Dysfunction, the Debt Ceiling and Other Derelictions of Duty

October 15, 2015

It’s hard for someone of my political proclivities not to relish the manifest dysfunctions in the Republican party. But they also make me very anxious.

Like many of you, I suppose, I’m sick to death of reading what Trump said about immigrants, Carson about Muslims, Bush about voting rights and folks who line up for “free stuff,” etc. I nevertheless relish the thought of the voters they’re alienating.

Yet I can’t help worrying that the Republican nominee might win because the alienated voters are so alienated from our political process that they won’t go to the polls. Can hardly bear to think who that might be.

More immediately, it’s the warring factions in the House Republican majority that make me anxious. It’s one thing for the ultra-right to insist on yet another vote to repeal Obamacare. But to take such uncompromising stances that they drive out a very conservative speaker — and stymie the effort to replace him — is, to me, downright scary.

Because we can’t have laws unless the House passes them. And we urgently need some.

The most urgent is a bill that raises the ceiling on the amount of debt the federal government can incur. Without it, the government will default on debts it’s already incurred, i.e., interest and/or principal it owes on bonds it’s issued.

Either that or it will have to drastically and immediately cut spending, which will mean default of a different sort.

State and local governments won’t receive funds they’ve rightly counted on for a wide variety of programs and services. Contractors won’t get paid for goods they’ve supplied or work they’ve performed — and thus may not have the funds to pay their employees and subcontractors.

Seniors and younger people with severe disabilities won’t get their Social Security benefits. Healthcare services they’ve received as Medicare beneficiaries won’t get reimbursed. Nor will doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers who’ve treated people covered by Medicaid.

Veterans will get stiffed too. Likewise the 45.5 million or so people who depend on SNAP (food stamp) benefits to stave off hunger.

Not all these suspended payments may be needed to keep the debt below the current ceiling. But it’s unclear whether the Treasury Department can pick and choose. A Credit Suisse newsletter issued when we’d hit the debt ceiling two years ago suggested it couldn’t.

And even if it could, how could the administration responsibly decide who should get paid and who not?

One way or the other, everyday people would suffer harms — and in more ways than the foregoing indicates. Investors would, of course, decide that Treasury bonds weren’t a safe harbor for their money. So they’d require a higher interest rate on new bonds.

That would produce a ripple effect on other interests rates. Businesses might then pull back on borrowing for investments that create jobs.

Anybody who can’t pay cash on the barrel head — to replace a defunct car, for example, or buy a house — would face a more costly loan.

Lots of people who carry credit card debt would have to pay higher interest rates because charges are often linked to what banks charge on corporate loans.

Well, this may be apocalyptic thinking. The House will have a speaker because Boehner’s said he’ll stay on till his caucus chooses someone else. And he can readily get a bipartisan debt ceiling bill passed by allowing a vote when a majority of his own party won’t get on board.

So could his successor, if Republicans find one who suits enough of them well enough — and who agrees to accept the job — before the early November drop-dead date on the debt ceiling.

Whether s/he would breach the so-called Hastert rule, however, is an open question. The Freedom Caucus — the immediate source of the disarray — reportedly won’t vote for speaker who doesn’t pledge to abide by it. This and many other things.

Say, as I think we can, that House Republicans don’t plunge us into a genuine debt crisis. We’ll just move on to the next — the mid-December expiration of the continuing resolution that’s the reason we haven’t already had a government shutdown.

Look for another cliffhanger, as the hard-line right-wingers, plus some other members who’ve got particular axes to grind refuse to vote for a budget the Senate can pass — and the President will sign.

Wiser heads may again prevail, since Republicans got blamed for the last shutdown. But one never knows. And one surely doesn’t know what sort of deal Republican Congressional leaders and the White House will broker to either avert a shutdown or end it.

What we can, I think, know is that the uncompromising stances we’re witnessing bode fill for policies and programs that significantly affect poor and near-poor people — both those that shield them from utter destitution and those that give them a fair shot at more secure, fulfilling lives.

So much neglected business on both fronts. Overdue reforms to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example. A fix to prevent major upcoming cuts to benefits for severely-disabled former workers and their dependents. Fixes to prevent later cuts to Social Security retirement benefits.

A replacement for No Child Left Behind that preserves the focus on equal educational opportunity, but without the unintended incentives to “teach to the test” — and test overmuch. The approaching end of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Well, I could go on, but I think the point is made. All these issues — and others awaiting action — are complex. And people of good will have different views on what our federal policies should be. Nothing new about this, except the specifics.

