Budget Bill Fails on Unemployment Benefits, But Will Renew Health Insurance Help for Low-Income People

December 16, 2013

As I’m sure you know, the budget deal we’ve been reading so much about didn’t fold in an extension of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. And it’s highly doubtful Senate Democrats will upset the apple cart by adding it as an amendment to the bill the House passed.

The omission will, at the very least, make for a tough January for 1.3 million jobless workers and their families, who’ve got rent and other bills to pay. More harms to millions more if Congress actually lets the program die — not a foregone conclusion.

On a cheerier note, the budget legislation the House passed did fold in, via an amendment, extensions of two programs that benefit low-income individuals and families. Both, in different ways, help ensure that they can continue to get affordable health care.

They weren’t familiar to me. Perhaps aren’t to some of you either. So here are brief summaries, plus a bit of policy perspective.

The Transitional Medicaid Assistance program, as its name implies, allows some low-income families to get up to a year of Medicaid benefits when they’d otherwise lose them because their incomes boost them over their state’s eligibility threshold — typically just 61% of the federal poverty line, but far lower in about a dozen states.

TMA temporarily averts an unintended penalty to parents in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program who move from welfare to low-wage work — one of those so-called “cliffs” that works against a primary TANF goal.

Those whose income rises because they get a raise or an increase in hours can qualify, as can those who come to the end of a partial income disregard that some states and the District of Columbia provide so that earnings from work increase family income, rather than merely replace cash assistance.

The Affordable Care Act initially would have enabled the lowest earners to remain in Medicaid until they made enough to lift their families above 133% of the FPL — effectively 138%, for technical reasons.

Now that 25 states haven’t expanded their Medicaid programs — a choice the Supreme Court’s ACA ruling allows — TMA remains an important, though time-limited protection.

The program also affords some months of protection for very low-income parents when their child support payments rise — or for that matter, when the absent parent merely starts paying them. Here again, it’s diminishing a conflict between two government priorities.

The Qualifying Individuals program provides federal funding to states so that they can pay Medicare Part B premiums for seniors with incomes between 120% and 135% of the FPL. Younger people who receive SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) benefits also qualify.

The QI program is that last tier of premium assistance for low-income Medicare enrollees — unless, in some cases, they are disabled and working.

Part B, as you probably know, covers most of the costs of outpatient care, lab tests, “medically necessary” equipment like a walker or a blood sugar monitor and certain in-home, health-related services.

For most people, the Part B premium will cost slightly less than $1,260 in the upcoming year — a real bargain, but a strain on the budget of someone who’s total income may be about $13,790.*

No one in the Senate — except maybe a few of those “wacko birds” — will oppose the amendment that extends these programs, since it also includes the annual “doc fix,” i.e. a measure to forestall what, by this time, would be a 24.4% cut in Medicare reimbursements to physicians.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly objects to the whole budget deal, as do several other Republican Senators who are looking nervously — or hopefully — at their Tea Party constituents. But they can’t stop it from passing, even if they vote against it.

So two worthy programs will live for another year — both small, but important to those who benefit and to bipartisan interests in promoting work and controlling health care costs.

Not enough to make us stand up and cheer for a bill that could, in many ways, have been better — and not only because it leaves jobless workers in the lurch.

But if you look at Congressman Ryan’s latest budget plan, you can see that we could easily have been heading toward another government shutdown — and even greater pressures on programs that serve low-income people’s needs.

* This is 120% of the 2013 federal poverty line for a single person, rounded up.


Why Right-Wing Opposition to Obamacare Matters

October 9, 2013

I left off by remarking that hard-core opposition to Obamacare has damaged the program, though not blocked the rollout. Here are some examples, well-known and less so.

In the States

At this point, 22 Republican governors and legislatures have refused to expand their Medicaid programs, as the law required until the Supreme Court said it couldn’t.

Their unremitting hostility to Obamacare has left a total of 4.9 million of their poorest constituents no chance for affordable health insurance. An additional 1.5 million are in the same boat due to foot-dragging and other factors, e.g., recently-proposed alternatives to something less than a straightforward expansion.

