Nonprofit Housing and Service Providers Face Funding Crisis

July 6, 2015

I’ve often remarked that nonprofits can’t fill safety-net gaps created by cuts in public funding — or even gaps due to current funding levels. Leaders of some of these organizations have publicly — and more persuasively, of course — said the same.

On the other hand, nonprofits do fill gaps that would exist without funding from private, as well as public sources. We individual donors are one of the former. But helpful as our donations are, many nonprofits, large and small, receive significant financial support from foundations.

So you can imagine the shock waves that reverberated through nonprofit communities when they learned that the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac foundations would cease to exist.

They didn’t abruptly cut off funding. But it’s about to end. Fannie’s already has. Freddie’s schedule calls for last payments some time this year.

Combined funding, though shrunk, was about $50 million in 2011. That’s a lot to make up for from other sources. But if it isn’t, we’ll surely see cutbacks in programs that provide housing and services to low-income residents here in the District, nearby communities and probably elsewhere.

Charitable Giving Phase-Out

How Fannie and Freddie came to withdraw from their roles as major donors is a tad complicated. But I’ll try to briefly tell the story, mainly because it strongly indicates that the funding spigot won’t open again.

Fannie closed out its foundation in an apparent effort to counter accusations that it had used its grants to build support — and lobbying partners — for its business interests.

The CEO said that Fannie itself would pick up the foundation’s charitable function — and spend at least as much. That was in early 2007 — just as the housing bubble began to burst.

Shortly thereafter, both Fannie and Freddie were holding a bunch of bad mortgages and responsible for delivering on promises to investors in securities backed up mortgages — also now bad.

They were, in a manner of speaking, bailed out and control of their affairs turned over to the newly-created Federal Housing Finance Agency. It told them to phase out their charitable giving and set the terms.

Fannie and Freddie in the Washington Metro Area

Up until recently, Fannie and Freddie, through its foundation, were the largest corporate donors to nonprofits in the Washington metro area, according to a report by George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis.

They provided support for more than 500 nonprofits during 2007-10 — a total of nearly $100 million. The money supported a wide range of programs and services.

But well over 70% received by the 200 largest nonprofits supported three types of programs and services — homelessness, housing and “human services.”

The first two (obviously related) are hardly surprising. Fannie and Freddie are, after all, in the housing business. And the FHFA directed them to focus their donations accordingly.

However, the corporations donated more to human services than the other two combined. The explanation here perhaps lies in how the analysts decided to classify donations.

What we know is that Fannie and Freddie have provided crucial support for services that can prevent homelessness and, in various ways, help families who’ve become homeless achieve enough economic security to become stably housed.

What’s at Stake

The funding figures I’ve cited understate the impacts of lost Fannie and Freddie funding because the corporations donated much larger amounts before the bailout. Even the recent figures, however, suggest a potential crisis in the making.

Nonprofits in the Washington metro area have reportedly lost — or will soon lose — nearly half their private sector-funding.

The loss will be greater — about 60% — for their programs and services to prevent homelessness and to provide both shelter and housing with supportive services for people who were homeless.

The crisis isn’t ultimately for nonprofits, however, but for the people they serve. It’s also, for this reason, a crisis for state and local governments because nonprofits are deeply woven into our safety net.

They also operate programs that can reduce needs for safety-net benefits by helping individuals and families overcome barriers to self-sufficiency, e.g., domestic violence trauma, substance abuse, lack of marketable skills.

These improve future prospects for low-income children. Other services do as well — for example, by helping parents learn how to keep them healthy and support their development, manage resources and so, in the best of cases, provide a safe, stable home.

These crucial programs and services won’t all vanish, of course. But loss of so much funding will surely mean fewer people served and/or fewer services — unless other funding sources fill the gap.

Well, we can’t look to this Congress. That’s for sure. Doubtful we can look to state and local governments either, though some may increase funding, as the District already has in several areas.

What Next

The GMU analysts recommend that nonprofits develop plans to reduce expenses and/or combine programs. Whether nonprofits can do either or both without curtailing services remains to be seen.

