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.


What’s Wrong With “School Choice” Vouchers?

March 30, 2017

School choice is back in the news, thanks to Trump’s choice of school choice advocate — some would say zealot — and more, recently his budget plan. The hot-button part is federally-funded support for parents to send their children to private schools.

Most people understand this to mean vouchers, though we might see other proposals as well. This is one of the things I learned from a webcasted speech and panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress.

Those who know CAP know the event aimed to expose the problems with vouchers. And it did — well enough, I think, to move anyone on the fence off to the opposition side.

Senator Patty Murray, the most senior Democrat on the HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee led off by summarizing a lengthy letter she’d just sent to colleagues. The panelists filled in with supporting research and those other proposals we might see.

Big takeaways here. A followup soon on another way Trump might try to fund private school choice, plus some further threats targeted specifically high-poverty schools and their students.

Accountability and Transparency

The Every Child Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, gives states more flexibility in how they assess students’ mastery of three basic skill and knowledge areas — reading/language arts, math and science.

They’ve got flexibility they didn’t have to set standards for assessing schools, though they must include those test scores and, for high schools, graduation rates. They’ve also got more flexibility in what to do about schools that consistently don’t measure up.

But test at least those basic skills they must, at the same grade-level intervals and to virtually all the students in those grades.

And both they and school districts must still publicly report, among other things, the tests results broken out, e.g., by race-ethnicity, with a disability, whether disadvantaged by living in poverty or near-poverty.

They must also now report other relevant data, e.g., broken-out suspension and expulsion rates, percent and number of teachers who lack experience and/or the customary formal credentials.

ESSA is the latest version of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. So it applies only to state education agencies and to schools districts they distribute their share of federal funds to.

Private schools don’t get any So they can test students whenever and however choose — or not at all. They can inform parents or not. Even if they do, parents have no reliable way to know whether their children are learning more or less than they would in a regular public or charter school.

Quality Education

The freedom private schools have from learning standards extends to staffing choices. They don’t have to hire only teachers who have state teaching credentials.

State requirements differ, but they include a four-year college degree, including courses in education (or a major for elementary school) and a major or minor in a subject they’ll teach.

And only about half of the 20 voucher programs that the General Accountability Office surveyed had any sort of accreditation from a state or other established quality assurance organization.

What this means is that students may graduate, but discover they can’t get into college without completing a GED. Or, as in a case Murray’s letter cites, can’t transfer to the next grade level in a public school.

Equal Education Guarantees

All regular public and publicly-funded charter schools must comply with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act — a federal law that requires them to ensure that every disabled child has a free and individually-appropriate education.

It’s, as Murray’s letter says, basically a civil rights law, since it expands and spells out in detail how schools must ensure the equal educational opportunity guarantee in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Private schools don’t have to comply with IDEA, except those in the District of Columbia that enroll students with vouchers because they’re federally-funded — another unwanted intervention in local policymaking and mostly a channel of support to religious schools.

They would nationwide if federally-funded, as Trump’s budget envisions and his Secretary of Education dearly wants, notwithstanding her earlier view that IDEA requirements would “be best left to states.”

But what we know about private schools that enroll students with state-funded vouchers should, at the very least, make us suspicious. Private schools have, for example, rejected children with vouchers because of disabilities — or deterred parents from enrolling them.

Not long ago, only a minuscule fraction of children with disabilities were enrolled through vouchers in Wisconsin’s private voucher schools. And the schools warned they’d not provide the level of services IDEA requires.

In Florida, parents of children with scholarships exclusively for those with disabilities must sign away all their IDEA rights.

Federally-funded vouchers would in theory, if not in practice at the very least give children with disabilities an education more appropriate for them than some state programs. But that wouldn’t resolve the equality issues.

Title IX expressly exempts religious schools from complying with its prohibition against sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs so far as that would run up against their tenets.

This means, among other things, that they can have sex-segregated curricula based on based on their beliefs about gender roles, different conduct codes and fewer or no athletic opportunities geared to women students’ interests and abilities. They can also, of course, rampantly discriminate against LGBT students.

