What I’m Pondering This Father’s Day: Memoirs by Some Notable Black Authors

June 17, 2017

Last year long about this time, I read a tribute by Walter Moseley to his father Leroy. His dad, Walter says, taught him “to bob and weave in life and art,” which, if understand it, means to agilely protect himself.

The lessons were Leroy’s own stories about growing up poor and oppressed in harshly racist Louisiana, learning to do various sorts of paying work and to protect himself after he fled to New York City — this after his mother died, his father left and the relatives he resorted to wouldn’t care for him.

Leroy wanted to write pulp fiction, but realized that it was impossible for an impoverished man in the Deep South to become any sort of writer then. “Hardly easier now,” Walter interjects.

Leroy headed west and settled in Los Angeles, having realized that more of his draft-age friends died in Houston than in the Second World War. He became a “fiercely loving father, ” prepared all his kids’ meals, but left Walter free to choose whatever he wanted to do when he grew up.

So Walter decided to be an artist –“someone who makes something from nothing.” That, in his case, would be something from the “stuff” of Leroy’s stories — “of pedestrian, tragic life.”

A telling snippet follows. Leroy decides to go to an all-white café. He orders a tuna melt, gets served and exclaims in his later telling, “Man, that tuna melt felt like freedom.”

Then the man next to him drops dead.  “I realized right then and there,” he said, “that, freedom aside, no man, no matter who he is, can escape his death.”

Yet that wasn’t his “ultimate gift,” though the insight surely became part of it. The gift itself, imparted through a wave and smile as he was dying, was “an indomitable spirit and the talent of taking the beauty and refusing the rest.”

It’s nice to reflect again on how Walter learned to “attend to ordinary suffering, to the love that persists in its midst … and the attendant grim humor.”

He wasn’t rejecting anger. Nor lessons like the talk black parents feel they must have with their sons. But what I’ve heard and read suggests that those are more consumed by continuing anger at violence against blacks, though not to the exclusion of helping their kids avoid it.

And in some cases, they’re messages to us, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s potent book-length letter to his son.

I’m brooding on blacks’ memoirs of their youthful days with their fathers in part because we’re about to celebrate Father’s Day — officially at least. But I’m also working my way through Gregory Williams’ Life on the Color Line.

The line is one Williams discovered — that he looked white and thought he was, partly because his black father passed as Italian until chronic financial, booze-fueled recklessness brought him to seek housing with his unmistakably black mother.

Things go generally from bad to worse, so far as his father is concerned — and ultimately his brother, who rebels against his father’s demands and related, though unexpressed needs, e.g. making sure he’d gotten to the home his mother had exiled him to before passing out in the street.

Greg responds instead by giving his all to qualifying for a college education — and the financial assistance he’d need, of course. We know he succeeded. We know that, in some perplexing manner, his relationship with his father, as processed through this memoir had something to do with it.

We — daughters, as well as sons, on the white side of the line as well as over into the colored—know how life with our fathers (or without) helped shape the way we are today.

I still recall especially fraught and endearing moments with my father, who died many years ago. I convert them into unspoken words — from raw memory to memoir snippets.

No art nourished that way. But probably political leanings, since I recoiled at my father’s bootstrapping conservatism, even when he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Republicans any more.

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So Much Wrong With Single Mother Stereotype

May 22, 2017

Posts on single motherhood consistently rank among my weekly top-10 viewed. I’ve published nothing on the issues for quite awhile.

So I’ll take a brief break — and give you one too — from the stream of reports, op-eds, forecasts and the like sparked by turbulence in the White House and fractiousness in the Congress.

Here’s some of what we learn from the aptly-titled Single Mother Guide, fleshed out from other sources and what’s stashed in my own brain.

What Single Mother Commonly Means and What It Should

First off, a bit of clarification. Single mothers, in all the standard data sources, are only unmarried women raising minor-age children. Widows who’ve sole responsibility for grandchildren don’t count. Likewise women not currently married who’ve let adult children move back in with them.

Social conservatives often speak disapprovingly of single mothers as women who gave birth out of wedlock and didn’t then enter into holy matrimony with a male breadwinner.

But somewhat more single mothers are either widowed, separated from their spouses or divorced — roughly 51%, according to the latest Census data. .