Even coming up with a plan — especially one that would merge nonprofits — seems a challenge at least some will need expert help with. Help perhaps with profound internal culture changes too.

The analysts also note the need for other corporations to “step up and fill the gap.” Interestingly, no mention of individuals who’ve got lots of money to give away. Nor those of us with the wherewithal to do our bit — or bigger bit — once we understand the need.

We don’t have comparable reports to tell us where and how large the gaps will be outside the Washington metro area, but we can be fairly sure there’ll be some, since total Fannie and Freddie donations have exceeded those to metro-area nonprofits in the past.

In short, we seem to have some handle on funding losses here — and some as-yet unpublished indications of impacts. Doubtful other affected communities have even this much. We’re nowhere near solutions, assuming they can be found.

Yet the needs Fannie and Freddie’s donations helped meet can’t be put on hold. A lot of folks have a lot to do PDQ.

 

 

 


Homeless Youth Who’ve Beaten the Odds Speak Out

July 2, 2015

Such an enlightening — and in some ways, disturbing — panel discussion among homeless and formerly homeless youth.

There were ten of them, brought together by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, which had awarded them scholarships. So they were hardly a representative sample.

Not only had they graduated from high school, though homeless kids are 87% more likely to drop out. They’d gotten grades good enough to get them into college. And the upbeat invitation to the event suggests they were chosen not only for that, but for “resilience.”

Their stories were nonetheless worth hearing — and, I believe, sharing, though the best I can do is highlight major themes that emerged.

I hesitate to do even this because some of those themes play into the nastiest stereotypes of poor parents. And for the most part, they seem beyond the reach of policy solutions. However, ignorance is a bliss we shouldn’t enjoy. So without further ado ….

Shocking Cases of Abuse and Neglect

One might expect, I suppose, a story of how a child who was or became homeless suffered from neglect due to a parent’s depression, distraction by the daily challenges of poverty and/or the need to juggle multiple part-time jobs.

But we heard several stories of sexual abuse — by a mother’s boyfriend, by a father with whom the then-young child was forced to “nap” by her grandmother, who knew what was going on.

Stories also of violence in the home — a boyfriend who beat her mother “half to death,” a grown-up sister who beat her because she moped around after their mother’s death.

And we heard of egregious neglect — in one case, the result of substance abuse, in another severe mental illnesses, in a third an absent father ‘s belief that he had no responsibility for child support.

Now, not all parents were like that. One mother made sure her child was always clean for school, though that meant bathing in a river and washing his clothes there too. Parents of another panelist clearly shielded her from the reason they were living in a motel. “I didn’t know I was homeless,” she said, until the bedbugs attacked.

Lost Childhoods

“I was caretaker for my mother,” said the young woman whose mom was too afflicted with mental illnesses to care for her.

Virtually the same phrase from another panelist, whose mother often came home “shit-faced” drunk and vomiting. She’d clean her up and put her to bed. “I was the mother…. I feel I never had a childhood,” she said.

Still another visited food pantries, took a job at fifteen and a second at sixteen to earn money for food because her father wouldn’t apply for government benefits. “I was so tired,” she said. But “I had to worry. They are my family too.”

Hardships From Doubling Up

Most of the panelists were never homeless, according to the definition most of our data reflect. In other words, they hadn’t lived in a shelter, transitional housing or on the streets. The majority, as one said, had “bounced around.”

Some of those doubled-up situations were unsafe. Recall the grandmother. Another panelist referred to “sleazy relatives” he and his family had to rely on for a place to stay.

The bouncing around itself caused problems, both academic and emotional. “The biggest hardship,” one panelist said, “was going to eight elementary schools, four in the second grade.” So lessons repeated and others missed.

Another panelist had great difficulties gaining admission to a new school because the family couldn’t prove residency. He — now an aspiring lawyer — finally prevailed, but he lost months of school in the interim.