At the same time, a goodly number of states are doing all they can to keep those who could get affordable insurance through one of the exchanges from knowing it’s available and choosing a plan that makes sense for them and their families.

The victims here will be largely low-wage workers, especially those who work for small businesses and/or part-time. Also some people who are genuinely self-employed and others whom employers misclassify as independent contractors.

In Congress

Meanwhile, it’s highly doubtful that Republicans in Congress will help fix glitches in the law so it works as intended.

One of the more problematic will leave some as-yet unknown number of families with neither affordable employer-sponsored health insurance nor a subsidy to purchase on an exchange.

This is because, as the law is written, a worker whose employer provides health insurance can buy on an exchange instead only if the plan is unaffordable, defined as more than 9.5% of household income.

But the percent applies to the cost of insurance for the worker only — typically just over a third of what a plan for a whole family costs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest survey.

The General Accounting Office reports that the affordable standard will affect approximately 460,000 children — perhaps considerably more in 2015, when federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program is due to expire.

Hard to believe Congress intended this. But the Obama administration says it’s “the most defensible” reading of the law as written.

In other words, it’s up to Congress to tinker with the language if it doesn’t want dependent family members uninsured — or workers begging employers to drop their health insurance plans and pay the modest penalty for not having one, if they’re large enough for the penalty to apply.

This isn’t the only glitch that’s come to light. The United Methodist Church and several other large church organizations warn that their health plans could fold because they can’t be offered on the exchanges, where their clergy and other employees could have the costs subsidized.

Washington Monthly bloggers Anne Kim and Ed Kilgore say that, according to most “observers,” the exclusion of the church plans was simply an oversight.

Two Senate Democrats have introduced a fix. But a spokesperson for one of them doesn’t expect a vote because the push to repeal — or more recently, to cripple — Obamacare “has disincentivized Republicans from working with us on this.”

And then, as you may have read, there’s an ambiguity in the law relating to Members of Congress and some of their staff.

They’re required to purchase health insurance on an exchange, although they were covered by their employer (the federal government). Now some Republicans are saying that said employer can’t continue paying a share of the insurance, as the Office of Personnel Management decided it would.

But Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), the original sponsor of the provision, says that the law “makes no changes to the employer contribution.” He calls the law’s silence on this “a drafting error.”

Under ordinary circumstances, Congress would have simply put a little patch in the law to clearly authorize what the best evidence indicates the majority intended.

Instead, a majority in the House and some in the Senate want to force their staffers to pay many thousands of dollars more than the average private-sector worker pays — merely to stir up resentment over a so-called “exemption” that’s nothing of the sort.

We’ve got a somewhat similar problem with subsidies for people who purchase health insurance on an exchange the federal government is operating because their state wouldn’t.

The Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon, who abhors anything that smacks of universal coverage, and Jonathan Adler, a libertarian law professor, claim the subsidies are illegal because the law restricts them to state-run exchanges.

And one can read the law that way, though other legal experts have argued — persuasively, I think — that it’s demonstrably contrary to what Congress intended.

Here again, in ordinary circumstances, Congress would fix what even Cannon and Adler refer to as a “glitch.”

Instead, we’re going to have, at the very least, taxpayer money wasted defending a rule that protects many more Americans from having to go without health insurance because they can’t pay the market rate.

The basic issue here is that any major law, especially one that strikes out into new territory won’t be perfect as initially enacted. Witness the initial limits in Social Security, for example.

But so long as a majority of Congressional Republicans want Obamacare to fail — and there are enough of them in Congress to control what passes — we’re stuck with what we’ve got.


What’s Behind the Fixation on Obamacare?

October 7, 2013

I’m having withdrawal symptoms. Not symptoms that my body is craving formerly-abused substances. Rather, symptoms that I want to withdraw from following what’s going on — and not — on Capitol Hill.

