Friday, February 27, 2009

Hope in Unlikely Places: Citizen Solutions

By Eleanor LeCain

In his address to Congress, President Obama acknowledged that hope is found in unlikely places; now he can tap into people in those unlikely places to renew America.

People expect the president to solve an array of formidable challenges like creating good-paying jobs, providing health care, strengthening energy independence, and improving public schools.

Fortunately, the president can draw on the experience of the most accomplished Americans, not only the well-known wise men and women selected for the Cabinet, but regular people who solved these problems in their own communities.

Just about any problem anywhere has been solved by someone somewhere. The challenge is to identify these solutions, incorporate them into national policies, and help states and local communities put proven solutions into practice.

As a former state senator President Obama knows he can find solutions in surprising places -- for instance:

• IN EDUCATION -- Urban schools have drop-out rates of up to 50 percent and college-bound rates of only 10 percent. Yet, Deborah Meier founded Central Park East, a public high school in Harlem where 90 percent of students graduate, and 90 percent of graduates attend college.

• IN CRIME -- Two million people in prison costs about $50 billion a year, plus the cost of building prisons and wasted lives. Despite the expense, over 70 percent of released inmates commit crimes again and return to jail. But at Delancey Street rehabilitation center in San Francisco, criminals and drug addicts turn their lives around and become productive citizens. There’s no cost to taxpayers since the center is financed by businesses run as training programs by the residents.

• IN HEALTH AND SCIENCE -- About one million people have autism and severe problems with language and social interaction. Yet, The Son-Rise Program in Sheffield, Massachusetts has helped hundreds of families enable children and adults with autism to improve in all areas of learning and communication, sometimes experiencing dramatic improvement.

Solutions like these are all over the country. But currently there is no systematic way to identify and build on best practices in the social sector. Successful business innovations are often adopted by other companies, but that’s rarer for social innovations.

A White House Office for Solutions would be a clearinghouse for projects that are already working in fields such as education, prison reform, environment, and energy. It would provide a vital link between the creativity of the American people and the government.

The White House Office for Solutions would launch a nationwide treasure hunt inviting citizens to find the best of what’s working in their area. For example, educators can report on the best schools. People in community safety groups can report on the best ways to reduce crime.

Citizens become Solution Scouts, discovering breakthrough solutions and reporting them to the White House Office for Solutions. The Office would vet the recommended programs, sending the best to the appropriate federal agency.

Solutions would be made available to the public and elected officials nationwide through a website and regional conferences. For example, successful models of education would become available to governors, mayors, teachers and parents. In this way, a breakthrough anywhere can become a breakthrough everywhere.

By building on what works, we can dramatically improve the quality of life for millions of people and for billions of dollars less than we currently spend.

Just imagine: If even 10 percent of current prisoners were enrolled in a Delancey Street-styled rehabilitation center, we could help 200,000 people leave a life of crime and drugs and become productive members of society. And for $5 billion dollars less than we would have spent annually. Likewise, if just 10 percent of people with autism had access to programs like The Son-Rise Program, we could help about 170,000 people and their families nationwide experience dramatically better results for less than half of the current treatment cost.

The White House Office for Solutions would have broad appeal among Democrats, Republicans, Independents and others, moving us beyond partisanship to partnership. It would give substance to our yearning for change, and give all citizens an opportunity to help our country.
LeCain is a Washington, DC-based speaker and writer, the president of the World Innovation Network which identifies and builds on solutions to social problems, and a former Massachusetts Assistant Secretary of State.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 2/09

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Is This the Plan to Save the Day?


By Dana Beasley Brown

As a mother, I’m fed up with the questionable choices made by the leaders who are entrusted to serve and protect their citizens. As a resident of Kentucky, I need to know that our leadership is willing to invest in the life that my son will have here. I need to know that when he’s old enough to go to school, he’ll have every opportunity to learn and succeed as well as his friends in Maryland and his cousins in California.

And I need to know that the air he breathes and the water he drinks is just as safe here as it is anyplace else and that he will experience a community in which people are treated fairly and justly.

Three little pieces of news led me to believe that perhaps a change had come to the Commonwealth and that we were on our way to a Kentucky I could be proud of. First, our elected officials started echoing Rep. Jim Wayne’s call for a comprehensive tax overhaul. Second, some House Republicans proposed a plan to expand the sales tax to a few of our untaxed services. Third, after years of watching our children’s class sizes swell, our teachers' pay fail to keep up, our justice system and health services leave more and more people behind, and our colleges become unaffordable, even Senate President David Williams admitted that we need new revenue.

These three little pieces have allowed me to think that a positive change would come to our state. Like many Kentuckians, I was hopeful about the likelihood of real reforms.

Unfortunately, however, the closed doors that hid away the negotiations among House, Senate, and executive leadership also prevented them from hearing the call for change coming from across the state. So instead, we get a plan to raise the cigarette tax by 30 cents, a retail sales tax on alcohol, and deep budget cuts.

That’s the plan that’s supposed to save the day?

The legislature has a short memory. As easy as it is to blame the severity of Kentucky’s budget needs on the economic crisis, it isn’t accurate to do so. We had known about the revenue shortfall last year, but the legislature didn’t do anything about it except to make another round of budget cuts, some deeper than the three rounds of cuts before that.

And although Gov. Beshear acted surprised to learn of that shortfall, the legislators knew better. The legislature-commissioned Fox Report confirmed back in 2001 that Kentucky’s tax system was out of date and could not sustain a basic level of services. Years of bad choices have left us with chronically underfunded programs, unaffordable higher education, abandoned school programs, and unenforced environmental laws.

The legislature, once again, has made a big mistake. We now have a tax structure that asks the lowest income-earners to contribute about 10 percent of their income to state and local taxes, and asks the wealthiest to contribute not even 6 percent.

It's the low- and middle-income earners -- not our state's wealthiest, with incomes above $300,000--who are being hurt the most by our economic recession. Balancing our budget on their backs has never been fair, and now it seems especially unwise. Why aren't we moving toward solutions that make our tax structure more balanced and, therefore, more sound?

Instead of adding some patchwork taxes that, in their weakness, will do very little for the public good, our elected officials could have moved us closer to a tax structure that reflects our values of fairness and cooperation.

Where’s the real revenue reform that the Commonwealth so badly needs? Our taxes fit into the old trend. They are relics of a time when people bought into the falsity of small government connoting efficient government. Continuing to move in this direction will dig us deeper into the situation we are in right now, suffering from unemployment, extractive industries, and facilitating policies that don’t work.