Other Inequities

Vouchers won’t make private schools affordable for lower-income parents unless they’re virtually budget-busters.

State-funded voucher programs were worth, on average, $2,000–$5,000 last year. Private school tuition alone averaged about twice the higher range of this average. And then come books, uniforms and probably other costs.

So vouchers don’t truly mean choice for parents who can’t substantially supplement them. On the contrary, studies of voucher programs in four states found that most of the money went to parents who already had enough to have their kids in private schools.

Finally, they’re worthless for kids in many rural communities, where even the nearest public school is often far away—and a private school even further.

But the public schools provide transportation. They’ll have less money to spend for that, as well as other things if the federal government funds vouchers. The add-on in Trump’s budget doesn’t change this. Without it, there’d be more money for public schools.


Republicans’ Healthcare Word Choices Can’t Alter Facts

March 27, 2017

Maybe it’s because my formal education trained me to be sensitive — even hypersensitive — to words. Whatever the reason, I’m impressed and riled up when I read how House Republican leaders and some top officials in Trump administration are styling the features of their Obamacare repeal-replace bill.

Both responses because their word choices artfully appeal to widely-shared values, while obscuring basic truths that anyone who reads even a summary of their plan can see.

And just because neither the Republican House leadership nor Trump could herd enough of their cats to pass their final bill, doesn’t mean we’ve seen the end of this. Some notable examples then.

Access to Coverage. A favorite word. House Speaker Paul Ryan says it’s the Republicans’ “job to have a system where people can get access to affordable coverage.”

A Republican House staffer, speaking anonymously and thus perhaps less focused on the selling the work-in progress, said, “We would like to get to a point where we have what we call universal access, where everybody is able to access coverage to some degree or another.”

Now, access isn’t the same thing as ability to buy. For example, I have access to a full-length mink coat. The coat’s in a store I can get to. I can walk right up to it. And it’s great coverage, especially when in cold weather.

So a poor person can review a health insurance policy, with ample coverage, a minimal deductible and small co-pays. Doesn’t mean s/he can pay for it.

Now that we’ve got credible estimates of the many millions of Americans who’d no longer have health insurance, Ryan harps again on access, coupled with another favorite word — and not only in the healthcare context.

Choice. For families, Ryan says, access means, among other things, “more choices.” Well, who doesn’t like having choices? Do we like being told we must do or have some specific thing — or can’t?

But the bill, as I’ve just said, doesn’t mean more choices for lower-income families, except the choice of going without health insurance — or buying one of those low-cost, high deductible plans.

Ryan touts the larger maximum people can contribute to a health savings account, avoiding the corollaries, i.e., that only people with high-deductible plans can have them and that those who live paycheck to paycheck don’t have money to stash away.

Only 6% of families with incomes less than $30,000 a year contribute anything to an HSA now. More than half the families that contribute have incomes of at least $100,000 — a tax saver for them, rather than a needed savings account.

Freedom. When Ryan was asked how many Americans would lose coverage if the Republican’s bill became law, he said he couldn’t answer. “People are going to do what they want with their lives because we believe in individual freedom.”

And indeed we do, but only up to a point. We don’t believe everyone should be able to do whatever they want, especially when what they would cause harm to others, directly or otherwise.

In the immediate case, people would be freer to go without health insurance, since the bill would eliminate the annually-growing penalty for that.

But they’d drive up premiums because most would have reasons to believe they’d remain healthy — at least for awhile. But if they then had a medical emergency, a hospital would have to eat the costs of treating them.

An immigrant from Finland cites several other instances of the Republicans’ using “freedom” as a selling point and, as her op-ed’s headline says, explains why it’s “fake,” in contrast to the freedom she had before.

Care. The Director of the Office of Management and Budget asserts that the Republicans’ goal isn’t health insurance coverage nor a plan people can afford.