I’m tired, as I’m sure you are, of the day-by-day, blow-by-blow reports and commentary on who said what, what’s really on their minds, who will do what next, what they should do instead, etc.

And I’m anxious because I can’t persuade myself that this is all a lot of kabuki theater staged to ensure that Republicans up for re-election don’t lose their primaries to candidates more radically right-wing than they.

This may be simply because I’m prone to worrying — one of the things I do best, in fact.

Wonkblogger-in-chief Ezra Klein thinks the government shutdown is really a fine thing because it makes default on the debt less likely. And bad as the shutdown is, everyone knows default would be a whole lot worse.

Noam Schrieber at The New Republic arrived at a similar conclusion, based on the political calculations he supposes House Speaker John Boehner will make.

On the other hand, Howard Gleckman at the Tax Policy Center says that for many House Republicans, Obamacare is the white whale, a.k.a. Moby Dick, that so obsessed Captain Ahab.

The end result, as you may recall, was that he and all but one of his crew members died in a futile effort to kill the creature, who wouldn’t have harmed them if left alone.

There is, to me, something apt in this analogy. Obamacare clearly isn’t just a program Republicans don’t like — different somehow from the many, many other items the House leadership planned to include in its debt ceiling bill.

It’s a symbol for diverse antipathies — not the least of which is Obama. At any rate, I don’t know how else to explain what’s appearing more and more like an obsession.

Bill Moyers & Company’s Joshua Holland, among others, argues that right-wingers feel they’ve got to stop Obamacare now because otherwise Americans will soon find out that it delivers meaningful benefits.

It will thus “provide solid evidence that government can improve people’s lives.” So, Holland says, it’s “an existential threat” to the Tea Party types, who rail against “big government.”

Also, not coincidentally, against the taxes we pay for such public goods as education, clean air and water and what we’ve got by way of a safety net.

Eduardo Porter at The New York Times also refers to “an existential threat.” For him, it’s the distinct possibility that a “large slice of the middle class” will shift its allegiance to Democrats because of the benefits of Obamacare.

In short, a shrewd political calculation, rather than “only some folks gettin’ their crazy on,” in Jared Bernstein’s priceless words.

But there is some deep hostility to social programs here.

Thus, we have Washington Post columnist George Will comparing the insurance subsidies to a heroin drip that will make Americans “instant addicts” — just as we’ve become addicted to other entitlements like Social Security.

See also Senator Ted Cruz, who alleges that the President plans to get as many of us as possible “hooked on the subsidies, addicted to the sugar.”

Ah, well. Taking the most optimistic view of things, the economy will be rescued from the devastating consequences of default. And Obamacare will continue to roll out, as the law provides.

But that doesn’t mean the hard-core opposition hasn’t done damage. Some examples in my next post.


Young Adults Cannon Fodder in War Against ObamaCare

August 22, 2013

I thought I’d exhausted my reserves of outrage, but that was before some far right-wing organizations plumbed new depths of outrageousness.

FreedomWorks and allies are urging people to opt out of the opportunity to purchase health insurance through the exchanges that will open in October, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a ObamaCare.

The campaign is targeting young adults — and presumably those toward the bottom of the income scale, since most relatively high-earners have employer-sponsored health insurance plans.

Young adults — liberally defined as under 40 — are told they should burn their (fabricated) ObamaCare cards and pay the fine for having no health insurance.

Not to worry, they’re told. You can always get care in a hospital emergency room — or health insurance when you actually need it.

True for the ER. Mostly not for the insurance — unless, as Wonkblogger Sarah Kliff explains, you have a “major change in life circumstances” and manage to have it at just the right time.

What’s meant by “major change in life circumstances” seems not to include having a serious car accident or developing symptoms of diabetes — or a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, which is commonly first experienced in late adolescence or early adulthood.

But FreedomWorks isn’t worried about the well-being of young adults — or older adults either, for that matter.

Its aim is to crash ObamaCare because efforts to kill it outright have failed. Doesn’t mean Congressional Republicans won’t take another stab at crippling it one way or the other, of course.

