- Created on 14 October 2013
Since the government was forced to shut down on October 1st, one of the most common refrains has been that some members of Congress are acting like children—or, more accurately, worse than most children. Even 5-year-olds understand that quitting the game and taking the ball home because the other team won't give you your way is wrong. Extremist Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives continue to hold funding for the federal government hostage for the second week in a row, opposing a clean extension of government funding without conditions. Their actions as they refuse to do their constitutionally mandated duty are harming the economy and countless real children and families across the country.
Fortunately, some of the programs families with children depend on aren't affected by funding tied to the shutdown, including Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps). There are others, including many education programs, where funding has already been provided for the year. However, many other federal programs that help low income families meet everyday needs have been forced to stop operating due to the shutdown, including some of the same programs already hit hard by sequestration cuts earlier this year. Children have only one childhood. Every day that children are being denied early education and food causes lasting damage to their chances of living to their full potential.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is without its regular funding due to the shutdown, leaving at risk nearly nine million pregnant women, recent mothers, and their children under age five who rely on the program's supplemental vouchers for healthy food, expensive infant formula, and other necessities. Fifty-three percent of all infants born in the U.S. are fed through the WIC program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture originally estimated that state funds and contingency funds would be enough to cover only a week of nutritional supports during the shutdown. Fortunately the Department this week transferred unspent funding from last year to states to avoid shutdowns through the month of October—but not beyond. Some states have already stopped applications for new benefits because they are unsure of what will happen next month.
Head Start serves more than one million poor children, who are particularly in need of early education programs to succeed and thrive. Twenty-three Head Start programs servicing nearly 19,000 students across 10 states and Puerto Rico did not have access to federal funding on October 1st because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services could not process Head Start grants due to the shutdown. Head Start grantees are funded on a yearly basis, and for some that grant year begins on October 1st. When these programs didn't receive their annual grants as scheduled, they were forced to close their doors and furlough their workers unless they had alternative sources of revenue. At the end of the first week of the government shutdown, seven Head Start programs in six states (Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi) were closed, leaving 7,195 of our nation's most vulnerable children without access to Head Start. These programs were able to reopen thanks to a private pledge of $10 million from John and Laura Arnold. Under sequestration Head Start already had to cut 57,000 children from the program.
Funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) shouldn't have been affected by the shutdown, but because the legislation reauthorizing it was delayed along with the spending bill, states are not receiving their October federal funds. Since TANF is funded through both federal and state funds, most states should have the flexibility to continue providing benefits, and the federal government has also let states use leftover funds from previous years. But at least one state—Arizona—stopped TANF payments starting October 3rd to 5,200 families out of the Arizona TANF caseload of 16,300 families.
As many Americans have already learned, even life-saving research for children with serious medical needs has been affected. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that for every week the shutdown continues, 30 children—10 of whom have cancer—will not be able to begin their clinical trials.
States use the $1.7 billion Social Services Block Grant for child abuse and neglect services, child care, and other family services, but due to the shutdown, states are not receiving their October funds. This means some states may have to close down programs if they don't have alternative funds they can use.
And children of families of furloughed employees may suffer if the furlough lasts too long. The federal government estimates that more than 800,000 workers are being furloughed, and some state and local government employees normally paid with federal funds are also being sent home. This comes on top of the furloughs that many federal employees have experienced over the past six months due to sequestration. If the shutdown lasts, furloughed employees may experience problems paying bills and providing for their families, especially if they are not provided retroactive pay once the shutdown ends.
To make all of this worse, a severe economic meltdown is predicted if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling in the next two weeks to pay the nation's bills and obligations. Meanwhile some members of Congress continue to show worse "compromising" skills than spoiled toddlers. Enough is enough. Call or email your own representative and tell them they must act now to fully fund the federal government and raise the debt ceiling without any conditions. Tell them to stop the shutdown and prevent an economic meltdown for the sake of our children.
- Created on 11 October 2013
(CNN) -- Let's play a little game.
Which of the following signs did protestors hold at the March on Washington, 50 years ago this week, and which were held up this year by fast-food workers:
1. "WE MARCH FOR HIGHER MINIMUM WAGES COVERAGE FOR ALL WORKERS NOW!"
2. "WE ARE WORTH MORE"
3. "I AM A MAN"
4. "WE MARCH FOR JOBS FOR ALL A DECENT PAY NOW!"
The exclamation points, which apparently were more popular in the 1960s (despite what Twitter would have you believe!!!), are your best clue.
Signs one and four are from 1963. Two and three are from 2013.