At the same time, the doubled-up arrangements apparently fostered a sense of insecurity. “You have a roof over your head,” a panelist said. “But it’s not yours. You can get kicked out at any time.” “You never know what you have till it’s gone — peace of mind,” said another.

School a Respite From Troubles

We’ve got scholarship winners here. So it’s not surprising that they viewed school as their “ticket out,” as one put it. What struck me more was how many spoke of school as a counterbalance to the rest of their lives.

It “was pretty much the only stability I had,” one panelist said. “I would go to not think about homelessness…. I’d work hard because it was the only control I had.” “Breakfast and lunch were a guarantee,” another said. “I felt safe.”

Still another spoke of the structure and support provided by extra-curricular activities — sports and the school band, in her case. “There were rules, times and community.”

Now, school wasn’t an altogether welcoming place for all the panelists. One, for example, was sometimes turned away because she wasn’t wearing a uniform. Or she was chastised because it wasn’t clean. “We didn’t have money for a laundromat,” she explained. And apparently no one at the school had bothered to find this out.

What Helps

The panel discussion was held in the Capitol building — obviously to relay messages to members of Congress. None was there. Nor expected, I think. But junior staffers packed the room. One asked what Congress could do.

Panelists didn’t have much of an answer, though several mentioned increased funding for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

That could mean, among other things, more money for homelessness prevention, rapid re-housing, i.e., temporary rental assistance, and permanent supportive housing — seemingly the right solution for several panelists’ families.

It could also mean more money for the homeless liaisons that schools districts are supposed to have — enough so they’d have the time, training and resources to do what the law envisions.

Homeless students could then get consistent, appropriate help with enrollment. More already enrolled might be identified. And they’d get what they need for equal educational opportunity, e.g., school supplies, transportation, tutoring, links to healthcare and other services, perhaps even access to a washing machine.

Panelists provided a fuller answer when asked what had helped them personally. After-school programs, as I’ve already mentioned. Nonprofits that offer not only some of these programs, but others. And through them –but not them only –ongoing relationships with responsible, caring adults.

You can see, I think, why I flag these. “I don’t trust people,” one panelist said. But someone was always there for her, “not lying, not leaving.” And eventually she accepted help that gave her safety and stability — and enough trust to share her hurts with strangers.

 


Supreme Court Fair Housing Decision Means More Than May Appear

June 29, 2015

Quite a morning at the Supreme Court last Thursday. As you all know, a six-member majority preserved affordable health insurance for low and moderate-income people — and not only the 6.4 million whose subsidies were at immediate risk, for reasons I explained.

The Court also, by the slimmest possible majority, ruled that the Fair Housing Act prohibits policies and practices that have a discriminatory effect, even if an intent to discriminate can’t be proved.

This is how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has interpreted the law — and how virtually all lower courts have interpreted it for 40 years, including all at the appellate level that have considered the issue.

But the ruling came as a pleasant surprise because advocates thought the Court wouldn’t have agreed to hear the case if it wasn’t likely to rule the interpretation over-broad.

The ruling removes a threat to HUD’s efforts to combat racial segregation, both the legacy of deliberately discriminatory policies and the effects of current policies and practices.

The just-decided case involved one of the latter — a local housing authority’s disproportionate awards of tax credits to developers with plans to locate low-cost housing in predominantly black inner-city neighborhoods.

The ruling will free HUD, from a legal standpoint, to issue a final version of its rule spelling out its responsibility — and thus the responsibility of state and local agencies — to “affirmatively further” equal housing opportunity, as the FHA requires.

This, in itself, has broader implications than the obvious because equal opportunities to rent and buy housing are closely linked to other opportunities — most, though not all related to advantages of living in a neighborhood where most fellow residents aren’t poor.

These include living closer to where a decent number of decent-paying jobs are available and/or to convenient public transportation, ready access to full-service grocery stores, better-funded — and therefore, generally better — nearby schools and less exposure to toxics in the environment, not to mention flying bullets.

They are all reasons that a plethora of research has found that place matters — including, as I wrote awhile ago, for children’s future prospects of moving up the income scale from the bottom fifth.