What with all the talk about defunding and delaying, we’re seemingly heading toward another hostage-taking effort.

Congress has already agreed to a spending package that shorts the U.S. Health and Human Services Department on funds needed to maximize enrollment — more than the agency would have needed if 26 states hadn’t decided to leave the whole exchange business to the fed.

Getting the uninsured — and under-insured — signed up won’t be easy. Only 57% of uninsured Americans even know they will soon have to buy health insurance or pay a fine, according to a recent Gallop poll.

And only 62% of all Americans know that they may be eligible for subsidies to buy it on an exchange, another recent survey found.

It may be especially hard to get young adults into the system. About a quarter think they don’t really need the insurance because they’re “healthy enough.” And many of the much larger number who want it may think they can’t afford it.

Yet everyone agrees that the long-term success of the ACA hinges on getting young adults into the insurance exchange pools. They tend, by and large, to need less health care. So the costs of insuring them offset the costs of insuring older, sicker people, who can no longer be denied coverage or charged inordinate rates.

If there aren’t enough of the healthy sort, insurance premiums will rise, which will drive more of them away, which will drive premium costs up even more. Next thing you know, you’ve got what the experts call a death spiral.

All it would take is 3 million opt-outs and “ObamaCare falls apart for good,” FreedomWorks says. Over-promising a tad, but the administration itself has put a top priority on enrollling at least 2.7 million young adults next year.

It’s nevertheless true that a small fraction — maybe 3% — of young adults who have non-group health insurance now could see premium increases because their incomes will put them over the threshold for subsidies.

The threshold for a single person would be nearly $46,000 if the exchanges were open now. Economist Jonathan Gruber, who helped design the ACA, puts the price tag for these relatively fortunate young people at $1,600-$2,000 a year. And though that may be more than they’re paying now, they’re likely to get better coverage.

FreedomWorks, however, tells all young adults that the health insurance they’ll be able to buy “in most cases will cost more than it’s actually worth.”

I seriously doubt that someone earning upwards of $46,000 a year will decide to risk bankruptcy — not to mention inadequate health care — just because s/he’ll have to pay somewhat more than if health insurers could pick and choose the way they used to.

But the message could resonate with young adults further down the income scale, including the 9 million or so who’ve got no health insurance and and may not know they could get a subsidy to buy it.

Fact of the matter is that health insurance bought on an exchange is a good deal for them. In California, for example, a single minimum wage worker would pay nothing for the lowest cost plan and as little as $44 a month for a plan that’s significantly better.

Declaring freedom from ObamaCare, as FreedomWorks urges, would cost the worker $95 initially, but $250 more in 2015 and even more every year thereafter — something FreedomWork omits from its messages.

The bigger issue, of course, is that no one — not even the so-called young invincibles — can count on freedom from a major accident or illness.

Would the folks at FreedomWorks chose the high-risk course they’re advocating for themselves or their offspring? Of course not.

I hope International Steelworkers President Leo Gerard is right when he says that young uninsured Americans won’t either.

But all concerned parties have a lot of work to do to reach them and bring them into a program that right-wingers are carelessly (in the literal sense) doing their best to wreck.


Medicaid Saves Lives, Though New Study Doesn’t Show It

May 16, 2013

My mother-in-law has just been released from the hospital, where she hastily checked in with what turned out to be a case of pneumonia and a related blood infection.

Serious for anyone, but especially someone like Mom, who’s approaching her 94th birthday.

I’ve been wondering whether she’d have gone to the hospital so fast if she hadn’t had Medicaid to supplement her Medicare benefits.

Would she instead have waited to see if the cough subsided and the breathing got easier, knowing she’d have to cover a deductible — and perhaps “coinsurance,” i.e., a copay — she couldn’t afford?

I doubt this would have crossed my mind if I hadn’t been reading responses to the recently-published study of the effects of expanded Medicaid coverage in Oregon.