What does seem new to me is the evident lack of interest in policymaking among the radically right-wing members of the House — those whom New York Times columnist Gail Collins referred to as “rabid ferrets” when we were last on the verge of falling over a “fiscal cliff.”

John Nichols at The Nation argues, as his headline says, that “[t]he Republican party has become not only anti-government, but anti-governing.” I wouldn’t paint the party with such a broad brush, but believe it’s true for an influential number of members in the House.

And that makes me very anxious indeed.

UPDATE: When I published this post, the drop-dead date for the debt limit increase was November 5. Later that morning, the Treasury Secretary informed Congressional leaders that the date now is no later than November 3.

What About Diapers?

August 10, 2015

Friend and fierce homeless family advocate Diane Nilan responded to my recent post on child nutrition programs with a question. Did the low-income mothers it focused on say anything about diapers?

I’d meant to write about diaper costs several years ago, when a widely-reported study of low-income mothers found that about 30% didn’t always have enough diapers to put a fresh one on as often as needed.

Just never got to the issue. But I have now.

All new mothers face a choice, at least in theory. Should they use cloth diapers or the disposable kind? Most poor and near-poor women don’t actually have this choice, however.

A service to keep them supplied with clean cloth diapers is out of the question, of course. They’re unlikely to live in a building with washers and dryers in the basement — let alone in their own apartment.

But taking dirty diapers to a laundromat is often out of the question too. Even if the owner allows them in the washers, as many don’t, the mother has to get them there.

A story that went viral tells of a mother who was ordered off a bus because her baby’s newly-soiled diaper smelled. What if she had a whole sackful that needed washing?

Logistics issues aside, most childcare centers require parents to supply disposable diapers for their infants and toddlers, the National Diaper Bank Network reports.

Seems to me likely that many home-based childcare providers do as well, since they’d otherwise have to send dirty diapers to a laundry or store them in some sanitary way for each parent to retrieve.

Parents who work need child care for their kids, including those not yet toilet trained. Even if the provider accepted cloth diapers, they could be hard-pressed for the time to wash, dry and fold them.

Disposable diapers also seem a necessity for parents — mostly mothers — enrolled in a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, since they generally must spend an average of 20-30 hours a week on whatever work activities they’ve been assigned.

TANF parents usually get childcare subsidies. But there’s no subsidy for the diapers. And SNAP (food stamp) and WIC benefits can be used only for foods and beverages.

So a bit of back-of-the-envelope math….

A mother with an infant and a two-year-old can get, at most, about $438 a month in cash assistance from the District of Columbia’s TANF program.

She’ll need roughly 14 disposable diapers a day — or about 426 a month. This is a conservative estimate, based on what I’ve found in various online forums.

The cheapest option is buying the diapers in bulk at a big box store. But here again, we may have logistics problems. A cash flow problem too, since the mother is highly unlikely to have the wherewithal for economies of scale.

So more likely, she’ll have to pick up a box or two at a time from a nearby corner store — or if she’s lucky, a full-service grocery store or one of the expanded chain drugstores.

The cheapest disposable diapers at the grocery store nearest me cost $13.74 a box. More diapers per box for the infant than the toddler, as seems generally the case. The nearby drugstore charges more.

So we’ll assume the mothers buys from the grocery store — and has a car at her disposal or a friend to drive her because she won’t be able to carry the bargain-sized boxes home or to the nearest bus stop.

Her total diaper bill then is roughly $65 a month — nearly 15% of her TANF benefit, which must also cover everything, except the family’s food, if she can stretch her SNAP and WIC benefits enough to last the whole month.

Unimaginable to me how her remaining $373 could pay for even the needs that pop immediately to mind, e.g., clothes, especially for the rapidly-growing kids, laundry, soap and other personal care items, transportation and at least some portion of the rent, plus utilities and cleaning supplies, assuming the family’s not homeless. A big assumption.

Four years ago, bills were introduced in the House and Senate that would have allowed states to use funds from the Child Care and Development Block Grant to supply providers with diapers for children whose care the block grant subsidized.

The bills went nowhere. Nor should we expect them to, now that CCDBG has been reauthorized. We shouldn’t mourn them, I think, well-meaning as they were.

Fewer children received CCDBG-subsidized child care in 2013 than in any year since 1997. One can only suppose there would have been even fewer if states had used some of their funds for diapers.

So what’s a poor mother to do? Her best bet it seems is to get free diapers supplied by a local diaper bank. The national network includes nearly 250 of them, including one in the District, which also serves nearby communities in Maryland and Virginia.

The DC bank buys diapers, using donated funds. It also accepts diaper donations, purchased online or collected via diaper drives. Additional diapers come from the national network and from Huggies. The bank then distributes them to nonprofits that provide other services to poor and near-poor families.

