What’s at Stake in the Debate Over Bathrooms for Homeless DC Families?

November 2, 2015

As I’ve written before — and as you who live in the District of Columbia have probably read elsewhere — we’re debating accommodations for families in the new, smaller shelters that will replace DC General, where many are temporarily (and horribly) housed now.

Upcoming votes on an amendment to the Homeless Services Reform Act will determine whether the Bowser administration can, as it wishes, contract for new shelters that provide most families with only a private room, like what they’ve got at DC General.*

As things have played out, the hottest issue is whether all but a few — selected we don’t know how — will have to trundle down a hall, day or night, parents and children always together, to a bathroom shared with whoever happens to have a room on the same floor.

How We Came to This Pretty Pass

The HSRA requires apartment-style units in the new shelters — separate bedrooms for parents and children, bathrooms and “cooking facilities” for the family only. The Bowser administration contends that’s too costly. So it wants the law amended to permit what’s essentially a dormitory-style design.

Advocates would like all families to have apartment-style units — as would we if we became homeless and had children in our care. But they’ve tried to forge some compromise.

The Mayor kicked the issue to the Interagency Council on Homelessness, telling it to establish a special committee for shelter design guidelines and setting a very tight deadline for “feedback” — only three weeks from the date of her order.

The committee dutifully produced a report. “Bathrooms were the largest source of concern for stakeholders,” it said. No firm recommendations, but options and how members voted.

Many, it seems, were convinced that providing private bathrooms for all families would delay the process of closing DC General, as the Bowser administration claims. But only two of the eighteen members supported its plan to have just one unit with a private bathroom per floor.

What Homeless Families Say

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, with cooperation from the refreshingly collaborative Department of Human Services, recently did what the Bowser administration arguably should have done early on. It asked families the District is sheltering which features they thought shelters should have.

The report it’s produced includes interesting numerical results. Families have somewhat different views on critical features — both generally and according to the length of time a family would have to remain in a shelter before it found housing, with or without help from DHS.

Large majorities of families said shelters had to have private bathrooms, with showers — 77% no matter how short the stay and a somewhat higher percent for stays as long as a year. Only one family surveyed considered a bathroom shared with four or more families acceptable.

The figures seem to me telling. But the personal stories Clinic staff heard are downright compelling.

A mother who was taking a medication that caused her to have to go several times a night, which meant she had to wake her children and take them with her because parents in shelters aren’t allowed to leave their children untended — even if briefly and in their rooms.

Another mom who somehow dressed her young children “in the air” because the bathroom floor was filthy. Still another who couldn’t toilet train her toddler because the communal bathroom terrified him.

And parents with children of the opposite sex constantly forced to choose between bad options inherent in the nature of communal bathrooms, even the cleanest. For example, a mother with a twelve-year-old son who didn’t want him going to the men’s room alone, but couldn’t see taking him into the women’s room either.

The Lesson and the Issue

The debate over bathrooms, kitchenettes and the like has larger implications for how we, through our elected officials, make choices that will affect the lives of community members, especially those who’ve got no choice but to live with them. Likewise, how we, as advocates, choose our causes.

The lesson is to ask the real experts — the people who’ve experienced the programs and services we provide (or don’t) for the poor and near-poor among us. And then to listen with open minds to what they say and take account of it in decision-making.

The debate also raises a much broader issue than shelter features and other conditions — specifically, whether we will offer programs and services that would meet our needs, decently and respectfully, if we should fall on hard times.

This apparently is how Council Chairman Mendelson sees the shelter design issue — up to a point. It “boils down to cost vs. ‘general dignity,'” the Washington Post reports his saying. But also that he hasn’t decided where he’ll net out.

The Legal Clinic contends that private bathrooms wouldn’t cost so much as to rule them out. Figures supplied by the Council’s Budget Director indicate that the square footage required would actually be somewhat less than for communal bathrooms — thus, one infers, also the cost of land to build on and/or buildings to renovate.

But the Clinic makes a more important point. The Mayor recently asked the Council to approve her plan for reallocating $60 million — mostly funds agencies didn’t spend last fiscal year.

