Broken Bone, But Not Broke, Thanks to Medicare

December 1, 2016

A week before Thanksgiving, I got up on the right side of bed, but from closer to the edge than I realized. Landed flat on my back and lay there in excruciating pain. But I managed to get dressed, make sure essentials were in my purse, call 911 and hobble downstairs to open the door.

Folks in the ER took X rays and a CAT scan. Determined I’d fractured a pelvic bone, but probably wouldn’t need surgery. So they sent me to a hospital, where the tests were repeated and the same diagnosis made.

Then on to a rehabilitation center, where I got both physical and occupational therapy to ready me for living at home alone and as much painkiller they’d allow. I’m still in pain, but otherwise in pretty good shape—and home again neither permanently disabled nor bankrupt..

I’m told that the transport, medical and therapy services and the rooms, food and the like in the hospital and rehab center will cost me nothing. The painkillers require copay, but it’s small. And my Medicare Advantage plan sets a low cap on all my out-of-pockets for the year.

I shudder to think of the bills I’d face if not enrolled in Medicare — or more precisely, the Advantage plan I chose. And I says to myself, what if I were twenty or so years younger now and I’d had the same accident when I was sixty-five?

You know, I’m sure, that this isn’t a hypothetical question. House Speaker Paul Ryan apparently plans to link his pet Medicare “reforms” to whatever the Republican majority does to dismantle the Affordable Care Act,

“Medicare has got some serious problems because of Obamacare,” he recently told Fox News, claiming, as he has in the past, that the program “is going broke.” This is wrong on both counts, as the Washington Post’s fact checker explains. And Ryan probably knows it.

But he also knows he’s got an opportunity he didn’t before. He’s produced multiple versions of his so-called Medicare reform plan. The latest, in his Better Way healthcare policy paper, is a dense, blame-heavy thing. This much, however, I think, we can gather in answer to my what-if question.

I wouldn’t have health insurance through any form of Medicare. Ryan would link the minimum eligibility age to the age former workers become eligible for full Social Security retirement benefits. That would be sixty-seven under current law. But Ryan, among others, has wanted to raise it further.

The rationale for withholding both sorts of benefits from people who’ve reached what we ordinarily think of as retirement age is that Americans are living longer. This, Ryan says, is because we’re healthier—thus, inferentially, not in need of Medicare until we’re significantly older.

Set aside the over-simple reading of the rising longevity figure, we’re not living longer because we’re healthier. It’s rather because medical science has gotten better at keeping sick people alive and because we’re spending more on healthcare—this according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The constantly evolving treatments of various sorts will mean nothing, of course, if people who need them don’t have insurance to cover most, if not all of the costs.

And what about a case like mine? My life expectancy had nothing whatever to do with my falling, though my age may have had something to do with the fact that a bone cracked.

Say, however, I’d reached the ripe old age for Medicare. It wouldn’t come close to covering my healthcare costs. I’d get a subsidy of some sort to help me pay premiums for either a non-government insurance plan, misleadingly termed an Advantage Plan, or traditional Medicare, also misleadingly termed.

Ryan misleads because neither of the choices we’d have would offer as much care for as relatively little. Our premium support would do more for the poor than the well-off. But it wouldn’t rise to keep pace with rising healthcare costs.

This is a main feature, not a bug. Ryan’s fundamental aim isn’t to save Medicare, as he claims, but to cut federal spending. So the subsidy—not, he protests, a voucher—would cover less and less over time.

But we’d get more bang for the buck, he says, because insurers would reduce costs and improve quality of care so we’d choose their program over competitors’. Medicare would then have a built-in cost containment mechanism, as it doesn’t now.

It already has various price controls, however, though Republicans would blow some away in repealing the ACA.

The bigger deal, however, is that private insurers can’t keep premium costs and out-of-pockets low enough for most of us to afford them. Nor can what’s now traditional Medicare, which would be in even worse shape than its alternatives.

And the bigger deal yet is that the soon-to-be Secretary of Health and Human Services has long objected to Medicare and enthusiastically supported Ryan’s privatization plan.