Now, it’s not only housing discrimination — intentional or otherwise — that tends to perpetuate income inequality and, with it, downright income insufficiency. We have ample evidence of discrimination in hiring, pay, promotions and the like.

We know that state and local funding for public schools can deny equal educational opportunities to children in high-poverty districts, which are often (though not always) predominantly black or Hispanic. And we’ve got evidence of what certainly seems to be discrimination in the way schools deal with students who’ve allegedly violated the rules.

Discrimination of these sorts affects not only racial and ethnic minorities, of course, but other groups our major federal civil rights laws are supposed to protect, e.g., women, people with disabilities, those whose religious beliefs and/or practices relegate them to minority status.

I’m off on what may seem an excursion because, as a lawyer-advocate friend of mine noted, the disparate impact (or effects) standard the Supreme Court upheld has also long been the basis for enforcement of the other laws.

What I, like many others said about fair housing applies equally to employment and to education, health care, social services, transportation and other programs that receive or benefit from federal funds.

You’re rarely, if ever going to be able to prove that a policy or practice has a greater negative impact on people who belong to a protected class because that’s what it was intended to do.

And indeed, some policies and practices with disparate impacts probably aren’t intentional, but rather “unconscious prejudices,” as Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said. Some, indeed, may not reflect prejudices at all, but a casual acceptance of the status quo, failures to think through consequences or not caring to address them.

Those policies and practices are nonetheless contrary to what Congress intended back in the days when it sought to level the playing field for people unjustly denied opportunities essential for upward mobility, personal well-being and full participation in our social and political institutions.

A decision for plaintiffs in the FHA case wouldn’t automatically have extended the overly-narrow intent standard throughout the fabric of our civil rights protections. But it would have given a new entering wedge to parties interested in constricting their reach.

So an altogether good Thursday at the Supreme Court. And as you all know, a great Friday too.


Big Sigh of Relief As Supreme Court Majority Upholds Affordable Health Insurance Nationwide

June 25, 2015

This is a post I’ve been hoping to write. And now I can because, as you’ve undoubtedly read, the Supreme Court majority has preserved the subsidies low and moderate- income people have been getting to help them afford health insurance purchased on the federally-operated exchange.

You may also have read some of the dire warnings of what would happen if the Court had ruled otherwise. Perhaps not as many as I’ve ferreted out, however. So I’ll begin with them. Then I’ll briefly highlight a less publicized warning of yet further harm, presumably averted.

Nearly Three-Quarters of Subsidies Saved

As you probably know, plaintiffs contended that the federal government couldn’t subsidize the costs of health insurance purchased on the exchange it created for people in the 34 states that wouldn’t — or in some cases, decided they couldn’t — create their own exchanges.

Say five instead of three Supreme Court members had agreed.

About 6.4 million people would have lost the tax credits that serve as subsidies, according to the latest enrollment figures. That’s roughly 74% of all those who receive them.

Their subsidies average $272 a month. So if premiums stayed the same, they’d have had to come up with an additional $3,264 a year. But premiums wouldn’t have stayed anywhere near the same. They’d have increased by an average of 35% next year, according to Urban Institute analyses.

Basic market forces would have driven a so-called death spiral. First, relatively young, healthy people would have decided to forgo health insurance rather than pay what their subsidies had covered. Insurance companies then would have faced higher per-customer healthcare costs. So they’d have jacked up their premiums to compensate.

Which, of course, would have led to more younger, healthier dropouts. Which would have led to … Well, you see where this is going. Premiums would ultimately have increased by 47%, the RAND Corporation concluded — unless states belatedly set up their own exchanges.

Some might have given it a shot. But few, if any could have gotten their own exchanges up and running by next year.

Some surely wouldn’t have tried. We’ve still got 18 states that refuse to expand their Medicaid programs, even though the federal government would initially cover all the healthcare costs of newly-eligible beneficiaries — and virtually all so long as that part of the ACA remains intact.