We all want our state to be efficient. But we won’t make it efficient by continuing the practices that make it ineffective. Our state government can only be efficient if it is able to do the work that we have charged it to do—help us protect and educate ourselves so that we can all realize our potential to succeed. Efficiency takes some investment. Our leaders can choose to support these investments, or they can choose--as they have--to only do what makes our budget legal.

I want our leaders to make better choices. I want them to invest in a better Kentucky.
Beasley Brown lives in Bowling Green with her husband and 1-year old son. She is member of the Economic Justice Committee of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Kentucky Forum. 2/09

Monday, February 23, 2009

An Economic Stimulus That Keeps on Giving


By Pat Willis

Like most states, Georgia is in the midst of budget cutting and juggling finances to stay afloat. This is a reality and it is important now to maintain a solid foundation for future growth when better times return. And they will.

But how can we as a country and a state make this long-term debt pay off for future generations rather than burdening our children and grandchildren with payments for years to come?

Even in the best of times, Georgia's children haven’t fared well, and it does not bode well for Georgia's future economic growth. Ranking at No. 40 according to the 2008 Kids Count report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, health, education, safety, and employability outcomes have consistently ranked among the lowest in the country. If a healthy portion of potential spending is devoted to strategic investments in our children, we could set in motion an economic stimulus that may keep paying us a healthy return for decades to come.

Let's take a look at what a stimulus package might look like in terms of Georgia’s priorities.

Education and Child Care
Thousands of children are on waiting lists for Pre-Kindergarten education (Pre-K), which builds a foundation for higher educational achievement, in turn creating higher earning potential. However, participation in Georgia’s lottery-funded Pre-K program has never exceeded 56 percent.

President Obama’s $10 billion investment in early learning is a significant leap of faith, but it remains to be seen how that program will be implemented. The economic stimulus package can build quality centers and increase available slots, while existing lottery reserve funds can support operations without additional taxpayer or federal dollars.

With about 300,000 Georgia mothers of children under 6 years old currently in the workforce, and 14,000 families on waiting lists for Georgia child care subsidies, how can we expect a productive, reliable workforce? Research shows that just $1 invested in a high quality child care program resulted in a public benefit of $7.16. If we consolidate child care and Pre-K in the state, we potentially infuse $2.4 billion in gross receipts into the economy, and support $13.6 billion in parental earnings.

Child Abuse Prevention
Georgia’s children must be safe, especially in their own homes. Yet, 50 percent of Georgia’s abuse and neglect cases, close to 20,000 cases in 2005, occur among 0-6 year olds. Home visitation and other family supports could greatly ameliorate this problem, save child welfare dollars down the road, and strengthen family self sufficiency in the short and long run.

Georgia’s health coverage for children ranks in the bottom third of states in terms of access and quality. About 300,000 of Georgia’s children are uninsured and vulnerable. Georgia’s State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), “PeachCare for Kids,” designed to insure children in working families, is at risk of losing its funding in March if Congress or the state doesn’t act quickly. Federal legislation recently signed off on by the president to re-authorize and expand SCHIP should help more children get the coverage they need.

Juvenile Justice
In 2006, 2,631 Georgia children were in juvenile correctional facilities on any given day, enough children for over 100 classrooms. Georgia’s Juvenile Code, which delineates the procedures by which the Juvenile Court addresses delinquent children, is disorganized, difficult to apply to contemporary situations, and needs to be updated in short order.

These are some of the most pressing needs that will only cost the state in the long term if we do nothing. We need to be smart. It is essential to embrace the idea of tax dollars spent on children, not as an expense, but as an investment that saves money later, and most importantly, ultimately generates tax revenues from healthy, productive adults.

If our state and federal governments are committed to spending hundreds of billions of our tax dollars on infrastructure as a means of economic stimulus, why not demand that they look beyond physical roads and bridges? After all, children make up the foundation – infrastructure, if you will – of our society's future prospects that can be the highway for global competitiveness and economic growth. We can't afford to panic now. Let's stimulate the economy and, at the same time, stimulate prospects for our kids with smart investment.
Pat Willis is executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Georgia Editorial Forum. 2/09


By Thomas F. Dernburg

Currently, most states are suffering revenue shortages that are largely due to the recession. Tennessee is among them. But what sets Tennessee apart is that, even in good times, state and local budgets cannot be balanced without resorting to legislated tax increases and/or spending cuts.

Under normal conditions, population and productivity growth raise the state's income. To maintain current services, public spending must rise at the same rate as the rise in state income. Revenues, therefore, need to grow at that same rate.

Despite this fact that revenues rise automatically as income rises, Tennessee's tax system is such that a 1 percent increase in the state's income yields only an eight-tenth of 1 percent increase in revenue. This means that in every year, regardless of economic conditions, Tennessee governments are confronted by revenue shortages and periodic budget crises.

The Tennessee state government relies on a commodity-based sales tax for almost two-thirds of its revenue; services are not taxed. This is part of the problem because there has been a trend of a continuing shift of consumer spending away from commodity consumption into service consumption. Even in the short run, the percentage of consumer income spent on non-taxable services increases as income rises.

With the tax base dominated by sales taxes, increases in sales taxes have been the most likely candidate for raising substantial additional revenue. This has produced a vicious circle of a revenue shortfall to be followed by a sales tax increase, to be followed by another revenue shortfall a short time later, to be followed by yet another increase in the sales tax.

The sales tax was introduced in 1947 at a rate of 2 percent. It has risen to 6 percent for grocery food and to 7 percent for other commodities. Local governments add another 2.5 percent. The 8.5 percent at which food is taxed is the highest in the country. It's no wonder that citizens flock to the surrounding eight states to make large fractions of their purchases, thereby taking business away from Tennessee enterprises.

Another characteristic of the present revenue system is that it is grossly unfair. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy reported that Tennessee's tax system is the most regressive unfair of any state other than Florida and Washington. The 20 percent of families at the lowest income level pay roughly 11.7 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The top 1 percent pays only 3.4 percent. Poor families spend the bulk of their income on taxed food and clothing while well-to-do families spend a large fraction on untaxed services.

There have been three commissions created by the state legislature to study the tax system and propose reforms. The latest, which reported its findings in late 2004, recommended significant reductions in sales taxes with revenue losses stemming from the sales tax cuts to be offset by a graduated individual income tax. These recommendations are the same as the earlier tax study commissions. They have been ignored by the legislature, which seems to regard tax commissions as window dressing designed to side step hard decisions.

All sales taxes should be reduced with the food tax abolished entirely. A graduated individual income tax should be adopted at the same time. A graduated income tax operates through a bracket system under which poor families are exempt, with rising individual incomes causing an increase in the proportion of income taken in taxes. The tax burden on lower income families would be shifted towards higher income families, thereby addressing the fairness issue. The crisis prone characteristic of the present system would also be eliminated, because graduated income taxes generate revenue increases at a rate somewhat faster than the growth of income.