Earlier figures DHS presented indicate that this would more than cover the additional cost of apartment-style units for all families in the new shelters. But the plan doesn’t put a penny more into even bathrooms.

So it’s not truly cost versus dignity. It’s rather the value the administration places on a modicum of dignity in living conditions for homeless families versus other projects, e.g., a nice park at an elementary school in a well-off part of town, economic development of some sort in one of the best-off.

This is the basic value question Councilmembers will face when they vote on the HSRA amendment.

* A vote on the amendment is scheduled for Tuesday, November 3. The Council will have to vote on it again, as it must for most legislation.

Do Nothing Congress Gets Something Pretty Good Done

October 30, 2015

So Congress did indeed pass a big package to deal with pressing, undone business. It’s entitled the Bipartisan Budget Act. And one could call it that, though it would have died in the House if still-Speaker Boehner hadn’t relied on Democrats to get it through.

No one, so far as I know, likes everything in it. But it’s a whole lot better than no bill at all — and not only because the federal government was mere days before defaulting on the debt.

I can’t possibly cover every jot and tittle. Here instead is what I’ve learned about several major issues I’ve blogged on.

Spending Caps

The bill doesn’t eliminate the spending caps that the Budget Control Act imposed. It does, however, lift them for this fiscal year and the next. For non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations, this will mean an extra $40 billion — the same as the extra for defense.

Most of the extra non-defense money applies to the budget for this fiscal year, which Congress still hasn’t produced. Only another half billion or so will be left for the following year. Then the caps kick in again, forcing cuts unless the next Congress and President agree to prevent them.

On the upside, the non-defense programs will have $34 billion more this year than they would have had with no budget deal. On the downside, they’ll have 12% less in real dollars than they had the year before the BCA first cut and then capped spending.

What this means, in practical terms, is that we can’t hope for significantly larger investments in the safety net programs funded as much (or little) as Congress chooses each year — WIC, for example, housing assistance and homeless services.

Nor for significantly larger investments in a wide range of programs that offer low-income people opportunities to fare well without “welfare,” e.g., education, job training, affordable, high-quality child care.

In short, as CLASP says, the cap relief is “a welcome down payment,” but only that.

Disability Insurance Benefits

The bill shores up the trust fund that helps pay for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. As I’ve written before, the trustees projected total depletion next year. That would have forced across-the-board benefits cuts of about 20%.

The bill preserves full benefits, with no changes in eligibility standards by shifting money from the retirement benefits trust fund, as many experts have recommended ever since insolvency loomed on the horizon.

This should avert a shortfall for seven years. And, no, it doesn’t “rob Social Security,” as the Heritage Foundation (and other right-wingers) claim.

Some funds to offset the costs of the package as a whole will come from the DI program. These include savings expected from beefed-up investigations to identify fraud, plus revenues from steeper penalties.

The bill also eliminates a long-standing pilot program that enabled staff responsible for processing SSDI claims in 20 states to determine eligibility without an independent medical opinion.

All applicants will henceforth have to have two written evaluations from medical experts, either their own doctors or doctors the DI office refers them to.

The fact that the bill anticipates savings from this indicates that the scorekeepers expect it to result in more denials and/or longer delays in approvals. But the projected savings are very small — about 0.3% of benefits paid.

A small price to pay for fending off cost-reduction measures some Congressional Republicans have pushed for, e.g., denying SSDI benefits to recipients who returned to the workforce and then received unemployment benefits because they were laid off.

The bill also requires the Social Security Administration to test an alternative way of encouraging SSDI recipients to try working again.

Seems like a good idea, but probably won’t reduce the DI rolls by much, since most former workers who make it through the screening process are far too disabled to ever “engage in substantial gainful activity” again.

Medicare Premiums

That Medicare Part B premium spike I blogged on earlier this week won’t occur. Well-off seniors will, as always, have to pay more for the outpatient care and other health-related costs Part B covers.

The rest of the 16.5 million or so who were going to get hit hard will have to pay only the same amount more as they would have if all Part B beneficiaries paid a share of the expected spending increase, just as they do virtually every year when Social Security benefits are adjusted to reflect estimated living cost increases.

