Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

About That Loan Forgiveness…

President Biden has announced his college loan forgiveness program. Let the carping begin!

Critics scream that forgiveness takes money from the broader tax base, mostly made up of workers who did not go to college, to subsidize the debt of people with valuable degrees. Technically, I suppose that’s true–but it’s also true for the massive corporate subsidies and tax credits that the GOP loves.

What about Trump’s 2017 tax cut for millionaires? Or those oil company subsidies and multiple other subsidies for big companies that can afford to hire good lobbyists?  How about those lower tax rates for hedge fund managers (“carried interest deduction”)?What about tax provisions benefitting only the rich–for example, allowing 100% deductibility for yachts purchased for “business purposes,” and  100% of the future depreciation for private jets in their first year of service?

Where are the GOP howls of “unfairness” about those examples of “socialism?” (I forgot–in the good old U.S. of A., we have socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest of us…)

Republican lawmakers screaming the loudest about “unfairness” are the most hypocritical: Marjorie Taylor Greene  had $183,504 in PPP loans forgiven; Vern Buchanan (Florida) had more than $2.3 million forgiven;  Markwayne Mullin (Oklahoma) had more than $1.4 million forgiven; Matt Gaetz (Pedophile) had $482,321 forgiven. The list goes on. And on.

It also turns out that not all beneficiaries of loan forgiveness have those valuable degrees. A lot of them just have the debt. Researchers tell us that the people who struggle the most to repay their loans “are less likely to be baristas with six figures in debt and a graduate degree than blue-collar workers who have a smaller amount of unpaid loans but never graduated college.”

As Biden said, that worker has the “worst of both worlds — debt and no degree.”

The loan forgiveness program is specifically targeted to borrowers making less than $125,000 annually–those Yale graduates pulling down big bucks on Wall Street won’t qualify.  The relief will go to middle and low-income borrowers struggling to pay off their loans–and that targeted debt forgiveness is likely to have a significant positive economic impact. (As numerous studies have confirmed–when you give lower-income people more money, they spend it.)

A couple of things worth noting:  women ( Black women in particular) represent a disproportionate number of the borrowers who struggle with repayment; and school teachers are among those most likely to benefit.

A July 2021 report from the National Education Association showed that 45% of educators were student loan borrowers and over half of those still have a balance, averaging almost $59,000. Teaching typically isn’t a high-paying career, so paying off loans can be particularly burdensome. Experts say loan forgiveness would especially benefit early education (pre-K) teachers, who make even less than those in the K-12 system.

The loudest criticisms of loan forgiveness seem to come from people who paid off their own student debts. Alexandra Petri had a great –albeit snarky–response to those complaints in a Washington Post column.A couple of those paragraphs:

DISGUSTING! AWFUL! I have just received word that life is getting marginally better for some people, and I am white-hot with fury! This is the worst thing that could possibly happen! I did not suffer and strive and work my fingers to the bone so that anybody else could have a life that does not involve suffering and striving and the working of fingers to the bone. I demand to see only bones and no fingers!…

Every time anyone’s life improves at all, I personally am insulted. Any time anyone devises a labor-saving device, or passes some kind of weak, soft-hearted law that forecloses the opportunity for a new generation of children to lose fingers in dangerous machinery, I gnash my teeth. This is an affront to everyone who struggled so mightily. To avoid affronting them, we must keep everything just as bad as ever. Put those fingers back into the machines, or our suffering will have been in vain…

I fought uphill battles and squinted into the night and toiled and burdened myself in the hope that my children, one day, would also get to work exactly that hard, if not harder, and suffer at least as much as I did, and have, if the Lord allows, lives worse than mine. God, please make their lives worse!

These reactions do make me wonder why the owner of the corner hardware store isn’t howling about the unfairness of subsidies that pad the bottom lines of bigger businesses, or the tax cuts that saved him $10, but put lots more money in the pockets of the already-wealthy.

For my part, I really prefer having my tax dollars support the education of a kid from a low or middle-income family, rather than subsidizing the purchase of a yacht “for business purposes.”

 

 

It’s Never That Simple

I recently dipped back into Howard Zinn’s “People’s History,” mostly to remind myself that the past was just as messy and unpredictable–and unfair and inequitable–as the multiple things that drive me bonkers today, and also to remind myself that frequently, “good guys” won and made life better for lots of the previously downtrodden.

During his description of the chaotic time leading up to the American Revolution, Zinn shared a quote from Thomas Paine that I didn’t remember seeing previously:

There is an extent of riches, as well as an extreme of poverty, which, by harrowing the circles of a man’s acquaintance, lessens his opportunities of general knowledge.

