photo courtesy of Sunrise Movement Berks
Picture it. A mid-spring Friday evening in the auditorium of a local college in the heart of Reading. The lights dim, and a video plays depicting scores of impassioned young people lining the halls of Congress in protest, holding signs and wearing black t-shirts with slogans like “12 years” or “good jobs and a livable future”. The lights come up and a young woman named Rianna welcomes the crowd. She starts by reminding the audience “we’re organizing on stolen Lenape land. Our indigenous communities were the original stewards of this land and any kind of work is going to require their help to fill the gaps in on our knowledge.” (Lenni Lenape were the original inhabitants of Reading and surrounding areas.)
Scenes like this are playing out across the country with stories like Rianna’s tailored to the locale. Stories like this: “My name is Genai, I’m 23 years old and I’m a Sunrise hub coordinator for Tallahassee, FL. My hometown, Carrabelle, FL, is a small fishing village on the coast of the panhandle. Over the course of my life, I’ve seen the fisheries and local economy of my community collapse because of polluted waters and rising sea temperatures. When I was 14, the BP Oil Spill guaranteed that my generation would never again have the security of seafood work that has sustained my community for generations. Hurricane Michael, the strongest storm to ever hit the panhandle, displaced thousands, killed 72 people, and has left families still living in tents 6 months later. I’m here fighting for my friends, classmates, and community that struggle every day and feel forgotten.”
Last Friday, Sunrise Movement Berks hosted one of these town halls on the Green New Deal at Albright College. “This event was part of a wave of 700 Green New Deal town halls across the country coordinated by Sunrise Movement. Sunrise Movement is building an army of young people to stop the climate crisis and create millions of good jobs in the process.”
The Green New Deal is a congressional resolution introduced jointly by NY Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen Ed Markey of MA. Its aim is to wean the country off of fossil fuels while at the same time spurring the economy by creating high-paying jobs in the clean (or green) energy sector. As the name implies, the Green New Deal has its roots in FDR’s New Deal but with a key improvement, which we’ll discuss. The authors of the Green New Deal see it as an historic opportunity to do three things: “(1) to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States; (2) to provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; and (3) to counteract systemic injustices”. (H. Res. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal, page 4)
Time out for a little history lesson … As you are well aware, the New Deal was born out of the suffering caused by the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression. It was a combination of public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations put in place by President Roosevelt from 1933-1936 to spur the economy by creating jobs (many in the infrastructure sector) and created, arguably, the largest middle class the U.S. has ever seen.
But many historians differ in opinion on the efficacy of the New Deal, particularly in respect to vulnerable populations. At the height of the Depression when the New Deal was started in 1933, unemployment peaked at 24.9%. But for African Americans, the unemployment rate soared to more than 50% - not to mention that the New Deal did nothing to address discrimination and segregation. In fact, the program may have exacerbated problems faced by African Americans. During the Depression, when jobs were scarce, blacks were often let go by employers to make room for whites. Additionally, white workers started taking low-paying, low-skilled jobs to which blacks were often relegated.
Some New Deal programs were downright harmful to the African American community. Programs like the Agricultural Adjustment Acts (AAA), which helped white landowners by giving them cash subsidies to let their fields go fallow, did nothing to ensure that that money was passed on to black sharecroppers and tenant farmers who were the ones doing the work.
There were even parts of the New Deal, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), that were racially segregated. The Public Works Administration (PWA) created the first civilian public housing, but this housing was segregated “even in neighborhoods that had previously been integrated,” writes Olivia Waxman.
Mexican Americans and Mexicans living in the southwest weren’t immune to the Great Depression either. Many of them worked back-breaking jobs in the agricultural sector. The economic downturn of the 1930’s decreased the need for farm labor. With demands from area politicians to alleviate unemployment, the federal government forced nearly 40,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans to Mexico –until the trend was reversed during WWII when there was once again a need for farm labor. But until then Mexican and Mexican American agricultural workers received little relief from the New Deal.