The unprotected will now have to pay about $15 a month more, plus an additional $3 over a longer period of time so as to restore general tax revenues tapped to cover the costs of the remedy. Rolling the two together, I figure premiums will increase, on average, by about half as much as they would have without the fix.

Not the End of the Story

So Congress packed up for the weekend, having done what seemed impossible. If no one’s altogether happy — and no one ever is with bipartisan deals — reasonable people on both the left and right seem pretty satisfied.

Need I add relieved that we won’t find out how much damage to our economy and economies around the world an unprecedented default on the federal debt would cause?

Now comes the budget or some equivalent to prevent a government shutdown before mid-December. So no one with an interest in any of the multifarious issues can rest easy. But advocates for programs and services that benefit low-income people should feel good about how much they’ve achieved.


Home-Delivered Groceries: A SNAP Solution Who’s Time Has Come

October 29, 2015

Several years go, an online fresh food order and delivery service launched a pilot in the Bronx that enabled low-income residents to use their SNAP (food stamp) benefits for purchases and have them delivered for free.

I’m told the company — FreshDirect — views the experiment as a roaring success, presumably because the profits from the additional purchases at least offset the costs.

It’s surely a model worth further trials because it promises to reduce food insecurity and improve the healthfulness of what poor and near-poor people eat.

This is perhaps especially true for some low-income seniors and people with disabilities because getting to a grocery store — and then home with bundles of groceries — poses obvious challenges for people who can’t drive or find some helpful soul to chauffeur them.

Now there’s an opportunity for nonprofits and/or government agencies to address their problem.

Food Insecurity and Hunger

About 5.4% of people in their 60s suffer from food insecurity, according to updated (but not up-to-date) figures in an analysis for the AARP Foundation. Somewhat over 3.7% more have “very low food security,” i.e., at least sometimes don’t have enough of anything to eat.

Both rates are lower than for the U.S. population as a whole. But they still mean that about one in nine seniors who haven’t reached 70 can’t always afford “enough food for an active, healthy life.”

This doesn’t mean the rest have a healthful diet, however. As the analysts note, the questions in the survey used for food insecurity focus on financial resources. For seniors, other factors may also matter, as I suggested above.

We don’t, so far as I know, have food insecurity and hunger rates for people with disabilities. The best we’ve got come from a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis of food insecurity among households that included a working-age adult too severely disabled for employment.

A third of them were food insecure in 2009-10. And nearly half of these included at least one member who at least sometimes went hungry.

Costs associated with disabilities help explain the extraordinarily high rates — health care and special equipment, for example, and in some cases, lower (or no) earned income by another household member because s/he had to be home to provide care.

USDA also notes other factors, e.g., insufficient Supplement Security Income and SNAP benefits. But even if SNAP benefits would cover food costs, it says, someone with a disability may face logistical challenges.

These are basically the same as those confronting seniors, who may, of course, have disabilities. Advancing age tends to bring these on us.

FreshDirect Pilot and Other Online Services

The pilot involved both some investments and approval from USDA so that the company could accept SNAP benefits as payment. It had two problems to address — one technological and one reflecting federal policy.

On the technological front, the company had to develop a way to scan the electronic benefits cards that are our modern-day equivalent to food stamps and to modify its website so that it could accept orders from people who’d pay with these cards.

On the policy front, it had to either absorb the delivery costs or charge its SNAP customers because their benefits cover only food and beverage costs.

Several other grocery companies have somewhat similar online services, though most, it seems, not free delivery. Perhaps Safeway, but only for people with disabilities and only through some direct interaction with its customers service department.

USDA Initiatives

The latest version of the Farm Bill, like the one it replaced, allows some organizations to accept SNAP benefits for home-delivered food. In mid-July, USDA proposed a rule to reflect the law.

Only government and nonprofit organizations can qualify. And they can accept the benefits only for food delivered to households headed by someone who’s at least 60 years old or disabled and “unable to shop for food,” i.e., by going to a grocery story.

Organizations can charge for delivery, but no more than $20 at any one time. They can also set an order minimum up to $50.