It’s care they can afford. He cites his family’s high deductible when he was in the House of Representatives, earning considerably more than would qualify them for a tax credit to subsidize it, let alone one for a family eligible for the highest.

We earlier heard something, though more extreme from the Secretary of Health and Human Services — a former orthopedic surgeon and then Republican House member who proposed his own version of repeal-replace.

While in the House, he said that he “knew oh so well how the intervention of the state and federal government into the practice of medicine destroys the ability to take care of people.”

Seems fair to gather what he means from the reported views of a radically right-wing professional organization he belonged to — minimal, if any health insurance regulations or medical quality standards, e.g., that physicians be licensed to practice, no vaccination requirements and no Medicare at all.

Well, save me from care so free of intervention. But these views hardly reflect what the majority of doctors believe — even those represented by the traditionally conservative American Medical Association, which has decided that the repeal-replace is far worse than the “imperfect” law we have.

Rebuttal Story. The Washington Post recently published a column by a doctor at primary care clinic that expressly rebuts the interference with care claim — and, by example, the other negatives that the Republicans’ word choices imply.

The doctor tells the story of one of his patients. Mr. R. first came to him when he got health insurance, having had none before because he couldn’t afford it.

The Affordable Care Act changed that, enabling him to purchase a plan that cost him less than $50 a month, thanks to the subsidies low-income people receive. But that’s not all.

Mr. R can neither read nor write. So he could hardly use the online system to choose and actually apply for a plan. He had the help of a navigator — a trained, unbiased helper — whose role the ACA established.

So he’d gotten help with logging on and entering some basic information. The the system then determined he had somewhat too much income qualify for Medicaid. So it kicked him over to the health insurance exchange.

The navigator explained terms like “premium” and “out-of-pocket maximum” and helped him fill out the forms. In short, as the physician says, “the federal policies … worked synergistically.”

Mr. R had — and still has — access to coverage, freedom, choice and care from a caring doctor. What “some politicians … seem not understand,“ the doctor says, “is that without the ACA, I wouldn’t have a relationship with patients like Mr. R at all.”

They actually do, I think, just as they understand the weasely way they’re using terms like “access,” “choice” and the rest. But what’s the alternative? To acknowledge that their bill would cause nearly as many people to have no health insurance than before the ACA?


Much Progress Toward Reducing Poverty, But Much More to Do

March 23, 2017

So many news reports, analyses, blog posts, etc. on how the House Republicans’ repeal-replace bill and/or Trump’s budget would harm poor people. I thought I should clear my mind and purge anger, however briefly.

So I reread a fleshed-out speech that Jason Furman, Obama’s Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors—gave a few days before Trump’s inauguration.

It seems even more timely now, as we learn more about what the new administration and Republican House leaders have in mind. But it’s relevant also to what state — and in some cases, local — policymakers have done and can do.

So a brief summary of the hefty, research-based framework and then the agenda Furman lays out.

What Accounts for Poverty

“Poverty is shaped by market forces and government policies and programs,” Furman says. Market forces are basically those that determine what people earn by working, investments and profits from sales. Furman focuses solely on the first.

Government policies and programs include other pre-tax income, e.g., Social Security benefits, post-tax cash transfers like refunds from the Earned Income Tax Credit and cash-equivalent transfers like SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Significant Progress Toward Reducing Poverty

Forget all that rhetoric about throwing trillions at the problem with no impact on poverty rates. The poverty rate, as measured by a back-looking version of the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure was 41% lower in 2015 than in 1967, as the War on Poverty was setting in.

But the news here is that government anti-poverty programs account for the drop. Market-income poverty has remained essentially flat — and its deep poverty rate risen by nearly 3%.

Why No Progress From Market-Income Poverty

Furman identifies three market-income factors that could lift poor workers and their families over the poverty line — productivity growth, i.e., output per worker per hour, where the income generated flows and labor force participation, i.e., the percent of the population over 16 years old that’s working or actively looking for work.