Shortly before his nomination, he said he expected Congress to move forward with a Medicare replacement plan in six to eight months—as soon as it’s dispatched with the ACA.

Republicans can tackle both without any Senate Democrats voting in favor, through a somewhat arcane process known as budget reconciliation. So unless more than two Republicans heed the vast majority of Americans, who oppose any spending cuts to Medicare, future seniors won’t have affordable health care.

This tally assumes that Trump will ignore his promise to leave Medicare alone. We still don’t have a clear read on that. But I’m even less confident now than I was a couple of weeks ago. One need only look at the healthcare reform page on his new website—and, of course, his choice for HHS.

The fact that I personally got—and will continue to get—the healthcare services I need at a price I can afford doesn’t make what seems to be coming down the pike irrelevant to me, though that’s clearly what the Medicare reform crew intends.

Nor do I rest easy, knowing that ending Medicare as we know it is only one piece of the attack on our affordable healthcare system.

We know, for example, that block granting Medicaid appeals to Trump—and that he’ll almost surely have a chance to sign a bill that denies low-income people, seniors among them, the affordable healthcare services they can count on now.

This wouldn’t directly affect me. But if I had less money, it would because Medicaid would help pay for my Medicare out-of-pockets—and, in at least some states, the costs of a home health aide. Anyone hobbling around the way I am needs someone to help with basic tasks.

But how many states would still provide it as healthcare costs rise and federal funding doesn’t?


Yawning Opportunity Gap for Our Kids Because We Don’t View Them All As Ours

November 27, 2016

A recently-published book by Professor Robert Putnam warns that the American Dream is in crisis. We’ve had ample evidence of the symptoms for some time. But the fundamental issues Putnam raises seem to me more relevant than ever.

Other research has already told us that children who grow up in low-income families tend to remain low-income as adults, who then have low-income children, etc. Conversely, children who grow up in well-off families generally remain well-off. And so forth.

We’ve also had research showing that whom you’re born to has become more determinative in the last 30 or 40 years — a major point for Putnam.

He focuses on two related reasons. First, the “opportunity gap,” i.e., disparities in the resources parents and communities invest in children, has grown.

And second, we no longer think of everybody’s children as “our kids” because families have become increasingly segregated by income, education, neighborhood and related measures.

Thus, well-off families invest in their own children and what their own children will directly benefit from, e.g., the schools they attend. But they neither know much nor care much about the opportunities for children in the depressed neighborhoods across town.

We’re on our way to becoming a society where class is hereditary, he told a recent gathering (and those of us virtually present). The graphs he showed confirmed the basis for the alarm bells he’s trying to set off.

He referred to most of them as “scissors graphs” because the lines tracking the developmental opportunities children have grow further and further apart over time. Likewise factors he views as related, e.g., two parents in the home.

Now, the opportunities he dwells on don’t altogether explain why children born to poor and near-poor parents tend to remain stuck in the bottom fifth of the income scale.

Those resources their parents don’t have include money for food, decent, stable housing in a safe neighborhood, high-quality child care (unless they’re among the shrinking number for whom it’s subsidized), diapers …. Well, I needn’t go on with this inventory.

We know from other research that food insecurity, homelessness or even just moving from one home to another and then another and the stress parents inevitably communicate when they’re struggling with such things all put children at a disadvantage in the classroom.

We know that low-income children often don’t benefit from high-quality early education. Lack of resources, parental and public, mean that inequalities begin at “the starting gate,” as the Economic Policy Institute entitles its report on the problem.

This, I think, is why Putnam says that schools aren’t to blame for the widening income gap, though they don’t narrow it either. But he cites a related factor that, in his view, is — the unequal opportunities children have to participate in extracurricular activities.

Playing organized sports or in a band or orchestra, he says, teaches teamwork and develops what’s now often called grit — the will to keep working at something, despite setbacks and frustrations.