This isn’t new, but the percent is shifting toward the never-married. It doesn’t mean that all the never-married mothers had babies, however. Single women may choose to adopt a child, as several of my long-time friends have.

It also doesn’t mean that the never-married mothers have no adult in the house with whom they’re in a quasi-spousal relationship.

Perhaps fewer now that same-sex marriages are legal nationwide. But opposite-sex domestic partnerships so far outstripped them when the Supreme Court ruled the former a Constitutional right that they’re probably stillmore common.

On the other hand, an as-yet unknown number of same-sex marriage partners are officially single mothers because some state laws and/or administrative procedures prohibit or otherwise deter their spouses from adopting.

Recent Single Mother Trends

What’s definitely shifting is the age when single mothers first give birth. The teenage birthrate has hit another record low. Researchers have tried to tease out reasons. The one that seems most certain is more use of contraceptives, especially the maximally-effective long-acting, reversible kinds.

Economist Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution is championing LARCs, having earlier coauthored an oft-cited study that found a very low likelihood of poverty among people who married before becoming parents.

Some of you may recall how some conservatives seized on this as a simple, personally responsible way to avoid poverty.

But Sawhill’s concluded that it’s not a realistic basis for an anti-poverty strategy, given the upward trend in unmarried motherhood. She would instead have us promote “responsible parenthood,” i.e., choosing when to have a baby — and to make the choice easy and cheap.

What Accounts for Single Mother Poverty

We’ve got a debate on solutions to out-of-wedlock births, rooted in ideological differences. What’s beyond debate is the strong link between single motherhood and poverty.

Single-mother families consistently have the highest poverty rate of any household type — currently 28.2%, as compared to 5.4% for married couples. Whether the out-of-wedlock births or the poverty came first is an open question.

Most of our best research suggests both. We see, for example, that out-of-wedlock births are far less common among college graduates than women with at most a high school diploma.

So the former can earn far more by working — and live even better because college graduates tend to marry others even more than they used to.

Pregnancy surely compels some young women to drop out of high school, having no one to care for their child.

They’re then unable to work — at least for enough pay to keep the family out of poverty — because they’re still without the child care and lack the minimal credential so many employers require.

On the other hand, Kathryn Edin, best known as the coauthor of $2 a Day, earlier coauthored a study of poor single mothers. It too was based in part on her actually living in poor neighborhoods and gaining the trust of the people whose experiences and views she sought to understand.

Single mothers she interviewed there wanted children — “somebody to take care of,” as one said. But when they looked at their prospects for a trustworthy, breadwinning husband, they concluded the risks outweighed the potential rewards.

An Altogether Different Explanation

The cause-effect interaction the various studies indicate has commonsense appeal, as well as substantive credibility. But a recently-published study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Board raises doubts.

It looks at wealth, rather than income. But, of course, the one begets the other and vice versa. The researchers tested various potential causes of wealth differences, including family structure.

When they looked at that factor within specific race/ethnicity groups, rather than across the whole sample, they found little or no correlation. “[T]he bottom line,” a summary concludes,” is that links between family structure and wealth are weak, inconsistent and mostly spurious.”

We need to look instead at factors related directly to race. We know more than enough to know how the legacy of slavery, out-and-out discrimination and less overt forms built into our income-related systems account for a large portion of the black/white wealth gap.

And we do, in fact, see that the percent of children being raised in single-parent families, mostly by mothers is higher for blacks than any other race/ethnicity group the Census Bureau breaks out.

Might they perhaps find a unique shortage of men who’d be suitable marriage material.

Might they also find positive role models in the single black mothers who’ve successfully raised children without the spousal role model some still insist that kids, boys especially need to stay out of trouble, on the path to a paying job, etc.

As I write this, I think of Mom, who raised two fine boys, including my late husband — and of what moms like her will likely face unless Congress basically scraps the proposed budget they’ll get from Trump on strikethrough Tuesday.


DC Mayor Bowser Won’t Halt Triggered Tax Cuts to Gain Needed Funding

April 13, 2017

Just finished my annual dialogue with my tax preparation software. So as always, my thoughts turn to the tax laws that determine what I have to pay. A sweeping federal tax reform is much in the news. And I’ll probably have things to say about that.