Productivity growth slowed about 20 years ago, though it recently ticked up. The big difference from the prime period the CEA identified is that most of the income flows to the top — very large salaries for top management, corporate decisions to boost stock prices by buying back shares and maximizing dividends.

So productivity growth and average worker pay, plus benefits no longer closely track. The gap has, in fact, steadily widened, as the Economic Policy Institute’s graphs show.

Meanwhile, the labor force participation rate has trended down, recently reaching a 38-year low. Many reasons for this—retirement of baby boomers, for example, more young people going to college, more people (mainly women deciding to stay home with the kids because child care costs more than they’d earn.

But that still leaves a contingent of discouraged workers — those who looked, but gave up, those who decided it was futile to try — in many cases because they’ve found or have reasons to believe that they don’t have the knowledge and/or skills employers demand.

What the participation rate means, of course, is less household income — and less pressure on employers to offer higher wages.

Where to Go From Here

Furman’s agenda for further progress follows logically from his analysis. It has four major items.

Do no harm. Evidence shows that the safety net works — not only in the short term during recessions, but in the long term because the benefits it delivers have lasting effects on children’s prospects for moving up the income scale. So we should avoid policies that make it less effective, including block grants. (Told you this was timely.)

Focus on raising market incomes. This will involve policies to boost economic growth, but also changes to shift more of the gains to lower-income workers. Measures would raising minimum wages, as 22 states, the District of Columbia and more than 60 local communities have.

Furman also names expanded unions — presumably mostly in the private sector. This would also require repealing laws in half the states that allow workers to benefit from union bargaining without joining — and laws in three that have weakened public-sector union bargaining.

For individual workers and prospective workers, we need better programs to connect workers to jobs. Also more and better formal education.

On the more side, Furman cites research showing that low-income children fared better as adults when they participated in early childhood education programs. On the better, everything from that to college and beyond.

Rounding out this part, Furman looks to unspecified steps to reduce monopsony, i.e., cases where only one employer or a few control the labor market, thus enabling them to keep wages low..

Take further steps to improve the safety net. We need, for example, to increase funding for programs that egregiously fail to serve people who are or ought to eligible, e.g., for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing assistance.

We need to expand the EITC so that it’s a work incentive for childless adults, whom we still tax into poverty or deeper poverty.

And we should redesign the unemployment insurance program so that recessions automatically trigger more weeks of benefits or bigger benefits, rather than depending on what Congress decides at any given moment to do..

Think harder about people who fall through the cracks. Furman has no specific suggestions here, just notes the Edin-Shaefer findings on families living on $2 or less per day.

Worth noting, however, that the team attributes the sharp rise in such extreme poverty to the virtual end of cash assistance for non-working families when TANF replaced welfare as we knew it. Furman too zeroes in on TANF in a lengthy boxed insert.

So as we martial our defenses of safety net programs and protections for under-paid (and unpaid) workers, it’s still worth holding onto a vision and speaking out for a better day and better ways. And worth not losing sight of the policy-driven progress we’ve already made.


DC Coalition Urges Major Investments in Affordable Housing

March 20, 2017

While I’m on an affordable housing tangent, I’ll turn to what’s going on in my own community, the District of Columbia.

We’re in the fairly early stages of the annual budget season. And advocates have already begun pressing their cases — for more affordable housing funds, among others.

The Fair Budget Coalition has released its annual recommendations — a far-reaching set, both in scope and total cost. Not a mere wish list, however, since we’ve reasons to expect funding increases for some of the priorities, even if not as hefty as FBC calls for.

Nine of the recommendations address what the report terms “housing security,” i.e., safe, affordable housing for both families with children and people without. These recommendations represent at least 53% of the total new spending FBC advocates.*

Surely everyone who lives in the District or attends to what goes on here outside the White House and the Capitol buildings knows that the shortage of housing the lowest-income residents can afford is a huge problem — hence also the homeless problem.

The recommendations go at the linked problems in several different, though in some cases related ways.