All children used to have opportunities of this sort. They now cost, on average, $800 a year, he says. That’s nothing, of course, for well-off parents, but more than some low-income parents can afford.

Even low-income children who beat the odds and not only graduate from high school, but go on to college don’t overcome the opportunity gap. Only 29% who scored high on standardized tests graduate, while 74% of high-income students do.

The difference here, Putnam says, is mostly not tuition costs or the formidable loans that all but well-off students must incur to gain a degree.

It’s rather a reflection of the investments parents made much earlier — the time they spent interacting with their infants and toddlers, the dinners that brought the whole family together, the religious services they attended, etc.

What this seems to mean is that the low-income students are in some way not prepared for college, test scores notwithstanding. I find this baffling.

Even if what Putnam calls our “pay to play” extracurricular system denied them an opportunity develop grit, they surely have it or they wouldn’t have learned what those test scores reflect, given the well-known problems of the schools they’re likely to have attended.

More baffling is the way he slides over the link between early opportunities children have — or don’t — and the color of their skin, a point the Washington Post‘s reviewer touched on.

If the time and money parents have to invest in their children is correlated to their income, then race discrimination, both past and present, deserves far more attention.

Putanm tends to use parental education, rather than income per se in his analyses — this, it seems, because he’s most concerned about the divide between social classes.

We’ve always had large racial disparities in college-level degrees. But even blacks who’ve graduated from college generally get paid less than whites, as the Economic Policy Institute’s analyses show.

If relatively more low-income children have only a mother to provide the interactions he views as so critical, it’s partly because most low-income women (like their better-off counterparts) want to marry reliable breadwinners.

So the disadvantages black men suffer in our labor market, e.g., higher unemployment rates, lower wages, help explain why a high percent of black mothers are single.

If low-income black children don’t always have fathers investing quality time in them, it’s also in part because our criminal justice system puts a disproportionate number of black men behind bars, thus giving them an additional disadvantage when they’re released.

And if communities consist of class-based enclaves, that’s partly because of discriminatory zoning and other housing policies — and discriminatory practices by lenders, real estate agents and landlords.

Putnam’s nevertheless right in saying that policy choices have widened the opportunity gap — and that policy choices can narrow it. Those he recommends are themselves fairly narrow.

This perhaps is because, as he stresses, he’s trying to start a national conversation about a problem that’s got no simple, quick fixes. But it’s also because he’s focused on children, especially the very young — and on what could conceivably prove politically feasible.

So nothing new here, as Jill Lepore’s account in The New Yorker says. But we don’t need new as much as do. And, as she also (sort of) says, we can’t count on much do from our federal policymakers.

The book is nevertheless timely — more so than I think Putnam expected — because it calls on us to consider whom we view as our kids and, more broadly, as members of our community.


Food for Thought About the Food on Our Thanksgiving Table

November 23, 2016

Last December, Barbara Ehrenreich took us to task for exercising gratitude. Well, not all of us, but the many who’ve heeded the research—often distilled into self-help guidance—that promotes gratitude because it’s so good for us.

Even those of us who still actually bother to thank people who’ve done nice things for us—rather than, for example, just jotting them down a journal—don’t escape scot-free.

Because, says Ehrenreich, we’re unlikely to feel thankful for the labors of low-income people—and because our gratitude, in and of itself, won’t make a damn bit of difference to them.

The op-ed struck me at the time as more appropriate for Thanksgiving than for the new year we were about to ring in. And perhaps Ehrenreich wrote it for publication then. In any event, I’m recurring to it now, thinking especially about the people whose labors feed us.

Not them only, however. Our Thanksgiving celebrations depend on other low-income people too—the clerks at the grocery stores, the workers in the other stores where we bought the napkins, candles, etc.

They won’t all have a Thanksgiving Day because many of the grocery stores will stay open so we can pick up what we forgot—and because a goodly number of us will start our holiday shopping while we’re still digesting turkey. That, at least, is what stores offering the extra-early Black Friday sales intend.

But back to our food.