To break the vicious cycle of revenue shortfall, all sales taxes should be reduced, the food tax abolished entirely, and a graduated individual income tax system implemented in a timely fashion so as to ensure the security and equity of our state economy.
Dernburg is an emeritus professor of Economics at the American University and a former holder of the Chair of Excellence in Free Enterprise at Austin Peay State University.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 2/09

Friday, February 20, 2009

Our Social Safety Needs Mending

By Irasema Garza

The current government social safety net that was built for a growing economy has stretched to its breaking point.

While Congress has acknowledged the dire circumstances working and middle-class families now face, little attention has been paid to those on the brink of the economic precipice: poor families facing the expiration of government assistance, with no jobs on the horizon and all avenues for help closing off.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will prevent many from falling off the cliff; however, many decisions that will affect the neediest families will be left to the states. To effectively buoy working families and children coping their way through this crisis, we must rethink how we provide assistance to those who need it most.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has been the government assistance of last resort for our nation’s poorest families for over a decade. Current rules for TANF set a 60-month lifetime limit for assistance, and allow states to set shorter limits, as nearly a quarter of them do. While some exemptions to the time limit are permitted and some states continue to provide aid with state funds, thousands of families lose their benefits solely because they reach that limit. The vast majority, 90 percent by some studies, of adult TANF recipients are women, many of whom are taking care of children or disabled relatives. With the unemployment rate at its highest in years, these families are finding their benefits expiring just when jobs are incredibly scarce for experienced workers, much less those lacking a high school diploma or a consistent work history, as many TANF recipients do.

TANF benefits enable families to get by and subsist, not save; the women, children and men currently falling off the rolls are slipping into a very vulnerable situation wherein homelessness, hunger and abuse become par for the course.

And families are indeed slipping off, by the thousands. Despite a 12-month recession and record unemployment, 18 states cut their welfare rolls last year.

Amid the largest U.S. economic downturn in decades, the number of individuals and families receiving cash assistance is at or near a 40-year low. The very structure of the welfare system -- in which states receive federal funds in fixed block grants and must shoulder any increase (or savings) -- has created a perverse incentive for states to discourage people from accessing the program and move recipients off the rolls as quickly as possible. Even in good economic times, this proves damaging for struggling families. In the current economic environment, it is downright debilitating and it further burdens communities and local resources by emptying food pantries and filling homeless shelters.

Fortunately, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes federal funds to supplement state TANF costs. Congress should go further, however, and suspend time limits during the crisis, thereby protecting poor women, children and men from falling into the abyss of joblessness, homelessness and hunger. Extending time limits will not eliminate rules which require recipients to be involved in a work-related activity 30 hours a week; it merely guarantees that people following the rules are not thrown off the rolls. Moreover, states must step up and focus on expanding their welfare programs during the crisis, as opposed to maintaining a status quo in which participation is discouraged. Similarly, states should utilize that increased funding for training, education and child care so that TANF recipients have the best possible chance to get and keep jobs during this precarious time.

Modifying the TANF program during this time is critical to the basic stability of millions of low-income women and families. Now is not the time for ideological grandstanding. At a time when more people than ever are falling through the cracks, our social safety net needs serious mending. For the millions of families moving closer to the edge with each passing week, time is running out.
Garza is the president of Legal Momentum, the nation’s oldest legal advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the rights of women and girls.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 2/09

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Volunteer DTV Extension Wreaks Havoc


By Karen Toering

Do we love TV too much? Maybe.

But for nearly all American households, television provides more than mindless entertainment. It's also our most important lifeline for news and information.

According to Nielsen Media Research, 98.6 percent of American households have at least one TV set. And a Project for Excellence in Journalism study shows that more of us get our picture of the world from local TV news than from any other single source.

That is why Congress voted earlier this month to delay the biggest change in over-the-air television in nearly 50 years -- the federally-mandated switch to digital television. Congress pushed back the date from Feb. 17 to June 12 because there are still far too many people who are unprepared for the transition.

Congress left a loophole, however: local broadcasters across the country were given the option to transition earlier. In many large cities, stations have opted to delay their digital shift until June 12, giving viewers another few months to prepare. Stations in rural areas and mid-sized cities have opted to switch on Feb. 17. In Washington State, those cities include Bellingham, Yakima, Spokane and the Tri-Cities.

Whenever stations switch to digital, the effect will be the same: TVs that use set-top or rooftop antennas will no longer work without a new digital converter box (cable and satellite subscribers will not be affected).

Millions of people are aware of the changeover, but just as many are confused by just what the transition means for them. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights estimates that some 21 million households will automatically be cut off from television, our primary news and information source.

Many of these households are people of color, senior citizens, people with disabilities and those who depend on programs in languages other than English.

Community-based DTV assistance centers set up in various cities have responded to questions from people confused about whether they need to buy a new television (they don’t), or about problems with hooking up the boxes, or with antenna problems.

In these troubled economic times, many TV viewers have been slow to switch because of the perceived expense. Cable companies have been running confusing ads touting their pay-tv service as the simplest way for households to manage the DTV switch.

The most affordable solution is to get a converter box which will allow old TVs to receive the new digital signals. A federal government program is providing two $40 coupons toward the purchase of a converter box to every American household. Those interested in receiving the coupons can apply at or by calling 1-888-DTV-2009.

Converter boxes are available online for as low as $40 -- but in Washington state, most retailers are generally charging $60 or more for the boxes.

Adding to the stress for some consumers is the fact that there is now a substantial waiting list for those government coupons -- nearly 26,000 people in Washington state are on that list. But the stimulus package recently passed by Congress included additional funding to get those coupons moving again.

In order to help make this switch go smoothly for everyone, electronics retailers need to provide low-cost boxes; it's also up to the federal government and community partners to work together to provide more thorough education and outreach to keep seniors, people with disabilities and low-income consumers from being left behind.

But it’s not just up to the government. We all have a role to play. The extension will give some of us more time to figure out what we need to do to successfully make the transition. If you haven’t already applied for a coupon -- you should do it. If you have an extra coupon that your family won’t use -- donate it. And if you have a family member or friend who isn’t ready -- help them.
Toering is coordinator of the Seattle DTV Assistance Center, a project of Reclaim the Media, at
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Washington Forum. 2/09


By Jeremy Weir Alderson

Some catastrophes, like 9/11 and the Challenger disaster, happen in public, but others happen out of sight. Such a catastrophe is slowly unfolding in the shadows of rural Mississippi, where thousands of destitute people are on the verge of losing their post-Katrina temporary housing.