Ray's story illustrates perfectly the intersection between the climate crisis and systematic social, racial, and economic injustices.
Finally, an unfortunate legacy of Roosevelt’s New Deal is the negative impact many projects designed to create jobs had on the environment. No thought was given to how mass construction of dams, for example, disrupted existing ecosystems. Nor was thought given to the deleterious environmental effects of continued industrialization and pollution, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.
And then there’s this, which brings us full circle: Part of the New Deal was the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which created huge increases in home ownership but at the same time gave rise to suburban development that continues today. “This whole suburban boom has been at the center of our really unsustainable lifestyle, automobile dependence [and] sprawl,” says Peter F. Cannavò, a professor of government at Hamilton College and expert on environmental politics.
The Green New Deal seeks to address the inadequacies of the original New Deal by envisioning the problems we face in the 21st Century as interconnected. Troy Turner explained it best in a recent interview with Reading’s Finest when asked about his work with Sunrise Movement Berks. “Sunrise Movement is a movement of young people uniting to fight the climate crisis that we’re going through right now and create millions of good jobs in the process. We are unique in climate activism in that we don’t draw any distinctions between that and any other kind of movement work. We see that we’re in a climate crisis, but we’re also in an economic crisis. And so many people want to draw these lines, but it’s the same crisis.”
While it may be intellectually lazy to judge the work and motivation of past generations by today's standards, the activism of groups like Sunrise Movement Berks shows that we continue to evolve. This new generation of organizers are striving to do what their grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t-to make the connection between the environment, the economy, sustainable energy, and populations historically lost in the shuffle. That’s the real deal!
Click here to read H. Res. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal
posted by Amy Levengood
*Special thanks to Troy Turner and Sunrise Movement Berks for their invaluable contributions to this blog post.
We’ve been talking a lot lately about Berks Heim-both to our group and to our elected officials. At this point we can safely say that our efforts (phone calls, emails, postcards, attending meetings) have moved the needle. Last week the County Commissioners said the sale of the Heim has been tabled-at least for the next five years. Major players in the debate have been the two unions, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), who made extensive contract concessions in order to advance the discussion to the point we find ourselves at now.
illustration by Anna Parini (The New Yorker, 2017)
One argument we’ve stressed in our fight to save the Heim, is that along with privatization comes a serious risk of decline in quality of care and accountability. This isn’t just speculation on our part. We need to look no farther than a neighboring county to the north for a case in point, namely Schuylkill County.
In 2015, citing a $4.6 million revenue deficit, Schuylkill County Commissioners agreed to sell the county nursing facility known as Rest Haven to Nationwide Healthcare Services, a for-profit, private company based in New Jersey. Rest Haven was once noted as one of the best nursing homes in Pennsylvania. At the time of the sale, 84% of Rest Haven residents relied on Medicaid to pay to stay at the facility. But Medicaid reimbursement was not keeping up with increasing operating costs - thus the budget shortfall. The sale to Nationwide Healthcare Services eventually fell through. Due to its favorable reputation, there were a number of private operators interested in Rest Haven, and in September 2015 a sale was finalized to Investment 360°, also of New Jersey. The deal with Investment 360° promised physical improvements to the building and first shot at positions for former county workers.
But before the sale to Investment 360° was even finalized, trouble started to surface. Employees were told their insurance premiums were going from $80 per month with a $1,000 deductible to $700 with an $11,000 deductible for family coverage. They were also told hours would be cut and weren’t even certain if their jobs would continue to exist. And though the sales agreement was approved by the Schuylkill County commissioners, employees hadn’t received their severance contract paperwork.
It wasn’t only the county home that suffered in Schuylkill County. When the private-equity firm, the Carlyle Group, bought up the Manor Care chain of homes, Manor Care ended up in bankruptcy, even though the investors made millions. Conditions at the facilities were reportedly horrific with violations increasing after the Carlyle Group took over.