Housing Security in the FBC Report

Housing Production Trust Fund. This is the District’s single largest source of financial support for projects to develop and preserve affordable housing. Funds available for the upcoming fiscal year will be half again as high — $150 million — as what the Mayor has consistently committed to and the Council approved, if FBC and allies prevail.

The new figure reflects the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s 10-year estimate of the cost of meeting the District’s affordable housing needs and what seems realistic for the administering agency to actually commit within the upcoming year.

The recommendation wouldn’t necessarily mean $50 million more in the budget itself because the Trust Fund, by law receives a small fraction of taxes the District collects when it records deeds to real property and transfers to new owners.

The larger policy issue here is that the Trust Fund hasn’t done what it’s supposed to for the lowest-income households, i.e., those with incomes below 30% of the median for the area. The law requires that it commit 40% of its resources to housing for them.

Last year, only 15% of funds awarded helped finance new rental housing affordable for this officially lowest-income group, DCFPI’s housing policy expert recently testified. FBC wants the required percent raised by 10% and a mandated plan for meeting the full need.

Permanent Supportive Housing. FBC recommends $18 million for permanent supportive housing, That, it says, would provide 535 units for single individuals and 317 families.

The former, by definition, have been homeless for a long time or recurrently and have at least one disability. The latter have at least one member who meets this definition. The “supportive” part of the term refers to individualized services residents are offered, but not required to accept.

So the budget would have to include additional funding for these services. Don’t suppose I need to say why the District can’t expect the federal government to provide more.

Housing Vouchers. These now come in two different flavors — those funded by the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., indefinite-term vouchers like the federal Housing Choice vouchers, and the almost-new Targeted Affordable Housing vouchers, first proposed in the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The TAH vouchers subsidize rents for individuals and families that no longer need the ongoing, intensive services they’ve received while in PSH, but will probably become homeless again if they have to rent at market rates.

They’re also designed for individuals and families who’ve reached the end of their short-term rapid re-housing subsidies and like the prospective PSH graduates will probably return to shelters — or the streets — if left to fend for themselves.

FBC recommends 425 subsidized TAH units for singles and 513 for families. It also calls for enough LRSP funding to house an estimated 466 families on the DC Housing Authority’s enormously long — and still closed — waiting list.

These vouchers will all be the tenant-based kind, i.e., those the fortunate families could use to rent on the open market from any landlord that would accept them.

We’ve reasons to expect that the voucher increases, whatever the kind will be more than offset by losses due to insufficient Housing Choice funding — about 1,300, if Congress passes the nick Trump’s budget takes.

Rapid Re-housing. Rounding out subsidies of the voucher sort, FBC recommends enough funding to accommodate 343 single individuals in the rapid re-housing program.

No more for families, which may tell us something — at the very least, doubts about how successful the vouchers are at truly ending homelessness for all but those temporarily down on their luck.

Public Housing. Funding to repair public housing units is the single biggest ticket item on the FBC housing security list — $25 million to eliminate such safety and health hazards as leaking indoor pipes, broken windows and doors, holes that rats and roaches crawl through.

This wouldn’t make all public housing units fully habitable. DCHA estimated its capital needs at $1.3 billion last year, noting ongoing shortfalls in federal funding for them. Yet another prospective cut that the District may have to deal with at best it can.

Bottom Line

FBC’s housing security recommendations total $118.9 million — not counting, as we probably should some portion of the Trust Fund investment.

In one respect, this is what we’re told good bargainers do — put on the table more than you think the folks on the other side will agree to.

But more importantly, it’s yet another sign that the Mayor and DC Council should revise policies that unduly limit what the District can spend.

The Chief Financial Officer’s latest revenue forecast estimates about $221 million more than the the current budget requires — and further increases over the next four years.

Under current policy, the forecast will automatically trigger all the tax cuts that haven’t already reduced what the District can spend.

Next year’s budget would then have only 57% of what it could without the cuts — $103 million less for a host of critical needs. Even less in future years, as DCFPI’s analysis shows.