A great deal is unknown because politicians and government agencies don't want to talk about it but this is the situation: before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Waveland, thousands of Mississippians were living in extremely low-cost habitations. Some of these were elderly people, living on Social Security, who had paid off their mortgages; some of these were disabled people whose disability checks just about covered their low rents; and some of these were run-of-the-mill poor people who had been fortunate enough to find low-end affordable housing or who made do with substandard housing.

Unfortunately, Katrina knew no mercy. The paid-for homes of the elderly were washed away, the affordable housing was destroyed and the substandard housing was completely obliterated. The victims were given temporary housing in surviving motel rooms, formaldehyde-filled FEMA trailers or much more substantial MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) cottages. Now, however, through some misguided notion of tough love this temporary housing is being withdrawn.

Some officials say the temporary housing is a blight on neighborhoods, even though it's often superior to what was there before, and it's certainly superior to seeing homeless people begging on the streets. Some officials say that Katrina's storm-wracked survivors have had "long enough" to get their acts together, but such attitudes have less to do with the facts on the ground in Mississippi than they do with the heart of darkness inside humanity.

The simple fact of the matter is, that it's not the victims who didn't get their acts together, it's the people who were supposed to help them. The affordable housing along the Mississippi Gulf Coast has not been rebuilt, hence, people can't be expected to rent properties that don't exist.

Another simple fact is that the Section 8 program which might have provided housing vouchers to those in need is understaffed, overwhelmed, and completely incapable of processing the requests for assistance that are piling up.

No one is quite sure what is going to happen. The temporary housing is supposed to be withdrawn on March 1, but proper eviction notices have not been served, instead “advisories” have been mailed out. Kathleen Johnson, Director of Hancock County Katrina Relief (Hancock County was the hardest-hit county on the entire Gulf Coast) is worried that the relevant authorities won't bother with the niceties of eviction notices but instead will just "lock the doors." She is telling her clients, "to make sure all their critical personal belongings are locked in the trunks of their cars." She warns, "If this goes down as planned, you're going to see a lot of hostility, and you're going to see some people do some unreasonable things."

Trouble is looming ahead, and why not, it's been looming behind since the day the storm hit. "Post-Katrina homelessness has increased," comments Roberta Avila, director of the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Taskforce. "The economic downturn and the deadline to get people out of transitional housing will likely exacerbate the problem."

If there's one truth in the homelessness field it's that it is a lot easier to keep people in their housing than to get them back into housing after they've lost it. If there's a second truth in the homelessness field, it's that throwing people out on the streets, much less letting them live there, is inhumane. That’s why temporary housing deadline should be extended. People need to be in permanent housing before their temporary housing is taken away. Katrina was a catastrophe, not an example to follow.
Alderson is the director of the Homelessness Marathon radio broadcast which will be originating live from Pass Christian, Mississippi on the night of February 23.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Mississippi Forum. Letters should be sent to the Forum, P.O. Box 3515 Jackson, MS 39207-3515 2/09

On February 11, 2009 in Washington DC, one hundred and fifty families from 12 states called on the nation’s leaders to adopt the Equal Voice for America’s Families National Platform. The platform identifies key issues affecting families and asks that legislators address the needs of families collectively and no longer break down these needs issue by issue. Families sent a clear message today – America’s families need a safety net, not just a bailout. Following the unveiling of the platform, the families went to meet with members of Congress from their states.

The families are part of the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign, which held 65 townhall meetings and brought together more than 30,000 families in 2008 to create a national family platform that identifies key issues affecting families and makes policy recommendations to ensure the well-being of America’s families.

“Families have gone from paycheck to paycheck, to day to day living. If something is not done at this moment in time, I don’t see a future for my children, and what does that say about us as a country?” said Star Paschal, a working single mother of three in her 20s from Auburn, Alabama. “We can’t just have jobs without child care, healthcare and even transportation.”

Families also gave their perspective on the economic stimulus package as they presented their vision for a nation that responds to the essential needs of America’s families.

“When 30,000 families from across the country come together and call for the adoption of a national family platform – we as a nation need to listen, said Luz Vega-Marquis, President and CEO of Marguerite Casey Foundation. “The 150 families who are at the nation’s capitol today are the voice of the millions of families who are struggling to get by and who are saying enough is enough.”

Families represented twelve states, including: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas and Washington.

The Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign was a yearlong campaign supported by Seattle-based Marguerite Casey Foundation and its grantees to elevate the voices of America’s families in the public debate about ensuring a better future for families.

For more information about the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign go to

By Shirley Sherrod

The restructuring of housing loans is thought to be a way to help millions of Americans to stay in their homes that are threatened with foreclosure. But those of us in agriculture ask, “Where is the assistance to family farmers, with both land and houses, who also need loan assistance and loan restructuring?” This has been a glaring oversight in the Congressional debate.

Like most Americans, farmers are suffering from the economic downturn. As we enter the 2009 growing season, prices for farm products continue to decrease, while the cost of producing a crop increases. To complicate matters, farmers depend on credit to operate but with stricter credit regulations, it is harder and more expensive to get loans. Because farmers are often required to list their home as security against their loan, those who fall behind in their payments face losing not just their farm operation, but their home as well.

For 41 years, from our office in South Georgia, we at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund have provided a wide range of assistance to farmers including marketing, technical assistance and alternative financing. Yet, we have never seen a time like this when our assistance alone may not be enough to keep many farmers on the land, especially small farmers and farmers of color. The current crisis is compounded by the fact that farmers in most of the south have suffered from years of drought and most do not have irrigation.

To make matters worse, farmers who have loans with banks are extremely vulnerable because under the current rules those banks are less likely to renegotiate delinquent loans. This is why the Treasury Department must include in their implementation of the Economic Emergency Stabilization Act (EESA, formerly known as TARP), a provision that would assist farmers.

The Treasury Secretary should include in the rules that banks with EESA money, and hold mortgages on farms, be required to restructure loans for farmers who are at least 60 days delinquent. This would be similar to the Congressional mandate of 1987 that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency to offer loan restructuring to farmers who qualify and are delinquent.

Assisting farmers, will also save money for banks and the government. In fact, the enactment of the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 saved farms and taxpayers money because when this restructuring for farmers’ loans took place it cost the government less than either foreclosure or bankruptcy.

We depend on our farmers and ranchers for a safe, affordable and plentiful food supply. For that reason they are invaluable. But farmers also create jobs, revive and strengthen local economies, support local churches, serve on civic and community boards and committees, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, protect our natural resources and increase our national security. In other words, farmers are the catalyst for keeping rural communities and our nation strong. When they fail, the community struggles to survive.

