Monthly Archives: August 2013

ACA avoids welfare cliff, but not in Alabama

A common theme in American politics is that the nation is overly generous with those living in poverty. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., famously called the safety net a “hammock” for the poor. The CATO Institute recently published a report claiming the safety net is so comfy that people routinely spurn work, preferring the comparative luxury of tax-funded welfare programs.

It’s a sad attempt to reject the reality that structural changes in the U.S. economy have destroyed income mobility. People who are born poor generally stay that way. They need money to get advanced education. They need money to get and maintain a car that will get them to work on time. They need money for health care so minor ailments don’t turn into illnesses that prevent them from keeping a job. They need money for day care, so they can work while their children receive adequate care.

A few decades ago a hard-working person with no skills could find a job that allowed them to accumulate savings, which they could use to increase their income level.

Today, a hard-working person without unique skills is fortunate to get a job that pays enough for them to hover near the federal poverty level. Since the recession, the job they find is more likely to be a part-time position with no benefits. If they get sick, they lose their job and go into debt. If their car breaks down, they lose their job. Accumulating enough savings to obtain post-secondary education or buy a home — to participate in the American Dream — is, for most, impossible.

While the claim that the safety net has transformed the stressful misery of poverty into a luxurious refuge is both false and cruel, it does point to a national problem. The jobs available to those relying on the safety net are so inadequate that many — especially parents — suffer a setback if they get a job. For a person who is barely surviving, setbacks are not an option.

This problem, sometimes called the “welfare cliff,” is bad for everyone. People who desperately want a job and who hate receiving welfare too often cannot afford to take the jobs available. Taxpayers continue paying full benefits, and the recipient must forego the opportunity to demonstrate her value in the workplace.

One of the few programs that manages this problem effectively is the Affordable Care Act. By expanding Medicaid access to those with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty level, it allows people to take a no-benefit job without losing their access to health care.

Everybody wins, because a major disincentive to employment disappears. Because they can take a low-paying job without losing access to health care, their dependence on other tax-funded welfare programs decreases.

But not in Alabama. Despite one of the highest poverty rates in the nation and one of the highest percentages of citizens without health insurance, Alabama offers such skeletal Medicaid access that even the lowest-paying job prevents enrollment.

By joining other states in opting to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — at a cost handled almost entirely by the federal government — Alabama could eliminate a major obstacle for those seeking to enter the job market.


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Filed under Alabama politics, Income inequality, Obamacare, Poverty

Tweeting our way to polarization

Twitter has become a parody of the simplistic approach with which Americans seek to deal with complex political issues.

There is nothing wrong with Twitter, of course. It’s a fun and often useful method of interaction. More than 500 million of people use the service, generating about 400 million tweets per day.

One of the things that sets Twitter apart from other forms of social media is its brevity. While many tweets link to stories or photos, the tweet itself is limited to 140 characters.

What’s sad about the quality of political discourse these days is that 140 characters is usually plenty.

Americans crave simplicity. We want every statement to be either true or false.

Take the increasingly tragic turmoil in Egypt. Those politically inclined to disagree with President Barack Obama are convinced every step he takes is indisputably wrong. His supporters take the opposite stance.

The reality, though, is that no solution is obvious. On the one hand, in the first democratic election in the nation’s history, Egyptians chose Mohammed Morsi. Americans are firm in their belief that democracy is the best form of government. On the other hand, Morsi is a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and his actions as president undermined the population’s democratic ambitions.

Many Americans were infuriated that Obama declined to call the Egyptian military’s overthrow of Morsi a coup, but labeling it as such would have required an end to U.S. aid to the country.

Some say we should end aid immediately, but once again the issue is not so simple. U.S. aid gives us leverage. We do not just embrace Egypt because it aspires to be a democracy, but also because of its strategic value. Its location gives it control of oil reserves and the Suez Canal, both critical to U.S. interests. It is next to Israel, America’s most important ally in the Middle East.

Experts disagree on how America should respond to the crisis in Egypt. There is no obviously correct solution, but Americans are determined that the answer is so obvious it fits in a 140-character tweet.