So our TANF mother may not have to pay for diapers after all — or at least, not for all the diapers she needs to keep her children clean, dry and cared for by others while she tries to prepare and/or look for work that will pay enough to make diaper costs no worry.

Yet diaper needs far exceed supplies, even in communities with substantial banks. Fine as they are, the banks are no substitute for stronger safety net benefits. After all, it’s not only diapers that poor parents can’t afford.





Why I’m Not Writing About the Elections

November 5, 2014

I tired of the topic many weeks ago. I bet many of you did too. And we’ll be even more tired before Monday morning quarterbacking is over. If only the Democrats had done this or that. There’s nothing they could have done that would have changed the outcomes. It’s all Obama’s fault. No, it isn’t. Etc.

I’m in a state of acute denial. I tell myself it won’t be all that bad. Not altogether believing myself. After all, my brother Tom and his family will be represented in the Senate by someone who touted her experience as a pig castrator.

But then another two years of the status quo would hardly have been anything to look forward to. Republicans would still have controlled the agenda in the House. They’d still have had enough votes in the Senate to block most anything they objected to — or thought would serve their political ends in 2016.

I see no point in adding to the plethora of prognostications — some more dire than others. And they’re old hat by now anyway. Columnists, bloggers and organizations of a progressive persuasion have been forecasting dreadful things in order to scare us to the polls — well, not us who live in the District of Columbia, but everyone else to the left of the right.

And the truth of the matter is we simply don’t know what Republicans will do — even assuming, as we shouldn’t, that the leaders can control their most radical Tea Party types. We don’t know what Obama will do either.

I can’t wrap up the state and local elections in a blog post. They’re extremely important, but the results are all over the map — figuratively, as well as literally.

So far as the District’s elections are concerned, we can be pretty sure we won’t see any dramatic changes. Beyond that, we truly don’t know. Mayor-elect Bowser kept her plans as vague as possible, which was, for the most part, very vague indeed.

I felt I had to say something about the elections, however, because I’d otherwise seem to be ignoring the elephant in the room. (Sorry ’bout that.) So I’ve acknowledged them without really saying anything.

And those of you who’ve had your fill of the elections can take comfort in knowing I don’t intend to say anything more, though I suppose they’ll worm their way into posts sooner or later.

That said, I’d welcome comments from any of you who’d like to opine or just plain vent about what happened yesterday.


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August 26, 2013

Time was when virtually all spam comments on my blog were automatically filtered out. The relative few that slipped through were obvious product-promotion messages.

No longer. For some months now, I’ve been getting comments that praise the blog and/or ask how to start one. Momentarily gratifying, but then I see that the name in the commenter line links to a marketing site.

Some of these “comments” read as if the writer isn’t fluent in English. This is also true for many comments that have no discernible relation to the blog — let alone the post they’re attached to.

So I got curious. Turns out the spammers are using thesaurus programs so that the messages they blast out aren’t identical. This lets them get through spam filters.

So the links sit on a lot of web pages, which gives them a bump in Google rankings. Bigger bump, I understand, if they’ posted on pages with popular keywords, i.e., search terms that will tend to increase the number of page views.

But, as everyone knows, words a thesaurus gives as synonyms aren’t all interchangeable.

Hence messages that read like very bad translations — often so bad I can’t back into what the thesaurus program started with. Yes, this is something I waste a bit of time on.

Well, you won’t find these comments on my blog because I blow them away. But I’m going to share a few for your amusement — all unedited, except for length.

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Now back to serious stuff.

In Defense of Unwed Dads

June 14, 2013

Nearly 41% of children are born to unwed mothers. Most of the research has focused on them and their moms, especially those at the bottom of the income scale.

But, of course, for every unwed mother there’s a dad — not necessarily unmarried, mind you.

In most cases, however, it seems he is. According to several studies, about half of unmarried parents were living together when their children were born.

But they often break up. And when that happens, a high percent of fathers disengage, as Robert Lehrman reports in a broad review of the “capabilities and contributions” of unwed fathers.

One study he cites found that by the time their kids were five, nearly half the dads hadn’t seen them for a month. Thirty-seven percent had had no contact with them for two years.

This would seem to feed some well-worn stereotypes — fathers who shrug off responsibilities for their children, including child support. The infamous “deadbeat dads.”

A new book by sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson challenges the stereotypes, as its title indicates — Doing the Best I Can.

The book is the product of seven years of research in Camden, New Jersey and low-income Philadelphia neighborhoods — much of it in-depth interviews with unwed fathers.