But I’ll start with the automatically triggered tax cuts Mayor Bowser has decided to let alone in her proposed budget, styled “DC Values in Action: A Roadmap to Inclusive Prosperity.”

These because they don’t hinge on new legislation. And they push down spending because the District, like most states must balance its budget every year.

As you may know, the triggered tax cuts reflect recommendations made by the Tax Revision Commission in 2014. It didn’t recommend triggering them whenever a certain revenue projection exceeded the version the budget was built on.

That was the work of DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who folded them, ranked according to his preferences into the final version of the legislative package that accompanied the Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

A last minute thing. Other Councilmembers had no chance to consider them — perhaps didn’t even know they were there.

The triggered tax cuts have already reduced revenues by $102 million — none a one-time loss. The rest will all kick next fiscal year, unless the Council decides to instead recoup about $100 million.

Some of the cuts, would benefit lower and moderate-income residents, though not those with incomes so low they already don’t owe income taxes, once they’ve taken all now allowable exemptions, credits and the like. Nor, of course, those who’ve no taxable income at all.

These cuts include a further increase in the standard deduction, which a very large percent of DC filers with incomes less than $75,000 choose because they don’t have more costly specific deductions like interest on a mortgage or real property taxes high out-of-pocket medical expenses. (The District relies on the federal government’s Schedule A for these.)

The other of this sort is a multi-part increase in the personal exemption, which applies to all filers and their dependents, except apparently those whose incomes exceed $275,000.

But the surplus also triggers a second increase in the threshold for the estate tax, bringing it to $5.49 million if left by an individual and twice that for a married couple — the same as in federal law.*

Why the District should aim to mirror a tax giveaway to heirs of the very most prosperous that Congressional Republicans insisted on as part of the deal that pulled us back from the fiscal cliff is a mystery.

Additional cuts in the business franchise tax, coupled with a further cut in the business income tax are, at the very least questionable.

Sure, we want profit-making businesses in the city — a source of jobs, among other things. But a recent survey indicates that the taxes they must pay are a relatively minor factor in their decisions on whether to locate here or elsewhere.

Topping the list is the ready availability of workers with the knowledge and/or skills they need. One could do a lot to help residents qualify for and get jobs with the potential loss of $35.7 million.

Advocacy organizations of various sorts have already flagged a wide range of shortfalls in the Mayor’s proposed budget. We’ll have a fuller accounting from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute fairly soon — and undoubtedly more from other concerned nonprofits too.

I’d thought to cite examples, based on the Mayor’s prosperity promise and my own topmost concerns. But even summaries made this post far longer than my somewhat flexible maxim. So I’ll return to them shortly.

Yet I don’t want to leave the impression that the Mayor’s budget shortchanges her low-income constituents in every way.

The most significant example of how it would benefit them is the funding she proposes to begin the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families time limit reforms recommended by diverse working group the Department of Human Services convened.

This will not only save roughly 6,500 families from losing all their benefits when the new fiscal year begins — and more as time goes on.

It will preserve those benefits for all children and all parents who’re meeting their work preparation and/or job requirements until they’ve found jobs or otherwise gained enough income to put them over the eligibility cut-off.

Cash benefits being as low as they are — and will be — the initiative in and of itself hardly shares the non-inclusive prosperity reflected in the District’s tax revenues. But it does save very poor families from the most dire poverty.

And the non-cash benefits — free training and, in some cases, formal education, no-cost child care and transportation — give parents a chance to move from welfare to decent-paying work and, in the process, improve their children’s future prospects.

* The thresholds were somewhat lower when the Council adopted the triggers, but the legislation refers to raising the threshold “to conform to the federal level.” And the federal level rises with the inflation rate.

UPDATE: I’ve learned that the Mayor’s budget doesn’t altogether reflect the working group’s recommendations. They would significantly protect children if their parents had their benefits cut for not complying with their work requirements by allocating 80% of the family grant to them.

The Mayor would split the grant 50-50. As a practical matter, this might not make much difference. The parents will have the same amount to spend, and it will surely go for the same basic needs. We will need to see how the Mayor justifies her split, assuming she or a Department of Human Services official is asked.