As evidence mounts that the government of Syria is using chemical weapons, we again are confronted with complexity. Because opponents of the Syrian government are desperate for U.S. intervention, it is conceivable they are using chemical weapons in an effort to inflame the U.S. public. Even if the Syrian government is using chemical weapons to kill its opponents, is military intervention wise? We have seen too clearly in Afghanistan and Iraq that U.S.-led wars rarely play out as planned. The people we hope to protect often become victims.

The Twittersphere has been on fire over revelations that the National Security Administration has been engaged in the bulk collection of the phone records of U.S. citizens. How could anyone support such a brazen intrusion into our privacy? But again, the issue is not simple. Most Americans love their country, but some are plotting to do it harm. NSA’s efforts to protect the nation may be excessive, but the balance between privacy and safety is complex.

The polarization that infects American politics stems from our efforts at oversimplification. Debate is healthy, but rage should be reserved for political judgments that are unambiguously wrong. Life would be easier if problems fit neatly into 140-character solutions, but they rarely do.

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Filed under NSA, Obama, Terrorism, War

Politicians, get out of the classroom

A debate is raging in Huntsville after teachers at a public school there passed out fliers supporting Common Core standards, known in Alabama as College- and Career-Ready Standards. Opponents claim tax dollars were used for the fliers. The obvious question is whether teachers have any business wading into a political battle, especially if they are spending tax dollars to do so.

The problem with the debate is that the development of educational standards in K-12 schools should not be a political debate. It was not teachers who inserted themselves into a political debate, it was politicians who — not for the first time — inserted themselves into an educational issue about which they are woefully ignorant.

Alabama teachers have a unique understanding of Common Core not only because they are educators, but because they already use it. They have received training, and used last year in their classrooms, the Common Core standards in math. They have received training, and will begin using this year, the standards for reading and language arts.

If teachers were worried about themselves, they would oppose Common Core. It creates significant burdens for them. They have had to undergo training, much of it unpaid. Lesson plans that have served them well for years must be scratched, replaced with new ones that most have had to prepare on weekends and evenings.

Because the standards are more aggressive than those previously used in Alabama, they know it will take time for students to adjust. That means they will need to spend more one-on-one time with students who need extra help.

Many Republicans have become unhinged over the Common Core debate.

The Madison County Republican Party on Monday censured Mary Scott Hunter, a conservative Republican on the state Board of Education, because of her successful defense of Common Core. The party’s complaint, like almost all its recent complaints, is that Common Core is a devious plot by President Barack Obama to impose federal standards on Alabama. That’s nonsense.

The states developed the standards, which 46 have adopted. The only federal involvement is that the state Department of Education — realizing after the fact that Common Core was a positive development — made it one of numerous factors that benefited those states seeking federal “Race to the Top” grants to improve their systems. Another distinctly non-liberal factor that helps states obtain the grant is the development of charter schools.

Instead of projecting their Obamaphobia on every decision educators make, legislators of both parties should support the efforts of educators to improve outcomes for students.

As the teachers in Huntsville — many of whom are Republicans — understand, the methods by which we educate our children should not be a political issue. After many years of studying Common Core and one year of using it in the classroom, Alabama educators are convinced it will benefit their students. If Alabama politicians were sincere in their desire to improve public education, they would drop their petty politics and support a program that is working.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education, States' rights

‘School choice’ lawsuit gives snapshots of poverty

Once again, a law passed by the Legislature has landed the state in federal court. It is not the legal status of the Alabama Accountability Act, however, that should most disturb voters.

The lawsuit filed Monday by Black Belt families, with the assistance of the Southern Poverty Law Center, argues that the “school choice” law violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by denying low-income Alabamians equal protection of the laws. The Accountability Act provides tax credits and tax-funded scholarships for those who have time, money and transportation, but for the people who actually need a path out of failing schools it provides nothing.

Indeed, what it provides is worse than nothing. Schools in the Black Belt and elsewhere are failing in large part because they lack funding. The Accountability Act leaves the students with no choice, and simultaneously drains funds from their schools.

The Legislature could have given all students in failing schools the ability to transfer. It could, alternatively, have provided the funding needed for failing schools to improve. It did neither.

There will be beneficiaries, of course. Many will enjoy a windfall from tax credits for contributions to a $25 million scholarship fund, drained from the Education Trust Fund. Participating private schools will enjoy tax subsidies. Families with extra money and transportation, who attend failing schools, will be able to transfer. Students zoned for failing schools, who already attend private schools, probably will benefit from a tax-funded subsidy.