The pre-history, as the introduction indicates, has a strongly racial flavor.

In public discourse, we can trace it back to 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified out-of-wedlock births as a symptom of the breakdown of the Negro family.

Or since his work was swiftly marginalized, to the mid-1980s, when Bill Moyers hosted a special CBS report on “The Vanishing Family: A Crisis in Black America.”

What’s happened since is that unwed fatherhood has become more of a class phenomenon, Edin says.

Different studies provide somewhat different figures — none that I’ve found very current because they all rely on an ongoing study of a group of children born in big cities between 1998 and 2000.

According to these “fragile families” data, a majority of unwed fathers are racial or ethnic minorities, with black, non-Hispanics accounting for 46%.

But other research clearly indicates that race/ethnicity itself isn’t the key factor. The biggest difference between unwed fathers and fathers married to the mothers of their newborns is income.

In 2005, the former earned, on average, only $15,465 at the time their children were born — about $18,100 less than new, married fathers.

More than half of the “fragile families” dads who were still living with the mothers by the time their children were five earned less than $15,000.

The main explanation for these very low earnings is lack of the formal education credentials that are increasingly the passport to living wage jobs.

In the same fragile families sample cited above, 81.6% of the unwed dads had, at most, a high school diploma or GED. More than 45% of them had less. A mere 2.2% had a college degree.

Most low-income mothers understandably want a husband who’s a reliable breadwinner. It’s their top priority, Edin found in an earlier interview-based study.

And both they and their low-income partners apparently share the growing view that marriage should await financial stability — at something like a middle-class level, it seems, since they speak of a home, a car, a wedding we can assume isn’t at the courthouse.

This helps explain why only a fraction of unwed parents in the fragile families sample view childbirth as a signal to marry, even though 82% of them were living together or otherwise “romantically involved” at the time their children were born.

Also why the fathers tend to disengage over time — not always willingly, however. A fair number, the Edin-Melson team found, were pushed away when the moms found a better-off partner.

Perhaps the most important thing the team found, however, is that the unwed dads welcome fatherhood. They want a relationship with their child.

They have what Edin calls a “father thirst” — and among blacks especially, a determination to do a better job of fathering than their own dads did.

So the unwed dads aren’t, by and large, men “who impregnate women and selfishly flee,” as arch-conservative William Bennett fulminated.

Nor are they reflecting a biological propensity to “hit and run” sexuality, as family values champion David Blankenhorn claimed.

“They want to be nurturers,” Edin says. But our public policies treat them as “paychecks and not as parents,” i.e. focus only on ensuring they pay child support.

Even when they can’t — because they’re in jail, for example, and likely to return because they can’t pay the accumulated debt.

Even when — or perhaps especially when — the money is used to reimburse federal and state welfare payments, rather than to provide poor mothers with some additional funds for their children’s needs.

We have publicly-funded “responsible fatherhood” programs — and have had for some time.

Seems to me we’d do better to recognize that unwed dads want to be responsible and do what we can to make that possible.

Three Of My Favorite Online Tools

December 5, 2011

The internet has brought us many things. Opportunities to post photos that will live on to embarrass us till Facebook is history. Spam. Why do I keep getting ALL CAPS offers to maximize my erections?

But advocacy today is altogether different — and more effective — because organizations have picked up on how the ‘net can give us new ways of learning and communicating.

Among the developments I’m excited about — and grateful for — are online tools that let you mine and combine vast bodies of government data, looking at them through lenses you choose.

Here are three I’ve been using. Do you know of others you’d recommend?

FRAC National & State Program Database. This tool gives us access to the Food Research and Action Center’s current and historical data.

As you might expect, it provides data on participation in and spending for major federal nutrition assistance programs, both nationwide and by state.*

For perspective, it also includes some basic poverty and food insecurity data, plus some data on “economic security policies,” e.g., participation and cash benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

You can choose a state and up to three years’ worth of data going back to 2005. You then get an online table of all FRAC’s data in all categories. You can print it out, but not download it.

CLASP DataFinder. This tool provides a range of multi-year demographic, spending and program information, e.g., enrollments for major cities, states and the U.S. as a whole. Which type of information you get depends on the category.

For states, there are 11 categories. For cities, there are six. They focus principally on issues that affect low-income individuals and families, with a heavy emphasis on children.

When you pick a category, you generally get a subset of variables you can choose — often lots of them. You can pick variables from one category or combine.

A button pops up a table reflecting your choices. You can download it as an Excel spreadsheet or print it.

Or you can go to the original data sources because the tables include cites, with links. I really like this feature!