According to the Washington Post:
"The number of health-code violations found at the chain each year rose 26 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to a Post review of 230 of the chain's retirement homes. Over that period, the yearly number of health-code violations at company nursing homes rose from 1,584 to almost 2,000. The number of citations increased for, among other things, neither preventing nor treating bedsores; medication errors; not providing proper care for people who need special services such as injections, colostomies and prostheses; and not assisting patients with eating and personal hygiene.
Counting only the more serious violations, those categorized as "potential for more than minimal harm," "immediate jeopardy" and "actual harm," The Post found the number of HCR ManorCare violations rose 29 percent in the years before the bankruptcy filing."
Apart from violations, nurses complained of being constantly short-staffed. "The short-staffing was to the extent that it was very dangerous for the residents," said Lisa Kay Wasnowic, who worked off and on at the Allentown ManorCare from 2004 to 2014. "At times, it was just one aide for 60 patients. And it just kept on getting worse." (Click here to read the complete article.)
If you worked in public education in the last decade, you no doubt heard “The Blueberry Story”. In short, it’s about an ice cream company executive who in presentations to school teachers went around saying his company produced the best blueberry ice cream and public schools would benefit by being run on a more business-like model. Then a teacher stood up and asked him what he would do if he received a shipment of inferior blueberries. Would they be rejected? Would he send them back? As an ice cream producer, yes he could. But school teachers can’t pick and choose their students. The comparison may be simplistic, but you get the point. People aren’t a commodity, and we shouldn’t be treating them like one. The analogy used with school students is equally applicable when it comes to nursing home residents. Shortcuts in care in order to pad the bottom line are simply unethical and, in this case, can even be deadly.
So we should be asking our county commissioners a question-Is privatization of county-held assets like the Heim and also the prison worth the human cost? Yes-when the commissioners sold Rest Haven, Schuylkill County received a large influx of cash-but this was a one-time windfall. In Berks as in Schuylkill County, the cost of running the Heim that is pushing the budget into the red is a tiny percentage of overall expenses. Selling isn’t a long-term solution. And how many more sacrifices can we ask of the dedicated workers caring for our loved ones? A better solution would be to pressure Pennsylvania’s elected officials to stop cuts to the Medicaid benefits which many Heim residents depend upon. This is yet another reason why an accurate 2020 Census count is so crucial. If our state and county populations are undercounted, it will result in fewer federal dollars for programs like Medicaid.
The fight for the Heim isn't over. We've weathered this first storm and deserve a pat on the back for our efforts, but let's not get complacent. And let's remind our county commissioners-unlike the teachers in the story, we can send our "blueberries" back in November.
We know our country is divided, but what about our county? When it comes to Berks Heim, our county-owned nursing home, it looks like the majority of us are on the same page.
In a recent poll of registered voters conducted by Susquehanna Polling and Research, Inc. on behalf of Berks Vital Signs, pollsters found that 63% believe the Heim should be retained by the county. Even more interesting, the poll revealed that support for keeping Berks Heim as a county asset is a concept supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.
image: Berks Vital Signs
Surprised? We probably shouldn’t be. The Heim has been an integral part of the Berks County community for generations. And while I can remember a time when the facility was seen as a last resort option, changes have been made that solidify the Heim as a high-quality and affordable solution for elderly family members who are unable to live on their own. One of the most positive aspects of the Heim is the low turn-over rate of staff (close to zero) when compared to privately-owned nursing homes. Anyone who has a loved-one living in residential care knows that “that kind of stability and contentment is priceless”.
What is surprising is the same poll found a slight majority (44% vs. 43%) acknowledged they’d be willing to pay more in taxes if it would mean the county would keep the Heim. The 1% margin may seem slim (and 13% were undecided), but in a tax-averse atmosphere that’s prevalent in a place like Berks, it’s a significant result.
image: Berks Vital Signs
All of this leads one to ask: What’s motivating our County Commissioners’ march to privatization? It’s certainly not the will of the people. As the poll shows-on this issue-we’re a house united.
Click here to see the complete poll results and details.
posted by Amy Levengood
In this week’s CTA, we urged you to call your state reps to ask them to protect a monthly cash assistance program called General Assistance. We didn’t want to throw that out there to you without a little history and a more in-depth explanation of what the program entails. So here you go!