As you may know, the researchers compared certain health-related measures for low-income Oregon residents who’d won and lost out in a lottery the state used to expand its Medicaid program.

No seniors like Mom in either group because Oregon, like all other states, provides some Medicaid coverage for all low-income Medicare beneficiaries who’ve also got quite limited savings and other financial assets.

So the researchers were comparing two groups of people between the ages of 19 and 65 — all quite poor, some insured by Medicaid and some with no health insurance.

Not surprisingly, they found that lottery winners used health services more, including for preventive care. Prescription medications as well.

They had virtually no catastrophic out-of-pocket expenses — also significantly less occasion to borrow money or skip paying other bills to pay those for their health care.

More surprisingly perhaps, they had significantly reduced rates of depression. (Any relationship here to relief from plaguing financial worries?)

On the other hand, the researchers found no significant effects on several basic health measures — diagnosis and treatment for high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels.

And though Medicaid apparently increased probabilities for diabetes diagnosis and medication, it had no significant effect on a measure used for diabetics’ blood sugar control — at least, not within the study timeframe.

This relatively small, highly technical study has proved a Rorschach test of people’s views of the Affordable Care Act, as a borrowed headline on The Incidental Economist says.

ACA opponents jumped on the findings, of course. The libertarian Cato Institute immediately saw “a huge ‘Stop’ sign” in front of Medicaid expansion.

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson found confirmation for his view that the ACA has been “oversold” as a measure to improve health — as indeed, has health insurance generally.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat concluded that the study tended to support health insurance that covers only catastrophes because more comprehensive insurance doesn’t deliver better health, as ACA supporters said it would.

ACA proponents jumped on the findings too, arguing in part that protection from medical bankruptcy is a good enough reason to expand Medicaid, as the law initially required.

That, however, as they pointed out, isn’t the only benefit the study found. Many references to what one of the researchers called the “astounding finding” on improved mental health.

Some progressives also jumped on opponents for misunderstanding — or perhaps deliberately misusing — the health measure findings.

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones does a nice job here. As he explains, “significant” is used in its statistical sense, not as we commonly use it to signal something meaningful or important.

The study did find “fairly substantial improvements” for measures like high blood pressure, as Drum’s annotations of one of its tables shows. But the sample size was too small for these to meet the statistical test — a 95% confidence level.

Nearly lost in the back-and-forth on the latest paper are some findings from an earlier study by the same research team.

This one looked at several health measures, including what we might consider the most determinative — mortality rates.

Samples were large enough to get statistically significant results because the team was comparing rates in three states that had expanded their Medicaid programs with rates in three¬† that hadn’t.

Lo and behold, mortality rates went down in the expansion states — by 6.1%. That’s 2,840 fewer deaths a year for every 500,000 people who gained access to affordable health care through Medicaid.

Which brings me back to Mom, who might not be alive if she hadn’t gone to the hospital when she did.

And who probably wouldn’t be back in her own place now if Medicaid weren’t covering the costs of a home aide and a physical therapist to help her get more steady on her feet.

This isn’t statistically significant, but it’s pretty damn significant to me and others who love her.


The Message Behind the Messages in Ryan’s Budget Plan

March 18, 2013

This year I vowed not to pick apart Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan — the refurbished, but barely changed Path the Prosperity.

A path it certainly is. And it’s worth attending to because it shows where right-wing Republicans want to take us — if not all at once (highly improbable), then step by step. Or should I say manufactured crisis by crisis?

Specifically, as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson indicates, they view “civil society as an alternative to government.” This should set off alarm bells among nonprofit service providers and all of us who care about the work they do.

Like last year’s plan — and the plan the year before — it purports to strengthen the safety net by block granting Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program), thus giving states “flexibility” to manage increasing diminished federal funds.

Except that they’d have to time-limit SNAP participation, since that worked so well for former — and now desperately poor — families dumped out of the safety net by “welfare reform.”

Retirement would be secured by converting Medicare into a modified voucher program that would jack up the per person cost of traditional Medicare, thus building a fiscal case for killing it.