Paine was pointing to the phenomenon that today’s commentators call “living in a bubble”–something most of us do. It is very difficult to genuinely interact with people outside our circles: city folks rarely mingle with rural ones, or professionals with people in the trades or those performing more menial tasks. We may encounter people outside our bubbles, but encounters are not relationships; they aren’t “circles.”

I thought about that quotation, and the undeniable reality it reflects, when I read “The Myth that Everyone has an ID,” published at a site called “Civic Nebraska.”

The lede was essentially a restatement of Paine’s admonition:

The reality is, we don’t all live the same life. We don’t all have the same experiences. And we have to take that into account. We should make sure all voices are heard, and that the laws we put in place don’t cut people out, or make them second-class citizens. It’s our job to encourage them and protect them.”

That comes from our video Gavin’s Story: The Hidden Harm of Voter ID, and at the end of the day, it really is the central reason to not force Nebraskans into strict photo identification requirements at the ballot box. Despite the conventional wisdom and the assumption that everyone has a “proper ID,” the fact is that many Nebraskans don’t. This is true for any number of reasons; regardless, it’s never as simple as proponents of such strict identification measures make it out to be.

The article proceeded to look at the numbers and draw some unsettling conclusions. Given the state’s most recent population figures, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 1,472,769 Nebraskans are of voting age.

How many of these Nebraskans already have IDs? According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Nebraska had 1,418,301 licensed drivers who were 18 or older in 2021. That comes out to about 96 percent of voting-age Nebraskans. This sounds like “almost everyone,” until you consider what that represents in terms of individual people left behind by an unnecessary law. By our estimate, that could be as many as 54,500 potential Nebraska voters.

As the writer says, that’s not nothing.

It represents a lot of Nebraska voters – especially college students, low-income voters, disabled voters, rural voters, or any eligible voter who for whatever reason is without government-issued photo identification. These are our neighbors, friends, family, co-workers.

By the way, that’s a conservative number. It assumes people over 18 with learner’s permits, which allow a person to legally practice driving before applying for their driver’s license, are valid ID-holders. Throw those out for any reason, and the number of Nebraskans potentially without valid ID to vote is nearly 70,000. And, of course, this doesn’t include the untold number of Nebraskans who have state-issued IDs but who may have changed their name, address, or other feature in their life, likely rendering their currently held licenses invalid to vote.

The simple answer, of course, is to give everyone a free ID. As the article points out, “It’s a fine idea that will cost millions. Every year. Forever.” Given the overwhelming amount of research showing that in-person vote fraud is somewhere between minuscule and non-existent, that’s money that could be better spent elsewhere.( I’d suggest diverting it to accurate–i.e., non-Florida–civics education.)

These voter ID laws are widely approved by people whose “circles” all have IDs–people who find it difficult to understand why anyone wouldn’t have such documentation, and thus don’t consider the requirement to be a genuine impediment to voting.

Of course, those voter ID requirements are also strongly endorsed by Republicans, who are quite aware that the bulk of the people they are disenfranchising–college students, low-income voters, disabled voters–are disproportionately likely to cast a Democratic vote.

Thomas Paine was onto something….

 

Changing Indiana

Yesterday’s post was more of a lament than a post, but just because this state has a long history of being “behind the curve”–okay, behind pretty much any curve–doesn’t mean we should shrug and ignore opportunities to effect positive change.

Women4Change Indiana is one of several organizations trying to bring our state into the 21st (okay, maybe only the 20th) century. Members have lobbied against gerrymandering, for women’s rights, and for changes to make voting easier and increase turnout. You can read more about the organization on its website.

I’ve been working with Women4Change on programming for an upcoming conference, and I’m ceding the remainder of today’s blog space to the organization’s initial announcement of that conference. If you can attend, great; in any event, please share it. Widely.

__________________________

Women4Change Indiana is delighted to send you an invitation to our inaugural Civic Education Conference on October 6, 2022, in the Clowes Auditorium of the Indianapolis Public Library, 40 East St. Clair Street, Indianapolis, Indiana. The title is “Civic Education: The DNA of Democracy.” Registration for this conference is not yet open to the public, but we wanted to give you the opportunity to put this date on your calendar. Your understanding of the importance of civic education and its impact on our state and nation will enrich this conversation and inspire more action to contribute to civil conversations and a healthy democracy.

The 2021 Indiana Civic Health Index found that Indiana ranked among the 10 lowest states in voter turnout. Between 2012 and 2020, the State dropped eight spots.

Efforts to improve civic education in the state will also include increased awareness, education, and participation among adults. For instance, in the 2016 presidential election, Indiana ranked 40th in registration and 41st in turnout. Only 65% of registered voters in Indiana voted in the 2020 Presidential election. The Indiana Civic Education Task Force, chaired by Lt. Governor Susan Crouch, researched and supported successful legislation that, beginning in 2023, will require middle school students to take one semester of civics.