PA Department of Human Service’s General Assistance is a state-funded program for individuals who don’t qualify for the federally-funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefit (TANF).
Below are the requirements for eligibility.
The individual cannot be eligible for TANF and must be one of the following:
• A child under age 18; or
• A child, age 18 through 20, attending secondary school or a secondary-level vocational or technical school and expected to graduate before age 21; or
• Parents in a two-parent household with their child who is under age 13; or
• Parents in a two-parent household with their child who has a disability and is under age 21; or
• An adult with a physical or mental disability that is temporary or permanent and prevents you from working in any gainful employment; or
• A person undergoing active treatment in an approved drug or alcohol program if the treatment program precludes any form of employment (You have a nine-month limit during your lifetime to receive GA benefits for this reason); or
• A victim of domestic violence or another abusive living situation. (You have a nine-month limit during your lifetime to receive GA benefits for this reason); or
• A pregnant woman (not eligible for TANF); or
• An adult other than a relative who is caring for a child under age 13; or
• An adult who is caring for another person in the household who is ill or disabled, if no other adult in the household is capable of providing the care
In addition to the above requirements, individuals must have less than $250 in countable resources to be able to receive assistance. (A home or car are not considered countable resources.) Those who receive Social Security or SSI do not qualify for General Assistance, but if a person receives SNAP or Medicaid they can apply.
Amounts people receive vary based on county. Below are the figures for Berks County.
According to PA DHS, where I found this chart, these amounts were issued in 2001 and reviewed in 2012.
In 2012, the Republican controlled PA Legislature and then Governor Corbett eliminated the program, citing the fiscal impact on the Commonwealth. At the time General Assistance benefited 60,000 individuals, many of whom were disabled, and cost the state $150 million annually- just a tiny fraction of the $27 billion budget for the year. The death of the bill began like many things in government-by a thousand small cuts. It started with a 3-page piece of legislation in 2011 that dealt with residency requirements, but by the time it reached Governor Corbett’s desk in 2012 it had, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “morphed into an omnibus human services bill ending General Assistance, creating a pilot program for 20 counties to consolidate a number of human service programs into a single block grant, changing the timing of a work requirement for Pennsylvanians applying for welfare, and imposed a tax on nursing homes, among other changes.”
Act 80 was the law that appealed the program in 2012. A number of human service groups and former recipients sued the state. In July of 2018, the PA Supreme Court struck down Act 80, ruling that the legislative process used to pass it was unconstitutional, and the General Assistance program was reinstated. Now lawmakers in Harrisburg are trying to take it away again.
Many of the people who benefit from the General Assistance program are those who fall into the gap created while waiting for Social Security disability determinations. They’re people who require temporary assistance and who are ineligible for other types of relief. They’re not looking to become wards of the state. They just need a little help. When 40% of Americans don’t have $400 in savings, it’s not a stretch to say many of us could easily find ourselves in such a situation in the event of an unforeseen crisis. What does it say about us as a community, if we’re not willing to give a hand up to a neighbor in need?
posted by Amy Levengood
Robin Stelly of PHAN addresses the group at IB's healthcare forum.
I’m using the Indivisiblog this week to recap, for those of you who missed it, last Thursday’s “Healthcare Reform in Pennsylvania” forum. Our presenter was Robin Stelly from the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN). Robin serves as PHAN’s statewide organizer and for over a decade has been working on issues of economic justice, immigrations rights, and healthcare reform. As part of her work with PHAN, Robin tries to get healthcare consumers like you and me to share their stories with the ultimate goal of informing policy makers on what’s impacting their lives. The evening consisted of a presentation on some steps to be taken to lower costs and expand coverage, followed by some heart wrenching stories from audience members and guest speakers, and of course, a lively discussion.