Meanwhile, seniors would have to pay increasingly more for their insurance because the premium support they’d get from the government wouldn’t keep pace with rising health care costs.

And the Affordable Care Act would be repealed, including the federal incentives for Medicaid expansion. So an estimated 40-50 million more low and moderate-income people too young for Medicare wouldn’t have any health insurance whatever.

Something (unspecified) would be done to cut Social Security spending. The plan cites misleadingly over-simple life expectancy increases. So we can infer that Ryan wants the eligibility age increased again.

Also “less generous benefits.” We know by now that this is code for pegging Social Security cost-of-living adjustments to the chained CPI, which rises more slowly than the price index used now.

But the plan itself merely directs the President and Congress to propose reform legislation — a profile in courage, as one advocate remarked.

But I said I wasn’t going to write about these things. And here I am off on a tear.

The combination of what Robert Greenstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls “reverse Robin Hood policies” and the euphemisms used to describe them does that to me.

Well, the Path will die in the Senate, just like the previous plans. So the most we can say about it as a genuine budget blueprint is that it sets the stage of another partisan standoff.

What actually struck me about the plan was the introductory justification — not the lead-off hysteria about the imagined debt crisis, but the celebration of community.

The budget, Ryan says, “makes room for community — for the vast middle ground between government and the person.” People find happiness “through friendship, … in their families, their places of worship and youth groups.”

“While we belong to one country, we also belong to thousands of communities.” They encourage our personal growth. “So the duty of government is not to displace these communities, but to support them.”

Who could argue with that? Only someone, I suppose, who thought that the federal government was — or should be — the source of our personal happiness, sense of “belonging and self-fulfillment.”

The explicit message is that our communities — and our families — face many dangers, i.e., “rising health costs, a stagnant economy, massive debt, an uncertain world.”

The federal government can do something about these, but it shouldn’t play the leading role because its proper business is to “secure our individual rights and protect … [community] diversity.”

The unspoken message is that Ryan and his right-wing colleagues aim to divest the federal government of core responsibilities for the health, well-being and economic opportunities of the population as a whole.

The proposed Medicaid and SNAP block grants wouldn’t merely shift funding responsibilities to the states — by shrinking the federal cost shares over time.

They would ultimately shift feeding and tending to the medical needs of low-income people onto local communities because it’s wholly unrealistic to believe that states would — or even could — continue to absorb the costs of retaining these critical safety net programs intact.

Nor make up for deeper, as-yet-unspecified cuts to non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations, e.g., education, transportation, public safety, housing assistance.

They’d be billions larger than those the current law requires because the Ryan budget would shift all further mandated cuts in defense to those other so-called discretionary programs.

States could also lose funds for school meals, other child nutrition programs and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because another $800 billion would be taken from programs that don’t depend on annual appropriations — in addition to those, like SNAP and the major health care programs, that the plan specifically names.

We would, in other words, return to some long ago time when faith-based and other local community organizations cared for the poor in their communities as best they could, with no government help whatever.

Many communities today have strong networks of nonprofit organizations that both supplement and serve as channels for federal spending on both safety net programs and others that meet vital human and economic needs.

But not all communities have such organizations.

And I doubt you could find a nonprofit anywhere that would say that it — and others in its network — could meet the needs of all low-income community members if the federal government backed out of its anti-poverty commitments.

In short, the budget plan presents a clear contrast between the right-wing Republican vision for our society and the vision President Obama campaigned on — that “we are greater together” and that government is a way we come together to help give life to values we commonly share.

Well, most of us anyway.


New DC Poverty and Shared Prosperity Figures Show Uneven Progress

December 3, 2012

Last week, I took a crack at the Half in Ten campaign’s updated poverty reduction and shared prosperity indicators for the nation as a whole. It’s also updated a smaller set for each state and the District of Columbia.

Here then is what we can learn from the new figures for the District.