Farmers are often considered our first line of defense. Whenever there’s a crisis, farmers are expected to grow food regardless. So it is to the nation's benefit that during these difficult economical times, or any time for that matter, all care is taken to insure that not one more family farmer is lost.
Sherrod is the Georgia Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 2/09

By Hector Garcia

Taxpayers around the globe have paid over $13 trillion (more than a quarter of the gross global product) to bail out financial, insurance and other organizations as well as investors. Was this global crisis -- which with each passing hour is casting millions of Americans out of their jobs, out of their homes, and into a deep well of debt -- truly inevitable?

In 1993, the gross global product represented about $20 trillion and derivatives traded in the world markets, $12 trillion. Although derivatives have appropriate functions, such as making hedging possible and lending liquidity to markets, they are instruments whose value is not intrinsic but derived from that of mortgages, securities and other assets. Yet by 2008, while the gross global product had grown to $56 trillion, derivatives had reached approximately $530 trillion! When the derivatives' underlying value was eroded by reckless mortgage loans, the huge excess in speculation and the artificiality in the financial edifice were revealed.

As far back as the early 90s, books such as When Corporations Rule the World; hearings by the House Banking Committee on the derivatives market; leaders in academia such the former president of Harvard University, Derek Bok; and reporters, such as Thomas Friedman, laid out different consequences of the practices and policies unfolding in global markets. Economists of the stature of Joseph Stiglitz and a handful of prudent, long-time investors including Warren Buffet called attention to the growing dangers. The outcome was foreseen by those who were willing to see.

If there's any hope of full recovery, we must look at the mythical mindset, symbolized by the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, which blinded us to that outcome as a means of connecting us to a brighter future.

Many believed that "the end of history" had been reached, that capitalism -- not on the basis of enlightened self-interest but unregulated and unrestrained self-interest -- was infallible, and that the U.S. had become the only "indispensable nation," free to disregard others. Meanwhile, over 40 million Americans did not have a bank account, approximately 45 million did not have health insurance, and 30 million adults were considered illiterate.

The need for inter-connectedness with our own poor and with other nations means that Americans' image of ourselves, and our aspirations -- the essence of what defines "the American Dream" -- must undergo radical change.

When Americans disconnected the identity of the nation from the reality of its own marginalized community and from the international reality, during a period of rapidly evolving globalization, our mindset became dysfunctional. We manifested our own loss of faith in the principle of broadly-shared prosperity.

Now, it's time to stop being awe-struck by the cleverness of those who have been intent on succeeding at the expense of everyone else.

Intelligence, knowledge and power alone do not necessarily translate into ethical, moral, or enduringly productive behavior; without wisdom and balance, they have repeatedly produced elitist excess … and they did so once again in bringing about the current crisis.

We the people need to ask what changes and sacrifices are required in order to move in a worthwhile direction. The future of our country demands that all of us build a bridge back to reality. A good start is recognizing that the necessary flows of capital, products and services of globalization are not sustainable in a ruthless system of commerce that relies on low- or no-pay for work, and the assumption that our natural and human resources are expendable. The notion of unending, increasing affluence, and of lax or nonexistent accountability, must be abandoned.

It is not too late and our history holds the answers: a return to honoring the truths that are "self-evident," "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind," and the full, educated, responsible engagement of the people. This is the essence of modern democracy and the source of the longstanding success of our country.

The timing is favorable. President Obama has been a bridge between those in power and the rest of the country on a platform built on hope and inclusiveness. The economic crisis has placed us outside our comfort zone, which makes a revolution of thought possible. We can all help replace the paradigm built on the fantasies of self-proclaimed masters of the universe with one based on the profound realities that the founders of the nation modestly disclosed. This paradigm shift will reveal the new 21st century frontier. It is a challenge to be grasped now. As candidate Obama observed, this is our and the peoples of the world's moment.
Garcia is a consultant on international trade and investment and on intercultural communications.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 2/09

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Health Care Reform Would Boost Economy


By Heidi Topp Brooks and Lydia Pendley

This year's multi-billion dollar bailouts of the banking and auto industry were meant to give the impression that these huge infusions of cash would buoy the economy and result in better circumstances for all. But many of us were left wondering where exactly those hundreds of billions of dollars would go and how exactly that would translate into improved conditions for regular Americans and New Mexicans.

The state of the economy and the repercussions from these drastic measures will no doubt be President Obama’s top priority. Rather than focus on more massive bailouts to huge industries, the administration must focus on a long-neglected issue that, once addressed, would not only give a boost to businesses large and small, but have real results for struggling Americans. That issue is health care reform.

The emotional and moral arguments for reforming our broken health care system are well known, but expanding the public role in health care to make sure that every American has coverage makes good economic sense too. Businesses have seen their private insurance costs almost double in recent years. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, employer-sponsored premiums for family coverage have soared from $6,438 in 2000 to $12,680 in 2008. In New Mexico average annual health insurance premiums rose 92.3 percent from $6,222 to $11,967 between 2000 and 2007. As a result, many businesses, especially small businesses, are being forced to cut insurance for their employees. The employees, when forced to choose between a job with no insurance or no job at all, will often choose the paycheck.

When these employees join the ranks of the 45 million other Americans, including 440,000 New Mexicans, who are uninsured, they subject themselves to the very real risk of falling into debt due to medical care. A recent report from the Commonwealth Fund found that 72 million people have problems paying their medical bills or are in medical debt, the most vulnerable of whom are the uninsured. Another report by an Emory University economist finds that unpaid hospital bills cost $45 billion a year, with much of the burden being shouldered by those with insurance. A recent Harvard Law School study found that half of all home foreclosures have medical causes, with nearly one-quarter of all home foreclosures due to unmanageable medical bills.

President Obama himself has acknowledged the need to reform health care and invest in publicly funded programs to help alleviate the financial crisis. While announcing Tom Daschle as the new secretary of health and human services, Obama stated, "the time has come — this year, in this new administration — to modernize our health care system for the 21st century; to reduce costs for families and businesses; and to finally provide affordable, accessible health care for every American." He added that health reform, "has to be interwoven into our economic recovery program…This can't be put off because we're in an emergency. This is part of the emergency!"

It is heartening to hear that Obama recognizes that health care reform and economic recovery cannot be disassociated. He can affirm his commitment to these two issues by working with Congress early on in his administration to pass legislation that supports and expands public programs like Medicaid, Medicare and the State Children's Health Insurance Program to make sure that every American has access to quality health care, and that American families do not have to add unavoidable medical costs to their list of economic woes.