At the same time, the District continues to sweep all budgeted funds unspent at the end of each fiscal year into what are essentially savings accounts. It’s now got about $2.4 billion parked, probably earning at a miniscule interest rate.

It could well end the fiscal year with more unspent funds again. We’ve had surpluses every year since 2010, when the Council decided to save every penny of them.

They can’t be used for budget items that require ongoing funding commitments, but any one-time expense is okay. A transfer to the Trust Fund would qualify.

So, as the current campaign slogan says, the Mayor and Council should untie DC’s hands — or more precisely, their own. At the same time, with prospects of budgetary tornadoes, rather than rainy days, setting some money aside in a reserve they can readily tap would be prudent.

* In some cases other than housing, FBC recommends a range, rather than single dollar figure. And, as noted above, the Trust Fund recommendation would not involve total spending through the budget. The percent I’ve cited is the lowest.


Policy Changes Could Shrink the Affordable Housing Gap, But Trump Budget Likely to Worsen It

March 15, 2017

Picking up where I left off on the acute shortage of housing for the lowest-income renters. As I said, we’ve got policy remedies, but also threats. Those seem more imminent since the Washington Post reported a leaked preview of Trump’s proposed budget.

A Range of Policy Remedies

More Financing for Affordable Housing. The National Low Income Housing, as you might expect, focuses on the housing, rather than the income side of the equation. Within this broad spectrum, it’s zeroed in, though not exclusively on building the National Housing Trust Fund.

First, it calls for legislative changes that would significantly increase revenues that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could transfer to the Fund, which at long last got some money last year — a down payment, of sorts, on its promise.

Second, NLICH would have the mortgage interest deduction cut in half, to $500,000 and the additional tax revenues shifted into the Fund.

These two measures — if swiftly enacted and gradually phased in — would generate an estimated $21.3 billion over the first 10 years, NLIHC says, using in part a study by the Tax Policy Center. Millions more then to states and the District of Columbia.

They can use their Trust Fund shares to help finance a range of activities that preserve, create, upgrade and otherwise make available more affordable housing.

All but 10% must go to rental housing and at least 75% of that for the benefit of extremely low income households, i.e., those with incomes no more than 30% of the median for the area they live in.

More Opportunity to Increase Housing Assistance. Even with a beefed-up Trust Fund, we’d still need more funding for Housing Choice vouchers — both project-based, i.e., those that subsidize rents for specific units, and tenant-based, i.e., those that enable recipients to rent at market-based rates, while still paying only 30% of their income.

Funding for these vouchers got whacked by the 2013 across-the-board cuts. The annual caps on appropriations now leave a lot of discretion to the top-level decision-makers in Congress — and even to majorities in the subcommittees.

The caps have nevertheless surely played a role in severely limiting the reach of not only Housing Choice vouchers, but available public housing units and those funded by several programs that are smaller and more specifically targeted, e.g., for the elderly, for people with disabilities.

The Campaign for Housing and Community Development — a substantial, broad-based coalition — has just called on Congress to lift the originally-mandated caps, which will otherwise again become effective for the next fiscal year’s budget.

Very importantly, it calls for parity, unlike the lopsided defense increase/non-defense decrease we’re likely to see in Trump’s proposed budget, of which more below.

New Renters Credit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has floated a proposal that would get around the caps — a renters credit. Not, you note, technically federal spending, because spending through the tax code doesn’t count.

The credit would work somewhat like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit in that states would get a certain number of the credits and then parcel them out to expand housing affordable for low-income people.

The new credit could go to both developers and owners and would subsidize rents like the Housing Choice vouchers, limiting what tenants pay to 30% of their income.

The difference here is that the developers and/or owners would get the difference as a tax reduction, rather than a direct payment from a public housing authority. And the big difference from the LIHT is that it would make units available for only the lowest-income households.

Like the NILHC mortgage tax interest reduction, the renters credit would shift the balance in current federal policies from housing assistance for high-income homeowners to the lowest-income renters and prospective renters.