The complaint filed Monday gave snapshots of Alabama poverty. The students who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit are desperate to escape the poverty that overwhelms their parents and know education is their only hope.

They cannot take textbooks home to study, because the schools do not have enough of their outdated textbooks for every student. The students are assigned novels to read, but neither their families nor the school can afford to buy them. So class time must be taken as the teacher uses a projector to show the pages of the novel, one page at a time.

Transferring to a private school under the Accountability Act is not an option for those in poverty. In most cases, the private schools refuse to accept Accountability Act transfers. Even those that accept them cost far more than the $3,500 tax credit, which families would not get until long after tuition is due. The private schools also are located far away from the families, generally requiring more than 100 miles of driving each day. Some families have no car. Others have a car that a parent needs for work. The cost of gas would be prohibitive for all the families.

Transferring to a public school is just as impossible. In many Black Belt school systems, all of the schools are failing. Most of the neighboring districts with schools that are not failing have refused to accept Accountability Act transfers. Even if a school does accept such transfers, families are left with the transportation issue.

It would seem impossible to make the plight of these students any more bleak. Somehow, the Legislature managed to do just that. Their one hope of escaping poverty — a good education — is even more distant now than it was before the Legislature got involved.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education, Poverty

Civil Disobedience, version 2.0

The Alabama Legislature’s rich tradition of pandering to the worst impulses of its constituents has created a noble tradition of civil disobedience.

The 21st century version of civil disobedience is playing out in reaction to some of the worst laws passed in the 2013 session, including the gun law.

Version 1.0 of civil disobedience in Alabama was easy to spot, because its practitioners were intentionally conspicuous. Rosa Parks did not hide under a seat at the front of a bus to protest a despicable law.

Version 2.0 is more pragmatic and less blatant. People whose loyalty is to the people but whose paychecks come from the Legislature are engaging in low-key civil disobedience by refusing to follow bad laws. Rather than creating a visible battle with legislators, they are simply interpreting destructive laws in ways that protect the people.

The significant downside to the civil disobedience of 2013 is it permits legislators to pander without negative consequences. The more intelligent legislators are getting exactly what they want: the ability to pander for votes by passing impractical legislation, without the risk of political blowback when the law causes harm. The worst provisions of the laws they passed will never take effect, because the officials charged with implementing them will ignore them.

Quiet disobedience
The examples of this quiet disobedience are numerous, but I will focus on two provisions of the gun law.

Example 1: The gun law passed this year would allow people, including students, to carry guns on college campuses. College officials are choosing to ignore the provision.

Example 2: The gun law prevents sheriffs from using age — or most other factors — as a reason to deny concealed-carry permits. Many sheriffs say they will continue to deny permits for most applicants under the age of 21.

Anyone who has ever been to a fraternity party or seen the self-destructive mood of students during final exams understands why it’s a really bad idea for the state to condone carrying weapons on a college campus. College administrators, who thankfully are more concerned with keeping students safe than with following the letter of a law designed solely to avoid primary challenges, have been forced into creative interpretations. Most are claiming the law allows them to keep guns off campus by posting signs prohibiting them.

The general rule in Alabama is that a person can carry a handgun anywhere. Several exceptions, most contained in the 2013 law, limit this general rule.

The only provision in the Alabama law that arguably applies to college campuses prohibits people from carrying a firearm in a building or facility that meets two characteristics. First, the facility must employ guards to prevent unauthorized persons from entering. Second, the facility must have other security features, such as key cards or physical barriers.

A typical college campus — such as Calhoun Community College, Athens State University or the University of Alabama — does not meet both of these requirements.

The law authorizes the owner of a property to post a notice “alerting those entering that firearms are prohibited,” but the notice is effective solely for those facilities that meet the exceptions to the general rule that people can carry guns anywhere. Merely posting the notice has no legal effect unless the facility already is on the list.
Interestingly, the state law expressly authorizes people with concealed-carry permits to carry guns at high school athletic events. This is remarkable as a testament to the irresponsibility of the legislators who voted for it, but because federal law trumps state law, the Gun-Free School Zone Act should control.