New Mexico can take its own immediate action toward real health care reform by establishing a truly independent Health Care Authority that will take on the job of developing a comprehensive health care reform action plan by September 2010 for accessible and affordable health care for all people living in New Mexico. The Health Care Authority should be independent from legislative, executive or vested financial interests and accountable to the people of New Mexico and charged to develop sustainable methods to finance a health care system that incorporates the best strategies from the public and private sectors, including community rating, measures that assure portability of health coverage, and implementation of guaranteed coverage regardless of previous health conditions.

New Mexico and the nation's dismal economic conditions make it more urgent than ever to take bold action to bring about health care reform. New Mexico cannot afford to wait. We must start to by creating the Health Care Authority.
Brooks is an attorney, student in UNM's Masters in Public Health program, and longtime citizen activist on hunger and poverty with RESULTS. Pendley is a member of the Health Care for All Campaign and the co-group leader of RESULTS-Santa Fe.
Copyright © 2009 by the New Mexico Editorial Forum. 2/09


By Terry Brooks

Newspapers, blogs, and the radio airwaves have been awash with comments regarding the governor’s proposal to increase the cigarette tax rate by 70 cents a pack. Many comments, paraded as fact, are simply not true.

To set the record straight, let’s be clear: having one of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the nation is bad for Kentucky businesses, and not the opposite. The main reason is that having the highest rate of adult smokers in the nation increases the costs that businesses pay to provide health insurance to their employees by $1.5 billion every year. Additionally, there is a cost to businesses of $2.1 billion in lost productivity. For this reason alone, the low cigarette tax rate and the high smoking rate make Kentucky a less than desirable place to do business. Certainly this is the crux of the reason that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce supports a higher tax rate on cigarettes.

Second, if we truly care about low-income smokers’ pocket books, let’s help them quit smoking so that they can spend their money on more important items than cigarettes. The 70-cent increase is predicated on the fact that many smokers want to quit and a high cigarette tax increase is proven to give them the incentive to finally break the habit. For this reason, the only tax increase that is truly burdensome to smokers is one that is low enough to not provide any economic incentive to give up a costly habit.

Third, it’s time to fairly distribute the costs of smoking. Currently, all of us -- smokers and non-smokers alike -- pay the cost of smoking. We pay it in our taxes that provide Medicaid for smoking-related illnesses. We pay in higher health premiums. And we pay because Kentucky is a less than desirable place to do business. In fact, the low state tax rate acts as a subsidy to encourage smokers to continue their habit. A 70-cent increase would go a long way towards having those who choose to smoke pay the real cost.

Fourth, let’s be honest -- a cigarette tax rate any lower than 70 cents is simply a way to raise money. It borrows from the future health of the Commonwealth for provisions today. A lower rate will do nothing to encourage smokers to quit and will do little to decrease the smoking rate in the state. In fact, a lower cigarette tax rate is nothing more than a burden on the poor masqueraded as fiscal conservancy.

In a nutshell, the facts support an increase of no less than 70 cents. The long-term physical health of the Commonwealth depends on a decrease in the smoking rate. A significant increase in the tax on cigarettes is the most effective way to get people to quit smoking. According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an increase of 70 cents will decrease the youth smoking rate in Kentucky by 16.5 percent and the adult rate by 5 percent.

It’s time to stand up and make responsible decisions that make sense for Kentucky’s long-term health and economic viability. It’s time for a 70-cent increase in the cigarette tax.
Brooks is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Kentucky Forum. 2/09

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Coal Disaster


By Howard Switzer

It's being called a huge environmental disaster but, unlike Katrina, the TVA coal ash pond dam collapse disaster was not caused by the environment. Rather, this disaster was caused by the continued use of a dirty, poisonous fuel used in an outdated and inefficient mode of energy production -- coal. Earthen dams holding the toxic materials from burning coal fail all the time.

While several homes were damaged by the collapse and no injuries were reported, one can expect the toxic mix of arsenic, lead, barium, chromium and manganese -- the toxic materials concentrated in the ash -- to have a lasting effect on the health of those living downstream.

Coal kills. It has a long history of doing so. Today it is estimated that over 64 million Americans breathe air that has so much particle pollution that it puts their health at risk. Coal is estimated to cause 25,000 deaths in the U.S. every year from diseases caused by breathing particles and soot from coal emissions. Besides the microscopic particles linked to asthma and heart disease there are other health effects as well as the forest killing acid rain.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest single man-made source of mercury pollution in the U.S. and they are the largest contributor of hazardous air pollutants overall. Startling new research shows that one out of every six women of childbearing age in the U.S. may have blood mercury concentrations high enough to damage a developing fetus -- putting 630,000 babies at risk.

Coal has killed many more Americans than any terrorist and yet we tend to turn our heads or at best briefly note the event before we move on; apparently unable to face the inconvenient truth. King coal is powerful and has been whispering in our ears all of our lives just so that we ignore its crimes. It’s time people awoke and insisted on clean energy, really clean energy. It's also time we reduced our appetite for electricity and fossil fuels.

Now is the time to truly develop solar energy. We have no more time to waste. The scientists can continue to study how to make electricity from the sun ever more efficiently, but there is much more that we can do now that does not require a rocket scientist, mathematician or an economist to figure out. It's the stuff we as communities can do.

A truly sustainable solution that leaves fossil fuels behind will require a considerable redesign in the way we do things. We already have the underutilized technologies required for simply and economically producing liquid and gas fuels from plant, animal and human wastes -- ethanol and methane. Every community should be making sure they are collecting, retaining, slowing and cleaning whatever flow of water they may be blessed with. We can clean our waterways by utilizing water cleaning vegetation that turns out to be the very best fuel crops.

We can grow our food locally as humans have for 4 million years -- a relatively simple transformation that would take us a long way toward better health and security as well. By building greenhouses a diverse diet can be grown pretty much anywhere year around. This can also allow a more horticultural and intensive organic food production system and provide lots of jobs.

An important part of what makes such a system sustainable is that it is community based. By hooking up the waste loops between our animal and plant food production systems with our clean water and fuel production systems we can create sustainable symbiotic relationships that can provide for our future generations and finally be done with the disaster that is coal.
Switzer is a columnist and an ecological architect who helps people with buildings of earth and straw.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 2/09


By Ed Sivak

Just like in other states across the country, Mississippians are seeing the effects of a sagging economy. More people are unemployed and many working Mississippians have seen their retirement savings decline in value during the past year. As people lose jobs and face financial emergencies with less savings, they become at risk of losing their homes in foreclosure. Foreclosure rates for both prime and subprime loans at the end of the third quarter of 2008 have more than doubled compared to the same period in 2007. When foreclosures do occur, the effects are devastating for working families and communities. Families lose their primary asset and access to affordable credit, and neighboring homes lose value.