What Trump Could and Wants to Do to Disadvantage Disadvantaged Kids

April 3, 2017

Having canvassed the big problems with public funding for private school vouchers, I’ll turn to what I’ll call some backdoor maneuvers, plus other ways Trump’s budget would further disadvantage disadvantaged kids..

Backdoor Federal Funding for Private School Choice

Trump wouldn’t have to have to put all federal funding for private school enrollment into the spending part of his budget. He could propose tax credits, taking a leaf from state playbooks. Like all other credits, that’s spending through the tax code.

But it doesn’t seem to grow the government — a big bad from the right-wing perspective, including Trump’s, of course.

In fact, as the Tax Policy Center says, it seems to do the opposite, without really doing so. In this case, the revenues lost could instead be plowed into programs to foster educational equality.

Four states award tax credits to parents for private schools tuition—and two of these for other expenses also. The credits, of course, benefit only parents who owe state taxes. Federal tax credits would do the same.

And as we know from former Presidential candidate Romney’s gaffe, many lower-income people don’t owe federal income taxes. But, as I early said, the voucher system tilts toward well-off families.

Seventeen states offer tax credits to organizations that donate money for scholarships to private schools, including those operated by religious organizations.

This is a clever way of getting around what many view as a breach of the First Amendment prohibition against any law establishing a religion, including one that promotes it.

The Supreme Court nonetheless let Arizona’s tax credits stand, but the narrow majority based its decision on legal technicality, not the substantive complaint.

The federal tax code already allows filers to take such donations as deductions, if the money goes to a non-profit. But Trump could jawbone prospective donors, dangle promises, celebrate the persuaded, etc. Very much in his dealmaker mode.

Backdoor School Choice in the Budget

Trump’s budget blueprint includes $1 billion more for Title I of the Education Act — now named the Every Child Succeeds Act.

The blueprint says it’s “dedicated to encouraging districts to adopt a system … that enables Federal, State and local funding to follow the student to the school of his or her choice.”

This would fundamentally undermine the purpose of Title I and the way all versions have achieved it. As things stand now, basic grant funds go to schools districts based on the percent of poor and near-poor children they have.

So they help provide equal educational opportunity — in part because it costs more to educate poor children and in part because public schools in high-poverty neighborhoods generally have less to spend. Like all public schools, they’re funded largely through property taxes, rFederal grants and state funding notwithstanding.

Trump would shift funds from high-poverty schools by having a student’s portion go to any publicly-funded school s/he enrolled in, including one a wealthy community. That much less then for a school that needs it most—and for the children left behind.

Title I portability, as it’s called, was a controversial issue during the effort to revise No Child Left Behind. In the interests of bipartisanship — and one would like to think, commitment to the fundamental purpose of Title I —  members of the responsible Senate committee agreed not to include it.

At the time, the National Coalition for Public Education warned that proposals like Trump’s version portability were intended to make initiating private school vouchers easier. No reason, I think, to view Trump’s differently, despite his first relatively low-cost stab.

Other Disadvantages for Disadvantaged Kids

The Trump budget would, among other things, eliminate funding for after-school programs — a larger cut than the extra he’d commit to Title I.

The programs vary a lot, but as a whole they shore up students’ academic skills, e.g., by pairing them with tutors, increase their interest in learning by engaging them in intriguing activities like computer coding.

They also foster their health through team sports, other physical exercise and free or nearly-free snacks, nutritionally balanced according to guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which subsidizes them. For some children, it’s the last food they’ll get for the day.

And on top of all this, they provide free, supervised care so that parents can work after the school closing bell rings. The alternative, would cost, on average, $67 a week  — and a whole lot more in some states.

But even the average would cost a parent with two school-age kids more than she’d earn at the federal minimum wage rate. So she’d forfeit the pay — another way this piece of Trump’s budget would disadvantage disadvantaged kids.

Also proposed for zero-funding is a program that helps fund “the quality and effectiveness” of teachers and principals and “provide low-income and minority students greater access to them.”

While not only for teachers in high-poverty schools, ESSA gives heavier weight to districts with these schools than its predecessor, as well it should. Recent studies confirm what many have said for a long time.