At the same time, USDA said it would soon seek up to 20 food purchasing and delivery services for a one-year pilot. Details yet to come. Lessons learned, it said, will help shape the final rule.

Better Than Nothing, But …

The rule USDA will issue — and thus the projects it will pilot — have limits rooted in the Farm Bill. So not everyone who could benefit will. Nor those who could as much as they might perhaps.

For example, using EBT cards to pay for home-delivered food would benefit SNAP recipients who are neither elderly nor too disabled to shop easily at a grocery store.

The CEO of FreshDirect cites “working moms.” We should also, I think, consider others who don’t drive or have someone who’ll regularly drive them for free.

Speaking from personal experience, trundling a weeks’ worth of groceries home in a cart, as I briefly had to, takes a fair amount of strength when you’re trundling on uneven brick sidewalks and across potholed streets.

And it drives up costs because it pretty well rules out economy-size packages — assuming you can’t trundle repeatedly every week. Ditto for stocking up when foods are on sale.

Potential delivery charges are problematic too. We can assume, I think, that most SNAP recipients don’t have big freezers or a lot of other food storage space. So they’d have to use a home delivery services at least several times a month.

A person with a severe disability who relies on SSI benefits receives, at most, $733 a month. And that’s often got to cover all basic living costs except food and some health care. Home delivery at the maximum allowable would even mean less money for them.

Ideally, SNAP recipients could use their benefits for home delivery charges. But merely expanding what the benefits can cover is no solution because they’re already too low — at most, only about $2.30 per meal for a single person and less than twice that for a couple.

Low for anybody, but especially for people who can’t prepare most of what they eat from scratch, as the basis for SNAP benefits assumes.

On the other hand, expecting nonprofits to swallow the costs of home delivery service seems like the sort of cost-shifting we already see, as they (and their donors) help stave off hunger among those who receive SNAP benefits, as well as those who, for various reasons, don’t.

So I would hope that state and local governments seize the opportunity to defray delivery costs. Like as not, they’d save at least as much as they spend, since regular, reasonably balanced meals help prevent — and control — a range of chronic diseases that drive up their healthcare costs.




Medicare Premium Spike Will Hit Some Low-Income People … and All States

October 26, 2015

I’m sure you’re aware that the seemingly endless Presidential campaign season has set off another round of debate on so-called entitlement reform — that, plus the need to somehow stave off a government shutdown.

Much of what we hear is what we’ve heard for a long time. Republicans want changes that will reduce the amount the federal government pays for Social Security retirement and Medicare benefits.

Democrats will have none of this. But turns out a goodly number now want reform too. Or so one gathers from their leaders in Congress and the still-leading candidate for the nomination.

For them, the issue isn’t how much the federal government pays. It’s how much about 16.5 million people — mostly seniors — may have to pay for Medicare Part B, the part that covers outpatient care, plus some other health-related costs.

They face significant increases due to our low inflation rate. This has led the Social Security Administration to conclude that a cost-of-living adjustment is unwarranted, since because the consumer price index it uses for COLAs has actually dipped down a bit.

But Part B spending almost surely won’t. It’s been rising steadily for a number of reasons, e.g., new technologies, increasing charges for services and “medically necessary” equipment for personal use, more services and supplies needed as those received prolong lives.

The Social Security Act shields about 70% of Medicare beneficiaries from premium hikes next year because it says that increases can’t exceed increases in their retirement benefits.

What this means is that the other 30% will get hit with higher increases because total premiums paid are supposed to cover a fourth of projected spending on seniors.

Medicare trustees have predicted that premiums could therefore rise to about $159 a month — or by 34%, on average, according to my calculator. But The New York Times reports that premiums for some could increase by about 50%.

So who are these unprotected beneficiaries? Some have relatively high incomes and thus already pay higher premiums than most — more than three times as much if they’re in the top income bracket.

Some, however, may have little or no income except their Social Security benefits. And those can be very small because they’re based on annual wages, including years when they totaled zero.

And some don’t receive any Social Security benefits. They include most seniors who didn’t work steadily for at least 10 years or had a spouse who did. Others are former recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance benefits who still qualify for Medicare.