Recent events have raised our consciousness of very disgruntled people in rural communities. They’re not, for the most part, actually poor. Or so one gathers from the polls. But many of the people in rural areas are—among them, those who plant, weed and harvest the fruits and vegetables that we’ll have on our tables.

They’re generally supposed to get paid at least the federal minimum wage. So they’d earn slightly over $15,000 a year if they worked full time, year round. But many don’t because crops have growing seasons.

That’s only one reason that farm workers are reportedly among the lowest-paid in the country—paid so little that 25% of their families have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the Department of Labor’s latest (not altogether current) survey.

For one thing, not all farm owners have to pay the minimum wage. The Fair Labor Standards Act exempts those who use fewer than 500 “man days” during any calendar quarter, i.e., the equivalent of 500 people working each day.

Sounds like a lot, it but translates into roughly seven workers per quarter, according to Farmworker Justice. It means, in fact, that about a third of our country’s farm workers can legally get paid less than the minimum wage.

Others may wind up short because they’re paid by how much they harvest—so much per bucket, for example. The burden thus falls on them to prove how much they’ve earned, whether more than the minimum wage or less. If less, than they’re owed the minimum.

That’s the most they’re entitled to under federal law. The FLSA doesn’t require farm owners to pay time and a half to workers who put in more than 40 hours a week. California and a few other states mandate overtime pay.

But surely not all farm workers who ought to get it do. Nearly a third of those the Labor Department surveyed spoke no English whatever. Nearly as many spoke only a little. And only 20% said they could read English well.

They’re ripe for wage theft and other abuses, e.g., lack of protection from poisonous pesticides. This is all the more true because nearly half—or perhaps even more—have no legal authority to work here.

Even farm workers born in this country or equipped with green cards run more than the usual risks if they try organize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions because they’ve no protections under the National Labor Relations Act.

Well, most of us look forward to Thanksgiving dinner because of the turkey, not the green beans or the mashed sweet potatoes (especially if they’ve got marshmallows mixed in). The pies are a different matter, of course.

What I’ve already said about farm workers applies to those who feed birds, clean up after them and toss them into crates, then onto the trucks that take them to the slaughterhouses—commonly and euphemistically called processing plants.

What life’s like for workers in plants that process turkeys isn’t easily learned—at least, for someone sitting at a computer. But we can learn quite a bit about workers in chicken processing plants. And presumably conditions are comparable.

Pay is low, though generally more than the minimum wage. Hours can be extremely long. But we can guess from past investigations that workers don’t always get paid for overtime. A recent survey of workers in Arkansas poultry plants found that 62% had experienced wage theft of one sort or another.

Further—and more singular problems—have to do with working conditions. Processing involves a lot of tasks, as Oxfam America explains in its lengthy report on workers in the processing plants owned by our major suppliers.

Basically, the birds get hung upside down on a line that speeds along very fast. Workers must keep up. They can’t always go to the bathroom when they need to. They suffer unusually high rates of repetitive motion disorders and other injuries. They’re exposed to harmful chemicals.

They can’t take time off when they’re sick or in too much pain to work without losing pay—and perhaps their jobs. Well-founded fears of job loss causes them to put up with whatever they’re subject to—especially immigrants, documented and otherwise.

I suppose it seems I’m trying to infuse guilt into what’s supposed to be a special day of gratitude. That’s not my intent, though I confess to feeling a little queasy about the low price I paid for my turkey.

Readers who felt stung by Ehrenreich’s column argued that pausing to focus on what we’re grateful for can make us more generous—even “lead to greater efforts to bring about social change.”

I see some truth in this—if we move beyond the things we’re grateful for to a heartfelt understanding of the privileges they imply and beyond that too. Because knowing we’re more privileged than some other folks does nothing

The food on our table (wine too maybe), the people gathered round, the warmth of the house, the security—these are all privileges and, often as not, derive from injustices in our social and economic systems.


No Secure Three-Legged Stool to Support Seniors

November 17, 2016

My recent post on Social Security left out two related pieces of the story — why retirement benefits don’t cover basic living costs and why the concept underpinning Social Security merits rethinking.