By all major measure of teacher quality, e.g., teacher experience, scores on licensing exams, the least qualified teachers are the most likely to have the responsibility for educating students disadvantaged by poverty and/or color.

So far as “access” is concerned, it seems to mean reducing class size, judging from how school districts used their recent grants. That, of course, enables teachers to give individual kids more attention, which means, among other things, that they pay attention instead of acting up in the back of the room.

Overly-large classes may help account for the teacher experience quality gap. Teachers in high-poverty schools get frustrated because they’ve got too many kids to teach, especially given the disadvantages they bring to the classroom, e.g., fewer or no books at home, fewer words heard, stress, hunger.

So the teachers find other professional opportunities or they transfer to a better-off school — a privilege they gain with seniority that a higher percent recently took advantage of than teachers in low-poverty schools.

Both avenues out leave openings that seem likely to be filled by a new cohort of less-qualified teachers. We thus have still another way that low-income and other disadvantaged students would lose out if the Trump budget prevails.

More to Come?

The blueprint, of course, is merely a preview. The Education Department would lose $9.2 billion — 13.5% less than what it has today, when the spending caps in the Budget Control Act have constricted funding.

So we’re sure to see more and larger cuts when he’s signed off on a full-fledged proposed budget. And you can bet they’ll fall heaviest, directly and indirectly, on poor and near-poor students.


Affordable Housing Crunch for Lowest-Income Renters

March 9, 2017

Another year, another report on how extraordinarily unaffordable housing is for low-income people nationwide and in every state, as well as the would-be state of the District of Columbia.

Affordability Basics

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s overview of the “housing gap” focuses on rental units that the lowest tier in the official housing policy lexicon could afford and actually move into.

These are extremely low-income households — those whose incomes are at or below 30% of the median for the area they live in. NLIHC includes a sub-tier it introduced several years ago — deeply low-income households, whose incomes are half that.

Housing affordability for both, as generally means costing no more than 30% of income. So, for example, a family with one full-time, year round worker paid the federal minimum wage would have a gross income of $15,080 and thus could afford, at most, $377 a month for rent.

Acute Affordable Rental Shortage

As of 2014, the survey year NLIHC has used, there were roughly 10.4 million ELI households in the country — 24% of all renters. They could hope to rent, at an affordable rate only 3.2 million units. Virtually no affordable units for the DLIs — just about 700,000.

The shortage is surely greater than what NLIHC could report because the Census Bureau survey it uses doesn’t reach homeless people. So what we have instead are households that did rent, but mainly way above what they could afford.

Nearly three-quarters of the ELIs were severely cost-burdened, i.e. spent more than half their income for rent, plus basic utilities. A mere 7% of the DLIs weren’t so cost-burdened — not to say they weren’t cost-burdened at all, however.

Far From Enough Money Left Over for Other Needs

We can readily fathom what the cost burdens mean. Our minimum wage worker family would have, after payroll taxes, no more than $590 a month and change for all other expenses.

Low-income households with, at most, 50% of their income left spent, on average, 38% less for food and 55% less for health care than comparable households without cost burdens, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reports. Those most likely to face such trade-offs are households with children and seniors well past retirement age.

Not hard to see the long-term health consequences —  and others for those children, e.g., reluctance to form trusting relationships, lags in learning the basic skills schools measure.

These and others put them at higher risk for poverty as adults, perpetuating the cycle of severe cost burdens — or worse.

Many Shortage Drivers

Both NLIHC and the Joint Center cite diverse reasons for the affordable housing shortage, e.g., foreclosures during the recession, a broader preference for renting, developers’ understandable preference for units they can charge much more for.

At the same time, rental units subsidized by Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) project-based vouchers, i.e., those that cover all but 30% of rent, plus basic utilities for specific units, are disappearing far faster than they’re being replaced.

NLIHC cites a nationwide loss of 46,000 such units over the last decade — some demolished, others no longer affordable because the contracts that bound the owners to keep their rents within the limits HUD set expired.

Add to these roughly 150,000 public housing units lost — most, though not all for ELI households. The Joint Center estimates the loss at 10,000 every year.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed federal funding for major repairs and renovations. A study for HUD estimated the total funding need for such capital investments at more than $25.6 billion in 2010.