The mortgage interest deduction, the related property tax deduction and some other tax preferences recently saved the highest-income households a total of more than $130 billion, according to the Center’s estimates.

All rental assistance was somewhere around $55 billion — less than the mortgage interest deduction alone.

Threats on the Horizon

We don’t know yet exactly what Trump will propose for next fiscal year’s budget, but he’s said it will increase defense spending by $54 billion. Not, however, so as to increase the deficit. He seems intent on doing that in other ways.

His forthcoming budget will offset the significant breach in the defense spending cap by reducing spending for non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations. How he’ll apportion the cuts remains to be seen.

But the Washington Post reports that “preliminary budget documents,” probably the marks that the Office of Management of Budget passes down to federal agencies, call for more than $6 billion in cuts to Housing and Urban Development programs — roughly 14% of the insufficient amount they get now.

The work-in-progress budget would level-fund rental assistance programs, the Post says. This would not preserve the number of vouchers in current use because they cost more annually to plug gaps between what renters pay and landlords’ permissible rental charges, which HUD bases on the costs of  modest units on the open market.

Both the Center and NLIHC say that about 200,000 vouchers would effectively vanish, leaving more low-income renters with the huge cost burdens many already bear — or homeless.

Public housing would take big hits. The capital fund would lose about $1.3 billion or more than 31%* — this when public housing has major repair/rehabilitation needs that now total nearly $40 billion, NLIHC says.

The cut, on top of years of under-funding would mean the loss of even more public housing units — more than half of which provide affordable units, presumably with accommodations hard to find on the open market, for seniors and younger people with disabilities.

The budget document also cuts funding for operating public housing by $600 million. This funding stream subsidizes not only administrative activities like overseeing buildings and renting vacating units, but routine maintenance. Neglect that and you’ve got a capital need, as all of us housed people know

The prospective budget would also blow away a flexible block grant that densely-populated communities can use to provide affordable housing and cuts two others, including one helps fund improvements in rundown subsidized housing and surrounding neighborhoods.

A fourth — the Native American Housing Block Grant—would be cut by more than 20%, leaving housing on some reservations severely over-crowded and without such basics as hot and cold running water and/or toilets.

In not-so-short, billions more for defense, billions less for poor and near-poor people who urgently need affordable housing — like, for example, what the First Lady’s living in, rent-free.

* The Center, which links to the Post report, says the capital fund cut is about $2 billion.


House GOP Defunds Planned Parenthood, Endangers Low-Income Women

March 13, 2017

Nicholas Kristof wrote a presciently timely column for the next-to-the last Sunday New York Times. He recounts a visit to a women’s health clinic in small town in Maine, including what he observed during a consultation.

A teenager had come to the clinic because she felt itchy in her vaginal area. The nurse practitioner takes swab, diagnoses a yeast infection, but has also tested for sexually transmitted diseases.

She then talks to the teenager about birth control methods, including a long-acting reversible contraception. The young woman likes that, learns it’s fully covered by her insurance.

The nurse practitioner also gives her some condoms and tells her to always insist that her prospective sexual partner use one to protect her from STDs.

In short, as Kristof says, this is health care at its best, preventing both unwanted pregnancies and diseases.

Indirectly, poverty also, since the poverty rate for single-mother families is consistently the highest of any household type the Census Bureau reports — 36.5% last year and even higher for families with color, except Asian-Americans.

The Maine clinic apparently receives federal funds — either through the state’s Medicaid program, a Title X family planning grant or both. So it — —and the women who depend on it — are in big trouble because it provides abortions.

No federal funds used for these because laws already prohibit that. But the clinic probably can’t survive on donations and what it receives from health insurance companies for serving patients who’ve got the coverage the House Republicans’ Affordable Care Act repeal-replace bill would provide.

The bill won’t let people use the tax credits they’ll get to help pay their insurance premiums for a policy that covers abortions, except in the same limited cases the Medicaid prohibition carves out,

And, as you’ve probably read, it denies federal funding to Planned Parenthood, though initially for only one year. This perhaps to evade a stumbling block to swiftly passing the bill with only a simple majority in the Senate, rather than the usual 60 votes.