Still others are elderly government employees who are covered under an old, separate retirement plan — more than 800,000 of them former federal workers.

Now, some of the low-income Medicare beneficiaries are only technically unprotected from the impending increases. They’re the so-called dual eligibles — seniors covered by both Medicare and Medicaid. State Medicaid programs pay their premiums.

This is also true for some other poor and near-poor seniors — those with incomes no greater than 100-135% of the federal poverty line, plus $20.

For individuals, that’s now a maximum of $16,140 a year and, for couples, about $21,755. Not all have protection, however. Only those with very limited assets they can draw on for emergencies or the deductibles and co-pays charged for Part B medical services and supplies.

Other seniors whom many analysts classify as near-poor will have to pay a share of the projected Part B cost increase. That’s because they’ve just become Medicare beneficiaries and thus haven’t paid premiums before.

No increase for them, in other words. Just a substantial deduction from their monthly Social Security checks.

Some Congressional Democrats have pushed for a fix to protected all Medicare beneficiaries from a premium hike. The Obama administration has joined them, though it reportedly would find something less than a total freeze acceptable.

This is not a strict party-line issue. The bipartisan National Governors Association, for example, has urged Congress to find a solution — understandably, since Medicaid programs will otherwise have to pick up extra premium costs.

The National Association of Medicaid Directors has also written Congress — again, not necessarily to protect Medicare beneficiaries, but states. Costs to them, it estimates, will total more than $2.3 billion.

Republicans in Congress may not be averse to a solution. House Speaker John Boehner had huddled with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi before the kerfuffle over a new speaker made action on anything except (one hopes) the looming debt crisis and soon-to-be-looming government shutdown doubtful.

But both he and Senator Orrin Hatch, who chairs the committee responsible for Medicare, apparently won’t accept a proposal to stave off the premium increase unless the cost is fully offset by savings elsewhere.

An estimated $7.5-$10 billion would do it — chump change for a budget that would total about $3.8 trillion in the Republicans’ plan.

But Republicans already have to come up with savings — or some budget gimmick — to offset the costs of replenishing the Highway Trust Fund, since they won’t raise the gas tax.

And their leaders almost surely can’t get a budget for this fiscal year through both the House and Senate unless they and their Democratic counterparts agree to eliminate — or at least, suspend — the cap on non-defense spending.

That too will send everyone scurrying for an offset. So as we lurch from crisis to crisis, averting the Part B premium hike could become another of those things that ought to get done, but doesn’t.

Or it might get rolled into some massive, last-minute package. Hard to predict. But we know that some low-income seniors and younger people with disabilities will have a harder time making ends meet if Congress doesn’t protect them PDQ.



What Will the Clean Power Plan Mean for Low-Income People in America?

October 22, 2015

Not long after I launched this blog, a very different House of Representatives passed an ambitious bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions — mainly carbon dioxide — that contribute to global warming, a.k.a. climate change.

The bill died in the Senate. And subsequent party power shifts meant that a new bill wouldn’t stand the chance of an iceberg in our warming Arctic seas.

So here we are six years later with a Clean Power Plan from the Environmental Protection Agency — a different approach to the same problem.

Basically, the rule sets state-level carbon emission reduction targets for power plants, but lets states figure out how to meet them — individually or by banding together in regional solutions.

Coal producers, some power companies and their associations saw the handwriting on the wall. So we’ve got a plethora of doomsday scenarios, predictably focused on harms to low and moderate-income Americans.

And we’ve got quite different scenarios from EPA, nonprofits engaged in environmental issues, health research professionals and other experts.

Truth of the matter is we don’t know how the initiatives to reduce carbon pollution will play out. And we won’t for some considerable time because states don’t have to begin meeting their goals until 2022.

We do, however, have a pretty clear view of the top-line issues in a debate that’s likely to continue as states go to the drafting board — or don’t, if they heed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s advice.

Job Losses … or Gains

Opponents of the rule allege massive job losses. The far-right Heritage Foundation has predicted a peak loss of a million, leveling out to 300,000 a year by 2030.