Why Social Security Doesn’t Give Seniors Income Security

If Social Security afforded seniors financial security, we wouldn’t have about 6.5 million of them in poverty — or nearly 13.8 million more constrained to live on incomes less than twice the applicable, very low threshold.

This, as I’ve said, is partly because Social Security retirement benefits are based on past wage income. But it’s also because they’re not supposed to suffice for financial security. And they never were.

Sometime in the late 1940s, financial security for retirees came to be commonly characterized as a three-legged stool, supported by Social Security benefits, pensions and private savings.

We see this assumption baked into the benefits, which now average $1,348 a month. That’s less than 150% of the poverty threshold for a single senior.

And the average, of course, masks the range. At the low end, roughly 30% of retirees and their dependents get less than $1,000.

How Other Legs of the Stool Don’t Support It

“All three legs of the stool have been whittled away,” says economist Jesse Rothstein in a paper that proposes a multi-part expansion.

But for Social Security, the whittling is only prospective, i.e., benefits cuts that will occur if Congress doesn’t do something to shore up the Trust Fund — or if Republican policymakers take a knife to them sooner.

What then about the other two legs? Pensions, as you know, are going the way of the woodbine and twine, especially in the private sector.

Employers that can have replaced them with 401(k) accounts or the equivalent — at least, those that think they’ve got to provide some sort of retirement benefit. Far from all do.

The rest don’t necessarily let all their workers participate. They can legally exclude those who don’t work, on average, close to half time. They may, in some cases, exclude workers supplied by temporary agencies — and in all cases, those they’ve misclassified as independent contractors.

Workers who are eligible don’t all seize this opportunity to save for retirement. About 16% of those nearing retirement age don’t — roughly the same as the percent of workers nearing middle age.

Those who do participate often don’t contribute the maximum they can. Only 10% did shortly before the Great Recession set in. Many of the rest presumably couldn’t afford to. Probably still can’t.

Rothstein flags other problems with the 401(k)-type plans. First off, they generally allow workers to decide how to invest the money they’ve contributed, within limits imposed by the financial plan or plans their employers offer.

These come with fees that look small, but add up over time. And, face it, knowing enough to choose which funds to invest in — stocks, bonds, a variable mix — and knowing when to move money around and when to sit tight require considerable expertise.

This is one, but far from the only reason that long-time workers lost, on average, 25% when the Great Recession set in.

These hazards apply equally to Individual Retirement Accounts, though the much lower limit on contributions necessarily limits losses. Gains also, of course.

Don’t look to the third leg to offset the weaknesses of the others. Seems that a very large number of working-age adults simply don’t have enough money to save — or at the very least, spend all their take-home pay.

Well over a third who earn less than $50,000 a year have no money in a savings account, according to a recent survey. An additional 35% have less than $1,000 — a minimal cushion against any unusual expense or income loss.

Low-income households headed by someone nearing retirement age have less than $10,000 in liquid assets, including money in bank accounts, retirement savings accounts and other sources they could readily tap, e.g., the cash value of a life insurance policy.

For all these reasons, Social Security is the major source of income for most of us older folks — and virtually the only source for 21% of married couples and about 43% who aren’t married, including presumably those whose spouses have died.

What If We Do Nothing

Rothstein is far from the only expert to seize on problems with our current system for financial security in our “golden years.” A team of economists predicts that the number of poor and near-poor retirees will increase 146% by 2022 if nothing’s done about Social Security and retirement savings accounts.

The increase could actually be larger because they don’t project for seniors over 74 years old. Even so, nearly 24% of all but the top-earning workers who were nearing retirement age in 2012 will be poor or near-poor only four years from now.

And if they’re struggling then, they sure won’t be better off if they manage to survive to a ripe old age, despite the hardships they’ll have suffered.

 


What’s in Store for Social Security?