Fortunately, several opportunities exist to rectify the challenges associated with foreclosures. The funding of a Housing Trust Fund would elevate Mississippi’s ability to create affordable workforce housing opportunities. Presently, Mississippi is one of only 12 states without a funded housing trust fund. Housing Trust Funds have been successful across the country in the creation of jobs, stabilizing workforce housing and investing back in communities. A statewide trust fund with an ongoing revenue source would benefit Mississippi’s working families through increased economic development opportunities.

One cannot overlook the effects of subprime lending in the state of Mississippi. At the height of the subprime lending boom, Mississippi had the highest rate of subprime lending in the country. Many of the unaffordable products sold to home purchasers -- Option Payment Adjustable Rate Mortgages, No Documentation Loans -- that ultimately made their way to Wall Street as securities were subprime lending products.

While Mississippi’s rate of foreclosures is less than the national average, a disturbing trend of rising foreclosures has emerged. Whereas only 0.45 percent of all prime loans were in foreclosure at the end of the third quarter in 2007, the rate more than doubled to 1.14 percent one year later, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. For subprime loans, the rates are of even more concern. At the end of the third quarter in 2007, 2.96 percent of subprime loans were in foreclosure compared to a rate of 6.84 percent in 2008.

That is why Mississippians need stronger consumer protections to ensure that our working families do not easily fall victim to predatory lenders. Other southern states like North Carolina and West Virginia have taken action to protect homebuyers from predatory practices. Mississippi should follow the lead of the other states and require lenders to evaluate a borrower’s ability to repay a loan with fully amortizing payments, prohibit prepayment penalties, and require counseling for all first time borrowers who only qualify for a subprime loan.

There are other positive developments happening that will help mitigate the effects of foreclosures. Through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Neighborhood Stabilization Program, Mississippi will receive $43 million to acquire and redevelop foreclosed properties. By acquiring the properties, initiatives will be implemented to retain value in communities.

At the same time the downturn in employment will likely exacerbate the housing issue. This past November, the Mississippi Department of Employment Security reported that 86,900 people were unemployed in our state. While the number of unemployed was higher in October, the November 2008 figure was significantly higher than November of 2007. Reasons for the rise in unemployment include the national financial crisis and the associated downturn in the economy. As businesses experience less demand for their products and services and more difficulty accessing credit, the need to cut labor costs increases.

Additionally, as the stock market declined through the fall, Americans lost approximately $2.8 trillion in retirement savings according to the Urban Institute. The decline in savings frayed the financial safety net for many working families. With less savings and rising unemployment, the primary asset of many Mississippians -- their home -- is at risk of being lost too.

Families that are out of work can’t pay for mortgages that are too high, and the economy can’t recover without a stable workforce -- which needs affordable housing. This is why a functioning Housing Trust Fund and protections against irresponsible lending are important tools to help Mississippi through the current economic times and lay a foundation for the future.
Sivak is the director of the Mississippi Economic Policy
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Mississippi Forum.


By Rep. Bill Deeken

For the past several years I have sponsored legislation that would impose a moratorium on executions in Missouri while a commission does a complete study of the death penalty system in our state. This may seem a strange action for a person who, in principle, supports the death penalty. But I believe that this legislation is absolutely necessary in Missouri.

Since 1989, Missouri has executed 66 people, the fourth most of any state. Legislation returning the death penalty to Missouri law was enacted over 30 years ago. Since then, Missouri has not had a comprehensive official review of the state’s death penalty system. With a punishment as final as death—it’s long past time state officials take a pause to thoroughly examine our system of taking a life.

A death penalty moratorium is important because there is a fear that an innocent person could be executed. While there is much to be proud of in our criminal justice system, it is still a human system. Mistakes can and have been made when it comes to the death penalty. Nationally, 129 people who were convicted and sentenced to death since 1973 have been exonerated. This includes three men in Missouri—Clarence Dexter, Eric Clemmons and Joe Amrine—who had their death sentences removed when evidence of their innocence came to light.

Legitimate concerns have been raised with our state’s application of the death penalty. A Columbia Law School study in 2000 revealed that one-third of Missouri’s death sentences were later reversed because of errors. A few individuals currently living under a death sentence in Missouri have raised credible claims of innocence. While I don’t know if their claims are valid, the execution of even one innocent person destroys the integrity of the system.

How do innocent persons get sentenced to death? An examination of wrongful convictions reveals common threads: mistaken eyewitness identification, forced confessions, jailhouse snitches, poor legal representation, faulty evidence and misconduct by police and prosecutors. Many of these problems existed in the Illinois criminal justice system when Governor Ryan halted executions in 2000 after 13 death row exonerations.

A commission examined their death penalty system and recommended numerous reforms to prevent wrongful convictions. Some of these recommendations were adopted into law.

Surely, we in Missouri also deserve to have the best possible criminal justice system we can create.

If we instituted a moratorium, a similar commission would examine all aspects of the death penalty as administered in the state: including the evidence used to obtain a homicide conviction, the experience level of attorneys, resources available to counsel, characteristics of those who receive a death sentence, the cost of the death penalty, criteria used by prosecutors in seeking the death penalty and the interests of the victims’ families. The commission would report its findings and make recommendations to the General Assembly and the governor.

Regardless of one’s position on the death penalty, all people want a fair and just criminal justice system. Missourians are no different. While surveys indicate majority support in principle for capital punishment, 60 percent of Missourians support a three-year moratorium and study of the state’s death penalty (Center for Social Sciences and Public Policy Research, Missouri State University, 2004). In addition, 300 Missouri church groups, businesses and civic organizations have signed resolutions calling for a moratorium on executions while a study takes place. The 2008 moratorium legislation had bi-partisan support with 58 co-sponsors (14 Republicans, 44 Democrats). Hopefully, we’ll have more co-sponsors in the 2009 session.

Our state currently requires cars to be inspected for safety every two years. And just as we wouldn’t inspect our cars while driving them on the highway, we shouldn’t examine our death penalty while executions continue. Missouri should take a pause in executions and do a thorough examination of how we use capital punishment. Justice demands no less.
Deeken is a state representative (R-District 114).
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Missouri Forum. 2/09


By Patrick D. Reagan, Ph.D.

The newly-minted Republican majority in the Tennessee General Assembly is faced with an unaccustomed reality: responsibility for governing, rather than criticizing those who hold that responsibility. Tennesseans, not unexpectedly, are curious about how this newfound responsibility will be implemented.