The National Black Chamber of Commerce puts job losses for blacks and Hispanics alone at about 29 million. Significantly higher poverty rates for both, it says, implying that many won’t find other decent-paying work.

Well, the coal production industry has been shedding jobs for years, as electrical power companies switch to natural gas and other energy sources.

By 2013, more people worked for solar energy companies than there were coal miners — not an apples-to-apples comparison, but indicative of where things are heading.

And it confirms what common sense tells us. Conversion to cleaner energy sources creates jobs. EPA’s own analysis indicates more job gains than losses. Several more comprehensive (and equally opaque) studies find larger net gains. One predicts 273,000 more jobs by 2040.

Home Energy Costs

Opponents warn that home energy prices will rise. An analysis for the energy arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce concluded that consumers will pay $280 billion more for electricity by 2030.

A study of the plan’s impacts, commissioned by fossil fuel company associations, among others, predicts a 13-15% increase in the rates homeowners and renters will be charged — a total of at least $210 billion a year, on average, between the time the plan kicks in and 2032.

EPA also projects price increases, but only modest — in the mid-2% range — and only until 2020. Prices will then begin to drop, such that, by 2030, the average American family will save $7 a month on electricity. This, the White House says, translates into total consumer savings of $155 billion over 10 years.

These estimates assume both less energy waste and greater efficiency. The former could presumably include further funding for “weatherization” programs, i.e., no-cost or low-cost home audits and upgrades like new furnaces and better insulation.

State and local governments have other waste-reducing options. For example, the National Association of State Energy Officials recommends revised building energy codes — and adoption of such codes in states that don’t have them.

The Environmental Defense Fund looks to smart technologies that turn appliances off when energy use rises and to rates that vary according to how much electricity a utility company’s customers use — or are expected to. Both already exist, but the Clean Power Plan increases incentives.

For greater efficiency, we can look, of course, to manufacturers of appliances and other electronics — and to consumers who do (or don’t) factor efficiency into their choices.

It nevertheless seems true that households will generally face higher electricity bills for awhile. These, in fact, are an undocumented feature of sorts, since they give people an incentive to curb their electricity use — in part, by simply changing everyday practices.

The cost increases could still disproportionately affect low-income households, since they spend a considerably larger share of their income for home energy. But the hit to their budgets isn’t inevitable.

I’ve already mentioned weatherization. There are also other strategies. Legislators and regulators may establish rate structures that protect low-income households from price increases. Governments at all levels can fund programs that deliver energy-saving tips and advice to these households.

And futile as it seems to mention it, Congress could significantly increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — a dwindling source of help with utility bills.

Health and Safety

The Institute for Energy Research, which seems to have some remarkably creative staffers, contends that the Clean Power Plan will cause 14,000 more premature deaths by 2030 because low-income families will have to forgo necessities, e.g., food, medical care, to pay their energy bills.

As I’ve already said, the cost increases may be temporary and mitigated in various ways. More importantly, we’ve every reason to believe that reducing carbon pollution will save lives — especially those of low-income people.

A recently-published study by independent experts suggests that the Plan could prevent as many as 3,500 premature deaths a year — mainly from respiratory diseases caused or aggravated by emissions from coal-burning power plants.

EPA estimates somewhere between 2,700 and 5,660 premature deaths averted. It also cites 140,000-150,000 fewer asthma attacks among children.

Now, none of these estimates singles out low-income people. But we can readily draw some connections.

Where, for example, are those smoke-spewing power plants located? And who’s most likely to live next to a highway or bus depot that exposes them to air-polluting auto emissions — a well-documented trigger for lung and heart diseases?

Finally, we shouldn’t forget warnings of what will happen if global warming continues unchecked — more “extreme precipitation and flooding,” in EPA’s words. We can look to Hurricane Katrina to predict who would suffer most.

Folks who could get out of the storm’s path did. Folks without cars and the wherewithal to pay for gas and a hotel room often didn’t. Even if authorities have more effective evacuation plans, folks short on resources — especially the elderly, it seems — are likely to die from the stress.