In the meantime, knowing the bill won’t pass swiftly anyway — if at all in its current form — the House passed and the Senate’s expected to pass a measure that overturns an Obama administration rule which effectively prohibits states from denying Title X funds to family planning projects because they provide abortions.

Well, none of this will make much difference to well-off women who live in cities or major suburban areas. They’ll have ob-gyns or other clinics they can go to. If they need an abortion, they can readily get one from their ob-gyn or another competent physician — and pay for it out of their own pockets.

But low-income women — and perhaps many not-so-low who live in small, rural towns — will no longer have a nearby clinic for tests that detect cancer as well as other diseases, counsel on how to prevent them and on safe, reliable birth control. Nor the procedure to insert a LARC — and replace it when necessary.

Planned Parenthood operates the largest network of women’s health clinics in the country — nearly 650, serving every state and the District of Columbia. They provide services to about 2.5 million women and men a year. Nearly 80% were poor or near-poor two years ago.

A tiny fraction of the funds it disburses go for abortions — 3%, as measured by services. Roughly a third help prevent untended pregnancies. Most of the remainder test, provide treatment and/or help prevent diseases.

Notwithstanding what some Republicans have said, other community clinics can’t readily meet these needs if the freed-up funds were available to them. Nor new clinics spring up all over the country.

Planned Parenthood is 100 years old now. You don’t get the resources to build or expand facilities, find and hire specialized health professionals to fully staff them, ensure stocks of testing equipment and supplies, etc. in a couple of years.

All these attacks on Planned Parenthood — and now apparently a broader attack on women’s health clinics — are a sop to the active pro-life movement.

What a cleverly chosen name, I’ve often thought, since it casts Americans who believe women should have the freedom to choose when and if to become mothers as against life.

Well, let’s consider the life of a low-income woman who can’t get regular Pap, other cervical cancer or breast cancer exams, plus instructions on how to monitor for breast lumps herself.

Or the life of a woman who doesn’t find out she has HIV/AIDS until she contracts some life-threatening infection — and perhaps by then has passed the disease on to a partner or a baby she’s borne.

How about a woman who’s decided that she’s unready — financially, emotionally or otherwise — to become a mother? She perhaps plans to enroll in a college-level program that will prepare her for a fulfilling, well-paying career — or is already in one.

She may, in fact, still be in high school and with no family member to care for a baby — or the money or the transportation to put him/her in an infant daycare program or even one nearby that’s not fully booked. She’s likely to drop out of high school, as 90% of pregnant teens do.

Her life may turn out okay, but the prospects are significantly dimmer. As I already said, she’s at high risk of poverty. What kind of life will that child have? Many studies tell us that children born and raised in poverty are at high risk for a host of problems and likely to remain poor long after.

None of this is to say that the self-labeled pro-lifers are wrong to publicly opposing abortions. If I believed that people were legally murdering others, I would speak out too, join with others to protest, call for an end to it.

But when human life begins, the value of preserving fetuses likely to die at birth or survive severely damaged, the countervailing weight of harms to the expectant mother and the like are matters of personal belief, often based on sectarian religious teachings.

The Supreme Court acknowledged women’s Constitutional Right to abortion more than 44 years ago. The federal government has nevertheless long curbed that right by prohibiting uses of federal funds for abortions.

Now, even if the House Republican leadership can’t push through its bill and the efforts to fashion a more acceptable substitute drag on, we can expect more proposals to defund Planned Parenthood — if not in Congress (though likely), then by states, 10 of which have already moved to do so.

And we can’t, I think, trust the new administration to intervene in defense of equitable funding for organizations that can provide the services Medicaid covers, given Trump’s bifurcated view on the Planned Parenthood issue.

A call to action then in defense of low-income women by the majority of voters who believe that abortion should remain legal in all or most cases. Because what’s a legal right if you’re too poor to exercise it?