The overwhelming challenge confronting the Republican majority is certain to be the enormous budget deficit, likely to exceed $1 billion for this and next year. Gov. Bredesen will present his budget recommendations in February but he is already talking about 20 percent cuts in most departments and related functions, like higher education and health care. Reductions of this magnitude will bring real suffering and loss to millions of Tennesseans.

The nation’s economic misery is partly to blame, but so is Tennessee’s antiquated, dysfunctional, unfair, and ineffective tax system. By relying so heavily on the nation’s highest sales tax for the state’s principal revenue source, the revenue shortfall is hardly surprising. There is no doubt about the situation: Tennessee is in a horrendous budget mess.

How will the new Republican majority deal with this reality? Time will reveal all, but the first salvo is not reassuring. More than three dozen House Republicans are proposing a constitutional amendment that would prohibit an income or payroll tax. There have been similar proposals in the past but they have never passed the General Assembly. One can hardly imagine a worse time to resurrect this horrible idea. Where’s the money to run the state government supposed to come from? It’s simply a matter of “Just show me the money!”

We already have the highest average state and local sales tax in America, ranging from 9.25 percent to 9.75 percent in some counties. And this is the sales tax that currently is falling about $1 billion short.

Are we then to crank up the sales tax even higher, to over 10 percent, driving more business to other states, leaving the state even more vulnerable to deficits in the future, shortchanging our schools, roads, universities and community colleges, economic development, environment, and health care and extracting an even higher portion of state revenues from those citizens least able to pay? And what do we do five years later when the 10 percent sales tax falls short?

The truth is that this proposal will place Tennessee on a certain path, leading inevitably, within a decade or so, to a 15 percent state sales tax. The catastrophic impacts of this situation can scarcely be imagined.

As a colleague remarked to me recently, the anti-income tax constitutional amendment is like seeing a wall of fire in the kitchen, and instead of grabbing a fire extinguisher, you lock the door and start nailing the windows shut.

With the $1 billion shortfall, there are some short-term fixes we can take such as closing tax loopholes that make it possible for some businesses to shift their taxes onto someone else. Several hundred million dollars of tax revenue can be captured by closing just a handful of the most outrageous tax give-a-ways. Also we can repeal sales tax exemptions in Tennessee that reflect lobbying skill more than common sense. This can add another hundred million or so of revenue now foregone.

Long-term, though, we must take tax modernization seriously and provide Tennessee with the tax structure required for survival in the 21st century. What would modernization look like? First, cut the sales tax in half and repeal most or all of the grocery food tax -- about 70 percent of Tennesseans would pay less to the state than they do now. Second, initiate a tax on income that would exempt the first $15,000 earned by individuals and $30,000 earned by couples, along with a $2,500 exemption for each dependent. Third repeal the Hall tax on dividends and interest. In addition, this modernized tax structure would produce at least $1 billion more of state revenue than the sales tax-dependent system we have now. All this, with 70 percent paying less than they are paying now!

So there’s the choice. Travel down the road advocated by those proposing to prohibit any version of a tax on income and arrive at sales tax nirvana of 10 to 15 percent. Or take the road of tax modernization that leads to a tax cut for about 70 percent of Tennesseans, plus the revenues to avoid, or at least lessen in severity, today’s crunching budget realities.

Despite their shaky start, we can still hope our elected officials choose tax fairness and common sense rather than a constitutional amendment leading to eventual catastrophe.
Reagan is a professor of American economic, political and military history at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 2/09

Monday, February 2, 2009

The State of Mississippi’s Children

By Rhea Bishop

Mississippi is once again failing its children.

The Children’s Defense Fund’s recently released State of America’s Children 2008 report highlights how far we have to go in Mississippi to protect our children. Even in the midst of the current economic downturn, Mississippi must continue to invest in our children if we are ever to move up from the bottom of the nation’s economic ladder.

Here’s what we learned in the report:

Once again, Mississippi has the highest percentage of children living in poverty at almost 3 in 10 (the national rate is 1 in 6). The vast majority of Mississippi families living in poverty are working families. The federal poverty line for a family of four in 2008 was $21,200.

Race still affects poverty. Although children of all races live in poverty, a black child in Mississippi is more than twice as likely to be poor as a black child in New Jersey.

About 1 in 9 or nearly 9 million children are uninsured nationwide; 121,000 or almost 15 percent of Mississippi children are uninsured. Among uninsured children nationwide, 9 out of 10 have at least one parent working. Six out of 10 live in two parent families.

Nationwide, about 28.3 million children are enrolled in Medicaid and 7.1 million are enrolled in CHIP. In Mississippi, 422,183 children are enrolled in Medicaid. Although 54 percent of the Medicaid recipients in Mississippi are children, less than one-fourth of Medicaid payments are for health care for children. While it costs Mississippi Medicaid $5,506 per average recipient, it costs Medicaid only $1,496 to provide medical coverage for a child.

Mississippi has the highest rate of infant mortality in the country. Of all babies born in Mississippi in 2007, 477 or 10.3 per thousand newborns died. Mississippi also has one of highest rates of low-birth weight babies in the nation. More than 10 percent of Mississippi babies are born with a low birth weight – putting them at risk for neonatal health problems and death.

Maternal deaths resulting from complications of pregnancy and childbirth are also among the highest in the nation. Mississippi’s has an overall maternal death rate of 21.5 per 100,000 live births. The maternal death rate for black mothers is almost three times the rate for white mothers.

Mississippi is one of the top three states for births to teenage mothers. The teenage pregnancy rate has increased in 2006 and 2007 to 41 births per thousand teens age 10-19 in 2006 and 43 births per thousand in 2007. From 2001 to 2005, the teen pregnancy rate in Mississippi was under 40 per thousand. Nonwhite teens in 2007 were more likely to get pregnant at a rate of 53.8, compared to 32.9 per thousand white teens.

Only about 3 percent of eligible babies and young children are enrolled in Early Head Start programs; 26,657 children are enrolled in Head Start in Mississippi. Over two-thirds of mothers of young children in Mississippi work. The Urban Institute has calculated that 2.7 million people nationwide would be lifted out of poverty if child care assistance were provided to all families with young children whose incomes are below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line.

Finally, the number of children receiving food stamps nationwide has been increasing yearly since 2000. In Mississippi, 207,351 families with children receive food stamps. About 75 percent of the children in public school in Mississippi receive free or reduced-price lunch.

We can and must do better for our children. State leaders have pledged to fully fund K-12 public schools and Medicaid; we must hold them to that promise. We all know that this will be a tight budget year at the Capitol. But, the budget should not be balanced on the backs of poor children.
Bishop is deputy director of the Children’s Defense Fund.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Mississippi Forum 2/09