November 14, 2016

Trying to figure out how to keep blogging on progressive solutions to social and economic problems that affect low-income people. Seems kind of hopeless, unless I focus solely on what’s going on in the District of Columbia. Not ready to do that, however.

So here’s a national issue that should mean a lot to the white, blue-collar working class whose votes, we’re told, largely account for Trump’s victory — the future of Social Security retirement benefits.

For somewhat over a year now, we’ve had promises and proposals to expand Social Security. Doubt we’ll see anything like them reach the President’s desk. Probably wouldn’t have, even if Clinton were sitting there.

But the problems they sought to address will continue to make old age insecure for millions of former workers and their families. In fact, without one form of expansion, they’ll be in worse shape than they already are.

Why Social Security Needs Fixes

As everyone, I think, knows, the Trust Fund that helps pay for Social Security retirement benefits will run out of money long about 2034. Ongoing payroll taxes won’t fully cover them. So unless the Trust Fund gets more, retirees will receive only about three-quarters of what they’re entitled to.

Social Security is, by far and away, the most effective anti-poverty program we have. Last year, the benefits it paid out lifted 22 million people over the applicable poverty threshold, including about 15 million seniors. But they fall far short of living costs for many.

So far short that about 6.5 million seniors lived in poverty last year, according to the Census Bureau’s better poverty measure, which factors in the cash value of major safety net benefits like food stamps and subsidized housing.

Most received Social Security benefits. But those who lived alone had less than $11,370 to pay for all their living expenses. Nearly 43% of all seniors were either poor or nearly so, i.e., had incomes below twice that threshold or one that’s only about $3,000 higher for couples.

The main reason they’re far from financially secure with Social Security is that the formula used to calculate benefits is based on the per-year average of what people earned during their highest-paid 35 years.

This keeps benefits low not only for retired low-wage workers, but others who didn’t work consistently or chose to work part-time for awhile — to care for children or an aging parent, for example.

It also depresses benefits for surviving spouses, who may receive only a portion of what the breadwinner was entitled to, and for other dependents, who always do.

How to Prevent the Shortfall

Basically, we’ve got two types of solutions to the impending shortfall — increase the funds Social Security receives through payroll taxes or preemptively cut benefits.

The Democratic party platform embraced the former, staunchly promising to “fight every effort to cut, privatize, or weaken Social Security.” Clinton did likewise, of course.

Both pledged to collect more in payroll taxes from high-income Americans. The platform defined them as those with annual incomes over $250,000. Clinton presumably meant the same, since she’d promised not to raise taxes on anyone who had less.

She mentioned two options, perhaps not mutually exclusive — tax some form or forms of income not subject to payroll taxes now and/or lift the cap on wage income. That’s now $118,500 and will get bumped up a tad each year that Social Security’s average wage index rises.

Lifting the cap — or scrapping it altogether — is hardly a new solution to the shortfall. Nor one supported only by left-leaning experts and politicians.

A majority of President Obama’s bipartisan commission on fiscal responsibility recommended a phased-in lifting of the cap until payroll taxes covered 90% of wage income, as they did in the early 1980s.

On the other hand, the Republican party platform says that all options to preserve and “modernize” Social Security should be considered, then swiftly reiterates the party’s opposition to tax increases.

House Speaker Paul Ryan refers vaguely — and ominously — to reforming Social Security. This, in the past, meant large benefits cuts, albeit postponed, and a further, perhaps ongoing increase in the eligibility age, which also translates into cuts.

His budget plan also included an option that would have allowed workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes from the Trust Fund into private retirement accounts. The structure of the accounts would have benefited only high earners, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said.

And the additional payroll taxes the plan provided for wouldn’t have kept Social Security solvent over the long term because the Trust Fund would have insured against any losses, including merely from inflation.

Ryan has since withheld such specifics. But I see no reason to believe that the House will move on a plan to preserve Social Security benefits for the long term — let alone expand them for seniors who can’t significantly supplement them from their own retirement accounts and other savings.

So far as our incoming President is concerned, we’ve no idea what he intends for Social Security. He’s said he wouldn’t cut benefits. But one of the advisors close to him implied he might — as, in fact, did his running mate.