Wary that municipalities or the state Board of Education might seek to impose their own rules limiting the places people can carry guns, the Legislature made clear it has the sole authority to regulate firearms. Indeed, the law gives residents affected by any local rules purporting to limit the carrying of guns the ability to require action by the state Attorney General.
Risk involved

The civil disobedience of college administrators refusing to follow the law thus comes with risk. Unlike politicians pandering for votes, they have no incentive other than the protection of their students and faculty.

One of the most dramatic changes in the gun law passed in the 2013 session is that it eliminates sheriffs’ discretion in issuing concealed-carry permits.

Under the new law, a sheriff can only deny a concealed-carry permit if the applicant fails to meet one of 11 factors, most dealing with court adjudications of mental incompetence. The only provision that provides the sheriff with any discretion is the 11th, which allows him to deny the permit if the applicant “caused justifiable concern for public safety.”

Even this factor, however, provides little discretion. The applicant does not need to show he is entitled to carry a concealed gun; rather, the sheriff must prove — by “clear and convincing evidence” — that he is not. It is not enough for the sheriff to know the 18-year-old applicant hangs out with gang members or drinks like a fish, he must prove it by a standard higher than that necessary to obtain a civil verdict in a court of law. The fact that the applicant’s wife has bruises every Monday morning is not enough, unless the sheriff can prove the applicant abuses his spouse and that this rises to a “concern for public safety.”

The sheriff cannot even warn a vulnerable public, as the Legislature made it a crime for him to release identifying information about those who receive concealed-carry permits.
Faced with a reckless law that endangers not only residents but deputies, many sheriffs have said they will continue to consider age and other factors not delineated in the law. Rather than kowtow to Montgomery politicians who are willing to risk lives in the effort to get votes, sheriffs are taking a stand.

When public officials are so disturbed by a law that they are willing to risk their jobs and expose themselves to sanctions rather than abide by it, legislators should suspect they passed a very bad law.


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Filed under Alabama politics, Gun control

The tension between privacy and freedom

The public fury over the National Security Administration’s bulk collection of the phone data of U.S. citizens has merged the concepts of freedom and privacy.

The Decatur Daily story of an Egyptian who found asylum in the United States — and who recently was in Decatur for a table tennis tournament — is a reminder that privacy and freedom, while related, are not identical.

Sameh Awadallah loves his new home. What America has that he fears Egypt has lost, he said, is freedom.

“This is better than Egypt,” he said. “There is more freedom here.”

The loss of freedom he witnessed in Egypt is not abstract. Christians, he said, are routinely victimized by the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical groups. “Women — especially Christian women — cannot go out,” Awadallah said. “They get taken and you never see them ever again.”

America’s Founding Fathers guaranteed many freedoms through the Bill of Rights. Privacy was not one of them, at least explicitly. The U.S. Supreme Court extended the rights spelled out in the Constitution to include privacy. In Alabama, that extension has not been well-received, as it was the court’s justification for ruling that women have a right to abortions until the fetus is viable.

The fear that technology — especially the government’s use of technology — would erode at privacy is not new. In 1928, Justice Louis Brandeis dissented from an early constitutional review of whether federal agents violated a defendant’s Due Process rights by tapping a telephone line.

“Discovery and invention have made it possible for the Government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet,” Brandeis wrote.

Brandeis and many judges since have explored the most obvious relationship between privacy and freedom. Governmental invasions of privacy typically come to light when the information obtained is used in a prosecution. Privacy and freedom are intertwined, because the loss of privacy can lead to a loss of freedom.

Individual freedom is not only vulnerable to government intrusion, however. Fear limits freedom. One source of fear is terrorism.

Awadallah’s discussion of the loss of freedom in Egypt is a reminder that the NSA’s intrusions on privacy are designed, in part, to protect the freedoms that Egypt has lost.

The Egyptian public, like the American public, includes both law-abiding citizens and terrorists. The loss of freedom that Awadallah describes is the result not of foreign action or even, for the most part, direct governmental action. It is the result of internal lawlessness. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, he said, are preying on other members of the Egyptian public.

The anger many feel about NSA data collection is that it is aimed at the U.S. public. But as in Egypt, the U.S. public is a tumultuous mix of good guys and bad. The public includes both terrorists and their victims.

Charged with protecting America, NSA does not have the luxury of pretending the U.S. public is either homogeneous or benign. The “we” that resents NSA intrusions includes both citizens who seek to inflict terror and citizens who will be their victims.