Most of these states, as well as others were in a wait-and-see mode. Some clearly looked to Congress to let them do whatever they fancied. And indeed, the House Republicans’ latest block grant plan would have. Not a happy prospect, for various reasons.

Greatest Reprieve for Poor and Near-Poor

An adverse ruling wouldn’t have affected the very poorest Americans. They never had a chance to buy subsidized health insurance on an exchange because their household incomes put them below the federal poverty line.

Some are eligible for Medicaid, even in the recalcitrant states. Texas, for example, will cover parents in three-person families with annual incomes at or below 19% of the FPL — currently $3,817. No Medicaid for even the poorest childless adults — nor in any other non-expansion state except Wisconsin.

But the near-poor apparently took advantage of the exchange option. We see, for example, that 94.5% of Mississippi residents enrolled benefit from subsidies averaging $351 a month.

More generally, individuals and families hovering just above the FPL would obviously have been the least able to pay for unsubsidized premiums — and full out-of-pocket costs like copays too. For those Mississippi folks, the average premium hike alone would have been 650%.

Hospitals Saved From Large Losses

Meanwhile, hospitals would have faced bigger cost crunches because they’d have been obliged to provide more emergency care for uninsured people. Through their major associations, they agreed to a lower compensation rate for the uninsured on the assumption there’d be fewer.

A ruling for plaintiffs would have blown another hole in the assumption. (The earlier ruling that made Medicaid expansion optional was the first.)

But hospitals are — and would still have been — stuck with the compensation rate. Their losses due to newly-uninsured patients would have totaled $3.8 billion next year, the Urban Institute estimates.

Next Step in Gutting the Affordable Care Act Short-Circuited

A victory for plaintiffs could well have prompted another round of litigation to dismantle the ACA — or, as one of the strategists put it, to kill “the bastard … as a matter of political hygiene.”

In this scenario, the anti-ACA funders and their allies would probably have called on the courts to invalidate federal funding for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program in those same 34 states where residents lost their subsidies.

A  bit of background to understand how they’d go at it. The case before the Supreme Court hinged on what the ACA means when it refers to “an exchange established by the state” — or alternatively, whether the use of that term was a drafting glitch, clearly at odds with the intent of the law and other provisions in it.

Well, two wholly separate provisions use the same term, as Modern Healthcare reports. The more consequential conditions federal Medicaid/CHIP funding on states’ ensuring coordination between these programs and “an exchange established by the state.”

A ruling for plaintiffs in the case just decided wouldn’t automatically have denied Medicaid/CHIP funding to the 34 states without their own exchanges. But would it have given ACA opponents a good shot at another challenge affordable health insurance for poor and near-poor Americans? You betcha.


Too Soon to Lock in DC Tax Cuts

June 25, 2015

Life is full of surprises, they say. So is the District of Columbia’s budget. I’m referring here to the Budget Support Act, the package of legislation that’s paired with the spending bill.

Turns out that the BSA the DC Council will soon take its second required vote on could trigger tax cuts before either the Mayor or the Council knows how much the District will need to spend just to keep services flowing — let alone how much it should spend.

Whoever knew? Doubtful all Councilmembers did, since Chairman Mendelson distributed the final BSA shortly before the first vote. Other interested parties surely didn’t because it wasn’t published.

And one would have needed time to figure out what the Chairman had done because his bill doesn’t spell out how it would change trigger provisions enacted as part of last year’s BSA.

Well, we know now — or could, thanks to a heads-up from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and a DC for Democracy post that adds some angles.

The basic issue here — though not the only one — is when tax cuts recommended by the Tax Revision Commission should go into effect. Both the original BSA provision and the new version require a revenue projection higher than an earlier one.

Tax cuts wouldn’t all kick in at once, since that would immediately throw the budget out of balance. Last year’s BSA ranked them in priority order. The ranking would stay the same. But that’s as far as the parallels go.

Set aside for a moment the egregious lack of transparency. What’s wrong with the latest plan for triggering tax cuts based on rosier revenue projections? Three big things.