All the hard numbers I’ve cited — and others I haven’t — are obviously iffy. Much depends on what states will do. What individuals and families do also. This isn’t a reason, I think, to question the value of a plan that will cut carbon pollution, assuming the next President doesn’t kill it.


Budget Cap Will Cap Dad’s and Daughter’s Futures

October 19, 2015

I first met Peter* on a street corner, where he was selling Street Sense, the newspaper for homeless people in the District of Columbia. He now does work for me that I don’t have the strength for.

Peter has in-demand skills, but won’t seek a regular, full-time job because he has to drop whatever he’s doing to pick up his daughter Joanne — and sometimes rush her to a hospital.

She’s prone to seizures due to a severe case of epilepsy. She also has some developmental disabilities. Peter has sole responsibility for her, as well as an older daughter.

Though he must patch together short-term, flexible jobs, the family has a home and basic needs met. For this, we can partly credit the Supplemental Security Income benefits he receives on Joanne’s behalf.

The benefits are far from generous — $733 a month. This is far less than the estimated costs of raising a child with an intellectual disability, including the earnings a parent must forfeit.

Bills introduced in the last Congress would, among other things, have restored the value SSI benefits have lost. But they’d stand even less of a chance now than then.

Meanwhile, the caps on spending for non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations threaten the special education Joanne is receiving.

She’s entitled to a free and appropriate education under federal law, but the amount states and the District receive to help pay for it comes from one of those programs — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Peter recently enrolled Joanne in a program that focuses on independent living skills, both work-related and basic everyday. He’s thrilled by the progress he sees and his opportunities for “hands-on” involvement.

He can perhaps look forward to steadier, more gainful employment as Joanne becomes able to manage more on her own — to count cash, for example, wash clothes and prepare meals for herself and her family.

But she’ll gain such skills only if the program continues to receive enough money to provide the high-quality, individualized education that she and her fellow students need. The federal government surely hasn’t been doing its share.

The law that created IDEA commits the federal government to providing states with 40% of the average they spend per student, multiplied by the number of special education students they have.

Funds actually appropriated for the 2013-14 school year fell short by more than $20 billion, the Education Commission for the States reports, saying this is the most recent year it has figures for.

The under-funding didn’t begin with the Budget Control Act that’s responsible for the caps. But both the cut it initially made and the caps have caused IDEA grants for programs like Joanne’s a real-dollar loss of  9.6%, First Focus reports.

Now we’re less than two months away from the end of the short-term bill that’s keeping federal funds flowing to all the programs that depend on annual appropriations. It takes an across-the-board nick from the non-defense programs to keep spending on them below this year’s cap.

Both the House and Senate bills to fund Department of Education programs would provide very small increases for IDEA — nowhere near enough to make up for the shortfall. They may, in fact, not even support the same level and quality of services for the same number of children.

Whether the House and Senate will come together to pass an actual budget for education is an open question. What the squeeze on funding due to the budget cap isn’t.

The caps, recall, were never supposed to go into effect. They were intended as an incentive, if you will, for the bipartisan “super committee” to agree on a sensible plan for reducing the deficit.

A “sizable contingent” of Congressional Republicans still seem bound and determined to preserve the cap for non-defense programs. Defense, as I’ve previously noted, would get an increase through a backdoor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly mulling over a “major” budget deal that would require cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits, which don’t depend on annual appropriations. That’s almost surely going to mean no deal at all.

Everybody who lives in this country will suffer harms from the further ratcheting down of federal funding — some more directly than others. Peter and Joanne are mere drops in the ocean. But there are millions like them, doing their best in difficult situations — and vulnerable.

Large coalitions of advocacy organizations are campaigning to get Congress to #StoptheCuts — the hashtag they’ve been using on Twitter and will use for a Twitterstorm, i.e., massive blast of tweets, on Wednesday. This is an opportunity for all of you with Twitter accounts to ramp up the pressure.

You’ll see tweets to many blog posts invited and pulled together by Moms Rising. A shorter version of this post will probably be part of the “carnival.”

*  This isn’t his real name. I’ve changed both his and his daughter’s to preserve their privacy.


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.


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