The conference will bring together prominent policymakers and stakeholders to examine the critical role of civic education in fostering civic learning and engagement in Indiana. Two framing questions attendees will be invited to ask themselves are: “What difference can civic education make?” and “What difference will I make?” There is more work to be done, and your participation will help us continue to improve the state of civic education in Indiana.

The conference features three major presentations interspersed with additional topic-specific workshops. The first keynote will be delivered by Dr. Cynthia Cherrey, President and CEO of The International Leadership Association, an organization of 3,000 scholars, researchers, and practitioners from over 30 countries. She will provide an international perspective on the place of civic education and its relationship to democracy globally. The second keynote will be from Dr. Rajiv Vinnakota, President of The Institute for Citizens and Scholars at Princeton University. He is an expert on civic education’s significance nationally, particularly for young people. The final plenary session will be focused on the state of Indiana’s civic education and how we can strengthen it.

For more information, please contact Haley Bougher, Vice President of W4CI, haley@women4changeindiana.org.

You can register for the conference using the QR code below or the Coming Up section of the Women4Change website. Please ensure that you register by September 30th for discounted pricing. We look forward to hosting you at our Civic Education Conference, as your participation is what makes this program impactful.

Sincerely,

Elcira Villarreal, Women4Change Indiana Board Chair Martha Lamkin, Women4Change Action Fund Board

Women4ChangeIndiana.org
Katherine Tyler Scott, Chair, W4CI Civic Education Conference Co-Chair Ava Taylor, Conference Co-Chair

1100 W 42nd St. | Suite 228 Indianapolis, IN 46208

 

Getting Out The Vote

Several years ago,  my husband and I took a week-long cruise on a small boat that accommodated only eleven passengers. One of those eleven, as it happened, was a retired professor of public administration from Australia, and we had several fascinating exchanges about policy differences between our two countries.

One of those differences involved elections.

In Australia, the law requires  that every citizen vote. I initially recoiled at that suggestion; surely, people too disinterested to go to the polls  unless required to do so would cast uninformed ballots…but the more I thought about  it, the more Australia’s system appealed to me.

Many democratic countries evidently require people to vote, and fine those who don’t.  (Actually, as I understand it, what is mandatory is appearance at the polls. In many systems, there is apparently something akin to a “none of the above” option that will fulfill the legal obligation.)

Requiring citizens to vote would help ensure that election results mirror the preferences of the entire population, not just those sufficiently motivated to express those preferences at the polls. At least some percentage of the currently disengaged would take more interest in government and politics–knowing that they would have to cast a ballot, at least some Americans might make an effort to know something about the people on that ballot and (gasp!) even the system within which they aspire to operate.

Arguably, universal turnout would require candidates to craft more inclusive messages, since targeting an ideological sliver would no longer be the path to victory. (Targeting one’s base is one reason for our currently polarized politics.) Candidates and parties would also save a lot of money and effort currently spent on get out the vote efforts.

So what are the cons, the arguments against mandatory voting?

Requiring people to vote would assure the participation of low-interest, arguably uninformed people, “alphabet voters” who would simply check a box in order to avoid a fine. (You can lead a voter to the polls, but you can’t force him to think.) Even a token fine would fall most heavily on the poor and disadvantaged–the very people who have difficulty getting to the polls in our current system.

At least one scholar has suggested that–rather than making voting mandatory (which America will do when pigs fly)–we should work to make elections more competitive, because turnout increases when voters have meaningful choices. Gerrymandering currently makes that solution untenable.

Gerrymandering is also a huge disincentive to voting; when you are convinced your vote won’t count, you are understandably less likely to make the effort. And because Republicans have been far more successful in gerrymandering (not that Democrats don’t try–they just aren’t nearly as good at it), the people who are least likely to vote are the people most likely to vote Democratic.

A recent study of turnout should be filed under “read it and weep.”

A new study from BYU and the University of Virginia analyzed 400 million voter records from elections in 2014 and 2016 and found that minority citizens, young people, and those who support the Democratic Party are much less likely to vote than whites, older citizens, and Republican Party supporters. Moreover, those in the former groups were also more likely to live in areas where their neighbors are less likely to vote.

“We’re finding that the circumstances of other citizens who live around you plays an important role in voter turnout,” said Dr. Michael Barber, BYU professor of political science and co-author of the study. “Much of the country is segregated—especially by race and partisanship. Minorities are more likely to live around other minorities who are also less likely to vote. The same is true of voters of both parties. These patterns can create a situation that results in persistent patterns of lower turnout in certain communities for a variety of reasons.”