There is a tension between freedom and privacy. Unabridged freedom arguably includes absolute privacy. Invasions of privacy, if abused, certainly can result in violations of the sort of freedoms that Awadallah finds lacking in Egypt.

Often lost in the debate over the NSA’s intrusions into our privacy is the fact that it operates under secrecy we authorized. In a representative democracy, people express their will through those they elect. Americans — through Congress — created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 1978. The court, designed to operate outside public view, has remained the primary watchdog of increasingly expansive federal counter-terrorism powers.

None of this has been an accident. Americans feared terrorism in 1978, and that fear escalated to panic after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The USA Patriot Act, which dramatically increased NSA’s authority to invade our privacy, was not the product of a rogue Congress. Our elected representatives recognized our fear and reacted to it through legislation. They recognized we were willing to sacrifice privacy for safety. Stated differently, they understood we were willing to lose some of our privacy in the hopes we would gain freedom from terrorist acts.

One problem with laws that create institutions designed to operate in secret, of course, is that the institutions are impervious to changes in public sentiment. The fear that gripped America in September 2001 has faded, but the secrecy and the intrusions upon privacy we authorized in 2001 remain as strong as ever.

What is clear, though, is that the American public is not insular. If we demand that counter-terrorism procedures be transparent to American citizens, we are likewise demanding that the terrorists we fear have a clear view of the institutions designed to protect us. If we demand privacy, we likewise are demanding privacy for the enemies within our border.

In a public that includes both those who love America and those who seek to destroy it, a limited loss of privacy may be a necessary step in protecting freedom. As Awadallah discovered in Egypt, governments are not the only threat to freedom.

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Filed under Civil liberties, NSA, Surveillance

Alabama needs health reform

The Affordable Care Act will have both costs and benefits. Given that Alabama will benefit more than almost any state from the law, it is striking that the state’s politicians focus almost entirely on the costs.

Alabama has been a national leader in the effort to block the health-care reform law, scheduled for full implementation Jan. 1.

The state joined a lawsuit seeking to keep the law from taking effect. The lawsuit was partially successful in that it led to a ruling allowing states to decide whether or not to expand Medicaid eligibility, an important part of the effort to provide universal coverage. Alabama was quick to announce it would not expand its Medicaid, even though the state’s existing program is one of the most skeletal in the nation.

Gov. Robert Bentley refused to create a state insurance exchange — even though he supported the concept when it was not a part of “Obamacare” — in the expressed hope that the burden on the federal government of creating numerous exchanges would undo the law.

Alabama’s elected federal officials routinely vote to eliminate funding for the Affordable Care Act and its representatives to the U.S. House have voted to repeal it more than 30 times.

In a state that was either wealthy or healthy, the opposition might make sense. States like Massachusetts, Oregon or Connecticut — which have life expectancies of about 80 years or more and healthy populations — might reasonably chafe at sharing in the costs of the law, when most of the benefits would accrue to other states. Almost all of their residents already have health insurance; why should they subsidize states that have a large percentage of uninsured residents?

As Alabama politicians — all of whom have health insurance — lead the fight to destroy the Affordable Care Act, their constituents lead the nation in their desperate need for reform.

Fewer than half of Alabamians have employer-provided health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Another 30 percent have governmental insurance, either Medicaid or Medicare. Almost 700,000 in the state — about one in six — have no public or private health insurance.

The life expectancy of Alabamians is 75, the second worst in the nation (thanks, Mississippi) and well below the national average of 79. A Centers for Disease Control study released last month shows that Alabamians who reach the age of 65 can expect to live another 17.6 years, the third worst in the nation. Only 11 of those years will be in reasonably good health, also the third worst in the nation.

Alabama has the third highest infant mortality rate. Alabama has the eighth highest rate of child obesity, an important indicator of future health, and the third highest mortality rate for children. The state has the fifth highest rate of diagnosed diabetes and the second highest rate of deaths related to heart disease.

Alabamians are not just less healthy than the residents of other states, they lack the resources to do anything about it. Almost one in four Alabamians have incomes below the federal poverty level.

The health-care system may work effectively in some states, but in Alabama it is broken. The potential benefits of reform far outweigh the costs. Rather than trying to undermine the first serious effort at reform in a generation, those charged with representing the interests of Alabamians should be trying to make sure it works.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Health care, Obamacare, Poverty