We can look at these in a couple of ways — in comparison to last year’s or to the same indicators for the whole country. We can also see how the District ranks among states.

But the District isn’t a state. And however much it deserves to be one, comparisons to other large cities rather than to states as a whole would be more appropriate for issues like Half in Ten’s.

So let’s just look at the indicators themselves.

On the whole, we see more progress than backsliding. But — no news to any of you, I guess — the District has a long way to go on both the poverty and shared prosperity fronts.

For some indicators, the progress would be expected.

For example, the official poverty rate for the District dropped, though it was still well above the national rate. Ditto for the unemployment rate.

We see progress that can’t be attributed simply to the improving economy, however. The backsliding calls for other — or at least, more complex — explanations too.

Good Jobs

In addition to the unemployment rate, Half in Ten provides a handful of indicators for the employment prospects of relatively young District residents. Forward movement across the board:

  • The percent of freshmen who completed high school in four years increased from 56% to 62.4%* — far below the nationwide 75.5% rate, but progress nonetheless.
  • The percent of “disconnected youth” dropped by 1%, leaving us with nine out of every hundred youth who were neither working nor in school.
  • The already-high percent of young adults (25-34) with at least a two-year college degree rose to 62.7%.

Stronger Families

The good jobs indicators clearly relate to child, youth and family well-being. Unlike these, the indicators Half in Ten puts in the strengthening families category are a good news/bad news story.

In the good news part, the rate of births to teen mothers dropped from 50.9 to 45.4 per 1,000. Still considerably above the national 31.3 rate, but moving in the right direction.

And the percent of residents without health insurance dropped to 6.9% — well below the 15.7% national rate, which also registered a drop last year.

In the bad news part, the pay gap between men and women workers reportedly grew — and by a lot.** In 2010, it was considerably smaller than the nationwide gap. Last year, it was bigger.

And the rate of children in foster care rose from 18 to 20 per 1,000. Notwithstanding what I said about the rankings, I can’t resist noting that the District’s rate is far higher than any state’s.

Economic Security

Good and bad news for indicators in this category also.

On the good news side, the rate of food insecure District households dropped from 13% to 10.9%, while the nationwide rate rose.

And the percent of jobless District residents who received unemployment insurance benefits shot up from 36.3% to 64% — at least in part due to program reforms the District adopted to get its share of the reward money offered by the Recovery Act.

On the bad news side, the percent of District households without bank accounts — a measure of asset-building capacity — rose from 24.4% to 41%.

Might the marked increase have something to do with the new fees banks are charging — or their higher minimum balance requirements?

One economic security indicator that looks very positive is, I think, misleading.

We’re told that the number of rental units for very low-income households increased from 53 to 77 per hundred — almost 20 more than the nationwide rate.

How could that be when we know we’ve got an affordable housing¬† crisis here?

The answer lies in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “very low-income,” i.e., at or below 50% of the median income for families in the area.

The area HUD carves out for the District includes nearby suburbs populated by very well-off folks.

A median income for the District alone would put more units out of reach — even more if Half in Ten had linked its indicator to “extremely poor households,” i.e., at or below 30% of AMI.

Half Full, Half Empty and Now What?

So we’ve got progress on more indicators than not. But we’ve still got well over 109,000 poor District residents and lots more who aren’t getting a share of that prosperity that parts of our envisioned One City enjoy.

Our local officials could move some indicators in the right direction — or further in the right direction.

But much depends on what Congress decides to do about tax revenues and spending cuts in whatever bargain emerges to pull us back from the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

________________________________________

* These figures are for the 2007-8 and 2008-9 school years. After Half in Ten published its update, the U.S. Department of Education released high school graduation rates for 2010-11. These are the first set to reflect a standardized calculation method for all states.

The District’s on-time graduation rate was 59% last year. This, at the very least, raises questions about the prior progress shown.

** The wage gap figure Half in Ten provides is significantly greater than the gap reported by the American Association of University Women. Part of the difference derives from how annual earnings are calculated, but there’s got to be some other factor too.


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