Here’s my takeaway:
There is little argument that healthcare costs in America are prohibitive, and that after some successful attempts to undermine the ACA, healthcare is become less and less accessible. In last week’s blog, “Survey says!”, I discussed how a statewide survey showed that there is consensus on this opinion across party lines. PHAN identifies ever-rising prescription drug costs, surprise medical bills, and junk insurance plans as some of the chief culprits when it comes to affordability.
Here are some of the statistics:
Robin spent a bit of time discussing the impact of surprise medical bills. The slide below from her presentation, gives an example of what the term means. PHAN recommends several solutions to the problem of surprise medical bills including better informing consumers and banning the practice.
There are 4 goals identified by PHAN that if achieved could go a long way to solving our healthcare crisis. (see below) One intriguing idea that came out of the evening was the concept of expanding Medicaid as opposed to “Medicare for All”. Some are calling it “Medicaid for More”, and it simply means allowing states to open up Medicaid to more people regardless of income. Robin pointed out that under the Affordable Care Act the groundwork was already laid for this. In fact, 34 states have already expanded Medicaid under the ACA. One advantage of this strategy is that the work could be done at the state level and bypass the dysfunction of Washington, which many see as the main hindrance to improving our system.
The good news for us is that at the state level we have a lot of leverage. And with the relationships IB has built with advocates like PHAN and some of our legislators, we already have a foot in the door. It’s up to us how to exercise that power.
posted by Amy Levengood
The first primaries of the 2020 presidential election are just under a year away, but the madness has already begun. It seems the campaigning starts earlier and earlier every cycle. Democratic candidates who have already announced are busy making the rounds of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Others are still debating whether they’re going to come down off the fence, former MA Governor Bill Weld may try to primary Trump, and then there’s Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. While many of you are probably thinking the 2020 election can’t come soon enough, the media focus on likability, the correct way to eat chicken, crowd size, and to hot sauce or not is already getting tiresome. Regardless of who will end up on the top of the tickets, there is one thing for certain-healthcare will be a central issue.
Closer to home, Indivisible Berks and other grassroots organizations across the state have, through canvassing and other activities, learned that healthcare and associated topics are foremost in the minds of Pennsylvanians and Berks Countians. Now we all know how the dysfunction and the lobbyists in Washington prevent true reform from being accomplished. So we’ve decided to take things into our own hands, and there’s a lot we can do at the state level. To help the community learn about some of those options, Indivisible Berks will be hosting a public forum on healthcare reform in PA on February 21st. Our guests will be from PHAN, the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, who will share their expertise on all things healthcare.
As I said, healthcare is sure to be a prominent topic of discussion in the 2020 election, and thanks to PHAN, we know that it is actually a place where Republicans, Democrats, and Independents can find common ground. How do we know this? Last year the first ever Pennsylvania-specific survey was conducted, specifically on healthcare affordability. The Consumer Healthcare Experience State Survey was done by Altarum’s Healthcare Value Hub with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. PHAN was chosen to release the results.
Below are some of the survey findings when participants were asked about the cost of prescription drugs:
The survey not only looked at data from across the state but also did analysis across regions. Berks falls into the South Central/Lehigh Valley for purposes of the study.
Survey results are available on PHAN's website. Click here to see the statewide results. Click here to see the South Central/Lehigh Valley results which includes Berks.
It’s no surprise that participants in the survey agreed that our system is broken, and something has to change. Let’s make sure we don’t have to wait another election cycle before something starts to happen.
posted by Amy Levengood
We shouldn’t be surprised to get surprises from the freshman members of the 116th Congress. They’re young, diverse, and female-in other words, diametrically opposed to what we’ve had in the past. What one wouldn’t expect was to have a video (see below) about government ethics, of all things, go viral. But that’s exactly what happened after Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) creatively questioned a panel of ethics experts during a hearing dedicated to H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2019, which was convened in the House Oversight and Reform Committee last Wednesday.