He’s also said that the yuge economic growth his other initiatives will fuel is the key to preserving Social Security. Economists, not all left-leaning, beg to differ. And he himself hinted that future generations might face “changes.”

Well, the program does need changing — and not only to ensure that future retirees don’t have to try living on less than the benefits they’d receive if the shortfall’s averted.

To be continued.


Election Rigged, But Not As He Says

November 7, 2016

I’m thinking, as I’m sure you all are, about the election. Hard, in fact, to think about anything else today. This much we know. It’s rigged, though not as one prospective sore loser has said.

We’re familiar by now with the barriers states have erected, especially since the Supreme Court hobbled enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

But here’s an old one that will prevent an estimated 6.1 million U.S. citizens from voting tomorrow — state laws that disenfranchise people who’ve been convicted of felonies. More than three-quarters of them have fully paid their “debt to society.”

Like the voter ID laws, the contraction of early voting periods and the like, the felon disenfranchisement laws deny voting rights to a far higher percent of blacks than citizens of other races.

Roughly four times as many, the Sentencing Project reports — or roughly one in thirteen, as compared to one in fifty-six. And like the other laws and practices, the most exclusionary are in Southern states.

Florida and Virginia, which pundits have viewed as swing states during this Presidential election cycle, bar more than one in five blacks from voting because of a felony conviction.

The top four states all have Republican-controlled legislatures. And all but one — Virginia — have Republican governors too.

Virginia’s governor recently moved to restore voting rights to all former felons who were no longer on probation or parole. Blocked by a court after the Republican House and Senate leaders, joined by four other voters sued.

Do we detect a partisan interest in the felon disenfranchisement laws? For sure. But the laws are rooted in racism, as The New York Times editorial board explains.

Briefly, the harshest laws date back to the days when Southern states sought to prevent blacks from exercising the voting rights granted by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution.

The laws prohibiting felons from voting were an early and common way to avert “the menace of Negro domination,” as the candid president of Alabama’s constitutional convention put it. States, of course, doubled down with poll taxes, literacy tests and other formidably challenging  requirements.

Fast forward to the late 1960s. A number of states began to pare back their felon disenfranchisement laws. Yet the number of ex-felons denied the right to vote grew — from fewer than 1.8 million in 1976 to the projected 6.1 million.

The rate of black disenfranchisement due to felony convictions has grown accordingly. In 1980, laws in only two states barred more than 10% — neither, incidentally, in the South. Today, laws in nine do.

We all know what accounts for this — our war on crime, especially drug-related crimes, including mere possession and petty dealing. Nearly 40% of people behind bars for drug law violations are blacks, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Looked at another way, blacks are about 10 times as likely to be incarcerated for a drug offense as whites, though the best data we have indicate that use rates barely differ.

We can’t, I think, attribute the glaring difference in incarceration rates entirely — or even mostly — to race discrimination in courtrooms, though we can’t rule that out either.

Police forces generally don’t patrol well-off neighborhoods, looking for people taking a toke or selling a bag. And those who live there — mostly whites — usually don’t sell drugs on street corners anyway, as Christopher Ingraham at Wonkblog points out.

If well-off people do get arrested, they’ll have lawyers to negotiate plea bargains so as to reduce the offense they’re charged with to a misdemeanor — or to mount vigorous defenses.

Poor and near-poor people must rely on public defenders, who’ve got far too many clients to represent as effectively as the right to counsel requires.

Even if well-off people are convicted of a felony, they’ll have the money to pay the fines and fees that courts often levy. Doing that is frequently required to end a period of probation or parole.

And that will restore voting rights to ex-felons in 18 states, assuming they’ve satisfied all other conditions. But dozen impose lifetime bans on at least some people ever convicted of any felony.

So a middle-aged black man in Florida who’s been active in Democratic politics recently learned he can’t vote because of a petty drug crime he committed 30 years ago. “I don’t have a voice,” he says. “I’m like an anonymous person.”