The total grows annually at roughly $3.4 billion, as costs rise, more units deteriorate and deteriorated units get worse, leading ultimately housing losses, but perhaps in the meantime units egregiously below any reasonable standard.

Since the 2013 across-the board budget cuts, funding for capital investments has remained virtually flat at about $1.9 billion. This isn’t the only reason so many units became so unlivable that public housing authorities closed them. NLIHC cites others, but the bottom line is lost units affordable for ELI and DLI households.

The supply-demand dynamic includes another factor. Higher-income households live in nearly half the units the ELIs could afford. If the ELIs could actually move into those units, the gap would shrink by about 2.6 million.

Now this is only one side of the story, of course. If you’ve got more income, you can afford more for housing. But incomes generally aren’t keeping pace with rent increases — quite the contrary. While rents rose, on average 7% between 2001 and 2014, incomes dropped 9%.

This average includes households that had plenty of money. Those in the bottom fifth, where we’d find the ELIs and DLIs had to cope with losses through at least 2015. Sparse federal housing assistance for them. Only about a quarter of low-income households get any at all.

This is perhaps especially notable because Congress has restored and supplemented the funding needed to offset the cut that caused public housing authorities to withhold or cancel nearly 60,000 unused tenant-based vouchers, i.e., the kind recipients can use to rent at market rates and still pay only 30% of their income.

We’ve got policy remedies, as well as reasons for the gap. But at this point, we can foresee threats to even sustaining current funding levels. More than I can do any justice to here.

But since this is supposed to be a policy-focused blog, I’ll return to them shortly.


House Republicans Unveil Reverse Robin Hood Healthcare Plan

February 27, 2017

House Speaker Paul Ryan and his lead colleagues have generated even more news about the Republicans’ plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Still no legislation. Still spare details. And still, it seems, no genuine consensus, though a large majority now understand that simply repealing the ACA would be a disaster politically, as well as for the 20 million or so Americans who’ve gained health insurance coverage since the law kicked in.

Ryan, however, has released a policy brief that purports to set out the major elements of the House Republicans’ repeal-replace plan.

Needless to say, it aims to radically cut federal spending on health care. Beyond that, a New York Times headline captures the major thrust: “Republican Health Care Proposal Would Redirect Money From Poor to Rich.”

Here briefly are the major changes and how they’d make the shift. Long post, but on one of the biggest immediate threats to the well-being of low and moderate-income people in this country and our common — though obviously not universal — concept of equity.

End of Medicaid As We Know It

Many concerned parties, including yours truly, have animadverted before about Ryan’s plans to convert Medicaid to a block grant.

Basically, states would no longer receive partial reimbursements for the costs they incur in providing health care to the poor and near-poor people they’ve enrolled. They’d instead receive a fixed sum of money, coupled with even fewer requirements and restrictions on what they can do.

We can predict from the fate of other block grants that the fixed sum will either remain the same, regardless of increases in the number of very low-income people in need — or grow somewhat, but not enough to not enough to benefit everyone eligible or who would have been had the block grant not been created.

Ryan’s new plan includes this option, but leans toward a variation — per capita grants. These too use a formula to set states’ funding, but it’s based on the regular federal match that each received in a base year for people in specific categories, e.g., children, people with disabilities.

The grants would increase, based on the inflation rate. But the rate, as commonly measured, reflects the prices of goods and services consumers commonly pay for, e.g., food, fuel, housing, with medical expenses merely folded in.

As we all know, health care costs rise more. And they’re projected to rise considerably higher, boosted by aging baby boomers, new, high-priced drugs and other drivers.

In short, same basic result, achieved by something with less tarnished name — and with a further, predicable cost-shift to all the states and the District of Columbia that have expanded their Medicaid programs.

Specifically, the plan would fold in repeal of the higher federal government match for newly-eligible people enrolled in Medicaid programs. States would continue to have the it for some unspecified time so as “not to pull the rug out from” them or beneficiaries.

The rug would, however, be immediately pulled out from under adults deemed able to work, regardless of whether they do, but at a very low wage — or have any reasonable prospects of landing a non-poverty wage job.