Fifty years later, it's easy to forget that the full name of the 1963 "March on Washington" was actually "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."
But flip through some pictures from that rally, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech and where civil rights leaders, to borrow his words, bent the arc of history towards justice and greater equality, and you'll see protest signs that put the economy as a front-and-center issue, just as it is now.
"CIVIL RIGHTS PLUS FULL EMPLOYMENT EQUALS FREEDOM."
Fast food workers demand fair pay
President Obama, in commemorating the 50th anniversary of that march this week, smartly picked up on the theme that economic equality is "the great unfinished business" of King's vision for a just and fair America.
"...[A]s we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life," Obama said Wednesday. "The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran."
The subtext of his argument: Class may be the new race.
It's not that all battles for racial equality have been won -- they haven't -- or that we live in a post-racial society. But, in some remarkable and troubling ways, class has become an increasingly significant barrier to equality in modern America. The gap between rich and poor has been growing in the United States since the late 1970s, and our level of income inequality, one proxy measure for that gap, is now on par with many sub-Saharan African countries.
It's become more difficult for the poor to move up into the middle class and more difficult for the middle to dig in its heels to stop from slipping into poverty.
The American mantra of "work hard and you'll get ahead" is not always enough to sustain people. It's harder now to secure a financial future.
This is the theme that underlies much of what's happening in America today. And it's something that goes back much farther than the recent recession.
The fast-food workers, for example, who scheduled demonstrations across the country on Thursday, are frustrated by the fact that they can't make ends meet on $7.25 per hour. If you doubt whether that's true, please take a look at one fast-food worker's budget. Some workers, as Forbes reports, have to choose between paying for rent or food. "Should I pay my light bill (or) should I pay my gas?" one fast-food worker asks in this CNNMoney video. "I never can pay it all at once."
"Right now the gas is off," she says.
The workers demand a living wage of $15 per hour.
I'm not sure what the fair wage would be. That's the subject for another column...or perhaps a book. But I do know that, as The Atlantic reports, fast-food workers in Australia make $14.50 an hour, about twice the U.S. minimum wage.
And burgers haven't become too expensive Down Under.
Some context is helpful for understanding that movement as well.
The U.S. minimum wage is actually lower than it was in the late 1960s. Five years after King's speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the federal minimum wage, when converted into 2013 dollars, was $10.70, compared to $7.25 now. (The nominal minimum wage, according to the Congressional Research Service, was only $1.60 per hour in 1968. The $10.70 amount is adjusted for inflation).
Education is another example. There's evidence poverty is a better indicator of educational achievement than race.
"According to a 2011 research study by Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon, the test-score gap between the children of the poor (in the 10th percentile of income) and the children of the wealthy (in the 90th percentile) has expanded by as much as 40% and is now more than 50% larger than the black-white achievement gap -- a reversal of the trend 50 years ago," Sarah Garland writes for The Atlantic.
"Underprivileged children now languish at achievement levels that are close to four years behind their wealthy peers."
Four years behind their peers.
Just because of their income.
That challenges the very notion of who we are as Americans.
We see ourselves as a middle-class country -- a place where anyone can work hard and succeed. And many do. We're a country of fighters.
But it's become more difficult for the non-rich to make it.
The country has made great strides toward racial equality since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But, in the 50 years since King's speech, economic justice seems to have become the more distant dream.
- Created on 10 October 2013
This summer, minimum wage workers in California abandoned their posts at fast food restaurants and retail stores for spots on the picket line. They joined workers in cities across the country to demand an increase in the minimum wage.
Their efforts paid off last month when California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill to raise the state minimum wage over the next three years to $10 an hour.
For the first time in years, widespread minimum wage reform is a real possibility, and we need to keep the pressure on. The current federal minimum wage is inadequate, outdated, and out of touch with the modern cost of living. In this country, a full-time job should be enough to keep a family above the poverty line and off of welfare.
Imagine a mother working a steady, full time, year round job at the federal minimum wage -- $7.25 an hour. Her annual salary will amount to just $15,080. That puts her below the poverty line for a family of two, and well below the poverty line for a family of four. To make matters worse, her paltry salary depreciates in value each year, since the federal minimum wage is not tied to inflation.
At this rate, she could put in 45, 50 or even 60 hour weeks in an effort to keep her family off welfare, but she would still qualify for -- and most likely need -- public assistance.
This is hardly a hypothetical situation. Thirty-three U.S. states and territories use the federal minimum wage, and there are over three million mothers and fathers just getting by on full-time jobs. These are not the unemployed. These are not the underemployed. These are the over employed and underpaid.