He, no longer anonymous, represents a very large number of Americans who’ll have no voice in decisions that will powerfully affect their lives — and ours.

An injustice piled on top of injustices that go along way to explaining why they lack a right many of us still take for granted, legal and possibly illegal voter suppressions notwithstanding.


What We Know About DC Parents Up Against the TANF Time Limit

November 3, 2016

The working group deputed to advise on the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program gathered various kinds of information before making the recommendations I recently blogged on.

Among the most influential, I’d guess, were two newly-gathered sets of data that tell us — and decision-makers — more about the 6,560 or so TANF parents whose families will be at or over the 60-month lifetime participation limit next October, unless the Mayor and Council agree to an alternative.

For one set, the Department of Human Services did what seems a limited analysis of the families’ case records. For the other — and to me, more enlightening — it asked the parents some questions. The working group’s report includes an analysis of the results.

They bolster the case for eliminating the time limit because they cast grave doubts on the parents’ prospects for getting — and keeping — jobs that pay enough to support themselves and their children. Not such grave doubts for all, however, if they’re given more time in the program.

Here’s a sampling of what we learn.

Twenty-two percent of the survey respondents reported they were working, but very few of them full time. All but 39% usually worked for no more than 30 hours a week.

The fact that most of those already over the time limit have children under 10 helps explain this, but so may the hiring and scheduling practices that depress earnings for so many low-wage workers.

Nearly half the working parents earned less than $250 a week. A mother with two children would need about $388 a week, every week, just to lift the family over the federal poverty line.

About half the parents hadn’t participated in TANF for 60 months running. Three-quarters of those who’d left had done so because they’d gotten a job and/or began earning too much for their families to still qualify.

About the same percent were back in the program because they’d lost their jobs or couldn’t find a job that would enable them to support their families. These may include the 11% who said they’d re-enrolled because they couldn’t afford child care. Seems they’d lost the subsidies TANF parents get.

Their resumes may have lacked proof of the high-level skills so many local employers require. Thirty-one percent of the parents surveyed said that lack of sufficient education and/or training made it difficult for them to work.

The same percent are currently trying to get a GED or high school diploma — hardly something they could invest as much (if any) time in if kicked out of the program.

They’ll have a hard time getting any job without even this minimal credential. The unemployment rate for working-age residents with less is nearly 20%, according to the most recent analysis we have.

More than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require at least some postsecondary education by 2020, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projects.

This, of course, suggests that the job market will remain very tight — if not get tighter — for the least educated TANF parents. Hence, the need to ensure that TANF will remain a safety net for them and their children.

But it also argues for eliminating the time limit in a different way because 38% of the at-risk parents are taking college-level courses now. And scholarships the District provides exclusively for TANF parents probably help them cover the costs, as do the childcare and transportation subsidies.

Lack of work experience caused problems for 35% of the parents — perhaps some of the same who cited insufficient education and/or training as a barrier.

Far from all parents face only these barriers. More than half cited at least one sort of health problem as a reason they weren’t working, looking for work or regularly participating in a TANF training program.

Physical health problems pose a barrier for well over one in three. The case review found 18% with mental health needs that remained unmet — presumably meaning that the parents still suffered from them.

The federal Supplemental Security Income program provides modest cash benefits for people whose disabilities make self-supporting work impossible.

But relatively few who apply get them — and none who can’t prove, among other things, that their disability will last at least a year (or that they’ll die sooner) and precludes any sort of paying work.

A top-flight TANF expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put the chances that the 60-month or over parents could make up for their lost benefits with SSI at no more than 10%.

Understandably, more than half the parents facing lifetime banishments from TANF believe it will be harder for them to meet their families’ needs. An additional 25% don’t know.

They’re, of course, viewing their prospects in today’s job market. Come the next recession — and one will come — there’ll be fewer job openings and more recently-employed people competing for them.

What then for the many thousands of families tossed out of TANF — and others who’ll reach the 60-month limit during the downturn?