The study found that, in 2016, White citizens voted at a rate of between 9 and 15 percentage points higher than Black citizens, Asian citizens, and Hispanic citizens. In 2014, the gaps were even higher, with Whites voting at a rate 9 to 18 percentage points higher than minority groups. There were similar gaps in political party turnout, with Republicans  more likely to vote than Democrats.

Unsurprising but depressing, the data also confirmed that the voting rate of citizens 60 years old or older was roughly 40 percentage points higher than that of citizens 30 years old or younger.

If those demographic gaps in turnout narrowed–or, with mandatory voting, disappeared– a significant number of districts that have been gerrymandered by partisans would no longer be safe–after all, the people drawing district lines must depend upon previous turnout data. They have no way of knowing the political preferences of the people who didn’t bother to vote.

Increased turnout could save American democracy.

 

Religious Chutzpah

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that–ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in DobbsI’ve been harping on the evisceration of a doctrine called “Substantive Due Process,” also known as the right to privacy. Without going back through the jurisprudence that established that doctrine, let me just paraphrase it: government must respect citizens’ right to make our own decisions about how to live our lives, so long as  those decisions aren’t harming others.

Decisions about procreation are hardly the only areas protected from government overreach by the Bill of Rights. Your choice of religious conviction and my choice not to be a believer are both protected–mostly by the religion clauses of the First Amendment, but also by a right to privacy that keeps government from dictating so personal a choice. Religious liberty is based upon that same respect for the integrity of the individual conscience.

However, the current Court seems intent upon elevating the rights of believers over the rights of the rest of us.

Just this last term, the Justices permitted a theatrically pious coach to pray on his school’s fifty yard line, and ruled in favor of a Christian group wanting to raise its flag at Boston’s City Hall.

The Hill has reported on a pending lawsuit  encouraged by earlier Roberts Court cases that weakened the wall between church and state.

A Texas lawsuit that hopes to eliminate mandated health insurance coverage of birth control, HIV medication, sexually transmitted disease (STD) testing and more has quietly been pushing forward through the court system and could eventually end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the case of Kelley v. Becerra, two plaintiffs from Texas argue that the current structure of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandates health insurance providers to cover certain preventative care they argue they do not need and that conflict with their religious beliefs — specifically, contraceptive coverage, STD testing and HIV medications Truvada or PrEP.

One of the lawsuit’s arguments leans on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without a compelling justification. Plaintiffs argue this right has been violated as both are Christian and unwilling to buy health insurance that subsidizes, “abortifacient contraception or PrEP drugs that encourage homosexual behavior and intravenous drug use.”

The lawsuit also takes issue with how the ACA defines preventative care, a decision-making process that has been assigned to various groups, including the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the Preventative Services Task Force and the Health Resources and Services Administration.

If these religious zealots prevail–and they probably will at the District Court level, since they’ve filed the case in the courtroom of the radical Texas judge who previously ruled that the ACA was unconstitutional–health insurers would no longer be required to cover preventive care with no copay. They could either opt out of offering those services altogether, or begin charging for them.

Currently,most health insurance plans include coverage of preventative care like birth control and HIV medicines. Plaintiffs complain that their options for plans without those elements are few and far between, denying them freedom to exercise their religious beliefs.

Health care providers have raised alarm bells over Kelley v. Becerra, like the American Medical Association (AMA), alongside 20 other medical trade groups, which stressed how popular the preventative care measure of the ACA has been — with an estimated 151.6 million people receiving free preventative care in 2020 alone.

An adverse ruling would mean millions of Americans would lose access to “vital preventive health care services, such as screening for breast cancer, colorectal cancer, cervical cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, preeclampsia, and hearing, as well as well child visits and access to immunizations critical to maintaining a healthy population,” wrote the AMA.

A coalition of 20 attorneys general has also filed an amicus brief in Kelley v. Becerra arguing–among other things– that public health outcomes have significantly improved since the ACA’s preventative services provision was implemented.

Let’s give the plaintiffs the benefit of the doubt, and accept that these provisions–provisions that have improved the health of millions of Americans– are contrary to their “sincerely held” religious beliefs. Do they not have options other than denying critical health care to Americans who are currently benefitting from access to preventative care? Couldn’t they establish a “faith-based” insurance company that would cater to their needs? (Such a company would have a strong argument for being exempted from the federal requirements they insist are inconsistent with their religious doctrines.) Or they could opt to self-insure.

Instead, they argue that their religious “rights” trump the health of millions of Americans  who currently have free access to cancer screenings, birth control and childhood vaccinations. (Google chutzpah.)

If they prevail, thank the current “Christians” on the Supreme Court.