Ethics and oversight were high on the legislative agenda last Wednesday. On the same day that Ocasio-Cortez was giving us an accessible primer on how easy it is for elected officials to skirt the law, especially in the Executive Branch, veteran Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced H.R. 1028, the Restoring Integrity, Governance, Honesty, and Transparency Act or RIGHT Act. The RIGHT Act comes on the heels of H.R. 1, the first piece of legislation introduced by the new Congress, aimed at strengthening our democracy. The RIGHT Act would build on the reforms laid out in H.R. 1 by specifically targeting loopholes and weaknesses in current ethics and accountability laws governing elected officials.
In introducing the legislation to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Speier said:
“Over the past two years, unprecedented levels of unethical behavior, nepotism, and misconduct in the Executive Branch poses a clear and present danger to not only our electoral systems but the very foundation of our democracy. The abuses and excesses of the President, his family, and his cronies also highlight the inadequacy of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 (EGA) when it comes to oversight of the Trump presidency. As a strong supporter of H.R. 1, I look forward to working with Congressman Sarbanes and Chairman Cummings to make sure that we close legal loopholes that have been stretched to the breaking point by the Trump Administration.”
One of the side-effects of the Trump era is the ushering in of some unlikely celebrities. One such person is Walter Shaub, who sat on the panel Ocasio-Cortez questioned during last week’s hearing. Shaub was the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE). The unassuming, low-key Shaub first came to prominence as a cable news commentator during the early months of the Trump presidency. Since resigning from his post at OGE in July of 2017, Shaub joined CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) as senior director and has become a Twitter sensation and outspoken critic of the Trump administration.
Shaub described the RIGHT Act introduced by Speier as follows:
“This is an incredibly important piece of legislation. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is proud to support the RIGHT Act, which will enhance transparency, strengthen enforcement and increase accountability. I’m particularly impressed with the way it targets several key gaps in our framework for government integrity with pinpoint precision and proposes very effective solutions. We thank Representative Jackie Speier for her leadership in introducing the bill and look forward to working with Congress on this critical issue.”
Later, Shaub broke down the important points of the bill in a series of tweets:
As to be expected, reform bills like H.R. 1 and H.R. 1028 have met with partisan pushback. Ranking Republican member on the Oversight Committee, Jim Jordan (R-OH) says H.R. 1 “reads more like a wish list for Democrats than an honest attempt at reform.” And even if both bills make it out of the Democratically controlled House, passage in the Senate could be an uphill battle, especially since Leader McConnell has called the reform packages “a power grab”.
“It’s a lot harder for folks to get behind ethics reform when they implicate their own practices or hurt their ability to win elections,” Delaney Marsco, an ethics expert and legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, a D.C. good government watchdog group, said. “It’s kind of a fox guarding the henhouse situation.”
But there’s a new fox in the henhouse, and I for one wouldn’t bet against the freshman class of the 116th. Stay tuned for more surprises.
posted by Amy Levengood
While out on the campaign trail, a favorite refrain of Donald Trump’s was “drain the swamp”! That promise was about as genuine and well-conceived as his wall/steel slats/beaded curtain border security plan is now. Although there are varying interpretations as to what Trump meant by the phrase, in the common vernacular one would expect serious ethics reforms and anti-corruption initiatives to follow. Instead the self-professed outsider who loved to tout his credentials of not being a politician didn’t skip a beat in rigging the political system in his favor. In fact he and his cronies are playing it like a finely tuned fiddle.
Take for example former HHS Secretary Tom Price, who resigned after it was learned he chartered expensive private flights at taxpayer expense, or former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke whose daily calendars were as private as Brett Kavanaugh’s were public, and then there was former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s closed-door meetings with fossil fuel executives and his $43,000 soundproof booth. The list goes on.
In case you missed it, the hypocrisy isn’t limited to the president’s cabinet. From Ivanka Trump’s special Chinese licensing deals to the Secret Service tab at Mar-A-Lago to whatever it is Erik and Donald Jr. do, it seems the main offender is the commander in chief himself. Case in point - the current government shut-down. While families struggle to pay mortgages and put food on the table, and our national parks fill with trash, an historic clock tower at Trump International Hotel in D.C. remains open and fully staffed by National Park Service rangers. Can you say “conflict of interest”?