Tax Cuts Take Priority Over Spending Needs

The new plan would dedicated all of the projected revenue increase to tax cuts, rather than the excess over a threshold set by the current BSA.

And it would do that before the Chief Financial Officer had estimated the costs of sustaining existing programs in the upcoming fiscal year. These tend to rise for various reasons, as DCFPI notes.

Beyond that, we’re not spending as much as we should in a number of areas — affordable housing and homeless services, to name just two. This year’s budget makes some progress on both. But further progress will stall if the Mayor and Council can’t allocate the revenues needed.

Without them, the Housing Production Trust Fund — the single largest source of financial support for affordable housing construction and preservation — could have less next fiscal year, since half of the $100 million it has now reflects a one-time appropriation.

The next steps envisioned in the latest strategic plan to end homelessness in the District also hinge on further investments. For example, the plan envisions year-over-year increases in permanent supportive housing for families, plus some rapid re-housing vouchers extended past the usual one-year limit.

It also calls for some indefinite-term vouchers earmarked for families and single adults who can’t afford housing when they don’t need intensive supportive services any more or come to the end of their rapid re-housing extensions.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll add that we’re likely to have homeless families until the Mayor and Council significantly increase Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, which now, at best, leave a family of three at about 26% of the federal poverty line.

More generally, setting automatic triggers for a series of tax cuts denies both the Mayor and Council a chance to weigh priorities during budget seasons. Those tax cuts, recall, will mean relatively less in revenues not only next year, but every year — unless they’re repealed.

A whole lot harder politically to repeal a tax cut than to defer it until it won’t preempt spending that will do more good for more people than reducing tax obligations for some.

Cuts in the Offing Tilt Toward Well-Off Taxpayers

The Tax Revision Commission made nearly a dozen recommendations for cuts — a mixed bag if you believe that individuals and businesses should contribute to the general welfare according to how well they’re faring.

The Council adopted a couple that ease tax burdens for low and moderate-income residents. But those ranked highest in the BSA now don’t reflect a consistent preference for a progressive tax structure — far from it.

The second listed, for example, would reduce the tax rate on income between $350,000 and $1 million. Next on the list — and again in fifth place — are cuts in the franchise taxes that businesses pay.

The threshold for any tax on estates would increase to $2 million before filers would get larger standard deductions — the option virtually all low-income taxpayers choose because they’d pay more by itemizing.

Bigger Revenue Losses Than Recommended

The Tax Revision Commission recommended revenue increases to offset the losses resulting from its recommended cuts. The Council took a pass on two. The new BSA would do the same, forgoing $67 million, DCFPI reports.

So there’d be a straitjack on revenue growth — possibly indeed future shortfalls. The District has had these before — the latest only just remedied by savings found.

What the shortfalls tell us is that revenue projections are inherently iffy — the more so as they estimate collections beyond the upcoming quarter of a fiscal year. That’s just how forecasts are. Ditto projections of spending needs.

Who, for example, can foresee a prodigious snowstorm, requiring millions more to clear the roads than budgeted? Who, at this point, can predict how much crucial programs will lose due to federal spending cuts?

So it seems unnecessarily risky to plow ahead with tax cuts before next year’s budget is even on the drawing board. And if past is prologue, programs that help low-income residents are what the BSA would actually put at risk.

UPDATE: I’ve learned, from reliable sources, that the excess revenue threshold in the current BSA applied only to the forecast used as the basis for next fiscal year’s budget. Under the current law, tax cuts would kick in with any higher revenue forecast, but not until next February. The Mayor could, if she chose, ask the Council to approve using the extra for unmet needs instead.

So what I wrote about the current BSA is misleading, but my basic point that the new BSA would trigger cuts prematurely stands.

 

 


Steps Toward Helping Low-Income People Get Connected to the Internet

June 22, 2015

You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have swift, reliable access to the internet. You couldn’t be reading it if I didn’t.