National Priorities Project Federal Priorities Database. This tool covers a broader range of issues than the others. It’s also the most flexible — and so the most complex to use. Happily, there’s an online step-by-step guide to get you started.

Data are available in eight major categories. For each category, there are indicators, e.g., participation rates, demographics. Also program-level expenditures.

You can choose up to five variables at any one time — indicators, expenditures or a combination and from one category or a mix.

The variables you’ve chosen are presented in interactive maps. Mouse over the state you’re interested in and you get a little pop-up box. You switch from one variable to another rather than getting all the data in one map.

Click on a state and you get a county map, with the same variable broken out.

Map pages also provide brief explanations of the variables and, as with the CLASP tool, links to the sources.

For expenditure variables, you can get figures adjusted to account for inflation. So if the latest expenditure is for Fiscal Year 2010, you can find out what it would mean today.

You can switch from a map to a table format. Tables provide data for all states and for previous years as well as the most current. Some go back as far as 1999.

The tables are downloadable in several formats. And if you’re working on a website or a blog, you can embed a map in your page.

Talk about bells and whistles!

* For all the tools discussed here, the District of Columbia is included as if it were a state.

Voting Rights Of Poor Americans Undermined By GOP Policymakers

September 17, 2011

An e-mail from the National Coalition for the Homeless asks, “Are we disenfranchising the poor?” This in announcing it’s called on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene.

The “we” here are the states that won’t let people vote unless they present a photo ID — or won’t count their vote unless they come back with one in a matter of days.

These “strict photo ID” requirements, as the National Conference of State Legislators calls them, seem to be getting more popular.

At the beginning of 2011, only two states — Georgia and Indiana — had them. Now seven more states do, though three of them can’t impose the requirements until they get permission from the Justice Department.

These three, like Georgia as well, are subject to the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act because they have a history of voting discrimination. Tells you something, doesn’t it?

NCH is understandably concerned that the photo ID requirements will keep homeless people from voting. There are particular problems, it says, in getting a photo ID when you don’t have a stable address.

However, most of the problems it identifies would affect other low-income people too.

Consider that you can’t just waltz into a government office and get a photo ID. You’ve got to show some other officially-recognized ID that proves you’re who you claim to be.

A birth certificate will do, though maybe only with some other proof of identify. But lots of people will have to send away for a copy — once they figure out where to send. They’ll have to pay a fee for it and obviously get started well in advance of election day.

NCH maintains that elderly people born in the South may not have a birth certificate because they were delivered at home by midwives. An online news source in South Carolina confirms this and details potentially costly, time-consuming complications.

One way or the other, you’re likely to have surmounted the hurdles if you’re a middle-class American. You’ve got a photo on your driver’s license.

If you never drive, you’re likely to have gotten a state ID, though AARP argues that seniors and people with disabilities may not, especially those in assisted living facilities or nursing homes.

In theory, the burdens of the photo ID requirements fall equally on blacks, browns and whites. But so did the notorious poll taxes Southern states used to keep blacks from voting.

In fact, Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) calls the photo ID requirements “a poll tax by another name,” noting that as many as 25% of blacks have no form of acceptable identification. This is almost certainly linked to the fact that a far higher percentage of blacks than whites are poor. Hispanics also.

Nevertheless, I’m inclined to think that legislators who’ve passed strict photo ID requirements have a different agenda from the out-in-out racists Lewis bravely campaigned against in the early 1960s.

They don’t so much object to racial and ethnic minority voters per se. Or to low-income voters generally. It’s how they vote.

Republicans control both houses of the legislature in all but one of the states — Rhode Island — that adopted strict photo ID requirements this year. And all five governors who vetoed strict voting requirements state legislatures had passed were Democrats.

So what we seem to be seeing here are partisan preemptive strikes against low-income voters — perhaps especially racial and ethnic minorities — because of the candidates they’re likely to support.

Even in the last election, which saw a big shift to Republicans, majorities in all three of these overlapping categories voted Democrat. So did college students — another group that will face new barriers to voting.

Supporters of photo ID requirements claim they’re necessary to prevent voter fraud. However, cases of proven voter fraud are rare.

And cases where the fraud involved impersonating someone else — the kind of fraud a photo ID requirement would prevent — are, according to a Brennan Center for Justice study, “an occurrence more rare than getting struck by lightning.”

Disenfranchisement of any eligible voter for any reason should cause the gravest concerns.

Disenfranchising millions of homeless and other low-income Americans — or even discouraging them from voting — because of how they vote is outrageous.

But it’s a good way to tilt election outcomes, isn’t it?


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