It is a travesty that millions of Americans work full time but still struggle to support their families. They are making a decision to be hard-working employees and responsible parents, but their employers are also making a decision -- to pay them poverty wages.
Raising the minimum wage is imperative, and the potential cost to businesses and consumers is less than you might think. According to a recent study by DEMOS, raising the federal minimum wage to $12.25 ($25,000 for a full-time, year round worker) would cost large retailers just one percent of total annual sales, and it would cost consumers just 12 to 18 cents extra per shopping trip. At the same time, this change would lift more than 700,000 people out of poverty.
There are several opportunities to make this a reality. In November, New Jersey voters will decide whether to raise the state minimum wage to $8.25 and tie it to the cost of living. President Obama recently suggested increasing the federal minimum wage to $9. Even below the Mason-Dixon Line, two Maryland counties are considering bills to raise their minimum wage to $11.25.
It is time for a new social contract for people at the bottom of the economic ladder. We need to stand up with workers in California and other states and demand a dignified minimum wage on the federal level and in our communities. We can no longer afford not to.
- Created on 07 October 2013
Photo: ABC News
As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) takes effect this month, it might be helpful for people to know how its prototype in Massachusetts is working, after nearly seven years.
Virtually every resident in the Commonwealth is insured. More private companies offer insurance to their employees than ever before. Over 90 percent of our residents have a primary care physician. Primary care is less likely to be delivered in expensive emergency rooms. Preventive care is up. Health disparities are down among women, minorities and low-income people. Most importantly, on many measures, we are healthier.
Those are the facts. The stories are better. I met a young woman named Jaclyn, a cancer survivor who got life-saving care through our version of an exchange. She had no way to afford care before health care reform -- it saved her life.
A self-employed man named Ken ignored his gastrointestinal symptoms for years because he couldn't afford to see a doctor or pay for possible treatments. Once insured, he was seen and treated for Stage III colon cancer and is cancer free today.
Over all these years, expanding health insurance to everyone has added only about 1 percent of state spending to our budget. Those budgets have remained responsible, balanced and on-time.
Expansion hasn't hurt our general economy. Unemployment has remained lower than the national average and economic growth has been higher. At one business incubator, a young entrepreneur told me he moved his start-up to Massachusetts because he wanted to be sure his young family had health insurance while his business got off the ground. Today that young man's company is employing others.
The nation's great health care challenge, with or without universal coverage, is controlling health care costs. Though health insurance premiums had been rising faster than inflation for many years before our reforms went into effect, we are now getting control of them. Average base rates increased more than 16 percent three years ago. They average less than 2 percent today. Some of that progress is the result of tools made available by the ACA. Indeed, early results show that for some individuals and small businesses, premiums may drop as much as 20 percent percent because of Obamacare.
In other words, health care reform works in Massachusetts. And it will work in America. We need it to. In one form or another, health care significantly affects business, household and government budgets, people's ability to get a job, and a child's readiness to learn. Accessible, affordable, quality care in all cases improves lives and in many cases saves lives. It gives peace of mind and economic security to families. It increases productivity for large and small employers as well as for students. It creates jobs and contributes to our economic strength. It's a powerful statement of who we are.
As the ACA is implemented this month, the entire country will begin to enjoy the benefits that we have seen from health care reform here in Massachusetts, and much more. Small businesses benefit from the ACA through new tax credits that make health insurance more affordable. With more carriers and plans to choose from, there is a more competitive rate-setting environment. People with pre-existing conditions can no longer be denied insurance. People who get really sick can no longer be kicked off their insurance. And kids can stay on their parents' plans a bit longer, until they can get their own.
Tea Party Republicans don't want the Affordable Care Act. Do they really mean they don't want these kinds of improvements in the lives of millions of Americans? I don't think so. Would they rather we address these issues with a government program instead of through the market-based, individual choices that are the framework of the ACA? I don't think that's true either. Have they proposed an alternative way to accomplish these goals? Nope. Despite a presidential election, a decision by the United States Supreme Court, and over 40 failed repeal attempts, it's clear that what Tea Party Republicans don't like about Obamacare is the "Obama" part of it.
In Massachusetts we're proud to be home to many "firsts." The first Thanksgiving. The first battles of the American Revolution. The first public library, the first typewriter and the first subway. Even the first chocolate chip cookie. Recently, the first state to achieve universal health care, the model for the ACA.
Firsts are hard. There are and will be challenges. But it has been and will be worth it. Just ask Jaclyn or Ken or any of your neighbors.