No, this is not the first administration to engage in scurrilous practices, nor are the transgressions confined to the Executive Branch, but the current resident of the Oval Office makes Abscam look like an old ladies’ sewing circle. This is why it’s encouraging that the new House of Representatives presented as its priority legislation H.R. 1 or the For the People Act. It is a 4-prong bill that is both symbolic yet has teeth. It consists of 571 pages of existing problems and proposed solutions regarding voting, money in politics, ethics and corruption, and redistricting.
*Here are some of the key provisions of H.R. 1 as outlined by NPR’s Peter Overby:
Voting and election laws
As for redistricting, one of the more “radical” proposals is to take the power to draw districts away from the states and give that authority to an independent commission.
*Taken from House Democrats Introduce Anti-Corruption Bill As Symbolic 1st Act, NPR politics, January 5, 2019.
It probably doesn't need to be said, but it's a lot to chew all in one bite, and many of these measures have been proposed before without success. But with new energy in Congress and those of us here at home manning the pumps, maybe we can drain that swamp after all.
posted by Amy Levengood
A person can learn a lot from U.S. Census data. It’s an especially useful tool for genealogy buffs. With just a few clicks I found things like my great-grandfather was a chipper in a steel mill, one of the hardest and dirtiest jobs in the plant, or the dates when my great-grandparents became naturalized citizens. I learned that census gatherers recorded information like whether the person spoke English or not or how much their house was worth. By today’s standards this sounds a bit intrusive, but they’re all things that help to round out a family history. The Census has another more important and consequential function, namely ensuring that each community gets the correct number of representatives and that public funds get distributed equitably.
The United States Census is conducted every ten years as mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, part of which states: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States ... according to their respective Numbers ...” The first census was taken in 1790 under the direction of Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State. There have been 22 since that time. Management of the census falls under the Bureau of the Census, which is part of the Commerce Department. The last count was in 2010. According to the data gatherers the 2010 Census found the U.S. population to be 308,745,538. (By current estimates, it’s now close to 327 million.)
So who gets counted? Individuals living in U.S. residential structures – check. Americans and their dependents living overseas who are federal employees (military and civilian) – check. Citizens – check. Non-citizen legal residents – check. Non-citizen long-term visitors – check. Undocumented immigrants – check.
That last one is where the trouble starts. Remember how I said the Census falls under the auspices of the Commerce Department? Last time I looked (one can never be too sure) the person heading that department is one Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., banker, billionaire, and grifter extraordinaire. Ross’s political ties range wide and deep on both sides of the aisle, his financial dealings with the Russians have raised eyebrows, he failed to divest of his interests when he came on board with the Trump administration, and now he’s coming after our census.
It’s been 70 years since the Census has had a citizenship question, but Wilbur wants to change all that by adding that question to the 2020 Census. He claimed, under oath to Congress mind you, that his motivation was to provide better data on eligible voters to the Justice Department in order that the Voting Rights Act could be better enforced. But attorneys general of 17 states and the District of Columbia, the ACLU, and immigrants rights groups said not so fast. In a lawsuit brought in New York, the aforementioned entities contend that the true intent of the citizenship question is to intimidate people of color and cause an undercount in minority areas, all in order to help Republicans. “We are seeing aggressive efforts to change the rules to entrench one political party in power regardless of the support they receive from voters,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Click here to read Rolling Stone's stinging essay on Wilbur Ross.
The citizenship question is just one threat to an accurate census count. Other challenges include the new on-line format, which raises a whole host of issues for low-income communities and the elderly, and the fact that Congress, true to form, has limited the amount of funding available for the administration of the Census.
In response to these threats, our partners at the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN) are calling for a public fund to make sure our state gets an accurate count. Click here to read their analysis.