We all, I suppose, take our high-speed connections for granted — except when our service is interrupted. Yet costs are apparently a barrier for well over half of our country’s poorest households. And that barrier is a barrier to many opportunities we also take for granted.

Two Democratic Senators and a Congresswoman, also a Democrat, have proposed a bill that could enable low-income people to afford broadband connections. The Federal Communications Commission has just voted to explore a somewhat similar plan the Chairman floated,  thanks to the Democratic majority there.

Both would expand the Lifeline Assistance program, which currently provides low-income households with discounts for landline or cell phone service. It’s what you may have heard of as free Obama phones, an allegedly fraudulent, wasteful use of our taxpayer dollars — another liberal “dole-out to dead beats” on welfare.

But the phone service isn’t free. And though welfare recipients are poor enough to qualify for discounts, eligibility extends to households at or below 135% of the federal poverty line and to some whose incomes are higher, e.g., certain recipients of federal housing vouchers.

The dollars that pay for the discounts don’t come out of our federal taxes. They’re often collected as one of those mysterious charges tacked onto our monthly phone rate. And the Lifeline program dates back to the notoriously liberal Reagan administration.

Both the Democrats’ bill and the FCC Chairman’s plan seek to bridge the so-called digital divide — a marked disparity in ready access to a broadband connection that’s increasingly income based. In 2013, only 42% of the poorest households had high-speed internet service in their homes, as compared to 90% of those with incomes of at least $100,000.*

Don’t suppose I need to say that children are now expected to do homework involving internet use or that it’s all but impossible to find and apply for jobs, except via the internet. Far less possible these days to develop job-related skills and networks — or to keep up with relevant news.

So it would seem that a Lifeline expansion would make it somewhat easier to move up from the bottom of the income scale. It could also lead to better opportunities in other ways, e.g., by creating a broader base of informed, engaged voters.

Neither the FCC Chairman’s plan nor the Congressional Democrats’ seems like quite the right answer, however. Both would require Lifeline beneficiaries to choose between a high-speed connection and phone service.

And the Chairman apparently envisions the same subsidy — just $9.25 a month. That’s obviously less than what companies generally charge for phone service.

It’s a much smaller fraction of a DSL connection, which cost, on average, $59.40 a month two years ago, according to an FCC estimate. Hard to imagine that many poor and near-poor households would pick up the whole cost of phone service, plus anything close to $50 a month.

Harder to imagine many would opt for the ‘net instead of a phone, if for no other reason than safety.

My mother-in-law, for example, is now in her mid-90s and coping with frailities common to someone of her age, e.g., a tendency to lose her balance and fall. She has one of those low-cost phone services, with an automatic dial for emergencies.

It’s been a genuine lifeline for her — and one I’m sure she’ll never swap for the chance to see photos of her grandchildren online or keep up with local news now that her hometown paper is delivered only three days a week.

The Democrats’ bill would direct the FCC to monitor prevailing broadband access prices, as well as some other relevant information, e.g., the prevailing speed households use. The agency would use these findings to set the subsidy rate.

Where the extra money would come from isn’t clear — at least, to me. If from a hike in the Universal Service Fund fee (our contribution to the subsidies), we should expect pushback. If not that, what?

The FCC will probably adopt some fleshed-out version of the Chairman’s plan. But the initiative itself will almost surely into flack on Capitol Hill, as The New York Times has predicted.

Not much enthusiasm for broadband expansion there. Only nine more Senators and House members have signed on to the proposed Broadband Expansion Act. Not a single Republican.

So it’s far from certain that we’ll soon help low-income people gain home-based access to the diverse opportunities the internet offers. And as I’ve suggested, the proposals seem problematic.

On the other hand, some influential policymakers have recognized a problem and come up with an approach to solving it. If it needs tweaks and/or clarifications, well, that’s what rulemaking and legislative processes are for.

So as with many issues affecting low-income people (and others), this one boils down to political will. Which in this case (and others), boils down to how we choose to view those low-income people and our government’s role in helping them surmount barriers that marginalize them.

