize such care for children under five.

There already is a tax credit for child care, but only fairly well-off families gain the full benefit. And it’s a small one — at most, $3,000 per child and only twice that, no matter how many more children receive paid care.

CAP’s tax credit would instead deliver the greatest benefit to the lowest-income families, though families with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty line would qualify for some support. And it would go, on a monthly basis, to providers, as health insurance subsidies already do — thus delivering the money directly and when it’s needed.

The Make It Work campaign reaches even further, advocating subsidies for all but wealthy families with children not yet in their teens. Costs to families would be capped at 10% of what they earn. And “providers” — presumably childcare workers — would get that $15 an hour wage.

Much pie in the sky, one may think. But the U.S. had something near to universal child care during World War II and would have had it again if President Nixon hadn’t viewed it as overly-costly and threatening to families.

All the proposals I’ve summarized here do have a price tag, of course. But the return on investment would be very high. We’d have more parents (mainly mothers) in the workforce — and more working full time. So there’d be more tax revenues flowing in, as well as going out.

The long-term returns, especially from quality care for low-income children would be greater and more various, as the Center for Equitable Growth shows.

We’d see, among other things, fewer needs for remedial instruction, less child abuse and neglect, less criminal behavior, better health, higher earnings and so both more tax revenues and fewer needs to spend them compensatory measures, including safety net benefits.

Seems to me family-strengthening. Strengthening for our economy and the frayed bonds of our society too.

 


Not All Single Mothers Are Alike … or All Really Single

May 5, 2016

Mother’s Day weekend seems a good time for another post on single mothers — a topic that consistently brings more Googlers to my blog than almost any other.

I’m taking a different approach than I did in the past because much of what one finds in public sources is muddled — and so the solution wrong-headed.

We see right-wing conservatives still promoting marriage as a key to ending poverty. And not only them. The center-left Brookings Institution joined with the center-right American Enterprise Institute to produce an anti-poverty plan. It too endorses promoting marriage.

Both the muddle and the marriage promotion stem in part from the same source — a conflation of single motherhood with unplanned out-of-wedlock births. They also reflect some incontrovertible data and some controversial studies linking single-parent families to bad outcomes for kids.

The data come from the Census Bureau. Year after year, it reports far higher percents of single-mother families in poverty than married couples with minor-age children in the same financial straits.

The assumption then is that single mothers and their children would be better off if married. Which leads to the further assumption that single mothers became mothers without first marrying — and did so accidentally. Neither reflects the realities of our society — perhaps even less than in the past.

We’ve got research now, for example, that flips cause and effect. Kathryn Edin, who actually lived in poor communities and got to know women there, found that they would have chosen marriage if they’d found a suitable spouse — specifically, a reliable, clean-living, nonviolent breadwinner. Severe shortage, as Edin explains.

The women had children anyway because they wanted them and saw no point in delaying motherhood, feeling they’d be poor no matter what. Children, in fact, satisfied a felt need for meaning in life.

I want, however, to focus on the second pair of assumptions. As my title suggests, not all single mothers are alike. That is, they’re not all single and mothers for the same reasons. And, as it also suggests, they’re not all single — at least, from their point of view.

First off, single mothers include those who got divorced or became widows and didn’t remarry. Many, but far from all live in poverty — because they’re not getting much, if anything by way of child support, in the former cases, or Social Security benefits for their children, in the latter.

Some would be no better off if they still had a husband in the house. Nor would their children. We still see the term “deadbeat dads” used to refer to absent fathers who choose not to pay child support.

But live-in husbands can be deadbeats too. Guys who could, but don’t work or even try to. Guys who do work, but use what they earn to buy alcohol, drugs, fancy clothes for themselves, etc. So the home is rife with stress and anger — violence too perhaps. The children suffer. The mom opts for peace and control of the cash flow.

Then we’ve got mothers who aren’t legally married, but live with a partner in a relationship that’s for all intents and purposes a marriage, though with the advantages our laws confer on spouses.

We’ve got more so-called cohabiting couples now than even a generation ago. This, it seems, is at least in part because young adults no longer view marriage as a “cornerstone,” but as a “capstone” — something to postpone until they’re sure they’re ready and “have all their ducks lined up.”

But they’re not delaying parenthood. The share of births to cohabiting mothers increased from 6% in the early 1980s to 25% in 2009-13, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research.

It distinguishes these mothers from single mothers, but they’re officially single nonetheless. They’re different, the Center for American Progress says, because cohabitation is typically “a transitional stage” — either a prelude to a first marriage or an interlude before a second.

That may be more than case now than it was only a few years ago because same-sex couples can now legally marry. Still, we need to recognize lesbians in long-standing domestic relationships who chose to become mothers.

They’re not the only single women who became mothers by choice. As you may have read, the teen birthrate is dropping. At the same time, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among women 35 and older has risen.

We know anecdotally that some wanted to have children for quite awhile and figured that marriage just wasn’t in the cards — or that it wasn’t what they wanted before their biological clock ticked further past their prime childbearing years.

So, for them, a sort of planned parenthood we don’t ordinarily think of when we hear the term — thanks to the wonders of medical technology.

Other women in their mid-thirties become single mothers in a different way. A dear friend of mine, for example, wanted to raise a child, saw no prospect of marriage and discovered she was infertile.

So she adopted a baby left with an agency by a mother who couldn’t care for him, confident that she had the financial and personal resources, including a close-knit family to give him a secure, loving childhood.

Another single woman I know — the successful head of her own professional services firm — recently a adopted a baby for similar reasons. They’re not the only single women who’ve made this choice — some, in fact, when considerably older.

Our country does a lousy job of supporting mothers — and to that extent, a lousy job of supporting children in any sort of family. An especially lousy job of supporting single mothers and their children, as their unusually high poverty rates indicate.

Single mothers, unlike their married counterparts, still get a bad rap for having failed to exercise personal responsibility, driving up safety-net costs, crime and other social ills.

I’d rather celebrate them in all their variety. Better, I think, than conceding Mother’s Day to Hallmark, Teleflora and the perfume and candy purveyors.


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