Redirected Tax Credits

Under the current law, people who buy health insurance on an exchange get a tax credit that serves as a subsidy if their annual income is less than 400% of the federal poverty line — currently $97,400 for a four-person family. The subsidy goes directly to the company that provides the insurance the beneficiary chooses.

It’s greatest for those in the lowest income bracket and diminishes till it reaches the highest. So it ensures that very low-income people can afford comprehensive health insurance, while not spending federal money on people in upper-income brackets.

The Ryan plan would instead award tax credits directly to people who have no employer-sponsored health insurance or coverage under a government program.

They’d would be based only on age, with larger (unspecified) credits to older people. As the Times column suggests, this would seem to make some sense, since older people tend to need more medical care.

But it means is that some very wealthy people would get a larger benefit than many of the very poor, who not only need more help in affording health insurance, but often have more health care problems.

Expanded Health Savings Accounts

Our current system already offers people opportunities to sock money away tax-free for specific medical and dental needs by putting it into a Health Savings Account.

As with the better-known Individual Retirement Accounts, you can save only up to a maximum in any given year, but the cap is based on age, when you become eligible and the type of insurance you have (see below), rather than age and taxable earnings.

You’re not required to withdraw any money during a given year. So what you’ve invested continues to grow, assuming it’s invested well and that administrative costs don’t offset real-dollar gains.

And you don’t have to pay income taxes when you withdraw, if you spend the money for approved healthcare purposes — another difference from an IRA.

The biggest difference, however, is that you have to expose yourself and your family to budget and/or health risks because you can’t have an HSA unless your insurance plan is a high deductible, i.e., covers only what are sometimes referred to as catastrophic costs.

Current federal rules, for example, allow insurance companies to require high-deductible customers to pay as much as $7,850 for an individual or $15,700 for a family before they start covering costs.

HSAs are thus obviously beneficial to some people who can afford what they and any dependent family members need and still have money left over because they’ll owe less at tax time. But only those who can stash enough to cover thousands of dollars of healthcare costs.

The Ryan plan would allow people to contribute their maximum out-of-pockets to their HSAs. Another provision would allow spouses to contribute all or part of so-called catch-up contributions, i.e. those made in a given year to compensate for lower than maximum contributions previously.

Conservatives, including lead Congressional Republicans have long argued that healthcare costs would drop if people had “more skin in the game,” i.e., more to save or lose depending on whether they choose to seek health care and, if so, what sort and from whom.

This, as I think everybody knows, is profoundly unrealistic. We’ve neither the knowledge nor, in many cases, the time to choose healthcare services the way we choose, for example, large-screen TVs.

It’s nevertheless the theory underpinning the HSA expansion, with its inherent push toward high-deductible plans. And again, it’s effectively spending more on well-off people — in this case, by forfeiting tax revenues.

Undermining the ACA Before Full Repeal

Long as this post is, I haven’t covered all parts of the plan — most notably, the full repeal part.

Sufficeth it to say that it would roil the insurance market — by immediately eliminating the penalty for having no insurance, for example, and the penalty imposed on larger employers that don’t cover most of their full-time workers.

So if Obamacare isn’t failing now — as the policy brief misleadingly says it is — it surely would during the transition period the brief promises.

NOTE: Last Friday, two insider news sources posted a leaked draft of the House Republicans’ legislation. It generally tracks the measures I’ve summarized.


Social Security Administration Backs Off Text Messaging Mandate

August 16, 2016

Turns out I was far from the only one upset by the Social Security Administration’s decision to block access to online accounts for people without text-enabled cell phones. The Tennessean reports that the agency faced such a backlash that it’s made the extra protection optional.

“The policy impacted not only those who don’t text message, but also people who live in rural areas with limited cell phone service,” says a Congress member who represents one of those areas.

Two other Tennessee Congress members weigh in too. We can, I think, assume that SSA heard from a broader swath of members, responding to constituents’ concerns — and from other quarters too.

The agency hasn’t yet told us online account users that we don’t have to have text messaging. Presumably it will. And we’ll reportedly have another way to ensure that we’re the people accessing our accounts within six months.

So all’s well that ends well, assuming that the new option doesn’t impose other burdens. We’ll nevertheless endure long wait times when we need services only staff can provide. Nothing SSA can do about that.