* The FCC Chairman cites somewhat higher percents, based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The differences reflect differences in the income bands the ACS analysis and my source, Pew Research, use.


House Makes HUD Funding Bill Worse

June 18, 2015

Last week, House Republicans, joined by three Democrats, passed a bill to fund the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s programs in the upcoming fiscal year.

I’ve already blogged on how it shortchanges key programs for homeless and other low-income people — and leaves the National Housing Trust Fund with no money at all. Amendments made the final bill worse by undermining HUD’s efforts to enforce the Fair Housing Act.

One amendment that squeaked through would stall the agency’s belated push to “affirmatively further” the purposes of the law.

As I recently said, HUD has proposed rules that would reduce neighborhood segregation and strengthen actions against practices that deny racial and ethnic minorities, as well as others subject to discrimination equal opportunities to rent and buy. Most House Republicans — and no Democrats — voted to block them.

Another amendment would deny HUD funds to support nonprofits that supplement its enforcement efforts — for example, by sending testers, e.g., black and white, to apply for an apartment or a mortgage loan and filing complaints when they detect discrimination.

Still another would prohibit HUD from using funds to enforce a rule it’s issued that spells out its interpretation of how the FHA prohibits certain policies and practices that have discriminatory effects.

All but 13 Republicans — and again, no Democrats — decided HUD should have to prove that public and private-sector entities, e.g., zoning boards, mortgage companies, intended to discriminate.

This comes hard on the heels of a similar amendment to the bill that would fund the Justice Department, plus agencies responsible for science and commerce.

Documenting intentional discrimination is extremely difficult, as you might imagine. How often do you have, say, a zoning board on record saying, ” We’ll prohibit apartment buildings here because that will keep blacks out”?

This is one of the reasons that virtually all federal court rulings during the last four decades have upheld the effects standard House Republicans would prohibit both HUD and Justice from using.

Well, the HUD funding bill isn’t going to become law. And the Commerce-Justice-Science bill probably won’t either. It’s doubtful the responsible Senate committees will fold the amendments into their funding bills — some maybe, but not all.

It’s also doubtful the full Senate will have a chance to vote on the bills any time soon. The Senate Democratic leadership is reportedly marshalling its forces to block substantive votes on any and all bills that reflect the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act.

And all will (or seem to) because both the House and Senate budget plans adopt them, with a clever workaround for Defense.

The President’s got the Democrats’ back — or perhaps they’ve got his. He’s said he’ll veto any appropriations bill that adheres to the caps. Even if Republicans all hang together, they don’t have enough votes in either the House or Senate to override a veto.

So even if too many Senate Democrats defect from the block-all strategy, the HUD funding bill will ultimately become a bargaining chip in negotiations to avert a massive government shutdown.

Why am I bothering with the pernicious amendments then? Well, we’re coming up on elections, as anyone not living in a cave knows. What may seem futile, politically-motivated gestures now won’t necessarily be in 2017.

And it won’t take an amendment to the FHA to undermine the law’s intent. Nor so-called budget riders, i.e., backdoor policy changes tacked onto appropriations bills. We know from experience that if an administration doesn’t like an intentionally broad civil rights law, it can minimize its reach.

A ProPublica report tells us how Nixon prevented his HUD Secretary (former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s dad) from using the agency’s grant-making authority to desegregate predominantly white neighborhoods.

That’s not the only strategy administrations have used to minimize the effectiveness of the FHA. For example, Reagan’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights refused HUD’s requests to prosecute violators of the law unless the agency had clear evidence of an intent to discriminate.

And then as now, HUD couldn’t go to court on its own. So federal litigation to enforce the FHA ground to a halt. The House Republican majority apparently wants to set the clock back.

Like I said, the House appropriations bills aren’t going to become law. But they’re a clear warning, should one need it, that what’s happened before could happen again.

And, as before, an administration could deny not only fair housing, but other opportunities, e.g., for a decent, appropriate education, employment, timely health care, to racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and others our civil rights laws are supposed to protect.

 


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