2020 is not just a year we choose a new president. It’s a census year. Let’s make sure all Pennsylvanians stand and be counted.
posted by Amy Levengood
By now you’ve probably realized I’m a big fan of former President Obama. Yes, I agreed with his stances on many issues, but it wasn’t just his policies that led me to vote for him twice. There was a lot to admire about his leadership style. One of his qualities that especially stood out, particularly in today’s environment, was his temperament. He didn’t earn the moniker “No Drama Obama” for nothing. Those who have worked with him and even Obama himself often noted his careful deliberative style. No one could ever accuse President Obama of “thinking from his gut”. Many of his detractors and even some supporters found his approach over-analytical. I found it comforting. But it wasn’t only that. President Obama even planned out how he would make decisions. Take this simple example from an interview he once gave to Vanity Fair:
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
By limiting choices he was required to make on inconsequential matters, Obama was better able to focus on the important things. There is actually a name for this type of analysis and there are people who actually spend their time studying it. It’s called “choice architecture” or the concept that decisions we make are a function of the environment we’re in. One of those people who has made his career looking at choice architecture is Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He says without our realizing it, many decisions are made for us by design. Here’s an example Ariely likes to use to emphasize the point:
“this is one of my favorite plots in social sciences. And these are different countries in Europe. And you basically see two types of countries - countries on the right, that seems to be giving a lot, and countries on the left, that seems to be giving very little, or, you know, not much less. The question is, why? Why do some countries give a lot and some countries give a little? When you ask people this question, they usually think that it has to be something about culture, right? How much do you care about people? Giving your organs to somebody else is probably about how much you care about society, or maybe 'cause about religion. But if you look at this plot, you could see that countries that we think about as very similar actually exhibit very different behavior.
For example, Sweden is all the way on the right. And Denmark, that we think is culturally very similar, is all the way on the left. Germany's on the left, and Austria is on the right. The Netherlands is on the left, and Belgium is on the right. And by the way, the Netherlands is an interesting story. You see the Netherlands is kind of the biggest of the small group. Turns out that they got the 28 percent after mailing every household in the country a letter begging people to join this organ donation program. Right, so you know the expression, begging only gets you so far. It's 28 percent in organ donation.
But whatever the countries on the right are doing, they're doing a much better job than begging. So what are they doing? Turns out, the secret has to do with the form at the DMV. And here's the story. The countries on the left have a form at the DMV that looks something like this. Check the box below if you want to participate in the organ donor program. And what happens? People don't check, and they don't join. The countries on the right, the one that give a lot, have a slightly different form. It says check the box below if you don't want to participate. Interestingly enough, when people get this they, again, don't check, but now they join...”
Now I realize that many conservatives’ heads are going to explode at the mere thought of my next statement, but this led me and apparently many other more qualified people to think - what if voter registration wasn’t a choice? What if it were something we had to opt out of rather than make a conscious effort to do? What would be the results?
Well to some extent we can answer that question, because over a dozen states in our union are already doing it. It’s called Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), and places such as Vermont, California, and New Jersey have put some form of it in place. One way AVR is implemented is to automatically register an individual to vote when said person interacts with a government agency like the DMV, for example. Just like the model described by Dan Ariely with European organ donorship, citizens have to decide to opt out of voter registration as opposed to opting in. It’s a convenient and simple solution to something that is a perennial problem in our democracy-getting people registered. But it’s more than that. AVR saves money by consolidating where states keep records and keeps voter information secure and up to date. States that have active AVR are seeing positive results. Common Cause, which has launched a nationwide voter reform campaign, cites several examples:
In Illinois, the state Board of Elections recently announced that 20,000 people have updated their voter registration or registered to vote for the first time in just the first three weeks since implementing the AVR program.
In Vermont, 12,344 voter registrations were processed or updated at the DMV in the first six months of the program in 2017. This is compared to 7,626 registrations processed during the same time period without AVR in 2016, which is significant since 2016 was an election year and 2017 was not.
In a democracy voting is the most basic way for the public to express their opinions. It shouldn’t be complicated or difficult. It’s how we choose who will lead us and be our voice in the halls of power. Like President Obama our mental energy should be spent on more important things like deciding who will the best candidate for the job.
posted by Amy Levengood
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